One Step Forward

Many weeks had gone by since the attack. At the advice of Lord Ibrahim, Julianni had slipped into a new clone so as to save the healing process, and each day she felt thankful she had listened. There were no questions from others, no pokes and prods into just what had happened. Everything was normal. Everything was alright, as it always needed to be.

Her home was a total loss, and while she felt saddened, there were worse things, of course. God knew such a fact was at the forefront of the woman’s mind. What bothered her most was that Shiran Mazaki had been killed trying to stop the attacker. She knew that he was safe, of course, his own new clone having been activated at his passing. But to also know that it was her own fault that caused him to face such a problem was troubling, to say the least.

Calling off the investigation was the only right action, and since the weeks had come and gone, no more issues had arisen. No flowers, no notes, no threats or video calls. It was as if nothing had ever happened. Julianni had grown used to it, and she was happy to put the search into Dominius’ actions behind her.

Letting out a breath, she leaned back against her chair in her “home” within the Alliance headquarters. Her empty glass of wine discarded to the side, her hands came to rest at her lap and she closed her eyes.

She could put it all behind her, she thought. How easy it would be. If Dominius decided to send messages, then so be it. She’d simply forward them to the Executor, as ordered, and he’d handle what business matters needed tended to. There was no reason for her to interact with him anymore. While she’d felt an anger for what he did, the craving for revenge resting on the tip of her tongue so prominently, she knew that God had a reason for what had happened. She’d deserved every second of His Wrath, and so she’d suffer and pray for forgiveness.

Yes…that’s what she needed right now. A moment of prayer.

Her eyes opened and she stood, slowly striding towards her shoes. A pause came, however, when a message arrived in her inbox.

d0sha7r3mah7 | [UNTITLED] | YC119.11.19 11:30 | Inbox

Glancing off to the side, she let her implants take over her senses. The sender caused her brow to raise. What sort of name was that? Her head tilted. Was it a name at all? What was so familiar about that phrase?

Whatever it was, she couldn’t place it. Julianni shook her head and proceeded to read just what was sent.

you were right

degario

i have proof

need safe passage

immunity

will you help?

 

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Yours Truly, Dominius

“Sir? I have movement.”

“What do you mean, you have movement?”

“Wait, it’s gone.”

“Gone? What was it to begin with?”

“I don’t know, sir, I just had an alert of movement in the treeline. Near the wall- Look! There it is again! What was that?”

Yalin leaned towards the screen, his eyes squinting. There was movement, alright, but he couldn’t tell just what it was. Something in the trees, for sure. Birds? Butterflies? The oasis was known to have a bit of wildlife in the area, after all.

“Turn it to thermal sensors.” Better to be safe than sorry, he thought to himself as the young man at the controls pressed the appropriate buttons.

Yalin frowned deeply at what the reveal was, and the face of the young Civire at the screen went white. “S-sir…”

“Where is Avala-haani?”

“One moment…” Though it was a brief pause, it felt like ages. “She’s in her garden. Outside,” he finally replied, looking to his commanding officer.

“Get her a message to get inside immediately.” Yalin’s hand went to his ear piece. “Mazaki-haan, we have a situation here. I have slaver hounds at the Avala estate.”

The flight to Julianni’s home didn’t take long. Shiran Mazaki’s ship bursting through the atmosphere and speeding towards the coordinates was certain to turn some heads, but it didn’t matter. Yalin knew that time was of the essence, and he was certain by Shiran’s piloting that he was just as aware.

Now above the oasis, the glint of a reflection caught Yalin’s eye from the window near the seat he was strapped into. Was that a vehicle? His hand went to his earpiece again. “Mazaki-haan, I have a vehicle bearing approximately 45 degrees East. No movement.”

“I’ll check it out. You get to Avala. Keep your eyes open and watch the trees.”

“Copy that.”

The ship made it’s landing, a hard jolt from the rough landing jarring Yalin slightly. As quickly as he could, his hands fumbled with the straps at his shoulders, then reached for his pistol. Safety off.

He moved slowly, yet had just enough urgency in his step not to waste time searching for the woman. Whispering, he switched his comms to the emergency frequency of the home. “Director Avala, this is Yalin-haan. I’m on your property and am making my way to you for extraction. Please confirm your location.”

The answer was not quite what he expected, but it certainly helped pinpoint where he believed the woman was. A single shot of a pistol rang out from near the home. Muffled. She had to be inside.

