Having just returned from a job involving getting chased by giant birds ("Wow, we do this a lot…"), Ardan proceeded to put out feelers on an odd merchant, then went back to rubbing elbows with adventurers, scouting potential employers, and charming his way into the next woman's bed. All with the results he's grown accustomed to over the last few months.
There's only so long you can share the same stories about that one time the grizzled dwarf hit that goblin shaman in the face with his axe really hard. Only so many times you can smile at the young half-orc rogue bragging how he snuck past "a hundred guards" and took the nobleman's magic necklace right off his neck as he slept (particularly since this half-orc spills more drinks than anyone else in the bar). Only so many times you can will your eyes not to glaze over while some drunken cleric pontificates about his stick-up-the-ass god of shininess or the inebriated 100 lb. wizard boast about how even the denizen's of Xagyg's towers have grown to fear his arcane might.
There's only so long you can pour drinks into the merchants and subtly promote your skills. You would think that if these wealthy men didn't have any work for you, they could at least buy a round themselves… once in a while.
And there are only so many women you can… well, okay, that never gets old. But lately, there hasn't been much of the chase, of the game… of subtle seduction. Well, who could blame them for having good taste and knowing quality when they see it? Still, his recent companions were somewhat… artless… in the dance of seduction.
So… Ardan has gotten bored.
What can he do?… What can he do?…
Ardan decides to head up into the Garden and Noble Quarters during the Freeday gate openings. He first heads up to the Menangerie with most of the crowds. Nice.
Later, he shifts his clothing into his noble's outfit. Then, he decides to wander through the Garden Quarter for a bit, then into the Noble Quarter. He's familiarizing himself with the territory and what security he can see. After a while, he decides to test the security in the Noble Quarter. He turns down a path toward one of the manor houses, then veers off into the trees, always assuming he's being watched. He wanders near to several manor houses, but keeps himself concealed. If discovered, he will just feign ignorance, and claim to have been lost in "the gardens." While he did a fine job concealing himself, he was able to move about with impunity. How disappointing. He finally turns into a courtyard, and after hearing a guard approaching, decides to sit on a bench and admire some statuary. The guard arrives, and while he is suspicious, Ardan manages to bluff him with the "I'm a noble from out of town and thought I was turned around in the gardens" routine (though Ardan has to stare him down a bit after the guard tries to drag him out). Ardan learns that this is the estate of Lord Greenwood, and the guard escorts him out, after Ardan asks the guard to please extend his (Ardan comes up with the name of Baron Cyrus Mumson from the Bandit kingdoms) apologies for accidentally trespassing on his grounds.
Ardan then decides to break for lunch, and spends some time talking with the upper class types in a local restaurant/tavern, and learns that there is a little soire at, coincidentally, Lord Greenwood's estate this evening.
Ardan is interested now…
Heading back into the more colorful area of town he hangs his hat these days, and finds the three hafling brewer women he "entertained" after surfing his way to victory over the beer monster at Brew Fest. From them he gets the name of a vintner who gives him a good deal on some elven wine. Checking that his noble's outfit is straight, he takes the wine and proceeds back up to Lord Greenwood's estate. He presents himself to the servant who answers the door, and asks to speak with his lord. The sounds of music and voices can be heard inside. Lord Greenwood arrives, and 'Baron Cyrus Mumson' formally presents himself to Greenwood, saying that he is quite sorry for inadvertently stumbling into the lord's gardens. 'Mumson' then presents his with a small token of esteem, "a bottle of elven wine from a master vitner I acquired during my travels. Ah, but it seems I've called on you when you have guests, I will call on you some other evening…" As Ardan moves to leaves, his calculation pays off and Lord Greenwood shows impeccable noble hospitality and insists the 'Baron' join the festivities.
Baron Mumson initially draws glances from the assembled aristocrats, being an unknown. His lack of renown and clothing that, while fine, is perhaps not in style this season soon convince them he is not a power player, and they go back to more interesting plots and people. Mumson initially goes around the room, mostly idle chit chat and trying to figure out who's whom in the room, what they do, their relationships, etc. And, of course, seeing who the available women at the party are. He took a few initial stumbles do to his relative lack of familiarity with a noble's only affair (including asking a lady to the next dance, rather than asking for a place on her dance card). Another noble gentleman was kind enough to offer some roundabout pointers, which Mumson thanked him for… in a roundabout way.
