Farside Leader: Part Three
“Farside Three!” The Commander was standing behind Geena, glaring at me. “Do you not have any sense? You lost me, now you’ll lose him, all because you don’t remember your skills? Your skills, Farside Three, your SKILLS!”
My skills! I snatched up my staff, forcing the words of the healing spell into my head, onto my lips... not daring to break my concentration to speak, I pushed Geena out of the way, felt the energy radiating from my paw to the staff, and to Kent’s wound, felt the blood being held back, felt the flesh healing... My magic, after much disuse, wasn’t strong enough to completely heal a wound this deep, but my best was enough.
And now Dr Hu was back, bending over Kent, shouting something that I couldn’t well hear, but careful, I noticed, not to break my concentration. Servants were running out of the castle. The Draiks had noticed what was going on and were in hot pursuit of the biplane. One of the Flying Squad’s Eyries was screeching the siren call, and I distinctly heard Maga shouting, “She didn’t knife Daniel Nennant, did she?” Then Karmapa was back too, and she was saying something, though I couldn’t understand it through the haze of magic.
“That’s enough!” Kayla shouted at me through the haze. I hadn’t seen her arrive, but clearly she was going to help. “I can deal with it now, don’t drain yourself... just get her away!” I realized she meant Geena, who was leaning over Kent, sobbing, and generally getting in the way.
Dropping my staff, I jumped up and grabbed Geena, but she was stronger than me and had no intention of leaving Kent’s side. I didn’t know how to move her, although I knew I had to. Then I was helped by an entirely unexpected party: Maga had gotten to the scene. She took Geena’s other side, and together we pulled her, sobbing and struggling, away from Kent.
“Inside,” Maga said shortly. “What you need, young lady, is tea.”
“Is he going to...” Geena, slumped on the couch, stared into the steam rising from her herb tea.
“He’ll be fine,” Maga said, poking the fire into a brisk blaze. I hoped she was right. It would be my fault if he wasn’t... how stupid of me, having to be reminded by the Commander that I was a witch. Why hadn’t I thought of that sooner? For that matter, why was I seeing the Commander so much? It was clear that nobody else had seen her, which meant that I was seeing things, which meant...
“Coffee?” Maga was offering a fragrant mug. “I hope you like it with Phear; it’s the only way I know how to make it.”
“Phear Coffee is my favourite kind,” I said, summoned from my gloomy thoughts by the aroma. “Thank you.” I added, “I didn’t know you drank coffee in Meridell.”
Maga shrugged. “Most don’t. I’m modern in taste, which was why I was working on Kreludor. Then again, I’m probably not originally from Meridell anyway.”
I sipped the coffee. It seared my throat, still rough from the fumes of that crash on Kreludor. Still, I needed coffee. Geena, brooding over her tea, wouldn’t agree... but although tea had its place, stress of this sort demanded coffee.
“Is Skarl really your father?” I asked, mostly to distract myself from thinking of Kent.
“Adopted,” Maga said with a shrug. “An earth faerie found me in the woods when I was little, and brought me to the castle. She thought Father might know who my family were. He didn’t, so he decided to be my family. Then I got lonely, so he found Toad to be my friend... Everyone else thinks of Father as the Grumpy Old King, but he’s the best dad ever! He was the one who got me painted... I wasn’t near as pretty when I was younger. I was green, and I know Daniel Nennant wouldn’t even notice just another green Draik.”
“Who is Daniel Nennant?” I asked, tired of being out of the loop.
“You mean you’ve never heard of him?” Maga looked incredulous. “He’s the greatest actor around. He was stupendous in Queen Real; he was wonderful in Midwinter’s Daydream... They say he did too much trick flying in that one, and it hurt his back. Poor boy, he’s so adorable...”
Geena interrupted us by dropping her mug and waking up with a start. “Huh... sorry... um,” she muttered, before giving up and flopping down on the couch. In moments, she was snoring.
Maga smiled. “That tea was made with powerful sleeping herbs,” she said as she picked up the pieces of the broken mug. “Sleeping is better than worrying, and when she wakes up there’ll be nothing to worry about.”
A log tumbled into the embers in the fireplace, sending up a jet of flame. As the light blazed on Maga’s slim figure, I saw that her dress, that beautiful confection of fluff and gossamer, was smeared and caked with the muck Geena had knelt in. The dress that had cost a small fortune was ruined, and I hadn’t noticed it until now. Maga must have – she’d been wearing it, for Fyora’s sake! – but nary a complaint or smidgeon of drama had she voiced.
