Pride, Prose, and Princes: Part One
Note: Just to clarify any confusion, in my first NT article, I referred to myself as Jenna. Since then, I’ve decided to give up my ‘internet name’ and use my real one—so in this story I’m referred to as Jordy.
“Don’t leave me here!”
“Lindsey, you’ll be fine.” Jordy extracted herself from my death-grip and stroked my cheek. “You look beautiful, Lindsey.”
And I did. If there’s anything my sister AnnaWillow, a Christmas Zafara, can do, it’s dress people. I’m a pretty ordinary Zafara, with fur of an ordinary blue, but when my sister was done with me I hardly recognized myself. I was wearing a light blue linen dress that flowed into a lengthy skirt, embroidered at the collar and hem with tiny bluebells. AnnaWillow had taken my ordinary sun hat and embellished it with a wide white satin ribbon, and around my neck was a delicate little silver bell, strung with a silver cord, on loan from Jordy. When I was brushed to a shine and sprayed with perfume, AnnaWillow had presented me to my mirror and gushed, “Ohmigosh, Linz, you’re going to kill!”
I’d felt pretty good about myself.
Until now. The moment we’d arrived at the silvery gates of Luxury Lake Park, everything just felt so... wrong. My stomach did a flop, and I could feel my confidence melting away to a puddle beneath me. The sunny day I’d thought pleasant now seemed mocking, like a façade of happiness predicting some black, malicious future. And once I start sounding like a sugar-deprived poet, I must be pretty nervous.
A banner fluttered above that read “Gourmet Club Bowls: Today. Guests Welcome—Guests Only.” Well, I was a guest, all right. I’d been so dubious when I’d received my invitation that I’d memorized it by heart:
“On behalf of the Neopian Prose Writer’s Society,
The members of the Gourmet Club cordially invite
Miss Lindseymaher of Neopia Central
To their monthly Gourmet Club Bowls,
On the following Wednesday
At half past eleven am.
Please bring this invitation upon arrival.”
About a month ago I’d sent in a story of mine to the Neopian Prose Writer’s Society, the NPWS. I hadn’t really expected much to come of it, but apparently they’d read it. And liked it. So here I was, attending a rich-folks party in order to meet people who might hate me as soon as love me. “I think I’m going to be sick,” I muttered.
A uniformed Tonu stood at the gates, glancing passively at me and then suspiciously at Jordy, who wore a T-shirt and jeans. “Invitations,” he said, holding out a gloved hand.
“Good morning,” Jordy greeted him pointedly. “It’ll just be her, today.”
I handed the guard my invitation, which he examined much longer, in my opinion, than he needed to. Right when I thought he would bite it to make sure it was genuine, he handed it back to me and held open the gate. “This way, Miss,” he droned. “Follow the path until you reach the playing grounds.”
“Good luck, Linz!” My owner blew kisses as the gate shut behind me.
I waved goodbye and set down the cobblestone path, feeling trapped in between the harshly box-shaped hedge. My journey was short, though, and after turning a corner I had arrived. There were three long tables, laden with fancy food, and about twelve other, longer tables, laden with table settings and place cards. A carefully manicured small green turf was fenced off in the middle of it all. The playing field, I assumed. Some musicians played soft classical music in the background.
People were everywhere. It wasn’t at all as intimidating as I’d imagined. Except for the designer clothing and the occasional glitter of a 500 carat diamond watch or necklace, it looked like any old upper-class garden party.
Another uniformed attendant, a Yurble this time, noticed me. “Name, Miss?”
“Lindseymaher, of Dancingpetal,” I said, preparing to show my invitation again, but he didn’t ask for it. Instead, he bellowed each phonetic syllable of my name across the field, making me jump three inches.
“LIN-ZEE-MARR OF DAN-CING-PET-AL.” And then the whole park was quiet, except for the light hum of the musicians’ instruments. A few dozen faces, both curious and scrutinizing, eyed me for about ten seconds before returning to their discussions.
“Oh! How delightful,” cried a lady from the crowd. She was a portly blue Cybunny, in a heavily decorated pink sun hat. She came up and took both my hands in her gloved ones, squeezing tight. “Miss Lindseymaher, I’m Mariava, the vice-president of the Neopian Prose Writer’s Society.”
I would never wash my hands again. “It’s- it’s an honor,” I said, commanding my lips not to gape.
