The trip back to the upper levels seemed to take much longer than the first trip—possibly because Isengrim seemed to be leading them on a route that did not involve crossing any bridges. Terra was okay with that, because her second attempt had been just as nerve-wracking as her first. She couldn’t really fool herself like that.
They had lunch with Suhel and Pharazon again. This time Terra treated herself to vegetable stew, having to drink it from the bowl as there was a distinct lack of cutlery at the Werelupes’ distinct lack of tables. All of the flatware was made of clay, decorated with crescent moons and abstract patterns. If Terra looked close enough she could see the indentations of paw pads where Werelupes had shaped the dishes before firing them.
Pharazon nibbled daintily at his food, shooting Terra occasional helpless glances. She returned them with smiles—making sure not to bare her teeth this time.
“How could you possibly smile in a situation like this?” Pharazon asked. “These Werelupes are nothing but cruel!”
Suhel frowned. “Who’s being cruel, runt?” she asked. “I just showed you the Opal Caverns! You’ll not see the likes of those in all the rest of Neopia!”
“Maybe I don’t want to see your stupid caverns,” Pharazon muttered. “Maybe I want to go home.”
“I want to see the Opal Caverns,” Terra said to Suhel. “Can we go sometime?”
The female’s mood brightened. “Of course,” she said. “I’m sure His Lordship would love to give you the tour.”
“Suhel keeps pestering me!” Pharazon whined.
“But Blynn pesters you all the time,” Terra said.
“Blynn isn’t a Werelupe!” Pharazon said.
Isengrim, meanwhile, picked up a platter of roast pork. He tore off a large chunk of meat and then set the platter down nearby Terra.
Terra studiously ignored it and went for a bowl of peas. “Isengrim, did you paint the ceiling in here?” she asked, gazing up at the murals. “It looks like the paintings in your grotto.”
“We all did, under my instruction,” he replied, scooting a bowl of smoked fish closer to her. “The motifs are of my own design, but it was a group effort. To symbolise our unity as a pack.” He pointed to a cluster of pawprints next to a drawing of a running Whinny. “See? Those are Suhel’s.”
“Beautiful,” Terra said. She eyed the fish with distaste and reached for a plump tomato. While she tried not to make a mess with it, at the first bite the juices spilled out over her hand, so she quickly gave up on that plan.
Suhel chuckled, her eyes dropping in embarrassment. “Milord, please. You flatter me,” she said. She looked over at Terra. “Isengrim is the one who brought all of us together and constructed our culture. If not for him, we would still be living as solitary beasts. That is why he is our king.” Her green eyes shone with admiration.
“I do my best,” Isengrim said, gnawing on a bone to get at the marrow. He grabbed a whole roast chicken and deposited it in front of Terra and himself, looking at her intently.
She smiled at him and reached for a loaf of bread.
He took a deep breath and nudged the meat closer.
Terra took a bite of bread. She was not backing down from this. She did not like eating meat. There were plenty of things she was willing to compromise on, but never her ethics. Isengrim would have to deal with it.
His fur began to bristle.
“Sire!” a male Werelupe in the circle barked. “Nusa and I were going to hunt up on Drackonack Ridge today. Would His Lordship be interested in joining us?” The female beside him nodded with a smile.
Isengrim looked over at them. He grinned and his fur flattened. “Certainly!” he said.
Terra let out the breath she had been holding and gulped down her bite of bread. Maybe he got the hint.
“It would be an honour to have you, sire,” Nusa said, her tail wagging. “We’ll set out after lunch—“
Suhel elbowed Isengrim’s arm. “Milord,” she said. “You have administrative work that needs taking care of.”
Isengrim sighed and said, “Right. I am sorry, Kirven, Nusa. I will have to join you some other time.”
“Oh—that’s no problem, sire,” Kirven said. “I hope your work goes well.”
“Thank you,” Isengrim said. He collected some empty dishes and rose to his feet. “Terra and I will be in the war room. Suhel, you will join us?”
“Aye, milord,” the female replied. “I’ll be there shortly. Runt here needs a little extra coaxing to do his dishes.” She glowered at Pharazon.
The Draik hunched over. “I refuse to be reduced to a scullery boy for beasts!” he said.
“Pharazon, you have no problem with doing dishes at home,” Terra said.
“That’s because it’s at home,” Pharazon hissed.
