Saving Maltira chapter seven
Hilda and Zenobe arrived at Bebeth two days after they left Queen. Bebeth wasn't much different from Queen in design. It was a commercial city with a large market at the heart of the city. The people were very friendly and boisterous. Magicians and illusionists stationed themselves at strategic positions and performed tricks on the streets. Hilda fished out a silver coin and flicked it at an old performer. He bowed slightly in thanks and Hilda smiled at him.
Zenobe noticed the noble gesture and chuckled.
Hilda rolled her eyes and drawled, “What?”
“Nothing. What you did was nice.”
“You reacted like I don’t do nice things.”
Zenobe paused for a while before she spoke. “It’s not that you’re not nice, after all, you did save my life. The thing is . . . this is actually the first time I’ve seen you show affection to other people.”
Hilda was silent for a long time after that.
Zenobe opted for a more direct approach to getting the information she needed, so, after checking into an inn, she left Hilda to look for the Bebeth market. She walked around in the market for a while before spotting an old woman selling large spicy roasted maggots on a stick –which was the local snack. Zenobe casually approached her stall and bought four sticks which she deliberately overpaid for and told the old woman to keep the change. She waited for a beat as the woman gushed out praises and thanks. When the woman had quietened, she leaned in and asked her who she thought was the most trustworthy man in all of Bebeth. The old woman gave her a toothless smile and said a name.
The Bebu house was beautiful in its simplicity. Its homeliness was a sharp contrast to the cold emptiness of the Kwalots’ house but Zenobe refused to let her guard down. Her dagger was sheathed in her boots and she carried her family crest in the pocket of her pants. She refrained from using a disguise, choosing instead to dress simple but elegantly as befitting a guest of an important person. Hence, when the single guard at the gate saw her, he courteously escorted her to the courtyard where she was introduced to the matron of the house –a good-natured woman in her fifties. She told the woman she would like to meet the lord of the house as she had pressing matters to discuss. The matron excused herself and returned shortly to bring her to a garden.
Zenobe’s jaw dropped as she took in the sight before her. She had heard of the hanging gardens of Bebeth but she never imagined they would look this beautiful. There were irises and hyacinths. Yellow and purple lady slippers lined the entrance and the interior was a burst of colors from all the flowers in full bloom.
A rather dashing man sat in the middle of the garden on one of two cane chairs and had a kettle of tea brewing on a hot plate on a large stone table. He smiled warmly at Zenobe and beckoned to her to come over. She moved towards him, walking gingerly over the grass.
"Mr. Bebu," she said when she reached him.
His immediate use of her name before she had a chance to introduce herself caught her off guard and she froze. Her hair began to spike as her eyes darted around her, anticipating an ambush.
Mr. Bebu dropped the rock he had been examining and smiled at her. "Don't panic princess. I was present at your birth." he indicated to the empty seat opposite him, “sit down, please.”
Zenobe relaxed a little but was still cautious as she sat down opposite the much older man.
Mr. Bebu continued. "I believe you're here with respect to the stolen relics.”
Zenobe nodded wordlessly, giving him her undivided attention.
He continued: "No one knows how they were stolen. I believe trying to retrace the steps of the thief is a waste of precious time. There are no steps to retrace."
"Do you think a witch is involved?”
"I've always hated witchcraft. I believe it's a harbinger of evil. However, not all mysteries are tied to supernatural forces. Sometimes all that is required is someone with excellent skills to do the job seamlessly. In this instance, I don’t want to conclude on what it could be. Whatever the case, the answer lies in catching the thief red-handed. "
"I realize that. But I don't know where to start or who to trust.”
"Right now, trust is a luxury you can't afford. Trust no one. Follow the facts and always keep an open mind. Don't fall for whims. Nothing is at it seems."
Mr. Bebu picked up the rock he had been examining when she walked in and gave it to her.
Zenobe eyed it warily. "What is this?”
Mr. Bebu looked her dead in the eye and said ominously. "A test.”
"How is it a test?”
Zenobe left the Bebu house with one goal in mind. To reach the next city before the thief strikes again. There was one problem though. She had been on her quest for almost a month now. How would she know which of the remaining four cities still had its relic? Sending a courier pigeon wasn’t an option because in addition to the length of time it would take to get to Agharea and back, there was the possibility of it being intercepted or worse that she might not receive valuable information worth wasting all that time. There was only one place where she could get the information she needed for free and at zero risks to her life.
