We stop, and the end of the tunnel is a mess of scraped stone and chipped fragments. I wonder if they ever stop making the tunnel longer.
“He’s right here,” the queen’s friend says, pointing to the left wall.
“Kind of figured,” Rattle-bones tells her. “Since the other side is a carving of a queen.”
“Well,” she graciously responds, “part of being a tour guide is pointing out everything, including the obvious.”
They both turn to me, obviously expectant. I sigh, but make a show of approaching the stone coffin and place a hand on it. It’s perfectly smooth. The body it holds is bloated, I think, because I can feel the places where blood is and it’s not a normal body shape. Did they do anything to prepare it for burial? Or just plop the dead body in some box and leave it? I’m mildly surprised the tunnel only smells dusty.
I step back. “We’re going outside to make a fire, right?”
“That’s it?” the queen’s friend asks. “Do you feel any…connection? Can you determine anything from the body?”
I start walking back up the tunnel. “Not really. He’s dead.”
“Well of course…” she mutters. The two glimmering halos of light in my peripheral vision start following me.
We build a fire, on the gray street, out of tuktu dung. We sit close to the warmth, the three of us, Rattle-bones by the pile of dried dung taken from the palace. I wonder if he’s ever been anywhere in his two hundred something years of life where they regularly make fires out of wood.
“So how does this work?” the queen’s friend asks, kneeling beside me.
“Like magic,” I say. Rattle-bones snorts. I glare at him over the flames, but expound. “The colors in the fire separate, into people that used to be alive. Sometimes they talk, but usually they just stand there, or walk, or pretend like they don’t know you’re watching.”
Ooh,” the queen’s friend scoots closer to the ring of rocks. “You don’t think it would work with, say, me?”
I stare dubiously. “Is there somebody you want to see?”
She bites her lip. “Not particularly.” she glances at me out of the corner of her eye. “I mean no offense, but raising skeletons isn’t something I would look forward to if I were a death mage.”
I raise both eyebrows at her. Try to meet Rattle-bones’s gaze, except he is pretending to study the tuktu dung. Or, maybe he’s not pretending. “Skeletons aren’t the worst of it,” I say instead, turn my attention to the flames before they begin fading.
So, brain, you’ve done this twice: once on a beach on the twelfth day you had to sleep there, once after Aukai. Neither time you saw what you wanted. Well, the first time you weren’t sure what you wanted.
So you got the girl, screaming, bleeding out in front of you, even though that’s not the way it happened. It really happened with her skin going pale, and then sort of blue, and then she passed out in front of you. You had the faintest inkling of an idea it was because of something you did, but you still ran for help. You ran away from that fire, screaming, heart pounding murderer, murderer, but neither Bone-builder or Aukai laughed at you because that’s what happened to Aukai with the last fire and Bone-builder did it in his sleep twice.
The second time you saw…well, there was a ship. A ship offshore. You couldn’t sort through all the sailors in flashing blue and violet before the flames died. Of course, you could’ve used more fuel. That was too hard, for some reason.
So, brain, this is how the third time goes. Me, terrified of who I might see, who might be screaming and bleeding out in front of me, even though that’s not the way it happened. Me, terrified of bones that no longer exist. Me, still terrified of Kolariq and Bone-builder and blond-boy and the new boys who never grew to like you.
There is a king there, one screaming murder, murder, and his flames flicker cold red like the sun as he kneels to the ground, knife at his heart. My eyes are tearing up as the king disappears mid-murder and somehow I know this is how it happened, but then the fire sparks magenta and of course there is Kolariq.
“You’ve changed, boy, haven’t you?” he asks. He is dressed like the king, feather hood, beaded necklaces, only he is standing as the poison dilutes his blood. “You’ve changed but you can’t hide what you are from me, boy.”
This is why I never built a fire. I guess I thought Rattle-bones, the queen’s friend, sitting at the corner of my blurred vision, would make this easier.
