The Unorthodox Expedition: Part Nine
Theodore Harmond lowered his spyglass.
The pirate Bori didn't need it anymore; Brightvale was looming up before Contemplative Philosophies.
A scarlet, gold, and pink sunrise streaked across the sky, reflecting perfectly on the calm waters and causing a migraine-inducing paradox, if you stared at it too long.
Sam Harmond sleepily walked towards him.
"Good morning, Sam," the Captain said.
Sam acknowledged his greeting with a smile, and turned to look at the approaching landform, the Neopian Mainland.
"Is all of that Brightvale?" he signed to the Captain, amazed.
Captain Harmond laughed. "No, lad, Brightvale is only a part of it. There's the Haunted Woods, The Lost Desert, Roo Island, and Shenkuu over the mountains... remind me to give you a lesson in geography, boy."
Later that same morning, the ship reached the Brightvalian harbor. The harbor was badly in need of a repair. The wooden planks were covered in dirt and hardened sea salt, and odd bits of driftwood littered the beach. Old barrels and crates, long forgotten, stood in bunches to rot. A group of men neatly dressed in the colors of Brightvale looked severely out of place.
"Th-there's our guard," the Professor said, pushing his spectacles up his nose. He had dressed in full scholarly attire for the occasion: a white tunic over dark trousers, with an ornamental green- and- gold robe on top. The chain of a pocket watch trailed down his torso, and on his head he wore an odd, peaked hat.
"Are they going to take us to the palace?" Lilith asked, as she leaned over the railing to get a better view of the guards.
"Y-yes. To see the M-most High Academe." Cornelius was trembling visibly.
"Woss' got ye all worked up, Idjit Perfessor?" Old Phil asked.
Cornelius tried to mop up his perspiring face. "The M-most High Academe, you see, will determine my position in the House of Academics; or if I e-even get a position."
"Why wouldn't you?" Lilith asked with a frown. "You're really quite smart."
"Th-thank you, but Academes have to be more than just smart. They m-must have a sense of leadership, wisdom, a-and be good r-role models for all the little scholars," Cornelius explained. "This expedition may probably be what the Most High Academe will base her judgment on."
"Her?" Lilith said.
"Y-yes. Lady Gertrude Wilson is the current Most High Academe."
"Don't worry, mate, I'm sure you'll make the cut," Sebastian said, throwing an arm around the Professor's thin shoulders. "But now, we should probably disembark and get the loot to this Gertrude person."
The five guards, after instructing the crew to take their personal belongings with them to the castle, escorted the party to the two waiting carriages. A silent hour was spent as they traveled over the cobblestones and dirt paths leading to the palace.
The palace itself was an awe-inspiring sight. It had long stone towers, massive walls, and soaring buttresses, all surrounded with a churning, murky moat. The colors of Brightvale, green, gold, and white, were skillfully incorporated into the design. Every window-pane was made of stained glass.
The castle was bustling with activity: servants and maids hurried about, groundsmen tended to the lawns and gardens, and guards made their rounds up above the drawbridge. Unis carrying noblemen, carts full of turnips or potatoes, similar carriages with indiscernible occupants, and overworked grooms completed the scene.
"Why are there so many people here?" Sam signed, and Lilith Ferrars translated. It was one of the many questions the green Ogrin was asking.
"The summer solstice is approaching; our King Hagan is holding a ball to honor the longest day of the year," a Scorchio guard answered patiently.
"Do you have lots of balls in Brightvale?"
"At least three a year: one for the summer and winter solstices, and either the spring or autumn equinox." A green Meerca spoke the second time.
Sam, being male, had little interest in balls and such nonsense. "What sports can you play in Brightvale?"
After Lilith translated that, the Scorchio guard looked surprised. "Sports aren't very important in Brightvale. There is, of course, the Yooyuball team, and some of the boys might organize games of rugby or baseball. But besides that, physical activities are limited to soldiers or guards. We are an intellectual nation, after all."
"Please take a seat by the window. Academe Wilson will see you shortly," said a cloud Acara dressed in a conservative, business-like gray outfit. A nametag on her chest read "J. Douglas". They were in a sort of office, with tall, floor-to-ceiling windows, a high, vaulted ceiling, and an intricately woven, red rug partially covering a gray, stone floor. The Most High Academe inhabited the east tower of the palace.
Our explorers gathered near the window. Only five wooden seats were available, so four of them either leaned on the walls or, in Professor Winthrop's case, paced back and forth nervously. The chest was placed protectively under Captain Harmond's chair.
Ms. Douglas sent muffins and tea for our expectant explorers to nibble on as they waited. Perseus, however, preferred stalking a Buzzer in the corner to sipping tea.
"You're going to wear a path in the carpet, Professor," Elizabeth said, idly stirring her tea.
"S-s-sorry! I'm just very nervous!"
"I tend to avoid feeling nervous. It isn't a very useful feeling," Captain Harmond said.
"I can't help it! Not many professors are promoted to the rank of Academe, you know." The Professor had seated himself, on Lucille's insistence, but his leg was bouncing furiously.
"Don't worry about it, Idiot Professor! You're still young; about my age, actually; so if you fail now, you could always try again," said the unmistakably youthful Sebastain Duske.