Mariava linked my arm through hers, leading me away to a table. “The honor is all mine! Oh, this really is a treat,” she gushed. “We’ve all been dying to meet you. Your seat is here, dear.” And so it was. At the head of the gold-and-porcelain table setting was a small place card, engraved, “Ms. Lindseymaher of D.” Wow. It was like I’d entered a completely different world, and though I wasn’t ready for it, it seemed to have anticipated me—pre-printed name plate and everything. I mean, I’d seen Luxury Lake Park before. From the outside, anyway. I passed by it every day on the way to the book store, but everyone knew it was only for posh people. It was like an unwritten rule, or something.
We sat, and Mariava made the introductions. The Ruki to my left was Ryleff, an established science fiction novelist from Kreludor, and to my right was Starlye, an air faerie who wrote for the Faerie Queen’s story collections. Also near me was a Techo, Saidrin, the head administrator of the NPWS.
Mariava sat directly across from me, smiling in a way that, had I not respected her position so much, I would have thought seemed plastic. “Now, Miss Lindsey—may I call you that? Oh, good—we’ve all read ‘Misplaced Vanity,’ and to be completely frank, we’re quite taken with it. Tell me,” she leaned in, “what made you think of such a plot?”
“Indeed,” added Saidrin, “the style was very nice, and the writing itself was well done, but it was the plot that set your story apart. The situation is so... unique.”
Wow. Was I that good? “Well... it’s actually quite interesting how the plot came to be. My first inspirations were some posters, advertising a mane product for Unis. It wasn’t so much the product, but the quantity of them that spurred my imagination,” I explained. “They were everywhere—shop windows, doorsteps, park benches,”—
“Oh... I know,” Starlye interrupted in her breathy voice. “It’s... awful. Uni... beauty... products are... so... incredibly... overrated.”
“Yes, of course,” I agreed, slightly confused. “And seeing so many advertisements reminded me of something I’d read in the Neopedia when I was young; that Unis, along with being fanciful, are naturally vain. So I thought, what if there was a Uni that was plain? How would it cope with its “natural” vanity?”
“Ah, yes,” said Ryleff. “Favorite part of the story was the ending. Was so unexpected. Thought it would be typical. Wasn’t. Was very original.”
“Thank you,” I said, mentally inserting a sentence subject everywhere that he dropped one. Little things like that have always bugged me.
The NPWS vice president and head administrator exchanged looks. Momentarily, Mariava folded her paws on the table in a business-like manner, and said, “Miss Lindsey, we have a proposition. We’d like to add you on as a temporary member of the Neopian Prose Writer’s Society for a period of a month. This would give you time to see how things work with us, and to decide if our society is for you.”
My exterior was a perfect model of composure, but inside was a catastrophe. I felt as though someone had set rockets off in my stomach, and that someone was slamming my cranium as hard as Twisted Roses’ lead drummer. I smiled and nodded as she continued.
“During this month,” she said, “you would write another of your wonderful pieces of work, and present it to our board at the month’s commencement. We will then determine whether or not to sign you in to the Society as a full member.” Mariava leaned back slightly in her chair. “What do you think?”
What did I think? I thought I was dreaming and that any moment now I would wake up in my bedroom, still an insignificant wisher, waiting for life to take me somewhere. I wanted to cry, scream, shout, “YES, YES, YES!” while dancing round the fancy tables. Instead, I matched her serious look and asked, “What would I be doing with the society, during the course of the month? Would there be meetings, or conferences?” Or more exclusive wealthy-folk gatherings? I thought.
“Naturally,” said Mariava brightly. Her pleasant expression returned. “We have sessions weekly. You needn’t be at all of them, but we’ll provide you with a schedule of events.”
“In addition,” added Saidrin, as if he’d read my thoughts, “you will receive an invitation to special events like this one, if your presence is required.”
It took a moment for his last words to sink in. “I see.”
Hesitantly, Mariava said, “You realize that such exclusive invitations are not a... an everyday occurrence. Meeting you, however, is a special occasion!” She grinned at me. “You understand, of course.”
“Of course.” So, no more rich-people parties, after all.
“Ryleff... and I... are a part... of... the... N... P... W... S... but... we... were... already... members... of the... Gourmet... Club,” breathed Starlye, by way of explanation.
All of them stared expectantly.
I rested my hands in my lap and inhaled. Exhaled. “Well. I’m very flattered by your proposition, and it would please me very much to accept it.”
“Glad you’re with us. Hope to see you at meetings.”