No. These bones want to rise, kick at the magenta silhouettes, shout that Kolariq never knew, never cared, but Bone-builder is there too and his eyes are so large and round and his mouth is asking “why? What did I ever do to you?” and I stop myself from mouthing back, “you showed me how to look for what could’ve been” because these fire silhouettes are not what could’ve been, and I don’t look away because I want to know if Aukai is there, but the fire is only ever magenta, and there’s a snarling Kolariq and a pleading Bone-builder and more of the boys, dancing and falling and asking “Why? What did we ever do?”
“Do you see anything?” the queen’s friend whispers, yanking me back to the three of us, sitting around the orange fire, a single column of smoke floating up.
I shut my eyes, inhale choppily. “I think we should hear how the king died.”
We let the fire die down to glowing embers as the queen’s friend speaks. I try not to look shaken whenever Rattle-bones glances at me. I try to listen to the queen’s friend.
“The queen’s husband left the city to greet the sailors returning from the north. It’s a tradition; the king returns with the merchants at the finale of the equinox celebration, ushering in the seasons of plenty after the winter. It’s a large parade through the entire city, circling towards the palace where he meets the queen.” She pauses. “I wasn’t there, that day. I was circling the streets on my own, watching the festival goers.”
“But you know what happened,” I say bluntly.
“According to the queen, the person dressed in the king’s festival clothing was not someone she recognized at first. She knew him later though, when we brought him to the throne room for questioning. He was the captain of the merchant fleet.”
“Sounds fishy to me,” Rattle-bones says.
I glare at him.
“The captain said the king’s servants betrayed the king,” the queen’s friend continues. “Stabbed him as the merchants were entering the harbor. The captain said he didn’t realize why people were fleeing into the forest until the merchants left the boats and found the king stabbed to the heart, and put the story together.”
“Sounds really fishy to me,” Rattle-bones mutters, fist under his chin. “These servants had the whole journey from the city, and only decided to do it when there were ships in sight?”
“The queen and I knew those servants,” the queen’s friend says, hands balled into fists. “They would not have killed the king. They were friends with each other.”
“Well, this fleet captain was telling the truth about one thing,” I mutter. They both whip towards me. “The fire showed the king was murdered by being stabbed in the heart.”
The queen’s friend doesn’t let us back inside the palace. She says it is late enough the palace guards will be wondering where the queen is. I suppose that is true, but staring at the fire ashes I wonder if Rattle-bones and I are expected to hide the evidence of our afternoon.
But we merely watch as the gray stone door grinds shut, locking us out.
“We never found out where to put the avian egg,” Rattle-bones tells me.
I decide to leave the ashes here; if nothing else, the queen’s friend can tell the palace guards the truth: she sat around a fire with the visitors to the city.
“I’m not sure sneaking in and putting the egg back is even an option anymore,” I say, rising to my feet. Wish it were, because depositing the egg, leaving this city, and returning to the house sounds much nicer than hunting for evidence against a queen’s husband’s murderer.
As we start circling the palace, walking along pale green stone under long shadows, Rattle-bones mutters, “I’m not sure leaving the city’s vicinity is an option anymore.”
We head back down the first street, the faintly yellow one, and I’m more unnerved by the white buildings than I was before. Maybe because I can now picture a festival procession, a liar in the king’s guise, streets thrumming with drums and dancers, but I can’t reconcile the picture in my head with the muddy street and the silent air. Even Rattle-bones’s walking stick sounds muted.
We take the muddy road cutting through the hill, return to the rock pile where the skeleton cook is hidden. And, the muddy egg. It looks less like a rock and more like a mushroom cap, nestled as it is. I suppose it’s a good thing the city’s vicinity is vacant.
Rattle-bones sighs dramatically as he sits in front of the egg. “I could use a nap, after that,” he says to the sky.
I go to the other side of the rock pile and dig, because the cloak is buried too. I don’t know where we’re going to sleep. Because other than rocks and mud, the ground is barren.
