"Ach..." Osman said, plumping himself down on a convenient seat.
"Sitting this one out?" Dominic inquired.
"Outer Gods... feh. Crawling Chaos? Point us to it. Rampaging ogres? Battle awaits!
"But a scavenger hunt... ach, I do not think even I could keep up with them for long."
Dominic chuckled. "Perfectly understandable. Myself, I prefer a different approach. Have you ever noticed that if you really want to find something, more often than not, the best way is to sit back... and sooner or later, whatever you're looking for will show itself?"
"An admirable philosophy. I believe I shall join you." Osman looked around. "Is there perhaps some brandy or port I might partake of? A parrot's capacity for drink is not all it could be."
"It isn't, is it?" Dominic observed wryly. "Here, let me see if I can... ah, here we go." He examined the bottle. "Hm. Florestan has good taste."
He poured out a glass.
"Will you not partake yourself?" Osman asked.
"I find it helps to keep a clear head." Dominic said. "Especially with four daughters."
"Ah." Osman regarded the glass thoughtfully. "I think... just one will do.
"Going home to Magda a parrot, I could have survived. Going home with a hangover..." Osman shook his head, smiling ruefully. "The Graf would have enjoyed that far too much. There is something in him I think will never grow up."
"My wife." Osman clarified.
"Ah." Dominic said. "And your children?"
"Am I so obvious?" Osman's rueful smile returned. "They are a handful, though not quite the handful yours are...
"As well, perhaps. A man with five daughters in his home has troubles enough without Siren-song and Musely ghosts besetting him besides. For now, they have the run of the castle, with the dowager's blessing Magda has enough to do without the girls forever underfoot. But if Danik's bride were to set up the nurseries for her own..."
"Tell me about it." Dominic said. "I had eight hundred and fifty years to prepare... and I still have no clue what to do sometimes."
"Such has been the lament of parents since the dawn of time." Osman said wisely. "They are at that age, old enough to see adulthood, young enough to still be children. Xeffy and Ayna particularly...
"Of an age with my Liesl. One moment full of womanly graces, yet upon the next, clinging to her mother's skirts or romping with the Graf as merrily as her sisters.
"Hilde and Linde are fierce little maids but ten years old, and never apart." His smile grew fond, remembering. "Fire-eaters of the highest water, when last I left. For two pins, they swore, they would don pistols and sword and come posting after us down to Trieste, to board the 'Avalanche' in boyish guise and fight alongside the rest and none should know, not even ourselves, until they should save the lives of all aboard and stand unmasked for us to marvel, and own that Magda was wrong to refuse them leave to come."
Dominic chuckled. "And are the others as warlike?"
"Nay the Blessed Lady be thanked." But Osman's rueful smile held only affection for the wayward twins. "Small Katija is sweet and round as a winter's pippin she saw her sixth summer come Midsummer's Eve. Already she mothers the little one Jenija, my Jenushka."
Hands spread wide, disarming. "What can I say? A father must love all his daughters but Jenija is the pearl of my heart. She is her mother all over again, and Danik himself stood sponsor to her at the font. Three years old, and bright as a kitten but how we spoil her, Danik and I, till Magda scolds..."
He sighed. "Every time I see her, she has changed and grown, like a young birch tree come into its first silver dress. For all of them it is the same I must so often be away from home, and childhood slips away so fast...
"Heartaches, but worth that heartache."
Another speaking look exchanged with his companion.
"And wilful wilful beyond belief. There are times I know not whether to whip them or to chide the tears away. But now Liesl is nigh on a woman grown " A shrug. "And your two the same. Are all maids of that age a law unto themselves?"
"Mm." Dominic said. "I think they get it from my side, to be honest... Elle was more inclined to 'speak softly, and carry a big mace'."
"A mace?" Osman said.
"A mace." Dominic confirmed. "I went for a labrys, myself."
Osman raised an eyebrow at that.
"Still..." He shook his head. "Still, for all the trouble and joy they may bring... even with all that, I still wait for the day when the Graf will settle down and raise some his own..."
"Ah." Dominic said. "I wouldn't wait on that. I can't see marriage taming Danik. Children, maybe, but not marriage. Adventure runs too strong in him for that.
"Which is why I don't think Cassie would be a good idea."
Osman chuckled. "He always seems to have something for the unattainable, the dream-maidens..."
