Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 24

Liraku su aśuc orodau sun eio dolosa duema du su ja a pobota poru sun ëku a.
You’ve watched the waves your entire life but don’t know which one will hit your boat next.
—Mesdu proverb

The devastation at the top of the peak was all but complete. Apart from a few partial walls that stoically remained upright, a massive pile of rubble was all that was left behind of the once-majestic Royal House. In a few areas not covered with debris, there were clear rips in the earth where the pressure of the underground explosion had lifted the ground up some distance and dropped it back down again. After that, the jarred, cracked stone walls had simply buckled under their own weight.

Seeing it all in the dancing light of handheld torches and lanterns gave me the strong sensation that I was dreaming. I could only see part of it at a time, so it was hard to take it all in. I had trouble convincing myself of what we’d really done here.

Our little army of nearly a hundred men and women, plus many others who’d hurried to the scene after the explosion, worked hard to clear stones in search of survivors. A lot of important people would have been inside the Royal House when it was taken—the Queen among them—and it was clear that this effort wouldn’t stop until we’d done our best to try to save any of them we could.

They put bodies—and parts of bodies—into neat piles. The process of attempting to identify them would begin after sunrise. For now, we simply had to find and organize them. We found the bodies of XCG mercenaries as well as members of the Queen’s staff.

The smaller cut stones from the building were also placed into stacks based on their size and type, so those still intact could be saved for the eventual building of a new Royal House. The heavier ones would need more effort, which would be organized later. Kemma explained that quickly working to salvage stone was an important cultural ritual symbolizing progress over loss.

We worked for hours. The devastation was incredible.

At some point in that long night, I noticed some of the people working around me suddenly stop what they were doing and lie face down on the ground. As others noticed, they joined in and did the same. I looked around, trying to figure out what was going on.

I heard Kemma yell “Amba!” and take off running toward several figures who were emerging from the staircase up the slope. As they approached the light of the area where we were working, I suddenly realized what was happening.

It was Queen Nadu. Her tall, slender frame was familiar, but even more so I recognized her stately presence and the way she carried herself. She was clearly shocked at what she was seeing, with wide eyes and her hands upturned in a questioning gesture. The others with her appeared to be members of the royal council and family members I hadn’t yet met.

It suddenly seemed obvious. That’s why the tunnel entrance had been unblocked. They’d evacuated her through there before the mercenaries took the Royal House.

E oroku ja!?” she yelled, moving her hands up and down in exasperation.

All pretense of respectful decorum gone, Kemma nearly crashed into her, throwing her arms around her mother and crying, “Amba, amba!

Nadu was visibly annoyed at first, but eventually smiled with tears in her eyes and then returned Kemma’s embrace. “Śala tain,” she said, petting Kemma’s hair. “E oroku ja?” (What have you done?)

Kemma laughed nervously, trying to think of where to even start explaining. She explained that we’d infiltrated a prison camp, formed an army out of the liberated prisoners, stolen explosives from the diamond mines, and demolished the Royal House while most of the remaining mercenaries were inside.

Nadu looked incredulous at each step of Kemma’s story, and I didn’t blame her.

“You really killed your brother Golo?” she asked.

Kemma nodded. “Yes. I knew from his face I couldn’t save him.”

“And you destroyed the Royal House despite thinking I was inside?” Nadu asked.

Kemma inhaled sharply and her eyes filled with tears that shimmered in the light of nearby torches. She nodded, then looked down at the ground in shame.

Nadu embraced her again, saying, “You did right, little Kemma.”

Kemma laughed and sobbed at the same time. “I’m so happy to see you, mother.”

Nadu noticed me standing where I’d joined them. “Hello, Saka,” she said quietly, in English. “I’m surprised you made it this far. If you keep this up, you might almost be worthy of being her husband.”

Kemma’s head whipped around, her mouth open in shock. “You told her!?”

I shrugged apologetically. “I’m bad with secrets.”