The Bebeth pub was literally in the middle of the city.
Zenobe wondered if it was the only pub in the city. Even better for her if it was.
She had wrapped her hair in a turban and worn uninteresting clothes to avoid drawing any attention to her.
She walked into the tavern and sat on a bench in the corner of the room where she had the rest of the pub within sight and earshot. An attendant walked over her took her order. The attendant soon returned with her drink and left with a wide grin and a not so light palm.
Zenobe had just raised her drink to her lips when an electric pulse ran down her spine. She stiffened and slowly put down the wine-filled silverware. Her skin became all prickly and she narrowed her vision as she quickly scanned the room for the third time since she entered the pub. She looked over each person and article in the room trying to determine what the reason for her unease was. She looked down at her drink. She hadn't tasted it. Then from the corner of her right eye, she saw something she had missed repeatedly. A shadow. Far into the corner on the same bench, she sat on was a dark hooded figure. The figure sat so still and unmoving that it could have easily been overlooked or at best taken for a statue. Her unease grew and her palms began to get chilly. The shadow turned towards her and seemed to stare directly at her.
Zenobe peered into the dark hollow of its hood. She couldn't make out its features. It stood up abruptly and left the pub. Zenobe dropped a coin beside the untouched cup and followed him out. Once out she cloaked herself and trailed him to a deserted place. Without warning, he turned a sharp corner and disappeared. Zenobe followed. She couldn't find him. She made a 360-degree turn and saw no sign of him. Not even a footprint. The prickly sensation left her and her hair loosened. The danger was gone.
Hilda wasn't in when Zenobe got home and she was grateful for the solitude. She reflected on the events of the day. Strange. She opened a velvet pouch and took out the rock Mr. Bebu had given her. It was coarse to the touch but smooth looking. Trust no one. The rock is meant to test you. Zenobe recalled that he hadn't even asked her to trust him. Nothing is as it seems.
She tossed it in her palm as she remembered the shadow. She suspected he knew he was being followed and that was why he disappeared. But she was cloaked. He couldn't have seen her following him. Unless he had sensed it as she sensed him. So far there was only one person who drew such acute awareness from her. Hilda. Where was she anyway? Zenobe remembered the sensations she had felt in the pub. She had sensed danger. Hilda gave her peace. No, she thought, it couldn't have been Hilda.
Hilda returned at the stroke of midnight. Zenobe was fast asleep so she crept in to avoid waking her up. She took off the cloak she was wearing and folded it neatly. She removed the items in her bag and shoved the cloak inside her bag. Then she carefully rearranged the articles in the bag putting the cloak at the bottom of the bag, effectively hiding it from plain sight. She put out the torch that Zenobe had left burning for her and went to sleep.
Zenobe woke up early the next morning. For the first time since they began their trip, she was up before Hilda. She nearly shouted in triumph. Several times she had wondered if the girl ever slept. Zenobe always went to bed before her and got up after her. Whatever training had she received! 'My mother wants me to be queen’. Ha! Zenobe scoffed as she recalled what Hilda had told her the day they met, Queen indeed!! The girl was too rugged . . . and yet smooth. Zenobe shook her head. Unraveling the riddle that was Hilda wasn't something she had time for right now. Maybe later.
Yesterday the hooded figure had distracted her from getting the information she sought. She had to get it today. Time was running out. Each second she wasted gave the thief more time to steal. She wore a plain black tunic and equally plain pants. Her sword was sheathed and strapped to her bare back under her tunic. She wrapped her hair in a turban and darkened her eyelids with black powder. She looked sinister -perhaps that would dissuade anyone from crossing her path today. Satisfied with her appearance, she left the room.
Hilda opened her eyes and looked at the closed door. She counted to ten and tossed the blanket covering her away. She was already dressed.
Zenobe walked into the pub and took the same spot she had sat in yesterday. This time she carefully scanned the room. The pub was already filling up even though it was still early in the morning.
A richly dressed man gulped down his drink and belched loudly. Zenobe immediately tuned in to him.
"I heard Ziruith has lost its relic too.” The richly dressed man spoke to his partner in hushed tones.
His partner eyed him skeptically. "Wherever did you hear that?”
