Are We Still Friends?: Part One
Kass... That single word hovered in the back of
his mind, a faint, fading echo that meant so much to him, that had caused him
so much pain. Part of him tried to push it aside, to make it leave him alone;
but it was only a halfhearted effort, for the rest of him still hung on, not wanting
to accept the reality that came with the word. Kass, what did they say to you,
all those nights when you lay awake in bed? What did you see, when you tried to
take refuge in sleep? How long did they gnaw at you, eating away at your soul?
And what have they done to you, now when you are utterly beyond my reach?
Lord Darigan's muscles quivered with exhaustion,
unwilling to obey his commands to hold him upright, commands that nearly turned
into pleas. Not now. I can't collapse now, not in front of everybody. It's
bad enough that I'm standing here like this, dressed in a tattered piece of
brown fabric, struggling to hold myself together, when the last thing they remember
of me is... is...
The last clear thing he remembered about himself,
before he had awoken in a ditch with no food, no water, no shelter from the
cold, no one to turn to for help, and no idea who he was or what had happened
to him; absolutely nothing, except for a vague, disturbing feeling of some horrible
memory lurking just beyond the reach of his mind like a dark storm haunting
the horizon. That hovering phantom had refused to leave him, menacing him with
its shadowed uncertainty... until he'd met a little girl on whom no trace of
that shadow lay. In the long, slow, tumbled blur of his exile, in which memory
could find no place to rest except for the hurts that bit the deepest, there
had been only one place of refuge, to which his thoughts turned now. Sally had
seen him in a worse state than this. And she had helped and accepted him anyway.
But she didn't know who I am.
He shook his head, forcing himself to breathe
slowly and evenly as he gradually straightened his shoulders. They were staring
at him now, the Neopets he had led into the engine room to shut down the engines.
He could feel their expectant gazes beating against his back, could sense their
tense anticipation as they waited to see what he would do next. The next few
minutes would be crucial: it was in these moments that his people would form
their opinions of the being that had returned to rule them, opinions that would
not be easy to adjust, if he made a false move. Or if I collapsed in an unconscious
heap on the floor, he added with a mental grimace which he quickly shook
off. There were more important things he needed to take care of. Taking a deep
breath to clear his mind, he turned around to face the watching Darigani. "We
need to get the engines repaired. Where are the engineers?"
"They are resting from their work," a deep bass
voice informed him, "as should you be, my lord."
"Galgarroth!" More relieved to hear his old
friend's voice than he would have believed, Darigan spun to face him, realizing
his mistake when the room spun around with him and kept on going even after
The Grarrl watched him with obvious concern,
ignoring the startled murmurs of "So he's still alive, too!" that fluttered
among the assembled Neopets.
Darigan looked at him questioningly, and Galgarroth
shook his head. "Later," he rumbled, then added, "I will take care of this.
You need to rest."
Wishing he had the physical resources to make
protesting a viable option, Darigan allowed the Grarrl to lead him through the
war-ravaged streets toward his personal chambers, glancing around as he walked
and forcing himself to assess the devastation. So much damage. So many lives
torn apart. He couldn't let this happen again.
He wasn't sure at what point it happened, but
sometime during the seemingly interminable journey through the Citadel his focus
shifted from the damage to his friend.
His friend. How many of those had he lost, while
he was gone? How many were still here?
And how would those who had survived react,
when they found out that the monster they had driven away all those months ago
and supposedly killed was alive and restored to his former self, and had returned
to live among them?
And how will she react? he wondered,
his thoughts straying once again to the tiny child he had left standing outside
Sullen, ominous clouds swirled slowly around
the Citadel, like sombre grey phantoms guarding a hidden realm. Their slow,
ceaseless patrol was intruded upon on occasion by a weak, pale gleam of sunlight
which timidly requested ingress, only to be softly shut out by the unchanging
march of the dark vapor sentinels that shrouded the airborne land. Somewhere
down there, a tiny Usul child would be doing her chores, or playing with her
friends, or speaking with her parents... a child who, not so long ago, had been
the only friend he had. Would we still be friends now, were you to find out
that I am the ruler who nearly destroyed your homeland? Darigan silently
asked her as he watched the play of clouds and sunlight beyond his study window.
Clouds, sunlight, clouds, sunlight, clouds, paw, sunlight, paw...
Startled into wakefulness, Darigan twisted around
to find a tiny Korbat staring up at him, her sharp, steady crimson gaze flickering
slightly as she informed him matter-of-factly, "You were staring into space
"That I was, Mavural. How nice of you to point
"My pleasure," Mavural replied, her half-cross,
age-crusted voice betraying no hint of the humorous spirit in which the words
had been spoken. Darigan suppressed a fond smile as he watched the smaller Neopet
set an empty bowl, a spoon and a pot of soup on the table at which he sat. The
old Korbat had been one of his family's most trusted servants since before Darigan
was born, and while his father had been a little too aloof to grant her the
status, Darigan had come to consider her a friend. He could still remember the
day when he had made the mental switch: soon after his oldest son had died as
a result of the loss of the orb, she had ambushed him while he sat alone in
his grief and told him without preamble, "Your Highness, I know you haven't
taken much note of me up 'till now, and you don't know me well enough to trust
me with what's going on behind your eyes, but when you get to the point where
you do, I'm here if you need to talk." Whack. Just like that. Her words
had been so abrupt and audacious that for a moment he had nearly forgotten the
pain he was in; and while he hadn't opened up to her just then, he had learned
since that day that he could. True, she wasn't all puppies and hugs- in fact,
there had been days when he'd silently compared her to an irked Maraquan Meerca-
but beneath that crusty old exterior he knew that she was immensely fond of
him, in a half-grouch half-grandmother way. On the day he had succumbed to the
orb, she had even gone so far as to ambush Galgarroth, Vex, Jeran, Lisha and
the others on their way to confront him, waving her age-stained cooking ladle
for emphasis as she told them, "Go gentle with him; there's still some of the
old Lord Darigan in there, or you can call me Squeaky the Space Spardel." They
hadn't listened to her, of course, and according to Galgarroth she had endured
a great deal of 'squeaky' in the intervening time, which had resulted in a merciless
dishing-out of "I told you so!"s after his return. Even while he'd been gone
the playful abuse toward Mavural had been inflicted at the offender's own peril;
that ladle of hers was more dangerous than it looked.
