“Things will be different, it's been 10 years," Maka said, concerned, with a hand on Iri's shoulder.
Iri’s face betrayed little emotion, as if carved from stone. “Change matters little to a specter.”
Maka had been the closest thing to a mapa to this Iri, who now stood a few heads taller than the first time they'd met. Now in Iridi wear, with trimmed hair and skin devoid of grease, the apprentice was unrecognizable. The effect was so strong that Maka had asked the villagers not to come. Many in Renate still suffered from mental and emotional stress, seeing Iri like this would likely worsen their condition.
“You left your name at the gates of the city, it’s only right that you should take it back now.” Maka said.
Iri’s gaze fell to the ground. “I can't.”
"Need I hammer it out of that stubborn head of yours?" Maka asked, eyebrows raised.
Iri shifted uncomfortably in the set of traditional Iridi robes. "But the others..."
"Are fine with it." Maka said, with a kind smile. "Please. You are family to me, to us.”
The young apprentice returned the gesture, putting a hand to Maka’s shoulder, but when came time to speak, Iri hesitated, as if about to speak a horrible word. "My name is Renzo."
Renzo was now a citizen of Renate. The people of the village found it in their hearts to forgive. They knew that this young Iridi had not marched into the village torch at hand all those years ago. The wars of the past were the fault of many, and Renzo had suffered enough.
Maka watched as the group left, their figures dissolving in the distance. The metal worker had planned to say many more things, but decided to keep it for Renzo's return.
During the voyage, thoughts of Irideri came and went in Renzo's mind, unhindered. They had long been ignored, but now the Iridi let them come and pass. 10 years ago, being a guard in the Court of Light was all that mattered. Ren could no longer relate to that guard. They were strangers.
They marched on toward the Andenuis, the longest mountain range in the Soronan Desert, forming a continuous highland along the southern edge of the Central Rim. Irideri was built on a plateau, inside the western ridge. They each took turns on Hush to rest. Sixteen had priority, it was too dangerous to walk unaided. The last thing they wanted was for their prism-headed friend to fall into a crevice.
"Why did you leave Irideri?" Lupin asked Renzo. This Verido liked asking questions, and this one needed to be asked.
Renzo did not share the Verido's love of questions. "You need not know this."
"Did you do something bad?"
"You were a guard in the Court of Light weren't you?" Lupin asked, unabated.
"It's a wonder you can hear the sounds of the world with all of that talking," Renzo said, pulling a hood on as if to keep some privacy.
"Don't know what you mean! Talking IS a sound of the world! Like the sound of the wind and the chime of a bell."
"Bells don't ask questions." Renzo retorted.
"So you speak bell then?"
Eka smirked at this, but knew that if Lupin was allowed to continue this interrogation that Renzo would never warm up to them. The woth agreed, it flew out of its glass house and onto Lew's nose.
"Pity it didn't land on your mouth." Renzo sneered.
Lupin smiled at this. "As if that would stop me!" By then the woth had migrated to Lupin's nose, wondering which part of this Verido's face to protect next. Fearing a fist coming to it very soon. Eka smacked the back of Lew's head, thus concluding this mess of a conversation.
A day later, they arrived at their destination. The mountain range was in sight. It took them another half-day to round it to get to the west end. The path was long, hard and dotted with rocks. Eventually, they arrived at a chasm. "This is our path." Renzo said, pointing downward.
Lupin gazed down into it. "I see... nothing."
"That's because you've got the eyes of a day walker." Renzo explained, "even Iridi have difficulty seeing it, you've got to look at it from a specific angle."
They stopped to rest here, waiting for daybreak to make their descent into the city. When a sliver of sun peered over the horizon, Renzo showed them the secret stairway. It was imperceptible to the eye at a distance, carved into the chasm wall. "These lead to a tunnel that exits inside of the city walls." Renzo looked over their disguises to make sure that nothing was missing, then unrolled an old hand-drawn map of the city, laying it on the ground.
"You drew this? It's beautiful." Eka said, noting the details in the drawings. Every street was named. Many of the houses too had the name of the resident inscribed.
Renzo placed a finger to a spot on the map, circled in red. "This is where Hori used to live. Iridi are conservative in their ways. The house will be there. Although it's likely someone else will have moved in."
"Think the puzzles will still be there?"
"Hori's work was famous. If they're not, asking at the house is our best bet. Just don't ask too many questions," Renzo said, eyeing Lupin while saying this. "And keep your hoods on!" The Iridi grabbed the edge of Lupin's hood and pulled down hard. "Avoid all eye contact. Take this map with you, keep it hidden."
Eka grabbed the map, rolled it up tight and slipped it into a pocket sewn on the inside of the robe.
Sixteen was to stay outside with Hush. "Stay out of view, in the shadow of the mountain to keep cool. Keep our friend safe mapa Hush." Eka said, nuzzling the beast's snout. Hush let out a low whoop — the Hyroo was instructed to stay quiet.
All three pulled their hoods over their heads, and slipped their scarves on. They ventured into the mouth of the chasm, down a succession of steps that Renzo said would lead them into the city. Lupin was no stranger to great heights, but had difficulty manoeuvring in this thick Iridi robe.
