Fine Line: Part Ten
Alamor was not just running for his life. He was running for two lives, one of which belonged to the tiny white Kougra in his arms who had just awoken by the jostling of his father as he dashed through the night.
“Dad?” asked Lasa, looking up into Alamor’s eyes.
The camouflage Kougra was running at a steady pace, but it was difficult to hold his son and run at the same time. He chanced a glance behind him. The tent city of Hajiro was growing smaller in the distance, but Alamor could see that he had not evaded his pursuers. Not far off was the officer of the Palace Guard, flanked by the Desert Ruki and two others. They were moving at a fast pace, and Alamor could see Uva struggling to keep up as they moved across the sand.
Alamor stumbled and nearly dropped his son to the ground, and he turned his head back toward his destination. The river that wound through the Lost Desert was not far away, and he could distinguish a small boat docked in the shallows. If they could only make it...
“Where are we going?” Lasa’s wide eyes stared up at Alamor, who could not bring himself to force a smile.
“We’re going to visit that boat,” he said, looking down for a brief moment. “Remember when Jufra told us we could visit his brother? He’s docked at the river, and we’re going to go on a voyage with him.”
Lasa could sense that something was wrong. “What about Zakaro?” he asked. “I didn’t say goodbye to him. Why are we leaving now?”
Alamor could not think of an answer. “We have to,” he said, and kept running.
* * * * *
Uva could not walk very quickly in her fine silk raiment, but she did her best to keep up with Officer Serenga and the members of the Palace Guard. They had not asked her to follow them, but the pink Kau fortune teller simply could not bear to go back to her midnight blue tent with the knowledge that Alamor was running for his life, all because of what she had done.
She did not know what to feel. When the grey Tonu had approached her fortune telling tent, she had treated him like any other customer. He had paid, and she had given him a glimpse into the future. It was that simple.
But it wasn’t. Uva knew that she had not divined the events yet to come by any magical means. She had taken what Alamor had told her and given the information to his pursuer. And yet, was that not what she had always done? Uva knew that nothing was set in stone, and she had used all means available to her to attain the façade of a mystic, a seer. She had built up her reputation and had managed to maintain it throughout years of practice. The pink Kau knew that she walked a fine line, but her balance up to that point had been flawless; she had never faltered.
Now, however, as she beat her way across the sandy desert, Uva felt like she had swayed. When she had been confronted with a situation that threatened to compromise her position, she thrashed in an attempt to keep that perfect balance. In doing so, Uva began to realize that she had pushed someone else. In her attempt not to fall, she had knocked another out of the way, thrown Alamor over the edge and watched him plummet as she fought to steady herself.
It was over now. What could she do? Officer Serenga, his assistant, and his two guards thundered across the sands in front of her, and it was all that Uva could do to keep up and watch as they slowly gained ground on the camouflage Kougra.
And as she watched, Uva noticed the bundle in the Kougra’s arms: a small, white, furry creature that she had only met once before. It was Lasa, and as soon as Uva saw him she knew that she had to do something. Alamor might have already been on the path to ruin, but Lasa had done nothing wrong. The fortune teller decided that if she did not intervene, for his sake, she would have to admit to the fraud that she really was.
With the last bit of energy that remained in her exhausted body, the pink Kau ran ahead and approached Officer Serenga. The grey Tonu was moving quickly, and Uva struggled to keep pace with him as she said, “There is something that I must tell you.”
Sintah, the Desert Ruki, glanced over at Uva, but said nothing. Serenga did not turn his gaze, but he said coldly, “What is it, fortune teller?”
“You know not what you do,” said Uva, maintaining her mystical tone in an attempt to hold onto some of her validity. “I foresee great consequences if you harm this Neopet.”
“Cut the gab,” said Serenga. “I don’t need to hear any phony prophecies from you.”
Uva was sent reeling. She had not realized it, but now it became painfully clear that her magic exterior was diminishing. The officer knew what she really was. Then... who else might? Uva knew that her best move would be to keep quiet. She did not want to contest his claim, but thoughts of Alamor and Lasa made her uncertain.
