Desert Requiem: Part Four
The Red Temple of Qasala was an impressive structure carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, and was one of the few monuments to escape major damage during the sandstorm of two hundred years ago. It was where the coronation of Qasala's rulers traditionally took place and housed the statues of the five founders of the city.
The main hall of the Red Temple could seat thousands, and so far everything had gone smoothly apart from a minor disturbance caused by the appearance of Queen Fyora's representative. Sayidah was seated in the second row, in the section reserved for distinguished guests. Her father, on her right, leaned forward to speak with Princess Amira, who sat in the front row. The booming of drums heralded the arrival of the principal actors of the event; both Jazan and Nabile stepped into the hall amidst shouts and cheers, regal in their ceremonial robes. They were escorted by guards of honour, who dispersed to form two lines on either side of the royal aisle.
A trio of splendidly attired Neopets entered the hall &emdash; the bloodline-heirs of the other three founders. Sayidah immediately found her attention drawn to the Blue Uni on the far right. He was arrayed in gold on head and neck and body; gold was woven into his artfully brushed mane. Moonstone shone against his midnight fur; lapis lazuli paled in comparison to his eyes. The royals and bloodline-heirs made obeisance before the likenesses of their respective ancestors.
The drums fell silent. The future king and queen made the traditional vows to defend and uphold the dignity Qasala. Two senior acolytes approached the royal couple and applied scented rosewater to their faces and shoulders before retreating. An austere Desert Lupe &emdash; the high priest &emdash; stepped forward, bearing the Cobrall crown in his aged but steady paws. In a booming voice, he announced, "By the power vested in me by my office, before the eyes of our great founders, I hereby crown the thirty-sixth ruler of Qasala!" The hall erupted into cheers of jubilation as he slipped the crown onto Jazan’s forehead.
It was customary for the newly-crowned monarchs to parade the city in a golden chariot, accompanied by an entourage of guards, officials, and the bloodline-heirs. Sayidah watched from the steps of the Red Temple as the procession wounded away into the distance.
She felt a tall presence approach behind her. A husky, feminine voice commented, "That was quite a spectacle, wasn't it?"
The Fire Faerie’s skin was nut brown, her eyes liquid amber. She was dressed in a simple, peach-coloured robe wound with golden thread; her light cloak formed a veil that covered her head and shoulders. Wings of pure fire sprouted between her bare shoulderblades, flickering in the desert air.
Sayidah lowered her head in respect. "Lady Nuria. I am pleased to make your acquantaince."
The Faerie Queen’s emissary smiled. "I am glad to hear that. Not all the guests feel the same way, I know. Still, I can’t complain about the wide berth they gave me. It's nice to have all that space to yourself."
Although the Fire Faerie stood quite close to her, the warmth radiating from her wings was comfortable, not overbearing. Sayidah was surprised that the affected dignitaries had been bothered by it. Or perhaps Nuria could control the temperature of her wings and deliberately turned up the heat, so to speak, to secure a superior seating arrangement. Sayidah wondered whether the Faerie could control their flammability as well, which led her to ask, "Will you be attending the royal ball tonight, Lady Nuria?"
With a laugh, the Faerie shook her head. "I try not to go indoors, especially when there's furniture about. Still, it was kind of you to ask." She leaned down and whispered conspiratorially, "It is nice to meet you at last. I will you see again, young Sayidah." Nuria straightened and walked away before Sayidah could ask the meaning behind her cryptic words, or how she had known her name.
While Nuria was did not attend the ball, there were other noble and important guests who did, many of who were known to Sayidah. She was especially gratified to renew her acquaintance with Roberta of Brightvale, who quizzed her for a quarter of an hour regarding all that she knew of Qasalan sorcery, which was admittedly not much. Knowing that such a discussion was beyond her scope, she tactfully introduced Princess Roberta to the Chief Royal Sorceror of Qasala. After making polite conversation with several other guests, Sayidah began to miss Khalid's company. Casting about in the crowd, she saw Queen Nabile and Princess Amira watching a cultural performance together, while King Jazan was demonstrating something to a bespectacled Yellow Aisha. Her own father was entertaining a group of friends with what must be particularly amusing anecdotes. But the shrouded form of Khalid was nowhere to be seen.
