The Golden Elephante: Part Seven
"I don't get it. You can't read the common modern language but you can read centuries-old hieroglyphs?"
The two princesses were tucked up under one blanket to one side of the tunnel, both of them fast asleep. It hadn't taken long to convince them that continuing on wouldn't be a good idea after that ordeal. Souvier sat on the opposite side of the tunnel with his back against the wall, while Tazaa curled around herself in front of him, head resting on her paws.
"It's my greatest secret," she said after a while, long after he thought she was refusing to answer him. "My ace, as it were. Remember how I told you I was a thief until someone told me to get my life together?" He nodded. "Well, it's a rather long story, but I think you're the only person I'd trust with it. You barely even knew me and you offered to teach me how to read.
"Seven years ago I was loitering in the marketplace of Sakhmet when an Usul wandered by. He looked extremely wealthy, with expensive imported silks and strings of jewellery hanging off him. He had no guards accompanying him, which was a little strange. But the strangest thing is that he was holding a gold ring in his open palm.
"Well, I didn't waste time hesitating. I raced past him as fast as my legs could take me, and snatched the ring out of his paw. I expected him to shout that he had been robbed, or at least some sort of commotion to happen, but when I glanced back for one moment I saw that he was grinning like a crazed pet, and then he began laughing hysterically."
She paused here and took off her lapis ring, placing it in her palm and holding it up to him. "Here, it's easier if I show you. Touch it."
He gave her a suspicious look. What if the thing burnt him on contact, or something along those lines? She stared back with innocent eyes, and he decided that if she wore it twenty-four hours a day it must be safe. So he slowly reached out his arm and touched it with the tip of one claw.
Instantly an enormous ghost Hissi materialised in front of him, red eyes glowing and a snarl on its face. He reacted by jerking backwards, slamming his back painfully against the wall. The moment he stopped touching the ring the apparition disappeared.
Tazaa began to laugh, genuinely amused by his fright. "I'm sorry," she said in between chuckles. "I didn't expect him to do that. Rashidi, watch your manners."
She spoke the last words to thin air, and Souvier could only assume that Rashidi was the ghost.
"What was that?" he asked, staring at the ring.
"Here." Before he could object she had pressed the ring to his palm, and the Hissi appeared again, this time not in front of his face but floating above the Gelert's left shoulder. He wore what Souvier could only call a malicious grin, but Tazaa couldn't see it because she was facing the opposite direction. He was definitely a ghost, and Souvier could still see the clothes he had worn when he had died; it was desert garb of an unusual fashion, and a huge headdress that was encrusted with jewels, as well as multiple rings around his tail and bangles on his wings.
"I apologize, Missster Souvier," the ghost said in a refined voice that had a Desert ring, but slightly off. "I simply couldn't resisssst."
Watching Tazaa's left ear pricking up, Souvier suddenly understood why she always seemed to shoot annoyed glances to her left. With the spirit hovering at her shoulder all the time, invisible to all but her, he could say whatever he wanted to her without fear of being heard. He gave a short laugh – she had not been joking when she had told him that a spirit had warned her about the pets attacking in the Spires.
"I guess I should explain," Tazaa said. She removed her paw from his palm and casually tossed the ring down into the tunnel and out of sight.
"What?" Souvier began in stupefaction.
"Look here." Her voice brought his gaze back from the tunnel and onto her paw, where the ring was now sitting, glinting in the soft light cast by the glowing stones.
"Well, now I think I am thoroughly confused," Souvier said finally. Tazaa looked to her left for a moment, then once more pressed the ring to Souvier's palm.
"Allow me to explain," the ghost Hissi hissed as he reappeared. "Back when I was alive, Qasala was still a mighty empire. I was the cousin to the Pharaoh, next in line for the throne, but my brother wanted it for himself. The story has been repeated countlessly over the last millennium, but one night as I prepared for bed he came up behind me and thrust a dagger through my heart."
The Hissi sounded so matter-of-fact that Souvier felt a little unsettled.
"The princes in those days were well-versed in magic, and I must have managed to cast a spell, because when my brother took my ring of office from me I appeared as a spirit behind him. Try as he might he could not get rid of me: He tried to throw the ring away, or bury it, or destroy it, but always it came back, and with it came me. I used my time to torment him for what he had done, and when the ring was passed down to the next in line for the throne, I made his life a misery too." Here Rashidi grinned. "I think I was a large part of why the empire fell to pieces. Most claimed it was because the Pharaohs were mad."
"The ring can't be gotten rid of unless a pet willingly takes it from the last owner's hands," Tazaa chimed in. "The ring of office was eagerly accepted by each of the next heirs to the throne, because it was tradition. But after the empire fell it was stolen and stolen again, sometimes even bought because the future owners never knew about Rashidi. Eventually it came down to me and when he appeared behind my shoulder at first I freaked out."
"She can run very fast when she wants to," Rashidi said, and Souvier caught affection in his voice. It reassured him; perhaps he was no longer the type of pet that malevolently haunted others.
