Desert Requiem: Part Nine
Although Shiki had described Symerra as a city, in reality it was more of a ghost town. Many of the buildings were abandoned, and some lay in ruins. The population numbered in the mere hundreds. Shiki's grandmother, the mayoress of the city, explained that many Symerrans had perished in a plague three years prior, including her own son and daughter-in-law. But Symerra's decline began over two hundred years ago, when its royal family were slain and its infrastructure devastated in the feudal wars that raged across the desert during that period. The fact that Sayidah had never heard of the city before was some testament to its isolation and obscurity.
Sayidah gazed out the window at a fishing boat returning with the day's catch. "How did you become acquainted with Shasef?"
Mayoress Lemida hesitated before replying, "Perhaps you should ask him yourself, Lady Sayidah."
Indeed, there were many questions she wanted to ask Shasef. For instance: how had he managed to spirit her from the Palace of Qasala without being stopped?
"Oh, that was simple enough. I told the guards you fainted and that I would carry you back. Then, I made for one of the secret passageways that I knew existed beneath the palace, for I often travelled through them back when I was still a mummy. I drew a teleportation circle and transported us here &emdash; I had already made prior arrangements for travel to Symerra, where I had planned to live out the rest of my days in peace after apprehending Razul's Three."
"Who helped you set up the circle on the other end?"
They were lazing upon the shore, drinking in the salty sea breeze. Orange-tinted waves lapped at their toes. Up in the air, the squawk of swooping Kateils formed a backdrop to their conversation.
"Mureb. He is the Blue Krawk you have seen me speaking to on several occasions. I met him in Qasala shortly after I escaped from the prison where I had been held by Razul's Three."
"Why to Symerra, of all places?"
He smiled from where he lay on his back against the sand. "I will confide in you a secret, Lady Sayidah: the blood that flows through my veins is Symerran, not Sakhmetian. My father perished when I was still an infant. My mother took me with her to Sakhmet, where she remarried. My stepfather was an old but wealthy merchant who had no children of his own. He became exceedingly fond of me, at which point my mother persuaded him to adopt me as his son and heir. After his death several years later, my mother became the sole executrix of his estate and used its assets to my full advantage. I had the best education Neopoints could buy and counted among my classmates many scions of nobility. My mother spent her time and wealth forging valuable connections and eventually secured me a respectable position as a royal sorceror."
Sayidah asked, "Was it Qasala that ransacked the city of Symerra all those years ago?"
Her companion started upright. "Why do you think that?"
"I guessed that it was either Qasala or Sakhmet from the mayoress's reluctance to disclose the identity of Symerra's wartime aggressor. And when I heard you relate your personal history, I guessed that your mother would not have fled to Sakhmet if it were Sakhmet indeed who had been the aggressor."
He laughed, a bit shakily. "It seems that we underestimated your powers of deduction." When the Cybunny remained silent, he sighed. "I know what you are thinking, and I will set the record straight now: it was Razul who I hold responsible for Symerra's destruction. I bear no ill will towards either the current King of Qasala or his subjects, nor will I carry out any intentional acts of vengeance upon them."
"Even with the knowledge that some of those subjects had been directly involved in Symerra's downfall?"
"Lady Sayidah, are you trying to make me hate Qasala? But to answer your question: I do not begrudge soldiers for carrying out their sovereign's commands. Besides, many of the soldiers who attacked Symerra then weren't even Qasalan. Razul had this brilliant strategy of conscripting soldiers from territories he had vanquished and using them as cannon fodder. Such was the fate that befell the surviving able men in Symerra after the war. They had to obey Razul's summons, if they wished their families to live."
"Jazan released all the conscripts from army service some time ago. How many of those were of Symerran origin?"
"No more than a dozen score, I would say. Their numbers suffered attrition through participation in Razul's conquests. All of them remain in Qasala still; none yet have found the courage to return."
"Yet you possess such courage," Sayidah commented quietly.
He shook his head ruefully. "Say instead that it is my naivete that allows me to set foot within this place without experiencing sharp pangs in my heart for what &emdash; and who &emdash; is no longer there. I left Symerra too young an age to form any heartbreaking memories of it. It is Mureb who is brave. He remembers what Symerra used to be like. Mureb's mother and mine were sisters; he lost his father to war. After my mother found out that her sister and nephew were still alive, she wrote a letter inviting them to stay in Sakhmet with her. My aunt refused the offer but sent her son to be my companion. Mureb was in Qasala with me when the curse struck. We made a pact afterwards: he would return to our homeland and help overthrow the Qasalan governor who had been appointed by Razul to suppress us, while I stayed behind to explore the Underground Temple."
"At first, I thought you were a Sakhmetian who hid in the Temple of a Thousand Tombs because you had nowhere else to go," Sayidah said. "But that is clearly not the case. Why not join the Symerran uprising?"
"I had my own ideas about how to help Symerra. I thought to find resources within the Temple that would support the rebuilding efforts."
"By resources," Sayidah said coolly, "I assume you mean the historical artefacts that are buried down there?"
