The queen yelps. I stop in the street, because she’s in the doorway of the building, and therefore hasn’t seen Rattle-bones carried in Skeleton Cook’s arms like a baby.
There’s a loud crack and I run forward, Skeleton Cook at my heels. Rattle-bones makes several weird hiccups until we stop, beside the queen. She is kneeling in front of the egg, holding some kind of brush, the magenta egg halfway magenta and halfway mud.
“What?” I ask, lean a hand on the building. I’m beginning to despise the mud-choked road up the hill.
The queen glances up. “The egg,” she leans said egg gently against the door frame. “It’s beginning to hatch.”
Rattle-bones clambers awkwardly from Skeleton Cook’s arms. I should probably hide Skeleton Cook before the queen notices. Or someone from the palace notices. “Beginning to hatch?” Rattle-bones approaches us. “I’d say from the sound of that it’s been hatching for awhile now.”
“Can we go inside?” I point at the door. “I feel exposed.”
The queen twists to face us. “Judg–” she stops. “Is that a skeleton?!”
“Yes. Which is why I want to go inside,” I gently lift the egg so Skeleton Cook can fully open the door.
“How can you be casual about a skeleton?” the queen exclaims, and I assume the question is for Rattle-bones, because I’m walking inside after Skeleton Cook.
“Free rides,” Rattle-bones grumbles. His joints pop as he follows me into the building.
There is rustling behind us and then the queen slides the door shut. Darkness closes around us and Skeleton Cook bangs against a wall. I flinch, it’s a good thing he doesn’t have a nose.
“I wish you hadn’t killed my glimmer insects,” the queen’s voice says, gradually moving away from the door. “Do you still have the egg?”
It’s hugged against my stomach. “Yes.”
“I should finish cleaning it off.”
I slowly kneel to the dusty ground and place the egg in front of me. It wobbles on the flat surface. “It’s right here,” I say. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the dim light seeping around the door, I can faintly see the egg’s outline. “On the floor.”
“I reckon it’s been hatching at least since mid morning,” Rattle-bones creaks towards me. “If it’s like a regular species, that is.”
“I know,” the queen kneels beside the egg, and then there’s a sound of a brush rubbing the egg’s surface. “Typically, most of my birds take about a day to hatch. I wasn’t around for the last royal avian though, so I have no idea if they’re different.”
“Fascinating,” I mutter. Skeleton Cook leans against the wall and I consciously keep him from dancing.
“What do you know about the last royal avian?” Rattle-bones asks, sitting on the floor. His knee bumps mine, so I scoot slightly backwards, towards the corner.
“There’s numerous drawings of the egg. It was patterned, like criss-crossing claw marks from a large predator. Except the markings were the color of buttercup blossoms, while the rest of the shell was a pale cream. The bird was said to be as tall as one of these buildings–”
“A bird that large?” Rattle-bones interrupts. “How could it fly?”
“She couldn’t,” The queen’s brush falls silent, and there’s a faint tapping. I wonder if that’s her, or the avian inside. “She could run faster than any tuktu though. More quiet than any of the hunters, according to the record.”
“What about the one before that?” Rattle-bones asks eagerly. I wonder what he already knows about them.
“Magenta. Solid color, but I’m not sure if it was drawn that way or if time has faded out the details. Said to be able to carry three adults, despite the bird’s size. I have a life-sized drawing of her, and the sheet is smaller than my torso.”
“That’s incredible,” Rattle-bones whispers.
I stare at him, even though I can’t actually see him. “Why is that incredible?”
“Imagine a toddler carrying three adults. While staying aloft,” he answers.
“Is that all? I thought royal avians were special.” Also gigantic, but apparently that was only one of the last two.
“They are,” the queen says, and there is more tapping. I think it’s faintly louder this time. “The bird can camouflage–at least, every single one in the records could–and some could summon storms. The bird before this one? She had impenetrable feathers. Not to mention their intelligence. Previous avian trainers have wondered if the birds were in fact training them.”
Rattle-bones snorts. “To do what?”
“Be their servants,” the queen answers.
I think of the door guard, trembling beside a wall. Decide it’s a good thing I didn’t try to keep this egg.
“I need to clean more of these buildings,” the queen suddenly says. “Someone needs to stay here and watch the egg.”
“Don’t forget about getting into the palace for more food and another jar of glimmer insects,” Rattle-bones adds.
