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||You are on Week 300
Every week we will be starting a new Story Telling competition - with great prizes! The current prize is 2000 NP, plus a rare item!!! This is how it works...
We start a story and you have to write the next few paragraphs. We will select the best submissions every day and put it on the site, and then you have to write the next one, all the way until the story finishes. Got it? Well, submit your paragraphs below!
Story Three Hundred Ends December 1
The creaking of the key in the lock was like the sound of his fate finally being sealed.
With a tremulous paw, Kiyer touched the steel bars of his cell in the dungeon. They had never felt more cold and solid.
Groaning, the Zafara turned around and slumped to the unforgiving floor.
"So they got you too, eh?" A Darigan Aisha looked at him lazily from where she was leaning against the wall.
"You don't understand," Kiyer pleaded. "I have to get out of here!"
"QUIET!" The gigantic Skeith guard who'd locked Kiyer in gave him a shove through the bars. With another glare, the guard walked off, mockingly tossing his keys into the air.
Kiyer rubbed his head ruefully and glared at the Skeith, then turned around to look at the half dozen or so fellow prisoners in his cell. "Well?" he demanded. "What can we do? How do we escape?"
There was a dry laugh from the corner of the room. "Aye, yer a feisty one," a pirate Eyrie rasped, thumping his wooden leg emphatically against the floor. "Tell us, lad, why do they want ye out of the picture so badly?"...
Editor's Note: As some of you may have observed already, this week's storytelling will extend to December 1st, since there will be no entries on Thursday and Friday (November 23 - 24). Have fun! :)
Author: Happy 300th storytelling!|
Date: Nov 17th
...Kiyer looked at him, as the memories rose up behind his eyes.
Running, running, and nowhere to stop or to look for help. His enemy was too fast, too powerful.
Too highly placed.
Too trusted by the honest Neopets around him....
"I wish I could," Kiyer said sadly, slumping down again and testing another of his deeper bruises. Ouch. "I don't understand all of it myself."
He'd been a spy, a double agent, like another more famous Zafara. But he'd always been faithful, he'd always been loyal to his home. He'd been as law-abiding as his job allowed. But it was easy to stop trusting someone like him....
He was lying, and it still made him sick, but he was long practiced at hiding it. He wasn't quite lying, because he did wish he could confide in someone, and he truly didn't understand all of what had happened to him so far.
He let his head fall back, then looked up and around at them. "I found a high-up with a lot of Virtupets technology," he said, choosing elements of the truth judiciously, "and a freaky collection of toys. Then I got arrested." That was leaving out a bit. "What about you?"
"They don't trust Darigan Neopets here in Shenkuu," the Aisha said sourly.
The Eyrie laughed roughly. "Like that's what got you in trouble, missie. Me, I'm a pirate, and a merchant kingdom don't like pirates."
"Oh, come on," Kiyer said, sitting up a bit more and looking around, his information-gathering instincts kicking in for lack of anything more productive to do at the moment. And knowing more about people around you was always good. Always. "I might just have gotten in over my head, but I'd bet you lot have better stories than that...." He trailed off invitingly.
The pirate Eyrie guffawed. "Fascinated with the criminal life, are you, lad? What would you bet?"
Kiyer blinked, faltered, and set the Eyrie, his three possible crewmates, and at last the Darigan Aisha and the disconcertingly muscular pair of lime Chias laughing. "Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I guess that didn't come out right. I haven't got anything to bet, they took it all, and anyway I want you to tell an interesting story, if that's not too nosy."
The Eyrie laughed. Kiyer suspected he had him. Pirate culture practically required bragging. "Oh, well, I suppose I might as well start...."
Date: Nov 20th
... “Now, to begin with, ye must believe me when I say that my crew and I are here through no fault of our own,” the Eyrie began.
It was the Aisha’s turn to laugh now, and she did so, with no small measure of derision. “Oh, please!” she snorted, to the pirate’s great annoyance. “Trying to pass yourself off as some innocent little sailor, now, are you? Why, I never heard such a--”
“Hold yer tongue, ya’ overgrown Kadoatie, or I’ll hold it for ye!” snapped the Eyrie, flexing his talons to substantiate this threat. “Even a wet-behind-the-ears swabby knows better than ter try any funny business in Shenkuu’s ports! It’d be a fool’s errand, ter be puttin’ it mildly.” He frowned to himself, and Kiyer could tell that the Eyrie was honestly troubled by something, but that expression was quickly replaced by the pirate’s earlier confidence. “Now, if ye’ll kindly be lettin’ me continue with my story...”
As Kiyer listened to the Eyrie, whose name, as it turned out, was Bitterneck -- a piratical pseudonym, the Zafara assumed, as he could not imagine any parent actually giving their child such a name -- he could feel a slight gnawing at his subconscious, a feeling of unease, a very distinct feeling that something was wrong. Why did this story sound so familiar?
The pirate captain and his crew had indeed made a stop in Shenkuu, but strictly to restock their supplies. Since the nation’s harbour had the most efficient and effective guard in all of Neopia, few pirates ever attempted to plunder another ship coming to port there. Those who did invariably wound up arrested.
It was not an attempt at robbery that had landed Bitterneck and his crew in Shenkuu’s dungeon; rather, it had been an attempt to do something for the common good. Sort of.
“An’ just as we were preparin’ ter set sail for less... ‘tranquil’ waters, we spotted it -- good ol’ Three-Toothed Davey’s ship, breezin’ on in to port, pretty as you please.” Bitterneck’s voice took on a sour tone at this. “He’s made a name fer himself as a smuggler an’ a thief for hire. That shady little Xweetok’s got a bigger bounty on his head than a year’s haul of loot; of course we were gonna go after him. As soon as we get near his boat, two o’ Shenkuu’s fleet swoop down on us outta nowhere an’ tell us we’re under arrest for disruptin’ the peace!” Though he had kept his frustration in check up until this point, reliving this memory brought a growl to the Eyrie’s throat. “They could see plain as day what we were tryin’ ter do, and they let Davey’s ship by without so much as a how-d’ye-do! What’s that all about, I wonder? Seems to me they were protectin’ him more’n the peace.”
Kiyer’s head was reeling at this information. It was a bit of a leap, but his instincts told him that there were certain similarities between his and Bitterneck’s predicaments that could not be ignored.
“That is pretty strange,” he murmured, not meeting the Eyrie’s gaze. He would need some time to think...
“Aye, but the word of a pirate’s worth about as much as a potato’s eye,” Bitterneck sighed. He brightened after a moment, though, and grinned wryly at the Darigan Aisha, who had been leaning sullenly against the wall ever since he had rebuked her earlier interruption. “Well, what about you, then? Care ter spin us an elab’rate tale of how ye were framed for someone else’s crimes? A case of mistaken identity, maybe?”
The Aisha gave him a patronizing glare, but drew herself up a bit with what Kiyer could only imagine was some twisted sort of pride. “Oh, I think it’s a much better story than that...”
Date: Nov 21st
..."I," she said in a soft voice that nevertheless passed quite easily through the cell, "deserve very well to be here -- and probably more. I will not try to pass off a tale of false conviction or misidentity. I believe they know very well all of the crimes that I did, but it was for another reason that I was put here." Her eyes glowed as she spoke as if her face were set with a pair of torchlit rubies -- sharp-edged and dangerous.
Bitterneck looked impressed with such a bold confession of guilt; even the pair of lime Chias had stopped flexing their muscles for a few minutes to listen. The raggedy members of the crew gazed at the slight Aisha as if seeing her for the first time, but Kiyer only felt a rising sense of apprehension. Her easy manner, her confident nonchalance, reminded him of someone whom he'd rather forget.
"Seize him!" The cold eyes of the emperor had gazed at him emotionless, as if he had not been helping him all these years, as if his work, his toil, his risks, had all been meaningless.
