1 - Aftermath
Pressing warm lips into soft black hair, Zirander kissed his newborn for the first time. Amani’s eyes fluttered open.
“Sorry I missed it, Love.”
“How dare you fight to keep us alive,” she said, rewarding him with a mock pout.
Distressed shouts and acrid tendrils of smoke drifted through the shattered windows, and Amani turned her head toward them. “Your people need you out there,” she said, gripping and releasing his hand.
“So do you.”
“We can wait.”
Zirander brushed his lips across her wheatish cheek, then lifted the baby from her chest. “Maybe you can. She cannot. Rest. They’ll be awake again soon.” He gestured around the room at their oldest boys passed out together in the chair beside the bed and their daughters curled up around their youngest son on a mound of blankets in the corner. Their Saint Bernard served as their pillow, and the youngest had a tuft of his fur gripped in her tiny fist.
Amani nodded and her thick, raven lashes sunk down again.
Zirander picked his way through the ransacked room toward the family spaces to locate Sara, Manara, and Kal.
He paused at the doorway from the family room to the kitchen, taking in the bright splats of blood across the walls and Sara’s furious scrubbing.
“Ran,” Kal said, spinning from the kitchen window, his good eye wide, fists clenched.
“Relax a bit, Kal,” he told his husband, coming near. “Have you held her yet?”
“Barely.” Kal grimaced when he moved, and Zirander realized he’d been injured.
“How bad?” He swung the kitchen chair with the least blood around and set it close.
“Two bullet holes and a few scrapes. I’ve had worse.” Kal lowered himself to the chair and Sara stopped scrubbing blood from the walls to join them.
“She got great lungs an’ color,” she said, admiring the baby while Zirander placed her in Kal’s waiting arms. “An’ she came quicker’n any of the others.” She beamed up at Zirander and he bent low to kiss his second wife, wishing he could linger.
Searching the room, he asked, “Where’s Manara?”
Kal glanced up from staring at the baby and frowned. “She was pullin’ the bullet outta my leg and stitchin’ me up. Then she got a weird look in her eye, mumbled somethin’ about goin’ out to the privy, and we haven’t seen her since.”
“Where’d you put all the bodies?” Zirander asked, pacing the room and the adjoining parlor, a converted front reception area.
“Manara had the idea of droppin’ em out the window,” Sara said, taking his hand and leading him to look outside. The flames lingering from an earlier explosion in the building across the street cast enough light to spot the mass of askew limbs, clothes, and torsos, with unseeing eyes staring up from the visible heads. “She wanted to get em outta here before the kids woke up.”
“You need to find her,” Kal said, his brows drawing down. “If I could walk worth a damn right now, I’d do it.”
Gripping Kal’s ebony shoulder, Zirander bent and kissed him. “I need you here,” he said. “I’ll find her while I’m out trying to get this mess under control.” They huddled together, stroking the baby’s hair and basking in a moment of calm before he broke the spell.
Sara smacked his rear on the way out the door with, “Find that girl, put everyone to work, and get back here.” Then she resumed cleaning grey matter off the foyer walls. Kal stood and limped back toward the bedroom with the baby, and Zirander slid around the bureau blocking most of the front door, then squeezed through the doorway.
In the corridors between the rooms where members of his council and their families lived, he came upon corpses clad in the light tan, brown speckled clothes of their enemies. Many more of his own lay scattered among them, people who had supported his rise to Master Steward and had believed in his leadership strategies. He felt pulse after pulse, careful to keep his handgun ready in case an enemy proved not so dead as they looked.
He dropped yet another wrist in despair, then looked up at a stream of junior stewards coming in to join his efforts. Each of their faces reflected exhaustion and defeat, despite the fact that they’d won.
“Find any wounded and tend to them first. Then heap the rebels’ bodies in the morgue and lay ours out in the east main corridor for identification,” he ordered, then hurried away.
Just as he set foot outside the main entrance, a girl no older than twelve came running toward him from the shadows. He stared at her in puzzlement and asked, “Do you need help,” just before she disappeared in a blast of flame. Then his world turned blinding white.