She and Quan are dressing each other by the waterfall, their movements much more leisurely than their hasty disrobing had been. She’s got her hands on his shoulders as she steps into the shorts he’s holding ready for her. She lets her hands drift down a bit; she loves the smooth muscles of his back, tapering down to that trim waist. He pulls away to put his shirt on, but then steps back to her. She finds her sandals with her feet, unwilling to let go of his hands.
Nikhil finds them like that moments later. He rolls his eyes. “Are you guys flirting again?”
Flirting. It’s a pretty word, but much too insubstantial for what’s been going on. We’ve been loving, she wants to say, but she notices the look on her brother’s face. “What?” she asks.
“Weren’t you supposed to be doing the mending with Mam?”
“Tzao gao.” She’d forgotten all about that when Quan had showed up with the sun behind him, tapping on her bedroom window. But Mam won’t mind; she hates the mending too, the endless parade of bedlinens, and the beauty of the day probably beckoned her outside anyway. “I’m sure we’ll take care of it tonight,” she tells Nikhil, his face tight with anxiety for her.
“You’re gonna get it this time,” he warns. “Da’s going to be mad.”
“Trust me. Just follow my lead,” she responds.
A familiar look, admiration mixed with resignation, is on his face. “Don’t I always?” he asks. She gives him the last smile of her girlhood.
He turns to lead the way home, the fish he’s caught waving like a banner from his hand. She and Quan follow hand in hand. Halfway home, she sees a gray uniform out of the corner of her eye. And then another. And another. The closer they get to their home, the more there are. And while the Alliance is a presence on this world, it’s usually only a few silent, unobtrusive guards scattered across the landscape. Quan squeezes her hand and drops it, and takes the path that leads to his house, anxious for his parents, even more so for his sister who’s out of his reach. Nikhil turns to exchange a serious look with her, knowing there’s nothing to do but keep heading home. They push open the front door with an unaccustomed feeling of dread and see their father sitting opposite a row of Alliance officers.
She looks at her father’s face and his eyes are completely blank. She swivels to face the uniformed men again and notices that one of them is holding something. “What is that?” she asks, her throat knotted. He says nothing but pulls the white cloth away too quickly for her to cover her eyes. It’s the painting her mother has been working on. There is a long, angry streak running across it, and it takes her a minute to realize that it is her mother’s blood. She sways a little on her feet, catching herself before any of these men can; she doesn’t want them anywhere near her. This is what was happening while she was out with Quan, leaving her mother alone outside.
“Sergio Rahersi,” the man in the middle of the cluster says formally, “you are bound by law to stand down. I arrest you in the name of the Alliance for the murder of one Annah Rahersi.” And now she can’t speak at all. They are taking her father away. It all happens too quickly to comprehend. She and Nikhil protest his innocence, but he is uninterested in defending himself. He is lost without his wife. The Alliance’s speedy prosecution is made easier by his silence. Veena is a valuable playing-ground for the wealthy; they would not come if they suspected danger, a murderer lurking as they frolic, but a simple domestic crime among the staff is not their concern.
She leaves Nikhil at home when she walks to the main square for their father's execution by firing squad. She stands tall and looks at him straight on, but his eyes pass through her. She turns and leaves, the buzz of gossip ringing in her ears. All she sees as she walks away are the grey uniforms of the Alliance men as they stand in orderly rows.
She cannot distinguish the shots fired that day from the shots she hears now, worlds away, on the battlefield on Acheron. She crouches back down in the trench and eyes Nikhil. He has not spoken in the months since their father’s death; whenever he’s near a flat surface, his hand traces the design of their mother’s last painting over it. She cannot think of how to bring him back. But that has to wait until she’s delivered the mortal blow to the Alliance. She springs out of the trench, firing at the soldiers on the other side, feeling a sharp glee for each one who falls. She looks back at her brother and beckons him forward. He responds, obedient as a pet, eyes only on her. She sees the arc of the grenade as it lands in front of him, and then he’s gone. She’s sobbing as she sinks to her knees, heedless of the Alliance’s retreat, of the Independents’ forces gathering to regroup.
She’s stroking his outflung arm, tears running down her face, unaware of anything but the texture of his rapidly cooling skin under her fingers. She stays like that until a firm hand on her shoulder pulls her back. She is enraged and her hand reaches instantly for a knife. The point is pressed to the man’s throat, but he doesn’t back away. “Let me help you bury him,” he says, and all she can do is nod.
“tzao gao” “crap”
Continue: Part 8/21