Gaz closed the thick tome as she finished reading the final page, and leaned back in the chair she was sitting in, stretching her stiff spine. She'd been sitting in the same spot at a wooden table in the library for the past several hours while she was expanding her knowledge.
The desert Kougra was broadening her mind to newer subjects, particularly on magic and spells, an area she had been somewhat lacking in. Gaz was always out to learn new things, and even more, the Book Award. Like many pets, she wanted to one day read enough books to earn the trophy for having read an incredible number of books. Unlike many, however, she knew one day she would truly accomplish this goal. Very few had the honor of showing off any of the trophies awarded for thousands of books read, but Gaz would have one for herself one day; she was determined.
This is mainly why she was spending her summer vacation in Altador, reading all kinds of books, scrolls, and tomes in the archives. Her friends all thought she was the biggest nerd for dedicating so much time to reading, but it was the only way she could ever hope to reach her goal. Besides, it was something she enjoyed, though others found the concept mind-numbing.
The Kougra stood up and stretched out her legs as well. She had a precise schedule as to not overwork herself; too much time inside a stuffy building all day wasn't healthy for anyone, so she only spent four out of the seven days in the archives, and would spend the other days outdoors shopping or sightseeing to create a healthy balance between study and relaxation. Tomorrow was a day off from her reading, and she found herself relieved after two consecutive days with her eyes glued to a tome.
Looking around, she wasn't surprised to see she was the only one in this section. Most people, after all, did not prefer to spend their summer studying. She didn't mind, however, this only meant it would be quieter for her to focus.
Before she left, Gaz decided she would take home an enjoyable quick-read for the night; something more interesting than a tome or textbook. She exited the section on magic and glanced at the shelves adjacent to the area. Her eyes stopped on a colorful medium-sized book, titled Which Brush? Picking it up, the description explained it was an informative read on the best paint brush color for the reader.
Even though she was perfectly content with her desert paint job, she shrugged and took it with her. She had never read it, so it would count towards the award, and perhaps she might choose a new color afterwards if she found another one she liked.
The Kougra turned away from the shelf and made her way down the long corridors to the entrance, where she would have to let Finneus know she was taking a book home for the night. As she did, she bumped into a blue Scorchio coming from the opposite direction, and she stumbled back, dropping her book.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, young Kougra! That was my fault, not watching where I'm going again, as usual," he replied hastily, shaking his head.
He was an older pet, with square glasses, thinning gray hair, and a cane. Still, he shifted his own books to one arm and bent down to pick up Gaz's book for her.
"Oh, it's okay! You don't have to get that, I-" he cut her off before she could protest.
"No, no, I made you drop it, I'll get it. Huh, what kind of a book is this, anyway? 'Which Brush?', a book on paint brush colors? How absurd, what do you need this for?" he said, more to himself, as he studied the cover.
The old man scowled at the cover, shaking his head.
"You young folk are so obsessed with appearances and whatnot, with your outrageous glittery clothes and paint jobs. Look at you, a teenager clearly not of Lost Desert descent, yet you have the traditional color of the natives. I tell you, they never intended for average pets from all over the world using their color to show themselves off. If they'd known this was what would become of the brushes, they would've revoked their usage."
The Scorchio was clearly talking more to himself now, but Gaz was curious about the things he was muttering.
"I'm sorry, sir, but what are you talking about?" she asked, taking her book from him.
"The original purpose of paint brushes, of course! What else?" he replied.
"Oh... what's that?" she questioned.
She had no idea what he was talking about; what could paint brushes have been used for originally, aside from their current use?
The Scorchio sighed.
"Of course, most pets have no idea. They all think the things neoschool teaches them is all there is to Neopia. When in fact, there is so much more to everything. You truly wish to know?" he asked.
Gaz nodded eagerly.
"Very well; follow me into my office. There is much you do not know, young Kougra."
Gaz followed the man back through the magic section into a secluded wooden door she had never noticed before.
"You work here?" she asked as she entered the small office.
The room was tiny and plain; there was a solidary oak desk against the furthest wall, cluttered with papers and pens and books. There were two other shelves, overstuffed with dull-looking books. On the desk, a small name card read 'Professor Ernest Brunesce'. Gaz took a seat on a brown sofa adjacent to the desk, where the old Scorchio took a seat.
"Yes. I organize and restock the shelves in the magic section of the library. I like to keep busy even though I'm retired, and in my free time I study." he explained.
"Oh, that's interesting. My name's Gaz, by the way. I'm an aspiring scholar myself. Well, I'm not sure exactly what I want to do for a career, but I do know that I'm aiming for the Neopian Book Award," she said.
