It’s a long walk back to camp, but there’s no peppy marching-beat this time.
“What the hell happened back there?” Kosman asks, his voice weary and deflated. “Everything was going well, or so I thought. My expert negotiating and your perfect translations, I thought we had them in the palm of our hands! Then… he looked at your hand and turned away? Did we break some tribal taboo or something?”
I shake my head. All the fatigue from last night has caught up to me, and I’m dragging my feet through the thick layer of moss and mud on the jungle floor. “I was bitten last night. Before the guy chomped down on my hand, I remember him whispering… something like ‘you’ll only ever be their pet’. That tribe’s leader also called me a pet, and the villagers shouted the same thing as they chased us off.”
Kosman rubs his chin, “and those mountain men you mentioned, the Maneater tribe. You think they’re the ones who sent someone to bite you?
Izydor clenches his teeth. “He marked you, it sounds like. That tribe only rejected you once they saw your injury.” He pulls down the brim of his hat. “We’d be walking away from that tribe in victory if I had just prevented that man from biting you last night…”
“Th-there’s no telling how it would have went.” In the same way, had I screamed for help when I first noticed him in my tent, things could have went smoothly.
Kosman sends two men up to start hacking away at the tall bushes in our path. “This Maneater tribe, the mountain men. Tell me about them. How should I take that name, for example.”
One of the guards perks up, “yeah! We talking cannibals, or like a tribe of sexy women that ‘eat men’?” It gets a chuckle out of the group, but Kosman doesn’t break a smile.
“It’s as you think. They eat human flesh.” The peldaks’ ears perk up and they all pause, even the men clearing a path stop hacking for a moment before quickly recomposing themselves. “O-or that’s what they want us all to believe. I’ve never personally seen them eat anyone, it’s all myth and rumor. Like, when I was a kid I was always told ‘don’t act up or we’ll send you to the Maneaters as tribute!’ But now I’m a bit older and don’t know what to believe.”
“I see,” Kosman says. “No need to write them off yet then. We’ll find out more on that subject later. What else do you know?”
“Not much, sorry. I know they’re a collection of tribes along the mountain range who all call themselves ‘Maneater’, but my village was on the western coast of the island. We weren’t close and never really had to deal with them. I heard they often raid the tribes below the mountains for prisoners and food, but you can avoid that if you pledge loyalty to them. Again though, my village never did.”
Kosman and a few others nod as if they instinctively understand, but Izydor and a minority of guards do not.
“Got it,” says one of the guards as he cleanly slices through a bush.
“So it’s like that,” says another as he adjusts his hat.
I glance to Izydor, but he just raises an eyebrow and shrugs.
Kosman clarifies, “you younger kids wouldn’t know, but for those who fought in the Unification Wars,” he turns to me, “the wars that unified our home planet of Peldor, it’s eerily similar, but on a smaller scale. This Maneater tribe has ambitions. They want to take over the whole island through subjugating enemy tribes or vassalising those too scared to fight. These vassalized tribes probably send regular tributes of food, hostages, and soldiers whenever the Maneaters want to start a war, we did the same kind of thing on our planet. So imagine you’re the Maneater tribe and you’re trying to take over your ‘world’, this island, but then a bunch of strangers arrive on the coast of your soon-to-be territory, and they quickly start making deals with all kinds of tribes. Those foreigners are a threat to your dominance, and your sphere of influence. You have to defeat them. Panopio, they snuck inside our camp, went right to the heart of it, entered your tent, and managed to bite your hand before escaping. What if he went for your throat? Or used his sword?” I notice Izydor’s fists shake at having this pointed out. “Our failure cost us dearly. What are the members of that waterfall-river tribe to think when they meet an islander who’s supposedly under our protection, but was injured? If their tribe goes against the Maneaters, are we going to ‘protect’ them as we ‘protected’ you? I’m sorry to say, but you were the perfect target. Just one bite sent the exact message they needed to send.”
Izydor grips the handle of his sword. “So we need to restore confidence in the Protectorate, eyy? I’ll lead a punitive campaign against them, sir. Just say the word.” A few other guards are excited too.
“Heaven’s, no!” Kosman waves their idea off. “First, this is all speculation. We need proper cause to start wars or it makes the Protectorate seem arbitrary and untrustworthy. We don’t, technically, have proof that the Maneaters did anything wrong. We don’t even know if they’re actually cannibals or if that’s just a propaganda tool to put fear in the hearts of their potential targets. Second, wars are destructive. We’re not here to conquer this island, we’re here to build a bridge to help the Protectorate’s strategic position in this region of Monsoo. Third, and most importantly, I’m pretty sure there’s a peaceful way out of this. The Maneaters’ goal and our own are not mutually exclusive. In fact, if we can convince them to let us build our bridge, smaller tribes will follow suit and not only could we finish it in record time, but we have the chance to make a lasting peace on this island. I’d go as far to say it’s our duty to make friends with the Maneaters!”
