James Nexis - Betrayal: Part Three
James flipped through his notebook as they walked back to his tent. “That was both very interesting, and excruciatingly boring.”
Deirdre smiled. “Agreed. What do you think about Lee?”
A large grin swept across Deirdre’s face. “Really, sir?”
“Well, it’s either believe him and try to uncover the truth, or accept that he’s guilty and go home. And this place is just way too interesting to leave right now.” At the Xweetok’s dissatisfied look, James grinned. “I do really think he was telling the truth, though. He seemed honest. Reporter’s Instinct.”
“Oh, spare me.”
“So,” a new voice said suddenly, causing them to swing around. “You would be James Nexis and Deirdre from Shenkuu. I welcome you here.”
Standing just a few feet behind them was a Shunan, probably very old by the way he was hunched. He leaned heavily on a long staff, and rather than being smothered in cloth, he only wore a robe and a strip wrapped around his face to cover his mouth and nose. The eyes that peered out at them from above the cloth were bright and sharp, looking at them intensely. “I welcome you,” he repeated slowly, “although my kinsmen may not.” His voice was crisp and clear and, surprisingly, he spoke without any accent.
James took a step forward. “How’d you know who we were?”
“I know a lot of things, Mr Nexis.” He paused and placed a hand on his chest. “My name is Ahkrin. Please follow me.”
James squinted at Deirdre, who shrugged helplessly. The Hissi and Xweetok turned and followed the crouched Shunan as he shuffled through the sand, eventually arriving at a tent that stood out in sharp contrast against the rest of the camp. While the other Shunans seemed to adhere to a stick belief that any colour other than brown and sandy yellow was evil, Ahkrin’s tent canvas was a vivid blue, with blood-red silk banners fluttering from posts in front of the entrance.
James raised his eyebrows. “Who did you say your decorator was?”
Ahkrin turned back to them, and his eyes were creased from a smile. “I love the colour blue. It promotes level, calm thought. Come with me, Mr Nexis. I have something to tell you. Deirdre, you may wait outside.”
James looked at Deirdre, who had a frown frozen on her face. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Yeah, but remember that time I bribed the guards at the palace so I could get inside and have a one-on-one interview with the Emperor’s daughter? You didn’t think that was a good idea, either.”
Deirdre squinted at him. “Yes, because it wasn’t a good idea.”
“What do you mean? It was brilliant. I made the front page of the Mystic Times.”
“And I had to bail you out of gaol,” Deirdre said pointedly.
Ahkrin, who’d been watching them with great interest, coughed politely. “Excuse me for taking the liberty, but I must remind you that there won’t be two legions of guards chasing you through the kitchens this time. Please, come in.”
James shot an odd look at the retreating pet’s back. “How’d he know about that?”
Leaving a very put-out Xweetok standing outside, James followed Ahkrin into his tent. Once inside, the Shunan lit a lamp and turned to face James. The inside was no less colourful than the outside, and half a dozen mismatched portable cupboards and cabinets sported a range of odd mechanisms, most moving or ticking or flipping in some way.
Ahkrin sat down at the table in the middle of the tent, and beckoned James to sit opposite him.
“Welcome, Mr Nexis,” he murmured as James took a seat. “I’m glad we got the chance to talk before destiny is put into motion.”
James squinted at him. “Huh?”
“Mr Nexis, I am the Shunan’s seer. A Wise Man, if you like. I give advice.”
“Like a fortune teller? Because the last one of those I saw told me that I’d need to see a therapist in the near future, and-”
“No, Mr Nexis. I cannot see the future. I can only see the past, and learn from it.” Ahkrin pulled out a worn leather box and opened it slowly. Inside were dozens of sheets of paper, some yellowed with age, covered with languages which James didn’t recognise. “I also observe the present closely. By combining the two, I can make a relatively accurate guess at where our paths will lead us.” He spread the sheets out on the table, and for several minutes was silent as he observed then.
James, meanwhile, had brought out his notebook, and was copying down everything Ahkrin said, and as many of the strange runes as he could catch glimpses of. “Accurate guess... paths lead us... yup, got that.”
The cloth-clad native was silent and still for so long that James began to wonder if he’d fallen asleep. The Hissi leaned forward slightly, trying to see under the other’s hood.
Ahkrin jerked up suddenly, almost making James fall off his chair with shock. “Mr Nexis, I know far more than you would guess, and far more than my people would hope I didn’t.”
“Terrible things have happened, setting in place the cornerstones for a building named Ruin. Many more terrible things are yet to come; that much I can predict. Whether- or how much- the future can be changed... is as yet undecided.”
James’s eyes were glued on Ahkrin’s face, but the hand clutching the pencil was flying over his notepad. “Uh-huh.”
Ahkrin leaned forward, his intense eyes shining in the faint light. “You are very curious, Mr Nexis. This is a good trait, but only if you are able to exercise the caution which is needed to balance it. Too much caution and you will not discover anything. Too much curiosity and there will be no help when you are in trouble.”
James had stopped writing as he frowned at the Shunan. “Why are you telling me this?”
Ahkrin sighed slowly, slumping back into his chair and almost seeming to shrink. When he spoke, his voice was softer and weaker than before; the voice of a man too old to do anything but watch from the sidelines. “These are my people, Mr Nexis. I care for them. But I am too old now to do anything by myself; and my friends whom I would have trusted I now have to keep at arm’s length. Remember that, Nexis. You cannot trust anyone. No one at all. Do you understand me?”
