Two Dozen Black Dresses: Part Two
To run was an impossibility. The idea of running, of fleeing from the scene as fast his short legs would take him was certainly a reality to Marius, but the act itself was as impossible as if he had wished to sprout wings and fly away. His legs simply would not move. Even his hand seemed frozen in space, inches away from the heavy wooden slab it had just pounded on. The seconds dragged by, great lumbering things that left an eternity for Marius' thoughts to race. Surely he was now dead. Mr. Prigpants would throw open the door and bear down upon him as though a figure out of terrible myth. He would be swallowed up in the Lenny's fearful rage, never again to stitch another dress or patch a worn joint. It was well and truly the end.
A small panel two-thirds of the way up the door slid open. A pair of eyes glistened in the reflected light. "The Wocky has no pajamas."
The nonsensical sentence, evidently coming from the owner of the luminescent eyes, shook Marius out of his reverie. "Wh-what?"
"The Wocky has no pajamas." The voice repeated itself, exchanging some of its monotone for a more exasperated twinge.
"Oh, er... perhaps he should come to Prigpants and Swolthy, Tailors! Then he might have some quality sleepwear that would last him the rest of his days." The words were leaving Marius' mouth without his knowledge or consent; his brain had all but shut down upon the realization that his broach had been witnessed. Self-preservation had kicked in as best it knew how: advertising the store.
The voice was silent for a brief moment before saying abruptly, "Wrong door, kid." The panel then disappeared as quickly as it had come into existence, leaving behind nothing but a solid and utterly whole wooden door. All was still along the street.
"Young Master Finchley, you scamp! You verifiable scamp! How could you have left the storefront unattended? It is a crime, yes indeed, a crime to have left in so ineffable a manner as you have done!"
"I already told you, Mr. Swolthy! Mr. Prigpants said that-"
"Prigpants is not the one who makes the dresses, Master Finchley! He might be a bird-brained fellow with a head for numbers it is Swolthy who performs the creations! And for you to leave the creator quite, quite alone in the shop is most lacking in caution, most lacking indeed."
The return to the store had gone as well as Marius had expected. Mr. Swolthy, having finished the designs and measurements of the dresses in record time had exited the back room only to find himself the suddenly sole proprietor of the store. This perplexing state of affairs sent the poor Mynci into "a tizzy of all sorts, Master Finchley" until Marius had returned some minutes later. Upon this return to some semblance of normality, Mr. Swolthy had wasted no time in chiding the youth for his disgraceful vanishing act.
"Sorry, Mr. Swolthy. It shan't happen again." Marius knew from experience that deference was best in cases such as these.
Mr. Swolthy's face let go of its wrinkles of agitation and softened into a more distasteful, condescending look. "Now now, Master Finchley, I'm sure it shan't. The patterns are all laid out for you in the back so you may get started at once." This was meant to be reassuring and calming, as though a return to the familiar dungeon was exactly the escape Marius wanted from his unfortunate brush with the outside world.
Marius sidled past the immense Mynci and slid quietly into his room, shutting the door behind him. Scattered across the table in front of him were the essential tools of his trade: the patterns, the cloth, the thread. These raw components sat, waiting for a herculean effort to put them into their rightful place. With a sigh, Marius sat down to his work and forgot all about Mr. Prigpants and his mysterious pajama-less Wocky.
Three o'clock arrived swiftly and vengefully. The two dozen black dresses had been made, and Marius had been finished. The remains of what had once been an energetic young Kyrii lay across the table in the back room, moaning and rubbing its sore wrists. Occasionally, the sad remnant would bang its head softly on the table and mutter some dark curse against those who enjoyed wearing dresses.
The results of his labor had been collected by Mr. Swolthy as each one was finished, each time accompanied with a cheery "Keep up the good work, Master Finchley!" as though his praise was all the compensation necessary for a job of this caliber. Upon the completion of the final dress, Marius had attempted to walk into the main room, but his exhausted body was unable to fulfill the task. He needed a moment to gather himself before attempting to journey home.
