Caution: Quills may be sharp Circulation: 187,760,157 Issue: 526 | 22nd day of Celebrating, Y13
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Possibility: Part One


by virtuosoe

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Sakhmet is a beautiful place. The first time I saw it, it was nothing but intimidating. It's not anymore. My friend Jules is nice enough to show me around. He's not the savviest dealer, but he knows his history and way around. Being there with him is like being at home with family... at maybe a crowded distant-relative dinner.

      We're sitting at a bench and having what Jules likes to call "lunch". The last things on my mind are sitting and sand. The sun is inexorably killing me, even through my headgear; the food on my plate is plainly unappetizing, but I've gotten used to it.

      As if reading my thoughts, Jules mutters, "Glad you're getting used to the taste of cooked sand, Astrea."

      "I have no choice," I retort as I bite into my meal. The cuisine of the Lost Desert is questionable, but apparently not to the thousands that surround us now, creating an ever moving crowd of Sakhmetians. I have to yell when I make the remark, "I'd be eating sand even if it wasn't part of the name of the food."

      "Don't hate," Jules replies as he bites into his sandwich. Jules has been living here his entire life, but I haven't. I've gone through the whole adjustment thing pretty well; I'm practically a Lost Desert citizen. Jules is kind enough not to bring up where I may have come from, the tacit rule we both obey. I can't tell if I'm thankful or rueful for that.

      Suddenly a voice like velvet that's peculiarly close to my ear asks, "Have you seen anyone bearing a resemblance to this?"

      Jules grabs something—a flyer. His eyes bulge for a second, and then he says, "Yeah, I've seen her before. Don't you remember her?" He turned the paper around to let me see it.

      And dear Fyora. My heart stops. It's a Wanted poster of me. Or, more specifically, a Missing poster with an eye-opening reward amount scrawled on the bottom. It's a spitting image of me. I even recognize that the drawing is of a family portrait of me from the same place I'm from.

      "It's the girl selling melons or something. In Qasala," I spit out. After its cessation my heart is thundering. I'm wanted. As likely....

      "Thanks for your time," the speaker says and groans a little. He tears the poster from Jules's hands.

      I let out a huge sigh as the man leaves. My appetite is gone, so I shove my plate to the ground; it'll blend in.

      Jules leans in and orders with a low voice, "Tighten your veil in case someone gets a bright idea." Then he asks, "Any thoughts on why that was you on that poster?"

      I do as we both think and wrap my headdress tighter. "I'll explain when I get home. I'm positive I know exactly why I was on there." Still my heart is beating, and I hope no one sees my face at all. At all.

      "Should I... hurry?" Jules asks hesitantly as he eyes his plate.

      "No, I'll just... put my head down." I truly hope nothing looks suspicious about a ravenous desert Bori and a Kougra with an overly tight head wrapping. Jules takes his time, savoring each bitter bite of rough sand. I hope he's as stunned as I am under that mask of hunger, but he doesn't show it.

      I think what a smarter pair would be doing now: not sitting in a crowd of thousands.

      Jules gets up to throw away some scraps. When he comes back, he leans down to my ear. "I'm ready. I suppose you don't want to visit the shrine still."

      Jules and I were going to visit Coltzan's Shrine to top off our day. I likely sound imprudent when I say, "I could care less about the shrine. Let's go."

      But no, we have to stay.

      "Jules! And... um... Astrea!"

      A desert Bruce with bulky glasses approaches us. It's Volts. Jules greets him with his best feigned surprise. I've only met Volts once, and it was very awkward. He kept talking about science and medicine and I couldn't have cared less. But I have to give it to him: Volts is quite brainy, supportive, and friendly, if nothing else. It's eccentric seeing the Bruce in Sakhmet, the very place he'd probably hate to be.

      "What brings you here?" Jules says with a touch of acid in his voice that he probably doesn't mean to use.

      "Just grabbing some grub," he replies. "Gee, Astrea, you seem delighted to come across me today!"

      I fake a cough. "I'm just a little sick," I reply. I hate to admit it, but when it comes to lying I must be better than the average Neopian.

      This is proven by Volts groaning. "That's too bad. You should stop by the pharmacy if you get the chance. Or maybe even Coltzan can grant you wellness." The feeling of guilt worsens when Volts grins widely. "So, Jules, you've not forgotten about our ongoing Geo challenge, correct?"

      "Never," Jules replies with a smile. "I think about beating you every time before I sleep."

      I cough again to seem genuinely ill. When I turn my head, I notice a pair of fleeting violet eyes boring into my own. They turn away immediately. I know instantly that we must go. Now.

