Two Dozen Black Dresses: Part Five
The storefront was curiously free of purple when Marius arrived. Mr. Swolthy, assiduous as he was, never failed to fill the shop with his enormous presence prior to Marius' arrival. This absence was decidedly uncharacteristic, and Marius was loath to believe it coincidence. The prim Mr. Prigpants, however, would never dare be absent and leave the door unlocked.
"Mr. Prigpants, sir, where has Mr. Swolthy got to?"
A frightened squawk came from the office followed by a sharp clearing of a throat. These two interjections were followed by a flow of honey oozing through the air. "Mr. Finchley, you're here." The words solidified in the silence that followed.
"Yes, Mr. Prigpants. But... where is Mr. Swolthy?" The Lenny's dulcet tones hid a hint of something unusual; fear, perhaps, or something worse. Marius' hairs began to stand on edge.
"Mr. Swolthy is... sick... today, Mr. Finchley. He is very sick indeed."
"Very sick indeed. Quite sick, I might say."
"Has he come down with the Neopox again, sir?"
Marius could hear a flurrying of feathers coming from the office and another sharp cough, followed by a nauseating silence.
"Mr. Prigpants?" Marius was considering the advantages of leaving the store at once, but as he made for the handle, the sticky sweetness thickened the air again.
"Mr. Finchley, can I see you in the office for a moment? It shan't take long."
Marius moved away from the door. This was far beyond normality; Mr. Swolthy was mysteriously absent from the premises, Mr. Prigpants sounded peculiar, and the whole business with the Baron still sat heavily on Marius' mind. The answers to every question Marius had had over the last week were possibly just inside the office. Equally likely was that Mr. Prigpants was going to assign him a stiff workload to make up for the head tailor's sickness.
The office loomed in front of Marius. Something was wrong, he knew it; he just couldn't fathom what in Neopia it was.
"Sir?" Marius was at the door.
"Come in please, Mr. Finchley. And shut the door, would you?"
Marius entered Mr. Prigpants' office and shut the door silently behind him.
The blistering wastes of Tyrannia stretched before Lord Norheim. His eyes were filled with the sight of hundreds of warriors, fighting and dying for a prize they could barely comprehend. If the obelisk wasn't so important, he would almost have considered leaving the barren land to stop the rampant slaughter. As events stood, retreat was an option for the foolish or the cowardly; the Sway would remain.
"It's rather a pity," he remarked to the bleak horizon. "There were futures down in that cauldron. We might have used them one day." Though coldly logical, Norheim was not as cruel as he might have been. "They might have done great things."
"Are you sermonizing again, Lord Norheim?"
Norheim turned to the elderly purple Lenny who had sauntered up beside him. Her elegant black dress and extravagant accoutrements put her at odds with the Tyrannian landscape.
"Not at all, m'lady. Merely remarking on the fact that far too many lives might be lost down in that forsaken pit."
The Lenny turned to cast an unforgiving eye at the raging battle. "Lives have been lost before for our cause, Lord Norheim. Lives will be lost again. Lives have been ruined as well, those unfortunate enough to cross us."
"You forget sometimes, Lord Norheim, that our dedication to our ideals cannot be toppled by a single life. We shan't be stopped by inquisitive types nor traitors nor even these ignorant fools that seem so desperate to claim that which they cannot know." The Lenny said all this as though speaking about the weather. Emotion never once touched her.
"I agree, m'lady, or else I would never have joined the Sway."
"You forget yourself again, Lord Norheim. Nobody joins the Sway. We either take you... or we remove you."
This ultimatum hung in the air between the two of them for several minutes; the sound of steel on steel and battle roars was all that could be heard. Norheim was the one to break the quietude.
"I must attend to Festerside. He was wounded rather grievously and requires my attention."
The Lenny watched him go, appearing to cogitate about something before she called after him. "Lord Norheim..."
He stopped at once. "Yes, m'lady?"
"For the peace of the world...."
"...the balance must sway."
"How did we ever manage before Master Finchley, Prigpants? I say, it's a wonder we ever kept a shop, a right wonder." Mr. Swolthy's flustered face bent over a half-stitched hem as he toiled to complete the third order of the day. Mr. Prigpants' equally sudoric beak fairly touched the band of a hat he had been attempting to complete for the past two hours.
"We shall manage, Mr. Swolthy. Mr. Finchley was merely a wastrel, blown into our shop one day by the winds of chance and blown out a month ago by those very same gusts. I should say we are quite better off without him."
The fat Mynci, defeated by the villainous hem, rose and made for the exit. "I suppose you're right, Prigpants, I suppose you're right. But I say, it was beastly odd of him to not ask for his pay before blowing away. Beastly odd, never seen anything like it."
