Congoa’s capital is constructed from wide trees that have been shaven into business towers and homes. Fateen tells Ekon the trees are thousands of years old and more structurally sound than steel or clay. The roots descend hundreds of feet into the ground and make the trees unmovable. They can stand against earthquakes and other dangerous natural disasters.
“If these trees, these buildings can’t be moved, how were they organized so neatly?” Ekon asks, admiring the city below from the window of Fateen’s office.
“The seeds were planted ages ago by my ancestors,” Fateen says, standing beside him.
Pointing at vines thicker than his own forearm, Ekon asks, “What are the vines for?”
“Transportation. We have vehicles, but some of my people are traditionalists. They would rather travel the way our ancestors did than risk their lives in pods or airbuses.”
“Terrible idea,” Ekon says, sitting at the conference table. He runs his palms over the cool, red oak table, impressed at its sturdiness. Symbols are carved beneath its surface, but they leave no grooves. If he closes his eyes while feeling where the symbols are, he would not even not even know are there.
The rectangular table can fit up to six people. Fateen is sitting at the head of the table. Ekon had already lost the argument to sit there. Fateen refuses to play any other role than leader on his own world. Ekon does not like the ape’s mentality, but he lets it slide. Everyone knows Ekon is the real leader.
“Do you think they’re coming?” Fateen asks gruffly.
“I told them to be here,” he says, picking food from his teeth and flicking it.
“Why are they late? Things don’t get done when people are late,” the ape says, slamming his fists on the table. It does not shake.
Ekon rolls his shoulders, trying to get comfortable in his full-body armor. It has become his standard style of dress. He has not shed his scales in years. They are hard as rock, but people respect and fear men in armor, men like himself and Fateen. Surely, Fateen would be feared without the armor he wears like a second skin, but seeing his large frame clad in steel makes him look more fierce.
The walls are decorated with paintings of primates of different ages all in armor. The paint strokes are crude, almost childish, as if they were drawn by a talented toddler. Ekon can tell from the texture of the paint being heavy in some areas and light in others that the artists used their fingers in place of paintbrushes to create the art.
Had the walls been painted over, Ekon would not have been able to see the imperfections of the wood. Although they have been sanded, nothing else has been done to beautify the walls. The natural swirls range between light brown and black. He can smell the freshness of the wood, even though it is generations old.
“Do you have any poison dart blood?” Ekon asks, feeling the familiar ache of withdrawal throbbing in his bones.
Pressing a button on the phone beside him, Fateen orders the person on the listener to bring dart blood. The service is nearly instantaneous. By the time he ends the call, there is a knock on the door followed by a small ape bringing a bottle of blood and several wooden cups. The small ape never makes eye contact and leaves without a word.
“He seemed kind of timid. Must be new,” Ekon says more to himself than to Fateen.
“What makes you say that?”
“Did you see the way he kept his head down? He didn’t look either of us in the face.”
“On my world, it is disrespectful to look someone in the eyes if that person is your superior in any way, socially, economically or otherwise.”
“Isn’t that hypocritical? I thought you didn’t believe in that stuff. You preach about making everyone equals.”
Fateen clenches his fists. “These traditions are older than civilization. I did not make them, and I can not destroy them. It is out of my control,” he says.
Ekon replies only by nodding. He pours sticky dart blood in his cup until it comes within a millimeter of running over. The cloyingly sweet smell opens his airwaves. He closes his eyes, licks his lips. His aching bones calm in anticipation of the blood.
“They should have been here by now. If they stand me up, I’ll pay them back with interest,” Fateen says.
“They’ll be here. They probably won’t be too happy about doing any business with you, but they won’t stand me up.”
Just as Ekon lifts his wooden cup, Cimicidae and Rattus enter. They fuss at one another, as they try to squeeze through the doorway at the same time. Cimicidae overpowers his rival and saunters in like he has won some great competition, sitting across from Ekon while Rattus sits to Ekon’s left.