Soon, the stairs ended and they arrived at a tunnel. The group walked back to back, hands grabbing the robes of the other ahead. Renzo could see in the dark, they could not. They walked underground for some time, until the tunnel opened onto a space between the palace walls and the mountain face. Renzo described the various areas, warning them of incoming obstacles. "It gets narrower here," Renzo explained. "Walk sideways." The group walked shoulder to shoulder, sections of the vertical stone faces were built in a slant to further confuse the eye. "Watch your heads." Renzo whispered. This uneven walkway led them to the main street. Looking back, it was hard to discern the path was there at all. The texture and slant of the walls gave the illusion that this was a closed space, making it the perfect escape route — visible only to those who knew of it.
Lupin gazed upon Irideri for the first time. "Never seen anything like this." The Verido said, noting the colour and texture of the surrounding buildings. White, translucent almost, marked with patterns of swirling bands of cream and brown. All structures were connected. Built wall-to-wall. While the material for all were identical, the facades bore elaborate carvings.
"These represent the family that owns the house," Eka explained in a whisper. "Every family lives under the same roof." The faint glow of the chloromyce shroos lit up the front of each house, hung from clear glass balls.
Opposite of them stood the palace, an imposing octogonal structure rising along the mountain face. The main facade was decorated by large bas-reliefs with the symbol of Irideri, a circle with a diamond shape in its centre, and stylized depictions of the chloromyce shroo. These, sat on the cornice above the scupltured panels occupying the first floor. "Beautiful," Eka said, admiring the details.
In this late daytime hour, some guards were patrolling, but paid no attention to them. Their disguises were good, Renzo made sure of it.
"You'll be going down this street, it'll be the 9th house on the right." Renzo whispered. "If you get lost—"
"We've got the map yes, but wait... you're not coming with us?" Lupin asked, worried.
"No. I'll meet you back at the tunnel in two hours." With little explanation Renzo disappeared, pushing deeper into the city.
"What are we gonna do? We're never gonna pass for Iridi!" Lupin said, panicked at the thought of being discovered. "They'll put prisms on our heads! This is revenge for earlier, for what I said!"
Eka grabbed Lupin's shoulders. "Renzo couldn't have come with us. People don't forget the face of defectors."
"This won't work. Your eyes are ruby red and my face is blue Eka!"
"They won't see our faces. Keep under the shadow of your hood. We'll be fine. You believe me right?" Eka's voice had a soothing quality to it, it calmed most people, but Lupin remained unaffected, unsoothed. They'd been together long and overtime it seemed to have lost its sedative qualities.
"How are you not scared?!" Lupin said.
"OH I am scared," Eka admitted, "but also excited! Think of the chloromyce noodles!"
"Ugh. I feel sick."
Eka grabbed Lew's arm then, both walked down the street, counting houses as they did. Soon, they found Hori’s street, and then the house in question. It seemed that after the puzzle maker's death, the place had been converted into a museum. There was a listing of opening hours on the door.
“What if we don't find anything?” Lupin whispered, walking close to Eka.
“Then we’ll make a new plan.” Eka replied, pulling the Verido closer to the house.
They walked up a set of white steps and up to the doorsill, a small silver bell hung on the outer wall. Eka stretched a hand out and tapped the bell to alert the people inside of their presence. No answer. They were going to ring the bell again, but saw a silhouette behind the veiled doorway — houses in Irideri had fabric for doors. Someone was there. The silhouette put an arm out and pushed the curtain aside. A wrinkled, long-haired Iridi stood before them now, wearing a dark grey robe, neck and wrists decorated with silver trinkets.
“It’s very early you know, what do you want?” The museum owner said in a sleepy voice.
“Forgive our intrusion,” Eka said, eyes and face low, “and for coming at such an... early hour. We are from the colonies. We're here on a short short visit! We've always dreamed of seeing this place, but seeing as we are leaving in the mo—evening, would it be okay to trouble you now for a quick visit?”
“Colonies?” The museum owner said.
Eka nodded. During the raids the Iridi established colonies in far-away camps, used as relief stations for soldiers but also as temporary camps for captives. It was rumored that two of these were still active, inhabited by both Iridi and slaves of the Crown.
Lupin had doubts that this would work. No one knew for certain if the colonies really did exist. But then, the Iridi exhibited a sly grin. "Yes of course! The colonies."
"We are such fans of Hori's work!" Eka said.
At these words, the Iridi smiled. "I'm happy to hear it! It's a dying art, and I mean that quite literally. May be grim to say, but this body is deteriorating quicker than I'd like, my brain is hot with ideas but this shell does not give a damn! Please, please, come in, come in!"
Bariton, the museum owner, invited them inside for a drink. Lupin and Eka could not refuse. Bariton was second to Hori, they were not related, but they were very close. The Iridi made puzzles too, but admited that none matched Hori's work. When the puzzle master died, Bariton took possession of the house to preserve its appearance and contents, turning it into a museum. All over the house, puzzles sat on shelves, contraptions of all shapes and sizes for all levels of skill.
“Hori was... truly unique,” Bariton told them, "could see patterns in the world others couldn’t. My dear one had a bright mind. A unique vision.” Bariton grabbed a puzzle off a nearby shelf to show them. “This is one of two. The other is in the palace, in little Kurono's playroom I imagine." The old Iridi tried to solve it, but could not remember how. “Our Little Light loves these puzzles, Hori designed hundreds for Kurono. I like to think that it’s thanks to Hori that our Sovereign-to-be is so sharp of mind.”
