Content warning: death and suicide ideation
“And this is the control room!”
Dustin stifled a yawn. His new employer bounced on her toes, sprightly for a predawn start. Her coily hair bounced along with her. Akeza, her name was.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“Looks like it’s in functioning order.”
The far end featured the main steering and navigation controls, but Akeza preferred to sell him on the panoramic view of the landing strip, grey and sad in the semi-darkness. She absently rubbed the amber pendant on her neck while she spoke. Nervous tick maybe. Dustin smelled sharp metal and raw leather: new ship, newer pilot. A loaded rich kid. Diplomat’s daughter perhaps. Not that he would pry.
A graphic display table showed a map of Akeza’s targeted destinations pinned in red: an ice cream shop, two points above Ever Forest, and a spa.
“We’re visiting all the places my father went to when he came here: the top spots between here and the capital.”
Dustin frowned, pointing to a point beyond the capital. “Don’t you want to see the Green Dip?”
“Maybe not this time,” Akeza said. “We already have plenty on our plates. And the inevitable detours!”
“And maintenance, which will definitely take longer.” Dustin frowned at her. “Don’t you have Shapeshifter experts in Ngunda? This is the first I’ve repaired.”
Akeza smiled. “If you’re a mechanic, then you already know you don’t need to be a Shapeshifter expert to fix one. Just treat it like the ship it looks like.”
But what about the hidden functions? Part of being a Shapeshifter mechanic was being privy to all its secrets and Miss Akeza here didn’t look like she was going to give up anything.
Dustin sighed. “As you wish.”
After pre-flight checks, Dustin watched Akeza fumble through the ignition controls. Her hair was long enough to get in her face when she leaned, a length he knew would drive the aunties crazy back home.
He prayed to Imana while she steered them to regulation height.
Turning on autopilot, Akeza jumped on a couch lining the low wall behind the pilot seat. Pressing a button made a bowl of roasted peanuts appear on a pedestal.
She tapped the spot next to her. “Tell me about that tattoo on your head.”
“Oh that.” Dustin rubbed the spot above his temple. “It’s Kamegeri’s Rock.”
Akeza laughed. “A Ngundan landmark? Why?”
“I always thought it was unfair how Kamegeri was executed.”
Akeza frowned. With her mouthful of peanuts, she looked like a chipmunk. “But he was evil.”
“It’s the king who asked him to come up with the cruellest punishment possible.”
“He was still evil.”
“He only did his best to please the king.”
“Nah, the king was right.” Akeza swallowed. “Kamegeri came up with a truly heartless punishment. Isn’t that scary? The king had to get rid of him.”
“Kamegeri was only a faithful servant.” Dustin wiped his hands of salt. “But it’s so Ngundan of you to think the king was right.”
“Hmm…” Akeza stroked her pendant. “Maybe that’s what they thought.”
Akeza waved him off, reaching for another handful of peanuts. Typical Ngundan, avoiding questions. “Nothing. I guess Majestians think differently.”
“You thought I was Ngundan.”
“Ya. You are Ngundan.”
“I can’t be both.”
“Why do you think that?”
Faced with Akeza’s round curious eyes and the naive tilt of her head, Dustin turned away.
“Whatever. Can I turn off autopilot for a bit?”
“Sure, but do you know where you’re going?”
“Majestian Dairy, right?” He settled in the pilot’s seat. “Yeah, I’ve been. Bit overrated if you ask me.”
Akeza crossed her arms. “Well my dad thought it was the best. Do you know a better place?”
Dustin’s hand hovered over the course corrector. “Actually, I do. The best place. I could take you right now.”
Akeza considered this. “We’ll go to both. Double the ice cream.”
Dustin chuckled. “Then after Majestian Dairy, I’ll show you the real king of Majestian ice cream.”
It might’ve been the peanut bits still lingering in his mouth, but Dustin could already taste the nutty vanilla of his childhood ice cream joint. He tried to focus on it, mainly to stave off the wave of other scents and sounds from his past: bubble gum from wailing children, dust from rusty scooters.
The metallic hum of churners came from the back of the shop. It reminded him of sitting on his father’s shoulders when he was small. The owner had asked him what flavour ice cream he had wanted. Young Dustin had pointed towards the sound of the churners and declared: “That!” The owner and his father had laughed, confused.
Dustin had sneaked into the back of the shop to make his point. He had fallen asleep, listening to the steady rhythm of the automatic churners. His father had smacked him awake, but it had been worth it.
Now, the owner emerged from the back, scratching the grey hairs on his chin. If he recognised Dustin, he didn’t show it. “What can I get you, young lady?”
Akeza’s face unglued itself from the glass. “The best you have!”
Dustin stepped away from the counter before the owner could ask him. A few moments later, Akeza appeared with two waffle cones of Kigari’s Special Vanilla Chunk.
“I said I didn’t want any,” Dustin protested.
Dustin sighed. He had been recognised. Wouldn’t be long until the whole town knew.
He watched Akeza’s face transform as she bit down on the whipped tip. First her eyes widened. Then her body shook as if an electric current fizzed through her. Her mane of curly hair seemed to spark with static glee.
“Okay, way better than Majestian Dairy.”
She devoured the thing instead of licking it like a normal person. Dustin took his own first lick. The taste made his eyes water.
The day was hotter than he remembered, sun brazing their skin with the patience of an oven fire. They were the only ones outside and hardly fitting in with their earthy pilot gear. Well, maybe they looked like new arrivals. He remembered the pictures of his dad, the first day he had touched down on Majestia.
“Look at that!”
Ripping a poster from a post, Akeza waved it in his face. Dustin recognised the green and blue banner, the fluffy grain of ubugari and the regal flowing fabric of umukenyero.
“We’re going to this party,” Akeza announced.
“You’re going to that party. I’m doing maintenance.”
“There are things I wanted to check,” Dustin lied.
Akeza dug her boots into the ground. “We, as in together, are going to this party.”
“Yes! Don’t you want to see your family?”
Dustin stared at her.
Akeza averted her eyes. “The owner told me your family would be there.”
Dustin’s throat grew hot. “I can see them any other time, just not at this party.”
Akeza pouted. “You’re scared.”
“And you’re nosy as hell!”
He stomped towards the parked ship. It didn’t cover enough distance for him to miss Akeza’s last words.
“What if this was your last chance to see them?”
This year, the annual celebration stretched across a wide park overlooking the rest of the town. From here, Dustin could see Majestia’s Ever Forest towering over the town’s borders. He squinted, hoping to see the speck of a floating island beyond that. Over the forest’s dense canopy, towns either floated as uprooted islands or nestled on mountains. Dustin’s family and many others from Ngunda could not afford the luxury of visiting them. It was one of the reasons Dustin became a mechanic.
Families crowded on picnic tables or lounged on blankets. Their glances felt like calculating stares. When they looked away, it was like a dismissal. Dustin choked on that sense of the impenetrable. His legs dragged with the leaden dread of his awkward childhood.
“Uraho,” a lined face directed at him. Before Dustin could fumble for words, music blared from a nearby speaker. The crowd cringed, but Akeza laughed, adjusting the volume before starting to dance.
The effect was instantaneous. Soon a young man of Dustin’s age joined her, and other women spun to match her. Even the lined face woman stomped her feet, taking Dustin’s hands and indicating he follow along.
“Long time no see, Sebazungu.”
A hand clapped his back, belonging to one of his dad’s friends. Sebazungu was his Ngundan name, a name he had no use for outside of this town.
“Have you seen my dad?” Dustin croaked.
“Your mother’s over there.”
She wore a white and blue umukenyero and was talking to the lined face, who pointed in his direction. They met halfway.
“I’m visiting,” Dustin said.
His mum slapped his shoulder, and it took a moment for Dustin to realise that she did it with a laugh. “They tell me you brought a friend. And how beautiful she is! How long her hair!”
Dustin nodded, watching Akeza steal the show with a jumping step that only some of the older partygoers knew. Akeza’s hair bounced along with her, making some of the aunties whisper about how to grow it that long, how to keep it that curly.
Akeza was the star of the show.
“Where are you taking her?” his mum continued.
“She’s going to the capital, I think.”
He watched her frown and whisper to the host. They both shook their heads and joined the dancing. Typical to exclude him from whatever that was.
A smell lured Dustin to the edges of the party. Sweet and off like expired milk. It belonged to a group of teens lounging near a bush. He only noticed the internal wail telling him to turn back when one of them turned to him.
Who are you? Yes, who was he? It was like being back at school, facing the kids who’d laughed at his poor attempts at speaking Ngundan. And when he had decided to stick to the Majestian kids, well that had made him Majestian, didn’t it? Yet they had called him something worse.
The teenager’s eyes were bloodshot, teeth chattering. Dustin scowled. “Don’t do that stuff here. Your parents came here to get away from that stuff.” He didn’t want to name it, didn’t want to give it the satisfaction.
The kids looked at each other and laughed in that language he was never taught.
“Wait, you don’t speak?” a girl said, braids bouncing over her cheeks. “What are you then?”
The boys laughed with her. The sound triggered him, but their laughter was too hysterical. Imana knew what they actually saw when they looked at him. They were all clearly not there, in no shape to move away from the picnic without drawing more attention to themselves.
