They stood directly in the road, the woman with her bundle and the child, and Bha’ar was not cruel enough to run them down, though she thought it the wiser course of action. She pulled up on the reins and the mule and the wagon ground to a halt. It became silent in the road. Quiet enough to hear the alarm klaxon of the soldier camp and the buzz of its drones.
They came to the side of the wagon. She looked down at them. She saw the broken manacles and chains. She saw the bloody lump of rags the woman carried was a horribly mangled person..or used to be. She let out her breath in disgust and pulled a lever hid under her seat. “Get in.”
“One requires a physician,” said the woman.
“Shut up, give me your headscarf and get in,” she ordered. The woman hesitated but obeyed. They finally climbed under the wagon where the trapdoor gave them entrance to a lined smugglers’ hold. When they were inside, she closed the door and gave the reins a snap. The mule motored to life again and the wagon crunched and bucked down the gravel road away from the soldier camp and into the outer rim of the Citadel’s town. “Not a word,” Bha’ar told the jackal-buzzard beside her on the seat. The bird just eyed her suspiciously and said nothing. When it lifted off into the falling gloom of evening she knew there must be soldiers on the road ahead.
One of their walking tanks, a machine similar to her mule yet three times the size, straddled the road around the next bend. It’s cannon snout stayed aimed at her during her entire approach. Men on the ground stopped her and ran sensors and sniffers over the wagon. One of them showed particular interest to the underside.
“Open it,” the officer in charge ordered. Bha’ar got down off the wagon and began her sales pitch, as she opened side doors on the wagon and all of the hard to get goods and baubles for significant others and verboten contraband soldiers lusted after on long deployments far from home popped and dangled and slid out. The soldiers tried to stay professional but a certain level of distraction had been achieved. When the one with the alerted sniffer focused on the floor of the wagon, Bha’ar opened a secret compartment and slipped the woman’s headscarf from her sleeve in among the jewelry, liquor and smut inside. The soldier found the headscarf and showed it to the officer. “Where’d you get this?”
“A woman and a child stopped me on the road. She traded this for food. It’s good quality silk, hard to find here in Aedlin. You like it? You have a wife? Girlfriend? She would like it, yes?”
“Where are they now?”
“Who? You’re wife and girlfriend? How would I know?”
“The woman and the child!”
“Oh!” She smacked her head and then looked back the way she came. “They were on foot, heading downhill. Probably in the cemetery by now,” she pointed to the stones and mausoleums still just barely visible in the fading light far, far from where she planned to go this night.
The officer spoke into his headset, telling his superiors what Bha’ar had said. “Alright, get this thing out of here.”
“The scarf,” Bha’ar stood her ground.
“I’m keeping it.”
“That’s fine. You pay for it, you keep it.”
“I will, when you give me something for the scarf.”
The officer looked at one of his soldiers, “Mak, give her something for the scarf.” Without a word, Mak took the butt of his rifle and drove it into Bha’ar’s belly, knocking her down and punching the wind out of her. “There. We’re square,” the officer said. “Now get your worthless pile off of my road before I give you something for all of it.” Bha’ar picked herself up, not having to feign pathetic weakness and closed the wagon back up. It took a couple of attempts to get back up into the seat. No one helped her. They just stared until she righted herself and took the reins.
“No way to do business,” she muttered as a parting shot and got the mule and wagon moving again. When the soldiers were out of sight, the bird returned and landed beside her. “Thanks for the help, partner.” The jackal-buzzard nudged the arm she held tightly to her stomach with its head. “Hurts. But I’ll live. Thanks for asking.” They passed no more checkpoints on their way to the wharves.