Shad and Saura: That Other City - Part Eight
Art by ssjelitegirl
The palace’s kitchen was, as expected, filled with people despite the early hour. Palaces are like small cities; they never completely sleep. Even though the kitchen was unusually quiet when the two brothers came in. A chef hastily fetched a plate of leftovers for them at their request, keeping quiet all the time. By following the glances he kept shooting over his shoulder, the two realized why: Prince Jazan was sitting there by the wall on an old and shaky wooden stool, thoughtfully munching on a pie.
“Wouldya look at that,” muttered Saura, taking a slice of qando bread.
Shad frowned and bit his lip, almost piercing it as he forgot how sharp his fangs were. “I wonder if...”
“I know that look. You got some crazy idea again,” hissed his brother.
“Worth a try, I think.” Shad swallowed three sausages in a row before barking: “Hey, Prince Jazan! Good morning!”
The whole kitchen echoed when everyone in it winced, Saura and Jazan included. The Kyrii looked up only to see the shadow Lupe prance closer, cracking a wide, toothy – okay, fangy grin. That sight usually made people instinctively look around for Defenders of Neopia.
“Good morning,” said the prince. He didn’t look sleepy. Granted, nobody was able to look sleepy two feet from Shad’s fangs, but he hadn’t seemed sleepy before either. Now he had also lost his usual absent behavior, though, staring at Shad with certain hypnotized surprise.
“Can’t get any sleep?” the Lupe asked sympathetically, sitting down as his tail thumped against the floor.
“Yeah, well...” If Jazan had wanted to give another one of his recent gloomy speeches, he had apparently forgotten all of them at the moment. “I just woke up, actually. There hasn’t been much to do lately, besides sleeping.”
“And you came down here to help those people with cooking?” Shad asked, kicking the prince’s stream of thoughts in a completely different direction. The kitchen froze. The cooks’ eyes widened. Someone fainted in a far corner.
“Why would I want to do that?” asked Jazan, completely bewildered.
“Why not?” Shad’s yellow eyes blinked innocently. “You said that you have nothing to do. Sitting around doesn’t sound more interesting than cooking, y’know.”
Saura came closer, wondering to himself how much Shad would be healthy for one dose. “He’s got a point. There’s plenty to do in a palace and yet you seem so bored. And cooking is fun, I can vouch for that.”
Jazan stared at them both as the cooks stared at him, too scared and amazed to even breathe. Them, slowly but steadily like a sunrise, the prince’s face developed a smile.
“Heh, why the heck not? Where do you people keep the bowls?”
By the time the rulers, advisors and ambassadors gathered around the long oaken table to have breakfast, the sun was high in the sky and it was already hot outside. The company was the same as on lunch and dinner the previous day; even though the majority of Qasala was asleep, the rulers had to stick to a normal schedule. The servants brought food, chatting arose after a while, everything was the same, except for one tiny little detail nobody even noticed at first, but then it started to stick out like tiny details in regular routine always do.
“Jazan,” Nabile eventually said, stopping her conversation with the Faerie delegate.
The tiny detail vanished, leaving a clear hole in the atmosphere and everyone’s attentions focused on the royal couple’s end of the table. Jazan looked up, his orange eyes widening. “What?”
“You were... humming,” said the princess.
Jazan scowled. “Nabile, I’m the ruler of the city of Qasala. I’m relatively sure that I’m allowed to hum whenever I wish.”
The Ixi stared at him. “But-a-but... are you feeling okay?”
“Besides the fact that this stupid little tune has been haunting me all morning, yes.” The Kyrii reached out to grab another Star Shortbread Cookie. “What are you all looking at?”
“What tune is it?” Nightsteed’s voice asked from the middle of the table. The Uni seemed... amused. Or at least a bit relieved to see a change in Jazan’s behavior – whether it was a good or bad thing still seemed uncertain for him.
Jazan turned to look at Shad.
“It’s ‘Too Cool for a Name’,” stated the Lupe with a wide grin on his dark face. “Moehawk’s. One of their best hits ever.”
“Though they really need to hire a new person to come up with their song titles,” remarked Saura with his mouth full. “Great, now it’s haunting me too. Did you have to sing it all morning?” Shad’s grin got bigger in response.