Lupin glanced around the room, eyes searching for images or plans of that prismatic puzzle. None were visible. Perhaps Hori did not consider it worthy of display — many would agree. The Verido decided to ask about it, there was no other way. “Those head prisms are quite something too aren’t they?”
Bariton sighed. “Yes. It's a puzzle maker's dream. A true test of patience, very difficult to solve. Our Monarch, the Light of our world, found out about it and asked Hori to the palace. Demeri asked for the design be altered, enlargened I should say... to fit a person's head. This was difficult year for Hori, with Noko dying just months before. Imagine. Your most prized design used to hurt others! What kind of legacy is that?" The Iridi paused, wondering if these strangers would pass these words on to others. One could be killed for speaking ill of the monarchy. "What do you colony-folk think of Demeri?"
"Demeri is a tyrant." Lupin said without thinking, but then realized it was dangerous thing to say to an Iridi, even if it was the truth. "What I meant to say is that Demeri is a truant— no, I mean an absolutist? Oh no, no, no pomparu farts... forget I said anything. I'm an imbecile, that's the truth of it." The Verido dribbled, shrinking deep into the Iridi robes. Any moment now, the guards would come and take them away. They would die with heads of metal, walking on hot sands.
The old Iridi laughed. "Quite right, quite right. You colonists are such liberals! I envy you."
Lupin let out a nervous laugh. Eka smiled.
"Hori continued to make puzzles for Kurono after that, but denied making the prism. The hatred of this thing brought us close though I suppose.” Saying this, the Iridi began to fiddle with a distinctive trinket, a bracelet, hugging Bariton's wrist. It was thick, metallic, with connecting block criss-crossed with lines. Like the prism, these 'blocks' or pieces could be moved to a new place. If Bariton did this, it would change the design of the bracelet. It was not only beautiful, there was also a secret to it. "Another puzzle," Bariton explained, "a gift from Hori. Clamped it on my wrist while I was asleep one night. It cannot be removed unless it is solved. As you can see, I have failed my beloved in this." The Iridi smiled at it, running a finger along one of the creases. "How Hori would laugh to know that it's still unsolved. The damned thing has been on my wrist for 11 years. Quite a sense of humour that one."
Eka laughed. "Never helped you solve it?"
"When alive? No. My dear one was hard-headed, determined to have me find the solution alone. Then with the death of Noko— well, we forgot about it. And um—you know the rest. A sad tale. I apologize for boring you with it. Others here don't like to speak of such things, it's what Hori liked most about me. I speak freely. I've burdened many with my troubles. Most don't pay attention to me, they attribute my eccentricities to my aging brain. In fact, if you were to repeat my words to others, you better believe that they'd roll their eyes. 'That kook is at it again' they'd say. Well this kook is a freethinker, hiding under a veil of senility. Best place to be if you ask me."
Eka laughed again. "You'd fit right in at the colonies."
Bariton gave Red a wink. "Maybe it's time for a change of scenery!"
They spent much time with Bariton, talking about Hori and the puzzles. Eka rather liked this house and its owner, both were warm despite exhibiting few colours. They had a tour of the house, tried to solve some of the puzzles. To Lupin's amazement, the Wonder had much difficulty with them.
"Wow, we finally found something you're bad at."
Eka reached forward and pulled Lupin's hood down deep. "Yea well, you're a goob-goob eater."
"You should talk! You boggleboob!"
They stopped with the name-calling battle when Bariton re-entered the room with cups of freshly-brewed herbal tea. They drank tea for some time, and still, had not found any way to open that prism.
"Does Hori draw plans for the puzzles?" Eka tried.
"Hori? No. Never. Was all hidden away in that 'mind safe', didn't want others using them to cheat."
"Can you solve the prism?" Lupin said. It was bold to ask, but they had been here too long already.
"You really are interested in that prism aren't you?"
"Yes," Eka admitted, "we enjoy puzzles, and it being the hardest one..."
Bariton smiled. "Hardest is right! No one has solved it, aside from Hori that is... but no one else was taught the solution. Hori died rather suddenly. It's why Demeri reclaims those heads from bodies out in the desert. Not many know this, but the head opens when there's nothing in it! It can re-used in that way, but it is impossible slip it off a live person, not without breaking their heads off. Forgive the graphic nature of this story. It's a grim affair. Hori and I had nightmares about it."
Eka enjoyed their time with this Iridi, but they would not find help for Sixteen here. They needed to find Renzo, to tell of their findings. "Thank you so much for your hospitality, but we should go."
Bariton nodded. "I hope you enjoyed the house and the ramblings of this old kook."
"That last bit is what I enjoyed most." Eka said.
"I adhere to ramblings more than worded speeches." Lupin added.
The Iridi too seemed to like them very much. "I have something for you, let me get it." The museum owner disappeared into another room, returning moments later a puzzle in hand. It was a mid-level one, octogonal, made of brushed brass and decorated with engravings. "This is the first puzzle Hori made. I kept it but it was destined for Noko. I'd like you to have it. It's never been solved. Not that I think I couldn't do it, but I just can't bring myself to try, it wasn't made for me to solve. But, it's time someone else had a chance with it. An unsolved puzzle is a sad, sad thing."
Eka accepted the gift, putting it in a pocket inside the robe. “Thank you. I've really enjoyed our conversation.”
