Ire and Rye
Shelley the pirate Kougra fidgeted in the line of pets that paralleled the icing-streaked sneeze-guard. She was waiting in the bakery in Neopia Central, her paw closed around, and gently massaging, a 500 Neopoint coin that her owner, Sunny, had given her that morning before sending her out in the cold.
"Rye bread," her owner intoned. "Six apples. Two Plushies; whichever kind you prefer. Some books for Zarrelian- he needs to grow up. That's all."
Her words sheltered an unspoken warning. "If there is more, you'll be in trouble."
Shelley winced, remembering the last time she'd bought an extra something for herself. It had been a small thing; hardly anything- just a muffin. Sunny had presumably deduced the purchase from the crumbs which, despite Shelley's best efforts to remove them, clung to her jacket. The punishment had been terrible. Sunny had plucked the luscious black wig from Shelley's head, placed it on top of the sitting-room bookshelf, and condemned Shelley to three days of slinking around with a head covered in nothing but her tatty red bandana. Being a Kougra, Shelley had attempted to scale the bookshelf, but Sunny- expecting as much- caught her-- the consequence for Shelley being, not only the loss of her wig, but the filing down of her claws.
Shelley shuddered. The red bandana was not the only aspect of Shelley's pirate apparel she disliked. The earrings, too, left much to be desired. They were quite small, frequently invisible behind the curtain of her synthetic hair, and, they were golden. Shelley had been averse to gold since the day- several years earlier- on which, being, at the time, golden herself, she'd stumbled on an advertisement in the circulating Neopian Times:
"Owners! Gold-painted pet shedding their winter coat? Bring em to All that Glitters! Neopia's only grooming establishment for golden Neopets. We guarantee the closest trim-- all we ask is half the fur! (And no questions)".
The advert explained the profusion of 'golden' wearables in the Neocash mall. Knowing how her spendthrift owner would construe the offer, Shelley had crumpled up and consumed the offending article and- to be especially safe- infiltrated her owner's bank account, withdrew enough Neopoints to elicit a suspicious look from the clerk, and, a few hours later, smoky-black water dripping down her legs, emerged from the Rainbow Fountain: Neopia's newest shadow Gelert.
That was a long time ago. Shelley glanced at the sneeze-guard: what greeted her was not a Gelert's canid profile and ribbony ears, but a Kougra's razor whiskers, cross-bun snout, and half-moon ears. Sunny had purchased the potion a few weeks previous.
The change was unannounced; not unwanted, but Shelley sensed that, even if she'd refused, the potion would have found its way into her dinner. Her brother- having himself transformed from Zafara to Krawk- had watched the change with amusement, and not a little satisfaction.
"How's it feel?" he'd taunted. Shelley had shrugged, examining her new accoutrements in the mirror.
"The same. I'm still warm-blooded."
That shut him up.
The consequences of Shelley's self-imposed transformation from gold to shadow Gelert had not been so readily accepted, at least by Sunny. Although Sunny didn't object to the colour, she was enraged that her Neopet had broken into her bank account. Shelley had spent the next 3 weeks cleaning up after her brothers, their Petpets, and her owner. Her owner, surprisingly, was the messiest of all, though Shelley suspected that most of the debris that she ejected over those weeks was to amplify the Neopet's punishment; after it expired, her owner's quarters became considerably more orderly.
The memory resided uncomfortably in Shelley's mind, and cast a shadow on her concept of gold, such that every thought, every glimpse, of the shiny yellow metal, spurred anxious palpitations. Her aversion to the colour was not such that she declined to wear the pirate Kougra earrings- that would leave a noticeable gap in her outfit- but it did compel her to worry, wish, and search for a suitable replacement.
It was nearly Shelley's turn to order. The Usul before her purchased 6 Shoyru buns and a glistening cinnamon roll. The smiling blue Kacheek behind the counter left the latter unpackaged, confident that the Usul's drooling expression signalled an intention to eat it straight away.
Shelley wrinkled her nose. Some pets had no self control!
