A Different Kind of Quest: Part One
Dry leaves scattered across the road, breaking the silence of the chill morning air. Madie pulled her sweater tighter and thought fondly of her warm fire and a hot cup of tea. She glanced impatiently up the line, which began at the door of the Neopian bakery and stretched all the way down the main street in Neopia Central. A tiny sign in the window explained the reason for the long queue in clear white font: "Help Wanted". She glanced at the sour-faced Scorchio standing in front of her as he clutched his application and craned his neck to see whether applicants were being allowed inside yet.
Several minutes later, the harassed-looking owner of the bakery finally hurried up to the bakery, and with a concerned glance at the increasing line, he unlocked the front door and beckoned to the first applicant to follow him inside.
Much to her displeasure, by the time Madie was brought inside for an interview the sun was high in the sky and the streets were crowded. It was still cold, and now her feet hurt, but inside the bakery it was warm and pleasant. She followed the baker to the back of the store, where she set her application down and quickly straightened her sweater. The baker looked amused as he read through her rather long list of previous jobs.
"Well, Madie, it looks as though you've held your share of jobs! But never for more than a month?"
Madie thought it suddenly felt much warmer as she stuttered to answer. "Er, well, you see... I haven't really found, you know, something I love yet."
"And do you think that you will love baking?" The baker gave her an intense look, which she tried to return without looking intimidated.
"Well, I don't really know, but I don't think I have to love it to be good at it. And besides, I bake at home sometimes and my food is actually rather –"
"Madie, I appreciate your honesty, but we are looking for a long time employee! I don't trust my best recipes with just anyone, and frankly, with your employment record and lack of experience, I don't think that you're what we're looking for."
If the baker had said the same thing a few months ago, Madie would have been surprised, but she found that it was not a shock at all. She just gave him a small smile and got up to leave.
"Madie, if I were you, I would take some time to think about what you really want to do. Instead of looking for any job you can find, maybe you should find one that you really love. Then I bet you will find you are able to stick with it for more than a month."
Madie walked out and thought about what the baker had said. It was true, she hadn't really thought about a job being more than just, well, a job. As she walked to catch a ferry back to Meridell, she tried her best not think about what the faeries at the Employment Agency would say when she had to tell them that she had lost another job opportunity.
* * * * *
Nadia stared at Madie, who was becoming increasingly impatient with her sister.
"Nadia, I can't handle another boring job! I can't stand to work somewhere else for a month until I'm fired! I have to do this for me; I need a break!"
"A break from what?" snapped Nadia. "You don't do anything! You work a few jobs and you just get bored of them! Maybe you should stop trying to find something that you like and just learn to like the next job you can get!"
Madie sighed. "I don't want to fight about this again. I really am happy for you that you love working at the Toy Shop, but I haven’t found anything I like yet, and I don’t think I should have to settle! At the very least, I want to travel a bit; I can't remember the last time I left Meridell for something other than a job interview."
Nadia finally smiled. "If you think that you need this, then I suppose you should go. I just don't want you to be disappointed when you don't find what you're looking for. Where are you thinking of going, anyway?"
"Well, I thought that since I'm looking for a little enlightenment for my career, maybe I would head to the smartest place in Neopia – Brightvale."
"Well, if you say so...” Nadia looked skeptical. “I don't see what's so great about Brightvale anyway! Meridell is just as good, and I bet our King Skarl has just as much good advice as that pompous King Hagan, but people don't notice because he isn't cheery all the time".
"That's an understatement!" Madie laughed. "He is the grumpiest person I've heard of! But maybe I will see if I can have a word with him before I leave Meridell. After all, he is the king, and I know he must love his job! Maybe he'll have something to say about that."
Nadia nodded. "And then you won't have to go to Brightvale at all. I know you can find everything you're looking for right here."
Madie wasn't so sure, but she packed up a small lunch and headed up to Meridell Castle anyway. Nadia could be incredibly stubborn, and it was easier just to make the short walk up to the castle than it was to argue about the original plan.
She followed the dirt road that led straight to King Skarl’s castle. A small moat circled the rough stone structure, and was crossed by a small and rather decrepit looking wooden bridge. Madie hurried over it while vaguely wondering how the bridge supported carts of goods and supplies, when she was stopped by a grumpy-looking guard.
“What brings you to Meridell Castle?” he asked, thrusting a spear to obstruct her path.
“I need to speak with the King. It won’t take long; it’s a simple question really.”
The guard regarded her for a moment, still looking grouchy. “The King is not in a good mood today. I suggest you either try to cheer him up or you go back home. Since you are not planning on telling a joke or performing a trick, I suggest you turn around now.”
"But I walked all the way up here!"
"You walked?!" laughed the guard. "Are you a Shoyru or not?"
Madie made an impatient noise. “I’m a plushie Shoyru; it’s a bit difficult to fly! Besides, the King is always grumpy, and it’s a quick question! It might even cheer him up to have someone ask for his advice.”
The guard seemed to be growing tired of talking with Madie, so he lifted his spear and waved her toward the inner chamber. It was a vast, cold, stone room with a few tapestries on the walls and a thin red carpet along the floor. King Skarl sat on a throne on a raised platform in the middle of the room, and didn’t seem to notice her come in. He was counting handfuls of gold coins.
