Giving Day at Black Keep:Part Two
The lord mayor had picked out some nice rooms for his friends on the same floor as the guest quarters Celice usually stayed in, and he and Celice enjoyed watching them admire the décor.
"Wow, this is so neat!" Terra said as she inspected the plush bedding in her room. "It’s like we’re staying in a castle!"
"And the floating crystal centrepieces in the sitting rooms are a nice touch," Pharazon said from outside the bedroom, leaning over the table to inspect one of said centrepieces.
"That was my idea," Celice said as Blynn reached out to poke one of the violet crystals. It bobbed slightly and then went back to its stable position. "Flowers don’t quite seem to fit the theme of this place."
"Unless you used dark thorn vines and dragonbuds," Pharazon said.
Kass chuckled. "True," he said, "but I was going more for ‘darkly elegant’, not ‘unnervingly macabre’. I’m a Draconian, after all, not a Haunted Woods Neopet."
The Moehog servant appeared in the doorway. "Pardon me, milord," he said, "but Lady Minevra has told me to complain to you that the window in her bedroom faces north, and she requires more sunlight to stay warm this time of year."
Kass sighed. "Stock her room with extra blankets and firewood, then."
"Oh, we suggested that to her, sir," the servant said. "She wouldn’t have any of it. She demands a different room."
Celice ran a paw down her face. "Mother’s just being unnecessarily difficult," she muttered. "Too used to having things her way, and if they aren’t just so…" She shook her head. "I’ll go set a heating spell in my parents’ room. Shall I meet you in the kitchens?"
"Yes, I think that’s where we’re headed next," Kass said. "Don’t overtax yourself."
"I’m used to it," the Lupe said with a toss of her head as she left with the servant.
Isengrim frowned as he folded his paws behind his back. "I hope she does not burn herself out trying to please her family," he said. "Some Neopets are never satisfied no matter how much of yourself you give."
"I’m sure she knows by now how to handle them," Kass said. "At least, I hope so."
"She’s told me about them," Isengrim said. "She seems caught in a tug-of-war between trying to take care of herself and meet their expectations. It worries me."
Next to him, Connor folded his arms. "Aye, but at least her family’s actually happy to see her," he grumbled.
"No family is perfect," Kass said. "Although I am sorry yours has been giving you a hard time."
"At any rate," Isengrim said, "you’ve got all the family you need in the Burrows."
"And right here," Terra said, joining them back in the sitting room. "Friends are an important type of family, too."
As he led them down to the kitchens, Kass was glad that they all seemed to be on the same page. He just hoped that maybe the Anfels would get the hint.
An entire floor was dedicated to the kitchens, which buzzed with activity as the cooks scurried about to prepare the feast. Kass was insistent that none of his staff be left out, so there was quite a lot of food to prepare. He hated the idea of the lord of the keep being above his servants socially, so during banquets like this, everyone got to eat the same things at the same time, and fortress staff sat and chatted with Kass and his guests as equals.
And he did not consider himself above helping with the chores, either, including cooking this momentous feast. As soon as he and his friends stepped into the kitchens, the head chef put them to work. Kass wasn’t the best cook, but he could at least stir gravy under supervision.
Everyone else found various tasks they could assist with, from Blynn piping icing onto buns to Connor using his knowledge of chemistry to devise the perfect method for roasting the vegetables. Everyone chatted and laughed as they worked, and a few times someone even burst out into a Giving Day carol and everyone else joined in.
Whoever decided chores were drudgery, Kass thought as he swirled the gravy in its saucepan, just wasn’t going about them the right way. He just hoped Celice was all right. Amid the merriment, he kept looking to the door, waiting for her to appear.
Of course, with so many hands in the kitchen, the work went quickly, and soon everything was in the oven, the table upstairs was set, and Neopets lounged around the sitting room downstairs, resting from their labours.
Kass couldn’t rest, though. "I’m going to check on Celice," he said.
"Us too," Pharazon said as the Eyrie’s friends followed him. "She should have been done by now."
Kass reached the hallway and turned to go to the stairs—and Celice bumped into him. "Ah, sorry I’m late," she said, brushing stray white hairs out of her face. "Mother wanted her room just a certain temperature, and then the nieces and nephews were playing hide-and-seek and I couldn’t let them down… and then Belven cornered me and wouldn’t stop badgering me about asking you how he could get a position on your cabinet…"
She leaned against the wall. "And when I finally got to the kitchens there wasn’t anyone there! Although I did notice the gravy was getting cold, so I cast a small fire under it."
