The Crownless King (Part One) by Chris Mahon
“Hand closed tight? If there’s too much air in your fist, it’ll blow your hand off.”
“I think it’s tight.”
“All right, now press your lips right to where your thumb and forefinger are curled up and blow gently into your fist. Nice and slow… now open up your hand…nice and slow…”
A light crackled and unfolded in the darkness of the tower, lighting up Iz’s face and making the ice on the floor sparkle. She held a tiny, brilliant flame in her bare hand, which was feeding on half a gram of black powder.
She looked up at Samal, her eyes filled with mute wonder. Iz was wrapped up in a fur-lined hood and scarf with smoked-glass snow goggles perched on her forehead, but beneath the sweat and flickering shadows, her face was freckled and pale, with cheeks red from frostbite. Across from her, Samal’s face was leathery and sunburned the color of varnished oak, with sunken eyes and dark rings around the sockets from weeks without sleep. If Iz was stick-thin for a seventeen-year-old Muzin girl, he was a skeleton at forty-two.
With pursed lips, Samal blew a little stream of warm air at Iz’s flame. She jerked her hand away as the flames spilled harmlessly over her fingers. She looked at him sharply, but he caught the hint of a smile on her face before she brought it under control. Black nets of spells covered her hand, keeping the heat at bay—the first piece of magic he’d taught her.
“Black powder is greedy,” he whispered, pointing at her hand. “It’ll eat heat and warm air, so be careful. Stick it in the stove and let’s look at this ceiling.”
Iz’s hand disappeared into the mouth of the cast-iron potbelly stove sitting on the floor in the center of the room. Soon, the grate filled with white tongues of fire. With her hands cupped around her mouth, she blew into the stove until its light filled the room, then stood with Samal and looked up at the ceiling. Their massive, flickering shadows stretched up the curve of the walls where gold filigree traced the lines of constellations that spiraled up to the apex of a domed ceiling hung with thousands of icicles.
“Stars,” Iz said in her soft, flat voice. Samal looked sidelong at her, watching her eyes soak in the patterns.
“A map.” Samal pushed his hood back and ran his palms over his shaved head. His hands were carved out of wood from an ash tree, though they were pitted and worn like driftwood now. Spells were etched into the grain, and his fingers had brass balls and sockets instead of joints. Eight letters were carved into his knuckles: HOLD FAST.
“Once we get up to the surface, we’ll travel by the stars,” he said in a low voice.
His eyes passed over the drifts of snow spilling over the window sills. The tower was completely buried in snow, even to the top floor. All the snow came from the oceans, which had evaporated seven years ago and buried the continent under a hundred feet of black ice. He hadn’t seen the surface in years, but this tower was one of the few buildings he knew of that was tall enough to get close to it. The tower was also one of the few places that had a star map, which, along with his old sea charts, would help him get his bearings on the continent now that the sun and moon were gone.
His eyes still fixed on the ceiling, he drew out his pouch of black powder again and sprinkled a little into his palm.
“Light this and put it in the stove,” he muttered. “We’re going to be here a while.”
Iz held out a cupped hand and took the powder, then walked quickly to the stove. Samal began tracing the constellations with his finger, muttering under his breath as the heat from the stove rose up to the ceiling and started to melt the icicles. Then he realized what Iz was doing.
He spun around. “Don’t bring it close—”
There was a sharp crack, and Iz’s scream rang out as the heat from the stove ignited the black powder in her hand.
An hour later, Samal was kneading the pink, blistered skin of Iz’s palm while she jerked and moaned at the pain. Both of them were sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, but the heat was barely enough to keep them warm. Samal bit down on his lower lip, feeling Iz twitch under his hands. It was a second-degree burn.
“I know it hurts,” he muttered.
He took a deep breath through his nose and stopped. Iz met his eyes and tried to take her hand back, but he held onto it. He touched two fingers to his eyes.
“Don’t look at your hand, just look at me. I’m going to tell you a story.”
