The hungry one wants to eat.
The thirsty one wants to drink.
The horny one wants to hump.
The tired one wants to sleep.
And the Mesdu one wants to do
whatever the Queen tells him to do.—Song from Mesdu children’s game
It was dark out when the thatched door of the stone hut was opened and the guards ushered us into the center of the Laga village. A crowd had gathered, their eyes illuminated by flickering torches, and their enthusiastic chatter mixed with the distant chirping of nocturnal seabirds.
Bolu, Kemma, and I lined up a few feet apart from each other, with three men standing guard nearby. They carried farming tools as potential weapons and watched us with a calm focus that made it clear we weren’t going anywhere.
Dashus, the clan senior, came forward. He paused to inspect each of us individually, then shook his head and raised his hands with exaggerated disappointment in us.
He turned to address the crowd. “We have three unwanted visitors here,” he called out in Mesdu.
His accent was more staccato and guttural than Kemma’s, and I wondered whether island accents differed based on geography or if they were affected signs of social affiliation. Or maybe it was a Dasa versus Sanju thing.
“We have a thief and two trespassers,” he continued to the crowd. “This is Bolu, a senior of the Moa clan, who stole Mudha’s fishing spear.” He paused to give the audience an opportunity to make a loud cawing sound. Then he stepped in front of me and gestured toward my face. “And this is one of the outsiders who replaced the rapists. Don’t we wish they would stop sending us criminals?”
More cawing, louder this time.
“And finally, we have the slave…you may not know her face, but you know her name…Kanza Polla Kemma…”
The crowd erupted. They cawed and screamed, stamping their feet on the ground. A rock flew through the air and hit Kemma on the shoulder, and a hard-soled sandal bounced off the side of her head.
Dashus raised his voice to be heard over the din as he continued. “Kanza Polla Kemma, attempted assassin of the Queen of the World, banished to live with the outsiders because the Queen chose mercifully not to kill her own daughter. Perhaps her justice will come tonight, because she and this man were caught on our land attacking a young boy.”
“It sounds pretty bad when he puts it that way,” I said to Kemma.
She shushed me.
“We begin,” Dashus said, silencing the crowd with a gesture. He walked back to Bolu. “Senior Bolu, you were caught stealing a fishing spear. Our punishment is three fingers. What do you say?”
Bolu bowed his head and spoke quietly so the crowd couldn’t hear him. “Dashus, respected senior, I say the Laga is a very large clan, and should have split months ago. I understand why it hasn’t yet, and I will say nothing more if we follow island law instead of clan law tonight. One finger is the punishment under island law when the property is returned, and I did return it.”
Dashus glared at him for a moment, then spoke quietly. “Very well. Put your hand out.”
Dashus pulled a bone knife from his robe, took Bolu’s right hand, and started sawing away. Bolu winced and moaned but never cried out. There was a crack and some more sawing, then bloody middle finger dropped to the ground. Dashus picked up the finger and held it high while the crowd cheered. Dozens of children reached out toward him, and he tossed it to one of them.
Bolu winced and tried to pinch the bloody hole where his finger had been. He nodded in gratitude and hobbled up the main road through the village into the darkness.
I now fully realized that our situation was a hell of a lot more serious than I'd realized. This was happening fast. Too fast.
Dashus turned his attention to me and Kemma. “These two will be judged together, because they did the crime together. Our punishment for trespassing is death. What do you say?”
“One of our people is trying to kill us,” I said, “We only left our land because—”
“Dashus, respected senior,” Kemma interrupted. “As Bolu said, we must be tried under island law. The punishment under island law is banishment, not death.”
Dashus spit on her face, then leaned in close. “Bolu could still speak after his punishment, you Sanju whore,” he whispered. “If I cut your throat, you’ll never say another word.”
“We didn’t want to trespass,” I said. “We had no choice….”
“Saka, stop it,” Kemma hissed in English. “This isn’t how it works.”
“Well, fine, how—”
Dashus put the knife up to my neck, and the crowd cheered. Its tip pierced my skin, and a trickle of warm liquid wiggled down the side of my throat.
“You didn’t last long here, outsider,” Dashus said in Mesdu, then put his hand on my shoulder for leverage. “Be wiser in your next life.”
“Dashus!” a voice called.
A man in a yellow robe broke out of the crowd and jogged toward us. One of the guards moved to block him, then apparently realized who he was and stepped to the side.
“Stop!” the robed man said in Mesdu, putting his hand on Dashus’ shoulder. “I’m Marbim of the Queen’s Council. She heard you’d taken these two and sent me to ensure the punishments were appropriate. They are not to be killed.”
