It would have been stupid to get in a fight with them. A long line of nobles and their entourage of aids and maids stared at Pom as she was escorted down the staircase. She was fine with becoming a spectacle of these people if it meant shattering their pretentious smirks, but she didn't want to chance it with a tiny knife.

With her own spear, sure. She could probably take on four unarmored men.

The men dropped her off at the bottom of the staircase and threatened to throw her in the dungeon if she tried sneaking into the castle again. She huffed at their backs, her arms over the sash that hid her monster soul. Using it wasn't even an option today—it was only with her for comfort.

Was this truly what castle decorum was—toss out anyone who didn't look the part? Shun anyone who didn't match the curtains?

She threw away those thoughts and surveyed the gardens. Surely she would find Corey somewhere—she should at least thank her for inviting her. To come all this way only to get turned at the door was not the kind of story she wanted to tell Rocca later.

Her stroll ended at a tall set of blue iron gates. On the other side of these gates were even more gardens, complete with fountains inlaid with iridescent rocks and flowers whose scent drifted over to the commoners quarters. Several groups of men and women in extravagant suits and gowns stood around carrying wine cups and miniature plates. Maids ran silently and quickly around them, unnoticed, refilling drinks and platters. The other side sure had it made.

The fairy tale harmony soured. The stress in the service workers' eyes blazed in Pom's sights. She felt nothing when looking at the nobles—they were like emotionless mannequins that merrily stood there to add to the scenery. But the maids, the butlers—they were the soldiers of this party. Some of them received poor treatment from those cruel mannequins whenever they performed less than perfect.

Pom looked away from the gardens. The other side wasn't as glamorous as the rumors suggested.

Once turned away from the gardens, she discovered archways opening to the castle—merfolk guarded archways! The real Masquerade could be reached without a heavenly staircase!

She inched closer to the merfolk. She recognized them in a snap—Borneo and Iso, two older guards that Vila worked with closely. She didn't talk with them often but they knewher.

She approached them, shifting her mask to the side. Their heads turned in confusion.

"Pom? That you?" Borneo called. Pom nodded. "What you doin' here?"

"Did Captain Vila send you?" Iso asked. "Tell her we're doing fine. She doesn't need to check up on us every hour."

"Can I...go in?" She tested.

The two were confused.

"Of course you can! Why wouldn't you?" Borneo asked. "Did the Captain put you in that dress? Hn...coulda swore she had better taste 'n that."

"Shht, she's probably undercover." Iso hissed.

"She ain't gon blend in with that dress."

"You guys think I'm undercover?" Pom joked, passing them. In a burst of light and sound, she had left the dreary drabble of commoners and entered the golden stage of the gods.

Borneo and Iso's shoulders hardened.

"Of course. Don' let your guard down." Borneo said. "We've all been called to aid in security tonight. There's been a threat upon the crown."

"...What kind of threat?" She asked.


A jolt of paralysis sprung up Pom's legs. The very name stirred anger in her weapon-juggling arms.

"Iso? Do you have a blade to spare?" She slipped effortlessly into soldier mode.

This must've been why Corey invited her; to protect, not dance.

"I believe I've packed too lightly."

Pom circled the ballroom, her eyes darting from dress to elegant dress. It was a shame the glamour had been broken so early—had it not been for the terroristic threats, she would've taken time to appreciate the décor. Decorative sea glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling like a parade of giant jellyfish. Several staircases that led to other sections of the castle were covered in blue-patterned rugs, and tables swathed in matching table cloths sat along the side. In the center, several couples span around in dances to the polka band performing from a platform that overlooked the entire space.

That could be a great place to watch from. She thought as she neared an arch. But what would an Alsasiren even look like...?

She wasn't sure what she was looking for. She knew when to jump in when she heard metal clanging, but it was only the sweep of dresses and feet that made noise. Other guards and staff paced from the sides of the ballroom. Pom blended right in with their straight-back marches.

If she were looking for rouge merfolk, she wouldn't find them here among the crowd.

Tactics 101. Most attacks are done in private. Pom recalled, backing into the arched hallway. The loud polka music could still be heard through open windows but she preferred it to the warped whistle of the deep.

