Misery’s proximity meant that Iris didn’t get to do more than shoot irate glares at the Pumpkin Prince until they reached a courtyard of silver-blue pillars and arches in the middle of a field. They both sat down at the vine-choked fountain at the island-courtyard’s center, and spirit gestured that they could talk. If he had hoped that Iris had calmed down during their scurried journey, her outburst proved him wrong.
“You mean you’ve been Dignity this whole time?!” Iris screeched, only just keeping her arms from bursting into flames. “Doesn’t that seem like the sort of thing you should have mentioned? Like, hey, I can help you on your quest because I am literally your quest? Or hey, by the way, just a small thing about me, I’m actually the ruler of this realm, thought you ought to know? Would that have been so hard?!”
Dignity sighed into a gnarled hand. “It just didn’t seem prudent to mention.”
“Oh, okay, if it didn’t seem prudent then that’s fine.” Iris ran her hands through her new hair and let out an angry cat sound. “Okay. Fine. You had your reasons. So what are we going to do about,” Iris gestured at the dilapidated courtyard and the realm around them, “all of this?”
“Fix it?” he suggested weakly.
Iris narrowed her eyes at him. “If you’re not going to be helpful, you can just go. Or, well, don’t, because I still need to get you on the throne and unbound.” She tilted her head to the side. “I don’t suppose just getting you on the throne will do anything? Like, there’s no magical healing power in it?”
“It’s not that simple, no. To restore me to the throne would imply that the governorship of this realm was again in order, which means its rulers were again in check. I believe your quest is no less than to restore harmony to this realm by restoring harmony to its leaders.”
“Oh, well, if it’s only that, then that’s fine. I thought it might be something difficult, like saving the entire realm of Death from the weight of its own entropy.” Moaning, Iris flung herself back onto the fountain’s wide rim and stared up at the hazy purple sky.
There was a quiet for a moment, and then Dignity, solemn and sincere, said, “I will help you in every way I can, Candlemaiden. All my knowledge and all of my regrettably curtailed powers are at your service.”
“Well,” Iris reasoned, still staring at the sky and wishing for shapeless clouds to name, “it’s a start.”
For the next few hours, Iris quizzed Dignity on the particulars of Harkenhilt. Her hope of recruiting Madness and Denial to their quest was shot down; both were too much of what they embodied to be of any use, especially with the realm in such disarray. She learned that Dignity and Misery did most of the ruling, or they had. Ruling Death, as it turned out, mostly entailed wandering the realm and conversing with the spirits therein. There were also hierarchies among the guardians to maintain, breaches to patch, and the occasional sanctioned foray into the realm of the living.
“It’s her necklace,” Dignity had said suddenly at that point. “She must have robbed the treasury of all the passage coins. She’s using their power to pass freely between the worlds. Well, I imagine the cost has been her coherency.”
There was little Iris could do to comfort him, so she just asked him about the courtyard they were in instead. Through his answer she learned that Harkenhilt was connected to other realms besides just that of the living, though he was chary of telling her the nature of the other realms. “It may not be your place to know,” he said, “and it will not help us on our quest.” Still, Iris found herself eyeing the arches of the courtyard and wondering where once they might have led.
They spoke of the realm over-long, and Iris realized that she was stalling. Finally, after Dignity recounted how and which festival days were celebrated in the realm, Iris stood up from the barren fountain and faced him.
“Okay. The way I see it, we have three paths we should follow. One, we rally the guardian spirits. We don’t know who is under Misery’s sway or how much of the realm she has corrupted, but if we have even some of the stewards of the realm on our side, then we have a tactical advantage. Second, we need to figure out how to unbind you, preferably before we face Misery. Also, rallying the guardians may be easier if you’re in your true form. Okay. That’s our number one priority,”
“And the third path?”
Iris blinked. “Right. Third path. We need to steal Misery’s necklace. Luckily, if I can find them, I know just the crew.”
Iris smiled. “Friends of mine. Masters of mischief.” Her face grew troubled. “But in order to do all of this, we need to be able to move through the realm quickly and accurately. And I’m not sure how far I can travel; Jaspar said I only get one lotus, so I may not be able to cross the Alaethos.”
“There, I may be of assistance,” Dignity said, sweeping to his feet with surprising elegance. “All of its rulers may move freely through Harkenhilt. And with the realm as it is, I don’t suppose it would be out of sort for me to name you co-regent for a while.” He paused for a second. “Do you have knife on you, by any chance?”
Iris’s first thought was to laugh at him, but then she became aware of a familiar weight at her thigh, and when she reached into her inside pocket, she found Hall’s carving knife, or rather, her own carving knife.