Nadu sighed and switched back to speaking in Mesdu. “It’s better to just say what’s true.” She gestured toward the mountain of rubble that had been her castle. “This might not have happened if I’d understood this earlier in my life. Kemma, I hope you learn this lesson faster than I did.”

“I’ll do as you wish, my Queen.”

“Don’t call me your Queen anymore.”

Kemma swallowed hard. An expression of deep concern crossed her face. “I don’t understand.”

Nadu stared hard at her, then tilted her head lovingly. “Yes, you do.”

“No,” Kemma said, taking a step back and shaking her head. “No, I don’t understand.”

“We found out your sister Monli was helping Golo. Tika and Kura fought well against the Dasa, but they both died. You also fought well. But you survived.”


“You conquered. You defeated your enemies against all odds. You did whatever was required to protect the people.”

Kemma kept shaking her head. “No, my Queen, my Queen….”

“I’m just a tired old woman now. Too tired to rebuild this Royal House. Too tired to rebuild our kingdom.”

“No… I can’t….”

“What’s going on?” I finally interrupted. “What are you two talking about?”

Nadu smiled wistfully. “My reign is over, and my successor is clear. I’m retiring now.”

Kemma sobbed. “Please, not now.”

Nadu turned to one of her officers. “Give me your blade.”

The officer pulled a knife from her robe. It appeared to be made of steel, an unusual sight on the island. Such a knife was probably reserved for high-ranking members of the Queen’s court. Nadu took it from her and placed it gently into Kemma’s shaking hands.

Kemma leaned sideways and moaned quietly in despair, tears streaming down her face.

Nadu placed her hands on Kemma’s cheeks. “Daughter, I will not have my final order disobeyed, do you understand? Do as I tell you.”

After a moment, Kemma gave a curt, dutiful nod.

Nadu turned to the crowd that was still lying prone on the ground. “Stand and witness!” she called out. After a long, stunned moment, people began to rise to their feet. They stepped closer, and the area around the Queen grew brighter as the torches neared.

Nadu took Kemma’s shoulders and rotated her so she was facing the crowd. Then she stepped in front of her, also facing the crowd, and gingerly got down to her knees.

There were gasps and cries from the assembled audience.

Kemma’s breathing was fast and ragged. She hissed as she breathed through pursed lips, trying to regain her composure.

I suddenly understood what was happening and quickly stepped back out of their way. My first instinct was to stop them and tell everyone to just sleep on it before doing anything ridiculous, but I also understood this was a fundamental ritual for them and didn’t want to disrupt a smooth transition of power. It seemed Nadu had thought long and hard about this and had already made her decision.

Nadu’s face shone with confident tranquility, and she spoke with strength so everyone could hear. “I am Nadu Bos-Sioka, Queen of the World. My final action is to deliver this kingdom to my daughter, Pirgu Polla Kemma. From now until she does the same to her own daughter, she is Nadu Bos-Zi. I do this happily and willingly, and I look forward to my next life.”

With that, she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. The crowd  yelled and stamped their feet. Many sobbed.

Kemma placed one hand on her mother’s forehead to hold her steady and used the other hand to bring the knife to her throat. She called out “I swear I will not disappoint you, mother!” then pressed the knife into her mother’s neck and began slicing deep into her flesh, letting out an animal-like howl as she did so.

Nadu winced and shook in pain but kept her eyes closed as blood cascaded down her chest. She began convulsing as Kemma finished the cut, and Kemma quickly but gently guided her mother down on the ground, then held her close and waited for several long moments until she finally lay still.

Nobody made a sound.

Kemma finally stood and faced the crowd, her arms and chest covered in her mother’s blood. The knife, dripping red, dangled from her hand as if she didn’t realize she was still holding it.

One by one, those gathered began to lay face down on the ground, acknowledging the transition of power.

“I am Nadu Bos-Zi,” Kemma said slowly. “Queen of the World.”

• • • •

Three months later, Kemma and I landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Virginia.

