(reading time: 1 hour, 34 minutes)
The deep crocodile pen was drained and abandoned. Mister Koulsy walked around on the bottom of it, his boots squishing the water plants into the shallow puddles of water and mud left behind. He lifted their stalks with one foot, checking under them for any stragglers. The animals had ranged in size from only fifteen centimeters long to just over nine meters, yet none had been left behind in their exodus.
He stopped in front of a round tunnel in one of the pen’s concrete sides. It was big enough to pass a truck through. Up until recently it had been covered by a grid of iron bars and thinner mesh on top of that, allowing fresh river water in and out while keeping the animals in. Someone, presumably Delister the missing zookeeper, had taken a blowtorch to the boundary and opened it wide for them.
The man’s motives for such an act were unclear. He had no grievances on record. His zoo was well-attended at all times of the year. Those interviewed said he was not a social or romantic man, but that hardly seemed like a reason to loose dangerous animals into Colduvai’s waterways. The best explanation was that he had gone mad after consuming royal coffee.
Not one day prior, a neighbor of his had attempted to break into Magthwi’s spire and nearly killed herself in an elevator shaft. She had escaped thanks to the arrival of one of the loosed crocodiles, but all witnesses, including Zinjan, had asserted that the young woman bore the golden scars of improperly-administered royal material. Mister Koulsy learned her name, Keikogile, from his intelligence briefing that morning.
The pieces were clear enough, even if he couldn’t guess what anything with that glitter in its blood might do. The florist had somehow acquired royal coffee and shared it with the zookeeper. He had given it to his crocodiles. That fact was unavoidable, as the animal belched out of the elevator shaft had tested positive for it. The Science Authority said the levels were low, but it was clearly enough to affect its behavior.
The tunnel before him led straight into the river, yet the beasts had not gone for the open water. They instead chose smaller pipes and tributaries that fed structures all over the gorge. The royal coffee convinced them they had some sort of right to the place, that they needed to stay near the monoculture that had spawned their newest instincts. The results had forced all of the Peace Authority out of their beds early. Crocodiles had attacked public pools, the waterworks, several streets with large open drains, and of course the spire itself.
With his force now mobilized as animal control, Mister Koulsy had taken it upon himself to investigate the source in the hopes of hunting down Delister. So far the pen hadn’t wielded any helpful clues. He sighed into the tunnel, letting the weak trickle take the sound out toward the river. He was about to ascend when he heard a small splash behind him.
“You’d be wasting your time,” he said without turning. “It’s just a hole in the ground. He won’t be down there.”
“Perhaps I just want to slay dragons,” his visitor said. She walked the border of the pen, smearing the mud with her feet in search of any clue Koulsy may have missed. She wore a strange variation of a Peace Authority uniform that connected to its gloves, its boots, and the mask over her face that resembled a fencer’s hood.
“They’re more likely to slay you,” Koulsy reasoned. “They’ve had a sip of royal coffee.”
“I’ll take my chances. I get so few of them where I can actually do something for Colduvai.”
“Actually you’re taking my chances. It’s not going to be your head if you get yourself eaten down there. Magthwi thinks I’m looking after you. She thinks I’m stopping you from doing exactly this sort of thing, as if I could stop a girl like you.” His visitor stepped up to his side and pulled off her hood. Her face was free of the primping and priming that was required of all her public appearances. Her hair was flat and damp from the sweat inside the hood. Flavakinji smiled, something the public wasn’t sure she was capable of.
“You’re the one who taught me how to fight,” she argued, tapping the sword on her hip and letting it bounce like a dipping bird.
“I’m not the one who gave you a sword,” he said darkly. Her smile vanished. Mister Koulsy rubbed his stubble as if sanding down his imminent apology to an acceptable smoothness. “I’m sorry princess. I’m just trying to admit that I have fears, same as anyone else. I’ve no interest in losing my job or my life because I dared to tell you there were career options other than supreme ruler of the human species.”
“We both know I will never be queen,” Flavakinji said. “That was decided years ago. Yet we’re all still required to pretend I’m in the running. Amandili will be queen. The rest of us will stop drinking our morning cup and fade into normalcy.”
“If you just waited a few years nobody would even care that you’re running around like this. When a new queen is announced I can take you into my fold officially. You can do whatever you want and my neck won’t be on the chopping block.”
“You speak as if my mother will retire in three years, but there isn’t a wrinkle on her. She’ll be ruler for decades more. I refuse to start life in my forties, with the royal power leaking out of me daily, just hoping that fading spark attracts a spouse or a sponsorship. I will use the power of a princess here and now. I will use it to kill the monsters that stalk the sewers and attack my people. And I will use this mask to protect you.” She donned her hood once more.
“I have to coordinate the hunt with my people,” Mister Koulsy said. “You’re on your own down here.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve used this mask,” she replied, drawing her sword and taking her first steps down the tunnel. He said nothing else, but she didn’t hear any footsteps in the muck behind her. He would likely watch until she turned a corner and disappeared.
She couldn’t help but think he was being overprotective. It wasn’t a good look for the man, as it made him just like all the others. When he was like this he was just a barrier between her and experience, the same sort of barrier she’d been defiantly crawling over her entire life. Koulsy was a much better mentor when it felt like nobody was watching. That was when he told her that some problems could be solved by violence, and most effectively by direct violence. It was best to kill or maim something yourself than to order someone else to do it. A blade strike was only as honest and precise as the righteous fury of the wielder.
Long had the princess prided herself on precision. Those in the spire still thought of her as the girl who spilled the one thing that couldn’t be spilled, as the clumsy tantrum-tossing one among the palace’s litter. Out there, in the dark streets, in the grove, in the sewers, she was simply the Peace Authority. She spoke only with her strikes, and she hadn’t missed yet.
Flavakinji had taken a small toy with her, meant to be used during games with her sisters in their private swimming pool. It was little more than a colorful pipe that filtered oxygen out of the water. When she came to a part of the waterworks that was too deep to wade through, she simply dove and made use of it. At first there was no sign of the animals. She swam for half an hour, trying various tributaries and wells.
It was the middle of the night now, and the residents of Colduvai had been advised to stay in their homes while the Peace Authority killed the crocodiles. There was no one to see her when she poked her head out of a pond in the botanical gardens. A few night flowers bloomed pale in the moonlight. Exotic giant flowers that opened but once every other year stood around the pond like trees, entirely encased in green sheathes.
The princess spotted her first piece of prey. One of the animals, more than two meters long, rested on the bank. Its mouth was open. Several shredded pieces of clothing hung wetly across its tongue. It had attacked someone, but by the lack of blood she guessed it had only gotten a shirt or jacket. Flavakinji closed her eyes and tried to feel its presence, something she partly succeeded in doing.
When she was near her sisters or her mother she simply knew their heartbeats, and thus their level of anxiety or frustration. Her mother’s was almost always flawless, as if she hid it from her children, stabilizing it with mere thoughts. Amandili’s was always a little fast, racing because her mind was racing. Polykeng, Jivahti, Mossawetu, and Wohki were all prone to fluctuations based on their moods.
The crocodile’s heart beat very slowly as it rested; she could only count two beats per minute. She tried to slow her own heart to something close, but it couldn’t even approach that level of efficiency. Even royal material could not slow her body and metabolism to the patience of one of the Earth’s most ancient reptiles.
She submerged again and pulled herself along the muddy bottom, approaching its position. When she was just three meters from the edge she silently drew her blade. Crocodiles were ambush predators; it would never suspect that a little person like her could use the tactic just as effectively. Flavakinji crouched and pumped energy into her legs. She held the sword in front of her and angled the blade down; this would allow her to plunge it in to the beast’s neck like a scorpion’s stinger.
The princess sprang her trap, bursting out of the water with impressive speed. Her precision did not suffer, her weapon was just over a seam in its armor, but the animal curled its body into a crescent shape. Its head whipped toward her, but it made no attempt to bite. A guttural sound rumbled out from deep in its throat.
Flavakinji collapsed mid-strike, her sword dropping from her hand and disappearing in the pond. Her pupils dilated and her throat opened. It felt as if the sound coming from the crocodile was a phantom: a hermit crab of a specter simply switching shells. She was frozen there, kneeling, eyes diving down the pale flesh of the crocodile’s throat. She saw something in its gullet, an image that grew to take over her whole awareness. The royal material within the animal was defending itself against the royal material within the princess the only way it could, by bonding.
The low frequency sound resonated with something deep inside her that was separate from her soul. It stilled the bedrock of her being, made it impossible to attack her equal. The gardens and pond were gone. Instead the sound had planted her in a familiar place: her nursery in the spire.
The young princess, hands still chubby, grabbed at the objects presented to her. She thought them toys. How could they not be? Tiny wooden people with painted faces. They just needed to go about their daily lives, milking their water buffalo and pounding grain. They had fallen over. The princess crawled over to them and righted them one by one, putting their peg legs back in their round divots.
Her mother stood over her, observing rather than nurturing. The queen made note that all the little figures went to their correct positions. The wooden man with the hoe went out into the fields. The child with the dog stood outside the livestock pen. That was good. Already she was managing them, making sure they were satisfied in their roles. If nature knocked them over the little princess Flavakinji put them right back. She had done it just as quickly as her older sister Amandili, and notably faster than the firstborn.
Magthwi considered that her body might be getting better at making children with each experience, that her royal material was better defined, better tied to the Magthwi individual identity, as her dynasty grew. Though it was a fantasy it seemed well within reach, until she looked down once more and saw Flavakinji reaching. She had crawled away from the model farmhouse and to the model palace, little knees disturbing very little in the miniature streets despite their chubby clumsiness.
The child reached up to the throne room, lifting herself onto her hind legs. Magthwi noticed she had a figurine clutched in her hand: a commoner. A tanner by the look of it. Her little hand banged up and down, trying to place her favorite toy in the throne room, where it most certainly did not belong. She burbled angry little noises. Something didn’t seem fair to her. Her empty hand moved toward the totems representing her sisters. One of them could move, and free a hole for the tanner. Magthwi reached down and stopped her, tiny hand utterly disappearing within hers. No. There was more to a role than conforming to a shape.
Flavakinji swallowed a mouthful of pond water, bringing her back to panic and the night. She struggled to find which way was up and flopped her way to the edge of the pond. Her body decided to keep the water, so try as she did she couldn’t vomit it back out. She made several horrible noises in attempting it, like a bullfrog croaking as it was pulled inside out.
She felt like an infant again, unable to control what went in and came out of her body. Her limbs weren’t back to working yet, so her eyes scanned the gardens. The prey was gone. It had taken her paralysis as its chance to flee. Flavakinji swatted away the last vestiges of the strange memory, and in so doing realized that wasn’t quite what it was. Her body remembered it, but the sensation included things only Queen Magthwi could remember.
The animal had access to the web of royal material all throughout Colduvai in minute traces. It had turned it into a defense mechanism, stalling the princess with her own insecurities and fears. Was it a fluke? Or had all of them innately found the strategy? The darkness was still young; she could try again.
Flavakinji dragged herself out of the mud and stood. Something was different; she spun around. All the giant flowers had ended their sleep prematurely. Their pale blue petals, the length of skis, leaned out and bobbed in the night breeze. They released jets of glowing pollen into the moonlight. It wasn’t time yet, but there was royalty among them. The princess had become vulnerable, had opened up and spilled particles of herself into the air, so the flowers had reciprocated. Suddenly the girl felt like slicing through their stems, ending their species, and leaving them there to rot. She had not invited them to join her. She hadn’t even wanted it. That thrumming sound from deep in the beast’s throat had pulled those memories out of her. It was an assault on her soul, a knife in the hidden chambers of her heart like an assailant bursting out of the closet as one slept.
