"Altadorian Bread used to cost only one neopoint per basket," Marina tells me as we walk through the marketplace. "Now they're ten, fifty, a hundred. Once I could take a hundred neopoints and buy enough food to feed a family of four for a week. That was years ago, before you were born, I think. Now..."
She shrugs and looks around us. We are surrounded by food stalls, toy stores, shops that sell things from tiki souvenirs to Brucicles. But we're not here to buy any of those things. We're just passing through.
Our destination is the Soup Kitchen. We reach the cauldron-shaped building in good time. There's a long line as always, stretching out the door and along the path, and we go to wait at the end of it. Marina is a blue Zafara, and I'm a yellow Shoyru, so we blend in pretty well. It would be a lie to say there are Neopets of all kinds here. The colors of their fur and scales and skin are Red, Blue, Green, Yellow—oh, a few Snow and Glowing pets; a few Speckled and Starry, but those colors are cheap. I suppose they must've spent the last of their Neopoints to get painted, and now they're here.
Then I see something odd: a Scorchio a few pets ahead of us in the line. A Red Scorchio wearing a pair of Heart Shaped Sunglasses that conceal most of her face—so it seems, at first glance. But the red of her scales is just a little bit too bright, and then her sunglasses slip and I notice the purplish eyeshadow.
She's Royalgirl. Stripped of all vestments, but Royalgirl nonetheless. Either she can't remove the makeup or she doesn't want to. I don't know. I've never been Royalgirl.
"Saffron," hisses Marina, "don't stare, it's rude." But I'm not the only one staring. With hours to spend waiting in line, the Neopets here don't have much to look at, so they'll notice anything weird. Quickly, the Scorchio shoves the sunglasses back on to her face, but the damage has already been done.
The whispers begin.
"Royalgirl?" people hiss. "Royalgirl? Here?"
Even Marina has decided to be rude. "What do you think she's doing?" she says quietly to me. "Waiting in line for an hour only to be turned away at the door? She's got to have more than three thousand Neopoints."
"Maybe not," I say. "Maybe she's poor."
"A Royalgirl? How?"
Finally someone says something directly to the Scorchio. A Green Lupe says, "You're clogging up the line, princess."
"I-I'm sorry?" she says. Her voice is high for a Scorchio.
"We're all going to have to wait a few minutes longer unless you leave," says the Lupe. "And I personally don't want to wait a few minutes longer. Anyone agree with me?"
A Blue Uni standing farther away calls out, "This isn't a tourist destination!"
"I bet she came to laugh at us," says a Speckled Skeith.
"No," says the Scorchio. "I didn't. I... I came to eat."
(Marina draws a breath.)
"You're Royalgirl," says the Green Lupe. "We're poor but we're not stupid. And you're clogging up the line."
The Scorchio holds on to her sunglasses as if they will protect her, but they don't. The Speckled Skeith snatches the glasses off her face, and her royal makeup's revealed again. She turns and runs.
A few pets laugh, uneasily.
I look up at Marina. She's not laughing.
"We should help her," Marina says.
"But the soup..." I've been dreaming of Lamb Broth.
"We'll have an omelette today instead. We'll have a bite of an omelette each," she clarifies. "We've only got one full omelette left. And that Scorchio, whoever she is, is hungry."
We find the Royalgirl Scorchio at the Money Tree. She's looking around for any donated food, but of course she is never quite fast enough to get anything.
Marina is, though, and quick as lightning Marina snatches up a Lint Jelly and holds it out to the Scorchio. "Come with us," my older sister tells her. "We've got some food. An omelette. We'll share it with you."
"My sunglasses..." she says.
"The Skeith got them," Marina says, "and you won't get them back. We can hunt around at the Secondhand Shoppe for another pair if you want. But right now I think you'd rather eat."
The Scorchio nods. Her made-up eyes seem to glisten. "I'm starving," she says.
"We know what that's like," says Marina. "We'll help you. I'm Marina, and this is my little sister Saffron."
