The Mutant Prince: Part Nine
Chapter Nine: Revelations
Tarquinn de Quincy returned to Basile's house the moment the grandfather clock in the corner of the sitting room began to ring, signalling the time for lunch. Lella had made a simple but delicious meal of chicken pot pie and mashed potatoes with gravy (this time Basile did not claim she was interfering), and after it was silently eaten by all, Tarquinn was questioned on his meeting with Leywark. The prince recounted the meeting with a disinterested and tired air; in reality he remained vague because he was harried by his own thoughts, too nervous about tomorrow to be able to think of aught else. Was this wretched curse, this nightmarish situation, really about to end? Would Leywark's cure work, and would his life to return to blessed normality? The Krawk had seemed sincere and very self-assured, but Tarquinn could not bear to put his whole trust in him. He would not be happy until he was himself again. If he allowed himself to believe that everything would be fine now, and he was still cruelly disappointed in the end, he would surely go insane from the anguish. His heart could not take the sudden rise and subsequent shattering of hope.
Feigning exhaustion, Tarquinn announced that he would take a nap in the afternoon. Basile immediately led the way to a narrow unused guestroom on the first floor. He dusted off the furniture, caught all the Spyders in the dark corners and tossed them out the window. Then he fluffed the pillows and shook the dust off the covers.
"Thank you," Tarquinn said to the Wocky and waited for him to quit the room before he fell face-down onto the mattress and sighed, full of distressing thoughts.
Basile walked downstairs and reentered the sitting room where Lella and Philippe were relaxing. The three spent the early hours of the afternoon mostly silent, sometimes conversing about idle things such as the weather and the neighborhood. Once, Lella and Basile held a lengthy discussion about the proper upkeep of houses and the correct ways to use feather dusters and brooms. Philippe fell asleep at this, and afterwards Lella and Basile spoke no more. Hours later a sudden loud knocking broke the heavy silence.
Basile raised his eyes, his expression fearfully strained. Lella stood up to get the door, but Basile held out a hand to keep her where she was. "I will see who it is."
He crossed the room and unlocked the door. Slowly, he turned the doorknob and peeked outside. His face grew pallid as a familiar voice spoke in a tone of despair: "Basile, may I come in? May I ask you a favour? I'm in a desperate predicament."
The grey Kyrii met early that morning stepped inside, his arms full of cloth, a long line of tangled measuring tape hanging off his shoulder. He sighed, not noticing Lella and Philippe at all. "These suits -- I'm so terribly behind schedule. I don't know how I will finish them all by tomorrow. Please, Basile, can you help me with them?"
Basile bit his lip fretfully and for a long while just stood in place. Then, he slowly bowed his head and closed the door. He shot a quick glance at the distant staircase, but the prince was still in the guest room, out of sight and earshot. "All right..." Basile replied shakily, sitting down on the couch.
"You have guests still?" the Kyrii said, taking note of Lella and Philippe finally. "I didn't know... I don't mean to intrude, Basile, if you're busy."
"No," Basile said impatiently. "Stay here. This is Lella, and this is Philippe. They're... foreign acquaintances."
The Kyrii smiled weakly at them. "My pleasure. My name is Absolon Harcourt."
"Ok! So what do you need?" Basile said, squirming uncomfortably.
Absolon slumped down into a seat nearest the coffee table and onto it he piled all the fabric. He explained his unfortunate situation: the strict order to be completed for tomorrow, and how he had foolishly fallen asleep that morning after buying the cloth for the suits. He had been exhausted after three whole days of constant work at the textile factory -- he couldn't help himself. He had tried to stay awake, but failed... And now, as a result, he was horribly behind schedule. It was physically impossible to finish three suits from scratch in less than a day, and his only hope was that maybe together they could succeed. This explanation left Lella and Philippe very much stunned, and Basile rubbed his forehead, muttering, "Oh, this will not go over well..."
"You... " Lella looked from Basile to Absolon. "You said you work at the textile factory?"
Absolon nodded gloomily, gazing at an indistinct spot before him.
"And..." Lella suddenly felt a shocking rush of understanding, the rush one feels after discovering the correct places where all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit. "Basile, is he the one you spoke of -- the former owner of the factory?"
Basile clenched his teeth and sighed. "Yes, yes, oh... it is useless to deny. Absolon, my good friend, is my former master. I was a butler at his mansion -- oh, how beautiful it was then -- till that scum, Leywark, stripped him of everything he owned."
Absolon looked up slowly at this emotional pronouncement. He appeared incapable of any intense feeling; he was consistently gloomy and dull-eyed, deadened by what seemed a lifetime of sorrow and turmoil. Lella and Philippe stared at him in amazement, and Lella, who had earlier unwittingly disparaged Absolon, now felt the greatest sympathy towards him.
"I can help you finish these suits" was the only thing she could say in her stunned state. "I am an excellent seamstress."
"I think I could assist you, too," Philippe added. "I make most of my clothes myself, anyway."
Absolon gazed thoughtfully at the two volunteers, but whether he was surprised or pleased one could not judge. He said simply: "It would be wonderful if you could help."
Lella smiled and got up. She looked down at the mess of cloth on the table and asked, "Who are these suits for?"
Basile and Absolon exchanged inscrutable glances, and Absolon replied: "For that beastly fellow, Gracien Morvay. I cannot be late with his order; he promised some of my debt would be relieved if I finished the suits decently."
Tarquinn still lay on the bed upstairs, motionless, eyes closed. Surprisingly, he had managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours, but had awoken at an alarming dream that he could not remember. Now, he just listened to the quiet ticking of a cuckoo clock hanging above the doorframe, and tried not to think about anything. Silly hope, it was impossible to empty his mind and relax. The prince waited for the seconds to pass. He was at the edge of cracking up, but he would survive until tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow, he thought in a maddening monotone.
