The Werelupe King peeked his snout over Terra's shoulder. "Lady Illusen," he said. "I was not expecting to see you here."
"The sentiment is mutual," the Faerie said, folding her arms and tilting her head, looking down at him like a disapproving parent.
Isengrim stood up slowly, as though it pained him. 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," he 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," she said, "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. "Who is this?" she asked.
"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."
Terra took a deep breath and turned to Illusen. "Okay, so you're still upset at him for trying to take over your glade all those years ago, right?" the owner asked.
"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," he said. "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 curtseyed 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!" he said. "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 explained, "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!" she said. "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!" he said.
They chatted for a while about the state of their kingdoms and affairs between them. Lord Darigan popped in for a bit, giving Isengrim 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, and Terra practically dragged Isengrim to the chocolate buffet. The 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 good for all-around richness," a Mutant Usul gentleman across the table said with a nod, "but if you're looking 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. "And don't miss out on the Mystery Island chocolate," he said. "The abundance of plant life on the island infuses the cacao with a unique floral note."
Terra grabbed a Mystery Island chocolate. "Neat," she said.
"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?" he asked.
"Oh, anyone can enjoy chocolate," the Usul said with a flip of his paw, "but few can fully savour and appreciate its subtle nuances."
Isengrim leaned over and stuck his nose up to the assortment on the table. "I can smell the 'subtle nuances' just fine," he said with a roguish grin. "I do not even have to taste them."
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.
"Thanks for getting him off my back," Terra said. "I'll never understand pets like him."
Isengrm shook his head. "It is unfortunate," he 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 high-class Neopia Central hotels have 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 and said, "At least she's great for pyrotechnics shows."
Isengrim turned the fruit over in his paw, inspecting it. "Do you ever think they will discover a Doughnutfruit Chia?" he asked.
Terra grinned in mock exasperation and leaned against him. "You're incorrigible," she said.
The Werelupe King smiled as he snapped up the Doughnutfruit. "I know," he said.
"Oh, do pardon me," said a Grey Zafara as she reached for the stacks of chocolate.
Terra drew in a breath and pushed off of Isengrim. "Oh, Gummy Rats," she said. "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." He smiled. "Please do not worry, just enjoy tonight. I will take care of it."
The musicians suddenly struck up a lively waltz and the dynamic of the room changed. Neopets began flocking 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, please?" he asked.
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 escort. "Um, yeeeaahhh… I have no idea what I'm doing," she said with a nervous grin.
"One hand goes here," Isengrim explained, 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," he admitted. 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."
Terra laughed and said, "I'm sure no one is that stupid."
"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," she said.
Isengrim glanced up at the musicians and said, "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, 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.
"Gah!" a green Lenny cried as he stumbled back from beside Isengrim, clutching his beak. "Watch where you swing those paws, you—you ignorant oaf!"
Isengrim flinched and gritted his teeth. "My apologies," he said, turning to the Lenny. "I hope I did not injure you too badly."
The Lenny, who had been complaining loudly to his plump ghost Draik companion, did a double-take upon seeing a Werelupe apologise. The two looked him up and down, and then the Lenny sniffed, "Yes, well, it's nice to see you've got some manners in you."
Isengrim turned back to Terra, ears low and tail limp. "Maybe this was a bad idea," he said under his breath.
Terra frowned at the two aristocrats and led Isengrim to a different part of the dance floor. "I'm sorry," she said. "You're not the one whose manners we need to worry about—it's other people who are being rude and difficult. You don't deserve that at all."
"Maybe we should leave," Isengrim said.
Terra held his paws. "I would hate to miss out on something you were looking forward to because of other people's bad behaviour," she said. "We can go back to the hotel if you want, but… I think maybe we can also show everyone here what it means to be a truly polite member of society. I think they need you here."
Isengrim's ears perked and his tail lifted. "Do you really think so?" he asked.
Terra nodded. "Let's show them how to do things right," she said. "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, and they began to dance 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.
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 and said, "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," she said. As Isengrim came to sit beside her, she folded her hands in her lap and said, "This was really 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," he said.
"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," she said. "I wanted to thank you, Lord Isengrim, 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," he said.
Fyora turned to Terra. "And I must thank you for your efforts as well, owner," the Faerie Queen said. "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."
"You're very welcome," Terra said with a curtsy.
"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."
Terra grinned. "I think so, too," she said. "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 was waving 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," she said. "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," he said.
The rest of the evening went without a hitch. Terra and Isengrim danced a little more and then mingled with some of the more prominent 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!" she said. "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," she said, "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!" she said. "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," she said. "He miscalculated, though."
Terra glanced up at her. "Oh?" she asked.
"This chocolate should only last me a month, at most," Blynn said.
With a snort, Terra reached up and gently shoved her Zafara back into the crate.