Lani and the Beast: Part Six
“Sorry?” Lani opened the door a crack further.
“Shorry,” the mutant Xweetok responded, ducking its head a little, “for shcaring you.”
“Scaring me? Scaring me?” Lani grabbed the spade from the steps and shook it angrily at the mutant. “You took my petpets! You STOLE my Tanizards and Primellas! Just you wait, the Defenders of Neopia will deal with you!” The mention of the DoN seemed to jolt the strange Xweetok. He shook his head hurriedly and his words jumbled when he spoke.
“N-no! Not shteal! Jusht wanted a p-petpet! Not to shteal!”
“They weren’t yours. You have to get your own petpets!”
“Why not?” The mutant Xweetok cringed as she said it, and almost as the words slipped out of her mouth, Lani realized that she already knew the answer.
The village was deserted. Crumbling. In ruins. Only a desperate pet with nowhere else to go would live there.
“Jusht can’t, okay?” Both Xweetoks were quiet for a moment. “Never had petpetsh before,” the mutant whispered before hanging his head again. “Shorry.”
“You know,” Lani mused, “the DoN will put you in prison.” The male Xweetok’s ears perked worriedly. “I sent them a neomail,” Lani continued. “They’re on their way h-”
“No!” the mutant Xweetok hissed, shrinking back. “No! Not a thief!”
“They’re coming, and you can’t run away.” Lani sat down on the steps. “They’re probably sending Lightning Lenny.” Lani didn’t feel triumphant about catching the culprit. Actually, the more she looked at the creature, shaking slightly and obviously distressed, the worse she felt. A queen always shows charity and forgiveness.
“Can shtill hide,” growled the mutant Xweetok. His snarl sounded rebellious, but the rest of his body language gave away the fact that he was desperate.
“They’d find you if you tried to hide in the jungle.”
The mutant narrowed his eyes at her. “I shaid shorry! Shorry!”
“No, no, wait.” Lani held up one paw pleadingly. “They WILL find you if you hide in the jungle, but...” Lani paused. “You don’t seem like too much of a criminal. Not enough to put in prison, I mean. And you apologized.”
The Xweetok smiled bashfully. “I shaid shorry,” he repeated, nodding in agreement.
“But sorry isn’t enough! Those petpets were mine, and I want them back.”
The mutant nodded slowly. “’Kay.”
“Promise?” Lani leaned toward him. “Promise that you’ll return them tomorrow, and I’ll hide you from the Defenders. But you have to promise.”
The mutant Xweetok stared at her for a moment and then grinned widely. He held out his paw, his pinky extended. “Pinky promish!”
Lani, being a queen, knew a good treaty when she saw one. She stretched out her own pinky and linked it with his.
“Alright. Well, remember I said that they would find you if you hide in the jungle?”
He nodded quickly.
“Well,” said Lani with a smile, “What if you didn’t hide in the jungle?”
The mutant Xweetok snickered. “Nishe idea!”
Lani stood up and opened the door. He hesitated, protesting. “Not in there!”
“You can hide in my room,” whispered Lani, “and if you don’t, they’ll find you!”
Sucking his breath in at the last prediction, the mutant stepped inside.
Lani quickly shoved Minnie back into her make-shift cage to prevent her from attacking the newcomer. Minnie growled gently, but seemed content with her owner’s confident attitude towards the intruder. “I-I’m Lani,” said Lani as she led the way upstairs to her room. “What’s your name?” She tried to guess it for herself. It would probably be something wild, a native name.
The mutant grinned and lifted his chin higher. “Xavier.”
“Lani.” Blackwing sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Let me get this straight: You heard a noise in the middle of the night. You saw something in the garden, and Minnie chased after it. Then you didn’t find your feepit... but you found your other petpets in an abandoned village. And then you were worried enough to send us an emergency neomail requesting that Lightning Lenny and I be sent down here in the middle of the night, only to find that your feepit had returned on her own?” Lani nodded, sinking further into the couch in her new neohome’s enormous living room. Torchio, the flaming scorchio Defender, was talking with Jean over a cup of coffee in the front yard.