Dustin glanced around them and noticed a few heads turn away, a muted kiss of teeth. The adults knew and didn’t care anymore. He shook his head. These kids were good as gone. Just like his classmates.
Dustin dragged his eyes away from the wreck to focus on Akeza. How could she dance like that when her people were rotting all around her?
Shifter. He spat the word into the grass. How far did Ngundans have to go to outrun its smell?
On the walk there, his mum switched to Ngundan, excluding him completely from the conversation. All Dustin could pick out were bits and pieces like where Akeza was heading, where she came from.
The house was smaller than he remembered. His dad wasn’t in the office. His mum made Akeza sit at the dining table with a glass of water while she stirred steaming pots in the kitchen. Dustin hovered near the sliding doors that opened onto the backyard. When it became clear that no Majestian could enter their lively exchange, he stepped outside.
Standing on the veranda, Dustin recalled how the vines seemed to reach to infinity when he was young, how the red blossoms in summer were bigger than his palm. Now even his favourite climbing tree was too brittle to support him. He touched one of its highest branches.
Dustin flinched. He turned to his dad, hands in his pockets. “Yes, I’m visiting.”
His dad, a fortress of a man with a faded scar on his temple, gave him a once-over before nodding approvingly.
“You’ll tell us where your travels took you.”
Only after his dad turned his back did Dustin exhale with a relief he hadn’t expected to feel.
At the table, Dustin spoke of his journey away from home, explaining how he hopped aboard ships that needed mechanics and floated from garage to garage when they needed help. Now he worked at the one garage, but with contracts like the one he was on, Dustin doubted he could go back and find a job waiting for him. He didn’t mention this last part, but he was sure his parents could tell.
“After helping Akeza, why don’t you come back home?” his mum ventured.
Dustin concentrated on his food. “I might try to look for another garage.”
“Hmph,” his dad said.
They didn’t press him.
“Or go visit Ngunda.” His mum turned to Akeza. “What do you think?”
Akeza smiled at her beef stew. “Maybe during the dry season.”
Dustin stared at his mum. “I’m not from there. I don’t speak the language.”
“Yes, the boy is Majestian.” His dad hmphed again. “Best to let him be his Majestian self.”
Dustin rolled his lips to keep himself from screaming. “That’s right.”
“We are all Ngundan in the end, no matter how far we go,” Akeza said. The family turned to her. She laughed, self-conscious. “Don’t you think?”
Afterward, his parents asked Akeza how Ngunda was and the conversation morphed into a language he couldn’t understand. Once again, Dustin escaped to the veranda, staring up at the many stars one could see from this town. He tried not to feel left out. His parents had never taught him Ngundan, not properly anyway.
The momentary flash of a Majestian cruiser distracted him. These patrol vehicles didn’t frequent small towns like this one. Must be onward to some floating city. He waved at it, wondering if it could be one of his old clients.
He wondered about the Shapeshifter, how Akeza could be flying it. Ngunda was known for Shapeshifters so it wasn’t wrong to say she could’ve gotten it anywhere, but this one was new. Dustin could tell by the position of its inner workings that there was a hidden section that its current form was compensating for.
“This,” Dustin heard his dad declare in Majestian, “is from my piloting days. Dustin thinks he can avoid danger because he was born here, but some Majestians still regard us with distrust.”
His scar, Dustin realised. Akeza must have asked about his scar. “I know dad,” he muttered. “I know.”
Another Majestian cruiser hovered from the other direction, or was it the same one?
“Bless the crown princess,” he heard his mum say. “After that landslide, how strong she’s been…”
“Not strong enough,” his dad grumbled.
Dustin frowned, wondering why they were discussing Ngundan politics in Majestian.
“There will be peaceful days,” Akeza said. “I know there will.”
“Keep her safe.”
His mum embraced Akeza like a second daughter. She whispered something in her ear before handing her a package. Dustin thought he saw tears in their eyes. So much for their son.
They got to the ship parked on a nearby field. Before he could ask about the package, Akeza attacked first. “See? That wasn’t so bad.”
Dustin flicked her on the forehead. “Why are you so nosy?”
“I consider it part of my journey.”
“To butt in on others?”
“Your parents love you dearly, Dustin. I envy you.”
To that, Dustin couldn’t reply. Instead, he started the engine and took to piloting. “Where to next?”
Akeza shooed him off the seat. “Ever Forest! There’s a camping ground my dad went to.”
Dustin nearly pushed her off the seat. “There’s no way you can camp in that forest. It’s too dangerous.”
The Shapeshifter shot through the foliage. Hungry for fresh air, Akeza scrolled through the shifting sphere and activated a shift. The ship dropped, thudding over low branches. Newly formed wheels replaced the ship’s hover mechanism. Akeza turned to her mechanic.
“Take a seat. It’s a bit more dramatic than that.”
The ceiling unfurled. The control room compacted, leaving them in a small vehicle that lurched over exposed roots.
“Turn us back!” Dustin shouted. “Hover!”
Akeza laughed, enjoying the thrill of launching over uneven ground. Glancing at her mechanic though, she allowed pity to take over. She shifted the ship so that it hovered again.
“Ever Forest!” Akeza waved her arms at their surroundings. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Dustin hurled over the side of the vehicle.
Stronger than that passing smell, a sharp but earthy tang reminded Akeza of home in the hills of Ngunda. She would climb the slope, feet tangling in roots as she scaled endless branches before reaching the top. From there, she could see her country in all its hills and valleys, winding roads and shrouded volcanoes. She grabbed her pendant, gripped by longing. The cool gem reminded her of gripping the railing on the balcony of a mountain retreat. If she closed her eyes, she could convince herself that Ruti was behind her, calling to come back inside, pulling her from the view. Everyone is waiting, he said. Join us.
She jumped at a sudden touch on her shoulder. Dustin put a finger to his lips.
“Increase our speed,” he hissed.
“Just do it.”
They accelerated as a thud landed behind them.
“What was that?” Akeza breathed.
“The reason we shouldn’t be here.”
Shadows slipped around trunks, too fast for Akeza to identify them. The shadows were large.
“What are they?” she asked.
“Unidentifiables,” Dustin replied. “The minute you identify them is the minute you die.”
“According to who?”
“Friends of lost campers.”
“My dad wasn’t lost.”
“Just find us your camping ground.”
The ship cruised at a speed that made it hard to appreciate the bright patches of blue blossoms cropping up every now and then. It reminded her of Ruti, his sleeves scratchy against her cheeks. She remembered tracing the embroidered flowers there, then staring at the sky reflected in his eyes, at her face framed by the sky. Akeza reduced the speed again.
Dustin sucked his teeth. “Do you want to get us killed?”
She pressed another button. The numbing vibrations of a morph rocked her body. When it settled, Dustin looked around, frowning. “Nothing happened.”
An unidentifiable slipped around a trunk. Another zoomed around a root, closer.
“Increase our speed again,” Dustin urged.
“No. It’s my ship.”
“And I can’t repair it if we die!”
A shadow leaped over them, making them both cry out. Dustin reached for the wheel. Akeza grabbed his wrist. “Wait.”
Examining the trunk the shadow attached itself to, Akeza slowly smiled. “Look at your unidentifiable.” She laughed.
No longer a shadow, the creature that had leaped over them scrambled to keep its grip on a trunk. Its fur was dark like the earth far below them and a whimper came from its snout. At the sound, another creature rounded the neighbouring trunk and shook its head at it.
“Just like back home!” Akeza declared.
Dustin relaxed. “What did we morph into?”
“We got an invisibility shield, a soundproof one.” She let go of his wrist.
Dustin nodded, staring at the two unidentifiables now touching snouts. “What are they?”
“Nyoko,” she explained. “They’re only dangerous if provoked, and they’re sensitive to sound.”
Their map showed that they’d arrive at the campsite by nightfall. Reducing the speed further, Akeza unpacked their lunch on the hood of the hovering ship: meat and leftover chapati from the night before.
The chapati from the retreat had been fluffier, courtesy of foreign influence, the stew’s meat falling off the bone. The isombe had been nutty and spicy, fresh with river fish. Drums had resounded through the banquet hall, accompanied by high voices that welcomed her where she belonged.
“Why did your dad come camping out here?” Dustin asked.
Akeza shrugged. “It might’ve reminded him of home.”
“I thought the point of travelling was to get away from home.”
Akeza smiled, stroking her amber pendant.
“Sometimes it’s about getting closer.”
A minty fragrance drew Akeza to their destination. The ship emerged into a clearing that shone white with blossoms. Leaning over the side of the ship, Akeza realised they were mushrooms, and not just any mushrooms. These were banga.
She laughed at the discovery. “No wonder the nyoko won’t come near!”
She leaped out of the ship, spinning into several cartwheels before landing on her back. She waved her arms and legs to make banga angels. Their minty perfume burst into the air, making Akeza sigh in content, safe in their familiar embrace.
Dustin shook his head. “Don’t you ever ask yourself questions like, ‘What if these mushrooms are poisonous?’ or ‘What if I get attacked by deadly beasts?’”
“Banga are harmless to people,” Akeza explained. She picked one up and spun it between her fingers. Only banga had a cap shaped like a five-petaled flower. She plucked one petal off. Dustin snatched it out of her hand.
“This isn’t Ngunda! We’re in Majestia. Haven’t you considered that maybe you’re looking at a different mushroom, one that may very well be poisonous—hey!”
