A Forgotten Memory
The hot sun beat down on the sweltering sands of the Lost Desert, causing shimmering mirages to dance above the golden dunes. There wasn't a single cloud in the radiant blue sky.
The streets of Sakhmet were mostly deserted, as the citizens were seeking shelter from the unforgiving heat. Merchants were halfheartedly peddling their wilted fruits and vegetables, hiding in the shade of their canvas-roofed booths. The pickpockets and vagabonds of the city huddled underneath stolen tarps, clothes, anything they could get their paws on, to ward off the unforgiving sun's strength.
Inside the looming palace of Sakhmet, beneath the shimmering turrets, servants wearing sheer silk garments and veils scurried about, preparing chilled fruit juices and palm leaf fans to appease their royal lieges. Atop the ornate throne, adorned in glittering bangles and the traditional headdress of turquoise and gold, reclined a noble Lupe. His long fur was grizzled silver and white, and his sharp pale eyes revealed a clever intelligence that was so often lacking in rulers.
He was the benevolent King Coltzan III, surveyor of the noble oasis city of Sakhmet.
The king smiled fondly at his two daughters, who were fidgeting impatiently at his feet. His Royal Advisor had been trying to teach the girls history, as was befitting for a noble to know - but they didn't appear to have much interest. They were nearly adults now, Coltzan thought with a rueful shake of his grizzled head. Soon they would be taking over from him, and ruling the kingdom together. He had no son, but his will stated that his eldest residing daughter should replace him. He hadn't specified a name, so that the two could work it out for themselves when the time came. That day should still be a ways off, though - Coltzan had no plans for an early retirement, and he was still in his prime.
The Ruki advisor pursed his lips at the impatient princesses, tapping a foot in irritation. "Answer me this, Princess Amira. What year was the city of Sakhmet founded? Anyone with a drop of royal blood should be ashamed of themselves if they don't know this date by heart!"
Amira eyed the Ruki with a calculated stare, her cool brown eyes razor-sharp. She was the elder sister, a slim Aisha with shoulder-length chestnut hair that glimmered like fire in the desert sunlight. She was a high-spirited girl, haughty at times, and more stubborn and headstrong than the Advisor would like. Coltzan always indulged her will, allowing her whatever fancies she desired, and now she was every inch the High Princess, in command of every aspect of her life.
"Sakhmet was founded in 873 BN, by my great-grandfather Coltzan the First," Amira finally said, not breaking her stare. "I know all of this, Advisor." The Ruki became unnerved and quickly turned his attention to the younger daughter, Vyssa.
"Princess Vyssa, can you name all of the Desert petpets allowed on palace grounds?"
Vyssa bit her lip nervously. The younger Usul liked palace life, and was perfectly content with the simplicity of signing decrees and strategizing crop placement. But she idolized her elder sister, and therein lay the problem.
Her sister was beautiful. Vyssa was short, chubby, round-faced; her wide blue eyes gave her a childish appearance, even though she was just two years younger than Amira. And her sister hated to be confined, whereas Vyssa felt much safer on palace grounds. Amira frequently snuck out for adventures, and Vyssa always reluctantly tagged along, hoping to gain some kind of respect in her older sister's eyes.
Quietly, the studious Usul began to recite the list. She knew it by heart, but - would her sister approve of her knowing such obscurities? "Geb, Wadjet, Khamette, Khonsu, ...Kepru?" she finished, deliberately saying the wrong species. Amira turned her cool gaze onto her shy younger sister, snorting derisively. "It's 'Anubis', you dolt. How could you forget Anubis? They're my favourite, any way."
Vyssa flinched, crestfallen. She had forgotten that her sister wanted to have an Anubis for as long as she could remember. "Sorry," she whispered. She'd messed up again.
Coltzan sighed, leaning down to ruffle his daughter's long Usul ears. Poor Vyssa was always overshadowed by Amira's accomplishments. Everyone pampered Amira, believing her to be the next ruler. Amira was bold and beautiful, and even at her young age, had many suitors. Vyssa, on the other hand, was so caught up in trying to be like Amira, that she never acted as herself. Tired of both failure and of being ignored, the Usul had withdrawn, becoming introverted and sullen. Coltzan had always wanted the best for his daughters, and he knew what would be best for Vyssa - some time apart from Amira, so that she could become her own Neopet again.
