Once Dignity stopped sulking over Iris’s popularity with their trappers-turned-rescuers, they managed to clamber out of the pit with the help of a rope woven from multicolored vines.
“Did you get these from the castle walls?” Dignity asked, a frown on his face as he tried to untangle the orange and blue vines that had wrapped around his arm.
“Can’t say we did,” one boy chimed, followed by another adding thoughtfully, “Can’t say we didn’t.”
“What a conundrum,” the last one concluded with mock melancholy.
“So! We’ve been waylaying travelers-”
“- to help with your quest, of course, Iris-”
“But the pickings are thin-”
“- haven’t caught many fish-”
“So imagine our surprise when we found, well,” the boys all looked at each other, linked hands, then turned to Iris and said in unison, “you!”
Dignity looked at the tableau the boys presented, with pale skin and glowing eyes. Their robes seemed overly formal, like the vestments of some forgotten order, but their faces were full of mischief and far from anything officious. Despite their eery in-sync similarity, there were slight differences among the boys- their hair and sashes all fell at different angles, the intricate patterns on their robes were all slightly altered, and their eyes glowed in different colors: in red, blue, and green. And those eyes were familiar.
“You,” Dignity said in a low voice, “are the ones who chased me through the streets of Ramos.”
“And glad of it.”
“You threatened Iris. You deserved no less.”
Dignity tilted his head to look at Iris. “What did you do to earn the loyalty of three such liminal souls?”
“Gave them cheese, mostly,” Iris said with a smile. “And milk.”
Dignity frowned, but assented to address the spirits again. “How did you know about our quest?”
“Iris’s quest,” the red-eyed one corrected. “And she was given quest by Death herself. That sort of thing tends to get around.”
“The trees are terrible gossips,” the blue-eyed one added with a grin. And Iris would have thought it a joke until the last one muttered under his breath, “and terrible flirts.”
“Though we are impressed, Iris,” Red said, his voice sly. “You managed to find Prince Dignity. Not sure how you picked him out from the corn fields, though.”
Dignity narrowed his eyes and held back a huff. “Yes, well, I’ve been a bit indisposed, no thanks to you.”
“Sore point,” Green noted lazily. “Got it. We’ll refrain from calling you jack’o’lantern, then.”
“His royal rag doll?”
All three grinned. “Pumpkin prince?”
Iris smiled at Dignity, who was looking at her in suspicion. “It’s a well-fitting name.”
Dignity closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “I suppose it should be no surprise that your companions are as irreverent as you have been from time to time.”
“Oh, we like Iris,” Green said.
“But we’re nothing like Iris,” the blue-eyed continued.
“For instance, we don’t trust you.” Red ran a hand through his hair, somehow managing to look menacing. “Not yet. Not ’til you pass a trial of our own.”
Iris sighed. Everything was a game to her friends, and they preferred to play by their own rules. “Guys, I assure you this is unnecessary.”
“Perhaps,” Blue replied with a shrug.
“But it’ll make me feel better,” said the green-eyed with a hint of bite in his words.
“Fine,” Dignity huffed, surprising them all. “You seek recompense for when I assaulted your sovereign. It is childish, but if that’s what it takes for us to get on with the quest, then so be it.”
“Ah yes,” said the blue-eyed. “Speaking of childish…”
“No one will ever speak of this,” Dignity commanded. “I assent to the action, not to any after-tellings.”
“Sure thing, Prince,” one of boys said.
“Nuh-uh-uh,” said another. “Put your hands back on your knees. No cheating.”
Dignity let out an aggrieved sigh and complied. He was sitting cross-legged- which with his spindly limbs was quite a sight to see- and blindfolded on the ground, his tattered purple coat spread out like wings behind him on the grass. The three boys and Iris sat similarly in circle with him, though the boys had no need for a blindfold and Iris had promised to keep her eyes shut. In a larger circle around them were sticks stuck upright into the ground for Iris and Dignity to rap their hands against as they chased their unseen opponent around the ring.
“Okay.” The red-eyed boy spoke with an imperious tone. “The rules of Duck, Duck, Goose are quite simple. Should I repeat them for the simpleton?”
“I have grasped the essence of the game,” Dignity said, directing his blindfolded head to look at the space between Red and Green. He let out a sullen hmph. “I just haven’t grasped its necessity.”