Cimicidae’s shirt stretches at the seams and the buttons strain to stay intact. He reminds Ekon of gelatin. It would be so easy to slide a knife through his formless flesh. He would probably squeal or beg for his life while dying.
“I had reservations about coming here. I was not sure if I was amongst friends,” Rattus says, eyeing Fateen and Cimicidae. His bucked teeth protrude beyond his thin lips, making him appear more comical than he is. He strokes his whiskers, as he takes in the room. He adjusts his tunic, his world’s formal wear.
“I am not you friend, and I have not claimed to be. This is business. That is what this is about,” Fateen says, getting to the point.
“Tell me how a UJC reject comes to host a meeting on his planet,” Rattus says. For a small man, he does now mince his words.
“He is not hosting this meeting. I am,” Ekon says patiently. “Fateen is an ally, and he will be claiming the seat on the Consortium that was taken from his father.”
Rattus shakes his head. “You never told me he would sit on the UJC again. You told me his role was incidental at best.”
“I lied, but enough about me. Let’s get down to business.”
The men cover everything from Experiment G-Three to stripping the UJC of any real power and Ekon being made king. Everyone but Rattus is fine with the last part. The rodent strokes his whiskers and settles deeper into his seat, as Ekon explains why he should be king.
“The point of the UJC is to provide checks and balances, so that one member does not have more power than the rest,” Rattus says.
“As high speaker, I already have more power than anyone else on the Consortium,” Ekon points out.
“This is true, but with enough votes, the members can overturn your decisions. As king, you will have absolute power. I’m not comfortable with that.”
“Look, it makes sense to make me king. Even without you, we can get enough votes to elect me king. You can either be with it, or you can suffer later.”
Rattus finally agrees, and the meeting continues. Ekon listens now, but refrains from saying much. As he drinks his dart blood, his attention floats in and out of the conversation. The blood warms him to the core, relaxing every part of his being. He rolls his shoulders and pops his knuckles.
Without Rattus, Ekon doubts he can get the votes he needs to be elected king. He grins, knowing Rattus does not know this. Rattus does not realize how desperately Ekon needs him. Without the rodent, Ekon’s only hope of becoming king is waging war on those against him. It would take less than a year for them to destroy him and Yabisi.
Things are going well for him, but Tau Bot has not caught Bahati. She is on the run, hiding somewhere in Grot. He had given orders to bring her back alive. Those orders are now to bring her back dead or alive, in whole or in pieces. The UJC will be voting on Experiment G-Three in less than fours weeks.
“This all sounds good,” Cimicidae says, interrupting Ekon’s thoughts, “but what about Stella and Maoka? They’ll be a difficult bunch, even if we pass all our motions legitimately.”
“Maoka isn’t a problem. She’ll comply when her friend Stella is gone,” Ekon says. He looks at Fateen. “Fateen and I are taking care of Stella at this moment.”
As Ekon grins, there is a loud explosion outside. The men come to their feet and rush to the window. A pod materializes from a thinning cloud of dust debris down below in the street. People run to the vehicle in an attempt to help the person inside. The tinted glass top slides back, and someone stumbles out. Ekon can not tell if the person is male or female.
“What is this? What is she doing here?” Fateen says, slamming a fist against the fiberglass window.
“Who is she?” Rattus asks curiously.
Fateen does not respond. He watches with flared nostrils as the woman dusts herself off and trips in the direction of the building they are in. She brushes away all who try to help her. Ekon squints at the woman’s strange dress. Save for the red bandana tied to her head, she wears an all black jumpsuit.
Ten minutes pass before the bloody woman makes it to the office. She kneels at the doorway and does not stand until Fateen touches her head. Though thin, she is taller than Fateen. Her head is only inches from the ceiling. Ekon has never seen an ape her height. Her eyes are trained on Fateen, and she does not glance at the other men.
