“You’re lucky that you’re such a quick study on running in heels.”
“C’mon, Mikleo, is this really the time!?”
The hellion was fast – very fast – and easily closed in on whatever distance Sorey tried to put between them. His armatus with Mikleo was suited for sniping from afar, not for getting up close and personal with those rows and rows of sharp teeth. A change of tactics was needed, and – one body as they were – Sorey didn’t even need to speak the thought aloud before Mikleo helped him put the thought into action.
Sorey released his hold on the tether keeping them in the armatus, and felt Mikleo do the same. They split in two, and Mikleo allowed himself to be flung from Sorey’s sure and steady grip directly into the trunk of a tree. He vaulted gracefully off the trunk, and used the momentum to spring himself across the clearing and well out of the way of the rampaging hellion – and well out of the way of Sorey’s flaming sword.
The flames illuminated the dark forest clearing, like morning’s light. The hellion shrank back, briefly stunned. Not that Sorey considered himself anything like an expert on hellions, but he’d never seen anything quite like this before. A wolf-headed hellion that stood at the height of three men, and had the approximate width of one of the emaciated famine victims that were such a common sight in towns these days. It was the width that was, perhaps, the most concerning – by any logic, it should have been wider, so much wider, to fit all the victims that it had been reported to have consumed. How could a hellion that devoured whole caravans of victims – stuffing them into the ever-drooling mouth, with its dozens of long, long arms – still be so grotesquely thin?
As always, Sorey’s certain tendency to get lost in his thoughts was something of a hindrance in battle. Luckily, there was someone still paying attention in this fight. The hellion was knocked over by a lucky hit from Rose and Edna’s armatus, and careened into a nearby tree with a dangerous-sounding crack. The tree lurched and toppled over, pinning the beast beneath it. Howling, the hellion tried to drag its body along the forest floor with those dozens of long arms; like a massive centipede that had been trapped beneath a giant boot. The air around the creature shimmered, and from the glinting aether, glowing chains sprang forth and bound the hellion (and the tree) more firmly into place. Zaveid landed atop the creature from where he’d been slinking about in the treetop cover, and struck a pose.
The hellion was too wounded to flee, too wounded to toss Zaveid off; too wounded and too mad with malevolence to do anything but crouch, drool, and snarl as Sorey and Lailah approached to attempt purification.
Rose wheezed in relief as she stumbled out of her armatus. She shook out her wrist, and flexed her fingers, as if testing to make sure they could still hold a knife.
“Geez! That thing’s skull was rock-hard. Felt like trying to put my fist through a wall…”
“You’re welcome to use your head next time if the Lady Edna’s holy fists aren’t cutting the mustard,” Edna replied drily. “I imagine it’s one of the only naturally-occurring elements that outrank them on the hardness scale.”
“I’m glad everyone’s feeling so energetic after that fight.” Mikleo finished up tending to Rose’s hand and arm with his healing artes, and surveyed the rest of the party judgmentally. “I take that to mean that no one will be whining at me when we head to the inn that their back hurts, then? I’d prefer to be bothered now than have to find out later…”
Sorey felt Mikleo’s stare burning into the back of his neck. He swallowed hard and tried to focus on finishing things up with Lailah and the hellion.
“Yanno, it’s almost a shame that we gotta purify this thing,” Zaveid said. He was still perched atop the hellion, and was holding the chains binding it like a pair of reins. “It’d make a pretty metal mount, don’t ya think? Roll up to a hot date riding this thing and you’ll have ‘em swooning.”
The hellion gave a pained shriek as the flames continued to burn away its tainted flesh. The acrid smell of it filled the night air. Its many limbs clawed at its face and neck, rending the skin there, as if mutilating itself was a relief in comparison to being healed of the corruption inside.
“The more we learn about you, Zaveid,” Mikleo said. “The more we understand you.”
“You’ll want to get down,” Lailah lightly called up to him.
Zaveid winked at her and made a little heart with his fingers. “Ooh, Lailah, no need to be so shy. C’mon up here, the weather’s fine—”
The flames had climbed up to where Zaveid stood, and the hellion’s constructed form finally collapsed in on itself like the frame of a burning house. Zaveid stumbled briefly before managing to catch himself on the superheated updraft of air and bounce off it to land on the ground with a…marginal amount of grace. Or at least without falling on his ass.
