As time plodded along the artifices of man crumbled, leaving only one city. Colduvai, still standing in a region of Africa near human genesis, survives because of the might and devastating beauty of Queen Magthwi. She stands as the center of the world.
Something lurks, not daring to show its face to her, but it eats at her kingdom nonetheless. Citizens are disappearing, or worse, giving up, even dying from the anxiety of sitting in their own homes.
The queendom resists, but it does not appear they can hold out against the mysterious scourge. The diplomatic envoy doesn’t return. The zookeeper goes mad and unleashes his flock. A traitorous girl dabbles in the royal fluids, engineered by generations long past, and seeks a throne of her own. Still the queen stands and does her best to cradle a thrashing people until the end.
(reading time: 1 hour, 7 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 10 hours, 30 minutes)
Collapse of Colduvai
The greatest mistake life ever made was convincing itself that only parts of the Earth were home. It grew bodies that could only swim, crawl, or fly. Already the error was made, the Earth split into the three kingdoms of land, sea, and air. Life had missed Earth as medium, as separate only from the empty cold of space.
Life further divided itself. Species. Predator. Prey. Parasite. With or without spine. Counting the chambers of a heart was the genesis of wealth. Humanity was the culmination of this error, as watched by the nutcracker man. They were beings of heat and anxiety that deemed their own planet inhospitable. They put themselves in boxes, in towns, in regions, in countries, and on continents. Of all that space and material only their individually-assigned box was home. It was the only place they could be truly comfortable. All the world a beach and only one grain of sand to hold peace of the mind. Of course it slipped away, gone one day from under their bare feet. It was just one grain, but without it they sank.
The nutcracker man was there from the beginning, but only briefly in life. He watched most of it as a skull. He saw the downfall from behind a pane of glass. They would come and look at him, speculate as to his misery and intelligence, and be glad they weren’t him any longer.
Humanity’s home was in its twenty-third recorded century. The atmosphere was privatized into lanes. Noise was required of all, but not communication. One’s devices spoke in their stead and corrected them even when they were right. Finance had collapsed like a hill of beans too dry to ever germinate. Rather than go back to counting the chambers of the heart, the species only went as far back as food. The farms of the world became the wealthiest places, especially with the creative power of syringe-breeding. Each city had its own crop that could not be grown anywhere else.
The single grain of home washed away in the tide, or was picked up by the wind, or simply sank down to the bedrock. None of them noticed immediately. The boxes emptied and cities began to melt like candles. North America went first. There was no drought or famine. No war. It simply went. The rest of species had their own crop to tend to and so took little notice.
South America fell, with the few who speculated blaming it on the northern malady trickling down. Australia. The warmed Antarctica. The whole of Asia and Europe. They left their homes and vanished. There had to be graves, there simply had to be, but none of them had the expected mass. Their towers still stood, fossilizing in their stillness, wealth sitting in inert piles.
Last was Africa with its coarse grains and earthen riches. In the post-money world they had set down the deepest roots. More accurately, they had found some of the old paths cutting to the floor of the continent and occupied them once more. The tides of technology and suspicion erased the lines between countries, leaving only individual cities and their surrounding monocultures.
There was a place in what used to be called Tanzania. In an earlier century many bones and relics were discovered there, including some of the earliest stone tools ever found. That gorge may have been the birthplace of scraping and hammering as separate concepts from punching and clawing. There was also a skull hiding among the agave with a face like a man but teeth like a beast. Deemed an ancestor, it was called nutcracker man by the shape of its back teeth, which resembled an antiquated hand-operated nutcracker.
Nutcracker man was moved around, occasionally studied, but mostly sat behind glass. He saw societies and currencies rise and fall; he watched Africa struggle on the world stage even though all human rivers originated there. He was in the place that was barely still called England in the last year of relic-sharing. He was among the last treasures to ever be moved from one museum to another. They sent him back to the gorge as if to say they were done learning from him.
He found the gorge much changed from his first lives there. It was now called Colduvai. The agave had been cut back and replaced with their queendom’s monoculture: the golden coffee cherry. The needle-breeding had changed the plant greatly, turning it from three meter shrubs into fifteen meter trees. Golden cherries, their skins stretched in places with streaks of red, grew in heavy bunches. People moved about the small caravan carrying Nutcracker man through the farmlands. They eyed him suspiciously, unaware he was not an immigrant.
The skull was taken into the city. Towers of orange and gold rose high into the sky, some with vertical farms across their sides. Arched trellises thick with vines covered the streets, which grew narrower the deeper Nutcracker man went. He saw the ways in which mankind had found its roots once more. Gone were the phones. Gone were the computers shoved into pockets, glasses, watches, and eye-sitting lenses. Women carried clay pots on their shoulders and heads, hips swaying, drawing all eyes to the beauty of their balance and labor. Men had very little war left in them, so the streets were full of aged men who’d only ever had half a fight to begin with, making conversation as they fumbled with whittling knives and basket fibers, trying to learn a craft.
Children played barefoot in the street, their strides smacking against the orange crystal cobblestones like hurrying ducks. The only wheels were on wheelbarrows or rolling pins. There were no advertisements, for these people had names instead of reputations. One more curious than Nutcracker man would’ve wondered where the science had gone. It had to be somewhere, because the edges of the golden coffee groves still iterated. The light was still electric, collected by shimmering panels in the morning. Pipes and pressures still did the work of moving the water and there was little evidence of any work being inconvenient. Every bit of labor in the streets was its own reward, nearly separated from the soft currency of many queendoms such as Colduvai.
Nutcracker man had seen every shade of humanity, but Colduvai’s was familiar in its darkness. Many peoples had lived there in the time of finance, some as pale as the dry clouds over Antarctica, but in the time of the queens Colduvai’s collective skin was deeply brown and black. It was the languages and names that had changed the most. The words used to be Swahili, but now were something wholly new. The names bore their origins like cloaks made of old flags.
The returning skull was taken into the queen’s tower. She lived atop the spire with her brood, and each level beneath it was a place of great importance for Colduvai life. On his way to the museum he learned what happened to the science. It was still present, but held only by those minds most committed to its tenets. It was like a fancy sport played on horseback, as only those who could afford the animal and its care had access to it. The common people knew almost nothing of technology, and when it came to the natural world they knew only the plants and animals of the gorge. The men and women of science paid the closest attention to Nutcracker man as he passed through, some of them touching his glass with gloved hands.
The commoners were allowed to visit him in the museum, but few ever did. They had rich full lives to attend to, so almost none attempted to romance the past, to insert themselves in it by archaeological voyeurism. His most frequent friend was one of the scientists. He touched the glass every time, but he did not wear gloves. There was a perverse pride in his eyes when he smeared his oily prints across the sides of Nutcracker man’s case, directly over his bony temples. The skull was used to people courting those long dead, romanticizing their images until they were scrubbed clean of bigotry, their malnourished size, and their venereal diseases. Not this fellow. He lusted after the past, but only key parts of it, pinching and rending and poking until he found tender inspiration, like a coconut crab making short work of its namesake.
They put Nutcracker man in an exhibit with other ancestors, opposite a glass wall overlooking much of the city and the distant coffee groves. There were other skulls and partial skeletons, but none so old as him. There were stone tools of the simplest variety, their craftsmanship barely distinguishable from natural chipping and weathering: hammers, knives, scrapers, grinders, and needles that were practically railroad spikes. Nutcracker man could not see them. His empty eye sockets were aimed out the window. He saw only Colduvai and the few faces that looked into his depths to discern truths that were actually just obvious.
