Bogleech.com's 2014 Horror Write-off:
" Ghost Tide, Part 2: Queen of Bones "
"Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen."
-T.S. Eliot, “Murder in the Cathedral”
Petra looked up at the massive skull towering above her. Each reptilian eye socket was at least twenty feet wide, and each spike-like tooth was as long as Petra was tall. It was like a castle made of bone.
“Hear ye this, foul dragon!” she shouted up at it. “I’m the Queen of Bones, and I order you to get out of my kingdom henceforth!”
The skull didn’t say anything.
“Oh yeah?” Petra shot back. “Well, same to you!”
Petra punched the air a few times, then laughed and danced away, scattering sand into the air with each impact of her bare feet against the beach, her cloud of black hair bouncing. The dragon was no more. The beach was safe once again.
She and her father had gone to the western beach of Carson’s Landing, their home island, for Petra’s birthday. Petra asked to come to the beach for her birthday every year. She loved getting out of the cold and dark city and coming to swim in the cool water and sink her toes into the sand. She wished they could live at the beach year-round. She didn’t see why they couldn’t. Her father was the God-Emperor, after all. He could do whatever he wanted.
She wondered when she was going to be able to do whatever she wanted. Being nine was terrible. It was a lot of listening to what old people had to say. A lot of waiting around for them to catch up with her, or even to notice that she had run ahead.
Petra was snapped out of her introspection when she nearly walked straight into a big skull, not quite fish and not quite reptile.
“Terribly sorry, your lordship!” she said, bowing. “I must watch where I’m going next time.”
The skull didn’t seem to mind.
The skeletons were her favorite part of the beach. They were like sculptures out of a dream – twenty-, thirty-, forty-foot ribs poked up and curved into towers and archways; railroad-track spines rose and fell into the gold-white sand; huge skulls sat like houses and cathedrals, light shining into their dark interiors through eyeholes and gaps in the bone.
Sometimes Petra imagined what it would be like to live here. When she was a grownup, she would move down to the beach as soon as she could. She would sit on a throne in the biggest skull she could find, and all the skeletons would be her friends, and they would dance and play and have fun all right, and she would never have to go to bed.
She would be a fair and just queen, but a harsh one, and she would rule with an iron fist.
“You dare to defy me?” she said to a big long-snouted fish skull lying nearby. “Off with your head! Into the gallows! No dessert for a week!”
In her ear, she heard laughter.
Petra turned around quickly, but there was nobody there. She waited for a moment, glancing around at the bones, seeing if anybody was hiding behind them, playing a trick on her.
Then she heard it again – a quiet, creaky giggle, right in her ear.
“Who’s there?” Petra yelled out. “You dare to defy me? I’m the Queen of Bones! This is treason!”
She looked around and around until finally she saw somebody. They were very far away, right on the low tide’s edge and hunched down at the base of one of the biggest ribcages on the beach. They appeared to be doing something to the bones, but Petra couldn’t make out what.
“Daddy?” Petra asked. “What is that person doing?”
Nobody answered her. She looked over her shoulder. Her father was a few hundred feet down the beach behind her, talking animatedly to the vizier and advisors who had accompanied them on their trip. All of them were dressed in suits and pointy leather shoes, which made Petra feel immensely put out. It wasn’t proper beach attire at all.
“Daddyyy!” Petra whined. It was a high-pitched whine, with some warbling in the back of the throat that gave it a grating buzz. It worked wonders at annoying people. Petra had perfected it. It was her signature whine.
“Your father’s busy right now, Petra dear,” sighed the head nursemaid, sidling out from behind a rib. “Do you need something?”
The head nursemaid’s name was Maggie. She always seemed annoyed by Petra’s questions, but she was seemingly unfazed by her signature whine. Petra hated Maggie. She had told her father over and over again that she didn’t need a nursemaid, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Petra always wondered why he couldn’t just spend time with her himself. What else could he be doing all day?
