“Presenting the representatives of House Sparrowfeather: Lord Roseino Sparrowfeather, first of his name. And the Lady Soreyella Sparrowfeather.”
“Our RSVPs must’ve been lost in the mail,” Rose began in an exaggeratedly posh accent, twisting her mustache as she spoke. “Surely you must have heard of us, else mamá and papá would be simply furious. And that is of course not getting into the matter of grandmamá and grandpapá…”
Rose’s ability to talk her way into anything wasn’t quite working as well as they’d hoped, and the staff seemed unmoved; frowning as he searched through the guest list for their names. Shyly, Sorey twirled a curl of his blonde wig around his finger, and cast a glance up at the armored guards and household staff who were eyeing him. His eyelashes were thick with some weird black stuff that Lailah had put on them; he fluttered them a few times to clear his vision.
“P-pleased to m-meet you,” Sorey said softly, before bending his knees into a curtsy, just as Lailah had taught him. Lailah had not, however, taught him to flash so much cleavage with the motion, and Sorey seemed oblivious to the affect it would have.
The affect being this: an instant success in Phase One of the plan.
The head staff member, recovering from his swoon at the sight of this soft-spoken and utterly charming big-titted ingenue, immediately ushered them into the ballroom proper to mingle.
(Before he wandered back to his post, he tried to get another glimpse down that bodice of House Sparrowfeather’s youngest maiden daughter – but suddenly, as if struck by heavenly judgment, he was doused with a torrent of icy-cold water from sources unknown. It also kind of felt like someone invisible stomped on his foot. Sputtering and confused, the staff member stumbled away.)
The party attendees were quite cosmopolitan – nobles and high-powered business owners from Hyland and Rolance alike. Rose and Sorey wove through the crowd to a quiet corner to regroup and discuss their next steps.
“…who does this chump noble think he is, not ACTUALLY inviting the head of the largest shipping and distribution company on the continent…” Rose griped. “I’m gonna go hit the punch table and work my charms on everyone worth charming. Sorey, keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity to sneak out. And…”
She trailed off. She was going to ask Mikleo to try to avoid hosing down every guest who tried to approach Sorey, but the current look on his face let her know that this might be…a little much to ask, right now, lest she also face the wrath of the hose. She beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the punch table.
“I’m going to go sit in the bowl of spinach dip and steal all the shrimp at the buffet,” Edna declared with no room for argument. She then made her way slowly away, yanking on her pantaloons and skidding around in her fancy buckled shoes, walking like a baby deer trying to take its first steps.
Zaveid tapped a perfectly-manicured finger against his lipsticked lips, scanning the room critically. “Ya think anyone’s drunk enough yet to not realize they’re dancin’ with someone invisible?”
“I think Lailah may already be testing that idea out…” Sorey said. He pointed to where Lailah was currently twirling a pair of slightly bewildered nobles around by the hand; the tails of her suit swirling around her like a comet’s as she moved.
“Great! We can get a conga line goin’!” Zaveid said happily. He then pranced off to join Lailah; heels clacking on the polished marble as he went.
Sorey looked around nervously. He tugged on his bodice, absently; it really was so tight. How did any of these people dance while dressed like this? He loved the skirts, he really did; they were like capes, but more. Maybe they weren’t quite as suited to climbing and exploration as trousers, but, well, Mikleo used to wear that dress-like thing when he was younger, right? And he made do just fine.
He looked at Mikleo. Mikleo was standing in front of him like an invisible guard, scowling at the crowd of people around them. He didn’t look as excited to be here as he should. They were going to finally see the archivolts, weren’t they?
“So…” Sorey said, trying to lighten Mikleo’s mood. “Do you want me to get you some punch too? Or some dip before Edna sits in it?”
Mikleo gave an unintelligible grunt. Geez, he really was in a bad mood…
“Are your shoes hurting your feet again?” Sorey asked. He tapped his head. “You can hop in here to rest a little bit.”
“No,” Mikleo snapped. “Can you seriously not see that all these people are…ugh, never mind.”
Someone nearby carrying two drinks was very suddenly doused in water. Sorey blinked, and stuck his hand down his bodice to fish out his handkerchief to help dry them off. Mikleo seized his wrist, dragged it out of his cleavage, and dragged Sorey away from their corner.
“Don’t bother helping them,” Mikleo said. “I heard what they were planning.”
“Planning?” Sorey echoed. “Mikleo, they were just carrying drinks.”
“They were going to offer one of those drinks to you. And then probably ask you to dance.”
“…I mean, I can’t really dance, but what’s the harm in asking me?”
