The Werelupe King’s fur flattened. “Lady Illusen. I was not expecting to see you here.”
“The sentiment is mutual,” the faerie said, folding her arms and tilting her head, looking up at him like a disapproving parent. Illusen was taller and longer-limbed than any normal human, but the Werelupe still easily won in the height and bulk division. Not that that kept him from looking intimidated by the powerful magical being’s presence.
“Well, then,” Isengrim said, ears still low, “we can both go our separate ways and not trouble each other any longer.”
“Tell me,” Illusen said, drumming her fingers on her arms, “are you planning on stealing the Chocolatier’s recipes? You’re quite good at taking things that don’t belong to you.”
“I would never do such a thing,” Isengrim said. Although he tried to maintain his composure, a low growl started in his throat.
“Really?” Illusen asked. “Because you’ve done it before. To me.”
“I would ask you kindly,” Isengrim said, clearly using all of his willpower to keep himself under control, “not to bring that up again.”
The faerie threw up her hands. “Well, I’m certainly not going to let you walk around pretending like nothing ever happened, you barbarian!”
Isengrim’s eyes widened and he bared his fangs. “How dare you insult me?!” he barked.
“How dare you decide you own whatever land you infest?!” Illusen shot back. Her wings shivered, throwing off green sparks.
“I do not infest things—I am not a disease!” Isengrim snarled.
Terra wedged herself between them. “Excuse me,” she said, gripping Isengrim’s arm.
Illusen glanced down at the girl and said, “Who is this?”
“My name’s Terra,” the human said firmly, “and I’m Isengrim’s owner. And I’m sorry if you have previous grievance with him, but he’s changed since he tried to take your glade.”
“I know all about his entanglement with Brightvale last year,” Illusen said. “Meridell has accepted his presence and claim to territory as well.” She looked over her shoulder to Skarl—the Skeith had now moved on to the dessert tables. Her green eyes snapped back to the owner and Werelupe. “But that does not mean I agree with it.”
“My authority does not rely on your consent,” Isengrim said. “Do not stick your wings where they have no influence.”
“And you would be wise,” Illusen said, “not to speak so flippantly to a faerie.”
“Twice,” Illusent said. “Clearly, he learns nothing from his mistakes.”
“That is not true,” Isengrim said.
Terra looked over at him. “Isengrim,” she said, “you feel like she’s antagonizing you unfairly.”
“If she would just have the sense to look past her own nose,” Isengrim said, “instead of speculating about politics and talking to trees, she would see that I am running my kingdom quite well!”
“I still don’t trust you!” Illusen said. “You willingly align yourself with the Darkest Faerie, and you expect—“
“Excuse me, Lady Illusen,” said a Kougra woman wearing a large, feathered hat. “You’re holding up the line.” A crowd of irritated and hungry guests had accumulated while the two were having their debate.
Illusen flushed and stepped aside. Isengrim snickered and she glowered at him. “You expect me to simply forgive you after that?” she hissed. “I am not so easily swayed as Skarl or Hagan, I’ll have you know!”
“I did not come to the Chocolate Ball to grovel to you like a Doglefox,” Isengrim said, “although I am sure you enjoy putting yourself on a pedestal like that!”
Terra grimaced and hugged the Werelupe’s arm. “I think you two just need to apologise,” she said. “Don’t let this fester. It clearly isn’t doing either of you any good.” She looked up at Isengrim. “Please, just say you’re sorry. If she won’t budge on this, you can at least lead the way.”
Isengrim looked down at her and his lips lowered back over his teeth. He stared at her for a long moment and then nodded. As though it pained him, he looked back to the Faerie. “Lady Illusen,” he began haltingly, putting a paw to his chest. “I apologise for the theft of your domain and your property. I was trying to find a home for my pack and secure greater means for ourselves. We shan’t bother you again.”
Illusen regarded him dubiously, but then she said, “Apology accepted. I—“ She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I forgive you, Lord Isengrim. And I apologise for treating you with such disdain. Your owner is right—this is a happy occasion, we should not ruin it with our ill feelings.”
