Talan opened one eye and glared at the room door, which was shaking in its frame from the force of the knocking. He glanced at Joris, who rolled over and pulled the pillow over his head with a groan of complaint. Then he looked at Haden, who sighed, threw off his blankets, and staggered across the room. The door opened to reveal, unsurprisingly, an annoyed and impatient Sheen. Even though it was very early, she was fully dressed and looked to have been so for some time.
“What, woman?!” Haden demanded. “We’re sleeping here.”
“We have to go get that second invitation. Now. Today. You know, BEFORE the party.”
“She’s right,” Joris mumbled from under his pillow. Knowing the score, Talan rolled out of bed and began pulling his clothes on. Any attempt to argue would only serve to make Sheen even more angry and demanding.
Haden grimaced. “We’ll get to it.”
“We’ve been waiting five days for you to get to it. You’ve got ten minutes,” Sheen declared and closed the door, perhaps a little more forcefully than was strictly necessary.
“So where are we going?” Joris asked blearily, trying to figure out where he’d left his shirt the night before.
“A . . . house, in the Lady’s Ward,” Haden said. “We should probably take a cab, it’s a long way to walk.” Haden finished doing up the buckles on his armor and opened the door. Sheen was waiting in the common room, idly reading a newspaper. Sigrund the bariaur had already called for a cab. Sheen folded the paper primly and looked up at Haden.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were putting this off on purpose,” she said.
“We don’t all have to go,” Haden said. “I can just go by myself . . .”
“Stop trying to wiggle out of it,” Sheen told him severely. “We’re all going. The way you’re acting, who knows if you’d even come back if we just sent you by yourself.”
The four of them climbed into the cab, and the dwarven driver peered over his shoulder at them. “Where to, guv?” Haden gave an address that sounded like gibberish. The cabbie blinked at him. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yes,” Haden replied, his voice flat.
The cabbie hesitated for a long moment, then shrugged and twitched his crop at the haunches of the Arcadian pony. “All right, guv, it’s your funeral.”
Joris swallowed. “You didn’t say this was going to be dangerous . . .”
“That’s because it’s not dangerous,” Haden said grumpily.
“But the cabbie . . .”
Haden’s lips twitched slightly. “The cabbie doesn’t have my . . . special advantages.”
“Oh,” Joris said.
“What kind of reception CAN we expect?” Talan asked.
“I don’t know, it depends. With luck we won’t have to see anyone.” The cab continued to rattle up what the signs called “Threefate Avenue”, passing rowhouses and businesses. Sheen stared out the window, fascinated, as the buildings gradually showed increasing signs of wealth and prestige. Worked iron gates and walls sprouted out of the ground, dark and ominous as the black thorny vines that grew over them. Harmonium patrols passed to either side of them, the soldiers seeming to occupy every nook and cranny.
“Something tells me this is not going to be as easy as you say,” Talan said quietly.
“I’m shocked you even know anyone in this part of town,” Sheen added. “These people won’t even be inclined to let us in the back door.”
“Just relax, all right?” Haden said with some asperity. “Sheesh. I think I’ve earned some trust by now. Anyway, we’re here,” he said as the cab rolled to a stop outside what appeared to be a miniature castle done up in white marble. Delicate towers soared above them, complete with triangular flags that snapped briskly in the breeze. Instead of black wrought iron, the gate was made of polished brass. Even the razorvine growing over the wall looked richer somehow, like it was watered and tended regularly.
“I thought the gods couldn’t get into Sigil,” Joris murmured. “Who else could possibly live here?”
“The gods wouldn’t need all this,” Talan said.
Sheen gaped, then her expression slowly changed and she rounded on Haden suspiciously. “You didn’t bring us here to STEAL an invitation, did you?”
“NO!” Haden yelled, beginning to lose his temper. “WILL YOU PLEASE RELAX!” A githzerai peered at them curiously from the other side of the gate. The colors of his mouth turned up slightly.
“Good to see you again, Master Haden,” the gith said, and unlocked the gate from the inside. Sheen, Talan, and Joris stared. “If I may say, it has been far too long since your last visit.”