“Brilliant,” Dignity said, digging through his own clothes and pulling out a bronze pocket watch. After Iris handed it to him, he tested the weight and balance of the short blade. “Not a sword, but it will do. After all, little about this is proper.” He looked up at Iris with a solemn expression, and only the graveness of the moment kept Iris from laughing at the orange haired scarecrow-man brandishing a small carving knife as a sword. “Until the proper leadership of this realm is restored,” he intoned, “I hereby name Candlemaiden Iris as my acting co-regent, to be allowed free passage throughout the realm.” Carefully he touched the blade of the knife to each of her shoulders, then offered her the pocket watch with his other hand. After she accepted the pocket watch, keeping it loose in her hand, he took the knife to his hand and pressed it into the flesh of his palm until purple ichor welled up. With the blood he anointed first the pocket watch in Iris’s hand and then her forehead. The mark on her forehead tickled like a false flame, and in her hand the timepiece was heavy and cold. Iris met Dignity’s eyes, trying to convey her gratitude and her understanding of the honor and responsibility he had bestowed upon her.
“Well, that’s that, then,” Dignity said, suddenly a bit sheepish. “We should head out, yes?”
“Right.” Iris followed Dignity as he set out with long strides, though she took a moment to fasten the image of the courtyard in her mind. She was still intrigued by the hints of other realms, and wondered where she could learn more about them. Oh! “Would the Archivist be able to unbind you?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Dignity shook his head ruefully. “Enna might have all the information we need spread throughout her cache, but there’s no guarantee she could find and synthesize it all in time. She’s also… easily distracted.” He looked away for a moment, and Iris thought she spied a blush on his waxy cheeks. “And I’d rather she didn’t see me like this, if possible.”
“Understood. Okay,” Iris ran through other possibilities. “I know someone who may be able to unbind you, or at least teach me how. But I don’t know quite how to find her. What I do know is that despite the fact the location and exterior of her dwelling seems to change, the door will have three seashells on it.”
“You know someone with a mansion of the blessed?” Dignity blinked, his pace slowing for a second. “Fair enough. I should stop being surprised by you at this point; it’s becoming indecorous. Right. Assuming the relational topography hasn’t been too altered by Misery’s rule, the quickest access point to the mansions should be by th—” but whatever he had to say was lost as the ground beneath them crumbled away and they tumbled into a deep pit.
As the dirt settled, Iris wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Of course they had fallen into a trap hole. After all, the rules always changed whenever she thought she had her quest under control.
“This normal?” she asked, her tone conversational and calm while her body dithered between rage and hysterics.
Dignity was more openly aggrieved. “Not in the slightest.”
Iris looked up the high dirt walls. “To be honest, I didn’t expect the ground to go down so far. I mean, I didn’t expect the land to actually be land, you know? I thought it was all,” she shrugged, “just seeming.”
“There’s a system of tunnels beneath the realm,” Dignity said, a bit pained, “and they connect to some corner of your world. I’m sorry, could you help me up?”
There wasn’t much space to maneuver his over-long limbs, and by the time they got him to his feet, Iris’s face was more acquainted with the fabric of his jacket than she had ever wished.
“Okay,” Iris said, hands on her hips and looking at the circle of purple sky above them. “What if I, like, let you stand on my shoulders?”
“I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with the metaphor,” Dignity mumbled, before adding in a clearer voice, “We could try, but I’m dubious as to whether I have such athleticism in my current form.”
“Any other ideas?”
“Wait for the fall of my kingdom?”
“Oi! I’m supposed to be the flippant one. Go back to being all solemn and dignified.”
“What’s the point?”
Iris stared at the prince, who was leaning against the dirt wall and staring forlornly at the sky. She wasn’t sure if this was a fit of melodrama or something darker. “The point is, we’re getting out of here and we’re going to finish our quest, so stop being so mopey and help me figure a way out.”
Dignity looked at her with eyes glowing like coals, and Iris had the sudden sense that he was a wild creature, not a person at all, but a wild animal chafing at his cage and sick on his sadness and rage. The feeling passed in a moment, and again he was the Pumpkin Prince, pompous and self-serious, her partner in a mad quest, but her eyes still provided for her the overlay of wild animal and she thought, ruefully, of how she had always warned the other girls that river spirits could be dangerous, no matter what they looked like.
Her meditations were interrupted by a voice above her calling out, “Hey! Over here! We’ve caught a couple.”
Beside her— too close beside her in the narrow hole— Dignity straightened up, a small smile on his face. “I see. A spirit-made hole. Well, once they realize who I am, they will be certain to let us go. How is that for a way out, Candlemaiden?”
But Iris was too busy staring at the three heads popping over the edge of the hole. It was hard to, in measly words, articulate the psychic calling she had once used to address them, and harder still to articulate her joy at seeing them, but she tried anyway.
“Spirit-mice-friends!” she called, her heart swelling with her smile.