Desert Requiem: Part Three
Sayidah considered herself well-travelled for her age, but her experiences were but a speck of sand in the desert compared to Khalid's. He and Jazan had spent most of the last two centuries exploring new lands, only returning to Sakhmet every twenty years to ascertain the availability of princesses. Khalid narrated some of the adventures they had gone through, some which sounded so incredible that Sayidah would not have believed them had it been anyone else telling the tale.
There was the time Jazan paid a call upon a desert king whom he had already visited once thirty years prior, although the king was not initially aware of this. By the time Jazan left, the king was so unnerved that he refused to take a single step out of his chambers and ranted about how he was being haunted by "ghosts of the past".
Or the time when they crossed the seas and came to Mystery Island. They fell into the hands of a local chieftain, who decided that Jazan was to be sacrified to the great Mumbo Pango. At the most climactic junction, Jazan put on a display of power that caused the natives to bow down in reverence to what they now realized was Mumbo Pango. After several weeks had lapsed and Jazan grew tired of being worshipped as a deity, he and Khalid stole away on a pirate ship whose crew had come onshore to look for buried treasure.
Or the stormy night in Meridell when they sought refuge in a cave that turned out to be the haunt of local bandits. Come midnight, the armed members of the gang filed into the cave, each bearing a menacing grin and gleaming blade. Five seconds later, all the blades lay dropped on the ground; their owners cowered beside them. The leader of the gang stammered out, "Have mercy, Fiery Steed of the Night! Only let us go unharmed and we swear to repent of our wicked ways!" Whereupon Jazan rose theatrically and replied, in his best medieval accent, "Begone, wretched knave, and heedst thy promise! Else Night's Steed shall hunt thee down and make thy rue the day thou wert born!"
She was sure that her own anecdotes were bland and quotidian by comparison: the various social gatherings she had attended; the pranks Imroth played on her and Ashari when they were children; the time last year when her class team nearly lost their Brightvalian Literature project to the indiscriminate eating habits of Caroline Huddingon's Warf. Yet he listened to her stories as attentively as if her words were drink and he a thirsting nomad. He was one of the first to congratulate her when the results of her Advanced Level exams came out, and she was revealed to be among the top performers of Wynton Junior College. No, she was not sure which university she would apply to yet, and intended to decide that over the course of her gap year. She had an idea, though, that she might pursue a History degree, focusing on ancient desert civilisations. She often ventured into the city with Khalid to engage with the locals, and the Qasalans soon grew accustomed to her presence. She talked to them about their customs, folklore, history, the ongoing rebuilding efforts — everything except their time under the curse.
Nabile had warned her beforehand regarding the sensitivity of the topic. "Don't talk about it unless a Qasalan broaches the subject first," the princess had said. "If you have any questions, you can ask me, and I'll try to answer if I can."
Sayidah knew which question was foremost in her mind. "Why hasn't Khalid been freed from the curse like the rest of his brethren?"
"The popular theory is that Khalid spent such a long time under the curse that it became permanently stuck to him."
"But... weren't the other Qasalans cursed for an equal length of time?"
Nabile shook her head. "Time passes differently in the alternate dimension Jazan transported his people to for their safety. For each year that passes there, ten years have passed on our side. So most Qasalans have actually been undead for twenty years."
Sayidah nearly said, "Only twenty years?" But she caught herself in time and said instead, "It must have been a harrowing ordeal."
Nabile smiled sadly. "I can't speak from firsthand experience, but I gather that it was."
She and Nabile became fast friends. Nabile was an interesting figure, not least because of her background. Her mother, Princess Neera, had been the only child and heir apparent of King Yusim II. Passionate and headstrong, she fell for a handsome kitchen boy, who was in reality a slumdweller who had only gotten his position in the palace through deceit and concealment. When the exposure of their affair necessitated the expulsion of both, the line of succession then passed to the king's nephew, Coltzan III, father of the incumbent Princess Amira.
Nabile defied all expectations of her. Where most people would expect her to be coarse, bewildered, and barely literate, she was mature, well-read, and charmingly self-assured. While there were still deficiencies in her knowledge of etiquette and palace protocol, these could be easily remedied with time. It was interesting to note that Nabile's table manners were actually more polished than many of her subjects'. Spending a prolonged existence as an unhungering and unthirsting mummy is not conducive to the retention of basic dining etiquette, to the extent that some Qasalans had to be reminded the painful way that you were supposed to chew before you swallow. Fortunately, none of the choking incidents had been fatal.