“They trespassed on our land,” Dashus said, not moving the knife from my throat. “The punishment is death.”
“The clan is too large!” I said as quickly as I could pull the sentences together in my head. “They have to split. Island law—”
“We know,” Marbim said, waving his hand to quiet me. “We gave you time to reorganize the Laga clan out of respect for your father, but the time has come. You’ll announce this in the morning.”
“They attacked a child!” Dashus hissed. “They deserve more than banishment.”
Marbim shot him a condescending look. “The Queen showed the Laga mercy under the law, but you now demand justice under the law for her own daughter?”
Dashus seethed. “I only want what’s right!”
Marbim looked unimpressed. “These two belong to the island law now. There is no Laga law anymore. That is what’s right.”
• • • •
Kemma and I sat on the dirt floor of the small guest room the Laga clan had been forced to provide for us, while Marbim paced around with his eyes closed. He said it helped him think. We had to scuttle out of his way a few times to avoid being stepped on.
We’d explained to him what had happened, and that we needed to get back to the base to radio for help, so we could stop the mercenaries being sent by XCG. If we didn’t act soon, the corporation would arm the Dasa, leading to the overthrow of the Queen and probable genocide of Sanju clans. It would be an all-out civil war, and there was no question that the Dasa side would be victorious.
A young boy entered through the doorway carrying two bowls made from woven plant leaves. He set them down in front of us and scurried away without making eye contact. Food. Finally. Kemma and I each grabbed a bowl and sat against the wall, digging in with our fingers. Mine was some kind of slimy pumpkin and fish mash, but I didn’t care. I would have eaten anything at that point.
Marbim stopped and opened his eyes. “Maiama nemi. Sampin isima.” (You’re right. We have to attack.)
“No kidding,” I said with my mouth full. “E ugu?” (When?)
“Kaia. Kaiakona.” (Now. Right now.)
Marbim said he wished he could get approval from the Queen before the attack, but every moment mattered. He dispatched a runner to the Royal House to inform her of what was happening.
He told us he’d recruit some Laga to help. Even though the Laga were a historically Dasa-aligned clan, it was unlikely most of them knew about the situation and Marbim had a high-enough rank that they’d do what he told them.
Noah had an automatic rifle and possibly other weapons, which meant a lot of them would certainly die. Eventually, though, someone would probably get through and take him down.
Kemma passed me her boiled shellfish and berry mix, and I traded her the pumpkin and fish mash. Marbim kept talking. A direct attack wouldn’t work. Noah would easily see us coming and take us down before we got close to him. We’d have to head down to the shore and come up behind the base from the cliffs on the eastern side.
Marbim spun around and headed for the doorway, telling us to be ready to move when he got back.
We nodded and kept eating.
• • • •
About twenty-five of us moved as quietly as we could through the low vegetation and tree ferns around on the northern side of the base, navigating by weak moonlight until we came around to a sloped ledge where we could descend below the cliff line. I just hoped Noah didn’t have night vision equipment stashed somewhere.
The cliffs on the eastern side of the base were angled and irregular. There was no flat shore for us to follow as there had been on the other side when Kemma and I had originally escaped. These slopes simply dropped off into the ocean, so we had to traverse them sideways.
I wasn’t sure I could even make it. I had to stop to rest at least several times, and soon ended up at the rear of this ad hoc platoon of farmers and fishers—not that I minded bringing up the rear on this particular venture. I felt terrible knowing people would get hurt tonight, but I wasn’t a noble enough man to lead the charge.
Kemma was a lot more capable of this type of movement and could have easily gone up toward the front, but she slowed herself and stayed at my side.
It took us a couple of hours to reach the point where we could ascend the rest of the cliff face, coming at the base from the least-likely direction, and giving us the shortest distance over which we might be spotted. Two young men went first with a rope ladder, lodging the top anchors firmly between large rocks.
When it was secure, the others started ascending the rope ladder, one after another. I wasn’t very good at it, as it was more slippery than I’d expected, but I eventually got the hang of it and slowly made my way to the top.
Marbim had divided the volunteers into five units of five each. Kemma and I, along with three others, would stay hidden until the base was cleared. In our weakened state we weren’t any good for fighting, but they needed me to get the State Department or CIA or anyone else I could reach on the radio and scream at them to send everything they’ve got to help us.
Or, depending on how things went, we’d wait until Noah had killed everyone else, then we’d slink down the cliffs, and go live in a hole on the island somewhere for the rest of our probably short lives.
We came up behind the storage buildings and the long row of van-sized diesel tanks, using them for cover until we were all topside. It looked a little ridiculous, the twenty-five of us squatting in the dark, clutching knives, farming tools, and fishing spears, but we were working with what we had.
