Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 21

Zuma gulunm ima nuita du, dolosa zuma kuaita.
Killing isn’t always the answer, but sometimes it is.
—Mesdu proverb

I was obviously too exhausted for guard duty, so I traded out with one of the Mesdu captains. Jacky said she was wide awake now and could watch with him for a while longer, using the night vision goggles to see if there was any response from the mercenaries to the gunshots. I hoped there wouldn’t be since there were scattered gunshots in the distance all the time. In the meantime, I was just going to pretend everything was fine and try to get some rest before morning.

I made my way back to the center of the village and asked around about Kemma. Someone pointed me toward a small building where she was sleeping. A Mesdu woman with a handgun stood guard outside. She recognized me and moved aside to let me in.

I found Kemma inside, sitting up against the wall with cushions and a mat, her head hanging low, dimly lit by the dying glow of a small fire pit in the center of the room. She was fast asleep. I didn’t want to wake her, so I looked for a spot on the other side of the room. I took off my jacket and rolled it up into a makeshift pillow, then lay down in a cozy patch of dirt near the wall. I wished I could find something more comfortable for what could be my last bit of sleep in this life, but I was too tired to make any more luxurious arrangements.

I slept fitfully, as usual, disturbed throughout the night by recurring nightmares about various unpleasant things I’d experienced since the incident at Gough House. I couldn’t get them out of my head, but the initial shock and revulsion seemed to be fading somewhat, as if I were too worn out to feel more fear or despair. The violence was beginning to feel almost normal, which was nearly as disturbing as the incidents themselves.

While waiting to drift off again, I tried to recall the deaths I’d witnessed—or participated in—over the past couple weeks and found myself losing track. I kept remembering new ones I’d forgotten to count, like when I’d cut the ladder ropes and dropped the three Dasa to their death at the bottom of a ravine. I don’t know how you forget something like that, but I didn’t remember them until I happened to experience a random flashback of their broken bodies at the bottom.

During one of those semi-awake moments, I caught a movement in the shadows by the front door curtain. Someone was entering the room. I couldn’t see who it was in the dim light of the dying embers, but the way he crept toward Kemma made his intentions clear—as did the white bone dagger in his hand.

He must have killed the guard outside. Fortunately, he hadn’t realized I was in there because I was in the shadows of the far side of the room from where Kemma slept peacefully.

The sight of this man creeping across the dirt floor toward her—toward my wife—shocked me fully awake. But that initial surge of natural adrenaline quickly shifted into outright rage. He instantly became the focal point of my frustration with the constant state of threat we were under, the risk to people I loved, and the hopelessness of our situation.

That anger turned into motion before I even realized what I was doing. I rolled to my feet and advanced in a crouch toward the fire ring in the center of the room. On my way past it, I grabbed a rough-edged rock from the ring. It was warm and comfortable in my hand. I hefted it once and rotated it so a jagged point faced outward. This felt right and natural, somehow. I was going to kill him, and I couldn’t feel bad about it. A few steps more and I swung around high, nearly coming down on his skull, but at the last moment he noticed me and jerked backwards.

I missed him completely and lost my balance, stumbling to the ground. He tried to fall forward onto me, holding the dagger out to drive it into me, but I rolled out of the way, and he fell to the dirt floor beside me. I brought my elbow down into his head, smashing his face into the ground and breaking his nose, but in his frenzy, he popped back up to his feet faster than I could.

“Kemma!” I yelled. “Wake up!”

The man and I circled the fire ring, each waiting for the other to make a mistake. His faint shadow, cast by the glow of the remaining coals, slid menacingly across the wall behind him. His narrow face was tight with focus as we locked eyes. We both knew only one of us was going to leave this room alive.

If I attacked, he could see it coming and defend himself appropriately. There were only so many reasonable moves I could make, and he could anticipate them and wait to see which one I would choose. Once I committed to the motion, he could immediately respond, giving him the advantage since it would be hard for me to change course halfway through. So, any surprise move I might make would have to be one of the alternatives with a lower chance of success, but obviously those didn’t make much sense either. And the logic worked the same for him, so we both just circled waiting for the other to do something.

However, I had an advantage he didn’t.

I had Kemma.

I couldn’t see her, but I knew I could trust her.