The night’s play, needless to say, was cancelled. Therefore, next morning, with Kent conscious and being fawned over by Geena, Maga took my education upon herself. Clad in a brown and pink dress borrowed from one of Maga’s ladies-in-waiting, I followed the princess across the drawbridge and toward the ship and stage. I wondered wryly what Commander C would think of me now, with my flowing skirts and unbound hair.
“Is Mr Nennant here?” Maga asked the Pirate Draik guarding the gangplank.
“Yes’m,” he said, nodding so hard his earrings jangled. “He’s just finished breakfast; would you like him to come on deck?”
“Actually,” Maga said with a fetching smile, “perhaps you would care to take us to him?” She adjusted her pink hat, fluttered in such a way that the skirts and sleeves of her scarlet dress sparkled in the sun... and the guard melted. “Yes’m,” he said again, and led us below deck.
Daniel Nennant’s cabin was tiny and crammed with costumes. Embarrassingly, I at first thought that Mr Nennant himself was a costume! A tall, skinny Rainbow Draik, he blended in with the assortment of robes and suits. The impression wasn’t helped by the fact that he was wearing turquoise pyjamas... However, it clearly wasn’t a costume that shouted at us!
“Fangirls!” he shouted the moment he saw us. “Flipping fangirls!” Then he caught sight of the guard, and gave him a blast. “I don’t need this now, you loser!” he shouted. “Do you know what my back felt like last night? Why, it’s a good thing that ambassador got himself stabbed, or who knows who would have played Prince Telmah! It certainly wouldn’t have been me! Can you imagine me doing that swordfight scene with my back...” At this point, I decided it might not be a good time to meet the famous Daniel Nennant, so I walked out.
Maga, looking furious, caught up with me as I left the ship. “Why, that... that... that...” she muttered. “I adored him, I went to see every play he was in, I came all the way back from Kreludor when I found out he was performing here, and he shouts us out! I shan’t go to any of his plays anymore! In fact, I’ll tell everyone I meet how dreadful a creature he is...”
“Don’t make such a big thing of it,” I said, finding myself rather amused. “He obviously wasn’t feeling well at all. I’ve got a better idea... let’s go see how Kent is. If he can spare her, we’ll send Doctor Hu to see Mr Nennant. Trust me, she works wonders on soreness.”
“Do you need a ride?” I was exceedingly surprised to see Daniel Nennant. Last night’s meteorological spells had worn off, and the rain and fog had returned in earnest. I was sulking by the fire in Maga’s parlour, feeling irritated at the world in general. Kent was feeling much better, but it was out of the question for him to ride an Eyrie until he gained more strength... a few days, at least. Here I was, just across the estuary from home, and it looked like I was going to have to wait a few more days to see Freefall. Of course, I could go home on my own. The Meridell Flying Squad would happily take me to Neopia Central. But Karmapa had refused to leave until we could all leave, and I wasn’t going home without her.
Now Daniel Nennant had showed up and was offering us all a lift home on the Royal Draikspere Company’s ship. “I thought you were going to perform here,” I said suspiciously.
He grimaced. “Not after bawling out Princess Magdalene I won’t,” he said. “The King told us to be gone by midnight. Our next gig’s in Shenkuu, so we need to stock up before we head across the mountains. We’re going to be stopping in Neopia Central. Are you coming?”
“I’ll have to ask the others,” I said warily. “How’s your back?”
He grinned. “Fantastic,” he said. “That Doctor Who is a genius!”
“I know,” I said, hiding a smile. My practiced ears could catch the mistaken name.
Maga wasn’t pleased to see us leave, but the others were happy at the thought of going home. In the end, Maga had to be satisfied with selecting us all proper Meridellian outfits to replace the now-ruined clothes we had arrived in. Even Karmapa, much to my amusement, wore a brown and gold tunic. As for myself, I was pleased when Maga showed me the hidden inner pocket in my dress – it was just the right size for my pilot’s licence. It also held something else. Although my flight suit was filthy beyond repair, the “1” patch was remarkably clean. Before we left, I borrowed Maga’s sewing scissors and carefully cut it out. I had loathed that patch while I wore it. Still, I was Farside Leader, and I wouldn’t leave it behind. As we stood on the deck of the Draikspere Company’s ship, the patch rested, with my pilot’s licence, in the pocket over my heart.
