Chapter Seven Simple Facts

Chapter Seven
“Simple Facts”

It was cool, quiet and comfortable in Lilavati’s suite.

The suite was quite roomy and, Lilavati guessed, both humble by Darumbal standards and luxurious by local ones: the interior walls were cream-painted wood and the floors were of deep, thick golden carpet. It was well-furnished: a wooden frame double bed dominated the room, made up with layers of soft blue silken sheets- it had been left untouched. There was a glossy, varnished desk of rich dark red wood, the edges and legs decorated with delicate, flowing smooth waves and curves; the desk came with a matching wooden chair with blue velvet padding. A small, compact air conditioner sat embedded in the wall above the bed. A bathroom en-suite was attached to the room, containing a toilet, bathtub and sink, all of marble. Opposite the en-suite were double glass doors, fringed with heavy black curtains, led out onto the balcony, which like the rest of the building’s exterior was made of a rose-pink sandstone.

Lilavati stood by the glass doors. The dust, dirt, mud, sweat and blood had been washed from her skin and from her hair. Gone was the black body sheath and ragged duster, replaced with new clothes: a creamy-white pressed linen shirt with long sleeves and a loose, high collar; matching trousers, black hiking boots, and a hooded cotton mantelet of light blue.

She looked out onto the city- which was slowly but surely returning to normality. The fires no longer burned, cranes and modular suits dotted the skyline, clearing debris and knocking down unsafe buildings, and dozens of menial work crews drove through the streets on the backs of trucks, carrying with them tools, materials and raw labour.

But now Lilavati spotted something else- Lord Lachlan’s spider cataphract, the Mintji-Kurri-Kurri, scuttling through the streets. Menials and modular suits quickly made way for it as the cataphract made its way to the Darumbal manor. She quickly left the room and made her way through the spacious manor to the deep underground hangar-vaults below.

The hangar-vaults were deep, broad spaces, eminently practical in its design- mostly concrete and composites. It consisted of six bays, about sixteen metres wide, ringed with cranes with claw-like manipulators, small elevators and multiple levels of gantries and extensible bridges. The bays were empty. Crews of technicians milled about the space, some ferrying cargo, others setting up the gantries in one of the bays. At the far end of the hangar-vaults were four huge elevators, each capable of carrying a modular suit.

One of these elevators opened now, revealing Lachlan’s Mintji. The arrival seemed to electrify the workers below; they suddenly began working much quicker, especially those seeing to the bay. The cataphract quickly paced inside, secured itself in one of the bays, and disgorged Lachlan, who walked onto the nearest gantry via an extensible bridge.

Lilavati was there to meet him. “Good evening, Lord Lachlan. It went well?” She asked- then she frowned, eying a large, angry bruise on his cheek.

“It could’ve gone better.” Said Lachlan ruefully as he rubbed his cheek self-consciously. “Did you know sinistrals go off the bloody rails when you plug ‘em into a ghosting system?”

Lilavati chuckled. “Yes, I did,” she said lightly.

“Oh you did?” He said darkly. “You could’ve said something before now.”

“I did. I asked you about there being a process to follow, and you said something spicy about said process and went off on your own way. With all due respect, Lord Lachlan, if an Erudite-drafted process isn’t enough to persuade you, what’s the word of a Lunar ambassador going to do?” Asked Lilavati, an edge of amusement to her voice.

“What if he’d hurt someone?” Said Lachlan irritably.

“Few to hurt out in the farms. Besides, I had faith in your competence, Lord Lachlan.” Said Lilavati warmly. “If he were truly a threat to someone, you’d be able to stop him, surely?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Lachlan shook his head. “Nevermind. Do me a favour: tell me the risks, up front. Being wrong is an ugly business, and I’d rather avoid it, Lunarian or no.”

“If you wish it, Lord Lachlan.” Said Lilavati with a wide smile. “Now then, would you care to join me for a meal? I’d like for us to talk.”

“You eat?” Said Lachlan hastily.

Lilavati smiled, but her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “I do on occasion. Moreso on Earth than at home.”

“What sorts of things?” He asked.

“Oh, I prefer food with a spicy kick to it.” Said Lilavati cheerfully. “Let’s not idle about, though…” She said, turning away slightly, hintingly.

