4. What she wanted to say
Lono stopped in the hall. The sound of casual conversation drifted out of the library’s closed door and entered her ears as some aural stimulant, racing her heart to her head. She folded her hands together and carefully stepped to the door.
Nole’s voice was unmistakable: soft and sinewy like teased cotton, stretching words out for far longer than should be considered possible. Unlike the times he had spoken to her, however, it was now peppered with self-amused giggles and a gruff emphasis on certain phrases.
‘ … because it’s not necessarily the likeability of the characters but the densely mysterious worlds around them. And … like … Suppose everyone hated you, and—’
‘But everyone does,’ came the smirking but shy voice of Kyle.
‘Oh, shut up! If …’
Nole’s voice suddenly became hushed, as though he were expressing some profound secret. Lono pressed her ear to the door, struggling to hear them through the pounding of her royal blood.
‘Then they would hate me still,’ Kyle said.
‘But that doesn’t matter, Kyle.’
Lono wondered if the light sound of crumpling material was the shrugging of Kyle’s shoulders.
‘See, Kyle, the escape is in the place, not the person. It’s not slipping into someone else’s skin but running off to wherever that person is. Just … like … here. Damn.’
‘Don’t tell me this bothers you.’
There was a sharp intake of breath and Lono wondered if it was her own. She widened out her skirt so she could bend more easily and proceeded to peer into the keyhole.
All she saw beyond the frame of gold was a table with several open books, a lit candle and a wall of bookcases. Sometimes she thought she detected the blur of human movement beyond the side of the table, but it was only the flickering of the flame, the shadows of its fiery tongue.
She closed her eyes and flattened her palms on the smooth wood, imagining that by doing so she would be able to feel Nole’s warmth. As the conversation had apparently ceased, she pressed against the wood more forcefully, wishing she could seep through it. She pressed against the door until it unexpectedly clicked open, spilling her onto the floor.
Her face reddened and she could barely force herself to swallow. Slowly, with the most aching embarrassment and longing, she lifted her head to gaze upon her beloved.
But the library was empty.
* * *
Lono awoke with pieces of hay in her mouth. She spat them out in disgust.
The sun came into the barn warm and full, and Lono was forced to squint as she sat up in her makeshift bed, a soft and prickly mixture of blankets and hay. The bed beside her was empty, but she quickly noticed Pira practicing sword techniques just beyond the open doorway. Yonder was nowhere to be seen.
‘Ah, good morning!’ Pira said cheerfully, sheathing her sword. She stepped into the barn and watched as Lono stretched noisily.
‘Mm! Good morning,’ Lono said as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She groggily put on her shoes and stood.
Slants of light fell into the barn through small openings in the walls and ceiling, and Lono passed through these pillars of sun as dust motes floated around her. She followed Pira out to Sana’s grassy property, where a small group of chickens were gossiping loudly amongst themselves.
She gazed at the back of Pira’s head and suddenly realised how matted her hair had become. With great horror she touched her own hair and discovered it was a total mess.
‘Oh no!’ she gasped.
‘What?’ Pira asked, the blood draining from her face.
‘My hair’s all messed-up,’ Lono said, her eyes wide and shaking.
Pira grabbed the sides of Lono’s hair and lowered her face until their eyes met.
‘You’re an idiot,’ she said a warm smile. She then let go of Lono’s hair and walked towards the house.
Yonder was talking with Sana by the front door. Lono did her best to rid herself of tears before she and Pira joined them.
‘You’re looking well-rested,’ Sana greeted her. ‘But I suppose you would be, considering you slept through breakfast.’
‘I tried waking you up,’ Pira told her. ‘I think I even managed to do so at one point, but you just made a face and rolled in the other direction.’
Images of steaming oatmeal, fried eggs, freshly-picked berries and frosted milk passed through Lono’s mind, their ghost flavours skirting the edge of her tongue. She nearly bit down on it in disappointment.
‘What am I to eat, then?’ she asked weakly. ‘I need energy, too.’
‘I had Sana set aside an apple for you,’ Pira told her. ‘You can have that and then have a bath. Sana will mend your clothes while you’re washing away all the bugs that’ve probably latched onto you.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ Lono agreed. ‘Thank you for all of your help, Sana.’
Sana shook her head.
‘I’ve been paid for my services,’ she said. ‘Pira has given me an entire gold bit, and for that I’ll ensure you girls get the royal treatment.’
Lono clenched her teeth at this last remark.
