“You were one of Kolariq’s, weren’t you?”
I turn sharply to the staircase, and he no longer has a walking stick. He creakily lowers himself down a step.
“What’d you say?” I ask, unsure when my heart resumes beating.
“You were one of Kolariq’s,” he repeats, eyes something between reptile and bird.
I have no words to speak.
“I don’t recall ever meeting a girl, though,” he says, knobbly fingers clutched to the railing. I am sorely tempted to kick that railing and knock him loose, just to see how far it would make him fall. “Quite the disguise he sent you with,” he nods.
“Kolariq was good at disguises,” I mutter bitterly.
He finally reaches the bottom of the stairs, but I don’t lean away from the door. “I think I remember you though,” he doesn’t move. “Weren’t you one of the ones he sent asking me to train you?” he guffawed. “Was he testing how long that disguise would work?”
I finally stand up straight, and the door shudders. “This isn’t about Kolariq,” I say. “Or the past. I came here about an egg.”
He waves a hand. “In that case, I’ll do you a favor by not turning you in.”
Puzzlement adds itself to the mess of emotions in me. “For what? Pretending to be a boy years ago?”
His eyes go soft. As soft as a fungus rock, but still. “There were only so many death mages, Miss,” he says. “Until a few years ago, and then there weren’t any. And now you, a woman death mage, show up at my doorstep? Asking about a royal avian?”
I knew coming to a master identifier was a terrible idea. “So it’s a royal avian,” I say, monotone. “That’s nice to know.”
“There’s only one a generation, so it’s told,” he sits on the bottom step, and I can’t tell if the creaking is the wood or his joints.
“So I should just return it,” I reach for the bolts.
“Not just the bird, dimwit,” he says.
I slowly turn around. I’ve never heard that before. There weren’t any when I was younger. I try to keep a straight face as the oddest feeling forces its way up my throat. I swallow, but a snort still escapes. The snort is the first thing to escape. Second is the hysterical, uncontrollable, tear-jerking, stomach-clenching laughter. When I finally stop, and the echoes stop, I am bent over on the floor like I might vomit and the ancient guy standing on the stairs gapes like I’ve gone manic.
Third, the actual tears start.
Oh heart, dear brain, this is stupid. Terribly stupid. Of course the widow’s thrill was more than just a stupid name for a stupid poison.
You found it the night you cheated on Tulimaq. The girl part of you got the better of you and you found yourself in cyan-eyes’ lap, letting flowers be strewn in your hair. This was after you put flowers in his. This was after he taught you how to hold a brush and blend in foundation to your cheeks. This was after Tulimaq told you he thought you were the most handsome boy he’d ever kissed. This was after Tulimaq kissed someone else. This was after you kissed someone else, maybe because Tulimaq kept calling you a handsome boy.
This night. You ran away from the cave by the sea because if you stayed there, the sound of the waves would have been too much. Too tempting.
This night. You ended up in some patch of flowers, outside a house lit with yellow candles and a flickering electric bulb, people’s shadows dancing in the dirt to the faint roars of flute music.
This night. You pulled every single flower from hair that barely hung to your ears, you ground the petals into the dirt, you cried river-tears down the foundation on your cheeks, you sniffled and discovered those senses were alight with poison burning skin, burning muscle, and yet it liked you. That made you cry more, because you were tired of being friends with poison and diseases, until some part of you realized it liked you because it saw you as a widow. Love lost, love burned, take me, young woman, and he could burn to.
This night. It was the first time somebody called you that. You ran away before it could tell you anymore, because it was too much. Too tempting. And you didn’t want it. You didn’t want anybody dead.
He hands me a tissue. One of those kinds made from pounded tree pulp. I blow my nose into it, realize I should’ve wiped the tears first, so I wipe those with the back of my hand. I have given up on the face paint. It smears my knuckles.
He hands me a second tissue, and my nose splatters it with gray-green mucus. “Thank you,” I manage to say, stare up at the ceiling as a door bolt digs into my scalp.
He looks sorely puzzled. He is squeezing a small cube of folded tissues between both gnarled hands. “You’re welcome,” he whispers after a long silence. Which is followed by another long silence. “I don’t usually have strangers break down in front of me,” he manages a weak smile.
I manage a weaker one back. “Rough few days,” is all I say, tissues mere bundles in my fists.
“Days?” He asks. “Sounds longer than that.”
