When the moon began its wane at the beginning of May, the old woman had fallen ill, with a growing pain in her stomach, a wracking cough, and a throbbing headache. At home, she would have sipped on slow-simmered škembe čorba and aromatic mint tea until she felt well again, but here, she simply stayed in bed, missing one meal after another until finally a concerned soul brought some coffee and weak, watery tea, with a small batch of stale crackers that crumbled to the touch. Only when the new moon blackened the night sky, leaving no shadows to perform their strange contortions in her cell, did the sickness begin to recede, with only two weeks remaining before the scheduled trial. During the preceding month, she'd seen no visitors, not even that hateful woman from the prosecutor's office come with some other new twist in the ministry's pursuit of Terra's old guard. Her body heat, for a time intensified through fever, warmed the medallion of Saint Sava pressed against her chest, and she fingered it regularly, old prayers slipping susurrous through parched lips, falling unheard and unanswered. What mercies could there be for the damned, after all.
When one of the guards appeared at the door, she didn't hear the words he spoke until he repeated them several times, irritation creeping into his voice, nearly drowned out by the cacophany in the hall. She had to turn her head to look directly at him, the sharp lines of his face, the tensed hand on his weapon, the edge of his patch curling away from his sleeve, all of it slowly coming to focus. "You've got a visitor."
Aerilyn was waiting impatiently. She had missed her last visit. Things had been chaos in her personal life and she hated that it had spilled over, interrupting her visits with Arianne. It had been a month, but she was back now, and hoping the other hadn't grown weaker still. She had serious doubts onto that though. When they finally brought Arianne in, she surged to her feet, and only long practice kept her from rushing over to help the old woman. "Arianne? What happened, you look so much worse!" She had already been bad off. Now she was skin and bones and there was no way she needed to be here, could be here. They obviously weren't taking care of her.
How was this legal? How was this okay? Couldn't they see how poorly she was doing?
This was all madness and insanity and she hated every minute of it. She should have come sooner, should have made time. "I am so, so sorry Arianne. I should have come sooner. You need someone looking after you, not to be here." She was still alive, but how long past the trial would she survive in these conditions? How long would she survive when she was ill and doing worse with every visit. Aerilyn hated that the other was getting worse and hated everything about this situation and how it had dragged on. They should have at least let her heal in the hospital before taking her, those months ago. They should have let her get better before sending her to this special hell.
Drulović accepted Aerilyn's usual embrace, patting the side of Aerilyn's arm with a weak and unsteady hand, as close as she could reach to a real hug, before settling uneasily into the chair. Her eyes blinked upward a moment, taking in the flickering fluorescent. "Someone ought to replace those damn things," she said, ignoring Aerilyn's question. "They'll be out before long." Her face was drawn, but much of her energy had returned, after the weeks of recovery alone. She gave a small frown, glancing sidelong at the guard in the room before looking again at her visitor, and tilted her head slightly back. "How have you and Mr. Fazari been? You must have a world of news to share by now." She heard murmurings from others confined with her. Elizabeth's sisters came to visit at least once a week; Jamal's husband too. The old woman rarely heard children's laughter here. Crying - children crying for lack of understanding, wives crying for grief, fathers crying helpless and trying to hide it. That was familiar in this milieu. Almost constant. But even when Netawatwees Olson came to visit, Drulović heard news from her. She made sure to ask for it. If for nothing other than a discomfiting embarrassment, Olson had told her during the last investigative visit of the latest squabble among the interns in her office, some childish game of candy hoarding and seat stealing. Drulović could hardly remember such things. They were too long past.
"Ah. Are you sure you're okay?" The other would never say it though. She made certain the other was settled in the chair before taking her own seat, hating every second of this. "And well enough. Ahmad is coping." He was still upset and unhappy, but he was coping and that was the best she could expect out of the situation. "I lost my job as a bus driver. Apparently the appropriate response to someone trying to hold up the bus is not to point a bigger gun right back at them." She had been very stiffly informed that she was supposed to just let the man have his way.
Aerilyn preferred a much more proactive approach. She managed a smile. "I'm a security person now for a corporation. It's dead boring. But I guess its something to do." She was the youngest person on the team and it was all ridiculous. It was a boring job. "I miss Gambit's, but I don't want to get shot again. And I think even working as a security guard worries Ahmad." For no real reason. The most rowdy her day got was when the coffee ran out and no one refilled it. She hadn't had to so much as escort someone out of the building. It was just patrols, always with a partner, always at set times.
