Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 19

Io saium isima, zuma nual zua rontel.
If you must fight, be a shark instead of a dolphin.
—Mesdu proverb

“I have orders to search these prisoners for weapons,” I said in Mesdu to the guard who blocked the door. He wore a rudimentary shirt of armor that resembled Scrabble tiles connected with twine.

The guard looked me up and down, then lowered the gardening hook he wielded as a weapon and reached over and held the door curtain aside for me to pass. I’d learned the guards were unusually trusting, mostly because they were untrained volunteers, and nobody was expecting any enemy presence this far behind the line.

I stepped inside the low-ceilinged structure. It was early afternoon but only a dim light made it through the windows and ventilation holes. In the large front room, I counted eleven prisoners. Three more were in back rooms. They all stared up at me with fear in their eyes, wondering what was going to happen next.

I searched for the most respected person in the room. It wasn’t hard to find her based on where people were sitting, how they were facing, and how they reacted when I entered the room. People were predictable.

A slender woman about my mother’s age sat by the wall near a window. She’d be the matriarch of this group, whether she was related to the others or not. Many had glanced at her when I had entered, waiting for her guidance on what to do.

I approached her directly and made the jano-sauki. Some of the others adjusted their positions slightly to be able to react if I tried to hurt her, but I motioned gently that they could stand down. They were wary but settled down. The woman herself was concerned but also curious about my unusual behavior. She remained still as I approached.

Before Kemma and I had split up to reach more people, we’d spent some time working out the right way to sell the prisoners on joining the fight. It was a complicated psychological problem to solve. Kemma had contributed her understanding of the culture, and I had shared my understanding of group behavior in societies generally. Together, we’d worked out a pretty good pitch.

I inhaled, then bent down to whisper into the woman’s ear in Mesdu. “There are more prisoners than guards here. We can break free and fight for the Queen if we work together. When you hear the yell, ‘Polomia!’ you must all fight as hard as you can, no matter the risk to yourself. Everyone here must do the same. No questions. No waiting. No thinking. Just killing. Kill as many as you can. Many of us will be reborn, but we will strike a hard blow against the enemy. Do you understand?”

She looked up at me with hope and fear and excitement in her eyes that was obvious despite the dim light inside. “I understand,” she said.

“Everyone must fight,” I said. “You were dolphins. Now you must be sharks.”

“Everyone will fight,” she said. “I was going to ask who you are, but now I see you’re my brother. We will certainly fight.”

“Any Mesdu who doesn’t fight is the same as a rebel and must be attacked. Tell this to everyone.”

She nodded her understanding. We couldn’t have them hesitating when deciding whether to actually fight or not. It needed to be instant chaos. It was the only way we could overwhelm them before they could use their firepower against us effectively.

I pointed to her upper arm and motioned for her to show it. She turned and showed the Mesdu numerals that had recently been carved into her arm with a blade. I’d learned that every Sanju prisoner had such numbers so the insurgents could keep track of them.

“Fourteen,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “They took you early.”

She nodded, her face grim.

I looked her in the eye. “Sister, you must tell these people to fight so hard that everyone on Ao will wish they’d had a prisoner number so they could say they were part of this.”

She smiled and nodded. “This will happen.”

I stepped back and looked around the room, raising my voice just enough to be heard by everyone there. “I told them I was looking for weapons. Do you have anything I can show them?”

The matriarch gestured to everyone and pointed at me with her chin, indicating they should support me.

One man stepped forward and pulled a long stirring stick from his robe. Someone else brought a shard of a clay pot that could have been used to stab or cut someone. I took them both and nodded my gratitude.

While the matriarch began spreading the word to the others in hushed tones, I spent a little longer pretending to inspect the back rooms to kill the time so it looked like a plausible search. Eventually, I stepped back out through the front doorway.

The guard was startled for a moment, then stepped aside to let me pass.