Something crunches loudly on Rattle-bones’s side, and I look up. I can’t see past the peak that is the muddy egg. It crunches again. “What was that?” I ask him.
There’s a pause. “I’m hungry.”
“Oh,” I say, resume digging for the cloak.
“What did you think it was?” Rattle-bones’s voice asks.
I pause. I wasn’t sure. “Something was crunching,” is all I say. I tug at the cloak’s corner to see if it will come free easily. It doesn’t.
“Did you really belong to a sewing club?” Rattle-bones asks.
I stand up, deciding the cloak can wait. “No.”
“How old are you?”
This question catches me off guard.
“Twenty-one,” I say, and it’s like the sound is coming from someone else’s lips. “At least, pretty sure.”
Rattle-bones turns around in the reclining chair the rocks have formed into. He is unblinking, eyes like ancient wood. There is some kind of fire, there. “I could never decide if you were fifteen or forty three. Sometimes, in the sunlight, your face reminds me of a child. And then your eyes get that haunted look and I think I must be getting too old to tell when childhood ends.”
“R…” I stop myself before saying Rattle-bones out loud. “I don’t know if I ever was a child,” I say, and I suddenly don’t know what to do with my hands.
“We’ve never asked each other’s names, have we?” he asks. He pops something round and honey colored into his mouth, crunching.
“Names are powerful things.”
“And now your eyes have gone all haunted again.”
“The first girl I killed was named Jadiya,” I find myself saying. “If I hadn’t known her name, I couldn’t have killed her.”
“Why are you called death mages?” Rattle-bones asks, honey colored nuts cupped in one palm. He’s stopped staring at me, at least, with those tree burning eyes and I think he’s studying the egg now. “I know of mages who could shape the ground, organize a city on a hilltop. And there are the mages who grew the frost orchards, which, according to the history books,” he taps the side of his head, “allowed civilization to even begin this far south. Mages who guide the ocean currents and winds are some of the most coveted crew members on the merchant ships. But I don’t know of any named like the death mages are.”
“There’s dimensional mages,” I mutter.
“Never heard of them,” Rattle-bones pops another honey colored nut into his mouth.
I groan in frustration. “Maybe, because death mages deal with death. I can kill people. I can see their dead essences in the beating heart of a fire. I can maim and kill with words that have no sound. What else am I supposed to be called?” I spread my arms wide, imagine some non-existent ghost floating in the air studies me. Judges me for what I am not.
Rattle-bones hums. The honey colored nuts are gone, so he leans back into the reclining rocks. “I don’t think you are the only death mage afraid of names,” he eventually says. I let my arms fall to the side, but the ghost in the air is still there, whispering cold breath at my skin. “Kolariq’s armor wasn’t impenetrable. One night at my table, he muttered into his drink that he tried not to remember any of his boys’ names because he was trying to protect them.” He snorts. “I was so startled he wasn’t trying to pound me into the ground I nearly fell there myself.” Rattle-bones sits back up and twists to face me. “Kolariq must not have had anyone to confide in.”
I stare at him. “You’re a maze to follow, you know that? You jump from names to Kolariq’s drink to anyone to confide in.” I glance up at the pale clouds. “Not surprised Kolariq didn’t know our names.”
“What was it like, being the only girl?” Rattle-bones asks quietly, and his voice croaks.
My heart skips a beat, realizing I included myself in Kolariq’s boys. “I didn’t fit in. Not well. It got worse after,” I pause, but continue, “my boyfriend died.”
Rattle-bones has the nerve to chuckle. “I can imagine that.”
No, he can’t.
Rattle-bones falls silent, studying my face. “What I meant before, about death mages. I reckon it’s easier to give something you’re afraid of a name; ‘cause then it’s less fearful. Confines it, gives it boundaries. Especially when whatever it is is afraid of using names in the first place.”