“What are you doing here, Nala? We are never to meet when the sun is high,” Fateen says on the edge of anger.
“The mission failed. The humanoids killed Haji and captured Uma,” Nala says.
“Please do not tell me these are the buffoons you sent to kill Stella,” Ekon says, whirling. He is about to say more, but Fateen holds up a giant hand that stops him.
“How do trained assassins let weak humanoids capture and kill them?” Fateen yells, his teeth bared.
“They were prepared, almost as if they knew we were coming. It is daytime here, but on Stella’s world, it is night. She should have been asleep in bed, but she wasn’t. There were a dozen armed soldiers with machine weapons waiting for us. We stood not a chance,” Nala says, dropping her head.
Fateen turns his back, shoulders sagging. Ekon watches him, absorbs the pursed lips and partially dropped chin. There is sadness in his demeanor.
For a long time, no one says anything. It is quiet as a moonset. When Fateen finally speaks, his voice carries acceptance and sadness.
“You have never failed me, Nala. Your loyalty to me is unquestionable. For those things, I am grateful. There are things that can be forgiven and those that can not,” Fateen says, kissing Nala on the forehead.
Nala nods her understanding. She reaches into the utility pack on her waist and takes a pill from inside. Taking a knee, she tilts her head and swallows the pill. She wavers and then falls, her body lifeless.
Fateen sits at the table and ignores the dead woman on the floor. The others do a good job pretending a corpse is not five feet from them. Ekon finds this difficult with the dart blood flowing through him. He tries looking away, but his eyes wander back to her against his will.
“Is someone going to do something about that?” Ekon says, gesturing to the body.
“It will be taken care of,” Fateen says without elaborating.
“I’m sad about the dead monkeys —,” Cimicidae says, but Fateen cuts him off.
“Not monkeys. Apes,” Fateen says angrily.
“Yes, yes. Apes. My concern is the one, Uma, the humanoids captured. How much does she know?”
“Nothing but her orders.”
“That’s good, but she knows you sent the orders. If the humanoids make her squeal, we’re all dead,” Ekon says. He licks his lips, tasting sweet dried dart blood.
“She will not talk. She is a respected assassin. She has probably already taken her death pill,” says Fateen.
“What if she hasn’t? The longer she’s captive, the more likely she is to tell them what they want to hear,” Rattus says.
“This is all beginning to be a little too complicated. I don’t know if it makes sense for me to continue down this road,” Cimicidae says, adjusting his shirt.
“Listen, you cowardly worm or whatever you are,” Ekon says, aiming a yellowed nail at Cimicidae, “you’re already in this. You’ve reached the point of no return. You will live or die with us.”
“The other Consortium members are going to call an emergency meeting when word spreads there was an attempt on Stella’s life,” says Rattus thoughtfully. “This is an offense punishable by death.”
“There we have it. I will sentence Uma to immediate death. She’s an assassin. She has trained to die as much as kill her whole life,” Ekon says. “Everything else will continue as planned.”
“Stella will still be a problem,” Cimicidae says.
“This is true. What do we do about her?” says Rattus.
“She’s a thorn, but let’s be patient. As a member of the Consortium, she has to visit Yabisi. It’s my planet. I’ll figure something out,” Ekon says.
“I still have other teams of assassins,” Fateen offers.
“Your assassins have done enough,” Rattus says, glancing at the body on the floor.
Two apes remove Nala’s dead body an hour later. Fateen does not even take a last look, but Ekon does. The smell left behind bothers him. It reminds him too much of his Khalia’s on her deathbed. He pictures her, gaunt and withered, less than half the woman she was. Regardless, there is accusatory knowledge in her eyes. She does not point a finger or even say a word. Yet he knows she knows what he did to her.
He is barely present in Fateen’s office, as the other men deal with the particulars of the upcoming political battles to come. He hears Fateen vow to do whatever necessary to win back his father’s seat on the UJC. Rattus says nothing, but Cimicidae nods, pink jowls wobbling. Ekon hears this all, smells Cimicidae’s odor, but Ekon is not present. His mind is taken by the dart blood.