      "Maybe you're confusing that with your actual dream. Well, goodbye you two. Get well soon, Astrea." Volts walks away with pride in his step. This is actually the first slightly normal conversation I've ever had with Volts. But I can't ponder his near metamorphosis for long. I have to get home. Well, Jules's home.

      Jules gives me a look. Then he starts to walk briskly. I'm right behind him. Hopefully Volts isn't looking; a sickly girl probably shouldn't be walking as fast as I am. We race across the desert.

      I realize when we get home I'll have to elucidate my background. I'm not sure I'm ready to do that, to stun Jules. Perhaps when we get to his house I'll unwind a little—as much as possible, at least. Jules's house is serene and, dare I say, pretty. Jules and I are the same age, but Jules seems more mature than I am. That's why he has a house, mounds of money, and enough patience and benevolence to take in a potential vagabond like myself.

      When we finally get there, Jules prepares two glasses of water. He probably wants to quench his thirst from food, but I try to drown my anxiety. Jules sits in the couch, and I sit in the chair directly in front of the couch and relax my headdress.

      "I'm ready whenever you are," Jules says.

      Gosh. I take a huge breath. This is a monumental moment, and I knew it was going to happen, but what do I do now that it's here?

      I choose to babble. "H-Here I go, then. You know the emperor of Shenkuu, right?"

      "Yes," Jules scoffs. "We had tea just yesterday. You must have missed him."

      "I'm serious," I say with a slightly whiny tone. I attempt to take a different approach. "I live in Shenkuu, Jules. And there's royalty there just like there is here. You know how the emperor has two daughters, two princesses?"

      Jules nods. "If I recall correctly."

      "He has a third daughter." Jules is silent. "Her name is... Astrea."

      I hold my breath slightly. I want Jules to say something stupid about the third daughter and me having the same name so I can just forget about this, but wishing for that is futile.

      "You're serious?" Jules breathes. "Repeat that in the most specific way possible. No illusions."

      "I am the emperor's daughter."

      Jules starts to look out the window past my head. "I know you'd not lie about this, but... proof?"

      I shove out my arm. "If you've ever looked closely at my bracelet, you'd notice the emblem." I turn the bracelet on my wrist around and close my eyes because I can't bear to look. "It's the royal crest. Peasants can't wear it—pure gold. But I've been blessed enough to have one. Obviously no one here would notice it."

      Jules shakes his head and leans back. "So, why has no one ever heard of you? No offense, but I'm sure that if any princess gets to be admitted to the pedestal of Shenkuu royalty, all of them should. Explain?"

      I shake my own head. "Lunara was born, the future empress. Then I was born. And I have no idea why I wasn't shared with the world. I used to convince myself it was so that no one could hurt me. But that didn't make sense because two years later Terrana's born and she has publicity and parties and so much in her name."

      "This..., this is not making sense," Jules blabbers.

      "That's my life for you," I answer. "Since no one could just cover up the scandal of a third princess being there all along, I was hidden. If ever asked I was a guard's daughter. I sat with the peasants at every event. I rarely got to see my father and never in public. My sisters were around some, but you can imagine the company they give. You can also imagine how a princess would feel about basically being ignored all her life."

      I let Jules process this. He says quietly, "I know there's more to it than that. Why'd you leave?"

      "It got frustrating. I've been told I bear the slightest resemblance to my sisters and my father, so someone might notice. Therefore I rarely get to go outside. I live underneath the palace, so I don't even get to experience any action there. Lunara.... Ugh. She left because she was sad and lonely and unaware of what she had. But I want more than what Lunara wanted. Besides, I was sure no one would notice or care. Guess I was wrong."

      Jules nodded. "If it was attention you wanted, you got it."

      "But it's more than attention. I want something with a million times more substance than only attention. I want to live, for one. Allow me to be mushy when I say this: Living here in the Lost Desert for this—what, two weeks?—has been the best time of my life."

      "I understand," Jules says. But I can only assume he's just saying that. He shifts uneasily in his seat. "So where's your next destination?"

      "Home," I blurt out.

      "First of all, how did you get here?"

      I smile faintly. "There's a shopkeeper in my old neighborhood who's somewhat like Volts. She makes aircraft. And I took her very first successful craft all the way here. I crashed somewhere in the outer desert. I just left the sail glider there. And walked and walked and walked. And then I met you."

      Jules laughs uneasily. "So where do we go from here?"

      I've never been the expert. When Jules asks this question, it's my time to stare. It was a huge step for me to take that glider all the way to this desert. It was even more significant for Jules to open his arms to let me in. And now is the time for me to plan my way back.

To be continued...

 
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