Lachlan took the hint and began to follow her. “So you eat, like, food food? Not… Nuts and bolts or something? You don’t eat uranium, do you? We don’t have any of that…”

***

Ten minutes later, they were seated in the dining room. The dining table was much like Lilavati’s desk- rich dark red wood, decorated, but it was also much longer, able to sit about thirty people, Lilavati estimated. They sat opposite each other: Lilavati had foregone delicacies as uranium or screws, instead opting for a small plate of grilled barramundi on a bed of brown rice, coated with a thin layer of yellow curry sauce; Lachlan with a medium-rare kangaroo steak and a small side of salad.

“Lord Lachlan, I have a request regarding our departure to Bedourie tomorrow.” Said Lilavati.

“Mmm?” He said.

“I’d like to borrow one of the garrison’s Iconoclasts for the journey.” She said. “I’m a likely target, and so if the pale cataphract returns, I’d prefer a more robust vehicle than a mere truck.”

“It’s considered bad business to loan mod-suits out to strangers, but you make good points.” Said Lachlan. “And if it came down to a fight, I’d rather you be useful than not. So you’ll get your suit- on one condition.”

“Name it.” Said Lilavati.

“If our sinistral friend Misra comes tomorrow, I want him to ride with you as a passenger.” Said Lachlan.

“I can accept that.” Said Lilavati, a note of surprise in her voice nonetheless. “But isn’t that putting all your eggs in one basket?”

“Yep.” Said Lachlan. “But if you think about it, if you wanted to protect someone, you’d put them in Mintji, eh? My idea is to play decoy- make the bastard think you’re with me- whilst you get the hell out with Misra. You’re more able to protect him than any other pilot we have, anyway.”

Lilavati was silent for a moment, frowning thoughtfully; then she nodded. “That seems sound. And if he doesn’t show up?”

“I’m fairly certain he will.” Said Lachlan with a dry smile. “He owes me. Besides, quadruple pension for his dear ol’ mum plus the way he went on with the ghosting system? Yeah, he’ll want in. If he doesn’t, though, then we’ll call it even and you can take the suit regardless.”

“Fair enough.” Said Lilavati.

They fell silent, both tucking into their meals. Lilavati took dainty little bites of her fish- and nodded approvingly. “The fish is excellent, Lord Lachlan.”

“You’re welcome, Madame.” Said Lachlan with an idle nod. “I like the food at Bedourie better, though, if I’m gonna be fussy about it.”

“No surprise.” Said Lilavati with a smile. “I imagine it’s quite the spectacle, isn’t it? The stronghold of the Darumbals.”

“Heh, so they say. You’ll be able to see for yourself soon enough.” Said Lachlan with a wry grin.

“Of course. But answer one thing for me- considering the preeminence of your family, there must be a fairly strong Erudite presence there?” She asked.

Lachlan swallowed a morsel of steak, nodding as he did so. “Is that gonna be a problem?”

“I won’t start anything.” Said Lilavati firmly. “In fact, it might even prove a benefit for us.”

“Oh?” He asked.

“I’m looking to find an Erudite who can assist me in analysing the crash site of my shuttle. It might provide clues as to the identity of our attacker.” Said Lilavati.

“Mmm.” Said Lachlan. “Another favour for you, Madame Lilavati?”

“This benefits me, but I don’t think it’s a favour per se- this benefits us both.” Said Lilavati lightly. She took a mouthful of fish and ate it with deliberate slowness.

“How do you figure?” Asked Lachlan eventually. His eyes had narrowed suspiciously.

“You need to find the pale cataphract.” Said Lilavati. “It’d be terrible if other Houses learned that Darumbal, the great House Darumbal, had failed to exact justice over an unprovoked and dishonourable attack on one of their holdings.”

“Is that a threat, Lunarian?” Said Lachlan quietly. “Think carefully before you blackmail a Darumbal Knight.”

Lilavati chuckled. “Now you’re starting to sound a little bit like the mayor. No, Lord Lachlan, it’s just a simple fact. The wealthiest city in the wealthiest duchy in the kingdom is attacked by an unmarked cataphract who not only ruins the garrison, but avoids capture doing it. It won’t be long before word spreads- especially not with the number of Capitals you have here.”

Lachlan fell silent; he leaned back in his chair, his arms folded.

