There's No Place Like Qasala for the Holidays
"Read 'em and weep, my friend."
"Confound it, Nightsteed! How do you keep doing that?!"
"I'm a better bluffer than you'll ever be, Jazan."
It was the eve of the month of Celebrating, which meant for Qasala it was the middle of summer. The palace's large windows had been opened to let in the cool night air, and it was near one of these that three friends, two of whom happened to rule the kingdom, were sprawled, enjoying each other's company after a day of administrative work.
Jazan massaged his forehead, leaning over the card-strewn table in exasperation as Nabile erupted into a fit of laughter beside him. "Why do I always lose at this game?" he groaned, adding the pile to his hand of twenty cards.
Nabile patted his shoulder, although she was unable to disguise her smirk. "Now, now, you haven't lost yet." She winked at the Nightsteed—both the Uni and the Ixi held only a single card in their hands. "I'm sure the last fifteen times were just flukes."
"That's statistically improbable," Jazan grumbled.
"Well, maybe if you'd stop accusing us both of cheating all the time..." Nabile pouted, looking a bit hurt. "I mean, really. Treating your two best friends like common thieves."
Jazan sat back on the couch and draped his arm over his eyes. "Can we play Guess the Curse after this? I'm much better at that one."
The Nightsteed snorted. "Only if you get the cooks to whip us up more Spicy Queela Dip."
"Fine, fine." Jazan turned to the queen. "Your turn, Nabile."
A grin spread up her pink muzzle and she slid down her remaining card. "One king."
Jazan rubbed at his eye, scrutinizing his own hand. He had the other three kings.
He glanced up to see the Ixi calmly tuck a strand of her silky black hair behind her ear. "Either of you boys going to call me out?"
The Kyrii's gaze shifted to the Nightsteed, whose crimson eyes betrayed nothing as the Uni looked back and forth from Jazan to his own remaining card in his hooves.
"... Pass," Jazan grumbled.
"Pass," Nightsteed agreed with an amiable smile. "Good game, Nabile." He turned his hand over to reveal the king of diamonds.
Jazan's eyes bulged. "Whuh—buh—that means—" he sputtered, gripping the edges of the table and staring at the queen in disbelief.
Eyes creased in the epitome of smugness, Nabile slowly turned over her card. It was the seven of Neggs. "Honestly, Jazan, you should know better than to trust thieves."
The king planted his face in his hands. "You're horrible."
She grinned and patted his head. "I know."
Soon enough, more dip had arrived and they had moved on to Jazan's favourite game.
"Okay!" Jazan clapped his hands together, sitting cross-legged on the couch. "What's the curse that makes everything you drink taste like an underripe Qando Fruit?"
Nabile gave him a blank stare, while the Nightsteed wordlessly dipped a pita chip into his fresh bowl of Spicy Queela Dip and crammed it into his mouth as he lounged on his belly.
"I give up," the Ixi replied listlessly.
Jazan pointed to the ceiling, the draping sleeve of his robe making him look like an authoritative Shenkuuvian scholar. "The Curse of Qando Sipping!"
Nabile yawned. "Yep, definitely never would have guessed that one."
The Nightsteed shifted his wings, resting his head on his forelegs. "Someone spent a little too much time in the scroll repositories when he was younger," he remarked.
"It was a part of my royal training!" Jazan insisted.
The Uni snorted. "Nerd."
"All right, Nabile, your turn to describe a curse!" Jazan watched her expectantly.
She gave him an exasperated look, but then a familiar gleam twinkled in her magenta eye. "Hey, Jazan. We should throw a Christmas party!"
He blinked. "We should?"
"Yeah!" She pushed herself up from off the couch and placed her hands on her hips. "What do you say? It'd be fun! We can invite everyone to the palace, and have food and music and a gift exchange! Maybe someone will even give you a paint brush!" She grabbed the king's ear, turning it this way and that. "Red is nice and all, but I think you'd look super snazzy rocking the Royal look."
Jazan looked up at her, horrified. "If I did that, I'd be purple! And I like my goatee just the way it is, thank you very much..." he whimpered, clutching the black tuft of fur on his chin.
The Nightsteed rolled over onto his back, kicking his hooves in amusement. "Oh, oh! Or maybe he'll get an Elderly Paint Brush!"
