Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverun Fair?--Part 6

“Well, at least it’s easy duty,” muttered Sacripant Fenswater, as he took his seat on the Emporium’s dirigible.

“Heh,” muttered Grizzel. “His Magnificence is going to town full of Milesians, and you call it easy duty.”

“I’m from the Marsh, Grizzel,” said Sacripant quietly. “The folk there are farmers and fishers, be they Erl, Milesian, or Goblin.”

“What about Ogres?” said Hagen, clearly interested.

“First time I ever saw one of your folk was when I came here and found myself looking at your ugly face,” replied Sacripant.

Hagen gave a throaty laugh. “Guess we more particular about where we live. You Erls like fleas--find a home anywhere, long as it’s warm and there something to live off.”

Sacripant decided to take that as a compliment.

“Look,” declared Grizzel. “it doesn’t matter what they do for a living. What matters is if one of them gets it into their heads to try something…”

“Lady’s Love, Grizzel, they won’t! They’re far--” Sacripant suddenly paused, and looked down at his feet nervously.

After a moment, Grizzel coughed. “Umm, Sacripant, what’s…”

Sacripant leaned towards the Goblin, and hissed, “Quiet is looking at me again.” He gestured toward the heavily robed and veiled Ghoul sitting in the corner, idly sharpening his knife against his sword, an activity he would stop on occasion to begin sharpening his sword against his knife. The Ghoul’s inky blue eyes did appear to be fixed on Sacripant, though it was hard to be sure.

Grizzel considered the situation then shrugged. “Don’t let it bother you.”

“A Ghoul is staring at me, and you say don’t let it bother me…”

Hagen chuckled. “Only a problem if he hungry.” He grinned at Sacripant. “Why not ask him?”

Sacripant rolled his eyes. “Ask Quiet. Very funny, Hagen.”

Grizzel shook his head. “This is my crack force, my elite fighting unit…”

One of the Meisters came in from the main chamber. “I’d just like to make it clear to you all that the Emporium appreciates your…” He blinked. “As I live and breathe! Grizzel Greedigut!”

Grizzel turned and regarded the officious looking Goblin with a grin. “Coll Brainworm! Of all the places to bump into you!” He shook his head. “So you’re a Meister now.”

Coll shrugged. “The Darksome Lady’s been kind to me.” He looked at Grizzel fondly. “And you?”

Grizzel lifted the silver chain on the lapels of his uniform. “Serjeant-at-arms of the Cthonique Guard. So--I have no complaints.”

“We’ll have to have a drink later. Catch up on old times.”

“Sounds lovely,” agreed Grizzel. “Any chance me and my men can move into something more comfortable…”

“I’ll see what I can do, but the Emporium doesn’t like to risk trade secrets,” noted Coll, heading back to the main chamber.

“We’re soldiers, not savants,” replied Grizzel, as Coll left with a chuckle.

“Friend of yours?” asked Hagen.

“Companion, yes,” answered Grizzel.

Sacripant was about to say something when a knife flew by his head and buried itself in the wall. Turning, he saw a large rat had been very neatly impaled by it. He glanced over at Quiet.

Quiet gave a single nod of his head.

Sacripant shuddered slightly.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 5

“Harvest Festival! Harvest Festival! YAAAAAY!” shouted Malina at the top of her lungs.

“It’s really not that big a deal,” noted Elaine. “There’s some food--games--people selling stuff. Nothing amazing.” She shrugged. “Still it will be nice to see Ulverrun again.”

Viviane glanced up at her daughter as she placed her mortar on the ground. “Oh, you always loved Harvest Festival.” She raised her over-sized pestle in the air, and struck it against the mortar. With a crash of thunder, the mortar enlarged. Viviane smiled. “There we go.” She looked at Malina and Elaine. “Our ride is ready.”

Elaine rolled her eyes. “Oh, not the mortar, Mom.”

“You always loved that too,” said Viviane with a touch of reproach. “You’d ask to come along with me whenever I went for a ride! Remember?” She leaned forward and pinched her daughter’s cheek. “Remember?”

Elaine took a step backward. “Yes, Mom. I remember.” She gave an awkward shrug, and looked away. “I guess I’m just older now.”

“You can always ride a gryphon,” said Mansemat, leading a pair of the beasts out to the courtyard.

“Yeah, I’ll stick with the mortar,” said Elaine quietly, glancing away.

Mansemat sighed, patting one of his beasts on the head. “They’re really very sweet animals.” He began to scratch it behind the ears. “Isn’t that right, Bloodwing? Isn’t you a sweetie? Yes, you is! Yes, you eeeeeez! You’s my beeeg schweetie pie!” The gryphon began to lick his fingers, and claw happily at the ground, all while emitting a deep purr. The other gryphon made a vaguely jealous whine, causing Mansemat to tickle its beak. “Oh, I haven’t forgotten my Molasses girl! You eeez both my schweetie pies! That’s right! Ooogie-ooogie--ooo!”

