Shad and Saura: That Other City - Part Five
Art by ssjelitegirl
The lunch took around two hours – apparently nobody was in a hurry and they knew how to enjoy the meal. Finally Shad and Saura rose together with most others and thanked Nabile for her hospitality. The Ixi shrugged with a smile and said: “We’ll meet again at dinner.”
Saura turned to leave but Shad seemed hesitant. “Your Highness...” He wasn’t even sure whether he addressed Nabile or Jazan, but as the Kyrii prince seemed just as bored and absent as before, he looked at Nabile. “Your palace is truly magnificent and full of wonders but I won’t get to see much of it when I’m in my room all the time. Will you give me permission to look around a little?”
Saura blinked, hearing such a complicated speech from Shad’s mouth. Jazan covered another yawn and winced as Nabile smacked his leg under the table. “Of course, feel free to look around,” she said with a smile which froze for a second as she glared at her husband. “Just ask for a servant to show you around or you’ll get lost in the hallways.”
When the brothers stepped out, they found the same brown Xweetok waiting for them. She guided them back to their rooms, bowed again and was about to leave when Shad asked: “Say, could you show me around in the castle?”
The maid gazed at him in confusion. “I, well... I suppose I could, yes.”
“Cool!” The Xweetok stepped back when Shad grinned widely, two rows of long white fangs shining in the sunlight as his tail thumped against the floor. “Saura, are you coming too?”
“Maybe another time.” The Zafara threw himself on the bed with a moan. “I think I ate too much. Those guys have excellent cooks here, really...” The Xweetok could barely hold back a chuckle as she and Shad left the room and headed east, towards the center of the palace.
Shad turned out to be the most annoying tourist a guide could ever meet. Now that he had no clear goal, he jumped here and there, sniffed the statues, landed on windowsills to lean outside, tried to slide down the banisters and dove into big vases to see what was inside.
“Sir, please!” begged the Xweetok. “Be careful with that vase, it’s over three hundred years old!”
The Lupe sneaked away from the vase. “Sorry.” His face reflected regret for a second, then he attacked another statue. When it proved to be nothing interesting, he turned back to announce, “And I’m no sir. Call me Shad.”
“Shad,” repeated the Xweetok, then smiled. “My name is Meira.”
“Pleasedtomeetcha.” The shadow Lupe grinned, spotting another staircase and running up it to explore the next floor. Meira hurried behind him.
“Sir... I mean, Shad, we shouldn’t really be here,” she said. “This hallway is secluded; people rarely come here.”
“Why, is it dangerous?” asked the Lupe, stopping at once. The Xweetok was surprised by the sudden change in Shad’s behavior – he was fully ready to turn back if Meira should say yes.
“Not really,” muttered the maid. “It’s just... memories that shouldn’t be brought up.”
Shad took a few steps forward. This hallway had fewer windows than the others and thus it was dimmer there. He could see dark paintings hanging on the wall, but to see one better, he had to step closer. The picture turned out to be a portrait of a white Kougra with big slanted amber eyes and long dark blue hair. She was wearing a black dress which made her white fur look brighter than it actually was, despite the cracked paint and dull colors on the canvas.
“Queen Ara,” muttered Meira, her voice quiet and frightened. “The most beautiful queen Qasala has ever seen...” She could say that without hesitation as Nabile was a princess, not a queen. “She was Jazan’s mother.”
Shad frowned. “Ara. Wasn’t there a city called Ara in Lost Desert a long time ago?”
The maid gave him a surprised glance; she hadn’t expected Shad to know. “Indeed, the queen was named after the city of Ara, as her ancestors were from there. Ara was destroyed a long time ago; it had been bigger and more prosperous than Sakhmet or Qasala but it fell in a single night and nobody really knows what happened. There are stories, yes...” she stopped, her eyes widening and now full of fear, “but those stories are contradictory and nobody knows the full truth. Can we please leave now?”
“You said that it’s not dangerous here,” said the Lupe, his eyes sinking into Ara’s eyes on the canvas. The painting was old, nothing but a reproduction of the proud queen who had lived centuries ago, but her eyes had been painted with amazing vividness. They seemed alive.
“No, but it’s downright creepy here,” hissed Meira.
Shad grunted, turned around and startled when his eyes fell on the object right in front of him across the hallway. It had been hidden in a niche full of shadows but now it was partly visible in the dim light of a nearby window. The part that was lit by the sun shimmered in shades of gold, white and yellow, as the part in the shadows looked like dark brass. But it was clearly a golden statue, over fourteen feet high and very valuable. Shad stepped closer.
It was a Kyrii, extremely true to life, every single detail in place, a real masterpiece, though the shiny surface of the statue was a little cracked and dented at places. The face of the Kyrii was rough and mean. He looked a lot like Jazan and Shad would in fact have sworn that it was Jazan, but there was still a difference, a mean, vile glance forged into the statue’s eyes.