The lord mayor grimaced. "Perhaps you should distance yourself from your family a bit," he said.
"Oh, but it’s Giving Day," Celice said. "I can’t disappoint them on Giving Day. I already feel like I ignore them most of the rest of the year."
"So you’re going to make up for that by running yourself ragged today?" Pharazon asked. "Come to think of it, that’s a lot how you told me you wrote your thesis. And you ended up going through sixteen crates of Achyfi in two weeks and gave yourself a wicked migraine."
Celice looked down at him with an embarrassed grin. "I suppose I do have that tendency, yes."
"Why don’t you take a break from them?" Kass asked. "I think you’ve already done enough for them. Come spend time with us, and don’t pay them much heed at supper, all right?"
"Oh, but—" The sorceress rubbed her arm. "They’ll be expecting me to sit and socialise with them at supper."
"Just leave the socialising to us," Blynn said with a toothy grin. "We’ll give ‘em all the socialising they can handle."
Isengrim patted her shoulder. "You just focus on having an enjoyable Giving Day for yourself," he said. "I happen to know from personal experience that Werelupes make excellent distractions."
Pharazon took one of her paws. "Please, Celice," he said. "We’re your friends and we care about you. Do this for us?"
She looked at him for a moment. "I’ll try," she said. "But only because of those sad Puppyblew eyes of yours. You’re horrid, you know, playing the guilt card on me like that."
"Yes, well," Kass said with a smirk, "one does what one must in these sorts of situations."
"Lady Celice!" a yellow Acara maidservant said as she ran down the hall from the lift. "Lady Elyria requests an audience with you!"
Celice’s fur bristled. "And whatever for?" she asked calmly.
"She needs help deciding on how to style her hair for the banquet!" the servant girl said. "She’s in an awful state, and she’s told me only you can help in this dire emergency!"
Kass had to bury his face in his paw so the poor servant wouldn’t see him roll his eyes.
"Oh dear," Celice said. "I know how Elyria can get so worked up about things like this… I’m dreadfully sorry, but I really should go and help her or else there’s no calming her down—"
"But you said you would spend time with us!" Pharazon said.
Terra clenched her fist. "Now’s the time to put your paw down, Celice!" the owner said. "You can do it!"
Celice looked over at the human and her ears lowered. Then she took a deep breath and turned back to the servant. "Tell my sister that I have a previous engagement," the sorceress said, "and I feel perfectly confident that whatever hairstyle she decides upon will be absolutely stunning." She paused. "And don’t let her give you any grief about it. Just square your shoulders and walk away."
The young Acara nodded hesitantly. "All—all right, milady," she said, rushing back to the lift.
Pharazon gave the Lupe a high five, and Terra said, "Atta girl."
"That did feel good," Celice said. "Difficult, but good. And I am holding you all to your promise to help me with supper."
"Oh, no worries there," Isengrim said with a fanged grin. "This should be fun."
Celice’s smile faded. "You won’t do anything really dreadful, will you?" she asked. "I’m not asking for you to give them their comeuppance or anything, just keep them off my back so I can actually enjoy my food. They’re still my family and I love them dearly, despite their… quirks."
Isengrim looked a little disappointed, but he nodded. "Understood," he said. "We’ll behave."
Connor looked up at him, and then over at Celice. "Do you folks do this sort o’ thing all the time?" the young Werelupe asked. "You seem so matter-o’-fact about it."
"We’re infamously odd," Celice said, adjusting her spectacles. "Of all Neopets, Connor, you should know this."
Connor chuckled. "Aye, I do know it," he said. "It just never ceases to amaze me. Or amuse me, I suppose."
"Excellent," Blynn said. "That’s the point."
And with that, they all trundled back into the sitting room to relax before supper. The servant girl returned a few minutes later to tell Celice that Elyria was simply inconsolable, but Celice remained firm and the servant departed again. When she came back, the girl reported that Elyria had decided upon a hairstyle. Kass thanked the Acara for her trouble by promising her the first slice of her favourite pie during dessert.
They all chatted and read and rested for a bit, but when the sun sank beyond the mountains and dusk fell over Market Town, it was time for supper. Kass, his friends, and his staff returned to the kitchens, and then the food was brought to the tables.
