Of Kitchens, Mummies and Unnecessary Heroics
Art by ssjelitegirl
The Lost Desert was having an unusually cold summer this year. This being the Lost Desert, it meant that merchants were less wary of coming to Sakhmet to trade because they could actually make the perilous journey there without leaving half their caravan behind in the dunes. Sakhmet was full of strangers and many of them were, indeed, pretty strange.
None of them failed to be impressed by the sight of the magnificent Royal Palace, however; a centuries-old masterpiece of architecture that defined everything the builders of times long gone could offer. Massive gilded columns rose towards the sky, bright white stone was polished so carefully that it hurt to look at and the heroic deeds of kings and queens of the past were carefully and lovingly crafted into the walls of the palace, to inspire awe in all who reached the kingdom to admire its glory.
"I think it looks a bit tacky really," said a tiny little voice at the base of one of the massive columns. It was a weary, grumpy, somewhat coarse voice.
"Bloody Mary, you have no sense of art," said another, vaguely motherly voice with just a hint of reprehension.
"Art is s'posed to be pretty to look at, as far as I know, and if I have to bend myself double to look at it, it's less pretty and more pain in the neck," said Bloody Mary. "How's that window coming along?"
"You're free to help," said a third voice, "but we're in. No need to thank me."
In the bright afternoon light that painted the hallway circling the inside of the palace outer wall with soft shadows and vivid rectangles of sunshine, a small gang of plump figures slid effortlessly onto the floor.
They were Meepits, a small gang of roughly a dozen that spent its time looking for food. Their quests for food had taken them to places many a young poor student yearning to see the world could only dream of, but if you'd told them that, they'd have been very surprised at the suggestion that places somehow got more interesting the farther you went. In their experience, all kitchens looked more or less alike. Which was fine with them, because it made kitchens easier to find, and the palace kitchen was exactly what they were after.
"Don't like it much," said Bloody Mary, casting an expert glance around. "Light and open."
"They have those big fancy vases and statues," said Bob "Squeaky" the Destroyer, a shorter and stockier Meepit. Bloody Mary was, by all accounts and technicalities, the gang's mostly-unofficial leader. Bob Squeaky was the tactician, which is very nearly the same thing, and how they maintained their lines of power without fighting every five minutes remained a mystery.
"Vases are round," grumbled Bloody Mary, "meaning we'd have to inch sideways behind it whenever someone walks past and that's the sort of wacky comedy I don't want to see from any of you. Alright then, Justice, you know the brainstuff. Where would we find the kitchen in here?"
"In the basement, probably," said the motherly-sounding female. "Palaces put their kitchens out of the way."
The Meepits digested that idea for a bit.
"So that they wouldn't have to see how all the foodmaking takes place," said Justice.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," said Joe the Chef, the gang's sometimes-when-he-felt-like-it cook, "but aren't the noble palace-dwelling folks usually the ones who always get poisoned?"
"It's called natural selection," said Bloody Mary, starting off down the hallway. "They'll keep getting poisoned until they start putting their kitchens someplace proper. Come on, let's go find a staircase."
Most staircases they found seemed to go up – it was a big palace and went a lot more up than down, so they admitted that much stood to reason – but the hallway they'd landed in seemed to circle the entire palace, so they figured they'd smell food eventually. And eventually, they did.
"It doesn't smell downwards, though," mumbled Bob Squeaky, inching forward. "It smells onwards."
"We don't want onwards," Bloody Mary said resolutely. "Onwards would be the place where nobs eat and get poisoned. We don't want any poison food, and even if we did, we can't pinch it off a table while they're eating."
"You'd think that they'd be happy to get rid of the poison," Bob Squeaky remarked.
"Yeah, nobs get funny like that."
Footsteps echoed in the hallway. The Meepits froze, then peered around the corner. There was a lone maid in the hallway, carrying a tray, but her back was turned towards them and she was hurrying off.
