When Iris reached the river, if so it could be called, it looked small enough to leap over if one had a long enough lead up, but there was also a quiet sense of immensity to it. The water was crystal blue and clear, but so deep Iris could not see the riverbed beneath. Water flowers, though none Iris had ever known, dotted the surface and floated gently downstream. Startlingly smooth, the river’s surface was straight and unblemished but for the flowers, as if any ripples or waves had been sheared off. Staring at its beauty, Iris realized she was unbearably thirsty.
It was an odd realization. Her mouth wasn’t dry, nor was her throat cracked, but she knew in an abstract way that it was crucial for her to drink from the icy blue water. For some reason she thought of tea, then shook the nagging thought off as extraneous. Slowly, she knelt at the river’s razor edge and lowered her head.
It was her reflection that kept her from severing her hands. As it was, her hair that fell to the water’s surface was sliced away, though she only felt the gentlest tug. Her hands, cupped and hovering above the river, shook slightly as she wondered at her likeness reflected in the water. Her skin was mottled green and blue and deep purple, like Erinlin’s Drowned, like Sellie, but the colors were deeper and darker than any she had ever seen. Eyes glowing gold like molten glass gleamed back at her, and hair silver and gossamer-fine floated around her head. Her antenna were back, feathery and curved, and her hands were covered in candle wax and gravedirt. Yet for all the changes, she knew it was still her own face that answered her gaze.
Then she felt a crushing noose around her neck and was yanked back hard onto the ground. Her fingers dug into the dirt as she struggled to breathe, and the pressure on her neck was quickly replaced by a sudden weight on her chest. As she gasped in a few breaths, she looked up at an angry frog glaring at her with pressed thin lips and narrowed eyes. Her wheezing began to sound more like ragged laughter before deteriorating into coughing. The frog remained sternly perched on her chest, its bulbous orange fingertips looking out of pale against the creamy wood of its long shepherd’s crook. Iris struggled to make sense of the image, realized it was within her capacity if she could just force herself to focus, then gave up and blacked out.
When she came to, she had a few blissful seconds of not knowing where she was, which were rudely curtailed by the vivid orange moon and a deluge of her recent memories. She groaned and rolled over, and came face to face with a frog the size of a young sheep.
“You’re the dumbest Candlemaiden I’ve ever met,” it said.
“Yeah, well, you’re the ugliest frog I’ve ever seen,” Iris replied in a rough voice, even though she had, in fact, seen less attractive amphibians. She had not, however, ever seen a frog quite like this one, who was sitting cross-legged with the shepherd’s crook planted in the ground beside him and a smug look on his face.
Iris turned eyes back to the purple sky and clinically considered not getting up ever again.”How does everyone know I’m a Candlemaiden anyway?”
“You’re a living child in Death’s realm. You’re not wearing the the robe, but you’re certainly no Zaksmander, so what else could you be? Though I’ve never before met a Candlemaiden who would try to drink from the Alaethos river.” The frog chuckled, his voice low and throaty. “You’ve got me to thank for your hands, by the way. The river would have cut them right off.”
Iris wanted to reply that the frog was being ridiculous, but she didn’t have the energy. Her mind kept returning to her skewed reflection, her long antennae and mottled skin. There had been an honesty to the image that had made the monstrous features almost compelling. Iris was reminded of gnarled old trees, which still retained a stark beauty when wet and bare and scraggly. Then she remembered her yew tree at home who had kept vigil with her in the graveyard, and she sighed at the weight of weary sadness in her chest.
Responding belatedly to the frog, she raised her hands and examined them. “They looked dirty in the reflection. There was red candle wax under my nails.” Now her hands were as they had always been, pale and slender and calloused, scattered with silver crescent scars from where she had nicked herself with a knife. Something slimy squirmed in her chest as the Ladies’ Kiss appeared on her left wrist. She slammed her hands back to the ground and sat up swiftly.
“So, where am I? What is this river?” Her right hand rose unconsciously to run through her hair, as it often did when she was nervous, but balked at what it felt. “What happened to my hair?” Iris tugged it into her field of vision. Her long hair had been sheared away diagonally, the shortest pieces up front barely reaching her chin. Then it seemed to taper, so that in the back it was as long as it had ever been. She stood up quickly and glared at the frog in wild accusation, though she wasn’t sure how or why he would have done such a thing.
He met her glare with a mix of exasperation and amusement. “Are you really that stupid? You’ve never heard of the river Alaethos? You don’t know what it does?”