“Now I’ve seen it all,” Talan whispered.
“Yes, yes, Suinjes, just open the gate,” Haden grumped. “You can keep the editorial comments to yourself.”
“Very good, sir.”
Haden frowned up at the enormous house. “You three just stay here while I make sure no one is around,” he said, producing a key from his pocket and unlocking the wide, ornate doors. He eased the leftmost door open very slowly and peered inside, then slipped into the building.
“What on earth is he doing?” Sheen whispered.
“I haven’t the slightest,” Joris replied.
Talen smiled. “It appears ‘master’ Haden may be more than he seems. Maybe we’re about to be introduced to his family?”
There was a loud crash from inside and all three jumped. “What now?” Sheen demanded. “Haden!” she shouted, storming across the courtyard and through the doors.
“Um,” Joris said, uncertain what to do now. Talan shook his head.
“We should probably stay together,” the ranger said, and the two men followed Sheen into the mansion. Sheen was inching along the carpet, peering around the dark hall. Massive chandeliers hung overhead, but none of them were lit. The building was dark and still, smelling of neglect and disuse. A door off the wide hall was open and the three of them peered inside. Haden was standing there with a tall blue-skinned woman, having evidently been caught in the act of rooting through the papers on a beautiful mahogany desk.
“You gave me quite a—who’s this?” The blue-skinned woman asked.
“Hello? Who are you?” Sheen asked. “What’s going on here?”
“This is Felise,” Haden said. “Felise, this is Sheen, and here we have Joris and Talan. We’re just here to pick something up, we’ll be leaving shortly.”
The blue-skinned woman raised an eyebrow. “It figures, far be it from you to make a social call. What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“No, that’s not neces—“ Haden started.
“We need an invitation to the Jester’s Masque,” Sheen explained.
“Oh, THAT thing,” Felise said somewhat scornfully. “They always send your father an invitation, even though he never attends. I think it’s upstairs. Just wait here and don’t touch anything.” She swept out of the room.
“Father?” Sheen and Talan asked together.
“Oh!” Talan said. “Shouldn’t we thank him or something?” Joris whistled.
“Even my father couldn’t afford a place like this. Are you two on the outs? I know what that’s like.”
“No, we are not ‘on the outs’. My family has money. I don’t. What difference does it make?” Haden said. He sat down on the ornate desk chair and sighed. “I’d like to avoid running across anyone else here, so if you could just be quiet for five minutes . . .”
“Felise?” a voice called softly. “Felise, is someone here? I heard voices . . .” slow, shuffling footsteps came down the hallway and an elderly gold-skinned man peered myopically into the study, blinking his bright blue eyes. He was leaning carefully against the wall as though he feared he might get lost if he let go. Great white wings sprouted from his shoulders, but they appeared ragged, as though feathers were falling out. A thin gold dressing robe covered a set of crumpled blue pajamas, but he had apparently forgotten his slippers. The man regarded them all for a long moment. Haden jumped to his feet and started forward, but Sheen grabbed his arm.
The old man’s mouth worked slowly. “Oh, oh . . .” he shuffled forward a few steps. “Haden, is that you?”
Haden shook off Sheen’s hand impatiently and took the old celestial’s hand. “Yes, Father, it’s me. You shouldn’t be up and around like this, you might catch cold. Where are your slippers?”
The old man slowly and carefully tilted his head downward and bent his knees so that he could look at his feet. He smiled tremulously. “Oh, I seem to have forgotten them again . . .” There was another lengthy pause as he straightened up again and patted Haden’s hands vaguely but forcefully. “I’m sorry, I forgot you were coming to visit . . .” He gripped Haden’s elbow and shuffled around his son. “And who have we here? You brought friends?”
“They’re just business associates, Father. Why don’t I take you back to bed, and Felise can make you some hot tea or something.”
The old man blinked in confusion. “Mustn’t be rude if you have guests . . .”
“I’m sure they won’t be offended—“ Haden said hurriedly. Sheen shot him a black look and stepped closer to the old man.
