Chapter 22 (steady)

Dear brain, do you think it’s odd that you never wondered how old Kolariq was?

No, but I do now. Bone-builder was fifteen. Blond-boy was almost seventeen. Night-sky was sixteen. Kolariq was.

Kolariq was. So why do you care how he is?

Because Aukai wasn’t a day older than seventeen. Neither were you. Of course, nobody knew for sure, so you just pretended. Picked a random day near the end of summer, the beginning of winter, and decided that meant you were both fifteen. The next year: you were both sixteen. The next year: you were both seventeen. Aukai was dead.

“It was an accident,” Kolariq told you. You imagined his face was soft, eyes endearing, seeing as how you couldn’t see. You couldn’t really talk, either. Tears, and all that.

“I don’t care!” you shouted. It came out more like a blubbering mess.

“Look,” Kolariq tried to say gently, “the cause seems perfectly natural. There’s nothing I could have done to save him.”

You looked down, at the thick rug on the cave floor, because it was better than Kolariq’s ashen face. Ashen because he was dressed as a volcano, or something that looked enough like a volcano to be called one. His hair was hidden under a tall, red-orange hat. Behind the tears you were pretty sure it was a hat.

You started crying again, because as soon as you stopped shouting there was nothing to prop you up inside.

You wiped your face with the back of your hand, except then it was all over the back of your hand and you didn’t know what to do with it.

“I’ll be back,” Kolariq said, and then his dark gray cloak billowed away.

You crept across the rug, bones like taffy, and the thought that there was no one to prop you up on the outside nearly turned your taffy bones to liquid.

But you made it to the chair. The giant red chair. Specks of gray adorned the arms of it. You curled up in its spare warmth, trying to focus on the waves outside. But that reminded you of him. His body. Lying in the mouth of the cave. Free of the hanging creepers.

Dear heart: flashes. The sound of his laugh echoing in the hallway. Black ribbons in his light hair. The first time you pulled a skeleton’s bones together on the beach and the way he smiled. Sleeping outside, breathing in the ocean waves, crushed leaves, sharp stone of the caves. You tackling him in the water.

The door squeaked, and you looked up. It was Blond-boy. You tried to wipe tears from your cheeks as he approached you.

“Hi,” he said, sitting on the rug. His hands picked the fraying fabric of the weaving.

“Hi,” you whispered.

“I heard what happened,” he said.

You hiccuped. “Really?!”

He glanced up at you. His eyes caught you off guard; the brilliant near-blackness. “I’m sorry,” he said.

You sniffed. “Thanks,” you muttered. What else were you supposed to say?

“You must be really unlucky,” Blond-boy added.

“I don’t know what this has to do about luck,” you sobbed, because the tears were starting again.

“What was that other boy’s name?” Blond-boy’s voice rose. “The one who killed himself in the ocean?”

You slowly sat up, staring at nothing, tears running down your cheeks. “This has nothing to do with him,” You tried blinking your eyes clear. “This has nothing to do with you, either.”

I loved them both too!” Blond-boy practically shouted.

“You love some girl in the village,” you whispered. “And she’s not dead.”

He stood up, fists clenched. “I still loved both of them!”

You had the sense of his blood in moments, hot and boiling but rough like sand. You whipped a hand towards him and his blood flew away from you, dragging the rest of him through the air. He screamed, thinnest vessels in his body popping with the sheer force of repelling, until he crashed into the wall, by the fireplace. The fireplace nobody ever used.

“If you loved him you wouldn’t hate me,” you said. He crumpled to the ground as you jumped from the chair, legs like taffy, hands like jittering insects, heart a snowcloud. You sprinted from the cave, staring up at the creepers so you wouldn’t see Aukai’s body.

***

At fifty-nine there are footsteps. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to focus on the slimy, squishy sensation of diseased insect. I don’t sense any, but of course, I’ve already found fifty-nine. What if there is a number sixty?

I give up when a voice begins speaking. “I found this,” the queen’s friend says.

I open my eyes, blinded by pale blue. “What is it?” I rub my eyes, from the color of dancing dizziness.

“They use it to repair cracks in the stone,” she says, hefts a large ceramic vase. It’s lidded by something brown and smooth, like animal skin.

