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All the Stars

Chapter Text

After two days of meeting requests being returned politely declined, or with Ce’Athauna showing up in M’Baku’s place to smugly offer T’Challa tours of the Fastness, T’Challa was starting to lose his patience. “This is all very interesting,” he told Ce’Athauna, as they stood upwind of racks of drying fish, “but I do need to speak personally with M’Baku. In an official capacity.”

Ce’Athauna grinned toothily, executing a playful bow. “And I speak on his behalf and in his place.”

“Really.”

“Oh yes. I can imitate the voice. And the height.” Ce’Athauna leaped nimbly up onto a crate, puffing out her chest. For all her playfulness, though, her eyes were hard. “Witness. The Jabari Fishers,” she growled, in a close approximation of M’Baku’s gruff tone.

“I thought the Jabari are vegetarians.”

“We are.”

“So what is the fish for? Why do you even have fisher folk?”

“Why, O King, we developed the practice of fishing, centuries ago, such that one day, one of our humble fisher people would have the dubious honour of finding you washed up on the river shore.” Ce’Athauna struck a dramatic pose.

Ayo rolled her eyes. “Have some respect. This is your King.”

Ce’Athauna leaped off the crate, prowling closer, until she was eye to eye with Ayo. Ayo stared back unblinkingly, her lips compressed together. “So your guard dogs do bark,” Ce’Athauna said.

“Ayo,” T’Challa said quickly, before there was an incident.

“He is no King of mine,” Ce’Athauna said, with a curl to her lip, but although Ayo stiffened, she said nothing. After a heartbeat, Ce’Athauna stepped away, seating herself on the crate, visibly bored.

“Come now,” T’Challa said, “you are the Head of Security for the Fastness. Surely you also have better things to do than show me racks of drying fish.”

“We drew straws and I lost,” Ce’Athauna admitted.

“Who? You and M’Baku?”

“Me, my parents, other cousins, Elder Council and all that. What are the chances, eh?”

“I apologise for being a chore,” T’Challa said, “but all I wanted to do was talk to M’Baku about a serious matter.”

“And I said you could talk to me about it. We are not like you, O King,” Ce’Athauna said impatiently, when T’Challa started to protest, “M’Baku is the Great Gorilla, yes. But he is one with the tribe. Don’t you even listen to the way he speaks, when he would speak on our behalf?”

“… My mistake,” T’Challa said, though he was not convinced.

“So. What do you want?”

Ayo scowled with irritation, and frowned at T’Challa when he gave her a faint shake of his head. “Two members of the Mining Tribe were found beaten to death. There is footage of Jabari Tribesmen dragging their bodies to a usual dumping spot.” When Ce’Athauna didn’t even blink, T’Challa concluded, “You people have been watching my chambers.”

“Well, not watching exactly, but your chambers do open out into the wind, and sound can carry,” Ce’Athauna said, smiling sweetly.

“And so? Were they killed by the Jabari?”

“They were intruding on our lands. We would have been within our right.”

“You have been within your right before but have never killed.” T’Challa bit down his temper. “Anger about Anathi is all very well, but to kill in return? When we aren’t even sure who the culprit is?”

“You’re very quick to blame us,” Ce’Athauna said, cocking her head.

“You aren’t exactly denying it.”

“Why bother? You people will believe what you want about us. You always have.”

“And that’s what M’Baku believes?” T’Challa found that hard to take. He didn’t anticipate this… this indifference. He’d been prepared for angry words and denials. Or perhaps belligerence.

“M’Baku believes he has nothing to say to you at present.” Ce’Athauna said, and looked over T’Challa’s shoulder at the steep ascent to the Fastness. They were alone down here, T’Challa noted with a start—the Fishers had scurried away quickly when they had descended on this area. He finally understood.