"I have ever been loyal, Sire!" His last plea, his last attempt at reasoning with the blazing wrath of the leader of Shenkuu. "I have ever worked for the benefit of this land!"
"Take him to the dungeons." Dismissal; his cry had failed. Without another word, the emperor had turned away.
Beside him, his aid had been laughing. Kiyer could still hear the laughter, each ring of it burning into his very being...
The Darigan Aisha's eyes flicked over to him, and for a fleeting moment her expression spoke of, eerily, a sort of understanding. But she turned to the pirate, then, and continued. "I know well your story, Eyrie. But my experience is from its other side."
His claws balling up into a fist, Bitterneck gnawed his teeth in rage. "Ye twisted little sea-wretch! Ye, be on Davey's ship? Ye, with not a speck o' sea-grime on ye? I don't believe it!"
"Not all of us feel the inclination to dress as pirates," she replied coolly. "And some of us do believe in baths. But yes, I was on Davey's ship. I was his first mate."
All three of the crew began to growl, and the Eyrie let out a string of expletives that backed the stereotype of a "sailor's mouth," taking a menacing step forward.
The Aisha, though, calmly raised a paw. "Think, you overgrown half-wits, before you resort to acting on that terrible anger. If I were still allied with Davey, do you think they would have thrown me down here? Of course not -- in fact, Davey and the emperor's advisor seem to be quite close. It was my objection to what I discovered was our ship's involvement with him that landed me in this cell."
"He thought that a pirate would not have the morals to question him," said one of the lime Chias suddenly. "Or that the pay would be enough to persuade a blind eye. Jeb, my partner, overheard him one night, but when I went to the emperor--"
"Wait!" cried Kiyer, in a rush of understanding. "Aren't -- or weren't -- the pair of you among the emperor's bodyguards?"
The entire group gathered in the cell turned to stare at him, and the Zafara felt his face flushing beneath their gazes. He hadn't meant to reveal so much, and yet their fates were all intertwined to his own. They had a right to know the truth of Shenkuu's fate.
"It sounds like you know more than you are letting on," said the Aisha, fixing him with her smoldering gaze. "Do you care to elaborate?"
Kiyer paused uncomfortably before finally turning his head down in a nod. "Yes," he said, "I know more than I let on -- I can tell you why the Shenkuu authority seems to have been acting so strangely..."
Date: Nov 21st
..."The Emperor's son has been kidnapped."
A stunned silence fell over them like grey snow in late evening, as if the air itself had had the wind knocked out of it. "Word 'round the harbour was that Prince Shiran'd taken ill," Bitterneck said softly, his breathless statement voicing the others' silent question. Kiyer shook his head.
"The Emperor didn't want to throw the empire into a panic. He also wanted to confuse the kidnappers, make it difficult for them to figure out what his next move was going to be." No, he didn't. The Emperor doesn't think like that. But Advisor Sholen does. He thrust the bitterness aside, although it refused to leave entirely. Instead, it moved from his mind to his gut, churning around in there like some live, writhing thing.
"What did the kidnappers want?" the Aisha asked, her wide, snapping eyes betraying a ragged fray in the steel cord of her cool composure. "Have they asked for a ransom?"
"No, and that's the strangest thing. No threats, no demands, no messages of any sort. It's as if he's vanished off the face of the planet, or..." Kiyer was tempted to trail off. He didn't want to voice the fear that had nagged at him, taunted him, picked away at him like the claws of some dark feline flexing in the slow raking torment of a rug. But when Bitterneck and the Aisha both prompted him as one, he gave in to the pressure of the idea, dragged a deep breath into his suddenly stifled lungs, and said, "Or as if he wanted to disappear."
As he'd predicted, the room was once again crushed into that same dead silence, as if stifled beneath a huge, soft grey paw. There were several half-words, and false starts, as if his cellmates were trying to respond but could think of nothing sufficient or appropriate, and kept backing out as soon as they began to speak. Even the pirates, who were relatively detatched from the situation, were stunned. Of course, given the bearings this had on their lives both in the cell and at sea, assuming they ever lived to return to the latter, they had a right to be alarmed.
"Why would he want that?" Jeb -- or was it his partner? -- asked, openly horrified. Of course he was. This was the son of his ruler that they were talking about. That Kiyer had all but openly accused.
Kiyer shrugged, fighting back a grimace at his own stupidity. Letting something like that pop out was a rookie mistake, especially when you only half believe it. Remember the Number One Rule, Kiyer. What is left unsaid can be said, but what is said cannot be unsaid. Drawing his mind back to the conversation, he tried to sound casual. "He might not. Probably doesn't. I have no idea why he would." He sighed. "But you wouldn't believe the scenarios I can cook up when I have nothing else to do. Comes with the territory -- a... reconaissance officer has to think of everything."
"Reconaissance officer," the Aisha echoed, an amused smile playing on her lips. "You mean spy."
Kiyer gave her a wan smile. "Call it what you like. Although I don't think the Emperor likes that term anymore."
Bitterneck looked impressed. "So you got tossed in here by the Emperor of Shenkuu himself?"
Kiyer grimaced. "He thinks I might have had something to do with Prince Shiran's disappearance. At least, that's what he says." His face darkened. "Although there are other reasons why some people might want me out of the way."
"Like finding out the Emperor has 'a lot of Virtupets technology and a freaky collection of toys'?" the Aisha asked dryly.
Kiyer silently cursed her intelligence. "He's got a hunch -- or his advisor has a hunch -- that the abductors might have come from Altador."
"Yes. And he says he's going to do anything it takes to get his son back. Even if it means using this technology that Davey must have been smuggling in for him..."
Date: Nov 22nd
...All eyes but Kiyer's flicked through the gloom to the Darigan Aisha, then drifted in pairs to rest again. Bitterneck's jaw dropped, as though he thought to speak; but after a pause, his beak pulled itself together. After all, now that there was finally time to say anything he wanted, what was there left to say?
"So everyone's got an explanation now," piped a subordinate of the gnarled Eyrie's, a nasal blue Bori with her ears twisted backwards and her tail twisted to the front. She was the first of his three crewmates to speak; judging by the arrays of scars and savageries marring the three, to break silence among their ranks was to lay oneself across another's teeth and ask not to be bitten. True, shadows had no say in the writing of history. But then again, shadows lived to write it down. "We are here to prevent interference with the Emperor's supplies, the Aisha is here so that she may not divulge Davey's secrets, the Zafara earned his bunk by what we may assume was betrayal, and I assume that Jeb and his friend were taken on the same cause."
The unnamed lime Chia nodded, lurching into Jeb's shoulder at a lack of coordination. "Yep," he said. His head went on bobbing long after he'd ceased to speak. "I gave that rat the old one-two, right in the gut after a big banquet. Four. We was lucky we weren't tossed to Faerieland and back, wasn't we, Jeb?"
"Yes we was, Bej, yes we was," The second Chia sucked in his breath, and choked. "He deserved it, though. Lots more than it, come to think."
"Yes he did indeed, yessir." With that, the pair of palace bodyguards retired to collaboration of a nature that Kiyer frankly was too exhausted to bother listening in on. Instead, he turned again to face the Darigan Aisha, whose mouth was preoccupied with a stale bit of bread that she'd tugged from a crack in the mortar. Feeding the prisoners here seemed to be an erratic event at best.
"Say," the Zafara smiled at her, jerking Bitterneck from the half-slumber he'd stumbled into. A spindle of drool snapped at the Eyrie's beak, pooling into its own tail on the floor. "You never told us your name, stranger."
For one moment, her eyes widened in light of the gazes now solely, solidly fixed between her eyes. Then she sighed. "Oh, what does it matter." The Aisha smiled back; there didn't seem to be anything better to do. "Maharet," she told him. "I was once known as Maharet."
What is said cannot be unsaid.
He nodded, more to himself.