I threw my rock at his face. He hadn’t expected me to give up my only weapon, since it was a stupid move under the circumstances, so it took him by surprise and the rock clocked him on the forehead. It wasn’t a particularly damaging blow, but it distracted him long enough that Kemma could tackle him from behind, knocking him forward into the fire ring. Sparks flew up from the broken coals, and he yelped in surprise.

Kemma jumped on his back, straddling him, and grabbed his hair. She pushed his face deep into the coals, past the cooler ones on top and deep into the hot ones still buried beneath. He tried to scream but was choked on hot ashes as he inhaled. I heard the sizzle of searing flesh and smelled a coppery, meaty aroma as he burned.

He flailed around with the dagger, trying to reach Kemma, but dropped it when he started choking and reflexively brought his hands up to try to protect his face. I snatched the dagger up, turned it around in my hand, and then pressed the tip to his exposed ribs. I put my other hand on the pommel—now recognizing the shape of the knife as having been carved from a human femur—and pushed it forward into him. The blade slid between his ribs toward his heart. He jerked violently, then fell still. Kemma rolled his body out of the fire, flopping it over into the dirt, and I caught a glimpse of the black, ruined surface where his face used to be.

• • • •

The next morning, as the sun peeked over the Atlantic horizon, a crowd gathered around the corpse with the ruined face, which we’d tied to a tall post in the center of the village. When enough of us had gathered, Kemma stood next to it and addressed us all in Mesdu.

“This man tried to kill me last night. Despite all we’ve done, a Dasa rebel still worked among us. He died as a coward, sneaking through the darkness and failing to kill me even that way. The Dasa talk about strength and bravery and honor, but then work in the shadows because they’re afraid of the light.”

She held out the bone dagger the man had brought the night before, now stained in his own blood. “If any of you is a real Dasa, I challenge you to fight me right now. If you want me dead, then kill me with honor. Show some pride and dignity, instead of bringing more shame to your people like this man did.”

There was silence for a long while. Kemma looked around slowly, making individual eye contact with everyone there. “Is there not one more real Dasa among us?” she asked, “Is there not one hero who believes the teachings of Volo?”

One young man looked around nervously, then stepped forward, puffing up his chest. “I am Dasa. I will follow Volo forever.”

Kemma sighed, disappointed at discovering yet another traitor in our midst. Then her face hardened. “Get this man a knife.”

No, I thought. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

I tensed as my blood pressure rose. I was angry about the attack last night, angry about being in this position, and angry about this half-assed army standing around as another Dasa insurgent threatened to attack Kemma.

Still a little frayed at the edges due to lack of sleep, I pushed past the gathered crowd toward where the insurgent was standing. Without thinking, I rushed him from behind and punched him hard in the back of his head. He stumbled forward into the wall of a nearby building then fell to his knees in front of it, stunned and bewildered. I grabbed the hair at the back of his head and bashed his face against the stone wall three times, each with a progressively more sickening crunch. Then I dropped his motionless body to the ground and kicked him several times, crying out each time my foot struck him.

I wheeled around to the crowd, glaring at them as I pointed at Kemma and yelled in Mesdu, “She’s the head of this army and the daughter of your queen. If you idiots let a Dasa fighter approach her again, I’ll kill you myself!”

• • • •

Then we marched.

Carrying what we could, we left the village of Upper Śu and followed the road into the neighboring clan land of Kozo Luarfo, and then back into the village of Rusle—where, in simpler times, an albatross had stolen Kemma’s bagel and found himself turned into our lunch.

From there, we followed the same path we had before, up onto the Spine Road, the ridge of peaks that served as the main road between the southeast and northwest portions of the island.

Our soldiers wore the woven purple neckbands of the insurgents, giving us at least half a chance of deceiving anyone we came across along the way—as long as they weren’t paying attention and didn’t ask many questions. The captains wore the uniforms we’d stolen from the XCG mercenaries. Kemma and Jacky wore their hair up under combat helmets, hoping to pass as men for anyone who might be watching us through binoculars (since as far as we knew XCG hadn’t brought any female mercenaries).

We also gave a uniform to Themba. He was the only one among us who’d been one of the actual mercenaries, although he’d at least tentatively agreed to help us. As we walked, he listened for updates on what the XCG squads were doing to make sure we didn’t run into them accidentally. At this point, most of the enemy units were tangled up in fighting near the Royal House—and, unfortunately, it sounded like they were about to capture it.

