As it happened, the market was a minute’s walk from the guest lodgings. It was a wide open area filled with wooden stalls that displayed all manner of wares. Mostly it was foods of different varieties, intermittent with more specialised stalls like the tailors and blacksmith. Sweet smells drifted from perfume and lotion vials while crafted reptiles were being created left, right and centre. Everything sold was local to the desert. Trey only recognised a few items that travelling merchants had brought to Pastrino to trade.
They approached the first vendor who sold scraps of brown meat skewered on long cactus needles. Dawn bought three and handed them to the boys. The taste by normal standards was fairly bland but they tasted heavenly to a hungry teenager.
“It’s napka meat,” Dawn informed them as she continued to lead them through the market. She pointed to a strange looking animal beside one of the stalls. It looked like a giant hairless rat with leathery skin. “We raise them for food and leather. Since the only meat in this desert are lizards and napka we don’t have much choice in the matter. Lizards are holy so we couldn’t eat them.”
She showed them some bamboo like stems that grew nearby. Each stalk had several bright red flowers dotted randomly along it.
“This is the gafui plant. It grows quickly and is full of nutrients when you eat the main stem. It tastes foul but luckily those flowers are filled with flavour so when you cook them up together it isn’t too bad.”
Wherever the group passed, eyes followed them. Whether this was due to the boys being outsiders or Dawn being with them, Trey wasn’t sure. Probably a bit of both. He looked over to the girl. She had said a lot but it had all been information. Not once had she stopped acting the dignitary and revealed her own personality. Her eyes never took in her surroundings, always just fixed at an indeterminate spot ahead of her.
Billy seemed to be thinking along similar lines. “How come you’re so intent on leaving here. It’s a nice place and you have everyone’s respect. That’s all I’ve ever wanted from life. This action lifestyle we’ve been living the past few days is just too much to cope with.”
“You’ve never wanted to see the world? Meet new people? Experience everything the world has to offer?” the girl rounded on him. Her attitude was fiery, showing real emotion for the first time.
Her questions startled Trey. He had never really wanted to leave Pastrino. Leaving his bed was trouble enough. He didn’t feel any need to explore the city, let alone the world. As long as he had a bed and food then he could not see what could be better elsewhere.
“I hear you,” remarked Zak loudly. “No single place can contain my energy and ambition. Staying in one place is pointless as there is nobody new to fight. I’ll battle the strongest men and monsters that the Sprites can throw at me and I’ll never stop moving! We have eyes in the front of our head to see what is before us and aspire for the horizon rather than looking back at what we have left behind! That and it would look kind of funny if they weren’t.”
“I’m not sure if that was deep or just crazy,” commented Billy passively. It was clear that he was considering the words though.
Dawn shook her head with a sigh. Looking up at the sky she pushed the subject aside. “It will soon be dusk. When the sun goes, so does the heat. She paused for a moment then sighed. “The Matriarch wishes to speak with you. You have all been invited to feast at the Teiidae Palace.”
Trey’s ears suddenly perked. “Feast?”
“Yes. As the leader of the Heptalli it is her duty to meet with visitors and to make any decisions that may be needed. The Elder is more like an advisor,” Dawn explained.
“I suppose we can’t decline without causing insult,” sighed Billy. He looked like Trey felt: tired, dirty and weary of their situation. Zak looked as though he was on a field trip.
Dawn shook her head. “That would cause grave insult indeed.”
Trey shrugged. “We need all of the support we can get. If eating a feast pleases a ruler then I suppose we just have to make that sacrifice. Anyway, how bad can talking with one woman be?” A raised eyebrow was Dawn’s only response. The three boys exchanged glances but the appeal of a real meal was too good to pass up.
The Heptalli princess led Trey’s group back through the cluster of buildings until they once again stood before the large dome where the Elder resided.
“Is this your palace?” asked Billy. “It didn’t look big enough to contain much more than we saw earlier.”
Dawn frowned. She motioned for the boys to follow her as she made her way around the dome, away from the entrance that they had used earlier.
