Day three. In the morning fog my knees still ache from shaking, and there is a tightness to the space between my neck and my back. My hands quiver as I trace the brush down my cheekbone, blending dark face paint into my skin, and I can barely tell in the glistening gemstone I have for a mirror if it is blended in all the way.
I put the bottles and brushes back in their green bag, tighten the cord and hide them by the skeleton cook’s hip. The food I bought yesterday is near the opposite collar bone. The egg is splattered with mud, by the toes, pretending to be a stone like all the other stones in the fake burial mound.
I trek down the hill, boots muddy. It begins raining, for real, fat drops like lollipops that I let soak into my skin. I didn’t bring the cloak. So the face paint will probably be ruined, trails of wood brown and dark cream melting off my skin. Like rain-repelling face paint doesn’t even exist.
I sigh, glancing back up the hill and wondering if I should have brought the egg. No, it is too visible. In this city. With a meat plague, surviving everywhere but in the travelers’ camp, in cold storage boxes and on kitchen tables and coming out of many, many stomachs. Realizing that I’ve probably done a terrible thing, those senses recoil back into myself. If the meat in the city is diseased, but not in the outlanders’ camp, the city people will blame them for their problems. I narrowly avoid rubbing my hands up my cheeks. Run them through my damp hair instead. I’ve done a terrible thing to those travelers, haven’t I?
Oh heart. Oh, heart. Just push it into the past. It’s in the past.
The first time you went to the city, as a child, people were dying. Some disease carried in by the trading boats. Bodies lay in the streets, blood dripping from their mouths, some still faintly coughing. You hardly dared breathe from the way you could sense it in the air, drifting on wind gusts but never flying far.
Until Tulimaq nudged your shoulder. You jumped, inhaling accidentally. “It’s okay,” he said, hands pointing at the air. You looked, even though it wasn’t something you could see. Or point at, really. “They know we’re friends,” he whispered.
The realization came before then, but you had refused to acknowledge it. You wouldn’t have kept walking through the streets if you knew the disease was going to attack you too. You shut your eyes and sighed, just as another warm body resumed coughing. “What if I don’t want to be friends with a lung-devouring disease?” you asked.
Tulimaq reached for your arm, and you reluctantly let him. “At least it comes with good perks.”
You let him tug you through the streets, avoiding…piles. The number of skeletons there. You counted them, to distract from the coughing.
I slowly exhale before knocking on the door. I peer up at the decaying building, certain this is the right place. Whether or not it is the right person…
The door squeaks open, and the scent of withered leaves and musty air floods out. Oh, I do not think I am ready for this. I was not ready for this any of the three times I came here before.
He steps into the light, wrinkled skin and white hair no less ancient than before. I gulp as he takes two blinks at me. “Miss,” his voice finally rasps, “I do believe you are in the wrong place.”
“Um, actually,” I begin, wondering if the face paint is still melting off, “I’m pretty sure you can help me.”
His eyes morph into hooded reptiles. “Nothing I have is of any help to you,” the door slowly begins to swing shut.
“Wait!” I say. “I can pay you. You identify things, don’t you?”
The door stops. His golden eyes are more like predatory hawks now, circling. “How do you know anything of my business dealings? It’s not like I advertise it,” he briefly glances up, at what I assume is a lack of a store sign. Which gives away that he’s familiar with store signs, which only someone who’s ever left this city is.
“I just need you to identify one thing,” I say, “and then you can forget all about me.”
He grips the door as he stares back at me. I seriously wonder if the face paint is muddled. “I see nothing to identify. Unless we are discussing you.”
I shake my head. “I didn’t bring it here. I didn’t want to attract any…you know. Unwanted attention.”
He snorts. “Come inside. I’m familiar with this deal.”
Ridiculous brain, do you think he knows? Perhaps, I didn’t think through well enough asking a master identifier for help when I’m supposed to no longer exist. He rubs his eyes and turns around, and I sigh in relief. But if you shut your eyes, that man would still be standing in the doorway, ancient, rattling, staring at both of you like you were blue fish walking. You and Tulimaq both squeezed each other’s hands, wondered if this was actually the right building, less than two stories high. But the ancient person motioned you inside, hands gnarled and bent. You hesitantly went.
He shut the door, wooden and creaky, dragged three deadbolts across its length with three distinct squeals. You winced.
“So, um,” Tulimaq began.
The ancient guy silenced him with a lifted finger. “Kolariq sent you.”
You both nodded.
“What’s it about?”
You both blinked.
He leaned against the paint-peeling wall. “Kolariq sent you for something.”
“Um, well, actually–” you began.
“–he just said we were supposed to learn from you,” Tulimaq finished.
He actually gaped. Pushed himself away from the wall. Pushed past the both of you, and the top of his head brushed something dry and violet hanging from a ceiling basket. You glanced at Tulimaq as it swung haphazardly.
“Learn from me?” the ancient guy grabbed a walking stick from the corner. Slowly trodded to the stairs on the other side of the swinging basket. “Does he mean to replace me? Have a pair of his students pick my brain,” he shot a glare at you, all vicious heat, and you gulped, “so he can stop paying for my services? Inspect those relics he drags from the sea for him, and after I went through the work of training you how to do it?” he spun around, stabbing at you with the stick. Tulimaq stumbled a step back. “I think not!”
“Okay, um, we’ll just leave then,” you said, heart thrumming in your throat.
“Yeah,” Tulimaq was already undoing the bolted door.
“See you!” you said, staring down the quavering walking stick. And you both fled into the streets.
“You haven’t told me your name,” he says, shutting the door behind you. He slides three deadbolts into place, and you wonder what he’s afraid of. He opened the door when you knocked.
“You haven’t told me yours,” I return, fussing with my shawl that doesn’t need fussing with.
He walks past me, beneath the hanging basket that is still there, only it holds something faintly blue-ish beneath the browned leaves. He turns around, holding a walking stick. “True. True. What do you need me to identify?”
I blink at the rapid shift. “It’s an egg. I found it in the snow. Covered in magenta speckles.”
I put my hands about as wide as my abdomen. “This large,” I say. I try to tell if his eyes widen or not.
“Not many things that could be,” he mutters, walking stick thumping on the floor as he approaches the staircase. He wordlessly climbs up them, joints popping, free hand clutching the solid railing.
As he disappears, I look around. The room is small, barren. I assume there is more to the house, but the only way out is up the stairs. There is also, I note, nowhere to sit. So I lean against the bolted door, arms folded, discovering I am slightly cold and rather wet.