Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 5

“All right! Look sharp!” Eurydice le Fidèle declared, clapping her hands together. Arete Oakleaves and Echidnae Bluebells both gulped and sprang to work, hanging up the decorations she’d brought. “Faster!” said Eurydice. “This is Her Precious Grace’s Birthday, people! A Significant Occasion!”

“We just had a Grand Occasion two months ago!” moaned Echidnae.

Eurydice fixed the junior chambermaid with an imperious stare. “Which is no excuse for slacking. In fact, it is only an excuse for further efforts in excellence!” She glanced at Arete. “Don’t you agree, Arete?”

Arete bit her lips nervously, nodded, and then began to put her share of the decorations up double-fast.

Eurydice smiled and turned to Echidnae, who followed suit. “Good!” declared Eurydice. “Your work is adequate !” She walked to the center of the Hall of Grim Necessity, and did a quick look around. “Yes, you two might just manage a passing job!” Further words of dubious encouragement were interrupted by a polite cough. Eurydice turned to find her father Breus, Chief Steward of Castle Terribel. She immediately bowed. “Chief Steward.”

Breus bowed back at her. “High Keeper of the Chambers. We need to have words. If you’d come with me…”

Eurydice nodded and fell behind him. As she left, Echidnae made a great sigh. “Oh, Darksome Lady be praised…”

Eurydice immediately twirled around. “I will pretend I did not hear that,” she announced while performing the Obeisant Gesticulation, before turning around and following her father out the hall.

Once he was certain, they were out of earshot, Breus turned, and regarded his daughter fondly. “Is--everything all right, Eurydice?”

The chambermaid blinked at the question. “Why--wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, let’s see,” noted Breus, patiently raising his hand. “Your fiancé broke off your marriage, and your best friend was a spy who tried to destroy the castle.” He looked at his daughter worriedly. “These things--effect people, you know.”

Eurydice took a deep breath. “I’m well over Palamedes. As for Antigone--well, that will pass.” She nodded. “It has to.” She shut her eyes. “I’m a le Fidèle. I will make it pass.”

“You know, Eurydice,” said Breus quietly. “There was a time, after… certain unpleasantness, when I thought that--personal joy, the joy of children, and descendents was closed to me.” Eurydice nodded. Her father was talking of the death of his first wife, and her elder brother Kynon, whom she had never known. “But--then the door opened again, and I had you and your sisters.” A smile spread on the formidable old man’s face. “And that has made me a far, far happier man. It… pains me to think of you unhappy, even though I know that sorrow befalls us all.” He chuckled. “In all honesty, I worry about that more than you--failing to be a good le Fidèle.”

Eurydice opened her eyes and looked at Breus. “I’m fine, father. It will pass.” She smiled at him, and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “But thank you for your concerns.”

Breus nodded. “Very well then.” The pair stepped away from each other and straightened. “Back to work then.” They headed back to the Hall.

“All right!” shouted Eurydice. “I can hear you slacking off!” Echidnae and Arete began to quicken their pace once again.

“I honestly don’t know who I’m scared of more these days,” hissed Echidnae quietly.

Despite themselves, both le Fidèles smiled.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 4

“Bogumil bin Konstanty has claimed the right of combat against Boguslaw bin Uriasz,” said the kneeling Kizak. “Boguslaw bin Roch and Waclaw bin Waldemar aren’t speaking to one another. And Boguslaw bin Ziemowit bin Ignacy and Boguslaw bin Ziemowit bin Donat each demand precedence over each other in the building of their new halls at Sienkiew.”

Jerzy bin Yan yawned. “Is that it, Radomil?”

The Kizak nodded eagerly and then stopped. “Oh, yes. And Przemyslaw is still demanding a new goat, Agri Khan.”

Jerzy nodded. “Ahh.” He stroked his chin idly. “Let’s see. Bin Uriasz will hide and wait for Bogumil to sober up, after which Bogumil will embarrassingly retract his challenge, just as he has retracted every other challenge to his fellow Elders that he has ever made. Waclaw and bin Roch will continue to not speak to each other until bin Boguslaw does something to offend them, at which point they will make up. As for the Gatekeepers, Boguslaw the Proud and Boguslaw the Prouder will both argue so much about who gets to build their new halls that neither shall begin said hall, and thus the matter will stand until I arrive and demand that each build the other’s hall.” He shook his head. “Przemyslaw’s goat though--that’s a tough one.” He glanced at his retainer Bolekiz. “Any thoughts?”

Bolekiz rubbed his chin, deep in thought. “I’m put in mind of the Great Dead Lake in the Weeping Waste, whose waters are beautiful too look upon, but that none can drink.”

Jerzy considered that. “So--tell Pryzemyslaw that we’re sorry, but no goat for now?”

Bolekiz nodded, his expression pained. “In all honesty, Oh, Agri Khan, if he were not an Elder and Keeper of the Great Horn of the Earth-Shaking Agri Khan--I’d tell him to by his own goat like everyone else. But then, he is, and I am not Agri Khan.”

“Why do I go to you for advice, Bolekiz?” said Jerzy after a moment’s silence.

“You delight in my mystifying manner,” said Bolekiz. “And now I ask a question. Why are we here?”

Jerzy shrugged. “It’s been five years since I was present at Malina’s birthday. I am her godfather--she should know me better.”

“Indeed,” said Bolekiz, sagaciously. “That does sound like a reason, Oh, Agri Khan. But might not another reason be you wish to continue avoiding the Elders, with their squabbles over halls, precedence and goats? And perhaps your three wives, two of whom are unbearable, and one of whom is an infant?”

Jerzy stared at Bolekiz in silence. At which point several members of the Guard passed by. “Maybe,” said one, a slightly pudgy Plains Erl, “we can cut the letter out, flip it upside down, and then reattach it!”

“Wouldn’t that just--tear up the banner?” asked another, a Marsh Erl, with a shake of his grey-skinned head.

“No--let him keep going,” said an Ogre. “This idea has potential!” A Ghoul following behind slapped his forehead with his hand, and shook his head furiously.

The Kizaks watched the Guard pass out of sight. Bolekiz glanced back at Jerzy. “May I assume the answer to my humble query is ‘yes‘, son of the Red Wolf?”

“You really are presuming, Bolekiz,” said Jerzy, waving his finger.

“So, I can,” said Bolekiz, with a satisfied nod.

Radomil watched the Agri Khan and his councilor in silence. It occurred to him that they’d forgotten that he was in the room. And then it occurred to him that they merely wished him to believe that. Really, with Bolekiz the Cunning and Jerzy bin Yan, it was hard to tell where you stood.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 3

“By the Darksome Lady, this is ridiculous,” muttered Elaine du Lac, passing through a hallway festooned with silver and purple ribbons.

“It’s your sister’s birthday,” said Jean sagely. “What were you expecting Mansemat to do? Put her on bread and water?”

“Bugger the bastards!” squawked Hoppedance, perched on her shoulder.

“Of course not!” snapped Elaine, ignoring the crow’s outburst. “It’s just--” She glanced at Justinian Sigma. “Don’t you have something to say?”

Justinian sighed. “Not really.”

“Than why the eye roll back there?” Elaine asked.

“Perhaps a bit of holy advice from the blessed Seven occurred to me that had a great deal of bearing on this situation,” said Justinian. “However, I felt it would be inappropriate of me to press it where it would not be wanted.”

“I’ll determine whether I want advice or not, pal,” said Elaine. “Spill it.”

The Milesian sighed. “If you insist, milady,” he noted with a sweeping bow. “A saying from the Hespiad. ‘To seek sorrow in the midst of joy is a profitless quest--to seek quarrels in the midst of peace is the fast way to the grave’.”

Elaine’s eyes narrowed. “Why is it you Lightlanders are so damn--preachy?” She leaned forward. “I have a perfect right to be miserable if I want to.”

Justinian nodded. “That I do not dispute.”

Elaine’s narrowed eyes turned into a glare. “Oh, you are just asking for it.” She gave a snort. “Misery is the natural condition of humanity! The one thing we all share! It is the thread that binds us all together! And you want to take it away from us!” She gave a shake of her head. “You monster.”

There was an uneasy silence. “How much of that do you actually believe?” said Jean after a moment, her eyes wide.

“I have no idea,” muttered Elaine with a sigh. “I simply--went where the words took me.”

Jean shook her head. “Yeah--I advise you avoid that place in the future…” She suddenly stiffened. “Oh, boy. It’s Ms. Manners…”

“Stupid bitch!” cawed Hoppedance. Justinian glared at the foul-mouthed bird, then turned to see Eurydice le Fidèle walking down the hall towards them, her arms stuffed with decorations.

“Your Estimable Grace,” Eurydice said with a bow. She smiled at Justinian. “Justinian.” Her eyes grew hard and her smile forced as she turned towards Jean. “Ms. Crow. Always an experience.”

“Eurydice,” said Jean with an equally forced smile. “Always a--something.”

Justinian felt an obligation to put an end to this. “Ladies, let’s all try to… get along…”

“But we are getting along,” said Jean, with a tone like honey mixed with acid. “We’re both being pleasant and polite and making no comments on how much we loathe each other.” She grinned at Eurydice. “Yep! No comments about annoying housemaids with delusions of grandeur! At all!”

“That’s right,” said Eurydice her smile turning into a grimace. “We are avoiding mentioning how some of us are misbegotten, big-nosed river scum with no breeding, no manners, and no brains.” She leaned forward. “And annoying pets! And did I mention the big nose? Did I?”

Justinian winced. Jean on the other hand stared at Eurydice for a moment, and then pulled up her sleeves. “Oh, it is on, bitch!” she declared clenching her fist.

Eurydice threw her decorations to the side. “If you insist,” she said with a slight bow--which neatly let her duck under Jean’s wild haymaker.

Jean stared at the chambermaid in disbelief, while Eurydice smiled serenely at her. “Hey… no fair,” she said weakly, as she took another wild swing.

“Ha!” said Eurydice confidently, as she casually dodged the blow with a light twirl. “So conversation isn’t the only area where you mistake intensity for ability!” She swiftly stepped forward and gave Jean a quick jab in the stomach. “Also, I repeat--nose. Big. Very, very big,” Eurydice noted as she deftly backed away.

“You… you!” said Jean angrily, clutching her side. With a growl, she leapt at Eurydice, who once again nimbly stepped out of the way.

“Please, please stop,” said Justinian weakly, burying his face in his hands, while Eurydice swiftly tripped Jean, who managed to spring up with surprising agility right after hitting the floor. He silently prayed to the Seven that this awful situation be ended, somehow.

“Look, my darlings!” shouted Nisrioch bursting down the hall. “Dragon Wands!” The Dark Lord raised the sticks he held in both hands, their ends shooting off bright purple sparks. Justinian blinked slightly at the sight. His companions’ response was more extreme. Jean, Elaine and Eurydice all visibly flinched and gave out a loud hiss at the sight. Looking at their eyes, Justinian was startled to see them light up with a strange glow, as their pupils narrowed into diamond-like slits. He gulped. It was moments like this you remembered that Erls were not humans, even the ones that didn’t have the funny ears. No, in their own way, they were as strange as the Devs, and the Goblins, and the Ogres, and the Ghouls. A Nightfolk was in the end, a Nightfolk.

“Lady’s Love, Nissy,” said Elaine, shielding her eyes, “do you want to blind us?” Justinian noted that Eurydice performed her usual succession of gestures at the mention of Douma Dalkiel.

Nisrioch raised the sparkling sticks to his face. As Justinian watched, astonished, the Erl stared at them without blinking, his strange rainbow-colored eyes glinting and shining in the light. “Mmmm. Sorry about that. I tend to forget others possess--less resilient eyes.” He frowned slightly. “I fear I’ve added a tad too much brimstone.” The Dark Lord shrugged. “Oh, well. So what have you all been up to?”

Eurydice bowed. “Umm--nothing important, Your Excellency.” She coughed. “Not really, anyway.” She then gathered up her decorations, and continued down the hall.

