The queen–it is the real queen–doesn’t take us to the palace. We go back to the building where I killed the glimmer insects.
“So I take it you’re the death mage,” the queen asks me, calmly, as the three of us tread through the building’s dark interior. “Is that how you made it go dark?”
“How’d you smash the table?” I return.
“I threw a rock,” she replies, pushing aside the curtain.
“I made it go dark because I killed the glimmer insects in the jar. It was either you or the insects, unless you happened to have a mushroom.”
“That sentence made no sense,” Rattle-bones immediately comments.
“You killed my glimmer insects?” the queen asks, and I think the sound of rustling means she’s knelt on the floor. “Why?”
“Because I thought you were jumping me,” I explain. “And I was already saying the words to make your muscles go limp. They had to go somewhere by that point.”
“How did weakened muscles kill them?” the queen whispers, the jar ringing on the stone floor.
“Well, hearts are muscles,” I say. “Insects have hearts. Since you’re a regular sized human, it would’ve stopped yours for about a blink and a half. Since they’re a fraction of a human, it stopped theirs for good.” I shrug. “Pretty basic math.”
“You call that math?” Rattle-bones asks. He’s still standing behind us, closer to the door.
“It’s math and language at the same time,” I shoot back.
“Looks like pointless killing to me,” the queen interrupts, rising to her feet. “I don’t know what she was thinking. Trusting a death mage and an old man.”
“Well,” Rattle-bones says slowly, “I do recall her saying it was hard to know who to trust.”
The queen’s footsteps pause. “I do too.” She brushes past me and marches out of the building.
“I think your glimmer insects have a plague,” I say, shift positions against the wall. The queen looks up from the dust in the sunlit doorway.
“I thought they were dead,” she motions to the jar with four black insect bodies lying at the bottom of it.
“They will be soon,” I glance at Rattle-bones, who is napping in the corner. “The ones under the palace, anyway.” I take another gulp of water from my clay cup, provided grudgingly from the queen’s large flask.
“How do you know that?” she asks.
I sigh. “I’m a death mage. How do you think I know?”
“I’ve got a plan,” Rattle-bones interrupts. “For how to get into the palace.”
Right. Because we promised the queen we would, since we’re drinking her water, eating her food, and preventing her from staying hidden inside the buildings because I killed her light source. Besides knocking her down in the middle of the street, we already walked through the open so we could find a more-illuminated building to sit inside of.
“What is it?” I ask, hesitant. I don’t think a single one of his “plans” have actually been plans yet.
“You do that fancy blood trick and pry the door open.”
I stare at him. “No.”
“Okay, we pound on the door until a guard comes.”
“Absolutely not,” the queen tells him.
“We hatch the royal avian egg, ride the bird to the palace’s peak, and break in through a window.”
My mouth hangs open. Does Rattle-bones know what he just said?
“Royal vian egg?” the queen whispers.
“Royal avian egg? What?” Rattle-bones acts surprised. Or maybe scared. He’s half enshadowed, but I think those eyes are of fearful children in the dark. And we are rather in the dark.
“You know what you said,” the queen whispers.
“That’s why we’re here in the first place!” I cut in. “I found the egg, in the snow. We were bringing it back.”
“Aqtilik thought we could trust you?” the queen repeats.
“Why are you hiding from the people in your own palace?” Rattle-bones asks. I glance at his eyes again, decide they’re hooded snakes disguised as fearful children. I suppress a shiver.
“Aqtilik is playing the queen today,” the queen says, arms folded. “Her servant was sent to begin cleaning the city buildings in preparation for the solstice.”
“I can see,” Rattle-bones nods, peering around us. The floor is dirty, there is an overturned chair in the corner, and a heap of blankets–possibly coats–wilts beside it.
The queen sighs. “I was cleaning. And then she killed my light source.”
“Sorry,” I say, again. “Would you rather have a faceful of bruises from falling over?”
“So that’s another reason we need to get into the palace,” Rattle-bones adds. “Talk to this friend of yours, and get some more insects so you can keep cleaning this place up.” He pauses. “If you’re the queen’s personal servant, why are you in charge of city keeping?”
“Many of the palace servants are being…replaced. By the king. The queen is trying to ensure the servants loyal to her are kept busy, so the king doesn’t have a reason to remove them.”
“Hold up,” I stand. “I thought the king was dead.”
Her shoulders bow. “Yes. He is.”
“So who’s the new guy?” I ask her.
“He used to be the merchant fleet captain.”
“You married him?” I exclaim. “He killed the actual king!”
The queen stands, even though the top of her head only reaches my collarbone. “This city was called Iqavu before he showed up; after my bloodline. He showed up claiming my husband’s own servants–some of his closest friends–murdered him before fleeing into the wilderness. Of course I thought he was lying. But I cannot wield my authority like a cudgel until I know he is lying. Until I know he is guilty.”
She turns away, face shrouded in darkness. “He threatened to kill Aqtilik. He threatened to kill the birds I’ve cultivated here my entire life. He threatened to send assassins throughout these buildings and murder the festival goers. So yes, I married him, death mage. I married him to disarm him.” She turns back to face us, face flint. “Show me your royal avian egg. Maybe Aqtilik is right. Maybe it is time we wield a weapon of our own.”
