Caution: Quills may be sharp Circulation: 185,678,020 Issue: 281 | 2nd day of Running, Y9
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The Royal Meridell Garden Party: Part One


by freefalldreams

--------

To tell the truth, the morning hadn’t even started well. By breakfast time I knew it was going to be a bad day. The foster pets were acting up, our owner Freefall was in a bad mood, and perhaps worst of all, my little brother Karmapa, a striped Tuskaninny, had decided to use magic for everything, whether it was needed or not. I stared for a moment into the shell-bordered mirror that hung in our kitchen, and saw a tired Island Wocky looking back at me. Myself, Explorer Of Worlds. Tired, and it wasn’t even noon yet. I wished for a moment that I had never taught Karmapa magic...

     Well, too late for that now. “Let me do that!” I yelled as Freefall started slamming plates onto the table. “Let’s see... What do you all want?”

     “Baby Kougra Custard!” yelled Saffier, a young green Acara. The other foster pet, a blue Grarrl called Lee, yelled that he wanted an Olive Cupcake, while Karmapa, who was sitting in a corner fiddling with something on the floor, wanted his usual Neocrunch Cereal.

     “Sit down!” I said to Freefall, who looked likely to break something soon. “I’ll deal with it... What do you want?”

     Freefall muttered something that sounded like “Earl Grey Tea”. I sighed and put the kettle on.

     This would not be an easy day.

      ******

     And it wasn’t at all. I had finally gotten everyone’s breakfast on the table, fetched my magic staff and used it to lift Karmapa out of his corner and deposit him at his place at the table, and gotten everyone except Freefall eating and even she was happily slurping her tea. Then I realized I’d forgotten something very important, namely, my own breakfast. And I was hungry!

     By the time I’d made myself a cup of Phear Coffee and a bowl of Honey Nut Pebbles, Freefall was getting up again.

     “The mail?” Karmapa asked. “I’ll get it!” In a moment he had bounced his plump body to the front door, flung it open, waved his homemade wand... and yes, the mail did come flying in.

     Came flying in with such force that it knocked my cup and bowl out of my paws as I was about to put them down, sloshing cereal and coffee all across the table. Saffier screamed, Lee jumped backwards, Freefall muttered something under her breath as she grabbed at the letters, I yelled “You idiot!” at Karmapa... and Karmapa scooped up the mess with a wave of his wand and dumped it outside. It’s a pity that he couldn’t give me my breakfast back.

     I turned to sorting the mail. “These are from your friends, this looks like junk mail, this might be a fan letter...”

     “And this?” Freefall fished a large red envelope from her cup, which luckily was empty. “It’s addressed to Karmapa... How odd. Who would write to him?” She put it down as if afraid it might explode, which knowing Karmapa, it might.

     I picked it up, noticing that it bore the Meridell seal. “That’s strange...”

     “It’s mine!” Karmapa yelled, bouncing over and snatching it from me. I should count my blessings, I thought as he slit it open with a wave of his wand. He could have used magic to get it.

     “Care to help with the dishes, anyone?” Freefall asked. I hurried to help her.

      ******

     “So not only am I invited to the royal garden party, but I get to bring the lady of my choice too!” Karmapa was bursting with excitement. “That means you of course, dear sister.”

     Freefall grunted sceptically. “I don’t see why they’re doing a garden party in ‘celebration of the results of the Altador Cup’,” she said, rereading the letter as we sat at the table and I dried the dishes. “I mean, they lost!” She and Karmapa had rooted for Meridell in the Cup.

     I thought that was a good point, but Karmapa brushed it off. “You know what King Skarl’s like,” he said. “He’ll take any excuse to eat.”

     “Well...” Freefall bit her lip. “That leaves the million-neopoint question. What do you have to do with the Cup at all? I’m sure this wasn’t sent out at random!”

     Karmapa squirmed. “Well... Remember when we went to Altador?”

     “I won’t forget that soon!” Freefall snapped, and I agreed with her whole-heartedly. That trip had been a fiasco. Not only had we gotten lost in Faerieland and nearly gotten stuck in the portal, but when we arrived, we found we only had tickets for one match, which Meridell hadn’t even been in!

     “Well...” Karmapa stared down at the table. “You know the match that Meridell lost? I played on their team that time.”