Abductions can be faked, and conspiracies can be launched by lies for truthful intentions. But the words we don't mean to say will echo on for ever.
And then the cell bars squealed open.
"Kiyer," a voice boomed, as though daring him to challenge its address. "You're to come with us. The Emperor wants to... settle your affairs."
He smiled again, out of practice.
* * * * *
Minutes later, the soles of his feet a lifetime colder for the journey along the maze of concrete halls, Kiyer was seated on a wooden chair in the midst of a white-wall room. Its panels were room temperature, stinging his feet like licks of Draik breath.
"Kiyer," a voice, The Voice did not boom so much as loomed at him from the speaker mounted on the wall opposite. "I do hope all the effort I've put in to gain you access has resulted fruitfully."
"It has, my lord." He squirmed a bit; the spikes of his back were bent so that their sharp parts twisted to dig into themselves.
The Zafara did not see, but felt Advisor Sholen leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees in anticipation.
"Have you learned the identity of the one who is probably telling the others right now what really happened to Prince Shiran?"
Kiyer took in a breath. Somewhere, he heard six other voices gasp in revelation. A revelation almost assuredly short-lived.
"Yes, my lord." Another breath. There would always be another. "She is the person whom you suspected. Agent Maharet of Altador..."
Date: Nov 27th
...A speaker could not smile, but Kiyer's gut and the skin between his shoulders writhed with the feeling of the Shoyru's dark smirk. Sholen liked being right. Which was fortunate, because he was rarely ever wrong. Sometimes, that creeped Kiyer out. People as shady as Sholen weren't meant to always be right.
Sometimes, Kiyer wondered if it was wise of him to offer Sholen so much information. But the grey stormcloud that hovers over the field sees all, and putting an umbrella between its all-pervading liquid tentacles and himself would do nothing but ease his conscience before it was torn away. And so he took a deep breath and went on.
"I'm guessing Davey has been playing both sides of the coin; which side he's really on is anybody's guess. I didn't get a chance to find out whether Maharet really was his first mate, and he didn't know her true loyalties, or if their actual loyalties are the same, or if the first-mate angle was only a cover story."
"So the pirate is not to be trusted." He knew that. Of course he knew that. But he liked to let Kiyer think he was offering new information, when all along the Zafara was merely the tool of confirmation.
Kiyer knew all this, and stifled an icy trickle of uneasiness that trailed its morbid caress over his spine. He hated it when he didn't know how much other people knew. Even when he and the people in question were supposedly on the same side. But he played along, walking the tightrope that was the dice in the ancient game that composed the life of all his kind. "That is correct. I told the pirates about the weapons we've been gathering, and I gave them a few Snowbunny trails on Prince Shiran's disappearance."
"Good," Sholen answered, but the stony undercurrent in his normally gravelly voice seemed to belie the word. Kiyer stiffened; it wasn't like Sholen to give any indication of unpleasant emotion whatsoever. At least, not until he struck.
There was a moaning roar of feedback as the speaker was turned off, and Kiyer's skin crawled as if trying to find a safer portion of his body to occupy.
Then he cringed as an earsplitting screech stabbed into his skull, indicating that the speaker was being turned back on. It's high time we replaced that thing, he thought sourly.
"Agent Kiyer," the advisor said blandly, "I'm sending someone to escort you back to your quarters."
"Very well, sir," Kiyer answered, guiltily stifling the urge to perform an instinctive bow. It wasn't like anybody could see him. Dragging his mind off the matter, he asked, "What is my next assignment?"
The dark smile he had heard in the Shoyru's voice earlier had returned double-strength. "The Emperor himself wants to speak with you..."
* * * * *
"Would you please sit a little farther away?"
Maharet's dry voice, sharp and stony with sarcastic irritation, sliced the air like a knife through bread, and on the other side of the bars that separated the cell from the corridor outside, a Grarrl guard shot her a sideways look. "What, don't you like my company?" he rumbled with a quiet chuckle.
"It is hard to enjoy any company," Maharet retorted in a voice like a splinter of shale, "when the company in question is giving ample evidence that the time interval between the present moment and his most recent bath has vastly exceeded acceptable parameters."
The evidence the Grarrl gave of having understood her statement was rather less ample, but the word 'bath' seemed to bring the message across, because his easy chuckle darkened to a scowl. "You'd better get used to it," he growled, settling into a sitting position just outside the cell, "because I've been instructed to make sure that none of you get away. It seems your reputation preceeds you," he added with an arch of his eyebrow in Maharet's direction.
The Aisha's hackles rose, and her eyes glittered with the keen light of dots being connected. Then she leaned back against the wall as if his words were of no consequence.
The minutes dragged by, one falling dead atop another to pile up in the sullen silence, and the Grarrl began to nod, the sharp vigilance of an intriguing new assignment sagging under the weight of boring reality. No one spoke a word; there were none left to speak, and the occupants of the cell were content to watch in the empty hope that their guard might slip into slumber.
Then Maharet slunk forward, a slender paw extending between the bars. There were no keys to grab -- the Grarrl wasn't quite so stupid as that -- but the water bottle that hung from his belt was tantalizing enough. Her paw came to rest atop it; but instead of easing it out of his belt, she chose instead to pull out the cork.
Jolted back into full awareness by the faint tug on his belt, the Grarrl brought a ponderous set of claws thundering down, narrowly missing the slender paw that darted back into the cell. The half-awake pirates jumped at the thud that resounded through the corridor, then settled back to watch as the Grarrl stabbed at Maharet with a shrewd glance, a smug smirk marring his reptilian face. "You thirsty, wench?"
"Yes," Maharet muttered, her voice oddly sullen, then stepped even further out of character by studying the floor.
The Grarrl chuckled. "Better get used to it," he replied, "because you're going to be thirsty for a long time." As if to emphasize his point, he tipped the bottle back and began to drink.
Maharet watched him, her features filled with longing as the Grarrl studied her reaction out of the corner of his eye. Then, as the last few drops vanished down the guard's throat, her expression changed to one of innocent curiosity. "Sir," she asked almost sweetly, "do you know what slumberberry powder is?"
The Grarrl frowned, his amusement at Maharet's discomfort melting into uneasiness. "Yes... it's a potent sedative," he said slowly, the meaning of the Aisha's next words falling over him like a cold, heavy cloak even before she spoke.
Maharet saw this; but nevertheless, the words had to be said. A slow, dark smirk spread over her features like poisoned honey as she asked softly, wiping her paws on her pants and staining them with bluish purple dust as she spoke, "Did you enjoy your drink?"...
Date: Nov 27th
...The other prisoners in the cell eyed her with poorly concealed impressed expressions.
"Ye be a handy wench to have around," Bitterneck huffed grudgingly.
"One learns a lot on a pirate ship, as you well know, Bitterneck," Maharet said, straightening. "All too often one learns it the hard way."
"Oh? Who used it on you?" Bej asked curiously.
Maharet's smile was dry and slight. "Captain Davey."
"I take it this was towards the end of your time on his ship," Bitterneck observed, but his comment went mostly unnoticed.
"What good did that do?" Jeb demanded of the Aisha.
"The guard's asleep, ain't he?" said one of Bitterneck's crewmen.
"Fat lot of help that is," Jeb snapped. "He doesn't have the keys on him. And I know these cells; there's no breaking out of them."
"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?" Maharet said absently. She was feeling about the pockets of the guard.
"The lady's got a point," Bitterneck commented, albeit a smidgen unwillingly. "Guards tend to overrate their own cells. Trust me. I'm a seasoned professional."
“And even if we do get out of this room,” Bej continued in Jeb’s argument, “what do you think we’re going to do? We should just stay put until they bring back the Zafara and figure out what to do then.”
Maharet suddenly spun around. She was holding, the other prisoners noted uncomfortably, a small knife that she had taken from the guard. “You two are awfully pessimistic,” she said to the Chias coolly. “Why were you two thrown in here, again?”
