The Scotsdale Virtual Estate

The data co-ordinates supplied to Ante and Dare would lead them to a small garden gazebo beside a rock-lined pool, with a neat gravel path leading away from it, towards what looked like a fairly grand mansion. It was obviously a part of the grounds intended to receive guests, and the atmosphere was particularly striking in the night-time setting with a bold moon an scattered stars clear overhead.

The pavilion itself made for a clever and well-concealed means of dressing up a more traditional entry port, but the rest of the small garden area seemed to be original design, purely for the aesthetic. They were actually surrounded on three sides by deep green hedges, though a gap in the back wall was marked by a wooden lattice and showed more hedge beyond, so it seemed likely that the small space was actually the communal space at the entry to a quaint hedge-maze.

In the other direction, looking towards the mansion proper, the structure stood out in the night darkness; light pouring from each of the tall, arching windows spread a warm glow over everything it touched, and faintly, the sounds of people mingling and being social could be heard, along with the soft strains of ballroom music. There was a grand piano in there, and an assortment of strings at least. A large balcony overlooked the estate on the side nearest, and a few figures could distantly be seen taking in the night air.

It was more difficult to make out at night, but the architecture was clearly very formal and traditional; impressive stonework and stately designs, with well-appointed pathways, hedges and water features skirting the perimeter of the mansion. Closer to home, the more pressing matter seemed to be that, for the time being, there was no-one here to meet them yet.
Dare appeared on the net in her usual motorbike roar and jet of flames. The noise and effect couldn't have looked more out of place, and luckily for all the gazebo-loving citizens of the Net, the flames had no tangible effect. The Navi herself was dressed in her favorite .GMO, ready to party:

A cheap pay-to-download .GMO design Bruce bought online from Belfast Avatars on the fly as cover for a mission, not knowing how to program his own. The outfit consists of a red blouse and skirt, made to look like a short sheath dress by a large, dark red breast belt with two silver buckles. The outfit fits Dare's curves well, but because of this snugness and the silver bangle braclets it adds, she finds it cumbersome for battle. It retains the hairstyle and shades from her original outfit, a customization option chosen by Bruce in the interest of time, but adds simple silver earrings. The only conspicuous holdovers from her original outfit are the earguards, which remain the same, and the large chrome pipes which protrude from either ankle of each of her red high-heel shoes.

Because of the lack of customization detail on Bruce's part, if Dare enters battle routine while wearing this outfit, her motorcycle helmet still appears as usual.

Unfortunately, as Dare got a look at her surroundings, she realized her outfit was probably going to stand out in a bad way here. "Oh, they meant THAT kind of alluring," Dare spoke to herself quietly. She couldn't help that it felt like some benevolent deity had finally granted the duo a mission that favored Ante instead of her. "I'm dressed for the wrong kind of party! I wonder..." Dare looked back into her memory files, trying to bring up the old packet Ante had given her.

The Navi gulped, mentally bracing herself. "Well, when in Rome, do as the Romantics do..."

When a fancy dress isn't fancy enough, there's this GMO. Designed to skyrocket its wearer ti the peak of pinache, the gold-colored dress looks like something out of a fairy tale: a tremendous bell skirt, a bustier dress too worn with the shoulders down, but still tastefully covering the bosom so as to allow very little cleavage to be exposed, long, silk gloves reaching to the elbows, and high heeled gold slippers complete the elegant ensemble. Dare's hair is made into as pretty of a bun as Ante could compose, held behind the head with a gold ribbon. Upon the chest, a yellow, five-petalled flower with black creeping from its center is pinned; it is likely not a real flower, as Ante's expertise does not lie in botony. A light, pale yellow belt sash circles the waist, although its not necessary to hold anything together.

Beneath the dress, the undergarments consist of a perhaps overly conservative thin, strapless tube top and bloomers, both in a less flattering pale yellow. Ante is the type to believe that one's undergarments shouldn't be made alluring, since they should rarely be seen regardless. The shoes were not made to account for Dare's exhaust pipes, which Ante assumed were cosmetic... A bit of the ankle sticks past the shoe regardless, so it might be alright...?

Dare's first thought was that Ante had set a trap for her, as she felt as though she were being pulled and stretched in various directions. The end result was liveable, if quite tight on the feet. Her pipes had made way for themselves, stretching the seams of her shoes as necessary. "Holy cow! This thing feels like driving a tank," she commented, taking a step tentatively and immediately regretting it. She stumbled haplessly and had to prop herself on a gazebo post.

Frowning, she practiced a bit more until she could at least walk comfortably. "I'm lucky I got here a little early... I need to steel myself for Ante's reaction when she appears." Dare couldn't decide if she would prefer an Ante laughing at her expense or an Ante just pleased as punch with what a lovely, lady-like, reasonable outfit she'd designed.
Two tall stacks of poker chips descended from the sky, falling with a steady click-click-click until slowly collapsing into themselves on the base of the net. In their wake, Ante and Fold were deposited, both standing in perfect upright posture. The navi was already engaged with describing her predictions for the festivities to her SP. "Now Miss Fold, I don't want you to get over excited. Usually, when requests like these come through, I find that when they mention 'alluring women,' the employer is really looking for perverse distractions or eye candy. We shouldn't get our hopes up for an extravagant ball or anything of that sort," the red-clothed navi droned on, while her SP nodded along, showing impressive enthusiasm for the most droll of subjects. "I haven't seen something so elegant for quite some... time..."

Her speech fell off as she stared, uncharacteristically slack-jawed, at the scene in front of them: a splendid mansion with a well kept courtyard and classical ballroom dancing music awaited them at the mission coordinates. She covered her mouth with both hands shaking, then removed both hands and began facing herself as though she was feeling faint. "Am I dreaming? If so... please let me continue to dream, for just a few more minutes," she begged, gripping at the corners of her hat. She pulled it front of her eyes for a moment to block her vision, then set it back into place. A giddy smile broke across her face and she clapped her hands, jumping up and down on both feet like a child. "Oh my goodness! It's wonderful!" were the only words she could manage.

"A real mansion with a real ball, perhaps? Maybe we aren't so unlucky after all!" Fold chuckled, smiling almost as much as Ante. She was mostly just pleased to see the princess pleased, rather than for the ball specifically. Her smile turned into a curious frown as she lifted her helmet's beaked visor and scratched her forehead. "But is it not curious that there are no other party goers?"

"We must be early... hopefully fashionably so," Ante reassured herself, seeming ready to immediately discuss anything that might spoil her good mood. She examined the grounds further, then clasped her hands at her mouth again and drew in a deep breath. "Miss Dare! You look... gorgeous! Simply breath-taking! I knew that you would, but I worried that you might be too stubborn... or, accustomed, I should say... to dressing the part of the courageous daredevil instead of the proper lady. But now look at yourself! It's... it's just..." she met her friend, placing both hands upon Dare's shoulders. Her red eyes were becoming redder as tears began to well up. "Ah... I need a kerchief. You're just so lovely."

Fold nodded along quietly. Eventually, Ante stopped the waterworks, sniffled, and turned to the woman beside her. "Miss Dare, this is Miss Fold. She is a protector from my royal guard, which accompanied me in battle back in the olden days, before I was cursed and they were sealed away," the Red Queen introduced her Black Queen.

"Charmed," Fold smiled, giving a curtsy with her armored skirt. "I suppose this isn't the first time we've met, although I was just a shadow of my self earlier."

Ante was still beaming from ear to ear as she clasped one hand of each companion and squeezed them, add if to show them just how darn pleased she was. "Oh, Fold! We must give you a dress for the occasion! It should be ready enough to adapt my own outfit into something you can wear."

The SP looked taken back, then shook her head. "I'm not worthy! Besides... what would you wear if I took your clothing?" she asked, covering her nose with one hand as if to stop a sudden nosebleed. Ante answered the question before her SP could question any further, activating the BallGown.GMO that had been as simple to create as she'd implied. Fold became almost as starry-eyed as Ante when she got a look at the dress. "It's an honor! Truly..." Now they both looked giddy.

One person had thus far been left out of the festivities, Ante realized. "Teru, look! Have you ever seen anything so splendid as-" she stared, then realized that her operator seemed to be dressed as a school student and getting her butt touched by Bruce, who was dressed as a coach. She began to think she really was dreaming. With all of the focus of one desperately clinging to a good dream and trying to swat away anything that might sully it, she spotted talking and pretended she hadn't seen anything. "Well, ladies, let's not keep our host waiting!" the princess chuckled in her most winning, regal, caramel-smooth lady voice, fixing her hat before proceeding towards the mansion.

Fold smiled to Dare almost apologetically. "So... Zennocracy... does the word mean anything to you?" the SP asked as they walked up to the mansion doors.
Just as the ladies were preparing to leave the small receiving garden, there came the sound of another voice; a male one this time.

"Well, good evening ladies." The voice came from behind the gazebo, light and playful, and if either of them looked around they'd find a man leaning against the hedgerow with a nonchalant air, grinning at them both.

His features were plain, but comely; smooth skin, just a little bit tanned, with short, sandy brown hair and eyes that reflected a shade somewhere between green and blue in the moonlight. He was wearing dark colours; a concealing vest and trousers made of some thin, light fabric, over the top of neat, delicate boots, more fitting of a man who ran a lot, than one who walked... or maybe one who danced? He was also wearing a long, hooded cloak that was probably black, but the hood itself was thrown back, showing his face clearly. On his right hip, a short dagger was fastened to his belt in a simple and plain-looking sheath, while on the other, there was a longer, many-slotted sword-breaker attached by a loop. He nodded his head to them, still smiling, and stood straighter, moving towards the pair.