“What’s that person doing?” Petra said to Maggie, pointing at the skeleton again.
The head nursemaid squinted into the sun, which was a red crescent gleaming brightly on the horizon. She could barely see the tiny figure in the distance.
“I don’t know, Petra,” the head nursemaid said. “Why don’t we head back now?”
“No,” Petra said, putting her hands on her hips. “I want to play more.”
“The sun’s setting, Petra. You can look at more skeletons tomorrow.”
“But Maaa-ggiiie, I have to save the kingdom from the merciless bandits! Everybody will be dead by tomorrow!”
“Petra, you will address me as ‘ma’am’. Your father and I have told you that a hundred times. Ever since your mother passed, you’ve been-”
“I wanna go back to the beeeach!”
Maggie sighed. “Okay, honey,” she said. “Meet me right back here in one hour. Have you got that?”
“Yeah yeah yeah!” Petra said excitedly, running off down the beach.
“Stay where I can see you!” Maggie called after her.
Petra ignored her. She ran through the sand, darting between ribs and around limb bones to escape Maggie’s sight. Eventually, when she was confident she could no longer be seen, she slowed down, walking amongst the bones like a tourist. She strolled underneath the teeth of a massive long-snouted shark skull, crawled beneath the tunnel-like ribcage of a serpent, and leapt across the flukes of a dead whale. The bones watched her all the while, silently, passively, acceptingly, looking down on her like creatures in heaven.
According to her tutors, they were anything but. The founder of the empire had driven all the enemies of God out of the empire so that humans could live there. Their descendants, the whales and sea serpents and other monsters, still ruled the seas, while the empire ruled the land. Any sea monster who tried to invade the land was overcome by the power of God’s chosen empire and turned into a big pile of bones on the beach. Petra didn’t know what to think about that. It didn’t seem logical to her, but her history tutor had told her to stop asking questions about it. He said it was unbecoming of a future ruler.
There were bones in the city as well, of course. The entire thing was built on top of the ribs of the Great Adversary, killed by the first God-Emperor thousands of years ago. At least that’s what all her tutors said. Petra thought it was just a big animal. She often wondered what it must have looked like when it was alive. It probably had eyeballs as big as the whole imperial palace. It probably had scales that shined in all the colors of the world. She imagined it was really cute.
Petra didn’t like its bones as much, though. The bones on the beach were gleaming white, but the city’s ribs were covered with caked-on smog and grime. They looked to Petra like they were choking. They depressed her.
She began to run again, trying to stop thinking about the city she would inevitably have to return to. She hopped atop a huge spine running horizontally through the sand and ran down it, nimbly hopping over the gaps between the vertebrae. She pretended that she was being chased down one of her kingdom’s glittering ivory roads by a villainous band of skeletal bandits who were out to rob her and steal her queenly fortune.
“You can’t catch me, vile brigands!” she shouted. “I’m the Queen of Bones! OWW!”
Her foot came down hard on a knob of bone and she fell face-first into the sand.
The laugh came again.
“Ugh, go away,” groaned Petra. Her eyes were full of sand. She blinked rapidly, like someone walking out of a dark room into the sun. The sand stayed right where it was.
“Well, that ain’t a very neighborly thing to say,” said a voice from above.
Petra looked up, rubbing her eyes. There was a man standing above her. He was standing in front of the sun and was mostly a silhouette, but Petra could make out his tall and skinny frame, his bald domed head, and the dark glasses covering his eyes.
Petra was awestruck. She tried to answer, but only coughed. White sand came out.
“Need some help gettin’ up, darlin’?” the man asked her, kneeling down and extending a hand. His cheeks were a pair of craters, and his forehead was covered in craggy wrinkles. Petra gasped. The man laughed.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I ain’t gonna eatcha.”
Petra took his hand. The man gripped her hand tightly, but not roughly, and pulled her to her feet.
“Here, now,” he said, pulling a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and handing it to her. “Get that sand outta your eyes.”
