Farside Leader: Part Two
Water. That was what it was. Water, splashing onto my face, and a smell that hadn’t entered my nostrils in what felt like eons... rain. And mud. And... pumpkins?
I opened my eyes with a great effort; we were in Neopia-normal gravity again. That had to mean... we were home! My heart leapt, then flopped into my stomach. What the Commander had said was all true. It might have just been a dream, but she was telling the truth.
Gerezor was standing on her seat, her upper body sticking out of the lifeboat’s open top hatch. That was where the rain was coming from, and the strange smells of my home planet. Meanwhile, Kent was slumped in his seat, head in his paws, while Rai whimpered quietly and Toad whined. Maga was the only one who appeared not to have slept badly; she was unfastening her harness and smoothing her poofy skirts.
“Get up, you lot!” Gerezor snapped, looking down at us. “The computer in this blasted thing decided a splashdown would be the safest landing, and look where it chose to splash down! Now get up, before we sink!”
Pushing the dream from my mind, I fumbled my harness open, clutched Rai to my chest, and stood up on my seat. One look told me that we were in a large and misty swamp, replete with lily pads, and dotted with the occasional Mortog-topped rock. A second told me that the lifeboat, despite having sprouted large red-and-white airbags, was slowly sinking into the muck. It was the third glance that stood my fur on end, for it was then that the fog parted slightly, revealing the banners and towers of Meridell Castle.
“Spyder soup,” Kent muttered beside me. “Well, at least I’m not named Kento...”
I shot him a glare. The last time we were in Meridell, he had indeed been named Kento, and had caused a large scene, which culminated in a soaking for Geena, Karmapa, and me. Luckily, he had looked extremely different at the time, and I hoped that his new diplomatic credentials would get us past King Skarl without trouble. If we ever got away from this kidnapping evil twin, that was...
“Looks like it’s time for a mud bath,” Gerezor said grimly. “Swimming has got to be better than sinking...”
“You won’t find me in there!” Maga snapped, stowing Toad into her sleeve again. “I paid a small fortune for this dress!”
“And how am I supposed to swim with Rai?” I demanded.
“Leave the kid,” Gerezor said coldly. “And the diva can fly, or...”
A pumpkin fell from the sky and landed not four feet away from us. Staring up, I saw a large green biplane swoop overhead, piloted by a blue Aisha in flying cap and goggles.
“What the dung?!?” Kent shouted, clearly at the end of his tether. Maga grinned and pointed at a red object in the distance... and in a momentary clearing of mist, I saw that it looked like an archery target.
“It’s the Grand Pumpkin Drop,” she said. “Those balloons are red and white; that pilot probably thought we were a target.”
“Do you lot want to get smashed?” The voice was angry, and came from above us. Hoping not to see another biplane, I looked up, to find myself staring at a disgruntled-looking red Eyrie, also clad in cap and goggles, hovering over us. “You tourists are getting stupider and stupider!” she snapped angrily. “I’m not going to stand for this joke!”
“Who are you?” Gerezor demanded, sounding extremely hostile.
“Officer Test of the Meridell Flying Squad,” the Eyrie snapped. “And I’m arresting you for trespassing on the Pumpkin Drop drop zone. You have the right to...”
Maga tittered loudly. When the Eyrie shot her a poisonous glare, she removed an ornate, passport-like booklet from the neck of her dress. Handing it to Officer Test, she said, “Would you be so kind as to take us to Father?”
The Eyrie took the passport in one paw, glared at it, then almost dropped it. Her wings faltering in their steady flapping, she stammered, “Princess Magdalena... .such an honour... His Majesty will be so pleased to see you home...” Handing the passport back with a trembling paw, she changed the rhythm of her flapping wings. In a moment, she was spiralling upwards, uttering a harsh cry that sent shivers down my spine... for a very good reason.
“Sounds like the siren at Farside, doesn’t she?” Kent said gruffly. “Like I need to hear that now...”
“She’d better hurry up getting us out of here, Princess,” Gerezor said, pointing at the now mud-covered airbags.
Rai began sobbing something that sounded like “Geeneee”. I figured she must mean Geena, and found myself wondering how on Neopia I was going to look after a baby.
Then four bright shapes appeared out of the mist. The first, leading the pack, was a Starry Scorchio in a shiny outfit that looked like something between a flight suit and armour. Right after her came a green Eyrie in the standard flying cap and goggles, her muscular forelimbs wreathed with what looked like tattoos and a sturdy club tucked into the belt around her waist. Next to her flew a Starry Eyrie, also armed with a club, and after him a fire Uni, who wore neither cap nor goggles. We appeared to merit quite a rescue force!
Waving her passport in front of the shocked-looking Scorchio, Maga said, “Good work, Lieutenant Almedo. How is Father?”
“Ah...” The Scorchio looked lost for words. “His Majesty is suffering from a slight cold, but will be pleased to see you home safe. If you don’t mind riding Officer Jinth?” She gestured at the Uni, who rolled his eyes slightly. “He won’t set your dress on fire, I promise!”