The discussions Sayidah engaged in with Nabile were lively and stimulating and covered such diverse topics as the piquancy of local cuisine ("If you found that your meals weren't as eye-watering as advertised, that's because I had already warned the chefs. The first time I tried a Qasalan dish, I ended up hopping up and down on one foot screaming for something to put out the fire. Jazan thought that it was funny until I flung what was left of the Queela Dip into his face."), to what it took to become a national hero of Sakhmet ("The bar for that award is really high; in my case, I had to crash my cousin's wedding and snag a hunky prince— don't look at me like that, I'm just telling it like it is!"), to what the Qasalan aristocracy thought of Nabile ("You should know, Your Highness, that most of the nobles are secretly relieved to install a princess who used to be an urchin, thief, and slumdweller, because that means you have less grounds to look down on them for having once been gutless, undead mummies."
"...H- How did you know that?!"
"Nuruki has been having some insightful conversations with the other servants.").
Nabile even shared the story of her childhood one afternoon over tea. It served to explain some of the mysteries surrounding her personality.
"My mother was kicked out of the palace with nothing to her name but the clothes on her back and the gold she wore. She sold the latter and used the proceeds to ward off starvation — at least for a short while. By the time I was born, funds were running low. In desperation, my mother wrote a letter to her own mother, which my father risked his life to pass on to one of the queen's personal maids. Queen Nabilah sent a reply via the same maid, as well as a casket filled with precious gems. In her reply, the queen warned her daughter to make the gems last, as they were all she could part with without arousing suspicion. She arranged for her maid to discreetly meet with my mother once a month, so that any messages my mother had could be passed on through her servant.
"Queen Nabilah's remittance enabled my family to move out of the slums into a tolerably decent, but still lower-class neighbourhood. My mother had a terror of being seen and recognized, so she mostly stayed within her "suite of chambers" — as she called that dingy little room of hers — and acted like a grand lady. She didn't hire a servant, for a variety of reasons, but she treated my father's mother like one. When I grew old enough, I helped Granny Mina with the chores, even though I knew Mother disapproved. She thought it was beneath my station. She busied herself with my education and taught me how to read and write. Reading was one of the few pleasures I had as a young girl. Mother got thick, leather-bound volumes and beautifully engraved scrolls through the queen's maid, and I would pore over them for hours. I never gave up reading, even when I was a penniless urchin. I either stole or cadged books and taught interested Scarabs how to read. I tried to teach Tomos, but he gave up on the third try and announced that he was leaving the 'squiggly business' to me. It's funny, because he's usually so stubborn.
"Pa was responsible for buying groceries. Except sometimes, he came back with both his purse and hands empty, and Granny would yell at him for wasting Neopoints. Mother never cared to yell at him, even with just cause. She and Pa avoided one another whenever possible and slept in separate rooms. Their union was strictly one of convenience. Pa was sometimes dizzy when he returned in the evenings; he would stagger and couldn't see straight enough to put one foot before the other. Once, when I went to support him during one of his dizzy spells, he struck me and called me a "snobby royal brat who was too good to associate with us commoners". I let go. He fell down. I've learnt since then never to help him up.
"Life went on normally until the year I turned six. I always refer to that year as 'the year that didn't agree with my relations'. Queen Nabilah passed away, and my mother followed soon after. The late queen's maid stopped coming, cutting off our ties to the palace. Pa took all the remaining valuables and ran, leaving Granny and I in the lurch. We returned to the slums, where Granny passed away a few months later. I wasn't very friendly towards Granny in those last few months of her life. She had burnt all of my beloved books and scrolls before we moved, even though I had cried for her not to. She would've burnt the queen's letters too — letters that proved who I was — but Mother had the foresight to hide them and told me to feign ignorance of their whereabouts. Granny presumed, rightly, that Mother had disclosed the secret of our royal blood to me before she died. She cherished hopes of me one day reclaiming the throne and becoming Queen, you see. Granny wouldn't hear of such "fantastical treason" and made me swear never, ever to disclose my identity unless the fate of Sakhmet hung in the balance. It's funny how both of their opposing wishes were reconciled in the end. After Granny died, I wandered the streets for a time before I fell in with the Desert Scarabs."
"Have you never heard of your father since then?"
"No. I believe he's either dead or, more likely, gone to another city to squander away the rest of the queen's gems. Whichever case, he should know better than to come knocking on my door asking for a mountain of gold. I'd just tell the guards to throw him out."
"Your father had not sounded like much of one."
"No. Do you think Ambassador Farisem would consider adopting me as a second daughter? He seems like a doting father, and it would be nice to have a little sister."
The sheer impropriety of the suggestion shocked Sayidah. But she was touched by it as well. "Your High—"
"—both my esteemed father and I are honoured beyond—"
"None of that formal gibberish, please. It creates unnecessary distance."
