Chapter 1: The Aeriel Hunter
They sat on the veranda, as they usually did every evening after Baba came home from work. Ruban was curled up on his father’s lap as the latter rocked slowly on the creaky easy chair that had been there ever since the boy could remember. The vast countryside spread out before them like an unending vista of gold. The crops, carefully arranged across numerous fields, swayed gently in the breeze. Spring was well on its way to Surai.
“How was the picnic, my love?” his father asked, voice hushed in deference to the tranquillity of the evening. His fingers carded through Ruban’s short brown curls.
“Good,” Ruban mumbled, burying his face in Abhas’s shirt.
His father lifted Ruban high enough to be level with him. “What’s the matter, my child? Didn’t you enjoy yourself? Did someone say something to you?”
Ruban shook his head, trying to bury his face once again into his father’s rumpled shirt. He was prevented from doing so, however, by Abhas’s gentle but insistent hand on his chin, holding his face up and forcing him to look into the older man’s eyes. “Come now, child. You know you can tell me, whatever it was. Out with it.”
“Mi-Miki’s mommy baked us a cake for the picnic,” Ruban said finally, putting up a valiant struggle against the tears that threatened to spill out and make a mess of his father’s shirt.
Abhas sighed, allowing the miserable boy to wrap himself further around his torso and hide his tear-streaked face in his shirt. “And didn’t you like it?”
A muffled sob. “Did too.”
“W-where’s my Mommy, Baba?” the words tore themselves past Ruban’s trembling lips.
Abhas continued to run his fingers through his son’s messy locks, gazing contemplatively up at the starry sky. “I don’t know, love,” he said, gently rocking Ruban on his lap as he spoke. “They used to say, a long time ago, that those who left the earth went to the sky. Became stars.” Ruban spun around, extricating his tiny wet face from his father’s shirt to gaze eagerly out at the star-studded sky. “Who knows? Maybe they were right. Maybe that’s where she is now, watching over us from the skies.”
“You think?” Ruban asked, wide eyes now bright with excitement rather than grief. “I’ll tell Miki that’s where she is, then! You think she can see us?”
“Of course,” said Abhas, lifting the boy off his lap as they prepared to enter the house for the night. “And she can see you’re awake past your bedtime. Come on in now, Ruban. It’s getting late...”
A violent crack of thunder shattered the peace of the quiet evening, obscuring all the stars with its harsh light. Terrified, Ruban grabbed at the hems of his father’s shirt, but it was too late. Fire engulfed the house around them and even as he watched, Abhas faded away before his eyes, turning to ashes despite his efforts to hold on to his father’s arms.
“Baba!” he cried, but the word stuck in his throat, refusing to be spoken. Miki screamed in the distance, her voice laced with pain and horror. Ruban tried to reach her but she was surrounded by fire – screaming, calling out to him for help he couldn’t provide. Then she too was gone, and he stood on a pile of smouldering black ash, tiny sparks burning the soles of his feet as a loud screeching noise permeated his senses...
Ruban Kinoh jerked awake, hand flying out with practiced precision to hammer at his obnoxious, yellow alarm clock. It had been a present from Simani, and he still wasn’t sure it hadn’t been a gag gift. Every morning he thought of tossing it out the window; he had a perfectly good cell phone with perfectly functional alarms. And yet, every night he found himself flicking the familiar switch at the back of the plastic chicken to set the buzzer, too tired to fumble with the intricacies of the smartphone alarm app. It was a vicious circle he needed to break, he decided.
He groaned as his sleep-addled brain caught up with the rest of his senses, after-images of crimson flames fading from the back of his eyelids. His sheets were drenched, the palms of his hands reddened with the crescent marks of sharp nails etched deep into the calloused skin. It had been a bad night.
He sighed. He could guess what had triggered the nightmare. His ears were already ringing from the cacophony of firecrackers going off just outside his window, roaring like multiple thunder-storms gathering at the same spot, all at once. The prismatic shadows of multicoloured lights lit up the wall opposite the room’s only window.
Gritting his teeth in annoyance, he pushed himself off the narrow bed. This wasn’t a day he was looking forward to. It was like this every year, cacophonous firecrackers accompanied by even more cacophonous hawkers and vendors crowding the streets, clogging traffic; topped by the inane, self-aggrandizing speeches of the pompous politicos they’d be forced to listen to for the better part of the morning. Emancipation Day seemed to bring with it everything but what its name proclaimed – emancipation of any sort. It was an affair at once rowdy and dreary, from Ruban’s point of view anyway, and he couldn’t wait to get it over with and get back to his real job. In his profession, he could not help but feel a perpetual sense of being under siege. It was why he was so good at his job. Emancipation, to him, was the stuff of history books and political speeches, not the reality in which he lived and breathed every day.
