A relentless rage of water fell upon the land, drowning the grass and drenching the trees. Pira and Lono speculated that the sky was moving an entire ocean to this one area: rain was the first thing they had noticed beyond the exit of the cave, and rain was all they had felt as they walked along a well-trodden road.
The princesses sighed relief at the sight of a roofed building, an abandoned shrine just beyond the side of the road. From the shrine’s entrance – a sheltering arch with minimal but elegant designs – they watched the torrential downpour, hypnotised by the fall of uncountable raindrops. Yonder searched the interior of the shrine for anything of interest, his fiery glow illuminating the dark spaces within.
The princesses shed their cloaks, made heavy and dark with wet, and hung them to dry over stone pews. For the most part the rest of their clothes – including a few more articles taken from the fallen travellers they had come across in the cave – were bone dry.
‘I guess the cloaks were a good idea after all,’ Lono admitted.
‘And the dead boy’s pants you’re wearing,’ Pira added.
‘I’m learning to do what’s necessary,’ she said as she wiped her nose and mouth. ‘Think Yonder’s okay?’
Yonder had morphed into his human form to flip through the pages of a large and dusty book with his large and dirty hands. The tome had been resting atop the stump of a tree growing near the back of the shrine.
‘A little rain isn’t going to extinguish him, if that’s what you’re wondering,’ Pira said. ‘Spirit creatures are largely immune to physical things. Something would have to be imbued with a particular magic to truly harm him.’
‘Like your sword?’ Lono asked, eyeing Pira’s green blade.
‘There’s so little magic in this it’s like it’s not even there,’ Pira said. ‘I always used Yonder as a hiding place for it so my mother wouldn’t find it.’
‘Where did you get it?’
‘It’s said I was born with it. That I was born with this sword by my side and no one – not even the greatest wizard – could determine if it was a good omen or a bad one. So my mother hid it and ordered those present to never speak of it again. Of course, the “greatest wizard” was a total gossip, so he let it spill … and then my mother spilled his guts. That was how everyone learned to keep their silence.’
‘How did you hear about it?’
Pira turned to watch Yonder.
‘Not everyone can keep silent forever: I was told about the sword – about everything – by a certain man when I was ten. The sword was being hidden in a silver chest behind my mother’s bed, so one day I took it.’
Lono felt her ears turn warm.
‘I’ve read about such a thing in one of my books,’ she said excitedly. ‘I’ve read about babies being born with a key or a necklace or a staff.’
‘Ah, so I’m not so different after all,’ Pira said with a smirk.
‘Who was it that told you about the sword?’
Yonder’s ears perked up.
‘Find anything in that book?’ Pira asked.
‘Pages and words,’ Yonder answered. ‘A few illustrations as well, but they’re hardly of any interest.’
‘What kind of books do you like, Yonder?’ Lono asked.
‘Hm. Ones which are worthwhile, meaning books that contain information that is new to me.’
‘But that could be any book.’
Yonder shook his head.
‘If only! I read for spells, hidden locations, unseen plots – basically, things that are real that shouldn’t be real. In the end I’m not a fan of fiction, though I’ll spin my own tales when the need arises.’
‘You don’t like fiction at all?’ Lono asked, somewhat disappointed.
‘I’m too busy going on my own adventures to read ones made up by someone else.’
‘I can certainly agree with that,’ Pira said with a wide smile.
‘But there’s so much … there’s so much poetry in a good novel that the beauty transports me,’ Lono said defensively. ‘I read for the beauty when things go dark.’
A loud, unexpected rumbling shook small stones loose from the ceiling. Lono gasped.
‘Another monster?!’ she cried out, fearfully holding her face.
‘No, it’s only thunder,’ Pira said. ‘But how is it possible for the weather to get worse?’
Lightning struck near the entrance of the shrine, momentarily filling the building with brilliant white light; when the thunder roared it was as though it were emanating from their very bodies, filling them completely and shaking their bones. Lono ducked behind a pew and whimpered.
Heph switched to his dog form and nuzzled Lono’s side.
‘Are you all right?’ Pira asked as she crouched down in front of her.
‘No, I’m not,’ Lono said matter-of-factly. ‘I’m afraid of thunder.’
‘Really? But it’s only a bunch of noise. It’s lightning you should be afraid of.’
‘Somehow it’s different,’ Lono explained. ‘Thunder is like the world is yelling at me. I hate it.’
The crashing of ceramic caused her to cover her head, and Pira was jolted by the sudden sound as well. She stood and looked towards the origin of the noise.