"She was either coming from the kitchen or the poison warehouse," Bloody Mary said smartly, "and that's the best lead we got right now. Let's roll."
Footsteps echoed in the hallway again, this time from behind the Meepits and in quiet, careful, uneven intervals. The gang darted behind the nearest statue and huddled together, painfully aware of their blue coats against the light yellow stone the palace was mostly made of.
The footsteps got closer, then closer still, and then a thief darted behind the statue, nearly stepped on the Meepits, darted out again, cast a quick frantic look around, and edged carefully into the shade of the statue again.
"Well, if this isn't mighty rude," Justice said sternly. "We were here first, kid. Find your own statue, it's not like they're lacking."
The thief looked to be a teenage yellow Lutari, thin and unhealthy-looking. He also looked like a nervous wreck, although the Meepits graciously admitted that people tended to look like that when running into them unexpectedly. He was dressed in light creamy and yellowish clothes that looked tattered and were wrapped tightly around his limbs to make him as flexible as possible.
"Uh... shoo!" the thief whispered as loudly as he dared and tried to inch closer to the gang in hopes that they'd run off. It didn't work. The gang was eyeing his clothes at the same time.
"Y'know, we should've thought of that," Bloody Mary said grudgingly. "We should find some of that yellow cloth for ourselves, lest we stick out like a bunch of glowworms in a mine."
"Well, I believe I found some of that yellow cloth," Bob Squeaky said cheerfully, reached out and bit. The thief leaped backwards with a barely suppressed yelp, there was a muffled rrrrrrip and the stocky Meepit stepped backwards with a piece of cloth in his teeth as the thief scrambled off down the hallway.
"That's not a very big piece," Bloody Mary observed as Bob Squeaky wrapped himself in the cloth.
"It's not a very good piece either," grunted the other, "all old and rotten and falling apart by itself. "
"Maybe he took it off a mummy," Santa's chirpy voice suggested. "The Lost Desert has mummies."
The Meepits looked at each other. This was the sort of thing Santa habitually said, being a gleeful combination of obliviousness and a certain brand of happy insanity, but under the circumstances, it bore considering.
"Aren't mummies usually cursed?" Bloody Mary asked, brow furrowing. "Can't say I like curses."
"We've been cursed many a time before," Justice pointed out smartly, "and it's usually somewhere to the effect of 'Come back here, you thieving little dirtbags'. Not that I like it, but none of us has gotten scarabs spilling out of their ears because of it."
"I thought mummy curses were different, though," said Bloody Mary. "Less dirtbags, more scarabs."
"Well, if I see any scarabs, I'll let you know," said Bob Squeaky. "I'll scout ahead and call, okay?"
The staircase led indeed to the basement and its cool damp dimness brightened the moods of the Meepits a bit. Being Haunted Woods denizens, they preferred places that offered easy hiding. This particular basement, however, was even a bit too good for the purpose: it was huge, consisted of winding hallways and while the smell of food wafted all over the place, they couldn't tell where it was coming from.
"Those Lost Desert folks are good at building mazes," explained Justice as they strode on, employing the widely recognized 'we'll keep going until we get someplace interesting' tactics. "They make those big triangular houses, right, and then they put their kings in there, and a lot of food, and fill the place with mazes so that nobody finds them."
"That's not very nice to the king," said Bloody Mary.
"No, they put the king together with the food inside that house," said the female, "and the mazes are there so that nobody else finds it."
"That's not very nice to anyone like us," said Bloody Mary.
"I think that's their idea," said Bob Squeaky who was still forging ahead in front of them, wrapped in the yellow cloth like a tiny vengeful ghost.
"See," said the leader, "the world would be a much nicer place if we all had a bit more consideration for our fellow petpet. Speaking of, does anyone see anyplace that'd get us all some of that yellow disguise cloth?"
"There's a load," Santa said helpfully, pointing a tiny paw, "but it's got an owner right now."
