The Golden Elephante: Part Four
"Where?" he asked groggily, reaching for his spear and managing to find it on his second attempt. He struggled to his feet and looked around.
"There're hiding," she replied, glancing to her left as if for reassurance.
"Won't they go away now since we're awake?" Souvier asked, sincerely hoping that she would say yes.
"Nah, they don't look like the type to just give up like that," she said.
"How can you even see them in this darkness?" Souvier muttered, squinting at the spires of stone around them.
"I didn't, it's the one thousand year old spirit that follows me everywhere," she said, flashing her teeth at him.
He laughed and shook his head. "You really think that now is the time to be joking around?"
But then he saw the pets approaching. There were about half a dozen of them, and they all wore black robes and hoods that completely obscured their features. Most of them held wicked-looking scimitars, but the largest had two short swords clutched in his paws, and he headed straight towards Souvier.
Beside him Tazaa was bouncing up and down on the balls of her paws, all four of which were touching the ground. He wondered for a moment where her daggers were, but then she did a powerful spring into one of their assailants, knocking him back several steps in his surprise.
"Attack," the pet holding the two swords growled unnecessarily, launching himself at Souvier. Quickly, Souvier held up his spear across his body and stood firm as his sister had taught him, and heard two thuds as the swords sunk into the thick wood.
"You know I'm just playing with you, don't you?" his attacker asked, the trace of a growl in his voice. His hood fell slightly, revealing a Lutari's face.
That was hardly reassuring, but Souvier had no choice but to fight back. Taking advantage of his opponent temporary having his weapons trapped, he stepped forward and stamped on the inside of the pet's ankle. The Lutari gave an angry yelp and yanked his swords free.
"That's hardly fair," he began, going to take another swing, but then the hilt of a dagger hit him in the side of the head and he toppled over, unconscious.
Souvier whirled around to see Tazaa fighting like a wild kadoatie. It looked like she was thrashing around between three larger pets, but every so often a dagger would appear in her paw and she would throw it or take a swing. She also used every opportunity she could to snap at her opponents with her sharp teeth. It was a peculiar style of fighting, nothing like the clean exchange of blows he had observed in the Battledome.
Even as he watched she sent another pet reeling, clutching his wing in agony, and launched herself at one of the remaining pets. There were only two left fighting. The others were hanging back with injuries, and one of them made a move to the Lutari and dragged him away, wary of Souvier's spear.
There was another yelp as Tazaa knocked the pet she was grappling with unconscious, and she stood breathing heavily for several seconds. Before she could catch her breath the remaining pet standing started forward, sword swinging in an arc.
Tazaa's ear's pricked up, even though the attack was completely silent, and suddenly she spun around, her hind legs kicking the other pet's legs from under him. Two seconds later she was brandishing two daggers in her paws.
"I think that's enough now," she said, not an iota of humour in her voice. It sounded hollow without it. "Leave."
The pets didn't need telling twice. Dragging their unconscious comrades with them, they disappeared into the Spires.
"Phew," Tazaa said, stretching her whole body so that her belly almost touched the ground. "I'm a bit stiff from doing that in the middle of the night." She went around the campsite, collecting the half-dozen daggers that were littered about, and secreted them upon her person again. "Oooh, look what someone left behind." She picked up a scimitar and swung it a few times. "We'll get a good price on this," she said happily. It was as if the entire thing hadn't happened.
Souvier inspected his spear, but apart from two shallow cuts in the hardened wood it was perfectly intact.
"How did you know that pet was behind you?" he asked curiously. "It happened so suddenly."
She grinned. "Oh, it was just that spirit I told you about warning me. Don't pay it any mind."
She curled up into a ball and pulled her blanket over herself, and Souvier knew he wouldn't get any straight answers tonight.
"I hope they don't come back," he murmured, settling back down.
"I'll wake you up again," she said with a yawn. Then she fell asleep.
They saw the kingdom of Oesh late afternoon the next day. Although it could hardly be called a kingdom, more like a walled city. Even Qasala had had some sort of grandeur, from a distance looking large and intimidating, but Oesh was a collection of scattered buildings surrounded by a low wall. The only thing that stood out was the huge building that could only be the palace at the north of the city.
He noticed as they approached that the wind was picking up fiercely, throwing up sand into their faces. They had emerged from the Spires near the river, and were following it as it snaked south, much smaller and less impressive than it was up north near the major kingdoms.
"That's a massive wind," Tazaa muttered, drawing her hood closer to her face so that only the tips of her ears poked out.
It was quite impressive, and Souvier found himself using his spear as a walking stick simply to stop himself from being blown over. Tazaa was lower to the ground, and gripping with all four paws, but she still looked like she was struggling. The wall of Oesh was only five metres high, less than half that of Qasala, and sand had managed to pile itself up almost halfway in some places.
"I don't know why anyone who would live around here with that cursed wind blowing all the time," he commented to Tazaa, who grunted and nodded in reply.
At the gate they were met by two rather large Grarrls, who seemed less interested in travellers and more interested in scooping buckets full of sand from against the nearest house and tossing it out of the city. One of them caught sight of the travellers and snapped to attention, claw on the hilt of his sword.
"State your business," he snapped. "We don't have time for strangers here."
Tazaa exchanged a look with Souvier.
"I am the adventuress Tazaa Itja, and this is my companion, Professor Souvier," she said in an impressive voice.
"Wait, what?" Souvier said, turning to her.
The Grarrl's eyes widened in surprise, and then he gave a short bow.