Rather than cut down the flowers Flavakinji reached deep inside one of them and found a thick moist powder. She rubbed it between her fingers, admiring its blue florescence. She pulled off her mask and spread it in swipes across her cheeks and under her eyes as war paint. When she put the mask back on its glow could still be seen through the mesh, making her face resemble a sky packed to bursting with stars.
The animals would stay near water, so she had another idea as to where one might be. There was a pool meant for athletes in the recreational grounds. It was near the wrestling arenas and just in front of the running track. Flavakinji was keenly aware that she had memories there, that she could be walking into an even greater trap, but she thought herself prepared this time. She ran from the gardens and toward the recreational grounds, keeping to the alleyways when she could to avoid Peace Authority patrols.
Her hunch proved correct. The long rectangular pool had not one but two of the animals gliding in the water around its edges. They saw her approach and submerged simultaneously, but the water was crystal clear in the moonlight. They rested on the bottom, one head over the other’s shoulders. The water was their natural element; it would’ve been suicide to dive in after them. Flavakinji tried to lure them out by taking the stairs into the shallow end, stopping just as the water reached her waist.
They weren’t taking the bait, so the princess drew her sword and cut a crescent into the water in front of her. She did this several times, but the splashing didn’t draw them toward her either. It was still the shallows. As long as her feet touched bottom she could keep control of the situation, so she took the final step off the stairs.
Two tiny streams of bubbles appeared, but they didn’t move. The princess took another step, but then her foot felt glued. The water’s surface quivered; it was full of that deep thrum once more. She couldn’t even hear it this time, but she felt it. It resonated from the belly of the beasts, through the tile on the pool’s bottom, and up her legs. She felt like a tuning fork, every grain of royal material inside her vibrating. This time it was the water’s surface that distorted and became a mingled memory.
The young princess was firm on her two thin legs. She trained them to be steady, to hold her weight even as others pushed against her. It was a challenge she never got the chance to experience. Magthwi had humored her just as she humored the other princesses and their hobbies. Polykeng had her flute. Amandili had her mathematics books and her telescope. Flavakinji had fencing.
It was the only competition where her opponents would actually attack her. She had tried wrestling at first, but none of the other youths were willing to touch the princess. Every match ended in an immediate forfeit, her opponent knocked out into a kneel by the mere thought of their unworthy skin touching a royal’s.
In fencing only swords crossed. The blades kept a healthy distance. There was no match that day though, merely practice. She could hear the long-distance swimmers diving into the pool of the recreational grounds, but she couldn’t see them. Magthwi didn’t want crowds gathered around a sweaty princess, so she insisted that the training be at least somewhat secluded. The solution came in the form of a tiny device from the Science Authority; when tossed into the air its pieces broke up and created a bubble of swirling silvery fog. It turned the outdoor arena into a private room, but she could still hear the fun of the common sports around her: balls bouncing off walls and callused feet gliding across so many courts.
Her instructor stood at the edge of the bubble, arms crossed, offering advice as Flavakinji attacked a series of wooden dummies. The dummies’ surface was iridescent, owing to the colorful skins placed over them that were painted with various targets. Even without a real opponent the princess was all smiles. She couldn’t help it. Her instructor had volunteered for the task. There was no blood relation. The senior member of the Peace Authority simply saw her potential and wanted to nurture it, without pushing her toward a throne she could never attain.
“Good, now move through them all, striking each one on the green target. I don’t want to see a single misstep,” her instructor said. Flavakinji obeyed. The green targets were in a different place on each dummy, so she had to duck and weave in order to do it swiftly. She struck a side, a collarbone, a shoulder, two heads on the front and back, and a sternum. There wasn’t a misstep, but her rapier did slip on the final strike and tear the skin over the last one’s sternum.
“Shoot,” the princess hissed, lowering her weapon and examining the tear. She pulled off her gloves to feel the smooth hanging piece of it. There was something underneath. She pulled off the whole skin, revealing an identity put on the dummy by more traditional paint. It had a big toothy smile and dirt-stained clothes. A basket full of coffee cherries was painted on its back. She ran her fingers across the painted strap over its shoulder.
“These have seen a lot of use,” her instructor informed her with a smirk. “I think some of them were even extras in a stage play or two.”
“This one shouldn’t be fighting me,” Flavakinji said. “He should be out in the fields. That’s where he wants to be.” She retraced the steps she’d taken in her attack and pulled off the next skin she reached. That dummy was painted like one of the women who danced in front of the spire on special occasions. Her coat of paint looked like a blue dress with a belt of white flowers. “This one’s a dancer. There isn’t a fighter in the lot of them.”
“We serve whatever purpose our queen sets for us,” her instructor said, levity gone. Flavakinji turned and looked at her. “What is it child?”
“Nothing of consequence,” Flavakinji said. “These just remind me of some little toys I used to have. They were never satisfied with their jobs.” She smiled. “Once they marched on the palace and attempted a coup. I admit my hand guided them, but it was clear they were dissatisfied.” She pulled off another skin and let it hit the ground. The sound of it collapsing was brief and pathetic, like a vicious cobra losing its substance mid-strike, keeping only its white scales. “Miss Begumisa, do you think a human being can transform into something else?”
“That’s a very big question,” her instructor said, taking a few steps forward but keeping her arms crossed, “but no, I don’t. You can force a human into a tin can, but it will be irreparably damaged in the process and it will not become soup.”
“Isn’t that what my mother does?” Flavakinji asked. Now Begumisa looked like her face had never known a smile. She was stiffer than any of the dummies. “Humans didn’t used to have queens. Every person made their own decisions didn’t they? If you didn’t like something you could just walk away and go be your own queendom.”
“That world did exist, but it died.”
“Queendoms die too. We only talk to Nkoro. All the others are gone.”
“Do you think the gorge will die?” Begumisa asked. Her eyes darted down, as powerful as a slash with her own weapon. Flavakinji lowered the rapier and approached. Even in the bubble they both felt like they should be whispering. For all they knew the bubble could have been listening as well.
“I think only things that can transform can survive,” the princess admitted. Her eyes glided over Begumisa’s muscular arms, rigid shoulders, and long neck, trying to discern if they’d ever been something else.
“Are you calling me a nihilist?” Begumisa asked. She seemed uncomfortable to have the girl so close. “I did just say that people can’t transform.”
“I think you’re lying to me.” The princess wasn’t nervous, not about Begumisa. Her nerves were far away, one sitting as cobweb in her little sister’s room watching for overshadowing talents, one wrapped around Magthwi’s wrist as a bracelet she could playfully snap. “We didn’t used to have queens and now we do. We can transform. The needle breeding changed us. Royal coffee changes people. I can feel it change me when I drink it every morning.”
“And you will continue to drink it,” Begumisa said. That was a standard emotionless response: a reflex installed by the Peace Authority. The princess just knew that wasn’t what the woman would’ve said if she was free.
“If I stopped that would change who I was too,” Flavakinji reasoned. “If I stop changing, deviate from the course set for me, I fall out of the current like a stone. I become safe on the bed as everything above hurtles toward its destination, good or bad.” The princess knew she was too young to even speak the way she did. The coffee made her mind old enough to fully comprehend words like ‘current’ and ‘hurtle’.
“Your mother knows best,” Begumisa said sternly. She moved to one of the skinned dummies and pulled the target-covered sheet back over it, hiding its smile.
“Tell me about what you’ve done,” Flavakinji demanded. She didn’t have to raise the rapier to make her desperation for the answer clear. As soon as the bubble popped they would go back to Colduvai. For now they were isolated, separated from the strings that controlled their every twitch. “You’ve been on adventures. You’ve been in the actual world.”
“That’s enough Flavakinji,” Begumisa hissed. “My life is no concern of yours.”
“If I am to be queen then it is,” the girl argued. “Every citizen of Colduvai would be my business. Either you owe me this information because that’s what you are, or you don’t because you’re something else. You don’t want to tell me because you’re a real person. My family is royal coffee. We’re silt in its current. You are a rock it would break upon. It would shimmer on your skin, forced to adorn you because your identity was stronger than it. You can transform on your own, so you’re the only one who really deserves it!”
“Enough!” Begumisa shouted. The force of her voice alone was enough to pop the bubble. They were on the recreational grounds. A few balls and sticks fell to the ground, for those supposed to catch them chose instead to look over, to see where that shout had come from. Begumisa walked away, pretending she’d been dismissed by her charge. Her scream echoed in Flavakinji’s head. The memory popped just as the bubble had.
“Guhh!” she gasped again as she floundered in the deep end of the pool. She hadn’t been thrusting and slashing through the line of dummies; she’d been swimming. Terrified that her legs were about to be snapped off, one for each crocodile, she stuck her head back under with eyes wide open. The bottom was empty. The reptiles had fled while she was lost in the royal haze, just as before.
Flavakinji smacked the water, ordering it to produce the crocodiles so she could run them through. Even in her rage she wasn’t blind to what the visions did. Each one was sharper than the last, cutting closer to the one thing she could never stop thinking about. There was only one way to win. She couldn’t beat the pale dragons, they’d already won, but she could keep the royal coffee from taking over yet another part of her mind. It wanted to gild over her guilt, to inflate her ego and give her a craving for the throne.
The night was wasting away, but if she could drain one monster of its blood before its thrum paralyzed her she would be the true victor. The next destination occurred to her as she rolled herself out of the pool and dripped everywhere. It was her last chance, so she needed a guarantee. The river. Some of them had to find the riverbank as it cut through the edge of the city. The princess picked herself up, wrung out the front of her uniform, and jogged, as quietly as she could, for the bank.
It was almost morning. Some people would’ve already been in the white sand, washing their clothes, if the Peace Authority hadn’t warned them to stay indoors. Because of that warning Flavakinji was alone with the water. She took off her boots and let her toes move through the sand, pretending she was on a beach on the other side of the continent. She’d seen video of an ocean, but never been allowed near one. Surely Begumisa had seen one; she might’ve even filmed the video the princess had watched. If so, nobody would’ve told her.
Education should’ve been different. She should’ve learned craft and trade from its actual masters, rather than hear the lectures from all the busybodies of the spire. She read books, but knew nothing of their authors. She watched films, but her attention was never drawn to the names in the credits. Begumisa was a maker, a doer, and an actor. Not merely an actor on the world’s stage. One who committed acts. One who never swaddled herself in society, like hiding from a monster under a thin blanket.
Even the sand on that bank was fake. It was white and sparkling, engineered to be pleasant, dumped there decades ago. Flavakinji put her boots back on and journeyed along the bank in search of beasts. She followed a brick wall for over a kilometer, coming close to the grove. The scent of the trees overpowered that of the river.
She wouldn’t have to leave the city. Five crocodiles were there, on the edge of the water, refusing to climb the small hill that put them in the grove. Perhaps they knew that if they saw the cherries they’d gone too far from their goal. The princess couldn’t sneak up on them; all their eyes were open. One of them was a giant, its tail long enough and tall enough to curl around two of the others and mostly hide them from view. Its teeth were nearly the size of her fingers.
Such a monster would not need to use that noise, the princess reasoned. It would be simpler if it just ate her up. Another step forward. Sword drawn. One of the crocodiles turned its head and opened its mouth. She knew it was threatening her with that sound.