His pace quickened, finding the gate to the estate still locked. A quick fix, of course, once the security system was overridden with the Internal Watch codes. The gate swung open, and the man pressed on with determination into the grounds proper.

Another shot.

“Avala-haani, I’m on my way to you. Respond.”

Still no response.

And then, he saw the blood.

A trail of droplets led towards the front door, a bloody print of a palm smearing itself across it. He cringed and raised his weapon, kicking the door open.

He jumped at the sight at first, firing his pistol into the beast that lay on the ground. But it was already dead, it seemed, a hole blown through the hound’s eye.

The room itself was a mess, furniture flung about the area with crimson spatters of life essence in what would surely have been a Blood Raider’s dream. He shuddered.

It was then that he heard the whimpering. Was it one of the hounds? No, it was a person. It had to be. Cautiously, doing his best not to slip on the blood, he found himself following the trail up to what was some sort of room with a circular window.

More blood decorated what he believed was once a prayer room of sorts. Smoke was rising into the air, a candle having began to catch fire of a rug towards the side. Yalin coughed, raising his arm to his mouth.

His eyes caught the second hound, dead as well. This one seemed to be laying over top of who he could hardly recognize as Director Julianni Avala.

Most of her body appeared to have been mauled by the creatures. Bite marks adorned her bare arms and legs. Even one looked to be around the woman’s neck. A pistol lay in her hand, gripped firmly as if it was all that kept her present.

“Director…” Yalin said softly, then turned his attention back to his earpiece. “I have Director Avala. Repeat, I have Director Avala. I need immediate medical response and evac at the IRV-Jussho’s location.”

“Copy that, we’re almost there.”

He nodded and put away his pistol, dropping down to his knees to put pressure on the woman’s neck wound. “Mazaki-haan, what’s your status.”

“In pursuit of a suspect. Get Avala safe, then meet at my coordinates. Mazaki out.”

“I need to get you out of the house. Just bear with me. Can you put your hands here?” He reached for her hand with the pistol, prying it out and guiding her hands to her neck. “Put pressure. I’m going to lift you, alright? We need to get out. There’s a fire.”

He didn’t even wait to see her acknowledgement, nor stopped lifting her over his shoulders when she cried out from pain.

“Arriving now on the vessel’s location. Standing by for extraction.”

Yalin sighed thankfully as he carried her out to safety. Ancestors, let the person who did this be caught, he thought.

WHAM.

THUMP.

A groan.

“P-please…stop…”

And so Mazaki stopped, lowering his stun baton. “Stay where you are,” he told the Ni-kunni man curled into a ball in the sand. He had sure fought back, but ultimately, Shiran was able to overtake the snake-like man. Shiran wiped a bit of blood from the corner of his lip.

Retracting the stun baton, panting slightly, he pulled the electronic manacles from his pocket, approaching. “You are hereby to be in the custody of the Internal Watch for questioning rega-”

And then, a sharp jolt at his leg. The man had actually pulled a knife. The Ni-kunni man retracted the blade, then quickly plunged it into Shiran’s stomach, dropping the Calmatar to the ground. More stabs came, despite Shiran’s fighting back, the stun baton slowly becoming less of a weapon each moment.

As the darkness began to overtake him, Shiran Mazaki looked up at his murderer, coughing out blood. “Bastard.”

Then, darkness.

Pique

Dominius waved his hand to the tear-stricken female servant within the room, then began buttoning up his shirt. “Go clean yourself up,” he ordered the frail and battered woman. “Oh, and tell Khaihraz I wish to see him.” And of course, she obediently left, nothing to keep her dignity in place but the small tablecloth wrapped around her body.

He smiled.

His jacket was pulled on, adjusted carefully, then he began working at fixing his perfect brown hair. A prideful grin appeared as he looked into the mirror to ensure he looked as immaculate as possible.

Then, a knock at his door.

“Enter,” he commanded.

In stepped his faithful servant Khaihraz, looking prepared to do whatever was asked of him. “You wished to see my, my Lord?”

Dominius turned on his heel and flashed that prideful grin. “I did! It’s high time we bring our results to light, I believe. Get him on the comms.”

“Of course, Lord Degario. At once.”

The Ni-kunni servant quickly moved to the holo-display to the side of the master chambers, pressing his fingers to the touchscreen with quick succession.

Lord Degario, now confident his appearance was up to par, took a seat at his lounge chair, waiting as patiently as any man of his stature could.

