Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Ropak, Top, Alden, Orville, and Xavier found an apartment on the east side of Salenthia. With four bedrooms, everyone could have their own room except for two. Xavier changed that to him and Alden sharing a room and Ropak and Top sharing a room, saying that they would save the fourth for Spenk and Jamal when they reunited. They bought new furniture, and their landlord, seeing they were new to Derantu, donated some as well. Orville remarked on it being the softest, sturdiest residence he’d lived in for years.
It took Ropak a while to get used to Derantu. Twenty-hour days instead of eighteen; he found himself tired all the time, his sleeping disturbed. One moon instead of three; the nights were often darker than Zhop’s, but the stars looked prettier. A whole new set of longer months—it would have been the second month, Quankle, on Zhop, but on Derantu it was still the first month, Darane. Ropak’s mind buzzed trying to keep everything straight, just as it had when he first had to keep everything in New Zhopolis straight.
A week—six days instead of Zhop’s nine—after settling into the apartment, they studied a map of Salenthia sprawled on the kitchen table. They were set for the moment, but Orville’s savings wouldn’t last forever. They had to find a source of income.
A forest lined the east edge of Salenthia, which was why Ropak wanted to live in the east. That and it was preferable to the north, which was closer to a swamp. Who would want to live near a swamp?
To the west was the ocean, including a popular beach. Ropak had never visited the sea in New Zhopolis—it had been cold enough without going near water filled with colossal ice chunks. South of Salenthia were farms supplying food to all the kingdom.
“That would be the best place to find work, I think,” Alden said.
Ropak yawned, reclining in a chair. “Sounds like a good place to start. Hard work, keeps us busy, low chance of corruption . . .”
Top jumped onto the map. “Lots of food.”
“Not a job for you,” Ropak said, rubbing his head.
“Are you okay, Ropak?” Alden asked. “You’ve been tired lately.”
“I’ll be fine,” the wrallot said. “I’m just not used to these extra hours.” To himself he admitted that wasn’t the reason. Every night he woke up, every night he dreamt of death, his people burning, him killing innocent bystanders.
“Hold on,” said Xavier. “Alden, you’re smart. You know your stuff. You could get a job where you use your intellect. The kingdom’s supposed to be a big research and development center.”
“That’s true,” Alden said. “The Salenth Kingdom assisted in the creation of the Help Blocks, after all.”
Orville swept a hand across the map. “Why don’t we see it all for ourselves firsthand? We’ve spent so much time getting our new home set up that we haven’t seen our new home on a wider scale. We should take the day to explore the city.”
Ropak shrugged. “Might as well. Maybe we can find something interesting.”
* * *
Their first stop was a bus stop. Not much of a stop, but the fresh flowery scent of the trees along the streets contrasted with New Zhopolis—that place smelled stale and rusty and rotten and it took days for Ropak to scrub the scent off him. The fresh air outside helped him wake up. The sounds, too—Salenthia was louder than Ropak’s home, of course, but it was practically silent compared to New Zhopolis. Ropak watched a few round birds fly by, blue as the deepest sky—gapples, according to a scalago also waiting for the bus.
The bus arrived. Unlike New Zhopolis, where traffic seemed frozen on the road, the bus rumbled quietly at a fair pace. While they rode it a messy-haired scalago kid grabbed Top and tossed the ball across the aisle to another kid.
“Oh dear,” said Alden. “Uh, kids, I’m not sure you want to play with that ball.”
“Hey, this is pretty fun,” said Top.
The scalago sitting next to one of the kids yelled to them. “Settle down and put that back where you found it.”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Top said.
The scalago recoiled. “Oh! You can talk?”
“I don’t mind a game of catch with kids.” The ball grinned.
The scalago stared at Top’s teeth and pulled her purse strap. “I’m still worried it could be dangerous. Put them back.”
The kids whined as they returned Top to their seat. Top reached inside their mouth.
“Ooh, maybe auntie Top has a gift for you kids.” The ball pulled out a smaller ball. “Wow, I’m a nesting ball!” They tossed the ball to the kids who cheered and tossed it back and forth.
Ropak watched from the back of the bus. Top was always quick to either make friends or a mess. He wondered which would happen here. He looked to the side and noticed a few scalago kids in a seat looking at him.
“What are you staring at?” he asked with a scowl.
The scalago sitting with the kids turned to Ropak. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She looked at the kids. “Boys, it’s not polite to stare at someone.”
Ropak sighed. “Eh, it’s okay.” He smiled and pulled down the sides of his head. “I doubt they’ve ever seen someone like me before.” He stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes around, and the kids laughed. “There’s a great big world out there to see, kids, but in case you ever see it all, there’s a couple more out there too.” He let go of his face. “I’d try the one that’s not Zhop.”
Alden found a spot for them to get off the bus. “What’s so special about this stop?” Ropak asked.
