Some people said that Androma was vain, but she would never call herself that, or even think for a moment it was true. The Royal Peophin reasoned that if you were as stunning a creature as she was, then you would take pride in your appearance as well. You would spend hours making sure your cyan mane was perfect, that your delicate light blue skin was flawless, and that your teeth were the brightest shade of white. You would dress in the finest clothes and wear dazzling jewelry that only the wealthiest Neopians could afford. And, just like her, you would enter the Beauty Contest and win week after week after week.
Androma happened to have the record for the longest streak of consecutive Beauty Contest wins in the history of the competition, and she took pride in her accomplishment. No one in the long history of the competition had ever won a mindboggling fifty-one weeks in a row before, except for Androma. Just one more win and she’d be the Beauty Contest champion for a straight year.
And she had no doubt in her mind she would.
The Royal Peophin made extra careful preparations so that she would be absolutely gorgeous for win number fifty-two. She sent out for delicate gold jewelry handcrafted in Sakhmet, performed daily beautifying rituals to make sure every aspect of her being was flawless, and she even employed Neovia’s finest tailors, Prigpants and Swolthy, to make her the finest gown for the occasion. It was silky and as white as freshly fallen snow, decorated along the edges with gold threading in intricate designs inspired by Shenkuuan royalty. And it cost a fortune, but Androma believed that it was worth every Neopoint.
By time Androma had left the ancient tailor shop after her final fitting, dusk had fallen upon the cobblestone streets of Neovia. The streetlamps were glowing, spilling warm light onto the roads, and the inky black sky was freckled with silver stars. It was a beautiful night. Almost as beautiful as I’m going to look tomorrow, she thought to herself, a content smile seeping onto her face.
That was when she saw it.
Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a glint of gold underneath the creaking plum-colored Prigpants & Swolthy, Tailors sign. Curious, Androma turned her head and spotted something small and delicate abandoned on the ground, caught in the gap between the cracked cobblestones and the dead grass.
A hair comb.
She didn’t know what possessed her to pick it up. Normally the dainty Peophin didn’t dare touch filthy objects that had fallen to the ground, but this was different. The comb was beautifully crafted, a dark royal blue with swirling gold designs on it that were different from the ones embroidered on the dress in her arms, yet eerily similar in exquisiteness. She wondered if it had been made in a different time, during an era of more stylish and fanciful Neopians. But the age of the piece wasn’t important; it was utterly perfect, a timeless fashion accessory whose beauty would stand the test of time.
Androma suddenly knew without a doubt that she would wear it in her mane tomorrow for the Beauty Contest and snag her 52nd win.
The sound of light footsteps tapping on the roads snapped her out of her thoughts.
Androma glared down the gloomy streets, wondering who was out jogging in the middle of the night, when out of the shadows emerged a red Wocky. Her dark raven hair was naturally curly, falling halfway down her back and threaded with red beads. Silver hoops glinted in her ears and her clothes appeared to have been sewn together from spare pieces of colorful cloth.
She approached Androma, slowing when she caught a glimpse of the comb in her hooves. The Wocky’s eyes widened. “Thank goodness,” she gasped. Her voice was high and light, reminding Androma of gently falling rain, but at the same time it was filled with uncontained relief. “You’ve found my comb!”
Androma glanced down at the comb in her grasp and then looked back up at the girl, the Royal Peophin’s face distorting as if the stranger had just asked her to jump off Mount Techo. The Wocky looked vaguely familiar; Androma had definitely seen her around Neovia before. “Who are you?” she asked, a definite edge to her voice.
The Neopet seemed taken aback by the question. “I’m Adria,” she introduced, her voice slipping into a courteous tone as she gave a small curtsy. “I haven’t much time. It’s quite late and I really should be getting back home; Gindara always yells at me when I stay out past dark. But thank you for finding my comb.” She held out her paw, waiting for Androma to hand it to her, but the Peophin didn’t.