"All right, girls," the Lupe rumbled deep in his chest. "You are free to go. Spend the rest of the day as you wish. I have things to discuss."
As the princesses sprang to their paws and scampered away, the Ruki spluttered in indignation. "My Lord! What are you thinking?! They'll never learn anything at this rate - why, forgive me for speaking so frankly, but you coddle them far too much! When it comes time for them to take the throne of Sakhmet, they will be spoiled little girls, not dignified queens worthy of their bloodline!"
Realizing he may have overstepped his bounds, the Ruki began to bow in apology, but Coltzan waved his paw in dismissal.
"You may be right, friend," the king sighed. "But I can't help but indulge them - they are my only kin, my sweet little daughters. How can I not spoil them?"
"My Lord... They are not so little anymore," the Ruki said scathingly. "They have to learn responsibility, and above all, some manners!"
Coltzan sighed again, massaging his perspiring brow with one wide paw. The Ruki signaled for one of the servants to fan the king, but Coltzan waved them away. "You see, you may criticize my actions, but here you are, spoiling me," the king said with a lopsided smile. "I believe I have a proposition to make. Little Vyssa is well versed in our history and palace rules, yes?"
The Ruki nodded brusquely. "Yes, if she'd only use that knowledge occasionally. She lets Amira lead her anywhere, to the point that she deliberately ignores customs she's mastered already -"
Coltzan softly interrupted his advisor's tirade. "I am well aware of my heiress's shortcomings, friend. You needn't rub my nose in them every chance you get. This is my proposition - you will take Vyssa and a select group of handmaids, and lead them to the borders of Sakhmet. From there you will pay for a local guide, and cross the sands to the country of Khamtef. Princess Vyssa will serve as an ambassador in Princess Sankara's court. There she will be surrounded by nobility she is unfamiliar with, and will feel no need to conceal her abilities, since her elder sister will not be there to offer criticism. Does this sound like a fair proposition?"
The advisor bowed deeply in acquiescence, saying nothing. He did not look forward to the long journey with the coddled Usul - but at least he knew she would obey him, unlike Amira...
Coltzan smiled, pale eyes pleased. "Good, then it's settled! I leave my daughter's care in your capable hands, friend. I will begin making arrangements forthwith. This... This will be best for everyone, I believe."
The noble Lupe studied his silver paws, watching the golden reflections from his adornments glisten on his fur.
Once he'd been a great warrior, and these paws had gripped many a hilt, defending his subjects... Now it was a time of peace, and these paws spent their time grasping quills and inkwells, to sign writ after writ. His beloved daughters... They meant the world to him, but it was time he let them grow up. They were nearly adults now, ready to take over from him - and yet they still acted so petty, and spoiled, and... childish. He was a warrior, not a father. But now he needed to rectify the transgressions he'd made against them.
He would mold both of his daughters into the beautiful ladies they should be - just like their mother was.
After the servants had cleared the banquet hall of their evening meal, King Coltzan III sat up proudly in his throne. He gazed proudly - with a touch of wistful sadness - at Vyssa and Amira, who were fidgeting again. Amira wanted to go for a nighttime ride on one of the palace Unis, so naturally Vyssa wanted to follow suit. But just as the headstrong Aisha opened her mouth to protest the wait, Coltzan raised his paw to silence her.
"My dears... It seems I haven't been the most thoughtful of fathers. Throughout your lives, I've showered you with praise and attention, but left all the discipline to your teachers and servants. You both have become dependent on my kindness and easily swayed nature, and as a result, neither of you are as mature as I would have liked."
The king toyed with his chalice, watching his reflection in the swirling juice within. This was hard to say... It was always easier to boast about great deeds, bragging about one's good qualities, than it was to admit to mistakes and shortcomings.