“Comeback any time. Oh! And um— be careful out there.” Bariton warned, opening the door for them. Perhaps this old Iridi had seen through their lies, their disguises were not that good and their words did not match that of most Iridi. Maybe there were colonies, maybe there weren't. It didn't matter.
They heard sirens wailing in the distance then. Bariton watched as Iridi guards came running down the street and toward the palace.
Eka was nervous. “You don’t think?”
"I hope not." Lupin said, afraid. They said goodbye to their host and left. A few hours had gone by, Eka regretted having stayed there so long, Ren had advised against it.
“What's going on?” An Iridi asked one of the guards from a bedroom window.
“Word is that the deserter Renzo was sighted in the city. Queen Demeri will be pleased."
“They’ll kill Ren!” Lupin whispered. Both kept themselves hidden for now, trying to think of a plan.
Eka looked determined. “No they won't!”
Both traversed the city, as fast as their feet could carry them. Eka whistled for Hush, a distinctive sort of whistle, sharp and melodious.
“Hush is on the other side of the mountain!” Lupin said.
“You, speaker of ilken, should know just how far the sound of a whistle can travel. That paired with Hush's parabolic ears!” Eka lay hands over an existing pair of ears, to make them appear larger.
They looked at the sky. A large shape had bounded up into the clouds and was coming down fast. Hush landed on the rooftop of a building, cracking the tiles. Sixteen was sitting on its back, gripping the mane of fur, hard.
“Wonder what Sixteen thinks is happening, must be confusing.” Lupin said, watching the Hyroo take another leap down to meet them at street level.
Monarch Demeri’s face turned a pale shade of grey when told of the news that Renzo had been spotted in Irideri. “Is it... really?” the Sovereign asked, swallowing hard. It was morning, time to have tea with Kurono in the Moon Room. The guards came to alert their leader right away. Demeri's cup was already dosed with chloromyce shroo powder, all in the realm needed a cup a day to keep their health.
“Are you sure?” the Light of Lights asked, lips quivering.
“Yes my Brightest, the traitor was seen in the courtyard, somehow bypassed the security there and vanished." Enji, head of the guards, explained.
Demeri looked distraught. “No one disappears. You were outwitted, this is unacceptable. You are not worthy of your post general Enji, this is the second time you've failed me. You will find the traitor, or I will have a prism fitted to your head!”
Enji nodded. "As you command." With this, the general and subordinates disappeared.
Kurono remembered this person, this 'Renzo', a former guard of the Court of Light. The Young Light was a sproutling then, but the words Demeri used then to speak of Renzo were bad ones indeed, it appeared that this guard could do nothing right in the eyes of the Light Of The Realm.
The Monarch left the room in a huff after the announcement, determined to have guards at every door. Every soldier was to be out there, looking for Renzo in the palace. The building was enormous. Many rooms were unoccupied, others housed few items, if one could infiltrate the place it would be easy to live in here unseen.
“No one sleeps until that filth is found!” the Sovereign yelled, in a shrill and unpleasant voice.
Kurono could hear Demeri going about the palace, screeching out orders, and rather enjoyed it. Kurono drank tea alone, and even drank Demeri's cup. The screeching banshee had been to distracted to touch it. Kurono gave a half-suppressed laugh while downing the whole thing, adding some extra spoonfuls — a touch of rebellion felt good every now and then.
After tea time, Kurono was asked to stay in the playroom with Seventeen. A guard stood outside the door. Word was that there were 2 foreigners on a rabid beast attacking the palace. There were people running around yelling out orders, the sounds of it passing through the thickness of the door. Eventually, even the guard at the playroom door was obliged to take part in the hunt. With an ear pressed to the door, Kurono could hear the guard's steps growing fainter.
“This is amazing.” Kurono said, the quietness that reigned in the realm was a real bore, now the palace felt alive, chaotic. There was no way to know if what was happening was good or bad, but it didn't matter. The disobedient Lightling commanded the Iri to stay inside, left the playroom and proceeded to wander the palace. Kurono had only just turned the corner when ahead, stood a stranger, an Iridi, but with foreign clothes — an uncommon sight. The stranger smelled of earth, feet brown with it, they'd left marks all over the floors. "How delightful," Kurono thought, picturing all of that dirt entangled in Demeri's pristine locks.
The stranger was out of breath. Seeing the Young Crown there, Renzo swallowed hard. “You’ve grown. You know who I am Little Light?"
Kurono nodded, speaking in a quiet voice. “No one can anger Demeri as well as you.”
Renzo had penetrated the palace using a secret entrance, the same that was used used to escape the palace all those years ago. Renzo left Renate with the goal of passing through Irideri unseen, that was the plan, but near the palace Ren crossed paths with a guard. Face to face with a former collegue, Renzo lost it. All of that pent up rage and sadness came bursting out in an instant. Renzo did away with that rigid mask, face twisting in a most frightening way. "That's right, I'm back. Tell Demeri, tell everyone!"
Now, Renzo stared at the Young Royal, determined to speak the truth. “Are you going to tell on me?”
“No, Demeri makes me angry too. It's all lies, all the time. Too many things are kept hidden from me and I don't like it.” Kurono replied.
Renzo could hear footsteps down the hall and retreated into a room, beckoning Kurono to follow. Both quieted, waiting for them to leave. “I know many things that Demeri would hate me to reveal."
