A Heart of Gold
It was nearly time. The whole of Lutari Island was abuzz with the excitement. One more day! The ferns and palm trees themselves seemed to quiver in anticipation: One more sunrise! Even the thick white clouds, encircling the island like some eternal, greedy snake, were a little bit brighter and less ominous than they normally were. It was as though all the island was prepared.
All were ready save for one: King Leppiku himself. The Lutari king, who saved the island from almost certain destruction at the beginning of his long reign, was not ready to give up his throne. But he had no choice. It was time to pass the feathered crown on to the next leader of the Lutari people; and yet Leppiku, who had held the crown for almost two hundred years, was loathe to leave his station. It was part of him. He could never give it up.
Still, it would not be wise to go against the Faerie Queen's advice.
Queen Fyora, one of the few outsiders to have access to the hidden island, had appeared roughly two months ago. Leppiku had just concluded a dedication of a new healing spring when Fyora appeared in a blast of lavender energy, startling all in attendance. She had told the assembled Lutari that the course of Neopia had taken an unexpected turn and Leppiku's time as king was nearly over.
"Leppiku has been a wonderful king during his long tenure as ruler," she said, "but it is time for a change. There must be a new face for a new age of Neopia. I cannot tell you Lutari what I have learned, but soon, Lutari Island may be shaken to its very core." She paused there, sadly looking out over the shocked faces. "In two months time, I shall return. Then, we can begin the process of selecting a new ruler." And with that, she disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, leaving only a slight pink shimmer and the scent of vanilla hanging in the air where she had been.
No one quite knew what to make of Fyora's announcement. Had she been hinting that Lutari Island would be drawn back into the spheres of the main world? Almost no Lutari wanted that. The few who did were sent out by Leppiku as a sort of advance scout. Mr. Chipper, for instance, who had been placed at Terror Mountain so many years ago, had been quietly gathering information for ages, keeping Lutari Island abreast of what was happening in the big kingdoms of Neopia. Leppiku had read about the Tyrannian earthquakes, the death of Coltzan, and all the other events shaping the planet.
And now all of Leppiku's plans were drawing to a close. No one knew who would be chosen as the new leader: There was a particular ceremony that all Lutari citizens—both male and female, as none were barred from potential leadership—would need to undergo, and then the ruler would be chosen from how those candidates fared. There was no guarantee that the new leader would keep the island's beautiful removed status: They could easily work to break the protective cloud barrier that Leppiku had constructed so many years ago. And who knows what would happen then?
Leppiku was shaken from his reflections by the arrival of Takima, an elderly Lutari who managed the largest café in the the capital city of Lutari Island. Leppiku had become friends with Takima over the long years, and so her arrival was not unwelcome.
"You worried about the new crowning?" she asked, plopping down next to him on the white sands of the beach. "You don't have anything to worry about. Trust me." She didn't quite look at him but instead looked out over the waves.
Leppiku shrugged. "I don't know, my friend..." He picked up a brightly coloured shell that had washed up on the sand. It was bright red, streaked with gold: Many of the shell collectors on the island—for shell collecting had become popular ever since the cloud walls went up—would have loved it. He tossed it into the sea.
Takima grinned. She picked at a bead on her blouse for a moment. "You know," she finally said, "that I'm older than you. I was here when Namanti was on the throne and when we were still part of the international community. Why, I remember when I was a little girl, and I took a trip to Shenkuu. I had never been off the island before, and the imperial city was simply wonderful. The spices that I could smell! All the beautiful statues in the city! And everyone was so happy..." She sighed. "But those are just memories now. We've been on this island by ourselves for centuries."
Leppiku bit his lip. "But you're not saying that I was a bad king for closing the island off, right? I mean, I had to do it! You know I had no choice, right? Because if I hadn't, there would have—" Leppiku was working himself up into a sort of panic. Had everything that he had done been just a mistake?
"I know, I know." Takima took the king's paw into her own. His soft, royally trimmed fur was strange compared to Takima's old, haggard fur. "Closing the island was the best thing you could have done, and you have managed wonderfully since then. Never doubt that."
Leppiku closed his eyes, leaning back into the sand, his hand pulling away from Takima's. "I just..." He shook his head. "I don't know if anything that I've done is for the best anymore." He opened his eyes, searching the cloudless sky, trying to ferret an answer out of the silent blue vastness. But there was no answer: There was only a bright yellow Tuceet fluttering slowly, gliding on the winds.
