Izydor, Kosman, a few more guards, and I all leave the camp heading east. Various surveyors travel north-east. The construction crews make their way directly north.
When we reach the tops of the rolling hills that mark the landscape leading up to the mountains, I can occasionally see through gaps in the tree line. Set before a beautiful green mountain is a towering structure of wooden scaffolding, with two concrete pillars being erected inside. The Protectorate is here to build a bridge that will connect the west side of the island to the east, and to avoid unnecessarily disturbing the jungle underneath, those concrete pillars will form the spine for the viaducts. It’ll curve along with the many bends of the mountain range, and eventually the Protectorate will build a tunnel to cut straight through. When we reach the back half of the island, they’ll repeat the process until the bridge stretches to the growing town on the other coast.
Our island stretches far to the north and south, but this section is thin, only a few miles wide. The Protectorate thinks building a bridge between the sides will make travel faster than sailing around the north or south edges, and I’m inclined to believe them.
“When do you think we’ll be done?” I ask.
Izydor holds up a branch so I can walk underneath. “Another decade, at least. But even after it’s done, we’ll probably be stationed here until we’re sure the construction will hold.” He glances out to the jungle, “and to make sure the locals don’t change their minds.”
As we travel, the peldaks start humming, whistling, and beating their chests in synch. It’s an old marching song of theirs, and I’ve heard it enough that I can join in the whistling. When a soldier messes up, it’s customary for him to be slapped by his marching buddy, that’s why I refused to join in for months, until Izydor helped me practice.
We enter the tribe’s territory before long, we can tell by the skittering of the surrounding jungle as gatherers clear out. I see them poke their heads from around trees or bushes, curiously watching the procession of the pale-skinned, sharp-ears entering their land. Soon enough, a group of hunters start shadowing us on our way to the village, which is nothing to worry about. The Protectorate’s reputation has spread far on the island, they won’t attack us.
As we approach the village, Kosman adjusts his mustache and hat to look as presentable as possible, and I’m at his side. His shoulders are back, his chest is out, and his chin is up. He keeps his eyebrows raised and looks down his nose at the villagers, radiating this smug air of superiority. He thinks this helps with negotiations.
The village is set by a gorgeous waterfall, on a small peninsula surrounded by a river. The cliff-face is covered in moss, and the nearby trees have been chopped down, their wood providing the material for their homes, fishing piers, and two bridges across the river. The roofs of the homes are thatch, and I see large barrels full of water and live fish.
Our little procession walks to the village until we come upon a line of wooden stakes and rocks. This denotes the official boundary of what is and is not the village, crossing it without permission means death. We respectfully wait on the opposite side until the leader comes out.
He’s a middle aged man with slightly greying hair and two older advisors at his side. All are wearing ceremonial beads and hand-stitched red cloth around their necks and waists.
“[You may enter our village.]” The leader speaks from his gut, projecting his voice across the entire clearing.
I look to Kosman and give him a nod, and we step inside. Izydor and the others wait outside the line, but they’re only ever a few dozen feet away. My village had one of these lines too, as have all the villages we’ve visited. While it’s been made somewhat obsolete thanks to the introduction of the peldak’s firearms, it’s a nice tradition and I hope it stays.
We’re led to the center of the village, and I see some of the civilians poke their heads out of their homes to take a look at us. To look at Kosman, really. He’s a giant alien with strange features, and I blend in to the background.
The village leader speaks first, and I translate to Kosman. “‘I am the elected representative of the waterfall-village tribe,’ he says.”
Kosman loudly and obnoxiously clears his throat. “I am the designated representative of the 19th legion of the illustrious Peldak Protectorate, master of the stars and soon-to-be ruler of the galaxy. If you are awestruck by my visage, bathed in the victory of a thousand battles and a million slain enemies, you may drop to your knees and none will think less of you for it.”
I turn to the village leader. “[I am the representative of the star tribe known as the Protectorate. It is good to meet you on equal grounds.]”
The man nods in approval, then I translate what he says.
“Well met, Protectorate. I am eager to come to a peaceful agreement between our two peoples. Why is it that you have requested this meeting?”
Kosman glances to me and smiles. “See, Pano? Men like him respect strength and authority. And you wanted me to tone down my rhetoric! Ha!” He folds his arms and straightens his back once more. “Panopio, tell this man that we will be building a bridge through the territory, and there’s nothing that he or his pathetic little tribe can do to stop us. He may either bask in the light of progress or be crushed under its weight, but either way, the Protectorate is here to stay.”
“Yes sir,” I turn to the man. “[Our plan is to build a bridge across these lands and humbly request your blessing in doing so. We are more than willing to reward your continued cooperation.]”
“[A bridge across the land?]” He asks.
I point to one of the villages bridges that run over the river, it’s built on stilts and hovers a foot over the running water. “[Like that, but made of rock. It’ll stay in the air, and members of the star tribe will often walk across it to reach the ocean on the far side of the mountains.]”
“[Made of rock? I see, sounds complicated.]” He scratches his chin. “[I have no problem with that, but what did you say? What kind of compensation?]”
I turn to Kosman. “He’s asking what his village will get if they agree to join the ‘march of progress’.”
Kosman’s face lights up, “an excellent question!” He fishes through his shirt pocket and pulls out a booklet. “I can offer you fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, building materials, clothing, basically whatever your heart desires.”
I turn to the leader. “[The bridge might scare away animals and make hunting more difficult, so we’ll give you food. Meats, fruit, tasty dishes sourced from faraway lands.]” Our villages have no use for peldak-style clothes or their building materials. With the tribes we’ve visited, I’ve always had to explain what concrete is, and why they would want to stack homes on top of each other, but nobody gets it. I don’t get the appeal either, so I’ve stopped mentioning it.
