Shad and Saura: That Other City - Part Two
Art by ssjelitegirl
It was noon and the sun was now mercilessly burning the sandy plains of Qasalan territory and the banks of the great river. The barge had stopped to make an extended break – even though the river continued and eventually flowed into the sea, the merchants never went farther than the city of Qasala as there simply wasn’t anywhere to go – the landscape continued as uninhabited plains that only had a few desert Petpets here and there.
Shad and Saura, having waved goodbye to the friendly skipper, set off to the city that loomed in the distance just like Sakhmet had some hours ago. Qasala, however, seemed different. It was older and grimmer, completely unlike the inviting white walls and golden towers of Sakhmet.
“So where is that friend of Tsuki’s?” asked Shad.
“He didn’t know,” replied the Zafara, adjusting the belts of the leather bag that was thrown over his shoulder. “They haven’t been in touch since that friend moved away. But we have a name – Artus. He’s an Acara, painted Island. And that’s about all we have to work with.”
Shad’s ears moved quickly back and forth. “Well, those scholarly people and librarians are one big system, aren’t they? Kinda like the Thieves Guild or bank managers. Everyone knows everyone. Let’s go ask at their local bookstore, they might know.”
Saura nodded in agreement and they entered the city. It indeed wasn’t as pretty or exotic-looking as Sakhmet but still extremely impressive. The streets were dusty and crowded, most people seemed to be local and thus Qasala didn’t have that strange aura that always comes along when two cultures mix, the aura of old and new, strong contrasts that form one whole picture. Street merchants weren’t trying to foist cheap junk to wealthy tourists as it always happened in Sakhmet but haggled quietly with locals, following their old customs both sides knew very well. Wealthy tourists didn’t sail down the streets, making loud comments about dirty locals – apparently tourists really were rare in Qasala as the brothers drew many curious looks when they plunged into the crowd.
Saura’s eyes darted back and forth in the mass of Neopets, examining people as they elbowed along. There were pickpockets, ready to nab anything they could get their paws on and already eyeing his backpack, quickly looking away as the Zafara’s eyes met theirs; there were small gangs of skinny young Neopets who had just begun to find their place in life and whose laughter echoed over the everyday chatter on the streets from time to time; there were majestic housewives doing their daily grocery shopping, usually with a few kids and maids following them to carry all the goods; there were Neopets who looked ordinary enough at first sight but who didn’t need to elbow through the crowd as everyone gave them way as soon as they spotted them and whose proud, self-confident, yet friendly and benevolent eyes suggested that they were some higher-ranked, well-known and loved advisors or politicians at the city.
“So how are we going to find the scrollery?” asked Shad. “I know that they had some huge house near the palace to serve as a bookstore but I’ve never been to Qasala before.”
“Might as well go down there and ask someone,” guessed his brother. “All streets lead to the palace, y’know.”
The main city square of Qasala was practically empty. Street merchants kept off the area that had been reserved for kings and queens for centuries, pickpockets knew better than to mess with palace guards and locals didn’t come to the palace without a reason, and they rarely had that reason these days now that Qasala was well back on its way to former prosperity. Saura stopped a Ruki on his way: “Excuse me, which way is the bookstore?”
“Right over there,” answered the Ruki, pointing at a vast house that reminded them more of an additional wing to the Royal Palace than a bookstore. He remained standing and watching the two curiously as they went on. Tourists really seemed to be a rarity even around the palace, which was after all the most beautiful building in the whole city.
The two brothers stopped in front of the orange building and almost cracked their necks looking up the long staircase. The doorway was far away, yet so big that it was clearly visible. So were three words carved in stone above the dark door, reading “WORDS OF ANTIQUITY”.
“I wonder if those library people are smart enough to put some buckets of water up there by the other end of the staircase?” huffed Shad, climbing up what had to be the three hundredth step. “This is crazy!”
“But it has a good view.” His brother smiled. “Look.”
The Lupe stopped to squint eastward at the wide plains, the golden towers of Sakhmet and the bright white sun that shone above it all in the clear azure sky. Actually, now that he wasn’t climbing any more, he could feel the cool breeze that came from the plains – it didn’t reach the maze of narrow streets down in the city.
The door of the scrollery looked really expensive, mainly because it was made of wood, which was of short supply in the Lost Desert, so once the door was made for the house, the builder had done everything to make it look worth its price. It was carved, decorated with gold, and had two handles the size of Shad’s head. It wasn’t heavy to push, however, and the brothers sneaked in to find themselves in a vast hallway under majestic arches held up by marble pillars. It was cooler in here and a lot dimmer, compared to the bright daylight outside. A small fountain was gurgling merrily in the middle of the lobby and Shad, having let out a happy bark, dove in face-first.