"He was a child of fortune, Mr. Swolthy. I daresay Mr. Finchley was struck by a notion to earn an honest living for a few years before his wanderlust carried him off again. With no adult to raise him, I shouldn't wonder that he showed so little regard for what would become of the store." Mr. Prigpants placed the hat gently on his head and found that he had made it far too wide.
"Yes, yes, Prigpants, yes indeed. You're right once again, by Fyora. Do you suppose we should hire another one, then? Another apprentice, a proper apprentice this time, to stitch and sew and come from a respectable family! Yes, what an idea! Another apprentice! Just think, Prigpants, in time, it might be Prigpants, Swolthy, and Candlelace! Or Prigpants, Swolthy, and Harkdale!" Mr. Swolthy's face was illuminated by a prophetic glow.
"I see you've decided already that only the fairest young ladies of Neovia will be working as seamstresses, Mr. Swolthy. A most admirable decision." Mr. Prigpants' sneer was audible in the biting words.
"I say, Prigpants!" Mr. Swolthy blathered. "I say, indeed! Most discourteous of you, as discourteous as I have never seen before! Those were merely the first two families I thought of! Young ladies indeed!"
Mr. Prigpants did not answer the scraping excuses and focused instead on fixing the hat. His smile faded as he pricked his wing with the needle. An apprentice would have been a blessing.
Sal was struck deeply by the disappearance of his friend. He had thought at first that Marius was simply avoiding him after hearing how the quest for the Duchess was being abandoned, but as the days wore on, Sal became more worried. Marius had never before gone on a journey unannounced and certainly never without offering an invitation to his friend. Sal began investigation the disappearance of Marius Finchley with a passion usually reserved only for eating.
The rumor mill in Neovia churned with a lively hatred for facts, and it wasn't long before conflicting stories cropped up in parlors across the town. Marius Finchley, it was said, had gotten in trouble with the Defenders of Neopia and had fled to the Haunted Woods. Marius Finchley, it was said, had gotten involved with the Thieves Guild and was currently operating out of Krawk Island as a fence. Marius Finchley, it was said, had sold all his possessions, shaved his head, and gone to Sakhmet to sell fruit. With time, a larger scandal was broken, and the parlors busied themselves with wondering whether or not Mayor Thumbert was attempting to increase his height by taking special potions.
Sal did not believe a word of it, but there wasn't a grain of truth to be found in the whole of Neovia. Mr. Prigpants and Mr. Swolthy were as confused as anyone else, saying that Marius left the store one day and simply never came back. Sal had his doubts, but there was nothing he could do. His friend was simply gone. He held out hope, though, and knew, somewhere in his heart that his friend had finally gotten a chance to live out his dream; Marius had made it to Mystery Island.
The Tiki Tack Man watched as a fresh young Kyrii bounded into the store, head held high. He sighed inwardly; enthusiasm such as this should not be wasted in the Tiki Tack store.
"Prando Haxton!" The Kyrii seemed overly fond of this achievement.
"Right... tell me about yourself, Prando."
The Kyrii beamed at the Tiki Tack Man. "I was born in Neopia Central and lived with my parents for a few years before deciding that enough was enough and moved into my own house! I got a job at the Chocolate Factory and worked there for a little bit until I said to myself, 'You know, Prando, wouldn't it be great to get away?' And I said, 'It sure would, Prando! How about Mystery Island?' And I said-"
"Is there a point, kid?"
The Kyrii deflated noticeably. "Oh... well, I moved here to Mystery Island and needed a job, so here I am!" He ended the sales pitch with what could only have been a trademark smile.
"Right... well... there's no one else who seems even remotely interested in working here so... the job's yours, kid. You start tomorrow."
Prando Haxton was an interesting Kyrii. No Haxton family was on record of ever having lived in Neopia Central. When asked, the owner of the Chocolate Factory would deny that a Prando Haxton had ever worked for him. Prando Haxton could likely not even point to a particular house as having been his nor could he remember what his parents really looked like.
But if he were taken to Neovia, a small town in the Haunted Woods where a young Neopian Central Kyrii had no business being, he might get a few stares. People would whisper that there was the tailor's assistant who had vanished mysteriously months ago. If taken to the tailor shop, a frightened Lenny might deny knowing who it was, and an obese Mynci would be too shocked to do anything but blubber. And if shown to a young Bruce by the name of Sal, Prando Haxton might very well experience a memory that wasn't his. It would be a memory of laughter. It would be a memory of intrigue. It would be a memory of evenings spent sampling strange foods, looking at pictures of Mystery Island, and wishing for a new life away from the gray of Neovia. It would be a memory of Marius Finchley.