The Mutant Prince: Part Three
Chapter Three: What the Future May Hold
A tea party is generally a calm, unprepossessing event. Exotic teas and biscuits and decorative little cakes are served on silver plates, there is light conversation and laughter, friendships are strengthened or renewed; indeed, the only bad thing I can think of about a tea party is a certain group of gossiping folk that is always present at every such gathering. For Tarquinn de Quincy this frivolous entertainment was a nightmare.
Upon returning home from the dungeon, Tarquinn rushed into his chamber, and, though no one knows what exactly he did inside for an hour, the sounds of moans and sobs could be heard if one pressed one's ear against the door. When Tarquinn left his room his face was pale, his eyes rimmed in red; he was a nervous wreck, and the party he had announced for that afternoon at his mansion filled him with dread. It could not be cancelled, for it was not only too late, but the invitees, the illustrious court gallants and rich merchants and countesses, would look lowly on Tarquinn for the last minute cancellation. Tarquinn was constantly trying to impress the impossible-to-impress aristocrats. Few understood the strain and anxiety the lofty, pompous dukes created within Tarquinn. Few understood that one of the great reasons Tarquinn had become so self-absorbed was that he was terrified of failure, of being insulted, of being underappreciated or scorned. Could not one see the insecurity that had built and furnished Tarquinn's glorious mansion? Could not one see in the prince's meticulous dress and overly-polished attitude the fear of seeming unworthy? Could not one see how the prince longed only to be admired for who he was, and not just because he was the son of Hagan and the alleged heir to the throne of Brightvale? Tarquinn was mercilessly scrutinised by everyone, and though he was famous he had very few close friends. The fear of perhaps being a failure as King, a failure to his father, to himself, haunted Tarquinn day and night. This is why he lived for compliments, admiration, adoration. If he was not the best he felt like nothing. So worried was he about his image that if a count were to once offhandedly comment on the floral curtains of the parlour, "They are fairly nice, I suppose," Tarquinn, in a fit, would tear them down and order new curtains twice as expensive with roses embroidered in gold and silver and Maraquan pearls woven into the material. The whole situation was vicious, sad, and ugly; who would have thought upon looking at Tarquinn, upon his calm smile, his attentive blue eyes, perfect dress and comportment, that secretly within he was an insecure mess?
Thankfully, the afternoon party had gone by smoothly. Forty guests had arrived, all extremely delighted to see the prince. They had heard he had been ill. Why did he not take his hat off indoors? It was because he was still recovering from a serious head cold, Tarquinn had invented, that he could not remove his hat. Well, that was quite terrible, indeed. And then the guests had moved on to chat with others. Tarquinn was left in peace. However, to make sure he would be safe from further interrogations he had sat down before the grand piano in the drawing room and entertained the guests with some music. No one could have asked him picky questions while he was concentrating on delivering a perfect melody.
The party ended in the late hours of the evening with a short fireworks display in the gardens. The autumn air was too cold to stay out long, and one by one or in small groups the guests returned home. Tarquinn rested wearily on the piano bench in the drawing room, and watched blankly as a servant pulled the curtains over the high mullioned windows and lit all the candles on the mantlepiece before leaving as silently as he had arrived. There were only two others in the vast room: Fifi Bonnegrace, and, in a distant corner snoring on a couch, the Duke Mery, a great corpulent red Skeith and cousin of King Hagan and Skarl. He fell asleep at every event he was invited to and could only be roused by the smell of fresh Snorkle pudding.
Fifi sat on a cushioned chair near the piano with Jewels, Tarquinn's white Kadoatie, in her lap. An uneasy, dragging silence was in the air, as always when Fifi and Tarquinn were alone together.
"Did you have a good time, Fifi?" Tarquinn asked quietly, tiredly.
Fifi nodded. "I'm only sorry that you couldn't come outside to see the fireworks because of your... head cold."
"Yes... I'm afraid I must remain within doors for a while, at least until I am well again," Tarquinn said gloomily.
"You played the piano very well today; have you been practicing?" Fifi asked.
"I have, I have."
"I've always admired your musical talent," Fifi added, "and your archery, and fencing, and dancing... hmm."
Fifi abruptly hushed, her cheeks blushing, and she concentrated on scratching Jewels between the ears. Tarquinn's lips curled into a tiny smile, but he said nothing.
