Within the Vault of the Sky, the wind was so cold that it burned the lungs, but in the forest just below the peaks, between the great Jabari trees, the air was thin but pleasantly crisp. A gift from Hanuman, to the people named after his sacred forest. Evergreen despite the altitude and cold, the trees swept a deep emerald mantle down from the peaks towards the northern approach to the Fastness, nurturing life in the cradle of their crowns where no life could otherwise exist.
Anathi’s body would normally have been buried in a suitable clearing, whole, to nourish new Jabari trees, starting the cycle anew. The forest was full of burial mounds turned into trees. Yet with the poison still in Anathi’s flesh, the Elder Council had come to a reluctant conclusion with the Godkeepers: the body would be burned. The ash, scattered. M’Baku faced the trees, his palms folded behind his back, and absorbed the grief and shock and anger of his people. Moans and prayers followed the Godkeepers as they cast the ash over loamy ground.
Ce’Athauna stood beside him, jaw clenched tightly. The Elder Council watched in a loose line behind them, murmuring benedictions. Ash to ash. There was so much of it, and yet when it was over it felt too soon. Anathi had been part of all of M’Baku’s life: he had been presented to Anathi when he had been born. The huge gorilla had laughed. Ngozi had considered that a good omen.
For a moment M’Baku felt like a child again, lost against the decades of his life, searching for his grandmother among the trees, Anathi hooting worriedly behind him as he scaled a trunk. She was buried under the trees as well, along with the bones of all their people. Somewhere in the warmth was her tree.
Anathi would have no tree. M’Baku clenched his hands tightly behind him, digging his fingertips into his skin. He startled as Ce’Athauna gasped, grasping his elbows. Others exclaimed, only to be pointedly shushed by the Godkeepers. Pointing.
From the Vault of Heaven beyond the forest the gorillas had come. Huge and silver, elders and their young. They watched in a silent rank at a respectful distance, surveying the Jabari with a solemnity that felt like indifference. For a moment there was nothing but dead silence, between both of Hanuman’s chosen. Then wind pushed a rustling funnel through the leaves above, and the gorillas departed as silently as they had come.
“An omen,” Elder N’Gamo said behind him.
“A bad one,” Chief Botanist Lulama muttered, only to be hushed by Elder Babalwa. She refused to be shushed. “Hsst! You know what will be said.”
M’Baku swallowed his temper, ignoring them both. There was no space for that here. He waited in silence, instead, until everyone else began to leave. It was a long wait. The sun had given way to dusk by the time the Godkeepers began to make their way back to the Fastness, leaving M’Baku and Ce’Athauna behind.
“Go,” he told her.
Ce’Athauna shook her head. She hugged him instead, briefly pressing her cheek to his breastplate. Then Ce’Athauna stepped away, sitting down wearily on a large tree root. “Aiii! What a mess.”
“You could say that.” M’Baku leaned against a tree, scrubbing a palm over his face. He felt drained.
“It might be the Mining Tribe. I’ve—” Ce’Athauna said.
“This is not the time or place,” M’Baku said, if gently. As Head of Security, Ce’Athauna had always taken her work extremely seriously: usually at the expense of things like tact.
Ce’Athauna frowned at him, then she exhaled loudly. She stretched out her legs, rubbing her knees, looking over at where the scattered ash was now invisible in the undergrowth. “Do you know. When I was three years old I broke my father’s prized astrolabe.”
“It was an accident. I was just trying to see how it worked. Wah, he was so angry. While he was shouting at me I ran away. I told him I was going to live in the mountains and be a hermit.”
“We had to search the Fastness up and down for you.” That had been fun. Not. “Father was ready to actually send out search parties into the Vault.”
“I really was going to run away. But when I was stealing things from the kitchen for my pack I turned around and Great Anathi was there. I hadn’t even heard him approach. He could barely fit through the doorway to the central kitchen, you know. He stared at me and stared at me and I don’t know why, I stopped being angry. I ended up walking with him back to his chamber and we ate all the fruit I had stolen.”
“I remember your father tried scolding the Godkeepers for not telling them that you were there.” It had been a passing Prime, late in the evening, who had chanced by and found Ce’Athauna asleep in a sprawl on top of the gorilla’s furred flank.
“They said Anathi told them not to.” Ce’Athauna laughed. “Hah! He did no such thing. Mama Esihle, she was such a good liar.”
