In the Eye of the Beholder: Part One
When Mademoiselle d’Embellir was a young red Usul, her parents had wanted her to become a dentist: after all, they reasoned, Neopia always needs someone to cure their Floppy Tongues and provide them with advice on how to prevent Neogitus. They gave her the nice, simple, dental-appropriate name of Flossie and were delighted when she began showing interest in all the different colours that toothbrushes came in and regularly reminded everyone to use mouth wash.
“We’re so proud of her,” the Usul’s parents would say adoringly to anyone who asked after Flossie. “She’s the Organic Red Apple of our eyes – and that’s the only kind of apple she’ll eat, too, because she says they’re good for bleaching teeth.”
But just when everyone was beginning to get sick of hearing about Flossie and her interest in all things orthodontic, the Usul’s curiosity with teeth care waned and she began an obsession with eyeshadows and lipsticks. She fixed her best friend’s hairbrush when some of the bristles broke off and within a month everyone at school was wearing nail varnish that the Usul had developed herself. Her parents waved this off to anyone who mentioned her new interests and said with a little too much confidence, ‘It’s just a phase. All Usuls go through it.”
Unfortunately for them, it proved not to be so. They discovered within a few weeks that all her school peers had been instructed to call her Mademoiselle d’Embellir, and her closest friends insisted that the mademoiselle’s given name was Fantine. “Flossie?” they said in confusion to the Usul’s parents. “We don’t know any Flossie.”
While schoolmates and neighbours and doting family relations were in rapture about Mademoiselle’s new passion, her parents remained in a state of despair. “What good will lipstick do for anyone?” they wailed. “What kind of career requires proficiency in hair gel?” Everyone tried to reassure them that the young mademoiselle’s talent was more than they could possible have wished for. After all, anyone could become a dentist.
It was a talent, they insisted, and this was proved as Mademoiselle d’Embellir grew older and her work spread to outside the neighbourhood where she lived. The charming mademoiselle was delightfully theatrical, a little eccentric, but above all she was the only being in Neopia who could make Moehawk’s mohawks remain upright throughout their entire concert using her own, specially-formulated hair gel which she sold at the store in the Neopia Bazaar. Peophins visited from all over Neopia to purchase Peophin shampoo and every year huge shipments of her Factor 50 sun tan lotion, with its secret formula, would be ordered from Mystery Island.
Mademoiselle d’Embellir sold sky blue eyeshadow and black nail varnish to budding Beauty Contest entrants and there was a dramatic drop in Neopian cavities when her green mouth wash and peppermint toothpaste came on the market – which, yet again, made her parents shake their heads again and say, “She should have become a dentist”.
But most Neopians were unanimous that the mademoiselle was enchantingly passionate about her work, and it was lovely to see someone so dedicated to beautifying the inhabitants of Neopia.
And that is why it was such a shock to everyone when Mademoiselle d’Embellir went broke.
The blue Grundo bowed and said, “The preparations are ready, sire.”
Dr. Sloth looked up from the latest paperback novel he was reading, a book that was surprisingly enjoyable once he really got into it. Some may have wondered why Neopia’s most evil genius was reading a book with the title ‘Mr. Cybunny Has a Holiday’, but what they did not realise was that if you wondered such things about Dr. Sloth you were likely to wake up in the morning and find you no longer existed.
The blue Grundo who had approached him was looking questioningly at the book now. Dr. Sloth was getting to the part of the novel where the villain was thwarted by the hero, a common event in paperbacks that made relatively little sense to the doctor despite him having the most logical brain in Neopia, so he threw it at his work servant who was continuing to bow fanatically in front of him.
“Excellent,” Dr. Sloth proclaimed in his most maniacal voice. “I expect them to be delivered by 0600 hours tomorrow.”
The Grundo looked pained at this. “But sire, it takes at least twenty-four hours to get to Neopia Central.”
“Did I ask for excuses?” roared Dr. Sloth. “You will be there by 0600 hours tomorrow. Pass me my book and then get out of my sight.”
The Grundo gingerly handed the paperback to his master. Dr. Sloth took aim at the Grundo’s head again as the servant crawled out of the room.
It was a good plan (‘Thud’ went the paperback, then – “Ohhh” went the servant weakly). An excellent plan, in fact. Dr. Sloth inspected his fingernails and picked up the catalogue from the mademoiselle’s shop.
