Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 17

Pema këmma cema sianno pema gema kemma.
The fishing bucket receives the tide as the nest receives the finch.
—Mesdu tongue twister / song lyric

The front line of the battle was so quiet I almost missed it. Near the edge of Lenśa Birzo, a half-mile-wide glen, a young boy jumped out of nowhere and pulled me behind a grassy mound. Unseen soldiers on the opposite slope took a couple of shots at us, bullets splattering into the wet grass behind us followed by the echoing report from the other side.

I lay there for a long time trying to figure out what was going on. Along the ridge, I saw—after looking more closely—dozens of the Queen’s loyalists tucked into depressions or hiding behind rocks. Some were wielding firearms that looked like antiques—even older than the ones Shane had offered us on Tristan—while others carried batons, fishing spears, and whatever else they could get their hands on.

I was no military strategist, but it was clear that this was an ugly scenario. Both sides had high ground, and anyone trying to cross the valley between them would be at the mercy of those on the other side. Lenśa Birzo descended eastward into the glen that housed the port village of Birzo from which Kemma and I had originally left for Tristan. The valley ended at the shore, offering no concealed path for the loyalists to sneak around and flank the Dasa insurgents. To our west was an open plain, also worthless for covert maneuvers. Both sides simply hunkered down, taking the occasional reminder shot at each other.

A young messenger girl ran along the ridge, ducking into hiding spots and passing on information as it became available: a scout party had tried to cross at the glen but were spotted and turned back, there was a sniper at the top of a nearby peak who’d killed a couple people just east of us, and food supplies were on the way but there wasn’t enough for everyone.

I asked the girl to find Kemma and tell her where I was. She said she couldn’t because didn’t know what Kemma looked like, then she took off running up the ridge again.

I attempted to move to another location, but the well-equipped mercenaries on the other side of the valley made it clear that they didn’t want me moving around. One of the bullets whizzed by close enough that I could have sworn I felt a breeze from it. I quickly scurried back to my hiding place.

It occurred to me that I was getting so accustomed to nearly dying that it hardly phased me anymore.

A young man about fifty yards away took advantage of the distraction I'd caused and made a run for a different location, but a bullet slammed into his ribs, spinning him around. He landed on his back, legs tangled, and fell completely still. Blood oozed out his side into the grass. It seemed like my brain stopped working. A few victory cheers, quiet at this distance, were called out from the insurgent side of the valley. I lay and watched the young man for a minute or so until the blood pouring out of him slowed and then stopped entirely.

It was quiet for a long time. Nobody moved. No shots were fired. A salty breeze rolled in over the plain from the west of us, bringing with it a mild haze. The sounds of muffled explosions and a distant helicopter churning drifted in from the west. I was glad the helicopter seemed to be occupied with a more active conflict at the moment, but I also figured they might send it over here to be a tiebreaker if the balance didn’t shift soon. When they did that, we’d be finished.

Another messenger came along, saying we were to rush into the valley as soon as we heard a horn blast. I asked her who’d given the order, and she pointed down the ridge to a large ditch where several people were holed up.

An all-out charge would definitely not work. The enemy had superior firepower and a secure position. It would be a massacre. Having seen movies and played video games wasn’t much of a tactical education, but it was probably more warfare experience than any of these farmers and fishermen had.

I asked the messenger to tell them that it was a bad idea and that they shouldn’t do it, but she said she had to keep moving up the line and that I’d have to tell them myself.

All day, I’d been wondering when the American reinforcements were going to arrive to put an end to all of this. The longer I lay there thinking it over, the more I realized nobody was coming. I was the only American on the island, and my people didn’t even know I was there anymore. They probably thought I was on the Agulhas getting ready to head home, since that’s what they’d told me to do. They probably didn’t even know the ship had been sunk. From a financial perspective, the American share of the diamond mine’s output was profitable enough when the only expenses were a State Department anthropologist and a CIA officer, but the cost of a military operation on one of the world’s most remote islands would blow away any margins they had here. On top of it all, they wouldn’t be able to keep a military operation off the books the way all this had been done previously. There would be too much political fallout. It just wasn’t worth the risk. Cutting their losses and washing their hands of it was the only decision that made any sense.