"Do forgive me for saying, but each of you look utterly ravishable this evening." Standing straight, he crooked one arm across his waist and bowed slightly; just a small incline of his head and chest, although, in formal style, he also extended his left food with the action, ankle turned.

"I take it you're the ladies that Zenny sent for to help along her big to-do tonight, am I right? Sorry the lady herself isn't here to meet and greet, but she's up at the party already, doing as hostesses must. She'll probably find a chance to talk to you soon though, don't worry." His hands returned to their position behind his back, under the cloak as he approached, but he extended the offer to shake with each of them once he drew close enough.

There was something just a little bit roguish about his speech; a touch of roughness around the edges of an otherwise courtly bearing. If regal behaviour was not his norm, he was at least doing fair to charming job of it, for the sake of present company.

"Shall we take a walk, then? We have a few things to chat about regarding the evening." With the hand-shaking done, he gestured up the path towards the mansion with the same hand, taking the first step, then pausing to let the ladies fall in beside him if they choose to.

"First of all, by what shall I call each of you moonlit beauties?" He grinned again, followed by another small incline of his head as he paused for them, and offered one arm in a gentlemanly fashion, in case anyone felt like taking it. If there was more than one taker, he was more than happy to offer the occupation his other arm as well, but two was, unfortunately, his limit for that particular mode of chivalry. At any rate, the neat gravel path leading back to the estate would afford them ample time to talk before they reached it.

Worn out from all her practice moving in her new attire, Dare was leaning on a post and looking a bit ill when Ante arrived. Out here alone on a gazebo, Dare would probably appear to most to be a jilted prom date or a princess who'd just eaten a particularly spoiled poison apple. Ante had shown up with stars in her eyes, however, and it seemed it would take her a second to even recognize she was sharing the gazebo with her prior acquaintance.

Ante's sunniness was blinding in Dare's current state of mind ("And me without my shades, too," she thought), but the inclusion of her very similar looking new buddy amplified the effect. What was worse, in her current state of mind, the only thing Dare could think about was how her colors were getting stolen. "I was fine sharing the palette as long as Ante was red-on-black and I was black-on-red!"

Dare was, in fact, considering changing out of her gold, feeling as though she was going to be sick of she tried to pass the entire mission in it. Unfortunately, her ally appeared to have Long Awaited This Day, and Dare quickly realized that changing out of the dress Ante had designed for her now would be tantamount to slapping her on the face. "Or the butt," her mind involuntarily and unhelpfully offered. Failing to meet her partner's eyes, but still managing her characteristic grin, Dare gave a small nod in response. "Yeah! It's great. I feel like a million bucks." "Or tons of gold..."

That aside, Dare unfortunately couldn't remember when she'd met Fold in the past (perhaps because the explanation of her origins hadn't been explained in full). She seemed good-natured, if a little square. Dare supposed she would have felt that way about Ante herself if she hadn't met her as her destined first busting partner... so it was only fair to give Fold a shot too. "My pleasure," she gave in response.

Dare personally thought the two of them looked plenty similar enough already, but it was too late to make that objection now. With Fold assimilated into the Large Hats Society, Dare was now feeling even more conspicuous and out-of-place. "Well, hey! That's a good way to stand out," she reminded herself, perking back up immediately.

Besides, it looked like she wouldn't be waiting. Just as Fold called his name, there he was (at least, Dare assumed he was "Zennocracy" until she later found out otherwise). Dare was stricken by how handsome of a guy he was, perhaps just because their past missions seemed to be littered with weirdos, HeelNavis, and birds. That said, the daredevil Navi thought he looked shady. Considering the hood and weaponry, it might not have been that creative of a thought, but anybody on the Net could have weapons.

It may have been his looks or his gentlemanly demeanor that set her on guard, but when he spoke again, Dare thought she may have been right to be wary. "He said 'ravishable,' right? I bet Ante won't even notice, but Fold might..." The Navi corrected herself, realizing that her mind had been going into full "STRANGER DANGER" mode in a very uncharacteristic way. It might just have been that Ante seemed so enchanted and naive regarding the night's events, but Dare had learned that things would rarely be that easy. Festivals de Fortune had secret psycho tennis players. ACDC picnic contests had Mettaur Mommy. She would put money at least onto the fact that the guy they were now meeting was either a perv or a crook acting as a gentleman. She'd apparently forgotten the "wait and see" approach she was affording Fold.

"My pleasure," she again told the man, reaching out for a handshake rather than offering any sort of curtsy. "I'm Dare, and I'm eager to get to the description if you don't mind." She left the man's arms for Ante, Fold, or both. She wanted to have a talk with someone outside of the whole mission about her impressions and see if she was just being silly, but the only one that seemed to be an option was Bruce. And Bruce appeared to have his hands full.
"Well, Miss Dare, you look like 'a million bucks' yourself!" Ante chuckled, swinging her fist in a go-get-em way that made her look like a fantastic dork. "But remember: class before money! You don't need to be rich to attend this sort of event, thankfully for me, as I'm afraid that my supposed 'royalty,' for all it was good for, didn't follow me in my journey, nor did any of the wealth."

The trio was now headed towards the front of the mansion, but an unknown man stopped them and begged their acquaintance, seeming shady due to his attire, choice of words, weapon, and the fact that he appeared to be the only person in the courtyard aside from them... so basically everything about him was shady. Fold narrowed her eyes suspiciously, while maintaining her smile. Her feelings on the man were about the same as those of Dare, especially since she wasn't particularly fond of men in the first place, especially ones who might be looking to ravish the Red Queen. They'd need to pass a rigorous inspection first, before she... "Oh, that's right. Even if I were to have an issue, there's not much I can do at my current power level. I'll just have to hope that the princess keeps her wits about herself," the guardian thought to herself.

The two women each accepted the unknown man's handshake and gave their names in turn, but Fold's worries increased once it became evident that Ante was the only one who either hadn't heard or didn't care that she and the others had just been called ravishable. The princess accepted the arm of the man without questioning it, looping her forearm through the ring offered to her in a practiced way, hanging neither to close nor too far to breach etiquette. "Thank you, good Sir. Miss Zennocracy is the hostess, then? I do hope I manage to make her acquaintance this evening. I'd like to thank her for giving me the opportunity to enjoy a side of living that I've been estranged to for quite some time now. You all may think me greedy, but socializing used to be one of my great passions and it's been oh so long since I've enjoyed a good party," she sighed happily.

"That's quite a name she has. But what of your name?" Fold asked, following close behind Ante and the gentleman alongside Dare. "And... yes... I assume you didn't hire us to enjoy a party, if you'll excuse my saying so."

"Whatever our mission may be, I'll be elated just to soak in the atmosphere," Ante chuckled whimsically, already on cloud nine before even stepping foot inside the mansion.
As each lady gave her name, the navi offered a warm smile and a nod of the head. The man seemed more than content with a single taker, happy to let the other two walk close by as he fell in step with Ante. He spared a glance back for Dare and Fold, nodding once more.

"Alas, I did not, you're correct... and we shall get to the reason in a moment, but your first question, Miss Fold, is the more pressing. It would be very remiss of me to ask the names of three such refined ladies without offering my own." Here he looked between the three of them, meeting eyes briefly with each before finishing on Ante. "I'm known as Hoodwink, though I fear the name isn't terribly creative given my appearance." He shrugged softly, smiling again and showing off a perfect set of whites for a brief moment. "What can I say? It isn't given to any of us to choose our designates, after all."

As they walked, the gravel path curved around, along the front of the hedge-maze and then began the climb towards the mansion. Closer, they cold hear the gentle trickle of water from the garden fountains nearer the structure itself. Closer too, they began to hear the dull murmur of the quiet conversations of many, drifting from the upper balconies, making a soothing undertone to the strains of music. Hookwink continued talking after a moment.

"So, to business. In truth I must admit, you are right that I didn't hire you to simply enjoy a ball. Indeed, it wasn't I who hired you at all. Zennocracy will certainly have her own instructions for you, I'm sure. I'm simply here to make you an offer." He sighed, glancing up at the light pouring from the tall windows as their path circled the grounds, towards what seemed like the main entrance.

"Zenny is a fine woman, and she has a wonderful head for figures, but her ambitions lack scope. I truly do wish for each of you to thoroughly enjoy the ball this evening, for I fear our lady's rewards for service are liable to be on the slim side. She always has been... reticent, with her coin."

They drew around to the front of the mansion, and Hoodwink stopped in the courtyard before the grand front doors. The party beckoned, but there was still the matter of the explanation. Hoodwink drew around to face the other two, still supporting Ante's hold with his arm.

"So, I imagine Zenny will simply have you mingling, and being the charming images of courtly ladies that each of you certainly seem to be, even if..." Here he inclined his head to Fold, still smiling. "Miss Fold has not taken a liking to me." Looking away, he continued. "She'll have a reason for it, and that reason will probably involve trying to get more money out of all of her guests, somehow. "Money is Power", is something of a maxim for her, I'm afraid. It's why she's often so lax in rewarding good service. I do try to tell her that she ought to be more generous to good help, but it's not a message she wishes to hear, not even from me. Ah well."

He paused again, looking up at the stars, took a deep breath of the cold night air, then looked downward again at each of the women in turn.