The Professor swallowed, with some difficulty. "I-I suppose you're right, Mr. Duske."
Ms. Douglas, who was still sitting at her small cherrywood desk across the room, looked up from the stack of letters she was addressing and called, "Lady Wilson will now receive Professor C. Winthrop... and party." The last bit was added as an afterthought.
Our explorers walked past the secretary and through the double door behind her desk.
Beyond the doors, there was a second office. It was similar to the first in design, though there was a rather conspicuous chandelier in the middle of the room, looming over everyone's heads.
Behind a sturdy cherry wood desk sat an old, ice-colored Krawk, who was presumably the Most High Academe. She was a woman in her sixties, wearing a severe black dress with a bit of white lace around the edges that suggested wealth. The many wrinkles on her face bespoke wisdom and experience, instead of great age. Her eyes were a dark grey, in contrast to her coloring. Her snowy white hair was twisted into an elegant curl at the back of her head, and adorned with a sheer black veil.
"Hello," she said, smiling and inclining her head slightly.
Unsure of what to do, some of our explorers attempted clumsy bows or curtsies. Lilith, who could perfectly manage the latter, stood still to give nothing away.
Wasting no time on pleasantries, Lady Gertrude demanded the chest. It was presented with a proud flourish by Sebastian and Henry. The Most High Academe opened the lid a crack and peeked in. Seemingly satisfied with what she saw, she closed it again and faced Cornelius.
"Your report, Professor Winthrop? And please keep it within six minutes." She fixed the Idiot Professor with a piercing gaze as he began.
Cornelius started by giving the names of the crew, then launched into a detailed and concise description of their unorthodox expedition.
The almost surprising lack of stutters made the crew beam with pride as their patron delivered his speech; practiced, at their ignorance, late into last night.
The Professor finished speaking. "Wonderful job, Professor. You had seventeen seconds to spare," said Academe Wilson, who had been keeping an eye on the clock.
"Um, thank you," Cornelius said uncertainly. "B-but, the expedition itself...?"
The Most High Academe let out a short laugh, to their surprise. "Did you like the riddle? Frank, my nephew, thought of it. The boy never could write, but he was so enthusiastic about it...."
She stopped when she saw the confused faces before her. "Is something the matter?"
"What are you talking about?" Elizabeth Steele asked, losing all courtesy.
"Oh, that. Well, you see... Miss Steele, is it?... the map was a fake. We drew it out just a few months ago. Making it look old was a small obstacle."
"But- the treasure!" "Are ye mad, wommin?" "My brother nearly died for a joke?" "How is this even possible?" "Madame, I am APALLED!" A flood of outbursts followed her statement.
Gertrude Wilson frowned. "That's enough!" she said, her voice cutting through the clamor. "All will be explained! Please, just calm down." She raised her faceted, ice hand.
"First, you," she said, turning towards Henry Chum, who was staring at her with murder in his eyes. "I had arranged for only Chumablahs to be sent into the forest; harmless creatures, as we know. The Reptilliors mentioned must have been attracted to the strange new prey and given pursuit, only to be distracted by you all. It was certainly not a joke, sir, and I will not have you saying so.
"And the treasure; the same crew that took the Professor to Krawk Island traveled to Mystery Island and planted the chest on the mountain, using a copy of the map to place it accurately. The Chumablah's loud talons were originally meant to guide you to it, but the Reptilliors upended that scheme."
"Why do it at all?" Lilith Ferrars asked, with venom in her voice.
"Because," said a voice from behind them. They all turned to see Ms. Douglas standing in the half- open doorway. "...there aren't nearly enough opportunities for Professors to be promoted," she said as she walked into the room. "All Lady Wilson did was create a scenario for Professor Winthrop to prove his worth. This isn't the first time it's been done, nor will it be the last."
"Thank you, Juliet. You see, as Ms. Douglas just explained, the only reason we went to all this trouble is because we saw some potential in the Professor. Sir," the Most High Academe said, addressing him. "You have shown us an exceptional intellect, sound, if occasional, leadership, natural wisdom, and in all, a good and reliable soul. Professor Winthrop, as of today, you are an Academe."
Professor Winthrop's breath caught in his throat. "Th-thank you, my Lady," the speckled Lenny stammered out.
"Let's not waste any time on gratitude, shall we? Juliet, the documents," Gertrude Wilson said, but there was a smile on her face.
The impassive Juliet Douglas handed Cornelius some documents to sign. She then pulled a out a small, gold badge. It was the Brightvalian sun. Juliet passed her hand over the smooth metal and two things were inscribed into the surface. It bore his name: Cornelius Winthrop, Academe. Underneath were two crossed swords, with a rolling fire behind them. It was the Professor's family crest, as they would later learn.
Sound slaps on the back and hearty congratulations were given to the dazed Academe. Sam insisted on pinning the badge to Cornelius's lapel himself, nearly impaling the poor man in his excitement.
Gertrude Wilson made a decision. "You all have behaved admirably on this expedition. As agreed, you will get a share of the treasure. Cornelius, I expect a full written account of your journey by next Friday. And," she grinned icily and steepled her fingers. "I formally invite all of you to the Summer Ball."
This time, the shocked and rather horrified expressions of our explorers made her laugh.