“How’s it looking?” Rose called over to Sorey and Lailah. “Human, animal, plant? Bunch of rocks glued together with googly eyes stuck on?”
Sorey took a deep breath to steady himself after the purification, and Mikleo was already behind him to grab at his shoulder. Steady as anything.
“Human,” Sorey said, finally. “Still alive. Not awake yet.”
“Peachy,” Rose said. “Much easier to interrogate a person. I’ve heard that the Sparrowfeathers’ boss is in quite a snit over all those shipments he’s gobbled up, and she’s dying for the full story.”
Which was, of course, part of why they were here. This particular hellion had been targeting caravans navigating this stretch of road between the border of Hyland and Rolance. The harrowing accounts of the survivors was motivation enough for Sorey and Rose to investigate and intervene, but Rose’s own motivation was given a bit of a nitro boost when she learned that several Sparrowfeather shipments had been delayed or lost due to the creature’s activity.
The man was waking up. He looked so terribly ordinary, in comparison to the nightmare that stalked the roads on a hundred limbs. He was dressed in simple traveling clothes. Thin cheeks, worn boots. Another person overcome by malevolence by starvation and resentment? He’d hardly be the first. But all he’d need was support, and –
“…delayed, delayed, delayed, delayed, can’t be late again, the boss said we can’t be late again, get the cargo—”
“Hold him down,” Rose said to Zaveid, before moving in herself.
“Anything for you, boss lady,” Zaveid said.
Chains glinted and held the man down, stopping him from thrashing while Rose grabbed his head on both sides and forced him to look at her.
“Hey. We’re passing through. Who’s this boss of yours? We’ll get the cargo to him on time.”
The man’s pupils shrank to pinpricks.
He began to shake, then began to weep.
“Gone. Gone, they’re gone, they’re gone, we were supposed to deliver them to Hyland for sale but they’re gone and the boss he won’t like it he’ll know it was me and then Anne, Anne and the kids, they’ll—”
Zaveid pulled his chains tight, cutting the man off and binding him tighter to the ground.
“He’s gonna go hellion again if he gets himself worked up,” he barked at Rose. “And I sure as hell don’t like all this ‘them’ stuff with his ‘cargo’.”
Rose knew when to back down – that conversation was going nowhere fast, anyway. She wisely allowed Lailah to cast a spell that sent the man into the comparative relief of unconsciousness, and mulled over the facts they had.
“The Scattered Bones will take him into custody,” she said, finally.
“Custody?” Sorey said uneasily.
Rose leaned her head on her hand and looked at Sorey, one eyebrow raised. “You saw what happened the second he woke up. They’ll keep an eye on him at HQ and see if they can get the full story out of him.”
Sorey stared at the man for a moment, then swallowed hard. “And…try to help him?”
“As best as we can,” Rose replied, honestly. “You’ve seen this before, Sorey. People getting so desperate that they do things they can never forgive themselves for. He might wake up with a new lease on life, and we’ll put him to work in the company. Or he might wake up and immediately go creepy-crawly again the second he remembers what he’s done. Sometimes you just need to—”
“I get it,” Sorey cut her off. “But…we can’t just…he mentioned a boss.”
“Oh, don’t worry.” A slow, dangerous smile spread across Rose’s face. “We’re not done with them just yet.”
Lailah ahemed lightly, and glided forward.
“The man is purified. The Shepherd’s duty is finished,” she said. “Shall we discuss our next moves in a more…hospitable area?”
“Let’s rest at the inn a while,” Mikleo said.
His hand was a comfort and anchor on Sorey’s back. He allowed himself to lean into it, and be guided by Mikleo’s sure current.
“So, good news first,” Rose began. “It didn’t take long for us to get info on this boss guy.”
But Rose’s tone did not, in fact, indicate that the news was quite as good as all that. Things never seemed to be quite so simple, anymore.
“And the bad news?” Mikleo asked, voicing Sorey’s thoughts aloud.
Rose threw herself onto the inn bed and leaned back on her arms.
“Hooboy. Where to start? The bad news, the REALLY bad news, or the damn inconvenient news?”
