UCB Flight Copter, Neutral Air Space Above Ward 7
Nasai, White Moon 3303 – December
Safiya awoke with a start to the sound of raised voices. She lay still for a moment, listening to the muffled argument but was too fatigued to try and make out what was being said. The disagreement ensued directly outside of the closed door across from her and one of the voices was undoubtedly that of the Ambassador, but she didn’t recognize the other voice. She blinked several times and looked around as she remembered where she was. The Ambassador had been waiting impatiently for her immediately after the morning prayers and had rushed her across the convent grounds to the waiting air copter where she now found herself lying upon an uncomfortable, narrow cot.
The small, windowless room had gray walls and strange gray furniture that was bolted to the floor. Bright fluorescent lighting was built into the low ceiling and the bunk she laid on was mounted into the wall opposite a desk and stool; a second stool was bolted to the floor in the far corner of the room on the left side of the desk, and she could heard a low humming coming through the vents that sounded much like the hum of an engine. Her small trunk and bags were tucked against the wall beside the stool in the corner and the clothes that she had been wearing earlier were folded neatly on top of it.
The last thing that she remembered was being brought to the small in-flight infirmary where she had been sedated for the removal of the tracker device. Her mind felt numb and she was too exhausted to get up so she tried rolling unto her right shoulder but stopped short as pain shot through her arm. She collapsed onto her back and peered down at her upper forearm and saw that it was bandaged. She groaned and hoped that she hadn’t torn open the sutures when she’d rolled upon it. If she could get to her shoulder bag she could apply a finger of star root balm to the incision for increasing the healing time so she tried to muster the energy to sit up. As she did, she noticed that the voices outside the door had subsided and a firm knock sounded upon it. A jolt, similar to what she had felt the day she’d first met the Ambassador, shot through her head and she knew instinctively that he had knocked.
“May I come in, sister,” he asked from outside the door.
Thinking about him sent waves of nervousness through her stomach and she felt completely self-conscious. He’d been distant, almost unfriendly, earlier and she considered feigning sleep but sensed through eseeri that he was impatient for a response. She was still wearing the short-sleeved, paper thin surgical gown that she’d been instructed to put on before the removal of the tracker and felt exposed and disheveled without a headscarf.
“Uh, just a moment,” she called out thinly as she climbed off the cot and retrieved her headscarf and cloak from her pile of folded clothing.
She draped her scarf over her hair and did her best to put on her cloak which was difficult with her throbbing arm. Once covered, she called out to the Ambassador to come in He opened the door and entered, ducking his head to avoid the ceiling, and stopped short when he saw her seated upon the edge of the cot. A short, thin man with a strange, other-worldly look to him stood behind him.
“Peace and blessings be with you. Forgive me, Sister. I should have realized that you may not have awakened yet,” the Ambassador stated more kindly than she had expected. “There is a matter that we need to discuss before entering Am’maahni airspace.”
He glanced pointedly at her haphazardly-covered form before asking, “Could you please join us in the conference room? We can wait for you outside.”
She didn’t want to, but she supposed she had better cooperate.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll just be a few minutes,” Safiya responded.
He nodded in answer and gestured for the small man to retreat before following him out and closing the door behind them.
What now? Safiya griped internally as she let the cloak fall as she stood to get the rest of her clothes. She must have gotten a total of six hours of sleep during the past two days and quite frankly, she’d had enough discussions in that time to last her for the rest of her life. With the feeling that this was only the beginning of many days filled with lots of sleep-deprived nights, she unfolded her burnt red tunic and sand colored slacks and dressed as quickly as she could, considering how tired she was and how much her arm hurt. After pinning her burgundy scarf securely over her head and neck so that only her face was exposed, she pulled on her boots and crossed the small room to open the door.
The Ambassador and the little man turned around upon hearing her. The Ambassador dwarfed the other officer who was almost half a foot shorter than he, shorter even than Safiya by a few inches, and slimmer than the average Urnahi clansman. He had piercing, black eyes with a sallow complexion and a splattering of light brown freckles across his narrow nose and broad cheeks. Safiya sensed the tension between the two men and hesitated.