Jeb and Bej, though both larger than the Aisha, were unarmed and reluctant to get violent - especially in such a small space. “The Emperor’s advisor had us jailed,” Jeb said levelly. “He spoke of betrayal and treason. Interpret that as you like.” Bej nodded.
“Any way I like?” Maharet asked. “Because I think the Emperor’s little advisor is too smart to lock all of us up together unless he had a very good reason. It’s entirely possible that he made sure a pair of ears were in the room, and you two are the only officials present...”
“You’re awful quick to pass out blame, missy,” Bitterneck growled. “It’s the suspicious creatures that carry the most guilt.”
“It’s the suspicious creatures that live the longest,” Maharet fired back. She tilted the knife to allow the light to glint on its blade. It was a subtle hint.
There was a tense silence as the prisoners glanced around at each other, doubt gnawing at each of them.
“This is pointless,” burst the blue Bori, earning herself a sharp look from her captain. He didn’t speak against her, though, so she continued. “The fact remains that we have an unconscious guard and the best opportunity for escape we’re ever going to get. We should make use of it or just hang ourselves now. We just make sure we all stay together so if there is a plant, and that’s just an 'if,' then they won’t get a chance to cry to anyone.” This was the most she had spoken during their stay in the cell, and now that she was done she again fell silent.
The fresh silence that followed was less tense with suspicion but slightly more awkward. “First mate for a reason,” Bitterneck grumbled to break the empty air.
“We still don’t have a way out of the cell,” Jeb mentioned sullenly.
“We do now. Are you blind?” Maharet held up the knife. The guard let out a snore. “We better hurry.” By “we” Maharet clearly meant “I,” as the others sat silently in the cell and watched her work at the lock. Within an impressive amount of time, much to the Chias’ chagrin, the lock clicked out of place and the door swung wide. “Hold a minute,” the Aisha said. She pulled a pouch from the lining of her pants and spilled an amber powder into the guard’s water bottle, then spat in it twice and shook it around. She sprinkled some onto the guard’s tongue, and then, for added effect, pulled the ring of keys off the peg across the hall and stuck the key in the lock. She tucked the pouch back into her pants
“What’s that?” asked Bej in confusion.
“A little something I picked up on the seas,” responded Maharet. “I’m sure the emperor won’t be pleased that his guard was drinking on the job and foolishly left the keys within reach of his helpless prisoners.”
“What I want to be knowin’,” Bitterneck broke in, “is how you were able to sneak in two pouches of alchemist dust but didn’t have so much as a hairpin to jimmy the lock with a lot less hassle.”
The Aisha tossed her hair. “I don’t hold with hairpins,” she responded, starting down the corridor. “Now let’s go.”
“And where are we going?” asked Jeb.
“Out of here,” Maharet said over her shoulder.
“We can’t yet,” argued the Eyrie’s first mate.
“I think I liked you better before you talked,” Maharet said icily.
Bitterneck shot the Darigan Aisha a look. “Go on, Nessa. Why not?”
Nessa the Bori raised her chin. “We have to go get Kiyer.”
“Are you nuts?” hissed Maharet.
“No.” Nessa, despite her usual quiet disposition, matched the Aisha look for look. “We’re all in the same position. You, being suspicious of everyone, should surely want everyone to be together. We need to keep our group. That includes the Zafara.”
“She’s right,” Bej murmured quietly.
Maharet looked around at the other faces. “You seriously want to walk into a deathtrap? They’ve got us tagged!”
“They’ve got Kiyer,” Jeb said simply.
“You’re all nuts.” Maharet turned and began to walk away, but Bitterneck caught her shoulder.
“I don’t think you understand, Missy. We’ve all agreed, and now, thanks to you, we’re all paranoid. Majority rules, little Aisha. We’re going to get Kiyer. He’s the only one of us that’s got information about that little prince. You don’t have a choice...”
Date: Nov 28th
...Maharet ground her teeth. "This is an empire, not a democracy."
"Sure enough," Bitterneck drawled, "but funny thing is, you're still outnumbered."
The Eyrie's grip on her was not painful, but it promised to be if she tried to fight. She had that knife; she could take him if he were alone, but not with everyone else in agreement with him. "Fine." She turned her head, without moving otherwise, to glare over her shoulder at him. "But I think you are all insane."
They were also sorely mistaken. Maharet was reasonably certain that she was the last person to have seen Prince Shiran, unless he had done something stupid.
Trying to rescue Kiyer was pretty stupid in itself, but it was better than letting on what she knew. So she followed, and resolved to do her best to keep these idiots out of trouble, if only to save her own neck.
And she? She could wait.
* * * * *
Kiyer was escorted back to his room and given time to bathe; he doused himself in water, scrubbed soap rapidly into his fur, and then sluiced it off with water so hot it steamed off the floor of the tub and the dampness evaporated off his fur, leaving him dry, if somewhat obviously unbrushed. It was painfully hot, deliciously hot. He rubbed bleary eyes, refreshed by the steam, and then dressed as quickly as he could. If the Emperor wanted him, he would not be permitted to spend time soaking in the bath, much less sleeping.
Indeed, the guard pounded on his door just as he had finished dressing. Kiyer opened it and bowed, and was escorted, not to the throne room (of course) but to a richly appointed one, hung with colorful tapestries that glinted with jewels. He dropped to his knees outside the door and touched his forehead to the floor.
"Come in, my son," the Emperor said. "Sit down."
"Your majesty." Kiyer rose and took a chair very much like the one where he'd sat to answer Advisor Sholen, though it was much more comfortable now that the bath had managed to straighten out his spikes from the kinks the cell had put in them. The Emperor nodded to a low table and poured tea. Kiyer bowed again, this time from his seat, as he accepted the gift of comfort, healing, and nourishment from the Emperor's hand.
He rarely met the Emperor. His reports usually went through Advisor Sholen. The Emperor made a point of offering warmth and welcome every time, which Kiyer secretly found deeply unsettling. Advisor Sholen was fearsome, demanding, and subtle, but he didn't pretend not to be.
"My son," the Emperor said again. Kiyer kept himself from shifting uncomfortably. The Emperor was of course the father of the nation, but the mode of address seemed more intimate than Kiyer warranted. "Advisor Sholen tells me you have done well." His mouth quirked. "And that you don't like him."
Kiyer choked. "Your majesty?"
"Relax," the Emperor said, his lidded eyes regarding his spy over the teacup. "I'm well aware you don't enjoy spying, or trust the type of personality that does... such as his. That's why he recommended hiring you, those years ago. We need people who wish things could be straightforward, too." A thin smile. "I am one of them."
"...Yes, your majesty." Kiyer regarded the third, still-untouched teacup.
"Are the bodyguards feeling any better?"
"I think they were still fevered when I left." They had eaten most of the poison that was meant for the Emperor, in the dessert course. Their startling assault on Advisor Sholen had alerted everyone in time for all three to be dosed with the antidote. "Improving, though."
"Good." The Emperor smiled. "Agent Maharet will almost certainly escape. I want you to join her."
"Yes, your majesty." This was, of course, shorthand for finding out all he could and hopefully retrieving the prince. This was his lead. Any others would be pursued by other agents.
Kiyer finished his tea, bowed low but not to the floor, and was returned to the guards.
After he was gone, the Emperor sat still for a long moment, then moved one finger.
Advisor Sholen folded aside a tapestry and emerged from the side room behind it. He bowed as low, though on the carpet, as Kiyer had, before being summoned to take the same chair and the third teacup, newly poured.
"You have leave to speak, Advisor Sholen."
"'My son,' your majesty?" the Shoyru asked. "And you rebuke me for playing mind games."
The Emperor smiled.
* * * * *
Prince Shiran's limbs were not bound, and the walls around him were neither hard stone, nor iron, nor heavy rough wood. But the majestic blue Gnorbu paced, finding that confinement chafed him nonetheless.
