Desert Requiem: Part Eight
Defying his physician's instructions to remain in bed, Jazan summoned an emergency council as soon as he was alerted to the disappearances. Ambassador Farisem did not attend the meeting, citing indisposition. He was represented by his assistant Zalil, who informed Jazan, "Lady Sayidah left behind a farewell note. Nuruki only discovered it just now in her mistress's study."
A dark cloud obscured the king's countenance. "A farewell note? What does it say?"
Zalil held out a plain papyrus scroll. "The Ambassador has given me permission to submit it for your perusal."
Jazan took the proferred sheet and read it, his frown deepening with every line. "She 'regrets to inform us of her indefinite absence'? Will 'eventually return', she just needs to 'time to think'? Don't worry, she 'isn't alone', she 'is in company with Shasef'?" He threw back the note. "What rubbish is this?! That doesn't sound like Lady Sayidah at all! How could she abandon us during such a time as this? Doesn't she remember that she has family who misses her and will worry about her?"
Zalil hastily retrieved the scroll. "The ambassador hints that a family row might have been the cause of her aberrant behaviour, although he refuses to elaborate. Also, Lady Sayidah is ignorant about the second loss of the Scarab Amulet. We would have notified her, but she didn't supply a return address in her note. Oh, but that is unfortunate. How are we to remind her to return before registration for university closes?"
Jazan nursed his suddenly throbbing cranium. "Ugh, go throw yourself out the window."
The Pteri saluted nervously. "Y-Yes, sire!"
Fortunately, Captain Huasim restrained him before self-defenestration could occur.
Nabile spoke soothingly to her husband before addressing Zalil. "How was the Amulet misplaced?"
"All signs point to it being the work of a professional, Your Majesty. It had been kept in a hidden locked vault in the Ambassador's study, just next to his personal bedchamber. By morning, the hiding place had been uncovered, the lock picked, and the Amulet taken! His Excellency never heard anything during the night, and he has good hearing, I assure you. Young Tomos swore that he has no knowledge&emdash;"
The queen's countenance suddenly took on a murderous aspect. "You mean to say that you suspected Tomos of..."
"O-Of course not, Your Majesty! A thorough search of his person and quarters turned up nothing! We even arranged for his safe passage home when he requested it!"
Nabile looked as if she were ready to throw her chair at him. It was Jazan who had to play the role of pacifier this time around.
"It must have been that third sorceror, Aqisa," he surmised. "Shasef mentioned that she is an expert thief. Ugh, this had to happen at the same time I was out of commission for over a day."
"This is downright embarrassing!" Nabile exploded. "Two thefts in a row, committed right under my nose! I'll be the laughingstock of the Scarabs if they ever catch wind of this!"
A grim-faced Captain Huasim said, "Personally, I would be more concerned about the reactions of their ruling class."
"Have you informed the court of Sakhmet of this incident?" Jazan asked Zalil.
Zalil shook his head vehemently. "No, Your Majesty! Ambassador Farisem thought it prudent to keep the matter under wraps for the moment, so as not to jeopardize the relations between our two nations."
The grand vizier muttered, "You mean they haven't been jeopardized already?"
Jazan levelled a frosty glare at him. "Enough of this. Why has Khalid not arrived yet? The messenger should have found him by now."
A sudden silence descended upon the conference table. The attendees glanced at each other and then away, limbs shuffling uneasily. Finally, Nabile answered, "Everyone knows he's in the third garden. Jazan, I think you should go speak with him. He's... not been himself lately."
Jazan saw what Nabile meant as soon as he reached the garden &emdash; or rather, what was left of it. Half of the ornamental shrubbery had been charred into black, botanical skeletons, and a carpet of ash smothered the underlying layer of grass. A lingering acrid stench of smoke assaulted the olfactory senses. Nature's background symphony of sounds was distinctly absent, as was the footfalls and laughter of the usual group of merry-makers. Only the lone clatter of hooves jarred the silence as Khalid paced erratically up and down the gravel path, his azure eyes wild and unseeing. Jazan sighed. Khalid was one of the most self-possessed people he knew, but on the very rare occasions when he did lose control of his emotions... Jazan approached his friend carefully, making sure to give the Blue Uni ample warning of his presence. Khalid flicked his ears in Jazan's direction, and as soon as the Kyrii was within range, asked:
"Do I belong in Qasala?"
