Clan members huddled around Hanali as he held Evalieh in his arms. With blurry eyes, Evalieh heard Hanali call out to him as others asked if he were sick or hungry. The scent of smoked fish and fruits tingled Evalieh’s senses as if he were waking up. The prickling pain that rippled throughout his body slowed and his vision started to clear.
Within a half hour, Evalieh came to his senses and stared back at Hanali, feeling groggy. “Wh-what was that?” Evalieh asked.
Hanali sighed, looking relieved he gave a faint smile. “You’re alright.”
“Well—of course, I am. I’m not so frail, you know.”
The other clan members laughed and held out their plates of food and drinks. “Do you want some?” they asked.
Hanali helped Evalieh to his feet and along with the others, they sat around a large firepit. They were each given smoked fish, pineapples, and white wine in golden bottles. Evalieh sniffed at his plate of food and twitched his mouth around. He wasn’t sure if the fishy smell was delicious or appalling.
Hanali nodded. “We must get you well enough to attend the ceremony.” He urged Evalieh to eat and took a big chomp out of his own fish. “I can fish but I’m a better farmer, I help all the clan members grow the best vegetables—and love every minute of it. So, I guarantee the taste.” He winked.
Evalieh gave a nod and nibbled at the food, feeling his neck and mouth tense up. He feared the taste might be as awful as the grey mush and pills his family served back home. The salty fishy flavors mixed with the sweet tanginess of the pineapple, made his lips pucker. He took a swig of wine and winced, feeling a burn in his throat.
“We must get ready for the ceremony, this evening. I fear the island wants you gone and if we don’t get you bound to a flame tonight—I’m afraid you’ll die,” Hanali said.
Evalieh’s heart sank, and his chest stiffened, paralyzing him with worries. He didn’t know what to say and began to shake nervously, feeling overwhelmed. He grabbed his arms and then his knees, trying to stop from shaking. Without any clear answers, he dreaded the coming night, fearing he might not survive. Soon after he felt queasy and pushed his food away, not wanting to look at it anymore. His eyes drooped with exhausted and filled with tears when he looked at the ocean. The mainland sat on the horizon and made him feel as if it were just out of reach.
“Are you okay?” Hanali asked.
Evalieh jumped onto his feet and shuffled the gritty sand around. His heart ached and his stomach hurt, but he couldn’t sit around any longer. Something needed to change or else he’d wallow in his pity and worries. He turned to Hanali, who was wide-eyed with shock. “Let’s go—I’m ready!” Evalieh said.
A big smile stretched across Hanali’s face. He grabbed Evalieh’s hand, and they dashed through the trees and bushes behind the beach. Glowing flowers and vines hung across the canopies and filled the air with a sweet rosy smell. Every now and then, a low hanging branch would whack Evalieh’s antennas, making him flinch. Irritated, he grabbed his antennas and pulled them down, feeling a bit of pain as he tied them into a bow beneath his chin.
“Tell me, Hanali, why must I bond with a flame?” Evalieh asked.
“It’s what the gods have designed for us. There is no other way.”
“Then, where is the god that’ll send me home?”
Hanali chuckled and rattled on about what kind of joy it was to finally meet the Sun Clan’s hero. He was so excited to befriend Evalieh and venture across the island, he jumped up and down.
Evalieh snarled, thinking the islanders get a little too excited about nothing. He hated not knowing where he was going. He had no power to himself, no sense of self, and felt like he was their pet. They were so nice to him that it felt weird and unusual.
Around them, sunlight trickled through the leaves, highlighting the crystals that stood between the sprawling bushes and palms. Cobblestones carved a path through the jungle floor, taking them by the flowers that grew so large, clan members used them for beds. Evalieh shook his head, feeling a slight smile starting to creep across his face. He shook his head, trying to reject their leisurely lifestyle. He felt silly for playing along and assured himself that he’d be willing to do whatever it takes to return home.
Eventually, the jungle opened into a large bustling plaza, filled with clan members. Smooth stucco buildings with lavish floral murals, jeweled and glass dome roofs, and exquisitely decorated pillars stood alongside palms and flowering trees. At the heart of this town was a massive water fountain made of crystal and pearls. Children were splashing around while bright colorful fish and glowing jellyfish swam through the air.