“I am Sheen, sir, and these are my companions Joris and Talan.” The old man gave her a brilliant smile and reached out a hand towards her. His grip on Sheen’s fingers was incredibly strong, and she winced.
“So glad you could come, so glad you could come. I’m Cerellis. You just call me that, you don’t listen to what anyone else tells you, all right?”
“Good girl. And beautiful, too, lovely. You aren’t eladrin by any chance, are you?”
Sheen blushed self-consciously. “Um, no sir. I’m an Elan.”
“Oh, a pity. Very metallic, maybe rilmani.” He relinquished his grip on Sheen and returned to leaning on Haden. “You hang onto that one, son. Quite a catch. Quite a catch.” Haden also flushed, embarrassed. Talan grinned. Cerellis shuffled towards Joris next.
“Are you a brave man, and true?” he asked hoarsely.
“I-I try to be . . .” Joris stammered.
“Good, good, that’s the most important thing. That’s . . . most important thing. Yes.” He turned to look at Talan. Haden tugged on Cerellis arm, trying to hold him back, but the ancient celestial was still much stronger.
“Father, don’t interrogate my friends, it isn’t polite.”
“Nonsense,” Cerellis said. “I see greatness in you, young man. Yes. Greatness, that’s what it is. What . . . what did you say your name was again? Have we met before?”
Felise walked into the room, carrying an engraved envelope. She stopped, shocked, when she saw Cerellis. Haden shot her a look of horrified appeal.
“My lord, it’s time for you to go back to bed,” she said firmly, thrusting the invitation into Haden’s hands. Cerellis blinked and looked at her.
“Oh . . . is it that time already? I was just . . . I was . . .” he seemed to remember, and brightened. “Did I tell you Haden was coming to visit? He’s so busy, but he still makes time to come see his old man . . . he’s a good boy, such a good boy . . .”
“I’m right here, Father,” Haden said tiredly. Cerellis jumped, then peered at him.
“Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry, my mind, it wanders sometimes . . .”
“Yes, Father,” Haden said. “But it’s time for me to go now.”
“Oh,” Cerellis said. “You won’t stay for dinner? Methodis is coming, you remember my brother? I spoke to him just the other day, and he said he would come to visit . . . he always likes to see you . . .”
“Father, Methodis died years ago.”
“He did? Oh, yes, he did. Then he won’t . . . he won’t be coming for dinner, then?”
“I very much doubt it.”
Cerellis swayed a little, uncertainly. “Oh. I miss him . . .”
“You should go with Felise now, Father.”
“Yes . . . I should, yes. I’m so glad you came to visit me. I’m sorry I wasn’t ready, but I forgot . . .”
“It’s all right, Father.”
Cerellis reached out and hugged his son tightly. The old man’s lip trembled and his eyes filled with tears. “My son. I’m so proud, so very proud of you . . .” Haden’s face twisted. “You’ll, you’ll look after your mother for me, won’t you?”
“Yes, Father,” Haden choked out. Felise finally pulled the old man out of the room. Haden thrust the invitation at Joris. “Here. Let’s go.” They walked outside and waited awkwardly for another cab.
“Your father seems . . . nice?” Sheen ventured finally. Haden stared at the street in stony silence.
“We haven’t made this easy for you, have we?” Talan asked.
“I’m sorry we put you through that,” Joris said quietly.
“It’s not your fault,” Haden replied.
“This is why I prefer animals,” Talan muttered. “Everything is so much more straightforward.”
“You should have just told us,” Sheen said. “So your father is getting senile, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. He obviously misses you. Why don’t you go visit him more often?”
Haden’s glare was so ferocious that she took a step back, startled. “It’s MY life. Keep your nose out of it.” He climbed into the cab when it arrived and flung himself down on the seat. They rode in awkward silence all the way back to Chirper’s. Still not sure what to say, Sheen left for her ordeal at the coiffeur.
Hours later a cab delivered Sheen back to the inn, curled, primped, and painted to within an inch of her life. She felt like a package as they unloaded her and helped her into a chair in the common area. She sighed, with no choice but to wait until the men arrived so they could all go to the ball together.
