Of Squibble Berries and Olives: Part Three
Hanso rose just before sunup the next day, and even he had to stop and watch the sun rise from his window as soon as he finished dressing. He usually didn't get up until after the sun had risen and was flooding his room with its blinding light, making sleep impossible. Today, though, he stopped and watched as the sun peeked out from the top of the crater, a brilliant orange ball that filled the sky with orange and red light. As the sun rose higher, the sky gradually changed to blue.
"What's the occasion? You're up early!"
Hanso turned to see Brynn standing in the doorway, dressed in her usual—wait a minute! "Whoa, Brynn, new uniform?" he asked.
He'd been expecting to see her usual dark pink and grey outfit, but instead she was wearing a purplish-pink tunic with dark green trim and dark green trousers to match. "Yes, I told you about them, didn't I? We got new uniforms. Faerieland is really embracing everything green lately," she commented, looking down at the tunic.
"If you mentioned it, I must have not been paying attention." He walked over to give it a closer look. She was still wearing the same big grey boots, but those didn't clash too much. "Can I say that I think it's a huge improvement over that last one? You look better in bright colours!"
"Um... I wouldn't call this bright. It's a pretty dark green. The purple or pink or whatever that is is rather dark, too."
"It's bright compared to what you used to wear," he pointed out.
"Maybe so... What are you doing up so early?" she asked again. "I just came to get you up."
"I just... got up early. I don't know." He shrugged. "Since when did you come and get me up? I always get up on my own, if you haven't noticed."
"Yes, um..." she trailed off, which was completely unlike her, and Hanso was about to ask her what was wrong, but she finally continued. "I want to ask you... Could you go with me on guard duty this morning?"
"Uh... are you sure about that? With Jazan here and all?"
"Yes, I...I would like your company," she admitted. Her head was down, but she was looking directly into his face: a very odd and timid expression for her. "Would you, please?"
"Uh... sure, I guess. Who are you on duty with?"
"What?! ...You're kidding, right?" Hanso slapped his hand against his forehead. "Who was the genius who decided to pair you with her?"
"I think it may have been a mistake, but it can't be changed now. Would you please go with me?"
"Yeah, I will," he promised. "I think we're having Altadorian food today! Can't wait to see what breakfast holds for us!"
Brynn looked at him, clearly puzzled, as they left their chambers and headed toward the dining hall. "You seem extremely enthusiastic about the food today."
"I always like trying something new," he said with a grin. "Especially when I kind of already know what it is, haha!"
To Hanso's amazement (and Brynn's as well, undoubtedly), their morning with Eselde didn't go as badly as he thought it would. Hanso knew he had to be credited with that: instead of allowing Eselde to pick on Brynn, he kept her attention focused on him. It wasn't hard to do. He got Eselde involved in a long, pointless discussion about why altachucks were afraid of things that began with the letter "D," which then led to them trying to list every word they knew of that started with "D." (Of course, Hanso won that contest, though Eselde would beg to differ.) As Eselde was shocked by some of the words in Hanso's far superior vocabulary, she began to question his heritage and tried to dig into his past. This was unacceptable, but Hanso managed to make it fun, turning the questions on to her instead and learning much about her in the process. She'd never been to the Poogle's native land, Terror Mountain, and Hanso wasn't about to tell her whether or not he was from the Ixi's native Meridell. He just let her throw wild guesses, and was surprised by how little Eselde actually knew about the world outside of Faerieland. Eselde did try to drag Brynn into the conversation at one point, asking if she was from Mystery Island and implying something about her being uncivilized and wild, but Hanso immediately put a stop to that by comparing Eselde to a snowbeast, which got a very hilarious (and slightly scary) reaction from the extremely enraged and definitely snowbeast-like Poogle.
Eselde left them alone for lunch, and instead of eating there at the castle, Hanso suggested that they go to the food shop, where he insisted that he pay the bill this time. When they got back with Eselde for the afternoon shift (because, somehow, Brynn had been stuck with her for that shift, too), Hanso asked Eselde how lunch had gone, and discovered that Eselde had just taken a pita and eaten it on the run. She then proceeded to continue trying to delve into Hanso's past, and Hanso continued to try to turn the questions back on her, which somehow eventually led to arguments about why Faerieland's Altador Cup team was so lousy, and why Krawk Island was not a good family vacation destination. Eselde thought that all the islands on Neopia were like Roo Island, and Hanso was more than happy to tell her that she was dead wrong and a complete fool for thinking so. A fight would have ensued, had Brynn not demanded at swordpoint that they both learn to grow up and act like mature adults.
