Tafiti Gets the Message
"How would you like your coconut milk, Tafiti? Stramberry or Munuberry?"
Tafiti opened his eyes into the bright Mystery Island sunshine, and stretched his tail languorously in his wading pool. "Mm… You have any Turihar on hand, Phidianne? No one makes as mean a Turihar Coconut Milk as you."
Phidianne smiled knowingly. Tafiti knew full well that she kept one of the best-stocked juice bars on Mystery Island. She held a coconut firm with one hand and drew a machete from the thatched wall with the other, then sliced the coconut clean in half. With the showmanship of a stage magician, she ground and strained a handful of fresh Turihar berries and blended their rich mauve juices into one of the coconut halves. She ran the very end of one caramel-coloured wingtip across the mixture, just grazing the surface. Satisfied with the consistency, she added a straw and pressed the concoction into Tafiti's waiting flipper.
"Must be nice to have something delivered to you for a change, eh?"
Tafiti took a slow sip and sighed, unsure whether the presentation or the flavour was more sybaritic. He closed his eyes. Tafiti didn't have a great sense of smell, but the scent of turnip, with just a hint of garlic, wafted through the salt air. He sank another inch into the pool, taking care not to tilt his coconut shell. The blue swirls of his Camouflage hide seemed to vanish into the pool, along with all the cares of the world.
"I wish I could lounge here all day, Phidianne," he apologized to the Island Hissi, "but duty calls." He patted his courier's satchel. "I don't know what the Island Mystic plans to do with all these Springy Green Slorg toys, but I'm sure he doesn't want to be kept waiting."
Phidianne's eyes flashed. "How strange! He asked me to come see him later today. Why don't I join you?"
"Lead the way, Captain!"
Phidianne always loved visiting Ubuntu Island, which was lush even by Mystery Island's standards. She was glad for Tafiti's company, though. As an official Mystery Island Privateer, Phidianne could be called into service at any time, and her ship, the Five Hundredth Dubloon, converted from island ferry to warship. The Island Mystic was one of the five elders on Mystery Island's ruling council with the authority to call her into service - but not today, she hoped.
Phidianne undulated purposefully along the path to the Island Mystic's home, more mansion than hut. Armed Coco guards barred the door, but stepped aside as they recognized Phidianne from her previous diplomatic visits. Tafiti returned their polite nod as he crossed the threshold, but could feel the guards' close scrutiny.
Inside, they were greeted by a smartly dressed Coco butler. Phidianne raced forward. "Tshumba, you handsome devil! It's been too long!" She ignored the butler's discomfiture and wrapped her wings around him in a warm embrace. Tshumba gave her an avuncular smile, and Tafiti had the distinct impression that the Coco's smiles were both rare and sincere. Tshumba discreetly straightened his jacket and led them into the Island Mystic's reception hall.
True to form, the Island Mystic made an entrance. Emerging from the cloud of an unexpected Smoke Bomb, the Kyrii shaman leapt with fiery eyes and arms akimbo in a dramatic gesture. Phidianne laughed delightedly, then paused and the Kyrii's gaze fell upon her Flotsam friend. She looked to Tafiti in confusion as the Kyrii tensed his shoulders and spread his feet apart like an aggressive sumo wrestler. She was used to the Island Mystic's flair for the dramatic, but this was odd even for him. Tafiti, caught completely off guard, just stared.
Without breaking his stance, the Mystic turned his head towards Phidianne. "Captain Phidianne. You grace us with your presence. I see now why I summoned you today." The Hissi curtseyed. Shifting his gaze back to the Flotsam, he continued, "Welcome to you as well, southerner."
Tafiti regained his composure. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the world-famous Island Mystic knows the ways of my homeland. I haven't seen a formal greeting like that… in a long time."
"I know a good deal more than that, lad." The Kyrii fixed his eyes on the Flotsam, as though looking through him. He leaned abruptly in, nearly clobbering Tafiti's rostrum with his hairbone. "You will discover… treacherous luck? No… a cool weapon in the Ice Caves."
Tafiti blinked. "Is that so? Well! I suppose that's something to look forward to…"
"NO!" barked the Kyrii. "You do not understand! You must go! Go home! Now!"
"Oh. Oookay…" answered Tafiti, nonplussed. "But I do have a delivery for you. If you could just sign…"
"Yes, yes, of course!" the Mystic muttered excitedly. He grabbed a Berry Ink Pen from his butler's conveniently outstretched hand and smeared a juicy "X" on the receipt, and cackled something about "meddling Mortogs once and for all" under his breath. "Now GO!"