Blearily, he stumbled into the washroom, feeling around blindly for his toothbrush and razor. Simani would laugh herself silly if she could see him right now. Perhaps she was right after all; maybe he really was clumsy when not driving a sifblade into some damned Aeriel’s heart.
He grimaced at the sound of raindrops hitting his windowpanes. Great! That’s exactly what was needed right now – traffic-choked streets overflowing with mud and rainwater. No doubt the drains would be clogged for days from all the littering of sweet wrappers and whatnot. A flooded capital was exactly what the country needed to commemorate its independence from tyrannical Aeriel rule.
Personally, he did not see why Emancipation Day had to happen in the middle of the monsoon. Intellectually, of course, he understood that the first victory of a human platoon against an Aeriel stronghold probably had to have taken place during the cloudy days of the monsoons, when the fog obscured the sun – the chief source of the Aeriels’ energy – for the better part of the day. It did make for some mighty difficult celebrating, though.
He had barely finished towelling his hair dry after a mildly rejuvenating cold shower when his phone came alive, blaring out the screechy tunes of some teen idol’s latest hit. Ruban made a mental note to lock his cell in a safe or something the next time Hiya visited the flat. The girl was fast turning out to be a nuisance around electronics.
“Hello?” he said, balancing the device between his ear and shoulder as he used his hands to adjust the cuffs of his hastily ironed ceremonial tunic. “Who is this?” He wondered who could be calling him this early in the morning. Simani wouldn’t be up for another hour at least, he was sure of that.
“Hello Sir,” began a polite, official-sounding female voice on the other end of the line. “Am I speaking to Mr. Ruban Kinoh, Chief Hunter, South Ragah Division?”
“Yes,” said Ruban, more mystified than ever. He could only think of one place that would address him by that title, and he couldn’t imagine why they would be calling him today of all days. Wouldn’t they have bigger, international fish to fry on a day like this?
“Hello, Mr. Kinoh. I’m sorry to disturb you sir, but I’m afraid you’ll have to report to headquarters as soon as possible,” the voice said, appropriately polite, although firm. Ruban wondered for a second if they made IAW receptionists in a factory.
“Umm, sure. May I know what this is about?” He had to ask, on principle. Not that he was in the least opposed to skipping the morning ceremonies at the office, if such a thing were at all possible.
“The Senior Secretary of Defence wants to see you sir. I’m afraid I’m not authorised to divulge any further details at the moment.”
“The Senior...oh alright!” said Ruban, finally connecting the title to the man. He really did need to brush up on his politics one of these days. If it weren’t for Uncle Subhas, and the fact that he happened to be really rather good at his job, Ruban was pretty sure he would have gotten into trouble for his lack of interest in official protocol a long time ago. “Tell him I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Of course sir.”
With a sigh of gratitude at his uncle’s thoughtfulness, he hurriedly stripped off the heavily embroidered tunic in favour of his regular cotton uniform and light black overcoat, tucking his sifblade into the hidden compartment inside the coat before rushing out of the flat. He would have to hurry to be on time in this atrocious traffic.
The headquarters of the Intelligence and Analysis Wing, Vandram’s largest Intelligence organisation and the body officially in charge of the country’s Hunter Corps, loomed imposingly large before him as Ruban parked his tiny black sedan next to the gigantic limousine of some visiting foreign dignitary. IAW usually hosted high-ranking diplomats and foreign politicians this time of the year, something about building international cooperation to more effectively combat the threat of Aeriel terrorism. That was the official line anyway. In reality, Emancipation Day was party-time for the higher-ups just as much as it was for the commoners, and the only cooperation actually being built this weekend would be between the party-goers and their champagne flutes.
Still, Ruban had always felt an inherent sense of reverence for this building; ever since the day he had first laid eyes on it over eight years ago. Besides, even a morning spent talking politics with his uncle was a definite improvement over sitting for hours in uncomfortable clothing listening to the droning, rehearsed speeches of a bunch of clueless demagogues.
Flashing his badge at the heavily armed guards at the gates and earning a quick salute for his trouble, Ruban made his way through the lush green grounds that served as the front-yard of the IAW. It was rumoured that this was where Queen Tauheen had carried out most of her executions during the early days of the Revolt – her favourite garden. But then, lots of things were rumoured about the building that had served as the last stronghold of the Aeriels before they were finally driven out of the mortal realm and into Vaan almost six hundred years ago. And Ruban wasn’t quite sure how much of it was true and how much was myth anymore.