Androma’s mind worked frantically, her thoughts whirring about in her head. The name didn’t ring a bell, but the girl was familiar enough. Maybe she’s a former Beauty Contest entrant sent to sabotage my next win, she thought worriedly, giving Adria a once over. Her sky blue eyes were critical as she examined her competition. True, the Wocky had a few good qualities, but her fur was a basic shade of red and her mismatched clothes weren’t the garments of a winner. She’d never win, Androma decided. She’s much too common, but I refuse to allow her even the chance to ruin my big day.
The Peophin tucked the hair comb away in the nicely folded package where her silken gown rested, making sure the tiny teeth didn’t puncture holes into the dress. “It’s mine.”
Adria’s eyes furrowed, confusion on her face as she inclined her head towards the Royal Neopet. “I... I’m sorry but think you’re mistaken. I lost that comb earlier today. Actually, I lose things quite often.” She blushed sheepishly, her red fur rouging to a crimson shade. “You see, it’s been in my family for generations, passed down from mother to daughter, and I really must have it back.”
“You have no proof that it’s yours,” the Peophin countered sharply, her voice firm and cold as she looked her straight in the eye. “Finders keepers.”
The Wocky stumbled, but took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Listen, I know you may find it pretty, but that comb’s cursed. Bad things happen to those who wear it.”
“Then why do you want it?”
Adria looked exasperated. “The curse won’t affect me. Please, I know it’s hard to believe, but after I kept complaining around camp that I lost half of my things, Gindara got so fed up with me that she spelled everything I owned. She said that if someone else used one of my lost items, I could just ‘follow the trail of despair’ to get it back.” Her eyes were pleading, the ochre colors jumping out from behind her long lashes. “Please, I don’t want to see you get hurt. You’ve got to believe me!”
Androma raised her eyebrow at the Wocky and her farfetched tale. “A curse?” she repeated, a sneer on her finely crafted features. “Please. Save your stories for around the campfire.” She then turned away from her, her silken hair ruffling majestically in the nighttime breeze. “Now excuse me,” Androma sniffed, “I have a Beauty Contest to win. Goodnight little Wocky.”
And with that, Androma started to make her way home, leaving the misfortunate Wocky all alone on the dark Neovian streets.
Androma woke up the next morning to the sound of her Carmariller, Car-Car, crooning joyfully as she did every day as the sun rose. Opening her eyes, she spotted the winged petpet perched on top of her Beauty Contest gown.
Snapping to life, the Royal Peophin sprang out of bed, angrily shooing the petpet away and shouting at the terrified creature. Car-Car’s song broke off midway and turned into a frightened screech as she flew out of the room, but Androma didn’t care. Car-Car should have known better than to use my 100,000 neopoint dress as an impromptu bed.
Androma’s room was light and airy. A pale blue mural of clouds and waves was painted on the walls by one of Neopia’s famed artists. Tall gleaming windows allowed morning light to seep inside and the room was decorated with fine furniture imported from all over Neopia.
Her Beauty Contest trophies covered one entire wall, the gleaming gold awards engraved with the words “Androma the Royal Peophin, Beauty Contest Champion!” Her Beauty Contest winnings had given her all she had ever wanted, and Androma was positive that nothing was going to change that from happening over and over again in the future.
She changed into her gown carefully, making sure that Car-Car hadn’t ruined the delicate fabric. With a sigh of relief, Androma realized it was still intact. Slipping it on, it fit like a glove around her slender frame. The stitching was exquisite and the fabric fell like gentle waterfalls around her, cascading in long streams of expensive cloth. Even though she had always imagined Prigpants and Swolthy as two dodgy characters, she had to admit that their work was flawless.
It was when Androma glanced into her gold framed full-length mirror, making sure her gold earrings were in place and that her makeup was perfect, that she suddenly remembered the comb. For a moment her stomach flipped, fearing that the entire thing had merely been a dream, but then she saw it balanced precariously on top of the dresser. She snatched it up in her hooves before it could fall to the ground.
It was just as beautiful as it had been the night before, the dark blue and gold combined for a regal effect. Pulling her hair back into an elegant twist, Androma placed the comb just so and examined her reflection.
The Peophin stifled a gasp. As striking a being as she normally was, the comb just added that extra something. Maybe it was the way it complemented her light complexion or maybe the way it pinned up her mane added that extra pizzazz. Whatever the reason was, she looked absolutely dazzling.