“Ooh, now you’ve gotten me all excited.” Edna’s face was utterly expressionless, and her tone likewise. She was perched atop the inn’s tall wooden wardrobe; the vantage point allowing her to better beam her disdain at those below like a judgmental gargoyle. “Spill the beans before I perish from anticipation.”
Rose squinted up at her. “…how did you get…anyway. So. Our friend was part of a black market smuggling operation. First it was just contraband goods, and then they branched out into human trafficking – that was when his conscience caught up with him and he started chowing down on his coworkers and stalking the highways. He was pretty low on the ladder and didn’t know much about the guys really running it; he only ever had contact with cronies. But everything he told us lines up with cases that we’ve been monitoring for months. This ring isn’t just limited to a few scattered caravans on rural backroads. We’ve got reports of it being tied to activity across Hyland and Rolance, which let me tell you, will do peace talks no favors. Hyland’s gonna blame Rolance and Rolance’s gonna blame Hyland and so on.”
“…so, was that the bad news, the really bad news, or the inconvenient news?” asked Sorey.
“It’s all blended together in an intricate tapestry of unfortunateness,” Rose said. “So on one hand, it is Hyland’s fault. All of our sources are pointing to one of their nobles being the ringleader behind it all – his eminence Lord Mardoc of House Melwas. House Melwas owns most of the shipping lines nearest to Rolance’s borders, so the infrastructure was already there for him to pull this off. But on the other hand, even though he’s footing the bills and reaping the profits, these kinds of enterprises tend to be…group ventures. Especially when they’ve got a reach as wide as this. It’s not gonna go away completely even if we manage to take the boss chump down.”
“Even if we were to apprehend everyone involved, Hyland and Rolance would need to work together to extradite the accused and bring them to trial,” Mikleo said. “It could take years.”
“And that’s assuming Rolance will play nice,” Rose added. “Bet they’d only be too happy to set the blame totally on Hyland’s shoulders.”
“So…I guess it’s up to the Shepherd, then?” Sorey said, softly.
There was historical precedent for such a thing: Shepherds, mediating international disputes as the neutral third parties they were always intended to be. Sorey could rattle off at least three or four such incidents off the top of his head – one of them even involved digging up the skeleton of a previous Rolance pope to put it on trial. (The skeleton, judged guilty, was stripped of its papal hat and frockery and then beheaded. Sorey often wondered if any of that was truly necessary.) But reading about it in history books was one thing, and being expected to live it himself was…quite another.
A long, drawn-out fight amongst a bunch of squabbling politicians and nobles, all trying to point fingers while the world around them was falling apart. When the cards were laid out on the table like this, the odds seemed…almost insurmountable. Sorey’s shoulders drooped with the weight of his thoughts. Mikleo’s cool hand on his nape was all that kept him from sinking too deeply into a place that would be hard to return from. Here be darkness, and skeleton popes.
“And you guys wonder why I went into customer service,” said Rose.
“Just want to note that it’s so convenient that your little gossip crew dug up so much dirt so fast,” Edna commented drily. “Almost like they’ve been sitting on said dirt for a while, doing nothing about it until it got inconvenient. Like when it was your turn to get your shipments munched on.”
Edna, unfortunately, always seemed to know how to hit where it hurt. She zeroed in on weak points so easily: Mikleo’s height, Zaveid’s receding hairline, Rose’s sense of justice. Sorey’s heart twisted unhappily at the sight of Rose’s knuckles fisted in the bedspread.
“Kinda feels like that, doesn’t it?” Rose finally said. She lifted her head, wearing a thoughtful expression. “You know, we’d joked for the longest time that we should start invoicing the Hyland knights, since we were doing their jobs for them – upholding the peace and all that. But it seems like we’ve gotten a little lax lately.”
“Rose,” Mikleo said. “It’s not your job to police Hyland’s laws. You can’t take all that responsibility on yourself.
Sorey couldn’t help but sense that comment wasn’t just directed at Rose, for some reason. (Like the fact that Mikleo’s hand found his own when he said it, and squeezed tight.) Still, Rose didn’t exactly seem to take the advice to heart. She jumped to her feet, and set her hands to her hips; a grin plastered to her face.
“It’s a matter of customer service at this point,” Rose said. “The Scattered Bones can’t refuse to investigate a direct request, now can they?”
