The Golden Elephante: Part Six
Tazaa rubbed her chin thoughtfully, then began to pace back and forth in front of the lounge while Souvier leaned against the doorframe.
"The first thing I'd like to know is what this Undercity is. You and your father both mentioned it, but no one bothered to explain it to us."
Doshi nodded briskly. "Centuries ago, when Oesh still sat over a large deposit of gold, miners tunnelled beneath the city to create a labyrinth of criss-crossing tunnels. In the centre they carved out a city so they wouldn't have to keep returning above ground every night. It was mostly abandoned by the citizens for the last century, but now it's filled to the brim because everyone is scared of the upper city being destroyed by the curse."
Hadya spoke for the first time. Her voice, like everything about her, was almost identical to her sister's, but instead of an aggressive, grating tone, it was soft and kind.
"It's dangerous down there, though," she said, a crease of worry on her forehead. "The upper tunnels and those closest to the Undercity are fine, but further down the miners set many traps, both physical and magical, to prevent their rivals from finding their latest gold findings. So we must be careful not to enter any of the traps."
"We?" Tazaa did her best stern impression, and Souvier was almost convinced. "I can't be dragging both princesses around down there if it's dangerous."
"We can look after ourselves!" Doshi snapped, the chitin above her wings bristling. "I tell you, you won't be able to find the statue without us!"
Souvier was impressed with her; despite her young age she had the commanding tone of a ruler. Tazaa turned to him and raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"What do you say?"
He shrugged. "You're the adventurer," he said.
"And you're the most esteemed professor," she said back, a wicked gleam in her eye. "I would love to hear your opinion."
"I say that we can't hope to navigate the tunnels without them, and that we shouldn't get caught by the king or he'll probably throw into a dungeon even with all our good intentions."
"You're very smart," Doshi said approvingly. "We'll go straight after dinner. If we leave before then Father will have time to send some guards after us."
She gave them a regal nod, then her and Hadya let themselves out. Tazaa let out a toothy grin.
"She will make a fantastic queen one day. I hope I get to see it."
Dinner was an uncomfortable affair for Souvier, who was not used to so many dishes, nor so much attention focused on him. Tazaa seemed completely comfortable, probably used to being showered with attention like this, though when it had just been her and Souvier she had seemed humble enough. Predictably, the food was filled with a multitude of sand, and their host apologised profusely.
"All the food in the city is being ruined by the sandstorm, and we've sent most of it down to the Undercity, but this is the best fare in the upper city," Saladin promised.
The wind certainly had picked up enough to be called a sandstorm. It produced a relentless whistling noise that set Souvier's nerves on edge, and he found the corner of his jaw aching from where he was unconsciously clenching it. The canvas covers on the windows bulged inwards under the deluge of sand being pressed against them, but so far only a few grains of sand had leaked through. The curse would certainly destroy the city within a few days.
There wasn't much entertainment, as most of the other diners were guards or noblepets who had been brave enough to stay above, and they were subdued. Tazaa lifted the mood by telling stories of her adventures. Souvier listened with interest as she described sneaking into the ruins of an old palace and finding the crown she had been asked to find, which had spat fire at her until she had bowed deeply to it. He could write a whole book about her adventures, he decided, to inspire people like himself who enjoyed reading.
Once the last dishes had been cleared away and Souvier felt like he was going to explode with food, Tazaa stood up and announced that she would be heading into the Undercity the following morning, and that she needed to retire early in order to recover from the journey to Oesh. These words were greeted with approval from Saladin and the other citizens, who began to look hopeful for the first time.
Back in their quarters, Tazaa went into one of the five bedrooms and immediately fell asleep on the plush cushions, managing to mumble, "Wake me up when twins come," before she began snoring. Souvier also felt quite tired, but he retreated to the lounge in the first room, which was closest to the door, and managed to nap for a few hours before an imperious rapping on the door woke him up.
"You have no idea how to use that thing, do you?" was the first thing Doshi said to him when he opened the door, waving at his spear.
He was still quite groggy, and merely shrugged. Both of the princesses had removed their golden jewellery and headdresses and were wearing much less ostentatious attire; brown robes with hoods so they could hide their faces. He went to wake Tazaa and found her already gathering her belongings and the travelling food Saladin had sent up to them.
