So, brain, the summer mumps. A summer of summer mumps. Kolariq brought all the boys, and you, despite the fact the distant city had called only Kolariq to come and trace the disease’s origin. Which meant Kolariq got to sleep in the city elder’s large home while the rest of you camped on the nearby glacier. In two tents. Two tents for thirteen of you.
That, brain, was the first time you thought of yourself as an ice cube. You and Aukai slept next to each other, but Aukai was more worried about blond-boy glaring daggers into his back. He told you blond-boy was going out with a girl in the village–but you supposed it still hurt, loving two people when one of them didn’t love you back.
You snuck out of the tent the first night, snow crunching under your boots, trying to remember if Aukai ever told you when blond-boy and him split up. It was before Tulimaq…left; you knew that. Kolariq had to separate them during every skeleton anatomy lesson after the second. You didn’t know if it was before the girl in the village though. You didn’t know if it was before Aukai decided he was more in love with you.
The glacier was colder than the air. You could feel the ice clawing through your boots and chilling the talus bone in your feet, but the rest of you wasn’t shivering.
You walked, away from the six boys in the tent, six plus you because you and blond boy were the smallest. Kolariq wasn’t that observant.
You walked to the edge of the glacier, not the edge where its long trail crept from a hill, but where it’d yet to carve out the terrain. You climbed over gashing canyons and jagged peaks, barely visible in the night. Where the faint whiteness of ice ended you knelt in crunching splinters, peering over the edge, but the ground was a black emptiness so you didn’t trust yourself to make it down. You just knelt, fingers cold from climbing, water slowly seeping to your knees.
Your body shuddered, uncontrollably, or maybe it was your mind, or probably that space where you existed like the darkness at the bottom of the glacier tucked under your spine. Some place real, some place jagged and gashing; undefinable.
Your body shuddered anyway, like muscle spasms, and you told yourself that you were real, you were real, you were more real than your body. Because how could you stand up, peel your eyes away from the distant ground, if you thought you belonged there? If you thought you belonged in the tent of boys where you felt like jagged peaks against their easy river?
Oh, brain, you are like a glacier, creeping down this mountain, carving it away while it pollutes you with tumbled rock.
I wake up in the middle of the night, something trembling to my senses like a leaf about to fall. It is the bones, beneath the palace. It is the bones beneath the palace and a killing bacteria. I sigh, because of course there’s bacteria. There’s a dead body.
I roll over on my cloak, breath clouding, grateful for the cold because it means the mud I fell asleep on is solidified by crystals of ice. Of course, I’m not grateful for the cold, because I am cold, even inside the warm cloak.
The heap of rocks blocks out the sky, like it is a mountain to the distant stars. Remember when, brain, Aukai told you stories of his people, how they had ancient star charts, how they used the length between thumb and finger to measure the horizon? He told you the stars were really distant suns, some of them other colors, and you gazed at him with eyebrows furrowed for a long moment.
“How’d they figure that out?” you asked.
He shrugged, but under the heavy quilt it was more like a faint rustling. “You can tell they’re different colors, if you look close enough.”
You stopped peering at his eyes and studied the stars outlining his hair. The sky twinkled, faintly. “I guess the one by your ear looks more white. But how’d they figure out the stars are distant suns? Do they think there are worlds around them?”
Aukai rolled over, dragging most of the quilt with him. You tugged it back, because the hill above the cave was cold. Very cold, since it was winter and the sun hadn’t risen for two days. Technically, it was supposed to be daytime.
“I guess by sailing around the world,” Aukai said, back to you. “There are different stars, depending on where you go. Even in the same place at different times of the year. I guess somebody figured out the math to measure where a star really is by how much it moved.”
“Oh,” you said. “But how did they remember later where the star was before?”
“I don’t know!” he exclaimed, rolling back to face you. His eyes danced. “I put skeletons together, not figure out complicated star math.”
“Well what about the stories?” you changed the topic. “You said your parents told you stories about the tuktuit running through a flower meadow.”
Aukai closed his eyes for a moment. “Mostly what I remember about that story is the tuktuit ate all the shrubs in their field, so they ran until they found a new field, and ate all the shrubs there too, and then kept running and eating until the only place left to run was the sky.”