There was one other special face. She did not come to visit him, but to visit her more immediate predecessors. There were two skeletons of queens in the exhibit, at the end of the chamber, right where the pinnacle of human evolution was suggested. Most couldn’t spot the subtle differences between a human and one of the queens. They had seen the most delicate touch of the needle-breeding before science swore off touching their holy bodies ever again. Nutcracker man, if he cared a little more, might have thought the queens didn’t belong in the same line at all. His purpose was to survive. The purpose of his parents was to survive and the purpose of his children was to survive.
The queens had a purpose made by man, not by nature. Finance collapsed because the trust was gone. None believed that data or paper truly represented something of value. Even though the market artifices had lasted for hundreds of years, they crumbled like a house of cards under a shower. If society was to go on, humanity needed a new standard upon which to base their value. North America, Europe, and Australia chose kings. They stabbed the needles deep into their souls and changed them into gods. Yet there hadn’t been a missionary spreading the holy words of those new gods in more than a decade.
Most other places chose queens and kissed them lightly, with pure consent from all parties. The queen was mother. The queen was judge. The queen was celebrity. The queen was gold and silver and copper. From her soft hands flowed soft currency: merciful money tied to her will. As long as she and her children ruled, the paper and coins bearing their faces could be used. Stability came from the blood standard.
No queen lines were more stable than that of Colduvai. Nutcracker man had seen plenty of royals, but none with eyes as deep as his. The closest were on the face of the woman who came to see the earliest dead queens. She spared a moment for Nutcracker man. She was an absolute vision, her face the greatest possible argument for her divinity. Even in the days of the most virulent racism no pale man could look upon her and not fall deeply in love with every detail.
Her hair was fluffy and voluminous: a juvenile cooing explosion forever safe in its smoky coat. Her cheeks and jaw were chiseled by study, both in the tower’s library and in the city streets. The muscles of her jaw were so taut because she had thought the deep thoughts, the ones that one chews more than thinks. She had tasted a thousand philosophies, rolled them around on her tongue, pressurized their flaws under her palate, and then spit out the indigestible pit of falsehoods.
She had the eyes of a true queen: irises touched by the green of moss that hadn’t seen sunlight unfiltered by a canopy in thousands of years. Their very edge was gold, but almost imperceptibly so. One would have to be the queen’s lover, staring into her eyes for hours in half-light, just to discern it. That made it essentially impossible, as no man could occupy a queen for more than a year without her growing dreadfully bored.
Her lips were the guard of her royal thoughts. They were full but stiff, rarely betraying her emotions. The queen smiled not to express happiness, but to tell her people all was well. She frowned not when angry, but when passing judgment. They knew the regular touch of royal coffee, but not even a single kiss from men. She had a brood of six from six different fathers, they were all fine choices, but none had earned her love or kiss.
The queen was muscular, but that could only be discerned from her bare arms. The rest of her was covered in the finery her people made: dresses of iridescent gold fractals, endless orange spirals like seashells on one of the sun’s beaches, or purple columns like ancient ruins in twilight. She rarely covered her magnificent crop of hair, but when she did it was wrapped up tightly in fine towering silks and adorned with jeweled pins molded into unfamiliar faces. Rumors swirled that they were the faces of secret gods only the queens could convene with.
Though mostly hidden by the shapes of her dresses, her hips were remarkably wide. This was the most notable feature of the skeletal queens as well, whose pelvises looked like dry desert valleys. A queen was supposed to be generous to her people, giving them many princesses to choose from for the generation to come. The wider hips facilitated their birth. One look at the skeleton would suggest the queens were forced to waddle by the bowl of their pelvis, but this was not the case, at least not as far as Nutcracker man could see in Colduvai’s queen.
Her steps were declarations. Even bare her feet struck like shoes with stone soles. Even dressed in her best she rarely wore shoes. Nothing in her kingdom could bring harm to her feet; nothing would dare. She let her bare skin touch the orange crystal of the streets so that she would leave the lightest powder of her skin behind, so her most desperate subjects would actually have something to kiss when following behind her procession. The watery sway of her hips combined with the strut of her powerful thighs to create a gait of pure feminine resolve. Were Nutcracker man still wearing his flesh he would’ve lusted after that gait, and then felt deep shame for disrespecting its true purpose.
Without the distractions of manhood he was able to focus on just one part of her overwhelming image. He looked at her face and she looked back. They were beginning and end. A subject with no need of a queen and a queen who, for the moment, was several rooms away from her nearest subject. When she’d seen all she needed to see, no man could keep her attention for long, she moved back to the skeletal queens and instead engaged them. She opened their cases, as only she was allowed to do, and ran her flawless fingers across their bones. She checked her posture against theirs.
Nutcracker man would hear her name often. She was Queen Magthwi. Fourth Daughter of Queen Bimine. The future and stability of Colduvai. The woman of the golden gorge. Humanity’s ultimate ruler.
The old skull watched her city with nearly the same devotion. It was good to be back home. Nothing could keep him from that truth.
The golden coffee grew around the whole of Colduvai, with only a river and a few roads providing clear passage. It was actually thickest at its edge, the trees growing into each other and forming a dense cloned fence. No single tree existed beyond this thick edge, as the monoculture could only grow within soil treated by a secret formula of the city. Colduvai ended at the edge of that treated circle; all citizens and all trees respected this.
The golden coffee was owned, as was everything and everyone within the circle, by Queen Magthwi. The soil was treated and the seeds planted by her Scientific Authority. The harvesting, both the work and the product, was a gift to the people. Those without professions were free to pick up that of harvester at any point without seeking permission. Every morning a wide variety of citizens, carrying an even wider variety of baskets and picking implements, left the city to harvest cherries in the grove. They would return with the dying light or a full basket, whichever came first, and then sell their cherries to the discerning people of the market.
The cherries were exchanged for soft currency: coins of the queen and the princesses. Soft currency was the favor of the royal family, and that could be taken at any moment by a misdeed. Magthwi watched from her spire, and most simply knew that she could see the whole of Colduvai, even between every branch and leaf of coffee. Whether she did this by divine power or scientific instrument did not matter.
If a harvester was to make soft currency, and if those soft coins were to hold their value in spite of their fragility, they had to behave. Even deep in the grove they could not argue with others over who got to pick what among the crop. If someone occupied a ripe patch first, one was to leave them to their find. An argument over cherries and beans, especially one that became violent, was not considered dignified. It was an insult to the queen. These insults rarely stayed hidden, as the trees themselves seemed to have ears and lips. So the harvesters were a peaceful bunch and often quiet in their work.
Long after Nutcracker man returned home, the harvesters began their day. The city opened its many outer gates. A guard of the Peace Authority was posted at each, their main duty to check everything that would enter Colduvai for appropriateness. They let only cherries through, and perhaps the occasional stone that a child accompanying their parent might want to keep. Nothing else. The branches, leaves, and roots belonged to the Science Authority. The few animals belonged to the grove. No objects from other cultures were taken in, and no people either. That last rule mattered little, as a foreigner hadn’t penetrated the tangled fencing growth in years.
One of the guards eyed the greatest complication to his routine: a girl. She was mixed in with the other harvesters, but she stood out like a snake among noodles. The harvesters had blank eyes not yet warmed by the sun. They shuffled along slowly, touching each other’s arms and sharing conversation before the dense silence of the grove quieted them. The girl talked to no one yet held more life than any of them in her eyes. She didn’t need to bask in the sun like a reptile; there was something always blooming inside her that filled her with energy. The guard thought he remembered an old proverb about a flower that did nothing but grow petals, but it had vanished in his memory, replaced by the unsettling image of a flower blooming outward until it was a sphere of endless motion. It was how he pictured that girl. She skipped closer, feet bare and fingers playing at the air as if it were an instrument.