“What’s the matter!?” she shouted at it. “Are you afraid to fight me? You’re already more of a dainty princess than I am!” The giant one’s mouth creaked open, the power in its leathery jaw muscles actually audible. There was a golden sparkle to the surface of its tongue. “Don’t you dare show me what I’ve already seen. I demand something new! The sight of your blood or mine!” The princess charged forward, her speed somewhat sapped by the sand. All five crocodile mouths opened wide. Their snouts touched each other, creating a flower of teeth and smooth throat flesh. It was an aiming of the cannons. She wouldn’t even reach them in time to strike, so she hurled the sword at one of the smaller ones. Flavakinji was not permitted to know if her aim was true; she was on the ground, cheek against the sand, before it landed.
The morning wasn’t quite perfect, at least not in Magthwi’s eyes. The queen was in her study going over some of the old letters from gorge queens past. She sought wisdom for the upcoming hardship of a heat wave. She struggled with whether or not to call upon the Science Authority to solve the problem. They could install discreet units in most homes to cool the air, but such acts could send one sliding down the slippery slope of comfort machines.
Magthwi suspected that would be the death of her neighbor Queen Nkoro. The people of the city were supposed to draw their joy from their ruler, from the knowledge that the pyramid of their bodies was strong enough to hold her up and enable her to keep her perfect posture. They wouldn’t feel the need to be part of that pyramid if they could retreat to an artificially cooled burrow full of the motion pictures of bygone civilizations.
She was leaning toward advice rather than devices: an awareness initiative with various tips for how to keep cool during the extreme weather. She toyed with the idea of having the Science Authority modify a public faucet to dispense water on the edge of being ice, letting it soak into cloths, and then having one of her daughters offer them to passersby, to be draped on their foreheads or the backs of their necks. That way it would be the royal touch that seemed to cool them.
The writings of Queen Ohmadassa proved to be in agreement with her strategy. Magthwi had a small magnifying glass trained on the letter, looking to catch any flourishes in her handwriting that only a direct descendant could spot. Sometimes there were hidden messages balled up inside a period or a comma, like the dormant eggs of strategizing book lice.
Her efforts were interrupted by the simultaneous arrival of someone important and someone trivial. The trivial someone was merely one of her aides; the girl entered the dim room with a tray bearing two plates and two cups. She knew better than to set them down anywhere near the historic letters, so she pulled a drink cart from the corner, near the thick drawn curtains, and set one plate and one cup down on it.
The other visitor was Commander Begumisa, responding to the queen’s summons. She wanted to discuss the woman’s planned ascension to head of the Peace Authority. Mister Koulsy was struggling with back pain, and if the Science Authority couldn’t tailor a perfect curative for him he would have to consider retirement. Begumisa was an ideal candidate to take his place; she had left Colduvai to pursue its interests many times and never been lured away by foreign lands. She would know what sorts of things might try to charge through their gates.
“I’m sorry to waste your time commander,” the queen addressed her as she stood at rigid attention, “but I think we should reschedule our discussion for later this evening. The voices of the past have more to say than I thought.”
“It’s no trouble my queen,” Begumisa answered softly. She turned to leave, but Magthwi did actually have a use for her time.
“A moment before you go,” she said. The statement pulled back both the commander and the aide with her tray. “I would have you two swap for a moment while I have you both.” She pointed at the aide. “We need more lighting in here so I can see the details of my mother’s mothers. We can’t simply open the curtains because the harsh light may damage this old paper. Let us talk lamp options.”
“Yes my queen,” the aide said, “but should I not deliver Flavakinji’s breakfast first?”
“No, Begumisa can handle that. I know it’s beneath you commander, but you are her favorite, so would you mind delivering it to her room?”
“I wouldn’t mind at all,” Begumisa answered, carefully taking the tray from the other woman. She turned to leave.
“Oh and Begumisa,” the queen added, “do make sure you see her drink all of it.” She nodded and left the room without another word, but there was the most minuscule moment where Magthwi looked back, where she checked to see if the commander was watching where she was going or if she watched the ripples in the coffee.
The princess’s room had no lights in it, instead relying on the sun and its large windows to give it more natural lighting. Her bed had no curtains surrounding it, unlike her siblings’. The other girls had things to hide. The curtains gave them privacy within what was already the most private of places in Colduvai. Behind those curtains they kept their dreams, their ambitions, and the cripplingly endearing sight of their sleeping forms.
Flavakinji had nothing that needed to be left to the imagination. There was no plan to take the throne that would make her smile while she slept. When she was an adult the inviolable state of her beauty would be gone. She would let whatever man or woman she loved have it, and she didn’t want to tell them nothing but stories about how she was kept in a safe and only handled to be polished. Besides, curtains kept the moonlight off her face.
Her shelves were full of figurines, but they weren’t a static collection watching over their princess. They were turned in all directions, going about their day. Tiny cherry pickers were buried in model trees at the top of their ladders. A builder carried bricks from one place to another, a child riding on his shoulders and wearing his helmet.
The princess stood by her window with her hands behind her back, feeling the rising sun on her face. She was still in her pajamas. The warmest part of her was the top of her ears, and that only intensified when she heard her name from Begumisa’s mouth and turned to greet her.
“Good morning to you, Princess Flavakinji.” The commander set the tray down on the bed. She wrapped the pastry on it in the napkin and handed it to the girl so she wouldn’t have to move away from the window.
“I thought you were getting promoted,” she answered with a smile. “Breakfast delivery seems like a demotion, unless our city has become so serene that this is the most exciting thing the Peace Authority can find to occupy their time.” She took a bite. A fruit and cinnamon jam splashed across her palate, the spices tickling the deepest part of her gums.
“Don’t get used to it. I’m hoping Mister Koulsy finds his cure for all the grumbling he’s been doing. The higher I go the more anxious my legs get. I would miss having the fields outside the grove to run across.”
“You wouldn’t turn my mother’s offer down would you?” She set the pastry on the open windowsill.
“I would never refuse Magthwi.”
“But you don’t want it.”
“Wants are secondary to responsibilities,” the commander reminded. She turned away and grabbed the coffee. The princess took the cup, raised it to her lips, but didn’t quite drink any. “Your mother warned me that you might not drink it. Taking advantage of my inexperience as a servant? Shame on you.” Their smiles faded. Shame was never on princesses. It could only affect them as much as rain could soak a windowpane. “Drink, please.”
“Would you like to try a sip?” Flavakinji asked. Her eyes locked with the commander’s. The girl had never been more serious in her life. Even as royalty, this was the only thing she felt she had to offer. She held the cup out, expecting Begumisa to stumble backward as if she’d seen the princess vomit blood. The commander did nothing of the sort, simply staring back with eyes of frosted iron.
“Neither of us is being funny,” the woman said with a hint of sharp bitterness. It sounded as if she dug small pieces of shrapnel out of a flesh wound. “I know you’ve been taught better. To offer me that is to disregard all your responsibilities.” They both turned when they heard a chirp from the window. A brave bird pecked at the pastry. The moment was too surreal for either of them to act, so the creature successfully pulled the food over the side and followed it on its long journey to the ground.
“That bird reminds me of you,” the princess whispered. “Even with all these suggestions around, the security, the ceremony, the orders, it still found a way to swoop in when the opportunity came. It doesn’t care how much the baker thought of me while he kneaded those this morning. It’s just food. Rich food.” She took a step forward; Begumisa finally backed up.
“I do not want any of it,” the commander insisted.
“Yes you do! I can see it in your eyes. You can do great things with this, I know you can. You won’t just sit in a throne and fill out a dress-”
“Stop Flavakinji! That’s enough!”
“It will just be an accident, like my breakfast crumbs raining on my people as they go about their day. You just grabbed the wrong cup Begumisa. You thought it was juice.” She held the cup with one hand, only two fingers around its handle. A few drops washed over the edge with a flick of her wrist. “Or I just spilled it! Let whoever knitted that knot into my rug pay the price. They made me trip. They made you so powerful!”
Begumisa threw up her arms defensively, realizing the princess’s mania a moment too late. There was no getting out of the room completely dry. She thought it better to get it on her arms, keep the coffee away from her orifices, from her mind. If it was in her mind it would automatically brine it to a treasonous state. Most of the lower things could be scoured or amputated: a society willing to let its radicalized working class starve and die.
Flavakinji grabbed one of the commander’s wrists and pulled her arms down, simultaneously pushing the cup to her lips. Begumisa grunted and whipped away; the steamy coffee splashed across the side of her jaw. Most of it hit the floor as the woman lurched backward and dropped to her knees. She dragged her face across the thick rug in the hopes that it would absorb most of it from her skin. She was so lost in the strategy, in the mechanics of saving herself, that she made no sound. For a moment she looked like nothing more than a housecat scratching a cheek itch.
The cup rolled to a stop near her. Flavakinji watched, eyes wild with desire. She thought she’d done it: upended the entire queendom system with one flick of the wrist. There was now a royal woman who knew about the world, who could reclaim it, and do it all with Flavakinji by her side. She would earn every bit of affection and no longer be subject to the empty calories, the sickly sweetness, of her tainted birthright.
The smell of the coffee filled her nose. She forgot that so much of it in the air could be sensed from well outside the room. At that moment her sisters were looking about in confusion as if a vampire bat had flown into their bedrooms. Magthwi smelled it and came running. The queen arrived in moments, filling up the room more than the morning sun, two servants trailing behind her and carrying lamps she hadn’t yet approved. She observed the crumpled Begumisa dragging her face across the floor, the overturned cup, and the angry tears flowing down her daughter’s face.
“I did it!” Flavakinji spat. “I wanted her to have some! I want her to be my queen!” A flicker of awareness passed through the princess. This was all just a memory, but mingled with those of the royal material around her. Before she thought her mother immovable, for in her bedroom her lip didn’t so much as twitch.
Queen Magthwi, with the composure of a symphony, glided over to Begumisa and helped her to her feet, careful to only touch her clothing. She snapped her fingers and pointed to the overturned cup, the stains on the rug, her daughter, and the open window. The two servants silently set their lamps down and went to work. A washcloth came out from a waistband and covered the cup and the stain as if they were a pair of corpses. The other one closed the window, plucking the visible crumbs from the edge first. They then escorted Begumisa from the room. The commander was capable of walking on her own, but her face was invisible, lost in the hang of her head.
Flavakinji wanted to pull her heart out from her throat, where it felt firmly lodged at the moment, and toss it after Begumisa. She wanted it to stand on her mentor’s shoulder like a parrot and be with her for the hardship ahead. The memory made it possible, in a sense. She felt a shadow of everything Begumisa felt from the moment the coffee touched her skin. The princess had spent years reflecting on that moment, never even approaching the understanding afforded her by the defensive hum of the white-gold crocodiles.
Her guesses had never even been close, but perhaps that was because she never saw Begumisa again, not in person anyway, after she was taken from the bedroom. The woman was vanished into a hospital for a week and then almost immediately sent outside the gorge as the new head of the expeditionary force. She never returned to Colduvai for more than two or three days at a time and never stepped foot in the spire.
What Begumisa actually felt was defeat. The woman was self-sufficient. She knew it even better than Flavakinji did. There was no need for needle breeding, coffee, or authority. Wherever she went she would survive, until the moment she didn’t, and she would never shed a tear over her fate. The golden streaks across her face ruined that. They burdened her with a hunger for power: a raw desire that tightened her jaw, ground her teeth, and scratched the back of her throat.
Shame came over the commander in waves. The parasitic need of subjects, of something to rule, was insider her now. If satisfaction could ever be found again, the peace of powerlessness, it would have to be so far from Colduvai that there wasn’t even one speck of the city’s royal material per ten million parts air.