That meant my survival depended on these loyalists actually defeating the Dasa insurgents and the well-equipped mercenaries supporting them.

And the odds of that were…well, it just wasn't going to happen.

I had to get over to the ditch where the loyalist decision-makers sat and stop them before they called for the charge into the valley. They were only about 100 yards away, but it looked like a marathon to me, given my already-depleted physical state and the fact that there were snipers on the other side of the valley waiting for a target.

I got into a crouching position and took a few deep breaths. I mentally plotted my course over the terrain between us, noting which patches might be slippery and what obstacles I’d have to jump over. I tried to work out the timing of what I was about to do, but I was so tired I couldn’t remember it all. I’d have to just improvise and hope.

I breathed out slowly through pursed lips. Time to go.

I launched forward and took off running. The first few seconds were dreamlike, completely silent all around except for my heavy breathing and my heavy steps on the damp grass. Slap, slap, squish, slap, slap, slap, slap, squish, slap. Others turned to watch me, trying to figure out what was going on.

After about thirty feet, I skidded to a stop and took a small step backward, trying to disrupt the snipers that would be tracking me. Sure enough, I heard the snap of a passing bullet that had been meant for me, saw a nearby clump of sod fly into the air, and heard the rifle report from across the valley. I took off running again.

It was a game now, faking one direction then heading another. I slowed as if I’d stop again, then kept running. I jumped. I dodged left and went down into a dip, waiting there for several seconds before I went back the way I came, then turned again and ran forward. They fired three more shots, which all missed. I knew I was pushing my luck with every shot they fired. One of them would hit me eventually. I’d learned from video games that you can get away with this technique for short distances, but given enough time, the sniper always gets you.

About halfway to the ditch, I dove behind a patch of bushes where a stocky woman with an antique rifle lay next to a young man with a fishing spear. I crashed into her, and she gave me an annoyed kick and pushed me away. A bullet landed in the mud about a couple feet away from us, and I scrambled closer to her, trying to stay well behind the bushes. She asked me what I was doing, and I pointed to the ditch where the leaders were and told her I had to talk to them.

Before I finished my sentence, the whistle of an incoming shell cut through the air in a giant arc. There was a loud crack and dirt and rocks exploded into the air about a hundred feet from my location.

So, they had a mortar now. That wasn’t great news.

I climbed up and sprinted forward again. Another shell exploded about halfway between the first impact and the ditch toward which I was running. A flying rock hit me on the shin and sent me stumbling into the ground. I didn’t look at my leg. It hurt bad enough that I didn’t want to see it, and I didn’t have time for a self-inspection anyway. My leg still worked well enough. I picked myself up and kept running. Dirt popped out of the ground nearby as bullets struck.

I yelled toward the loyalists in the ditch, trying to get their attention so they’d know I was about to jump in there with them. One of them noticed me, and waved me in.

There was another incoming whistle, then that same ditch exploded into a cloud of debris. Someone’s foot flew past me, spinning through the air accompanied by a spray of blood. The shockwave knocked me backwards to the ground. The yelling and gunfire immediately ceased, replaced by a steady ringing sound.

“Get up,” I told myself out loud, although I couldn’t hear it.

Chunks of dirt, grass, and rock rained all around me. I glanced over at the ditch where the loyalist leaders had been. There was only a misshapen crater now. They were gone.

“Get up, get up, get up.”

I struggled to my feet. Everything hurt, but I had to move to safety. I couldn’t hear the bullets anymore, just ringing, but I still sensed them passing near me, and caught the occasional sight of them striking the ground nearby. There were at least a few different people shooting at me from over the valley now.

I jogged toward the now-steaming crater and stumbled into it, rolling to the bottom. A few moments later, there was another explosion further down the ridge. They’d moved onto a new target. The snipers couldn’t see me there, so I’d be safe at least for a few minutes.