He was leaning against the arch of the gate, but had to stand at full attention for her approach. He had no weapons, the lower ranks of the Peace Authority were only allowed to restrain, so he crossed his arms across his chest to make himself look as much like a wall as possible. A deep breath would’ve helped puff out his chest, but the girl was so close now that he didn’t want to breathe any of her in. She always had that aura about her as well: some kind of invisible halo of pheromones or spores that might infect those nearest with affection for her or leniency for her actions.
She was as much a citizen as anyone else, but the guard knew a few stories. Her family was much newer than most. There was pale skin in her past, from when the city was all cultures and peoples. Skin from the land called Japan. They had queens too, empresses they were called, but only after a disastrous emperor. That island had turned to queens out of desperation rather than respect, which meant they couldn’t last. The guard thought he remembered something about the ocean swallowing that land up, yet this pixie skipping closer had escaped. She wasn’t even dripping.
The girl had to know some secrets from her ancestral lands, because she had convinced herself it was fine to dress the way she did, with the reflective pattern of a flowering vine wrapping around her tight jacket. It was a bloom from a different continent, something their queen couldn’t pick in her garden. She was very close now; he saw her sharp eyebrows and dark eyes. She seemed to stare straight through him, as if she saw only the trees behind the walls and crowds. Whether she remembered him or not wasn’t clear at first, but he knew her mischief enough to name it. She was Keikogile.
“Stop,” he said, holding out one hand. Older harvesters ambled past on both sides. He spared not a glance for them. The young woman, he guessed twenty-three or twenty-four years old, did as ordered, locking her feet together and standing straight. The perfect posture only lasted for a fraction of a second though, as soon her torso swayed back and forth and up and down in impatience. He looked at the large empty pack on her back. “You’re not here for cherries.”
“I’ve never gone in there for cherries,” she answered, eyes climbing over his bald head, gaze running in the branches of the trees like a rodent.
“Do you remember me Keikogile? This is not the first time I’ve had to stop you.”
“You can call me Keiko,” she chirped. “Yes, I remember you. You never gave me your name. You just said you were duty bound to stop me because I looked so suspicious. How many times will you stop me before my suspicious behavior becomes mundane?”
“As soon as you are consistent,” the guard said. He pointed across his chest with each hand. “Do you see all these people? They are the same day in and day out. It’s almost as if they never age. They are the blowing of a gentle breeze past my cheeks.” He ran his fingertips across his face as if feeling for stubble. “You are not that. You are the bug that buzzes right between my eyes.”
“Why have you stopped me?” she asked, uninterested in his poetic comparisons.
“Nothing is supposed to leave but cherries,” he reminded. “The last time you left your pack was full of flowers. Whether you picked the flowering weeds or went past the fence for them doesn’t matter, as collection of either is disallowed.”
“I’m a florist.”
“You can grow flowers in and around your shop. You don’t need to collect fresh ones.”
“I don’t need to, but having new ones allows me to interbreed them with others. I can improve my shop, which improves my business, which improves our queen’s Colduvai. There is no crime. Besides, we both remember you had to let me leave last time because taking flowers is not actually banned. Animals, yes. Pieces of the golden coffee plants, yes. My foraging does not include those.”
“An oversight I think. They did not think of the weeds. Nobody is supposed to.”
“Flowers are weeds?” the girl repeated. She took a step closer. Her smile stiffened; she grabbed a fallen leaf from his shoulder and tossed it away. His eyes were locked with hers, so he couldn’t spare a second to look and see if there actually had been a leaf. “It seems only one of us lives in Colduvai. When we have our festivals and parades and weddings and funerals we put flowers everywhere. We let our cracks hold the stems to hide those cracks from sight. They are not weeds. So where is it, Mr. Of-the-peace? Where is it that you live, where flowers are weeds?”
“You’re going to make a scene, aren’t you?”
“Only if you set the stage,” she practically whispered in his ear. The guard cleared his throat, without opening his mouth, put his arms behind his back, and swung to the side like a gate. Keikogile flashed the more earnest smile she’d worn initially and resumed her skipping toward the grove.
The further she went the more the harvesters thinned. The eldest stopped at the nearest trees to pick to spare their bones the rugged inclines of the deep grove. Next were the families who picked together, smartly telling their children that the labor of picking was a collection game and that the winner would get an extra fried plantain after dinner. They all talked with each other, but they let silence cut in when Keikogile went by. She didn’t come every day, so they assumed she wasn’t interested in bonding, in setting down roots of her own in the grove.
The last wave of harvesters, the youngest, strongest, and most driven, disappeared when they climbed into the trees to get at the canopy cherries. Keikogile continued on. The trees grew thicker, but so too did the undergrowth with no daily march of harvesters to flatten it. Furry moss grew all the way around some trees like sleeves. She ran her hands through their dew-covered tips and relished the sensation.
There was no place in Colduvai half as peaceful as the densest edge of the grove. The Science Authority was sometimes jokingly called the Silence Authority, for most of its accomplishments in recent years involved making the various hidden machines of the city much quieter. The florist appreciated their efforts greatly, for it made the forest dead quiet for her. The grove spoke only in small blooms, and she sensed them much better in still air.
Everyone knew that queens had seen needle-breeding, but the young woman thought others of the species had as well. They must have been such grand experiments, so surely others had the intelligence to enhance their own families quietly. There was only one queen in the gorge, but perhaps there were other hidden talents from all over the world, humbly propping Magthwi up: ten thousand needles against the soles of her feet feeling like nothing but ground thanks to the distribution of weight.
Keikogile liked to pretend she had a hidden talent. It did seem possible that she was more attuned to nature than most. She’d never been out of the city, but there was a stretch along the river that mimicked a true beach in its habit of having all sorts of interesting things wash up. When she was a child, when her parents still lived, they would take her there and give her a bucket to collect things. She always hunted down things they never expected: softened wood from foreign trees, dried fish with shockingly colorful scales, living ten-legged things fat with eggs that had obviously seen needle-breeding…
Still she honed that ability, only now it was deep in the leafy lake of golden coffee. She dropped to her hands and knees and plucked a tiny white flower from under an arching root. Its center was green and spiny. An odd trait to be sure. Not good for breeding into decorations at all, but good enough for the bucket of the curious child who just wanted to touch nature’s thorns and see how much blood swelled out. She placed it delicately in the bottom of her pack.
Talking her way out of a search by the Peace Authority was vital for each of her foraging trips, for she didn’t just smuggle flowers out. Even without an education in science her family had long practiced its more exploratory and adventurous facets. They knew that almost every living thing on the planet had scraps of needle-breeding deep within them. There had been so much meddling from so many parties with so many interests that it could never be permanently removed from the biosphere.
Keikogile’s father had isolated a trait in some of the lusher moss species of the grove that allowed them to take nutrients from just about any surface, including the bark of the golden coffee plant. He kept a bed of it in the back of their shop, letting it mingle with dozens of other anomalous plants. They never sold their experiments until they were properly refined into harmless flowers and garden-filling, but Keikogile had turned some of the strange plants into tools to further her work.
The bottom of her pack was lined with a network of whitish roots that, like the moss, would accept almost any plant material as part of itself. When she set the tiny white flower inside, the roots immediately joined to its plucked stem, causing it to stand on its own once more. The roots kept anything she gathered alive until she could get them back to the shop. They also allowed the blooms to exchange bits of heritage in fluid transfer, invisibly turning them from one thing to another over the course of a simple stroll through the city.