The irony of the primary residence of the erstwhile Aeriel monarchy being turned into the headquarters of an organisation founded with the main purpose of eradicating Aeriel presence on earth was not lost on him, however. Perhaps the Founding Fathers had been aiming for a symbolic statement when they had chosen to convert the nearly-destroyed palace into the IAW headquarters after all.
The grounds were decorated – rather tastefully, Ruban had to admit – with colourful festoons, banners and artful tapestries, technicolour string-lights already twinkling across the length and breadth of the lawn despite the early hour. Exquisitely dressed dignitaries milled about the grounds, occasionally trying the treats on offer in the stalls being set up for the evening’s celebrations. The press was already there, setting up their cameras and equipment, trying to get interviews and sound-bites from any foreign official who happened to stray from the protective shelter of the main building.
As he passed one particular cluster of some of the better known media personalities, some of whom even he could recognize, Ruban was stopped in his tracks by what appeared to be a minor ruckus breaking out in the middle of the gathering. He thought he spied Casia Washi of World News Now somewhere in the crowd. She had interviewed him after the Hunt that had killed two of the Parliament attackers last year, and despite his knee-jerk dislike of most reporters, she had actually been quite tolerable, interesting even. She had asked some intelligent, surprisingly pertinent questions about the political ramifications of the Justifiable Homicide Bill. That bill was what had triggered the Parliament attack – a forty-eight hour siege of the Parliament building by a group of Aeriels – that had resulted in the deaths of two MPs, the main proponents of the bill, as well as the death and dismemberment of several security officials and other staff on duty at the time.
The Hunter Corps would be the ones most directly affected by the bill, and personally, Ruban was all for it. Aeriels were a threat to the human race itself and needed to be eliminated by any means possible, as far as he was concerned. But he understood that there were concerns about possible terrorist retaliations against civilian targets if executions without trial of dangerous Aeriel suspects were legalised, and he was perfectly willing to address those concerns. As long as he wasn’t being inundated by sensational phone calls from teary viewers calling into the studio to talk about their personal opinions on a subject, the intricacies of which they could not begin to understand. And on one memorable occasion even to propose marriage to him. Casia had entertained none of that nonsense, asking straight-forward, meaningful questions and encouraging informative answers without ever giving the slightest impression of undue nosiness; and Ruban had appreciated her professional competence, if nothing else.
“Oh but we’ll break it tonight!” Casia’s voice drifted out to him, high-pitched with glee and what he suspected to be some hard partying the night before. The only thing that beat Emancipation Day celebrations in uptown Ragah was the Emancipation Eve celebrations that started the night before in the downtown clubs. And the media weren’t exactly known for their ascetic restraint in matters celebratory. “We have the exclusive on this one. It’ll put us at the top of every chart in the country. You’ll see.”
“But that’s so not fair Cas!” a male voice piped up from somewhere amidst the melee. “You’re taking undue advantage of an unsuspecting foreigner. I’m sure he wants to talk to the rest of us too. Of course you found him, so you can have the first go but–”
“Back off Raj. He’s mine!” Casia barked, advancing on the former with a predatory glint that reminded Ruban of her expression when asking him a particularly piercing question. He smiled. The woman sure knew what she was doing, and Ruban appreciated competence, even in his professional adversaries.
“There there, ladies...and gentlemen,” the foreigner in question intervened, his voice somehow bringing to Ruban’s mind the incredibly clichéd impression of bells tingling. “You’ll all get your turns, don’t worry. Miss Casia is just being protective of her source, I’m sure. Which is very kind of you, Miss Casia,” he continued, turning to the fiery reporter. All of her anger seemed to melt away at the sound of the youngster’s voice, and she smiled at him with what Ruban could only call the fondness of a mother duck for her favourite duckling. “I really do appreciate all your help.”
The foreigner, probably Zainian, if his pale skin and long, dark hair braided to one side were anything to go by, could not have been a day older than twenty, twenty-one at the most. Not that much younger than Ruban, or Casia herself, for that matter, but he could sort of see what had inspired the latter’s fierce protectiveness. The boy (and Ruban couldn’t really bring himself to think of the petite, wide-eyed stranger as a man) couldn’t have been more than five-six, if that. He looked like he had just walked out of a school-bus, dropped into the real world for the first time and simultaneously bewildered and amazed by it. He gazed wide-eyed at everything around him, drinking in the sights and sounds of the area as if he had never seen anything like it before. He smiled like he was genuinely ecstatic to simply exist, surrounded though he was by a bunch of raucous reporters fighting over his person for some unknown reason. Overall, he gave the impression of someone who would be robbed blind by a five-year-old if left alone for even a moment.