Sorey blinked. “A direct request? From who?”
“Our friend from last night. Remember? Eight feet tall, big and scary, sharp teeth, loads of arms?”
“I don’t remember him asking anything,” Sorey replied, dubious.
“He definitely didn’t,” Mikleo agreed. “He yelled a bit and then passed out. I’d wager his hellion form was much taller than a mere eight feet, as well.”
“Guys,” Rose groaned. “A little bit of room for interpretation, please. Plus, if this Mardoc guy really is behind this operation, his homebase is probably lousy with malevolence – cleaning that up is right up our alley. So what do you say; wanna do a house-call at Chateau Melwas? It’s on the outskirts of—”
Sorey startled at Rose’s question, suddenly remembering something very important – something absolutely vital. He seized Mikleo’s wrist, urgently.
“Wait! Chateau Melwas. Of course; we only ever saw it written out like that, but of course it’d be owned by House Melwas!”
Mikleo’s eyes went huge, and he seized Sorey’s wrist right back.
“You’re right! It’s only logical. Chateau Melwas, built atop the underground Baudemagus Cathedral. An architectural marvel, built with a mix of Hyland and Rolance techniques to keep its structural integrity. It’s been sealed off for centuries from the public.”
“We could see the archivolts,” Sorey whispered urgently.
“We could see the archivolts,” Mikleo agreed, just as urgently. For just a moment, his gaze grew distant and vacant, as if he was wholly lost in thoughts of archivolts. Sorey could relate. He could so, so relate.
“I know I should be more careful about what I say, but I just don’t ever know what’s going to set them off…” Rose lamented. She looked up at Edna. “Wanna help me find Lailah and Zaveid so we can start brainstorming?”
Edna hopped down from her perch. “I’ll take any opportunity to get out of this room, no matter how unpleasant. Circumstances must.”
They were to infiltrate the chateau of House Melwas, to gather evidence and evaluate the truth of the claims against Lord Mardoc (and admire some archivolts in the process). Luckily for them, they had stumbled upon this mission during a most fortuitous time – Lord Mardoc was opening Chateau Melwas for a masquerade ball. It would be the best chance they’d get to investigate…and, perhaps, the only chance.
To an outside observer, the cards would seem to be stacked in Sorey’s favor. Not only would he have the noise and bustle of the masquerade to hide his movements, but he also had a master assassin and four magical invisible friends to back him up. Surely it would be child’s play for the almighty Shepherd.
Unfortunately, there were a few handicaps in play that evened the odds:
One: Sorey, even at this point in his short career, had become quite recognizable as the Shepherd.
Two: Rose, having a long and storied career as one of the continent’s most successful capitalists, was even more recognizable.
Being that they were famous-slash-infamous, it called for them to attend undercover – after all, if it was discovered that the Shepherd was in attendance, Mardoc would surely rush to dispose of any evidence of his illicit activities, making their entire search fruitless.
Surely a masquerade would make undercover activity simple…if it were not for the final handicap:
Three: Sorey was an absolutely wretched actor, and was sure to give away the game in a matter of seconds.
Thus, this called for a more stealthy infiltration. To this end, they tested out Mikleo’s talents in the safety of their base of operations (being their room at the inn).
“Uh…” Rose frowned, looking Sorey over critically. “I don’t think this is gonna work.”
Sorey was invisible…in some places. One arm, then the fingers of his other hand, and his torso. His right leg blinked back into view, then disappeared again, then slowly regained its opacity once more as the seconds ticked by.
“Just…give me a minute…” Mikleo said through gritted teeth. He was visibly shaking from the effort of keeping up the spell for so long. His skin was even paler than normal, and was beaded with sweat.
Sorey appeared to be torn between the urge to rush over to Mikleo’s side to support him, and the urge to stay in place as firmly instructed by Mikleo at the start of the experiment.
“Mikleo,” Sorey pleaded. “We’ve got backup options, you know?”
“Like what?” Mikleo snapped. He briefly lost his hold on the spell, and Sorey’s torso flickered. “Put a bedsheet over your head and pretend to be ghosts haunting the grounds?”
Rose shivered. “Gonna veto that one. Hard.”
