Deep Secrets: Part Four
King Nassei was only ruler of a tiny slice of the Lost Desert, and he knew it.
But within that slice, he had complete control.
“Good day.” He slid the rings onto his hands: the red one with the gold stripe for his left hand, the blue and turquoise mingled for his right. In his peripheral vision he could see the petitioners leaving, dragging the jeweler behind them. The Ogrin was staring at him.
No offense, he thought. Just good business.
The rings really did go well with his fiery skin. The red and gold almost blended; the turquoise stood out. King Nassei was pleased.
The footmen dragged off the thieves. He considered pardoning them for bringing him the rings, and then thought better of it. His subjects had to know he was not a gentle heart.
Petitioners came in fits and starts through the afternoon: two here, three here, and then enough to make a little line outside the throne room doors that the footmen had to maintain. They couldn’t have subjects wandering off through private rooms, could they?
No. And it made work for the footmen. Sometimes King Nassei thought he might have too many, but they were useful.
The time wore on, and after a while there were no more petitioners. King Nassei stood.
“Deny any others who come. I will see more tomorrow.”
The footmen nodded.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Very good.” He swept down the first few steps, and then turned to look at the doors.
It sounded like the footmen were arguing with someone.
The doors opened, and the Elephante footman stumbled into the room.
“Yes?” King Nassei fancied that the air turned to ice around the word.
“There’s another petitioner here—well, he says he’s the King’s messenger. That is, not your messenger. Another King’s messenger. He won’t say whose. Sire.”
King Nassei listened to this.
“Deny him. It is my dinner hour.” He nodded to a pair of footmen, who scurried off to alert the kitchen.
“No, I really think you won’t.”
The Quiggle looked back at the doors.
A tall, dusty Kyrii was leaning against the doorjamb. Despite the layer of sand, a badge on his upper arm glinted gold. The Elephante, standing behind him, was gaping.
King Nassei inclined his head.
“Which King is yours, then?”
“King Coltzan. He sends a message.” But the Kyrii didn’t produce a scroll or paper.
“Coltzan.” King Nassei thought. “I haven’t heard of him. Is he one of those small-timers who broke up old king Ronuk’s kingdom?”
“Not precisely.” The brown Kyrii grinned, showing white teeth. “Would you like to hear the message?”
“It’s all the same to me,” King Nassei said.
“It isn’t, really. All right.”
The Kyrii paced out from the doors. The Elephante leaped to stop him; King Nassei gave him a look, and he fell back.
In the middle of the floor, the messenger stopped. Still looking at King Nassei, he declaimed his message in a clear, ringing voice.
“To the lesser Kings of the Lost Desert—greetings! I wish you good health. I am Coltzan, grandson of the last High King of the Desert.
“We are threatened from the sea by Maraqua, that ages-old watery kingdom, and from the north by the creatures of the Haunted Woods. We cannot stand against these foes separate as we are and hope to win the day.
“Therefore, I have come forward. If there were no threats to our existence, I would stay in obscurity all of my life, but we are threatened. If you will pledge allegiance to me, I will protect you and yours as my own. Together we can be victorious. Together we can be strong.
“If you would pledge allegiance, come to Sakhmet City. I will meet with you there and take your vows.
“The Desert be blessed. Signed—Coltzan the first.”
The Kyrii paused, and smiled at King Nassei.
King Nassei did not have to think. He told the Kyrii precisely what he thought of him, the message, and his King, and what he could do with them.
When he was done, the Kyrii bowed gravely and left. King Nassei could not tell if he was making fun of him.
“Give my power over to some upstart,” he muttered, going down the long flight of golden steps. “What kind of king do they think I am?”
“Your dinner is ready, your majesty,” the footman standing at the base of the steps told him.
The Quiggle nodded and stalked off in a waddle.
The footmen glanced at each other when the door had closed behind him.
“When do you think the King’s troops will come?” a small blue Korbat asked.
The golden Acara looked around at his fellow footmen. “Tonight.”
They nodded agreement.
“We leave at midnight,” the Elephante said.
“Should we free the prisoners?”
The other footmen looked at the Korbat.
“Why would we do that? Leave ‘em on the new King’s hands,” the Elephante said. He spat neatly into a potted plant. “He’ll figure out which of them are in there for something and which are just in there.”
The others nodded, and after a moment the Korbat nodded, too.
Charan had gone to sleep after a few hours of rain.