“Of course,” Maga said with a graceful smile, “but my friends are not blessed with wings. Perhaps they would ride with more comfort if I flew myself?” I found myself mildly stunned at such an unselfish thought.
So it was that I mounted the Starry Eyrie’s back. Gerezor flew beside me on the green Eyrie, while Kent, at Maga’s insistence, rode Officer Jinth. Lieutenant Almedo insisted on carrying Rai, and as soon as we got ten feet into the air, I could see why. I might be a spacefighter pilot, I might have my pilot’s licence in the pocket over my heart, I might have flown in the darkness of space beyond Kreludor, but I was scared. Badly scared. Even going down in battle had been a less rattling experience then this natural flight, flight without fighter, cockpit bubble, or controls. I knew that I was entirely at the mercy of the Eyrie I rode, and although I figured I had logical reasons to trust him – Maga was clearly someone quite important – I didn’t like the feeling at all. Tossing dignity to the wind, I wrapped my forepaws tightly around his neck and buried my face in his mane.
“Silly girl!” The Commander rode behind me, her icy hoofs chilling my shoulders. “Why did I ever put you in a position where you might have to succeed me?”
I had no answer, and then...
“Look at that!” Maga’s grinning face was just in front of me. “She’s a natural flyer; she even falls asleep on the wing!”
“I’m not surprised,” Kent said, sliding off his mount. “That young lady is a flying ace, in case you want to know.” He held up his paws to me. “You’re a bit too short to get down on your own. Mind if I lift you?”
“No,” I said curtly, since I didn’t have much choice. I took the chance to look behind me... nope, there was no Ice Bori sharing my mount’s back.
“Father!” Maga was flying at top speed across the courtyard in which we stood. In a moment she was embracing no less a figure than King Skarl himself! And he was hugging her back, and laughing! I was stunned. Then she pulled Toad out of her sleeve... and then Rai began bawling at the top of her lungs.
“You can have the baby back!” Lieutenant Almedo said hastily, pushing the crying Aisha into my paws. Rai’s large blue eyes were filled with tears, and I felt utterly helpless. What did one do to soothe a crying baby? I knew the occasional piece of chocolate cake worked wonders on Rai, but it wasn’t like I had any on me... feeling my many pockets, I wondered if I had any sweets... and if I did, would Rai be satisfied by my choice of them? She often considered sweets to be sour, and threw tantrums over the issue...
“Father!” Maga shouted again. “My friends need to rest and eat! And Father, one of them is an ambassador!” Kent groaned.
“Ambassador, Deputy Ambassador, what does it matter?” King Skarl was in a rare good humour. “Here, Mr Odnurghovitch, have some more to eat!” Kent dug gratefully into a plate of chicken and gammon.
Rai and Toad were getting turnip gruel all over themselves, but I didn’t care. Smooshed tomatoes, raisin bread... Meridellian food seemed like the best in the universe at the moment. We were warm, quickly drying off, and our stomachs were being filled... and King Skarl hadn’t recognized me as the Wocky he’d screamed out of his kingdom years ago. Of course he wouldn’t, I thought. Kent had had the sense to introduce me only as Farside Leader, and though Skarl likely didn’t know what that meant, he had accepted it. Besides, between the hair and the flight suit, I didn’t look much like I had then!
Gerezor, however, was clearly displeased. I thought she should be grateful that Kent had made it sound as if she had only happened to be in our lifeboat... the way things seemed to be going, Skarl might have had her tossed in the dungeons if we’d outed her as a kidnapper. Perhaps she was worried we still would. At any rate, she poked at her meat stew with a very cross look on her face, and kept fiddling with the now decapitated shell on her necklace.
Of course, this being Meridell, it wasn’t long before the uproar started. This came in the form of a Royal Peophin sticking her head in the half-open window – apparently we were in a room directly next to the moat – and announcing “The ship’s in sight, sir!” The next moment, two more Peophin heads, one Tyrannian, the other Faerie, pushed the window entirely open. The Faerie one yelled, “We’re gonna see Daniel Nennant!” Maga leaped to her feet and knocked over Skarl’s plate, sending a shower of meat and beans to the floor... Acting on instinct, I grabbed Rai and a loaf of bread and made for the door. If trouble was coming, I didn’t want to be part of it.
To my great surprise, Maga joined me. “He’s great, isn’t he?” she squealed, flying at top speed for the main gate. “I came back as soon as I heard he was in the play, whatever it’s called. I think it’s something like Prince Pinklet... It doesn’t matter, I don’t like classics anyway, but I love Daniel Nennant!” I was about to voice my incomprehension when we burst past the startled guards at the drawbridge... and then I stopped in shock.
If biplanes looked strange in Meridell, the form emerging from the foggy south-western sky looked stranger. It was a flying ship, clearly of Shenkuu design, and it had a large Draik statue as a figurehead. As the ship drew closer, I could read the words under its wings: The Royal Draikspere Company.
“That’s the name of the ship?” I asked.
“No, silly!” Maga whispered. “It’s the name of the theatre troupe. They come from Brightvale, but they travel all over... and Daniel Nennant is starring in their open-air production of whatever this play’s called.” She glared at the sky, from which a spitting drizzle was falling. “And the weather had better cooperate!”
