The Mutant Prince: Part Four
Chapter Four: The Price for Vanity
Faerieland stretched wide and glorious, a grand bustling city in the clouds, sparkling and exciting for all who ventured there. The air was chillier, clearer, the sun seemed nearer and the sky bluer than in Brightvale or in any other Neopian world down below. Tarquinn de Quincy, Lella, and Philippe had reached Faerieland hours after setting off from Brightvale early in the morning, and now they stood outside the towering grey cloud gates to Faerie City, on a winding misty road that gradually disappeared into fog.
"All right, peasant, where is Jhudora's Cloud?" the prince asked impatiently, looking around at the ethereal cloudscape with a frown. Tarquinn still wore a grand cavalier hat over the sad remains of his hair, and his hands were hidden under a flowing velvet cape of midnight blue which flashed sapphire bright in direct sunlight. Last night, he had tried without success to file down the grotesque black claws that had magically sprouted out of his shapely hands, but the curse had grown the claws back to full size within a mere hour. Tarquinn had then attempted to hide the disfiguration by putting on riding gloves; this worked a bit, however, while the gloves hid the obvious sight of the claws, they could not conceal their shape. Thus, greatly embarrassed, Tarquinn was forced to don a large cape and keep his hands largely behind his back.
"Call me Philip --" Philippe said lowly, but Tarquinn interrupted with a disgruntled tapping of his foot. The prince was nowhere near forgiving the Kacheek for having cursed him.
"Jhudora's abode lies on the dark side of Faerieland," Philippe responded.
"Where is that?" Tarquinn asked.
"In the shadow of Faerie City."
"This is not very helpful," Tarquinn said, exasperated. Lella put a restraining hand on the prince's shoulder, at which silent request for peace Tarquinn sighed and forced himself to calm down to be able to speak to the Kacheek he so detested with some manner of his old disinterested grace.
"Philippe," the prince said sternly, "lead us to Jhudora's Cloud."
The Dark Faerie's realm rested atop stormy black clouds; it was a nightmarish pointed grey castle crawling with moss and ivy. A vast unkempt garden of dark wild roses throve outside the high wrought iron entrance gates, and flocks of screeching Bartamus swooped around the castle's spires which rose so far that they were partially lost in the everlasting tempest.
Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe tore their way through the roses, receiving many small cuts from thorns during the struggle forward. The wind blew fiercely but it did not rain or hail -- only the echoing roar of thunder was present. Philippe reached the gates first and banged on them forcefully, but they were rusted closed. With some difficulty though, the creaking black gates were pulled open and quickly, before the wind could drag them shut, the three wayfarers rushed inside. A bare cobbled courtyard -- weedy, wet, and mossy -- lay immediately at their feet. Here the wind was weaker, its force blocked by the surrounding walls, but all throughout its whistling wild moans could still be heard. Tarquinn could at last remove his hand from his hat as there was no longer danger of the hat being blown away.
The courtyard was deserted and lifeless; all there was to be seen was a dry stone fountain in the centre of the cobbled square. A statue of a Korbat sorceress dressed in long robes rested upon a moldering pedestal; water was supposed to pour from a deep bowl the Korbat held, but the bowl was cracked, lichenous. Tarquinn skirted the fountain, and proceeded with haste to the towering oak front doors. He wanted to finish matters quickly and be away from this shadowy place as soon as possible.
"Ready?" he asked, as Lella and Philippe gathered silently beside him by the door. The two nodded and shivered.
The doors were adorned with bronze bas relief sculptures of Korbats, evil Draiks and fire-snorting Unis. The metal doorknocker was in the shape of an Ownow's round snarling face. Tarquinn rapped the doorknocker four times, loudly and clearly, and then he stood back. Much time did not pass before the great doors creaked and opened, but only just a crack, only enough to catch a glimpse of the pale figure standing within.
"Yes?" was the question given by the Dark Faerie who looked out with suspicious eyes. It was not Jhudora, but one of the many Dark Faeries of Neopia.