     “What?” Me and Freefall said the word together, and Karmapa squirmed some more.

     “Well... almost. Their goalkeeper was sick, and they saw me fooling around with some other pets, and they asked if I’d be on the team... but they cancelled at the last moment. That’s why I got this, I guess...” He poked the letter.

     I could tell Freefall wasn’t buying this. “I don’t think we should go... I’ve been on the wrong side of King Skarl before, and I don’t want to again...”

     “It wouldn’t be you, anyway,” Karmapa answered with a shrug. “The letter only invites me and a lady. And Explorer’s the lady.”

     Freefall put her hands on her hips, not realizing how silly it looked sitting down. “I am not letting you two go gallivanting off, likely getting in fights, perhaps even getting thrown in the dungeons...”

     The doorbell rang and interrupted her. I hastily jumped up to get it. It was my best friend Violet and her little sister Melancholy.

     Violet is a boisterous Faerie Grundo. She was hovering a few inches off the ground and greeted me by hugging me so tightly that she lifted me off too. Melancholy, or Mel as we call her, is the opposite. She’s a cynical grey JubJub, with long, floppy grey fur that hangs in her eyes all the time.

     “Explorer, you won’t believe what I got in the mail!” Violet was saying. She rummaged into the oversized blue purse she wore, and fished out a red envelope with the Meridell seal on it.

     “What? You got it too!” Karmapa bounced across the table and landed next to us. “This is so great; we can go together...” He stopped at the bewildered look on Violet’s face.

     “I told you so, Vi!” Mel piped up. “I told you weren’t the only one!”

      ******

     It turned out that Violet had thought that she was the only one invited to the garden party, and as a good friend would, she had come to get me to go. Now she could take Mel instead, and Freefall was much happier with the thought of all of us going together. Another rereading of the letters showed that we had to show up today, so Violet and Mel went home to get ready, while I went looking for my best clothes and Karmapa went looking for our petpets. He said that he didn’t think anyone would mind them, even though they weren’t invited.

     Soon we were all sitting on the living room window seat. Karmapa had found the petpets, Condi, my Island Tasu, and Mistletoe, his Faerie Poppit, in the book cupboard, and I’d chosen what I thought we should wear. For me, I thought my best purple blouse would look good with a new grass skirt, and a pair of round sunglasses and my floppy beige hat would finish the outfit off quite well. For Karmapa... well, he always refused to wear what I wanted him to, so what was the point? I dumped all his clothes in front of him, and went upstairs with Condi to get ready.

     I looked pretty good already. Looking in my Blue Daisy Mirror, I admired my scrubbed-clean face and my well-brushed teeth, and decided I didn’t need any makeup. Instead I grabbed a bottle of suntan lotion just in case and went looking for my backpack.

     I couldn’t find it. Looking under the bed, I found a ink-soaked notebook, a bottle of ink, a ruler, a pencil and another notebook, a pencil case containing two pens... All the contents of my pack. But where was the pack? I was about to go downstairs and see if Karmapa had it, when he came bouncing up himself. His appearance pushed all thoughts of my pack out of my mind. Always the punk pet of the family, Karmapa’s idea of good clothes was to wear a torn shirt of a dingy brown color, with all the buttons missing. At least he’d washed up... But there was no way he could go to a royal garden party like that!

     We were still arguing when Violet and Mel came back with their petpets. Bloopy, Violet’s Bloop, gave a friendly wink from Violet’s shoulder, but Mel’s petpet, a very grumpy Snoogy named Somber, only made a face at us.

     Violet and Mel were opposites in dress as well as everything else. The kindest thing you could say about Violet was that she’d gone overboard, trying to make a jeweled collar, a flimsy white sundress, her bulging purse, and an absurd straw hat (with holes from which her antenna poked) look good together. Her wings shone, she wore green lipstick, and her eyes had been outlined with deep blue face paint.

     Mel always said she detested such foolishness, but even she had green lipstick smeared across her mouth and much of her fur. I also saw a few traces of blue paint in her otherwise well-groomed fur. I surveyed our party with some distaste, and decided that Karmapa’s shirt didn’t really matter. None of us were going to make much on an impression.

