Meanwhile, Lupin and Eka were walking the deserts in the near vicinity of Irideri. The mountain range encircling it had no visible openings. There were tunnels — this, they knew — but their entrances were difficult to find. There was another problem. In the event that they ever did find the tunnels, these, would likely be guarded.
"SO! If the tunnels are guarded, how are WE going to get in?" Lupin asked, standing in Hush's shadow. The sun was especially hot today, but the large furry beast didn't seem to mind.
"In? No no no," Eka said, head shaking in a Nono sort-of-way.
Lupin's eyes narrowed down. "Soooo, no to noodles then?"
"Yes to noodles! That hasn't changed." Eka replied, mouth watering at the very thought of food. "The monks live in a tower overlooking the city, set on the highest peak of the Andenuis. It lies just outside of Irideri, that's what Aristollo says in the book I borrowed anyway..."
Lupin's eyes widened at that name. "What?"
Eka grabbed the book and opened the cover to the first page, the title Habitants of the night was written in black ink, and underneath it, was the name Aristollo.
"No way...!" Lupin grabbed the volume, as if happening upon a rare flower. "A writer," Lupin couldn't believe it and began flipping through the pages, wondering if there was any information about the author in it at all — there wasn't. "Why didn't you tell me Aristollo was a writer."
"You didn't ask."
"What else do you know?" Lupin's curiosity grew with every mention of the name.
"It's not my story to tell." Eka said, grabbing the volume again to put it away in the bag hanging from Hush's side.
"You think the monks would know?"
Eka shrugged. "Only way we'll know is if we go!"
"So we MIGHT eat noodles, if the monks allow it, and I MAY get to hear the story of Aristollo, again, if the monks allow it, or if they even know it. All this, while MAYBE gazing down from a tower, whose location we don't know, at the city we won't be visiting. Is that right?" Lupin said.
"With iridescent feet! It's worth a try! I mean, the city's been closed to foreigners for hundreds and—" Eka paused, counting up the number of years inaudibly, "—THOUSANDS of years!"
"Not that many," Lupin said, "500 at most."
"Were you there Lew?" Eka asked, all smiles, nose pressing up onto Lupin's.
"N-no." Even after all the time they'd spent together, being so close always made this Verido uncomfortable. "Wait, maybe I was! No one is ever nothing, that's what you said."
Eka's hands came to rest over the sides of Lupin's face. The Wonder's delicate fingers traced along the pattern's etched in the Verido's skin, lined with blue, the blue of Vol the Ilk. "That's right. You are a lovely strand Lew, everchanging, but never gone."
Lupin's ears began to redden, and the rest of the face followed suit. "500 years. I read it in a book once." The Verido breathed, mouth agape, in an attempt to give the growing population of papilions an opportunity to exit the throat.
Eka's eyes moved past Lupin's left shoulder then, gazing at some distant object. “Whoa! Look at that! Someone's there!"
Lupin groaned. "I really, really hate this game." Red's eyes could see mirages for what they were, but the same couldn't be said for Verido eyes. This gave the Wonder an opportunity to get a few laughs at Lupin's expense. The last time they had encountered such an event, Lupin had asked a mound of sand for directions, the time before that, the Verido had a very long and embarrassing one-sided conversation with a tree about the nutritional benefits of bibiskiss.
"It's true! The truest of truths! Has an interesting-looking head too!"
"You really think me a fool don't you?" Lupin wasn't ready to be made fun of again, not so soon, but decided to look, noticing that 'this person', fictitious or not, had Hush's attention. The Hyroo's ears perked up, nose to the sky, trying to catch a scent. Lupin had seen the beast do this before, then sighed, turning around to try and see what Eka was pointing to. “Oh, so there is! Never seen anyone with a head like that.”
“A hat then? Hats do have a tendency to get more and more outrageous with time. A hatter I met in Montore some years ago made one so large it doubled as a dwelling.” Eka said, arms extending outward, to show the size of said hat.
Hush carried them over to a lone figure, sitting on hot sands, it had a large metal prism for a head. The prism had many faces, too many to count. Each face had a symbol. There was no order to it, no logic, the faces were sized differently and there was no repetition in the symbols themselves. The top half of this creature's body was bare, light-coloured skin that had suffered many lashes. When they called out to this prism-headed stranger, the figure recoiled, curling into an even smaller shape.