Finally, finally, the day was over, and it came time for them to part with Eselde—at least, until dinner. (Hanso also made a mental note to have a serious talk with whoever was in charge of the scheduling.) Dinner that night was a formal occasion, and Hanso really wanted to skip it and relax (if anything happened, he knew Ileana would tell him later), but Brynn insisted that it was their duty to dress up and go.
"I should have made sure that this suit was dirty or needed mending or something," Hanso muttered once he was almost ready, wearing a long black dress coat (it was almost like a trenchcoat, only tighter), a grey vest and black slacks. He looked ridiculous, especially with his hair smoothed back and in a tighter-than-normal ponytail. "We're having Altadorian food, right? Why can't I just wear a toga or something? I'll bet I could make a great one out of a bedsheet!"
They were in Brynn's room as Brynn tried to figure out what she should do with her hair. A ponytail wouldn't suffice, and she'd given up on curling all of it, so she was trying to curl a few ringlets around her face. She wasn't doing too well, mostly because she had no idea how to work with curlers. "A toga? I don't think so," she retorted, her attention focused on the mirror in front of her and the curler she was trying to untangle from her reddish-orange hair. "You'd be the laughingstock of the entire city!"
"Hey, why not? I wouldn't mind that at all, and I'll bet it would look better than this Mynci suit," Hanso scoffed.
"Ow!" Brynn managed to yank the curler out of her hair and groaned when she saw that instead of curls, she had a big tangled mess. "I give up on this! I guess I'll just brush my hair and be done with it!"
"What about a headband, Brynn?" Hanso suggested. "I think you wore one last time. I thought it looked good."
"Oh, I guess I could wear that," she agreed. "You're lucky. You don't have to worry about all this hair nonsense!"
"Maybe, but you're so much nicer to look at," he said, trying to be both smarmy and cautious at the same time, as he wasn't eager to have a hairbrush or something else thrown at him. Brynn didn't always take compliments very well, so he'd learned to be careful about what he said. He was telling the truth, though: Brynn was wearing a lovely blue dress that was neither dull nor bright. It had loose, billowy sleeves that went halfway down her elbow and a moderately tight bodice with a modest boat-shaped neckline. The skirt was full, almost floor-length and rustled with each move she made. It somehow reminded him of an air faerie, so he always thought of it as Brynn's air faerie dress. It would look great with a tiara, though he couldn't imagine Brynn ever wearing one.
Brynn found a blue headband decorated with a few silk daisies and checked it over to make sure it wasn't too dusty. "I guess this will do," she said, putting it on and adjusting it in the mirror. "I hate having my hair fall into my face. Maybe I should just cut it all off..."
"Brynn, it would be terribly awkward if your hair was shorter than mine," Hanso pointed out, joining her in front of the mirror. "You look great, really."
"I'm sure it will take me all of five minutes to spill something on this dress," she muttered. She clearly wasn't in a very good mood. "I can't take my sword with me, either!"
"You'd look really strange wearing that dress with a sword strapped to your back," Hanso told her, though the thought of how that would look almost made him grin. A beautiful, graceful orange Kougra in an "air faerie" dress armed with a big sword... No, that didn't work!
"I guess you're right. I do have a dagger, though. I hope it won't be necessary! So... if you're ready, I guess we should head on out."
"I'm more nervous about Jazan and Eselde being there," Hanso muttered as he grabbed Brynn's hand and they left to go to the dining hall. Since nothing had happened over lunch, he wasn't sure that Ileana's revision to Eselde's dislikes list had taken effect, but since Eselde had barely eaten lunch at all, perhaps the Poogle had just been lucky.
Brynn squeezed his hand. "Don't worry about it. Jazan is usually pretty civil to you in public."
"...I think she will be, too. You must have tired her out with all the talking and arguing you two did today."
"I hope so!"
Upon entering the dining hall, they were shown to a table near the end of the room, right next to the raised table where Queen Fyora and Jazan and Nabile were already sitting. Hanso was certain that he could feel Jazan's eyes on him, but he did his best to ignore that and instead focused on trying to find Eselde in the crowd. However, it didn't appear that she was here yet.
