It was another sunny day in the land of Shenkuu, but something was slightly different. The sunlight was a little brighter, the sky a little more vibrant, even the breeze a little sweeter. An anticipation hung in the air as word of the latest Imperial Exam spread from Neopet to Neopet. The brightest minds of Shenkuu were preparing to be tested and among those aspiring scholars was Felix.
The Exam was to take place at noon. Almost an hour before that, the striped Shoyru had bid his family goodbye and, with their wishes of "good luck" ringing in his ears, had set off for the palace.
"Garrulous. G-a-r-," he now huffed, ascending a rather steep hill. "Um... r-o— no, r-u-l-o-u-s." He consulted a creased piece of paper containing the possible words he could be asked to spell. "Negligible. N-e-g-l-i..."
Another day, Felix might have noticed the brilliant blue sky dotted with clouds here and there, or the verdant hills rolling under the sunlight. He might have laughed at the way the light morning breeze danced between flowering tree branches, carrying with it melodious notes of birdsong. But today, all of this was lost on him; the entire way, his eyes remained fixed on the piece of paper as he chanted spelling words to himself, barely aware of where he was going. His feet nearly carried him to his destination of their own accord. Heart thudding with anticipation and anxiety, the Shoyru now scaled the last grassy hill that stood between him and the palace.
Well, between him and a seemingly endless line of Neopets, Felix soon realised. He could hear the sound of excited chatter as he neared the hilltop on which the palace perched. Minutes later, he stood in the palace courtyard, taking in the scene before him.
A long queue stretched across the courtyard. At its head sat the examiner, consulting a length of scroll spread across the table in front of him. He absentmindedly fiddled with the brush clutched loosely in one paw, unknowingly flicking spots of ink onto his face once in a while. Beside him stood the infamous guard, known for catching any misspellings the examiner overlooked. Just behind them were the ruby doors of the palace, welcoming those who earned the honor of entrance. The Grarrl's bulky form blocked the view within. His searing gaze was fixed straight ahead; Felix shuddered at the thought of those eyes glaring at him.
Wiping his paws on his robes, Felix joined the line. Immediately, he burrowed his face in the vocabulary list. S-o-u-v, he thought, e-n—
"Here for the Exam, are you?" a voice inquired. Felix looked up. The white Elephante in front of him had turned around and was now staring at him expectantly.
"Y—yes," Felix croaked. He swallowed, feeling as if a Thistleberry was lodged in his throat.
"Me too. Hoping for an easy word," the Elephante continued. "I'm Logan, and you?"
"Nice to meet you," Logan said promptly. "Say, do you think the Exam will start soon? This line is rather long, isn't it?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Lucky the weather is nice..." He peered up at the sky, shading his eyes with one hand.
Felix leaned sideways and looked towards the front of the line. The examiner was gathering his papers. The guard stood up slightly straighter. Overhead, the sun seemed to have reached its peak and suddenly, conversation became a little hushed. Feet shuffled; someone cleared their throat. It looked like everyone was ready for the Exam to begin.
At last, the examiner waved the first person forward. By now, several Neopets had joined the line behind Felix. Their whispered yet constant chatter and Logan's continued attempts at conversation with those around him made it hard to think. The Shoyru grasped the list of words like a lifeline, his eyes scanning it over and over.
The first few Neopets emerged from the queue bawling. Felix averted his eyes when they passed him, his stomach churning. As the line progressed, he felt increasingly warmer. The sun had broken through the morning haze and was now mercilessly beating down on the soon-to-be (or soon-to-be-rejected) scholars. The afternoon had become still and sultry. Some 'pets tugged at the necklines of their robes, others fanned themselves with their hands. The hubbub was gradually replaced with the sound of restless sighs, tapping feet and occasionally, the sound of a particularly emotional Neopet bursting into tears.
The line crept along sluggishly. After a while, even Logan seemed too exhausted by the heat to chitchat. Felix tried to focus on his list, attempting to absorb every last word, but apprehension coupled with the heat made it nearly impossible to concentrate. Carefully folding the list, he tucked it away into a pocket. Now that he had nothing to do except wait his turn, the questions he had tried to ward off all morning flooded into his head.
What word will I get asked? What if I get it wrong? What if I let my family down? What if people make fun of me? What if, what if, what if...
By now, only a few Neopets stood between him and the examiner. He watched as a stuttering Mynci attempted to spell 'extraterrestrials', added at least two extra r's, and was turned away. A Bruce followed, nearly being allowed into the palace despite his spelling error, before the guard caught him.
Finally, it was Logan's turn. Felix gazed in awe as he marched forward, recited his spelling like clockwork and, with a backwards smirk at the remaining 'pets, strutted into the palace.
"Next," the examiner called.
Felix stood frozen.
"Next," the examiner repeated, frowning slightly. Miraculously, Felix's feet somehow shuffled forward.
The examiner consulted the scroll in front of him. "Bankruptcy," he decided, turning back to the Shoyru.
