Shad and Saura: That Other City - Part Seven
Art by ssjelitegirl
Harfu and Deki returned in half an hour, the fire Scorchio rubbing his sore side with a grimace. The people in the tavern stopped their chatting and started bombarding the two friends with questions, so by the time they reached the table, they had repeated for at least a dozen times each, “He’s fine. Never been better if you ask me. Just a shock. Yeah, he’s fine, I already said that...”
“It was nice of you boys to help him,” said a chubby Yurble with a smile as the buddies popped down with a sigh.
“Anyone would’ve done that,” grinned Harfu. The tavern visitors’ attention seemed to cease at once and everyone turned back to what they had been doing, coughing sheepishly.
“Respected, yet avoided?” asked Saura.
“Can’t blame the people for knowing what’s good for them,” Deki said with a chuckle. “So, what did we miss?”
The company broke apart at early dawn, when the sky was getting a bit lighter towards east and the tavern showed the first sings of getting emptier. Shad and Saura strolled back through the streets that were still crowded, but not as loud and lively any more. The Lupe was yawning his fanged jaws off, scaring the passers-by to the other side of the road.
“How come you’re not sleepy?” he demanded, blinking quickly to drive off the haze in his eyes.
“I sleep during the daytime, that’s why,” said the Zafara. “And I’m starting to think that- whoa! Ar-tooooos! Hey, remember us?”
Shad blinked in utter confusion when his usually so reserved brother jumped up and down a few times before trotting over to the Island Acara who had just come out a small house. The scholar stared at him, then smiled nervously. “Why, of course I remember. What a pleasant surprise. Returning to the palace, I’m assuming?”
“Oh yes.” Saura gave him a friendly yawn, making Shad blink again. “Been up all night; those bazaars are really fun, but now we really need to hit the hay.”
“As do we all,” agreed the Acara. “People usually just sleep the day after the Bazaar and get up in the evening.”
“So Qasala will be practically extinct today?” asked the Zafara. Artus nodded. “Well, no sense in staying up any longer then, eh Shad? Are you coming to the palace too?”
The Acara shook his head. “Not yet; I have some quick business to attend to. Have a good sleep.”
“Okay, that was confusing,” hissed Shad as they continued towards the town square and the palace. “And the fact that my brain is already hazy with sleeplessness is not helping. Plus that stupid house smelled of coffee. I want either sleep or some of that coffee, and then I want an explanation, and no arguing there!”
Now it was Saura’s turn to blink in confusion. “It did... okay, you’re right, you need sleep. Everything at its own time. There’s the palace now, try not to fall over before we reach our rooms... Shad, darn it, don’t do this to me, you’re too heavy!”
The Lupe was practically sleepwalking when Saura pushed the door open, watched as his brother collapsed on the carpet, pondered on the doorway for a moment, then apparently came to a conclusion and hurried off with a determined frown. He ran down the dim hallway which had been pitch-black just a while ago but now had just enough light to see where he was going. The Zafara only stopped once to ask a servant for directions. The servant remained staring after him as he ran on.
Nightsteed was standing on the balcony when the knock echoed on his door. He blinked, turned around, then turned back to look at the sky. It was still dark. Only Jazan dared to come to him voluntarily when it was dark and he was in his cursed form. Servants were literally afraid of him, even in daylight, and Nabile... she was just cautious, not that she could be blamed, a former street urchin as she was. A smart girl, even if a bit airheaded...
“What?” he snapped, angry at himself for drifting away like that. The door slid open and Saura peered in.
He hadn’t been sure what to expect from Nightsteed’s rooms, which were located near the rooms of the royal couple, in the corner of the palace. The two walls in the corner consisted of pillars, opening straight to a wide balcony that had a clear overview on half of the city – most of it, seeing that there wasn’t much of the city behind the palace. The room was clearly old, but well-kept and clean. It didn’t have much furniture. Even the bed was a mattress on the floor.
“Good morning,” said the Zafara, lingering on the doorway as Nightsteed stared at him. “Nice room. Very zen. I’d like to talk to you.”
“Come on in,” said the mage, scowling. Saura closed the door.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “My brother and I landed in this whole show pretty much accidentally. We didn’t want to, we still don’t. It’s none of our business and we just wish to leave this city as soon as we can. But we got our share of these intrigues here, and while I have no intentions of becoming the Royal Spy of Qasala, I like this town, I don’t want any harm to Their Highnesses and therefore you might be interested in hearing what I’ve found out.”
Nightsteed’s red eyes had narrowed. “What’s your price?”