“Can’t... wait... to work... with... you.”
The days’ festivities began. I was given a salad fork, a veggie fork, a cheese knife, a bread knife, a negg spoon, a “puree spoon” and some indescribable thing called a nut spear, all for the first course. One thing I noticed was that every female guest was wearing a pair of dainty elbow-high gloves. Once the dining began, I’d expected them to take them off, but they managed the complicated network of dishes with perfect poise, never spilling a thing on their Shenkuu-imported-silk gloves.
The conversation turned completely away from literature, and to the people—that is, the society—around us. “Don’t look now,” whispered someone, a few seats down, “but Lady Eleanor Faeriebanks just asked Lord Wenslor for his napkin!”
“That’s... just... scandalous,” Starlye whispered, just as fervently.
“I know! To think that she could even speak to him after the whole Glowing Jelly Incedent!”
“I wonder what she could mean by it,” Mariava mused. She bit into her Chocolate Coated Holey Cheese, chewing slowly and deliberately, savoring each bit of orangish-brown, curdy goodness. You could get people to eat dung, I thought, as long as you slapped a rarity of “90” on it.
I had hardly eaten anything—nothing seemed edible. The Light Faerie Mushroom gave the impression of radioactivity, the Thistleberry Fruit Salad looked painful, the Luxury Cabbage Cake looked like plastic, and the Dark Faerie Mushroom was just scary. Ironically, the Ferocious Negg looked the safest of the bunch.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think Lord Wenslor was to blame for any of it,” an elderly Blumaroo sniffed. “The fault lies completely with those Noki sisters, that’s what. Although, not much more can be expected from those who possess... Island breeding .” The table buzzed with murmurs of agreement. I used the jagged edge of my negg spoon and pressed it into the negg’s fiery-red skin, as I had seen Ryleff do. The spoon didn’t even make a dent. I pressed harder, and could have sworn the “entree” flinched.
“I say, it’s a surprise those girls even showed up today, what-what, after their open insult to cuisine, and all that,” snorted a monocled Kacheek, with a “harrumph” for emphasis.
Mariava had finished the lump of cheese, and now sipped daintily at her Mega Salmon Sherbert Smoothie. “I’m not at all surprised,” she said.
“I say, what the pant-devil do you mean by (harrumph) that?”
“Why, nothing at all,” the NPWS vice-head said pleasantly, “only that perhaps there was certain society that they couldn’t resist.”
I discarded the negg spoon, picked up the cheese knife, and sawed at the negg in vain—had it just growled at me?
“I suppose you mean the Prince,” the Blumaroo said bluntly.
“Harrumph! I say, gold-diggers they may be, those (harrumph) Noki sisters, what-what, but even they would not be so bold to as to attempt such a feat as that ... and all that.”
I looked around. Everyone else’s negg seemed to be cooperating. In the split second that I’d let down my guard, the Ferocious Negg’s teeth parted and chomped onto the cheese knife.
“Oh no you don’t,” I snarled, yanking at the utensil’s handle. The negg made a low, animal-like noise and clamped down harder, bending its teeth around the metal. Just when the knife was about to snap in two, I stabbed the edible monster with my nut spear. The negg went limp. “HA!” I cried, victorious.
And the entire table was staring at me.
The negg lay innocently still, looking like a martyr of war with my weapon sticking out its front.
“The skin was a bit tough,” I explained quietly.
A Grobleen Salad, a Crystal Turkey, a Double Stuffed Guppy, 2 Geopeppers, and dozens of other strange courses (and utensils) later, it was finally time to begin the Bowls. I was looking forward to them; Jordy and I had often tried our hand at the game at home. The attendants passed out cards printed with our assigned number; I was given number 42. The name-announcing Yurble called out the competing pairs, beforehand instructing us to stand by the field line as our numbers were called.
“THIRTY-FIVE AND TWELVE.”
“Twelve? Oh, that’s me!” Mariava and a gentleman from another table stood and headed for the playing field.
“FOUR AND SEVENTY.”
“SIXTY-ONE AND EIGHTEEN.”
“TWO AND TWENTY-NINE.”
The numbers were called off until the only people still seated at my table were Ryleff, Lord Harrumph, and me.
“NINETEEN AND FORTY-TWO.”
Three tables away, a Lupe stood as I did. There was a noticeable hush as we walked to the line, like there was when I first arrived—except this time, the air was peppered with whispers. I hated the feeling of being on display, but I held my head high and walked with dignity.
