The war had ended—a battle won with the assistance of unfathomable magic. Not a single soul—no scholar, no astronomer, and no commander—had the answers as to how it transpired. But the speculations of who nestled in the air.
“Did you really see him?” Robb asked.
Robb had watched the battle from the city’s outer wall—neither old nor skilled enough to join the fight, he was kept at a safe distance. He witnessed the slowing of the rain. He saw how time stretched to their favour, aiding their soldiers as the enemy was impervious to the magic of the land. Alas, that was all. Unlike those on the battlefield, Robb didn’t glimpse his father.
“Did you really see him?” Robb repeated.
Robb had requested to meet with Spion in the royal garden. He had heard the rumours—talk of the late King Pater returning to fight the war with his people. Since Spion was amongst the other men who claimed to have seen their king, Robb had hope that Spion would douse all of his doubts.
“I cannot confirm, Your Highness,” Spion said.
As the marble fountains trickled and the cool evening breeze rustled the blossoming flora, the deep orange sky began its transition to night. And in its reflection was Robb’s optimism that his father was alive.
“But everyone else saw him, and I heard you say it too.”
“You said it. You said you saw him. I heard you,” Robb insisted.
“I did but we were all in shock. The magic and the rain… we just, we don’t know what we saw, Your Highness.”
“You saw him, Spion.”
“Your Highness, I-”
“No, you did. And we’re going to find him,” Robb stated, as confidently as a twelve-year-old would with youthful faith.
“How?” Spion asked. A hint of sympathy glazed his face—a disposition many failed to withhold whenever Robb enquired about his father.
“I’ll think of a way,” Robb said. “But I need you to believe.”
“Say you’ll believe, Spion. There’s nothing to lose,” Robb insisted. “Just say you’ll believe.”
Perhaps Spion conceded out of duty, or perhaps he truly did believe. But where the man found credence, Robb couldn’t care less. All he needed was a fellow believer—one that would keep him accountable to his own faith.
Father is alive.
Those three words echoed in the depths of his cloudless mind. Standing before the tall, oak-framed window, Robb watched as day ended its shift. While night clocked in, the clear amber sky gracefully gave way to the radiance of the full moon. And in the peaceful arrival of darkness, the kingdom below lit with cheerful, vibrant lanterns—a glowing reflection of the starry canvas above.
As the crackling logs in the marble fireplace warmed the bedchamber, Robb reaffirmed his belief. His heart, too, accorded—absent of any lingering questions.
Father is alive.
On most days, Robb retreated to his bedchamber to behold the sunset. It marked the end of yet another uneventful day—the kind of day he was especially fond of. And, every now and then, he would bid the sun goodnight with his trusted friend, Spion.
Robb first met Spion—a tall and tanned enemy agent, with auburn hair, high cheekbones, and a lean physique—in hostile territory. Robb was merely twelve years of age when Spion became his living armour. The soldier guarded Robb’s life at their enemy’s sword, and assisted Robb on his journey home. So despite the decade in age gap, they had become brothers—though not without Robb occasionally reminding Spion who was king, in jest. But why, of all brotherly activities to share, sunsets?
For the past few years, the pair had been on a secret mission—one where not a single other soul was made privy due to its biased nature. To avoid discovery, Spion reported in three times a week, while the sun dipped into the horizon. As the realm embraced nightfall, Spion would present Robb a ring to add to the growing collection. But that particular night was the end of the mission. No longer was there a need for discretion as a new operation commenced—Robb’s father was alive, and they were going to find him.
As Robb waited for Spion, he dwelled in the memory of this beginning—the time he uncovered his identity, five years ago. It felt like yesterday when his life took an unpredictable turn. From an orphan boy to a prince—such a tale belonged in a storybook, if not a fairytale. He often found it unbelievable, like a dream too bizarre to comprehend. Fortunately, there was enough proof—a royal record of how he came to be. Robb was unequivocally the son of a king. But alas, he was the son of a king who was absent—a king supposedly dead. Before Robb involuntarily dived into the painful recollection of the past, three confident knocks came from the bedchamber door.