"No!!" the king cried, holding his wrinkle-free face.
"Or a Baby Paint Brush," Nabile cooed, making a scrunched-up expression like she was talking to an infant. "Awww, wook at the widdle ruler of Qasala..."
"You guys are so mean!" Jazan wailed, trying to squirm away as Nabile began to pinch his cheeks. "If you don't stop, I'm going to unleash the Curse of... Infinite Tickling!" His arms shot out and he began to tickle her ribs.
She let out a screech of laughter. "You—stop—that—right—now—Jazan--!" she panted, trying to shove him away as the Nightsteed watched with whinnying guffaws, lashing his long black tail against the couch.
The three turned to see a rather bewildered green Usul palace attendant standing with her hands folded in front of her. "Uhm... excuse me, Your Highnesses. There's someone at the palace gates to see you."
"At this hour?" Jazan craned his neck over his shoulder to look out the window at the deep desert night. "Well, bring him in, I suppose."
"Er..." The attendant fluffed her tail nervously. "He demands that you go down to see him."
"Cheeky fellow, isn't he," Nabile muttered. "All right, let's see what he wants."
"I hope it's not another scarab salespet," the Nightsteed groaned as he clopped after the king and queen out into the hall. "I still don't know whether or not that was someone's idea of a sick joke."
As the three approached the front gates, the wind picked up and began to moan ominously outside, and the torches flickered, sending a chill up their spines.
"I return from magical banishment and this is the greeting I get?!" a dry, crackly voice thundered, sending a burst of flames through the gate.
It was, indeed, not a salespet.
"Dad!" Jazan groaned, planting his face into his palm. "What are you doing here?! You're supposed to be sealed away in another dimension for all eternity!"
"Well, I thought I'd stop by for the holidays," Emperor Razul huffed, folding his arms and looking down at the trio. "Honestly, you put one curse on a person and suddenly you're no longer welcome in their home."
Before Jazan could stop him, Razul swept into the hallway, trailing fire behind him. "I'm not impressed with this décor," the emperor commented, gripping a vase in his clawlike, skeletal hands and inspecting it closely. "Eye motifs, really? I can't believe you shop at that tacky Aisha's place."
"That's been here since before the curse," Jazan pointed out. "In fact, I think you were the one who—"
"No, no, it must have been one of the servants," Razul insisted.
"Seriously, you can leave now," Nabile said flatly.
"Oh, but I just wanted to spend another Christmas in Qasala!" the emperor exclaimed, spinning around dramatically. "Surely my son – my own family – wouldn't deny me that!"
Jazan's ears lowered. "Well... if it's just for Christmas..."
"What are you doing?!" Nabile hissed. "He's unbearable to live with! If he isn't out destroying cities, he's rearranging the furniture and drinking all the milk!"
"It'll only be for one month!" Jazan bargained with the queen. "I'm sure we can live with him until the holidays are over."
Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. Razul found something wrong with nearly every guest room they offered him, and finally they had to give him the captain of the guard's quarters. The captain, a rather gruff Shadow Zafara, had to room with the Nightsteed, and evidently had a snoring problem.
Additionally, the emperor insisted on sticking his lack of nose into Jazan's and Nabile's work, making such terrible suggestions for running the kingdom as requiring everyone to wear a silly hat on Thursdays, and periodically releasing hordes of Dung Scamanders into the marketplace, "just to mix things up a little". They finally had to give him his own small pile of paperwork to make him feel important, although they made sure to only put him in charge of things like naming the phases of Kreludor and establishing the number of leaves on the average Gwontek Melon plant.
And he did, indeed, drink all the milk.
In spite of this unexpected circumstance, Nabile moved forward with her plans for the Christmas party. She and the Nightsteed collaborated on it for the most part, keeping Jazan in the dark about it except when they would ask him elusive questions such as his favorite shade of red and whether he preferred Queela or Tchea punch. The week before Christmas, they wouldn't even let him look at the great hall—which wasn't so much of a problem, as Razul had Jazan occupied in the library, going over embarrassing old family scrolls with him.
They were engaged in just that activity on Christmas Eve. "Oh, look!" Razul chortled, unrolling another scroll. "Here's the time when you were four and had the hiccoughs, and every hiccough made you accidentally fling a curse!"