Fortunately, the forged identity she’d used to go to college was still usable, so we’d purchased tickets for one “Kimberly Finch,” and everything went through without incident. She’d even had her U.S. passport and various other forms of identification stashed away on the island, and they apparently still worked well enough.

It was still strange seeing her wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She looked so normal. Apart from the accent, there was no reason to think she was anything other than a typical American girl. And whenever someone asked about her accent, she would just mention a different random country. She told the woman seated next to us on the plane she was from Mongolia. The woman nodded and said, “Oh, how interesting!” and then changed the subject.

We stopped at a sports bar in the airport and got a large order of buffalo wings for lunch. Kemma was elated to finally have them. Spicy foods just weren’t available on the island, and she’d been having some really intense food cravings lately. I told her we’d bring back a case of sauce so she could have her staff at the Royal House make Buffalo albatross wings or something. Then we took a rideshare back to my old apartment in D.C., where my mother was eagerly awaiting my return.

I paused before I knocked, trying to collect myself before being hit by the tidal wave that was my mother. After everything I’d experienced over the past few months, I shouldn’t have given this a second thought, but there’s just something about family.

It made me a little more emotional than I’d expected. My mother had been driving me just a little crazy in the months before I left for Gough Island, but having some distance—and a number of near-death experiences—had brought me some clarity and perspective about just how fortunate I was to have her. On top of that emotion, I was just nervous because I had a lot of explaining to do—and a very important introduction to make—and not much time to do it.

Kemma squeezed my hand and motioned with her chin toward the door. “Just do it,” she said.

I inhaled and exhaled through pursed lips, then knocked on the door.

I immediately heard footsteps running toward us from inside. The door flew open, and my mother looked as happy and excited as I’d ever seen her in my life. “Ahhh baby!” she yelled as she threw her arms around me. “Welcome home! I missed you so much!”

“Hey, Mom,” I laughed, squeezing her back.

Then she saw Kemma and immediately let go of me and threw her arms around her. “I don’t know who you are, but I love you, too! Come in right now, both of you. Matt, I have your room ready, so go put your bags there. Is there…are you…should I plan on another guest?”

I smiled. “This is Kemma,” I said. “She’s going to stay with us while I’m here…if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course, of course!” she said, ushering us inside with our bags. “You’re welcome here, Kemma. Any friend of Matt’s is a friend of mine.”

We went to the sofa and got comfortable, and my mother pulled the armchair around to face us. She sat, then turned to me and raised an eyebrow.

“Do we…need another bed for Kemma?”

I paused for a moment, then looked her in the eye and said, “No, actually, she’ll be in my room.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly but playfully, showing her disapproval but also her enjoyment at making me squirm. “I see, I see. So…how exactly do you two know each other? Through work? Did you go to this mysterious island with him?”

Kemma grinned charmingly. “I’m actually from that island, Ms. Moro. We call it Ao. It’s a wonderful, beautiful place.”

“Please, call me Gabriela, and I want to know all about it, and literally every detail about how you met!”

“We’re happy to tell you everything,” Kemma said, “But it’s a long explanation, and we have a meeting at the State Department this afternoon. May we take you to dinner tonight to share the whole story?”

My mother turned to me. “Matt, you can’t possibly be going back to work so soon. You just got here!”

“Actually, I quit that job a couple months ago. It turns out there’s a…conflict of interest. This meeting is for Kemma. She’s involved in politics on the island, and she wanted to meet with some State Department officials about making some changes in our country’s relationship with them.”

My mother looked concerned about finding out I was unemployed. “Conflict of interest? What conflict?”

“It’s complicated,” I said. “We’ll explain tonight.”

“It’s not that complicated,” Kemma said.

I put a hand up. “I think it’s best if we just get into it later.”

Kemma turned to my mother. “We’re married.”

My mother’s mouth dropped open.

Kemma leaned back and grinned.

We were even now.

Thanks for reading.

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