Art by nut862
Hiding in the scant shade found in the shadows of noonday sun, a red Lupe lay panting under an awning on a deserted stone terrace some height above Sakhmet. Crouched against the farthest wall, the pets below couldn’t see him. The stones under his feet were burning from the sun’s relentless fire, but Tomos knew better than to wander around on the city streets below.
With his occupation, it was safest to keep to high places when he had no business on the streets, and when he did have business there it was best to get it over with as quickly as possible. That was some of Nabile’s teaching, and good advice it was. In this heat, not even the most enraged merchant would bother to chase a street thief so high up. The sellers were doing all they could to bear the sun just standing on the street under their frail tents.
Tomos squinted up into the white sun in the sky, willing it to stop shining for just an instant of relief. He could understand why thieves chose to work in the cool darkness of night. Unfortunately, merchants and their wares were never out on the streets at such times. Tomos groaned, trying to keep his body still so he wouldn’t feel the sweat clinging to his vest. Why hadn’t the princess ever tried a campaign to turn her entire population nocturnal? Goodness knows it would benefit their health.
Tomos looked down and glared at the cracker in his hand, the flat cookie as dry as the sun-baked sands. It was shaped like a scarab; earlier, he’d been amused by it and had swiped it off a snack stand. He wished now he’d looked around a little more rather than snatching it on a whim just because it looked like the symbol of his group of thieves. He was hungry, but he wasn’t about to eat the dry cracker, knowing it would only make his throat burn for water. As it was, if the sun got much hotter, the Scarab Cookie would soon be a Burnt Scarab Cookie. Though it was lunchtime, Tomos didn’t feel like moving a muscle to swipe something to eat.
Suddenly, a ghost of a refreshing taste came to his mouth, taunting him. Strawberries. Pyramid strawberries.
Tomos rolled his tongue around in his mouth. He couldn’t imagine where that taste had suddenly come from. He hadn’t tasted a pyramid strawberry in over a year. Certainly not since before she had left.
A pyramid strawberry would taste perfect right now. Tomos could imagine the cool fruit crunching into juice between his teeth, the sweet liquid washing the dust from his dry throat. But when he swallowed, he felt his parched throat again, no more refreshed than if he’d gulped down a handful of sand.
* * * * *
“I brought you a treat. Perhaps it’ll refresh you a bit from the sun.” The Kyrii set a black ceramic bowl on the table, filled to the brim with luscious purple Queela fruits, drops of water shining on their skins from having just been washed. The bringer of the fruits cast a glance at the pink Ixi who sat at the other side of the table, her back to it as she stared out the window.
Waves of heated air poured into the palace through the window. From here, Nabile could see the clear water shooting from the fountain in the middle of her city. She saw children playing in the cool water, and briefly wished she could be among them. She had gotten used to living in this palace, but sometimes she could almost see herself back in the familiar dust of the streets.
The Ixi turned around and saw the bowl of freshly washed fruits. She smiled. “Thank you, Jazan. Take one.” She pushed the bowl towards the Kyrii.
Jazan grinned and popped one of them in his mouth. “The fountain seems to be a hit. I wish our palace had luxuries like the street.”
Nabile chuckled. She took a fruit too, but as she chewed it, the coolness of the water on its skin gave way to the spicy fire of the meat. She swallowed it quickly, her mouth tingling. Though her tongue preferred Sakhmet’s dry, bitter foods, she had trained it to accept the fare of Qasala. Still, spice wasn’t exactly refreshing on a day as hot as this one.
Nabile found herself recalling her favorite foods from Sakhmet. Then, nobody had brought her meals in gleaming bowls; she’d had to find it for herself. Admittedly, snitching from baskets of goods at the market was easier than foraging for meals in the desert wastes, but she’d still had to work for it. They’d both had to work for it, but it was always worth it when they managed to come away with a good meal of fresh fruit. Ptolymelons... Tchea fruits...
And pyramid strawberries. Those had been their favorite of all.
“I know you don’t like too much spice, so I had strawberries brought in for you as well.” Jazan dug down into the bowl of Queela fruits, stirring it up and revealing bright red strawberries under the layer of purple fruits.
Nabile’s eyes widened as she looked, almost expecting to see the juicy flat sides coming together into a point. But all the strawberries in the bowl were rounded. Still, she broke into a smile and took a handful. “Where on Neopia did you get these?” The cool strawberries were wonderful relief from the heat, but with her thoughts on the taste of pyramid strawberries, these seemed bland in comparison. “Jazan, you know what really tastes delicious?”
“I think these really taste delicious. Perfect for a hot day.” The Kyrii took another handful of Queela fruits.
“You’ve never tried pyramid strawberries, have you?” Nabile sighed in remembrance. “They were my favorite. I used to love eating them. Hard to get, but the best of Sakhmet.”
Jazan nodded slowly, making a mental note to remember the words. Pyramid strawberries.
* * * * *
“Nabile, look at that guy over by the sand fruit stall. Rich?”
The pink Ixi grinned, eyeing the stranger in tailored clothes who was casually examining a sand banana. “Very rich. Now get out there. I’ll cover for you if he notices.”
Tomos crept up behind the tourist. There were two kinds of rich people, the careless kind and the misers. Considering the ease with which Tomos slipped his hand into the stranger’s pocket, it was no trouble to guess which one this was.
Nabile stood up excitedly as she saw the red Lupe returning with a smile on his face. As soon as he came near her, they both took off running in another direction. They stopped only when they were sure they were too far away to be pursued, in an alley full of broken pottery at the end. Nabile looked at Tomos with gleaming eyes. “How much?”