"Here is what I offer: Enjoy the party tonight, have a good time, and do as Zenny asks of you, but, as you do, try to keep your eyes open. There will be a number of particularly important guests there, and Zennocracy will, no doubt, point them out to you. Get something from each of them for me." Before any of the more cautious ladies could raise objection he lifted his free hand to forestall them.

"I'm not asking you to steal, if you don't wish to. I'm simply asking you to acquire, however you feel most comfortable. It maybe as simple as asking for a keepsake, perhaps. Entirely your decision. I don't mind what it is that you acquire from each of them, either. It need not be anything valuable at all, simply something tangible that is theirs. It doesn't matter what it is; what matters is, I want it. It is a game, nothing more. If the articles turn out to be things the original owners would like returned, then you have my word they will be. If you can do that for me, I'll be glad to offer you twice over whatever Zenny herself pays you for the evening's work."

With his offer made, Hoodwink slipped his arm free, until he was simply holding one of Ante's hands in both of his.
"I'll not ask for an answer now. The offer is there. When the evening is over, I'll wait for you, for a time, down in the garden where we first met. For now, I'll take my leave, and you should each go and enjoy the ball. If it should happen that we do not meet again, then let me wish each of you a very pleasant evening; it has been my pleasure to walk three beautiful ladies at least as far as the door." He stepped back, then, bowing again. More than likely, the man was about to depart, but there was enough time to stop him, if they had any questions.

Dare just followed behind Hoodwink, letting him finish his explanation and introduction uninterrupted. She felt that she really needed to use this walk up the path to put the finishing touches on her walking practice, in the first place. "Man, if I end up actually having to DANCE in there, I'm going to have to come up with something."

All things considered, the situation was sounding less shady than she originally imagined. It wasn't clear what relation Hoodwink could be to Zennocracy, although she seemed to be a close acquaintance of his. It did seem, however, that what they were looking at was, in fact, some sort of fancy party and not some sort of cover.

Hoodwink appeared to have a general idea, but perhaps not the exact details of what Zenny's plan for the night was. That said, his own agenda was also unclear. "Well, he's just asking for a bunch of random stuff, right? If he's not even specifying, it probably is just some sort of game to him. A game is practically like a challenge," Dare thought to herself, a smile spreading across her face. She'd already decided to help Hoodwink out, and the fact she'd be getting more money on what was apparently going to be a pretty tight payment was just icing on the cake.

"All right... Hoodie, you stick around, okay? Of course we're going to want to see what the actual score is with Zenny, but I have a hunch we're going to end up winning your game for you in the end. While I love to collect trophies for myself, winning's really about the experience, for me! So, I'll probably be looking for you so I can trade my trophies for money. Don't go too far!" Dare had settled in her dramatic pose, feet set apart and pointing her finger at Hoodwink, but she really wished she had her shades. The pose just didn't feel right without shades.

The worst case scenario, in Dare's minds, was that they were going to pass the night taking all sorts of stuff from the other partygoers, and then for whatever reason Hoodie would tell Zenny, and she would... throw them out, or call the NetPolice, or ruin their GNA mission reputation, or something. If that was the case, they'd just have to read the atmosphere and stay on their toes. Even if she didn't completely trust Hoodwink, she couldn't turn down his offer, treating it both as a challenge and a way to liven up a night of curtsies and finery. Dare glanced at Ante and her SP with a grin, expecting her to feel the same.
Ante was all enchanted smile and starry eyes as the group continued to the front of the mansion, Hoodwink explained his intentions, and Dare have her preference, even more so now that her hands were being held by an admittedly handsome gentleman. Once everyone awaited her decision, however, all she could do for a few moments was smile and blink, her mind preoccupied with a few questions of her own. "Oh, I'm sorry," she gasped, realizing that all were on her (including Fold's, which were on her more often than not regardless). "For a moment there I suspected you were asking me to steal valuables at a social gathering, which I must admit, I could never allow myself to do, even under GNA employment. If the opportunity presents itself and I can win someone's favor, however, I might trouble them for a memento, as you suggested. That seems harmless enough, perhaps even a bit amusing." She clearly wasn't as in to the idea of turning her perfect night into a children's game of treasure hunting, but all things considered, she supposed it wasn't such a bad thing to ask of her.

Another question bagged at her mind, however... A very important question with serious ramifications for the night, but not one she felt comfortable verbalizing: how were Zenny and Hoodwink related? It could be that they were brother and sister, or even master and servant... but something in the air tonight was making her think they might be lovers, perhaps faithless ones. She turned her eyes back down to her gloves with a worried expression; she certainly didn't want to end up as hired help, flirting with the husband while the wife wasn't watching. That was about down there with crawling around with a bowl of food between her legs or pole-dancing in front of one's battle allies in terms of classlessness, both situations which she had unfortunately participated in before.

Fold, on the other hand, was probably the most suspicious on regards to the game. If this were a movie, she'd really suspect that Hoodwink was gathering the trinkets to collect DNA evidence... but that couldn't be right, fir numerous reasons. That said, she had to admit that the pastime did sound fun and harmless. She fancied a game as much as anyone. Assuming that the man wasn't married to their employer or anything of that sort, she also decided she wouldn't wholely object to his and Ante's mutual flirting/courtship. "I'll be happy to oblige as well. Don't worry, I don't think unkindly of you. It's simply my job to be suspicious," she reassured Hoodwink. "And I sympathize with you on names... it's not the proudest connotation that comes paired with my own," she sighed,, although the name was a good indicator of her perpetual unluckiness. Hopefully she could break that streak tonight.

"We'll certainly keep your proposal in mind, Sir Hoodwink," Ante finished. "But for now, we must go meet our employer, all the more so if she is the host of the party. Therefore, I bid you adieu, for now." As she and Fold began to head up toward the entrance, she thought of one more question and turned around quickly, spinning the wide bell of her dress around herself. "Will we know Miss Zennocracy when we see her, do you think?"
The roguishly clad navi paused long enough to listen and nod graciously to their responses, though Dare's answer in particular drew his eye for a moment. Something she had said had given the man a contemplative, measuring look, but it was gone again quickly as he returned to sharing his attention with all three of them.

"Until we meet again, then, my ladies." With a final incline of his head, he gestured towards the front doors of the mansion behind them, hand open and to the side slightly in the traditional palm-up 'after you' motion.

When Ante turned back to ask her last question, there as no sign of the Navi; gone without any trace that he'd ever been there. Admittedly, in the net, that wasn't too hard a trick to manage for most any navi, but it was still a little striking, given the atmosphere. Before any of them could remark further on his offer, however, the sound of the mansion's main doors opening precluded other diversions.

The music and the soft sounds of glasses clinking, voices talking, and sundry other little signs of social finery grew louder, reaching out to the trio. Responsible for opening the door seemed to be a sharp-dressed normal navi. His colouration was a mix of white and grey, and he wore house servants black livery, including polished shoes and white gloves, while his outer coat bore a formal heraldic crest over his right breast. The crest itself was a black field, outlined in gold, with a simple gold chevron decorating it. The motto banner read "Aurum Posse Ipsum Est". His features brightened as he beheld the three ladies in front of him.

"Ah! Excellent! Would you be chance be the ladies Ante, Dare and Fold? Contracted by My Lady for tonight's festivities?" There was a hint of lilting hesitation in his voice, but it was the sort developed from long years of service, rather than any actual trepidation. "I was just about to attend the maze pavilion, to see if you had arrived yet. Please do come in, this way, this way!"

Apparently having decided that asking if they were, indeed, the hired help, was simply a formality, the butler quickly ushered them inside. The entry hall had a high, vaulted ceiling, creating a feel of open space that only grew greater as the moved into the mansion proper. Much of the fixtures were trimmed with gold and a mixture of white and black marble seemed to be the general theme, though the walls bore a great many overly large portraits of the Scotsdale family line in old-fashioned poses or engaged in symbolic gallantry. For every family painting, however, there was a landscape, or an artistic, renaissance-era nude. Such was the attention to detail, it was easy to wonder if this private net was a faithful reconstruction of a real family mansion somewhere.

The murmur of voices grew steadily as they were led through the estate, and they began to pass other navis, likely party guests in small numbers. Many were normal navis as well, though dressed up almost as formally as Ante, Dare and fold themselves were. For each normal navi, however, there was at least another custom navi visible too, ranging widely in shape and size, but most chatting civilly or moving around the rooms appreciating the decor.

Their guide stopped them in a large, open junction. To the left, the hall progressed a way before opening into what was likely the main ballroom, where the piano was just beginning a new waltz. To the right, the sound of conversation and quiet laughter was louder, and the crystal sounds of fine glassware more common. Behind them, past guard banisters on the floor above, a set of double doors reached almost to the ceiling, draped in gold-trimmed crimson curtains that were drawn back enough to show access to a sweeping circular balcony, and the starry night sky beyond. Before them, a narrower passage led deeper into the mansion, on one side, but it was dominated by a broad staircase that climber in a gentle curve towards the upper floor. Where it reached the wall and turned, the portrait of a pale-skinned woman with long, straight brown hair and grey eyes that seemed to pierce, even though they were just a painting... and a data painting at that. She had been captured in a deep red dress, shoulderless and with a neckline that promised much, yet revealed little. A gold plaque on the bottom of the portrait was clearly legible even from the bottom of the stairs, and read "Zenith Scotsdale XVI".