“Your Majesty, my apologies for being late,” Spion said—his deep voice muffled by the thick double doors.
“Come in,” Robb replied.
With his broad shoulders squared, Spion entered with a wooden, rectangular box in his hands. Halting before Robb, Spion offered the hand-sized case with a customary bow.
The box was akin to a receptacle homing paint brushes or opisometers, if one were a painter or a cartographer. As the box belonged to Robb, it homed an upcoming adventure. Taking the wooden case from Spion, Robb slid the top lid backward, and asked, “Are these all?”
Three rows of rings nestled in crimson, velvet cushion—each ring unique, in a variant of colour and intricate carvings. Different jewellery makers in the realm—sworn to secrecy—flaunted their skills to carve one ring each. And none of them were made privy of the collection’s existence.
“Yes,” Spion replied.
“Thank you, Spion.”
“With the collection complete, when will you tell the Queen?” Spion asked.
Spion turned toward the window—his towering shadow stretched far behind him. Night had long arrived. With the moon basking in its very own pastel glow, Robb took Spion’s silent response as a prompt and decided that the time was now.
Convincing Robb’s twin, to let him go on such a quest, was a challenge. Robb had only met Myra when they were twelve, but he was quick to learn his sister’s nature. Myra was a skeptic—far from convincible with matters she deemed as a waste of time. And unfortunately, his request made that list.
“Would you like me to accompany you?” Spion offered.
“No. I’ll be fine on my own,” Robb said. “I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow morning.”
Spion nodded. Giving another customary bow, Spion excused himself—leaving Robb to his daunting assignment. Despite the dread, it was inevitable. It had to be done. So taking a deliberate breath, Robb gathered his thoughts one last time. And after a few minutes, he was ready. He exited his bedchamber for the library.
The library was Myra’s second bedchamber. The maidservants, royal guards, and even the kitchen staff knew that she ended her day with a thick book on her lap. Myra found the many shelves, stacked with leatherbound pages, comforting. And Robb couldn’t understand why. The only thing he liked about the library were the stained glass windows—vivid and dazzling illustrations of the realms of the universe—that overlooked the royal flowering garden below. It was the only other reason he would visit book haven—that, and when he needed to speak to Myra.
“What do you want?” Myra asked, the moment she caught him peeking past the double doors. Perhaps, it wasn’t a good time—Myra hated interruptions while she read.
“Is that a good book?” Robb replied.
“What do you want, Robb?” Myra repeated, withholding not her annoyance.
Despite being fraternal twins, Robb and Myra had the same dark almond eyes, black straight hair, and defined jawline. They shared a narrow and straight built, with Robb being half a head taller. It would merely take one look for anyone to presume they were siblings, if not blood related.
That night, Myra planted herself at the far end of the library, facing the oak doors. She had a surprisingly thin book in her hands, a page away from closing. The candle chandelier hanging high above tinted every surface in the room marigold, except for her long, straight hair.
“I came to see the garden,” Robb said.
“Sure you did. What do you want?” Myra rose to her feet and returned the book to the neighbouring shelf.
“Ah, you know me so well.” Robb chuckled. “I, well, I actually need to tell you something.”
“Tell me what?” Myra reached for another book, considerably thicker than the last.
With another deliberate inhale, Robb shoved his hesitation aside and announced, “I’m leaving Zeruko with Spion.”
Honestly, that wasn’t how Robb intended to begin. He had a better speech prepared, one he had rehearsed the entire day. Alas, the words he’d craftily strung together scattered the moment they needed to be spoken.
“What for?” Myra asked, as she narrowed her eyes.
“Father is alive, Myra.”
And at that statement, Myra sighed—at that very moment, Robb knew that he presented a losing case. Stating old opinions wouldn’t sway his sister, and that night wasn’t the first night he insisted on his belief. So when Myra frowned, it was to no surprise.