      ******

     We’d been given a long lecture by Freefall about how to behave, and now we were finally well on our way to Meridell! Our progress was slowed considerably by our varying modes of locomotion: I walked on my hind legs so as not to get my back paws tangled with my skirt and tail, Karmapa bounced along in a way I was sure he couldn’t have without magic, Condi and Somber trotted along behind us, Violet and Mistletoe flew a few feet off the ground, Bloopy rode on the wide brim of Violet’s hat, and Mel refused to walk at all and ended up being carried by her sister. We were constantly having to catch up with each other, but it was such a nice day I didn’t care.

     Soon I noticed that instead of going the normal way to Meridell, Violet was guiding us toward the river. “We’ll take the ferry; it’s much faster,” she said when I questioned her. I let it be. Violet usually knew best.

     Arriving at the river, we found the ferry very quickly. It was a small barge, on which an arrogant-looking green Eyrie stood, holding a long pole.

     “You’ll have to wait,” were his first words as we stepped on board. “I can only cross on a full load... unless you want to pay extra.” He smirked.

     Violet disagreed strongly, and dived gladly into an argument about what a full load was. Bored, I stared at the shore, hoping someone else would come soon. They did. As I watched, I saw a cloud Ruki charge over a hill, followed by an island Ogrin. For a moment I felt a thrill of excitement, as I saw that, like me, she walked on her hind legs... Then I saw she had a practical reason to. She pushed a baby carriage with one hoof, while the other tightly gripped a green Cybunny’s paw. A red Draik flew behind them, staring at the clouds. My heart sank. Just another tourist family... Would we have to share the ferry with all of them?

     We didn’t. When they got to the riverbank, the Ogrin shoved the baby carriage to the Cybunny, made the Draik take her paw, and giving them a stern look that reminded me of Freefall, warned, “Mid, you take them home at once! No fooling around, no running off, no letting them go on their own, understand?”

     The Draik muttered something that sounded like, “Yes, little sister.”

     The Ogrin took the Ruki’s arm, and together they stepped onto the ferry. Their presence settled the dispute about the price, and soon the Eyrie was untying the boat from its mooring. As he began to pole it away from the shore, a pair of tiny blue Aisha ears poked out of the baby carriage, and a small voice called out “Org’s going to the party!”

     That seemed to be a cue, for the Cybunny yelled, “She’s so plain they’d throw her out, but the guy she’s with is worse!”

      Then they chanted together, “Org and the bug! Org and the bug! Org and the bug!” and so on. The Draik said nothing, but did nothing to stop them.

     The Ogrin stared at them with fire in her eyes. “Don’t call me Org!” she yelled, again reminding me of Freefall.

     The Ruki patted her on the back. “Don’t get upset, Orgeena dear...”

     She turned on him, her teeth bared. “Kento, you know that I like to be called Geena!” she snarled. “I hate the first part of my name!”

     Kento hurried over to the Eyrie, and started to ask him about the boat.

      ******

     There was nowhere to sit on the boat except the floor, and I was tired. I sat down, and a moment later, Geena plopped down next to me.

     “Hi, it’s really nice to meet another Island pet!” she chattered happily. “I guess you heard that I’m Geena, what’s your name?”

     “Explorer,” I said. “I’m glad you’re in a better mood now...”

     “Yeah, well...” She laughed. “Kento’s right, I shouldn’t get upset. They’re just my brother and sisters... They can be so exasperating, though! Little Rai gets them going, and then... Sorry, you don’t need my troubles!”

     I laughed too. “I understand. That’s my little brother Karmapa over there,” I said, pointing at where Karmapa was peering over the side, “and he can be so much trouble... but he did let me come to the royal garden party with him.”

     “You’re coming too? You are so lucky!” Geena said, her eyes round. “I know that Mid would never invite me to go with him if he was invited! He’d probably invite my best friend, just to spite me! It’s a good thing Kento asked me...”

     “It was really nice of him to,” I said. “This is going to be a lot of fun!”

     “Yeah...” Geena frowned. “The weird thing is that I didn’t know him very well at all, but this morning he showed up and invited me to come... He really is sweet.”

     At that moment, a thick fog closed around us. Geena gasped and grabbed my paw, I shivered, Mel screamed, and the Eyrie calmly announced, “Heading through the mists of time right now; we’ll be in Meridell soon!” A moment later, the fog cleared, and we were nearing shore. I could just see the flag flying from the top of Meridell Castle. Soon we were stepping off the boat, and I felt a thrill of excited fear running down my back. We were here...