“Search better next time,” I said in Mesdu, dropping the confiscated stirring stick and pot shard at his feet. I figured a little humiliation might prevent him from talking about me to anyone else. It seemed a shame to get rid of some of the makeshift weapons before we were going to fight, but it made the guards trust us so we could keep the deception going.

The next building I approached was a windowless stone long-house that had long been covered in sod to keep the weather out. I approached the guard.

“Prisoners?” I asked, pointing to the door. “I’m supposed to search for weapons.”

“Infirmary,” the guard said. “Injured prisoners.”

Crap. I was hesitant to waste the time since it was starting to get dark, and I doubted injured prisoners would do us much good during a revolt. However, I’d already told the guard what I was doing, so I had to follow through to keep up the charade.

He held the door curtain aside to let me enter, and I ducked inside. I opened the eye I’d closed earlier so I could more quickly adjust to the darkness, as Kemma had taught me. Someone had started lighting whale-fat lamps on the other side of the large room, which also helped.

There were about fifteen people spread out inside, standing, leaning, sitting, or laying on dirty mats. Some were moaning. At least one was crying. The room smelled of sweat, urine, feces, and possibly blood. Some infirmary. I felt like I was going to catch something just standing there.

I walked around the large room, trying to act like I was supposed to be there. I nodded to the woman lighting the lamps, who also had a purple neckband. She was apparently some kind of nurse or assistant.

Nobody really seemed to be in any position of leadership within the scattered group, and it seemed like very little communication was happening, so there wasn’t anyone I could really give my message to who could then spread it and reinforce it after I left. There wasn’t time to talk to everyone individually, and these guys weren’t going to be able to do anything except moan and groan anyway.

I walked from patient to patient, looking them over. They generally ignored me. I saw a wide variety of medical situations in the group, including severed limbs—one of which was obviously infected—and deep blade wounds, a badly broken leg braced between pieces of wood, a missing eye, and a couple people who just seemed to be very ill.

Having finished lighting the lamps, the other purple neckband left through the front doorway, leaving me alone with the patients.

I continued looking around. At least we’d know what we were dealing with because we’d have to come back to help these folks if the uprising succeeded by some miracle. There was a broken arm. Someone shivering with chills. Someone lying down who I was pretty sure was dead.

A woman nearby sat up on her mat. She reached around to adjust a western-style bandage job around her abdomen, apparently done using the mercenaries’ medical supplies, but I could tell from the position of her head she was trying to watch me in her peripheral vision.

Something wasn’t right about her.

It was her hair. The lamp light was dim and her was filthy, but it wasn’t black like everyone else’s. It was blonde. And her skin wasn’t the honey almond color of the Mesdu. It was dirty and bruised, but underneath it, she was white.

I ran toward her. “Jacky!?”

She stopped pretending to inspect her bandage and turned toward me with a look of outright confusion.

I fell to my knees next to her sleeping mat so she could see me clearly. “Hey, it’s me.”

Her eyes went wide, and she threw her arms around me, squeezing me hard. “Holy hell, Matt, am I ever glad to see you!”

I hugged her back. I couldn’t believe she was real. “How…how are you alive!?”

She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. She was smiling and her eyes shimmered with tears. “What are you doing here? I thought you were dead!”

“We thought you were dead!”

“Who’s ‘we’? Who’s still alive?”

“Kemma. We came here together.”

She shook her head like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Then she laughed and pulled a pair of surgical scissors from the large bandage wrapped around her abdomen. “I almost killed you with these just now. I didn’t know it was you! Why are you here? Did you get captured?”

I held a hand up. “Hold on. Tell me what happened to you first.”

She laughed and pointed down to the bandage. “Lucky shot. Caught me right here and missed the vital stuff. Little meat, mostly fat. Middle age has its perks, I guess. Passed out from the pain. When I woke up, you and Kemma and Noah were gone. The Brits were dead. So was Liam. What the hell happened to him by the way? His head was half off. Anyway, I grabbed a gun and took off. Heard gunshots behind me and assumed Noah had taken you guys out as well. Guess you outran the bullets!”

