Kings and Curses: Part Four
Jazan didn't need any coffee of his own the next morning as the sun rose – the fumes coming off the clay cups that Nabile, Caspar, and Mirzah were cradling were almost eye-watering. It was no surprise that the kitchen used the earthenware mugs for the morning brew, since it would probably have corroded metal. Mirzah grumbled, "What do they put in Faerieland's water that makes them think it's such a good idea to do things at dawn?"
Nabile replied with a groan, "I think it's all the crazy Light Faeries they've got. Do you know that they sing to great the sunrise?"
Esmeralda paced up and down the expanse of the floor, swinging her sword idly. "I'd sing if the Faerieland delegation would hurry up and get here."
Neera stifled a yawn – the twelve-year-old pink Zafara was old enough to be part of a welcoming committee, and at least her commitment to manners would allow her to overcome the hour. Then she chided, "Don't let them see that you're impatient. They're coming to help us, after all."
Esmeralda snorted. "We could handle it. Qasalans can handle anything." Jazan tended to agree with her, but he knew better than to take a side in the children's arguments.
Caspar shrugged as he drained his coffee cup, then said, "Well, the extra people will keep us from having to do anything heroic."
Jazan had noticed his oldest two children tended to use "heroic" as a synonym for "stupid," much as he did. It wasn't that heroism didn't have its place – King Altador, the closest thing his children had to a grandfather, was a hero down to the bone. But heroism tended to become truly necessary only after pragmatism and common sense had failed to yield useful results, and usually led to people getting hurt, so it was always best to save it for a last resort. Then he made sure his sword and knife were belted at his waist – even though he didn't like the fact that the foolish explorers were on the verge of opening Aurajar's tomb, he had to admit that he welcomed the break from paperwork.
Then Esmeralda said, "Mama, Father, Caspar and I had an idea."
Experience had taught Jazan to hear that particular phrase with the same reaction that he'd have to a general standing in front of him saying, "We have a problem."
Caspar said, "We think you should take Aldie with you. You know that we can talk to each other mind-to-mind no matter how far we are apart – you'll be able to tell everyone in Qasala what's going on immediately in case we need to make any preparations back here."
Esmeralda added, "Even though Caspar's a better mage than I am, Father, since you and Mirzah will be there you have all the magic you could need. So since I'm better with a sword, we decided that I was the better choice to go with you."
Jazan looked at Nabile – the look she gave him clearly told him that this was a decision that she didn't want to get involved in. He forced himself to consider this situation as if the mage-twins involved were not his own children. They were almost grown. He'd been teaching them to shoulder adult burdens. And the advantages that they'd described were real – an extra sword would be a help, and if there was trouble they'd be able to let Nightsteed know at once. He nodded. "Very well."
Esmeralda pumped a fist in the air. "Yes!"
Nightsteed trotted in. "The Faerieland treasure brigade not here yet? I blame Hanso."
Nabile sighed. "Must you start in on him before he even gets here?"
Jazan laid a hand on Nightsteed's neck. "I'm certain he'll give us plenty to blame him for once he actually arrives." Nabile snickered.
Then a white light flashed in the center of the hall, causing reflections to bounce off the tiled floor, and when it cleared three figures stood there. Jazan recognized Hanso, Brynn, and the mutant Ixi Sir Cyrex, who was one of the Faerie Queen's Elemental Champions. Jazan was pleased – she had sent few enough people that Jazan didn't need to worry about them trying to wrest control from him, but Hanso and Brynn were in charge of the Queen's relic-reclaiming operation, and Cyrex, the Darkness champion, was an excellent fighter and tracker. Jazan would be able to put them all to use.
Cyrex bowed and said in his grating, gravelly voice, "Glad to be of service, King Jazan."
Hanso stuck his hands in his pockets – the years had done nothing to diminish his casual cockiness. "Queen Fyora told us everything. Psycho explorers trying to unearth psycho king, and we've got to beat them. That right?"
Brynn was more to the point. "Where's the rest of the coffee?" Mirzah poured her a cup.
Jazan looked around. "Okay – so myself, Hanso, Brynn, Cyrex, Nabile, Mirzah, Sambar, and Esmeralda. That makes eight."
Cyrex frowned. "Your daughter's coming? How old are the twins?"
Caspar crossed his arms. "We're sixteen. Aldie can mind-speak with me back here, and she's great with a sword."
Cyrex unsheathed his own blade. "You are, are you?"
Jazan wanted to snap at Cyrex – he wouldn't be allowing her anywhere near the mission if he didn't think she was capable! But he knew that the Ixi was as prickly as he himself was, and if he could satisfy himself as to Esmeralda's abilities, the group would be that much stronger.
Esmeralda slipped into a fighting stance – now Jazan realized that she was dressed for desert travel and her black hair was pinned tightly to her head, while Caspar wore palace clothes. They'd clearly planned for their scheme to be accepted. But he didn't have any more time to think about how cunning his oldest two had gotten – he had to watch the practice match.
In the brief bout that followed, Jazan could tell that Cyrex wasn't trying to best Esmeralda – rather, he was testing her, seeing what she could do. Jazan loved watching her – she'd inherited the ability from him, but while his movements were practiced and practical, she had the grace of a dancer, just as her mother did. And when Cyrex stepped away, he gave a satisfied nod. "I'm impressed, Princess. You've worked hard."