"My name's Perdia," she says.
"It's nice to meet you," says Marina. She shoots a glance at me. I say, "It's nice to meet you."
"Come on," Marina says. "We should go stake out a place."
"Stake out a place...? What do you mean?"
"Well, we have to sleep. The hills beyond the market are a good place, especially now in the summer. You can count all the stars. But usually they're so crowded, you've got to get there by early afternoon."
Perdia figures it out. "You don't have a home," she says.
"Neopia is our home," says Marina. "I like to think of it that way. We used to have a house in Neopia Central, but Saffron hit her head and got Blurred Vision and the Healing Springs weren't working. We had to sell it. Still, it's not bad. It's like camping every day."
"But I have a house," she says. "It's in Faerieland. I don't have anything else anymore, but I have my house and my garden. You're helping me... so I'll help you. We can go to my house."
* * *
It takes a while to get to Faerieland since Marina can't fly, so we have to walk, but we make it there. I expect Perdia's house to be a little mushroom building in the city, but we instead travel past Faerie City, and to the green outskirts of Faerieland, beyond the Caverns.
"This place used to float on a cloud," Marina tells me. "Then it fell. It was beautiful back then. It still is now, but differently. In a sad way... There's ivy growing up the towers..." She falls silent, lost in thought. We keep walking. At first I think that Perdia must live way on the edge of Faerieland, maybe in a tiny hut. But then we approach a huge gilt mansion.
There are gardens, magnificent gardens. A place you'd expect a queen to live in. We can't even ask Perdia how or why; we're too in shock. We walk down a path through the gardens. There are roses and daisies and other flowers I don't even know the names of. There is a pond, too, a hole dug from the clouds and filled with water as clear and sparkling as the Healing Springs. The pond is surrounded by blossoms.
We stop at a gazebo in the middle of the grass, a gazebo covered with grapevines. Finally Marina manages to speak. "Fyora's sake," she breathes. "You're rich."
"I was," Perdia says. A bird sings nearby from the top of a birch tree. "You should have seen this garden then. I had Uni gardeners sweeping and trimming and pruning... those trees over there used to be tree sculptures of Faeries. They've grown out now, and they're ugly."
"But it's beautiful," I say. "The entire garden."
"Of course," she says.
"How did you build it?"
Perdia settles back against the gazebo's white railing. "I used to be quite rich," she said. "I had good luck in the stock market, and good luck when it came to finding things in shops and attics and beaches, things I could resell. Draik Eggs, you know, and paintbrushes, and morphing potions... So I painted myself Royal, and I bought this home, and I decided to have a beautiful garden. I bought Rowzes, Autumn Sunset Daisies, Wocky Gloves. I bought Beekadoodles to sing in the trees. I hired gardeners. trees. But all of that cost money, too much money, and one day my luck ran out—and my money ran out with it."
"And now?" says Marina.
"Now I have less than a thousand neopoints to my name," Perdia says. "I spent it all trying to keep the gardeners here. The garden won't live without gardeners. I sold my Royalgirl gown and gloves and hat. I sold a lot of furniture inside my house. But I'm going to keep my garden. Once I get back on my feet, I'll restore it. And then..."
Marina holds out the Plain Omelette to her. "Have the first bite," she says.
Perdia nods, bites, and chews. Her eyes seem to glisten with tears. "The garden may be ruined by then, though," she says. "I can't do all the work by myself. There will be weeds..."
"We could help out!" I say. "I bet I could be a gardener."
"I don't believe that's our main concern, though," says Marina. "Right now it takes so much work just to eat every day."
"Of course I'm not asking you to garden for me," Perdia says. "I was just explaining. Why don't we go inside? I think I have a few beds left."
The mansion is huge, but mostly empty with paler spots of carpet where furniture used to be. Marina and I find a Simple Blue Bed stuffed into the corner of an otherwise-empty room, and decide to sleep there. Marina has a Quilt Cape that functioned as my sleeping bag. We use it as an extra sheet here.