“AHH IT'S RENZOOO! The dangerous deserteeeeer!” A voice shouted from behind them. The history teacher had been in the room this entire time. The coward only just emerged from the closet, but returned within it right away.
Renzo looked at Kurono, ignoring the teacher, for now. “They're coming, but you have to hear and believe what I'm about to say to you now. You are not Demeri's sproutling. Your true mapa, Hori, was ordered dead so that Demeri could falsely claim you."
Guards rushed inside. Renzo moved to fight them, to the sound of the teacher squealing in the closet. The fearful professor opened the door and motioned for Kurono to enter. Kurono had always hated that teacher and stuck a tongue out in defiance before continuing to listen to Renzo. “Why? The Iridi wouldn’t give me a title if I wasn’t of royal klorea! How do I know you’re telling the truth?!” Kurono asked.
Renzo knocked one guard over the head and smacked the other in the gut with the butt of a candle-lit lamp. “You are good at puzzles aren’t you? Hori was too." The deserter gave another blow to the head of the second guard, the glass bowl around the lamp's head shattering upon contact. Saying this, Renzo's face cracked into a smile. Renzo's cheeks ached, from a lifetime of still-facedness. “You were taken as a sprout, because Demeri could not bear any healthy seeds. Demeri stole you away, couldn’t admit to being incapable of producing an heir."
Kurono was shaking. If this was true, this life, all of it, was false. “How do you know all this!?”
Renzo felt sorry for the Young Light, but there was no other way to disrupt the order of things here in Irideri. This had to be known. “I wanted Demeri to like me. I did all that was ever asked of me. So when asked to—” Renzo paused, reluctant to divulge this bit of information, “—when asked to take Hori's life I-I could not refuse! But even that wasn’t enough, it wasn't enough to earn Demeri's respect. I was desperate. It was a mistake.”
Renzo remembered that day well. Hori was working at the foundry, alone. Ren came and hit the puzzlemaker over the head with a length of metal. The blunt force killed Hori instantly. The event was thought to be an accident, that the piece of metal had fallen from above and had struck the Iridi dead.
Just then, more guards came bursting into the room. Renzo could not fight so many. "I'm no different than Demeri. No less evil. I've wronged you. I'm so, so, sorry." Renzo said, in a low voice. At least now Kurono knew the truth.
Enji walked ahead of the others. "You will not talk, you will not gaze upon our Young Crown. You are Iri, lower than dirt." Saying these words, the general's face showed great disgust. "Belly to the floor insect."
Renzo did not do what was asked and continued to eye Kurono. "Your name is Noko, don't forget it."
Enji grabbed hold of Renzo and tackled the prisoner down to the floor. “Quiet yourself Iri!”
Renzo, now with an ear pressed to the floor, could hear that something was happening below. Something was inside the castle and making a real mess of things. Then, voices shouting the name Renzo could be heard.
“I'M HERE!” Renzo answered, shouting through the floor.
"My failure to capture you all those years ago tainted me. I won't fail our Brightest this time." Enji said.
"There is no honor in carrying out the orders of a dictator" Renzo said.
Enji pressed a foot on the prisoner's cheek. "You are not worthy of words, therefore not worthy of a tongue."
More guards came, all helped pry their victim's mouth open. One pinched Renzo's nose closed, while another reached for the tongue. The deserted struggled from under them, unwilling to give in.
Then the guards all quieted, hearing something panting in the hallway — a wild animal? Then the thing came bursting into the room. A big-eared creature stood there, snarling. Hush rushed at the guards, chasing them off. Enji did not leave straight away, but another snarl did it. The general fell away to the back of the room with the others.
Lupin and Eka came in after. “You okay?” they asked Renzo, helping their companion off the floor.
“Yes, but we need to leave.” Renzo replied, bright-faced.
Lupin eyed Renzo curiously. "You've got a weird curvy slit in your face that wasn't there before."
Renzo laughed. Lupin did not know whether to be happy or fearful in this moment.
Eka noticed Kurono there in the corner, eyes wet with tears. “Kurono?” Red asked, tentatively, pulling the hood and scarf off. Kurono backed away, having never seen a foreigner before. The three would leave soon, but before they did, Eka pulled a puzzle from the robe and handed it to the Young Crown. “A gift. You like puzzles right?”
Kurono took it. It bore a marking, like all the others in the playroom. The name ‘Hori’ was burned deep onto its base. The puzzle adept began to turn and twist all its parts, solving it within second. “My mapa made this”. It didn’t feel weird to say that. Kurono remembered the smell of metal and heat from the burning coal, these were the smells of Hori's workshop.
“Hori made that one too.” Renzo said, pointing to Sixteen who was standing by the entrance.
Kurono saw the number on the prisoner's neck. “It’s you!” Without hesitation, the Young Light took Sixteen into a loving embrace. Then, these eyes fell upon the prism. "It's a puzzle?" The prisms too had been kept from Kurono — another of Demeri's lies. The Young Crown's fingers scanned the face of the prism carefully. “I know this." Fingers began to move the pieces around, it took a few minutes, but then, there was a loud clicking sound and the head fell away into pieces. All in the room stared, wide-eyed, believing the prism to be unsolvable.
Sixteen looked terrible, but when the Iri's eyes fell upon Kurono, they regained a bit of their former vigour. Sixteens scanned the room and the people in it, seeing 2 foreigners, Renzo; a large eared beast too, then, there was a handful of guards all piled up in one corner. Sixteen had no knowledge of anything that had happened, but didn’t care. This Iri was alive and Kurono was here. Nothing else mattered.
