Meruma ke uda nualnThe shark’s strength comes from the water.—Mesdu proverb
The tips of the mountains glowed orange pink in the morning sunlight as I approached a ruda stone at the Laga border where the rest of the group had gathered. It was the day of our meeting with the Queen, and it would take until the late afternoon to cross the island to the royal house.
“Your woman’s still sick?” Liam asked as I walked up. “Not a lot of outbreaks among this lot, you know. She been sneaking around kissing Mesdu boys?”
“Bet she’s at high tide,” Noah said. “Probably why they never sent a woman here before.”
“She’s pretty sick,” I offered. I was a poor liar, and figured fewer words were better.
“It’s not ideal she be absent from this meeting,” Robert chimed in, “especially since it’s a rare occasion indeed to be invited to the Royal House. However, the risk of getting the Queen ill would be a poor diplomatic move by any measure. Matt, how do you feel about representing your side alone?”
I shrugged. “Do I have a choice? I’m very open to other options right now.”
“No,” he said with a sympathetic smile, “I don’t suppose you do.”
While we waited for the escort guards to arrive, Kemma gave us a quick refresher on the protocol lessons she’d been teaching us over the last few days. Don’t look the guards in the eyes, don’t make sudden movements, look at the floor until the Queen first speaks, ask permission before saying anything, and so on.
Nigel and Robert chafed a bit at the notion of acting deferential to the Queen, since diplomats meeting foreign heads of state typically weren’t expected to behave as subjects but more like respectful equals. However, they’d learned from the first time the Queen visited them several months ago that deference wasn’t optional, so they reluctantly resigned themselves to it. She did see herself as the Queen of the World, after all.
I asked Kemma about that title, and she explained that they believe that when the Mesdu become perfected after many generations of life on the island, it would be their destiny to rule the entire world, unifying all nations into a single global Mesdu empire. Other nations existed merely as placeholders until the Mesdu took their rightful place at a global level.
As we continued to talk, I became increasingly concerned about Liam and Noah, who seemed more interested in whispering jokes to each other than in paying attention to Kemma’s explanations. I’d been around enough ambassadors at the State Department to know that kind of behavior wasn’t just inappropriate but potentially dangerous as well. The seemingly insignificant details of protocol could make or break a diplomatic encounter. On the plus side, though, maybe I wouldn’t look so clueless in comparison. I was feeling some genuine anxiety about doing this without Jacky. She had a mind for this kind of thing. I could record the fine points of etiquette from an academic perspective, but actually acting them out in real time was a different thing entirely.
Kemma looked distinctly out of place among us, standing barefoot in a furry sealskin vest and a makeshift skirt of broad green leaves hanging from a woven yellow belt. Her only equipment was a plastic bag with a frozen bagel in it, which she’d tied in a loop around the belt. The rest of us were bundled in layers and carried backpacks. I’d bought new boots before leaving D.C. and was just realizing I should have broken them in before today.
As the morning sunlight slid down the mountains and illuminated the area around us, Dashus marched toward us from the other side of the border. He was followed by eight young Mesdu men who would serve as escort guards. Each wore only a small square loincloth hung from a rope around his waist, covering little in front and nothing in back. I’d have thought they’d want to wear something warmer, but it seemed like the Mesdu were either used to the cold or just liked to show off how it didn’t bother them. Each fo them also carried a wooden baton about three feet long, into which rows of shark teeth had been jaggedly embedded on opposite sides.
Dashus spoke to Kemma, and I was pleased to be able to keep up somewhat with what he was saying. Kemma then relayed his message to us in English. He asked us to lay face down on the ground and take an oath of allegiance to the Queen. For lack of any apparent choice, we did so. He also explained that we couldn’t speak during the trip and would forfeit our lives if we attempted to leave the presence of the guards before we arrived. Then we stood up, brushed ourselves off, and crossed the border.
The trail that led away from the helipad across the border into the Laga region expanded into a wider dirt road, and then a cobblestone road as we entered the Laga village. I tried to quickly sketch in my notebook the housing and other structures I saw. They were constructed mostly from carved stone blocks about six inches tall and two feet long. Multiple buildings of various shapes and sizes often adjoined each other to form interconnected complexes. There were also several flat roofs with gardens on top, with pumpkins, berries, and some other crops I didn’t recognize. Small gardens were also planted between buildings, or behind them. Our quick pace made drawing and note-taking difficult, but I did the best I could. I hoped the sketches would at least remind me of what I’d seen so I could finish them from memory later.
