Once a Scarab: Part Four
The guard at the outside door to the dungeons recognized Nabile at once and bowed. "Milady!" Then he asked, "Is it true? Did the General stage a coup? My commander just sent word that we follow him now." He looked upset.
Nabile nodded. "If there hadn't been, I'd still be enjoying a nice evening with my cousin." She looked at him closely. "Are you still loyal to the princess, then?"
He said, "We're Sakhmeti! We're supposed to do things by process of law! Not like those barbarians down in the south who fight to see who the chief should be. Princess Amira is our lawful ruler, and Akhmaris has always acted too much like a tyrant for my tastes."
She said, "Help me now, then. I need to get a friend out of here. If you help me release him and let us go without trouble, I'll make sure you're given shelter in Qasala, and a career in the guard there if you choose to stay. I'm going to help my cousin get her throne back, and I need my friend to do that, and this city may become a little dangerous shortly."
He winced. "I may take you up on that offer, then, milady. When the important people fight, it's better for us common folk to stay out of the way."
Nabile heartily agreed for a second – and then remembered that as far as he was concerned, she was one of those "important people."
How did she end up like that? Really, at heart, she was still just a poor girl from the market district. It was people like Jazan and Amira who were royalty to the bone, not her. But the guard was holding out his key. "Shall we go, then, milady?"
Nabile walked into a dark row of cells – the very sight of them made her nervous. Her voice shook slightly as she called, "Tomos? Tomos?"
His voice called back, "Nabile? Nabile!"
She followed the sound, and there was Tomos, looking as scruffy and hearty as ever, grinning. "I knew it! I knew you'd get us out of here!"
She clasped his hand through the bars. "I'm so glad you're alright! I've been worried sick about you, and Kuraj and the Scarabs were, too!" Then she saw Amira behind him. "Oh!" Why would Akhmaris throw the princess in the cell with a thief? But she oughtn't to complain – it made the rescue much easier. The Bori guard unlocked the cell and bowed deeply. "Princess, I hope to see you restored to your throne. But, miladies, I think I'm going to go home and take my family to Qasala."
Nabile nodded. "Jazan will be able to see that you're telling the truth - I promise you'll be rewarded for helping."
He nodded and fled.
Tomos stepped out of the cell and stretched. "Ah, that feels good. Let's get outside."
Amira said, "We won't be able to leave the city. Akhmaris will have doubled the guard on the gates – he's always said Dacon and I were too lax on that front. And as soon as he finds out we've escaped they'll all be watching for us."
Tomos said, "We can go to the Scarabs."
Nabile nodded. "It'll be fine, Amira. They may be thieves, but they're good people." And when they got to the Scarabs, she'd have a few minutes to take out the mirror, talk to Jazan, and explain how catastrophically everything had fallen apart.
And just this morning she'd insisted to him that everything would be fine. Oh, she wouldn't hear the end of that.
Amira sighed as they stepped out of the dungeon and quickly darted into the late-afternoon shadows. "I can't believe I'm leaving my palace like this – I'm running away like I have something to be ashamed of!"
Nabile wasn't sure how to reassure her. She was certain Jazan would feel the same way, but she still didn't quite understand. Tomos said, "You're trying to keep your skin intact so you can go back for your palace and your throne. That's nothing to be ashamed of at all. Uh, pardon, Princess."
Was this going to be like it was when the Scarabs talked with Jazan, with the thieves trying their hardest to be on their best behavior, without really being sure what that was, and the king trying his hardest not to discomfit anyone, and failing desperately, and Nabile having to shoulder all the tension as she mediated?
If it was, Amira couldn't win her throne back fast enough.
Tomos took a deep breath of the free air as they skulked down the street. He'd known Nabile would rescue him. Amira was supposed to be her cousin – why hadn't she been confident? The Scarabs always said that they were like family, and meant that they'd do anything for each other. Why hadn't the tall Aisha known that Nabile would come through for them? That was how family worked.
He said, "It's great to see you!" It really was – she was healthy again, and she'd clearly been eating enough for the first time in her life. She was still slim, but Tomos couldn't count her ribs anymore.
She patted his arm, right where his Scarab tattoo showed through the hole in the cloth of his shirt, and he did the same in return. She asked, "Is the best way to go still up Grackle Way to Anubis Street?"
"No, they've actually put some guards at the street corner there, now. When we need to come this way it's better to take Horus Street, over the roofs by the desert traders' market, then to Seti Street, and over the roofs again to home."
Princess Amira said cautiously, "I'm not sure if I'll be able to do that climbing."
Tomos hit a hand to his forehead. She was right. "Maybe we'll go down Rujai, then. Longer and there are a few more thugs, but it'll keep the princess from having to climb. Ah, sorry, Princess."
He had to remember to be more polite, if he didn't want to get his tail thrown straight back in the dungeons after they'd solved this mess. Nabile just sighed. "It's okay, Amira. Though you ought to take off some of that jewelry – gold draws attention in these streets. If you don't have anywhere to keep it, Tomos has pockets."
