Desert Requiem: Part Two
The Grand Hall of Sakhmet Palace, used to being the venue for important audiences, was to bear witness to an event of historic significance that day. Courtiers in their finery took up position on either side of the room, for once not engaging in idle chatter; their expressions were of rapt attention. Imposing guards stood to attention between the columns running down the centre of the hall, gleaming weapons in hand.
Amira sat on her throne of gold, reflecting upon her reign. It had not been the smoothest. It was an inauspicious start, to inherit the crown only upon the assassination of one's father. Amira had been outside the city then, and her younger sister Vyssa had assumed the throne in her stead — a throne which the Desert Usul relinquished with obvious reluctance when her elder sister finally returned. To add insult upon insult, there was a marked preference among the people of Sakhmet for Vyssa. Amira could only blame herself for that. She had been too eager to see the outside world, spent too much time away from her birth kingdom, while Vyssa cultivated a following at home.
It could have been worse, however. At least Vyssa had the sense to publicly support her sister instead of sulking or, Sutek forbid, plunging the city into civil war. It helped that Amira had proclaimed Vyssa as her heir, before keeping her sister busy with "official duties meant to prepare for a future role as leader". This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Vyssa when a diplomatic trip kept her out of the desert during... that time. Amira's efforts to win over the hearts and minds of her people had met with some measure of success until he showed up demanding her hand in marriage.
A surprising outcome of Jazan's transgression was that it led the discovery of her royal cousin Princess Nabile. Nabile was a rare combination (at least among court circles) of someone who was unambitious, unpretentious, candid, amiable, and who was firmly in the "you were right to repeatedly reject his proposal" camp. It was an odd thing, the way friendship had blossomed between them. Under different circumstances, Nabile would have been considered a threat... Happily, that was no longer the case, and Amira had been able to use Nabile's lineage to boost her own legitimacy by having the Pink Ixi voice her supreme confidence that none but the Divine and Gracious Amira could guide Sakhmet onto the True and Just path of peace, prosperity, puissance, etcetera etcetera. ("Um, Amira... about this script I'm supposed to spout off of later... don't you think that the lines are laying it on a bit thick?"
"A word of experience, Nabile, from one Princess to another: it is one of the duties of a member of the ruling class to give excessively — even sickeningly — syrupy speeches."
"Geb save me."
Behind Amira hung a portrait of King Coltzan I, a scarab-shaped amulet circling conspicuously around his neck. The portrait had been brought out especially for the occasion. When the Scarab Amulet was lost, rumours swirled among the ignorant masses that the blessing of their forefathers had been lost with it. The tragedies that befell the royal family in succession only seemed to cement this belief: the violent deaths of King Anaphses II and Princess Isis; the madness that overcame the mind of Prince Inop; the fever that robbed King Meyka of his sight; the scandal involving Princess Neera; the poisoning of her own father Coltzan III; and the persecution of Sakhmet by Prince Jazan. What the common Neopet seemed to have forgotten was that bad things had always happened, regardless of whether the Scarab Amulet had been in the possession of the reigning monarch or not.
Amira was a practical Aisha. She had no more belief in a decorative ornament's power to ward off bad luck than she had in its ability to "glide through the dusk like the day-wearied Djuti", as the classic lay so charmingly put it. But neither could she dismiss the fact that many of her citizens did believe in such superstition. Nor could she overlook the symbolism of the restoration of the founder's heirloom to her, Amira, the ruler of Sakhmet who presided over such a historic occasion. She had zealously planned the celebrations for welcoming the Scarab Amulet home, tantalized the populace with news of a mysterious announcement to be made by the Princess in person — and then had all her carefully constructed designs ruined by Prince "Bad Timing" Jazan.
Despite her disdain for the Kyrii, however, Amira had enough political acumen to see the advantage of Qasala as an ally. It was their closest neighbour in terms of proximity, was ruled by a powerful sorcerer-prince who commanded a formidable army, and boasted deep coffers that offered promising prospects as a trading partner. And of course, there existed matrimonial ties between the royal families of the two nations, courtesy of Nabile. It had been Amira's intention for some time to send a representative to Qasala to oversee Sakhmetian interests, as soon as she could shortlist a candidate who was both competent and neutral in their feelings towards the Qasalans.
