Shad and Saura: That Other City - Part Four
Art by ssjelitegirl
Nightsteed turned around to face Shad and Saura who had been engaged in an argument about whether to call for lunch or not. Now they had both fallen quiet, staring at him.
“Nightsteed,” Saura said, recognizing the dark mane and black hooves. “Sir.” He bowed slightly. Even Shad, who had viewed Nabile as one of their own age and rank, sank a little closer to the ground. This Uni was closer to royalty than Nabile would ever be, only by his attitude.
The room fell silent for a while until the Uni stopped observing them both and most likely making his own conclusions, though what they were and how they would affect the current situation remained unknown. Then he said: “I’d love to hear a little about you two, where you come from and why you’re here.”
Saura straightened himself and explained the story, giving a brief overview on their home, family, the plans for shopping they had left home with, the task they had got from their brother and the adventures they had had on their way to Lost Desert. When he finished, Nightsteed looked at him shortly, as if to make sure that he was indeed finished, then turned to gaze blankly at the ceiling. “Artus, Artus. Familiar name. I really can’t remember each and every creature we have in here but why did I choose to remember his?” Suddenly his eyes darted back to the two brothers. “That skinny island Acara in the library, unable to stand still, talks really fast, has the eyes of a Cobrall?”
Shad and Saura looked at each other. “Yeah, though his eyes seemed friendly enough to me,” said the Lupe.
Nightsteed’s eyes narrowed.
“Wrong answer?” asked Shad, his ears drooping.
The Uni seemed thoughtful for a second. “Tell me,” he suddenly said, “which tree grows right next to the Tropical Foods hut?”
Shad blinked as Saura said: “There was an Azzle tree there, but about a month ago it was broken down in a fierce storm as it stood so near to the coast, so the shopkeeper is currently growing Taokicarrots where the tree used to stand.”
The Uni’s face softened a little. “And in Neopia Central, which shop lies right next to that gallery where this brother of yours lives?”
“The bakery,” snarled Shad. “That lady Marissa makes such delicious cakes that the scents can drive you insane even when you’re sitting next door, and note that I’m a carnivore.”
“No you’re not; you’d eat anything that doesn’t scream in your mouth and in case of spooky food that’s no factor either,” hissed the Zafara, peering at Nightsteed who looked a bit friendlier now, though it was a rather small bit.
“At least I now know that you two are who you say you are,” he said and Saura couldn’t help but be amazed - how does he know that what we said was true? He must travel a lot, or know a lot of magic. “But I have no reason to trust you two,” added Nightsteed. “You’re saying that you’ve never met Artus before?”
“Ask the scholars in the library how we acted when we were introduced,” suggested Saura, trying to hide his disapproval. After all, Nightsteed most likely had a reason to be suspicious.
“What were those books?” was the next question.
“Spellbooks, well, one was just an old history book but it had magical power,” remembered Saura.
The Uni muttered, “History books... indeed...”
“We didn’t really look at the other book; that one was smaller and thinner.”
“That one was a history book as well,” interrupted Shad. “Mainly about some city, I think it was called Ara.”
“Do you always need to stick your nose everywhere?” growled the Zafara.
Nightsteed scowled, turning to face them. “Blue covers? Made of Cobrall skin?”
Shad looked up. “Yeah.”
The blue Uni moaned, shaking his bony head. “Just wonderful. Why me...?” He seemed devastated and confused for a moment, then came to a decision. “Fine then. Come here.” They did so. “Now put your left paws on my horn.” Shad had to rise up on his hind legs to do that as Nightsteed wasn’t planning to lower his head for them, but they got it done. “Now listen, and listen carefully. Do you promise that you will never willingly harm the city of Qasala, its people, its way of life and order, never aid those who work against Qasala, never turn against Their Highnesses, never abuse their hospitality and never misuse the information you may get while staying here?”
“We promise,” the brothers said.
Nightsteed’s blue eyes focused for a second and then turned crimson. For just one faint moment his whole body changed; yellowish bone was to be seen through holes in his dark dry skin, partly covered by bandages, and transparent flames rose from his hooves without burning the floor. Then he changed back and stepped backwards, breaking the bond.
