Keep Your Friends Close, Your Anemones Closer: Part One
I’m sure you’ll be wanting to know all the juicy, autobiographical details; who I am, where I’m from, what I got for my fifth birthday... Well now, I wouldn’t exactly be very good at what I do if I went around imparting all that kind of information to anybody who just asked now, would I?
I can tell you what I was doing, though; I was minding my own business, a pastime which should be practiced far more often as far as I’m concerned. Whilst spending time on Mystery Island isn’t exactly the blissful experience it’s made out to be by some of the more poetic types, it also isn’t exactly enhanced by having a plump Pirakeet drop out of the sky and perch expectantly on your chest.
With a reluctant familiarity, I slipped the cold, soggy Neomail from the band around its ankle and attempted to unpeel its clogged pages. There was, I felt, an inherent design flaw in aquatic – terrestrial correspondence through Neomail. “Somebody really ought to teach a Petpet to speak,” I found myself mumbling out loud; then I took another look at the dumpy clump of feathers sat on me, and added to myself, “Then again, maybe not.”
Unfolding the Neomail proved to be futile, the pages parted into sodden lumps in my hands. It didn’t really matter, I knew what it would say anyway. Undeterred by my ignorance of its presence, the Pirakeet hopped closer to my chin and cocked its head to one side before letting out a pathetic chirp. “I don’t have anything for you. Get out of it!” I batted my hand at it and it flew off in a flurry of feathers and disappointment. “Can’t even sit on the beach without being pestered by fleabags...”
Technically speaking, I wasn’t actually on the beach; rather, I was sprawled in a hammock between two palm trees on the grass that skirted the beach. The feeling of sand shifting under my feet reminded me too much of home. A few feet away, I saw some young Neopets frolicking in the surf, wearing rubber rings and snorkels; I pitied their childish enthusiasm for the sea. I sat up to get a better view of them, the bulk of my garments working against me.
I suppose I should have felt most at home in the water, what with being a Maraquan Mynci and all. But, truth be told, I would gladly have never submerged myself again if I could have avoided it. It’s a widely held misconception that Maraquan Neopets can’t exist above the waves; we can, it’s just that few of us choose to. While I can understand that those of a more fishy persuasion would quickly tire of dragging their lower bodies around everywhere like deadweight, I couldn’t grasp why those with adequate limbs didn’t venture onto land more often.
It’s not without its drawbacks, though. My skin is designed to be kept wet after all, so every moment that I’m on land it itches for the cool embrace of water. It isn’t painful, just unpleasant, and it splinters off at an alarming rate sometimes. Hence my current get up; I’ve discovered that soaking layers of thick fabric in salt water and packing them around me help to keep my skin moist, then I cover them with a hooded, leather coat to encourage myself to sweat as well.
The worst part, though, is that my breathing isn’t so good on the surface. I can extract oxygen from water effortlessly, but getting it from air isn’t as efficient a process. Underwater I can swim all out for miles on end and be bound only by my sense of direction, but on land my lungs begin to burn and my head clouds with dizziness after only a few moments of exertion.
There was no doubting, though, that the Neomail had come from the depths of Maraqua, and so it was there that my presence was required. Heaving myself up out of the hammock, I drained the dregs of my phearade in one final gulp and then turned my attention to the waves licking at the shore’s edge. For some unconscious reason, I took a deep breath, then held it as I stepped off the safety of the grass and onto the uncertainty of the sand.
I felt the grains subside under my feet with each step I took; I’ll never be able to explain exactly why sand makes me feel uncomfortable, it’s just one of those things that unnerves me. Like the creak of a sweet wrapper when you unwrap it, or the screech of a knife against an empty plate.
Scurrying over it as lightly as I could, I finally reached the water’s edge and began wading in. Once it reached my knees, I felt the usual, aching itch of my skin melting from my shins. Even through the heavy layers I was wearing I could still feel the icy nibble of the tide against my toes, and I suddenly felt glad for my odd wardrobe choices.
The material began to float and swirl around me like a watery tutu as I submerged myself further, until eventually my head was underneath at least a solid inch of water. I reached up and pulled down my hood to leave a clear path for the water to run over my gills, marvelling at the ease with which my arm cut through the water. Almost as if I was moving through air.
