3204 words (12 minute read)

Chapter 3

To my dear children, Myra and Robb.
May you find inspiration from the adventures of my youth.

Robb was fixated on the inscription. Was he reading it right? Did the book before him belong to his father? In the midst of the excitement, there was a growing doubt. For years, outside forces had failed to shake his faith in his father’s survival. Yet somehow, in the presence of tangible proof, it quivered under the forces within.

This… is it.

Inhaling, Robb pulled together the questions in his head and chucked them at the back of his mind. Briefly free from his own doubts, he turned the page over. And with that, he had stepped into the adventurous world of the young Prince Pater.

It started with two-pages of the prince describing his desires to explore the universe. Prince Pater had a dream to make peace with as many realms as he could. He wanted to share the wonders of Zeruko with the universe—however wide it may be. So the prince decided to visit the realms he had learned about, and the king was more than happy to send him off. Undeniably, it was a diplomatic move with great intentions.

The pages after that detailed the prince’s voyage from one realm to another. He spent many years in different lands and wrote letters to home to share his encounters. Sometimes, he would send home a gift from his favourite palace, town, and city. From vases and paintings to clothing and spices, Zeruko made friendly relations with many neighbouring worlds through the prince’s laudable efforts. But that wasn’t all to the prince’s quest. Along the way, Prince Pater befriended the locals in an endeavour to exchange stories. Some of these people found his tales thrilling and requested to follow along on his newer exploits. And with company, the stories only got better.

Every account in the journal, accompanied with the prince’s talent for art, illustrated the perfect escapade from reality. Robb found himself flipping one page after another, like a child hooked on his favourite book—if he actually had one. However, there was one particular story that slowed him down—one story that required a reread. It was toward the end of the book where the prince wrote about a realm called Meihua.

Covered in shades of autumn flora, streaks of opal waters, and chalk-white cliffs, Meihua was a picturesque world. Its people lived in small towns in the valleys of majestic mountains, and they lit their wooden homes with painted lanterns. Their streets brightened with vendors on both sides. And its citizens sported colourful, wave-like clothing, reflecting the ever-celebrative nature of the realm. Meihua read like paradise. But it wasn’t the realm that had Robb glued to its pages. It wasn’t even the discovery of its existence that captured his attention.

According to Prince Pater’s writings, he confessed to have fallen in love. The maiden who stole his heart had long black hair, dark eyes, and a pale complexion. Her smile was as peaceful as a gentle breeze, and her voice was as sweet as the morning bird’s song. From the way the prince described his first love, Robb was reminded of his sister. It didn’t take him long to realise that Prince Pater was writing about Robb’s mother. Toward the end of that particular entry, his mother made a promise to visit the prince in Zeruko. Whether or not she did, Robb didn’t need his father to pen it down.

It was the first time Robb had heard or read anything about his mother. The royal council spoke kindly of her, but they never had any personal stories to share. What was she really like? Did she enjoy the sunset? Was she gifted with a sweet melody? How many books were in her private library? Robb only found the answers to those questions in his father’s journal. Still, he yearned for more. And with that desire, he decided to put Meihua on his itinerary.

Meihua was one of the realms amongst the thirty rings. In fact, all the realms stated in the journal were amongst the rings that Spion had prepared. With the journal in hand, Robb now had a guide for his quest.

Once Robb was done reading, he left the reading room with the journal. He had lost all track of time, but wasn’t surprised to find that night had arrived. Quickly making his way to the centre of the floor, Robb called for Spion.

“Up here,” Spion replied, from the floor above.

Robb sprinted up the stairs, two steps at a time, as he waved the journal in his hand.

“What’s that?” Spion asked.

“My father’s journal,” Robb announced, with excitement framing his disposition. “The old lady gave it to me. Do you know where she is?”

Spion furrowed his brows. “What do you mean your father’s journal? And what lady?” Spion edged toward the handrail and peered over. “I haven’t seen anyone.”