“We need to go.” Renzo insisted, but right then the doorway filled up with more guards. Hush growled, they backed away, but pointed their weapons forward.
“Kurono! Come!” Enji insisted, but the Young Crown did not listen and moved away.
“Is Demeri here?” Kurono asked.
“I am.” the guards moved partly so that the Light Of The Realm could see. Though they made sure that nothing or no one could get close enough to harm their beloved. When Demeri spotted Renzo, the Monarch's pale lips twisted, like a venomous creature ready to strike. “Kill this Iri. Do it now."
The guards hesitated. All feared the strange creature bearing its teeth at them, not just this, the first set of guards were witness to the truth of Kurono's life. Enji was deep in thought, unsure if Renzo had spoken the truth, although a lot of it did make sense.
“I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked, but it was never enough. You had my loyalty. My body was yours to command. You used me to kill Kurono's true mapa and then you ordered me dead!” Renzo yelled back.
Young Renzo was raised without a parent, having succumbed to disease, but the youngling showed promise and was adopted into the Royal Guard. The leafling revered the monarch, the Light Of Lights, although this love was never returned. Demeri used the orphan's love and devotion to inflict pain unto others. Renzo did all that was asked, but did not expect that taking Hori's life would leave a scar.
"As you said, your body was mine to command. It is my privilege and birthright as Sovereign. You failed to remove yourself from the world when I asked." Demeri said. "Guards, rid the realm of this taint."
The guards inched forward, but Enji spoke up again. "With respect, my Brightest, it is disconcerting to hear that your leafling is illegitimate."
At these words, all the other guards paused in mid-stride, their general was wise and was second in command after their leader Demeri. Kurono, who had been silent for a long while, glared at Demeri. "You stole me away! How could you!"
The Brightest lost some radiance then, in fact, Demeri appeared on the verge of tears. "My womb failed me, so many times. Then I found out I was unable to produce seed at all. I could not fail the realm, my ancestors. I could not do it. I was broken inside, then... then I saw you,” the monarch said, looking at Kurono, "a beautiful, healthy sproutling, wandering about the palace halls. The youngling of a puzzlemaker. I pictured a crown on your head, your tiny body in my arms—”
“So you kept me for yourself and had Renzo kill my mapa!” Kurono said, eyeing Renzo, eyes watering. "Demeri betrayed you."
“To avoid death... I ran away. Left my home, everything I knew and loved." Renzo said.
"Had I known..." Enji said in a whisper.
Demeri laughed. "Don't delude yourself Enji. You would have done as I asked! You haven't a thought of your own in that head of yours."
“What you have done—” Kurono began, addressing Demeri, “—is unforgivable!” At that moment Kurono skin began to glow. The Young Light's skin appeared translucent, swirls of colour forming at the surface.
The guards began to whisper amongst themselves. In the realm of Irideri, the people followed the brightest light, and in this particular instance, it was the young Kurono. They lowered their weapons and set them down on the floor, then all in the room bent the knee. The Young Light flashed a confident grin at Demeri. Demeri did not protest, there was no higher power than the Light.
Eka looked at the puzzle box, the one Kurono had solved in seconds. “Hori built these puzzles for you, to teach you how to solve the prisms!"
Renzo nodded. "When a parent is separated from their sproutling..."
Eka nodded, "It's another way to connect! Bariton told us Hori was always ashamed that these creations were used to harm others."
Iridiscent tears streamed down Kurono's cheeks "Maybe this was my mapa's way of teaching me to correct those wrongs..."
"Isn't anyone going to ask why Kurono is glowing?" Lupin whispered to Eka.
Eka put a finger to Lupin's lips. "Shu-shu-shushhhh!"
Later that day, Kurono appeared in full illumination before the people of Irideri. There was no doubt in their minds that this was a sign, it was time for a new leader. Enji pushed for this as well, re-assuring all in the kingdom that this was the right thing to do.
Enji approached Kurono after Demeri's demise. "I am yours to command my Brightest."
Kurono nodded, gently tugging at the general's pant leg. Enji stooped down, but as was tradition, could not, would not, set eyes on Kurono. "I'd like you to look at me, as you would any other."
Enji did not like this idea. "That is...dissrespectful, I couldn't possibly."
"I thought I was yours to command?"
Enji looked at Kurono then. "Yes. I apologize."
Kurono smiled. "Very good. A good first step! There will be many more changes, we have a lot to talk about, starting with the workers in the mines."
"Yes. Absolutely, Light of Lights." Enji said, before standing up again.
Kurono moved to discuss changes in Irideri with another advisor. Enji caught sight of Renzo leaning on a balcony railing, staring at the city lit up by the gentle glow of the chloromyce shroos. Enji went to stand there as well. "I envy you." The general said.
"How so?" Renzo kept eyes on the city below, rediscovering it from a distance.
"Years ago," Enji began, "if Demeri had asked me to kill Hori I would have done it, like you, without question. Then, if I'd been ordered dead... and that's where we differ, I likely would have driven a blade into my own chest. I always wondered why you didn't think of doing the same. Couldn't understand why you ran away, it made no sense to me at all." Enji sighed. "I've never had a mind of my own. When you left I never stopped wondering, why you did what you did."