Voices from downstairs made Tarquinn raise his head and look towards the closed door. He thought he could hear Basile's gruff voice, and maybe Philippe's chatter. The prince leaned onto his side and then lackadaisically fell onto his back. Once again, vexing irresistible thoughts seized him. He recalled the conversation with Leywark for the dozenth time -- each of the Krawk's words, his grinning face and smooth tone. The dark parlour rose high about them, and Tarquinn shuddered as he pictured the mansion again, saw it looming over his head as he stood by its tall spiked gates. After an hour spent ruminating on the mansion, trying to come to terms with the odd connections it held with his peculiar dreams, Tarquinn had guessed that maybe his dreams were not really dreams at all, but memories of long, long ago -- before King Hagan, before Lella, before Brightvale. It was hard to imagine that something had existed before Brightvale, for life in the shining castle of the King was all he knew. Certainly, he had been told years earlier of how he had come to be a Brightvalian prince. Lella had kindly explained to him how she had found him as a young child in Neopia Central in early spring, completely unguarded from the chilly weather, by the Money Tree.
Tarquinn knew the whole story; he had heard it from many sources. His adoption by King Hagan -- the lonely, aging, stern King Hagan -- was still frequently told by the townsfolk as though it were some sort of faerie tale. Why Tarquinn had so touched Hagan he did not know. The King had never treated him with anything but grave respect; he gave Tarquinn many responsibilities and spoke to him as an intelligent and capable adult. Tarquinn had no say in how he wanted his life run -- as the First Prince his education was under constant and careful watch. He was taught all the scholarly subjects and a bevy of extra activities. He had to learn how to fence, how to dance, how to play a musical instrument, and how to speak and act correctly to all the differently ranked subjects of the kingdom. Nothing less than the mastery of all the aforementioned was acceptable for a future King of Brightvale. When Tarquinn was old enough, Hagan furthered his education himself, detailing him about the intricacies of proper government, typically using Meridell as an example of everything not to do. Many believed that Hagan heartlessly wanted to train and mold Tarquinn to be the most intelligent, most illustrious and talented individual in Brightvale just so that when he (Hagan) was upon his death, he would have the satisfaction of knowing that his son would fulfill all his designs and keep his brother's ignorant land in Brightvale's shadow -- right where it was meant to be.
Tarquinn did not resist his father's plans because he knew the King was not only concerned with his personal quarrel with Skarl. King Hagan really did love his son, otherwise Tarquinn would not have a life's worth of wonderful memories of them together: watching Brightvale's Yooyuball team practice for the Altador Cup, taking trips and excursions to the most beautiful points of the kingdom, enjoying a peaceful winter's night by the grand fireplace reading an intensely intellectual dissertation on medieval government and economy and discussing the main points thereof... It was true, Tarquinn remembered the fatherly delight in the old Skeith's eyes when first he saw his son defeat an opponent in swordplay, and Tarquinn knew that -- more than anything else -- King Hagan gave him these loads of responsibilities and lessons because he loved Tarquinn and wanted him to feel proud of himself. Forget about Skarl; this was between them.
Tarquinn felt it was abominable that he had selfishly, cruelly shunned the great duty Hagan had bestowed on him -- governing the western territories. He couldn't believe he had ever been that mean, that uncaring! How childish and conceited he had acted -- treating Brightvalian citizens like nothing! Why, these acts were what common villains would do, or an evil and greedy being like Jhudora, anyone with blackness in his heart, but most certainly not the First Prince of Brightvale! Tarquinn was embarrassed and deeply, deeply ashamed at his former behaviour. He could only console himself with the knowledge that he was different now. He felt that he had grown years wiser in a few days. King Hagan would be proud of him yet, somehow, if and when this curse was reversed... he would prove himself.
It is important to mention that the prince dearly loved his family and his friends; the land of Brightvale was his only home. For this reason, Tarquinn had never much cared about venturing into the unknown to try to learn more about his past. After he had digested the knowledge Lella imparted to him of his past, namely, that he had once been abandoned, he decided the whole thing was not worth thinking about. Why he had been left alone as a child, and by whom, he did not care at all. He had a fantastic life about him at court. He never racked his mind about who his original parents were... until now. Now, he could not help imagining faces; he felt pitifully alone, most unlike himself, confused by so many strange bits of memories, things that no one could possibly explain except maybe those who played parts in the memories. Tarquinn had fallen accidentally into this messy mystery, and he did not know how to progress through it. He was even terrified of reaching the conclusion, if there existed one.
The prince stared at the cracks in the ceiling and heard a quick dry scraping coming from above, a sound which reminded him of dead leaves being rattled together by the wind. Slowly, his bothersome thoughts eased back into his subconscious, and as they did so, he felt as if he had been released from ages of confinement. A pressure round his heart lifted. He sat up and scoured the four corners of the ceiling but could not make out the source of the scraping. Vexed, he lay back down, but still the noise persisted.
"What is that?" Tarquinn glowered.
The noise was coming from the attic, assuming Basile's house had one. Tarquinn got up, straightened his clothes, put on his Neovian top hat, and carefully turned the doorknob. The door opened without a creak and the prince looked out at the shady landing. From below he could make out the light tones of Lella. She was talking about sewing machines, something that did not at all interest Tarquinn. He crept across the landing and hovered at the top of the staircase, wondering if he should go downstairs, but then -- what was the point? He did not long for the company of those below. He hated the sorrowful way Lella and Basile gazed at him, as though he were doomed forever, and Philippe... Tarquinn did not even want to think about Philippe. He still hadn't entirely forgiven the Kacheek for what he had done. Tarquinn understood now that his own shameful behaviour had made Philippe act in the way he did; he sensed the vile retribution the curse carried, and he would even go so far as to confess that "he started it," which was the typical child's argument, but a powerful one. Still, not for one second could he allow the Kacheek to escape the blame. If Tarquinn had started this sorry sequence of events, Philippe had ended it with just as much spite and ill-wishing. The result was that they were both wrong. Tarquinn sighed with relief, somehow gladdened that he could apportion some fault to Philippe.