Ever since his younger brother Tuan had returned from his journeys as a merchant captain and persuaded his father to reveal Shenkuu to the rest of Neopia, things had been going more and more mad.
Virtupets, for pity's sake! It wasn't that he didn't trust the Grundos, but he didn't trust the technology at all. He still thought those kreludite toys were trouble, too. Tuan meant well... for all he knew, they all did... although he wished his father didn't have that odd habit of concealing offspring; it wasn't exactly as if it kept them safe, considering what they did instead of princehood....
He turned angrily and paced at right angles, then stopped and looked in what he knew to be the direction of the palace and snarled, "Where in the world is Maharet?"...
Date: Nov 28th
* * * * *
...“This is a very bad idea,” Maharet hissed, all four of her dark ears pinned against her skull in displeasure.
“You started it,” Nessa pointed out in reasonable tones. “Jeb, since you were a guard in the castle, you should know your way around, where do we go from here?”
“Right,” Maharet whispered sarcastically, “so he can lead us right into the middle of a trap?”
“At least we’d know he was the plant then, wouldn’t we?” Nessa’s sweet tone only made the Darigan Aisha scowl more.
Jeb thought, his forehead crinkling alarmingly at the depth of how hard he must be thinking about which way to go.
Great, Maharet thought to herself, the only two who know the way around here are all brawn and no brain. Typical.
Jeb’s face smoothed, as he apparently remembered the best way to go. “This way,” he whispered, leading them down a maze of back hallways and doors. Holding up a hand, he stopped the group at a T intersection.
“Someone’s coming,” Bej grunted from the back of the group. Opening a door, the two Chias hustled the group inside what turned out to be some sort of cramped storage room.
“Quit poking me!”
“That’s a mop, you featherhead, not me.”
Footsteps became audible in the hall, along with the clink of weapons. Maharet risked a peek though the crack between the door and its hinges. A very familiar Zafara walked past, followed by two armed guards. They must be done questioning Kiyer, and were returning him to the cell. Where they would find all of them escaped and an unconscious guard.
Grabbing the body closest to her, who turned out to be Nessa, she whispered fiercely, “It’s him! Kiyer! If you want him, we’d better do something now.”
The closet was small enough, that they were all cramped together and all heard her. “Jeb and I can handle this,” Bej muttered. “Hall’s too crowded for everyone to burst out.”
“You go first, and then we’ll follow,” Nessa countered.
“Works for me,” Jeb grunted. Squeezing past the group, the two Chias stumbled though the door, grabbing the backs of the guards, forcing them down to the ground.
With the two Chia’s dealing with the guards, Maharet grabbed Kiyer’s wrist. “Come on!” she hissed. “We’re busting out of here!”
The Zafara’s startled face almost made the whole escapade worth it. His eyes flicked to the two Chias and the two guards on the ground, then to the rest of the group tumbling out of the narrow doorway. Swallowing hard, he nodded stiffly.
“Happy?” Maharet snarled at Nessa, who smirked at the irate Aisha’s face. Turning to the two Chias who still pinned down the guards Maharet snapped, “Jeb, Bej, come on, I want us all out of this castle.”
Bej immediately climbed off his unconscious guard. “Just a second,” Jeb grunted, running one last check through the other guard's pockets. “Got it,” he grunted, pulling a set of keys out from a hidden pocket.
“For once, he thinks.” Maharet complemented, taking the keys from the Chia. Maybe Jeb wasn’t a total loss after all, she decided, if she could train him up a bit and make him loyal to her he could end up being very useful; especially if the others in this rag-tag group started causing trouble. Turning away, she and the others didn’t see the hulking Chia slip a parchment note into the unconscious guard’s pocket.
* * * * *
“Advisor Sholen?” a guard bowed low as he addressed the Shoyru, then continued. “There is a lady here who wishes to speak with you.”
Sholen lifted an eyebrow, intrigued by the unexpected visitor. “Bring her in.”
Not even waiting for the guard to return and summon her, the lady in question walked calmly though the door. She did not bow to greet him; she merely stood, confident and quiet, the hood of her silvery lilac colored cloak obscuring her face.
The Shoyru sat a little straighter, his intrigue growing into full blown interest. “What brings you here?”
“Prince Shiran’s in grave danger.” Her low voice was very matter of fact, there was no hysteria or panic, she was simply stating a fact.
Sholen bridged his fingers, watching the steeple they made as he sat in silence, seeing if his lack of reaction would cause her to blurt out more.
She remained silent.
Sholen was impressed; normally someone making such a claim would feel the need to pile more information on top of itself until they convinced the other person. Finally, he asked, “And how do you know this?”
“Because I do not know where he is.”
That wasn’t quite the answer he was expecting. “Explain,” his tone took on a harder edge.
“We were supposed to meet. He wasn’t happy with some of his Father’s latest choices, especially with the new trades with Virtupets for technology. I was to escort him to Altador, where he wanted to speak with the ruling Council.” Removing the hood, a beautiful, emerald-eyed shadow Aisha met his gaze calmly. “My name is Maharet, I’m an agent for Altador...”
Date: Nov 29th
...What is said cannot be unsaid...
He smiled thinly and nodded his head. "Well, Agent Maharet. We were not expecting you so soon. Please rest assured that the situation does not cause any undue concern. The Prince has merely been... indisposed for a time."
The Aisha's vibrant eyes regarded him silently. His casual manner had immediately put her on her guard. Shiran had told her that their meeting and trip to the Council would be secret. Sholen was putting up a front. Pretending he knew more than he did.
"Is that so? I had heard nothing of this," she said cautiously, inviting him to say more.
"We are trying to keep it from public gossip. You understand these things," said Sholen silkily. "But I would not want you to have made your journey for nothing. We will put you up in a guest room here in the palace until Shiran is well enough for his scheduled appointment."
Maharet considered this. If she was going to discover the mystery at work here, the best place she could be was on the inside. She made a short bow.
"You are gracious, Advisor Sholen."
Relieved that she had complied without further question, Sholen called a guard to escort her to a room. He waited until the hem of her shining cloak had disappeared around the door, then strode as quickly as was dignified for one of his rank through a side door. The Emperor needed to hear of this.
* * * * *
The Darigan Aisha calling herself Maharet crept silently along the castle corridor after the motley group that had found itself thrown together in a dank dungeon cell. Jeb and Bej were in the lead, supposedly taking them to a little-known guard's exit. Maharet's mind seethed as she peered at the back of each Neopet's head, trying to guess what each was thinking. What their true motives were.
Bitterneck seemed to be just an average member of daft pirate-stock, long on swearing and short of mental acuity. His crewmembers were just voiceless nobodies who could be easily dealt with should the need arise. Which seemed likely. The exception was Nessa, the cagey Bori first mate, but Maharet suspected that she was not as clever as she would have others believe.
The Chia guards had possibilities, it was true. But the Aisha was extremely wary of involving Neopets who were so close to Shenkuu in her plans. They seemed to have turned around to her own more divergent (some would say criminal) thinking, but she was very hesitant to trust them. Getting rid of them somehow seemed a safer move.
And Kiyer... the little Zafara spy. The Emperor's pet, cast cruelly out of favor for a simple reason: he knew too much. His job as an espionage expert when it came to foreign societies, yet enough to condemn him if the tables were turned on Shenkuu. And Maharet could see in his face that he did not feel himself even suited for the profession. Perhaps he was her best bet.
But above all, this mission must not fail. The Aisha shivered suddenly as she remembered her interview with her own director.
"Vale. Do you understand what you must do?" Her master stood in shadow, immobile except for gently fanning wings.
"Yes," answered the Aisha simply.