“I’ll take my punishment,” Flavakinji growled at her mother when they were alone in the bedroom. Her fists were clenched. They could fight, oh how they could fight, and she was fine with the certainty that only one of them could possibly be the victor. Magthwi wouldn’t allow that. Flavakinji now knew that her mother was a tempest on the inside, but her containment of it was flawless.
“There will be no punishment,” the queen stated without a hint of emotion. Her eyes were locked. Her hair was the same perfect exploding shock of black beauty. Stress didn’t tug a single strand. “Princesses do not get punished. If, one day, when my influence has drained out of you and you are nothing but an inert lump of potential, you still feel this way, you can return and I will happily give you the satisfaction of punishment. I will dress you as a fool and parade you through the streets as the former princess who thought she could debase herself by earning slaps on the wrist. If you would like, I’ll have someone put you to death after the parade.”
“I didn’t ask for any of this!” her daughter screamed.
“Nor did Begumisa. You are royalty. You do not ask. You answer.” She turned away. “Do be more careful with your cup. I’ll bring you another.” The queen turned and left, dragging the fabric of the entire memory with her. The insight into her mind and into Begumisa’s faded.
Flavakinji was alone on the riverbank. The crocodiles that had subjected her to the night’s narrative were nowhere to be seen. The princess dragged herself over to the imprints their bulk had left in the sand. She collapsed into one of them, her cheek pressing against the cool smooth grains.
Her masked suit and her nighttime missions had meant nothing. That much was clear. She was still an ornamental princess. The city was still her playset; that was why her secret missions had made her feel powerful. She was just moving her toys around, waiting to graduate out of them and into an actual life.
The pale dragons of the river showed her that she wasn’t capable of anything as long as she was in the thrall of royal coffee, and she had burdened Begumisa with that as well. The woman was out there, trapped in a hole with her subjects just as Flavakinji was. When the rescue team reached them they would pull them out, but things would only look fine. They couldn’t pull the golden scar from her face.
The dawn had arrived. It urged her to stand by heating the sand. The princess, wobbling on her feet, let her eyes sink into the trees of the grove. The forested edge may as well have been a concrete wall twenty meters high. She took her first step toward the spire, as she had to be back before breakfast. There was a cup of coffee waiting for her. If she tried to dodge it someone would be hurt, and the most painful aspect of it was that it could never be her.
The crocodiles were a genuine problem, to be solved by a genuine person: someone small, wooden, and painted who had never known anything but problems on the playset scale.
First of the New Tools
No elevator in the spire went lower. He was already underground and there were still several floors to go. Gone was the decorative rainbow spray of the lobby elevators. Zinjan was encased in a featureless glass cylinder, something he found very relaxing. Dressing up all the wonders his authority produced was just for the common people, like putting pop-up figures into storybooks. The utilitarian look was closer to the realities of the scientific process. It made the underground lab the only appropriate place to store his new tools.
Even as he sank into the Earth he knew one of his creations was rising. He’d memorized the deployment schedule, so he didn’t even need to check with any of his devices. At that moment it would be lifting off from the spire’s roof on its silent engines and drifting toward the city’s carbon-filter dams: the first stop on its eventful tour of Colduvai.
Things had progressed predictably, not surprising given the broad nature of his predictions. The florist’s infection and the accompanying crocodiles. The man that practically had an allergic reaction of the soul when he saw his food stand. And now the radio silence of the rescue party sent to retrieve the expeditionary force. So may hitches in so little time. Each one only a vibration, but altogether clearly a destabilizing force. Zinjan had expected the total collapse of the gorge since before he even headed the authority. It had happened to every other civilization across the world, sometimes before queens and sometimes after. The only cause for concern was whether or not he could complete his work on time.
Nothing that occurred in his burrow laboratory could ever be heard from outside it. Every wall and seam was soundproofed. In addition, the chamber itself was immersed in a channel of frigid water destined to rise into the spire where it would be filtered for the fifth time before finding the faucets.
Almost nothing could be heard from inside the lab either, as evidenced by his first silent step off the elevator. The walls were round, black, and without adornment. One of them was a curved glass window looking into one of the cold-basin chambers. It was the closest thing to a view, though the only thing that could ever be seen was very subtle movements in the water when the machinery above siphoned the next batch of it.
Lights were scattered randomly across the ceiling, with the actual level of illumination adjusting to the bare minimum required to prevent eye strain. They went dark if you looked at them directly. Zinjan took a few more steps and flicked his wrist. A cylinder silently rose from the floor, produced a faucet and a glass, and poured him some water. He gulped it down, focusing on the sounds produced by his own body. They were so much louder in there. Each swallow like a bathtub being dropped into a bog. Each heartbeat like a drum on his spirit. An eyelash falling with the timbre of a chopped tree.
He tossed the empty glass at the wall, but it stopped and hovered the moment before impact. Slowly it drifted down, a hole opening in the floor to take it. Everything was working perfectly; it would be the ideal theater box from which to watch the power he’d just sent off from the roof as if it was his falconry glove.
There was only one sensory deprivation tank in all of Colduvai, and it belonged to one of the oldest members of the Science Authority. The devices were generally frowned upon, as no citizen of Colduvai wanted to feel cut off from their queen. Zinjan found floating in the hypersaline solution, staring into darkness that could be infinite, and listening to his blood’s music was a fantastic exhilarating feeling. After he’d bothered the old scientist one too many times to use it he had been admonished and told to build his own.
The burrow laboratory wasn’t exactly that, but it was as close as a functional room could be. One could get lost in its walls. All sound was dampened. The only smells came from the occupant. Dust was collected before it could hit the ground.
Zinjan made his way to the window. He started to sit, so the room built a chair under him. A flick of his pinky opened a cage within the basin, releasing one of the pale crocodiles. All of the access grates were shut in preparation for the lamp’s pass, so there was nowhere for the animal to go. There was no air outside the cage either, but it could hold its breath long enough without being bothered. The beast’s tail swished as it circled the basin and passed across Zinjan’s window.
For the first time, he wouldn’t have to be alone in that space. There was another mind that could join him without being an interruption. It wasn’t Huzilwa. She was off visiting her grandchildren. They were not her actual grandchildren of course: merely the children of people she had saved from watery graves years ago. Her real child was in the lab, rising out of the floor on a tilted slab to join Zinjan.
Her body had been successfully cast and installed. It was still unpainted, so it didn’t match her skull. The mechanical bones, somewhere between human bones and fully-fleshed limbs in shape, were the gray of the darkest ashes. Her pelvic cradle and abdomen were largely empty, capable of incorporating or holding almost anything of appropriate size. She would be able to use it to transport goods or cradle any sort of creature she wanted to raise, be it man or animal, man or machine.
Her mind was not active, but it was not inert either. This time near her completion served as her gestation, so there was subtle activity in her imitation hemispheres. Thoughts formed and pooled on their own, completely independent of external stimuli. She was in a sensory deprivation chamber of her own, but without having learned what a sense was yet. She didn’t know her name yet either, but Huzilwa had already chosen it: Dazelbon.
The name was just for her, her parents, and her builder. Magthwi would know her only as the new mind, to be used when the time came. First the new cloud had to prove itself. Zinjan reached over and wrapped his fingers around Dazelbon’s. 10:52. According to the schedule there were only eight minutes left until the scouring lamp’s energy activated.
“The last of the people are taking their potted plants inside and locking their doors,” he told the Paleolithic automaton. “We gave all of them detailed instructions, both written and orally. Stay indoors for no less than five hours starting at eleven in the morning. Keep all plants and animals indoors. Gardens may suffer, especially if they spill into the street.”
The crocodile made another pass, its swimming speed lower this time. Its eye lingered not on Zinjan, but on the immobile Dazelbon. The man laughed, the sound practically sticking to the walls like syrup. The animal saw him, thanks to the royal coffee, as nothing but a subject. It was literally incapable of fearing him. Dazelbon, on the other hand, was only influenced by biological shapes. There wasn’t a pore on her or an enzyme within her. She was power pushed by biology, like a boulder off a cliff. She would do her work and there was nothing any crowned beast could do about it.
“That’s right; you have much to fear from her!” he warned the crocodile as its tail disappeared behind the right wall. He correctly guessed the time remaining. “10:55! The sirens are going. The Peace Authority are checking every flap and snap of their hazard suits. They’re sharpening their swords on that one big whetstone near the courthouse.” In his excitement he didn’t realize his grip on Dazelbon’s hand had tightened. When he gesticulated he pulled her off her slab.
He caught his creation before she hit the floor, cradling her skull in one hand and the bottom of her spine in the other. Gently he maneuvered her back onto the slab and straightened her limbs. He’d never thought about it before, but when she stood at full height she would be taller than he was. His own measurements had never been relevant. Zinjan’s fingers flicked in and out of his palm as he counted and calculated, trying to find the moment where combining Huzilwa’s measurements and Mr. Nutcracker’s had made her so statuesque. It couldn’t be found. It was lost in the ecstasy of building her. The toothy snout emerged from the left wall.
“10:58!” he warned it, poking the glass over its eye as it swam by. “The queen is taking her seat before a window that I made, one that would never let even an ion through. She’s the only one of you that will survive this. Perhaps that flower girl too… wherever she is. And that zookeeper. Did one of you eat him I wonder.” The crocodile slowed. Perhaps it was the chill in the water, but he thought it more likely it was the chill in its spine. Its eye lingered on Dazelbon again.
“You get back here and face her!” he barked at it, fingers squealing across the glass as he tried to grab its tail and keep it from disappearing on the right once more. “She is the next great power. She’s what we were supposed to be before all those corrupting forces came along: language, religion, warfare, and worst of all manners! These… these clothes!” Zinjan ripped his shirt off wildly and tossed it across the room. Air currents from the floor sent it gliding a ways, like a stingray, until it reached an open hole and vanished. “Destroy it!” he ordered the room. The machines out of sight did so in a wholly unsatisfying manner, blasting the shirt with heat and turning it to ash in an instant. There was no sound, and not a single curl of smoke made it into his black burrow.
“10:59!” he berated the crocodile as it curved along the far end of the basin; he wondered if it would even make it back to the window before the scouring began. Zinjan rubbed at his throat. Despite only yelling twice it already felt sore. He wandered back to his seat, sitting on the side and pulling off his sweaty socks. Grimacing at them as if they were meter long slugs, he tossed them behind the chair. The lab knew what to do with them. A moment later there wasn’t even a remnant of their odor in the air.
“11:00.” The crocodile’s muzzle slithered into view. “Right on time.” The beast slowed and stopped in the middle of the window, its tail and lower body drooping. “It will take longer than with a regular animal, as your royal material will race to repair each microscopic meteor strike in your DNA, but it’s over all the same.” The reptile twitched. Again. The third time it was a thrash. It looked more like a snake now, barely avoiding tying itself in a knot.
Far above them the scouring lamp drifted through the streets of Colduvai. None of the housing had protection against its powerful radioactive emissions, but its precision was flawless. Not even a single errant particle would leave the street and wander through a door crack. The city’s waterways, at least all the passages large enough to hold a crocodile, were laid out under the streets. It was all built at the same time, so storm drains fed directly into the channels below.
The radiation caused immediate and extensive damage to the nuclei of most cells, shutting them down. Radioactivity had long been a form of energy that man could not fully tame. When used in the past it continued to rage within the land and the people as an invisible wildfire. The science of Colduvai no longer had that problem. The scouring lamp’s containment field emitters surrounded its radioactive firing cone. Its beams would pierce the ground, chemically immolate the infrastructure of the entire escaped crocodile population, and then continue on deep into the Earth’s crust. By the time it broke free of the containment field it would never make it back to Colduvai in any significant concentration.