Ayo and the Dora Milaje caught on quickly too—they turned off their Kimoyo Beads a moment after T’Challa raised his arm to do so. Ce’Athauna smiled. “Not bad,” she conceded. “To be honest, I was a little surprised that my cousin was even… interested.” Ce’Athauna gestured in T’Challa’s direction. “Didn’t think he was the sort to get turned by a pretty face. Maybe there’s something more to it.”

“Thank you,” T’Challa said, amused. Ce’Athauna rose to her feet. She started to walk without beckoning, past the racks of fish, going downwind by the river. This part of the river was fast-flowing, icy, but the occasional dark shadow still flicked within the depths, sometimes sparking, as though a globe flashed within. The same colour as Jabari light globes. “You use vibranium-infused wood for much of your armour, furniture, and tech,” T’Challa said, nodding at Ce’Athauna’s armour. “And you use the infused fish for your light globes.”

“Among other things. Took you long enough to notice, O King.” Ce’Athauna waved upslope in the direction of the Fastness. “Your people dig into the earth, melt down her bones, forge things beyond the Gods. We prefer another way.”

“And yet M’Baku challenged me for the throne.”

“He thinks Wakanda isn’t yet past saving.”

“I wasn’t aware that we needed saving at all.” M’Baku paused as Ce’Athauna snorted derisively. “At least, not most recently.”

Ce’Athauna clearly didn’t think that warranted an answer. She fell silent as they followed the river, until a tributary connected to it from within a tunnel of water-carved rock. Once within, Ce’Athauna’s light globe at her hip lit up, providing a warm, pale glow across dripping stone. It was a slippery, cold walk up, often treacherous, but Ce’Athauna didn’t hesitate.

It took half an hour or so of walking through forked tunnels before the narrow space opened abruptly into a cavern as large as T’Challa’s throne room. Insects glittered overhead in a winking constellation, and in the corner of T’Challa’s eye, something slithered hastily away from the light. On a platform of rock above the stream there was a large dark stain, thick with glowing worms.

“Is that…?” T’Challa asked.

“It’s human blood,” Ce’Athauna said, blunt. “Whose blood, we don’t know.”

“May I?” T’Challa motioned over his Kimoyo Beads, and Ce’Athauna’s expression tightened.

“This is the Arteries. Centuries and we’re still mapping its depths. We come here to listen to the heartbeat of the world.”

“How far does it stretch?”

“Far enough,” Ce’Athauna said evasively.

“As far as the Warrior Falls?” T’Challa asked, his mouth quirking.

“And farther yet.”

“It sounds to me that the heartbeat of the world is not all that your people use the Arteries to listen to.” That would explain some of the stranger aspects of the War Dogs’ Jabari file. That they could appear wherever they liked in Wakanda, even without airship technology.

“Everything is part of the heartbeat,” Ce’Athauna said, though she smirked briefly. “One of our scouts found this. We didn’t touch the scene, but the glow worms have already come.”

“My King,” Ayo said. She’d been circling the cave, and pointed behind a spiked rock close to one of the cave exits. Nearly unnoticeable, caught against the rock, was a scrap of red and orange beading.

Ce’Athauna said nothing as T’Challa activated his Kimoyo Beads, though she looked away in annoyance. He sent a DNA scan of the stains to Shuri, and searched the cave with the Dora Milaje. There wasn’t much to find. “They were alive when they were brought here,” T’Challa said. Ce’Athauna nodded. “Footprints. No scour marks from dragged bodies. After they died there was a small boat, likely moored here.” T’Challa pointed at faint scuff marks on a large rock. “They were rowed down the river into the Mining lands.”

“Obviously.”

“So it was your people.”

“Possibly.”

T’Challa exhaled. “Why won’t M’Baku speak with me?”

“He isn’t obliged to give you any of his time.”

“But you are?”

“I am not the Great Gorilla.” Ce’Athauna followed the tributary downstream with her eyes, her arms folded. “My time is somewhat less valuable.”

“Do you know who the killers are?”

“Killers? These two invaded our lands.”