"Pose as Agent Maharet. Our agents should keep her out of your way. Convince Prince Shiran to trust you, and transport him here." Dark, conniving eyes flashed at the Aisha from the shadows. "Once word gets out that Shenkuu's prince has been abducted by Altador's agent... the worlds will be at war within the month." The eyes smoldered with hate and winked out like dying stars.
"And I shall have revenge."
* * * * *
Agent Maharet hurried through the unfamiliar castle corridors, on the lookout for anything that could be of help. She had a feeling many plotting minds were at work here, each one's plans twisted around another's into a sinuous rope. She had given the guard the slip and was determined to investigate this on her own.
She suspected Sholen would expect this.
Suddenly a side door caught her attention, and she hurried toward it. She huffed in exasperation as the stubbornly locked door remained solid against her efforts to open it. But in her anxiety and focus, she had neglected to check the surrounding area, and failed to hear the approaching footsteps until they were just behind her. Spinning around, she locked eyes with a group of strange, ragged Neopets. And particularly with a Darigan Aisha, who pushed her way to the front of the group and demanded, "Who are you?"
Surprised, Maharet blurted, "Agent Maharet of Altador. Who are you?"
The simple words caused a mass reaction. Confusion, amazement and suspicion flashed over each pet's face. But the Darigan Aisha's face darkened with a shocking venom, and she drew a silver knife from her belt and lept toward Maharet. In a vicious whisper only Maharet heard, she hissed, "I am Vale, the last Neopet you will ever see..."
Date: Nov 29th
...The movements were too quick to follow as the three agents rushed into action. There was a swirl of Altadorian's grey cloak, a blur of blue, a flutter of dark wings. Within moments the scene stilled; somehow, Vale was being held tightly on the ground by Kiyer, who held a dagger against her neck. The Aisha’s paw still gripped her knife, the short blade of which was sunk into the real Maharet's cloak, scratching her leg along the way. Maharet was kneeling on the ground and, despite the wound, had kept her head. She had whipped out a dagger of her own, which was pointed at Kiyer, covering his every move.
The other prisoners were frozen in various stages of action, all trying to help but not knowing how. The silence was disturbed only by heavy breathing. When Maharet finally broke the stillness, her voice was hard. "Take your dagger out of my cloak." Her blade never wavered away from Kiyer's chest.
Vale snarled but obeyed, convinced by the cold, sharp metal at her neck. Maharet hissed in pain and picked up the knife with her other hand.
"If I may ask," Kiyer said as politely as he could manage, "Why are you pointing your dagger at me?"
"Because," Maharet said, her voice only barely catching from the pain in her leg, "I am very good at my job." Despite her words, she set the blade down. "Make sure she doesn't do anything." Obediently, Kiyer kept a hard grip on Vale while the shadow Aisha ripped a scrap of cloth off of her cloak to bind her wound.
"If no one minds me askin'," Bitterneck broke in, "what in the name of me ship just happened?"
"Explanations and proper introductions are in order," Kiyer said aloud, glaring down at the sullen Aisha. "But this is not the place for them."
"I know a place for them," volunteered Jeb. "The guard's room is just down this hall."
Kiyer held Vale in front of him, knife at the ready as Jeb led the way. He expected some of the Aisha's sharp tongue, but she kept dejectedly silent. Perhaps she finally recognized defeat, the Zafara thought.
Bej helped the agent of Altador into a seat in the guard's room. Vale was chained with a wrist cuff to a bar of the window in the corner of the room, the keys entrusted to Jeb the guard. The water and bread kept in the room was shared enthusiastically as Kiyer and the true Maharet shared their sides of the story.
"So the prince just never showed up?" Kiyer asked Maharet.
"No; when I spoke to the Advisor he said that the prince was 'indisposed,' unwell. I was not convinced."
"Who would be?" snorted Bitterneck, swallowing a scrap of bread. "That Emperor needs a new advisor."
"It's politics, Bitterneck," Kiyer said wearily. Oh, how he hated Politics. "It doesn't matter that she knew he was lying, just as long as she didn't know why."
"So Vale intercepted our messages, arranged an earlier meeting, and took the prince away," Maharet said grimly. "The question is, why did she come back? How did she get arrested?"
"She came back to poison the king," Bej said suddenly.
"Why?" asked Maharet. "Altador was already framed well enough."
"And where is the prince now?" Kiyer looked over at Vale.
She was gone. The wrist cuff hung open, a small bit of metal sticking out of the key hole. Bitterneck pulled it out to examine it, then howled in fury and threw it out the window.
"What was it?" Nessa asked.
Bitterneck glared balefully at them all. "A hair pin..."
Date: Nov 30th
* * * * *
...Maharet had been gone too long, Shiran fretted. Something must have gone wrong, the Darigan Aisha had been gone hours longer than she said she would. She was supposed to have gotten back before nightfall the night before; she’d only left to arrange a ship for them to sail out on. Now it was nearly noon the next day.
The blue Gnorbu was torn; should he go out and look for her? To go outside of this little safe house she had shown him risked capture by his father’s guards. Being dragged back to the castle and scolded for tarnishing the family honor was not an attractive idea. But what if she was in trouble?
Shiran snorted, what was the worst they could do to him, really? Un-crown him crown prince? That was frankly a rather attractive idea to the Gnorbu. Give the title to one of his many younger siblings for all he cared -- the castle life had been slowly smothering him. Maybe that Zafara. Father seemed to like him the best out of the lot; as did Advisor Sholen, who positively adored the somber faced spy, even though the Zafara probably had no clue.
With a decisive snort, Shiran made up his mind and flung open the door, striding boldly down the ally.
* * * * *
Vale hurried down through the sewer system, following gravity’s flow to where the pipes emptied into the ocean. These pipes had been her first road into the castle, where she had slipped the sickly sweet powder into the Emperor's dessert. She had no clue how the Emperor had survived, she’d put in enough to take down a whole herd of Elephantes.
And now Maharet and Kiyer were chatting it up and getting along wonderfully. Vale snarled, kicking an innocent lump of floating wood savagely. Altador and Shenkuu were supposed to be at war by now; her timetable was slipping away from her and the Mistress would not be pleased.
Kiyer must have been the plant from the start, dumped in the dungeon with her to pick her brains, with that handful of pirate scum to allay her suspicions. She wasn’t sure how much of it those two Chias were in on it, but she was willing to bet a fair amount of what coin she had on her that they’d be back as the Emperor’s bodyguards before the end of the week. Twice more the fool!
At least it shouldn’t be a total loss; she still had Shiran in her clutches after all. She could get back in time before they could muster a search though the city. She and he would be long gone before they found the Gnorbu prince -- though not to Altador like he thought they were going. Half a victory was better than no victory at all. She was just glad that she’d told Shiran to just stay where he was if she was late getting back.
The Darigan Aisha frowned. She had told him that, hadn’t she?
* * * * *
Advisor Sholen contemplated the turn of events as he sipped his tea. The Emperor appeared to be lost in thought, distractedly watching the steam rise from his own, untouched cup of tea. This was a puzzle, he admitted to himself. Two Aishas, both claming to be one. There was, of course, an easy solution -- write to Altador and simply ask if his spy Maharet was painted Darigan or shadow.
But there were other questions to answer first, and waiting for a reply from Altador could take too long. The prince disappears, then hours later the Emperor and his bodyguards were poisoned. It was only through providence alone that Kiyer had recognized the symptoms and known the antidote. The young unknown princeling saving the life of his unknown father; well, only the boy was innocent of that knowledge. A boy who was completely loyal to the Emperor, devoted in fact. There were times when the Shoyru thought that the Zafara would make a far better prince than the Emperor’s two acknowledged heirs. He’d never quite found the courage to mention that observation to the Emperor though.
Sholen frowned. It was inconceivable that Shiran knew of his father’s poisoning. Even more unbelievable was the idea that he had anything to do with it. It did look very suspicious though, that he disappeared right before his father’s brush with death.