At first, Jazan wasn't sure that he had heard right.
Khalid stamped once against the gravel. "Do I belong in Qasala?" he repeated.
This time, Jazan had some semblance of a response. "What kind of question is that? You were born and raised here!"
"You do not always belong where you were born. Ask Menepti. Ask Shasef. Ask all the Qasalans who only became Qasalans because home no longer was!"
"...How long has this been on your mind?"
"Ever since I realized that I was the only one who had not changed back."
Jazan covered his face with his hand. "Khalid, I... I'm so sorry. I've been skirting the issue, trying not to think about it, pretending that nothing was wrong even though I knew&emdash;"
His friend came to him and pressed his muzzle against his arm. "Both of us are equally guilty of willful blindness."
They stayed in silence for several minutes, drawing comfort from each other's presence. Khalid was the first to draw back. "I sometimes wonder... what effect does my presence have here? When the other Qasalans see my cursed visage, are they reminded of a past they wish to forget?"
"Is that why&emdash;"
"&emdash;why I currently assume the only form with which I can show my face in public?"
Jazan flinched and looked away. "That was the most idiotic joke my idiotic self ever came up with. Khalid, you should set me on fire, I deserve&emdash;"
"I am leaving Qasala."
The remaining bushes rustled in a sudden breeze. A Mauket sneezed from the ledge of a high window. A king's neck joints cracked as his head whipped back around.
Jazan whispered, "Forever?" And then grimaced at how cruelly, cruelly literal his question had the potential to be.
"Only until... I find my place in this world. And if I see her... I will tell her that she is wanted back home."
The Kyrii closed his eyes in resignation. "Go if you must, old friend. Only let there be some means of contact between us."
They entered Jazan's personal storeroom, where the Kyrii pulled out a pair of gold bracers from a hidden drawer. They were one half of a twin pair that had been crafted especially for him and Khalid by a southern enchantor decades ago. Whenever they had cause to separate, the enchanted bracers &emdash; known as Devices of Communion in magical parlance &emdash; enabled them to speak with one another irrespective of the geographical distance between them. Jazan helped Khalid put on his pair before slipping the other pair onto his own forearns.
"Well," the King, after checking that his bracers still fit, "I suppose that's all."
Khalid headed for the door. And then stopped. "Jazan," he began quietly, "I just want you to know: through all these years, none have been a truer friend to me than you. My gratitude for your companionship is beyond what common speech can express." His zephyr-soft words seem to fill the entire room. "I will miss you, my friend. Forever."
Jazan waited until he was alone before hiding his face behind his sleeve.
Thank Geb zombies could not cry.
When she first opened her eyes, she thought that she was in a dream. She was not in her own bedchambers, but lying on a strange bed in a small, wooden room. Moonlight shafted in through an open window next to the bed. A strange, salty odour hung in the air that she could not place. She sat up and looked about her in wonder.
Someone giggled in the semi-darkness. "Oh, you're awake!"
The giggler turned out to be a child, a female Skunk Acara. She clambered onto the end of the bed and sat back on her haunches, regarding her companion with wide-eyed interest. "Hello! My name is Shiki!"
"And mine is Sayidah," the Cybunny replied automatically. "Where am I, Shiki?"
"In my home!" The Acara crawled over to Sayidah and snuggled against her. "It's nice to have a guest. And a proper lady too!"
"How did I come to be here, Shiki?"
"L- Master Shasef brought you over! I'll go tell him that you're awake!" Before Sayidah could stop her, Shiki had already clambered off the bed and was racing out the door. She returned with the White Draik in tow. He conjured a light orb that floated up to the low ceiling, bathing the entire room in soft, ambient light. The child clapped her hands in delight.
"Shasef," Sayidah began, as the Draik sat down on a stool on the other side of the room, "where have you brought me?"
He asked, "Do you feel better now?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Do not parry my question. What is this strange place you have brought me, Shasef? Are we even in Qasala anymore?"
It was Shiki who answered. "You're in Symerra!" the Acara exclaimed proudly. "We're an old city next to the sea!"
Sayidah could only stare at her in stupefaction.
"Shiki," Shasef said, "I believe it's past your bedtime. Go to your grandmother now, that's a good girl."