After the first half hour or so, Mumson adjusts to the mood and workings of the room, and begins to get more into his purposes here for the evening. He drifts from conversation to conversation, gravitating towards merchants or aristocrats who might have use for adventurers, particularly those who are speaking of difficulties (caravans being waylayed, items stolen, items needing to be "recovered," etc.). He chimes in with, "oh yes, I had similar troubles recently with (such and such a problem). Fortunately, I haven't had any further issues with it after I acquired the services of this fellow, Ardan Corvo, and his crew of 'adventurers.' So, he spends half the night networking, dropping Ardan Corvo's name, and generally making a good impression with the party goers as "Baron Cyrus Mumson."
The other half of the evening, having already taken care of 'business,' is spent in pursuit of elegant ladies in beautiful gowns. Evaluating the room, there are several women, some quite fair, and many of which would not give the time of day to a 'new money' noble. A group of lovely young ladies, many of whom seem to be young enough that this might be their first society function, gather in one corner. They glance at Mumson when he approaches, while giggling and whispering behind their fans. Attractive, young girls. 'Mumson' has had far too many girls recently. He needs a woman.
He finally spots her across the room. The most striking brown eyes smile at him from above an intricate fan, then turn away again. He circles the room towards her, throwing a knowing smile in her direction as her gaze periodically drifts back towards him. Mumson gives her an ever-so-brief gaze as he introduces himself… and asks the elderly matron that had been chatting with her for the honor of the next dance. [Dale refers to this as the Heineken commercial I got in his Greyhawk game… I just call it good tactics. Go in too early, you may seem like an artless womanizer (and only one of those is true). Go for one of the young girls, you just seem like a predatory going for the freshest faces, and likely inadvertently insulting the woman.] The elderly matron happily accepts his offer. Mumson is somewhat confused at the slight giggle he notices the woman with the gorgeous eyes try to hide as he and his dance partner take their places on the floor. That same giggle might be heard above the din of the crowd later in the dance, when Mumson and the old woman are off in a somwhat deserted corner. To anyone who might have been watching from the rest of the room, the only indication that anything might be amiss was a surprised widening of Mumson's eyes… as he felt the old woman's hand drift down from his waist and take a surprisingly strong grip of his backside. Giving a polite, yet nervous smile down into the face of the matron leering up at him, he manages to complete the rest of the dance with only a couple steps missed. Afterwards, he is, thankfully, able to politely decline an offer of the dirty old lady to meet her out in Greenwood's garden.
After a few dances pass, Mumson approaches the woman with the fan (when she is separated from the matron with the strong hands…), and asks for the pleasure of a dance with the loveliest woman in the room. "Oh, well, I believe you already danced with my mother, Countess Hypatia Loressi. I know she would be quite pleased to have another turn around the dancefloor with you," she suggests from behind her fan, her eyes full of laughter at his momentary look of nervousness.
"Finally," Ardan thinks… "a woman."
Easily falling back into his casually confident demanor, Mumson smiles. "All right, then… the second loveliest woman."
Feigning considering the request, she finally says, "very well," snapping her fan shut, revealing a smile every bit as lovely as her eyes. Mumson gingerly accepts the hand of Lady Martha Rayneston, and leads her to the dance floor. The disguised rake admired her as the two of them fell naturally into the embrace of the dance. Gentle curves and a graceful step could be gleaned beneath a beautiful gown of green and gold, accentuating the long golden tresses held in an elaborate style above an elegant neck. A few locks were allowed to casually fall free, framing a face having seen perhaps a dozen summers more than the giggling girls in the corner… years which had somehow only deepened the Lady's beauty. A pair of soft lips curl into a warm smile, and the entrancing brown orbs that had caught Mumson's attention shine with keen wit and a clear purpose.
The same one Ardan has in mind…
The music begins to play. The two of them commence the slow, graceful circles and steps of the dance, gliding across the floor amid the twirling dresses of a dozen other noblewomen and their partners. Though graceful, she moves somewhat hesitantly. "I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a bit slow, I don't get an opportunity to dance very often."