“When I was eight, my grandmother caught me trying to teach Great Anathi to be a war mount,” M’Baku said. He tried not to look closely at the trees. His grandmother’s spirit might have been drawn closer to this Plane by the story, listening. He could nearly feel her close by: she had always loved stories, especially stories about her. “I’d bribed Anathi out to the Vault with bananas.” A rare treat in the Fastness, traded from the Mining Tribe on occasion.
“Why would you…” Ce’Athauna trailed off with another laugh. “Oh. Like the Border Tribe and their rhinoceroses.”
“Like them,” M’Baku admitted. “Only days ago Grandmother had taken me to observe them.” He liked the Border Tribe. They were an uncompromising people because they were the first line of defense for Wakanda. He didn’t blame them for siding with Killmonger. The view from the borderlands was pitiless.
“Was she angry?”
“What do you think?”
“Eh, I think she probably climbed right up onto Great Anathi’s back behind you.”
“She did. The Primes were scandalised. I was scandalised. Never did that again.” Anathi had been long-suffering but bemused about all the fuss, content to sit and eat bananas while people climbed over his shoulders. “Then the Godkeepers and our parents found us. Father was very embarrassed.”
“Your Father was embarrassed by everything, rest his soul.”
M’Baku nodded. “Something he shared with yours.” His father and uncle were serious souls. Too serious for Hanuman, Ngozi used to joke. They chuckled, sharing memories. It felt good to mourn Anathi with laughter. To remember him as he was. They told stories until the light globes were the only stars they could see. Then they made their way back home.
“Nakia! Wait. Wait. I’m in the middle of something very explosive.” Shuri was encased in a full suit of shock-absorbent blue and gray scaleplate, her eyes hidden by a silver visor as she tooled something within a stasis field. Assistants nodded at Nakia before turning back to their consoles, recording, calculating. Carefully, Shuri slotted a small silver bearing into a pale floating globe. Nothing happened.
“Huh,” Shuri said, squinting at the bearing. “That really should have—” She yelped as the bearing suddenly burned white. There was a whistling sound, and the bearing and the globe were gone. As was the shielding closest by. The glass panel facing outwards to the vibranium core shattered.
“Oops.” Shuri raised her visor. “Lower vibranium infusion percentage by an eighth percentile.” An assistant nodded, and as they dispersed, two hurrying over to start sweeping up the glass with gravsets, Shuri’s armour peeled away into her bracelets, leaving her in a white tunic and skirt.
“Isn’t that glass bulletproof?” Nakia stared.
“Yes? Not that ‘bulletproof’ glass means anything now. Repulsors can get through bulletproof glass. Even the old-school repulsors by Tony Stark.” Shuri looked Nakia over. “Flew straight from Washington?”
“Once I got the call from Okoye, yes.” Nakia pulled a face. “We really can’t leave T’Challa to his own devices for even a few weeks?”
“You’re the one who once thought about marrying him.”
“Ah! I never said marry. Never.” That was a bridge Nakia had never been prepared to cross. Not with Wakanda and the world as it was.
“How are things in America? I saw your speech to Congress.”
Nakia rolled her eyes. “If you saw that then you know how it is.” She had been trained for covert ops and diplomatic ops and more, but actually having to spend marathon twelve-hour sessions before a panel of mostly old white men explaining patiently that yes, Wakanda intended to share its tech, no, that didn’t mean freely sharing vibranium, and no, that didn’t mean sharing state secrets… Well. She was glad to be home.
“Okoye thinks the Americans will say we will have chemical weapons and invade. Like they did in Iraq.”
“The UN did suggest sending through a diplomatic delegation, yes. Which I hear the Tribal Council declined.” Nakia grimaced. “And of course now everyone is asking us for money and resources. And protection.”
Refugee applications had been pouring in, by phone and by letter and more, an endless prayer for relief from everywhere in the globe. The Council had rejected each one. But at least they had been willing to set aside a fund for Nakia’s use. Matched by T’Challa’s personal resources.
“That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? To do more for everyone.”
“I suppose…” Nakia trailed off, taking a moment. “I always knew it would be difficult. I didn’t realize how overwhelming it would be. Not even War Dog missions prepared me for the sheer scale of everything that Wakanda cannot fix by itself. But we have to try. What is wealth if there are people out there who have nothing? Still. That is not why I am home.”
“Right.” Shuri brought up a series of panels on the remaining intact glass screens. One of them was a string of data with panels of images. Plants and a gray box of a facility. “T’Challa sent me a scan of the poison used. It’s a Gelsemium hybrid. Someone’s bioengineered Heartbreak Grass to become even more deadly.”