The good girl in question pouted. "But I wanna stay and talk with Lady Sayidah!"
"You can talk to her tomorrow. Right now, it is I who she desires converse with."
Shiki reluctantly complied, but not before soliciting a goodnight hug from Sayidah. Once they were alone, Shasef commented, "She's quite taken with you. But then again, she seems to have a very affectionate nature."
"What day is it today, Shasef?"
"It is the night of the same day when you first visited me in the Palace of Qasala."
"...The last thing I remember was drinking the tea you had prepared for me."
"That is only natural, considering the efficacy of the sleeping draught I added to your cup."
Sayidah picked up her pillows and threw them at him.
The first pillow missed, but the second one did not. Shasef reflexively hugged the pillow as it smacked against his body, lowering it only to see Sayidah aiming a comb at him next. He immediately threw himself to the side; the comb struck his stool a second later and snapped into two halves.
Shasef rolled across the floor and right up to Sayidah, arresting her wrists just as she was rummaging through the side drawer for something else to throw at him. "In the name of Coltzan, stop!" he hissed.
Furious, Sayidah wrested free of his grasp. "Stop? Why should I stop? You deceived me and carried me off without my permission! I should pummel you!" In keeping with her words, she raised her fists and hammered him hard. She was startled into stopping by Shasef's cry of pain, as well as the unexpected rough texture she felt beneath her paws, so different to the usual smoothness of Draik scales.
Shasef parted his cloak to examine his chest; it was only then that Sayidah noticed the criss-cross of scars marking his body. And she remembered how he had been tormented by his captors, and the agony of the curse he had to endure every night.
Shasef noticed her horror. "Healing potions cannot remove old scars," he murmurred, wounding his cloak tightly about himself once more. "I am sorry that you had to bear witness to such unsightly disfigurations."
Sayidah turned her head aside. "That still doesn't excuse your impropriety. You shouldn't have done that."
"I wanted to help you." Her gaze shot back towards his face; his expression was one of deadly earnest. "You were suffering, and fellow sufferers should aid one another. It was evident to me that you did not wish to return to Sakhmet; but neither would it be comfortable for you to remain in Qasala. In fact, your behaviour made me question whether you were in a sufficiently fit mental state for either. If you will forgive me for saying so, Lady Sayidah, your mannerisms in my parlour was more indicative of a madwoman than a noble one &emdash; even the guard thought so."
Sayidah's paws flew up to cover her face, cheeks burning with embarrassment as she recalled her breakdown.
Shasef returned to his old post on the other side of the room. "I still remember what you said to me back then: that you felt like a balloon that was about to burst. I will prescribe a time-honoured remedy for such an affliction: an extended holiday." He gestured out the window, where the crash of waves could be heard faintly in the distance. "A seaside holiday in a charmingly rustic city is just what the doctor would recommend. Stay for a week. Or a month. However long it may take you to regain the courage to face the outside world again."
"But... my father will worry..." she said falteringly.
He tapped the surface of a desk, where scroll and quill already lay in preparation. "So tell him. Not your exact location, of course, but tell him that you are safe and well and will return to his side after you've had time to heal. It is the least you can do to assure him as much."
"But how is this letter to reach him?" Sayidah asked, even as she approached the desk.
"I will handle the delivery; all you have to do is write the epistle. I will leave you to compose your correspondence in peace."
Shasef closed the door of the house behind him. Mureb was waiting for him outside. They walked together for some distance until they reached the hidden cove down by the beach where Mureb had long made his home. After taking the necessary precautions to ensure that they would not be overheard, Shasef asked, "How fare Razul's Three?"
"Ghonim and Azamin are dead. Aqisa remains in Qasala and will carry out the next phase of the plan tonight."
"Good. Meet up with her after she has accomplished her mission and retrieve it. After that, dispose of her."
Mureb stiffened in shock. "But... she has been a loyal and useful ally to us!"
"Not always," Shasef reminded darkly. "Aqisa is a venomous she-Pyon, and she might turn against us one day. Better for us to make the pre-emptive strike."
"...As you wish, Shasef. Although I still have my misgivings."
Shasef patted him on the shoulder. "Fret not, cousin. All will turn out for the best. And Mureb?"
"Yes, my lord?"
"Make sure you get rid of her before she finds out about Lady Sayidah's presence here."
To Be Continued…