"Please tell your mistress that the First Prince of Brightvale requests her presence forthwith." Tarquinn said loudly, not because he wanted to sound impressive, but because the wind's constant howling prevented all other sound from being heard.
"What is your business here? Are you on one of Her quests?" the Dark Faerie asked, opening the door a little more.
"I believe my business is none of your concern. I have something of importance to discuss with your mistress; I think that should be sufficient information for you," Tarquinn said, now with his distinct pomp.
The Dark Faerie hovered in her spot a little longer, wondering secretly if she should let the guests inside or allow the Bartamus to chase them away. In the end, she smiled insincerely and pulled the door open wide. Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe entered the black, dry, cathedralesque silence of Jhudora's castle. The Dark Faerie shut the door, locked it with a heavy silver key, and then waved a hand to the right.
"This way, my handsome prince."
The Faerie led the way into a cavernous shadowy hall at the end of which stood, upon raised steps, an empty black marble throne. The throne room was completely colourless; massive stone columns rose up on both sides of the hall, securing the vaulted ceiling lost in gloom. Spyder webs hung in corners, and the smell of cold decay prevailed. There was no decoration.
"I will announce your arrival to Jhudora," the Dark Faerie said as she abruptly turned and left.
Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe were alone in the throne room. They slowly walked down the length of the dizzying hall, each of their footfalls giving off a soft echo, and stood before the giant marble seat, waiting. No one had the urge to say anything. Words did not feel welcome here. Mysterious weak cries and pitiful moans could be heard reverberating off the stone walls -- the distant pleas of someone or something in pain. Tarquinn did not want to know what the source of these plaints was. He cleared his throat and stood fixedly in one spot, trying to seem unconcerned and brave. For effect, he raised his chin high and secured a regal pose.
Suddenly there was an odd whirring sound, a slam of stone, and moments later a tall, thin shadow stretched over the dark floor to the throne's left. The shadow grew longer and longer until its source appeared before two columns. Jhudora had arrived through what seemed to have been a secret passage in the wall; the whirring sound must have been that of a hidden door closing. For some reason the thought of this made Tarquinn very nervous. Who knew what sorts of secrets this abominable resort hid?
The Queen of the Dark Faeries cast her deep and piercing eyes over the three guests and then slowly stepped before her throne. She sat down, smoothed her long violet dress, and waited. She didn't smile and her eyes never left Tarquinn's face; it was as though she were a predator waiting for the right moment to attack. With some effort, Tarquinn found his voice and introduced himself properly, but he didn't take his hat off as was usually required at such times. Jhudora did not seem to mind. Lella and Philippe stood behind Tarquinn, happily unnoticed.
"Ahh, I know your name, my prince," Jhudora said. "Yes, Tarquinn the Vain, I think, is your charming epithet."
Tarquinn nodded slightly. "That is I."
"What seems to be the trouble? Why have you traveled so far from your kingdom?" Jhudora asked, her voice curling upwards almost as though she were about to laugh. Of course, she knew what the trouble was, but she concealed her humour.
Tarquinn paused, thinking how best to explain. He then abruptly turned back to Philippe and tore out of his hands a bundle of brown leather. Tarquinn carefully uncovered the evil artifact wrapped inside and held it out for Jhudora to see clearly. The Faerie motioned for the prince to come closer, and he walked up the steps leading to the massive throne.
"My g-greatest concern is that I-I have been cursed by this sceptre," Tarquinn said, helplessly allowing nervousness to enter his tone. The Dark Faerie was so near -- her face smooth and emotionless as stone, her eyes unblinking -- only her mouth displayed some life, and it seemed to want to break into an evil grin at any moment.
Jhudora took her sceptre up, examined it briefly, and then placed it crosswise on her lap. She watched Tarquinn closely, and said, "Tell me the story."