Noah didn’t appear to be outside at the moment, thankfully. Maybe he went inside to tend to his wounds or eat something. The first unit took off silently toward the ladder on the side of the building that would get them onto the roof. After their head start, the other three units left. The next forty-five seconds or so were remarkably pleasant. It was cold out, but Marbim had taken some clothes from Dashus and his wife for us, and I felt comfortably warm in my feather-lined poncho. I squatted in the grass next to the structure, leaning against the wall and listening to the white noise of the ocean punctuated by the occasional seabird call.
Kemma gave me a half smile and snuggled up beside me. “How do you feel?”
“Weird,” I said.
Then it began.
There were two explosions, followed by several people yelling in Mesdu. There were gunshots inside the base. I couldn’t see anything, but it was obvious Noah was being cool and methodical, firing just one or two shots at a time. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
I noted to myself that each shot probably marked the death of a Mesdu body and Erku’s rebirth into another time and place. The Mesdu people’s comfort with death was a fundamental part of this operation. It was the only way they could get inside. I tried to embrace that philosophy myself, but it was a struggle.
The shooting continued intermittently for a couple of minutes, then stopped.
It was quiet for a few moments.
“Jama guli!” someone yelled. (He’s dead!)
Kemma squeezed my hand, then we got up and walked to the base entrance. Three Mesdu bodies lay on the ground outside. I couldn’t bring myself to look directly at them. The front steps were covered in blood. I kept walking.
Inside, the floor and walls were scorched with fan patterns where Noah had rigged flash grenades with a tripwire. There were four more bodies. Five. Six. Seven, eight, nine bodies. We stepped through the blood pooling on the floor and made red footprints as we walked.
Flashbacks to the incident yesterday hit me. Fear. Blood. Death. Loss.
I turned the corner and saw Noah’s body slumped against the wall in the hallway, his automatic rifle still in hand.
He’d been decapitated.
A short, blood-splattered Mesdu woman stood next to him with a long knife in one hand and Noah’s expressionless head dangling from the other. His face still had the nasty slash Kemma had given him. She lifted it up and offered it to me with a solemn expression on her face. I nodded my gratitude to her but had no particular desire for a severed head.
I walked past her to the radio room, but as soon as I passed through the doorway, I froze.
Kemma pushed me aside so she could see. “Oh, no.”
I balled my hands into fists. “Son of a bitch.”
The computers were gone.
The radios were gone.
The routers and switches were gone.
Anything that could be used to communicate with the outside world was gone.
I ran up the hallway to our bedroom. Our computer was missing as well.
I checked the other rooms. No computers. No radios.
It made sense. If the XCG mercenaries were already on their way, Noah didn’t need to communicate anything else to them. All he had to do was wait. The equipment could only be used to interfere with their plans, so he’d gotten rid of all of it.
“They’re gone,” Kemma said. She stood in the doorway of Noah and Liam’s room.
“What?” I asked.
“The others. They’re gone. He took their bodies out.”
I looked down at the floor and saw a trail of dried blood running from Liam & Noah’s room down the hallway. That also made sense. Noah had probably dragged them outside and thrown them over the same cliff we’d just climbed up. Whatever remained of them was probably being picked apart at the bottom of the ocean by now.
I fell to my knees. I couldn’t shake the way Jacky had looked at me when we found her naked and tied under the bed.
I knew exactly what she’d been thinking.
You’re going to help me, right?
And we’d failed to do that. Completely failed.
We couldn’t even give her a proper burial. There’d be no justice, no accountability for Noah and Liam’s actions. They were both dead now, but they’d gone down shooting. Their plan was moving forward without them, and we had no way to stop it from happening. It was inevitable now. XCG had won, and they’d killed good people to make it happen.
• • • •
The next morning, we were taken to a long, windowless room with ten cushions along the walls. They told us it was the meeting hall for the Laga clan seniors, but this morning it was silent and completely dark except for a single bird-fat lamp that hung from a braided rope mounted to a ceiling pole.
We sat for about forty-five minutes until the thick door curtain was pushed aside and two guards entered, followed by Queen Nadu and a thin bald man I didn’t recognize. Kemma and I dropped to the floor and crossed our legs, putting our hands in our laps.
“Puidmia maiam valua,” the Queen said softly. (Let us be alone.)
The bald man stared at Kemma and whispered, “E ës gulunzin?” (With a murderer?)
“Puidmia,” she repeated.
He hesitated and looked back and forth between me and Kemma. Eventually he backed out of the room glaring at us, followed by the two guards, leaving us alone with the Queen.
“Lala, Dira,” I said.
