“Now,” Isengrim said, “we… er… move in circles. I think.” He began to lead his owner in a slow, swaying pivot.
Terra took a moment to get used to the footwork. “Hm… I think we’re supposed to be moving to the rhythm of the music.”
Isengrim glanced up at the musicians. “Oh. Right.” The two adjusted accordingly.
“This isn’t too bad at all,” Terra said as they began to ease into it. “When you read about it in books, it always seems so much more complicated—“ Isengrim suddenly flinched and drew a sharp breath, making Terra jump. “Did I just step on your foot?” she asked.
“It’s okay,” Isengrim said with a chuckle.
“Sorry,” Terra said, biting her lip.
“I assure you, it was not the worst wound I have ever received,” Isengrim said. “We can keep going. I think we are getting the hang of this."
Although they weren’t exactly graceful compared to the more seasoned dancers, gradually the two became more and more confident, and caught up in the sweeping melodies of the music. “Should we try swinging out from each other?” Isengrim asked. “That seems like fun.”
“Okay,” Terra said, still nervous but trying to be a good sport about it.
On the next upbeat, as the waltz reached its finale, the Werelupe and his owner let go of each other and flung their free hands outward. Terra felt her hand whack something sharp and hard, and she recoiled with a hiss.
“Gah!” a green Lenny cried as he stumbled back from beside Terra, clutching his beak. “Watch where you swing those hands, you prole!”
“I—I’m sorry—” Terra said.
Isengrim bared his teeth. “You are the one who needs to apologize,” he growled to the Lenny. “You’re naught but an arrogant oaf with too much money to throw around—”
Terra grabbed his arm. “Stop,” she said. “This isn’t helping anything.”
“But I cannot stand the way he spoke to you!” Isengrim said.
Other guests around them had stopped to watch, and Terra’s stomach twisted. “We can’t make a scene,” she said. “It’ll just make everything worse.”
Isengrim watched her for a moment, then took a deep breath and led her to the corner of the ballroom, where they hid behind a curtain-draped pillar. “Then we’ll just have to show him that we cannot abide his noxious presence,” he muttered.
Terra watched as the Lenny complained loudly to his plump ghost Draik companion, shooting dirty glares their way. “Maybe this was a bad idea,” she said under her breath. “Maybe we should leave.” Tears started to well and she blinked them back. The last thing she wanted to do was start crying in such a hostile environment.
Isengrim put his hands on her shoulders. “Terra…” he said. “Do you know why I invited you to the Chocolate Ball?”
“Because I’m your owner,” Terra said, wiping her tears on her sleeve.
“I could have used the same rationale for Suhel,” Isengrim said, “as my second-in-command, but you know how much she detests these sorts of things. He squeezed the human’s shoulders. “I invited you because I wanted you to have fun.” He looked over his shoulder. “But, based on how you helped me with Illusen, I believe you were meant to come for an additional reason. The other guests need you to show them what it means to be truly noble—not by birth, but by deed. I think they need you here.”
“Thanks,” Terra said. “But I’m worried about you, too. I know you feel the need to protect me, but your anger might be creating the wrong impression. This is an opportunity for you to get along better with other rulers. They need to see that you’re more than just a monster that lives in a cave.” She rested her chin in her hand. “Remember how you dealt with that Usul at the chocolate buffet? I think that’s going to work better than just going into rage mode and scaring people.”
“Oh, that’s a good point,” Isengrim said. “I apologise. I hadn’t entirely thought of that. If I see you in distress, the need to protect you becomes all-consuming.”
“We just have to channel it correctly,” Terra said. She clenched her fists. “Let’s show these people how to do things right. Let’s make things better. We’re good at that.”
Isengrim put a paw on her head. “You’re good at that,” he said. “I am merely following your lead.”
“I think you should give yourself more credit,” Terra said. “We’re a team. We’re family. Let’s do this together.”
He squeezed her hand. “Yes, let’s,” he said. He led her back to the dance floor, and they began to waltz again, and enjoyed every bit of it. They met every odd stare with a pleasant smile, and made sure to be a little more conscientious of the space around them. No one else was rude to them, and in fact it seemed like everyone else was a bit more polite than before.
Terra felt different, too. She began to see that despite these Neopets and faeries having more money than her and a higher political status, she was the one being the example to them. It made their looks and remarks lose their power over her mood. Isengrim was right. Being born into nobility and being a noble person were not the same thing, and Terra felt empowered at the idea of being able to teach a thing or two to duchesses and billionaires. Nicely, of course.
When they were done dancing, the two retreated to the courtyard outside. It was a surprisingly well-kept little area, neatly-trimmed gardens surrounding a semicircle of benches and the ubiquitous chocolate fountain.
“I’m surprised the Chocolatier has all of this here at his factory,” Terra said as she and Isengrim ambled leisurely along the hedgerows. “It really doesn’t look it from the outside.”