“Okay,” you said, curling closer. “Why haven’t they come down yet?”
Aukai pointed, “Those two red stars? Those are the eyes of the archer, Anuenu. Her bow is that curve to the side. You can tell when she will shoot a tuktu because the sunset is a brighter red, and after the tuktu dies the sky weeps for them. Sometimes you can see Anuenu’s bow glowing brighter during those nights.”
You tried to piece together the picture of this archer out of mere dots. “So the tuktuit haven’t come down because of Anuenu? Why don’t they leave the sky and run away from her?”
“They have more space to run in the sky. If those tuktuit came back down, they would be as easy to hunt as a flutter bug.”
“Well,” you faced him again. “Sounds like a nice story, I guess. Even if that’s clearly not why it rains.”
“Oh? Why does it rain then?” Aukai asked, but as you opened your mouth to answer he planted a kiss there.
“That’s not fair,” you muttered when you both pulled away. “It rains the same reason ice melts.”
“And that’s plain boring. What did your people’s stories say about why it rained?”
You thought for a while. Mostly what you remembered about your people was the village you spent the first eight years of your life in–the shouting in the market, running through a mountain river with some screaming children, the taste of torn bread in a forest. Nothing about stories explaining why it rained.
“I don’t know,” you said honestly.
“Well, then make something up,” his teeth flashed in the near darkness.
“Fine,” You thought some more. “It rains because the stars come awake when the sun leaves, and they see all the things that died while they slept. But they only cry when one of their favorites dies.”
Aukai nodded. You felt ridiculous. “Am I one of their favorites?” he asked.
You punched his ribs through the folds of quilt. “How am I supposed to know? Besides, it’s not like the stars actually wake up.”
“I guess we’ll find out when we’re super old, won’t we?”
I am awake when Rattle-bones stirs, the sun rising and thawing the ground. Him waking combined with my dry mouth has convinced me our options are either to return to the palace or search for a clean water source, because however much water Rattle-bones brought in the folds of his two coats isn’t going to last forever.
“I think our plan has a serious flaw,” Rattle-bones says, after yawning, after standing from the rock pile, after stretching. “This is the royal avian egg. As in, the once-a-generation royal avian. We can’t just go around announcing that.”
I am still curled in the cloak, hugging my knees close. “Shouldn’t we have thought of this before? Seeing as how we already went to the palace and announced it. What are we supposed to do instead?”
“Right,” Rattle-bones rubs his forehead. “We could have asked about the birds. That door guard mentioned a bird sanctuary. But I wasn’t talking about that plan. That plan’s already flopped. I mean the plan with telling that lady who showed us around yesterday we found a royal avian egg.”
I wonder if my mind is still too tired to function. “I thought we told her that already. Or, did she not ask?”
Rattle-bones fetches his walking stick from the rocks and starts hobbling away. “Maybe, we could bargain with her. She clearly wants your help with the king’s murder, so we hand this over, and in exchange we walk away with no consequences.”
I scrabble to my feet, pull the cloak around myself and sprint after him. “Are we going to the palace right now?”
Rattle-bones doesn’t stop walking. “Of course. Days don’t last forever.”
“But what about breakfast?” I ask. “Or water?” I gently run a hand down my face. “Or washing up?”
“I’m sure they’ll feed us,” Rattle-bones waves a hand. “Hospitality and such. They don’t get that many visitors, so the ones they do get have to be treated like royalty,” he laughs at his own joke. I don’t. I fall silent, and try to make myself as presentable as possible with nothing but my fingers. The cloak, of course, is dirt streaked.
We’ve wordlessly agreed not to climb the hill again, even though the road that cuts through it is still muddy. At least this early the mud crackles with thin ice beneath our boots, rather than sucking at them.
The road that leads into the city is enshadowed by the buildings to either side, giving the pale stone a gray cast. Rattle-bones has pulled something from a pocket and is chewing on it. I think it smells faintly like seaweed, and imagine it is a biscuit. “What about palace hospitality?” I ask.
“I got hungry,” Rattle-bones says, walking stick tapping evenly. “This body doesn’t do well with staying hungry for long.”
I sigh. “So what is the plan now? Why don’t we just bring the egg and get it over with?”