“[How much meat?]” The leader asks, following in the footsteps of every other tribe. They always ask for meat. Fish is a staple for the tribes of this island, and bird meat is a delicacy, but birds are difficult to catch and don’t provide much. The large animals the Protectorate hunt simply don’t exist on this island.
“He wants meat, large slabs of it with the marbled texture and loads of fat. Also he wants to know how much.”
Kosman nods in a stoic recognition of success. “How much do you want? You’ll find the Protectorate to be a very generous master to those who know their place.”
“[How much do you want?]” I bring my hands up to my head. “[They’ll provide huge chunks of the stuff, each piece bigger than my head.]”
The leaders eyes round, some villagers in the back salivate. “[There exists birds that large? How do they fly with so much weight?]”
“[I don’t know how it works myself, but it’s real. I eat it all the time back at their camp.]”
The leader gulps then quickly consults his two older advisors who share his enthusiasm. When on the same page, they look around the village for a proper container for scale. He points to one behind us, it’s a basket that, if I wrapped my arms around it, my fingers wouldn’t touch. “[We will accept in exchange for enough meat to fill that basket on every new moon.]”
“Every 14 days or so, he wants enough meat to fill up that basket.”
“Hmm…” Kosman looks to the basket and scratches the side of his head. He looks to his booklet, which has all sorts of formulas and charts, how many resources he’s allowed to give out as part of his diplomatic mission. “That’d be about…” He does quick calculations in his head. “That’s actually not that much. Tell the man to not insult us by asking for such a low amount. We’ll give him twice that basket every five days.”
I turn to the leader. “[Every…] I don’t know how to convey five days when we don’t use the peldak calendar. “[Every half-moon, the star tribe will give you double what you ask.]”
“[Deal!]” The leader jumps at the chance, and I hear faint, excited cheering in many of the huts. The two older advisors at his side signal their approval as well.
I turn to Kosman, “for various cultural and religious reasons, it needs to be every seven days, not five.”
“Ah, well, nothing for it then. Very well. About 60 pounds of meat every seven days. The Protectorate thanks you for your understanding in this matter.”
“[We accept,]” I translate.“[The star tribe thanks you for your understanding in this matter.]” There’s far more to discuss, like the exact placement of the bridge to avoid cultural sites, and the future role the Protectorate will play in this island’s politics going forward, but those are items for later.
As is customary to seal a deal, Kosman knows this by now, all parties involved in the negotiations must shake hands. Women get kissed on the back of their hands first, that’s the proper order.
Kosman lines up to shake the hands of the advisors, while I walk to their leader. I hear Izydor and the others happily gloating about what a great negotiator their boss is. It’s a little annoying, I will admit.
I offer their leader my left hand, which is unusual as he’s supposed to kiss my right. Etiquette wise, it would be rude to offer an injured hand with bloody bandages, so he’ll understand.
Or, he should. He takes one look at my bandaged hand and freezes. His advisors glance over and freeze as well.
“Something wrong?” Kosman raises an eyebrow.
“[Your hand,]” the leader says, “[what happened to it?]”
I raise my hand and move my fingers. It still stings a little, but it’s not that bad. “[Some freak came into my tent last night and bit me. Don’t worry, it’s healing nicely.]”
He recoils a few steps back. “[These negotiations are over.]”
“[I care not for your bridge or your tribute, it’s over!]” He turns to leave, with his advisors following quickly behind.
“What’s going on? What happened?” Kosman asks, but I’m just as clueless.
“[But why? What happened?]”
Before retiring to one of the larger huts, the leader looks straight through me. “[We were warned what would happen if we consorted with the ‘traitors’ who bare the Maneater’s mark, I was a fool for not realizing they’re targeting the star tribe and their pet. Take it up with them if you have a death wish, but leave my people out of it! Begone from our village!]”
My eyes dart between the house and Kosman. “U-uh, he-I’m not-“
Men approach, strong warriors from the tribe with their blades drawn. Kosman steps between us and we slowly back up, his hand on his sword.
“[It’s time for you to go.]”
“[Never come back!]”
“[We won’t be destroyed just so you paleskins can build some rock thing.]”
More men start coming out of their homes, blades drawn.
I glance back at Izydor, he’s being held back by his men just outside the circle of the city, he looks ready to jump in the fray and tear everyone apart. “Everything’s fine!” I cry out, “they just want us to leave!” Not only are there a lot more of them than us, but even if we get back to camp, spilling their blood in their territory will make future negotiations impossible. Izydor rushing into the boundaries of their village uninvited will also be an issue once we get everything sorted.
“[We’re leaving.]” I try to keep my voice steady. “[We’ll head back to our camp and not bother you further.]”
Slowly, we continue to back up. Kosman is gripping his sword but hasn’t unsheathed it, and Izydor has turned his attention to the tribesmen surrounding them. Just a bit more, and we step outside the line of rocks.
A gap in the crowd opens up, prompting us to leave as the villagers hurl insults. Izydor jumps to my side while the rest of the guard surround Kosman.
“What are they saying?” Izydor asks as he wraps and arm around my shoulder and he pulls me close.
Most of what they’re saying… I won’t repeat to the peldaks. They think I’ve been brainwashed, or enslaved, by these foreigners and have turned my back on my people for promises of wealth and reward. “They’re… yelling at you to stay away from the mountains, if you know what’s good for you.” While I do hear that amidst the taunts, their focus is squarely on me. Everything was going so well, but they turned so suddenly once they noticed my hand was injured.
“What’s on the mountains?” Izydor asks.
We step into the jungle and their taunts slowly start to die down. Their scouts aren’t following us, it seems they just want us gone. My heart finally slows to normal, but even in Izydor’s arm I can’t stop shaking. I feel sick and I just want to go back to my tent.
“The Maneater tribe,” I finally respond.