The words dance across the parchment in the waning candlelight. I dip the quill in ink once again, letting it hover over the page before crumpling up the paper and tossing it into a waste bin.
I gnarl my hands into a fist, cursing under my breath. How do I even begin to write to her after all these years? What would she even think of me?
“Woooo,” murmurs the Darigan Weewoo perched upon a stand near my desk. Its head is tucked under its wing while its half-open eye gazes towards me in unfocused attention.
“Apologies, old friend,” I say. I graze the back of the feathered Petpet with my hand, lulling it back to sleep.
After a quick glance at the large piles of discarded parchment, I sigh. It had been a valiant attempt to write to her, but that is all that could be said of the act: an attempt.
Opportunities to write for pleasure became few and far between, and the few times they presented themselves were late at night, when only the eve’s guard could sanely claim alertness. The rest of my time had been filled with other, more pressing, matters.
Reconstruction of the Citadel was a time-consuming ordeal fraught with hard decisions and calculated, often strained diplomacy. The world was watching now, and every stroke of this quill could mean the difference between peace and unrest. No matter how well the trade agreements took hold or how successful the university exchange program became, none could quite shake the unease of peace. Who could blame them? After two major wars, the bulk of which happened in the last thirty years, peace feels like a fleeting luxury, a lie to tell children so that they can soundly sleep.
When I arch my back to stretch, I feel my achy joints pop. I have been slouching again—Galgarroth would certainly say so. He always does.
A walk will help me think, I think wistfully, nearly falling upon standing up, after my legs wake up, that is. I take hold of a flickering candle and shuffle towards a stone-edged window before resting my free hand on a cool, sloping wall.
Even years after I reclaimed this Lordship from the Usurper, a former General of mine named Kass, a view of the Citadel put my mind at ease. There was something serene about the way it glistened in the waning moonlight.
Sometimes I wonder if the night sky, with its bounty of stars, looked the same to the Meridellians below. To the farm folk who live far, far away from the pulse of city life… and to the home of a little farm girl who saved my life so very long ago.
How many years was it—seven, ten? Time passed so quickly these days, perhaps even more so than during the first Great War. Children who were mere babes during those days now donned the smocks of their smith parents, fired the kilns of shops where they apprenticed, drew the blades of their missing role models.
Where was Sally in all of this? Did she take to the family farm, begin a family of her own?
My mouth turns, even as the inklings of golden glow begins to envelope the Citadel from afar. The light of dawn would be upon me soon, and with it, the duties of a civil servant.
After a breath of cool, autumn air, I sit back at my desk and dip the quill again, hovering it over a piece of fresh parchment.
Dear Old Friend, I begin, immediately shaking my head. I cannot be this informal with the girl. We were hardly acquaintances, the two of us. Provider and consumer, that would be more accurate. She shared the wealth of her farm with a deranged animal, a bat-thing that no Neopian—no creature—in their right mind would show compassion, and I consumed her offerings. Nightly. For months. If at any time the arrangement could be considered mutual, it was when I attacked the guards—Citadel guards—who would have pillaged her farm and robbed her of every freedom she held dear.
Another ball of paper falls into the waste bin.
Greetings and well met, I begin, recalling a salutation that merchant-folk and farmers would use in the lower lands.
I scoff at the absurdity of these words as they glisten in the kind of cursive script that high-class Darigans use, knowing that to write them would present a false image to the girl. I was no neighbor of the farmer’s family, yet she still led me from that corn field where I was starving and delirious, hissing like a wounded monster, to a simple barn where I lay atop clean hay and had homemade morsels delivered daily.
This time, I shred the paper in two before crumpling it. Only one of the chunks land in the container. The other stares mockingly at me from across the room. After a gruff sigh and a curse of my habits, I hoist myself from the chair and dispose of the rogue ball of paper.
Hello Ms. Sally. Discarded.
To my savior. Shredded. The delivery Weewoo made an irritated grunt.
Wishing you a pleasant Month of Giving. Bounced from the pile of paper onto the ground.
Why did you save me? Set aflame, blown out.
Dearest Sally. I rub my temples, questioning in foggy half-slumber whether I used this greeting before. It, too, bounced off the pile.
You may know me as Mr. Scary. I immediately think to discard the letter, but the parchment stays. I scribble below the greeting: My sincerest appreciation for your kindness. This is not enough. I find space in the margin. There are no words in either of our languages that will express my gratitude for your bravery, strength, and kindness in the face of adversity and fear. Realizing the similarity of the two sentences, I rewrite the letter with the same greeting and the longer of the two sentences.