“Shad, mind your manners!” yelled Saura, then sighed and rubbed his forehead. Most people found it hard to believe that the Lupe was, in fact, his older brother. No wonder too.
“Don’t worry, it happens often.” The Zafara turned around to face a yellow Nimmo in a purple cloak. “Most of the visitors aren’t that... eager, though.”
Saura grinned apologetically. “He just is like that.” It was only now that he noticed wooden shelves and a counter painted golden and red a few steps left to the main entrance. Apparently it was the bookstore, small and insignificant compared to the gigantic building. Shad got away from the fountain and came to the two, his jaws dripping and his tail wagging frantically; his inner power sources had been recharged.
“Heya,” he greeted the Nimmo. “We’re looking for an island Acara named Artus. Can you help us?”
The Nimmo frowned. “Artus, Artus, doesn’t ring a bell. Who exactly is he?” Having heard that the Acara in question had recently moved into Qasala, his face lit up. “Ooh, then my wife must know. She knows everything about newcomers... give me just a minute.” He hurried off and returned shortly with a chubby spotted Korbat by his side.
“It’s so nice to see tourists around here from time to time,” the Korbat greeted the brothers, her eyes gleaming happily. “How do you like our city so far?” She didn’t even listen as Shad and Saura quickly praised the city as she blabbed on: “It can get so boring in here, you know, new faces are always so lovely to see... yes, dear?”
“They’re looking for someone called Artus, an island Acara,” said the Nimmo. “Do you know anything about him?”
“Familiar name,” admitted his wife. “Let me think... oh yeah, an Acara with a similar name came to work in the library of the Royal Palace a few days ago, or so I heard from Fiora, such a sweet girl, too bad about that thing with her parents...” The Nimmo coughed impatiently. “Right, Artus, I think that was the name, yes. He became the assistant of the librarians as I recall. Would you like to meet him?”
“Yes, please,” said Saura, still trying to catch up with the pre-last sentence in his mind.
“I’ll take you to the palace,” stated the spotted Korbat. “The guards most likely won’t let you in if you go on your own. Not that they’d be very paranoid,” - they left the building as the two brothers waved goodbye to the Nimmo - “but you see, you’re still strangers and they can’t just let everyone in; that’d be bad for their reputation and you’ll never know about strangers anyway, not that I mean that you two are some crazy maniacs; you’re both really nice kids,” - they went down the long staircase - “but you see, my son works as a palace guard and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him,” - and crossed the city square - “you should meet him, really, actually you will soon; I think it’s his shift now if I’m not mistaken, ooh, there he is now!”
When the bookstore entrance had seemed majestic, the Royal Palace surpassed it by a long shot. Red and golden pillars stretched towards the sky, strong memories from a time long forgotten, and two guards leaned against them, chatting loudly as the distance between the pillars was too big for normal talking. As the guards spotted the three Neopets stepping closer, they stopped and raised their lances but lowered them quickly.
“Look, Harfu, it’s your mom,” said a young slender fire Scorchio. “Hello, ma’am.”
“If that isn’t young Deki!” exclaimed the Korbat. “My, you’ve grown so big since I last saw you!” The Scorchio stepped back with a sheepish grin as his friend Harfu took a step forward with an equally sheepish grin. He was a white Ixi, lank and tall, and the fact that he stood on his hind legs only added to the height. “Hi, mom,” he said.
“Harfu, my boy, it’s so good to see you guarding the palace like this, all brave and strong and proud!” squeaked his mother, jumping forward to hug the Ixi. Deki the Scorchio turned away to hide a wide grin. Shad and Saura exchanged amused glances.
“Listen, those two boys here,” stated the Korbat, letting her son go, “are looking for someone named Artus, an island Acara. He works in the palace’s library; you will let them in, right?”
Harfu scowled. “Mom, I can’t really let strangers wander around the palace all by themselves, even if I let them in.” He glanced at the two brothers. “Now if you two are willing to wait until my shift ends, I could show you around; otherwise we cannot let you pass.”
“That’s okay, we have time,” said Saura.
“Too bad I don’t. I promised to meet Mara this afternoon; she got those recipes I wanted,” said the Korbat. “Well, be a good boy then, and you too, Deki, and good luck to you two, toodles!” She fluttered off over the rooftops, leaving Harfu and Deki behind with semi-ashamed, semi-confused looks on their faces. Shad and Saura exchanged quick glances again and then sat down on the marble staircase.
“My mom is hopeless,” moaned the Ixi. “Listen, you two, I really wish you didn’t have to collide with this palace’s rules like that, but if I let you in on your own, you’d get lost very fast and I can’t leave my post before the shift is over.”