I haven't slept in a bed in forever. It's so soft, it feels like Faerieland must've felt like back when it was still high up in the clouds... I dream of it, the way I think it must've looked. And I dream of Perdia's garden, filled with life, with uniformed Uni gardeners lovingly trimming the trees, and Beekadoodles fluttering through the air, singing. The Rowzez are not wilted. The grapes on the gazebo are not yet overripe. The clear pool is filled with tiny pink fish that swim in flickers. And Perdia strolls between the hedges, wearing a gown and gloves and laced slippers...
* * *
Things are better now. I fly out every day to get an omelette from Tyrannia and whatever I can find at the Money Tree. That's the food problem solved.
Meanwhile, Marina and Perdia sit in the garden and figure out how to invest Perdia's remaining 887 neopoints. Although that's not much, it's more than we've ever had at one time, and Marina is good at stretching out money. They look over stock market reports, and search up prices of things, and so on and so on. By the end of the week, they've made another 1,000. When Perdia regains her fortune, we'll all live in this mansion. We'll refurnish it, of course, and restore her garden.
The weeks wear on and we make more thousands. Marina is overjoyed. "Imagine," she tells me, "we might even be able to buy our own house back. No, we definitely will!"
I remember our house. I had a Toy Train Bed and a Grundo Wardrobe where I kept all the clothes I could get from the Secondhand Shoppe. That was lost now, all lost; we could only take so much with us when we had to leave. But if we bought the house back, maybe our things would still be there. I'd had a Babaa Love Poster...
"You'll see," says Marina confidently. "We'll get our house back too. And we can live half the time in this mansion, and half the time in our old home. Wouldn't that be great?"
"Yeah!" I say, although I wish to myself that there was a way to pick up our old house and place it in these gardens so we could have everything at once.
Still I'm not unhappy. I've got food duties—and shopping duties too, since we're able to buy things now. I buy all sorts of food that I've wanted to try—snow from Terror Mountain, olives from Altador, fruit from the Lost Desert.
Then I buy a second bed and move it into the room that Marina and I have claimed as ours. I can roll around now on my own mattress. It's heavenly. We buy a Golden Clawed Bath Tub and I can take as many baths as I want. Marina buys me a Yellow Shoyru Plushie that looks just like me. "Maybe with luck I'll get you painted, too," she says. "What color do you want to be?"
I say "Faerie!"
She laughs. "Alright. That may take a while."
I name the plushie Lucky because of what Perdia told us one evening at dinner. "Maybe I've used up all of my good luck," she says, "but you two still have plenty! And that's enough for all three of us, it seems."
Marina laughs. We eat Baked Faerie Corn and Faerie Toast with Butter, the best food I've tasted in years.
* * *
It's autumn now, near the end of the month of Collecting. Leaves are beginning to turn colors, and on windless days the clear pond reflects the trees. Only the late flowers are still blooming in the garden.
I think about what we'd be doing if we'd never met Perdia. Still sleeping on the hills beyond the market. It would be getting chilly. Marina might give me both of our quilts and tell me she didn't care. In a few months, we'd have to sleep in the Soup Kitchen or we'd freeze.
But now I have my own bed and a warm room with my sister. And soon we'll have our old home, and I'll have my old room.
On the 26th of Storing, as I come into the mansion, Marina jumps up. "Saffron," she said, "we made a hundred thousand!"
"Yes!" She hugs me. "Soon we'll have everything we ever wanted. I'll paint you Faerie... I'll paint myself Electric—or maybe even Eventide."
"You'd be pretty as Eventide."
Perdia comes into the room, smiling. "I think you should go to bed early today," she tells Marina. "You always stay up late reading over stock reports—have a rest."
"I guess," says Marina. Then she grins. "A hundred thousand!"