"Well, you and I both know Mr. Fazari is like to take cover at the sound of rabbits rustling at the front door," Drulović said, teasing him even from so far apart. "He'd be anxious if you stayed at home the entire day; it's simply in his nature." She remembered easily how Ahmad worried that even inside the Bureau's headquarters, the old woman was in danger from threats seen and unseen alike. How he, like so many others, begged her to keep the door at home locked, for at least the momentary illusion of safety. But then, no intrusion proved necessary to bring danger to her doorstep, in the end. "I'll confess, I've never much understood the futile preoccupation so many of you seem to have with safety." She smiled a little. For all the obsession about security in prison, there was little safety here, either. "Keep the job awhile, if you can manage it. It always helps to have money in the bank, especially when the next dry spell comes knocking at your door." That, the old woman remembered easily. Hunger, lack, and want. She leaned back, eyeing Aerilyn. "I was simply ill," she said, dismissing with a word the weeks of aches, pain, and fever, "but I'm fine, now." She had been able to eat that day, at least, though it was far from enough to be a full meal.
"You need to be somewhere where you can rest." She grumbled, largely to herself at this point. "I'm glad you're feeling better. Try and get rest and eat. Please eat." It looked like the other was barely eating anything. She had always been slight. Prison had made her even slighter. Aerilyn managed a smile. "And I suppose I've made my bread and butter in people's preoccupation with safety. So it works out for me." First a soldier, then a bouncer, and now a security guard. Though this one chaffed as well, it did less than being a bus driver did. Maybe this one she'd stick to.
She rather missed the days of playing bodyguard or being a bouncer though. "And he's not the bravest of people, my handsome husband. But his heart makes up for it." She was still wildly in love with him and she didn't see that changing any time soon. Not when he was so supportive even now, with all the chaos.
"I'd eat more if the cooks bothered making something worth eating," Drulović said, shaking her head. "The meat is rather too sinewy and dry, what passes for vegetables entirely lacking in flavoring and hardly cooked, or else cooked far too much, and besides, I can hardly chew most of it, anyway." That had been Andrade's doing. "I'd done better when I was ill at home before. Really, I'd almost rather ask you to fix something to eat than whatever shlemiel is 'responsible' for it here." She made a face before resuming her typical impassive expression. The light above them continued to flicker, dancing oddly with the shadows on Aerilyn's face, a contortion one moment, a glimmer the next. "I'm glad you've come today, though, my friend, terrible a friend I've been to you notwithstanding. I'm afraid I have a favor to ask of you, and it's like to be no small thing."
"Ah, I'll talk to them about the food." Again. It was bad if the other would rather eat her cooking. She was not exactly a gifted cook. Calling her a cook at all was generous. "And of course, Arianne. What's the favor?" She'd be glad to help. Right after she spoke to the warden, again, about actually providing Arianne with food she could eat. This wasn't something that could stand.
Arianne needed to eat to survive, and they could feed her properly, or she'd end up in the hospital again because they weren't. Though given how cruel everyone was to her in the papers and how the tide of public opinion was firmly against her, she had no doubt that the prison couldn't care less if something happened to her friend. The bastards.
She could envision the arch in her mind's eye clear, overgrown with ivy until the iron could hardly be seen anymore, shadows long and mottled at twilight, offering a glint of peace beneath the soft yellow glow of a full moon with something sinister lying beneath. The wind blew something awful out that way. "I promised a little girl decades ago I'd find her mother for her, a fool oath to take," Drulović said, speaking softly, the sound of her own voice distant to her ears. The memory of those wild winds overtook the present too easily. "Some years past, I happened across the woman in her elder years, but she was near to death already. They'd been parted during the first wars here on Terra." The girl had hardly been older than seven, maybe eight at the oldest. The old woman remembered the girl's dark curled hair framing cherubic dimples, wide eyes brimmed with liquid. "The girl, too, died in the war. I was far too late to give any help. They'd been buried apart - the girl offworld, on Ưi'dhàr; her mother, here, incinerated during the second occupation. I meant to bring her ashes to her daughter's resting place before I went myself to the beyond. They were not kin to me, really, but they could have been. The girl's sister, who worked with me at the Bureau, she too, disappeared." The winds there were merciless, cutting. Some said those who ventured to that hidden garden with ill intent would suffer a terrible fate upon entering it.
"Off world...That's a trip, Arianne. I may not make it back for your trial." It depended on who she flew with. There were options of course, but some of the faster options she couldn't use. Ahmad after all, was very much Terran and racism would keep him from her side, on the faster ships. She didn't think for a moment of not going with her husband. "I promised I'd be there for that." Someone had to be in her corner.
Besides, Ahmad was going to have to testify and she wanted to be there for him too. This was already a terrible situation. "What are their names?" Who was she going to be re-uniting for a friend who wouldn't be able to do so on her own? Perhaps if she went on her own, she could take a Belkan ship. She got treated amazingly well by the Belkans after all. She'd rather not though. Even if she traveled without her husband, she'd still know exactly how poorly their racist asses would treat him.
