The Mutant Prince: Part Eleven
Chapter Eleven: Sweet Roses Spell No Regret
Weeks had passed since that fateful night in Neovia, and our five heroes -- Tarquinn de Quincy, Lella, Philippe, Absolon, and Basile -- had been forced to split up on their separate ways. Absolon and Basile could not have left Neovia in the midst of all the troubles they had to set right with their reclaimed mansion (including how to get rid of an unconscious Werelupe lying in the library, and what to explain to the mayor of Neovia about the disappearance of that illustrious citizen, Leywark). Most interestingly, the mayor hadn't been able to recall ever having met someone by that name, and as far as he was concerned Absolon was and had always been the proprietor of Neovia's great textile factory. Even the townspeople were curiously under the impression that they had never seen or heard of a yellow Krawk living in their town. This situation greatly mystified Absolon and Basile, for they remembered the villain perfectly, and if the legend of the Sands of Oblivion was true, and Mr. Krawley still lived in their memories, then he was really alive somewhere -- wasn't he? They did not know what to think, or how to explain it; the shiny black bottle containing the Sands of Oblivion had mysteriously found its way back to Maximilian's treasure trove. They dared not touch a single artifact or gem in that room. The only thing for Absolon and Basile to do was begin the difficult task of restoring the mansion to some semblance of its former glory.
As for the prince and his two faithful companions, they returned to Brightvale under cover of darkness after bidding a heartfelt farewell to their Neovian acquaintances, promising to write to each other as often as possible, and visit when they could. Upon reaching the grassy foot of the hill Tarquinn's mansion rested upon, Philippe was unceremoniously shouted away -- "Begone! I never want to see you again!" had been the prince's kind dismissal. The Kacheek could do naught else; he trudged back home to his dusty farm, awash in a sea of regret, feeling that he had been useless and feeble throughout the journey.
The prince's midnight return home marked for him the beginning of weeks of torment. Tarquinn sneaked into his private apartments, immediately locked the doors, drew the heavy curtains over all the windows, and was not seen outside again. Not in the gardens, not anywhere else in the mansion. His servants could not enter his room, not even his most trusted butlers and maids. The sole servant allowed access to his forbidden rooms was Lella, and she only came by two or three times each day to deliver food and letters, and tidy up.
The confused servants began to conjecture on the possible causes for the prince's peculiar behaviour. As they whispered their befuddlements to their friends and relatives, their friends whispered to their friends, and these friends of friends soon dispersed to all of Brightvale the knowledge that the First Prince was suffering from a bizarre illness, likely picked up from his recent mysterious absence. The snooty nobles, the court gallants, and the great gossipmonger, the Duchess Bonnegrace, all latched onto this news and speculated intensely about what might be ailing poor Tarquinn de Quincy and where he had gone off to the week before. Wild rumours grew, each stranger than the last: one story told that the prince had been kidnapped by scurvy pirates of Krawk Island from whom he had only been able to escape by diving into the sea, and while swimming in the ferocious icy waters he had gotten a wild brain fever; another tale claimed that Tarquinn had ventured to Mystery Island (which was known to be his favourite spot to go on holiday), and had accidentally angered a tribe of wild jungle Chias, and thus been cursed by their witch doctor; there even existed an idea that Tarquinn had been attacked by Count Von Roo and was now a vampire, only able to walk at night.
For weeks these rumours persisted and grew, and discussion of the suddenly reclusive prince was top entertainment at all the fashionable tea parties and get-togethers. Everyone wanted to know what was wrong with the prince, and so they began to assail him with unwelcome visits to his mansion and dozens of curious letters asking him to explain the cause of his malaise. The prince, however, would not meet anyone and would respond to no letters, not even those innocent and worried missives sent by Fifi -- though her letters, undoubtably, were meticulously read and reread till they were stained with tears and then placed under his bed's pillow.
The nobles did not take kindly to being shunned and their letters and invitations ignored. Soon, the humourous tales and rumours which preoccupied all the salons became spiteful complaints about Tarquinn's improper behaviour. The Duchess Bonnegrace led the battalion of gossipers, naturally, and wherever she found the opportunity, she would spew a most shocking stream of virulent criticisms and comments against the prince whom she had once allegedly been so fond and loving of. Fifi was heartbroken at listening to her mother's turncoat antics. For years, the Duchess would not let her dear Tarquinn alone: she called him to every party she arranged, every insignificant supper; she prattled on about his wit, about his charm and fairness; she constantly prodded Fifi about what the prince had said or written to her last, about where they had just been off together. Surely, the Duchess asked, Fifi was the prince's closest friend? Poor Fifi did not know what to think anymore. She did not believe any of the horrible rumours she heard, but then why did Tarquinn not want to see her? Why hadn't he responded to any of her letters? She had poured her heart into them -- told him she wished he would get better soon, that she didn't believe or care about the nasty rumours, all she wanted was to be allowed to see him. But there was no response. Didn't he care?
It was one chilly night early in the Month of Storing, a mere week before the grand festivities planned for the fifteenth, when King Hagan, alerted of all the disturbing news of his son, made a visit himself to Tarquinn's country mansion in the west. The Duchess Bonnegrace's castle was passed on the way, and as the Duchess glanced out her window to see the royal procession making its way by her home, she quickly dressed up and rushed outside to follow.
"King Hagan! Sir!" she called after the gold-adorned carriage on the road.
The carriage lurched to a halt and the Duchess ran up to it.
"Ah, my good Duchess. What causes you to chase after me so?" the grand Skeith said, peering out the window.
The Duchess panted, tired from running, though she had only come down the length of her yard (which must be conceded, was rather large). The King, seeing her fatigue, assigned her to sit in his carriage beside him. The Duchess obeyed. She calmed down, wrapped her coat about herself tighter, and expressed her curiosity towards the purpose of this strange, unannounced evening march.
"I am going to see my son," King Hagan said.
The Duchess's eyes grew wide with wonder and curiosity. "Is he ill?"
"Hmph," Hagan said. "It seems to me that in all the Kingdom of Brightvale, you would appear to be the one to know the most on Tarquinn's condition. Or are these charming rumours I hear not originally from your mouth?"
The Duchess blinked, tried to speak, but could only smile foolishly. The King was not pleased with her; he had learnt of her gossiping. Nevertheless, he did not continue the conversation, and inquired instead about the Duchess's daughter. Was she well, had she seen Tarquinn recently? Just as the subject of Fifi had been broached did the same individual hesitantly appear beside the golden carriage. Fifi had observed her mother tearing through the castle to her wardrobe, and then running out into the night with a coat barely on. She had followed her.
"Ah, my little chit, there you are!" the King said, looking out in pleasant surprise.
He motioned for Fifi to get inside. Cheeks deep red from the cold, Fifi sat down opposite the King and her mother and looked at them both, asking politely whatever were they doing? The Duchess explained the King's intention -- that they were going to visit the prince (they being Hagan and herself). The King glanced at the Duchess suspiciously, and sighed.
"Yes, we are paying a visit to Tarquinn," King Hagan yielded. "Would you like to come along, my girl?"
"To see Tarquinn?" Fifi's heartbeat quickened, but then, just as swiftly, it plummeted. She wasn't entirely sure if Tarquinn was worth visiting given his current attitude towards her, but King Hagan convinced her to join them.
