I can’t shake the sensation that someone’s eyes are staring into my back as Rattle-bones and I slowly make our way through the streets. I glance behind us several times, but the white stone buildings don’t even have windows.
The street we are on is some kind of pale stone, more yellow than the buildings, the borders lined with decorative carvings worn with time. The street continues in an unbroken line, directly towards the palace, and the walls of buildings on either side don’t seem to end. It’s as if we are in a walled tunnel rather than an open street.
“You act like you’ve never been here before,” Rattle-bones says, after I glance backward for at least the eighth time.
“I haven’t,” I reply, walk forward. Far ahead of us I’m pretty sure the road changes to a pale cyan shade. “I’ve only heard things, like how no one lives here and the streets are wide.”
Rattle-bones chuckles. “Yet you seem surprised.”
“I feel like someone’s watching us.” We walk in silence. Until I also add, “and why does the road change colors?”
Rattle-bones points to where the wall of buildings finally ends. “Streets are arranged like wheel spokes. They go straight to the middle and back out again. But there are also rings going in a circle, connecting all the wheel spokes.”
I blink, trying to picture it. And incidentally pretend all of the rings are the same hue as the cyan stone now beneath us.
“Why aren’t all cities arranged like that?” I ask Rattle-bones. He’s been around for over two centuries. “It seems like it would be much easier to get around when the streets aren’t winding mazes.” We pass the section of cyan stone, and the next distant ring seems to be made of something black and reflective.
“Know much about history?” he asks in return. Doesn’t wait for an answer. “Most cities aren’t born that way. Small groups come and settle a new place, make a village there. Sometimes it stays a village. Other times the village gets larger, people coming in for the resources, and then new houses, business, markets–you name it–get added on. Hard to make the whole thing neat and pretty when it’s so messy.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, then, how come this city is arranged like that? And how is this a city if nobody lives in it?”
Rattle-bones pauses in the middle of the wall-lined street. “Mages, Mage. You think tectonics made a flat-surfaced hill?”
I open my mouth to ask how powerful an ancient mage would have to be to build an entire city, but quickly shut it. One of them made the frost orchards. Surely they could also flatten a hill and arrange buildings and colored stone on top of it.
Surely, brain, you could not think about those things? Those things that make you shiver and clench up like you are literally trying to get out of your own skin?
Like the first morning you touched your face and wondered how long that stinkin hair had been–
That was somebody else. You’re safe now. Trust me, you are safe now. In aquamarine blood.
Less jagged: Aukai joked about growing a beard. This was after you finally managed to stop your own blood drops, but before Kolariq had you all keep track of blood circles in the water. This was one night when you slept on the hill above the cave, making up stories about dotted star people whenever there weren’t clouds in the way. There were a lot of clouds that night.
The thought of Aukai with a beard made you uncomfortable by extension, but you tried to brush it off. “If you had a beard, I couldn’t kiss you as well.”
His cheek, resting on your arm, moved, so you thought he was smiling in the darkness. “Okay,” he said simply. That made you smile back. “How about we both promise not to grow beards so we can kiss each other better?”
You squirmed, held back the shiver of trying to escape your body. “Done. Curse my heart, bleed me dry, I am never…doing that.”
He snorted. His hand, from the arm you were lying on, was running through your hair. “Did you just make that up?”
You recalled a different voice, in a different language, saying something like that. “I don’t think so?”
You both fell silent.
“I think my arm’s going numb,” you said.
“Mine went numb a long time ago,” he replied, even though his hand was still moving through your hair.
“Well, Cyan-eyes, why didn’t you say something?”
“Because I didn’t want to move.”
You tugged your arm free and scooted away, barely outside his reach. “There,” you said, lying on your back. “And look, I think I can see some different stars.”
Aukai sighed, and sat up. Concerned, you did too. “What?” you asked.
“I’m nervous,” he whispered.
Your mind immediately flew to the field trip Kolariq was making some of you go on tomorrow. “I thought we agreed we weren’t going to think about that tonight,” you said. And you’d been doing a pretty good job, until then.
