Desert Requiem: Part Ten
The day after Shasef had departed, Mayoress Lemida requested a private audience with Sayidah. "You should know that Master Shasef has been keeping secrets from you, Lady," she said grimly. "As grateful as I am to him for services rendered to the city, I feel that you should not be deceived." As part of the key to understanding those secrets, she bade Sayidah follow her to the ruined part of the city. Sayidah had visited the ruins several times, and wondered what she had missed during her previous trips. Lemida led her to what appeared to be the great hall of an abandoned mansion. Sayidah sat down and waited for the elderly Pink Acara to speak.
Lemida laid a kindly hand on Sayidah's shoulder. "What you hear next will inevitably come as a shock to you..."
Sayidah felt a paralyzing jolt of electricity course through her body.
"...but I'm not the mayoress, you gullible fool!"
With a high-pitched laugh, Lemida withdrew her hand and... was no longer Lemida. At the same time, Sayidah found herself incapable of movement, her muscles seemingly locked into place. Thankfully, the power of speech was still hers to command. "Who are you?!"
The young Spotted Kougra smirked. "You may address me as Mistress Aqisa," she purred.
The name sounded terribly familiar. "One of Razul's spies? But I thought all three of you perished in Ramseth's Chamber!"
"Obviously, such is not the case," Aqisa sneered. "Else you would not be caught fast like a Scarabug in a Pyon's sting. And Shasef isn't around to save you, either."
That was true. Shasef had warned that he and Mureb would not return for days. Sayidah did not think that Aqisa's impeccable timing was coincidental. "How long have you been spying on us?"
"Even since I survived Mureb's attempt to poison me," the other spat. "It was carried out on Shasef's orders, I know."
"Why would Shasef...?"
"Firstly, do you know his real identity?"
"He was born a Symerran—"
"Not just a Symerran," Aqisa cut her off. "The Symerran prince. The only surviving member of their royal family and heir to the Symerran throne... if he chooses to restore it, that is." She sneered down at her captive. "Nevertheless, all the people here acknowledge his lineage. His word, when he gives it, is law, even to the mayoress. Have you ever noticed an unusual deference in their manner towards him?"
But Sayidah had fallen silent.
"But his behaviour has been far from princely," Aqisa continued, "as you will soon see. What's more, I will expose Lord Shasef in such a fashion that you will have no recourse but to believe me." So saying, she withdrew a vial of liquid from beneath her robes and dangled it before Sayidah. "Do you know what this is?"
Sayidah recognized the hue at once. "A truth serum. Shasef drank one—" Aqisa downed the whole vial even as Sayidah spoke.
"There," the Kougra said with dark satisfaction. "Now you know that whatever I speak within the next hour is true."
Sayidah could only stare in shock at her captor's frightening sincerity.
Aqisa replaced the empty vial within her robes. "I know that Shasef told you that he was a Sakhmetian court sorceror who visited Qasala for professional purposes. What he omitted to say was that he was also Razul's spy, trusted to the extent where he had a hand in the weaving of the Curse of the Legions Undead. It was he who approached Razul first, claiming to be dissatisfied with Anaphses's treatment of him and offering to provide intelligence in exchange for such and such reward. Razul accepted him on the condition that Shasef prove his loyalty by allowing Razul to place the Curse of a Thousand Bites upon him."
Sayidah was stunned into remarking, "But wasn't it Ghonim—"
"No. Ghonim planted the lie as an added insurance for his own life." Aqisa rolled her eyes. "Unneccessarily too, since we all know that Jazan is too honourable to kill anyone who humbles themselves to him. But the greater concern was that Shasef would not have been able to give a satisfactory explanation to Jazan as to why Razul would curse him in such a manner. So Shasef lost his chance to request respite from the only person with the power to grant it, but he thinks that there might be another way to end his curse."
"Shasef already left to find the recluse who can—"
"He lied to you again! What recluse? Shasef was thinking of the Book of Thoki. He hopes that the spell for immortality might overrule the effects of the Curse of a Thousand Bites, or if not that he might at least sell the spell for enough gold to fund Symerra's development, the idealistic fool. But more than a fool, he is a traitor through and through! He betrayed Sakhmetian secrets to Sakhmet's enemy. And ultimately, he betrayed that enemy to his death.
"Everyone thinks that it was King Jazan who defeated his father, but that was far from the case. Anaphses II of Sakhmet had laid a curse on Razul. One of the clauses of the curse was, should Razul try to kill any descendant of Anaphses who wore a certain ring, not only would the attempt fail, but Razul's life force would be immediately destroyed. Anaphses was murdered before he could communicate this clause to Razul, and Shasef deliberately withheld the information from him. Razul went after the Sakhmetian royals as soon as he was wakened — including Princess Nabile, who was wearing the very ring that was stipulated in the clause. Her so-called wedding ring saved her life and ended his.
