“Izydor!” Kosman yells from outside the tent.
“Huh..?” Izydor stirs awake, his hand on his sword. He looks around, his ears flapping.
“Hmmm…” I moan, hugging his chest tighter, “what is it..?” my voice is groggy and slow, “was that Kosman?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I feel the rustling of him looking around. “What time is it?”
I don’t know, but everything is dark and I hear light rain plinking off the tent. Forcing my eyes to open, I see a little light seep through the canvas. The sun? No, it’s too early. A lantern?
As I think, the flap of the tent is ripped open. Kosman peeks inside and brings his lantern in too, forcing Izydor and I to shut our eyes tight at the sudden brightness.
“Izy-oh, there you are, Panopio. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Sir..?” Izydor puts a hand up to block the light, “whaddya need?”
“I need her, where have you been? Why are you in here?”
With my eyes shut tight, I grip the sheet close to my chest. “I, hngh…” my head hurts, “I can’t sleep without my hand hurting.” I show off my palm. The bite mark is mostly healed, but there’s still a faint bit of raw skin. “I like knowing Izydor’s protecting me.”
Izydor rubs his eyes and rises to his feet. His voice hoarse and dry, “what do you need her for?”
“Envoys! Tribes, meeting under the cover of darkness. Sure am glad you stayed with us! Let’s go.” He leaves the tent, giving me a chance to gain my bearings.
I sigh, leaning forward, letting my hair fall in front of my face. “[Maybe it was a bad idea to stay, haha…]”
“What was that?” Izydor straps on his belt and slides his sword into place.
I raise my arms to stretch, “hngh, nothing important..! Just talking to myself.”
Izydor puts a hand out to help me up, then I quickly do the bare minimum to make myself presentable. Use water to brush my hair into place, tie my skirt. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”
He opens the tent flap for me, smiling “what, you’re not putting on your beads and flowers?”
I force my shoulders back, “they woke us up in the middle of the night, they’ll appreciate us not making them wait.”
The night air is warm and wet. It’s not really raining, just dew falling off the leaves overhead. It must be hours until the sun rises, but now would be the best time to show up. The ground is muddy but there are wood planks placed around camp to walk on, and the smell of nature fills my lungs with every breath. Distant fires illuminate all corners of the camp, no cannibal like Luncai will sneak in here tonight. Soldiers can even be seen everywhere, on guard duty, laughing, digging more holes or other odd jobs.
We rush to Kosman’s tent and flip open the canvas flap. Kosman is on the right side of the table, and on the opposite side sits three envoys. All are wearing hoods to keep their heads dry. The one in the middle is clearly the head negotiator, while the other two sit at his side for security.
“Sorry for the delay,” I say to Kosman, “[sorry for the delay,]” I say to the envoys.
Both say it isn’t a big deal, but I hurry to the right and take my spot at Kosman’s side. Izydor stands behind me, arms crossed. He doesn’t look intimidating as most of his efforts are spent trying to stay awake.
The envoy speaks, and I translate. “We are from the Tribe of the Split Tree,” we met with them months ago to negotiate, but they’re far enough inland that we haven’t started building the bridge through their territory yet. We had also already started sending their food shipments, “a thousand pardons for waking you up so late at night, but given the way things are, we didn’t want the Maneaters to know we’re here.”
Kosman raises his head high and acts rude again. He says this crap about how ‘the great and powerful nation known as the Protectorate is willing to forgive the otherwise grave offense that would be to disturb our sleep as we, the Protectorate, are always willing to lend an ear to the Protectorate’s allies in times of conflict. The Protectorate understands and appreciates your discretion’.
“[Think nothing of it,]” I say. “[These are difficult times and we understand the need for discretion.]”
“To get right to it,” I translate, “we can’t help you in the coming war. The tribes surrounding us have desired our territory for generations, and they’ll join the Maneaters as an excuse to take it. We must join the Maneaters as well, to stay under their protection. I’m sorry. We’ll only send a token force, but I’ve instructed my men not to fight.”
I turn to Kosman, who thoughtfully rubs his bushy mustache. We learned about the struggles of his tribe some months ago, I wonder if Kosman remembers the details.
