The Scarab and the Sea: Part One
While this story stands on its own, read Once a Scarab if you want to know more about how Tomos got here. Enjoy!
Tomos shifted his pack on his shoulders and looked back over his shoulder – the guards who were assigned to this mission with him were lagging on the sandy trail alongside the River Sakh, which led from Sakhmet to Port Ailaka and the sea.
It still seemed strange to Tomos that he was in charge of the other four Neopians, instead of being marched along in irons behind them. During the attempted coup two months ago, he'd only acted on instinct when he stopped the traitorous General Akhmaris from throwing a knife at Princess Amira. And then it had all happened so quickly – he'd gone from a poor street thief, through a royal pardon, and straight to reporting to Princess Amira herself.
For their roles in fighting off the usurper, all the Scarabs had been given pardons, and they were still trying to adjust to waking up in the morning and buying food rather than stealing it. It was actually quite nice being on the open road again – the heat and the sore feet were what he was used to, not politics and sneers from noblemen who thought they were too good for him.
In the bottom of his pack, underneath his clothes and food – plenty of food – was the whole reason for this mission. There was a scroll written in fancy noble talk, and then three magical gems, one each for King Skarl of Meridell, King Hagan of Brightvale, and Lord Darigan of the Citadel. And it was Tomos's job to deliver them personally, along with the scroll that, when translated into normal-person, proposed an alliance between the sister-cities of Sakhmet and Qasala and the Three Kingdoms far to the north.
Origen, a big Desert Grarrl, panted, "Hey, thief, the rest of us aren't as used to being chased as you are! Slow down, will you?"
Thankfully Jaryth, a Desert Eyrie, was a good deal more easygoing and inclined to see the whole situation as funny rather than insulting. "Give it a rest, Origen, or your face will stick like that. Though I wouldn't mind stopping for a break, Tomos."
Tomos nodded – he could always use a chance to take a drink. After he'd drained his canteen, he went down to the river to refill it again, and the others followed. They would reach Port Ailaka tomorrow, at the mouth of the river, and from there they'd catch a ship to the big port in Brightvale on their way to Meridell.
A ship. Tomos wasn't looking forward to that. He couldn't swim worth scorched Sutek Beans – most desert-dwellers couldn't – and he distrusted any water that was deeper than he was tall. At least the Sakh stayed calmly within its banks. But to be on the open ocean in what was basically a fancy barrel, with the water underneath and all around...
And he couldn't even complain about it. Only Saiban, the silver Kyrii who was the oldest member of their band of guards, looked at the prospect without alarm, and as the captain Tomos had to be the calm one for everyone else if he wanted to receive even the smallest iota of respect.
He reminded himself that Princess Amira trusted him. King Jazan trusted him. Nabile trusted him. They'd all trusted him enough to hand him three very valuable gems and an important treaty, and when a Scarab gave his word, he kept it. He wouldn't betray that trust, even if it involved far too much water.
That night, they camped a distance away from the port – far enough that any pickpocket wouldn't find them. Tomos didn't begrudge them what small living their thievery brought them, since he'd lived that way himself most of his life. But he couldn't risk the safety of the three gems. They were far too important.
Saiban stirred the soup he was making over the fire – the dark kohl he wore around his eyes looked eerie against his pale face. He didn't speak, but then he rarely did. Origen and Jaryth had taken out a pack of cards and were starting a game. Jaryth asked "Tomos, Kipras, do you two want to play a round of Go! Go! Go!?"
Tomos looked over at the shadow Wocky. "I'm for it. Kipras, how about you?"
Origen said, "Sure, thief, join us. Just keep all your cards where I can see 'em."
Tomos informed him, "I was a thief, not a cheat."
Kipras nodded. "I'll play a hand." Kipras was an odd one, that was certain, and Tomos wasn't one to throw the word around lightly. He wasn't much older than Tomos, and was small and skinny, with a slightly pathetic attempt at a moustache and big brown eyes that seemed to be always watching. He was a little twitchy – Tomos wondered if he'd been a thief once. Though if he had been, he'd hidden it from Origen, since the big Grarrl's venom was directed at Tomos alone.
Tomos took his place and looked at his hand in disgust – it was a good thing there was no money at stake, or he'd be close to losing it all. All he could hope for was someone else whom fate liked even less, so he could salvage some of his dignity.
Thankfully, it became clear that his draw hadn't been as bad as Origen's – Tomos was the third to get rid of all his cards, and Origen still had five left. The Grarrl glared at him, and Tomos wondered if he should have played a little worse. Jaryth sighed. "Cool it, firework. If you kill the captain, the Princess won't be happy."