“OOOHH!” The peldaks shout and pump their fists high in the air while simultaneously stomping their feet in the mud, rumbling the earth beneath us.
But that’s… wrong. “How can you all be so willing to make friends with a bunch of murderous, warlike cannibals!? You want this whole island to belong to them? Are you serious? I-I may have left my home years ago, but I still don’t want to see it become some breeding ground for their new cannibal soldiers! Eating people is wrong, but you’ll tolerate it so long as you can build your stupid bridge?”
I bite my bottom lip, my hands are clenched tightly into fists. Everyone’s looking at me, but that’s… fine. I said what I needed to say.
There’s a pause, then they start to laugh. It’s a heavy laugh from the gut, like I said the funniest thing in the world. Izydor is the only one trying to suppress it. My cheeks feel hot and I want to look away, but I keep my eyes locked on Kosman. I won’t bend on this. If these sharp-ears want to make friends with cannibals, they can do so without an interpreter.
“Pano,” Kosman wipes a tear from his eye, “obviously we’ll make them stop eating humans, if they do indeed do that.”
I feel my shoulders lighten, “you will?”
He nods, then puts a hand on my shoulder. “We have a whole article about it in the Peldak Constitution, cannibalism is banned in all forms. It’s so harsh that even, say, if you were stuck on a frozen mountain and had to eat your own leg to survive, you’d still probably be sentenced to years of hard labor.”
“I see. Then good!” What a relief, I was worried these sharp-ears were too focused on their objective and didn’t care who got hurt in the process. They’re good people, I should have trusted them.
“During the Unification Wars I mentioned? Entire wars were launched just to put an end to the practice.”
One of the soldiers speaks up, “that’s how the boss joined up.”
Kosman’s cheeks and ears flair a bright red. “Y-yeah. That.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Y-you… ate people?”
“Well, this was fifteen or sixteen hundred years ago, mind, but yes. We did, then King Arus and his Army of Light swept across my homeland and saved us from this moral rot that had set in to our society. My point is, I and many others, some of whom you’ve seen around camp, were taught the evils of cannibalism, and now it’s time to pay it forward. We can teach the Maneaters that, no matter their reason, they can’t eat their fellow man.”
My eyes shoot to Izydor, who shakes his head. “I was born after the Unification Wars, long after it was just a bad memory.”
With that, we continue on back to camp.
That was a lot of information to take in at once, and I’m not sure if I like knowing it.
We spend the next few days in camp, only sending out soldiers to work on the bridge, but not interacting with more tribes. Some tribal envoys arrive at the camp and quietly break off their alliances, returning peldak hostages and bringing their hostages back home. Izydor informs me that it’s okay as these tribes need to look out for themselves, yelling at them would only cause problems.
We need to deal with the Maneater tribe first. That will instill confidence in the Protectorate, and they’ll come running back to renegotiate their deals. Until then, it’s best for those tribes to stay on the sidelines and not risk pushing them into the Maneaters’ arms. Regardless of the reason, it isn’t long until I’m both the only islander, and the only woman, in the entire camp.
As I walk around aimlessly, the soldiers smile at me, tip their caps as I pass, and are as friendly as always… but some of them have eaten people before. I don’t know who, but it could be anyone. Based on what Kosman said, it would only be the older men who lived back then, but these peldaks don’t age. Who lived that long ago? How many people did they eat and under what circumstance did they do it?
I wonder if they remember the taste…
I know I shouldn’t be this affected by what happened many lifetimes before I was born, but it’s unnerving. I hope I get over it soon, maybe my discomfort is just from the many horror stories I’ve been told as a kid on what the cannibals do to you if you’re caught.
In brighter news, some of the soldiers have gotten a taste for spices and it’s become a regular during meals. Not as spicy as the morning after my attack, but still significantly better than it has been. I even help out with cooking, given that my job as an interpreter is pointless for the time being.
I’m ashamed to say, but I did check the ingredients multiple times to make sure there were no fingers going into the pot.
On the fifth day of this peaceful cycle, my hand is let out of the bandages. There’s a lot of scabs crusted over the wounds, but it should be well on its way to healing. A half circle under my pinkie but reaching all the way to the middle finger bone, on both my palm and the back of my hand. The medic says there will be a scar, but given my darker skin tone it shouldn’t be too noticeable.