     Violet, carrying Mel and Bloopy, went ahead, and Karmapa, Kento, and Mistletoe followed them. It was left to me to carry Condi and Somber. However, Geena stayed behind with me and took Somber from my arms.

     “Are you a bit scared too?” she asked.

     “More than a bit,” I answered with a grin.

     We both laughed, and I had a feeling that I had a new friend.

      ******

     Our entrance across the castle drawbridge did nothing to reduce my nervousness. At a wave of invitations by Karmapa, Kento, and Violet, the guards escorted us straight to King Skarl’s throne room.

     “Your guests, your majesty,” they said, and left us there.

     “Welcome to my kingdom,” Skarl said loudly. I couldn’t believe my eyes... he was smiling! “I must say, you are quite a pack... but the more the merrier, as I always say! That reminds me, dinner should be soon... But your names?”

     Nobody wanted to be the first to speak. Kento looked even more scared then I felt, and Violet’s wings were trembling. Karmapa was shaking, but he bounced forward, bowed comically, and said, “Karmapa at your service, your majesty!”

     That broke the ice, and soon we were all introduced. Skarl looked over us, seeming to count us, and frowned. “I did not invite petpets... but never mind. The more the merrier! Guards!”

     That scared us, and again, Kento looked the most frightened. But all Skarl said was, “Show my guests to their chambers, and be quick about it! They must be ready for dinner!”

     “Um... could I ask a question?” I asked quickly.

     “Yes?” Skarl said.

     “Well... Why do we have chambers here? And why are we having dinner? Aren’t we here for the garden party?”

     Skarl stared at me for a long moment. Then, amazingly, he chuckled. “The garden party? The garden party, my dear lady, is tomorrow. You will stay the night here, attend the party, and leave the day after tomorrow. Now get ready for dinner!”

     I was horrified. We were staying this long? Freefall would be in a total panic by the time we got back. I could tell that Karmapa thought the same, and it was clear that Violet and Mel were thinking similar thoughts. Geena seemed nervous too. Only Kento was cheerful, whistling as we were led down hallways and up stairs. He was getting on my nerves.

      ******

     Our chambers were elaborate but cramped. The room we girls were given contained a table, two chairs, a curtained window, and one very large four-poster bed. “Where’s the other room?” Geena asked one of the guards indignantly, only to be answered by, “That’s more than big enough for the lot of you!”

     Geena flung herself disgustedly on the bed, while I opened the curtains and window to let some light and air into the room. Violet, meanwhile, plopped Mel down on one of the chairs and started pulling things out of her purse. First was a pear, which she shoved into Mel’s mouth. “I know you won’t like the food here, so eat that!” she said, and resumed her rummaging. “Where is this stuff?”

     I gawped as she removed a black hand mirror from the purse, followed by a compact of brown eye shadow, a green hair brush, a purple toothbrush, and yet another, fancier, green brush. The purse looked limp and saggy when she’d finished unloading it, and I started to understand why she always wore it. “Help yourselves, girls,” she said, “but the toothbrush is mine, so don’t touch it!” She grabbed the fancy brush and attacked Mel’s fur.

      ******

     The banquet hall of the castle was splendidly decorated with the Meridell colors, but, as Violet had predicted, Mel hated the food. It wasn’t exactly to my fancy either, hungry as I was! The meal started with large bowls of gruel and loaves of flat bread, which only Karmapa liked. Then Skarl entered, the tables were quickly cleared, and the fancy food came out. Since I don’t eat chicken and the main dish was Chicken Leg Surprise, I ended up trying to grab as much of the other dish, Aubergine Surprise, as I could. I wasn’t full yet when Skarl yawned and left. As soon as he was out the door, a sulky-looking red Mynci in servant’s clothes snatched my dish from me and dumped it into a bucket of trash he held.

     “I was eating that!” I protested angrily.

     “Keep eating then, I won’t stop you!” he said with an evil look, setting the disgusting bucket in front of me. “Eat then, eat!”

     Fuming, I stood up, and was about to leave hungry, when Karmapa bounced over the table and landed in front of the startled Mynci.

     “How dare you insult my sister?” he snarled. “Give her some edible food at once, or feel my wrath!”

     The Mynci, thinking he was joking, laughed. Karmapa flung himself at him, shouting, “You asked for it!”