"You may wonder how I know this. Three years ago, Mureb came to the Underground Temple in search of Shasef. Something about a plague that was devastating the populace of Symerra. Ghonim caught him and imprisoned him. After his mortality was restored, Ghonim began to interrogate him. If Mureb could only be half the liar that Shasef is, he would have been able to extricate himself from his predicament. As it was, he didn't squeal either, no matter what Ghonim did to him. But Ghonim was sharp enough to suspect a connection with Shasef. He told Shasef that unless he took a truth serum and answered questions, Mureb's life would be forfeit.
"After Razul's death, all four of us had become afflicted with the Curse of a Thousand Bites. When we found out that Shasef was responsible for our suffering, we were furious. He asked us to punish him instead of Mureb, and we obliged him. Ghonim and Azamin continued to abuse him even after we had tricked Jazan into freeing us, but I had a change of heart and decided to side with Shasef once more. He and I used to be close, little Cybunny, although the other two never found out. Shasef assured me that he forgave me and even promised to make me a noblewoman — charming, two-faced devil! I should have known better than to take you at your word! And to think that I ardently plotted to free you and your worthless cousin! I had convinced my colleagues that we needed Shasef 's help to deceive Jazan into lifting his uncle's ward for us.
"None but us knew this, but Razul's older brother Prince Zamirul had located Ramseth's Vault first. But he lost his way afterwards and perished in the Tombs. We found his body and the will that lay beside it. The will was addressed to his only brother, who was his collaborator and likely to find his remains. Zamirul described how he had placed a barrier spell over the key-slot in Ramseth's Chamber that only his kin could break. With Razul gone, Jazan was the only person left in this world who could dispel Zamirul's ward. And of the four of us, Shasef stood the best chance of passing a truth test and gaining Jazan's trust.
"We had no fear that Jazan would unlock Ramseth's Vault and retrieve the Book for himself, for two keys were needed to accomplish that, not just the one represented by the Scarab Amulet. But none of us expected the death wave, or that it would claim Ghonim and Azamin's lives. It is just as well; it saved me the trouble of getting rid of them later. I only thank my lucky stars that I was not with them in that chamber. I had stayed back, ostensibly to guard Mureb and ensure Shasef's continued cooperation. But I freed Mureb instead and stole the Scarab Amulet for Shasef. But in spite of all that I had done for him..." Aqisa's eyes seemed to erupt into orbs of blazing venom. "That cad betrayed me! And when I saw you with him, I realized part of the reason why!"
Without warning, Aqisa reached forward and yanked Sayidah's ears, causing the Cybunny to cry out in pain. "This is the first phase of my revenge: to discredit him in your eyes," the Kougra hissed. "The second phase is to deposit your body where Shasef is sure to find it..."
A stentorian voice cut through the air, speaking words in a strange tongue. Aqisa vanished the next instant. In her place sprawled a confused Turtmid, blinking blearily at its surroundings.
A veiled, fiery-winged Faerie bent and scooped the Turtmid into her nut brown hands. "That was very ill-bred of you, threatening people like that," she chided, even as the Turtmid retreated into its pyramid. "How do you fare, Lady Sayidah?"
Sayidah discovered that she could move again. "I thank you for delivering me, Lady Nuria," she said, stretching her limbs experimentally. "Is that Turtmid...?"
"Yes. She won't be capable of hurting anyone in this form." Nuria sighed inexplicably. "If only faerie magic can always triumph thus over mortal sorcery."
They released the Turtmid down by the beach. Sayidah asked, "How come you to be in Symerra, Lady Nuria? I did not think the sea was your element."
Staring out into the horizon, Nuria replied, in a dream-like voice, "I have been keeping a close eye on you, though you knew it not. Your fate is of great interest to us, for it had been foretold that you would play a major role in the attainment of one of our desires."
Sayidah frowned. "'Our'? Do you mean the faeries—"
"That is not important," Nuria interrupted. "What matters is: now that you know what you know, how will you choose to act?"
Sayidah drew in a sharp breath as Aqisa's revelations crowded back into her mind. "The Scarab Amulet! I can't believe that Shasef...!" She shook her head furiously, as if trying to wake from a nightmare. "Was everything Aqisa said true?"
"She could not have uttered a direct lie under the influence of a truth serum. Although I would not put it pass her to have obscured parts of the truth, as Lord Shasef once did."
Sayidah came to a decision. She turned towards Nuria. "I have to find a way to retrieve the Amulet and return to Qasala. Will you help me?"
"I have already made the necessary arrangements," the Faerie said. "In return, I have a favour to ask of you as well."
Nuria explained to her what the favour was. And Sayidah suddenly understood the faeries' interest in this matter. "Do the faeries find the Book of Thoki that problematic, Lady Nuria?"
The Fire Faerie's gaze became distant again. "Immortality is a gift that only the faeries have the constitution to wield; to the mortal-born, it invariably becomes a curse." Stepping closer to Sayidah, she whispered into her ear, "I know that you seek a way to free your friend from his accursed fate. When the time is right, I will impart that knowledge to him." Sayidah's heart leapt painfully with anticipation.
Nuria retreated a distance away, where she became engulfed in a blaze of red glory. When the flames died down, the Faerie was gone.
To be continued…