"I find that very hard to believe," said the thief in the nobleman's clothes. "And you needn't worry, you move as gracefully as an angel."
She blushes at the compliment, and her breath catches as he pulls her slightly closer during the next turn. As the music continues to unfold, her hesitancy falls away, and her feet take over the movements she had repeated so often, long ago. The two dancers relax into an easy rhythm, moving together as if they were one person. Gentle movements of strong, calloused hands stir subtle replies from pale, soft fingers… both communicating more than the next turn or twirl. Bodies held close, the scent of perfume and the feel of warm breath flowing from between ever-so-slightly parted lips war for Ardan's attention. But in the end, it was her eyes that won. As the peak of the song fades and the end of the dance grows near, brown eyes and green become locked together, oblivious to nearly all else.
If the acrobat's gaze had not been held so, he might have been more conscious of the sound of conversations slowly dimming as the dance went on, as more and more pairs of eyes turned to regard the beautiful couple twirling fluidly amidst the others on the floor. Had his attention been focused more on the crowd, their faces, marked with a mixture of fascination, interest, scandal, satisfaction, and anxiety might have warned the faux noble to a potential problem. But, instead, the dance finally comes to an end, and the fair lady and her young companion finally twirl to a gradual halt. Brown eyes blink themselves back to consciousness. Baron Mumson takes a step back, and performs a slight bow to his dance partner. Before he so much as straightens up, he hears a shout carry across the dance floor. "Martha!" a sharp male voice exclaims.
Slowly rising from his bow, and turning to regard the man revealed as the crowded floor parts, Mumson nearly misses Martha's hasty curtsy to him, before she strides toward the man at the end of the room. The sharply dressed gentleman is in his early thirties, about a decade older than Mumson. He has the features of a man that never smiles, the perfectly manicured appearance of one who does not permit one detail of his affairs to go out of place, and the eyes of a man who enjoys power over others. Mumson realizes very quickly this must be her husband. In his head, the acrobat sighs, "well, I suppose I should go over and try to smooth things over…"
Crossing the floor, Mumson can hear more distinctly whispered words of rebuke from the severe-looking man. Martha seems appropriately subservient, but he detects occasional flashes of indignation in her lowered eyes. The din of conversation fades as he approaches the husband and wife. By the time Mumson reaches the pair, the room has gone completely quiet, the crowd openly regarding the three guests at the end of the room, no longer even pretending not to notice the unfolding drama.
"Excuse me, sir, I don't believe I've had the pleasure of your acquaintance. I'm Baron Cyrus Mumson." An offered hand was ignored by the stiff-shouldered man.
"I am Lord Everard Rayneston. This is my wife, Martha." Rayneston seems to be hoping to burn holes into Mumson with his glare alone.
"I must say, Lord Rayneston, your wife is perhaps the most talented dancer here. You are a very lucky man."
"Yes, I am." Rayneston takes two steps toward Mumson, stopping quite close to his face. Mumson is not accustomed to having to glance up at people, being slightly over six feet tall, but Everard Rayneston was a few inches taller, and Mumson detects a well-toned frame beneath the lord's clothing. Looking down on the acrobat, Rayneston spits "and you have been too forward with my wife. You have insulted me, and I hereby challenge you." Gasps are heard in the crowd, and the assembled nobles began to mumble to each other for a moment before falling silent again. No one so much as breathes.
Mumson looks Rayneston right in the eye… and a big, happy grin slowly spreads across Ardan's face.
Now it's a party.
"I accept," Ardan replies. A pained look crosses Martha's features, and hushed mumbling rises from the crowd. "And," he continues, "as the challenged party, I believe I have the choice of weapons."
"And what weapon would you choose?" snaps an annoyed, yet eager-looking Rayneston.
Ardan pauses for a beat, letting the crowd lean in. Looking Rayneston dead in the eye, he cheerfully responds, "how about a waltz?"
