They doubled the guard on the nursery in the wake of the attack, though they know it is too little, too late.
The remnants of the royal clutch lie in the middle of the hatchery. One egg is bright and opalescent, rainbows shifting across its surface. The other is dull and grey, blighted promise across its mottled surface, hard and cracked in places, spongy in others.
All their hopes rest on the egg that survived, whole and unscathed, now that the Queen… no.
Don’t think of it. There is always a Queen. There she is, in the egg.
The priests chant prayers every day. The masses assemble at the mountain’s base, to sing and weep and plead. The broken, fragile magic of all those voices are tossed up to the summit by dry and dusty winds.
They want to protect the Queen egg, lock it away deep underground. Surround it with steel and lasers and traps of all kinds. But their kind has always quickened in eggs bathed in sunshine and drizzled with starlight, rocked by wind and washed in rain.
So they wait, anxious and always hovering.
And one day, the egg trembles, birthing pangs running in wavelets all over its surface. The nurses strain towards it, the guards step forward, but the priest stops them with an upraised hand.
No, the young Queen must do this on her own. If she is to be great, she must learn to be alone.
That is also the way of their kind.
The egg splits open; a lacy arm, glistening with fluid, emerges. The nurses sob. Delicate claws rip again and she unfurls. She stands there, shimmering opal and tall and wise, looking around with her multi-faceted eyes.
The guards shout and their wordless rapture is carried by the winds to the people down the mountain. The rejoicing begins.
The new Queen is an island of stillness in the midst of it all. She reaches out a hand, softly, slowly, as if breaking through a bubble and into this new world. Touches a pedestal with a withered plant at the top. Under her fingers, a new flower unfurls and reaches for the sky.
The priest sighs, drops his head into his hands for a moment as he masters himself. Then he calls out, loud and clear, “The Queen lives! The Queen is whole! The Queen is power!”
And while the nurses rush to their new mistress, the priest beckons to a guard. The second egg, the one that almost didn’t make it, rocks urgently, futilely. The thing inside is alive, a writhing shadow inside hardened translucence.
“Poor youngling,” says the priest. His voice is kind, but firm. “Cast it into the ravine. Put it out of its misery.”
The guard nods, stoops. He is unnoticed by all as he covers the egg with a black cloth and hastens out a back entrance. A short tunnel later, he stands on a ledge, looks down at the steep drop. The egg in his arms trembles more violently, as if the deformed thing inside knows what is about to happen.
The guard thinks he should say something, something to mark the end of this creature, whose life is over before it even begins. This creature whose womb is also its tomb.
He cannot think of a single word, so he mutters a general blessing, and drops the egg.
He does not stay to watch it fall, hurrying back to kneel at the feet of his new Queen.
The egg shivers at the bottom of the ravine. Its fluttering attracts the attention of a bird, one that swoops lazily down to investigate. It stands on the egg, cocks its head. Gives an experimental peck, or two.
The leathery shell is tough, but the bird’s beak slices through. It dips its head for yet another peck, but sounds explode nearby. The people are setting off firecrackers, but the bird is already startled and away, thoughts of the egg driven completely out of its skull.
The egg lies still as if the creature within gathers its strength. Then, with one lunge, two sticklike hands emerge from the rip and push. With a gloop and swish, the shell gives way.
And the Queen’s sister tumbles out in a spreading pool of thick, foul-smelling liquid. She is the color of curdled milk and grey cobweb. Strands of mucous stick to her short buzzed hair and dead-looking skin. She tries to move, to stand, but ends up collapsed. Her limbs shake; she can barely control them.
She grabs for a straggly thornbush, to pull herself forward. The hardy plant withers to brown and crumbles to dust and vanishes between her fingers.
The sister rests. She knew that it is wrong for her to smell so, to look so, to affect the world so.
She could die right now, under this burning sun.
But she wants to live and after a while, she pushes herself forward, slowly, painfully, on her belly.
She leaves behind her a trail of dead grass.