Tomos could read the look Princess Amira gave him just fine. There was no way in all the worlds that she was letting him near any of her jewelry. As if he'd steal it! All of the gold she wore was far too nice, and the traders would ask uncomfortable questions.
Then they heard the sound of a horn-call from the palace – three short blasts, repeated several times. Tomos winced – it was the alarm for an escape from the dungeons. All of the guards and anyone looking for the reward would be flocking toward the guard stations, where runners would be bringing news of the escapees.
Along with the news that they had a new king. Nabile said, "Sakhmet's going to be too hot to hold us shortly – we need to get to ground! Amira, I know you aren't used to this, but we really need to go faster!"
Several times, they had to press themselves against walls as flying Neopets with torches or lamps passed overhead – some were guards, others bounty hunters. It was taking far, far too long, since they had to keep to the streets and away from the rooftops. But Tomos knew his duty as a citizen of Sakhmet, if a lawless one. He couldn't just leave the princess to shift for herself.
He told himself that it was silly to be unnerved. He'd been chased plenty of times before. But never so systematically, never with the knowledge that there was a king on the other end who would have something against him personally. That would probably be painful. He muttered to Nabile, "I really don't like powerful people after me. Just plain guards are bad enough."
She peered around a street corner. "Oh, I know." Then she muttered under her breath, "I wish that Jazan were here!"
He wished that he hadn't heard that. Wasn't he good enough for her? He couldn't help but say, "I'm here."
She looked back at him and smiled, and he felt bad for being jealous. She laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know you are, and I'm glad of it. But wouldn't you like to have a man who can make fireballs around?"
He had to grudgingly admit that that would be very useful.
Amira asked, "How much farther is it?"
Nabile said, "We still have a ways to go. But when we get to the slums it'll be easier. More dark corners and cracks to hide in, more people who'll be willing to help us."
Tomos jerked his head in Amira's direction and caught Nabile's eye – she nodded once. Many of the people whom they'd grown up around would never have considered turning Nabile and Tomos over, but they wouldn't care half as much about the princess. They had to get her out of sight as soon as possible. They both agreed, and they knew it without having to say a single word. Oh, he'd missed that!
Nabile pulled down a striped blanket from a clothesline, reaching up to put a coin in its place. "Here, Amira, cover up. That white cloth's going to stick out like a sore thumb – it's getting too dark."
Tomos moved to the front as she did so – as a Lupe, his night vision was better than Nabile's. He asked, "How much did you leave?"
Nabile grinned. "Losing that blanket will be the best thing that's happened to that family all week."
What would it be like, to be able to throw around that much money? To be able to give to people like that?
Tomos wheeled – there were three tall, rough-looking men at the end of the street they were on. Nabile whispered in dread, "Bounty hunters! Run!"
They fled down the street – Tomos wished with his whole heart that they could take to the rooftops, but they'd lose too much time trying to teach the princess to climb. Princess Amira asked, "Did they recognize us?"
Nabile panted, "No need for them to. Bounty hunters like grabbing people on the streets at night, seeing if they've got a thief's tattoo or match any of the wanted posters. Not too hard to throw a scared bystander back on the street if it turns out there's no money to be made."
No one needed to state the obvious – two Scarabs and a runaway princess were not going to be thrown back. And when Tomos looked behind them, he realized that they were gaining. "Nabile! We've got to do something!"
Nabile looked up at the next street sign. "We're almost to Coltzan Way – Amira, Kuraj the tailor has a shop at the corner of Coltzan and Seti. Not too far down – if we make a distraction, you can make it! We have more chance of getting away than you do, and buying you time! Go!"
Amira did – Tomos commented as they turned back toward the bounty hunters, "You've gotten regal on me."
She grinned. "I call that my Jazan voice."
And could a particular sorcerer-king do Tomos a favor and stop ending up in the conversation? This wasn't any of his business. Outsmarting bounty hunters was thief business. He shouted, "Yoo-hoo! Ugly! Bet you couldn't catch your own tail!"
Then he winced – one of the hunters was a Kougra. They never took tail comments well. Nabile grinned at him. "Whoops."
And they both jumped for the nearest wall.
It worked as well as they could have hoped – the bounty hunters either hadn't seen that there were three of them, or were simply more interested in two rewards than one. But they chased Nabile and Tomos instead.
Nabile looked over the rooftop. "They're slum-born – climb like thieves! Keep running!"
They jumped into the next alleyway and started running in the opposite direction of Kuraj's shop. Tomos looked behind him, "Sweet Fyora, they're still catching up!"
And then something dark soared over their head and shattered on the pavement in front of them.
Even in the dark, Tomos could see the distinctive blue plume of sleep gas, and he wished he couldn't. They were in a narrow, windowless alley, with the night wind blowing straight toward them. He heard another crash behind them – not that it would be necessary. He'd have to breathe in a second, and then he'd be out like a light.
He gasped out, "Nabile!" Filled his lungs with tainted air.
And then everything swirled and went black.
To be continued...