The Usul's head twisted as she tore into the cinnamon roll. Her ears whipped past the Kougra's nose and, reflexively, Shelley strained to read the name tattooed on the interior. Sally-followed-by some numbers. The Usul's name was not the most interesting point of her ear, however. Between the flecks of icing and mahogany pastry, Shelley caught a flash of emerald and silver, twisted in the form of a Hissi, wrapped around a flower. The Hissi's scales were delicate silver, while its eyes, and its feathers, were emerald-detailed. The petals of the flower were emerald too, bursting like a ring of hands from a funnel in the centre. Shelley exhaled softly, her claws involuntarily extending. Such beautiful earrings! The Kougra cleared her throat and tapped the Usul's shoulder.
"Excuse me," she said. The Usul turned around, her lips shining with icing from the cinnamon roll. Shelley continued. "Your earrings are beautiful! Can I ask where you purchased them?"
The Kougra waited- praying that the answer would not be the Neocash Mall! While Sunny had enjoyed strolling up and down the trinket-filled aisles, contemplating how to spend her complimentary 150- Shelley knew that Sunny would never buy any more herself. Sunny was far too stingy with even her Neopoints to consider spending 'her own money' (as she called what went towards the clothes and food that she couldn't buy in Neopia), on "gratuitous decorations".
Irrespective of her stinginess, Sunny disliked weaerables. She was of the opinion that the only 'legitimate' articles accompanied canned paint jobs- her pirate Kougra's jacket, Zarrelian's Halloween-Ixi wings, and so on. Indeed, Sunny disdained even Neopoint purchasable wearables: Ezanna had argued for ten minutes on behalf of himself and Mordegan for the Neopoints to purchase, respectively, a red Neovian coat, and a pink-striped shirt and doughnutfruit scarf. Ezanna won the argument on functional grounds. It was winter, he said, I'm cold-blooded (a Krawk), and Mordegan (experimenting with the lab ray) is an insect! (A Buzz). The coat, shirt and scarf thus served as second skins for the siblings unable to keep out the cold. Meanwhile Shelley, and the Ixi Zarrelian, were considered inherently possessed of adequate coats, and thus undeserving of additional 'threads', no matter how "cute".
The Usul shrugged. "I don't know. Just a store in the marketplace. Sorry I can't remember the name, but you know there's zillions of them and, besides, I think we bought the only ones..."
Shelley exhaled a sigh of relief. "That's fine. Just so long as they were Neopoints items... Do you remember how much they cost?"
Of course, that they were Neopoints items did nothing to increase Shelley's chances of persuading her owner to buy them. However, if they were cheap enough to earn through a few good games of Meerca Chase, Shelley could buy them herself. Sunny didn't object to her Neopets earning and spending points on their own, provided it wasn't more than a few thousand a month. (Thanks to Sunny's ways with Neopoints, their bank interest covered their daily necessities).
But the Usul's response deflated Shelley's mood. "They were preeeeety pricey," she said, dandling the earrings with her paw. "I think they were a prize for some site event. So they're kind of rare. Actually I feel a bit weird about wearing them because I think they're retired and retired items are- you know- kind of kitschy. Like I've strung a glass paint brush off my ears."
Shelley chanced it- "Are you interested in selling?"
The Usul bristled. "No! I didn't mean that. I like them. They're cool- like ancient desert cool, cursed object cool. I was speaking kind of generally."
"Right." Shelley snorted, and noticed that the baker was listening to their conversation, a smirk kneading his pudgy blue face. "What are you looking at?" the Kougra snapped. The Kacheek shrugged, still grinning.
"How happy I am to be employed!" he cackled.
Shelley sighed, fingering the 500 Neopoint coin. "Well, whatever, I-- hey!" She noticed then that the Kacheek had allowed the pets behind her to advance in the queue. Supposedly, the baker had determined that Shelley's main concern was not, as it was of those behind her, purchasing bread, and had given them priority.
The unfortunate consequence for Shelley was that the pet directly behind (now in front of) her- a green Scorchio- made off with the last loaf of rye.
Shelley gnawed her lip. There was little in the way of replacement for rye, as far as Sunny was concerned. Ezanna and Mordegan frequently agitated for other types of bread- there was quite an assortment for sale at the bakery, studded with all manner of nuts, dried fruits, and seeds- but Sunny insisted that they consume only rye.
"They jack up the others with Juppie syrup," she protested. "They're no good for you. None at all."