Beside it, smaller enough to be proper, but definitely not pulling any modesty, a second portrait was hung, displaying a second woman, similar in appearance to the first but with subtle differences: her hair was slightly wavy, and her eyes were a deeper blue colour, and rather than a demure smile, this woman bore a predatory grin for her portrait. She was also depicted dressed in a much more modern businesswoman's jacket and blouse, with a gold name pin on one lapel. While the pin might be hard to read from this distance, the plaque on the base of the portrait, like Zenith's, was not. It proclaimed: " 'Capital is King' - Zennocracy.Exe".

Having brought them to a halt, the butler turned to the three, bowing slightly.
"Please wait here? I shall inform My Lady that you have arrived. She will surely wish to speak with you all momentarily? Please excuse me?" Without waiting any longer he quickly disappeared up the staircase, almost seeming to glide rather than walk or climb. Like as not, the girls would have at least a few minutes to wait, chat, or plan, before their guide returned to bring them into their employer's presence.

Dare caught the change in Hoodwink's expression, but simply chalked it up to ire at being given a goofy nickname. Nothing strange about that. "Be seeing you," Dare said, leading the way ahead of her two partners.

Knowing there may be some kind of game ahead and having finally acclimated to her new footwear had put Ante into high spirits. She was actually starting to look forward to finding out what was inside, and luckily, she didn't have to wait long. "That's right, Pops, we're the three. I'm Dare."

She was about to explain why they were here, but seeing as the butler had that pretty well in hand, she simply followed him in. "Quite a place your lady has here... I hope the next time I see this much gold, it's in my trophy cabinet!" The manor actually seemed as though it would hold little in the way of surprises. Dare was happy and amused to see that there were so many inside intentionally wearing something like she had been forced to (in Dare's mind, she had been forced to). In her usual way, Dare was sizing up the people they passed. She felt like their trio cut a pretty distinct figure, and was convinced they wouldn't have any trouble catching eyes and winning hearts if they needed to.

As they made their way deeper in, Dare quickly realized there would be plenty to see before the night was over. From the outside, you knew the place was big, but it was an entirely different feeling being inside. That said, while there was plenty to see, there was really one place one couldn't help but look first. The Navi paused, examining the portraits from a distance while the butler excused himself. "We'll be here when you get back?" she replied, absent-mindedly and involuntarily borrowing his inflection.

She put a finger to her chin, scrutinizing the plaque. "I can't help but wonder if a woman who's this big on opulence and grandeur really plans to just pick three names out of a hat to help liven up her party. Then again, who's to say her expectations are in check? And that aside, she'll be getting her money's worth with the three of us." There was still the question of how much money that would be, exactly, but Dare intended to never be overpaid.

Anyway, while Dare's mind was on their mission, she suspected her friend's mind would be on the mansion. Every door seemed to barely conceal a lively, elegant soiree that Ante would be happy to be swept into. She watched Ante with a bit of a bemused smile on her face, curious to see where her head would be at.
Before Ante had time to lament the loss of her companion for the evening (and his dodging of her question), the red-dressed princess was distracted by their guide into the evening's festivities, which made her forget all about whatever it was she'd been asking about. She'd been promising herself she wouldn't gawk at everything inside like a tourist, but she found herself unable to avoid doing so once the doors were open. "Yes, we are they," Ante responded, tipping her hat instead of curtseying this time. She hated hearing "contracted," since she wished that they'd been invited rather than hired, but circumstances were what they were. Another urge she felt but was thankfully more capable of resisting was her desire to wave to all of the party-goers with a slow, dainty hand. That was the sort of thing she'd done back when she was the belle of her own parties, but, again, circumstances as they were, it would just be sort of awkward. Instead, she just smiled in their direction.

Fold did the same, but like Dare, her mind was on the mission. "Why would the three of us be contracted to attend the party just for being presentable ladies if Zenny is capable of gathering so many other wealthy-looking party-goers? Certainly we can't all be hired, can we? That would certainly be a setup..." she mused to herself, again finding herself very curious as to why, exactly, they had been brought in. "Please, take your time," she dismissed the waiter, then crossed her arms and joined Ante in inspecting the large portraits that were certainly the centerpiece of the room they'd been left in. "My, my... she appears to have quite some ego..." Fold murmured to herself, still smiling.

"Miss Fold, please don't be rude. It's perfectly acceptable to indulge one's ego within the confines of one's own home," Ante chastised her SP.

"Yes... But that takes on a different purpose when one invites others to extravagant parties within one's own home, doesn't it?" Fold chuckled. "That said, what do you suppose the relationship of the two women is? Noticing that one uses a navi designation and the other doesn't, I wonder if perhaps they aren't operator and navi. I certainly hope we aren't going to meet the operator..."

"Why not? I should love to make her acquaintance," Ante asked, possessing genuine disappointment in her voice.

"Because she might want to meet Teruko and Bruce..." Fold reminded her companion. Ante nodded slowly, as she didn't exactly want that happening either, given that they were currently dressed as a gym student and coach (at least, she hoped they were still dressed).

Dare found that Ante was much as she expected: still starstruck and still curious to learn more about the mansion and its guests, rather than looking wary of manipulation or anxious to learn her objective. "Oh, Miss Dare, have you ever seen such finery? I ask because this is a bit above and beyond even what I experienced in the castle. The surroundings were a bit more 'military' in some aspects, I must admit," she sighed, still busy gawking.
The girls were left waiting for a couple of minutes, though not long enough to be considered impolite, thankfully. Eventually, their butler navi returned, gliding down to the foot of the stairs to stand before them again.

"Apologies for the wait? My Lady Zennocracy will see you now. This way, please?" He bowed as he spoke, one arm crooked in front at his waist, then turned to lead the trio back the way he had come up the grand staircase. He kept his silence as he guided them, performing his duties and nothing more, and aside from his initial instruction had no intention of intruding upon any conversation they might be having, if it should continue while they walked.

The stairway curved around, following the wall, then levelled out into a long gallery that bore doorways at regular intervals along one side. Each door stood open, and looked into an expansive, albeit old-fashioned library, walls set solid with tall shelves full of books, and an open sitting and reading space in the centre. Several ladders on each wall except the one they could look in from also held ladders, allowing access up a second floor of more library. On the other side of the hall, there were doors as well, though most of these were shut or closed over. One or two were open as they passed, though, and looked in on much smaller, cosier sitting and reading rooms.

In between each of the doors were more large portraits, though these ones followed a more consistent theme: they were the family record of past Scotsdale heirs, counting backward, according to the small gold plaques, from Zenith, through the fifteen Scotsdale family heads that had, presumably, come before her. As was usually the case in such settings, the portraits were made and placed to feel as though the long-dead family leaders were looking down upon and judging all who passed beneath them. In each case, all the women were named Zenith, and all the males, Maxwell.

Another corner, and another staircase, though this one was less grand and more functional. It led up to the uppermost floor of the mansion, and the ceiling here was a single, long, fresco that seemed, quite possibly, to depict the Scotsdale family's origins and rise to wealth and power, through the ages. How much of it was romanticised for the sake of stunning artistry was anyone's guess. There was plush carpeting underfoot here, and decorative flower vases in between the steadily decreasing title numbers of the family portraits.

There were no doorways on this last stretch of hall: those who walked here could only have one destination, and they arrived at it in short order. The journey ended in front of a surprisingly simple door, at the end of the hall, and their guide knocked twice, then opened it for them, gesturing inside with another small bow.

Stepping through the door to Zennocracy's personal quarters was, in essence, like stepping into a smaller house inside a larger one. The furnishing was all similar, but as well as what was clearly a work and office space, with a couple of decorative bookcases, and a large, solid desk, there were also doors on both sides of the room, closed over but with hints that they probably led to the navi's private rooms. Above the desk, on the wall, was a final portrait. This one was of a man dressed in the military regalia of a 15th century commander, replete with simple mail underneath and the only the Scotsdale crest on the front as any form of decoration. He stood with both hands folded on the pommel of a very plain-looking greatsword, and looked down both over the people standing before the desk, but also over the shoulder of whoever happened to be sitting at it as well. The name on the plaque, unsurprisingly, was that of Maxwell Scotsdale, the first. Seated at the large desk was the woman they'd come to see, a variety of view screens and holographic displays scattered about. She looked exactly as her portrait had been, even down to the name pin, and was working with a sharp efficiency that radiated 'do not interrupt' like an aura.

One window that looked like stock levels got shrunk away and flicked to the side as another was brought up... it looked like a market index for a well known vehicle producer. With her other hand, she was apparently typing a long and quite forceful email, though even with one hand was achieving a truly impressive word-per-minute rate. She glanced up in between all the many divided draws on her attention to look over the three ladies.

"Oh thank god. I was afraid they were going to send me slappers." Her other actions didn't slow, as she spoke, continuing to make small changes to some forms while her other hand continued its email writing at a furious pace. "Dresses are good, colours are fine. Maybe we should get you each a mask. Hmm. Scratch that, no masks. Save that for next time. That'll really bake Hoodwink's biscuit, hah!" The email was finished with a vindictive flourish of her fingers and Zennocracy spared a glance for it directly with a truly wolfish grin, before sending it off with a flick of her fingers. A moment later she swept her arm across the desk, clearing it completely then stood, stepping out from behind her work station. She looked them all over more closely, eyes scanning as she weighed them up.