"No... no, I think perhaps someone closer to his own type. Bold, adventurous, dashing..." Dominic considered the idea. "A lady who, unless I miss my guess, would be as loathe to settle down as Danik himself."
"Like Albert and Lady Amanda?" Osman suggested.
"Mm." Dominic said. "Fellow adventurers, together against villainy and evil."
Osman imagined the dowager Gräfin's response to such a match, and chuckled again. "A fine match that would be, my friend. A fine match."
"So it would. So it would."
"Slivovitz?" Danik enquired cheerfully, a towel still slung round his shoulders. He had managed to borrow clean clothing from somewhere by the looks of it, from Florestan's wardrobe and his hair, while damp, had regained its natural colour.
He took a sniff at the glass, and one eyebrow flew upwards. "Port wine? Now there's a taste I'll lay odds you never acquired from my purse..."
Osman stiffened. "As your castellan, Herr Graf, I do beg leave to assure you "
"'My lord Count'? Now I know I'm in your black books!" Danik dropped the towel and held out a conciliatory hand. "For my part, I assure you you're more than welcome to any port you might unearth from my cellars if there were any, which I'll swear there isn't. I can't abide the stuff."
No amount of affronted dignity had ever been able to resist that look of apology, with the dancing glint of laughter lurking behind. Osman accepted the proffered hand to pull him to his feet and retrieved his glass firmly, finishing the mouthful. After that Finn-wife's potations, the prospect of slivovitz had somehow lost its old charm; he had no desire to regain his feathers yet awhile.
He said as much to Danik, who grinned. "A propos of which have your fingers lost their old skill, or could you take up a fiddle again for a moment or two? I've a scheme in mind should bring a smile back to our hostess's face, at least for a while..."
"Florestan?" said Merlin. "My toothpaste has that. Ow."
Guenevere walked up to the bar the barman was now in white tie and tails instead of flannel where Merlin and Nimue were being updated on events by Arthur, Lancelot and Morgan. "There you are!" the queen cried happily, linking arms with her king and her first knight. "What've you been getting up to?"
"Sauce for the gander," said Morgan.
"Really?" said Guenevere. "I've just been getting sauced." She laughed liquidly.
When the story was done Arthur, Lancelot and Merlin were conscripted to bring more ice, leaving Guenevere, Morgan and Nimue at the bar.
"Are you going to be hypocritical about this?" Morgan asked Guenevere. Nimue instantly wished she were somewhere else. Being a sorcerer's apprentice, she instantly was.
"I think," Guenevere slurred, "that it's time you settled down. No more of this pagan promiscuity. Not fitting."
Nimue reappeared on her barstool. "I meant to do that," she said, turning red.
"Hypocrite," said Morgan, the other side of Guenevere from Nimue.
Guenevere turned to Morgan. "Arthur," she said, entirely soberly and with the casual force of a royal command, "deserves to have someone whose heart is all his."
Nimue couldn't see Guenevere's face, but she could see Morgan's. There must have been something in Guenevere's face softer than in her voice, because Morgan spoke more gently than Nimue would have expected, or would have spoken: "He always has."
Eloise took a deep breath as she entered the ballroom, and stood there a moment, watching the partiers. Perhaps it had been the good cry she'd had, or maybe it had been simply being in the presence of the myth-fruit and breathing in its sweetness, but the sharp edge seemed to have gone off her grief and her panic as to an uncertain future.
For now, she was determined to enjoy what time was left of the party. There was that scavenger hunt, too... but first. But first, there was something over at the buffet table that smelled wonderful. Riding on the back of a dragicorn and hunting down a metaverse ogre may not be as draining as going through a millennia-long regeneration, but it was draining enough. And Walter would be so disappointed if she had not tasted his speciality.
She made a bee-line... Sure enough, there it was: a huge silver plated tray piled high with smoke balls green smoke and blue smoke and (ooh Yum!) magenta rowan berry smoke. Eloise took as many as her plate could hold (which, considering that smoke is lighter than air, is quite a lot), and looked for a place to sit. In the end, she perched herself on the edge of the stage and watched the partiers.
It didn't take long for her eye to settle on Danik trying to dance with Cassie, for it was an odd sight. Danik was far from clumsy, by any stretch of the imagination. But the dream muse literally floated through the air, completely oblivious to his attempts to charm her, and in contrast to that that Danik seemed as graceful as oak stump. It was this contrast that made the scene so comic and a little sad. Danik deserved someone who could match him jest for jest, and joust for joust.