Mademoiselle d’Embellir was gently pushing a young white Uni over to the counter and sitting her down in front of the mirror. “Look just over there, chérie, and I’ll show you how it is applied. It comes with a stencil, see, so you can get the exact right shape.” She gestured to the rectangular stencil. “I think this is the right shape for your eyes. My eyeshadow stencils look best on eyes with a non-contrasting shape. And see how the colour has golden undertones, just like your eye colour?”
“My eyes are blue,” the Uni protested.
Mademoiselle tittered at this, but before she could correct the little Uni, there came a rapping on the shop door. “It’s open!” she called out as she applied the eyeshadow over the Uni’s lid. She sensed a little discomfort from the Uni, and added hastily, “It’s all about confidence, chérie. It may feel a little strange, but it doesn’t look that way.”
Whoever was standing outside the shop continued to knock impatiently on the door. Mademoiselle d’Embellir felt a twinge of annoyance, but tried not to grimace because she knew that such an expression did not flatter her face. Some Usuls looked far more attractive with their mouths twisted into a scowl, but she was not one of them. “Come in!” she called. “The door is open!”
The Uni was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic. “Uh, thank you, miss – I better go now.” She scrambled off the chair and performed an odd kind of pirouette to stop herself from falling as she bumped into the brown Grundo who was taking up the doorway. He held a large box under his arm and there were two more by his feet. The Uni excused herself and squeezed through the gap, waving goodbye as she did so.
Mademoiselle d’Embellir put away the eyeshadow irritably. Ah well, she consoled herself, she might come back.
She looked enquiringly at the Grundo. “Can I help you, monsieur?”
Dr. Sloth watched closely as Mademoiselle d’Embellir approached the Grundo. His new monitoring system, where he was able to see the activities of each and every one of his servants from his secret lair, was the only one in Neopia. There had been two of these systems at one time, but he had sent his toughest minions out to the other owner and the second owner had been quite happily convinced – the minions hadn’t even had to use two hands during the convincing – that it would be better for him to destroy it.
He held his breath as the Grundo spoke.
“Mademoiselle d’Embellir!” his Grundo said, bowing with a flourish. Dr. Sloth raised his eyebrows. “It is an honour,” the Grundo said, bowing again. “All my life I have wanted to meet you. The work you do, it is marvellous.”
“Thank you,” said Mademoiselle d’Embellir politely. “Did you want to buy something?”
The Grundo gazed past her shoulder and sighed in delight at the rows of hair gel on the far shelf. “Not this one time, mademoiselle. You see, I too am dedicated to the art of visual happiness, though my work is of a different specialty. I specialise in product packaging – but not any packaging. We aim to make it as beautiful as the product itself. You, as the beauty queen of Neopia, would surely appreciate it.”
“How nice,” said the Usul. “But I am afraid I have several companies to whom I am loyal –”
The Grundo interrupted her hastily. “Just allow me to show you, mademoiselle, and then you may decide. Say no more until I have shown you everything. A shampoo bottle, for example...” He opened up one of the brown cardboard boxes and produced a smooth glass bottle with painted designs around the neck. “Lots of different ones to choose from – magenta, crimson, turquoise, coral –”
It was like a fierce storm had struck outside, the lighting flashing every few seconds. The shampoo bottle the Grundo held in his hand was the most attractive bottle ever to cross in front of her well-mascara’d eyes. Mademoiselle d’Embellir thought she might faint. She felt a little tear on her cheek and brushed it off, amazingly not even worrying about smudging her blush.
“Yes,” she said huskily. “Yes, you are quite an artist. May I – may I see?”
The Grundo gingerly handed it to her. “Do be careful,” he said anxiously. “If you broke it –”
Mademoiselle d’Embellir gripped it tightly. “I won’t,” she said firmly. She inspected it further.
Oh, it was magnificent! The bottle was the perfect shape, all smooth lines and soft edges. The glass had been perfectly molded and when the mademoiselle stroked it the bottle felt smoother than her own skin, which was no mean feat. The neck design was a rich purple colour and the strokes had been so carefully applied they looked like they had been created by nature. It made every other bottle on her shelves look as elegant as a rusted tin.
She had to pinch her own arm to remind herself not to get carried away. She was a business Usul after all, and if this Grundo was asking a ridiculous price for them, then she would have to send him away. But oh, if she could not have them!
