Desert Requiem: Part Five
Jazan, Nabile, Farisem, Sayidah, and Tomos filed into Jazan's study upon the premature end of the royal ball. Khalid made his appearance there shortly after them. He sat down in a corner of the room and did not meet anyone's gaze. Sayidah wanted to go to him, to tell him that the ladies in the garden were merely timid and overwrought and that he shouldn't take their reactions to heart, but her father insisted on her presence by his side.
Tomos looked justifiably nervous, even after Nabile assured him that he was not in trouble, that Jazan merely wanted to question him. He was saved the questioning, however, when a knock sounded at the door. A Tonu guard entered and saluted. "My king, someone has come forward claiming to have information on the whereabouts of the Princess of Sakhmet's royal amulet. He is waiting outside."
"Have him brought in," Jazan ordered.
A short while later, a cloaked and hooded figure stepped into the room. As the door closed behind him, he pulled back his hood, revealing the face of a scarred White Draik. He came before Jazan and bowed. "A thousand blessings upon you, Your Majesty," he murmurred. "I am Shasef."
"You claim to know something about the disappearance of the Scarab Amulet."
"Indeed, my king. Cast your mind back to two hundred years ago, when Qasala was newly fallen under the curse. Do you still remember the three scholars who discovered the prophecy foretelling the means through which Qasala would be freed?"
Jazan's brows knitted with impatience, but he answered, "I vaguely remember three such people, yes."
"Their names are Ghonim, Aqisa, and Azamin. They were not ingenuous scholars at all, but scheming sorcerors who used to be in the employ of the late Razul. They are the masterminds behind tonight's theft, for a theft it was. I suspect that it was Aqisa, disguised as a guest, who stole the amulet from right under Amira's nose. She has expertise in that area."
There was a collective gasp. Jazan's grip on the armrests visibly tightened. "Who are you? And more importantly, how come you to know of their scheming?"
"I was their prisoner until recently. And before I was their prisoner, I had been their collaborator." He inclined his head towards Jazan. "Would you happen to have some truth serum on hand, my king? That way, you will know that I speak the truth."
Jazan left his seat, still keeping an eye on Shasef, and went to a cupboard. He returned bearing a vial of purplish-grey liquid within which seemed to sparkle pinpricks of gold. Shasef drank the strange concoction and continued his tale.
"You should know, O King, that before your gracious decree made me Qasalan, I had been Sakhmetian. To be precise, I had been a court sorceror, back when there was still such a thing in Sakhmet. Although relations between the two neighbours were tense, I occasionally travelled to Qasala to advance my magical knowledge, for Qasala was superior in that respect to Sakhmet. So it came to be that I was in Qasala when the curse fell. Instead of following the others into the alternate dimension you had opened for us, I chose to remain behind in this world, and to spend my days in the Temple of a Thousand Tombs until such time should come when the curse would be lifted. For you must remember, my king, that back then all in Qasala thought that it was King Anaphses II of Sakhmet who sent the curse —" Jazan avoided the astonished gazes of the Sakhmetians in the room "— and although I never publicised my nationality among the Qasalans, there were still a few who knew where I hailed from. They could not physically hurt me, but there were other ways for them to vent their prejudices against me, and I did not relish being a pariah among pariahs."
"Wait!" Jazan interjected. "Do you mean to say that you had spent the last two hundred years under the effects of the curse?!"
The White Draik bowed. "Yes, O King. And I am not the only one. While I was in the Underground Temple, I met three Qasalans who, like me, had secretly stayed back. I talked with them, and they — Ghonim, Aqisa, and Azamin — revealed that they had seen a rare opportunity to explore the Temple and excavate its closely-guarded secrets without fear of bodily harm. The idea appealed to me, and I offered to aid them in their cause. They were searching for one item in particular, an artefact known as the Book of Thoki, which held the secret to immortality. We found an old record indicating its location in a secret vault known as Ramseth's Vault, which we eventually discovered. Alas, here we hit upon an obstacle: a key was required to unlock Ramseth's Vault. It was some time before we discovered the nature of this key, and when we did we despaired — for the key was none other than the long-lost Scarab Amulet of Sakhmet.
"I see from the expressions on your faces, my most attentive audience, that the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to come together in your mind. Two and a half years ago, rumours were whispered that the wrecked vessel of Lord Ramon had been found, and the Scarab Amulet along with it. This gave us hope. And then the discovery was confirmed, and arrangements were made for the transportation of the amulet back to its homeland. It was around this time, however, that the then Prince Jazan arrived in Sakhmet with a proposal of marriage, and subsequent events occurred which I shall not go into detail here.