"The Book Award? Oh dear, kids these days really do not understand the point of true study and research, do they?" he sighed.
"I can tell you are an intelligent neopet, Gaz, but I fear that you, like many other pets your age, are taking the wrong direction with your studies. Honestly, a true scholar does not need an award to know that he or she is intelligent, if you ask me."
Gaz thought for a moment, taking this in.
"I suppose; but it's such an honor to be awarded! It shows how dedicated a Neopian is to reading and knowledge," she explained.
Professor Brunesce snorted.
"One should not need to prove their competence to others through trophies. A true scholar does not need the approval of others to know they are great," he responded.
Before she could reply, the Professor moved on to a different subject.
"Now, you told me you wish to know the history of paint brushes," he said, and she nodded.
"I disapprove of the way they are used today, as a way for Neopians show off and define themselves to the world. Well, I suppose they always were used to define a Neopian, but in a more practical and efficient way." Professor Brunesce stood up and searched one of his bookshelves. When he sat back down, he had a handful of different books in his arms and placed them on the messy desk.
"Centuries ago, there were only a select few colors that neopets could be painted. I'm not quite sure who or what specifically designed them or thought of the idea, but it must've been a very powerful creature who decided they would be useful in labeling where in society a neopet belonged. Some colors indicated class, or origin, and some were naturally occurring, but somehow our genes were affected so that we were only born one of the four basic colors."
Professor Brunesce showed Gaz the books he'd retrieved; they were all on the history and workings of paint brushes and the Rainbow Pool.
"Certain colors such as Royal were only used by kings and queens so they would be recognized immediately by the citizens of the lands they ruled. Faerie was only for specially chosen pets by the faeries to indicate that they were blessed. Colors like Island, Desert, and Darigan were created to mark a neopet as part of the society they came from, and so on. I believe Grey was used on outcasts, and Pirate was for only real pirates. The others, well, who knows anymore? Some information is lost to time. As Neopia changed and progressed, average pets got their hands on paint brushes, and used them to make themselves unique, to express their individualism. They wanted to be different, and it became the norm to want to be painted though they were commoners.
"Nobody speaks of those times, though. It was a time when the magic that enchants the pool and the brushes had a useful, logical purpose. However, it has been written out of history. Nobody wants to know that we used to live by such folkways. Nowadays, though, it makes little sense for a neopet from Neopia Central to be painted Snow, when they do not need to survive the harsh conditions of Terror Mountain, or Magma, when they do not live amongst the civilization that resides only a few miles above Neopia's core. It's all a bunch of meaningless phooey, the desire to be painted. It doesn't have purpose anymore."
When the Professor finished speaking, Gaz just stared in astonishment. She had never heard of such a thing. He was right, they did not teach about painting in neoschool. It had never seemed significant to her before.
"Wow. That's so interesting; I can't believe paint brushes have such a complex history! Why doesn't anyone know about this?" she asked.
"Oh, it's like plenty of things society hides. It just doesn't seem relevant or necessary to educate the public about something like this to most. They decide what Neopians should learn, and they try to shroud the rest by allowing certain books to be more available, and others rarer. Sometimes people want to shape history. There are many things that happened in the past that they want forgotten," he said.
"What do you mean? You think information is intentionally hidden from society?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course it is; the world is sneakier than you think, Gaz. There are many things that have happened in the past that Neopia doesn't allow to reach our ears easily. When you've spent as much time as I have unveiling the answers, you learn things beyond what you ever imagined about this world we live in." Professor Brunesce seemed jumpy, constantly glancing around as if he feared somebody was listening, and he scurried to close the door.
"Like what?" Gaz asked, unsure she wanted to hear what was coming. Professor Brunesce was beginning to act strange. Was this Scorchio truly knowledgeable, and simply exaggerating? Or was he somewhat off...
"Like why Neopia faces so much war; some say they are not coincidental. Perhaps they all were planned by a larger, more intelligent organization. And why nobody has populated certain islands or what caused Geraptiku to become deserted, and why talk of Jelly World is taken so seriously."
At this point Gaz was staring with uncertainty, as though she was having second thoughts about believing this man. She adjusted her glasses, prepared to question his claims, but before she could, he continued on.
"Some believe it is all the doing of The Sway."
"What?" she asked.
"I'm not surprised you have never heard of them. They are considered to be only a rumor, but the Sway is a clandestine organization that is bent on controlling everything that happens to us. Every day, anything from what appears in the daily news, such as burglaries and the stock watch, to invasions and wars, happens because the Sway is obsessed with controlling every aspect of Neopia," he explained, his voice barely above a whisper.
