By Shelly Li
She sprawls her wings across the milky white netting, her body stretched across two poles, brown and spindly and rooted into the asphalt ground. A thin curtain of wax covers her face.
Oh, to be the queen.
Standing below, I turn to my companions. Their eyes look left and right simultaneously, four panels of black eyes, times twenty, thirty, a thousand.
I am one of them, and yet more than them, because I want more than they want.
The thought makes me feel cold.
I wonder if I look like the outsider I feel I am. This is not a question I can ask, if I want to keep my place in the colony, as the queen’s favored servant. Survival is about making all the right moves, and oblivion only needs to feed off one wrong step.
Faint purple mist trickles out the pores on our yellow backs, our anticipation glands. It emanates into the ambiance. The ceremony is about to begin.
The queen extends her wings to their full length and casts a shadow over me, over all of us. Tufts of rebel fur line her wrists like cuffs, the arch of her back, not yellow like the rest of us, but golden with age. Her skin protrudes down the center of her stomach, ridging up and down like snow-capped mountain ranges. A shimmering silver gown covers the lower half of her body, a customary garment to wear, when choosing a mate.
How beautiful is she, who takes a mate every lunar month.
Strangely, behind the mask, she looks pained. Is it the snugness of the wax, the suffocating way it clings to her face, or is it something deeper than the physical?
For only a moment, I allow myself the indulgence of imagining myself as the queen. The pleasure of being wanted as she is wanted, it is almost too much for me to contain. If I am the queen, I will be the farthest thing from the outsider.
Directly under her, thirty males stand huddled in a circle, facing inward. The yellow on their backs is freshly polished, and painted spikes of all colors run down the sides of their faces.
I stand on land that is constantly shifting and turning, something harder than gelatin and yet softer than bone. In the colony, everything contains life, from the pulsating ground to the Guardian pillars supporting the queen to the flashes of red dust that float like constants in the dead air.
Maybe it is the planet that makes me the way I am, that makes me want what I should not want. Some days, the want for power is more than my want for my own life. And I must never want anything more than my life.
An astonishing black that looks like the great abyss, the inside of the queen’s wings flip up, and light floods the mass of territory.
The males in the circle turn outward on her command. Some, I can see quaking, fear pooling from their armpits. From the fear glands, purple mist curls up like a cold exhale and wraps itself around the white beams.
The queen can smell it. Cowardice is not a suitable characteristic for her children.
Her teeth look like white pillars as she snarls, ordering males out of the circle. One by one they march off--are they relieved? Although I have not been here for too long, I am realizing that there is much to learn.
The queen curls her giant wings, and the males bow, their heads grazing the ashen ground. Everyone is in on it, the game of obedience, if only the freedom of the mind were not at stake. Once the queen chooses a mate, he, all of him, is hers. One might fear, yes, but object? No.
Look at her. She is the pinnacle, the temple, the white of all colors.
The sight of her makes something inside of me shake uncontrollably. The power she has, the attention she commands. The desires she evokes from me, for what she is, and has.
Two males remain in the circle. The two are almost indistinguishable, their body language eager to be chosen to mate with the queen. Muscles pulse against the surface of their dark skin.
Although both are worthy, the queen seems to have already made her decision, for she ceases to test the candidates.
Her veil falls as she draws closer, the air from her wings billowing back and forth. She encircles the two males, and for a moment, everything dulls into silence.
The queen inhales. When finally she indicates her choice, her arms reach out and wrap around him, sheltering him with her warm wings and lifting him off into the night.
I tilt my head upward, and together, all our eyes follow the glittering body as she cuts through the darkness. The queen does not fly, but glides, taking his thoughts from him, his will, his strength.
It does not take long for her to finish absorbing him. Her long claws pound into the ground as she lands, her new mate buried in her chest like a child. He is her child, if not genetically, then by virtue.
After landing, she lets go of her new beau. Servants rush forward with careful hands to catch him. He must be cleaned, dressed, made up, before copulation. Only for one night is he elevated to the status of king.
The queen turns her head, looking for me. Me, her lowly attendant, her new pet.
I step forward, and she wraps finger around my wrist, ready to return to chambers. There will be no rest for her tonight. Her touch is always warm, so warm that it makes me aware of how constantly cold I am inside.
The dark dust is picking up, nipping at my ankles. The Guardian lights flicker on and off, signaling us to return to the confines of the village.
Curfew is approaching.
I press my face against the windowpane, looking out at the village below, where the others in the colony live. After curfew, the scene does not change until dawn breaks.
Dark funnels fill the land, tall and violent so that I can no longer make out where the ground ends and the sky begins. On tired nights, I feel like I’m staring at a painting of sheep, herds and herds of dirty grey that blend together as their bodies shift against each other. Some nights, the world sways back and forth like tall black grass, so thick that my fingers would not be able to run through.
When the dust funnels come too close, the white Guardian lights buzz. The Guardians watch over the colony, keeping us safe inside the hum of its shields until morning. During the day, we are responsible for our lives again.
