Chapter 06 - The Masquerade
The clock's hand pointed to a with gold decorated number eight. The
castle's ballroom was already packed. Most of the guests had arrived early and
despite the bad weather that had been predicted, it seemed like everyone
invited had come. In the first half hour alone the Callisford family butler had
crossed every name on the list and the detective girl was quick to verify this.
While the butler accepted all the invitations, Lady Millina greeted each guest
enthusiastically, thanking everyone for coming.
"She looks beautiful, doesn't she?" the detective girl commented slyly when he kept his gaze on the lady for longer than two seconds. He wanted to deny it, but knew that most of the crowd shared her opinion. With her long turquoise hair in soft, loose curls and an expensive pearl headdress and necklace, she eyed like a rare gem. The pure white decorative ball gown illuminated her appearance and the mask she wore only complimented her beauty. It framed her vibrant aquamarine eyes alone, but the simple silhouette of the mask was compensated with expensive pearls and crystals.
In her excitement, or perhaps even naiveté, she didn't seem to notice the foul glances from the ladies nor the lustful stares of the gentlemen.
"How wonderful to see you two dressed up," her soft voice cooed affectionately when she saw the chance to greet them. "Why, that mask looks absolutely stunning on you." The detective girl had to admit that the mask was indeed the strongest part of the entire outfit. Like golden thread it spun a decorative pattern around the eyes and most of the cheeks. One could say that it was almost a shame that blonde hair loosely fell on top of it; the lock of hair hid most of the left side of the mask as well. The dress that shared the same golden color, was simple, yet elegant and obviously made to match with it.
"Those sleeves and skirt certainly make your waist look small, dividing attention to the stronger points of your undeveloped body," Millina smiled gently.
She had stated that so casually that the detective girl nearly burst out laughing at the insulting compliment. At least it was meant as a praise.
"Ah I see and you are dressed as a servant tonight," the lady commented then. She glanced at the dark-blue pants and the matching waistcoat resting upon a clean crème-colored blouse. "They are a little big on you, aren't they; my butler's clothes? I don't mind you borrowing them, as long as you won't forget to return them afterwards."
This caused Len to raise his eyebrow at the detective girl. "You didn't ask her permission first?" he exclaimed.
"Not specifically," she casually replied.
The Lady stepped closer, her fingers wrapping around the blue tie that was knotted perfectly, but rested on the waistcoat instead of being tugged away. She quickly fixed that small error and smiled brightly. "There," she said. "A servant of mine should be properly dressed." She was enjoying this role-play a little too much. "I shouldn't have worn high heels though, I seem to be taller than you now." Her with lace gloved hand gently pinched the cheek of her undercover servant. "…Or did you shrink?" she teased. The way her eyes seemed to sparkle, the sharp curl of her smile… The detective girl hadn't given her enough credit, but this lady had the ability to see things others would overlook.
"This is already a success," Lady Lucia commented behind her, stepping into the conversation with two glasses of champagne in her hand.
People were entertaining themselves with alcohol and small-talk. The musicians had started playing a few minutes ago and a handful of couples had already entered the dance area. It was going very well. "This is a masquerade, please wear your mask," Millina commented gently, accepting the glass of champagne from her. "You will be anonymous and thus be allowed to dance with any man you please. Besides, it looks wonderful on you."
With a defeated sigh, Lucia covered half her face with her mask. It was a stunning silver mask, decorated with blue lines and crystals. It covered her eyes and part of her cheeks. There were feathers on both sides of the mask, framing her face. The dress she wore was light blue and had the same feathers. It was decorated with silver lines, making the mask and dress a perfect match. Her long hair was placed in a large complex bun, accentuating her creamy bare shoulders, something that was considered daring at such a high society party.
"Now everyone on the guest list has arrived," Len voiced.
"Yes," Lady Millina immediately acknowledged. "There were a number of guests that needed to take off their masks, but unfortunately that was something we could not avoid."
The detective girl locked eyes with the writer and nodded. "We won't keep you any longer," she told them. "Try to enjoy the party. We will be around if you need us."
"What are you planning to do now that everyone has arrived?" the writer asked then, following her. He wanted some clearance. She had been rather vague and evading when he asked her the details of her plan. She hadn't given him a proper explanation for dressing him up and her motivation behind her choice of disguise still remained unclear. Nonetheless, he had been mature enough to comply with her plan.
Out of her pocket then appeared the large set of keys and she gave him a scheming smile, handing the set to him. "I will give you the honor," she stated.
Now she was just teasing him. "The honor of what?" he had to ask.
