Desert Requiem: Part Seven
The scene of their return was one of pandemonium. As soon as she saw her husband's limp form, Nabile uttered a cry of dismay and rushed to his side. The grand vizier immediately sent for royal physicians as well as servants to bear the king to his chambers. Farisem embraced his daughter and reiterated how proud he was of her. After passing the Ring of the Lost into the care of the Chief Royal Sorceror, Sayidah spotted Tomos, who stood uncomfortably off to the side, and Shasef, who still managed to remain in deep slumber despite the general uproar — both neglected as everyone focused on Jazan. She took the liberty of asking the grand vizier to arrange comfortable accommodations for them before returning to her own.
While her father made arrangements for the safekeeping of the Scarab Amulet, Sayidah went to seek repose in her own chambers. She discovered that Nuruki had placed a vase of fresh flowers on her bedside table. Breathing in their sweet fragrance, Sayidah could not help but comment, "Do you plan to make fresh flowers a regular fixture in my room? I know that they grow in abundance in Brightvale, but they are quite dear in the desert."
"I had those provisioned in anticipation of your safe return," her father's voice sounded from the door.
Nuruki bowed and quickly made excuses to leave the room. The ambassador stood next to Sayidah and contemplated the vase with her. "Do you dislike these? Would you prefer artifical flowers instead?"
Sayidah shook her head. "I would choose fresh flowers over the manufactured variety, even though the latter lasts longer and requires less maintenance."
"I am glad that you think that way," Farisem said softly. "Fragile life over manufactured permanence."
Despite the hot season, the world suddenly seemed to grow cold.
"Sayidah," her father said, "we need to talk."
Ambassador Farisem closed the door behind them. "I'm very sorry to call you away from the others like this. And I wish that the timing was better. But it was only just now that my daughter's maid brought to my attention a matter which I feel must be addressed immediately."
The ambassador asked him a question.
He could not answer for a long, long time.
The ambassador sighed. "Do not mistake me. You are one of the most exemplary young men I have ever met: noble, wise, and good of heart. Under normal circumstances, I would have been proud to call you&emdash;" He sighed again. His eyes, when he looked into that of his companion's, was full of genuine regret and compassion. "I feel as if the Fates are laughing at us sometimes."
Both of them agreed with him.
When she was not required to attend upon Queen Nabile, Menepti often went to a secluded corner in the inner courtyard to contemplate the unfairness of life. The other servants never bothered her there; they never really did bother with her at all. At least now they occasionally condescended to be kind towards her, their pity for her second only to theirs for Master Khalid.
It was ironic that the two people who in theory should have suffered the least, suffered the most.
Menepti was not Qasalan, at least not at first. She had been born in the city of Adin and only moved to Qasala at the age of fourteen, when the death of her parents forced her to seek shelter with her aunt. Her aunt's husband had been a royal scribe, and it was he who suggested her for the position of queen's handmaiden when the previous handmaiden quitted her post. Everyone in the palace had expected her to announce her resignation within a few months, or a year at the most. After all, none of her predecessors had wanted to keep their post for long. But Menepti stayed on, right until the very end.
It was a strange coincidence that she, an outsider, became the trusted attendant to two queens who were also outsiders &emdash; this identity being exarcebated in Queen Belladonna's case. Jazan's mother was not even from the desert; she hailed from the Haunted Woods to the north, except in those days it was called the Black Forest. Not all her beauty and elegance could win her the admiration of the people she came to rule over, although this could be attributed mostly to her... eccentricity. The people of Qasala were afraid of her, this strange and inscrutable Purple Zafara who seldom displayed any emotion and who exhibited indecipherable mannerisms. Even Razul was wary of her, for all that he pretended otherwise in public. Their marriage had only been arranged because his father believed the words of a prominent seer who predicted that Qasala would be doomed unless Prince Razul took a bride from the bleak northern forest.
And so it came to pass that Lady Belladonna Venetti of Lesne, aristocrat of the Black Forest, ascended to the rank of desert queen.
Belladonna's only child, Jazan, was one of the few people in the city who loved her. He had been devastated by her mysterious disappearance just a few weeks before the curse struck, and spent much of his time afterwards searching for her. This was despite the fact that his mother's last communication, written in her distinctive cursive script, had been, Do not look for me, my son.