“Oh, Darksome Lady, he’s doing the baby talk,” muttered Morgaine, walking into the courtyard.

“They like aff--by all in Shadow, Morgaine, you are not going to Ulverrun like that,” said Mansemat, glancing at his sister.

Morgaine looked down at her outfit, an elaborate black silk skirt covered with lace made to imitate cobwebs, with her torso covered by a black-enameled breastplate marked with a broken heart. “What, this? A little something I’ve been saving for a special occasion. The tiara’s a bit much,” she noted, touching the crown of bones she wore on her head, “but I figure--what the hey? Give the peasants something to remember.” She grinned at Mansemat broadly.

Mansemat rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We are going to a Harvest Festival, Morgaine, held by a group of Milesian farmers. Not going to demand that they surrender their souls to us.” A sinister smile touched his sister’s lips. Mansemat sighed. “You’re not going to demand they surrender their souls to us, Morgaine.”

Morgaine snorted. “You never let me have any fun. And you’re taking the Sword of Night with you!”

“That’s different,” said Mansemat nervously, lifting the longsword strapped to his side. “Murgleys doesn’t like being left alone. It makes it anxious.”

“Yeah, sure,” Morgaine said with a chuckle. She walked towards the gryphons. “So, which of your stink birds am I riding?”

“I keep telling you, Morgaine, you shouldn’t taunt them like that--they’re very sensitive beasts,” chided Mansemat.

“Bro, I keep telling you--they don’t understand what we’re saying,” said Morgaine with a roll of her eyes. “It’s all in the tone of your voice. Watch!” She approached Molasses and began to pat the gryphon on the head. “You’s a stinky pest! Yes, you eeez!” she began in a startlingly accurate reproduction of her brother’s crooning. “You is a big stinky pile of disease and--YAAAAARGH! YOU MOTHER--” Morgaine glanced at her nieces and took a deep breath. “Manny--your--animal--just tore my arm off…”

Mansemat looked at the gryphon reproachfully. “Let it go, Molasses.” The gryphon spat out the pale, twitching arm out of her maw, and then looked at Mansemat apologetically. “Good girl.” He turned to Morgaine. “I told you--they’re sensitive creatures.”

Morgaine frowned as she picked her arm off the ground. “Yeah, if I had a heart, it’d bleed for them.” She reattached her dismembered limb, then rolled her shoulder. “There we go…”

Elaine watched her in surprised fascination. “Doesn’t that feel--weird?”

“Did at first,” said Morgaine, flexing her fingers. “These days I’m used to it.”

“A hearty ‘hello’, dearest ones!” shouted Nisrioch, joining the rest of the family. “I’m eager to attend this celebration, so let’s get cracking.”

Everyone gathered there stared at him, and suddenly, the matter of Morgaine’s arm was entirely upstaged. “Nisrioch--what is… that?” said Viviane bemusedly.

“I assume you mean this!” Nisrioch took off his hat, a massive contraption with what appeared to be a propeller on the top. “Behold, the gyroaeromatrix! Destined to become the sorcerer’s favorite mode of aerial travel!”

Viviane blinked and then stepped into her mortar, helping Malina into it. “I think I’ll stick with more--traditional modes of transportation…”

Morgaine stared at the hat in muted horror. “Nissy--this is, beyond a doubt, your dumbest contraption yet…”

“What about the--bubble thing?” noted Mansemat.

“This is worse,” said Morgaine confidently.

“I’ll have you know the spectrosphereo-transporter remains a crowing achievement of my mystical genius!” declared Nisrioch. “It works perfectly. I simply failed to realize that without a transporter on the other end, you are more or less stranded at your destination. Which is why you had to come and pick me up from the center of the Weeping Waste that time, and I am still so, so sorry about that.” He coughed awkwardly, then placed the hat on his head. “But the gyroaeromatrix lacks that flaw! You carry it with you! A simple command--” He snapped his fingers, causing the propeller blades to turn. “--And there you have it! You’re on--” The hat lifted up and began to float away. Nisrioch watched it go in dull surprise. “Hmmm. It appears some sort of chin strap is in order.”

Mansemat looked at his brother, smiling slightly. “Bloodwing, or Molasses?”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 4

The boat floated on the river in the early evening, passing through the mist. Jean Crow dipped her pole into the water and glanced at Justinian Sigma, who was huddled at the prow of her skiff. “You don’t have to keep that bloody thing pointed at me, you know.”

Justinian watched her dispassionately, and raised his crossbow slightly. “After four escape attempts, I think I’m entitled to a little--skepticism as regards your--good behavior.”

Three escape attempts,” muttered Jean, her hands tightening around her pole. Hoppedance flew up from the side of the boat, and lighted onto her shoulder. “I keep telling you--after a week in your city’s shithole dungeon, I had a nasty case of the flux. Taking a little extra time to relieve yourself isn’t an escape attempt.”