Mikleo’s jaw tightened, and his lips pursed into a pout. His cheeks and ears were burning red.
“It’s – it’s rude and disingenuous and just a ploy. First a drink and then dancing and then they ask you out to the gardens alone and then they’ll sweet talk you and get all handsy.”
Sorey wasn’t sure that Mikleo’s line of logic was really tracking, here. Absently, he yanked on his bodice again; it really was so tight, and his squished-up chest was jiggling with every move he made.
“So…what do people usually do at these parties if they don’t drink or eat or dance or talk to anyone? Aren’t we supposed to be blending in?”
Mikleo led him to another secluded corner, and dragged over several empty chairs at once with his artes. He used these chairs to barricade their new fortress, and seal Sorey off behind them. He then sat himself on the frontmost chair, spreading out his knees in his gown and planting his feet on the marbled floor. He crossed his arms, and returned to his previous activity of scowling at the crowd. The nearest party-goers to them shivered at the cold sensation of being glared at by a phantom evil eye.
“…are we blending in?” Sorey asked.
“I am,” Mikleo said. “Perfectly.”
For her part, Rose was blending in with more success than Sorey. She flitted from guest to guest, from lady to lord, flirting her heart out and fluttering away, leaving broken hearts in her wake as she searched out information for their investigation. Information, or at least someone who could keep up with her on the dance floor. Maybe she should join Lailah and Zaveid’s conga line for a while to spice things up—
…Well. There was bound to be someone to see through her clever disguise. And it just had to be someone who she couldn’t charm, no matter how hard she tried.
But she was open to trying again.
“Princess,” Rose greeted Alisha, offering her a hand to dance.
This party’s guest list was really just too interesting. So many influential business owners, but not Rose herself. So many nobles, but with so many mysterious absences. And so many equally mysterious attendees. Alisha, of all the nobles, had been invited – Princess Alisha Diphda, the youngest, the least influential, and certainly not the easiest to get along with. And even more certainly, not the easiest to bribe.
“Lord Mardoc throws a great party, doesn’t he?” Rose asked as they twirled around the room. “Man, it’s like waltzing was made for having these tense secret discussions in a packed ballroom. I can whisper anything I want into your ear and no one else will hear it. Ow.”
Alisha’s hand quickly moved back into position from where it was previously pinching Rose’s wandering hand.
“Rose,” she hissed back into Rose’s ear. “Why are you in that ridiculous disguise? Did you – did you sneak in!?”
“No sneaking,” Rose promised. “We just showed up at the gate like this. They saw my mustache and were charmed.”
With an irritated noise, Alisha reached up and yanked off the false moustache from Rose’s lip. The nerve!
“Tell me why you’re here,” Alisha demanded.
Princess Alisha Diphda. Not the easiest to get along with, and whose cooperation and good opinion could not be bought. For whatever reason she’d been invited here, Rose was sure it wasn’t because she was in on Mardoc’s business ventures.
So, she told her the story of how they’d found themselves here. Alisha was quiet, and listened throughout. (She giggled at Rose’s description of Zaveid’s entrance in his new gown, though. It was a sound Rose tucked away in her heart.)
“…Lord Mardoc of House Melwas is one of the only voices in the Hyland Senate that is still against the war with Rolance,” Alisha said. “His support is…vital, both politically and financially. I often find that he is the only one in the room who is listening when I speak at Senate meetings, and – during this past month’s proceedings, he invited me to this ball, so I could meet with like-minded supporters, he said…he said there were others, like us, who don’t want war, and if I could just speak with them in person…”
“So you’re here to network,” Rose finished for her. “Turn a blind eye to Mardoc’s extracurricular activities for the greater good, huh? They fund the anti-war effort, after all.”
Alisha glowered at her, eyes burning with determination and anger. “I said nothing of the sort. I’ve heard rumors of Lord Mardoc’s involvement in – shady work. Rumors. I have hope that they are baseless accusations, spread by those who are envious of Lord Mardoc’s legitimate business ventures, or those who wish to discredit him and his anti-war efforts. But I know that I must get the truth of it. I’m here to confront him; to ask him, face-to-face, if these rumors are real.”
Rose barked a short, helpless, offended laugh. “Am I really hearing this!? You think that you’ll get a straight answer out of him by asking him about it nicely?”
Alisha’s face burned red. “I—”
“And what happens if the rumors really are true, hmm?” Rose continued, low, in Alisha’s ear. “What if you find out that he’s been funding you with dirty money? Are you gonna arrest him right then and there, cart him off to jail? Watch as he pulls some strings to drop all the charges, then drops you like a rock after that? No more friendly face in the Senate for you.”
