Of Squibble Berries and Olives: Part Two
His sighting of Eselde at the food store suddenly made perfect sense two days later.
He was going through the corridor near his own chambers, looking for a window with a suitable ledge underneath it (so he could climb out and try descending to the next floor), when he saw Brynn sitting on the sill of one of the windows in the corridor, her gaze fixed on something far, far away. Something was seriously wrong. He'd very rarely seen her like this before.
"Hey, didn't expect to see you here!" he said cheerily, trying to hide his surprise. "Everything okay?"
"Huh? Oh, yes, I just... wanted a little time to myself," Brynn said with a sigh. She continued to stare out the window. "Why are you here?"
"Uh... same reason, I guess?"
She now turned to look at him, a small, forced smile on her lips. "You guess?"
"Yeah. Something wrong?" he asked, sitting next to her on the windowsill.
She shook her head. "No, I just needed some time alone."
"You needed time alone to sulk?" She glared, but he continued. "'Cause that's what it looks like you're doing!"
"Well, aren't you observant?"
"I try my best. It's extremely obvious, Brynn. What's wrong?"
"You know that when a girl says 'nothing' is wrong, she means 'everything,' right?"
"Ugh." Brynn mumbled something and rolled her eyes. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, Hanso."
"You are so obviously trying to cover something up," Hanso insisted. "If you don't tell me, I'll just practice my amazing eavesdropping skills, so you might as well spill it so that I don't have to go through all that extra effort and risk embarrassing myself."
"No, it's... it's so stupid, it really is," Brynn said. "Eselde decided she would try to make me look bad in front of everyone. It really shouldn't bother me so much." She heaved a heavy sigh and turned her gaze back to whatever was outside the window. "I'm mad at myself for letting it bother me, so... that's why I wanted to be alone. I didn't want anyone else to see me like this."
"What did she do?" Hanso asked, his voice soft.
"She brought a basket of squibble berries with her today, and shared them with the other guards. Most of them didn't know what they were, so Eselde asked me to show them how to eat them, since I'm from Brightvale and the berries are a native fruit." She frowned and looked back at Hanso, shifting a little as she looked down at the floor. "That didn't work out well. You know how much I hate those things! I tried to keep my cool and refused, so she just went on and on about how I was unworthy to serve the queen if I allowed some berries to scare me. She then cut them up herself and insisted that she is much braver than I."
"...What? She's braver than you because she can cut up some berries?" Hanso was utterly shocked and stared at Brynn in disbelief. Brynn slowly nodded, and Hanso continued. "I knew she could go low, but that's really low! Even I wouldn't go that low! I wonder how fast she would have folded if she had been the one to face Xandra and Oblivion, huh?"
"I think the others were feeling sorry for me, but no one dares to speak up when Eselde is around. I didn't want to make a big deal over it, either. So I just... I just came here when my shift was over."
"...Please remind me why she still has a job here."
Brynn frowned and narrowed her eyes. "Hanso, you're really—"
"I am dead serious, Brynn." Brynn grumbled and refused to meet Hanso's gaze. She was clearly more troubled by this than she let on, and she looked absolutely exhausted! She must have been fretting over it more than she was willing to admit, even to herself. "Why does she still work here? Does anyone like her?"
"I don't think she really has any friends," Brynn admitted. "But she's an excellent fighter, and she's very observant and catches lots of thieves and would-be thieves before they can do any damage. She's good at her job."
"Still, that doesn't make up for the fact that she's a jerk," Hanso pointed out. "I mean, if she was in any other profession, she'd get fired over something like that!"
"Maybe, but I don't have the authority to do that," Brynn protested, sitting up straight as she tried to gather herself back together. "I may be higher in rank than she is, but I'm not her direct commanding officer. I'll just deal with it, Hanso. I was one of the youngest guards in Brightvale and one of the first females to be in the guard there. I'm used to getting picked on."
"That doesn't make it right, Brynn."