"You are Tarquinn's good friend. He shall be delighted to see you. Believe me," Hagan said, winking, "you are very important to him."
Fifi's face, already reddened, blushed scarlet, and she nodded meekly. Without further ado, the King called to his footmen to continue onward.
The King's unexpected arrival at Tarquinn's mansion scattered the nervous servants into disorder, and Lella had a difficult time showing them to their places before opening the front door. She warmly greeted the King and the two who accompanied him -- the Duchess Bonnegrace and her daughter. King Hagan stepped into the lofty front foyer and immediately neared the grand staircase curving up to the first floor.
"I've come to see Tarquinn, Lella. No, thank you, I would not like to be served tea or cake," the King said, disregarding a servant's offering of refreshments.
"Yes, we're all so worried about the prince." The Duchess theatrically dabbed her eyes with her coat sleeve. "We must see how he is and offer him our support through this illness."
Lella's face grew white and she stood motionless and silent. The King watched her intently.
"Will Tarquinn be called down or will we be led up? He is in his apartments now, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is there..." Lella said weakly. "Although now it is rather late, and Tarquinn has told me that he will not receive any visitors tonight..."
"Lella! I am surprised at you! Not let me see my own son?" The King grew stern. "What foolishness! Now, I do not understand what has been going on in this mansion these past few weeks, but if any of these preposterous, nonsensical rumours floating about the court are true, I would like to know about it! I have not seen or heard from Tarquinn in weeks! He has missed three balls, and an important fencing competition against Meridell, all without explanation. What has he been up to? I will not leave until I see him."
The Duchess Bonnegrace nodded her head sycophantically at the King's words and with a haughty grin, waited for Lella to comply. Lella hovered on her spot, hesitant and worried, but seeing that she had little choice, picked up a lighted candelabra and led the way up the stairs and to the prince's dark empty antechamber.
"Tarquinn?" Lella knocked on the door.
There was no response, and Lella looked nervously back at the three guests sitting impatiently on the divan. She knocked louder and called out Tarquinn's name urgently. Finally, there came from within an annoyed plea to be left alone. King Hagan, having tired of the silly waiting, stood up and banged on the door.
"Tarquinn! It is I, your father, the King! I demand to be let in -- I will not suffer this nonsense!"
"No, please, just go away..." was the reply from the other side of the door.
"I will most certainly not! Is there something wrong with you? Will you tell me what in Neopia this is about?" the King smacked his forehead in exasperation.
"Lella... please, don't let him in," Tarquinn begged.
"Do you know what is behind this?" The King turned on Lella, crossing his arms. "Are these rumours I am hearing true?"
Lella shook her head fiercely, at a loss as to what to say. "I... Tarquinn, well..."
"What disgraceful behaviour..." the Duchess muttered, carefully stowing away the details of this visit to tell her friends later.
"Maybe his illness is contagious?" Fifi suggested.
"Are you sick, Tarquinn? Is that why no one can see you?" the King asked through the door.
There was no response, but the King caught Lella shaking her head lowly. He stood firmly before her and demanded an explanation forthwith. Poor Lella could not bear the stern, relentless stares of the King and the Duchess. She coughed and fiddled with the folds of her dress, until, with a deep sigh, she asked the King to lower his head so she could whisper something into his ear. The King raised his eyebrows in surprise at this peculiar supplication, nevertheless he leaned down to hear Lella speak. The Duchess craned her neck to try and listen in on the message, but Fifi pulled her mother back.
Once Lella had finished, the King stretched back to his full height, his facial expression very much changed. He knocked on Tarquinn's door again, much lighter this time, and in a low, worried tone, said: "My boy, please let me in. You do harm to yourself and your loved ones by keeping away from the world. Please, there is something important I must say to you, and to say it, I must see your face."
The King's sincere plea fell on deaf ears, but after Lella joined in, imploring to Tarquinn to open the door and let the King see him, he finally gave in.
"All right..." Tarquinn mumbled, and the lock clicked.
The door opened a crack and the King hesitantly sidled into the dark room. The door immediately closed again. Lella stared nervously around the antechamber and lit a few more candles out of a desire to seem useful. The Duchess and Fifi sat watching her motions lazily, waiting for something to happen, for their chance to see Tarquinn as well, but that opportunity never presented itself. The King stayed in the room for fifteen minutes, and when he stepped out his face was sweaty, his eyes wide in dismay.
"Well, what happened?" the Duchess burst out in eagerness.
King Hagan wiped his forehead and the corners of his eyes with a handkerchief and shook his head. "Tarquinn is very ill, I'm afraid. He... needs much time to rest."
"Rest! But, but..." The Duchess stood up suddenly. "The poor dear mustn't be left alone! We would love to help him, bring him soup or get-well cards if only he would let us in --"
The King would listen to none of the Duchess's pleas. The two soon began to argue -- Hagan enraged about the Duchess's vile gossiping, the Duchess stung by the King's withholding of important public information. Lella tried to calm them down, and in the rush and flurry, none of them noticed Fifi quietly standing up and sneaking to the prince's door, which she had not heard being relocked. She turned the knob slowly, and to her excitement it presented no resistance. Without a sound she crept inside.
The room was lost in shadow, no candles were lit and all the windows but one were concealed by curtains. The starlight falling in through this one open window was the only source of illumination. Fifi carefully made her way deeper into the expansive bedroom, which was large enough to contain a gymnastics tournament. She passed the many gilded portraits and paintings on the walls (most of them naturally of Tarquinn, but one in a heart-shaped frame was of her), the bookshelves, a white baby grand piano, and the armoire which stored Tarquinn's swords. Fifi sneaked to the large four-poster bed, heart beating louder at each step closer. With a shaky hand, she pulled aside the curtains round the bed.
"Ah!" she uttered.
No one was in bed, though from the ruffled sheets and the squashed pillows it seemed someone had recently been there. She sighed, staring at the covers, until her eye caught a slip of paper sticking out from under a pillow. Very curious (though Fifi was not a gossip like her mother, she did share her insurmountable curiosity), she knelt onto the bed, reached for the pillow, and uncovered the complete collection of her letters sent to Tarquinn in the past few weeks. She felt that her heart had slipped to her throat -- so stunned was she as she flipped through her set of letters. Beside these she noticed an additional mass of papers, most ripped to pieces, written by Tarquinn: unfinished letters. "Dearest Fifi, I deeply regret not having written sooner, but --" was all of one, and: "My Fifi, words cannot express the anguish I feel for shunning your letters of concern so long, however --" was all of another. Fifi placed the letters back, near fainting. So, he did still care! Whatever rumours were being raised against Tarquinn, whatever complaints her mother had, they mattered not because Fifi knew the prince hadn't forgotten her; he didn't hate her. And yet, what could have kept him from finishing any of his letters?
A stunning, shattering crash of glass erupted nearby and Fifi instantly crouched down beside the bed. She heard distant sobs from the far side of the room and a thumping as though someone were pounding his fists.
"Tarquinn?" Fifi said fearfully, standing up and slowly moving to the middle of the room. She couldn't see anyone, but followed the sobs to the next room: the prince's private closet, which held all his clothes and jewelry. Fifi stopped in the open doorway and tried to see into the dark room. There, slumped over a vanity with a shattered mirror was the prince, his shoulders rising and falling as he sobbed. Fifi froze, not knowing what to do.