If the guard had found the roots in her pack, ripped them out and grimaced as if they were spider webs, she surely would have been jailed. Her family shop would be torn apart and with it the many experimental lines still bearing her father’s and mother’s fingerprints. She was the last person of her line, unless she took up a husband and reproduced in a way the queen approved. Keikogile would rather take the risk, would rather have her children be confusing glorious blooms in a backroom.
Near the edge of the grove it was impossible to walk normally thanks to the gnarled roots of the coffee. Every other step could plunge one’s foot into a dense cluster of grasses, fungi, and insect nests. It also happened to be where the most flowers grew. Keikogile bent over and picked another. This one was the size of her hand, with petals as thick as a cloth napkin. She leaned against a tree and swung her pack around to root it in the bottom. It was nearly full now, heavy blooms leaning in every direction from the top that could no longer be strapped shut. Burying her face in it to reach the bottom was a wonderful sensation, like diving into a bouquet. The silken touch of the petals on her cheek made her giggle into her pack, a sound she imagined rooting in the bottom as well, putting a piece of herself into the flowers.
She was about to depart, the sun was starting to set, when she looked at the spot she’d just plucked from. She paused. There was something there: an orange sparkle within a root’s crack. The florist dropped back to her knees and stuck her eye in the crack, watching an ant crawl across the glow like it was a firewalker crossing a bed of embers. Her fingers couldn’t reach far enough in to tap it, so she wrapped one hand around the root and followed it down into the grass. Further than she could reach. The grove was the only place where one’s risks couldn’t hurt Colduvai, so she leapt off the root and into the grass, disappearing beneath it. She still had hold of the root, crawling as it led her under one of the larger trees and into a hollow in the soil. The tunnel was barely big enough for her. Her precious cargo lost several petals to the root-stalactites, but she was too enthralled by the strange color to turn back.
The tunnel wasn’t as dark as it should’ve been, as the strange material she chased emitted a soft orange light. It wasn’t just shining in the cracks of the root anymore. There were tiny nodules all about her, bubbling out of various roots like golden pearls. They were swollen enough to touch now, so she tapped one. Its slick surface produced a delightful note somewhere between the singing rim of a glass and the chirp of a cricket. It could’ve been her imagination, it was more active than most, but the orange light seemed to pulse at her touch.
Keikogile crawled deeper and further, eventually abandoning her pack in the tunnel when the space became too cramped. Roots ran straight through now, thick and vertical. The florist had to snake between two and then squeeze between two more, lifting her shirt and scratching the skin just above her hips. None of the market women, who sat all day making sure their lazy husbands didn’t whistle at any of the walking hips, would’ve been able to fit down there. Neither could the powerful legs of the queen. It could only be a child, or someone so wrapped up in microscopic or interstellar things that they forgot to eat, sleep, and otherwise nourish their body to a state of full health.
She was reminded of how elaborate the interior of some flowers were, how they adapted into compact labyrinths that only certain species could navigate. Such flowers had but one pollinator, and so became obstacles to everything but that one friend. Like most animals, that friend would never even know the difficulty of bypassing the flower’s defenses. They would see only the pollen and nectar at the end of the colorful tunnel. It would look like a gift from the gods. The petals were simply wrapping paper. Keikogile wondered what form the nectar at the end would take.
A slight change in the air stopped her. It was not a shift she could easily describe. The air was… stiller. Yet less cloying. The smell of the loam became sweeter, but not syrupy. The rich aroma of split coffee cherries washed over her skin and kissed the surface of her eyes. Her hands sank into the earth a little more. When she brought one back out and examined the nails she noticed the orange glitter in the dirt under them.
A feeling gnawed on her, telling her to go no further. She’d only felt that before at the very edge of the grove, where the clustered trees didn’t even allow her to pass. Could she be under the edge now? She recalled her exact route and knew it was impossible that she’d gone that far. It was still nothing but grove above her. What, then? What told her she didn’t belong there? It wasn’t the strange orange material; that seemed to beckon her deeper, to tell her she was the pollinator the flower had set out this oddly long welcome mat for.
She crawled a little further and stopped again. Only one part of the grove was off limits to the harvesters. It was a narrow slice that lined up with the entrance to the queen’s spire; that way she could walk out her door and out into the grove without turning. Into the part of the monoculture meant just for her line. The thin slice was protected on all sides by growth as thick as the fence, but, as it now occurred to the florist, not from below.
This tunnel trespassed under the royal slice, where the golden coffee shared traits with the queen and her line. These would be the original plants of the grove, the ones set down as saplings shortly after the birth of Colduvai’s first queen. The Queen would have visited tree many times in her adolescence, presenting a glass dish filled with gel. In that dish would be the swirling collection of Colduvai’s scientific tricks. What made the coffee special. What made their queen special. Lesser plants grew out and provided for the people, but the royal slice produced something other than cherries: royal coffee.
Keikogile panted as she scrambled deeper and deeper. Something animalistic came over her, but tinged with unmistakably human greed. It felt like her tongue pulled forward even as her hands and feet clawed at the dirt like a shrew with coffee in place of blood. Her family was no stranger to breaking the rules, but it was always done at home, under the cover of curtains and secretive snickering. This was out in the open. Any rodent could come across her treachery and report it to the queen. Animals did not have such abilities, but maybe they did if they fed on plants of the royal slice.
The purpose of royal coffee was well known, but like most things that went on in the spire, poorly understood. A queen was forced to take the contributions of a male in order to give her people princesses. That meant she had to suffer the indignity of common blood building inside her. The children would be half common, dulled by purely natural heritage. Royal coffee, or whatever monoculture held the secret in other queendoms, was an infusion of royal traits. It drowned out the common qualities and turned princesses to queens as pure as their mother. It prevented the degradation of royal lines and kept the spire from falling, its rubble turning into common shops and bakeries because it could no longer aspire to anything greater.
Keikogile reached the end of the hollow. There were a few severed roots around her hands and knees. They were very dry. She guessed the tree above her had died and shriveled, the shrinking of the roots causing a collapse that created the hollow. There was evidence of the culprit. The end was marked by a swollen cluster of roots from a neighboring plant, its tips barely visible under a massive glob of orange bulges.
It was a burl of some sort, an anomaly that turned the tree into a glutton, sucking up the nutrients from the soil just to store them in these strangely beautiful growths. The Science Authority had their own troop of gardeners that meticulously pruned and cared for the royal slice, so how had they missed this?
“It’s only under their feet,” she whispered, staring deep into the swirling fluid of the burl. “They’ll find you when they dig up the dead one. They’ll click their tongues at the sight of you and shake their heads. How could you be so greedy? What were you even planning to do with all this treasure?” She reached out and touched its gloss, a surge of emotion moving through her. Even the tiniest hairs on her arms felt like savannah grass blowing in the wind. Her tongue seemed to swell in her mouth, urging her to lick its surface.
She held off. There was no telling what sort of properties a diseased or confused royal plant might have. It was not impossible to keep herself from gnawing on it, but it was to ignore such a discovery completely. In her mind this was the only chance at the material; the Science Authority could dig it all up any day, any hour, and if she revisited there would be nothing left but a collapsed pile of dirt.
Her pack. The roots at the bottom could certainly do interesting things with a piece of this. It was just for the flowers. That’s all. She just wanted to stick a little bit of that glow into the center of each blossom so they would pop a little more in the window. She wouldn’t consume any. She was a commoner. Taking in royal coffee would surely be toxic to something as fragile and dull as her. Already she felt like the light of the burl shone straight through her, heating her like a piece of glass in the sun.