"Is there anything you desire, my lady?" Nuruki asked, after her mistress had scanned the room for the umpteenth time.
"What...? Oh, yes, could you get me another glass of punch?" Sayidah replied absently.
Nuruki was frowning as she left her mistress's side.
It was Captain Huasim who told Sayidah where to look; the Fire Gelert pointed her to the entrance of a side balcony she had not known was there. Upon crossing the threshold, Sayidah saw that the occupants were almost entirely Darigani. Lord Darigan himself was regarding the night sky with his hands folded behind his back, speaking in a low tone to the Nightsteed who stood beside him. Khalid bowed his head and said something in reply. Lord Darigan placed his hand on the Uni's mane in an almost avuncular manner before departing from the balcony with his subjects in tow. Once the two of them were alone, Sayidah moved to fill the position vacated by the master of the Darigan Citadel. There was no need for either of them to express acknowledgement of the other's presence; they stood silently in tacit understanding. After a while, Sayidah asked, "What did Lord Darigan speak to you of?"
Khalid replied, "Courage." He then said, "How did you find the coronation today?"
"It was beautiful. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. The joy of the Qasalans was so palpable. And&emdash;" she smiled up at him with a teasing glint in her eyes "&emdash;it marks the first time I've seen you adorned in such finery. You are usually so modest in your choice of accoutrements, even by the standards of a non-Uni. Not that modesty is a vice, but sartorial elegance is always appreciated."
"Be that as it may," he said, "I have little patience to endure the many hours of fitting that such sartorial elegance demands."
She laughed, and said, without fully considering her words, "What is the loss of a few hours to one who possesses eternity?" By the time she bit her tongue, it was far too late &emdash; the cruel reminder had already escaped from her lips.
Khalid's face was hidden in shadowed depths. "Nothing. Pray excuse me. There is somewhere I need to go." He leapt over the railing of the balcony and landed in the grounds below, similar to the way he had once leapt off the walls of Sakhmet on the day they first met.
The rest of the evening was ruined for Sayidah.
She cloistered herself in the dim corner of the balcony, shunning the ballroom with its overly bright lights and cheery atmosphere. Nuruki came in search of her, fruit punch in hand, and relayed Queen Nabile and Princess Amira's invitation to join them and a party of other ladies for a walk in the gardens. She found her mistress in no mood for company. The Kougress asked whether her mistress had been with Master Khalid last. Sayidah's reaction told her all that she needed to know. The maid left the punch on the railing and withdrew, muttering apologies.
It was the Elephante in the room, the topic of Khalid's fate. No one dared discuss it openly, not even the ones closest to him &emdash; the ones who he would have to watch die of old age while he himself remained untouched by the hands of time. Her verbal blunder was not something that could be remedied with apologies.
Sayidah's turn of self-loathing came to an abrupt end when feminine shrieks of dismay arose from the gardens.
The shrieks had died down by the time Sayidah rushed to the royal gardens alongside her father. They were far from the only guests attracted by the commotion. A large crowd had already gathered, including King Jazan, who appeared to be consoling his wife. Princess Amira was leaning on the shoulder of another lady for support, her face pale and shaken. Sayidah scrutinized the Desert Aisha's person for any signs of injury. The Princess looked completely unscathed, physically speaking, except for&emdash;
"The Scarab Amulet," Farisem echoed beside her. "It is not around her neck anymore."
The two Cybunnies approached their sovereign and expressed their concerns. Regaining some of her usual composure, Amira straightened and explained, "We were travelling along the path when the light orbs illuminating that part of the garden suddenly extinguished, leaving us in the dark. But we noticed that the path ahead was still lit, so we continued walking. As we went, I thought I felt something... out of place, but it was too dark for me to investigate. After we could see each other, another noblewoman remarked that I seemed to be one ornament short. I soon realized that she referred to the Scarab Amulet. Some tactless girl started shouting that there were thieves about, and her friends took up her cry."
Sayidah shot a quick glance at Queen Nabile; the Ixi's face was even pinker than usual.