Nisrioch gave another shrug, then glanced at Jean, still rubbing her sore spots. “Anything wrong?”

“I just got my head handed to me by a chambermaid,” said Jean.

Nisrioch blinked and then laughed. “Oh, by Eurydice! Well of course! She’s a le Fidèle. Family’s fanatical about their combat training. Comes from the days when they used to squire for us.”

Jean nodded. “They’ve done a good job--keeping it up.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 2

Sacripant stared at the banner. “Okay--a little higher.” Quiet emitted a soft sigh, and shook his head. Sacripant turned to the Ghoul. “Do you have something to say?” Quiet raised two furious eyebrows, and turned away, his blue eyes livid.

Palamedes glanced up from pulling the rope, and coughed. “You really shouldn’t make fun of Quiet like that, Sacripant.”

Sacripant chuckled. “Oh, come on. He knows I’m kidding. Right, Quiet?” Quiet made a supremely rude gesture. “That’s a yes,” noted Sacripant.

Hagen blinked. “I’m not sure you are very accurate translator.”

“Well, I’m the best you’ve got,” said Sacripant. He turned to Palamedes. “Tell me you back me on this.”

Palamedes pointed at Hagen. “I’m with the Ogre.”

“Huh,” said Sacripant shaking his head. “To think you won’t stand by me, Woodash. It’s because he could toss you across the room, isn’t it?”

“I’m more worried about Quiet,” said Palamedes, gesturing towards the Ghoul. “He’s much spoo--” And then the Erl went white as a sheet--admittedly, not much of an accomplishment for a Plains Erl, but still an accomplishment.

“Hmmmph,” muttered Persante Woodash, wheeling in a tray of food. “Enjoying yerself with yer Guard friends, Pal?”

“Hello, da’,” said Palamedes sheepishly. The Guardsman began to look very nervously at his feet. “You’re looking well.”

“Hmmph,” muttered Persante, glaring at his son, and turning up his nose. “No time fer small talk. Got to prepare fer Her Precious Grace’s feast.”

Sacripant looked at his chunky fellow in sympathy. “You know--you helped save the whole castle a couple months ago…”

Palamedes gave a nod. “True. But I’ll never be able to make a roast that’s worth a damn. And to a Woodash, that means a great deal.”

There was a lengthy, and uncomfortable silence. “You are very messed-up, in family matters,” said Hagen. “You are aware of this?”

“Oh, I suppose,” said Palamedes, with a shrug. “But--who isn’t? Eh?”

The Ogre nodded. “You’d make a good Gothi.” He rubbed his chin. “Well, perhaps, you’d find dietary restrictions especially onerous…”

Palamedes glared at Hagen. “You weigh more then me, Hagen.”

The Ogre flexed one mighty arm. “All muscle, my friend.” He beamed at his fellow guards. “Like the name states ‘Greatthews’!” He gave a merry laugh.

“What are you guffawing about?” said Serjeant-at-Arms Grizzel Greedigutt, stomping towards his men.

Sacripant sighed. “Hagen’s showing off again.”

Grizzel nodded and looked over at the banner. “Who’s… ‘Walina’?”

The Guard stared at the banner in dull horror, while Quiet buried his head in his hands, and shook it in frustration.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 1

Malina leapt joyously on top of her parents’ bed. “It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday! I’m seven! Yay! It‘s my birthday!”

Mansemat’s eyes opened blearily, regarding his young daughter with very exasperated love, and very loving exasperation. “Is it now…?”

Viviane squirmed uneasily, looking at her husband with eyes heavy with sleep. “Have they broken through?” she muttered. “Should I get my pestle? Where are the dogs?”

Mansemat gave a sagelike nod to that, then glanced at his daughter’s smiling face. “Malina--what time is it?”

“It is six o’clock in the morning, Daddy!” she said cheerfully.

Mansemat nodded tiredly. “Ahh. Yes.”

“W-we’re not under attack, are we?” said Viviane blearily, turning to regard her husband. “And--there are no dogs.”

“That’s right, dear,” Mansemat said, with a yawn. He looked his daughter in the eye. “Malina--happy birthday. Now go back to bed.”

“Awwww,” murmured the young Dev, her face falling.

“We aren’t even where I think we are, are we?” said Viviane, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“Most likely not,” said Mansemat. “Now, Malina--mommies and daddies need their rest. And their privacy. Which is why you don’t apport in here at six. Or at any other time. Even if it’s your birthday. Understand?”

His daughter nodded sadly. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“It’s all right,” said Mansemat. “You didn’t mean to be rude. You just got overexcited. Just try not to do it again.”

“Okay,” said Malina, vanishing with an audible pop.

Viviane--increasingly awake and aware--glanced at her husband. “Two things--I’ve got to strengthen those wards again.”

Mansemat grunted and nodded in reply.

“And we should thank the Darksome Lady that the blankets held,” Viviane added.

Mansemat gave another nod. “Oh, yes. I’ll be burning a joss stick at the icon for that one.” He shut his eyes and squirmed in his blankets for a moment, then sat up slightly. He looked over at his wife. “Viv…?”

“Yes, Manny?”

“Are you… having any trouble getting back to sleep?”

Viviane looked at him. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Mmm,” said Mansemat, with a nod. “So am I.” He looked at Viviane hopefully. “You… wouldn’t happen to be in the mood for…?” He coughed politely and glanced away.

Viviane quirked an eyebrow at her husband and smiled archly. “Strangely enough, yes. Very much so.”

“Ahh,” said Mansemat. “Once again, so am I.”

Viviane chuckled. “Imagine that.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 12

“Bugger yerselves!” shrieked Hoppedance, toppling snow over the Guards’ heads.

Jean turned towards her allies. “Okay, they’re distracted.”

“Right,” said Elaine, with a nod. She looked at the others. “Okay--we may not have all started out on the same side,” she said, gesturing towards Jean and Malina. “And some of us have demonstrated a notable tendency for switching allegiances,” she noted, glancing at Justinian.

“It’s not my fault,” said Justinian quickly. “Nisrioch got bored and left! What else was I supposed to do?” He buried his head in his knees. “Don’t look at me with your accusing eyes!”

“Not important now!” snapped Elaine. “What’s important is--this is our moment! Like Bladud at the Mount of Thorns! Like Gordubac at the Deinre! Like Shars at Damogir! Here we make our stand or fall trying!” She patted her snowball together. “On my mark--unleash icy hell!”

Malina clapped eagerly. “Wow! Your words sound gooder than normal, Sis!”

Elaine thought it over, and then nodded. “Thanks, Malina!” And then with a yell, she rushed out, the others at her back, tossing snowballs at the Guards Morgaine had pressed into her cause.

“Stand firm!” shouted Morgaine to them. “We can defeat this rabble! You are the Cthonique Guard, standing with the Undying Lady of the Netherworld! None can resist us! NONE!” she noted, throwing back her head and cackling. Suddenly, a group of snowballs struck her.

“To me my Kizaks!” shouted Agri Khan, leading his men out from behind a wall. “Let our foes know snowy defeat!” With a mighty howl, they charged the Guard.

Viviane chuckled and shook her head at the scene taking place below her. Life was definitely wove on a tangled skein, if you were a du Lac. But then, that was true of anyone. The mewling growl of a gryphon broke into her thoughts. Viviane looked behind her to see her husband looking at her expectantly. “I was wondering if you were up for that flight now,” he asked cheerfully.

“You really are insisting on this one,” noted Viviane, with a chuckle.

“Well, I don’t know if it will last much longer…” said Mansemat worriedly.

Viviane blinked. “My, my. This does sound interesting…” Raising her pestle, she levitated herself to his side. “Can Bloodwing hold two? I don’t feel like breaking out the mortar on short notice.”

Mansemat scratched the gryphon’s head. “Of course, he can. He’s a strong boy, isn’t he?” The gryphon purred as he steered it upwards. “Now--I admit it’s not much…” began Mansemat gesturing below.

Viviane glanced down. “Wha… Ohhhh!” There on the ground was a mammoth snow sculpture of a bunch of roses. “It’s lovely, Manny!” She shook her head. “It must have taken you hours.”

Mansemat gave a casual shrug, and gestured to the Sword of Night. “Murgleys did most of the work. I just--directed. Though the detail was bothersome…” He shook his head. “Well--anyway--it was worth it. It’s been--a year. A year since we met. A year since you began to make me the happiest Dark Lord in the Lands of Night…”

Viviane turned to him and smiled. “Second happiest,” she declared, leaning in for a kiss.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 11

Elaine adjusted her books and nodded. There. All sorted by theme, author, and title. And it taken her only three hours. She glanced at the door. Her mother was still not home.

She looked back at her books. Perhaps--perhaps she should consider date in her organization scheme. Of course, that would leave the problem of epitomes. Would you sort them by date of the original, or date of the epitome’s writing? She clapped her hands together. Of course! Each group of epitomes would be sorted as according to the date of the original composition, with the individual epitomes sorted by THEIR dates! It was brilliant! And so obvious! Why…

Her mother came through the door. Elaine took a deep breath in relief. She was starting to suspect her mind was going slightly off the hinges. She stood up and turned to look at her mother. “What took you so long this time?”

Viviane bit her lip. “Elaine… I… I have something important to tell you.” She looked at her daughter seriously, for a long time. “Manny--Mansemat Cthonique has asked me to marry him. And--I’ve said ‘yes’.”

Elaine’s face fell. “What?”

“I’m marrying Mansemat Cthonique,” began Viviane.

“I heard that!” snapped Elaine. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Viviane gave a delicate smile. “I… love him. And he loves me.”

“You can’t love him,” said Elaine slowly. “You… can’t!” She began to wave her hands frantically. “I… this is about me isn’t it? It’s because--it’s because I’m not your Nemain! I… you need… an heir and I’m not good enough, and so you’re marrying…”

Viviane stared at her daughter in shock. “Elaine… what are… where is this coming from?” She shook her head. “I… this isn’t about you…”

Elaine’s lip trembled. “Mom, I’m--I’m sorry I don’t have any magic! I wish I did! But--you can’t do this!” She reached forward and grabbed her mother’s arm. “You can’t marry Mansemat Cthonique! You CAN’T!”

Viviane pulled her arm back. “I can do what I damn well please!” she shouted. “Don’t I have a right to be happy? Don’t I?”

Elaine was about to shout something--and Viviane was already preparing to shout something back at her--when Malina Cthonique landed on the table before them with an ‘oof’. As the young Dev righted herself, the du Lacs simply stared at her. “Ummm…, hi,” she said finally, staring nervously at the pair with her big red eyes.

“Malina,” said Viviane kindly. “Does your father know you’re here?”

“Yes,” said Malina with a nod. Viviane raised an eyebrow. “No.” Malina looked at Elaine, and then back at Viviane. “I heard yelling. You shouldn’t yell. It’s bad.” She waved at Elaine. “Hello. I’m Malina Cthonique.” She turned to look at Viviane again. “Ackkidney said you and Daddy are getting murried. Are you?”

Viviane took a deep breath. “Malina--I’m going to get in contact with your father. Understand?”

Malina nodded. “Yes.”

Viviane took out her pestle, and raised her hand to her forehead, shutting her eyes. “Mansemat…? Can you hear me…?” There was a pause as she waited for his answer. “I rather thought you would be busy. Are you looking for Malina?” She nodded slightly. “She’s right here, that’s how.” Another pause. “I plan on asking her that. Look--I’ll fly her right back to you, all right?” A smile touched her face. “Love you too, dear.” Viviane lowered her hand, and looked at Malina. “How did you get here?”

“I apported onto your mortar and hided myself,” said Malina bashfully. “Now are you murrying my daddy?”

Viviane smiled despite herself, and nodded. “Yes.”

“So…” began Malina hesitantly, “does that mean you’ll be my new Mommy?”

“I guess it does,” said Viviane.