And it wasn’t long before the hooded figure appeared on the screen. “Lord Degario. I take it you have some news?” His voice gruff, yet demanding.

“I do. We have the location of her home, among other things.”

The hooded figure nodded, then looked away as if he was about to disconnect.

“Heh, you can wait. I have a plan in mind to send her a message,” Dominius forced. He was beginning to grow offended that this man would simply toss the information to the side.

“No, you have a plan to be patient. As far as we know, she’s not told anyone yet. Do not commit any action like an angry child would, Dominius.”

Oh, and how the anger did start in. He could feel the blood rushing to his cheeks, to his mind. A frown appeared. “Do you forget what she said in her me-”

“Do you take me for a fool?” Came the interrupting remark.

Dominius began to see red. The nerve of this man, why he would have him killed on the spot were he part of his Holding. “Do not forget who helps fund you and your activities,” he spat. “I could withdraw at any time.”

“Then do so. I do not need your funds to do what needs done. My Faith does not need your funding. It would still remain strong and I would continue His Work without the petty offerings of some child.”

The Holder’s fist slammed onto the table. “You think you can speak to me in such a way? I will not allow it.”

The hooded figure snorted. “You already have.” And then, he disconnected.

Dominius was left speechless. He knew he couldn’t simply withdraw his support. His plans would be ruined. Everything he’d done thus far would be for nothing. He was seething, though, wanting nothing more than to take his anger out on something.

He looked to Khaihraz, who was smart enough to know not to have said anything thus far. The snake-like servant simply awaited an order.

Drawing a breath through his nostrils, Lord Degario spoke with all the tones of a man that had something to prove. “I will not let this woman get away with speaking to me as she did. And one day, I will not let him, either,” he sneered. “For now, focus on her. Send her a message.”

Khaihraz bowed his head. “How would you like it delivered?”

Dominius glanced off to the side at a statue of one of his most prized slaver hounds. With a nod towards it, then back to Khaihraz, he waved his hand.

“Do it.”

Breathless

The weight was unbearable. How could she handle it all? How could she do it? Was there even a way? Her eyes squeezed shut as she curled into a ball in the corner of her bedroom.

She had no choice. It was public. Last time something went wrong for him, he drank and drugged himself to death, she told herself. How could she have put him in a position to do that again?

But how could she put herself in such a position?

“He is weakening your will to serve God by placing himself in a position of importance almost more than Him.”

As much as it killed Julianni to think that over, she knew it was possible. She knew it could be true. Perhaps not intentionally, but the more she thought about her recent actions, the more she realized it was happening.

She didn’t want it.

The woman didn’t want to be married. It was too soon. Not only that, but she had so many things to take care of. So did he. But again…how could she say no?

He’d begged her not to leave him. He told her how he had been abandoned before. Could she do that to him? Could she be so ruthless? So selfish?

Tears squeezed out of her already bloodshot eyes and she began to sob.

What could she do to fix this? Was it even possible? She felt as if all the air from her lungs had escaped- as if there was nothing left of her but the husk of body left behind.

She wanted to be there for him, to help him through his troubles; Julianni knew what it was like to be alone. But what was she willing to give up to do that? How much of herself was she willing to sacrifice? Or had she already sacrificed it all?

A clock within her home let loose a soft chime, delicate and soothing in its sound.

And then, solitary silence. So much that it was deafening.

Passenger

“It’s been some time since your last appointment. We’ve both been quite busy, haven’t we,” came the calming voice from the woman across from her.

“It has, and we have. But I could have tried harder to be here. You have my apologies.”

The brow of the psychologist raised, and her head tilted. “There’s no apology needed, Avala-haani.” A pause. That quiet, awkward pause of a person who was picking apart the structure of words presented to them. “We both could have tried harder. Nevertheless,” Emiri Aneozomi began, “I have decided to withdraw the mandatory drug tests you were subjected to. All of them have come back negative thus far, and myself and the Executor have no reason to believe they ever will.”

Julianni nodded her head. She’d expected something like that to come up, and she’d certainly been prepared for it. Lately, reading these people was getting easier and easier. It made her wonder just why she even came to these appointments anymore. “Thank you. Is there anything else?”

Another loft of the doctor’s brow. “There is, if you’ve the time to spare…”

With the way Emiri trailed off, Julianni knew that there was more of a demand there than was spoken. After a small shift in her seat, she laid her hands calmly into her lap and looked towards the doctor, nodding. “I do.”

