(ps table of contents here)
Here is a memory, brain: you as a child walking through the caves at night. You couldn’t sleep; the sound of the waves on the beach, the unfamiliar bed, the stone walls, the hill pressing in from above you.
At first, you just went to the wide sitting room. You thought maybe you could sleep in the giant chair, because it certainly looked soft enough. But then being in the sitting room, uncomfortably curled on the squishy seat, reminded you of the table with the dead fish, trying to wither scales, and in every inhale there was the scent of decaying fish guts so real you were certain it was sliming up your mouth.
Second, it wasn’t the fish guts that drove you from the chair, it was that the waves were louder than in the bedroom and without any blankets you were kind of cold. So you crept back through the room with the table and jars and piles of papers. This room reminded you of something crawling up your neck, even before you knew it was where he stored skeletons and dried vegetables, dead fish bones and soap-scrubbed pots.
Third, the hallway was lined with fuzzy carpet; in the darkness, that’s all it was. Fuzzy. You kept one hand on the chiseled wall while you walked, making no sound. You remembered the way to your room. A left, and a thick curtain over the third door frame to your right. You turned left. Switched hands, so you could count the fuzzy curtains. You didn’t feel any curtains. You walked some more, certain not seeing made the distance seem longer, until you discovered your hand had a glimmering outline in the not-quite blackness.
Fourth, you paused at the gurgling of water. The fuzzy carpet ended another footstep away, opening into a stone room like an insect hive. A room like a hollowed out mound. You squinted at the stars way below you, wondering how there were stars way below you, until you recalled the gurgling water.
Fifth, you were sad about your parents. The family I no longer remember. Maybe there wasn’t a family to remember, but whatever it was, you remembered it then. By the pool full of stars.
You remembered it because as you waded into the water, you could almost imagine a voice telling you to be careful in the river’s current. I no longer remember what that voice sounded like, or where the river was.
You remembered it because as you studied the bumping pattern of the walls, you felt somebody’s hands massaging mashed up leaves to your arm where an insect stung you. I no longer remember what those hands looked like.
You remembered it because that place, the caves, the waves, the plush bed, the hallway of fuzzy red–they were all so unfamiliar there had to have been something that was. Familiar. Family.
Sixth, a memory jumps out at me when I think for the first time that I only recall growing up in an unfamily.
“Why are you back so soon?” Rattle-bones, seated on the table, squints at us.
“We’re not,” I mutter. “This is the person we met yesterday.”
“Ah,” Rattle-bones says. There’s a loud pecking from the middle of the room, where the egg is. The egg rocks. A lot. I wonder how much the bird inside is trying to break free.
“Kaliq is coming,” the queen’s friend says, walking inside. She kneels in front of the egg. “How long has it been hatching?”
“Likely since midmorning,” Rattle-bones answers.
The queen’s friend holds bare fists lightly in her lap. She doesn’t steady the egg, despite its rocking. “I never thought I’d live to see a royal avian,” she whispers.
I sit by the door.
“Neither did I,” Rattle-bones replies, and I glance sharply at him. Surely he’s been alive long enough for at least the previous two.
“Did you not want to?” I ask him. “Because you could’ve.”
“No offense,” the queen’s friend says, “but the last royal avian disappeared over ninety years ago. So unless he came as a small child–” she turns to Rattle-bones “–how old are you?”
“That’s a loaded question,” he grumbles, eyes like hooded snakes.
“They already know I’m a death mage,” I announce. “We already know the real queen isn’t always acting like the queen. Pretty sure it’s your turn.”
He gives me a look like I’m a steep, muddy hill he has to climb. “It’s still a loaded question.”
The egg interrupts us by cracking. The queen’s friend gasps, and I scoot towards the center of the room. There’s a hairline blackness in the egg’s surface, and if I squint hard enough I can pretend it’s wavering, growing wider and narrower, like a breath.
“Fine. The answer you’re looking for is two hundred thirty eight.”