Sayidah suppressed a smile. "Very well. Nabile, were you not a princess, I am sure that my father would willingly adopt you as a daughter."
Nabile drummed her fingers against her cheek. "It's something I'll have to get used to, won't I? It's like a magnet with two poles, this aura of royalty: it repels people from you just as much as it attracts them."
Not having a safe answer to this dangerously shrewd observation, Sayidah quickly changed the subject to something less philosophical.
Not all that Sayidah learnt about Qasala was to her liking. The problem with being one hundred and eighty years out of step with the rest of the world was that there was an inevitable clash of ideals and values. Many of the laws of Qasala were obsolete or even archaic, although Prince Jazan was striving to remedy this and had already repelled the most barbaric laws. Class divisions were even worse than in Sakhmet. It was no secret that the nobility of Qasala thought nothing of meting out severe punishments for the trifling indiscretions of their servants. Sayidah was made acutely aware of this one afternoon when Nuruki, upon entering her room, flung herself down at her mistress's feet and blabbered about how never before did she realize how fortunate she was to be born in the time and place that she was, how milady was the kindest and most reasonable of mistresses, etcetera etcetera.
Sayidah suspected that she had been having "insightful conversations" with the Qasalan servants again.
It had also been common practice in the past to frighten servants into obedience with something called the Curse of a Thousand Bites — so-called because, when certain conditions were met, the victim would be subjected to pain akin to being bitten by a thousand Blechies. Jazan had banned the practice and set an example by removing the curse from affected members of the palace servants.
Over time, Sayidah realized that not all the locals she conversed with spoke with a Qasalan accent or even in the Qasalan dialect, and this led her to voice a suspicion to Khalid. "There were foreigners in the city when it fell under the curse," he affirmed. "Most army conscripts, for example, were of foreign birth, although they have since been released from their conscription. Jazan has decreed that all who were affected by the curse, no matter their city of origin, are now made Qasalan citizens."
"Were there any Sakhmetians trapped in Qasala then?" Sayidah asked.
"I doubt it," he said. "Relations then were not so friendly."
Once, she had heard a Qasalan sorceror refer to Khalid as 'al-mukek'. When she asked him about the meaning of the term, he replied, "It means 'cursewarded'. It refers to those who are born with a resistance, and sometimes immunity, to curses."
It had not seemed to help him much in his case, but Sayidah did not voice this thought out loud.
He read it, however. "One of the side effects of the curse was that those transformed lost their ability to use magic, if they had any in the first place. I was the only exception." And he summoned fire to his hooves in demonstration.
It was strange, then, that he was unable to maintain the facade of a normal Blue Uni after sunset. But either Khalid did not read that particular thought of hers, or he chose not to respond.
Jazan was willing to offer his own opinion, however, when he happened to be within earshot when Sayidah voiced her query to Nabile. "We don't know why he reverts back to his cursed form after darkness falls," the prince said, shaking his head as if in emphasis. "The illusion just slips away from him, even though he can still hold onto other forms of magic. I once joked that it was as if, invigorated by the dark influence that suffuses the night, the curse seeks to punish him for his daytime defiance by denying him the only form with which he could show his face in public. At which point he set my Leaf Wraps on fire so that they became disgustingly burnt, so I would advise you to refrain from make any similar wisecracks within his hearing."
"Don't worry, she won't. She's smarter than you," Nabile said scathingly.
Jazan laughed off the jibe and said, "By the way, Sakhmet has responded to the invitation. Amira will be attending our coronation in person."
Nabile nearly dropped her spoon in astonishment and delight. "I half-expected her to send Vyssa!"
"Along with Lord Darigan, that makes two heads of state who have so far agreed to grace our inauguration. I just wish other rulers would do us as much honour." His expression melted into a scowl as he remembered certain snubs.
"Attendance by their nobility or senior officials is just as dignified," Sayidah consoled, deigning not to mention the nations who were not sending representatives at all.
"Hn. Nobility or knaves, we will show them the calibre of the people of Qasala. How are your deportment lessons coming along, Nabile?"
"She has shown marked improvement," Sayidah assured him. "By the time of your official installation, she will be transformed into a queen as regal as any who bear the title."
"She may transform all she likes, as long as at the end of the day she remains the same wily urchin who has pickpocketed my heart."
Nabile giggled. Sayidah instinctively sensed that this was the time to take her leave. "As much as I enjoy your company," she said, "I fear that I must go. Have a pleasant evening, Your Highnesses."
Gently shutting the door behind her, Sayidah glanced through one of the windows and immediately began bolting down the long corridor. The sun was nearly set, and Khalid would be waiting for her at their usual balcony, his mane whipping about his face in the warm evening breeze as he gazed ahead into infinity.
To be continued…