Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 16

Oboma moc a toma sanii du a.
Those who don’t paddle together travel in circles.
—Mesdu proverb

I knew nothing about stopping a boat, so I simply piloted it toward the shore until I heard the bottom grinding on the rocks below, then killed the engine. I jumped overboard into the chest-high cold water and walked the rest of the way, trying to sprint with the waves as they rolled in and planting my feet against them as they flowed back out.

I landed near a small Mesdu fishing village, hoping to get some information about what was going on, but it appeared to have been abandoned already. Based on the position of the sun relative to the shore, I figured I was somewhere on the western side of the island, completely opposite from where the Gough House base was.

Gunfire and occasional explosions sounded in the distance, echoing off mountainsides.

The mercenaries had arrived.

The massacre had begun.

I walked around the village, snooping through baskets and peeking inside the round stone buildings, trying to find whatever supplies I could use. I came up with a knife, a three-pronged fishing spear, and a few strips of dried penguin that I snacked on while searching around.

A cooking pit near the center of the village still smoldered. I stopped and sat on a large rock at the edge, hoping to dry off and get warm. I closed my eyes and immediately saw visions of corpses and violence. I tried to replace them with happier images, images of Kemma, images of home, images of warmer climates. There were still dead bodies in those scenes, but it helped.

E emna?” someone yelled. (Who are you?)

I turned and saw four beefy men in loincloths spreading out to surround me. Each of them wore a loose neckband, woven from long grass and dyed purple, and I wondered if that was to identify their fighters. Two of the men carried fishing spears, one a toothed baton, and the fourth—an older man—held a Glock pistol somewhat awkwardly. That gun meant they had to be Dasa and had been armed in the uprising. I hoped they’d given him some training before just handing that thing to him.

E emna?” the oldest repeated.

Namsu Olika-Nadun Saka,” I said, giving my name in Mesdu.

The older man pointed the pistol at me. “Kanzazac du.” No outsiders. I figured he recognized my clan name as not being a typical Mesdu one.

I held my hand up. “Wait, wait! Damia!

I really should have taken the time to come up with a cover story before now. I didn’t come all this way just to get shot.

The old man asked why they should wait, and I told him the only thing that came to mind: that I was a Dasa, too.

He looked me up and down and smirked. He wasn’t buying it.

I explained—speaking slowly to buy myself more time to think—that my mother had been exiled while she was a young woman and that I’d been born in the U.S., but that she’d secretly raised me as a Dasa Mesdu who believed in Volo’s ideals. I said she’d taught me the language while living in the States, which neatly explained my accent. I told them she’d heard about the coming rebellion and had sent me here to fight.

They were skeptical, but also hesitant to kill someone who might be on their side. I congratulated myself, imagining that if she were still alive Jacky might have been proud of the ridiculous, hastily conjured narrative.

They conferred with each other for a moment and decided to take me back to their camp and ask their superiors what to do with me there. They took the knife and spear from me and said that I should travel in front so they could keep an eye on me.

Fantastic. I hadn't been back twenty minutes and I was being marched at gunpoint into the enemy camp. I already regretted coming back.

We hiked up the shore until the cliffs tapered off into steep but climbable slopes, and started our way upward through a narrow, stream-carved ravine.

We passed through a small village made up of huts and caves. It also seemed to be abandoned, but one of the men noticed an elderly woman sneaking behind a pile of baskets, trying to avoid being seen. He ran over and pulled her out. She stumbled as he pushed her forward. She apparently had a bad leg, which explained why she’d been left behind.

E au Nadu Volo?” he asked, shaking her. (Nadu or Volo?)

Erema tai du,” she said. (I can't hear.)

The man pressed his spear up to her chest and spoke louder. “E au…Nadu…Volo…?

She closed her eyes and took a few breaths. “Nadu,” she finally said.

That was the Sanju answer, and therefore the wrong one. The man pulled the pronged fishing spear back, drove it into her chest, and quickly yanked it back out. I stared right into the three holes in her chest as they filled with blood. She glanced down and stared in horror as he stabbed her a second time.

She moaned and clutched at her bleeding chest, fell to her knees, and collapsed to the ground. Her anguished gaze locked on mine as she lay there wheezing. I wondered if I should try to put her out of her misery somehow, but thankfully her face went slack a moment later and she exhaled everything she had left.

The man who’d killed her placed the spear up to his face and licked off each prong, one at a time, to the hearty approval of the rest of them. That at least gave me an idea of the kind of people I was dealing with here.

We continued up the ravine a while longer. I listened to the men talk and noticed differences in how they pronounced some of their words compared to some others I’d heard from, including Kemma. I’d heard some of those variations before, from Dashus for example, but it almost seemed like they were emphasizing them more than I’d heard before. I wondered if that was how the Dasa Mesdu talked to emphasize their affiliation.

As we reached the end of the walkable portion of the ravine, we approached a rope ladder that dangled from the top and the old man motioned for me to start climbing. My body was in no shape for that kind of effort, but my options were limited. I grabbed hold of it and pulled myself up the 100-foot ravine wall, one painful rung at a time. My slow climb and frequent stops were a source of deep annoyance to the others, but there wasn’t much that could be done about it since they really couldn’t go around me. They had no choice but to wait. I figured it was their fault for putting me in front.