"Right. Yes, good, good, good, acceptable, good, ah excellent. Alright then, ladies, I hope you've got class to go with your style. Walk with me." She breezed past them without any hesitation, her every motion quick, efficient and businesslike, directly back out the door they'd just entered through, clearly expecting them to both follow and keep up.

"I've just concluded a lucrative venture with several important figures, and have, quite frankly, taken most of them to the cleaners over the particulars of our dealings. This ball is a celebration of our joint venture, which I have graciously volunteered to host. There are many guests who are simply other associates, past business partners, colleagues and such, but there are five navis in particular that I absolutely must keep happy and charmed this evening, to ensure good relations and to prevent them from thinking too much about how much in my favour our deals have been concluded." She spoke as briskly as she walked, apparently unhindered in the slightest by her heels, taking them back down the hallway they'd just traversed.

"Under normal circumstances, I'd utilise several of my own maids and servants for this, but while many of them are sufficiently trained to behave like men and women of breeding, they will be recognised as my own people at once, and I dislike risking any of these five feeling like they're being deliberately buttered up by me directly. This is where you ladies come in." They reached the staircase and Zennocracy began to descend without slowing her pace. As they reached the sitting rooms she extended one hand in front of her and clicked, causing the nearest locked door to swing open instead. The room she took them into had a single chair by a broad fireplace and a small side table with a glass of red wine waiting on it, the other three walls lined with books. Opposite the single chair was a low couch with just enough room for the three to sit at as well. Zenny didn't hesitate in taking her own seat by the fir and lifting the glass of wine to her lips briefly, though if she took a sip at all it was a very tiny one.

"Sit. Your duties this evening are twofold, but one is far more important. The lesser of your duties is to simply be social and graceful and a general bright point of amiability for the other party goers, in particular, I mean that while the drinks bar is open, it is not free, and you should endeavour to keep the peons spending. That is secondary, however, to keeping my main five guests as happy as possible. Observe." She clapped her hands together softly and a small table appeared between them, which in turn presented a set of five data profiles. The names were conspicuously missing, as were any details about exactly who they were or why they were important... the profiles seemed, in fact, to contain little more than visual information.

"The first is an advanced navi who likes to make wagers more frequently than he should. Bad for him, good for me. If you look at his profile, you'll see he has come tonight in a human-form .GMO, designed specifically for the occasion, and looks like a tall man who would be of Netfrican descent, if he were indeed human. Dark hair, short, curly, black eyes. Very dark skin, and dressed in a garishly white tailored suit by contrast. Makes a lot of hand gestures, and talks with his hands in general.

The next is a female who wasn't too pleased about the ball being such a formal affair in the first place, but has scrubbed up quite well regardless. She looks very Electopian by design, but that's the only thing about her that is so. At times she has exhibited a rather uncouth sense of 'humour', and a lack of social graces and boundaires." Here Zennocracy sniffed with displeasure and took another small sip of her wine. "Nevertheless, she looks quite classy tonight, and came dressed in a crushed red velvet gown, with feathers in her hair. I imagine by now she's probably already at the bar."

"After that, there's a navi that you might have a harder time locating at first. He's a normal navi, no special upgrades, save an excellent level of business acumen and market savvy that could one day rival my own, perhaps. I believe he's done some recolouring wok on his outward appearance, and is mostly in reds and greens, with overtly Christmasy clothing to match. It's a bit audacious, in truth, and really doesn't match our setting at all, but I suspect that's why he did it. Quite reprehensible, but I'm certain he meant it as a laugh, not a slight, and of all the guests tonight, he is the one I wish to risk offending the least."

"You'll also need to ensure the contentment of a navi who looks like he'd be more at home as part of the architecture here, than a guest. He's quiet and keeps to himself, and is very unassuming, but for all of his politeness and quiet kind nature... he's rather like an immovable mountain when it comes to points about which he feels strongly. Can make him difficult to deal with. He looks like a large stone gargoyle, easily eight or nine feet tall if he stood upright, though he usually crouches, since that keeps him at talking height with most other navis."

"The other one is..." Zennocracy winced. "One I wish had a proxy of some sort that was nicer to deal with. He looks rather like a body-builder, and isn't shy about showing off and trying to impress. He thinks he's charming and flirtatious, but personally, I find it crass. All the more reason for me not to deal with him in person tonight." She paused for a moment, then put a finger to her lips, tapping.

"Then there's the issue of my colleague..." she seemed to debate going on at all for a moment, then continued regardless. "There's a navi by the name of Hoodwink. We have ties to the same organisation, so to speak, and technically he's my superior. Why, I'll never know. He likes to... meddle. He'd never actively detriment out organisation, but he does enjoy messing with myself and the others whenever we're doing serious work. If he shows up tonight, there's a chance he might try to speak with one or all of you, just to mess with my plans. So, I'd like to remind you who you're working for tonight, and suggest that you pay him no heed. I'd describe the man to you, but in truth, there'll be no missing that lime-lighter."

With a small shake of her head, Zennocracy took a deep breath and visibly 'moved on'. This also involved another, slightly larger, sip of her wine.
"Those are your duties for the evening. Feel free to wander about the mansion as the guests flow. Any private areas have already been locked." She pinched the bridge of her nose, as though vexed briefly. "I should mention; yes, I wish you to make my major guests happy, but I'm not requiring any of you to compromise yourselves in any undignified or dishonourable ways. If any of my gusts push your company too far, you may feel free to put a stop to it, and report it to me immediately. You'll each have a closed line to me available all evening, if you wish to use it. I would rather it didn't come to that, of course. I would prefer you to be as flexible and accommodating as you comfortably can, but I'm no barbarian. I am, however, a woman of business. If I must discipline or eject any of my important guests for misbehaviour, that will not reflect well on me, and in turn, I will not be able to count that well for you. Are we clear? Any questions before I send you out there?" She stood, apparently intent on taking the wine with her now, and looked to each of them to see what else needed explaining.

"Well, no!" Dare replied to Ante with a shrug. "I've never seen any such finery before, since I've never been in a castle before, military or otherwise." She flashed a grin, either to show that she didn't mean to be felt sorry for. "Of course, that doesn't bother me any. I couldn't stand living in a place where I thought any wrong move was going to knock over something that cost thousands of zenny." She returned to being pensively quiet before adding, "Not that I plan to, of course!"

Dare had begun to shift around the floor in an antsy way. Ante might be fine soaking in the atmosphere and admiring the scenery, but Dare was far more interested in the hustle and bustle lying behind any given door. That said, the butler made a timely return, and the three of them were able to get a move on.

... And kept moving on, traveling through the largest library Dare had ever seen. Of course, she'd never seen a library before, but this was also the biggest she'd ever heard of, or even imagined. Dare had never made time for books, unfortunately, so she kept her eyes ahead and her feet moving.

... And kept moving on, traveling beneath the largest piece of art Dare had ever seen/heard of/imagined etc. Art was a bit more of Dare's bag, as long as she could look at the whole piece quickly. That, unfortunately, was not the case here. As such, she gave it a passing glance and kept going.

Thankfully, the group had finally reached their destination. She assumed so at least, as the grand procession of halls, stairs, more halls, and more stairs had come to an end. There was one last piece of art, and in spite of its scale, Dare had seen so many portraits on the way up that it barely registered as anything more than wallpaper.

What the Navi was more interested in was the woman who would almost certainly turn out to be her employer tonight. The portrait earlier, paired with Hoodwink's description, had painted such a vivid picture that it felt they'd already met. Dare sized her up, staring perhaps a bit too apparently. The woman had the expected aura of someone very much accustomed to wins, Dare thought, and probably most of them dirty. That was one way to make a living, of course.

Dare rather quickly realized that she had very rarely dealt with authority figures during her time in the Net. She felt all of Zenny's words and commands applying that due pressure to her, and similarly quickly realized she didn't like the feeling. That said, a job was a job. Dare resolved to put an active effort to asserting her role as an equal, determining it a necessity if she was going to cultivate a personality that never lost at anything.

If Dare's early journey had been walking practice, this was officially the walking tourney. Zennocracy had none of the patient gait of her help, and therefore Dare was forced to accept the sudden challenge of keeping up in heels. Of course, she was nothing if not a competitor, so she managed.

In what felt like less than half the time of their first travel, Dare found herself sitting on a couch with her two friends and coming to two realizations: she hadn't been asked for a name, and she hadn't been given any wine. Dare was beginning to feel like her would-be goal of presenting herself as an equal may actually run counter to the goal of completing the mission. Zenny was clearly more interested in having efficient workers that listened and could be directed well than companions who could also talk.

Rather than dealing any more with her own misgivings, Dare decided to focus on the mission and the profiles she was being given. [/i]"Uh huh. Sounds good. Sounds boring. Sounds REALLY boring... Why not."[/i] None of those people sounded impossible to please, so it seemed like they'd have easy work ahead of them.

The last name, however, was the most interesting. Dare decided to nip this one in the bud, before Ante had a chance to interject (if she would have been so inclined). "Haven't seen a guy like that around, but we understand," she said, speaking her first words to their host for the night. "You pay us, and we pay heed, all right?" she added with a smile that flashed her white upper row of teeth. "Anyway, I think we're clear on all of the ground rules. The three of us are sure to spice up any party. I don't think you'll be disappointed." That said, she would have to remember there were apparently rules of ettiquette that they were expected to follow. "THAT kind of party," she reminded herself. She'd let Ante deal with the finer points of that, but at the very least, it probably meant pulling off her navi suit and shaking her tail would be frowned upon.

