Chapter 23 (how a battlefield)

The queen’s friend leaves the vase by the compartment where the glimmer insect jars are kept. Then she guides me to the exit, pulling a pair of mittens–one dark indigo, the other beige–from a hidden pocket. I don’t have mittens, so I ball my gray, dust-covered hands into fists and hope the guards don’t notice.

Only one guard is standing by the open door as we approach it. My eyes ache from the sunlight, and my nose itches. I attempt to hold back the sneeze by inhaling sharply.

“Queen,” the guard says, dipping her head. I can tell she’s fighting back a smile. “How did the tour go?”

“It was as expected, Nukili,” she answers, turning to me.

I do my best to look frightened, but also like I am trying not to show I am frightened. I guess I succeed in some measure, because the guard does smile.

“I’m going to leave now,” I say. “I’m sure people are waiting for me.”

This makes the guard smile wider.

“Nukili, be polite,” the queen’s friend says.

“Of course, queen,” the guard dips her head to me. “Please enjoy your stay in Aquvuit. If your camp requires supplies, we would be eager to aid you.”

The queen’s friend motions to the door, and I eagerly walk through it. Goodness, I don’t know what to do with my hands.

I barely make it ten paces before the palace door begins grinding shut. I risk a glance backward, but the queen’s friend has already disappeared into the darkness.

***

I go to the building with Rattle-bones and the egg, hesitate in front of the thin door before deciding to knock. Nobody replies, so I slide it open.

No one is there. I step aside to let light in, but this only reveals more of the barren room. The table is still beside the wall, and the dusty floor is covered with footprints and sweeping marks. “Hello?” I call. The empty walls absorb my voice. In the shadows, the skeleton cook gapes at me with full rows of teeth.

“Well that’s nice,” I say, pull Skeleton Cook’s bones together. He rises to a stand and clanks across the floor, fetching my cloak from near where the egg was. Turning my back to the palace, I shield him as his white bones emerge into the sunlight. I don’t think anyone can see me. I don’t want anyone from the palace to see Skeleton Cook. I slide the door shut, glance up and down the street, wondering where Rattle-bones could have gone. Maybe the queen roped him into helping and they took the egg with them.

I put my hands on my hips. I could return to the pile of rocks. Probably better than hanging out in a dark building for the rest of the day. But, I also halfway promised to help the queen with cleaning. I sigh, because that means walking through the city until I find her. And my legs are tired, from standing in the dark tunnel, my lips are tired, from mouthing a killing insect curse fifty-nine times. I hope there is not a sixtieth. There is probably a sixtieth, and a sixty-first. But I didn’t find them.

Skeleton Cook and I walk down the street, towards the hill and the mud-covered road, and I try to shield him with my back to the palace but he’s taller than me. So I don’t think it does anything.

***

So this is how it goes, brain? This is how he goes out? Memories of him reflected in crystal tears shattering on the rocky ground. Shattering on reedy leaves. Watering deadly beige stems and indigo flowers.

You ran there, brain, fists trembling with the dregs of Blond-boy’s rage. The hot rage boiling in his blood and you still knew the grainy sense of it, rubbing across your fingers.

You ran to the widow’s thrill, the patch that hadn’t changed sizes, even though the garden and the house seemed smaller to you, years after. Years after Tulimaq.

It still called you.

You ran to the widow’s thrill, because you knew Blond-boy couldn’t follow you there. Kolariq and his gray shedding volcano couldn’t follow you there.

You ran there to let your tears dry, eyes red and puffy, you stared at that silent house of mortared stones and wooden eaves, the garden was overflowing with brown leaves, the windows were barred over and you didn’t think anybody lived there anymore. So much for the electric light and dancing to flute music.

You walked back when your tears were dry, eyes puffy but probably not red, the sun was red, the ocean was anything but dry, you walked to the mouth of the cave and stopped with the hanging creepers still swaying in your wake because Aukai’s body wasn’t there anymore. You stared at where Aukai’s body had been, certain it was there, had been there, on the flat stone, because that’s how far you dragged him from the beach–the trail his glacier body carved in the sand–before your bones went too liquid on you to drag him any further.

The door to the skeleton chamber squeaked open.

Kolariq walked out.