"I suggest that you start paying attention. All of the guests have arrived and no one is expected to enter the castle any longer," she claimed. "If you had bothered to count the maids, you would know that every servant but the gardener and the chef are present in this ballroom. Oh. And the butler just now left as well… how convenient."
Len frowned at the set of keys. "I really cannot follow you sometimes. Will you please answer the question for once, instead of making your answers too cryptic to understand?" he asked her. "I'm beginning to think you're doing it on purpose."
"Don't be like that," the detective girl pouted. "I promoted you, haven't I?"
He took an immediate breath, one she cut off by clasping her hand on top of his. "Take the keys…" she explained. "And lock the doors."
His eyes widened at that, hesitating before leaning closer. "…You want to lock them up?" he tried to reaffirm. "You can't be serious."
"Oh, I am very serious," the detective girl simply answered.
"No, no, wait," he stated, his fingers curling around hers. "There are more than seventy people inside; if they grow aware that they're locked up, panic will break out. And what if anything happens? If there is some kind of emergency and the doors are locked… then that murder won't be committed by the culprit you seek out."
She had to stiffen a chuckle, halfheartedly trying to mask it. "You really have a good sense of humor sometimes. I am talking about the servants, of course."
"You… want to lock up the servants," he slowly repeated. "…Yes, of course that makes a lot more sense."
"I dislike loose ties," she stated, as if it was something that simple. "The gardener and chef won't be in my line of sight for the entire evening and it is a butler's task to keep walking around. Why not take this opportunity to prove their innocence?"
"…By locking them up," he repeated. "Can't you see how wrong that is?"
She didn't seem fazed. "They will thank me afterwards."
Loudly, the musicians started the tune to a most familiar balled; the waltz. Since most of the guests had already exchanged formal pleasantries, it wasn't a surprise that most couples took this opportunity to start dancing.
"Wonderful distraction," she then announced. Closing the large white doors of the ballroom behind her, she pulled his hand and proceeded along. "After this, we will go our separate ways. You know your task. I will keep an eye on you, so you won't have to worry. If the culprit tries to snatch you away, I will step in and protect you." Her childlike smirk caused him to take her words only half-serious.
He sighed to himself. He could honestly not wait for this charade to end.
In the mix of dancing pairs, a pair of black heels clicked against the marble floor as the young adolescent slipped into the crowd, fulfilling part of this important duty by moving along the rhythm of the music. The golden-colored dress seemed to sparkle with each movement and it was difficult not to stand out wearing such a colorful outfit. But it was part of the assignment to be recognizable as the detective girl. That was the plan they had debated upon, a plan they both agreed to. Joining the dance was the indeed an effective way to keep a close eye on their suspects as long as they were on the dance floor.
It wasn't to find a dance partner either. After consuming at least one glass of wine, most single men had worked up enough courage to ask a lady of choice to dance. And enough time has already passed for couples to part from each other's side, now daring to dance with other available partners. The rules of the masquerade allowed them this, regardless if they were married, engaged or single.
As the music continued on, the blonde adolescent danced with several men, accidently missing a couple of steps in the beginning, but quickly learning from the mistakes. Be it young or old, it really didn't matter who initiated the next dance. Unless men and women were a couple, it wasn't proper to spend more than one dance with a partner anyway, unless there was a romantic interest. And most men quickly caught unto the clear lack of interest. Not that it bothered the blonde, who was too occupied to care. The culprit demanded enough attention.
Eyes momentarily shifted to the person that symbolized the other half of their strategy; the servant that was circling around the ballroom, carrying glasses of wine towards the guests. Blonde hair was neatly combed back into a short ponytail and bangs too short to be tied back fell unevenly in front of a friendly smiling face. Working together with a group of maids certainly opened a window of opportunity to watch those young girls closely as well.
Despite a few less fortunate experiences – one particular imbecile of a dance partner liked to step on shoes – it was the right decision to join the dance, as well as observe from the sidelines. That way they could observe the suspects from both angles; a well-thought-out strategy indeed.
Gaillard and Lucia were easily spotted; they have not moved from each other's side since they started dancing. Keaton Callisford stayed on the dance floor as well, but with a different dance partner during each song. Lady Gillium, in her colorful pink dress and matching mask, was asked to dance by several men and smiled brightly at the attention. Only Lady Millina was found at the sidelines, talking to a few other ladies over a glass of champagne.