I smiled half-heartedly. I was elated to see her, but my heart sank with the realization that she’d still been alive when we’d abandoned her. And I could tell from the bruising and cuts on her face that she hadn’t had an easy time even after she’d escaped.

Jacky continued speaking quietly. “I got lost and wandered around for a while, trying to hold myself together to find help. Eventually, I found another village, and someone there patched me up with some herbal witch doctor stuff or whatever. I passed out for a long time after that, but when I came back one of the Queen’s doctors had come to take care of me. He actually seemed to know his stuff and kept me alive. I told him about what was happening, and he said they already knew about it. I guess you guys had told them?”

I nodded. “Yeah, Dashus almost executed us for leaving our area, but we eventually got the Queen’s people to understand there was an attack coming. We wound up going to Tristan da Cunha to try to get the word out, but the XCG mercenaries hit there too. Took out all their communication infrastructure.”

“I was thinking of trying to get to Tristan. I can’t believe you already went there!”

“And they sank the ship. The Agulhas. They sank it.”

Jacky paused, then shook her head. “Oh, well that sucks.”

“Unfortunately, these guys do seem to know what they’re doing. They’re well-funded, too. We found our helicopter guy from the ship, and he told the CIA the mercenaries were coming here. They told us to get to the Agulhas and wait for orders, but they hit the ship before I could reach it. I don’t think they’re sending anyone.”

Jacky shook her head. “Yeah, they were never going to send anyone. The math doesn’t work. We’re on our own here.”

“Hey, listen, Jacky,” I said. “I’m really sorry we weren’t more help to you back at the base. We really tried. I felt so bad that—”

She put her hand on my shoulder. “Hey, we’re good. Honestly. You guys did your best, and that meant a lot to me. I felt bad thinking I’d gotten you all killed. At least a few of us are alive. As far as I’m concerned, that’s worth celebrating.”

“So, we’re good?”

“We have to be good. We’re all we’ve got.”

I laughed. “Fair enough.”

She nodded toward the doorway. “How’s stuff going out there? How badly are we being beaten?”

My momentary happiness soured again. I sighed. “It’s pretty bad. They’re pushing toward the Royal House. The Queen’s loyalists have been slowing them down, but there’s a firepower difference, obviously. Kemma and I sneaked down here to see if we could do some damage from the inside, but the whole thing could already be over by now for all we know.”

“Well, if we’re dead either way, it’s our duty to see how much damage we can do on the way out.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Jacky frowned “You having doubts about that?”

 “I don’t know. It’s all relative. From our perspective, we’re the good guys. From the Dasa’s perspective, they’re the good guys. I’m not rooting for the other team, just saying I can see where black and white become gray.”

“It’s kind of like the Revolutionary War. You’re wondering whether you would’ve been on the American or British side, right?”

“Yeah, kind of like that. It’s just…not totally obvious, you know?”

She leaned forward and spoke softly. “Well, it’s obvious to me, Matt, and let me tell you why. When these guys finally captured me, they beat the hell out of me. A couple of them raped me. They tied me up and brought me back here. Then someone else raped me. Then the mercenaries started the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques to get intelligence out of me. They beat me some more. Tied me up in horrible positions. Kept me in the dark. Locked me in a box. Wouldn’t let me sleep. Wouldn’t let me eat or drink. Waterboarded me. Pissed on me. Shit on me. Came on me. Raped me some more. And they just laughed and laughed while they were doing it. I’m only alive right now because I gave them enough fake intelligence to keep them busy and they decided to let me heal up so I could be a permanent sex toy for one of the bigshot Mesdu guys.”

Her voice got shaky with anger. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Matt, and I’m trained to deal with these things. I can lock it in a box and put it away on a shelf. But I can only put up with so much before the shelves are full and I’m just…done. And I’m done now. I’m going to kill every one of them I can get my hands on. The mercenaries. The insurgents. All of them. I won’t stop until they kill me. And I don’t feel one bit bad about it.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what to say, Jacky. I’m so sorry.”