“This is Officer Kamal Wasem, our in-flight medic. If you would follow me,” the Ambassador said formally and began walking along the narrow passageway.
He led them through the passageway that opened onto the control deck where the pilot and flight attendents navigated the copter. The sky was black and filled with stars through the wide navi-window and Safiya wondered if it was actually night or if they were above Sahyun’s atmosphere as they reached a wall containing sliding automated doors. The Ambassador pressed his palm against a panel along beside the sleek silver metal and the doors slid open to reveal a long silversteel conference table with silversteel chairs in the center of the windowless room. More of the long fluorescent light bulbs ran along the low ceiling and there was large black monitor with a topical map of Nasai displayed upon the entire right wall. Portable CompuPads were set before each seat at the table.
“You can sit here,” the Ambassador said and pulled out a chair for Safiya. “With your permission, Officer Wasem would like to test your blood for neuro toxins.”
The Ambassador sat down in the chair beside her while Officer Wasem remained standing. Safiya acknowledged the small man with a nod but felt uneasy. His name sounded Urnahi but there was a distinctly peculiar look about him.
“May I ask why I need to be tested for neuro toxins?” Safiya asked and looked questioningly between the two men.
The Ambassador did not conceal his irritation with Officer Wasem and gestured for the medic to explain as he folded his arms across his chest.
Officer Wasem cleared his throat self-importantly and did so.
“Due to your recent proximity to a Mardukan grifter in the woods of Natar Village, the United Republic of Provinces is obligated to confirm that you were not infected by it before we release you into the custody of a Sovereign Tribe. As a Republican citizen, you are subject to our laws and we cannot release you from our custody if you could infect others with off-planet contaminants. Grifters and all Mardukan inhabitants are forbidden on Sahyun and since the beast has not been apprehended, we would be responsible for the loss of life-,” the small man stated in a rush before the Ambassador interrupted him.
Sekel countered angrily, “-But I have tried to explain to our concerned medic that testing you is not necessary because witnesses can affirm that the animal had not come in direct contact with you. He is over zealous, however, in his desire to protect the citizens and wards of the Republic from contamination, it would seem.”
Officer Wasem glared silently at Sekel and Safiya detected the undercurrent of a deeper animosity. She was certain that it had been the two of them arguing in front of the door. Wasem straightened to his full height before continuing with wounded dignity.
“I only seek to perform my duty as an Officer of the Republican Guard and to preserve as many lives as I am able,” Wasem declared dramatically.
Safiya didn’t trust him. She chose her words carefully, recognizing the predicament that she was in.
“I understand, Officer Wasem,” she replied cautiously. “But I did not see the grifter and although I could hear it chasing me, it didn’t touch me.”
Wasem frowned and responded, “But the grifter would not have had to touch you to infect you-”
“Yes it most certainly would have,” Sekel interrupted impatiently again. “A grifter can only infect another through biting or scratching; the toxin cannot enter the bloodstream any other way.”
“It could be swallowed,” Officer Wasem disputed defensively and Safiya sensed desperation in him through her eseeri. “She could have swallowed saliva from the beast or snow that the toxin had touched.”
Sekel became openly angry and bristled before facing Safiya. His eyes glowed light amber and green as he deliberately stared directly into her eyes and asked, “Did you swallow any grifter saliva or snow contaminated by grifter saliva, Safiya?”
Safiya almost laughed but the hostility coursing between the two men made her restrain herself.
“No, Ambassador,” she replied soberly and glanced towards Officer Wasem who had taken a step closer to stand stiffly by the table. “I didn’t have time to swallow anything. I was terrified and running from the moment that I realized that something was following me.”
Officer Wasem interrupted this time and stated, “Regardless of whether or not you have swallowed any snow, Sister Safiya, which could have indeed been contaminated, I do request your permission to test you for neuro toxins. This should not be a problem for you.”
Wasem placed his black medic bag that he had been holding in his hand upon the table and turned to open it. Safiya felt her stomach lurch with a wave of fear despite having no idea what this testing would entail but it was obvious to her now that Officer Wasem was prepared to subject her to whatever the testing required. She glanced over at Sekel who was on the verge of standing up from his seat. He met her gaze before he did so and the look in his eyes indicated that he was about to grab hold of the little officer but his anger cooled as he looked at her. He sat back into his seat and spoke gently to her.