"I was in Ziruith last week shopping for silverware. The wife of the prison warder was gossiping about it to her friend in the same store I was shopping at. "
The second man scoffed. "So now you listen to gossip?”
The merchant shrugged casually. "Such gossip sometimes contains elements of truth.”
Zenobe did a small inward victory dance. She had gotten exactly what she came here for. She rose and paid for her drink before heading out. She wouldn't waste time going to Ziruith. Six relics had been stolen. Two were left. She had to get to those two before whoever was stealing them did.
Hilda had packed their bags and was reclining casually against the wall when Zenobe came in. At Zenobe's puzzled look she spoke. "Bebeth is boring. Can we move on? "
A tall stone wall painted in bright colors shone in the distance. Within its stone walls, most of the land was occupied by private homes, temples, a school, a tavern, and several workshops. Its people were mostly farmers by profession. They supplied the other seven nations with farm produce in exchange for gold, silver and military protection. They embodied the southern culture and were least influenced by foreigners. The city and its structures showed how much pride its inhabitants took in their heritage. The people wore colorful attires and musical sounds wafted all around the city. Children skipped about in playful abandon while their mothers sat in groups and chatted away as they cracked melon seeds.
Two horses and their riders trotted into the city. On a brown spotted horse sat a fair maiden with silver hair dressed in black cotton tunic and pants tucked into shiny brown leather boots. The only part of her alabaster skin exposed was her face and her hands which gripped the reigns of her horse.
Her companion, seated on a black stallion, was dark-haired and olive-skinned. She wore an ivory silk top that stopped above her belly and a fiery-red wide-legged pant that flowed to her ankles. Strapped to her back were twin blades and circling her wrist was a bracelet of poisoned tiny darts.
Hilda inhaled deeply and said to Zenobe: “do you smell that?”
Zenobe lifted her nose to the air and sniffed. “Bread?”
“No. warm, freshly baked bread. There’s a difference.” She steered her horse to the right.
“You move like you know where you’re going to,” Zenobe said incredulously.
“Actually, I do. I’ve been here before and I never forget where I ate a good meal.”
She abruptly stopped in front of a bungalow. It was built with mud bricks covered in plaster. Pottery tiles served as its roof and holes in the wall served as windows. Hilda dismounted and walked over to the wooden door. She raised her hand to knock when a head poked out of the window startling her horse. Hilda shot a reproving at the offender and ran a hand down the hide of the black stallion making soothing noise to calm it.
Zenobe watched the drama with an amused smile.
The head disappeared back into the house and moments later the door swung wide open. A handsome blond youth came out grinning and lifted Hilda off her feet startling her horse again.
“Drach! You’re scaring my horse.”
Drach simply laughed and spun her one more time before setting her on her feet. He took the reins of her horse and turned to Zenobe.“Can I take your horse?”
Zenobe stared blankly at him for a moment before dismounting and handing over the reins of her horse to him. He flashed a dazzling smile at her before leading the horses to the back of the house. Zenobe stared after him. “There’s something about him.”
Hilda rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you’ve found the one.”
Zenobe picked up her sack and walked past Hilda into the house without a word. Her nose was instantly assaulted by a variety of aromas. Her stomach rumbled and her mouth watered.
A kind-looking woman with a heavy bosom stood behind a massive stove and held a ladle. She wore a wide smile on her face waved Zenobe to a chair. “You’re welcome, my lovelies. My, you look worn out. Normally no one comes to my table smelling like you do . . .”
Zenobe panicked and clutched her hand. “No please. We’re starving. Let us eat first and then we’ll wash.”
The woman looked at her with motherly eyes and said, “of course, my Drach already told me how hungry you both are. Now you eat and my first son Benji will take you to your room.”
Zenobe blinked in confusion. “You want us to stay here?”
Hilda spoke up behind her. “I always stay here whenever I come to Ronig.”
Zenobe turned to her while the woman walked away to arranged their supper. “Really?”
“Yes. I visit quite often.”
“Oh . . . you know this is the first time you’ve volunteered information beyond what I asked.”
Hilda leaned towards her and lowered her voice conspiratorially, “nothing escapes your notice.”
Zenobe grinned widely. “What kind of warrior would I be if things did?”
The voluptuous woman soon returned with a large tray containing two loaves of warm freshly baked wheat bread, goat cheese, roasted pork, some fruits, and vegetables. She placed it on a large table and went to fetch a jug of milk.