She cleared her throat and said again: "Tarquinn?"
The shadowy figure raised his head and spun out of the chair he sat in, frightening Fifi by the sudden movements and the chair's crash as it fell against the table. She tried to make out the prince's face, but it was too dark, and she could only distinguish a very wrong, unfamiliar silhouette...
"What are you doing? Get out of here, go!" the prince roared, jumping out of sight behind a tall curtain. "Leave, don't you dare come nearer!"
Fifi gulped once, her heart as shattered as the mirror, and she turned and ran out.
The days slowly passed and the prince's behaviour remained the same. The only difference in anything was that the Duchess Bonnegrace's gossiping had dimmed a hint after her argument with King Hagan. Still, the kingdom was in an uproar, especially since the fifteenth day of the Month of Storing was upon them, that special day of celebrations and extravagant parties all rejoicing the grand occasion of Neopia's birthday. Most of all, though, the kingdom waited for the fifteenth because it was supposedly the day Tarquinn de Quincy would at last be ceremoniously declared the official heir to the throne of Brightvale. Everyone gathered at the King's castle to celebrate and await the prince's arrival. Everyone was itching to know the truth of the rumours.
The morning of the fifteenth was a largely silent affair at Tarquinn's country mansion. At the rise of the pale sun, the crowing Peadackles and chirping Beekadoodles were the only creatures expressing life and mirth. The servants awoke and quietly bustled about their business, the Quiggle chef flipped pancakes while humming a steady tune. He flopped the cakes onto a plate, added syrup and a pinch of cinnamon, and then let Lella take over. Lella picked up the plate, gathered the morning mail for the prince, and climbed the stairs. The valet de chambre knocked on the door for her and stiffly announced her presence (the valet's job had become obsolete in the past weeks seeing that he was not allowed to near the one he was supposed to tend to). The door opened a crack and Lella was let inside. She walked to the desk where Tarquinn always ordered his meals placed, set down the plate, and looked around the room hesitantly. The prince was lying in bed, curtains drawn about him.
"Tarquinn? Would you like your mail now?" Lella asked.
The prince sighed, the hopeless sigh of one on his deathbed. "I suppose."
Lella stepped to the bed and stuck her hand in between the curtains, waiting for the prince to take the small bundle of letters.
"Thank you. You may go."
Lella removed her hand. She watched the curtains move back into place. "Tarquinn, " she began slowly, "today is the fifteenth, you know, the day you are to be announced --"
"Leave, please. I do not feel well."
Lella clenched her teeth and nodded silently. "Fine..."
She left the room, downcast, and closed the door behind her. Silence.
The prince rested his head on a multitude of pillows, and he flipped rapidly through the letters he had received. He tossed most of them away disinterestedly, until one caught his eye: from the judges of the Neohome Spotlight. The prince tore this open with a claw and eagerly scanned the first few lines: "Dear Mr. de Quincy, thank you for entering the Neohome Spotlight. We regret to inform you, however, that your Neohome has not been chosen..."
"Ugh!" Tarquinn ripped the letter into pieces and threw them across the bedsheets. He held his forehead as though checking for a fever, and then, slowly regaining his composure, he opened another letter -- this one with the seal of the King.
I write to you on the eve preceding the fifteenth with the hope that you are aware of my desire to see you, at the castle, this coming morning. I know that you are fearful of and wearied by the many implications your presence would have should you appear here; however, allow me to say this.
Throughout all the years we have known each other, I have experienced an immeasurable pride and joy in having you beside me. Never once has my belief in you faltered, never once as I have seen you grow from a bright child into an intelligent, capable adult. Doubtless, you have afforded me the happiest years and the most cherished memories of my long lonely life. So it is, when I was informed of your recent predicament (and I know it all, much thanks to your kind nurse), I was, to say the least, deeply shocked and saddened. I assume you are wondering now about my opinion on learning of your careless disregard of the governorship I have given you. Do not fret about this, for I dare say you have suffered enough to recompense your behaviour of before tenfold. I have had a discussion with the one who perpetrated this unfortunate retaliation against you, and he holds a boundless remorse for his actions; indeed, he asked me to cast him into a dungeon, so regretful is he. I have not done this for I feel it is unwise to give punishment to those who have seen the faults of their ways.
You, my son, have certainly seen the faults of your ways, and I can only imagine the penance you pay daily for them. There is, most thankfully, a wise saying I would like to impart to you: He who sees his wrongs grows wiser by the day. Take care to consider what you have learnt through your suffering, and use your knowledge to better those around you. The joy of having knowledge is spreading it to others.
As my letter grows long, and I fear I have still not said all I would like, I must settle for one direct plea: please, my boy, come to the castle the morning of the fifteenth, for, if you haven't yet heard (and if indeed you have not heard the Duchess Bonnegrace's announcements, I believe you would be the only one in Brightvale who has escaped her flapping tongue), the celebrations of this year are broadened to include the ceremony of declaring you as my rightful heir to the throne. The ceremony shall take place in the throne room, at one o'clock, immediately after the noon banquet. The Royal Valet is to dress you in formal attire, and you are to be crowned before the noble families of Brightvale. I hope you see my need for you, Tarquinn. I hope you understand, in simplest, sincerest terms, that you mean everything to me, and I could have no other become King in my stead but you. If you have fears about your own adequacy, especially now that you do not feel yourself, I urge you to look within and see that, yes, you are not only still yourself, but you have never been a brighter, more noble individual than now. I know you feel horrible about your appearance, I know that has always meant so much to you, but, if I may direct your attention to Skarl or even to myself, you can easily ascertain what handsome Kings we are! And yet, we gain the respect of our subjects (at least I know I do). Respect is not gained with a pretty face, but through wisdom, honesty, and bravery. The kingdom will respect you, Tarquinn. You have no reason to be afraid.
Finally, I hope you have considered and understood all I have written. I hope you make the right decision.
P.S: Miss Bonnegrace is still worried about you, and there are two special guests who have arrived tonight at the castle and await your appearance here tomorrow.
The prince's hands shook as he clumsily folded the letter and replaced it into the envelope. He held his head in frustration.
"No, no, no!" he cried. "I shall die!"
As Tarquinn was storming about his rooms in desperation, gathering his things into a pile, and plotting to escape Brightvale and live far away, perhaps as a hermit of the Haunted Woods, a personage most unforeseen rapped on the mansion's front door and asked to be admitted inside. A Meerca butler answered the knocks (Lella had just left, having been called to the King's castle to assist with the preparation of the celebrations), and upon taking in the visitor, he nearly fell over in astonishment.
"Is this the residence of Tarquinn de Quincy?"
The butler shut his lolling mouth and bowed deeply, acknowledging that this residence belonged to no one but.
"I would like to see him. Take me to him, please."
"Oh, well, err, you see, the prince does not allow visitors on account of his special condition," the butler said as the guest stepped into the front foyer and looked about at the overwhelming display of pomp, of gold, marble, and emerald everywhere.
"Nevertheless, take me to him."