“Nearly an hour is not ‘a little extra time’,” snapped Justinian. “And--why was it that I had to chase you down in the woods?”

“I was in the woods because, believe it or not, I don’t like shitting in front of a man I barely know,” she snarled, giving her skiff an extra bit of push. “Of course, if that’s not to your liking, well, you’re in charge, and I’ll happily cater to any perversion you happen to have…”

Justinian sputtered, and glanced away. “You are shameless,” he muttered, his face turning beet red.

“I’m a survivor,” she stated calmly, eyes noting that he was keeping the crossbow aimed at her with surprising skill. “I do what I have to do to live.”

“I don’t consider that living,” replied Justinian. “It sounds more like ‘existing’ to me.”

Jean shrugged. “Call it whatever the hell you like--I’m damned fond of it.” They went down the river for a while in silence. Finally, she broke it. “You handle the water well, for a bleeding city-dweller.”

“I was born in a boat,” said Justinian calmly. “I’m from the Breaker Isles, in the East. My parents are fisher folk.”

Jean blinked. “How’d you wind up a Sacristan?”

Justinian shrugged. “Same way most do--my parents gave me to the Order.”

“That’s--too bad,” said Jean.

“There was a famine,” said Justinian. “It was a choice of keeping me, so we all starved together, or giving me away so we all ate apart. My parents made the right choice. We all got to eat, and I got to do a lot more with my life than be a fisherman.” He smiled at her slightly. “Look--I know what you’re trying to do. Getting me angry hasn’t worked, so now you’re trying to play on my sympathies. It won’t work either.”

Jean stiffened, and paused in her poling. “That’s not what I’m doing at all.”

Justinian raised an eyebrow.

“Okay,” Jean sighed. “That’s a tiny portion of what I’m doing. But mostly, it’s…” She looked awkwardly away. “Usually it‘s just me and Hoppedance, who’s not that great at conversation, what with knowing about a dozen words. Most of which are obscene. When someone else is on board, we usually spend the time chatting, drinking--enjoying ourselves. But for the last three days, it’s been nothing but glowering at each other, punctuated by the occasional argument.” She bit her lip. “It’s starting to get to me. Loneliness I can handle. Loneliness with someone else around is--disturbing.”

Justinian looked over the side of the skiff, watching the Murkenmere flow past, its waters a dusky black in color. Suddenly, Hoppedance cried, “Bugger the bastards! Bugger the bastards!”

Justinian jerked up. “What is he doing?”

“Someone’s coming,” said Jean. She cleared her throat, and began to sing. “Oh, the crow is flying on the water, what say you to the river’s daughter…?”

Justinian raised his crossbow. “What are you doing?” he whispered.

Jean glanced at him angrily. “Riversong. It’s how river peddlers announce ourselves to each other--make sure boats don’t hit each other--keep each other informed…”

“Tell each other about the Sacristans pointing crossbows at you…”

“I damn well won’t mention that !” Jean snapped.

“Ho--crow! Where do you go?” sang out a deep male voice.

“Who wants to know?” sang out Jean.

“Do you have to rhyme?” muttered Justinian.

“It’s sort of a point of pride for us,” said Jean quietly.

Justinian winced. “But you do it so badly!”

“The River Ox! King of the Docks, who can’t be bound by stocks and locks!” Justinian watched as a large barge floated into view, a slightly less large man standing at the stern, holding a lantern. As he got a good look at him, Justinian did his best to conceal his crossbow. “So may I know where goes the crow?”

“Damn,” muttered Jean. “River Ox.”

“This is bad?” said Justinian.

“He’s really good at this. I’m going to look like such an idiot.” She cleared her throat and sang again. “My flight’s toward the night! I’m seeking harvest time so bright!”

The River Ox nodded, a smile spreading over his rather wide face. “Good you fare! But beware! The third son’s trouble! Go not there!”

Jean nervously snapped her fingers, then straightened and smiled. “And will you proclaim trouble’s name?”

By now, the River Ox’s boat was heading away from them, his voice growing fainter. “It is one of evil fame! The Black Dragon of the Plain! Beware! Take care! Deadly danger do not dare! BEWARE!”

Justinian watched as the River Ox’s barge vanished into the mist. “So--what was the point of all that? Besides the doggerel?”

Jean shrugged, and began to pole again. “A warning. Mansemat Cthonique is coming to the Harvest Festival of one of the border towns in the Accursed Marsh.”

Justinian sat up. “Where exactly?”

“A place you‘ve never heard of,” replied Jean. “Ulverrun. Not a particularly remarkable town. I’ve never even bothered to go there myself.”

“Well, you’re going now.”