“Come back soon!” Maga shouted as we lifted off. Following us up, she waved and called, “You’re so brave, Ambassador! I want you to come to my birthday party!” Kent, lying on a pile of cushions at the stern, managed to muster a smile.
The wind picked up as we rose higher into the fog, but the deck was still preferable to the crowded quarters below. I pulled up the hood of my rose-coloured cloak, and waved once more at Maga before she was swallowed by the fog. Now the ground was also out of sight, and the ship was adrift in a grey veil, yet the Draiks sailing it were unperturbed. Indeed, Daniel Nennant, seeing that Maga was out of sight, perched on the rail next to me. He was, I had to admit, remarkably handsome when he wasn’t angry.
“Herders of fools,” he said softly, apparently to himself. “It’s what we both are... isn’t that right?” He turned to me. “You were herding those fools, weren’t you? That’s how you got into this.” He pointed at the stern, where Kent, looking rather pleasantly surprised, lay with his head in Geena’s lap.
“Mind what you call my friends!” I said, trying to summon some heat. It was hard to be annoyed with this strange actor.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was only voicing my view, based on what I saw last night. You did see what happened when the villainess drew the knife, didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “I was heading toward the stage,” I said. “I didn’t turn until I heard... ”
“...the girl scream,” he finished for me. “Well, I saw it. I was on deck, hoping a stretch would mend my back, and I saw the lot of it.” He glanced back at the pair at the stern. “Not that it was actually a knife, of course. It looked like she broke her necklace in half and stabbed him with that, but that’s not the point. What is the point is that she didn’t go for him. She went for her look-alike...”
“Doctor Hu?” I interrupted, rather shocked.
“Indeed, you have reached the point, dear lady,” he said sarcastically. “I’m not even going to ask you why they look the same, but she clearly lunged for the good doctor. It was our brave ambassador who flung himself into the path of the blade, and in doing so, ensured the attacker’s escape. As I see it, had she stabbed her intended target, he could have captured her, but what he did was incapacitate himself and send dear Doctor Who flying, buying the evil one time to escape. Rather counterproductive, don’t you think?”
I could only shake my head in bemusement.
“Of course you don’t need me to tell you how the girl behaved after that,” Daniel Nennant went on. “Honestly, if anyone ever stabs me, I hope none of my fangirls are around to act like that!” He shuddered theatrically.
I stared into the fog. “What exactly did you mean when you said we were herders of fools?” I inquired. “I never really thought of myself as a herder, not like Samrin the Kacheek or anything. All I am is Kent’s bodyguard, and a pretty rotten one I’ve been!”
“That’s the rub, isn’t it?” he said. “We herd them for their own protection, but, like petpets, they wander off as often as they can. Occasionally we think they’re safely contained, and decide there’s time to catch a show... and that, of course, is when the dung starts to fly.”
I scowled at the famous actor. What did he know of this? “So why are you a herder?” I asked, not having to summon heat to my voice this time.
Daniel stared out into the enveloping greyness, and I wondered if he’d heard me. Finally he spoke. “The Royal Draikspere Company is a joke,” he said. “King Hagan barely pays us enough to make ends meet. We get good audiences at every play I’m in, but most of the plays are free admission, paid for in advance by the local government. Everyone complains, but we know full well we’d only get a smattering of extreme fangirls if we made the audiences pay. There’s just no market for classics anymore, and if you look at one of our audiences, you’ll see it. Half of them are swapping keyrings or twirling yoyos during the play. We have to do more and more wild stunts to keep them even half interested, and that’s how I hurt my back. And there’s always unexpected expenses... we’d be out of business if it wasn’t for me slipping my own savings into the kitty.” He shot me a glance. “Do not ever tell anyone else this, fellow herder!”
“So that makes you the troupe’s herder?” I asked, trying not to sound too amused.
“Not just that,” he said, sounding tired. “My back doesn’t need any more flying swordfights. I’d happily retire to the Lost Desert and soak up the heat, but I know that’d be the end of the show. I just need to find some marvellous young actor to take my place... but until then, no matter how bad I feel, how angry I am, how tired I am of fangirls invading my dressing room, I have to stay with the RDC. The funny thing is, none of them realize how I could end the show with two words: ‘I quit.’ That, I think, makes me their herder.”
“I suppose I’m in good company, then,” I said.
“No,” he replied, “I am. To be next to a stunning redheaded flying ace is a great honour.”
“I don’t think I’m really an ace,” I said, feeling my ears warm.