"Well, time's money, right? We won't use up any more of yours, unless you two have got anything to ask." Dare was ready to get rushing out the door. They wouldn't know where all five of the guests were until they went looking, it seemed, but Zenny had given them a pretty good idea of where to start. It sounded like they could count on finding at least one at the bar. With Ante's permission, she intended to head straight there and start her night off with a good drink. "There's one are where I might appreciate the expensive tastes..."
Ante smiled at Dare's words, which showed that cute, plain-living style of her friend that Ante found so quaint (she could never say that out loud without injuring their friendship, of course). "It's not for everyone," Ante admitted. "Even I had my misgivings back during those days. The larger the home, the lonelier you feel, in my experience." She didn't comment on the possibility that Dare might knock something over because, after all, that was too much of a potential social gaffe to really contemplate on this occasion. The butler returned next, then guided them further in. "It's no trouble at all, my good man," she encouraged the butler; unlike her ally, she'd be content to take in every tiny detail of Zennocracy's mansion, if given the time.

The red-dressed princess continued to admire the scenery as they were led towards their employer via the butler. She remembered what she'd said about noble families having the right to celebrate their lineage however they see fit within the confines of their homes. She continued to hold that opinion, past the first two giant portraits, on through the hallways lined with faces... but by the time she reached the fresco with their history and then was led into a room with yet another portrait of one of the ancestors, she had begun to feel like maybe they were overdoing it just a tad. But oh well. "I'm not feeling jealous... just a bit of criticism that I'm qualified to make, that's all," she thought to herself, reassuring herself as she often did when she began to act haughty. Her charming smile never left her face, of course.

It appeared that the wealth had been in the family since times long past, but it also appeared that Zenny had devoted herself to furthering that wealth. She wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the opulence surrounding the setting and events was attributable to the current successor's navi. That said, there were a lot of imposters that were good at faking this sort of thing across the net... but this place definitely smelled of real money. That said, Ante had no problem with the idea that Zenny might be doing some dirty business, cheating people left and right. As far as she figured, that's basically what business was: winners and losers. The playing field is all even except for risks and gambles... some are simply better at manipulating the sort of thing than others. To a certain extent, she could count herself comfortable with that sort of thing. That was good, because their host certainly wasn't shy about talking about it.

She took a bit of offense at the notion that she might be a slapper, but it barely registered upon her face. After all, she'd basically gotten a compliment. She was concerned, however, when they were sheparded into the next room by their fast-moving employer without so much of an introduction. She'd been waiting to introduce herself following her employer, but never got the opportunity. The gray-skinned princess couldn't help but pout a little as they rushed on, but she could see that there was no use trying to make conversation just yet. The employer was a good talker, but she clearly liked to talk more than she did listen. Ante could gradually feel herself growing apart from Zennocracy, as she slowly realized that classiness and manners weren't actually at the forefront of her lifestyle just because wealth was.

Fold sensed that and smiled, thinking that sort of indignation was actually healthy for Ante. "Good that we never lose sight of what it means to live in a worthy, dignified way," she figured. The two women were lifting their skirts as they moved, so that they wouldn't trip during the breakneck speed of the movement between rooms.

Ante's mood brightened as she learned that they would indeed be relying on their charm and wit to entertain other guests. "Splendid... I would be happy to make certain that your guests have a pleasant evening," she agreed, before hearing what they needed to do or who they'd be keeping entertained. Those were the first words she'd gotten out to her employer, and she'd have to remain silent for a while longer while she waited through more mission details. Ante felt very, very silly, nestled between Dare and Fold on the couch, such that her and Fold's hats were actually nudging against each other. The feeling of Fold's shoulders next to hers reminded her of just what strong shoulders her fellow lady had. The whole situation felt pretty "off," and she was becoming a little disillusioned, which might be for the best in the long-run... If she stayed star-struck all night, it would just get in the way of her task.

Ante mostly just nodded along as the descriptions were given out. For the most part, they sounded nice enough... after all, anyone would have a few flaws to name when their accounts were given by such a haughty person (she didn't realize it, but she was becoming more and more critical of Zennocracy, and was nearly feeling a rivalry now). She wasn't terribly fond of the idea of having to make the targets buy from a drink bar... asking one to buy her a drink was a good bit flirtier than she intended to be, and furthermore, her last experience with alcohol had ended with her poledancing in front of her friends. She needed to make sure that didn't happen again. While she was distracted with that memory, Dare picked up her slack and rubbed out any notion that they'd already met Hoodwink. "You needn't worry about us turning out any of your guests. I intend to be nothing but pleasant and persuasive," she chuckled, dismissing any notion that she'd act unscrupulously or irritate the targets.

Remaining quiet, Fold couldn't help but wonder if it would all be so easy. Ante had been assuming that the guests were being made to sound worse than they were, but Fold couldn't help but worry about the opposite... Fold might not really know what the five were like when drunk and in the company of a beautiful woman like Ante. "Why, if I had milady in such a position, entertaining me with conversation and drinks, I'd probably end up well smitten with her myself," she mused, at first smiling... then frowning. She was suddenly becoming jealous of the five that were going to get to enjoy Ante's company in such a unique capacity.

Ante had no particular desire to stay and talk to Zenny any longer than she needed to, thus, she nodded in agreement with Dare. "No, Miss Zennocracy, that briefing was quite fine. Trust me, you won't be disappointed," she finished, echoing her ally's sentiments. She rose, gave a small curtsy, then helped Fold up as well with a gentle offering of one hand. "That's quite right, Miss Dare; let's be on our way." Once they'd gotten well out of earshot, Ante sighed, feeling as if she'd held back so much conversation that it was about to spill out of her. "Well, we should return to the area closer to the entrance. I imagine the majority of the guests will be found there, since, presumably, they'll want to socialize," she offered.

Fold pitched in as well. "Miss Dare... Perhaps you will entertain our guests closest to the bar? After all... Milady has somewhat of a poor history with drinks," she chuckled.

"I-I wouldn't say it's a poor history... more like one specific mishap," Ante huffed in her defense. "That said, I don't quite have the taste for it, so it might be best if you were the one to stake out that area. Let's stay together until we're down there, though. After all... no real point in trying to pretend that we're not here together. I believe Miss Fold's wardrobe, which matches my own, would make that connection rather obvious regardless. At least there's not much call for deception, regardless. We need only hide that we are employed; beyond that, we can enjoy the festivities, encourage the purchase of a few drinks, and perhaps gather some momentos. All more or less things we had planned on," she finished with a smile. Fold wasn't sure she agreed... she had a feeling this was going to take a concentrated effort on everyone's parts. But then, she was used to having bad luck. With that, Ante led her company back down to the bar, where she would scout the area with Dare.
"Indeed, yes. Time is money. I must return to my work; no rest for the wicked, as they say. Here you are." With another click, Zennocracy caused three small data links to appear in front of each lady, which, when touched, would convert to a private line direct to Zenny herself. "As I said, these are contact lines to me, and will remain active so long as you remain on the estate grounds. If any of my guests behave poorly enough to warrant it, you may stop them and report their misconduct to me. I'll not have employees of mine manhandled at my own party unless they wish it and are discrete, after all."

Considering how reluctant she sounded at the concept of having to deal with a misbehaving guest, and how much her tone reflected a desire that the ladies simply put up with whatever it took to keep people happy, it seemed strange that this point was the only one she took the time to reiterate. Nevertheless, once they left the sitting room, Zenny seemed to relax a little. "I may join the party a little later on. I must play hostess a little bit, even if it takes me from my work. Good luck, ladies." She nodded once to them, then promptly disappeared in a flurry of virtual zenny, likely returning directly to her quarters.

On the way back down stairs, the trio did pass by a small number of guests beginning to explore upwards, but none of them resembled any of the navis they'd been told about. A couple smiled and nodded the ladies politely, and one or two held wine glasses as they climbed the stairs.

By the time they reached the ground floor, the flow of guests had spread and become less isolated and clustered, with navis drifting back and forth across the hallways. The eastern archway still held the sounds of talking and laughter, of glassware, and now there was also, faintly and much dampened by the well-designed architecture, the sounds of soft jazz. If the mansion housed any sort of dedicated bar setting, it would almost certainly be in that direction.

If Dare, or any of the others, did indeed decide to head in that direction, she would pass through a short hall, then emerge into a soft-lit, slightly dim space, with a ceiling that wasn't quite as high or vaulted as other areas of the mansion. Even so, it was wide and spacious for a bar, and yet, a bar it most definitely was. The drinks counter started a little ways past the entry arch, and ran almost the full length of the northern wall, with an impressive display of exotic casks and fancy bottles on display behind. It was being worked by no less than five navis, two male and three female, all dressed in the formal Scotsdale livery, spaced out at equal points along the bar.

Much of the space in the room was occupied by a series of small sitting tables with comfortable chairs for couples or small groups to relax in and enjoy the music, which was coming from a stage set against the far eastern wall, furthest from the entry, where a jazz band played quietly. There was a small space of polished floor in front of them, enough for dancing, but no-one was using it at the moment. Past the tables, in the south section of the room, there were also three pool tables, though no-one was using them at the moment either.

