...but Taira didn't pull the cork, not yet.
Annad's knife-edge of alarm dulled, and she slumped down into despairing annoyance at the shrilling of the Drenched. She had forgotten to be afraid of what they might do at this point, at least to her personally; she didn't want them to get whatever revenge they were planning, but more immediately, she keenly and desperately wanted them to shut up.
Taira stalked through the Faerie Festival, hardly seeing the bright colours or tasting the flavours carried on the air. There had to be a good place to let the Drenched out, preferably somewhere she could get Annad away from them safely. If she could find the Healing Springs Faerie again, if she even stopped by the festival, that would be best. The Drenched probably didn't like her much -- contrary to popular belief outside Faerieland, the bitterest rivalries were usually among the same magical type. On the other hand, she'd have to be fast, or she'd be recognised. Even now she was expecting at any moment to be...
...caught! A long-fingered hand closed on the base of her wing, and the fingernails that pricked into her back were like talons. The other hand came around to lie against the side of her face, turning her head toward its owner.
The poison-green haze of nails protruding in front of her eye, too close to focus on, gave away the identity of the faerie who'd caught her even before Taira, feeling sick to her stomach, looked up.
"What an interesting bottle you have there," the dark faerie purred. "And what an interesting face. I seem to recall a disturbance at my next-cloud neighbor's residence earlier today...." She trailed off invitingly.
"Was it interesting?" Taira said. Then she gulped as Jhudora's grip on her face tightened, and the sharp nails curved toward her eye. She couldn't seem to shut it; her gaze remained fixed on Jhudora's face, and she began to feel dizzy and rather ill.
"Most," Jhudora said. The faerie's other hand released the Eyrie's wing, reached down and wrapped around the bottle, tugged slightly, and Taira felt it slip from her grasp as if there were no strength in her hands at all.
Jhudora let go of her face then and stepped back slightly, glancing down at the bottle. Taira's energy came back then, and with it rage; she lunged forward, but Jhudora put up a hand. Taira's chest slammed into it, and she fell to the cloud-soft ground, trying to suck in an effective breath.
"Don't cross me," Jhudora said quietly. "At the Faerie Festival, I am not permitted to 'cause trouble' -- but I am authorised by Queen Fyora herself to do as I please to anyone who disrupts the festivities. And I am not as forgiving as the lady of the Healing Springs. Do you understand me?"
Taira swallowed hard and nodded. Jhudora reached down and lifted her without apparent effort to her feet. "Now, why don't I buy you some Beany Burpers, and you can tell me what exactly you thought you were doing with that coat full of bottles?" She raised the bottle with the Drenched and Annad in it and arched an eyebrow. "And how this happened? I do so love a good story."
Taira did not trust this new turn of events at all, but she didn't feel she had a lot of choice. She couldn't open the bottle without letting the Drenched out, and she couldn't defeat Jhudora if she couldn't get her into the bottle. Walking with Jhudora did have the benefit that nobody else wanted to look too hard at her. On the other hand, it also meant nobody was likely to look too hard at what Jhudora did....
Once she started talking, however, the whole story spilled out. Her brother's misery, her resentment of the Healing Springs Faerie's caprice, her scheme and how it went wrong, the blackmail of the Drenched.
Jhudora was a surprisingly good listener. She didn't sneer at all. At the end of the tale, she said mildly, "You do realise the Healing Springs magic is random by its nature. You certainly had some bad luck, but why didn't you buy some Neoflu Jelly Pills?"
"We couldn't afford them!"
"But you could afford a bunch of enchanted bottles? And a fun trip to the festival?"
Taira flushed angrily. "She's supposed to help Neopets! She's supposed to heal the sick!"
"And she does. Frequently. For free. I'd say you get what you pay for, except that with her, you usually get more than that -- even if it's not exactly what you wanted. She's certainly more generous than I've ever been inclined to be." Jhudora turned to Taira and tilted her head up to face her. "So listen to this, and listen well." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I can restore Annad, if I choose. I can even give you the Jelly Pills for Kaize's Neoflu. But if I do, I will expect something in return."
"W-what?" Taira's voice was nearly inaudible.
"One service. Which I will not specify until I want it."
Taira recoiled. "How stupid do you think I am?"
Jhudora shrugged. "Well, you've given me a fair amount of information to go on. So you refuse?"
"Of course I--" Taira bit her tongue just in time. "Don't. But can I have some time to think about it?"
"Oh, certainly." Jhudora turned away.