Since he did not plan to go into the sitting room, Tarquinn returned to his room and flopped down on the bed. He moaned anxiously and beat his fist into the mattress. The crinkling, scratching sounds from above continued with steady persistence, and a half-hour later the prince was beside himself with ire. He went back out onto the landing and searched the rooms on the first floor, at last finding the narrow door and the staircase that led up to the attic. Spyders scuttled out of Tarquinn's way as he climbed up into the darkness. He topped the last step and looked around for a light, but there was none. He did, however, discover a candelabra atop a nearby broken wardrobe, and a packet of matches beside it. It seemed Basile visited this room sometimes, for the candles were burned down to the last remnants of their wicks. Tarquinn lit them and saw that the many shapes in the room were old, musty pieces of furniture. The attic was used as a storage room. He could see chairs and desks and boxes of old porcelain plates and tablecloths. A sewing machine rested on an antique bronze coffee table. Tarquinn backed away from these things and listened for the scraping.
The noise was very loud now and came from a cluttered corner in the far right. Old chairs were piled up there, and against the bare wall beside them stood a big rectangular something draped in a dusty white sheet. Tarquinn neared the source of the sound, crouching down as the beams of the roof slanted lower and lower. When he was just above the loud crackling the noise suddenly ceased, and all that could be heard was Tarquinn's nervous breathing. Below a chair he could make out a great pile of leaves and the stuffing of furniture, gathered together meticulously into a ball. He poked the ball with his boot and all of a sudden, something pink and with big sharp teeth screeched, popped out of the nest, and latched onto Tarquinn's boot. Tarquinn jumped back as the Meepit tried to bite through the thick leather to his toes. The prince waved his arms in circles, his hand hitting the sheet-covered object. He grabbed and pulled the white sheet to himself, and flicked it like a whip at the bloodthirsty petpet.
"Meep!" the Meepit cried as it released the boot and hopped around Tarquinn, huffing and blowing up its cheeks in anger at being disturbed.
"You tried to bite me! Get away!" Tarquinn waved the sheet about frantically.
The petpet stared with its huge oily black eyes and uttered a high-pitched "Eep!" before four more Meepits appeared. In a row, they dodged Tarquinn and scurried across the attic floor, diving into a dark crevice in the far wall. Tarquinn stood in silence for a few moments, very much stunned, and knelt down to check his boot. A long row of teethmarks was embedded in it, but that was all. The Meepit hadn't been able to bite his toe. Tarquinn stood back up, shaking his head in bemusement. He turned around to look at the vacated Meepit nest, but something else caught his attention.
The old sheet he still held had covered a collection of paintings leaning against the wall, about six in total. Tarquinn shivered and his knees nearly buckled as he saw the foremost painting -- a great gilded portrait of a handsome blue Kyrii, a number of years older than himself, posing before a bookcase, a white top hat in the crook of his arm and an ebony cane in one hand. The Kyrii's chin was raised high in a display of confidence and his large brown eyes gazed right out of the picture. In little gold letters placed upon the painting's bottom frame were the words Absolon Harcourt, 5th Lord of Harcourt Mansion. The most shocking thing was, however, that the bookcase in the background lay in the very parlour Tarquinn had just been to! The same little figurines lined the case, Tarquinn could even make out the tiny Kyrii ballerina.
He whispered and whined to himself in distress, not sure what to think. He pulled the painting aside to see the one behind it, and the one behind that, and the one behind that. All of them depicted a member of a family of Kyrii, dressed in rich Neovian attire and posing before the artist who had painted them.
"No..." Tarquinn's eyes watered as he saw the last portrait, and the most hidden. In it was the same blue Kyrii of the first painting, here standing behind a heavy, black velvet armchair, elbows leaning upon the headrest. He was gazing down at the beautiful pink Kyrii lady sitting before him. What a ravishing sight she was, her long curled hair flowing out from under a stylish violet hat, her simple Neovian gown seamless, her serene face and eyes looking ahead. In her cradling arms rested a small white bundle. The tiny gold-lettered caption below this painting was 5th Lord of Harcourt Mansion with wife, Nadine, and infant son, Tarquinn.
Tarquinn's hands shook as he set the paintings back into position. His heart beat so frantically that he could feel the hot blood in his head. He stood up, then knelt back down, then closed his eyes and banged his head into his palms. He did not know what to do!
Suddenly, a loud crash in the attic startled the prince and forced him to jump to his feet. He looked across the candlelit room and distinguished Basile standing beside the sewing machine, which he had just dropped. The Wocky's face shone orange in the light, his eyes were opened wide in shock, mouth in the form of a perfect O. Tarquinn threw the sheet down and confronted him, pacing so quickly that some of the candles he held blew out.
"No, don't think that, please," Basile pleaded, holding up a hand and moving out of Tarquinn's way.
"Think what?" Tarquinn followed him, and the two began to circle one another.
"Think what you are thinking."
"How do you know what I am thinking?"
Basile shook his head vigorously, cowering. "I think that you are thinking something you shouldn't be thinking."
Tarquinn looked back at the corner of the room and uttered an angry groan. "What is this? You, a deceiver!"
Basile winced and pleaded for the prince not to raise his voice, but as Tarquinn continued his anguished shouting, footsteps could already be heard coming up the stairs.
"Please, please, hush, I will explain if you want..." Basile begged.
"Out of my way!" Tarquinn cried, passing the old Wocky and storming down the attic steps. Lella and Philippe were at the attic's door, and Tarquinn cleared them away, leaving them in utter confusion. The prince needed to be alone, to think, to try and piece together this infernal madness; he rubbed his stinging eyes with a sleeve and marched directly across the landing. The raging tempest of thoughts clouding his perception prevented him from seeing the figure whom he crashed right into on his way back to the guestroom. Tarquinn gasped in pain, and rubbed his forehead. He stepped back, and regarded the grey Kyrii standing before him severely. Absolon massaged the shoulder Tarquinn had accidentally knocked into, and then in a weak voice said: "I apologise."