This was no longer a standoff. We were actively losing. Fighting would be suicide, surrendering would be suicide, and there was nowhere to run. I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and enjoyed the near-silence afforded by my still-ringing ears. I could just go to sleep, and deal with things when I woke up later. And if I didn’t wake up later, well, that maybe that wouldn’t be so bad either.

Then someone was shaking me.

I opened my eyes.

It was Kemma.

She was filthy. Splattered with blood. Exhausted. Wild-eyed.

She was talking but I couldn’t hear anything. I shrugged and pointed to my ears.

She dropped down next to me in the dirt. We sat and looked at each other for a long time, bewildered at the things happening around us. She squeezed my hand, silently acknowledging that maybe I’d turned out to be less worthless than she’d assumed.

She looked hungry and sad, but there was still a determined spark in her eye that seemed to give her more than enough fuel to keep going. At that moment, I was completely ready to rest in that hole until a mortar shell put me out of my misery, but somehow Kemma wasn’t anywhere near finished yet. Whatever she had going on inside, I wished I had some of it.

The ground lurched, and more dirt and grass rained down on us. Another shell had landed nearby. She gave me a half smile, then lifted up a large horn I hadn’t noticed she’d been holding.

The horn. She'd found the horn. The one they were going to blow to give the attack order.

She inhaled deeply and put it to her lips.

I reached up and swiped at the horn, knocking it away from her. It tumbled into the dirt. She looked at me like I was crazy and yelled something I couldn’t hear.

I told her to wait because I had an idea. Kemma was skeptical, preferring the aggressive option, but she obliged. Unfortunately, I was having trouble communicating because of my hearing. She motioned for me to stay, then left the crater to go talk to the runners.

The mortaring stopped, and I wondered if they were out of shells. Apart from occasional sniper shots, it seemed like the insurgents were waiting for us to attack them, putting us in a vulnerable position away from cover and giving them the opportunity to obliterate us.

Kemma returned several minutes later, sliding down into the crater next to me. “Can you hear now?”

“Kind of,” I said. My ears still rang, but now I could at least make out what she was saying.

“I told everyone to stay in their position until they hear the horn or receive other orders. We don’t have much time. Tell me your idea. Fast.”

I sighed, wondering if I should even bother. Maybe we were all dead either way.

No, it was worth a shot.

“I recently worked on a project to help our government get inside a terrorist organization. We needed to hit them harder than we could from the outside, so we had to attack from the inside. They brought me in to help them figure out how to do that.”

Kemma stared toward the front line, trying to maintain a passive awareness of what was happening as she listened. “We should go inside the Dasa rebellion. This is what you mean?”

“They’ll slaughter us in a face-to-face fight. They have guns and equipment to multiply their fighting power. We need something to multiply our power, or we won’t stand a chance. This is the only thing I can think of.”

She nodded slowly. “Who would go? How many?”

“Probably just one or two. Someone you trust. If too many people try it, it’ll become obvious to them. They could take a boat out and arrive somewhere behind enemy lines. Pretend to be fishermen coming back from a long trip. They say they’re Dasa and they want to help. Get recruited. Then they’re on the inside.”

“What happens after?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. They’ll have to make it up as they go. Do as much damage as possible.”

Kemma rubbed her eyes. “I’ll order the fighters here not to attack. Instead, they should slow the enemy and survive as long as possible while we do this. We need to leave now.”

“Wait, you’re going?”

She glared at me. “Yes. And you, too. This is how you’ll fix your mistakes.”

• • • •

The haze thickened into a rolling fog that halted the sniper fire. We took advantage of the reduced visibility to put my half-assed, barely conceived plan in motion. We sent a trusted messenger back to the Royal House to let the Queen know what we were doing, and runners took the word up and down the line so the fighters would know what was expected of them. Their job was to hold the line as long as possible, buying us time to try to make something happen.