“Welcome to Sun Square,” Hanali said.
Evalieh was in awe and to his surprise, the surrounding buildings were well-made, from a variety of wood, bamboo, and stone. He expected some type of degenerate savagery, where people lived and slept on the dirty ground. Although these homes weren’t made glass and steel, it gave him a tinge of hope, making these people feel more relatable than he expected. “Why are we here?” he asked.
“To take you home with me and get you ready for the ceremony! Tonight, when the planets align, islanders choose the clan they wish to join and accept that clan’s mystical flame.” Hanali smiled back at Evalieh and waved at the other members. “We’ve got to look the part—trust me it’ll be fun!”
Evalieh frowned and looked away.
“Don’t worry, whatever clan you choose, I promise to help.”
Evalieh felt like he didn’t have a choice in the matter and simply nodded. “Uhm, thanks.” While in the hustle of the moment, he tried to think things over. Everyone seems so nice—so far, he thought. Perhaps, things weren’t as bad as he expected but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being in the wrong. He clenched his chest and his body tingled with pains.
Hanali led the way, past large overhanging lamps that were reminiscent of upside-down mushrooms. These ingenious devices acted as both a water filtration system and energy source upon closer inspection. Evalieh poked the lamps, and jolted, they were squishy and bumpy. “Wh-what is this thing?” Evalieh asked.
Hanali pried Evalieh away. “Come along now, I’ll tell you all about it.” Hanali explained that since the Sun Clan has always dealt with the outside world, they’ve learned how to utilize some of their inventions.
The two passed merchant stalls and jewelers brimming with so much stock it filled the streets. Evalieh stumbled over a few boxes, and the burly bean merchant shook his fist and grumbled. The plaza broke off into different paths and Hanali led Evalieh along the one with houses. Some of these houses stood on white stilts and had neat little yards out front. Evalieh’s eyes widened with awe as members glistened in gold attire and feathers.
“What’s with all the gold?” Evalieh asked.
Hanali’s face lit up with excitement. “I am so glad you asked!” He got behind Evalieh and pushed him along the path towards a wall of curtains and big palm leaves. With a flick of his arms, Hanali flung open the curtains, revealing the palace courtyard. He welcomed Evalieh with open arms. “In the Sun Clan, we embrace the sun’s warmth, we adorn ourselves in gold and bare our all so that nothing may hide from its divine light. With pride, we champion the sun and shine with radiance. Together, as members, we are one under the sun,” he said.
Evalieh gave a slight nod. Yeah…this is a cult, he thought.
The palace was made entirely of gold, every window and door were arched, and jewels embellished the finer details. It was a fortress of boxy structures all stacked together and let everyone and the wind inside. Curtains danced from every opening as members passed through the painted gates and doorways, carrying boxes of goods. Hanali mentioned how everyone was getting ready for the ceremony before yanking Evalieh inside the main building.
In every archway, they passed guards adorned in thick gold armor and shiny feathered helmets. Room after room expanded into a museum of furniture sets and paintings. Everywhere they looked the palace was more like an opulent house than a castle for one ruler. People and beans came and went throughout almost all the rooms.
Evalieh shivered, feeling as if he just lost some hope of privacy. He remembered how neighbors back home would sometimes cling to their glass walls and stare at one another. Knowing he’d left that place behind, left him with a queasy feeling in his stomach. While everyone who passed by gave a wave or a cheerful smile, he wondered why they were here. “Is it always like this? Are they all here for the ceremony or for your mother?” he asked.
“Nope—it’s just for the ceremony. Although mother enjoys welcoming everyone into our home.”
“Then, why do you need me again? I think you’ve got all the people you need.”
Hanali sulked his head and slowed his pace. “Well, you see, most people dislike our clan. They think we’re too friendly and have nothing to offer.” He took a deep breath and clenched his fist. “It’s not like we can teach you how to heal with water or teach you how to attack with a flaming rope. That’s the Water and Warrior Clan’s expertise.”
Evalieh nodded and thought about joining another clan. “Wish I’d have fallen into one of those clans. I want something that’ll beat people up and help me get home.”
“What was that?”
Evalieh jolted he didn’t know he said that out loud. “I uh—said nothing.”
