Once a Scarab: Part Three
The heat of the day was upon the desert when Nabile ducked into Kuraj's tailor shop, and she was glad of the shade. There were no other customers – most preferred to wait out the midafternoon in their own homes. "Kuraj! It's me, Nabile!"
The old desert Lenny looked out from behind a rack of cloth, shock of grey hair and mismatched clothes as wild as ever. He held up his monocle to squint at her. "Nabile! Thank Fyora you've come! I knew you would!"
Nabile nodded. "So what's happened?"
Kuraj put a wing across his face. "Bokan was supposed to be the distraction, or so Horace told me, but he got bold and decided to pick a pocket while he was at it."
Nabile slapped her hand to her forehead. "The distraction's supposed to be innocent! He knows that!"
Kuraj continued, "Tomos upset an Ummagine cart to let him get away, but couldn't get away fast enough himself. He's cooling his heels in the dungeons right now."
Nabile squared her shoulders. "Well, I'll head straight to the palace then – no sense in having him sleep there another night." Tomos had always been such a wimp when it came to sleeping on a hard floor – he stacked two pallets on top of each other back at the Scarab hideout.
She tried not to think of him in the dungeons – he acted tough. He was tough. But he had a soft, sweet core, which wouldn't like being locked in a small, dark, stone room. He'd have driven himself half-crazy by now with nothing to keep his attention.
She added, "And tell the Scarabs I'm here – if this goes badly, they'll need to be ready to lie low for a while." She could bring Tomos to Qasala if need be – if she had to break him out of the dungeons, he'd understand that he'd have to flee the city. But Bokan and Horace were far more stubborn when it came to their independence.
He nodded. "I'll put up my lunch sign and go right away."
And he left right behind Nabile.
She kept to the shadows and tried to keep her head down as she approached the palace – not for fear of the guards, but for fear of being noticed and fawned over. It always made her uncomfortable – and people acted like she'd done something heroic when to her it had only seemed perfectly logical. Life in Qasala was wonderful. She hadn't made a sacrifice. She'd been given a gift. Why couldn't people understand?
Of all the people in Sakhmet, even the Scarabs, Tomos was the only one who really, truly understood.
Then she approached the gate – the guards recognized her and bowed. She asked, "Could one of you please tell Princess Amira that I'm here? I need to speak with her as soon as possible."
One of them scowled, but the other nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty. Follow me."
The scowling guard glared at her as she walked by – Nabile wished she were Jazan. No one ever considered treating Jazan like that. They were probably still afraid he'd zap Sakhmet back into the shadow realms, even though he'd never have considered doing such a thing without the curse and sheer desperation messing with his mind.
Then she laughed at herself. She'd gotten a little soft, if the scowl of a lazy guard was offending her. Time was when both of them would have chased her halfway across Sakhmet for even daring to come so close to the Palace.
And those times came back to her as she walked across the polished white floor of the entrance hall. Qasala's palace was less cavernous, and made of warmer-colored stone – it was meant to be lived in and worked in, not admired from a distance. She'd never gotten over feeling like a grubby thief in this room, but she was to the point where she didn't much like that feeling anymore. She shook her head. This wasn't about her comfort, or even lack thereof. She was far more comfortable than Tomos was down in whatever cell he was occupying.
It was Amira, crossing the hall toward her. Her older cousin hugged her quickly. "Nabile, you gave me no warning you were coming! What brings you here?"
Nabile looked around – she didn't want anyone else to hear she was about to ask Amira to release a thief. The nobles here would all throw fits. "Can we talk in private?"
Nabile followed Amira to her private sitting room, and sat down on a sofa as a servant brought them drinks. Amira asked, "Did you get my latest letter?"
Nabile nodded. "Jazan will be pleased to lend those scrolls to your scholars, and he said he'd turn Akhmaris into a Scamander for you if you liked. He doesn't like him much." Nabile smiled a little despite herself – the reason that Jazan didn't like Akhmaris was that the general had been furious when Amira had given Nabile an official pardon. He'd been all for throwing Nabile in the dungeons, and Jazan had taken personal offense. "But I came because I had a favor to ask."
Amira leaned back on a cushion and sipped her fruit juice. "Ask away."
"Three days ago, Tomos got arrested. You remember him – red Lupe, fairly tall, my best friend since I was six? He's in the dungeons, and I'd like to ask you to release him."
Amira crossed her arms, and Nabile's heart sank. "Red Lupe, fairly tall, your best friend, and a career thief?"
"He's no worse than I was, Amira! You know I wasn't a threat to anyone! None of the Scarabs are!"
Amira sighed. "Nabile, it's the law. He's a criminal. All of the Scarabs are criminals. All of my royal decrees are second-guessed right and left as it is, and I can't make it worse by pardoning criminals."
Nabile pleaded, "But you pardoned me! How is this different from pardoning me?"
"You saved the city!"
Nabile tried her best not to snort. "I hardly 'saved the city.' I just got everyone to see sense. And I wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn't had Tomos – I would never have survived in the ruins without him!" In her head, she started planning how to get into the dungeons. That would be easier than getting out, at least – though bluffing had a lot more effect coming from the Queen of Qasala than it ever had from a scruffy street urchin.
Amira shook her head. "That's not how it works, Nabile. Now if you'd like to be a character witness for him, he might not have to stay down there too long."
Tomos wasn't going to need a character witness. Tomos was going free tonight. But she couldn't let her cousin know that, so she gave a polite, conceding nod and asked about how Vyssa was doing.