“I put an old curse upon both of you,” he said. “Break the promise you just gave and you die. It won’t be pretty, that much I can assure you. If you are who you say you are, then you have nothing to fear, but I have my reasons to be careful.” He lowered his head a little – the biggest token of respect one could ever get from him – and left, this time through the door.
“Well, wasn’t he nice,” grumbled Shad, his yellow eyes still wide in shock.
“If he has reasons to be so cautious,” Saura said with a frown, “then we may be in for a bigger adventure than we expected from this lazy city.”
The two brothers spent quite a while talking. They had a lot to argue about. Having a deadly curse placed upon you isn’t exactly something to be taken lightly.
“Looks like Nightsteed doesn’t trust Artus one single bit,” said Shad. “Dunno, he seemed like such a nice guy. You’re better at seeing through people; did he really have the eyes of a Cobrall?”
“Depends what Nightsteed meant with that,” muttered the spotted Zafara. “Cobralls are smart, you know that.” Shad nodded, their sister had a mutant Cobrall. “But they’re poisonous, and mean. And they don’t show what they think.”
Shad sat down. “Well, I doubt it was a compliment, seeing how Nightsteed reacted.”
“Should we contact Tsuki about his friend?” Saura asked with a scowl. “If Artus is working against Qasala in any way, then I doubt Tsuki knows; he wouldn’t approve of something like that. Then again, he might contact Artus to demand for an explanation and then we’re in trouble... all we can do is to ask about that Acara in general.”
The Lupe raised his paws. “Whoa, whoa, hold on now. Not again. Not this time. I’m not getting messed in some huge mission to save the whole land again. You remember what happened last time – we almost got killed! And now we’re dealing with a 200-year-old Uni who’s had all this time to perfect his skills and we have his curse floating above our butts and generally we should be darn careful about everything we say or do or we’ll blow up. Whatever it is that’s making even him worry, we should stay away from this.”
Saura scowled. “So you’re saying that we should enjoy Nabile’s hospitality, tell her the news she wants to hear, keep away from the palace’s intrigues, take a hike as soon as courtesy allows us to and let them deal with their own problems?”
A knock on the door stopped anything Saura was planning to say and a young brown Xweetok stepped in. “Greetings,” she said, bowing. “I was ordered to take you to the dining hall to have lunch with Their Highnesses.”
The Xweetok walked quickly and lightly, mainly on her hind legs just like Harfu and Nabile, though at staircases she jumped on the banisters and ran down on all fours, waiting downstairs as the brothers followed her. She was gentle and fragile, and her voice was quiet when she pointed at a statue or a vase here and there in the hallways, explaining how old they were and what they meant as they passed them, yet she seemed proud and confident, as much as a maid can afford those qualities. When she opened a gigantic door in a hallway that looked bigger and more luxurious than most others, she bowed again, said: “May the Faeries bless your meal,” and left with a straight back, her mane flowing behind her like liquid chocolate.
The dining hall, though immense, somehow managed to look balanced and full of furniture. The walls were bordered with golden statues that varied with huge windows, there were huge palm trees growing in equally huge pots in each corner of the room, and the oaken dining table itself, though long, had two rows of comfortable chairs to counterbalance the effect. The room was light and all the golden surfaces were shimmering in the afternoon sun – and there were indeed many golden surfaces in that room.
Nabile was sitting by the table already. “Come, have a seat,” she called. As Shad and Saura stepped closer, they could see that most seats were taken. The Neopets in them were apparently advisors, ministers and high-ranked scholars, though they also spotted a few ambassadors – a chubby Gnorbu in a robe that bore the colors of Brightvale and a tall Faerie. “You’ll meet many fancy people there,” the chocolate-furred Xweetok had explained on their way down, “but don’t feel inferior in any way; the Highnesses always eat with their guests. It would be impolite to take food to their rooms or host them in the servants’ table.”
Nightsteed was there too, sitting in a slightly different chair that was designed for him. Shad’s eyes met his for a second when they approached the table, bowed to the others and sat down. The Uni seemed... calm. Not suspicious, not apologetic or grim, but simply aware of the two visitors’ presence and assuming that he wouldn’t have to bother with them in the near future.
