Rattle-bones sleeps downstairs, on the couch, completing a triangle between him, the magenta egg, and the sea cat. I sit on the bottom stair, unable to sleep, even though it has been dark long enough that the water droplets on the kitchen floor are freezing. I try to count water droplets instead of watching Rattle-bones sleep.
I pace through the dining room to the front door, step carefully on the creaking floor, pause, stare into the kitchen and exhale into the silence. I know I’ve been avoiding it. Rattle-bones has me thinking too much. About bones.
Skeleton Cook watches me with worried eyes from his seat on the counter as I quietly tug the fake fridge open. As it swings, faint starlight through the window glints off the mineral surface. I shut my eyes and step into the mouth of the cave blindly; I don’t need starlight to remind me. My fingers trace the shelf where the backpack used to sit. I haven’t removed it from the cave’s belly; we’re just leaving again tomorrow.
The way through the cave’s throat is uneven under my feet, a sign that no ice has melted and dripped and refrozen in a slippery pond. The space beyond my fingers abruptly widens, and I am in the cave’s chest. I open my eyes to stare at the table. The clear one, with somebody’s bones beneath it. I could never make myself chisel opaque wounds in the table’s skin to cover the skeleton. I couldn’t.
I stare at the bones, buried under the ice block I call a table. I pretend that I could lie belly down on the floor and reach a hand out to touch them through clear ice.
Instead I sit on the table, stare at my hands beside my legs, trace the quivering cold against my thighs. But pale bones gleam beneath me, so I lie on my back on the hard surface. Stare at the dark, ice ceiling.
Brain, I am so sorry. Really. There just aren’t enough words.
Instead, a memory: him, you, standing in the water at the beach, Kolariq dressed in blue wraps brighter than the ocean’s horizon. None of the other boys were there. The older ones were gone on a field trip, the younger ones were inside busy at a table of dead fish. You were glad Kolariq brought you out to the beach, because you’d both had enough of dead fish.
Your palm stung, from the knife. Aquamarine blood welled in the cut. Aukai had the beginnings of red blood–something that amazed you–dripping from his hand. He grimaced, carelessly tossed the knife to shore. It landed sideways, just beyond the reach of the waves.
“Now what?” Aukai called.
“Let it drip,” Kolariq said back. “And hold it steady above the water.”
Aukai turned to you, cyan-eyes glittering. He grimaced again, but tilted his hand so the blood dripped. You did the same, and three heavy droplets plummeted to the water. You tried to stop them, with your powers, but it felt like trying to talk out of your nose. Or see out of your ears. It was nothing like holding a skeleton together. It was nothing like the language of killing magic.
“I said, hold it steady above the water,” Kolariq called to you.
Aukai nearly snarled. Which nearly made you want to punch him. Or Kolariq. Or both. You’d both had more than enough of dead fish, the odor clinging to your nose by stone walls and an unyielding instructor.
You tried focusing on the blood on your hand, instead of the blood already falling. There was some glimmering sense of binding, between you and it, but that had always been there. It was your blood, after all. So you tried to bind it tighter. All that did was send a searing pain up your forearm, like stabbing scales. You instantly let the binding go as you yelped.
“I said, hold it steady above the water,” Kolariq repeated, again. “Not suck it back to your heart!”
Aukai glanced at you with concern. “What’d you do?”
“I tried to…bind it to me? It hurt.” You tilted your hand again so welling blood dripped into the calm water. And you tried focusing on the blood actually falling, instead of the blood on your hand.
“This is impossible,” Aukai muttered, eyebrows furrowed as he stared at the space between his hand and the ocean halfway up his thighs. “I can’t do anything to it fast enough.” Emphasized by a red droplet speeding into the water.
You were distracted by Kolariq leaving. You turned to watch him disappear into the cave, blue tunic fading in shadow.
“Is he even trying to teach us?” Aukai asked.
You shrugged. “Sure, probably,” you paused dramatically. “If teaching means leaving us to stand in the freezing cold water all morning.”
He glowered, cyan-eyes like a stormy sky.
“Well, it’s true,” you added.
His other hand skimmed along the water. “I suppose if we have all morning, no one will notice…?” He touched your bleeding hand with his own.
You laughed. “We definitely have all morning.”
It was only a few breaths into your first kiss when you both stepped back, blinking, his heartbeat louder in your ears. “Wait,” you said, staring just beneath your held hands. The bleeding ones.
Aukai laughed. You were too dumbfounded to. The moment you let go of each other both the red and aquamarine droplets plummeted into the water.
I crawl into bed sometime in the middle of the night. My cheeks are stained. But this time, I think they are good stains. Reminding me of some good things I’ve spilled, freeing them of their bottles.