Both maidens devoured the food in silence and only spoke much later when the tray was empty.
“Thank you so much, Mira. Ronig would not be worth coming to without you in it.” Hilda had tears in her eyes as she spoke.
The older woman gave her a hug and cleared the table, saying as she worked: “Now away with you two. Benji will take your bags to your rooms. Benji!”
There was a clatter in a room some distance away from the kitchen and then a beautiful man emerged from the room.
A soft gasp behind her made Zenobe turn her head to look at Hilda. What she saw made her do double-take. Hilda’s lips were parted slightly and her brown eyes had a soulful look in them. Zenobe was sure it was the same look she had seen on her mother’s face countless times when she was looking at her father. She turned to Benji and saw the same look on his face.
Mira cleared her throat and they both averted their eyes. She spoke up. “Benji, take their bags to Hilda’s room please.”
He picked up both bags and led them to a furnished room. There was a wooden bath in the middle of the room filled with warm water. Benji dropped their bags and made to leave when Hilda grabbed his hand. “I’d like to speak with you briefly”, she said.
He nodded and led her to his room. He closed the door behind them and drove the bolt home before pulling Hilda into his arms.
Zenobe lay in the tub soaking up the heat of the water when Hilda crawled into the room with a sheet wrapped around her. Zenobe stared at her.
Hilda dropped the sheet and climbed into the bath. “I missed him so much.”
“Who is he?”
“You know what I am asking.”
Hilda sighed and closed her eyes. “He is the love of my life.”
“Somehow I never pictured you as having an object of affection in your life”
“I know. You’ve said something along those lines before.”
“But if you love him, why do you entertain other lovers?”
“I do it to forget him. We can never be truly together and no, I don’t want to explain it to you.”
“I wasn’t about to ask. I just think that having sex with several people is only going to lead to heartache and a feeling of worthlessness. I’ve wanted to talk about what happened between us in Toloq for a while now. I ought to have stopped you. I was raised to appreciate the value of chastity.”
Hilda opened her eyes to look at Zenobe. “Well, loving you back in Toloq had nothing to do with forgetting Benji. I just couldn’t stop myself. Also, I was struggling with the unusual connection I share with you. I’m not usually intimate with women.”
Zenobe smiled at her. “It’s ok. Just promise me you’ll think about what I said and put an end to this immoral lifestyle of yours.”
Zenobe sighed and sank lower into the bath. “I’m going to spend some more time in this bath and then I’ll go to bed.”
The next morning, Zenobe washed and dressed up in formal Agharean attire. She asked Drach to help her find a carriage and she set off to the palace of the king of Ronig.
The carriage drew up in front of the most impressive building in all of Ronig. Several guards stood in front of the palace armed fully armed. When she approached the building, a female guard searched her before letting her through. Several steps led up to the main entrance of the palace.
Zenobe walked with all the grace and poise of a princess. She mentally thanked her mother for all the lessons she had drilled into her despite her protests.
The interior of the palace stole Zenobe’s breath. For all the simplicity of Ronig and her people, the palace was really well built. Brick eagles lined the walls strategically, giving one the impression of being watched. Images were carved into the walls in a pattern that told stories.
She saw an image depicting a king with curly hair and a beard being given a crown. Her brows creased. The relic of Ronin was a crown. Perhaps could it be the crown the King wore? Zenobe peered closely at the carving and noticed the crown had six diamonds around it.
A guard met her in the courtyard and led her to the throne room. A wise looking man sat on a simple throne. He held a golden scepter in his right hand and wore a solemn look on his face. Guarding the throne at both sides were two unusually large wolfhounds.
Zenobe approached him and introduced herself. For a while, he seemed to assess her through aged eyes. Zenobe took a glance at his head and noted that his crown was a simple gold band.
"I don't wear it,” said a voice that sounded more like a bark and bounced off the walls of the empty throne room.
Zenobe was startled out of her thoughts.
The King stepped down from the throne and ushered her out of the throne room into the courtyard. "I know why you're here. Our relic is safe, but not for long. Whoever is taking the relics will not stop until he has acquired all eight relics."
Zenobe was beginning to think that her mission may not be as secret as she was led to believe. "How do I stop whoever it is?”