"After a while she yelled some very nasty things at me – I shan't repeat them, but I can safely say that no one had ever stood up to me before, not in a thousand years, not even when I was still alive. Except perhaps the Pharaoh himself. And I thought – she has so much spirit, so much fire, what a waste it is for her to be running in the streets."
"You didn't think that. You said it out loud," Tazaa said, and Souvier began to realise just how close the two were. "He was the pet that told me to do something with my life, and he told me how to do it. Without him I'd probably be in the Thieves Guild somewhere in Sakhmet or maybe still an urchin. He taught me how to speak in a more civilised fashion, as he would say, and how to act around nobles, and saved me from all sorts of old Desert magic just by watching my back. And he is the one who can read the hieroglyphs, not me, because they're similar to the ones he used when he was alive."
Both of the pets were silent, and Souvier leaned back, letting go of the ring so that the ghost Hissi disappeared. "I see," was all he said. He was in disbelief. It had been such luck for Tazaa to steal that ring, to have a guide who had centuries of experience with the world.
Tazaa was looking at what Souvier now knew was the spirit beside her, and she nodded several times.
"Do you have to do that?" he complained. "I can't see or hear him."
"That's what we're discussing," Tazaa said, her voice excited. "Rashidi says that previous owners of the ring have still been able to see him after they gave it up. If you take it willingly from my paw we'll both be able to see him."
"No offence, but I'm not sure I'd want a spirit following me around everywhere I go," Souvier said to the space above her shoulder that he guessed Rashidi was occupying.
"Don't worry. You can just give me the ring back afterwards. He's attached to the ring, so he can't go further than five metres from me," she said. "He was the one who pointed you out in the marketplace in Sakhmet. I was looking for a pet who could read, and he pointed at you and said, 'That pet needs adventure. He's thirsting for it. Take him.' So I did. He's been watching you this entire trip and says you can be trusted with seeing him."
She held out her paw invitingly, and Souvier hesitated a bare millimetre from touching the ring, then made up his mind. He was supposed to be on an adventure, and this was a part of it. He took the ring.
Instantly he saw something floating above his left shoulder. Rashidi grinned lazily at him, resting his head on one wing as he floated. His headdress looked in danger of falling off, but he was a spirit, so it would be stuck with him forever.
"Put it on," the ghost said. "It would brighten you up."
Souvier slid the ring onto his finger, marvelling at the deep blue of the lapis and the golden swirls in the stone. He looked up at Tazaa, who was looking back and forth between them.
"I can still see you!" she said happily to Rashidi.
"You thought you couldn't trust me, Itja?" the ghost Hissi replied, sounding offended. Souvier was confused for a moment before he remembered that was her old name.
"I would hug both of you, but Rashidi can't actually do anything physical. He's just an imprint," Tazaa told Souvier.
"Well, that seems pretty useless," Souvier commented.
The Hissi's eyes flashed red. "Don't push your luck, Krawk," he hissed. "Just because I'm nice to Itja doesn't mean I have to be nice to you."
They fell asleep soon after that, but the next morning he woke up to find Rashidi hovering at one end of the tunnel, searching for any sign of movement.
"I don't sleep," the Hissi told him, appearing suddenly by his shoulder so that Souvier jumped. "I don't need to sleep or eat or drink. I just exist."
Souvier didn't reply, as both the princesses were awake, and Tazaa had asked him not to give Rashidi away. She didn't want others to know about him and the Hissi wanted the ring to stay with her for a long while, although he allowed that Souvier could wear it while the two were travelling together.
"Shall we continue?' Tazaa bounced up to the twins, stuff already stowed away in her pack.
"I guess so..." Doshi mumbled, for once not sounding grumpy, but rather sleepy. The twins grasped each other's arms and turned to face each other, then led the way down the tunnel. Whenever they came to an intersection Souvier would step forward and examine the Hieroglyphs carved into the wall.
"It makes you look more like a professor," Tazaa whispered to him when she suggested it. Souvier was resigned to the fact that he now had a title that would most likely stick after this was over, but in fact it was Rashidi who interpreted the meanings of the carvings. Several times they had to go down a tunnel that wasn't the twins' first choice, although Hadya assured them that they were getting closer.
Finally they reached a place where tunnels branched out every few steps. The princesses tried again, and Doshi began to look increasingly frustrated.
"It's close, but it's hard to tell the direction," she growled. "I can feel it, but it's so powerful that it could be down any of these tunnels."
"Souvier," Rashidi said in his ear. "Come this way."
Souvier followed the Hissi as he floated to the entrance of one tunnel and went down it several metres. It opened up into an empty cavern about ten metres wide and long, and Souvier was about to step into it before Rashidi appeared right before his face, waving his wings in a shooing gesture.
"Get back!" he hissed. "He'll see you."
"What?" Souvier whispered. He took several steps back and ducked behind a bend.
"The Scorchio. You're very lucky he was facing the other way," Rashidi said.
"What Scorchio?" Souvier growled.
"The – oh, you can't see him. I understand. There's a fire Scorchio in there blasting away at golden statue, but he must have put a ward up. I guess I can see through it only because I'm a magical manifestation...." The ghost Hissi glanced back around the bend again then turned to Souvier. "We have to warn the others!"
To be continued...