"Aww, Dad," Jazan groaned.
A familiar snicker from behind caused his ears to perk up. "Wow, Jazan, you sure had a big head when you were a kid."
He turned around to see Nabile leaning over Razul's shoulder, looking at the scene painted on the scroll below the hieroglyphics explaining the incident. The illustration depicted a young Kyrii, his eyes bugged out in a particularly ridiculous pose, throwing a curse at an unfortunate Kiko in the act of being turned into a Gracklebug.
"Nabile!" Jazan stood up, flustered. "You know how those illustrators liked to stylize! My head's dimensions have always been perfectly normal!"
She smirked. "I came to let you know that we're ready for the party, so you had better get your oversized royal head out there and make an appearance. You'll be quite pleased by the selection of guests."
"Every time you say I'll be 'quite pleased' with something, it means I'll hate it," Jazan grumbled.
Nabile put her hands up innocently. "Oh, no, no, not this time! It's Christmas, after all! Would I do something like that on Christmas?"
He regarded her for a moment and then sighed. "No, I suppose not. Let's go."
"Yes, let's!" Razul swept ahead of them. "A party! I can't wait—I love parties!"
"Just don't get carried away... please..." Jazan begged.
"Me? Get carried away?" Razul laughed. "When have I ever gotten carried away?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe the time you cursed the entire kingdom into a state of ghoulish undeath?" the king reminded him.
Razul, however, made no reply as he glided down the hallway, babbling to himself about how delightful a party would be after so many centuries, and how he hoped there would be cake.
"Don't let Ol' Flamehead get to you." Nabile jabbed Jazan's arm with her elbow. "I still think you're an idiot and this was a terrible idea, but the royal pain will be gone tomorrow and then everything will be back to normal."
"I'm not sure I can last that long," Jazan moaned. "I thought you were sick of him."
"I am, but I also know how to roll with the punches. And there's no way he can mess up this party," Nabile promised. "We've Razul-proofed it. Even the tablecloths were enchanted by Fire Faeries to resist flame."
"Impressive," Jazan admitted.
"Just enjoy yourself. I'm determined to have a fun time regardless of annoying relatives." Nabile winked.
As they approached the great hall, the sound of music and happy voices swelled. "Merry Christmas," the queen announced to Jazan, beaming.
The hall had been lavishly decorated in red and gold with touches of green, and tables piled with food lined the walls while a mass of Neopets mingled on the floor. In one corner, an enormous fir imported from Terror Mountain had been set up and trimmed with garlands and golden ornaments shaped like scarabs, ankhs, and Gebmids. A mount of presents lay underneath. In another corner, Jub Zambra and the Cobrall Charmers gyrated along to their own Lost Desert spin on traditional Neopian Christmas carols.
Jazan's jaw dropped. "This is amazing! I've never seen the palace look so... festive!"
"Isn't it great?" The Nightsteed leaned an elbow on the king's shoulder. "I'd say Nabile really outdid herself this time."
"Darn right I did," the Ixi said with a smirk. "I invited everyone in Qasala, of course, and some special guests from out of town—hey, Tomos, you old lunkhead!" she called out with a wave. "Stop trying to steal all of the appetizers!" Nabile glanced back at Jazan and the Nightsteed. "Excuse me for a moment. Once a thief, always a thief," she muttered as she clutched her skirts and marched off to apprehend her hapless Lupe friend.
"You can say that again," the Nightsteed snorted, watching her filch a dagger from one of the palace guards on the way.
"I'll make her give it back after the party," Jazan grumbled. "For now, though, those Queela Crisps are calling my name..."
"Heyyyyy, buddy!" A blue-furred arm hooked him around the shoulders and pulled him back. "Long time no see, pal!" Hanso flashed a grin.
"Oh, no," Jazan groaned. "What are you doing here?!"
"Nabile invited us," Brynn explained in between sips of punch. She had exchanged her usual Brightvalian uniform for a holly-green dress, wearing a sprig of the plant in her hair.
Jazan gritted his teeth. "Nabile," he seethed under his breath. He could feel a migraine coming on.
"It's because I'm such a party animal," Hanso remarked casually, smoothing back his bangs and winking at a few passing guests, who ignored him. "And, you know, probably because Nabile knows what great friends we are," he added, prodding Jazan's arm.