“You are not obliged to submit to any testing, Safiya,” he stated reassuringly. “Officer Wasem, as a citizen and medic of the URP, is bound by Republican law and required to ask for your permission, but you do not have to give it. You can refuse, and if you do, you could be prohibited from entering URP Wards and villages in the future, but as a resident of Ward 7, which is a neutral zone, you are not in any danger of being kept away from the Convent. You can legally refuse to undergo any testing.”
Officer Wasem stiffened at the Ambassador’s explanation but proceeded to remove a long, thin syringe from his kit and was tapping it with the tip of his index finger to remove the air pockets within the clear orange liquid it contained when Safiya looked back over at him. He obviously did not think that Safiya would refuse him and made no indication that he had been listening although Safiya knew through eseeri that he had. He stepped towards her with the syringe but Safiya prevented him from getting to close by holding up her hand.
“If that is so, Officer, then I would like to decline, sirrah,” Safiya stated respectfully and kept her hand in front of her to act as a barrier. “I feel fine, and I would think that if I were infected, I would be exhibiting some sort of symptoms by now . . . but thank you for your concern.”
Officer Wasem pursed his lips and stiffly covered the syringe with a cold glare as he stepped away from her.
“Very well,” Wasem replied coolly and put the syringe back into his bag. “But I am required to write up a report for submitting to the Security Committee and I will need-”
Sekel stood then and placed his arm around Officer Wasem’s narrow shoulders as he steered him towards the doors and interjected just as coolly, “And you will receive all that you shall need to write up a very thorough and dutiful report, I can assure you. You may return to the Medic Station.”
Wasem did not look back at Safiya as he yanked away from the Ambassador’s grip and rigidly exited the room. Sekel waited for the doors to seal closed behind Wasem before pressing a button upon the shiny metal control panel mounted onto the wall beside the monitor. He spoke into the small round speaker grate.
“We are clear to enter Am’maahni airspace. Please proceed to Flu’saa Village,” he stated into a hidden microphone before returning to his seat beside her.
He had changed from his Ambassador’s uniform and was wearing a dark brown tunic with sturdy dark green trousers and heavy boots.
“I apologize for that,” he said, his demeanor more relaxed now that the medic was gone. “This is a UCB copter and although my staff makes use of it, the crew is mixed with both Am’maahni and Republican workers. Some of the Republican officers get nervous where the reservations are concerned.”
“Is he Urnahi?” Safiya couldn’t keep herself from asking, completely awake now.
“In part: he’s a mixed breed. There is undoubtedly an Urnahi ancestor or two in his lineage, but he is a Republican citizen. Many of the Urnahi within the Wall have inter-married with the off-worlders,” the Ambassador explained.
“Oh,” was all that Safiya managed as the Ambassador stared at her, obviously impatient about her line of questioning.
He sat silently, watching her intently, with his arms folded across his chest and although he was less tense than he had been when Officer Wasem was in the room, Safiya sensed another layer of friction in him and that it somehow involved her. She wanted to know more about the off-worlders and the mixed-breeds but decided against asking and instead decided to try showing her gratitude to him to see if that improved his demeanor at all.
“And, uh, thank you for telling me that I didn’t have to submit to the testing, I was a little nervous about that,” she offered into the silence, uncomfortable under his gaze.
He shrugged and offered her a small, tense smile.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
His question took her off guard and made her feel wary: he hadn’t seemed to care too much about how she had been feeling earlier.
“I’m ok, I guess,” she replied and self-consciously tugged at the corner of her scarf by her shoulder.
“And why have you been running away?” he finally asked bluntly. “From the convent and the sisters there?”
His eyes were hazel, more gold than brown, with speckles of green, and seemingly lit from within with a fervor that she didn’t understand, especially if it was directed at her. At first she didn’t know what he was referring to and then it came to her that he was talking about her behavior for the past year and a half. She stiffened and looked down at her folded hands in her lap, reluctant to answer him. Her arm continued to throb painfully and she wished she had applied the balm before dressing. No one had asked her that before, not even Una, and Safiya had never volunteered anything to anyone either.