Nabile introduced the two to the table-company and then spent a good five minutes introducing everyone else. “Boy, this place is a lot fancier than that fortress we last visited,” Shad whispered to Saura, peering around to make sure nobody felt offended by the whispering and nodding at the Grarrl who was currently being introduced.
“This is a different land and a different time,” the Zafara replied. “But I like it here.” He focused on the introductions, curious to hear about Nightsteed.
“Sir Khnumeran of Qasala, His Royal Highness’ advisor.” A fat mutant Gelert nodded and smiled widely. The brothers nodded back.
“Drefu Arafan, Qasalan external affairs.” A skinny, grim Wocky nodded and gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. The brothers nodded back.
“Nellera, the spokesperson for Her Highness Fyora in Qasala and the delegate of Faerieland.” The Faerie nodded, seeming a bit tired. She was an Air Faerie and the warm, dry air seemed to make her lose her concentration.
“Nightsteed.” The blue Uni glanced at the two brothers, his face showing no expressions whatsoever, merely recognizing their presence as much as he needed for the ceremony, then he looked away again, buried in thoughts. Nabile didn’t add anything about him.
“Marago, the advisor of...” and so it went, politely and a bit lifelessly, until:
“Prince Jazan, His Royal Highness of Qasala and the ruler of these lands,” finished Nabile, then added quietly: “They’re the ones I told you about.”
This was the first time the brothers got to take a good look at prince Jazan. The red Kyrii was leaning against the back of his chair, his simple-looking white robe bordered with gold and his orange eyes bordered with black. He gave a short glance at the two brothers at Nabile’s words, gave a quiet “mhrmmh” and his eyes turned blank again. He seemed bored, and as tired as the Faerie delegate.
“It’s an honor, Your Highness,” said Saura, feeling that he should say something.
Jazan glanced at him again, this time nodding slightly, then he leaned forward. “Nice, can we start eating now?” His voice was somewhat different from what the brothers had expected, especially judging by his bored and slouchy appearance. It was a deep, strong voice, a voice one would expect to hear from the mouth of a warlord encouraging his men for the final battle, not a bored prince at the lunch table.
The doors opened again and a long row of servants came in, carrying dishes and plates. For a while the only sounds were the clatter of forks and knives, the thumps of jugs against the table and a lot of munching, but as the first hunger was satisfied, chatting arose over the table and the atmosphere turned lighter. Nabile used the chance to chat with Shad and Saura, asking them about events in Neopia and laughing at the funny news, even the smallest and most trivial ones. She had clearly missed that information and the brothers were truly glad to be able to help her.
Jazan, on the other hand, barely said a word during the whole lunch, leaning on the table, gnawing on the food and throwing bones to the Setis who were sunbathing in front of one huge window on the fluffy carpet, and mainly gazed into nothingness, yawning once in a while. Eventually Nabile stopped her conversation with Shad, turning serious and hissing at her husband: “Jazan, would you please try to behave? We’re having visitors!”
“We always have visitors here,” bit Jazan with his mouth full, then swallowed the piece and added, covering another yawn: “Always the same show every single day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, always those boring faces, always the same chitchat. How long am I supposed to look like I’m having the time of my life here? It’d be much nicer if all those fancypants...”
“Jazan,” hissed the pink Ixi, her eyes flaming in fury and embarrassment, “not now! Please, just...” she sighed, rubbed her forehead and added: “Those people are your friends, and true servants of Qasala. They’re here for the sake of this city, and for the sake of us, please try to appreciate at least that.”
The Kyrii shrugged with a somewhat impatient grimace that said “fine, whatever, just leave me alone”. Nabile’s pink face turned reddish when she turned back to Shad and Saura, trying to pick the thread up again as if nothing had happened. Shad helped her out, diving back into the chat with his usual light blabbing, and Saura chimed in every once in a while. The Zafara glanced at Nightsteed for a second.
The Uni hadn’t talked much during the lunch, but that was because he wasn’t very talkative in general, and none of the advisors by the table seemed too comfortable with talking to him either. He had been sitting and eating, and he was currently gazing at Jazan as he munched on his qando stew. Nightsteed’s eyes were full of deep, sad concern.
To be continued...