So it had to be rye. Normally, the bread's unpopularity made it easy for Shelley to secure a loaf, even if she dawdled on the way to the baker's and arrived a bit later than opening time. However, if she dawdled too long, and if, somehow, the 6 other Neopians who insisted on rye arrived at the baker's before she, then she was out of luck- the baker only made one batch per day. He explained this to her once, the only other time Shelley missed the final loaf-
"You want a loaf, but if I make one, I have to make five others-- the recipe makes that much dough, I can't scale it down without messing up the proportions. But if I bake five more now, that's five loaves that'll be stale by the end of the day. No one else will buy them. So that's one loaf I profit by, five wasted." He shrugged. "It's a simple calculation."
So there would be no more loaves of rye, as the sharp scrape of the Kacheek removing, from under the sneeze-guard, the metal plate on which he'd displayed them, attested.
"Shoot," Shelley muttered. Sunny wouldn't be happy, but it would be hard to 'blame' Shelley for the baker's running out of loaves. Sometimes, even the speediest journey from the Neohome to the bakery wouldn't get Shelley there in time to purchase one of the daily six-- it depended on too many uncontrollable factors. As for herself, Shelley could care less whether they had rye, apples, milk or omelet- becoming a Kougra had improved her fishing skills, and the past few days she'd caught herself breakfast, lunch and dinner. Throw in a handful of free Jelly (...something else that Sunny didn't know about), and you had a day's worth of grub.
She thought of heading to the docks. Her stomach rumbled, coaxed into life by the smells of the bread. The Usul, meanwhile, boring of the conversation, tied up the bag containing her rolls, and was about to leave when Shelley- noticing- shook herself and said, (of the earrings) "They're very nice, by the way."
"Thanks!" the Usul replied, but she was already fixed on the door and didn't return the Kougra's gaze.
Shelley shrugged. Not much she could do about that. She always looked people in the eye when she spoke to them, but not every pet did. Usuls were particularly shifty. This one seemed to be developing the suspicion that Shelley's compliments foretold an attempt to pilfer the earrings; she had, despite being in a balmy bakery, tucked her ears (and the earrings) into a thick purple hat.
The Usul left the store and Shelley waited a few minutes before following. By the time she exited, the soft tinkling of the bell breaking on the quiet morning, the Usul had disappeared. Shelley's breath rose in small puffs and the frosted grass prickled her paw pads. The Kougra shifted from paw to paw, preventing either from pressing against the grass for too long.
Her desire to visit the docks dissipated with her breath in the frigid morning, and Shelley found herself wandering towards the centre of the Marketplace. Her Neopoints jangled in her pockets. She had other items to purchase; even if she couldn't bring home the rye, she'd be harder pressed to explain the lack of apples, books, and everything else.
A few more minutes walking brought the Money Tree into view. Shelley wondered whether she might find a loaf of rye in its branches, or on the ground between its roots. Someone may have donated one...
She coursed around the tree, frowning. Of course not. The branches sagged with the usual junk: piles of dung, bottles of sand, cracked stone shields, rotten omelets, keychains, reject plushies-- the detritus of so many Neopian's losing Tombola draws. Her owner discarded such refuse. Sunny was convinced that- with so many Neopians accumulating it- Tombola trinkets would clog the very oceans and skies of Neopia. Discarding items caused them to disintegrate, cleanly and without fuss. It was a much more responsible position, Sunny would say, dropping bottles of sand, one by one, into their built-in disintegrator, than dumping them at the Money Tree.
Shelley was always amazed at the numbers of Neopets- many of them elaborately painted or costumed, that turned up to fight over the Money Tree's junk. The scavengers grabbed anything. They sat, unmoving, before a single patch of land- just grabbing, grabbing, grabbing, as though before a slot machine; grabbing whatever appeared, hoping that somewhere- between the sand and the dung and the keychains- someone would toss out a treasure. Shelley wasn't interested. The chances of scoring a loaf of rye were slimmer than scoring a codestone.
She turned away.
All of a sudden, there was a sharp clicking sound, a high-pitched cackle and- wham! Something slammed into Shelley's chest, knocking the breath out of her with a whoof. The Neopoints in her pocket were suddenly on the ground, something having jumped up beneath her and slit a sharp claw through the fabric. Like a disemboweled pinata Shelley's coat spilled Neopoints, but none of them struck the grass- they were intercepted en route by a pair of disgusting, brownish-gray bugs. Shelley snarled and extended her claws.