“Besides, Nightsteed would have our heads,” added Deki. “He’s been so paranoid lately. If it was up to him, we’d have to search every single person who enters the palace, including prince Jazan himself.”
“Why so?” asked Saura, looking back at the two.
The guards shrugged. “No idea,” said Harfu. “He’s been acting strangely these days. Goes out at sunset, comes back when the sun rises, glares at everyone, suspects everyone and nobody really has a clue what his suspicions are. He has no real power in the palace, otherwise he would’ve arranged something drastic ages ago, mark my words.”
“Who is he anyway?” asked Shad. “I mean, I know who he is, we heard about the story with Razul and everything but who is he in the palace?”
“Something like an advisor,” replied Deki the Scorchio. “He doesn’t have a direct rank so basically he’s a civilian but in reality he’s on the same level as Jazan himself. Complicated for lower-class guards like us but we need to accept it – though Jazan’s generally known as the most powerful mage in Qasala, Nightsteed’s in no way less skilled than him and getting on his wrong side would be a very bad idea.”
They fell quiet for a while. Saura slid down a few steps to lean his back against the stairs and nodded away in a trance-like sleepy state. Shad had backed to the shade of one gigantic pillar. The guards stood where they were, the sun mercilessly burning their fur and black-gold-red armor, though as the Lupe noticed, neither guard seemed to be too disturbed by the heat. No wonder – Deki was a fire Scorchio and Harfu’s white coat reflected most of the heat back. Time ticked by. The square in front of the palace seemed strangely empty, even though Qasala was rather tightly populated.
A bell tolled somewhere in the depths of the palace and the two guards came to attention at once. Shad looked out from behind the pillar and Saura turned around to see two new guards march out from the castle, stop right by Harfu and Deki, salute, reach out their lances, clash them together – in short, the new guards stopped by the pillars as the Ixi and Scorchio marched off into the palace. A moment later Harfu showed up again, this time without his lance. “Come on in, you two.”
As the two brothers plunged into the cool, dim depths of the vast hallway, the new guards leaned against the pillars and yawned widely, curiously squinting at them.
“Traditions?” Saura asked with a grin.
“Indeed,” replied the Ixi. “This time they actually proved to be useful... in most cases we have no audience whatsoever. A bit silly if you ask me but rules are rules.”
They turned left at some pillars that looked exactly like all the other pillars they had already passed. Harfu had been right – anyone who didn’t know the place would’ve gotten hopelessly lost in five minutes. A wide staircase took them to a hallway that faced the courtyard and was bordered with huge glassless windows. The long luxurious carpet seemed almost too expensive to step on and Harfu was indeed careful not to crumple it. He walked on his hind legs, thus towering a head above Saura who wasn’t short at all.
When they turned around the corner, they suddenly faced a blue Uni who had been coming down the other end of the hall. Unlike most blue Unis, he had a dark blue mane and black hooves, and his eyes were grim.
“Sir,” Harfu muttered hurriedly, stepping aside at once and bowing deeply. The Uni, who had stopped for a confused second, harrumphed quietly and hurried on, paying no further attention to the three and almost stepping on Shad’s paw. He would’ve done it too if the Lupe hadn’t jumped aside.
“Who the...!” Shad began in righteous fury but Harfu quickly hissed at him, perking his big Ixi ears up. The soft thudding of hooves disappeared down the hallway.
“That was him,” said the Ixi. “Nightsteed. He’s not unfriendly but he knows his place and expects others to know theirs. Like I said, he’s been strange these days. Worried, if you ask me.”
Shad and Saura stared at him, then peered back around the corner but the Uni had already disappeared. “That was Nightsteed?” demanded Shad. “But... come on, I’ve read about him, I’ve seen pictures of him. He’s a cursed creature with bandages and wrinkled skin and everything!”
“He’s also a shapeshifter,” said Harfu, guiding them down the hallway again. “He can take the shape you just saw in daytime. At night he turns into the creature you’ve read about, but he always remains the same at heart. He was rather nice and quiet when I came to work here but he’s changed a bit lately. But he’s not a monster, if that’s what you’re thinking. He loves this city and its people, and looks can be deceiving, really.”
Shad, who had the cheerful personality of a Snowbunny despite his shadow fur and studded collar, nodded in agreement. They had come to another staircase in the meantime and crossed another few hallways. Shad’s nose and Saura’s ears said that the palace was full of people – servants, maids, chefs, cleaners, messengers and everything else that makes a palace work but the place was simply so big that running into someone was a rare occasion.
“Here,” said Harfu, pushing a door open. “The library.”
To be continued...