The grand banquet hall had room for three very long tables, enough to seat not only Kass and all of his guests, but quite a few attendants besides. Wrought-iron chandeliers hung from the high ceiling and tapestries decorated the stone walls, making the room look quite stately indeed.
"I say," Minevra said as she and her clan wandered in, "how marvelous! The food looks simply divine, and this carpet—is it from Qasala?"
"It certainly is," Kass said as he took a seat at the head of the middle table. "Please, be seated and help yourselves."
"Oh goody, food’s ready!" the fire Gelert boy said as he and his siblings rushed to the table. Their father chased after them, reminding them to mind their manners, while Elyria followed, still fussing with her hair.
Celice stood there amid the rush of diners, looking rather bewildered. Kass caught her eye and patted one of the chairs next to him. With a relieved smile, she sat down—and her expression froze as Belven took the other chair next to Kass, on the opposite side of the table as her.
"A most remarkable Giving Day feast indeed, Lord Mayor," Belven said. "It seems trade is booming in Market Town by the bounty spread on your tables this day. If I may, I’d like to offer some suggestions on how you might further improve your rapport with the Traders Guild…"
Celice squirmed in her seat, but Kass was prepared for this. "Actually," he said, not skipping a beat as he swirled his mug of hot cocoa, "I believe you’ve mistakenly taken the seat of my friend Pharazon."
The faerie Draik standing behind Belven cleared his throat. The shadow Shoyru looked down at him and faltered. "Ah—my apologies, good sir," he said. "But Lord Mayor, if I might just take a minute of your time—"
"How about you go and enjoy supper?" Kass asked calmly, tilting his head and narrowing his crimson eyes. During his time on the Citadel, he’d had plenty of time to hone the art of giving off the aura of knowing he was more powerful than the person he was talking to. It came in handy in times like these. There were certain Neopets that needed to be reminded of who they were dealing with.
Belven swallowed hard. "Y-yes, of course, sir," he said, stumbling as he pushed away from the table.
Pharazon swooped into his chair before any other Anfel could steal it. "Sorry I didn’t get here first," he said.
"Not to worry," Celice said. "Kass just gave him the old dictator look."
Kass gave her a weak smile. "I don’t like doing that," he said, "but sometimes it does need to be done."
Celice patted his paw. "Thanks for your help."
As everyone else got seated and began helping themselves to the food, Pharazon looked up and around at the vast hall. "Hey… this is where we fought the Dark Faerie Sisters, isn’t it?"
Kass nodded. "I’m surprised you noticed," the Eyrie said. "I tried to fix it up and not make it so gloomy."
"You did a great job," Pharazon said. "It’s just hard to forget that."
"And it should not be forgotten," Kass said as he carved Celice some slices of roast. "You did a great service here last year."
"Well, you both helped immensely," Pharazon said. "And it was Jhudora who really ended up defeating the Dark Faerie Sisters."
Elyria slumped down in the seat next to him. "I say, those children are driving me mad," she said. "Thankfully that human and the dotty Zafara distracted them so I could slip away to a different seat." The Blumaroo looked at Celice and frowned. "What was so important that you couldn’t help me with my hair, Celly?"
Celice stiffened. "Business elsewhere in the Keep," she said.
Kass cleared his throat rather loudly. "Lady Elyria," he said, "did you know that our friend Pharazon here is a wizard? He can do all sorts of wonderful tricks with his magic."
"Oh?" Elyria looked at the little Draik beside her. "Like what?"
"Um, uh…" Pharazon looked at Kass, rather panicked. Kass winked at him and Pharazon seemed to understand. "Like… juggling potatoes… with no hands!" The Draik stretched his claws out at the platter of potatoes. His hands glowed cyan, and then the vegetables rose off of the platter and began dancing through the air.
Elyria clapped her hands. "Ooh! Fantastic! Rondas, come here, you simply must see this!" she said to her husband.
"Don’t worry," Kass said to Celice out of the side of his beak. "We’ve got everything under control." He pointed further down the table, to where Terra and Blynn were showing the nieces and nephews how to construct likenesses of their family out of vegetables.
Conversation from another table caught the Draconian’s ear and he turned to see what was going on.