“Then you deserve to be,” he said, before taking off and flying toward the bow.
I smiled after him and sauntered back toward the stern. Geena and Kent were talking quietly, and clearly didn’t notice my approach. As I drew near, I heard Kent say, “Geena, I promise I’ll always be here for you. Always. It doesn’t matter if you kick me in the mouth, weep embarrassingly, or cause a diplomatic incident. It doesn’t even matter if your sisters cause one. I care about you, and even if there comes a time when nobody else does, I still will.”
A stew of emotions churned in my stomach. How could Kent think I could ever cease to care about Geena? And with the amount of trouble he was so good at causing, did he really think it was a good thing that he cared so deeply about her? Then I remembered that those words weren’t meant for my pointy ears. Feeling rather ashamed of myself for eavesdropping, I went to look for Karmapa.
Homecoming was as chaotic as it ever was at the tower on Magical Road. As we flew in at low altitude, the pilot following Karmapa’s directions, I noticed that a few lots on our block were now empty. Apparently some of our neighbours had decided to move to more fashionable new homes, demolishing their old ones as they left. Not that it would make a huge difference anyway, as most of the dwellings here had been unoccupied since we moved in. This end of Magical Road had never been even close to fashionable, with its plethora of one-story shacks and ill-maintained hovels.
We flew over the sprawling haunted house near the corner, over a few derelict creations of bamboo and soggy cardboard, and nearly collided with a neat red-brick tower. I almost leaped overboard as I saw those beloved old walls. We were home! Karmapa was telling the crew to land in the untilled field that still occupied the corner of the lot, the ship was touching down... and there was Freefall! Running excitedly into the front yard, staring around short-sightedly while treading the cuffs of her oversized jeans into the mud, frizzy brown hair sticking out in all directions... my beloved owner.
We collided in the middle of the gangplank. Being larger, Freefall was the one to scoop me up in her arms and hug me. For a moment’s blessed eternity, I hugged her back... and then I heard Ciyan’s mocking laughter. The annoying little Cybunny was standing between a green Kau and a yellow Blumaroo, both of whom looked suitably impressed by the ship in the yard. Ciyan, of course, had seen bigger things, and was more impressed by this sudden display of affection.
“Put me down!” I hissed at Freefall. Clearly realizing that we looked silly, she did so, but couldn’t resist ruffling my long locks. Gritting my teeth, I asked, “So you still have the foster pet program going?”
“Of course,” she said with a smile. “As long as there’s pets in the Pound that need rescuing, I’ll be helping do it!”
“I’m Potion,” the Kau said, clearly seeing this as her cue to start the introductions.
“I’m Pizza,” the Blumaroo said. “Are you the one who ran away to the moon?”
I smiled. Just like old times... in all likelihood, the names of these poor pets were much more complicated than they let on. I could see a happy future of teaching them to read, soothing night terrors, having my possessions stolen... Hmm, that didn’t sound so good. “Yes, I am,” I said with great dignity. Unfortunately, this lot didn’t seem to know dignity when they saw it.
“Well,” Freefall said, opening the front door, “come on... the bread!” A scent of burning yeast had wafted out of the kitchen. She raced in, and I followed at a more measured pace.
The house hadn’t changed much. Still the same antiquated cooking facilities and lack of enough chairs, still the immense and over-decorated artificial tree unseasonably plopped in the middle of the kitchen, still Freefall’s same deadpan explanation that she wanted every day to be like the Day of Giving for the foster pets... when I got up to the living room and saw the poinsettias and trees up there, I felt like crying. This was home... really, truly, home.
There was a great hullabaloo getting Kent indoors, finding a comfortable chair for him, welcoming the entire Royal Draikspere Company into the kitchen, fussing over everyone, saying how cute Rai was, offering tea, and coffee, and biscuits... in the midst of the uproar, I tiptoed to the top floor bedroom. This, at least, was better decorated then most of the house, as here my taste held sway over the tastes of my fluctuating family. Little had been changed since I left: two Day of Giving trees had been placed in the corner, and Condi’s old bed stuffed behind a table, replaced by a larger and softer petpet bed. A pang went through my heart as I saw the empty little bed... Aside from that, however, the room was untouched. The Meowclops-head pillow on the bed, the old rocking chair, even my tatty Rebuild Maraqua poster... I slipped my cloak off and lay down on the bed.
