Shad and Saura: Black Fire - Part Four
Art by ssjelitegirl
“This is starting to get on my nerves,” said Shad, marching into the room when the first sunrays of dawn had started to shine through the mist – it was actually rather late in the morning, but because of the mountains, the sun rose late in Shenkuu. “It’s such a nice and peaceful little land, but with Sir Dark and Mysterious roaming about, each and every local treats us as if we brought him here.”
“Well, they did invite us to leave and move to some other house multiple times; they know that we had a choice,” said Saura, cracking a wide yawn. “Got the dumplings?”
The Lupe threw a small bag on the mat. “Here, and I almost had to bite the shopkeeper for him to sell me those. We’re practically declared outlaws because of that thief.”
His brother would’ve replied if the door hadn’t opened at that point, letting in the person in question. Kanrik was looking jaded, but content.
“You were up the whole night?” asked Saura.
The thief nodded, hiding a yawn, and curled up on the nearest mat without even bothering to take his cloak off. “Yes, and I’m planning to catch up on lost sleep now. If anyone comes slamming on the door and demanding for money my ancestors once stole from their ancestors or something along those lines, tell ‘em to come back in some seven hours.” He wrapped himself in the thick purple cloak and dozed off almost instantly.
The brothers gave him a thoughtful, semi-sulky glare, and then proceeded to eat the dumplings. It was quiet and calm, as dawns usually are. Incendia was sitting behind her desk, silent as always. She spent so much time behind the desk that the brothers had started to think of her like some strange piece of furniture. Dust glittered in the still air, dancing through the sunlight that gradually became brighter as the sun rose, and in this morning tranquility, you could even hear the distant echoing calls of Kazerius who lived deeper in the valleys, soaring through the mist seeking for food, remaining unseen for most Neopians.
“I wonder if...” muttered Shad, his mouth full.
“Wonder what?” His brother looked up.
“Wonder if there’s a way down there to the valleys? Shenkuu itself is built on mountains, but they have to have another way to get here. Can’t rely on wings all the time, can you?”
Saura scowled. “Wouldn’t know, they’ve spent an awful lot of time devising flying ships and whatnot. I doubt they have much to fall back on.”
The Lupe swallowed the last dumplings and got up. “I’ll go look around a little. Beats sitting here, at least. You coming?”
His brother looked at him with an eyebrow raised, then shrugged and got up too. “Why not?”
When they left, Kanrik turned the other side and coughed a few times in his sleep.
The two brothers had explored Shenkuu rather thoroughly during their stay but had never really thought of how the land had been devised. Now that they looked at it more carefully, they realized that it was basically round. Pathways and rope bridges led from one house and one hilltop to another, but it all formed a maze of interwoven roads. There were a few heavily guarded bridges leading out of the land to other hills and from there, the plains, but generally Shenkuu was planned like a fortress.
“Weird,” said Saura, stopping in the middle of the road to look around. “The entire land sits on top of the mountains like a nest. Should anything cut off their bridges and means of flight, the entire place would be doomed.”
“This is an old land, with many wise scholars,” Shad said thoughtfully, sniffing the dusty ground. “I really, really doubt there’s nothing down there. There have to be at least emergency exits for the royal family and suchlike. Just think,” he sat down, grinning widely as his tail waved from side to side, sweeping the dust, “huge mazes and tunnels carved in the depths of the mountain, marked with signs that will lead anyone who doesn’t know how to read them to instant death...”
Saura laughed. “I was going to suggest a system of rope ladders or something.”
He squatted down on the edge of the rope bridge and looked down at the mist that covered anything that may have been down there from sight.
“You two!” a voice suddenly shouted. The brothers turned around to face a grumpy yellow Techo in the attire of a bridge guard. Those were common around Shenkuu; they were grim, laconic soldiers who stood at arms in any weather and rarely spoke, and rumor had it that once one actually addressed you, you were in deep deep trouble.
“Yes?” Saura asked, his ears drooping flat against the back of his head.
The Techo pointed his rod at them. “You are the ones who live in the same house with the leader of the Thieves’ Guild?”
Shad, whose ears had drooped too, instantly switched to defensive mode as the fur on his neck and back ruffled. “Yes. Is that a crime now?”
The guard squinted at him. “This morning an incredibly expensive item was discovered to be missing from the Emperor’s treasury. Since you reside with the thief, you are to be interrogated in the question.” He twirled the rod a couple times. It was a simple wooden rod, but something in this move suggested that he’d be very able to do ugly things with it. “I was ordered to escort you to the palace. If you’re innocent, then you've got nothing to fear.”
