Pride, Prose, and Princes: Part Seven
I must have moved very quickly, but it felt like time had slowed down, even stopped. All I knew was that at one moment, his torso was disappearing over the edge, and at the next, I was leaning over the rail, gripping Storm’s ankle with everything I had in me. I could hear him breathing raggedly, and his chest heaved rapidly, but otherwise he was still and silent.
“Don’t—move,” I gasped. “Just—wait.” I let go with one hand to grab the tripod next to me, and then dangled it over the edge. “Grab it—grab it now, for Sloth’s sake!” I gritted my teeth, and tears fell involuntarily from my eyes. My arm felt like it was burning; the rail began to cut where it was pressing under my elbow.
He grabbed it. I squeezed each of my ankles between two railing bars and turned my feet sideways until they were caught, so I wouldn’t plunge over myself. “Storm—I’m going to let go of your ankle now. You have the tripod? Both hands?”
“Yes.” His voice was a whisper.
“On three, then. One... two... three!” I dropped his ankle, gripped the tripod with both hands, and cried out. His full weight was on my ankles and arm sockets.
“No, no, I’m... fine. Just keep coming.”
Slowly but surely, he pulled himself up the tripod until he could reach the railing. I took hold of his wrists then, helping him vault over the rail and back into the lift.
Both of us collapsed, gasping like Maraquans out of water, and shaking all over. He sat up immediately, but I remained on the metal floor, eyes shut, trying to ignore the pain.
“Thank you,” I heard him say. “I owe you my life. My father must be informed at once; you will be rewarded.”
I groaned and shook my head. The last thing I wanted was more attention from royalty.
“Not that we could ever repay you, of course—Miss Lindsey? Miss Lindsey, are you quite all right?”
“I’m fine. Just give me a minute.” Or two. I picked myself up with a slorg’s slowness, but that didn’t keep every inch of me from smarting. I was able to walk, however, and when we’d descended to the roof, I was able to climb down the nursery ladder unassisted.
Jordy was waiting for us at the bottom. “Are you guys okay? We thought we heard a yell downstairs...” Before I could stop him, Storm had related the entire incident to Jordy, complete with my heroics.
“Please don’t tell the others, Jordy,” I pleaded. “I’d—I’d just rather forget the whole thing,” I added, upon Storm’s quizzical stare. “You don’t have to tell King Hagan, do you?”
“If that is your wish,” Storm replied reluctantly, clearly disappointed. I guess I’d squashed his rush of benevolent-noble-prince zeal.
Jordy checked her watch. “I’m sorry to leave you both, but I’ve got to run—I’ve got a poogle race beginning in an hour. Linz, where’d you put your story?”
“On my desk, in my room—why?”
“I’ll be going by the copier’s on the way.”
“Oh.” I racked my mind for a reason to tell her ‘no’. I knew it was silly, but I just didn’t want my dear tale to be in any other hands but my own. “That’s okay,” I said vaguely, “I was planning to take it later.”
“Alright, then.” She headed downstairs. “By the way, the others went outside to make sure everything was okay,” Jordy called over her shoulder, “but they just went; I don’t think they could have seen anything.”
My shoulders sagged in relief. “Good. Well, at least we got a picture—oh, no. The camera! You dropped it, didn’t you?”
Storm winced. “I’m afraid so.”
“I suppose it’s not so bad. It probably fell in the garden—onto a bush, or a tree. We could check,” I suggested, heading for the stairs.
“Shouldn’t you wash your arm first?”
“Oh! Yeah, I guess.” The railing had left a narrow cut in my left arm, and small, dark red beads began to form. “Won’t be a moment,” I told him, crossing the hall to Annie’s bathroom. I closed the door behind me and set about washing the wound. Dressing it took a lot longer than I expected; it took forever to find a bandage in Annie’s cosmetic-stuffed cabinets, and even longer to wrap my arm with one hand.
