Order of Four: Part Four
I sat there for what must have been hours, staring blankly at the skyline of Neopia Central. It had seemed so exciting a year ago, beckoning me with a promise of novelty and opportunity. Now I saw the jagged grey buildings and they looked inexpressibly ugly to me. If I looked for long enough, I even had a curious fancy that they were broken teeth in some huge hideous mouth.
At last I realized that it was beginning to grow dark, and that it would be wise to try and find shelter. Without a single neopoint to my name, even a room at Cockroach Towers was not an option, and there was nobody here that I knew well enough to turn to for help. In a strange way, behind all of my more pressing worries, I saw that I had never known anybody except my mother well enough to be called a friend. And it was surely due to them, these nameless, faceless people who had hovered in the background throughout my entire life. Still I did not know what their relation to me might be, but I knew that they had influenced everything my mother and I had ever done.
I was afraid – much more afraid now that I had had time to sit and reflect – of the woman I had seen at our apartment, and more so because I had no idea what she wanted. But I suddenly found that I was furious, too. How dared she and her co-conspirators follow us, taunt us and finally take everything from me, over the course of fifteen years? I made myself a silent promise: if ever we met again, I would avenge my mother. Whatever they had done to her. And I would avenge myself.
Resolutions of revenge, however, were not much use at the moment. Reluctantly I dragged myself to my feet and set off aimlessly in the direction of the city's center. It was clear that what I desperately needed above all was money. I hadn't yet fully lost the hope that my mother might return, but until that time it was necessary to plan for the worst. Unquestionably I would need to find work, but I had no idea how to go about it, and it would probably take time. I might well starve before then.
A thought had come to me, a vague memory of something I had heard mentioned once or twice – something called the Money Tree. I wasn't sure that I believed the stories about free items for anybody who passed by; it seemed far too good to be true. Still, I had no better plan and nowhere else to go. It couldn't hurt to explore any and every possibility.
Dusk had fallen, but the streets were as crowded as ever. In Neovia, everything closed at eight o'clock, and nearly everybody was in bed by ten or eleven. Here, I had found that the streets were never empty except in the very early hours of the morning, from perhaps three o'clock to five o'clock. This was also, not coincidentally, a time when no law-abiding citizen would be outside if he could help it; there were too many others abroad, taking advantage of the cover of darkness.
I had no wish to be outside at that time either, but unless I found a means to acquire neopoints within a very short period of time, it looked as though I might not have a choice.
Soon I had reached the center, and I began to look around for anything that might resemble a large, magical tree. I was half inclined to believe that it did not exist, but when I managed to catch the attention of a passer-by and ask where it was, he stared at me incredulously. "The Money Tree? You don't know where that is?"
I forced myself to reply patiently that no, I did not.
"Well, it's right over by the Rainbow Fountain, near the Neolodge. You can't miss it."
I thanked him (for, after all, he had been a good deal more polite than many of the people I'd met here) and headed off in that direction.
I did find the Money Tree, and as I cautiously approached I realized that there was also quite a crowd assembled around it. Some of them, I guessed, were about as well off as my mother and I had been. But the vast majority were shifty, clever, sly-looking children whose rags made my plain clothing look positively luxurious. They shot me unpleasant glances as I walked up, clearly unenthused by the arrival of a new competitor.
Suddenly something appeared under the tree's roots, and all at once several of the onlookers darted with incredible speed, pouncing on it like greedy little predators on a piece of prey. One of them, a skinny blue Lupe of nine or ten, reached it first and triumphantly carried it back to the circle. It was only a rotten boot, but clearly they had considered it worth fighting for. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement, however, that whoever snatched up the item first was the uncontested owner – at least when the value of the item in question was not very great.
I stayed and watched for the greater part of an hour, but I couldn't bring myself to rush in shamelessly with the others, grabbing at anything I could get. In any case, I could see that I would have no success. I was neither as practiced nor – difficult as it was to believe – as desperate as these scavengers, who probably spent all their waking hours here.
