Worth a Thousand Words
Four words were written on the front of the cage: Worth a Thousand Words.
Each day, innumerable people walked through the pound, glancing at the pets and the statistics written on their cages. ((Strong, fast, doesn’t obey orders well.)) ((Quiet, meek, but lightning-quick with her claws.)) ((Prankster, but unimaginative.)) ((Slow, but strong and willing to do anything for his master.))
Each day, the passersby would look at her cage, pause to stare at the words written there, and continue on. She watched them all, resigned to her fate. All those around her, the beautifully named pets who’d never known a day of hardship before the pound, were adopted and freed from the boredom, but she remained.
She had no name. Nobody outside a cage spoke to her except Dr. Death and Rose. Everyone else just saw the four words on the front of her cage and left, seeking a pet more easily gained.
The ranks of cages around her shifted endlessly, because of that. One day there would be twin Korbats across the aisle from her, colored like a rainbow and the night sky. The next day, they’d be gone. Or maybe they stayed four days, perhaps a week, before Dr. Death placed them further back in the rows, making way for new pets.
Yet she stayed there, right at the front where everyone paraded by as they entered and exited. Once, she’d asked Dr. Death why. He had told her it was because she was beautiful.
She’d cocked her green head at him and said, “So are they.”
He had laughed, but he hadn’t replied. She’d watched him leave, just like she had so many times before. She couldn’t remember a world without the Techo. He and the laughing pink Uni he partnered with were the only ones outside cages who spoke to her. The robotic Hissi that occasionally came to talk to the Pound’s owners referred to her as their mascot. She took pride in his words, even if she barely understood them.
The ever-shifting cages gave her barely enough time to ask the pets around her about what Neopia was like for them before they were taken away. Though she didn’t notice, the smarter pets were placed near her, and through them she learned what the world was.
The odd assortment of pets, from lingering Buzz to quickly-snatched Draiks, taught her everything. Astronomy, math, the art of street fighting and how it differed from Battledoming, what Shenkuu and Tyrannia and the Haunted Woods looked like, and anything else she could imagine – even things she never would’ve imagined.
“You live in space?” she asked a Grundo.
The Grundo nodded, green ear-stalks waving.
“How’s that possible?”
The Grundo simply smiled, launching into a long-winded explanation. She listened, golden eyes wide, until sleep overcame her. When Dr. Death came over for his evening check on the pets, the Grundo was still awake. When the Techo stopped by his cage, the Grundo spoke. “She’s something else, isn’t she?”
Dr. Death nodded absently. “She’s worth a thousand words.”
“Not Neopoints?” The Grundo reached a finger through his cage, tapping the sign on his door. “Everyone else is up for those.”
“We get enough of those,” Dr. Death said, turning to the cages on the other side of the aisle. “But the world doesn’t have enough stories to go around.”
The Grundo fell silent, thinking about what the Techo had said. By the time he’d thought of a reply, Dr. Death was gone, lost in the dark maze of cages of the depths of the pound.
She learned the theory of how to sail a Shenkuuan airship, what the Faerie Queen’s palace looked like, what it felt like to swim in the sea and how that was different from rivers or freshwater lakes. The endless stream of people continued, and she looked up as each paused in front of her before continuing on. As each day wore on, she stopped bothering to lift her head, resigned once more to her lot as an eternal resident of the pound.
Near the end of one day, when everything usually closed down for the night, she heard Dr. Death talking to someone. Eyes open the barest amount, she looked at them. Dr. Death was sitting at his desk. The person, a female human dressed in loose clothing, held papers in her hands. “...a thousand words.” Her ears perked up, and she strained to hear more.
“That’s the price, yes,” Dr. Death said calmly. “Do you have words to buy her with?”
The human nodded, placing the sheets of paper on the yellow Techo’s desk. “A thousand words, and then some.” The human brushed a strand of light brown hair behind her ear. “You can check, if you want.”
Dr. Death wasn’t listening to the human. She could tell that. The human, realizing that, stayed silent, waiting for the Techo to respond. When he looked up, he was smiling. “You may have her,” he said softly. “You may have Eos.” He rose, taking a ring of keys out of his pocket. She watched as he found one key, a silver one she’d never seen him use before.
