A Failing Grade
"And to all of you, a delightful spring break!"
Glasses clinked together; sparkling golden cider swished around inside. Paws, fins, and hands clapped together and shook forcefully as professors and students alike wished one another good health. Friends collected in the various corners of the oddly-shaped cafeteria, whispering over their glass flutes and paper plates, the latter covered with such delicacies as cold cuts, plain bagels, and vegetable platters. Such banquets were common at Brightvale State University, often used to compensate for especially rough exams. Of course, nothing could soothe the sting of a failing grade.
Professor Liza Palida in particular subjected many students to low Cs, Ds, and at one point the dreaded F. Renowned for scathing marginalia and a history devoid of curved grades, the faerie Buzz managed to draw the ire of hundreds of students—even ones she had never taught. Those willing to take her words in stride, however, would find her endearing and well-intentioned. Unlike several faculty members, she would never berate or abuse her students, for she knew such behavior would only harm them in the long run. She merely did what she found both effective and ethical.
In the final hours of the banquet, Palida already found herself back at her desk. Before her was a mountain of theses, all in desperate need of grading. At the top of the snowy heap sat a distinct light blue paper, one she did not recall being there when she was last in her office. How strange, thought the professor, plucking the paper from the pile. Didn't I lock the door? Perhaps she had left the window open—and indeed, she had! With an exasperated sigh, the Buzz flew over to the end of the office and slid the offending window shut. She scanned the room for missing items, carefully opening and closing the drawers. Nothing was missing. At last, with the essay in hand, she sat down, whipped out a bright red pen, and began to read.
Towards a contextual understanding of modern Altadorian philosophy.
Beneath the title was no name; in its place was a single bolded "M". Contrary to Brightvale's academic customs, there was no signature. A quick flip to the final page: none there, either. Did the student really expect her to grade an anonymous paper? But perhaps there had been a mistake. Perhaps she could, through process of elimination, track down this student and request a meeting. And then, of course, she would deduct ten points. Never mind the anonymity—she would read the paper through. She had, after all, written her own thesis on modern Altadorian philosophy.
It opened with a resounding declaration that grew ever more dramatic as it spoke of antiquated hierarchies. From there it bounced from argument to argument, apparently having forgotten its introduction—and from there it only went downhill. Poorly linked clauses here, passive voice there, and the redundancies... oh, dear Fyora, the redundancies! With a groan, Professor Palida put her face in her hands.
And so I set out to ..............QEWIOPJKLADS...!!!___..
And so you set out to ..............QEWIOPJKLADS...!!!___..
And so we set out to ..............QEWIOPJKLADS...!!!___..
"Good grief," muttered the Buzz. "Is this a joke?" That would explain the lack of a name, at least. And yet she continued reading, her rose-colored gaze skimming the gibberish in search of some meaning, some train of thought as she began flipping through the pages in frustration.
And so I set out to write my confession.
Curiosity crept across Professor Palida's face, then settled to amusement. She set her pen down on the desk and, with a flutter of her wings, she read on.
Dearest reader, which would you say came first: the Draik or the egg? Which is of greater value? Is it the existence of the former or the potential of the latter? Oh, Fyora, you must be crying out, need this author bore me with pseudo-philosophical ramblings? Selfishness overwhelms you as you struggle to cope with a work that is written not for you. Truly, who am I writing this for? I shan't prioritize the comfort of a distant reader over my own craving for catharsis, the necessity of this message. I insist, "professor", that you endure my every digression. Do not skim those condemned tangents for the sake of your literary standards, for this confession—this defense, my defense—is beyond such things. You need not dam the rushing stream of consciousness that is my mind. I deserve far better than that, "professor"!
My troubles and riches alike stem from a stint in the Thieves' Guild. As a humble neopet from the middle economic strata, I could scarcely comprehend the life of a rogue. Despite or perhaps because of this posh upbringing, I found myself drawn to it like a veespa to honey. Thus with hidden daggers I walked the cobbled roads of Brightvale, and with heaving sacks of gold I greeted my comrades. It was not long before I graduated beyond such petty crimes, as Kanrik himself noticed my predisposition towards alchemy and finance. Thus I pioneered a new realm of crime for this guild: counterfeit stamps.
You may now raise your eyebrows or crinkle your nose (provided you have either), muttering to yourself in that nasal voice: "Counterfeit stamps? Why, what a boring crime!" Oh, predictable, unkind reader! I have done far more than print fancy pieces of paper. If you will put aside the neopets inevitably driven into poverty by this act, this was far, far more—it opened up the world for me. First and foremost, it introduced me to the most valuable asset any neopet can ask for.
