Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 7

Malama piaubi lauc nua lon daba mon.
Every bird calls loudly in his own home.
—Mesdu proverb

“Ah, good, more climbing, then,” Nigel said cheekily, looking up at the ridge high in front of us and the mossy, boggy slope leading up to it. We had to hike up the road to the ridge at its lowest point between the two peaks on either side, then follow the ridge to the top of the northwestern peak. From there, we’d follow the Taukoc-Uru, or “Spine Road,” which followed the ridge between the various central peaks of the island. At that point, we’d be half a mile above sea level—which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that the shore itself was only a mile and a half away.

“They take us on the best path,” Kemma said. “We will walk on Ao’s backbone into her brain.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to go around the peaks instead of over them?” I asked softly, not wanting to push our luck with the guards. They were being a little more flexible with us after sharing the albatross meal, but we still didn’t want to annoy them.

“This is the fastest way. The plains on both sides are too wet and slow. We have to go through the middle. I’ve done this since I was a child.”

We climbed up the road at nearly a 45-degree angle for half a mile while a prickly mist drifted down onto us from the darkening sky. My legs burned, but I think we all kept going because none of us wanted to look weak by being the first to ask to rest.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening to Jacky, but I also couldn’t figure out a way to get out of this trip. The feeling of helplessness made me queasy. I wanted to get this meeting done as fast as possible so I could get back and make sure she was okay.

The misty rain and wind eventually passed, and we continued along the ridge a short distance farther until it opened up into a cold, boggy plateau. The clouds parted and we witnessed occasional breathtaking views into chiseled glens running down either side of the island to the ocean.

The road took us through Tepa, a relatively large town where we saw three- and four-story tall buildings that were larger and more refined than we’d seen in previous villages, the island equivalent of skyscrapers. As we passed through the large market area in the center of town, I saw pumpkins, berries, potatoes, fowl, lobster, fish, and eggs of countless sizes and colors as people packed up their wares for the end of the day. There must have been a well-established supply chain on the island, since the seafood would have been captured down at the shores and transported through various clans’ lands in order to make it up here to the central regions, making a similar trek to the one we were on ourselves.

One of the men we passed in the market barked something to Kemma. She didn’t reply. He followed along behind her, saying in Mesdu something that meant, as best I could translate, something like, “I’d cut your stomach out myself if you were alone.” One of the other guards turned and ordered him to go home. I couldn’t see Kemma’s face, but her stride didn’t falter.

On the far side of the town, we came to another slope. According to my map, we were about to ascend the final portion of Edinburgh Peak (Fizal Faśanuba in Mesdu)—the island’s highest point, at nearly half a mile above sea level, and the location of the Royal House.

Fortunately, there was a large stairway up the slope. Hundreds of dark, irregular stone slabs a few feet across and a foot deep made up a staircase that zig-zagged up the slope. The guards urged us to jog up the stairs, but our weary bodies just couldn’t do it. Robert had kept up remarkably well for an older man, but he was fatigued at this point, and struggled with each step. I was glad he was there with us, though, or I might have been the slowest one. Liam seemed to be doing okay, and Nigel was visibly tired but still pushing ahead.

I couldn’t stop shivering as we climbed, our path being in the shade of the peak as the sun passed behind it. Behind us, the verdant island sprawled out in the orange sunset light, but ahead of us there was only blue and gray and darkness. I was soaked, chilled, and exhausted.

We slogged on in silence, giving me little else to do but reconsider in detail my recent decisions. I shouldn’t have overlooked the ethical responsibility of my profession to avoid exploiting indigenous peoples, even for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to research them. I shouldn’t have kept going when I knew Jacky might be in danger. I shouldn’t have agreed to come on this visit to the Queen without her, even if there was some kind of conspiracy happening at the base she needed to investigate. I shouldn’t have let my mother stay in my apartment for so long. I shouldn’t have let Tim get the Director of Cultural Intelligence job. I should never have taken a job at the State Department in the first place.

As we climbed, I was reminded of the moment two weeks ago when I’d ascended the stairs to board the S.A. Agulhas II. This was another point of no return. The Queen of the Mesdu was somewhere at the top of these stairs, and I was about to represent the interests of the entire United States to her. They were interests I barely understood, felt unqualified to express in a language I hardly spoke, and had no real desire to promote. This time, instead of Jacky telling me to hurry up and get on the boat before I had a chance to fully consider what I was doing, I had two guards carrying shark-toothed clubs.

