Vanity: Part Four
As they entered the grand hall that night, Andrea tried not to focus on the Beekadoodles in her stomach nor the wonder she felt at being in so extravagant a place, but instead on the other guests. Some looked very hot and uncomfortable and Andrea was soon glad that she had worn the clothes she had. The guests that had worn excessive clothes were now not looking as refined as they surely had that morning, after traipsing through the grass and the streets filled with other pets.
Andrea and Chastings were seated at one of the huge gold tables in the dining hall and Andrea had no sooner taken a drink of water when someone tapped her on the left shoulder.
“Hey, you’re that Acara that saved the food shop in Neopia Central, aren’t you?” asked the Red Cybunny sitting next to her.
“Oh,” Andrea was surprised and embarrassed at having been recognized. “Well, yes, I suppose I am.”
“Hey,” he whispered to the Brown Lupe and Blue Cybunny sitting across the table, rudely cutting off their conversation.
“What is it?” the Cybunny asked, irritated.
“I’m sitting next to the girl who saved the Neopia Central food shop.” He looked very proud.
The Cybunny shifted her gaze to Andrea. Andrea blushed, embarrassed at all the attention she was suddenly receiving. Everyone at her end of the table had their eyes on her. “How wonderful to meet you. Andrea, right?” she said, shaking Andrea’s paw across her husband. “I’m Malla. That was a brave thing you did. And I can see why you’re winning so many votes in the beauty contest. If I may say so, you’re a very charming young lady.”
“Thank you,” Andrea managed weakly.
“Did you know that some people are blaming her for the awful thunderstorm in Neopia Central yesterday?” asked the Cloud Quiggle sitting across from Dante, as if Andrea wasn’t there. “They say that she has magical powers.”
“What nonsense,” Malla and Chastings both said at once, laughing at the coincidence.
“I’ve known Andrea only a few days,” said Chastings, “but I can guarantee anyone here that the only magic she has is a kind spirit and a quick mind.”
“Besides,” the Red Cybunny pointed out, “I heard the lightning was following her. If she created the storm, why would she have had to run from the lightning?”
The Quiggle only muttered to himself and took a drink of water.
“Excuse me,” Andrea said. She couldn’t stand all of them talking about her like she wasn’t there. She felt extremely flattered that anyone would stand up for her, but slightly insulted as well because no one had included her in a conversation about herself. She stood and made her way to a balcony to get some fresh air.
Standing with her paws on the railing of the balcony, Andrea watched the setting sun. She wasn’t as taken with its beauty as she might have been because she was busy thinking hard about all that had happened over the last few days. Her mouth watered as she smelled the food the kitchen was preparing nearby, breaking her from her thoughts. She noticed a somehow familiar form on the other end of the balcony and turned to look.
“Sarah!” She ran over to her sister who was leaning on the railing, looking down at the ground as though she was contemplating jumping. “Isn’t this palace beautiful? ...Sarah, are you all right? You look strange.”
“I’m all right,” Sarah said distantly, never taking her eyes off their fixed point on the ground.
“Sarah.” Andrea turned her by the shoulders so she could see her face. She saw that her sister’s eyes were hollow and dark, as if someone had drowned the spark that usually dwelled there. “Are you coming down with something?” Andrea asked, putting a paw on her sister’s forehead in concern.
“Stay away,” Sarah snarled, smacking her sister’s paw away. “I wouldn’t want a heroine’s paw to touch someone like me,” she said sarcastically.
“What are you talking about? Come on, I’m sure there’s an infirmary in the palace somewhere. I really don’t think you’re feeling well.”
An all too familiar rumbling shook the castle. “Oh, no,” Andrea pleaded, face turned toward the sky. She froze in terror for an instant as she watched the storm clouds roll in. “Sarah, take my paw. We need to run. Now.” She wildly grabbed for her sister’s paw, but Sarah swung it out of reach. Instead of running, she returned to the railing, raising her arms to the sky and the raindrops that were just beginning to fall.
“Sarah!” Andrea screamed, moisture running down her face either from tears or rain or both. The air seemed to laugh at her as she tried to drag her sister back to the dining hall. “I’m not leaving without you,” she told her sister.
“That’s good to hear,” said a gravelly voice behind her. She jumped and slowly turned to look evil in the eye. The ugliest dark faerie Andrea had ever seen, even in picture books, stood calmly between the two Acaras and the door to the dining hall. Her face was deeply creased with wrinkles, her nose was bent as if it had been broken, and her yellow eyes were bloodshot with thick red lines. Andrea, in a moment of pure adrenaline, made a rush for the door, but the faerie only laughed as it closed and locked behind her. Without any effort at all, she knocked Andrea back against the railing.