Probably some form of Zainian nobility, Ruban assumed, drawn to the unusual scene before him, though he didn’t really understand what was going on. The purple ribbon woven into the stranger’s braid certainly spoke for some form of aristocratic heritage. Ruban didn’t know all that much about foreign customs, but even he had watched the highlights of the seven-day spectacle that had been the new Zainian King’s coronation last summer. It had been all over the news; you couldn’t have escaped it if you wanted to. Obsolete as they were, Kings and Queens, or at least the idea of them, seemed to hold an almost visceral appeal for the masses. And Zaini being the only nation on earth that still retained anything resembling a monarchy, albeit one purely ceremonial in nature, every time a Zainian royal so much as pooped funny, it made it to the international news section of almost every paper and TV channel. Ruban groaned internally. He supposed this was another spoilt, minor nobleman with some inane scoop about the eye-colour of the next royal baby, or some nonsense like that.
“Come, let me show you around the grounds some more,” cooed one of the younger reporters, leaning into the foreigner’s personal space, ostensibly to make herself heard in the midst of all the commotion. Ruban would bet half his salary, though, that she was at least halfway in love with the exotic aristocrat already. “It really is quite an amazing place; the pride of our city!”
“Oh yes,” replied the foreigner, eyes bright with what Ruban thought (with some surprise) was genuine interest. “It is a fantastic place!” He looked up abruptly, dark, foreign eyes roaming the grounds before settling suddenly on the exact spot where Ruban stood. Taken aback, the Hunter gazed back at the young man questioningly, only to realise a little too late that the latter wasn’t looking at him at all. Rather, that exotic gaze went right through him, as if looking upon a scene entirely different from the one they currently inhabited. “There used to be a statue there,” he murmured in that strange, melodious voice, eyes flashing preternaturally silver for a moment. Ruban’s own eyes snapped up, confused, Hunter instincts flaring uncomfortably at the sight. A trick of the light, he supposed, trying to get his racing heart back under control. “I used to climb onto it whenever I was bored. Really had the most marvellous view!” he explained with a grin, at the girl’s bewildered stare. “I wonder what happened to it...”
“Ruban!” A voice called, and Ruban was yanked out of his ruminations by the sight of his partner, Simani Vaz, waving at him frantically from across the lawn. Her husband Vikram was with her, carrying a pile of what appeared to be ancient scrolls and voluminous texts from some long-forgotten gothic era. Ruban suppressed a sigh. He loved the man like a brother, but Vikram’s obsession with archaeology and historical artefacts could try the sweetest of tempers. And nobody had ever accused Ruban of having a sweet temper.
He jogged over to the pair, offering Simani an apologetic smile as he closed the distance between them. “Sorry guys. I just...got caught up with something.” He spared a glance at the gathering of reporters who appeared to still be squabbling over who got first dibs on the foreigner and his juicy scoop.
“Yes, we noticed,” Vikram said, a mischievous smirk lighting up his scholarly face. Over the past year, Ruban’s nerd of a friend had somehow gotten it into his head that he and Casia would make a good match, and it seemed he wasn’t planning to let go of his newfound matchmaking hobby anytime soon. Well, two could play at that game.
“Wonder what your students are gonna say when they see that expression on your face, professor,” Ruban shot back with a snigger. Before Vikram could begin to react, he whipped his phone out to click a snapshot of the smirking man. Hunter training did have its advantages, after all. “I swear, you look like a cat that’s just ingested a whole tub of cream. There’s nothing going on between Casia and me, Vik. Stop building castles in the air.”
“Hey! Give that back to me!” Vikram lunged at Ruban, who ducked smoothly out of the way, extending a foot to trip his adversary, only for it to be stomped on rather aggressively by an infuriated Simani.
“That’s m’ wife! Atta girl!” Vikram gave her an encouraging thump on the back, only to be pinned with a glare potent enough to curdle milk.
“What in the world is wrong with the two of you? We’re inside the headquarters of the IAW. For the love of God, behave yourselves!” She spun around and marched into the building, leaving the two men to rush in after her.
“Hey! Hey! Come on, Sim. We were just kidding around, you know that!” Vikram jogged after his wife as she strode up the stairs to the third floor, which housed most of the offices of the Department of Defence. Simani foreswore elevators with the passion of a saint against sin.
“What’re you two doing here this early anyway?” Ruban asked, catching up with the pair easily after registering their arrival at the front desk. “The official ceremonies won’t start until late afternoon.”
“What do you mean?” asked his partner, confused. “I received a call saying the Senior Secretary wanted to see us. Didn’t you? I assumed that’s why you’re here.”
“Well yes,” agreed Ruban, slightly embarrassed. “I just...didn’t realise it was something official. I thought he just wanted to chat. You know how he is. But if you’re here too...”
“I guess it must be important.”