"That's not all!" one of the members of the garden party added excitedly. "The bushes rustled, and out stepped this... this thing! It had the shape of a Uni, except with rotting flesh and glowing, evil eyes! Two of us fainted straight away! But thank Fyora, the creature ran when it heard our screams."
A Strawberry Blumaroo started crying. "I never saw anything so hideous, not even among the Darigans! My sister warned me about monsters in Qasala, but I thought..."
Now it was Sayidah's turn to feel her blood boil.
Farisem cleared his throat. "You poor ladies may have witnessed a mirage," he said soothingly. "They are quite common in the desert. Apart from Princess Amira, has any other here misplaced their personal effects?" There was a collective shake of heads. "It occurs to me that the Princess's chain may have snapped of its own accord, and the Scarab Amulet fallen into the shrubbery somewhere along that stretch of unlit path. Perhaps a search could be conducted...?"
But a thorough search turned up nothing. "Perhaps we should continue the search by day, when we would have the benefit of total illumination," Sayidah suggested. "Sunlight would also glint off the gold body and rubies of the amulet more strikingly."
"Aye, gold and rubies," muttered a rough, gravelly voice that was not too inaudible for Sayidah's ears. "Tempting to a thief, even if she calls herself a queen now."
It was not too inaudible for Nabile, either. She turned slowly to face the speaker. “I beg your pardon?” she said sweetly.
The author of the injudicious remark was a Blue Yurble whom Sayidah recognized as an Altadorian politician. Senator Coriollus Brutus blinked, apparently not intending for Queen Nabile to overhear him. But he squared his shoulders nevertheless and looked her in the eye, oblivious to the fact that his fellow Altadorians were frantically making mouth-zipping gestures. "According to the ladies," he began, "you were walking next to Princess Amira in the garden just now. And you're known for being light-fingered."
Nabile was practically shaking with rage. She stretched out her arms and challenged, "Search my dress if you want! Then you'll see how light-fingered I am!"
Senator Brutus backed away, embarrassed. "Even if it were proper, I know how the modus operandi goes. Pickpockets pass on their loot to a second accomplice, so a body search would turn up nothing."
Amidst the shocked murmurings that followed this insinuation, Jazan stalked forward, his expression blacker than the night. "Take care of what you intimate," he said gloweringly. "The rulers of Qasala will brook no slander to their names, even coming from one so obviously ignorant as yourself. I do not deny my queen's inglorious past, but I will remind you that it had been compelled by privation of the sort you could not have imagined, where a stale loaf of bread could mean the difference between survival and starvation. Would you have acted differently had you faced similar circumstances? Answer me with a lie if you wish, but you cannot lie to your own conscience. And those of humble origins are often some of the most principled and moral of us. Nabile would not have stolen from her own kin, even in indigence; she has less reason to do so now, when she has the resources to acquire the Mines of Annar if she wished."
Inwardly, Sayidah applauded. Some of the guests appeared moved, with a few nodding in approbation. Even Brutus seemed cowed. "Erm, sorry?" was all he said as he allowed himself to be hurried away by his white-faced compatriots. Nabile would later receive a letter from King Altador apologizing for the transgressions of his ex-senator Coriollus Brutus and reiterating his belief in her innocence.
The tramp of booted feet broke the tense silence. Members of the royal guard filed into the garden and bowed. "Your Majesty," announced Captain Huasim, "we have apprehended a suspicious stranger lurking within the vicinity of the palace. We thought that you might wish to interview him."
A sound of scuffling came from behind, accompanied by vocal protests. Two guards emerged bearing a thin, raggedy figure, which they dumped unceremoniously onto the ground.
Nabile's jaw dropped. "Tomos?"
The Red Lupe picked himself up and beamed at his old partner. "Nabile!" he called. "I heard it was your big day today, so I came here to congratulate you! So, how are you? That foppish prince been treating you well?"
"It's 'king' now. And she has been treated like royalty."
Tomos froze before slowly turning around. "Oh, hey, Jazan, didn't see you there... Nice earrings. Are they new?"
Jazan stared him down before straightening to address his guests. "Ladies and gentlemen, I formally declare the end of tonight's festivities. Please be so kind as to return to your chambers. Not you, Lupe &emdash; you're coming with me."
To be continued…