Tarquinn obeyed and steadily detailed to Jhudora the events of the past day, of the night that incorrigible scoundrel, Philippe, had attacked poor and innocent him (Tarquinn never once touched the subject of why he had been attacked), and of the events that followed. The prince expounded the injustice of the situation, the desperate spot he was not rightfully in, and the need for the curse to be reversed immediately. Jhudora held up a hand to call silence. Tarquinn quieted and inclined his head, waiting for the Faerie's response.
"I understand. I recall now this Kacheek coming here months ago." Jhudora pointed with a long bony finger to Philippe, and the Kacheek shuddered at being suddenly recognised. It seemed as if he thought he would turn into a Slorg by simply being pointed at. "But he had been with a group then, a group from Brightvale. Oh! Now I see it." Here Jhudora returned her attention to Tarquinn. "You, prince, are the one these Brightvalians want deposed."
Tarquinn turned quickly back to Philippe and scowled at him. "Yes, that is true; however..."
"And so I offered my sceptre to them, to curse you," Jhudora interrupted. "I know all of it. Fine."
"But now, things have changed... "
"I can imagine that," Jhudora said pointedly, inspecting each of Tarquinn's features to try and catch signs of the curse.
"No, I imply that this curse must be reversed!" Tarquinn exclaimed, stretching his arms wide to emphasise his meaning. "The... issues which have brought this evil upon me have been resolved."
"Have they? Well, that's exceptionally good of you, prince," Jhudora said thoughtfully. "For what horrible stories I had heard these Brightvalians tell of you! I was under the impression you were a tyrannic and fat, vain fool, living under the auspices of the Royal Family. I had not an idea in the world that you were really so young and, well, fair."
There was a pause whereby the distant pained moans could be faintly heard echoing through the hall. The sounds made Tarquinn's hair stand on end.
"I must say, had I known that you were the one to be struck with this affliction," Jhudora touched the staff, "I would not have offered my sceptre to your detractors. Alas, what a shame, indeed..."
Tarquinn cleared his throat again. "Pardon? A shame? What do you mean?"
"You will become a mutant in seven days."
Tarquinn coughed. "I know that, but the cure --"
"There is none."
"None?" Tarquinn echoed. Suddenly he felt dizzy and faint, close to blacking out. The horror!
Jhudora peered closely at the prince. All the while she had been watching him, never removing her eyes from him for longer than a few seconds. Something dark was formulating in her head.
Lella spoke up for the first time. "But the curse is only permanent until the end of the seventh day, is it not?"
"There is no counter-magic," Jhudora affirmed with a frown. "The sceptre's power is unbendable. It strikes all those who cross it with a permanent curse of transmogrification."
Tarquinn gripped his chest and started to sway. The prince could bravely lead an army into battle, he could stay as calm as a spring rain in the middle of an intense duel, but when there was an assault against his vanity he crumpled to the ground, senseless. Jhudora noticed Tarquinn was about to faint, and she reached out and put a hand firmly on his shoulder. She pulled him nearer.
The Dark Faerie patted him consolingly. The corners of her mouth twitched, but still she did not smile. "This must be a fantastic tragedy to you, my prince..."
"Yes, yes it is!" Tarquinn gasped. "My life is over! I cannot show myself in court ever again. I cannot ever become King. I will lock myself up in darkness till the end of my days and --"
"Hmm." Jhudora uttered a pensive sigh. Lella and Philippe did not like the crafty expression on the Faerie's face but they dared not speak up. They wanted to pry the prince out of Jhudora's grasp, but he was being held tight.
"You are to be King of Brightvale?" Jhudora asked.
Tarquinn's despaired rambling stopped, and, taking a deep breath, he nodded. "I am the son of Hagan the Wise, the heir apparent... or soon I will be, or was."
"What in all the forsaken underworld does that mean?"
Tarquinn pushed to collect himself. "On the fifteenth of the Month of Storing, amid the festivities celebrating the birth of Neopia, I will be announced the official heir to the throne... but now that cannot happen. I shall perish before I undergo such shame and embarrassment!"