“Who’s that grumpy-looking guy?” asked Shad.
Meira winced at that description. “This is Jazan’s father. King Razul.”
The Lupe stared up at the statue’s ferocious face. “That’s Razul? Wasn’t he a flaming skeleton in a long black robe and all that junk?”
The maid winced again and lowered her voice as if the statue could hear them. “He wasn’t always like that; he turned into the monster you’ve heard about after he sacrificed his own city in his vain attempts to become immortal.” She stepped forward, gazing up at the statue. “He wasn’t a good king. The city was prosperous, yes, but it was prosperous because he forced it to be, and the people served him because they were afraid of him. From what I’ve heard, Queen Ara was a sweet and loving young princess when she came here, but together with Razul she only had two chances – to live in fear and under the oppression of the sorcerer or become like him and rule Qasala with iron fists together.” Meira looked at the painting on which Ara’s strong features had remained timeless and young. “She chose the second way. They were horrible; their years of ruling were lined with fear and blood.”
“What happened to Ara?” asked the Lupe.
“Nobody knows for sure, but they say that Razul killed her. She wasn’t as evil as the king and when she learned about his plans about cursing the city, she tried to stop him.” The Xweetok scowled. “The queen got off easy. Being dead isn’t as bad as being cursed for centuries. This statue here,” she looked up at golden Razul’s grim face again, “stood in front of the palace back then. When Razul put his curse on the city, it didn’t spread fast. We could feel it taking over us, turning us into creatures with no blood, no feelings, no pain, nothing. Naturally, we were angry. The crowd gathered in front of the palace, they attacked the statue, kicked it, threw stones at it, but only a few of them left a mark. When Qasala was resurrected and we returned to normal, Jazan had the statue removed and taken here, along with everything else that reminded of the old era.”
Shad gazed at her. “So you mean... you were cursed as well, and many centuries old just like the others?”
Meira grinned. “Of course, just like the rest of the people. It didn’t feel that long. When I try to think back on the years I spent cursed, it’s like a hazy dream where you can’t count the passing hours. Jazan and Nightsteed had a different fate as they’re both mages; they knew how to withstand that haze and worked all this time to lift the curse – in which they eventually succeeded.”
Shad’s face was more serious than Meira had ever thought possible as he went farther in the hallway. There were more statues, all smaller, many paintings that most likely depicted Jazan’s further ancestors and some drapes that had knit-in scenes from the old era. The Lupe could recognize the crowning of Razul, though the hanging was so old that the colors were now mostly shades of grey and blue.
“Say,” asked Shad, knowing that the maid had followed him, “how come Jazan is still a prince and not the king, seeing that he now rules Qasala?”
“Well, it all comes down to formalities,” said Meira. “After all, Sakhmet is ruled by princess Amira as well. And besides,” she pointed at a marble pedestal on which lay a cushion with a heavy golden crown, “as you can imagine, the Royal Crown runs in the family.”
Shad looked at the ornate crown, the rich jewelry and carvings, and thought of the thoughts that had once been formed under that crown. “I see. Jazan doesn’t want to wear his father’s crown.”
Meira nodded. “Exactly. Could we please go now?”
Shad glanced at the very end of the hallway. It was a dead end. “Okay then, I saw a staircase going up next to the beginning of this hallway; come on!” He galloped off, Meira right behind him. Shad turned into another hallway, looked around curiously and trotted on.
“I smell fresh air,” stated the Lupe, sniffing the air with a frown. “And look, there’s daylight shining at the other end... shouldn’t all these hallways be closed?”
The Xweetok’s eyes widened. “Oh dear. I, well... we really shouldn’t be here.”
Shad sped up and turned around the corner – and froze right where he stood.
“Whoa,” he gasped.
The hallway turned into a balcony just around the corner, forming a wide platform that was partly covered with the hallway’s roof. It seemed to be one of the highest points in the palace, though the lower roofs covered most of the view on the city. More importantly, they also covered the city’s view on the balcony, which was clearly crucial as most of the balcony was occupied by a huge green two-headed Scorchio.
“Scordrax,” whispered Meira, standing behind the corner where the creature couldn’t see him. “No sudden moves or he’ll attack.”
One of Scordrax’s huge edgy heads rose higher as he observed Shad curiously. The other head spent a few moments munching in the food bowl that was the size of a garden pool, then it turned as well, so that the Scorchio got a panorama overview of the shadow Lupe under two angles.
“Suggestions?” muttered Shad under his breath.
