"Irideri," Eka said, "home of the Iridi! That's where we're going next. The Iridi monks there make the BEST chloromyce shroo noodles. The noodles glow in the dark! Plus if you eat too much the soles of your feet become iridescent. Lasts about a week, it's great."
"Monks who make noodles?" Lupin said, while caressing the spot between Hush's ears. The hyroo had carried them much distance and now demanded a head massage.
"Oooh yes! At the end of every year, Iridi monks go deep underground, into the chasms of the Andenuis and spend a month there, alone, meditating. When they emerge, they prepare the noodles and eat them together to celebrate the new year. It symbolizes a renewal of the self, shedding your old skin kind of thing."
"Alone? In the dark? For a month? Oh no, no no I could NEVER do that." Lupin's hands came around Hush's neck, seeking protection from an invisible threat. "I mean, it's scary isn't it? You're in the dark, there's no one around to talk to, or to touch you. It's like you're not really there—" Lupin paused then, swallowing hard. "If I don't feel or see anything, how do I know I exist?"
"Oh Lew, precious, precious Lew. If you're thinking that you're nothing, you are something. You are a thinking thing."
The Verido made a face then, processing these words carefully, "I'm a thinking thing, thinking things are not nothing." A smile formed on Lupin's lips then. "Having iridescent feet would be fun. I still don't want to go meditating in a cave alone though, hope that's not required to eat chloromyce noodles."
"We shall see!" Eka said, tearing away from Lupin for a moment and reaching into Hush's saddle bag for a book. The book was a dark colour, the pages bound by banabo thread with silvery writing on top. "This book is going to tell us everything we need to know about Irideri."
"Where d'you get that book?" Lupin asked, having no memory of this book ever being around until now.
"Borrowed it, from the Montore library." Eka said.
"How we going to return it? I've no plans to go Montore again... couldn't even if I wanted to anyway, remember my walk of shame?"
"I'll woth it back over there." Eka said, smiling at the woth, asleep in the glass ball on Lupin's bag.
"Is that something people say? 'I will 'woth' this letter to you?'" Lupin asked.
"It's something I say, and that others ought to say." Eka said, showing Lupin the cover of the book, it read Habitants of the Night.
Lupin did not seem eager to learn more about the people of Irideri. "Had a long talk with Zucca about the Iridi, they ruined a lot of lives. They raided all those villages for slaves, destroyed the Suvalba sanctuary, all that just because they didn't want to harvest the chloromyce shroos themselves. It's horrible. Why are they so dependent on them anyway?"
"That's because of Moera, the first ever Sovereign of Irideri. Moera loved the stuff." Eka opened the book and began to turn the first few pages. It was an old tome, the pages, like the binding thread, were also made from banabo fibers. "I'm going to read the story out loud! I'll make voices and everything, it'll be great."
"I don't care to hear it, I already how it ends." Lupin said.
"Shush, shush, this is not for you, this is for Hush and Wormple the Woth." Eka said. The woth stirred inside its glass ball, but did not rise to the name Wormple. Eka then flashed Lupin a smile and began to read aloud...
Eka read on. “They see well in the dark, like we do in daytime. It says here, the chloromyce shroos speak to them, they see words in them, and colours too!”
Lupin laughed. “I can see words and colours too, all I have to do is eat some bad herbs.”
"Ah so you did listen!" Eka said. "I bet you’ll be impressed with the Iridi once we see the city, well, if we get to see it. It's hard to get inside I've heard." By then, they could make out the shape of the mountain in the distance. The sun was setting, leaving room for the moons and stars to shine.
"Things have to be different now."
"I hope you're right." Lupin wanted to believe that the Iridi had abandoned their former ways.
Meanwhile in Irideri, the people were waking. The kingdom slept during the day and came alive at dusk. In the palace, Kurono, the Young Light of the realm, was already out of bed. A servant was tending to the royal's hair and clothes. Kurono wore dark robes of a material that shimmered in the light of the chloromyce shroos, with hair that flowed onto the floor, black and straight.
