(reading time: 1 hour, 26 minutes)
Banished to the Basement
Commander Begumisa returned to the grass-comber at the very edge of the order she’d given Genomon. Just five minutes more and they would’ve returned without her, assuming her death. She came back with her hound stick and no physical clues to Laetoli’s fate. The whole of the expeditionary force watched her slow walk across the barrens. When she got to the grass she sat on the edge of the comber without a word, simply snapping her fingers until someone gave her a canteen. She took two large swigs and then poured a third over the back of her hung head. Eventually they could not wait any longer.
“Commander?” Barolong said as he approached. “Did you go into the queen’s spire?” Begumisa smoothed her hair down and handed the nearly-empty canteen to the young man.
“Queen Nkoro is either dead or vanished. There is no sign of her.”
“But did you go in?”
“You don’t ask questions of me,” she replied icily. She didn’t have to look to know all eyes were on her, that every last one of them wanted that question answered. They thought the same thing Magthwi did, because they could only ever want what she wanted. Begumisa was harmless as leader of the expeditionary force, maybe even admirable with her one vein of gold, but she should never be alone in a royal home. Her pride would get the better of her, and she would surely see her force as the start of a new queendom. They didn’t want to be cooped up behind the monoculture, but they weren’t traitors either.
“We’ve radioed back,” Genomon told her to break the tense silence. “They know Laetoli’s gone, but…”
“We didn’t tell them anything the survivor had to say. Some of it is… suspect. I thought you’d want to talk to her first.”
“You thought right,” the commander said, standing and putting one hand on his shoulder. He flinched. She looked at him with a furrowed brow and a slight shake of her head. Did he too doubt her? His flinch was almost one of revulsion, as if she’d just crawled out of a storm-flooded grave. “Get us moving.” Most of the force took their seats on the grass-comber as the vehicle turned around. When it hovered back toward Colduvai it, at the end of its braid, left a beautiful bow of plants to mark the occasion, slowly folded by the precise pushes and pulls of the hover engine the entire time it was stalled there. As long as those blades grew they would hold some semblance of that shape, like a navel at the end of their umbilicus.
Begumisa had a few of the seats moved around to facilitate a little privacy. Two were made to face one of the edges, their supports lowered so feet could dangle off the edge and bathe in the grass as it drifted by. She thought it might keep the survivor calm, and at first she was right. Both of them sat with their bare toes in the river of green and yellow, letting the wind set the tone for their conversation.
“Are you ready to tell me what happened?” the commander asked her. The woman had one of the emergency blankets from the comber’s compressed supply compartments wrapped around her, one hand holding it closed in front of her. She looked cold even though the temperature was ideal. It wasn’t a shivering sort of cold; she sat there as if long frozen solid.
“My city died,” she whispered.
“Will you tell me your name first?” The survivor stared between her feet, into the grass, as if searching for something. Begumisa tilted her chin back and forth a little, in the way she knew would be most eye-catching. It was the move she used to see how people reacted to her scar, the one that made it shimmer a little in the light. The woman didn’t notice. Begumisa couldn’t even remember her staring at it beyond her initial mistake of assuming the commander to be royalty. Up until now only Genomon and Magthwi had managed to look her in the eye most of the time she spoke.
“My name is… Mwadine.” She repeated the name under her breath.
“I don’t remember if I gave you mine,” Begumisa said. It was true enough. She found it difficult to recall any small thing that happened before her investigation of the spire. “I am Begumisa. I would like to know how your city died, so that ours can avoid the fate. I’m sorry for your loss, not just of your queen, but of all the things unique to you. It must have been quite the strong foundation, as it allowed you to survive when the others could not.” The commander lowered the head of the hound stick into the grass. The familiar smells pacified it, returning its eyes to their neutral color. Whatever it was they sensed didn’t seem to be following them back.
“I don’t feel strong,” Mwadine said, fresh tears streaming down her face. She wiped at them and they were gone. It struck the commander as very clean as far as grieving went. There was no sniffling and no gasps. Her emotions now, free of the dead husk of Laetoli, seemed crystallized, like prisms producing beams of a single easily-named color.
“What is Varroa the Destructor?” Begumisa asked.
“We shouldn’t talk about that directly,” she answered, eyes darting back to the barrens. “None of us were sure, but talking about it only seemed to make it worse.”
“Fine. Simply tell me what happened. Was this a disease? Did something go wrong in all your machines?”
“You could call it both, but the illness came first.”
“What spread the infection? A foreigner? A crop? Animals?”
“None of the above… and all of them,” she said with a small pathetic sound, too deflated to be a chuckle. “We tried for so long to isolate it. Our doctors could never point to a virus or a bacterium and say ‘that’s the one!’ We were forced to sterilize everything, burn our fields to the ground, and eat out of canned and jarred stores until a new crop could rise in treated soil. We never even got to the planting.”
“What were the symptoms?” Mwadine was staring off into the distance again. Begumisa followed her gaze. There was a little spot in the sky over Laetoli: a circling bird perhaps. That bird would learn just as they did that there was no morsel of life left in those bones. “Mwadine, please focus. There is much we must clear up if you are to have any chance of joining us as a resident of Colduvai. Already your odds are not good. You will most likely be given a small boat and plenty of supplies… then sent on the river.”
“Colduvai. I don’t think I could live under another queen anyway.” Her voice was firm on that note.
“I understand. I would take a life out here with the wild dogs rather than serve someone other than Magthwi,” the commander conceded. “I’ve essentially been living that life as leader of this expeditionary force.” She brightened her tone to see if it could lift the woman’s spirits. “It’s really not bad: a different sort of animal to life in the city. It’s much more peaceful. The words and deeds of people are always tinged by whatever’s wrong with their day.
Out here the bad things are super-concentrated and hidden away in the grass and trees. Absolutely nothing is wrong, until you step on a venomous snake or stumble into a lion’s den. Then that awful thing is over very quickly. It’s a life of ups and downs, rather than being suspended in the middle by a string, spinning by the breath of those around you.”
She paused, taking a deep breath. She almost envied her hound stick, with its nose buried in the waving grass. There had been a chance at an even freer life. Colduvai could’ve lost its respectable place in her memories, become nothing more than a collection of sharp rocks. She could’ve used her scarring like a disfiguring injury in one of those older novels written by people full of shame and manners. The golden line could’ve made her Frankenstein’s monster or a werewolf. Why did she decide for the middle road, full as it was with these misfit subordinates?
Begumisa looked back at the bird over Laetoli, wanting to see it swoop and soar. It still just hung there, though it looked quite a bit closer now. She squinted. That was no bird; its shape had corners. It was something from the city itself. Her best guess now was that it was one of the hovering buildings, simply waiting for a slot to open up so it could descend. The thought brought her back to her questions.
“Tell me about the strange things we witnessed,” the commander requested. “Why was all the writing hidden from plain sight? Why do the buildings shuffle themselves like that?”
“Putting hover jets on them was a treatment of sorts,” Mwadine explained, gritting her teeth. “The illness was something in our minds. It convinced us that there was something wrong with our homes. People started sleeping in the streets because their beds caused them great pain. Queen Nkoro ordered that everything about our homes would be changed, one by one, until we found a trait that alleviated our symptoms. Every time they shuffle it is a new permutation, a new neighborhood that might look different enough out the window to confuse Varr… the illness.”
“That was the whole problem? It just stopped you from living within your walls?” Begumisa leaned in and examined Mwadine’s face. The survivor looked very tired, but much less breakable than she had in the empty city. Begumisa was also struck by her choice of words. ‘Permutation’ was a very scientific word for a commoner to use, but of course that was by Colduvai’s standards. The commander had to admit she didn’t know how scientifically-savvy the average member of Laetoli’s populace was. They did rely on their machines far more in their daily lives, even trusting an electronic voice to tell them goodnight and wake them in the morning.
“That is the whole of it,” Mwadine answered, “but not the size of it. The entire population wound up in the streets, obstructing the work of our trucks and mechanical servants. Many disobeyed the queen directly, their love for her gone from their heads. They seemed almost… raw about it, as if their love was literally ripped out of their hearts. That feeling worsened. Laetoli became their beds, hurting them the same way.”
“So where did they go?”
“Nowhere,” Mwadine whispered, holding out her hands to indicate they were in this ‘nowhere’ as well. “They walked out, sometimes into the fields as they were burning, and never came back. They made off with their own bodies and spirits, which were Nkoro’s rightful property to rule with. That I am happy to name: absconding. Nkoro said, with this strange bitterness none of us had ever heard in her voice, that they had absconded.”
“This is why we didn’t find any bodies?” Begumisa asked.
“All the bodies left on their own,” Mwadine confirmed. “Some died in the city, but the machines swept them away and burned them in case it was catching through corpses.”
“And the writing?”
“That was a measure the people took to defy the machines. We used everything the computers were connected to in order to stop them from absconding. We locked them in their homes. We made it so they could only access food by opening their own personal iceboxes. No vehicle would take them anywhere without authorization.
Talking about you-know-what seemed to intensify the symptoms, so the subject was banned. Mention of it or anything similar, even in song, was scrubbed from our radio waves. The machines monitored everyone to make sure they didn’t write about it, but as long as the hands and words were hidden they couldn’t tell.
This was their final disobedience. As madness took them they scribbled their miserable final thoughts in every box, can, and shadowy place.” She looked up. Her eyes widened. She nearly fell off the side of the grass-comber as she struggled to her feet. “Ye the machines go on! Even with nothing to protect! Why are they coming? I could not have disobeyed!”