What could she do? Revealing her true knowledge to Serenga would be seen as an act of admission. She would have to throw away everything that she had worked for, everything that she had built up, her reputation, her business. She would have to bare everything for the sake of one tiny white Kougra. Uva knew that if she did not, then she would be guilty of more than just lies.
After so many years, the pink Kau did not know if she could do it. For a Neopet whom she had met only one time, would she be able to sacrifice the appearance of being a seer? Uva knew that it was only to a small group, but she had never admitted to her fraud and was uncertain if she would be able to continue with her business if she tore down her façade. How could she continue, knowing that she herself had said that she was false?
But as the group drew nearer and nearer to Alamor and Lasa, Uva knew what needed to be done.
“I’m not a fortune teller,” she said, causing Officer Serenga to turn and glance at her for the first time. “I am false, and all that I told you I learned from that Kougra.” She was no longer speaking in mystic tones, but in her normal voice. She had not used it in so long that it sounded almost foreign on her lips. “But I cannot allow you to simply arrest him, not yet.” Uva was panting, and they were very close to the river now. A boat was clearly visible in the night, tied to a short dock. “He has a son,” she breathed. “He has a son with him, a young son who has done nothing wrong. If you take them both, you will be stealing a life away for no reason. The thief is yours; he has done wrong. But you cannot harm the child.”
Officer Serenga stared ahead at the fleeing figures, who had nearly reached the water’s edge. Sintah and the guards ran alongside him, and all were silent for a moment. The grey Tonu spoke after a pause. “Justice will be served,” he said, and he continued to dash through the night.
Uva’s legs could not complete the journey. With a gasp, she stumbled to the ground, the cold sand flying up into her violet silk robes and her head hanging low as she let out a choking sob.
The pink Kau watched as Alamor approached the boat, running toward the dock that jutted into the river. The four members of the Palace Guard were closing the gap, and Uva’s vision became blurred with tears.
There was nothing more that she could do. She had betrayed a friend in a way worse than she ever could have imagined, and there would be no chance to apologize. Uva sat there, alone, in the emptiness of the vast, dark desert, still unable to fathom what she had done.
Her words to Officer Serenga had not been enough. Alamor would be captured and imprisoned, and Lasa would be cast out into the streets, where he would grow up as his father had. It was just as she had predicted.
Uva looked up. The midnight blue sky formed a canopy over her head, and she peered into the distance, watching the faraway figures through a cloud of tears, as if seeing them in the misty glass of her crystal ball. Uva wept, witnessing the true future for the first time, and wishing that things could be different, but knowing that, this time, the future had already been set in stone.
* * * * *
At last, Alamor reached the river. He held Lasa’s hand as the two ran down the dock, over the cold boards that were lined by tall rushes on each side. The reeds thinned out as the water deepened, and soon the two Kougras were standing just above the rushing waters.
A lone boat was tied to one post. It was not large, but on it were stacked several crates of merchandise from Sakhmet. The sail hung limp at the mast, and the door to the small cabin was ajar. Alamor hoped desperately that Jufra’s brother was inside.
“Hello?” he called, knocking on the edge of the wooden boat. Lasa still gripped him tightly, and Alamor glanced down at his son. “I hope he’s here,” he said. “Maybe we can go for a ride.”
Lasa’s wide eyes told Alamor that he didn’t need to pretend anymore. The small white Kougra merely stood shivering in the cool night air, and Alamor leaned down to hug him against his leg. “We’ll be all right,” he said, the forced smile gone from his lips.
Lasa closed his eyes, and Alamor glanced out across the desert. The Tonu, Ruki, and two guards were now running full speed over the sand, kicking up a small layer of dust in the darkness. Uva was no longer with them.
Shoving all emotion out of his mind, Alamor banged on the side of the boat again. “Hello?”
To his relief, a blue Moehog stepped out of the cabin. He walked onto the deck, looking over at the Kougras in surprise. “Who are you?” he asked, speaking loudly over the sound of the river.
“I am a friend of your brother Jufra,” said Alamor. “We need to get on your boat.”