Joris smoothed his cuffs down for, probably, the twentieth time. “What about weapons? Should we check them at the door or just leave them here?”
Haden, who was fully dressed, snorted. “If you have a dress sword—by which I mean a gold-covered knitting needle--you can get away with it, but if you even show up dragging that thing there’s going to be comment.”
Joris sighed and set the mace on the armoire, scratching the finish. “I just haven’t been without it since we arrived . . . I feel naked without it and my armor.”
“What about Ari?” Talan asked.
“Ari? You mean that . . . mutt?”
“I don’t suppose I could bring her along?” Talan frowned at Joris, who was chuckling quietly. “What are you laughing at? She’s better looking than you, even in that ridiculous outfit.”
“No.” Haden said. “Just . . . no. She might mistake someone’s toy poodle for dinner and we’d never hear the end of it.”
“Hmph,” Talan said. “Fine, I bow to your expertise.”
“If we’re ready, we should go find Sheen,” Joris said.
“By all means,” Talan replied. Sheen was sitting bolt upright in a chair, trying not to come into contact with anything, including air molecules. Haden smiled at the sight.
“Well, don’t you look . . . uncomfortable.”
“Mph. I’d scowl, but I’m afraid something would break.”
Talan grinned. “You have to admit your father was right, Haden, she is gorgeous.”
“Don’t make me hurt you,” Sheen growled.
“It’s time to leave, we should arrive early if at all possible,” Haden said.
“I’m not sure I can get up,” Sheen said. Haden made an impatient sound, grabbed her arm, and heaved her bodily to her feet.
“Come on,” he said, and dragged her out into the street. She looked at the cab, realizing there was no way she could get inside it by herself. The cabbie produced a small set of stairs and Haden bent over, picked up the hem of her gown, and handed it to her with a mocking little bow.
“Don’t you dare laugh,” Sheen said to Haden, looking daggers.
“Don’t you two make a handsome couple,” Talan said. Joris laughed and Sheen turned her glare on him.
“I figured I was going to die tonight anyway, so I might as well,” the cleric said.
Some time later, the cab rolled up outside a massive, ancient building, the Jester’s Palace. Haden held up a hand, cautioning everyone to wait until a footman opened the door, which happened within seconds. Joris jumped down, thrust his nose into the air, and strutted towards the entrance. Haden chuckled.
“Just try to relax,” he told Sheen and Talan. “You’ll be fine.”
“Easy for you to say, you grew up with this sort of thing,” Talan said. “I can barely stand to be in a room with all these people. Oh well, at least we’ve got each other. I’d better go catch up with my ‘date’.”
Haden tucked Sheen’s hand under his arm without so much as a by-your-leave. “If it gets to be too much, there will be retiring rooms set up, for people that get overexcited or have a bit too much to drink. There’s a garden, too, if you feel like taking a stroll. It’s a party, not a prison, it’s supposed to be fun.”
They followed the lights to a vast chamber with its ceiling open to the sky. There was a lush garden in the middle. One of the archways was lit up, but a human woman stood at another, holding an open book and frowning seriously. She noticed them approaching and closed the book, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder.
“What a surprise, Lissandra, I thought you avoided these events like the plague.”
“Oh, I’m not here for the party, I’m portal-hunting, as always. I got wind that there was one around here I hadn’t seen before.”
“Your timing is a bit off, methinks,” Haden said. “Let me introduce you to my friends, Sheen, Talan, and Joris. Everyone, this is Lissandra, she has some kind of job but I don’t pay too much attention to that sort of thing.”
“Good to see you’re back to your old self again, Haden,” Talan said.
“Indeed,” Haden replied.
“Pleased to meet you,” Sheen said.
Lissandra smiled. “I’m trying to find every portal in Sigil. If you ever need to find one or know how to open one, come to see me. Did you cutters put Haden up to this? He cleans up nice.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Talan said.
“I have a feeling we’ll be in need of your services sometime soon,” Talan explained. “How long have you known Haden?”