     “Don’t start a fight, Karmapa!” I yelled, knowing that the easiest way to get on Karmapa’s bad side was to upset me. The little brat does love me.

     It was too late. Having knocked the servant down, Karmapa picked him up and was about do place him head-first in the bucket of trash. In a flash, the Mynci had yanked a bottle of green liquid out of his pocket and was pulling the cork off. Luckily Karmapa recognized it, having used Noxious Nectar himself before, and flung the Mynci away from him, toward the door, before any fumes or liquid could escape. That would have been the end of the fight, except that while the Mynci was still in flight, a trumpet sounded, the door opened, and King Skarl stepped back in... straight into the path of the flying servant. The Mynci banged into his head, and Noxious Nectar sloshed out of the bottle... straight into the king’s open mouth.

     The Mynci fell to the floor, moaning, and there was a moment of horrified silence... And then King Skarl fell too, into a silent heap of robes.

     Geena had her mouth open in shock, Kento looked as if he was about to be sick, Violet was crying so hard her makeup was running, but Mel was staring straight at Karmapa. I looked at him too, and our eyes locked.

     “Looks like I botched that one royally, Explorer,” he said.

     “Fyora save us, for only she can now!” I whispered.

      ******

     “I can’t believe we got out of there in one piece,” Karmapa said in wonder, looking at the stars from the top of the tower we stood on. “It’s a good thing Kayla had the antidote...”

     “And that someone had the sense to yell for her!” Mel piped up from the floor. “You could at least thank me...”

     I grinned wryly. I had thanked Mel more than once already, but she wanted more. Still, she had saved the day, screeching “Someone get Kayla right now!” as the banquet hall filled with screams and guards flooded in. Mel can sound very commanding when she screeches, and several guards obeyed her. Luckily, Kayla had been in the castle, and, as Karmapa said, had had an antidote for Noxious Nectar. Skarl was resting in bed, but would probably be well enough to be at the garden party tomorrow. Relieved, but still not wanting to be seen too much, we had made ourselves scarce. Except for Kento, who had gone to bed saying he had a headache, we all stood on this tower. Well, actually Violet and Mistletoe were flying on the other side of the parapet.

     “Excuse me?” asked a voice from behind us. “King Skarl would like to see you now.”

     I turned... and found myself looking at Jeran! My hero! Many a rainy day and cold winter’s night had been spent drawing him... or trying to. For unlike many of my friends, I was not gifted artistically. Still, at least I tried...

     “Hi, Sir Jeran!” Mel piped from the floor. “Explorer here is a great fan of yours!”

     I coughed and tried to say something, but couldn’t think of what to say.

     “Is that so?” Jeran asked in the kind of tone grown-ups always use for kids. To my horror, he then patted me on the head, even though, standing two legs as I was, I was nearly as tall as him... Well, not really. The tips of my ears just came to his shoulders. Still, I wasn’t a child!

     “Oh yes,” Mel was babbling on, “she always draws you. She has a book full of drawings of you...” She smirked. “Pity they all look like blue robot Slorgs... or is it Slugawoos?”

     I felt like crying. Mel always had to go and ruin everything...

     Karmapa spoke at just the right moment. “Excuse me, sir,” he asked, “you said the king wanted to see us?”

     Jeran nodded and grinned toothily. “I wouldn’t worry, though; he’s not going to lock you up or anything. Last I heard, he was talking about knighting you, furball.” He picked up Mel, laughing. “I think I put him off that one.”

     Scooping up Somber too, he said, “Come on, kids, I’ll show you the way.”

     I felt numb as we followed him down the dark stairs. So there it was. Kids. That was what he thought of us. And looking at the others heading down the stairs in front of me, I couldn’t help but admit that they were behaving rather childish. All except Geena, whose tall and skinny figure was just behind me. If only we could show Jeran that we weren’t like the others. Then he might think more of us...

      ******

     King Skarl had lost his good mood. “I demand to know how that servant got that bottle in here!” he was roaring to a frazzled-looking blue Yurble in fancy robes. “And get that thing out!” he shouted, pointing to a small Harris who was chewing on the leg of a chair. The Yurble scurried out, clutching the Harris.