“Besides, we don’t just let people come into our house and take our stuff. We have a contract here and we’ve been upholding our part of it. I know you don’t care about the diamonds. Neither do I, really. But they’re our diamonds, and I’ll be damned if we’re just going to give away what’s ours because someone else decides they want it. Someone comes into your mama’s house and tries to take her jewelry, you don’t just let them walk out the door. You do something.”

I nodded. “You’re right.”

“You can’t worry about which side history will land on,” she said. “History is written by the winners, not by the righteous. All you can do is get your mind right and play hard for your team. The rest is just fate.”

I took a deep breath and sighed. “Well, I’m sure as hell glad you’re on our team.”

“You’re damn lucky to have me. Now, let’s go figure out a plan.”

It turned out that Jacky had been thinking along the same lines as we were, trying to figure out how to get the prisoners to rise up and turn on the guards. There were only three problems: she didn’t speak the language, nobody would listen to her because she was an outsider, and she was generally confined to the infirmary with a group of people who could barely move, let alone take up arms.

I suggested that we could try to sneak her out of there, but she said we wouldn’t have to.

Every third day, she explained, the insurgent Dasa leaders held a mandatory latauos-za, or “village gathering,” in which they would indoctrinate the prisoners with their worldview in cheerful, reassuring tones. She didn’t understand what they were saying, but she knew a re-education camp when she saw one.

The next latauos-za was later today. She could walk, so the guards would make her attend. It was the only time the prisoners were together in the same place, so if they wanted to strike anytime soon, that would be the play.

Then she showed me her arm, which had prisoner numbers like I’d seen on the others. I translated the numerals for her. She was Prisoner #117. The guards responsible for transporting prisoners between their holding cells and the presentation area kept a set of wooden tokens with matching numbers, representing each prisoner. They would check before they left for the presentation area to make sure they had everyone, and then check again when they arrived, and again when they came to pick them up. There was no good way to trade numbers with anyone else and attempting to change your number only resulted in being beaten and denied food and water privileges.

She said the presentation area for the meeting was a large pit, an area of sunken earth with tall, angled stone slabs around it, formerly some kind of storage area. I’d seen it earlier in the day while Kemma and I were looking around.

Jacky said she’d counted 135 prisoners last time, which should be enough to overcome the 25 or so guards at this camp, even with the significant firepower difference. It would have to be a fast strike, though. If the guards had time to think and communicate, they’d fall back to a defensive position and just mow everyone down. They would win. To prevent that, we needed to stay close enough to force hand-to-hand combat and keep them busy enough that they couldn’t formulate a logical response plan.

“Confusion, chaos, and close quarters,” Jacky said. “That’s how we riot.”

The Dasa nurse came back into the room accompanied by one of the mercenary officers, a tall white man in a black tactical uniform.

I stood and made a show of looking around Jacky’s area, then walked to the next patient, an elderly woman with a bad gash in her leg. She looked pale. I glanced around her area as if looking for weapons for a few moments.

I turned and looked at the nurse. “I’m finished searching,” I said in Mesdu. “No weapons here.”

She nodded her acknowledgment, and I walked toward her and the officer, since they were between me and the door.

The mercenary officer didn’t even bother to glance at me as I passed. His eyes were on Jacky.

I looked back at her with an expression that could loosely be translated as Are you going to fight this guy right now? Should I stick around and help?

She shifted her head slightly to the left—indicating no, not yet—then looked away.

I pushed the woven door curtain aside and passed through to the outside.

I was leaving Jacky behind. Again.

I finished my section of the village, then reconnected with Kemma. She said her “inspections” went well. It helped that she was daughter of the Queen, although she still had to explain that her name had been cleared since some were still suspicious of her. Luckily, word of her exoneration had gotten around enough that someone in each group could usually vouch for her story. The prisoners were excited to fight, and Kemma was almost starting to believe we might have a chance. Between the two of us, we’d reached almost all the able-bodied prisoners in the camp.