"After Razul was defeated and our mortality restored, the others turned against me, imprisoning and tormenting me. They found out my true origins, you see, but they weren't venting anger against Anaphses II. They knew that the real cursecaster was none other than Emperor Razul, for they were his secret servants and had aided in its construction. But they disliked Sakhmetians anyway. That was why they choose this particular night and this particular gathering to carry out their vile act. They wanted to discredit you, your Sakhmetian-born queen, the budding Qasalan-Sakhmetian alliance, and hopefully undermine your rule enough that they can seize power in the resulting anarchy. Oh, and they want immortality too, which they can go about achieving for themselves now that their master is no longer there to keep them on a leash. They were the ones who hired bandits to attack the Sakhmetian convoy that was bearing the Scarab Amulet home. They took steps to ensure that Princess Amira would attend the Qasalan coronation in person, instead of sending a delegate. I know all this because they enjoyed taunting me with proof of their supposed ingenuity when I was their prisoner.
"But the chance to leave my prison came last night, when they left me alone to prepare for the theft of the Scarab Amulet. After my escape, I spent my time hiding and healing as best as I could. I came here this evening with the intention of warning you... but unfortunately I arrived too late."
"Perhaps not too late," Jazan said, a steely glint in his eyes. "If I follow you correctly, their next step would be to try to unlock Ramseth's Vault with the key they possess."
"Yes. And that is where I may aid you. I can lead you to Ramseth's Vault. With me as your guide, the journey would only take two days. An enchantment has been laid on the Vault doors that make them visible for only six hours each day from dawn to noon, so it would not matter if Razul's minions has had a slight headstart over us — they would still have to wait for dawn before they would be able to unlock the doors. But we that doesn't mean we should tarry."
Nabile nodded briskly. "Right. We'll need to pack supplies."
"You," Jazan said firmly, "will remain in the palace." Before Nabile could protest, he continued, "This is a delicate time for Qasala. It can't afford to have both its rulers absent for even a moment. Furthermore, you have already been accused of theft — how would it look if you suddenly disappeared from public view?"
"If you please, King Jazan, I wish to go."
"Sayidah!" Farisem exclaimed.
Sayidah lifted her right paw, where a gold bracelet lay wrapped around her wrist. "Do you remember the title Princess Amira bestowed upon me, prior to giving me this bracelet?" she asked quietly. "As someone who once risked death for the sake of the Scarab Amulet, nothing galls me more than to see it lost again. I request— no, I demand the right to be part of any expedition to retrieve the Amulet, both as a matter of personal honour and as a show of goodwill towards Sakhmet."
Jazan managed to contain his surprise. "I fear you do not understand the risks of the situation. We are pursuing traitorous sorcerors. And the Underground Temple is littered with death traps. It is, in short, dangerous."
"If you, the king of a nation who looks to you for its restoration, is willing to take such risks, then surely I, a mere slip of a girl with no resposibilities whatsover, can have less reservations."
"You also forget," Shasef interrupted, "that you have with you a guide who knows how to either avoid or nullify the aforementioned death traps. I've two hundred years to memorize the layout. And I never recalled it being said that she has to confront Razul's spies. There is more than one secure chamber where she can wait out the battle in safety. I should also mention, King Jazan, that you alone are more powerful than the three of them combined."
"So there you have it, Your Majesty," Sayidah said calmly. "It is not dangerous at all." She paused and added meaningfully, "If the hunt for the Scarab Amulet is unsuccessful, then let it be reported that it was Sayidah of Sakhmet who had led the search efforts. But if the Amulet is successfully restored to Princess Amira, then the credit will go to King Jazan IV of Qasala."
Jazan was shrewd enough to understand the political import behind such an arrangement. "Very well. It shall be as you propose. Do you have anything else you wish to contribute, Your Excellency?"
"No," the ambassador said resignedly.
Nabile had taken Tomos aside several minutes prior and held a rapid, sometimes heated discussion with him. At length, they rejoined the others, one triumphant and the other with a hangdog expression. "Tomos wants to volunteer too," Nabile said. "Since I can't come with you, he'll be my proxy."
Jazan assumed a bearing of utmost patience. "Nabile, our party is large enough as it is, and I don't see how bringing the boy along will benefit us."
The supposed volunteer nodded in furious agreement. "Hear that, Nabile? I'd be no use to anyone down there! I can stay here instead and help you..."
"...clear out the pantry?" Nabile retorted. "I know Tomos might seem brash, but he's alert, nimble, swift and he's gotten us out of predicaments before in the past. I'm sure he will be an asset to you."
Tomos continued to protest. Sayidah suspected that if the Lupe had shown alacrity at the idea, if he had seen it as an adventure to be taken at leisure and then related to friends afterwards in a cozy parlour, Jazan would have been adamantly opposed to his accompaniment. As it was, the urchin's obvious awareness of the perils that lay ahead convinced Jazan that he might not be such a nuisance after all.
"Besides—" the Kyrii grinned like a WereLupe "—he'll come in useful if we need to sacrifice one person for the greater good of all." Tomos looked as if he was being hauled off to a Meepit's den.
Their departure met with some slight delays. Some of the supplies had to be hunted down; Farisem requested a private audience with Khalid that took close to half an hour; Tomos kept trying to slip away and gave frequent assurances that he would come back to haunt Nabile should he meet with his untimely demise; but eventually even the most reluctant of them was marched off to keep his appointment with destiny.
To be continued…