Princess Bones: Part Seven
Rina held the paintbrush in her shaking hand. She glanced down at the crowd that milled around the base of the stage, all of them staring intently at the blank canvas. The green Zafara breathed in, trying to slow her beating heart. She had never liked painting in front of people. Drawing had always been a personal activity, one she liked to do in the safety of her room, or alone outside under a tree in her front yard. But now she was being watched intently, scrutinized from every angle.
And she had no clue what to paint.
She shifted uncomfortably in her long lavender dress. The gown definitely wasn’t a painting garment, but there was nothing she could do about it. I need inspiration, she thought desperately, looking around for something, anything, to pique her interest. Her eyes flitted across the stage decorated with green banners for the coronation. King Hagan was gazing at her intently. Princess Saya was fiddling with the sleeve of her dress, staring at her anxiously.
Rina turned her gaze away from the royal family and instead looked into the crowd. The citizens of Brightvale looked back at her, some intently, others bored. They were old and young and every age in between, but she wasn’t inspired. Not by their clothes, or their expressions, or their anything.
But then her gaze fell on a single figure in the midst of the crowd. It wasn’t Dr. Renwick, with his glowing ember eyes and smirk. It was the Draik at his side: Mr. Milleran. He was small and hunched over himself, as if the Ruki standing next to him had sucked out all of his vigor. His head was down at the moment, and he appeared lost standing in the midst of the crowd. But for a single second, he glanced up, and his eyes connected with hers. And despite how far away he was, despite the Neopians all around him, Rina could read his lips fine when he mouthed the words “I’m sorry.”
Don’t pity him, one voice in her head barked. He got you into this mess. He lied to you. He used you. He’s as bad as Renwick.
But looking at him now, it was hard to see Mr. Milleran as the mastermind behind the whole scheme. Instead, he looked like a lifeless puppet: a limp and sad toy.
Suddenly, she knew what to paint.
She sat up straighter and pulled back the long, draping sleeves of her dress. Rina reached for a tube of paint and began mixing the perfect shade on the pallete. Then, gently dipping her paintbrush in it, she began to paint on the canvas.
The citizens of Brightvale stirred as she made her first few strokes. She was aware of their presence at first, like annoying bugs that hovered just at the edge of her vision, but after a few seconds, Rina blocked them out of her head. It was just her, her brush, the paint, and the canvas slowly filling with her picture.
It took over an hour. In that time, a good number of people in the crowd left, but a few more joined, intrigued by the green Zafara dressed as a princess and painting on the stage.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to those in the crowd, but only a few minutes to Rina herself, she signed her work and appraised it silently. I like it, she thought, but what about the people of Brightvale? Suddenly she was shaking like a leaf, her legs trembling beneath the dress’ skirt.
She turned around, glancing towards King Hagan for reassurance, but instead she caught Saya’s gaze. The Shadow Xweetok’s big, bright green eyes were hopeful and eager. “Go on,” the princess mouthed. “You can do it.”
Rina took a deep breath and forced her leg to be still. “Here goes nothing,” she murmured, and she turned the easel so that the audience could view the painting in full.
There was a cumulative gasp from the crowd. “Wow,” Princess Saya murmured from the stage, and Rina felt herself warm with pride.
While the other painting had been a bit more ambient and muddled, this one evoked entirely different emotions. It was a picture of the crowd from Rina’s point of view on the stage. The top of the canvas was the bright blue of the sky, and colorful green celebratory banners dangled from tall wooden posts. The setting was extremely bright and happy, but the subject of the picture was anything but. The focus of the painting was the crowd itself. Each figure was distinctive—different clothing, different expressions, different everything—but one neopet immediately grabbed your attention. It was the green Draik in the center, his eyes hollow and empty and downcast. And hovering at his side was a shadow in the shape of a Ruki, discoloring the canvas like a cancerous stain.
“There,” Rina said to the crowd, weary yet happy at the same time. “I don’t want to be a princess. I want to be an artist.”