I rub my cheeks, because the numbness from my lips has spread. “That’s good,” I manage.

“I don’t do well with dead bodies,” she adds.

“Just give me a moment,” I reply, shutting my eyes. “Being delicate is exhausting.”

“Delicate?” something scrapes against the ground. “What were you doing?”

“Killing insects. But only the ones that are sick.”

“Here’s a trowel,” the queen’s friend says. “I can hold the light for you, if you want.”

I open my eyes again, steadily push myself to my feet. My legs are more solid than I thought they would be. “I can see fine,” I say, drag the ceramic vase closer to the king’s enshadowed coffin. Bacteria are still leaking from it. I can’t actually see that clearly, but I have no desire to stare at a bloated, rotting body either. “How do you do this?”

“I assume you use the trowel to scoop the paste and slather it everywhere,” she tells me.

I bite my lip, but work the animal skin covering off. The humid scent of deep clay after rain wafts up at me. I scoop into the murky grayness and lift a heavy trowelful, dump it over the place where the largest bacteria leak is. A wet plop announces that some has landed on the floor. I try to ignore that and slather the rest of it about the stone coffin. Mostly, I think the trowel just scratches on the stone.

I scoop some more onto the coffin, discover with the trowel’s pointed end that there is a long gap between the coffin’s lid and the body of it. I sigh. “This might take awhile, actually. But if it helps, you won’t see any dead body. The gap between the lid and the rest of it just needs to be covered.”

“I brought several trowels,” she announces, like she was expecting this. Even though she’s the one who refused in the first place. The light moves closer. “Think you could do this two-handed?”

“I have no idea,” I mutter. But I take another trowel’s wooden handle when she offers it to me.

“Goodness, I don’t like the smell of this,” she mutters, setting the jar of glimmer insects next to the vase of goopy paste.

“The body, or this stuff?” I ask, dipping both trowels in it.

“I don’t think I smell anything like dead body,” she replies, wrinkling her nose. “This just smells like mud that’s been sitting in a puddle for too long.”

“That’s probably what it is,” I answer. Swab more of it across the space between the coffin’s corner and the lid. I imagine the bacteria are aware of what we’re doing and are trying to flee, waterfalling out of the coffin. I glare at them, even though they’re too small for my eyes. We should probably move the jar of glimmer insects, actually. They have to breathe, which means the disease could get inside. Even though for us that means working in deeper near-darkness.

I use a foot to push the glimmer insects backwards. The queen’s friend glances at me, but doesn’t ask. Her pair of trowels scoop a large glob of paste, and plop it on the coffin’s lid. She begins taking smaller scoops, filling in the gap between the coffin and where the head of it disappears into the cut-out wall. I begin to work my way around the foot, jamming goop in and trying to smooth it out neatly. It usually doesn’t work. But then I decide this tunnel is already spooky and dark and jagged, so I stop trying.

“This better be worth it,” the queen’s friend says.

“Depends on what you mean by worth it,” I reply.

“I mean, is this going to do anything?”

“Sure. It’ll probably save lots of insects.”

“Somehow, our tenure as queen has descended to me sealing coffins to help some tiny insects.”

“Our?”

“Yes. Mine and Kaliq’s.”

“Oh,” I nod. “Having there be two queens seems nice. Less busy, and all that.”

“It’s a boon and a great hurdle. We both have to know everything the other knows. Not to mention waking up every day and donning two separate identities like they are costumes.”

I pause, trowel halfway between vase and coffin’s edge. “How does that work with the king?”

She laughs. Thick and echoing, almost as if from a large nanuk. Assuming giant, white-furred nanuit could laugh. “Panuk was in on it. Not the best actor, that one,” her voice softens. “We tried keeping Kaliq as the queen for important displays of affection.” I reach around the coffin and scoop more paste. Trowel scraping fills the silence. I scoop more paste. “This one, he hardly speaks to us. Would prefer if we were kept in our rooms all day. Hence why we insisted on being put in charge of the city’s visitors.”

“Hence how you ended up with one of those visitors, filling in the previous king’s coffin,” the words blurt from my mouth. My trowel stops. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

The clay vase drags on the ground as she pulls it around the coffin towards me. “Things are starting to come full circle, aren’t they?”

“I guess you could say that.” I slowly resume goopifying the coffin.

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