     “Ah, here you are,” Skarl said, smiling again and leaning back against the large pile of Meridell-flag pillows behind him. “I have a debt of gratitude to you all, but most of all, to the Lady Melancholy. Without her good sense...” The unspoken words hung in the air and made us all very uncomfortable.

     “But I am grateful to all of you,” he went on. “Without your actions, that servant would have been able to keep a prohibited substance in the castle. Who knows what mischief might have come of it?” He sat up earnestly in bed. “You know, many have wanted to conquer this land, and many still do! Even more so now...”

     “Why, your majesty?” Geena asked.

     “Because of the Cup, of course!” Skarl snapped, getting into his old mood again.

     “The cup?” Karmapa asked in bewilderment.

     “The Altador Cup, of course!” Skarl snapped. “You should know how many were jealous of Meridell’s spectacular win! And I have heard that Darigan was the most so... So you can see the danger, I’m sure!”

     “Um, excuse me, your majesty, but Meridell didn’t...” Violet started to say, but I stepped on her foot, grabbed Mel, who was about to say something, and, shoving my hat into her mouth, quickly said, “Good night, your majesty, it’s high time we were in bed!” Then, with Geena’s help, I got everyone out the door before he could reply.

     “Why’d you do that?” Karmapa growled at me. “He may be king, but he’s cracked if he thinks that Meridell won!”

     “Exactly,” I said as I removed my hat from Mel’s mouth and prodded them further from Skarl’s door. “Clearly, that Noxious Nectar had some bad effects on his mind.”

     “But...” Karmapa started. Then he got it. I could tell from the look of despair in his eyes.

     “Yeah,” Geena said. “If the Grumpy Old King was bad, what about the Mad Old King? He’d probably have us tossed in the moat if we told him Meridell didn’t win!”

     It was on this unfortunate phrase that we walked straight into Jeran. It took me a moment to process that he, Jeran, knight of Meridell, had his arms filled with a large basket of food. I could just see the tops of a few tomatoes and what looked like a small pot of porridge.

     Karmapa laughed. “Been stealing from the kitchen, eh? Not quite what a knight should be doing, is it? But it’s so much fun...”

     I’ll give it to Jeran; he did manage to stay somewhat dignified. “This stuff wouldn’t be eaten anyway,” he said. “Skarl threw a tantrum and made the cooks get new food ready for the garden party. He said this made us look uncivilized... humph! Lollypops and sweets, that’s what they’re making down there now!” He extracted a bowl of Aubergine Surprise from the basket. “Yuck! Um... I mean, I didn’t know they threw this in. We’ve been eating it for weeks for some reason...” I tried to pretend my stomach wasn’t rumbling, but he heard. “Here, take it if you’re hungry!”

     I took the bowl gratefully from him, wondering if it would be rude to dig in right there. I really was hungry.

     “Listen, kids,” Jeran said, “there’s too much for me in here anyway. Why don’t we go back up on the tower and have a picnic?”

     His words were greeted with loud approval from our little group.

      ******

     “Ah... is that so? Pass the Smooshed Tomatoes, will you, Karmapa?” said Jeran, munching on some of the disgusting smoked fish none of the rest of us would touch.

     “You’re not listening to me!” I snapped, throwing my empty bowl onto the stone tower top. “I tell you, the king is insane!”

     “And why is that, my dear lady?” he asked patronizingly.

     “We told you,” Geena growled, “he thinks Meridell won the Altador Cup!”

     “So?” Jeran asked. “Everyone knows we did!”

     My jaw dropped, as did the Potato Stuffed Pepper I was about to bite into. “What in the world are you talking about?” I asked in shock. Was everyone mad around here?

     Jeran rolled his eyes. “I thought you lot were sane,” he said. “I guess the next thing you’ll tell me is that Darigan won?”

     “They didn’t,” Violet said. “Everyone knows the Haunted Woods did.”

     Jeran jumped up. “Look here,” he said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with you, but I can tell you that Meridell swept to victory in the Cup! So can anyone in the kingdom, for that matter...”

     “Excuse us, but which way is the bathroom?” The voice was meek, and belonged to a frightened-looking blue Wocky who was standing at the top of the stairs, a blue Lupe, Grundo, and Xweetok in tow. “We just got here; we’re going to the garden party tomorrow...” She stopped at the looks on the faces of Jeran and Karmapa.

