Chiaroscuro: Part Two
Her name is Candice. She is a Xweetok of indeterminate color—it's hidden somewhere underneath all those layers of grime. She's been living in the alleyway next to my home for about a year? Two? She doesn't remember anymore. She's hungry.
I get her something to eat. Half a plate of Molten Lasagne. The last of my Molten Lasagne, in fact, but I've had hungrier days.
"Thank you," she says, and begins shoveling it into her mouth.
"Hungry?" I say.
"Famished," she says, through a mouthful of pasta.
"Yeah, me too," I say, not thinking.
"Wait—" She swallows and stops eating. There are a few bites of lasagne left over. "Is this your dinner or—? You didn't have to—"
"No, you can eat it. I'm not that hungry."
She looks uncertainly at the plate.
"Go ahead," I say. "After that, though, you're going to have to tell me why you were living in the alleyway. I mean, seriously."
She finishes it in a few bites and wipes her mouth. "I'm not from Moltara," she says.
"I guessed that already."
"I'm actually from Neopia Central. I heard about Moltara. I thought it sounded pretty. I went here to paint things. I'm a painter."
"I can show you my pictures if you want. They're still in the alley."
I shrug. Alright. She runs into the alleyway and comes back out with bundles of papers. The paper on top is covered with ash, but I can still see it: a painting of a brass lantern. The yellow painted glow seems almost to light up the room. It seems so real.
And the artist comes from Neopia Central. On the surface.
The thought strikes me.
"Do you," I say, "do you have any pictures of the sun?"
"The... sun?" she says. "No, not here. I only painted Moltaran things. There isn't any sun in Moltara."
"I know," I say, and sigh.
"Did you want a picture of the sun?" she says.
"Just to see it. I mean the sunlight. Because there isn't any here."
"Oh," she says, and groans. "Oh no. That was stupid of me. Now I know why."
"Nobody in Moltara would want to buy paintings of Moltara. They'd want pictures of the sun. Wouldn't they?"
"I know I would," I say, staring at the glow of the painted lantern.
"And that's why I couldn't sell anything," she mutters. Then she brightens. "But if I had brushes and paint again, and some paper..."
"No, sorry, I don't have anything," I say. "Or," I add, "any money. Well, barely any money."
"If I could go home," she says, and ends the sentence there.
"Home," I say. "Maybe if I help you get there, then you can come back someday and bring me paintings of the sun. Can't you?"
"Couldn't you just go up to the surface and see it yourself?" she says. "If you know how. Do you know how?"
"I do," I say, "but a pair of wings can only support one of us."
Umbra's idea is to build steam wings, wings that anyone can fly with, even the ones born wingless. Like us. But couldn't she simply use the Neopoints to buy passage to the surface? The taxis don't cost that much. More Neopoints than I have, but not that many.
I ask her.
"I don't have the points, though," she says. "I've got the wing parts—some of them, anyway—but not the Neopoints. And it's not as if I can sell the wing parts. They're almost worthless until made into wings. And then when they're made into wings—what's the point of buying a taxi?"
"So all you need is more wing parts?" I say.
"Well," she says sheepishly, "actually, the thing is, I can't build the wings. I can't actually... put them together. I'm not good at building. Maybe you...?"
"No," I say, "I don't know anything about building."
"And it costs so much to pay someone to build the wings anyway. Almost as much as a taxi. And I barely have enough Neopoints to buy food."
"Oh," I say.
We are stuck.
"And the wings were my only idea," Umbra says, sighing.
"Can I look at those wing parts?"
"Maybe I can figure something out..."
But this is unlikely. She's been a resident of Moltara all her life and she can't put them together; why should I be able to? And when I do look at the wing parts, heaps of gears and rivets and rings, I can't make heads or tails of them.
But there is something...
I squint in the dim light of the room's only lantern. I pick up a piece. A tiny key. Probably decorative instead of functional. But something about it...
"This is so pretty," I say.
"Pretty?" says Umbra. She looks at the key. "I guess, but I thought you were trying to build the wings."
"No," I say, and push the pile of parts away. "I can't build. But I can't believe nobody would buy this." I look at the tiny key. "It's adorable. It's so small, but look at the patterns."
"It's a really small key. Who would buy it?"
"If I had the Neopoints, I would."
"Then you haven't been living here long enough. These things are everywhere. They're cheap. You couldn't sell that, trust me."
"Maybe..." I say, sighing. "Then what do we do?"
"Go ask someone," says Umbra. "Find some answers."
A long line stretches in front of Igneot's cavern. Predictable. He's famous for seeing everything and knowing everything and telling very little, but crowds still flock to his cavern every day. Maybe the thought that there is an answer comforts them. Even if they don't know what that answer is.
I don't know, really. Personally, I have rarely gone to see Igneot. I don't have the time to wait in line, first of all; I have to sit and watch for Neopets who might need things de-tinkered. But now I think it might be necessary. Perhaps he can help us. Even if Igneot only helps a little, it is more than we have now.
So Candice and I wait in line.
We don't have to wait very long; Igneot answers quickly, if not clearly. Soon we are at the front of the line, bathed in the light of the two torches near the front door. Then we are inside the cavern. Igneot sits at his small table with his crystal ball of rock and magma. I suppose it wouldn't really be a crystal ball then, but terminology is too much trouble.
"I see you have a question," he says.
"Yes," I say. "I want to know if there's a way for us to leave Moltara."
He peers at the crystal ball for a moment, then announces, "It has been foreseen."
Behind me, Candice whispers, "Umbra? Does he actually know the answer...?"
"Shh," I say, and turn back to Igneot. "Alright, but... how can we leave Moltara?"
"Like the darkness," he proclaims, "this can be overcome."
The fire in the room flares up dramatically. The candles on the shelf flicker. Shadows move across the skull hanging above the fireplace.
None of this impresses me, but Candice takes a few steps back, in the direction of the door, her eyes wide.
"How?" I ask Igneot, tired of his vague answers.
But he is also tired of me. "I am too sleepy," he says, and waves us away.
Umbra flings aside the curtain that covers the entrance to Igneot's cavern. She stalks out angrily, muttering things like fraud and waste of time and probably going senile. An Aisha standing in line shoots her a dirty look.
We exit the caves. The city square is mostly empty. There isn't really a day or night beneath the surface of Neopia, but right now most of the lamps are being extinguished, and Moltara is going to sleep. Only a few Neopets are in the square; a Shadow Bruce exits Molten Morsels with a plate of Fire Rice, which he is holding carefully away from him. I have the urge to follow him in hopes he discards that rice. It has become something of a habit. But I catch myself and keep walking.
Then I happen to overhear the conversation of two Magma Cybunnies. They are standing near the Town Hall, discussing something in very loud voices.
"Faeries!" says one.
"Faeries?" says the other.
"Faeries! Not like us! They are not us!" says the first. "They are Faeries!"
"Ah," says the other, "Faeries!"
I have a sudden thought. "Are there Faeries in Moltara?" I ask Umbra.
"No," she says. "I thought Faeries flew? In the... sky?"
"Yes, they do."
"So why would they be here? There isn't a sky here."
"I was just wondering."
We keep walking, moving into the semi-darkness of Umbra's neighborhood. And an idea begins to form in my mind. Some Moltaran citizens have never seen Faeries, or Faerieland with all its castles and towers. Or, come to think of it, the Haunted Woods, or simple things like trees. Mountains. The sun.
I know nobody in Moltara would want to buy paintings of Moltara. I know this a little too well already.
But would they want to buy sculptures of the rest of Neopia?
There is a pile of metal parts on Umbra's living room floor.
To be continued...