All I know of the capital of the Uqik-speaking people is that it is a big town, but nobody lives there. It is a big town because the streets are wider than the palace. Nobody lives in the palace. But people do live beneath it.
We walk four days, or three and a half, two in the frost orchards, two eating rations Rattle-bones packed in his double coat’s numerous pockets, three with Skeleton Cook carrying Rattle-bones like a baby in his arms. Rattle-bones walks one day. We talk every day, but most times it is to say “meal break,” or “this is a good spot to camp,” or “time to get up.”
Rattle-bones is an enigma. The first day, he complains about bruises on his feet, aching knees, pin-pricks up his spine. The second day, he walks by himself. The third day, the pin-pricks are in his feet. The fourth, the bruises are in his walking-staff hand.
He tries to pluck me apart like I am the enigma. I do not know what there is to pick apart. I’m just trying to return a royal avian egg before I end up raising it like my own and get caught because I own a gigantic, flying beast.
The capital is called Iqavu, after the current ruling family. I’m pretty sure. I haven’t much cared about the ruling family ever. But conversations flutter about the city when I’m there, and my ears don’t know how to stop listening. Last I remember, the king’s funeral was happening. I never heard how he died though.
The capital rests on a hill, and if we came here days earlier, the sheer slopes would be running waterfalls of melting ice. Now, they are just muddy with patches of dull green.
Rattle-bones pushes himself out of Skeleton Cook’s arms. “You going to leave this piece behind?” he motions to Skeleton Cook.
“Yes. I’m just not sure where yet.”
Rattle-bones taps the dirt with his walking stick. “There’s plenty of ground. Why don’t you bury it?”
I eye him. “Are you offering to dig the hole?” I don’t wait for an answer. I’ve already spotted a pile of rocks behind him, covered with loose moss and lichen. “Let’s go over there,” I motion with my head, on account of the egg in my arms.
Rattle-bones turns around. He starts humming, stepping from the beaten trail and using his walking stick. Skeleton Cook and I follow, and I halfway worry that we’ve forgotten something. Skeleton Cook isn’t even carrying anything, except the cloak tucked between the collarbones and shoulder blades and knotted at the ribs.
The ground is squishy, with dwindling patches of snow and ice. So far though, the ground has completely refrozen each night. Which won’t happen anymore soon, especially since the nights will stop happening. I squint at the sky, wonder how far north we have to go for the sun to set at the solstice.
Clattering stones interrupt me. I turn sharply to Rattle-bones, who has seated himself on the rock pile. He keeps humming, staring at something next to his boot.
“This is where I was going to put the skeleton,” I remind him.
He doesn’t look up. “I know. But I believe your skeleton can wait. I’ve never seen a blackspine that’s violet before.”
I bite back a retort. I’m pretty sure a blackspine is not more important than getting Skeleton Cook hidden. But to humor him, I ask, “What’s a blackspine?”
“Insect,” he says immediately. “In their larval form, they look like chubby worms with stubs for legs. Eat mosses, or at least all the ones I’ve seen do. Then they pupate, and turn into buzzing, winged things that like to sting you,” he finally looks up. “Found that out when I brought a nest of them home and ended up with a swarm on my hands. Stung my fingers and for the next eight days my skin swelled up and oozed black liquid. That’s where the name comes from.”
I regret humoring him.
“I wonder if a violet larvae would still make you ooze black liquid if it stung you?” he mutters, then resumes humming.
I sigh. “Can I please hide this skeleton before somebody from the city sees?” I glance up the steep hill to the town, where I count the top halves of six buildings. Of course, other than the three of us, it is dead silent. So maybe what I heard is true and nobody even lives there to see us.
Rattle-bones rises to his feet. “Of course, my lady,” he says. “Just watch out for the violet blackspine.”
I glare at him. But Skeleton Cook and I both start pushing rocks out of the way.
So, funny story brain. You remember when the older boys came back from their field trip, from the north? They didn’t actually say they went to Iqavu like Kolariq let you assume, and you heard too many mentions of boats for it to be coincidence, so after that you always just believed they became sailors for half a season.
But when they got back, Kolariq forced them to bathe in the wind-tossed ocean and chop their hair, which took almost all that morning, except just before mealtime he brought all of you to the beach. “Today, students, we’re going to practice together.”
Your eyes immediately flicked to the two new boys at your side, who’d been around for only a couple of days. At least one of them definitely didn’t speak Uqik yet.
“We’re going to learn how to control blood,” he produced a knife from the sleeve of his red tunic.
“Well, this isn’t exactly new,” you whispered to Aukai. Your hand was barely scabbing over.