     The look on Jeran’s face was one of annoyance. The one on Karmapa’s was glee of the kind that usually only came from his tricks. “Where are you from?” he barked at the frightened pets.

     “N... Ne... Neopia Central...” the Wocky stammered.

     Karmapa grinned wickedly. “Who won the Altador Cup?” he asked.

     “Haunted Woods, of course!” she said, sounding shocked at even being asked.

     “Good girl,” Karmapa said. “Go find your bathroom.” He was grinning as he looked at Jeran. “None of us ever saw those kids before. Yet they gave the same answer. Will you see sense now?”

     Jeran lay down on the rooftop, chewing on a chunk of raisin bread. “Yes,” he finally said. “It’s clear that where you came from, Haunted Woods won the Cup. Yet here, it’s just as clear that we did.” He sat up again, and his tone was grim. “We seem to be messing with something we don’t understand... probably magic.”

     “Stuff and nonsense!” Mel shouted.

     “Can’t you see reality?” Karmapa demanded.

     “Just miscommunication,” was Geena’s opinion.

     “You can’t have both won!” I put in.

     “Or maybe,” Violet said, “they can have.” We all stared at her. “Alternate worlds,” she said with a smile. “Isn’t that what you’re always talking about, Explorer?”

     It took a moment to absorb what she’d said. I believed in alternate universes, and liked imagining what they would be like. Never had I thought I would be in one. “But how did we get in here?” I demanded.

     “The mists of time,” Geena said. “On the ferry... I’d bet the other guests came that way too. The invites must have too...”

     “So instead of being in our Meridell, we’re in an alternate one?” Karmapa asked.

     “What’s worse, one that’s very incompatible with our world,” Violet said.

     Jeran stroked his whiskers. “I haven’t heard your words for it before, but I get what you’re saying,” he said. “And I have to say, this is not good. Come on, let’s go see Lisha; she’ll know what to do.” He got up and started stacking the remains of our picnic in the basket.

     “Stuff and nonsense!” muttered Mel.

      ******

     She was still muttering it as we headed downstairs. This time, however, Karmapa bounced just behind Jeran, with me following, all discussing the problem we were in. We were so engrossed in our discussion that we didn’t notice the pack of pets we were about to run into until we did, in fact, run into them. A huge pack of them... squealing Chias, tumbling JubJubs, giggling Usuls, and many more of all shapes, sizes, and colors. A green Lupe yelled, “There’s Jeran!” That was the cue for the entire pack to swarm around us, yelling, “Jeran! Jeran! Will you sign my toy sword? Can I shake your hand? I thought Kass beat you! How come you’re still around? Where’s Lisha?”

     Jeran sighed and muttered to us, “More guests. I’ll be worn out by the time this thing’s over.”

     Forming a tight formation with Jeran at our head, we started to push through the crowd. We’d nearly gotten through when I saw a very familiar cloud Ruki. Despite being wrapped in a black cape, he was clearly Kento!

     “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I whispered to Violet.

     “Yeah,” she said. “He’s up to something. Let’s follow him.” We slipped away into the crowd, and followed Kento. Down stairs, through passageways, and finally to a door that opened to outside the castle. There Kento stood with a purple Poogle, also dressed in a billowing black cloak. We stood in the shadows and listened.

     “Your plan messed up, Ray,” Kento said. “The messenger was dumb enough to be rude to a girl. Her brother blew up and threw him at Skarl, and the stuff went into his mouth.”

     “Skarl’s?” the Poogle called Ray asked. “So it worked!”

     “Nope,” Kento said. “This stupid screechy furball of a JubJub yelled for Kayla... and of course, Kayla saved the day.”

     “Right,” Ray said, handing Kento three bottles. “That means... plan B. Each of these has enough for two. Slip it into the drinks of the most important people at the garden party.”

     “Who?” Kento asked.

     “You chose,” Ray said with a shrug. “Just make sure Skarl gets a good dose...” The door slammed, and Kento turned back down the passage.

     Violet squeezed my paw, and I squeezed back. I wished Karmapa was here, but we’d have to do without him. Kento was near us now. Together, we leaped at him.

     “Ow!” he yelled as we landed on him. I heard a smashing sound as he hit the ground.

     “What are you playing at?” Violet shouted.

     “Trying to poison Skarl?” I shouted even louder.