“Oh, wow!” said Malina. “I hoped you would be!” She leaped up and hugged Viviane’s knees. “I didn’t think I’d get a nice new Mommy! Thank you, thank you…!” She looked up at Viviane. “What do I call you now? I mean--I always used to call my mom Mommy…”

“Just--call me Viv,” said Viviane chuckling, and stroking Malina’s hair.

“Mommy Viv,” said Malina with a nod. “Yes.”

Viviane sighed, and stepped away. “I’ll go take set up my mortar.” She looked at Malina seriously. “And don’t think you’re not in trouble.”

Malina nodded as Viviane left the hut. She glanced at Elaine. “Is Viviviane your mommy?”

Elaine was still trying to make sense of all this in her head. “Yep. My name’s Elaine.”

“So--that means you’re going to be my sister now,” said Malina. “Neat! I wanted a sister! And now I got a big one, without having to get borned differently.” She smiled at Elaine. “I can just tell we’re going to get along great!”

Elaine stared at the small Dev for a moment. “You’re a strange kid, Malina. You know that?”

“Yes,” said Malina, with a nod.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 10

“So,” began Mansemat quietly. “What did you think about this Council?”

“I enjoyed the fact that we’re not planning on holding another for quite some time,” said Viviane, glancing over the rampart of Castle Terribel. “I didn’t enjoy the fact that Lord Asterot couldn’t get catering because of his dispute with the Emporium.” She smiled at Mansemat. “Thanks for letting me come over for a meal after it was all over.” She gave a contented sigh. “Very nice grouse.”

“It was nothing, really,” said Mansemat with a dismissive shrug. “A trifle from the Kitchens. Best we could do on short notice.” Viviane’s eyebrows rose in amusement. “I’m telling you the truth,” said Mansemat. “We have very nice kitchens.”

“You have very nice everything,” noted Viviane. She seemed to be about to follow this statement with another, when a loud voice from the courtyard interrupted her.

“--I’m telling you, Nisrioch--the Sevenfold Seven Binding will work just fine!” declared Morgaine loudly.

“This isn’t a minor summoning, Morgaine,” said Nisrioch confidently. “Sevenfold Seventy, that’s the way to go.”

“That would quadruple the time!” stated Morgaine. “At least! And let’s not forget the Echo Effect…”

Viviane looked at Mansemat. “What are they talking about?”

Mansemat waved his hand. “Some---mystical theory… thing.” He shook his head. “I really have--no aptitude for such matters.” He looked at Viviane curiously. “I’d think it be right up your alley.”

“I’m more mystical practice,” said Viviane with a rueful smile. She chuckled. “You know--it’s funny--six months ago--I’d have never imagined that I would--enjoy it here, but now--” She shut her eyes. “I hate it when I have to leave.”

Mansemat nodded. “I hate it too, you realize. When you leave.” Viviane looked over at him in surprise. “Well, I enjoy your company,” said the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel bashfully. “Very much.” He smiled. “You know--if you wanted--that is to say--if you really wished to--you could stay here. All the time. And only--leave when you wanted to.” After finishing this speech, Mansemat looked very fixedly at his feet.

Viviane stared at him, in surprised silence, for a long while. “Manny--wha--what are you--trying to say?”

Mansemat looked her in the eye, and took a deep breath. “I would like it--if you would like--to be my wife.”

Viviane blinked. “You--you’re asking me--to marry you?”

“Yes,” said Mansemat with a nod. “That’s the short of it.” He gave her a hopeful, furtive glance. “I--I love you. Rather--dreadfully.” He looked away. “I--I’m sorry. I had a rather more dashing way of saying this planned in my mind, but I’m afraid I can’t recall what it was, and I don’t know if I could say it if I did remember.”

Viviane nodded. “Yes, well--I… I have to think about this. All right?”

“Of course,” said Mansemat. “Take--as long as you like.” He turned away. “I--await your answer. Whatever it is.”

Viviane turned and set her mortar on the ground. She began to chant the charms and prepare it for flight--but then she stopped. “Manny?” she asked quietly, turning to look at him again.

He was heading towards the stairs, but stopped to smile at her. “Yes, Viv?”

“I’ve thought about it,” she said, taking a step towards him. “My answer is ‘yes’.” And then she hurled herself at him, and wrapped her arms around him. “I’ll marry you!”

“Viv, I…” began Mansemat, but the combination of Viviane’s weight and the fact that they were on a very narrow wall resulted in the pair losing their footing, and beginning to fall.

“Oh, crap!” said Viviane, pulling out her pestle and summoning up enough of a wind to slow their fall. Mansemat, she noticed, had likewise drawn the Sword of Night and was using it to a similar end. She bit her lip. “Okay, I admit, that did not turn out to be quite the gesture I thought it would be.”

“I would hope not,” said Mansemat quietly.

“Well, you’re in no position to be critical,” said Viviane. “That was probably one of the worst marriage proposals the world has ever seen.”

Mansemat nodded, noting that their descent had been slowed to a very comfortable rate. “I thought so too. In my defense--it was my first try at one. And--it didn’t work out so badly.” He smiled nervously. “I mean you said ‘yes’.” Viviane raised an eyebrow. Mansemat coughed. “Well, I didn’t say it was a good defense.” He glanced down again. “You know, this is--strangely romantic, falling togeth--”

Viviane kissed him. And then Mansemat kissed her back.

Down in the courtyard, Nisrioch and Morgaine watched the two figures descend gracefully to the earth. “This is so… so romantic,” said Nisrioch, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

“You are such a wimp,” said Morgaine, who then suppressed a sniffle. Nisrioch smiled at her. “Allergies,” she explained.

“Of course,” said Nisrioch.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 9

Elaine flipped through Mimar’s epitome, and tried to lose herself in his lilting prose. It was proving difficult, she thought with a frown. No matter how hard she tried to let the sentences flow over her, her mind would distract her with… the other business.

And that was when the other business came through the door. “So how’s my special girl?” said Viviane, taking off her mantle, and shaking the snow off of it.

Elaine’s frown grew deeper. “What took you so long?”

“The birthday party dragged on a little long,” said Viviane with a cheerful shrug, checking the charms she’d place to protect her daughter, and nodding. “You really should have been there. There were Kizak tumblers!”

“Sounds thrilling,” said Elaine in a tone that suggested it did not, which she produced by quashing the voice in the back of her head that suggested that it did, in fact, sound somewhat interesting. “You know I have better things to do with my time then go watch some--little princess get fawned over at her father’s command.”

“Mansemat doesn’t have to command people to treat Malina well,” said Viviane. “They do it anyway, because she’s a sweet kid.” Elaine gave her mother a skeptical glance. “She is. You’d like her!”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Elaine. “So--how are the negotiations going?”

“They’re… progressing,” said Viviane. “At their own pace. Which is a very… progressive pace.”

Elaine nodded. “You didn’t negotiate at all today, did you?”

Viviane spread her hands. “It was his daughter’s birthday party! It would have been rude. I mean, do you think we’d like it if he started going on about negotiations at your birthday party?” She clapped the hands together eagerly. “Hey! We could invite him to…”

“No,” said Elaine firmly. She shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. “Mom--do you remember when you first went off to that… Council of Shadows? How you swore that the Cthoniques were the ones who were going to have to be careful?” She looked Viviane in the eye. “What happened?”

Viviane looked away. “I--they’re nice, Elaine. I enjoy their company.”

“Yeah, I thought you did,” said Elaine. “You’ve been visiting them constantly for the last month!” She crossed her arms. “And when you aren’t visiting, you talk about them.” Her eyes narrowed. “They’re the reason most of our family is dead!”

Viviane frowned at her daughter. “That was their father,” she said forcibly. “And if I were going to hate everyone related to people who caused the du Lacs trouble, I’d have to hate both of us. My aunts tried to kill Great-Grandmother Ygraine, remember? And my mother, and--well, they actually succeeded with a few cousins, and each other.” Viviane idly rubbed her forehead. “The thing is Elaine--it’s one thing I’ve learned. You--you just can’t dwell on hatred and revenge. It--eats you, if you do that. You fall apart from the inside. Sometimes--you have to let go. Lord Shaddad is dead. I’m alive. And that’s the end of it.”

Elaine looked away. “I’m just--I worry about you, Mom. I--I don’t know where spending all this time with the Cthoniques will go.”

Viviane was quiet for a long time. “I’m a young woman, Elaine,” she said finally. “I know I don’t seem like that to you, but--I’m twenty-six. I--need friends. I need to have fun, with people my own age. I’ve gone without that for such a long time, Elaine, and it… it wasn’t good for me. I like being able to relax.”

Elaine nodded quietly to herself. “So--do you plan on telling the people around here about--well, the fact that you’re their ruler anytime soon?”

Viviane shrugged. “Eventually. Maybe. I mean--they’re Milesians. They think the Badb eats children and poisons wells.”

“Come on, Mom,” said Elaine with a laugh. “We’ve been here for seven years. They know you don’t do that. Nothing would happen.”

Viviane stared at her a moment, and then laughed to herself. “Sorry, Elaine. You’re so mature most of the time, it’s easy to forget you’re a kid.”

Elaine gave a grateful nod, feeling that the subject was now more or less over. The fact that she and mother hadn’t really addressed the problem--and had completely ignored several other problems that lay underneath this one--failed to register.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 8

Viviane flipped through the pages of the book. The Properties of Rare Herbs was a du Lac family treasure, one that she had given up for lost. But here it was. In the Castle Terribel library. She looked at the page before her. “Saffron. The flowers make a good dye. Also a spice, if rather strong, with a flavor that is interesting.’

Admittedly not the most thrilling read. But it had family history. That made it special. Viviane closed the cover, and glanced around the library. It was strange. This was the largest collection of books she’d ever seen. It should have been--intimidating. And yet--somehow--it seemed pleasant and homey instead. She smiled to herself. She’d have to show Elaine this. She was certain her daughter would love it.

That was when she heard the noise--something like a whimper. Turning rapidly, she saw several books on the shelf behind her fall from their place, followed by the appearance of a young female Dev rapidly flapping her wings in a desperate, futile effort to stay afloat. As the girl landed with a yelp, Viviane got out of her chair and looked at her in what she hoped was a pleasant manner. “Hello there.”

“Hello,” said the girl shyly, fiddling nervously with one of her tiny horns, and looking away from Viviane.

“You’re Malina, aren’t you?” Viviane asked gently.

“Yes,” said the Dev quietly. She then looked up pleadingly at Viviane, her big red eyes wide. “Please don’t be angry, Badb. I know I’m not s’posed to be here! I just--I hearded you were here, and I wanted to take a look at you, and--” She gulped. “Don’t be mad.”

Viviane laughed. “I’m not.”

“Really?” said Malina, her lip trembling.

“Yes, really,” said Viviane cheerfully, leaning forward to look Malina in the eye. “And call me ‘Viviane’.”

The young Dev smiled. “Oh. Okay. Has Daddy brought you here to be my new mommy, Viviviane?”

Viviane blinked. “What…?”

“It’s just Auntie Morgaine said…” began Malina.

“Yeah, I can guess,” said Viviane. “Your aunt has a big mouth, you know that?”

“Yes,” said Malina with a nod. “And a very loud voice. And she’s a tribble.” Malina glanced around confidentially, then whispered, “That means she likes women, Viviviane.”

“I know,” said Viviane. “Though it’s a bit rude to talk about it behind her back.”

“Oh,” said Malina. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Viviane replied. “But--to answer your question--no, I’m not here to become your new mommy. Okay?”

Malina gave a relieved nod. “Oh, yes.”

Viviane raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you--want a new mommy?”

Malina looked around the room nervously. “Well… Daddy would pick her. And he picked my old mommy. My mom. And…” The Dev bit her lip. “She really wasn’t a very good mommy. At all.” She sniffled slightly. “How… how can I be sure… the next mommy he picks will be better?”

Viviane frowned for a moment, and then patted Malina on the head. “I’m sure, if he ever does decide to--get you a new one, your daddy will do his very best to make sure that your new mommy is good at her job.” She smiled. “He’s a good man, and he loves you very, very much.”