“What?” Jean turned to Justinian in surprise. “Listen--the Dark Lord is not someone to be trifled with! I--look, I know you’re certain I’m some sort of depraved criminal, in league with the powers of Night, but I just--flit between the borders, and sell small beer and hot peppers, DAMN IT! I thought the whole idea of this mission was to do a little spying! You want to head RIGHT towards the damned Dark Lord! A plan that will NOT end well!”

“Shit-for-brains! Shit-for-brains! Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

Justinian shut his eyes. “When destiny shows you the road, that is the way you go.”

Jean gave an exasperated gasp. “Maybe you, but I damn well told you--I’m a survivor! I survive! I do things with a general bleeding idea of NOT DYING!”

Justinian smiled. “Such as following the wishes of the man who’s pointing a crossbow at you? Just as a hypothetical question.”

Jean stiffened, and then went back to her poling. “Ulverrun it is. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I won’t,” said Justinian with a chuckle. “But don’t underestimate me.” Justinian straightened in his seat. “The Dark Lord shall find Justinian Sigma no easy prey!” Jean slapped her pole against the water, making a splash that drenched Justinian. He looked at her balefully. “That still amuses you, I see?”

Jean guffawed. “You know, I’d have thought after twelve times, it wouldn’t, but it’s still damn funny.”

A soggy Justinian once more huddled in the prow for warmth. “Glad to be of service to you.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 3

Lord Mansemat Cthonique looked at the trade settlement. Then he looked at the Goblins, who sat there, their faces stern and grim. Then he looked at his brother Nisrioch, who shot him a lopsided smile and wiggled his ears. Then he looked at the trade settlement again. Then again at the Goblins. Finally, he coughed mildly, and spoke.

“I’m not sure I can agree to this.”

Immediately, the Goblins stood up as one, each shouting their own objections at the top of their voice. Mansemat massaged his temples for a moment, and took a deep breath. This was the part of being a Dark Lord they never mentioned in the stories. Negotiations.

House Cthonique’s border holdings had been a muddled tangle of claims, counterclaims, and counter-counterclaims for decades, and his father’s attempt to solve this problem by conquering each and every neighbor they possessed had, in fact, made it worse. Nisrioch had helped bring the situation into a form that was at least somewhat comprehensible, largely by giving back most of what their father had taken in return for various ‘concessions’ from their former enemies. Such as this one. In return for giving House Maganza back all of the Shadow Woods Lord Shaddad had conquered--which was essentially the entire region--House Cthonique received the right to deal with the various Goblin Trade Guilds directly, instead of buying their products from House Maganza. His brother insisted this was a diplomatic triumph. Mansemat was increasingly convinced that the reason Nisrioch loved diplomacy was that you could apply the word ‘triumph’ to lengthy talks that lead to agreements for more lengthy talks in the future, sometimes involving people who hadn’t even been involved the first bout, and occasionally had been unaware that they‘d been taking place.

Mansemat broke his musings to look at the Goblins. They appeared to still be yelling, and it didn’t seem like they were going to stop anytime soon without assistance. Mansemat took the plunge and stood to his feet. “Gentlemen. If you will please be quiet, we can discuss this--rationally.”

Coll Brainworm, Meister of the United Mechanist Guilds of Cloven Pine, Twisted Elm, and Sump Water, raised his hand for his silence. His fellow Goblins gradually quieted, though Elsie Cobweb, Meister of the Weaver and Seamstress League of Birchbark, Knotted Pine, and Fork-in-the-Road, continued to grumble under her breath about referred to as a ‘gentleman’. “Your Magnificence,” began Brainworm, “you call for reasonable discussion--and yet this is the fifth time you’ve rejected our terms out of hand!”

“I’ve done no such thing,” said Mansemat with a frown. “Each time I’ve demurred from signing, I’ve made it clear which parts I agreed to, and which parts I did not. Further, I’ll note that prior to this one, we had an agreement that everyone here but you found satisfactory, so I am hardly the only person delaying this matter.”

Brainworm snorted. “Your attempt to sow discord amongst the Allied Goblin Trade Emporium members is hereby noted, Dark Lord.”

Mansemat was about to launch into what he desperately hoped was a withering retort when the clock began to chime. He glanced at Nisrioch. “It’s three already?”

Nisrioch nodded. “Quite obviously.”

“Well, then, I am sorry, but I must be off,” said Mansemat. “Important business to attend to. We can pick up discussion of the trade agreement in a week or so, when…”

“Now, just you wait!” cried Elsie Cobweb. “We came quite a distance to talk with you, and after going around in circles for three days, you want us to wait another week? What’s this business that’s so damn important?”

“It’s very…” began Mansemat.

“We’re going to the Harvest Festival in Ulverrun,” said Nisrioch cheerfully.

The entire Emporium delegation began to mutter in offended tones. “And this is more important than our talks?” shouted Aldous Wormwood, Meister of the Incorporated Northern Guilds of Engravers, Tinkers, and Candlestick-makers.