The butler mercifully ushered them back to the front door. "Captain Phidianne, I am sorry you cannot stay. Please visit us soon." She nodded as the doors closed behind them.
Tafiti ran a flipper back over his alicorn, as though to clear his head. "Mind telling me what all that was about?"
Phidianne raised an eyebrow. "I was hoping you could tell me! Did that stomping mean something to you?"
Tafiti grew quiet. "... Yes. It's the formal greeting on the island I come from."
Phidianne took his flippers in her winged hands. "Tafiti. We've known each other a long time. We've been through a lot, the two of us, and I'm just now realizing you've never talked about your home. Is there something I should know?"
Tafiti looked downwards, breaking her gaze. "... Yes. My parents threw me out."
"Maintain course, ten knots, steady as she goes."
With a quick glance at the ship's masts, Phidianne judged the rigging up to standards, and left the helm in the competent paws of the ship's navigator. Out at sea, the dawn light wrinkled through the clouds as her schooner, the Five Hundredth Dubloon, detoured from its usual route ferrying 'Pets across the Maraquan Circle between Mystery Island and the Neopian Central mainland. Now, they traveled northeast from Mystery Island to the sparsely populated islands near Moltara's entrance, towards the small desert island Tafiti once called home. Tafiti could arguably have made the trip under his own power at a speed to rival the schooner, but he was honestly grateful for Phidianne's company.
Phidianne found Tafiti leaning over the railing, watching the shifting colors of the sunrise, and the unexpected green tints in the sky rare on land but common on the ocean. Her mind flashed back to a less happy memory, when pirates had taken control of her ship and conscripted herself and Tafiti into serving on the pirate crew.
She thought back to the pirate captain keelhauling Tafiti, a brutal underwater torture that he had barely survived, and wondered whether that memory still haunted the Flotsam. Tafiti had never struck her as one haunted by memories, until the Island Mystic's eerie prophecy.
The Hissi scooted alongside her friend and placed her wing across his shoulders. "I think it's time you told me what happened."
Tafiti looked her in the eyes. "I don't like to bring it up, but it was rough growing up. Not every island is a cosmopolitan paradise like Mystery Island."
Phidianne couldn't suppress a smirk. "That's the first time I've ever heard anyone call Mystery Island 'cosmopolitan.'"
Tafiti frowned. "I know you don't think of it that way, not compared with Maraqua's technology, or the castles on the mainland, or even Krawk Island's firepower. But Mystery Island really is blessed. You may not have a lot of money, but no one ever goes wanting for food. You have coconuts, for Fyora's sake. Coconuts just growing everywhere. You have whole tribes of Cocos dedicated to protecting their coconut groves. Where I'm from, coconuts are life. The few coconut trees we have are the key to survival, for the few who can survive. And the people who control the trees… aren't always very nice about it."
Phidianne hugged him closer.
"Not to blow my own alicorn, but you know I'm a strong swimmer."
"You're one of the fastest swimmers I've ever met, and I'm a seafaring Island gal."
"I had to be fast, and I had to be tough. If you weren't fast enough to get away, you had to be tough enough to take a beating."
Phidianne clutched at her family's totem, which she wore as a necklace for good luck.
"I didn't see much of my father growing up. He answered to one of the iki – "
"The icky? Icky what?"
"No, not 'icky' – 'iki.' That's just what the folks in charge were called. Kind of like mob bosses."
"So your father was in the mob?"
"I was too young to know much. All I know is that one day I came home to find a note saying I was banished from home, and never to come back. So I left, and made my way to Altador, and made a new life for myself working as a courier for the Peophinny Express. I try not to look back."
Phidianne's snout flared with uncharacteristic anger. "Nothing… nothing is more important than family. I'm going to have a few choice words with your father."
Tafiti shook his head. "Tread water carefully, Phidianne. These isolated islands have their own rules. You can't just take people on."
Phidianne adjusted the angle of her trusty Daring Sea Captain's Spyglass. A sandy beach extended beyond sight. On the dunes, a dozen or so Neopets, mostly Acaras and Jetsams, had spotted the schooner and were clustering together.
"Look alive," called out Phidianne to the ship's Master Gunner, who nodded and began readying the cannons. "We might be in for a scuffle if they think we're pirates."