The burl wasn’t a single curve, but many smaller bubbles of gold and orange. She felt along the places where those bubbles joined in search of a seam. On finger slipped into a crack. She smiled. A laugh tumbled out unexpectedly. Of course a perfect-sized piece was loose. She was the pollinator. The tree absolutely wanted her to take it back to her flowers and spread it around. This was the ecstasy of instinct for both of them, made weird by humanity’s interference, but no less thrilling for either party. She leaned back and pressed both her feet against the burl, pulling with all her might. The chunk cracked and separated all at once, sending her rolling backward.
She pulled her head out of the dirt and shook the clumps from her cropped hair. The glassy chunk was mostly gold around the edges, but thick orange fluid still swirled inside, its motion independent of her shaking or turning it. The orange was like a raw egg yolk; in fact the whole object was a bit like a transparent egg: some creature so eager to get into the world that it had to look through its shell before it was even a proper embryo.
By now her neck and knees were quite stiff, so Keikogile tucked her prize under one arm and crawled back along the tunnel, snagging the strap of her pack halfway with one of her knees and dragging it behind her. Her hands emerged from the long grass and spread their fingers wide, grabbing for anything stable. Once she was perched back on the roots where she first noticed the opening, she opened her pack as wide as possible, practically turning it inside out. All the flowers she had gathered fanned out and drooped as if they’d fainted, but they kept their grip on the whitish roots of the pack.
“This is a special occasion,” she told them, holding up her shining piece of the burl. “We have royalty among us. Should there be some pomp? Do you take circumstance with your pomp?” She turned her head up to the canopy. “It is my great honor to welcome royal coffee to my garden. We’ll put out all the fine petri dishware once we get you there. I hope my humble pack is comfortable enough for the journey.” She lowered it. A few loose ends of the roots perked up once it was close, reaching up to it. She held it just out of their grasp for a full minute.
“I know I’m going to do it… so I should just do it.” Her hands lowered the rest of the way. Roots made contact with its resinous shell, quickly spreading across the bottom and up the sides. They looked for a way in, but there was none, so they had to settle for branching across its surface. There was some degree of connection, because the glow from within the burl intensified. All the other flowers rose back to their full height in seconds, crowding around Keikogile’s face, looking just as she did to ascertain what the wondrous stuff now flowing through them was.
The four orange blobs at its center churned more rapidly, splitting into five, six, seven, twenty… They were like carbonation now, but with no air to escape to. Keikogile put her hands on it once more even though the roots could hold it stable on their own. She let the last tendrils cross over her fingers and touch the burl again on the other side, intertwining girl with burl with roots with flowers…
“It’s like a crystal ball,” she whispered, staring into the bubbles. “I see things. Does that make me a witch?” She turned again to the whole of the grove. “Have you made me a witch?” She smirked. The images could’ve been her imagination, so many things were, that was why everyone from the guard to her cousins to the boys in her classes back in school avoided her, but the strange heat she felt under the ground was back, mostly in her eyes this time.
In the bubbles she saw the city of Colduvai and its surrounding gorge. Its river. There was nothing beyond it, but there had been, as indicated by the dissolving of orange at the edge. She saw a spire of bubbles rise above the other swells. Then it all started to go. It didn’t fade. It didn’t slow. The tiniest pieces simply stopped being there. One bubble was gone, looking like a single window in one of the taller foaming buildings. Two bubbles were gone, destabilizing its top floor.
The whole city was covered in holes like a million bites taken from it. The tall shapes couldn’t be called buildings anymore because there was nothing holding them up. Before she knew it all the orange was gone, leaving only a placid rolling pattern of lifeless gold liquid. The orange globs returned after a few minutes, and she found she couldn’t influence their movement with her thoughts. She didn’t have to have a witch’s powers to be one, she thought. Just a witch’s brain. Just the urge to put a toe into the taboo and cackle about it.
Keikogile folded her pack back to its original shape and wrapped its straps around her shoulders. The weight of the burl was obvious. She reached back and felt it with one hand, aware of the bulge it created. If anyone noticed it would be a level of trouble she’d never courted before, more than a few days of not watering the flowers. Still, just as in the moment before touching it to the roots, she knew she was going to do it. There was no point in standing there. All the harvesters were likely returning already, and she would want to be in the thick of them to avoid attention.
Her hands did what they always did when idle: played the air like an instrument. She plucked at every breeze and strummed with every other step. The sun was setting. The queen must’ve been tired. Keikogile knew it was her responsibility to sleep when the spire did so they could all live and bond by the same rhythms, but she loved the night. She loved guessing at the owners of the whispers in the streets, or of the chirps hopping around the cobblestones.
Someone with a full basket of coffee balanced on their head appeared on her left. Three children with full satchels scrambled by on the right, tossing cherries at each other but always sure to pick them back up. They became more numerous around her, many of the ones behind staring at the blossoms peeking out of her pack. They said nothing; it wasn’t their business. They might’ve said something to the guard if she wasn’t stopped, but he picked the florist out of the crowd before she could even approach.
It was the same bald man as before. Keikogile would pass by under his furrowed brow, but he would let her pass. That was his intent anyway, before he saw the drooping bottom of her pack. There were no flowers so heavy. He swung in front of her for the second time that day.
“I’m surprised at your nerve,” he growled when she came to a stop. Her expression remained the same: smiling but barely acknowledging his presence. His nostrils flared. She didn’t think he was worth her time. She was living off in the clouds somewhere, letting her thoughts drift on winds foreign to Colduvai. “Open your pack.”
“Don’t treat me like a fool. There’s something heavy in there; you cannot take stones that size from the grove.” He could’ve chastised her for hours without getting a frown or a drop of sweat, so he simply reached for her pack. She hopped back before he could even touch the strap.
“I know you’re not a fool,” she said. “You are right. I did find a heavy stone of a pleasing color. I was in need of some lump to sit around my house all day, so I thought it could be my husband.” She pulled the pack around and reached inside. No matter the consequences, he could not see the roots. Better to take her punishment for the more minor offense. In one swift motion she ran her hand under the burl, separating the tenuous touches. It would’ve provided more resistance and even a few snapping sounds at any other hand, but it knew the oils of her family’s fingers across three generations.
Out came the burl. She tossed it from one hand to another playfully, to make it seem like it didn’t matter. Just a bauble. The guard stepped forward and held out his arms, forcing her to keep it steady. He took a long look, but would not touch it at first. His face contorted in rage.
“This is no stone!”
“No? Then what is it?” She tapped her chin with one finger and stared into the distance.
“I know you’re no fool either,” he barked. “Whatever this thing is, it is neither stone nor flower.” He bent over and sniffed at it, recoiling even though it had no obvious scent. Keikogile smirked. So many men were like him, eager to turn into hunting dogs so they could derive worth from instincts and senses alone. A dog wouldn’t have to know what she held, just that it was not part of the routine.
“So I can’t keep it?” she asked. “Harmless window dressing though it is?”
“No, you cannot keep it. I should stomp out your flowers too, but I won’t act violently upon any part of Magthwi’s crop. Now put it back.” Keikogile bent over wordlessly, setting the burl in the grass. Some of its influence was likely in the roots of her pack already, so getting it that far would likely bear some fruit, tiny and bitter as it might be. She tried to walk away. “Stop! I told you to put it back!”