“It’s not even five minutes past yet, and most of you are likely gone already.” The crocodile’s mouth hung open. It belched a bubble, which was quite the odd sight. Streams of air from the mouth and nostrils were a hallmark of swimming mammals; they swam and breathed messily the same way a dog can’t help but get its saliva everywhere even when it’s not licking anything. Reptiles were supposed to be different. They sat atop their hoard of air perfectly, like aquatic dragons. The energy assault melted that quality right out of its body. Zinjan thought he even saw a few tiny bubbles escape from the skin itself, along the ribs.
The royal material was not destroyed, for though it had DNA it was not composed of complete cells. Its structure was much looser and capable of surviving harsher conditions than the scouring lamp could generate. It too leaked out of the crocodile as its body sank. The animal left behind a hovering skin of golden glitter, the shape of its mouth, limbs, and tail still discernible in the royal residue.
It didn’t hold that shape for long. By the time Zinjan stuck his cheek against the glass to make sure the pale body hit the bottom, the cloud was already shifting closer. It had no intelligence, but it was able to move in the water toward whatever stimulus it sensed. As effectively sealed as his laboratory was, the material still picked up on the warmth from it and spread itself across the window, like a golden galaxy spilling and splashing across the floor of the universe.
“What a sight!” Zinjan proclaimed in awe. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” He turned to the still Dazelbon, her eyes as empty as a desert well. “Except for you.” His fingers slid off the glass as he glided back to her. The head of the Science Authority, shirtless and sockless, sat next to her and draped one of her arms over his shoulder so they could both fit on the slab. He sighed, content to watch the stars of death explore the window for a way in. At least, he thought he was content for a few minutes as he basked in the afterglow of the scouring lamp’s, the new cloud’s, success.
The thoughts crept back in. They wore a different skin each time, so they were always difficult for him to recognize. His work, his mission, was pure, but his mind and body never would be. He couldn’t be Mr. Nutcracker, content to chew hard-shelled nuts with his giant teeth and wait patiently for fated extinction to pick him up. Zinjan was influenced by all the lies and delusions of civilization, every philosophical point of the whole affair.
He turned away from the spreading stars at his window to look into the eye of Dazelbon. The thoughts were innocent enough. Was she comfortable? Where did Huzilwa come up with that delightful, but decidedly non-African, name? Had something bearing that word drifted to her on the river one day? He could only see one of her eyes, so he rotated and put a hand above each of her shoulders. He straddled her, back prickling with sweat despite the cool temperature in the laboratory.
“I should be upfront with it,” he told her. “I’m jealous of you; that’s why you’re bound to see me do strange things once your eyes and ears open. I’m a mess. I’m a drone with a delusion of… not grandeur… but of something. I want to be nothing in the old way. Not nothing to my people or nothing to my bank or nothing to my queen. I want to be nothing to the world.”
He caressed her cheek when there was no answer, but pulled his hand back a moment later. He twisted, looking at the window, to make sure the skin of royal material was still there. It was. Even if something had survived the radiation it couldn’t watch from the water. He whipped back. She was still unborn. They were in a sensory deprivation chamber. Any acts that took place there hardly existed.
Zinjan dropped to his elbows, nuzzling her metal face with his nose. He exhaled slowly into her sterile mouth. His tongue crept between her teeth; her mouth reflexively slid open. There was no imitation of a tongue, so he kissed the empty space, reaching for something he swore he sensed. His thumbs moved to the side of her skull and massaged her temples.
“Unhh,” he groaned. One hand went down her ribs, caressing the divots like stretched tarpaulin. He found the button on his pants and unfastened it. His urges swelled out, spilling into her empty cradle, struggling against his underwear. His toes curled as his body thrusted. The end of him flattened against the slab under her, having missed her spine by an inch. The blunt contact shocked him back to his senses. The man wriggled, struggling to get off of her without damaging her. He ended up tumbling to the floor and pulling a muscle in his neck.
“I’m so sorry! I’m so… pathetic!” he cried as he jumped to his feet and fastened his pants. Dazelbon took his apology stoically. “I…” He looked at the window; the golden galaxy was gone. Everything was cold and blue once more. Zinjan smacked the glass, instinctively expecting it to warble, but he’d engineered it too well. His strike was soft as a pillow’s. “Where did you go? I suppose you thought there was nothing to see.
I know there was nothing. My sweet Dazelbon, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t even have the excuse of lacking a good woman. Your mother is perfect as can be, given her circumstances. She doesn’t have your circumstances; that’s the problem. I couldn’t engineer her a future. Hers has already come and gone, as, with the completion of you, has mine.
Tolerance is all I can hope for. If you’d be willing to tolerate my aging, lewd, neurotic nature during our transition into death, I would be most grateful. Treat me as a blemish, something unsightly attached to you that you make excuses for or resign yourself to ignoring. I hate to say this…” He sniffled and covered his eyes with one hand. “…but I will surely try this again. I so desperately want to be a part of you, and somewhere along the line my lust has given up on a family and parasitically attached to my work.
My soul wants a biological seed of me shot into this mix of science and fate, and, believe me, I know how pointless it is. I’m just a dog humping the leg of a museum’s sauropod skeleton. I’m a bug on the windshield, all fluids mixing together as my body loses shape on impact. Queen Magthwi would dispose of me quietly if she had any idea what went on in this head. She wouldn’t have the decency to ignore me, not like I’ll have when she’s exposed!”
His shout should have echoed in the chamber, but the walls ate the sound before it could return. With a resigned flick of his hand, the lab produced new hanging clothes from the floor: a dark blue shirt and matching socks. He donned them, buttoning his way up slowly. Dazelbon was drawn back into her storage compartment.
At least the new cloud was a success. When things got worse he would only need to convince her of two more measures: the new knife and the new mind. When all three reinvented tools were present in Colduvai, what was left of mankind could proceed with dignity.
Two days had passed since the patrol of the scouring lamp. Crocodile bodies were pulled from nearly every body of water in the city that they could access. One had even, somehow, found its way into a rooftop pool ten stories off the ground. The corpses were free of royal material, but its residue acted as a preservative, so there was not rot. Each monster’s flesh was still pristine and loose, making it look like they were sleeping as members of the Peace Authority hauled them away.
The city had been treated to a rare sight indeed on the first day following the cleansing. The queen had shown herself at a section of the river that ran through the city. It was netted off on both sides for leisure swimming and populated by artificial fish from the Science Authority. Magthwi had demonstrated the safety of the water by going for a swim in full view of the public.
Her bathing suit was a work of art. It was a single piece with a strap around a single shoulder, but its other boundaries were difficult to determine. Its colors were many, with mixing milky shades of orange, red, and white. The pattern couldn’t be called stripes, because the stripes were alive; they thickened and thinned, moved like clouds in the sky viewed from a vast distance, and occasionally spiraled into storm shapes. Those who had picked up the hobby of the telescope insisted that the best comparison was the surface of the planet Jupiter.
Tiny beads present at the ends of the suit projected waves of matching light that broke on the shore of her muscular thighs before receding. When she stood still these holograms grew bolder, reaching full gown length, but with her magnificent legs showing through. They receded almost to nothing the moment she went for her first dive. A crowd of hundreds cheered her on and applauded. They too wore their swimming clothes, but would happily wait all day for their turn while their queen put on her show for them.
The artificial fish swam under her feet, allowing her to rise and then stroll across the surface of the river. Most of her subjects knew this was just a demonstration of the renewed safety of the channels; that didn’t stop them from thinking it was the most beautiful display they’d ever seen. There was a surprise in store for them though; this time they could be a part of it, perhaps even show up in the background of one of the paintings that would inevitably be done of the event. A few artists were already there, some with canvas in their lap as they sat cross-legged, and a few on the bridge over the channel hoping to paint her form as she swam.
“I must apologize to you,” Magthwi whispered, but they all heard it. Her voice resonated in them naturally, but that wasn’t enough for the hundreds crowded near the water. There were also tiny robots, somewhere between worm and snake with heads like watering can spouts, slithering in the artificial sandbars, sticking their heads out and amplifying her voice as if it came from the ground itself.
The citizens exchanged confused glances. The queen didn’t have to apologize; she was incapable of mistakes. Even as she spoke she was walking on water. For her skin to contact it and not fall through must have taken ten thousand instances of precision per square centimeter. If she could do that without mistakes, then surely she could do everything else.
“I never expected these animals to become a problem,” she continued, walking against the artificially-slowed current. “Two people of Colduvai have consumed royal material.” There was a layered gasp from the crowd. “Yes, they have committed treason against me. They are being dealt with, but I offer my apology again. If there is even a single betrayal, then I must be an inadequate ruler.”
“No!” the masses shouted.
“We love you!”
“The fault is ours!”
“Thank you all,” she said, quieting them with a wave of her hand. “Perfection may be knowable after all. I think it is in the water here; I can feel it kissing my skin.” She caressed her upper arms, sending an illicit thrill through some of the men and women. Was it shameful to love your queen so much that your body simply responded? They didn’t have time to dwell on the thought. “Come join me, and know our city’s perfection!”
None moved. They must have misheard. Magthwi would never allow them to share the same water as her; it would be like sharing a bath! They’d never heard of such intimacy. The certainty she had of her own inviolability must have been immense, like a mountain in her soul. Even in full sight of her unblinking confidence, none of them did anything more drastic than shuffling forward and angling their toes over the edge of the street.
The queen smirked. With one swipe of her leg, and the help of the motorized fish tail underneath, she created a cresting splash of water that reached the nearest sandbar. It smacked into a male child, no more than eight years old. He stood there, mouth agape, blinking the water away. Magthwi’s smile opened. She was silent, but she only showed her teeth when she laughed. She turned and skipped across the water, away from the boy, dare they think, playfully.
“I’m going to get you back!” the little boy shouted, flopping into the river before his mother could stop him. He swam after his queen as fast as his twig arms could carry him. His cheeks were puffed out because they were full. As soon as he was close enough he would blast her with the geyser technique that was so good at infuriating his little sister. Magthwi let him get close, but his shot missed. She seemed to know every move he would make, as if she was his mother and had watched him at the playground for years.
The queen laughed triumphantly each time he missed, and her fun was so infectious that the other children couldn’t simply stand by. They plunged into the channel in waves, a few forced into awkward tumbles as their caretakers tried to pull them back. Before the adult’s social horror could catch up, the river swarmed with small belly-flopping bodies and giggles lighter than the froth they created. Nearly every one of them had their own special splashing technique, one hundred percent guaranteed to work, yet they couldn’t land a single drop on Magthwi.
“Ahahaha!” she boomed. “Is this force all you will send to defend the honor of your families? Are only your children brave enough to try?” A child, crafty as a shark, came from directly under her, grabbing for her ankles. Magthwi didn’t even look as she avoided the move, falling backward into the water only to reappear a short distance away. She whipped her wet hair around, every droplet seeming to home in on a different child. “If you can’t catch the queen, nothing can!”
A young man dove in, hooting a playful permutation of a war-cry. He swam after his queen, pursuing her with his fullest, and the onlookers still couldn’t quite give up their reservations. Now a common man, who in his youthful flirtations might spend a night with a scarecrow if its straw was blonde enough, was chasing down the queen, literally trying to grab her.
Yet she did not stop him. She laughed the same as before, beautifully avoiding his frenzied lunges and grasps. She leapt over his head, splaying her limbs into a star shape midair. Even upside down and airborne, her eyes challenged the crowd. She wanted their help to prove it, to prove that Colduvai had the ideal queen. If none of them could catch her, then nothing could.