“Two hundred thirty eight what?” a shadow crosses the doorway so I spin around and the queen is standing there. Two jars of glimmer insects held to her side, a large brown sack hanging off one shoulder.
“That’s how old he is,” I point to Rattle-bones. He gives an annoyed hiss. I try not to care.
“You’re two hundred and thirty eight years old?” the queen’s friend asks.
“Yes,” Rattle-bones nods sagely. “That is what I just said.”
The door slides closed, leaving us in the sickly glow of the blue glimmer insects. “I’ve barely cleaned half a building,” the queen says, setting one jar near the door and carrying the other towards the egg. “I hope you weren’t planning on inspecting my work.”
“Of course I was,” the queen’s friend says, smile tugging the corner of her lips. “That’s the whole reason I left that beautiful haven of a palace. To inspect my servant’s shoddy work in the city.”
The queen laughs, taking the sack from her shoulder. “I deeply apologize. I hope I haven’t disappointed my queen. I encountered unforeseen difficulties. In the form of a mage who killed my glimmer insects.”
I pretend like I don’t know what they’re talking about when they both glance at me. I try to smile, but I doubt even the pallid glow can disguise the blushed cast to my cheeks. How does anyone mistake these two for queen and servant? Their eyes are mirrored mountains, threatening to crush me.
“I told you,” I eventually manage to say, the pulsing, wavering, sickly glow distracting me. “It was kill the insects or make you face plant into the stone floor.”
“A dire proposition,” the queen’s friend says, gaze sliding away from me. “Bruise her royalty’s nose, or make her work in the dark for the rest of the day.”
There’s a muted thump, and the queen’s friend winces. “That was uncalled for.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did my boot miss? Because I think that was perfectly called for.”
I inhale sharply. They both fall silent.
“Thank goodness,” Rattle-bones grumbles.
“The glimmer insects,” I say, failing to ignore both of the mountain’s staring at me.
“What about them?” the queen asks.
“They’re sick,” I say. My senses have been screaming it at me since the queen arrived.
“What? They can’t be sick. How would they have gotten sick?” the queen’s friend asks. “They’re inside jars.”
“Under the palace,” I squeeze my eyes shut, because now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t get over the sickly glow, or the throbbing insects, or the illness like a festering wound. It’s as if the smell of rotten fungi has wormed its way into my clothes and will never wash out.
“You didn’t do anything with the king’s body, did you?” I ask.
“Do anything? We buried it,” the queen’s voice shakes.
“I mean, you didn’t do anything to prevent the rot from spreading. Like sealing the coffin. Or burning the body.”
“We didn’t know we were supposed to,” the queen’s friend says softly.
“Can you help them?” the queen asks. It takes me a moment to realize she’s talking to me. It takes another moment to realize “them” is the glimmer insects.
“I’m a death mage,” I say. “I’m not good at healing.”
“Could you kill the rot at least?” the queen’s friend places the rocking egg on her lap.
“It doesn’t work like that,” I mutter. Rot feeds off of death. Speaking the same words to kill an insect would essentially do the opposite for the disease.
No, brain, that does not make you good at healing. Bacteria hardly need healing. Pretty sure. Kolariq only taught you and the boys about “bacteria” one day, sitting on the beach, you hardly listening because you were shivering so bad.
It was winter. Obviously. The sky was gray, the sun was low and sinking daily, the ocean was constantly upheaved and you wondered when it would start to freeze over. Especially since the wind carried the roaring spray up the beach and all of you were half-soaked by mid morning.
Kolariq was obsessed with bacteria. For about two weeks. He could hardly believe that “science” had discovered the tiny things that caused plagues. He wanted their journals, their technology, so he could study them himself. So he could practice growing diseases of his own.
Kolariq was a good teacher. That part was true. In one day, shivering on the beach, you understood that bacteria were tinier than insects, like insects to the insects. They could grow and duplicate from one to millions in days. They didn’t have limbs; they moved around with long tails, except some of them didn’t have tails, so “scientists” didn’t know how they moved. And they looked like blobs, most of the time, although some of them were rather square shaped to be called blobs.