Eloise regretted, a little, her choice of words when she told him to "rescue" Cassie and Cameron from the plot corner they'd gotten themselves into. It seemed she had created a monster even if it was a nice one. She speared the last three smoke balls with her fork, popped them in her mouth, and set about finding a way to rescue Danik at least for the remainder of the evening.
Now let's see: Who was gracious, graceful, and for the moment, unattached? She scanned the crowd (aided a great deal by the mirrors, she realized), until her eye was caught by the glint of armour. Aha! Silence! Perfect! She was already on her own adventure, and unlikely to leave the Nth Doctor's TARDIS for a stint aboard the Avalanche, but she and Danik could certainly trade tales of battles fought and victories won...
Eloise headed off to make the introductions...
In the ballroom, Amber caught sight of Joe and Verity, and headed over to join them.
Verity nudged Joe as she approached.
Joe cleared his throat. "Hey, you don't want final approval, do you?"
Amber blinked. "Final approval?"
Joe backtracked. "Nothing. Forget I mentioned it."
Amber regarded him. "Mm. I was wondering if I could speak to both you and Verity."
"Sure, go ahead."
"First, I wondered if you'd finished your current assignment."
Joe considered this. "Hm. Pretty much, I think. Things're beginning to wind down, but you can never be too sure what's gonna happen. Still wanna heads up on this whole 'Campion' thing, for one... but yeah, once this's done, that's pretty much it."
Joe and Verity exchanged glances.
"Well... I hear the Skaro Puppet's starting up a new edition. Thinking about maybe signing up for that. Maybe Mr. G might have a couple a' assignments for us..." Joe said. "Been a long time since I was last in the game."
Amber regarded them. "In that case... would you be interested in working for me?"
"For you?!" Verity said.
Amber allowed herself a small smile. "As you've said, I am a new Muse. However... I'm not all-seeing or all-knowing... and I suspect I'm going to be snowed under with work until I can hire a few people.
"Which isn't going to be much help in finding out what I'm working with."
"Which means?" Verity said.
"I'd like someone to report for me. To go out there, and report on what's going on in the worlds."
"Uh-huh. I can see the catch coming a mile off, and this one's a doozy. Report to you exclusively?"
"Report for me, not to me. There's a difference." Amber said calmly. "The column would, of course, be syndicated."
Verity and Joe double-took.
"Syndicated. You'd get all monies from syndication, naturally and you'd get an effectively unlimited expense account."
Verity nudged Joe in the side. "Joe..."
"The contract wouldn't be exclusive, of course you'd be free to take other assignments as and when you wish. All I'd ask is that the reports were submitted above a certain word count, and on a regular basis."
Joe regarded Amber cautiously. "There's gotta be a catch..."
"No major ones." Amber said. "Either party can terminate the contract as and when they choose, with no penalties, but must give reason in writing. Justifiable reason."
Verity nudged Joe again.
He looked back at Amber. "Excuse us. I have to discuss this with Verity."
They went into a huddle, from which the words "syndicated", "non-exclusive", and "sweet deal" could be heard.
"We'll take it," Verity said firmly, finally turning back to Amber.
"Thank you." Amber said formally.
Under her breath, so Joe couldn't hear, Verity said "I'm not sure about this..."
"That you wouldn't be able to resist looking in a goddess's head?" Amber said, equally quietly. "Both terrified and fascinated..."
Amber's eyes were sad. "Verity... I have faith in you. I trust I know you have the strength to overcome your hunger." She raised a hand to Verity's temple. "We did wrong, little one. Now, we have a chance to do right."
"Thank you, milady." Verity whispered.
"No. Thank you." Amber said quietly.
"Thanks again, Ma'am," Joe said to Amber, offering a handshake she took in obvious amusement. "You won't regret this."
"Neither will you," Amber said, looking into Verity's eyes for a long moment before turning back to Joe. "I expect your first column in two earth weeks time. Meanwhile, relax and enjoy the festivities."
"You got it, chief!" Joe said, grinning and snapping a jaunty salute. He bade the muse farewell and oriented himself toward the bar using the mental free drinks radar that is the birthright of any good reporter.
"...and I'm sure you two will get along," the avocado troll had told them. "You've got so much in common..."