Begumisa stood beside her, holding her shoulders to keep her aboard. She was forced to look away when several members of the force shouted and pointed across the fields. There was a shadow following the braid of grass exactly. It was the hovering building, just a speck a minute ago. The commander now saw its true size; it was not a one bedroom house or a one-counter shop. It had five floors and dozens of windows, their glass gone and swept up ages ago. There was a hover engine at each corner spewing light and a terrible noise like coarse sand poured into the gears of a giant clock.
It moved so swiftly, its engines shuddering, that it almost seemed desperate to catch up with them. It was never meant to go that far outside Laetoli. There was no doubt it would die and crash soon, but not necessarily before it reached the end of the braid.
“Everyone aboard!” Begumisa ordered, waving her hound stick. Its eyes flashed white whenever its nose passed in the direction of the flying building. Those in the grass didn’t hesitate; they threw themselves over the lip of the grass-comber and found their seats.
The young man who was technically in charge of piloting it rushed to its front panel. There was a puddle of confusing buttons under the panel of all different sizes, shapes, and symbols. They served both to direct the comber and program it. He’d been taught the locations and functions of just five of them: start, stop, speed up, slow down, and turn around. He hammered on the speed-increasing one repeatedly.
The comber surged forward, a much-wider wake of grass bending on both sides. The braid it produced became wider and looser, now looking much more like a strand of DNA. Begumisa looked over the side and growled. Even at its fastest there was perhaps a member or two of the force who could outrun it. Not the building. Its shadow already ate the newer pattern of the braid. She saw chunks of concrete and shreds of rusty metal falling from its bottom. A hatch underneath it broke the chain holding it closed. Two metal doors flapped outward and squealed on their hinges. It was a bay big enough to swallow the comber whole.
“What does it want?” she shouted at Mwadine.
“I think… me!” she cried back. “It still thinks I’m absconding!” Many of the force drew their swords, but couldn’t find anything to attack. They were wolves bearing their teeth in the face of an avalanche. It was so close now that Begumisa could see inside its lowest windows: treadmills, shelves of glass water bottles, punching bags swinging on their chains, and iron weights. It was some sort of gym or physical fitness center. Why on Earth would Laetoli send such a thing to fetch one citizen? It was an absurd contradiction: a great fat heaving thing, already running out of breath, trying to bring them the means to a trim body.
“How do we stop it?” Mwadine had no answer, but the whites of her eyes, like the dawn on the day of the sun’s detonation, communicated enough. The commander turned her eyes back to the building, gritting her teeth, trying to wait it out as authoritatively as possible. Those engines couldn’t last; of that there was no doubt. One of the back ones erupted into a plume of fire, leaving a smoky trail to match the grass-comber’s verdant one. The gym faltered in the sky, the dead corner hanging low. They all heard the landslide of equipment within.
“It’s going to eat us!” Field screamed. The building’s shadow touched the edge of the comber. The girl was right. There was no time now, but a chance to save most of the force. It could only crash in one place.
“Abandon ship!” Begumisa shouted. “Spread out!” She grabbed Mwadine’s sleeve and pulled the woman off the side. She wasn’t sure why. By her own words the building was after her, but Begumisa couldn’t just let it crush her in its attempt at reclamation. Mwadine rode upon her vehicle, talked with her force, so she was a part of it now. Perhaps that possessiveness was too queen-like to be proper, but it burned in the commander’s veins all the same.
She heard nearly seventy pairs of feet hit the grass behind her and take off running. Good. Many of them were young and swift; there was little chance it would get them. The commander pulled Mwadine along. The woman, though terrified, did not trip or slow her down. Begumisa released her grip and looked over to see Mwadine by her side, powerful strides somehow as quiet as the braiding of the grass-comber. Her face was cast in the shadow of her city, flakes of rust raining into her hair.
The other three engines exploded all at once, dropping the gym like a stone. The metal doors of its basement bay crumpled on impact, the sound of it drowned out by cracking stone and roaring flames. The building swallowed the grass-comber whole, but wasn’t sated quite yet. It ate through the ground itself and continued to fall. The expeditionary force could not see the cracks at first, buried as they were under the swaying grass.
Huge plates of rock gave way, spreading out from the crater. The gym’s first floor was gone. The second. The third. Someone screamed as the grass failed to keep up the illusion of safety. Ten members of the force were stopped by a tremor and then rolled onto their backs as the ground tilted. They clawed at the dirt, ripping grass from its mooring, leaving brown gashes in the Earth.
Field and Barolong were tossed onto the gym’s roof just as it descended under the now-distant and cracked edge of the grasslands. An ocean of darkness greeted them. The building rocked back and forth, impacting with various ledges of rock. When their panicked minds finally wrapped around the truth of it, that it had punched through into a cavern and it wasn’t some kind of cursed machine’s gargantuan gullet, they rolled their way to the center of the roof in the hopes that it wouldn’t completely flip over in its fall.
The rocks found the silence they were so accustomed to, after it had been so rudely misplaced. A shredded rope of grass hung over the edge of the black crater, swinging back and forth like the arm of a sailor trying to fish a fellow out of the sea. There was no sign of any member of the force from there. Even the roof of the gym was lost in the depths.
“Whuhh…” Begumisa gasped, eyes popping open. There was a pool of swirling blood and bruises on the back of her skull. Her eyelids felt heavy, like garbage bags full of wet leaves. The only light was provided by many pairs of glowing eyes, all of them white: the hound sticks. Nobody touched her, but she heard fingers in the dirt around her, as if they traced her outline as a tribute to her clearly-fading life force.
“Nothing came out of her pockets,” someone said.
“So she didn’t take anything? What was it after then?”
“Mwadine! It wanted Mwadine.”
“How do we get out of here?”
Begumisa had no idea as to the amount of time that passed between her finding the dropped consciousness that had bounced and rolled away from her into some dark cobweb-filled corner and when she managed to sit up and rub the wound on her head. Her eyes adjusted to reveal a space like none she’d ever seen.
Twice before she’d entered caves on her expeditions, but they were shallow things with flat dirt-covered ground. They were nothing but campsites for queenless wretches to live in, chewing on bones until they realized their lives had nothing to serve and that they were better off seeking steep cliffs rather than caves.
There was also a false cave back in Colduvai: an exhibit at the zoo where that old man kept bats and fish blinded by their evolution. Its walls were just plaster, though they were molded into flowing shapes and ringed stalactites, painted with moist-looking blue glitter.
The space the expeditionary force found itself in now was somewhere between the two. It was very real and very large, but its rocks were striated with strange shades of blue speckled with a black almost like obsidian. The walls were very moist indeed, even trickling fresh water in places. There were no chirping bats, but there were a few crickets confused into sound by the sudden dimness. They were from the grassy surface, tossed down into the hole alongside the force.
They’d just cracked their way into something like a vacuum-sealed jar. The cave had been utterly devoid of life possibly since its formation, but now insects, pollen, and bacteria poured in from its gaping wound. The bullet was still lodged deep inside, so there was little chance it would be able to heal back to sterility. Begumisa stared up at the gym, the fateful projectile, if a building could even be called such a thing, and realized it might not be stable on the shelves of stone currently holding it in place.
She scrambled out from under it, rushing to one of the walls that let her look up and see a narrow shaft of light. A trickle of cold water ran down her back when she pressed it against the stone, centering her, helping her thoughts crystallize out of the congealed jelly of her concussed brain.
“Genomon?” she called out, eyes closed. The water ran down the back of her left leg.
“I’m here,” he answered her. He sounded like he was in one piece.
“How many survivors?”
“Our count is thirty-three dead,” he said solemnly. Begumisa shifted her back, let it run down her right leg next. One stream was mourning and the other their plan. Each needed to flow in turns to keep everything balanced. “Five more are significantly injured. We have several supply packs that fell with us, so they’re being bandaged.”
“Can we climb out?”
“The shaft is extremely deep,” he answered. Apparently she’d been stuck in the quicksand of half-consciousness long enough for him to do a complete survey of the cave. “There are no tunnels leading out from here. The walls are slick and we have no climbing equipment. Even if we did, that evil building is blocking the way up. We’ve seen no crevice big enough for even our smallest women to squeeze through.” He paused, perhaps waiting for her to look him in the eye. She hadn’t mustered the humanity yet to give him that. All she could focus on was one drop of mourning down the sensitive patch behind her left knee. “I think we’re trapped here.”
“You need to open your eyes for that one commander, but you need not even turn your head.” Begumisa’s skull cap rested on the stone, her eyes sipping at muted sunshine through their lids. She opened them. There was the bottom of the gym: compressed chunks of soil and concrete, networks of pipes and broken dangling wires, and the crumpled bay doors it had tried to swallow them with.
Something hung out of it like a rope of drool, its frayed edge singed and blackened. The rest was green and yellow. When she squinted she realized it was a long braid of grass thicker than a rope, likely ripped out of the ground in the collapse, caught up in one of the comber’s mechanisms. She could just see the edge of their vehicle hanging out from the bay doors, no doubt providing the anchoring for the grass rope.
“It is our salvation,” Begumisa said. “We need only climb that rope up into the building. We can then ascend to its roof and climb out from there.”
“Before all that,” Genomon interrupted sternly, “the force needs your words on the dead. We must say goodbye and praise them for their service.”
“Yes, of course,” she said after a pause. “Take me to them.” She wobbled on her feet, but was able to walk well enough after a few moments. Genomon took her past the building and to an inlet in the main chasm just wide enough for three rows of bodies and their attendants. The supply packs contained enough gold thermal blankets to offer one for each fallen member. They were placed over each and every face gently so as to keep their crinkled metallic surface from conforming and making crude death masks. Begumisa was stunned at the sight, for making them countable made them far more real.