The brothers looked at each other, then at the guard. Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of the innocent than ‘if you’re innocent, then you've got nothing to fear’.
“Well, we are innocent,” Shad muttered to Saura as they strolled up the winding road that led to the palace.
“Let’s hope they have a fair system here,” grunted the Zafara.
The palace was impressive, to put it mildly. It was partly built into the side of the mountain, buried between small pines and ginkgo trees, the façade consisting mainly of carved wood and rice paper walls. In comparison with the other Neopian palaces – the ones in Faerieland, the Lost Desert, Meridell and Brightvale, even Roo Island – it conveyed a somewhat humble, yet light impression, like an overgrown welcoming teahouse that looms above the whole land, casting its friendly, protective gaze over it.
Granted, for two convicts such an impression remains a bit half-hearted.
“Has anyone found the thief yet?” the Techo asked the palace guards as they climbed up the wide wooden staircase.
“I think not,” said one of the guards. “He wasn’t at the Faerie’s place.” Shad and Saura looked at each other, realizing that the guards were looking explicitly for Kanrik, not just any thief.
The palace was spacious and rather empty. Most of the walls consisted of rice paper on trellis and the ceilings, albeit dark, were high above them, so the whole building looked too fragile to carry even a Miamouse. Yet the floorboards, so clean and polished that they almost reflected, echoed back in a solid, somewhat solemn way as they trotted down the hallways.
“Turn right,” the Techo commanded. “Now left.” The bamboo rod thumped against the floor as he followed the two brothers, reminding them to keep going. He didn’t sound mean, though. If anything, he was a bit weary and bored.
The two figured that they were being taken through one corner of the palace, towards the northern wing, and after a short while they stopped in front of a vast pair of dark doors. It was, once again, guarded.
“The suspects,” said the Techo. The guards thumped their rods against the ground and opened the doors. The brothers sidled in and the doors slammed shut behind them.
The room, again vast and high, wasn’t quite what one would expect to see after such intimidating doors. It was a corner room, two of the outer walls being sliding doors made of rice paper. One of them was opened, showing the breathtaking view across the misty mountains, the farther ones still untamed by the Shenkese. There were two Skeith guards standing by the doors inside as well, but apart from them there was only one other Neopet in the room – a slim green Gnorbu sitting on a few pillows in the middle of the room, braiding a rope.
“Oh, hi,” she said, looking up. “You don’t know whether the reef knot actually is better than the granny knot, do you?”
“Might be,” Saura agreed cautiously, having already recognized the Gnorbu. “Erm, you summoned us, Your Highness?”
The youngest princess of Shenkuu got up, leaving the half-finished bundle of rope on the floor. “Well, actually it was the chief of guards. Be glad it’s such an important issue and has to be attended to by a member of the royal family; otherwise, they would’ve taken you to him and he’s not a particularly nice person.” She beckoned them closer. As the brothers advanced, they noticed that the Techo hadn’t entered after them.
The princess turned out to be rather young, and shorter than Saura, but with a sort of sharp, straightforward glance in her eyes, predictable enough for someone who spends her time climbing steep misty mountains on a thin rope.
“Well,” she said, observing the two brothers. “As I understand, you currently live under the same roof with Kanrik, the leader of the Thieves’ Guild.”
“Yep,” said Shad. Saura winced, but didn’t add anything.
“He was spotted near the palace last night,” said the princess. “Do you know anything about it?”
The two exchanged glances. They weren’t sure what to say and how much to say. On one hand, Kanrik was a known thief and they had no reason to protect him, but on the other hand, did they have a reason to slander him?
“He goes out a lot, but we don’t have a clue where he wanders,” Saura said rather cautiously. “We may live under the same roof, but that doesn’t make us aware of what he does.”
The princess tilted her head. “And you haven’t seen him smuggle in anything suspicious?”
“Like what?” Shad asked back.
The Gnorbu’s steel grey eyes met the Lupe’s innocently gleaming golden eyes. For a moment she seemed to attempt to read his thoughts from those eyes, but Shad’s thoughts weren’t something you’d access easily. Generally he was a cheery, straightforward creature who pranced through life, seemingly as transparent as glass, but that glass was merely a layer on a block of impenetrable stone.
“Like a sword,” the princess finally said.
To be continued...