Edna made a sympathetic noise, and patted Rose’s shoulder. “You’re so right, Rose. That’d be so inconsiderate to all the ghosts that probably already haunt that moldy old underground cathedral. Don’t wanna stir them up.”
Rose wailed and immediately retreated under the bed.
Lailah, finally, set a hand on Mikleo’s should and bade him to stop. Exhausted, Mikleo released the spell and leaned heavily on his staff. Sorey rushed over on his reappearing limbs to offer his support, and lead him to sit on the bed that Rose was currently lurking beneath.
“It was well worth attempting, but I must advise overexerting ourselves on this venture,” Lailah said. “Chateau Melwas is well outside of Ladylake’s jurisdiction – and as such, well outside of the reach of Lord Uno’s protective domain. The malevolence is thick here, our powers dampened with it. It would be dangerous indeed to take risks.”
“Back in the day, I’d just…dash up the walls and in through the windows, in and out like a shot…” Sorey heard Rose quietly musing underneath the bed. It seemed like she was mostly talking to herself. “Can’t really do that anymore, can I? Zaveid, he just doesn’t get my style, not like you did…”
Sorey squeezed Mikleo’s shoulder, and tried to get him to catch his eye.
“Rain check on cloak practice?” he asked, hopefully. “Maybe when we’re in a place where the air’s a bit cleaner?”
Mikleo would not, however, catch his eye, and sullenly wriggled his shoulder out of Sorey’s hold. Sorey’s heart sank.
Seeing Mikleo’s already-sour mood, Edna clicked her tongue, ready to make things worse, as usual.
“Why must we bank our hopes on the powers of a single frail Meebo?” she asked. “Just tart Sorey up in something pretty and have him flash the bouncers some leg at the door.”
She clearly did not mean this statement in earnest. She clearly meant it as a joke, as a way to needle Mikleo for being unable to live up to his own unreasonably high standards of personal achievement; to get him riled up enough to stop stewing in self-pity.
But there came a rumble from beneath the bed.
Rose scuttled out from her dark domain on all fours; her hair and eyes wild with inspiration.
“That’s it,” she whispered. “That’s our game. We dress in drag and crash this party.”
This bizarre conclusion at least seemed to break Mikleo out of his sulk. He stared at her, baffled.
“…you’ll do what?”
Rose grabbed Sorey by the shoulder with one hand, and grabbed his chin in the other. She presented him to the rest of the group thusly, very proud of herself.
“I present to you: Lady Soreyella Sparrowfeather, with her dashing older brother, Lord Roseino Sparrowfeather. We are young single nouveau riche siblings travelling the world on our mamá and papá’s dime, looking for fun, excitement, and a suitor who will treat my naïve little sister like the delicate, squishy little cream puff she is.”
“…Okay,” Mikleo said, once he was sure Rose was finished. “Just give me a few minutes and we can try the cloaking arte again. I know that if I can just get a handle on the light refraction, I’ll be able to keep it up for as long as we need…”
Mikleo trailed off. The atmosphere of the room had changed palpably with Rose’s suggestion – it seemed to burn alight with an excitement that tingled the skin. The source of the burning flame was unmistakable: Lailah seemed to almost be hovering above the floor, and was wreathed in a holy aura of light. She clasped her hands together, and lifted them upwards, a prayer to the heavens.
“Splendid,” she whispered. “Oh, how splendid indeed. An undercover mission – not only under the cover of night, but also under cover of the finest finery!”
Mikleo wondered if it would be out of line for him to walk over and tug Lailah back down to have both her feet on the floor. Surely it would be within Sorey’s rights as Shepherd…but what would stop her from arising once more? Would it be better to simply tie a string to her ankle so she didn’t accidentally float away? These questions were all important ones, but they were secondary to the more salient question of the moment:
“Are you forgetting Lastonbell?” Mikleo asked. “Our resident provincial lard? Hello? Oh, not him too…”
Zaveid had joined Lailah in her conference approximately six inches above the flooring, his excitement equally as evident.
“Food, wine, gorgeous sights to see,” Zaveid whispered mistily. “Ladies beckoning with their burning gazes from across the crowded dance hall.”
It was becoming clear that the vote was heading in a certain direction; that direction being “Sorey and Rose crossdressing to crash a party”. Edna smirked at Mikleo and Sorey devilishly.