“[That’s quite the predicament,]” I loosely translate. “[Would you consider letting us station a garrison in your village to protect it?]”
“You told us before that such a thing was impossible.”
Kosman responds, yet I don’t translate, “oh? I did? It makes sense, we make so many deals with so many tribes that your situation must have slipped my mind. Rest assured, however, that that was then and this is now. Circumstances have changed, and garrisoning your village would be in our best interests for the war effort.”
I translate that as “[the circumstances have changed. I’ve consulted with my war council and garrisoning soldiers would work best for all of us.]”
The envoy narrows his brow, “do you… have a plan to beat the Maneaters? Will it work?”
Kosman raises his chin and crosses his arms, confidence like that doesn’t need to be translated. “[I have faith in my warriors. Everything will go according to plan.]”
The envoy nods, seemingly on the verge of being convinced. “So what is your plan? I don’t need to tell you how frighteningly large the Maneaters army is. How would a garrison stop such a large force?”
“Hmmm…” Kosman leans forward on the table, I don’t translate yet. He looks the envoy up and down for a moment. “Yeah, I can trust you! So, the plan is we’ll give our garrison whistles. They’ll blow those whistles when the enemy arrives, and our peldak ears,” his twitch, “will hear it. Upon hearing the signal, we’ll rush in and fight the enemy army in a big set-piece battle, where our force will easily break theirs.”
…That’s his plan? To use their villages as bait, then turn it into a battle ground where thousands of men will no doubt be slaughtered? That’s… that’s awful! I mean, it makes sense, but why would he admit that? So many things could go wrong! What if the main force can’t arrive in time? What if the small garrison is overrun? From the perspective of the envoy, that plan is a huge risk to his people.
Why… wouldn’t Kosman just lie?
I shake my head, “[sorry, he used strange words, it took me a moment to find the equivalent.]” The envoy nods in understanding, and I continue. “[For reasons of security, we can’t tell you the exact plan. Not just you, but anyone. There’s no telling who might trade their loyalty to the Maneaters, and if a single person speak, the plan is ruined.]”
The envoy considers for a moment. “I… can accept that, if for no other reason than that our only other choice would be to become cannibals. Very well, Protectorate, please station your soldiers in our village. For the time being.”
Kosman wears such a smug smile, rolling his shoulders while going on and on about how much of an honor it will be for their villages to house a squad of mighty peldak warriors. He also narrows his brow, then goes on to make a threat about what will happen if they don’t feed his troops.
“[Thank you for your cooperation, we’ll send ten men. I trust you understand that we will be unable to send regular supply shipments, and you’ll have to feed my soldiers for the duration of their stay.]”
The envoy says yes, thankfully not questioning the contrast between the intensity of Kosman’s expression, and the relatively calm and diplomatic way I chose to translate. Word has spread around the island that sometimes Kosman just makes odd faces, and they assume it’s just a normal sharp-ear quirk. They have no idea what I’m saving them from.
There isn’t much to say after that. Kosman will send the squad in the morning, the tribe will accept them, they don’t need an interpreter. The envoy and his attendants kiss the back of my hand, then shake Kosman’s and Izydor’s, before they pull up their hoods and head out into the jungle.
With that, I go limp in my chair and sigh. “That was stressful…”
Kosman turns to me with a bright smile, “you did great.”
I nod, satisfied with my work, “I did, didn’t I?”
Izydor pulls my chair out for me, “I could hardly tell you woke up just a few minutes ago.”
Filled with a sense of self-importance, I put my arms out. “Yes, I woke up in the middle of the night and my legs are tired. You should carry me back to your tent.”
“Of course,” Izydor says as he wraps an arm around my waist and hoists me over his shoulder. Not the dignified princess carry I was expecting, but no matter. We arrive back in his tent, he takes his muddy shoes off, and we snuggle back under the blanket.
I pass out immediately, but I don’t get much sleep as Kosman calls for me again to deal with an envoy from another tribe. Then another, then another. When we reach the fourth envoy, I decided to stay awake in Kosman’s tent to save everyone the trouble.
These subsequent meetings go much the same. They’re from villages we’re already dealt with in the past, and they’re eager to keep their alliance. It doesn’t take much to convince them to let us house soldiers in their villages.