Akeza popped the banga in her mouth, watching Dustin drop his jaw as she chewed and swallowed. “Banga are the best!”
“Not when you die, they won’t be.”
“Banga are probably how my dad found this camp spot.” She ate another one.
Dustin shook his head. “I’m going to do that maintenance now, in case you die.”
“Aren’t you worried about the nyoko?” she teased.
“Unidentifiables are weak to sunlight. That much Majestians know.”
Indeed, several pairs of red eyes blinked from the surrounding foliage, but none came near.
“You do that maintenance then.” Akeza rummaged through one of the compartments in the shifted ship and held up a bow. “I’m hunting for our dinner.”
Dustin’s mouth fell open. “Okay, now you’re definitely going to die.”
“Aha!” She fished out a bag of arrows.
Dustin grabbed hold of it. “I’m serious. Your chances aren’t big out there.”
She pulled the bag from his hand. “Trust me. I’ll be fine.” Plodding towards the rim of the meadow, Akeza called out to him. “I’ll be back before nightfall.”
“What if you get eaten by a nyoko?”
Akeza wasn’t joking. Only frightened nyoko could kill Majestian adventure seekers. Akeza knew a deadlier beast.
And she was going to make it tonight’s dinner.
Rustling told Akeza the nyoko were hiding. She smiled, jiggling banga she’d picked up in their direction. Not that she needed them. She’d covered herself in their scent as soon as she’d landed in the meadow.
Taking one of her arrows, she marked every few trees to find her way back. Their shafts flashed white, causing some rustling grumbles from above.
The forest grew the further she ventured from the meadow, forcing her to jump from shrubbery to root, from root to branch.
Spotting her first clue made her hungry for the catch: three claw marks on an exposed root. Nyoko had four. An arrow notched, she stuck to the trunks, keeping an eye out for anything that might come from above. Her target wasn’t known to jump on its prey, but it was better to be safe than dead.
There it was.
Jumping a few roots, Akeza stopped before a felled trunk wide enough to hold the two Ngundans on it. One wore the beige of a royal guard. The other, a rebel’s red armband. The royal guard lay on the trunk, hand pressed on his thigh. Blood seeped through his pants. The rebel held him at gun point.
“Don’t move!” Akeza aimed her arrow at the rebel, trying to count his fingers. Both hands had four. The hand applying pressure on the guard’s wound also had four. What if the guard’s other hand had three? This beast was more cunning than she thought. While her focus shifted, the rebel aimed his gun at her.
“A royal sympathiser. I can tell by your clothes.”
Akeza frowned. Why were there two of them? Would they both attack the minute she let down her guard? She exhaled, steadying her nerves. They don’t usually hunt in pairs, she reminded herself, but maybe the Majestian ones were different.
A click told her the rebel might shoot.
“Put down your weapon, Princess.”
Akeza smirked. First, she was a royal sympathiser, now she was a princess. Its acting was terrible. “Go ahead and shoot. Shoot to kill for once. Lose your Majestian alliance while you’re at it.”
The rebel returned her cocky grin. “Oh, we plan to.”
“Start a war?” Akeza glanced at the guard. He hadn’t moved. In fact, he was picture still. Its illusion was failing.
“It’s the only way to free ourselves from the shifter trade and its corrupt masters.” The rebel shifted his grip, too fast for Akeza to recount fingers.
“I have nothing to do with that drug,” she said. Guilt thought otherwise, made her think she was just as bad as the foreign hands that circulated shifter, the drug that made you see things before it killed you.
Leaves rustled above. Could be wind. Akeza strained her ears. The guard was motionless. The rebel flexed a finger. Was he illusion or beast?
“It doesn’t matter where you die.” The rebel pressed on the trigger. “So long as you do.”
Akeza heard a scrape from above. The gun fired. She pointed her arrow above her head and shot. She heard a cry and looked up in time to catch her furry prize. It released a sweet fragrance that chilled her.
Dustin was right. She wasn’t in Ngunda anymore.
“Don’t you want to sleep under the stars?” She did her signature twirl, thumping out a few steps as she did so.
Dustin snorted. “With unidentifiables around? No.” He sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”
“It smells like shifter.”
“How would you know?”
Dustin pounded a stake into the ground. “My old classmates used to smoke it.”
Akeza rolled her eyes. “You think I strolled through the dangerous woods to smoke shifter?” She brandished her catch. “It’s our dinner.”
Akeza skinned the grey fur off her catch and trimmed its claws. The sweet smell was fainter now. Once she roasted the meat, it let out a reassuring fragrance. Coupled with minty banga, the feast was sublime.
“What meat is this?” Dustin asked.
Dustin frowned. “As in the ship?”
Akeza smiled. “As in what’s killing your Majestian adventurers.”
He coughed mid-chew. “Really?”
Akeza ignored his struggle to swallow. “Well, it’s a bit different from the Ngundan shapeshifter. It uses a kind of… scent to catch its prey. Not that I was in any danger, but you were right: I’m in a different land. Things may be similar, but I should be careful.”
Dustin took a long swig of water. If he was considering her words, he didn’t show it. “Cool, so the banga might kill us after all.”
Akeza laughed and took another bite of shapeshifter meat.
Dustin cleared his throat. “So, the maintenance went well. It’s just…”
“What?” She met his gaze evenly, daring him to say.
“Ah, nothing, I was just wondering if you had the schematics of the original ship. There’s just a… you know I’ve never seen a ship like this before. It’s hard to tell if some of the features are intentional or not.”
Akeza nodded carefully. “Well, it is a Shapeshifter. You can’t expect it to be entirely familiar.” She smiled sheepishly. “And I don’t have the original schematics. You can look through the shifting sphere manual for possible ones.”
They ate in silence.
The sound of an engine whirred above. A Majestian cruiser.
“See how low it flew?” Dustin whistled. “Hope it doesn’t think we need help.”
Akeza didn’t respond, still thinking about his earlier comment. Strange ship. Strange features. Every so often Dustin glanced back at the ship, frowning briefly. Watching him confirmed it for her.
She swallowed a sob.
Haunting howls kept Dustin awake. He lay face-up in his tent, jolting at every shriek until he heard the buzz of a shift.
Wrapping himself in his blanket, Dustin stepped outside. The ship was shifted back to its original flying form. Akeza sat on one of the wings, staring up at the sky. Dustin joined her.
Stars shimmered in the swirling expanse. He pointed to two brighter ones lined up horizontally, one bigger than the other.
“We call those two brightest ones the Chosen,” he said.
“That’s Sebwugu and his wife,” Akeza said. “Even if he is greedy and foolish, his wife keeps them alive through her cunning and strength. She even kills the beast that eats him.”
Dustin raised an eyebrow. “Why doesn’t his wife leave him?”
“She is loyal,” she explained. “It is only when he dies that his wife marries the king of the forest. She would not have left him had he not died.”
Akeza’s pendant glowed through her closed fingers. On one of those fingers flashed a ring that Dustin hadn’t noticed before. Her hand trembled.
He looked away. “I’m glad you hired me for this trip,” he said. “It’s been pretty nice so far if you ignore the scary fauna.”
Akeza laughed, a short, stunted sound.
“You could’ve hired anyone else though,” Dustin added. “Is it because I look Ngundan?”
“Are you not Ngundan?”
Dustin shook his head. “I’m Majestian, but I look Ngundan. I can’t be both Majestian and Ngundan. The two cancel out and I become nothing.” He blinked, surprised he was being so honest.
“That’s not true,” Akeza said.
“You don’t get it,” Dustin said. “If I’m too Majestian to be Ngundan and too Ngundan to be Majestian, then who am I?”
“Both,” Akeza insisted. “I know a Ngundan when I see one. Fearless. Adventurous. Loyal.”
“Anyone can be that.”
“But not anyone can claim it as their birthright.”
Dustin shook his head. “I don’t get that way of thinking.”
“Then acknowledge the family you’ve come from. You are Sebazungu, part of Nshuti’s family. Isn’t that a good enough identity?”
“They rejected Dustin.”
Akeza paused. “And they welcomed you back.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “My family never will.”
“Wait, are you saying you ran away from home and you’re lecturing me about family?”
Akeza shook her head, gazing at the Chosen constellation.
Dustin considered the myth of Sebwugu. “Your family is…?”
Akeza shivered in the cold of it. Dustin wrapped the blanket he’d brought around her shoulders.
She stared at him. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
He stared back. “What?”
Dustin chuckled. “No. I don’t think your fiancé would like that.”
Akeza’s eyes widened over her clutched pendant. “How did you know?”
Dustin burst out laughing. “The ring maybe?”
Akeza blinked, then split into guffaws. Their laughter filled the silence. Then a cackling howl joined the chorus. That was Dustin’s limit. He hurried into the ship, slowly chewing on the words Akeza had given him.
When the forest quieted to the occasional rustle, Akeza dropped from the ship’s wing. The clearing’s banga glowed in the darkness, something Dustin hadn’t noticed in his rush for the ship. She breathed their minty scent in. Banga. Secrets. Where they clustered like this, she knew where to find more.
