The Crownless King (Part Three) by Chris Mahon
Iz shuddered all the way down her body, like a puppet whose strings were being jerked. Then she crawled forward with the knife and sat on her knees, leaning over him. She switched her grip on the knife, letting her thumb run over the pommel. It was a sailor’s rope knife, with a short blade and a leather-wrapped grip, easy and light in her hand. After a moment, she pressed her index finger on the back of the handle and held it like a conductor’s baton.
With careful precision, she laid one hand on Samal’s chest and slid the blade into the skin. She applied steady pressure, dragging the tip down Samal’s sternum, watching the tip of the knife with rapt attention. Samal could feel the cold sensation of metal parting the skin, and almost shivered at the smoothness and ease. Either Iz had a practiced hand at carving, or she was a natural.
Iz straightened her back slowly, waiting for some sign that the cut had gone well. A thin line divided Samal’s chest, cutting the tattoos in half. He took the knife from her hand and made two more long cuts, perpendicular to the first, creating a tall ‘I’. He peeled back both wings of skin and revealed the wet, red muscle of his chest. Iz stared, running her eyes over the flesh.
“No blood,” she said softly. “None of it’s spilling out.”
“It’s hemostasis. Instant clotting, and the rest flows along the flesh. I’ll teach it to you. You did a good job, too. Half-inch.”
Samal sighed, and the muscles bulged outward with his diaphragm.
“You have to be careful with this, especially in the cold. All the heat escapes, and diseases can get right into the flesh.”
Samal reached in and made two incisions on either side of a length of muscle, about three inches long. With the tip of the knife, he lifted out the strand and set it in his other hand.
“Now, bring me your bowl.”
Iz brought him the bowl she had used for oatmeal, and Samal set the strand of muscle in it.
“Go in my bag and take out one of the things you find there.”
He heard Iz open his oilskin bag and rifle around in it, then stop. She had found the skulls.
“Bring me one of them.”
Iz came back and knelt by his side, holding a skull. It was Ozu’s. Iz was looking down at him, uneasy and breathing quickly. There were questions in her eyes, but she wasn’t speaking.
“You’re going to take that strand of muscle and grow it, just like my body would. I’ll give you some powder to feed it, and you’ll sing to it. In a few days, it’ll grow into a sheet. When it’s ready, you’ll start covering that skull in muscle, then skin.”
Samal paused. “And when that’s done, you can decide whether you still want to be a wizard.”
Iz looked at him. “Did your teacher have you…cut him open, too?”
“No, he didn’t.”
A few minutes later, while Samal stitched himself up with black thread, Iz sat with the skull on the ground, sprinkling white powder on the strand of muscle. Without looking up at him, she spoke.
“Why did you become a wizard?”
Samal glanced over at her. He’d never told anyone that, besides Tarinen. He stopped stitching and let the thread hang loose from his chest.
“It was something my teacher said to me years ago.”
Iz went on sprinkling powder as he tried to conjure the memory again.
“There was a big rock in the ocean, called the Kegahara. He said it was made of granite, and that it had been there eight hundred and forty years. It used to be an island, and while all the rest of it was worn away by the ocean, Kegahara survived. All the boats that wanted to dock at Kil-Kharan used it as an anchor-point. And he said that’s what wizards do: when the smoke clears and the tide goes out, wizards are left standing. Because someone has to be the anchor for everyone else. I wanted to be like Kegahara.”
He looked over at her, smiling a tight, embarrassed smile. She held his gaze, then looked back down at her bowl. He could tell she was digesting his words. Changing how she viewed him.
Iz stopped sprinkling the powder. “How long did it take your teacher to become a crownless king?”
“It took him a long time.”
“Is he still alive?”
Samal exhaled through his nose. “No.”
“What killed him?”
“He killed himself.”
When he drifted to sleep that night, Samal found himself kneeling on wet leaves with his wooden hands hovering over the bloody rip in a young man’s throat. Rain was dripping down from the trees and steam was rising from the wound, little white clouds leaking out of a tear in the windpipe. This was the moment he had dreaded since Tarinen had told him he was ready to take on students. The students of bona-fide wizards never die, he thought. He couldn’t even remember what he’d said to Tenoch as he tried to collect all the boy’s blood from the leaves. Promises.