“That’s a start,” Nakia said, staring at the readout. “Gelsemium’s a popular poison with the Russians and the Chinese. I can contact our War Dogs in Moscow and Shanghai, see if they can find anything.”
“There’s one other thing,” Shuri said grimly. “Heartbreak Grass isn’t native to Africa. But this variant was grown on infused soil. Like the Jabari trees. That’s possibly why it was so deadly.”
Not the Russians or the Chinese then. Maybe. “So it was very likely grown in Wakanda.”
“Not just in Wakanda. Flora has to be growing on intensely infused soil to mutate. That means Jabari soil. Or the Mining lands. Even so, the Jabari trees only got to the variant they are now after centuries of growing and propagating on infused soil. This? This is new.”
“Possibly. I’ve been reading up on infused herbs, but the consensus—on our side anyway—is that it’ll take time to grow this mutated variant.”
“On our side?” Nakia asked.
“Well… we don’t know what the Jabari are fully capable of. Maybe they do have the tech to fast-mutate a plant. Or. Maybe some of them have been growing a crop of Heartbreak Grass all this while.” Shuri sounded unenthusiastic about the latter possibility.
“A murder plot decades in the making to kill a gorilla six decades or so old?” Nakia didn’t like elaborate conspiracies. They usually didn’t turn out to be the reason something was going wrong.
“Maybe Anathi is only the first. Heartbreak Grass is usually ingested. That means they hadn’t found a way to get it into Anathi’s food undiscovered. They had to make a concentrated coating of it instead. The murder weapon’s probably still out there.” Shuri gestured at another panel, which was a mosaic of quick-running scans of locations. “I’ve gotten some drones out to look for the plant signature.”
“Shuri. You know those drones aren’t meant for something like this.”
“Rather than for what, taking remote pictures of the Jabari? Like my brother would say, reee-lax,” Shuri said, mimicking T’Challa’s drawl. “They won’t be caught. They’re mine.”
“In the meantime—” Nakia paused as her communications bead pinged her. She picked up.
Okoye smiled at her in relief. “Sister Nakia. You are back.”
“Recent events have not made me confident in the ability of certain people to solve their own problems,” Nakia admitted, though she grinned in return. “Women again to the rescue?”
“Always, always.” Okoye held her smile for a moment longer, then grew sober. “Come to Birnin Djata. There is something you should see.”
The Mining Tribe also operated Mena Ngai, which made it technically the wealthiest tribe overall in Wakanda. Not that the Tribal Council or T’Challa liked to look at things that way, but not even Wakanda could avoid having a system of currency. That was Nakia’s experience with every society on earth, however well-intentioned. Inequality was always built-in.
At least Wakanda tried to handle it better than most: profits from Mena Ngai meant every Wakandan had a universal basic income. The Mining Tribe paid their people a share in the profits above that, which always made walking into Birnin Djata a gesture in contrasts. Through the gates, past the chameleon shields, Birnin Djata looked unassuming. The buildings were blocky, built into the stone, decorated with red buntings and snapping flags, several walls painted with the Mining Tribes’ intricate mosaic patterns. It was a far cry from the gleaming city of Birnin Zana, at least on the surface.
Some Wakandans greeted her as she passed, but for most her presence gathered no more than a polite nod, or a word of wry condolence about the American Congress. Many were Mining Tribesmen, in their bright orange and red outfits, rubbed with otjize paste, the butterfat and ochre mixture that reddened their skin and hair.
Nakia found Okoye and W’Kabi waiting for her near the raucous souq. Given the day was nearing lunch, the marketplace was in full swing under the red and yellow buntings, a roar of laughter, song, and trade. Nakia could smell spices and cooking grease and incense. Someone close by was frying plantains, the scent making Nakia’s mouth water. She smiled at Okoye and nodded politely at W’Kabi, who inclined his head, impassive. Only Okoye looked starkly out of place. There were no Dora Milaje here, and while the bright blue of W’Kabi’s blanket was usually a rare sight this far north, there was a contingent of the Border Tribe stationed within Birnin Djata.
“How was America?” Okoye asked, as W’Kabi motioned for them to follow. They went around the souq, through a side street hung with beaded signs.
Nakia sighed. “Every time I leave Wakanda I remember the joy of coming home.” It felt good even to be back in her Wakandan gear, the close-fitting gold and leather armour-robes of her people.