Hair arrangements, as well as clothes, was important in Irideri, your outer facade was a reflection of your innermost self. Untidy hair would communicate to others that you had no discipline, that your thoughts were cluttered, but having a well-sculpted head of hair was a sign that your life was in order. It didn't matter if you were ill of body or sick of mind, as long as the outer shell was intact. Kurono's hair was sculpted into a bun, held up by silver wiring and adorned with jewels.
Iri, a servant, was helping the young crown get ready. The servant wore a tight hood, with the face covered by a mask from the nose down. This mask was a symbol of silence, of servitude, a reminder to others that Iri were not allowed to speak. Servant-wear was simple, with little skin visible, aside from the eyes and forehead. They had no eyebrows, no discerning physical traits or means of producing an expression. Iri always had a tall silver rod in hand, topped with a T. Dangling from one branch was a glass ball, and in it, a glowing chloromyce shroo.
In public, Iri shadowed Kurono and made sure that no part of the Monarch-To-Be was left unlit. Most of the kingdom was kept dark, making the presence of a royal in the room the center of attention.
Kurono cared little for those rules, but their leader demanded it. All days were well-ordered, Monarch Demeri liked it that way.
“Playroom Iri.” The Young Light said with a sigh, knowing that being in a room designed for play without a playmate wouldn't be much fun at all. This was a recurring thought in Kurono's mind. There wasn’t anyone in the mansion to play with... well, there was Iri, a good servant, but a poor playmate. All who served Irideri could not talk unless spoken to. This young follower had even fewer privileges; Iri couldn't eat, sleep, walk, or move without Kurono saying so. It was forbidden for anyone to give them names, and so all servants of light shared a single one: "Iri".
Today nothing amused Kurono, not even the puzzles filling the room. These contraptions were more friend to this Young Light than any living person here, but all had been solved many times over, and held no more secrets.
Everyday life was a dull affair in the palace, and this youngling ached for things to be different.
“Would you dance with me Iri?” the Young Light asked suddenly.
Speaking with the Iri gave little distraction, but did offer some release. Having an ear to talk to with a mouth bound by law meant that anything could be said without the fear of it being repeated.
Iri flashed an open hand then. This gesture meant:
“Would you deny a request by the crown-to-be?” Kurono asked, with a smile, “dance me with now, I demand it."
Following these words, the Little Light stood up and went to take the servant's hands. Iri could not refuse such a request, or any other. It was the law.
Kurono lead the confused Iri into a waltz. “Do as I do." They followed each other's steps well enough, the servant was good at following instructions. After a few minutes of this, it was difficult to tell that this Iri had never before danced a waltz. Iri had been part of Kurono's life for a long time and knew many secrets, like how this Young Light deemed pomparu farts more pleasant than Demeri's tantrums
“I've been thinking about this a lot,” the Young Crown began, “you’ve never given me any gifts on any of my past green days. I am very upset about that.”
Iri began to sweat, upsetting Kurono was punishable by death.
“Don’t worry! I know what I want you to give me,” both stopped dancing then, but Kurono kept hold of the servant. “I want — no, I need to hear your voice.”
Iri seemed composed, yet, the organs inside were all twisted up into knots. Every breath caused this body great pain. Once again, an open hand came to pass in front of the servant's face to mean...
"I realize I'm asking a lot, but I promise you I won't tell. You're friend to me Iri, the only one I've got and I'm sick of doing all the talking. No one here listens to me... but you do! I know it's your job to listen, to heed my every need... but surely there's more to us than this. Surely, there are thoughts in that head of yours. What is a friendship without words?"
The servant motioned with a hand. Iri could not be a friend, Iri was lower than dirt and not worthy of Kurono's friendship.
“I'm ordering you to speak to me Iri." The Crown-To-Be demanded, with mounting irritation.
Iri was conflicted. The rules of the realm forbade servants of the Light to speak, yet, the Young Crown demanded it. The purpose of an Iri was to do what was asked, but doing it meant breaking yet another rule. Denying Kurono's request all together, that too was bad news, rules would be broken either way. Making a decision was impossible! Iri never decided anything, not for others and not for themselves.
