A Tale From Long Ago: Part One
Peer through the disjointed and ill-fitting fragments of time to the Neopia of long ago, to a time after the gilt age of faeries and before modern enlightenment. Turn back the pages of history to when Meridell was still a land of feudal lords, small kingdoms full of ancient quarrels and warring barons. Revisit the desolate shores of Mystery Island, whose first tentative inhabitants are yet to creep across the sea. Remember when Neopia Central was yet a distant dream, veiled by the ages yet to come. One civilization stands alone in the midst of the chaos, one long forgotten gleam hidden in this dark wasteland. Ketia.
A small cloaked figure could be seen hurrying through the streets of Ketia. In the faint light of the moon, all that could be seen was a dim shadow flitting from building to building, keeping close to the walls. Ketia, the center of learning and art, the most beautiful city in the Lost Desert, was also the center of a thriving guild of thieves. One must be careful on the streets at night. The little shadow crept up to a battered tent and rapped softly three times of the support pole.
“Password!” demanded a voice from inside.
“Minaere,” a young female voice whispered under the cloak.
“Enter at your peril.” The tent’s flap was drawn back emitting momentarily a gleam of light. For an instant the visage of a small white Lupe swathed in a rich purple cloak was illuminated. Then she slipped inside the tent and all was dark once more.
Setiir let the hood of her robe fall to her shoulders. In her ears she wore golden rings. Her small chin was thrust forward with a determined tilt. “Quite a show you put on, Metiar.”
“M-milady!” the Ruki gasped. “I-I d-didn’t know!”
The Lupe’s emerald green eyes sparkled in the lamp light. “Safety precautions must be taken, but drama only excites curiosity.” Her smile was sinister as well as sweet. “Take me to Spirata.”
“Yes, Milady, right away, Milady!” The unfortunate Metiar pulled back yet another curtail on the tent (this one labeled ‘fine pottery’ and hanging just behind the Ruki’s desk) and led the way.
“Princess Setiir, oh my Master.” He addressed the back of a chair, for from their position the front and its occupant were invisible.
“Leave us,” said an ancient voice. Metiar bowed hurriedly and backed away, shaking nervously.
Setiir’s eyebrows rose satirically. “That excitable fool of yours nearly woke the whole city, Spirata. Maybe next time one of my people should stand guard.”
“Metiar is loyal though afraid. He will not bow to money.” The voice held a slight accusation.
“The same for us all,” Setiir said smoothly.
“Are you sure of that, my dear?” From the chair rose a huge aged Hissi.
“Of course. Though my loyalty would be ensured by the knowledge of what we are working towards.”
“My word is not enough?”
The Lupess shrugged. “For now.”
“Sometimes I wonder about you, Setiir. You hunger for recognition.” Spirata peered down into her eyes, as if reading what was written there. He continued, “You wish your powers to be recognized. A niece to the king, intelligent but repressed. Is your loyalty truly with me?”
“You know it is, uncle. You are the eldest son, born to rule.”
The elder pet sighed. “It is time to put that loyalty to the test, Setiir. Now is the time you can serve me.”
She leaned forward eagerly. “How?”
“Be my messenger.”
The tiny Lupe blinked. “Bring messages?”
“Yes. It will be dangerous.”
“That is no matter. When do I start?”
“Tonight. You must memorize what I tell you. Listen carefully. The Scarab and Albat must dance. Can you remember?”
“’The Scarab and Albat must dance’. What does it mean?”
“It is not necessary for you to know. Go to the Lotus Pool in the Old Atrium tomorrow; you will find my assistant waiting there. Tell him those words, nothing more. Now go. Safety be by thy side.”
“Evil from thee flee,” Setiir whispered the ceremonial reply and quickly slipped out into the dark. About an hour later a little shadow could be seen drawing near the royal palace. The two guards, eyes drooping heavily from sleep, would have missed her but for the soft thud as she slipped and fell on the smooth stone walkway. Drat! It was that stiff knee of hers again. It was too weak to walk upon for an undue amount of time.
“Did you hear that?” The fat Elephante started awake.
“Nay, Xertix, it is but your stupid mind that plays tricks on you,” the Yurble grumbled.
“Say that again, Timir!”