“You’ve had an interesting day, boy,” the Queen said in a startlingly clear British accent.
I raised an eyebrow. “Oxford or Cambridge?” I asked.
“University of Manchester, actually. I went for physics. You’re not supposed to know that, of course, but I assumed that Kemma here had told you things she shouldn’t—as seems to be her habit—so in the interest of time and discretion I felt we could skip the pretense that I need a translator. Marbim told me the XCG corporation is sending mercenaries and weapons for a Dasa rebellion, is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said. I glanced over at Kemma. She was silent and staring at the floor.
“And you were unable to contact your people to send help?”
“All our equipment’s gone. Radios, computers, everything.”
She nodded. “This is a difficult situation.”
“They could be here in a few days. I’m out of ideas.”
“Perhaps that’s why you’re not the Queen of the World.”
I almost rolled my eyes but managed to resist. “What do you propose, then?” I asked.
She looked over at Kemma. “Is your slave healthy? Can she travel?”
“She’s not my slave,” I said.
The Queen narrowed her eyes. “Can she travel?”
I glanced at Kemma again. She hadn’t looked up yet. Her face was fixed in an expressionless mask.
I nodded. “Yes, she can travel.”
“Good. The law requires—”
“Is she your daughter?”
The Queen stopped and cocked her head. “If you interrupt me again, I’ll cut your throat myself.”
“I’m sorry for interrupting,” I said, “But I need to verify this information. Is Kemma your daughter?”
“My daughter tried to kill me. Out of pure generosity, I sent her as a gift to you instead of executing her.”
“We don’t condone slavery.”
“You mock my decision.”
Kemma glanced further downward, and I wondered if she was subconsciously making sure her mating cuts weren’t showing. Then she looked up. “I’ll prove myself to you, my Queen” she said in Mesdu.
The Queen nodded, then continued in English. “Perhaps so. Until then, however, you’re an outsider and a slave, and you should thank me every day for both of those truths. Otherwise, you’d have long ago been left a skeleton on the sea floor. I’m told you trespassed on Laga land without permission and attacked a Laga boy. Do you accept this account?”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “We were—”
“Nemi,” Kemma said. “We accept it.”
“Good. Under island law, your punishment is to be banished from Ao forever. I’ve ordered boats to be prepared at Birzo. Marbim is headed there now and will meet you there. You’ll have a three-day portion of food and water. I’m told north and a third west is a good direction.”
Kemma smiled. “Thank you, my Queen.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I don’t think it’s fair to—”
Kemma backhanded my face, nearly knocking me over.
I touched my lip and came back with blood on my finger. “What the hell was that for?”
She bowed her head down. “The Queen of the World is more than fair,” she said. “She truly is generous.”
The Queen reached forward and touched the tips of her fingers to the crown of Kemma’s bowed head. “Oromia.” (Survive.)
Tears ran down Kemma’s cheeks. “Eurora nemi,” she said. (I promise we will.)
The Queen took a long look at both of us, then turned to leave, but paused and turned back. “Nobody has seen Golo for the last few days. Do you know where he is?”
Kemma shook her head. “I haven’t seen him for a long time. Is he okay?”
“I don’t know,” the Queen said. “It’s unusual.”
With that, she turned and left the room through the door curtain, leaving us alone in the dark meeting hall. Kemma’s face was wet with tears, but she looked happy.
I licked the blood on my lower lip. “Thanks, that was really special, hitting me in front of the Queen.”
Kemma glanced at me disdainfully. “You always say the wrong things, Saka. You’re very bad at this. You don’t understand anything.”
“She’s kicking us off the island. What am I supposed to say to her? We’re going to die out there on the ocean.”
“North and a third West goes to the island Mialluim. There’s a city of your people there. We’ll be there in two days if the wind is good. We can call for help.”
I tried to recall a map of the area around Gough Island. Mialluim had to be Tristan da Cunha, the nearest island to Gough Island. It was a British overseas territory with a permanent settlement. If we made it there, we could radio for help. Is that what the Queen had intended?
If we didn’t make it there, though, our nearest hope was Cape Town, about 1,600 miles away—a journey I doubted we’d complete successfully.
“Why are you smiling?” I asked.
“It’s a mission,” Kemma said. “She’s sending us on a mission.”
• • • •
Birzo, a port village, was about two miles away from the Laga village. Unfortunately for what was left of my body, there was a mountain between here and there, and the easiest route was nearly a thousand feet above sea level. We’d be climbing again.