Rattle-bones catches me with his eyes and I nearly stumble. “Girl, this won’t be over for a long time. Or did you forget the king-mysteriously-murdered ordeal?”
“No,” I mutter. “I’m just pretending it’s not an ordeal.”
“Doesn’t change the fact it’s still an ordeal,” he harrumphs by shoving the last of the seaweed smelling bread into his mouth.
“I know,” I grit my teeth. “Sometimes you can’t do anything to change it though.”
“Now that, I can agree with.”
The summer mumps were nasty business, brain, but that wasn’t exactly a surprise to any of you. Even though you’d never been near the disease, every time you went to the village as the snows were melting, as new ships arrived, as news arrived, whispers carried like their own kind of plague. “Summer mumps up north.” “Heard they had to burn two ships in the harbor, but the city still got it.” “Catching more quickly this year. Why, the sun had stopped setting last year when it hit the coast!”
What was news to you was the way it called to you, those days camping on the glacier. None of the boys were immune, even Kolariq admitted he had to lock that part of his mind and throw the key deep inside himself.
Locking a part of your mind was an alien concept. How did you block a pathway through the swamp when the swamp of many paths was part of the destination? So you stayed away from the swamp. The sea of words you knew you couldn’t know with your mouth.
One of the boys was panting as you stood on the hill, the city below you. Kolariq wanted you all to watch. You didn’t know what you were supposed to watch. The boy with the night-sky eyes, like unending pools of black water. The boy with the missing tooth, from the fist fight with the tall boy, with the scarred ear. That happened while you and Aukai were both gone.
You thought about the panting boy to distract you from the swamp. The swamp the summer mumps knew was there, and they called to you in the gray city at the bottom of the hill that you could run down, if you wished, and shout at the stone homes and cobblestone streets and dying bodies to live!
Live, killing disease, and swell the faces of the infected, spread into the melting snow in the streets, scatter in water supplies.
You brought yourself back. Night-sky was not the only one panting. The tall boy was too, and Bone-builder, and blond-boy. “We shouldn’t be here,” Aukai muttered, gripping your arm tightly. “We could kill this entire city.”
Yes, you could. The prospect didn’t seem quite so terrible.
“I’m leaving,” Aukai said, and you blinked.
“Take me with you,” you said. He gripped your arm tightly but you started running first, which made Aukai jolt out of some reverie and you wondered if he actually would’ve left without you.
You both sprinted down the brilliant green hill and the summer mumps called out, like you were abandoning it, but the distance weakened its strength. You weren’t sure which boy screamed behind you. Then the scream cut out and the language of cursing sang in your bones and the summer mumps were terribly, very alive.
Rattle-bones gives up knocking on the palace door after I sit down. I sit down after the sun comes up to dispel most of the shadows. The sun is still coming up when Rattle-bones sits beside me.
“So much for hospitality,” I mutter through dry lips.
“This plan seems to have also flopped,” he mutters back, walking stick across his lap.
We sit in silence. The palace door doesn’t grind open behind us, so I eventually stand. “I’m going to explore some of the buildings,” I explain. Hesitate when he doesn’t move.
“I’m going to patiently wait for the door to open,” he says, apparently noticing my hesitation.
I don’t point out that the reason we’re here so early is because he insisted days didn’t last forever. I start walking down the pale stone street.
The first building is truly abandoned. The screen door slides open but bumps into something halfway, resulting in a muted crash. I wince, but siddle my way in.
The only light is from the door, and I wonder what the mage who built this city had against light. Maybe they were nocturnal.
I keep going, one hand in front of me, other to the side, feet shuffling forward. The hand in front of me reaches a solid surface, which is a dim gray. Naturally, my hand comes away in gray dust. “Well this was a bad idea,” I mutter. Back away to the door and realize the thing I knocked over was an oblong table. Feeling somewhat guilty, I prop it back up. Somewhat further away from the door though. Then I leave.
I glance down the street, and Rattle-bones is still cross-legged in front of the palace. So I go to the next building.
The door is jammed. It slides, barely, and I can’t even fit my fingers in to see if maybe it is barred shut.
I try a third building. I push the door open slowly, halfway surprised when it moves. I step inside, eyes adjusting slowly, which is how I realize there is a faint blue glow emanating from behind a wispy curtain.