“And they have died for it,” T’Challa said evenly. He shut off his Kimoyo Beads. “Their parents will have no children for their old age. Or grandchildren. It was an unwise thing they did, but not one that the Jabari have killed for before. Don’t you people believe that Wakanda is one family?”

“I don’t know what I believe right now,” Ce’Athauna said, and made a face. “Sound carries from the guest rooms. But not from some others. Take that as you will.”

#

“Our Nceba would never have run off into Jabari lands like that,” Nceba’s mother Nomuula repeated, low and firm, as though by repeating the words enough she could make it true. Nakia made a soothing noise, patting Nomuula’s wrinkled palm gently. Nceba had been a miracle birth: even with Wakandan tech, Nomuula was old enough that a pregnancy was very risky. Nceba’s father Lwazi was a younger man, a carpenter. He had been silent through the whole interview, sitting in an armchair, his head buried in his hands.

“And Nkokheli?” Nakia asked, naming Nceba’s boyfriend.

“We… we always thought they were good for each other. They were good children. I knew Nkokoheli’s parents. They finished school and set up a jollof rice stall together, it’s just down the block—” Nomuula broke off into tears. Nakia hummed again, soothingly, until she calmed down.

“The day they disappeared,” Nakia said gently.

“They were going to the souq. Early in the morning. To buy supplies.”

Nakia nodded. The spice merchant had been the last person to see Nceba and Nkokheli alive in Birnin Djata. Not even the gate guards had noticed them leaving. Nor had any suspicious flight paths been tracked out of the city. “They’ve never shown any interest in the Jabari before?”

“No, never. They were good kids. Concentrating on making enough money to buy a flat. They were going to get married.”

Nceba and Nkokheli definitely didn’t sound like the sort of people who would run off into Jabari lands on a lark. About to assure Nomuula, Nakia paused as Lwazi said, “You should tell them about Feze.”

Lwazi.”

“What—or who—is Feze?” Nakia asked. As Nomuula stiffened, she patted her palm again. “It sounds like Nceba would not have gone into Jabari lands by her own will. So if there is something more… if we could prevent this from happening to other people like Nceba…”

Nomuula let out a shuddering breath, sobbing with great, heartrending gasps. Nakia mumbled nonsense words, patting her back. This was War Dogs training, to gain trust, to steel herself against the pain of others and yet Nakia’s teachers had never been able to make her unlearn empathy. Nomuula’s grief was absolute. Nceba’s death had shattered her parents.

“Feze was Nceba’s best friend when they were growing up,” Lwazi said, without looking up from his palms. “She grew up, he did not.”

“And you think Feze had something to do with this?”

“Feze would not,” Nomuula said fiercely.

“Just because he is your sister’s son—”

“He would not. I would not hear it.” Nomuula stumbled up from the couch, and dashed from the room, pulling at her hair. Nakia started to get up, then sat back down instead, clasping her hands over her knees as Lwazi rocked himself in his chair.

“Why do you think Feze might be involved?” she asked carefully.

“It’s not that he’s still just on Basic. Many people in Nceba’s year are. There aren’t that many jobs in Birnin Djata for anyone not interested in the mines. It took Nceba and Nkokheli years to save up for a stall,” Lwazi said dully. “The cost of living here is high. Even with the Mining Tribe’s bonus. Some people, they feel lost. Feze was one of them. Nceba used to complain about him. She said he was going down a bad path. That’s all I have. I know it’s not much to go on.”

“Where can I find him?”

“I know that he—and some others like him—meet under the souq sometimes. I don’t know when.” Lwazi rubbed his eyes, exhaling. “They call themselves the People.”

#

“When I said I had a lead I didn’t mean everyone and their mother had to show up,” Nakia hissed.

“Whose mother?” Funeka asked, even as W’Kabi shrugged. Okoye shot them all an annoyed glance.

“I was going to come alone, W’Kabi and Khethiwe insisted on following, and Funeka said she was ‘bored’.”