Be strong, Fantine, she reminded herself.
The Usul cleared her throat. “How much, monsieur?”
When he told her, she felt dizzy with despair. It was nearly twice as much as a regular shampoo bottle. Her sales were good, but they might not be that good.
She stood up straighter. “I am afraid that is too expensive,” she told him, though it broke her heart to say it. “I cannot buy them.”
From his secret lair, Dr. Sloth growled like a wounded Eyrie and said something very rude about Mademoiselle d’Embellir.
The Usul knew that the sales Grundo would doubtless lower the price for her, and if she could haggle to her liking she might be able to have them. But she would have to be strong. She would refuse as many times as necessary before the price was suitable. She waited for his next offer.
Instead, he looked wounded. “Oh, mademoiselle,” he sobbed. “You have disappointed me.” He gazed at her despairingly. “You have failed me!”
“I cannot afford that bottle!” Mademoiselle d’Embellir said loudly and firmly, in an effort to convince herself as much as the Grundo. “Do you hear me, monsieur? My money will not stretch to that price.”
He continued to weep. “I thought you, of all people, would have known that beauty comes at no price – and yet you, like everyone, think money is more important! Is that what you really think, mademoiselle? Is money worth more to you than visual aesthetic? Do you think money provides the same happiness and inspiration as a work of art?”
“N-n-no,” whispered the Usul, finally succumbing. She found it difficult to speak. “B-b-but what am I do? I cannot afford it! Money means nothing to me, but I need it to survive!”
“Do you not feel that the outside packaging is as important as the contents?” wailed the Grundo. “Is that not what people see first? How can you ever convince them that hair gel will make them look better if the hair gel does not look good to begin with? Oh, mademoiselle! The packages you have on the shelves burn my eyes. I weep, I weep, for the future of Neopia. You have a reputation, mademoiselle, and if you don’t set the benchmark for what is aesthetically acceptable, Neopia will soon be filled with grey concrete buildings and sculptures made out of burnt sticks.”
Mademoiselle d’Embellir shuddered in fright. Money was one thing, but her reputation was at risk. And the thought that one day her own beautiful shop might become as homely as a Slorg set her weeping inside.
“But if you feel this way,” sighed the Grundo, “I shall smash the lot and cart the pieces to the Money Tree. They have no other use –”
“No!” howled Mademoiselle d’Embellir. “Don’t you dare! Have you no respect for art?”
The Grundo did not respond. He merely held the bottle out to the Usul.
“I’ll take them,” she whimpered. “Every one you’ve got. And bring more. Do you have some for lipstick? And mouthwash? I’ll commission you to design a new toothbrush. Any price. Just don’t destroy anything so beautiful, please.”
She expected the Grundo to become just as emotional, but he merely nodded with a hint of a smile. “Very well, mademoiselle,” he said charmingly. “Whatever you think you want.”
He deposited a box at her feet as she counted out the money. She had spent more Neopoints today than she usually did in a whole month. Her hand was shaking as she shook his. But it was all for beauty, she reminded herself.
The Grundo took every Neopoint she gave him. “Good day,” he said. “I shall come back in a week with more goods.” He gave her a courteous nod and walked away, leaving the Usul with her expensive shampoo bottles and a rapid heartbeat.
Dr. Sloth hardly ever acknowledged the talents of another, but he grudgingly admitted to himself that this particular servant had done a pretty decent job with the task at hand. Almost as good as if he himself had done it.
The plan was in motion. Once she had succumbed to the bottles, she would hardly resist every other expensive product she was offered.
And then... when she was out of business, the second-best beauty parlour in Neopia would become the best, and therefore: the owner of the second-best beauty parlour would be the richest beauty parlour owner. As in, Dr. Sloth would be the richest beauty parlour owner.
“Mwahahaha!” cackled Dr. Sloth, caught up in the general heat of the moment. Who knew that you could become rich from such primitive things as eyeshadow or soap? His servants had smirked at the thought of the genius Doctor wasting his time with such frivolities, but with the success of his plan and a very painful whip they would worship him for it.
What a foolish Usul she was. It was a stern lesson that he must remember. When one has a passion, others who are significantly more evil will use one’s passion against them... and much pain will ensue.
Later that night, Dr. Sloth sent his servants to the headquarters of the Neopian Times with plenty of cash and ready to do some convincing.
To be continued...