“–The death mage should do that,” the queen says.
I sigh. I was going to volunteer to stay with the egg.
The queen and I leave together while Rattle-bones pulls a knee-height table closer to the egg, which has gone still. I imagine the bird inside must get very tired of clawing their way out. Do birds sleep inside their shells? Or at what point do they wake up for the first time?
“Every single royal avian has disappeared without a trace,” the queen says to me as we slink through the building shadows.
I’m not sure why she says this to me.
“They stay here for years. Then one day they’re gone, sometimes with their trainer. No one knows how they get outside the palace undetected.”
“Why is this relevant?” I ask. We stop, next to the building I first found her in.
“Because you found this one. By custom, that makes you the first candidate for trainer,” she eyes me, eyes so much like the mountains of her friend’s. “I’m warning you of what will happen.”
I stare at her. “I don’t want to train that bird,” I say. “I’ll probably kill them.”
“I noticed your very-interested friend in there kept calling the bird an ‘it’.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Again, what’s that got to do with anything?”
The queen’s eyes are sharp, and yet somehow they’re not pointed at me. “There’s a difference between knowing a great deal about a thing and truly caring. There’s an even sharper distinction between caring for something alive and treating them like something to categorize and poke at to your mind’s content.”
My mind flashes to the violet blackspine at our rock pile. How Rattle-bones talked about carrying a nest home and getting stung. “At least he didn’t scream about the fact I have a skeleton,” I fold my arms. “And he wasn’t the one complaining about me killing some insects.”
“I’m sure he hardly cared about those insects,” the queen yanks the door open. “Seeing as how it’s hard to view killing as an atrocious act when you’re only killing an ‘it’.”
I clamp my jaw shut, and she sighs. Walks inside and slams the door.
I walk to the palace. I still don’t know how I’m going to sneak inside. Maybe I shouldn’t have left Skeleton Cook with Rattle-bones, except not even he is strong enough to pry a stone door open.
By chance, the door starts to grind as I approach it. I sprint away, fearful of getting caught, except there’s nowhere to hide between the palace doors and the line of buildings.
“Visitor!” a voice calls, and I stop. “How do you like your stay in Aquvuit?”
I turn around, see that the queen’s friend is flanked by two guards. Neither of them is Yutu. “My fri…it is a nice day, is it not?” I respond. My heart is hammering, because the queen’s friend has a smile plastered on her face that looks like anything but happiness.
She turns to the guard on her left and mutters something. He nods, and both guards return to the doors. I stand, in the middle of the street, unsure what my arms are supposed to be doing as the queen’s friend approaches me. “What are you doing here?” she hisses when we’re close enough. “You can’t sit around the palace all the–”
“We found the queen,” I interrupt her. “And the egg is hatching. And we need more food, and a jar of glimmer bugs. Why didn’t you tell her who we were?”
Her grimaced smile melts into concern. “What?”
“Come on,” I say, reach to grab her arm but glimpse the guards in the doorway before I actually do.
The queen’s friend turns to them and waves, which I assume means something more than that, and the two of us walk–painstakingly slowly–down the street.
“Are they on the do-not-trust list?” I ask quietly. My back prickles with stares I’m not sure are actually there.
“Everyone is,” she responds. Gently takes my elbow and steers me towards a building. “Aqtilik,” she calls loudly, “I can hear you in there.”
I glance at her, puzzled as we stop in front of a door. It’s the same door the queen slammed in my face.
Moments later it creaks open, and the real queen glances between the two of us before dipping her head. “Yes?” she mutters under her breath.
“Return to the palace and fetch food for our visitor,” the queen’s friend announces. She adds in a whisper, “and whatever else you need.” The real queen dips her head again.
“I suppose this works,” the queen mutters to me as she darts past us.
“Where is the egg at?” the queen’s friend asks me.
I start to point across the street, but she coughs. I pretend like I’m scratching my head. “Just follow me,” I say instead. And we resume walking very slowly. “I hate this,” I whisper. “Can’t you just tell them to leave?”
“Not today, no. They’re important.”
I wonder what that’s supposed to mean.
“It’s actually a good thing you were right outside when we appeared,” the queen’s friend says as we near the building where Rattle-bones and the egg are. “Makes it easier.”
“Makes what easier?”
“Losing the guards.”
“The guards that are important,” I say.
I wait. She doesn’t say anything.
I grumble in annoyance, but slide the door open.