"I say!" Crom said before taking a big swig of cocoa, "you fellows have been in some fine battles, very fine indeed! But can you match the time my brother Orren Anfel the Fourth and his Uni steed faced a band of Ixi Raiders by themselves?"
Sitting across from him were Hyren and Isengrim. The Grundo leaned back in his chair and rested his foot on his knee, while Isengrim tore a drumstick off a nearby turkey and ate half the leg in one bite, bone and all. "Sounds exciting," Hyren said, "but I’d like to see anybody top the time I fought space pirates on a planet whose sun was about to go supernova. Barely got out of that one."
"Speaking of narrow escapes," Isengrim said through a mouthful of meat, "guess who’s seen the Beast Behind the Tree and lived to tell the tale!"
Kass grinned. "Looks like they’ll be occupied for a good long while."
"I hope it’s not too much trouble putting up with Father’s boasting," Celice said.
"Bragging contests are what old warriors like them live for," Kass said.
"It’s a guy thing," Pharazon added before looking further along the table. "And I see Connor’s got Belven under control." Indeed, the young Werelupe seemed to be explaining to the Shoyru about the science behind various cooking techniques, and to Kass’s surprise Belven actually appeared interested—really interested, not just faking it to try to butter people up like usual.
Celice heaved a huge sigh. "Oh, I’m so grateful," she said.
"And here comes dessert," Kass said. He did not particularly have a sweet tooth, preferring meat, but it was fun to see everyone else enjoy some holiday treats.
The chefs marched in carrying large trays of puddings and pies as well as fruits from around Neopia. One of the advantages of Market Town, Kass thought as several dishes were placed on his table, was its being the commercial hub of the Meridell region. Imports came in from places as far away as Shenkuu and Mystery Island, so the townsfolk ate more varied fare than was usual for the rest of the region.
"Ooh, splendid!" Celice said as a large sparkleberry pie was set close to the three of them. "Kass, this is my favourite pie!" The fresh crystalline berries atop the crust glittered beneath thin strands of icing.
"It’s mine, too," the Acara servant from earlier said as she wandered closer to the table. "Lord Kass, sir, is it still all right if I have the first slice?"
"Of course, Annelita," Kass said, reaching out to slice the pie. "Thank you for your help earlier. You don’t mind, do you, Celice?"
"No, not at all," the Lupe said with a grateful smile to Annelita, who held up her plate expectantly.
Suddenly an overly-perfumed mass of furs and velvet pushed Annelita away. "Out of my way, servant," Minevra said. "Learn your place!"
Kass scowled and pulled the slice away. "Lady Minevra," he said, forcing his tone to remain level even though inside he was seething. "I promised Annelita the first slice of this pie. Please wait your turn."
The Techo gasped. "Excuse me!" she said. "Lord Mayor, have you forgotten that I am the matriarch of House Anfel?" Elyria and Rondas looked equally appalled.
"No, but you’ve forgotten common decency," Pharazon muttered.
"I am not sure how things are done in your household," Kass said calmly, "but in Black Keep, no one is more or less of a Neopet than anyone else, regardless of title." He put an arm around Annelita’s shoulders and deposited the fat slice of pie on her plate. "There you are, dear," he said to the Acara, who looked positively terrified of the noblewoman towering over her. "A due reward for courage under fire."
His crimson eyes snapped back to Minevra. "All right," he said. "Now you may have your slice."
The Techo’s eyes narrowed. "If you’re going to be that way about it," she said, "then I simply won’t have any pie at all! Those sparkleberries look mouldy anyhow!"
"More for the rest of us, then," Kass said in a bored tone. He knew better than to give in to her attempts at manipulation, and he ignored the livid look on her face as he turned back to the pie to carve Celice a slice.
The Lupe looked around self-consciously. By now everyone else in the banquet hall had noticed her mother’s tantrum, and Celice sunk down in her chair, her ears lowering.
Minevra fisted her hands. "I say!" she said. "Is that any way to treat a noble lady? You think yourself so high and mighty, Lord Kass, but you’re just a Draconian oaf who continues to disrespect the great houses of Meridell!"
Kass froze. His feathers ruffled and his eyes hardened, and a growl started in his throat and he had to swallow hard to silence it. He had to stare very hard at the pie to avoid opening his beak and saying something he would surely regret. But to slight his nation like this was one of the worst offenses he felt one could commit against a Draconian.
To be continued…