Amira gazed coolly at Coltzan, razor-sharp brown eyes matching her father's intelligence. There was a subtle hint of defiance in the way her lower lip pouted, the way she had her shoulders squared. Clearly she was ready to argue the point he was making.
Vyssa watched the Lupe king, blue eyes wide in her round face. Her fluffy Usul tail curled uncomfortably. She didn't understand where he was going with that train of thought, but it wasn't pleasant. She liked how things were now, and didn't want them to change.
Coltzan's eyes hardened, and his voice rumbled out across the hall.
"As of now... Neither of you are fit to rule my Sakhmet."
"What?!" Both princesses squealed in indignation, rising from their seats. Amira's eyes blazed as she erupted into a temper tantrum, stamping her feet on the tiles, and clenching her paws into white-knuckled fists. Vyssa's round face crumpled as she burst into tears. Even her own father didn't believe she was good enough...
Coltzan stared coldly at his daughters, gaging their reactions. It was true. Neither of the girls were fit to rule, to shoulder responsibility, to sacrifice themselves for the good of their people. What he saw before him were two spoiled little brats.
And it was his fault.
"I have taken full responsibility for the corrections that must take place. Soon you will both be worthy of the title 'nobility'. Vyssa!" he barked suddenly. The shy Usul sat bolt upright, startled by his fierce demeanor.
"Vyssa, you are to become an ambassador for our court. You will be travelling with my Advisor and several attendants to the neighboring court of Khamtef. There you will learn what it means to be a princess and a ruler. Have you any objections?"
She squirmed uncomfortably, nervous. Why was she the one to travel? Of course she objected! She hated being on her own, being in unfamiliar places, being anywhere outside the palace grounds...
Silently, she bowed her head. She was unable to voice her unhappiness, as always. Her studies had taught her that Khamtef was a similarly structured court as Sakhmet, and their Princess Sankara was close in age to her... Perhaps she would get lucky, and it wouldn't be a total waste of time...
Coltzan nodded, satisfied that Vyssa hadn't tried to talk her way out of it. It would be good for the Usul to learn from new Neopets, rather than the same ones she'd grown up with. Then he noticed Amira's royal pout. Already, the Aisha was glowering at her sister. Obviously she wanted to travel, and obviously Vyssa didn't. But Coltzan was not giving in this time.
"Amira," he began. This was even harder to say, but... it had to be done.
"Amira, you are far too stubborn to be a ruler by yourself. Your inflexibility will only cause unrest, when you refuse a subject's demands to meet your own pleasure. Your sister does not have the courage to tell you 'no', nor would you listen if she did. You need someone to balance out your headstrong nature with a cool compassion, someone who could douse your fiery mood swings. Therefore... I am seeking you a marriage proposal."
If Coltzan thought Amira had been angry before, he was in for a surprise.
"M-marriage?!" the Aisha spluttered, pretty face darkening with rage. "You w-want me to get m-married?!!"
She slammed her delicate paws onto the table, scattering the ornate vases so that they shattered onto the tile floor.
"How dare you, Father!" she screeched, stamping her feet in the shards of pottery. "How dare you even suggest that! I will never get married! Never!!"
She cast one last furious glare at her stoic father and terrified sister, and fled the room in tears.
Vyssa watched her go with wide eyes, trembling in her chair. Wordlessly, she slipped to the floor, pattering after Amira. Coltzan gazed sadly at the crushed pottery, shaking his head.
"And so it begins," he murmured, before signaling a servant to clean the mess.
That next week was a flurry of activity. The Ruki Advisor was busily giving Vyssa last-minute instructions on court behavior, as their group of attendants worked to pack her bags. Coltzan had issued messengers to notify the kingdom of Khamtef about his daughter's imminent arrival - as well as several secret messages to other kingdoms, including the nearby Qasala, about Amira's status. Amira was in a permanent state of sulk, shooting her most poisonous glares at everyone she could, and just making palace life in general a miserable affair. She had personally sabotaged several guest's dinners, believing them to be possible suitors - and thrice already had deliberately misplaced Vyssa's luggage, so that the servants had to start over packing again. Vyssa hadn't dared to speak to her elder sister since Coltzan's announcement, as she feared inciting Amira's high wrath.
