“Yes, it is what it appears to be: a copy of the Mstumpuan, transcribed into Latin by João of Amareleja shortly before he was buried up to his elbows and stoned to death by the Segumbi.” Carlos examined the book reverently, holding it at arm’s length both to read it through his glasses and to keep the tropical steam of his breath away from it.

“What would they do if they knew we had it?” Annabelle said. “The Segumbi.”

“I imagine that many would not care,” Carlos laughed. “But those who still follow the paramount chief, those in the hinterlands…it is probable that they would show us the same hospitality why showed João of Amareleja.”

Annabelle exhaled sharply. “Not exactly what I have in mind when I want to get stoned. Why would they care so much?”

“You have to realize that the Quri have become the boogeymen of Segumbi legend, distant and demonic legends, and the Mstumpuan is their blasphemous liturgy,” said Carlos. “It would be like bringing a book on Satanism into the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Or a self-professed terrorist in Times Square.”

“Yes,” said Carlos. “A knee-jerk reaction of the cultural DNA, one might say.”

“What about the Quri themselves?” said Annabelle, cautiously. “Wouldn’t they be more helpful?”

“They were conquered nearly a thousand years ago by the Segumbi; if there are any of their line left, by now they’d be indistinguishable. But that’s not why we can’t let a word of this escape to the Segumbi or anybody.”

“Why’s that?”

“The same thing it always is. Treasure.”

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Marguerite Séléka stirred on the straw mat in her filthy cell as the sound of keys echoed in the lock. To her surprise, it was not a policeman or soldier that entered but rather a short and broad-shouldered man in an immaculate and bemedaled uniform with a gold-tipped ivory cane. In the Bangui heat, sweat glistened on his brow much as it did on Marguerite’s.

“The Emperor will hear your plea,” barked one of the guards. It had taken a moment for the association from the portrait hung in Marguerite’s elementary school classroom and the occasional hard currency that passed through her hands to sink in; standing before her was Bokassa I of Central Africa, once president and now emperor of the Central African Empire.

“I have heard,” the Emperor said in a deep and authoritative voice, carefully removing first one white glove and then the other, “that you incited your students to disobey the law requiring school uniforms.”

“Your imperial majesty, please,” Marguerite said, using the form of address they had all been taught. Personally she agreed with her father that Bokassa was unfit to be a wagon driver, let alone a president or emperor, but it seemed prudent to show at least a little deference. “My students are poor, and the uniforms are very expensive. Many of their parents have had a bad year, and…”

“That does not matter,” the Emperor said. He took off his hat and handed it and his gloves to one of the guards behind him. “The law requires the uniforms to be worn, and the children must wear them. It is because the uniforms bear my image, for we must instill pride in the Empire from a young age. If you disrespect the Emperor’s image, you disrespect the Emperor.”

“But how were we to pay for those expensive embroidered uniforms with no money?” Marguerite cried.

“There are always non-essentials which may be cut out,” the Emperor said. He unbuttoned his shirt, medals flashing in the sliver of sunlight the bars admitted from outside. “Non-essentials” apparently didn’t include the Emperor’s uniform, or his $20 million coronation in 1977 or his $5 million crown, Marguerite thought bitterly.

“What is to happen to us?” Marguerite said. Having given up on reasoning with the man, she at least hoped to find out about the fate of the children–well over a hundred of them–that had been arrested along with her.

“You will be held as long as I deem it necessary, and certain ringleaders will be…disciplined.” Bokassa removed his fine uniform jacket and tossed it to a guard, revealing a simple white shirt with suspenders. Several flecks of what were unmistakably blood were visible. “Much like Alexandre Banza was…disciplined.”

Mauguerite couldn’t suppress a sob; everyone knew that the Emperor had personally eviscerated the rebellious Banza with a kitchen knife. “So…we are all to die, then?” she stammered.

“The French have been asking that I show…restraint,” said the Emperor. “I think that discipline shall be meted out…and whether the guilty live or die be left up to God.”

He took a step into the cell and hefted his heavy cane like a cudgel. “Dacko and his stooge Banza never understood the importance of involving oneself in the process of discipline,” he said in a low voice. “Great men know that this is of the highest importance. Napoleon led from the front at Toulon, and I follow his example.”

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The old Segumbi empire had, before its destruction, employed a group of warriors called the Kersaati to protect the royal family and the nobles in charge of each of the empire’s seven traditional provinces. They had led the fiercest resistance to the encroachment of outsiders; most of the Kersaati had been wiped out in the Battle of Quri in 1677 by the Portuguese. In a sign of how closely fought the battle had been, the Kersaati had actually made it to the musketeers firing on them and engaged in melee combat; the Portuguese had lost 110 musketeers, while the entire company of Kersaati, over 1000 warriors, was slaughtered.