"And what do you know about right and wrong, huh?" she shot back. "I am fine, Hanso. I can take care of myself!"
"I think I've learned a bit about right and wrong since I've started working for the queen," he said, fingering the straps on the lockpick set he wore around one wrist. "Sometimes, the difference isn't as clear-cut as you'd think it would be."
"Hanso, just promise you won't do something to humiliate Eselde," Brynn demanded, batting his hand away from his lockpick set. "Don't break into her room or anything! I don't want to draw any more attention to this than is necessary!"
"Seriously? You expect me to just let someone humiliate you and not do anything about it?" he asked, genuinely shocked. Not only did he hate seeing Brynn like this, he hadn't done anything that required picking a lock in quite some time, so he was in danger of getting rusty!
"I expect you to take it as an adult. Don't do anything stupid."
"Pfft, I never do anything stupid! All right, won't do anything to Eselde. Or, I'll try not to, at least."
Brynn let out a sigh of relief. "Thanks. I hope everyone will forget about it in a day or two."
"Well, if my stunt in Qasala proved anything, it's that it's hard to live down stuff like this."
"I really, really hope that's not the case..."
Unfortunately for Brynn, Hanso was right. No one else may have really cared about the squibble berry incident, but Eselde made sure to keep it fresh in their minds. She particularly wanted to keep it fresh in Brynn's mind, which was the most irritating thing of all.
It was hard for Hanso to resist the urge to break into Eselde's personal chambers and see what kind of dirt he could dig up on her, but he refrained from taking any action out of respect for Brynn. Of course, it's not like he was obligated to act on any dirt he found, but knowing his luck in his dealings with Eselde, she would catch him red-handed in her chambers. He didn't even want to think about the trouble that would cause. Why was she still allowed to work there? Fyora seemed to take her sweet time when dealing with troublemakers; after all, that was how Xandra had managed to destroy Faerieland in the first place.
But, he shouldn't forget that this wasn't the only thing he had to worry about... There was something else on his mind: the visit of the royal family of Qasala, for example.
Brynn had mentioned a couple of days ago that Jazan and Nabile were going to come visit very soon, and the day of their arrival finally came. Hanso hadn't a clue as to why they were here; was it just some random social call? It seemed a long way to go for a mere social call. Did it have something to do with Altador Cup preparations? That was coming up soon, but Hanso had no idea why they'd be visiting Faerieland, unless they were here to laugh at their notoriously bad Yooyuball team. The team wasn't even here at the moment, so that would be impossible. Did they want to see the new partially-rebuilt Faerieland? That was probably it!
There was also a possibility that Jazan was out for revenge against him, so Hanso had better watch his back.
"Are you gonna do anything funny to King Jazan this time?" Erik the young faerie Bruce asked Hanso the day after the royal entourage from Qasala arrived. He was sitting in the kitchen's cool stone storeroom with Erik and two other faerie neopet children—Ileana the Ixi and her little brother Cael the eyrie—where he was certain they'd be safe from any prying Qasalans or annoying Faerieland guards. Brynn was on duty, poor thing. Eselde mocked her about the squibble berry incident every time she saw her, and it was wearing Brynn down. He figured it was time to ask her to take a vacation. Maybe they could go to Kiko Lake or Roo Island for a few days.
"Depends on if he does anything to me," he finally said in answer to Erik's question. "I'm more worried about Eselde and what she's up to at the moment." He couldn't help but notice that Ileana was staring at something on the wall to their left, though Hanso hadn't a clue as to what it might be, because he knew even less than Brynn did about cooking. There were lots of dried vegetables and herbs all around them, and barrels full of who-knows-what, since the faeries did not rely on their magic alone to do the cooking and used food imported from other places in Neopia when they wanted to. Hanso couldn't possibly identify any of the raw foodstuffs around them. He knew what kind of dishes he liked and what he didn't like, and that was about it. He didn't even know how to make his favourite dishes. Ileana, on the other hand, probably knew a lot, since her mother was one of the castle's cooks and the young Ixi herself frequently helped in the kitchen.