Danik made a courtly bow to the partner Eloise had selected for him, preparing to lead her into the next dance. It was no more than any guest's obligation to do his duty by an unattached damsel, particularly when his hostess had presented her to him herself. He could not help but own, however, that heretofore in his experience womankind had been divided clearly into two camps: the ladies (God bless them) high-mettled or wise, delicate or proud, merry or learned or true... but the fairer sex for all that, to be shielded and esteemed and beloved and those valiant few who were comrades-in-arms. Gallant companions, loyal friends; worthy opponents, who craved no more mercy than a swift sword-thrust when the end was clear.
He honoured both alike. Only a fool would cry shame on a warrior-maid, still less disregard wise advice from the gentle sex but he had to confess that generally speaking, when he met a lady who bore twin swords into battle at his side with the competence Silence had displayed, the encounter was not in the form of an invitation to dance with her.
Particularly, Danik reflected, when she was still wearing both armour and blades. And had a decidedly war-like sparkle in her eye...
Unconsciously, he had raised his own brows, regarding the silver Voord with speculation. Still straightening from his bow, he shook back his cloak and brought both hands to his breast in a sequence of half-remembered gestures.
^^Give you^^fair greeting^^I am Danik^^
Silence frowned, as if suspecting him of mockery. ~Speak out loud,~ she signed.
Danik's own frown flickered for a puzzled moment; then he grinned ruefully.
~Forgive me. It is too long since I had occasion to speak with my hands and those from whom I learned that other form of speech were not of my kind, nor even of yours.~
Silence laughed, hands flying. ~I thought you would bruise my ear with your elbow. How many arms did these creatures of yours have to play with?~
~Only three. But for full fluency one needs a tail this was on the water planet ^^Deep^^Home Ocean^^Sea-Mother^^Shel~
But the rest of the anecdote, let alone the full sign-name of his former hosts' planet, was destined to remain for the moment at least in obscurity. The errant elbow came this time most emphatically to grief not, mercifully, against his partner's fine-cut ivory features, but against a neighbouring pillar and Danik broke off, nursing the afflicted limb with a grimace.
Silence, sparing the stricken would-be linguist a look of cheerful sympathy, held out both hands and swept him instead into the dance. All further conversation was, for the moment, stilled.
Before losing themselves in the party, Joe and Verity stumbled across Eloise, who was weaving back through the crowd with a mischievous grin on her face (pleased with her success in steering Danik toward Silence an equal to Cassie in the unattainability factor, but a better match overall... Neither Joe nor Verity knew that at the time, of course, but with their reporting skills, they might find out sooner than later).
"So what now happens now, Eloise?" Joe asked, kindly. "Just asking off the record. You're a sweet little troll and Verity and me, well, we just want to make sure you're doing OK."
"In the big picture? Return to my homeworld, I suppose," she said, simply. "After that, I have absolutely no idea. Then again, I never did know the future, even " and here, she allowed herself a sigh, "even when I did have a TARDIS."
Somehow, by chance (or maybe not), she found herself back at the tray of smoke balls. Eloise deftly snatched three extra rowan berry ones, and popped them into her mouth.
Joe blinked. "How did you do that? I've seen smoke rings," he said, "but never..."
Eloise winked. "Troll magic," she said. She licked her fingers, and turned a more focused gaze on the crowd. "For the immediate future," she said. "There are two dogs and a very rambunctious cat running through these corridors no doubt causing a great deal of mischief. Not to mention a birthday present for Gordon from every guest here, scattered throughout the various rooms.
At this, Joe and Verity looked around at the size of the crowd and raised their eyebrows.
"Not to mention coats and scarves, and ...other articles of clothing," Eloise continued. "After all he's been through, I doubt Florestan would want to spend time gallivanting around the universe playing errand boy for the lost and found. So " she rubbed her palms together in an eager way, "what happens right now is I get busy and join in that scavenger hunt. Care to join me?"
Paul added a bright green present wrapped in puce ribbon to the growing pile of scavenged items in the middle of the ballroom. Feeling in need of a break, he sat on the nearest chair, produced a pen and notebook from his pocket, and started writing. The writing progressed slowly, with much scribbling out and many breaks to hum under his breath. After a while, Paul stopped writing, and sighed. "O for a muse," he muttered, "of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of et cetera..."
Having added his own items to the pile, Donald wandered over. "Where's Ingo?"
Paul looked up. "I'm not sure, Donald. Around somewhere."