The rest of Storm’s visit passed in a blur. His entourage met us outside, and together we found the camera undamaged in a Yellow Eesa Tree. As no one could convince Storm to stay any longer, Prince and Company took leave of me and Annie (with a swooping bow from Heathcliff) in the garden, then left via Unis and Eyries.
As soon as they had gone, Annie’s “refined” demeanor dropped with a thud. “Oh. My. Gosh. Weren’t they RAD? But I was like SO bummed when Prince Stormington, like, wouldn’t have tea! Omigosh, Linz, what was it, like, LIKE? How did you TALK to him; I wouldn’t have been able to (like) breathe!”
“Oh, it was breathless all right,” I said drily, walking past her to the house. “I’m going out to the copier store in a minute. Tell Jordy if she gets back before I do.”
I pushed everything on my desk onto the floor; emptied every drawer, every bookshelf, and every box. My bed I stripped of its bedding; I ransacked my dressers, ripping clothes from them, not caring where they landed. After another wild look about the room, my eyes rested on the sofas. In a minute I had overturned both of them, flinging them on their sides like a wild beast.
“No,” I rasped, “No, no, NO!” With the last “no” my voice became shrill; I pounded my mattress savagely. I sat in the midst of chaos—it looked as though a tornado had blasted through my bedroom—but I didn’t see any of it. All I saw were the insides of my eyelids, as I closed my eyes, sank to the floor, and cried.
My story was gone.
“A deadline, Miss Lindseymaher, is a deadline.”
“But I wrote it; really I did! I just don’t know where it is...”
“The Neopian Prose Writer’s Society is for artists who value their art over all else. If your story has, as you claim, ‘disappeared,’ then you must be quite careless and take very little pride in your work.”
“I must conclude, therefore,” the NPWS vice-head went on mercilessly, “that the Society is not for you, nor are you for it.”
“What?” My voice was a high-pitched whisper. This couldn’t be happening. This isn’t happening, I told myself. It’s just a bad dream; a nightmare. “Look, Mariava, I’m sorry I missed the deadline. But it won’t happen again, I’m positive! Just give me two weeks—a week, even, and I can write it again; I still have my outlines and roughs, so I’m sure that—”
“Good day, Miss Lindseymaher. A word of advice: until you can learn the values of a deadline, your career will never, ever progress. Let this be a lesson to you.” With that, Mariava stood and left the room.
I sat silently before her desk, too stunned to move, speak, or cry. Didn’t feel like crying, anyway—I wasn’t sad or even disappointed. No; what I felt was more like grave realization, as if I’d woke from a too-glorious dream. Reality came upon me all at once, mocking me. Silly, stupid girl with silly, stupid ambitions, it whispered, did you really think it would happen? Stuff like the NPWS doesn’t happen to pets like you. Can’t you see it was all too good to be true? You must know it could never have happened; you must know that you’re a fool for thinking it could—a silly, stupid fool. You know it, don’t you? Don’t you?
“I know,” I replied, aloud. “I know.” I collected my things and left Mariava’s office, exiting the NPWS building through its immaculate lobby. Once outside, I realized that I had nowhere to go. Or at least, nowhere I wanted to go. All my favorite hiding places—like the book store and the Arts and Literature Centre café—were tainted. And I couldn’t bear being home, where four pairs of pitying eyes would follow me everywhere, serving as a constant reminder of my failure.
I began to wander, oblivious of time or surroundings. My feet bore me aimlessly through plazas and alleys, roads and intersections. All the while I wondered, albeit pointlessly, where my story was. It wasn’t at home, that was certain—I’d turned the entire house upside down searching. “It must have been thrown away,” I decided, “knocked by cruel chance into a rubbish bin and taken to the dumpsters...” I’d mailed the garbage plant and received no reply. I didn’t expect one anymore.
