Masquerades: Part Two
The Mystic Times’ primary form of transport was an airship fondly dubbed The Hover. It was a sleek silver and red Virtupets design, endowed with the newspaper’s logo on the side and able to reach supersonic speeds when needed. The inside of the ship was arranged a lot like military aircraft- hollow, with benches running along the sides as seats, and a metal wall and door separating them from the pilot.
James Nexis was lounging on the right-hand side bench, peering out of the window and watching the clouds race by. He wore an expensive black jacket over an equally expensive white silk waistcoat, with a matching expensive silk tie. Sitting opposite him was a very miffed Deirdre, whom James had managed to wheedle and beg and bribe into a fancy blue ballgown. Still mourning the loss of her traditional skirt and blouse, she’d managed to maintain a frosty silence for the first half of the twenty minute flight.
Checking the gold waistcoat watch he’d been given, James decided it was time to bite the bullet and debrief her. “Okay, Deirdre, we’ll be there in ten minutes. It’s all pretty simple; you just have to hang around and look pretty. I’ve decided on fake names for us so that we won’t be recognised.”
“My name will be Mr Goldwhite, and I’ll have amassed my considerable fortune through shipping.”
“That sounds good. What’s my name?”
There was an extremely long pause while Deirdre stared at him blankly. “What?”
“Lady Wigglebottom. I thought it was cute.”
James had to fight not to laugh as his secretary’s face first reflected shock, then disbelief, and finally horror.
“Please, please, please tell me you’re joking.”
With a shaky sigh, Deirdre leaned back in her bench and folded her arms as she glared at him indignantly. “It’s times like this that I really wish I wasn’t your secretary, sir.”
“Why? So you wouldn’t have to do things like this?”
“No, so that I could tell you exactly what I think of you.”
James quirked an eyebrow, looking amused. “Why can’t you do that now?”
“According to the Secretary’s Handbook, I’m not allowed to insult my superior.”
James’s face melted from amused to blank. “Secretaries actually have a handbook?”
“Yes, sir. It covers everything you’ll need to know to survive in an office environment, from making coffee to how to dispose of a client’s body if they die choking on a peanut.”
It was all James could do to say, “Oh.”
After a few seconds of intense silence, James’s curiosity got the better of him and he picked up the conversation again. “Do all secretaries have this... uh... Secretary’s Handbook?”
“No, sir, only the devoted.”
“You really worry me sometimes, Deirdre.”
A grin slid over the Xweetok’s face. “Same to you, sir.”
“Does this mean I’m forgiven?”
“For calling me Lady Wigglebottom? Not a chance.”
The grin on the Xweetok’s face told James that he wouldn’t have to start looking for a replacement immediately, so he went back to peering out the window, chuckling to himself. The last few minutes of the flight passed slowly, but at last they landed in a grassy meadow behind the Winworth property. Getting out, James smoothed his coat as he and Deirdre made their way towards the mansion. “Just act natural.”
“In a dress? I don’t think that’s physically possible.”
“For your information, I don’t feel that great in a suit and tie either. But this could be a big story, and we’ve got to get in there no matter what, so no complaining, okay? Now remember, I’m Goldwhite, and you’re Lady Wigglebottom.”
Deirdre mumbled something that James chose to ignore.
“Just stick close and smile and simper a lot. It’ll go over brilliantly, trust me.”
“I feel like a frilly pompom.”
Any sarcastic remark that James may have made was cut short as they rounded a hedge and found themselves facing the front doors of the mansion.
“Whoa,” James and Deirdre chorused.
The mansion was undoubtedly the most extravagant either of them had seen, though its taste was debatable. The huge front door was elaborately carved and framed with bright pink silk streamers which fluttered merrily in the wind. The house was made of stone, but stone that had been scrubbed so much that it practically shone, and had been finished off with matching pink banners with the letters “WELCOME!” sprawling down them. Heart shaped balloons had been tied to various shrubs around the garden, and bobbed around in obvious disregard to the sentiments of any gentlemen who happened to pass them.
“Eugh!” was all James could say. “This is quite possibly the single most nauseating thing I’ve ever- oh, hello there! Yes, we were just complimenting your beautiful gardens.”
A starchy Gelert butler had appeared in the doorway, and was regarding them doubtfully. James bite down a snort of disgust as he noticed a large bright pink bow was tied around the butler’s waist, and instead forced a smile onto his face.
“Invite?” the Butler asked, in a heavily posh accent, apparently oblivious to his frilly appendage. James hopped up the front steps and held out the fake invite he’d been supplied with. The butler’s eyes trailed over it for a second before he nodded. “Monsieur Goldwhite, you are very welcome. And this is your lady...?”
It would be a massive understatement to say that Deirdre’s smile was very fake.
“Monsieur Goldwhite and Lady Wigglebottom. Follow me, please.”