“That’s not a head.” Eka said. A symbol lay burned onto this being's backside, a circle with a diamond shape in its centre. "That's the Irideri emblem." Then, there was a number carved in the flesh of the stranger's neck.
“Sixteen.” Lupin and Eka said in unison.
"That's not an Iridi is it? Would they do this to their own?"
Eka sighed. "No, you're right they wouldn't. This is an Aodal."
"Aodals are much taller than this usually aren't they?" Lupin asked, saddened by the thought of someone suffering like this.
"Stunted growth," Eka said, "from malnutrition, and for living in the dark. Slaves in the Irideri mines aren't allowed to ingest chloromyce, because they don't they get sick."
Hush had a nose to the ground, catching a nearby scent, the Hyroo followed it and stopped at a mound, pushing sand off the top with its snout, off of something that was buried there. First, a shrivelled hand came into view, then a torso. Hush continued to brush sand off, revealing the rest of it. It was small, with skin like leather, and like Sixteen this body also had a number carved into its neck.
Lupin and Eka began to dig through the soil, both had the same idea. Fifteen couldn't be left here for someone else to find. They put the body in the hole and Lupin placed a piece of cloth over the leafling's face, cut from a scarf, then, they blanketed the body with a thick duvet of golden sand. The two stood at the place where the hole had been, hand in hand.
"What do Verido say on Leaping days in Volare?" Eka asked.
"They say nothing. They instead focus on recalling good memories with as much detail as they can. Then, they take those good thoughts into themselves, thusly preserving their loved ones in their hearts." Lupin's hand closed into a tight fist, the fist coming to rest over the heart. Eka did the same. Lupin's attention then turned to the prism-headed creature sitting on the ground. "They send their slaves out into the desert with metallic heads? Why?"
"It's a death sentence. They can't eat or drink, plus there's the heat of the sun. They don't last long out here." Eka whistled for Hush to move near Sixteen, to shield the prisoner from the sun. Sixteen reacted to the change in temperature, hands coming to rest over the burnt flesh. "Lew, put a hand to Sixteen's chest, and then take Sixteen's onto yours. I'll do the same. After that we won't be strangers anymore." Eka said with a soft smile.
Lupin did as told. After Eka had done the same, both noticed that Sixteen appeared to be more relaxed.
"I bet they put those heads on as a warning to others too, of what can happen if you mess with Iridi people." Lupin sighed. "How are you so great in situations like this?" Lupin asked Eka, "you're calm and always seem to know just what to do."
"When it comes to helping others it comes easy, had you been alone you'd done the same." Eka's fingers traced over the prism on Sixteen's head. The shapes and pieces on its surface were not random, every one could be pushed and moved to a new place. It was an elaborate puzzle. Eka soon stopped touching it, realizing that every bad move resulted in the prism shrinking. There was way to pry it off this poor youngling's head. "We can't leave Sixteen here and we know we can't go to Irideri. There's a village just a day's walk away, we'll go there."
The woth slipped out of its glass ball and fluttered ahead to show them the way.
"How does it know where to go?" Lupin wondered.
"Good internal compass," Eka replied, chasing down the woth as it disappeared in the distance. “Slow down Plit!” Eka called out to the woth.
“Do you really think that any woth would answer to the name Plit?” Lupin said, relieved to see that it did not, in fact, answer to it. Hush bounded forward, carrying Sixteen on it's back. The prism-headed youngling held tufts-full of its hair between its fingers. Soon, Lupin joined in, climbing behind Sixteen to make sure that their guest wouldn't fall off.
It took them half a day's time to get to the village, with Eka and Lupin taking turns on Hush. They arrived at the famed tent village of Renate, a place with no hard structures. Historically, Renate was an open bazaar, a place of exchange with no permanent residents. Nowadays, many artisans made Renate their home, but still kept to the tradition of temporary housing. Most houses were kept up by banabo poles and had walls of fabric, offering less resistance to wind while providing a cool shelter. Each tent was unique, with walls of varying colours and patterns, some were weaved from banabo fibre, others from lesser-known materials like hampa, and notcott. There was no visible organization for the placement of the tents, in fact this village had few rules, no official leader — the people here liked it that way.