“T’was but your stu-” In a moment the one was on top of the other. In their fury they didn’t see the tiny Lupess sprint quickly through the unguarded gate and into the palace.
“Milady, you look most tired this fine morn; did you not sleep well?”
“My knee pained me last night, Chazra.” That was the truth at least. The fevered joint was still swollen and unwieldy.
“Let me look. Serpents and sandstorms! How came it to be so?” the old Mynci asked her mistress. Setiir’s eyes were wide and innocent.
“I must have made it worse bathing it in cool water last night. I thought it might ease the pain.” That too was true.
“Milady should have woken me! Warm water might’ve been helpful, but now there is much damage done now.” Chazra gently touched the strained knee with her paw. Setiir winced. “Come child, we will put an ointment on it and bind it in soft linen.”
Setiir longed fervently for the formal breakfast to be over. All the royal family and the highest nobles were assembled in the eastern banquet hall. King Poltotem kept a rigorous schedule, and tardiness was not tolerated in court. Countess Beshti stifled a yawn, while her little son Miska’s head was drooping ominously.
The immediate royal family was comprised of King Poltotem, the Princess Ritiki, and the Princess Tenkta. There was also Setiir, whose mother had been the elder sister of the king before her death. This gave Setiir a very high place in court, just below her royal cousins, for if Ritiki and Tenkta ever died, Setiir would be heir to the throne. Both of her young cousins were healthy, though, and small white Lupe was glad, for they were sweet cubs. Still, the eldest must succeed to the throne and Uncle Spirata... Well, the children would be well cared for; she would see to that.
Finally the king rose. The trumpets were blown, signifying that the morning meal was over and the nobles could go their separate ways. Setiir hopped up as quickly as her knee would allow and hurried off to the old wing of the castle as quickly as she dared to avoid chivalrous offers of accompaniment. After all, a king's niece has a fairly large dowry.
The old wing of the castle had been built by Setiir’s great-great-great-grandfather and was the original part of the palace. Later generations had felt the need to expand, and each had added his own addition. The old wing was hardly ever used now, except when there was an overflow of guests, so Setiir met no one.
Tiran glanced up. He heard foot steps. He pricked his shadow Lupe ears forward. It was a light step, that of a small pet, or maybe even a cub. Setiir came into view. No, she was not a cub, though she was small. Definitely of noble birth, the very way she walked attested to the fact. She made a delicate little figure framed in the door way as she was. The Lupess hesitated, but he did not say anything. After all, she might not be the one, however unlikely it might be.
A figure in a cloak... Let me revise that, a huge figure in a cloak. What could possibly be that big, a Grarrl? Oh well, Uncle Spirata had sent it, so it would be okay. But he said it would be dangerous. “Oh shut up!” she told the voice inside her head. Tentatively, she crept forward.
“The Scarab and the Albat must dance,” she said in as firm a voice as she could. Maybe whatever it was would just think she was crazy and eat her quickly. The cloak, or the pet in the cloak, nodded. Setiir turned and ran.
Gasping for breath and holding her aching knee, Setiir looked up and realized she was in the library. Merely seeing the endless shelves of scrolls made the tiny Lupess feel calmer. Now she could enjoy her one hobby, genealogy. She had poured endlessly over the records of the Tentakaton family, her ancestors. She knew the exact year they came into power and the first king of that name, Smirian the Conqueror. She had also, and with great interest, studied latest records of her family. The scroll on which she found their names was crumpled and charred in places, but still mostly legible. Her mother was the youngest of three children, or so she had been told. The dates of birth and death of the princess Luvina (her mother) had been slightly smudged and she couldn’t read it. Next Uncle Spirata, though that line had been purposefully scratched off when Uncle Poltotem, the current king, had forcefully taken power. Setiir didn’t know the whole story, but she knew enough to never trust her younger uncle again.
There was another dark blot of ink, but Setiir supposed what it had been she would never know. And now Setiir, a full grown though tiny white Lupe, pondered the horrors of intricate royal families. The civil wars, the problems of succession; she was glad that as a lowly female with no direct claim to the throne she would probably never rule. After all, she thought smugly, men aren’t nearly as lucky as they think! Who in his right mind would want to rule Ketia?