They stopped and turned to look at a slim figure wrapped in white cloth sliding quietly along the hallway. The Meepits pressed themselves against the wall behind the crates that lined the hallway and watched it curiously.
"Is that a mummy?" Santa squeaked with excitement.
"I don't know, those usually look more tattered."
"Maybe it's a fresh mummy?"
"It sure looks active for a mummy. I thought they mostly lie in a box all day."
The figure in white hurried past. The Meepits heard a jingle of bracelets and spotted a slim fragile arm as it caught a loose fold and wrapped it tighter around itself.
"We-ell," said Justice as the figure had passed, "I think that was Princess Amira."
"Figures she'd be a nob if she's a mummy," said Bob Squeaky. "What's she doing all the way down here, though?"
"Going to the kitchen, probably," said Bloody Mary. "Making sure she doesn't get poisoned. S'hard work, staying alive as a nob. Let's follow her, folks, even if she doesn't take us to the kitchen, she has a perfectly good disguise cloth I'd like to get a piece of."
Having the princess as a guide turned out to be a good idea because the basement got all the more weird and windy as they progressed. Soon it spread out into a wider patch in the hallway, and someone sat waiting there. The princess hurried to him.
"Take it," she whispered urgently. "I don't have much time."
The other figure jumped up and took her hands. The Meepits were surprised to see the same Lutari thief they'd run into earlier – or rather, who'd run into them earlier.
"Dellia, I... you actually did it, I can't believe you took this risk..."
"I did it for both of us," whispered the one he'd called Dellia. "Just please, be careful."
The Meepits watched in fascination.
"Bit melodramatic in execution, I think," said Bob Squeaky.
"Good chemistry, though," said Bloody Mary. "And I like the mystery aspect. So either she's an impostor, or she's the real princess and he doesn't know about it."
"Or she's the real princess but he knows it and she doesn't know that he knows and he's not telling her," Santa squeaked.
The meepits shot her a thoughtful look, then nodded. That was also plausible.
"I think," Justice said levelly, "that she's the princess' chambermaid posing as Amira to get the key to a treasure chamber so that her friend could empty it and they could both run away to live a life in luxury."
The other Meepits shot her a glare generally reserved for people who present an obvious explanation nobody else thought of. The lady in white and the thief in tatters hurried off at the same time and the gang's attention shifted immediately.
"Come on, let's go after them."
Following the nervous scent of the thief was easy enough for their petpet noses and soon enough they reached a thick metal door that the Lutari had just fumbled open when the group reached the room. He pulled it open carefully. Gold glinted in the darkness as fresh air and light flooded the chamber beyond.
"Hurry!" whispered the lady in white, fidgeting by the doorway. "I must be at the banquet soon, I must take the key back before anyone notices."
"Be easy," whispered the thief, "we'll be far away from here soon."
Bloody Mary glanced at Justice, who was looking smug.
"I hope you were also right about the kitchen being down here," he grumbled.
"I think she was," said Joe the Chef, who'd been keeping his nose open. "I smell food from that other hallway."
Having made sure that the vault only contained gold and nothing of edible interest, the meepits made their way towards the smell of food that was indeed getting stronger. The maze of hallways was as bad as ever but they couldn't get lost any more. They made it to the kitchen without incident.
It was huge, and bustling. Which, of course, means that there are a lot of eyes about that have a lot to look at and don't have a moment to spare for a small gang of looting Meepits. The latter commandeered a linen towel for the purposes of disguise, ripped it to shreds, and soon there was a tiny army of plump mummies looting food in a highly organized, regularly practiced fashion in a farther corner of the kitchen.
"Hurry up, the guests are already seated!" roared an elderly Skeith in an apron the size of a circus tent. "Take those fruit platters up, quickly! And bring another keg of juice! And has someone filled those little dough things with ham paste already?"
"Ooh, dough things with ham paste?" Bob Squeaky asked, spinning around in a flurry of cloth tatters. "Don't mind if I do."