"Perhaps he's in the kitchen..." said Donald, who hadn't eaten for a while.
"No, I've looked. There's no one there." Paul put away his notebook. "How are you going with our list?"
"The multitude of wire bracelets, no problem," said Donald. "Three good rhymes for 'monkey', no luck I think you're on a hiding to nothing with that one, honestly. The electronic keyboard "
There was a disturbance by one of the doorways, occasioned by the entrance of a man, a woman, and a small red-headed girl riding on a large sandy-coloured dog, all surrounded by a swarm of typo gremlins.
Variations of "That's Cate Blanchett!" rose from all around.
For the woman was, indeed, the Cate. Cate Blanchett, the famous actress.
The famous Australian actress, Paul was quick to point out in a sudden burst of patriotism, going on to identify the girl as Dot, the famous Australian cartoon character, and her companion as a dingo, the famous Australian wild dog.
He had to admit, however, that the Italian gentleman had him stumped.
"That," said the First Doctor, glad for a chance to prove his superior knowledge, "is Orso Ipato, the first Doge of Venice."
"Fine," said somebody. "But what's he doing here?"
The Doge, dingo, and Cate stood in the doorway, looking uncertain. (Dot seemed to be taking the whole thing as it came.) After a moment, the horde of typo gremlins dispersed, permitting the four to revert to their correct spellings.
The dog that had been the Doge and the cat that had been the Cate made a beeline for Gordon, while the dog that had been Dot hopped nimbly off Ingo (who had been the dingo) and went in search of Eloise. Ingo muttered something incoherent, and fainted.
"How about that," said Paul rhetorically. "Now, Donald, you were saying...?"
Eloise collapsed under the onslaught of pounce, wriggles and wet tongue kisses known to all and sundry as High Five, while Spethan the typo gremlin hovered nearby, looking overly pleased with himself.
"Thank you, Spethan," Eloise said, sitting upright, when Hi-fie had finally spent most of her enthusiasm. "...I thank you. You wouldn't happen to have found her leash, would you?"
Spethan nodded, and dug into his pocket. After rummaging around for a bit he pulled out a tiny shred from a cobweb, and waved it proudly.
"Oh, I see:" Eloise said, grinning herself, "a least! Of course!"
The gremlin nodded again, and dropped the least into Eloise's palm, where it promptly returned to its original form. She clipped the leash onto High Five's collar, and the dog gave her a weird look.
Leashes were for going walkies, and every dog knows you don't go walkies when the TARDIS was in the vortex.
Eloise chuckled, but there was a slight break in it. "So I don't lose you again," she explained.
The poodle cocked her head, and raised her ears.
"Okay, okay!" Eloise conceded. "You never were lost in the first place, were you? So you don't lose me, then."
Hi-Fie wagged her tail, and licked the tip of Eloise's nose.
Eloise laughed. "Come on," she said. "Let's see if we can sniff out some more of Gordon's prezzies," and the dog and her troll went on another ramble through the corridors.
"Scavenger hunt!" Merlin cried.
"What," Guenevere objected, "and leave the party?"
"The party's going on the hunt," Lancelot observed.
"What," Guenevere objected, "and leave the bar?"
"I've done quite enough hunting tonight," Arthur agreed. "Unless there's a white stag involved, I'm staying right here."
"Oh very well," Merlin groused. He spoke a few words in Tolkienian Elvish. The package which Guenevere had been carrying when the Space Camelot contingent arrived at the hoedown teleported into his hand. Merlin refounded the present pile in a prominent place on the edge of the dance floor.
"What did we get him?" Morgan asked.
"You'll find out when he writes the scene where he opens them."
A short, animated, but rather hushed conversation broke out between Trader Grey, Carrie, Albert, and Amanda. This incorporated quite a bit of business with the Trader's big lenticular wristwatch, which scintillated weirdly during a couple of the most particularly animated paragraphs.
A few curious hoedowners, in accordance with Nature's ineluctable law, began at once to drift casually past, about, or around the incipient plot knot, with a view to accidentally overhearing its unravelling whilst searching diligently for that Thralian thornfruit-flavoured variant of margarita without which none of these jollifications could possibly be considered complete. Alas, the quartet were off about the scavenger hunt before the accidental witnesses could conveniently collect.