Each of the complexes had multiple openings into the main street. Heavy woven curtains decorated with shells and feathers hung in most doorways to keep out the weather. The stone slabs below the doorways were smoother and shorter than the blocks around them, worn by centuries of use. Some of these structures could have been thousands of years old, with their stone welcome mats eroded by the feet of countless generations.
Many of the locals stopped to watch us pass. Some sprinted ahead to let others know we were passing through their village. Children followed along behind us, laughing and pointing. One threw pebbles at me until a guard turned around and rapped him on the head. The boy threw one last rock at the guard, then ran off laughing with his friends.
Most of the Mesdu attire seemed to have been made with woven plant fibers or sea animal skins, accessorized with beads, bones, and feathers. I was surprised at how underdressed they seemed for the weather. Both men and women were often topless and didn’t seem to mind the temperature while I was still chilly despite multiple layers of clothing.
Just outside the Laga clan’s main village, the cobblestone road turned back into a hard-packed dirt trail, heading roughly west, which formed a partial border between the Kozo Laga on the right and a neighboring clan’s land on the left. Then, after going maybe half a mile, we found ourselves crossing into yet another clan land, Kozo Dorśo.
I’d pictured these individual lands being larger, but then I realized if the island were about 35 square miles in area and there were 41 clan lands, then obviously they’d average out to being less than a square mile in size. Kemma had told me before that there were about 15,000 Mesdu on the island, so that meant the average clan size was somewhere around 350-400 people.
The Dorśo land was sloped, with terraced crops separated by rain-carved gulches and gullies. The road alternated between dirt on flatter areas and stone slab stairs for the steeper parts. My calves were burning before we even made it a third of the way up, which didn’t bode well for the rest of this journey.
The main Dorśo village felt almost like a huge family’s home, with people freely flowing in and out of various structures for different uses. Instead of separate houses with separate kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms, there was a communal cooking area, a shared dormitory building, and an open-air toilet area for general use.
Noah tapped Kemma on the shoulder and whispered something in her ear. She shot him an annoyed look, then turned to the older guards and placed her fist on top of her head, a gesture requesting permission to speak.
The head guard, a middle-aged man with long hair and a pot belly, nodded toward her, and they exchanged a few comments in Mesdu. He said something terse to the other guards, and two of them grabbed Noah by the arms and took him away, back down the road from which we’d come. The head guard then motioned for us to get moving again.
I leaned over to Kemma and whispered, “What’s going on with Noah?”
“He forgot his medicine,” she said. “He had to go back. He’ll miss the meeting.”
Nigel looked back over his shoulder. “What medicine?”
“Wait, he’s going back to the base?” I asked.
“Dilimia du!” one of the guards yelled toward us, shutting us up.
Kemma looked at me and nodded.
I’d felt from the beginning that something was weird about Liam and Noah. They didn’t look or act like diplomats. They’d arrived several months ago but apparently hadn’t done much serious work since. And now Noah had apparently made up an excuse to go back to the base the one time someone else could get into their room without them knowing about it. That meant that XCG, the proxy corporation representing South African, the Netherlands, and China, was probably the driving force behind deleting our files and bugging our room. They had apparently taken advantage of the transition to set our team back…but why? If they weren’t taking the negotiations seriously, why go through the effort?
My heart sank into my stomach as I thought about Noah walking in on Jacky searching their room for evidence. I didn’t know how he’d react to her, but I was sure it wouldn’t be good.
• • • •
The guards were both amused and annoyed with our general lack of endurance as we struggled up the road through the rest of Kozo Dorśo, and I couldn’t blame them. Nigel was as red as a tomato, Robert was wheezing, and even Liam—probably the fittest of us—was struggling to catch his breath. Kemma paced herself respectfully but had trouble not accidentally passing us all. When she realized she was at the front again, she’d stop and wait for us to pass. The guards, however, felt no need to be so polite. Those in front mocked us while those in rear swore and prodded us with their clubs.