‘Is something wrong?’ Sana asked.
‘Um, no,’ Lono lied. ‘I was just wondering about your other guests.’
‘Oh, them. They left early this morning. All my attention will be devoted to you three today.’
‘Does that mean lunch?’ Lono asked eagerly.
‘Unless you manage to have a nap,’ she teased. ‘For lunch you’ll be having the best omelettes you’ve ever tasted. But I only give those to girls who are spotless before sitting at my table.’
Lono was taken aback.
‘I’m not a child,’ she said defensively. ‘I know how to wash myself. At least, I’m pretty sure I can.’
‘I would certainly hope so,’ Sana said, raising the eyebrow above her eye patch.
* * *
Lono felt wholly refreshed upon having her bath and slipping into her well-cleaned and mended clothes. After a cursory inspection she gained permission to lunch at Sana’s table, where she quickly devoured her omelette, hiccupping from the unexpectedly hot spices that mottled it.
Pira and Yonder asked Sana about general Speran subjects as they ate, such as the history of Lantern, local weather and the current state of Speran politics. Sana answered every question with a mixture of casual detail and mild amusement.
‘We’re interested in the location of the nearest city,’ Pira said eventually, ‘a place that’s bustling with activity. There are certain jobs we’re after that a village like Lantern might not be able to provide.’
Lono knew Pira meant treasure hunting, that her ‘last resort’ was all she had really wanted this whole time. Somehow it did not shock her as much as it could have; she found herself feeling resigned to this unrealistic fate Pira was setting out for her.
‘You’re going to Kotequog, then,’ Sana told her.
‘You just made that up!’ Pira accused good-naturedly.
‘Oh, no,’ Sana said with a smile. ‘If only my imagination reached that far.’
‘Then I’ll have more trouble pronouncing this city’s name than finding it.’
Yonder snorted, a Pira-induced habit he had even in his human form.
‘What I’ll do is draw a map,’ Sana said. ‘With “Kotequog” written out in nice, big, clean letters.’
‘That would be most beneficial,’ Yonder said gratefully.
Sana got up to locate paper and a writing utensil, returning to the table with a sizeable section of birch bark and a pink quill. The three of them continued to converse with the intimate familiarity of family.
Lono could not help but feel as though she were back at the castle conference room, pretending to listen to others despite their words evaporating for her as soon as the syllables hit the air: all she saw were moving lips, and all she heard was a language that was not her own. She gazed forward silently and considered what her position was in Spera.
‘And what do you do, Lono?’ Sana suddenly asked her.
Lono blinked away her daydreams and looked to their hostess. For a moment she paused, processing the question that was put to her. She tried to think of something to say that would not necessarily be a lie, but would also not out her as royalty. That was when she considered the notion that she was no longer a princess – that the biggest lie would be telling Sana she was.
‘I’m an orphan,’ she answered solemnly. ‘My father was killed and Pira saved me before I could be killed as well. I now follow her as she’s the only family I have.’
The truth of these words did not hit her until the moment she had spoken them, and she immediately covered her eyes to hide the onrush of tears.
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Lono,’ came Sana’s voice.
Lono peeked through her fingers at the watery visages of the three forms sitting at the table with her. She wondered if they were slipping away or if she was. She gazed down, pushed her plate forward and set her head on the smooth wood in front of her.
‘It was a really good omelette,’ she said.
* * *
Sana supplied them with bread, dried fruits and a jar of dead bugs to snack on. Pira kept them in her satchel. They were told to follow a path running along a nearby river, which would eventually lead to a road that went straight to Kotequog. The trio said goodbye to Sana from the edge of her property, grateful for the foodstuffs and directions.
‘I want you both to be careful,’ Sana said as she hugged Pira. ‘You have Yonder to protect you for now, but I’m sure he won’t be around forever.’
‘Yonder is stubborn enough that he probably will be,’ Pira said.
‘It’s amazing how you only ever call me such things when I’m present,’ Yonder said.
Sana then bent lower to hug Lono.
‘And you— I hope you’ll return in a few years to show me how you’ve grown. There are enough bad and good things in Spera to change someone as stubborn as Yonder. But I have as much hope for you as worry.’
‘Um, thanks,’ Lono said hesitantly.
Sana let go of her, leaving the phrase ‘a few years’ to loop in her mind. The weight of it was nearly enough to buckle her legs, to take the last of her strength away from her.