Tarquinn glanced once at Absolon's face and froze up, for here, he knew he saw the blue Kyrii of the paintings, though aged and greyed by years of suffering. Absolon drew a hand through his lifeless hair and critically looked ahead of himself for the first time. His lacklustre brown eyes scanned Tarquinn, and slowly they grew wider. The ages of sorrow that had etched themselves into his face, the circles under his eyes disappeared, and a redness returned to his cheeks. His jaw dropped and then he, too, came to a complete halt. Tarquinn and Absolon could only stare at one another. They were speechless, incapable of any action.
Basile at last hobbled down the attic steps, holding his pained stiff leg, and looked on in horror at the scene before him. He gripped his head and moaned. "Ooo..."
Absolon roused himself at the sound and turned his eyes to his friend. "Basile, what have you been hiding?"
The Wocky moaned weakly. "Ooo... he found the old paintings of you that you asked me to store."
Lella and Philippe, confused about where to turn, backed up to Basile's side. At last, Lella was the one to say, "Oh, my word, that is his father, isn't it?"
It is impossible to faithfully record what immediately followed, to describe precisely the tortuous, convoluted emotions of all those present as they realised that Absolon and Tarquinn were father and son. The overpowering, all-encompassing emotion, however, was a boundless shock. Not until the grandfather clock in the sitting room chimed an agonising fifteen minutes later could anyone truly comprehend what he or she was saying or doing. Somehow, the company found themselves returned to the sitting room, which was now lit by candles since the sun had set an hour earlier. Unfinished suits lay stretched out on the coffee table and the backs of seats, while Basile sat on the floor, idly mending a loose spring in the sewing machine which he had gone up to get from the attic but had dropped in his surprise at Tarquinn's unforeseen presence. Basile's hands shook, but he focused all his attention on the spring, as if that was the only thing in existence. The others remained in pained silence, with the exception of Lella, who was the one to first regain her voice and answer Absolon's one tormented question: "How was his son alive?" She spoke at length, but Absolon did not look at her nor at Tarquinn, only at the table before him. His ears, though, were clearly soaking up Lella's words. She described her relationship to Tarquinn beginning from the first day, the morning she had found him alone in Neopia Central. She explained her sincere but failed attempts to locate Tarquinn's parents, and her reason for taking him finally to Brightvale to King Hagan. She concluded with detailing Tarquinn's life from that point on. At the mention of the King's claiming Tarquinn as his own, Absolon's face coloured and he could not help but utter in stupefaction, "But, but... then, he is King Hagan's son? The King of Brightvale's son? What would that make him? A real prince?"
Lella paused and glanced over at Tarquinn, who sat in an armchair, elbows upon his knees, his gloved hands over his mouth. Tarquinn's wearied eyes darted to Lella and then to Absolon, then to Philippe and Basile.
"Well, Tarquinn... Tarquinn is the heir to the throne of Brightvale," Lella said in a constricted voice. "In fact, in a month he is to be officially announced the heir apparent to all Neopia."
Absolon held his palms before his face; his whole form shuddered with deep sighs. "I can't believe it. All this time... I cannot remember how many years, I thought you were dead. I believed I was the only one in the family who survived the assault upon Neovia, the Spirit of Slumber's curse... "
Tarquinn looked fearfully at his father, and suddenly felt an infinite regret for never having had more than a passing thought of who his parents could possibly have been. It didn't seem fair that while Tarquinn led a careless, happy life, there was in a far corner of Neopia a sad and broken soul who spent day after day in anguish, wishing that he could just know what had happened to his only son. "I'm so sorry," Tarquinn exclaimed. "I had no idea... "
Absolon looked at Tarquinn. "I know, and there is nothing you must be sorry about. I am the one to be sorry about my pathetic fate... Oh, I cannot believe it. I keep imagining you as the child I once knew, as if you were caught forever in a moment in time, as if you had really died and all that were left to me were memories and vague, tormented dreams of what might have been if... But now, as I look at you, I see someone completely different, someone I could never have thought you would be! Tarquinn, your name and your features are the only thing familiar to me. My, you are as tall as I am; you are an adult."
Absolon shook his head in amazement. The grim curtain that hung over his heart, that kept him in a continual slough of despond, dimming his senses and all feeling, seemed to part; some of the handsome qualities returned to his grey face, and his large brown eyes were attentive albeit awash with tears. Even his voice had lost the hopeless undercurrents, and a calmer, deeper tone prevailed.
"Let me see you, if I may," Absolon said, holding out a hesitant hand, and Tarquinn mutely crept forward to sit beside his father on the couch. The old Kyrii laughed, half cried. "I'm afraid to touch you, can you believe it? I don't know you."
"Don't say that," Tarquinn said. "You know who I am. This gap in time between us can certainly be filled."
Absolon rubbed his eyes but could not yet agree. He touched Tarquinn's cheek briefly, and then his expression grew cloudy. "What is wrong with your hands? And... where is your hair?"
Tarquinn gazed in despair at Lella, then back to his father. He muttered, "You do not know the reason I came to Neovia..."
"Hmm. Hmm." Basile coughed, looking up carefully. He placed a hand on the sewing machine and said, "I think it is fixed."
"Basile!" Absolon called in a surprisingly firm tone, causing the Wocky to wince and shake. "What is your role in this? How came Tarquinn to be here? Explain this or, or, I don't know what I will do!"
Basile slowly, painfully got to his feet with aid of his cane and he slumped into the nearest chair. It was pointless to keep information back now. He felt as though a grand dam had broken and he was trying to keep waves and waves of raging water back with a little umbrella.