"What are you-"
But she was too late. The bug brothers had honed their techniques. With another cackle, one jumped on the other's shoulders, sealed the burlap bag into which they'd collected Shelley's Nepoints, and, jointly flaring their slick, gossamer wings, buzzed into the air, the bag suspended between them. Shelley's insides twisted. They'd stolen all her Neopoints!
She was enraged. She didn't care so much about losing the Neopoints as having been bested by a duo of insects. She was supposed to be a contender. She'd visited Coltzan daily for almost twelve years. She'd visited the lab ray, for a while, before Sunny- (having fastidiously tracked and graphed the results of her zaps)- had concluded that, on the average, (regarding Shelley's statistics) the ray would (at best) change nothing; at worst, reduce them. Shelley's statistics were okay, but a more important deficiency worked against them: she had no desire to win. In her battles, Shelley failed to spot the crucial opening, the optimal second; never remembered her battles, never derived from their details a cutting new strategy. Well, instincts can't be trained, and instincts are not choices. Some part of Shelley's silent, thrumming brain was more interested in earrings, and baking, than battling. So overnight it rattled off pictures of precious stones and muffins, while her opponents foresaw, in their dreams, new avenues to victory.
She was almost satisfied then, as she turned and headed home. Sunny would have nothing, but it wasn't Shelley's fault. Random events were unstoppable.
She wasn't looking where she was walking and with a wince and a snarl retracted her paw and snapped it upside down under her nose. She had stepped on something sharp. There, glistening between two pawpads, was the unbelievable culprit: the- or hopefully a- member of a pair of silver-emerald Hissi earrings, just like those the Usul from bakery had worn. Shelley removed it from her pawpad and dropped it in her pocket, throwing herself to the ground in search of the Usul's pawprints. If she found them, she'd have to return the earrings. Shelley could find her, after all. Her name (Sally, followed by some numbers) was enough.
But the ground bore no pawprints, and smelled of nothing but dirt- no odour of Usul nor, what would have been stronger, bread and cinnamon. Shelley did, however, find the earring's twin and, inserted between the Hissi's tiny fangs, another slip of paper:
"Something has happened! Shelleylou finds a pair of silver Hissi Earrings!"
Shelley's nape prickled- as it always did- at the System's prescient, third person commentary. She shook her head and gaped in wonderment at the earrings. What were the chances? Two- (three, if you counted the rye selling out)- random events in an hour. It was extremely improbable. A zillion to one.
Nevertheless, her suspicions dimmed against the glittering of the earrings of the sunlight. They were warming in her paws, as though they liked her. Closing her paw around one, she moved the other to her forearm, to see how it looked against her stormy gray fur.
Suddenly the thought of the mirror in the hallway- reflecting the earrings, properly worn, was shattered by the realization that, her owner, being that sort of person, would certainly, on seeing Shelley- empty pawed, but ear-bejewelled- compute the probability of the two random events, and, given her low opinion of Shelley's character, concoct, and conclude, the more likely explanation: Shelley spent my Neopoints. Punishment would follow, even if the "truth" was unknown.
"If I waited for certainty before disciplining you guys," she would say, "you'd have gone your life without so much as a smack!"
Shelley frowned. She had the slips of paper, that was true, but since some HTML wiz-kid had replicated the 'random event message' code, and licensed it to users' for use in their shop fronts and lookups, those signified very little. Sunny would scoff at them. No, she needed better proof, something incontestable. But what?
There were no witnesses, and, excepting the tears in her jacket, the bug brothers left no mark. Again, too ambiguous: you've got claws! Big Kougra claws. You expect me to believe you didn't slice up your jacket? I know you'd rather have a dress...
She gnashed her teeth and paced in a circle, torn clods of frozen dirt piling up in a reflection of her path. She could always hide the earrings, announce only the robbery. The probability of just a bug attack was relatively high, and in the absence of any apparent gain, for Shelley, would be also subjectively so. She could announce the earrings on a different day, far enough along to seem disconnected from the bug brothers' attack. Shelley nodded. Yes, that was the best idea.
Unable to pocket the earrings, Shelley tucked them into her mouth, pinching them between fangs blunted by curled-over lips, the way mother Kougras carry their young. She moved quickly, but carefully, terrified of swallowing them.