An erutin ship could be faster of course, but that meant finding either an erutin ship or one with an erutin pilot and they were rare outside of their empire. Or at least, them being openly erutin was rare outside their empire. And erutin ships weren't meant for humans and they didn't care much who knew it.
"Ưi'dhàr is only a system away from Terra," said Drulović, tapping a finger idly against the table. "The trouble has always been the journey there. It requires a bit of sorcery to approach the world, so I'm afraid I've never traveled there alone, much as I'd have preferred it that way." And the winds. Those merciless winds. "It shouldn't take more than a week for you, all told, not with what newfangled technology we all have these days. But you'll need your aeromancy about you once you arrive. The winds there can kill." Two moons rose above the arch in her memory. Twin moons, so yellow they colored the trees almost gold. Trees that sometimes bent at nearly ninety degree angles from the sheer force of the wicked gusts. "I'm sure I'll see you back for the trial, but if not, well." She shrugged. "There are many worse things to fear." She looked directly at Aerilyn, as if the guard present were not there with them at all. Behind the other woman, she could see motion tumbling about in tearful hugs and full-throated laughs. "The girl's name was Jiryha. Her mother was Lenore Sampathkumar. I meant to lay Jiryha's ashes with her mother before I passed myself. I worry I won't have that chance now."
"People rarely call on me for my aeromancy." She tended to keep quiet about that. "Usually they're more concerned with my weaponry." She was a decent aeromancer, but Aerilyn had always made her living on her guns, not on her magic. Asking her to use it for this wasn't a small thing. "Are there places to shelter from the winds? I wouldn't be able to divert them forever." She'd need breaks. "And how would I get to the planet itself. I don't know any sorcerers who would help me." Not with this at least. Asking someone to go off world was a big favor.
She would do it for Arianne, and she'd make it back in time for the trial. But she'd need to leave soon to manage that much. And that meant hiring a ship, since she suspected this planet was off the beaten path, and that meant finding a pilot willing to go through magic. That would be tricky.
But doable. She'd have to talk to some people from her bouncer days but finding a ship would be doable.
"We've had one for a long time at the Bureau, a sorcerer," said Drulović, the image of the ivy-clad arch still burning bright in memory. Her own eyes seemed distant, though her gaze remained fixed on Aerilyn. "His name is Haroun Kim. He's a bit of a nervous creature, sometimes, not unlike our Mr. Fazari, though reliable and loyal." Like most of the Bureau, many of whom would not speak publicly because it would jeopardize their work, but who remained among the only Terrans left willing to support the old woman now. "Besides," she added with a shrug and the hint of a smirk, "he owes me a few favors by now." The misadventures on Tal'dor, the meandering paths on Niihama, at least a few others beside. "He'll speak with you. I'd ask you take a gentle touch with him, though, else he may prove too struck with fear to help much when you arrive." She exaled slowly, her expression turned somber again. "The winds on Ưi'dhàr move on sixteen Terran-hour cycles, sixteen hours gusting and sixteen hours at rest, though it's hardly a rest, simply a momentary respite."
"Sixteen hour cycles. If we time it right, I may not even need to use my aeromancy." Sixteen hours should be plenty of time to get to a grave site, so long as they landed nearby it. Assuming they could. She had no idea, not really. But she'd plan it like her team had planned missions. "I'll get it done. That just leaves a pilot, after all." And a ship but pilots usually came with ships. To have one was usually to have the other. Either way she could find one. There were enough insane pilots in Gambit's she could taunt into a dangerous trek.
"And I'll be gentle with your sorceror. I know how to be after all." Though it wasn't her preferred tactic, she knew how to be gentle. Her Ahmad had certainly taught her that.
"There's one other thing, Aerilyn," said Drulović, looking back up at her friend then. Her gaze burned. She thought momentarily of her own daughters, and of their children, and of theirs. She remembered the few photographs she'd had at home, the poor replicas she had now here of what fewer still she'd had left when the Aschen had been through with her. She remembered the curl of paper away from a hungry flame, leaving charred edges and then dust in its wake. She remembered her own parents' graves, simple, unadorned, how she couldn't so much as stand by the time she made her way there, knowing she'd never again experience their local community's support in mourning because she'd missed the funerals. She'd been gone for years. She remembered the soft scent of lilacs and chrysanthemums. Her mother's favorite. The slow, sweet smell of rot. The cicadas all night long. The darkness that enveloped her, deeper and blacker than any she'd find in a city. Drulović spoke crisply. "You'll need Jiryha's ashes."