The Lay of the Land
Processing took the rest of the afternoon. The screws dragged things out deliberately in places and were simply incompetent in others. Yasha bore the wait with equanimity. He was getting out and in hours he’d be back in Djisi.
He had a moment when they gave him back his clothes. His old dark green coat with the white sheep skin lining was a beloved friend, as were his sturdy infantryman boots. Dressing in the men’s room he looked into the water spotted mirror over the sink and felt like himself again for the first time in a year.
Clean shaven, with an olive brown complexion, he had a hawkish nose that bent regally in profile but looked straight head on and thick lashed eyes so dark, iris was indistinguishable from pupil. His brows were thick and winged. His cheekbones high, forming a triangle with his sharp chin. His black hair was short at the back and sides but long enough in front to brush his forehead. His mouth was flexible but most often pulled into smirks or scowls.
A small scar scraped his right cheekbone and hooked the edge of his eye, like an upside down L. A permanent memento of his time in Meznow and a run-in with Big Djuran, the prison-yard hard man.
His first sight as a free man was of a dreadlocked man leaning against a beat up old motor bathed in early autumnal sunshine. The summer heat was in resurgence despite the lateness of the season, and the day was warm and bright.
The man grinned, flashing one gold tooth when he saw him. ‘Yasha, my man.’
Yasha laughed and hurried forward. ‘Ludo.’ Forgetting himself he hugged the other man.
Ludoviccio Delaronda Escaelio Silvandado – Ludo for short – had been born in the Contested Territories of Ondore-Salvedena. His parents were Tabrisi but his father’s smuggling connections had seen the entire Silvandado clan –all thirteen of them – naturalised through not entirely legal means and now, Ludo, with his very Tabrisi name, was as Valk as they came, at least on paper. He was also Yasha’s closest friend and his right-hand man. So much so that Yasha thought he might actually trust him.
Ludo pulled out of the embrace. ‘It’s good to see you, man,’ he said but his smile dimmed. ‘Got a lot to tell you, yeah?’
Yasha nodded but said nothing. He recognised the shadow of bad news when he saw it.
Ludo was driving a twenty year old Grovnorov Mark Eight, a terrible model when it was new, the car had surprised everyone with its longevity. It was, however, ugly and compact to the point of near torture. Yasha fought a losing battle with the seat controls until he realised they were broken.
‘Smythion’s balls, Ludo. We’d’ve been better off walking.’
‘It’s seventy miles, man,’ Ludo laughed. ‘Don’t be daft.’
‘I know how far it is,’ Yasha grumbled. He wrenched at the seat belt, which groaned as he pulled on it.
‘You sure this thing will get us into town in one piece – and before daybreak,’ he added as the engine coughed twice at ignition and promptly died with a shudder, forcing Ludo to turn the key three more times before the car finally started.
‘Hey, don’t insult my baby.’ Ludo patted the dashboard. ‘Ivanonka and I have been through a lot together. She’s always seen me through, haven’t you baby?’ he purred.
Yasha stared. ‘Please tell me you’re just being weird and you haven’t gone and given the car a soul?’
Ludo barked a laugh. ‘Nah, I’m just teasing. Although,’ he grinned, ‘that would be something, if I could turn my girl sentient.’
‘You’d be condemning a soul to a lifetime of mechanical failure and ugliness.’ He pointed out. ‘Odds on, your Ivanonka would be begging for death the minute you started the ignition.’
Ludo laughed. ‘You know what your problem is, Yasha? You always want the best of everything. You’ll never be satisfied.’
‘That’s not a flaw,’ Yasha scoffed. ‘It’s a way of staving off complacency,’ he gave Ludo the side eye, ‘and mediocrity.’
‘So you say, mate,’ Ludo replied easily. ‘But which of us was it that ended up in the slammer, eh?’
‘I was framed,’ Yasha grumped.
‘Bollocks were you,’ Ludo grinned at him, his dark dreadlocks framing a long, dark face. ‘Mladin tipped off the Rads, but you were guilty, mate. You know you were.’ He shook his head. ‘I told you, you should’ve never tried to sell them charms.’
Yasha rolled his eyes. ‘We’ve been over this. I didn’t have a choice.’
‘So you say,’ Ludo repeated, knowing the beats of this argument just as well as Yasha did. ‘The only reason the Voisera were interested in you at all was because you had to go looking for bigger and better jobs. Never satisfied, just like I said.’
‘Are we really going to go over this again?’ Yasha asked, annoyed. ‘I’ve been out of prison five minutes. You could at least tell me how everyone is doing before starting on me.’