“Rose’s suggestion really just is so splendid, and the Lady Edna wholeheartedly supports it.” Edna twirled her umbrella as she spoke. “She simply cannot wait to see the Shepherd traipsing about in a shimmering gown and heels, resembling a graceful overdressed cupcake. He will blend right in with the buffet table and remain utterly undetectable. The perfect plan.”
Mikleo gaped at Sorey, speechless. Sorey, for his part, seemed resigned to his fate. He sighed heavily.
“If you guys think it’ll work, I’ll do it,” Sorey said. “But I don’t…I don’t really know anything about, well…any of this. Dancing, and balls, and dressing up…”
Lailah and Zaveid floated over to Sorey, and both took one of his hands in their own, tenderly.
“Fear not,” they spoke in unison. “For we will be at your side.”
“I know,” Sorey assured them. “You always are. But I’ll feel a little, well…out of place…”
Lailah’s grip tightened, and she leaned in, her eyes blazing.
“Please understand, Shepherd Sorey,” she said. “We will be by your side, all of us, in finery as fine as yours.”
Edna’s umbrella stopped twirling. “Excuse me?” she asked flatly.
Zaveid rose several more inches off the floor in his excitement. “You mean…”
“With the powers invested in me by the Lord Maotelus, I decree as Prime Lord that we shall all be disguised in a similar method, alongside the Shepherd and Squire.” Lailah’s voice was clear, commanding – it seemed to echo off the walls of the inn as if the walls were made of the resonant marble of a cathedral instead of ordinary wood. “It is our duty as seraphim to assist the Shepherd in all things, to show solidarity and share in his trials.”
“Pass,” Edna said, then shrieked aloud repeatedly as she was forcibly levitated off the ground to join Lailah and Zaveid.
“Guess you shouldn’t have voted for such a splendid plan if you weren’t willing to participate,” Mikleo wearily commented. He, too, was also being lifted off the ground by an invisible force gripping his capes and dangling him like a scruffed cat.
“Um,” Sorey said. “I really appreciate the company, but…isn’t the masquerade in less than a week? Can we find someone who can make outfits for everyone on such short notice? Especially outfits for, well, someone they can’t even really see…”
Rose threw her arm around Sorey’s shoulder (with some effort, considering the height difference and the fact that she was not currently taking part in the levitation fiesta).
“Sorey, Sorey, Sorey. Are you forgetting who you’re dealing with here?” Rose said. “The Sparrowfeathers have their ways. We just need to hit up this one tailor that owes me a favor or three…”
It was, of course, in Lastonbell that they found this tailor – the city of artisans was home to the most skilled hands on the continent, no matter what the craft. Rose smiled charmingly at the woman who answered the door. The smile was met with a weary stare.
“Ella,” Rose said. “Have I got a project for you.”
Ella slowly tried shutting the door, but Rose wedged her foot in before she could manage.
“Now, now, don’t try to be shy about it; we both know that you’re always excited to do work for me! Like I was saying, I’ve got a project and I just know you’re the only person who can pull it off. Don’t leave me out in the cold, here!”
Ella sighed tiredly. “I’ve told you a thousand times that there’s a limit to what those suits are designed to withstand. A little blood, the sealant can handle. You get sloppy, you get stains.”
Sorey could hazard a guess at how Rose had made the acquaintance of this woman. Rose huffed in irritation.
“Why do you always think I’m here about our suits? I’ve got other stuff on my plate, you know.”
“I also already told you that I can’t make them withstand deep ocean pressure.”
“We can talk about that again later!” Rose muscled her way in through the door, pulling Sorey along behind her. “Right now I need you to make six people look very pretty. Four of them are invisible. Also we’re all crossdressing and in disguise.”
Ella processed Rose’s words, and the situation she was presented. On her worktable, a pencil lifted, and began to sketch fervently on the sketchpad there. After a few moments, the pencil paused, and the sketchpad floated over to present itself to Ella for review. Ella leaned in, squinting through her thick glasses at the designs the phantom pencil had drafted for her. Finally, she shrugged.
“Whatever.” She went to fetch her measuring tape and some paper for notes. “As long as you keep giving me discounts on fabric.”