I resolved to make some things right when I got back to the base. I ‘d come here to do straight anthropology, and that’s what I was going to do. All I was going to do. I didn’t care about the diplomatic side of this assignment, and I wasn’t going to waste any more time on it. What was the State Department going to do? Fire me? Let them. A job at McDonald’s would get me closer to the academic position I wanted than this stupid job would. They’d just have to deal with it. I was going to focus all my time and energy on writing an ethnography of the Mesdu people that I could publish academically—even if it got me in trouble.  

Remembering my decision to take a principled stand got me excited again about studying the Mesdu in more depth. If the government were going to get rid of me, I wanted to learn everything I could first.

But first, I’d have to wait until we could speak freely. During lunch earlier in the day, when our guards had been more relaxed, I’d asked Kemma about why we hadn’t been allowed to talk for most of the trip. She explained that they didn’t want us to pollute the minds of the Mesdu with our outside ideas. This was a pure place, and the people wanted to remain uncorrupted.

“Are you worried about becoming polluted?” I’d asked.

She thought for a moment, swallowed, then said, “Gurum isima sapac banu uvi gis maiam ama sapac ro liti.”

It took me a moment to translate in my head, but I was getting the hang of the language, so it didn’t take long. She’d said, “Some people must get dirty so others stay clean.”

• • • •

During summer break before my senior year at Duke University, I’d gone on a student trip to Cairo. I’d long been fascinated with ancient Egyptian culture and wanted to see the city firsthand. I distinctly remember standing at the base of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at dawn, in complete awe at the scale and magnificence of the structure and perplexed at how it ever could have been constructed. Even without its original polished limestone casing, it was still a magnificent structure.

However, the enormous Mesdu castle that came into view as we reached the summit gave the Great Pyramid a run for its money as the most awe-inspiring structure I had ever seen. It was elliptical in shape, close to the size and height of the Colosseum in Rome, and was made from quarried stone blocks ranging anywhere from brick-sized to somewhat larger than concrete blocks with mortar and small stones between them. It was widest at the base and tapered upward. Four stories of large, shuttered windows ringed the outside walls. From the center, a tall rectangular tower rose high into the sky, doubling the overall height. I estimated it must have been at least 600 feet across at its widest point. We were already half a mile above sea level, and I could only imagine what the view from the tower was like on a clear day. The whole building sat like a crown atop the island’s highest point.

 We followed a cobblestone path around the Royal House, which was still illuminated by the setting sun. Every block of the first eight or so feet of the walls contained deep engravings, similar to those I’d seen on the cylinders marking the border around our base, as well as the others we’d seen along our journey between the various clan lands we’d passed through. There were thousands of them, each telling some kind of story. Simply documenting and interpreting the engravings from this one building’s walls could be someone’s life’s work.

We came to the main entrance, a tall archway with intricate woven rugs hanging from ceiling to floor, weighted at the bottom but split up the middle to allow us to pass through. Two stylized female nude statues with swooping feather headdresses, about twelve feet tall, stood on either side of the archway. They looked nearly identical, but one was visibly more weathered than the other.

The lead guard spoke, and Kemma translated. “This is the house of the Queen of the World. Give complete respect and silence. Speak only when asked. The helpers will clean and prepare you. They will give you correct clothing. They will take you to dinner.”

I leaned over to Kemma. “Have you ever been here before?”

She nodded. “Yes, many times.”

The guards stayed outside and motioned for us to enter. Kemma led the way, pushing the hanging rug aside as she passed. There were several other rugs of differing designs and materials suspended from the ceiling in the corridor. We eventually reached a large, circular room. Dim light was provided by torches along the wall. They flickered in the breeze created by the ventilation holes in the walls.

From another corridor, three young women entered, completely nude except for necklaces of thick, red beads. Their almond-colored skin was covered in intricate scar patterns, and each had a sharp bone about six inches long hanging from her pierced lower lip.

They ushered us through the corridor to another room, which had a fireplace and was, mercifully, quite warm. They moved us to the middle of the room, then tried to remove our clothing. They couldn’t quite work out the buttons and zippers, though, so we helped by unfastening them ourselves with some awkward reluctance.

“You’ve done this before, Robert? Nigel?” Liam asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Robert said. “We’ve never been this far inland before. I’d seen the Royal House a few times before from a distance, but never imagined it was this large. I still can’t quite believe it.”

Two of the women carried a small barrel of water to the middle of the room, while the third, a younger woman—more of a teenager, really—continued to undress us. I’d already achieved my limit of embarrassment earlier on the ledge, so I had nothing left to lose as she pulled my jeans and underwear down and waited for me to step out of them. I turned away from the group and faced the wall.