“I’m not doing this to harm you, Lord Lachlan.” Said Lilavati gently. “House Darumbal’s current preeminence is something I want to maintain- if only because your hospitality and willing to work with me is a pleasant change from the usual.” She took another bite of fish, savoured it slowly, then continued. “We haven’t forgotten how the previous Royal Regent ruined the May Embassy. A Royal Regent more concerned with keeping a sensible head on his shoulders than removing our own is one we can deal with. We’re on the same side, Lord Lachlan- the side of the status quo.”

Lord Lachlan was silent for a minute. He picked unenthusiastically at his food for a little while before letting out a long sigh. He stood up and bowed slightly. “My apologies, Madame Lilavati. You’re right, of course. I’ll send word to my father, ask for him to make the arrangements so you can launch your investigation shortly after we arrive at Bedourie.”

“No harm done, Lord Lachlan.” Said Lilavati warmly. “And thank you. Please, return to your seat.”

Lord Lachlan slowly returned to his seat, letting out a much shorter, slightly relieved sigh as he did so. “You mentioned the ‘usual’. I take it you’ve been given some ugly business on arrival elsewhere?”

“Oh, yes.” Said Lilavati with a laugh. “Feudals have some strange ideas about Lunarians. Everywhere I go I find new and more exotic ways of fearing the terrible moon people. In fact, why don’t I tell you a story?”

“Please.” He said, his expression becoming a little lighter.

Lilavati chuckled. “A few years ago, Egypt launched an invasion of the Baghdad Sultanate- it was a colossal mess, dragged all of their neighbours into it… Completely trashed our trade in West Asia. The Republic sent me to the Ayranid Empire to try to organise a new deal…”

***

After his exhilarating, nauseating adventure with Lord Lachlan and Mintji, Isha had headed by himself back into Birdsville at his own pace- still feeling a sense of slight dizziness and imbalance as he went. It was well into the afternoon now, the heat drumming down ceaselessly on the city and its baked plain. Isha decided to go home- but first he swung by the city power hub.

The power hub was an ugly, wide building half built into the earth. It bustled with people, hundreds of menials coming and going, carrying on their backs heavy-duty power cells, the sort he plugged into the solar farms’ trucks. The building was made of rammed earth, and the interior was all bare concrete floors as well. People queued up at one of five lines, each leading to one of five clerks staffing the counter, which was little more than a slab of concrete atop which cheap flakboard had been laid. Isha joined the queue farthest to the right and waited. Forty minutes later, he reached the front counter.

“I’m here to pick up a full HD cell.” He said to the clerk, a short man with tanned skin and a crew cut of blond hair. Without waiting for a reply, he reached into his bag and took out his credit stick.

“Forty cents.” Said the clerk shortly.

Isha froze. “Forty? I brought an empty cell in here last week, full cells were twenty-five cents then!” He said, his voice rising.

“Stray round hit the depot, destroyed half our stock.” Said the clerk with a careless shrug. “Prices up to raise funds to buy new ones.”

“Why do we have to pay for it?” Said Isha angrily. “That’s their responsibility, not ours!”

“Do I look like a fucking Capital, dickhead?” Said the clerk with a snarl. “I don’t set the prices! I’ve had to explain this over and fucking over all day to arseholes like you. Maybe you should’ve bought your full cell last fucking week instead of whinging about it today!”

“Fuck off, mate.” Said Isha. His vision swam slightly, his nausea and anger mixing dangerously in his stomach. “I make twenty cents a fortnight! I only got paid on Monday!”

“You should’ve bought it then.” Said the clerk. “Either buy the fucking cell or get out.”

Isha seethed, his hand squeezing tightly around the credit stick. Then he thrust it out at the man. “There.”

The clerk took it- shooting Isha a filthy look as he did so- scanned it through a credit reader, handed it back and left. A minute later he returned with a power cell, already fitted inside a harness for ease of carrying.

“There.” Said the clerk, dropping it heavily on the counter. “Will that be all?”

“Yeah.” Said Isha shortly. He put the harness on and left as quickly as he could.

Isha walked home, his expression sour and sullen, his shoulders hunched, his pace swift with anger. He still felt his stomach churning, and his head occasionally pounded painfully, his mind’s eye flashing with sensations he couldn’t properly identify. He thought of Mintji, the way it- at his urging- tore through the ground, danced through the solar arrays. And now here he was, slinking home with an overpriced cell on his back.

He let out a short cry of frustration and rage. The building to his right had been half-demolished, and pieces of it still remained. His mind fogged red with anger, he picked up a small fist-sized rock and threw it with all the strength he could muster in a random direction.