"Get off," the king grunted, shrugging him away. "Don't you have other people to pester?"
"Few as fun as you." The Ixi grinned again, seeming to take delight in showing off his own teeth. "So what did you get me for Christmas?"
Jazan looked sidewise at him. "I didn't get you anything. The way the gift exchange works, we all bring a gift and then pick one at random from the pile."
"Ahh, a White Elephante, eh? Clever, clever." Hanso nodded. "Excellent way to disguise my gift. Ooh, I hope it's something shiny." He twitched his fingers like he could feel some valuable item in them already.
"You're incorrigible," Brynn grumbled, pulling him away.
"Okay." Jazan massaged his temples. "I can still manage to enjoy this party as long as I stay away from that bane of my existence—"
The Nightsteed snickered. "Man, Ixi thieves just flock to you like Fleafs to a Honey Potion, don't they?"
"—And avoid my father," the Kyrii finished, glaring at him.
"Speaking of, where is that guy?" The Nightsteed raised himself up on his hind legs, craning his neck. "You'd think a towering infernal sorcerer would be easier to spot in a crowd..."
Jazan ran a hand down his face. "Oh, no. Why weren't you keeping an eye on him?! We can't leave him to his own devices, you remember what happened the last time!"
The Uni flicked an ear and let out a whinnying snort. "I wasn't aware I was supposed to be playing babysitter!"
"We have to find him!" Jazan yelped. "Before he—"
"Okay, everybody!" Nabile's voice rang out across the hall. "Time for the gift exchange! Gather around the tree and pick something out!" Immediately the population of the room shifted toward the pile of presents, and Jazan and the Nightsteed were swept up in the tide.
Laughs and shouts of glee began emerging from the crowd as Neopets unwrapped their chosen presents, most of which were small and silly trinkets. One Gelert let out a whoop as she held up a piece of the Secret Laboratory Map, which prompted a chatter of congratulatory and jealous remarks.
Hanso rushed up to Jazan, dragging Brynn behind him. "Dubloons!" the Ixi announced with glee, holding up a handful of the pirate coins. "Shiny and useful! You really shouldn't have, bud! Now I can pay off my tab at the Golden Dubloon!"
Brynn narrowed her eyes, her long tail lashing and ears pinned back. "Hanso, I swear, I am never eating a Slithering Squid Surprise again."
"I could go for a Barnacle Bill's Belt Busting Burger, myself..." Hanso replied wistfully, rubbing his stomach. "Not that the food here isn't great." He flashed another grin. "My compliments to the chef. I've never had kebabs so savoury. They have a weird minty aftertaste, though," he commented, moving his tongue around his mouth to try to catch the last remnants of the flavor.
Jazan did a double take. "... Did you just say a minty aftertaste?!"
Hanso got out a toothpick, raising an eyebrow at the king. "... Yeah? Why?"
At that moment, more than half of the guests began glowing with an ominous teal light. The hall filled with shouts of confusion which quickly regressed to small squeaks and burbles. Right in front of Jazan, Hanso staggered back, rapidly shrinking and falling into his own clothes. What crawled out a moment after was a rather bemused blue Faellie.
"The Curse of Cuteness..." Jazan muttered, staring around the room in horror. Everyone who had eaten the kebabs had been transformed into some manner of adorable Petpet.
Brynn picked up the Faellie and perched him in her hand, gently scratching his fuzzy head with the tip of her finger. "I think I like him a lot better this way," she teased as he tried to bat her finger away with his tiny paws.
"Muwahahahahahaaaaah!" Deep, crackling laughter filled the room, and Razul ascended the stage in front of Jub Zambra's troupe. "Foolish Neopets! Now you shall spend the rest of your days suffering in the throes of adorability!"
Nabile ran up to Jazan and the Nightsteed, holding a confused-looking Blobikins wearing a blue fez. "I guess I forgot to keep your dad out of the kitchen..." she muttered.
The emperor looked over at Jazan. "Isn't this great, son? Just like old times! Remember when you and I used to curse people all over the place? Oh! Like that time we journeyed to Mystery Island! Jhuidah's cooking pot produced nothing but keychains for a month! Now that was a clever curse on your part!"