It turned out the Tristanians—Rob, Little Rob, Harold, Shane, and the others who’d joined them on the helicopter—were also there on the front with Kemma helping to hold the line. They were amazed to see I’d found a way back to Gough, and they had a good laugh when they figured out whose boat I’d stolen based on my description of it. I thanked them for taking care of Kemma when I’d failed to do so and told them I wouldn’t let them down again. Shane told me he was proud of me for finally growing some balls, then told me never to ask the Tristanians for anything again after this unholy mess we’d gotten them into.

“Fair enough,” I said.

I asked about Carter, the helicopter pilot. They said his plan was to wait the whole thing out, so he’d ditched his orange jumpsuit and went out in search of a hiding place. XCG had found and captured the helicopter, but as far as anyway knew Carter was still sitting mostly naked in a bush somewhere on the other side of the island.

Kemma and I turned back from the front line and hiked down the slippery grass and muddy trails of Lenśa Kar, the glen behind the line, away from the enemy’s view. As we hiked, I recounted to Kemma what had happened on Tristan da Cunha, and how I’d managed to get back to Gough Island. She laughed and said it sounded like an imaginary story told to young children around a fire by an unreliable uncle. Even I had to laugh a few times while retelling it because it all sounded so preposterous.

After a hard mile of wet and rocky trails that left my legs splattered with mud, blood, and grass, we reached the fishing village of Kar at the end of the valley. It was eerily quiet, having been abandoned after the battle began, as had so many other villages. We gathered food and fishing gear from people’s homes and took some clothes as well. We changed into traditional fisherman’s garb, an outfit involving a torso wrap, a clasped shawl, and a sort of apron, all of which were made from sealskin, feathers, and woven plant fibers. Kemma explained that the idea was that they’d be warm and mostly water-resistant while still enabling us to swim if someone went overboard. We stuffed the gear into some wood-framed backpacks we'd found, which were often used by fishermen to transport their equipment conveniently.

We loaded everything aboard a nearby rowboat. She pointed out toward a lumpy little islet about half a mile offshore surrounded by docks with larger boats. It was called Riga Mossa, she told me. Penguin Island. That’s where we’d go to get a larger boat to get around to the southern side of the island.

I pushed the boat out toward the water and jumped in, then helped Kemma get in. The seawater was invigoratingly cold.

She sat up front, facing back toward me. I grabbed the oars and started rowing toward Riga Mossa.

“I really regret leaving you,” I said.

She bobbed her head from side to side. “Everyone makes bad choices. I can forget them if you can fix them.”

“I’m trying.”

“I know.”

I rowed slowly, trying to conserve what little energy I had left. Kemma understood and didn’t mock me for it, which I appreciated. I actually appreciated her frank bluntness most of the time, but didn’t particularly need it right now, and she seemed to understand that.

Along the way, she coached me on how to act and sound more like a Dasa, a key requirement for us to fake our way into the insurgent-held territory. While the Sanju and Dasa interacted so regularly that it would be easy for outsiders never to notice the differences, she explained that there were certain verbal affectations, mannerisms, and values that the more distinctly Dasa clans had retained over time to retain their uniqueness from the Sanju: a twist of intonation at the end of a sentence, a different accent on a common verb form, a preference for some words over others. They were minor acts of rebellion not significant enough to trigger punishment, coded messages that reminded generation after generation that embers of conflict still glowed beneath the ashes of the old war.

The slopes of Riga Mossa were so steep they were effectively inaccessible, but the cliffy islet served as a mounting base for a system of wooden docks built around its perimeter. It was also home to a large number of penguins with yellow crests that looked like some kind of trendy 1980s hairstyle.

We climbed up a ladder out of the rowboat, hauling our gear over our shoulders, then jogged up the dock a short distance to a double-sailed catamaran around fifty or sixty feet in length. Kemma said that would be the best one. Between the two canoe-like hulls was a large flat platform that included a little wooden cabin. It actually looked pretty cozy, all things considered.

After we loaded the gear and got settled in the catamaran, Kemma attempted to give me a crash course in how to sail the thing, but she eventually got frustrated and told me to just do what she said. That seemed like a simpler solution, and I readily agreed.