Mansemat glared at him. “I’ve promised my wife and children that we would be going. And if you really think that debating who sells candles to Castle Terribel is more important than my family, you’re welcome to try and win me over. And my wife, too.” He smiled. “She’d love to have that talk, I’m sure.”

Aldous gulped and muttered something that sounded like an assurance that he’d been kidding, of course, and there was no need to bring the Badb into this. No need whatsoever.

Brainworm brought out his watch, and casually wound it. “The Emporium naturally respects Your Magnificence’s right to spend time with his family.” He smiled broadly. “Actually, this might be just what the talks needed. We’ll come with you! Take in the sights, refresh ourselves, and finish up the talks in a more relaxed atmosphere.”

Mansemat tried to suppress a shudder. “I’m not…”

“Why that would be SMASHING!” declared Nisrioch brightly. “We’re all sure to have a lovely time!”

Mansemat winced and looked beseechingly at Nisrioch. “Still, it would be a considerable detour, and as the Meisters have noted, this has been such a long trip for them…”

“Nonsense!” stated Brainworm. “Ulverrun, you said? That’s due west! We’ll simply fire up the dirigible and be there fast as a tree snake jumps!” He put his watch back in his pocket. “Of course, we’ll need an escort…”

Nisrioch nodded. “I’ll have the Cthonique Guard send some of their best.” He grinned broadly. “Why this promises to be a delightful weekend!”

Mansemat watched his dreams of escaping the talks die screaming before his eyes. “Yes. Delightful. Quite.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 2

The first thing Justinian did when he awoke that morning was light a candle to Uriel for good King Pelleas’ health. The next thing he did was go to see the Preceptor, who swore at him, and told him to go eat his damned breakfast, and allow the Preceptor to do the same. Once that was out of the way, he returned, the Preceptor rolled his eyes, and escorted Justinian to the Palace of Repentance.

“I just want to thank you, Lord Preceptor, for giving me the opportunity to prove--” gushed Justinian, doing his best to stand clear of windows.

“Don’t thank me, boy,” growled the Preceptor, as he and Justinian passed Joyeuse Tower. “The main reason I chose you is that I’m sick of your damned fool face. And your damned fool self, for that matter.”

“Oh,” said Justinian quietly. “I’m--sorry, sir…”

“Don’t apologize, boy,” said the Preceptor. “Not to a man who’s being a damned shit to you. It’s just blasted foolishness. One of the reasons I don’t like you. You’re too good-natured. And far too polite. Drives me mad.”

“I’m--very sorry, sir,” apologized Justinian, in sincere puzzlement.

The Preceptor merely gave an annoyed grunt to this, then motioned for Justinian to stop. The pair watched as a chamber pot was emptied before them, then continued on their way. “Understand, boy--this is probably a suicide mission. I very much doubt you’ll succeed, much less come back alive. But--well, you heard our guest. The situation is desperate. Doesn’t feel like it--but it is.” He turned to look at Justinian. “There’s no glory in this for you, Sigma. Even if you succeed. There is merely the cold comfort of--doing your duty.”

Justinian straightened. “That’s all I need.”

The Preceptor laughed. “I knew you were perfect for this damned thing, the moment I heard of it.” He stepped over a rotting cat that was lying in the street. “Now--you won’t be crossing the Murkenmere alone. I figured that you’d need someone who actually knows something about the Lands of Night, and it happens that our dungeons have just such a someone in them at the moment. A river peddler and smuggler. Caught with a supply of hot peppers from over there last week. Was going to be hung tomorrow, but--we worked this out.”

Justinian stared at the Preceptor in amazement as they reached the Palace of Repentance. “And you expect me to trust this person?”

The Preceptor guffawed at that, as he struck the knocker. “Of course not! I was about to warn you not to let your guard down.” A jailer appeared at the door. The Preceptor held up the large golden key he wore as City Magistrate. “We’re here to see Crow.” The jailer nodded and opened the door. “Especially not around this one,” declared the Preceptor as he stepped through. “Dangerous. Likely to cut your throat while you’re sleeping, if given a chance.”

“And why would I give him a chance?” asked Justinian, following the Preceptor down the narrow hall.

A female voice burst into song. “Lavender’s blue--dilly dilly--lavender’s green! When you are king--dilly dilly--I shall be queen!”

The Preceptor stopped before a door, and smiled at Justinian, as the jailer opened it. “Because you’re a young man.”

“Oh, who told you so--dilly dilly--who told you so?” came the voice from the cell. “‘Twas my own heart--dilly dilly--my heart told me so.”

Justinian glanced through the doorway to see a rather bedraggled young woman singing to a large black bird which hopped in time to her song. “Well,” said the Preceptor, “I see they left Crow her crow.”