When they arrived, they approached a group of younglings playing in an open area between tents, they'd heard of these prism-headed prisoners, but didn't have time to answer questions because all of their attention quickly turned to Hush the hyroo. The sproutlings combed the hyroo's fur with their fingers, along with repeated 'ooh's' and 'aahs'. This caught the attention of an older villager, who'd been busy sifting sand and rock from a a batch of freshly dug laniva beans. The villager left the basket and beans on the ground and hurried over, urging the kids to stop.
"Hush is not dangerous." Lupin said.
"OH no no it's not that—" the villager said, after successfully shooing the kids away, "it's THAT!" A finger pointed to Sixteen, who was still sitting atop the large furry creature. "Please. Follow me! And hurry!!!"
Eka and Lupin could see the fear and worry in this villager's eyes, they did not wish to cause anyone harm and so they followed. They were led to a tent on the outskirts of town, a large tent with many adjoined partitions. They could hear the sound of someone beating into a piece of metal inside.
"Wait here." The villager said, slipping into the tent. The clanging stopped. A tall and brawny Aodal stepped out, eyes set on the prism-headed youngling.
"Thank you for bringing them here Lussa, I'll take care of it." The tall character said. Lussa nodded, bowed to the two strangers and scurried away, disappearing behind a row of tents.
The group was hushed into the tent, as if they had a secret that needed to stay hidden. They learned then that the tent owner's name was Maka, a metalworker, old, but thick with muscle. The metalworker's body showed little signs of aging, in fact, it appeared to be made of rock. Maka had short white hair, crowning the head and face, with the light of the doorway shining from behind it made the hair's glow, they appeared light and pillowy, forming a diffused halo. Maka showed great interest in Sixteen. "No one's ever found one alive. I've tinkered with one other of those head prisons, found it on the desert floor. Couldn't keep it for long though, has to be returned cause those Irideri guards come and look for them."
"Really? Why would they?" Lupin asked.
"Maybe they can't produce more." Eka mused.
"That's a good guess," Maka said, "but we don't really know, truth is we prefer to leave the metal heads where they are, because having em' around scares people. No one here wants to give the Iridi a reason to threaten us again. It's why I asked you in here, don't want anyone to see. The young ones aren't afraid because they haven't lived through the raids, but the older generation fear anything that has to do with the Iridi. They won't want the prisoner to stay here for that reason." Maka walked over to Sixteen, inspecting the poor sproutling's wounds. “Poor thing looks very weak, I have something for that,” Maka helped the young prisoner to the far side of the tent. "So—" Maka began, "why help a stranger?" The metalworker helped the youngling onto a bed and began applying medicine to the wounds.
"I suffer from acute empathy." Eka said.
Alarms went off in Lupin's head then, the brain opening up thought drawers in succession, searching for an answer that too, would impress, but the drawers produced no such miracle. "Can you believe it? I wanted to say that exact same thing! Embarrassing when that happens! When you have the exact same thought as someone else, but they say it first....and you wanna be an individual so you try to come up with something new, that is, you know, unique! But you CAN'T because that first thought was just so, so good."
Maka stared for a while, then started to laugh with gusto. "Beautiful minds you've got. I like you both already." The brawny Aodal walked back over to their side of the room, with a box in hand, taking a seat on a metal stool that Lupin could tell for certain, had been handcrafted. The stool had many legs of varying thickness, pointing in different directions, the top was slightly curved and had thousands of little bumps on its surface. "I can't open the prism, but I know someone who can help you."
Lupin's face brightened at these words. "Really?"
"Possibly. It's a topic I've long avoided with my apprentice, but everyone has to face up to their past sometime don't you agree? I'll take you over there after lunch, you two must be starving!" The metalworker reached into the box, which was in fact, a sort of cooling box, similar to the cold pot in Lupin's house in Volare, and pulled out some teaweet bread, jam and plant sausages. Maka began to cut slices of teaweet bread, laying the pieces out onto a wooden board along with some the dried plant sausages. “My apprentice came to Renate many years ago, broken and near-death. Villagers here were ready to cast the poor thing back out into the desert, who can blame them... Iridi have a bad reputation in these parts, I'm sure I don't have to tell you why."
"Your apprentice is an Iridi?" Eka said, surprised.
"That's right.” Maka paused, breaking the seal of a new jar of mapple jam and placing the lot on a rock with a flat top. “Eat, eat! All local products. Made those plant sausages myself, a mix of spices, teaweet flour, bobonions, nutshroos and plurple bleens."