“Not long, we ran into each other a while ago. There was a misunderstanding, but it’s cleared up now.”
“Everyone knows me,” Haden said. “I get around.”
“That’s not exactly something you should be proud of, you know,” Sheen remarked. Haden’s face reddened.
“That’s NOT what I meant.”
“Don’t mind those two,” Talan said smoothly. “They’ve only known each other a few days, but you’d swear they’d been married for twenty years the way they bicker.”
“We really should be going,” Haden said shortly, “but I’m sure we’ll have occasion to catch up later.”
“Right,” Lissandra said. “Have fun.”
A gnome stopped them about halfway down the hall. “Invitation, please?” Haden handed them over gracefully and the gnome added it to a pile inside a crystal box. Then they put their masks on and went inside. Haden surveyed the room from the top of the stairs.
“So what’s the plan?” Joris asked.
“We mingle. Keep your eye on new arrivals, the really important people are always late,” Haden said. He guided Sheen to a seat at a table and procured a glass of champagne for her. Joris skirted the dance floor and headed for the bar. Talan sighed and shook his head.
“I’d better keep up with my date. See you two later.”
“You sit here and try to relax, all right?” Haden instructed Sheen. “I’m going to look around, meet with some people.”
“All right.” She looked across the table at a brown gnome with thick gold spectacles.
“Good evening,” the gnome said, standing up on his chair and bowing. “Quite a gathering, ja?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“My firm is providing ze securities. Keldryn Gildersleeve at your service,” he continued. Sheen extended a gloved hand and he squeezed her fingers in a powerful grip.
“I’m Sheen.” A man in a purple coat, wearing no mask but sporting a ludicrous plumed helmet, appeared at her elbow.
“Would my lady care to dance?”
Sheen blinked. “All right.” He pulled her on to the dance floor, where he began to babble about giving things away and cranium rats. Sheen felt her eyes begin to glaze over.
By the time Talan reached the bar, Joris was into his second drink. Talan poked him. “You’re not allowed to get drunk. The next thing we know, you’ll be dancing on tables naked with a lampshade over your head.” Joris blinked, startled. “Don’t try to deny it, I know how it is with you quiet ones.” He gestured to the bartender and accepted a tumbler of something cool and vaguely sweet.
“Hello, Talan,” a voice said behind him. He turned around slowly to see a woman wearing an elegant red dress and a gold dragon mask. She smiled. “Could a lady trouble you for a drink?”
Talan sputtered and almost dropped his glass. “He-Hexla? Is that you?”
“It’s me. And I’m quite thirsty . . .” Talan waved to the barkeep again and handed a glass to Hexla without looking at it. “Are you happy to see me? I can’t tell.”
“I’m not sure yet. Should I be glad? How did you recognize me?”
Hexla rubbed her fingertips along Talan’s velvet sleeve. “The way you move, of course.” Out of the corner of his eye, Talan saw Joris finish a third drink and made a cutting motion at the bartender. Joris pouted, mildly offended, and set off into the crowd. “I’m happy to see you, in any case. I thought you might have perished trying to escape Avernus.”
Talan allowed his expression to soften a bit. “I have thought about you quite a bit since Avernus.”
“And I, you. I followed you as soon as I could after I discovered what happened, but Sigil’s a big place. I never would have thought to look for you here.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Talan said. “What happened to you?”
“I went to Bel to ask him to spare you . . . what a mistake that turned out to be! He didn’t even know you were in Avernus until I mentioned it. Fortunately, he had other things to worry about at the time. It’s good you got out when you did. I had a little trouble with Ar’kle-mens, myself, but nothing a good web spell couldn’t fix.”
“Um, yeah. Something I thought I would ask you if I ever managed to see you again . . .”
Talan hesitated. “Never mind.”
“Oh,” Hexla said, disappointed. “Are you staying in Sigil?”
“Yes, with some friends. What about you?”
“Me too. Staying with some friends, I mean. I’m pretty broke, so I’m trying to pick up some jink until I can decide what to do. In fact, that’s why I’m here. I’m supposed to meet someone with a business proposition for me.”