She looked around at the battered and swollen faces of those attending the bodies, some of whom held a cold dead head. They looked more injured by the impact of their tears on their cheeks than by the fall. The commander had seen carnage worse than that, but always in very limited numbers and rarely in situations that were recorded and remembered by Colduvai. This wasn’t just a disaster; this was the deadliest occurrence for Colduvai’s people in more than a century.
It was misfit children thrown into it rather than real soldiers. They felt just as guilty for surviving as they did for keeping this madness connected to their queen. They could still see the rope and the umbilicus of grass was surely still at the edge of the crater. It was now like a vein that could carry pieces of their jagged deadly blood clot back to the gorge. More tears fell, plinking against the thermal blankets with the same force as an angry flick of the fingers.
“I am sorry,” Begumisa announced, drawing their eyes. “I apologize first to the fallen, for my failure to protect them. Second to you, the survivors, who must now keep fighting though all hope seems lost. And third to Colduvai for handing them the weight of this tragedy through means as impersonal as the radio.”
“They don’t know anything yet,” one of the men said, still crouched with a cold hand in his. “The radio’s on the comber and it’s stuck up there. They’re still safe from this news.”
“We will make it up there,” Begumisa vowed. “They will know of our fate and they will send a rescue force. I plan for that rescue force to be unnecessary, for them to meet us halfway to home. My greatest hope is to kneel before Magthwi and proclaim my failures, to let the people hate me for this loss so they don’t have to see the indifference of both nature and machine. None of these people should ever have had to see it. I will help you turn your eyes back to the queen so this form of death becomes invisible to you once more.”
Her final words struck harshly, as criticism, which she didn’t realize until a moment too late. She averted her eyes, back to the gold-wrapped bodies, for accidentally insulting them would hopefully prove more difficult. She walked the rows and, one by one, checked the faces of the deceased, careful not to touch any of them directly. She knew the sideways glances she was getting. Some of them saw her lone excursion to Nkoro’s spire as a bad omen, perhaps something far worse. The absence of two faces in particular came to her attention.
“Genomon, where are Field and Barolong? Together I assume, but not here?”
“They are unaccounted for,” he said with a nod. “Hopefully alive on a shelf above us or, Magthwi willing, still wiggling their toes in the grass.”
“Present,” the survivor answered, stepping out from the shadows. Her clothes were torn in places but she was otherwise unharmed. At the sound of her voice the gym quaked slightly, raining pebbles down on them. Lights flickered in its windows. “This is all my fault,” she said numbly as she looked at the bodies. “I’m so sorry; I never thought Laetoli could grasp this far. I assumed the machines knew that there was nothing left to abscond from. All these young lives…”
“It is not our role to assign blame,” Begumisa assured. “Now that our expedition is over it is our sole duty to report what we found and then head home. That is our focus. That is what we’re doing right now.” The commander ordered every living soul to collect under the gym, directly under the bay doors.
“We can’t reach that,” someone noted.
“We are not a person,” Begumisa countered. “We are the expeditionary force. We most certainly can reach it as long as we all reach. Arrange yourselves into a pyramid. Strongest on the bottom.” Begumisa dropped onto her knees and hands. Genomon followed right next to her. Slowly the force assembled the base floor of the human pyramid. Begumisa glanced at Mwadine. “Come, help us. I can see you have very strong thighs.” Mwadine’s eyes darted away and her lips parted with a tiny surprised breath; it wasn’t quite embarrassment. She joined them as the final corner.
The second row began assembly, but hit a snag when Begumisa realized there was nobody on her back. She held position but swung her head back and forth. There were plenty of available bodies. She politely ordered someone onto her shoulders. There were no volunteers, so she grabbed the first name she remembered.
“Enkide, climb on.” The young man took a few steps toward her, even going so far as to lean over, but his hands stayed centimeters off his commander’s clothing. “What’s the matter? You want to get out of here don’t you?”
“Yes commander,” he answered, snapping back to his full height but almost immediately wilting once again. “It’s just that I’m not very strong; I thought maybe I could be on the third row.”
“That’s not it,” Begumisa said plainly, with as much authority as she could muster on her knees. “What’s the real problem?” Enkide rubbed the back of his head. “It’s alright. I know it’s not just your problem. You’re speaking for others as well. With all those opinions combined it should be loud enough for me to hear.”
“You went into a queen’s home without permission and totally alone,” he blurted. “I’m glad you survived, we all are, but you didn’t say what you found. Anything in there could’ve been royal. If you touched anything there might be royal particles upon your skin. A pollen of needled points too sharp for our common flesh. I don’t’ want to wind up-”
“With a scar like mine?” Begumisa finished. He nodded and took a step back.
“You have your orders young man,” Genomon added sternly, though his tone was somewhat undercut by a grunt. The older man was supporting someone on his back, looking a little pathetic in his eagerness to appear as strong as the others.
“Thank you Genomon, but I’ve got my own defense to mount.” The second in command nodded, trying to suppress the sweat beading on his forehead. Begumisa slowly rose to her feet, wiping the bluish cavern dirt from the knees of her uniform. “Please take my spot Enkide.” She pointed at the ground. The young man approached once more, eyeing the impressions made by her knees and palms as if together they were the scorched footprint of a tail-dragging swamp dragon. Begumisa stared expectantly, her finger holding firm. He wasted one moment more by rubbing his palms together, but finally dropped into position.
“You,” the commander said, pointing to another nearby person and then the empty back of Enkide. They crawled atop him. Begumisa circled around the pyramid, dictating each and every person and space. They quietly obeyed. The second layer filled out. The third. They were nearly there. Enkide’s arms wobbled, but not because of the weight on his back. No, all of that was expertly distributed. He shuddered because Commander Begumisa’s feet stopped right under his eyes.
“You all look very sturdy,” Begumisa said when she was certain all eyes were on some part of her. “Do you think you innately know how to assemble yourselves this way? I can tell you it is not a natural strength of people to be so organized. It takes a leader, be it a queen or a commander. This pyramid is strong because I personally approved every person in it for service in the expeditionary force.
The expeditionary force is strong because its commander was personally assigned the task by Queen Magthwi: benevolent and genius mother of the gorge. With the fall of Laetoli she may be the mother of our entire species. This is not something any of you will doubt, because if there was ever a person as immovable as the Earth it is our Magthwi.” Begumisa rubbed her scar, rolling her jaw as if remembering a punch to it.
“You all have forgotten something,” she continued. “If you question me, you question the person who assigned me to this command. That is the queen.” They went completely silent, even of grunts and hisses. “I am part of her pyramid as you are part of mine. We cannot afford to have one weak piece in either. So trust me as Magthwi does when I tell you that you are in no danger from anything I encountered in Laetoli. You are in no danger from me. Hold still.”
The commander lifted her foot and pressed it against Enkide’s side. He winced, as did the next person up when she laid hands on him. Slowly, intentionally so, she climbed the side of the pyramid and installed herself at the top. She was not gentle with them, but not aggressive. They had to simply accept that she was touching them, like holding a snake and knowing that only panic would make it bite. At the peak she stood on the final pair of shoulders, taking a moment to judge how much the structure wobbled under her. Then she grabbed the ripped frayed end of the grass braid and jumped, wrapping her thighs around it. It held her weight.
She climbed up the bay doors and rolled herself inside. It was dark, but the grass-comber’s sides were alive with small lights that responded to her touch enthusiastically. She’d only seen them at night previously, like a ship of fireflies sailing across the grass. A quick check proved the radio was intact. Its receiver crackled to life in her hand. She asked if there was anyone listening.
“This is Peace Authority,” a woman’s voice said. “We are listening. End.”
“This is expeditionary force commander. We are in need of rescue. End.”
“Rescue?” the voice repeated as if it was the first time they’d ever heard the word. There was a dead moment, not even a crackle. “What happened to Laetoli? End.” Begumisa held the button down, but the channel buzzed in its emptiness. She didn’t know if she should say it. Laetoli surely had a reason for banning talk of it, but Colduvai had to know what it might face. There was no hope in secrets or lies. She had entered Nkoro’s spire and seen the result of suppressing the knowledge.
Begumisa was acutely aware that she was making a decision for her force, her city, and her queen. It was the sort of decision Magthwi never wanted her to make. The words were on her tongue, turning it into a battering ram against her teeth, howling to be let out into the plush static of the open channel. The words burned through the bottom of her mouth and seared along her scar.
“Varroa the Destructor. End.”
Colduvai did not know how to mourn after the strange disaster in the market. Those who died had mostly done so at the end of Peace Authority blades for the crime of pawing at a princess. They had died in a pile, in a flurry of limbs, and there was no knowing how much they actually infringed upon the space surrounding Wohki.
Still, their reputations were tainted. The families did not want the funerals to be public, and it was certain that the queen would not make an appearance as she sometimes did when someone beloved in the community passed. So they were buried with little ceremony in a cemetery within the grove, marked by simple stones that didn’t bear names or dates. It was where they buried drunks who couldn’t remember who they were.
The man who had been pinpointed as the cause was a street vendor who sold omelets and pan-fried vegetables. His name was Ohmon, which he offered the Peace Authority freely when they escorted him to the queen’s spire. He wasn’t to be imprisoned, at least not in the traditional sense. The Science Authority had to claim him for observation, for there were several consistent reports of the strange behavior that led to the violence.
One of these reports came from Ohmon himself. He professed that he had no idea what came over him, but that it was certainly still within him. He couldn’t even discuss his stand without becoming nauseated, agitated, or both. Even in the bowels of the Science Authority, where they found reasons to study microscopic fossils and the courtship rituals of rodents, there wasn’t much need or desire to study mental illness. The queen settled all their minds; all anxieties and philosophical conundrums were best left to the higher order thinking of her improved brain.