Looking at his clawed fingers, Ekon curls his hands like he’s squeezing something. There is a familiar voice in his head. It is nothing more than a whisper at first. Gradually, the voice raises until it is a scream. “Murderer. Murderer,” it says, first slow and then fast, so that the syllables blur into one.
“Are you ready for this?” Ekon hears Fateen say.
Looking up, Ekon says. “Ready as can be.”
Beebe rushes into the room, and Ekon is taken aback because the Fleet commander should be on Yabisi. Ekon can tell the news isn’t great, but he waits for Beebe to catch his breath.
“The Consortium,” Beebe gasps. “I tried calling. Interstellar signal is down. Got here as quick as I could. The other Consortium members are at the embassy.”
Everyone comes to their feet, but Cimicidae is in full panic. Ekon grabs him by his shirt and shakes him into calming down. Explaining what to say in the meeting, Ekon checks to make sure Rattus and Cimicidae understands.
“Let’s go then,” Ekon says, bursting out the door.
“I’m just lucky to be alive,” Stella says, after recounting the attempt on her life. The other UJC members shift in their seats. The conference room has a chill to it.
When no one raises any questions, Ekon speaks up. “Who tipped you off about there being a possible hit on you?”
“It’s a long story,” says Stella, spreading her hands.
“We have time,” Cimicidae says.
Maoka speaks up instead, stretching a feathered hand. “I think Stella should keep the details to herself, since we don’t know how deep this treachery may go.” Her gaze lingered on Ekon.
This is the first official UJC meeting in the new Embassy. Unlike the old conference room, this one is lit well with bulbs in the place of light globes. The stone table is shined to a polish, and there is enough room to comfortably navigate from one end of the space to the next.
Ekon is glad the effects of the dart blood are wearing off. He is even happier he has not consumed as much of the drink as he normally does. At the head of the table, Ekon surveys the faces at the table. On one side are Rattus, Cimicidae and three others loyal to him. On the other side are Maoka, Stella, two other humanoids, a rodent named Sabar and one other. If Ekon had just one more person on his side or one less non-supporter on the Consortium, he would not have to do this petty dance.
“All I will say, the one we captured is an ape,” Stella says, breaking the silence.
“So, you think you know who’s responsible?” Cimicidae says.
“Apes inhabit dozens of worlds. Besides, this ape, she’s taller and slimmer than those I’m familiar with.”
“She’s female? I’ve heard rumors of an all-female ape guild of assassins. I thought they were a myth,” says Sabar, shaking her head. She is grey and hairy, wearing a tunic similar to Rattus’s but heavier. Her whiskers are trimmed close to her pointed face. She and Rattus are both rodent, but they live on different world with different temperatures.
Cimicidae wipes sweat from his forehead. “That sounds silly. There’s no such thing as a guild of assassins.”
“How can you be so sure? asks Maoka, puffing up her armored feathers.
“As high speaker of the UJC, I sentence Stella’s captive to immediate death,” Ekon says. He looks at Stella. “Where is your prisoner? I want her bought here and hanged.”
“With all due respect, this is my prisoner. She committed this offense on my world,” Stella says. With her locks dangling about her shoulders and her jumpsuit hugging every inch of her frame, she looks fierce and mysterious. Her hazel eyes do not leave Ekon’s.
“But you’re a member of the UJC. An offense against you is an offense against us all,” Ekon says, brows knitted. Anger wells in him, but he keeps it at bay.
“The assassin will get what’s she deserves, but first, I will question her. I will find out who sent her and why.”
Ekon opens his mouth to argue but sees no point. Stella will have her way, but not as she thinks. If Uma is as hardened as Fateen believes, it will take weeks or months to crack her, if she cracks at all. By then, Stella will be dead.