“Here. Take a look.” Robb handed the journal to Spion. But after a quick browsing through its pages, Spion shook his head.

“This might be fake,” Spion said. Then lowering his voice, Spion added, “It might be a trap.”

The notion that the journal was a hoax hadn’t once dawned upon him. Robb had gleefully overlooked the possibility that it could’ve been gifted to lead him astray. Suddenly, he wasn’t excited. Suddenly, Robb was afraid. But it wasn’t the fear for his life—it was the fear that all that he had read was a lie. If Spion’s suspicion was true, then every story in the journal including the tale of his mother, was purely fiction. And Robb would return to being the child who never knew his parents.

“You’ve seen my father’s handwriting. Is it his?” Robb asked.

“It is, but it could’ve been forged,” Spion stated.

“No, I don’t think so. This is real.”

“Your Majesty, this-”

“Give it a read. It’s still raining outside, so we have time,” Robb interrupted. “There are stories in there that neither King Daemon nor anyone from Tentazoa could’ve known. Stories about the realms and the items my father sent home. Stories about my mother too.”

Obliging, Spion proceeded to flipping the book open again. But at the dedication page, Spion paused, frowned, and asked, “You said an old lady gave this to you. What did she look like?”

“Oh, well…” In the attempt to recall her features, Robb’s mind drew blank—his childhood memory of her appearance had seemingly evanesced too. “She looks old, and she speaks rather softly. She has golden hair and blue eyes.”

“That’s how everyone here looks—young and old,” Spion stated, and not as a tease.

“She’s the one who takes care of this place. You didn’t see her?”

“No. I’ve been sitting here watching, and I didn’t hear or see anyone.”

“That’s strange,” Robb replied, feigning ignorance to the cause of concern.

“That’s troubling, Your Majesty. We should make a move.”

“You worry too much.”

“I’m just being cautious.”

“Of course you are. But she’s harmless,” Robb said with a chuckle. “Give that journal a read. I’ll write a letter to Myra while you’re at it. Perhaps this journal will convince her to extend our quest.”

Robb didn’t wait for Spion to respond. He plopped by a nearby table and ruffled through Spion’s backpack for a parchment and quill. The quill was self-inking, which saved them the trouble should a bottle of ink leak onto their belongings. As he armed himself with one of the most powerful weapons known to man, Robb thought about what to say before deciding to write whatever came to mind.

The quill danced on the parchment in sharp curves and rough edges. By the time it reached the bottom, Robb scribbled his name and speed-read his written words once more. He thought he did a convincing job with his letter—he was straight to the point about finding his father’s journal, and he piqued curiosity by describing his mother. Confidently, Robb stated that the journal would lead him in the right direction. He told his sister that he intended to follow their father’s trail and asked her what she thought about the plan.

Pleased with what he’d written, Robb folded the letter and tied it with a golden thread. He then asked Spion for the bottle of raindrops, and proceeded with dripping a drop of rain onto the knotted thread. The water splat onto the parchment, before trailing toward the four edges. It didn’t smear the ink but magically dissolved the letter into thin air. Passed out of sight, Robb knew that the letter was sent—Myra would be reading it in a couple of hours, when the royal messenger delivered it to her.

Items and people sent into Zeruko used the golden thread as their twin object. The thread would bring them to a cave in the mountains, sequestered an hour away from the city. The underground chamber, with walls that glittered from specks of gold, was the arrival ground for Zeruko’s spies and ambassadors. Occasionally, articles would be sent through—often gifts from allied realms or letters from one of their own. Heavily guarded and inconspicuous, it was one of Zeruko’s best kept secrets—undisclosed even to their own citizens.

“Done with the letter?” Spion asked, peering up from the journal.

Robb nodded, and said, “Myra would probably write back soon.”

“The case is in the front pocket. And there’s food in the bag too, if you’re hungry,” Spion replied.