“We saw him die, Robb,” Myra stated.
“No, we didn’t. We didn’t actually see it.”
Neither Robb nor Myra witnessed their father’s death in their wakening moments. They had both dreamt it on the same night, before it was confirmed the following morning. Robb, of course, wouldn’t believe it. Since he learned of his father’s murder, he couldn’t accept that his only living parent had left him. And till that very day, no one could challenge his faith. No council member, no scholar, and not even his own sister, has successfully convinced him otherwise.
“That’s not evidence. You can’t just pick up and leave. When are you going to grow up?” Myra frowned.
“It’s good enough evidence. I can feel him, Myra. Can’t you? I know he’s alive.”
Shaking her head, Myra strode toward him like an exasperated mother dealing with a stubborn child. Placing the book on a reading table, Myra set her hands on her hips—Robb was ready for a lecture.
“So, where is he now? Where do you think you’ll find father?” Myra asked. It was a challenge. There was no curiosity in her tone.
“You know the room where father stored the artefacts from different realms?”
“I believe he might be in one of those… those realms.”
“How do you intend to shuffle around paintings and vases? That’s a silly idea, mind you.”
“I don’t intend to, I have these rings,” Robb replied, promptly showing Myra the box. “I had Spion plant rings in those realms. The rings here will take me to their twins there.”
“So wait, Spion wasn’t scouting the universe?” Myra looked almost horrified by the fact. “He was on a secret mission and you didn’t tell me?”
“Well, technically, he was scouting the universe. And, I didn’t tell you, because I knew you wouldn’t have agreed to it. But, I need you to agree with me now.”
Myra heaved another sigh before looking away. There was a brief moment of silence before she spoke again. With eyes still gazing at a distance, as though thoughtfully considering his request, Myra asked, “Who’s going to take charge of the realm’s defence?”
“The past years have been peaceful.”
“That’s not an answer.” Myra brought her narrowed gaze upon his.
“You will. And we have-”
“I know nothing about war, Robb. We agreed on this, didn’t we? You protect the realm, I provide for the people. We agreed to run the kingdom together.”
“And we agreed to help each other too. Besides, with all the books you’ve read, you probably know more about the art of war than I do,” Robb reasoned. “There’s really no difference between you and me. It’s not like I’ve been on the battlefield.”
“There is. You’re the king.”
“And you’re queen regent.”
Robb imagined the mechanics in Myra’s brain working the logic behind his words. He hoped she attempted to believe in him, despite the obvious frustration displayed in her countenance.
Robb and Myra were able to agree on most things. Together, they ruled the realm of Zeruko for the past five years, with rarely any clashing of opinions. When the royal council thought a decision was unwise, they backed each other up. And with Myra being better with words, she could wield them to change minds. Alas, when it came to their past, they couldn’t always see eye-to-eye.
Unaware of each other’s existence, the twins exchanged their first words after their father’s supposed murder. Myra had been raised in the house of the enemy, while Robb grew up alone and unwanted—the orphan boy who was disregarded for simply appearing different. Perhaps that was why Robb was adamant about their father’s death. What he had hoped to be a happily ever after—where happy endings were usually written—became a short-lived reunion when his father never returned.
“Myra, just give me some time. I can travel the realms easily with these rings, and I won’t be gone for long. Let me find father and bring him home. Then, we can be a family again,” Robb said.
Myra remained mum.
“I’ll keep in touch. And if Zeruko ever needs me, I’ll return immediately. Just let me do this, please. Believe in me,” Robb pleaded.
The unwavering spirit in Myra’s eyes softened, and Robb knew his words were working. Not wanting to foil his efforts, he added, “Spion will be with me at all times, so I won’t be in any danger. If I can’t find father after visiting these realms, I’ll never bring it up again. I promise.”
“How many realms are there? Father’s collection is rather large,” Myra stated. She was right, of course. The room where their father stored the artefacts was alike a private museum. Though, most of the items did come from a few of the same realms.
“Around twenty. Maybe thirty.” Robb shrugged.