The woman glanced up at the Preceptor, clearly irritated. “Do you have any idea how much time it takes to train a dancing crow? A damned lot, if you’re wondering. So I made sure that Hoppedance came in with me. Feeding him’s been no problem thanks to the rotting shit you‘ve been giving me.” She turned her attention back to the crow. “So call up your friends--dilly dilly--and send them to work. Some with the plough--dilly dilly--some with the fork.”

The Preceptor turned to Justinian and waved his hand. “May I present to you, Miss Jean Crow, smuggler. Miss Crow, Squire Justinian Sigma of the Sacristans.”

Crow looked up and flashed Justinian a toothy and rather unpleasant grin. “Charmed, I’m sure.” It occurred to Justinian that she could have been quite attractive, if her face hadn’t been so thin and her nose hadn’t been so large, or even been broken a few times less. And of course, with a proper bath. Possibly several. Which caused Justinian to think of women bathing. Which caused him to remember his holy vows. Which caused him to blush and start to recite the Canticle In Praise of Chastity under his breath. Which caused Jean Crow to regard him with puzzlement and alarm, and the Preceptor to regard him with a great deal of amusement.

The Preceptor laughed, and looked at Jean. “Your boat’s ready for you down in the harbor. Aside from your impounded peppers, everything’s been returned to it.” He turned to Justinian. “I leave you in Miss Crow’s capable hands. A prospect that shall cause me to be very amused for the next few months, and to burn quite a few candles to Uriel for your safety, and for forgiveness for finding this situation amusing in the first place.” He walked away. “Have a pleasant journey, Sigma. If that’s even possible.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 1

It was an unusually warm Vendemiaire evening in Joyeuse, the night Justinian Sigma went to rectory of the Knightly Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian. The air was thick and muggy, almost as if it was summer. The brass door knocker had acquired a thin film that seemed to stick to Justinian’s hand as he rapped it.

The door opened just a crack, the Preceptor’s frowning face appearing to look him over critically. “Have you come alone, Sigma?”

Justinian nodded, trying his best to hide the mixture of nervousness and excitement he was feeling. “Y-yes, sir. I--I wouldn’t dream of disobeying your instructions, Preceptor. You know that.”

“Hmmph.” The Preceptor grudgingly opened the door. As Justinian stepped in, he shot him a warning look. “Best behavior, Squire. And keep quiet about this.” The Preceptor nervously stroked his graying beard as he turned towards the rectory’s other occupant. “Here is the one I told you of.”

Justinian’s eyes went wide as he found himself staring at Prince Amfortas, Regent of Leonais, Supreme Legate of the Holy Synod, and Lord Protector of the Free Cities. “You are Squire Justinian Sigma of the Sacristans , correct?” the Prince asked in a soft voice, the lamplight flickering on his light brown hair.

Justinian genuflected immediately, and rather painfully, as his knee struck the rectory’s stone floor a bit harder than he would have liked. “Y-your Highness. I--I--This--I didn’t know--I…” He coughed. “Yes, that is who I am.”

Amfortas smiled slightly. “You may rise, Squire Sigma. I am not here in any--official capacity.” He looked over at the Preceptor. “Merely as a friend who needs a favor.”

Justinian also looked to the Preceptor, trying to get some cue as to how to act in the unexpected presence of the most powerful man in the Lands of Light. “The Prince has asked for our Order’s help with a very dangerous mission. I’ve proposed you as a candidate to undertake this mission,” stated the Preceptor, motioning for Justinian to rise.

“I--of course--yes--that is--what I mean is--it would be an honor, your Highness,” Justinian said, rising unsteadily and massaging his aching knee.

The Prince stared at the dark-haired squire in mild surprise. “I haven’t even told you what the mission was yet.”

Justinian gulped. “Well, no, but--naturally, I--that is--I could not refuse the Prince. Your Highness.”

Amfortas chuckled slightly. “Perhaps you will change your mind when I tell you just what the mission is.” He stepped towards Justinian, his expression growing serious. “It is the situation with the Lands of Night that brings me here.”

“The situation?” asked Justinian, puzzled. “What situation? They’ve been quiet since you and your father--Holy Light preserve him--beat the Cthoniques at Montalban fifteen years ago.” He blinked. “Your Highness.”

“We defeated Lord Shaddad Cthonique, Squire Sigma,” said Amfortas calmly. “Crushed his forces, and singed his tail as he scurried back over the Murkenmere. We could have gone on to Castle Terribel itself, but of course--something came up.” He sighed. “It always does.”

“Pffffft.” The Preceptor scowled. “The Flamens Dialis died, and bloody Jovian threatened to remove your father as Legate if he didn’t come back and ‘help’ with the succession. Don’t dress up damned stupidity as the whims of fate, Amfortas.”

Amfortas smiled at the Preceptor. “Maximilian, I thought you Sacristans had a vow against rude language.”

“I shall light a candle to Anael to atone for my grave sin,” replied the Preceptor. “Now go on, Amfortas. Inform young Sigma of the whole situation.”