Luckily, the weather was terrible today. The fog was so thick we could barely see thirty feet in front of us. From Fizal Faśanuba, the mercenaries would have an extraordinary view of everything surrounding them—on a clear day. With this kind of poor visibility, though, we might actually have a chance to get close.

We moved as quickly as we could, a single-file line of almost a hundred makeshift soldiers crossing the island’s backbone, trying to make progress before the sun burned off the fog and revealed our positions to the enemy.

“How are you doing, Themba?” I heard Jacky ask from behind me. “I know we’ve got you in a tough position here.”

Themba was quiet for a moment, then said, “I’m…uncomfortable. I don’t want to betray my team.”

“You know, I really appreciate that about you,” Jacky said. “That’s a sign of great character.”

“It’s not right, you know, making me fight against my own side. It’s against the Geneva Convention.”

Jacky shrugged. “Well, technically, the Geneva Convention doesn’t actually apply to mercenaries.”

“I’m not a mercenary,” Themba protested. “I’m a private security contractor. It’s different.”

Jacky spoke softly. “Well, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m sure that’s what they told you while recruiting you. They were simply looking for former soldiers for a security mission. They didn’t tell you much about it. Need-to-know basis and all that. It sounded okay to you, so you signed up. Next thing you know, you’re on a big boat out here. None of this is really your fault.”

“What’s not my fault?” Themba asked, hesitantly.

“The genocide.”

Themba frowned. “There’s no genocide. We’re providing protection and support to Prince Golo’s administration to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Or we were, anyway, before you guys killed him.”

“Themba, there are two ethnic groups on this island. They look the same to us, but they see themselves as being different. You and your boys are here to help one of those groups—the Dasa—assassinate the Queen and take over. The other group is the Sanju. Most of the people you guys have been shooting at were Sanju. The Queen was Sanju. Most of these prisoners walking behind us are Sanju. Kemma over there? She’s Sanju.”

Kemma, who was walking beside me, turned and nodded to confirm what Jacky was saying

“I…wasn’t aware of that,” Themba said.

“It’s okay, I figured you probably weren’t. That’s why I’m explaining it to you. But you can see that this is pretty clearly a genocidal war. I would definitely expect a war crimes tribunal after all this. And there’s not going to be a lot of mercy for the hired guns like you who helped make it all happen. You said you have a wife and a little baby, right? I just wanted you to know what’s really going on here. Prison is a very real possibility for you.”

“Prison? I’ve just been doing my job. They can’t send me to prison for that.”

Jacky’s voice turned more serious. “A lot of soldiers and contractors have gone to prison for just doing their jobs. I worked with a contractor in Libya who’ll be in prison for another fourteen years because he ‘did his job.’ Remember that thing about those contractors in Iraq a while back? Some of them are serving life sentences right now. They’re never going to be on the outside with their families again.”

Themba exhaled deeply. “Oh, God,” he said.

“If I were you, Themba, I’d be a lot more concerned about how your actions look to the war crimes tribunal than about what your new buddies are going to think. While they’re growing old in prison, you’re going to be back in Jozi playing with your kid, because when you found out what was really going on here, you immediately resigned from XCG and started helping us try to prevent it. All we’re trying to do here is stop a violent, genocidal insurrection that your employer is coordinating and supporting. I don’t want you to feel conflicted about helping us. I don’t want you to try to run away from us. I don’t want you to try to double-cross us. Because I hate the thought of your little baby growing up without you because you’re locked up in prison…especially when she gets old enough to learn about your crimes. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Themba was quiet for a while, then nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I want you to go home a hero for helping stop a genocide. I want that to be the story your child grows up with. It’s going to be hard. You’re going to have to make some tough choices. You’ll have to change your mind. You’ll have to go against the side you thought you were on. You’ll have to pick a new side. The right side. Our side. Can you do that?”

Themba gave a stressed sigh. “Do you really think we can win?”

Jacky stopped and put her hand on Themba’s shoulder to stop him. Kemma and I stopped as well, turning around to see what was happening. The whole single-file line of our little army walking along the ridge began stopping one at a time behind them, many of them bumping into each other.

Jacky ignored the rest of us and looked right into Themba’s eyes. “We’ve already won, Themba, because we’re trying to do the right thing. They might defeat us, but they’re doing it in support of war crimes and genocide. The more they succeed, the worse their crimes become. We might get hurt. We might even get killed. And you’re definitely not getting your next paycheck from XCG. But I really believe you’re a good man, and I think you know the right thing to do, before God and everyone, regardless of the consequences. Tell me the truth right now. Can you do this?”

