Giving Day at Black Keep
"This is fantastic, Kass, just fantastic!" Celice Anfel the white Lupe said to her Darigan Eyrie friend as they strolled down the wintry, holly-bedecked streets of Market Town, laden with bags of groceries.
Lord Kass looked over at her and smiled. Her tail was high and there was a spring in her step as her boots splashed through piles of slush on the cobblestones. Although the sorceress had a penchant for sarcasm, he could detect none of it now.
"I must say," he said, "I didn’t take you as one to enjoy Giving Day." Shifting the weight of the groceries in his arms, he adjusted the striped scarf around his neck—an important gift from an important friend. The heavy aroma of warm meat pies wafted up from one of the bags, making his mouth water.
Celice, who had momentarily been distracted by festive decorations hung in a shop window, looked over at him. "Whatever do you mean?" she asked. "Even I know how to take a break from my research, thank you very much."
Kass chuckled. "I just thought perhaps all of this hubbub would be… below someone of your intellect."
They paused to let a few children run past. "I’m not above having a good time," Celice said. "It’s just that on most days of the year, I disguise it with the pretense of doing some sort of research. Giving Day needs no excuse, though."
"Fair enough," Kass said as they moved to the side of the street to avoid a passing Uni carriage.
The carriage slowed and a blue Kau leaned out the window. "Good morning, Lord Kass, Lady Anfel!" she said.
"Good morning, Guildswoman!" Kass replied, and then the carriage sped on its way.
The two Neopets turned a corner and nearly ran into some street musicians playing festive carols. Kass dropped a heavy pawful of coins into the overturned hat in front of them, and the musicians’ eyes widened.
"Thank you, milord!" the Xweetok crumhorn player said. "Happy Giving Day to you!"
"And to you!" Kass said.
"How does it feel?" Celice asked as they walked on.
"How does what feel?" Kass asked.
"Being in charge again," Celice said.
In front of them, past the red tile rooftops of the Altador-inspired town, loomed an enormous black tower. With architecture reminiscent of his Darigan Citadel home, the tower cut an imposing figure as it loomed over the bay, nearly scraping the cloudy sky, but light shone from most of the windows. Black Keep was not the dreary, haunted place it used to be. Now, for Kass, Lord Mayor of Market Town, it was home.
He smiled and turned back to Celice. "Now that I’m not a dictator who listens to malevolent spirits, it feels quite good," he said. "I enjoy seeing the smiles on my citizens’ faces." He waved at a pair of passing Neopets, who wished him a happy Giving Day.
Celice paused to balance one of her grocery bags on one knee so she could push her spectacles up her snout. "Are you sure you don’t mind hosting my family for Giving Day this year?" she asked. "They can be… kind of a handful."
"There’s more than enough room for them in the Keep," Kass said. "Why don’t you let me carry one of those?"
Celice looked at her groceries. "Oh—all right," she said, handing him a bag. "Thanks. That was nice of the cooks to let us do some shopping," she added as they neared the gates to the keep.
Kass laughed. "It’s good to go out and buy my own food sometimes," he said. "It gives me a chance to mingle with the townsfolk." He stuck his beak in one of his bags. "Not to mention we bought plenty of goodies, like these very tasty-smelling meat pies."
"And chocolate," Celice said. "I’d been wanting to visit that chocolatier on Seaview Street."
They strolled through the open gates, through the small courtyard beyond, and across the stone bridge that led to Black Keep proper. As Market Town was located on an island and property was at a premium, when the Darkest Knight had built this place a thousand years ago, his architects had built upward instead of outward, creating the unusual layout of the place.
"Welcome back," said the guard at the door, a Kougra who wore a heavy wool cloak over his uniform. "I’m glad to see you’ve returned before it started snowing." He glanced up at the dark grey sky.
"Thank you," Kass said as the guard opened the door for them. "Once your shift ends, come inside and grab a mug of borovan, all right?"
The guard grinned. "I’ll take that as an order, sir."
"Good thinking installing these magical lifts during the renovations," Celice said to Kass as the two boarded one of the enchanted platforms. "As marvelous as this place is, all of these stairs are killer on my paws."