“I did,” she said with a smooth roll of her eyes. “There is grass under our feet, so this is still the grove. Honestly, do you tell everyone with an unsanctioned leaf to put it back on the branch they plucked it from? How do you expect them to remember?” She tried to leave again, but the guard grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. Her hand slipped out of his despite his grip. He nearly apologized, as he finally saw an honest emotion on her face. Her eyes were sharpened to a point and her mouth was open the tiniest crack. She looked like a weasel about to kill a rodent for trespassing. He was not some street harasser or thug, but once he’d identified her response there was no other possibility; he had offended her. She had no claim to anything other than flowers, she was younger, she was vapid, and yet she was deeply and truly offended by the contact. She held the wrist he’d grabbed vertically in front of her chest.
“Young lady,” the guard started, unsure why he struck a conciliatory tone. His harshness returned as he descended the uniform steps of his lecture. “Colduvai is the world. There is land and water beyond it, but nothing good. Every good that was left came here. That time is done. Nothing enters now. I will not let that thing enter.” He pointed at the burl.
“Your family entered at some point,” Keikogile offered.
“I don’t know that,” the guard said. “They might’ve always been here. It doesn’t matter. What matters are the sorts of things out there that could ruin us. Diseases. Philosophies without queens. All those old weapons slinging fire and sparks.”
“So you think that little rock is full of sparks… or political dissidents?” She leaned down and looked at one of the orange bubbles. “If I squint that spot looks like a terrorist bombing.”
“You mock, but every foreign material allowed into Colduvai is a great risk. I do not take risks.”
“But you’ve just taken that from me.”
“That’s not what I… You need to put it back.”
“No,” Keikogile said. He had touched her; she was going to have to bathe tonight to get rid of the feeling. She wanted to keep the kiss of the grove’s air, the warmth of the dirt, and the heat of the glowing roots, but now it all had to go. He deserved punishment. Let him worry. If he liked to fear things so much he was welcome to fear Keikogile and her toys as well. “You’ve convinced me that it is dangerous. You did a very good job making everything sound awful. I’ll trust you, the expert, to handle that treacherous rock.”
She turned for a third time and successfully walked away. The guard wasn’t interested in making more of a scene than they already had. The harvesters gave him and the stone a wide berth. He tapped the burl with the tip of his boot. For him, the fluid was inert. He didn’t have gloves, but he would not undergo the embarrassment of returning to his superior and asking for protective equipment in his upcoming battle with a shiny pebble. As the last of the harvesters filed by, he worked up the will to touch it. He grabbed it all at once, wincing in case it electrocuted him. Nothing.
The guard was once an athlete, competing in his school days. Now he only had weekends with his nephews where they tossed balls back and forth, but he still remembered the technique. When he held the stone with both hands, around waist height, he started to spin. Faster and faster he went, eventually rising on his heels; they were like partners in a dance, except he would never be caught dancing with a foreigner. Gravity pulled on his fingers; the stone was slipping. All at once he grunted and flung it into the distance, nearly falling over as he watched it sail over the top of the coffee trees. The man washed his hands in the grass, making sure that was all they smelled like before going back to his favorite wall to lean on.
He was an athlete in school partly because he was offended by the academics. Some of them talked of the free flow of ideas across the borders of the remaining queendoms. They argued those channels shouldn’t have been closed with the rest. The guard knew better. Ideas were best curated by their queen. That flower girl was a thief even without her prize. She still had the idea of that shining thing, harvested it like anything else. She could see it whenever she wanted. The glow in her memory would convince her she could get away with anything because a guard’s sieve could not filter out her experience.
She would obsess over her lost treasure; he just knew it. Even with it tossed so far that it didn’t exist, tossed by his own fingers and palms, he pictured it too.
Colduvai was like a painting when viewed from most of the spire’s windows, but there were two levels that turned it into an endless tapestry wrapping a room. Those two floors rotated at all times, visible from the outside as immediately above and below the levels operated by the Science Authority. They were further marked by tall oval windows framed in reflective panels that made them shimmer like tear-filled eyes. If one was looking for inspiration they would look to the ornate chapel-like top of the spire, decorated with a golden statue of a queen swaddling a wrapped building like an infant.
If one looked instead for confidence or companionship, which the people of Colduvai looked for more than anything else, they would look to the rotating levels and the windows representing the eyes of their queen and her daughters. The whirling windows connected to the royal family’s private quarters: their bedrooms, their dining rooms, their writing rooms, and all the extravagant ones the people imagined.
There had to be at least two pools heated to the exact temperature of their queen’s breath. There had to be a game room as well, but the boards were likely built into the tile floors and the pieces were played by commoners. One of the more popular theories was that the queen had at least two bedrooms. One was for her actual rest. The other was where she suffered the indignity of a man in preparation for another daughter.
Their queen was vulnerable in such a state, and though she took it in stride her people would not want her to dwell on such memories. Entering that second bedroom would surely force her to do just that, so it was likely that the room was torn up and redecorated after each coupling. Wooden floors would be replaced by tile. Purple curtains would go down and red ones would go up. Paintings on the wall would be switched and would not share subject matter. The people were in agreement that Magthwi had at least two bedrooms behind those spinning windows, but one of them had been reincarnated several times. It was like the line of queens, wearing new faces and outfits to hide the suffering forced on it by the selfish clawing and mewling of the commoners below.
It was the morning after a pebble of hardened royal coffee was briefly tossed over the canopy of the monoculture. The queen missed little when surveying her city, but she had not spotted it. The burl’s arc had occurred in the middle of a meeting with the Peace Authority regarding the progress of the expeditionary force. The queen said little on that subject because she had no insight into things occurring beyond the gorge. They were her people, but they were utterly on their own until their return.
She did absorb the facts as reported: the force was advancing at the expected pace and would arrive at the borders of their target in less than a week’s time. Communication was being maintained via a radio device designed by the Science Authority. Magthwi imagined her expeditionary force as fireflies outside the window of her home. If they were guided by her they would flash in lovely patterns and illuminate the shadowy corners. They would stand posted on all sharp edges and mark them in the night. Instead they were out there, obeying only the wind, flashing until they didn’t.
Fireflies were in her dreams that night. She was wrapped up in the luxurious golden sheets of her six-poster bed. This was her proper bedroom, where no man had ever stepped foot. It was crafted by women and serviced by ambitious girls from the various authorities living and operating within the spire. It was hexagonal in shape, as were all private royal quarters. Each wall, except for the one bearing the oval window, bore an elaborate work of art. These works were on panels that could be mounted or removes with relative ease, something done each day when the queen was out on business. There were hundreds of panels, with a new one painted each year based on a notable event, as selected by the queen herself. Careful attention was given to no combination of five ever being repeated.
When she opened her eyes the next morning the wall across from her depicted a boat traveling down their river. The blue vessel was full of strange warped faces with lidless eyes. Such a boat had gone by, decades ago, with no attempt at communication. The reported stares of its passengers were empty of warmth or possibility, like ghosts looking at the living as they floated to the afterlife.
The painting, only when viewed from the right angle, revealed a secret compartment in the vessel. A skeletal blue queen hugged her knees and rested her chin on them. Magthwi knew she was only a theory; nobody had reported such a queen in the bowels of the ship. She was an educated embellishment, for there were confirmed instances of queens for the tiniest societies. Magthwi knew the exact numbers, but such precision was kept from the people. It was hard to believe in legends that recited numbers of fallen warriors or crocodile teeth as if off a ledger.
A queen could not effectively perform her duties with less than fifty subjects. Groups smaller than that bred intimacy, and with that came the crumbling of respect. The smaller the numbers the greater chance any one of them might see themselves as a better ruler.