Themba was silent again for a long time, then finally swallowed and spoke. “Yes, ma’am. I can do it.”

“You’re with us?”

“I’m with you.”

Jacky gave him a big grin, then threw her arms around him and squeezed him. He was startled and embarrassed, but eventually put his arms around her and patted her politely in return.

Jacky then worked out a cover story for us—or rather, for the XCG unit we were pretending to be. We called the lead unit to explain that there’d been a riot back at the prison camp—which was actually true, of course—and that we’d taken casualties. Eventually, we said, things got so out of control that we had to kill most of the prisoners because they wouldn’t stop attacking. We told them we disposed of the bodies in the ocean.

We skipped telling them that Golo, the supposed future king, had been thrown off a cliff by his own sister. Instead, we told him that Golo had stayed behind at the village with an entourage of trusted bodyguards so he could be safely behind the front lines until he was needed to return to the Royal House for the transition of power. We told them he’d ordered the rest of us to go join the fighting.

Themba called it in and did a good job making it sound authentic. They had some questions, but he improvised answers and it sounded like they were satisfied that we’d decided that there wasn’t much else to do at the prison village, so we’d come up to the front lines to help. They told us to gather at the town at the base of the peak where the Royal House was located and await further orders.

• • • •

I recognized the town of Tepa from when we’d passed through it on our hike to visit the Queen. It was the biggest town I’d seen on the island, but it was now completely abandoned. There were signs of fighting everywhere, including spent bullet casings and makeshift weapons that had been lost or discarded when broken. There were bullet holes in the wall, some surrounded by a spray of dried blood. In an open area near the center of the town, we observed about two dozen neatly stacked corpses that appeared to be loyalists who’d been trying to hold the town against XCG and the insurgents.

The grim sights were accompanied by the sounds of gunfire, yelling, screaming, and occasional explosions that emerged from the thick fog around us. We couldn’t see anything, but we knew from Themba’s translated radio reports that the insurgency had finally taken control of the Royal House and were now pushing loyalists away to secure the peak.

That made the Dasa rebellion—led by Kemma’s brother Golo—the de facto rulers of the island now.

As we walked, I recalled a conversation I’d had with Kemma back at the base when she’d been giving me language lessons. She’d taught me about the Mesdu words duam and okom. The first meant “to try” but carried an optimistic assumption of success. If you were to say, “I’ll try to do that,” it was assumed you’d be successful. However, the second word, okom, meant “to try, but fail.” That’s what the loyalists had done here.

Okoku moc. They’d tried, but failed.

The verb could also be conjugated into the future tense, which felt applicable to our current situation.

Okota taic. We will try, but fail.

Kemma ordered our soldiers to stop and rest at the stream that passed through the town. They lined up and squatted next to the water, drinking with their hands from the stream. Many of them—probably sensing that this would be the last opportunity—pulled out their remaining rations and began eating them.

Kemma took Jacky, Themba, and I, as well as the nine team captains, into a nearby meeting room so we could discuss our next steps. It made sense for them to speak in Mesdu for the benefit of the captains, so I translated as best I could for Jacky and Themba.

 The options weren’t looking good. The most logical choice was to simply attack as soon as possible while the fog was still thick to give us some element of surprise. However, we’d be attacking a professional paramilitary organization that was now comfortably nestled in a huge stone building on the highest ground on the island. Meanwhile, all we had was a rag-tag band of farmers, fisherman, and various others with only the hasty training Jacky was able to give them before we left the prison village. Those with guns had barely learned to use them the day before, and the remainder were armed only with tools of their various trades.

We discussed the possibility of rushing the Royal House but determined that probably wasn’t a realistic option because we’d all have to pass through doorways, making it relatively easy for them to shoot us. We wouldn’t be able to overwhelm them if we were rushing through doors one at a time.

I introduced the captains to the concept of siege warfare, where we surround the Royal House and wait until their supplies run out. This was a new concept to most of the captains, but Kemma and Jacky knew it was a standard battle technique that had been used effectively throughout history. However, XCG’s position advantage probably meant their snipers could just pluck us off long before they ran out of supplies.

So, an all-out attack wouldn’t work, and a siege wouldn’t work. That left one other tactic on the table.

“We have to destroy the Royal House,” Kemma said grimly.

