A Lesson Well Learned: Part One
“Have you ever wondered why they always schedule the open days during the last semester of the year?” mused Ursula the blue Lutari. “The one time when we’re all so downbeat and consumed with stress that we retreat into little fortresses built of books and they expect us to be the embodiment of a friendly, educational atmosphere.”
Briar gave her identical twin sister a playful nudge and added, “Well, perhaps you wouldn’t be under quite so much pressure if you didn’t insist on flinging yourself around the Yooyuball field as well.”
“But we made it to the collegiate finals this year! We finally get a chance to trounce those uppity Shenkuuvians.” With this she pounded a fist into her open palm and wore an expression of gleeful anticipation that bordered on intimidating. A deliberate clearing of the throat from the other side of the table reminded her that she was, in fact, in the presence of one such ‘uppity Shenkuuvian’.
It was easy to forget that Li Piao was from Shenkuu, though; he’d pretty much gone out of his way to sever connections with any and every culture in Neopia. After escaping the suffocating embrace of his parents, the young Kyrii had rebelled in the most obvious way he could – by turning himself into a walking, neon sign of individuality.
No sooner had he settled into his Brightvale dorm than he’d invested in a substantial amount of hair dye and set about recolouring his white mane jet black. To this base he’d then spattered on luminous orange highlights and shaped his fringe to fall whimsically over one eye, whilst somehow teasing the hair on the crown of his head into a gravity-defying mohawk. The look was completed with an array of slashed up jeans, outlandish shirts and a pair of rainbow arm warmers that he was never seen without.
“Sorry, Piao, you know I wasn’t grouping you in with that lot,” added Ursula hastily, seemingly unaware that this could have made the situation much worse, had the pair not been such good friends.
“It’s okay,” Piao laughed, his thick Shenkuu accent suddenly even more obvious, “you’re right. Why do you think I came here to study my beloved poetry? Back home it’s all ‘astral alignments’ this and ‘cosmic energy’ that. They’re so busy staring into the sky they don’t realise how beautiful it is down here.”
Their friendly banter was suddenly cut short as ‘Nerdy’ Nigel Nitterwick, the pudgy, yellow Chia, stomped over to them from across the library. “Do you mind?” he hissed. “When you lot have finished being so raucous, may I remind you that not only are you in a library, but you are also liable to ruin Mrs. Healey’s tour for the prospective students!” With that he defiantly shunted his horn-rimmed spectacles back up his nose towards his squinty eyes and took off to meddle elsewhere.
“Trust Nitwit to spoil the mood,” said Briar, smoothing down the glossy blonde locks she was so proud of. Unconsciously Ursula reached up a paw to her own hair and found it just as she had left it - unkempt and greasy.
A small sigh bubbled out from the pile of clothes sat beside Piao; somewhere in amongst all those folds of fabric was the brown Shoyru Skeeter Larson. Skeeter, known affectionately to his friends as Skeet, was about average height for a ten year old. Unfortunate then that he was actually eighteen. A dramatic change in financial circumstances back home on the family farm meant that, although they somehow found the money to let him follow in his older brother’s footsteps and attend university, in order to do so he had to don said sibling’s handed down wardrobe. This might not have been so bad if his brother hadn’t been a stocky athlete, so now pretty much the only part of Skeet that was ever visible were two huge, chocolate eyes peeping out from between thick turtlenecks and huge hats.
“What’s up, Skeet?” inquired Ursula. Rather than giving a vocal answer, Skeet simply raised a drooping sleeve to point at the small parade ebbing in through the library door.
A sea of heads, each one housing curious expressions in varying degrees of bewilderment, appeared in the doorway. Before the huddled mass stood the familiar figure of Mrs. Healey the librarian, smiling with such joy that it overflowed and forced her eyes shut... as usual. The enthusiastic white Aisha was in the throes of her annual introductory speech to the group of school leavers who were visiting the institute because they were considering studying there next term.
“Wait for it, wait for it...” said Piao, trying hard to suppress a smile.
“Here at the Brightvale Royal Institute of Literary Learning, we think it’s just B.R.I.L.L. to read!” cooed Mrs. Healey. Fortunately at this point in the tour she always turned her back to the group she was leading in order to point out the sheer quantity of books housed within its impressive library, so she never saw the eye rolling and smirks of disbelief in response to her favourite joke.
“She says that every year and I swear it gets more hilarious each time,” quipped Briar.
“You don’t really find it funny, do you?” A rare input from Skeet, accompanied by a look of concern that required him to push up the brim of his cap to allow people to see its full extent.
“I think she means the fact that she insists on telling that joke every year, even though it’s absolutely terrible,” Piao reassured him, giving him a playful rub on the head that sent his cap all skew-whiff.
“Right,” Briar said emphatically, rising to her feet and planting her paws on the table with purpose. “As much as I love a good chit chat with you three, it’s not exactly helping the word count on my dissertation about the grammatical structure of the Tyrannian language. So I’m afraid I’ll have to love you and leave you for a while so I can get some work done.”
“Yeah, and I think I’m going to head down to the gym to get in some scoring practice before that assembly the dean called for later. You coming, Skeet?” inquired Ursula. The freshly-straightened cap bobbed in the affirmative.
“Well, if you’re all leaving me, then I guess I’ll go for a stroll around the gardens, see if the native plant life can’t get my creative musings flowing,” said Piao, stretching as if to physically throw off some form of restraint. “See you in the twins’ room later?”
This time three heads nodded, and then went their own ways.
* * * * *
The many chains, zips and buckles adorning Piao’s jeans jangled in a steady rhythm as he paced down the corridor towards the dorm room that the Woodridge twins shared. Rounding into the doorway he welcomed the usual sight; the veritable before and after shot of an interior make over.