Madie cleared her throat. King Skarl glanced up, and raised an eyebrow.
“Well?” he asked impatiently.
Madie bowed quickly.
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty. I had a small request for you on this fine day. I was hoping that you might give me some advice.” Her voice sounded small as it echoed throughout the large empty room.
There was an uncomfortable silence as the king regarded her with a lofty stare.
“Well, I will not deny that I have infinite knowledge about many things, and surely my advice is the greatest in the land. However, I do not seek to waste my golden nuggets of wisdom on such characters as yourself, a mere subject of my land! A minor peasant under my rule! An insignificant speck on the mighty tapestry that is my legacy!”
Madie fought to keep her mouth shut. She bit back several increasingly nasty retorts as she stared up at the King in disbelief. Yet despite what he had said, he still looked flattered to be asked for advice of any sort - something which, no matter what he claimed, Madie was sure was a rare event. She made up her mind to ask him anyway, since after all she had walked all this way.
“My King, I was hoping that you could impart to me some of your great wisdom, because you see, I am having some trouble deciding what I would like to do in my life.”
King Skarl appeared to be collecting his thoughts as he fidgeted with a single gold coin. Finally, after what appeared to have been a great amount of effort, he spoke.
“Well, you see, that is just the thing. The problem is that everyone recently is being told they can be anything they want to be! Well, I say that’s a load of dung. I know better than anybody that everyone has limits as well as potentials! It isn’t true to say that you can be anything you want, because you can’t, or else you wouldn’t be standing here wasting my time, you would already be doing it. The fact is that you must understand what you are capable of doing - and judging by the looks of things that isn’t too much - and then you can decide what you will be able to do well and enjoy. That’s what you should do.”
Madie bowed herself out of the chamber as quickly as she could. She could feel herself glowing hot with anger. Who was he to tell her that she had limits? She knew this was a huge waste of time after all, and she was never listening to Nadia again. Everything the King had said was a load of rubbish, she thought bitterly. Madie hurried back to the road and headed out of Meridell toward Brightvale, still seething over the King’s words.
The day grew hotter, and the sun was high in the sky by the time Madie neared the edge of Meridell. She remembered the sandwich she had packed for lunch, and began looking around for a place to stop in for a while out of the sun. Just ahead was a rather inviting clump of trees, and Madie hurried over, plopping down gratefully in the shade they provided.
She was just about to pull out her sandwich when a small noise behind her made her jump. Madie was shocked to see Illusen, out of her glade on a midday stroll. She had always heard tales of the faerie, but she had never met her before, and she was suddenly keenly embarrassed by her own sodden appearance.
Illusen gave her a gentle smile, and to Madie’s surprise she sat down against a tree across from where Madie was sitting.
“It’s a nice day for a walk, isn’t it? Where are you headed, little Shoyru?”
Madie felt herself blush, and hurried to reply.
“I - I was going to Brightvale; I just stopped for some lunch,” she stammered.
Illusen continued to regard her with a calm smile.
“Now why would you think of leaving fair Meridell? Does it not offer everything you seek?”
“Well, er, no,” Madie began. “I was hoping to speak to King Hagan... about one thing in particular, actually. I was hoping he could give me some advice about my job - or lack thereof, as it is.”
Illusen paused for a moment and then looked up at the sky.
“Ah, yes. I gather you are not happy where you are then? And I also gather that you have not thought to ask all who could help before you leave Meridell...”
Madie felt her embarrassment mount as she grasped the meaning of Illusen’s words.
“Oh! I didn’t think that you wanted to be bothered! I mean, not that the King wants to be bothered, but I didn’t really know where to find you, and -”
Illusen gave a kind chuckle. “I understand. Although you may have heard that I am well known for giving Neopets a certain form of employment? My own special jobs, really. And though you didn’t ask yet, I am willing to give you a bit of advice, of sorts. A simple question - Are you sure you want others to tell you what to do? Wouldn’t you rather find out for yourself?”
Madie felt the color rise in her cheeks. “I don’t want people to tell me what to do, I just wanted a bit of advice on how to avoid making even more mistakes! I feel like I’ve made too many for one Neopet...”
“Ah, mistakes,” Illusen said calmly. “They are not nearly as bad as some would have you believe. I only grieve over my mistakes for whatever pain they have caused others, but usually it is minimal. Mistakes usually cause the worst pain to those who make them, as they tend to feel the weight of guilt long after the fact. I would urge you not to worry over them, but to learn what you can from them.”
“You’ve made mistakes?” Madie interjected before she could stop herself. She simply could not believe that one of the greatest faeries in Neopia was admitting to her mistakes.
Illusen only gave an elusive smile as she rose from her seat on the forest floor.
“I have made my share of mistakes, yes. I don’t think there is any need to elaborate, except to say that if I do not regret them - and I assure you they are infinitely worse than any mistakes you could make at your previous jobs - then you shouldn’t worry yourself over yours.”
Illusen gave one final smile, and she strolled away into the depths of the forest again. Madie could hardly believe what had happened, and she sat in silence for quite some time....
To be continued...