I speak, now, of a comrade henceforth known as L. She was neopet of quick wit, immense wealth, and rich paranoia. She consumed morphing potions on the weekly, rendering herself unrecognizable to the untrained eye. Experience has taught me her gestures, her turns of phrase. She refused to sweeten tea, no matter how bitter it struck my spoiled palette. Most often she would rub her right eyebrow, or where the eyebrow ought to be.
I distinctly recall that one day in the gazebo, by the shores of Roo Island, when she spoke to me for the very first time. As the pink paint peeled around us, as the salty air infiltrated our nostrils, we sat most dramatically and discussed most casually our lives. At the time she was a white Usul, with enormous ears tickling her back and a crimson ribbon around her tail. She lay on her back, arms outstretched towards the top of the structure. Rolling her eyes in my direction, she asked me a most prying but predictable question: how did a rich neopet such as myself ended up living a life of crime?
Were she anyone else, I would have stormed off the scene in a flurry of aromatic petals, leaving the offending neopet alone with my cryptic messages. But L had a commanding presence and as such denied me my romanticism. So I confided in her, the fool that I was! Truth be told, I pursued this life out of fascination and desperation. My future would have otherwise been bleak, as I would have aimlessly devoted myself to the area with which you are so intimate: academia. The two years before my stint, in fact, were spent at the Brightvale State University, where professors plagued me with deadlines and droning lectures. The most vicious culprit, predictably, was you. Lady of the Red Ink, how little you truly understand!
(At this point, I imagine, the unruly reader is wondering why I have neglected an essential detail. Heretofore I have provided a hero without a face, without species or color. What an inconvenience! For your sake, I will provide a placeholder: a blue Shoyru.)
"You think being a thief's all gold, sarcasm, and dashing cloaks?" groaned the Usul. "Goodness, you're a tragicomedy in the making."
"What?" I said, baffled. "Don't patronize me. You act like this is just something I've tried on."
"Because it very clearly is. You have no reason to be a thief." She sat up, then retrieved a gleaming maractite dagger from her purse. "Our guild runs by a code. It's fluid, and like every fluid, it's bound by its container. That being our histories and our needs." The Usul pointed the dagger at me such that it reflected my expression. From that moment on I became acutely aware of how flighty my gaze appeared. "What are your needs? Food, water, shelter, and so on—but those are readily available, aren't they? You don't have to fight for them. So why do you bother?"
On she went, on and on and on! She was incredible. So brilliantly did she elaborate upon my every flaw, real or perceived; so viciously did she shake the foundations of my moral code. In the moment, this took me aback. Over the following months, however, I distanced myself further yet from my pampered past, delving deeper into the Thieves' Guild. Grudges and threats pervaded my social circle, of course. Three impoverished Darigan pets refused to cooperate with their Meridellian comrades, who loudly echoed the sentiment. Everyone demanded to know the detailed history of my social encounters, whether I had encountered this Grarrl or that Moehog, and above all else what I thought of them. I navigated this minefield, albeit clumsily, but anyone else—well! Had you only been there, "professor"! The variables would have boggled your sensitive mind. And no matter my cruel past, I managed to work my way up, eventually entering an egg smuggling ring.
"Your next project, then!" Kanrik slammed his paw down on a hefty wooden crate. "Draik eggs. Move 'em around. Now, some of you aren't from around here." His beady yellow eyes scanned the crowd. Around me stood several dozen rogues, all from different corners of Neopia. "The fact is, Brightvale is not like other lands. For hundreds of years, they've outlawed the transfer of Draik eggs without a permit. This permit is obscenely hard to get a hold of, and a single violation will win you a lifetime in Hagan's dungeons." The Gelert gestured towards the cluster of crates behind him and added with a sneer, "Unlike most of the upstanding citizens of Brightvale, we have spines."
I was to work with L, who at the time posed as a green Moehog. Since our conversation, she had changed her species fifteen times, and her color too many to count. Yet despite her fluid appearance, her character—her identity, you could say—remained constant and unwavering. She was perhaps the antithesis of your humble narrator. But that delicious analysis is best served later on, the final plate in this literary banquet.
We arrived on the outskirts of Brightvale, our wagon weighed down with crates masked as exotic foods. Our plan was to deliver the illicit eggs, then flee to Meridell. I would then send a scathing letter to Brightvale State University administration and take my leave, never to return to my homeland. So it ought to have been, reader! I love nothing more than to give the past a good, rosy tint.
"Listen," said L, putting a hoof on my shoulder. My tail flicked nervously, and my eyes narrowed as I brushed her off. "You're meant to live a comfortable life. If you go any further, you'll never get that back." As I racked my mind for an excuse, she continued: "At this rate, we're going to get caught. Run away, will you? I'll bear the brunt of it." I said nothing and she furrowed her brow. "Kanrik sends his regards." Looking me over with sympathy, she silently urged me to flee. And so I ran.