"Look at all those dried peppers," Ileana finally said, pointing to some sort of dried pepper-shaped plant matter that hung on strings on the wall. "I didn't know we were getting those! Why do we have so many peppers?"
"Qasalans like their food hot," Hanso informed her.
"Well, I don't!"
"You don't have to eat the spicy food," Cael told her. "But Mama says you shouldn't be so picky."
"I know what I like and I won't eat anything else," Ileana shot back. "Besides, Mama said we're having Neovian food tonight."
"Neovian food? When the Qasalans are visiting?" Erik asked, confused. Erik was on the pudgy side, so it looked as though he didn't have many problems with being picky, though Hanso had to admit that it seemed odd that a Bruce would like spicy food...
"And tomorrow, we're having Altadorian food all day," Ileana continued. "But I don't know about the day after that. Mama said she's never made Qasalan food before, and the faeries who make food through their magic said that spicy food is harder to make. They clearly plan to make something spicy, though." She frowned, staring at what Hanso now knew were dried peppers.
"Aren't we supposed to have Qasalan food when the king and queen of Qasala are here?" Erik asked.
"I'll bet Jazan and Nabile eat more than enough Qasalan food when they're at home," Hanso pointed out. "Qasalan food isn't bad, but it gets boring if it's all you eat day in and day out. Well, it gets as boring as spicy food can get."
"...I guess so," Erik agreed after a moment. "Hey, Cael, wanna go outside and play Defenders of Neopia?"
"Sure! It might be kinda hard to find a place, but I'll bet we can find a spot in back of the castle," Cael said. "Hanso, want to come play with us?"
"No, I'll stay here in the kitchen," Hanso told them. Of course, he actually just wanted to stay somewhere where he had no chance of running into Jazan or Eselde, but he wasn't about to tell the kids that. "I guess I need to be the responsible adult and tell you two to be careful, huh?"
"Ha ha, we will... NOT!" Cael said as he and Erik laughed and then raced out of the kitchen.
"Do you think they'll learn if Erik accidentally pokes Cael in the eye again?" Ileana asked.
"They're boys. Of course they won't," Hanso said with a grin. "I don't know if that was an accident, either."
Ileana giggled. "I don't think it was. What're you going to do now?"
"I don't know," Hanso said with a shrug. "Brynn's shift isn't over for four more hours, and I don't really want to run into, uh... certain neopets right now."
"Eselde?" Ileana guessed.
"Yeah. I guess I mentioned that, didn't I?" he asked with a nervous laugh. "She's a piece of work! She almost reminds me of Xandra in some ways."
She nodded. "Dad was talking about her yesterday. He's her commanding officer, you know. I overheard Dad saying to Mama that if she doesn't stop saying bad things about Captain Brynn, he's going to have to discipline her! I'll bet she's gonna be suspended or something soon."
"Really?" Hanso asked. "That's nice to know, actually."
"I don't like squibble berries, either," she added. "They're creepy."
"Brynn feels the same way, obviously."
"Mama said she's added them to the dislikes list of lots of the guards," she added.
Hanso nodded, then his ears perked up when he fully registered what Ileana had just said. "Wait, Rosalie keeps records of everyone's likes and dislikes?"
"Yeah, she does. She has to! It's important that everyone gets served things they like."
"Hmm..." A plan was beginning to form in Hanso's head, and while it wasn't as devious as the one he'd concocted while in Qasala, it could still have quite the impact. He leaned down and whispered, "Ileana. Does your mother have a file on Eselde?"
Ileana initially looked confused, but then her eyes lit up and her face spread into a grin. "Yes, she does," she whispered back. "Do you want me to go get it?"
"If you don't mind. Just make sure you don't get caught."