Finally, on the evening before departure, Vyssa noticed a curious party had arrived. They were all wearing cloaks, and even when Senator Barca greeted them at the door with the deep bow reserved for royal guests, they did not remove their concealing garments until they were fully indoors, and out of the moonlight.
The quiet Usul watched from her hiding place behind a large potted plant as the outsiders headed for the dining hall. They were all adults, except for one little Kyrii boy. He looked to be several years younger than herself, with dark worried eyes that wandered about the palace. His head was shaved bald, except for the pharaoh's forelock - the small black ponytail that hung to one side of his pointed face.
"He's a prince," Vyssa murmured in surprise. Even though the Kyrii was younger than her and Amira, he seemed very thoughtful and well-behaved, silently obeying the orders of the adults around him. Vyssa felt a strange fluttering feeling in her chest - a combination of jealousy and fear. Something wasn't right about the desert noble.
She soon forgot her misgivings as she watched her father greet them heartily, clapping his massive paws onto the tallest Neopet's back, leading the group into a secluded room. "If Father likes them, I should too," she chided herself. Despite her determination to see what happened next, Vyssa found herself nodding off to sleep.
She was deep into slumber when the adults finally emerged into the moonlight, laughing and smiling. Only the little Kyrii was still stone-faced.
"See here, Jazan?" came the calm voice of a dark-furred Uni. "That scroll they're holding, do you know what it says?"
"No, Nightsteed," he whispered seriously.
The Uni smiled, helping the Qasalan prince onto his back. "It says, 'I hereby decree a royal wedding between my daughter, the first Princess of Sakhmet, and His Highness, the Prince of Qasala.' Isn't that wonderful? When you're all grown up, you'll have a beautiful queen by your side, and you'll rule two kingdoms instead of one! You have a bright future, my lord."
Little Jazan yawned sleepily, snuggling closer to his Uni mount. "As long as that makes Father happy," he mumbled, slipping off to sleep as they rode off into the night.
Vyssa awoke to Amira frantically shaking her by the shoulders. "Hush," she hissed, before Vyssa could even groggily protest her rude awakening. Someone had carried her back to her room during the night...
"Vyssa, please, you have to help me! You don't want to go to Khamtef, right? I hate it here, it's so boring - I have to get away or I'll go insane! Please, we've got to switch places!"
Her sharp brown eyes were staring deeply into her sister's soft blue gaze, until the younger Usul looked away.
"But..." Vyssa murmured unhappily. "Father would never go for it, and how could we convince Advisor -"
"Don't tell them, dummy!" the Aisha snapped haughtily. "Switching places means doing it in secret, not asking for permission! Look - I don't want to get married, okay? Who would want to spend their lives as some painted doll, pandering to the needs of some stuck-up king? You don't have to get married since you're younger, but Father will make me if I stay!"
The manipulative Amira watched as guilt crossed Vyssa's chubby face. Almost there...
"Please, sister," she whined, wringing her paws together anxiously. "If you really care about me... Just do this one thing for me. All you have to do is stay at home like you want to. As long as you don't show yourself to Father for a while, he won't realize until it's too late - once I reach the royal court, they can't switch us back without losing respect! Please..."
Vyssa's head bowed, pointed Usul ears drooping. She could never stand up for herself - and it was true, she did want to stay at home. She just knew Father would be disappointed in her again, which would be even more painful... But then Amira would be proud of her... right?
"All... all right, sister," Vyssa said meekly. "I'll... stay."
"Yes! Thank you!" Amira crowed, springing onto the bed. "I'll stay here and put a cloak on - you go in my room and do the same, okay? Thanks, sister!"
Vyssa smiled hesitantly as she crawled reluctantly from beneath her bed covers. Amira had thanked her... It was the first time her sister had been pleased by something she did. Without a word, the chubby Usul shuffled obediently to Amira's room, hiding herself beneath the luxurious pillows.
"This is kind of nice," she murmured to herself. "She's always so lavish with spending, but I guess it's worth it after all..."