She sat facing him, her back rigid. Iz was good at keeping her emotions from showing, but pain was something else. Samal licked his lips and began to knead Iz’s palm again. He started to speak, his eyes locked on hers.
“You never became a sailor back in the Muzin islands, did you? You were too young.”
Iz shook her head. She was breathing heavily through her nostrils, like a bull.
“The first time I made crew on a ship, I had real hands.”
Iz nodded. She had sharp, light-blue eyes.
“On the ship we had a sailor who wouldn’t wear shoes because the calluses on his feet were so thick. He had a big black beard like a wild man, with tattoos up and down his legs, and he didn’t have any of his original teeth left—he had ones made from whale bone instead. His name was Tarinen, and he was our sanishea.”
In the Muzin tongue, a wizard was a sanishea, which just meant ‘old sailor.’
“Two weeks into the trip he stood in the same spot for three days, looking at nothing—no food, no water. I thought he had sunstroke. Turns out he was looking across the world, to where a storm was gathering. Two days later, we hit that storm.”
Samal glanced down at Iz’s palm. The skin was starting to slough off, revealing a new, dark red layer of skin underneath. Blood welled up in little beads, along with white sebum. He brought his eyes back up to Iz.
“That was the worst storm of my life. The sky was pitch-black, and all I could see were waves looming over the ship like cliffs right before they struck, one after another, until I couldn’t open my eyes from all the saltwater. It sounded like the world was ripping itself apart, and there was no light. I thought it was a dream. All I remember is holding onto one of the lines when—” Samal tilted his body and threw one arm out to the side. “—whoosh, a huge gust wrenches the yardarm to port. And I was holding onto the starboard line.”
The tears had begun to clear from Iz’s eyes. She was listening.
“I saw rope running through my hands, so I just gripped it and held on. They had little divots in the deck where you could dig your heels in, and as soon as I dug them in, I could feel the bones in my wrists and shoulders pop out, one after the other. I remember my face feeling wet, then I woke up a couple days later.”
He held up one of his hands. “The rope burn went right through the palms, all the way to the bone.”
Iz winced and looked down at her own burned hand.
“Hey.” Samal waved a hand in her face and guided her eyes back to his. He nodded at her, and she nodded back. He went back to massaging her palm.
“Our sanishea came to me afterward and said he wanted to give me new hands. He said I’d done a brave thing, holding onto the rope. I watched him scrimshaw them from two blocks of ash wood. And when he was done, he carved HOLD FAST onto the knuckles.”
“I saw sailors who had that on their knuckles,” Iz said.
“It means you never let go. Only Muzin wizards and sailors get HOLD FAST on their knuckles.”
Iz nodded, sniffing. Her brow furrowed, and she tried her best to keep her face neutral under his gaze. Samal looked down at her hand, where the blistered flesh was peeling away from her palm like onion layers. He took out his iron stylus and began tracing lines on the tissue.
“Tarinen became my teacher a few years later. He told me if I ever took on apprentices, I had to take good care of their hands. He started calling me ‘Woodpecker-boy,’ because he said woodpeckers were going to try to drill holes in my hands while I slept.”
Iz laughed at that. Samal grinned and went on.
“He said, ‘Woodpecker-boy, if you take apprentices, you make sure you keep their hands nice and clean.’ I asked why. He said ‘You had beautiful hands before you held onto that rope. There’s a lot of other people walking around with beautiful hands. And if you can help it, they should keep them that way.’”
Samal glanced up at Iz. She was looking at him intently, absorbing the words. Samal suppressed another smile.
“Then he said, ‘And when they shake your hand for the first time, make sure to pop your hand out of the socket to scare ‘em. And tell me before you do it. I want to see.’”
Iz’s eyes widened a little. “You did that to me.”
Samal laughed, still holding her palm. His stylus traced the heart line, running under the fingers, then the life line, all the way to the thumb. As it went, the stylus numbed the nerves. She’d still need a new layer of skin, but this would allow her to sleep at night.
“My teacher had a sick sense of humor,” Samal said, catching Iz’s eyes again. “He’s the one who taught me to read palms.”
END OF PART ONE