"Yes, well, one must be sensitive to the needs of… land-bound Neopets," Kass said with a smirk, stretching his own large purple wings.
"Gloating doesn’t become you," Celice said, turning her snout up at him.
When they reached the kitchens, they gave most of the food to the cooks, although Kass and Celice kept the meat pies and chocolates for themselves, for lunch. The rest of their purchases were ingredients for the Giving Day feast the cooks were working on.
The two sat in one of the smaller dining rooms and enjoyed their luncheon while watching snow start to fall outside. Kass took a bite of his meat pie and leaned against the windowsill, scanning the whitening rooftops far below with a smile. It did feel good to know that all of these Neopets were under his protection and care.
"How’s it looking out there?" Celice asked from the other end of the table. "Any sign of my family yet?"
"Why don’t you come see for yourself?" Kass asked.
The Lupe frowned. "You’re perfectly aware that I hate heights," she said. "I’d rather not be reminded of the fact that we’re twenty stories up, thank you."
"You can’t fall out this window," Kass said, pressing his paw pads to the glass. "It doesn’t even open."
Celice shut her eyes tightly and shook her head. "It has a vertigo effect on me. You know this. And not a word about how you marvelous winged Neopets don’t get vertigo!" Grumbling, she turned her attention to her chocolates. "Now then, help me out here. Someone’s got to eat the ones with the coconut centres and it won’t be me."
A Flotsam attendant appeared in the doorway. "Milord," she said, "your guests from House Anfel have arrived at the eastern landing platform."
"Oh, here we go," Celice said. She looked over at Kass. "Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. They’re just… exhausting."
Kass smiled as he stood up. "Noble families can be quite difficult to deal with. Don’t worry—we can handle them."
"All right," Celice said, "but just for the record, I cannot be held responsible for their actions." She passed him the coconut chocolates and he happily snapped them up in his beak.
Kass suspected she was playing things up in her mind a bit as they traversed Black Keep to reach one of the terraces where Eyrie cabs and flying Neopets could land. Still, he would not dismiss her fretting outright. Although House Anfel was only a minor Brightvalian family of nobles, Kass was well aware of what power did to Neopets. He just hoped he’d had enough experience dealing with the nobility to be able to graciously host them.
On the landing platform, a group of Neopets, children and adults, all bundled in furs, stood by an Eyrie cab as servants unloaded their luggage.
"Oh, look!" a young fire Gelert squeaked. "There’s Aunt Celice! Hullo, Aunt Celice! Happy Giving Day!" He and the other three children rushed to the Lupe and danced around her.
"Aunt Celice, I beat Daddy at Meristones the other day!" the Gelert said. "I only cheated once! Well, maybe twice!"
"I put a Mortog in Mummy’s nightcap and she screamed so loud, Aunt Celice!" said a blue Tuskaninny girl.
Celice chuckled and patted their heads. "It’s wonderful to see all of you, too," she said. "Kass, these are my nieces and nephews, my older sister’s children."
"A pleasure to make all of your acquaintances," Kass said, putting a paw to his chest and bowing low as he flared his wings.
The children let out gasps of delight. "Ooh, it’s Lord Kass himself!" the Tuskaninny said. "I can’t believe it! Did you really used to push Neopets off the Citadel?"
Kass’s smile froze. "Well, I—"
"Ah, there you are," said a rather important-seeming green Blumaroo woman who bustled toward them. "Celice, dear, so lovely to see you again," she said, wrapping the Lupe in a dramatic hug.
"You too," Celice said, returning the hug. "Kass, this is my sister, Lady Elyria, and her husband, Lord Rondas of House Voccioni." Pulling away, she gestured to a curly-bearded red Nimmo nearby, who bowed curtly. Celice looked past them and her polite smile faded a bit. "Ah, and here’s my younger brother, Lord Belven Anfel."
Striding up to them came a shadow Shoyru with a satchel full of scrolls and a large feather in his cap. "Most pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord Mayor Kass," Belven said with a deep bow that made the feather undulate dramatically. "I must say I’m very impressed with the political changes that have taken place in Market Town lately. This is my area of study, so I hope you won’t mind if I do some research while I’m here."