You offered your home to a stranger, to a monster who had been hunted like the animal I had become. It is through your actions that I live, knowing full well that your hospitality granted me a second chance that I no longer deserved. A piece of wet candle wax falls upon the letter, and I wipe away any evidence of its existence—or attempt to, anyway. A small smudge deforms the final “d” in deserved despite the distance of the rogue wax. I debate rewriting the letter, see the first rays of sun enter the room, and continue.
I have made it my goal to live up to your expectations—to be the “good” Neopian you saved—and I hope that I have lived in a way in which you would be proud.
“Chains and daggers,” I whisper, cursing the phantom wax of the small, dim candle. I wait for the parchment to dry, take a deep breath, then continue.
I hope this letter finds you well, and that you’ve found joy in this world. I hear there is great trade between our merchants and your farmers; such is a reason to celebrate even in these uncertain times. My mouth twists at these words. They were generic, in a way. Something I might say to just about anyone from Meridell. It might as well have been a commentary about the cool, yet sunny weather. I debate starting over, yawn broadly, and push forward.
Among my first of many fuzzy memories, I recall a young Usul who risked the ire of her parents so that she could help another, shunted food from her undernourished frame to save a stranger, risked her own life to protect a… my hand momentarily quakes over the page. Mr. Scary from the unwarranted attack of a madman. I have no doubt that you have achieved great things. Compassion, selflessness, unshakeable courage, these attributes that make for a great leader. In truth, I relearned these traits from watching you. What an honor that was.
I exhale, gently place the quill in the inkwell, and lean back against the chair until the aches fade away. Even my wings and tail have begun to feel sore from draping over the wooden surface. Yes, the upholstery had been made to fit this lanky frame, but like my body, it too had faced the test of time.
Now that the room has a brightness to it (or as bright as things could be in this dingy office), I cannot help but immerse myself in the hustle and bustle of the city below: salespeople rolling their carts through old cobble streets, the temptation of Darigani bread as it wafts through the air, the laughter of children, a gentle breeze.
I cherish these experiences. Even as my aging body feels the weight of a sleepless night, few things bring me greater joy.
Just as I pick up the quill to write again, a knock comes at the door.
“Yes?” I ask.
A large, red-scaled Grarrl with pointed horns pokes his head in the door. “My Lord, your appointment has arrived.” Galgarroth has this sort of no-nonsense tone to his voice that I appreciate, but that hidden warmth beneath it all kept me sane through the tumultuous years of reconstruction.
Oh, right. That was happening today, was it not? I consider putting away the letter and finishing it some other time. “I will see to them in a moment, friend. Have them wait by my chambers until I am ready.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Galgarroth bows. “But if it might hasten your decision, this guest is a knight, here to discuss the farm trade.”
This takes me off-guard before I faintly recall the reason for this meeting. Hopefully they are a Brightvalian knight, I muse. They, at least, know how to discuss things without shouting. My aching head would surely scream in retaliation if they did.
“Call a maid to deliver our finest of teas while they make pleasant conversation with you,” I said, perhaps with an edge of amusement, “and see that our guest be welcomed only after the proper hospitality has been offered.” A means of buying time while also being gracious, that is what is needed.
“Of course, my Lord,” said Galgarroth, seemingly perplexed by the decision, but abiding by it anyway.
During this diversion, I take to scribbling a final message: It is with great hope that we shall meet once again, Sally.
With strength and wisdom,
Lord W. Darigan
Before the guest could arrive, I affix my Citadel’s seal to an envelope and hide it beneath the desk. Realizing that they would arrive soon, I suddenly realize the slob I must appear, having braved the night without rest. The reflection staring at me in the chamber’s ornate mirror is glowering, with sunken eyes and wrinkled face. A large blob of ink has stained his tunic. Worse yet, a dried black line trails from his heart to half-way down his stomach. I grunt at the messiness of his appearance, hardly presentable for a guest.
There came a knock at the door.
In a panic, I grab hold of the first cover that meets my eye, a long white robe with gold and green trim. It is attached to a hanger that, with the haste of my action, falls squarely upon my head. It then tumbles to the ground with a clatter.
“My Lord?!” Galgarroth bolts into the room, alarmed to see me cradling my head and kneeling. The guest files in after him, sucking in her breath at the sight. She is a brown Usul in Meridellian armor, holding a simple blue travel pack. At first, I avert my eyes to hide my embarrassment.
“It’s but a scratch,” I say, brushing off the dust from my robes. Given the Grarrl General’s skeptical look and crossed arms, he disagrees.