Nearly twenty minutes passed before I finally threw my arm over the ravine’s edge and pulled myself up to the top. I collapsed onto the wet grass.

I looked at the point where the rope ladder was anchored to two large wooden stakes, and it occurred to me that it might not be time to stop moving just yet.

I struggled to my feet, then tried lifting the rope up off the stake holding it in place but didn't have enough leverage to budge it. Then I tried pulling on the wooden stake straight holding the rope ladder in place, and it moved a little. It might work.

One of the men poked his head up over the edge. He asked me sharply what I was doing. I was out of time. I grabbed the stake firmly with both hands and yanked hard, sliding it out of the ground and letting the rope fly loose. The men still climbing yelled as the ladder lurched to the side, now held in place only by one stake.

I went to the other stake and tried to do the same, but with twice the force on the rope it didn’t lift out of the dirt like the other had.

The man at the top reached over and sunk his fingers into the grassy soil, then reached around with his other arm and threw a knife at me. It had already sailed past my shoulder by the time I noticed and reacted. I was lucky he’d missed.

I pivoted and kicked him in the face. It wasn’t a powerful blow, but it hit his nose hard enough that he screamed, struggling to hold onto the ropes with one hand while clutching his face with the other. That bought me a few seconds.

I squatted down, grabbed the stake, and pushed hard against the grass with what little remained of my legs. It gave a little, then more, and then slid out entirely. I fell backwards, and the rope shot away over the edge. The cries of the falling men echoed briefly from inside the ravine, then stopped abruptly after a few sickening thumps echoed from the rock walls.

I lay there on the grass for several minutes, trying to catch my breath and regain my strength. It was warmer up there in the sun, away from the shore, and the soft soil beneath me was as comfortable as any mattress I’d ever felt.

• • • •

I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I awoke with a start to find a stocky, mostly naked woman straddling me, pinning my arms down with her knees. She wrapped a powerful hand around my throat, not choking me but squeezing tightly enough to let me know she easily could if I gave her a reason. Her eyes clearly communicated that she was ready to do it.

She wore the red beads and lip bones of the Queen’s helpers. She was Sanju.

Dauma tai Nadu Dira,” I said quickly. (I obey Queen Nadu.)

She asked who I was, and I told her I was a kanzaza, an outsider, and that the Queen had sent me to get help and I’d returned. I told her I was looking for Kanza Polla Kemma. I asked if she knew her, but she ignored the question and asked me to prove I wasn’t with the Dasa.

I nodded toward the edge of the ravine and told her to take a look. She was wary, but I shot her an imploringly innocent expression. She hesitated, told me to stay still, then jumped off me and hopped several feet away, giving herself some reaction time in case I tried to push her over the edge.

Glancing quickly between me and the ravine, she planted a foot on the edge and leaned forward, looking downward at what I assumed were bodies crumpled up with the rope ladder at the bottom.

Her stern face cracked a smile. “E Dasa?” she asked, nodding toward them.

Nemi, Dasa,” I confirmed.

She gave me a nod of approval and waved her hand to give me permission to get up. I wondered how long I’d been asleep. It felt like it had only been a few minutes.

The woman introduced herself as Eri and told me to come with her. I agreed, not having the slightest clue where I might go otherwise. I was just drifting with the wind at this point.

We marched briskly toward a peak about a half mile away. Along the way I asked her what was happening, and she explained that the attack had started two days ago. The Queen had known it was coming—thanks to me, I interrupted to point out—and she had drafted every loyal and able-bodied man, woman, and child into immediate military service, organized into companies by their clans.

It was hard to define the battlefield, since Sanju and Dasa clans had long ago drifted from the historical east/west territories and both sides had clan lands scattered across the island, especially as clans had grown or shrunk and been reallocated to new lands. Further confusing matters was the fact that many of the historically Dasa clans, or individuals within them, were still loyal to the Queen to some degree—or at least afraid enough of the death penalty to act like they were. The insurgency seemed to be growing, though. Eri said many of the Dasa were taking this as the rebellion they’d awaited for centuries. The Sanju had already caught and executed more than a dozen Dasa who’d been caught spying or sabotaging, but the Sanju couldn’t simply attack any Dasa they found because allegiances weren’t that clearly defined. In everyday life, the lines blurred together. Many clans were a blend of Sanju and Dasa.

The XCG mercenaries had arrived in a small ship, Eri explained. Their personnel and cargo had been unloaded in several trips by what I assumed was a helicopter. She called it a muela-lau-melai, or “big bird cart.” They had connected with the Dasa insurgents, given them a crash course in using modern firearms, and started taking over the islands one kozo, or clan land, at a time. Eri said the last she’d heard was that the Dasa controlled more than half the island by now.

After a few agonizing hours of hiking uphill—and hearing an increasing number of gunshots and the occasional explosion—we came around to the Royal House. Eri explained that the battlefront was about an hour’s hike to the southeast. It was generally accepted that whoever occupied the Royal House ruled the island, and that they were estimating it would probably be overrun within the next day or two.