Scattered across the floor were jagged shards of what had once been a vase. Pira was not alarmed by this. What did alarm her, however, was what was beyond the broken pieces, something far more strange and complete: sitting with his back to the wall, his black hair pressing against the surface like spilled ink, was a teenage boy clothed in grey. His emerald eyes shone through the dimness of the shrine.
‘I think I’m imagining things,’ Pira said.
‘I believe I am as well,’ Yonder added, ‘for at no point did I smell this alien fellow sitting across from us. I can’t even smell him now.’
Lono uncovered her head to view the mysterious subject. The boy grinned, and Lono’s eyes went wide with horror.
‘Is he dangerous?’ Pira asked Yonder.
‘Why don’t we ask him?’ Yonder suggested.
Pira nodded and took cautious steps towards the boy. The boy gazed directly into her eyes, his grin becoming a mild smile.
‘Hello,’ Pira said. ‘My name is … Well, it’s more proper for a boy to introduce himself first, don’t you think?’
The boy stood and Pira stepped back. She placed her hand on the hilt of her sword.
‘Any closer and you’re inviting harm upon you,’ Pira threatened.
The boy’s eyes moved from Pira to Yonder.
‘This creature isn’t human,’ Yonder said. ‘I don’t know what it is.’
‘Could he be a spirit? A ghost?’
Yonder shook his head.
‘Spirits stink. Ghosts – ghosts are echoes of fallen spirits, fading memories of the bodies they died with.’
‘How about them, then? Do ghosts smell?’
‘They don’t smell all that great, either.’
The boy placed his hands in his pockets. His eyes moved from speaker to speaker, his lips maintaining a disarming smile throughout Pira and Yonder’s exchange.
‘Can you speak?’ Pira asked the boy.
The boy only continued to smile. Pira turned to Yonder.
‘Why don’t you go up to him and get a good whiff? There might be something in the air that’s blocking his scent.’
‘If only that was the case. I personally think we should leave this shrine before our questions turn into unwanted answers.’
‘Yes, let’s get out of here,’ Lono agreed.
The grinning boy made no motion to follow as Pira helped Lono to her feet, collected their cloaks and led them out of the shrine. Yonder gave the boy a final suspicious glance before padding along after.
* * *
The road was still as bad as they had left it: mud spattered their legs, wetting the mud that had begun to cake over in the shrine, and the lower half of Yonder’s body successfully transitioned from beige to brown. They all quickly agreed that further respite was required.
Down the road they came across the huge, gnarled roots of a crystal tree to sit upon. The tree was far enough along the road for the trio to feel like they had accomplished something, but it was also close enough to the shrine for them to feel like they were being watched. The tree’s leaves kept away the last of the rain, the remaining drops meeting the crystal surfaces with light music. Lono thought of the wind chimes in her private garden.
‘How do you girls feel about Spera so far?’ Yonder asked with gentle amusement.
‘So far I like it better than death,’ Pira replied. ‘I also like this tree we’re sitting on. The rain will pass and that strange boy will become a distant memory. I’m glad we’re here.’
‘I wonder what that boy wanted,’ Lono said. ‘I wonder if he was lonely.’
‘Would you be the one to keep him company?’ Pira asked.
Lono shook her head.
‘Anyway, it’s best if we don’t think about it,’ Pira continued. ‘Let’s prevent nightmares and headaches and drop the subject for a few months or so.’
‘You say such odd things and yet you always mean all of them,’ she noted.
‘That’s how the future happens: without pushing things forward I’m just another moment stretched out to eternity, and if I wasn’t an odd princess then you would be a dead one.’
The word ‘dead’ immediately summoned an image of Lono’s father inside of Lono’s mind; while her tears could have been mistaken for rainwater, her red-rimmed eyes were the marks of a permanent sadness. She did not bother covering her face, however. She knew she had nothing left to hide from Pira.
Instead she caressed the rain-slicked crystal of a root. Within the root was an intricate pattern of veins, each vein filled with a differently-coloured liquid that appeared to first move one way and then another. Lono felt as though she were looking inside the body of something living.
‘Yes, the tree is alive,’ Yonder explained as if reading her thoughts. ‘It feeds on the breath of humans, and you two are the first meal it’s had in a very long time. Don’t worry, though – it won’t actively hurt you. This tree only exists to be beautiful.’
Both the girls smiled at this poetry – Lono through her tears. She placed the tips of her fingers alongside one of the trunk’s many ridges.
‘You’re a good tree,’ she told it.
‘Yes, you are a beautiful tree indeed,’ Pira added.
She set her face close to its trunk and breathed upon it; the liquid moved more rapidly within its thick frame, as though the tree were being tickled or experiencing joy.