“With all due respect, my Lord,” states the Grarrl, “you look completely exhausted. Have you slept? Ate? Good rest, proper diet, and better posture would assist in your woes. Perhaps a maid could—”
I make a cutting motion with my hand. “We shall discuss this later. For now, I believe we have more pressing matters, like the guest we have so rudely welcomed to my quarters.”
The Grarrl pauses and sighs gruffly. “Of course, my Lord. Apologies, my Lady, for the way in which you were treated.”
The knight jumps to attention. “Oh! That’s, um… think nothing of it. I won’t take offence.” She shrugs. “You’ve got your Lord to watch out for, it ain’t a problem with me.”
Galgarroth smirks. “You’re an easy-going one, aren’t you?” In response, she merely smiles. “On that note, Lord Darigan, shall I provide my counsel at this meeting?”
Ah, yes. If truth be told, I would greatly appreciate the assistance. Had I not prioritized other matters over the morning’s discussion—or forgotten, as my mind guiltily added—I might have relented.
“Your offer is a kind one, old friend, but I need no assistance.” My General gives me a brief, sour look. He expects this reply. “Instead, prepare a report on the flooding in area five; it will surely be a source of contention at tonight’s housing commission meeting—it always is. You are dismissed.”
Galgarroth looks like he wants to say something else—his brow is furrowed with worry. Instead of speaking, he bows, then leaves the room.
Beneath it all, I know that my General wishes me well. Still, his concern has developed into a frequent, almost irritating ritual in my older age. I turn my gaze back to the guest.
She is standing in place, sheepishly spinning a porcelain cup of fine Darigan tea in her right paw. Upon closer inspection, she almost looks familiar, but I push away the thought. All Meridellians look alike to a Darigan.
With only two Neopians in the room, I extend my hand in greeting while the knight places her cup carefully on a wooden desk. “I do hope that you will excuse our manners, Lady…”
“Corinne.” She finds a seat.
“A strong name. Shall we begin?”
“By all means.”
The iron-clad brown Usul brushes a small lock of short, orange fur behind her ear. She is carrying a stack of written documents in her free paw, of which she fans out over the desk. Some of the documents contain small illustrations of individuals or places. They are filled with feedback reports from Meridellian farmers about their experiences with Darigan-Meridell trade. The two of us leaf through the stack, discussing the ways in which unscrupulous merchants on both ends of the equation can be punished, especially those who would resort to extortion or fear to increase their trade revenue.
“How much of an issue is this in the trade markets?” I question.
“An enormous one—on both ends. Anyone looking to make a quick buck has gone out of their way to target small merchants. Here’s one of our biggest culprits.” She gestures to a picture that had been drawn of a particularly unsavory looking Draik with a missing front tooth and a facial scar.
My gaze darkens. “I see.”
“It’s up to folks like me to make sure all Neopians are represented. There have been a good number of merchants on both sides who feel that their market value has not been respected, and that we will need to agree on regulation together.”
“That much I agree on, but we’ll have to find a means of enforcing trade fairness without regulating the market with an iron first. As you know, my predecessor had a reputation of doing just that.”
She shrugs. “So long as people get their food and supplies at a fair price, it’s all the same to me. If everything is sold in designated locations, we could regulate it well without going overboard. Either that or tightening security on the fields of innocent farmers, like this family.”
The last case she brings up is the site of a small farm with a large red barn and cornfields. It appears one of the vegetable carts was smashed by a ruffian.
Upon seeing the picture, I freeze in place; that barn looks like the one where I stayed! A hush falls upon the room for a time. This perplexes the knight, so she continues to mention another party of corn bandits. Apparently, a group of thugs tried to steal from the same family’s silo the week before. After an uncomfortable pause, she shuffles in her seat.
“Does something ail you, Lord Darigan?” I snap to attention. “Perhaps your advisor was correct. I can continue to discuss trade terms in greater detail when you’re better.”
I shake my head. “That won’t be needed, but your consideration is kind. Your picture just reminded me of someone—I mean something, nothing more.”
“Reminded you of something?” The Usul chuckles. “Excuse the rudeness, Lord Darigan, but you hardly look the farmer type.”
I must have looked amused. “What then, is the farmer ‘type?’ Did you grow up on a farm, Lady Corinne?”
The knight tightens her posture. “Would that… surprise you?”
If I could guess, the topic was a bit of a sore spot for her. I wave away the notion.
“Not at all. Farm-folk are some of the hardest working that I’ve known, also some of the kindest—“
“Most stubborn, is like it. When we set our minds to something, we—Oh, golly. Pardon my rudeness, your Lordship. I should know better than to interrupt.”