Of note, by the bar, about halfway down and looking bored, a navi with Electopian features and a red velvet dress watched the band with a drink in one hand. She had feathers set in a display through her hair as well; most definitely the one Zenny had shown a description of. She was occasionally sharing words with a navi not too far from her; a dark-shinned man in a white suit, who was almost certainly another of their marks. It was unsurprising that they'd be talking, since apparently all five and Zenny were here to celebrate a new joint business deal... but if they were talking about their mutual interests, that may well be exactly the sort of conversation Zennocracy wished them to avoid this evening.

Meanwhile, if anyone decided to venture through the western arch instead, following the sounds of grand piano and a waltzing tune, she would find herself in a truly expansive ballroom, clearly taking up multiple floors of the mansion to create the high and spacious space, with a grandly domed ceiling and broad crystal chandelier. There was an upper balcony around two thirds of the room, likely accessible from an upper floor somewhere, supported by thin marble columns. The remaining wall of the room was all window; all the way up. Rich white and gold drapes had been drawn back to let guests look out over the night-scape of the grounds, though the double doors in the centre were latched closed for now.

The dance floor itself was tiled in black and white marble, like a chess board, and several couples were dancing, while many more watched on. At the edge of the windows, not exactly in a corner, since the room itself was rounded, save the eastern wall that held the entrance, was a figure that looked a little at odds with the rest of the architecture; a crouching gargoyle, in smooth, plain grey stone. When he shifted his gaze from the people dancing, to looking out the window, it became a fair guess that this was one of the navis Zenny had mentioned.

Many servants clad in the Scotsdale livery circulated the room and passed smoothly between the various guests, though none ventured out onto the dance floor. Most were carrying trays that held either glasses of various drinks, or else small snacks. As ingenious as it was sneaky, the drinks and trays seemed to be custom designs that automatically tabbed and accounted whichever navi took something from it. Apparently Zennocracy's balls didn't do anything free.

If any of the three ladies decided to forgo either of these directions, many more remained for exploring; one of the earlier halls they had passed on the way in had looked as though it led to something of an indoor botanical arboretum, while others had had doors closed over, yet not locked. Upstairs there was always the large library to examine, and the grand balcony, and there were several other passageways besides that had yet to be explored.

Now that the trio was free of their employer and making their way to begin their business, Dare was beginning to gain focus on the task ahead. She made a point of internalizing the gestures and manner of the people she saw on their way to their destination, thinking it would be useful to know, although she had no idea if she would end up using any of it. Honestly, she was hoping not to have to adapt a persona to keep people entertained. It would be a blow to her ego if her own personality wasn't good enough... "But I'll do what it takes," she reminded herself.

"Anyway, your plan sounds good, Ante. I was actually thinking about hitting the bar myself! I'd appreciate it if you two would go find another place so we can spread our attention. If something comes up, we can still communicate, all right? Let me know if you need anything, and don't do anything I wouldn't do! Except, you know... all of the fancy stuff you two know to do that I don't," Dare advised, waving them off and heading towards the jazz before Ante could start worrying about what fancy stuff Dare didn't know to do in a formal setting.


Dare walked into the bar room, feeling that with the dance floor empty and the pool hall vacant, she really might have quite a bit of entertaining to do. "What do people at these fancy parties do all the time... sit around and talk?"

She was pleasantly surprised to find two of their marks engaging in doing just that, although perhaps they were drinking as well? "To find two of them at once is pretty good luck. I can save time tracking anyone down." Dare's confidence in herself allowed her to downplay her suspicion that the two of them being together could create its own difficulty, as well. "Above all, it means I'm going to have to be interesting enough to be the centerpiece... although, seeing how the two of them already know each other and already look totally bored, maybe that's not going to be a big deal."

Dare headed directly over towards the two of them, made her way to the seat at the side of the dark-haired man, and... began trying to figure out how to sit down in Ante's fancy dress. Luckily, she got some practice in earlier on the couch, when she felt she'd been doing it completely wrong. Thankfully, with their mind on the briefing, nobody had noticed, but Dare was pretty sure she'd ended up sitting on some sort of hoops that gave the dress its shape. The easiest way to deal with it would be to just lift the hoops up, but she was at least sharp enough to realize that doing so would give those behind her a view of her drawers (or whatever undergarments she was wearing, she honestly hadn't looked). They probably wouldn't see anything indecent, but almost certainly improper for this setting.

Tentatively, she grabbed the sides of her skirt and lifted only slightly, revealing her shoes, and backed up to her seat from the front. Once perched, she allowed herself a small smile at her small victory. After that, she made a point of inspecting what was available behind the bar, trying to make that observation obvious. In reality, however, she wasn't focusing on their labels (she wouldn't know a Tom from a Dick from a Harry in regard to their taste or quality, anyway). If she could pull it off, she wanted the man next to her to take notice and order one for her, or at least give a recommendation. If he failed to take notice at all, she at least wanted to eavesdrop on him and his Electopian acquaintance, and see if she could gather any information or a topic to springboard off of.

Ante accepted her employer's direct communication link and then gave her another curtsy as a polite adieu. With a small smile, she reflected that the hostess' behavior of disappearing in an explosion of money was not all that unlike the way she appeared and disappeared in a tower of poker chips. Perhaps she'd have to accept that the two of them were not so different, even if Zennocracy was a bit colder in person than she'd like to think herself. Noting that she and Dare appeared to be on the same page, she chuckled and waved away Dare's concerns. "Never you fear, Miss Dare. I know my way around a party and we'll be in touch. I hope that you enjoy your company at the bar," the princess responded to her friend.

As Dare left, Ante continued to soak in the atmosphere, waving to the other party-goers, providing a grateful smile to the workers, and that sort of thing. Walking close behind her, Fold was almost equally pleased, as Ante's good mood tended to put her in similar spirits. "It's so good to see you enjoying yourself. I look forward to spending the night at your side!" the Black Queen exclaimed, proudly pressing one hand to her breast and putting on a gallant smile.

"Ha ha ha! No, I'm afraid that's not possible," Ante chuckled, instantly causing the smile to fall off of Fold's face. "In this situation, we are far better served to split up. We'll cover more ground that way. Furthermore..."

"... Furthermore?" Fold remarked, trying her best to keep a stiff upper lip.

"Well... how should I say it... trying to navigate this party with you by my side would feel a little like a teenager trying to enjoy himself at a gathering with other young people while his mother hangs close by his side. Do you understand my meaning?" Ante asked.

"Are you... are you saying I'm old?!" Fold asked, holding one hand over her hand, not so much offended as surprised.

"No, no. I'm saying you dote, a bit," the princess responded, laughing awkwardly. "Let's keep our distance for the night, as much as we're able."

"Oh... Of course. Certainly. Keeping the success of your mission in mind, why, it will be as encouraging you in person! You can count on me to get the job done," Fold finished. They exchanged a curtsy, then went their separate ways, with Ante heading towards the ballroom and her guardian heading back upstairs without her.


No reflective surface, gold nor silver accessory, nor sparkling chandelier would match the brilliance of Ante's own shining eyes as she took to the ballroom, admiring everything around here. Now she was beginning to seriously regret splitting up with Dare and Fold, mostly because she had no one to comment on all of the magnificent scenery to. Even Teruko (who probably wouldn't have appreciated it properly, granted) was otherwise occupied with... something, ever since Bruce showed up. "Well... she might have appreciated the color coordination at least. She does like pandas, perhaps because of their distinct monotone pallet," the navi thought to herself, becoming momentarily distracted from the mission and the party. "The castle had a relatively limited color palette as well, as I recall. The organizer and I may really be more similar than I'd like to admit."

At any rate, her "target" in this room was not at all hard to spot. In another location, say, the outside of a castle, he would have been practically camouflage, but here in the ballroom, he stood out. She couldn't help but think that he didn't fit her image of a rich, ball-going gentleman, as one does not typically associate a gargoyle with business savvy, yet the proof was in the pudding: Zennocracy was more concerned with his business affairs than his ability to ward off evil whilst sitting atop a Gothic tower. Still, Ante thought herself in luck; the gargoyle sounded like a wholesome, amiable sort of person all together... perhaps, in some ways, more respectable than their hostess. She hoped that she wouldn't end up doing anything that put her at odds with him.

Then again, she'd need to be prepared for anything. After all, Zennocracy's account couldn't be all inclusive of his character. It was even possible for two like-minded, good-natured individuals to fail to "hit it off," so to speak. With any luck, they'd effortlessly reach a conversation, but if they didn't, she figured herself a skilled enough conversationalist to steer the night how it needed to go. "Of course... Here in the ballroom, it's only natural to want to d-"

She clasped both hands over her mouth reflexively, as if worried she'd already let the words slip. "What a gaffe! There is no way that a nine-foot-tall gargoyle has any interest in dancing with me," she interrupted herself, then fixed both her expression and her thoughts. "Never the matter." Finally, she approached him... she wasn't sure if he would want to dance, but she kept a lightness to her step by lifting her skirt-tail ever so slightly, to show that she could, if he for some reason wanted to. "Excuse me, good sir! I've never attended one of these events before. If you are not otherwise occupied, perhaps I could trouble you with a few questions?" she began, keeping a gentle smile upon her face. "My name is Ante. May I have yours?"


In a far less festive mood, Fold made her way upstairs, her unusually toned arms hanging at her sides in a way that made her shoulder muscles apparent. "To think that the princess is downstairs... enjoying herself to so full an extent... and I am not there to share in her cheer!" the bodyguard wept internally. "I must think happy thoughts... the princess admiring the ball room... the princess conversing with a comely, suitable bachelor... the princess dancing, gracefully, twirling her skirt about the ankles of her boots...! Aaaah!" A happy, stupid smile had worked its way back onto the lady's face. "How pretty!"