"Eek! A Moach!" Fifi shrieked suddenly in disgust as she saw a green sticky petpetpet clinging to her chair's leg. She jumped up, sending a bewildered Jewels tumbling out of her lap. The Kadoatie darted under a chair across the room, then hissed as it peeked out carefully at the frenzied scene before it. Tarquinn reached for the bug and batted it away with a rolled up sheet of piano music.
"I'm terribly sorry! Jewels must have picked up that despicable thing in the garden," Tarquinn said with distaste, watching the Moach slowly crawl across the polished dark wood floor. Jewels quickly jumped out from its hiding place and snapped the petpetpet up into its mouth. Surprisingly, the Moach wasn't eaten or even injured. It was carried to the safety under the chair, released, and let to crawl onto Jewels's back. The two were friends, apparently.
Fifi calmed down and chuckled at the strange little spectacle. She slyly shifted her gaze to the prince; he was standing just beside her and she could see the appalling state of his features. Eyes dull, expression tense and worried, his face paler than she had ever seen it. Tarquinn sighed, grumbled that he would have to get rid of the Moach somehow, and turned to Fifi. Their eyes met and they laughed nervously, though they knew not why.
"You really do look unwell, Tarquinn," Fifi said. "Has the cold put this great a strain on your system or is something else the matter?"
"What else could possibly be the matter!?" Tarquinn blurted out. He then coughed, and forced himself to remain steady. "Excuse that little outburst, this illness has rendered me not master of myself."
"Tarquinn, there is something wrong, I know it. Where did you go this morning?" Fifi asked, worried.
"That is a private matter, I'm afraid, and no, my dear, there is nothing wrong at all..." Tarquinn muttered.
"You still can't make me stop worrying."
Tarquinn smiled at this, touched by Fifi's simple innocence, and he felt a little more at peace. Suddenly, he clapped his hands together, and in a new voice reeking of false enthusiasm he said: "Well! Since the crowds have all deserted us and we are alone in this quiet space, why don't I teach you how to play a few simple things on the piano?"
Fifi looked around the room and pointed out that they were not really alone -- the Duke Mery was there.
"He doesn't count. He might as well be a piece of furniture. I must ask the chef to prepare some Snorkle pudding or that old bag will never wake again!"
Fifi laughed, and Tarquinn quickly ordered a servant walking through the hall to go and tell the Quiggle chef to set about making a great bowl of pudding at once. Tarquinn returned to the piano, sat down on the bench and scooted over to allow Fifi to sit beside him. They had a pleasant time in the dimly lit empty room. The flickering candles created contorted shadows on the carmine walls and cast a timeless dreamlike peace, only magnified by the slow melodies of the piano. Tarquinn had forgotten for a while his troubles; he was glad that he had at least one good friend in Fifi.
Fifi stifled a yawn, properly placing her hand before her mouth, and said: "I shall never be as good as you, Tarquinn. I am much more satisfied listening to the piano than playing it. Would you play something one last time? A sweet something, and then I shall leave for home. It's quite late now."
"Certainly." Tarquinn thought for a moment, and then in a burst of motion he began to play a charming euphonious little tune. Fifi smiled and felt like dancing. In the middle of the melody Tarquinn most unexpectedly hit a wrong key, and, wincing, he drew his hands away. Fifi's smile faded.
"My hands have suddenly gone all achy." Tarquinn clenched and unclenched his hands. "I... don't know what could be wrong. They suddenly feel very stiff and numb."
"Perhaps you have played too much?" Fifi suggested. "Oh, it must be it. You have played for hours today."
"I suppose you are right," Tarquinn said, hiding his actual doubt. He then gathered from off the piano's top the many rings which he had taken off earlier to keep from being hampered in playing, and he put them on his fingers one by one.
"You wear more rings than my mother does." Fifi teased.
"Ah!" Tarquinn chuckled. "I happen to like rings. All shiny things, really."
"Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. I have never met a Kyrii who didn't like diamonds and emeralds," Fifi joked. "Oh, what is that one ring on your little finger?"
Tarquinn held out his left hand, "My signet ring. The coat of arms of Brightvale is engraved on it, as you can see."