After the old Segumbi heartland gained its independence from France as la République de Côte d’Ébène, the first president attempted to link the tradition of the new state to the old, forming the Kersaati Guard and stocking it with the country’s most experienced soldiers, many of them veterans of World War II. The Guard were to form not only the official bodyguard for government officials but also the nucleus of the new state’s army. A link both to the past and a prosperous democratic future, much like the constitution that was based in equal parts on the US Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Two years later, in July of 1964, the Kersaati Guard murdered the president, who had suspended the constitution and declared himself in office for life, and seized power for the military.

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The Mstumpuan was the great oral epic of the kingdom, telling of the exploits of the legendary founding god-king Mstumpu of the Quri kingdom. It was passed down for generations, largely unaltered–the penalty for failing to recite it properly was amputation or death, depending on the severity of the mistake.

When the Quri kingdom was cast down in defeat by the Segumbi, who did not have such a strong oral tradition, the penalty was inverted: amputation or death were now penalties for speaking the Mstumpuan, depending on the length of the recitation.

By the time Europeans arrived and cast down what remained of the Segumbi, only fragments of the Mstumpuan remained in folk memory or diaries kept by a few explorers and missionaries. Many of the oral traditions in that part of the world were castigated, but legend had it that the Mstumpuan contained vital clues and references to the land of Prester John.

It was therefore the object of obsessive study by European mystics, alchemists, and speculum-seekers. They interviewed the eldest Quri and Segumbi they could find for fragments of the tale. Rumors persisted that a Portuguese missionary named João of Amareleja had transcribed the entire epic in Latin shortly before he was stoned to death by the Segumbi, and many of the adventurers drawn to the region sought that manuscript instead.

You see, Britain and France both claim the totality of the area, and further claims had been advanced by Germany, Italy, and other countries late to the colonization game. King Xmube, you see, was no fool; he negotiated the treaty in front of representatives of every interested nation, declining to reveal his choice until the end. Furthermore, he added that it was to be renegotiated every year before agreeing to sign.

Xmube had the treaty text translated by a missionary, and signed the mineral rights in the Mdogo Triangle to Britain, the seaport and trade rights to the French, and the protectorate status jointly to the Germans and Italians. It was a morass, a mess, and Xmube took great delight in the confusion it caused.

Eventually, of course, the Europeans colluded with one another to settle their affairs and put Xmube out of the picture courtesy of an ambitious nephew. But his legacy was such fierce wrangling over such a tiny area that even today no one is sure who owns the Triangle and Xmube’s people live much as they always have–for now.

In a land that appears on no map
Is a tower with no doors or windows
In the tower with no doors or windows
Is a room with no entrances or exits
In the room with no entrances or exits
Is a box with no keyhole or lid
In the box with no keyhole or lid
Is a treasure without value or worth
In the treasure without value or worth
Is the rule of the breadth of the land
In the hands of a worthy man

It was a silly saying, Masaka mused, one that had been passed down from tongue to tongue so that it no longer rhymed in any language. But even today, in a world of automobiles and cellular telephones, many of his countrymen believed the old riddle that predated even the arrival of Islam. Many a village sage had laid the failure of government after government and the succession of coup after coup on the lack of that paradoxically worthless treasure.

Masaka didn’t believe the legend, but he believed in propaganda. That is why he had brought in archaeologists and surveyors to scour the records, aerial photographs and–if need be–the dunes themselves to locate a structure that matched the description of the legend well enough to pass. He’d taken time out from the tiring routine of personally interrogating and executing political enemies to review potential sites before selecting a site in the al-Qabs dune sea.

The tower was a relic of an abandoned trade route, and any entrances or exits it once had were obscured by sand. Masaka had his men dig an entrance from beneath. There was indeed a room, partially formed by rubble, with no ingress or egress. Masaka had his men tunnel through decorative limestone–ignoring the protests of the Western archaeologists. And in that room there was a stone object choked with rubble that could be charitably described as a box. Masaka removed the rubble personally; a bit of period papyrus subtly altered by his hirelings was tucked in his sleeve just in case.

What he hadn’t considered–what even the riddle was silent about–was what would happen should an unworthy man open that container with neither hinges nor keyhole.

He found out soon enough.

Easy money.

An artillery shell slammed into one of the adobe buildings across the compound. The defenders within, who had been returning fire with small arms, went out as a fine mist.

Easy money. That’s what Campbell had said.

The first line of skirmishers arrived, disembarking from a BMP. Most of them were killed or wounded, but there was far less, and far less accurate, fire from the rebel positions than there had been moments ago.

Easy money. A tottering autocratic regime, enthusiastic rebels rising up all over the country. Only a few firefights and then cash and poontang from grateful locals.

A second BMP–or, rather, a Chinese-made copy bought and paid for not three weeks ago–disgorged its squad. Bull raked them with heavy machine gun fire, but these weren’t the militia they’d fought earlier. They were disciplined, organized, took cover, laid suppressing fire. Polymer helmets, gas masks, and Chinese kevlar.

Easy money.