“Oh,” said Blue, his voice somber. “It’s deadly serious.”
“Of vital importance.”
“Also,” said the three in harmony, “plenty of fun!”
And plenty of fun it was, at least for Iris. Dignity still had little control over his wayward limbs, and any time he had to rocket to his feet he inevitably tangled himself up and tripped. She peeked sometimes when it wasn’t her turn, and was surprised to see the furrowed look of concentration on Dignity’s countenance as he tried and failed to catch the darting mice-boys as they ran around and around. Iris herself was passing fair at the game and stumbled only a few times on the invisible uneven ground, her knuckles almost bruised from flinging against the wood of the sticks. But she had the muscle memory engraved even in her odd Harkenhilt soul, and it was there to access even if pulling it to her waking consciousness was a skill she didn’t quite know.
For a moment Iris remembered the taste of juniper berry gin, and then she was bopped on her head by Dignity and was chasing his growingly graceful stick-limbs around the ring, her worries for a moment forgotten in the heat of childish feats of strength and speed and the simple desire to run run run and win win win.
Their first move after Duck, Duck, Goose was to continue to the Mansions of the Blessed and avoid any more surprise pitfalls. Iris felt, for the first time, a bit uneasy about going to Mother Hall to solve her problem. This was Iris’s quest, after all, and she had managed, by herself, to survive what Dignity had named as the Labyrinth of Madness and the Moor of Remembrance. She had found Dignity, or, at least, been found by him, and she had met with the guardian Alaethōn and negotiated passage over his river. She had seen Misery and escaped, she had learned of this realm and its make, and now she was ready to continue on her quest. She was the de facto leader of their group, and it seemed strange that she cede her authority to Mother Hall.
Except… that wasn’t the problem at all. Why was Iris uneasy?
She was afraid to lose Mother Hall again.
As a child, of course she had relied on her mentor for guidance. Mother Hall had always been there to point out the right herb or roll the right candle or speak the right words with an arcane trill. Even when she was grown and almost a Candlemaiden in her own right, Mother Hall had always been there to support Iris as she dealt with spirits. And then Iris had been torn away from her. And then Mother Hall had died, and the glimpse of her Iris had gotten in a dream had been rudely interrupted. She had gotten to see her again in this realm of Harkenhilt, but as soon as she fulfilled her quest Iris would leave the realm of Death and once again be parted from her mentor.
It was unfair to keep losing someone over and over again.
But Iris was a playing piece and injustice, it seemed, would be her life’s basis.
Thunk! A clod of dirt hit Iris’s face and dissipated.
“Stop thinking so much,” the green-eyed boy said, a small smile on his face.
“Stop thinking.” Iris grinned. “I can do that. Are we almost at the mansions?”
Dignity, his pocket watch open and held in his hand, looked aggrieved- a very familiar expression at this point, one that wrinkled his forehead and made his pumpkin-stem horns stick out more to the side. “No. Not quite. It appears we’ll have to cross the river Alaethos to reach them.”
“Oh,” said Iris. “I like the river Alaethos.”
“I thought,” Jaspar drawled, twirling his crook in one long-fingered hand, “that I would see you again. I thought, this girl, this Candlemaiden, she will come again with the ceremonial offerings and ask to cross my river. She is one who will spend much time in Death, like the Candlemaidens of yore.”
Iris tilted her head to the side, the short hair by her face brushing against her cheek in an unfamiliar way.
“But I did not think, no, I did not think, that her ceremonial offerings would be three trouble-making rodent-boys and the erstwhile prince of our realm.”
Iris waited for her friends to take offense, but the once-mice just looked shifty and Dignity broke into a grin and held out a spindly arm to shake hands with the frog. At one point, it would have been the oddest thing Iris had ever seen, but the bizarre was her new baseline in this realm like a dream.
“It’s good to see you too, Jaspar,” Dignity was saying, explaining the situation to the guardian while Iris looked more closely at her mice, who were receiving dirty looks from Jaspar from over Dignity’s shoulder.
“Okay,” she said, drawing the boys to the side. “What did you do?”
“Iris, I must protest, we’re innocent.”
“Of most of things you’re imagining.”
“Except for one. We’re definitely guilty of one of them.”
“But which,” the blue-eyed said, grinning, “you’ll probably never know.”