Fifi's eyes glowed, and slowly, hesitantly, she took hold of Tarquinn's hand to see the gems sparkle as the candlelight flashed on them... or were the gems just an excuse to feel the touch of what she really cared for? At that moment loud shuffling footsteps sounded in the doorway and the tall figure of an excessively dressy and decorated purple Aisha appeared. It was Fifi's mother, the Duchess Bonnegrace. Tarquinn judged she had probably been in the kitchens, stealthily filling her purse with leftover chocolates and biscuits, as she was known to do at parties. The Duchess was not an overly pleasant character; she was chatty, suspicious, and worst of all, the greatest gossipmonger in Brightvale. It was dangerous to do anything even remotely questionable before her for she would draw her own exaggerated conclusions about what she had witnessed and disseminate these stretched stories to all the world. The Duchess was also a braggart, and her favourite theme to boast about to her friends was her close relationship with King Hagan and how her daughter and the King's son had been dearest friends since childhood. She considered Tarquinn an outstanding and talented individual; she showered him with compliments and inquiries about King Hagan's recent doings, and not a week went by in which she did not in some way contact Tarquinn, asking to know about his current plans, thoughts, goals. Her unceasing, superficial affection was quite strange because Tarquinn sensed the Duchess did not truly care for him. The Duchess only liked Tarquinn because he was the supposed heir to the throne of Brightvale. And since Fifi and Tarquinn were such good friends, naturally the Duchess dreamt that someday her daughter would be Queen.
Now the grandiose Aisha stepped casually into the candlelit drawing room, looked about with a frown, and when her eyes at last caught sight of her daughter and the prince sitting together by the piano in the far corner, she smiled wryly and put a hand on her hip.
"Fifi, sweetheart, I have looked all over for you. What are you doing here -- " the Duchess lowered her tone and arched her eyebrows "-- alone, with the prince?"
Fifi gulped and tore her hand out of Tarquinn's. She popped up and said, "But we aren't alone -- look -- there is the Duke."
The Duchess followed her daughter's gaze and looked disapprovingly at the still snoring Skeith flattening a couch. She turned her head back and her expression wore a bit of disappointment (a great chance for a meaty gossip had been thwarted), and so, she told her daughter that it was time to leave for home. Fifi walked over to her mother and Tarquinn stood up from the piano bench, bowing shortly.
"I had a wonderful time, Tarquinn," the Duchess said. "The desserts especially, you must forward my compliments to your excellent chef. The vanilla cream puffs were fantastic!"
Tarquinn noticed the Duchess's purse, which was stuffed with something to bursting point. He could tell she had really liked the vanilla cream puffs. Fifi's mother gibbered on about the other guests, the witty conversations she had held, and many things that slipped right through Tarquinn's head.
"And you, Fifi? Did you have a pleasant time?" the Duchess asked.
Fifi nodded vigorously. She seemed to have been robbed of speech now that her mother had appeared, and longed to leave.
"Fifi had been eagerly awaiting this neat little gathering since you announced it, Tarquinn. She had been counting down the days..." the Duchess chuckled, "and this morning she was so impatient that she couldn't wait till afternoon. She left just after breakfast, alone, to see you earlier --"
"Mother!" Fifi hissed, blushing deeply.
Tarquinn offered an understanding smile and said that he didn't in the least mind Fifi visiting at any time. The Duchess, seemingly finished with the subject, waved her bracelet-covered hand through the air, and as if by magic, she began to speak of something completely different. "I suppose you must be eagerly awaiting the festival on the fifteenth of the Month of Storing, Tarquinn, perhaps more than anyone in the Kingdom."
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand," Tarquinn said, rubbing his hands which were still hurting and benumbed.
"You don't?" The Duchess glanced at him slyly. "Well, the annual festival at Brightvale Castle celebrating the birth of Neopia will supposedly include something extra special this year, a special royal ceremony? Do you know what this is?"
Tarquinn shook his head slowly, no, and he felt himself getting gradually more nervous. The Duchess was playing her favourite game -- withholding information from others and taunting them with unsettling hints.
The grand Aisha clapped and uttered a sharp "Ha!" How delighted she was knowing that no one else knew what she did. She leaned closer to the prince and whispered (though there was no need for a low tone of voice): "I have been chatting to some of my influential friends, and during the course of our many engaging conversations, we came across the subject of you. It's being whispered at your father's court that on the fifteenth of next month, during the usual celebrations, you will be declared the official heir to the throne of Brightvale, the heir apparent. There will be a special ceremony, of an extravagant kind the likes of the kingdom hasn't seen in ages!"