"Ah—well—wouldn’t it be nice to get a break from all that for Giving Day?" Kass asked. He wasn’t exactly keen on the idea of someone poking around in his business at any time of year, frankly.
Belven grinned. "A scholar’s work never rests, milord."
"Please, Belven," Celice said. "I know you’re excited about your studies at Brightvale University, but you can come back to Market Town for research any time. Even I’m not doing any research right now."
The Shoyru narrowed his eyes a bit. "Perhaps you may allow yourself a bit of slacking off, dear sister," he said, "but I am wholly dedicated to my studies." He stepped closer to Kass. "And the political history of Market Town is nothing short of worthy of my attention! I’ve never been to Black Keep before—I’m sure you won’t mind, milord, if I seize this opportunity that has been extended to me."
Kass forced a noncommittal smile onto his face. He hated the idea of a self-important scholar snooping around the Keep. "Why don’t we focus on Giving Day for now," he said. "I can consider arranging a research visit for you in the future." And by that he meant he would, for exactly one moment, consider how much he didn’t want that, and then go on with his day.
"You’d best behave, Uncle Belven!" the Tuskaninny girl said. "Or he might throw you off the Keep!" She looked positively gleeful at the idea.
Kass’s feathers ruffled. "Oh, no, no, I don’t do that anymore," he said quickly.
"That’s a relief," Belven said. "But I really must know—is it true that my sister found you wandering witless in the forest a year ago?"
"Yes," Kass said with a nod. "I owe my safe return to her and our other friend." His paw traveled to the scarf around his neck, and he felt a lump in his throat. "It is because of them that I came back to my senses and helped them oust the Dark Faerie Sisters from this tower."
"And would you care to elaborate on your trial at Darigan Citadel afterward?" Belven asked. "The reports were scarce, and I’d love to find out what really went on—"
Celice stepped between them. "It’s been a long day, Belven," she said. "Why don’t you and the family get yourself settled in the guest quarters? We’ll let you know when supper’s ready."
"Right this way, if you please," a Moehog servant said to the Anfels.
"Thank you," Kass said to the sorceress as her family bustled inside, Elyria commenting noisily on everyone’s fashion sense. "I do wish some Neopets would learn to stay out of others’ business."
Celice sighed. "Me too. Sorry about that. He’s worse than me. I mean, I’m nosy, but at least I have a sense of decency."
"Celice, darling!" a woman said. Hurrying toward the two were a middle-aged green Techo and purple Krawk. The slim Techo hugged Celice lightly. "It’s been far too long!" she said. "How are your studies coming?"
"Quite well, thank you," Celice said, giving her a token pat on the back. "Kass, this is my mother, Lady Minevra Anfel, and my father, Lord Crom Anfel."
"It’s an honour to meet you, Lord Kass," Crom said. The bulky Krawk bowed and his wife curtseyed.
Kass bowed in return. "I’m quite pleased to have your family at my keep for Giving Day," he said. "Your daughter has been most helpful in assisting me with coordinating my administration with Hagan’s rule."
"Oh, splendid!" Minevra said. "You should talk to our son Belven about that, too! He’s studying to be a court adviser, and his dedication to making an impact in Brightvalian politics is simply stunning! You could use someone like him, milord!"
Kass winced, but managed to keep his composure. "He does seem like a very… driven young man," the Eyrie said diplomatically.
"Is he ever!" Crom said, puffing out his chest. "Gets it from me, I believe! House Anfel may be a relatively minor house in the big scheme of things, but we’re not to be overlooked! We have plenty to boast about! For example, did you know that my great-great-uncle, Lord Dimmick Anfel, saved the king’s life during the Battle of Larkingham, and for that he was rewarded with—"
Celice put a paw on her father’s shoulder. "Now, Father," she said, "you can tell Lord Kass all about it over supper. Why don’t you go see the guest quarters? They’re quite impressive."