The task of analyzing Ohmon’s testimony, as well as his blood, skin, urine, sweat, tear, and stool samples, fell to three young women who mostly gathered small animals from the grove and studied the parasitic nematodes within them. They were forced to listen to the tapes over and over again, reverse-engineering a theory based on the stories they’d heard of psychology and its ancient practitioners.
“It was like the stand was ablaze,” the tape repeated for the seventeenth time that day. One of the scientists paused it, made a useless note to wake herself up, and then let the recording continue. “I couldn’t see any fire or smoke, but touching it burned me. It was… a betrayal. All my hard work decided to be kindling and then insisted I was its brother rather than its god. It wanted me to burn with it, like I was just one more stick in a bundle, like it was my job to be burned through and forgotten. That’s not my job. I make wonderful food.”
“You gave away everything you made that day,” a scientist’s voice interrupted on the tape. “Perhaps you felt useless because there was no profit?”
“This started before that… caused it. I gave everything away because it wasn’t mine.”
“You were delusional. It was all your property.”
“It isn’t. When you really think about it, ownership is just a feeling yes? There’s no actual leash in my hand leading to all the little eggs and stems. That feeling burned up and the heat just kept rising. I had to dispense with all of it. How do I say this? If you give out all the coals there will eventually be no fire left. Do you understand? I’m full of other feelings and I didn’t want those to catch fire as well.”
“So far all of our tests indicate that you are healthy, that this problem is in your mind alone.”
“I don’t know if I’m sick, but I’m not right.”
“What do you want us to do about it?”
“I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want anything at all anymore. I feel like I need to look for something to want…”
No matter how many times they questioned him and listened to the answers, the three assigned to him couldn’t make sense of any of it. There was nothing anomalous in his blood: no viruses, no bacteria, and no parasites. The only thing they knew after more than three days of testing was that nematodes certainly weren’t the culprit.
The spots where violence had broken out were never roped off or quarantined, but they might as well have been. No one stepped foot by the man’s stand for the longest time, at least until they were ordered to. Ohmon had a sister who knew all his recipes. She was ready to change her family’s name just to escape association with him, but she had received an invitation from Queen Magthwi. No amount of fear could ever convince her to turn such a request down.
She dutifully appeared at her brother’s stand with long cloth work gloves on and an apron thick enough to be a tent’s wall. She spent hours scrubbing it, all of its equipment, and even the orange cobblestones around it, clean. She sweated out nearly enough to fill her sponge bucket in the process, on a very sunny day no less. That left very little time to make herself presentable and make presentable food before Magthwi arrived, but she somehow found the time for that as well.
No official ceremony or event had been declared, but there were still plenty of civilians on hand to witness it. They had made no formal announcement because the royal family knew to be subtler, and thus truer, than that. The queen would demonstrate that nothing was amiss without making a show of it. Her first stop of the day, her ordinary day, was for a delightful breakfast at a market-side stand famous for its chopped vegetable omelets.
Ohmon’s sister stood there, apron cast aside in favor of a dress that made the proceedings look like the opening of her gourmet restaurant, as the queen’s procession arrived. There was no palanquin this time, she walked bare foot through the streets, but several of her guards carried giant red-handled umbrellas to shade her as well as the princesses that accompanied her: Amandili and Jivahti.
Magthwi approached the stand quietly, her eyes never drifting from the woman behind the counter. She noticed the queen’s garb, which, given the efforts of her many tailors, was usually impossible not to notice. She was in red that day, with a large hanging collar. She looked as if a rose had finally pulled back its hood and revealed its face to the sun. Her lips were the same shade, but it was impossible to tell if it was a lipstick or just the pulp of a berry. Her appearance had been carefully designed, over several late night arguments amongst her fashion experts, to make her look comfortable.
The princesses flanked her in green, like young shoots, but the actual details of their outfits were individualized. No sleeve or decorative leaf was the same. Either of them could’ve been a queen, and though only one would grow to that full height they still had to be treated like they could define a civilization. Every outfit might become a memory for an entire people to cherish.
Notable too was the lack of swords on the hips of the royal guard. Magthwi had removed the very possibility of death from the visit. None were less afraid of another unruly crowd than her, something obvious in the nervous stares of her guards. Their hands wrung the handles of their umbrellas as if they were hilts.
“Good morning,” the queen addressed the omelet-maker, lips parting to a smile that immediately opened the vendor’s heart.
“A perfect morning Queen Magthwi,” she gushed, holding back tears. A dream flooded back to her, a dream of holding the train of the queen’s dress during a celebration of one of her pregnancies. “I would do anything for- I mean what can I do for you?”
“In all of anything,” the queen cooed, “I think I would like an omelet most. Serve it with steam and pride. My daughters would like one each as well.” The princesses stepped forward. “Do you also serve beverages?”
“Yes my queen,” the vendor answered as her arms flew about, flicking burner switches and moving pans. She tossed a thick square of butter onto the black iron. Its sizzle drew the curious crowd closer.
“I’m afraid you’ll all have to form a line if you want one,” Magthwi joked loudly, with the confidence of an exploring child declaring her authority over the wood lice under a flap of bark. “I was here first; it’s only fair.” They joined her in laughter, but several were already scrambling to line up behind the royal guard. It was only then that the guards realized they were expected to partake as well, so they turned themselves into a line behind the princesses.
“What drink would you like?” the vendor asked, cracking the first speckled eggs over the pan. The golden yolk glistened, immediately entering into a staring contest with the queen to see which eye could show more inspiration in the things it reflected. “We have an assortment of spiced banana juices chilled in mineral ice.”
“Banana juice,” Jivahti repeated in a whisper, her enthusiasm a little too like the rest of the people in line.
“We’ll take three of those, spiced with whatever decisions you make,” Magthwi encouraged. She leaned forward over the stand, resting her elbows frightfully close to the edge of the cooktop.
“Be careful my queen!” the vendor warned, teasing the cooking eggs away from her cheeks. “It is very hot. The eggs can get playful and spatter. You could hurt yourself.”
“I cannot hurt myself and neither can you,” she said plainly, smile just as warm and certain. She leaned in further, the steam breaking against her flawless face, only kissing it with drops of perspiration. Now she looked like she’d just worked a hard day in the grove and was ready to work five more. “Tell me about those vegetables,” she ordered. The woman’s hand stalled for a moment, but then she dumped the diced yellowish flesh into the pan along with a palm full of green seeds.
“They were grown in our family’s garden,” the vendor said, unsure where else to start. “You know… it’s funny the way our garden works. Our lettuces always seem to be at war with our seasonings. Every season they try to colonize into our peppers, but the spicier things always fight them off and they end up looking wilted and foolish.”
“Aahahhahaha!” the queen laughed, inhaling steam. The vendor could barely keep cooking. The sound was so full, so earnest, that she had no choice but to read a thousand things into it. She had thought it only mildly funny, regretted boring the queen with such an anecdote, but its value came forth with that swell of mirth.
Yes, it was quite the tale. That silly floppy lettuce trying to puff out its chest and posture its way into being an entire garden. Just imagining the stoic peppers watching the lettuce tiptoe into hot dirt and sweat all their pride away was enough to get the vendor laughing along as well. It was a quirk within a garden that fed the people of Colduvai who served its queen. It was the bit players in the gorging of the gorge and it was all a grand valid show. This was the part in the show where they laughed, where the joke landed like a bucket of champagne thrown out a window and onto the heads in the street.
“The same thing happens with my cabbages,” an anonymous voice in the line whispered to one of their neighbors. The neighbor wasn’t really listening; instead they angled their head out of the line, like many of the rest, to try and overhear the conversation at the front. They seemed to be having so much fun. Oh well. They could at least have food from the pan that had just served the queen.
Several minutes later Magthwi stepped away, arms full of cloth-wrapped steaming food and satin-finished aluminum glasses. She handed off the snacks and juices to her daughters before digging into her own, taking great big bites and not letting a single shred of chive escape her lips. Jivahti downed her banana juice in five gulps before even touching her omelet. They left a flourishing business in their wake, the vendor’s mind pulled far from the plight of her brother.
They weren’t done yet, as the rest of the market needed the same confidence boost. They walked from street to street, drawing people out of their slumped shoulders and half-hearted ‘open’ signs. Magthwi purchased sun hats for herself, her daughters, and all the royal guards. The men felt a touch silly wearing the wide-brimmed things, loaded as they were with flowers, but they didn’t let it affect the mood that Magthwi brewed.
When the sun overhead threatened to dry them out anyway she stopped at a refreshment stand outside the public lagoon and bought the whole crowd pulpy glasses of melon juice. She even stepped into the lagoon for a few minutes, sticking to the shallows as to not ruin her dress as she held it up. That had the effect of immediately spreading the rumor that she’d been seen walking on the surface of the water. Amandili and Jivahti were allowed to linger at the lagoon with a few of the guards, disrobing to their swimming suits and encouraging all the children and adolescents to come and enjoy the water, to get their parents to buy more pointless things from the surrounding shops.
Eventually the queen came to the greatest challenge of the day. Even with a happy crowd behind her, loud but completely devoid of the mania from before, the image before her would be difficult to rehabilitate. It was a flower shop. She did not recognize it at first, for the edges of the display over its doors had never been visible before; they’d always been covered by giant flower petals, thick and heavy as banana leaves. Magthwi knew the products of the shop, for those giant petals were often used to make the fantastical oversized potpourri in the lobbies of her spire.