She beamed at her father, and Jazan smiled back. Esmeralda said, "I learned from the best."
And it was with the warm glow of pride that Jazan shouldered his pack and led the group out into the early morning sun.
The day couldn't have been worse for a desert trek – the sun scorched as it rose higher and the wind was strong, blowing sand without doing anything to cool them. They had all covered their heads, and wore scarves or veils to keep the grit out of their noses and mouths, but they still had to seek shelter from the noon blaze in the shadow of a rock overhang at the edge of the borderlands.
Mirzah spread out the scroll. "The crown and the star and the third hill – it's a good thing we've got several days' worth of supplies, since whoever wrote this decided that being poetic was more important than actually telling us anything."
Nabile pointed out, "They were trying to warn people away – they wouldn't want to include a map."
"Then why in Nuria's name would they bother to include anything? Why can't people let lost things stay lost? But no, they have to leave some sort of clue around to let everyone see how clever they are, and then we have to clean it up!"
Brynn sighed. "I've been wondering that for years."
Then Sambar asked, "Mirzah, would you like to know about how brilliant I am?"
Mirzah raised a hand that already had sparks leaping from it. "Is this brilliance going to cause us to lose precious time because you waited for a dramatic moment, you big lummox?"
Sambar shook his head. "None of the paths begin before this rest spot." Then he reached into his pack. "Your Majesties, I took the liberty of hiring several winged Neopians to help create a fairly good map of the borderlands some years ago – it's been invaluable in smoking out bandit hideaways."
Jazan rubbed his temples. "And you never thought it necessary to tell me this why?"
Sambar shrugged. "You've made the borderlands my responsibility, and you generally only want to know when you need to come in and blow something up."
Jazan nodded ruefully – the mountainous Elephante dealt ably with the petty bandits and smugglers in the borderlands, and he'd rarely felt the need to become involved himself. Sambar spread out the map – Nabile held down one side and Hanso the other as he said, "I was thinking about the clues. Third hill – but in relation to what? If they actually wanted to lead someone back there, they need a better clue, or we'd have to scour every hill in the borderlands looking for a crown and a star. But look at this."
Jazan looked at the dark ink line on the map that Sambar was fingering. "The Cobrall Cleft. Nasty territory."
Then Sambar ran his hand alongside the gorge. "And up on its north side – five hills, perfectly lined up. Whichever way you come from, this is the third one. It's the clearest third hill anywhere on this map."
Cyrex nodded. "Worth a shot at least."
Hanso asked, "By the way, why do you call it nasty territory?"
Jazan said, "Cobralls. Wadjets. Every serpent Petpet that you can think of lurks there in the hundreds. We'll need to step very carefully."
Esmeralda shrugged. "If any come our way, we can bring them home to Jessa. She's been wanting a pet."
Nabile shuddered. "Nothing that slithers is coming anywhere near our palace!"
Mirzah added, "Except for the courtiers, of course, but no matter what we do they keep getting in."
They all had to laugh at that, and then they packed up again and continued the march to the Cobrall Cleft. They were approaching it from the south and the east, but the sun was still too high to get in their eyes. Jazan kept a wary hand on the hilt of his sword. All of the hair on his neck was standing on end – he tried to remind himself that there was nothing more worrisome at stake at the moment than getting nipped at by a Scamander.
Hanso asked, "Is it likely that they've gotten ahold of a copy of a map like this?"
Sambar said grimly, "Maybe. Bandits make 'em, too, to try and get a step ahead of us."
Jazan grumbled, "Given the amount of luck that slimy explorer has had, I'd call it a certainty."
Esmeralda complained, "You're all so grim. I bet we'll catch up to them surrounded by Wadjets and shrieking and Father'll get to make them beg before he scares all the Petpets off."
Nabile adjusted the hood over her hair. "Don't interrupt the men while they're grousing – it's more than their brains know how to handle."
Cyrex suggested, "Our breath may be better put to use walking than bickering." He was clearly weary – he was wearing more armor than the rest of them, and the Faerieland natives weren't used to finding their footing on shifting sand. And since arguing with a one-eyed mutant warrior was no one's idea of a fun afternoon, silence fell.
As the sun began to fall, they reached the Cobrall Cleft and climbed the side of the third hill, edging around to the cleft. And there, on a rock – so subtle it would have been easy to miss from a distance – was the sigil of a crown with a star above it. Jazan nodded. "This is it. Sambar, you deserve a medal for this."
There were several caves leading into the hill and deeper into the gorge, from the old days when water had sprung from the earth here. Jazan said, "Stay together. Watch your footing. There's a lot of sand here and it hides flaws in the rock."
Jazan felt the strongest magical traces in a cave on the safer side of the hill – they all entered slowly. But they didn't get far before they found an open door and a seal lying on the floor. Mirzah cried, "Nuria's fire!"
Nabile whispered in horror, "They're already inside."
Hanso said, voice shaking, "We've got the materials to do an entrance. We normally like a little more time, but if there's no choice..."
Jazan was about to tell him that they had no choice but to do so, no matter how unpleasant the prospect was, but he didn't get the chance to before the ground rumbled and then exploded beneath them. He only had time to take one deep breath before he was thrown backward and buried under an avalanche of sand.
To be continued...