A few hours later, Izydor runs over as I’m talking to some men, watching them chop firewood.
“Pano! There’s a lot of tribesmen coming, we think they want something and we need you.”
I hop from the chair and the soldiers drop their tools as we run off.
The camp is located on a small hill with a river to our south, while these men approach from the eastern side. At various points on the log wall are stairs that lead to raised platforms. Izydor brings me up top, and we join Kosman. The slope of the hill is gradual, and beyond the clearing, where our scouts created a trail that heads through the jungle, we see two men flank the entrance to the path. They have drums attached to their hips via straps, and polished sticks. Their heads are down and they wait, motionless, for their cue. After many long moments of painful silence, there’s a piercing birdcall that echoes through the jungle, and the men begin to play. The sound they make is deep and meant to put you on edge, but the peldaks are veterans from hundreds of battles, and I’ve never felt safer than behind their walls.
Finally, a small army of tribesmen emerge from the jungle trail. They wear hides, crude armor made from various animal bones… or maybe human bones, and an impressive number of bead necklaces. The largest necklace hangs down to their belly buttons, while the smallest only reach their collar bones.
I elbow Kosman, “the beads mean they’re all of great importance. Kind of like… a royal procession, where all these powerful figures are shown off like trophies.”
All our new guests line up in two columns that begin at the trail and ends a respectable distance from the walls. It wouldn’t be appropriate to enter our ‘village’ without invitation. Each man in the column has a banner, with the flag section made of hide and a design scratched onto it in charcoal. The designs are cartoonish, but all clearly display a human head with sharp teeth chewing on various animals, body parts, and geographic locations.
On one banner I see a human head chewing on a representation of a river and a waterfall. The man carrying it is the leader of the tribe we met just a week ago.
“Tsk, they certainly work fast.” Izydor leans on the sharpened tops of the log wall, “I hope they’re not here for a fight, we’ve more than enough guns to turn them into a mess of bite-sized pieces.”
I put a hand on his bicep, “easy, they’re not here for a fight.”
Kosman nods, “they want to impress us with the number of tribes they control. Shoot the parade, you declare war on the whole island.”
When the two columns are complete, they turn inward and lower their banners just enough for two men to walk underneath. The drums pick up as the men get closer to our camp, and I’ll admit I do start feeling the dread and anxiety they want me to.
The two men clear the canopy of banners and the drums suddenly stop, not even an echo is left. The first man steps forward, with the second standing behind him and to the right.
The man who steps forward… the sight of him makes my blood curdle. His height, the size of his muscles, the silhouette of his short black hair, it’s all so familiar. He’s chosen to forgo the decorative beads and instead wears white warpaint on his bare chest, with bones tied to his forearms. On his right flank is a prominent scar.
I look up at Izydor, he’s looking down at the man with his ears up, and pure contempt in his eyes. The man scans the camp walls and his eyes rest on us for just a moment, he recognizes us as well. That’s the man who infiltrated the camp and sunk his teeth into my hand.
The man raises his hands and projects his voice clearly across the jungle in a grand display.
“[Disgusting subhumans who have invaded our lands and seduced our people with promises of wealth!]”
Those nearby look to me to translate, but the second tribesman projects his voice equally as loud. “Honored guests who have come to our island in search of paradise!”
I see the look of joy on the faces of those in the parade, their smirks, their attempts to hide their laughter. This isn’t like when I mistranslated for Kosman in order to make things go smoothly, they’re all in on it.
“[I am Luncai, greatest warrior of the Maneater tribe, and soon to be leader of a great conquest which will sweep over your lands.]”
“I am Luncai, chosen diplomat for the Maneater tribe, and the one entrusted by the Mountain King himself to form a lasting peace between our two great peoples.”
“[When the short war is over, we look forward to experiencing how different your alien flesh tastes, assuming it’s even edible and not rotted to the core.]”
“In two days, there will be an important religious ceremony held on top of the Mt. Mulahan, and the Mountain King would be honored if the great representatives of the star tribe could attend.”
“[For the traitors who have sold themselves to the paleskins, rest assured that we won’t kill you. We’ll simply take you back with us and show you the error of your ways. No matter how long the process takes, you’ll come to appreciate your fellow islanders far more than any paleskin.]”
I slink away from the wall so they can’t see me. I don’t feel well, I don’t want the peldaks to even try and make friends with them. Izydor follows me down onto the steps.