The butler gulped, knowing that this guest's requests could not be denied, and he set off stiffly up the stairs. He reached the antechamber, shook the snoring Usul valet awake, and rasped in his ear the alarming news. "Psst! The Faerie Queen is here to see the prince!"
The valet watched as the guest stepped into the chamber. He blinked, not believing his eyes, but when the butler hit him in the arm, he stood up properly and bowed. Fyora smiled kindly at him and walked towards the prince's locked door.
"T-the prince does not allow gues--" the Usul began, but was hushed.
"Is he inside? May I go inside now?" Fyora asked.
The valet stared and stuttered. "I... I..."
Fyora raised an eyebrow in perplexion, and then decided to knock and see for herself.
"No! Let me be!" Tarquinn called.
The prince looked irritably towards the door. The knocks had stopped, but someone was trying to turn the doorknob. The intruder soon stopped that as well, realising the door had been locked. Tarquinn shook his head angrily and sighed. He returned to his closet and began pulling down all the hats he planned to take away with him. Suddenly, there came a loud crash and a thud. The prince froze momentarily, a dozen hats in his arms, considering the possible meanings of these noises. He dropped the hats and slowly crept out into his bedroom.
Fyora, the Queen of the Faeries, had just blasted the door down with her crystal staff and there she stood upon the threshold looking in. Tarquinn, though incredibly frightened at this sight, was momentarily too surprised to move or do anything but gaze at the tall, beautiful Faerie. Fyora lifted the ends of her long violet gown as she walked over the fallen door. With a wave of her wand, the door flew back up onto its hinges.
"Good morning, Tarquinn," Fyora said, taking note of the prince at the far end of the room, silent and motionless as a statue. "I hope I haven't surprised you too much. I admit my arrival is unannounced, but I simply had no time to assure you of my coming."
The prince inclined his head the slightest bit, then, his terror returning, he rushed back into his closet. Fyora looked mildly surprised at this; she smiled, and followed. She stopped in the closet's doorway, right where Fifi had stood nights before, and watched the prince dash through his many glittering outfits, shoving on a pair of thick gloves, a big hat to cover his head, a large cape...
"This is really unnecessary," Fyora said.
The prince shook his head furiously, swirling the cape round himself and covering his mouth with a hand. The Faerie Queen waved her wand again and suddenly all the additional clothes Tarquinn had piled onto himself were ripped off as if by invisible hands. He spun around in confusion, trying to hold onto his cape, but that flew high over his head and back into the wardrobe. The prince stood before Fyora, mouth open in shock, wearing but a simple shirt and vest, and black breeches with white stockings. He covered his mouth with his hands and stared.
Fyora took little notice of the prince's hideous, coarse blue fur, the black claws of his malformed hands and feet, his hunched shoulders and back. In a calm voice she said: "I have heard about all that has happened to you. A Light Faerie rushed to Kreludor to find me; she informed me of your urgent matter, that you had been cursed by one of Jhudora's artifacts, and you needed a cure immediately. Sadly, I was just told these things a few days ago. I have been hard to find because for months I have been helping the Space Faerie save the Grundos of Kreludor from a severe threat of destruction. If I hadn't had such troubles, if I hadn't been away, I would have been able to help you sooner."
The prince backed up slowly till he reached the far side of the room and bumped into his dressing table with the shattered mirror. In an undertone he said: "I cannot be helped anymore; the curse is irreversible now. I shall remain like this till I die."
Fyora sighed wistfully and entered the spacious closet, not really a closet, but rather a giant room filled with cabinets, wardrobes, shelves for hats and shoes, hooks for belts and baldricks. Tarquinn quivered, watching with wide eyes the Faerie Queen step beside him. She looked at the smashed mirror over the table, pointed her crystal wand at it and magically, all the shards in the trash bin and on the floor flew back on the mirror's frame, arranged themselves into their proper places like a self-solving jigsaw puzzle, and before the prince's eyes the cracks sealed. The mirror became complete. The prince took one fearful look into it, screamed at his unbearable reflection, and turned away.
"Why can't you look at yourself in the mirror? Does your vanity still surpass all?" the Faerie Queen asked, placing a hand on the prince's shoulder, easing him closer to the mirror.
"I cannot, no, don't make me look!" Tarquinn shut his eyes tight and covered them with his mutated, but still bejeweled hands.
"You are a very peculiar character, Tarquinn." Fyora sighed. "I've heard that you are incredibly brave, loyal to your friends, a valiant fighter till the end -- you would face death if it blocked you from doing the thing you felt was right... and yet, you still have this impossible vanity, this obsession with your appearance which precludes all else..."
Tarquinn laughed a miserable laugh, as though it were forced from him under torture. "Who would tell you that I am heroic? I am a most despicable thing; I shouldn't be seen --"
"A humble farmer of Brightvale told me this, a Kacheek named Philippe," Fyora said.
The prince hushed his moaning and looked up hesitantly, doubtfully. "He did? You have spoken to him?"
"Yes, I have. I visited him before coming to you. I wanted to hear the lesser-told side of the story first." Fyora gazed at the prince in the mirror thoughtfully. "I must say, you certainly have been through a struggle!"
"It means nothing, if I have failed..."
"You have found your real father, have you not? You have saved an entire town from certain devastation. This is failure?" Fyora frowned. "Ah, I can see that you only care about your appearance still. Why, oh, why are you so vain? Is your epithet, Tarquinn the Vain, the epitome of your being?"
Tarquinn furrowed his eyebrows -- big, bushy hairs they were now. In a weak voice he said: "I don't know why I care so much about my appearance. I will always be immeasurably glad that I could have helped Neovia and that I know now my past, that I am close to it and will be close to my real father, but... "
Tarquinn moaned. "Oh, I am just unutterably terrified, of everything. Of failure, of scorn, of the future, now -- of myself. I do not feel like myself, and because of this I can never enjoy anything. I cannot bear to look at myself for it is not me, no, no, no, don't make me look."
Fyora pushed Tarquinn before the mirror. "There is nothing to fear, just open your eyes. You are still you."
The Faerie Queen shook Tarquinn gently and waited. It was clear she would not leave until the prince relented. Slowly, Tarquinn drew his hands away from his face, opened one eye and then the other. He hatefully looked at his awful face, the gruesome fur everywhere, the big nose, the sharp yellowish teeth... Tarquinn clutched the sides of the dressing table and looked down, shutting his eyes and beginning to sob.
Weakly, he implored: "No, I loathe it, I cannot, please, why are you making me do this?"
The Faerie Queen held Tarquinn tighter, raised the glowing crystal wand over his head, and whispered closely in his ear, "Look, look, look." Tarquinn would not, he shook his head stubbornly, and the Faerie Queen whispered again, this time with laughter in her throat, "Look, look, look."
Tarquinn sniffed and indignantly opened his eyes, but the lines of anger upon his forehead quickly disappeared. The prince stared open-mouthed at his face, his face, unblemished and fine! Tarquinn screamed in shock, delight, fright, everything, actually, and grabbed his cheeks to see if they were real. They were soft and smooth, now blushing red. The prince leapt back, looked at Fyora in a wild expression of amazement, then looked back into the mirror. His large, deep eyes were clear and blue, rimmed with fresh tears, but this time of joy. Everything was as it should be: his handsome eyebrows, his pearly teeth, his gracious smile -- the first in so long. With the exceptions of his long violet locks (which needed a good brushing) and his messy goatee, he was entirely himself again. Tarquinn glanced down in surprise at the rest of his body, as if just then realising other parts of him existed, still unnoticed. The prince patted himself down, looked at his beloved normal hands, and bare feet. It was all too much, he could hardly stand the emotion -- in fact, he couldn't -- and he fell to his knees and began to sob in between cries of "thank you, thank you."