She settled into a more comfortable position, wrinkling her nose impudently at the many golden statuettes and wall hangings. "I could get used to this!"
Vyssa didn't remember falling asleep, so when she finally awoke around noon, she was rather disoriented. She drew the silken bed covers more tightly around her plump form, yawning in contented bliss. She'd never felt this comfortable in her entire life. Her room had always been functional, rather than fashionable - but perhaps she'd been wrong all along...
"Excuse me, milady. Lunch is being served in the pavilion, should you wish to join your father. Vyssa has just crossed the border into Khamtef, according to the messenger petpets, so his Highness the royal King Coltzan III requests that you 'please stop your moping', High Princess Amira."
The servant bowed deeply and backed out of her room, not once looking at her bewildered face.
Amira? But she was Vyssa... They weren't exactly twins, you know...
"Oh!" the Usul exclaimed, clapping her paws to her mouth in realization. "I... I have to go out there... and tell them what we did..."
Her stomach reeled with momentary nausea, the anxiety she always felt before a conflict. But the feeling faded as she once again gazed over her new room. "This... isn't so bad," she murmured to reassure herself. "Servant!" she called experimentally, ringing the bell that rested on Amira's bedside table. She flinched directly after saying it. Certainly he would recognize her voice...!
But lo and behold, the servant reappeared, kneeling before her poster bed.
"My lady?" he inquired after a moment of silence.
"Could you... bring me some food? From the luncheon, I mean," Vyssa stammered. She was unused to giving commands. But her sister was always so cocky about it, and no one ever spoke back to her...
"Food, milady? What sorts of food do you desire?" the Neopet said with a sigh of resignment.
Encouraged, Vyssa perked up. "Erm - I'd like some Roast Ummagine and Sutek Beans, with a cool glass of Tchea juice, if you please... I mean, now...!"
Her bushy tail curled anxiously, but he simply bowed and exited, never once looking up.
"Wow... I'm actually in charge! I can tell people what to do, and how to do it...! Just like Amira!"
Vyssa giggled happily, blue eyes scrunched shut in simple-minded pleasure. Just then the door creaked open. The Usul looked up quickly.
"Back so soon? Did you get what I... asked... for..."
Her meek voice trailed off as she saw the servant, empty-handed, leading her father into the room.
Vyssa was thoroughly cowed after withstanding the longest lecture of her life. She'd never seen Coltzan this angry - nor had she heard the word 'responsibility' thrown about so many times in the same conversation. Apparently the Ruki advisor had decided not to go with Amira-posing-as-Vyssa, since he had expected such a stunt. The handmaids that travelled with Amira had indeed delivered her to Khamtef, so it was too late to retrieve her... But now he was assigned to monitor Vyssa's every step.
"Tonight is a very important dinner," the Ruki told her snootily. Vyssa sulked in her sister's room, fidgeting with the silk canopy and refusing sullenly to speak. She was the high princess now that Amira was out of her way - why should she be bossed around and treated like a child?
"Listen to me, Vyssa! Your venerable father must allow you to attend this summit, which includes the visiting Princess Sankara, and Senator Barca, as a matter of familial honor! However - after tonight, you are on official probation! You will not be allowed to leave your room unless duty calls - and you have double the workload in your scribe training. Am I making myself clear? These are your father's plans, not my own!" the Ruki snarled, crossing his arms before him.
Vyssa continued her stony silence, but began to listlessly don her ceremonial gear. She would appear at tonight's dinner... And it would be a night to remember.
Some may remember the tale... That fateful dinner, in which King Coltzan III was poisoned. He was assassinated right before his youngest daughter Vyssa. She was shocked, to be sure, but she quickly took control of all of his affairs, and became the acting queen of Sakhmet. Vyssa began to enjoy the life of power and luxury, and in an effort to make it last, the Usul forbade messengers to carry news of Coltzan's usurper to the kingdom of Khamtef - leaving her elder sister Amira to remain ignorant and out of her way. Vyssa remained in control of the city for some time, during which she apprehended her father's supposed murderer, and had a shrine constructed in his honor. She forgot all about Jazan... as did the rest of Sakhmet. Until Amira's return...