Androma grinned. My 52nd win is secured, she thought smugly while grabbing her purse off the bedpost and making her way out onto the Neovian streets.
The sun outside shown brightly, an unusual occurrence in the usually bleak town, and everything around her seemed to perk with color. The dead grass looked brighter, the worn cobblestones newer, and even the other Neopets walking the streets seemed to have caught a whiff on the infectious good-vibe floating around town.
But Androma wasn’t paying attention to the weather or trivial things like the state of the roads. Instead, her full attention was on the people she passed, all of them seeming star-struck as she walked by, pausing in the middle of their conversations to catch a glimpse of her. It fueled her confidence and she made her way down Winthrop Ave with an added spring to her step.
Giddy visions of the afternoon filled her mind: the tall gold trophy being presented to her, the prize winnings handed over from the officials, and most of all the defeated looks on the faces of her poor competitors once they realized that once again all their efforts had been futile...
“Ahh!” Androma gasped, stumbling as something tugged at her. Turning her head, she noticed that a dead tree beside the road with low-lying bare branches had somehow managed to wind itself in her gown. “Oh no, no, no!” she cursed, trying to unwrap the fabric, but the train was caught fast.
Frustrated, she bit the side of her mouth; the Contest would be starting soon and she needed to get there now. She realized there was only one way out and grabbed hold of the snagged cloth. Closing her eyes and with a mental count to three, she yanked at the fabric.
There was tearing sound and Androma opened her eyes, stifling her squeal as she looked down. She was free, but her dress now had a long gash down it, the fabric puckering unattractively and looking frayed and ratty.
Androma wanted to scream, but instead she took a deep breath. “It’s just a small rip,” she tried murmuring to herself, attempting to put a smile back on her face. “Just a little tear. My stunning looks will easily cover that.”
She nodded, trying to reassure herself as she patted the comb in her hair, and continued on her way, shrugging off the misfortunate occurrence as a mere accident.
Unfortunately, misfortune didn’t let her off that easily.
Androma had lived in Neovia all her life and the complex network of streets was as familiar to her as the back of her hoof, but after her run in with the rogue branch, it took her a moment to calm back down. By then she couldn’t help but notice that the alleyways she traveled down didn’t look the same to her. Every so often she would catch a glimpse of a familiar shop or landmark, but before long the streets melded into entirely unfamiliar territories.
“Since when was that house there?” she nervously wondered aloud to no one in particular; after all, the dismal road she had wandered onto was completely abandoned. Suddenly a deep rumble sounded. Androma looked up at the sky. The once bright weather was now having a decidedly gloomy cast. Thick clouds obscured the sun, blocking out the light. A chilling wind had picked up and within moments rain was hailing down from the heavens, heavy drops striking her with an amazing amount of force.
Androma hunched over herself, her purse falling to the dirt-streaked road as she protectively used her hooves as a shield over her head. Of course, it didn’t help at all. In just a few moments, her luscious locks, once beautifully twisted up on her head, became a limp, damp, and ratty tangle.
The Peophin winced as she fingered a lock of her mane, the light blue tress looking pallid and limp. My hair, she thought in horror. My beautiful mane!
Lightning darted against the sky, the flash of light illuminating the road in front of her. I have to keep going, she thought determinedly. The Beauty Contest awaits me... My 52nd win is almost at hand... I must keep going... Androma gritted her teeth. “Rain won’t stop me,” she hissed, hiking up her gown so it wouldn’t drag on the rough unpaved streets. However, her dress had already darkened several shades to a dingy grey, and the gold threading that had been so painstakingly sewed in was slipping out of their intricate designs and becoming the color of common khaki.
Storming her way down the labyrinth of streets, a mixture of anger and desperation swarmed up inside of her. “I have to win...” she murmured slightly deranged, her makeup running down her face in black rivers. She was in denial, but still Androma rushed forward, shoving past overzealous trees that caught onto her clothing and scratched her face, ignoring the Neopets slowly reappearing around her, and muttering her mantra: “The win will be mine... The win is mine...”