The Faerie Queen waited generously for the prince to quiet down, to take everything in, and then she helped him to his feet. "Tarquinn, I concede, you will always be impossibly vain!" the Faerie Queen laughed. "But I know you have a good heart, and no one deserved this more than you."
Tarquinn wiped the last tears from his eyes with still shaky hands, and, with as much formality as he could muster, thanked Fyora at length for her kindness, her generosity, her goodwill, but the Faerie broke him off.
"It is my duty to help those in need, everyone in Neopia. I ask for nothing; my reward is your happiness."
"How, oh, how were you able to reverse the curse? I thought, Jhudora had said --"
Fyora chuckled. "Evil is never a match for good. My sister's cruelest, vilest spells and curses have no power over me because I strive only to better the world, not to destroy it. This is something Jhudora seems unable to understand. Still, she tries to develop potions and malicious spells which she thinks might some day stand a chance against me, equal the magic of my crystal wand... but, Tarquinn, we must speak of other things. I recall being told by Philippe of an important ceremony today?"
Tarquinn clapped his hands. "Yes! There are so many things that need to be done! There is so little time, I'm late already!"
Fyora nodded, then stepped back and watched the prince hastily snake into a coat and jump into a pair of boots. He rushed out of the closet, tore the door to his room open and shouted to his startled valet and butler: "Roses, I need a bouquet of roses, pink and red! And get me two formal outfits: one, a suit of about your size, Ciceroy; and two, a dress -- a lovely colorful dress -- preferably gold and green, with a shawl and white ladies' gloves -- all these fit for a young girl. Wrap the clothes each in fine paper and have them ready for me in fifteen minutes at most! Go! Why are you staring at me like that?"
Tarquinn's servants exchanged worried glances, and the valet asked nervously, "Are you all right, sir?"
"All right? I'm excellent!" the prince raised his head high and laughed a mad laugh, slamming the door shut.
The valet and butler blinked, still clearly hearing the insane cackles coming from the prince's room.
The Meerca butler nudged his fellow servant and muttered. "I don't know about you, Ciceroy, but I can't wait until I retire from this looney bin!"
Tarquinn returned to the Faerie Queen and bowed gracefully before her. "I must travel to Brightvale Castle as soon as possible, but there is a matter I must attend to first. There is someone I know suffering greatly for his past wrongs, perhaps as much as I had been for mine, and he needs to be uplifted forthwith."
"Ah, that is very true," Fyora concurred.
"Will you honour me with your company on this visit?" Tarquinn asked.
Fyora smiled and took hold of the prince's outstretched arm. "Of course."
Less than an hour later, Tarquinn de Quincy and the Faerie Queen were walking up the dusty path leading to the crooked front door of a crooked little hovel by the edge of a vast sunbeaten farm. The morning was windy and cold, for it was very near winter, but not a puff of cloud dotted the severe bright blue of the sky. Fyora looked at the dry earth beyond the hovel, the dead crops, the withered Tangella trees.
"The drought has destroyed many of the farms here," Fyora observed.
"Yes," Tarquinn said, a bit uneasily, as he saw the effects of his past heedless behaviour.
The prince stepped upon a muddy welcome mat, shifted the gifts he held to one arm, and knocked on the crude wooden door. Quick pattering footsteps grew louder from the hollow silence within, and the door creaked open, revealing the countenance of a young blue Kacheek: Marina, Philippe's daughter.
"You are Marina, aren't you?" Tarquinn smiled, crossing the threshold.
"Y-yes..." Marina's face became white with shock as the prince removed his hat, and affectedly bent down to kiss her hand as though she were a princess. He then thrust into her arms a giant bouquet of fresh roses and a package wrapped in fine violet paper.
"My dear, is your father at home? It's urgent that I see him."
"T-there, in the k-kitchen," Marina stuttered, near fainting, hardly able to believe that the prince had just entered her home -- with the Faerie Queen! It seemed to the little girl that she was caught in a most unbelievable faerie tale. Her heart fluttered and she hid away into her room, too excited at the moment to think.
Tarquinn and the Fyora entered a low-ceilinged, dingy kitchen on the left and took notice of Philippe lying gloomily over a splintery wooden table, staring at a book, a cracked cup of watery tea in one hand. He looked up immediately as he saw motion out of the corner of his eye. The prince stepped in, grinning, and marched to his side.
"Philippe, my good friend! I have come to bear you a gift, and an invitation," Tarquinn said, setting down the wrapped present upon the table.
The Kacheek looked at the gift before him, then at the newly-handsome prince, then at Fyora. He grabbed his head, completely dazed. At that moment, squeals of delight rang throughout the house and Marina rushed through the hall, sliding to a stop in the doorway of the kitchen. Her face glowed as she looked at her father, holding a glimmering emerald dress before her.
"Look at this, Papa!" she cried. "The prince gave this to me! To me!"
Tarquinn turned to Philippe's daughter and he laughed at her joyous incredulity. He knelt down before her, looked closely into her eyes, and in a dramatic tone, he said: "Oh, fair Marina, I ask of you this. If ever I have disappointed or harmed you, please, could you find it in your kind and gracious heart to forgive me?"
Marina blushed. "Yes, yes, sir!"
Tarquinn bowed his head. "You are very good. There is another question I must ask. This dress, you see, is yours entirely, but I have given it to you for a special purpose. There is a grand celebration today at Brightvale Castle; there will be parties with dancing, fireworks at night, every entertainment you can imagine. Will you wear this dress and accompany me to the festivities? I invite you and your father to the castle."
Marina's eyes opened wide and she cried in happiness. "I would love to go! I can hardly believe it!"
"Wonderful! Be quick and get dressed, for we leave without delay!"
Marina nodded vigorously, and ran back to her room with the dress. Tarquinn returned to Philippe's side, his expression more serious now. "Come, Philippe, I have given you a handsome suit to wear. Put it on and let us go."
The Kacheek stood up slowly, his face strained and downcast, afraid to look at either Tarquinn or the Faerie Queen. At last, he said: "I am glad you are yourself again, sir."
Tarquinn laughed. "Sir? After all we have been through, you mustn't continue with such tiring formalities. Now."
The Kacheek raised his eyes painfully, as if expecting to be struck, but of course he was not. Tarquinn placed a hand on his shoulder, and in a steady voice said: "It is over, Philippe. I forgive you."