"Are you ready?" she asked them as she followed Souvier out to the first room, and both nodded. Doshi looking slightly offended at the question. "Good. Then you can tell me the easiest way to sneak around the palace."
"It's much easier now that there's so few pets left," Hadya explained, surprising Souvier by leading the way. They crept along the passageways, sometimes taking the smaller sets of stairs meant for servants. Once or twice they had to duck into a room to avoid being seen, but eventually they reached a room that was empty except for a few crates.
"This is a secret entrance known only to the royals," Hadya explained, reaching to press a stone in the wall. The wall slid away, leaving a small corridor that just brushed Souvier's head as they entered.
"You had better not tell anyone about this," Doshi muttered darkly.
"So why show us?" Souvier asked.
"Because getting out of the palace or into the known Undercity entrance in the Palace would be impossible because Father set up guards." He saw her clench her fists. "And I would do anything to save Oesh."
Tazaa produced a lantern, but both the princesses held rocks that glowed with a faint yellow light. They travelled in silence after that, following the tunnel down and down. It narrowed slightly and then ended with a crack that Souvier couldn't imagine King Saladin being able to squeeze through. They somehow managed it and he looked back to see that the crack was disguised amongst a tumble of rocks. Then he looked ahead.
They were in a large chamber – the roof was several times his height – which stretched so far back he couldn't see the opposite wall. But rising in the centre of the chamber were hundreds of buildings carved out of stone. The Undercity glowed with the same yellow light as the rocks the princesses held, and Souvier could see a number of them on the windowsills of the city.
There was movement amongst the buildings, and he spotted several pets walking around, but not at any brisk pace. It was almost midnight, Souvier judged, and they would be preparing to sleep. Although maybe down here they didn't keep normal hours, not knowing when one day ended and another began.
Hadya stopped and reached out a claw to her sister. They made no move towards the city, but instead stood opposite each other, gripping the other's arms tightly with their eyes closed. Then they opened them.
"This way," Doshi said confidently, leading the way around the cavern until they reached several tunnels. She selected one and they all followed, deeper into the earth.
"Are there any exits to this place not from the city of Oesh?" Souvier asked, curious. "What happens if your city does get covered by sand? How would you get out?"
"That's not going to happen," Doshi snapped. "And yes, there are."
Souvier felt a little better. He wouldn't be trapped down here forever, at least.
They travelled down the tunnel for some time until they reached a fork.
"Which way now?" Souvier asked.
The twins turned to one another again, and Tazaa wandered over to the wall next to the left entrance, running a paw over the stone.
"Look at this," she said. "It's some sort of hieroglyph. It must be centuries old." She paused and pricked her left ear up, listening to something.
At that moment the twins stirred and Doshi strode forward, towards the tunnel where Tazaa was frowning at the hieroglyph.
"Wait," Tazaa called, finally looking up.
"What?" Doshi said impatiently. "This is the right way, and we need to put as much distance between us and the palace before my father discovers that we're gone."
She stepped into the tunnel.
"You can't," Tazaa said frantically. "This mark is a warning. It means danger."
"What d—?" Doshi was cut off as the ground began to rumble. Then rocks from the ceiling began to fall, one at a time. Tazaa seized the princess by the back of her robe and dragged her out of the tunnel, into the one on the right. Hadya and Souvier quickly followed. One rock hit the ground so close to him it almost crushed his foot, but once they had taken several steps down the tunnel the rocks were no longer a danger.
In the tunnel behind the roof continued to cave in, all of the rocks somehow tumbling down the tunnel on the left. If they had been in there they would have been struck by all of them. After about ten minutes the rocks stopped falling, and Souvier peeked out of the tunnel to see that the other entrance had been completely buried by stone. They would have been trapped, and perhaps the tunnel was a dead-end.
Doshi stood where Tazaa had dragged her, eyes wide and slightly pale. Hadya instantly ran to her side and hugged her, and after a few seconds the stunned Ruki responded. They stood like that while Tazaa came to inspect the damage. The Desert Gelert also looked rather pale, and she turned to Souvier.
"I think this would be a good time to stop for the night."
To be continued...