"All right..." Basile took a deep breath and without preliminaries related the day he had been wandering to the north of the Haunted Woods. A thunderstorm had been swirling and brewing in the distance, and he, fearing he would not reach Neovia before the rain began to pour, had decided to spend the night in a wayside inn near the Deserted Fairground. While here, to his utmost surprise, three foreigners arrived late in the evening, each of them very nearly soaked. Their peculiar dress immediately drew the attention of all the boarders -- Tarquinn's outfit especially, which was the full, pompous, and ridiculously expensive regalia of an aristocrat. Basile described his overhearing the whispers and blackhearted plotting of the corrupt Mynci innkeepers. He saw one of them give a pack of thieves the key to the room the rich fools were lodged in. And so, Basile had kept low, feigning that he was an old and sick beggar, quite harmless. When he saw the thieves awake and sneak down the hall he followed them, and there, in the room, he faced a desperate scene. With some luck and the help of Tarquinn, the vile scoundrels were beaten back. The moment they were alone in the room was when Basile realised who exactly Tarquinn was.
"Please, forgive my behaviour that night, Tarquinn." Basile implored. "I wanted you to return to Brightvale because, at the time, I thought you were in the Haunted Woods on a search for your lineage. I thought you were specifically trying to trace your way back to your real origins..."
"And what is the matter with that?" Absolon demanded. "You were trying to keep him from me?"
"Why?" Absolon sighed, deeply hurt.
The old Wocky sniffed and pleaded for Absolon not to hate him. In a burst of agony, he said: "Ooo... Absolon, I was terrified, absolutely frozen stiff with worry that something bad would happen if Tarquinn ever returned here, that somehow the horrors that afflicted Neovia would repeat... My nerves are not what they used to be, I live under the perpetual shade of dread. Ever since I escaped from the curse on Neovia, I've been a desolate wanderer, drifting aimlessly round and round the world, without home or name. I could not return to Neovia until the townsfolk were freed... I could not bear to see you, my most respectable master, under the Spirit of Slumber's spell. The agony I felt as the years sped on was only brightened by the news of Tarquinn's fate. Once I learnt that he had become a prince -- an actual prince! -- of Brightvale, I thought that he should remain in his happy surroundings. Why need he know about the devastation he escaped from? He would be safe in Brightvale and allowed to live in peace..."
Absolon pounded the couch's armrest with a first. "Don't say, oh, you knew Tarquinn was alive all these years! You liar! How could you keep this information from me? How could you sit there like a brainless Mortog and watch me weep all those times? Fie for shame, Basile!"
A tear streaked Basile's cheek. "I didn't mean to do you harm, Absolon. Still, you can blame me for everything, I know it is my fault for not saying a word. It's just... by the time Neovia was restored, so many years had already passed. So many things had changed! Tarquinn was an adult, not the little boy we knew. He led a very separate life. I thought... I thought..."
"That it was not worth mentioning, yes, I know," Absolon finished with a scowl, a scowl identical to those which Tarquinn would give Philippe when distressed and enraged: a high, uneven curl to the right of the lip, and a lowering of the eyebrows. "But how did Tarquinn survive the night we attempted to escape from Neovia?"
"Pardon, but what do you mean?" Tarquinn asked his father.
Absolon paused, and said sadly, "You were too young to remember the horror that wrecked Neovia, the destruction those foul elixirs caused..."
"Indeed, I can recall nothing of that, but I have read much on Neovia's history, and the Tale of Woe. I know the suffering Mr. Krawley's magic elixirs wrought upon the populace, how the elixirs mutated the town, caused neighbours to attack neighbours and rioting all around; I know of the old mayor Thumbart's foolish plea to the Spirit of Slumber to save them all from the curse the potions contained." Tarquinn sighed. "And I also know the Spirit of Slumber cast a spell upon all the town, which turned them into soulless apparitions, a spell which lasted for over a decade..."
Tarquinn broke off because his father had begun to weep.
"Sorry," Absolon said, as if crying were a crime. "I still have not gotten over all those years I lost because of the curse... all those years under the Spirit of Slumber's spell -- are gone! I remember nothing. Half my life is ripped from me... All I can recall is our family before the curse, the brief downfall of the town, our failed escape from the mobs, then suddenly the spell -- it was as if I were forced into a heavy, dreamless sleep from which I could never awake..." Absolon teared up again and wrung his hands. "And then, as quickly as I had been put under the spell, colour and life returned to me and I was brought back into the real world. The curse was broken and Neovia was free finally, but it was not the place I remembered -- those I longed to see again were all gone, either dead or disappeared.
"As the town slowly gathered itself up from the ashes and a new mayor was elected, you, Basile, returned to me. You were my only good friend left, and don't for a moment think I will ever be angry enough to forsake you after all the help you have given me. Without you, I would not have had the heart to continue on with my life, to try and restore my mansion, and get the textile factory running again."
"Of course, Absolon, I've been your faithful butler for over twenty years -- I live to serve you, my friend," Basile said through bouts of watery sighs.
Absolon smiled weakly. "Alas, all my attempts to get my life back in control are pointless, as Leywark has taken control of my family's business and even my house..."
"That scum!" Basile shouted. "What fools the townsfolk are to think Leywark is Neovia's great hope for the future. He's blatantly the sneakiest, most heartless crook of them all!"
Tarquinn shook his head, and muttered, "And I thought for a while that he could be trusted..."
Absolon turned to Tarquinn. "What do you mean?"
Tarquinn looked nervously about, automatically covering his mouth before he spoke. "Well... he is to make a potion for me --"
"A POTION?!" Absolon clutched his chest, instantly fearing the worst.
"Nay, listen." Basile urged Absolon to quiet down.
Tarquinn took a moment to gather his thoughts and describe to his father his most embarrassing situation. "You see, Basile brought me to Neovia to see Leywark, to get his help. I... I am under a curse, and he is the only one who knows the cure."
