Once a Scarab: Part Eight
Nabile was exhausted as the sun was setting. After Jazan had sent several urgent missives to his generals and mages by Old Reggin's messenger Weewoos – and gotten bitten by a particularly nasty white one – they had found no fewer than twenty mages scattered across the outskirts of the city. She adjusted the empty clay jug she was holding in her tired arms – most of those mages had been in bed with headaches as a result of the block, and any of the headache remedy that hadn't gone to them had gone to Jazan, who was weary with the effort of scrying.
They walked slowly back to the Scarab hideout – some of the last of Jazan's energy had gone to a concealment spell. He'd spend all of tomorrow in bed, with a cloth over his eyes. He said, "It'll be good to have support in the city, and some of the local mages are more powerful than they give themselves credit for. But what I wouldn't give for some formally trained mages – I could really use Kiyaa right now, and her apprentice Mirzah is shaping up to be as powerful as she is. Hopefully they'll be able to start work on breaking the block from the outside..."
She whispered, "Shh. You're tired, Jazan. You've done wonderful work today. Leave all the planning to rest – it'll keep until tomorrow."
He said, "If we can't stop Akhmaris quickly, it'll mean war, Nabile. War between Sakhmet and Qasala – and if Mentu in the south or the warlords in the foothills decide to join in, the desert could dissolve into chaos."
She looked up at him – he looked so very tired, as if he were feeling every single one of his over two hundred years. She set a hand on his shoulder. "We'll stop Akhmaris. I know we will. You saw how unhappy everyone in the city looked – the news has gotten out. We'll have allies, and his soldiers and sorcerers won't help him too much if the whole city has turned against him." She added, "And you'll be a hero and there won't be a single person left in Sakhmet who thinks you're a crazy demon." She'd had to keep a couple of the healthier mages from running away from him, which had irritated her.
He pointed out, "Except for Akhmaris."
She smiled. "Except for Akhmaris." Then she told him, "I believe Amira was going to give Zina coin for dinner – the Scarabs will be filling their bellies for once."
Jazan said, "That's good. I can tell that your friends don't get to do that nearly often enough. Especially those little boys."
Nabile sighed. She knew that Raq and Yari both deserved better than meager food and running from guards, though, in the typical way of thirteen- and eleven-year-old boys, they thought they lived like kings. "You know they won't accept anything from me, Jazan. It was hard enough to get Horace to let Amira pay for food."
Jazan said in frustration, "There has to be something they'd accept for all this. They're risking their tails, and this isn't even their fight!"
Nabile told him, "Yes, it is. It became the Scarabs' fight the moment Akhmaris tried to hold me as a hostage. Once a Scarab, always a Scarab. That means that, no matter where we are, when you mess with one of us, you've messed with all of us."
Jazan actually chuckled. "I think that Akhmaris will regret not having learned that lesson sooner."
Nabile flexed her fingers. "You can bet on that." She looked around – even though she knew they were covered in Jazan's spell, she still wanted to be aware what was going on around them. She noticed a red Lupe tail disappear into an alley ahead of them. She pointed, and Jazan followed her. When they rounded the corner, Nabile stopped feeling the prickling of the magic around them, and she called, "Tomos!"
He was with Horace, Enarka, and General Dacon. When he saw them, Dacon bowed, with a wide grin spreading across his face. "Your Majesty, I'm thrilled to see you. And I don't jest."
Tomos asked, "Do we have mages?"
Jazan nodded – with the release of the spell, he'd lost even more energy, so he was leaning against the wall, taking deep breaths. "We have mages. And as Horace and Tomos found you, I assume their mission was a success."
Nabile listened – gradually more horrorstruck – as Tomos recounted how they'd gone to the palace and almost gotten caught by Akhmaris. But Dacon finished, "He's scared of King Jazan, though – he won't be happy when he finds out you're here, Your Majesty."
Jazan's eyes briefly flashed red. "Good."
Tomos observed, "You look awful, King Jazan."
Nabile looked at Jazan – he gave her a wry smile. She said, "I agree. Let's get him some food and a place to sit down before he collapses on us."
They were met outside the Scarab hideout by an old grey Mynci that Nabile recognized as Pashki, the most powerful of the mages that they'd found today. She grinned. "More of the young scamps are gathering – I've put up wards on some of the other buildings to give them a place to stay."
A skinny Ogrin leaned out the window of the empty building next door to the Scarab hideout – he had a thin copper band on his wrist. So the Copper Crowns had joined them, then. And from the upper floor a Hissi ducked out of view with a black bandana on his head. They had the Shadowfeet, too! Nabile whispered to Tomos, "Bokan, Raq, and Yari deserve to stuff themselves silly tonight."
Tomos pointed out, "Sillier."
Nabile snickered – seeing all these people, her weariness was rapidly melting away to be replaced by excitement. They were gathering an army of their own – perhaps they would really have a chance!
When they went upstairs, Kuraj met them, hair in ever-increasing disarray and eyes alight. "I've got plenty of merchants on our side – those who won't fight themselves are still providing food, clothing, and arms. Akhmaris has already sent out messengers heralding a new tax today – they aren't happy at all."
