I had so many that needed answers.
“Tell me more about the King, Ko’sa. Who is he? How long has he been the king? How long has he been with the queen? What did the queen look like? How old was she?”
As luck would have it, Ko’sa appeared to have gotten bored of talking about the royals- she was already running away from me, up the beach towards town. “Later!” she replied, her voice a sing-song of playful mischief. “We have to get moving first. If we hurry we can make it to Sky Rock before nightfall. It’s worth the rush for the sunset, I promise!”
“Kids” I muttered, and chased after the girl tearing across the beach like an Olympic sprinter, still lost in a sea of my own questions.
The note about the king had to be one of Malcolm’s practical jokes, right?
My husband was charismatic, I’d give him that, but even in his loftiest fantasy, nobody in their right mind would bow down to a slacker so lazy that he couldn’t even be bothered to wash the dishes.
Regardless of his social status, age, or even preferred dimension, if he had been with another woman, he was a dead man.
No, I thought, he would never cheat on me. This whole thing has to be an elaborate joke on his part. Either way, I needed to talk to him as soon as possible.
The walk to town was anything but routine.
I swore loudly as my barefoot came down on yet another seashell for what felt like the hundredth time that day. The village was much further away than it looked and took twice as long as I expected, especially without shoes. Silently, I fumed at my husband for sweeping me off my feet and into the great unknown without giving me so much as a warning to put on a pair of sandals or change out of my pajamas.
The longer we walked, the less convinced I became in my ‘practical joke’ theory. Now I was in pain, covered in a mix of sweat and sand, and most importantly, annoyed.
This is his fault, I decided. Given this all isn’t a hallucination, what the hell was he thinking, dragging me into a new world unprepared? Obviously, he had considered the possibility that we could get separated. Why else would he have slipped me the note?
For a second, I reversed our roles and mentally went through all the things I would have done differently had it been my responsibility to introduce him to my imaginary kingdom. I had organized our last trip to the Europe with my family, and had forwarded him the itinerary a month in advance. There had been checklists, planning talks on conference lines, detailed research on recommendations from Trip Advisor, and double and triple checks that we hadn’t left his medication back in the bathroom before we left, a habit that tended to manifest itself before going anywhere for an extended period.
I wouldn’t have thrown us both into a mess without thinking things through, like he always did. Then I took a second to re-assess the definition of his ‘mess’, and how much of my own disbelief needed to be suspended in order to arrive at my anger, and felt quite silly.
Ko’sa wasn’t wearing shoes either, but her feet looked tough and calloused- she moved through the beach like a cat, dancing past blistering patches of hot sand and sharp rocks that I seemed unable to avoid no matter what route I picked. Every couple of minutes she would realize I was losing ground and turn to beckon me to hurry up. “Come on Ms. Jill. Not much further now.”
Her nimble ease was irritating; I was a sweaty mess by the time we stepped out of the sand and into the cool relief of the hardened clay path leading into town. Ko’sa waited patiently a few yards down the road, clearly amused by my labored efforts.
“You pant like a noble in the dead of summer,” she joked, as I tried to steady my ragged breath. I took a step towards her and winced as a stinging pain shot through the ball of my foot. The bottom of my left foot was cut to shreds and oozing into the red clay, leaving a trail of bloody footprints like an animal wounded during a hunt.
Ko’sa saw my leg buckle and doubled back for me. I felt her small arm snake around my waist and she steadied me as I hobbled down the path. Soon the huts with thatched roofs rose up to meet us on either side as the clay trail widened into a main street. The town did not have many inhabitants, but they all stopped working to watch us as we passed; mostly children around Ko’sa’s age or younger, with a few people that looked so old that they were hunched over and could barely stand. As we crossed through the lone square of the shanty of town, I could feel their eyes following us.
“I think they’ve picked out that I’m not a local,” I whispered to Ko’sa.
She snorted. “Pff, they can shove off then. You ain’t the first Outsider to make your way through here. They’re just trying to make a show of it, show their disapproval. It’s all an act.” She turned to one of the boys that had stopped cleaning a fish with a small, fine knife to gape at me. “Oi! Bren!” she called at him. “What’re you lookin’ at? Back to work now- keep slacking off and you’re going to miss your quota again this month.”
The boy turned away quickly and resumed gutting the fish in his hands. “See?” she said, turning back to me. “Skiddish like a minnow.”
Ko’sa ducked into the a small shack at the far edge of the square, and I followed her in. It was the house she had built with her own hands, she told me with pride, with some assistance from her father and older brother.