Briar’s side of the room was immaculate. The books on her shelves were organized according to subject and title, the ones on her desk layered based on their dimensions. Her bed was always neatly made, the sheets always appearing to be clean and freshly laundered. The chest of drawers beneath the window by her bed contained her greatly varied wardrobe, all garments folded and tucked away tidily in their designated drawers. Her equally extensive assortment of makeup and grooming products lived in a large hamper tucked into the corner against the far wall. The surfaces were cluttered only by strategically-placed lamps for studying, and a selection of carefully chosen photographs from home.
Juxtaposed against this was Ursula’s side of the room, which maintained the appearance of an interrupted burglary. Her collection of books lay scattered across the floor in a series of arches and fans. This was to make room on the shelves to house her collection of treasured odds and ends; a scuffed baseball from her childhood, a dilapidated stack of trading cards, and an assortment of action figures in varying states of disassembly. Her bed looked like a huge, drooling mouth, the sagging tongue of the bed sheet hanging down between the dishevelled duvet and the divan. Clothes of indeterminable cleanliness sprawled across every available surface, along with an unhealthy amount of crumbs, spillages and chocolate bar wrappers.
Amidst the scene were the trio he had come to join. Briar was perched on the edge of her desk, Skeet sat in the middle of Briar’s bed (clearly fearful of injury should he sit on Ursula’s) and Ursula slumped against the window frame watching the Yooyuball reserve team doing their fitness training on the field below.
“Come on, daydreamer,” Briar addressed her twin, “we have an assembly to endure.”
As it turned out ‘endure’ was possibly the perfect word to sum up their attitude towards the dean’s address. Finally, after half an hour of achievements had been recited above the diegetic hum of coughs, sniffs and giggles, he got around to the reason he’d called the assembly in the first place.
“As I’m sure most of you will already be aware,” he enunciated, somewhat nasally, “Mrs. Owen has been forced to take a short break from teaching in order to take care of some personal business. As such, I am deeply honoured to introduce to you our new lecturer of etymology and grammatical structure, Dr. Eliv Thade!”
The dean’s overzealous applause was the only such instance in the room, and it wasn’t quite loud enough to cover the collective gasp of shock. Eliv shuffled forth to take his place at the lectern and address the members of his future class amongst the students before him.
“Ti rlaely si na huounr ot eb gvien teh oniporputty ot taceh ta scuh a fnie etnablesmisht.” His smile, although intended to look warm and charming, was about as warm and charming as putting your naked foot into a wellington boot and discovering that a Slorg has taken up residence there.
Nobody really paid very much attention to what the dean had to say after that; they were all too busy craning to see where Eliv had gotten to after making his way off the stage. Once the assembly eventually let out, the four friends hung back from the rabble to confer on what they had just learned. Ursula had already formed her own opinion, and as they began the slow walk back to the twins’ room she had no shortage of confidence when it came to sharing her view.
“He’s clearly only here to mine our library for some devious knowledge or something. I mean come on, why would a renowned super villain like Eliv Thade possibly want to go into teaching unless there was something bigger in it for him than the reward of educating today’s youth?! I tell you this whole business with Mrs. Owen mysteriously being called away only for Eliv to leap out from the shadows and take her place is extremely fishy from where I’m standing.”
“Well, at least where you’re standing you don’t have to actually listen to him lecture,” whined Briar. “He sounds like somebody poured out their alphabet soup onto a piece of paper and tried to pronounce it. Our project this semester counts for a large chunk of our grade for the year; how is he meant to teach me anything about the structure of a sentence when he can’t even structure the word ‘is’ properly?” She threw up her arms in exasperation.
“Hey, you guys,” Skeet cut in, almost so quietly that they didn’t hear him, “what’s going on over there?”
Their amble had led them down one of the lesser-travelled corridors of the campus, the far end of which was currently littered with what looked like fragments of broken furniture. Picking up their pace, they reached the scene just as a disgruntled Tonu, a member of the building’s cleaning staff, thundered out of the door.
“Move along, there’s nothing to see here!” he snapped, holding his hooves out to dissuade them from coming any closer. By maintaining this pose he was able to lead them around the outskirts of the disturbance and shoo them away through a pair of double doors, but not without allowing them all a good few seconds of viewing the chaos spilling from the end dorm room.
On the other side of the door the four of them exchanged glances. Ursula in particular seemed to be somewhat affected by what they had just seen.
“We’re on the second floor of B block, right?” she asked, which was confirmed by the others. “Then that must have been Casey Varnell’s room we just passed; he’s the left defender on the Yooyuball reserve team but he wasn’t training with the others when I was watching them earlier.”
Piao shrugged heavily and made to carry on walking. “Maybe he was sick.”
“First Eliv Thade shows up on campus out of the blue, now a student has gone missing and his room has been trashed, and you don’t think the two might be connected?” Passion began to infuse into Ursula’s expression. “Didn’t you see the state of it in there? It looked like my side of the room, only worse!”
“She’s right,” said Skeet, “all the stuff had been knocked off one of his shelves and the chair from his desk was on top of his bed.”
Piao’s face crumpled as he tried to think of a plausible explanation that didn’t involve bad guys creeping into rooms and snatching people. He came up blank. “Maybe we should go hang out in the common room, see if we can overhear something,” he offered instead.
“I can’t, I have Yooyuball practice in ten minutes,” Ursula said with a sunken demeanour. A split second later she perked up and added, “maybe I can ask around with the guys on the team, see if any of his friends know where he went.”
And so the sleuthing began.
To be continued...