The rock sailed through the air, struck the corner of a building and ricocheted back, landing almost exactly where it’d originally been. Isha stared at it, flushed red with shame and then stormed away.

By the time Isha arrived home, the sun was starting to set and the air had grown ever so slightly cooler. He put the power cell on the ground outside, knocked on the door and entered. “I’m home,” he said.

His mother sat at the table, computer pad in hand, as did Padma. But to Isha’s surprise, Maya and Michael were also here- Michael in the kitchen quickly and cleanly cutting up vegetables whilst Maya sat next to Padma, the two sharing a computer pad of their own.

“Isha!” Shouted Padma; she leapt to her feet, ran over and hugged him tightly around the chest.

“Hey, there he is.” Said Michael with a grin. “Where’ve you been?”

“Sorry, I had to pick up a power cell on the way home.” Said Isha, reaching up to ruffle Padma’s hair.

“Oh, good.” Said his mother, looking up from her pad. “It wasn’t too much trouble?”

“Oh, it was a nightmare.” Said Isha, scowling darkly. “They jacked up the prices by fifteen cents!”

His mother’s face fell; Michael’s eyes widened, whilst Maya’s expression twisted into one of disgust. “What a scummy thing to do!” she said angrily. “We’ve just had a battle- it’s pure profiteering…”

“No kidding.” Said his mother. She sighed and tapped something on her pad. “Budget doesn’t like that… Between buying food and Padma’s new school uniforms…”

“I can’t help growing, mum.” Said Padma firmly. “You’re just jealous that I’m gonna be so tall-”

“I’m gonna get the doorways all lowered just for that.” Said his mother lightly; Padma poked her tongue out.

“I can chip in five cents, Ms. Misra.” Said Michael, pausing midway through chopping up some spring onions. “That should take some of the edge off.”

“Yeah, I can do the same.” Said Maya quickly. “That’s only five cents between the three of us.”

“Oh, that’s very kind.” Said Ms. Misra brightly. “But what about you two? What happens when you need to buy a new one?”

“My folks bought a new one just last week.” Said Michael. “I bet the prices’ll be down by April, so we’re set until then.”

“You know how my parents are with the budget.” Said Maya wryly. “We’ve three spare full cells as it is, we’re not exactly hurting…”

Isha was quiet. He stood there, an arm around Padma’s shoulders as he watched his friends chip in. A sense of warmness spread through his chest, and slowly, some of the tension and raw frustration that had clung to his bones since Lord Lachlan had let him off began to dissolve. He swallowed to get rid of the small lump in his throat before speaking up. “Thanks, fellas.” Said Isha warmly. “But save your money for now- something’s come up I want to talk to you about. Depending on how things work out, we won’t be hurting for money ever again.”

The room fell silent; they eyed him with a mix of curiosity and concern. “That’s a pretty dramatic statement.” Said Maya. “Does it have something to do with that Lord?”

Isha looked at his mother’s expression: it was calm and expectant, and so he guessed that Maya and Michael had already told her the whole story. “Yeah, exactly. Let me just help Michael with dinner, then we can talk about it…”

“I’ll go swap over the power cell, then.” Said Maya.

“Oh, thanks.”

Padma returned to her seat; Isha headed to the kitchen, took out a large cooking pot and filled it with water- a minute later, the roof’s light strips went out, and Isha waited for them to return before he began to boil the water.

“You don’t look too good, mate.” Said Michael quietly, chopping swiftly through several carrots.

“Yeah, I had a bit of a rough time with the Lord.” Said Isha, who was peeling potatoes. “I may have thrown up. Also, I think I punched him in the face.”

“You what?” Said Michael. His jaw dropped; his cutting came to an abrupt stop.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” Said Isha, suddenly grinning at Michael’s reaction.

“You fucking tease-”

Maya returned, and a few minutes later the kitchen work had been done. Isha and Michael took their seats, Maya having left her seat next to Padma free for Isha. Once everyone was seated, Isha told them what had happened, in great detail: the inside of Mintji, Lord Lachlan’s act to save Davo’s life… In much greater detail he explained the ghosting system and how it was supposed to work, with its synchronization to the pilot’s nerves, and the way it sent information through to the optic nerve so they could see what the machine saw, and-

“Isha, honey, you’re getting off track.” Said Maya gently. “Too granular- let’s move along to the important parts, huh?”