From her tent, she took her bag of arrows and a change of clothes. Letting the banga guide her, she ventured into the dense forest. They lit a safe path while her eyes adjusted. She heard groans nearby, but they didn’t alarm her. Nyoko would not hunt her, and shapeshifters usually napped this time of night. Without their illusions, the stubby beasts weren’t very nimble. They were actually quite poor at capturing prey of her size. If they ambushed her like this, it wouldn’t take much to shake them off. They were silly creatures, to the point of relying on their biggest prey—on humans—to save them.
Soon Akeza could distinguish roots from branches, spotting them before she could trip. The air shimmered with the buzz of insects and swooping birds. A blueness outlined them all. She was close. Setting aside shrubbery, she nearly splashed into it: a banga haven.
The luminescent pool gleamed because of the banga at the bottom. How they grew there was one of nature’s greatest mysteries, one that Ngundans indulged in by calling the blossom-like mushroom ‘banga’. Secrets.
Akeza scooped the clear water into her palms and drank it in. Minty sweet. Her father hadn’t mentioned this spot, but had he needed to? Akeza would have known. Where there was banga, there was always a banga haven.
Akeza slipped inside. The water was warm, or maybe she was numb to cold these days. She sank to her chin, leaning back on a rock, toes curling around the roots at the pool’s bottom. A brown cloud lifted from where her feet settled, billowing fast like the earth that had rushed towards the retreat.
Akeza shut her eyes and dived away from the cloud. When she couldn’t taste the silt, she opened them. Banga glittered like five-pointed stars. She uprooted one, swimming up before the silt could touch her.
Back at the rock, Akeza examined the blossom. Her amber pendant mirrored its five-petaled cap, each one perfectly round. She kissed a petal and plucked it off. In this way her people had entrusted their secrets to banga, generation after generation.
First petal. First secret: Akeza was afraid of being as cruel as her father. Admitting it made her inhale sharply. It came with questions.
Which choice spared her life? Which choice killed others? And were they the same?
The second petal held the answers.
Now third petal: Akeza was afraid to fulfil her duty. She wanted to run away. Death would find her more quickly, but it wouldn’t be as bad as bringing it with her. Who else would pay for her duty?
And, fourth petal: did she care who did?
Fifth petal: Dustin was right. Kamegeri’s king was too cruel.
Intense squawking woke Dustin. Even from the insulated heart of the ship he could hear it. Heading outside, a stray tent peg narrowly missed his head, then a dish cloth covered his face. Akeza was tearing the camp apart.
“Iki he he?” she muttered to herself. Dustin didn’t like where this was going.
“Morning,” he greeted.
She whirled on him. “My pendant, it’s missing.”
He felt water droplets hit his arm. From where though? Akeza’s hair was still wrapped in a silk bonnet. “When’s the last time you saw it?”
Her eyes darted towards the canopy of the forest.
“No,” Dustin said.
“It has a tracker,” Akeza ripped the bonnet off her head, spraying him with water. Her hair glittered with tiny droplets. “We can go with the ship to trace its general vicinity and then search on the ground.”
“I swear you had it on last night, though.” How did her hair get this wet? After he retreated inside the ship, he hadn’t heard anything else. Had she snuck away while he was sleeping?
Akeza only strapped her arrows to her back. Her silence scratched at an old scab. Typical to keep things secret. Her hair still dripped from whatever midnight adventure she went on without him, risking her life, out there with shapeshifters and who knew what else.
Dustin took a deep breath. This was a client. What she did or didn’t do wasn’t his business, so long as he got paid. A voice still begged: how could she pay him if she died? That didn’t bode well for future prospects.
She flashed him a smile. “Shift the ship for me?”
“I want to check something.” He went back inside. Crazy how similar to a cruiser the interior was, the way the walls curved and arched just so, the way the panels were just slightly out of order. He enjoyed the challenge of figuring its mechanics out, but a part of the ship still worried him.
Veering away from the control room, Dustin stopped at an alcove. No furniture or ornament to decorate it, just a weird concave space. He ran his fingers along the metal wall. At least he thought it was metal. What material allowed a ship to morph into radically different shapes and back? It was a mystery he’d been content to accept until now.
The ship’s inner workings buzzed to the beat of his heart, to the beat of something beyond the back wall. He frowned. Something faintly pulsed against his hand. It could be a problem space. He needed answers, even if Miss Akeza here was content to smile and deflect.
Sighing, he went back to the control room and spotted the shifting sphere, a gleaming orb half submerged in the panel. A screen lit up when he turned it on, showing the ship’s current shape. He flicked through the other suggested models in the sphere and stopped at the shape of the smaller hover vehicle. Its image rotated before him. He examined its specifications and flicked back to the closest approximation to the ship’s current shape. Where would the problem space shift?
“Ready?” This close, Akeza smelled like minty rain. It mingled with Dustin’s memory of shifter.
He shifted the ship. This too had a smell. A faint mint like banga, and a familiar sweetness. Dustin shook his head. Some answers were better left unsaid. The problem space, however, that could have consequences.
The necklace’s signature was green, a pulsing dot on the compass map. Dustin noticed it was further than Akeza could reach on foot. She sucked her teeth, just as dismayed by the distance. “It’s moved.”
Akeza shook her head. “That’s not the point. Something has moved it.”
Dustin flexed his fingers. “A nyoko?”
“They’re not very dexterous, those tricksters,” she said. “Shapeshifters, though…”
Dustin wrung his hands. “No, no, we are not getting into a dangerous situation just for some—”
Akeza shut him down with a glare. “When we get there, you’ll stay in the ship,” she said. “And I’ll go down to look.”
He didn’t have another comeback. The branches condensed around them the closer they got to their destination. Then the foliage parted. Above them was dense cover, only slim threads of light slipping through. Despite this, Dustin could clearly make out the clearing’s shape, like the inside of a tear. They couldn’t spot anything like an amber flash from where they hovered, so Dustin slowly lowered the ship while Akeza notched an arrow. Each rustle rattled him and rattled the ship in turn. He’d rubbed himself with banga before leaving, which reassured him for a brief moment before he remembered that shapeshifters might not care. “Um…”
Birds dived out of a bush, dark things that trilled like traffic whistles in major air zones. Akeza stiffened. “From now on, count. Three is an unlucky number.”
“Three of what?”
“Count,” she hissed.
Another tense moment and Dustin could make out the ground’s texture, loose like sand, and glittery. Strange. Akeza swore. “On that branch now.”
The branch in question was as wide as a garage landing strip. Before Dustin could properly land, Akeza leaped off. “There’s a retractable spear beneath one of the seats. Use that if the time calls for it.” He could hear Ngundan numbers under her breath. Rimwe, kabiri, gatatu, kane…
She slipped down the moss on the branch before he had enough air to say he didn’t know how to use a spear.
She landed firmly on the ground, arrow notched and ready to go. The branch creaked and swayed beneath the ship, and the distant sounds of hooting nyoko filled the silence.
Dustin checked that the scent of banga was still fresh on his skin. It smelled of mint and… and Akeza, sitting next to him.
“I’m back,” she whispered. Dustin jumped. Akeza smiled at him, leaning on the side of their vehicle. The amber pendant glowed on her neck.
“Oh good.” Dustin frowned, “That was fast.”
“We Ngundans usually are. Aren’t you?”
“No,” Dustin’s heart sank. “No, I’m not Ngundan at all.”
Akeza guffawed. “So complicated! You look it, but you claim you’re not. You’re Majestian.” She raised an eyebrow. “And yet you look so uncomfortable when you say so.” She leaned closer to him. “I want you to be comfortable with me.”
Dustin’s cheeks grew hot. Akeza’s words felt wrong. This entire conversation was wrong. She was clearly mocking him this time. A red dot pulsed in the middle of the pendant. He focused on it, on the mechanism it surely hid. He placed a hand on the shifting sphere. It buzzed beneath his fingers, something to focus on as he glanced at her hand. There was no ring, and he counted three fingers.
Dustin ducked. An arrow whizzed over his head. Something yelped and bounded away from the branch. The entire clearing erupted in mewling chaos. Then it began to rain.
Something thudded on the tail of the engine. A sharp-clawed furball gripped a backseat. Instead of rummaging for the spear, Dustin reached for the controls and spun the ship off the branch. While the ship circled above the ground, his fingers moved on automatic, hunting for a morph that would repel the beasts.
He thumped on a morph. Glass swooped up into a domed shell and repelled the rain of beasts. One beast remained. It launched at his face. Dustin dodged. The ship lurched. They spun in a sharp dance that sliced Dustin’s arms. The ship beeped urgently, ground approaching fast. It flashed an idea. Gripping the controls, he upended the ship and pounded the shifting sphere. The glass shell suctioned open and the beast tumbled towards the ground. Resisting the gravitational pull, Dustin closed the shell and spun the ship back. It still wailed at the incoming ground. Dustin braced himself.
The ship bounced once, twice, and scraped across the sandy ground. Akeza raced to it, pounding desperately on the dusty glass.
Surely she hadn’t doomed an innocent through her actions. Surely there was someone she could save. A knock answered her, followed by ten splayed fingers on the glass, mirroring hers. Akeza closed her eyes in relief.
Dustin lowered the glass array. “Get in.”
“Grab the spear,” she said, notching another arrow and loosening it. Another ball of fur fell in the ship, this time with an arrow in its side. Its mouth hung open, displaying long jagged teeth. Reeking of shifter.
Dustin swallowed. “We need to leave.”
“We need to fight,” Akeza said. “Like the Ngundans we are.”