“I know,” he replied. The ocean waves didn’t do quite enough to fill the silence.
“Want to go inside?” you asked. “It might be warmer.”
“Not really,” he said, silhouette turning to you. “I doubt I’ll be able to sleep anywhere.”
You shivered, partially from a breeze, partially because you knew Aukai was serious. “I’ll stay out here then.”
“Okay,” he leaned on your shoulder, and you awkwardly tried to hug him. “Thanks.”
“Do we knock?” I ask. Hold my hands together from shivering because Rattle-bones has a “plan.” I focus on the palace instead. It reminds me of a tree, but I don’t know why since it isn’t even made of wood. Nor is it shaped like the sparse trees I’ve seen before. It’s more like a pointy hat.
“How would I know?” Rattle-bones sounds offended.
“I’ve never been here before,” I remind him, staring at the towering door. It looks a whole lot like the road, or at least the white and black speckled stone part of the road, except the carvings here–spirals, triangles, jagged lines–are anything but worn.
“I’ve never been to the palace either,” he says. But a moment later he lifts his walking stick and raps loudly on the door. It dully echoes.
“I heard people only live below the palace,” I remark after the echoes fade.
He squints at me, tilting his head, and white hair slips down his shoulder. “Below the palace is where they bury the monarchs,” he says.
“Oh.” That’s ironic. “Didn’t the king die a little while ago?”
“Golly, I don’t know,” he faces the door again. “What’s the definition of a little while? I lost count after the third queen or emperor or some such went the mortal way.”
I hesitate, but ask, “do you know what the capital is currently called?”
He looks up at me. “I gave up after Lizra.”
The door grinds, and we both jump. “I guess they heard you,” I whisper.
“Who is it?” A voice nearly shouts through the hand-width gap.
Silence descends. “You ever heard the name Abayo?” Rattle-bones shouts back.
“No!” the voice answers.
“Well that’s a relief,” Rattle-bones shouts. “I haven’t either.”
I stare at him. This isn’t exactly working.
“What are you doing here, old fellow?” the voice asks.
“Knocking on the palace door, that’s what,” Rattle-bones moves like he’s going to pry the door open further, but a hand appears to stop him. I gape at how pale it is. Oh, right.
I speak, but no sound comes out. The words tumble over themselves in their haste to reach that pale hand, they dance and swirl up his arm until they reach the outline of his chest. Sinking below his skin like needles the words make him gasp. Rattle-bones glances back at me, since that is the only visible sign I’ve done anything. I manage a faint smile.
The door person, guard, whoever, collapses. I speak new words, pulling back the first ones, and they retract from his skin like fish torn from the water. I don’t let them dive under, and their flapping goes still and they dissipate like old fog.
I grimace, withdraw from the space in my mind where the language exists. “He’s knocked out,” I tell Rattle-bones. Since that was the “plan.” Vaguely. The plan was to get inside undetected. Rattle-bones shakily reaches for the door to push it open.
“What did you do?” he asks.
“Squeezed his lungs empty,” I say, waiting as Rattle-bones siddles through the dark opening sideways, grinding the door wider as he moves. A moment later the unconscious guard–I decide he’s probably a guard–slides away from me. I push myself through the gap after, finding it is slightly wider than it looked.
“Maybe this is unrelated,” Rattle-bones’s voice echoes from somewhere to my right, “but can you also see in the dark?”
“Not any better than a regular person,” I reply, eyes slowly adjusting. The narrow beam of light from the doorway reveals the guard Rattle-bones has propped against the wall, underneath some mechanism of lifting ropes that probably pulled the door open. I study it for a moment, but the thick ropes extend higher than the light can reveal.
“That might be an issue,” Rattle-bones says, walking stick tapping on the floor away from the guard.
I turn away from the wall, trying to peer down the hall. I think it is a hall. The light only reveals columns of dust hanging in the darkness. “Is the palace arranged the same way as the city? With the spoke streets?”
“How would I know?”
I sigh, peer left and right. It sure looks like the hall curves around the exterior of the palace. “Do you have any idea where they would keep a royal avian?” I ask.