She left and came back with a dripping-wet green sea sponge, which she gently brushed across my chest.

“E zuma sua taicti?” she asked. “E Mesdu?” (Are you one of us? Mesdu?)

I shook my head. “Zuma kanzaza.” (I’m an outsider.)

She said my eyes and skin looked like theirs, and that I didn’t look like most outsiders. The bone hanging from her lower lip wiggled amusingly as she spoke. I shrugged. She tilted her head and continued cleaning, occasionally dipping the sponge back into the barrel for more water. She swayed as she worked, her beaded necklace chattering softly and her skin flickering in the light from the fireplace. She was very thorough, much to my embarrassment. When she finished, she grabbed a smooth, curved piece of wood and ran it along my arms and legs to scrape off the excess water. Then she grabbed a pair of rough, woven cloths, one in each hand, and vigorously dried me off.

She walked away for a moment and returned with a beaded string that had a small piece of seal fur hanging from it. My heart sank. It was a loincloth. I glanced over my shoulder at the rest of our group, and they were receiving the same.

“If I’d known this were bikini weather, I’d have been working on my tan,” Nigel said, trying to break up the awkwardness.

Out of anthropological curiosity, I glanced at Kemma, who stood nude just a few feet away. She had additional ritual scarification beyond the ridges on her cheeks. There were six rows of small, raised circles that ran from her shoulders down in a Y-shape between her breasts to her waist. She caught my gaze and chuckled when I quickly looked away.

The helpers brought us to a long room with a high, angled ceiling. Along the walls on both sides were large stone busts, carved with disproportionately long faces. Each was different enough that they seemed to represent specific individuals. Past monarchs, maybe.

We were directed to some large woven cushions on the tile floor at the far-left side of the long room. Kemma knelt, then shifted into a sitting position, crossing her legs and placing her hands in her lap, as she’d shown us before. We followed her lead, although with somewhat less grace. The helpers left from the doorway behind us.

“What happens next?” I asked. “What do we do?”

Kemma placed her palm in front of her mouth, shushing me.

A few minutes later, several guards entered with long batons and fell into a squatting stance near the walls, forming a gauntlet we’d have to pass through if we wanted to get to the other side of the room. They wore the same red beads and lip bones of the other helpers. It was obvious that any attempt to harm the Queen would result in a fatal barrage of baton blows. I looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact as Kemma had instructed.

On the far side of the room, there were footsteps and the sound of a heavy object being placed on the floor. I peeked up momentarily and saw two men adjusting the position of a large, boxy wooden chair with short legs and a woven cushion similar to those we were sitting on, though it was sturdier and was carved ornately. The wood had been stained a deep red. Jawless human skulls were mounted at the ends of the arm rests, staring forward with eyes painted on stones.

Still trying not to look directly, I saw someone—a woman, judging from her legs—emerge from a doorway at the far end of the room and sit down in the chair. After she sat, there was a frenzy of activity as male and female helpers scurried around, bringing clay bowls of food and placing them in front of both us and the throne. A variety of sweet, pungent, and fishy smells hit my nostrils.

Two helpers knelt on either side of the throne, and the others departed.

“Lala, kanzazac.” A clear, slow, female voice said from the far side of the room.

“Hello, outsiders,” Kemma repeated as translator.

We each looked up and said, as Kemma had taught, “Lala, Dira.” It was a simple ‘Hello, Queen.’ No fancy forms of address. I liked that.

The Queen was a tall and slender woman, probably in her mid-forties. She had a round face with dark eyes, full lips, and a broad and crooked nose. She wore a complicated gown of beads, woven fibers, and feathers, dyed in a variety of muted colors. Everything about her, from the way she sat to the way she breathed, gave her an unmistakable air of royalty. It seemed as though everything in the room, down to the very molecules in the walls, noticed her presence. For at least a few moments, I caught myself wondering if she might actually be the Queen of the World.

She spoke, and Kemma translated. “I feel happy to meet you four. My helpers told me that two of you are ill. I hope their strength returns. Until then, will you four represent your groups?”

I wanted to demonstrate my language skills, figuring it was the best shot I had at making a good impression. I placed my fist over my head, then waited until she glanced at me to give permission to continue. I spoke slowly, trying to assemble the word order correctly. “Jankima tai sorkau…taivn ës du…ro laui uo.” (I represent our group even without the sick one.)