The Senior Secretary did have an unfortunate penchant for inappropriate chumminess at the oddest of times, giving rise to some rumours about bias in Ruban’s selection into the elite Bracken Academy, due to him being Subhas’s nephew. Of course, those had been laid to rest the day Ruban had first held a sifblade in his hand, his natural talent for Hunting apparent to even the most reluctant of observers.
But beneath that facade of overt exuberance, they both knew that Subhas Kinoh was an extraordinarily competent man, the reason why he currently occupied one of the highest positions in the Vandram Government. And if he had summoned two of his best Hunters to the IAW headquarters on Emancipation Day, of all times, something serious was about to happen, or already had.
“Well, I’ll be off to the library then,” Vikram said, as they finally reached the third floor landing. “Gotta return these books to the archives.” He held up his monstrous tomes, displaying them proudly for his companions to see. But if he’d expected them to recognize the volumes, he’d expected too much.
“What is that? Some sort of ancient gothic romance?” asked Ruban, squinting at a particularly large leather-bound volume with gold trimmings. “Looks eerie.”
“It’s a treatise on pre-Revolt architecture, you ass!” Fuming, Vikram tapped him atop the head with the aforementioned treatise. “Like this building for example,” he began, looking around with zeal in his eyes. “It’s been heavily restructured and modernized over the years, but the basics of the original design are still apparent in–”
“Was there ever a statue somewhere in here?” Ruban asked, curbing the flow of incomprehensible geekiness before it could begin. “Somebody told me today they remembered a statue on the grounds. A big one, I think it was. Big enough to climb onto.”
“Climb onto? Are you talking about the Statue of Zeifaa? Honestly Ruban! You do have the strangest ideas.”
“So there was a statue here?”
“Of course. The famous three-hundred foot Statue of Zeifaa, the tallest structure on the planet at the time of its construction. You know, Zeifaa as in the first Aeriel Queen of Vandram?” Vikram explained slowly, at his companions’ baffled expressions.
“The statue of an Aeriel? On IAW premises?!” Ruban growled, hackles rising almost unconsciously at the sacrilegious thought. “That’s impossible!”
“Well, it was destroyed over six hundred years ago. During the storming of the palace, most accounts suggest. So unless you saw a ghost, Ruban, I don’t know who could remember such a thing,” Vikram squinted at him. “Are you sure you’re not hearing things?”
“Oh, I probably misheard,” Ruban muttered as he spied Subhas’s assistant, a smartly dressed woman in her mid-fifties, approaching them from across the floor. “We should go now.”
“Yeah, see you Vik.” Simani gave her husband a quick peck on the cheek before making her way towards the Senior Secretary’s office, Ruban in tow.
Subhas Kinoh, the Senior Secretary of the Department of Defence, was a tall, well-built man in his mid-forties. He had the brown hair and sharp brown eyes that seemed to be a trademark feature of the Kinoh family, and a face that was all broad planes and sharp angles. A strong, rather arrogant jawline was softened by the numerous laugh lines around his eyes, which made him look rather more innocuous than his reputation warranted. As a field agent and active Aeriel Hunter, before accepting the more mundane position of a high-ranking bureaucrat, his record in killing and capturing Aeriels had been second only to Ruban’s own. Twenty years ago, he could easily have been mistaken for Ruban’s light-haired twin.
“Hello my dears!” Subhas greeted them with a broad grin, shaking Simani’s hand and patting his nephew heartily on the back, much to the latter’s consternation. “I hope I’m not disturbing you terribly on such a special day.”
“Are you kidding me?” Ruban threw himself into one of the chairs around Subhas’s gigantic mahogany desk. The chamber was luxurious in a subtle sort of way, expensive but sturdy furniture littered sparsely throughout the expansive space, the floor heavily carpeted in muted but tasteful colours. “I finished an entire bottle of aspirin in the first hour of last year’s ceremony. Can’t someone tell those brain-dead knuckleheads they’re babbling nonsense?”
“Ah, but every government needs a certain amount of nonsense to function smoothly, my boy.” Subhas smiled indulgently, “Perhaps you’ll understand that once you’re as old and grizzled as your poor uncle.”
“Oh please,” scoffed Ruban, glancing out the large window at the beautiful cityscape outside. Desk jobs certainly had their perks, boring though they tended to be. “We both know you could think circles around every one of those idiots if you wanted to. You should run for Prime Minister next time, uncle.”
Subhas laughed. “Well, that’d certainly be something, wouldn’t it? Although I must say, I’ve grown rather attached to this office. Which reminds me; there’s a reason I wanted to see you two today.”
“Yeah we figured.” Ruban glanced at Simani, who nodded grimly in agreement.
“Since you called the both of us together, we thought something might be the matter,” she said.