“Here,” she said, tossing me a pair of worn sandals and some cloth to wrap around my foot. “Probably a bit small for ya, but better than nothing.”
“Thanks,” I said, as I began to wrap my foot. The cloth was soft and spongey to the touch, a welcome relief from the hard road. “So…where are all the adults in town?”
“During the day, they take the boats and all go out deep sea fishing, near the barrier. My pa and my big brother Jae and the rest of ’em. That’s where you can catch the best fish. Also the most dangerous.” She crossed her arms. “I should be out there too. I’m the best fisher in town, and everyone knows it. The elders don’t let me though. Say I’m too young.” I could see her starting to grow red in the face. She spat onto the floor and used a bare foot to grind the saliva into the dirt. “To hell with ’em. Their sons are all soft little boys that couldn’t catch a trout out of a puddle.”
I wanted to say something about fishing to add to the conversation, but the closest thing I had done to provide fish for my family was when I took a sushi class during date night with Malcolm.
Ko’sa filled two small leather satchels with enough food and supplies for a couple days, mostly fruit and fish jerky and and a handful of nuts. Within minutes, she was ushering me out the door and down the main road to the city, and we left for the city while the sun still sat high up in the sky. If it really was the sun. I couldn’t tell anymore.
The packs were light- Ko’sa insisted it was always better to under-pack than to over-pack- which made travel a breeze. I was worried that I would have trouble but the road was well worn and much easier than the previous trek through the treacherous beach. There were other travelers too, filling the road and slowing down our progress. Some traveled in caravans, others on rode on horses or pony, and the rest walked along the edges like us. The masses might have been heading to a somber event, but the air was alive with buzz and chatter.
The people mostly wore simple leather garments like Ko’sa, and talked in loud, excited tones. Ko’sa said it was because people just loved attending events in the city- it was a good break from the monotony of rural life. Unlike the villagers in town, they barely paid me any notice. I tried to catch snippets of conversations from other travelers, but many spoke in tongues that I did not understand.
I couldn’t see the city yet, but Ko’sa assured me that the view from Sky Rock was the best view in the entire Kingdom. “Once we get there,” she said, “The bottom drops out into King’s Valley, and you’d swear you were looking out across the entire world.”
There was something different about the land that we were traveling in. The entire world felt brighter, more vivid than home, as if a filter of gray haze had been lifted from my eyes. The grass lining the road was a bright glistening emerald, greener and more lush than any golf course I had ever seen. The oak trees dotting the countryside seemed taller than you would think, their unnatural size giving them a more exotic, foreign feeling. They also reminded me that I was in place that I did not know, and was yet to understand.
For a while we walked in silence, and I took everything in, but then my burning curiosity bubbled back to the forefront of my conscience. “Ko’sa,” I asked, breaking our silence, “who is the King?”
She furrowed her brow. “What do you mean? Don’t you Outsiders know what a King is?”
“I know what a King is. I mean who is he? And how did he become King?”
“Ahh,” Ko’sa said, a look of comprehension dawning on her face. “You want to know why we got an Ageless as king.”
“An Ageless. You know. The one’s like your husband. Don’t get old or nuthin’ like the rest of us.”
I stopped in my tracks. “So people do age here?”
She laughed. “Course they do. Most of them anyway.”
“And what about the ones that don’t?”
“Well, they been around forever. Literally. Walk among us like normal people, but never get no older. Not sure who they came here. A lot of people think they’re angels or something. You’re married to one, yeah? I should be asking you the questions.”
My mind was racing. “So the King is Ageless then?”
“Yes ma’am. Our first Ageless King ever. Wasn’t even part of the Royal bloodline neither. It’s been a huge issue, some saying he usurped the throne. See up until now, it was forbidden for an Ageless to take the throne.”
I looked at the girl, and wondered if I was Ageless in this world too. “What’s wrong with an ageless king?”
“Well, you wouldn’t be the first to ask. Most say it ain’t natural. Part of the King’s duty is to make an heir. The Ageless well, they could just carry on being King forever. People don’t like that, say a change is good every once and a while.”
“And what do you think?” I asked. “Just between you and me, do you support the King?”
The sun passed under a patch of clouds and the sky darkened. Ko’sa shivered. “I don’t know much in life, but I do know one thing. The Ageless, they ain’t natural. I’d much rather have one of us ruling this land. And whatever the King is, he ain’t one of us.”