Thus in somewhat brisker detail he covered what Lord Lachlan had told him about how strenuous it was to train to use a single cataphract, and how there existed a rare type of person known as a sinistral- someone with the inherent ability to pilot a cataphract, any cataphract.

“… And it turns out I’m one of them.” Said Isha. “A sinistral, I mean. I could pilot his cataphract- I sort of lost control doing it, but I could do it. He- he said I was being given an offer, to become a squire for House Darumbal. I’d go live in Bedourie, and become a trainee cataphract pilot, and when the time came, a full knight. Once that happens, you’d be made Lords as well,” He said, pointing at his mother and Padma. “Until then, you’d get a pension equal to four times my current wage. But the kicker is, I have to make up my mind now. He wants me there, ready to go early tomorrow- if I’m not, he’ll assume I said no.”

The atmosphere had become steadily more sombre the longer Isha talked. Now that he’d finished, no one talked at all- Padma stared down at her lap, whilst Ms. Misra sat back and eyed him pensively. Michael folded his arms and frowned at the table.

Maya was the first to speak up. “He’s trying to pressure you into accepting,” she said. “Give you less time to think about it, push you into making a hasty decision, hoping you’ll accept.”

“Yeah.” Said Isha. “They really want me to say yes, I think. I don’t know why- even if sinistrals are rare, House Darumbal isn’t exactly hurting for knights as it is. They don’t really need me that much, do they?”

“I suppose not, but you’d be handy to have around, mate.” Said Michael. “I mean, it couldn’t hurt, having a fella who can pilot any cataphract going…”

“Mmm.” Said Isha with a frown. “Now that I think about it, I never asked why they wanted me beyond just adding another knight to the roster. Anyway.” He shook his head. “I wanted to hear what you all thought about it. I mean, it’s a good deal- it’d basically mean twenty-one dollars a year for you, mum.”

“But you’d have to go away for awhile.” Said Padma quietly.

“Yeah, I would.” Said Isha gently. “But I’m not gonna be gone forever-”

“Dad said the same thing.” Said Padma; she stared at him, her gaze uncompromisingly firm. Isha looked back at her, opened his mouth to speak, then suddenly closed it; he averted his gaze.

“I-I know. It’s dangerous.” Said Isha, slowly wringing his hands. “But it’s not the same. Cataphracts are way safer than a normal mod suit, sis…” But he could still feel the heat of her eyes on him, and his excuses and reasons faded pitifully away.

“Hey.” Said Michael, his tone encouraging. “He’s right, Padma. No one’s more protected than a cataphract knight. And think about it- if it all works out and he becomes a full knight, you’ll be a little Lord too. You wouldn’t have to worry about school uniforms anymore, and you could go enter a university and become an Erudite if you wanted to, no problem. Doesn’t that sound good?” He said lightly.

“Yeah, but-” Padma’s tone was pained. “It’s still dangerous. Maya, isn’t it-?”

“It is.” Said Maya. “But Isha was already hoping to become a mod suit pilot during Vocation Week. This way he’s essentially getting what he wants, but he’ll be safer, stronger and richer for it. Isn’t that better? Or were you hoping he’d screw up during V-Week?”

“I’m allowed to be worried about him.” Said Padma hotly. “You’re really okay with this?”

“Honey, I’m going into suitjockeying pretty much to get a shot at becoming anything but a menial.” Said Maya, her tone calm but firm. “Isha’s getting a chance to get what I want pretty much for being born- of course I’m okay with it. In fact, I’d kick his stupid arse if he refused,” She said, turning to Isha and giving him a wink.

“Thanks, Maya.” He said dryly. “I love you too.” He turned toward his mother, who’d spent the exchange silent, watching them all with a shrewd expression on her face. “You’ve been pretty quiet, mum. What do you think?”

His mother didn’t reply immediately. Instead she rubbed her hands together slowly, looked around the table, then eventually smiled. “Here’s a simple fact: doesn’t matter what I say, yes or no. I think you made up your mind to go long before you came home. You didn’t really want our advice, you just wanted to know what people thought, what- worries they might have. Right?”

Isha flushed. “I- well, I mean, those thoughts are still important to me…”

“If I told you ‘no’, that I forbade you to leave, what would you do?” Said his mother.