Felix had waited for this moment for as long as he could remember: the year he would finally be eligible to participate in the Imperial Exam. He wanted to become the youngest scholar in Shenkuu; perhaps then people would see him as an intellectual, as more than an overambitious dreamer or a silly kid. His older siblings might even begin to take him seriously, and his parents would be proud of him. But all his aspirations seemed to evaporate as he faced the examiner, paralyzed. He noticed the splotches of ink on the examiner's face and hastily swallowed the nervous laughter bubbling inside him. The Kacheek was staring at him with raised eyebrows. Why was he staring again? Oh, right! Felix was supposed to be spelling!
"B... a," he began shakily. The Acara behind him gave a huff of impatience and Felix thought he heard the sound of tapping feet. Behind the examiner, the guard stood with a stern expression on his face. Sunlight glinted off his armour and hit Felix straight in the eye as he squinted at the examiner, who was now looking slightly annoyed. Felix tried to calm down; he had practiced this. He cleared his throat.
"...n-k-r..." he continued carefully. He clenched his clammy paws, trying to ignore the examiner's tapping brush, his impatient frown. He had to get this right, he had to prove that he was more than just some child with unattainable dreams... But what if he messed up?
"...U-p-c-y!" Felix blurted at last.
His heart sank.
Whenever Felix had imagined this moment — when the answer would finally leave his mouth — he had always thought he would feel relieved. Lighter, as the weight would lift from his shoulders. Happy, as the examiner would nod with a smile.
He felt none of those things as the examiner's frown deepened and he gave a resounding shake of the head. The guard glanced pityingly at Felix out of the corner of his eye. Subconsciously, Felix moved out of the line and turned his back on the palace doors, just as he had seen so many others do that day. Not daring to look at the remaining participants, Felix made his way back the way he had come, his head hanging low.
He found himself sitting in a forest glade. A river babbled beside him. It was the only place he could find solace when he needed it. His wings flapped idly as he sat by the river, gazing into the crystalline water. For the first time that day, his head was empty of all spelling words. Instead, he was replaying that awful moment of failure in his mind. The more he thought about it, the worse he felt. His shoulders slumped. How could he have made such a silly mistake? Forget that, how could he have been so dumb as to think that he, of all people, could be a scholar?
"Feeling a little down?" Felix was jerked out of his thoughts. He looked up to see a water faerie sitting on the riverbank a few feet away. Her golden hair, swept to one side, seemed to flow and shimmer just like the river water, which she was lazily flicking with her tail. She saw the Shoyru's bewildered expression and smiled.
"I know I'm a little far from home, but I needed a place to think," she explained. Her voice was soft, soothing. Felix didn't know what to say.
For a moment, they both watched the river, listening to the rush of its water. "Is something wrong?" the faerie asked eventually.
Felix sniffed. "I..." His voice was husky. He cleared his throat. "I failed the Imperial Exam." He felt his heart sink even lower as the words exited his mouth.
"Ah... I see." The faerie trailed her fingers in the water. "I'm sorry." She let the water droplets slide off her fingertips and back into the river. "Will you try again next time?"
Felix sighed. "What's the point?" he mumbled miserably.
"What's the point? I'm just not good enough to be a scholar!"
The faerie frowned slightly. "Why do you say that?"
"Well... I failed, didn't I?"
"And you're giving up after the first attempt?"
Felix gazed down at his paws. "I studied so much and I still couldn't do it... Why should that change next time, or the time after that?"
The faerie contemplated this. "Well... We water faeries value knowledge above all. Because of that, we also know this: knowledge comes from experience. You cannot give up hope if you don't succeed on the first try; you have to understand what went wrong and overcome the challenges. In the end, you will be wiser because of it."
The Shoyru sniffled. "What about my family? My parents believed in me, and now they'll be disappointed. And my siblings never expected me to pass in the first place—"
"You know, you don't need to prove your potential to anyone but yourself," the faerie interrupted gently. Felix hesitantly looked up. "I suggest that you focus on what you want to achieve and work on getting there. And most importantly," she smiled, "don't worry if you don't get there immediately."
Felix faintly returned her smile, vaguely registering that some of the weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders. The two sat in companionable silence for a while, looking out towards the river.
Eventually, Felix slowly stood up. "I should be getting home. Thanks for... everything."
The faerie raised a hand in goodbye. "Good luck, friend."
The courtyard was even more crowded than last time, Felix thought as he arrived at the palace. He joined the back of the line. It was a few minutes to noon and before long, the queue began to move forward.
When Felix's turn arrived, the examiner did not seem to recognize him. You would think he'd remember me, Felix thought, seeing as I've been here a few times already. There was a glint of recognition in the guard's eyes, though, and Felix flashed him a nervous smile.
Despite the familiar surroundings, Felix's palms still got clammy and his throat dry, but he pushed the worry to the back of his mind, trying to concentrate on the present.
"Bankruptcy," the examiner announced and the Shoyru grinned inwardly, remembering his first attempt at the Imperial Exam.
He hadn't passed on his first try, or his second, or even his third. It had taken time for him to calm his nerves and to focus on what was important instead of worrying about outcomes. But, he thought as the examiner nodded and waved him through, he had remembered the water faerie's words. And eventually — he stepped forward and crossed the threshold into the palace — he had made it.