“Oh something’s the matter alright,” Subhas sighed, pushing his chair back to pull out two identical files from a locked drawer under his desk. “Lots of things are the matter. But first things first. Read these.” He handed the files to the Hunters.
Ruban looked down curiously at the thin brown folder in his hand. It was bare except for the word ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ stamped in large black letters across the top. Flipping it open, he started reading through the first document inside, also stamped ‘confidential’ in red ink across the margins.
“A new sifblade formula?” Simani asked, her eyes wide, having finished her perusal of the file before her partner. “How come we never heard anything about this?”
Ruban’s heart was hammering wildly in his breast. This was...revolutionary! If what he had just read in the file was true, it could mean a whole new dawn for humanity. A way to finally get rid of the Aeriel menace once and for all.
“It’s a highly confidential project,” said Subhas. “Has been until now, anyway. It was started almost two decades ago by the former Secretary of the Department of Defence. Back then none of us was sure that it would work, that it was even possible.”
“But it did work, didn’t it?” asked Simani with uncharacteristic excitement, waving the file in her hand. “It says here that by the end of last year, almost ninety-eight percent of the experiments were successful.”
“It did indeed,” Subhas smiled, steepling his fingers before him as he spoke, his elbows resting on his desk. “Better than any of us could have predicted. This formula could be...a game changer. It could herald a new era for humanity, an era free of the terror and constant strife we know now. Just the experimental prototypes of the reinforced sifblades have in multiple simulations, killed over five Aeriels at once. You don’t even need to stab them, really; the blade just needs to touch their skin and it sucks out every last drop of energy from their veins until they’re nothing more than a wrung-out carcass. If everything goes according to plan, we could maybe even make bullets out of the enhanced sif-ores. Hunting fatalities would go down dramatically; success rates of Hunts would sky-rocket. This country, hell, the whole world would be safer than it has ever been before!”
“What’s the problem then?” Ruban asked.
Subhas sighed. “We had kept this project a closely-guarded secret, obviously, for fear of an Aeriel retaliation against vulnerable civilian targets within the country if news of it got out. For the longest time, we were successful. However, in recent weeks it seems there has been a leak.”
“Where from? Have we identified the source?” asked Simani.
“Not with enough precision to be able to initiate proceedings against the perpetrator. So far, we have only determined with any certainty that the leak originated from the SifCo facility, the lab where the bulk of the experimentation is being conducted. Apparently someone within their ranks, perhaps one of the junior researchers, had been flouting protocol and talking about the project to outsiders, and the news somehow reached some people in high places within the Zainian Government.”
“Zainians? But what’s the problem then?” asked Ruban, frowning. “Isn’t Zaini our ally?”
“It is. Although they’re none too pleased that we’ve been keeping secrets from them. But that is not the main problem. The Zainian intelligence agencies have gotten wind of an Aeriel plot to steal the reinforced sifblade formula. And they were kind enough to let us know before such a thing could actually come to pass.”
“Steal it?” asked Simani, flabbergasted. “What could they possibly hope to do with the formula?”
“And how did they come to know about it anyway?” asked Ruban.
“Same way the Zainians did, I suppose,” Subhas said, his tone darkening. “The rumours caused by the leak must have reached them too. And that damned Zainian nobleman isn’t helping matters by babbling like an idiot to the press!”
“Zainian nobleman?” asked Ruban, surprised. Involuntarily, his eyes went to the window overlooking the vast grounds of the headquarters. “You mean that kid I saw downstairs chattering with Casia Washi and her coterie?”
“One and the same, yes. I’m told he’s called Ashwin. Ashwin Kwan. Some distant relation of the House of Kwan, I suppose. I never can keep track of these elaborate Zainian family trees.”
“What’s he got to do with any of this?” asked Simani. Apparently, she too had noticed the exotic young man caught in some bizarre tug-of-war between the reporters.
Subhas pressed two fingers to his forehead, massaging gently. “Apparently, some fool in Zaini’s Foreign Office thought it would be a good idea to entrust that idiot child with the job of informing us about the leak that their Intelligence Office had uncovered. I suppose those Royalist idiots thought it would be respectful to send an aristocrat, or some nonsense like that. You know Zainians! This is why I could never tolerate hereditary office. Too much faith in genetics, I always say.