The doors of the Grand Hall swung inwards. A guard announced the arrival of Minister Farisem and his daughter Lady Sayidah. The air in the hall became electric with anticipation. Two Cybunnies, one Brown and one Desert, appeared at the doors to the Hall, preceded by a servant who held aloft a silk cushion covered with white cloth. Hundreds of pairs of eyes watched as they advanced solemnly down the woven carpet that led to the royal dais. The trio stopped before Amira's throne and bowed.
Minister Farisem spoke. "A thousand blessings upon my lady, Her Royal Highness Princess Amira, Wisest and Most Impeccable of Sovereigns. I, Farisem, your loyal and humble servant, have come on a long way and through great hardships..."
He went on like that for quite some time. Amira resisted the urge to tap the arm of her throne in impatience. More than ever, she empathized with Nabile's complaint about the ridiculous length of these formal speeches. At last Farisem said, "...present the Scarab Amulet! The treasure of Sakhmet which has been passed down through the royal line since as far back as the time of King Coltzan I!" He drew back the white cloth from the cushion.
The golden Scarab was small enough to fit into the palm of one hand. Rubies of a deep red hue were strewn along its wings and body. The slim gold chain that passed through a loop at one end glittered faintly in the light.
The room lapsed into awed silence. Each member of court seemed to be holding their breath. Slowly, the Princess of Sakhmet rose to her full height. She descended the dais with studied grace and made her way towards the uplifted cushion. She reached out with slim, dainty fingers and drew the chain over her head. She nestled the Scarab against her bosom and stood before the portrait of her ancestor, where all could see and judge the likeness, not of outward appearance, but of bearing and dignity and indescribable majesty.
One by one, the occupants of the room went down on their knees. A nobleman cried out, "Long live Sakhmet! Long live Princess Amira!" Others took up his chant, until Amira raised her hand for silence.
The Princess came to where Sayidah knelt and commanded her to rise. After the young Cybunny complied, Amira said, "I have heard of how you protected my family's heirloom, at great personal risk to yourself. As commendation for your bravery, I bestow upon you the title 'Defender of the Scarab', as well as this gift from my person." Amira slipped off a gold bracelet from her wrist and held it out to Sayidah, who accepted it with both paws. "This bracelet came from my personal collection. As great as its material worth is, it is the symbolic value of this gift that is beyond compare. Wear it well, Lady Sayidah of House Imlirin; no other has earned such a right."
Sayidah clasped the bracelet to her chest and uttered words of thanks; out of the corner of her eye, Amira could see Farisem beaming with pride at the honour that had been conferred on his daughter.
Farisem, one of her most trusted and seasoned diplomats. Farisem, who held no prejudices against the Qasalans and in fact owed a debt of gratitude to a high-profile Qasalan for services rendered to his daughter. Amira smiled. She wondered what Minister Farisem would think of his appointment as ambassador designate to Qasala.
When Ambassador Farisem and his daughter arrived at the newly-repaired gates of Qasala, they were met by phalanx of armed guards led by Captain Huasim, a Fire Gelert who would be their escort to the palace. As they formally entered the city in grand procession, Sayidah looked about her in curiosity. Her father had warned her, when she insisted on coming, that Qasala was mostly in ruins. "But that is part of its charm, Father," she had argued. Riding down the main street, she saw many Qasalans at work rebuilding. Most of them spared only a brief glance at the passing entourage before returning to their jobs. A few bowed, possibly in recognition of their rank. A multitude of colourful tents were erected at strategic locations, which seemed to serve as temporary shelters or market stalls. The faces of children would occasionally peep out from beneath the tent flaps to gawk at them
At last they arrived at the palace, which appeared to be the only whole structure they had seen in the city so far. The customary protocol was to receive ambassadors within the halls of the palace. Therefore, it was with surprise that Sayidah saw the rulers of Qasala already waiting for them in the courtyard.