James squinted at his notebook. “No one at all... yep, I get it.”
Ahkrin reached into the box, claws extending from the folds of his sleeves and scratching at the wooden base. “I had almost given up hope before you came, Mr Nexis. There is no one here I can trust. You, having lived in Shenkuu, would not understand this; but living as a Shunan isolates you an incredible amount. I cannot even send letters to Sakhmet without entrusting them to one of my fellow-beings.” The nomad’s claws were still scratching at the base of the box, and as James watched, entranced, it began to lift up.
“A secret compartment,” he whispered under his breath.
“You see, Mr Nexis, you are my last hope. I have read about you, and I believe that you have just the right amount of courage and stupidity to do what I cannot. And so,” with a crack, the base of the box lifted up, exposing something round wrapped in silk sitting in the small alcove, “I am entrusting you with one of my greatest secrets. Hold out your hand.”
James did so, and the wise man flipped open the silk parcel, dropping its contents into the Hissi’s hand.
“Oh. It’s... a rock.”
Ahkrin leaned back in his seat, his eyes sparkling happily. James glanced from the pebble he held in his hand to the old Shunan, and then back again. It was just that: a stone about the size of a milk-bottle lid, round, smooth, and with green and brown speckles dotted over it.
“Thanks, I guess.” James turned the stone around in his hand, looking to see if he’d missed something important. He hadn’t. “If you don’t mind me saying... and don’t take this the wrong way- it’s a very pretty rock and all of that,” Ahkrin’s smile widened as James babbled, “but, I mean... it’s a rock.”
Finally the other pet leaned forward. “Not just a rock, Mr Nexis. A Luck Stone.”
“Uh-huh.” James looked unconvinced.
“I have kept that secret guarded for many years, waiting for the best time to use it. And, now, I think you should have it.”
James glanced at the pebble again. “I see.”
“No, not really,” he admitted sheepishly.
“That stone, Mr Nexis, has been handed down to me from my ancestors. It is rumoured that the one who holds it will have exceptionally good fortune when he needs it most.”
“Hence the name.” James flipped the stone over and squinted at it. As far as he could tell, there wasn’t anything special about it.
“Keep it safe,” Ahkrin said. “It’s very valuable.”
“Or maybe it’s just a plain old rock that someone decided to pretend was magic.”
Ahkrin scowled at James. “Have faith, Mr Nexis.” He paused to glance at one of the spinning objects. “It is getting late. You should go- you have a long day ahead of you tomorrow. Remember, you are not safe here. Greed and revenge are powerful motives; do not underestimate them.”
James stood up. “Thanks for your help.” As Ahkrin showed no sign of moving, James left silently to pacify the sulking Xweetok who’d been waiting outside.
It was pitch black. Without even a lamp to shed any light, James lay in his hammock, staring at the roof of the tent. Opposite him he could hear Juhan snoring.
The Xweetok rolled over to try and see him in the dark. “What?”
“Are you awake?”
Sarcasm laced the secretary’s voice. “Take a wild guess.”
“Alright, then. I was just thinking, while we’re here, we might as well have a bit of a look around.”
Even though he couldn’t see her, James could visualize the frown creeping over Deirdre’s face. “With all due respect, sir, I think that’s an extremely hazardous and stupid idea.”
James sat straight up, ignoring his hammock as it swayed dangerously under him. “No, really; don’t you get the feeling that there’s something going on here? They don’t particularly seem to like the idea of us having a look around their camp- now why would that be?”
“Maybe they just don’t want a bunch of ignorant tourists wandering around their homes and messing up their lives.”
James rubbed his chin as he thought furiously. “It just doesn’t feel right, though. Logic suggests that if they don’t want us looking around, they must have something to hide.”
Deirdre sighed and rolled over. “They’re desert nomads, sir. They probably have a completely different culture to us. Different customs, different policies, different standards on what’s considered polite. They’ve been gracious enough to let us come here and report on what must be a disaster to them, so the least we can do is have some courtesy and leave them alone.”
James jumped out of his hammock, landing with a soft thump on the sand floor, careful not to wake Juhan, who was still snoring. “I’ve been sent here to do a ‘thorough job’, m’dear, and I intend to do just that. I’m going to have a look around. If I’m not back in an hour, feel free to panic.”
“What?” Deirdre squeaked, twisting around in her hammock for a few seconds before overbalancing and landing on the floor. “You can’t...! If you get caught...”
James chuckled silently as he rummaged through his suitcase, looking for a lamp. “Relax, Deirdre. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I’m not even going to bother replying to such an appalling taunt in the face of fate.” Deirdre sighed. “Fine. If you’re going, I’m coming too.”
James’s face crinkled into a smile. “Aw, that’s really sweet of you, Deirdre.”
“It’s not sweet,” the Xweetok retorted. “It’s self preservation. If you got killed, I wouldn’t have a job anymore, now would I?” She sighed and pulled on her boots.
James pushed open the tent flap and glanced out. The moon was doing a reasonable job at illuminating the camp, and James didn’t bother lighting his lamp and they ventured into the desert.
To be continued...