After making a sharp left turn, Androma finally found herself out of the maze of streets and at her destination: Neovia Square. The square was the center of the entire town, a cobblestone courtyard bordered by a somewhat well-maintained lawn that neared the pastry shop and Chesterdrawers’ Antiques.
In honor of the Beauty Contest, a tall wooden stage had been erected in the center of the square. Neovian citizens milled around on the grass, chatting with one another and snacking on scones as they waited for it to start. In the meantime, Androma surged forward into the square, realizing that the erratic storm had suddenly stopped as she frantically climbed the stage steps.
Receiving more than her fair share of curious looks, Androma took her customary place on the stage beside a white Acara in a satin purple dress, attempting to straighten herself out and make herself look presentable.
I look gorgeous, she thought to herself desperately, flashing a smile to the assembled crowd while frantically trying to tame her mane with her cracked hooves. She used the comb to brush her hair, trying to re-pin up the fallen locks, but strands started coming out of her head, fluttering to the floor like limp aquamarine threads. In the end, despite her best efforts, she looked like a drowning Koi.
The actual Beauty Contest seemed to whizz by. The announcer made a few statements, there was a round of applause for the contestants, and ballots were passed out to the amassed citizens for them to place their votes. Androma smiled as best she could, standing up straight as she waited for the results.
Once all the small slips of paper had been collected, a few Neopets were recruited to tally them up. The announcer, a Disco Shoyru entirely lacking a sense of style, announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, our winner for this week’s Beauty Contest is...”
Androma extended her arms, waiting for the prize that she knew was coming her way. Here it comes! she thought to herself, eyes wide. Win number fifty-two!
“...Lyla the White Acara!”
The Acara to her right, in total shock, squealed in delight, rushing up to the announcer and accepting her trophy and the Neopoint prize.
Androma turned towards the winner as she tried to make sense of the words that had come out of the announcer’s mouth: Lyla, not Androma.
The Peophin staggered, her heart clenching in her chest. She felt as if she was slowly falling, as if she was caught in some horrible nightmare that she couldn’t wake from no matter how hard she pinched herself. All her delusions of grandeur suddenly came crashing down around her. She stumbled off the stage in a complete fog, not even caring that it was common courtesy for all the contestants to stay on the stage while the winner made her acceptance speech.
Instead, the Royal Peophin just stood among the crowd in the grassy square, staring into space as the Acara squeaked out her speech. The Neopets surrounding her walked by, barely sparing her a glance unless it was to note to their friends how disheveled and just plain ugly she looked. Androma wanted to cry, but she found she couldn’t. Her tears had dried up as suddenly as the rain.
It’s impossible to know exactly how long she stood there. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. Either way, after what felt like a lifetime of floating miserably amongst the current of Neopets, Androma saw her, the gypsy from the night before.
Gypsy... she thought to herself dazedly. That’s where I’ve seen the Wocky before... At the gypsy camp at the edge of town.
Adria approached her, slipping through the crowd easily until she was in front of the ragged creature. She had a slight frown on her face. It was hard to imagine that it was the same Royal Peophin from the night before: Her coat looked limpid, her hair straggly and pale, her gown was in tatters, and her eyes, once sharp and spiteful, were merely dim pools of sorrow.
Androma gazed back at the gypsy, her own emotions springing up inside her. Part of her wanted to yell as loudly as she could, blame her for what had happened because of the stupid comb and its stupid curse, but she didn’t. She was too tired, too distraught, and too miserable to do anything but tear the comb out of her hair and hold it out to the Wocky. Androma’s mane fell over her face, obscuring her sight and giving her an even mangier appearance, but she didn’t care right now. She wasn’t sure what she cared about anymore. “Here.”
Adria carefully took the comb from her, slipping the ornate hair decoration into her bag, the royal blue and gold colors disappearing from sight. “I’m sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen.” Her voice, normally light and chipper, held distinct notes of guilt.
But Androma didn’t respond. Instead, she just stood there in the center of Neovian Square, unmoving and as distant as a stone. The gypsy girl shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, and after a few long seconds she finally turned away, disappearing amongst the other figures in the crowd.
Androma never saw her or her misfortunate comb again.