Everyone had simply given her space, understanding that she was in pain after losing her parents and being separated from her brother, and she didn’t feel as if she had to explain herself to him – a complete stranger practically. Safiya’s stomach churned and her heart began to beat faster as she thought about her reasons for leaving school and the convent so many times. She didn’t want to answer him and didn’t feel as if she had to so she turned the question around onto him instead.
“Why are you asking?” she demanded, allowing the hurt from his earlier behavior to give her strength.
He shifted in his seat but did not back down, “Because I’d like to know.”
His features remained severe and she bristled at his arrogance.
“Well, I don’t see how that is any of your business,” she retorted, becoming upset.
His vibrations were aggressive and she sensed that he felt suspicious about her motives for accepting the invitation to learn the Elementals. The thought of his distrusting her had a deeper affect then she would have expected and she felt tears of anger and hurt prick at the back of her eyes. She pushed away from the table and stood up abruptly, ready to flee, but she wasn’t sure of how to open the doors and stopped short, unwilling to ask him but unable to leave. She heard him stand up behind her and stiffened in response.
“Forgive me. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way,” the Ambassador said.
Tears filled her eyes as the enormity of everything that had happened during the past forty-eight hours hit her and she suddenly wished that Sarai were there. She wished that she could collapse into the gentle nun’s arms and weep; weep for the loss of life on the Wards, weep for the destruction of the Academy and the homes on the Res, weep for her parents, for Ami, for herself and for all the loss that her people had suffered. She bit her lip and blinked frantically to get rid of the tears but they only came harder and faster, rolling down her face in a steady stream. She stood there stiffly for several moments, trying to fight the onslaught of dormant emotions, but when she felt his hand upon her shoulder she couldn’t hold up any longer and, covering her face with her hands, allowed herself to cry.
“I’m sorry, Safiya. Please forgive me,” the Ambassador apologized sheepishly.
She tried to cry as quietly as she could as warm tears slid through her fingers and down her cheeks but the sadness overwhelmed her. She wanted to hear her mother’s voice – needed to hear it – and sobbed as she finally accepted the fact that she would never be able to see or hear her mother again, or be able to feel the warmth of her hugs. She accepted that she would never be able to see Baba’s crinkly smile again or hear his booming laughter and the tears came faster and stronger.
The Ambassador patted her shoulder awkwardly and that small act of compassion only made her cry harder. The pain of the last fourteen years slowly seeped out of her as she let go of the anguish that she had been carrying since the loss of her parents. She wept until her eyelids were puffy and tender to the touch and her entire face felt swollen. Once she had quieted, she heard the Ambassador heave a sigh of relief and realized that his hand was still upon her shoulder. She was more than a little embarrassed at having cried so openly in front of him, but was too exhausted from it to make any excuses as she wiped her face with the loose fabric of her headscarf.
“I’ve been in several combat missions, have even been deployed in an inter-stellar peace-keeping assignment to one of the most violent planets in our galaxy, but nothing I’ve experienced as a soldier thus far has ever been as difficult as the past few minutes that I’ve endured here with you” the Ambassador said gently and half-jokingly as he turned her around to face him.
“I’m sorry,” she responded hesitantly. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen, it’s like everything just hit me all at once.”
“Hey, believe me, I understand,” he replied apparently eager to make amends. “And I didn’t make matters any better with my behavior. You’ve got to be hungry, it’s almost dinner time. Can you give me another chance and sit back down? I’ll have some food sent in and maybe, if you feel like talking, you can answer some questions for me?”
His eyes were pleading as he ducked his head to look into her eyes and all traces of arrogance were gone. How could she say no when he asked her so nicely and looked at her as if his life depended upon her answer?
“Ok, sure. That sounds all right,” Safiya said and stepped back over to the chair she had been seated in.
Sekel walked back over to the wall panel and requested that two dinners be sent to the conference room before resuming his seat beside her. He watched for face cautiously for signs that she was ok before clearly his throat and speaking again, this time with much more care.
“The only reason I asked about your running away was because I’m concerned about you,” he said. “The Elementals are not an easy endeavor and if you thought that your studies at Rebecca’s school were difficult then be prepared for ten times the challenge. Are you certain that you want to do this? You can still refuse at this point, but once you’ve sat down with Mikal for initiation there will be no turning back.”
