The Crownless King (Part Two) by Chris Mahon
When Iz went to sleep in her bundle of canvas and fur, her hand wrapped in bandages, Samal was still awake at the stove.
He’d met Iz in one of the underground cities, where all the refugees and orphans were shouting and sweating and burrowing deeper tunnels into the rock to get away from the cold. She lived mostly in her own head, but when she wrote spells her mind flicked open like a knife. She was Muzin like he was, originally from somewhere in the lower archipelago.
He’d quizzed her when they met—he asked her the names of the seagulls, the waves, the east and west winds. She knew most of them, like she knew how to track the movements of salmon by lying on her back in one of the underground reservoirs, where the salmon were all white, eyeless albinos. She had come up to him out of nowhere and addressed him as sanishea. She’d wanted to be his apprentice. He had thought he could make her into a wizard like him. He looked at his wooden hands now, scrimshawed by Tarinen over thirty years ago. He was still a sanishea, though there were no more oceans.
When he finally went to sleep in his hammock, he dreamed he was back in the Muzin islands, with the ghostly feeling of blood on his fingers. He could remember the warm, wet, slippery feeling as he gently pressed his fingers around the wire of a fishing hook, still pierced through a girl’s eyelid. Her name had been Ozu, and she had been tugging on her rod to free the hook from a snag when it came flying back at her face.
He had grasped her head to keep it still, his grip slipping on her chestnut-brown hair. He had felt her skull then, beneath her skin, and the pain in her body as she convulsed. When he finally slid the hook out, he pressed a cloth to her eye and sat with her on the bank, her fishing rod on his lap. They were both fifteen years old.
Crying only makes it sting more, he told her.
I know, she said. But it hurts.
He woke up in his hammock, rubbing his wooden fingers.
Samal reached into his giant sailcloth bag and pulled out something white, then watched the shadows from the fire play across its surface. It was a smooth human skull, cold and light in his hand. He held the skull up delicately and tilted it so the light shone into its empty sockets. His eyes passed over the tiny lines and patterns etched into the bone: the sagittal sutures running down the center of the crown, the occipital bone at the base, and the grooves above the ear canals.
Making sure not to step too heavily, Samal crept over to the stove. He opened the grate and stuck his hand inside. Between his thumb and forefinger, he pulled out a small flame. He placed it just inside the oval-shaped hole where the spine met the base of the head and brought the skull to his hammock.
He sat down and set it on his lap so that it faced the wall across from him, then whispered something to it. Suddenly, flickering across the wall were ghostly shapes, like the afterimages of bright light on eyelids. He could make out the horizon, and something round and white blotting out the sky. It was the sun, Samal knew. The sun was falling.
He never saw the moment when the world ended. Not until he’d found Ozu’s skull. Now he had seen it a dozen times from her eyes. Projected on the wall was Zin Bay, crammed with fishing boats and tall ships, viewed from the cliffs above the beach. He’d met Ozu in that bay the night he came back from his apprenticeship. She had kissed him out on the jetty, her hands on his shaved head. She had still recognized him, even after sixteen years.
The sun was close now. Across the bay, huge funnels of water were stretching the surface of the ocean, turning into hurricanes. One by one, the ships at sea were sucked up into the dark clouds, their crews falling to the sea like raindrops. Overhead was the ghostly, flaming face of the sun. The view turned away, and he knew Ozu was running. She twisted to look over her shoulder, and Samal saw it: the rim of the sun meeting the horizon, sinking into it. He watched the sky light up.
Samal put his head in his hands. Iz was learning fast. He could salvage her, make her into a bona-fide wizard, like Tarinen had made him. Iz would carry on after he was gone. She was cautious, patient, and canny, but she was so fragile, so inexperienced. Even small mistakes like the black powder could kill her out here. If she didn’t learn fast, she wouldn’t live long enough. He had to teach her the frightening secrets, how to work with flesh and bone. He rubbed his fingers together, remembering the ghostly feeling of blood on his fingertips. Her first lesson would have to be the oldest one—the crownless king.
When he turned around to put the skull back in his bag, there was someone standing at the edge of the firelight. Samal reached for the knife on his belt, but it wasn’t there.
Ozu stood in the shadows, looking back at him. He stood still and met her gaze.