We untied the lines mooring the catamaran to the dock and pushed off from the dock with a long pole. The sun hung low in the sky, and it seemed like forever ago that I’d woken up in a boat on high waves, drifting toward Antarctica with no navigation system.

I was tired but I was amped with nervous energy. I couldn’t stop thinking about what we were trying to accomplish—and how unlikely it was to work. We had no plan because we had no idea what we were going to find there. We’d go behind enemy lines, find some bad guys, convince them we were on their side, and then…what? Throw rocks at them? Convince them to give up? Fight them off, just the two of us? We might get lucky and take out a handful before they turned on us, but it wouldn’t be enough to change the outcome of this island-wide civil war. Maybe we could cut off a supply line or wreck some communications equipment to at least delay the inevitable. Maybe all of this was just a symbolic gesture.

Kemma sat near the center of the craft in a woven seat, holding steering ropes connected to the sails. She gently pulled and released them to nudge the sails this way and that, sending the craft skimming calmly across the water’s surface, slowly at first, and then at gradually increasing speeds. I sat in front of her, facing back toward the island. I admired how badass she looked with the dark, stony island behind her, her messy hair and dirty face outlined in orange by the setting sun.

“This isn’t going to work, is it?” I asked.

She paused, then gave a defeated smirk. “I don’t think it will.”

“But we have to try anyway.”


“It’s either that or sit around and wait to get killed.”


“At least this way we’re doing something. We’ll die trying.”

She looked down at the deck for a moment, then back up at me. “Yes.”

Then her eyes went wide, and she pointed behind me. I turned and saw a little yellow-green finch with a black face sitting on the edge near the bow of the boat.

“The bird?” I asked, wondering why she’d reacted to it.

“That’s me! That’s a kemma. It’s the good luck bird.”

I looked back at her and suddenly all the darkness had left her face. She was as happy and excited as a child.

The bird flew away a moment later, but Kemma’s smile remained long after that. It was a little miracle that we’d both needed to keep us going.

I inhaled deeply, taking in the salty ocean air, and breathed it out slowly through pursed lips, trying to calm myself down for what was coming. The air pressed against my back and whistled softly past my ears as we cut through the water. Tiny splashes lapped against the catamaran hulls.

We didn’t want to be seen from the shore, so our plan was to go far enough out to sea that we’d be unlikely to catch anyone’s eye, and then go around to the southern part of the island. It would take longer, of course, but would help us establish a cover story of having been out on a long fishing trip without someone saying they had just seen us come around from the other part of the island.

I watched Kemma as if she were a movie screen, and she watched me right back. We didn’t say anything else for a long time. We just looked at each other. It didn’t feel awkward. It was just two people—a husband and wife, actually—enjoying a peaceful moment together. It was almost like we were on vacation. My blood pressure eased as I let myself finally relax.

A long time and several miles passed. As the sky grew dark, I finally broke the silence.

“You know…this might be the last quiet time we have before…you know, everything happens. We might not get another chance like this.”

She nodded.

“We should probably take advantage of it.”

“I agree.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

She smiled. “Sleep?”

“Exactly,” I said.

Kemma laughed and motioned for me to take down the sails. While I did that, she went and pulled foot-long stone hooks from compartments at each corner of the boat and tossed them overboard. They were attached to spools of twine that spun as the hooks descended. Those anchors wouldn’t do much in a storm, but they would keep us from drifting too far while the weather was calm.

We pushed the door curtain aside and climbed into the small wooden cabin, which held two simple cots pushed together and some kind of comforter shared across the top. We stripped off our dirty clothes and eagerly climbed in together, spooning together for warmth underneath the silky fiber comforter. I put my arm around her, and gently ran my fingers across the still-healing marriage cuts on her chest.

“I love you, Kemma” I whispered to her.

She put her hand on mine. “I love you, Saka. I’m happy you’re here.”

Thirty seconds later, we were dead asleep.

• • • •

I was awakened by individual pumpkin seeds hitting off my face at regular intervals. I sat up and squinted. The dawn sunlight, muted by light fog, cast a warm glow on the bottoms of the lead-colored storm clouds south of us.