“Got it.”

Robb retrieved the case—a flat, rectangular box, lined with a different kind of thread. Spion had prepared a means for the siblings to stay in touch—handing Myra the special roll of yarn the night before their departure.

“Are these freshly baked?” Robb asked as he pulled out a sack of buns.

“I believe so.”

“Great. I’ll just sit here and eat them then.”

Spion turned to Robb, and Robb waved for him to continue reading. Robb knew it would take a while, thus he occupied himself with another book—one that had more pictures than words. But as the rain pattered against the windows, setting a perfect environment for reading, Robb found the book a dreadful bore. And without realising, he drifted into dreamworld.

When Robb returned to reality, it wasn’t at his will. Groggily opening his eyes, Spion gave him another gentle nudge while waving a letter before him.

“Your sister wrote back,” Spion said.

“That was fast.”

“It’s almost morning.”

“What?” Robb croaked. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“You seemed to like cuddling that book. What’s it about again? Teddy bears around the world?”

“It’s a boring book.”

Robb sat up and placed the book, front cover down, on the table. Eager to hear some good news, he snatched the letter from Spion, hastily unfolded the parchment, and read out loud.

“Dear Robb, now I don’t mean to sound sceptical, but is this journal for real? I have my doubts. So please, be certain it is. You can’t trust everything that you read. You have to be very, very sure. If it is real, then it would certainly prove useful. And, I want to see it for myself too when you return. As for what you wrote about mother, is there more?”

Robb grunted and rolled his eyes at Myra’s contradicting interests.

“About your quest, perhaps I was wrong to give you such a short time frame. A part of me knows that you probably wouldn’t keep your promise anyway. So it doesn’t even matter, does it? But honestly, I’m still not sure if you should stay away for so long. After you left, I had a bad feeling. And when I told the royal council about your ‘sabbatical’, they weren’t pleased about it either. But I won’t tell you when you should come home. I don’t want to be a nag.”

“Since when is she not?” Robb muttered under his breath. When Spion cleared his throat in response, Robb said, “Well, it’s true,” before returning to the letter.

“So, I’ll leave that up to you. Somehow, something tells me you have to do this. I can’t shake it off, nor can I deny it. So just go and bring father home. I believe in you. On a side note, I received news that Prince Malum is no longer in Tentazoa. So stay vigilant, brother. I’ll try my best to keep Zeruko safe while you’re away. Love, Myra.”

“That’s a quick change of heart,” Robb added.

“Prince Malum is no longer in Tentazoa?” Spion asked with a frown.

Delighted at having successfully convinced his sister, Robb glimpsed over the added fact. It was only when Spion requested to see the letter that Robb realised he shouldn’t be celebrating. Prince Malum being away from home was far from good news. The prince was King Daemon’s only son—the sole heir to Tentazoa. So what malicious plot did they have that required the prince to leave home?

“Should I… return to Zeruko?” Robb asked. He hated the thought of ending the quest, but it felt like the kingly thing to do.

“I don’t think we have to worry about that now, Your Majesty. Let’s continue looking for your father.”

“Yea. You’re right,” Robb replied, grateful that Spion wasn’t for the idea either. “And you know what? I don’t have a curfew anymore.”

“You see, your sister isn’t so hard to convince.”

“Well, that’s because I’m a master at changing minds,” Robb said with a smirk.

“I think you might be mistaken, Your Majesty. You’re not the twin with that talent.”

Robb had a clever remark at the tip of his tongue. But before he could utter it, Spion added, “So, where to next? Do you want to follow the journal?”

“Oh, you believe in it now? You don’t think it’s fake?”

“It reads like the heart of your father. I can’t deny that. The odds of it being real is higher than it being forged,” Spion stated.

“I told you.”

“You win.”

“As always.” Robb winked. “I do want to follow the journal. It’s giving us a direction to head to. But, I still want to go to Tentazoa.”