Amfortas gave a slight nod. “We ended the threat Shaddad posed, and it appears the other Dark Lords did us a rare favor and ended Shaddad a few years thereafter. But House Cthonique was not destroyed. Shaddad had a son, and--if the reports are true, then he has restored his vile family to power. Even now he sits on his dark throne in Castle Terribel, plotting to destroy the Lands of Light. And it grows worse.”

Justinian gulped. “W-worse. How--can it get--worse?” He fidgeted slightly. “Your Highness.”

“The Lands of Light are divided,” said Amfortas, quietly. “I’ve done what I can to unite them, as every King and Prince of Leonais before me has done. But in the end, they remain as quarrelsome as they ever were, since the Holy Empire fell. Still--we could afford these petty rivalries, as our foes had their own to attend to.” He looked Justinian cleanly in the eyes. “And that may no longer be the case.”

Justinian blinked. “Wha--? Your Highness, I…”

“Wars leave echoes, Squire Sigma,” said Amfortas pleasantly. “Even very small wars. For years, I’ve heard the echoes of the Lands of Night.” His face tightened slightly. “No more. Over the last two years, they slowed, then stopped. No shepherds complaining to the Easter King of troops of Ogres from the Fangs plundering their sheep. No black-clad men hiring mercenaries by the cartload in the Free Cities. No more hordes of armor-clad bodies found floating in the Murkenmere. All of which suggests our enemies are no longer fighting among themselves. Which is--rather worrisome, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I--uh--it sounds--uh--I--you…” stammered Justinian.

“Spit it out, boy,” growled the Preceptor.

“Yes,” agreed Justinian. “It does. Sound worrisome. Your Highness.”

Amfortas smiled. “I’m glad you agree with me, Squire Sigma. Few others do. The Grand Council wishes to dismiss much of the standing army and halve our donations to the Orders Militant. Tintagel feels that even discussing all this unpleasantness can wait until after the wedding, whenever the Senate lets Queen Yolande have it. The Synod feels that we should be moving troops to the Pillars to lean on the Easter King over the Cosmopolite matter, and the Easter King is not allying with anyone who represents the Synod for that very reason. The Free Cities are talking of withdrawing from the Treaty altogether and electing a new Lord Protector.”

“But--Duke Ayman--I thought--that is--Your Highness--I thought what happened to him…” said Justinian in shock.

The Preceptor chuckled darkly. “What did happen to him? He was killed! You should listen to the damn League ambassadors. They insist that there’s no reason to think the blasted Nightlanders were behind it. Oh, Holy Seven forbid us from acknowledging the completely damned obvious!”

Amfortas sighed. “You’ll be lighting quite a few candles to the Lady of the Moon tonight, won’t you, Maximilian?”

The Preceptor glared at the Prince. “That is my own damned affair, Amfortas.”

Amfortas nodded and looked at Justinian again. “Do you begin to understand me now, Squire Sigma? I know that matters are getting serious, and that something must be done. But I have no solid proof of this--merely signposts, if you will. Now--if I could produce, for example, the testimony of a Sacristan who’d crossed the Murkenmere and seen--with his own eyes--the Dark Lords’ mustering for war…”

Justinian nodded, and then saluted. “Leave it to me! I swear before Sun and Moon, I will achieve this mission, or die trying.” He blinked and smiled sheepishly at Amfortas. “Your Highness.”

Amfortas placed a hand on Justinian‘s shoulder. “Excellent. Get a good night’s sleep, Squire Sigma--you’ll need it. The Preceptor will give you the particulars of your mission tomorrow morning.” He leaned forward. “And remember--I was not here tonight.”

“I--understood, sir. Your Highness.” Justinian turned to the door, then turned back to the Prince, bowed, and then turned to the door once again. Unfortunately, the various perambulations involved in this threw off his balance to the point that he tumbled and fell. Amfortas and the Preceptor watched in discomfort as Justinian skidded out the door, landing outside. “I’m--okay!” announced Justinian, rising to his feet--then losing his balance again, toppling out of view. “Still--okay!” he cried.

Amfortas glanced at the Preceptor. “Maximilian, are you--absolutely certain that he’s the right person for this mission?”

The Preceptor looked at the Prince. “Justinian is a loyal, brave, and intelligent young Squire. Whom--Heavens forgive me--the Gods have seen fit to hang a large sign upon that reads ‘Expendable’.”

Amfortas nodded. “Indeed,” he said gently.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stepdaughter of the Dark Lord--Part 9

“What were you thinking?” said Mansemat through clenched teeth. “What possible reason could you have to make our Guard chase after hedgehogs?”

“Groundhogs,” stated Nisrioch calmly, leaning back in his chair. “And I had an excellent reason. It was funny.”

Morgaine nodded, moving her left catapult forward. “He’s got you there, little bro.” She chuckled and shook her head. “And nobody thought to tell you off or anything?”