Dustin reached for the impaled shapeshifter. Thoughtful of him. Her bag of arrows was running out. She heard him squeak behind her. The dead beast had apparently jerked. “Quickly!”
Dustin abandoned the wriggling creature and finally found the spear, nearly stabbing himself as he pulled it out. Akeza sucked her teeth.
Reaching for an arrow, she came up empty. Meanwhile Dustin swung wildly at leaping shadows. One came for her side.
“Watch out!” Dustin tackled her to the ground, a vulnerable position.
She pushed him off with a hiss. “Where’s the spear?”
It lay forgotten on the ground. As Dustin stood to grab it, a tall man hefted it up, staring at it curiously. The rebel soldier again. This time the illusion wore earthy pilot wear and a red armband on his shoulder, an outfit she hadn’t seen before. Either these beasts liked playing with her head or they drew inspiration from actual rebels hiding in these woods, spying on Majestians, ready to wage war.
The clearing became eerily quiet, only broken by a quick scurry and the sound of Dustin’s scattered breathing.
“What brings you to our forest?” The man asked. “I hope you enjoyed our welcome.”
The forest erupted in trilling cries, then settled. Akeza fought a wave of icy nerves. These creatures were toying with their food. “You have something of mine,” she said. “I want it back.”
“You mean this?” the man held up the amber pendant. It flashed in the low light, reflecting the faint glimmer in the ground. She had shifted enough of it to guess why the ground glowed. Crushed banga.
“Give it back.” Akeza raised her bow, holding it like a knife. “And we’ll spare you.”
A low growl rolled through the tiered branches above. Dustin was right. If they wanted to survive, they needed to leave. But not without the pendant.
The man turned her possession in his hand. Three fingers confirmed. “You steal from us all the time. Surely we can keep this in exchange.”
Akeza bared her teeth. “We hardly take from you. If you want to pick a fight with humans, pick it with the heartless Majestians that squeeze you into drugs. We’ll both be free.” She extended a hand for the pendant. “Now give it back.”
The man examined the jewel closely, smelling it even. She fought the urge to rush at him.
“What will you give me in exchange?” the man asked.
“The spear, more convincing than an illusion, deadlier than your claws,” Akeza said. “I’ll even show you how to use it.”
The man licked his lips. “We want sustenance, too.”
“A duel then,” Akeza nodded at Dustin. “You versus the strongest of the two of us. If you die, you let us go. If we do, you get your prey.”
Dustin stared at her. Akeza didn’t look, afraid of the hurt she’d find there.
“As you wish,” the man said. He brandished the spear at unarmed Dustin. Akeza backed away, chancing a glance at him. Dustin looked ahead, face grim.
The man lunged. Dustin sidestepped, using the reflexes that had saved the ship. He grabbed the spear handle and pulled. The man only laughed and shifted into Akeza. Dustin stared at this Not-Akeza, struggling to process the shift. The shapeshifter ripped the spear out of his hand and slashed at his jacket. Dustin backed away unharmed. For now.
Akeza had anticipated this. She moved while the beasts roared, using Dustin’s failing attacks as a distraction. She reached for the dead shapeshifter while Dustin slipped to the ground. He struggled to get back up, suddenly clumsy as three-fingered Akeza waltzed towards him. Akeza yanked on the arrow, but it wouldn’t budge.
Not-Akeza laughed. “Your strongest warrior is Majestian. Pitiful.”
The roaring reached a crescendo. Not-Akeza raised the spear above her head. Akeza ripped the arrow out. Notch, pull, and release.
The arrow struck Not-Akeza’s head. The illusion shattered into a grey ball of fur that thudded before Dustin’s feet.
The forest erupted. Dustin grabbed the pendant. Akeza pulled him up. They stumbled to the ship and dove in. Akeza whirled through the shifting sphere and slammed it. A wave of light blinded her. She heard shrieks but they quickly subsided.
When her eyes adjusted, she found herself at the controls of the first shift she’d introduced Dustin to. Dustin lay sprawled near the map she’d shown him.
She exhaled into a smile. “Take a seat.” A shapeshifter thudded into the window. “It’ll be a lot more dramatic than that.”
Back at their camp, Dustin stayed wrapped around himself. Cuts oozed on his arms. He closed his eyes and prayed the noise of mewling shapeshifters would stop. Akeza came once or twice to clean the cuts on his arms. The third time, he felt a pull on his elbow. He resisted.
Akeza kissed her teeth. “Come outside to rub your arms with banga. They have great healing properties.”
He shook his head. Akeza kissed her teeth. “Be Ngundan about this.”
“Well, I’m not Ngundan!” He burst out. “I don’t know why you keep expecting me to be something I’m not.”
Tears welled in his eyes. He took a shuddering breath. “What in Karisimbi’s ash was this whole thing anyway? Those things can talk?”
Akeza sighed and left him. When she came back, it was with a flurry of banga. Their minty smell was strangely calming. She crushed them and rubbed the sap over her wounds, then handed him his own batch. He repeated the motion. The smell was minty and something else. It brought him back to his fingers clutching that luminescent dirt, looking up at the spear bearing down on him.
“Shapeshifters are more cunning than the average creature,” Akeza explained. “That’s how they can trick bigger, more intelligent prey. And they thrive in groups. Much like human tribes. In Ngunda, in exchange for a bigger territory to hunt, they gave us the secrets of their ability.”
Akeza started to roll a bandage over his arm. “I’m telling you this because you’re entitled to know. It’s your heritage.”
Dustin gestured for the roll and did the rest himself. He took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to fight, least of all with a spear.”
Akeza nodded. “You should learn.”
He stared at her. “You knew I couldn’t fight and you still pushed me to? Knowing I could…”
She averted her eyes. “I needed you to buy time. Besides, you’re Ngundan.”
“Ngundan this, Ngundan that. How is that supposed to help?”
“I knew you’d survive! That’s what Ngundans do.”
He sucked his teeth. “You don’t get it.”
Typical to push him into a fight wholly unprepared. Typical to not have the decency to apologise. She’d expected him to know what to do. She’d watched as he almost died. She’d probably known he wouldn’t make it, but hadn’t bothered to tell him her brilliant plan to save the day. Why hadn’t she volunteered to fight the deadly beast? Some archaic Ngundan rule?
Akeza inched closer to him, reaching for the banga crushed between his fingers. “Dustin, what don’t I get?”
He unlatched his fist. “Can you even begin to understand what it’s like to live here, looking like this? To be too different to belong, but too different to go back?”
Akeza frowned. “But you’re Ngundan. You can always go back.”
Dustin rubbed his sticky fingers on his knees. This was why he could never understand his parents, could never understand his community. All the people who were disappointed by his inability to speak the language, who frowned sadly as if it was his fault. They all expected him to act one way, to do things one way, and then looked down on him when he couldn’t. Somewhere along the line, he’d foolishly thought Akeza would at least respect his difference.
He stood. “Where are my tools? Ship needs repairs.”
Rolling the pendant between her fingers, Akeza’s eyelids wouldn’t give her the courtesy of drooping. She shivered on the ship’s wing, no blanket around her, no stars to distract her. Even if she’d brought back her pendant, it hadn’t brought back Ruti. It hadn’t brought back anyone.
She was still here, in a foreign country, following her dead father’s footsteps towards an end she could only delay. She’d even contemplated living here, blending in with the Ngundans, but the ones she’d met had singled her out. They were unfamiliar with the references she made, the words she used. They had been in Majestia years and years, not setting foot on their home soil for decades.
Could she even begin to understand that? Dustin had questioned. Could she?
A small laugh escaped her. The lights of the ship were still on, even if Dustin had finished repairs hours ago. “Shapeshifters,” he’d grumbled. “Shifting problems to different spots.”
Akeza had chuckled, but he hadn’t joined her.
For the first time, she felt alienated. Normally, Dustin humoured her assumptions about him, but he’d forced her to acknowledge how dangerous that was. He could have died. A part of her felt guilty, but another part asked, what’s one more death on your hands?
She couldn’t sleep. Not tonight. Not the last few nights. How desperately she wanted to sleep. Free of choice. Free of responsibility.
A bobbing light crossed above. Another Majestian cruiser. Or the same.
Who would she be without Ngunda? The thought struck deep. Maybe she did understand how Dustin was feeling. Just a little.
Unable to sleep, Dustin re-examined the ship. Something still wasn’t right. It niggled at him. He checked each of the engine’s functions, tapped the wall here and there, listened for odd noises aside from the constant whir of its inner workings.
This particular shape reminded him of a jet model: similar to a Majestian cruiser but not as heavy. His guesses for most of the functions were correct.
Funny that. Dustin only knew this ship was a Shapeshifter because his client was Ngundan, and it looked slightly different from a Majestian ship. Dustin even assumed this was the “standard” form of a Shapeshifter. In reality, there was no standard form. A Shapeshifter could be anything it wanted. No one could claim it was one thing or another. It was fluid.
Dustin listened to the news while he worked. The background chatter steadied him like a cushion. Sometimes he heard something that made him pause, like talk of increasing riots in Ngunda. News of that fateful landslide had frozen him. Now he held his breath for the next catastrophe.
“High chance of rain over Ever Forest and sunny skies for Excellence…”
Dustin halted at the part of the ship that bothered him. The empty alcove, no seats. Nothing. Dustin lightly tapped the walls. They all gave a hollow clack except for the back wall. This alcove had clearly pushed something back into an inner part of the ship that he couldn’t get to. What could be hidden there?