Roald hadn’t. He was still trying to think of an idea. All the ones he could think of were silly ideas—ridiculous, really. Every time he thought he had it, and went back over the plan, it turned out to be ludicrous.
On top of that, he had gotten up early for work. Now it was fast approaching ten at night, probably, and he was exhausted. His mind hurt.
The Nimmo leaned his head against the wall and tipped his face up, closing his eyes. Maybe if he just rested for a moment, he’d be able to think more clearly.
Yes—just for a moment.
Nothing more... a moment...
What woke him was the sound of cannons.
Roald sat up straight and listened. He didn’t know at first what had awakened him.
Then it came again: the boom and snap and smash. It didn’t sound like they were hitting the palace yet—just the ground outside—but it was close enough to rattle the door of his cell.
“Cannonfire,” he breathed.
Whoever was setting siege to the palace would let them free, he thought.
Then he thought again: setting siege to the palace. It had stood for years—hundreds—it was a cornerstone, a pinnacle of the achievement of this land.
“Roald! What’s going on?”
Charan had woken up, too. Roald looked at him through two sets of bars.
“Someone’s attacking the palace.”
“They are?” His delight was sketched in the lines of his face as he grinned. “Really?”
“Yes.” What if they wouldn’t let them out? Or what if—Roald swallowed—they didn’t know they were down here, and they took down the palace, and it fell on top of them?
Couldn’t get out, couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe...
Roald took a deep breath to reassure himself that there was still air, that the palace hadn’t fallen (yet, a little voice reminded him)—
“Empty, empty, empty.”
A Korbat in a footman’s uniform rounded the corner into their hall. Roald stared at him, and for a moment the Korbat stared back. Then he fluttered forward, sorting through a ring of keys.
“Here, I think this is it.” He put the key in the lock and tried it. “No, that’s not it. Here.” The second key did unlock the cell, and Roald stepped out as the Korbat went across to Charan.
The Nimmo felt strange, almost naked, standing in the corridor there. “Why are you doing this? What’s going on?”
Charan wriggled out of his cell the moment it was open. “Don’t ask questions, let’s just go!”
The Korbat fluttered a little further, and then turned back. “The High King of the Lost Desert, Coltzan I, offered his protection in exchange for Nassei’s allegiance.”
“Nassei didn’t like that offer,” Roald said.
The footman nodded.
“And you decided to let everyone out?”
“Well—the others said to let him deal with them, but—it doesn’t seem fair.” The Korbat shrugged. “I should get on with it, I suppose. The other footmen are already gone. They left at midnight.”
He flew down to the next corner. They could hear his voice echo back: empty, empty, empty.
“Now we go,” Roald said to Charan.
King Nassei’s experience of the fight was similar to his prisoners’: he woke at midnight to hear cannons.
No one came in to wake him, to alert him or move him out.
The Quiggle looked around. No footmen. He leaned over to yank at the bellpull.
No one came.
He slid out of bed and looked around for his dressing gown. He knew it was somewhere around here; the footmen could always find it...
A corner of it peeked out from around a corner, and the king hurried over to slip it on.
He went out into the antechamber. There was always a footman or two here, waiting to be summoned—
The room was empty.
The Quiggle went through his palace one room at a time. No one was in any of them. The furniture was there, the knick-knacks, the gold leaf, the gold plate—all of the material things in the palace had been left alone.
Only the other people were gone, and it was startlingly, shockingly empty.
He made his way at last down the long stairs to the palace doors, and pushed one open enough to peep out.
Standing halfway between his palace and the ranks of soldiers were two figures. At this distance, it was hard to tell who or what they were, until one raised her head, moonlight silhouetting the Uni horn, and the other pushed back his hat and resettled his weight in a way that was instantly familiar.
Nassei came out of his palace slowly, shuffling along. He didn’t look at the soldiers; he only looked at the Kyrii.
“You,” he said, when he was close enough.
“Me.” King Coltzan I smiled. “Am I to take this as your surrender?”
Nassei hesitated, and then ducked his head in something that might have been a nod.
“Yes. Your... Majesty.”
The Kyrii threw a look to the Uni.
“Very good,” she said dryly. “I am once again impressed, sire.”
Nassei turned to go back inside. King Coltzan coughed.
“I did not give you permission to leave my presence,” he said mildly. “Now. I think I will take a sign of your surrender—something physical, something I can show the people.”
“Yes—yes, those rings. I’ll take those.”
To be continued...