"I see." Jhudora looked down. Tarquinn tried to extricate himself from the Faerie's grasp, but suddenly she held held him tighter and announced: "While there is no known magic powerful enough to counteract the curse's effects, I believe there is a potion that could act as a complete cure."
Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe simultaneously raised their heads in keenest attention.
"Yes," Jhudora said, clearly enjoying the reaction her pronouncement had made. "A special detransmogrification potion, one only I know the recipe to, should fix this problem."
"Honestly, it shall?" Tarquinn's eyes opened wide. "This is the most amazing, wonderful news I have ever head. Oh, Jhudora, I cannot express how relieved and thankful I am that..."
"No need to be thankful." Jhudora shook her head. "Everyone knows that I am always willing to help those in need -- for a price."
"Yes, of course," Tarquinn readily agreed, not having carefully listened to the Faerie's dark, foreboding tone. "You will have my undying respect for the help you have afforded me this day."
Jhudora seemed amused by the prince's proclamations. "This potion is quite difficult and expensive to make; I would that I had a small kindness in return for my own..."
"Certainly. Completely understandable. I will pay any amount of Neopoints for this potion, just as long as the potion is ready within five days."
"I have no need for Neopoints. The only award I would have is your, hmm, loyalty and readiness to comply to my future... designs," Jhudora worded delicately.
Lella and Philippe immediately began to whisper to one another about the Faerie's mysterious words, but Tarquinn still did not quite understand her intentions. He was too struck by the phenomenal luck that a cure existed for the curse, and that he could have it. Jhudora rapped her white knuckles on the marble throne's armrest and Lella and Philippe hushed like a couple of frightened Pawkeets. The Faerie glared at them, then waited for Tarquinn's response.
"I'm afraid I do not entirely understand..." Tarquinn said.
"My prince, I ask for nothing material in return, I only ask that you and your people will remember that it was I who helped you accede to your throne, that it was I who made your reign possible. I only ask for my due respect and recognition."
"You have my respect for helping me already," Tarquinn insisted.
"Yes, lovely." Jhudora rolled her eyes. "But I mean something a little more... Since I have so helped you, I expect that you should help me, likewise, in the future, no? Your future kingdom's loyalty to me is not too much to ask."
"Tarquinn! Don't listen -- she wants you to swear Brightvale's allegiance to her!" Lella called out urgently.
Jhudora stared fiercely at the Yurble, her eyes glowing with a not at all too friendly greenish light. Philippe tugged Lella's arm harshly to keep her quiet. The Kacheek looked like he wanted to run for his life, but had forgotten how to move his legs.
"My prince," Jhudora began her persuasion anew, still holding on to Tarquinn's shoulder as though he were a close companion and she were about to divulge a secret. "You understand the properness of my meagre intentions, I know you do. Consider, you are doubtlessly an unutterably handsome young prince, in the prime of his life, indeed! And not only that, but you are a future King to, I'd say, the most influential kingdom in Neopia. This curse could destroy everything for you. Who would respect a monster?"
The word 'monster' had made Tarquinn's face lose all colour, his knees weaken into jelly. Monster! Not he!
"You will naturally be known as the one who helped me in my time of need," Tarquinn said nervously, while in the motion of trying to twist his arm out of the Faerie's vicelike grip, "and I will never forget your kindness... "
Jhudora's eyes narrowed. "And when you are King of Brightvale? I believe you will forget, then, when you are freed from this curse, when you are a well-matured king like your father, living in your castle with a sweet queen by your side..."
"No, I'll always remember!" Tarquinn nodded vigorously. He looked at Lella and Philippe's horrified faces, and he began to understand the entire depth of Jhudora's words. He understood her price for the potion, and it was the Kingdom of Brightvale.
Tarquinn peeled Jhudora's hand off at last and stepped back abruptly. He tripped over his cape from the sudden motion, and almost fell down the steps before the throne. Once steady on his feet, the prince rearranged his hat and said hesitantly, "If my wits still serve me correctly, your intention is to... to rule Brightvale through me?"