Yawning, Dustin walked back to the control room. The sky was greying. He placed his radio on the control panel and turned on the shifting sphere. The ship’s current shape floated before him.
“Ngundan colours and flags adorn Excellence in anticipation for the Crown Princess’s visit on Friday. Princess Therese will meet Prime Minister Turner for the first time since Ngunda’s transition to a parliamentary monarchy…”
Dustin scratched at his bandage. This was news to him. At the pace they were going, Akeza would also reach the capital by Friday.
Shaking his head, Dustin scrolled through the shifting sphere manual. He examined the various shapes the ship could morph into, absorbing their specifications for a clue as to what that strange alcove could mean. The effort made his head spin. He lay back in his seat with a sigh.
“I’m also a Shapeshifter,” he muttered, “changing into one or the other, never really one or the other.”
Someone like Akeza wouldn’t understand.
The sudden whir of an activated mechanism woke him. He turned to see Akeza happily munching on a new bowl of peanuts.
“You mutter in your sleep,” she said through a full mouth.
Dustin blinked, wondering if she’d heard his thoughts. Akeza simply wiped her hands of salt and announced her plans to make breakfast.
The smell of warm honey blending with the earthy tones of boiling igikoma made Dustin’s mouth water. Akeza stirred the pot in silent concentration, ignoring the occasional sparks from the fire. Dustin stared at the water vapour twisting above her, melting into the grey sky. The igikoma popped, bringing him back to earth and face to face with Akeza’s glare.
“What?” he asked.
“I asked you to bring the bowls.”
She carefully placed them on an empty supply crate they’d dragged out as a table. They stayed silent, Dustin sipping the sorghum porridge with a hiss. Akeza drank hers like her mouth was a fridge.
“Is that what we become over here?” Akeza wondered.
She held his gaze.
“If I were to live here, would I eventually become someone who’s too different to go back and too different to belong? Would I deserve to go back?”
Dustin avoided her eyes. “I’m sure you’d be fine. You’re too Ngundan anyway.”
“Have you thought about how your parents feel about who they are?”
“They’re Ngundan, end of story.”
“They haven’t gone back to Ngunda in the twenty years they’ve raised you. How do you think they feel when they hear news of their family, new words and trends?”
Dustin gritted his teeth against a flash of anger. “I don’t know. They’ve never told me.”
“Your parents, Dustin, told me they don’t feel quite Ngundan any more and not quite Majestian.”
“So they’ve told you.” Typical, he thought. Typical for his parents to exclude him from everything and then act surprised when he excluded himself from them.
“They’re strangers wherever they go now,” Akeza said.
“At least they’re from somewhere!” Dustin snapped. “They have a strong link to one place while I have none.”
“All I’ve heard is ‘I, I, I’ from you. Don’t you know how your parents—”
“No, I don’t!” He banged his fist on the table. “They keep their precious language all to themselves and don’t bother to share any of it: culture, feelings, nothing. And it’s too late. I’ll forever be a foreigner to both places. At least my parents pass for more than tourists.”
In his outburst, Dustin had knocked his bowl aside. Igikoma dripped off the crate.
Akeza didn’t flinch. “No one has stripped away anything from you.” Her lips quivered. “Don’t you realise that means you can choose?”
Idly flicking through the shifting sphere manual, Dustin glanced at Akeza’s closed tent. She hadn’t come out in the hour he’d spent packing, checking the outside of the ship, and telling himself he had nothing to apologise for.
At this rate they’d never leave.
Leaning back in the pilot’s chair, Dustin stared at the patterns on the control room ceiling. In the swirls he saw strange faces with gaping mouths. He saw his own screaming face, his bottomless anger at everyone and everything. It’s not fair, it cried. Everyone else had something, some root to call home.
He closed his eyes and saw Akeza’s expression, eyes wide like he’d shattered something in front of her.
Dustin smacked his face. Venturing back outside, he stopped in front of Akeza’s sealed tent.
He cleared his throat. “Akeza?”
“Did you still want to travel today? To that third spot on your map?”
Still no answer.
“I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier. No matter what I’m dealing with, I shouldn’t have…”
Dustin listened. The inside of the tent was too still. It could be that Akeza was sleeping or simply not listening, but the uneasy feeling in his gut told him otherwise.
Ripping the flap open, Dustin found a note on Akeza’s sleeping bag.
Heading for the third destination on the map. Will be back tomorrow. -Akeza
Tomorrow? The only things she took seemed to be her bow and arrows and maybe her water flask.
“Akeza?” he called.
When had she left? Just now? An hour ago?
Dustin scanned the clearing’s borders, its shadows deeper in the grey. How many nyoko would come sniffing? How many shapeshifters would be out?
Trudging through the forest, Akeza found she didn’t care if she made it to the third destination or not.
Dustin was right. Without a connection to one’s homeland, one became nothing. The choice was to live as a ghost or not to live at all.
The humid air clung to her skin. Rain was inevitable. Nothing else moved but her. The insects knew better, and the nyoko. Shapeshifters were unpredictable.
Her compass map beeped a steady rhythm. Its green arrow didn’t seem to get closer to its red destination. Her bag of arrows shook like it carried dried beans every time it hit her back. Her boots crunched on the gigantic roots she crossed. With the ship, this trip would’ve taken maybe half an hour. If she was lucky, she’d get to her destination by sundown.
Leaning against a tree trunk, she rubbed her fingers over her amber pendant. She missed him. In many ways, Dustin was like her fiancé, strong-willed, sharp and defiant. What set the two apart was her fiancé’s strong sense of self. He, too, was born of two different worlds: north and south Ngunda. He had spent his childhood travelling between the polar regions and neither had truly welcomed him. The south treated him like a crude country boy, while the north snorted at his snooty accent. Akeza remembered him laughing it off, even if she felt the tension in his shoulders.
“I already know who I am and where I am from. Why let my relatives tell me otherwise? I ask them: ‘Do you know Ruti more than Ruti?’”
She might have kissed him after that. She didn’t remember. And did it matter? He was gone now. They’d killed him, right over her body. She took ragged breaths, as if there were bullet holes in her own lungs.
She looked up and burst into tears.
“Ruti,” she whimpered.
He smiled at her. His prim white shirt swayed in a breeze that was impossible in this heavy air. His head was clean-shaven, but a bit of hair grew on his chin. How she loved to rub her fingers on that chin.
Ruti spread his arms wide, grinning. “Come.”
“Ruti…” She covered her mouth to stifle the sobs. It wasn’t him. Of course, it wasn’t. But this was the sign she had been waiting for, a sign that she didn’t have to make it to the capital after all. If she died in her fiancé’s arms, she wouldn’t have to carry this pain. She wouldn’t have to die a humiliating death. She wouldn’t have to live without him. Without her homeland.
She inched closer to him. Ruti’s smile widened.
“I love you, Akeza.”
“Oh Ruti…” She reached for his chin.
“And I know you’ll be the greatest ruler this country has ever known.”
Her smile dropped. That’s right. Ruti admired her sense of duty the most. The illusion wavered as she pulled back her hand. A shadow descended upon her, followed by an awful cry.
Zipping through the forest on the open-air model Akeza liked, Dustin gripped the steering wheel to still his trembling hands. On his monitor, the third destination flashed red above the blue of Akeza’s compass map. She was about a quarter of the way there. Exhaling, Dustin pressed lightly on the accelerator, sharply veering around bridge-like branches.
How could he be so foolish? The clues were all there: an absent father whose footsteps she followed, a dead family. Had he ever stopped to wonder how recent this all was, or if it wasn’t recent, how much it still affected her? No, he had forced his own pain on her and wilfully ignored her own.
The blue dot stopped for several moments. Dustin’s mouth dried. Was she taking a break? Her dot blinked off. Dustin stomped on the accelerator.
Ducking underneath a branch, he stopped at Akeza’s last known coordinates. The silence pressed on his lungs, heavy with impending rain.
He heard a faint sound below.
Lowering the ship, Dustin spotted Akeza’s heaving shoulders leaning against a trunk. He sucked a breath. Akeza held a dead shapeshifter above her head, an arrow poking through its back. Blood flowed down her arm. Hers or the shapeshifter’s, he didn’t know.
“Akeza, are you hurt?”
Still no response. Then, “I’m okay.”
Flinging arrow and shapeshifter away, Akeza checked her arm and gave him a thumbs-up.
“I’m completely fine! See?” She did a needless twirl. Her boots slipped, but she steadied herself.
“Just get on the ship please,” Dustin strained. “I’d rather you didn’t die today.”
Akeza snorted and laughed in earnest. The laugh quickly turned into sobs. Dustin held her. They hovered there, breathing raggedly in the oppressive silence.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should’ve realised that you were suffering more than I was.”
Akeza shook her head. “No, you were right.”
“When have I been right?” He laughed incredulously. “Was it before the banga and the unidentifiables? And those shapeshifters, too. Here I thought I’d have to save you or something.”
Akeza chuckled through her tears.
Dustin held her tighter. His arms throbbed where his cuts still healed. “Please don’t go and actually die.”
He vowed to stop her if she tried.
Once they reached the third destination, the sky dumped its grief on them. Akeza used it to wipe the blood from her arms.