We watched as the ship landed gently in a field, as Draiks swarmed out of it and began securing ropes... As soon as the gangplank was put down, three familiar figures stalked down it. Ignoring Maga’s shout of “Wait!” I dashed across the drawbridge, and found myself being embraced by Geena. Beside her stood Karmapa, and just behind her was, presumably, the real Dr Siljani Hu.
“Explanations?” King Skarl demanded. He was looking grumpy again, and disgruntled.
Geena removed her lollypop from her mouth. “We all got off the ship safe,” she said, and it was clear she wasn’t going to try to be comprehensible to low-tech Meridellians. “The Coast Guard picked up the lifeboats pretty fast, but once we got to the Space Station, we realized your boat hadn’t been picked up. We... well, we were pretty worried. I didn’t know how I’d tell your owner, Explorer. But then the Kreludan Embassy got in contact and...” She burst out laughing and waved a hoof at Karmapa.
Being a robot, Karmapa didn’t have to struggle to keep a straight face. “It seems that the Kreludan Ambassador is... well, to put it nicely, not in his right mind. That’s why the previous Deputy Ambassador quit, you see; he’d had one too many firecrackers in his desk. The Ambassador is convinced that his deputy is always out to get him, when in fact the reverse is the truth. The Ambassador’s sister has connections somewhere, so he can’t be sacked for incompetence, so he just...” She flapped a fin at Dr Hu.
“Apparently he paid off half the Coast Guard to get away with this idiotic kidnapping plot,” Dr Hu said grimly. “Not to mention hiring a mercenary to do the deed, namely my... sister.” She scowled at Gerezor. I had to admit, their resemblance was spooky. Had it not been that the shell on Siljani’s necklace was whole, I couldn’t have told the difference.
“Big sister, you have to remember!” Gerezor pointed out. “I’m eleven minutes older than you!” Dr Hu scowled even more.
“Well, anyway,” Geena said, smiling down at Rai as she rocked her, “we got down to Neopia as fast as we could. I left Ciyan with your owner, Explorer, and we headed off to get you lot. Orbital projection showed that your capsule would end up in Meridell, but we could only get transportation to Brightvale, so we hitched a ride with the theatre troupe. Very nice they were...”
“It’s time to go,” Dr Hu said abruptly. “Your Majesty, you’ve seen the official request for the loan of three Eyries to fly us back. Do you feel like causing a diplomatic incident by denying it?”
Skarl glared at the floor, then sneezed. “I suppose not,” he said. “Ellavai!” he shouted.
In a moment, a Cloud Pteri flew into the room. “Sir?” she said.
“Three Eyries. For them.” That came with a fist rudely pointed at me. “Now. And don’t forget to get the mages working. We need clear weather for the play tonight, and warm.”
I couldn’t help but smile as we left the castle, with Gerezor between Dr Hu and Kent. There was a tingle of magic all over the area, and the sky was clearing fast, letting in a glorious sunset. Not only were many Neopets, clearly witches and wizards, busily working on the necessary meteorological spells, but Kayla herself was supervising matters. Meanwhile, the Draik theatre troupe was busy setting up a stage, and biplanes, apparently returning from the Pumpkin Drop, were landing by the dozen. The scene was idyllic, and for once, I could see why so many Neopians liked Meridell. A weight I had long grown used to suddenly became noticeable... the weight of the magic staff in the long leg pocket of my flight suit. Just the right length to fit along my thigh, the hidden staff had not seen use in a long while. It wasn’t always wise to show magic on Kreludor. Still, I was a witch, and my hair was proof that Karmapa wasn’t without her own set of skills...
“I’m staying for the show,” I said quietly.
“What?” Geena asked, frowning.
“I’m staying,” I repeated, unzipping the leg pocket. “I might help with the weather a bit. At any rate, I’ll find out who Daniel Nennant is.”
Geena frowned, but Karmapa seemed, as well as I could tell, pleased. “Enjoy yourself,” she said. “We’ll do fine without you; the ride should be easier... go on!”
“Yeah, enjoy yourself,” Geena said, and Rai giggled.
I hadn’t even reached the stage when I heard the screaming. Spinning, my staff in my paw, I saw Kent slumped on the ground, Geena crouching by his side, Karmapa and Dr Hu racing uphill... and Gerezor, well ahead of them, leaping into a biplane that had just been vacated by a horrified-looking Acara.
The biplane took off as I ran, calling myself several kinds of dung, toward the scene. In a split-second choice between catching the kidnapper and helping my friend, I chose Geena.
“She stabbed him!” Geena sobbed, trying to use Kent’s jacket to stanch the deep gash on his shoulder. Rai was crawling across the muddy ground, shrieking like a lost petpet, her noise filling my head, making it hard to think.
“Doctor!” I shouted over my shoulder, trying to think how to help Kent. “Get back here!” Dr Hu would know what to do, but she was shouting angrily at her fleeing sister, and Kent’s eyes were closed, his breathing shallow... All my knowledge of first aid had gone out of my head.
To be continued...