“I may have heard of it,” Iris said defensively, standing up as she tried and failed to conjure up the relevant knowledge. “I just… don’t know anything about it.” As his expression gained a tint of derision, she felt the need to defend herself. “Look, I don’t know anything about this place, really. I was just trying to save a girl, or maybe she was a bird, from a river and I ended up here. Well, not here exactly. First I was in a village, and then I was in the Candlewood.” Iris shuddered. Remembering the Candlewood was like fading a bit out of existence all over again. “And when I tried to leave, I was given this stupid quest and now I’m stuck here and I don’t know what to do and-” Iris careened from the edge of tears to anger, “-and I don’t need some smug little toad with a ridiculous stick acting like he’s ten times better than me just because he knows something about a stupid river in a stupid realm that I don’t even want to be in.”
Iris took a ragged breath and let blue-green flames flare up from her fingertips and swim up her arms. “Now here’s how it’s gonna be, toad. You can help me and be nice about it, or I will spear you on your own stupid stick and burn you to ugly ashes. Got it?!” Though Iris didn’t know it, her eyes burned gold and her hair shone silver as she took out all her frustration and fear on the river guardian.
There was a tense pause filled only with Iris’s deep breaths before the creature replied.
“I’m a frog, not a toad.”
Iris felt her anger boil away, leaving only a fizzy giddiness behind. “Yeah, I know. Toads are bumpier. I was just being mean. You’re actually a very nice looking frog. I like how your hands are orange.”
“Thank you. It was very, um, impressive, what you did there with the flames.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t really sure it was going to work here.”
There was silence for a few heartbeats.
“So,” Iris said, putting some joviality into her voice, “Can you tell me about this river Alaethos?”
The frog blinked. “Of course. It’s the third river of Death, the river of truth. The truth is sharper than any sword, right? Drinking from Alaethos is like drinking needles, or shards of ice, but it’s necessary to move any further in this realm. Well, necessary if you’re a shade. Fatal if you’re still alive.” The frog gave Iris a reproachful look. “If I hadn’t stopped you, you would have lost your hands. The river is too potent to touch.”
“Then how do the shades drink from it?”
The frog grinned, his whole face distorted by his wide mouth, and dragged a passing flower to the shore with his crook. The flower had two curved slender stalks arcing out of its center, and when it was close enough, the frog pinched the two stalks and dipped the flower underwater. When he plucked it out of the water, Iris saw that it held water like a cup.
The flower was beautiful, Iris mused, admiring the tracery of purple on its creamy petals. Catching her interest, the frog grinned again, and then opened his wide mouth, tilted his head back, and dropped the whole flower-cup into his mouth. Blinking wildly, Iris watched as light rippled through the frog’s skin and the patterns in his eyes whirled.
“Delicious,” the river guardian said, and Iris realized that though he looked ridiculous, the frog was still a powerful spirit, and his river, with its idyllic appearance and floating flowers, could easily kill her.
Iris shivered, weary and wary of the realm she was in, a realm with alien logic and little pity for those who couldn’t keep up. In the frog, she had a chance to make some sense of the realm, to tease out answers about its mysteries, but she wasn’t even sure what questions to ask. Iris looked at the crystal surface of water and realized it didn’t mirror the purple sky.
“What did the river do to my reflection?”
“It showed the truth of you.”
“So that’s what I really am? Like, my soul?”
“Yes and no. Truth, as we can digest it, is multi-faceted.” The frog tipped his head to the side let out a low, thoughtful croak. “Here, look at it this way. A man is being hanged for treason in front of a large crowd. In the crowd, his daughter sees him as a loving father wrongly accused, his wife sees him as an adulterer who deserves to die, his comrades see him as a hero, a random spectator sees him as a criminal, and the crows see him as food. Which one is true?”
It was the sort of riddle Mother Hall liked to tell. “All of them and none, I suppose.”
“Precisely.” The frog pulled himself up with his crook. “This river exists to give the dead perspective. It sweeps away the fanciful cobwebs people cloak their memories in and shows them the scenes of their life from all angles.”
“But can’t that be painful?” Iris thought of Sellie, her arm twisted and bloated, lying limp on the floor of the infirmary because Skantos had thrown salt on the miller’s spirit trying to protect her.
The frog laughed. “The world is a painful place- for both the living and the dead. But everyone deserves, well, no, needs to learn from their mistakes. Humans are so delusional, so blind. Without Alaethos, they would strut on, not knowing how callously they cut others in life, or trudge along unaware they were sunshine to so many. In life, the truth is a fickle harlot, bought by the loudest voices and the scruple-less, but here the essence of the world is distilled and pure.” The frog puffed up his chest, which is a lot more noticeable on frogs than on men, and continued, “Which is why I chose to serve the river Alaethos as its guardian and steward. I protect its waters, give its gift to the shades that reach it, and allow those who are worthy to pass over it.”