"Oh, I doubt that," dismissed Tafiti. "We don't get pirates in these parts. Nothing worth pillaging here. Even if we were pirates, though, we'd get the same reception."
"What reception is that?"
"Captain, welcome to my old home… and enjoy the local hospitality."
Phidianne and Tafiti disembarked, flanked by several crewmembers. The locals rushed up with clay plates covered with smoked fish. One Jetsam raised a large knife, but Phidianne held up her hand before her crew could take action, and the Jetsam swung the blade not towards Phidianne but a single coconut, whose milk they began to distribute to the crew in small clay-fired ramekins. Phidianne started to decline a cup, until Tafiti pressed his into her hands.
"Tafiti, didn't you say coconuts were in short supply here?"
"Very short supply. And there's a lot less fish than I would have expected. This is probably a week's worth of food for them."
Phidianne recoiled. "We can't accept all this!"
Tafiti smiled, but with a serious expression. "You can and you will. You'll offend them greatly if you don't. Please, Phidianne. This is a better reception than I expected. Let's not start off on the wrong fluke."
Phidianne acquiesced. A matronly Green Koi distributed morsels of fish, but stopped dead in her tracks in front of Tafiti.
"Tafiti. No. It's can't be you."
"Headmistress Fioiha?" The Flotsam's voice caught as he started to speak, recognising his old schoolteacher. The Koi shook her head and lowered her voice. "You shouldn't have returned. Quickly, you must go. Now, before anyone else sees you."
Phidianne set her jaw. "Perhaps the three of us can have a nice chat on my ship. It seems we have much to discuss." The Koi nodded.
The Koi seemed on the verge of tears. "That's how you left? Just a note saying to go?"
Tafiti nodded. "I got the message, all right. I wasn't wanted. This is a small island. It's not like I had anywhere else I could stay."
Fioiha shook her head again, struggling to find the words. "Oh, child – although I suppose you're hardly a child anymore, are you? – of course your parents wanted you. But they wanted you safe more. Hilagi had threatened your father – "
"I'm sorry," interrupted Phidianne. "Who is this Hilagi?"
"Hilagi, or Hilagi-iki, as he styles himself now, ruled over this part of the island. Your father did everything he could to keep a roof over your head and protect you from Hilagi's brutality. I saw all too often how little protection that sometimes was, but your father did his best. I don't know all the details, but I heard that your father planned to stand up to Hilagi at long last, and that monster was going to imprison you as leverage against your father."
Phidianne rested her head in her palm. "Your father wasn't disowning you. He just wanted you to think you could never come back."
The Koi nodded sadly. "And yet, here you are. And your father paid for that gambit with his own freedom. If Hilagi discovers you have returned..."
Tafiti clenched a fist. "He'll punish me and my family to keep hold of power. Well, I've got friends and allies of my own now. We'll take him down – "
"And you will lose. Tafiti, child, he has some sort of magic. He rules by more than mere intimidation. It used to be that he just controlled the coconut supply, but now it's much worse. Tafiti, he controls the water."
Phidianne was puzzled. "How can you control the water? It would take incredible magic to harness the waves."
Tafiti shook his head. "Not the sea water. The drinking water. It's even more scarce than coconuts. Didn't the freshwater flow out of the caverns?"
Fioiha shrugged. "It used to. Now it flows no more. He doles out driblets of water in exchange for tribute, and there's nothing we can do. We can't even flee. Without a supply of fresh water, we'd never make it to the nearest land."
"So," mused Phidianne, "it's become a rescue mission."
Tafiti nodded. "Restore the water. Free my family. Bring Hilagi to justice."
Much to the crew's displeasure, Phidianne had insisted on accompanying Tafiti into the caverns alone. They threatened to outvote her, but eventually acknowledged that a stealth mission had more chance of success. The boatswain, however, equipped them with the best equipment she had available. Unfortunately, that equipment did not include heavy coats, which were useless in the island heat, but would have been most welcome in the unexpectedly damp chill of the subterranean caverns.
"Are you sure we're going the right way?" whispered Phidianne in the dim torchlight.
"I think so. This drybed is where the rivulet should be. I just can't figure out what happened to the water."
"I think I have an idea," Phidianne managed with an unintentional shiver. She pointed to a large cistern against the cave wall, then upwards to a large scar of ice where the river appeared to be frozen solid.