Prince Jazan was regal in his white robes and headdress. The dark, tight-fitting gown worn by Princess Nabile intrigued Sayidah, not only because of its unquestionably foreign make, but also because it looked too warm to be suitable for desert climes. She wondered about its place of origin. The style and cutting shared some similarities with the gowns worn by the fashionable socialites of Brightvale, except that no Brightvalian lady could be prevailed upon to sport such sombre colours. Khalid was standing behind the prince and princess. He caught her eye and inclined his head in her direction.
Farisem knelt before the royal couple. "A thousand greetings to Your Royal Highnesses, Prince and Princess of Qasala."
Jazan helped the Brown Cybunny to his feet. "Arise, Your Excellency. It pleases us to welcome you to our beloved city."
"Likewise," Nabile said. "Oops. I'm supposed to say, 'Honoured guest, your company is like the addition of a shining jewel to my court' or some such line, aren't I? Well, pretend that was exactly what I just said."
"Your Highness, glad is my heart to behold a lady as gracious and beautiful as yourself," Farisem said solemnly.
The Pink Ixi giggled. "Now that's something I can get used to hearing!"
Jazan waved his hand, and a servant stepped forward bearing a tray on which was balanced a silver jug and two cups. The Kyrii filled the cups and offered them to his guests. "You must be parched after your long journey. Please accept this small token of Qasalan hospitality." Both Sayidah and her father thanked him and emptied the cups. After the initial formalities had been dispensed, Jazan said, "You must be weary. Please, allow Nabile and I to show you to your rooms."
The interior furnishings of the Qasalan palace was sparse by desert standards. The white stone tiles were polished, but lacked the reflective qualities of Sakhmet Palace's marble flooring. Instead of paintings, scrolls of stylized hieroglyphs seemed to be the preferred medium of wall art. Jazan led them up the main stairway to the first floor, where he proceeded to walk down a corridor before stopping at a pair of ornately engraved wooden doors. He pushed open the solid gold handles to reveal a spacious, tastefully decorated parlour. As they stepped onto the carpeted floor, Sayidah realized that efforts had been made to make the room feel more homely, including the inclusion of furnishings that had obviously been imported from Sakhmet.
"I hope that everything will be to your liking. Do not hesitate to approach me should there be adjustments you would like to make," Prince Jazan said. "There will be a banquet held in your honour tonight, at which your presence is earnestly requested."
"Truly, you are the most accommodating of hosts," Farisem said. "And I will be delighted to attend the banquet of which you speak. Has not the poet Norahnu stated that there is no greater pleasure in the world than to feast on fine food in the presence of even finer company?"
Jazan laughed. "We will see you tonight, then." He bowed and left with his wife.
Nuruki surveyed the rooms with a critical eye. "It's almost as comfortable as your suite back in Sakhmet, my lady. It'll do."
Zalil, the Yellow Pteri who served as Farisem's assistant, huffed as he deposited his load of baggage onto an upholstered seat. "Leave the commentary to Lady Sayidah and help with the unpacking, you lazy feline!"
"My apologies, featherbrain. I had forgotten how... handicapped some of us are when it comes to unwrapping packages."
Zalil left off what he was doing and countered, "Wings might be terrible for untying string, but opposable thumbs will not stop you from landing on your face should you fall out that window, no matter how hard you flap them!"
The familiar sounds of squabbling made her feel right at home. Sayidah ran a paw over a flowered vase that she recognized as one of Osiri's handiwork, fingering the artificial petals thoughtfully as she gazed out the window.
Khalid stopped by later to see them, and was warmly received by the ambassador. Sayidah, recalling a particular habit of his, asked where he usually watched sundown at in his home city.
"There is a balcony on the east end of the second floor that offers a magnificent view," he answered. "You are welcome to join me, if you wish."
After he left, Nuruki remarked, "He enjoys watching sunsets very much, doesn't he."
"I only know that he watches them," Sayidah replied. "Whether he enjoys the watching, that I cannot tell."
To be continued…