When Samal woke up, drops of cold water were trickling onto his coat from above. He wiped it off and swung his legs over the edge of his hammock. Carefully, he reached into his bag and took out the second-smallest skull. He walked toward the stove to check the fuel, then took a small flame in his fingers. Iz was still asleep, with Ozu’s skull set on the floor.
Feeling numb, he whispered to the skull in his hand and lifted the flame into the cranial cavity. He pointed its sockets at the wall and held his breath. Immediately, he saw his own face, huge and panicked. He saw Tenoch’s hands reach up to try and touch his own neck, where Samal’s hands were working furiously, then reach up and grasp at Samal’s arms. The vision became blurry, then black.
He had tried to resuscitate Tenoch for a quarter of an hour after that without realizing he was already dead.
In the morning, Samal stoked the stove and made them a breakfast of hardtack and jerky. While Iz ate hungrily, Samal stared into the dark. When she was finished, she immediately turned her attention to the skull. It was a puzzle to her, something to pour herself into. She started singing the chant he had taught her over and over:
Flesh of Samal,
eat, drink, churn,
split, grow, strengthen,
weave, bind, now stop.
While she worked, he took out a roll of paper and began mapping the stars on the ceiling. The icicles had all melted now, leaving the golden lines and tiny numbers to glint in the firelight. It was the night sky at the winter solstice, frozen in place forever, and if his calendar was correct, he would be able to guide them all the way into the South with it. Down in the South, he hoped, Togorun was still operating.
Togorun had been preparing for the end of the world since Samal had met him, and if anyone survived, it would be Tarinen’s teacher. Either way, Samal wasn’t ready to take Iz up to the surface just yet. And it didn’t hurt to stay in the tower just a little longer to prepare her…
His eye flashed open. “Hm?”
“Is all the snow in here from the ocean?”
Samal looked over at Iz. She was still working on the skull, her eyes fixed on the bowl of flesh.
Iz smiled a little. Samal tilted his head and smiled, too.
“Why does that make you smile?” he asked.
“I had a dream I was floating in the ocean last night, near the beach where I used to live. When I woke up, I wondered what caused it. But then I realized that with all this water vapor in the air, I was probably breathing in the ocean.”
She worked in silence for a while, then muttered something.
“What?” Samal asked, half listening, half not.
“I said I remember there was a place called Zin Bay in the Muzin islands. That was in my dream, too.”
The image of the burning sun over the Bay flashed in Samal’s mind, then Ozu looking over her shoulder as it touched the horizon. He raised his eyes to look at Iz.
“There used to be.”
That night he heard voices speaking from far away. One of the voices was Ozu’s. He recognized her laugh. She was talking in a low voice, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying. When he woke, he sat bolt upright in his hammock, expecting her ghost to be standing by his side. But there was no one there.
Samal looked over to Iz’s hammock, where she was working on the skull. She was bundled in a blanket and a scarf, but her long, bony fingers were bare to the cold, gripping delicate little tools made of whalebone. Samal watched her face.
Iz was mumbling into her scarf, repeating the chant. Samal almost laid his head back down, but realized that her rhythm was wrong. She was saying something else. He climbed out of his hammock and started walking toward her.
She didn’t turn. He knelt by her, lowered his face close to hers, and looked into her eyes. They were open, but unfocused—she was sleep-talking. He heard her chuckle to herself, then say something.
“I know Samal,” she whispered. “He’s my teacher.”
He reached out and put his wooden hands on hers. Immediately, the long, bony fingers stopped. Her eyes were suddenly attentive, then surprised as she realized Samal was staring at her. He looked down at the skull. Carefully, methodically, Iz was plastering line after line of muscle onto the skull, reconstructing the patterns and weaves. A grey rectangle of flesh covered half the crown.
“You were working in your sleep.”
“Who were you talking to?”
Iz blinked a few times. “No one.”
“Go to sleep.”
Iz set down the skull on a low table under the hammock, next to the tools Samal had lent her and the small bowl of tissue. Samal went back to his hammock and watched the clouds of steam drift out of Iz’s scarves as she drifted back to sleep.
He locked his gaze on the skull. It stared back from the dark.
END OF PART THREE