We walked around the outside wall to where a large crowd was gathered, staring up at one of the large open windows. Queen Nadu Bos-Sioka stood there with another man. She would say something quietly to him, and he would yell her words to the gathered loyalists.

She spoke about the virtue of isolation, and about how it was the Mesdu’s greatest blessing, the key characteristic that had refined them into a pure nation, the greatest in the world. The next few days, she said, would either result in the final purging of the one significant flaw remaining in their people, the Dasa Mesdu who still believed in Volo’s ideals—or it would end with the destruction of all who worshipped Nadu Kai and followed her teachings. Only one of those options, she reminded them, was viable. There could be no concept of Sanju and Dasa after this. There could only be Mesdu.

She scanned the crowd during a dramatic pause, and I raised my hand to give her a little wave. I immediately felt stupid. She saw me and paused, then gestured with her hand to come inside.

• • • •

One of the Queen’s helpers led me through the Royal House to the upper room from which she had been addressing the people. She turned from the window and walked toward me, the crowd still cheering outside. Her face revealed no clues about her thinking as she looked me up and down, trying to figure me out.

“You abandoned my daughter,” she finally said.

“I changed my mind,” I said.

The queen raised an eyebrow. “Minds seldom really change.”

“Well, I’m here anyway. I made a mistake.”

“What do you want?”

“Where's Kemma?”

She nodded as if that answered her question. “If she’s still alive, she’s on the Kar-Birzo ridge southeast of here.”

“Is that the front line?” I asked.

“It’s one of them.”

I sighed. I’d already known she’d be on the front line. Where else would she be?

The Queen stepped closer, seeming curious to see my reaction to her next words. “Kemma is a free woman now. She’s been restored to full status as a royal child of the Pirgu clan.”

My eyes widened. “How?”

She inhaled, then exhaled a long sigh. “I’ve learned that one of my sons, Golo, is working with the Dasa rebellion. After they originally failed to assassinate me, he was the one who had first accused Kemma and claimed that she’d been the masked killer who escaped. I see now that it was he who was behind it. They’ve told him he would be king if the Dasa had their way. He would help appease the people with his claim to the throne, being the son of the Queen, but would ultimately do the bidding of the Dasa and the kanzazac who came here with their guns.”

I shook my head. “So, it was really him? Kemma wondered if he’d been involved, but even she couldn’t believe he might be working with the Dasa.”

The queen nodded. “Yes, she…had some feelings about that when I told her.”

“And what about the men who came before us?” I asked. “The ones who were executed, wasn’t it Golo’s fiancée they were accused of abusing and killing? Did that really happen?”

She turned her hands upward in a rueful shrug-like gesture. “Her name was Suasi. She was a good woman. It never occurred to us to doubt Golo’s testimony. We believed it was as good as proof. We were clearly mistaken. Now I suspect the whole affair was another tactic by the Dasa to disrupt the other proxy corporations while XCG was preparing their attack. Golo probably…did those things to Suasi himself.”

I sighed, trying to take it all in. “I’m sorry to say it, but your son sounds like a real asshole.”

She looked down. “I’m disturbed by how well he deceived us all, to be honest. Especially me. He comforted me when I cried about losing Kemma, though he knew she was innocent. I’m now sure he was just waiting for another chance at me when…all of this started to happen.”

“Kemma still loves you,” I said. “She’ll forgive you.”

She looked up at me. “She’s not a slave anymore, you know. She doesn’t belong to you.”

“She never did,” I said.

The Queen tilted her head. “Why do you really want to find her?”

I wasn’t sure I had a great answer to her question. I didn’t want Kemma to get hurt, but I also doubted there was anything I could do to prevent it. I wanted her to know that I hadn’t abandoned her after all, but I didn't know if that was because I was worried about her feelings or about my own pride. I certainly didn’t want the Mesdu to be destroyed, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was still due to my own selfish academic aspirations.

I sighed, trying to find the right words. “I want to find her because…I’m starting to understand about Erku, about how we’re the same soul living in different bodies at different times. Helping Kemma will be bad for my life, but maybe good for many others.”

She looked at me with a touch of amused condescension. “Young man, you still have much to learn before you can presume to understand the soul of Erku in all of us. I doubt this spiritual awakening you’ve had in the last few weeks is really the motive to change the course of your life so dramatically.”

I stared at her for a moment, a little annoyed at getting called out like that, then pulled down the neck of my shirt, revealing the scabbed diagonal wounds still healing on my chest. It was the Mesdu equivalent of a wedding ring.

“Okay, then,” I said. “This is why I want to find her.”

Nadu shot me an icy glare, her lips puckered in dismay. She was quiet for a long time. The occasional ringing echo of a gunshot in the distance drifted through the window.

“I don’t like that you’ve done this,” she said flatly. “You’re taking advantage of Kemma’s fascination with the world outside of Ao. Of course she’d take the first kanzaza boy she could.”

I raised my hand. “Let’s have the disapproving mother-in-law conversation later. Right now, I need to find my wife.”

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