At these words Absolon pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed his forehead, momentarily too stunned to put into words any of the fifty or so questions hovering about in his mind. Slowly, with Lella and Basile's aid, Absolon was told the tale of Tarquinn's curse -- from the first fateful night, through the long struggle for a cure, and eventually to Neovia, unwittingly to him. Most parts Absolon understood, although he could hardly remain quiet when Tarquinn took his gloves off to show his father his disfigured hands. But the one part Absolon could not comprehend at all was how Philippe had ever have been capable of committing such a vicious act against his son. Absolon did not know, or could not understand that Tarquinn hadn't been the shining beacon of dignity and virtue he believed he was. He hadn't heard the gossip of the nobles of Brightvale, he hadn't yet heard of the illustrious personage, Tarquinn the Vain.
Absolon took one long, sweeping glance at Philippe and then turned back to his son. "I understand your desperation, but to ask for Leywark's help is a risk best not worth taking..."
Basile interrupted at this. "I agree that it is definitely risky, and I myself was greatly worried at even making mention of that crook's name, but we must all concede these two things: Leywark is capable of making the cure Tarquinn needs, and, if there is nothing readily available for him to try and swindle out of those who call on his assistance, Leywark is willing to help. Before Tarquinn visited Leywark, I told him to go under a false, humble identity, so that Leywark could not possibly find him interesting enough to be worth the time to cheat or trap. Leywark thinks Tarquinn is a mere cobbler's son, haha, at least we have tricked that scum there."
Absolon looked a bit more relieved and expressed his hope that all would go well. He asked Tarquinn what Leywark wanted in return for the potion.
"Oh, six million Neopoints," Tarquinn said offhandedly.
"Six million? How can you pay him that much?" Absolon instantly grew fearful.
"No, do not worry. That is not much to me." Tarquinn could not help but chuckle at how little his father knew. If only he could see his country mansion!
"Aye, that is a good deal," Basile said, twirling his moustache. "Think: Leywark must believe he has Tarquinn under his control, he probably thinks Tarquinn, a poor Neovian lad, will never be able to find six million Neopoints for the potion and so he won't attempt any of his viler trickery. Tarquinn will receive the potion, pay Leywark's price, and it will all be fine."
"I hope so," Absolon said. "We can never be sure about Leywark..."
Basile inclined his head, and for a few moments everyone remained silent, waiting for the grandfather clock to stop chiming the new hour. The room was very dark now, and more candles needed to be lit. Philippe, eager to be useful, went around lighting all the candles he saw upon stools and lined up along the mantlepiece. When he was done, the sitting room glowed with the color of a heated furnace, and it was comfortably warm against the cold autumn night. Lella remarked that it was supper time, but no one felt like eating, not even she, and so everyone remained where they were. Basile and Philippe fiddled with the sewing machine which was still not working, and Absolon hesitantly put an arm round his son's shoulders. The two stayed quiet until Tarquinn spoke, just loud enough for Absolon to hear.
"Do you know that I recall breaking the leg of a Kyrii ballerina, a porcelain figurine upon a bookshelf?"
Absolon took in the words, and a while later he replied, quite surprised, "How could you recall such a thing? Even I barely remember you doing that."
"So it is true, then," Tarquinn said thoughtfully. "These dreams and such are actually memories..."
Absolon paused. "You really liked playing with improper things as a child. You were brought so many toys -- little sail boats, bouncy balls, the finest plushies -- but you never paid them attention. You only liked getting into trouble, climbing bookshelves, or trying to find the secret doors to our mansion's hidden passages and rooms. And, I mustn't forget, you had great fun making faces at yourself in the mirror, and wearing your mother's rings..."
Lella spoke up. "So that is why Tarquinn put all the plushies he received one year for Christmas into the fireplace..."
Tarquinn laughed. "And sadly, I still spend much time admiri -- I mean -- humouring myself in the mirror, and, as you can see, my liking for fine gems hasn't dimmed a bit."
Absolon smiled for the first time, and he looked ten years younger by that simple act. "I did not think you remembered anything of Neovia. Is there anything else you recall?"
"Well..." Tarquinn sat up and looked at Absolon gravely. He explained the recurring nightmare he often had of a dark drawing room, of the house he was in being battered by unseen attackers, and of escaping into the swamp by the aide of an underground tunnel which led from a cellar. "And then," Tarquinn concluded, "the dream always ends in the swamp, where we all scatter, disappear, and I simply wake up."
"Ah, yes..." Absolon said. "This vague dream is indeed the memory of our ill-fated escape from Neovia."
Everyone but Basile leaned in closer to listen to the words Absolon spoke next. "As those affected by the curse of the elixirs gradually grew more and more mutated and despairing, the few sane townsfolk had no choice but to withdraw to the safety of their homes. Our family, your mother and I, were untouched by the curse; we did not care for the supposed miracles the elixirs were said to bring, we had all we needed in each other. It was for this reason that, when the rioting began, we were one of those targeted as the causes for Neovia's ills. We had remained normal because we had not drunk any of the potions, but the lunatics believed otherwise. They thought we had access to some special cure which kept us unharmed. When we tried to explain ourselves rationally, they got the idea that we were lying, that we were intentionally keeping this cure from them. Pitiful fools...
"The situation in Neovia quickly became unbearable. Day and night brawls and riots broke out between the townsfolk, and we were hardly able to sneak to the market for food and return unscathed. Basile still has fond memories of his many venturesome dashes to the crumpetmonger's. I think once he returned with a pitchfork-wielding mob at his heels."
Basile looked up from the sewing machine. "I remember that. Those nuts thought I was involved in some sort of conspiracy. They believed the crumpets and drumstick pie I was buying had secret healing potions or something hidden in them, and I was carrying them all off to you."