Kolariq handed the knife to the first boy in line, “Get in the water. Don’t let your blood drip into it.”
The boy with the knife nodded and trotted to the lapping waves. The ragged line on the beach slowly followed suit, muttering and grumbling until Kolariq exclaimed, “Mealtime doesn’t happen until you’re finished!” and then the line split into individual boys running for the water. You glanced back, at the two new boys, who were following but were clearly trying to pretend they didn’t have lost looks in their eyes.
You tugged Aukai’s wrist before he could step into the waves. “I think we should help them,” you pointed at the new boys.
The knife was already making its way down the shore, passing from person to person, but the two of you were near the end. Aukai sighed. “They’re both from way over in the west. I don’t speak that. Neither do you.”
“Well, we can demonstrate for them,” you said back. You hadn’t known they were both from around the same place.
“Fine,” he said, and tugged you towards the waves.
You smiled at the new boys and waved, even though the ice water made you want to clench your teeth and wince. Both boys had curly dark hair, nearly navy blue in its sheen, but the taller one, with green eyes, glared at you.
“Okay…” you muttered, wading up to your knees, and turned to Aukai. Who handed you the knife. You swiped it across your palm, below the other cut. It immediately welled with blood and piercing pain. Then you offered it to the shorter boy, with the dark eyes like opals. He bit his red lip, but took it.
You looked back at Aukai, who was also watching the boys. Red blood was slowly pooling in his hand. “I don’t think that one likes you,” he muttered.
“Really?” You exclaimed, feigning surprise, distracted by someone up the line shrieking and splashing loudly. Kolariq told him bath time was long over, and a few people giggled.
Aukai stepped past you. “Here,” he said, and he offered a hand to the taller boy, who was still holding the knife.
His green eyes glared like some toxic, spiky plant, but he handed the knife over. Aukai met your gaze as he returned to your side, tucking the knife in the sash at his waist. Then apparently he reconsidered and threw it to the dry beach. “I guess he doesn’t like you either,” you whispered.
He smiled, and tipped his hand toward the water. You tilted yours too, watching aquamarine drops fall. You reached out in that way that wasn’t talking or seeing, more like motioning with your fingers and toes and body, and froze your motions in place. Which wasn’t that hard, because you couldn’t really move like that yet anyway.
The aquamarine drop didn’t stop. It plipped into the gray water, disappearing. “What?” you stared at it, certain you’d done it right.
“Um…” Aukai said, and you glanced at him. He pointed, and you stared at the red drop of blood, suspended in the air a finger-width from his palm. “That wasn’t me.”
“Well, why did you tip your hand over if you weren’t trying to stop the blood?” you asked, more annoyed than you should have been.
He glared for a fraction of a moment, but then pointed across you. “I was watching them. I don’t think they know what to do.”
You took a breath and tried to let your instant anger go. “Sorry. I just…I don’t get it.”
His eyes focused on your dripping hand, and a drop of your blood came to a halt. A larger wave passed between both of you, drowning both droplets. “Apparently,” he said, gazing at you. “We’re only doing this to each other’s blood.”
You sighed, dunking your cut hand in the water. You turned to the new boys, who looked away like they’d been caught staring. You sighed, figuring you should probably demonstrate better what they were supposed to try and do. Not that you or Aukai could apparently actually do it.
There’s a road into the city, according to Rattle-bones, but it takes until after noon to locate it. Probably because it’s completely buried in mud. I’m not even sure if we should take it, except that it cuts diagonally through the hill, making the walk less steep.
“Quite the predicament,” Rattle-bones says, staring up the road.
“Well,” I say, hands on hips. We decided to leave the egg hidden with the skeleton cook, until we could determine a safe way to return it. As empty as the capital seems, we don’t want to parade through the exposed streets with a royal avian egg we aren’t supposed to have.
“I’m taking the hill,” Rattle-bones starts walking away, boots sucking in the mud.
My eyebrows raise in surprise. I guess that decides that. I trudge after him, boots squelching.
The hill is also muddy, but Rattle-bones is making a path stepping on mossy patches and the largest rocks. It gets easier as we climb, but we’re both panting heavily by the time we reach the summit. I am disappointed to find that the mud continues to the buildings, even though the way is even. The entire city seems to be built on a perfectly flat plane, resting on the top of a sliced-off hill. A very muddy sliced-up hill.
“I guess that’s one way to defend your city,” Rattle-bones huffs, gripping the walking stick that’s across his shoulders with both hands.
I squint at him oddly, peeling my gaze away from the buildings. “Defend it from what?”
He squints oddly back at me. “Everyone.” And he starts trekking across the mud, not using his walking stick.
“Everyone?” I mumble. And follow, even though I am still breathing heavily.