After continuing to curse the dust-streaked half-light that filled the room, Marius heaved himself onto his feet and trudged through the doorway, loath to cast his eyes upon the one who had inflicted such a harsh punishment. Unfortunately, Mr. Swolthy filled up far too much of the shop to avoid no matter where one looked. He was at that moment busying himself with the bill of sale for the imminent arrival of the buyer. The dresses, fine pieces of craftsmanship, were worth more than was usually made in a month, and Mr. Swolthy was not going to miss out on a single Neopoint if he could help it.
Marius fell into a chair beside the door, hoping that he might at least get some recognition for his hard work if the customer should so appreciate the clothes he had made. At the very least, he'd get to condemn a physical depiction of the villain as opposed to the version he had made up in his head. And then it was off to his home where he might fix himself up a pot of tea and start a new novel, perhaps one where the protagonist traveled to a far-off land and didn't have to perform menial tasks.
"Any moment now, Master Finchley. Any moment now." The Mynci was tapping nervously on the bill with the point of a pencil, making innumerable small marks. These escaped the notice of Mr. Swolthy who glanced from the clock to the door every few seconds as though there was an equal likelihood of the customer emerging from either object. "Any moment now, yes. And Prigpants still not back since this morning! Oh, in all my days... Three o'clock... Two dozen black dresses... yes, yes, any moment now."
Marius would have quite liked to remove the pencil from Mr. Swolthy's hands lest he accidentally jam it through the bill, but just as he made a motion to stand up, the door swung open and the blue Blumaroo from earlier that morning appeared.
"Ah, Baron Festerside! Punctual as always! As punctual as the hands on my clock, I daresay."
Marius stared in surprise at the figure and at the way in which Mr. Swolthy seemed to know him so intimately. Much as before, he could not have said why he felt this surprise; he was merely a customer with a large order who had stopped by earlier to ensure that things would be run smoothly. Such an occurrence was only natural in an order of this magnitude. And yet there was something indescribably off about the Blumaroo and his cane. Marius did not like him.
"Swolthy," hissed the Blumaroo as means of greeting. "The dresses?"
"Right here, Baron, right here. Two dozen black dresses, done up in the precise measurements as stipulated by the letter. I trust you'll find them to your liking?" Mr. Swolthy's face had assumed such an eager look of devotion that it was sickening to observe.
"They will do. Now... the bill." The Blumaroo took the proffered paper and arched an eyebrow at the total. "This is... quite an exorbitant amount, Swolthy."
"Baron Festerside, I assure you that neither I nor Prigpants would dare charge you at a price we ourselves would not pay for such goods! These are the finest dresses you will ever see and the cost is merely to offset the amount paid for the materials!" This was not entirely true. The fabric was of higher quality but the majority of the money went directly into the coffers of Mr. Prigpants and Mr. Swolthy. What little was left was given to Marius.
"I suppose." The Baron signed his name to the bill and produced from his pocket a small leaf of paper, presumably a check. He scrawled something across it and handed it to Mr. Swolthy. "You will have no trouble with this at the bank." With that, he turned to pick up the dresses and deposit them in a box he had brought with him.
Mr. Swolthy eyed this with exaggerated despair and wrung his hands together like wet rags. "Oh no, Baron! We have somebody who can carry those for you! I can't think why we ever let you come in to pick them up yourself. Master Finchley, assist the Baron with his dresses. I say, assist him most swiftly, won't you?"
To refuse would have been utter foolishness. The Baron, upon noticing Marius approach from the corner, raised both eyebrows in recognition. "You." The remark prompted no response. It was merely a fact. Marius ignored it as such and loaded the dresses carefully into the box before hefting it up in his aching arms.
"Shall we?" he asked, unintentionally copying the Baron's own words to Mr. Prigpants just that morning.
The innocent irony was not lost on the Baron, and he shoved rudely past Marius in his effort to leave the store. Marius was about to follow him when Mr. Swolthy laid a meaty hand on his shoulder. "Master Finchley, do try to keep up the name of the store. Lackaday if Baron Festerside decides we are no longer worth his patronage." With the warning successfully delivered, Mr. Swolthy retired to the cramped office of the store in order to check the validity of the Baron's check. Marius, realizing that the Baron had already left, made swiftly for the exit.