“They have a library,” Alden said, holding his arms out at the sprawling building before them, three floors encompassing a street block by itself.
Xavier smiled. “I had a feeling you’d want to find one.”
They entered the soft-lit library, rows of bookcases a head taller than Ropak filled with enough books to crush a car. Alden sprinted among the bookcases as Ropak shuffled over the velvet carpeting. He was surprised at how the library smelled like his old forest home—he expected it to be musty.
He looked at all the books. “Meh. I’ve never been much into reading, though.”
“I thought you didn’t know how to read,” Top said.
“What made you think that?”
“You said so.”
“No, I didn’t. You did.”
“Oh. Yeah. Good point.”
Actually, I guess I hadn’t known how to read when we first met. Wrallots didn’t have a written language, but he learned to read while in New Zhopolis. Okay, so maybe some good things came from that place, but mostly bad, and I probably could have learned how to read here anyway, so whatever.
A door opened and ten scalagos in dour suits left a room, some conversing with one another. The silent last one stumbled into Ropak as the wrallot looked along a bookcase.
“Oh, my apologies,” the scalago said, tipping their wide-brimmed hat to him, “I didn’t see you there.”
“’Sokay,” said Ropak. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Thank you,” the scalago said with a nod, “and may Gourd be with you.”
“Eh? Oh, no, no,” Ropak said, taking a step back and remembering the lousy Archussip members at New Zhopolis, “I’m not a part of your religion, not at all.”
“That’s all right.” The scalago shook Ropak’s hand. “Whatever your beliefs, it matters not—it’s what you do that matters.”
Ropak stared at him. “Yeah. You’re right, sorry.” Ropak nodded. “I agree.” He walked further through the library. What you do . . . He would have to do something better. Ropak gave a laugh. I guess even the religious are better on Derantu than Zhop.
He stopped and stared at a metal box with a glowing window on it, a sunny field inside. The box looked like a television, but a set of buttons were laid out before it.
Wait, this is a computer. I’ve seen plenty of people using them before.
Ropak sat at the computer and opened a program. He typed some gibberish and it appeared on the screen. “Whoa. Hey, that’s pretty neat. I wonder what else this thing can do.”
Nearby, Top held a book to their open mouth, but they turned. “Did you say computer?”
“No,” Ropak said. Top pulled from their mouth a potted shrub in the shape of themself and tossed it down next to the computer. They jumped on Ropak’s lap and drew a battle axe from their mouth, holding it over the computer and grinning like a maniac.
“Let’s do some hacking!” Top screamed. A scalago behind them cleared his throat.
“Quiet, please,” he said. “This is a library, after all. And no weapons are allowed in here.”
“Oh, this axe is for trees,” Top said, “not orc-necks. Also, it’s used for hacking. Trees. Hacking into trees.”
The librarian stared at them. “Well, all right, then.”
Ropak carried Top out of the library. “I’m not so sure a library is the best place for you.”
“Why not? I love books,” Top said, wiggling their appendages. “Especially scratch ‘n’ taste books.”
“Scratch and what?”
“You know, those books filled with pictures of food that you scratch, and then when you eat the books they taste like book?”
Ropak put Top on the ground. “I think they call those cookbooks. I also don’t think they’re for eating.”
“Then why do they make them so delicious?” Top asked.
Ropak looked around. Across the street in an alley four scalagos and a couple ophedes tossed a ball into a hoop. He smiled—it looked fun. He ran to the court, intercepted the ball, leapt into the air as if he had springs on his feet, and slammed the ball into the hoop.
“Whoa! That was a slick move, dude,” said an ophede wearing a bandana.
A buzzcut scalago grinned. “Ha! I could do better.” They picked up the ball. “What do you say, dude? Go a couple rounds?”
Ropak smiled. “You’re on, buddy.” He leapt for the ball.
As Ropak played a round, Alden emerged from the library with Xavier and Orville, carrying a bag filled with books.
“Hey, Ropak’s playing a game with some people.” Alden looked at Top then back at Ropak. “I remember he tried to do that our first day in New Zhopolis, and they threw him out for it. I think Salenthia is going to be much better than New Zhopolis.”
“Does that mean I can’t eat the players?” Top asked.
* * *
After traveling Salenthia for the day they stopped outside the castle where lived the king and queen. They stood on the sidewalk outside a steel gate with swirling scalago ornamentation, a path from which led to front doors expansive enough for a truck to pass through. Overflowing flower gardens surrounded the path, all visible through the barred fence, the sweet fragrances carried by a light wind. Birds tweeted but the area was otherwise quiet.
“You know,” Xavier said, looking at the heavily guarded castle, “it’s a little disconcerting to think we’re living in a monarchy. I mean, New Zhopolis was a democracy, and you found that place filled with corruption.”
“New Zhopolis was a fake democracy,” Alden said.
“Still is a fake democracy,” said Ropak. Leading a lie was worse than—well, whatever form of leadership the Salenth Kingdom had. Probably.