Captain Tomos. The phrase didn't really sound right to him. Tomos still walked around the Palace half-expecting to be arrested at any moment, even though he knew it was silly. He understood how Origen could resent him – Tomos would have resented him as well, had the situation been reversed.
But Tomos had been put in charge of this mission, and since they were bearing the first overtures of diplomacy that could lead to the largest treaty Neopia had ever seen, it was far too important for any of them to let personality clashes get in the way of their work.
He still wondered why they hadn't sent a larger group, or someone more inspiring as a leader. But he had a feeling he knew the answer – Princess Amira had wanted to give him a big task in order to prove to all the complaining nobles who wanted him arrested that he had deserved his pardon and his new position in the world.
He didn't particularly like the pressure.
Kipras said, "We ought to go to sleep. We'll need to board the Saribanda early tomorrow, and I've been on a ship before. We'll none of us rest well tomorrow at sea."
Tomos hadn't heard that particular useful piece of information before. "When have you been on a ship?"
The Wocky shrugged. "A few times – never as far as Brightvale, though."
That hadn't really been an answer, but Tomos didn't want to press Kipras. He was right, after all. Tomos and Saiban didn't have to take a watch this eve – Origen had the first third of the night, Jaryth the second, and Kipras the dawn watch – so the Lupe would be able to get a full night's sleep. He fully intended to take advantage of that.
He'd gotten tired, so it was only a matter of minutes before he fell fast asleep.
Tomos woke up with the dawn light and looked around the camp as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes. Origen, Jaryth, and Saiban were still wrapped in their blankets, and Kipras was nowhere to be seen. Tomos asked, "Kipras? Kipras, where are you?"
No answer, which was strange – he should have stuck close to the camp, since he was the sentry. He should have been waking all of them up right about now!
He looked over at Kipras's place again – the blanket was still there, but the Wocky's pack was gone.
His stomach was sinking quickly – he woke the others with a shout. "You all need to wake up! We've got trouble!"
Origen grumbled, "What trouble besides you, Captain Light-fingers?"
Tomos didn't have time to retort – he'd been put in charge, and the safety of the five on this expedition was his responsibility. "Kipras is gone. His pack's gone, too."
Jaryth said in horror, "Gone?"
Saiban said grimly, "Look in your pack, Tomos."
The three jewels were gone, as was the scroll with diplomatic greetings from Sakhmet and Qasala. In the bottom of the bag were razor-sharp glass shards – the broken, useless remains of the communication mirrors that Tomos could have used to talk to King Jazan in Qasala or Chief Mage Pashki in Sakhmet. He told them, "They're gone."
He didn't insult any of his fellows' intelligence by saying out loud that Kipras had just sold them down the river – they all knew. Jaryth said, "Sweet Fyora! General Dacon's going to kill the lot of us!"
Saiban said, "We have bigger problems. Kipras alone has no need for those jewels. You can't take priceless magical artifacts to a pawn-broker in Sakhmet. Someone bought Kipras as part of a larger plot. Someone who either wants power, wants to keep the desert cities and the Three Kingdoms separate, or both."
Origen frowned. "Since he waited until last night to run off with them, I'll bet he's meeting someone in the port."
Tomos said, "There's no time to contact someone in Sakhmet – he smashed the mirrors. We'll have to go after him ourselves. The way he creeps around, he'll draw someone's attention."
Origen retorted, "And we all know you wrote the book on avoiding attention, thief."
Tomos gritted his teeth – he remembered all the stories Nabile had told him about how hard it was to be nice to irritating courtiers.
He'd asked her how she dealt with it – she told him that she threw some of the ugly vases in the Qasalan palace.
But he didn't have a vase to throw. He repeated, "We have to go after him and get those jewels back. If we wait for reinforcements from Sakhmet, we'll lose him. We'll ask the captain of the Saribanda to wait for us, and we'll ask around. See if anyone saw a shadow Wocky, or knows of any criminal element with a use for magic gems."
Saiban nodded. "Solid plan, Captain."
Jaryth nodded as well. "Better than going back to Sakhmet and telling them we didn't even get out of the desert."
Origen said, "We need to leave. I'll bet he left as soon as Jaryth fell back asleep – he's got a few hours' head start."
Tomos was used to stealing. But it never had been more than what he needed to survive. Something about Kipras's theft felt far, far worse than anything that Tomos had ever done. He said, "Let's go, then. We've got a thief to catch!"
To be continued...