Safiya flushed, embarrassed at his mentioning her leaving school but sensing the truth of his words. The Elementals were undoubtedly going to be much harder than studying at the Academy had been and she had been thinking about that all last night. She knew instinctively that he was right, but being chased by the grifter and tracked without her permission by the Republic had opened her eyes to dangers and injustices that she hadn’t been aware of before. Going back to the convent to take the vow wouldn’t bring her peace of mind – she had to do something – or at least try.
“I get what you’re saying and I understand. I mean, if I couldn’t even stick it out at the Academy how could I ever follow through with something as big as this, right?” she responded and sniffed as she wiped the remainder of her tears away. “But I’m not afraid anymore. If this is what the Creator intends for me then how can I refuse? And I don’t want to refuse. The very least I can do is try.”
He smiled lopsidedly at her and leaned back in his chair, but this time his gaze was appraising as he looked at her.
“I am impressed,” he responded. “And you’re right. No one can prevent you from doing this if it’s what the Creator intends for you. But you still haven’t answered my question – will you tell me why you’ve been running away?”
Safiya immediately felt uncomfortable by his question, but her stomach didn’t flip and her heart rate stayed the same this time; somehow crying the way that she had in front of him had made her feel less reluctant to tell him about it. His vibrations were calm now, and she could almost see his thoughts, but couldn’t quite make them out through the haze of her own heightened emotional state. Nevertheless, the fact that he was asking was soothing, as if he were extending a hand of friendship towards her.
“I’ve been haunted by an ag’wan since I was a little girl,” she began carefully and watched his expression for judgment but saw none and continued. “A little over a year ago, the night terrors became really bad, so bad that I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, and no matter how much I prayed, no matter how hard I tried to apply the psychic sciences that I was learning, I couldn’t make it go away or make the nights any better. I couldn’t sleep. I stopped eating. I was always terrified, and I didn’t want anyone to see me that way, so I decided to leave. Both to avoid being around the people who loved me and to see if, somehow, I could out run it and leave it behind. The ag’wan, I mean.”
Sekel nodded with compassion and understanding in his eyes.
“And how did that go? Have you managed to out run it?” he asked seriously.
She hadn’t, but she hoped that learning the Elementals might help her with that.
“No,” she answered and joked. “But I haven’t really slept in the past two days so maybe it’s gone.”
He smiled, and as his eyes lit up, she was reminded of how handsome he was.
“Well, hopefully, we can remedy that when we reach the Palace – the sleep part at least,” Sekel replied. “Thank you for telling me about that. Mikal can help you with the ag’wan. Knowing him, he has probably already begun a protection ritual for you.”
Safiya thought about the grave-faced Rabbi and felt a little tug of nervousness in the pit of her belly. He was definitely the most intimidating person that she had ever met. She remembered how angry the Ambassador had appeared during the meeting last night when the Rabbi was speaking and decided to ask her own questions.
“Can I ask you why you looked so mad last night when the Rabbi was telling me about Al Sahifah?” she ventured.
Sekel’s smile slowly faded and his expression became serious again. At first he looked as if he was not going to answer her but he apparently changed his mind.
“Have you read the Histories about Al Sahifah?” he asked.
Safiya shook her head no but replied, “Well, some of them.”
“There’s a story about Musa El-Khabani, the last Sahifah. It’s written that he was raised among the Sufa monks after having been abandoned as a child. He was taught the high sciences of the Holy Way from the age of 7 summers, and he was a master of Wind and Earth by the age of 14. When he began his training, he wasn’t able to withstand the mental exertion necessary for mastering fire and nearly burned to death,” he stated gravely and waited for her response.
Safiya’s throat went dry and she was at a loss for words. She had read about the miracles of Al Sahifah and of the lives that they had saved during times of war and disaster, but not about the hardships that they had gone through. Just then the doors slid open and a young woman wearing a Republican uniform of light gray slacks and gray jacket entered pushing a cart covered with food.
“Greetings, Ambassador,” she announced cheerfully when she entered.
