King of the Land of the Sun: Part Six
What Altador hadn't realized was just how eager all of his people would be to help. All of the Guard and all of the army they could find were mobilized, and they were still run ragged trying to keep up with all of the reports. Two poor Green Acara women who'd done nothing criminal had also been arrested, thankfully unharmed. He'd apologized profusely before sending them along their ways.
But as night fell, it was clear that Masila was still a step ahead of all of them. Jerdana laid a hand on Altador's forearm as they sat on a fountain's edge under a tree in the gardens that surrounded the Hall of Heroes. "Altador, you're tired. We're all tired. A bomb blew up – and that wasn't the only attempt on your life today! Go to bed. Sleep."
He sighed. "And you had to help heal everyone – and yet you're still awake."
She said, "I can feel the emotion in this city – my magic's too deeply tied to it for me to not be able to. You inspired them, Altador. Excited them. I can feel all of it – and it's like I had a whole pot of that strong Qasalan coffee." She reached out a hand, and a globe of light floated out of it, illuminating their surroundings with a golden glow as the last green-and-teal tinges of daylight disappeared in the west. "They believe in you, Altador. They believe that you will lead them through this fear and uncertainty. As does your Council."
Altador nodded. He felt the weight of that belief on his shoulders, but he had borne it for many years. He could bend under it without allowing it to break him. He lifted his nose and sniffed the air – the keen sense of smell that he shared with other Lupes allowed him to take in all the scents of the orchard trees, winding together and yet distinct. But there was something else...
He'd just identified that other scent as a person when there was a soft voice in the shadows. "My lord Altador?"
It was the thief girl, Laila. She was cringing so much – presumably from coming this close to the center of Altadorian law and order – that she had practically curled herself into a ball. "My lord Altador, I came to find you – I didn't want to take a message to the guards."
Most likely for fear that they'd recognize her and arrest her for pickpocketing and other petty theft. Altador stood. "Here. Sit, friend. There's no need to fear."
Jerdana shook her head. "None at all."
Laila said, looking down at her feet, "Well, if you'll pardon my boldness, my lord, with all the times folk have tried to kill you today, there might be something to fear standing too close to you."
Jerdana snickered. Altador thought that if that was boldness, Laila needed to spend more time with Tristan and Constantine. Those two run-amok squires would teach her boldness soon enough. He nodded. "Quite true."
She said, "My lord, I heard tell that Marcus from down Olive Vine Way was telling stories of smugglers on the North Coast with gold and jewels and magic. I was talking to Semelie, and she didn't think Marcus was telling truth, my lord, but could he be? That'd be the sort of thing Thieves' Guild and there sort would do – they don't just pick pockets, right, my lord?"
Altador said, "Some do, their newer and poorer members. But since Masila's here, you're right – they'll set their sights higher."
Jerdana frowned. "Magic – if they're smuggling magical artifacts, that could be dangerous. There's no telling how much power they could have accumulated to use, and some of those things can be deadly if mishandled." Then she said, eyes widening, "Of course. There's never just one reason for Masila's actions. They'd need that sort of magic to be able to handle me. On this soil, there are few that could match me for power, and since I'd be defending, I'd have the advantage. If I were them, I'd want Dark artifacts – they're the most dangerous to their users, but also the best for countering my own powers."
Altador shuddered. He knew full well that Jerdana was one of the great mages of Neopia. But he still shuddered at the thought of that delicate little Aisha facing some of the nastiest that Neopia had to offer. "At least Jazan's here – his magic has its roots in darkness, I know."
Jerdana nodded. "It makes it a little harder to work together, but not nearly as hard as it will be to work against us."
Laila whispered, "My lord, they say he nearly destroyed Sakhmet."
Altador sighed. "He was under a curse at the time. He's not going to destroy anything but whatever Masila's trying to build in Altador." To change the subject, he asked, "Do you have a place to stay for the night? We've found beds for Julius and Hestra, and we could do the same for you."
Laila was already retreating into the darkness beyond Jerdana's magical light. "Oh, no, my lord. Nymala's giving me space. I'll be fine." Altador could hear her break into a run as soon as she thought she was out of earshot – apparently her panic had even overruled a thief's sense of stealth.
Jerdana shook her head. "If anyone snuck up behind her, the poor girl would probably have a heart attack. And she's a thief?"