She smiled and said I spoke surprisingly well for having been on the island for such a short time. I thanked her, and said it was a beautiful language and I was eager to learn it better. She asked if it was true that my partner was a woman, and I said yes. She said the outsiders must be gaining wisdom if they were now sending women to the island.

Nigel took a turn speaking in Mesdu. He spoke slowly and with occasional mistakes, but he was still more practiced with the language than I was. He said that it was a pleasure for he and Robert to see the Queen again, and that he looked forward to discussing the current status of the diamond mining operations.

“And where is your friend?” the Queen asked Liam through Kemma. Liam responded that Noah regretted that he’d had to turn back to get his medicine, and that he wouldn’t have been able to make the trip without it.

“I don’t understand why you outsiders are so frail,” the Queen said through Kemma. “I almost see why you fear death so much, since you seem to be neighbors to it.”

The Queen looked down at the bowls in front of her and motioned toward it with her chin. The male helper at her left reached out and touched the bowls in the area to which the Queen had pointed, until she gave a slight nod. He picked up the bowl and handed it to her.

The Queen pulled out a cube of white meat with her fingers. “Selemia,” she said without looking at us.

“Eat,” Kemma translated.

We spent the next few minutes getting a quick tutorial from Kemma on how to combine the foods and eat them with our hands. There was also a bowl of water we were to use to rinse our fingers occasionally.

The Queen then gave us an update on the mining situation. Jacky had briefed me about an explosion in the mines a few months ago that had significantly restricted the diamond output. This in turn had obviously increased tensions among the corporate shareholders regarding who deserved what percentages of the remaining output. The Queen explained that the output levels hadn’t improved in the past month because they were still clearing debris and stabilizing the mine shafts. She said it may take another three months.

Based on the briefs Jacky had shared with me, there had previously been a lot of finger-pointing over whose equipment had been responsible for the explosion. All three groups had been arguing that they deserved more than they were getting. Jacky’s directive to me had simply been to fall back to a position of wanting to maintain the status quo, at least for now while we were figuring out what was going on at the base. That was a relief because I didn’t have enough insight to debate anything else.

Robert expressed that the delays were creating political pressure because the outside mining companies through which the diamonds were being laundered had no good explanations for their shareholders about why there’d been a drop in output after the explosion. He asked if there were anything they could do to accelerate the process, or if they could send their own people and equipment into the mines.

The Queen said that our corporate politics were our own business, to which Robert politely replied that they were only going to such lengths in the first place to respect the Mesdu’s desire for privacy, and that by extension the delays were making that more difficult to continue to promise. She said she knew all of us had strong motivations to preserve their privacy, and that she trusted we would find a way to do so. Robert kept his composure, but I could tell he was frustrated that she was playing hardball.

Liam asked a few questions, but generally seemed disinterested, which puzzled me because the mission briefs said that XCG had previously been pushing hard to increase their share based on the mining resources they’d been providing. They were the proxy corporation representing some of the world’s largest diamond companies, so they’d apparently been much more aggressive until lately.

Throughout all this, I stayed quiet and kept eating. There were fish and berry cakes, pumpkin seeds, cured fowl, dumplings, brined fish, a creamy stew, snails, boiled eggs, bright orange sea slugs, and a variety of other dishes I didn’t recognize. I avoided the sea slugs, but luckily there were enough palatable dishes to keep me busy so I wouldn’t have to talk much.

I saw a small bowl of what appeared to be milk, and I motioned to Kemma, who made a drinking gesture with her hand. I picked up the bowl and took a sip. It was creamy and slightly sweet, with an almost nutty quality to it. It tasted different from cow’s milk, but it was good.

I thought maybe I could break some of the tension with an off-topic question. I requested permission to speak, and asked in Mesdu where the milk came from, since there didn’t seem to be any milk-producing animals on the island. I wondered if maybe it was a plant-based product, like soy or almond milk.

The Queen looked confused. A few spurts and chuckles came out of the guards between us, and Kemma looked appalled that I would ask such a thing.

After Kemma translated, the Queen cupped her right breast through her gown and bounced it lightly in my direction, explaining that we outsiders may drink from strange animals, but Mesdu people drink Mesdu milk.

I received a few interesting looks from my peers after that one.

• • • •

As the dinner negotiations continued, I got hints of how much underlying tension there really was between the three diplomatic teams. With calm voices and polite smiles, Robert and Nigel clearly angled to take advantage of my restraint and Liam’s indifference to gain an advantage for Golden Square.