We reached the field. My partner was a tall, imposing, silver Lupe. I hadn’t noticed how fine his clothing was until I saw him up close—a navy blue silk shirt and crisp white trousers of soft suede. He wore a round pendant, set with green, yellow, and white gems.
“Hello,” I said, holding out my hand, “I’m Lindsey.”
He shook my hand briefly and tightly. He didn’t say a word.
“Forgive me, I don’t know your name,” I prompted.
The Lupe looked directly at me for the first time, eyebrows raised in surprise. “I,” he replied, “am Prince Stormington.”
“Oh. Well, it’s nice to meet you.”
I must have been smiling in a rather odd way, for he asked, “Does something amuse you?”
“What? Oh, no, I was just thinking about how popular names like yours are, these days. I have a friend named PrincessFurryBall and one named Queenasha, and yet another named Kingston”—
“I don’t think you understand,” the Lupe said, with some faint sparkle resembling amusement behind his eyes. “My name, without embellishment, is Stormington II. My father is Hagan, the ruler of Brightvale.”
“Oh,” I said, a bit too loudly, “well, it’s nice to meet you, all the same.”
“Likewise.” He walked away before I could say anything more.
I stood silently, unable to focus on the game or anything else. I had just spoken to a prince. A real prince! I hadn’t even known that King Hagan had a son, let alone that he should show up here, at the Bowls! How many rules of decorum had I broken, just in those few sentences I’d spoken? I’d compared him to a PrincessFurryBall. I’d made him shake my hand, for goodness sake. What was I supposed to have done? Bow? Curtsy? Kiss his ring? Had he even been wearing a ring?
Round after round of ball-and-jack bowling passed in front of me, but I hardly saw a thing. And then it was our turn. Prince Stormington appeared at my side, as if he’d never been gone.
Another uniformed attendant followed us as we walked onto the field, carrying two crates—one full of red balls, and another with blue.
I asked His Highness, politely, “Which would you prefer?”
“I don’t care.”
Well. Okay then. I chose the blue and the attendant set the crates before us. The jack was set on the green, and I was first up.
As intimidating as I found my opponent, the game itself didn’t appear to be too challenging. I mean, Jordy and I played to the extent of our home’s fields—which made this dainty little plot look wimpy. I swung my arm lightly, with a slight spin in my wrist, and my first ball rolled to a stop about two centimeters from the jack. Light applause sounded from the stands.
Ha. Beat that.
Oh Sloth, had I just said that out loud?
Stormington looked at me, raising a definitive eyebrow.
“I mean... best of luck.”
His gaze rested on me a second more, but I didn’t dare meet his eye. As I look back now, it really is a shame that I didn’t, because I think I would have seen something other than disdain. In any case, he took a ball from his crate and held it out straight in front of him, gripping with all his fingers.
Good grief, was he going to throw overhand? He’d never get near the jack that way, let alone closer than mine. But he didn’t throw over. Instead, he bent his elbow at an angle and threw diagonally, with gentle force. His ball hit mine square on, knocking it to the side without setting off the jack. His ball now sat where mine had once been—and my ball rolled off the playing field.
The applause he got was louder than mine.
But that was because he was royalty, right? Not because he was better, or anything.
This time I said nothing to him as I stepped up to take my turn. I focused on the length of the plot, and the position of my target—and I threw. My ball whizzed over the lawn and stopped directly behind the jack—my ball was kissing it. Not only was it closer than Stormington’s, but he’d never be able to knock my ball away without whacking away the jack, too—which was instant loss.
After my (louder) applause had ended, I felt a bit guilty. Perhaps I should have let the Prince win. I mean, he was going to rule a country someday, perhaps he could have used a little esteem boost. Maybe he’d felt pressured with the weight of diplomacy all his life. Maybe when he was little, he’d had one of those awful private tutors who slapped his knuckles with a ruler. Maybe he’d never been hugged. Maybe—
My ball was hurled away from its ingenious position, and Stormington’s was in its place.
“Wha...? How...?” I studdered, but my confusion was drowned out by the roar of clapping spectators. The prince of Brightvale gave a small nod of acknowledgment to his crowd of wealthy, adoring fans. A nod that clearly said, “Yes, I’m quite great. I know it already, of course, but I suppose I can stoop to accept your praise.”
Sweet Jhudora’s Cupcakes. Hugged or never-hugged, Stormington was going down.
To be continued...