Alamor glanced at the four approaching figures again, and the Moehog followed his gaze. “You live in Hajiro?” he asked, not approaching them.
“Yes,” replied Alamor, as a stray splash kicked up from the waters. He squinted. “Your name is Hofra, isn’t it?” he said. The camouflage Kougra lifted up his son, perching him on the boat’s rail. “Jufra told me that you are leaving at sunrise. I need your help. We have to leave now.”
Alamor was impressed by his son’s bravery. The white Kougra did not cry; he stood silently, looking back and forth between Hofra and the Palace Guard.
The Moehog hesitated for a brief moment. “All right, come aboard,” he said, walking across the deck towards them.
“Thank you,” breathed Alamor. He let go of Lasa’s waist as Hofra pulled the small Kougra over the edge and set him down on the moist boards.
Hofra reached out to help Alamor, and the Kougra cast a final glance at his pursuers.
The large grey Tonu was leading the group, loping effortlessly across the sand. His dark clothes blended into the night, and his eyes were fixed on Alamor. As the Kougra watched for that brief moment, he realized that this Neopet would not be swayed from his goal.
He looked at Hofra, who was extending his arm over the edge of the boat. Lasa was shivering from the spray of water that came off the river. The officer would not let a small boat get in the way of his objective.
Alamor took a step back, and Hofra blinked.
If Alamor got on the boat, he guaranteed that it would be followed. The Palace Guard would not allow him to escape so easily. Hofra’s small craft would not stand a chance against a larger ship. They would be captured, and Hofra would be imprisoned along with Alamor, and Lasa would be left on the streets.
He couldn’t do it.
“I can’t,” he said, and Hofra slowly withdrew his arm. Lasa looked up at his father with wide eyes. Alamor took another step back. “I can’t,” he said. “We’ll be caught.” Hofra said nothing. “They’re after me.”
“Dad?” Lasa had put his hands against the railing, and he was peering over it with a frightened expression.
Alamor glanced behind him. The Palace Guard had almost reached the dock. Alamor turned back to his son. “Lasa,” he said, doing his best to sound strong. “This is what’s best for you. I can’t come with you.” He looked up and met Hofra’s gaze. “You need to go,” he said.
Hofra did not move. Alamor glanced behind him urgently. “You need to go,” he said again, and Hofra opened his mouth to say something. “Go!”
The blue Moehog hurried to the mast, quickly hoisting the sail as Alamor ran to untie the rope that connected the boat to the dock.
“Dad!” Lasa continued to stare over the railing as his father unwound the lashings.
Alamor finished just as the Palace Guard reached the dock and the sail began to fill with the chilly night breeze. The camouflage Kougra threw the rope onto the boat and watched as it began to float away on the current.
As the boat drifted away from the dock, Alamor bounded forward, reaching out to touch his son for a final time as he sailed away.
But their hands never made contact, as the boat gained speed and rushed away with the river, carrying Lasa out of Alamor’s life.
“Dad!” Lasa’s eyes were filled with tears as he floated away, and Alamor felt his own eyes grow moist, though from tears or the river spray, he did not know.
For a final moment, father and son shared a heartrending gaze, and then Alamor turned, away from Lasa and toward the tall grey Tonu that was swiftly striding down the dock.
* * * * *
Officer Serenga approached the thief, who was standing at the end of the dock, staring at him blankly. The Tonu glanced at the boat that was disappearing toward the horizon, and he faced the Kougra with a cold stare.
The Neopet met his eyes. “Here I am,” he said, when Serenga reached him. “You have what you came for.”
Sintah walked up and stood at his shoulder. The Desert Ruki stared at the Kougra, but she said to Serenga, “What about the others? There were two on the boat; they are escaping.”
“One is his son,” said Officer Serenga, remembering what the fortune teller had said. “The other is unknown to me. They are of no consequence.” He turned his gaze for a moment, staring out at the mist that was rising from the river in the distance. “He is right. We have what we came for.”
* * * * *
Alamor sat huddled in the corner, his legs pulled up to his chest in a tight hug. The Kougra’s head leaned back against the wall, and his eyes stared out blankly, betraying no emotion, but at a sad, reserved peace.