In the delicious moment of confusion that crosses Rayneston's face, Ardan turns and strides slowly across the dance floor, the performer in him coming out as he plays to the crowd. "Lords and ladies, where I come from a noble would not dream of being so gauche as to bring bloodshed into the home of his host," a nod thrown to Lord Greenwood. "However, in matters such as these, a competition to entertain our assembled peers is always welcome. Lord Greenwood, with your permission, I propose a Duel of the Dance. The rules are simple. Lord Rayneston and I will partner off with various ladies to dance for the assembled guests. We will dance until one of us yields or until our host decides the duel is over. Once that happens, you," raising his arms gesturing all around him at the crowd of nobles, "you, lords and ladies will decide who is the victor!"
"You are making a mockery of tradition!" Rayneston shouts over the crowd's reaction.
"Well, it is somewhat unorthodox, I admit. And certainly if a noble has no skill in any sophisticated pursuit other than swordplay, it would be somewhat unfair." Rayneston bristles at the barely veiled barb. "Would you care to withdraw your challenge?"
"Of course not!" Rayneston snaps back.
Turning to the now excited crowd, "and you, lords and ladies, would you be interested in some truly lively entertainment?" Almost all the nobles excitedly voice their agreeement. A small number, mostly the old guard (including an ancient gentleman wearing a sword that he obviously lost the ability to use effectively twenty years ago) stiffens and murmmurs their disapproval of the lack of proper form. But they are clearly outnumbered by the rest of the bemused aristocrats, eager for this new amusement. As Lord Greenwood nods his assent, the servants begin preparing a list of ladies interested in taking part in the dancing duel. The young ladies in the corner eagerly volunteer to take part in the show, most of them hoping to end up sharing the floor with Mumson, rather than Rayneston. Indeed, most of the assembled noble's do not like him. Aside from his charming personality, he is "new money," and has a habit of stepping on the toes of the other nobles to get what he wants. He has some allies, mostly those who do business with him or who owe him favors, but many of the party goers agreed simply for the possibility of seeing the man humiliated, and to have a say in that humiliation. Mumson's gamble couldn't have paid off better. Unable to back out now, Rayneston begrudgingly walks onto the dance floor with Mumson.
The two "duelists" each take the hand of one of the lovely young maidens. Lord Greenwood's seneschal announces that the musicians will continue to play until the host commands them to stop. Each lady will carry an hankerchief in her hand, and dropping it will mean she must then retire from the dance floor. The rules explained, the participants ready, the music begins…
The first dance sets the tone for the entire evening. Rayneston does a thoroughly… adequate job. He stiffly goes through the precise movements of the waltz, not so much leading as pushing and pulling a disappointed-looking seventeen-year-old lass across his end of the dance floor. She is only too happy to drop her hankerchief at the conclusion of the song.
Meanwhile, Baron Mumson simply glides across the floor, performing each step with a fluid grace that more than made up for the inexperience of the blushing girl he spritely leads from one end of the crowd to the other. ["God helps those who can roll a natural 20 in a pinch."] His partner, rosey-faced, both from the dance and the excitement of the moment, clings to her kerchief with an iron grip.
The dances continue, gradually increasing in difficulty. Both competitors change partners fairly regularly. Rayneston's bow out nearly every dance, due chiefly to his natural way with people. And while the ladies are eager to dance with the exciting new baron, most are not able to keep up with the energetic pace he tends to maintain. That, and the girls are well aware of the pointed stares of their fellows in the wings. To his credit, Rayneston does loosen up… a little… as the contest continues. Just enough to keep it from being entirely one-sided. Ardan still manages to outperform his opponent during every song, sometimes deliberately going out of his way to draw near to the man and pull some trick to break his concentration. During one song, Ardan manages to actually bring the raised hands of all four dancers together, and then prance away with Rayneston's former dance partner now holding onto the rogue's waist. (In this case, Rayneston manages not to stumble due to the sudden change in his dance card, but his irritation at the gaul of the prancing fool was clearly visible.) These occassional "flourishes" not only embarass the frustrated aristocrat, but disrupt his focus and rekindl his anger… both conditions which make performing graceful, distinguished movements set to music while gentley communicating to an attractive young lady far, far more challenging…
Finally, Rayneston, snapping at one of the young ladies for not catching up quickly enough to a turn at the end of a lively elven tune, exclaims "Enough of this farce!" to no one in particular. Ardan, seizing on his frustration suggests that, "if your lordship is unable to keep pace, perhaps we should finish the duel dancing alone." Many in the crowd snigger at the red-faced Rayneston. Lord Greenwood looks thoughtful for a moment, then dismisses the musicians and whispers to a servant, who then departs, returning shortly with an old, oldly-shaped wooden box. Lord Greenwood turns to the two "nobles" and says, "this artifact has been in my family for a long time. It shall provide the music for your final dance, which you shall both perform alone." The group of ladies yet to be called to dance quietly pout amongst themselves.