Beautiful towering Brightvale Castle shone brilliantly in the noon sun, and Tarquinn, the Faerie Queen, Philippe, and his daughter, could not continue without stopping for a few moments to admire the sight before them. The castle, decorated in wreaths and garlands and flags of the royal colors -- gold and green -- loomed tall and majestic over the expanse of gardens, fountains, and fruit trees which surrounded it. The blue sky crowned the tops of the many towers and turrets, the sunlight lit up the stone so it glowed a warm yellow. Tarquinn led the way forward, through the wrought iron entrance gates and across the wide stone square before the royal entrance. In the gardens to the left and right strolled lazy nobles, idly chatting and admiring the last flowers of the year, and as Tarquinn marched forward they paused all conversation and peeked their heads out from behind the hedges to catch a glimpse of him and the three by his side. Startled sighs and excited whisperings followed the prince up to the enormous gold-adorned double doors of the castle. Tarquinn nodded to the guards standing beside the entrance and waited for them to pull open the doors for him.
Inside lay a glowing, cavernous hall; chandeliers made of Terror Mountain crystals lit the way past two identical emerald-carpeted marble staircases; the walls were adorned in silk wallpaper of gold and white, and portraits of all the past Kings of Brightvale hung proudly above everyone's heads.
"Ah! That's the First Prince! What is here doing here? Isn't he supposed to be sick and --"
"I heard he was suffering from a severe case of NeoPhobia --"
"My, he is with the Faerie Queen! And who are those Kacheeks beside him?"
Nobles dawdling about the castle intently watched the prince pass them and disappear down the main hall with his accompaniers. All the nasty rumours of Tarquinn's strange illnesses and behaviours suddenly were brought to light again, and everyone wanted to observe the prince for themselves to gain some intelligence on what had really been behind his month-long seclusion. Tarquinn was followed by a dozen curious nobles as he entered the grand banquet hall. The crowds and noise of conversation here were impressive; everywhere in the high vaulted space echoed the sounds of voices and footsteps, of ladies' high laughter, of children's boisterous chatter. Long tables were lined up and covered with food and drinks from all over Neopia. The banquet was in full progress, and those who had already eaten their fill strayed around the room, shaking hands and exchanging words with acquaintances and friends.
The moment Tarquinn stepped past the entrance, all those near the doors froze and gazed at him in surprise. Tarquinn laughed inwardly at the commotion his appearance was causing (he had, after all, heard the rumours about himself from Lella), and he decided it would be fun to playfully confound some of these staring dukes and gossipy ladies. He raised a hand high, calling out to a perambulating waiter carrying a tray of drinks, and he picked off a fresh coconut cocktail.
"My friends, kindly might I introduce my escort, Fyora, the Faerie Queen?" Tarquinn said pompously, waving the cocktail around. "And here on my left are two very special guests to whom I urge you all to pay particular respect. Here, Philippe --"
Tarquinn shot a confused glance at Philippe, realising that he did not know his full name.
"Derely," Philippe muttered into Tarquinn's ear.
"Philippe Derely!" Tarquinn called. "And this is his charming young daughter, Marina."
All the nobles immediately swarmed Philippe and Marina, complimented them on their dress, praised and envied their close relationship to the First Prince. Tarquinn laughed and enjoyed a few moments of casual discourse with some friends he hadn't seen in a long while, until Fyora said to him, "Tarquinn, I am going to speak a few words to the King, and then I must leave. Many things await me in Faerieland."
"Of course. Thank you so much, Fyora. I could thank you a thousand times and still I feel it would be not enough to express my gratitude," Tarquinn said.
Fyora smiled, and patted the prince on the shoulder once before crossing the crowded hall and disappearing in the jumble of bodies. Tarquinn took a sip of the cocktail and walked three steps before being beset by another group of curious ladies, and then another, and another. He politely dispelled all the rumours everyone had heard, and declared that the real cause of his illness had been -- a most shocking thing, this -- an apple pie. All Kyrii are terribly allergic to apples, Tarquinn explained, and one morning his chef's foolish assistant had been testing different recipes, including one for a special pie of cinnamon, walnuts, lemons, and -- apples. Tarquinn had eaten the heavily spiced pie without knowing in the slightest that it contained apples, and for weeks afterwards he felt that his brain would split from the suffering the allergy caused. He was a mess, pale, shaking, and debilitated, and he felt he would have done great dishonour to all the noble presences who stood before him now if he allowed them to see him in such a pitiful state. The story was quite silly, but it was accepted for Tarquinn spoke with such charm and fervour that no one could have doubted him. To some, the long-awaited truth caused a visible disappointment since they had been hoping for something much more intriguing, much more horrific and hair-raising. Tarquinn sighed as he watched the nobles around him disperse once they had been enlightened. He wondered momentarily if he ought to tell the truth, the real truth to them? He finished his cocktail, placed the coconut-shaped cup upon a table, and shook his head with a laugh, no. Well, maybe he would tell one special someone.
Slowly, the prince made his way across the hall to the grand table of the King. King Hagan sat in the middle, in the biggest and most ornate seat, watching the swarming crowd with a stern eye, his hands clenched before him, fingers twirling nervously. To his right sat an assortment of special foreign guests: ambassadors from Mystery Island, Sakhmet, and Altador; while to his left were lined some of his family members, such as his cousin, the Duke Mery, who was swaying in his chair and seemed about to fall asleep again (King Skarl, however, was missing). To Tarquinn's surprise the two guests on Hagan's immediate right were none other than Absolon and Basile, dressed now in the finest Neovian attire and looking brighter than they had ever looked in long, long years. Tarquinn batted away the onslaught of nobles surrounding him and stepped up the raised platform the King's table rested on.
Hagan saw the prince walking towards him, and the signs of anxiety melted from his face. He ordered a chair to be set to his right, and Tarquinn plumped down right between the King and Absolon. Hagan examined Tarquinn closely, then nodded.
"The Faerie Queen has explained already," he said. "You have made a wise decision, Tarquinn."
Tarquinn smiled and then turned to Absolon and Basile, eagerly hugging them both. "You are the 'two special guests' I was written to about! Why are you here?"
"What a silly question! Basile and I could never miss this day," Absolon said. "My, let me see you. You look wonderful, very handsome."
"Thank you," Tarquinn said, feeling uncommonly bashful at the constant way he was being stared at. "But I was under the impression you couldn't leave Neovia because of --"
"-- of Maximilian's ghost?" Absolon exclaimed. "Well, there is no need to concern yourself about old Max anymore, ever at all. I dare say he has finally gone to a better rest. Do you know, a few weeks after you left --"
"The house burned down!" Basile interrupted, too excited to let Absolon finish.
Tarquinn gaped at this news, then quickly shut his mouth so as not to offend with his impropriety the nobles watching him from across the table. In the calmest tone he could gather, he asked: "But how could that be? I am so sorry! Is anything left?"
Absolon and Basile looked at one another and chuckled. Their joy was a mystery to Tarquinn.
"The mansion didn't exactly burn down, at least not by conventional flames." Absolon said in a lower voice. "One day, while Basile and I were shopping at Neovian Antiques for furniture to replace some of the things Gracien had, err, bitten apart, someone unleashed the Sands of Oblivion in the middle of the house."
"Who?" Tarquinn asked, then, realisation dawning on him, he gasped. "Maximilian?"
"Yes, it could have been no one else," Absolon said.
"The whole place was in ashes by the time we returned," Basile commented. "There was nothing left at all."
"No, there was one room still standing," Absolon corrected. "Maximilian's secret treasure trove was untouched..."
"Oh, it is no surprise he would want to protect his most valued things!" Tarquinn injected.
