A Lesson Well Learned: Part Four
“Yes, but that doesn’t make any sense!” Ursula thumped her fists down on the table.
“Shhh, keep it down; some of us are trying to work here.” Piao had an array of scrolls unfurled across the library table and was hard at work translating the old Shenkuuvian works into modern day Neopian. Being bilingual came in handy to rack up extra credit in little side projects like this.
“Look, I know what I saw,” said Briar, “and there is no way that this fabric was torn off Eliv’s cloak. It was completely undamaged.”
Ursula snatched the cloth from her sister’s hands and began to turn it over in her own. “I just don’t get it,” she said. “Well, maybe he owns more than one coat in that same colour; I mean, he wouldn’t wear a torn one to class in front of everybody would he? That would just look suspicious, and...”
Skeet reached over and placed a hand (well, it would have been a hand, if it hadn’t been swathed in wool) on Ursula’s forearm. “Give it up, Ursula. It wasn’t him. You did your best, though.” Even though his mouth wasn’t visible underneath the scarf he was inexplicably wearing indoors, she could tell by the curving of his eyes that he was smiling. She returned the expression, if somewhat half-heartedly.
Just then, a fat droplet of water fell from nowhere and splattered onto one of Piao’s scrolls. In a panic, he dived forward to dab at it with his arm warmer.
“No no no!” he cried. “These are one-of-a-kind artifacts! I had to get special permission to check these out of storage!” He stood up and stared around the room. “Who is throwing water?!”
The only response that greeted him was a second splash on his shoulder. He looked up to see where it was coming from just in time for the sprinkler above his head to spatter weakly into life, immediately followed by the others in the room. They soon gathered force and in a matter of seconds they were each spraying out torrents of water.
Complete and utter madness ensued.
Piao lunged across the table to try and protect his precious texts, clustering them up in his arms and sprinting for the fire exit with rolls of paper streaming behind him like the ribbon on a kite. Briar ducked after him, her arms clasped above her head to protect her hair from getting frizzy, and Skeet waddled off as fast as he was able to with his over-sized jeans bunched up around his ankles.
Ursula just sat there for a moment, then took her time getting up and dodging in and out of the groups of screeching girls and laughing boys to get out of the indoor swimming pool that the library was rapidly becoming. For while everybody else was busy preserving their clothes, books and other belongings from the watery attack, she was deep in thought about why the sprinklers had suddenly activated without the slightest provocation of heat.
Her questions were soon answered by Mrs. Healey, who appeared in the open doorway and began ushering everybody out. “Everybody, this way! There’s been a technical problem somewhere upstairs and the entire building is being flooded!”
Leaving the rainy indoors for the crisp but dry February outdoors felt very very wrong. And so puddles of soggy students began to pool around the institute’s numerous exit points, all hunched over and dripping. The stink of wet fur was overpowering in places. As teachers appeared, each just as sodden as their wards, the masses were directed to migrate towards the open green in the centre of the building where the dean was making an impromptu address.
“Please, everybody, remain calm!” he shouted out to be heard above the walls of chatter that had sprung up on all sides. “We are in the process of contacting your parents. For those of you for whom immediate travel home is not a possibility, the institute will fund a stay at the Brightvale Neolodge until such a time is convenient. Please do not return to your rooms to collect your belongings; I have been informed by the building’s technical engineer that the main generator unit has sustained damage and as such the building’s electrics are highly dangerous at the moment due to all the standing water. Thank you.” Then before anybody could harass him further, he retreated to join in the mass Neomailing of parents.
Briar was stood on her tiptoes trying to search out the others amongst the crowd when she felt a tug at her skirt. Looking down she saw the huge, brown eyes of Skeet looking back at her. He didn’t seem all that wet somehow, perhaps because the water had taken longer to reach him than everybody else.
“Have you seen Ursula?” she asked, but he shook his head. The search didn’t continue for long though, as Ursula presently came bounding through the people gathered around them, wringing out the hem of her T-shirt onto the grass.
“I will bet you every last Neopoint in my piggy bank that Eliv Thade is behind this somehow,” she asserted confidently.
“You haven’t got any Neopoints in your piggy bank, that’s why you’re forever asking me to buy you snacks because you blow all of yours on those childish trading cards you collect,” replied Briar. “But as much as I hate to admit it, I think you may be right; the probability of every sprinkler system in the entire institute spontaneously malfunctioning at the exact same moment is impossibly small.”
“And don’t forget that somebody sabotaged the generator as well!”
“Yes, that too.”
“Have either of you seen Piao?” Skeet asked.
“I caught a glimpse of his highlights as I was leaving,” said Ursula. “I think he was heading back in to rescue more scrolls.”