Iris stared at her friends for a second, then turned around. “Oi, Jaspar. What did these no-good scalawags do to you? And before you demure, keep in mind they caught the Pumpkin Prince in a trap hole.”
“Ah,” Jaspar said, giving the flushed Dignity a wry look before carefully not meeting Iris’s eyes. “They may have stolen my staff to pole-vault onto the lotus pads.”
Iris thwacked each boy firmly on the head, using the utmost of her agility to catch the last wary one. “Bad mice. Bad boys. Bad spirits. We should be polite with the guardians, especially since we need their help. Now, did you mess with anyone else?”
Three pairs of glowing eyes gave Iris a look.
“Fine, did you mess with anyone else important?”
The green-eyed boy giggled. “I think you’ll find that the Willow Sisters are quite fond of one of our number.”
Blue’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “I think you’ll find we don’t need to visit them at all.”
Dignity cleared his throat and took satisfaction in his words. “Actually, as Misery’s retainers they’re quite high on our list to visit.”
Blue groaned while his siblings chuckled. Iris looked at Jaspar and shrugged.
“How’ve you been, Alaethön?”
Jaspar planted his crook in the ground and leaned against it. “As well as I can be with the realm in chaos.”
“About that. We’ve got a plan to fix that. May we rely on your help to curb Misery’s tyranny and restore order to the thrones?”
“My loyalty is always to my liege,” Jaspar said, nodding at Dignity. “You may count on me.”
“Perfect!” Iris tapped her forehead and felt the regent’s mark from earlier glow, which caused Jaspar’s bulbous eyes to bulge even further. “So you know how you said I only get one lotus?”
The Mansions of the Blessed, a field full of grassy hillock houses that morphed into their occupant’s preferred habitation should you tarry too close, was easy to find after crossing the river, and the home with three seashells also took little time to locate; Iris simply followed the sweet scents of candle-making, of lavender and thyme and always the slightest tinge of honey, that festooned Mother Hall’s ideal home. It pleased Iris to rest again in the scents of her childhood.
But Mother Hall did not seem pleased to see Iris again so soon.
“Take these shoes and leave this realm, I said. Get out while you still can, I said. And what does the fool girl do? She goes and gets herself a quest from Death herself. Thought I raised my apprentice better, but it appears not to be so. Oh, come on in, you gawkers, I haven’t got all day.”
Iris smiled as Hall ushered everyone into her tidy cottage. There was exasperation in her tone, but fondness as well, and all of it felt like home.
Hall served tea to everyone but Iris, the whole group uncharacteristically quiet as she poured the amber liquid into brown clay cups. Forbidden for reasons unknown to drink in this realm, Iris contented herself with watching the contorting swirls of steam that rose in front of each of her friends. There were several types of tea auguries, Iris knew, though she couldn’t quite call upon the knowledge. Sometimes it hurt to pull upon her deeper memories, the bits of information she couldn’t quite recall accruing. Trying to grasp at them was like catching tea, insufficient and scalding, in the palm of a cupped hand– better, perhaps, to just watch the steam.
When Mother Hall finished, she sat down with a sigh. “Let me guess. This pumpkin-bound homunculus is the missing prince and you want to fix him.”
“The name’s Dignity, ma’am.”
“Though he also answers to Pumpkin Prince,” Iris chimed in.
“I do not, and please forgive me for saying so Mother Hall, but your apprentice has no manners.”
“She’s got a tongue, aye, and a bit of temper, but you’ll never meet a truer soul.”
Iris stuck out her tongue at Dignity, who in turn narrowed his eyes and bared his almost-fangs at her.
Mother Hall rapped both of their knuckles. “Enough bickering. You’re here to reverse Dignity’s binding spell.”
Iris nodded, and for the first time, a look of true hope made Dignity’s face almost human. This was it- Iris could start to undo the damage she had done that Hallowed Moon night, make headway on her quest, begin to restore balance to all of Harkenhilt and, if what the Archivist had said was true, perhaps restore balance to Erinlin as well-
Mother Hall’s voice cut through Iris’s revery. “The spell cannot be reversed.”
Author’s Note: Fun fact: ~~iii~~iii~~ is supposed to be candles and smoke. Also, shout out to the loyal readers who have made it this far- there’s at least twenty of you. I don’t know who you are, but you’re the real MVPs 🙂