Opening the box, and appearing to manipulate something that no one else is able to see, Greenwood nods to the dancers. "Begin." A strange music, lively, powerful, familiar yet alien begins to play. The rigid lord does his best to do what he abhors… improvise. He tries to blend moves of the various "standard" courtly dances to a shifting song that does not fit any of them. He is less than successful.
Mumson has thus far tried to not step too far out of character, not to go so far as to display the true extent of his acrobatic abilities to the crowd… But something about this music just draws him in, and the performer in him rises to the surface. As the song progresses, he lets himself loosen up and get more energetic, letting the frenetic beat of the phantom music guide his movements until he finally just decides, "oh, who cares?" That thought gives way to a series of back flips, jumps, and double spins over Lord Greenwood's dinner table, to the very vocal reactions of the onlooking nobles (almost totally positive…). Ardan finally ends the song with a forward flip to the ground in the center of the floor, spreading his hands in a flourishing finish. Just like the old days. The crowd cheers, and Baron Mumson straightens, smiles, and bows to the crowd, and to Lord Greenwood.
With the applause masking heavy footsteps, Ardan barely notices a red-faced Rayneston charging in to pummel the impudent poppinjay who made a fool of him in front of his assembled peers. That rage instantly transforms into surprise as the baron, bending down for another bow, spins on his heel to rise with a theatrical flourish, neatly and "accidentally" tripping the charging lord, who tumbles face first into the finely polished mahogany floor. And, while the now-horizontal noble is not in a position to appreciate the obviously staged look of confusion on Mumson's face as he glances about, before finally noticing Rayneston face down on the floor next to him, Rayneston can keenly hear the raucous laughter of the crowd in response to Ardan's comical play. "Why Lord Rayneston! You should be careful! These floors are quite slippery."
Everard Raneston staggers up from the floor, nose slightly bloodied from it's courageous attempt to break the man's fall, and glares upon Mumson. Mumson, ready for the possibility of a second attack, watches as the angry aristocrat slowly regains enough composure to allow him to straighten up, pull his ruffled clothes part-way into place, then turn on his heel and storm out of the room without a word.
After a brief silence, Lord Greenwood joins Baron Mumson on the floor. "I think it's quite obvious who has won this particular 'duel,'" Greenwood remarks with a smirk.
Bowing slightly to the lord of the manor,"I must congradulate your skills as a host, sir," Mumson replies. "I haven't had this much fun at a party in years."
"I should hope not," Greenwood laughs.
"I feel I should apologize for any damage to your dinner table… or your orchestra." With that comment, the crowd titters and then slowly returns to chatting amongst themselves. After a few more words with a very interested Greenwood, Mumson turns to see Lady Martha Rayneston, still standing in the corner with her mother. Though her face is once again hidden by her fan… her eyes smile at him.
During the next few hours, the party is a far calmer affair. Baron Mumson spends most of the time bantering with several nobles who, earlier, had seemed to not even notice his existence. He is somewhat concerned that his performance might have betrayed his identity to someone. Not that it really matters, but if some noble or servant had seen his high-flying anti-alcoholic display of acrobatics at Brew Fest, this amusing little game might soon come to a close. That would be a shame. Luckily, no one seems to recognize him… as far as Mumson can tell. Most of the aristocrats are as interesting as a mound of dirt, and the baron quickly searches for various ways to excuse himself from them. After he finishes running the gauntlet, and having spoken with what must have been every aristocrat and merchant baron in Greyhawk, Mumson finally is able to *somewhat* surreptitiously make his way to Lady Rayneston, who nurses a glass of wine and watches the dancing nobles.