She puffed out one cheek and glanced around. “Oh—there’s Fyora,” she stammered. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her about… soil alkalinity…” Those were her parting words to the two as she grabbed her food plate and swept away.
Terra and Isengrim watched her go. “Well,” Terra said, “I’m glad you got that resolved.”
“I do not feel like I have made much progress,” Isengrim said.
“You have,” Terra said. “It’s hard to see when you’re on the inside looking out, but you have. I mean, you actually got Illusen to apologize, and you know how she holds her grudges. And you’ve forgiven her, which is probably the most important part.”
The Werelupe’s tail lifted. “Yes, that is true. Thank you, Terra.” He patted her head. “Come, let us sup, and then we shall test this chocolate-maker’s mettle.”
As they ate their light dinner, they chatted with Kings Skarl and Hagan, Isengrim’s closest neighboring rulers as the Werelupe Woods was sandwiched between Meridell and Brightvale.
“It’s an honour to finally meet you, Terra,” Hagan said as Terra bowed to him. “When last you visited my kingdom, you were under a grievous curse. You must return sometime, I’m sure you would enjoy our libraries.”
“Pharazon and Celice have told me wonderful things about the palace and the university,” Terra said. “I would like to be conscious during my next visit to Brightvale, yes.”
Skarl laughed as he practically inhaled his salad. “Aye, and then you’ll have to stop by for that banquet I promised Isengrim! I shall have double the roasts made!”
Terra’s smile grew politely strained. Before she could say anything, Isengrim put an arm around her shoulders. “Terra does not eat meat,” he said, “but I shall be happy to help you with those roasts, Skarl.”
“Oh?” Skarl asked. “Do you like potatoes, then?”
Terra grinned. “I love potatoes! Eating them, that is. Not so much counting them.”
Skarl placed a paw on his belly and laughed. “Then you’ll fit right in, lass!”
They chatted for a while about the state of their kingdoms and affairs between them. Lord Darigan popped in for a bit, giving Isengrim and Terra a chance to get acquainted with the Citadel’s reclusive ruler as well.
When they had eaten their fill – except for Skarl, who never really quite seemed to be full – they went their separate ways, leaving Terra and Isengrim to their own devices again. “I’m kind of surprised,” Terra said to him, “at how friendly all three of them were to me, even though I’m technically a commoner.”
“They have good hearts,” Isengrim said. “Hagan tries his best to make Brightvale a kingdom of prosperity and opportunity for all. Darigan has stalwartly led his people through years of hardship and worked to build a brighter day for them. And Skarl…” He chuckled. “He has more than learned his lesson from the first Darigan War. And although his political savvy may leave much to be desired, he is a congenial fellow who just wants to see people have a good time.”
He crouched down so he was at eye level with his owner and said, “And what do you mean, technically a commoner? Those who choose to only see through the lens of technicality are blinding themselves to the full picture. Technically, I am a monster who lives in a cave. If you want to get even more technical, we are all just collections of cells and magic.”
Terra laughed. “Okay, okay, I get your point.”
“I just want you to stop worrying about what other people might think,” Isengrim said, “and realise that you are qualified to be here. The Chocolatier sent me an invitation. I invited you to accompany me. That qualifies you. Anyone who attempts to impose additional restrictions based on arbitrary social customs has their priorities all wrong. Now come, let’s enjoy the chocolate buffet!”
He led Terra away from the supper offerings, and she smiled. Maybe she really did deserve to be here, despite some other guests’ attitudes. She determined to try hard to just let herself enjoy the evening.
The chocolate buffet’s tables were piled high with all manner of fantastic cacao creations, from artfully decorated bonbons to bars of unusual flavours such as Carnapepper or mincemeat. One display even featured an assortment of dark chocolates made with cacao harvested from various areas of Neopia. “I hear Kiko Lake cacao beans are the best,” Terra said, taking one of the bite-size bricks, “since that’s where chocolate originated.”
“They’re fine if you’re into all-around richness,” a mutant Usul gentleman across the table said with a nod, “but if you have the culinary sophistication for more of an earthy taste, do try the Lost Desert chocolate.”
