“So here’s the plan,” the queen says when the food is gone. My mouth still tastes of earthy red mushrooms. “Aqtilik has to go back to the palace. Us three will stay out here,” she lifts three fingers, “and we need one of us to watch the egg. I have to keep cleaning. That leaves–”
“I need to get into the palace too,” I say. “Because of the insects.”
The queen lowers her hand. “I thought you couldn’t kill the disease.”
“I can’t,” I glance at the glowing jar beside her. “But I can try to contain it.”
“Well, I guess that leaves two of us out here,” the queen replies. “I was going to ask if one of you could help me, seeing as how I’m behind.”
“It won’t take long,” I promise. Glance at Rattle-bones, who hasn’t spoken yet.
“I can get you inside,” the queen’s friend replies. She carefully lifts the egg from her lap and sets it on the empty food sack. The egg has been still since we started talking.
Rattle-bones finally sighs. “By default, I accept the position of egg watcher.”
“Make sure it doesn’t roll anywhere,” the queen tells him, rising to her feet and dusting off her clothes.
“It’s an egg!” Rattle-bones exclaims.
“It’s a royal avian egg,” the queen answers. “I don’t care what shape it is.”
The queen’s friend and I leave the building first, her with folded arms and a fake smile, me itching because I can’t stop thinking about the glimmer insect disease.
We walk faster than before, and a few moments after we leave the door slides shut from the real queen leaving. She doesn’t follow us though. “I’m going to give you a tour of the lower levels,” the queen’s friend explains. “They’ll think that is funny, because the lower levels means where the rulers are buried.”
My heart skips a beat. “But that’s exactly where we’re going.”
“Yes. We often show visitors the burial tunnels to dissuade them from trying to break into the palace. It’s a lot scarier to come back during the night knowing all those dead bodies are down there.” She eyes me. “Well, in non-death mage cases. But in this case, the deflection is in letting them assume why we’re going there, not to hide that we’re actually going.”
“I guess I’m pretty bad at deception then,” I mutter as we approach the two guards. I wish I hadn’t left my cloak in the building.
“Queen,” the one on the left dips her head. The one on the right is staring at me.
“I’m taking the visitor on a tour of the lower levels,” the queen tells them. “There is already light there.”
I turn to her, puzzled, as both the guards nod. The queen beckons to me, and we both enter the dim palace. There is no slime on the walls here, which I suppose makes sense since the sunlight isn’t making anything glow, but I wonder how deeply into the tunnel we have to go before the stone actually begins to exude it.
“What does that mean?” I whisper as we move further through the curving tunnel. “The part about light.”
“It means you’re weaponless,” the queen says. “Which means I’m safe to lead you down there by myself.”
“No offense,” I whisper back, “but I am not weaponless.”
“Neither am I,” she replies. “Of course, I doubt a pair of flimsy knives could do much against you.”
“You’d be surprised,” I mutter. Wonder if the knives are poisoned. “Death mages are not immune to death.”
“Well, naturally,” she says as the tunnel starts to descend. “But you sure are hard to kill.”
“You sound like the issue’s come up before,” I try to make my voice light.
“Iqavu has enemies,” she says, and we stop. “My position is to defend the queen.”
I shudder. “Have you actually killed one?” I whisper. Shut my eyes, even though I already can’t see anything. If she has, I probably knew him. When I was younger, some of the older boys went out on one of Kolariq’s assignments and didn’t return. Kolariq spoke as if they’d died.
“Nearly,” the queen’s friend says, bringing me back. “I chopped off a chunk of his hair though.”
My eyes go wide. My eyes go wide, because brain, that was Night-sky. Kolariq sent him to retrieve a skeleton, a special skeleton, buried in a city. He didn’t say why he wanted that particular skeleton. He didn’t say why that particular skeleton was special.
Night-sky talked about it in fleeting terms when he got back–at least, after he slept outside for a week and a half for returning without the skeleton. Talked about a pair of assassins who trapped him in a dark tunnel–you wondered if the tunnel could be darker than the color of his eyes–and came at him with knives. He got stabbed in the leg–you knew that because the wound was still there, above his knee–but ended up using his own blood to tangle one of the assassins so he could climb over the pile of rocks. Or something. You always pictured there being a pile of rocks.
