Pride, Prose, and Princes: Part Five
“I adore sand,” Lili declared. “It’s a beautiful purple-red. An’ yellow. Wouldn’t you just love to roll around in it? For hours an’ hours an’ hours?”
Stormington raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps.”
“We visit the beach often,” I explained. “Hasarah likes to build sand sculpture there.”
“Does she?” He smiled (again) at Lili. “I was fond of sand castles, too. When I was young, Father would take the court to Mystery Island for the summer.”
“Jordy—our owner takes us there,” I told him, relieved to have found a comfortable topic. “It’s loads of fun, isn’t it? My brother taught me how to surf, once. It was difficult, but once I caught a wave, there was nothing like it. It was a bit like---like flying, only on water. With the breeze in your fur, and spray in your face... it’s perfectly refreshing.” A gust of dusty wind blew through the curtains, drying my throat. “Nothing like here,” I added.
Stormington tied the curtains shut. “It’s true, you won’t find any ocean spray in the Desert, or cool breezes, for that matter. But the Lost Desert has its own refreshments, I think. Where else would you find such vast amounts of open, uninhabited space?” He paused, his mind clearly elsewhere. “It’s as if you had your own world, your own universe. You could shout, sing, and even dance for hours, and no one would see, or disapprove, or gossip, or—” He broke off. I watched as he straightened his posture, set his jaw, and washed his face of expression. Like yesterday. “I am sorry,” he said, presently.
“Whenever I’m in the Desert, I find it difficult to speak—to behave—normally.”
“Normally! Sweet Jhudora’s Cupcakes, you weren’t being weird at all. Talk however you like. Please.” I didn’t want to him to treat me like one of the Gourmet Club snoots.
“How is the NPWS?” he asked, in a rather abrupt manner.
“Oh, it’s—well, I don’t really know yet,” I admitted, “I only just met them yesterday.”
“You’re not a member?”
“Not yet,” I said, defensively. “I have to write another story first.”
“I see.” Stormington sat back against the pillows, and remained strangely pensive for the rest of the trip. I didn’t mind; I had plenty to do. By the time we were near Qasala, I had a pretty good rough of my story, and now all I had to do was play with it.
I expected the prince to abandon us (with princely decorum, of course) as soon as we arrived, but he invited us to lunch, instead. I would have declined (with civilian decorum, of course) but Lili proclaimed herself to be famished. Stormington found us a pretty place to sit near a fountain, and sent Vincent to buy pitas and fruit punch.
“Won’t you eat with us, Vince?” offered the Prince, when his manservant returned.
“Your Highness is most gracious, and I am exceedingly grateful for his invitation—”
“Oh, out with it—are you hungry or not? Sit.” Stormington made room on the rug where we sat.
Vincent seemed to consider, and then, staring at me and my sister, remained standing. “I fear for my constitution, sir,” he said blandly. “It is a very delicate thing, and such rich foods could not do it any good. Perhaps I shall have some cabbage, or another fibrous, leafy vegetable, on the return trip.”
I would have thought this amusing, had I not been able to decipher the true cause of his refusal. Everything, from his tone to his gaze, spoke his true thoughts—he clearly thought Lili and I were too common to dine with. It was repulsive, and for a moment, I was angry. But any passions within me were soon quelled. I was lost in the cool, fresh taste of the Qando fruit and lettuce, the exotic spices in the warm pita bread, and the lovely tang of the red and orange sauces, which stained my fingers and dribbled down my chin. Nothing in the world can beat a good Qando Pita.
After the first wave of ecstasy, though, I remembered my manners and made good use of my napkin. Lili finished hers just as quickly (and messily) as I did, and then took to sketching the fountain.
Stormington poured the Spicy Fruit Punch into ornate glass goblets, each tinted a different shimmery color. Vincent had brought the goblets back with the food, but Stormington seemed unsurprised. Apparently, buying meals was just as common as buying nice dinnerware to eat it with. “So,” he said presently, “do you often come to Qasala?”
“Not usually—and almost never without Jordy. She likes the old architecture.”
“Jordy—that’s your owner, right?”
“Mm.” I sipped my punch slowly, savoring the slight bite it gave. “She studies things like that—places, I mean. Then she writes about them.”
“Like you, then?”
I nodded. “I guess. My stories are always a bit more fanciful, though.”
“Are they?” His expression was one I hadn’t seen on him before—his eyes were almost merry. “What are they about?” he asked with a strange, but sincere, eagerness.
At first, I was hesitant to reply—he puzzled me. It was almost as if yesterday’s Stormington didn’t exist. But his friendly manner was contagious, and I soon was chattering away. He listened so intently that I found myself spilling out the whole plot, complete with character and setting descriptions. When I was finished, he was staring at me with an unreadable expression, and shaking his head.
