Public Landing Station, Natar Village, Ward 7 of the United Republic of Provinces
Nasai, White Moon 3303- December
The Neutral Zone
Sekel walked deliberately down the exit ramp of the grounded copter, impatient for more information, with three dozen whimpering and shivering girls huddled together in pairs following behind him. He crossed the tarmac to greet the reverend sisters who waited by the fence along the side of the road and was relieved to see that the armored land transport vehicles he’d requested had arrived. It was nearly midnight and he hadn’t slept in over twenty four hours so he was just as anxious for a warm bed as he was sure the girls were. Four Waliyun officers stood behind the nuns and saluted Sekel with a right fist across the chest when he approached.
“Greetings, Ambassador,” the younger of the two nuns stated as the older nun hurried to the first pair of girls and directed the lines to the waiting transports. “My name is Sister Hadasha and this is Sister Roenna. Reverend Mother Maryam has sent us to accompany you and the students to the convent. She has instructed me to inform you that your kin is safe and recuperating on the grounds.”
“Thank you, Sister,” Sekel replied.
He returned the salute to the officers and spoke to the ranking Lieutenant.
“As Salaamu Alaikum, Officer Branah. Has everyone been evacuated?” Sekel asked.
“Yes, Captain, from the school. The MFDT, however, has yet to complete their evacuation of Ward 3. Bodies are still being discovered,” Lieutenant Khalid Branah, replied solemnly.
Sekel followed the Lieutenant to the first of the land transport vehicles and questioned, “Are they in need of further assistance? I can arrange for another contingent of Waliyun to be sent.”
“Yes, Captain, I am sure that would be greatly appreciated,” Branah answered.
Once seated inside the transport he made the call to Wi’shaw for more officers and arranged to have them sent to Ward 3. The ride from the landing station was silent and swift as they drove past rows of small wooden houses and shops along the winding stone-paved path that snaked its way through the Silent Gardens and to the front gate of the Sisters of Mercy Convent. Tall solar lampposts stood along the road among the trees on either side all the way to the thick log fence that surrounded the convent grounds and the large iron-gate was left open. Sekel noticed for the first time that a hammered silver placard was raised upon the archway above the gate as they drove through it. The ancient Urnahi saying engraved upon it read, So that the lost can always find their way to safety.
The transport passed an enclosed an herb garden and a pair of wading pools iced over and dusted with snow on the right side of the path as it wound its way towards the tall stone and stained glass chapel where it came to a full stop in front of the large wooden doors of the main entrance to the rectory. Light flickered from above them through red, gold and pink stained glass windows on the upper floor as they exited the transport and Sekel was reminded of the years he had spent with the monks of the Sufa Mountains.
Thick, stately whana trees stood upon either side of the rectory and dark wintergreen hedges fenced in the surrounding small buildings and cottages within sight. Sekel could hear the muffled hum of voices and the clang of pots and dishes coming from the behind the windows closest to where he stood and the mouth-watering aroma of roasted meat filled his senses as Sister Hadasha opened the doors.
Sister Roenna addressed Sekel for the first time when they crossed the threshold.
“Commander El-Amra has been placed in the cottage that was reserved for your men. He has been asking after you. Shall I escort you there, Ambassador,” she offered kindly.
“No, thank you. I think I can find my way,” he responded.
The nuns ushered the Academy students along the front foyer towards an enclosed alcove at the end of the hallway and Sekel could hear the voices of other girls coming from within the room there. He turned right along the gallery that he had walked through earlier with Safiya and although it was now well past midnight the chapel was alive with activity as nuns and faculty from the Academy tended to the cold and wounded girls. There was incense burning from within small fissures carved into the walls on either side of the hallway and he could hear the voice of an Am’maahni correspondent blaring loudly over the clamor of voices from a VisionComm console inside a large sitting room as she cataloged damages from the attacks. He reached the side door and exited onto the garden.
He reached the green cottage and knocked firmly before entering. A fire blazed in the fireplace, making the sitting room uncomfortably warm, and the bedroom was slightly ajar. He found Mikal sitting upright and leaning against the carved headboard of the narrow stilted bed. Sekel grinned and was glad to see his cousin relatively unharmed. There was a linen bandage wrapped around Mikal’s head and a bluish bruise across his jawbone but other than that he appeared to be fine.
“Greetings, Ahki,” Sekel said and sat down onto the foot of the bed. “You’re looking well. We were worried about you, old man.”
Mikal grimaced in response with a shadow of a smile as he shifted to a more comfortable position against his pillows.
“Greetings, cousin. You know Rebecca. Fortunately I reached her in time and we made it out ok,” Mikal replied. “What about the students? Is everyone ok?”
“For the most part, yes,” Sekel answered. “A few scrapes and bruises but we got everyone out and three units are still there looking through the debris.”
“Have we any idea of the extent of the damage and the number of casualties yet?” Mikal asked.
“In part,” Sekel responded. “Most of the campus has been destroyed. The large, older buildings have withstood the most. The library, the Temple and the Dining Hall are still standing, at least in part, and all of the underground bunkers have held. A group of MFDT officers have been working with a contingent of Waliyun recording the damage at the school and on Ward 3; I should have a report soon. We have heard, however, that Qasim has sent his clerks inland to make an assessment although he has not released an official statement and none of our men have seen any patrollers. The MFDT has reported 103 casualties in Ward 3 thus far to the Governor’s Office. Qasim is insisting upon an investigation. I’ve assigned Khalid Branah as Captain at the Ward 4 site and I trust he’ll be able to keep the peace. Ahmed Ku’sai and his son are supervising on Ward 3, but Ali Ku’sai is also there in behalf of the Waliyun and I’m confident that he will not allow any confrontations to ensue between the MFDT and the clerks.”