“Thirty? If it took Spion years to plant rings in thirty realms, how much time do you need to search them all?”
“I... probably won’t go to all of them,” Robb attempted a lie.
“You probably would. I know you, Robb. This is ridiculous. How do you expect me to approve of this?”
“I don’t need your approval, Myra. I need your agreement. Just give me two weeks,” Robb said.
“Right, agreement. My bad. So where do you intend to go in just two weeks?”
“Scriptorium,” Robb said.
Robb didn’t make mention of Tentazoa, knowing his sister would put her foot down at the utterance of even its first syllable. Tentazoa was the place she once called home—the same place their father never returned from. Tentazoa was their archenemy, seventeen years ago, five years ago, and for many more years to come.
“I think my past might help. It will also be nice to revisit the place. If you don’t like the idea of me looking for father, then pretend I’m going on a holiday. You can tell the royal council I’m taking a two-week sabbatical,” Robb added.
“No king takes a sabbatical, Robb.” Myra shook her head and folded her arms. The mechanics in her head were still hard at work—hopefully justifying a reason to accept his request.
Robb’s mind was working too—puffing smoke as he scoured for convincing reasons to prove his case worthy. When he realised that he had nothing more to say, Robb was ready to demand his way. But to his amazement, Myra conceded.
“Two weeks and two weeks only. I want you back home after, and I want you to write to me whenever you can,” Myra said.
“Of course… mother. I wouldn’t want you to miss me.”
“I’m serious, Robb.”
“You have my word, Your Majesty,” Robb said, giving her a bow. Having somewhat won the battle, he flashed her a childish grin.
“Stop with that silly smile. We’re not children anymore,” Myra snapped.
“Apologies, Your Majesty. I have yet to mature, unlike you. Enjoy your fat book,” Robb responded with a wink. He didn’t wait for Myra to speak before skipping out of the library—he couldn’t risk her going back on her word.
Once the oak doors closed behind him, Robb stood in disbelief—incredibly, he had convinced Myra of his quest. And to celebrate, he did a childish victory dance—an unkingly performance, that if Myra saw, she would have clicked her tongue. Oh, how the thought of her predictable reaction extended his grin. That night, in the relief of a success, Robb slept like a log. And when the rooster crowed the following dawn, he called for Spion to announce the good news.
Robb met Spion in the royal garden. The towering shady trees, trickling marble fountains, and sweet floral scent, was his escape from royal duties. Whenever Robb wanted to ruminate about his father, he would do so amongst the colourful blooming flowers, fluttering butterflies, and singing birds.
“When do we leave, Your Majesty?” Spion asked, as they planted themselves on a marble bench beneath a fruitful apple tree.
“Tomorrow. I’ll inform Myra later—at breakfast.”
Spion nodded. “I’ll prepare the raindrops and the necessities tonight.”
“Unfortunately, Myra is only giving us two weeks. So we’ll need to find evidence in Tentazoa that my father is alive. Then, she’ll have no other choice but to extend the quest.”
“We’ll need to take extra precautions in Tentazoa, Your Majesty,” Spion replied. “That realm has changed since your last visit—their technology has advanced.”
“Don’t worry, Spion. I’m no longer a child. I’ll be careful.” Robb winked.
Spion chuckled. “That’s reassuring to know, Robb.”
“It’s still King Robb while you’re here.”
“My apologies, Little King,” Spion said, giving Robb a friendly pat on the back.
“Watch your words, soldier.” Robb smirked, and added, “I know how to use a sword.”
“And so do I.”
Robb trusted Spion to handle the preparations, while he informed Myra of his leaving. It was easier the second time around, as she simply nodded and reminded him of his promise. In times as such, Robb imagined what it would be like as the sole ruler of the realm. He wouldn’t have to seek an agreement to do whatever he so desired. Alas, he wouldn’t be able to play truant for weeks either. Robb had to admit that having Myra was a blessing, even if she nagged and occasionally bossed him around. She was the older one after all. And evidently, the better ruler.