"My apologies, Adventuress Itja," he said, quickly beckoning his partner over and saying a few words to him. "We've been expecting you for several days. Please, come with me."
He hurried off towards the largest building in the city, which Souvier had to admit was pretty impressive. It was less than half the size of the palace in Sakhmet, but took up about them same amount of space as a proportion of the city itself. The sunlight glinted on smooth white marble, and it stood several stories high, with gold-roofed towers spiralling into the sky. The grandeur was somewhat ruined by the waves of sand cascading over the city, however.
The streets were, understandably, deserted, except for a few pets who were wearing the same blue and gold as the Grarrl leading them. They were desperately collecting sand in bags and hauling them towards the walls. Tazaa turned her head this way and that as she observed everything around her, and now Souvier could tell that something was wrong.
They reached the entrance of the palace, and the Grarrl said two words to the guards there before they hurried to open the huge wooden doors and stood to attention, some staring in awe at the two companions. Souvier was glad for the headscarf covering his face, because the attention was making him edgy.
"This way, please," the Grarrl said, as two more guards fell in behind them. A few other pets trailed along behind with curiosity clearly evident on their faces. It was really quite the entourage.
Souvier took the time to survey the palace. On the white walls hung beautifully woven tapestries, and vases and statues were set at regular intervals. A blue carpet was laid out in the centre of the hallways, softening his footfalls. Any windows they encountered had been sealed with canvas, so the palace was mercifully free of the wind and sand. He could now turn his attention to speaking with Tazaa.
"I'm not a professor," he hissed at her.
She glanced at their entourage and then whispered back. "Well, you needed an impressive title. It's not like 'adventuress' means anything, anyway. Like I said when we met, I just tack it on to sound impressive."
"But now they're going to ask me all sorts of difficult questions I have no idea how to answer. A professor of what, exactly?"
He had to halt this exchange when their guide stopped in front of a pair of doors every bit as impressive as those for the entrance to the building, except that they were made of stone and not wood. The white stone was set with jewels and gold filigree, and towered unnecessarily high. Even the Grarrl was less than half their height.
"His Majesty awaits within," the guard said dramatically, but the grandeur of this statement was spoiled by the obvious strain on the faces of the dozen pets who had to push the doors open. Souvier predicted that an invading army could be halted simply by the sheer weight of them, but finally there was a gap wide enough to allow them to pass through two at a. As the Grarrl led the way through the gap he swear he saw sweat glistening on a few of the pets' skin.
The room beyond was extremely large and most likely would have been airy at any other time. But the tall arched windows set in the roof had been covered with heavy canvas to prevent the relentless wind blowing sand inside. A gallery ran the full length of the room, with a few pets perched near the rails holding bows. It looked abandoned, not as impressive as it would have with more pets and sun streaming through the windows, but Souvier guessed that most of the guards were occupied outside, in the city.
At the far and of the room, past dozens of statues carved with the visages of past kings, a powerful-looking Ruki sat on a jewel-studded throne, an impressive grey beard sprouting from his chin and trailing to his chest. Souvier often wondered how any pets completely covered in scales or chitin could manage to grow hair on their face, but it seemed this would continue to baffle him for the rest of his life.
"Your Majesty, may I present Adventuress Tazaa Itja and her companion the wise Professor Souvier," the Grarrl announced them, sinking into a deep bow. It seemed that everyone was tacking titles to his name, Souvier thought with resignation.
King Saladin the Third rose to his feet and gave them a respectful nod, walking down the dais to meet them. There was an awkward silence as Tazaa and Souvier hurried across the carpet to meet him, but finally the two parties reached each other and Saladin grasped her paw with warm eyes.
"I thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming to our aid," he said, then turned to shake Souvier's claw. "Professor Souvier, I admit that your name does not sound familiar to me, but if you are in the company of such an esteemed lady as Miss Itja, then I suppose you must be a great pet."
Souvier smiled back, trying not to grit his teeth. There was no way he could admit that he wasn't a professor of anything right now. King Saladin was staring at him with some concern in his eyes, and Souvier realised that his face had reverted to its normal grey sadness. He opened his eyes wider and tried not to look like he was about to cry.
There was the skittering of tiny claws and then two young Desert Ruki wearing gold circlets on their brows appeared beside the King, one staring between Souvier and Tazaa belligerently, the other staring at the floor. Other than that they were completely identical, but they only looked about ten or eleven.
"And these are my lovely daughters, Doshi and Hadya," Saladin said warmly, patting the angry-looking one's head. She bore it with patience despite her expression.
"Why do you look so sad?" she asked Souvier in a grating tone.
"Doshi," Saladin chastised. "These are our guests. You can't just go around asking people why they are sad unless you know them well."
"Fine," the Ruki replied. She looked up at Souvier. "Why do you look so miserable?"
Souvier was caught between stifling a laugh and being offended, so he settled for staring at her with sad eyes. Saladin looked resigned, but Hadya and Tazaa both looked faintly amused, although Hadya still kept her eyes lowered.
"It's just a paintbrush," he said finally, when it was clear that she expected an answer.
"A terrible, despairing, paintbrush," Tazaa added, her amusement evident in her tone. "It has its own story, and I'm sure the professor will tell you the whole tale if he feels up to it."
Souvier shot her a dirty look.
"Ah, and that brings me to the reason that I asked you here, Miss Itja," Kind Saladin said in his resonant voice. "For it starts with a tale that has been told for centuries. A terrible and wondrous tale. The tale of our Kingdom."
To be continued...