‘Oh, what is this impossible place we’re in?’ Lono wondered aloud.
* * *
The rain stopped, the mud dried and high above, hidden amongst the branches of the tallest trees, black and white birds sang rapturously. A wooden sign pointed the trio towards the nearest village, called Lantern, pop. 103. The village itself was surrounded by trees, a clearing filled with clutter, and its entrance was guarded by a watchman who was much more of a watchboy.
Yonder switched to his human form behind the wall of a great grey bush. The girls fixed each other’s hair.
‘This isn’t some royal assembly,’ Yonder reminded them. ‘For these people you’ll want to look the part of the earth rather than some unreachable heaven.’
‘“Unreachable heaven”?’ Lono asked quizzically.
‘He’s saying we don’t want to look too pretty,’ Pira explained.
‘Okay, I can give it a try. But what should we do about our names?’
‘I say we keep them,’ Pira said. ‘The only person who is seeking us is my mother, and as far as I know she’s powerless here.’
Lono’s expression turned uncertain. Pira sought Yonder’s thoughts on the subject.
‘What do you think, Yonder? Do the people of Spera even know who we are?’
‘You can keep your names and speak them casually: Spera is untouched by your mother’s agents, and its people have no reason to view us as anything other than weary travellers. Fabricating new histories for ourselves would only arouse unnecessary suspicion.’
‘So if somebody asks who we are, we should tell them we’re exiled princesses?’ Lono asked, surprised.
Yonder shook his head.
‘This is who we are: Pira is the adventurer, you’re her companion and I’m the bodyguard. You don’t want to lie but you don’t want to give away too much information, either.’
Lono considered this.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘But we might have to think up a more important role for me.’
They looked to the village. The watchboy stood next to a tall sign featuring the engraved image of a lantern, its light made up of a symmetrical mix of straight and diagonal lines. The trio strolled towards the boy with Yonder in front, his luxurious red beard leading the way.
‘Greetings,’ Yonder hailed the watchboy, his voice big, friendly and subtly manipulative. ‘I am Yonder, and these two with me are Lono and Pira. Looks to me you have a most important role for today.’
The boy sniffed and nodded. He wore a helmet that looked like an upturned pot, and his clothes had been patched over so often it was as though he were wearing a set of quilts. His spear, however, was made of fine, blackened wood, its glass tip so sharp the girls felt cut just by looking at it.
‘We’ve been travelling a very, very long time without much rest, food, comfort or lodgings. Now, I have a question for you: what does Lantern offer in the way of these?’
The watchboy shuffled his feet.
‘Sana keeps a coupla rooms for visitors, as long as they ain’t too prickly.’
‘Ah, perfect – the only part of me that’s prickly is my beard, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single prickle on these girls.’
The boy gave Pira and Lono a disinterested glance.
‘I dunno much about girls,’ he admitted.
‘I must confess that I don’t, either,’ Yonder said.
The boy nodded. He stepped to the side and tapped the earth with the dull end of his spear. The trio entered the village with hollow stomachs and swollen feet, their well-journeyed appearance greeted by bright, friendly eyes – along with a few dimly suspicious ones.
* * *
The village’s population appeared to be an even mixture of people and chickens, the chickens roaming freely on the village’s dirt paths. The houses were mostly wood, built on stone foundations with stone chimneys, and their glass windows held the faint hint of rainbows.
Lono stumbled over a chicken but managed to keep herself from falling. She glanced back at the chicken’s vacant expression, wondering if it had intentionally tried to trip her; that was when she tripped over a different chicken and fell hard on her bottom.
Some nearby children laughed and a few of the chickens clucked obnoxious chuckles. Lono’s cheeks turned red beneath the thin layer of dirt that covered her skin.
Pira went to help her but Lono brushed her hands away, preferring to stand on her own.
‘Good work,’ Yonder commended her.
‘What are you talking about?’ Lono asked, averting her gaze from everyone in embarrassment. She let her sight fall to the dirt before her, the path veined by an endless network of chicken tracks.
‘You’ve shown the people of Lantern they have nothing to be afraid of,’ Yonder told her. ‘They can rest easy now, which will make it easier for you and Pira to seek out food, drink and shelter.’
‘Then, um …’ Lono started shyly, clenching the fabric of her dress with her hands. ‘You’re welcome?’
She looked up again. Her eyes met those of a plump chicken held by Pira. Pira was smiling widely.
‘I wonder if we can eat this one?’ she asked hungrily.
* * *
Pira was bent on eating the chicken, so she and Yonder asked around for the owner. The first group they asked were tremendously helpful – albeit with some leftover snickers for Lono’s fall – and the trio soon learned the chicken belonged to Sana, the woman the watchboy had mentioned.