Lupin and Eka thanked their host. They each grabbed a slice of teaweet bread, adding a dab of mapple jam with a slice of plant sausage on top. Eka took a bite, but hesitated to take another. “Sixteen must be starving."
Sixteen was still resting in the corner, Maka didn’t look concerned. “Don't worry, Sixteen ate. Was the first thing I did. It's my number one rule: empty bellies must be filled at once!”
Lupin didn’t understand. “How?”
“Foodstamps.” Maka explained, pulling one out of the pocket of a work apron.
Lupin couldn't believe it. "Oh not those again."
Maka laughed. “Yea I hear you, not everyone likes these, but when the Iridi were attacking the cities, everyone was on the run and these saved many lives. Good nutritious food was hard to come by, health problems arose and these came into being. A sandfin comes by every now and then, always brings a crate-full of the stuff. Not one of those Beobug scammers, a solo-traveler, on a sandfin with a yellow hull. Renate suffered much loss during the Iridi raids, a stranger brought us our first crate. Kindness was in short supply in those days, you can imagine the look on the people's faces when a tall stranger arrived here with it".
"Tall you say?" Lupin glanced over at Eka, half-expecting a reaction, but the Wonder had other preoccupations.
"Think I can give a few slices of teaweet to Hush?"
Maka smirked. "Kids outside are giving your friend plenty of good grub, saw them trailing behind Lussa with basket-fulls of nutshroos."
"Oh, I hope they'll figure out that Hush will eat as long as there's food. That hyroo's appetite is insatiable, it's been compared to the Rupture, in the way that it has no bottom."
"I'll let the kids know." Maka said with a warm, and kind smile.
The group continued to eat, savouring every bite.
After the meal, the group marched over to the apprentice's tent, erected far from all others. The tent had no visible openings, all the panels were bound with clumsy, heavy stitching. Some panels looked better than others, it seemed that its maker had improved over time. It was tradition in Renate that all who came to live here, make their own tent from thread and needle, with materials found locally. Maka's apprentice had a different life before, not one where you were taught the art of thread-work. "You have to promise me to tell no one of Iri's presence in Renate.” Maka whispered.
"Iri?" Lupin said, "that's a derogatory name isn't it?"
"I know it is, but my apprentice insists on it," Maka explained. "So you will tell no one?"
"Promise!" Eka said.
Lupin also chimed in. "Will tell no one."
"Good, good. You see, Iri did not leave Irideri by choice. My apprentice had a position of power, served in the Court of Light, but deserted after an unfortunate series of events. Iri will not like that I’ve told you this, but I have a feeling that I can trust you." Maka found an opening in the tent and put a head inside. "Iri, some people here to see you."
"For work?" Iri asked from inside.
"Yes, you can call it work." Maka said, turning to the three visitors. "Whatever you do, you've got to make Iri help you. Do not leave this tent without the promise of help."
Eka and Lupin nodded, hands searching for a gap in the fabric of the tent, after finding it they slipped inside. The outer fabric of the tent was thick, it kept most of the light out.
Iri rose when they entered, Iridi eyes were well-adjusted to darkness. The apprentice had a thin face and an equally thin build, a loose hampa knit shirt hung off one shoulder. The Iridi's hair was short, dark and wavy. Iri's eyes were unlike anything Lupin had ever seen, two deep pools of blackness. “Who are you.” Iri asked, scanning them from head to toe.
"That's Eka, I'm Lupin and this wee one is—well, we call this one Sixteen." Lupin dragged the prisoner from behind them, putting the prism into full view of their host.
Iri's eyes widened at the sight of it, at this object of shame, memories of Irideri came streaming back along with it. The face of their host seemed to have gone an even paler shade of grey. “Better to spend your energy on the living,” the apprentice said, inaudibly cursing at Maka for sending those strangers over here. Thoughts of Irideri were irritating, Iri made a point of never thinking about that place.
"You must not have helped many to say this." Lupin said. Eka elbowed the Verido, insulting their host would not help their case.
"I don't deny it. I don't help the dead. It's pointless." Iri said, uncaring.
"From what Maka told us, you had death on you too when you first walked into Renate. People helped you." Lupin retorted.
The changes in Iri's face were small, eyebrows furrowed slightly, the apprentice was angry but appeared annoyed most of all. These subtle face twitches did not rightly convey the Iridi's true feelings. "I still had a leg to stand on. This prisoner will never be rid of that head. Within a week, Sixteen will be dead and you will needlessly burden yourselves with guilt over it."