Malina gave a hopeful little smile. “You really think so?”

Viviane nodded emphatically. “Positive. Also--it‘s ‘Viviane’. Not--‘Viviviane’.”

Malina nodded back at her. “Got it. Vidiane.”

Viviane bit her lip. “Viviane.”

Malina gave another nod. “Viviade.”

“Just--call me ‘Viv’,” said Viviane with a sigh.

“Viv,” said Malina. “Yes. Yes. ‘Viv’. I’ll call you ‘Viv’.” She and Viviane looked each other in the eye for a moment, and then Malina broke the silence. “Do you want to see a place that has lots and lots of spiders?”

“There you are, Flibbertigibbet!” said Mansemat, as he entered the library, a short Erl chambermaid by his side, while Viviane tried to think of a good reply to Malina’s comment.

“Ooooh, Miss Malina,” said the chambermaid. “Can’t you ever stay put?”

Malina glanced at the floor. “Sorry Yurdicey.”

The chambermaid sighed. “Eurydice.”

Mansemat gave his daughter an amused smile. “You really should get to bed, dear. You’re five years old, and you need your rest.”

“I’m almost SIX!” said Malina with a stamp of her feet.

“That’s still five,” said Mansemat quietly. “Now, come on. Why don’t you go with young le Fidèle to your bedroom?”

“Okay, Daddy,” said Malina with a nod, shutting her eyes, a look of intense concentration coming over her face.

“The traditional way,” said Mansemat.

“Awww, Daddy!” whined Malina. “That takes longerer. And it’s sooooo boring!”

Mansemat crossed his arms. “But it lets us keep track of you.” He took a deep breath, and then suddenly, as if he could simply no longer maintain such a stern front, kneeled and kissed his daughter on the forehead. “You know I only ask you to do things like this because I want you to be safe and well, my little Flibbertigibbet. Understand?”

Malina gave a long sigh. “Okay.” As she trudged along after Eurydice, Malina suddenly paused, and turned to regard her father. “Oh, and if you do decide to make Viv my new mommy--I don’t think I’d mind. She seems nice. She smiles like Granmama Shamhat.” She gestured to the family portrait that hung on the wall. “In the picture! See?”

Mansemat winced slightly as Malina walked away with Eurydice, then glanced at Viviane. “Sorry about that. She’s--a bit presumptuous at times.”

“It’s okay,” said Viviane with a giggle. “She’s a sweet kid.” A frown came over her face. “Who really doesn’t seem to… like her mother.”

Mansemat nodded quietly. “It takes a lot of effort on a mother’s part to make her child fear and hate her--but Falerina was willing to make that effort.” He shook his head. “My ex-wife was a deeply troubled woman, Viviane, who made both my life and the life of our daughter very difficult. And that is why we are no longer married. And why Falerina has been exiled to the Shadow Woods.”

“I thought it was… the murder attempts,” said Viviane.

“That was a manifestation of the unpleasantness,” said Mansemat. “And--really, they were all very badly done. Honestly the way she treated Malina worried me more.”

Viviane looked at him. “Did you… love her?”

Mansemat Cthonique shut his eyes. “No, I did not. And that is my crime in the whole affair.” He shook his head. “It was a political marriage. Her father assured me that--love would come with time. It didn’t. Couldn’t really.” He looked at Viviane, frowning slightly. “I--told myself I was doing my duty by her. But that’s the path to a hundred crimes, when you get down to it.”

“I’m sorry.” Viviane glanced at the family portrait Malina had pointed at--one that showed the Cthoniques as children and their mother, with not a sign of Lord Shaddad. “Your mother left a big impression on you, didn’t she?”

Mansemat smiled sadly. “For the little time we had her. She died when I was eight.” He shook his head. “Too good for this world, Nisrioch likes to say. She--practically adopted him, you know. I think he took it harder than any of us. Quietly though. That’s his way.” Viviane gave Mansemat a skeptical glance. The Dark Lord chuckled and shook his head. “Believe it or not, Viv, he’s a very sensitive man under his gadfly exterior.” He glanced around the room. “This library--his idea. He’s the reason Father simply didn’t burn any books he came across.”

Viviane nodded. “Well, I’ll thank him the next time I see him.” She flipped through the book in front of her. “Really, this is excellent. It actually looks--cleaner than I remember.”

“He insists on the best care,” said Mansemat with a shrug.

“It shows,” said Viviane with a smile. She shut her eyes. “This is a lovely room. Actually, this is a lovely place. Castle Terribel, I mean.”

“Thank you. We try very hard to make it so,” said Mansemat.

Viviane fiddled idly with the book before her. “And it shows. I… like it here.”

Mansemat bowed. “Then come whenever you desire,” he declared, with the slightest of smiles.

“I will,” said Viviane, regarding him fondly.

“Good,” said Mansemat with an nod, beginning to head out of the room. He frowned and turned towards her. “Though it would be a nice touch if you tried to call before you came, mind you. And you might want to avoid coming next week. Nisrioch and Morgaine are hosting a symposium of erotic woodcut collectors.”

Viviane stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I’ll steer clear of that.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “What do…?”

“I have planned an expedition with my daughter to Marsilion’s Folly,” said Mansemat. “I’ll get some business done, we’ll take in a play--and then we’ll go to the menagerie.” He smiled. “She likes the seals. Especially Thecla. She’s a trained white seal who does tricks! Malina likes to feed her herrings.” Viviane smiled at him. Mansemat coughed. “And I also like to feed her herrings. On occasion.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 7

Viviane shook her head as she walked out of the Council meeting. “That was the most incredibly dull thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said to Mansemat.

Her fellow Dark Lord nodded. “Yes, well--they do get better.”

“Really?” she asked in surprise.

Mansemat sighed and glanced at his feet. “No, not really. But you get better at tuning them out except when something interesting is happening.” He looked at her. “And you discover how to look as if you’re paying attention when you’re not.” He suddenly stood up straight, frowned, and narrowed his eyes, seeming to be intent on something--and just as suddenly fell back into his previous pleasant and mild expression. “I can turn it on and off, just like that,” he stated, with a snap of his fingers.

Viviane nodded. “Well, I definitely know who to come to for tips on the subject.” She glanced away. “I’m guessing I’m going to be coming to lots of these in the future.”

“Did I hear someone saying something about attending meetings in the future?” said Nisrioch Cthonique cheerfully, sliding around the corner. He giggled and clapped his hands together. “I see you’ve been bitten by the legislative bug.” He glanced at Viviane hopefully. “Tomorrow night--we’re doing water rights!” He gave a fond shake of his head. “It promises to be thrilling. Thrilling, I say!”

Mansemat chuckled ruefully. “My brother can summon arcane forces from the Far Spheres. And he finds going over treaties with upwards of seventy subclauses--thrilling.”

“Well, good legal work is so wonderfully intricate,” said Nisrioch. “Whereas arcane forces from the Far Spheres--well, you spend twelve hours summoning the damn things, and the only thing they generally care about is ‘Can I eat this?’” The wizard sighed. “It is such a dull way to spend your time, really.”

Viviane stared at the white-haired Dark Lord. She was having a hard time figuring out which of the Cthoniques had proven most surprising. But Nisrioch was at the moment leading the pack.

“Hey, guys, did you see that?” announced Morgaine. “Skadi looked at me!” The diminutive Dark Lord made a punching motion. “I told you I was making progress!”

By a hair, mind you. But definitely leading.

“Of course you are, Morgaine,” said Mansemat with a sigh.

“Well, can’t stay to chat,” announced Morgaine. “I’ve got an appointment with a ladder and a window!” She gave her brothers a wink and dashed off.

Mansemat shook his head. “That is not going to end well,” he noted, rubbing his forehead worriedly.

Nisrioch shrugged. “Yes. But it will not end well in an extremely amusing fashion. Much like Asterot’s demand that Madame du Lac provide proof that she was the Badb.”

Mansemat glanced at his brother. “You consider something that starts a fire--amusing, Nissy?”

“It was only a small fire,” said Viviane defensively. “And he was a real jerk.”

“Exactly,” said Nisrioch. “Oh, I’m a little disappointed to see fine Albraccan brandy wasted like that, but less disturbed than I am at seeing it being wasted by having Asterot drinking it.” He grinned. “In the end, it was exactly the sort of thing the Council was created for--bringing us all together, so that we may come to appreciate each other.”

Somehow, the awful difference between the Nisrioch she’d imagined for over a decade and the Nisrioch before her became too much for Viviane at that moment. “Wish you’d thought that when you crossed paths with my mother.”

Nisrioch’s face fell. He was silent for a moment. “Yes, well… dark times.” He bit his lip. “Dark times.” And then he walked away.

Mansemat stared at her. “What do you… know about that?”

Viviane frowned. “Only the essentials. That Nisrioch helped kill my mother.”

“The Sworn killed your mother,” said Mansemat. “Nisrioch tried to save her.” As she looked at him, Mansemat turned away. “They--captured her. Tortured her with binding spells. Nisrioch stopped them and helped her escape. Father was furious.” He shook his head. “Of course, the final rupture between the two was… well on the way, by that point…”

“How--how do you know this…?” began Viviane.

“I was there,” said Mansemat. He gulped slightly. “My father… thought he could make me into someone like him, if he tried hard enough. Learn how to enjoy subjugating my foes, and the like. He failed, Darksome Lady be praised. I remain my mother‘s son.”

“And--my--” Viviane took a deep breath. “She--had my sister with her when she went off. Do you know…?”

Mansemat shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t. Your mother was brought to our camp alone. That’s all I know.”

Viviane didn’t know what to say to that, and Mansemat didn’t seem to wish to say anything else, and so they were silent for a moment. Finally, Viviane spoke. “I should probably apologize to Nisrioch.”

Mansemat nodded, as they headed down the hallway Nisrioch had disappeared into. “He’d appreciate it. I know my half-brother seems odd, but he needs sympathy as much any person does--and he’ll never admit it but these things are as frustrating for him as anyone else.” He shook his head. “Personally, the sooner I’m back home with Malina, the better…” He glanced apologetically at Viviane. “Malina’s my daughter…”

Viviane nodded as the pair reached a courtyard. “Ahh. Yeah. Same boat, really. I’m hoping this doesn’t last too long. I’ve sent Elaine over to a friend’s…” She coughed. “My daughter. Named after my mother…” Viviane was spared having to turn this into a full conversation by the discovery of Nisrioch, with his arms around a figure that Viviane was startled to recognize as Alcina Ashurana.

Mansemat coughed politely, causing the pair to separate and wheel around. “Ah, Manny! Madame du Lac.” Nisrioch nodded. “Alse and I were…”

“I had something in my eye,” stated Alcina.

“Yes, and I was getting it out,” said Nisrioch. “Of her eye.”

“He’s very helpful with things of that nature,” said Alcina.

“Among other things,” added Nisrioch.

“Such as--astronomy,” murmured Alcina with a slight smile. “You know I need some help finding some constellations, Nissy…”

“The Charioteer, perhaps? Or the Roaring Lion?” said Nisrioch hopefully.

“I was thinking more--the Dancing Maidens. Perhaps even--the Fiery Tower…” replied Alcina.

Nisrioch’s eyes lit up. “Oh, my. Those are… intricate ones,” he said, rubbing his hands together eagerly.

Alcina leaned forward. “Exceedingly… intricate.” She arched an eyebrow. “I trust you can assist me.” She gestured towards a nearby tower. “I’ll be on the roof of Mad King’s Tower.” With a sudden pop, she vanished.

As she stared at Nisrioch, Viviane wondered if she should ask for some--explanation of that conversation. And then decided against it. “Umm--I just--want to--apologize for what I said earlier. I really--didn’t know the situation.” She frowned and shut her eyes. “And I thought I did for the last fifteen years…” She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “I--thank you for helping her.”

