The Becoming of the Royal Thief:Part Three
Things are never quite what they seem.
When Veifira and Astael entered the main common room, Astael immediately went over to mingle with the board members, playing the perfect host and making sure everyone was comfortable. Veifira, however, lingered by the door, still thinking about her encounter with the unexpected guest.
How was this possible, that the Draik who had blackmailed her into stealing the Ring of the Lost Desert was Krawk Island royalty? She knew that Krawk Island was reclusive as a land, and that its rulers often kept to themselves, but she didn’t even recognize Vatalyn when he approached her in Haunted Woods. Maybe she should have been more diplomatic like her sister…
Astael tapped Veifira’s arm, snapping her back into the present. “Are you ready?” Astael asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Veifira muttered back.
The two walked to the front of the room and stood at the head of the board meeting table, waiting for the board members to sit and settle down. When the room was silent, Astael spoke.
“Good morning, venerated members of the Lost Desert council. Thank you for joining me today, under the light and protection of our sun,” Astael said in a clear voice that carried beautifully across the room. “It has been a year since our king father passed and a year since we, Veifira and I, have watched over the throne and our people.”
The council members all nodded their respect. King Adranika was a good king, and under his rule, the Lost Desert did prosper.
“As our king requested, you all, the council members, were asked to ensure we presided over this land fairly, unselfishly, and always,” Astael continued. “And we thank you for carrying out his wishes.”
Veifira resisted the urge to roll her eyes in front of the council. She always thought the council was quite useless, really. They never actually bothered advising the princesses. In fact, Veifira thought they were constantly hoping, crossing their fingers that Astael and Veifira would fail, and they would be able to seize control of the throne. And when they did check up on them, it was only after a problem had already been solved. Veifira was always weary of them and knew that Astael, deep down, was too. Although Astael was a shining light, she was aware of the darkness in others’ hearts.
Malabaricus, a Wraith Pteri and the head of the council, spoke up first. “Thank you for having us here today. And your highnesses are both graciously welcome; we are honored to carry out the last decrees of your dear father and our late king. Shall we start?”
Veifira pursed her lips, trying to hold back a snarky remark. The council always did the bare minimum, only gathering today because it was their chance to critique and criticize Astael’s hard work.
“Of course,” Astael replied with a smile. As if on cue, one of the castle staff walked over to her and handed her a portfolio case. Astael continued, “I have prepared documents outlining how we should proceed this meeting, as well as detailed information on the work Veifira and I have done this past year.” She turned to the staff member. “If you could hand these out please,” she said, handing him a stack from the portfolio.
The staff member bowed before following her instructions. Soon, each council member had a handwritten copy and they thumbed through it before looking back up to Astael to continue.
“Born and raised in the Lost Desert, I am aware that the primary concern for all of our people and our land is water, which is why it is placed first on the list of topics,” Astael started. “This year, we started to artificially add branches to the natural canal that flows through the desert. As we know, this process takes time, as adding branches too quickly can risk flooding and oversaturating our sands. But even with this slow and steady start, we have already seen an improvement in our desert fruit production.”
Veifira zoned out for the rest of Astael’s review. Although Astael was to do most of the presentation, Veifira was responsible in covering some of the points, and naturally she had not prepared at all. Her eyes scanned the list; she was to present how they were combating the wealth disparity between Sakhmet and Qasala, the yearly land-wide banquet to celebrate the desert harvest, and – she swallowed – the Dark Thief.
The Dark Thief… the one who was threatening the livelihood of Sakhmet citizens by stealing from them under the cover of night. The mysterious thief that had caused Astael to issue a mandate for every house to keep a gas-fueled light on through the night to heighten shadows and deter the thief. The one that was, well… it was Veifira herself.
Astael’s voice brought Veifira back to the present. “And with that,” she was saying. “I bring you to Princess Veifira, who will go over the next point on the list.”
Veifira gave a wide, insincere smile. “Thank you, Astael,” she said. “As we all know, the living conditions in Sakhmet and Qasala differ immensely–“
Almost immediately, Malabaricus interrupted her. “Yes, and what do you think about it, Veifira? What is your opinion on that?”
Veifira was taken aback for a few seconds, as Astael had not been asked any personal questions during her presentation, but recovered quickly. “Well, I think–“
She was interrupted again. “Because,” Malabaricus cut in. “Word has it that you seem to prefer and even favor Qasala. You are often seen by their tents and spending more time with the Qasalan citizens.”