The top shelf of the cart carried fruit, bread a pot of steaming meesa stew and smaller pots of both coffee and tea; the bottom shelf stored plates, cups and utensils. The woman gazed admiringly at the Ambassador and bumped into the table with the cart as she attempted to maneuver it.
“Thank you, Adina,” Sekel said to her.
He didn’t seem to notice her attention.
“You’re welcome, Ambassador. Is there anything else that I can do for you?” she asked and Safiya sensed a deeper meaning to her offer.
“No, that’s all, thank you,” Sekel replied and amiably and began removing plates from the bottom shelf.
The woman looked disappointed and shot a critical glance at Safiya before turning on her heel and leaving.
“Do you like meesa?” Sekel asked Safiya as the doors slid closed behind the woman.
He filled two bowls with meesa stew and placed a bread plate with two warm, golden loaves glistening with honey butter in front of them.
“Yes,” Safiya replied and was suddenly ravenous.
Her stomach grumbled loudly, so loudly that she was sure he’d heard it, but he didn’t say anything.
“Coffee or tea?” he asked as he placed cups upon the table.
“Tea, please. Thank you,” Safiya replied and tried not to bite too aggressively into a slice of the warm bread.
She’d completely forgotten about her questions in the face of the thick, spicy stew and they ate in silence for several moments before the Ambassador spoke up again.
“Do you remember much about your Uncle Qasim?” he asked and drank from his cup of coffee.
Safiya vaguely remembered her Uncle Qasim and not fondly. He had seldom visited her family, unlike her Uncle Harun who used to visit all the time, and when he did, he and her father had often argued loudly over things that Safiya hadn’t been able to understand at the time.
“No, not very much,” Safiya answered.
Some of what Maryam had said the night before came back to her and she asked, “Did he really have something to do with my parents’ deaths?”
“Possibly,” Sekel responded frankly. “It hasn’t been proven that your uncle was involved in the strikes, but he was conspicuously absent from the Wards that day. Both your father and his youngest brother died leaving your Uncle Qasim as the sole male descendant of the Chiefhood, besides your brother Amir. It’s clear that your parents didn’t trust him enough to allow him to step into the role of guardian for you and your brother, and recent discoveries might link him to questionable activities with the Clerks in the Republic. There’s a lot going on around you, Safiya. Are you absolutely sure that you want to take the path you’ve signed on for? It’s not too late to decline.”
Safiya swallowed a mouthful of stew and considered what he’d said. This was exactly why she had felt so overwhelmed: so much was happening at once. The Wards had been attacked, a grifter had gotten on planet and had been after her, her uncle may want to hurt her and her brother – who was currently thousands of leagues away in U’mtek – and she might very well be killed during the Elementals. A year ago she would have run away, but she could back out now. Even if she thought this might be too much, the only other option for her would be to take the Vow and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to enter into the Sisterhood. She’d have to take a chance on the Elementals and put what little faith she had left into something that could possibily make a difference for a lot of people.
He sipped at his coffee and watched her, waiting for a response, so she looked down at her bowl, stirring her spoon idly, as nervousness set in. When she was small and felt anxious about swimming out too deep in the hot springs or worried about grass serpents when harvesting coffee beans, her mother used to say, “If you believe that the Creator will protect you, He will protect you; and when you don’t believe that He will protect you, even then, He will protect you still.”
Safiya believed. She had to. There was no way that she could not.
“Maybe completing the Elementals is exactly what I need,” she finally said and let her spoon sit in her half eaten bowl of stew. “Maybe, if the Rabbi and the Sisters are right, maybe I could succeed . . .”
She looked back up at the Ambassador, almost afraid of what his expression would be, but found him staring at her with the same determined expression that he’d been wearing last night when she’d made her decision. His life vibrations drummed quietly towards her eseeri and she could feel the same sense of protectiveness radiating from him towards her.
“I’m not so good with maybes, but if you are sure that this is your decision, then I am sure that I will do everything in my power to keep you safe,” he stated and held her gaze. “Starting with filling your belly and allowing you to sleep.”
His attempt at lightheartedness was welcome and she smiled in response, but the uneasiness remained. He didn’t approve, and she felt deeply that his disapproval would only make all this harder for her, but she was still going to try. She had to.
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