"They're right next to you," Justice whispered urgently.
It took all of a split second for the gang to evaluate the situation and dive onto the bottom level of the cart that the dough things with ham paste were on. A young apprentice was hurrying towards them and as soon as they hid behind the folds of the cloth on the cart, it jerked into motion.
"This will turn into Comedy, won't it?" Bloody Mary asked, his face thunderous. "Some nob will lift the cover off a plate and there we are all huddled underneath it, and someone screams and we'll all run around and they'll try to whack us and someone jumps into a fat lady's powdered wig."
"I don't think they do powdered wigs in the Lost Desert," said Justice, doing a quick headcount of the group. "Anyway, this is the lower level, see? Nobs won't reach down here themselves. They got coffee and scones here, meaning this is the dessert, so if they're only just starting, we can scram before they get to the coffee."
The cart tilted upwards on a slope, daylight hit the folds of cloth all around them as they got to the ground level, the rumble got muffled by luxurious carpets, a door opened and the Meepits heard the murmur of a lot of voices in a very large room as their ride stopped.
"Everyone here?" Bloody Mary whispered. Justice nodded. "Good. Status report?"
"On it," said Bob Squeaky, waited until the sounds above them told them that stuff was happening to the food on the cart and therefore it wasn't rolling anywhere, and dropped onto the floor. He was back a minute later.
"We're by the table," he said, "and the wall is thataway. There's a fair number of guests and servants and if we slip under the table, nobody should notice us get out. The Dellia girl is here, by the way, standing next to the princess looking like her tail is on fire."
"She probably didn't have time to take the treasure vault key back yet," Justice guessed. "If anyone finds out that she has it, she'll get questioned."
"Princess Amira!" a voice shouted outside their little cloth sanctuary. "I'm sorry... Princess!" It was a breathless voice farther by the door. The room fell silent as a chair got pushed back.
"What is the meaning of this most rude interruption of my lunch?" a cold, haughty voice asked. It wasn't a loud voice but it was undeniably the voice of someone born into royalty: commanding, hushing, the type of voice that gets listened.
"Forgive me, Princess," panted the first voice , "but the treasure vault, the key to your personal treasure vault has gone missing and we found evidence that the vault's been opened and closed recently."
Noises and shouts erupted around the cart. Bloody Mary wrapped himself tighter in his little towel robe.
"I think now's a good time to skedaddle," he said. "While they're all distracted. If we get separated, we'll all meet at the same place we came in from- Justice? Justice, you look like you're about to do something I won't approve of."
"I won't do Comedy," Justice said defensively. "I'll do Heroics."
The leader sighed.
"Fine then. Guys, let's do the chaos."
The party at the table, shocked and agitated – within reasonable and polite extent, of course, because it wouldn't be acceptable otherwise – had just gotten themselves seated more comfortably in anticipation of a fun interlude of lunch and, for some of the less 'dear' and more 'keep your enemies close' type of guests, also of a bit of glee at the princess' expense, when the snack cart by the end of the table exploded in a flurry of plump little ghosts.
"Mummies!" screamed a servant.
"And this is how they educate their servants these days," Bloody Mary moaned, darting between fumbling legs that hadn't quite arrived at the idea of catching him yet.
Panic broke out, as panic is wont to do in those situations. Maids were screaming, servants were aiming to catch the agile little figures while trying to retain their dignity and failing at both, and the guests alternated between sitting very still with a rigid expression of appropriately frozen horror and saying things like "I do say, this is very unsightly."
"Shut the doors!" Amira's commanding voice echoed over the commotion. Bloody Mary cursed under his breath. Leave it to the princess to do the reasonable thing.
"The world would be a happier place if nobs didn't assume that they want to lock themselves in a room with us," Joe the Chef said, expertly bouncing off a fat Bruce's powdered wig.
"You know how it is with all new places," snorted the leader, "gotta establish the reputation first. Where's Justice?"