The captains immediately raised a strong protest against this plan, emphasizing that the building was a revered symbol of the Mesdu society that had survived for hundreds of years. We couldn’t simply destroy it.

I argued against it as well, knowing just how much historical documentation could be found on its walls, how much sculpture and art and craftsmanship was found inside it. It was equivalent to the pyramids of Giza or the Colosseum in Rome. We couldn’t just destroy it for the sake of gaining an advantage in this battle.

I also reminded everyone of the practical reality that the minimal firearms we had weren’t going to take down a massive stone building. If we shot everything we had at it, we’d be lucky to make even a partial dent in the wall. We simply didn’t have the firepower.

Kemma motioned with her chin toward one of the captains. “Agafi knows how to do it.”

The pot-bellied old man she’d indicated looked back down at the table at her, obviously conflicted. “The Queen and her council are still inside. She’s your own mother. I strongly disagree with this plan.”

I quickly translated, and Jacky’s shoulders sank when she heard it. It hadn’t occurred to her that the Queen would still be inside. That was a hell of a thing for Kemma to have to make a decision about.

Kemma leaned forward. “Do we have enough? Could we do it?”

Agafi nodded. “Yes.”

“Enough what?” I asked in Mesdu.

Agafi mimed an explosion with his hands.

Kemma turned to us with a somber expression and explained in English, “Agafi is in charge of the diamond mine. He knows where the explosives are and how to use them.”

• • • •

This was going to take some planning.

For one thing, you can’t just blow up a castle with a couple sticks of dynamite. Agafi estimated we needed around a thousand kilograms of ANFO, or “ammonium nitrate / fuel oil,” the explosive shipped to the island for mining purposes, to get the devastating effect we needed. We’d also need to mix it with powdered aluminum to strengthen it, and then we’d need all the detonation materials as well.

Themba got a radio call from a mercenary officer ordering us to go back to the prison village to retrieve Golo so the official transition of power could begin. Jacky scrambled and came up with a cover story, although a risky one. She asked Themba to report back that we’d heard from the prisoners about a plan to use the diamond mine’s explosives to blow up the Royal House.

We basically told them exactly what we were doing.

Then we waited.

After a nerve-racking twenty minutes, the order came back that we should collect the explosives from the mine, transport them to a small pond at the base of Fizal Faśanuba, and dump them into the water to dissolve them. Because the other units were currently engaged in fighting, we were the only ones available to do it.

I gave Jacky a high-five for getting our enemy to actually order us to go get the explosives we were going to try to use against them. She looked proud of herself.

“A good lie isn’t the opposite of the truth,” she said, “It’s just a minor variation of it.”

After some additional discussion, Kemma convinced the captains that destroying the building was the most viable option we had, despite none of us actually wanting to do it.

She explained that there was a long secret tunnel that ran underneath the Royal House, emerging on a rocky outcropping on a ridge about three quarters of a mile away. The Queen’s family and high-ranking officials had used it for discreet exits from the building for secret missions or for smuggling people or supplies.

Agafi said that if we packed a thousand kilograms of ANFO underneath the Royal House at the entrance to the tunnel, the blast might just be enough to completely demolish the massive stone structure. Between that blast itself and the subsequent building collapse, the XCG forces inside should be killed. Most of them, anyway. Our teams could then advance and finish off any remaining resistance after that.

The building would be completely destroyed, but the Mesdu civilization would remain intact. It still made me sick to my stomach to think about what we were about to do, but the tradeoff seemed as though it would be worth it—I hoped.

As we wrapped up the planning meeting, Kemma wore a face of stern confidence for the benefit of the captains, but her pain was obvious to me. The Queen would have been inside the Royal House when XCG took it, and they likely took her alive so that their new puppet king could perform the ceremonial execution to seal the transition of power.

Kemma fully understood that success in this mission meant killing the Queen, her own mother, the woman to whom she’d been unflinchingly loyal this entire time. Even though she fully understood the brutal logic, and despite the Mesdu culture’s ready acceptance of death, she still despaired that she wouldn’t be able to talk to her mother before it happened.

A short while after the meeting, I found Kemma hiding behind a pile of baskets, sobbing and clutching the anklet she’d made from her mother’s hair. It was the first time I’d seen her this vulnerable, and it made me realize just how strong she’d been this whole time.