Lono’s face became a blank mask, and she was uncertain as to which expression to draw on it: she could try tears again, but she had used most of them up already; she could try a frown, but using that many muscles tended to hurt her face. For inspiration she looked at the faces of those around her, all these people who were here because of her.
Finding that everyone else was smiling, she decided to force out a smile as well.
‘It’s hard to believe how sweet you are,’ Sana told her with motherly ache.
Lono looked to Pira and Yonder, half-expecting them to say something to the contrary. Pira smirked.
‘Let’s go,’ Pira said.
They turned and entered the forest. Sunlight came in between the leaves above and dappled them with gold.
‘Take care,’ Sana said to their backs before returning home.
* * *
Twigs cracked beneath their feet, tall grass rustled around them and the songs of birds intertwined to create melodies, countermelodies and harmonies of unbelievable richness.
‘Am I really that stubborn?’ Yonder asked.
‘Sometimes you’re subtle about it,’ Pira said, smiling, ‘but that only gives you more opportunities to be stubborn. So …’
‘And what am I so stubborn about?’
‘I think Pira just likes making fun of you,’ Lono said.
‘I do always say that the only fun in me is the fun of me,’ Yonder said.
‘I always thought your stories at the castle were enjoyable,’ Lono told him with bright eyes. ‘All the adventures, all the spirits you hunted down.’
‘Then be glad Pira is taking you on my latest,’ Yonder said.
Lono nodded to herself. Yonder morphed back to his dog form without breaking stride.
‘Ah, much better,’ he said.
They soon reached a fork in the path.
‘According to Sana, the left fork sticks to the river and the right leads to a road,’ Pira reminded them. ‘So let’s put one foot in front of the other and oh god it’s that boy again.’
The black-haired teenager from the shrine stepped out from behind a tree on the right path. He was wearing lighter clothes than he had in the shrine, his beige shirt lacking sleeves and his brown pants ending halfway down his shins. His green eyes shone brighter in broad daylight than they had in the darkness of the shrine, while his skin was revealed to be even paler than the girls had thought, his body made up of an inhuman, unmarked chalk that lacked veins and hair.
He pressed his palm to his forehead and slowly slid his hand down his face. His hand then dropped to his side like a lifeless weight, while the thick lips of his mouth pulled apart to become a huge grin.
‘No closer, demon!’ Yonder snarled at the boy, and it was this threat that caused the fine hairs on Pira and Lono’s necks to stand on end.
Pira unsheathed her sword and held it in front of her, her wide eyes betraying the strength of her stance.
‘Tell us who you are, stranger!’ Lono shouted at the boy, and Pira glanced sideways at her in surprise.
The boy cocked his head. His tongue appeared like some glistening red thing.
‘I am the one who sits upon your father’s throne, Lono.’
Lono covered her ears and collapsed to her knees.
‘No!’ she cried out. ‘No no no no no!’
‘Yes! I am both entirely real and the most beautiful dream you will ever have – I am the queen mother of the starless people, here to finally end this little game.’
The boy seethed in his own voice, but Pira, Lono and Yonder all knew they were hearing the words of Pira’s mother.
‘Please, no,’ Lono whimpered.
Pira stood in front of her, her fearful eyes having become fiery orbs.
‘Not one step closer, damn it!’ she shouted at her mother’s whitewashed avatar.
‘I should kill you, too, but you’ve been so good to me – why, you even led me to little Princess Lono. Can you believe that?’
‘Shut up! You’re trying to mess with my head!’
‘But it’s true! As blood royal, I can follow you anywhere! Isn’t it amazing what a black wizard can do these days?’
Pira clenched her teeth, struggling to hold back tears.
‘Then I’ll destroy this demon, Mother, and immolate myself.’
The boy looked at her blankly before dashing towards her, his arms trailing behind like weighted ribbons. Lono shrieked. Pira took a wild swing at the boy, taking off most of his shoulder. The boy managed to press forward regardless, falling on the cowering Lono with pointed, yellowed bones that had suddenly popped out of his chest. Lono’s shriek turned into a piercing tone very few animals could hear – one of them happened to be Yonder, who leapt towards the boy, took the boy’s body into his mouth and pulled him away before his paws even touched the ground.
Yonder held the writhing boy against the dirt path. Blood gushed out of Yonder’s mouth, but Pira and Lono could not tell if it was his or the boy’s.
Lono clutched her sides and grimaced as her own blood trickled onto and between her fingers. Pira could not find the strength to look at her. She closed her eyes, stepped towards Yonder and opened her eyes onto the boy’s twisted face.