This time there seemed to be a generous consensus of agreement in the crowd. Hagan surged forward with a smile. “All in favor of Rina becoming an artist instead of a princess, say ‘Aye!’”
“Aye!” came the resounding cry.
“All in favor of Saya becoming the Princess of Brightvale, say ‘Aye.’”
“All who disagree to this arrangement—”
“I do!” Dr. Renwick bellowed, interrupting the King.
Rina glanced down at him and flinched. The Ruki’s eyes were crimson, and his claws were balled into fists. He pushed his way savagely to the front of the crowd, shoving the citizens of Brightvale to the side as if they were mere objects. “Rina is the legitimate heir of Brightvale!” he shouted, advancing towards the base of the stage, mere feet away from her. “I made it so five years ago, and I will not have that snatched away from me after so long. She will be Princess! So I say it, and so it shall be!”
And then, with a surprising burst of energy, he lunged up towards her. Rina backed away from him frantically, but the Zafara was too slow. His brown claws snagged the hem of her dress, and she fell to her knees with a yelp.
The crowd went into a frenzy, running away in terror. None of the townspeople came to her aid. At the same time, King Hagan and Princess Saya were immediately swept up in a swarm of attendants and dragged away to safety, powerless to help her.
Rina’s attention was entirely on the Ruki who had grabbed her, and she shrieked in horror. From this close, she could see the faint slick of sweat on the doctor’s forehead and the madness in his eyes as he reached for her...
“STOP!” a figure shouted, and with an “Oomph!” Renwick was tackled to the ground. Rina scrambled backwards on the stage, her heart pounding heavily in her chest. Her blue eyes fell upon the attacker and she almost fainted with relief: Mr. Milleran.
“I’ve had enough of your crazy scheme,” the green Draik shouted, pinning the struggling Ruki to the stone street with surprising strength. “I’m not going to be your puppet anymore.”
“Mr. Milleran!” Rina breathed in shock. Ignoring the delicate fabric of her dress, she jumped down off the stage so that she was level with her teacher. A smile lit up the green Zafara’s face. “You saved me!”
The Draik looked up for a brief second and gave her a small smile in return. “I had to.”
Rina wanted to give him a hug in gratitude, but before she could take a single step towards him, a swarm of guards suddenly flooded around them. They made a beeline towards Dr. Renwick, hauling the Ruki to his feet. However, another pair of guards roughly grabbed onto Mr. Milleran as well.
“What are you doing?” Rina gasped in confusion. “Let him go! He saved me.”
“No can do, Miss,” a blue Tonu said gruffly, almost yanking Mr. Milleran’s arm out of his socket. “He was involved in this whole plot too.” He held up her teacher’s briefcase, which must have been discarded on the ground when Mr. M had lunged at Renwick. “We found a guardian switch form in here. He knew about this all from the beginning. It was under the King’s orders to have him detained along with the doctor.”
“But--!” she protested.
“No,” Mr. M said, looking into her eyes. He wasn’t struggling. “The Tonu is right. I was involved in the plot. Once I realized who you were the other day in class, and that Renwick had finally found a way to become King, I became jealous. I missed the palace. I thought that I could beat him to Brightvale and become King myself.”
“So,” Rina said slowly, her eyes filling with tears, “you really were using me.”
“At first, yes,” he admitted, bowing his head. “I was being selfish and power hungry. And when we ran into Renwick in the castle, and you disappeared behind one of the doors, he said he’d team up with me. Then we could split the throne at least. I gave it one last shot... and then slowly realized that I couldn’t. I couldn’t force you to become Princess for my own selfish wants. I deserve this,” he said, tilting his heads towards the guards. “I’m not innocent. And now I have to serve out my punishment. But I want you to know, Rina, that I’m sorry. I truly am.”
Rina didn’t know what to say. It was as if all of her words had left her, leaving her feeling empty, hollow, and a tad confused. Thankfully, she was spared from replying when with a bark of “Let’s go,” the Tonu roughly pulled Mr. Milleran away.
To be continued...