I sat down in the grass next to her and put my arm around her. She leaned into me and sobbed harder. I found myself crying too, afraid of the mark this would leave on her. We sat there holding each other for what seemed like far too long, given the chaos happening around us, but we both understood that the world would just have to afford us this moment.

• • • •

We organized our little army on the outskirts of Tepa as the fog started to clear and we caught occasional glimpses sun peeking through. The sounds of gunfire and battle in the distance increased as both the loyalists and insurgents could now see each other more easily. We also heard a helicopter spin up and take to the air after having been presumably grounded due to the weather.

This also meant the insurgents would now be able to see us from their vantage point at the peak of Fizal Faśanuba, watching through binoculars—or rifle scopes—as we marched around the peak toward the diamond mine.

We discussed details and contingencies for another few minutes, hoping to at least have some sense of a plan for when things inevitably went sideways. Then the captains ordered their teams to march.

The diamond mine was about a mile and a half away on the other side of the Royal House from Tepa. As we walked down a hard-packed dirt and gravel road that encircled the peak, I stole occasional glances back up toward the peak. I only caught glimpses of the building over the edge of the flat-topped peak, but it was enough to remind me how magnificent it was. The fact that XCG had taken it over in the name of increased profits made my blood boil—and the bizarre reality that we were going to destroy it broke my heart.

“What are you guys going to do after we pull this off?” Jacky asked me and Kemma while we walked. I was getting to know her well enough to see that she was trying to bolster our morale by phrasing it as if our victory were inevitable, and then asking a question along with it to distract us from challenging the assumption. She was a clever one.

“Well,” I said, “I suspect Kemma’s going to have her work cut out for her here for a while.”

Kemma nodded, looking maybe a little daunted at just how much work success might mean for them. The Mesdu would have to rebuild a torn society, trying to bring unity where division had festered for centuries.

Jacky’s voice hinted at a smirk. “So, are you two…staying together?”

Kemma glanced at me, the same question in her own eyes.

I sighed. “We haven’t really figured that out yet. I guess I don’t know. Kemma, what do you think?”

Kemma looked back down at the damp dirt road on which we walked. “My path is clear. I have to stay here to help. One of my sisters will become Queen, but we will be a wounded people, and I’m part of the medicine that can help us heal. I can’t leave until things are better.”

Jacky cleared her throat. “My question was really for you, Matt. Kemma doesn’t have a lot of choice here. You do. So, she’s waiting for you to make up your damn mind and let her know where she stands so she can prepare for her future. So, if you don’t mind, please stop dodging and actually answer the question.”

I glanced sideways at Kemma, who still stared forward at the road. “Do you want me to stay?”

Jacky shook her head. “No, no, no. You told me you guys are married, but marriage isn’t about a ceremony, it’s about knowing where you stand. If you know where you stand, you don’t need any more information to answer the question. You don’t even need to think. Right now, this poor girl doesn’t know if you’re going to stay and help or jump on the first helicopter out of here as soon as you get the chance. She needs to know that you can answer that question with something besides another question.”

I glared at her. “Jacky, I don’t think this is really the time to get into this.”

Jacky gestured toward the road and grassy hills in front of us. “We’re just taking a scenic stroll with friends. It’s the perfect time to get into this.”

“I’m hearing a lot of gunfire for a scenic stroll,” I said.

Kemma looked over at me. “She’s right, Matt. I’ve been waiting for you to decide. Before we do this, I want to know.”

I sighed and was quiet for a long time. Several minutes passed, but neither Jacky nor Kemma said anything while I worked through my thoughts.

We reached the edge of a stream with a small wooden bridge, and I stopped and turned to Kemma.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to answer this earlier,” I said. “Everything we’ve gone through has made me want to run back to my home, back to the people and places and things that are safe and familiar to me. But I know that it wouldn’t really be my home without you there. And if you need to stay here, then we need to stay here. I’m not going to leave here without you, and I’m not going to leave you here to try to do this by yourself. Wherever we are, that’s our home. Right now, this road is our home. And I’m happy to be here with you.”

Kemma nodded at me, smiling. “That’s good enough, Saka.”

“I love you,” I said, taking her hand as we stepped across the bridge.

“I love you, too.”

“Good answer,” Jacky said softly, then added, “I really want to know what the guys up there with binoculars are thinking about the two mercenary leaders standing here holding hands and staring lovingly at each other.”

I laughed. “Yeah, we should probably get going.”

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