Mikal was silent, his expression grim.
“One would think that an event such as this would unite the tribe, not tear them further apart,” Mikal finally said.
“In most cases it might,” Sekel observed and leaned back against the wooden bedpost to stretch his legs in front of him. “But the MFDT suspects that Qasim has had a hand in the attacks and the leaders are not doing much to conceal their hostility towards him; but on the other hand, I’ve had reports that Qasim suspects that the MFDT and their recent activities within the exile cities has provoked the Republic to act against them; Qasim wants to have them disbanded.”
Mikal rubbed his chin and changed the subject.
“And what about the grifter?” he asked. “Maryam has said that you were here when you received my call and that you were in pursuit of a grifter that was chasing the girl Safiya.”
“That’s what it looked like, but we haven’t found it. It has apparently disappeared or been transported away. We lost the tracks at the foot of Uniya Mountain and although it could have burrowed into one of the sink holes, there was no trace of it anywhere within the vicinity,” Sekel answered.
“What about flight logs? Is there any recent inter-stellar freight?” Mikal asked and lifted the heavy quilt from his lap to swing his legs around the edge of the bed.
“A few, Hijaz is looking into it,” Sekel responded and removed his cloak.
“Good. Good,” Mikal stated thoughtfully and winced when he tried to stand.
He sat back down upon the bed and removed the bandage from his head, carefully fingering the tender bruise there.
“Rebecca has said that the girl has the mark. I’ve seen her in my visions these past two moons,” Mikal finally stated.
“So you believe that this child may be Al Sahifah?” Sekel asked.
“It is possible,” Mikal replied.
“And what if she has no desire to complete the Testing? What if she is not strong enough to survive the elementals? What if she has never heard of Al Sahifah and wants nothing to do with any of this?” Sekel probed.
“Then she is not Al Sahifah,” Mikal answered calmly in the face of Sekel’s agitation.
“But she could lose her life in this process,” Sekel objected.
“And that is her decision to make, not mine or yours. She could choose the Vow and remain here at the Convent; she is not doomed in this, dear cousin. You appear overly attached to the girl,” Mikal observed.
“I’m just saying that I doubt that she has any idea of what you all have in store for her,” Sekel explained, annoyed when Mikal appeared amused.
Sekel was surprised by the depth of the emotions triggered by considering the possibility of Safiya coming to harm and decided that he did not want to talk about her anymore.
“There is no use discussing it now, I suppose. What’s done is done,” Sekel stated, restraining his agitation.
Mikal chuckled out right, something that he seldom did, and Sekel clenched his jaw.
“I must admit, I did not think that I would see the day when you became attached to any one woman,” Mikal goaded playfully.
“Listen,” Sekel began gruffly. “I don’t ever go kicking around inside of your head – I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from knocking around inside of mine.”
“She’s very lovely, and, what’s the word, untouched. I’m pleased to know that you are not so jaded as to-,” Mikal provoked Sekel further with laughter in his voice; Sekel interrupted him.
“Am I here to talk about myself or to catch you up on what’s been happening?” Sekel demanded louder than he had intended.
“You’re right, please,” Mikal cajoled before sobering. “Has the CEC offered any information? What is their explanation about the missile shells that were found? Are they admitting to anything?”
“No, nothing yet. They’re sticking to their story that the copter at the site was a routine security check that spotted open flames and landed to offer assistance. I haven’t been able to get any information from the Defense Committee members and the Chairman has been conveniently unavailable. Hina is checking security flight logs and the public defense records – she’ll contact me by wrist communicator if she discovers anything,” Sekel answered.
“So as of now, all we have to go on is Ku’sai’s accusation?” Mikal pressed and leaned back against the pillows.
“Yes. Afraid so,” Sekel replied.
“He’s an honorable man,” Mikal said thoughtfully.
“Yes, but completely biased,” Sekel countered.
“He could be right. The MFDT have been acquiring technologies from Yarna. Ku’sai insists that he has proof that one of the clerks has been conspiring against the Wards with Qasim,” Mikal stated.
“Then why hasn’t he supplied this proof?” Sekel asked.
“He says that he wants to make sure that we can be trusted,” Mikal answered.
Sekel didn’t respond. Am’maah had been nothing but a friend and ally to the MFDT, at least as much as they could be under Sahyunese Law, and if the MFDT wanted to mistrust their closest ally, then they were making an arrogant mistake.
“And what has the Chief said?” Mikal asked. “Has the Sovereign Council been notified?”
“Yes. I’ve spoken to father about the attacks by communicator but have told him only what was necessary for now. Insha’Allah, I’ll explain Rebecca’s involvement with the MFDT in person and only if I must; he’ll take it better that way,” Sekel answered.
“Hmm. You’re right about that. How long will you be staying?” Mikal asked.
“Long enough to service the copter and refuel, unless you need me to stay longer? I’ll have to take Safiya with me and have the tracker removed as well. My intention was to leave after dawn,” Sekel responded and stood from his seat at the foot of the bed to stretch his back tiredly.
Mikal nodded in agreement as Sekel crossed the small bedroom to the lone window and peered out at the snow-covered clearing.
“We will have to inform her of her role in all of this before you leave,” Mikal stated from his seat upon the bed.
“How could someone so young and inexperienced be Al Sahifah?” Sekel asked thoughtfully, more to himself than to Mikal.
Mikal considered Sekel’s words for a moment before responding.
“It is easy for the Creator to make it so, we cannot judge. All we can do is
believe or not believe,” Mikal replied.
Sekel was not sure if he believed, but he decided at that moment that he would do everything in his power to protect her, even if it meant challenging his cousin.