“What? I was.”

“This is my city,” Khethiwe said, eyeballing Nakia pointedly. “Two deaths is enough.”

“I wasn’t going to kill anyone,” Nakia said.

“The reputation of the War Dogs precedes you. Now are we going to talk to this Feze or what? It’s going to rain. My knee aches.”

“You should get that looked at in Birnin Zana, old woman,” Funeka said, though she moved over to Khethiwe’s side.

“This old woman has years yet, thank you. Well?”

“I didn’t want this to become a procession,” Nakia complained, but she gave in, tapping her communications bead. “Shuri, any luck?”

“I’ve had a drone scan the souq. There’s a way down through what looks like an old well in a courtyard a block down.”

“That old thing? It’s an old temple to Bast. There was a structural problem in the walls. Termites, I think. They were going to rebuild it.” Khethiwe pushed past, marching down the street, trailing Funeka and W’Kabi behind her. Nakia exchanged a long-suffering glance with Okoye.

“Next time I’ll tell you people after I’ve already done it,” Nakia muttered.

“I want to get all this nonsense over quickly so that the King will be able to return safely to Birnin Zana.” Okoye paused. “At least, until the next mess he gets himself into.”

“Himself? Pssh. When Kings get into a mess, they get everyone into it.”

The temple was barred shut by stasis locks and marked as condemned. Thankfully, Khethiwe had debarr codes, and as she drew an unlock sequence over her Kimoyo Beads, the pale lines flickered away from the door. Within, the temple was emptied out and dusty, mosaic patterns of Bast and her chosen Panthers going discoloured over the ceiling.

The garden was overgrown, and as Funeka and W’Kabi moved the covering away from the well, Okoye said, “Strange that this place wasn’t rebuilt more quickly. The Shamanate in Birnin Djata is better funded than Birnin Zana's.” Second to only the Shamanate in Necropolis, who tended the Heart Shaped Herb. Or used to.

“They are,” Khethiwe said sourly, “but they haven’t been able to decide on whether to rebuild here, or closer to the mine, or nearer the souq, and so it’s been in a deadlock and they’ve all moved into ‘temporary’ facilities within Indlovu Square, so who knows.”

W’Kabi was peering into the well as Funeka leaned the heavy cover to the side. “Stairs down,” he said. “No dust on those.”

“I’ll go first,” Okoye said, and climbed in before Nakia could argue. She went next. Down into the dark, her Kimoyo Beads lighting up as she went. It was a long way down a narrow shaft, and when Nakia finally dropped down into an antechamber, she let out a soft sound of relief.

W’Kabi was next, then Funeka and Khethiwe. “This might be dangerous,” Nakia told Khethiwe. “Maybe—”

“I’m armed,” Khethiwe said, and grinned sharply as Nakia sighed. “Lead on, girl.”

Okoye was at the single door leading out of the antechamber. “Locked. Shuri?”

“It’s an old school lock. Needs an actual physical key and everything.” Shuri sounded mildly scandalised, from Okoye’s bracelet. “Who still does that?”

“Here.” Nakia palmed a set of picks from the kit at her belt. It took some fiddling, but eventually the door eased open on oiled hinges.

“Huh,” Khethiwe said, as the door opened out to empty tunnels. “Looks like we’re in the old aqueduct.”

“Didn’t that get filled in?” Funeka frowned. “I didn’t know about these.”

“I’m going to get a full survey team down here after this.” Khethiwe grumbled for a moment to herself. “The paperwork is going to be horrendous.”

“Hssh,” Nakia shushed them. There was a faint susurration, near inaudible, pinging down the tunnels. They walked towards it, Nakia scouting ahead on lighter feet until they came to a closed door. Behind it, Nakia could hear snatches of conversation. Someone laughing, a man.

She drew back, lowering her voice. “Shuri, scan for—” Okoye stalked past, pounding on the door.