“Anyway, long story short, Washi found him in some pub near the border before he ever made it to the capital, and now he’s talking his guts out to them like there’s no tomorrow. He’s already appeared on some interviews with her, talking vaguely about secret experiments, nefarious Aeriel plots and whatnot. I’ll bet a fortune Washi is using his pretty face to whet the audience’s appetite for the real deal. I hear they’re gonna air an exclusive interview with him tonight itself. An ‘Emancipation Day Special’, they’re calling it,” Subhas groaned, his fingers clenching into fists. “If this gets out in the media, everything we have worked for in the past two decades will have been for nothing! Not to mention the inevitable retaliatory terror strikes we’ll have to deal with once the Aeriels get a confirmation of their suspicions from the press. Destruction and mayhem, Ruban, that’s what we’re looking at if that idiot aristocrat talks to Washi tonight. The theft of the formula will be the least of our problems then.”
“What do you need us to do, sir?” asked Ruban, his jaw set and a look of determination in his eyes. His posture was reflected by his partner beside him.
Subhas smiled grimly. “Well, firstly, I would like to put you, Ruban, officially in charge of the investigation into the leak and how it happened. Also, you are to investigate if there is any truth to the Zainian intelligence reports of a possible theft of the formula. If you do find any proof of it, you are of course to do everything in your power to prevent it. And Simani,” his eyes flicked over to the other Hunter, “You will, as usual, be Ruban’s second-in-command on this mission. Should our suspicions be confirmed, you two will have at your disposal the full resources of the IAW and the country’s Hunter Corps to prevent any threats to national security, and to protect the formula as well.”
“But why us, sir?” asked Simani, leaning forward. “I mean I do appreciate the trust that the IAW is placing on us with this mission, but surely it would be easier to just let the police look into the leak? After all, it is a purely civilian affair. We will of course investigate the matter of the theft, if the Aeriels are indeed planning something that audacious.”
“That’s a good question my dear,” said Subhas, nodding approvingly. “I would have assigned that particular matter to the police, under ordinary circumstances. However, as I said, Washi has already stirred quite the public interest in this affair with her cryptic little interviews with the Zainian. Nobody really knows the full extent of the problem yet, or even the exact nature of it, thankfully; but it appears the public has taken quite the liking to our foreign guest, and consequently to everything he has to say.
“Social media is abuzz with talk of nefarious Aeriel conspiracies to take over the country, or some such. And don’t take this the wrong way, Ruban,” he said, turning to his nephew with a placating smile. “I would have assigned this case to you with or without Washi’s interference. But having you as the face of the investigation does help our cause quite a bit. It would certainly appease the public for the time being. Ever since your extraordinary exploits during the Parliament attacks became public knowledge, the nation has been pretty much in love with you. There’s no one whose involvement with this case would make the public feel safer or better protected than yourself. The Prime Minister himself has requested me to put you in charge of the entire investigation. Of course, you can always call on the police for their help if you should require it. This investigation is top priority now.”
“That’s alright,” said Ruban, too preoccupied with everything he had just learned to be able to spare much thought for his uncle’s complicated political manoeuvrings. “Whatever you think is best, sir. But what’ll we do about the Zainian? Surely, you don’t plan on allowing him to appear for the interview tonight?”
“Of course not. In fact, I sent Saya to have a chat with him right before you two came in. They should be arriving any second now.”
The Zainian looked even more like a lost child up close than he did at a distance, Ruban thought as the young man stepped through the doors of the chamber accompanied by Subhas’s assistant. Having deposited her quarry where he was needed, Saya gave Subhas a brief nod and stepped out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
“Hello, my Lord,” Subhas began, inclining his head ever so slightly. “It is an honour to make your acquaintance. Please, do take a seat.”
“Oh please, call me Ashwin,” said the boy, looking around the room with such profound interest that Ruban wondered for a second if he had never seen an office before. It seemed rather an odd reaction. While Subhas’s chambers were quite luxurious, surely a Zainian aristocrat – however minor – would have seen better. “It’s very nice to meet you too, Mr. Kinoh,” Ashwin continued hastily, as if suddenly remembering his manners. “I have heard a lot about you!”
“Good things, I hope.”
“Nothing but!” The foreigner looked at them through wide, guileless eyes that Ruban would have been hard put to disbelieve under any other circumstances. He wasn’t even sure he disbelieved them now. Ashwin really did look like an innocent, if idiotic, bystander who had somehow managed to get himself involved in things he couldn’t begin to understand.
“Well, that’s very good to hear. Although I must admit, I wanted to speak to you today to discuss a very particular matter. To be honest I have an important request to make of you, on behalf of my country’s government.”
“Oh. Anything you say, of course, sir. I’m completely at your service,” Ashwin said in that slight Northern accent that gave a subtly nasal quality to all his pronouncements.
A faint smile appeared on Subhas’s lips. This was turning out to be easier than any of them had expected. “It has come to my attention that you have some sensitive information regarding a formula. A highly confidential formula that is being developed in a facility within this city as we speak.”