Isha didn’t reply. He looked down at his hands- and smiled a little to himself. “Alright, you win. But you have to tell me what you’re worried about too. Fair’s fair.”

“I’m like Padma- I’m worried about you.” Said his mother; she reached out and tucked Padma close to her. “But I know we can’t change your mind with our worry- can we, Padma?”

“I guess not.” Muttered Padma ruefully.

“Mmmhm. So instead of wasting energy on that, we should just do our best to support your big brother. Does that sound right?” Said his mother gently.

“… Yeah.” Said Padma quietly. “But,” she said, fire leaping back into her voice, “you’d better call and write as often as you can. At least once a week. Got it?”

Isha stared at her. Padma’s words- her apparent acceptance- seemed to set something off in Isha. It clicked for him, that this was all happening, and by this time tomorrow he’d be away from here, starting his first day of a life he could scarcely comprehend. It felt like the bottom of his stomach had fallen out, and the world had felt slightly askew- in fact he felt slightly light-headed. Nonetheless, he laughed- a little shakily- and nodded. “I promise. Once a week. And I’ll try to be back during Vocation Week- I wanna see you guys do well.” Said Isha, turning towards Maya and Michael.

Isha could see something dawning in Maya’s expression, her eyes widening slightly- and he realised that she, too, had just felt the reality hit her. But she too laughed and gave him a wide smile. “Ooh, I dunno about that. I might get all jittery if I see a Lord watching me…”

“Oh, fuck off.” Said Isha, laughing.

“Isha.” Said his mother sternly. But then she too smiled. “I wish I could put together a special meal for you, love. But we really don’t have anything but the bare minimum-”

“Yeah, I know.” Said Isha, nodding quickly. “Look, don’t worry about that. When I’m a knight, I’ll come back and we can do it then. Promise?”

His mother eyed him for a moment, and there was something distant in that look. Isha thought perhaps he’d said the wrong thing, but eventually her smile returned and and she nodded. “Promise.”

***

It was, to Lilavati’s lack of surprise- but not of dismay- a bright and sunny day in Birdsville. Much like the two days before, there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, just an endless blue stretching in all directions in a way that felt almost oppressive in its stillness.

Lilavati stood in the front courtyard. The courtyard of the manor was an open space, quite wide, with the house seemingly built around it- in fact, the manor didn’t so much have a central hall as it did this courtyard. The courtyard was open-air, except for around the edges, where the roof of the building extended about two metres away from the walls, held up by graceful sandstone pillars. Each pillar curved gradually outward as it reached the roof. It created an appealing pattern, as though the courtyard were ringed with archways instead of simple pillars. At the very centre of the courtyard was a round tiled fountain filled with clear water, which rose upwards in a jet at the very middle. The fountain was colourful, decorated with mosaic tiles of dark blue, gold and white, forming a flower-like pattern made up entirely of artfully-arranged geometric shapes.

About twenty metres beyond the courtyard were the outer walls, four metres high with the only passage through being an ornate wrought-iron gate, which was flanked by two armed soldiers.

Lilavati stood in the shade of the arches. She wore a full activity suit once again, although this one was in the dark blue colours of House Darumbal; the helmet she tucked under her left arm. She waited, turning her gaze idly between the pleasant burbles of the fountain and the gate. Eventually, a small band of people approached the front gate, looking quite tiny compared to its looming, ornate frame. She focused on them- and recognised the young man in front: Isha Misra, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

He hesitantly approached the gate and spoke with the guards. One nodded at him and opened the gate halfway. But instead of passing through, Isha turned toward his companions. There was a young girl who gave him a tight hug; a young man who grasped Isha’s shoulder firmly, a young woman who ruffled his hair, and an older woman who simply stood back and watched. They said their goodbyes, but didn’t actually leave until he took the steps through the gate. The guard closed it. Isha turned, stared at them- and waved. They moved away, slowly, stopping repeatedly to wave back- but before long they were gone.

Isha looked around, looking a little lost. He asked the guards something; one merely shrugged, the other pointed to the fountain. Isha walked toward the fountain then, looking nervously and quickly around. On reaching the fountain, however, he stopped and looked down at it, his mouth opening slightly- he ran his hand along the surface of the water.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Said Lilavati, walking out from the shade. Isha startled and whipped his hand back away from the water.

“I wasn’t- I mean-” Isha blurted quickly, throwing his hands up in front of himself protectively. Then he paused, seeing Lilavati for the first time. “Oh, wait… You’re the one who hijacked Davo’s suit!”