“Remove your curse when we leave the city,” grunted Saura.
The corners of the Uni’s mouth twitched. “I was going to do that anyway. I’m no monster. Well, your offer is nice and has no hidden intentions as I see, otherwise you’d be dead by now... I’m listening.”
Saura didn’t have that much to say but when he finished, the Uni gazed at him thoughtfully. “Well, that’s interesting. And it fills in some nice little blanks I’ve been thinking about. Nothing certain yet, true...” He tilted his head. “Once you’re here, would you like to do me a favor?”
Saura had been half-crouching on the floor in his usual Zafara manner. Now he stood up in all his length as his eyes widened. “Oh no. No way. No thanks. Like I said, I don’t want to start sneaking around for you. I’m keeping my tail out of this, and so does Shad, and I only told you what I found out because it’s your business, not mine, but that’s it. We’re just tourists and we’d like to stay that way, thank you.”
Nightsteed grinned. “Tourists with good ears, are you not? That’s what I’m asking you to do. No sneaking. Trust me, I know a thing or two about sneaking. Sneakers hear nothing as they’re too concentrated on hiding themselves and avoiding being suspected. I’m asking you to do what you just did. If you hear anything, let me know. But don’t go sneaking specifically for new info. I forbid you to sneak. Got it? Good. Anything else?”
Saura scowled. “Actually, yes. There’s something I’d like to ask you. I know that you have it. A city that lives in such a schedule has to have it.”
The room fell very quiet after Saura had presented his wish. For a brief moment the situation hung on the edge. Then Nightsteed said, “Fine,” and went to another room. He returned with a small cup. “Don’t let anyone see it.”
Shad was floating in the blissful nothingness of deep sleep when a scent pierced his sensitive nose, waking him up at once. He blinked, then focused on a cup in front of his nose. It was made of bones and filled with a strange liquid. If it was liquid. The cup looked like a ribcage and its contents showed right through the ribs.
“Drink it,” said Saura, who was holding the cup.
“What in the...” The Lupe squinted into the cup. It smelled like Darigan’s old socks. And also like coffee.
Shad gulped the liquid down. He blinked. Then he fell down on the floor. Saura sat down and waited.
Ten minutes passed. Shad’s yellow eyes flashed open all of a sudden, registered the dimness outside and he sat up, shooting a confused glance at his brother. “How long did I sleep?”
“Ten minutes, give or take.”
The Lupe shook his edgy head, ears flapping from side to side. “Okay. Uhuh. Ten minutes. Saura, you owe me a big bunch of explanations.”
The Zafara nodded, sitting down and crossing his legs. “I know. I wanted to wait until you were fully awake and ready to listen. First things first, this here,” he showed the empty mug of bones, “was Coffee of the Dead. Insanely valuable. I’ve seen it in the Mystery Island Trading Post before, the prices start from 110,000 Neopoints. It’s not coffee, per se, but rather anti-coffee. It allows one to sleep very fast. Within those ten minutes, you got the rest of ten hours. In a city that has a sleeping schedule as twisted as this, something like that is necessary for the rulers, advisors and so forth. Actually all of us could use something like that once in a while, which is why it costs so much.”
Shad gazed at the mug. “I see. I probably don’t want to know what it’s made of. So what was with the circus in front of Artus? You acted like a hyperactive Weewoo. And you yawned, might I add. You never yawn.”
“Good thing he doesn’t know me as well as you do,” grinned Saura. “I caught his attention at once so that we wouldn’t catch him off guard and make him think that he’s accidentally revealed something to us with his expressions or something. He looked nothing like the friendly, nervous little scholar we met in the library. He looked... mean, and satisfied, for lack of better adjectives. The yawn was to assure him that I’m planning to go to sleep, so that he’d feel free to sneak around in the city today when most others are asleep, which he’s going to do, I can bet my petpet on that.”
The Lupe stared at him. “Oh great. You’ve decided to go for the spy routine again.”
“Nonononono.” Saura bit his lip. “On the contrary. I’m planning to learn as much about all this as possible, while staying out of this, you see? This city is dangerous. Something is boiling under the surface. The more we know about it, the better we can protect ourselves from it. It’s too easy to pull unsuspecting citizens in, like the strange mage is doing with Qasala. Besides,” now he grinned, “this whole thing has begun to interest me. Remember the house Artus had been in? It smelled of coffee, you told me that. Why do you think it smelled of coffee?”
