“I am actually the queen’s friend,” the woman in the parka says. “Though nobody can tell the difference.”
We are standing outside, in the shade of the palace that extends to a pale gray street. “So you pretend to be her?” I ask.
“She needs all the help she can get.”
I turn back to Rattle-bones instead of thinking about that. He is propped next to the wall. He’s awake, but hardly aware, given the fact that he’s been staring at the walking stick on the ground since his eyes opened.
“I’m sorry about Yutu,” the queen’s friend says again.
“You’ve said that already,” I say again.
“We have to put on a face,” she says. “It’s hard to know who we can trust.”
I turn back to her. “You saying that to me makes me wonder what you want.”
She levels her piercing, mountain-sized gaze at me. “She needs all the help she can get, my friend.”
I change the topic, glance at the cloudless sky. “So what were you doing near the exit?”
She turns back to the horizon, folding her arms in front of her. “The queen enjoys an afternoon stroll every day, to tour the city and welcome any visitors,” she pauses. “We haven’t had many visitors since the funeral.”
My head slowly swivels towards her. “What funeral?”
She’s visibly surprised by this. “The queen’s husband passed. Almost right after the equinox. All the festival goers returned to the city hardly a few nights later.”
“Hum,” I say.
Her already raised eyebrows shoot up further, eyes like round stones. “Death mage!” she exclaims.
“What of it?” Rattle-bones’s voice is raspy. We both spin to face him.
The queen’s friend haltingly elaborates. “She–she is a death mage, is she not? She could…visit the queen’s husband down below and discover what truly happened!”
Rattle-bones studies me quizzically. “I wasn’t made aware that dead bodies could talk.”
“They can’t,” I say, and the woman’s face falls. “But flames can.”
Steady, heart, the worst Kolariq’s rage can do is…well, heart, be steady because steadiness will keep your little boat afloat longer in this storm than stumbling about will do.
Your eyes flicked to the door to the skeleton room, because it creaked, and somebody’s hand darted out to pull it back. It creaked again.
Kolariq didn’t notice. Kolariq was seated in the deep red chair, half his face lit by flickering flames from candles on the table, half his face shrouded in dark face paint. He was dressed as one of the performers from far north, half black, half brown, the divide running from his forehead to his feet.
“No midday meals for six days,” he calmly says. “No beds for twice that.” He rises, slowly from the chair. “And get out of my cave!” his voice echoes on the stone walls, and the door creaks again. Footsteps patter away. Kolariq paces on silent feet toward the door, swiftly yanking it open and disappearing into the skeleton lab.
Bone-builder finally unflinched. You let the flint fall from your face. “Let’s go,” Aukai muttered. “Before we hear Kolariq–”
Kolariq’s yelling interrupted him. Aukai sighed; wordlessly leading you from the sitting room, where the stone floor gradually gave way to beach. You kicked a mollusk shell, or tried to, really only disturbing light sand.
“At least he didn’t yell that much, right?” Bone-builder said. Aukai just sighed, pushing aside tangles of hanging creepers. It was night, barely, which meant Kolariq had been yelling at you for a quarter of the day. Or, silently glaring, quietly threatening, and not yelling that much. At least he’d let you eat first. Even though he’d also taken the backpack away, which meant you were all sleeping without a tent.
Wind howled in the mouth of the cave, and Aukai paused, hand holding dark creepers above his head. “We have to sleep outside for a week and a half?” he asked.
“Well, technically,” Bone-builder replied, “he only said no beds.”
Aukai snorted. “We all know that really means outside.” he walked through the rest of the hanging creepers, shivering slightly.
Sometimes your memories, brain, are more somebody else’s than yours. Like that night, curled behind the largest rock you could find, when Bone-builder asked Aukai why he was so afraid of the wind. You rolled over to gaze at him, but it was too dark to see anything of his eyes.
“I’m not afraid of the wind,” Aukai said. “It’s the sound it makes.”
Bone-builder rustled in the moss behind him. “The sound it makes?”
“It sounds like amaroit howling.”
In a flash you recalled him saying years before that he used to feel more safe at sea because his parents died on land. You resisted the urge to sit up, since the rock you hid behind wasn’t that tall. “How…did your parents die?” you ask quietly.
“In a forest. The people of the city wouldn’t let sailors rent rooms at the inns. So we slept in the forest. And the amaroq pack attacked us before night even fell.”
Bone-builder guffawed. “My parents died in an explosion. In the island war. We got bombed by the Southerner’s navy, basically wiped the entire village out,” he snorted. “All my parents were was papaya farmers, but they thought the island was a secret outpost for the Raiyli forces. Which, it wasn’t.”
You blinked. You didn’t even remember your parents. Not really. Just fuzzy images of a round face from different angles, antiseptic scented herbs rubbed on a bleeding knee, pestle and mortar grinding up emmer grain, dust billowing in the sunlight from a window, a towering, snow-capped mountain.
“What about you?” Bone-builder asked you.
“I hardly remember my parents,” you muttered. Hesitated, then added, “I killed a girl though. That’s how Kolariq found me.”
“I’m gonna build a fire,” Bone-builder said, moving around. “Down on the beach.”
“Somebody might see us down there,” Aukai warned him.
“So?” Bone-builder said. “Kolariq already punished us. What more is he going to do?”
“We could end up sleeping outside for three weeks,” you muttered.