“Hijacking is rather strong, but yes.” Said Lilavati warmly. “And you’re Isha Misra, the young man who helped me do it.”

Isha winced. “I- well, it was an emergency-”

Lilavati laughed. “Relax, Mr. Misra. You’re not in trouble.” She walked over to him. “Let me introduce myself properly, though- I’m Lilavati Surova.”

She held out her hand, and Isha, after a moment’s hesitation, shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Surova.”

“And you.” Said Lilavati warmly. “But please, just ‘Lilavati’ will do.”

Isha nodded seriously. “Alright.”

“All ready for your first trip, I see.” Asked Lilavati, walking back toward the shade, turning invitingly so Isha might follow. “Is this your first time out of Birdsville?”

“Y-Yeah, it is.” Said Isha, following. “But if you don’t mind my saying, you don’t seem like a local.”

“No, I’m not.” Said Lilavati. “I arrived here just before I met you.”

“That sounds like a hell of a welcome, running right into a modsuit battle.” Said Isha.

“You’re not wrong.” Said Lilavati. “I’d have preferred a smoother welcome to the duchy, but you work with what you have, sadly.”

“Yeah.” Said Isha. “Are you a Capital or something? Like a trader?”

Lilavati chuckled. “You’re not far off the mark, really. I’m a diplomat, here to work out a trade deal with Duke Darumbal.” Her smile faded. “But those- murderers- attacked me on my way, and I had to make my way here on foot to ask for help. Now Lord Lachlan’s taking me the rest of the way to Bedourie.”

“Oh. So we’re traveling together?” Asked Isha curiously.

“That’s right. In fact, Lord Lachlan has asked that you ride with me- I’m going in a modular suit, you see.” Said Lilavati.

Isha’s eyes widened. “With you? What, in an Iconoclast? Is there gonna be enough room?”

“We’ll make it fit somehow.” Said Lilavati lightly.

“I’ll take your word for it.” Muttered Isha. “So… What happens now?”

“Come with me.” Said Lilavati, turning toward the nearest door. Isha followed her through. Lilavati led him through the manor, watching with amusement as he gawked at his surroundings- at the fine wooden interior walls, the tapestries hanging off balustrades and the care and craftsmanship that went into even the simplest piece of furniture.

“They really are rich.” Said Isha quietly. “Bloody hell.”

“Yeah. Between you and me it’s a little too much for my tastes, but it’s definitely pretty.” Said Lilavati. “I’ve been assured that the best is yet to come, though.”

“Bedourie Castle.” Said Isha. “My dad used to tell me stories about it. Said that it was like a garden in the middle of the desert.”

“That sounds a lot more like my style.” Said Lilavati with a smile. Before long, however, the decorated halls gave way to the austere practical walls of the hangar-vaults, with their signs and markings replacing tapestries and paintings. They entered on the top level overlooking the hangar, which was a-bustle with teams preparing Mintji-Kurri-Kurri as well as two Iconoclasts: forklifts and cargo buses carrying huge slabs of ammo scurried to and fro; conveyor belts carried suit-scale weapons, which were picked up by hangar bay cranes and stowed away in weapon sheaths attached to the Iconoclasts’ back; and crews clustered around them, doing last-minute maintenance work, although they didn’t have time to restore the paint jobs, which remained scuffed, tarred and burned.

Isha’s eyes widened; he ran past Lilavati over to the gantry, where he leaned over the rail. “Haha, wow!” He said, his whole face lighting up. “A modsuit hangar! A real, full hangar…” He quickly waved Lilavati over and pointed down at the largest of the bay cranes, which was currently attaching a whole new arm to one of the Iconoclasts. “Look! That’s a Powell crane! Heavy duty, made entirely for modifying modsuits- can lift 15 tons, and only needs one cell per forty activity hours… It’s just snapping the arm right on!”

“They’re impressive, yes.” Said Lilavati, laughing lightly as she joined Isha on the railing. “And from what I’ve heard, Bedourie makes this look tiny.”

“Yeah, they have twelve hangars, each one twice as large, capable of holding all of their cataphracts plus another hundred and thirty suits-”

“No kidding? You know all that?” Said Lilavati, her tone light with pleasant surprise. Isha froze, coughed and looked away.