Justice, an expert at fast thinking and calculation, had homed in on Dellia the chambermaid in the few seconds she'd been out in the open. The girl didn't actually resemble Princess Amira that much, but she was a tan slim Aisha, probably a strand of light brown rather than the Desert color of the princess, with soft chestnut hair and eyes that were... probably large and mellower than the princess' cold noble gaze but still holding a malevolent glint of jealousy and greed that'd driven her to theft and treachery. Seriously, Justice didn't have any time to get a picture of her beyond "Aisha, kinda looks like the princess" but a part of her felt that this was what the girl probably looked like. It stood to reason. Somehow.
Not that it mattered at all. What mattered were the images and data the Meepit was receiving with all her senses, primarily her nose, and putting it all together in her mind in less time than it took her to dodge an elderly fumbling butler's hand. Strong smell of fear, scents familiar from the basement, bit of perfume, bit of Amira herself and probably her living quarters, dodge, rustling of the folds of the girl's robe, bounce, several sharp scents of metals from her necklaces and bracelets, dodge, one such metal thing hidden in her robe where it was serving no apparent purpose for clothing or jewellery, aim, grab, rip.
The key for the princess' treasure fault hit the floor with a quiet clink. Justice landed next to it and skidded to a halt, looking around defiantly.
Amira, whose chair was the closest, had snapped her head sideways at the flurry of motion that was the Meepit bouncing, the chambermaid recoiling, the cloth ripping and the glint of the key, and her eyes fell on the small item on the floor.
It was a sizeable key, made of some metal much sturdier and more mundane than soft unreliable gold, but whoever made it had tried hard to still make it look like the key to a princess' personal treasure vault. The result looked like a saddle on a Snorkle, with engraving and jewels embedded in a bulky heavy key, but it also looked unmistakably unique. Amira recognized it at once.
In a spontaneous and highly unqueenly move, she slammed her fist on the table.
Silence fell like a slab off a sarcophagus in a tomb, broken only by quiet bounce-bounce sounds by tiny shrouded mummies bailing towards the nearest open window.
"Dellia," Amira said into the silence. The chambermaid suddenly looked very small.
"Well," said Bloody Mary as they clambered out into the scorching sunlight, completely forgotten by everyone in the great hall as the new and exciting drama of theft and treachery began to unfold, "I have to say that was good clean heroics with little to no comedy. Good job, everyone."
"I looted some of those dough things with ham paste," Bob Squeaky reported. "And I smell a bakery somewhere upwind from here."
"Confirmed," said Justice. "Although I'm a bit curious about those big mazes with food inside, because bakeries tend to be guarded and the king-mazes are not."
Bloody Mary glanced at her. "You sure?"
"That can't be very good food."
"Best stuff they have," said Justice. "They just think that the curses are enough to keep people away."
"I'll never understand them," the leader said gruffly, "but all the better for us. Let's find a place to rest and see about the big mazes after sundown."
Two days later, just as the moon was rising over the dunes, an old Lutari lady living in a nearby village got a knock on her door. She was surprised and quite delighted to find it to be her son who'd run away from home a few years ago to become a thief in the big city in hopes of a life of luxury. She fixed him a quick cold dinner and sat with him at the table, nodding amiably and reassuringly as mothers do while the boy blabbed along about his last few days, shoveling food in with shaking hands.
After she'd comforted him and tucked him into bed, she sat up by the fire for a while, thinking her own thoughts. She hadn't understood much about her son's frantic blabber about palaces, vaults, huge treasures, tiny ghosts, extremely close escapes with bribes, breaking into the great pyramids, inscriptions and more treasures, and the same tiny ghosts who kept haunting him for his crimes, but she thought that the big city had to be a marvelous and scary place indeed.
She did have a hard time believing that any ghost would ever say things like 'oh, it's you again. Find your own maze, kid, we got here first,' but she decided that as long as she got her son back, she wasn't going to argue.
Maybe it was time to start putting food out for spirits again.