Another song ended and another song started. But instead of being released to find a new dance partner, he kept their hands locked together: the young man with the simple mask that wore a kind smile. He had seemed average, from his height down to his brown eyes. He hadn't been worth a second glance, but yet here he was, purposely drawing attention back to him. "Would you care for a second dance, milady?" he asked, as his lips pressed against bare skin.
The blonde's eyes narrowed immediately, a murderous glint in those orbs."Get lost."
The cold response made the man tense, before carefully stepping away. The words were taken into account and the man left to find another dance partner. The young adolescent did not bother to do the same, feet now aching painfully for a break. How women would voluntarily put on these shoes was a mystery in itself. Wearing these for the first time was already a terrible experience, how would anyone wish to wear them daily?
"You look a bit uncomfortable," a low voice rang. The long purple hair and the sight of those same sea-colored eyes glistering behind a mask, unmistakably belonged to Gaillard Callisford. Without hesitation, he led the next dance the blonde hadn't even wanted to partake in. But since he had initiated this dance himself, curiosity easily gained the upper hand.
Through the eyes of the society around them, there was nothing wrong with this picture. It would just be a coincidence to share a dance with this particular lady.
However, staring in the intelligent blue eyes of the man, the realization grew that this was anything but a coincidence. Being recognized as the detective girl had its advantages if it was a way to obtain more information; wasn't that the whole point?
The words of Lady Gillium suddenly seemed to echo back. This was a man who lost everything to his younger brother through foul play. Who knew what this man was capable of? He was strong and broad enough to commit murder and seemed intelligent enough as well. However, appearances were often deceiving…
"I've been waiting for a chance to speak with you privately," he then spoke softly.
"You have? Why is that?" Being pushed closer made the blonde tense, the distance between them now of a couple's rather than two random dance partners. Only the promise of information kept hands from crawling towards the man's exposed throat.
Gaillard slowly leaned down to whisper: "Watch the Lady's friend closely."
"…Really?" Lady Gillium had warned them about this man, and now it was the exact way around. How amusing was that…
Sea-colored eyes narrowed slightly, a hesitating frown on his face. "My wife doesn't trust you," he continued. "I must say that I had my doubts about you as well. However, her conspiracy theories are a little farfetched. That young woman over there has more motive to commit murder than you do."
"…Continue," was the intriguing response.
The taller male leaned in once more. The music and voices around them would surely drown the low whisper of the older male. And the blonde held a breath when the information was transferred and sank in. "…You mean…" was voiced breathlessly.
"This was for your ears only," he explained, his eyes lingering for a moment more. The song had already ended and couples were starting to switch partners. It wasn't appropriate for them to dance more than one song and the tall male left in time with the soothing music.
Well… this was definitely interesting. Sharp eyes skimmed the ballroom and quickly spotted the figure at the sidelines. The undercover servant had been caught up in a conversation and had missed the exchange of information completely. The young dancer knew that it needed to be kept that way. Lips stretched in a knowing smile; perhaps this will be figured out later on, but for now, this information will not be shared with anyone else. Having fun was an important reason for being here; making these things too easy would be too dull for the detective girl.
The blonde servant returned a smile to the lady who took one of the glasses from the silver plate. There were other maids walking around to serve the guests with alcohol, but women often bluntly ignored them, wishing to be served by the only male servant.
Being a servant had seemed like the perfect opportunity to work from the shadows, but the female population seemed to disagree. Most of the ones that did not join the waltz, would at least try to start a conversation. While a mere servant of the Callisford family should not dare to object, this remained an undercover job. Despite their creative attempts to keep the youth from leaving, they were always left by themselves after a couple of minutes. There was no time to stand still and the blonde would not be distracted.
Circling around the ballroom had worked wondrous so far; none of them had been out of sight for longer than a couple of minutes.
"Oh, young man, come over here, sweetie!"
It was sometimes challenging not to roll eyes at some of the ladies that demanded service. The women that called out with a nickname or with an evident slur in their voices were often touchy; something that went unappreciated. And this lady creatively combined the two, making her both drunk and flirtatious. Pretending not to hear her was the easiest solution. She really didn't need another glass of wine.
Repositioning the stray locks of hair, the servant eased the feeling of annoyance by watching the golden figure within the dancing crowd. Ah, it was only a matter of time before that man would initiate a dance. He had tried to woo every woman he danced with so far.
"You are watching her closely as well, I see," Lady Lucia commented, her low voice carrying a hint of resentment.
Eyes shifted to the cherry-blossom haired female. "I wouldn't dare keeping my eyes off her," the servant smiled. "I don't want her to run off without me."