"I didn't raid any of the tombs... much, if that is what you are accusing me of. For one, some of them have been excavated already, whether by thieves or well-meaning archaeologists. What treasure that remains is often either cursed or guarded by sentinel spirits. When I did manage to get my claws on anything of value, however, the proceeds always went towards the betterment of Symerra: the houses that give the people shelter; the local school that Shiki attends; the fishing boats that half of the population depend on for their livelihood... all these are the results of my illicit pilfering. Were my actions reprehensible, Lady Sayidah?"
"I would consider them pardonable."
He swept into the best imitation of a bow he could manage from his seated position. "My lady, I am overjoyed to receive your grand amnesty."
She hid a smile at his exaggerated gesture. "So Mureb spent the past two centuries in Symerra? What did the locals make of his appeareance?"
"They know his story and personal tragedy. They saw a fellow Symerran-in-arms, someone who understood their suffering and who stood with them. Mureb helped wrested our autonomy back from Razul's governor and did all that was in his power to protect the people of Symerra. I helped as best as I could from a distance. I even visited once in a while, when I could manage such a thing. The common folk's open acceptance of us would have astonished both Jazan and&emdash;" Shasef stopped abruptly.
"It's all right," Sayidah lied. "You needn't worry about mentioning his name in front of me."
"Actually, I just recalled a piece of news I had heard," he said. "The Nightsteed has left Qasala and is travelling abroad. No one knows to where &emdash; not even, I suspect, himself."
She picked up a piece of driftwood and worried the sand with it.
"If you wish, I will ask Lemida to alert you if he is seen approaching the city's perimeters. The next course of action to take is entirely up to you."
Sayidah tossed the driftwood aside. "Do as you wish," she said shortly. "I have no concern in this matter."
"Since you are so thoroughly unconcerned," he replied, "I will tell Lemida to be on the lookout. Symerra is such a backwater nowadays, however, that I doubt anyone would care to visit." He sighed. "I wished I could have seen Symerra in its heyday. From what others have recounted, it was a beautiful, bustling port city, a centre of trade and culture. Mureb and I have often discussed ways to restore Symerra to its former glory. We have both concluded that it is possible, but only if certain conditions can be met; chiefly, that of finance. Qasalans might think themselves wretched, but personally I consider them fortunate. Their city might have been ruined, but not their treasury; they can afford to rebuild. Also, their ruler managed to secure a matrimonial alliance with Sakhmet, the so-called desert capital, thereby gaining valuable political connections."
"It would be difficult for Symerra to emulate Qasala in that last respect," Sayidah agreed, "considering that you have no royal family left to make advantageous marriages with. I doubt that the depleted tombs of the Underground Temple will continue to generate much revenue, either."
Shasef smiled crookedly at her. "We have pinned our hopes on Shiki. It is our wish that she will grow into a stunning beauty and charm some wealthy prince into marrying her, whereupon all of our problems will be solved."
Sayidah laughed. "I can easily see that happening! She is such a sweet girl."
"The rest of Symerra agrees with you," he chuckled. "I've half a mind to adopt her, especially after the loss of her parents, except&emdash;" He stopped, before resuming placidly, "I might not last long as a family member myself."
Sayidah asked quietly, "Do the people here know that you only have limited time left?"
"I have shared the information with only a trusted few. I see no reason to alarm the rest &emdash; not when there is still a chance that I might rid myself of this curse."
"But isn't Ghonim&emdash;"
"Mureb has been actively inquiring on my behalf. His informants passed him word of a reclusive sorceror who reportedly knows an alternative method to lifting the Curse of a Thousand Bites. We will depart in search of him tomorrow."
Sayidah clasped her paws together in delight. "Shasef, that is wonderful news! I will pray that the sorceror is as able as they say!" And then abruptly, her mood turned pensive. "If only all curses could be remedied so easily..."
With her thoughts distracted from the present, she did not catch the faint traces of guilt that flashed across his face.
"Lord Imcahn, are the rumours true?"
"You refer to the reports of my niece's disappearance? I have written to my brother-in-law about it, but have yet to receive a reply."
"I fear that Minister Farisem might have been compromised."
"What do you mean?"
"Who is to say that Lady Sayidah is not being held hostage to ensure her father's compliance? You know, of course, who the prime suspect in the Scarab Amulet's theft is. And I fear the motivation behind that theft might have been political rather than kleptomaniac. Who is to say that she does not harbour ambitions to be Queen of Sakhmet and Qasala both?"
"...This is serious. We must speak with the Princess immediately."
"Your Majesty, there has been another attack on one of our citizens in Sakhmet. The victim this time was Ambassador Mehmoud, who was returning from an audience with Princess Amira's court. His Excellency survived the attack, but now fears for his life. He begs to be recalled back to Qasala. He intimates that Sakhmet might recall its own ambassador, and that several factions are talking openly of war&emdash; Sire! That was a priceless artisanal vase! ...No! Not the antique marble bust of your honoured ancestor...!"
To be continued…