As walking gave way to swimming, my tail snaked out from underneath its constraints and instinctively began writhing at my back to propel me forward. I’d forgotten how effortless it all was, how good it was to not feel as though my skin were made of dust, how easily I operated down here. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all. But even before the thought had chance to fully form in my mind, I was instantly reminded of why I’d migrated to drier shores.
Stretching ahead of me, as far as I could see, was a tranquil, featureless blue. Below me the seabed was dotted with the occasional nondescript blob of colour that I imagined to be coral or some slow-moving fish, but around me there was nothing. Everything under the sea was needlessly far apart it seemed; King Kelpbeard had been so paranoid about ‘filthy surface dwellers’ finding his precious little cove of a kingdom that he’d hidden it at the deepest part of the ocean he could find.
Which made for mind-numbing swims with nothing to do but inhabit the realms of your own head. Time to think usually equated to time to regret, at least with me anyway. But then that’s the nature of the beast in my line of work... if you could even call it work, that is.
There isn’t really a fitting job description for what I do, but I find that the term ‘acquirer’ tends to cover all the bases. Basically, if you have lost something that you want retrieving, or if there’s something that you want to stay lost, I’m your man. I don’t ask questions about whether it was yours to begin with, I just do as I’m told. It’s not that I’m proud of what I do; it’s just that I seem to be particularly good at it.
When old Coltzan’s crown went missing? Yours truly. The Meerca Brothers paid through the nose to have me do it, and then paid even more to keep me quiet so that they could take the dubious credit for it afterwards. Was fine by me. I got paid and got as far away from the giant Kadoatie litter tray that is commonly referred to as Sakhmet City as I could. Notoriety never appealed to me. It only makes it harder to sneak through security in the future. But then the likes of the Meerca Brothers are just simple novices, not intelligent career criminals like myself. I’m not looking to get rich quick from an impossibly high risk job; I’d rather line my pockets gradually with smaller, less conspicuous missions.
A mound of dark green flecked with yellow began to loom up out of the gloom beneath me, cutting through my train of thought. The Maraquan Palace looked like a mouldy blancmange with a glass cherry perched on the top. I’m sure that it was constructed by some terribly gifted architect, who no doubt twisted Kelpbeard’s fin into allowing him to build such a monstrosity by insisting that it was the pinnacle of modern style. I didn’t for a second imagine that the King himself had any hand in its design; if it had been left up to him he’d have probably ordered them to build a giant safety deposit box out of coral: ugly but functional.
Carving a right angle in the water, I dove head-first towards the eye sore. As I descended, I saw New Maraqua come rushing up towards me in a flurry of colour and bubbles. I preferred the ‘hulking, steel octorna’ look of Old Maraqua to this new fangled organic affair; it was all too cheerful and bubbly for my liking. But then I never did like change.
Which is just as well, given that I was greeted with the same less-than-friendly welcome usually extended to me by the resident Peophin Guard. Four of them had swum up to greet me, then posted themselves in a rigid square around me before performing a synchronised 180 degree turn and chaperoning me towards the palace gates.
Waiting front and center as we reached the seafloor was King Kelpbeard himself, a veritable balloon of fishy blue Koi flesh crammed into a maractite tunic. His facial expression was one of somebody who opened a biscuit jar to steal a cookie and instead found an irate Skuffler; I can’t say I was particularly sorry if that was in any way because of me.
“M-14,” he boomed, “you took your time getting here, didn’t you?” His hands were grasped firmly behind his back, jutting out his gut and making his bulk appear even more obtrusive.
“I thought that was the idea of rebuilding here, to separate you from the real world as much as possible? Or did you just like the acoustics in this watery chasm?” A cheeky grin pasted itself across my lips.
Kelpbeard made a guttural harrumphing sound somewhere deep in his throat, then turned on the spot and swam off back into the enormous palace lobby, his pitifully small tail working twice as hard to propel his mass around. “Escort our guest to his old room,” he said to one of the other guards posted inside. “Try to keep your hands in your own pockets during your stay here,” he added over his shoulder, clearly addressing me this time. “I’ll brief you in the evening once our other guest arrives. Until then, do try not to give me reason to regret sending for you.”
And with that he disappeared through one of the many grossly ornate archways, leaving me partly to wonder who the other guest could be, but mainly pondering the many fun and inventive ways I could antagonise old barnacle britches further. Nothing passes the time quite so quickly as an overactive imagination.
To be continued...