The lady knitted her eyebrows together in a frown, before taking the silver plate with both hands. Not permitting any sound of protest, she placed it down on the nearest table. "She is dancing the night away, while letting you carry wineglasses around," she stated. "It is ridiculous for her to have fun while you have to do all the work."
"I have to disagree with you," the servant replied. "We are both carrying out our jobs in a different way. She is working just as hard as I am."
The older female fought to repress a sigh. "I see your loyalty is hard to break." She then reached for a glass of wine on that plate and started sipping on it. "Ask Millina for a dance," she commented quietly.
"What, why?" the blonde immediately objected.
"Because," she loudly claimed, clenching the wineglass a little tight as blue eyes coldly gazed at the dancing crowd. "She will need the distraction."
Following the lady's gaze was enough to grow aware of the situation. "…Oh," was the only response that could be uttered. It was tempting to pity Lady Millina, even without knowing the details of the matter. "How long already?"
"Too long. Dance with her," Lucia repeated once more. "I never told you this."
The servant nodded quietly, forfeiting the plate and stepping towards the lady in the beautiful white dress. Since observing her had been part of their task to begin with, the blonde was aware that a number of men had already asked her for a dance. She had politely turned every offer down, but the smile she gave them grew bitter over time. "…I was asked to offer you a dance."
Millina blinked, her deep aquamarine eyes holding confusing as she stared back.
"But I have the feeling that you will turn me down as well."
Her shoulders were tense and her gaze averted when she answered. "I do love these kind of parties…" Her tone had a hint of sadness in it.
The young servant gently placed a hand on her arm. She stirred, but did not move away. Her eyes met the color of blue in a quick glance, before looking down once more. " …I just wanted…" The whisper was barely hearable above the sharp violin sound.
Only a soft sigh could be expressed at the following silence. The lady seemed ready to burst out in tears at any given moment. "I know. I understand," was replied, hoping that the lady would listen to comforting words.
Millina then parted her lips, taking a small breath. "You know, I…"
"Mommy, mommy!" The high pitched voice cut through the conversation as a young girl ran towards them on her bare feet, carrying a proud smile on her face. Her brown hair was no longer divided by two pigtails and hang loosely past her shoulders. The child took hold of the edges of her long white nightgown and twirled around. "I look just like you now!" she exclaimed. Her brown eyes seemed to sparkle as she looked up at her mother in the hopes of receiving a praise. But the aquamarine eyes of the lady, filled with unshed tears, only stared down at the girl that had snuck out of her bedroom, stiffening at her appearance. "…Why is she out of bed?"
People who watched the scene chuckled in amusement and continued on with their conversations, completely unaware of how this particular scene could create a ripple that could bring forward disaster. Millina seemed to understand; she lost more color with each passing second. "She can't be here. She just can't be here," she expressed. "Why is she here? Why is no one with her!?"
Large, doe-like eyes looked up to her mother and the servant fell silent. There were only a handful of people in this room that could understand her panic. There was a threat to commit murder and the mere thought of their child in danger would make any mother lose composure.
"Why is no one taking care of that – "
"Julie!" Arms wrapped around the small frame of the little girl, the surprise causing her to break into a fit of giggles. "Hello there! Why are you out of bed?" Gillium Noverin asked.
"Bathroom. I couldn't find Hanna to take me," the girl answered.
"Well, the maids are a little busy at the moment…" For a moment, light-colored green eyes glanced at them, before putting the little girl down and ruffling her already messy hair. "I can take her upstairs for you," she offered to her friend.
Millina shook her head. "No," she stated. "I will bring her myself."
"Absolutely not," the servant cut in. "Neither of you is allowed to leave the ballroom."
Aquamarine eyes narrowed. "Ridiculous. She can't stay. I won't allow such a thing."
"Len," Gillium then called quietly. "Can you not bring her? While I fully understand that none of us are allowed to leave, perhaps you can – ?"
"I have to stay here." the blonde stiffly responded. "I can't afford to leave either."
The teal-haired lady grasped the hand of her daughter tight. "Fine," she stated coldly. "If you refuse to cooperate, I will have to ask that detective for permission."
The logic of that decision was hard to argue with, but the servant clutched the hem of her white dress tightly anyway, forcing the lady to turn back her attention. "Please listen to me for your own safety. Do not leave this ballroom."
Something flickered in those aquamarine eyes and the two of them exchanged a lengthy glance. Perhaps it was the determination in that sentence that caused the lady to pause, or perhaps it was something that could only be understood between the two of them. But in the end, it did not matter. Millina shook her head and pulled away.