I hadn’t expected we’d spend nearly this much time discussing the detailed terms of the various treaties currently in place, and I worried about how deeply unprepared I was. I had a basic understanding from Jacky of the terms of the U.S. treaty, but not nearly with the level of detail that Nigel and Robert had—and it wasn’t even their treaty. When the Queen asked for my opinion, I just repeated that we thought the existing understandings were reasonable, and that we wanted to stay at the already agreed-upon 39% share. I said we were willing to offer whatever support or resources they might need to get the mine fully operational again, even though I had no idea if I was actually allowed to offer that. She wasn’t particularly responsive, but she seemed in subtle ways to appreciate me being a little less annoying than the others.

As we kept talking, it became clear that the Queen wasn’t interested in entertaining any major deal changes at the moment, since there was no point until the damage to the mine got cleared up anyway. I appreciated her playing hardball like that. Not only did it prevent me from messing things up too badly, but her relaxed confidence also made it clear who was the authority in the room. It wasn’t a skill I felt I really had, which is probably why I wasn’t considered for the director position back at the State Department, so I hoped to be able to soak some of it in by watching her do her thing.

Eventually, the negotiations tapered off and I took advantage of the shift to turn the conversation to the history of the Mesdu, hoping to uncover more insights about their culture and worldview. That was a lot more interesting to me than who got how many diamonds.

We spoke about King Arga, the Mesduka Melai Ka (first great Mesdu), who in 2103 B.C.E. first unified the island’s inhabitants from belligerent tribes into a single nation. The Queen then told us she was the 73rd monarch of her people, although some traitorously referred to her as the 76th monarch, counting the Dasa royal line instead of the Sanju line when the island was divided. She also explained that she was the 16th of those monarchs to be named Nadu. Every Sanju queen since Nadu Kai, and every monarch following the reunification of the Sanju and Dasa had taken the name of Nadu to honor the original. She herself was Nadu Bos-Sioka, or Nadu the 16th. I asked why all the monarchs since the reunification had been women, and she said the Dasa had repeatedly proven that men aren’t fit to rule. It had become the Sanju custom to have only queens, no kings, and that continued after reunification.

We also talked about the relationship between the Mesdu and the outside world. Their first encounter was in 1675 with Anthony de la Roché (or “Antoni”) a British merchant who’d been blown off course and had accidentally found the island. The last of the Dasa kings, Zimso, had granted him diamond mining rights in exchange for weapons and supplies, but de la Roché never returned with the promised goods.

The Mesdu people, later reunited under Sanju leadership, didn’t meet another outsider until 38 years later, when they were rediscovered by Charles Gough of the British ship Richmond. His arrival caused a frenzy on the island, where many believed him to be Anthony de la Roché returning with weapons that would enable the Dasa Mesdu to overthrow the Sanju Mesdu and rule the entire island. Rumors of a coming civil war spread throughout the island.

Nadu the 9th, who had reunified the two ethnic groups just a few years prior to Gough’s arrival, agreed to a major trade deal in exchange for Captain Gough keeping the islanders’ existence a secret. She announced the doctrine of perfection through isolation, the belief that the Mesdu would eventually rule the world once they were ready, but that they must be prepared and purified through isolation away from the weak and corrupt outside cultures. This formed a new foundation for Mesdu religious and political doctrine.

Over the years, as various explorers, sealers, and other outsiders visited the island and learned of their copious diamonds, similar deals were struck. Eventually, Nadu the 13th made Mesdu possession of diamonds punishable by death in order to prevent any future visitors from spotting them in casual decorations. Even though the Mesdu didn’t cut the diamonds to Western standards, any outsider who could recognize a rough diamond would quickly realize just how plentiful they were if they weren’t removed entirely from public view.

As rumors leaked out, more people began pursuing the island, and increasingly complicated deals had to be arranged with national governments to hide their existence, restrict travel, and generally create a nothing-to-see-here reputation. In return, the Mesdu expanded mining operations and provided a local labor force.

We spoke for more than three hours, but despite my curiosity I eventually stopped asking questions because I was eager to get back to find out what had happened with Jacky and Noah. The Queen indicated her disappointment, as she’d enjoyed answering my inquiries about her nation and people.

As the helpers began clearing away the bowls from in front of us, I took advantage of the distraction and leaned over to Kemma and whispered, “When will we go back to the base?”

“Dinner guests always sleep at the host’s home, so we’ll leave at dawn.”

“Could we maybe start back tonight instead?” I asked.

Liam, who sat beside Kemma, leaned back to look at me and whispered. “You in a hurry, Matt?”

“I’m just worried about Jacky. She wasn’t looking good when we left.”

He smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Noah will take care of her.”

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