I nod absent-mindedly, realizing that my gaze falls back to the red barn in her picture. It looks so much like the one where I was saved, but… could it really be?
“Truth be told,” she continues, noticing my interest, “that barn’s my family’s property. I know all these cases should be weighed equally, but I need to look out for my Ma and Pa—to keep them safe. But… I bet a fancy lord like yourself would bore at the details of a simple farm life.”
Could she be…? I raise an eyebrow and motion her to continue.
“If you insist. We’ve kept all kinds of things in our silos: corn, grain, a whole variety of fruits, and one time… although my parents never really knew about it, I rescued a homeless Neopian who needed a friend. Sure was a funny-looking Korbat, sitting in those corn fields.” I stifle a gasp. “He didn’t have a name or anything, so I called him—”
“Mr. Scary?” You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. I notice the shock on the knight’s features. Her mouth hangs open and she looks absolutely horrified.
It’s as I thought, I had to keep from laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
“How’d you know his name? Only my Ma and Pa knew about him, and they thought him to be an invisible friend! Have y’all been spying on my family from your citadel? No wonder you reacted how you did to that picture, I—“
“Please, calm yours—“
“Calm? Calm?! I think that’s easy for you say in your big floating castle, but—“
“You misunderstand me,” I deadpan, swiftly reaching into my desk while fighting a pounding headache—why must Meridellians shout? “If your full name is Sally Corinne, then I believe this letter is for you.”
Lady Corinne’s reaction is somewhere between skeptical and utterly baffled, but opens the letter with a split gaze. As she did, my Weewoo, now awake from the ruckus, looks positively indignant at the sight of an undelivered letter. It vocally said as such, adding to my headache. Still, I pet it on the head and whisper, “next time, friend,” to get it from screeching for the rest of the day.
She pours over the letter, glancing up at me in disbelief after almost every line. I pick at the quill in front of me, feeling my ears droop.
After a while, Lady Corinne finally finds the courage to speak. “You’re Mr. Scary,” she whispers. There had not been a questioning in her voice, just shock.
I squirm in my seat. “I was. I like to think that I am better than that now.”
“You’re… Mr. Scary?” Now she looked fascinated more than anything, like she was analyzing some sort of unique medical subject. It made me feel exposed.
“We--we’ve established this—“
The Darigan Weewoo, still looking for consolation after a denied letter run, hops into my lap and cuddles against my robes. Its sharp talons rip through my finest silks as it settles into a comfortable spot. After a good ten seconds of its affection, I know a tailor would be needed to salvage the regalia.
“Sally,” I look to the bird who now coos in contentment, “look what you’ve done. You know how much I dislike this… behavior…” Perhaps using a real name for a delivery Petpet was not a good plan after all. I could feel a flush rise to my face.
“You named your Weewoo ‘Sally.’”
When the knight begins to laugh, I felt a wash of relief. She places a paw upon my shoulder—I flinch at the contact—and looks me straight at me.
“You really like to help Neopians, huh?” I relax a little under her caring gaze. “Is that why you agreed to see me after a sleepless night?”
“Galgarroth told you… spires above, he worries too much.” I look away. “Realize, I need to make up for my mistakes. My health can come later.”
“We all make mistakes.” She rustles through the blue travel pack that had been slung over her shoulder. Out of it she removes a loaf of homemade cornbread. “But you won’t be able to help anyone if you don’t eat, Mr. Scary.”
I cover my eyes with a silken sleeve and dab them. “You have not changed, dear Sally.”
She smiles, cutting the loaf in two. “I would hope not.” After taking a bite, she asks, “then if you’re the one who saved me from those Darigans…” She swallows the bread. “Aren’t you one of them? And come now, I cut that bread for you to get your share. You know how good Pa’s cooking is.”
I sheepishly take my share of the offering. “They were soldiers of mine, more or less.”
“More or less?”
“Times were complicated.”
“Time often is.”
To break the now silent awkwardness, Sally removes the cases once again to shift the discussion back to her clients. “Now that the wars are over, do you think we’re finally free from worry?”
I would have loved to say that no wars could ever, would ever happen again under my watch. Instead, I said the following: “I think we have the remarkable, if fleeting, chance at a peaceful future. A golden age of prosperity. We will work hard to keep our healing nations from turning back their clocks.”
She nods. “And we’ll do it together.”
I take a bite of the corn bread and, for the first time a long while, sincerely smiled. “And we’ll do it together.”
Lady Sally Corinne offers me a hug, and I accept. “It’s just like I said, Lord Scary, on the day when you saved my family: I knew you were good.”