Her Neohome was just a few minutes away. She unlocked the door and entered the foyer that adjoined their small, chilly kitchen. Her brothers were massed around the kitchen table. Ezanna and Mordegan were swaddled in their bathrobes; Zarrelian, who didn't have one, had cocooned himself in his blanket. Ezanna hunched protectively over his borovan press, seemingly more interested in the heat, than the stimulant, the dark liquid contained. They looked up when Shelley entered, and the Kougra- cursing herself for not hiding the earrings somewhere in the garden before delivering herself to their scrutiny- folded the earrings under her tongue. Her brothers saw her.
"Hi Shelley," Mordegan hummed. His voice, emanating from his new, insectoid vocal chords, sounded strange and robotic. Shelley's greeting- pushed through gritted fangs-was the same:
"Hi," she thrummed. Ezanna raised his eyebrow.
"Did you bring the bread?"
Shelley shook and ducked her head, hoping she looked enough like someone weeping to explain a quick flight to her room. Perhaps she performed too convincingly: Mordegan's wings lowered in sympathy and, softly thrumming as he drifted towards her, laid his spiny claws on her shoulders. Shelley shuddered. Buzzes gave more comfort when they were far away.
"Aw, Shelley, what's wrong?" he cooed. Mordgan's vocal apparatus doubly vibrated each phoneme, injecting each sentence with sinister undertones. The impression heightened her anxiety.
"Nuthing," she murmured. Mordegan cocked his head.
"Your mouth looks strange. Did you hurt yourself?"
Ezanna's ear holes twitched. Lifting his snout from the Borovan carafe, he centred the Kougra in his lamp-like yellow eyes.
"You have something in your mouth," Ezanna said. "What is it? Open up."
Shelley had lost and, seeing no escape, made the knowingly terrible move of shaking her head. Ezanna snapped up, strode forward, seized her chin, and opened her jaws. The Krawk's eyes widened.
"There's jewels in her mouth! Shelley!"
The Krawk noted her otherwise empty paws. "Shelley, did you spend the grocery money on earrings?"
Shelley glared at him. "No!"
"Then where are they? Where are the groceries?"
Shelley sighed, rolling her eyes skyward. "A random event. Bug brothers."
Ezanna scoffed. "Really. And the earrings? Where'd they come from?"
"A--" Shelley met his eyes, hoping that maybe, just maybe, her brother knew her well enough to tell when she was telling the truth. "Another random event."
"Wow Shelley," Zarrelian- currently a red, short-horned, diamond-shaped face, in the centre of a pile of blankets- piped up: "You couldn't think of a better excuse?"
Mordegan was frowning, and Ezanna, in spite of his hunger, smirked. "Well, we'll see what Sunny says about that. But seriously, Shelley. I'm surprised at you."
Mordegan nodded. "I'm surprised you'd spend our grocery points on trinkets for yourself! Especially when you've already got a nice pair of earrings."
Ezanna snorted. "I'm surprised that someone with intelligence stats as yourself couldn't pull of a slightly more elegant crime. Yeesh. And weren't you aligned with the Thieves Guild?"
The berating continued until Sunny returned. By this time, the earrings had been confiscated, and were drying, (exhibit one) on a paper towel in the middle of the table. Exhibit two, Shelley thought bitterly, glaring at her grinning brothers from the corner of her eye, three hungry Neopets, dumb enough to think that watching Sunny punish me is good entertainment.
To be charitable to her brothers, Shelley-sans-wig was decent entertainment, though less so since Shelley had learned the futility of trying to scale the furniture. Now the show consisted of Shelley sitting, tail twitching, head lowered in shame beneath her tatty red banana, under the luscious black wig whose locks waved- like kelp in the current- from the top of the bookshelf. Ezanna, Mordegan and Zarrelian lounged on the couch, alternatively munching on taffy mix (the mainstay, while Sunny gathered more appropriate groceries), shooting jibes at their sister, and squabbling over which card game to play.
The earrings, meanwhile, idled in Sunny's marketplace stall. Shelley winced. Sunny had proclaimed loudly, before heading out, that she would spend the profit on items for Shelley's brothers.
But oh well, she thought, staring wistfully up at the wig. They probably wouldn't have been visible, behind her synthetic black locks.