“You’ve nothing to thank me for,” said Nisrioch quietly. “I did far less than I should.” He shook his head. “I--should have stopped it all earlier. But I kept hoping Shaddad’s--better nature would come through.” A sad smile came to his face. “Foolish, of course, but--he was my father, and boy will have his illusions. That’s the story of my life, I fear. Too little done too late for most of it.” He sighed, and then turned. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an astronomy lesson to give to Madame Ashurana.” Nisrioch paused for a moment. “You know it occurs to me--matters between the Marsh and the Plains are so entangled, it will take some time to come to come to a reasonable settlement. Why don’t you come around to Castle Terribel some time after the Council, and we can iron things out? It will allow us to do it in a peaceful place, at our own pace, without any distractions.” His usual cheerful grin returned to his face. “And we’d probably enjoy the company. Most of the pleasant Dark Lords are a ways a way. As an example, our closest neighbor besides you is Asterot Maganza.”

Viviane glanced at Mansemat. “Well, if it’s all right with your brother. I mean it’s--his castle. And technically, he’s the head of your family, isn’t he?”

“Of course it’s all right. I tend to listen to my brother’s advice in these matters,” said Mansemat with a gentle smile. “He makes very sure of that.”

“Well then, it’s settled,” said Nisrioch firmly. “Now, adieu. I really MUST be off. Alcina does not like to be left waiting when we have an astronomy lesson planned.” He took a pinwheel from his sleeve, and blew on it. Within seconds, he floated up towards the roof.

Viviane watched him vanish. “So--how long have he and Alcina…?”

“About a decade and a half now,” said Mansemat. “It’s an on-again, off-again matter.”

“Hmmm,” said Viviane with a nod. “The way they were fighting back in the Council, I’d have thought they hated each other.”

“They do,” said Mansemat. “But they also love each other. It makes for a very… interesting relationship.”

“And what do you think about her?” asked Viviane.

Mansemat shrugged. “She’s preferable to her sister.” He turned towards Viviane. “Falerina. She was… I was married to her.”

Viviane gave an understanding nod. “Ahh. Malina’s mother…?”

“Yep,” said Mansemat quietly. “It…” He sighed. “Our relationship--did not end well. Or begin well. And the middle wasn’t particularly pleasant either. Frankly the only good thing to come out of it was my daughter.” He gave a sad smile. “Marriage is a complicated thing, isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t know,” said Viviane. “Never been married.”

Mansemat nodded. “Ahh. I’d say you were fortunate, but we both know that’s not true.” He shook his head. “And I’m told it works out for some people. I just wasn’t one of them.”

Viviane gave a bitter smile. “Sounds rather like life.” She chuckled. “It’s funny. I always thought it was just me--that I was screwing up being the Badb because I didn’t feel impressive. But we’re all like that, aren’t we? When you get down to it. Just--people. Living our lives, and trying to get by, the same as anyone.”

“Yes,” said Mansemat. “And the ones who insist they aren’t tend to be extremely unpleasant.”

It occurred to Viviane that this was an odd conversation to be having with a man she’d imagined as a mortal enemy prior to meeting him. And then it occurred to her that it was rather odd that she and Mansemat both seemed to be stressing to each other that they were unattached.

At that moment, something slammed into the ground with a scream. Mansemat rushed forward. “Morgaine? Are you all right?”

“Yep, yep,” muttered the dazed undead Dark Lord, as she lay on the ground. “Fortunately, my spine absorbed most of the shock of the fall.” Morgaine blinked. “Ow.”

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 6

Viviane du Lac touched down on the ramparts of the Palace of Shadows in the early hours of the evening. The Frimaire weather this year was quite mild--even so, she’d had to pass through several snowstorms on the way here. Shaking the snowflakes off her mantle, she glanced around the rather ornate spires of the Palace, and shook her head. The Palace had rather clearly been chosen for prestige rather than comfort, or ease of navigation, a fact that she couldn’t help noticing as she tried to decide which of the five identical pathways to head down, once she shrunk down her mortar.

At that point a voice helped her by giving her a sense of direction. “Awww, eees widdle Swiftcwaw frightened? Awww, ooogie-oo! Aww, oogie-oo!”

Not intentionally, of course, but hearing that--whatever it was--gave her an idea which way to head. And so after, ten minutes of winding her way towards the noise, she found herself--at another section of the ramparts. Among several large beasts that Viviane guessed were gryphons, purring contentedly as they chewed some bones, and a solitary male Erl in the livery of House Cthonique, who kneeled in front of them and scratched their heads affectionately. “Yesh, Mowasses! Youse ees my pwecious tooo!”

Viviane coughed. The Erl glanced to the side, with a strange expression of embarrassment, and ran a pale hand through his long, jet-black hair. “Ahh. Hello,” he noted in a far more dignified voice then the one he addressed his animals with.

Viviane nodded. “Hello.”

The Erl coughed, and stood up. “I… May I… assist you in anyway?”

“My goodness,” said Viviane, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “You’re a tall drink of water, aren’t you?”

The Erl glanced away. “You should see my older brother.” He straightened, and gave a polite half-bow. “The… Badb, I presume? This is an honor.”

Viviane was about to ask how he presumed that, but then she realized she still held her pestle and mortar in her hands. “Umm, yes.” She nodded. “That’s me. Viviane du Lac. The Badb. Queen of the Old Magic. Yep.” The Erl nodded at her. She nodded back. It occurred to her that this was a rather limited form of communication. “Umm, so--you--work for House Cthonique? Tending their animals? And stuff?”

The Erl placed a hand on his chin. “That WOULD be one way of putting it, yes.” He nodded.

Viviane nodded back, then coughed awkwardly. “Sooo… would you know where… Lord Cthonique might be?”

“Ummm--which one do you mean?” said the Erl looking around nervously. “Lord Nisrioch is with the rest of the Nine, at the moment…”

A frown came to Viviane’s face. Nisrioch Cthonique. Now there was a name she remembered. “Yeah,” she said quietly “That sounds about right.”

“I’ll take you right to him,” said the Erl, heading towards a pathway and gesturing for her to follow. Viviane fell into step beside him. “You know,” he noted, “you’re not at all what I expected you to be.”

Viviane sighed. “My apologies if I disappoint.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” noted the Erl with a slight smile. “You are simply--not how I pictured the Badb in my mind.”

Viviane threw him a rather critical glance. “And how was that?”

“More--fearsome, less--pleasant,” said the Erl, quietly.

Viviane thought it over and then chuckled. “I guess that’s a compliment.”

“It was meant as one,” noted the Erl. “I’m just not very good at them.”

Viviane nodded. “It shows.”

She was about to say something when a loud voice shouted, “THERE you are!” A female Erl walked forward from a large arch, wearing a blood-red dress, a necklace of bones, and a helmet depicting a clawed hand holding a heart. She would have been quite intimidating, if she were more than four ells tall. In what Viviane quickly realized were platform heels. The strangely-clad figure glanced at the male Erl. “Honestly, Manny--I don’t know how you can do this! You’re holding up EVERYONE!” She glanced around with a frown. “Well, you and the damned Badb, assuming she even decides to show…”

‘Manny’ coughed. “Morgaine, may I present Viviane du Lac, the Badb.”

Morgaine looked at Viviane a moment, then nodded. “Right.” She shoved her hand forward, pressing it into Viviane’s. “Morgaine Sans Coeur, Undying Mistress of the Netherworld. I can get away with putting my foot in my mouth like that, because I’m awesome.” She glanced Viviane in the eye while giving her hand a shake. “I’m the sister, if you’re wondering.”

Viviane blinked and tried to decipher that, as the tallest Erl she’d ever seen (whose shock of white hair made him look even taller) appeared in the doorway. “Now, what’s this I hear?” he declared in a cheerful voice, glancing around with his eerie, rainbow-hued eyes. “Has the prodigal Dark Lord returned to us?” He stepped forward with a swish of his grey robes and grasped ‘Manny’ by the shoulders. “Ahh, mon frere! So good to see you again! I’d given you up for lost! But once more--once more you are among us!”

‘Manny’ frowned. “It’s been twenty-five minutes, Nissy.”

The white-haired Erl glanced at Viviane. “And you have brought a friend! The Badb I presume?” He bowed. “Nisrioch Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste, at your service.” Viviane started. “I hope my younger brother has been treating you well.”

Viviane turned to glance at Manny--no, it had to be--Mansemat Cthonique?--and gulped. She noted the sword on his side, and wondered how she’d--missed it. “He’s been--interesting…”

Nisrioch clapped his hands together and laughed cheerfully. “Oh, delightful! You’ve made this a splendiferous occasion! Splendiferous I say! Come with me! The rest of the Nine are dying to meet you! Especially the ones who insist that we’ve been making you up!”

As she walked after Nisrioch Cthonique, Viviane glanced at Mansemat. “How come you didn’t tell me…?” she whispered.

“I didn’t want to embarrass you,” he replied.

“And this is not embarrassing?” she seethed.

“Well, I didn’t say it was an especially good idea,” acknowledged Mansemat. “But on the plus side, I’m sharing in your embarrassment.”

Viviane sighed. Well, he had a point.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 5

“Is there a bookkeeper stall you won’t raid, Elaine?” said Rosalind Miller. “I mean--you’re holding all your Samhain money in your hands right now.”

“A good epitome of the Tapestry of History is priceless,” said Elaine positively.

“I’d say it has a price,” said Celia Miller. “Ten silver marks. What you paid for it.”

Viviane smiled to herself as she planted her bulbs in the garden. The frosts would be coming soon, which meant she had to get them in the ground while she could, even if it meant missing Ulverrun’s famous Harvest Festival. She was getting used to Ulverrun. Working with her garden, listening to her daughter talk with her friends--she was putting down roots here. And she didn’t mind that. Oh, it wasn’t as pleasant as her life could have been, and it wasn’t quite the place she would have liked to have been--she had only head down to the Ulver and look across the water to see that. But--it was home. And that was enough.

“Don’t you own--two of those already?” noted Rosalind as the girls came into sight.

“I own three different epitomes of the Tapestry,” said Elaine. “But this is the Mimir version! The best! He manages to condense over seven thousand pages into a mere five hundred, while keeping the narrative thrust!”

The Miller sisters stared at her. “And this is worth ten silver marks?” asked Celia.

Elaine stared at her friends, her eyes narrowed. “To the right person, yes.”

Viviane glanced up at her daughter and her friends. “Enjoying yourself, dear?”

Elaine smiled nervously, and raised the codex she carried in her arms. “Got a new book.”

Viviane chuckled. “Another one? We’ve barely got room for your library as it is!”

“But, Mom! This is essential reading!” said Elaine pointing to the book. “You can’t tell me you don’t want me to know about my people!”

Viviane shot her daughter an amused look. “My goodness. This sounds suspiciously like the reason you insisted on hearing the tale of Luned the Bringer of Woe every night for a month when you were eight.”

“Mom!” Elaine looked away, and then glanced rather hopefully at her mother. “You know--if you got a bigger house, we would have plenty of room for my books. And I could sleep in my own room.”

Viviane was about to comment on that when a horse loudly whinnied. “Easy, Tachebrun,” came a calm voice. It belonged to an older Erl man, dressed in black and gold, with a holly leaf badge on his heart. He smiled at the group. “Pardon me. Is this the home of Mistress Viviane, the local witch?”

Viviane and Elaine stared at the man quietly, while Rosalind nodded. “That’s her right there,” said the Milesian girl, gesturing at Viviane.

Elaine tried to suppress a dirty look, as the Erl dismounted. “Excellent.” He drew a long green branch that had been strapped to his saddle, and glanced at Viviane significantly. “I have business to discuss with her.”

Viviane smiled at the Millers, as the Erl tied his horse to the fence. “You should probably get going. This is a… private affair.” The Milesians nodded and headed off.

The Erl looked over at Elaine. “And you, Miss…?”

“Elaine du Lac,” she said forcibly, once she was sure the Millers were out of earshot. “I’m the Badb’s daughter.”