"Hey!" Taira cried. "Give me my bottle back!"
Jhudora turned back and smiled. "Did I say I would do that? And are you sure you want to make a fuss... here... with everyone watching?"
Taira gulped. "I--I'll do what you want." This was getting worse and worse. She'd wanted to get her revenge on one faerie and start a business, but now she was in service first to the Drenched and now to Jhudora. But she couldn't just let Jhudora walk off with her friend!
"Oh, excellent." The dark faerie popped the cork.
Taira yelped, "Wait!" but it was too late. The Drenched swarmed out gleefully, flopping onto the ground with their fishy tails and stretching.
Jhudora shook her head at them. "You're under the same restrictions I am," she said. "Don't start any trouble. Other than that, you could have just sent Neomail and gotten a flight up." She made a shooing motion, then glanced up and gave them a not-very-nice smile, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "Just so you know, Fyora's more creative than you think."
She turned her attention back to the bottle and popped the cork. The neck of it sucked at her hand, drinking in pale pinkish-purple fumes, and then she threw it down hard at the ground. It smashed.
Annad popped back to full size, panting and wobbly. "Taira," she cried, "I can't believe you -- did you really promise --"
"Yes, she really promised," Jhudora said with a lazy smile. "And I'm going to hold her to it."
"I'm holding you to your side of the bargain too," Taira said, trying to brave it out. "What about my Neoflu Jelly Pills?"
Jhudora raised her eyebrows. "What about them?"
"You said you'd give them to me."
"The favour was only in exchange for both! You had to make them both better!"
"So I will." Jhudora turned away. "After you fulfill your part of the bargain."
"Then tell me what you want me to do!"
"But I don't want you to do it yet."
"Jhudora," Annad blurted, "would you give her the cure now and let her off in exchange for me promising to do you two favours?"
"Annad, you c--" Taira hesitated and fell silent, not quite looking at the Bori.
Annad, feeling rather queasy herself, didn't look at Taira either. The Eyrie wasn't really going to stop her or protest. Annad wasn't looking forward to this, but Taira had made the promise in order to rescue her -- partly -- and Annad wanted Kaize healed too.
"Done," Jhudora said coolly. She threw the desired item into Taira's hands and folded her arms. "Now go away, Eyrie."
Taira shot one last agonised look at Annad and fled.
The Bori looked up at Jhudora, stomach churning. "Should I go too? Or am I supposed to wait around until you decide what to do with me?"
"That was very generous of you, Annad," the faerie murmured. "Walk with me."
"Is that one of the favours?" Annad said nervously.
The faerie laughed. "No. But you could consider it advice."
Annad hesitated, then followed her back toward the lone dark cloud.
Jhudora seemed to be fading slightly, which was unnerving. "You do realise, she'll be allowed to go home, but she's going to have to answer for the assault she committed after that. You're actually a much better bargain." She looked down. "Are you afraid of me?"
"Are you afraid of what I'll ask of you?"
"I'm afraid you'll tell me to commit treason against Queen Fyora, or worse yet, hurt some other poor Neopet. Um, or faerie. Or... or other creature."
"And yet you agreed to serve me?"
Annad slumped. "I didn't know what else to do."
"Mm. It was a generous thought." Jhudora, looking very lavender by this point, stopped and knocked on her own door.
While Annad was still puzzling over this, the door was opened from inside... by Jhudora. She looked up quickly to see the Faerie Queen standing beside her.
"You can come out now," Fyora said. "I'm done for the moment. Keep an eye out for the Drenched, will you?"
"What are those cold fish even doing here?" Jhudora stepped out without giving the gawping Bori a second glance. "What I hear is that I should be watching out for is bottles." Behind the door, something clinked.
"Oh, don't worry," Fyora said. "I think you should give me that coat you picked up, though. With all the corks in."
With a sigh, the real Jhudora reached behind her door and handed over Taira's coat, still full of bottles. Fyora checked it carefully and then waved her onward.
At last, she turned back to the Bori. "Still worried?"
The gaze she met now was warm and uplifting, not sickening, even though Annad realised she was looking at the same faerie. "Only a little, ma'am," she said. "I didn't know you could look like other faeries." She swallowed. "What will happen to Taira? And Kaize?"
Fyora gazed out across the clouds of Faerieland. "Kaize will be fine. Taira, well... she didn't actually end up doing much harm. I can only hope she'll learn her lesson."
"Not to be vengeful?"
Fyora surprised her by laughing. "Or at least to employ a little common sense."