By the time the morning comes, the envoys stop arriving. Kosman and his war council have a shiny new map to look over. A thick blue line from our position to Port Jahsing, following the trail of where the bridge will go. Still, the vast majority of the map is either red or white, we’re the sharp minority.
“Great!” Kosman says with a bright smile.
“I wonder who’ll come tonight,” an officer says.
“We should avoid sending troops out until we have a firmer grasp on who’s doing what, sir.”
The war council goes on to discuss a great many scenarios and plans, none of which I find interesting. After a deep yawn, I leave the tent with Izydor.
“I want breakfast…” I groggily mutter out as Izydor picks me up so I don’t step through the mud.
“It’s right over here. I’m sure your mouth getting set on fire will wake you right up.”
I raise an eyebrow to him, “the food you’ve all been making isn’t nearly spicy enough for that.”
He looks to me with eyes rounded in horror, “it gets even hotter?”
I nod, “lots. It’s better than the food used to be, but it can be so much… better. When the war is over, I’ll have to teach you how flavorful it can get.”
“O-oh. Great…” He then mutters “you islanders are terrifying.”
The day goes on to be mostly quiet.
That night, I’m once again awoken to deal with more envoys, and this pattern repeats for the next few days. Izydor and I have to get up, trudge through the mud and rain, then translate for skittish envoys who apparently don’t require sleep.
Most of the envoys accept our proposal to house peldak soldiers. I think having Izydor there, towering over everyone, convinces quite a few of them that the plan will work.
Of course, everyone wanted to know exactly what Kosman’s grand plan was, but I had already made a convincing lie. The small number of peldaks, while defending against the much larger Maneater army, would sneak behind that army and assassinate the mountain king. Easy.
What’s better is that, if any tribe turned traitor and told the Mountain King of our plan, it wouldn’t matter since that’s not the right plan anyway.
But, sadly, not all the tribes who visit can be convinced.
Some arrive only to tell as that they’re throwing their lot in with the Maneaters for one reason or another. Personal disputes with other tribes, a dislike of aliens, fear, not all of their reasons are relevant to us, some are just victims of circumstance. It’s a matter of honor, for the most part, that they tell us. You have to declare war against your enemies and explain your reasoning. If they had any of our hostages, this would be when they returned them, and retrieved their own. Sneak attacks are cowardly.
When Kosman rudely brushes them off and tells them to get out of his camp, I don’t translate it. I give one last attempt to urge them to not join the Maneaters, but they never listen. It’s sad, but I have to watch them go.
Other tribes tell us they’ll remain neutral, but they hope we win. It doesn’t exactly help us, but I understand where they’re coming from. When Kosman jokes about how they’ll be food for the Maneaters, I decide not to translate that either. Instead, I have us part amicably.
When it comes to those tribes that do seek to align with us, it’s for a variety of reasons. Every tribe we’ve spoken to already came to rejoin us, including the waterfall-river tribe. I think they all really like those food shipments we started sending them. But others, who’ve lived under the Maneaters for years see us as their opportunity to escape. Some come from far to the north and south of the island, they traveled for days to meet with us, just to tell us they’re still aligned to the Maneaters, but see this as a nice way to get rid of the current leadership and advance their own position. Some of them have old rivalries within the Maneaters and see us as a way to settle their scores, or to take back territory that once belonged to them. A lot of the turncoats give semi-valuable information, like the location of food depots, or the specific location of Maneater villages.
I feel like, when we win, the Protectorate will have a hard time dealing with so many different groups of people. Thankfully I just need to translate, it’ll be up to these peldaks to figure out how everyone on this island will live together.
Not every tribe that joins us get’s a peldak garrison. Some are just too far away for a reaction force to arrive in time. They’re told to lay low, maybe pretend to join the Maneaters if they wish. Some tribes offer to send us their best warriors, but Kosman laughs in their faces.
After those few days, they envoys stop coming, and Kosman sends a few hundred peldaks out to garrison the allied tribes. When any garrison is attacked, they’ll blow a sharp whistle and this camp will jump up and run to their defense.
Supposedly, the furthest garrison is just three hours away if the peldaks run, so I hope they’d be able to hold out that long.