“Okoye!” Nakia hissed. Okoye ignored her. When there was only dead silence, she drew her spear, ramming the tip into the lock, then kicking the door open.

Within was a large chamber that looked like it had once been a water processing plant. Empty silos sat beside disused filter machines, bracketing in a cleared space with a mancala game and mugs of umqombothi. Rising to their feet, startled, were a group of three men and two women. The youngest was a man around Nceba’s age, the oldest was a woman around Okoye’s, who recovered first. “What? Who are you people?”

“Feze?” Nakia asked.

“Who’s asking?” demanded the youngest man, narrowing his eyes.

The man beside him tapped his communications bead. “It’s the Truthseekers! We’re not going out quietly!”

“Let’s talk about this,” Nakia said, holding up her palms, even as Okoye glowered.

“Do I look like a Truthseeker? All of you. Sit down. I won’t ask again.”

Feze opened his mouth, only to flinch as his Kimoyo Beads started to glow a bright green. There were startled oaths from the others as theirs too, began to glow, then the women began to laugh, drawing blades from their hips in a blur. The man who had spoken bared his teeth, lifting the heavy table with no visible effort, heaving it right at Nakia. She dived, angling to roll, the table shattering against a silo.

Okoye roared. She charged, spear upraised, but a Mining Tribesman was there to meet her, his own spear a blur as he swung, hard enough to drive Okoye back several feet and almost off balance. Nakia ducked a swing from a scimitar from a bearded man, deflected another against her ring blades that made her arm ache to the elbow. Enhanced speed. Enhanced strength. One of the women pounced on Funeka, driving her back with a club. Nakia caught the scimitar in a ring, twisting to disarm the Tribesman. Even as the blade went flying, the Tribesman punched her, his fist a blur, knocking her back with a crash into a chair.

The beads. His bracelet had brightened fractionally just before the punch. “The Kimoyo Beads!” Nakia called to the rest, trying to catch her breath. “Shuri! Shuri if you can, shut these off!”

“Whose?” Shuri asked, frantic.

“Everyone’s!”

W’Kabi was wrestling on the floor with Feze, twisting to get the younger man into an arm lock. Funeka deflected a blow of the club with her scimitar, sidestepping the next, kicking her attacker in the stomach. As the woman doubled over, Funeka cut off her arm at the wrist. Screaming, the woman collapsed on her knees. Nakia rolled as the Tribesman slammed a chair down on the ground where she had been, cracking the concrete, and swept out his legs. He snarled, somehow managing to fall into a graceful crouch, and lunged, tackling her, trying to get his hands around her throat.

“Don’t make me kill you,” Nakia gasped, kneeing the man in the stomach, and as he jerked back, she brought her ring blade down hard on his beads, cracking two. The glow subsided, and as he started to cough, Nakia twisted, reversing their positions, cracking his head against the ground.

Okoye had pinned her first attacker to the wall with her spear. W’Kabi had pulled Feze’s beads off, tossing them away, ignoring him as he cursed and struggled. Outside, one person lay in an unconscious heap at Khethiwe’s feet. The old woman still looked visibly unarmed.

“Got it!” Shuri said, just as everyone’s beads turned gray.

“Wonderful,” Khethiwe said sarcastically. “Now backup won’t be able to find us and we’ll have to haul all these idiots to the surface by ourselves.”

Nakia caught her breath, shaking her head. “I didn’t mean for her to take that literally.”

“I could go up and get the garrison,” Funeka said, pursing her lips, then she tensed as the ground shuddered beneath their feet. “What was that?”

Under W’Kabi, Feze began to laugh. “You can’t stop it now. No one can.”

“Stop what?” W’Kabi demanded, shaking Feze’s shoulder roughly.

Another tremor. There was a cracking sound, high above, stones grinding and breaking. Nakia yelped, grabbing Okoye by her sash and shoulder, pulling them both under the reinforced doorframe, just as the ceiling started to sunder, the sky, falling.