The handkerchief was smooth and pleasant to the touch, and surprisingly clean and white. Petra rubbed her eyes with it. The majority of the sand was quickly wiped away.
“Thank you,” she said to nobody. The man had already wandered away, back to the rib on the water’s edge where she had first spied him.
“Wait!” Petra cried out, running after him. “Wait!” The man seemed to take no notice.
“You forgot your handkerchief,” she said to him after catching up.
“You can keep it,” the man said as he crouched down, examining something Petra couldn’t see at the base of the rib.
Petra was confused. “Why?”
“You like it, don’tcha?”
Petra frowned. “My nursemaid always tells me not to talk to strangers, and especially not to take things from them.”
“And why’s that?”
“Cause they’d want to endanger me.” She had just learned the word “endanger” a few days prior. She was proud of it.
The man turned. In the new light, and at his crouched height, Petra could see him much more clearly. His skin was baked to a golden-brown. His gangly body was covered by a simple short-sleeved white shirt and a pair of dark work pants covered top to bottom in pockets and pouches. His feet were bare, and his sinewy arms were covered in tattoos that looked like skeletal snakes and fish dancing up and down his skin.
“Friends call me Mutt,” he said. “It’s short for somethin’.”
He held out a gnarled hand and grinned. Petra couldn’t help smiling back. Mutt’s teeth were arranged seemingly at random in his mouth, poking through his gums in a pattern of white and grey like piano keys. His smile was so ugly that it became strangely beautiful when you really looked at it. It was infectious.
“Pleased to meet you, Mister Mutt,” she said, grabbing his hand and shaking it with a great deal of pomp. “My name is Petra.”
“Nice to meet you too, Petra,” Mutt said. “And please, just call me Mutt. All my friends do.”
Petra giggled. “Okay, Mutt.”
“Now we ain’t strangers anymore, eh?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“So keep the handkerchief. It’s a gift.”
Mutt stood back up and pulled a few tools out of his pants pocket -- a small dusting brush and a tiny pick. “Haven’t heard anybody else all day,” he said, examining his tools. “You here all by yourself?”
“No,” Petra said, looking up at his tools and cocking her head with curiosity. “Daddy’s vizier had the beach closed.”
“His who now?”
“The vizier,” Petra said, putting her hands on her hips. “And the advisors. They help him run things in the empire.”
“I thought viziers were little hats you wore over your eyes,” Mutt said. He looked at her and grinned. Petra squinted at him.
“Aw, never mind,” he said. “So your daddy runs the empire?”
“Yeah,” Petra said. “But right now we’re on vacation, so he left the Priest-General in charge. Don’t tell anybody. It’s a secret.”
“Your daddy’s the God-Emperor?” Mutt asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Petra sighed.
“I guess that makes you the God-Princess then, eh?”
“I’m not a princess!” Petra protested. “I’m a queen!”
Mutt gasped. “A queen?”
Petra nodded. “I’m the Queen of Bones.”
Mutt giggled. It was a strange high-pitched clownish laugh. It didn’t fit him at all. It was so ridiculous that Petra had to laugh too.
“Well, Your Majesty!” Mutt said. “I had no idea! Does the King know you’re out consortin’ with your subjects and such?”
“There ain’t no king!” Petra said. “This is my kingdom alone!” Maggie always demanded that she speak properly and never use “commoner words” like “ain’t”, and Petra took joy in going against her.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” said Mutt reverently. “Forgive me.”
“I forgive you,” Petra giggled.
Mutt exhaled with mock relief and wiped his brow. “That’s a relief,” he sighed. “I coulda lost my head for that!”
“I have bequeathed onto you a royal pardon,” Petra said,
“Deepest thanks, m’lady. I suppose a position in your royal courts would be too much to ask?”
Petra thought about it for a moment.
“I hereby proclaim you Royal Jester,” she said, bowing ceremoniously.