The vast door in the opposite wall had slid open during the discussion to let a row of servants peer in. Jazan thoughtfully munched away on the cookie, paying no further attention to anyone else. Yet there still was a change in his behavior, a somewhat lighter note in the way he moved and the way he looked.
Saura shot a glance at Nightsteed to see his reaction. For his surprise the Uni was grim again, bowing over his plate. Something flashed in his blue eyes.
He was looking at someone at the table, or at least had been looking. Someone had caught his attention. Now the someone had hidden behind a mask of faked feelings again, yet on the inside concern and confusion began to seethe. Was Jazan really going to snap out of it all before the time came?
Maybe those two tourists were becoming more of a bother than he had thought.
When breakfast was finished, the two brothers strolled back towards their rooms through the airy corridors which were now light and humid again. It was quieter than usually. The city was asleep, and so were most of the servants.
“I smell someone,” Shad suddenly announced. “Hrm... it’s Deki.”
“Shouldn’t he... shouldn’t you be asleep?” asked Saura, addressing his question straight to the Scorchio who stepped out from behind the corner at that moment.
“Shouldn’t you?” the guard asked back. “I already slept. Not much, but still. My position doesn’t allow me to sleep longer.” He covered a yawn. “Have you seen Harfu? The shift is due fifteen minutes.”
Shad sniffed the air helpfully. “Downstairs, near the entrance, I think he’s aware of the time already.”
”Oh good, wouldn’t wanna be late again, Nightsteed would skin us alive,” muttered Deki. “Hey, I just remembered... mother wanted me to ask if you two would like to come for a visit tonight. She hasn’t been out of Qasala for ages and she’d love to hear some news and see outsiders for a change.”
“Sure thing,” Shad promised and Saura nodded in agreement. The Scorchio smiled and hurried off.
Saura looked around. “Say, where was that forgotten hallway of memories? It sounds like an interesting place and I never got to see it. Plus, if nobody really goes there then it should be safe to take a look.”
His brother nodded eagerly, glad to have something to do besides sitting and hiding in their rooms, and galloped up the stairs, following his memory that had already started to serve him in that colossal palace. The hallway was as quiet as before, warm and dusty, the air standing still above the rich luxurious carpet.
Saura looked around curiously, poked Razul’s immense statue and stood in front of Ara’s painting for quite a while.
“What I’d like to know,” he finally said, “is what happened to Ara. The city, not the queen. Artus needed those books, one about Ara, the other about the land of Elversti, and by now we should both know pretty well that he’s indeed somehow related to this whole story.”
Shad nodded grimly. “I never read the book about Elversti and the land around it that thoroughly. Probably should have.” His ears twitched. “Then again... we more or less know what it might have been about, don’t we?”
Saura looked at him, recalling their adventures before reaching the Lost Desert. They had stumbled upon the long lost land of powerful, ancient Faeries, been stuck in an almost-war between the Faeries and the Neopets of a fortress on that land, somehow managed to help sort things out and leave – but the book that had pushed them into that time warp and the lost land was still somewhere in the palace, and for a reason because Artus had requested to see it.
More like time wrap, come to think of it. The land of Elversti had been encased in its own time. Quite similarly to-
“Isn’t that what happened to Qasala?” he said so suddenly that Shad winced. “Stuck in time?”
“Another dimension, as I recall,” said the Lupe.
Saura shrugged impatiently. “Same thing. Time is just another dimension. Hundreds of years passed for them without leaving their mark. That Meira girl doesn’t exactly look like an ancient mummy, right?”
“And she told me that she’s centuries old,” the Lupe agreed. “But the mage wouldn’t step on the same rake, eh?”
Saura frowned. “You know... that might exactly be the reason. If I wanted to pull some master plan, I’d carefully study all similar previous attempts to learn where they went wrong. Then again, we don’t know what the mage wants from that book, we don’t know what’s in it... what?”
“Artus,” hissed Shad, pushing himself into the niche behind Razul’s statue. “Coming down the stairs.”
