Gifts, Memories, and Princesses
The carriage, pulled dutifully by two Unis, clattered through the cobblestone streets and wove past corners with ease. Their lone passenger was a blue Kougra who carried himself with the dignity of the well-bred and the scholarly, who was silent as he regarded the outside world beyond his glass window and his scarlet plush seats. He watched through eyes that have read many a book and deciphered many more manuscripts besides, thankful that there were no sheets of rain to obscure the landscape. Though he was inside the carriage and his chauffeurs were outside, he could hear every word they said – muffled, but still understandable.
“So the Day of Giving's just 'round the corner, huh?” asked the split Uni.
“Only a couple of weeks more, right? Something like that. Hey, you getting me anything this year, Mikhail?” the red Uni answered with a question of his own.
“Shut up, Felix. It's impolite to ask.”
“But if I don't ask - ”
“Fine, of course you're getting a present! What makes you think I wouldn't give you one?”
“Because you're a stingy old miser? Just kidding.”
“You'd better be, or else I take back everything I said about you getting something from me.”
“Okay, okay. You know, there are these new books in that bookstore you showed me yesterday...”
But of course, they wouldn't be able to hear his thoughts. As they passed by a patch of overgrown grass marked only by a derelict fountain and a broken swing, Lord Evander of Aurolia let his mind wander to the last several days before the Day of Giving; he too had gifts to give, and his list was quite long. There was his aunt and erstwhile guardian, Jerdana herself; the historians who had granted him access to ancient texts in exchange for using his library for their work; his sage comrades who worked well until the break of dawn and who deserved vacations, or at least new ways to spend their leisure time; his childhood friends...
His childhood friends, Arianne and Dorianne. Also known as King Altador's daughters, the kingdom's beloved princesses.
Evander knew exactly where to find a new set of bangles for Jerdana. He thought those Altadorian historians would enjoy the customized shelves he had made for their materials. Many of his friends, with their varied interests, were easy to please.
But the princesses... what could he give them? The Kougra knew that as royalty, they would be visited by envoys from all over Neopia, bearing presents from every corner of the world. He was very familiar with the adage, “It's the thought that counts” and believed it, but... the Lupes would receive so much from their international guests alone that his own little gift might get lost in the pile, unnoticed and hardly a thought in the princesses' heads.
When they were young and when the ignored park was not so ignored, he was easily pleased when he picked flowers or doodled pictures for them. The meaning of his gifts hardly changed over the years; Evander always wanted to let Ari and Dori know that no matter what happened, no matter which of them succeeded their father, the three of them would always be friends.
Which was why he wanted something good to give them – something that would wordlessly say this irrefutably. It was ironic, really – because they were friends, the issue of what to wrap in shiny paper and ribbon and lay beneath the decorated tree shouldn't be such a huge issue, and yet that was precisely the reason why Evander could no longer enjoy the sights and sounds of Altador unless he figured out what he could present that wasn't so forgettable, or plain, or tawdry, or...
“Then they wouldn't be surprises anymore, Felix! It's not as fun as waiting for the Day of Giving itself!”
“But it's so hard to resist...”
* * *
“Finneus, I have a question for you.”
The Lenny glanced up from the rather thin book he had just opened gingerly. “Is this about those scrolls discovered in that southern village a month ago? The legends are all recorded here in these pages, but the evidence...”
“Ah, no, it's not about that. Tell me, what do you give someone who has, and will most likely receive, everything?”
“Is this some sort of riddle, Lord Evander? Yet another puzzle you've unearthed in your library?” A shake of the blue Kougra's head told Finneus that he was wrong.
“Although... if you could come up with a logical answer, you could say so.” Evander scratched his head and snapped his dusty volume shut so hard that the rising dust clouds made him cough, and Finneus gave him a severe look reminiscent of a strict schoolteacher. But he did stroke his chin, and gazed into the distance, as if trying to assemble all the possible angles he could look at the query from.