I frowned. “Is there something wrong with it?”
“What? No! No, it’s... ingenious. Just ingenious.”
“Thanks.” I was confused again. He meant what he said, I could tell, but he sounded almost grim.
“The NPWS doesn’t deserve it,” he said suddenly. “You shouldn’t give it to them.”
“Deserve it? You sound as if I’m doing them a favor—I’m lucky they even noticed me!”
“You would have been far luckier if they hadn’t. Miss Lindsey, the NPWS is full of... of... well, scoundrels.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“I should not have said so unless I meant it,” he continued, calmly. I recognized his tone of voice from the day before— “But surely you agree that fiction can be a bit... overdramatic?” His voice was impersonal and slightly sarcastic; it made me angrier with every word. But he went on, “Every member of that society is foolish and conniving, driven only by their own ambition. They call themselves artists. Ha! ‘Con-artists’ is more like it—”
“The NPWS,” I interrupted coldly, “is a group of well-educated, talented, and accomplished people. It is an honor for them to offer me a position, which I have every intention of accepting.”
He held my icy gaze for a moment, before responding “Very well.” He shrugged, and then added, almost to himself, “It’s not my business.”
It most certainly wasn’t. He didn’t mention my story again, and from then on conversation was strained. Luckily, Lili intervened, and engaged the prince in childish chatter until the sun rose higher in the sky. The heat was stifling. Stormington collected the goblets and gave them to Vincent (where he put them I’m not quite sure), while I helped Lili pack up her sketching pencils.
“Well,” I said, when everything was packed away, “I suppose we’d better get what we came for. Thanks, for lunch. And the ride.”
“The pleasure is mine, I assure you. May I be of any assistance on your errands?”
“No, we’ll be just fine. How about you? I mean, can we help with anything?”
He looked surprised at the question. After all, what could we lowly, middle-class citizens do for him ? He didn’t say that, though. “Thank you, but no. I’ve actually got a team waiting in the East Temple,” he said, pointing to a domed building on the outskirts of the city.
“For the Modern Image Expedition—you’ve not heard of it?”
“A little bit. It’s something to do with the Brightvale book collections, right?”
“All the pictures in the Brightvale Encyclopedia are sketched or hand-painted, just like they’ve been for the past two centuries. I’ve finally persuaded Father that it’s time for a change.” He produced a digital camera from his pocket. “We’ve taken all the pictures for every volume except ‘Q’ and ‘N.’”
“So you’re here to photograph... Qasala?”
“The dunes north of here offer a good overview of the city. We’ll hike them and shoot from there.” He paused. “I’m not sure what we’ll do when we get to ‘N,’ though. Neopia Central is so big, that there isn’t anywhere high enough to capture it all.”
“The Space Station uses satellites to photograph Neopia, doesn’t it? You could ask to use those,” I suggested. It wouldn’t be any trouble for him, a government figure, to get the level five clearance required to use the satellites.
“Ask who?” he replied, with a wry smile. “The Station would let me, I’m sure, but my father... well, it was hard enough to convince him we needed digital cameras, let alone a Virtupets satellite.”
“King Hagan isn’t very fond of modern technology, then,” I said, and then one look at his face told me I’d said the wrong thing.
He snorted (royally, of course). “The king will read about it, write on it, and analyze it”—here his tone became increasingly sardonic—“to death, but nothing can induce him to use it. He’s afraid that Brightvale will become a corporate center, like Neopia Central, and lose its focus on academic excellence.”
“Oh. Well, I hope everything works out,” I said uncomfortably, preparing to lead Lili away. Having apparently soured Stormington’s mood, I was eager to escape before I made it any worse. “Thanks again, and good luck on the Expedition. I, er, wish we could have been of some help—”
“But we can be!” Lili wrenched her hand from mine and pulled on Stormington’s sleeve. “You can come to our house an’ take pictures from our lift! It’s up high an’ big enough for the camera stuff an’ everything!”
He looked to me for explanation. “The highest room in our house,” I told him reluctantly, “has an elevating platform attached to the roof. It lifts mechanically.” I’d forgotten all about it; it would be perfect for a picture of Neopia Central. “You’re welcome to use it if you like; I’m sure Jordy wouldn’t mind.” On the contrary, I thought, she’ll be thrilled.
“It sounds perfect. That is, if you were sure that I would not be imposing...”
I heard myself reply, thank him again, and walk away. What I’d actually done didn’t fully register until I was almost to the book store.
Sweet Jhudora’s Cupcakes. I’d invited him over to my house . In about four weeks’ time he’d be there, walking our halls and sneering at our furnishings.
“Well, let him come,” I muttered. “We’re not out to impress him.” Besides, I had bigger things to worry about. I took my sister’s hand and, head high, marched into Words of Antiquity.
To be continued...