Terra sighed and stood up, bringing a few bowls and plates with her. “But they’re not even asking you to do their dishes, just yours,” she said. “Why don’t you try looking at the situation a little more positively?”
“Because there is nothing positive about it,” Pharazon grumbled as she and Isengrim left.
All through washing dishes and following the Werelupe through the maze of tunnels, Terra worried about Pharazon. He refused to look outside himself and see solutions, ways to help, things to be grateful for. Instead, he was just becoming more and more close-minded and angry.
As they walked, Terra grew weary, and surmised that it must be close to her usual bedtime. It didn’t help that the Burrows were so immense that it took a lot of walking to get places. Living someplace huge sounded cool in theory, but in reality it was not for the faint of legs.
Although she was one to talk, Terra thought, considering she owned an expansive villa. She remembered how she and Blynn would hold wagon races down the marble halls, and although Hyren would grouse that they were making too much noise, eventually he’d join in, too, and they’d all end up in a jumbled pile laughing so hard their stomachs hurt. Pharazon always decried such activities as too dangerous for his fragile person.
Terra’s stomach jerked. Blynn and Hyren would be worried sick about her. She had to find a way to contact them somehow.
“Every proper king must have a war room,” Isengrim said as he showed Terra into a cavern whose walls were covered in charts. Terra recognised them as mostly maps of the Meridell-Brightvale region and a few surrounding areas, plus astronomical calendars and other assorted sundries. A ring of furs lined the perimeter of the cave, and the floor was covered in various papers, scrolls, parchments, and bags.
“Have you ever been in a war?” Terra asked.
“Not yet,” Isengrim replied, “but kings have war rooms.” That seemed to settle the matter for him as he sat down cross-legged on a fur rug. He reached over and grabbed a pile of papers, leafing through them while making small grunting noises to himself. “Good, good, that’s on schedule,” he murmured. “Oh, and a surplus there, very nice…”
Terra was surprised at the sudden demeanor he had taken, and thought to herself that all he needed now was a pair of thin glasses and a mug of hot borovan. Someone who lived in a cave and wore bones and skins did not exactly strike her as the literary type. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… you can read?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, not looking away from a scroll and not giving any indication of being offended. If anything, he seemed rather proud.
He did not seem to recognise the implications to his intellect, but Terra remembered that they were in the Meridell region where – excepting Brightvale – illiteracy did not hold the same social stigma as in some other areas of Neopia. “Well… neat,” she replied. “That’s cool.”
“Skoll, my conjurer, taught me,” Isengrim said. He rolled up the scroll and placed it aside. He had begun to sort the papers into piles. “It has made business with my contacts and fiefs much easier than it would otherwise be. Not many messengers brave enough to venture into a den of beasts.”
“You have fiefs?” Terra asked.
“Of course,” Isengrim said. “Every legitimate lord has vassals. They are nearby villages that we raided so often, I figured I might as well just take ownership of them. They are small, with no central leadership, so they are easy to control. They fear us too greatly to revolt, and are too far away from the other kingdoms to attempt to secure assistance, so I can use their resources as I please. I exact tribute from them, to supplement what we win from hunts.”
“That does explain a lot,” Terra said.
“It ensures a steady inflow of goods,” Isengrim said, “which is especially important in winter when hunting is poor. It also means we do not overextend ourselves and risk exposure to the other kingdoms or Illusen.” A growl came into his voice at the Faerie’s name.
“I see,” Terra said. She did feel bad for those poor peasants, of course, but she did not think the Werelupe King would be receptive to hearing that right now.
Isengrim paused and looked over at her. “Why are you so curious about us, anyway?” he asked.
“Because I think you’re interesting,” Terra said. “You’ve built up this whole culture that I never knew about. I’m enjoying learning about it.”
The Werelupe looked back to the parchment in his paws, although he did not seem to be actually reading it. After a moment, he let out a breath. “Why?” he asked quietly, not looking at her.
“Because… because I think it’s stupid to hate anybody,” Terra said. “We can all learn from each other. And I see a lot of good in you and your pack. You’re strong, and a good leader—and you really care about your packmates, I can tell.”
Isengrim swallowed hard and clutched the parchment tighter. “Why don’t you get some sleep,” he said hoarsely. “You have not had much rest lately.”
“Okay,” Terra said, curling up in the furs and taking off her glasses. She hoped someday he would open up to her. He did seem to be cracking a bit. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too much longer before he decided he could trust her.