Suddenly they were startled by a slow clap. Spinning around in the near darkness, at first all they could make out was two glowing eyes.
Tafiti muttered through clenched teeth. "Hilagi."
"Little Tafiti. My, how you've grown." Hilagi's voice dripped with sarcasm and confidence. Phidianne assumed the figure was a Lenny from its silhouette, but Hilagi's face was completely occluded by an Evil Coconut Mask with flaming, mephitic eyes. "So kind of you to bring me a present. I've been wanting my own ship."
Phidianne bristled. Tafiti stood his ground. "I'm not a child anymore, Hilagi, and I've faced worse than you."
"Have you, now?" purred the Lenny, his voice muffled behind the mask as the flaming eyes flared momentarily brighter. "My little friends in the mask tell me different. You stood up to pirates, but all it got you was thrown in chains. You faced down some two-bit frontier villains, but in the end you ran away while your friend here did all the heavy lifting." Somehow, Tafiti knew the Mynci was grinning behind the mask.
"Oh, I ran, all right, but I didn't run away. I swam faster than anyone else could have for life-saving medicine."
"Well, aren't you just too honourable for words." From the Lenny's shadowy figure, Tafiti heard a rustle and saw a glint, and instinctively dove for cover as a beam flashed in the darkness. A block of ice stood where Tafiti had just been standing.
"A Lenny Ray Gun of Freezing. That explains a lot."
"You have gotten quick, castaway little flotsam. I wonder, is your bold friend fast as well?" Hilagi took aim and fired.
Phidianne quaffed an olive-green liquid and spit it through the flame of her torch, which erupted in a streaming blaze, dousing the ray blast with sputtering gouts of steam. "Qanfire fruit juice," she smiled serenely, licking her lips with her forked tongue. "What? I'm not just a diplomat and a master sailor. I'm a five-star barista."
Taking advantage of the Lenny's confusion, Tafiti rolled to the side, grabbed his Peophinny Express satchel, and enveloped the Lenny's masked head. Putting the Lenny into a headlock, he smothered the Lenny until his mask fell off, its flaming eyes extinguished.
"I didn't know your satchel was flame-resistant."
"This old thing?" beamed Tafiti, airing it out as he lay his breathing but unconscious foe on the cavern floor. "You know what they say about us couriers: neither squall, nor magma, nor infernal flames, and all that."
Phidianne dusted herself off and chuckled.
"I don't suppose you have any more of that Qanfire juice?"
Phidianne tossed him a phial. Tafiti tossed back his head, and sputtered as he nearly choked on the juice. He held his torch over his head and breathed out through the flame, aiming his fiery breath at the frozen river. Instantly, water splashed down on his sore melon, soaking the Flotsam and dousing the torch.
"I… did not think that through." Tafiti shook the water off of his satchel. "Waterproof, too!"
After a few more minutes of chipping away and melting the ice, the river of fresh water was well on its way to full restoration. As Phidianne and Tafiti wound their way back to the cave entrance, following the path of the flowing stream, they heard shouts of joy from the outside at the trickle of water. As they emerged, the islanders took the same sumo pose that the Island Mystic had done, and began to shout Tafiti-iki! as they stomped and danced in rhythm.
Fioiha beamed with pride. "Such a great omen! Bathed in the sacred water, just like the great patu-ikis of old."
Tafiti shook his head. "Is that the old tradition for choosing a ruler? Well, then, who am I to argue with tradition?" With his trademark speed, he enveloped his old teacher with his drenched limbs, and shook the last of the water from his satchel onto her green scales. "People of the island! What say you? Shall we take wise Fioiha as our new iki?"
Fioiha tried to speak, but her voice was drowned out by the roar of the growing crowd. She raised a fin until the clamour subsided, and spoke. "Very well, I will consent to rule as best I can for as long as you choose to let me. This calls for a celebration, but first we need our guests of honour."
"What do you need us to do?" asked Tafiti.
Phidianne jabbed him in the ribs. "Not us, you numskull. Look. Over there."
The crowd parted to make room for an older couple, gaunt, their eyes blinking as though they had not seen the sunlight for some time. As they took in the ruckus, their eyes fell on the soaked Flotsam. Despite their obvious stiffness and soreness, they began to run towards him.
Tafiti's first sight of his parents blurred as the tears streamed down his face. When the islanders told the tale, they said that his tears made the sacred waters just a little more pure.