After the Queen left, we went back to the base, and I tiptoed through the blood and bodies to retrieve my notebooks from the bedroom. I vomited twice. When I got back outside, I found myself frequently stealing glances at Kemma’s face, hoping her familiar shapes and expressions might gradually replace the nightmares I’d witnessed over the last couple of days. I didn’t know if that made any sense psychologically, but it was all I had to work with. For her part, she didn’t seem to mind my staring.
Even though Birzo was only about a third of the distance we’d previously traveled to the capital, it would still take us at least until late afternoon to get there because of the steep slopes and my heavily blistered feet.
Along the way, Kemma explained what the Queen had done for us. Because of the Mesdu policy of minimizing outside influence, she couldn’t explicitly order people to do anything off the island. However, those rules didn’t apply to anyone who’d been exiled due to criminal behavior. Sometimes the punished would be given a mission that would accomplish the Queen’s political needs while simultaneously giving the individual an opportunity to redeem themselves.
Kemma also explained that agents of the Queen would sometimes intentionally commit a crime in order to use the banishment loophole. That’s how she and other members of the royal family, including the Queen herself during her own youth, had been able to leave the island to go to college. She wouldn’t tell me what crime she’d committed to get banished that time, but she said it was a bad one. She assured me, though, that the victim had deserved it. It was all just part of how things got done on the island.
I told her about what I’d learned about Tom and Virgil, and about how I was starting to have some suspicions about her brother Golo. It was his fiancée whom they’d supposedly attacked, and then he was also the one who’d pegged Kemma as a suspect in the assassination attempt on the Queen. And now that the XCG attack had been moved up, he’d apparently gone missing. That was a lot of circumstantial evidence surrounding one person.
She was hesitant to say anything bad about Golo, but she admitted that she had some suspicions about him herself. He was a good, strong, and intelligent man, and he always resented that men weren’t allowed to be kings in Sanju culture. He was the oldest and most capable of Kemma’s siblings, and if men were allowed to rule, he’d be the obvious choice. But instead, rule would eventually be passed to one of Kemma’s older sisters—Tika, Monli, and Kura. Of the three, she said Kura was the most logical choice because she behaved the most like the Queen.
But she said there was always a chance that Golo could have let his ambition and frustration get to him, and that he was trying to do something against their mother. Maybe he attacked his fiancée himself, then accused Tom and Virgil in order to exert some power over the royal relationship with the outsiders. And maybe he himself was trying to kill the queen but was caught nearby when the guards arrived and lied to them, directing suspicion toward Kemma.
“Do you think he has anything to do with the Dasa and this XCG attack?” I asked.
Kemma shook her head. “His father came from a solid Sanju clan. I can’t imagine him being involved with the Dasa.”
“Even though the Dasa insist that only men can rule?” I asked.
She sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s possible.”
Birzo was situated on the eastern side of the island, opposite the prevailing wind, at the foot of a long, grassy glen. As we came over the peak, I saw hundreds of black catamarans and dinghies with square sails gliding back into the port in the shadow of the nearby peaks, returning from their day of fishing.
It was twilight by the time we reached the port. Our escorts directed us to a supervisor, a thin old woman sitting atop a tall pole as she watched the few remaining boats come in. She pointed us to one of the cobblestone docks. We followed her directions and found Marbim and two of the royal guards—in their customary lip bones and necklaces of thick, red beads—waiting near two ten-foot dinghies. Marbim dismissed the Laga pair who’d escorted us, and they happily headed back to the main road.
Marbim explained that the two guards—both of whom had sailing experience—were going to guide us to Tristan da Cunha and help ensure we made it there alive. Once there, he said, only I should go ashore to avoid revealing the existence of the Mesdu, and I should tell the Tristanians nothing except that there was an emergency and that I needed to radio for help. Once I’d confirmed that the appropriate elements in the U.S. Government were sending support, he told us to hide on the far side of Tristan from the British settlement, setting up camp for probably a month before returning to Gough. By that time, the conflict would hopefully be resolved.
Kemma and I climbed into one of the dinghies, trying not to knock over the various woven and wooden supply containers we’d been given, and the two escort guards—stout, barrel-chested men—got into the other boat. The vessels were connected by a thick rope, and they said they’d take the first shift rowing, towing us along so we could rest. I don’t think I’d ever felt so grateful for anything in my life.
I laid one blanket down on the bottom of the boat and covered up with another one, lying on my side with my arm as a pillow. Kemma sat nearby, leaning against the edge, hugging her knees under a sleeping poncho.
There was a slight jerk as the line between our boats went taut, and we drifted out away from the dock. The only sounds after that were the chirping of nearby night birds, the soft splashes of oars in the water, and the occasional calls of fishermen and dock workers in the distance as we drifted lazily out into the unthinkable expanse of the South Atlantic.
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