"Yes," Absolon's eye teared with a mixture of sadness and mirth. "The town had lost its mind. We had no choice but to leave. The only problem was that I was very reluctant to desert the mansion. The Harcourt Mansion is a landmark of sorts in town. You see, Neovia was founded centuries ago by three families, and one of them was Harcourt. My great-great grandfather, Maximilian Harcourt, spent his life building the mansion, and he loved it so much that on his deathbed he made his son promise that never would he abandon or sell it, or else -- truly, he said this! -- his ghost would rise and reclaim the property! Maximilian's love of the mansion was respected, and for generations our family lived there; whenever the current master of the house passed away, the new owner would ceremonially visit Maximilian's grave and promise to his headstone that his will would be obeyed and the family would never leave his mansion.
"All of our great ancestors lived there, Tarquinn. There are countless rooms filled with the old belongings of our lost loved ones... And so, when the prospect of leaving the mansion was brought up, I cowered. I stalled, tried to think of a way to stay in Neovia, and unfortunately, this delay was what brought about our miserable fate.
"For weeks we lived barricaded against the mob. The last sane members of town all joined us, and together we tried to find a way to stop the madness. The night you remember, Tarquinn, was the night we realised our hopes to cure the town ourselves were hollow and futile. We had no resources, our food was getting low, moving out of Neovia was our only choice. And yet, I still blindly clung to the possibility that we could somehow survive without needing to leave town. As the others took out maps and made plans to escape at dawn the next day, I sneaked out into the cemetery to ask Maximilian whatever should we do? Of course, his grave remained silent and forlorn, and as I was ambling down the street back home, the mob found me -- and this time they afforded no mercy. I barely made it back to the mansion, and I shouted to all inside that we had to leave immediately, we could not wait until dawn. Minutes later, the mob began to rush the house, smash the windows, force the doors. We all gathered our most important belongings and met in the grand drawing room before setting off -- this is what you remember, Tarquinn. Your mother held you, and followed me as I led the way into the cellar just as the lunatics smashed down the front door. Old Maximilian was a crafty, secretive fellow, and he had built an underground passage from the cellar to the edges of the swamp so that whenever he wanted to sneak off from his chores and go on a walk (Maximilian was a famous explorer, and loved the outdoors) all he had to do was say, "I'll be right back!" and disappear down the cellar, not to return for hours.
"Everyone with us managed to escape the mansion; the mob did not discover the hidden passage. However, while we were dallying by the swamp, making ready our lamps and maps before entering the Haunted Woods, the mob spotted us and continued their rampage. They surrounded us and we turned and ran. Interestingly, after the mob passed by the first few cypresses and tree stumps, they stopped their chase of us and only stared blankly. It was the curse that prevented them from leaving Neovia. We, though, continued to run, foolishly thinking that we could make it out of the Haunted Woods this disorganised, in the middle of the night. Some of the group separated, got lost, and were never heard from again. Those of us that remained stuck together closer, and we tried to travel on the most beaten-down paths.
"Alas, we were not meant to reach the end of the woods... That night had been a full moon, and we were ravaged by a pack of Werelupes. Tarquinn, this is the end of your dream, and what I thought was the end of your life, for in the struggle, your mother, whom I thought was carrying you, had run off into the woods to try to hide, to escape, and I never saw her again. She lost her life in the woods, I believe, and the only thing ever found of her was a ring."
Absolon touched the scratched-up golden ring he wore on his little finger and looked down, tears silently slipping down his face, until Basile raised his voice.
"No, Nadine was not holding Tarquinn, then," Basile said hesitantly. "W-When the howls of the Werelupes echoed louder and we heard them encircling us, Nadine entrusted the boy to me. She wanted me to run away with him while she lured the monsters in the other direction. Before I could stop her she began to yell at the shapes in the swamp to follow her. That is when she disappeared forever. I... I afterwards tried to find you, Absolon, but all the lamps were smashed and there were nothing but screams and growls all around. As for Tarquinn, he was too terrified to cry, he curled up into a ball and shut his eyes tight, holding on to my coat for dear life.
"Realising that I had to act, I picked a direction and ran for it, until I felt my lungs would explode. For a bit I thought we had escaped but the howls began afresh and were nearing us. I could not run much further... and when I could see the beasts gaining ground behind me, I slipped, and Tarquinn and I slid down the side of a massive precipice. We fell onto a heap of dry dead leaves, and I remember thinking then that we had made it out of the swamp and reached the Haunted Woods. All that night I ran, though I was no longer chased by anything, and, at last, in the morning I reached the end of the woods." Basile hushed and looked at Absolon supplicatingly.
"And then?" Absolon asked.
Basile rubbed his head and nodded. "I was to the north of the Haunted Woods, with Tarquinn in my arms, and looking down the cliff before me. I could just make out the blue of Kiko Lake to the northeast and the green fields of Neopia Central. I... I..."
"You were the one who abandoned Tarquinn by the Money Tree, weren't you?" Lella suddenly interjected.
Absolon's eyes widened. "How could you?"
"Aye, it was I..." Basile winced at Absolon's enraged words, and his speech became more and more wavery and emotional. "I never wanted to leave the boy, but I was completely alone! I had no Neopoints, just the clothes on my back! I couldn't return to Neovia, I had no relatives anywhere else, there was nothing I knew about the rest of the world. What was I supposed to do? Where could I go? I could not take care of Tarquinn, though I remained by his side for days. For days I stayed with him, and we slept outside under the stars of Neopia Central, but he was hungry, and crying, and lonely. I could not appease him, especially in the state I was in then."
"I don't want to hear it." Absolon held up a hand, and Basile was quelled.
After a lengthy silence, Lella said to Absolon: "Don't be angry with him. In the end, Basile saved Tarquinn's life. He brought him to Neopia Central, to safety. You certainly cannot be angry with the way fate blessed Tarquinn from the moment I found him."