Most of the men in the two columns chuckle, perhaps from the threat or maybe because I had to step out. Even their interpreter needs a moment to compose himself. “We formally extend this offer. It will be a fun ceremony, one dedicated to the many stars in the sky in honor of your arrival. Food, drinks, women, fun! The Mountain King hopes to see you there.”
With that, their declaration of ‘friendship’ has concluded. I can’t see them anymore, but if the little ceremony goes as it’s supposed to, Luncai draws his sword and cuts a half circle in the dirt in front of him. It represents a temporary barrier to his village, and he’s inviting us to cross it. The drums then beat once more and Luncai leaves between the columns, each pair of men following behind him as he passes. It isn’t long after that that the drums fade of as well.
I overhear the soldiers talk amongst themselves about what they just saw. Most of it’s taunts about how they’d easily win a war, some mock the idea of peace, and a few have never heard the name of their tribe and wonder if they’re the cannibals.
“I take it those translations weren’t accurate?” Izydor says.
“N-not… not very.” I sit down on the side of the step. This is all so wrong, what have I gotten myself into? I look down at my palm and start picking at the scab, but Izydor pulls my hand away before I can hurt myself.
Kosman steps down to us. “What great luck! Pano, pack your things, we’ll head out-… you okay?”
I shake my head and Izydor speaks for me. “She says what that Luncai said and what his translator said didn’t match up.”
Kosman puts his hands on his hips. “What did he say?”
“That… all of you would die and be eaten, while I’d… be captured and ‘dealt with’. U-until I renounce you all and repledge my loyalty to the island and its new masters.”
“Yikes,” Kosman curls the side of his mustache.
Izydor sits down next to me. “Hey, hey. That’s not gonna happen, okay? There’s no way they’ll actually beat a peldak army.” He pulls the unloaded rifle from a strap on his back and shows it off. “They won’t even get the chance to get close.”
“Of course!” Kosman moves to the steps in front of me, then crouches so we’re eye level, “besides, it’s possible it was just a tactic. Only a translator would understand, so maybe he did it to throw you off your game. I mean, we of the ‘star tribe’ have to accept the invitation. That was a challenge and failure to accept would lead to a loss of reputation that we can’t afford.” He gives off a charming, reassuring smile. His strong jaw, his clear grey eyes, he radiates absolute confidence. “I won’t order you to come with us, but I need to go, and I need a translator. You’re the only one I trust with this.”
Izydor stands and gets closer to his boss. He whispers, but I can still hear him over the dull murmurs of the camp. “Sir, I don’t think it’s good for her to go. That man Luncai infiltrated this camp and went after her. At the waterfall-river tribe they specifically taunted her. Just now, Luncai made it a point to look at us specifically, then threatened her. We should be sending her back to Port Jahsing under armed guard, not bringing her to their den.”
Kosman returns the whisper, but I think he intentionally speaks loud enough for me to hear. “I know what we should be doing, but I need to focus on what we need to be doing. The Maneaters represent a rallying point against the Protectorate, where everyone who’s hostile or skeptical of our presence can unify behind. They don’t know who they’re messing with. If they start a war, they’re all dead. We’ll kill everyone who raises a sword against us, and those who remain will hate us for killing their brothers or sons or husbands. The way I see it, attending this party and negotiating a deal is really the only way to prevent that from happening.”
Izydor, a man confident in his own skill with a blade, can offer no counter argument. Of course the peldaks would win a war, or so they think. But are they really that strong?
Kosman moves to the side of Izydor and looks to me. I don’t want to. I wanna go home, my real home back in my village. But I burned those bridges years ago, so I’d even settle for their Port Jahsing. But I can’t just leave everyone. With a deep breath, I return Kosman’s gaze, but don’t answer.
“As the major,” he says with a gentle voice, “I have 1,000 soldiers under my command, currently split into 10 groups to build this bridge. I understand things are tense, so I’ll pull everyone into this camp immediately and have it fortified. We’ll keep you safe.” He slaps Izydor’s chest with the back of his hand. “Izy will, I will, everyone will. But I need to attend this ceremony. There will no doubt be representatives from the many tribes under them, like in that procession. I need to put forth a good face, convince at least a few to not rise in open rebellion against us, but I can’t speak to them directly. So, can I count on you, Panopio?”
Memories flash through my mind of all the stupid things Kosman has said to tribal leaders. All the horrific taboos he’s broken that nobody could understand. He really does need me, and I hate that I understand that. “…If they ask us to go somewhere without guards, we say no.”
Nothing else for it. I struggle to my feet, then shake Kosman’s hand. I will see this through.
Izydor sighs, “I guess I’ll make sure everything’s in order for our departure.”