Irritated by this silence, the Young Light moved forward and tore the mask covering Iri's mouth. Kurono hated silence and rules, perhaps now, with it gone, Iri would speak.
Even without the presence of that physical barrier, the servant's lips produced no sound. The servant followed the laws of Irideri.
Now, with lips unmasked, Kurono could see the Iri mouthing the words.
Kurono's teacher came at the door then, knocking, unable to enter, the door had been locked from the inside. “Oooh Young One! It is time for your history lesson!”
Kurono stuck a tongue out at the closed door. “I don't want to! Go away!” Then, went on to pinch Iri’s nose, "you're going to have to open your mouth to breathe sometime!" Iri's mouth remained shut and the face contouring it turned a deep shade of blue.
The teacher was in the hall still, muttering behind the closed door. "Demeri will not be pleased with you Young One!"
"I don't caaaaare!" Kurono yelled, eyes fixed on Iri's face, watching it turn a deep and unsightly purple colour. "You’re not going to die like this are you?”
Iri had no death wish, this one could not serve the realm if dead, realizing this, the servant's mouth opened with a...
Kurono gasped, noticing then that Iri had no tongue. Back in the old days, those who knew things the crown deemed unsavoury had their tongues and vocal cords cut out. Kurono thought that this custom was long gone, the previous monarch thought it too barbaric. "How could Demeri allow this? Eyes moved to Iri's neck and spied a number hidden under the collar, the number "16" written in flesh. “Sixteen? What is this?”
Iri did something unexpected then, rushing forward to press a finger to the Young Light's lips with a low shush!
Kurono had never seen Iri behave like this, the servant's face warped by emotion... by fear. For the first time ever, there was a semblance of personality inside of this Iri, something that had long been hidden away. The Young Light was happy to have witnessed it, but also saddened by it, to see the stress and fear so plainly.
When Kuruno tried to speak again, Iri put a whole hand over the Young Crown's mouth. They locked eyes, both shocked at what was happening. Kurono did not try to stop Iri, and Iri was so tense that the arm attached to that hand felt like it was frozen in place.
The teacher's voice resounded in the hallway once again. "Now where is that key..."
Iri's arm yieled then, going limp, panicked at the thought of having touched the Little Light without permission. Hearing the sound of the teacher fiddling with the door lock, Iri grabbed the mask from Kurono and returned it to its rightful place.
The door opened, with the teacher looking very displeased, there was much that this Iridi wanted to say, but a lot of it could not be said, not in presence of a royal anyway — your choice of words could cost you your life in Irideri. “I will not ask again," the teacher said. “Iri, walk Kurono to the study hall”. With this, the teacher left, leaving them alone again.
Iri walked to the door and Kurono decided to do as told, following the servant to the study hall, all the while staring at Iri's neck and thinking of the number inscribed onto it, wondering what it meant and why it was there.
Today's events had left the Young Crown in a heightened state, focusing on today's lessons was impossible. It was hard having Iri in the room after what had just transpired. The number 16 was emblazoned in the Young Light's mind, obscuring all else. "16 what..." Kurono wondered.
After a while, the distracted brain conjured up images of 16 tiny workers at the crook of the teacher's nose, getting ready to go on an expedition inside the left nostril. The teacher did not fail to notice that Kurono wasn't listening, and after the lesson went to inform Demeri of it, this was not done out of concern for the young student, but to make clear that this was not their fault.
The Light Of The Realm, Demeri, came to see the Young One in the study hall, long after the lesson had ended. “Kurono, light of my life, what is the matter?” Demeri was followed by many servants, careful to keep their monarch well-lit. The light shone onto the robes beautifully, reflecting off of the many layers of varying types of dark fabric. The overlays, like petals on a flower, made the body look big and imposing. Demeri's long hair draped down onto the floor, because of this the ground had to be kept clean. In the event that anyone did find dirt, the culprit would be severely punished.