“Go away,” he whispered.
She stared at him for a moment, then she was gone. He slid the skull back in his bag, next to the two others.
By the next morning, the snow melting from the windows had turned the floor into a miniature river delta. Iz was strategically placed between the forks, trying to keep herself dry while she and Samal ate a breakfast of oatmeal and raisins. Samal watched her methodically scrape the food off the bottom of her bowl, then the sides—she worked in grid patterns. Her eyes were glazed, lost in thought.
When they first met, he had asked Iz what kind of mage she wanted to be. She said she wanted to be a wizard. Samal had smiled at her, not out of affection, but from bitter irony. If he’d known what it would take to become a wizard, he never would have asked Tarinen to teach him all those years ago.
Why not something else? he’d asked her.
As if she’d been waiting for the question, she had breathed out a mouthful of steam and whispered a stream of words. A snowflake slowly started to form from the cloud, its geometry slowly stitching itself together. Gently, Iz picked it out of the air and looked at the bits of ash and dust glinting in it.
There’s something about water that makes it six-sided when it freezes, she said. And there’s something else about water that people need to survive. There’s a hidden world underneath my life, everyone’s life, and only wizards understand it. I want to understand it.
He looked at her now. She was hungry for knowledge, not power. She wanted control and secrets as insurance against catastrophes in her life. He was going to give her those things now, before she was ready for them. Nothing else could guarantee her safety.
“When you’re done eating, I’m going to teach you something,” he said softly. Iz looked up at him, nodded, then went back to eating. In a minute or so, her bowl was empty. As soon as she wiped her mouth, he pulled a short, flat knife out of his belt sheath and handed it to her by the blade. She took it uncertainly and held it in front of her.
One by one, he began unbuttoning his coat, jackets, and shirts until his tattooed chest was bare. In the center of his chest was a tattoo of a crouching skeleton holding a six-pointed star on its back, enclosed in a compass rose. Around the compass, a faded globe stretched from his sternum to his stomach, scrawled with notes and mementos and encircled by eight stars. Two pillars ran up the sides of his ribs, two blue moons sat on the fronts of his shoulders, and a black serpent was wrapped around his waist, biting its own tail. Samal held up his arms and the backs of his wrists to show the sleeves of inked writing. After a few seconds, he turned around to show that his neck had two names tattooed on it: TOGORUN and TARINEN. At the base of the neck was a little woodpecker perched on an anchor. The rest of his back was filled with a vertical diagram of triangles and circles connected by lines, all of it running down his spine.
Samal turned back around and made eight points on his chest with his finger, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re a bona-fide wizard. When I was growing up, the hallmarks were a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet.”
Iz was drinking it all in, her eyes wide. This was what she had been waiting for.
“Now it doesn’t matter about your name, or your card, or if you’ve gone to the eight ports. The eight ports aren’t there anymore. There’s only one hallmark left.”
Iz watched him, trying to figure out what he was leading up to. The knife was moving uncertainly in her fingers.
“I saw wizards, friends of mine, take a bullet to the lung and keep laughing. One of them walked out of a hostel without his jaw. They knew the amount of blood in their bodies down to the thimble, and they could stitch up muscle faster than their clothes. That’s the only thing that matters now. And the pinnacle of all that is the crownless king.”
Samal watched Iz as he said it. No flicker of recognition crossed her face, no dread. She had no idea of the history. He put his wooden hands on either side of his head, pressing his palms against his temples.
“A crownless king is when you can take away a person’s head, sever it from the spine, and the person doesn’t die. It shows you’ve got mastery over your flesh and bone. My teacher was one of them.” Samal nodded to Iz. “And if you’re going to be a bona-fide wizard, you’re going to have to be one, too.”
This time, he saw her tense up. The color began draining from her face as she realized what he was saying.
“I’m going to give you one lesson. At the end of it, you can decide if you still want to be a wizard.”
Samal pointed at one of the stars on his chest. “You’re going to open me from the north to the south star. Half an inch deep. That’s this much.”
Samal held up a half-inch between his thumb and forefinger.
Iz’s body stiffened up and her shoulders rose, but she didn’t say anything. She shifted her grip on the knife and watched Samal lie on his back, his hands folded on his belly button.
“What if I make a mistake?” she asked
END OF PART TWO