In fact, her words had been pure bait, a test that Kanrik was determined to see me fail. After all, I was not a true thief—no self-respecting rogue would abandon a comrade as I did L. She had, by the way, not suffered any punishment, and despite my fears, there was never any risk of our getting caught. Lucky L received such a bounty that she retired from her life of crime, taking a swig from one last morphing potion. She reached the ending of her dreams, blissfully uninterested in the neopets whom she stepped on to reach it. Meanwhile, I sit here, frantically writing, thinking of the many rogues who must be looking at me, watching, waiting...
My time, you see, is running out. Before me stands that grand hourglass, its sands descending with agonizing slowness, each grain representing one moment closer, closer—good Fyora, how close it seems! In light of this, I realize just how little of my life I truly spent living, skulking among the thieves. Barely a single year passed between that first stolen loot and the fateful ending to my story. Was all that time for nothing? Perhaps it was.
I am nothing but a criminal, obviously, my sins ranging from the petty to the severe. This should have been perfectly clear to me the whole time, but until that moment, the fact stood in the backdrop, masked by my visions of grandeur. Only then did it truly register with me just how ridiculous I had been, how drastically I had ruined my potential. All to become famous beyond my years, to be remembered as the neopet I could never be. After so many months, or rather years consumed by this idealized image of individualism, I finally realize that it has been for nothing.
Remember my words, professor. You notice that I have granted you the title sans scare quotes, no matter how little you deserve it! This is out of desperation and respect, for this shows you have read my confession to its bitter end. As such, Professor L. Palida, I must praise you. I do not praise altruistically, mind you. Everything I do is for a reason. I request, nay, plead with you: bring this story to light. Expose my tale, chaotic as it may seem, to the common Brightvalian eye. I am not asking for sympathy, though it is appreciated. All I ask is to be remembered, for my greatest fear is to have made no mark on Neopia.
And so I set out to write my confession.
From there the paper disintegrated once more into gibberish, then transitioned into a sorely lacking conclusion. Professor L. Palida peered over the writing, flipping through the pages as she had thrice before. It was now early evening; the "confession" had taken up an hour or two of her day. She noticed the setting sun outside and groaned. How much time had she wasted on what could only have been a prank? One of the more creative ones, of course, but a waste of time nonetheless. The Buzz shook her head with a chuckle.
"Come in," said Palida, twirling her pen in her grasp. A red Draik entered her line of vision: Zinaida Latreille, the latest addition to the psychology department. She smiled nervously, sitting in the armchair beside Palida.
"I noticed you weren't at the party, Palida," she began. The faerie Buzz cut her off as she handed her the paper.
"Zinaida, you will not believe what I just read," she sighed. With a frown, Latreille read through the pages (she was known for being a speed-reader), her eyes widening as the confession came to a close.
"You know about the recent scandal, don't you?" asked the Draik. "With the Brightvale guards? The Thieves' Guild? And the egg smuggling ring? It's ridiculous, but, well..." She hesitated, then went on: "Just around then, a student—I can't remember the name for the life of Fyora—dropped out after failing a year's worth of classes." Palida looked at the Draik blankly, then burst out laughing.
"Therefore this 'confession' is the work of an actual criminal?" she snorted. "But yes, I've read the news. It could just be a well-researched prank, a creative writing project, a tall tale—tacky as it is, I wouldn't be surprised. And there are so many holes in the story, the pacing is ridiculous, it reads so erratically..."
"You could say the same of many memoirs," said Latreille. "Every life story's full of holes, anyway. Folks try to explain things they don't understand, misremember crucial events, try to justify where they go astray..." She rubbed her chin, then snickered. "But nobody would believe you, if you tried to find this student. You'd just go in circles."
"Of course." Palida nodded, then stretched out her arms above her head. "It's a colossal waste of everybody's time. In any case, Zinaida—" Nodding, the Draik rose from the chair and walked out the door. There was a creak as she poked her head back out from behind it. Palida peered over the paper and said, "Yes?"
"If you do find into this certain M..." She rubbed the area above her right eye, looking pensive. At last she shook her head and chirped, "Tell him Kanrik sends his regards."
"I beg your pardon?"
The door slammed shut. In confusion and chagrin Palida stared where the Draik once stood. Her shoulders tensed as she turned to the paper.
Ridiculous. Too ridiculous. With a shrug, Professor L. Palida picked up her pen. Like an artist handling a fine brush, she swiftly painted in a bright, red F.
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"Isn't it great? Neither of us had no idea our usual path back home would be blocked, and now we have to pass through the Hills of Trest! All six hundred and fifty of them!"