Which brought him back to the problem of Maharet.
“You are very quiet,” the Emperor said, cocking his head inquiringly at the Shoyru.
“I feel as if there is a piece of this puzzle that is missing,” Sholen admitted, “and if I only knew--”
A pounding knock on the door interrupted his train of thought. At the Empeor’s nod, the door opened to reveal a somewhat harried looking, wheezing guard. He’d obviously run to get here.
“Your Eminence,” a castle guard dropped to the ground, panting as he bowed. “They’re gone. All of them. The prisoners, the lady Maharet, and the Zafara. The jail guard was collapsed on the ground, strongly smelling of slumberberry, and we found the Zafara’s two guards unconscious on the ground in a hallway.” Presenting a scrap of parchment, he continued, “This was shoved into the pocket of one of the Zafara’s guards.”
Reaching forward, the Emperor took the parchment and unfolded it. The monarch paled as he read the hastily scribbled symbol sketched on it. Curling his fist around the parchment he ordered, “Find Kiyer!”
What has been said cannot be unsaid...
Sholen blinked, somewhat surprised. The Emperor’s order hadn’t been, ‘Find the Aisha’, or even, ‘Find them’, but ‘Find Kiyer.’ Suddenly Kiyer’s safety had managed to take precedence over even the very stability of the kingdom to the Emperor. With that sudden knowledge, Sholen realized that he now had the missing piece to his puzzle.
* * * * *
“You should take care of that,” Kiyer advised the shadow Aisha, gesturing at her cut leg.
“Sure,” he agreed easily, “and you’ll continue to be just fine right until you pass out at the worst possible moment.”
The Aisha glowered at the blue Zafara. He was right, of course. Now that she was in a room with a real first aid kit, she should clean it and tie it up proper instead of the scrap of cloth she had it covered with at the moment. But that would mean admitting he was right, and something about him bugged her.
“We need to find Vale,” she countered, “and Shiran. She’ll be after him; before he finds out she’s a fake.”
“Th’ docks,” the Eyrie rumbled. “Fastest way out o’ here.”
Maharet looked at Kiyer, “What’s the fastest way from here to the docks?”
* * * * *
Arriving at the safe house where she’d left Shiran, Vale explored the other limits of her vocabulary, even throwing in words she’d made up on the spot. He was gone. The big oaf of a blue Gnorbu was gone, probably wandering the streets in a vain effort to find her -- or even worse, on his way back to the castle to send a nasty letter to Altador, and would probably fall right into the real Maharet’s lap.
Wanting to scream in frustration, Vale dropped down into a chair and covered her eyes. Why her? It had all gone so well at first...
Pausing, the Aisha shook her head. There was always plan two after all, and with nothing left to salvage from plan one it was now a viable option. Reaching into a wooden chest she’d stashed under one of the beds weeks before, she pulled out a small, palm sized metal box with small knobs covering it. Remembering the carefully explained instructions, she twisted a couple of the colorful knobs, and flipped a switch. A soft beep told her that she’d been successful. Her eyes glowed as she thought of the chaos that would be starting at this moment in the castle. War was still possible.
* * * * *
In the castle storage room, thousands of brightly colored metal toys turned on simultaneously. The signal had been sent, and the toys' basic programming began to operate for the first time. Innocent white plastic eyes with smiling brown pupils now glowed all malevolent red. Clockwork heads turned as one when a Neopet walked innocently into the storage room.
A blue Kau figure was the first to fire, and then the room exploded as the toys began firing on every target they could acquire. Finding a door, the toys marched out working their way though the castle. One program ruled all: destroy the enemy...
Date: Nov 30th
...The stunning force of the toys' minute weapons rocked Shenkuu palace to its very foundation, the shockwave traveling up and down the structure and sending dust streaming from the rafters in ribbons. A floor above, Advisor Sholen's teacup toppled over, sending a river of burning liquid across the white tablecloth like doomsday lava. But the Shoyru was too busy clinging to the heavy table to pay attention.
"Your majesty!" he cried frantically. "What's going on!?"
The Emperor suddenly looked carved out of stone, both in posture and expression. His eyes were hollow his mouth slack in an attitude of defeat. His lips moved slightly, and Sholen barely caught the words.
"I should have expected this." His grip on the slip of parchment loosened, and it fluttered to the floor. The Shoyru's fears were confirmed by what he saw scribbled upon it. A seal that he hadn't seen in years, and had hoped never to see again.
"It's her, Sholen. We've been fooled; those toys came from her. She did all of this," rasped the Emperor. "And I didn't see..." Another explosion almost knocked the Emperor off his feet and Sholen jumped up.
"Your majesty, we need to get out of here. Fill me in on the way."
Taking his Emperor by the arm, Sholen darted from the room to the sounds of shattering china and shattered mysteries.
The Emperor hissed in a broken voice, "I never dreamed my sister would be capable of such atrocity."
* * * * *
Across the palace from the ravaged tea room, Maharet, Kiyer and the pirates were thrown to the floor with the resounding shockwaves.
"What's happening?!" shrilled Nessa, her eyes spinning around the corridor in panic.
"I don't know!" yelled Maharet over the sounds of crumbling stone. "But we need to get out!"
"C'mon, stir yerselves! Docks're this way!" called Bitterneck from the lead position.
"No!" yelled Kiyer suddenly, and the group turned in surprise to find the Zafara frozen in a determined attitude, facing back the way they had come.
"What, are ye mad, laddie?" snarled the Eyrie. "This whole place is shakin' like a swabbie in a typhoon!"
"It's quicker to get out the front doors!" said Kiyer, taking off at a run. And then, quietly to himself so that none of the others heard, "And I need to find the Emperor."
The others looked bewildered, and it was a mark of the crazed situation they were in that they followed him.
* * * * *
Vale hurried along through the streets, dodging panicked citizens. The toys had activated right on cue, and the Aisha grinned, glad her Mistress had provided that fail-safe. But the thin smile vanished as she thought of the other problem, namely, Prince Shiran. She had to get to him before Maharet or anyone else did. Shiran was key to the Mistress's plan. And if the Gnorbu was headed anywhere, Vale's instincts told her it would be Shenkuu Palace.
A thin column of smoke rose on the horizon, and Vale knew it was a sign of the destructive prowess of her Mistress's planted weapons.
But so focused was the Aisha on her target that she failed to notice a small, blue light blink into life on the back of her belt.
* * * * *
Sholen dragged the Emperor through the palace corridors, dodging bits of plaster falling from the ceiling. The explosions continued at sporadic intervals, but none as strong as that first one. And as the two royals ran, now reduced to mere fleeing prey, the Emperor grimly related the truth of their situation to Sholen.
"Darsha and I never agreed on anything. But you remember what she was like. Always bitter since the day I was chosen for Emperor rather than her. But she managed to keep up the pretense of loyal court officer for some time."
The Shoyru shivered, remembering the Darigan Kougra's cold presence all those years ago. The Emperor continued, stepping around a scorched place on the red carpet.
"But with the birth of my children, our disagreements increased. They never knew her, but she watched them closely. Darsha favored our policy of isolation, and therefore wanted Shiran to be the next heir. She strongly dissented my decision to reveal Shenkuu to the rest of Neopia. But when Kiyer came... I knew he would be the next Emperor. Darsha was enraged and demanded that I change my mind. When I refused, she swore that she would get rid of Kiyer, and was exiled from Shenkuu as a traitor. But I still feared for Kiyer's safety, and so raised him as a spy, never telling him of his true royal identity."
The Emperor sighed heavily. The reemergence of so much bad blood from the past had taken a severe toll on him. Sholen could not think of anything to say to comfort him, but was elated to see the front doors in view. Throwing them open, he ushered the Emperor down the steps and onto the street. He looked around for their next avenue of escape, and his jaw dropped as a too-familiar Darigan Aisha came pelting into view. She caught sight of them and stopped dead. A cold sneer crossed her face.