She smiles at his approach. "Congradulations on your victory, Baron Mumson. Quite an… impressive display."
"Thank you, milady. And Cyrus, please."
"A great pleasure to meet you… Martha," her name spoken in a low whisper. "I apologize for any embarrassment I may have caused you."
"Not at all," she chuckles. "I thoroughly enjoyed the show."
"I hope I haven't put you in a precarious position in regards to Lord Rayneston."
Meeting Mumson's gaze, Martha replies with casual confidence, "I can handle 'Lord Rayneston' easily enough, though you may need to worry. Everard does not like losing, particularly in such a spectacularly public way."
"Well, then he should invest in dance lessons." She stiffles a laugh and smiles behind her fan. "And he certainly has no excuse for his lack of grace, having such an enchanting dance partner with whom to practice." Martha's cheeks grow flush above a hidden smile, and her eyes take on a purposeful, mischevious glint…
"Perhaps you would care to spend some time 'practicing' in a more private room," she quietly suggests.
Visions of smooth, supple flesh beneath fine silks, and the sounds of breathless moans briefly run through Ardan's mind. She senses his desire, hidden behind emerald eyes and a wolfish grin. He pushes them aside. Giving in now would likely mean that his little masquerade might end due to the hidden eyes of curious servants and the rampant gossip of idle nobles. Ardan wanted to savor his time with the Lady Rayneston. This game was far too enjoyable to stop now…
"That sounds quite lovely, Martha," the baron whispers, "but I wouldn't want to damage your reputation. People tend to gossip, and if we ducked out at the same time, some of our fellow guests might get the wrong impression."
Looking demurely disappointed, "Well, perhaps we could meet to share a dance some other time."
"Maybe it would be best to avoid such a meeting, if only to stop loose tongues from wagging. I'm sure we would be able to share many a dance at the next gathering of the season." This genuinely surprises the lady, whose expressive eyes quickly recover from a momentary look of puzzlement.
"Perhaps you are right," the now somewhat-irritated lady formally replies.
As Lady Rayneston begins to turn to leave, Mumson snares her back with a single… "however…" Martha turns back toward the baron, the innocently curious expression on her face nearly obscuring the coy glint in her eye. "I was planning to ride out of the city for a picnic lunch next Free Day. As you are far more familiar with the area than I, perhaps you might be so kind as to suggest an attractive, secluded spot to enjoy something… delicious."
Thinking for a moment, Martha met Mumson's gaze and says, "There is a large peach tree about two miles from Greyhawk along the old North Road. The area around it is quite lovely, and secluded… perfect for a nice, private picnic."
"That sounds most lovely. I will be glad to spend next Free Day in such an idyllic spot. Thank you, Martha."
"You are most welcome, Cyrus."
"I must excuse myself, and finish mingling with the other guests. I look forward to our next dance, Lady Rayneston. Whenever that might be."
"As do I, Baron Mumson," Martha replies.
As both turn and head back to their next conversation, she with her mother, he with some minor faceless nobleman, both wore a sly smile on their lips and a barely perceptible hint of anticipation in their gait.
The rest of the evening proceeds quietly for Mumson, who finishes his time at the party chiefly by regaling groups of haughty nobles with tales of Baron Mumson's travels and courtly life (the odd one actually being true). Before leaving, he makes sure to ask Lord Greenwood which estate Everard Rayneston calls home - "So I can either make my apologies, or avoid it at all costs…" Greenwood informs him that the Rayneston estate is in the Garden Quarter, and gives him directions. After thanking Greenwood once more for "a most thoroughly enjoyable evening," Mumson takes his leave.
Walking out of the gate in the imposing wall separating the upper class quarters from the more crowded streets and avenues of the rest of the city, Ardan thought back on the the events of the day…
He had crashed a high society soiree.
He had impersonated a nobleman.
He had cut out the middleman and become his own noble patron/advocate.
He had backflipped off a dinner table bigger than his residence (and that likely cost far more), to the cheers of crusty nobility.
He had publicly humiliated a very powerful man who, quite likely, would now be planning to do everything possible to destroy his life.
… And he was now going to be having an affair with this nobleman's wife.
"Okay," Ardan smiled absently to himself. "Today was fairly interesting…"