Peculiarly, Albert and Carrie walked a little ahead, with Gray and Amanda a few paces behind. As they hoved off, those still curious enough to drift in a similar direction found themselves the lucky audience of a WWII-era ditty being crooned softly in four-part harm: possibly one or more of them even recognised the strains of Apple Blossom Time. After brief consultations with their several deities, lugholes, and insurance policies, the aforesaid curious parties discovered as one a veritable plethora of better places for the pursuit of scavenger hunting, dancing, margarita adulteration, and so forth.
The dancing was in full swing when the four returned, quite some time later. Albert and Amanda moved straight onto the floor, completely even determinedly? absorbed in each other once more. The Trader swept across the room, triumphantly bearing his long-missed Le Cadeau Parfait before him to join the growing pile of Gordon's presents. The Sixth Doctor, never short of brass cheek at need, took the opportunity of this slight distraction to cut grandly in on him with Carrie, pre-empting the remainder of the dance. The blonde Muse accepted with an easy complaisance that would have felt frankly suspicious to any lesser ego than Sixth's, but as it was managed to get by just nicely, thanks all the same.
Embericles, dancing up close and pretty darn personal with Guess Whom, chuckled cynically. "Looks like it's all about to come out, Nyss..."
The Light Muse giggled, and blew mock-reprovingly in her partner's ear. "That's just the way it's cut, silly! Er, unless you wanted..."
The Author turned his head politely in a less overheated direction, the "gentleman" fit being briefly on him. The point of view flickered iridescently. Could the Matter of the Spam, and the whole Campion sub-plot, be on the verge of making sense?
Fastolf broke off from an abomination he was committing with Morgon, vodka, and a bag of cherry-flavoured chocolate truffles, and chose this moment to begin singing under his breath:
"When birds in water deepe do lie,|
And fishes in the air doe flie,
When water burns and fire doth freeze,
And oysters grow as fruits on trees "
Yeah, right, Will Boreas Jewel-Quickener Fat-Man Swan-Drake Tumble-Bug Shaxpur Uncle bloody Dragon. Thanks a big colossal bunch!
 I.e. three-part harmony plus the Trader.
 And we use the term advisedly!
 The wine. With two "o"s. The typo gremlins looked nervously at a certain sorceress at this point, and reasonably concluded, "Bigger that fo r again of solders!"
Eloise, with High-five to guide her, found several brightly wrapped packages for Gordon in polka-dots and stripey paper, and other papers that seemed to have no pattern at all, but just random colors. Many had bells tied to their ribbons, and about one in three had rather dubious and slightly dangerous looking angles.
One, with a gift card signed by the Seventh Doctor, had a sticker which read, ominously: "This Side UP (Underlined three times)! Do not shake under any circumstances!" Eloise raised her eyebrow at that, and slipped it into an inner pocket of her vest that held nothing else. She'd keep this one away from the others personally hand it to him last of all, so it wouldn't get turned upside down or jostled by accident. It's a good thing her transdimensional pockets were spatially stable, or she'd be walking on eggshells for the rest of the party.
But she couldn't find the present she'd gotten for him one that she and Sweetheart had hunted for together for months something (though she didn't know just what it was) that was perfect for Gordon. She felt the ache of panic start to rise in her chest again, at the thought of a relatively sedentary life without a TARDIS away from all her friends who were scattered across the cosmos.
High Five sensed Eloise's mood, it seemed. She was becoming more and more agitated, knocking Eloise's hand with her snout, and leaning into her side as they walked. Then, in a moment when Eloise's grip was a little bit loose, High Five dashed off.
"Hi-fie, Come!" Eloise called, running after her. "C'mon, Girl!"
She caught up with her around the next corner. the dog was dancing on tippy-toes, practically turning little pirouettes, but calmed down to a simple quiver as Eloise came close. Then, again, just as Eloise reached for her leash, she dashed off.
And so it went down at least half a dozen corridors, and through countless doors, until High Five stopped at one arched doorway in particular, and sat, with one paw raised in that special way she had when she had found something particularly interesting.
This time, when Eloise took hold of the leash, the dog did not run off, but looked up at her in a way that meant "follow me."
"Okay, Hi-fie," Eloise said, panting a little, "show me."
Beyond that doorway spread a fabulous garden, with shadowy corners and great saucer-sized blossoms that looked as though they'd been lifted from a painting by Henri Rousseau.