Altador said, "It's easy enough. All she has to do is be invisible, and she likes that. It comes more easily to her than speaking out – you can see that in her."
Jerdana nodded. "You're right. Should we find Kelland and ask if he's heard about these smugglers?"
Altador pointed out, "Or Marak. Marak might have heard. It's on the sea, after all, and that's his territory."
Jerdana replied with a laugh, "Though perhaps we ought not to ask them at the same time."
Altador had to laugh as well. "Certainly not."
But as it happened, Marak and Kelland were already together, arguing with each other in the Hall of Heroes.
"...How can we expect anyone to turn from theft and villainy with you flaunting lawlessness before all the people!"
"And how much would we know about what was going on now if I weren't a thief?"
"We would need to know little – were there no thieves in Altador, we wouldn't be facing this problem!"
"And if there were no stuck-up, pompous, humorless blowhards..."
There was a sound of metal in a sheath, and Altador rushed in. "No, no, no! Argue all you like, but you will not draw blood in this space!" He avoided looking at the crushed statue of Melanthe – that would only further dampen his spirits. "The two of you both need to work together – I need you, but I'm wondering whether Julius is more mature."
The Peophin and the Techo both glared daggers at each other. Altador said, "Laila just brought word that there's word of smugglers with gold and magical artifacts on the North Coast."
Marak frowned. "Treacherous shoals there. Even the folk of the sea do not swim there lightly. It would be dangerous, but also well-hidden."
Kelland said, "There are ways to get through the shoals. And that terrain's hilly, wooded, right there in the foothills of the mountains – it would be easy to hide the approach of someone bringing treasure from Shenkuu."
Jerdana said, "We'll need to look into it. Would it be easier for us to approach from land or sea?"
Marak frowned at her. "You aren't considering going with us, are you?"
Jerdana crossed her arms. "I have the magic of the land itself at my call. I am needed."
Marak looked to Altador. "I've got no doubts as to her magical strength, milord. But if some brutish thief the size of Torakor gets past her defenses, she's in trouble."
Kelland – who probably disliked the discussion of size even more than Jerdana did – pointed out, "Which is why we have our own Torakor the size of Torakor. So he can handle those brutes while Jerdana and our favorite crazy Kyrii king kick 'em all into the ocean."
"You mentioned me?" asked a very dry voice.
Kelland's face went white as King Jazan walked in. Altador and Jerdana couldn't help but laugh. The little Techo said, "You do know I meant that in all fondness and respect, right?"
Marak put a hand to his chin before Jazan could say anything else. "Are there other great mages that could be brought to work with us? If we must fight with magic, we should fight to win."
Jerdana shook her head. "None that I know. Neopia is a dangerous place – most of my fellows have their own duties, and can no more be taken from them than I could leave my own." Altador knew that she was in contact with a number of other mages, and something about an Order, but he didn't know any more than that – it was her business how much she decided to tell him, if anything at all.
Jazan said, "I feel that Qasalan mages would be more of a hindrance than a help. As I recall, your North Coast is hilly, wooded, swampy – few of our mages are strong enough to make up for their unfamiliarity with the terrain, and I want them in Qasala in case Masila is plotting more wickedness there. I know that sort – they never just have one plot."
Despite the late hour and his weariness, Altador felt as alert as Jerdana had professed to be. The excitement of the city had given Jerdana energy, and the thrill of the impending hunt gave it to Altador. He said, "There are other Altadorian mages in the Guard – lesser powers than Jerdana or Jazan, but useful for this sort of endeavor. We'll need several groups. Multiple directions. Flush them out. Marak, I'll entrust you with the water. Make sure the paths through the shoals are guarded. Capture any who try to pass – Kelland, whatever you say about Kanrik's virtue relative to that of Masila, I'd still prefer he not learn about the North Coast."
Marak nodded. "A sound plan."
Jazan said, "Jerdana and I should stay with you. We'll be needed to break whatever magical defenses the Guild is using."
Kelland said, "I assume we're leaving soon?"
Altador nodded. "First light. I'll send word to everyone before I sleep tonight. We want to move before they can get wind of our plans."
Kelland nodded. "I'll get word to my contacts as well – I may be able to get us some extra help, or at least some information."
Marak turned his nose up, but Altador cut him off. "No time for that, Marak. We've much to do to prepare, and we have to get started."
To be continued...