“Heptalli legend says that the Amion Desert was formed long ago when the ocean rushed forth to deliver our saviours into the heart of Farava. That is why we refer to this land as the sands of deliverance. The ocean receded over the years but this area remained flooded. It became known as the ‘little sea’. The first Heptalli settled beside this giant lake and continued to move with the water as the lake slowly faded. After hundreds of years, only this section where our village is retained any water. three hundred years ago that too faded..”
“That’s interesting and all but what does it have to do with this palace?” Billy pressed.
At that moment they reached the opposite side of the dome and came face to face with two giant lizards in battle, standing on hind legs forming an arch. They were made of smoothed sandstone and formed a second doorway between their colourful bodies. Two armed guards stood before the lizards but bowed as Dawn approached and let them through unhindered.
She led them into another large chamber set out for guests to wait within, much like the one at the other end of the building. This one was decorated with a vast array of colours and statues though to contrast the modesty of the Elder’s side.
Rather than the single door opposite them, there was a stone staircase that descended down into the earth. Two more guards blocked the way but again moved aside to let them past.
“After settling here our ancestors discovered several buildings buried underneath the sand. Over several generations these were excavated and renovated to form the Teiidae Palace for the royal family’s use,” Dawn continued as she took them down the lantern lit passage.
The stairway ended and Trey, Billy and Zak gaped collectively. The room before them was a long chamber with walls of purest white inlaid with pictures in gold and crystal. Reptiles and Sprites populated the room in masterful works of art while strange glowing stones bathed the room in a gentle amber light. At the far side of the room was a slender throne made of solid gold. Upon it was sat a crimson robed woman that could be none other than the Heptalli Matriarch.
Trey recognised her as the woman they had met on the ship. The woman was tall and slim with dark, red-brown hair and a face that was a near match to Dawn’s. The same amber eyes watched them while identical red lips smiled lightly. Despite her beauty she had an air of command that permeated every feature and movement.
Dawn stepped forward. “I bring the guests from Pastrino, Matriarch,” she said formally. “I present you the young masters Trey Sted, Billy Delb, and Zak Malma.”
The three teens bowed clumsily. Under the woman’s stare they became very self aware.
“Greetings,” said the woman in a melodious voice. “I am Rose Rayin, Matriarch of the Heptalli. I have been informed of your plight and would like to offer you the utmost support while you are passing through our land.
“Thank you,” Trey managed, unsure of the correct responses when addressing royalty.
Zak had no such problems. “So, where’s this feast then?”
The Matriarch offered them a small smile. She stood and descended from the throne. Nodding to Dawn, the girl opened a door to their left. The Matriarch glided through then Dawn ushered the boys in behind her before closing the door after herself.
Within was a single, large circular table of polished wood. The white walls were broken by coloured panels while the ceiling was painted to depict a midday sky. More of the glowing crystals offered calming light throughout the room.
Out of the dozen chairs around the table, only one was occupied. The Elder was seated on an overly cushioned chair at the far side of the room beside a small fireplace that spread warmth through the air. The Matriarch placed herself on the older woman’s left while Dawn sat to the Matriarch’s other side.
Zak swung himself into the seat directly opposite Rose. Trey and Billy took the chairs to either side of him nervously.
Pux scrambled from Zak’s pocket and stood upon the table. “Begging your pardon, my ladies. Is a smaller chair available?”
Dawn looked shocked by the tiny man’s appearance. Rose’s features remained carefully neutral but Solaris’ wrinkled face lit up with recognition. “A Yuxova. How interesting. Your kind has not walked the desert for many years now.”
“We are in troubled times, Elder,” said Pux respectfully. “It is good to know that the ancient ties are not forgotten though.” He bowed with a smile and a small flourish of his arms. “I am Captain Puxalotu Wutoxa, at your service.”
“What ties would these be?” queried Dawn. Her eyes had yet to cease their study of Pux.
The Elder settled deeper into her chair and took the tone of a teacher. “When the Heptalli first moved to this land they made an alliance with the native Yuxova. They taught us how to train the desert animals while we gave them knowledge.”
“It was the Heptalli that brought us out of the dark days. Until then, all knowledge outside of survival had been lost to us,” added Pux reverently.
“In that case,” spoke Rose, “You are welcome at our table, Captain Wutoxa.” She rang a small silver bell and the door opened as a young woman around Dawn’s age entered. Her yellow robes were tied with a crimson cloth around her waist and right arm while her raven black hair was braided and wrapped with a red ribbon.