“S-s-sorry. I-I got really scared and I over-reacted.” Blackwing got up from the couch opposite of Lani and paced up and down.
“That’s not what surprises me, Lani.”
“Lightning is rash. He ran straight out into the jungle to get the petpets and to see if the thief was lurking around. Torchio is quite young; he doesn’t know what to look for yet. He sees everything as a simple case with no complications. I see... Well, Lani, I see something different.”
Lani’s heart beat faster and her breath caught in her throat, but she managed to keep from gasping out loud.
“Something’s missing here, Lani,” the Defender continued. “What are you hiding from us?”
“N-nothing,” Lani whispered meekly. “Why would I hide anything?”
“Well,” sighed the Wocky Defender, “I’m not sure, but I am sure of a few things. When Lightning took off, I stayed behind to investigate the area. First I noticed that the plants close to the pond were trampled. Then I noticed that there were large paw prints in the dirt near the rear steps. And then...” The Defender paused and looked straight at Lani. “I noticed that there are two pairs of mostly rubbed-out muddy footprints that go from the rear door-“ he pointed to the staircase, “-to there.”
“I-I walked up to take Minnie up, and then I forgot that I left my, my flashlight downstairs-”
“Lani...” The Defender sat down across from her again. “Those footprints are very different in size.”
“Well, that’s because I-I-”
“Lani, just the truth, please.” The way that Blackwing spoke so calmly was spooky. Lani sank even further into the couch.
“I caught the thief.”
“Lani, I really need you to work with me here-”
“I am! I did catch him!” Lani sat up straighter. “His name is Xavier, and he’s a mutant Xweetok and he...” Lani took a deep breath before continuing. “He’s here. But you can’t take him to jail.”
Blackwing raised an eyebrow. “And why ever not?”
Lani sat up even straighter. Her breathing evened out and she looked the Defender in the eye. A queen has to stand up for her subjects and what is right.
“Because he’s sorry, and he’s an orphan, and he didn’t know better, and because I won’t let you.”
Blackwing just stared at Lani for a while, visibly taken aback by her sudden hostility. Lani had to push down a smile as she stared back.
“Well,” Blackwing coughed and tried to regain his composure. “He’s sorry, and it’s all okay? I still don’t understand.”
So Lani told him everything, starting with the yellow eyes and ending with her taking Xavier up to hide in her room. Blackwing pulled out a notepad and made notes throughout her story, but was silent. When Lani finished, slightly out of breath, he stared at his notepad for a while, betraying no sign of emotion.
“Well, it’s not exactly perfect justice, but I understand why you want to protect him.” Blackwing stood up. “And it DOES all add up. But I need to talk to him.”
Lani lowered her gaze.
“Don’t worry,” the Wocky continued. “I’m not going to do anything to him. I just need to ask him a few questions.” Lani hoped that he was telling the truth. She nodded, and Blackwing walked up the stairs to her room.
“Be careful,” she called after him, hoping that Xavier wouldn’t be frightened enough to attack. Blackwing nodded and walked into Lani’s room, closing the door behind him. Lani sighed, and for a moment she felt much older, after all, she was at least partially responsible for the future of another Neopian. She stood up and walked as calmly as she could to the back door. She pulled the long garden hose out and started watering the plants in the slowly waning darkness to calm herself down. She couldn’t concentrate, though. A keeper of the peace such as Blackwing was instructed to catch the crook at all costs, but Xavier wasn’t a crook, really. A queen must always be gracious and open to outside help, and Lani trusted Blackwing, calm and understanding, to help Xavier somehow.
“Well, his story matches up.”
Lani jumped and had to remind herself that she was still holding the hose when Blackwing entered the garden. Carefully closing the nozzle, Lani set the garden hose down before turning around to face the Defender.