Absolon laughed, then grew serious. "The room was emptied of all the objects -- all the gold, gemstones, and questionable artifacts -- we saw in it, and was filled with family portraits, photo albums, diaries and journals -- memorabilia of a, well, important kind."
Tarquinn stared, silent.
"Seems Max knew it was time to let his house die along with him," Basile said, taking a drink of Altadorian Nectar.
Absolon nodded. He looked down, deep in thought. "I think Maximilian finally understood that all things eventually come to an end. His beloved house, which for generations had been the pride of our family, had passed its time of glory. It was no longer a place of happiness, of life, it was just a collection of lifeless rooms filled with flyblown old keepsakes and the dust of a stubborn past clinging to the present. Though I still get teary-eyed every time I realise the mansion is gone, I think maybe it is for the better..."
"Of course it is for the better," Basile affirmed. "There were too many bad memories in that place, things you have no knowledge of, Tarquinn."
"I can imagine. But --" Tarquinn paused to consider, "-- if the house was destroyed by the Sands of Oblivion, which supposedly erase all trace and memory of anyone and anything, how can we remember the house so clearly?"
"The legends have apparently been touched by the 'Sands of Embellishment.'" Basile shrugged.
Absolon only sighed. "The mansion has many memories, good and bad -- some of the best naturally involve you and Nadine, Tarquinn -- but I think perhaps the legend of the sands is true, at least in some way. Now that the mansion is gone, I feel that all the resentment and hatred I felt towards the place, all the bad memories of being trapped there alone have been burnt to ashes in the fire, while the good memories remain etched in my heart."
There was a pause; Absolon gazed out at the laughing ladies strolling past, one of them stopping for a second to give him a keen look.
Tarquinn asked, "But what of Maximilian? Did you find the bottle of sand, or did that disappear, too?"
"We found the sand in the ashes. We just gave the bottle to the Faerie Queen," Basile said.
"Yes, we daren't keep something that dangerous near us," Absolon said. "As for Max... I can only imagine how painful it must have been for him to destroy the one thing he so loved! He knew, I am convinced, that the mansion had come to its end, and, essentially, that our family is no longer what it used to be. He understood that he couldn't keep me back there, alone, till I died -- and I respect him for his move, for letting me move on. Though Max is undoubtably gone now, and all those generations of our family at its height are past, I can recall them at any time, and that affords me the greatest joy, and honour, knowing that I am a part of such a grand history."
"Don't be so glum, Absolon," Basile consoled, seeing that the old Kyrii had grown suddenly morose.
"What will happen to you now that the mansion is gone?" Tarquinn asked. "What of the textile factory?"
"We sold the factory," Basile said brightly. "We sold everything. Ah, you don't even know this -- we are never returning to Neovia again!"
"But what will you do?" Tarquinn shook his head in disbelief, watching his father sit up straight and smile a little.
"I am the Royal Valet to King Hagan, and the lead tailor to the Royal Family," Absolon said, his smile widening at his son's pleasant shock.
"And I am the Grand Chamberlain of the Royal Household," Basile imparted.
"That is amazing!"
"Yes, the King and I met last night, and with much insistence he asked that I take this assignment," Absolon said. "I am very pleased, although, I am not too sure how great of a pleasure it will be taking that fellow's measurements..."
Absolon indicated the Duke Mery, whose head had just fallen into a bowl of salad.
"You will have lots of fun with him." Tarquinn laughed.
And so, for the rest of their sitting together, Tarquinn held a merry conversation with Absolon, Basile, and the King. The prince pointed out to Absolon all the nobles he ought to know, and described their personalities, quirks, and relationships. Tarquinn then mentioned his country mansion, which Absolon and Basile still had not seen, and he spoke of Brightvale itself, of its history, its past kings and queens, the shape of the land, what its winters and summers were like, and all the annual festivals.
The prince sighed, relaxed, and watched the banquet before him. He could make out Philippe by a table, talking to a couple of puffed-up and powdered ladies while eating Stramberry Sausages, and there, not far off to the right, gathered round a table of desserts, was Marina and a group of young princesses her age. Tarquinn noticed them glancing in his direction every now and then, and afterwards giggling and leaning over to whisper into a friend's ear. The prince's tranquility was only disturbed upon sight of Fifi.
She sat in the farthest table to the left, nearly hidden amongst all the bodies shuffling past her, sparingly eating a slice of cake with a tiny fork. Her dress was a simple, elegant piece in pale blue and silver; a matching hat and a long coat lay beside her. Tarquinn watched her intently, leaning halfway across the table to get a clear look at her. Suddenly, she raised her head, right at him, it seemed, but she turned her attention down again and sighed. Tarquinn shrunk back in his seat, heart pinched by discomfort and nervousness. He wanted to see her now; he had to apologise to Fifi for not replying to her letters and shunning her these past weeks. Tarquinn breathed in deeply, then out, counting down silently from ten. He was ready, but just before he stood up, King Hagan touched him upon the shoulder.
"The banquet will be over soon. Go now and prepare for the ceremony," he said into Tarquinn's ear.
"Yes," Tarquinn replied quietly, his plan forestalled, and he got up out of his chair and turned away from Fifi.
The grand ceremony had at last begun. King Hagan's opulent throne room was crowded with the noblest families of Brightvale, the King's ministers, and foreign ambassadors from around Neopia. Everyone stood solemnly in a specially ordained spot, facing Hagan the Wise, who rested a magnific and sober sight upon the royal throne. Before him, decked in formal clothing of emerald and gold, a trailing mantle upon his shoulders, stood Tarquinn de Quincy. It seemed that not a breath was taken in the whole space; the tension grew as the silent minutes passed, the excitement as the ceremony progressed was barely contained delirium. The King's First Minister, an old and noble Scorchio, stepped to Tarquinn and unfurled before him a great scroll containing the Oath of the Heir Apparent and beneath it a long row of signatures. Tarquinn, taking a deep breath, recited the oath aloud, his promise to the King and all Brightvale, to preserve and respect the land, the law, the customs, history, and, especially, the citizens. Whisperings now began from the farthest corners of the throne room, and they echoed off the high walls, returning as distorted sounds to the ears below. Tarquinn was given a green Weewoo quill, and with a shaky hand, he leaned down and signed his name in extravagant curling letters under the last signature -- that of King Hagan.
The Scorchio carefully folded up the scroll and handed it to a silent aid. The prince was asked to kneel, and the First Minister lifted a sparkling emerald- and diamond-studded coronet off a velvet cushion held by the Head of the Royal Knights of Brightvale. The whisperings hushed and a stony, suffocating silence filled the air as the Scorchio announced: "Tarquinn de Quincy, by the power of the law invested in me, I declare you on this day of the fifteenth, the Month of Storing, Year Eight, the Heir Apparent to the Royal Throne of Brightvale, and the only true successor to King Hagan the Wise."
The Scorchio lowered the coronet and placed it upon the prince's head. King Hagan raised a hand for Tarquinn to stand, and the prince slowly, shakily got to his feet. He stood before the King and bowed deeply, then to his ministers and the foreign nobility on his right, and then to the Royal Family on the left. Voices broke out in the hall, only a few at first, but the sounds soon doubled and intensified, filling the throne room.
"Stand beside me, Tarquinn," King Hagan whispered.