Of course, as a death mage, maybe it was all second nature. Even before the summer mumps, your senses had picked up disease in the fish, sickness in the village, rot creeping through the creepers hanging over the cave. It was easy to believe in something you’d known all your life.
“Why not?” the queen asks.
I blink at them, the now-still egg in the queen’s friend’s lap. “It’s like trying to put out a fire,” I pause, because I started backwards. “Okay, regularly, it’s putting out a fire. There’s a language that lets you do,” I wave a hand, “all of that. Pretend like that’s water. It puts out someone’s fire. But things that are deadly. Like a plague. Things that are deadly like water. It makes them burn more…” I trail off.
“I am confused,” Rattle-bones says.
“I thought the skeleton was creepy,” the queen mutters. “You just put out people’s inner flames?”
“What skeleton?” the queen’s friend asks.
I’m still trying to come up with a way to make flammable water make sense.
No, brain, knowing you could make disease-bacteria grow did not make you a healer. Before Kolariq let you eat that day in the gray, he made you catch fish. (Brain, this was after the blood circles in the water.)
This was how Kolariq taught you to control other-blood, blood that was not your own. In your case, blood that was not yours or Aukai’s.
You’d practiced before this day, while gutting fish, blood spilling on the sand beneath your kuchlet bone knife. You rationalized that they were already dead fish. Someone else caught them. One of the older boys, or Kolariq. Not you.
You’d practiced on fish blood, shutting your eyes and feeling out with those senses the same way you would with your regular senses. It wasn’t that much different. It was slightly different. It was the difference between calling something lukewarm or faintly warm. Calling something fluffy or feathery. You had to focus just long enough to understand what made this fish this fish, and then it was yours. The blood. You could lift it in looping spirals, moving it in that not-way like wiggling toes and fingers. You could toss it like a rope, let it ink out in midair without allowing a drop fall. One of the older boys, the first time he saw, whistled and said “pretty good. All I can do is pick it up.” You were quietly proud of that, brain.
Catching fish was a different matter. For one, the blood was still inside the fish. For two, there was a boundary between gutting an already dead fish and killing one yourself. For three, there was no way you were going to cross that boundary. Even if it meant going hungry.
You stopped where the water could lap at your toes, reminding you of ice needles, and felt out with those senses. Tried to focus on places where life was, instead of death. It was harder. Like feeling your way through a room in the dark without using the walls. Death was the walls. Life was the nebulous space in between.
You found a fish, one with near-white scales, because she attacked a smaller fish. The smaller fish died. You quickly caught the texture of the smaller one’s blood, but the ocean was already pulling it apart like cotton.
You focused on the white-scaled one. Tried to find the beating center of her. Found the steady pulse at the same time the fish was yanked towards shore.
You opened your eyes, gaping, staring at the older boy beside you, his hands like claws as the white-scaled fish erupted from the water into his hands, still as ice. He grinned at you, teeth pointed, before uttering the words to stop the fish’s heart.
You clamped your mouth shut. Your insides were a violent ocean, heart a wild fish trying to leap free of you.
You stalked free of the water. Marched back to the cave, ignoring Bone-builder building a cone of wooden sticks in the firepit.
“That skeleton,” Rattle-bones points to the far wall.
The queen lifts the jar of insects so her friend can see.
“Oh goodness I didn’t need that,” the queen’s friend recoils, even though she’s kneeling on the ground.
“It’s a skeleton,” I say, exasperated. “You all have skeletons.”
“Not outside of us, we don’t,” the queen’s friend points out. She’s interrupted by the egg loudly cracking again.
“Shall we eat?” the queen asks, patting the sack beside her. “I did bring food, after all.”
“Of course,” the queen’s friend replies. “I need to return to the palace shortly, or the guards might come looking for me. And we don’t want them to see this,” she caresses the egg.
“Great. I brought bread loaves and some spotted red mushrooms. Plus this tuktu meat that’s been salted.” she holds up some withered, brown meat. And I’m glad I never wanted it in the first place.