Tiran stalked out away from the palace, fists clinched. That Spirata! His loyal ally for years and now he sprang this on him! The enormous Lupe made his way through tightly packed market squares towards the tent Setiir had visited the night before. Now, in broad daylight, he didn’t bother to knock but went straight in. Metiar, the aforementioned nervous Ruki ,started up from his desk.
“M-master Tiran, w-what a p-pleasant sur-”
“Stick with the format!” Tiran snarled.
“Oh! Y-yes sir! C-can I i-interest you in any p-p-pottery, Master?”
“Y-yes sir, come right in.” Tiran ducked and followed the stuttering Ruki into the back of the tent. Metiar left and Spirata turned towards his guest.
“Did you not get my message, Tiran? I expected more from the little one...”
“I got it, all right!”
“You want me to stay at the castle!” he blustered. “Do you have any idea how odd it would look if the son of the late Baron Valatrop just came marching in on the king?”
“My brother feared your father to the death. I know for a fact that he would consider you a powerful ally.”
“And just how do you know that, may I ask?” Tiran queried.
The old Hissi leaned forward. “My most valuable spy informed me of it, and she is seldom wrong. You have already met her, I fancy...” He glanced at the tall Lupe. “...not easy to miss, and quite... pretty too.” He smiled mockingly. For no obvious reason Tiran’s ears blushed scarlet. Spirata continued. “You agree to my plan?”
“Yes. Safety be by thy side.”
“Evil from thee flee.”
“Ah yes! I remember your father well. Yes, my old friend Valatrop...”
Lying hypocrite, Tiran thought. His worst enemy, yes, he’d better remember Father well. Hiding his disgust behind a mask of pleasant smiles, Tiran conversed with the King. Despite his show of pleasure, the royal Kyrii’s ever shifting beady eyes paid tribute to his discomfort.
“...Well, your majesty, I thank you for graciously allowing me this interview.”
“Not at all, my boy, not at all! And please, consider yourself a member of the court.”
“My thanks, your Eminence.” He bowed himself out of the room and turned just in time to see a flash of white fur. Maybe it was that girl. He should get to know his allies better.
Setiir dropped her scroll, startled. She bent down quickly to pick it up, but Tiran was there before her.
“Thank you, sir.” Her calm demeanor was restored. After all, it took more than a new noble to shake her. “Might I help you? I know where most everything is.” She gestured to the many scrolls.
“I was simply acquainting myself with the plan of the palace,” he said glibly, looking around. “So this is the library.”
Setiir couldn’t help feeling a little proud. “Yes. It is the largest in the entire Lost Desert, and we have many rare works of literature.”
“What are you reading?”
“Genealogy of the Ketian Royalty.”
“Rather a dry read, don’t you think?”
“The novels are over there.” She grinned. “I happen to be interested in history.”
“You are not alone in that interest, I’m sure. Do you happen to know where the History of Qasalan Daggers is?”
Setiir delicately raised her right eyebrow. “The shelf on the left, third row.”
“My thanks, whoever you happen to be.”
“And I, princess, am Tiran Xertian.” She bowed as she handed him the scroll her sought.
“A pleasure I’m sure.” She pressed her palms together and bowed at the waist gracefully, her every movement perfect.
That enormous shadow Lupe again... it seemed like he was everywhere. Setiir leaned over to her neighbor, the princess Tenkta. “What do you know about him?”
“Who?” the pink Kyrii asked.
Setiir inclined her head toward the other end of the table. “That Tiran person.”
“Papa says his father was his most trusted friend.”
“The king's father?”
“No, Count Tiran’s father.”
“Oh, so he’s a count now?”
“Yes, by recent appointment of Papa. He’s cute, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know; he’s awfully tall...”
“What are you two talking about?” Ritiki poked her diminutive cousin in the ribs.
Tenkta winked at her elder sister. “Setiir’s new friend.”
“You child!” Setiir admonished.
Tenkta shrugged. “Whatever. Pass the scarab cookies.”
Setiir tossed on her restlessly on her couch. Why couldn’t she sleep? Usually she was out like a light. She ran her fingers through her fur. A Lupe’s thick shaggy fur was much too hot in the scorching sunlight of the Ketian day, but the desert sands cooled rapidly and now she shivered. Sighing, she got up and threw a light wool shawl over thin linen robes.