When the morning for their departure arrived, Robb rose before the sun and left the castle grounds on tippy-toes—down the velvet-carpeted staircase of his tower, into the grandeur of the great hall, across the marble royal courtyard, and past the castle’s golden gates. He was dressed in a plain shirt and a pair of straight-cut pants—unlike what anyone in Zeruko would don, let alone a king. Spion dolled himself in a similar fashion, with a black backpack of essentials slung over his shoulder.
As the sky of Zeruko brightened, the pair emerged from the shadows like tourists on a medieval film set. They strolled across the grey-cobbled city square before entering the main street—the wide cobbled path winded downward, passing beneath the towering stone walls. The walls, with archways for passing, divided the city into three rings; the inner ring where the royals and government officials lived and breathed, the middle ring where homes and the occasional tavern and bakery rooted, and the outer ring where vendors flanked the street with their colourful stalls, stocked with fresh produce and inventive goods. At that unseasonal hour, the kingdom had yet to fully wake. Thus, only a handful of citizens were present to give them questioning stares.
Once the duo exited the majestic, pearly white kingdom gates, they set course for the neighbouring forest. In attempts to keep his departure as discreet as possible, Robb thought the forest to be the best place to harness magic. When they’d trudged deep enough—amongst the dense trees, absent of another soul—Robb retrieved the ring to Scriptorium from the wooden box.
It was a smooth purple ring made from one of the rarest gemstones in the realm. Alike the other rings in the box, a thin line had been etched along the diameter of the ring. The line marked where the inch-thick ring could be split into two separate pieces. As Robb gave the ring a gentle twist, the purple ring came apart—one piece for Robb and the other for Spion. After slipping on their rings, Spion retrieved a palm-sized cylindrical bottle from his pocket. It might seem like a bottle too small for realm travelling but its contents sufficed.
Within the protective gold casing—carved with an eagle whose outstretched wings swept around the cylinder—there was a collection of magical raindrops, bottled from the mightiest lake in the kingdom. The definite reason for Tentazoa to wage war with Zeruko was the Great Lake. The magical properties of each raindrop, which gave a person the ability to travel through realms, retained its potency in Zeruko. And the Great Lake collected it all.
“You first, Your Majesty,” Spion said, flipping the bottle lip open.
Robb stretched out his hand and Spion tipped the bottle. A single raindrop gracefully plopped onto the smooth curvature of the purple ring. When it made contact, it seeped through the marble texture and slithered up his hand in streaks of glistening water. Robb hadn’t forgotten the cold, tingling sensation nor the sight of magic at work, but he still gaped at what happened next.
Lifting his gaze from the ring, the trees before him faded and merged with a dull imagery of a vacated living room. As the worlds collided, the trees evanesced and the room steadily came into full form. The ground beneath his feet was no longer moist from the midnight showers—it was now a dry, brown-stained carpet. The freshness of the morning air had also vanished. Now thick with dust, it tempted him to sneeze.
Turning to his right, Robb witnessed Spion’s arrival. Spion materialised as a body of water, gathered from the air around them. And as his form slowly emerged, each water droplet rose from his being into the air. They vaporised under incorporeal heat, returning as an essence of the realm. When Spion finally stood dry as the desert, Robb asked, “Where are we?”
Robb didn’t recognise the house. It wasn’t the Scriptorium he remembered. But instead of a reply, Spion tilted his head at the front door. The wordless response was far from assuring. However, once they exited the abandoned home, Robb found his answer.
The long, lifeless street, surrounded by dilapidated haunting houses, was Vetus lane. The sight of its soulless plight sent a wave of nostalgia up his shore. The memory of running down the forgotten street greeted him like an old friend. Vetus lane had remained in its mournful state, and the burnt structure at the far end instantly piqued his interest.
“Welcome home, Robb,” Spion said.
“I guess... you can call it home.”
“Where to first?”
Without a second thought, Robb replied, “The warehouse.”