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Deal 621: Sudden Tent

Jane had walked down this street countless times on errands, and had never noticed the strange little tent in the vacant lot. To be fair, she had never noticed the vacant lot at all, with or without a tent. In the afternoon light, the tent seemed to glow orange with possibilities. She was in no hurry today, and curiosity struck, so she crossed the street to investigate.

From a distance, the tent was not particularly remarkable. But close up, she could see that the entire thing was embroidered in an odd pattern that made her eyes water as she tried to figure out whether there were two or three legs on each bar. The tent itself was circular in plan, with straight sides and a conical roof. A stuffed raven was fastened to the top of the center pole. At least Jane assumed it was stuffed. Until it turned and stared at her approach. Then grinned at her.

Just an automaton or puppet she thought.

Then it opened its beak and quarked at her knowingly.

Taken aback, she paused at the tent door.

“Come in, please do, and be comfortable” came a faint voice from within. “Don’t mind the bird, he’s not as infallible as he thinks.”

Stepping into the darkness, Jane paused and let her eyes adjust to the gloom. Somehow it was a lot larger inside than out. From the tent door to the wizened figure was at least twenty feet, while the tent itself was no more than ten feet across. Nevertheless, she crossed the space easily and made a place for herself at the table.

The figure chucked to itself the whole time.

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Deal 620: The Ball

Tonight’s the night.

All of my preparation comes to a head tonight, at the event of the season, the Comte’s Ball.

As is traditional, the ball is a masquerade, and officially by invitation only. But as is also traditional, there is an expectation that a few unexpected visitors will also attend. I plan to be one of that sort.

Having arrived fashionably late, I brushed past the footman whose job it was to learn my name and arrange for my announcement. I did not expect to be stopped, and I was not. As the elevator car arrived at the ballroom floor, another footman announced my arrival as simply “a mysterious stranger”. I smiled to myself as I let my cape billow in the wind of my passage from the car to the large and luxuriously appointed room.

My mission was none other than to snatch one of the Comte’s prized jewels from right under his hawk-like nose.

The Comte was a large bear of a man, handling himself tonight as always with all the grace of a stuffed carrot. Not that I’d dare say that to his face, or anywhere he’d hear it, or even anywhere he might hear of someone else hearing it.

His Jewels, as expected, were stunning even without their setting. They stood to either side of his great chair, each with a small pool of fawning admirers. To his right was Topaz, and his left, her sister Lapis, twin daughters jealously guarded by His Lordship and dressed for the evening as jewels in golden settings.

I was now in a small quandary, having agreement for a very public elopement from Erika, but most definitely not her sister Joan. With the two dressed as they were, my next move would be crucial.

I was wearing a large, ebon feather in my cap, and was bearing signs of the Raven in my style of cape and choice of colors. I was told that Erika was to expect that, and would make herself known to me despite our disguises. I watched them both closely as I worked my way across the hall, tending towards Lapis not out of confidence that she was my Erika, but mostly due to the ebb and flow of the crowd through which I moved. About halfway there, the Comte himself seemed to notice my presence, and he pointed me out first to his daughters, and then after a moment’s whispered conversation with an advisor, to his guards. At the same time, the sisters moved as one to thwart any official action, apparently having primed their followers with suggestions for ways to make the ball more interesting. Or perhaps to make the ball a better story.

So the dance commenced.

Guards converging on my position. Myself, swimming through the large crowd, with patches of friendly people who moved with me and against the approaching guards. And the twin Jewels, distracting the Comte with their presence, and distracting the guards with the suggestion that they might step off the dais into the crowd.

The orchestra chose that moment to strike up a waltz, and the figurative dance suddenly became a real dance. I continued my advance, now stepping in time to the beat and dodging waltzers to all sides.

With that move, Topaz gave the signal I’d been watching for, then she and Lapis stepped abruptly into the swirling crowd. I kept my eye on my prize and continued to swim towards the head table in hopes of reaching my beloved before a guard cut me off at the knees.

Finally, a swirl of courtiers threw us together, then surrounded us with a flurry of men sporting black feathers and women flashes of pale yellow allowing us to move together surprisingly rapidly across the room to the grand doors to the patios and gardens beyond. We took advantage of being in the eye of the storm to hug, and then to adjust our costumes to be more like those worn by our co-conspirators.

The orchestra played on, one waltz after another without break. I realized that the sisters had arranged that so that we would have musical cover for our escape.

The doors are at hand, and the jewel is at my side. We pause at the threshold and turn back to look. For just a moment the Comte is scowling at the crowd, then he sees us stepping out of the door and relaxes.

“Well that went better than I expected,” I said to the Topaz on my arm as I moved to kiss her.

“Not necessarily,” said Joan, “and none of that.” Seeing my stunned look, she just smiled. “What good is being a twin if you can’t use it as the ultimate distraction?” she asked. “Father was so sure of our plans that he took extra care to keep Erika out of your grasp. But now even he is not sure which of us was to have worn which costume, and is not precisely sure which of us just ran off with the mysterious stranger. And even you who have been courting Erika for months are suddenly unsure…”

Oddly, in that moment I had never been more sure of myself than at any time before.