Tarquinn's jaw dropped, but he quickly closed it and stood up straight as a board. Yesterday, this news would have excited more than depressed and worried him. He undoubtably wanted to become King; ever since he was a child he was aware of what awaited him down the road, and though Tarquinn had fears and doubts about whether or not he could be a successful ruler, keep the snooty aristocrats in order, and all the citizens at peace, he was much more willing than discouraged to take on the lifelong challenge. He was young and ready to accept responsibilities. The recent curse, however, the maddening thought of becoming a visible monster to all and consequently losing everything he owned -- respect, friends, wealth -- had driven Tarquinn to the verge of a mental breakdown.
The Duchess prattled on about the upcoming celebrations, and naturally about how delighted she was that Tarquinn would finally be acknowledged as the future King. For long had she hoped and prayed that her favourite prince would rise to the exalted position which was rightfully his. Tarquinn nodded and watched the Duchess closely, staring at the jiggling giant pearl earrings she wore, feigning interest in her words which were actually slipping away from him, tearing him apart. His hands were particularly causing him distress now; he supposed he would have to soak them in hot water to ease the mysterious numbness...
"Tarquinn! What are wrong with your hands?" Fifi's voice interrupted her mother's droning.
Tarquinn's eyes shot down to his hands.
"Aahh... eehmph." He uttered a sound which was at first a high-pitched scream, but it was stifled and ended in a strange sickly cough, as though he had swallowed a Buzzer. He had almost jumped out of his skin at the horrific sight.
Tarquinn firmly placed his hands behind his back and grinned, showing his most handsome nonchalant smile. The Duchess raised her eyebrows in suspicious surprise, and before she could question the prince on his abrupt and improper behaviour, he loudly declared: "Well! My good Duchess, I thank you graciously for imparting me with this exclusive information. I, too, can hardly await the festivities on the fifteenth of next month, and I'm certain the celebrations will be just as magnificent as you describe. But, err, it has come to my attention that my dear Fifi is looking very weary and under the weather! Why, just take a glance at the time -- it is no wonder she can hardly keep her eyes open! I feel horrible for keeping you here so late, for putting such a strain on your delicate countenances; it is most forgetful and wrong of me! Ladies, you mustn't stay here another minute, no, I can retain you here not another second! You must return home at once and rest. I shall never forgive myself for my impropriety, for forgetting your needs. Come, Lucillus!"
Tarquinn called out to a Meerca butler and urgently forced Fifi and her mother out the drawing room. The butler escorted the stunned pair to the front door down the hall. Tarquinn stood expressionlessly, watching the two leave, hands still clenched behind his back. Fifi turned around as she stood in the doorway and gave the prince a look of confusion and longing; Tarquinn wanted to offer her a heartfelt wave of good-bye, but he couldn't let his hands be noticed again! He instead bowed deeply and hoped that somehow Fifi could see in his eyes his own regret. He didn't want Fifi to think he had intentionally banished her from his house for any reason.
Once Tarquinn was alone, he returned to the drawing room and slumped down into the nearest chair, closing his eyes tight. He shook his head slowly from side to side as if making a wish. In fact, he was wishing that what he had glanced at earlier was not true. He slowly raised his achy hands before his face and hesitantly opened his eyes.
"Ohh..." Tarquinn moaned despairingly. His beautifully manicured nails had magically grown into thick black claws, cruelly sharp and curved like that of a wild predacious beast of Tyrannia. He couldn't bear to look at his hands. He wanted to bang his head repeatedly into a wall in frustration! The curse was not a dream; the brief happiness he had felt with Fifi was gone, and the fifteenth of the Month of Storing hung over him now like a black cloud foretelling doom.
"What's that I smell? Snorkle pudding?" came the gruff, wheezy voice of the Duke Mery. He had finally awoken, and groaning, holding his back, he sat up and looked about the wide candlelit space. Slowly he raised himself off the squashed couch, yawned and proceeded out of the room. He stopped before Tarquinn on his way to the kitchen, and stood appraising the prince for a few moments. Tarquinn was, needless to say, not in the most composed of moods.
"My boy," the Skeith said, taking note of the prince's cursed hands, "you really are overdue for a manicure, you know."
Tarquinn nodded, but could not speak for his vocal chords were choked by fright. The Skeith shrugged, yawned again, and followed the delicious scent of warm pudding.
To be continued...