“There’s some uncertainty, but let me read you my report, and please tell me if it sounds accurate.” Blackwing coughed, and read: “Petpets believed to have been stolen earlier this week have been found by their owner, who stumbled upon them while exploring the Mystery Island jungle near her home. DoN notified at 3:00 AM. Arrive at 3:30 AM. Perimeter yielded no suspicious activity. Evidence of stolen Petpets attached.” Blackwing coughed again. “And it’s not in my report because it has nothing to do with the case, but we found a homeless Xweetok in the jungle nearby. Perhaps you’d like to meet him? His name is Xavier. Quite a nice lad.” Lani’s face broke out into a grin.
“I think that I know him well enough,” she said, barely containing a giggle. Blackwing winked as he walked back into the house.
“You know, your owner seems to be a little... oh, I don’t want to say anything bad about her, but she’s gullible in a good way. I’d be willing to bet that she’d love to take in a heartbroken orphan.”
“I’ll be sure to ask her about it right away!” Lani hurried after him into the house. They walked through the living room together, and then out the front door.
Queen Lani sat regally on her throne. She pointed her scepter at a book. It lay open on the floor in front of her.
“What herb is this?”
“Mint! My favorite!” one of her knights answered. He was crouched over the book.
“Good, next page.” The knight obediently flipped to the next page. “This one?”
“Sssssage. Say it carefully: ssssssage.”
“Sh- er- sssssssage.”
“Good.” Queen Lani shooed her faithful and oldest knight, Knight Minnie, off her lap and got off her chair to pick up the book. “That’s enough for now. It’s getting late. Oh, and remember to put the book back on our bookshelf, or Minnie will eat it!”
“Ssssssage. Sage,” Xavier repeated as he placed the book on the shelf between his bed and Lani’s. “Sage! I got it! Sage!”
Lani almost dropped her pencil out of delight. “Perfect! You’re doing so well, Xavier. Your lisp is almost all gone, and you know most of the herbs.”
“And I can make my own sh- er- scented oils now.”
Lani sniffed at his fur. “Mint scented oil?”
“I love mint.” Xavier sniffed his own fur happily. “It’s my first try, and it seems to smell okay.”
“It smells great,” Lani reassured him. She walked over to her window overlooking the garden. Her kingdom was flourishing: peaceful, vibrant, and full of color. “You know,” she said as Xavier joined her, “you’re going to need to be promoted soon.” Xavier picked up Minnie and placed her on the windowsill. Minnie stretched out and drifted off to sleep in the gentle glow of the sunset.
“Really?” Xavier thrashed his bare pink tail in excitement. “But what’s higher than a knight?”
“Well...” Lani had mused over that question for a long time. “The only higher positions than a knight are a king, prince, princess, and queen.”
“Well, you’re the queen,” noted Xavier.
“And Jean’s the princess,” Lani added. “The king’s always an old guy, so you can’t be him.”
“Kings aren’t always old.”
“How about King Skarl and King Hagan and King Altador?”
“Oh, yeah.” Xavier scratched at his ear. “So then I’ll be the prince.”
“Prince Xavier,” Lani tried it out on her tongue. “It sounds perfect! We’ll have the... um... prince-ing ceremony tomorrow.”
“Lani! Xavier!” Jean’s voice called from downstairs. “Dinner’s getting cold!” Xavier sniffed the air intently.
“Ooh, baked potatoes with... rosh- er- rosemary! Let’s go!” Xavier had a good nose, probably because he grew up in the wild.
“Okay, one moment. We’ve still got to finish the letter!” But before Lani could finish, Xavier was already gone. Lani rolled her eyes playfully. She could hear Xavier chanting ‘sage’ all the way down the stairs. Quickly but lovingly, Lani tucked the unfinished letter that she and Xavier had been working on all afternoon under her pillow. It had a picture of her and Xavier standing in the garden, surrounded by Xavier’s rough crayon drawings of all kinds of plants. “Dear Blackwing,” read the curly writing under the picture. “Thank you.” As Lani descended the stairs, she decided that the short letter would say everything after all, and made a mental note to mail it the next day.