Veifira’s eyes narrowed. Who had been spying on her and reporting back to the council? “Never believe what you just hear, Malabaricus. Unless you would like to admit you’ve had people following me?” she retorted.
“Veifira…” Astael whispered, a subtle warning in her voice. She knew Malabaricus was being out of line, but now wasn’t the time to draw attention to that.
Veifira knew she should play nice, should play her part as princess. But she was tired of being treated like she could be manipulated by the council. They were clearly here to carve out weaknesses in the princesses’ armor, and Veifira was tired of playing defensive. It was time to go on the offense, starting now.
“Why you…” Malabaricus started, before catching himself. He cleared his throat and continued with a calmer demeanor. “What I’m trying to say is that we just want to make sure you are allocating your resources equally to both Sakhmet and Qasala, no matter what their respective economic environments happen to be.”
Saiybella, a white Kacheek, nodded. She was one of the kinder members of the council, but Veifira was still weary of her. “Yes, that is all we are concerned about. Equal treatment,” the Kacheek said.
Again, Veifira fought not to roll her eyes. Why should they use the same amount of resources when Sakhmet had so much and Qasala had so little? Oh right, because the council all lived, high and mighty, in Sakhmet.
“Of course,” she muttered, sensing that Astael wanted her to appease them. “The same amount of effort will be given to both sides. If you would have been kind and patient enough to wait for my answer to your initial question, though, Malabaricus… I will admit that I prefer Qasalan food and that may be why you, or your associates, or whomever…” Veifira trailed off for effect, reveling at Malabaricus’s red face. “May have seen me in Qasala more often.”
Malabaricus scowled slightly. “Well, that brings us to our next point, then, doesn’t it? How do you two plan to deal with the, the,” he threw around his hands for a bit. “The Dark Thief,” he finally finished, as if reluctant to say the name.
“Well,” Astael began, before Veifira could say anything. “Naturally we aim to protect the Sakhmetian people and we have increased night patrol there, especially in the targeted areas.”
Veifira tried to hide a smirk. Although patrol numbers had been increased, none of them had yet to apprehend her, let alone spot her moving through the night.
“And the results?” Malabaricus asked, with a smug look.
Astael smiled weakly. “The culprit hasn’t been caught but the overall crime rate has decreased, which shows promise.”
The night patrol had arrested some amateur thieves, though, which Veifira was thankful for, as that helped Astael’s policy look productive.
“It’s really only a matter of time before the Dark Thief is caught,” Astael added. This elicited a slow mumble from the council, as they considered her words.
After a moment, Saiybella piped up. “Thank you, princesses, for meeting and presenting to us here today. We recognize the effort and improvements you two have diligently put into the Lost Desert, and now we will honor your father and our late king’s wishes by assessing your work as a whole.”
Astael nodded politely. “Of course,” she said, gesturing to Veifira and the castle staff in the room to all step out. “Take your time, council, and we look forward to conferring with you all when you have made your decision.”
When Veifira and Astael were out of the room, Veifira turned to her twin sister. “That’s it?” she asked. “You presented your work, which, if I even have to mention, not one of the council members questioned you on, and then I get an inquisition without any chance to defend myself when I try to speak?”
Astael sighed. “Vei,” she said. “You know the board sees you as the weaker link between the two of us.”
Veifira hated to admit it, but she knew that. She knew that her work, building a relationship with the Lost Desert citizens and abridging the divide between royalty and the civilians, would never be seen as real work by the council. They wanted results and numbers, and saw any intangible work as work they could exploit and question. Veifira clenched her fists.
Astael reached out to put her hand on her sister’s shoulder. “We’ll be fine, Veifira. It’s our first year. We’ll do better next time. Or, rather, I’ll just do more of what they want to see. You can continue what you do, Vei. I know the positive impact it has on our citizens.”
Veifira plastered on a smile. “Thanks, Astael. You always know what to say. Let’s just wait for them to finish their discussion.”
“I’ll see about getting some refreshments while we wait,” Astael said cheerily, as she walked away to the maids’ station.
The board members wanted the sisters to do what they wanted them to do, did they? Veifira thought, the fake smile gone from her face now. If they wanted to see the Dark Thief so badly, so be it.
To be continued…