The grey Tonu stood outside the barred door, giving some inaudible instructions to the dungeon keepers. The camouflage Kougra looked around. His cell was small, with bare stone on all sides, and only a mat on the floor in the opposite corner. A tiny square window was perched high in the wall, two bars running through it, casting dim shadows on the floor.
It was cold and musty, but Alamor didn’t notice. He was feeling strange, filled with an emotion that he had never quite experienced before.
It was a sense of finality. He would live out the remainder of his days in this prison, for committing crimes against the ancients. It was the law of Sakhmet; he could do nothing against it.
However, there was another aspect to the emotion, one that Alamor could not quite grasp. It was like he had finished a task that he had been working on for a long time, something in which he had been so absorbed that he had not even noticed that it was over until he found himself sitting in the corner of the cell. It was like he had been painting, painting a hope, painting a future. But it was not his.
He had been painting a future for Lasa, and as Alamor sat in the corner of his prison, he felt that the final brushstroke had been made. He had done all that he could, and he had given his son the one thing for which he had wished: a future. Alamor didn’t know what would happen to Lasa, but he knew that he had given his son a chance that he himself had never had, and that was enough to make him consider his work complete. It may not have been a masterpiece, but it was still a hope.
The barred door swung open, and the grey Tonu stepped into the cell. Alamor looked up, and as soon as he saw the roll of parchment in the officer’s hands, he realized that perhaps there was one more detail he had left out.
“Your sentence has been confirmed.” The Tonu unrolled the paper to reveal a few lines of writing and the royal seal.
Alamor didn’t bother reading it. “There is something I need,” he said.
“Your needs will be cared for by the guards,” said the officer.
“No,” said Alamor. “I need a favor.” The Tonu did not reply, but he did not leave, and Alamor continued. “I want to write a letter,” he said. “Can you let me do that?”
The large Neopet said nothing at first, the silence of the empty room pressing down upon them. “I cannot,” he said. “The law of the kingdom states that no prisoners are allowed correspondence with the outside world. No matter what your intentions are, we must always be on guard against hidden conspiracies, plans of escape. I’m sorry.” He turned to leave.
“Please,” said Alamor, getting up from the corner. The officer stopped. “I only want to write to my son.”
The Tonu turned back around and faced him. Alamor could see him hesitate, but then the Neopet ripped off a piece of the parchment on which Alamor’s sentence was written. “Here,” he said, handing it to Alamor along with a bit of charcoal. “Write briefly.”
Alamor knelt down on the floor. With a steady hand, he carefully traced a few short words on the paper, blowing away the stray ashes that fell from the charcoal as he wrote.
He handed the note to the officer. “Thank you,” he said. “Find someone to deliver it to a red Moehog called Jufra, in Hajiro. He will know where to send it.”
The Tonu said nothing, but took the paper and stepped out of the cell. He did not look back as he left Alamor, and one of the guards closed the door behind him. It was locked with a click.
Alamor turned to the window. The darkness of the night had faded at last, along with the final brushstroke of the camouflage Kougra’s masterpiece.
There were no more lines, no more boundaries, no more shadows.
Alamor pressed his hands against the cold stone and leaned forward, staring up out of the high window. Outside, world was free and full of hope. A new sun was rising.
* * * * *
The footsteps of the grey Tonu echoed dimly in the narrow corridor. He walked away from the cell until he turned a corner and continued down a different passage.
Officer Serenga knew that there was a fine line between kindness and justice.
He knew how to keep the balance. In all of his years, Serenga had never once let his heart interfere with justice. However, he had also never let his duties conflict with what he felt inside. The grey Tonu had an exterior of stone, but he was not coldhearted.
His heart had made him allow the prisoner to have peace of mind and write a final letter to his son.
The law of the kingdom made him lift the parchment and dip it into one of the wall torches that lined the narrow hall. The paper caught fire, and he let it fall to the ground.
In seconds, the words had burned away, leaving behind only a trace of ash on the cold stone floor.