Next came the overwhelming array of nobles, all the eager dukes and countesses and knights, all the grand personages of Brightvale, each stepping up to the prince, shaking his hand and congratulating him, while trying to slip in a few fawning words. Tarquinn politely met them all, including the Duchess Bonnegrace (she seemed to have forgotten ever having said a false word against him) replied to their comments and questions, and remained smiling beside the King's side as the day passed and the celebrations continued outside.
And then, standing alone at the far end of the hall, Tarquinn spotted Fifi. He raised his head, but before he could utter a gasp, she rushed out and skirted a corner.
"Congratulations," Absolon said as he and Basile walked up to Tarquinn and Hagan. "I am at a loss for words! Only now am I beginning to comprehend the great import of all this -- that you will really be King of Brightvale. Speechless, I'm utterly speechless. With all my hope, I wish you the best."
King Hagan leaned in and jokingly interposed, "Will no one miss me once I leave the throne?"
Tarquinn chuckled, and kindly thanked Absolon and Basile, explaining that later he could join them in the celebrations, but now he had to pay his respects to all the nobility. Tarquinn shook their hands and thoughtfully watched them leave. A pain in his side returned as he remembered Fifi. She had been here, Tarquinn thought gloomily, but she had not come to speak with him...
Finally, after the crowd in the hall had largely scattered, and the ministers and guests had left to continue that day's celebrations, King Hagan stood up from his throne and held out a hand to Tarquinn. "Come, there are still many things for us to talk about, about the kingdom and your future."
It was night by the time Tarquinn had finished his long conversation with the King in his private office. They had discussed at length the many facets of the government, the roles of the King, and Tarquinn's new responsibilities from this day forth, which not only included several diplomatic duties, but a need for him to behave with constant dignity. The times were past when he could wildly run about the castle with friends, dance and party at his mansion until he fell into an exhausted heap, go on unannounced trips to the forests of Brightvale for fun; Tarquinn was not a child -- he had to strictly adhere to all the usages and customs of polite society. He had to be an example of perfect poise and intelligence at all times, he could not embarrass the kingdom, he could not -- Fyora forbid -- allow Brightvale to sink as low as that shameful morass of a land, Meridell. Tarquinn accepted King Hagan's words with a heavy but understanding heart. He had known for years what awaited him, but finally saying good-bye to his frolicsome days was a difficult, bittersweet task.
At last, as the night grew black and the stars shone bright, King Hagan ended his stern and lengthy speech. "We will meet tomorrow to discuss more on these things," he said, "but I would like you to enjoy yourself tonight. How well you have behaved, Tarquinn, listening carefully to these tedious details on government while all the kingdom is celebrating. You must have some fun, too. I hope I haven't made it seem that your life from this moment shall consist entirely of work and strict manners. I insist you relax, perhaps find Miss Bonnegrace and attend the dance now in the ballroom?"
Tarquinn gazed curiously at the King. Quite often had he mentioned Fifi's name, always with that odd, interested twinkle in his eye... but Tarquinn did continue his thoughts. He politely thanked King Hagan and left. Without an idea about where to go, Tarquinn wandered down the empty, shadowy halls. He was completely alone in this part of the dark castle, only occasionally passed by a guard or a servant carrying towels or food. Tarquinn stopped by a tall, stained glass window and looked out onto the royal gardens, the moonlight shining on his face. He was high up on one of the top floors; he had a bird's-eye view of everything taking place below. A garden party stretched before him, brightly lit with torches and oil lamps. Chairs and tables were arranged around the hedges and fountains, and here sat dozens of guests, chatting, eating, drinking, seemingly not at all concerned about the cold weather. They were waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Tarquinn retracted his head and sighed, turning away, and in the process bumping unexpectedly into Lella.
"There you are!" Lella cried happily, hugging Tarquinn. "I have wanted to see you, but because of all the work I've had helping to organise these celebrations, I have hardly had time to search. I heard from Absolon that you are cured! I am simply amazed!"
"Thank you," Tarquinn said. "Where are Absolon and Basile?"
"I don't know where they are now, perhaps exploring the castle grounds? The last time I saw them, they were in the Portrait Hall. Why?"
Tarquinn shrugged. "It isn't important, only..."
The prince's voice faded away and he looked down, shuffling his feet. Lella asked him what the matter was. Was he worried about his future? About the snooty nobility? About --
"I'm fine, Lella. Just tired," Tarquinn said, looking out the window again, leaning his elbows onto the sill.
Lella's still-concerned voice was a mere background buzzing as the prince watched the gardens and the figures down below, as he glanced at the castle's towers and rows and rows of coloured windows. His eyes grazed a distant terrace, and there, sitting alone, the tiny but unmistakable form of Fifi. Tarquinn nearly jumped up in his jittery excitement. He abruptly excused himself from Lella and rushed past her. He ran down the halls, footsteps echoing sharply, heart pounding as he swiftly skirted corners and looming statues. He
reached the other side of the castle and searched each of the rooms until he entered the one which he believed opened out to the terrace. The room was one of the castle's many guest rooms. It was empty; dark shapes of furniture filled the warm space. With a growing nervousness Tarquinn neared the open terrace and saw the back of Fifi's head through the window. A cold autumn breeze blew into the room, ruffling the prince's hair as he stepped outside.
Fifi looked up at him the moment she saw motion to her right. She quickly rose out of her seat, then sat down again, confused, eyes wide but clear in the dark. "What are you doing here?" she squeaked.
Tarquinn stepped to the iron railing and folded his arms upon it, looking out at the torchlit garden party. "Well, this is one of the best places to view fireworks in all the castle. I thought I would like to occupy a place here, but it seems you had the very same thing in mind and have cleverly beaten me to the chase."
Fifi looked down. "I am sure there are other splendid views besides this one, if my being here ruins the scene for you..."
"Oh, but it doesn't, it doesn't." Tarquinn turned. "What is enjoyed by one can be shared by two with twice the pleasure. I think I could not find a better place to be in at this moment than right here."
"Hmm..." Fifi frowned.
Tarquinn slowly left the railing and sat down in the spare chair beside Fifi. "I have troubled you greatly these past weeks. I cannot make up for my wrongs in any way but to afford you my humblest apologies and my heartfelt promise that I shall never unwittingly hurt your feelings again."
"I... " Fifi hesitated. "I would like to accept, but..."
"The rumours about you... aren't true, are they?" Fifi asked, and Tarquinn firmly shook his head. Fifi's voice grew more tremulous, her mind still troubled. "And that night, when I went into your room -- were you all right? You greatly frightened me, I thought you never wanted to see me again."
"Oh... I could never be angry with you. You greatly misunderstood the events of that night." Tarquinn paused. "Indeed, nothing frightens me more in all this world than the possibility of incurring your scorn! Do you forgive me? Please say you do, for I shall be miserable for eternity if you do not."
Fifi nodded slowly, a smile on her lips becoming clearer. "Of course, I forgive you. But I would like to know the truth about what happened. I don't believe you would have been foolish enough to eat an apple pie."
Tarquinn laughed and curled an arm around Fifi's shoulders. "The truth is a very complicated tale, however, I will tell it if you ask it of me. But, hush, not at this moment. The fireworks are starting."