Mutt bowed back, splaying his legs and flopping over at the waist like a puppet on a string, then bouncing back up almost immediately. Petra laughed so hard she almost fell backwards into the sand.
“Alright, Your Majesty,” said Mutt. “I gotta get back to work now, but feel free to stay and watch, if you like. It’s always nice to have more company.”
He turned back to the bone he was working on, crouching down and nearly pressing himself against it. Petra wandered beside him and crouched down herself, sinking her hands and knees into the sand.
Near the base of the rib was a tiny etching of a whale skeleton.
“Just puttin’ on the finishin’ touches,” Mutt said, gently running his pick back and forth in one of the grooves making up the whale’s tail bones.
“Wow,” Petra breathed. She beamed with joy. She loved whales. Her science tutor had given her several books on sea monsters at her request before she left for the beach, and she had stayed up late that night poring over the illustrations and anatomical diagrams inside. She had decided that the whales were her favorites. There was something strangely beautiful about them to her.
Mutt pocketed his tools, then began slowly running his hands across the etching, feeling each individual line and groove with his fingertips. Petra watched him in awe until he withdrew his hands.
“Perfect,” he said, standing. “I’m sure he’ll love it.”
Petra scooted across the sand, nearly pressing her face against the rib to take a closer look. The etching couldn’t have been more than four inches long in Petra’s estimation, but it was immaculately detailed, with every individual bone and skeletal seam outlined. As Petra stared at it, she felt as though it could pop off the rib at any time and begin swimming around in the air, greeting her with squeaky high-pitched whale calls.
As Petra looked longer at the etching, she realized that it wasn’t really a whale. Not exactly, anyway. Something about it seemed off to her. The flukes were a little longer than she remembered, the eye sockets too large. There was something a bit reptilian about it that normal whales didn’t have. This was some new kind of creature she had never seen before.
“What is it?” she asked, looking up Mutt.
Mutt pondered the question for a moment. Then he replied, “I’m not sure he has a name.”
Petra squinted. “He?”
“I don’t think he’s here right now,” Mutt said, holding his arms out to his sides. “I don’t feel him. He might be swimmin’ in the sea yet.”
“Who are you talking about?” Petra asked.
“Hold on,” Mutt said. “Let me look for him.”
He plucked his glasses from his face, revealing his eyes. They were bright red. He had no eyelids.
Petra gasped in shock. Mutt didn’t seem to notice. He slowly turned, first in one direction, then the other, looking around for something.
“What are you doing?” Petra asked.
“Lookin’ for a friend of mine,” Mutt said.
“There’s nobody here,” Petra said, nervously glancing at Mutt’s red eyes.
“Sure there is.”
“I don’t see anything,” Petra said quietly.
“You will,” Mutt said, bending down to look her in the eyes. “You just gotta keep your eyes open.”
He smiled broadly. Petra didn’t smile back.
“If you keep a sharp eye out,” Mutt continued, “And never let your guard down, you’ll see ‘em all around. Maybe not in your palace, though. Maybe not in the city. Right, fellas?”
Mutt nodded to himself, as though listening to a response from some invisible group.
“Nah, they ain’t in the city yet,” Mutt went on. “But they’re comin’. Yes ma’am, they’re gonna be there any day now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talkin’ about the ghosts!” Mutt said angrily. “Can’t you feel ‘em all around?”
He gestured around. Petra felt nothing. She looked up at him and shrugged.
“Eh, you’ll learn to feel ‘em one day,” Mutt said, putting his dark glasses back on and flopping his arms to his sides. “As Kramut is my witness.”
Petra frowned. She remembered that name from the Priest-General’s sermons.
“Kramut isn’t real,” she said.
“He’s as real as the ocean,” Mutt said sagely.
“Daddy says Kramut is a false god. He says it’s a fairy story worshipped by pagans.”