“Yes, well, appearances can be deceiving,” Isengrim said with a chuckle. “I ought to know.”
Terra smiled. “I wonder if that fountain is always full of chocolate, or if he just replaces the water with chocolate for the Ball. I can’t imagine him using these areas any other time of the year.”
“Perhaps he enjoys sculpting the shrubbery,” Isengrim said. He pointed a claw to bushes that appeared to have been trimmed in the shape of chocolate bars and bonbons.
His owner laughed, sitting down on a nearby bench. “Somehow this doesn’t surprise me.” As Isengrim came to sit beside her, she folded her hands in her lap and said, “You know, even though the evening got off to a rocky start, now I’m really having a lot of fun. Thank you so much for inviting me. If you need someone to go with you next year, I’ll definitely keep my schedule free.”
Isengrim took off his helmet and set it down beside him. “I would like that very much.”
“Oh, there you are,” said a clear, warm, motherly voice. The two looked up and their eyes widened. Standing before them was Queen Fyora.
“Your Majesty,” Terra said, dropping into a kneel, and Isengrim did the same.
“Please,” Fyora said kindly, “no need for such formality. I am not presently in my court.” She gestured for them to rise.
“Can—can we help you, Your Majesty?” Isengrim asked. “If I have done something wrong tonight, I apologise—is this about Illusen?” He swallowed hard.
Fyora smiled. “Yes and no. I wanted to thank you, Lord Isengrim and Lady Terra, for your tact and decorum tonight. Many of these guests unfortunately believe that their high social station excuses them from having manners, but you have set an excellent example for them.”
“Ah—thank you,” Isengrim said, scratching the back of his neck. “I tried. I am sorry about Illusen, though. I tried to check my temper, but… she is difficult to deal with calmly.”
“Some faeries do have that effect on people, I am afraid,” Fyora said. “But from what I heard from her, you handled the situation admirably. I wanted to commend you on that. You have come a long way.”
The Werelupe King smiled bashfully. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Fyora turned to Terra and said, “And I must thank you for your efforts as well. I know of your involvement in the saving of Brightvale last year, and once again tonight you have proved yourself a force for good with your kindness and compassion. Thank you for making this Chocolate Ball a better one than in years past.”
Terra grinned, so glad that someone actually noticed. “You’re very welcome, Your Majesty.”
“I hope the two of you attend every Chocolate Ball in the future,” Fyora said. “I think that with your help, we can make it an evening where no one comes away with hurt feelings or drama—and everyone leaves a kinder and humbler person”
Terra grinned. “I think so, too. I’m up for the task.”
“As am I,” Isengrim said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “Thank you, Your Majesty. We shall not let you down.”
“I don’t believe you will,” Fyora said with a smile.
“Fyora!” someone shouted from across the courtyard. Princess Amira waved excitedly at the queen while engaged in energetic conversation with several other females, including Princess Fernypoo and Prytariel. “Fyora, over here!” the ruler of Sakhmet said before taking another bite of chocolate.
“Coming!” Fyora said, waving back. “Enjoy the rest of the Ball,” she said to Isengrim and Terra before sweeping away in a flurry of faerie dust.
Terra blinked. “Wow. That was neat.”
“I must admit,” Isengrim said, “despite my… misgivings about faeries, I feel flattered that Fyora thought to thank us.”
“I think she must care a lot about everybody in Neopia,” Terra said. “And I think she’s really happy that you’re a good guy now.”
Isengrim smiled. “I shall have to keep living up to that.”
The rest of the evening went without a hitch. Terra and Isengrim danced again and then mingled with some of the more polite guests, catching up on news from various Neopian lands. They did not meet up with Illusen again, but she seemed to be purposely avoiding them and they decided this was probably a good thing. Once they had done everything they felt like doing, the Werelupe King and his owner headed back to the hotel, exhausted but satisfied. This venture had been a success in several ways.
They ended up staying in Neopia Central for a week after the Chocolate Ball, as the travel time to their homes was so long that Terra and Isengrim wanted to take full advantage of their miniature vacation. The two explored what felt like every interesting nook and cranny of the bustling metropolis, from the sprawling museums of the Deep Catacombs to the eclectic shops and cosy hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the Marketplace.
Isengrim even took the opportunity to arrange some ambiguous dealings down at the docks with a raspy-voiced green Skeith who turned out to be Malkus Vile, the infamous crime lord. While he couldn’t disclose the details to Terra, Isengrim promised it wasn’t anything bad and she was in no danger—Vile was just one of the Werelupe King’s oldest associates and his main contact in Neopia Central. It was the Skeith and his network who supplied the Werelupe Burrows with imports from the hub city, although Isengrim did not seem overly pleased about this now.