“Good.” That pause. Julianni’s eye twitched. That damn pause. Why wouldn’t the woman just say what was on her mind? “I’ve noticed a bit of a change in you. More…confidence, perhaps. I’m happy to see it.”

“Thank you again, Aneozomi-haani. I’ve been working towards that, and I’m glad to see it’s noticed,” she confirmed. It was true, of course. The target practice at her home, the beginnings of combat training with Aldrith- both had done wonders to boost her courage thus far.

“Mh, yes. However, I’m concerned. Have you spoke to anyone about what you’ve endured?”

Julianni thought about it. Had she, really? No. No, she hadn’t. Not at length, at least. “Briefly.”

“Don’t you think it’s time to? You’ve not even revealed to myself what’s going on in that head of yours. Not that I am offended, of course. But surely there must be someone you can be open with. You need to be.”

Names began to swim through the sea of Julianni’s increasingly darkened mind.

Zeke.

Luna.

Utari.

Ioannis.

Vince.

Hespyr.

As each name slowly waded through the murky sludge, so too did they sink to the blackened depths. For each person had their own life. Their own problems. Their own worries. Struggles. Heartache. Loss. She knew it, even if they didn’t show it. Who was she to drown them further?

“I am open with God,” was Julianni’s reply, a lie thick like the very dark sludge that was eating away at her mind.

Emiri sighed, then stood and made her way to her desk. “I hope one day that is true, Avala-haani, and that you find someone you are able to speak to without worry. You need to let it all go. I know it affects you, and I’m not the only one to notice.”

“If there are concerns with the quality of my work, I give my word I will try harder.”

“I’m sure you will, but that is not what I meant. Regardless, I have an appointment with someone else. I would like to see you again next month, if that works with your schedule. Otherwise, you know where to find me. I will be here,” the doctor said with a saddened smile.

This time, it was Julianni’s turn to pause. At the very least, she was beginning to wonder if maybe she really did need to let it out. But to whom?

Standing slowly, she bowed to Emiri, then gracefully glided to the door without another word. What else was there to say?

Qatayef

  • 2 cups (8½ oz/ 240g) all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon (3/8oz/ 12g) granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon (1/4oz/ 8g) powdered milk (dried milk powder)
  • 1 teaspoons (4g) instant yeast
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ⅛ tsp salt
  • 1¾ cups (425ml) warm water

Julianni knew the recipe well. The dough itself was rather simple, after all, and she had made it often in her years of servitude. Whisk together the dried ingredients. Add the warm water slowly. Continue whisking vigorously until the loose and pourable batter is formed. Like pancakes.

It was in this process of preparation that she found her thoughts drifting.

For a week, she’d been in charge of handling I-RED matters. The Executor’s words were still quite prominent in her mind. “I’ll be gone on a business matter for a week. I trust you can handle things.”

It was no request.

Julianni had done what she could. Delegation, instruction, decision making- though most things were ran by the directors, the final decisions had come down to her. Each day, she felt shoulder bear more and more weight. How the Executor managed to handle it all was unknowing to her. She’d hardly had enough time to deal with diplomatic and financial duties than to lead the alliance.

Cover the bowl of dough. Let rise until slightly bubbly and has risen.

The woman went to work on the filling, tossing the hazelnuts, pine nuts, and golden raisins within the sugary butter she’d melted together previously.

Then, there was Utari. The worry she felt over his situation weighed on her as well. What decisions would he be making? Would he take the step to help himself? She was trying to support him, but there was only so much she could do. With the choices he’d made in the past and the choices he would have to make in the future, she certainly didn’t envy him. All she could do now was be there for him, even if there was a small part of her that felt frustrated. She had no right to feel that way, she’d told herself over and over. And so she buried that feeling deep within, an unintentional seed of doubt. Whether or not there would be darkened waters to nourish it was unknown.

Heat the oil. Stir the batter. Two tablespoons per cake. Let bubble, then set each one off to the side for filling later.

As if matters weren’t stressful enough, Julianni felt the overwhelming, oppressive sense of eyes watching her each time she’d gone to the market. Chills would run down her spine each time, trickling across her skin like a snake that was slowly wrapping itself around her body. She couldn’t tell what was worse: never being able to find who was watching, or that the watchful eyes knew exactly where she’d be. She’d played it smart, of course, changing up her schedule, routes, even skipping the city proper some days.