Clasping her hands together and humming a waltzing song to herself, she continued up the stairs, higher and higher, till she was nearly back at the office they'd entered earlier. She decided that the outside balcony would be a nice detour; after all, one ought to admire the scenery in a place such as this, even if they were not so ardent and admirer as her favorite princess. Her high-heeled boots clapped against the surface as she inspected the outside area briefly. Assuming it was open to her, she would then step outside and into the night air, to see if anyone was about.
As Dare approached the pair at the bar, the dark-skinned man was talking expressively, the hand with his drink shifting back and forth with the timbre of his words while he free hand pointed and gestured at nothing in particular for emphasis on his words. He noticed Dare's approach first, while his companions was still watching the band.

"It's true though, my dear. Zen thinks she's gotten the good end of it all, but I wager one coin to a dozen upgrades I can swing this about inside a month, once we're all on board together, you watch!" His voice was quite deep, carrying a warm buzz to it the exuded confidence and certainty, but as with any businessman, that sort of thing was even bets for being a facade or genuine. The other lady shook her head.
"Wager all you want. You're a fool, Drisco. I begin to suspect we all are, the more I think about it."
"You worry too much! Prospects have never been better, lest ways, not for my interests, ah-haha! Oh, hello, what have we here!?" He turned enough to gesture towards Dare with both hands, his free one in a open, palm-inward appreciation. "Another pretty face, it seems. My night grows better by the minute!" His companion deigned to look around, turning on her seat and leaning on the bar with her drink arm instead, though when she saw Dare in her beautifully formal dress taking her seat in properly delicate fashion, she snorted and barked an unforgiving laugh.

"Hah! Another petticoat you mean. Think you've wandered into the wrong room, muffin. All the cream and scones are back that way. Go on, back to your curtseys and flowery speeches, and leave us normal people a spot away from all your prim, would you?" Very unimpressed, then, was this one it seemed. She waved a dismissive hand at Dare with another laugh, and took a longer sip of her drink.

This was the moment that one of the bar staff approached to ask Dare if she'd like anything to drink. He was quite a pretty one, too, though that was almost certainly a deliberate choice. Before he'd even finished asking, however, the man the other one had called Drisco reached over a hand to distract the barman's attention for a moment. He laughed again, flashing white teeth that almost seemed to glow against the dark tones of his flawless skin.

"Come now, you're too cruel, Saija. Give the girl a chance... I wager that under all the finery and fabric she's as sleek and fun-loving as you or I!" To illustrate his point, he had set his drink down to use his other hand in drawing attention to and appreciate of Dare's figure and assets. "Barman, get the lady whatever she asks for! Let us see what she picks, hmm, Saija? I wager you my next drink to yours that her choice surprises you!" The electopian-looking girl just snorted again.
"Suit yourself; I'll not say no to a free drink. You're on. Anything to liven up this yawn-fest."
With the interruption ended, the bar navi looked back to Dare, somewhere between embarrassed and apologetic, and made a small, helpless shrug as he grinned.
"Ah... Something to drink, ma'am?"

Meanwhile, not far away, yet in a completely different setting, Ante was soaking up grandeur as only a lady born to it truly could. She moved with grace through the crowd in the chamber, but it was hard to disguise that she moved with a goal, rather than drifting, and so by the time she approached the out-of-place navi in the corner, he turned his head to look at her. It was a slow, relaxed motion, though once his eyes were turned on her there was something in his gaze that gave a tremendous sense of age, patience and calm. He inclined his head in an equally slow gesture, then turned the motion into a proper bow. It was an unexpectedly graceful movement for one so large, but as he folded one hand across his chest and bend forward, his opposite leg straightened and stretched backwards just as smoothly to facilitate the action. Despite the innately intimidating features of his apparently stone-carved face, the navi bore a small smile as he straightened to look at Ante again.

"My lady, I confess, I find it hard to believe you, to hear that you have never attended a ball such as this. You look quite at home here already, I assure you." He looked back to the dance floor briefly, then returned his gaze to her. "But if you wish the company of one as... background... as I, then I shall not stop you. I am called Mordenite, and I give you my welcome, Lady Ante." While his voice was bass and sonorous, it was nevertheless softer and of a higher overall pitch than one might expect from such a large being. "And if you've questions, I'm more than happy to indulge your fancy. I do enjoy the atmosphere of places such as this, even if I myself do not fit in."

Overall, he seemed calm and content, though with such a peaceful aspect, it was difficult to really guess at what he might be thinking about or pondering over while calmly watching the evenings festivities go by. Still, scepticism only went so far; just because Zennocracy had made mention to watch out for each of them, didn't necessarily mean that they would all need special appeasement, after all.

The piano finished one piece and fell quiet for a few moments, then began another. This one was also a dance tune, true, but it was of the brisker, more formal and severe style, with a sharper tempo. Two or three of the dancing couples remained, beginning the steps in proper stiff-backed style, turning about one another with forearms upright and precise, but for this dance, more stepped from the floor than joined it, and the thrum of polite background conversation grew slightly. Drinks were taken from trays and navis chatted and mingled while the imposing gargoyle simply watched on with a calm smile on his face.

Upstairs, in a much quieter part of the estate, Fold stepped out onto one of the mansions many grand, curved balconies. To call it such really failed to fully realise the reality, however; not just a balcony, the space itself was large enough to be called a full courtyard in its own right, and it would easily take a fine lady walking at a proper pace a full thirty seconds to move from the doors, all the way across to the outermost balustrade at the centre of the rounded space. If she did, however, she would be rewarded with a view of a rolling estate, finely detailed at every inch and surely taking up a very great deal of data space, given the quality of construction. Close to the mansion itself, fountains dotted small lawns and neat hedges, with intermittent sculptures, while further out a covered orchard was well tended, to one side, and a broad lake with a small boathouse and dock beside. Looking in the other direction, she would be able to see the expansive hedge maze quite clearly; indeed, this balcony would make a perfect look out for viewers to watch others explore the maze, or participate in competitions with each other. One could easily imagine taking the air on a sunny day and watching young men and women gleefully exploring the maze and racing one another... perhaps with a small pair of binoculars to get a better view of particular players.

Unfortunately, it was currently night, but the moon was bright and the sight itself still beautiful. There were a few others out here as well, though not very many. The night air was cool, and those who wished for quiet could find it here with ease, compared to any of the more socially busy areas inside. In one shaded corner of the balcony a couple embraced, while one murmured softly and lavished kisses upon the neck of the other who sighed and gasped softly. They were both dressed in full formal ballroom finery, and didn't appear to be going any further that that, even in the darker shadows of the quiet area, so others on the balcony were discretely letting them be. In particular, a single Scotsdale-liveried servant stood by the open doors, ready to offer any help that might be required, for guests on the terrace, but he was looking in the opposite direct, with a small smile on his lips.

There didn't appear to be anyone that matched any of the descriptions that Zenny had given them, here on the balcony, but the atmosphere was pleasantly relaxed. Fold would only have been on the balcony for a relatively short amount of time before a sharp ear might catch the sound of something that sounded distinctly like the jingle of bells, coming from somewhere back beyond the door. No-one else seemed to really noticed it, though.

Dare gave "Drisco" a friendly smile before being forced to turn that into a light-hearted chuckle in response to his acquaintance. She leaned over the counter a bit to talk around Drisco. "Saija, was it? I figured there as a reason you two were sitting separate from the rest, yet seem to have so much charisma. So you're different from the rest of the preening peacocks around here?" Dare settled back into her seat, feeling a bit more comfortable. "Well, then, you two are the ones that'll have to keep me company!"

The daredevil Navi bent down a bit to grab the fringe of her dress and hiked it up just high enough to clearly display her feet, as well as the large tailpipes attached to them, which were normally covered by the skirt of the outfit. "See these? They're a part of me, but they fit with my regular ensemble. My normal day-clothes are leather boots, a leather vest, and tinted shades!" That probably wasn't a great declaration to make to polite formal company in most settings, but she thought it might be a good conversation starter here. "The dress is just me trying to look the part, you know? I bet the two of you don't normally dress this way, either."

Saying that, it suddenly occurred to Dare that she may have made a miscalculation on her part. If they decided to interpret that as meaning "I'm not really a fancy, rich acquaintance of Zennocracy," then what was she doing here? She decided she'd skirt around that unless she was asked... in the meantime, she'd give a bit of thought as to what she wanted to claim to be. "Anyway, the mark of a great man or woman is being able to own whatever style you're wearing." That, of course, was a bit of a bold claim, considering this was a style that Ante quite literally was the owner of. "Again, that's why I made a point to sit with you two! I'm Dare, by the way."

As she gave her name, she extended her hand for a handshakes if either of them would have it. She imagined there was probably some etiquette regarding handshakes, gloves, or both, but she thought she may have lucked out and gotten some informal formal people to talk to.

"Drisco, you had a very good idea! Let's see, let's have have..." she trailed off, scanning her eyes across the available bottles. She was looking for something that would make a statement, maybe with a fireball or a virus on it or something (although avoiding looking for something with a logo like a metal band or a skull and crossbones, that seemed like a bit much), and with the name big enough on the label that she could call it by name. She didn't know what kind of drink she'd be getting, but hey... she survived her last encounter with heavy alcohol content as well as she could remember... or not remember...

Well, no point in getting worked up over details.