I stirred from my melancholy trance and looked up. Before me was a uniformed guard Tonu, staring with raised brow. Somehow I’d taken myself to Luxury Lake Park. Everything looked exactly as it had before—the tall iron gates, the box hedges, the guard. And there was the sign, bold as ever—“Gourmet Club Bowls: Today. Guests Welcome—Guests Only.” One month ago, I’d been welcome. I’d been Miss Lindseymaher of Dancingpetal, the writer. What was I now? Just Lindseymaher. Linz. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary.
“AHEM,” the guard said again. “Invitation?”
“No,” I replied numbly. “No, I’m not going in.” The guard took this as license to ignore me, and shifted his attention to the carriage coming down the road. As it got nearer, I could just make out the colors painted on its doors—green, yellow, and white. The colors of Brightvale.
Oh, Sloth. If there was any pair of eyes I couldn’t face, it was his. I scanned my surroundings wildly, spotted a large bush, and threw myself behind it, ignoring the perplexed stare of the guard. The clatter of Uni hooves came closer, and I heard the carriage wheels squeak to a stop. “Welcome to the Bowls, your Highness,” I heard the guard say. He didn’t even ask for an invitation. “My apologies, Prince Stormington, but servants must stay outside.”
I heard the gate shut again; apparently Storm had gone in. I was about to emerge from my hiding place when I heard the undeniable voice of Vincent. “Unacceptable—simply unacceptable,” he whined. ”What right have they to deny a prince his entourage?”
“But we’re not his entourage,” said another voice, presumably another manservant. “We’re just servants.”
“I’ll have you know, under-footman, that I am especially close to his Highness. I’ve served him since... for a long time. You are but a servant, but I am his confidante.”
“Confidante? Pfft. I bet he’s never told you anything.”
“Don’t flaunt your ignorance, under-footman. Just yesterday, in fact, he confided in me about a most delicate matter.”
“Well,” Vincent began, in the same tone Annie used when relating the juiciest gossip, “apparently the prince fell into acquaintance with some foolish young author—middle-class, I’m sure—who was about to offer her talents to the wrong people. Nothing could persuade the silly thing that she was about to make a dreadful mistake, so our noble prince took the decision out of her hands. During a visit to her home, he discovered the location of her manuscript, and took it.”
“You mean, he stole it?”
“Hardly stealing, under-footman; he did it for her own good.”
The under-footman said something else before the two of them rode away in the carriage, but I didn’t hear it. All I could here was a shrill ringing in my ears, as my head pounded with the phrase, “took it... took it... stole it... stole it.” But how? Scenes from the day before replayed in my head. I’d left him alone, in the hallway, to wash my arm. Jordy had asked about my story...
“Linz, where’d you put your story?”
“On my desk, in my room...”
And Lili had told him where my room was before we’d even gone on the lift. I stepped out from behind the bush, dazed with disbelief and trembling with rage. How. Dare. He.
Before I could decide what to do with myself, the object of my hatred suddenly reappeared behind the gate. “Guard,” he called, “I must ask you to let me back out; I am afraid my servants do not know where to put the carriage...”
“No worries, Highness, they just left with it.”
“Very well, then—Miss Lindsey!” He noticed me, passed through the gate, and bowed with perfect balance. I didn’t move. “What a pleasant surprise. I must say, this is a particular convenience, as I have wanted a word with you since yesterday. Do you mind?” He took my silence as consent, took a deep breath, and continued—
“Miss Lindsey... I have a proposition. Having heard your story’s plot and being convinced of your talent, I should like you to visit Brightvale Castle, and tour the scholars’ guild there. You may come at anytime during the day; if I am not at home, someone else could show you. Once you have seen it, and found... that is, if you find it to your satisfaction... I would be honored if you would consider taking a position there. You could write as much as you liked,” he said eagerly, “and our editor would see to it that you were published. Whatever you wrote would be catalogued in our library, and become part of my father’s collection.” He hesitated. “This would mean, of course, that you would have to turn down the NPWS. But if you were willing to give them up, I assure you, I would give you double of anything you would have had there.” He stared at me, now a bit unsettled by my silence. “Well, Miss Lindsey? Shall I make arrangements for your visit?”