But the eyes always found her.

Add a heaping tablespoon of filling to each cake. Fold. Seal. Set aside.

With the knowledge of her home’s predecessor being a drug dealer, she knew that this could be more dangerous than normal. At the same time, what harm could they possibly do? She was a capsuleer. She could live and die, then do it all over again and again.

Her eyes began to drift to the pistol resting with her silken wrap. Could she do it? Would she really be able to take a life again? Julianni’s eyes furrowed. If she was in danger, she may possibly need to.

Drop each cake into the fry oil. Fry for two to four minutes per side or until deep golden brown. Dip in light glaze. Let rest. Garnish with coconut flakes. Serve.

No longer were the days she could remain passive. Not with her position, not with her home’s history, and not with her own history. She needed to change. Her next stage of metamorphosis.

Her fingers slipped around the pistol’s grip and she made her way outside for target practice.

Grocery Shopping

Khaihraz stepped off the shuttle and took in a breath of satisfaction. He truly hated flying, hated the closed off compartments meant for people to sit in. The forced interaction with people around who smelled of filth was intolerable. But here, on this planet, everything felt much better.

It reminded him of his home, the powerful desert winds and intense, dry heat. Even the architecture was a gentle memory of where he came from, its stonework battered and broken in many places, yet still standing. Yes, this was much better than that disgusting shuttle, indeed.

The sounds of conversation in every which direction was a comfort as well. Bargaining merchants and customers, camel-like creatures chortling their annoying noises, children running and playing through the streets- all of it was loud and distracting enough that he knew no one would give his appearance, being a newcomer, a second thought.

He traveled along the busy crowd, dipping and weaving in what was like a dance with the natives to the planet. A smile rest at his face. Oh, how he loved the smell of the market. The cooking foods- (was that shawarma?), the strong spices, the perfumes and incense of jasmine were all overwhelmingly pleasant. He was almost jealous that he couldn’t live here, himself. But he knew what he was really there for, and it certainly wasn’t browsing for spices.

This planet held the key to his salvation. The key to his freedom. And no matter what it took, he would find her.

He found himself within the alley designated by his contact, then leaned against the wall, waiting. Of course, it didn’t take long for his presence to be noted, and soon a large, burly man approached. Dressed in neutral colours, a longer robe, the man’s hand outstretched. One chip was given in return for another, and then he was gone. It was the best kind of business, no words needing spoken. Khaihraz smiled, then plugged the data chip into the pad he kept in his pocket.

The words flashed on the screen clear as day.

Approx. 06:00-08:00, 18:00-19:00, days vary. Hover car from West.

His brow raised. From the West? A hover car? She couldn’t have been too far, if that were the case. He checked the time on his data pad.

18:23

He would never admit to anyone that his heart gave a jump. Would he actually see her? Khaihraz’s eyes scanned the crowd, searching aimlessly for her. It was a large market, but he knew her face. There was no way he’d miss her, provided she was actually there.

It felt like hours to the man, his methodical wanderings leading him to the places he knew were popular. Meats. Vegetables. Next, the spices.

And there she was.

He knew her form before she even turned to speak to the merchant. It was much more frail than he’d seen in the pictures, but he knew it was her. Clothing a vibrant orange colour, it hung loosely off her body. She certainly fit in with the other women here, that’s for sure. When she turned, he noticed her face looked as it always had; his heart pounded in his chest.

The man would not approach, of course. That was not part of the plan. No, he would wait. This was all he needed for now, anyway. And so, he began to turn to leave.

The moment he did, though, he paused, noting the man at Julianni’s side; he did not belong. Khaihraz watched carefully, taking in every detail of the man’s that he could; his face; his mannerisms; his treatment of Julianni; his hand at the small of her back. Khaihraz felt an anger brewing.

A significant other. “Most interesting,” he said to himself quietly.

The more he watched, the more he noted Julianni and the man begin looking around. He frowned. They were more perceptive than he realized. But it was no matter, he still had the information he needed. Without another thought, he turned down the market walkways.

Things would need to change, he knew. While they’d accounting for potential friends and acquaintances, they certainly hadn’t thought she’d be with someone. What if he stayed at the house? Khaihraz frowned, knowing full well he needed to figure out a way to fix this.

As he boarded that travel shuttle again, he pulled up his datapad to send a quick message to his contact.

Kredits for info on the man.