I think that Rattle-bones should have come, to study the glimmer insects, until I step to the curtain and there is a jar on the floor. The swept clean floor. I count four glimmer insects inside the jar. I don’t know why that matters.
Something crashes and I whip around, discovering a pillar of dust and a cracked table in the far corner and a shadow coming at me from the other side. Words are coming from my mouth before I realize the shadow is actually sneaking away and I speak them at the glimmer insects instead. They die; the building goes dark. I gasp, because curses are like forming a river and they don’t like being diverted and my lips sting from the backlash.
Someone’s footsteps are slipping across the stone ground. “Who’s there?” I ask, move towards the door. “And why are you sneaking away?”
A shape blurs into the light and dashes out the door and I sprint after, words on my lips, but then I decide there’s an easier way than temporarily crippling them. I stop, hand on the doorframe, other hand like a crow’s beak as the narrow vessels at the top of my nose split painlessly. My nose drips. I shoot the aquamarine blood with my outstretched hand and wrap it around the person’s parka, trip them, and they grunt when they hit the stone.
I shut my eyes to close the blood vessels, take a few breaths to calm my dizzy head from how quickly I pulled blood from my body. I slowly move away from the door.
Rattle-bones is coming towards us. “What was that about?” he calls.
I glance between him and the person on the ground, until she rolls over. Then I just stare at her. It’s the queen’s friend.
“Why were you running from me?” I ask, hand still like a claw holding a thread of blood around her knees.
Something comes over her wild face. I think it’s composure. “I am the queen of Aquvuit. If you don’t let me go, the palace guards will come after you.”
Rattle-bones stops, and I nearly laugh at the dotted line we form in the middle of the street. “I take it you are not the one who showed us around yesterday.”
The composure cracks. “She thinks you two can help us?”
Rattle-bones snorts. “Clearly.”
Whatever that means. But I pull the blood away from her parka and let it fall to the stones. It runs like ink in the worn carvings.
So, brain, Kolariq found the source of the summer mumps. Supposedly. It’d been lying dormant in the snow, supposedly. Supposedly, the new outbreak was because the rest of the snow was melting.
You all knew that was a lie.
It was one of the newest boys. The one who liked painting, when there was paint around. When you and Aukai finally returned to camp, his face may as well have been a blank canvas for all the expression it lacked. He sat in front of the gray tent, unmoving, barely taking food when someone offered it to him.
When Kolariq arrived, you all left, wandering up the glacier, exploring the widest canyons of ice. You pretended to be fascinated by the way light bounced and curled inside the clear walls.
When the shouting stopped, the twelve of you slunk back to the two tents. His lip was still bloody, and he hadn’t moved from the front of the gray tent. The other new boy ran into the black tent where Kolariq was before anyone could stop him. Shouting about how they weren’t ready for this yet. About how he’d set them up to fail. About how you and Aukai both ran away. Punish them too, he said. The boy stumbled back out, hand to his gushing nose. No one had an appetite after that.
You and Aukai slept without a tent. You huddled, on the thin sealskin tarp separating you from the glacier, more at peace with yourself because there weren’t five other boys like a river reminding you of your jagged edges. There was just Aukai.
“I don’t regret running away,” Aukai said. When you’d both given up on sleep in the cold.
“I don’t either,” you agreed, trying not to shiver. “If it wasn’t him, it might’ve been me.”
“I didn’t know a disease could call that powerfully,” he whispered.
“I didn’t know any of us could cause an entire new outbreak,” you whispered back.
Someone sniffled inside the cloth tent, and you fell silent. Then there was rustling, and boots crunching on the ice. You and Aukai shared wide eyes as you stood up–quietly–to follow them.
It was the second new boy. Who made necklaces out of seashells. His silhouette as he walked was framed by red stars, candlelight from the city on the other end of the hill.
He jumped off the glacier. You and Aukai gasped, sprinting after him on the uneven, slippery surface, but when you reached the edge he was already a speeding shadow nearing the hill.
“He’s running away,” you said, needlessly, because something had to be said.
“Wh–” Aukai didn’t finish whatever he was about to ask. And you both stood there, mildly out of breath, staring at the dark.