“So, what do we do now then?” Briar asked nobody in particular.
The answer, it seemed, was nothing.
And so the three of them sat down on the grass and waited for somebody to tell them what was going on. Tutors meandered throughout similar groups of students seated on the grass with registers. If the student lived in either Brightvale or Meridell, they were informed once their parents had been contacted and a response had been received; if they lived farther afield, they were instead informed once a room had been secured for them at the nearby Neolodge. Any protest to simply make their own way home was denied - guidelines insisted that in such a situation they had to be collected. Nobody really believed that anybody had ever written guidelines for such a situation.
In due time Mr. Carter, Skeeter and Ursula’s journalism lecturer, came by and informed Skeet that his parents were on their way to collect him.
“What about our parents?” asked Ursula.
Mr. Carter cast his eyes over the clutch of papers in his hand. “I’m afraid we have been unable to contact your parents at this time, but we are still trying to do so,” he said with a smile.
“There’s not much point,” piped up Briar. Skeet, Mr. Carter and Ursula turned to look at her. “They’re still on their business trip to Faerieland for that convention, aren’t they?” A look grim realisation washed over Ursula’s face as she recalled this fact.
“Mr. Carter, would it be okay if the twins came to stay with me? I’m sure my parents wouldn’t mind,” asked Skeet.
“I don’t see why not,” replied the teacher. “So long as they agree to take responsibility of them in their parents’ absence, then I’m sure that would be perfectly fine.” He smiled once again and was about to turn away as Ursula suddenly asked.
“Sir, have you seen our friend Piao? We think he ran back into the library to save some of the rare documents in there but haven’t seen him since.”
He glanced through his list again before replying, “Oh, it seems that Master Li has already been collected by his parents. They must have been amongst the first to arrive.” With that he left to attend to another group of students.
* * * * *
The decision to shelter the Woodridge twins had been made without any cause for deliberation, and so the sisters found themselves sat beside Skeet in the back of his family’s hay wagon on the way back to their farm. Mere minutes after passing beyond the handful of shops on the city outskirts they were engulfed by vast, rolling fields. As Meridellians, the Woodridge twins were used to greenery, but not in such abundance.
The Larson home was a modest, thatched farmhouse nestled amidst a lattice of fruit patches which served as the family’s main source of income. At the moment the earth was mostly barren. A handful of sprouting leaves broke through the dark soil here and there, but it looked like this would be another hard year for the industrious family.
Although their pantry was suffering under the weight of financial difficulties, Skeet’s mother was extremely generous in her offers of food toward the twins. They graciously declined, though, and so were quickly ushered up to Skeet’s room by the young Shoyru himself.
“Make yourself at home.” He beamed, suddenly grateful of his mother’s insistence that he tidy his room before he’d left at the start of the term.
As neither of them had ever been to their friend’s home before, they had both been on high alert since they had arrived, cocking their heads from side to side and scanning the rooms they caught glimpses of like two curious Weewoos. Now Briar wandered around his bedroom, running her eyes over the contents of his shelves; his book, music and poster collections all came under close scrutiny.
Ursula, on the other hand, stood by the huge floor-to-ceiling window that took up half of one wall and gazed out over the verdant pastures before her to the little, grey dot poking above a cluster of trees on the horizon that constituted the Brightvale Royal Institute of Literary Learning. As much as she enjoyed the company of Skeet and her sister, she couldn’t help but wish that Piao was there; he possessed an aptitude for planning and scheming that she felt would come in very handy for determining who was behind the recent ‘accident’ at the institute. She sighed deeply and wondered if he had made it home to Shenkuu yet.
* * * * *
The room slowly solidified from undefined swirls of colour back into identifiable objects and surfaces. A sharp pain throbbed in Piao’s temples as his mind, caught in a chaotic waltz of confusion, desperately tried to make sense of where he was. He became aware that his left cheek felt cold and gradually came to the realisation that he was lying on his side on solid, rocky ground.
He jerked himself upright and instantly regretted it, the throbbing in his head intensifying with the sudden change of elevation. After pausing for a moment to prepare himself he attempted to get to his feet, but was thwarted by a chain of some sort bound about his waist. Reaching behind himself with stiff arms, he slid his hands down its links and traced a path from his back to a thick pipe; every fibre of his being sank into itself as his fingers brushed against what was unquestionably a padlock.
Just then, the rusty creak of a door’s hinges cracked the silence and signalled the approach of somebody. Footsteps and heavy breaths grew closer to Piao, until they finally emerged from the darkness and he stood gazing up in fear and shock at his captor.
To be continued...