The Erl gave a nod, smiling slightly. “Always a pleasure to see family looking out for each other.” He glanced at Viviane. “And a reminder that… things endure.” He bowed. “Breus le Fidèle, Seneschal to House Cthonique and Chief Steward of Castle Terribel, at your service.”

“No,” said Viviane with a frown. “At the Cthoniques’. And don’t try and pretend that’s the same thing. We know it isn’t.” She sighed. “I always knew this day would come…”

Breus raised the branch. “I meet and speak with you under the auspices of the green branch of peace, Badb. I trust you to honor what it symbolizes.”

“I haven’t killed you yet,” said Viviane. “Consider it a sign.” She gestured towards her hut. “Well, come into my humble abode. I apologize if it isn’t up to the lofty standards of a Seneschal and Chief Steward…”

Breus walked into her home, glancing around. “It will do fine, Badb. I accept what hospitality I’m offered.” He glanced at Elaine. “Must say I’m pleased to see there’s a Nemain.”

Elaine winced. “Yeah. Great. Take a seat. Let’s get this over with.”

Breus sat down at the small table, and coughed. “I come to you, from the Cthoniques, to declare that they do henceforth consider all Cthonique claims to the Accursed Marsh invalid, and restore this domain to your ownership, if you so wish it.”

Viviane stared at the seneschal in shock. “You--they’re giving me back the Marsh?” Breus nodded. “But--why?”

Breus smiled. “To see justice done.” He shrugs. “My masters have little interest in trying to defend a dubious claim well into the indefinite future. It is both costly and dishonorable. Better to restore House du Lac to its lands, and try to restore the damage done.”

“Yeah, well, wish they’d thought that before putting a price on my head,” muttered Viviane bitterly.

“That was Lord Shaddad Cthonique,” said Breus quietly. “His children are running things now, and they have--a rather different outlook. For example, they cancelled that bounty. As soon as they heard of what occurred in Valse, actually.” He sighed. “Truth be told, we’ve been looking for you for--some time, but--well, you’ve done a rather good job of hiding yourself, and we’ve had other concerns…”

Viviane glanced around idly. “So--what does the Marsh being mine again mean? What happens to the garrison over in Dathan?”

“Whatever you wish,” said Breus. “House Cthonique would rather you let it stay there for the time being.”

“Ahhh,” said Viviane. “So it’s that sort of ‘giving back’. What if I say I want it out as soon as possible?”

“Then it would be done,” said Breus. “Of course, as we have been providing security to the Marsh in place of a standing army for over a decade now, you would discover all sorts of problems starting up. The Ashuranas might decide to--keep you safe. Or the Regnis. Or perhaps you would find yourselves paying host to--guests from across the River…”

Viviane sighed. “I see your point. Fine. They stay there. Until we find some better way of handling things.” She brought her hand to her forehead, and rubbed it idly. “So this is it? I’m the undisputed Dark Lord of the Marsh?”

Breus nodded. “More or less. Some sort of official recognition will have to be arranged. And we would like to clear up certain matters of the borders. Which brings me to another matter.” He looked at Viviane pointedly. “My masters have reinstituted the Council of Shadows.”

Viviane and Elaine both blinked at that. “The what now?” asked Elaine.

“The Council of Shadows. A gathering of the Nine, to discuss matters of importance in the Lands of Night to be held at the Palace of Shadows.” Breus gave a shrug. “The hope is that it will help us avoid this rather troublesome habit we’ve fallen into of having wars to settle our troubles.” The Seneschal smiled. “Your attending would convince a few--fence-sitters to finally sign up fully.” He spread his hands. “The next Council is to be held on the fifth of Frimaire.”

Viviane nodded. “Of course.” She smiled. “Consider me interested.”

Breus rose and bowed. “I shall tell them to expect you then. Adieu, Badb.”

Elaine watched him leave the hut, then glanced at her mother. “So--do you believe any of it?”

“I don’t automatically disbelieve it,” said Viviane with a shrug. “And--well, things have settled down. If they wanted to kill me--they really don‘t have much reason to hold back.” She sighed. “And I’m tired of running.”

Elaine gave a worried nod. “Okay. If you say so” She looked her mother in the eye. “Mom--be careful.”

Viviane smiled at her daughter. “Trust me, Elaine--the people you should be saying that to are House Cthonique.”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 4

Ulwen Reedraft was bringing in his lobster traps and worrying about the cloudy skies, when he saw the man signaling him from the shore. As his coracle reached the dock, he realized, to a certain mild surprise, that he didn’t recognize him. One didn’t often see strangers in Valse--but one did see them every now and then, especially since the… Late Unpleasantness. Many settled in Valse, and eventually ceased being strangers, but others didn’t, simply passing through.

As he got closer Ulwen saw that the stranger was a Plains Erl, and quite well-dressed. The first item wasn’t so unusual--in some villages in the Marsh, there were more Plains Erl than Marsh Erls--but the second was rare. There wasn’t a lot of wealth in the Marsh, and what there was wasn’t in Valse. Not any more, anyways. And in Ulwen’s limited experience, wealth tended to gather in places where wealth already was.

“Oy!” said the stranger, in a voice that did not suggest great--or even moderate--wealth to Ulwen. “Are you Ol’ Man Reedraft?

Ulwen frowned. Yes, he didn’t like this man, based on the impression he was getting from him. But that was no reason to be rude. That was one of the first rules of the Marsh nowadays. Be polite to Plains Erls who seemed to come from foreign parts. The Marsh was more or less theirs now. And they knew it. “So some call me, your honor, so some call me. But my fontal name is Ulwen, it please you, sir.”

The stranger gave a dull nod, as if to indicate that such matters as proper names were of course important to backwards country folk. “Tithonos Greengrass,” explained the stranger. “Merchant in Perelion. I’ve ‘eard you do some work in the lobster trade.”

Ulwen placed his trap on the dock. “You’ve heard correctly, sir.”

Tithonos nodded sharply, and with a strange emphasis. “Excellent. My firm is interested in gettin’ its foot in the trade.” He yawned. “A bit of diversingfication. Broadenin’ our interests, an’ such.”

Ulwen nodded. “Of course,” he declared pleasantly, not believing a word.

“Dis ‘im?” came a heavy voice with an even cruder accent. Glancing over Tithonos’, Ulwen saw its owner, a tall, muscular Erl whose thickset body made Ulwen suspect he had a pinch of Ogre in him.

Tithonos gave another of his odd nods. “It is.” He glanced at Ulwen again. “My partner. Kyrus Maulstrike.”

“A pleasure,“ said Ulwen, forcing a smile. Kyrus scowled and glanced away. Well, that settled it. These men were no more merchants than he was. Smugglers, he suspected. Probably with a pressing need to find a man with a small boat, and a smaller amount of money on hand. Normally, Ulwen would have sent them packing, but money was short. He figured he’d at least listen to their offer, to judge if it might be a good one. He suspected it wasn’t, however--Messrs. Greengrass and Maulstrike did not inspire confidence as fair dealers.

Tithonos clapped his hands together. “Excellent. Every one knows each other now. Let’s go get a drink, an’ discuss further entanglements. Eh?”

Ulwen nodded, and the three men strolled away from Valse Harbor. As they reached the village green, where ivy grew thick on the walls, Ector Fenswater and his sons, Oliband and young Sacripant walked by. “Hello, Ulwen!” said Ector, bidding his sons to wave at Ulwen.

“Hello, Ector,” replied Ulwen. “Taking the lads out, eh?”

“The fish don’t catch themselves,” replied Ector with a grin, as his sons stared at Ulwen’s strange companions. “And the season only lasts a few weeks more.”

Ulwen nodded. “Well--be careful now. Don’t be caught in a downpour.”

Ector laughed. “I’ll try.” He tugged the boys away and headed down to their boat.

Tithonos glanced at Ulwen. “Well known ‘round here, Mister Reedraft?”

Ulwen shrugged. “Lived here the whole of my life, so I better be.”

Tithonos laughed. “Ah. Yes. Well put. Very well put. So I’m supposin’ you would know just ‘bout everyone in town, right?”

Ulwen’s eyes narrowed. “You’d be supposing right. But why might you ask?”

Tithonos turned around with such speed that Ulwen was startled despite himself. “Why, simplicity sir! Utter simplicity! Indeed you’d be ‘ard-pressured to encounter such a shining examplifier of simplicitude in all your long years! I wish to be sure that anyone my firm goes into business with is a well-connected personage in their communal niche!”

Ulwen frowned as he tried to work that out, and decided that Tithonos probably didn’t know exactly what it meant himself. And then he saw something that dispelled his dark mood, no matter how much he tried to keep it. “Hello, Mistress Viv!” He chuckled. “And Mistress Elaine! Why, aren’t you growing into a fine young lady?”

The young child smiled bashfully, while her young mother laughed cheerfully. “Well thank you, Mister Reedraft,” said Viviane with a grin. She tossled her daughter’s fair blonde hair. “Wasn’t that nice of him, Elaine?” Elaine nodded, and then glanced at her feet. Ulwen chuckled to himself. He couldn’t help it. Viviane and her little daughter were the sort of people it made you happy to look at. He’d been fond of them since the time they’d arrived in town four years ago and took up residence with Mistress Meg Mowton, the town witch.

Viviane glanced up at Tithonos and Kyrus, her expression wary. “So--who are your… acquaintances, if I may ask?”

Tithonos swiftly stepped forward. “A pair of ‘umble merchants, yer ladyship, with an interest in the lobster trade, which this fine town seems likely to give us countless inroads to build upon and ways and means upon which to build them…” He glanced at Kyrus who nodded. Suddenly, Tithonos darted forward and grabbed Elaine while Kyrus pushed Ulwen to the ground and then took a swipe at Viviane.

The woman moved with startling speed, and then to Ulwen’s amazement, easily shoved the large man away, sending him sprawling on the ground. By the time Kyrus had recovered, Viviane was holding a pestle that she raised on high. A bolt of lightning fell from the heavens, striking the pestle. Viviane lowered it and let loose the bolt on the rising, snarling form of Maulstrike, who briefly howled in pain, before the flames he was covered in blazed so hot as to incinerate him. Viviane watched her assailant perish with a look that mixed anger and satisfaction, before turning to regard Tithonos.

The smaller Erl stood there with a knife held to Elaine’s throat. He clicked his tongue regretfully. “Kyrus never was too bright,” he noted. “Always trusted in ‘is strength an’ those cheap counter-charms ‘e bought off hedge wizards. Only kept ‘im around ‘cause ‘e ‘ad a nose for magic. Very ‘andy for tracking witches, but other than that no great loss.” He gave an appreciative whistle. “‘ave to admit, ‘ad no idea just what we were facing. You ‘ear stories of the Badb, but--well, they’re just stories, really.” He chuckled nervously, and bit his lip. “Now--as I said, Kyrus was stupid, but I’m not. Just let me get away, an’ I won’t slit your little girl’s throat.” He gave a rather self-satisfied smile. “‘ave to admit, she was a pleasant surprise.” Elaine whimpered. “‘ush now, child. Your mother an’ I are having a bit of conversational.”

Viviane stared coldly at the man, leveling her pestle at him. “You see what I can do--and you threaten my daughter--to my face…”

Tithonos gave one of his strange emphatic nods. “Well, yes. Because if you can’t kill me without ‘itting the girl.” He chuckled. “Just let me go. I’m not worth the killing. You’ll never see me again.”

Viviane’s eyes narrowed. “No, of course not. You won’t just go to the Cthoniques, tell them where I am and try to get a reward that way. Nope. Would never occur to you.” A slight smile came to her face. “Oh, well. Doesn’t matter. You see--you made one simple mistake…” And that was when the ivy swiftly wrapped around Tithonos’ hand, crushing it. The knife fell as he gave a shout, and Elaine broke free and rushed to her mother’s side. Viviane stared at Tithonos coldly, as the ivy wrapped further, and further around him. “You assumed I’d have to aim.”

“Mommy,” said Elaine nervously, burying her head in her mother’s skirt.