Finally they gave in, leaning so that gravity would do most of the work for them. The Colduvai collective cascaded into the current and went after Magthwi. For once they could cut loose and seek the ultimate prize with every effort. They were like puppies, lost in their own energy, paddling madly as their bodies tried to sync their flailing limbs with their flailing spirits.
The queen was ready for them, even without maintaining the advantage of walking upon the surface. She happily dove into them, moving like a seal, avoiding every grab by centimeters that felt like continents. When the clustered people formed a submerged wall to block her, she responded by leaping out of the water the way a dolphin might.
Though her body was incredibly adept at swimming, as it was with everything, she still had something extra working in her favor: a flexible metal frame woven into her hair that had been invisible up to that point. It used her locks as canvas and rigging, transforming them into various shapes that aided her. On her first dolphin’s jump her hair had flattened into the shape of a manta ray, flapping to propel her when she was submerged again. Down in the cooler depths it morphed into the shape of a shark’s tail, pushing her forward as she walked along the bottom and taunted her people.
The game dragged on for hours, Magthwi never showing a sign of fatigue. Even the painters tired before her, rubbing their aching fingers as they complained to each other. Why did so many people have to leap in? Didn’t they know they’d have to be recorded for posterity? One of the artists, a young girl who dreamed of being the spire’s official portrait artist, looked back into the channel. She wanted to see if the queen’s hair had gone back to that striking octopus shape, as that was the one she’d chosen to paint. Even with the paint thinned and the brush twirled to the finest point, she still didn’t quite capture the tips of her hair-tentacles correctly. She searched and searched, but couldn’t find the queen.
“Does anyone see Queen Magthwi?” she asked the older artists on the bridge.
“How could you not see her?” one of them blurted, leaning forward to search the water. “She’s the only person worth seeing in the whole go- hey!” He scurried to the other end of the bridge as the rest of the artists set aside their tools. Even with an entire squad of them, all with refined painter’s eyes, they couldn’t find a trace of her. “She’s gone!”
Somehow Magthwi had slipped away without any of the hundreds of people seeing, as if she dissolved in the water. The good times generated remained in her stead, perpetuating the life of the evening. The swimmers had transitioned into chasing and splashing each other, the only targets they knew they stood a chance with. The elders had tired and gravitated back to the shallows, now simply having their daily conversations and gossip shoulder deep.
The young artist would have to settle for memory in order to complete her piece. Her strategy was wiser than those of the classicists around her. She knew the queen’s will could not be tamed and confined to a canvas, so she’d instead opted for a more abstract representation. It was more of an exaggerated portrait, with tentacles of hair outlining the bodies swimming in the river behind her. It was almost a caricature, with a sparkling gold paint for Magthwi’s irises that shined in the failing light.
Each hour she expected her father to show up and announce it was time to head home. He had surely been down there frolicking in the water, but he was always early to bed. He was no fool either, so he had to know the queen was gone already. He admired her even more than the average, naming his child Magthio in her honor. He understood that the queen’s ultimate intent was not the joy, but the confidence restored. With the day’s fun had, her purpose had ended.
Yet the river was nearly empty before the man, named Inotenda, reappeared. His daughter had nearly ruined her painting, adding all sorts of extraneous details just to fill the time. Magthwi’s hair-tentacles were now striped with gold as well, brightening the canvas significantly. It was the sight of the queen’s exaggerated head, almost like the sun, that helped him locate her.
“Oh my, that might be your best work yet,” he told her, only clapping her on the shoulder when he saw that her brush was lowered. He’d made the mistake of not checking before, and the resulting smear was the closest he’d ever come to assaulting the royal family. She looked up at him with a smile. He was a short man with a big mouth and sunken eyes, but he could make the overall effect rather pleasant when he smiled so wide that it forcibly closed his eyes. His daughter’s face was similar, but her eyes had gotten lost in so much art that they were much livelier. She set her brush aside and wiped both hands on her bandana to remove any paint still on them.
“You took too long Daddy,” she complained. “I couldn’t stop myself; there’s too much gold.” She stood and stretched her back, showing that, even at just fourteen, she was nearly as tall as her father. She blew on the canvas to make sure it was dry, and then tucked it under her arm. The bridge was quiet, the darkness creeping in swiftly. Tiny lights on the bridge appeared to make sure they could find their way back. “When was the last time you stayed out this late?”
“Probably the last time the queen swam with us, so possibly never! It sure was something today, wasn’t it?” he asked.
“Mom would have liked it; she was a good swimmer,” Magthio said.
“Yes, I believe she would have. You remember that our queen came to see your mother on her deathbed, I’m sure. Cancer hadn’t taken anyone in the city in ten years, but her case was so aggressive… You were still asleep inside her… and both of you were fading fast.”
“Then Queen Magthwi came,” Magthio said, taking over. She wasn’t sure how much of the tale was true. There definitely was a visit, because there was a photograph of Magthwi with her hands over her mother’s swollen abdomen. In it her mother’s eyes were bottoming out, emptying and filling her lower eyelids with fluid, but her expression was full of hope. “She blessed me so I would be strong enough to come out, and she delivered me while the doctors watched in awe.”
“That’s right,” Inotenda said with a nod. “Even though you two had shared blood continuously there wasn’t a spot of her illness in you. That was her doing. She flushed it out of you just like she flushed those crocodiles out of the city. I remember this other time where cherries dropped from the trees mysteriously, so she…”
Magthio’s mind wandered while he repeated one of his five favorite queen stories. He wasn’t old enough to remember Queen Bimine, few were, so Magthwi had always been in his life, like the sun and moon. The girl rested her head on her father’s side as they walked. His shirt was still wet, but she didn’t mind. Things were perfect, and it was time for a perfect sleep to round the day out. Their bare feet hit the cool ceramic of their home street…
“Hey Inotenda!” a neighbor called and waved. He had a spatula in his hand. There was a column of smoke before him, smelling of grilled marula fruit. “Join the party. We’re making some midnight snacks!” It was indeed a party, for nearly the whole street was out in front of their homes with standing bucket grills, musical instruments, and spots open enough for dancing. The queen was gone, and perhaps she’d done too good of a job reinvigorating her people. They looked ready to celebrate through the night.
“What do you say?” Inotenda asked his daughter with one of his signature smiles. “Do we make it a special night? You don’t have school tomorrow.”
“I’m tired,” she answered gently, “but you go ahead Daddy. I’ll see you in the morning.” They hugged, careful to keep the painting of Magthwi a healthy distance away. Then she left him behind, shuffling inside and closing the door. It was still easy to hear everyone outside, but the walls softened the sound. Magthio didn’t feel alone, as she’d helped decorate the house to prevent that sort of thing. Her paintings were on every wall, always with at least one face somewhere in the frame.
There were times, when she was very small, when her father went off to work and left her there. He always left plenty of food and water, but they didn’t have a pet to keep her company. In those times she would sit down and pretend her mother was in the kitchen making her something to eat. She stared, sometimes as long as an hour, waiting for her to come out with a plate and a glass of juice.
The only photograph Magthio had of her was the one taken with the queen. She was in it as well, but only as a bump in a fading hiding spot. When she pictured her mother bringing out the snack, bringing out the plated love, she saw the eyes from the end of her life: watery, pouched, and selflessly hopeful. She tried to paint pictures of her mother with living eyes, but they always turned out wrong.
Eventually she moved on to painting people that were alive, and always giving them faces that weren’t very realistic. These new faces were reinforced by her imagination; they wouldn’t age or let their color drain when tragedy struck. They would stay at home with her when her father was away, encouraging her. The girl yawned, but she couldn’t crawl into bed until she’d found a place for the queen’s riverside caricature. The south wall was positively full; even the houseplant standing near it looked awfully crowded, its stalks drooping so it wouldn’t block the eyes of a painted princess Wohki as an infant.
The North wall was no good either. It had a window, but even that was covered by a special painting on a thin canvas that allowed the light to shine through, giving the subject radiant eyes, skin, and teeth.
In the end she settled on the bathroom. There was a space behind where the towels hang, so there was the slight enjoyable angle of having the river-frolicking Magthwi hand you a towel after your bath or shower. With her job done, Magthio pulled on her billowing nightshirt and curled up under her blanket. She wondered what the next day might bring. There would surely be something, as the city had been strange lately. There was news of forces going missing beyond the grove, the treacherous royal coffee drinkers, and of course the crocodile invasion. Magthwi had an answer for all of them: gifts so large that the shockwave of opening them blasted their problems away. The girl almost wished something bad would happen so the queen could lay her hands upon the doom and usher in something lovable and new.
The morning brought a surprise, but nothing alarming. Colduvai would have to wait for its next disaster, for the previous disaster’s festivities had not ceased. The party in the street was still in full swing, with those who had gone to bed the previous night taking the place of those who hadn’t. The air was so full of layered food aromas that it was impossible to tell what had been grilled five hours ago and what was smoking at the moment.
Magthio checked her father’s bed, but it was untouched. There was plenty available in the house for breakfast, but after getting dressed she decided to check out front first. It was a shrewd decision, as her father was seated in a wooden folding chair at the edge of their property with a tray of cream-topped sweet crepes in his lap.
“Were you out here all night Daddy?” she asked as she leaned over him and rolled up one of the crepes.
“Magthio! You’re up. Yes I was, but I think I shut my eyes for an hour or three.” He pursed his lips and tapped the plate. “Yes! I remember now. I wanted to show off that one painting you did last month: the one with the monkeys in the grove getting their hands slapped by the angry… hehehe… the angry harvesters hehehe.”
“You still find that one funny?” his daughter asked with a roll of her eyes.
“Unless you’ve edited it, it will always be that funny! Hehe… Now bring it out here so I can show Mrs. Gonu. She’s going to laugh that silly wig right off her head. After that I want you to go back to the channel bridge. All of the children are swimming there again today, and I won’t let you sit out that fun for the second day in a row. Run now.” He playfully smacked her leg to get her going.
While she went to his bedroom for the monkey painting she shoved the entire crepe in her mouth and chewed. She was too mature for him to fool. If she was off having fun, then all of the fun he was having wouldn’t look so excessive. Oh well. What was the harm if she had nothing to eat but crepes for a day, and nothing to do but somersaults in the crystal clear water?
The swim was most enjoyable, especially since the boy she liked was there with his friends. Several of the girls had their parents style their hair like one of the many odd marine shapes Magthwi’s had taken the previous day, but none of them could hold up without the expertise of the Science Authority. After a while their hair was just unsightly clumps and tangles, sending them rushing home for a remedy. Magthio had the group of boys all to herself, and they needed someone to pretend to be a queen for them to pursue.
Many of them were sore from the previous day, a few had nearly drowned in their devotion to the royal chase, but Magthio had abstained. She managed to avoid getting tagged for more than an hour, and for that time she felt invincible and untouchable, like a perfectly cool raindrop that none could catch on their tongue. Eventually the illusion was broken when his hand wrapped around her wrist, nearly three meters below the surface.
Inotenda had been explicit. She was not supposed to kiss any boys unless he’d met them. He even said he had to show any suitors the photograph first, the one of her mother and the queen bonding over Colduvai’s unborn future. That was necessary, because her mother needed to meet the boy as well.
The girl didn’t think it too strict a rule, especially since he trusted her to wander the city and the grove alone whenever she felt like it. Yet the moment was too perfect to ignore. The sun pierced the surface in spearing rays. They lingered deep enough that the cooler water lapped at the space between their toes. The two were suspended not just in the water, but in the moment, in their pretend. Magthio was the queen, a perfect maternal ruler, and he was the man who dared think himself worthy of her attention.