For some reason, unknown even to her, Magthwi stopped for a moment, just at the edge of the deadened gray pollen surrounding the shop. The omelet stand was so simple. It was just an animal that had retreated into its shell at a clap of thunder out of a clear sky. The family of Ohmon had closed down the stand and attempted to abandon it. If the river was closer they might’ve set it adrift and lit it with a flaming arrow like an old Viking pyre.
The flower stand was not abandoned. It had not been cleaned to turn it into the skeleton of a building. All the flowers were still there over the doors, hanging. Dry. Shriveled. Gray. Their immense size made them look all the worse. It was as if the person within hadn’t noticed the change, as if they never understood why their flowers were valuable in the first place. They weren’t embarrassed by the sounds of feet crunching the unpleasant petals just outside. It didn’t matter. No matter how aggressively negligent this florist was, Magthwi’s concern would be more aggressive. She took a step over the pollen.
“My queen,” one of her guards addressed in a whisper, having rushed forward once she determined the queen would enter the shop. “There are rumors around this building presently. I thought you might like to know.”
“Tell me of them,” Magthwi encouraged.
“All these plants supposedly died on the day of the incident. Some have been saying there was a pathogen that spread through the crowd, made them mad, and that this shop was its point of origin. The young lady who runs it has not… been overly concerned with protecting her reputation. She has said almost nothing about it.”
“There is something else.” It wasn’t a guess. Magthwi could hear it in her voice.
“The word pathogen is not overly common down here. They use the best words they have when encountering things they normally never have to worry about. Some people are calling it a spell or a curse instead. Spells and curses have only one origin: a caster.”
“I see. Thank you for telling me, now please step back.” The guard did as ordered. Magthwi walked forward, very aware of the hush spreading through the crowd. They would of course follow her inside, but they might not be happy about it. Her hair was tall enough to brush one of the drooping dead blossoms. Its stem crackled, but it did not fall.
There was no bell inside to alert the florist to her presence, but Magthwi knew the woman would be along shortly. She sensed life from the backroom, quite a lot of it in fact. There certainly wasn’t very much of it in the showroom. A round central aquarium held some lively fish, but even their water plants had gone pale and sunk to the bottom. The shelves and tables were full of pots and soil, but every flower and leaf was just as dead as those outside. Black bouquets looking like the lips of disappointed mummies stood neighbor to barren twigs just waiting for a chilly wind to make them rattle and complete their imitation of a haunted forest in the dead of late autumn.
People trickled in behind her, looking for spots of green among the many displays. Magthwi already knew there was none to find, at least not outside of that back room, so she resolved to make her own. She made her way to the counter behind the aquarium and touched the drooping head of a chrysanthemum. Its petals had gone white and curled up like wood shavings. She leaned in and smelled it, closing her eyes as if transported to a distant meadow. Her satisfied moan drew every ear and eye.
“Perfect, just perfect,” she said, pulling the flowers from their vase and twirling around to face her people. “Even in death I can see how beautiful these are. They’re like a photograph asking for the humble assistance of your imagination. They are the idea of flowers, permanent in their desiccation, while our senses provide the color and the scent.” The guards took her tiny sideways glance as an order, stepping off to the sides to pluck dead flowers and smell them as well. The queen noticed a twinge of a smile on one guard’s face. “These remind you of something?”
“Yes my queen,” he answered her, twirling a tiny dead flower between two fingers. Most of those in the shop watched it as if it were a carousel in the full swing of its lights and music. “My mother used to dry and press flowers to use as bookmarks. She left one in there every time she stopped reading, rather than move them between pages. We could always tell how long a book took her by how overgrown the edges of the pages were.”
“That’s the perfection I was talking about,” Magthwi said, pointing at the guard’s flower. “You don’t need the color or the water to preserve the stories. Every pebble of our gorge comes from an ancient boulder or our tallest building. Every piece is the greatest achievement it ever participated in.” She looked like she was about to go on, but the queen whirled around with her dead bouquet and pressed her stomach against the counter. She was in line.
Everyone else scrambled to get their hands on what they now all thought of as dried flowers rather than dead flowers. The shelves were picked clean in just two minutes, forcing those without anything to buy to get creative. They picked up pots as if they had price tags on them. One crafty individual rolled up his sleeve, dipped his arm in the aquarium, and pulled out one of the bloated white water plants that hadn’t completely lost its buoyancy. He dripped his way to the back of the line, which was already out the front door.
They whispered for a while, talking about the perfect pages in their favorite books to keep their flowers, but the orderly line quickly stiffened their enthusiasm. It should’ve been moving. If it wasn’t, that meant somebody was actually keeping Queen Magthwi waiting. She was of course the picture of patience, but there was the possibility that the staff was simply unaware of what went on in the showroom. It had been one slow day after the other; how were they supposed to predict the breaking of the clouds and the shine of the queen through their windows?
“Ehumm,” Magthwi voiced, staring at the door to the backroom. Her eyes stayed locked on the center of it. The volume had been perfect, the sound both polite and assertive. If there was a citizen of Colduvai back there, they had to emerge. Emerge they did, but only after ten seconds of booming silence. Out came a young woman with droplets of sweat on her forehead just under a bandana, as if she’d just been digging up vegetables. She wore long rubber gloves, the fingertips bubbled and blackened by something caustic. She was definitely surprised by the line, especially by its glowing head, but the shock seemed to leave only a small dent.
“Queen Magthwi,” Keikogile addressed, taking off her gloves fingertip by fingertip. She tossed them onto the counter, a speck of moss-bearing soil coming perilously close to the queen. “What are you doing? All the flowers are dead.”
“I would like to purchase these anyway,” she insisted. “There are a hundred uses for dried flowers.”
“The queen can purchase whatever she wants,” Keikogile said with an empty smile, stepping forward to complete the transaction.
“Please tell me what happened to your goods. All this drying is very interesting, but I know it wasn’t intentional.”
“I wish I knew,” Keikogile answered honestly. “I left here on the day of the… unscheduled fair. When I came back everything was wilting.”
“You have seedlings stored away, yes? Your radiant display out front will be back to its old self soon? I can see it from the spire sometimes; the colors are never the same two days in a row.” Magthwi noticed that the florist’s eye contact was weak and infrequent. To her that suggested illness, perhaps physical and perhaps mental. There might have been something in that shop after all. She would have to have the Science Authority investigate, but discreetly of course, lest they undo all the calm she currently nurtured.
“Next,” Keikogile said, staring around the queen. Those standing directly behind Magthwi couldn’t believe their ears. This young lady had the nerve to ignore a question from her queen.
“Excuse me,” Magthwi said, not a single muscle twitching. “I asked you a question.”
“Oh, I was supposed to answer? I thought you were just thinking out loud. Plus, you’ve already purchased your dead things and the others need to purchase theirs.” She locked eyes with the queen. Magthwi said nothing. The question was still there. “I’m sorry; I’ve never been good at keeping this shop. I was always better with the plants. I never know when I’m supposed to put my foot down and when I’m supposed to pretend to be friendly. What was your question again?”
“I asked if you have seedlings to restore your stock.”
“Yes. Nothing sprouted quite yet. I don’t know when I’m going to bother. I have plenty of money for now, and all this death has made things nice and quiet. Perhaps I’ll just let it be a dead season.”
“That would be a shame. I think the display is an important part of the market. You’re an important part.” Magthwi analyzed every speck of color in the girl’s eyes. Whatever her outlook was, it wasn’t wholly the product of disease. All populations had those that stood on the outer edge, more concerned with the shadows in the trees than the conversations all about them. It was unavoidable. Usually such people in Colduvai were convinced to join the expeditionary force.
The strategy Magthwi had used all day would not work on Keikogile. There was no pleasant childhood story for her to tease out. In fact, she saw the tiny drop of poison in the florist’s eye. If she tried to excavate such a tale, the girl would be happy to provide her with something disturbing, and to speak of it so loudly that the whole line behind her would curl up in disgust. Fine then. The joy would simply move on without her.
“A shame?” Keikogile repeated. “I’ve never known when to feel that either,” she whispered to the queen with a mischievous smile. “Every time I think I do something charming it turns out to be shameful. Like what you’re doing, my queen. I would’ve thought all of this was a little too… ‘emperor’s new clothes’.”
“How do you mean?” Magthwi whispered back.
“You don’t know the story? It’s about a ruler-”
“I know the story; I’m curious as to its relevance here.”
“My family came from a place that used to have emperors,” Keikogile explained, “so maybe I think about that story a little too much. Everyone pretending the emperor’s clothes are so beautiful when they’re not even there… It’s like you smelling a scent on those flowers that’s long gone. You’re doing it much more smartly though. The emperor was never part of the joke; his butt was just the naked end of it.” She giggled. Keikogile knew what she was doing; Magthwi could see that. She felt free to be as close to rude as possible, knowing that Magthwi wouldn’t sour the day over someone so inconsequential.
“Do you know any other places in need of patronage?” Magthwi asked. The conversation was over. Keikogile sensed this as well, eyes going distant.
“Oh yes. My friend Delister runs the zoo. He’s getting very bored talking to his crocodiles. He says reptiles never get scared by ghost stories. Says they don’t have that one chamber that mammals have in their hearts, the one that races and makes you swallow even when there’s nothing in your mouth. He’d love to speak with you my queen.” A nod was Magthwi’s only response. When she turned to leave she handed her dry bouquet to one of her guards.
The rest of the customers were sad to see her leave so quickly; she had observed most of the other purchases performed earlier in the day. A few of them put their flowers and pots back, silently slipping out of the shop. Keikogile watched each and every person that left, even while taking the money of those that stayed.
“Do I have to cast a spell to keep them here?” she joked with one customer, who gripped their flower stems so tightly at the florist’s words that they audibly snapped. The miracle of restoration didn’t last at Keikogile’s shop and home; everyone seemed to scurry after the queen. Surely the next task would be easier. There was little chance that the zoo was full of dead animals.