“Oh! The reinforced sifblade formula!” exclaimed Ashwin eagerly, his eyes lighting up with excitement. Ruban flinched internally. The kid was like a walking talking time bomb waiting to go off at the slightest provocation. He could see how Casia had managed to make him spill all the beans about the sifblade formula; it barely required any effort at all.
“Oh yes sir, I know all about it. It’s terrible, it is. They say the Aeriels are planning to steal it. I was just telling Miss Casia this morning, who knows what those terrorists will do with it? Can you imagine! It’s all absolutely terrible.” Ashwin shook his head with heartfelt regret, although Ruban had a sneaking feeling the kid was secretly quite excited about the whole thing. He met Simani’s eyes and saw that she apparently felt the same way.
“Ah yes, about that,” began Subhas, and Ruban could see that he was trying to tread carefully. “I must ask you to cease any communication with Miss Washi on this topic immediately.”
“Oh? But why?” asked the foreigner, dark eyes wide with surprise.
Subhas sighed, and Ruban could sympathise with his uncle. He could tell that this wasn’t going to be easy, and for perhaps the billionth time was grateful that he had the job that he did. This sort of thing was not his cup of tea.
“Well, for one thing, that formula is a state secret, and has been for a long time,” Subhas began, but Ashwin’s confused gaze told them all that this was not an approach that was going to work. Something more personal was required, more immediate. “And also, if you speak to the media about the formula and the Aeriels’ plot to steal it, what do you think will happen?”
Ruban would not have thought it possible for the boy’s eyes to get any wider, but they somehow managed to do just that. “What?” he asked apprehensively.
“Well, the Aeriels will try to kill you, of course. You shall be a marked man, my Lord. And of course, despite our best efforts to keep you safe, sooner or later they will succeed. You know how vindictive Aeriels can be!”
“Oh my God!” cried Ashwin, his voice shaky, and Ruban could practically see the wheels churning laboriously in his mind. “Why did I not think of that before? What am I to do now?!” he squeaked, terrified.
“Well, for starters, you need to stop making yourself more of a target by speaking to the press,” advised Subhas, a subtle note of satisfaction in his voice as he leaned back into his chair. “And then you can help us stop the Aeriels by sharing with us everything you know about this plot.”
“Yes yes, of course!” Ashwin straightened in his seat and pulled himself back under control with visible effort. “I’ll tell Miss Casia I can’t do the interview with her tonight. But before that, sir, I need your assurance that you will allow me to be a part of this investigation.”
Surprised, Ruban turned to look at the young man. Of all the things he had expected Ashwin to say, this wasn’t one, and he could see the latter visibly fighting not to let his fear overwhelm him. It was obvious that the boy’s request had confused Simani too.
“But my Lord,” began Subhas, sounding equally baffled. “We could provide you with an escort to take you back to Zaini–”
“No,” Ashwin said, cutting the older man off. “I was sent here on a mission to help the Vandran authorities prevent the theft of the formula, and I plan to see it through. Besides, we can’t just let these evil Aeriels wreak havoc anywhere they please! I want to help stop them in any way I can.” He drew himself up to his full height, which really wasn’t very much, and nodded.
Ruban couldn’t help feeling a vague sense of respect for the young man. He was obviously trying very hard to act braver than he actually felt, but Ruban couldn’t begrudge him the sentiment. At least he had the courage to try and stand up for himself and his rights, however ineffectually. That feeling of vague solidarity, however, vanished quickly when he fully registered what his uncle was saying in response to the Zainian’s request.
“Well, my Lord, if that is how you truly feel, I suppose you could help our Hunters solve the case,” Subhas was saying, gesturing at the two other people in the room. “This is Ruban,” he said, indicating his nephew. “And this is Simani, his partner.”
“Hello,” Ashwin said, turning to smile brightly at the two of them, even as Ruban was busy glaring daggers at his uncle. Subhas ignored him in favour of gazing serenely at the clouds outside his window. “Let’s hope we can solve this case before the Aeriels manage to kill any of us,” the boy said with a rather watery smile, some of his initial apprehension bleeding through the facade, now that his wish had been granted.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that, my Lord,” said Subhas, still studiously avoiding his nephew’s gaze. “Simani here is one of the best agents under my command. And Ruban is the best Aeriel Hunter in all of Vandram. He’s killed more Aeriels in his short career than most Hunters have in their entire lives. You’ll be perfectly safe with them. And you can tell your friends in the media too that they’re on the case, so there’s nothing to worry about anymore.”
“Oh?” said Ashwin, turning to look at Ruban, dark eyes flashing momentarily silver again, as they had earlier in the lawn. Ruban blinked, a little disoriented. “Is that right?” the young nobleman murmured, smiling brilliantly once more.