"To do that, you need to understand what you're up against. You need to know the history of the relics."
Zenobe considered this for a moment. Disheartened, she realized how ill-equipped she really was. True, she had been trained in all the arts of war. But what use do her skills really do her when she knows next to nothing about what she was supposed to find. Someone should have been assigned to teach her about the history of the relics beyond the general knowledge she had been taught in school. Or had she been deliberately left in the dark in other to make her quest a wild goose chase? She looked at the wise king and nodded.
The king led her through the courtyard with the carvings on the wall. He started from the first carving on the wall. As he spoke, Zenobe felt herself being transported to Maltira many centuries ago.
"Once upon a time the entire kingdom of the South was under one king. The king's empire stretched across the mountains and the seven seas and all was under his dominion. Other kingdoms soon began to envy the prosperity of the south. They wanted to exploit the wealth of the sea and enslave the entire south. They joined forces and came to do battle against Maltira. But the king was strong and so were his generals. Together, they defeated their foes and upheld the sovereignty of the south. Legend has it that the King's armor made him invincible and indestructible on the battlefield. He won the war and once again the south was safe under his rule. But like all men, the days of the king gradually came to an end and soon the time came for the king to die. The king had two sons who had married foreign women. His first son had married a western woman and his second son had married a woman from the east. The king was afraid of entrusting his kingdom to his sons because of the role these kingdoms had played in the war against his kingdom. Finally, he decided to divide his kingdom into eight independent nations under the guardianship of his generals. He asked for his armor to be brought and he split it amongst the eight generals. Each piece signified the independence of the nation which possessed it. Armed with the relics, the guardians traveled across the land and established independent nations. But the guardians refrained from indulging in politics and only intervened in extreme cases. The sons of the kings rallied an army after the king’s death and attacked the guardians in an attempt to reclaim the united south, but without the King's armor, they could not lay claim to a universal throne. It is said that the younger son who was married to an easterner was more of a sore loser than his brother and left to exile threatening to return with an army as large as the grains of sand on the sea bed. However, as Maltira settled into peace, the guardians fell back to the background and over the centuries have remained unknown. But it is said that they will rise if the peace of Maltira is ever threatened again."
The king stopped abruptly and looked at Zenobe in dramatic alarm. "Whoever is after the relics will be unstoppable once he has all eight of them.”
Zenobe nodded with clarity. "Do you think they are linked to the easterners?”
"I don't know what to think. I only know I will protect the relic in my custody with my life. "
"Where is it?”
"I can't divulge that information to you.”
"Are you the only one with knowledge of its location?”
"The kings are the only ones entrusted with the knowledge of the location of each relic.”
"Are you saying that the kings have a hand in the disappearance of the relics?”
"I'm saying there's more going on than meets the eye.”
"I’ve heard that several times now. But it’s really not aiding my enlightenment in any way. I'm really confused. There should be more to the story. In the event of this kind of threat, what does the legend say?"
"The legends are past stories, not prophecies. They do not predict the future. I believe the guardians will rise. In fact,” the king placed his left hand on Zenobe's shoulder, "I believe they have risen. Keep your allies close and tackle this problem at the root."
“Who are my allies? What is the root? Or, where is it?”
The king looked at her sadly and said, “I’m sorry Zenobe, I wish I had more to tell you. I will do my best to stall the thief from here. You must finish this quest and save the peace of the south.”
Zenobe walked back to her lodge with fewer answers than she had hoped for. One thing that struck her was the part that the princes had married foreign women. There was currently a king married to a foreigner.
The king of Toloq; Hilda's parents!
If the westerners were against the south centuries ago, what's to say that they had changed?
An image of Hilda's mother crossed her mind. Queen Petipa was a strong-willed woman. Hilda had said that her father couldn't refuse her. Had she turned the king against his kind? But the Toloqs still had their relic. Yet, it made sense for the thief to hold on to his own relic while acquiring the rest.
Zenobe sat down and rubbed her temples. All this thinking was giving her a headache. She was a warrior, not a strategist. She had never been terribly good at perfectly analyzing situations. If only there was someone she could trust who could advise her on what to do. “Analyzing the wisdom of the world is not for you.”
A light bulb went off in her head. Otis!
Although only ten, Otis had the wisdom of ten millennia. She was sure that if there was anyone who could put all the pieces together, it was him.