Yes, Queen Magthwi found the task of revitalizing the zoo to be the easiest of all. The animals, many of which came from performing stock still bearing the pricks of needle breeding, lit up at the arrival of the crowds. The entryway was a verdant tunnel of trellises with open windows just low enough for children to reach. There were buckets of dried berries and grains at the entrance that visitors were free to take handfuls from. At the sound of the grains slipping through fingers, the heads of the zoo’s furriest and most docile creatures emerged from the windows and turned toward the entrance.
Many of the visitors knew these creatures by name and features alike. There was a water buffalo from a line that had not known horns in ten generations. Its dark purple tongue waggled in and out. Small children liked to let it lick their hair, giving them a silly wet curl that served as the day’s souvenir. It was so well-behaved, despite its gluttonous hand-slobbering, that it never bit or pulled a single hair in the process.
From the opposite window an okapi watched, happy just to nuzzle any particularly-soft clothing it noticed on a patron’s shoulder. Its dark fur, like velvet, made it a favorite for petting. Just ahead of it there was an elephant trunk that was also a staple. The creature’s head didn’t fit, but its nose whipped about in an extremely lively manner. It didn’t try to sniff out any of the freely-offered food; instead it gripped colored chalk in the fleshy ends of its nostrils. It had been trained to hand them out to the children one by one, as they were encouraged to craft their own animals in their imaginations and leave them behind on the walkways so that Delister could give them a proper home. Sometimes the children even swore they recognized something they’d drawn during a previous visit, staring back at them with wiggling ears from their new enclosure.
Magthwi had her favorite, a camel with emerald-painted eyelashes, but she showed this favoritism even less with the animals of the zoo than she did with her own children. She walked down the entryway with both hands out, fingertips brushing against whiskery and cold noses alike. The animals mooed, yipped, whinnied, barked, and sang at her approach. They didn’t have human intelligence, but they could sense the power of a queen. To them it was like seeing one of the seasons walk by; they felt the tension of a sky perhaps withholding rain after a long dry season.
The zoo had thousands of bird that knew better than to ever fly away; only their orange and black toes were visible between the branches of the entryway’s arch, but their songs filled the air one by one as the queen passed under them. It became a symphony of whistles and chirps. Some of those melodies were among the last traces of other continents, songs taught to needle-bred birds that eventually flew across the seas, hopping from derelict drifting boat to barren island to foreign shore.
Delister was known as a kind, if strange, man who wasn’t overly concerned with profit. He allowed food sellers with carts to wheel them into the zoo’s avenues on busy days. Nearly twenty of them followed behind the queen as she emerged from the entryway, their carts already producing billowing clouds of steamy aromas. Even with all the hand-outs the poor animals of the entryway had to deal with grumbling stomachs when those aromas steamed every leaf and flower around them.
After the last cart popped out like a cork, the real crowds came. Most of the enclosures were large sunken pits decorated with central rock mounds, so the visiting children spread around the sides like water pooling around a stone. The animals that knew tricks emerged from their caves and trees to perform: apes danced, sea lions leapt out of their pools, and supposedly wild dogs obeyed commands to sit and roll over.
The queen was delighted to see the many creatures do their part, but her slow walk through the zoo was supposed to find Delister. She wanted to offer words of encouragement and praise. The old man was absent. She wondered how long he’d been gone, since the animals seemed to know all their cues without his assistance. She, pretending to simply enjoy the sights and sounds, wandered by his office and the entrance to his home, picking up no sign of him. The closest thing was a dirty bandana hanging over a door of vertical wooden columns.
She slipped it off the top and ran her fingers over it. Nothing but curated soil and sweat. It was a rag to wipe off a day’s work, but what work had he done exactly? There was a sign on the door saying the enclosure behind it was temporarily closed, yet the door was ajar. Magthwi let herself inside, having already remembered that pen as part of the cluster of reptile exhibits.
It was quiet inside, partly because the enclosure had a thick cover of leaves far above it resting on a grate of wires. Occasionally one slipped through the holes and drifted down into the pit. Magthwi’s eyes followed one such leaf. It didn’t make it all the way to the bottom, for it was snatched out of the air by one of the pit’s denizens, having mistaken it for a small bird.
The pit was rectangular where most in the zoo were circular; it was significantly deeper too. Its bottom held one stretch of artificial riverbank and then a pool of clear blue water. It was a miracle that the water could remain that clear with so many occupants: a miracle of needle breeding that resulted in microbes eating up anything that could conceivably count as water contamination.
Still, even with its crystal clarity, it reminded her of a stagnant mire. The most obvious reason was the overabundance of white leathery crocodiles. The animals slept and basked on the sand, the bottom of the pool, halfway up the walls like slumped bags of trash, and on top of each other. Juveniles sat in their mother’s open mouth, tiny clawed feet and tails dangling just out of reach of the water. Magthwi couldn’t tell which ones were aware of her presence and which weren’t; even some of them with open eyes seemed to be unconscious, as if they’d left their mind back in the age of dragons and saw no reason to ever return to this world of hand-outs.
She walked around the edge of the pit, examining tools and buckets. There wasn’t an obvious reason as to why this enclosure was closed to the public. The only problem was the crowding. There were obviously far too many animals in there. They were piled so high in one corner that the snout of the highest one, which had its belly flat against the wall, was mere centimeters from the lip of the pit.
There was a haunch of meat, a leg with the hoof and a few shreds of hide dangling, hanging from a rope around the wire grate. The red mess had several pieces ripped from it, but there was still plenty left. The crocodiles had no interest in it, so perhaps the zookeeper had gone in search of their appetites. A crocodile without its hunger, the queen mused, was really just a waterproof log.
“I imagine you’ll be more responsive than that flower seller,” Magthwi said, leaning over the edge and staring into the nostrils of the highest crocodile. “Is there something in the air?” No answer. “The water?” She couldn’t even hear it breathing. “Certainly not a spell. If anyone in the world could cast one, it would be me.”
She silently dropped to her knees and then her stomach, head and arms hanging over the pit. She reached down fearlessly and placed her palm against the bulb of the crocodile’s snout. She’d had royal coffee in her veins for decades; there were little pieces of green and gold in her blood that acted like miniature versions of the grove. They twitched whenever something in Colduvai was amiss. They were the source of many of her royal abilities: heightened senses that sometimes became inseparable from ideas like telepathy and regeneration.
Her stare and her touch could disassemble the mind of any citizen. She could turn the most battle-hardened back into children, round and soften their loftiest ideas of philosophy and achievement back into the image of a breast to suckle. She tried to focus the ability there, to move those little pieces to just under the skin of her palm and communicate with the pulse of the river roamer.
It moved, but not to bite. Its throat separated from the wall and its massive thirteen foot body simply fell backward without a sound. It splashed into the waters below upside down, only moving its limbs enough to roll right-side up. Its fall barely disturbed the others around it. Magthwi pulled her hand back, examining the lines on her palm. The beast’s body was, at best, unresponsive. She’d never tried it on a reptile before, and the low temperature of its blood seemed to be the reason for the sluggish connection. She was unable to discern anything wrong with the listless animals.
The door creaked open once again. One of her guards peeked her head in and was clearly surprised to find her ruler hanging over the edge like a child touching sea stars in an open tank. She hurried over and stood at attention, clearly hoping that the formality of her body language would bring Magthwi back to her feet.
“Don’t worry,” the queen said as she stood, rubbing the grit from the floor between her hands, “no matter how fearsome they look they would never attack me. We’ve never tested it out in the wild, but our people of science assure me that any predator after a royal meal would perish from the indulgence. It would make their blood so rich that it would literally poison them, like molten gold burning through a paper cup.”
“Yes, well, there was an angry turtle in my youth that found one of my toes bland enough to enjoy,” the guard said, eyes darting down to the crocodiles and back again. She remembered what she was there to say, and uttered an apology. “Queen Magthwi, we have received word from the expeditionary force.”
“And what does this word sound like?”
“It’s quite bad. They report that Laetoli has completely collapsed. There’s not a soul left, nor sign of Queen Nkoro. They speak of a mysterious cause called ‘Varroa the Destructor’. Worse still, one of the city’s machines chased them out into the grass and attempted to crush them. Many lives were lost. What’s left of the force is trapped in a cavern under the machine. We’re maintaining contact, but they have requested an immediate rescue party.”
“It is the nature of their work,” Magthwi said after a moment. She looked at the trapped crocodiles. She knew such animals could go months without food, but her people in that distant pit were not so metabolically gifted. There would be no time to puzzle out the best response, leaving only the most popular one. The moment of the coolest head was the current one, alone with all the submerged lizard brains. “What is the fate of Commander Begumisa?”
“She is alive,” the guard answered.
“Good. Send word to Mister Koulsy. I’ll be convening a Peace Authority meeting immediately to formulate our response. Have the others gather up my daughters and bring them back to the spire. Send out Polykeng so that today’s jovial mood can continue.”
“Yes my queen.”
“Have someone look for the zookeeper as well. He’s missing all the fun.”
The last customer left, having purchased a single dead leaf, really only purchasing a sense of participation. They had now done all they could to help that Keikogile girl, for there was nothing they could do about her strange mind and off-putting personality.
Keikogile grabbed a broom and started sweeping up all the black and gray leaves left behind. Instead of sweeping them out the front door she would take them into the backroom and see what she could see under her microscope. Try as she did, she still had no clue what killed her display and everything else inside. When she first walked in and witnessed the desiccation she had stood there, next to the aquarium, for more than an hour. She waited to see if the pathogen killed her fish, or if it killed her.