The day of the masquerade had arrived, and their disguises had arrived to their inn room, not a moment too soon.
“Your tailor friend worked so tirelessly, day and night,” Lailah said with a note of concern, even as she was visibly itching to tear into the carefully-wrapped packages. “I do hope that she didn’t exhaust herself.”
“She gets like that when she’s inspired,” Rose explained. “And it’s not like she did it out of the goodness of her heart. She gets first pick on any of our textile shipments, and every completed commission is a punch on her Scattered Bones loyalty card. Ten punches and she gets a free assassination request.”
The room became palpably awkward. Rose sighed aloud.
“Joking,” she said. “Not about the shipment thing though.”
“We just wonder sometimes…” Mikleo mumbled.
It was the moment of truth. The fashion show of the century. The couture reckoning.
Rose posed with her booted leg on a footrest. She looked sleek, debonair – her fitted suit hid her curves, but could not quite flatten her entirely; giving her a silhouette that would steal the attention of men and women alike. The suit was a reddish-pink the color of the sky at twilight, and the fabric shone and shimmered luxuriously in the candlelight. She looked inarguably well put-together, but had an air of the rogue. Her red hair was pulled back into a low ponytail, and she wore a black handlebar moustache for…some reason.
“A moustache is not a toy,” chided Lailah.
Lailah looked as elegant as ever, and as understated as ever – that was to say, not understated whatsoever. It was a known fact in the study of zoology that the male of a species was very frequently the most glamorously-dressed, and while it was doubtful that Lailah had much interest in the field, perhaps she’d once travelled with someone who did. Or maybe she just saw a peacock one time, and thought, Yes! That is what I want to look like if I ever had to crossdress for a villain’s masquerade ball! Her ruby-red suit’s tails trailed behind her like a bird’s tailfeathers, and the ensemble positively dripped with white lace and golden filigree. Her hair was pulled back into its customary ponytail, but was braided through with red ribbon. Despite her admonishing Rose for moustache crimes, she herself wore a gaudy, dandy top hat atop her head.
“I swear on my last breath that I will smear jam all over this cravat and hide it in your bed at night,” Edna hissed.
Edna…well. Perhaps it was karmic consequence that had landed her in her current outfit, or perhaps it was her complete refusal to work with Ella and pay more than a scornful glance to the outfit designs that Lailah had drafted. She looked like the precious darling scion of a hallowed aristocratic house. She was absolutely drowning in frills and lace, in bows and cravats. Though the design was intended to bring to mind a sailor suit, a rock would have looked more seaworthy.
“You cut a distinguishing figure,” Lailah said sincerely. Rose cackled and twirled her moustache.
Visibly miserable, Edna yanked and tugged at the white stockings that she wore under her bloomers. “I haven’t worn pants in years. If I suffocate tonight I’m going to smear jam all over these tights and—”
“Yeah, yeah, we get it.” Rose twirled her moustache once more for good measure. “Gentlemen, or should I say, gentleladies! You’re up!”
Zaveid’s leg was the first thing that could be seen in the doorway – his bare leg, sporting a gun holster hooked to his garter. He whirled into view, pressing his whole body up against the doorframe, posing like a femme fatale from a trashy stage play. Ella probably did not need to spend much time on his ensemble, considering how…little there was of it. It showcased his entire back, and bared cleavage to the point of obscenity. The sides were slit up to his hips, allowing him to showcase the curve of his ass with very little trouble. Despite the…lack of modesty, he didn’t look bad. It was just…
“I thought we were trying to not call attention to ourselves?” Edna commented flatly.
“You think about how we’d manage that with Zaveid, and you get back to me,” Rose said.
“I’m just…too much…to ignore…” Zaveid said breathily, fluttering his eyelashes on every syllable.
Despite herself, Edna had to give her that one.
“Um,” Sorey’s voice called from the hallway. “Can you guys tell me if I put this on right? I think I’ve got some leftover sashes…”
The group was stunned to silence as Sorey entered the room. It was not as though they expected Sorey to look bad in his disguise. They just didn’t expect him to look this good. Ella had outdone herself. The white bodice, trimmed with blue and gold embroidery, served two important functions: it cinched Sorey’s waist, and pushed up his already fairly large chest to create the illusion of a voluminous bosom. On the other hand, Ella chose not to hide Sorey’s broad shoulders and muscled arms; instead flattering and showcasing them with cutout shoulders and draping sleeves. The blond wig on his head framed his face charmingly; when Sorey gave a shy, awkward smile, those present in the room felt as though a thousand arrows hit their hearts.