Ileana nodded. "I'll be right back," she said softly, and then jumped off the crate she'd been sitting on and bolted out of the storeroom and into the kitchen's library, the room where all the cookbooks were kept and where covered bowls of bread dough were set on every uncovered surface. (Hanso had been confused about the purpose of those bowls, until Brynn had informed him that bread dough needed to rise. She'd then asked him what the heck he was doing in the kitchen library in the first place, to which he didn't have a good answer.) It didn't appear as though Ileana had checked to see if the coast was clear, but then again, she was undoubtedly a very familiar sight there, so anyone who was working wouldn't think twice of seeing her.
Less than five minutes later Ileana returned, a fat notebook tucked under one arm. "Here it is," she said, pulling out the notebook and handing it to Hanso. "Eselde's information is on page 49."
"You sound like you're pretty familiar with this book," Hanso commented as he flipped it open and found the page.
"Yep! I study it all the time, because I'm going to be a cook someday and I need to know what everyone doesn't like or is allergic to," she said proudly. "Your entry is on page 93, by the way. Captain Brynn's is page 94."
"My plan might not work so well if everyone in the kitchen already knows what everyone else hates," Hanso muttered as he looked over Eselde's entry. "But it's worth a look. So... she hates olives—why is that circled and underlined?—mushrooms, tofu, all sorts of jelly, all fish, all crabs, all shellfish... anything that comes from the water, basically."
"That?" Ileana asked with a grin, pointing at the word "olives" on the paper. "Those circles and lines mean that someone made the mistake of serving her olives once, and Eselde got really mad. Guess what you find a lot of in Altadorian food? And guess what we're having tomorrow?"
Hanso looked down at her, not sure if he should be proud or horrified. He chose the former, although he was certain he was supposed to be feeling the latter. "Altadorian food," he repeated. "I remember you mentioned that. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Make sure she gets lots of olives?" Ileana guessed, looking up at Hanso with a wonderfully devilish grin.
"I think I've been a bad influence on you! And that's a good thing," Hanso said as patted Ileana on the head and tousled her purple hair.
"I can change this note about the olives. I doubt anyone would remember that right now, and it's easy to make it look like it was scribbled out because she changed her mind." Ileana grabbed the notebook from him and took the pencil that was inserted into the spine of the notebook. She began scribbling away, although it actually appeared as though she was scribbling out multiple things on Eselde's record...
"Don't breathe a word about this to anyone, not even your brother," Hanso warned her as she worked. "It'll be our little secret okay?"
"Don't worry, Hanso. I can keep secrets. Okay, done." Ileana grinned as she admired her handiwork. "Hehehe, this is gonna be great!"
"Shh, keep your voice down!" Hanso looked toward the door, but it appeared that no one had heard her. "So, go put that back, and, uh... I guess I'll be on my way."
"Where are you going?" she asked as she put the pencil back in the spine of the notebook.
"I... don't know," Hanso admitted. "But I'll find something! If anyone asks you, we never spoke, okay?"
"Got it! I won't tell anyone, I swear!" Ileana darted back into the kitchen, again without checking that the coast was clear. Hanso figured that sooner or later he'd have to tell her the benefits of checking beforehand.
Once she was gone, Hanso realized that he'd forgotten to ask her about his or Brynn's files. That could wait for another day, perhaps. He knew Brynn's file would have "squibble berries" under dislikes. That would probably be circled and underlined. What else did she hate? She didn't like spicy foods, like cornupepper and carnapepper, and most Moltaran foods didn't seem to agree with her. It probably had something to do with the lava. She didn't particularly like Qasalan food, either. Brynn was fond of sweet foods, so she probably hadn't developed a taste for spicy things. She liked the food in her native Brightvale, and she liked most foods from Meridell as well. Those were her favourites.
It didn't appear that Ileana was coming back, so Hanso stood and stretched. How long had he been sitting there? The clock on the wall indicated that he'd been in the kitchen for two and a half hours. There were still three and a half hours to go before the end of Brynn's shift! He'd have to find a way to keep occupied until then. Well, he'd think of something...
To be continued...