Here and there, pools of sunlight broke the shadows, as bright and round as any stage spotlight. One such spot of light shone over a little bridge that looked so familiar, except for its smaller scale, that Eloise had to laugh, though a single tear flowed, too. And it was here that High Five stopped, planted herself, and raised her paw again.
And when Eloise drew near, she could see why. Tucked in among the struts of the bridge was the package she herself had wrapped the mysterious, marvellous toy that went "zip" when it moved. She grinned again, thinking how much Gordon loved big, shiny buttons and twisty lids. She dropped to her knees, reached in, and retrieved it.
She sat there, a moment, with the package in her hands. It had been in a place so appropriate to her, that Eloise began to doubt whether its hiding place was simply a matter of chance, or whether this was Sweetheart's way of sending her a message.
"Don't worry," she said, softly. "I won't fight over you." She slipped the package into the inside pocket on the other side of her vest, and paused to take a drink from the stream, and to wash her face, while High Five lapped up a drink.
Then Eloise stood and stretched. "C'mon, Hi-fie," she said. "We're missing the party. ...I wonder how Danik is getting on with Silence. Let's go find out!"
"Who's that Silence is dancing with?"
Yokoi squinted to see the silver flash in the mirror that had caught Gordon's attention.
"Danik but I don't think that's dancing, do you?"
"That's why I wondered..."
The other dancers in the set were certainly giving Silence and her partner a distinctly wide berth. There was a good deal more leaping and steel involved than was customary for the sedate pavanes Florestan's ballroom orchestra seemed to favour, and some extremely fancy footwork, at least on Danik's part. The Voord's paired blades wove a net of flashing fire in the lamp-light.
"Maybe it's a sword-dance..."
Something silver and shining flew up into the air, turning over and over, and a wide space opened up around the dancers like magic. Danik leaped upwards upon the instant, salmon-swift, and captured the blade, laughing, before it could return to the hand of its owner.
For a moment all was confusion; then the two of them were at it hammer- and-tongs, swords swirling in perfect time to the rhythm of the music. Both appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely; admittedly more than could be said for the rest of the occupants of the dance-floor, most of whom had started to look distinctly nervous.
Silence's free hand flashed in an abbreviated gesture that brought a glint to Danik's eye. Left hand against right, he pressed her backwards out of the throng, holding back for a moment in a display of pointed condescension... that almost cost him his sword, as his opponent's weapon licked suddenly round and held him in quarte.
~Touché!~ Danik broke the lock, ceding ground swiftly until he brushed against the sweeping banister and sprang upwards without a backward glance.
The orchestra played on as they duelled Scaramouche-style up the sweep of the staircase, first one leading and then the other. It was hard to say whose eyes were sparkling more. Beneath them, the dancers advanced, parted and re-formed, couples joining and crossing over in wheeling patterns that wove onwards towards their culmination like the stately progress of a peal of bells.
Silence balanced rapidly along the baluster, angling downward against her opponent below. Danik, held at a disadvantage, darted in beneath her reach, striving to dislodge her blade. His hand slipped.
As the sword skittered along the gallery, wrung free from its wielder's grasp, both duellists made a dash for it; but Silence was the closer. She swept up the missing weapon in her free hand, twin blades paired once more, and pressed forward as her opponent retreated out of range.
Danik surveyed the situation for a moment. Sprang backward, as the Voord feinted neatly first to one side and then to the other. Shook his head, eyes dancing, to the unmistakable demand of those two blades, his left hand at his throat and the other behind him where the balustrade loomed uncomfortably close.
"A Schelstein," he informed her cheerfully, "never gives up!" And, as the Rose brooch came free... Swirled the cloak across her face, got one knee onto the hand-rail at his back, and launched himself faultlessly, of course into a flying leap for the chandelier below.
Silence was barely a second behind him; but a second too late. Her erstwhile opponent, swinging low across the ballroom, had already established himself behind the most unassailable barrier of all. Head bent gravely, with impudence shrouded behind the serenest of masks, he had established Katherine on his arm and was escorting her in courtly fashion through the final steps of the pavane.
"Well, ten out of ten for style, then," Yokoi was saying dubiously as Silence came sauntering back down the steps towards her friends, both scabbards once more securely at her side, "but two out of ten for playing by the rules..."
"C'mon, who said they were that kind of rules?" Gordon poked his Muse with his Silly Stick.
~So who won?~ Silence signed, smiling.
"Um, you did. I think..."