“W-Well, y’know, so I’ve heard.” Said Isha awkwardly.

“Of course.” Said Lilavati with a grin. “Come on, let’s go say hello to Lord Lachlan before we board our tin man.”

They found Lachlan standing on a gantry in front of Mintji’s open cockpit, wearing his own activity suit. “Good morning, Madame Lilavati, Misra.” Said Lachlan, giving them a lazy wave as they approached. “All good for a nice desert walk?”

“Yes, my Lord.” Said Isha- then he frowned. “Almost, my Lord. I still need an activity suit,” he said nervously.

“So you do.” Said Lachlan- he nudged a small suitcase at his feet. “The changing rooms are over there. Go in, get changed- once you’re ready, we’ll go.”

“Yes, my Lord!” Said Isha exuberantly. He snatched up the bag and ran for the changing rooms. Lachlan watched him go, a dry smile on his face.

“He’s excitable today.” Said Lachlan. “I think you’re better at putting him at ease than I am.”

“I think so too.” Said Lilavati. “It’ll be fun, traveling with him- he’s a curious young man.”

“Oh?” Said Lachlan. “You mean besides the crazy cataphract sinistral business?”

“Yes. You’ll see for yourself in time, I think.” Said Lilavati with a smile.

Lachlan arched his eyebrows. “Cryptic. You enjoy being mysterious, don’t you?”

“A little, but more honestly it’s not my place to say.” Said Lilavati with a chuckle.

Soon after Isha returned, clad in his activity suit- he’d even put the helmet on. “How do I look?” He asked brightly.

“Like a real modsuit pilot.” Said Lilavati; Isha beamed.

“That was… Fast, mate. You didn’t have any problems putting it on?” Said Lachlan in surprise.

“No, my Lord.” Said Isha.

“Hm. Well, good for you.” Said Lachlan. “Let’s mount up and get going, eh?” With that he turned toward Mintji, leapt inside and sealed the cockpit.

“Let’s go.” Said Lilavati, guiding Isha toward their own Iconoclast. It was, as Lilavati had suspected, a rather cramped fit for poor Isha, who awkwardly shimmied himself behind the pilot’s chair. He sat with his back to it, his legs folded high against his chest, his entire body wedged between the wall of the cockpit and the seat. Lilavati felt a twinge of guilt as she settled into her own seat, spacious by comparison.

“I’m sorry about this, Isha.” Said Lilavati gently. “I don’t think the Lord thought this through.”

“It’s okay.” Said Isha, his tone cheerful. “It’s only what, four hours to Bedourie? I’ll handle it.”

“I like your attitude, but I still feel bad about it.” Said Lilavati. “If it weren’t for this ring,” she patted the control ring around her, I’d let you sit in my lap; at least that way you could stretch your legs.”

“Uh, well…” Mumbled Isha.

“This is Lachlan.” Said Lachlan over the comms. “Reactor output: optimal. Sensors operating in all regular spectra and wavelengths. All weapons loaded and locked. Ghosting system has reached full synchronisation.”

There was a dull hum as the cranes and gantries surrounding Mintji’s bay receded or pulled away. The cataphract turned and loped onto one of those huge cargo elevators. “Lilavati in Pin-1, Archibald in Pin-2. Use Elevator Ex-1. You read?”

“I read, Lord.” Said Lilavati. The gantries surrounding her suit pulled away as well, and Lilavati followed Lachlan onto the cargo elevators.

The other Iconoclast was not far behind. “I read, my Lord!” Said Archibald.

“Very good.” Said Lord Lachlan. “Take us up!”

The cargo elevator doors shut; the platform slowly rumbled upwards, lit dimly by yellow lights running along the floor and on the roof. The roof itself parted slowly soon after, letting the glare of sunlight flood in. After a minute’s rise the elevator came to a full stop, the platform now sitting snugly in the space the roof had been. Lilavati looked around; the elevator had taken them to a space just outside the city’s northern gate. The plains around them were inundated with solar arrays, parted down the middle for a wide, paved road.

“The Redback Spider cataphract, Mintji-Kurri-Kurri, deploying.” Said Lord Lachlan lightly. He stepped off the platform and started down the road. “It’s four hours to Bedourie and we’ve only got basic activity suits. I hope you all did your bathroom business first!”

Lilavati tutted slightly, piloted Pin-1 onto the road behind Mintji, and began the first steps of the trek to Bedourie.

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