She did not perish. There wasn’t a single symptom unless one counted the rumors she’d attracted. Her mind played with the various images of the witch across different cultures that she’d read about. Some of them rode brooms not unlike the one she held. Keikogile threw one leg over it as if it was a horse and waddled around the shop, swishing the end of it back and forth.
It never lifted off the ground, despite her asking it nicely. She tried whipping it around as fast as she could, the kind of motion that could perhaps birth a tornado, but the handle just smacked against the edge of one of her display tables. The impact knocked over a pot; it broke against the tile. Dirt spilled out, but so did something else that rolled a short way and wobbled to a stop.
Keikogile stared at it, gripping the broom handle tightly. It couldn’t be the same one. He’d thrown it into the grove. The florist assumed she was the only one in the whole city who even wanted to touch such a thing. She waddled closer and spun once more, sweeping the object with the broom. It slid a short distance and stopped again, golden bubbles inside shifting. It certainly looked identical to the burl she’d been forced to leave behind at the city entrance.
Impatient with all these mysteries, Keikogile dropped the broom and picked up the burl in her bare hands. The royal fluid within looked as bright as ever. How had it found its way into one of her pots?
“Did you bring yourself?” she asked it. “I don’t want to tell you what you can and can’t do. Not a one of them tried to buy you, so I don’t think you were here until the very end. One of the last few must have brought you, but how did they know that cruel fate and a stiff insecure man pulled us apart?” She stood there, just as she did after everything died, just staring into the forbidden center of the burl. She realized, somewhere in the middle, once she’d lost all track of time, that there wasn’t a person in the entire city with reason to care about her.
Her family was gone. She had no friends, of that she was certain. Sure she spoke to some of the other shop owners on her street, but that was mostly to maintain her semblance of a human image. If people didn’t see her every now and again, smiling and waving, they would’ve seen her as a witch’s toad croaking and plotting in her dark hole much sooner than they did. There was Delister, but she was really better friends with a few of his creatures.
Whoever dropped it off must have seen her either harvest it or attempt to leave the grove with it. It could’ve been the same person who killed all the flowers. The burl was an order from an obsessed observer. They wanted her to change her life, drastically so. There was to be no more hiding her strangeness under the bright colors of the petals. She was to march into her backroom, channel the madness that had nearly been bred out of her family, and act like a proper demented scientist.
When Keikogile finally looked up she realized she was already in the backroom. At some point she’d shuffled in there, growing only more immersed in the burl thanks to the way it shined in the dimmer lighting. She moved over to her soil-filled workbench and sat down in front of it, pulling an electric light in a cage of green metal wires down on its neck. The switch depressed with a loud click and the light buzzed to life.
She had already cleared all the dead material from the soil, so it was bare except for a thin layer of green and yellow mosses. There was one rock in the corner that she used to sharpen her knives and scalpels, but its surface was covered in lichens except for the one silvery line where she dragged the blades. The mosses and lichens proved extremely ordinary, retaining no hint of the royal material she’d managed to transfer the first time. That was about to change.
Keikogile gently nestled the burl into the moss, letting its tiny fronds bend and conform to the glassy orange surface. Her ears were refined by silence, by the stillness of plants deep in sleep, so the shudder that passed through the mosses felt like an earthquake to her. The bubbles within the burl started moving on their own, rising to the top, sliding along the curves to the bottom, and then repeating the process, like soda boiling in its bottle.
She put her hands on its surface and rubbed them back and forth, her eyes closed. It was warm. She knew it was silent, but she heard things nonetheless. She heard them on a different channel from reality, the kind of space one might find if they magically managed to turn a radio dial further than it would go, to a frequency that didn’t exist.
This noise was purely in the biological space. It resonated in the coursing blood in her ears rather than her ears proper. She felt strange changes as it went on, but never lifted a single finger from the burl. Gooseflesh bristled across her body, awakening some of the tiniest bumps on the periphery that had never felt the need to participate. Each one throbbed like it was full of a crackling lightning broth wrung from a fat impetuous thunderhead.
She felt her pupils dilating under their lids. Her breath turned into gusts and chose her new wide pupils as its exit and entrance. The tiny veins under the thin skin of her temple turned into wooded pathways in her mind, but they quickly vanished under multiplying burgeoning ferns.
It was difficult to think, but she found a few theories in her hyperventilation. This was raw royal material, and it wasn’t in the intended vessel either. This was an aberration of the glue that built civilizations. It knew it would never be used, in the same way a turtle knows that there’s nothing in the world stronger than its shell. The burl now saw itself as something destructive, something to erupt and rain talent on the undeserving. There was a primordial urge pushing its way out, putting pressure on every pore across Keikogile’s surface. She was the continent and the burl the coursing magma underneath.
Memories flickered through her mind, but that wasn’t even the best name for them. These were records warped by the transfer between a thousand different species. These were data carried by the self-upgrading protein machines of needle breeding. Colduvai, advanced as it was, no longer had the tools to disassemble such things and see what drove them. They made Keikogile’s palms throb, pulsing with both the heat of the summer sun and the cool of dew clinging under leaves. They pushed their way into her head and told their stories, using an array of enigmatic chemical compounds as their marionettes.
Keikogile saw royal material, before it was put into the golden coffee of Colduvai, in myriad forms. First came a ship, rusted and groaning, making its way through choppy waters under dark skies. A smart machine that was also an anchor was dropped into the depths on a chain noisy enough to even disturb the brainless jellyfish. The anchor machine searched the bottom for a long time, but eventually pulled itself up link by link, much heavier than before.
Up came an amber mass in its claw: hardened royal material with three people fossilized inside. One was a queen of a sunken civilization. She had her hands around the throat of one of the others. They were frozen in an act of violence that Keikogile hadn’t thought queens capable of. Her mouth was a snarl, turning her perfect face into a wicked edifice. She looked like a windswept mountain from a fiery underworld. The amber mass was a jewel in a dark sea and the only thing worth salvaging.
Keikogile was sucked through the queen’s enraged open eye into another record. She saw birds flocking, all following one with especially bright plumage that was twice the size of the others. A queen? Perhaps, but not an intended one. Needle breeding leaked and spread. No matter how tight security was around queens, there was always a way for some of it to slip out by theft, runoff, or the collapse of their homes. Its effects could never be predicted, but eusocial mechanisms popped up with notable frequency. Keikogile watched the confused queen bird struggle to avoid her flock as they fell around her, struck dead by something invisible.
The burl seemed to tell her that queens were perfect, but that everything below them was doomed. They lived in a world, and the world had an infinite number of assassins to send: bacteria, fungi, toxic metals, radiation… Their power was an illusion because in order for queendom to truly succeed the queen had to be the basis for existence itself. She was not. She was the animal idolized in gold by the smallest programs ever written. She was a beautiful story, but just that. She couldn’t compete with the winds and the rocks.
It showed her these things, admitted to the flaws, only because it had no future of its own. Keikogile didn’t think about the future. It was a thing that never actually existed, but the burl told her otherwise. Royal material could craft futures, dark and bright, carnal or enlightened, ferocious or stalwart. She could have one, and all she had to do was partake, think herself worthy of mankind’s most astonishing folly.
“That’s a thing,” Delister grunted.
“Wahh!” Keikogile squawked, twisting and falling out of her chair. She’d never been so startled in her life. The burl’s influence was all over her as sweat and she couldn’t see straight. There were five Delisters, then three, then seven, then two, and finally just the one. He stared at the burl instead of her, hands clasped together behind his bent back. Keikogile had great difficulty standing up, but the zookeeper helped put her back in her chair. He was endlessly patient, saying nothing else while she took ten minutes to catch her breath and wipe the sweat away.
“You scared me,” she finally said, sounding puzzled because she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt fear.
“I scared you?” he said with a chuckle. “I come find you to get away from all that business you sent my way, and what do I find but you hunched over this queen’s wart!”
“Ehh, maybe don’t repeat that,” Delister warned. “Some people in my day got in trouble for that phrase. Kind of disrespectful they said.” Keikogile stared, her eyes obviously telling him to elaborate. “Royal stuff where it’s not supposed to be. If it bubbles out of something it’s called a queen’s wart. You find it in the grove on one of your little mushroom-picking expeditions?”
“Sort of. I found it once and it somehow found its way back to me.”
“Followed you home,” he said with a nod and his lower lip pushed out. “I’ve been there. Got about half my zoo that way. What’re you going to do with it?” Keikogile looked back at the burl. Its bubbling had calmed down once her hands pulled away, but the moss around it still moved in ripples. It was also growing at an extraordinary rate, already hanging over the edge of the bench and bulging in the corners.
“Hang on,” she said, pointing at him with a reprimanding finger. “This is my home. I ask the questions here.”
“You left the door open,” Delister said with a shrug. “My questions blew in.” Keikogile was reminded of the day they’d met, when she’d similarly left the front door open. An anteater had wandered into the shop, nose sniffing inside before the rest of it joined. It had escaped its enclosure at the zoo and been drawn by the floral aromas. The old man came in shortly after, surprised to find Keikogile completely unbothered by the gray and black-striped creature curled up at her feet while she read a book. It was a good thing he hadn’t brought an animal with him this time, or it might have impulsively devoured the enthralling burl.
“Why are you fleeing the crowd? I thought you’d be happy to have your lanes so full of people amazed that not all animals walk upright and drink coffee.”
“Did you like having all of them stuffed in here?” She shrugged. “Exactly. I can’t hear any of the animals speak when there are so many people about. Besides, they know what to do.” He turned away and started searching under the tarps and instruments in the corners of the room. “Where’s your coffee machine? You must at least have a grinder.”