It was late, and I was tired and hungry and miserable. There seemed no chance of procuring any food, and I decided that my best chance at finding shelter would be to enter the hallway of an apartment building, similar to the one I'd hidden in earlier, and try to sleep there.
In the end this was what I did, careful to choose one that was not too close to our own, where for all I knew the Xweetok or another of them was still waiting. I curled up in a dusty corner on the hard tile floor, although sleep did not come for many hours.
Before dawn I was rudely awakened by a fat yellow Skeith, who had rudely grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and was shaking me. It took me a moment to understand what he was saying; I gathered, however, that he was the manager of the building and wanted me to leave.
"You want to sleep here, you pay rent like everybody else!" he snarled, giving me an especially vicious shake and dragging me bodily to the door. "Now get out of here before I report you for loitering!"
Groggily and with seriously wounded dignity, I staggered to my feet and exited as gracefully as I could manage. It was not yet six o'clock, but the city was already beginning to awaken. I saw the boys sweeping the street, and another delivering the Neopian Times, and was reminded once again of my dire need for a job.
I think some small part of me had hoped that, when I woke up the next morning, everything would be back to usual, the whole bizarre episode nothing more than an unpleasant dream. Evidently my wishes were in vain.
Anyway, I had no time to waste; there were several things I wanted to do, but mulling over them without acting was a luxury I could not afford. I wanted to find my mother – there was no use trying it now, however, when I had no leads and no money and was probably still being hunted. I also wanted to find out what was going on – and it was likely that I would accomplish this at the same time I accomplished the former. Since neither of those options was available at present, my only choice was to earn some neopoints and make my situation slightly less dire.
It occurred to me, as I walked down the relatively empty street, that everything would be much easier if only I were a little less conspicuous. Even here in Neopia Central, a spotted Lupe was memorable, not to mention highly visible. But my appearance was hardly something I could change, so I would simply have to make do. I remembered my mother's remark, so many years ago, about my resemblance to my father. It seemed I had him to thank for that particular trouble. And others besides, perhaps? The fact that my mother would never talk about him with me had long made me suspect that he had something to do with our mysterious enemies. In fact, I realized, with a strange feeling, for all I knew he might still be alive. My mother had never told me in so many words that he was dead.
I must have looked as gloomy as I felt, because as I passed by an apple stand the owner called out to me. "Hey, you there, young mister! What's getting you down on such a beautiful morning?"
I looked over at him without much interest. He was a kindly-looking red Moehog, middle-aged and somewhat stout. I thought I had seen him before in my walks, although I couldn't be sure. "I doubt you would believe me if I told you. But I have no money and no work."
He seemed to ponder this for a moment. "Well, what can you do?"
"I have an education," I replied somewhat proudly, knowing full well how unusual it was in this part of the city.
"Are you schooled in medicine?" he asked.
"No," I admitted.
"Are you an accountant?"
"Well, no." Ruefully I thought of my neglect of mathematics, wishing now that I had made more effort to learn it.
"Know any magic?"
"None at all..." And if I did, I reflected with annoyance, I wouldn't be standing here without a neopoint to my name.
He could not restrain his mirth, and I watched balefully as he slapped a large hand against his thigh. "Then what's the use of your learning, eh? Tell me that. Now," he said more considerately, recovering from his laughter, "all that's as may be. Maybe you'll get a chance to use that book learning someday, but if you're short on neopoints in the meantime, you might try the factories. They're always ready to hire a sharp boy like yourself. I'd recommend Worthington's. It's better and safer than most."
It was as good advice as any, and I nodded listless thanks.
"In the meantime, if you're going hungry, try the Soup Kitchen. There's a faerie there who'll give you food free, if you're in need enough."
All of my experience so far taught me to anticipate a catch in this. Still, he seemed to mean it kindly, and I thanked him more sincerely this time. Then I turned and headed for the docks, where I could already see the black smoke rising into the sky.
To be continued...