"You know that I am your friend, Leppiku," Takima said quietly, her old voice containing ageless wisdom. She clapped her hand on his shoulder. "And as your friend, it would be my duty to tell you if you have messed up. It is my duty to be honest with you. You have been a great king. I will admit, some of your decisions may have been silly. But you are, overall, probably one of the best rulers that Lutari Island has ever had. Who else would have been able to construct the cloud wall? The entire island would have been lost without you. But instead, we have been in bliss for almost two hundred years." She smiled. "I am happy that we are friends. I'm honoured. That feeling would not come if you had been a bad king."
Leppiku could feel himself blushing. "Thank you, Takima." His voice seemed dwarfed by the sound of the sea, but he could not speak any louder for the emotions bubbling inside him. He felt as though Takima had just poured some golden happiness into him; his heart felt lighter for it. "Do you really mean that?"
A grisly laugh. "Of course I do, you fool. Have I ever said anything I didn't mean? I'm too old to waste my breath on words that don't matter."
Leppiku had to laugh. He felt all the anxiety of the past two months, an anxiety that had been growing like some dark twisted plant ever since the moment that Fyora had told him that he would step down, ebb away, receding into the surf, carried away and washed off to parts unknown, just as the shell he had thrown would be.
"I'm lucky to have you as a friend," he said finally. Leppiku felt as though he were glowing, as though he had sunlight inside of him.
Takima stood, brushing the sand off her clothes. "Well, I'm going back to the café." She said finally. She took a few tottering steps toward the interior of the island. "Tell you what!" She quickly turned around to look back at Leppiku. "After the whole crowning business is over, you can become co-owner of the café with me. You'll need something to do to keep you busy. Alright?"
Leppiku grinned. "Sure thing, Takima. Thank you again."
And with that, Leppiku stretched out into the sand, ready for whatever the next day would bring.
At high noon on the next day, Fyora appeared in front of the Lutari palace. Leppiku bowed to her, the crowds cheered, and the ceremony began.
Every Lutari citizen who wished to have a chance at being the next king would take a stone from the palace fountain. These stones were all very particular black stones that had been mined from the deepest grottoes of the island, all round and smooth with no particular edges. The fountain was connected to the island's most magical spring, of a similar kind to that of Faerieland's Healing Springs, and so all the stones had been washed with the island's magic. After all the stones had been taken, Fyora would cast a spell, and the fountain, using the spring's magic, would be ready to examine all the possible leaders. One by one, those who had taken a stone would plunge their hand into the water and drop their stone back in: If the water glowed golden after the stone was deposited, the island had chosen that stone-carrier to be the next ruler.
It was all very time-consuming, really.
Almost three hundred various Lutari had gathered in the square outside the palace. Old Lutari, a few older than Takima, young Lutari, who had only been born in the last few decades: They all were there. And there was such noise! It was a task to get them all into a line to receive the stones.
Leppiku watched as each Lutari was given a stone. Some he knew could never be crowned; others he had seen around the island and, he knew, could possibly be crowned. Here was Ionula, a young archer who had renowned accuracy who had a great red cloak; there was Ponolu, a lazy woodcarver who made trinkets. Halfway down the line was Takima, grumbling about her old bones and who said that she was only there to support Leppiku; and towards the end of the line was Vanuma, the son of Namanti, the old queen. Vanuma was of course the supposed favourite for the queenship: She had studied intensely for years in the Lutari Island Library, and she had debated with Leppiku on all manner of his kingly duties. Popularity, ambition, and intelligence—a rare combination on the relaxed, party-prone island—had won her a sizeable following among the islanders when it came to who would be the next ruler.
And so finally all the Lutari had picked up their stones. Fyora, with her great staff in hand, muttered a few words over the fountain, and then the line went through again, moving even slower than it had before. Leppiku, who had been smiling pleasantly before, now watched as each hand dipped into the pool, dropped the stone, and waited. It was not a long wait; it only took about three seconds for the stones to reach the bottom of the fountain.
So many walked away in disappointment. Ionula, the great archer, stomped off in a huff after his stone did not elicit a reaction from the fountain. Leppiku didn't know how good of a king Ionula would have been, but he was slightly disappointed with that result. Ponolu the lazy woodcarver of course did not get a golden fountain, but no one was expecting him to. Takima dropped her stone in, walked away, and didn't look back.
But she should have. For as soon as her stone settled, the fountain bubbled with golden light. Fyora gasped and smiled. The next Lutari in line began to cheer before Takima had turned around to realise what was happening.
"Do you mean...?" Takima started, staring at the water. She couldn't finish her sentence before she was swept up in a celebratory mob, made up of many café goers, that carried her away. Before she got too far, she managed to yell to Leppiku, "Well, I guess you're in charge of the café now!"
And Leppiku smiled. The island had definitely chosen a worthy candidate with a most golden heart.