Go east of the kingdom, to the passage where the Royal Insignia lies hidden. Ignore the name of this passage, Riteof, its lazy portmanteau. By now you must have noticed those on-the-nose titles carried by villages and dungeons, as though an irreverent mapmaker vandalized the world’s geography. Do not wonder at how completely the mapmaker must have run out of ideas here. But would a better name make a difference. Would it tell you more about yourself, about the long river of a bloodline. You’ve found your home, the kingdom behind you. You thought it would feel like being born, the way you remember in your dreams, but you feel the same as always. Your father still dead, your mother still missing, all these people strangers. Will the Insignia alter you. Will it make you feel like a king. Retrieve it to prove you’re heir to the throne, even though you like your blue hat resting lightly on your head, even though you don’t want to rule, to sit and say the same words to any travelers who visit, never moving, listening to that harpsichord melody singing from an invisible instrument played by an invisible player. Retrieve the Insignia because you’ve long accepted there are things you must do in order to move forward. In your dreams, you’ve lost all inertia, the desert is beginning to feel like home, the only home you know. You know the body of your house like your own anatomy, you have sleepwalked through the moonlit rooms naked and not stubbed a toe. You know the hidden aperture where water will pour through the hallway ceiling during monsoons. You know the sharp echo of lovers’ voices bouncing around your bare walls. The grit of dirt on dust-colored tiles. The loose grip of electrical outlets. The creak of your bed like the bones in your knees. In the passage, only go through doors marked with your family crest, a bird with mighty wings spread. An eagle. A phoenix. Does it matter. The final door opens up into a maze. Tiny orbs of light float around you. Spirits. Fireflies. Which would make it more beautiful. Which would mean more. Which would mean anything at all. Trigger magic tiles that make walls stretch and pull away. Reveal staircases. Push old stumps onto buttons, bring down floodgates. Do not get washed away. Move unreachable statues with hidden forces. Magic. Magnets. Take your pick. The statues look more like vultures now, scavengers with scythed beaks and crooked necks. In your dreams you are an expert navigator of the desert city, its grid of streets illuminated in your mind. You catalogue the stops of the light rail as you go to dance clubs, to hockey bars, to second dates where you’re stood up. You drive down hidden back roads and emerge at the movie theater. You walk through your neighborhood, laptop bag over your shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the peacocks as you pass the oyster bar. At the end of a stone path, the Royal Insignia rests on a pedestal. Take it. Will this be so simple. No. It won’t be. When you take it, two men appear. A man in a red hood wielding an axe like a crescent moon, like a giant’s smile. A man wearing a helm shaped like a hippopotamus, two sharpened shields the size of each of his arms. By now I don’t need to tell you what to do. You don’t have a choice. Fight them. They are easily dispatched. But their words linger in the curve of your ear, they eat at you: not everyone in the kingdom is thrilled by your arrival. Return to the castle with the Insignia. Your uncle orders the chancellor to prepare your coronation, and you, you’ve arrived just in time: your wife is in labor. Isn’t this all a little soon. You want to stay by her side but the midwife tells you to wait downstairs. The harpsichord has ceased. A clock ticking loud is the only song now. You talk to your uncle, to your father’s old friend, to the guards, who think you will be an excellent father. Close your eyes and the world becomes a black screen, as though nothing has yet begun. Then: the wail of a baby. Then: the wail of another. Rush upstairs. You have been a child—it feels like only fourteen hours and thirty-five minutes ago. You have been a teenager held captive, forced to toil underground. You have been a husband. Now, you find in you a father, like a treasure from a chest. The boy has your eyes, your mother’s eyes. The girl has the strong chin of your wife, your partner, who holds the matching bundles in her arms and tells you it is time. It’s time to name them. Name your children after ancient heroes. Name them after vicious predators. Name them after yourself, even, but they must be named. Just like you in the beginning, in this very castle, just before you woke up on a ship. You remember the letters hovering darkly in the air, selecting them as though you already knew your own name, as though you named yourself. Here it is not so easy. Your wife will give you the chance to change your mind. Endless chances. Give them many names, every name. Keep them safe and swaddled as nameless babes forever. Or let them grow. Let them have adventures of their own. Go downstairs to claim your crown, reluctant king, welcome home. In your dreams, you walk on a bridge above a manmade lake. You look out across the water where the light rail tracks flicker and change color. You are beginning to think you might be here forever. You are on your way to a concert venue, where a band with ragged fingernails will throw themselves across the stage. You listened to them in high school, you’re much older now, but all those years felt like only the length of a song. The singer will scream himself hoarse. You won’t understand a thing he says and yet you’ll know every single word.
The news of your return spreads throughout the kingdom like sunlight. You have obtained the Royal Insignia, proven you are heir to the throne. The coronation is set to begin at once. All the king’s guards gather in the throne room to watch your uncle place the crown atop your head. Your long blue cape changes to red and gold, though the crown looks identical to the blue cap you’ve always worn. Everything feels like it’s coming to a close, a happy ending. You thought there would be more of a battle first, some new challenge, a demon lord with many forms waiting at the end. But here you are, in the place of your birth, reunited with family, married, father to two beautiful babies. Maybe this was your destiny all along—not to be the legendary hero, but a good king, a just ruler, in a castle on a secluded corner of the continent, a location on a map that the legendary hero will one day visit to request safe passage or acquire the important artifacts you’ve collected, kept safe. All the while, you’ll sit and say the same words to any travelers, never moving from your throne, listening to that harpsichord melody that sings from somewhere and someone unseen. You parade around the kingdom. People wave. You blow kisses. The celebration continues long into the night. In your dreams, you think maybe you will remain in the desert city after all. It has become your home. It may not be exactly how you envisioned it, but you have a nice place to live, a decent job that could get better. You can imagine a future stretching out in front of you like the desert that surrounds the city on all sides. It could be comfortable. It could be easy. This could be the rest of your life. You wake up with drymouth, still a little drunk. In your dreams, you’ve woken up like this too, hangovers like cannonballs firing in your skull, it’s the climate, you think, the dryness. The desert city dehydrates, drains you. One glass of water for every drink, or this is the result. Awake, the kingdom is silent. All the townspeople passed out asleep, on tables and cobblestone. The sound of the night is eerie. You do not see your wife anywhere. Run to your room, to the sound of wailing babies, but she is gone. The midwife tells you she was kidnapped by monsters. Your father’s oldest friend comes in behind you. Just like twenty years ago. It’s the same, he says. The same thing that happened to your mother. It’s all happening again. He sounds the alarm to wake everyone up. He says they will rescue her. A search party is formed and sets out immediately. Your uncle advises you to stay, to rule the kingdom, but you must seek her out for yourself, you know the search party will never find her on their own, and your children will be doomed to search for her the way you search for your own mother. Ask around. Talk to the citizenry. Some of them, in light of this event, will have new words to say, and they will repeat them if you ask. The shopkeepers will try to sell you their wares. The priest will record your confession. The scholar is still talking about flying castles and dragon gods. You just want to find her. But there is also something else surfacing in the back of your still-swimming head: relief. That something has happened. That there is more to be done. That you could still be the hero the world is waiting on. It becomes clear the chancellor colluded with the monsters, put sleeping potions in everyone’s drinks, but no one has any other clues for you, no one mentions a town or continent or cardinal direction that might be next. There is just you, outside the castle, circling in evenly paced squares, over terrain that appears different but never changes in feeling beneath your feet—not for forests, not for mountains. The lights and colors of the world stutter from night to day and back again.
Sam Martone lives and writes in New York City.