Amira was stirring a pot over the fire – Nabile ran to her and hugged her. "We'll have your throne back to you, Amira! Akhmaris won't know what hit him!"
Amira gave her a smile – she was wearing a plain blue dress, and she looked somehow smaller with her jewelry gone and her makeup washed off. "It's nice to know that so many of my subjects actually like me."
Dacon said, "I'm not half as tired as the king, and while I don't compare to some of you thieves in terms of stealth I should still be able to outwit guards I trained. I'm going to go speak to some of the captains I know are loyal, to see whether they'll help. They can tell me which of their soldiers will join us."
Nabile looked around – Jazan had already slid down a wall to a seated position, eyes half-shut. While none of the others looked as spent as he did, all were tired, but happy. She started counting on her fingers. "We've got mages, some merchants on our side, thieves, and perhaps soldiers – who else could we need?"
Bokan said, from where he was playing a game of checkers with Yari, "All that Qasalan backup, for one."
Dacon said as he left, "This force's main job is to take out the mage block so the Qasalan forces can get in – they have better mages than Sakhmet does, and once Jazan has them fighting we should be able to distract the traitorous guards long enough to get to Akhmaris and force him to surrender."
Nabile took her bowl of stew as Amira and Zina started ladling it out – it was a good deal thicker than the thin broth that the Scarabs normally had to make out of the odds and ends they could steal, and there was plenty of fruit on the side to eat. Yari sniffed it, grinned, and asked, "Could crazy people try to take over the city more often?"
Amira sighed. "Perish the thought."
Yari's eyes widened as Raq punched his shoulder. "Oh, ah – saving your presence, milady. Uh, Your Highness. I just meant..."
Nabile sighed. "It's fine, Yari. We all know what you meant." Not more of this nonsense! "Here, come sit by me." At least the littlest Scarab's fear of Jazan was eclipsed by his insatiable curiosity.
Sure enough, Yari plopped down between her and Jazan and asked, "Did you turn anyone else into Scamanders today, sir?"
Jazan sighed. "I try not to unless it's absolutely necessary. I prefer to merely threaten to do so."
Nabile couldn't help but smile – the red Cybunny could clearly think of a whole list of ways he'd use that particular spell, and she was certain that none of them stopped at merely threatening.
Tomos sat down on Nabile's other side, and whispered, "Encouraging the little hooligan?"
She grinned at him, then said, "I'm glad you're safe – I was worried about you, sneaking into the palace like that."
He shrugged. "No big deal – I've done it plenty of times before."
"And I worried about you all those times, too."
Tomos said, "Don't worry – at least about the little brigand. Horace'll probably have another talk with him about how to behave in front of royalty."
Nabile winced. "Tomos, don't talk like that! There's nothing wrong with the way any of you behave. If the Scarabs hadn't taken Amira in, none of this would be happening right now."
Tomos said, blue eyes earnest, "We're going to do you proud, Nabile."
Nabile shook her head – she hadn't expected to hear these things from him, of all people. "You don't need to do me proud. You're my family. I couldn't be any prouder of you than I already am."
But that didn't sound right. When she said it, she realized that she sounded like an outsider. And even though Tomos didn't seem to notice, and launched into a story about some antics of Raq and Yari's while she'd been gone – with Yari adding commentary – she felt her stomach twist.
She wasn't an outsider! She was a Scarab! She'd been a Scarab since she was six!
But what Scarab knew how to read and write? What Scarab wore gold jewelry and silk dresses? What Scarab had a throne and helped to rule a city?
But what queen could scale buildings? What queen could pick pockets and swipe vegetables? What queen had grown up in a series of hideouts, completely oblivious to her heritage?
She didn't know. She just didn't know. So when Yari and Tomos jumped up to join a game of cards started by Enarka and Kuraj – everyone seemed to have perked up again after a good meal and a chance to sit down – Nabile whispered to Jazan, "What am I? I'm not royalty – not royalty to the bone like you and Amira. But I'm not like the other thieves anymore – not entirely. So what's left?"
Jazan's tired eyes were kind as he took her hand. "You're Nabile. And you may not be one thing or the other, but who of us is? No matter whether you're thief or queen or somewhere in the middle, you're clever and brave and good-hearted, and it was a lucky day when I met you."
She smiled, but she still wasn't quite soothed. "But what about the other Scarabs?"
Jazan asked, "What's it you say? Once a Scarab, always a Scarab. Just because you aren't the same person you were before doesn't mean they don't still care for you. They do – it's clear. There's no need to worry, Nabile."
She frowned at him. "You just say that because you're too tired to worry at the moment."
Jazan nodded. "True. Exhaustion has few advantages, but that's one of them." He shut his eyes. "Even that ruckus can't keep me awake much longer."
Nabile wasn't feeling quite as tired – she left Jazan to his rest and went to join the game, forcefully shutting down the part of her heart that felt like an outsider looking in.
To be continued...