“Are you sure that’s wise, after hearing from the Queen?”

“Well, Prince Malum is gone.”

“And he’s the lesser of two evils. King Daemon still resides in Tentazoa.”

“You know why we need to go, Spion,” Robb said.

“Tentazoa is up to something, Your Majesty. Entering enemy territory might not be a good plan right now.”

“I think it’s a great plan. We can kill two birds with one stone. We can try to dig around and uncover their evil schemes while we’re there.”

“Still, I-”

“I’ve decided. We’re going to Tentazoa.”

“Very well.”

Spion retreated to gather their belongings, while Robb went on a search for the elderly lady. He wanted to convey his gratitude for the gift. Alas, she had seemingly vanished. So, Robb resorted to leaving a simple note on the reception counter. When the pair finally departed from the library, the sun had risen.

That particular morning was sunny and optimistic. The ground had dried overnight and a refreshing breeze whistled through the air. Robb and Spion agreed that Vetus lane was the least conspicuous location to make their entry into Tentazoa. But as they set course in its direction, they didn’t rush their morning stroll. Scriptorium was a laidback realm and its people weren’t the earliest of birds. Absent of another soul, the two didn’t have to worry about raising suspicion.

Once at Vetus lane, Robb picked a random house along the street. Just like the one they’d arrived in, it was dusty, musty, and decaying from the inside out. The only furniture was a tattered, mouldering couch. And the floral-patterned wallpaper, which once served as a cheerful greeting, peeled depressingly.

“I never liked this place,” Spion stated.

“It’s not too bad,” Robb replied.

Spion raised an eyebrow and Robb shrugged. Robb then took the wooden box from Spion and returned the Scriptorium ring to its cushion. Running a finger down the same row, he stopped at a solid blood-red ring. Splitting it in two, Robb slipped his piece on.

“Are you sure about this?” Spion asked.

“Yes,” Robb answered, reaching out his hand as he did.

“I’m afraid this time, I’ll have to go first. Just in case,” Spion said, as he handed Robb the bottle of raindrops.

Nodding, Robb did the honour and dripped a raindrop onto Spion’s ring. He witnessed Spion’s departure—gracefully vaporising like a spirit, blown by an impalpable wind. Then, after taking one last look around, Robb plopped a raindrop onto his own ring. And shortly after, he found himself in a storeroom.

It was another sneeze inducing arrival, and Robb blurted, “Why here? Why, Spion? I have sinus problems.”

Day hadn’t left Tentazoa, and the evening sky casted soft and blurry shadows on the walls and floor. The storeroom was at the back of a shop, with dust-covered rows of metal shelves lined from left to right.

“Sorry, it’s the best I could find. The owner of this place is dead and has no heirs,” Spion replied, as he headed to retrieve a large box on top of a shelf.

“Oh, that’s convenient,” Robb muttered, before stifling a sneeze. Once he was sure it was safe to speak, without breaking into a sneezing frenzy, he asked, “Are we in the dark zone of Tentazoa?”

Tentazoa was a dark realm. It fancied the colours black and red, but primarily black and every shade of black that has ever existed. However, there was an area in the realm detached from the rest. Its cobbled streets were dated and grubby, and its residents didn’t seem to grasp the concept of hygiene. Tentazoa was technologically advanced, with well-dressed citizens and tidy walkways. But in the midst of its booming development was an exiled district. Robb didn’t know what to call the area, so the best words his mind could put together were ‘dark zone’.

“It’s not a popular place,” Spion answered as he flipped the box over, spilling the contents onto the floor. Amongst them were two sets of clothing, a bottle of red dye, and a spray can.

“What are all these for?” Robb asked.

“We can’t walk around looking like ourselves, so I had these prepared in advance.”

“Let me guess, we’re having a makeover.”

“Don’t worry, Your Majesty.” Spion smirked. “You’ll look like a new man once I’m done. Trust me.”