“Ain’t nothin’ fairy-like about Kramut, I can tell you that,” Mutt said, squatting down next to Petra, hands on his knees. “He’s been nappin’ at the bottom of the sea since the world was made, sleepin’ off how full he got after eatin’ all the other gods, but the ghosts are here, and that means he’s gonna wake up soon, real soon. Maybe in a couple ten or twenty years. Now that might not seem soon to you, but it’s an eyeblink to a god.”
Petra nodded. “What happens then?”
“What happens then?” Mutt answered gravely. “Then all the people in the world, all the parasites walkin’ ‘round on the earth’s back – it’s the end for them. You get me?”
“The only ones who got any hope are the ones who know,” Mutt went on. “The ones who see the ghosts, who see the truth, who recognize Kramut as somethin’ greater than all of us. Somethin’ greater than God.”
“Nothing’s greater than God.”
“There ain’t no gods,” Mutt snarled. “Not anymore.”
“Daddy says I’m a child of God,” Petra said. “He says our family is descended from God directly.”
“Your daddy’s a liar.”
“No,” Petra said, looking at her feet. She couldn’t look at Mutt’s face. Anger turned it into something horrible.
“Pretenders like him are gonna get it the worst when Kramut comes,” Mutt went on. “Gnashed in between his teeth for all eternity. Never getting’ a rest. Never goin’ away.”
Petra wanted to shout at Mutt. How dare he speak about her father that way, she wanted to ask him. But she kept silent. Maybe he was right.
“Do you even like bein’ a child of God?” Mutt asked.
Petra thought about that. She never had before. Being a child of God seemed to involve a lot of responsibility and listening to boring people. Some of those boring people’s boring sermons had told her that some people weren’t children of God, and those people were cast out of the empire to live their lives separately.
Maybe Mutt wasn’t a child of God, Petra reasoned. He did look quite strange, not at all like anyone else she had ever met. Even so, he seemed to be happy being an outcast. He got to spend all day at the beach, drawing sea monsters. If that was what happened to the people who believed in Kramut, it didn’t sound so bad. Living outside the empire sounded just fine to Petra. She’d send her father letters from wherever she went to live. He would have one of his advisors write letters back for him, saying how busy he was.
“No,” Petra said. “Not really, I suppose.”
Mutt’s anger dissolved. “Good, Your Majesty,” he said. “Now you can stay here forever.”
Petra frowned. “Really? But how?”
“Well,” Mutt said, sitting down on the sand, “Once Kramut comes, you can get outta that nasty old city and live down at the beach with me. You can be the Queen of Bones, and we’ll all be your loyal subjects.”
Petra sat down next to Mutt. “I dunno,” she said sadly. “My nursemaid would be mad at me.”
Mutt thought about that.
“Well, you know what?” he said.
“Just give her name to Kramut, and he’ll go eat her up!”
Petra giggled. Mutt held his hands up on either side of his face and gnashed his teeth, making cartoonish eating noises, sending Petra rolling in the sand with laughter. He watched her with amusement as she laughed, his lips curled into a half-smile.
“Hold on a minute now, hold on,” Mutt said eventually, as Petra lay face-up on the sand, still giggling breathlessly. “Calm down now, darlin’. You got somethin’ on your face.”
He swiped a pointer finger across Petra’s forehead as she laid on her back in the sand and showed it to her. The tip was covered in white sand.
“Good,” Petra said. She made no effort to wipe off her face.
“Now you really do look like the Queen of Bones,” Mutt said.
Petra looked around at the beach. The bones no longer seemed scattered about to her. They all looked as though they had wound up in the places they were always meant to be, like they had been organized by something greater – something that knew about her, and loved her, and had done it just for her. The thought was comforting. She had never really had it before.
“Where did they come from?” she suddenly asked.
“The bones. Where did they come from?”
Mutt stood up and gestured grandly outward, into the setting sun.
“They came from the sea!” he said. “Everything comes from the sea.”
Petra cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t come from the sea,” she said.
Mutt just laughed.
Petra frowned. “I didn’t!”