In all the following years of his career, James never did work out how the butler managed to say that with a straight face. He must have been bred without a sense of humour, or something.
As they were led through the front door another butler- also wearing an atrocious pink bow- stepped up to take their guide’s place and welcome the next guests. Offering his arm to Deirdre, James stared around himself in a combination of awe and disgust. Pink and frills had been freely used to decorate the rooms with something like wild abandon- and not even a subtle, soft pink either. It was bright, loud, and more obvious than a three-headed Elephante.
Deirdre’s nose wrinkled. “Who designed this place?”
“That would be lady Lucille Winworth,” the Butler supplied.
Behind the Gelert’s back, James and Deirdre exchanged looks and grimaced.
The butler led them along the main hallway and pushed open the wooden doors at the end, exposing a flight of stairs down into a dining room that was easily larger than James’s whole house. And, big surprise, it was decorated almost entirely in pink, with a few clashing shades of orange thrown in for good measure.
Several dozen dining tables, round and large enough to sit four or five people, had been set up in the middle of the room, adorned with pink tablecloths, plates, cutlery and glasses. James scanned the room and did a quick headcount of the occupants, coming up with almost fifty. That meant that more were to arrive, unless they’d cancelled. Judging by the décor, that may have been the best choice.
The Gelert butler cleared his throat and announced loudly, “Monsieur Goldwhite and Lady Wigglebottom.” He waved a paw at the stairs, indicating that they should descend, then with a curt nod left, pink bow bobbing merrily behind him.
Swallowing loudly and giving Deirdre his arm, James walked down the stairs in what he hoped was a stately manner, avoiding the curious looks that were shot in his direction. At the base of the staircase he found himself confronted by an aging, overweight, nervous-looking Bruce and a pink Lenny in a pink dress and with long blonde hair, quite obviously Mr and Mrs Winworth themselves.
“So kind of you to come, Mr Goldwhite!” the Lenny gushed enthusiastically, shaking his hand. “And my, don’t you look pretty tonight, my dear!”
Deirdre managed to smile politely and shake the Lenny’s wing. “Thank you for inviting us.”
“It’s so nice to have you here to keep us company,” the Lenny continued with a ditzy laugh. “Isn’t it, Eddie?”
The Bruce coughed and polished his monocle self-consciously. “Yes, yes, quite, my dear.”
“As delightful it is to talk to you, we really must go and say hello to the Rhemes! Ta-ta for now!”
The Lenny turned and dragged her husband towards another group of pets, just as a Butler appeared at he top of the stairs and loudly announced the arrival of the Lord and Lady Snoggonkins.
“See,” James remarked, grinning. “Lots of rich pets have stupid names.”
Deirdre just sighed.
Glancing around again, James nudged her towards one of the tables. “What say we grab a seat before we get squashed, eh?”
Two of the nearest table’s seats were soon occupied, and James proceeded to scan the room eagerly. The pets all struck him as being virtually identical: posh, generally a little overweight, all wearing silk jackets or dresses. Waiters wandered through the crowd offering drinks and snacks, wearing- to James’s disgust- more pink bows around their waists, presumably to make them visible in the throng of guests.
“That was weird,” Deirdre noted, motioning to Lucille Winworth who was greeting the newest guests. “She acted like she knew us.”
“She probably does the same with everyone else here. A hundred separate people are pretty hard to keep track of, so she treats them all as friends, assuming she met them ages ago and simply can’t remember who they are. But, sheesh, does she have to be this obsessed with pink?” James motioned at the room.
“Poor Lord Winworth, though. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying the party.”
James grinned. “Probably because of the ‘someone here’s going to try to kill me’ thing.”
The Hissi turned to watch the Lord Winworth, and had to agree with Deirdre: he didn’t look happy. The Bruce’s wife was prancing around the room to greet various people, dragging her husband along with her, laughing at inappropriate times and generally imprinting James the impression of a ditzy, shallow blonde. How on earth Lord Winworth put up with her, he didn’t know.
As he was watching the pink Lenny laugh shrilly at an inane joke, something in the shadows of an alcove caught his eye. Squinting, the reporter saw the outline of a tall Nimmo standing with arms folded over black jacket, scanning the room keenly, almost expectantly. The Nimmo’s eyes moved from Lord Winworth and his wife across the room, sizing up each guest, and then met James’s for a brief second before he looked away.
James let out his breath with a whistle. “That’s interesting.”
“See that Nimmo over there?”
“Would you say he looks like he’s trying to stay hidden?”
Deirdre frowned for a second before shrugging. “Maybe, but the room’s pretty full. It’s possible he just wanted to get out of the crowd.”
James was silent for a moment as his eyes narrowed. “It’s too much of a coincidence.”
“That,” James said, “is Mr Trix, our informant.”
To be continued...