It occurred to her as Amira launched into a rant that she was about to do a great deal to damage Qasalan-Sakhmeti relations. But Jazan hadn't mentioned that at all. If it had concerned him, he would have said something, but he'd only worried for her safety.
He'd understood. He and Tomos – they were so different in so many other ways, but both of them understood.
Then there was a knock on the door. Amira said, "Come in."
It was General Akhmaris. The tall gold Eyrie looked down at them with narrowed green eyes. "Good afternoon, my lady." He quite pointedly left Nabile out of the category of "lady" – Nabile wished again that she had some of the power Jazan did.
Amira asked, "What would you like, Akhmaris? As you have failed to notice, I'm conferring with my cousin, the Queen of Qasala."
The general sighed. "You always did have more time for thieves than for your own nobility, didn't you?"
Amira stood up. "You dare speak to me like that, Akhmaris?" Nabile stood, too, looking around the room to check for exits – the nasty smile on the Eyrie's face made it clear that something really, really bad was about to happen.
Akhmaris replied, "Yes. I'm about to say a lot of things to you that I've never said before, Amira. For example, the fact that you have no more power in this city. I have most of the Captains of the Guard and the Mages' College on my side. Sakhmet is through with its Princess – it's ready for a King!"
Amira stepped back. "A coup. You're attempting to stage a coup."
Akhmaris smiled again. "I've successfully staged a coup. All that's left is to lock you up somewhere cozy." And then he looked at Nabile, who was edging toward the window – her best hope of quick escape. "And perhaps your thieving cousin as well. My only worry was how to handle Qasala's sorcerer, but if I have his wife as a hostage he should quite willingly acknowledge my right to rule."
He wanted to use her as a hostage? The idea infuriated Nabile – but she knew it would work. Jazan wouldn't do anything that could put her in danger.
Should she use the mirror? If she used the mirror, she could call Jazan...
She didn't have the time. Akhmaris shouted, "Guards! Seize them!"
The door burst open and the guards flooded in. Amira cried as the traitorous general grabbed her arm, "Nabile, run!"
And Nabile had to fling herself out the window. She caught herself on an awning on the floor below, dropped to a second-floor windowsill, to an open shutter on the first floor, and then to the ground. She half-hid herself behind a statue and looked up – but Amira couldn't have followed. Not four stories down. The Aisha was well and truly trapped.
She turned around, out toward the city, and leaned against the statue. The smart thing to do would be to go back to Qasala and tell Jazan what had happened. He'd be able to send Qasalan forces to help Amira.
But then he'd want Nabile to be well out of the way. And Akhmaris hated the city's thieves – Tomos would be in serious trouble, helpless in the dungeons.
Nabile had to try and get in there. She'd told Kuraj and the Scarabs that she'd do it. As a Scarab, when she gave her word, she meant it.
There was no use standing here dithering. She had a coin purse and the threat of the King of Qasala – that should get her into the dungeons. Getting out would be a little harder, but she was certain she'd think of a way.
Tomos had been dozing, but he woke up to the sound of a woman saying, "You'll pay for this! If you hold onto power for more than a fortnight, I'll eat my cape!"
A man's voice replied, "My dear, I'll be sure to send you some seasoning to go with it. Is anyone in that cell over there?"
Tomos recognized the voice of one of the guards. "Just a thief, Sire. One of the Scarabs." At the mention of himself, he moved farther back in the cell – he didn't want to draw any extra attention.
"Is that so? Well, we can throw them in together, since our erstwhile princess is so very fond of thieves."
Then his cell door was opened, and Princess Amira was shoved in, falling to her knees. Tomos looked up in shock – the man was General Akhmaris! What in Fyora's name was going on?
Princess Amira stood up and glared pure poison at Akhmaris. The Eyrie smiled at her. "Now, let's hear you say it, Amira. Call me 'King Akhmaris.'"
The Aisha hissed, "I will never dishonor my father's title by putting it in front of your name, you traitorous scum!"
The Eyrie shrugged. "Very well. Guard, lock the door. I need to meet with my mages."
The cell door clanged shut, and they were left alone.
Only then did Amira turn and look at him – he bowed quickly. "Princess!" Then he dared to ask, "Uh... what's going on?"
She looked at him. "You're Tomos, aren't you? Nabile's friend?"
He nodded. "Yes, Princess."
She sighed. "This is what I get, I suppose." She leaned against the cell wall, heedless of her white clothes – Tomos winced. He'd never have let cloth like that get dirty. It was worth too much. "She came here today to ask me to release you, and I told her no." The look she gave him was semi-apologetic. "The law is the law, after all. But then Akhmaris decided to spring his coup, and here I am sitting in a cell right next to you. He'll probably have crowned himself with my father's crown by the time the sun sets."
Tomos could have cared less about that, but he asked, "Wait – Nabile's here? Uh, Princess?"
Amira nodded. "When the guards attacked, she jumped out a window."
Tomos was confident. "She'll get us out of here. She's bound to. As long as she's been keeping in practice, she could outrun any guards sent after her any day of the week, Princess."
Amira commented, "From the way she flung herself out that window, she's certainly in practice."
They both fell silent – Tomos didn't know what on earth he would have to say to a princess. He wished there were another thief in here, or just a normal person – someone he would have something in common with.
He slid down the wall and slumped on the ground – it was only gentlemanly to let the princess have the thin pallet in the corner, if she wished. And, as cold and uncomfortable as the stone was, boredom made him too lazy to stand.
He hoped Nabile would come soon – then they might be able to actually do something about this mess. An adventure.
Just like old times.
To be continued...