The only question now was whether they would actually fight, or if the relentless human drive to protect oneself would take hold of them and cause the whole plan to fall apart at the last moment. There was still a real chance that we would give the battle cry and everyone would just wait to see what everyone else did. The only way to success was if enough people jumped in that everyone else would go along. It felt like we’d done our best to drive that point home, but there was no way to tell what would happen until we actually did it.

I shared the news that Jacky was alive as well, and Kemma was shocked and elated to hear it.

“I like her!” she said. “She’d be a good Mesdu.”

• • • •

The latauos-za, the indoctrination session disguised as a village gathering, took place later that afternoon. The prisoners arrived in groups, ushered by guards. A handful of XCG soldiers with rifles watched from nearby building tops to pick off any runners. That was bad news. They’d take a lot of us out before we could reach them.

We kept a low profile by walking around the storage pit, acting as if we were helping to corral the prisoners as they were checked in. Just outside of the pit on the far side from the entrance was a makeshift stage built from empty cargo boxes that had held the soldiers’ weapons and supplies. A handful of Mesdu and mercenary officers were gathered on that platform.

Eventually, Jacky appeared with a few of the other patients who could walk. I was relieved to see her, not knowing what the officer had wanted with her, but she had a dark look on her face. Kemma beamed when she saw her, and Jacky returned at least a halfway genuine smile. Then she looked at me with a determined gaze that I knew meant This is it. Let’s do it.

Kemma and I squatted near one side of the pit’s outside ring and Jacky casually found her way through the crowd to the edge nearest us. It would be difficult for her and the other prisoners to get out, but at least we could communicate a little.

Some of the prisoners we’d talked to earlier in the day made brief eye contact with us. I couldn’t tell if the intensity on their faces was acknowledgment that they were ready to rise up or merely anxiety that could cause this whole thing to fall apart. The tension increased as the pit continued to fill with prisoners. I wished they would all just relax so we didn’t tip anyone off, but that was probably too much to ask—especially when my own heart was pounding in my ears, and I was beginning to sweat despite the chilly weather.

Down in the pit, Jacky whispered to us without looking in our direction. “Wait for them to get comfortable in their speeches. Let them relax and think everything’s great.”

I began to understand why they’d decided to use the pit for the audience area. The angled, stone-lined walls were about three feet high, just enough to make it difficult to climb up. A single person could probably do it, but more than a hundred people trying to do it at the same time would be a mess. It would slow them down just enough that the soldiers could manage them with a handful of automatic rifles.

My stomach sank at the realization that this could easily turn into a bloodbath.

“This is too dangerous,” I said. “We can’t get everyone out fast enough.”

Jacky looked around casually, avoiding eye contact with us. “There’s no time left. This is the play. Hard and fast. Matt, I need you to get me the rifle from the guy by the gate. I’ll work on the snipers.”

“I don’t even know how to—” I paused.

Up on the stage where the soldiers and Dasa leaders were preparing to speak, one of the men in particular stood out to me. He wore an intricately dyed robe with beads, feathers, and fabrics similar to what the Queen had worn when we’d visited her at the Royal House. He was clearly in a position of authority, based on the deferential way the others acted around him.

And he bore a strong resemblance to Kemma.

He carried himself with a calm, confident demeanor, obviously already positioning himself as the king-to-be. I could see how he’d be the perfect fit for the role. The son of the Queen, he was technically royalty, but he could never be a monarch himself in a Sanju regime simply because he was a man. After they took the Royal House, though, he could make at least a partially legitimate claim to the throne and politically bridge the gap between Sanju and Dasa.

“That’s him,” I hissed. “That’s Golo.”

Jacky frowned. “Who’s the hell is Golo?”

I glanced back at Kemma. She’d seen him. Her eyes blazed as she glared at him, face twisted in rage.

Golo approached the front of the stage, ready to speak. Then he noticed the angry young woman standing beside the pit. He pointed toward us and issued a quick command to two bodyguards.

“Is this it?” I asked. “Are we doing this?”