“Watch before you run around corners?” the maid hissed pretty sarcastically, then added: “He’s actually rather friendly but sometimes he doesn’t feel his own strength, and when he gets playful or hungry or when the fire glands in his throat are disturbed by something, even a strong smell, it’s better not to stand right in front of him.”
The head that was above the ceiling gave a quiet, somewhat interested ‘nraah’ as it bowed down to sniff Shad. The other head turned back to the food bowl.
“He’s a Neopet, just like you and me,” noted Shad, standing quietly when the green head that was as big as Shad himself curiously poked his front paws. “Can’t he talk and think?”
“No, he’s not a Scorchio,” said Meira. “He’s a memory of Jazan’s first childhood attempts of advanced sorcery. He was originally a petpet – don’t ask me, what kind of petpet, I don’t know. But the spell was Jazan’s first fully successful spell to turn a creature into a functional creature of a totally different species, so he kept it and in time it grew into this thing.”
Shad reached his paw out carefully to pat Scordrax’s nose and the creature’s eyes narrowed a little as he tilted his head to show where it itched. “Fully successful? He has two heads!”
“That was intentional.”
Shad started, he recognized that voice. Meira bowed hastily as Prince Jazan came closer down the hallway.
“You got lucky; you came right after lunch when he’s fed all the leftovers. Had he been hungry, he wouldn’t have bothered with curiosity.”
Shad carefully backed away from the Scorchio’s nose that had puffed out a tuft of oven-hot steam. “Sorry, Your Highness, I didn’t know that he was here. It won’t happen again.”
“Well, he likes company.” Jazan absently patted the nose of the huge creature who had now turned to sniff him – the other head was still eating – and to Shad’s and Meira’s surprise sat down on the floor, leaning his back against the wall. “I don’t know how he does that...” now his voice drifted away and he was talking more to himself than to the two Neopets, “sitting here day after day, eating and sleeping. Fine, you circle the city at night, don’t you?” Scordrax gave another ‘nraaagh’ and poked Jazan with his muzzle. “But still... you and I share a dull life, a life that had a past but no future, don’t you agree, Scordrax?” Something rumbled quietly at the back of the Scorchio’s throat.
“Would you rather have a war with Sakhmet or something?” Shad asked a bit sharply, causing Meira to wince and back away. Jazan didn’t seem to be bothered by the sarcasm.
“What for?” he asked. “Wars are nothing but pointless struggling for more wealth or land, and I have both, not that they’re really giving me anything...” Scordrax purred softly – at least it could be considered purring by his standards – and rubbed his head against the prince’s side. “Now get lost, both of you.”
As Shad left behind Meira, he could hear the prince talking to the huge Scorchio: “You know, sometimes I’m jealous of those tourists. They see a lot, they never know what may be expecting them the next day... and I’m stuck here, in this dusty old city, not even needed any more as Qasala works well now without my helping hand. What have I become? Nothing but a figurehead. Just a name. Who rules this land? Prince Jazan. Nice, where’s the nearest inn? And so it goes.” His voice faded away as Shad went down the stairs.
“He’s been like that for a while now,” remarked Meira. “As if living in his own little world... sir!” She bowed again and even Shad sank lower to the ground, though not really because of respect when Nightsteed’s blue figure suddenly towered in front of them.
“You saw him,” he barked. “What did he say?”
Shad gave him a brief overview on Jazan’s words. The Uni scowled and trotted off as the other two continued down the stairs. Meira showed the Lupe the way back to his room and they departed on the last staircase. “Will you be able to find your way to the dining hall yourself this evening or should I ask someone to guide you?” she asked. “I won’t be able to come myself; I’ll have to go to the city to help my mother arrange the booth for the Night Bazaar.”
“We’ll find the way,” said Shad. “What’s the Night Bazaar?”
Meira smiled. “Every Friday we hold a bazaar that lasts from sunset till sunrise. Impractical, I know, but it’s a very old custom and comes with festivities to celebrate the end of the working week. Nights are livelier than days around here one way or another; the air is cooler and fresher then. You should come and see, in fact. It’s a truly unique experience.”
“Will do,” Shad promised with a grin.
When the Lupe stepped into the room, he found Saura leaning on the windowsill, his head outside. “Hey bro, you should’ve come too. I found this cool hall- what?”
“Shh,” the Zafara hissed again. “Gimme five minutes.” Shad, knowing his brother well enough, sat down and waited. Saura had extremely good ears, and while he usually didn’t spend time spying on others, he easily used this advantage when he found it necessary.
Minutes ticked by. The hot air was barely moving in the room and the bright sun stood still in the sky, though it was definitely farther than when Shad had left for his tour. He could hear the noise of the streets outside, and he knew that Saura could hear a lot more, whatever it was. Finally the spotted Zafara pulled himself back in with a scowl, shook his head and then told Shad what he had heard.
To be continued...