You didn’t need to see what was on the table to know.

Your bones went liquid and your tears were too dry for you to do anything but kneel blankly underneath the creepers.

You looked up and Kolariq was sitting in the deep red chair, dressed like a volcano, and there was a fire flickering in the fireplace. One log of driftwood, surrounded by bright orange.

I remember that image, clearly brain. Oh, I will always remember.

***

Skeleton Cook and I turn onto the first street forming a circle around the city, the stones of it a deep green. Something between my shoulder blades untenses, and I sigh. I glance towards the pointed form of the palace, my view blocked by curving stone walls.

Skeleton Cook’s bones tap against the street, and I wonder if I could find him boots. Between those and the cloak he’s holding, I could nearly disguise him as an actual person. A terribly thin one though. I could wrap him in cloth, paint his face, except that he’s missing a nose. And eyes. And everything but a skull holding teeth.

The curving street leads us to a wheel-spoke-street of dark, shimmering rock. The band of green cutting across it almost looks bright in comparison.

“Hey!” a voice shouts. I glance to my right. The queen is standing near the middle of the shimmering black street, close to the palace and its ring of dirty yellow stone.

I wave back, and she beckons. My shoulders tense up again as Skeleton Cook and I approach her, only this time I think it’s because I expected the street to be slippery. It’s not. Not really. Skeleton Cook would probably skid across it easily. Another reason he might need boots here.

“I thought you said it wouldn’t take very long,” she says when I’m close enough. She’s holding a short-handled tool, widening into a flat sort of shovel, and her parka is dusty.

“That wasn’t very long,” I reply. Glance up at the sun, which is well past afternoon.

“That was a quarter of the daylight,” she answers, not even looking up. “And I’m still behind.”

“Are you working alone?” I ask, puzzled.

“No. But he’s not much help. Complains that the egg needs attention.”

I sigh. “We’re coming.”

She glances at Skeleton Cook. “Where did you get that?” she points with the flat end of the object she’s holding.

“Where do you think?” I answer. Stroll past her towards the building Rattle-bones suddenly shouts from.

“How’d you kill him?” she calls. I pause with my hand in front of the door.

“By nearly dying myself,” I reply. I reply, knowing it is cryptic. I glance behind me, knowing her furrowed brow means she’s puzzled. Possibly annoyed.

She walks to us. Prods the flat-edged tool–what has she been using it for?–between Skeleton Cook’s ribs, starting from the bottom on the left side. “There’s clearly more to that story,” she eventually says.

“Really?” I say.

She glares at me, and I sigh at the mountains her eyes hold. “Death mage, I do appreciate the help you’ve given us–and seemingly intend to continue giving us–but I would like to know what you want out of this. Besides delivering that wealth of an egg here. Because you’ve well and done that part, and yet here you still are.”

Skeleton Cook steps backwards, away from the prodding instrument. “I thought you were behind,” I say.

“I am,” she answers, stepping closer. “In more ways than one. Including you.”

My hands clench into fists. “Do you want me to leave?” I whisper.

“No,” those mountains, piercing me. “I want to know why you’re here.”

My legs are trembling, my heart is pounding. Can she not see I will not melt myself so she can see the cracks I hold? No, I am ice. I am an ice cube in this less-of-a-cloud self. “I killed him because my skin was covered with poison and I was dying and he put snow on the blood and when I woke up he was the dead one. So I took his house. And then carved a cave. And put jars of my own blood in the cave every month because it leaks from my face but that’s better than the alternative, dear queen, because I wasn’t sure if they were really all dead or not so I carved a cave none of them could walk into without dying because they already desecrated his body once, queen, so stop asking me why I am here because maybe it’s because I have nowhere else to go because maybe I’m nothing but a crazy death mage.”

My chest heaves. I can burn mountains. I can burn mountains with a word, with a flick of my hand, because I know how this queen’s blood feels and it feels like fragmented stone, chipped away–no, chiseled into something smooth and graceful. I could watch that grace die.

Skeleton Cook dances. Skeleton Cook dances like the strings holding him together are suspended by a puppeteer, fingers like leaves in the wind, only this puppet dances by tapping on shimmering black stone and I am nothing but a crazy death mage. I think he’s thrown my cloak to the wind.

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