"If the Captain is here..." She muttered, her eyes still in the ballroom as she backed away from it, "...I better regroup with her."

A cold hand fell on her arm—Pom swiveled around, smacking it into the air. Her blade was halfway out of her skirt when she realized it was Corey.

"L-Lady Corey?" Pom gasped and took back a step. "I-I'm so sorry, I didn't know it was you."

"Corey you still have one more skirt layer to put on!" called Auki, ambling in from the open area behind her.

Corey put her hand up, silencing Auki. Her eyes were fixed on Pom and the dreadful dress she was wearing.

"...Pom," she began, sounding none too pleased. "What are you doing?" Pom sheepishly slid the blade back into place. "What are you wearing?! Didn't you go to the dress shop? I picked out so many nice ones!"

Pom nodded, noting that Corey's outfit was far more complex than anything she'd picked out for her at the store. The torso half was simple—pale, strapless, patterned with very subtle fin-shapes and encompassing the skirt in the back. But the skirt itself—a searing blue, layers upon layers of blue. The train was so massive that Auki had to hold it with both hands. The ends of the train had fluffy poofs of dark blue that resembled rocks upon a shore.

"I loved all the dresses you picked." Pom assured. "I just...I couldn't afford any of them."

Corey threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes. "It was going on my tab!" She sighed and placed her hands on her hips. "And don't think I didn't miss that little reach you made. How many blades are you concealing?"


"2 too many!" Corey exclaimed, taking her arm-in-arm. Auki groaned and fell behind them with the train. "I invited you here to have fun, not to act as one of my knights. Come with me."

She led Pom to a room far from the ballroom. It was in a tower overlooking the front half of the castle, and from the window she could see only bits and pieces of the magic. The ocean greeted her from the right side, and beyond that, the Ridge. Her hand fell to her monster soul.

"Away from the window, we've got work to do." Corey said, shooing away the maids that tried attaching the skirt she'd ran out on earlier. "Stand right there."

Pom followed her finger to a spot before the mirror.

"Don't move." Corey squinted one of her eyes, priming for aim, while the maids scurried to the back of the room and covered their eyes. Auki watched discreetly from the door. Before Pom could ask what she was doing, Corey threw her hands forward. The tips of her fingers flashed and a cold wash of air rushed down Pom's body. When the brilliant light display faded, she found that the ragged fabric she'd been wearing had disappeared.

In its place was something soft and purple, rippling at the stomach and cut off by a tutu of vertical striped purple skirts reaching to her ankles. The same striped material came tapering off from armbands independent of the dress. When checking her feet, Pom found that her shoes had been swapped out for jewel-studded heels.

But when she turned in the mirror to see it all together, she was shocked to see sleek tan skin. No sleeve of scales, no sundial of gills. Her unmanageable bright purple hair had become soft and light brown. She barely recognized anything but the bintilet winking back at her.

Corey sighed with relief. "Wow! That worked better than I thought!"

Pom was speechless. She actually looked like kin of Vila and Coraline. "What did you..."

"I added some enchantments to your bintilet." Corey explained, sidling up to her in the mirror. "The dress, the hair, the legs, the skin—it all reverts back at a drop of water. If you're going to go out there, you're going to want to look as human as possible."

"Then...you know about the Alsasirens?" Pom asked. The maids attaching the last of Corey's train shivered in fright. Corey's face remained passive.

"Them? I wouldn't worry about that. We've got plenty of security handling it."

"I'd feel better if you gave me back my blades."

Corey laughed. "Auki, do you have anything we can hide under her skirts?"

Auki juggled one of Pom's blades in the air. "You're in luck; I have a dagger that goes splendidly your shoes."

In the hall before the staircase descending to the main ballroom, the herald leaned close and asked, "What's your full name?"

Pom struggled for a correct response. Should she make something up? People like her only had first names. She muttered her answer and glanced back up to Auki who motioned for her stay where she was.

The herald went to the mouth of the staircase and blew his trumpet. The music paused for a moment and all the dancers stopped to look up. Only important guests received this kind of treatment.

"Presenting a courtier of his royal highness, Pom of the Glass Towers!"