Jacky hesitated. “No, hold tight. The crowd’s not tense enough yet. They won’t fight.”

The two bodyguards approached quickly, grabbing Kemma by the arms and leading away.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“We have to wait until—”

Kemma struggled, and one of the bodyguards punched her in the face, breaking skin and spraying blood out on some of the bystanders.

Without thinking, I turned and leaped on him, landing on his back and crashing him down to the ground.

I tried to yell “Polomia!” to get the prisoners to start fighting, since they were tense and trying to understand what was happening to us, but before the word came out, I took a fist in the jaw and lost my ability to do just about anything.

• • • •

A few minutes later, once they’d pounded on us enough that we’d stopped resisting, the two bodyguards marched Jacky, Kemma, and me to the edge of the village where the cliff overlooked the ocean and the village of Lower Śu on the shores below.

The cliffs made it easier for them to manage us, since there was nowhere we could run. They stood a few feet away from us, one hefting a fishing spear and the other a long knife. Their job was to contain us until someone came to deal with us.

We sat in the grass at the edge of the cliff in silence for fifteen or twenty minutes until Golo himself eventually approached, apparently having completed whatever propaganda speech he had given to the prisoners about the glorious new kingdom he was building for them and why they should stop fighting back.

Mara tain, kigiku su tai,” Golo said with a smile. (My sister, you surprised me.)

Seleta lov sun,” Kemma hissed. (I’m going to eat your eyes.)

Jacky leaned over to me and whispered, “What are they saying?”

Golo raised his eyebrows. “Oh, should I speak English for your friends here? And who are you, exactly?”

“You tried to kill our mother,” Kemma said, her expression dark. “And you killed your Suasi to get the other Americans in trouble.”

Golo breathed a little patronizing sigh. “A strong ruler does what’s necessary. If there were any other path, I would have taken it, but this was the only path that took me where I needed to go.”

“You could have accepted your place,” Kemma said quietly.

Golo nodded. “I have accepted it, Kemma. My place is to be the King of the Mesdu. This is what I was born to do, and there was no other—”

Kemma pounced at him, grabbing him by the neckline of his robe and immediately jumping up to place both her feet on his waist. She yanked backwards, falling straight down onto her back and pushing him up with her legs, rolling backward and flipping him over her.

He crashed face first, upside down, into the rocks behind Kemma, then twisted as the momentum carried him over the edge of the cliff. He screamed, his arms frantically clutching at the wet grass and loose rocks, trying to find a secure grip.

I turned back to the bodyguards. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Jacky had already tackled one of them and was beating him senseless. The other stood confused, still trying to process what was happening.

I know how you feel, buddy, I thought.

Jacky paused from pummeling the bodyguard, whom she was now straddling, to reach over and toss me his fishing spear. I grabbed it from the air and turned back to the remaining bodyguard. He looked at me with deliberate calmness, tossing the long knife to the dirt and putting his hands up in the universal gesture of I want no part of this.

“He’s going to warn the others,” Jacky said. “You have to do it.”

The bodyguard slowly backed away, then turned and began a light jog toward the area where the latauos-za was taking place.

I hefted the spear and started moving toward him, but Kemma took it from my hands. She lifted it and hurled it through the air, taking the bodyguard in the back. He crumpled to the ground, the fishing spear still jutting up out of him.

Kemma snatched up the long knife from the dirt and turned back to the edge of the cliff, where Golo’s arms strained to keep him from falling. He whimpered pathetically, muttering something in Mesdu I couldn’t understand.

Teniimia, Erku,“ Kemma whispered lovingly.

She cut one of his arms deeply and deliberately. The tense muscles split quickly, and I saw a flash of bone before he screamed and recoiled his arm reflexively. His other hand lost what little grip it had and both arms disappeared over the edge. He screamed all the way down to the rocky shore below, where he landed with a wet, sickening thud.

Kemma leaned over the ledge to take a look, then nodded approvingly to herself.

Jacky leaned toward me. “I’m starting to like that girl,” she said.

