Pride, Prose, and Princes: Part Four
“Pyramids, please. It’ll just be me.” I pressed a fifty-neopoint piece in her palm. “My sister doesn’t play.” Hasarah had already settled in a corner with her sketches, and the old card dealer shaped a deck of cards into a pyramid on the mat before me.
I then proceeded to lose three games in succession, never making it up the pyramid of cards past one-hundred-and-fifty points.
“Maybe you should go back to Sakhmet,” suggested the old crone. “Try your hand at Solitaire.”
I scowled and gave her another fifty neopoints. I got farther this time, clearing rows until there was one card left in the deck, and only the top card left in the pyramid. I flipped the latter card over—it was King of Hearts.
“Oooh,” the crone commented, “how suspenseful.”
“Indeed.” I reached for the deck card.
“Will you stop that, for Sloth’s sake!”
She gave an odd, scratchy giggle. “Ah, child. The identity of the card remains the same, whether or not I add any suspense. Why fret? You should model your inner zen voice toward more pleasant things, and in doing so, gain a more admirable mind.”
“A mind like yours, I’m sure,” I muttered.
“Why, yes.” For an oldster, she sure had sharp hearing. “You’d be surprised what this withered skull can do.”
Withered was right, if she really listened to an “inner zen voice.” “Can it tell me if I’m about to draw an Ace or a Queen?”
“Yes. But that would ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it?”
I rolled my eyes and flipped the card. “It’s an eight of diamonds.” I had lost.
The crone giggled again. “Aren’t you glad I didn’t tell you?”
“I wouldn’t have believed you—I don’t believe you now. You couldn’t have known.” I stood and opened the tent flap. “Come on, Lili, we’re leaving. Thank you for your time, Miss,” I told the card dealer, over my shoulder, “if not your advice.”
“Goodbye, child.” Her voice had suddenly become solemn. “And have caution. Your sense does you credit, but your doubt may bring you to ruin. Perhaps...”
“Perhaps you should reverse who you trust, and who you do not.”
“I’ve never been good at enigmas.”
She wheezed and waved her hand dismissively. “You’re letting in the dust, child, must you linger about? Leave me.” All at once she seemed unaware of our presence; she scooped up a deck and shuffled compulsively.
“Well. She was a rather changeful sort,” I said, as we walked away.
“I liked her,” declared Lili. “She had nice clouds.”
“Her clothes, Lindsey,” my sister explained patiently, “her clothes had white in them. Like clouds.”
“Oh.” I glanced at the sky. It was crystal clear—of course it was, this was the Lost Desert. “No clouds here,” I said, absent-mindedly.
“There’s one.” Lili pointed to a tiny grey speck in the distance. “But the lady’s dress wasn’t like that. It was more like... that!”
A long white head scarf fluttered past us in the dusty wind. In pursuit of it was a lanky blue Kacheek, who was quite red in the face.
“He’ll never catch up with it. Let’s help!”
“Hasarah, don’t”—but she’d already run off. I ran after her, protesting all the way. “The litter will be here any minute! We’ll miss it.”
“But I’ve almost got it!” The scarf danced in the breeze above Lili’s head, just out of her reach.
I snatched it out of the air. “There. Can we go now?”
But the Kacheek had caught up to us. A short little fellow he was, with deep worry lines set in his forehead. He dabbed furiously at his brow, and for a moment I thought he would faint. “That,” he wheezed, pointing to the scarf, “is royal property.”
“Really?” I squinted at him. “Maybe it’s the sun, but you don’t look very royal to me.”
“Not me. Him.” The Kacheek pointed to a white-robed figure, who was steadily approaching us. “Now, if you would kindly give me that scarf, you may go on your way without trouble.”
“Trouble? Pardon me, sir, but you don’t sound very grateful.”
He looked back nervously; the figure was getting closer and closer. “I haven’t got time for this!” He lunged for the scarf, but Hasarah was there first.
“Say ‘thank you,’” she commanded. “It’s polite.”
“Lili, just give him back his scarf, it’s not that”—but before any of us could say anything more, the figure was before us. It was a Lupe, dressed in loose white linen, as I was, except that his clothes were hemmed in gold. He was breathing hard from the running, but didn’t seem at all tired. His face was but slightly flushed; his fur was unruly and tousled from the wind.
The Kacheek took advantage of our momentary distraction to snatch the scarf from Hasarah’s grasp. “Your Highness,” He bowed low, “I had just retrieved your scarf when these two... interfered. But it’s all taken care of, we may continue on our way.”