The human stayed close behind Dr. Death as they came closer to the cages. She closed her eyes, expecting them to pass her by. Then she heard the rattling click of a cage being unlocked. She opened her eyes, looking at Dr. Death. He opened the door to her cage and reached in to pet her. She shrank back, dark mane fluffing up. For all that she’d dreamed of freedom, of seeing all the wonderful things she’d heard described, this wasn’t how she’d expected it to begin.
“Come now, Eos,” Dr. Death said. “This is Colleen. She’ll be taking care of you from now on.”
“Eos?” she whispered, still in the back of her cage. “Who’s Eos?”
“You are, darling.” The Techo’s hand gently brushed her scaly skin. “You’re named for the dawn.”
She – Eos – crept forward, hooved fore-feet clacking on the cage’s floor. “Can I see a dawn?” she asked, looking at Colleen. Dr. Death stepped out of Eos’s way, and she stepped onto the floor.
Colleen laid a hand on her shoulder. “Yes.”
Eos smiled at Colleen, rearing up to hug the human. “Thank you,” she said, falling back to the floor. She paused. “Why’d you come back?”
“What do you mean?” Colleen asked, rubbing her torso where Eos had hugged her.
Tilting her head, Eos frowned slightly. “You stopped to look at me. And then you came back. Nobody comes back for me.”
Colleen knelt, placing herself at eye level for Eos. “I came back because you’re beautiful. Your price was a story a thousand words long. I wrote a story about you, Eos.”
“What did you write?” Eos stared at her with wide eyes. “You don’t even know me.”
“I wrote of a young Eyrie trapped in a form that made others dismiss her.” Colleen smiled. “I wrote of a young Eyrie who, though no fault of her own, was a mutant, her form warped from the feathered beauty given to her species. She was scaled, with heavy, clawed wings. But her eyes shone with intelligence and love and a desire to see the world.”
Eos’s eyes widened even more, and Colleen continued.
“She lay in a metal cage. So many people looked at her, but none of them saw her beauty. They just saw a nameless, stat-less pet that couldn’t be bought with money.” Colleen ran a hand through Eos’s mane, and Eos started at the contact. “But there are some things that money can’t buy. That love for life is one thing. Curiosity is another. And a friend is a third.” Colleen smiled, joy shining in her face. “Eos, I’d like to be your friend, not your owner, despite what others will call us.”
Eos stared at Colleen, frozen for long moments. Then she nodded, tears leaking out from her eyes. “I’d like that,” she whispered as Colleen hugged her. “I’d like that a lot.”
“Then come with me,” Colleen said, standing. “We’ll see the dawn tomorrow. Where do you want to watch it?”
Eos grinned, following Colleen out of the Pound, words pouring from her beak.
“Shenkuu! No, not Shenkuu. Terror Mountain. Or Mystery Island! They have natives there, you know! Nowhere else does! I’ve heard it from everyone. But they might be dangerous. Maybe we shouldn’t go there. I know! Let’s watch the dawn at Altador, from the Hall of Heroes! Is it true that one of the protectors was evil? That can’t be right. Lord Altador couldn’t have chosen poorly. He’s a king!”
Dr. Death watched with a smile, listening to Eos’s voice fade into the distance. Rose came up behind him, hooves clacking on the floor. “You’ve finally let her go?”
Dr. Death turned to the pink Uni. “She has a true friend now. We’d need to let her go someday, and Colleen wrote us this in exchange.” He pushed the papers towards Rose.
Rose didn’t even glance at them. “If you’re satisfied, then it was a good deal.”
“Yes.” Dr. Death turned back towards the door and the windows set above them. The setting sun poured through them, giving the room a golden cast. “She’ll finally be able to see all the things she’s heard about.”
“And the dawn she was named for.”
“I don’t know why Colleen chose that name,” the Techo admitted. “But it suits her.”
“Yes. It does.”
The pair watched the sunlight slowly fade from their office, golden light turning to darkness. Soon after night fell, they left, each going on their own rounds of the Pound. There were always more pets to take care of, and they had accepted the job of making sure all the unloved pets were cared for.
And some days, they could give a pet to someone who could love them as they deserved to be loved.
Cleaning out used cages, Dr. Death smiled. That was why he’d agreed to this job. The feeling when a pet and a human walked away together, already bonded and feeling like family. That feeling was more than worth the endless hours cleaning and making sure everyone got fed. It was worth the world, to see a pet loved enough to be worth a thousand words.