Then Kemma bent down and started sawing the head off the nearest bodyguard.

“I’m not always sure about her, myself,” I said.

• • • •

We ran back to the pit where the prisoners were being escorted up the ramp back to their holding buildings.

It was now or never.

Kemma strode toward the ramp, holding the two severed heads up high in front of everyone—the prisoners, the mercenaries, and the Dasa rebels alike. She was giving the prisoners the proof of hope. We’d been captured, but we came back with their heads.

We could win this.

She screamed the battle cry. “Polomia! Kaia, kaiakona! Polomia!

The prisoners knew what to do. The courtyard erupted into chaos.

Our captors had far superior firepower, but the element of surprise was a potent advantage. Confused soldiers awaited orders, not realizing what was happening. As far as they knew, Kemma and I were on their side because we had the purple neckbands.

By the time the gunfire started several seconds later, the prisoners had already taken out enough of their guards to break out of their containment, quickly scattering through the courtyard and eliminating the possibility of coordinating a coherent response. Packs of prisoners swarmed the captors, beating them mercilessly with fists, feet, anything that could serve as a club. The snipers couldn’t do much because the prisoners were all in hand-to-hand combat with mercenaries and insurgents. There were no clear targets.

I watched as one of the prisoners grabbed an automatic rifle from one of the fallen guards and tried to figure out how to use it, accidentally firing a shot into the leg of one of the prisoners standing next him. I grabbed it from him before he could do any more damage, then tossed it to Jacky.

She immediately turned and started picking off the snipers perched on nearby rooftops. They didn’t even know where the shots were coming from, and they were easy targets. Once she cleared most of them out, she fell back to a little hiding spot in a shaded corner formed by large military crates against a stone wall. From there she could watch the frenzied fighting and take pot shots whenever she could get a clear line on someone. She actually managed to get enough shots off that she had to stop and find another ammo magazine to keep shooting. A couple people did spot her and realize what she was doing, but when they tried to rush her, she simply shot them. I don’t know how many people she killed, but it was a lot.

A handful of prisoners had initially remained in the pit, huddling in the center. They hadn’t had faith that this rebellion would work, so they remained obedient to their captors, hoping for mercy. However, as they saw how things were going, they began peeling off and joining the fray, hoping not to be remembered for their failure to join faster.

I caught a glimpse of Kemma. She gave a bloodthirsty yell as she beat a man—whom I hoped was already dead—with his own severed arm, spraying blood in a circumference a dozen feet around her. Two others were with her, kicking and stomping the body.

Someone knocked me down and started punching me, thinking I was a Dasa insurgent because of the purple neckband I was still wearing. Luckily, a few of the others recognized me and pulled him off me, explaining I was on their side. I quickly ripped the band off and threw it on the ground, not wanting anyone else to make that same mistake.

The pace of gunshots gradually slowed over the next several minutes as the population of surviving mercenaries declined. We swept through the village, searching for other insurgents or prisoners who’d survived. The effort revealed two more mercenaries and several Dasa who’d attempted to hide themselves. Some surrendered. Others, especially the Dasa, tried to run, but they didn’t get far.

We’d killed a total of sixteen Dasa insurgents and eight XCG mercenaries—including the one we’d seen going down the stairs to Lower Śu on our way up—and had captured four of the mercenaries alive.

About a third of the prisoners had died, leaving ninety-four survivors. It was an ugly victory, but a victory all the same.

Kemma, with blood still dripping down her arms and legs, climbed back on the makeshift stage and spoke to the crowd of prisoners. She told them we would fight all the way to the Royal House in defense of the Queen, and that we wouldn’t stop no matter how many of us died. We weren’t fighting the Dasa, we were fighting the imaginary line that had existed between Sanju and Dasa, and we wouldn’t stop until it was destroyed and only a united Mesdu people remained.

The assembled audience roared their approval.

Now we had an army.

We had weapons.

We even had the element of surprise.

The only thing we lacked was time.

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