‘Forgive me, boy, for what I’m about to do to your body,’ Pira told him quietly. ‘Know that it will be no worse than what my mother has already done to you.’
She lifted her sword above her head, closed her eyes and sent the blade crashing down, sinking it deep into the dirt. When she opened her eyes again she saw that she had missed.
The boy gargled something at her that was either a threat or a taunt. Pira lifted her sword again, this time bringing it down with open eyes. The boy’s body ceased struggling within Yonder’s mouth and Yonder let go of him.
* * *
Lono was carried by Pira to a soft bed of dandelions at the side of the path. She lay there in a foetal position with a group of wild mushrooms as her pillow, and as thoughts of death wandered through her mind Pira fed her some of the dried fruits from her satchel. She chewed slowly, savouring the unique flavours and textures of each fruit in the event that one of them was to be her last meal.
When Pira tried to give her some raisins, however, she pushed them away with her tongue.
‘Not those ones,’ Lono said weakly. ‘Raisins are gross.’
Pira smiled tenderly, then bit her lip at the sight of Lono wincing – Yonder was nuzzling her wounds, sniffing out poison and black magic.
‘How is it?’ Pira asked him.
‘I can’t smell anything,’ he told her. ‘I couldn’t smell him when he was alive, either, but if there was evil in his body then it would’ve caused a stink the moment it mingled with Lono’s blood. So far it seems Lono is perfectly all right. Except for the holes in her shoulder, anyway.’
‘So I’m not going to die or anything?’ Lono asked hopefully, lifting her head from the flattened hats of the mushrooms.
‘Outside of a tree falling on you or Pira’s mother taking the form of a bear and mauling you, I’m confident in saying you’ll live.’
‘But what if my mother does come back?’ Pira asked worriedly. ‘What if she does take the form of a bear and maul Lono?’
‘If she can trace you through your blood, then the only way to truly hide from her is a full transfusion. You’ll have to turn your blood into someone else’s.’
‘Can she use my blood?’ Lono asked.
‘Yes, she can do that. You’re already bleeding, so the timing is right.’
‘I don’t know if Lono has enough blood for two people,’ Pira said.
‘I’d rather you live,’ Lono said. ‘There’s so much you’ve been looking forward to, like finding gold and eating dragon meat, while I have nothing left. Without you I’d be lost completely.’
Pira looked at her with quiet sympathy.
‘No, we don’t require all of Lono’s blood,’ Yonder said. ‘Maybe half a cup. Both of you need only wish for the blood to take over Pira’s system for it to work.’
‘How can it be that simple?’ Lono asked.
Yonder gave her a confident smirk.
‘Pira’s mother may have a black wizard, but you girls have your own magical being,’ he said.
‘Then do it,’ Lono said decisively.
Yonder nodded. He looked to Pira.
‘You’ll have to drink her blood,’ he told her. ‘I’ll tell you when to stop, and at that point I want you to hold me. I’ll do the rest.’
‘Right!’ Pira said bravely.
She bent down beside Lono and carefully touched one of her wounds. Lono bit back a whimper. Pira gently collected the blood on Lono’s back onto her hands, colouring them dark red. She stuck her fingers in her mouth and cleansed them of the taste of copper.
She repeated this process until Yonder told her to stop.
‘Okay, now hold onto me,’ he told her.
Pira spread out her arms and pressed her body against Yonder’s side, burying the side of her face into his thick, glowing fur. Lono watched on with the bright light of hope in her eyes as Yonder’s flickering flames turned from red to white, his great beige body rapidly draining of colour. Pira soon began to glow white as well.
Then the light suddenly disappeared, and Pira pulled away from Yonder with slow, dreamlike movement.
‘Now you’re sisters,’ Yonder told them with warm but tired eyes.
‘Everything is fine?’ Lono asked, unable to truly believe it.
‘Yes, except for whatever stupid things Pira has us do next.’
‘I’ll make sure they’re extra stupid now,’ Pira said, smiling. ‘If we don’t have to worry about my mother anymore, then—’
She realised she still had blood on her lips and wiped it away.
‘Then?’ Lono asked.
‘Well, we’ll get you healed first,’ Pira said.
‘And I need a nap,’ Yonder said.
‘Then I think we should go back to Sana’s,’ Lono suggested.
‘Yes,’ Pira agreed. She held her hands out to Lono and helped her to her feet. ‘Sometimes it’s good to go back home.’