The Baron began walking directly Marius had left the store, making no noise and making no indication that Marius was to follow him. The implication, however, was that this relationship was to be no more than a silent pack-carrier following his unerring master. If there was speaking to be done, it would be done; if there was none necessary, silence would prevail. Marius accepted these terms without question; he was still filled with the uneasiness that had persisted throughout his last encounter with the enigmatic Blumaroo and the less they spoke to each other, the better.
The journey continued in silence for the better part of ten minutes. Marius struggled to keep up with the Baron's long stride and almost dropped the entire box at one particularly horrifying moment. His arms, still weary from the inordinate amount of work they had done, were ready to relieve themselves of their burden whether Marius wanted them to or not. It was only a matter of time before he sent the precious bundle tumbling into the wet gutter.
"We're here." The Baron had stopped without warning in front of a nondescript house. It had no sign out front, no crest above the door. There was nothing to distinguish it from the other gray houses that lined this particular street. It was difficult for Marius to believe that this was where the Blumaroo lived.
"Shall I place the box inside, sir?" Marius asked, eager despite himself to perhaps gain a little more knowledge of the strange Baron.
"That won't be necessary. Someone will be out momentarily to fetch it." The Baron reached inside his pocket and pulled out a small bag. Hefting it briefly in his hands, he tossed it to Marius who had only just time to drop the box before catching it. "For your trouble."
Marius undid the tight string holding the bag shut and was amazed to see a sea of Neopoints as he had never before seen. "Thank you very much, sir!" he practically shouted. The unease he had felt suddenly vanished in a wave of gratitude towards the generous nobleman. No longer was he a mysterious fiend who made him work; now, he was a kind soul who appreciated hard work. His job done, the burden unloaded, Marius turned on his heel and left the Baron to await whatever servant would bring the goods inside.
It was a whistling sort of afternoon, Marius thought. It was an afternoon full of cheer and wondrous delight as he had never seen. Not even the prospect of more work could dampen his spirits should the reward be the same. And upon his return to the shop, he would be given his daily pay plus whatever bonus he was due for having completed the monumental task set before him. Marius was already imagining what he could do with his new earnings: start an account with the bank, book a room at the AstroVilla, or maybe even take that vacation to Mystery Island that he had always wanted. The possibilities were near on limitless.
A collision startled him out of his daydreaming. Extricating himself from the tangle of limbs, Marius stared up into jumble of feathers and legs that was Mr. Prigpants.
"Mr. Finchley!" cried Mr. Prigpants in an uncharacteristic display of alarm. "What in Neopia are you doing in this street? Off on some lackadaisical pursuit now that Mr. Swolthy has relieved you of your duties?"
"No, sir. I was just helping Baron Festerside with his package." Marius was too cheerful to be deceitful around the sly Lenny.
Mr. Prigpants' eyes narrowed, and he adjusted his monocle to better view the young Kyrii. "You mean to tell me that Mr. Swolthy allowed you to assist our customer with his most troublesome burden?"
This tone of chastisement caught Marius off-guard. He had expected congratulations on helping to satisfy a customer. Instead, Mr. Prigpants seemed almost angry. "Mr. Prigpants, I was just trying to-"
"Mr. Finchley, I want you to listen to me very closely and very carefully. I shan't say it again, so it is well that you heed my words as they leave my beak. You are not to wander near this street again. You are not to disturb the Baron again. He is a valued customer, and he doesn't need to be subjected to the likes of you. Do I make myself clear?"
Marius' joy deflated like a balloon left too long floating in the sky. His smile morphed slowly into a frown and, for the third time, a vague fear rose up inside him as ashes leapt suddenly to life once more. "Yes, Mr. Prigpants."
"Good. Then I shall see you tomorrow, Mr. Finchley. I expect this whole business to be completely and thoroughly behind us by then." With that, Mr. Prigpants turned and stalked in the direction of the shop.
Marius, left on his own, trudged rather than skipped towards his home, his earlier mood completely gone. Now, he was lost in thought; Baron Festerside consumed his mind, and it was beginning to dawn on the Kyrii that he would quite like to know what those two dozen black dresses were for.
To be continued...