The ship landed in a clearing where banga crawled up the roots of a massive trunk. Akeza jumped out of the vehicle and slipped on some.
“I have to ask again,” Dustin yelled over the downpour. “Do you want to die?”
Akeza laughed and hurried towards an opening between the roots of the tree. A curtain of vines hung like a doorway. This was the spot. She pushed the curtain aside.
The mint of banga mixed with damp. What she thought was a hollow between the roots quickly turned into a cave. Light dimmed to shadow except for a faint glow coming from within. Rainwater trickled towards it. Akeza followed its course and found a small hole. Staring down at it, she smiled as a faint breeze kissed her cheek.
“The Secret Dip.”
Through a long chute of dirt and root, grey light hinted at the sky below Majestia.
Dustin whistled at it. “So the reason why you’re not going to The Green Dip is because of this Secret Dip?”
Akeza nodded. The Green Dip was a natural wonder, the obvious evidence that Majestia itself was a floating island that dipped into a wide sky. This Secret Dip was something only her father knew about, a hidden gem. He too had explored Majestia more or less alone on a sort of pilgrimage. This was probably the greatest fruit of his travels. Sitting here, Akeza could imagine she was looking down at Ngunda, its lush forests and hills.
“Your dad found the best spots,” Dustin said, sitting on the hole’s edge.
Her father did find a rare spot. If only they had come together. If only he hadn’t left her all alone, him and Ruti and the rest. Just one stray bullet and she could have joined them. If only Ruti hadn’t protected her. She sucked in the breeze coming from the hole and exhaled.
She would not join Ruti yet. When the shapeshifter’s illusion of Ruti broke and that creature jumped her, she had reached for an arrow, had held it point up. The shapeshifter had impaled itself on it. She had held it there, as if posing in victory. She only felt dull relief. She wasn’t dead. Her will to live was stronger. To live and fulfil her duty, no matter how cruel it was.
“Before we reach the capital, we’ll be parting ways.” Akeza said. “But before then, can you promise me something?”
“Whatever happens, don’t let it defeat you.”
Gazing at the void below her, Akeza still wondered if she could jump. Forget the capital. Forget her duty. Forget death. She still had a choice to make.
Akeza blinked, looking from Dustin’s pinkie to his face.
Even if it wasn’t his first time seeing a floating island, Dustin gawked at the colossal mass peeking through the mist. As a child, he could only imagine the weightless rocks sitting in mid-air. He’d rip grass while thinking of dangling roots, wave sticks to imagine branches piercing the clouds.
This island was so much more. A pockmarked maze of peaks jutted from it, a palace carved in rock. What he thought was mist was actually vapour. It rose from steaming pools crowded with pasty patrons. The wrinkled kind.
“Why are we going to a spa again?” he wondered.
Akeza shrugged. “Ask my dad.”
White-clad Majestians let them dock in an underground garage cut into the mountain face. Wind signalled another docking ship: a Majestian cruiser. Three times was no longer a coincidence.
From the lift they stepped onto a marble floor scissored with pink lines. It looked like ruptured skin. The slightest rip reveals their greed, Dustin’s dad would say, the greed behind every Majestian’s face. Dustin wasn’t sure if he agreed, but his adventures through the country hadn’t proved the contrary.
“I would like the Ngundan ritual bath,” Akeza announced. Two attendants led her away.
The rest turned to Dustin.
“I’m okay, thanks,” he said.
“The lady insists.”
Dustin looked from one attendant to another, unsure how to proceed. “Okay, what do you have?”
They decided to give him a tour. Their facility housed over a hundred baths drawn from hot springs.
“The island is volcanic?”
Just like Ngunda, he thought, but on a micro-scale. To think such places existed in Majestia.
They emerged onto an outdoor path lined with communal baths. Wrinkly moneybags muttered among themselves, not even glancing at the glorious view of Ever Forest’s canopy below. Another tour group emerged from the other side, one of which exclaimed upon spotting Dustin.
“Long time no see friend!”
Clasping Dustin’s dark hands in his pale ones, Fenner flashed a good-natured smile at the mechanic that saved his cruiser.
“I see you got contracted by someone big.” Fenner nodded towards the general wealth of the spa.
Dustin shrugged. “It would seem so.”
Gold embroidery flashed on Fenner’s black uniform: the pride of the Majestian police. Dustin knew what certain policemen thought of immigrants like him, so he wasn’t inclined to trust Fenner with information.
“What brings you here?” he asked instead.
Fenner frowned. “Wait, you don’t know?”
Dustin didn’t answer. Fenner didn’t elaborate.
Dustin’s tour guides took them to a dimly lit lounge rumbling with gruff conversation. Men in bathrobes played pool or drank, colouring the air with velvety smoke from expensive cigars. It was a familiar scent, like the leaf Dustin’s mum kept in cupboards to keep bugs out. To think Majestians put them in cigars.
“This is the Men’s VIP Lounge, a favourite among politicians and businessmen,” the attendants explained.
That explained the faint smell of shifter.
A holovision displayed international news. Dustin noticed the Ngundan colours paraded on the screen.
“Princess Therese Akeza Niyongoma will be meeting Prime Minister Turner for the first time since ascending to the throne, the only survivor of a tragic landslide…”
Dustin stared at the image of a smiling woman in regal dress with neatly combed hair poking over her royal headband.
“Since Ngunda’s transition to a parliamentary monarchy last spring, the nation still faces growing unrest from an increasingly militant faction of rebels…”
Excusing himself from Fenner, Dustin asked to be taken back to the Shapeshifter.
Taking his tools, he went to work checking every bolt of the ship. He slowed down once he got to the strange space where something was missing. The ship’s current shape was as big as a cruiser but sleeker, made for a highspeed joyride. Stepping outside it, Dustin tried to picture how it could shift to a smaller model that would open up the space. A ship that would shrink both wing spans and stretch into a tube. That wall could expand and form something like an engine room…
Dustin raced to the controls and shifted the ship. It took a few moments to navigate the tunnel-like interior, but he finally found the place where the problem room used to be. Instead of rejoicing, he held his breath. Then he opened the space and his breath left him completely. Here was another reason why Shapeshifters were notorious.
Alone in a cavernous room, Akeza laid the package Dustin’s mother had given her on the edge of the bath. Multiple pillars held the high ceiling. They symbolised cooperation and strength in numbers. No one pillar can hold a country aloft, but one must lead the others, her father had once said. In the centre of the bath, the fattest pillar stood on a raised platform. Though shorter than the others, it was stouter, able to hold more. It also looked like it was being squished against the ceiling more than supporting it. Akeza didn’t know what to do with this contradiction.
Dipping her legs inside the bath, she drew out a breath to get used to the steaming water. She rang a tiny bell. To her surprise, the attendant was Ngundan.
“I’m going to wash my hair,” Akeza said. “Will you make sure the rushing water is lukewarm?”
The woman nodded. “As you wish. Do you require assistance with your hair?”
Akeza shook her head. “It is the ritual.”
The woman nodded and bowed deeply. “As you wish, Your Highness.” A member of her entourage then, the ones loyal to the new regime.
Opening the package Dustin’s mother had given her, she smiled a little at the note inside.
Take courage Your Highness.
Lips quivering, she took out what she needed—a bottle of milky conditioner, another of clear shampoo—and headed to the platform.
At the platform, she let the bottles float next to her. Water rained from a toothed mouth above her head, perfectly mild against her scalp. Her hair lengthened from weightless springs to wavy locks that kissed her back.
She started with the clear shampoo, lemony and slippery. Taking small dollops, she rubbed it deep inside her maze of textured curls to reach the dirt of days of travel.
Closing her eyes, she remembered the shape of Kamegeri’s rock on Dustin’s head. In the story, the king asked his advisors to come up with the worst way to punish someone. His most loyal advisor, Kamegeri, came up with the truly heartless method of heating a rock and tying the criminal to it. For his efforts, the king decided to test the method on him. The advisor died.
Akeza’s father had killed the most popular councilman in the kingdom because he had suggested that he give the Council more power. Akeza hadn’t understood the harshness of the punishment then, so she had sought him afterward.
“Listen, Akeza,” her father had said. “That is what the Majestians want so their cursed shifter can even poison the palace.”
The Council had hailed the dead man as the leader among them, enlisting commoners to their cause. Akeza should have voiced her worries. By the time she and her family had gone to their royal retreat in the hills, it had been too late.
They had been celebrating her designation as heir to the throne. The room, the shadows in the rain, her fiancé present.
Her father had been so foolish. There had been shots, so many of them. Her fiancé had tackled her, held her close. The fire had ended. The smoke had cleared. A voice had asked. “Are they dead?”
And she had sneezed.
Hands had pulled her from her fiancé. He hadn’t been moving. She hadn’t understood, hadn’t wanted to believe.
The Council had barged in. The rebels with guns had snarled. They had argued. They had decided to let her live, some more begrudgingly than others. They had covered her in mud. Buried the retreat in it. Called the entire affair a “tragic accident”.
Not everyone had wanted her to live, least of all her entourage, servants loyal to a mix of enemies. Attempt after attempt. Month after month. It was only a matter of time. Then this landmark trip to Majestia.
She had made a request to her puppet masters. “Before I reach the capital, I’ll go on a private pilgrimage like my father. I’ll take an escort, but only from afar. I want to be alone.”