Jazan once asked Menepti whether she had any clue as to his mother's whereabouts. The Blue Pteri replied, "I only know that you will never find her if she does not wish to be found. And that she has a reason for everything she does."
They called her the Violet Witch behind her back, for that was what she was rumoured to be. And indeed, Queen Belladonna had an uncanny way of knowing things she was not supposed to know, and of affecting change in the most eldritch fashion. Shortly before the queen had left &emdash; for Menepti was convinced that she left of her own design &emdash; she had told her handmaiden, "If ever the day should come when you address, within fine chambers, a young waif with a comely face and determined air &emdash; if ever this young lady should request an audience with my son so that she may advise him on the topic of matrimony, lend her one of my gowns to wear, for it is utterly likely that her present attire would not be fit for an appearance at court."
Menepti had been her handmaiden long enough to know not to question this unorthodox instruction.
As much as she doted on Queen Nabile, the Blue Pteri missed the old queen at times. Belladonna was actually a very sweet lady once you got past her foreboding exterior, although none of her former handmaidens seemed to think so. In fact, Menepti knew that her association with the notorious Violet Witch was part of the reason why the other servants shunned her. She doubted that the situation would improve within her lifetime. That was why, as today, she liked to come to this hidden corner shielded by dark trees and blackberry bushes that comforted her with its desolate beauty.
There must be truth to the saying that misery loves company, or at least attracted it. How else could it be explained why, at that very moment, Lady Sayidah burst into her private sanctuary, disoriented and red-eyed? The normally immaculate Desert Cybunny was an indisputable mess. Her fur was dirty and disarrayed, and bits of twigs and grass stuck to her neck ruff. Menepti was inwardly alarmed. But it was when Sayidah pulled down her ears and screamed at the sky that the handmaiden felt that an intervention was not only justified, but necessary.
She fluttered down to a lower branch of the tree and greeted, "Lady Sayidah."
The noblewoman actually jumped in her surprise. "Menepti! I-I did not think there would be anyone here."
"There usually isn't," Menepti replied. "That is why those with sorrow in their hearts like to seek refuge here." They regarded each other in silence. Menepti did not ask any questions. She merely waited.
Sure enough, Lady Sayidah began to speak. "I-I just learned... something about myself today... that I never realized before," she heaved, paws clenching in the dirt. "And I wish I hadn't! That knowledge is causing me nothing but pain!"
"I know that feeling," Menepti said quietly. "I would rather have passed my life in blissful ignorance than learn the fact that I am al-mukek."
Lady Sayidah peered up at her, wide-eyed. "Y-you are cursewarded?"
"Yes. And of the variant that is completely immune, for the curse touched me not. I was one of the reasons why the then Prince Jazan decided to relocate us to a dimension where time passed much more slowly." She sighed. "It was a thoughtful gesture on his part, but ultimately futile. The young, lithe Pteri who served as his mother's handmaiden is now old enough to be reckoned his mother herself."
"I-I'm so sorry," Lady Sayidah sniffed. "For both of you. You and Khalid..."
"Master Khalid especially." Menepti's tone was sympathetic. "Those who are cursewarded are often ignorant of their status, sometimes for the whole of their lives. Master Khalid learnt what he was at a very young age, at great personal cost. And unlike I, he had no reason to expect his current fate. But who could have guessed that such were the consequences of two centuries' length of accursedness? ...Perhaps the removal of the entire population to Tsenda had not been entirely futile."
Sayidah said, "Perhaps not."
That evening, Sayidah visited Shasef's quarters. After declaring her identity to the guards at the door, she was soon admitted within. Shasef was waiting for her in the parlour. "Lady Sayidah," he greeted as he bowed. "To what do I owe the honour of this visit?"
"D-do you know why you aren't like Khalid?" Sayidah blurted out, her usual communication skills sorely lacking.
Fortunately, Shasef still retained his. "Now why aren't I like Master Khalid? Hmm... that is a very good question indeed, and covers a broad spectrum. Could you specify whether you refer to the fact that I am not a Uni, or nobly stoic, or wrapped in bandages come nightfall?"