“Right. I’d bet a whole bookcase that its elections are rigged,” Alden said.
“Wasn’t the incumbent running against a money launderer?” Top asked.
Ropak shook his head. “Wait, you were paying attention to that?”
“Paying attention to what?” Top smiled and said, “Burrito!” for no apparent reason.
“I’ve read about the government of the Salenth Kingdom,” Alden said. “Power is shared by the king and queen with a group of representatives elected by the people. They work together to create laws and measures for the kingdom. Still, the king and queen have the highest authority, and it is based on descent. They try and balance it by giving the heir an extensive education from an early age to equip them to rule justly.”
“Who gives the education?” Xavier asked.
“Well, yes, the queen and king decide on the education and choose the scholars,” Alden said. “The representatives can veto a scholar and supply considerations and proposals for improving it, though. A lot of experts are brought in from throughout the planet for this.”
“Thank you, Mr. Fountain of Knowledge,” Ropak said.
“Oh, I thought you were going to say ‘Mr. Exposition’,” Top said. “Burrificazione.”
The bright sun warmed the blue sky as it neared the horizon for dusk. Two scalagos walked down the sidewalk conversing, both in prim and proper suits and ties with military badges and insignias.
“Uh oh,” said Ropak. “Military dudes at . . .” He looked to the side, looked at his wrist, remembered he didn’t wear a watch, and pointed at the officers. “Over there.”
“What’s the big deal?” Alden asked.
“Remember what Duval said?” Ropak asked. “Avoid those who may be notified about us. That includes the military.”
Orville smiled. “Well, we certainly don’t want to flee in terror. That would arouse suspicion.”
“Quick, get some newspapers,” Top said. “We’ll disguise ourselves as readers of the news.”
“We don’t have any newspapers,” Xavier said. “Also, that’s not a useful idea.”
“Just act casual,” said Alden. “Anything less and we’re more likely to be noticed. Just act like we didn’t see them.”
“Didn’t see who, young scalago?” asked the older officer. Ropak silently cursed—the officers were close enough to hear.
“Well, you see, ma’am,” Xavier said, walking in front of Alden, “we were nervous about meeting someone of your status, so we weren’t going to make ourselves noticeable.”
“I see.” The older officer smiled and raised her hat to them, showing her scant gray hair, a pale contrast to the jet-black hair trailing like tar to the shoulders of the younger one, who scowled at the group. “It’s nice to meet you. Are you from far away?”
“How did you know we were from Zhop?” Top screamed, probably loud enough for someone at the castle’s front door to hear. Ropak facepalmed. The older officer smiled and put a hand to her mouth.
“Well, for one thing, your skin there is a dead giveaway,” said the younger officer, pointing to Orville.
“Take a look at mine,” said the older officer. Her leathery blue skin, lighter than the sky on the brightest of bright days, looked different enough from a female scalago from Zhop, as their skin was always dark. But for a scalago of that age to have bright skin—the luster of youth was gone, but she looked bright enough to require sunglasses.
The younger officer motioned to Ropak. “Of course, your friend there’s not anything we see on Derantu, either.”
“Tell me,” said the older officer, “are you enjoying your time in our fair kingdom?”
“Very much,” Alden said. “Your kingdom is run very well. I think we’ll have an excellent time living here.”
“Well, we like to run a tight ship around here,” the younger officer said. She leaned forward. “On that note, why are you loitering in front of the castle? You’ve no reason to be here. The castle is off-limits to the public. If I see you sneaking in there, I will bust you up.”
“Please, Herbitan, calm yourself,” the older officer said, raising a palm. “That statute is not even usually in effect.”
“Don’t be soft, Norma,” Herbitan said. “Due diligence is even more important when the king and queen aren’t here.”
Norma nodded but smiled. “The castle is off-limits to the public while the king and queen are on a goodwill tour of Derantu, but when they are here it is open to the public most hours of the day. Once the king and queen have returned, I highly suggest you visit the castle at least once.”
“We’ll consider it,” Alden said.
“Hex yeah, we will,” said Top. “Sounds like a party.”
“Calm yourself, Top,” said Alden.
Herbitan scowled. Norma chuckled. “All right, come on, Herbitan, we have work to do. Have a good day, fellows. I hope to see you around the kingdom.”
They said goodbye. Once the officers were out of earshot Ropak sighed and slouched.
“I guess they weren’t tipped off about us,” he said. “That or we just got lucky.”
“Duval did say that the Salenth Kingdom doesn’t like Zhop much,” said Alden. “Maybe Zhop didn’t think it was worth it.”
“Perhaps Zhop sent a message but the Salenth Kingdom ignored it?” Orville said.
Top grinned. “Maybe they did read the message and just don’t care!”
“Well, as long as that doesn’t change I think we’ll be safe here,” Ropak said.
“Yeah,” said Alden, “I think we’ll be staying here for a long time.”