He explained to Terra that it felt duplicitous to continue to deal with Vile when Isengrim was trying to be an upstanding citizen otherwise, but Isengrim was not sure yet what to do about the matter. Terra assured him that he would figure out the right course of action.
The day before they left for their respective homes, Isengrim took Terra back to the Chocolate Factory – to the shop portion this time – so Terra could show him all of Blynn’s favourite candies. They bought nothing, but Isengrim assured his owner that Blynn would get her chocolate.
And so one sky-ship trip later, Terra burst through her front door with her luggage. “I’m home!” she shouted, letting her voice echo off of the marble and tile in the foyer.
“Terra!” Blynn said. She scampered out of the kitchen, scrambled toward her owner, and leaped at the girl. “Welcome home!”
Catching the Zafara in her arms, Terra staggered back from the force of the impact and said, “Thanks!”
“How did it go?” Blynn asked, tail swishing excitedly. “Did you have fun like you promised?”
“You bet I did!” Terra said as she carried Blynn toward the north wing of their villa. “How was your Chocolate Hlab?” she asked, using the Zafara’s pronunciation.
Blynn threw up her paws. “Oh man, it was amazing! We decorated the great hall and invited a ton of people – Sasha the Dancer even showed up – and I booked a Sticks N’ Stones tribute band!” She stuck out her tongue. “Because you don’t even wanna know how much the real Sticks N’ Stones charges for gigs.”
“Like a bajillion Neopoints?” Terra asked.
“Close, two bajillion,” Blynn said. “Oh! And Pharazon tried to use some magic to help with the decorations—and he ended up accidentally making chocolate gush out of Hyren’s antennae!”
“Let us never speak of this again,” Hyren said. He came walking down the hall to meet them, clutching his antennae like they were garden hoses. “Thankfully one of the guests knew enough magic to cast a counter-spell. But my mouth has tasted like chocolate for the past week.”
“And… that’s a bad thing, why?” Blynn asked.
“I said I was sorry!” Pharazon said as he fluttered down the hall. “I was just trying to help!”
“You did help!” Blynn said. “It was hilarious!”
“You guys should do this every year,” Terra said. “Pharazon, I’m sure next year, you’ll be practiced enough to find even cooler ways to pick on your brother.”
The Draik grimaced and said, “I wasn’t trying to—“
“They’re just messing with you,” Hyren said, patting his younger brother’s shoulder. “No harm, no foul. But this chocolate taste had better wear off.”
“I’ll ask Celice if there’s anything I can do about that,” Pharazon said.
Blynn watched them in amusement and then turned back to their owner. “Speaking of that, where’s my chocolate?” she asked.
“Umm… yes… that…” Terra said. “See, uh, the Kiko Chocolatier said—“ Before she could finish her sentence, a bell in a nearby room jingled merrily, signaling that someone was at the front door.
The four gave each other confused looks. “Were you expecting anyone?” Hyren asked.
“No,” Terra said. “Were any of you?”
“Nope,” Blynn said. She jumped out of Terra’s arms and scurried back down the hallway. “But I do love a good surprise!”
They followed Blynn to the foyer, where she opened one of the front doors and stuck her head outside. “Weird, there’s nobody—hoooooooly Kau.”
The other three ran to the door to see Blynn staring out at three large carts parked in front of their villa, each fully loaded with crates bearing the Chocolate Factory’s stamp. The Zafara’s eyes were as wide as Kreludor as she stumbled over to the wagons as if in a trance. “Is… is this what I think it is?” she asked. Closing her eyes, she sniffed the air and licked her lips. “’Cause it sure smells like it is!”
“Uhm… surprise!” Terra said, looking rather surprised herself.
“Where are we going to keep all of this?” Hyren asked. “We definitely don’t have room in the pantry.”
Blynn jumped onto one of the wagons, standing atop the crates like a mighty ruler of chocolatedom. “Well, we’ll just have to use the great hall as a chocolate storage room! It might as well see some use the rest of the year, right?”
As the Zafara pried the lid off of one of the crates and wriggled inside, Terra took notice of a nondescript envelope leaning against the side. She opened it and unfolded the letter within. After a cursory glance, she smiled.
“Who’s it from?” Pharazon asked.
“’To my family,’” Terra read. “’Worry not, for your year’s supply of chocolate was legally acquired, I assure you. May we meet again soon, and may the fates smile upon you, as they have upon me for granting me such a wonderful family. All of my love, Isengrim.’” Terra looked up and leaned against the cart. “He does spoil us.”
Blynn popped back out of the crate, nibbling on an orange chocolate Nova. “That was sure nice of him. He miscalculated, though.”
Terra glanced up at her. “Oh?” she asked.
“This chocolate should only last me a month, at most.”
With a snort, Terra reached up and gently shoved her Zafara back into the crate.