Hanali pulled Evalieh into an open bedroom. “Have a seat—this is my room,” Hanali said. He flung open his curtains and Evalieh was taken aback with a jolt.
Evalieh squinted as sunlight sparkled across all the gold details and furniture. He cupped his hands over his eyes and sat down. He could hear footsteps and voices echoing out in the hallway. Hanali rummaged through his closet and Evalieh rolled his eyes. “What are you doing, Hanali? I thought we were in a hurry?” Evalieh said.
“We are, but the ceremony won’t begin until later.” Hanali popped out of his closet carrying a loincloth, a shoulder wrap, and gold ornaments. “This is for you,” Hanali said.
Evalieh scowled and reared back when Hanali tried to give him the clothes. “I—I don’t want that,” Evalieh said.
Hanali frowned and tilted his head. He said, “It’s what we do, members wear the outfit of their chosen clan. I figured you looked about my size…”
Evalieh sighed and snatched the outfit from Hanali’s hand. “I will wear it over my bodysuit.” Evalieh poked at the holes in his suit where tiny threads began to glow. “Overtime, this suit will repair itself—so, I’m not taking it off. It’ll keep me safe from getting minor cuts and bruises,” Evalieh said.
Hanali’s eyes grew wide with excitement. He drew closer and pulled at Eavalieh’s suit, assessing its materials. Evalieh gasped, feeling shy, he swatted Hanali away and dashed into the closet.
“Are you okay?” Hanali asked.
With no reply, Evalieh emerged a moment later, wearing the Sun Clan’s gear. White silks with gold flowers embroidered into the material draped his body. Ornaments, clasps, tassels, and ropes of gold weighed his shoulders down, making his back hunch. “How do you all carry this junk and still move so fast?” Evalieh asked. He stretched, trying to situate the weight so he could move more freely.
Hanali laughed and helped straighten Evalieh’s outfit. “I guess we’ve gotten used to it. After so many years, I guess the way I dress my form is no different than yours—it’s a part of me,” Hanali said. The two locked eyes and stared before Hanali twirled Evalieh towards a mirror.
“Not exactly my style.” Evalieh looked himself over and frowned. “Can’t say I’ve ever had a style though.” He felt his breast pocket and pulled out the broach. It was a ruby heart held together by gold and silver vines. “May I wear this? It was my mother’s,” he asked.
Hanali agreed with a nod.
Evalieh trembled as he searched for a place to pin the broach. His eyes burned with tears when he couldn’t get it to latch. He sniffled and rubbed his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Hanali asked.
Evalieh turned away, trying to hide his face. “M-my parents—I wish they were here. It doesn’t feel right leaving them behind while I go off and do whatever. I don’t know what’s happening to them, and—and—I feel bad,” he said.
Hanali embraced Evalieh, making him stiffen up out of shock. “Evalieh, were you close with your parents?”
Evalieh sniffled and tried to wiggle free, feeling uncomfortable with all this open caring behavior. The clan and Hanali, overwhelmed his thoughts, making Evalieh stutter and mumble when forced to reveal the truth he’s endured. “B-back home—no child is close with their parents. We live under strict rules and must report any oddities about our neighbors or families. Our lives are nothing but a transaction—but I can’t help but miss them. They were always there with me.”
Hanali pulled away and smiled. “Hey, it’ll be alright. You can bring them here next time. Remember, you’re not alone here. You’ve got me, my mother, and everyone else in the clan.”
“I—I don’t know. If I were stronger, if I were more confident—or something. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better. I want to do better too—I want to protect everyone and make sure my home is safe,” Hanali said. He stepped away, beckoning Evalieh to follow. Together they made their way out of the palace while Hanali continued to talk about his ideals. “Outlanders, have mentioned how unforgiving the outside world is, how fixated people are on mistakes and pointless things. I don’t want that to happen to people here, I don’t want people to become lost or out of touch with themselves or nature.”
Evalieh’s eyes were wide with confusion. Once again, Hanali stunned him with his thoughtfulness and worldly awareness. Evalieh shook his head, trying to only thing of something positive. “I—I just want to go home. I don’t want to be alone in a world I know nothing about, but somehow—you don’t make me feel lonely. Is that what a friend is?”