Jazan ground his heel into the floor. "That only happened because I sneezed while trying to make a Rainbow Sand Sculpture! Dad, you're ruining the party! Can't you ever do anything without throwing the realm into chaos?!"
Razul seemed to ponder for a moment, although it was hard to tell due to his expressionless, empty mask of a face. "... Oh. I'm sorry, son." He scratched the back of his robes, near where his neck would have been. "Gee... I didn't realize I was messing things up that badly. I just wanted to spend the holidays with my family."
The king sighed. "I forgive you, Dad. I know you just can't help being maniacal sometimes. But you need to work on toning it down."
"Yes, yes, I suppose I do." Razul nodded. He sat down on the edge of the stage, looking rather dejected.
Jazan offered him a small smile, walking over and patting his hand. "So if you could break this curse and we could all get on with the festivities, that would be splendid."
"So soon?" Brynn whined jokingly. "I wanted to paint Hanso pink..." The Faellie in her arms let out a panicked squeal, struggling to break free.
"I'm afraid I can't undo it," Razul explained. "The only way to break the curse is... to dance."
Everyone looked at him in a moment of stunned silence. "... You Qasalans come up with some really stupid curses," Nabile commented flatly.
"You heard the man!" Jub Zambra shouted, tapping out a rhythm with one of his large feet. "Let's boogie down!" He and his musicians launched into their rendition of one of Chomby and the Fungus Balls' hits, and their Aisha dancer led the guests in a flurry of groovy dance moves.
As the Petpets danced, teal light surrounded them again and they began transforming back into Neopets, who kept dancing for the fun of it. "You know," Hanso commented to Jazan as the Ixi moved to the beat and the Kyrii remained steadfastly still and scowling, "that was just what we needed to liven up this party even more! You should invite your dad next year, too!"
Jazan glowered at him. "Whenever you tell me to do something, it makes me automatically want to do the opposite of that thing."
Hanso tapped his fingers together deviously. "That's good to know..." he commented as he turned away.
"Wait—what are you planning? Hanso?! Hanso!!" Jazan shook his fist after the thief, who had already disappeared into the crowd. "Confound that Ixi!! If I ever catch him I'll turn him into a Sludgy!"
The party went on far into the evening without any other hitches. Even Jazan had to admit he was having a great time, in spite of Hanso's pestering. Gradually, the partygoers filtered out and the Cobrall Charmers packed up and called it a night. Brynn managed to get Hanso out the door, sparing Jazan from further irritation, and Tomos and the rest of the Desert Scarabs made their exit only after Nabile and the palace guards relieved the Scarabs of the excess baggage they had picked up during the party.
Soon, only the king, queen, emperor, and Nightsteed were left to help the palace attendants clean up. "You know... that was pretty fun," Jazan mentioned to Nabile as they took down ornaments from the tree.
"I told you!" Nabile replied with a grin. "We should do it again next year!"
"Although how we're going to top this year, I don't know," the Nightsteed mentioned, tapping a hoof to his chin. "Maybe we could invite the Three—"
"No," Jazan said sternly. "No more phantasms manipulating rulers!"
The Nightsteed rolled his eyes. "I was going to say the Threelegs Official Fan Club. I think a swordplay demonstration would be really exciting."
"Oh. Right," the Kyrii replied.
"Well... I had better take my leave," Razul said from behind them.
They turned around to see him lingering near the large doorway to the outside. "So soon?" Jazan asked, earning him a harsh jab in the ribs from Nabile.
"I do have eternal banishment to get back to," Razul pointed out. "But it really was a pleasure. I'll try to work on the whole cursing thing. And not drinking all the milk."
Jazan smiled. "See you later, Dad."
"Farewell, my son." Razul turned to leave, his robes sweeping imperiously behind him—and tripped and fell on the stairs. "Ow," he grumbled, getting up and dusting himself off. "I hope no one saw that..." Then, in a flash of fire, he was gone.
"... Okay, that could have gone worse," Nabile commented, rolling up some ribbon. "I mean, at least you're not zombies this time."
"Who knows, maybe he's turned over a new leaf," Jazan remarked.
Nabile paused. "You're not going to let him stay next year, are you?"
She threw the roll of ribbon at his head.