So, brain, the three of you made it out of the dimensional palace in the same number of pieces you came in. You and Aukai followed Bone-builder through the odd, glimmering fire, running across your skin like wind. And before you were out of the flames you all fell up the weird hole to the hall without any floor, which is where you gave Aukai the knife back. Quickly, before the cube-shaped walls made you too dizzy to move straight.
“Now what?” you asked, trying to remember the turns and circles you’d gone in to end up here.
“We can’t return without that book,” Bone-builder said, determined. You weren’t quite sure if you agreed with him. Leaving the palace sounded a whole lot safer than any more dizzying passages or yellow fires that might not be fake next time.
“I think we should leave,” Aukai said. You nodded in agreement. Until he continued, “and then try to follow the route again, see if we end up anywhere different.”
You sighed, but reluctantly agreed, and so did Bone-builder, and then you led the way back out, eyes closed, hands tracing the walls, reminding Bone-builder not to look either because he didn’t have another lunch to lose. It was while leading the way back out that you became positive you’d gone the right way the first time, but they still wanted to try again. Which is when you suggested they memorize the way to the burial chamber. Which is how you ended up by a windbent shrub with the backpack missing its map, eating half a seaweed biscuit, swatting blood sucking bugs that appeared out of nowhere in the evening twilight.
You finally decided to go search for them in the dimming light of the day. The palace was abandoned–clearly, nobody else wanted to live in a palace that made them nauseous either–so you assumed they’d gotten lost. But as you trekked back to the tiny square door in the palace wall, you discovered both of them lying on the ground. Their backsides were both probably covered in mud and dead moss.
“You were right,” Aukai said. “It was the same place.”
You crouched next to them, glancing at Bone-builder. “Is he asleep?”
“He passed out on the way back, so I dragged him. Then my arms were tired, so I was resting.”
“I don’t know. I just woke up when I heard you coming,” he grinned faintly.
You picked up a pebble and tossed it at his face. He raised a hand and awkwardly deflected it, grin flashing away. “I’m serious!” he protested.
“You mean I’ve been waiting for you this whole time and you were just asleep?”
He sat up, rubbing his hand. “It wasn’t that long. Dragging him through the hall took a long time.”
You sighed, and sat next to him. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“Well, I’m sorry too.”
You glanced over at Bone-builder, and then back at him. You had to tear yourself from his cyan eyes. “Do we try and search the rest of the palace? Or go back and tell Kolariq we couldn’t find it?”
“Search the palace,” Aukai immediately said.
You bit your lip, but nodded.
It was sometime in the middle of the night when the two of you returned, hands empty, realizing you had to carry Bone-builder’s still unconscious body back to your non-existent campsite.
The door guard leads us into the palace, and Rattle-bones and I share a look. Especially when the guard reaches for the rope system.
The door grinds shut, locking us in darkness. But the grinding continues from somewhere behind the guard. I have no clue what it is, even after it stops. “Right this way,” the guard says, footsteps scuffing the floor.
I follow, Rattle-bones’s tapping walking stick right behind me. The door guard’s footsteps are moving up, and I finally realize there are stairs. So apparently, all Rattle-bones and I had to do was shut the door and keep pulling the ropes. I bite back a frustrated sigh.
I ascend carefully, listening to the door guard and slowly lowering a foot to each stair before I place any weight on it. After thirteen, my foot doesn’t find another step and I cautiously walk forward onto flat ground.
More stone grinding makes me jump, but light begins to spill from a line in the wall. I glance backwards, where Rattle-bones stands, and watch the stairs hinge back up. I turn back to the door guard, steadily pulling ropes through his thin gloves.
“Grateful that’s not my job,” Rattle-bones says, walking towards the opening doorway. I don’t reply, because the door guard is done with the ropes and keeps staring between us.
“How about I just give you directions to the bird sanctuary?” he says, fidgeting with the sleeve of his uniform. “And instead, we go and get the royal avian egg you said you had? And then bring it here?”
Rattle-bones stops in the illuminated doorway. I can’t tell what’s beyond that, other than a wide window. “You’re right. That would probably be best. Just go ahead and lower those stairs again and let us down.”
The guard hesitates. “Okay, never mind. As you were.”
Rattle-bones continues walking, and I roll my eyes.
“Yutu!” A voice yells. “Who have you let in?”
The door guard sprints through the doorway, shoving me to the side. I stumble as Rattle-bones grunts and something clatters to the floor. I right myself and rush through the door, taking in the wide window, a short woman in a gray parka, and then Rattle-bones sprawled face-down on the salmon stone floor in front of her. The door guard is standing beside the wall like it is capable of holding him up, and the woman is staring at me.
“You are sorry, Yutu?” the woman says, gray eyes sharp under a coil of dark braids. I must have missed him saying that. “For what?”
“I’m sorry, um,” he says, pressing his back further against the wall. “I mean, I’m sorry for letting them into the palace.”
She finally looks away from me, and it feels like I’ve been freed in a way I didn’t know I was captive. I quietly kneel beside Rattle-bones, roll him over and bite my lip at the sight of a violet bruise forming on his forehead.
“You are not sorry you punched an elderly man in the back of the head?” the woman asks.
“Yes! Yes, of course I’m sorry for that too,” the door guard pulls his gloves off and starts to kneel on the ground. “Please don’t sentence me to death, queen. I am very sorry.”
“Hmm,” she says, clasping her hands behind her. The fringe of her parka sweeps the floor as she turns back at me. “And what of you? Why did he let you in?”
I don’t look up, to avoid being caught in that gaze of hers. I don’t think it’s magical. Just incredibly intimidating. “Well…” I stall. “We threatened him. After knocking him unconscious. Although might I add, queen-I’ve-never-met-before, it wasn’t terribly difficult.”
“Knocking him out?” she asks like it is trivial. Like asking if walking up the stairs was too hard.
“No. Threatening him. Well, I guess both. You really do need better guards.” I reach behind me for Rattle-bones’s walking staff, fingers shaking. It is not from fear, this shaking.
“You admit to knocking out my guard, threatening him, and accusing my palace guards of incompetency?” she asks. “You do realize you are talking to the queen, do you not?”
I place Rattle-bones’s walking stick next to his hand and stand up. I meet those eyes, wondering how long it takes sea kelp to wear down stone. “I don’t actually care what kind of power you have,” I say, heart like ice in my cloud body. “Because it is less than I have, queen.” I move my mouth in a curse and the door guard collapses on the ground, muscles weak. “I only came here because I’m trying to give something back,” I say flatly. She takes a step towards the guard. “I don’t actually care if you kill all your guards for incompetency. They’re still your guards, so that makes you responsible for this,” I point at Rattle-bones.
“I’m sorry for my guard, truly,” she pauses, staring at me unblinking. I hold that gaze of hers. “I think I like you,” she says suddenly. “What sort of magic is this?” She glances at the now unconscious door guard. Not enough blood pumping to keep him thinking. Still glaring, I draw the curse out of him, hardly notice as it dissipates.
“The death kind,” I say.