The Archivist idly tapped his quill pen on a piece of paper with hastily written notes. “The way I see it - ”
“It's quite impossible to have everything,” a third voice interrupted, formal and female, with a slight motherly tone. “As long as you have dreams and wishes and welcome them with open arms, then you clearly don't have everything. Even they who seem so perfectly satisfied... if you peer into their souls, you will find that they have other desires and ambitions. Surely you must have encountered this in your studies, Evander?”
She stepped out from behind a bookshelf, her colorful skirt sweeping the (surprisingly) immaculate floor of the Altadorian Archives, and her eyes alight with a touch of amusement and more... compassion? Sympathy? The Aisha walked over to Finneus and Evander with a small smile, and squeezed the latter's hand tightly.
“Are you thinking of what to give your friends on the Day of Giving?” Jerdana asked her somewhat bemused nephew.
Evander could only nod and focus on the golden curlicues sewn into his robe sleeve. He hardly noticed Finneus slip away, and neither did he hear the Lenny's alibi.
“Even princesses have dreams, don't they? Dreams, desires, ambitions... there are so many things they wish for.”
Jerdana had a point. The lord closed his eyes briefly after setting his book down on a nearby table. Traveling back in time, he saw himself pushing a little white Lupe on a swing, obeying her cries of, “Push me higher, Ev! Higher!” as best as he could. And as he did so, he would catch glimpses of the shadow Lupe sitting by the gently splashing fountain, reading a story about a fantasy world that didn't exist anywhere in Neopia. She would sigh wistfully, and Evander knew that she longed to see these places narrated to her, despite the fact that she would never be able to visit them. And when they were together, lying on the grass, they would talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up, about what they wanted for their birthdays, the things they would do if they had all the power in the world...
He did his best to return her smile. Admittedly, he loved to reminisce about the good old days... those carefree days when they didn't have to think about archives or the throne... sometimes, he felt as if he was slowly letting go of his current life temporarily, to glide smoothly back in time to watch the youngsters who would later grow into their roles in the kingdom.
“But,” Evander began, “others could fulfill their dreams and give Ari and Dori what they want without any help from me.”
“Why do you have to think of 'the others', though?” asked Jerdana calmly, watching the sunlight play in the stained glass windows. “What do they have to do with your gifts to your friends?”
* * *
They have everything to do with the gifts to my friends. But she was right. Yet, why did giving in friendship have to be such a dichotomy?
As if by some twist of fate, Mikhail and Felix drove his carriage again through the town, following Evander's usual route home. This time, the rain came, and gusts of wind blew the droplets so their paths were skewed and they created a gloomy gray screen over the usual scenery. The blue Kougra wondered if the sky was mirroring his current mood; the Day of Giving was drawing near, and his gift list remained incomplete. He drew his long, forest-green cloak more tightly around himself; the carriage kept him from getting wet, but it didn't protect him much from the cold.
They rounded a corner without much conversation from the Unis. Evander saw that empty lot again with tall damp blades of grass hugging the only two things that stood out from the green – the lily pad-infested fountain and the halved swing hanging from rusty old chains. No, there were three things if he counted the lone glowing figure – a Wocky, he believed – by the fountain, clutching what seemed to be a net.
“Can you stop here for a while?”
Mikhail and Felix did as they were told, the former asking, “Is anything wrong, sir?”
“No, no...” Evander left them and waded into the grass, wind whipping past him as he did so. He heard a squelching noise and felt his boot stick briefly into an unseen mud puddle, but continued on to where the glowing Wocky was probing the fountain with his net, which caught only a single lily pad adorned with a pink flower.
“What are you doing here?” asked the Kougra, wrapping his arms around himself as the weather grew chillier.