“You think we should consume this?” she asked, startled. “It is forbidden. I’m not a queen, and though I’m sure you’d look fantastic in one of Magthwi’s gowns I don’t think you’re a princess.”
“I want to give it to some of the animals,” Delister said casually as if discussing vitamin dosages. “It’d be a nice treat. Plus, if anything can help me with those damn listless crocodiles it’s a touch of that old needle magic. Whatever you want to do with it is your business, but I’m your neighbor, so you have to lend me a cup of sugar when I want one.”
“I suppose there’s bound to be some sugar molecules in there,” she admitted. She thought about what she’d seen when touching the burl. Her brain didn’t allow her to see just one of the images; they all bled into each other as if someone was trying to paint underwater. Seeing the fossilized queen from the bottom of the sea led her to the flock of falling birds which led her to a human tower spreading seeds like a dandelion which led her to an elephant giving birth to something that made all the other elephants on the continent trumpet toward the sky in unison. “I have a… I have a thing.”
She got to her feet and searched around the room herself. Delister gleaned that she meant to say ‘multiple things’ when she came back to the workbench with two arms full of a self-heating kettle, two mismatched cups, a strainer, a small chisel, and something shaped like a drill bit set into a metal plate. She dumped them all onto the moss. The objects wiggled and settled as the moss underneath them continued moving.
“You’re not going to make coffee?” the zookeeper asked as he watched her pick up the chisel and the anomalous object.
“I like the smell, but not the taste,” she said, placing the plate as flatly as she could against the curved surface of the burl. She tapped the edges with the chisel carefully, driving studs into the surface of the burl. A few tiny cracks appeared. She shushed the burl and touched the cracks with her fingertips as if transferring a kiss from her lips to a crying child’s knee scrape. She tapped the other corners in until it was firmly affixed, then grabbed a cup and the strainer. ‘This will be more like tea.”
She twisted a tiny knob on the plate. The piece that looked like a drill bit immediately produced a syrupy flow of orange and gold liquid. She held the strainer below it and the cup below that. Delister realized it must have been some kind of tap for tree sap; she could take as much or as little as she wanted from the burl. A bubble of fresh air appeared under the tap and moved to the top of the burl. Once Keikogile noticed it she turned the knob back and stopped the flow. She poured the royal material into the kettle and switched it on. It only took a few seconds for steam to emerge.
The royal material held quite firmly to the strainer, but Keikogile didn’t take any precautions like wrapping it up in a rag. She held it out over the workbench, tapping the handle, letting unfiltered drops of it fall onto the moss. The droplets were absorbed into the plant material instantly. Its rhythmic ripples turned into individual quivering, looking like a forest canopy’s interpretation of radio static. They watched it for a few moments, until the kettle whistled. Keikogile poured the steamy concoction into the two cups and handed one to Delister. She blew on hers, touched her lip to the cup’s, but didn’t drink.
“Ten parts water to one part wart juice,” she said, watching the liquid swirl in her cup. “Should I add sugar? That’s probably the most disrespectful thing. Does history taste sweet? Or power?”
“Power’s salty,” Delister said without having to think very hard. “Pickled too. I’m not adding anything; the crocs aren’t picky.” He looked at her. She stared back, continuing to blow on her red clay cup and the green glaze of its edge.
“Your animals are waiting,” she whispered with a grin.
“I want to see you drink it,” he said plainly, “if you’re actually going to drink it. Not every day a man gets to see something like that.”
“It might not be pretty,” Keikogile told him. She imagined the queen’s spire as a fountain, mixtures of royal material and blood pouring from its windows. “There’s royal juice in here, but I have no idea what else. Something caused the trees to grow warts in the first place. It could be something that ruins this stuff. I could die right here in front of you.”
“Then I’d know not to use it on the crocs.” Keikogile chuckled, and then swallowed. Her eyes darted back to the cup as if some of it might have jumped into her mouth when she wasn’t looking. She briefly considered sticking a finger in first, letting just a little be absorbed into her cuticle, but that was too tentative, too cowardly. When she found the burl she hadn’t merely sniffed at it and backed away. She swallowed up the opportunity. That was who she was. She was an animal that lingered in a heating pot instead of jumping out, waiting just long enough to see what being stew felt like.
Without another word she parted her lips and tilted the cup. A trickle of the royal tea slid down the curled middle of her tongue and into her throat. She quickly set the cup on the edge of the bench and put herself there as well, bottom in the moss and bare feet kicking over the side. She closed her eyes and let herself taste it.
There was nothing to swallow. The liquid had sunk into her tongue and gums and disappeared, infusing into her palate and neck. That was where she felt it, not in her esophagus or stomach. The taste was fleeting, only around as long as it took to become part of her tongue. It was like medicine, but she couldn’t place what illness it was supposed to treat. It confused her taste buds as if they were citizens watching a foreign dignitary move through the crowd, unsure if they should bow.
It struck her. The illness was being too natural. It was the malady of criss-crossing populations, behaviors, and genes patching you together without a single word of input from intelligence. The royal material was at least one word of intent spoken into molecular being. In that moment she didn’t feel like she’d stolen it. She felt like a colorful insect who, in just trying to see what those mountainous humans were up to, happened to scuttle by when a drop of medicinal syrup fell and drenched her.
“What’s it taste like?” Delister asked. He sniffed at his own, his nose scrunching up.
“It doesn’t stay on the tongue long,” Keikogile answered slowly, trying to hear if there was anything strange about her words. She’d half-expected a different accent to come out. “It tastes like it should be prescribed; it certainly deserves to be kept under the counter in a fancy bott-”
The word stuck in her mouth and evaporated. Her head lolled back on her neck, open mouth almost swallowing her caged electric light. Delister grabbed its neck and pulled it out of the way. Keikogile’s fingers gripped the edge of the bench; her nails raked across the wood and exposed the lighter color under the surface. She fell backward in one fluid motion, head resting in the quivering moss.
Her tongue was gone. It must have fallen out the bottom of her mouth, for that was gone too. That was what she assumed for that was how it felt. The sensation spread, every part quickly disappearing from her control. She couldn’t feel her blood moving inside. She couldn’t feel her heart beat. She couldn’t feel the grumble in her stomach or the creaking in her joints.
The light, from its stalk off to the right, intensified until it was everything. She gasped, but couldn’t feel it. A moment later the very machinery she breathed with vanished with the rest of her. Her mind was adrift in the original intent of royal material. It was to save the species. It was to give them centers in the form of queens, things to cling to in a sea they couldn’t comprehend.
That was why so many civilizations had fallen. They didn’t know they were drowning because they couldn’t taste the water. This thing moved through mankind like a poisonous gas; even that wasn’t quite right. It was looser than a gas: more complex, varied, and spread out. It was a compound, but some of its ingredients were not so easy to quantify. It was a recipe that listed flour and sugar alongside ethereal things like time, propaganda, and prophecy.
Keikogile was not a queen. She knew that. She could never be one. She was always something else, and now that something else was louder. There was ‘else’ in her very substance now, her body as peculiar as her soul.
Slowly, sensation returned to her. She sat up and looked around the backroom. Delister was gone, but he had put a tarp over her like a blanket. She yawned and pulled it aside, letting it fall to the floor. The burl was still there beside her, still mostly full of its precious cargo. The florist looked at her hands. She knew they were different, but it was not a difference she could see. They wouldn’t quake if she was tired. They had the precision of doctors’ machines that could perform surgery on the cellular level.
Knowledge she’d neglected, the sorts of things that sit in dark dusty boxes within the mind, ran by along the bottom of her consciousness like a footnote. She remembered that when ordinary people endured topical contact with royal material it could leave a golden scar. There had been some scandal a few years ago when a Peace Authority figure was splashed on the chin. Keikogile hopped off her overgrown bench, the moss now hung like ferns at lengths it never should have been able to achieve, and made her way toward the front. She kept a hand mirror under the counter.
She exited the backroom, but before she could examine herself she became distracted by something out the window. It was already open, so she stuck her head out and felt a cool breeze. There were still plenty of people in the streets doing an excellent impression of a normal day the prior month. Children dragged wooden wheeled toys painted up like their favorite animals. Colorful baskets balanced on heads. Insects hovered at the edge of her property, long thread-like legs hanging, confused as to where all the flowers had gone.
Even with her thoughts given scope and scale by the royal material, Keikogile still did not know what had happened to her plants. Her flowers were dead, but that didn’t matter. There was a better flower. Its radiance was what she’d noticed through the window. She looked up and past everyone in the street, her eyes climbing the queen’s spire until they found the giant petals blooming atop it, expanding in the sky slowly like an aurora of unfiltered sunlight.
It wasn’t real of course. Keikogile sensed something atop the spire, something only a royal could be so aware of. Something was being kept from her. That something was a rebirth right of the new and improved Keikogile.
“I’m the flower expert,” she complained to herself. “My family has decorated that spire for a number of generations at least high enough to leave me this affronted. What other kind of flower could they be keeping up there?” Her grip on the windowsill tightened. “I remember now what it feels like to want something. It’s been so long.” She pulled her head back inside and looked at all the crushed bits of black leaves swept into the corners. She wasn’t supposed to replant. She was supposed to find new seeds made of the same stuff she was. They were kept at the very top of the spire, of that she was sure. History told her that was where they would be.
Keikogile took the queen’s wart and placed it gently in the bottom of a pack. Many areas of the spire were open to the public for touring. Surely one of those tours had a crack in it that she could squeeze through. She left her shop without turning off any lights or closing any windows. It was a dead place now; anything was free to blow in. She was going to find the real life, the kind the bloomed above the rest and outshone it completely.
Continued in Part Four