“Your teacher tells me you had trouble focusing today. You must tell me if you need a replacement, a younger one maybe. There is no play of light that can rightly conceal saggy rings of skin, it's dreadful.”
“Isn’t it true that Monarch Bao wrote a law forbidding the cutting out of tongues?” Kurono asked suddenly.
Demeri, surprised by this question, glanced at the Iri before giving a reply. “It’s an old law, is this what that wrinkled sap has been teaching you?”
With Deremi's eyes looking this way, Iri looked tense, in pain, as if burned by fire.
“My Iri has a number, 16 it says,” Kurono continued, sitting upright in the chair to appear more confident, “why?”
The Light of the Realm stood up. “Enji, take Kurono back to the playroom.”
Kurono wanted to scream, but in the end, decided that it was best to sit on those feelings. Enji accompanied the Young Light out of the study hall. Iri followed, but before the servant could step out, Demeri shouted another order. “You stay here, Iri.”
Kurono's misbehavings were often the cause of Iri's time spent in rehabilitation. Everytime the Young Light complained of the Iri, or did something bad in relation with the servant it resulted in what was commonly referred to as "rehabilitation". Iri always emerged from this unharmed, transformed. Kurono was always happy to have Iri back, with things being as they were before, it was like hitting a reset button, but this time felt different. Kurono was scared.
“No! It was my doing! Don't do this!”
Enji shut the door and forced Kurono back into the playroom, as requested. “You are to stay here Young One, the Brightest In The Realm commands it,” the guard said, before locking the door from the outside.
"Don't hurt the Iri, please! It was my fault!" Kurono cried through the thick of the door.
There was some silence, then Enji spoke. "This is not the first time your Iri goes to rehabilitation Young Light, don't worry. A servant will be returned to you shortly."
Kurono listened to Enji's footsteps, growing fainter and fainter, until the hall quieted completely.
"A servant." The way Enji phrased it stuck in Kurono's mind...
The next day Iri was not there to brush Kurono's hair, one of Demeri's servants came to do it instead and answered no questions. Fortunately at breakfast, Iri stood at the door, unharmed, like all those other times after returning from rehabilitation.
Demeri was sitting in front of a small table, covered with a dark cloth, on it, was a simple breakfast of teaweet porridge and berries, served in dark earthenware, sparkling under the light of the chloromyce shroos. A servant was busy crushing bits of freshly harvested chloromyce shroos in a mortar, once it was ground down to powder the servant transferred it to a shallow serving bowl and set it on the table with the rest.
“Sixteen—” the Sovereign began, "is a marker given to workers when they sprout. That is all.”
“You didn't like that I asked.” Kurono said.
Monarch Demeri put 2 spoonfuls of powdered chloromyce shroo powder into a cup of warm water, then proceeded to gently stir it into the drink, drawing a swirl of light. “I did not like your tone Kurono.”
“-And the tongues?” Kurono insisted.
“What of it?” Demeri asked, taking a sip of chloromyce-infused tea.
“Iri has no tongue, I thought monarch Bao had made it illegal.”
“If I hear that name one more time, I shall erase it from the history books.”
Kurono took a sip of tea as well, trying to find ways to get some truth, in a way that would not anger Demeri.
Sixteen appeared to be doing well, this worried Kurono, afraid the Iri had been questioned and harmed. Though the Young Light had other suspicions, and so that morning when the servant was asleep Kurono went to look for the number on the Iri's neck.
The number on the skin had changed to Seventeen. This was not the same Iri.
Kurono knew the ugly truth. Every complaint about an Iri, resulted in an exchange, the Iri would go to rehabilitation and return a "better" servant. The reality was that a new slave of the same age would be fetched from the mines, and would take the place of the other with a new number carved into its neck.
Kurono felt like a fiend. After that, no complaint was made of Seventeen, in fear that this Iri too would be replaced. Going to Demeri for answers was impossible, and the guards and teachers were no help at all. Kurono felt more lonely than ever, with no one to confide to and with no way to know what had really happened to Sixteen.Continue to Chapter 11