“Lookin' for... well, anythin', I s'pose, m'lord,” was the gruff reply. The Wocky, clad in a rough brown coat, examined the flower he had caught, and tucked it into a small pouch at his belt. “This'n's fer m'daughter, but I reckon I could find Neopoints tossed in 'ere by wishers like 'er.”
Evander looked around before eying the fetid, verdant waters of the fountain. He could hardly see the bottom, although he could imagine how many Neopoints were dropped in there by wistful children, and how many stones sank after they were skipped. As for signs of life besides the thriving vegetation, he had absolutely no idea what else lurked in the relatively shallow depths. The spouts, arranged in a heptagon around a statue of a regal but unknown crowned Blumaroo – were no longer spouting water like they used to...
That's right... once upon a time, they splashed water and created a serene backdrop for a shadow Lupe who would sit on the edge and read, every now and then adjusting her little tiara...
“Folks say this was once a park o' some sort.” The Wocky jerked a thumb toward the poor swing before his net disturbed the slimy green surface of the fountain once more along with the continuing barrage of raindrops. “There's prob'ly a playground 'ere ages ago, but it's gone now. That swing's the last thing standin'. So's this fountain.”
The lord said nothing for a while, pacing the ground and discovering a stone path hidden by the invading weeds and made slippery by the rain. He glanced at his only companion in this field, fishing for a source of income. And here he was, fishing for...
“Listen, my good man... I have a plan. For the both of us. You see, I've been thinking of something to do for the Day of Giving for two dear friends...”
* * *
The sun was bright, although a cool breeze blew in to temper the heat. The wind caressed the grass that swayed gently to its tune, dancing with the wildflowers that grew alone or in scattered clumps. Children scampered past them, some pausing to scoop up the prettiest blossoms before running to catch up with their comrades, many of whom clustered in the newly built playground. A Quiggle laughed as he claimed one of the swings and beckoned a Yurble over to push him till he went over the bar.
“Kind of reminds me of you, Evander. Ari never wanted to go that far,” a shadow Lupe mused, seated by the splashing fountain. The Blumaroo statue looked more regal than ever now that creeping vines and dirt had been cleaned off him, although his identity still remained a mystery. She closed her book and smiled at the blue Kougra sitting next to her. “This park is a lot more beautiful than I remember.”
“Are you sure you don't want to name it Evander Park? You were the one who restored it.” The white Lupe stood up and examined the statue until she was distracted by a Goldy leaping out of the clear waters.
“I had help, and it was because of you two that I decided to do it,” he answered. “I can't take all the credit by becoming the park's namesake.”
Dori hid a giggle behind her book. “You were this modest when we were little too.” Evander blushed deeply and turned away briefly. “But thank you... again. It's a nice touch...”
“Aren't you the First Princess Arianne? And that's Second Princess Dorianne?”
The green Quiggle from the swing had wandered over with his friends, surrounding the white Lupe and gazing up at her as if she were a great treasure upon a pedestal – which she probably was to them. Ari grinned and sat back down beside her sister, resting a hand on the inquisitive Quiggle's head. Meanwhile, the Yurble wandered over to read the title of Dori's book.
“We're on our day off... we'll return to princess work later,” Arianne remarked with a wink. “How do you like the new park?” Nods and agreements rippled through her tiny audience. “Our friend here brought it back as a gift for us... it was old, but it's as if it became young again. Or something like that.” She laughed, the contagious sound of gaily ringing bells spreading among the children who now gave Evander approving glances. The Kougra felt... immensely proud of himself inside upon seeing the wide, admiring eyes and the big smiles; he promptly and expertly hid his pride, which would come crashing down at the older Lupe's next line.
“Hey – do you want me to tell you a story about how he fell in the fountain while trying to get his toy boat back when we were kids?”
“What – I never - ”
“You did,” said Dorianne simply. “I remember it like it was yesterday... you flailed around before you realized it was only thigh-deep.”
A flustered Evander could only sigh as he felt his face heat up again. “Can I... borrow your book, Dori?”