     “Get off... not doing nothing... stupid girls!” he hissed. “Little spies...”

     “Better than you, traitor!” I growled. A sickening stench was rising from the puddle of green liquid we were fighting in. I recognized that smell from some of Karmapa’s experiments... the smell of Dr. Backwash! So that was what was in the bottles!

     “What’s that stink?” Geena’s voice came from further down the hall. Seconds later, she ran straight into us, with Jeran hot on her heels. They slipped in the puddle and landed on the floor next to us.

     The next thing I knew, Jeran was on his feet again and had pulled Kento up by his cape. “What were you up to, you little nuisance?” he growled. “It’s a good thing Geena here saw the young ladies following you...” He favoured us with a look little better then Kento had gotten. “I’d like to know what you thought you were doing.”

     “We thought he looked like he was up to something,” I said.

     “He met a Poogle at that door...” Violet went on.

     “...who gave him the bottles...” I continued.

     “...of Dr. Backwash!” Violet finished.

     “He was going to put it in your drinks at the garden party!” I yelled.

     “Just pipe down!” Kento shouted.

     “Pipe down yourself!” Jeran shouted even louder. Lowering his voice, he went on, “Violet, Explorer, explain yourself! Then Kento can do his explaining.”

     It took a long time (made even longer by Kento’s interruptions) to explain properly what had happened. Jeran was furious by the time we’d finished.

     “Explain yourself, traitor,” he snarled at Kento. “And you’d better tell all, or I’ll see that Skarl has you sent to the dungeons!”

     Much to my surprise, Kento laughed. “I’ll admit it,” he said, “that stuff would have been in your drink tomorrow, Sir Jeran. It wouldn’t have done any lasting harm, but the effects would have been... embarrassing.” He chuckled. “But it’s really your own fault, or at least that of the court. I assume you have discovered the discrepancy between who you think won the Altador Cup and who really did?”

     We all looked at him in shock. What did he know about that? “Go on,” Jeran growled.

     “I’ll tell you it bluntly,” Kento went on, “your court is a bunch of cowards. Meridell lost the Cup, and quite badly too. The courtiers were too afraid to tell Skarl, so someone came up with the idea of pretending Meridell was still winning wonderfully. They pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, including yours! It’s worked so far... but now that there’s a garden party...” He laughed loudly. “Old Skarl’s really going to be grumpy this time!”

     Jeran looked horrified. “So we really did lose?” he asked quietly.

     “Ask the Meridell team!” Kento said with another chuckle. “That is, if you can find them. They received orders to stay in Altador for good after they lost!”

     “Ok,” Geena said sharply. “What does that have to do with you wanting to slip nasty things into people’s drinks?”

     “I shall not speak,” Kento said, staring at the ceiling.

     “Fine by me,” Jeran said. “Just come along to the dungeons...”

     “Ok, ok, I’ll talk!” Kento said hurriedly. “You didn’t think Darigan would ignore a chance like this, did you?”

     “There’s a truce, kid,” Jeran growled. “I should know that!”

     Kento rolled his eyes. “I mean those of us who still agree with Kass’s ideas,” he said. “Ray and me are in a group that wants his kind of rule over the whole of Neopia. A good place to start is here, so we decided to use this party. I volunteered to be the secret agent, since I’d gotten myself an invite by hanging around with the team during the Cup. Ray’s the sneaky one, so she planned it all out...”

     “Spy games,” Violet muttered disgustedly.

     “Well, you’ve given yourself up now!” I said.

     “Not really.” Kento chuckled. “What are you going to do?”

     “Tell the king what’s been going on,” Jeran said, grabbing Kento’s arm and starting up the hallway.

     “And then what’s he going to do to you?” Kento asked calmly.

     Jeran stopped in his tracks. “Ah... er... um...”

     “You know what would happen if you told him now, at the last minute?” Kento said, grinning hugely. “You’d find yourself in the dungeons!”

     “Oh no...” Jeran muttered.

     “Fyora’s wings,” I whispered.

     “You little creep!” Geena shouted.

     “So what do we do?” Violet asked reasonably.

     Still smirking, Kento said, “Keep quiet. Keep the other guests as far from Skarl as possible. Wait until tomorrow, and just see what happens then. And by the way, don’t even think of sending me to the dungeons, or I’ll tell everyone.”

To be continued...

 
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