Alisha was silent. Rose stared at her, evenly.
“I hope you’ve thought about this, Alisha,” she murmured. “I hope you’ve thought about this really hard.”
While this drama was unfolding, further drama was unfolding at Fort Mikleo. Sorey had grown tired of being confined to a corner and guarded by a surly, invisible gargoyle in a dress (but a pretty gargoyle, Sorey had to mentally add), and had slipped the lead to escape back onto the dance floor. Mikleo was not far behind, and continued to guard him against the swarm of people who – honestly, all they were doing was offering him things, or telling him how pretty he looked, or asking to dance! The gifts were just jewelry and flowers and perfume, nothing interesting like a book or an Ancient Avarost artifact. And he couldn’t dance, and he knew they were just being nice with the compliments, because if they saw Mikleo they’d knew that Sorey was nowhere near as pretty as him. Sorey didn’t know why Mikleo was getting so upset.
“Maiden Soreyella! Ah, you shy away from me once more, but my heart still burns!”
“Lady Sparrowfeather, please, just one dance and a kiss to your hand under the moonlight, and I will be sustained in love for all eternity…”
Mikleo hosed them all down again. This was becoming a very damp masquerade.
Even if Mikleo was being…strangely adamant about it, Sorey could maybe understand why he didn’t want them getting caught up with a million dance requests. They really did need to start looking through the mansion soon, before it got too late and the bustle of the party died down – that was an essential distraction, one that they needed to remain undetected.
– but they also needed to get OUT of the party undetected, and that was proving to be something of a problem…
“Unhand the blonde maiden!”
A booming voice made all of Sorey’s suitors stop dead in their tracks. Slowly, they turned around.
Sorey’s savior had come, in the form of another unexpected undercover agent. Captain Sergei Strelka of the Rolance Plantium Knights stood before them, resplendent in a dazzling glittering ballgown and a flowing chestnut brown wig. He had not shaved his facial hair for the venture. Arms crossed and shoulders back, he stared down the party-goers, a challenge in his gaze.
“As I said – unhand the blonde maiden! If you wish to dance, I challenge you to keep up with me! That is, of course, if any of you think you have the ability!”
Some of the suitors were clearly taken aback by this lady’s brusqueness. However, just as many of them were clearly totally into it. Whatever their thoughts on the matter, it was clear to Sorey and Mikleo both that this was their chance to bolt.
“Should we try to find the others first?” Sorey whispered as they went for the door.
Edna was clearly visible (to them, at least) from their position: sitting waist-deep in the spinach dip bowl, stuffing fistfuls of shrimp into her mouth and throwing the tails at those who ventured near her lair to seek dip. Lailah and Zaveid, to their credit, had seen the commotion and were in the process of keeping the guards distracted. They couldn’t quite find Rose – probably caught up in flirting information out of someone, no doubt.
“We gotta go now,” Mikleo said, dragging Sorey out into the halls. “Sergei can’t keep them all distracted forever.”
This was true enough. But where to start first, when looking for the evidence they needed?
“If I was a corrupt nobleman at the head of a black market human trafficking ring,” Sorey began aloud. “Where would I store all the evidence of my wicked deeds?”
Mikleo slanted a side look at him, and smirked.
“An underground cathedral,” he said.
“With archivolts,” Sorey added.
To a lesser man, it would be somewhat difficult to determine where in Chateau Melwas the entrance to its ancient underground cathedral lay. But that is because a lesser man had not poured over maps of Baudemagus Cathedral and had not planned elaborate imaginary expeditions through its depths with their very best friend before bed every Thursday night for ten years. With the help of a map of the chateau provided by Rose before the infiltration, it was child’s play for them to find the most likely entry-points from an architectural standpoint.
(“What are they even talking about?” Rose had asked helplessly as they compared the map she’d provided with the map from their dusty old atlas. “What cathedral? Check in his study or something first!”
“Rose,” sighed Lailah. “Must you still ask these things?”
Rose hung her hand. “I know…could you and Zaveid try doing a sweep of the upper floors while they do whatever?”
And so, they arrived: Baudemagus Cathedral, ancient underground marvel, thought lost to the world when its caretakers had built their private property on top of it. It was, honestly, inexcusable from a scholarly standpoint; to seal off an important historical point of interest from the public eye like this.
What was even more inexcusable was letting it become a breeding ground for hellions.
“Well,” Sorey said, unsheathing his sword from a hidden fold in his skirts. “Whatever he’s doing down here, it’s not good!”
Mikleo stared at him, stared at his chest, then flicked his eyes back up to his face.
“You’re going to be fighting like that?”