Sana actually lived a short distance beyond the central village, in a large house with a large barn. Pira managed to hold the chicken for the entire walk, ignoring its attempts at scratching and pecking her hands; all she could think of was the future taste of flesh, the tender consistency to be torn between her teeth.
Yonder knocked on the house’s front door. A thin woman with long red hair and a black eye patch answered it.
‘If you’re here for the rooms, I’m sorry to say they’re taken,’ the woman said in greeting.
‘You must be Sana,’ Yonder said congenially. ‘It’s a shame about the rooms, but we do have something to ask of you.’
Pira stepped forward.
‘Hello, Sana,’ she said. ‘I’m Pira, this old man is Yonder and the girl behind me is Lono. We were wondering if we could eat your chicken.’
She held the chicken out to Sana as though it were a gift.
‘Ah, this one,’ Sana said as she took the chicken into her arms. ‘I’ve been looking for this one. I was actually planning on cooking it for my guests tonight.’
‘So what are we going to eat?’ Pira asked in disappointment.
Sana burst into laughter.
‘My, aren’t we the princess!’
Lono leant against Pira to keep from falling over.
‘How about cold potato pie?’ Sana offered.
‘Cold potato pie would be lovely,’ Yonder said. ‘And— Well, I hope you won’t think too little of us, but we could comfortably sleep in your barn if it’s not too much trouble.’
Sana raised the eyebrow above her eye patch.
‘I see you three are roughing it on this trip.’
‘It’ll be one of the first luxuries we’ve had in a while.’
Sana crouched down and let the chicken flap out of her hands. It strutted on the grass with cocky unconcern.
‘I’ll be seeing about you later,’ Sana told it.
She stood and stepped into the house, leaving room for Yonder, Pira and Lono to enter.
‘Come in, come in! It’s been ages since so many have gathered here. I’m starting to get excited.’
‘And how much will it be for the food in our bellies and a roof above our heads?’ Yonder asked as his heavy boots hit the wooden floorboards.
‘Help me cook for everyone and it’ll be on the house,’ Sana said with a smile.
* * *
Sana’s house consisted of a basement – where things were stored and sometimes cooled – and two floors. The top floor held three rooms: the master bedroom, where Sana slept, and two guestrooms, which were furnished (as Sana said) with the former belongings of her slain sons. The main floor of the house was unique in that it did not have any doors outside of its front and back entrances. The guests sitting at the dining room table could see Yonder, Lono and Pira in the kitchen through its open doorway, the trio receiving unexpected cooking lessons from their host.
Lono had stared stupidly at Sana’s guests when she entered the house, dressed as they were in uniforms she had never seen before. The two men were obviously officers of some Speran army, their purple uniforms of the finest cut and perfectly conforming to the many muscles of their bodies. On a small section of white fabric that draped over their chests was an intricate insignia that depicted a wolf eating itself. On the table in front of them was an uncut deck of cards.
The two men stared back at Lono with eyes that weighed and measured her.
Sana had then ushered the trio into the kitchen and showed them where the knives were. They were to chop a selection of vegetables, which everyone did in their own unique ways: Yonder perfectly and effortlessly; Pira with too much force and no sense of timing; and Lono with great concentration, working through the fear that one small slip would send the knife deep into her own heart.
Sana left the house to take care of the chicken, and during her absence Lono paid close attention to the sounds around her, listening in on every slap of every card as one by one they hit the table in the next room. She heard the squawk of the chicken and the dying dance of its tiny legs.
When she swallowed, the sound was amplified in her head to such an extent that it was as though the entire world had been dunked into an endless pool of water.
Sana returned to the kitchen with a totally headless, mostly featherless, entirely limp and lifeless creature.
‘Okay, here comes the messy part,’ she said.
Lono felt the need to stop whatever it was she was doing, which was actually nothing.
‘Do you mind if I take a break from my duties and take in some air?’ she asked weakly. ‘Or watch them play cards?’
Sana set the chicken on a small wooden island and placed a hand on her hip as she considered this.
‘Ah, all right. But you’re in charge of breakfast tomorrow.’
Lono nodded apprehensively. She wiped her hands on an old cloth and sat at the dining room table, choosing the chair furthest from the two men.
‘Hello,’ she said.
The two men once again stared at her, this time finding her to be as light and fleeting as a falling feather – that if they reached for her she would suddenly be too far away for them to grasp.
‘Hello,’ they said back.
Lono smiled: by intruding upon the intensity of their presence she had gained her own aura of authority, however small that aura was. She shuddered as the blood of royalty reawakened within her veins.
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