"Well, well, the Emperor and his Advisor. I am honored. You two are certainly looking troubled. Perhaps I could be of help..." She slowly slid a gleaming knife from her belt. "Perhaps poison does not work on you, majesty, but I will see to it that this will."
"Maharet!" The Aisha jumped in shock at being once again addressed by her stolen name and spun around to see Prince Shiran cantering into view. He opened his mouth to make further comment, but was forestalled by yet another familiar voice.
"Vale!" Vale turned again, wide-eyed. Kiyer, the true Maharet and the band of scruffy pirates came tearing out of the castle doors behind the Emperor and Sholen. She trembled with indecision, trying to determine who posed the greatest threat, who the greatest gain...
But she never had to make the call, for one more voice joined the frenetic chorus. A cold, calculating tone recognized with dread by the Emperor, Sholen, and Vale.
"Well, isn't this a merry little party. I hope you are enjoying my... fireworks."
A shadow fell over Vale, and a Darigan Kougra fluttered down beside her, plucking a blinking homing device from the Aisha's belt as she did so. Darsha's slitted eyes roved over the assembled Neopets and lighted like poisonous butterflies on the Emperor. A sharp smile slit her face like a dagger.
"It's lovely to see you again, Rexen, dear. I told you I would come back again to visit sometime..."
Date: Dec 1st
...The Queen's dark eyes matched the steely glow of her smile as she glanced to Vale. "You have done well, despite your mishaps, Aisha. But you will have no need of that paltry sliver of steel; my weapon will be quite sufficient, I am sure."
Vale, wide-eyed with surprise, hastily backed away. "Of course, Mistress."
Living up to the rank of his nobility, the Emperor did not cry out, or attempt escape, or fall to his knees to beg to his sister, despite his obvious defeat. "You are not welcome in my palace, sister," he said calmly. "Or have you forgotten the meaning of exile?"
"Rexen, Rexen," sneered the Kougra, "always so rule-bound. Too bad your doggedness to rules did not take the form of exceeding judgement and common sense. Don't you know what exposing Shenkuu will do? All of our histry, our traditions, will be lost in the greater world! You, so set on new technology, fail to see this -- as does, I am sure, your blindy loyal, hand-raised son."
"Leave my son out of his," ordered the Emperor quietly.
What has been said cannot be unsaid.
"But I--" Shiran began, his blue Gnorbu features twisted in confusion.
The exiled Kougra positively beamed in delight. "Ah, so you haven't told him, then? The lucky little princeling truly chosen to succeed his father. It wasn't you, I'm afraid, Shiran. Oh, no." Lit with hatred, her eyes shifted to Kiyer.
The group who had been standing, motionless, behind the Zafara all turned toward him in surprise. Kiyer looked from one of them to the other, then bewilderedly toward his father. "But I..."
"She is right, Kiyer," said the Emperor softly. His face looked as if had aged a century. "You are my son, the one I have chosen."
Kiyer could only stare. "You... are my father? I... Why did I not know?" he stuttered.
"I kept it a secret to keep you safe," the Emperor said.
"Well, it has done well so far," said the Kougra delightedly, pulling out her blue-blinking device, "but I am afraid days of safety are over for you both. But first, my brother, I would like to extend my warmest goodbye -- with the heat of fire." Breaking into laughter, she pressed the button -- and the scene broke into motion.
A guided beam shot from the homing device, aiming toward the Emperor's heart. Jeb and Bej noticed the danger, knocking the pirates and Maharet sprawling in their effort to get to him in time, and Vale sprung from her Mistress' side, knife flashing toward Kiyer.
The room erupted into a swirl of screams, of lights, of smokes, of wails. And then all was silent.
Maharet coughed, but her hands were engaged in a stranglehold on Vale, and she could not wave the smoke from her face. Vale herself was seething with rage, arms pinned immobile above her head.
Kiyer had rolled clear across the ground, and was kneeling in a half-crouch, his paws held in a tight fist before his body.
The pirates were a mass of tangled limbs of curses. Bitterneck managed to free himself, rising with a string of words that would make a Slog grow hair, when he stopped short at the sight of the guard's stricken faces.
Bej and Jeb were kneeling by a crumpled form, and the Emperor was on his knees as well. For a split second everyone froze, thinking that their leader had taken a mortal wound, but it became clear that he was looking not at his own injuries, but at the pale form on the floor.
It was Shiran. Hardly breathing, the Gnorbu's eyes had an odd, glazed quality to them.
"My son," breathed the Emperor in a thick voice full of tears.
Weakly, Shiram put an arm up to his father's. "I was the only one who could reach you in time," he explained slowly. "Whether crown prince or not, it was my duty to save you."
"NO!" screamed the Kougra, stepping toward the fallen prince. "This wasn't how it was supposed to be! Shiran--"
"Shall not be touched by you," said a voice. The others looked up, and Kiyer had planted himself firmly before the Kougra, his arms raised before him.
The exiled Queen fumbled through her cloaks, and looked up at the Zafara in alarm.
"Searching for this?" he asked softly, opening his paws. He held the homing device.
"That's impossible!" she hissed. "How did you--"
"One learns much being raised as a spy," said Kiyer. His tone was deadly-soft, and his eyes danced with rage. "And I have more judgement than you give my line credit for. Don't you see that, by bringing in this technology, you have violated your own ideals? If you hoped to show us a lesson, it is only that we have been doing right with our advancements, else our 'traditional' soliders would be crushed under the soonest attack, with no viable defense." His eyes slitted. "As crown prince, I charge you with treason, with unlawful return from exile, with twice-attempted assassination of our royal Emperor, and with the assault on Prince Shiran." Grimly, his paw clicked the blinking blue light. "Thus, you are senteced."
A zigzag of beams shot from the device, whirling in a swirling whip of color toward the Queen. Panicked, she took to the air, but the beams broke direction, following her flight. In the air they met, and all watching soon saw no trace of her.
All except Vale.
"What shall we do with her?" asked Maharet. The Altadorian agent looked disgusted at being forced to be at such close vicinity to the spy, but held her tight regardless.
"I'll take her," volunteered Bitterneck suddenly. "We pirates are a bunch o' scallywags the way it is, and she'll spend her days in the dampest brig of a rocking ship, eatin' meals o' gruel, 'cept when she comes out to wash the deck down bow and stern." Solemnly, he added: "Ain't much of a way to escape from a ship, 'neither. We'll make sure she has her due." The utter sincerety of his threat gave even Kiyer the chills.
The Zafara, having taken care of the immediate threat, then ran to see Shiran. His days as a spy had taught him much of first aid, should he be injured on a mission, and though the prince had taken a nasty wound to the shoulder, it had been a superficial blast. Just enough to deflect the beam, but it would not cost him his life.
"Shiran," the new crown prince said, "I will never forget your bravery. Though you are no longer destined for the crown, I would be honored to appoint you first General of Shenkuu when it is my time to rule -- and after you heal, of course."
Though his face was bloodless, the Gnorbu's smile brightened it. "I have always preferred battles to ruling," he rasped weakly. "No appointment could have made me happier. And perhaps you are right, and embracing advancement will protect our land better than stubborn tradition." He glanced at his shoulder, at the wound made by a weapon more precise than any arrow. "I see that now."
Kiyer nodded. "Good, for you are the first I'd trust to find the balance between ancient ways and new. Bej, Jeb, lift him and see him to the palace's best rooms of healing. See that a doctor is summoned at once, and that he is attended at all times until the worst of his recovery has passed." The two hulking Chias obeyed without hesitancy, marching away with the prince.
Reaching down, Kiyer offered a paw to help his father up.
As the Emperor of Shenkuu rose, his face broke into a smile of true relief. "I believe," he said softly, so only Kiyer could hear, "that I have chosen my successor well."
Date: Dec 1st
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