Queen Magthwi knew what a treasure she was. She shared herself with several men, even if it was only to continue her line. It was not beneath her. Maghtio stretched her delicate foot down; it didn’t touch the riverbed. That convinced her that there were no consequences in that moment, as there was nothing to ground her. She was just as much lost in outer space as she was submerged in the waters of Colduvai.
She took the boy’s shoulders and pulled him close. Their lips touched, tiny bubbles escaping from either side. Neither of them knew how to kiss, especially in such an advanced scenario as the underwater rendezvous, so it didn’t last long. In their inexperience they both smiled as it ended, filling their mouths with water and forcing them to swim for the surface. They broke through and gasped, turning it into laughter as soon as they were done sputtering. His friends, all at once, laid their hands on Magthio’s shoulders, but they had to accept that they had lost. She was fun, but she was no queen after all. The true queen of Colduvai could make time for every last citizen.
During the walk home she contemplated ways to hide the kiss, but it had left a trace in the form of a smile she couldn’t shake. Covering it with her hand would be no good; her father would surely ask how her day was and she would have to show him.
Luckily, he had good times of his own. When she returned he was out of his chair, but he was just helping their neighbor set up a tent and a few wooden tables. The sky had turned overcast. Rain was imminent, but there were still more than a hundred people on the street not ready to let the weather get them down. Magthio drifted inside as the sprinkling started, deciding it was prudent to let the mirth wash off before she announced herself.
The paintings were much better listeners. It was only in recounting the kiss to them that she realized she might’ve just had the greatest day of her young life. Meeting the queen, being held by her in her first moments, if that happened, didn’t count because she couldn’t remember it. This day she would keep in her heart forever, perfectly preserved with a kiss for a seal. It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounded, but she was queen for a day. It wasn’t a day of royal decrees, serious political intrigue, or rigid ceremony. It was just a queen playing with her subjects in the time between their needs and her duties. It was life: the moment where a breath is neither entering nor exiting. Just being a breath. A happiness suspended in the water, schooling with others of its kind.
So busy was she in cementing the day’s memories that the end of the day never crystallized. She fell asleep in the living room, with no idea when or how it happened.
A knock on the door roused her. She answered it in her night clothes, rubbing sleep from her eyes. The girl had to squint at the visitor a few times just to verify their identity.
“Daddy?” she yawned. “Why are you knocking? This is our house. Stop being silly and come inside.”
“I don’t need to come inside,” he said sharply. “I just need a favor. Would you go and grab my toothbrush for me? I need to freshen up a little.” Magthio examined him closely. There were sweat stains under his arms. His head was wet, but it was too much to be sweat. It looked like he’d opted to spray himself with a hose rather than use their bath. His eyes were pouched and his stubble looked a day or three older than it actually was.
“Just come inside.” She grabbed his hand and pulled. “You can make me breakfast.” He didn’t budge.
“I can’t right now,” he answered, looking over his shoulder at no one in particular. “There’s going to be a darts tournament in a few minutes and I don’t want to miss it. Must have fresh breath for my victory speech. Go on now.” He turned her around and flicked the spot between her shoulder blades. She wandered off to the bathroom, head swirling with criticism. In the end she decided not to voice any of it. If he was shirking his duties, so was everyone else out on the street. Even in its third day the crowd had not shrunk significantly. In fact, she’d seen even more furniture brought outside behind her father as he babbled about darts.
It was difficult to say why, but she didn’t really feel like participating. She went outside briefly that day to eat a grilled lunch alongside her father, but quickly retreated inside afterward and buried her eyes in a book. Perhaps, she considered, it was the nature of a good day. Artificially extending it never turned out well. After she’d gotten her kiss she’d been content to let the night end it. Many of the adults around hadn’t learned that lesson yet.
Their light punishment served them right, as far as Magthio was concerned. She watched from an open window, fingers curling on the sill, as several members of the Peace Authority came out of the woodwork. They didn’t shout, they even partook of some of the grilled and fried fare, but they still fulfilled their duties, informing the revelers that all furniture and awnings would have to be removed from the street. It was a safety issue, they said. The street needed to be kept clear for processions or emergency vehicles.
Magthio watched as if they were ants, expecting them to make the logical decision and reduce the amount of debris around their colony. The foolish creatures obeyed the order, but did so in the most counterintuitive way. The street was cleared, but that just made everything on their property all the more cluttered. Chair legs crossed each other like dancers about to fall. Awnings and umbrellas scrunched under each other, sometimes in layers of three or four. There was hardly room to walk, yet there was her father stepping between things like a flamingo, balancing a tray of smoking food on one hand and swinging a noisemaker with the other.
She decided that on the next day she would cook him dinner to lure him back inside. She’d done it only once before and badly botched it. This time he would see there was an adult in the house, a responsible young woman who had had her kiss, left it at that, and gone back to life’s necessities. It would be the first time an adult woman had entered the home in more than a year, not counting all the painted faces that came in and out.
Magthio settled into bed once more, just as some music picked up outside. She could paint them; it was quite a scene after all. No, she decided. It wasn’t the sort of thing she usually painted. The day the queen swam was planned, and by painting it Magthio had become part of the plan. She was making memories of things designed to be memorable. The party outside was chaotic. Its souvenirs would be hangovers and rashes. She very much did not want to paint people shouting over each other and stepping on litter. This event could fade like a bruise, and that would be fine by her.
Inotenda wasn’t in bed the next morning. He wasn’t in the kitchen making breakfast. His plush slippers hadn’t moved in so long that, to his concerned daughter, they now looked like loyal pets that had starved to death waiting for their owner to return. Twice she implored him to come inside that morning, but he ignored her.
She was once again grateful when the Peace Authority returned; he could not make an ass of himself with them around. Their faces were stern this time, but they kept their weapons sheathed as they waded into the compacted carnival and interviewed the squatting attendees. One of them came to Magthio’s door and knocked, after a quick word with her father. The girl answered the door promptly and politely, only to recognize a face she had painted several times: Mister Koulsy.
What the head of the Peace Authority was doing there personally she had no idea, but she welcomed him in and shuffled around, turning two pictures of him around before he noticed. She offered him a glass of juice, but he softly declined.
“You know who I am, Magthio?” he asked. She glanced at his waist and noticed he wasn’t carrying a weapon like the others. He seemed to know who he would find in that house.
“Yes sir,” she answered. “You’re Mister Koulsy. You run the Peace Authority and you’re a good friend of her highness. Everybody knows you, but nobody knows me. Why do you have my name? Am I in trouble?” Foolish as it was, her underwater kiss flashed through her mind. Paranoia convinced her it wasn’t as secluded as she thought, that simply pretending to be the queen was treason and enough to draw the authority’s attention.
“No, there’s no trouble. We’re just here to check on everyone. Parties can get out of hand.” He looked into her eyes for a moment, smiling thinly. She guessed that he measured her maturity. “Do you think this one is?”
“Is the party out of hand?” she repeated. He nodded. “A little. I’m a bit embarrassed for my father. He doesn’t have many friends though, so I didn’t really see the harm…”
“Has he come inside since it started?”
“No,” she answered the pointed question. “Are you checking on us… specifically?”
“I am checking on you specifically,” Mister Koulsy admitted. “Your welfare is important to those of us in the spire… though of course everyone in Colduvai is.” Magthio sat down. Suddenly the painted eyes around her felt very real and focused. The idea of fate crushed her for a moment, convincing her she’d been programmed to paint those eyes just so they could surveil her.
“I take it your father has told you the story of your birth. Queen Magthwi helped deliver you, saved you from your mother’s unfortunate condition.”
“I… wasn’t sure if all that was true,” Magthio sniffled. She wiped at the tears forming in her eyes. Her father’s nonsense did bear repeating; he just wanted to make sure she knew how gifted she was. “There’s a photograph of my mother and the queen, but I thought perhaps it was just a courtesy visit.”
“The queen loves her subjects. She respects them, but she does not pay them courtesy. All courtesy is owed to her. Our great ruler took your mother’s illness very personally; she thought cancer had been eradicated among her people. She wouldn’t stand for one more tally mark on that disease’s scoreboard.”
“But my mother’s health failed…”
“Yes,” he said with a nod. “There was nothing that could be done about that, but you were still signaling for help from the deck of the sinking ship.” He coughed when he saw her expression, realizing his tastelessly dehumanizing metaphor. “Magthwi heard your heartbeat with just a touch of your mother’s belly. She knew you wanted to live.”
“I did,” the girl blubbered. She couldn’t hold it back. With even the subject of the queen reducing her to a quivering lip, she couldn’t imagine what little of her might be left if Magthwi herself was delivering this news.
“The doctors were sent away so she could deliver you,” he continued. “She freed you, cradled you, and a short while later, gave you your first meal. This was shortly after the birth of Princess Flavakinji.”
“You don’t mean-”
“Your first meal came from the breast of Queen Magthwi.”
“I… I don’t understand. What does all of this mean?”
“It’s alright. Everything you’re feeling, no matter how strange, is a healthy reaction. Allow me to anticipate some of your questions. Yes, there is royal material in the queen’s milk. She also exudes it in small amounts from her skin. This was mixed with the fluids from your birth and absorbed by your thin newborn skin. You have harmless royal traces within you, but you are not a princess.”
“But there’s still something important about me?”
“As I said, this is just a welfare check. We wanted to make sure this wild party wasn’t turning your father neglectful.” He paused. He looked as if he wanted to check out the window for eavesdroppers, but there was a painting blocking the glass. “I’ll share with you a secret now, but it is not for your father or anyone else to know. Do you consent to hearing it and promise to keep it?”
“You’ll be held to it. You mustn’t tell anyone, not even that boy.”
“You knew…” Magthio’s polished memory of her kiss rusted a little. She noticed some things in the background of that carefree moment: mechanical fish. Agents of the queen, with cameras in their eyes. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Should Colduvai’s royal family be devastated, should the queen and all her daughters perish, you are next in line for the throne.” Mister Koulsy explained. “It would be a difficult process for you, very physically taxing given your limited royal exposure. This plan will never be needed, but Magthwi insisted we be prepared. And so here we are. The future where we spend much time together is a very slim possibility, just a lit crack in an ironwood door, so if all goes well this might be the last we see of each other.”
Magthio tried to speak, but she collapsed instead. Mister Koulsy caught her before she could fall out of the chair.
A dream. That’s all it was. Dreams always had such amazing power to assert themselves in the first moments of the day. They were still real, still had a hold of your heart and controlled its beat. It was that immense power that convinced her the head of the Peace Authority had not only visited her, not only known her name, but said she was seventh in line for the gorge throne.
Magthio thought an illness must have been collaborating with the dream, because its power lasted far longer than it was supposed to. Midday came and went, and the dream still masqueraded as a memory. She begged her father to come in and take care of her, but he was so far away on the distant front steps. He sang, and he was terrible. He danced, in which he was worse. The party still burned, but now everyone looked tired. Their eyes were bloodshot and their hair greasy. The street smelled less of wood smoke and more of unwashed clothes.
The windows across the street were closed with the curtains drawn. The windows on the houses adjacent to Magthio’s were the same way. Nobody was home; they were all on vacation ten meters from their front doors. It was as if they’d returned from holiday, but only had the strength to make it ninety-nine percent of the way back. Since they were not yet home they were forced to continue celebrating, drained as they were.
The Peace Authority returned for the third time. No, Magthio told herself, the second time. Mister Koulsy was just a dream. A second visit was nowhere as concerning as a third, but if that was the case, it did seem like they were skipping a step in their civility. More than thirty of the officers showed up on her street alone. They barked orders aggressively and shoved people. She watched them kick over much of the furniture and couldn’t help but quietly cheer them on from the window.