"Marvelous idea, darling," Minevra said. "All this snow isn’t good for my delicate constitution—let’s get inside, posthaste."
As they ducked out of the thickening snow, back into the cozy stone of the keep, Kass noticed that Celice was not trying very hard to keep up with her family. He stopped and put a paw on her shoulder. "What’s wrong?" he asked.
The Lupe sighed. "I’m awfully sorry about my family, Kass. I wish they were… nicer to be around. They’re all a touch arrogant and superficial, I’m afraid. I—I used to be the same way, before Pharazon shook some sense into me."
Kass studied her face for a moment, regarding her downtrodden expression, and then he smiled and put an arm around her shoulders. "Silly girl," he said. "I’m not foolish enough to judge any Neopet by their family. I was not expecting them to be perfect, you know. No family is. You have no need to feel ashamed of them around me. At any rate, I’m doing this for you more than for them."
Celice chuckled. "Thanks," she said. "I do appreciate your hospitality. And they’re generally all right to socialise with as long as you set your expectations low."
"Fair enough," Kass said. "At any rate, it’s always better to foster good feelings during the holidays, I think. Not to mention when one has a certain obligation to maintaining political connections."
"Lord Kass, sir?" the Flotsam from earlier said from behind them. "More guests have arrived." She pointed a fin back to the landing platform.
Celice’s tail perked. "It’s [i]them![/i]" she said, and her mood did an immediate turnaround. "Oh, jolly good, Kass, let’s go!" She seized his arm and tugged him back down the hallway.
Kass jogged along to keep up with her, his own spirits rising. They were indeed expecting other guests for Giving Day—ones whose company they deeply enjoyed. Not to mention, he thought, that it would be very amusing to see how these particular guests interacted with House Anfel.
Outside, another large Eyrie cab had docked, and as the first passenger climbed out of the carriage, Kass and Celice grabbed him and pulled him into a hug. "Pharazon!" Kass said, hoping they weren’t smothering the small faerie Draik. "It’s so good to see you again, my friend!"
"Likewise!" Pharazon said, hugging them back. "Thanks so much for inviting us for Giving Day!"
"I can’t think of any other set of people I’d rather spend it with!" Celice said.
"Oh joy," a short blue Grundo said as he stepped out of the carriage, bundled in a thick sweater and hat. "Snow. My [i]favourite.[/i]"
"It’s [i]my[/i] favourite, too!" his disco Zafara sister said, tumbling out after him and rolling into a snowdrift, where she promptly compiled a snowball and then threw it in his face.
Next emerged a human owner with her long brown hair in a braid, wearing the same kind of thick travelling cloak as the other members of her family. "Whoa, this place is awesome!" Terra said, gazing around at the architecture. "Lord Kass, thanks so much for letting us spend Giving Day at Black Keep this year! I’ve been wanting to visit for so long, it’s such a fascinating place!"
"I would be happy to give you all a tour tomorrow morning," Kass said with a smile. Belven’s annoying, self-serving nosiness was one thing, but Terra and her family explored places for the sheer joy of exploring and loving the places they visited. Pharazon had mentioned to Kass once that Pharazon’s owner seemed to have a knack for loving things into getting better, and Kass felt that she had passed on at least a bit of that to her Draik, as he had worked some of that strange magic on Black Keep itself.
And it extended further than places. "Hail, Lord Mayor Kass," an enormous dark-furred Werelupe said as he stepped out of the carriage. Dressed in furs, a crown made of a skull between his ears, this could only be the Werelupe King himself.
Kass bowed low, as did the attendants around him. "It is an honour to make your acquaintance, Lord Isengrim," the Eyrie said. Pharazon had said that the large Werelupe insisted that "Lord Isengrim" rolled off the tongue better than "King Isengrim". He was a peculiar one, but Kass could not expect the Werelupe King to be anywhere near normal.
"Likewise, Lord Kass," Isengrim said, extending his paw for the Eyrie to shake. "Pharazon has spoken very highly of you."