Saura didn’t waste time on further questions, but plunged behind a marble pedestal under the window. They could see the island Acara hurry down the staircase and past the entrance to the hallway without casting a single look in. When the steps faded, the brothers sneaked out again.
“What was he doing up there?” asked Shad.
“There’s no telling; one could reach half the palace from that staircase,” said Saura. “Unless you wanna follow back his scent.”
Shad scowled. “No sneaking, remember? And I don’t really care either. No point in being too suspicious. Librarians have billions of things to do even apart from helping crazy mages and whatnot.”
When they got back to their rooms, Nightsteed was sitting in the middle of the carpet.
“We weren’t sneaking,” Shad announced.
The corners of the Uni’s mouth twitched a little. “Good for you. I talked to Jazan. You two were playing court jesters this morning as I understood.”
“Did it work?” Shad asked curiously, his tail waving around.
Now Nightsteed really grinned. “Actually, yes. And you probably noticed that.” He turned serious. “Which brings me to my point. I fear that whatever is being planned here is either going to change or happen sooner. So I’ll warn you. Stay out of anything that might happen. Stay in these rooms. If anything explodes, you won’t be able to help by a single bit. Mage business is above your heads. If nothing happens during the next few days, well, nice, but no need to be careless.”
Shad’s ears drooped. “So we messed up?”
The Uni’s eyes seemed almost soft when he turned to look at him. “If anything, you messed up the mage’s plans. He’s been patient, but this might snap now, hence my warning.”
“But we promised Deki to visit his family this evening,” Saura remembered. “If we stay in this room, we’ll have to go back on our word.”
Nightsteed glanced at him. “Is that so?”
“Yeah, his mother wants to hear news from the outside,” said Shad.
The Uni turned to give him a sharp look. “Yeah, I reckon she would. Too bad you’d have to go to the Sakhmetian cemetery to deliver her the latest news. Deki’s mother has been dead for years.”
The room fell quiet.
“He lied,” muttered Shad.
“You think?” asked Nightsteed, raising a brow.
“Why did he lie?” asked Saura.
The Uni glanced at him. “Now that’s a good question. He wants you to come out of the palace, that’s for sure, and even if his intentions are completely innocent, I wouldn’t advise you to go. Not today.”
Saura seemed thoughtful. “What if... what if he’s connected to this conspiracy as well?”
“Likely,” Nightsteed admitted, apparently against his will. “But not certain. I’ve had my doubts, but then again, anyone would tell you that I’ve had a lot of doubts lately. One way or another, don’t risk. It’s none of your business. We don’t need innocent tourists getting harmed.”
The Zafara sat down. “Let’s assume that Deki’s connected to this. What are his intentions?”
“If I had a single clue, he wouldn’t be working here,” said Nightsteed grimly.
“Okay, but... why would he want to get us out of the palace?”
“To annihilate you for getting in their way,” said the Uni. “Obviously.”
“Then they’ll be suspicious if we don’t come,” said Saura. Shad’s ears drooped and Nightsteed’s eyes flashed in surprise. “Listen, Nightsteed, if you came along, you’d be able to protect us.”
“Voluntary bait?” The Uni grinned. The teeth of his normal form were surprisingly white. “I like it. What time are you planning to go?”
“Whoa, wait-wait,” began Shad as Saura said, “I was thinking at seven or so.”
“I’ll be here.” The Uni left the room.
“Saura!” Shad half-hissed, half-barked as soon as the door closed. “What in the name of all things good and shiny are you doing? You’re throwing us both in a Cobrall pit!”
“We’re already at the bottom of the pit, bro.” The Zafara got up, stretched his back and went to the window. “Maybe Deki isn’t connected at all. Maybe he was paid to call us out there, and thinks that it’s a prank, or maybe it is a prank, by that jolly gang we met last night; everything’s possible. When Nightsteed’s coming, I see no point in letting him down, and if it really is a trap, then it’s better to get it over with now rather than worry about someone lurking into our rooms at night when that Uni ain’t here to protect us.”
Shad frowned. “I suppose. I have a bad feeling about this.” He looked out at the azure cloudless sky. “Storm clouds are gathering.”
Saura nodded, squinting at the bright sun. “Indeed.”
To be continued...