A new scroll! Well, the pages were crumpled, but Setiir had never noticed this one before. It was a copy of her family tree. Bother, she had already read that a million times! This one was more clearly written, though, and without scorch marks.
Setiir gasped. They said her mother was the eldest child, not the youngest! And this name... she ran back to the shelf and grabbed the other copy of the scroll. Yes, that odd smudge, here it was a clearly written name. Sheftu Tentakton, the eldest son. Someone was coming! Dropping the scroll, Setiir hurried back to her room.
Setiir watched her Altachuck play in the cool shade of the giant palm tree. Normal things think about boring everyday normal things. But when had her life ever been normal? A princess, who was sworn to help her uncle regain his kingdom, who now found that her mother was supposedly the youngest cub, and who now suddenly learned that she had had at one time had yet another uncle who was the eldest... The little Lupe pounded her fist viciously against the smooth wood of the palm tree, startling her petpet. Setiir bent down to soothe Menti.
“Menti, my mother’s family is simply too complicated.”
“I find it rather difficult to deal with too, I can assure you.” Tiran leaned against the tree, towering over Setiir.
She jumped and looked up. She probably wouldn’t be surprised if he walked through a wall. “Oh, it’s you!”
“A most polite greeting,” he teased, provoking a small smile from her.
“I am always polite!” Setiir lifted her chin in the air. “I don’t startle people everywhere they turn!”
“My apologies, Milady.”
“Please, call me Setiir. Our rank is about the same.”
“Your mother was the eldest child of the royal family, was she not?”
Setiir paused, her brow wrinkled in thought. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” He leaned forward, interested.
Should she tell him? “Well, the two documents of my family history that I’ve found don’t agree on that point.”
“How interesting.” Tiran really was interested. Now that he thought about it the scrolls in the royal library had most likely been altered when Poltotem rose to power. “May I see these scrolls?”
“See, someone obviously tried to burn them. I wonder who saved them.”
Tiran pointed to the dates under Princess Luitha’s name. “Setiir, Princess Luitha couldn’t have been your mother. According to this scroll, she was six years old when you were born.”
“I don’t remember my mother; I just know what my uncle told me.” A faint smile spread over her pale countenance. “It is the only subject on which I have ever understood both uncles to agree.”
“I’m curious about this ‘Sheftu Tentakton’. He might have died as a cub.”
“I wish there was someone I could ask about all this. But my uncle the King is suspicious of anyone who mentions his royal siblings. Though my loyalties are most emphatically with him,” she hastened to add.
Tiran had a hard time hiding his smile. If he hadn’t known for sure that it wasn’t so, her wide innocent green eyes would have fooled him. This one was clever.
Setiir continued, “He had every right to assume the throne when my eldest uncle died of plague.” Again the innocent look, while she knew all the while that that was a batch of lies concocted by an upstart king.
“Is there no one in the palace who you could ask?”
Setiir’s eyes widened with surprised realization, and then narrowed aggressively. “Chazra...” she whispered.
“Yes, Milady, I knew your royal mother well. The sweetest little gray Zafara she was,” the old servant rambled happily, unaware of the trap she had fallen into.
“No, Chazra, not Princess Luitha; my mother.”
Chazra sat down. “So you know,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Who was my mother, Chazra?”
“Oh, Milady! I swear I had nothing to do with it!” The Mynci buried her face in her hands. “I had to lie to you or they would’ve sent me away! I couldn’t bear to be parted from Lady Una’s only daughter!”
“Who’s Lady Una?”
“Your Lady Mother!” Chazra sobbed. “Everyone loved her. She was a silver Lupe; you are just like her. She married Prince Sheftu.”
“He was my father?”
Setiir knelt by her maid’s side. “What happened to them, Chazra? Please tell me,” she said urgently.
“Your uncles killed them. Power hungry they were, and evil of heart. Those two fought each other for the throne. King Poltotem says his brother is dead, but I don’t believe it. I think he’s hiding somewhere, waiting for his chance. You were only a baby when your parents died. I don’t know why they didn’t kill you too, but they didn’t.”
“Are you sure about this? My father was the eldest son?”
“That means, it means-”
Tiran burst through the door. “It means you are the heiress to the throne.” He bowed. “I offer you my allegiance, Milady.”
“All this time...” Setiir shook her head, trying to shake the dazed feelings from her mind. A queen!
To be continued...