Absolon's frown softened, but not from an ebbing of anger, but because he was tired. He sullenly looked away and would not speak until Tarquinn spoke into his ear. "And how did you escape the Werelupes?"
"I?" Absolon calmed down enough to think clearly. "I dove into the waters of the swamp. Werelupes hate to get soaked, and so I hid under the arching roots of a cypress until all was quiet. Then, I swam. I swam for hours, until I reached level land, and stupidly, I found my way back to Neovia. Not knowing where else to go, I returned home. The mansion had been abandoned by the mob. I entered through a broken window and slept that night in one of Maximilian's secret rooms. I think I was the only sane citizen left in all Neovia, and for days I kept low until I grew so frustrated that I went off in search for any survivors of our group. There were none, but I found some of their belongings, including Nadine's ring. I returned back to the mansion, desolate, and began to make a new plan to leave Neovia myself. I couldn't stand the place anymore! I... " Absolon furrowed his eyebrows.
"Yes?" Tarquinn asked.
"It is not important. It is silly, actually, but then I remembered thinking perhaps the reason I wasn't able to escape Neovia in the end was that Maximilian's ghost kept me there."
"What do you mean?"
Absolon shrugged. "The night the Werelupes attacked, I had torn down a path to the left because I had seen a bluish light in that direction. As I discovered the swampy river, I saw the light floating over it, slowly moving off to the west... The light led me back to Neovia; it was what I followed."
Tarquinn looked doubtful.
"I know it is foolish. But during those last few days and nights before the Spirit of Slumber cast his spell on the town, my plans to leave the mansion were beset with troubles. The maps of the Haunted Woods all were mysteriously burned in the night in the fireplace, the needles of the compasses spun round and round, doors flew shut and locked themselves, and Maximilian's portrait had somehow moved from the den where it hung to a prominent place in the grand drawing room. Perhaps he thought that by seeing his stern face, I would remember my promise to him...
"Eventually, Maximilian got what he wanted, and after the Spirit of Slumber came I could not remember anything; but when I finally awoke I lay in the mansion, in my bed, just as if I had been taking an afternoon nap of... oh, over ten years."
Tarquinn could not express the sorrow he felt at hearing this tale told at last. Finally, he knew the truth, the whole truth, and the mysteries and dreams that plagued his mind had vanished entirely. All he could feel now was a boundless sadness and a longing to make things right, in any way he could. A thought came to Tarquinn, so bright and fitting that he stood up in excitement.
"You were forced to give the mansion away to Leywark, is that right?"
Absolon nodded grimly.
"How is it that Maximilian's ghost doesn't haunt Leywark, then?"
"Oh... I wouldn't immediately conclude that Leywark has pleasant nights in that mansion..." Absolon said.
"All right, that is beside the point, anyway. What I wanted to ask is about your deal with him," Tarquinn said, beginning to pace the room. "Basile said that Leywark would keep the mansion and everything in it until you could pay all the debts?"
"Well, yes... that was our deal. The trouble is, the debts keep rising as Leywark keeps spending... which means that he will probably have it forever."
"No, he shan't. I will buy the mansion back," Tarquinn said determinedly.
Absolon and Basile stared at him, then both began to shake their heads, claiming it was impossible, that Leywark wanted too much for it, that he specifically kept hold of the mansion and the textile factory in order to control Absolon.
"And the factory!" Tarquinn exclaimed, ignoring all complaints. "He took that, too! You owned it all, didn't you?"
"I did," Absolon said. "Our manufactory is a part of our family; its ownership is handed down from generation to generation just like the mansion. It all started out as a small business dealing in cloth and curtains and upholstery, and became the largest factory of its kind. All Neovia respects our fine materials, our silk, our velvet... Now Leywark has got that as well, and is raking in all the profits by treating the workers cruelly, making them work twice as hard for less pay."
Tarquinn clenched his fists and declared that he would set things right. "I will kick that scoundrel out of your mansion, don't worry! Tomorrow I will demand Leywark to list the debts that need to be paid. And, yes, I can pay them. Lella, be so good as to enlighten these doubters once again that I am the First Prince of Brightvale, and what I say will be done -- will be done!"
Nothing could Basile do to change the prince's mind about his decision to announce to Leywark tomorrow that he was actually Tarquinn de Quincy, and not the humble Mr. Lockwood of 212 Ebony Alley. Tarquinn was determined to buy Absolon's mansion back, the venerable home of his ancestors. He paced the sitting room to and fro, arguing with Basile, and stubbornly claiming that Leywark surely could not keep the mansion for himself if he were offered the Neopoints it cost. When Basile fretted over the thought that Tarquinn might spend all his Neopoints on acquiring the mansion back, Tarquinn burst into a fit of laughter, needing to turn to face the wall to hide his mouth as he finished his laughing.
"Me? Spend all my Neopoints..." Tarquinn laughed one last time, and explained again rationally that his idea would work.
In the end, all that Basile could do was have Tarquinn agree to allowing himself and Absolon to accompany him to the mansion tomorrow. Absolon needed to visit the mansion in the first place to deliver Gracien's infernal suits, and Basile absolutely refused to sit idly at home while Absolon and Tarquinn, who meant the most to him in all Neopia, marched right into enemy territory. Basile was terrified that something dreadful would happen upon meeting Leywark.
After this argument had been resolved, and Lella and Philippe had reluctantly agreed to stay at Basile's residence while he, Tarquinn, and Absolon went off to see Leywark, everyone fell into a brief spell of silence. They had all tired themselves out by the conversation, and there was nothing left for them to say. They looked down at the rolls of fabric lying about the sitting room, and realised that there was still a great deal of work to be done. Three suits needed to be finished by tomorrow, and Lella, Philippe, Basile, and Absolon worked diligently into the night, while Tarquinn, who was the only one of the company who didn't understand tailoring, silently watched his father measure, cut, and give directions on how to sew the cloth until he (Tarquinn) fell asleep on the couch.
To be continued...