“It’s okay, Elaine,” said Viviane, as Tithonos’ body was covered by the ivy. “The bad men aren’t going to hurt you anymore.”

Ulwen stared at the pair in shock. “B-Badb?” He came slowly to his feet--and then bowed. “Oh, gracious lady--it--it is you…! You--you’re not dead…”

Viviane favored the old fisherman with a smile. “Not yet.” She took a deep breath. “House du Lac continues. The line--will endure. But--I have to leave here. Now.” She bit her lip. “Tell--tell Meg thank you for me. I wish I could tell her myself, but…”

Ulwen nodded. “Of course, Badb. I… I’m sorry… I wish I could have… done more…”

“You were always kind to me and my daughter,” said Viviane. “I’ll--remember that.” She looked at Ulwen with a smile. “This will end, Ulwen Reedraft. The Accursed Marsh will be free again.” She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Remember me.” And then she was gone, carrying Elaine away with her.

Ulwen touched his cheek fondly, and then went back to his hut. As he did so, he realized that Viviane had worked a greater spell than the ones she’d used to kill Kyrus and Tithonos. Somehow--she’d made the Accursed Marsh a land again. To him at least

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 3

Viviane huddled beneath the tree. It was a cold, windy night, and her cloak was not as warm as she’d imagined it would be. She was doing her best to be a pile of sticks, which involved sitting very still and thinking stick thoughts, which were very, very dull. Viviane kept at it however, because her mother had told her to, very seriously, and because Lord Cthonique’s troops were in the region, looting, killing, and causing trouble, and if they found her, they would kill her, likely after a bit of torture. And so Viviane kept sitting under her tree, and thinking stick thoughts. She was the Nemain now, and her family and the Accursed Marsh were counting on her.

These exceedingly dull stick thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something crashing into a nearby tree. “Viviane,” came Elaine Blanchebras’ voice sounding pained and unsteady. “Viviane? Where are you?”

Viviane gritted her teeth, and kept quiet. Her mother had warned her that Shaddad’s sorcerers might use the old ‘vampire trick’ on her, imitating her voice to draw Viviane out of hiding. “Viviane. My Nemain. By oak, ash and the thorn bush.” Viviane took a great relieved breath. It was her mother. Standing up, Viviane walked out towards her mother’s voice.

She found Elaine Blanchebras leaning against a tree, holding her mortar and pestle tightly in her delicate white hands. Her mother was breathing heavily. “Vi--Viviane…? Why… why didn’t you come…?”

“You told me not to,” said Viviane gently.

Elaine Blanchebras gulped and nodded several times. “I… yes. I did. That was… good of you, Viviane…” She nodded again, her eyes glazing over. “You’re a good daughter. I’m very proud of you.”

Viviane looked around anxiously. “Where… where’s Gigi?”

Her mother was silent for a moment, her expression mournful. “Gigi… Gigi is… Don’t worry about…” And then she began to cough blood.

Viviane had seen a player in the part of Bellicent cough blood during the deathbed scene, and she’d done it very quietly and discreetly, making it seem tragic, yet somehow romantic. But when her mother did it, first it came out in a great, ugly gush, that drizzled down her chin, and then Elaine Blanchebras fell to the ground, coughing and wheezing with the blood forming little bubbles in her mouth, and Viviane was so horrified that she wound up stepping back as her mother writhed on the ground in agony. “Mo--Mother--what…?”

“The… Sworn…” began her mother, taking several deep gasps. “N--Nisrioch Cthonique… he…” Elaine Blanchebras began to cough again, but stood unsteadily. She pressed her mortar and pestle into her daughter’s hands. “Thou--thou art the Badb. Mother to daughter--sister to sister--blood to blood…” She leaned forward suddenly and kissed Viviane’s forehead, staining it with blood. “I love you Viviane. And I am so sorry tha…” And then she fell again.

In later years, Viviane would wish that she could say that her mother had died then. But she didn’t. She lingered in agony and delirium for hours, coughing and panting as Viviane wove charms to hide them, and realized that she could do nothing to save her mother. Sometimes, she would seem to regain consciousness and would attempt to say something--but those moments never lasted long enough for her to do that, and they happened less and less as the ordeal stretched on. Eventually, Elaine Blanchebras was cold and still.

Viviane closed her mother’s eyes, and then willed the body into the earth, then made sure that the area appeared undisturbed. And then she walked deeper into the woods, gripping the mortar and pestle tightly in hands. Her mortar and pestle now. She was the Badb. The Queen of the Old Magic. The Mistress of All Witchery. The Descendent of the Nimue. The fate of House du Lac was on her shoulders. She said a silent prayer to the Unholy Mother of Night, and hoped that she was up to it. And that she would find a warm place to rest. It was a cold, windy night, and her cloak was not as warm as she’d imagined it would be.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 2

“Come on, Gigi!” pleaded Viviane du Lac, looking at her baby sister hopefully. “Touch your nose!”

Gigi smiled cheerfully at her big sister--then grabbed Viviane’s nose. “Bibaibabali!” Gigi declared. “Pfffft!” Viviane sighed. She really shouldn’t expect much. Gigi was only just barely two, after all. Not a big girl like Viviane, who was eleven.

The two sisters were playing in the gardens of Chateau du Lac, one of their favorite pastimes. Well, it was one of Viviane’s favorite pastimes, but Gigi definitely seemed to enjoy it, and Viviane was reasonably certain that if Gigi could answer questions in an intelligible manner, she would also identify it as one of her favorite pastimes. Right after trying to eat bugs.

As Viviane tried to get her little sister to release her nose, a quiet laugh came to her ears. Turning, the young girl found herself suppressing a gulp. Her grandmother, the Badb, sat nearby, looking at her descendents. Ygraine du Lac was a stately and beautiful woman, her long grey hair done in a braid. Her eyes looked at Viviane and Gigi with a strange mixture of love and sadness. “Enjoying yourself, my dears?”

Viviane nodded eagerly, as Gigi released her nose. “Yes, Badb.” She felt an obligation to be formal and on her best behavior. Grandmother Ygraine was not a commonly seen sight in the gardens--not to Viviane’s mind. She kept to herself these days, and had ever since the affair with Viviane‘s aunts, Lyonors and Lynette. She’d been a different woman before then, one that could laugh, smile, and joke. She spent most of her time at the Dolmens now, staring at graves and sighing, a shadow of what she’d once been. At least, that was what Viviane’s mother said. To Viviane, her grandmother had always been a grand, sad presence, seldom seen and strangely intimidating, with a quiet sense of tragedy about her.

Ygraine’s eyes flickered at Viviane’s address. “Please, dear, call me ‘Grandma’.” She glanced at Gigi, who responded to her gaze by hiding behind Viviane. “Practicing being a mother, I see.”

“No,” said Viviane, patting Gigi’s head fondly. “Just a big sister.” She smiled at Gigi, who now stared up at her with big blackish-brown eyes filled with adoration. “‘Cause I’m going to be one for the rest of my life!”

Ygraine smiled fondly. “Are you really now?” she said, and then gave a laugh. “Yes, yes, I suppose you are. But one day, you’ll be a mother, as well. With a husband. A quiet man, fond of animals, children, and all things that grow…”

Viviane frowned. Her grandmother was not merely the Badb--she was a Badb of extraordinary reputation, and when she said things like that, they generally came to pass. And yet--Viviane was a du Lac, and would one day be the Nemain, and after that, hopefully, the Badb, and it seemed to her she did NOT want a husband who sounded--rather dull. And so she stiffened, and declared grandly, “That’s what you think, Grandmother. My husband shall be a Prince! The grandest Dark Lord in the Lands of Night, with the greatest Castle in the Land! All shall respect his power!” And with that she stamped her foot on the ground, hoping to get across that this was absolutely true.

The slightly amused look on Ygraine’s face suggested she may not have succeeded. “Well, if you say so, my dear, it must be so.” Her smile took on just a hint of sadness. “For you are a daughter of House du Lac, and we are a family woven into the tangled skein of fate. We are moved where we need to go. That is the price we pay for power.” Ygraine was silent for a while, then glanced at Gigi again. “And what about you, Gigi? Any thoughts to share?”

Gigi peeked shyly at her grandmother from behind Viviane. The youngest du Lac seemed about to say something when a familiar voice declared, “So there you are, Mother.” Gigi immediately went back to hiding behind her sister, as Viviane turned to look at the one woman who terrified even more than her grandmother--her mother, the Nemain, Elaine du Lac, called Elaine Blanchebras for her delicate white hands, had entered the garden from the Southern Gate. She walked forward with a sigh, moving a strand of her silky blonde hair out of her face. As she did so, her gaze fell on her daughters. She smiled at them, and leaned forward to pinch Gigi’s cheek. “Hello, my darlings.”

Gigi pulled away from her mother, and began to cling even tighter to Viviane’s leg. “Vivi! Vivi! Helf!” she whimpered.

Elaine Blanchebras raised an eyebrow. “She’s tired,” explained Viviane, picking her sister up.

“How long has she been saying…?” began her mother.

“Two weeks,” said Viviane, betraying a certain amount of pride. “She’s so clever.” Gigi nuzzled her neck, every now and then shooting a terrified glance at her mother. “But shy.”

Elaine Blanchebras nodded, and then turned back to Ygraine. “You two should probably--go elsewhere. I’ve--business to discuss with the Badb.”

Viviane turned to go, Gigi clinging tightly to her shirt, when her grandmother declared, “I don’t see why they have to go. How imp--”

“Shaddad Cthonique is invading the Frontier,” said her daughter flatly, her eyes narrowed.

“What?” said Ygraine with a start. “Im--Impossible. Not even he could be so mad…”

“Apparently, he can,” said Elaine Blanchebras. “He has.”

Ygraine frowned and gave a nod. “Yes. Yes. You two should be along.”

Viviane began to walk away, singing softly to her sister. “Golden slumbers kiss your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise…”

“I tell you, Elaine, there must be some mistake!” came their grandmother’s voice. “Lord Shaddad swore…”

“You think he cares about oaths?” said their mother, her voice bitter. “House Maganza could tell you about that. You ignored me for years on this one, and now…”

“Sleep, pretty wanton, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby,” continued Viviane. “Rock her, rock her, lullaby…”

“Bbbianbii, blu” said Gigi looking at her big sister worriedly. “Pffft.”

That brief conversation remained impressed upon Viviane for the rest of her life, because it was the last time she saw her grandmother. Ygraine du Lac died shortly after that, in the violence that engulfed the Accursed Marsh when Shaddad Cthonique and his forces streamed over the border.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 1

Viviane du Lac stood on the ramparts of Castle Terribel, and watched the snow fall. It was lovely, seeing it cover the Plains of Dread like a glittering, white blanket. As she clenched her hands together in her fur muff to keep them warm, she hoped that she would always find this so lovely. She’d seen snows before in the Marsh, but they were ugly things that clumped up in ugly mounds and grew a darkish, brownish color very quickly. Snow on the Plains was not merely different--it seemed a completely separate phenomenon. Viviane smiled and took a deep breath, enjoying the cold, fresh air.

At which point that fresh air took on a smell that was--less fresh. Viviane turned to regard her husband, Mansemat Cthonique, seated on one of his gryphons. “Riding in this weather, Manny?”

Mansemat scratched his gryphon’s feathered head. “It’s good for them. They like the brisk air.” He leaned forward. “Don’t you schweetie? Don’t you wike fwying in dis weader?” The gryphon gave a purr of contentment. “That’s wight, Bwoodwing. You wike it! Oooogie-ooogie-ooo!”

Despite herself, Viviane smiled at him. “You really love those things, don’t you?”

“They’re affectionate creatures, Viv,” said Mansemat, as Bloodwing licked his fingers. “Very social animals in the wild.” He looked at his wife hopefully. “So--care to--join me in a flight?”

“Mmmm, maybe later,” said Viviane. She leaned against the wall. “I’m--just--thinking right now.”