“We all did,” Mutt said. “Some of us just came out of it sooner than others, y’know?”
Mutt sighed. “Ah well,” he said. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“Tell me more about the bones,” Petra said.
Mutt whipped back around on his heel, gesturing towards a huge upward-pointing rib about ten feet behind them.
“That rib there,” he said, “Once belonged to a beastie like nothin’ you ever seen! The mightiest of sharks fled in fear! Giant squids were poopin’ their pants at the sight of ‘im!”
“And that one!” Mutt went on, pointing at a gargantuan beaked skull a few hundred yards down the beach. “The fiercest sea beast I ever did lay my eyes on. She sank a dozen ships, and not just little ones either, big ones! The empire’s capital navy ships!”
Petra frowned. “That’s not very nice.”
“Well, uh, they brought it on themselves, y’know. Bumpin’ into her back all the time, thinkin’ she was an island. You ever had little people walkin’ around on your back? Tickles like hell! Drives you mad!”
“Is that how Kramut feels all the time?”
Mutt glanced down at her. “Now you’re getting’ it.”
“And it wasn’t so bad for all them people on the boats, anyway,” Mutt went on. “They got to go back to the sea.”
Petra looked up at Mutt skeptically.
“Quit lookin’ at me like that,” Mutt said happily. “Don’t you like the sea? All these bones wouldn’t be here without it. Where would we be then? You wouldn’t be no queen, and I wouldn’t be no jester.”
“I suppose not,” Petra said.
Suddenly, Mutt began wagging his finger under his chin. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, hey hey hey.”
He began digging through one of the pouches on his pants, eventually pulling out something, concealed in the palm of his hand.
“What’s that?” Petra asked.
“Mm?” Mutt passed whatever it was between his hands, then back, then back again, over and over, flourishing his wrists and wiggling his fingers, moving too fast to make the thing visible.
“What iiis iiit?” Petra whined.
Mutt laughed and extended a hand with a flourish. Resting in his palm was a tiny figurine. It was the skeleton of a tiny sea monster, not quite a snake and not quite a fish, curved around itself as though poised to strike, coiled into a tight little weighty ball. Every detail was carved perfectly - the most miniscule skull window, the smallest line between the ribs.
“It’s beautiful,” Petra said, gazing at it.
“You want it?” Mutt asked.
Petra looked up into his dark glasses in disbelief. “I couldn’t!”
“Aw, c’mon,” Mutt said. “I made it just for you.”
Petra looked over the figure again. It was so beautiful. Its details were hypnotizing.
“Besides,” said Mutt, gesturing at the sea behind him with his free hand. “I’m sure she’ll be flattered.”
Petra ignored him. She slowly took the figurine, feeling its grooved surface with her fingertips.
“Thank you, Mister Mutt,” Petra said. She held the figurine in both hands, revering it.
“Aw, it’s nothin’,” Mutt said. “Someday I’ll show you how to make your own.”
Petra looked up at him, eyes full of awe. “Really?”
“Sure,” Mutt said with a grin. “You just gotta promise me a couple things.”
“Yeah, yeah!” Petra said, bouncing up and down. “What?”
“You gotta remember where you came from,” Mutt said. “We all come from the sea, Your Majesty. You gotta remember.”
“Okay,” Petra said. “What’s the other thing?”
“You gotta give up this ‘child of God’ business,” Mutt said. “S’all just a fantasy. The ghosts are what’s real. Kramut is what’s real. You got that?”
“Okay,” Petra said. She would have agreed to anything.
“Keep that little thing,” Mutt said. “Let it remind you.”
He turned around, staring at the horizon as the sun continued to sink beneath it. Petra continued to stare at the idol.
“Petra!” screamed a voice from across the beach. Recognizing it, Petra instinctively hid the figurine behind her back.
Maggie, her nursemaid, came running across the beach, her skirts hiked up in her hands. Petra and Mutt stood up and faced her as she approached.
“Where have you been? And who is this?” she roared. Her cheeks were red with fury.