The blonde sighed. "Please don't make me regret this decision…"
Gillium's head turned and her green eyes contained curiosity, but the servant did not linger to answer any questions.
"Here. We need your help as well." The bucket of water and soap was almost thrown in the hands of the undercover servant, liquid spilling around the edges. The start of a protest was silenced with a stern look in those icy blue eyes. "I'm sorry, but the faster this is cleaned up, the faster we can get back to work as well," she stated, waving some of her lengthy platinum-blonde locks back. The servant glanced down at the decorative flower pinned to the uniform and recalled her name; one identical to the flower she was wearing. When she turned to another maid, the youth planted the heavy bucket firmly on the ground. This was an absolute disaster. Millina had been gone for a while now and their suspects had left to the hallway with the other guests. Who knew that alcohol that would be the main cause for this disorder? Not even the shimmering color of gold had been visible for the last ten minutes. Everyone that should be in a direct line of sight, was no longer there.
It was silly, simple and childish. Guests that drank more alcohol then they could handle had danced and flirted around inappropriately. Partners that had become jealous initiated the loud arguments that flared up within the dance floor. Keeping an eye on the Callisford family and their acquaintances became rather challenging, but once a man hit another man for dancing with his betrothed twice, everything escalated. There was no telling when or where everyone was once the wineglasses were picked up and thrown around. The shattered glass frightened the guests and this caused more and more people to get involved. When the two that started the fight were eventually overpowered by a group of men, the damage had already been done. Half the ballroom was covered in glass and liquid.
Gaillard Callisford was the one that stepped forward and apologized for the situation. Calmly, he asked the guests to remain in the hallway until everything was cleaned up, promising that it would only take a couple of minutes. Despite of that, a large number of guests had decided to leave early and it was impossible to know who had stayed and who had already left. Not to mention that all of the maids – including the servant – were forced to clean up the mess by themselves. Alone.
At least all twelve maids were in the ballroom at the present time, but that did not lift the blonde's sullen mood. Being forced to pick up glass and mob while their suspects could be absolutely anywhere, was enough to scrub the floor in an aggressive manner. It did not take long before the already small amount of patience ran out and the alcohol-soaked cloth was thrown hastily at the floor. This was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. There were far more important thing to do.
Raising from the floor and wiping wet hands dry at the side of the overly large cotton pants, the blonde maid immediately reacted to the lack of labour. "Where are you going?" she asked, or more like demanded.
"I need to be somewhere else," the youth responded.
The woman placed the bucket of water in her hands down, her heels clicking against the marble as she crossed the dance floor. "Listen, I know that you really aren't part of our team, but you will blow your cover if you waltz out of this room. Besides, we-"
The ground shook and it was as if something exploded in the room; its deafening crash loud enough to shake every individual currently inside the castle. The shatter of a hundred crystals clattered through the ballroom and pieces of crystal flew in every thinkable direction.
Curling shaking fingers around the woman's shoulders, the servant took a deep breath. "Are-are you alright?" The maid, whose whole body was trembling, nodded quietly. The both of them had lost their balance when the chandelier crashed right behind her. If she had not taken that last step, they would have had to clean up the mess of a trampled flower.
"Oh my God!"
The first cry of abhorrence was expressed and that initiated a chain reaction. In a matter of seconds, a crowd formed around them and hands started to seize them up. Some of the guests that had been talking in the hallway, had come bursting in when they heard the crash and it were the hands of those men that lifted them up.
"Lily, Lily!" the quivering voice of another maid cried out when she pulled the blonde woman in a tight hug. Her hair was snow-white and her chestnut-colored eyes were filled with tears. "Oh thank God! Thank God you are alright!"
Feeling a sudden sharp pull, the young adolescent flinched. "Len," a familiar voice panted. Worried sky-blue eyes stared back and the youth nearly breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the cherry blossom-haired female. "Are you alright?" Lucia asked him, tightening her grip in an attempt to bring out a response. "You aren't hurt?"
Her husband was standing right next to her, but his narrowed grey-blue eyes were focused on the broken chandelier instead, eyeing the large crack in the marble floor. "That was a close one," Gaillard then expressed. "If this room had not been evacuated…"
Lucia raised her head. "Multiple casualties would have followed," she quietly finished.
The young adolescent looked upwards to the ceiling of where the object had fallen from… and tensed when it became evident which chandelier had almost caused a person's death.
"Meanwhile, that detective is nowhere in sight," Lucia's voice rang.
It was the one chandelier they had investigated together.