“Interfered!” Hasarah fixed the Kacheek with her deepest scowl. “We were the ones who caught it for him!”
The Lupe laughed out loud, fondly whacking the Kacheek (who almost fell over as a result) on the back. “Sounds like Vincent, all right. Kreludor would have to fall out of orbit before this guy would admit to having help.”
Vincent puffed himself up, defensive. “Pay them no heed, Prince Stormington. Now, if we could just go...”
Stormington? I looked at the Lupe, and blinked, once, twice. Jhudora’s Cupcakes, it was Stormington! I hadn’t even recognized him—this carefree, loose, almost unruly character was nothing like the close-mouthed creature of stone I’d met at the Bowls.
“Your Highness,” I curtsied carefully. At least I could begin the introduction correctly, this time. “It’s great—an honor to see you again.”
Stormington studied us, brow furrowed. “Again?”
“I was your opponent at the Bowls yesterday. Remember?”
Shadows of recognition grew behind his eyes. “Oh, yes. The writer.” The formal tones from yesterday returned to his voice, but his posture remained relaxed. “How do you do?”
Oh no. Not this again. “This is my sister, Hasarah,” I said quickly.
Lili stuck out her hoof before I could stop her, and he shook it. “Hello,” she greeted him. “Lindsey said that you’re a prince, an’ that you live in a castle.”
“I do, indeed.” He was expressionless.
“Good.” My little sister nodded her approval. “An’ have you slain lots of fat, fanged, princess-eating monsters?”
“Fat ones? Not many,” Stormington replied, with equal seriousness. “Most of them were rather skinny. They’re on a skimpy diet, you see, as princesses tend to be on the thin side.”
She considered this. “That makes sense,” Lili agreed, after a moment. She gave him one of her adorable smiles, and he returned it.
That was quick. It’d taken the best of a conversation for me to extract a smile from him, and even then it hadn’t been lasting. “So, what brings you to the Desert?” I inquired.
“Business, in Sakhmet. Brightvale imports Lost Desert sand to make stained-glass windows. They’ve just raised the price on us, because apparently,” he said, “there’s a shortage.”
We stood silent for a moment, as the vast dunes of sand blew about us.
“Or so they say,” he added, dryly.
“We’ve just come from cards,” Lili piped up. “And now we’re going to Qasala.” Since my story was set in the Desert, I’d wanted to pick up a few scrolls for inspiration. We’d already gotten some in Sakhmet, and were on our way to Words of Antiquity.
I took the opportunity to escape. “Speaking of which, we’d better be on our way. The next litter should arrive any moment, if it hasn’t left already... but it was nice seeing you, again.”
“Actually, we’re en route to Qasala ourselves. Could I possibly offer you the service of my personal litter? It’s a few paces behind.” Stormington pointed to an approaching figure in the distance.
“Oh, thanks, that’s really very nice of you. But I’m sure ours will...” I glanced at Lili. She looked like she was about to melt in those clothes of hers, and if we’d missed our ride, the next one wouldn’t show for half an hour. I sighed. “Sure. We’d love to.”
Within a minute the litter was before us. It was clear that this was no ordinary litter—public litters were made of rough wood and carried by brutish laymen, who would walk slowly if you didn’t tip them. This one was crafted from glittering mahogany, carved with ornate patterns. Its carriers were soldiers in resplendent uniforms, each with a sword at his waist. Stormington pushed aside sheer curtains of dark purple to reveal the place where we’d sit, which was cushioned by large red pillows, and helped us inside.
He closed the curtains around us, and the heat decreased immediately. “Enchanted silk,” he explained, seeing my surprise.
Of course. The curtains were probably from the Hidden Tower, purchased for—who knew how much? Millions? Stop it, I scolded myself, stop all these... money thoughts.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, rocking with the jerks and bumps of the litter. “So,” I asked presently, “how did you deal with the sand ‘shortage’? Or are you allowed to tell me—I suppose I shouldn’t pry in government affairs.”
“Oh, it’s no secret. The Lost Desert buys Brightvale’s Cooling Ointments to power their air conditioners. I threatened to... introduced the possibility of raising Cooling Ointment prices a few thousand neopoints. Suddenly, sand was in abundance once more.”
I laughed. “Well, that’s a relief. It’s amazing how quickly a kingdom returns to prosperity, when given a motive.”
To be continued...