"Th-the last part, please..." Her voice hitched momentarily, after which she continued, "Everyone thinks that... that Khalid hadn't changed back like the others because he had been cursed for too long... for two hundred years as opposed to twenty..."
"Ah, yes, the interdimensional time difference. All I can say is that can't be the case, because at least four others had been cursed for an equally long period of time, all of whom reverted to normal when the curse broke upon Razul's demise."
"I was hoping... that maybe... you overheard Razul's agents saying something that could hint at why..."
Shasef engrossed himself in deep thought. "I believe I overheard one of them mention that Razul's pride was galled by the possibility that Master Khalid might escape the curse, as he is what we call cursewarded &emdash; born with a natural resistance to curses. The old Emperor seemed to have made alterations to the part of the curse affecting Khalid, but the details are beyond me. I'm afraid that I cannot help you further in this matter, my lady."
"Oh... I see." Sayidah bowed her head. "Thank you very much for your time... I will take my leave now."
"Actually, you shouldn't," Shasef said unexpectedly. As Sayidah glanced up at him, confused, he continued, "I would advise you to stay here until the swelling has gone from your eyes. Not that it detracts from your features, but you wouldn't want people to mistake the redness for a sign that you had been crying."
Sayidah's paws flew to cover her face. "I- I beg your pardon! Sand got into my eyes while I was in the courtyard."
He nodded understandingly. "An unfortunate aspect of desert life. And you should know that neither your father nor Master Khalid meant to hurt you. But it would have damaged your standing and made you an object of ostracization among your own people were you to become too closely associated with the Nightsteed, and neither of them wanted that."
A mixture of shock and outrage almost robbed Sayidah of speech. "How- How did you...?!"
"I have something called powers of observation. And I can deduce. I wondered what your father and Master Khalid had discussed in that private conference of theirs, and why both returned with such distressed expressions. In the Underground Temple, I realized that Khalid was deliberately holding himself aloof from you, but not from any personal feelings of antipathy. Quite the opposite, I would say. And now you approach me barely a day after we have surfaced, in tears, incoherent, and desperate to know if there was a way to restore the Nightsteed to a normal, socially acceptable form." He looked at her and sighed. "Who was it you had spoken to before you came to me? Your father or Khalid?"
"I spoke to Menepti, Queen Nabile's handmaiden, before coming here. Before that, I spoke with my father."
"I thought that was the case. Master Khalid would have avoided you. You probably won't see much of him for the rest of your time in Qasala."
"I won't be in Qasala much longer!" Sayidah exploded in agitation. "Father is sending me back to Sakhmet tomorrow!"
She nodded, feeling the tight know of emotions in her beginning to unwound. "Father has impressed upon me that there are 'many Apis in the desert'... He says that after I return, my uncle Lord Imcahn will take it upon himself to introduce me to the 'exemplary young men of Sakhmet and beyond', and that he is sure I should find at least one of them 'pleasant enough company to compensate for the one I lost'..."
"And how do you feel about that?"
"I don't know!" she shrieked, pulling down her ears. "I don't know what to think, what to do, or even what I want right now! I-I'm so confused... it feels as if there's this balloon within me that is ready to burst!"
The door opened a crack; the guard's concerned face peered in. Shasef signalled to him that all was well. The guard reclosed the door, but not before casting a dubious glance at the hysterical Cybunny.
Shasef rose from his seat. "Your nerves are overwrought, my lady. Allow me to make you some tea, which will do much to soothe them."
As the tea was brewed, he made sure to add a dash of the tasteless soporific that he always carried on his person.
When Jazan awoke from his coma, the first thing he saw was Nabile's sweet, tear-stained face hovering above his. That was expected, and touching. Instead of an anxious inquiry after his well-being, however, the first words out of his wife's mouth were, "Sayidah's gone missing!"
Jazan stared groggily at her. "What?"
A Yellow Pteri's panicked face appeared within his field of vision. "So has the Scarab Amulet!"
Jazan pulled the covers over his head and tried to pretend that this was all a bad dream.
To be continued…