It was menacing him now, replacing the paw to
trace circles in the air in front of his nose. "If you aren't going to tell
me what's got you so quiet, you can at least come down to Neopia and eat your
Not many people got away with that kind of nerve.
But Darigan had learned long ago that Mavural was Mavural, and it was best to
leave it that way. "I'm not hungry right now," he declined gently and only almost
truthfully, and got a feisty glare in response.
"Lord Darigan, you look like a skeleton with
fur, and I won't have that." With that, she brazenly scooped him out a few ladlefuls
from the pot, then pushed the bowl she'd filled toward him. "I don't know where
you've been the past few months, but wherever you were, you weren't getting
If only you knew, Darigan thought as
he conceded defeat and accepted the spoon she thrust at him, what kind of
trouble Sally had to go to to keep me as well fed as I am. And with the
thought came the unwelcome return of the same doubts and worries that had had
him staring out the window in the first place.
"You've got that worried look on your face again,"
Mavural observed, dragging Darigan back to reality again. "And whatever it is,
it's got to come out sometime, so now's as good a time as any." Darigan sighed;
feisty little thing, she tended to give people what was good for them, whether
they wanted it or not. She'd said as much to him once, almost in those exact
"And if the person in question is the lord
of your country?" he'd retorted good-naturedly, only to be immediately answered
"Especially if he's the lord of the country,
because in your case, I'm probably the only one who'll do it."
True enough. But how do I explain to her
that I'm pining over a ten-year-old Meridellian farm girl?
"Mavural, you can be as stubborn as a bad cold
"I make a point of it. Now spill."
The Korbat ruler sighed again; there was no
diverting his fiery cook's attention when she had something on her mind. "It's
a friend I made in Meridell," he explained cautiously. "She offered me food
and shelter, and hid me from her parents."
"A child, then?" Mavural speculated with a raised
"Yes. About ten years old."
A faintly amused look sparkled to life behind
Mavural's eyes. "How exactly did she keep her parents from knowing about you?"
"She... er... hid me in her barn."
"Classy accommodations," Mavural commented,
shooting a hawkish glance at the barely-touched bowl of soup. Taking his cue
before the action became a concession of defeat, Darigan began to eat, only
to freeze as the smaller Korbat asked, "Did she know who it was she was hiding?"
"Well... no," Darigan answered slowly, taking
a deep breath. He was about to go on when Mavural stated pointedly,
"And you aren't sure how to explain yourself
Darigan sighed. First everybody, then Kass,
and now possibly Sally. "I'm afraid I've developed an unpleasant talent for
estranging my friends," he confessed, eliciting a wry look from Mavural.
"All except the really stubborn ones. Does the
kid count as one of 'em?"
"That's what I wish I knew."
"And I suppose you expect the answer to fall
out of the sky while you sit here and hit you over the head like a- hey!" Mavural
glared at Darigan, whose patience for sitting around taking the poor end of
the argument had run out and whose spoon had descended out of the sky to swat
her lightly over the head. Brandishing her ladle, she warned him, "Mine's bigger."
It looked so funny, that tiny little Korbat
scowling defiantly into his eyes while displaying an age-stained wooden ladle
as a prospective weapon, that Darigan came very close to laughing at her. Fiery
old terror, no wonder she was his favorite. "I suppose you're about to advise
me to go straight down and have a talk with her."
"Good idea," Mavural answered solemnly, then
cleared her throat and began, "Lord Darigan, I think it would be best if you
went straight down there and-"
She lapsed into silence as the laughter to which
her threat with the ladle had given birth strengthened enough to escape, her
crusty demeanour softening as she watched her friend and leader laugh. It was
good to see him do that; it happened far too seldom. She waited until he was
finished, then said in a much softer tone than she had used for the rest of
the conversation, "Seriously, Your Highness, if you're going to do it at all
you shouldn't put it off too long. If she means enough to you to get you this
worried over what she thinks of you, you don't want to make her think she's
just an afterthought."
Darigan shook his head, the ghost of a smile
lingering on his face. "Mavural, one of these days your advice is going to get
me in trouble."
"Not half as much trouble as it'll get you out
of, I can tell you that much right now."
The Darigani ruler suppressed a fond sigh. Even
though Mavural could be a pain in every applicable part of the anatomy, there
was no denying that she was good to have around. Besides, in her further defense,
he had to admit that it would probably be difficult to hold any exaggerated
awe for a person whose diapers you had helped to change during his infancy.
Fond amusement warming his voice, he asked, "What would I do without your and
your hopeless lack of tact?"
The answer came without hesitation. "You'd starve.
And on that subject, you aren't going anywhere until you've finished that bowl
To be continued...