We both go to bed early, although we stay up late whispering to each other about all the things we'll do. Then I fall asleep. Perdia's given Marina and I five thousand of the hundred to go and buy whatever we want. A shopping spree!
We leave for Neopia Central. There, Marina tells me to go and buy whatever I want; she doesn't care. She wants to go listen to poetry at the Art Centre.
So I go shopping. I get an Opulent Zafara Jacket for Marina; soon it will be cold. Then I get a huge cake. It's a thrill being able to slide thousands of neopoints over the counter. I feel rich.
Marina's delighted with the jacket. "You really shouldn't have," she said. "You should've bought something for yourself."
Then she shrugs into the jacket and we go home—home, where we find a Uni gardener trimming the hedges.
* * *
"Why?" my sister says.
Perdia looks confused. "What do you mean, why?" she says. "The hedges were growing out. The tree sculptures were already ruined, so I bought new ones. And flowers, too. Rowzes, Autumn Sunset Daisies, Wocky Gloves. We were going to restore my garden, after all. Don't you remember? It'll be beautiful soon."
"But someday it'll be summer!"
"A hundred thousand," Marina groans. Then she goes inside to lie down and doesn't get up until noon the following day.
"Saffron," she says to me, "we only need fifty thousand to get our house back. I could've taken our half of the money and just left. We could've gone home. But I thought I'd wait—the more money you have the more money you make—I thought we'd be rich—stupid, stupid, stupid—"
My sister, I find, has a fever. I take her to the Healing Springs; it's three tries until the springs work but at least they do. And that's just as well since we don't have a way to pay for medicine anymore. We have less than two thousand neopoints now. We are poor again, poor enough to eat at the Soup Kitchen. We are poor, and Perdia has her garden.
* * *
We can't leave, of course. We've realized now that Perdia is awful, but it's warmer here than it is on the hills beyond the Marketplace. We need to stay where it's warm.
"Maybe by spring," Marina whispers to me. "Over the winter I'll save money that Perdia won't know about. We'll hide enough from her to buy our home back. Then we'll get out of here. We'll leave her alone with her flowers."
"And you'll get painted Eventide," I say.
"And you'll get painted Faerie. Good night, Saffron. Go to sleep."
Winter passes and spring comes. Marina can only take small amounts of money from her earnings, a few hundred at a time, not much more or Perdia will get suspicious. Slowly, painstakingly, she saves up ten thousand.
It's not enough. Spring comes. The garden begins to bloom, now that it's well-kept again. "Isn't it gorgeous?" says Perdia. "Oh, it's almost as good as it used to be! When you see it like it used to be—during the summer—you'll feel glad for everything I did. It'll be so beautiful!"
Weeks pass, and months. Marina has gathered thirty thousand. I take periodic trips to the bank to deposit the neopoints.
"Don't you think we should have more money by now?" says Perdia. "I was planning on hiring another gardener by the month of Eating, but it's not enough."
The month of Swimming comes.
"Almost," whispers Marina.
And on the last day of the month of Hiding, we run. We go out the front door. It's late afternoon. We can see the gazebo from here, although it seems to be shimmering, the air's so hot. Perdia is sitting there in the gazebo's shadow. She calls to us:
"I hope your flowers wilt," I mutter.
We leave that mansion with its gardens. We leave the princess and all of her blossoms. We leave Faerieland in its mossy lost splendor, and we find our way back to Neopia Central, and by the time it is dark, we find our old house.
It is not for sale anymore. There is yellow light in the windows and the projected shadow of a Xweetok's head. We stop and watch for a moment.
"There's no helping it," my sister says after a while. "We're not getting that house back. There's no dwelling on the past."
"We'll find another house," I say.
"Yes," she says. "We'll find one. Even if we have to work a little longer for it."
And until then we will wait in line at the Soup Kitchen and scrounge up what we can find at the Money Tree. But all of those things we'll do will be steps forward somehow. And after all, I'm not alone. I have my sister. And Marina has me...
I suppose she has her garden.