“Ahh.” Mansemat nodded. “Well, later then. Perhaps. If you don’t mind.” He smiled gently and then turned, flying off. And that was when Viviane heard a piercing scream.

Glancing down into the courtyard, she saw Elaine, ducking behind a tree, as Jean and Malina threw snowballs from the cover of wall of snow they’d put up. “GUYS!” Elaine howled. “This isn’t funny!”

“Of course not!” stated Jean. “It’s war! It’s deadly serious!”

“Surrenendur at once, Sis!” declared Malina.

“Never!” shouted Elaine, kneeling to gather up snow herself and forming a rather indifferent snowball, which she then launched at Jean.

Jean snickered as the snowball disintegrated before ever reaching her. “Ha! Is that your best? I scoff it! Scoff it! You have no hope against our superior forces!” And then a large mass of snow smashed into her, knocking her off her feet. Rising with a sputter, Jean looked in the direction the icy missile had come from to see Morgaine, another large mass of snow hovering in the air before her.

“I am the god of snow warfare,” declared Morgaine, “Do not beg for mercy, for I have NONE!”

There was a popping noise, and then Malina appeared behind Morgaine and launched a snowball at her aunt. Morgaine yelped, while the snow hovering in front of her smashed into the ground. “Magic in snowball fights is for cheaterpants!” shouted Malina joyously.

“Ohh, you little…” began Morgaine, only to take another snowball in the face, followed by another in the chest.

“Our little niece is right, sister,” declared Nisrioch, preparing another snowball. “There’s only one way to do a snowball fight proper--magic-free!”

“But ganging up one person is all right?” said Justinian as he packed another snowball.

“Tell me, Squire Sigma,” Nisrioch inquired pleasantly, “who terrifies you more?”

Justinian launched another snowball at Morgaine. “I’m here with you, aren’t I?”

Viviane chuckled to herself, as she watched the scene below. It’d been a year. One year since she’d met Mansemat Cthonique. One year since her life took a turn she’d not seen it going in for such a long time. One year, in a life that had taken so many strange, strange turns…

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 78

Astyanax de Tolometto sipped the small cup of liquid that he swore was tea, and frowned. “So…” he stated at length. “All for nothing.”

Porone Belltower sighed. “I’m afraid so, Friend Astyanax.”

The old man sniffled, choked back a tear, and then took a gulp of his drink. “I… loved that boy, you know, Friend Porone. As a son.” He raised a grimy hand and scratched his wild, greasy mane of hair. “My children--do not acknowledge I exist. But Friend Marcolf…” He sighed and glanced at one of the tattered, slightly decayed maps on the wall. “Ah, well. Foolish to weep. He’s finished now. Nothing I can do.”

“Not foolish,” said Porone quietly. “I wept myself, when I heard. I always admired Friend Marcolf, and his dedication to our glorious cause.” He shook his head. “To die like that…”

“Yes, yes,” said Astyanax. “So… like a Magnate. They thought they could make him betray the Necklace’s secrets, so he battered his own brains in.” A slightly off smile came to his face. “An inspiration to us all.”

It occurred to Porone that “the General’s” choice of words was rather poor. But he kept this to himself, as he rose to his feet. “I must be off, Friend Astyanax. My business you know… It eats into my time.”

“Mmm,” murmured the old man. Like many Magnates, he viewed ‘business’ as a distasteful pastime kept by individuals of poor breeding and character, who tended to treat it with unwarranted respect, and insist it held equal importance with the vital things in life, such as hunting, or keeping track of one’s genealogical tree. “Well,” declared Astyanax, after a long moment’s consideration, “you should be off then. Yes. You certainly should. Indeed.”

Porone nodded in agreement, again taking in the squalor of the old man’s apartment. “You know--Friend Astyanax--I think I will bring you--some new cups, when I arrive next week,” he announced.

“The General” grew haughty. “I am a Magnate, Friend Porone!” Astyanax proclaimed. “I need no charity!”

“Not charity,” said Porone. “Tribute! For how can the Necklace endure without our strong Second Link, the irreplaceable General, Astyanax de Tolometto?”

Astyanax smiled, despite himself. “A… yes. A… tribute. Yes. That would be… acceptable.” He nodded idly, and looked out his window--a pointless action, as said window was covered in grime. “I must say, Friend Porone for a man of low breeding you are most worthy.”

Porone bowed low. “I am honored, Friend Astyanax. Honored, and incapable of describing to you the emotion that your words fill me with.” And with that he slipped out Astyanax’s room, and breathed a great sigh of relief. Porone had much experience of the Mumblety Pegs, and he’d never thought a day would come when he be relieved to be breathing the air there. And yet anything was better than the atmosphere in Astyanax’s chambers, with its distinctive odor that combined the scents of mold, piss, cheap liquor, and failure into something new, and very unpleasant.

The slightly heavyset, newly-minted Third Link of the Necklace turned into a slightly better section of Marsilion’s Folly--but only slightly better. A huge crowd stood there before the balcony of a large hostel, as the massive figure of Corin Latheawl regaled them with a speech. Near him stood six gentlemen--some respectable-looking, others slightly wild, and yet all united by the quiet intensity with which they regarded Latheawl. “…Been called a rabble!” declared the Hand leader thunderously. “We’ve been told that we are beyond contempt! And yet the fortunes of the Caps and Hats who have ruled this city for too long--too, TOO long--were built by our labor, our sweat, and our blood. The Caps gave us the vote because they thought we’d just let them stomp us, instead of the Hats. Because none of them--not Hat, not Cap--thought we had the brains to realize we were being cheated! But we’ve always been a bit keener than they thought, haven’t we people?” The crowd gave a mighty yell. Corin gestured to the men behind him. “That’s right! And that’s why when the jars are opened, they’ll put into power the first Thing this city has seen that shall look to the interests of those who earn their bread by their own hands!”

Porone felt a vague wave of unease as he watched the crowd cheer. A young girl stepped up to him, and smiled. “Broadsheet, sir?” She raised a packet of papers, and waved them hopefully. “It has all the important news in it! Three copper marks!” Porone regarded the girl for a while. She was young, and the heavy clothes she wore were on the threshold of being ragged. She regarded the merchant with the most hopeful expression imaginable. He took the broadsheet, and handed her six copper marks. She smiled enthusiastically, and raised her fist. “Thank you, sir! Stand together! The Hands shall be the city!” As she walked away, humming to herself, Porone glanced at the broadsheet, which it appeared was called The Work of Our Hands, the image of a raised fist next to this title. “The Scandal of the Workhouse!” declared the leading article.

Shaking his head, Porone walked down the street, glancing briefly at a vegetable stand, offering the last of this year’s local squash, and some oranges transported from the fringes of the Heath. Picking up an orange, he paid the vendor, and began to peel it.

“You are late, Friend Porone,” said a soft voice he knew well.

Porone turned and bowed. “Friend Tisiphone,” he said, offering the blind woman his arm. “I was detained by… the General.”

Tisiphone smiled as she took Porone’s arm. “I see? And how is that mighty champion of the Magnates?”

Porone sighed. “I do not know whether to hate the old fool, or to pity him.”

“Indeed.” Tisiphone nodded, as they walked towards Armida’s. “You continue to rise in the Chain of Bronze, then?”

“Of course,” said Porone. “In Gold, and Silver, and Bronze, and Copper, and Lead--Agate has sent me, and I obey.” He frowned. “Though I’ve begun to wonder… why?”

“Our cause is noble,” said Tisiphone. “You know this.”

“Do I?” said Porone. “Perhaps, I did--once--but now it seems that the Necklace spends as much time warring among itself as it does trying to unseat the Pretenders. If that is what we’re trying to do.” He looked at Tisiphone gravely. “Why allow this… foolish plot to go forward? Why, knowing that it was going forward, endanger yourselves by attending the Council? And why--why kill that poor, ruined fool Marcolf?”

Tisiphone regarded Porone calmly. “The ways of the Necklace are like an intricate chain, so subtly done, that only a master craftsman can see how it is fitted together. It is not given to you to know exactly how, Friend Porone.” She smiled a very slight, very cold smile. “Simply know--Opal was rising, and now is falling, due to this failure. And that though this failure was thus… useful to Agate, there was a need to be certain… the Necklace was… protected.”

Porone gave a single nod, his frown somewhat deeper than before. “And that was what Marcolf’s death was, eh?”

Tisiphone was silent for a moment. “Tell me, Friend Porone, do you wish to leave our employ?”

The merchant gave a sharp laugh. “I’m not such a fool as that, Friend Tisiphone. This affair simply leaves me feeling… sullied. That is all.”

The blind woman was silent. “He was a very wicked person, Friend Porone. Very wicked indeed.”

“So am I,” said Porone. “So are you.” He sighed and shrugged. “I pitied that man. For all that he despised me--he was simply so… lost.”

“So am I,” said Tisiphone quietly. “So are you.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Porone. “But I--do not have to fool myself about what I am.”

The pair went on in silence, until they reached Armida’s. Then Tisiphone detached herself from the merchant. As she reached the familiar doorway, she turned and seemed to regard him. “Never forget, Friend Porone--Agate, and the true Dark Lord of the Plains appreciate all your efforts, even if they cause you doubts. Perhaps especially if they do.” Porone watched the blind hostess retreat into her social house, her bearing straight. There was a woman who never doubted or wavered. Much as Marcolf had never doubted or wavered.

Until, perhaps, he was killed.

Porone Belltower could not make such a boast. It seemed madness at times, the life he’d plunged into, a life where he answered to the likes of Tisiphone and Marcolf, all for the indirect pat on the head from people he’d never seen, and only knew by pseudonyms. Marcolf had known what he fought for. And Tisiphone had never said what it was--but she radiated such faith in her cause that he didn’t doubt that she knew, or at least thought she did. But Porone--Porone had stumbled into the world of the Necklace, and was only kept afloat by a natural talent for intrigue and treachery that had guided him in his life so far.

He took a bite of his orange. The clock tower began to chime six bells. Porone nodded to himself. Time to get home. It grew dark early as winter approached. As the bells rang, it occurred to Porone that his cousins were probably working them, as the Belltowers had done for generations, worked the bells to tell the hour ‘til they went deaf and couldn’t hear them anymore, and then kept on working them. His father had done it--until the day he slipped on a wet stair and couldn’t do it anymore--or anything else for that matter. But not Porone. No, he’d broken free of that. Made his mark on the world. A small mark, but--still a mark. Perhaps that was why he’d joined the Necklace. A desire to make his mark--bigger somehow. Porone sighed, and spat out his orange pips. He glanced at the broadsheet he purchased. The Hands--how quickly they’d spread--were offended. The city ealdermen, it seemed, had been paying a stipend to the workhouses for years for ‘maintenance and upkeep’. Most of which, instead of going into maintaining the workhouses, had gone into the pockets of the workhouse owners. Who, in the piece de resistance, happened to be either the city ealdermen or relatives thereof. ‘And so a rich race of sluggards grow fat off the public good’ declared the broadsheet, ‘while those who earn their living struggle and strive, and are told it is for their own benefit.’ A snowflake landed on the paper, and then another. Porone glanced up at the sky. The first snow of the year. In a few days, it would be Frimaire, and winter would truly begin.

Porone’s gaze lowered until it reached Castle Terribel. The Hands were another thing that worried him these days. They were so--different from the Caps and Hats. Those were just clubs, with a few agreed on tenets, who mostly competed for the Thing as a hobby. The Hands… had a philosophy. And they looked like they might gain control of the Thing--or at least a voice in it. And he had no idea what that meant. But the Cthoniques--seemed to be for it. The old Cthoniques, the rock of the Plains of Dread--stood behind a movement that was under a month old. The future was coming, and the past was helping it along the way. Porone shook his head. Perhaps this was another reason he supported the Necklace--a man needed a place to stand, when everything was changing, when every day brought another innovation. Where would it end? Where?

He pulled his clothes around himself for warmth and headed down the street, hoping to get away from the cold.