"That sounds exactly like having your own thoughts Enji."
"I suppose." Enji paused, "you know, it wasn't the same after you left. You were friend to me. No one else played Gomino half as well as you."
"You were ready to cut my tongue out back there." Renzo said, eyeing the general.
"You left me alone with a bunch of dullards. I was angry, I guess. Also, a tongue is not required to play Gomino." A near-imperceptible smile appearing at Enji's lips.
Renzo knew this look and what it preceded. Soon, Enji's mask would crack off too. The Iridi people did not smile, or express feelings or thoughts aloud much. Renzo preferred the alternative.
Enji's eyes thinned down into slits as the sun began to rise in the distance, then looked away, pained by it. "The sun... doesn't hurt your eyes?"
Renzo's eyes kept to the horizon, smiling still. "No. Not anymore."
Enji tried to stay next to Renzo, but had trouble looking at that growing sliver of light. "How can you stand it."
"Better get used to it. I sense a very big change is coming."
On the eve of the coronation Lupin and Eka were given free reign over Irideri. This was the first time any sovereign had allowed foreigners inside. There was much to see. They wandered the city, escorted by Enji. The general pointed out various sights, including Bao's sprouthood home and the great Basilik, a library containing writings from the city's best current and past authors. The Iridi enjoyed writing, many did it. Because paper was a rarity, there was only one copy of every book. The authors could not produce drafts, and so they planned the work in their heads and voiced it out to a letterer in one sitting.
If someone wanted to read a book they had to do it on-site. Today, many locals were sitting in the common room, a book laid out on a mat as they sat cross-legged in front of them. Everyone wore isilk gloves, a thread visible to experts like Lupin. Although, the fabric had been stripped of all colour. When Lupin asked Enji about it, the general said this: "I don't know anything about colour, or the lack of it, having never seen an Ilk in real life. Bao, our former Light, commissioned twenty pairs from a tailor in Edonor." This is all Enji knew of it.
Lupin noticed then that there were fewer than twenty people reading, concluding that the readers could not exceed the number of gloves available.
An Iridi stepped forth then, wearing one of the twenty pairs, holding a copy of 'The Wind in Passage' by Gurahem. The Iridi was a worker here in the Basilik. "Would you like to read, or to be read to? That is also an option."
Eka nodded, "I'll do the reading, if you've got gloves to spare!"
The librarian nodded, and produced a pair for Eka to wear. The gloves were soft, comfortable. Eka found a copy of 'Wise Sproutling" by Karu. The book was bound in white thread with the cover made from conk shroos. "They grow well here in the mountains. They are hard, woody, cave-dwelling shroos, perfect for making paper. The fibers are strong and durable, they hold up well to inks. My grand-mapa was the first to produce them."
Eka smiled at this. "I would love to see the process!"
The librarian was happy to hear it. "We've got no books to make today, but know that it warms my heart to have outsiders having interest in this. My grand-mapa dreamed of a time when foreigners could come and read these. Books need to be read, by as many as possible."
"I think that dream is about to come true." Eka said.
During the entirety of the conversation, Lupin was busy inspecting the white gloves, wondering which Ilk the thread came from. "Why not keep the original colour?" Lupin interjected.
"A request by Bao." the Librarian said, "the kingdom bares no colour, as I'm sure you've noticed. Our people prefer shapes and texture to colour."
Lupin remembered how Zucca had disapproved of the art of skin-dying in Verido culture. This was similar. "Why not use a material that is already white?"
"Isilk is the softest and most durable thread in the Soronan Desert." The librarian replied. "It doesn't damage the conk shroo paper, it's impermeable too."
"You are a true treasure," Eka said to the library worker, "a wealth of knowledge."
The librarian would have blushed, but seeing as colour was considered to be an extravagance, decided to bow the head in thanks instead.
After a very busy day at the Basilik, Enji accompanied the two back to the palace for an afternoon with Kurono.
All sat together in the Moon Room, drinking cups of freshly-brewed chloromyce shroo tea. Renzo had gone to harvest the chloromyce ears alone, since the workers were on leave.
Lupin stared at the cup of sparkling tea. "There's colour in this. I thought colour was considered a bad thing in Irideri."
Kurono smiled. "It isn't a bad thing. We like colour. It's absence makes it all the more precious. Colour exists in the food we eat, and the liquids we drink. We bring this colour into ourselves, it's all we need." The Iridi had a ritualistic approach to everything, how they made their tea or prepared their food. It was a form of praise, of thanks. Kurono's eyes locked onto Lupin's face. "You wear your colours with pride. I would like to see what life in a Verido city is like."
Like Renzo had suffered at thoughts of Irideri, Lupin too, was pained by memories of Volare. Unlike the Iridi, this Verido had not healed, not yet. Lupin forced a smile. "I hope you get to." This subtlety was lost on Kurono, the Sovereign had enough to worry about, with a kingdom to run.
"I haven't told you the truth—" Kurono began, addressing all who shared the room. Because the guards were outside, Kurono could speak freely. "Everyone in the realm has one cup of chloromyce shroo tea per day, with a teaspoon of powder swirled in, no more, no less. When news spread of Renzo, Demeri left the room and I helped myself to a second, and third cup. Then when Renzo told me the truth of things, I was so angry! I became hot in the head... I think the extra rations of tea combined with this caused my skin to glow."