Iris eyed the hazy silhouette of a castle tower in the distance. It wasn’t determination, exactly, that compelled her to reach it. It was more akin to desperation and resignation; she was stuck here anyway so she might as well follow through with her only semblance of a plan. Sighing, she brushed the dirt of her dress and tucked her strange new hair behind her ears.
“What do I have to do to be worthy?”
“I suppose you haven’t prepared the three traditional gifts.”
There was a long silence during which the unlikely pair simply stared at each other.
“Death herself gave me this quest.” Iris tried, rubbing her wrist and showing him the inky mark. The frog was peering at it dubiously when it writhed into a scythe and began to pulse, its dark light an eerie ultramarine. The river guardian backed away slowly, bulbous fingers tight around his shepherd’s staff, his iridescent copper eyes reflecting the mark’s persistent glowing.
Sensing an advantage, or at least hoping for one, Iris pressed her point, without quite knowing what that point was. She spoke with imperious pauses and formal wording, which in addition to adding gravity to her speech also gave her time to frantically reason out what to say. “I require passage over the river in order to continue my quest-” that much was true, probably, “-and as I am, in this quest, an agent of Death-” which was plausible and official sounding, “-and you are, in your capacity as a river guardian, her vassal-” she was a bit murky on what a vassal was, actually, but it sounded about right, “-you are required to aid me in this matter of crossing the river Alaethos.” A solid ending, certainly. She straightened out her shoulders and stared at the frog, waiting for his answer but trying to look as if she already knew he would obey. If she was going to be serious about this quest, then everyone else better play along.
The frog stared at the sky for a moment, and then blinked and swallowed. “Yes,” he said, slowly.
“I’ll let you cross.”
“Ah. Good.” Iris looked at the river and wondered how she was supposed the cross. Perhaps she had to jump from flower to flower like a frog? There didn’t seem to be any other way, unless she tried to leap fully over the river, but even as she thought of it, she imagined her foot lagging behind her and being chopped off by the razor water. Frog-jumping it was, then. Iris straightened out her shoulders and plotted her course.
The frog let out a small rumbling croak, and Iris looked up, a bit embarrassed; he clearly had more to say.
“How old are you?”
Iris tilted her head to the side, her mind hazy. How long had she been in this realm? How many years had she lost in the Candlewood? Her time there had seemed infinite. Iris looked at her hands, small and slender and scarred. They hadn’t changed. Her time here, however it stretched and shrunk when matched to the time in her own world, couldn’t count towards her real age, right?
“Fourteen summers,” Iris said, answering herself as well as the frog.
“Fourteen,” the frog murmured. “It should be enough.” He planted his shepherd’s crook solidly into the ground and took a few steps back. “Try to hold the crook.”
The wood was warm to Iris’s hesitant touch, and she wondered, as she closed her hand around it, if it would start to burn. It did heat up, perhaps, as she held it, but it also seemed to give way, as if rather than hard wood it was made of soft clay.
“Oh, that won’t do at all,” the frog said, snatching back his crook and giving Iris an odd look. “I suppose it will have to be a lotus, then.”
“Stay there for a second.” The frog hurried to the shore and caught a white lotus in his outstretched crook. As he carefully guided the flower to shore, Iris experienced a sudden shift in perception, not unlike when she was in the grave town; the river was suddenly so broad she could barely see the other side, and the lotus spinning towards her shore was at least her height and twice as wide.
“Well, climb in,” the frog said brusquely, before adding in a softer tone, “it’s perfectly safe. You only get one lotus, so I hope this quest of yours is worth it.”
“I don’t think I have much of a choice,” Iris muttered, staring at the sharp petal that jutted over the shoreline and testing it gingerly with her foot. “This is the only way to the castle?”
“There are others,” the frog said grudgingly, “but none so expedient. The whole realm is askew right now, out of sorts. I wouldn’t trust the other paths though, not the clouds nor the orchards. The rivers were here first, and they’ll always be the most certain.”
“Your help is most appreciated,” Iris said as graciously as she could while clambering to the center of the giant lotus flower. Or maybe the lotus flower was normal-sized and she had simply shrunk. She still had little grasp on the mad mechanics of the realm, which was all the more reason to act professional, she supposed. And polite. Mother Hall had always told her to be polite, that kindness didn’t cost anything at all. “May I have your name to remember you by?” Iris asked.
The frog blinked, startled. “Aleathōn is my title. But my name, once, was Jaspar.”
“Then thank you, Jaspar Aleathōn, for helping me despite my rude and unknowing ways. You are a credit to your river.”
If frogs could blush, Iris thought Alaethōn might have at that moment. But she got only a glimpse of him between the petals as he pushed her off from shore and she spun lazily down and across the river Alaethos.