Something squirmed in the queen’s bed. She sat up, resting on a pillow as thick as a steer. The bed was an ocean of gold as big as most ordinary bedrooms, so its many pillows had to be scaled to match; a single person had difficulty moving one of them. Magthwi lifted a knee. Something grabbed her leg immediately, instinctively. She smiled: a simple act that could’ve melted the heart of most outside the spire. She folded the sheets back to take a look.
A pair of little eyes blinked a few times. Their owner was just waking up as well. She was a girl of eight, but especially petite. She wrapped both hands around the top of her mother’s knee and used it to pull herself up. Her head couldn’t find the will rise on its own, so she let it lean against her mother’s muscular thigh. Her hair was out of wrapping, hanging much more limply than the queen’s. Her sapphire pajamas sparkled just like the sheets.
“Mossy, what are you doing in the queen’s bed?” her mother asked. The girl’s full name was Mossawetu, but her habit of keeping plants from the grove in her room earned the shortened version.
“I’m in Mommy’s bed,” she said with a smile and a yawn. “We’re sleeping here because the queen’s away.”
“Mhmm. She’s away on business. Very important. Won’t be back for a long time.”
“It’s too early in the morning for your games child. Answer your mother and your queen.” Mossy pouted, pulling herself out from the covers completely and standing. She walked around on the bed with her arms held out for balance, following its six sides. “Well?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” the girl said, looking only at the waves in the sheets.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Magthwi questioned. She rose on her knees and grabbed her daughter’s arm, pulling her in. She touched an immaculate thumb to her daughter’s eyelid and pulled down gently in search of symptoms. The Queen couldn’t remember ever having trouble sleeping. Queen Bimine, before her timely willing death of a slowed heart, had always told her insomnia and bad dreams were caused by indecision. Queens could not make incorrect decisions, so their sleep was perfection. “Tell me more.”
“There isn’t any more,” the little girl insisted, pulling away and walking the edges again. Eventually they took her right back to the queen. “I went down in the dark. My eyes were closed. I didn’t sleep. I got Shuku to let me in because I knew your bed was comfier. I slept in here fine.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Magthwi insisted. “What do we say about the young princess and her mother?” Mossy scratched at her hair. “What do we say?”
“A princess’s secret is a mother’s suspicion,” she recited. “We of royal blood are the closest family of all. You know me like I know my sisters.”
“That’s right. I know when you’re holding something back,” the queen said. It might’ve been the royal connection; it might also have been her knowledge of Mossawetu’s father. He was an obstinate man: an inflexible statesman who would sooner be attacked by a lion than take his breakfast anywhere other than the balcony. She sensed that weakness in her child. She didn’t love her any less, but every factor had to be weighed. Every instance of misbehavior was forever kept in her memory and would be put on the scale when it came time for coronation, for the final dose of royal coffee that would blast the father’s influence away, into the tiniest sliver in the mind that couldn’t be seen with such intense royal light shining around both sides of it.
“I had a nightmare,” the girl admitted.
“A nightmare?” Magthwi almost laughed, but her expression stiffened a moment later. Such a common problem. A mind reacting to fears of insignificance and weakness. Fears queens and princesses did not suffer from after their first royal sip. The queen had never had one in her life; this could be quite serious. “You are confused my child. You have mistaken what you saw for something else.”
“I didn’t even tell you what I saw when I closed my eyes. It was-”
“Good morning Queen Magthwi, and good morning to you too Princess Mossawetu,” a young woman said as she opened the door, carrying a tray of freshly-sliced fruits, a glass pitcher of pink juice topped with tiny black seeds, and a few fine cups of a steaming brown, almost brass, liquid. She walked in; the only sound was the slight rattling of the tray. She wore plush slippers to keep her common feet from the royal floor.
“Shuku,” the queen addressed her. The attendant smiled and shifted the tray to one hand. She used the other to hand the queen her cup of royal coffee. Magthwi took it and sipped. Though her face didn’t betray it, each sip was intolerable ecstasy. It could never be gotten used to, no matter how many cups were drunk. Magthwi had consumed a pool’s worth in her life, but it still ran down her throat like syrupy light. The caffeine would be in her blood in minutes, quickening the pace of it and sharpening her eyes.
Shuku next handed a smaller cup of it to Mossawetu. The little girl showed no hesitation and took it up with both hands. She drained it quickly, but no drop escaped either side of her lips. A princess didn’t dribble. Not one drop had ever stained a royal bedsheet. Any of it going to waste would grate on their minds worse than an actual grater taken to their skin. Mossy wiped her mouth with her forearm and then licked it clean like a cat.
“Excellent princess,” Shuku praised as she took the cup back. “All of the vitamins and minerals you need to grow big and strong.” Mossy smiled and posed, flexing her arms and puffing out her cheeks. The attendant snickered in response before moving on to serve them fruit and juice.
“Shuku,” the queen said again, taking a small plate of fanned pear slices drizzled in honey. Dark cinnamon dusted the honey stripes. Mossy reached out a little finger and smeared some of it. Magthwi, smoothly, grabbed her daughter’s wrist, brought her little hand back, and sucked the honey off her glossy nail. “You have your own breakfast,” she cooed. Shuku’s eyes shot back and forth between them awkwardly, but she composed herself and handed another tray to Mossy, who collapsed back onto the mattress like a few tented pieces of wood kicked over. Her finger poked at her own cinnamon with much less enthusiasm. “She also has her own bed.” The queen turned back to the attendant.
“The princess tells me that you, in the middle of the night, opened my locked door and let her in.”
“Yes,” She admitted, suddenly nervous. She tried to pull out a harmless smile, but the side of her mouth just twitched as if stretched by a fishing hook. “The princess came to my room and told me she was having trouble sleeping. When I was a little girl afraid of the thundering night I used to climb into bed with my mother…”
“Were you a princess?”
“What convinced you that my daughter could be satisfied or placated by the solutions you settled for?” Magthwi asked. There was no hostility in her voice, and it wasn’t cold either, but it was hard as granite. She hadn’t lifted a finger, but a great stone was pressing down on Shuku’s chest. Her lungs felt smaller with every breath.
“I apologize my queen,” she said breathlessly, bowing her head. “I wanted to help.”
“Entertaining a child’s whim does not help them,” Magthwi explained. “My daughter did not have the time to reflect on the situation because you validated her silliness. She was not having trouble sleeping, merely trouble focusing. You’ve come dangerously close to making one of my parenting decisions. You will not crown her. She may not be crowned. If she is not, perhaps then she can go live with you. Be your daughter full of nightmares, arms forever a circlet around your thigh.”
“It won’t happen again my queen,” Shuku assured, near tears. The tray rattled louder.
“Thank you Shuku. You are dismissed.” The attendant turned and scurried out of the room, closing the door gently behind her.
“You don’t have to be mean to her,” Mossawetu said dejectedly, once again trying to steal a slice of pear from her mother’s plate. Magthwi lightly smacker her away. The queen, in one fluid motion, turned the fan of slices into a stack, lifted it, and bit through all of them. Her breakfast was gone in moments. Though one of her subjects would never comment on it, the queen and her daughters had voracious appetites requiring eight meals a day. Their superiority burned through energy rapidly, yet another reason they slept so soundly.
“I’m not mean,” Magthwi said with a smile, finally engaging Mossy on her level. “My mother would’ve expelled Shuku from the spire for that. I merely made clear the difference between a princess and an ordinary child. It is a difference I will remind you of as well. Come.” She rose out of bed and held out her hand for Mossy to take. Then she led the girl to the rotating window and lifted her up, placing her on her shoulders. “Look down there. Who are all those people?”