Eka smirked. "Overdoses of chloromyce and the complex chemistry of our bodies can cause skin to flare-up, to glow! In the old days people made a game of it."
"Eka! You knew too? Why didn't you tell me?!" Lupin said, wounded to have to learn this now.
"It's an uncommon and little known side-effect. Affects 1 in 5." Eka explained.
"Please don't tell anyone that I owe the throne to a skin condition." Kurono said.
All in the room laughed. Although, in truth, all in the realm preferred to have Kuruno as a leader, no one fought against it. Demeri's reign was over.
That evening, there was someone at Bariton's door. The old Iridi walked over to see who it was. "My Brightest...!" Kurono stood there, wearing a lovely multi-layered gown. The fabric shimmered in the light of the chloromyce-lit alleyway. The Young Crown's hair was down, coming short of touching the floor. A simple diadem sat atop Kurono's head, with tiny bead-shaped chloromyce embedded in the metal. Sixteen was there too.
“May I come in?” Kurono asked Bariton.
Bariton was embarrassed by the mess, but tried to appear courteous, disappearing into the kitchen to prepare some tea. In the meantime Kurono stared at the puzzles, the palace playroom had copies of these. The museum owner returned with a tray topped with a kettle and two cups. "Forgive me Bright One. These cups are cracked!"
"This is perfect." Kurono gladly accepted the cup, as it was. The Young Monarch wondered if Hori had ever drunk from this cup.
They spoke for a long while. “Hori would be happy to know that you've been here." They spoke of the puzzlemaker at great length, it made Kurono happy to hear about Hori's life.
"When Noko died," Bariton began, "I don't know if it's proper to say, but Hori felt an obligation to you. To help you, in any way. You were—" the Iridi paused "...please do say so if it is out of line, the way Hori spoke of you, it was like you were family. Hori had much love for you, as do I."
Hearing those words, Kurono swallowed hard. This situation must have been difficult for Hori. It was cruel, but they'd found a way to connect through puzzles. "It's alright." Kurono reassured Bariton. Telling this Iridi the truth about everything was out of the question, Bariton would be devastated. For now, Kurono thanked the museum owner and said this before leaving: "There is banquet tomorrow, to celebrate my Green Day and coronation. I'd like you to come." Bariton had no words, holding back some tears, after all, it wasn't respectable to cry in front of royalty.
The banquet took place in the Garden of Light. There were many tables, all decorated with flowers, their soft petals sprinkled with chloromyce shroo powder. This caused the petals to scintillate under the garland of lights hanging above. The menu for tonight's dinner included vegetables and fruit native to the land. In the absence of light all were shades of grey, but under a chloromyce shroo would emit rainbow-like patterns. Eka wished Zucca was here to see this.
Renzo made a toast to the newly appointed monarch, a luminescent drink that looked like liquid starlight. All raised their glasses and began to shout in unison:
The night ended with a master of shadow puppetry, performing a play on the outer wall of the garden. A comedy involving Kurono and the foreigners. Lupin laughed hard, belly aching with very joke. Eka clapped with much fervor, causing the hands to keep vibrating long after stopping.
All went to bed late, exhausted from the day's events. The kingdom was quiet that morning. All slept. All, except for Renzo. Renzo had skipped the puppet show to visit Demeri's quarters. The former Sovereign was free to roam the palace, but had no more governing power.
Eka and Lupin never did find out how the visit went, but something in Renzo was different. After all this time, it looked as though the metalworker's apprentice had found peace.
After the festivities were over, Eka, Lupin and Ren were ready to get on their way. All had full bellies and enough supplies for the trip back to Renate. They stood at the edge of the city, Kurono and Sixteen were there to see them off.
“You won’t stay?” Kurono asked Ren. “I'd like you to be my advisor. You would be good at it.”
"I still have things to do in Renate, I'll comeback someday. I promise." Ren bowed lightly, thanking Kurono. “You will be a just leader.”
Kurono smiled. "These are hard times, but my people are resilient! I'll do my best!" The Light turned to Eka and Lupin, giving them two gifts. The first, was a set of five blank conk shroo pages, the librarian had insisted on it. The second, was an ear of dried chloromyce. “You've returned my friend Sixteen to me and helped to uncover a terrible secret. What more can I do for you?”
“For the same hospitality to be given to all who visit,” Lupin said, Eka agreed, "—Oh, and um, could we have some chloromyce noodles? Or is that a monk-only thing?"
Kurono smiled at this, nodding. "I'll woth a fresh batch over to you in Renate."
Eka glanced at Lupin then, smiling widely. "Wow, it really IS used as a verb!" Lupin said.
Sixteen came to Kurono’s side, even after being freed of servitude the youngling insisted on shadowing the Light, finding happiness and comfort in it. Kurono treated Sixteen as a friend, forbidding the use of masks. When asked to choose a name, Sixteen kept the number.
"Really? That's hardly a name." Kurono had said. Sixteen insisted on it, so Kurono never asked again.
Kurono watched as the foreigners disappeared back into the desert. “Would you like to start living in the day again?” The Light asked Sixteen. “I would love to see the sun.”
Together, in silence, they watched the stars above. Kurono took Sixteen's hand. Sixteen’s body stiffened, eyes as round as full moons. Kurono laughed, dragging the youngling back toward the palace. “Lots to do! Let’s get to it!”Continue to Chapter 1