Auki paddled the air for her to go. Pom adjusted her wooden mask, which had not been touched during her transformation, and walked to the edge of the staircase. She descended slowly, her hands on the cool silver railings of the staircase. The stares increased even when the band started up again. The presence of masks covering most of their eyes made observers that much bolder.

This was quite possibly the hardest walking exercise Pom's ever done.

At the end of the staircase, she felt like her ankles were going to twist back into fins. A light tinkling sound came from her right. She turn to face a plain eye-masked Unami offering his gloved hand.

"Are you wearing a bell?" She teased. He smirked back and shook his hand, again bringing attention to it. "Okay okay, don't yell!"

She laughed and let him lead her to the side of the dance floor. He wore a red version of the imperial knight uniform from the time at the rock stand, though several military cords and pins were added to his jacket. The tinkling she had heard earlier came from the rapier and daggers at his belt. He was well prepared for any attack.

She wanted to feel guilty for distracting him from his duty, but Corey's advice from earlier fueled her negligence.

The polka subsided to something more western and she found herself having to do a swinging waltz that required both their hands to be busy. Unami's eyes were glancing past her.

"Well, this is inconvenient." Pom began making conversation to bring him back. "You can't talk to me when we're like this, huh?"

He brought his eyes to hers and tipped his head in question. Was he even planning on talking to her? Or were they just going to spin around for five minutes and call it a night?"

"Want to play a game?" She suggested. "I ask yes or no questions. I'll guess your past and we'll see how similar we are."

He chuckled and brought her hand to his chest, then spun her around. When she was facing him again, he lifted his eyebrows for her to start.

"Great. So, are you a merman?"

He nodded, though his eyes reflected how ridiculous that question was.

"That was a test! The real questions start now." She said. "Are you a knight?" He nodded. "Okay. Are you a stationed knight?" A head shake. "Are you a knight for a person?" Nod.

So she confirmed that he was a personal knight. That ranked him higher than her in military position.

"Are you Corey's knight?"

He shook his head.

What?! Who else then?! She was so sure she'd figured out their connection. If he wasn't her knight, then why does he do things on her behalf? That time on the boat, it was like he was an extension of her. His eyes barely left her. What were they?

Her lilt in questions had him poking her waist to pay attention. She nearly jumped in surprise. Did he feel her monster soul?

"Okay, here comes another one!" She said. "Did you ever go to the Sire Academies?" He nodded. "Which one?"

He narrowed his eyes at her.

"Oh! Right! Let me just throw some names out—Sire Sa Lamin?" Head shake. "Sire Kahoy?" That received an eyebrow lift. "No? Too far north? Ahh—Sire Ba Tong?"

He nodded once for that one. There was no playfulness to that response—it was a fact, he trained at the cruelest and most elite Sire Academy. Sire Sa Lamin broke you down, but Sire Ba Tong crushed your bones and spat in your face.

She managed a grin. "No wonder you're so good in the water."

He looked away, past her, watching the nobles. As the music picked up, the dancing couples behind them automatically went into a lift. Following the flow of motion, Unami took her by the waist and carried her from one side to the other.

When he brought her down, his hand sloppily hit the dagger hidden at her side and she winced as the leather belt at her bare waist cinched. His hands lurched back and they both stopped cold. Icy disbelief swept over his eyes. The same gaze mirrored in her own eyes as his hand fell on the pommel to his rapier.

(A-L-S-A-S-I-R-E?) He dared to spell out with his hands.

"Y-y-you—how could you even accuse...!" A hand fell to her shoulder. Unami straightened, his eyes pinned to someone behind her. Pom was too furious to even care to see who interrupted them—she just wanted to set him straight.

"Has my knight upset you?"

This voice was strangely sweet and polished, confident and boasting all at the same time. The eyes of the crowd in front of her, no matter how much their heads turned, pivoted back to what was behind her.

A strange air of fear fell over her. Almost as terrifying as the darkness of the Ridge.

In fact, she wish it were dark. The man's mask was gaudy enough to suggest his title, but it was the set of five guards behind him dressed similarly to Unami that sealed the deal.

She had wondered earlier who was more politically important than Corey that Unami was duty bound to protect. It should've been obvious.

"Care to dance?"

The Prince of Berdeng Da Gat extended his hand.