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” Mutt said, extending a woody hand. “Name’s Mutt. You must be the nursemaid I’ve heard so much about.”
“Don’t touch me!” She recoiled from him. “What are you doing with this girl?”
“It’s okay, Maggie,” Petra said. “He’s my new friend.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Petra. Did he hurt you? You need to tell me if he hurt you.”
“I’m fine,” Petra grumbled.
“Your father and I have been worried sick about you,” the nursemaid said. “You were supposed to be back fifteen minutes ago. Come on.”
Petra reluctantly walked up to Maggie and began following her back across the beach, away from Mutt.
“Come back soon!” he said, waving goodbye.
“Don’t speak to her, commoner!” Maggie shouted over her shoulder. “How dare you speak to the daughter of the God-Emperor!”
Petra didn’t answer back to Mutt. She looked at her feet as they walked away, watching the sand rise up and spill over her pale toes with each footstep, a consistent rhythm, like the beating of a heart.
“Honestly, Petra, you’ve got to stop all this playing pretend,” the nursemaid went on. “You’re getting too old for it. It’s unbecoming of a young lady. You’ve got to start being responsible.”
She turned the idol around and around in her hands behind her back, feeling its details carefully. She knew in that moment that she would keep it with her all her life. It would remind her of where she came from.
Mutt took his glasses off and watched her go.
“Poor girl,” he said. “Just like her mother.”
He turned towards the sea, looking into the sliver of sun poking over the horizon, listening to the faint creaky giggling that echoed constantly in his ears.
“…‘And so there, upon the skull of the Great Adversary, did Matthias Carson build his temple: and his daughters and sons did build their homes between the ribs.’ That verse seems rather self-explanatory, does it not? You should be able to explain this one easily, yes, Petra? Petra? Petra! Are you listening to me?”
Petra stared off into space as her tutor rambled on about something or other. The walls of the palace chapel, where her lessons were held, were carved from smooth grey-white stone, blending into the background of another boring Boneday. They reminded her of the bones the city was built on, all covered in grey grime. One of the ribs was visible through a window to her left, poking up through the buildings surrounding it, barely distinct from the rainy grey afternoon sky. Its curve and color made it look sad and droopy to her, nothing like the bones on the beach, the clean white paper for Mutt to sketch on.
She wondered where he was now. She wondered what he was drawing.
Her history tutor leaned down into her face. She focused her eyes on his nose – big, round and pockmarked, expanding and contracting like a puffer fish above his bristly grey beard.
“What?” she said.
“Hmph! Such disrespect!”
“Pay attention, dear,” said Maggie, waiting at the door across the room.
Her tutor stood up again. He towered over her. “You haven’t been listening, have you? What verse were we discussing?”
“Matthias 25.5,” Petra said, looking down at her feet as they dangled off the pew, kicking back and forth.
The tutor snorted. “Very good. And what does Matthias 25.5 mean?”
Petra was silent. Her feet kicked faster.
“I’ve got all day, young lady. What does Matthias 25.5 mean? What is its literal and historical meaning?”
“That the first God-Emperor killed a big fish and built the city here,” Petra mumbled.
“A ‘big fish’? Hardly. That ‘big fish’ was the Great Adversary, the leader of the forces of darkness. With his death, his underlings ran for their lives, and our empire has been free of their evil influence since.”
Petra sighed conspicuously. Her tutor cocked a bushy eyebrow and scowled.
“Do I have to get Maggie to bring your father in here, Petra?” he asked.
The tutor sputtered. “Well, I would assume you would care! Your father won’t be happy when he hears about this, Petra, I can tell you that!”
“I don’t care.”
“Petra, you are being highly disrespectful to me,” the tutor said, crossing the room to where he had set down the book from which he had been reading. “This behavior is extremely unbecoming of a young lady, especially of a child of God such as yourself.”
“There ain’t no God.”
The tutor stopped in his tracks.