“Our subjects,” Mossy answered.
“Even from here I could spot someone who wasn’t. If one of your sisters was down there she would shine in our eyes like a tiny diamond in the sand.”
“Especially Jiva! She’s too fat to miss.”
“Jivahti is not fat,” the queen corrected. “You’ll be her size when you’re her age. How would you feel if your younger sister called you fat?”
“Wohki thinks Jiva is fat too.”
“You should be listening,” Magthwi chastised. “I’m teaching you a lesson. If Shuku was down there you wouldn’t be able to pick her out from the crowd. Even if she was your best friend in the whole gorge you would be blind to her. Would it be mean to not see her?”
“So you see then. We can see our subjects from here, but we cannot see them individually. To see them as individuals is to be blind to your queendom. We must remain separate if we are to govern effectively. To gain sight of a person is to lose sight of your people. Reminding Shuku of our differences is an act of kindness to her. Bonding with her, trusting her to be your confidante, your key holder, is to tell her she is not one of your people. Since she cannot be your mother or your sister, you are telling her she is nothing. Is Shuku nothing to you?”
“She’s something!” Mossawetu insisted.
“I agree,” Magthwi said, running her thumbs along her daughter’s palms, letting her little hands move into her soft forest of hair. “She is one of the…” The queen stopped, eagle vision focusing in on something in the crowds below. The window was rolling over the marketplace, which seemed especially busy that day. There were extra splashes of color: people trailing large ribbons from raised arms. Even so, those lines wriggling like worms were not what caught her attention. For a moment she thought she’d seen something royal. What exactly she could not guess, for the momentary sparkle was gone, lost in the sea of shoulders, arms, and baskets.
It could not have been the eye of one such as her, for all the princesses were in the spire, likely still asleep in their rooms: Polykeng, Amandili, Flavakinji, Jivahti, Mossawetu, and Wohki. The only other queens were bones, spending their days gossiping with nutcracker man about places and peoples long dead. What then? That left only the royal coffee cherries. A smuggler perhaps. She would have to mention something to the Peace Authority. That, or she could simply go down there and address it herself. At street level she would sense it, like the sound of a chirping cricket, obvious even under the din of the whole market. The investigation could serve as a learning opportunity for Mossawetu, furthering her understanding of the vital differences between royalty and commonness. Before the princess’s lesson she would have to learn the child’s lesson though: how to sleep in her own bed.
Queen Magthwi carried her daughter out into the hall. She shut her bedroom door delicately, but every person walking by glanced at it when they heard the click. Every little action was to be taken into consideration. It was up to the servant staff to recognize, without ever being told directly, how long the queen would be out each time she left the room.
Their ruler was to never see a broom or wet rag if it could be avoided. She was never to see cleaners scurrying about like pests. When the servants heard her close the door they took note of every little piece of context. The queen was still in her pajamas. She carried Mossawetu playfully. She moved toward her daughter’s bedroom. She would not be gone long, time only for the quickest dusting and freshening of her incense. They would perform their stealthy comfort strike as soon as she was out of sight.
Since Magthwi was on motherly business, rather than stately, she was given a wide berth. It was as if they were alone in the spire, or existing in a slightly different dimension the way phantoms might. The opulent halls of their home, the lights above diffused by a canopy of wall-mounted branching plants, were now the same as a dim silent corridor in a much more intimate home. It mattered not that the fan-shaped branches were a plant specially bred to decorate just that building. It was utterly irrelevant that a botanist and a decorator had spent the better parts of their careers, even falling in love with each other over the work, perfecting the look of sunlight and gentle wind through the upper forest. It was just a quiet walk: mother and daughter going back to the scene of fear to face it.
The queen set her daughter down once they were inside her bedroom with the door closed. She instructed Mossy to put on her day clothes. While the girl was busy doing so her mother wandered about examining the decorations and toys, thinking she might find some sort of contaminant that could’ve disrupted her daughter’s sleep.
The room was very green, filled as it was with potted plants, glass terrariums, and stone chests with glass tops full of small peeping pets. Her daughter kept bright yellow fish, delicate blue frogs, and giant millipedes that were allowed to wander from pot to pot, sometimes spanning their lips like rope bridges. These animals were not gathered naturally, but constructed by the Science Authority to be ideal for Mossawetu. The frogs made no sound at night, the fish always swam more vigorously when she watched, and the millipedes instinctively knew to stay off the floor and out of the bed. None of them seemed to be misbehaving at the moment.
“There is nothing wrong with your bed,” Magthwi said, running a hand across the earth tone sheets. “So you will use it tonight, yes?” She turned to see her daughter in a loose dress with a wide hanging collar like a water lily. She looked like the first five brush strokes of a watercolor.
“Yes my queen,” she said with a smile. She moved over to her chests of toys. There was a table next to her bookshelf that the queen hadn’t scrutinized. When her daughter stopped in front of it, rubbing the head of a tiny figurine in uniform, Magthwi realized the plants on it were actually miniature model trees. The table was a diorama complete with miniatures of Colduvai, the grove, the river, and a path leading all the way to…
“What is all this?” the queen asked, looming over the table and her child. Mossawetu moved a group of toy soldiers further from Colduvai, toward a cluster of blue and gray buildings like gravestones.
“This is the expeditionary force,” Mossy said, making little footstep sounds as she waddled the tiny commander closer. “They’re on their way to Laetoli just like in real life. Mister Koulsy and I are playing a game where we guess what will happen to them. When are they coming back? I want to know when the game will be over.”
“The force returns when their job is finished,” the queen said, as close to absentmindedly as her mind was capable. She picked up the tiny commander. The detail was astounding, down the commander’s golden scar along her jaw. It hardly seemed necessary for a toy. “Where did you get this playset princess?”
“I wanted it,” Mossy answered, taking the commander back and putting her at the front. “I told the toymaker I wanted the expeditionary force and he made it for me. I told him to make their little eyes look brave, but only some of them do. This one is scared, so he goes in the back.” The queen picked up the one her daughter pointed to. She knew that face as well. These soldiers had been presented to her both in person and on paper as sets of physical and emotional characteristics quantified by the Science Authority. How did the toymaker know these things? The paint on the quivering eyes matched what she knew of the psychological profiles of the expeditionary force.
“This is the problem,” Magthwi insisted, picking up the wide diorama. “The expeditionary force is the concern of the queen, not the princess. You must learn all you can of Colduvai. If one day you wear the crown, then you can let your mind ebb and flow around our borders. For now it is just a distraction.”
“That’s my favorite!” Mossawetu complained, knowing better than to grab the diorama’s edge. Tug of war with the queen was treason. “Don’t take it.”
“Not to worry princess. It is good that you’re thinking responsibly and watching over your people, but more watching must be done at home than abroad. You may keep this toy, but it will live in the playroom. I only want you to play with it when Mister Koulsy is there to rein in your fantasies. If your imagination pits the expeditionary force against a shape shifting ogre it will never learn anything useful.”
“Yes my queen,” Mossawetu said sweetly, convinced she’d won the exchange. “Mister Koulsy and I will keep them in line. They dream of nothing but returning to the gorge. I know this.”
“I don’t doubt, but while they’ve dreamed of us you have dreamed of them. That has disturbed your sleep. Your mind must remain in Colduvai at night.” The princess nodded. “Excellent. Now go and wake your sisters. I think we will go to the market today and see what has everyone celebrating.”
continued in Part Two