Refocusing my lower left eye, I zoom in on the hut near the edge of the village. It is the house of the unchosen males. Someone familiar sits on the front steps, looking up at the palace sitting on the hillside. His eyes are locked on me, although he cannot see through the window.
No one ever sees me. At least, not long enough to think about me.
It is the other male, the one that the queen did not choose. He will wait in the house with the other single males until a female comes to claim him. She is allowed his physical companionship, but nothing more.
In the colony, only the queen gives birth. In essence, we are all her children. Mother, she will be. Grandmother, she will not.
I hear a noise behind me, and I turn to find the queen trying to steady herself as she eases into a chair.
I have been absent-minded. It is time to feed her.
Cleanly washed of all ceremonial markings, the queen’s glittering skin no longer even looks smooth. The ridges down her front look more like lumps. She is old, very old, and yet she must never stop living.
My insides go cold again as I step forward to serve her. As I do, I notice something sparkling in her hand. It is a small pin, jewels studded down the handle.
The exhaustion spreads over her face like an encroaching shadow, and she makes no effort to hide it. Language written on the surface of the skin can be easily manipulated. The one kind of lie we are not allowed to tell is a lie through the mouth.
And the queen is never expected to speak.
I move to take the pin, thinking she must want it to go with her nightgown. We are running behind schedule. In a few minutes, a knock will come at the door, and the mate that the queen chose at the ceremony, he will be ready for her.
But as soon as I put my hand near the pin, she slices upward and blades the sharp point of the pin across me.
My skin does not break.
I peer down at the queen’s eyes, gleaming black pearls so old that they reflect my own history back into my soul.
She is not trying to hurt me, as the angle in which she held the pin is not suitable.
Realization hits. The pin is not for me, but for herself. But why, why? Is she ungrateful? Is she not adored, revered? Is she not all-powerful?
I turn away, but the queen grabs me. Her fingers are worn and weary. They look worked to the bone, like a servant’s, although she has not touched anything of effort for hundreds of years.
A knock comes at the door. It is only one of the other servants, here to say that the queen’s choice has entered his palace and is making his way to chambers.
He will arrive within minutes.
Purple mist seeps out of my back, and my insides warm with alarm. I must get the queen ready immediately.
Reaching over her body, I grab the pin from her grasp. This time she concede without protest.
I move away and go into the other room to grab her garments, returning moments later. As I approach, I notice that her eyes have glazed over, like she is lost in a world more appealing than the one she commands.
Suddenly I grow cold again. What kind of power is this, this kind of hers, that turns me to ice?
Shaking the feeling away, I proceed to slide the garments over her body.
But before I can set her arm into the sleeve, she blinks and fastens her eyes to mine.
"I want freedom," she says to me. It is the first time I hear her voice. She speaks with the grainy sound of ash in her throat, a tone of desperation that feels long-repressed.
At first I say nothing, stunned that she spoke to me. The grace that I saw at the ceremony, the way she hovered when she walked, I realize now that it is only fatigue.
"Do you want to be me?" the queen speaks again. "Do you want to be the queen? Answer me."
My mouth speaks the truth. "Every day."
She nods and grabs my hand, the one holding the sharp pin. "Love me," she whispers, the words piercing through the walls of my head. "Love me enough to continue my legacy."
The servant guarding the door, she knocks a second time. He is here, at last. He is ready to mate with the queen.
The queen, as if she does not hear the announcement, plunges the pin into the soft, unprotected part of her neck.
My hand, still wrapped around the jeweled end of the pin, begins to feel white-hot.
The pin makes too small a wound for fluids inside her body to flow out. But I can feel the life leaving the tips of her fingers, slowly traveling to her hands, her arms, and then finally, to her spirit.
She slumps against me, looking old and weak and grateful.
A buzzing sound overtakes my ears, clouding the voice inside my head, the one frantically telling me that there is still a way out. With this decision, my life is now at stake.
The voice tells me that I do not have to attempt this. I do not have to be queen. I can feel like an outsider for the rest of eternity, and everything will still be okay.
It is safer that way.
I look down at the queen, crumpled like a forgotten blanket. The mist from my fear glands layers the room like a warm purple sheet.
When will I get another chance like this, to escape my servant destiny and be the queen?
The question knifes through me harder than any kind of physical pain has delivered. Never again will I get the chance to shed who I am and become who I have always wanted to be. It is not my life at stake, but my soul.
Taking a deep breath, I set her body upright on the chair so that those walking into the room will not be able to see her. Quietly I put on the garments that dropped to the floor.
The fabric feels softer than my skin, but I do not stop to enjoy the moment.
I walk to the inner room of the chamber and crawl into the bed, drawing the curtains closed.
A ceremonial mask, one of the many that the queen has worn throughout the years, sits on the pillow.
I fasten the mask to my face. No one will recognize me until my status as the new queen is cemented.
From the other room, I can hear their footsteps, coming closer and closer. One is the light and hesitant walk of the servant, and the other, a heavy and devoted tread.
Why do I feel so cold?