Gaz was beginning to feel uncomfortable. How could one group, no matter how powerful, control absolutely everything in Neopia?
"I know it is difficult to believe, but they are real. I have seen members. I do not know how much they actually control, and I am unsure that they are in control of all, but it is their goal. They control some things in our world, like it or not. And it is doubtful they can be stopped."
Gaz shifted in her seat, uncomfortable by Professor Brunesce's piercing stare. He had seemed rather erratic at first, but now she was beginning to believe he was just crazy. How could the things he was telling her be true at all? She had read many books in her thirteen years, and she had never heard of any of the things this old man had just explained to her in the past few minutes. Sure, he'd probably been studying ten times longer than she, but surely she would have heard of some of this beforehand. She had spoken to other intelligent scholars, and none of them had ever mentioned a clandestine organization that controlled the world, or anything else Professor Brunesce had explained, for that matter.
"I see... well, Professor, thank you for enlightening me with your... unusual views on Neopian history and sociology, but I really should be going, it's getting late," Gaz stammered, standing up, desperate to get away from the Scorchio's violent green eyes. They had appeared wise and eager to share knowledge before, but now they seemed to be interrogating her, digging to see if she believed his insane claims.
At this, his expression softened, and he appeared saddened by her abrupt departure.
"Oh, child, please don't rush away from me so quickly. I understand that my claims may seem impractical and possibly crazy, but at least give what I have told you some level of consideration. You do not have to believe all that I have said; I figure to you I am nothing more than a strange old man who has perhaps had too much time to overthink, but promise me that you will at least take what I have said into some level of consideration. Maybe my ideas are a bit unusual, but if there is one thing every scholar should keep in mind, it is that things are not always as they seem. The world is full of mysteries, and it is impossible to collect all of the answers. As scholars, we can only open so many doors before our time. The world simply does not give us enough years to learn it all, and the best we can do is try.
"Always keep your mind open to allow other possibilities in, do not ever take any source of information as 100% fact. Look at everything as though it is mostly accurate, but not completely. You have to determine what is best to believe. Neopia holds many secrets, and nobody can ever know for sure about certain things such as what I have said. But look more deeply into the world, Gaz, and you will find things that are much more factual, things that will broaden your mind and your perception of this planet. Every time you do, it will make you a better scholar."
Finally, Professor Brunesce fell silent, his eyes appeared sad and lonely, now, and Gaz managed a smile.
"Okay, Professor. I will, I promise. Goodbye, and thank you," she said, and he nodded.
The Kougra exited the tiny office, and as she left the archives, she realized the sun had already set.
As she walked back to the Neolodge, Gaz's brain swarmed with thoughts about Professor Brunesce, knowledge, Neopia and life. Had he been right about the Sway, or paint brushes, or society? Even if the Sway did not control all, some people controlled some things, and even much of the knowledge readily available was likely to be controlled in some way. Why didn't anybody look more into Geraptiku, or other unclaimed territory, or rumors? Were they too afraid, was there not enough evidence? What if somebody had, but decided it was not for Neopia to know?
There was one thing Gaz was sure the Professor had been right about, and it was that one can never be completely certain about what they learned. If Jelly World is real, why not just try and find it? If not, why is it such a big deal to mention it?
She closed her eyes and sighed. Maybe she shouldn't have been so quick to judge; maybe she should have kept more of an open mind when Professor Brunesce made such strong claims. If he knew what he was talking about, then she was the one being ignorant for not listening.
After all, if every Neopian believed in a lie, does that mean the truth does not exist? No, it would mean everyone was ignorant. Just because she had not heard of anything that Professor Brunesce spoke of, it did not mean he was misinformed. If anything, she had been, and she suddenly regretted her reaction.
Gaz exhaled deeply as she entered her hotel room and collapsed on the bed. She glanced at the book she had taken home from the library, and tossed it aside. She had had enough enlightenment for one day. There was still much, much more for the young Kougra to learn and discover in the time that lay ahead of her, and she was sure that she would. Some knowledge would never find its way into her brain, and she would just have to make the best of what she did find. Perhaps she would not need an award to prove her accomplishments. Not all books held the knowledge she now knew to seek, and a trophy would be meaningless if it had been earned by simply reading thousands of books that did not truly add to her knowledge. She would seem determined and intelligent, but in reality she would not truly know anything.
If every book is a lie, it does not matter what one reads because it will all have been nothing.
Gaz closed her eyes.
We should not be awarded for that.
Sighing, the Kougra curled up into the luxurious bed, not bothering to change into pajamas, and let her mind wander to the truths and lies she would be destined to reveal in the future.