“Maltrina,” Sarah said in awe, on her knees with her head bent.
“Yes,” the faerie said coming closer to Sarah and lifting her chin with one long, purple finger.
“Forgive me,” said Sarah hesitantly, doing her best to not look at Maltrina, “but I was beginning to think you would never come.” Her voice sounded broken and emotionless.
Maltrina released Sarah’s chin as Andrea faced the situation with newfound horror.
“I’m surprised, Sarah,” Maltrina said, sounding as though she really wasn’t. “I told you I would destroy your sister.” She smiled at Andrea, who thought her heart was going to pound right out of her chest. Sarah wanted her destroyed? Her stomach climbed into her throat as she struggled not to let the tears of betrayal slide down her face.
“I always do what I say I will,” Maltrina continued, “especially when you give me a gift as beautiful as that comb.” She whipped the precious treasure from somewhere in her long, flowing robes just long enough for Sarah to see. Andrea watched her sister’s eyes fill with hope for one instant before Maltrina shoved the comb back into her robes. Sarah dropped her head again and Andrea was surprised to still find pity for her sister when her body began to shake with grief.
“But...” Maltrina’s raspy voice sounded like it had been covered with honey as she turned her stone cold gaze to Andrea. “I can see why you’re winning so many votes in the beauty contest. If I may say so, you’re a very charming young lady.” She arched her brow, and Andrea’s stomach turned cold in realization.
Maltrina whirled back around to face Sarah, her voice dropping back into its rasp. “You never told me that your sister was prettier than you.”
When Sarah lifted her face to Maltrina, Andrea could see the deep hurt in her eyes. “She is not,” she managed to choke out.
“What’s that?” Maltrina snapped.
“She is not prettier than me,” Sarah said, her voice still emotionless but stronger. Though she was still on her knees, she kept a steady, defiant gaze on Maltrina.
“Insolent!” Maltrina shouted, kicking Sarah hard in the side. With a soft oof Sarah was down, holding her side in pain.
Andrea stole a quick glance at the door. She could see the contestants eating inside. If she could just get through that door, she might be safe and she could come back for Sarah once she found some help. Andrea didn’t know why she still wanted to help Sarah after she had sought help from a dark faerie to destroy her own sister, but she did.
“Don’t even think about it,” Maltrina said threateningly, seeing Andrea staring at the door. “I’ll put you out quicker than you can take one step.
“And it’s not going to matter,” Maltrina said with a deranged lilt in her voice, stepping closer to Sarah, who cringed at the presence of her foot, “which of you is prettier. Because in a matter of seconds neither of you will be a sight to behold ever again. Get over there by your sister,” she ordered Sarah, threatening to kick her again.
Once the two were huddled in a small section of the balcony, Maltrina muttered a few words, closed her eyes, and threw her head back. Andrea’s vision got hazy. It was if she was trying to look through minestrone soup. The last thing she heard before she lost consciousness altogether was Maltrina clucking her tongue and saying, “Jealousy is never beautiful, my dear. Let’s see either of you win a beauty contest now! Oh, and here’s your comb, to remind you of how beautiful you once were.” Andrea heard Maltrina cackle and saw the comb fly at Sarah’s head. The last thing she saw before her mind went dim was the faerie’s wrinkles smoothing, her eyes turning to a sparkling lavender color, and her nose straightening out. Had she been able, she would have gasped at Maltrina’s sudden transformation to astounding beauty. Then her world went dark.
* * *
Andrea awoke to the balcony doors being thrust open. She tried to stand up to greet her rescuers, but her head hurt so much she had to lie back down.
“Andrea?” Chastings asked, his eyes full of tears.
“Yes,” she answered weakly. The doors swung shut and she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass. Her head looked like a cauliflower. Large bumps had sprouted all over it. She stared into bulbous yellow eyes with thick black circles encircling them. Her bottom jaw didn’t meet up with the top one, and her teeth had quadrupled in size. Gasping and screaming, she scrambled to a sitting position.
“Andrea,” Chastings prodded, trying to uncover her paws from her face.
“Don’t look at me!” she screamed at the top of her lungs and slapped his hooves away. “Don’t look at me!” She slumped over, putting her mangled face on the cool stone of the balcony, letting the sobs rack her body.
