"Should you really be doing this, your majesty?" AR asked as he handed the next brick up to PM, who sat perched atop a steadily growing wall. The desert sun was high over the eclectic cluster of improvised tents and shacks that currently made up Can Town, and the midday heat was beginning to weigh down on the citizens laboring over the foundations of more permanent buildings scattered throughout. Even with well-organized assembly lines it was exhausting work — certainly heavier than anything a queen of Prospit or Derse would have dirtied her hands with, but a queen of the wasteland was something else entirely. She had to be.
That 'your majesty' business, again, PM thought. She still felt ambivalent about AR addressing her like that. He seemed to think that using her name would be improper and possibly illegal, and she couldn't say for sure that he was wrong about the former. In any case, she wasn't about to try to insist otherwise when they were surrounded by people who hadn't known her as a friend before knowing her as a queen; she was aware that many of them simply wouldn't feel comfortable speaking so casually to her, and she worried about being unfair to them by giving her friends what might look like special treatment.
"You tell me," she said, taking the brick from him and slotting it into place like a puzzle piece. Can Town had no mortar yet, so they had to make do shaping building blocks to fit together. The clay itself had been a lucky find; the exploratory team had stumbled across a large deposit by accident while looking for more aquifers. "Is there a law against it?"
"I don't know," AR admitted mournfully. "You haven't told me many laws yet."
PM frowned for a moment. She was determined to get back into the swing of telling little jokes and laughing with friends, because those were things that normal people did, and figuring out how to be a normal person again was incredibly important, possibly even more important than figuring out how to be a queen. She was afraid she had made a mistake, though. Obviously AR took law enforcement very seriously, and maybe they didn't know each other well enough yet for her to be teasing about his job. She decided to try to make it up by teasing about hers instead. "I think I'd go mad just standing around trying to look imperious and watching you all work. You wouldn't want a mad queen, would you?"
As soon as it was out of her mouth she bit her tongue, because that wasn't a funny joke, what was she thinking? AR had seen what she'd been like when she'd first come out of the desert, and he had more reason than anyone to wonder about her sanity.
AR paused in passing along bricks for a moment to shake the sweat out of his joints. "You'd have to be mad to build a city in a place like this," he muttered half under his breath, then winced and looked up at her suddenly, apparently just realizing he'd said it out loud.
PM laughed. It was a short, quiet laugh, but there wasn't any bitterness or hysteria in it at all, and it felt good. The trepidation melted out of AR's face, and he laughed the same way.
"It is starting to get pretty bad out here, isn't it?" PM mused out loud. "I guess I should call a break before someone gets hurt." Not for the first time, she felt grateful for AR and his blunt complaints. She was used to pushing her body right up to the breaking point and tended to forget that that wasn't necessary here, nor was it wise. She knew her own limits well enough, but not those of all the other workers. Though she tried to encourage them to approach her if something was wrong, as their leader she had to take responsibility for their welfare even if they didn't.
"All right, everyone!" She stood up on the wall and spoke as loudly as she could without straining her throat. Several dozen pairs of eyes turned to her. "You've all done excellent work today! I'm really happy with how quickly Can Town is coming together and, uh…" Oh God, what was her mouth doing? Had she really just started up a speech? No, no, no, she hadn't meant to do that! Abort! "That is, it's getting hot out now, so it's time to take a break until the evening! Let's all find some shade and wait for — WV!"
PM leaped to the ground, but checked herself in time to keep from sprinting to the little group of farmers that had just appeared pushing wheelbarrows of fresh produce up to the building site. Everyone else knew they were supposed to get in an orderly line for food, and she was going to set a good example. "Perfect timing," she told them as she walked very deliberately to WV's side.
"It was?" WV asked. He looked a little flustered and more than a little pleased to hear even such a simple compliment from her, as though she didn't say nice things to him all the time.
"It was," she said as definitively as she could manage, though it was difficult to match his earnestness when she just wanted to laugh at how WV he sounded. She stood by him as he handed out vegetables to the rapidly forming queue, then gathered up what was left over and walked with him to AR's shack.
They found AR roasting chunks of lizard meat over a small fire just outside. He and the other carnivorous-leaning people in the town had taken to heading out into the desert in the evenings brandishing absurdly large guns and returning with pitifully small dead reptiles. PM had been confused about how there could possibly be anything left of the things they shot until she'd gotten a good look at one of the carcasses and realized that it had been bludgeoned over the head.
The three of them sat down in the shade to eat together, for a given value of "together" — the moment PM handed WV his portion, he shoved all of it into his mouth at once. PM, who had long ago trained herself to eat very slowly in order to fool her brain into believing she was eating more, always found that a bit off-putting, but she knew better than to be upset with him for it. After all, he had improved since she'd met him. He could now handle himself around food well enough to do his job, and that was what really mattered.
"AR, my good man," he said after swallowing, "I've been meaning to talk to you! My colleagues and I would appreciate it very much if you and the other hunters would kindly refrain from conducting your business in our fields."
Oh dear, thought PM. WV going into polite mode around his friends usually meant he was bracing for an argument.
AR, of course, was as oblivious as he was unimpressed. "That's where there's the most lizards," he said with a shrug.
"That's where there's the most insects," said WV. "Insects eat plants. Lizards eat insects. If you eat the lizards, we don't get to eat as many plants."
"I wonder how big the lizards get," PM interjected quickly. From the way the two of them looked at her it must have been more of a non sequitur than she'd thought, so she explained, "It's new for them to have so much food in one place, just like it's new for the insects. If they eat a lot, do you think they'll get bigger?"
AR didn't say anything, but judging from the distant look in his eyes and the bit of drool collecting on his lip, he was clearly considering it.
"WV, do any of your farmers have experience with livestock?"
"I think so."
"See what they can do to manage the lizards. It would be nice to have a reliable source of meat." She turned to AR. "In the meantime, please try to hunt somewhere else, all right?"
"Yes, your majesty."
"Oh, stop that," she said affectionately. "When it's just the three of us, I'm PM, all right?"
That earned her a smile from him. "All right, PM."
Most of the rest of the meal break was spent in silence. None of them had quite gotten back the hang of small talk yet, and they'd each figured out that attempting it often made the others feel as awkward as it did themselves. That was perfectly fine with PM, because it was so nice just to be physically near them. They made her feel safe in a way she didn't entirely understand. She knew in her heart that if there were an attack of some sort, she would be the one to protect them. Somehow, though, when they were around, she felt less inclined to believe that the world was full of things that would attack her.
Normalcy wasn't quite normal to them yet, but they were getting there.