“Is that the truth?” Lupin asked. “Maka said you would know what to do.”
“Maka was wrong."
Eka insisted. “Please help. You must know something.”
The apprentice appeared to be troubled, remembering what had happened all of those years ago, when arriving here in the village. Everyone was ready to cast this broken Iridi back out into the desert. The apprentice remembered that day well, the sun was below the horizon, the sky adopting lighter hues of blue, Iri had a name then too...
Now with more years on, Iri could see that this was a way to repay Maka, to offer kindness in moments of desperation, such as the deserter had been granted upon arriving at the gates of Renate so many years ago. If one were to look closely at Iri's face, they would see that the Iridi's lips were quivering, like they were trying to slither away. If the mouth was gone, they would have to stop asking difficult questions. Still, these foreigners were not going to leave, they were determined to save the young prisoner.
“Only one person can open it," Iri breathed, voice heavy, head swimming with images of past events. "Hori, a puzzle maker perfected the design." Seeing their faces light up, Iri finished the thought, "–but Hori died.”
"There must be plans for it somewhere in the city?" Eka asked, tentatively.
Iri's mind was racing. "Plans, yes, it's possible, but entering the city is...difficult, impossible even."
“If the city is so impenetrable, how did you manage to leave it?” Lupin asked.
Iri was eyeing the Verido with growing animosity, Iridi were not accustomed to questions, most times this came off as being rude, nosy, most questions were better left unasked.
"Please." Eka's silvery voice broke the silence. "We'll tell no one."
Iri's lips curled inwards, remembering that promise to Maka. "There is a secret entrance, but you can't think of going, they'll catch you and you'll have prisms fitted to your heads."
"We'll be alright, Eka's got muscle and I'm fast on my feet." Lupin said.
The thought that they would go to Irideri was unthinkable to this Iri, it was too dangerous, without help they would surely perish at the hands of the city guards. "You cannot hope to survive this."
"What kind of persons would we be if we allowed Sixteen to die?" Lupin said.
The cogs in this Iridi's heart were thick with rust and getting them to turn required some effort. "Ridiculous." Iri said, with much disdain. "I'll take you, that is all."
“I'm happy you're coming with us," Eka said. "Will the entrance be guarded you think?"
Iri's throat felt dry and coarse, irritated by the constant stream of words. Most times the apprentice was alone, working in the dark, with only tools and metal as companions, they, were not great conversationalists and Iri liked it that way. "Hardly anyone knows of it, save a handful of guards. I imagine most have forgotten it exists, there was no real reason for its construction. You see, it is unlikely that my people would have ever undergone a siege." Iri paused then, eyes staring at the floor, as if in shame. "Only we excel at the art of savagery."
The next few days, they spent putting proper Iridi wardrobes together. If they hoped to go by unnoticed in the city, they would have to wear convincing garments. Maka still had the apprentice's former robes, Iri wanted to bury them but the wise metalworker knew that this young Iridi would have need of them again someday. With the help of the town tailor, they made two additional robes for Eka and Lupin to wear, using the first as a model. The townspeople had heard of Iri's return to Irideri to help a prisoner and the two strangers, they thought it noble and did their best to help in any way they could.
“Silence is highly prized in Irideri. Wearing a scarf is symbolic of that, and in this particular instance, it will also help to conceal your foreign features.”
Lupin stood in full Iridi wear, the blue of the Verido's face was somewhat visible, but Iri pulled the hood down further to conceal it. "Keep it low, always."
"I can't see anything!" Lupin cried, arms flailing.
Eka laughed, the colour of Red's eyes were also difficult to hide, not much could be done to mute their intensity.
"You will keep your heads down and address no one unless necessary. If you must talk to someone, again, keep your gaze to the floor. People will not think it strange, it is a sign of respect. They will accept this." Iri explained.
Then, came Iri's turn to change into traditional Iridi wear, the apprentice overlapped foreign wear with the robes. Wearing these threads again was difficult, Iri now knew the truth. The Iridi had a violent history. Being clothed like this, with that knowledge, Iri thought, was obscene. The robe hung heavy on these shoulders, thick with guilt, all the lives lost adding to the weight, their blood and anguish woven into the fabric.
Iri couldn't stand it.Continue to Chapter 12