The Draconian Lord Mayor of Black Keep smiled. "And he has told me much in your favour as well," he said. Despite the Werelupe’s barbaric appearance, Kass knew from Pharazon’s reports that Isengrim was a true king in every meaningful sense of the word. Kass was excited to get to know this Neopet who had risen from a tragic past to become a noble ruler.
Isengrim’s crimson gaze turned to the white Lupe who stood between Kass and Pharazon. "Lady Anfel, it is good to see you again as well," he said. "I’m sorry your studies and Market Town business have kept you from visiting us at the Burrows lately."
"Me too," Celice said. "Although, you get along so swimmingly with Hagan and Skarl these days that you scarcely need me anymore."
"Perhaps not as a diplomat," Isengrim said, "but certainly as a friend."
Movement behind Isengrim’s fur cloak caught Kass’s eye, and the Eyrie tilted his head. "And who’s this?" he asked.
Isengrim looked over his shoulder and moved aside to reveal another, smaller Werelupe, merely as tall as Terra, with young features and bright green eyes that watched Kass in amazement. Like the king, he was dressed in a set of nicely tailored skins and furs. Isengrim gestured to him with one large paw. "This is one of my thanes, Connor."
Connor waved shyly, then seemed to remember his manners and bowed instead. "It’s, eh, nice to meet you, Mister—Lord Kass," he stammered in an unusual brogue. "S-sorry… ain’t never met nobility before… exceptin’ Mister Isengrim, I mean…" He looked up at the Werelupe King nervously, with the kind of expression on his face that said he felt he’d already blown it.
Isengrim smiled and mussed the fur on his head. "If a noble is offended because you are shy," the larger Werelupe said, "that is their fault and not yours."
Connor chuckled self-consciously, and Kass extended a paw to him. "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Connor," he said.
"I hope it’s not too much trouble that I brought him along," Isengrim said. "He wanted to spend Giving Day here in the Meridell region, and I thought this would be a good experience for him."
"I’m from the Haunted Woods," Connor explained as he shook Kass’s paw, "and me parents still live there, but… they’re not really welcomin’ of Werelupes, y’see."
Kass nodded thoughtfully. "That’s too bad," he said. "Well, I shall do my best to give you an enjoyable Giving Day here."
He looked back up at Isengrim. Being a rather large Eyrie himself, Kass was not used to looking up at other Neopets, but Isengrim positively towered over him. "No trouble at all," Kass said. "I know full well what it’s like to be an outcast." Werelupes and Draconians had a lot in common in that regard, Kass thought.
Isengrim grunted in agreement and put a paw on Connor’s shoulder. "Well," the Werelupe King said, "I won’t have anyone feeling like an outcast anymore. Especially not on Giving Day."
"Excuse me," Pharazon’s Grundo brother Hyren said, trudging up to them half-covered in snow. "But can we please go inside already, before—" He ended his sentence with a rather miserable-sounding sneeze as yet another snowball hit the side of his face.
"Oh, yes, of course," Kass said. "Right this way and we’ll show you all to the guest quarters we’ve arranged for each of you." As he, Celice, and Pharazon escorted the others inside, Kass found himself quite grateful that Black Keep had been built with several storeys’ worth of accommodations for visitors. It seemed that the Black Knight had also hosted his fair share of guests during his tenure a thousand years ago.
As the troupe progressed down the hall and toward the lifts, chatting merrily about pleasant things like signs of the season and interesting books they had read, Celice glanced back at them and then cast her eyes about like she had something she wanted to say.
"Something wrong?" Pharazon asked.
"Well, ah…" Celice said, "is it bad that I’m enjoying my friends’ company more than that of my family?"
Pharazon grinned. "Well, considering you’re born into your family and you get to pick your friends…"
Kass chuckled and said, "If you want my opinion, family are the people you love, whether or not you’re actually related. I consider all of you my family. And I’m happy to be spending Giving Day with my family."
Celice put an arm around his shoulders, and Pharazon fluttered up to do the same. "Me too," Celice said. She paused as Blynn let out a maniacal cackle behind them. "And I’m also quite looking forward to seeing House Anfel’s reactions to my friends."
Kass grinned mischievously. "I was thinking the same thing."
To be continued…