Those were long months, brain, in the house, by yourself, ice cold in more ways than two.
That was the first anniversary of your death, Aukai. I speak to him as if he were here. No, heart, it was only you. Not him. Not Aukai.
You rocked on the floor of the cave, long hair unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. You were still carving out the chest of it. The cave. Still carving out the space where his bones would go, in the heart, still carving out the space for his bones with your own bones and those of someone dead who saved you from being the dead one.
Those were long months, brain. In the house, by yourself, ice cold because you didn’t think you deserved to live.
Long months, ice cold because you didn’t think you deserved to live but by all the stories in the stars you were not going to die. Not like that.
Kolariq told you he’d had weaker students before. Not any that survived under his teaching for longer than a year, but still, you weren’t his weakest.
Every night, you would sit on the porch outside the door, wrapped in the only blankets the house owned, trying to remember every story Aukai had told you. The hunter, the herds, the polar bear chasing herself in circles. You tried to smile, but usually you just cried until you couldn’t see the stars anymore, and besides, the tears were freezing, and you were freezing, so you went inside again. You sometimes made it to the staircase before your brain just wouldn’t move your legs anymore.
Every day, you ate, even when the shelves of food stores in the sitting room got bare enough there was only gray, dried seaweed. Those shelves were easy to move into the cave when you finished it, because they were very nearly empty.
You knew the day that meant it was a year ago when Aukai died, even though you tried ignoring it. Instead, you reminded yourself that the chest of the cave was nearly done. Instead, you went outside and found the remains of a mushroom garden near the house. You decided were going to build it back up. Instead, you found ribbons in the bathroom. You started by tying them in your hair, like you might have his, if he were there.
It isn’t quite noon when the three of us make it to the pile of rocks where the skeleton cook hides beneath the muddy egg. Rattle-bones immediately sinks into the rocks forming a reclining chair.
“It’s right there,” I point at the muddy egg sitting on top of the rock heap.
“I can see that,” the queen says, mittened hands on her hips. “It’s a rather large egg.”
“Well of course it is,” Rattle-bones says blandly. “They always are.”
The queen glares at him, but picks her way up the rock pile. I open my mouth to warn her about the skeleton, but since none of the bones are exposed I don’t actually say anything.
“Are you sure this isn’t merely an egg-shaped rock?” the queen asks, hand floating above the muddy surface.
“There are magenta spots,” Rattle-bones informs her.
She glances at me. I hesitantly nod. “I need to clean this off,” she plucks it from its perch and awkwardly hobbles backwards down the rocks. “Let’s go.”
“We just got here,” Rattle-bones protests.
“This is more important than resting your bones,” the queen shouts, marching back toward the road with the egg hugged to her stomach.
Rattle-bones gives me a look like a fish being asked to leap from the water. I shrug. “Maybe you could stay here?”
“Nope,” he quickly stands, leaning on his walking stick. “I’m coming. Get your skeleton though, I might not make it up the road.”
I sigh. “Fine. Though the queen might be…unsettled.” I shut my eyes before Rattle-bones replies and feel for Skeleton Cook’s bones, pull them through gaps in the rocks, assemble each piece on the ground before Rattle-bones. I pull the taffy strings tight, and Skeleton Cook clatters faintly as he rises to his feet.
“I call riding on his back,” Rattle-bones hobbles behind Skeleton Cook and agilely–but knees popping–hops on. Skeleton Cook stumbles, but only because Rattle-bones has a foot wedged between a femur and the tibia, where the knee would go.
“You can’t have your foot there,” I say, concentrate on switching all the bones backward so Skeleton Cook’s arms grip Rattle-bones by the hips.
Rattle-bones stares at me, slowly lowering hands that were just barely gripping shoulder blades. Now, they’re floating in front of the collar bones.“That was disconcerting.”
“We should hurry,” I say, and start walking.
This, brain, is how Aukai dies: one day, he is there. The next, he is not. Living is a daily motion of steps forward, brain, steps backward, running up hills and falling down. Dying is full stop. End. I don’t think you could comprehend it. There is always something next when you are alive.
Aukai’s heart stopped. One night, sleeping on the beach. There wasn’t a reason, the reason was unknown, the reason was Kolariq made you sleep outside in the cold, there wasn’t a reason the cold made his heart stop, the reason was Kolariq was mad at him, there wasn’t a reason his anger meant you slept outside in the cold, the reason was, full stop.
I don’t think I can comprehend that kind of anger anymore. Ice chimes of your bones and Kolariq would die listening to their frozen song, lava in your heart and if you could just let it out of your body nobody wouldn’t liquify in its heat. Strip the anger back to find the pain. Remind yourself the ice part of you was you, your bones were just bones and Kolariq was better at that anyway. And if there was lava in your heart, it was because all your insides were squishing together around the collapsed place where Aukai used to be.
Death day. The day you woke up to Aukai’s cold fingers, still intertwined with yours. Death day. The day his eyes held less depth than a puddle of clear water. The day all those pieces of yourself melted and you didn’t know what was water and what was lava.
But if you shut your eyes, you could almost pretend the glowing reflecting mess of you was one of Aukai’s stars.