Yet you all ended up sitting on coarse sand anyway, halfway sheltered from the wind by the shallow, curling cliff face. Bone-builder had collected dry lichens and mosses on the walk down, somehow, even though you had barely been able to see Aukai’s outline clambering over the rocks.
Bone-builder’s usual fire circle was too close to the cave, so you and Aukai helped him gather jagged stones to arrange them in a rough circle away from the entrance. You weren’t quite sure what the circle was protecting fire from, since there was just sand, but he insisted on it.
“Do you have any way to light it?” you asked over the rustling of dried moss.
“I have the flint from the other fire circle,” Bone-builder said. Sparks flashed in front of you.
You and Aukai huddled together, mostly because of the biting chill, but you couldn’t help inhaling the scent of him. Like ocean waves, crushed leaves, the sharp stone of the caves.
“I didn’t feel like an extra until now,” Bone-builder interrupted.
You opened your eyes and realized the scraping sparking had stopped.
“We’re cold,” you muttered, feeling your voice buzz down Aukai’s shoulder.
“And I’m the one making the fire,” Bone-builder said. Scraping a metallic rock against the flint and the moss burst into flame.
It burned, bright, and you had to look away as your eyes ached. Bone-builder tossed a chunk of wood onto it–also from the other fire circle, from a pile of dried driftwood–throwing up stray embers.
You each silently stared into the softening, orange flames.
“So how do you do it?” Aukai asked quietly. “See people?”
Bone-builder blinked, moving an arm from his hugged knees to rub his face. “I…let myself wander. The colors sort of separate into silhouettes.”
You stared at the fire, but couldn’t let your thoughts wander. It was too cold, the sand was itching your foot, Aukai’s breathing was lulling you to sleep. “Can you hear them too?” you asked.
“Sometimes,” he answered softly.
The queen’s friend insists we both visit the former-king’s coffin. She leads us into the palace–we are on the opposite side we entered–and pulls the ropes herself to grind the door shut. “So how do we get down?” I ask.
“Come with me,” she says, parka brushing the ground as her pace quickly moves away. Rattle-bones and I follow, curving through the tunnel.
“How do you stand living here?” Rattle-bones mutters. “Pulleys to open the doors every time you want to go outside, walking through dark, slimy tunnels every time you want to go outside, palace guards you obviously don’t trust…” he trails off.
“It’s better than nothing,” the queen’s friend says. Her footsteps stop. “It’s down this way.”
In my head, I think we’ve walked a third or a fourth of the way around the circular tunnel ringing the palance. So maybe the palace is similar to the city outside.
“Why don’t we use a light?” Rattle-bones asks.
“Because the walls glow,” the queen’s friend resumes walking, to the right, footsteps echoing much more loudly. “And complete darkness is much preferable to blinding light.”
“Why doesn’t the palace outside glow too?” I ask as the tunnel descends down sharply.
“I suppose technically it’s the slime that glows,” she says, a few steps ahead of us in the narrow tunnel. “But the stone on the main level exudes it constantly. We have no idea where it comes from.”
“Hmm,” Rattle-bones says, the tapping from his walking stick going silent.
“Alright,” the queen’s friend stops. “We’re deep enough now.” something creaks, and a faint blue glow comes from the wall.
Rattle-bones gasps. “Glimmer insects?”
I turn to stare at him. “What?”
The queen’s friend explains as she pulls out a glass jar holding blue light specks from a compartment in the wall. “They live naturally in the deepest catacombs, but we have insect keepers who feed them, build up colonies, and gather them into these jars.” She carefully hands one to me, and I instantly don’t like the sensation of buzzing bugs in my palm. “They’re a safer light source than open flame.”
“I thought they were a relic of the past,” Rattle-bones says. “I’ve heard stories of them, but never met anyone who actually saw one.” he holds his glowing jar up to one eyeball. I shudder, hold my jar as far from myself as possible. That makes it harder to see where my feet are, but I don’t care.
“The queen’s husband is buried near the back,” the queen’s friend says, and we resume walking. The tunnel widens, and the blue light barely illuminates sarcophagi and tombstones and plastered-over compartments crumbling to either side.
I inhale, surprised it isn’t musty. And there are so many bones. Kolariq would have killed to come here. I shiver, from the sheer knowledge that I could raise an army here. I haven’t been to a graveyard in awhile. Particularly one that has never been robbed.
“Does it have to be near the back?” Rattle-bones mutters.
“Well, of course,” the queen’s friend says. What I can see of her parka and head shudders briefly. “We extend the tunnel deeper, so the more deaths the longer it grows.”
“Why don’t you just toss the bodies into the sea?” Rattle-bones asks, voice shaking.
“You know the scariest thing that could happen down here is me?” I interrupt.
Rattle-bones’s pale blue face frowns. “Something’s not quite right with you if you’re not afraid of the dark.”
I laugh, and it echoes. Just because, I let the nearest bones shudder in their resting places. The jangling, clanging chorus echoes too, but not like laughter.
The queen’s friend turns around, and I can’t tell if it’s the light or something else that’s giving her skin an ashen tone. “Please never do that again,” she says shakily, and I determine it’s not the light.
“Are we there?” I ask, to change the subject. I am reminded again why death mages aren’t liked by most people. We’re not afraid of the dark.
“Nearly,” she says. Turns back around and continues walking.
“Now that I’m scared out of my wits,” Rattle-bones asks, walking staff clacking on the blue-tinged stone. “Can we discuss the glimmer insects again?”
I wish we hadn’t come down here.