“I’m not delaying you, am I?”
“No, I don’t think they’re here yet.”
Talan nodded. “Where are you staying in case, ah”—he found himself blushing—“In case you want me to meet you there for a drink or . . . something . . .”
Hexla smiled and brushed her fingertips over Talan’s cheek. “I’m at Vander’s . . .for now.”
“Ah, well, we’re at Chirper’s for the time being.”
“That’s a nice place. Is Sigrund still there?”
“Yeah. Have you stayed there before?”
“Oh, once or twice. I used to get my hair done there before I became the ‘Mad Witch’.”
“I never did figure out how that devil got you confused with a ‘crazy old witch’.”
Hexla smiled. “In Hell, even a bad reputation can be a good thing.”
“Would you like to meet my friends?” Talan asked.
Wandering through the crowd, Joris spotted Sheen dancing and headed her direction. She shot him an imploring look and he used his elbow appropriately, cutting in even before the dance had ended.
“THANK you,” Sheen said.
“Certainly, you’ve saved me often enough.”
“You dance pretty well,” Sheen said, glancing down at her feet. Joris chuckled.
“Thanks. I’ve had quite a bit of practice.”
“Really?” It doesn’t seem like it would be your . . . thing,” Sheen said. She paused, then blushed, embarrassed. “I don’t know you all that well, I guess. But it’s not any of my business what you do in any case.”
“What? Wait, that wasn’t what you thought it was. Well, all right, it WAS, but that . . . isn’t me. Nothing happened.”
“I’m sure it’s none of my business,” Sheen repeated primly.
“I don’t want you getting the wrong idea about me.”
“Don’t think I’m going to think less of you just because I’m a bit . . . uptight. It’s not my place to say anything. I’m not your mother, after all.”
Joris grinned a bit. “Hah, my mother probably would have been thrilled that I’d finally found a ‘lady friend’.”
Sheen chuckled. “So, did nothing happen because nothing happened, or was it because I walked in at the wrong moment?”
“You saved me from making a big mistake. That’s it, really.”
“Glad I could help. So why is it that parents try to throw their offspring at members of the opposite sex? I wouldn’t know, I never knew my parents.”
“You may be the luckiest woman alive,” Joris said fervently.
“Well, between what my parents did to me, and Haden’s parents . . . I don’t know, sometimes I think they’re nothing but trouble.”
“Your parents? And what’s wrong with Haden’s father? He’s just getting old, it happens, you know.”
“Oh, I thought I told you about my father. He’s some piece of work. He’d be right at home in a place like this.”
“Haden’s at home here, too. It’s not my glass of wine, but that’s still no reason to think less of him. Or your father. So, it bothers you that your father is a rich, powerful, big shot?”
“Well, no, but it does bother me that I was never good enough for him. So I’m not smart enough to learn arcane magic? So what?”
“That sounded a little defensive to me,” Sheen said after a moment.
“It’s not like he doesn’t have three other perfectly good children to teach . . .”
“I don’t think it’s your father that’s the problem,” Sheen said.
Sheen shrugged. “I think YOU are the one that doesn’t think you’re good enough.” Joris dropped her, stepping back as though he’d just been slapped. “If you really thought it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t even care what your father thought.”
“You, how can you . . .” Joris sputtered. The music abruptly stopped.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, may I now have the honor of presenting to you Her Excellency, Lady Margone of the Court of Stars!” All heads turned towards the stairs, where a small, slender red-haired woman in black leather bowed to the crowd. She stepped aside and a woman stepped out. Dark, frightening red eyes surveyed the crowd from beneath heavy eyelids. An ornate fan held in a graceful hand snapped open with a noise like the crack of a whip. The dark red bat wings framed a shimmering black dress, and she wore a domino mask so thin it may as well have been drawn on. A faint sigh ran through the crowd as she posed. Then her eyes narrowed, her face registering surprise.
“How did you get in here, Haden?” she snapped, her voice low and threatening.
“I was invited, Mother.”
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