We came to a steep ridge where the ruda stones marked the border between the Dorśo and Rusle clan lands. It appeared a couple of the stair slabs had been recently dislodged by rain erosion, leaving a challenging obstacle to get up over the ridge.
Most of the guards scrambled up and tried to pull us over the gap, while one stayed below to push us. Kemma got over quickly, then Robert went over with a little more effort.
It was my turn. With two guards pulling my arm and one pushing me from behind as my feet pedaled against the moss and mud trying to find traction, I realized this might be my opportunity. I let both my feet slip at once and relaxed all my muscles to become dead weight. The guards at the top jerked forward, then let go of me, not wanting to fall after me themselves. I tumbled backwards onto Liam, and we both crashed into Nigel and the remaining guard at the bottom.
The guard shoved me off of him, and slapped my head, yelling “Mambu odau!” (Fat grandmother.)
I yelled out in pain, or at least how I thought I might yell if I were actually in pain. I reached down and grabbed my ankle and rocked back and forth, wincing in a hopefully convincing way.
“Graceful, Matt,” Liam said, picking himself up. “You break anything?”
The guards up ahead muttered their discontent. I wasn’t happy about it either, but it was the best excuse I could come up with to get back to the base.
The guard I’d landed on, a stocky young man with long wavy black hair, came around and pressed my leg at various points and inspected my foot. I attempted to make the appropriate sounds for someone with an injured ankle. “I don’t think I can keep going,” I said, then translated. “Foma du…uh…bassom.”
He exchanged a few comments with the other guards, then stood up, pulled out his baton, and whacked me on the upper arm.
“Hey!” I yelled.
He raised his baton high and back and rotated it, so the shark teeth were facing me. If the first hit were a bunt, this would be a home run.
I jumped out of the way and took several steps down the stope. “What the hell are you doing? E jas? E jas!?”
He lowered the club. The other guards were laughing.
“He tests your foot,” Kemma said. “It looks healthy.”
One of the guards slapped her on the back of the head, reminding her of the no-talking rule.
After that, I limped obligatorily for a while as we continued up the slope, but finally gave up and resumed walking normally. I’d tried, at least. I’d have to keep moving and just hope Jacky could take care of herself.
• • • •
The land of the Rusle clan was a plateau half a mile long and wide, which was a welcome relief after that last climb through Kozo Dorśo. I had started to feel some accomplishment about our journey so far until I looked down toward the shore and realized I could plainly see our base at the bottom of the slope, just a mile and a half away. It was a humbling sight.
The terrain around us was a bumpy mishmash of windswept brown grasses, lime-colored moss, and spongy peat. I heard babbling water, and eventually saw a little winding stream, just a few feet wide, carving its way across the plateau and running near us, originating somewhere on the distant slopes in front of us that disappeared upward into the clouds.
The guards approached the stream and allowed us to stop and rest for a few minutes. I squatted on a large rock and eagerly pulled off my hiking boots to inspect the blisters that were already starting to form.
The Rusle clan village was about two hundred yards from where we sat, resting on the edge of the stream. It was larger than the first few through which we’d passed, probably because the flat terrain there was easier to build on. The buildings were more consistent than those we’d seen earlier, and many of them were two- and three-story structures made of stone blocks with narrow steps running along the outside walls to the different floors.
Kemma sat cross-legged on the grass near me. She pulled out the bagel she’d brought along. She pinched little pieces from it and popped them into her mouth. She didn’t chew them, but let them dissolve for a while, then worked them around with her tongue and eventually swallowed them.
The next few seconds passed so quickly I hardly had time to blink, let alone react.
One of the guards lifted his baton and came at Kemma from behind as if we were going to hit her. I started to brace myself, but then he glanced upward, adjusted course, and came around her left side.
Then I heard a thump and a flurry of feathers slammed into Kemma, knocking her on her side. A massive white bird—the largest I’d ever seen—flapped frantically and tumbled to the ground, quickly regained its bearings, and stretched its wings for stability. I was stunned.
The guard, who’d seen it coming, brought the club down hard onto it with an audible crack, breaking a wing bone. The bagel fell from its talons, and the bird rolled over in the grass, its wing badly misshapen. Feathers drifted in the air.