Kemma stood in the doorway suppressing a smile. She tossed another pumpkin seed at me.

“Wake up,” she said. “Come see your home for the last time.”

I stretched and climbed out of the cabin onto the deck. She’d obviously woken up earlier to pull anchor and set sail. We were now hooking around the southeastern side of the island, more than a mile out from shore to reduce the chances of being noticed.

Atop the island’s cliffs, I could just make out the large white shape I knew to be the base, Gough House, that utilitarian building pretending to be an embassy pretending to be a weather station. It was probably the closest thing I had to a home within 7,000 miles, but somehow it didn’t feel that way. After what had happened there ten days ago, I had separated myself from it in my mind. That’s where everything had gone wrong. That’s where Jacky had died, along with so many others. I never wanted to go inside that building again, even to collect my own belongings. I could do without them.

Seeing the building, two scenes that had been replaying themselves in the background of my mind came back up to the surface of my full consciousness.

The first vision was the sight of Jacky’s eyes, staring up from her gagged face, pleading with me to help her escape. The look in her eyes had begged more than words ever could have. I’d never seen that expression before and hoped never to see it again.

The second vision was of the pink mist of blood exploding outward from Jacky’s body as the bullet passed through her with an explosive bang, followed by her dropping to the floor, completely limp.

She’d been a remarkable woman…and then suddenly she was nothing.

These scenes played in a loop in my mind, reminding me of how much had been at stake and how badly we’d let her down. I’d never be able to shake that sense of failed obligation. It would haunt me the rest of my life. Maybe that’s part of why I came back here. I didn’t want to fail again like I’d failed Jacky. One of those experiences is enough for a lifetime.

Between those scenes, glimpses of Nigel and Robert’s deaths also vied for my attention. I’d hardly known them, but they’d risked—and lost—their lives trying to help me make things right for Jacky.

And nobody would know. That’s what really frustrated me. All of us would simply disappear into the fog of time. Our respective governments would simply fabricate some uninteresting story about how we’d died in a simple accident. My mother would mourn but never understand.

And XCG, the semi-autonomous proxy corporation formed to represent the shared interests of certain players in Gough Island’s robust diamond trade, would emerge victorious after all of it. Through a mercenary-supported violent rebellion, they’d ruin a beautiful society and gain full control over the island’s diamond output. The proxy corporations that had sent Robert, Nigel, Jacky, and me would simply have to cut their losses and fold. XCG would almost certainly dominate the island, using the Dasa insurgents as their puppets, and the insurgents in turn making a puppet of Kemma’s brother Golo. With unchecked corporate interest being the dominant political force, oppression of the Mesdu people was essentially guaranteed. Their lives would be miserable after this. And no justice would be done. Ever.

“You look angry,” Kemma said, snapping me back into the moment.

I realized I’d balled my hands into fists. I opened them, flexed my fingers, and sighed. “Sorry. Getting worked up over things I can’t change.”

“Anger can be a sharp knife. Don’t throw it away.”

“You once told me anger was a child’s emotion.”

“The rules change for a killfight.”

She squatted down on the deck next to a mat woven from green fern leaves on which she’d spread out some food and water gourds. “You should eat. Probably won’t eat anything later today.”

I smiled and sat next to her. “Okay, what’s for breakfast?”

She pointed as she spoke. “Pumpkin seeds, salted fish, salted…musca. I don’t know the word in English.”

“Crayfish, I think?”

“Salted crayfish, flatcakes with jumku, and…what is dur?”

“Dumplings, maybe?”

“Dum…palings,” she repeated, trying to get her mouth around the consonant cluster. “Dump-lings…dumplings.”

“This is a great breakfast,” I said.

“It’s all the food we brought. I thought we should eat it now.”

So, we did. My tongue was getting accustomed to the flavors of Mesdu food, and I enjoyed this meal more than some others I’d had recently. It was cold but tasted good. Hunger certainly played a role in that, though. Almost anything would have tasted amazing at that moment. Even fish eyeballs.