I stand up on shaky legs. “I should return that egg,” I fumble at the inside of my shawl, where a pocket of wood coins is hidden. “Here’s the money.”
Oddly, he grabs a walking stick from where it rests beside the stair railing. He must have fetched it when he got the tissues. “I don’t believe that will be necessary. Seeing as how I will be coming with you.”
I pause. I hadn’t planned this journey before, but I suddenly realize–I need to return the supplies to the house, I need to return the skeleton cook to the house, I should give the old rock something to eat so it doesn’t think I’ve abandoned it. “I…need to return to my house first.”
“Then I will go there too,” he taps the walking stick into the ground.
“O…kay?” I say. Since I can think of no reason to refuse him. My heart is hammering again though. He motions to the door and I swallow.
Remember brain, the outfits? Kolariq’s outfits, I mean. When you and the other boys woke up and stumbled into the kitchen, at the back of the cave tunnels. With the hidden exit. The tallest boy walked in first and yelped, which gave little warning to the rest of you that there was an exotic soldier facing the fire, complete with red plumage and a massive ebony helmet.
He turned around to the gaping gathering of you. His white beard trailed over the tile. You wondered if this was what the bird riders, from the stories the boy with the scarred ear told about his homeland, looked like. “Ah,” the avian rider said, standing from the stone bench. “Students,” he waved a hand dramatically, flinging the beard across his shoulder. He immediately tugged it back. “Might have to work on that part,” he muttered.
“Kolariq?” the skeleton-armed boy asked.
The avian rider looked at him. “Yes?”
“Where did you get that?” the boy asked.
Kolariq flourished again, this time only flinging thick feathers from his arm plate. He muttered something about bad glue. “I made it, obviously,” he lifted the ebony helmet, which is how you discovered the beard was actually attached to it. “I need some sort of hobby while you crab shells muddle through your lessons.” he sat back on the bench, apparently to stare into the green fire. “Speaking of which, I need two of you to run into town. The far away one. Everyone who isn’t busy with breakfast.”
You sighed and glanced at Tulimaq. Grateful it wasn’t your free day in the rotation, grateful you were in charge of washing dishes.
“For what?” Blond-boy asked.
“Take some of these feathers,” Kolariq said. “And I have some shells and a needle bone I think is part of a fin.”
“Do we get out of dishes for the rest of the meals, since we’ll be gone the whole day?”
“Mmm, no. They can wait for you to get back.”
You rushed to the cabinet of plates as Blond-boy groaned. Tulimaq crouched next to you, hunting for bowls. “I’m just glad it’s not us,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” you whispered back, tippy-toeing, fingers brushing ceramic plates. “We already got kicked out once.”
“But I still hate doing dishes,” he replied.
You didn’t dare whisper back as Blond-boy marched past you out of the kitchen.
The master identifier and I make it up the hill, and he seats himself on one of the rocks, studying our surroundings. “Are we nearly to your camp?” he asks between breaths.
I hesitate. “You’re sitting on it,” I finally say. Decide this may not work, what with him tired from climbing a small hill. Unless…no, I need the skeleton cook to carry some of the things I bought.
He creakily gets to his feet. “Well,” is all he says, and I carefully remove rocks.
The green bag wrapped in my cloak is the first item I pull free, and I hold it close as I work my way around the heap of stones. I uncover the salt jars and soap packages, stuff them together in the mouth of the burlap food sack. I ignore the master identifier as I tug the mud-spattered egg free and set it gently in a patch of gray grass. I really ignore the ancient guy, shut my eyes on purpose, and focus on Skeleton Cook’s bones beneath the mound. They slither free through gaps between the stones, coalesce together on the mud in front of me, and the invisible strings holding the bones together pull snug. Go solid, like pulled taffy.
I push the egg into Skeleton Cook’s arms and throw the cloak around him, put the hood up, and start walking before the master identifier has time to ask. But he catches up easily, and I wonder if the heavy breathing was an act. I study him through the corner of my eye and wonder if he even needs the walking stick. I study him through the corner of my eye and wonder how old he is, really.
“Shared secrets,” he says, and I look forward again. The road is less muddy here than entering the city. Perhaps because the rain water seeped downhill. “I’ve never witnessed someone animate a skeleton before,” he says.
I don’t respond. I don’t think he wants to hear about the difference between animating and taffy pulling.