The room was silent. Petra felt her guts twisting up.
“What did you say?” the tutor whispered.
“There ain’t no God,” Petra repeated. “There’s just Kramut.”
The tutor strode back to Petra and stood over her, fists clenched. Maggie had gone.
“Petra,” he hissed. “You are never to say that name. That is a pagan god, a false god, who has no place in this empire.”
Her tutor bared his teeth. He looked as if he was about to explode.
Still looking down, Petra heard footsteps on the tile floor and the rustling of an apron by the door. Maggie rushed back into the room. Another pair of footsteps followed her.
“This had better be important,” Petra’s father said. “I have business to be doing.”
He walked across the room with purpose, pointed shoes tapping against the floor. The tutor stepped aside, letting him stop beside Petra and look down at her.
“What did you say?” he asked.
Petra looked up at him, into his cold eyes.
“I said there ain’t no God,” she said. “Just Kramut.”
The two looked into each other’s eyes silently.
“You’re a liar,” she whispered. “You lie about God and you lie about Momma.”
Her father’s face didn’t change. Maggie and the tutor looked up at him, frightened.
“What happened to Momma, Daddy?” Petra asked. “I remember her. What happened to her? Where is she? What did she-”
She felt a hard impact against her cheek. She fell out of the pew and onto the floor, stinging.
Everyone was silent.
“You’ve turned your back on me, Petra,” her father said, putting his hand back down. “Now I’ll do the same to you.”
He turned and walked away.
“I’ll turn my back on you,” he said as he left. “Like all those who reject God.”
His footsteps faded down the hall. The history tutor gathered his materials and fled after him. Maggie lingered, looking down at Petra with pity, before following the God-Emperor’s path, leaving the room empty and silent except for Petra and her sobs.
Petra sat in front of the mirror in her bedroom, staring at her own discolored face. Her stomach rumbled. She had been sent to bed without dinner.
She lightly brushed her fingertips against the mark on her face – a wide red splotch, turning purple in places. She winced at the pain. Pain like this was new to her.
She felt herself begin to tear up again. She ran over to her bed and threw herself onto it face-first. She didn’t want to cry anymore.
She lay there for several minutes, thinking about nothing. She was empty.
Eventually Petra sat back up and looked around at the walls of her bedroom. They were painted blue, with two different shades in a pattern of wiggly ocean waves. Between the waves jumped multicolored fish with big smiling faces.
Petra’s mother had painted the room for her when Petra was only a baby. She had demanded to do it herself, with no help from the servants. That was Petra’s earliest memory – standing up in the crib as a toddler, looking out at her mother as she painted the waves on her wall, her mouse-brown hair tied tightly up behind her head in a bun.
Petra had only two memories of her mother, and the last one was the final time she had seen her. She remembered her mother coming into her bedroom late one night and telling her that she was leaving, and that nobody else could know, and that she couldn’t even tell Petra where she was going. She remembered her mother crying. She had been frightened to ask why.
“Momma,” she whimpered. “Where are you?”
She slowly stood up and walked across the room to her dresser. She grabbed the sea serpent skeleton figurine from atop it and clutched it tightly in her hand.
She wished she could be back at the beach again.
She didn’t want to be a child of God anymore.
Petra decided, right then and there, as she climbed back into bed, that she was no longer a child of God. What had God ever done for her? All God did was take. He took her away from the place she loved and put her back in the dirty old palace. He had taken her mother away.
When she grew up, she decided, she would find her mother. She knew she was still out there somewhere. She would find her and take her down to the beach, and they would sit side by side in their thrones underneath the biggest skull in the world, and Mutt and all the skeletons would cheer and bow as they took their seats. They would all dance and play and have fun until the end of the world, and old Kramut would eat up anybody who tried to stop them.
Petra fell face-first into her pillow and cried. Outside her bedroom window, something invisible watched her, laughing its creaky laugh.
Far away, beneath a massive skull, Mutt smiled.