“How would I know?” He repeats, walking stick thudding against a wall. “Golly, but this place echoes a bunch. Hardly a surprise why nobody lives here.”
I glance back at the unconscious guard. Remember that he won’t stay that way for very long. “Come on,” I motion to the hallway extending in front of us. “Hopefully he is the only one actually living here.”
Okay, brain, sneaking into a dark, abandoned palace is hardly your idea of a field trip. But in some odd twist of fate, you’ve done it more than once in your life. At least only the first time you were under the impression it was supposed to be a “field trip.”
Aukai was practically shaking with nerves the entire first day. Kolariq said the three of you wouldn’t see the city until your second day–which you reminded Aukai of several times–but he kept worrying you were all off course and wouldn’t realize it until the second day when there was no city in sight.
The third person on this four-day trip was the boy with one arm a skeleton. You never asked what happened before he showed up at the cave with Kolariq, but half his abdomen and one leg were dark with burn scars. His right arm was entirely missing. So you never understood why he obsessively built bonfires on the beach after dark, when the light could probably be seen days into the ocean.
He was the best skeleton builder. Which is why he was probably on this trip, despite being at least two years younger than you and Aukai.
He was the best skeleton builder because when he wasn’t by the fires he was building skeleton fragments–a torso with no limbs, a leg, a skull, a single toe. If you only had a few toe bones, you couldn’t even pull their taffy strings tight. If you had a whole skeleton only missing a leg, it would jangle and clank like a bucket of rocks.
Bone-builder didn’t speak to either of you the entire first day. Which you were fine with; it was windy and the backpack was heavy and Aukai kept looking at the sun like it would tell if you were off course or not.
You set up camp nearly by yourself, because Bone-builder was busy making a fire. Eventually, with the tent set up in the shelter of a flat boulder, you reminded him that all you had to eat were dry seaweed biscuits and salted fish.
“I know,” he said, sitting back on his heels. He’d constructed a towering pyramid of small sticks, dry mosses, and tuktu dung. “We don’t have a way to light it anyway.”
You sighed in relief. You opened the paper wrapped package of salted fish and passed it to Aukai who kept flinching whenever the wind howled. And you took three seaweed biscuits for yourself. Then you pulled the map from the backpack’s front pocket, trying to study it in the fading twilight.
Rattle-bones hates the echoes. He’s muttered about it four times. I don’t reply; I’m too busy trying to listen to the echoes. It sounds like the tunnel–I gave up on hallway a long time ago–ends close up ahead. I blink, I think, even though it’s nearly pitch dark and I gave up trying to sort out if my eyes were actually open or not when the door’s light disappeared into a dim speck.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a wall,” I tell Rattle-bones, who’s a few steps in front of me.
Something thuds loudly and I wince. “I found it,” he says.
I strain, trying to tell if the tunnel ends here or if it branches to either side. I snap my fingers, and the sound doesn’t come back to me. “Let’s go this way,” I announce, pretty sure I’m facing right if the tunnel was a straight line.
“Which way?” Rattle-bones asks.
“Follow me,” I say, hand finding a wall. I remove it quickly; the walls are covered in something slimy. And my hand suddenly smells faintly of swamp mud.
Rattle-bones’s walking stick starts tapping on the ground toward me, and I occasionally snap my fingers to listen for where the sound ends. “I’m pretty sure the tunnel curves.” So the palace is set up vaguely like the city outside, except no other tunnels crossed the straight one we just went through.
“I think we should leave,” Rattle-bones announces. “Nobody is here.”
I pause in the middle of the tunnel, and stop snapping my fingers. They’re getting kind of sore anyway. “Except that door guard was here for a reason.”
“Maybe, then, we should go ask the door guard what he was doing here,” Rattle-bones suggests.
I sigh, but figure he is probably right. We could realistically wander around in here for most of the day, and while I’m certain I know how to get back right now, that might change the further we go. “Okay,” I say. Rattle-bones’s walking stick starts tapping back the other way.