“Oh—okay,” Terra said, reaching for one of those.
The Usul stroked his black neck ruff self-importantly. “But of course it would be a drastic mistake to pass over on the Mystery Island chocolate,” he said. “The abundance of plant life on the island infuses the cacao with a unique floral note that takes years of tasting to appreciate.”
Terra grabbed a Mystery Island chocolate. “Neat,” she said, trying hard to ignore the pretension lacing his words.
“Although I’m not sure you can recognise the differences as acutely as I can,” the Usul said. “Few are blessed with a refined palate such as mine.”
Isengrim frowned. “Is it not enough that she is enjoying the chocolate?”
“Oh, anyone can simply enjoy chocolate,” the Usul said with a flip of his paw, “but it takes someone quite remarkable to fully savour and appreciate its subtle nuances.”
Isengrim leaned over and stuck his nose up to a pile of chocolate. “This chocolate originated in Qasala,” he said. “Hints of date and fig from being grown in the same orchard. The producer also used Apis milk instead of the traditional Kau milk.”
“Oh, wow!” Terra said. “You didn’t even have to taste it to know that!”
The mutant frowned and straightened his waistcoat. Purple tail flicking in agitation at being one-upped, he cleared his throat as though he wanted to say something, but ultimately walked away and began lecturing a nearby Wocky on how different preparation lengths resulted in different chocolate textures.
Isengrim chuckled roguishly. “Perhaps that will teach him that it is possible that some people are actually better at something than he is.”
“I hate to say this,” Terra said, “but I kind of think he needed that.”
“Perhaps that will be his impetus to change,” Isengrim said. “At any rate, I hope your gown does not get any chocolate stains on it.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Terra said. “The Royal Neopian has laundry facilities staffed by water mages. They can get out any stain.”
“Mm, that is fortuitous,” Isengrim said as he reached for a chocolate-dipped doughnutfruit. “It is too bad my ambassador is a fire mage. She is less than useful for such a thing.”
Terra laughed. “At least she’s great for pyrotechnics shows.”
“Oh, do pardon me,” said a grey Zafara as she reached for the stacks of chocolate.
Terra drew in a breath. “Oh, gummy rats. I totally forgot.”
“Mm?” said Isengrim through a mouthful of chocolate and doughnutfruit.
Terra watched the Zafara nibble daintily at the confectionery. “Blynn wanted me to bring home some chocolate for her,” the owner said. “But we can’t take any of this out of the factory.”
Isengrim put a paw on her shoulder. “We will get her some chocolate,” he said. “Legitimately. Please do not worry, just enjoy tonight. I will take care of it.”
The musicians struck up a lively waltz and the dynamic of the room changed. Neopets flocked to the dance floor, twirling around like a field of multicoloured pinwheels.
Isengrim lifted his head and observed them for a moment, his ears high and alert. Slowly his tail began to wag. “Can we try dancing?”
Terra looked up at him and then over at the dancers. “Really?” she asked. “I mean—do you know how? Because I don’t.”
“Celice gave me a few lessons when I told her I was attending the Ball.” Isengrim said. He put his helmet back on and held out a paw to his owner. “It looks like fun. Please?”
Terra swallowed her last bite of chocolate and said, “Well…” With a nervous smile, she put her hand in his. “Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
Isengrim gave her hand a squeeze. “It will be fun, I promise,” he said.
He led her over to the open floor space, where the other dancers gave them a wide berth. They seemed less than willing to step so close to someone wearing armour covered in horns and fangs. Terra looked around at them and then turned back to her Werelupe. “Um, yeeeaahhh… I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said. Her heart pounded. Now she was really going to look like an idiot in front of all these people who already turned up their noses at her.
“One hand goes here,” Isengrim said, placing her hand on one of his pauldrons. “And we hold the other out like this.” He clasped her other hand and stretched their arms to the side. “I am a beginner at this as well.” Beneath the muzzle of his skull-helm, he grinned, showing a bit of fang. “But if anyone has anything to say about it, they will have to answer to me.”
“I hope no one is that stupid,” Terra said.