“Good job, Farside Three,” Commander C said. She sat in the rocking chair next to the bed, the rocking chair Freefall had read to me from when I was little. “I really thought you were going to make a mess of this, but you somehow muddled through. Mind you, I was a bit worried when you let Farside Two get hurt, but you dealt with that ok, didn’t you? With some help from me, of course, but that’s to be expected. After all, I was your mentor, even if you like to think you learned everything by yourself. And by the way...” A Devilpuss sat, purring, on my chest. “Condi forgives you, and she understands about the other petpets. And...” The Commander laid an icy hoof on my shoulder. “I forgive you too. You’ve earned it.”
Shouting rose from downstairs. I distinctly heard Freefall shout, “No bacon in my house!”
“It looks like you have some more responsibilities on your head now,” the Commander said, standing up. “Remember to use the solution that suits the situation. I have full trust in your abilities to handle whatever comes your way, Farside Leader.”
I woke to the jolt of Freefall plopping down on the bed beside me. “Mind sharing?” she whispered. “I don’t think I can get any of the others to go to sleep tonight, so I’m giving up. With any luck, they won’t come up here...”
I rolled toward her and buried my face in the crook of her neck. “I’m still your little Wocky, aren’t I?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said, draping an arm over me. “You always will be my little Wocky... unless you decide to change species.”
I laughed, feeling a purr revving up in my throat, soothing the nagging ache. I hadn’t purred in ages. “Do you really think that’ll happen?” I asked. “I’m not Karmapa. Now, as for getting my ears pierced...”
Freefall was already snoring. Careful not to wake her, I stretched out, and fell asleep purring, kneading the pillows with my claws.
Morning came with a blast of coffee aromas. Leaving Freefall asleep, I headed down to see if I could get a cup.
“Zeenana Cappucino?” Potion offered.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the proffered cup. “Where are the others?”
“The actors are back on their ship,” she said with a shrug. “Ciyan and her family are playing with Pizza in the garden.” Rather irrelevantly, she added, “Did you bring any cheese back from the moon?”
“Kent?” I asked, my mind awakening fully.
“At work,” Potion said with another shrug.
“At work?!?” I shouted. “But he’s injured! What’s he doing at work?!?” I had done enough guilt-tripping over Kent for a long while, and didn’t feel like having to do so again.
“A messenger came from the Kreludan Embassy a few hours ago,” she said. “It sounded like the Ambassador threw all his furniture through a plate-glass window. I told Mr Odnurghovitch you’d be angry if he went off, but he insisted. Doctor Whatever-her-name-is went with him, so he should be ok.”
I made a face, gulped down my coffee, and headed out the door. A cool breeze was blowing, but the sun was shining, and as a herder of fools, I had a duty.
I had to ask five Neopets before I could get directions to the Kreludan Embassy. I finally found the nice corner house in one of the still-somewhat-populated residential neighbourhoods. All that set it apart from its neighbours was the Kreludan flag flying in front and the broken furniture and beads of safety glass covering the lawn. Potion must have understood the message right. A huge window had clearly once given the Ambassador’s office a nice view of the street; now the gap where it had been gave the gawkers in the street a nice view of the empty office.
Filled with the affronted dignity of a herder of fools, I marched past a befuddled Grundo guard and into the Embassy. I didn’t have to look too hard for Kent; looking tired but determined to do his duty, he was conversing with Dr Hu in the bare stone entryway. “It’s quite clear that he’s certifiably insane,” he was saying.
“Except for the small problem of finding him,” she pointed out. “It would probably be easier to find that dratted sister of mine, not that I want to.”
“Explorer!” Kent had noticed me. “Would you believe...”
“...that the Ambassador threw his furniture out the window?” I finished. “Potion told me.”
“And then ran away and hasn’t been seen since,” Kent said. “Sweet Fyora, I really don’t want to be Ambassador.”
“Have the Draikspere Company told you how long they’ll be?” Dr Hu asked. “I need to get home, and they offered to take me...”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Kent asked.
Before Dr Hu could answer, a Grundo ran in, shouting, “The Ambassador didn’t ditch everything!” He triumphantly held aloft a bunch of perfect-looking roses. “Silk flowers,” he said proudly. “He forgot to throw these out!”
I laughed so hard that all three of them stared at me. “What’s so funny?” Kent asked quizzically. I considered repeating what Ciyan had told me on the spaceliner, but I thought that might make me sound like I was also insane. Instead, I said, “Could Ciyan have those? She likes silk flowers.”