The hall was lavishly decorated, much nicer than normal. Hanso was used to the stone walls being mostly bare, but right now, they were covered with brilliant tapestries depicting a variety of faeries. (He figured that some main purpose of some of the tapestries was to hide the cracks in the walls.) The tables were covered, some with pink and grey cloths and others with pinkish-purple and green. Each table had a big vase of flowers in the middle, though the table where Fyora and her guests of honour sat had cloths with gold trim and multiple crystal vases in the centre.
The fire faerie sitting on the other side of Brynn immediately struck up a conversation with her, but there was no one on the other side of Hanso, so he watched in silence as others entered and were escorted to their seats. He eventually spied Eselde, dressed in a fine purple evening gown, entering with a small group of fellow guards. They were seated at the next table, and Hanso had a good view of her. Perfect! If she was served olives or something else she hated, Hanso would get a clear view of her reaction! Sure, it wouldn't be anything compared to the time he'd salted the coffee in Qasala, but at least he'd be able to get a little laugh from this.
Once most of the guests were seated, Fyora and Jazan went into this long, formal speech about how grateful everyone in Faerieland was for the support that the residents of the Lost Desert had provided them since Faerieland's fall (which wasn't much, as far as Hanso knew, but of course he knew to keep his mouth shut), and promised to work for further peace between their nations, and blah blah blah... Hanso tuned out, then noticed that the food was beginning to be served. He perked up when he realized that Ileana was helping to pass out the salad course. She happened to look in his direction and gave him a big grin and a slight nod, though she quickly turned her attention back to her task.
And then, when Jazan was finishing up a speech about... something, it happened.
There was a bloodcurdling shriek as Eselde suddenly bolted up from her chair and stared down at the salad that Ileana had just served her. "What is the meaning of this?!" she demanded, turning to Ileana with her fists clenched.
"Of what?" Ileana asked. Her voice was perfectly even, but she looked a little frightened.
"This salad!! It has those black eyeballs! You know I hate them! Where's your mother? She's got some explaining to do!" Eselde poked at the salad with her fork. "And why does it smell fishy?! Salads are not supposed to smell fishy!"
Ileana glanced over at Hanso, who gave her an encouraging nod, and then turned back to Eselde. "It's a special sauce made with vinegar and a little bit of fish oil,'" she said sweetly. "I'm sorry if you don't like it, but it's a staple of Altadorian food, and it's not very fishy."
Unfortunately, the irritatingly observant Eselde had noticed that brief glance between Hanso and Ileana, and immediately came to the right conclusion. "You... no! You're as bad as he is!" She shook her fist at Ileana and then glared at Hanso. "What is wrong with you?!"
"Why, Eselde, honestly, I have no idea what you're talking about," Hanso said, as calmly as he could manage, leaning back in his chair and trying to feel as relaxed as possible, though he was slightly nervous for Ileana's sake. Even so, he was unable to wipe the grin from his face. "Come on, they just made a little mistake in the kitchen. Why make such a big deal about it?"
Next to him, Brynn groaned and hid her face in her hands.
"Oh yeah? Well, how do you like this?!" In a flash, Eselde grabbed her plate and hurled it at Hanso, though her aim was a little off and she hit a Qasalan Skeith guard sitting at her own table instead.
Hanso froze as he waited to see what would happen next. He clearly wouldn't need to humiliate Eselde in public; she had just proved she was perfectly capable of doing that herself! There was utter silence in the dining hall for a few moments, as the Skeith looked down at his gold and white robes, which were now covered with salad greens, crumbly cheese, olives and onions all in a slightly fishy, vinegar-y sauce.
And then the Skeith, who clearly was not one of the brightest citizens Qasala had to offer, suddenly grinned and threw his own salad at Eselde. His aim was much better.
Ileana began to giggle, and then a few others near her joined her in laughter. Eselde, trembling with rage and spouting all sorts of hateful things, tossed her pomegranate juice in Ileana's face. Then someone else threw a large piece of jelly at Eselde, and Ileana darted away while Eselde whirled around to find out who had hit her that second time and grabbed her neighbour's salad in the process. Then, before anyone realized it, a full-fledged food fight had begun!
Hanso was more than happy to join in, since it meant that he not only had a good chance of completely ruining his suit, but he also might get a chance to hit both Eselde and Jazan with something! Unfortunately, Brynn literally dragged him from the dining hall before he had the chance to hurl something at Jazan, though he did manage to hit Eselde square in the face with some lime jelly as they were leaving. It got smooshed into her curly purple hair, and Hanso honestly hoped that it would take her all night to wash it out!
To be continued...