“No,” I said quietly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, no. Storm—Prince Stormington,” I corrected myself, keeping my tone even, “I would rather be stoned, beaten, and eaten alive by meepits than accept a position at your court.”
“I’m—I’m afraid I do not understand.”
“Don’t be stupid, thief. Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“Where. Is. It?” I spat out each word at him, and my voice rose. “Do you think, because I’m not royalty, that I’m nothing? That I’m worthless? That you had the right to take what meant more to me than anything, what I’d poured myself into, what I’d staked everything on? You didn’t just steal my story, thief, you stole my future. Don’t you dare look at me like that,” I snapped. “I can see through your stupid act. The game’s up, prince. I know everything.” His expression changed from confusion, to guilt, to a stony indifference. “Well?” I demanded, “Do you admit it?”
“I do, without shame.”
“Without—” I was too enraged to finish the phrase.
“Through taking your story, Miss Lindsey, I helped you where you would not help yourself. The NPWS is a scam. I tried to tell you, but your bias rendered you incapable of seeing the truth. Now that the danger is averted, I will, of course, return your manuscript to you.”
“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe that someone could be so... cruel.”
“I was not being cruel. As I said before, the NPWS is a scam, and they would have ruined you.”
“You had no right.”
“No right to help you? Miss Lindsey, I fail to understand—”
“Of course you don’t understand,” I agreed, with a short, bitter laugh. “You weren’t raised to see beyond yourself, were you? I suppose I’ll have to spell it out for you, word for word. You entered my home and abused your position as a guest to take what was not yours. That alone is enough to justify my rage. But you went even further. Even if the NPWS is a scam (and of that fact you’ve given me no proof), the path of my career is still my choice, isn’t it? But you assumed me too incompetent to make the right choice. So, like the benevolent prince you are, you made the choice for me. You insulted my ability, my intelligence, and my freedom, yet you ‘fail to understand’ why I’m angry. And now you have the audacity to be asking me to work for you? You must either be completely nuts, or the most ridiculously self-absorbed person I’ve ever met.
“From the very beginning I knew you were a controlling snob. Your disgustingly arrogant manner at the Bowls should have been warning enough, but the way you dictated the lives of your servants and friends confirmed my judgment. Even then, I excused you to some extent, thinking that, since you’re a prince, you had some right to control your own subjects. But now I see just how tyrannous you really are—controlling not only the lives of your subjects, but my life also, the life of someone you hardly know. News flash, Storm: You’re not Prince over everyone, only over a tiny, tiny kingdom, no bigger than Mystery Island. So either get over yourself, or leave!” I pointed into the park. “Just leave. Go back to your high class party and surround yourself by people just as narrow-minded and proud as you are!”
I fell silent, out of breath, and we stared at each other, both unmoving. The expression on Stormington’s face was no longer indifferent, but still unreadable. “Your Highness?” The guard, who had been watching us with heightening alarm, dared speak. “Is this girl harassing you?”
“No,” Storm replied slowly, “if anyone here is being harassed, it’s her.” He stared at me a moment longer before speaking again. Shadows passed over his eyes, like dark clouds in a storm. Something in his demeanor rendered him angry—not at me, but at someone else. Perhaps himself.
“Miss Lindsey,” he said finally, “Lindsey, I am sorry.”
“I’m sorry. My conduct has been, in a word, despicable. I see that now, and I— I apologize. Could I—I mean—would—” He broke off, sighed, and tried again. “Would it be asking too much, Miss Lindsey, for you to listen to hear what I know concerning the NPWS? I realize that my actions cannot be redeemed through any explanation, but I believe it would be a... a comfort for you to know why in losing the NPWS, you have lost nothing.”
I opened my mouth to say no, but something in his eyes stopped me. His gaze was pleading, almost desperate. I felt no pity for him, but his eagerness to explain piqued my curiosity.
“Fine,” I said, “start talking.” And he did.
To be continued...