“What’s going on?” Sarah asked as she came to. “I have an awful headache and--” Andrea heard her scream as she saw her reflection in the window.
* * *
“Good morning.” Andrea heard Chastings’s voice and his sharp rapping on her door. He had been at the house most of the last three days, making sure both Andrea and Sarah were all right, cooking food and singing songs at the top of his lungs, something Andrea never thought he would do.
“Time to get up.” He rapped on her bedroom door again and then she could hear his hooves clicking against the floor as he made his way to Sarah’s door. The first day, Andrea hadn’t wanted to get up and face the daylight. Now she still didn’t want to go outside, but she could get up in the morning and eat. As hard as she and Chastings tried to get Sarah to eat something, no food had passed her lips in three days. She spent hours feeling her face with her paws and crying and she barely spoke. Andrea knew if it wasn’t for Chastings, Sarah might have crawled into bed and never gotten out.
“Well, she’s talking today,” Chastings announced as Sarah stepped into the hall. “But she’s certainly not pleasant. And she’s refusing to get out of bed.”
“Let me try,” Andrea said. She hadn’t even attempted to speak to her sister since they had come home.
“Sarah?” Her heart went out to the dirty lump that was her sister lying in the bed in front of her. “It’s time to wake up. And I think you should get a bath.” True as it was, she said the last part as gently as possible.
“There’s no point,” Sarah mumbled into her pillow. “You don’t understand. I’m ugly.” Andrea noticed that her pillow was sopping wet, just as it had been since they had come home from Brightvale.
“Sarah, I look the same as you.”
“I know, but--” Sarah’s voice broke into sobs. She grabbed a nearby pillow and put it over her face.
Andrea left her alone and went downstairs to sit on their couch. She could hear Chastings’ boisterous voice coming from the kitchen. She felt the bumps on her head and face with her paws and felt the resentment rise in her chest and esophagus like someone was boiling water in her stomach and the steam was trying to escape. She let a single tear slip down her cheek to relieve a little of the pressure.
The sweet, rich smell of waffles hit her nose and she wiped the tear away.
“Should we get Sarah?” Andrea asked as she took her spot at the table and watched Chastings put the finishing touches on breakfast.
“Let her alone for now. I have something to talk to you about.” Chastings brought a platter of waffles and two plates to the table and sat down.
“You look really silly in that apron,” Andrea teased him.
“Thanks, that’s what I was going for.” Andrea liked the way he still looked straight at her when they spoke. Those who had seen her in the last few days, including Sarah, had averted their eyes completely or looked just beyond her face. “But in all seriousness, I have something to show you.” He pulled out the latest copy of the Neopian Times, flipped to a specific page, and handed it to her.
Andrea looked at the page for a minute. “You beat out the other Ogrins in the beauty contest! Congratulations!”
Chastings smiled back, but it was a wan smile. “Don’t think I gave you this as a cruel joke.”
“No, that’s wonderful.” She put her paw on his hoof.
“I wanted you to know because I want you to have my trophy.”
Andrea searched his eyes, certain he was making a joke. But his expression never changed from the serious line his mouth made across his face.
“What would I do with a beauty contest trophy?” Andrea asked, her voice wavering with shock. “Put it next to my lipstick?”
Chastings’s expression didn’t change and he didn’t say a word.
“Look,” Andrea said, “you won that trophy. You deserve it. What would happen if the public found out you gave your trophy to me? You know they’re saying I’m evil, cursed by the dark faeries or some such nonsense. You’d never win another beauty contest.”
“You’re the most beautiful pet I’ve met. The kind of beautiful that actually deserves to win contests. I’m done with beauty contests. I’ve decided to go work at the Kadoatery or the Soup Kitchen. Someone showed me what’s important.” He locked his eyes on hers, and she had to look away, blushing. “Take the trophy. It would make me very happy if you did.”
A prickling in her nose warned Andrea that tears were on their way. She nodded her consent.
When Andrea went back into Sarah’s room after Chastings left, she found her sister sitting on the side of the bed, combing her fur. The comb’s gems sparkled more brilliantly now that they were wet with Sarah’s tears.
Sarah turned around when she heard Andrea walking toward her. Andrea couldn’t tell if her bloated eyes were mainly from disfigurement or from crying.
“I know it sounds stupid,” Sarah said, putting the comb in her lap, “but I thought maybe if I brushed my fur with this beautiful comb, I would become beautiful again, too. Now I’m thinking this comb just makes me look even uglier.”
