Chapter 1: Rose Is a Professional Businesswoman with a Logical and Cunning Mind
“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?
Chapter 2: Why Does Every Good Archaeology Date Night Get Ruined by Arguments on Moral Relativism?
“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.”