“But princess…” The Council had been fearful.
She had insisted. “This might be the last time I will be able to do something like this.”
The rebels had not commented. It was only when she had reached Majestia that she had realised why, that she had hired Dustin to check. It didn’t matter where she went from here, or indeed where it happened. So long as she was in Majestia.
Rinsing her hair, she raised her face to the rushing water. Real tears mingled with the soap-induced ones.
Taking the milky bottle of conditioner, she heaped its creamy contents on her palms. She spread it through her hair, finger-combing section by section. Some knots were stubborn, but she coaxed them with the patience of a dying woman. You are patient for what is inevitable and impatient for what you do not know. Those had been her father’s words. Which had been his father’s and his father’s and they would end with her.
Running away wouldn’t save her country. She could die if she tried. Disappearing, in any form, would achieve the desired effect in the rebels’ plans: war.
How they thought it would end the shifter trade, she didn’t know.
She had a choice to make. To run and throw away her birthright or keep it ‘til the end?
Rinsing her hair, she let Ruti’s face surface in her mind. Ruti and his admiration for her sense of duty. It made her rub her engagement ring fondly. With the actions that had led to the death of her foolish father, someone had to step up and take the reins. She had to exercise the cunning and strength of Sebwugu’s wife. That meant confronting her fears.
Second petal. Second secret: Every choice meant tragedy, but duty meant revenge. To disappear would be death by herself, but to reach the capital would be death with a few enemies. And innocents. Was she like her father after all?
She could soak in this bath and tell herself she had no choice, that all her choices were horrible, but of all the choices, she was heading towards the cruellest one.
Kamegeri’s rock is as effective a reminder as any, her father would say. Cruelty always is. But could she live with its consequences?
Braiding with practiced efficiency, Akeza created rows that hugged her scalp, piled into a high bun and flowed down to thick twists. Emptying the bottles, she let creamy lemon permeate the bath, washing herself clean of hair and dirt.
Wading back to the edge, she made her decision.
Akeza’s hair stopped Dustin in his tracks. He recognised the style but couldn’t name it out loud. Funeral braids. To match the hairstyle, she wore a white dress with a lacy umukenyero tied over one shoulder. Here she was, Princess Akeza of Ngunda.
Dustin offered his arm and Akeza took it. They stepped inside the lift that travelled to the garage.
As soon as the doors sealed shut, Dustin spoke his mind. “That ship will kill you. It’ll blow. If you give me time I can—”
Akeza hushed him. “Don’t be a hero.”
“Don’t die!” Dustin exhaled. “Please. They can have their country and you can escape. I’ll help you. In fact, I know how.”
“Don’t be a hero.” Akeza hissed.
“Don’t be a symbol.” Dustin searched her face for anything else, anything but this willingness to sacrifice herself. “You don’t have to be Ngundan first. You can be a Shapeshifter, like me.”
Akeza smiled. “I’ll always be Ngundan.”
The lift doors opened. Majestian police stood waiting along with a circle of richly dressed Ngundans.
One of them stepped forward. “The princess won’t be needing a mechanic now.”
Akeza let go of his arm. “I have a duty to fulfil.”
Dustin hugged her fiercely, close enough to touch cheeks. “I’ll miss your ship.”
Snorting at the comment, Akeza patted him on the back. Pulling away, she unclasped her amber pendant and wrapped it in his palms.
Dustin gaped at it. “Why are you giving me this?”
Her voice trembled. “Because I won’t be needing his protection anymore.”
Covering her mouth, she turned away from him. Two members of her entourage flanked her on the way to her ship.
Dustin stowed the pendant in one of his pockets, aware that one policeman’s eyes were on him. Fenner.
“Do you reckon you can give me a lift to the capital?” he asked.
Fenner chuckled. “You’re a risk I wouldn’t take.”
Shrugging, Dustin watched as the garage doors groaned open and the Shapeshifter took off with a soft whiz. Majestian cruisers followed one after the other, then ships that bore the Ngundan crest. Dustin turned back to the lift.
“Wait,” Fenner called, jogging back from his ship. “My engine won’t start.”
Majestia’s capital, Excellence, rose like crystals protruding from a rock. Rainbows reflected off the skyscrapers, while ships flitted like so many birds. Akeza stared, honoured to see it for the last time. At this point she could guess when the moment would come: if not now then very soon.
Four more Majestian cruisers joined her entourage, guiding her into inbound traffic. Akeza gazed at the thousands of bodies milling below. It was a strange but encouraging sight. Ngunda’s urban centres were steadily growing to match it, sacrificing more land, more people. But enough with that. She would lead them no more. With this, her final duty.
Arriving at the tallest of scrapers, she hovered for a moment to request space to dock. She landed in an empty parking range behind the scraper, where a delegation of Majestians and the new Ngundan prime minister waited. Even if she parked as far from them as possible, the welcoming party just gravitated closer. Their funeral, she shrugged. A part of her was glad to have all the hypocrites in one place. The thought soured. Would Imana forgive her?
A smooth gangplank slid down for her. Taking the first step onto it, she prayed to Imana that this would be the end. She took another step, squeezing the railing for support. She took the fourth and heard a sound. Holding her head high, she dared take the fifth step before heat rushed to meet her back.
Instead of dropping him off in the capital, Fenner pushed Dustin into another clearing in Ever Forest. Dustin stumbled, vision still spinning. The back of his head pulsed where Fenner had struck him.
“No ‘Thank you’?” Dustin asked. The ship zipped off.
Dropping onto a patch of banga, Dustin made mushroom angels like Akeza once did. When would she die? He couldn’t shake the image of detonators latched onto the escape pod he found. Strong enough to blow a ship. The red symbol of revolt was plastered all over them. He was lying when he said he could disarm them. There were too many, too little time.
Dustin fished out the pendant Akeza gave him, the one her fiancé gave her. Inside the amber tear, white light bloomed like a flower. Or a banga. A secret.
In Ngunda, in exchange for a bigger territory to hunt, they gave us the secrets of their ability, Akeza had said.
Dustin remembered the glowing ground in that horrible clearing, the way his fingers picked up what looked like white pieces of paper when it seemed like he was about to die. Crushed petals. Banga. Secrets.
Inside the amber tear, in the centre of the flower, a red dot pulsed.
Dustin frowned. He ran his fingers around the pendant’s wire thread and metal clasp. Pressing the pendant to his ear, he heard a faint rhythmic sound. He widened his eyes. It sounded like a homing device, just like on Akeza’s ship.
Shapeshifters had no standard form, he remembered.
Clasping the pendant around his neck, Dustin pressed the centre. The light inside expanded to fill the clearing. The pendant unclasped itself from his neck and unravelled before him. The air whirred with the kind of energy that gave Dustin life, engulfing him in the nostalgic scent of metal. The red dot’s pulse sank into his bones, rising to a shrieking drumbeat that swallowed him in red.
The smell of mint. Pounding brightness. Akeza shut her eyes, rolling her head to the side. Rubbery mint tickled her nose. It made her smile. Together with her banga.
Footsteps made her stiffen. Could they have found her?
She tightened her hand into a fist. Her engagement ring pressed into her palm. Did they see it shift into a flying form?
She rolled onto her back, praying no one got hurt, that her ring shifting into a ship absorbed the shockwave, that the shockwave masked her shift.
Her nostrils were full with the scent of banga. The biggest secret of all was that Shapeshifters didn’t need a ship’s form in order to fly.
Her other arm felt numb. That wasn’t good. She tried to open her eyes again, but pain flashed white. She groaned.
A shapeshifter, Akeza feared. The footsteps stopped near her ear. A hand raised her head and pressed something cool against its back. Firm cloth wrapped around her arm. She felt a steady prickling that suggested feeling was coming back to it. Then it burned.
Through her lashes, she could make out a blurry Ngundan man. A pendant flashed around his neck. A name fought against her throbbing head.
He exhaled in relief. “You’ll be okay. With this we won’t need to go to a hospital for a while.”
She struggled to hear him against a rushing in her ears. She might need a hospital sooner than he thought.
Dustin helped her up. They stood on a slope of banga. Meadows weren’t known to slope.
“Where are we?”
Dustin smiled. “The Green Dip.”
Wind whipped up the slope, fresh from the edge of the world. The rushing in Akeza’s ears wasn’t her throbbing head. It was a river thundering down the slope, plummeting into the sky.
“And it never reaches Ngunda,” Akeza murmured.
“Want to go there?”
Akeza stared at Dustin. He grinned but the sides of his mouth twitched with nerves. A part of him probably didn’t want to go.
“Can I really go back?”
Dustin rolled his eyes. “Do you want to go or not?”
Akeza grinned. There was the mechanic she knew. “I might show you where we came from.”
Linking hands, they clambered down the hill and dove. A rainbow spread to meet them. Mist washed their weary faces. Dustin’s pendant glowed, and Akeza’s ring shone. Light morphed around their bodies, shifting their fall into flight.
Copyright 2023 Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga
About the Author
Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga’s name is short for ‘moonlight’ in Kinyarwanda. Her work has been published in Augur Magazine, Africa Risen, Fantasy Magazine, FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, demos journal, Selene Quarterly Magazine, Apparition Lit, Djed Press, Underground Writers, and Jalada Africa, among others.