The wind was low, so we had plenty of time as we drifted lazily around the island. Kemma occasionally moved around to adjust the sails, keeping us at a good distance from the island while not letting us drift too far. Apart from that we just waited and tried to rest.

We talked about trivial matters, actively trying to avoid discussing the matter at hand for a while. We compared anecdotes from our childhood, sang Mesdu nursery rhymes, and she explained the rules of dutui, a sport something like a cross between basketball and American football, played on a long, narrow field. She told me she had once been in a romantic relationship with the best dutui player on the island, but his lack of intelligence embarrassed her, and she eventually dumped him.

As we cut through the lapping ocean in a long arc around the island, the bright white walls of Gough House gradually shrank and disappeared behind grassy cliffs. From this distance, the island was a desolate and uncorrupted land, pure in form and nature.

“You guys would have been a lot better off without us,” I said.

Kemma looked out over the waves and pushed a windblown lock of hair out of her eyes. “That’s not true, I think.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked. “Seems like you guys were doing fine before you had people like me showing up to take a piece of your island.”

She paused, considering how to explain. “Nadu Auzai taught us about perfection through isolation after she brought the kingdoms back together.” She interlaced her fingers. “That helped keep us together, like a thick cord for carrying rocks. It protected us from wrong ideas from outside. But she also paid outsiders to teach ideas to her and her Council. They didn’t want to be ignorant. Some ideas about science and medicine were introduced into our schools. They pretended we had come up with those ideas on our own, but they were from the outside. Those ideas helped many people.”

I nodded. “I guess that makes sense.”

“After that, every queen secretly sent her children to schools on the outside. I went to high school and college in your country. I learned your ideas and brought them back. I don’t give them to everyone, but I have them in my mind, and that makes me stronger. It’s like how we take the seed of outsiders to make strong children. Differences can create strength. In school I learned about different nations from the past. Roman. Incan. Greek. Egyptian. Aztec. Chinese. Persian. Mayan. I studied them because I thought I might be a queen someday. The Queen has other daughters—better ones than me—but there was a chance. I wanted to understand how those nations worked. I learned they interacted with other nations. It changed them, but it also gave them tools to get stronger.”

“Well,” I said, “all those civilizations eventually died, too.”

“Everything dies. We will die tonight or tomorrow. My people will probably die soon, also. Even the island will die someday and disappear back into the ocean. It doesn’t matter. The mountains don’t care. The streams don’t care. We say, ‘Live your life, die your death.’ You can’t live your life if you are sad about everything that happens to you. Outsiders found our island. That was what happened to us. That was deep mud on our path, but we walk and walk until the end of our journey.”

I leaned back and looked at her, admiring her composure. “You would’ve been a hell of a queen. I wish I could have seen that happen.”

She nodded in the direction of the sun. “Nadu Kai sees me from the sky. She knows I was ready to be a queen, and that’s enough for me. We’ll kill as many people as we can before we die, and then tomorrow or the next day we’ll be babies again, sucking at our mothers’ breasts and forgetting all these worries. Maybe I’ll be born into an ancient empire. Maybe into the future where we have ships sailing to stars and people made from machines. Maybe I’ll be a queen there, on another star. I’m excited to find out. I might be sad if we survive.”

I laughed out loud. “I have to disagree with you there. I would love to survive this.”

She grabbed my hand. “Saka, I’m sad we won’t be together after this life. We might be on other sides of the world when we’re born next. We might be a thousand years apart. You’re strange to me, but you’re a good man. I like this time with you.”

I squeezed her hand back. “I almost can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m glad I came here. It was worth it to know you. Despite everything that went wrong here, I’d do it again, no question.”

She smiled. “I’ve said some mean things to you, but I’m happy to be married to you.”

“It took me a while to get there,” I said, “but I’m happy, too.”

She wrapped an arm around my waist and nestled into my chest.

“Talking this way makes me feel sexy,” she said quietly.

I put an arm around her and pulled her tight. “Pirgu Polla Kemma, Princess of Ao, are you proposing that we…do things?”

She nodded.

So, we did.

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