Jhudora did not speak, but for the first time her lips curled into a long, cruel smile.
"T-that is..." Tarquinn had wanted to say preposterous, but all words left him. Jhudora's black deal was a craftily plotted-out thing indeed, and it tore frantically at Tarquinn's heart. He could have the cure and be beautiful and respected again, but in payment he would have to place his future kingdom in the Dark Faerie's evil, tortuous hands. And if he refused Jhudora's price?
"Jhudora, this is something I feel is too much. Surely we will thank you for your kindness, but..." Tarquinn began, then paused and tried again. "There must be another price."
"Alas, there is no other." Jhudora shrugged lightly. She tried her hand at persuading Tarquinn again, but the prince would not hear it. Lella and Philippe rushed to his side as if waiting to catch him should he faint; however, Tarquinn remained standing, his eyes staring sullenly down at the shadowy stone floor. His mind raced, wondering if there was some other way to get that potion, for it was out of the question that he would sacrifice the freedom of Brightvale just to satisfy his own vanity! The kingdom's wellbeing was foremost -- that was what his father had always told him during their many private lessons on government. Tarquinn had always taken these wise words for granted, he had only smiled foolishly and nodded, but now he saw what a shocking situation his own careless behaviour had thrown him into. Oh, how had he been led so far astray, allowed to blunder down this path of villainy? Where was the real prince in him, the dutiful, respectable son of the King? Greatly remorseful and newly determined, Tarquinn silently vowed that moment that never again would he forget the priorities of the citizens. He would make King Hagan proud.
But then he thought of the nobles of the court, those snooty nobles, and of Fifi. What would he do if the curse was not cured in time? Either way Tarquinn flipped the coin, he ended up a loser. He rubbed his forehead and shut his eyes tight.
"Tarquinn... you mustn't agree to this," Lella whispered in his ear. Philippe pleaded similar words in the other ear. Clearly the two did not trust Tarquinn; they thought he was actually capable of giving Brightvale into evil's hands. The prince was unspeakably hurt at this -- that even his closest friend, Lella, did not believe he was good at heart. She believed him to be truly bottomlessly selfish and vain. Tarquinn shot Lella an angry look, brushed her and Philippe away, and stood up straight, eyes focused right on the smirking Jhudora.
"Your price is unacceptable, Jhudora," Tarquinn said firmly with a new strength in his voice. "I ask that you name another."
Jhudora's smile stretched. "I shall not."
Tarquinn's gaze hardened. "If that is your final word, we have no deal. Never will I allow evil and unjust hands to mar Brightvale's prestige. Never do I make deals with villains and the depraved."
Jhudora clenched her teeth. Her pleasant mood had suddenly evaporated and was now as cold and vile as her castle. "You will never be cured without my help, prince."
Tarquinn waved a hand dismissively. "You do not help others. You coerce and confound them, you enslave them in order to gain power. Help is a voluntary kindness, madame, and something your black soul is incapable of."
With that, Tarquinn bowed curtly and turned his back on the Faerie. He whispered to Lella and Philippe that they had all better leave as soon as they could. Horrific shrieks of laughter suddenly filled the space, a dozen times worse for the dozen times they each echoed throughout the hall. It was Jhudora's cackling.
"You! You will never be cured! Fool!" she laughed, teeth flashing. "You will become a monster, a hideous creature! You will regret this, my sad little princeling! Tell me, how is it to be a Kyrii without any hair?"
Tarquinn pulled the hat over his head tighter. Jhudora had obviously noticed the mysterious absence of his long hair, a signature of all Kyrii.
"Come, we shall not waste a moment longer here," Tarquinn said with the last ounce of his fortitude. The price for his vanity had been high, but in the end Tarquinn had not paid it. His heart thudded dully, his eyes were too dry for tears, and all he could think about as he walked out of the hall with Lella and Philippe, the echoes of Jhudora's cackles escorting them, was: "Fifi, how could I ever allow you to lay your sweet eyes on me again if I am not cured of this curse?"
To be continued...