“That’s right,” she whispered. “They always lecture their children on picking up their toys, so it’s about time they learned that lesson themselves.” One of them got to her father. She wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation, but she knew his expressions well enough to guess every tactic he tried to cajole the officer into leaving him be. He rubbed the back of his head like he’d only just now realized what he was doing. He disarmed the woman with a smile that took up his entire face.
The officer pointed at the house, forcing Magthio to duck as if the finger had fired a poisonous dart. The girl popped back up a second later. She really hoped he wouldn’t be foolish enough to try the painting, but sure enough he reached under his folding chair and pulled it out. He showed it to the officer, awkwardly explaining the humor of the painted primates. His daughter had hoped that some of the rain that had tried to disperse the revelry earlier had at least damaged that silly old painting, but Inotenda had kept it safe under the chair, even setting it on a tray so it would be raised off the ground.
Naturally the officer was unamused. She berated him, ordering him to clear any debris he was responsible for and return to his home. Word had officially come down from the spire that the party had ended. Queen Magthwi had been back to work for days, and how dare they take advantage of her generosity by extending it. Every last one of them was a houseguest that had fallen asleep, drunk, on their host’s couch.
There was a lot more yelling, and some shoving, as her father wasn’t the only one reluctant to end things. Eventually enough of them relented, returning indoors, to satisfy the authorities. Magthio closed the window once the last uniform was out of sight. She stood in the middle of the living room, waiting silently. A knock on the door allowed her to breathe a sigh of relief. This would not be an intimidating dream figment of a visitor. It would be her father, back from a hard day’s work that she just didn’t understand yet. Perhaps when she was older she would realize how sparse parties were for adults, and how their encroaching end could drive one a little mad.
“Hi,” she said meekly when she opened the door.
“Hi,” Inotenda said back. “Are you doing alright in here?” Her lips pursed; he sounded more like Koulsy’s imaginary welfare check than her father.
“I’m fine now that you’re finally home.” She stepped aside so he could enter. Inotenda leaned in, but didn’t step over the threshold. He examined the walls, as if the paintings were party guests and he was trying to decide if they were his sort of crowd.
“Actually, I’m staying out a little while longer. The air has just been so fresh; I can’t stand coming back in here to all the dust.”
“Daddy, I dust every day,” she whined, fighting back a tear on the last word. “You and your friends have made the whole street smell like garbage. Nothing out there is fresh. Come inside!”
“Don’t take a tone,” he admonished, leaning over her like a stork with a heavy stone beak. “I know what I’m doing. I want you to fetch a few more of your paintings: the ones I keep in my room.”
“I want them outside with me. Bring me the one with the camels, the one with the princesses, and the one you did of the photo.” The last one he alluded to was his daughter’s rendition of their prized photograph with her mother and the queen. In the painted version Magthio could be seen inside her mother’s womb, sitting cross-legged, beaming as two of Magthwi’s fingers came down through the navel and plucked the halo off her head, saving her life. Not even Inotenda noticed that every portrayal of Magthwi in her paintings afterwards sported a golden ring around her finger.
“If you want them you can come and get them!” his daughter shouted. “I only do things for my father, and he lives here. He doesn’t stand at the door like a timid salesman.” Inotenda grabbed the sides of the doorway; his face contorted into an anger she’d rarely seen from him. Just like his smile, his scowl took up his whole face and made it something else. It made his eyes dark and far away, like some half-drowned creature peering out from a marshy flooded knothole.
“Fine!” was the only word he bothered to shout. Inotenda lunged into the home and marched straight for his bedroom. Magthio froze in place, unsure if she should try and trap him inside by closing the door. She couldn’t make up her mind before he returned with three paintings under his arms. His anger was gone, but his cheeks hung off his face as if all his bottom teeth had been extracted. He stumbled as he reached the doorway and was forced to lean on it.
“Daddy? What’s wrong?” his daughter pleaded.
“Nothing’s wrong!” he shouted, though when he steadied himself he noticed his finger poking through one of the canvases. “I’m just taking these to remember you by, since you won’t come and have fun with everyone else.”
“You don’t need to remember me… I’m right here.”
“There’s nothing in here. No air…” Inotenda turned away rather than explain himself further. He went right back to his folding chair and set up the three prized paintings around it, leaning them against whatever object would hold them up. One of the other stragglers came up to him and inquired about the decorations. It turned him all smiles once more, and he launched into a lecture about his daughter’s talent. He spoke as if she was deceased rather than turn around and point. Magthio closed the door.
There was no pretense left when the Peace Authority visited the next day. They brought with them their swords and the helmets that hid their faces. Magthio didn’t even care that they looked like soldiers of an occupation; plenty of warning had been given. Her father, along with tens of others, hadn’t listened. They stayed awake through the night, making unauthorized campfires in the street and burning some of the things others left behind.
The fire had drawn more of them back out. Of those that had returned to their homes, nearly half emerged the previous night. Even more had used the excuse of shopping or visiting other neighborhoods to leave. More than a hundred homes along that neighborhood were nearly or wholly abandoned.
She overheard one of the officers call it a ‘daylight curfew’. Everyone was required to clear the street, yards, sidewalks, and gardens completely for the rest of the day. All belongings left behind were going to be discarded. The authority had brought along a giant wheeled dumpster. Magthio had never seen such a vehicle before. Everything wheeled she ever laid eyes on was crafted, painted, and elegant. While the dumpster had decent coloration, there were streaks of rust on its corners. The girl couldn’t remember ever seeing rust within the city, not even on its storm drains. The dumpster must’ve crawled out of some damp hole beneath Colduvai, like a turtle ornery any time it had to be awake.
The officers moved as a line, all at once, their bodies a fence that the vagrants couldn’t slip through. They shouted and threw things over their shoulders to the giant hungry turtle. Magthio watched from the window, eyes glued to the back of her father’s chair. He was still seated in it, but at the sight of the dumpster he had stacked his daughter’s paintings and held them in his lap. She didn’t even care if they took them. The turtle could have them. She didn’t know if canvas could rust, it likely wouldn’t spread across the image of the queen, but the stuff could have the rest of Magthio’s subjects. They wouldn’t throw her daddy away; they would throw him inside and she would catch him.
Many of them resisted. Magthio blinked. The actions of the authority were the will of the queen; resisting made no sense. The girl covered her ears when the shouting matches started. The officers, rather than shout back, pulled their swords. The wall of them took a step forward, forcing the thrashing blob of the party to step back. The officer’s boots crushed many things rather than kick them aside. Her father’s chair was among them; he was backing up now, with the paintings clutched close to his chest.
She was aware the moment blood was drawn, as if she could smell it. The most belligerent had been turned around to face their front doors. They had swords pressed into the small of their backs and they were being marched home. Some of them still shouted, no, screamed now. They treated their front walks like the plank of a pirate ship.
Magthio rushed to the door and pulled it open to make sure her father wasn’t pinned to it like an insect. No sooner had she done so than Inotenda was shoved inside, tumbling onto his back and dropping the paintings. They both looked to the doorway and saw the only helmetless face the authority had brought with them: Mister Koulsy. His sword was still sheathed, but his hand worked the hilt like he was strangling a goose. His expression was somewhere between stern and a man about to put down a rabid dog.
“I didn’t dream you!” Magthio gasped. Koulsy glanced at her and nodded very slightly, his expression unchanged. There were dozens of people behind him, some of them other revelers woven between the limbs of the Peace Authority like fibers caught in barbed wire. She guessed that he didn’t want to acknowledge her any more than that, as the information he’d shared with her was not for anyone else around, even the other officers.
The room darkened. The girl looked over and saw an officer at every window, backs leaned against them. The light was replaced with the burgeoning ruckus just outside. She heard bare feet slap against doorframes and at least one broken window. There was scrambling on all sides, like rodents trapped in the walls. Her breath shortened, but it was nothing compared to what her father’s lungs endured. Inotenda was on his feet, but just barely. Sweat rolled down his forehead and his legs quivered. Without a word, he managed a snarl, the man charged at Mister Koulsy head first.
He was caught by the ears, turned around, and kicked back inside in a swift series of motions. Koulsy’s boots hadn’t moved a millimeter back. Inotenda swayed, spinning himself around a chair in order to face the door again.
“Let me out!” he screamed with the last of his breath.
“This is your home,” Mister Koulsy stated in response.
“I don’t have a home! Out there is where-” He stopped mid-sentence and charged again. There was no catching Koulsy by surprise; the man’s knee collided with Inotenda’s jaw and sent him sprawling to the floor with blood down one side of his lip. Magthio rushed toward him, but Mister Koulsy’s hand shot out, fingers wide. His arm seemed to cast an invisible barrier between them. The girl, in her panic, couldn’t tell if it was a trick of the Science Authority or just an order she was compelled to obey.
“Don’t touch him!” Koulsy ordered her. His hand went to his waist; she saw the glint of his sword.
“Mister Koulsy there are no weapons in our house!” the girl shouted before she’d even decided to raise her voice. She succeeded in drawing his eyes, and all of the eyes behind him. Her eyes poured now, but she clenched her fists and stood tall. “If this is our home, as you claim, then we have a rule. There are no weapons in our house!” Mister Koulsy’s hand relaxed; the glint of steel slipped back into its sheath. He would show her at least that respect; no more of Inotenda’s blood would spill.
Ignorant of his daughter’s words, also of her presence it seemed, Inotenda made one more desperate charge. He didn’t even make it all the way, collapsing and grasping at Koulsy’s pant legs. The man stuck out one leg and rolled him off. Inotenda clawed at his own neck, the veins of which pulsed against the thin skin. A shot of foam escaped from between his clenched teeth.
“Not out there…” he gasped, turning himself over. “In here then…” He grabbed the painting of his family and the queen, bashing his head against the canvas, literally trying to escape into it, into the hospital room where everything changed, where a life was saved. He couldn’t form words any longer, but the gasps out of him turned horrific. Mister Koulsy stepped inside, wrapped his arms around Magthio, and pulled her back to the door.
She struggled against him, reaching out and shrieking for him to just stop, but she had no strength against such a man. She bit his arm, but his skin was so taut and leathery that she couldn’t even break it. All Magthio could do was watch as he father lost his grip on the canvas, twitched, and died with his mouth thrown open. The shriek died in her throat. What was that? Something just as invisible as the barrier Koulsy had cast with his hand? Was a demon skulking about in her house, just waiting for him to come inside?
Koulsy pulled her back, out the door, where the air changed. There was a breeze, but it was heavy with the smell of blood and soles. The girl’s head whipped this way and that, looking for her neighbors. One of them must have seen her father play this stupid game before; they would explain that it was all a joke.
Her neighbors were even more committed to the jest. They howled and bawled as they struggled in their doorways, desperately seeking the street. The Peace Authority forced them back with slashes and stabs. Whole families squeezed their way out, only to be rewarded with a lopped off finger or hand. Blood poured over the welcoming steps and into the grass. Magthio only saw the hands, maimed and desperate, grabbing at the officer’s shoulders. They would die to get out, because there was something in their homes. It had taken the very livable quality from each place, leaving it an airless void.
“I don’t un… understand!” Magthio cried as Mister Koulsy dragged her away. “Why won’t you just let them out!?”
“There’s a curfew,” he whispered to her. “Queen Magthwi has ordered it, so it will be. She presses our homes into the ground and plants the seeds. Not Varroa.”
“Daddy!” she screamed, lips curling like shriveling bracket fungi. “Where are you taking me!?”
“To quarantine and then to the spire. Magthwi always had a second home ready for you.”
Continued in Part Six