And he never said why, but he always wore his hair short after that. Shaved it all off once. Let it grow back because then he complained about his head being cold.
My eyes go wide, and I nearly burst out laughing. And crying.
The queen’s friend slowly asks, “Are you okay?” Her round face is illuminated by a faint blue glow from a compartment in the wall.
“Yeah, I’m totally fine,” I say, but my eyes are watering up. I pretend like it’s because my eyes are unaccustomed to the light.
“You don’t look fine,” she says, eyebrows furrowed.
“Tell me, could this death mage have mistaken you for an assassin?”
She wordlessly hands me a jar of glimmer insects. These ones seem fine, and I wonder what servant’s job it is to catch glimmer insects and put them in jars.
“And was the other assassin the queen?”
“There’s no way you should know that,” the queen’s friend says. The glowing square of blue in the wall snaps shut.
“Look, we all knew each other,” I explain, grin tugging my lips. “We were all trained together. He talked about it. Briefly.”
“The palace was infiltrated by a magic wielder and we risked our lives stopping him. And you’re laughing about it?”
The smile disappears. Of course. I mean, of course he’s dead now. It was years ago. Of course she doesn’t know he’s dead now. For me, it was a week and a half of him sleeping outside and wondering why he would shave his head. For her, it was a threat to the queendom. Of course.
“He’s dead now,” I say flatly. “They all are.”
Her eyes widen. “All the death mages are dead?”
“Except me,” I say. “Except probably some on a faraway continent. And the ones who never finished training, or who were born approximately last year.”
“I wouldn’t count on their being any on a different continent,” she says quietly. She turns around, glimmer insects casting jagged shadows, and we both walk into the tunnel full of dead bodies.
“The Jani empress,” the queen’s friend begins. She begins after I ask her why there wouldn’t be other mages on a different continent. I ask after we have walked halfway through the tunnel, to distract myself from the calling disease. Calling like placid, refreshing water.
I bring myself back. “I’m sorry, what?” I say.
“I was collecting my thoughts,” the queen’s friend says, jar of insects held in one palm. “Trying to remember when it started.”
“The Jani empress?” I ask. “Who’s she?”
“She’s a warlord,” the queen’s friend hisses. “Declared war on the Raiyli and decimated their islands. I believe that was seven or eight years ago. All that’s left is burned islands. She didn’t declare herself an empress until after, but then she went on a rampage to the east. Took out most of the rulers in the Walrus Fangs, went up the peninsula and burned everything there too. I’m not even sure what people lived past the Walrus Fangs, though I think they were forest dwellers.”
“Does she rule over anyone?” I ask. I think Bone-builder was from the Raiyli. He grew up on an island, anyway. Blond-boy too. “If she burns all the land?”
“She only burns land tainted by magic,” the queen’s friend whispers.
“Which is everywhere,” I reply.
“We only hope the Nunait are so far south she overlooks us.” The queen’s friend stops and lifts the jar of insects above her head, illuminating the ceiling. I glimpse carvings, but I’m not sure what they represent. “Those are the stories of the royalty,” she tells me, lowering the jar to her side. “Once, the Many Lands were united, and this city was their beating heart. Every time news reaches us of the Jani empress, I again wonder if those united lands could have stood against her.”
“Sounds like it would’ve been a whole lot of fighting and burning regardless,” I mutter.
“I wonder if we’d given up calling ourselves Nunait, and chosen to be One Land, this city would still be that beating heart.”
We silently resume walking. “It’s hard to be one land when some of the land is actually ice that breaks off every summer,” I point out. “Or when some of the actual land is only connected to more land when the ocean is frozen.”
She sighs. “I know. But surely there’s more to being one than physical proximity.”
When we reach the king’s coffin the sense of decaying rot is heavy. There are tendrils of it leaking out, worming through the air. “You don’t have to stay,” I tell the queen’s friend. “Actually, it would be best if you left and found something to seal the coffin with.”
“I only brought one jar of insects,” she replies.
“I don’t need to see this,” I say, sit cross-legged on the stone ground, hand tracing veins of black dirt in the stone.
“Well. Okay,” the queen’s friend looks around for a moment before slowly taking a step. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I say.