“Sky, tell the other Fledglings to bring out the food. Be sure to bring Captain Wutoxa suitable seating and cutlery,” Rose instructed.
“Yes, Matriarch,” the girl replied before rushing from the room.
Silence hung for a moment until Billy tried to break the ice. “What did you mean by ‘Fledglings’?” he asked, more to pass time than through genuine curiosity. He just wanted to eat then go to sleep. Trey was grateful as he himself was no good with words while he was sure that Zak could offer no suitable conversation.
Rose paused to piece together an answer that they would understand. “In your culture I suppose that the Fledglings would fill the role of servants. We don’t condone such a life of servitude though. Being a Fledgling is more of a rite of passage. When Heptalli children reach their first decade of life they become Fledglings, serving the royal family until their fourteenth year, when they take up an apprenticeship in their chosen field. Even Dawn served her time as a Fledgling to learn the key skills of life.”
Trey was about to continue the topic when the door opened again and a dozen Fledglings, both male and female, swept into the room carrying plates, platters, cups and bowls piled high with all manner of food. One carried what looked to be a doll’s table and chair that were placed beside Pux. The table was set and each person was given an empty ceramic plate and five small thimble-like items made from bone or ivory with conical points that were several inches long. The assortment of food all smelled so nice to an empty stomach.
Trey didn’t recognise most of what was on offer but he didn’t care. Some of it was clearly meat and that was all that mattered. A Fledgling filled his glass up with a pale, sweet smelling wine while the Elder recited a prayer of gratitude to the Sprites.
After a brief hesitation, the three boys followed the women’s example by placing the small bone cones onto each of one hand’s fingers. Securely in place, they were able to pick up the sliced food and eat it with their hands.
There were portions of napka meat, bulbs from a large desert flower that tasted faintly sour, brightly coloured petals that were like sweets on the tongue, and juicy wings and breast from some oversized bird or other. Trey also noted some things that he recognised, most likely traded produce from outside of the desert.
It took an annoyingly long time to master the strange eating implements. While the concept of picking food up with fingers seemed simple, getting the food from the plate to the mouth was surprisingly tricky. Trey fumbled clumsily but determinedly while Zak simply stabbed the food. Billy was the only one with the finesse and patience required, his nimble hands making light work of the task.
“About Pastrino,” began Rose. This brought instant silence. “I am sorry. Pastrino was once a close ally to us. These are dark times indeed.”
Billy set his food down and fixed the matriarch with burning eyes. “Will you help us to save them?”
Dawn looked expectantly over at her mother while the Elder simply continued eating, her eyes firmly upon the food.
Rose met his eyes levelly. “My duty is to my people,” she answered calmly. “If we were under threat then we would fight, but to leave our homes to fight on foreign soil against an enemy that we have little chance to defeat would be a callous waste of life. If the Seshikedasu was here to lead us then we would know that it was the time of war. We will support you, but I cannot force my men to die in a far off land to save people who have long since cast us off as savages. Pastrino certainly wouldn’t exert itself to protect us,” she finished impassively.
Dawn’s face tightened, taken aback by the words. “But they are innocent people in need. I thought that our creed was to protect life!”
“Exactly,” stated her mother. “You must understand, Dawn, that all life is precious. If a single man was in danger, would you risk the lives of many others knowing that while you may save that first man, others might die to achieve it? If I send our warriors into the Shadow Lands to free the Pastrinians, many would die. Perhaps more than we could ever save.”
“But…” started Billy but the Matriarch continued over him.
“That isn’t to say that I don’t care, nor am I ungrateful for the help that you three provided against the Eroders. You bought me enough time to create a counter strike and helped to lessen their numbers.”
Billy’s face paled and he shoved his remaining food aside. The Elder noticed and offered him a small smile. “Your first kill?” she asked gently.
“First person,” nodded Billy weakly.
“It becomes easier over time. Too easy I fear. It’s when killing no longer sickens you that you should become worried.”
Zak shrugged. “It’s kill or be killed. Never worry about living,” he muttered between mouthfuls of food. Trey really couldn’t get his head around the boy.