“It’s a little tight, you know, in…this area.” Sorey gestured to his honkers. “But I really like the skirts! Did you tell Ella how much I love flappy capes?”
His practice in the armatus gave him the grace and balance to twirl in his heels, allowing the long, flowing skirts to float around him like a princess from a fairytale.
“Your tailor girl’s a magician,” Zaveid said with a note of wonder in his voice. “Man. If she made Sorey look like such a sweet little thing, just think about…”
He trailed off, but everyone knew exactly to whom he was referring. They looked towards the door, on the edge of their seats.
Secretly, everyone really had been looking forward to seeing Mikleo all dolled up—
“Mikleo! Come out, please!” Sorey pleaded. “I wanna see how pretty you look!”
…okay, “secretly” for everyone except Sorey, who was always extremely loud about all things Mikleo. But the fact remained: Mikleo was already stunning enough, with his snow-white skin and striking violet eyes, with his tiny waist and delicate features. Expectations were high, and were only made higher by the clear demonstration of Ella’s skills.
“I took a sneak peek at the dress Miss Ella sent for him,” Lailah sighed aloud as she spoke. “Truly lovely! Mikleo will be a vision in it.”
This assurance only served to heighten the excitement in the room, and served to make Sorey nearly start vibrating in place. They heard a grumble and the sound of footsteps from the hallway, and Mikleo stepped into the room…
“Are you happy now?” Mikleo spat, crossing his arms. That snow-white skin of his was cherry red, from the tips of his ears to his chest.
The dress was indeed beautiful, and was fitted to Mikleo’s envious figure perfectly. His waist, dainty as ever, was only made lovelier by the finely-embroidered and ribboned bodice. The sleeves and skirts flowed like water, shimmering in the room’s candlelight like a pond reflecting the sun. The colors of the fabric complemented his fair complexion perfectly – it was as though a fairy of ice and snow had descended to bless them with a crisp winter’s day.
However, the enchanting effect was seriously spoiled by the sour and uncomfortable look on Mikleo’s face, and the stiffness in the way that he moved. He walked like he was on stilts, and turned in place like he had sacks of barley tied to his hips. It was abundantly clear that skirts and heels did not agree with him on a personal or spiritual level. Putting a beautiful swan in a beautiful dress resulted in something that was less than the sum of its parts. And resulted in a pissed-off swan.
Sorey sighed dreamily, and swept over in his skirts to twirl around the room with Mikleo – Sorey, moving with effortless charm, and Mikleo, moving like a flailing fish.
“You look so great! Doesn’t he!?” Sorey asked the room, though he wouldn’t have heard any answer they gave, so lost he was in their twirling. “If only everyone in that whole ballroom could see you, I bet they’d just look at you and go, ‘wow’…”
At least now Mikleo was pouting, rather than scowling. It made him look marginally more presentable.
“…well, now that the two of us look so dashing,” Rose said, trying to get the subject onto something that wouldn’t horribly offend Sorey. “I think we’re ready to crash that party.”
“As long as our Cupcake Shepherd keeps his mouth shut,” Edna mumbled. She was lying face-down on the inn floor to indicate her displeasure at everything around her.
“Yeah, well, if things go well, Soreyella Sparrowfeather won’t need to do much talking at all,” Rose said. “Roseino will distract all those guests with his charm and tales of adventure, while Soreyella and Miklette slip out to investigate the building and get some evidence of Mardoc’s extracurricular business ventures.”
“Mikleo,” Mikleo harshly corrected. “Will escort Sorey. Without these stupid—pointless—”
In a fit of fury, Mikleo tore off one heeled shoe and threw it across the room. He then hobbled out of the room, one heel still on, grumbling as he lurched back to his own room to find his normal footwear. Sorey gathered up his skirts and hurried after him like a practiced maiden.
The stage was set, and the cast were in costume and ready for their cue. But the question remained: even with evidence at hand, what could be done if Hyland insisted on ignoring the crimes of its nobility?