Andrea laughed in spite of herself. “You know, I thought that the first time I saw it. I thought that the comb was prettier than me. I guess I don’t have to guess now.”
Finally it clicked in her mind--her disfigurement was permanent and she would always look like some kind of Mutant pet. Her brain felt like it had shrunk to the size of a voidberry. She wavered and sat down on the end of her sister’s bed, afraid of falling over. The tears pricked at her eyes. Her whole head felt warm. She let one drop fall. Then another. Then another, until she was sobbing with her paws over her eyes.
“Andrea.” Sarah’s arms were around her, rocking her back and forth. Andrea threw her arms around Sarah’s neck and cried into her matted purple fur. Sarah’s breath was hot in Andrea’s ear as she whispered, “I’m sorry. Oh, Andrea, I’m sorry. What happened to me?”
Sarah grabbed the beautiful comb from where she had dropped it next to her pillow and ran it through the fur on Andrea’s head. “I deserve to look like this,” she whispered almost to herself. “But you don’t.”
Andrea hugged her sister tightly. “You don’t, either.” Her head felt like there was a hammer pounding right between her eyes. “I have a headache again.” She clutched at her head, feeling faint and noticing that Sarah looked a little pale as well. “It hasn’t been this bad since--” She didn’t want to bring up that night. “Mind if I lie down?”
“I think I will too,” Sarah said. “My head is killing me all of a sudden.”
“Andrea?” She heard Chastings’s worried voice echoing through the house. The morning sun was streaming through Sarah’s curtained windows. Andrea uncurled herself and crawled off the bed. She saw Sarah’s greasy, matted fur poking out from under the covers and vowed she would get Sarah to take a bath that day.
“In here,” she said, rubbing her eyes. Her voice groggy and quiet, but Chastings came running from where he had been looking for her downstairs.
“Thank goodness. I thought something might be wrong and I--” Andrea watched as his expression went from worried to shocked to joyful. His mouth and eyes opened wide as he stared at her.
“What?” she asked when his gaze become uncomfortable.
“You don’t know?”
When she shook her head, he steered her toward the bathroom and uncovered the mirror. “What did you do that--” She stopped short when she saw herself in the mirror. She patted her head and blinked her eyes hard to make sure it was true. “I’m back to normal!” she shrieked and bounded down the hall toward Sarah’s room.
Andrea inched close to her sister, looking for bumps on her head. When she saw her head was back to its perfect roundness, she screeched again, waking Sarah up.
“Andrea, honestly, I’m tired and--”
Andrea looked down at her, grinning. Sarah took in her sister’s appearance and fell out of bed. She got up and scrambled down the hall to the bathroom, where she shouted in delight.
Andrea and Chastings exchanged a glance, smiling at each other. “I don’t even know how this happened,” she said, feeling her face and taking pleasure in it for the first time, certainly in days and maybe for the first time in her life.
“You and Sarah seem on better terms today.” Chastings was looking at her with one eyebrow arched.
“We came to some sort of understanding last night. She said she was sorry, and I’m working on forgiving her.” Andrea smiled as she heard the bathroom door close and lock.
“I’m glad she’s not jealous of you anymore.” Chastings’s voice was completely normal, like he’d just given her the time or weather.
Andrea couldn’t stop the snort that came out of her nose. “Jealous? Of me? Please. I’m just glad she’s stopped talking down to me.”
“Whatever you want to think. I’ve got to go right now, but I’ll see you later.” He flashed her a grin and ran out of the house.
Andrea went into her own room and sat on her bed. “Jealous of me?” she whispered to her kite collection.
“Sarah, are you almost done?” Andrea knocked on the white door of the bathroom.
The bathroom door swung open and Andrea saw Sarah standing in front of the mirror, freshly bathed and brushing her teeth. “Come on in,” she said over her mouthful of toothpaste.
“Thanks,” Andrea said, grabbing her brush off the top of the sink and pulling it through her fur. She hadn’t stood in front of the mirror next to her sister since they were small, but it didn’t feel strange or uncomfortable.
The shiny wooden box caught her eye. It was sitting on the shelf next to the mirror that both sisters put their bath products on. She knew without asking that the comb was in the box.
“Hey, question for you,” Andrea said, squeezing toothpaste onto her brush.
“What’s that?” Sarah asked, combing her own fur with a cheap comb.
“Could you show me how to put on lipstick?”