“…it’s not like I have anything else?” Sorey replied, confused.
That (very cute) pout pursed Mikleo’s mouth once more, and with a furious growl, he took the skirts of his own gown into his fists and ripped. Quickly, he tied the dangling strips around his long legs; freeing him from their confines, and also showing Sorey that he’d been wearing white thigh-highs and garters underneath. And also was wearing his own shoes instead of heels. Sorey was struck with two emotions by this display: fondness, and horniness. He was also struck by an idea of his own, and his fingers went up to his bodice.
He tugged hard; once, twice, until the laces sprang untied. He heaved a deep breath, relishing the air in his lungs, and the cool breeze on his bared chest. Mikleo’s eyes went huge, and he sprang in front of Sorey again, shielding him from the view of the prowling hellions.
“I’m getting tired of – people looking at you like you’re a piece of meat tonight!” Mikleo said, swinging his staff like a bat to swat off a hellion that’d finally taken the initiative to pounce.
“Well, I’m – I’m tired of people not looking at you at all!” Sorey said, springing into the fight as well. “You look so pretty, Mikleo! Tonight, and all the time!”
They were back to back in the cathedral hall, covering for each other as the hellions attacked. Sorey turned his head just enough to confirm that Mikleo’s ear and cheek were red.
“You looked so pretty in the ballroom! If everyone could just see you there, I bet there’d be no more malevolence, and no more war, and everyone could live side-by-side—”
“Call my name and finish all these jerks off!” Mikleo interrupted. “If they haven’t already died from all the sap you’re spitting!”
Sorey grinned and briefly leaned his head back onto Mikleo’s shoulder. “First you’re worried about my modesty, and now you’re telling me you want me in that skintight suit. C’mon, Mikleo, you’re giving me mixed signals here.”
Still, with a shout of Mikleo’s true name and a shower of arrows, they stood triumphant in the shadowed cathedral hall. They split apart, and – still in their disheveled gowns – took a moment to catch their breath.
“Thank you for cleaning up the place. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen guests down here.”
It was an unfamiliar voice, and an unfamiliar face that greeted them. But from context, it was clear enough who he was.
“Lord Mardoc?” Sorey asked.
Mardoc smirked and gave a sarcastic tip of his head. “Pleasure, Shepherd. And guest.”
Sorey’s eyes widened, and he briefly looked at Mikleo before looking back to Mardoc. “You can—”
“See your seraph? Yes, I’ve been seeing things like him since I was small,” Mardoc idly said. “And things like those creatures at your feet…”
He lifted a hand, and the hellions that were still responsive enough seemed to react to the command there.
“They listen to me now,” he murmured. “They’ve always been here, beneath the chateau. Whispering and speaking to me in my bed at night. Why are you here, Shepherd? Invading my ancestral hall, drawing your sword in a holy place?”
The malevolence around Mardoc was thick; thick enough that Sorey was worried Mikleo would get nauseous. He was strong, now; strong enough to stand tall against this kind of corruption and protect those who needed him.
“Lord Mardoc. There are reports of a human trafficking ring stretching across the continent. Are you behind it?” Sorey asked.
“Yes,” Mardoc said.
That was straightforward.
Mardoc lifted his chin and sniffed dismissively. “What of it, Shepherd? What, exactly, did you intend to accomplish by coming here tonight? Did you expect to find piles of clandestine paperwork in my handwriting, books and invoices? Did you expect to find rows of caged innocents for you to triumphantly set free?”
He didn’t wait for Sorey to answer. He laughed aloud, and started pacing in a tight circle as he spoke.
“Oh yes, I’m behind it all. A business venture that’s joined Hyland and Rolance together! It’s the greatest effort for peace between our nations that we’ve seen in decades. I am providing people with salvation. You’ve seen the world as it is now! Starvation, pestilence, war. The people approach me, begging me to save them. It’s an entirely reasonable exchange. I put them in touch with interested buyers. The money goes seventy percent to a beneficiary of their choosing – a starving family, for example – and thirty percent to me, as compensation for the service. And I take that thirty percent, every last bit, and put it towards efforts against the war.”
He was continuing to laugh as he went on, the sound becoming more and more hysterical.
“You all think I’m doing it for the money! But I’m not. House Melwas’ coffers sustain me handsomely! This work of mine is entirely in service of humanity. I am the most compassionate of those in the current market – arrest me, Shepherd, and the market won’t just go away. The problem won’t go away. They’ll go somewhere else, to someone else, to sell themselves! Or they’ll just die in the streets. Do you want that on your conscience? Is that something your pure heart can rationalize away?”