“Seventeen people died in a school last week. Many children. Another gunman. Bought his weapon legally. And I don’t know if anything will change. Again. It amazes me.”
“They are a violent people,” W’Kabi said curtly. “We waste our time.”
Nakia swallowed her annoyance. Okoye had no such compunctions. “Oh, and who decided to help an American usurp the throne?”
“He was Wakandan. Son of the previous king’s brother,” W’Kabi shot back. “T’Challa accepted the Challenge.”
“Wakandan-American,” Nakia said, placatingly, as Okoye sucked in an irritated breath. “Okoye, what am I here to see?”
“I don’t want you to have any impressions before you see it,” Okoye said. They came to a block draped with Border colours, and W’Kabi led them in, his tribesmen falling at ease once they recognised him. It looked like a barracks to Nakia’s practiced eye, all clean lines, carefully organised. W’Kabi took them to a jaunt lift, and they sped downwards to a well-lit antechamber with a checkpoint manned by Border Tribesmen.
Past that was a cell block, an administration area, and a coldroom with drawers set into chilled stone. Nakia paused at the doorway, breathing in the sterilised air. She steeled herself, walking in. There were other people waiting: another Border Tribesman—a tall woman, taller than W’Kabi, draped in blue and visibly unarmed, gold rings looped in stacks over her ears. And a Mining Tribesman, a petite, elderly woman a head shorter than even Nakia, scowling, her gold-capped dreads and skin rubbed with otjize. Nakia knew them both by reputation.
“Shieldarm Funeka. Truthseeker-Commissioner Khethiwe.” Nakia greeted them both in turn. The head of the Border Tribesmen garrison in Birnin Djata and the head of the Criminal Investigations Division in the city.
Khethiwe inclined her head. “Sister Nakia.”
“Why do we need the help of one of the War Dogs?” Funeka told W’Kabi, who shrugged.
“Nakia is here to provide another perspective, given the sensitivity of the situation,” Okoye said pointedly, staring hard at Funeka until she dropped her eyes with a scowl.
“Well, have at it then,” Khethiwe said, resigned. “Ancestors know it can’t get any worse.”
On steel floats beside Khethiwe were two bodies, a man and a woman, both of them scarcely into adulthood. They were both dressed like Mining Tribesmen, though their red clothes were torn and soaked with blood. As far as Nakia could tell they had been beaten to death, and whoever had killed them had kept at it until there was nothing left of their faces. She sucked in a slow, tight breath. Nakia had been all over the world, seen every manner of human suffering, but violent death was never easy to witness.
“Killed with blunt weapons,” Funeka said grimly, “and left where the Jabari usually dump the idiots who run off on dares into their territories.”
“Funeka,” W’Kabi said sharply, even as Okoye opened her mouth.
She scowled. “What? This was going to happen sooner or later. I’m surprised it hasn’t before.”
“Two children are dead,” Khethiwe said, flat.
“Hardly children. And as adults they should have known better.” Funeka bared her teeth. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t find their murderers and exact retribution if we can.”
“Punishment for the sake of punishment has not been part of Wakanda for centuries.”
“Oh, and you think the Jabari will happily submit to forwarding whoever it was to your low-security rehabilitation centres? Play nice and make beadwork?” Funeka muttered something rude under her breath.
“Aren’t we assuming it was the Jabari?” Nakia asked. “Do we have any other evidence? I know what it looks like,” she added, raising her palms, as Funeka narrowed her eyes, “but I’m rather tired of civil war right now, and don’t want to start another one over circumstantial evidence.”
Funeka looked at Khethiwe, whose shoulders slumped slightly. “There’s footage. We have a sensor map and a hidden focal cam on their favourite ‘dump’ sites. Just so we know to come and pick up the people they return.”
“I’ll like to see the footage.” Nakia’s heart sank.
“Of course.” Khethiwe stared at the bodies, then looked at each one of them. “We can’t keep this quiet forever. I won’t stand for that.”
“Of course not.” Nakia said.
“Okoye explained matters to me and I’ve talked to the victims’ families. They’re willing to let us handle things discreetly for now. Until the King leaves Jabari lands. That’s why the bodies are here and not at the city morgue. But they won’t be patient forever.”
“I understand that too, and thank them for their sufferance,” Nakia said gently.
Khethiwe nodded tightly. Funeka stared at her, unflinching, and said, “Let’s see what you War Dogs can do.”