Tomos grinned. “No money.”
Nabile stared at him. “Nothing? But...”
“Not nothing.” Tomos put forward his hand to show a pyramid strawberry standing up on its flat base in his palm.
Nabile’s eyes lit up. Suddenly both were possessed with childish glee. This was a real treat. Pyramid strawberries were rarities, almost never sold in the open-air stalls. It was an occasion to be remembered whenever they managed to snatch one, and that didn’t happen often. Pyramid strawberries’ flat sides absorbed moisture, resulting in luscious juicy berries that more than quenched desert thirst.
Tomos took a small knife from his belt and split the pyramid strawberry down the middle. He gave one half to Nabile, and on his own half he carefully cut an outline in the flat side. A crude sketch of a scarab carved in the fruit marked the loot as their own. They both laughed in delight and ate their halves, savoring the taste of their stolen feast.
Tomos fingered the dry cookie in his hand, the brittle legs of the scarab breaking as he turned it over and over. He really should go looking for something worthwhile to eat. But the sun seemed to weld him in place, and Nabile was no longer there to tell him to get going.
* * * * *
“Pyramid strawberries?” The Grarrl behind the food stall glanced up at the blinding sunny sky, thinking. “Those are rare. Growing things like that out here takes a lot of extra care and attention. They’re very expensive. We usually only get them from traders.”
“Does this mean you’re sold out?” the orange Kyrii asked impatiently.
“I don’t know when we’ll come across any more. The season for them just ended.”
Jazan turned away from the stall and walked over to a blue Uni who was waiting for him in a corner of the dusty market. He had told Nabile that he wanted to get out of the stuffy palace for a while. The Uni followed without being led as Jazan walked slowly through the streets, the hot breeze of a crowded city blowing his loose white robe against his skin. He hadn’t gotten what he’d come for, just like the first time he’d set foot in this city.
“Mommy, can I carry it?”
“It’s our last harvest. I don’t want you dropping it...”
Jazan turned idly at the sound of the murmurs. He caught sight of a child trotting alongside her mother, who was carrying a basket. Jazan’s eyes widened at the sight of a sharply triangular red fruit lying awkwardly on top of a pile of round Tchea fruits. He’d never seen a pyramid strawberry before, but all he needed to know was its name to see that he’d found what he sought.
* * * * *
Luck, that was what he called it. Tomos found his heart pounding with determination as he crouched behind a wall, waiting for the rich nomad to complete his sale. He probably wouldn’t have even noticed the pyramid strawberry in that basket if the white-robed Kyrii hadn’t called attention to it. Now the taste of pyramid strawberries drove away his heat-induced laziness. As he waited, he clutched the legless scarab cookie in his sweaty hand until it broke in half under his palm.
It was ridiculously easy to sneak the pyramid strawberry out of the Kyrii’s pocket once he put it in. The nomad was so busy chatting with that trader that he didn’t even notice. Tomos felt exultant as he fled, pyramid strawberry held carefully in one hand and scarab cookie shattering under the other’s fist.
“Don’t look now, but you’ve been robbed,” muttered the blue Uni to his master. “By someone we know, no less.”
Hearing that didn’t disturb Tomos; after all, a lot of people, shopkeepers in particular, knew the Desert Scarabs. He ducked down an alley and pulled out his knife, his mouth already watering as he looked at the pyramid strawberry. Out of habit, he etched a scarab symbol in one side and poised his knife to split it down the middle.
“Stop, thief! That strawberry’s for Nabile!”
Who? Tomos turned around and grew wide-eyed at the sight of a face he hadn’t seen in months looking out from the white desert robes. He got up quickly, holding the strawberry protectively in one hand, and the knife and a fistful of cookie pieces in the other.
The Kyrii held up his hands. “No need for the knife anymore.” He smiled nervously. “We know each other, don’t we? You’re an old friend of Nabile.”
Tomos put away the knife, seeing as he couldn’t use it very effectively with the cookie in his hand anyway. This was a bit of an awkward situation he’d gotten into. He tried to think of something tactful to say. “Hey, I haven’t seen you around here since your dad blew up the town.”
“I came here on special business. I was planning to give that to Nabile as a present.” He gestured to the strawberry in Tomos’s hand. “She’d been saying today how much she used to like eating them.”
The two waited for a few seconds in silence. Then Jazan asked, “Could I have it back, please?” Seeing Tomos’s hesitation, he added, “I promise if you do, I won’t complain about you to the law.” He hoped that bluff would work, since he didn’t really want to tangle with Princess Amira again anytime soon, even if she and Nabile were friends now.
“I don’t care about the law,” Tomos said with a grin. But he handed over the strawberry.
* * * * *
“Where...?” Nabile stood upright, staring in amazement at the juicy red berry in her hand. She looked at the grinning Kyrii in wonder. “Wasn’t it expensive?”
“We paid for all this,” Jazan said, gesturing through the window at the street lined with new buildings outside, with the fountain spraying water in the middle of it. “Shouldn’t I reward the one who made it all happen?”
Nabile turned the strawberry over in her hands. The skin was slit on one side. Her eyes widened as she saw red juice oozing through the hastily cut outline of a scarab.
* * * * *
I could have gotten away... so I guess you could say that present was from me, too. I hope she likes it.
Tomos sat under the blazing sun, staring at his clenched fist. Finally he raised it to his mouth and let the dry crumbs of the broken scarab rain into it.