Shad looked at him with a frown, then his eyes widened. “Me and my stupid, slow, sleep-infested brain. The coffee was there to hide the smells of anyone in the house from any nose comparable to mine. Artus met someone there, possibly many someones, and they didn’t need anyone off the street to recognize them. Someone famous, you think? Someone not associated with Artus?”
“That’s how those things tend to work,” nodded Saura. “Of course, they’re all just theories. It’s none of our business, remember? No need to plunge in face-first into these matters. Though...” He told Shad about his conversation with Nightsteed. It had mainly been about Artus and the house of coffee.
“And he’s gone for the spy routine again,” announced the Lupe.
“Nightsteed deserves to know. It’s all his business, not ours. He’s trying to save the city from falling into the mage’s hands, why shouldn’t I help him any way I can?” Saura stood up. “And now I’m starving. Let’s go find something to eat. You’ll be able to smell Artus far enough so that we won’t run into him, right?”
“Yup,” agreed the Lupe, feeling that his stomach was complaining loudly as well. “Let’s go.”
Artus would much rather have been at the palace at that time. He knew that the master wasn’t going to harm him as long as he was still useful, and he was continuously useful. But that wasn’t the point. The master was unnerving. Very unnerving. Artus knew a thing or two about evil geniuses, he was a Neopian after all. The tall figure he was facing in this small warehouse near one of Qasala’s main streets was nothing like Sloth, or Lord Kass, or old King Razul himself. This one was patient. He didn’t rely on armies or magic. He played with people’s minds, and he was good at it.
“Well, talk,” said the figure sitting on a sack of coffee beans. Artus couldn’t see his face all that well in the dim light. Not that he needed to.
“Nightsteed worries me,” said the Acara. “He’s smart. Probably knows more that we’re assuming he knows. He sneaked around on the bazaar last night, and I have no idea what he may have found out.”
“He fell from the roof, as I heard,” said the mage. His voice was icy.
“Who did it?”
Artus gave a faint one-shoulder-shrug. “Probably him, sir.” The word ‘him’ had a certain stress, suggesting that the boss should know very well who he was talking about. “It wasn’t me, and he was there, and he’s not very calculative if you’ll excuse my directness, sir. He probably sensed his presence and felt alarmed.”
“Most likely,” snarled the master. “Well, nothing to change there. Actually it worked out in our advantage as I heard.” Artus nodded in agreement, just in case; he wasn’t sure what the boss meant. “How’s the research coming along?”
The island Acara sighed. “I’m making progress, sir, but bear in mind that it’s an old spellbook. It has a primitive mind of sorts, and they’re tricky. I’m not even sure if the text I’m reading is the correct text or something it presents me as it likes. I’m getting there, but it will take time.”
“I have time,” said the other. “Take your time. Don’t be hasty. Hurrying will get us nowhere. Anything else?”
“No, sir.” Now Artus just wanted to get out as soon as possible. The master tended to have that effect on people in the long run.
“Go on then.” The Island Acara hurried out after bowing quickly, leaving the tall figure sitting on the sack. He seemed thoughtful, as much as his face could be seen in the shadows – if there had been anyone to watch. But there wasn’t, he knew that. He sat back and closed his eyes, letting his senses drift.
Qasala. That big, beautiful, old city. One of the first settlements in Neopia, with an extremely long history, and so many rich memories, and so many proud people. And what had it become? A cursed, forgotten city for centuries, then some weeks of general excitement, and look at it now. Not ever a tourist attraction. There were those two, who were they again, that shadow Lupe and spotted Zafara, the only tourists in town at the moment, was it not so?
And yet there was so much potential. Putting the city on the map would be so easy. All it would need would be a good leader, a strong one, not like that stupid lazy Kyrii. But now that problem was taking care of itself. He could feel Jazan’s bond with the city getting weaker by the day. And when the time came, when Artus finished his work and Jazan’s bond broke, he would be there. Qasala would get a new ruler. And then – no more “that other place in Lost Desert”. Tourists. Riches. Political bonds. And him in front of all that. And after that – who knows? Time would tell.
He scowled, standing up. There was, of course, this unforeseen little problem. As Jazan’s bond weakened, Nightsteed’s was getting stronger. He was putting up a good fight. But, and this was important, he didn’t have what Jazan had, and what the mage had. This would be crucial.
He left the building. The streets were empty as he walked down them but there still were a few sleepy sweepers and milkmen, doing their chores and waving at him happily as he went by. “Good morning, sir!”
“Good morning,” he replied with a smile. Love of the people, dear Nightsteed. All you have is respect.
To be continued...