The guard leaped to where the bird stopped rolling and took a second swing, which landed with an ugly sound. The bird fell still. Kemma’s bagel, rolling from where it had been dropped, fell over in a muddy puddle.
The guard grabbed the bird by its limp neck and lifted it into the air. “Ramva goni be gis!” The other guards cheered and ran over to congratulate him.
Kemma collected herself and stood up, taking a step toward them. She motioned for the other guards to step back, and they did. The one who killed the bird held its dangling body out at arm’s length. Kemma said something to it, then punched its limp body. Hard. Then she spat on it. The guards laughed and pulled the bird’s dark gray wings out to assess the span, which appeared to be about the feet wide.
Liam’s jaw hung open. “What the hell just happened?”
“Albatross,” Robert said. “It had a mind to eat Kemma’s lunch.”
Kemma looked around and found her bagel, picked it up out of the mud, and wiped it against the grass a few times to clean it.
“You okay?” I asked.
She smiled. “The bird tried to eat my meal, so we will eat the bird instead.”
• • • •
The guards loosened up after that bit of good fortune, and we were able to talk a bit without getting knocked in the head. Kemma explained that when “lucky food” is found, like a random albatross, it was tradition for the meal to be prepared right away and shared by all who were present. It was a bit early for lunch, but I looked forward to learning about their meal rituals. I just didn’t like this trip taking any longer than it had to because I wanted to get back and make sure Jacky was okay.
We walked into the Rusle village, with the usual commotion that followed, and found a large, stone-lined communal cooking pit that already had a fire going. It was fueled by wood, leafy plants, and what appeared to be large amounts of seabird guano. Several other individuals moved around the perimeter of the pit, tending to their own meals as well. The whole area was surrounded by a low stone wall.
One elderly woman, with thick ceremonial scarring across her face and chest, squatted at the edge of the pit and stirred a large clay pot. She looked back at us several times, and specifically at Kemma, making a show of her displeasure.
“I don’t think that lady likes you,” I said.
Kemma nodded. “Many here don’t like me.”
The head guard pulled out a carved bone knife and began cutting up the bird on a nearby table, while another ran off to find addition ingredients. The remaining guards blocked the entrance to the cooking area, allowing only those who were preparing meals to enter. The curious bystanders, dozens of them, gathered around the low wall of the cooking area, laughing and chattering as they watched us. We were just resting on benches along the low stone wall, but even our inactivity seemed to be enough to provide great entertainment for the locals.
When the guard finished skinning and gutting the albatross, he pulled a wooden rack out of a large vat of water and spread the large, halved bird across it. He put another rack on top of it, and bound it all together with wet cords. Then he used wooden two poles to position the rack in an unclaimed portion of the cooking pit. Kemma said it would cook for an hour or so.
The elderly woman finally turned and hobbled over to the benches where we sat. She ignored the rest of us, glaring only at Kemma. “Gulunzin, minama tai niesso suan,” she said. I didn’t catch the first word, but the rest of it seemed to mean, “I have your name.”
Kemma bowed her head and said nothing. The woman said something else I couldn’t make out, then went back to tending her stew.
I leaned over to Kemma. “So, what was that about?”
“She knows who I am. She said she’s thinking about telling everyone.”
“About what you did? Or what she thinks you did? Was it really that bad?”
Liam leaned forward. “You know, you’ve never told us what exactly you did. If people are going to act that way around us, I think we have a right to know some specifics.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Kemma said firmly. “It was a mistake. Maybe I can explain this to the Queen during our visit. My brother Golo said he thought it was me, but he made a mistake. Maybe it was someone who looked like me.”
“But even so….”
“Let it go, Liam,” Robert said. “If we all stay calm, we won’t have problems.”
We sat in silence, watching the steam rise from the wooden cooking rack and listening to the old woman mutter as she poked at her stew.
After a long while, I eventually worked out the word the woman had said to Kemma: gulum meant “to die,” and the variant gulunm would mean “to cause to die,” so gulunzin was “one who causes to die.”
Or, put another way: “killer.”
That’s what the old woman had said to Kemma.
I know your name, killer.
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