“Sorey, tell me you’re not buying any of this,” Mikleo said, low. “He’s trying to rationalize human trafficking because all proceeds go to charity.”
“Believe me, I’m not,” Sorey said back. “But he’s about one more minute of monologuing away from going full hellion, so brace yourself.”
“Such compassion you show towards your fellow man!” spat Mardoc. The aura of malevolence surrounding him spiked, intensified, boiled over. “Shepherd!”
And so, it came down to this: Shepherd Sorey and his faithful seraph Mikleo, dressed to kill, versus the Lord Mardoc of House Melwas, corrupted by malevolence and twisted into a monstrous form: a wolf-centipede, like the man that started this all, but so much larger, so much fatter, and constantly weeping false crocodile tears. Two against one, with the odds heavily in favor of the one.
“What’s the plan?” Mikleo shouted, dodging away from Mardoc’s strikes. “Did you call for everyone else!?”
“I did, but they still need to get down here!” Sorey yelled back. “We just need to hold our ground until then!”
Mikleo got a thoughtful look on his face. “Or…we could see if he falls for the same trick as the other one.”
“Getting knocked into a tree?” Sorey asked, confused. “Mikleo, we’re in a cathedral.”
“With plenty of pillars underneath those archivolts. Get it?”
Sorey did. “Luzrov Rulay!”
An arrow to the face, then another. Then, an arrow to a nearby pillar. Sparks of blue light erupted from the ends of the arrows, and suddenly, a chain emerged connecting the two. Mardoc screamed, and tried to pull away to no avail. He found himself chained in place, unable to do anything but thrash as Sorey and Mikleo circled around him; pinning him down further, to more pillars.
“SHEPHERD. DO YOU THINK THESE PILLARS CAN HOLD BACK MY RIGHTEOUS FURY?” Mardoc’s distorted voice growled. “I’LL TOPPLE THEM AND BRING THIS CATHEDRAL DOWN ON ALL OUR HEADS.”
“And bring your house down with it, with all your friends and supporters?” Mikleo shot back. “Hollow threat. Serves you right for building on top of a historical landmark.”
Mikleo shot another arrow between his eyes to punctuate his remark. Sorey felt himself swoon.
The cavalry had arrived, with some unexpected guests: alongside Rose and the other seraphim, Alisha and Sergei hurried as well. Sorey and Mikleo separated into two again, and explained what had just occurred to the late arrivals.
Alisha…did not seem to be taking the news well. She took a steadying breath.
“…thank you, Shepherd Sorey, Lord Mikleo. I apologize on behalf of Hyland for allowing this man to operate in our midst.”
Mardoc let out a horrible noise, a mix between a shriek and a sob.
“PRINCESS. DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? OF ALL PEOPLE. WE WERE DOING SO MUCH GOOD.”
Alisha lifted her head and looked at Mardoc directly, staring directly into his monstrous visage. But she couldn’t see the hellion he was right now, could she? Without resonance, all she could see was the battered, bloodied body of the man she once called her only ally. Wholly human.
“I will not build peace on a foundation made from such despicable acts,” Alisha said. “By the order of the Hyland crown, I am placing you under arrest.”
Sergei, his expression grave, bowed at the waist to Alisha. His dress glimmered in the low candlelight, dazzling. “Respectfully, Lady Diphda, I request an audience to discuss how we will manage trying him for his crimes committed under Rolance’s jurisdiction…”
Of all the things to bring two nations together, a criminal trial for a human trafficking operation would not have been anyone’s first choice.
But it was a start.
“…honestly, I don’t know how you do it, fighting in that tiny little corset of yours. I was about to suffocate the second we walked out of the inn…”
“I could say the same about you and heels.”
The ball was winding down – nothing killed a party like the combined forces of the Hyland and Rolance knights coming in and declaring that everyone present was being detained on suspicions of collaboration with a continent-wide trafficking ring. Sorey and Mikleo, however, had slipped out to take a walk through the gardens. It was quiet, out here, and moonlit. The perfect place for a private dance.
Sorey grinned and dragged Mikleo flush against him, one hand on his perfectly sloping waist.
“Hey!” squawked Mikleo.
“I’ve been dying to dance with someone all night,” Sorey said. “But someone’s been too busy hosing down guests to take the hint.”
Mikleo’s face was so very expressive; it was only one of the many things Sorey loved about him. He cycled from a pout, to wide-eyed surprise, to a charming blush, to a shy smile.
His hand came up to rest on Sorey’s, his other grasped Sorey’s shoulder for balance.
“I guess I do need to show them that you’re spoken for, Lady Sparrowfeather.”