Nisrioch shrugged, looking over the game distractedly. “They think I’m a strategic genius. Any bizarre statement I make is viewed as a portion of my impenetrable plans, inscrutable to lesser mortals.” He took the catapult with his right gryphon, much to Morgaine’s irritation.

“Well, this is all well and good, with splendid laughs being enjoyed by you two,” muttered Mansemat darkly, reclining on the couch, “but what is going to happen with the rest of the Shadow Council gets wind of it?”

“Well, assuming you can keep Viviane happy until the next meeting--and I’m sure you can, little brother,” said Nisrioch pleasantly, “--absolutely nothing.”

Morgaine took the gryphon with her right elephant. “AH-HA! Check.”

Mansemat raised an eyebrow. “Why is my keeping Viviane happy important?”

“I can think of twelve reasons off the top of my head,” noted Nisrioch, raising his hands and spreading his fingers. “But in this case--it takes a six member vote to pursue disciplinary action against a Council Member. It’s right there in the Charter.” He took the elephant with his left juggernaut. “Check, and mate.”

Morgaine stared at the board in dull amazement. “That can’t be right.”

Mansemat looked at his brother for a moment, and then lay back on the couch. “Belberith had no idea what he was getting into, did he?”

Nisrioch smiled. “Everyone had a chance to read the Charter. Few seemed to have taken the chance to read it well.”

Morgaine glanced at him after a full perusal of the board. “Okay--that one didn’t count. Warm-up game. I was distracted.”

“Your mulled wine, sire,” said the steward as he handed the mug to Mansemat.

Mansemat took a sip and smiled. “Heated and spiced to perfection as always, Breus.” He shook his head. “How do you do it?”

Breus gave a bow. “I make it a point of pride to excel at all my duties, sire.”

“We all know that, you old braggart,” said Morgaine, setting up her pieces. “Hey--how’s Gwen? That cough cleared up yet?”

“Doing fine, mistress. But thanks for asking.”

Mansmat took another sip of his wine and looked at his brother. “Look, Nissy--this isn’t about whether we can get away with these--jokes. It’s about the Struggle, and taking it seriously…”

Nisrioch nodded, as he regarded Morgaine‘s new opening move. “Yes, well, I don’t. Surely you realize that by now.”

Mansemat sighed. “Nissy… House Cthonique--”

“Do you honestly think I would knowingly do anything to hurt this family, little brother?” Nisrioch said, his voice cold. “When the time comes that the Great War is worth my concern, it will receive it. Until then--it won’t.”

“And when will this time come, Nisrioch?” asked Mansemat, skepticism heavy in his voice.

“Sooner than you think,” replied Nisrioch, his rainbow eyes shifting like prisms. “That is why I’m enjoying myself while I can.”

Mansemat turned quickly away, taking a sip of his wine. “I wish you wouldn’t do the eye thing. It’s creepy.”

Morgaine shuddered. “I’ll say.” She looked at Nisrioch. “This game doesn’t count either.”

Nisrioch nodded as he made his next move. “Understood. Checkmate.”

“Having a good lie down, dear?” asked Viviane as she stepped into the lounge.

“Mixed,” replied Mansemat with a sigh. “The couch is comfortable, the mulled wine is excellent, but Nissy is being--Nissy.”

Viviane placed her hands on his shoulders and rubbed them gently. “You poor thing.”

Mansemat covered one of her hands with his own. “What can I say? I’m a delicate flower who needs love and affection.”

Morgaine snorted. “Manny, I’ve seen you take on small armies by yourself. And win.” She finally moved her dragon and grinned at Nisrioch. “HA!”

“So I’m a delicate flower with military capabilities.” Mansemat glanced up at his wife. “How’s Elaine?”

Viviane shrugged. “Sulky. Miserable. Which is presently another way of saying--the same.”

Nisrioch took the dragon with his right juggernaut. “Checkmate.” He smiled at Morgaine. “Didn’t count?”

“Still warming up, DAMN IT!” she seethed.

Mansemat stroked Viviane’s hand idly. “Would she like a--pony, perhaps? I’ve heard girls that age like ponies for some strange reason.”

She kissed his brow. “I don’t think a pony is the answer here. She’s just lonely and a bit stir-crazy. She‘s not used to this place yet.” She leaned forward, and rested her head against his. “Actually, I have an idea how to help with that…”

“Checkmate,” said Nisrioch.

Morgaine stared at the board bleakly. “What’s the score right now?”

“Twenty-three warm-ups and counting,” replied her elder brother.

Morgaine nodded. “Ahh.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Stepdaughter of the Dark Lord--Part 8

Elaine walked hurriedly down the hallway, making sure to avoid the gazes of the various servants she passed along the way. It was a times like this she didn’t merely feel like an interloper walking the halls of Castle Terribel--she knew she was. Every person she passed--every stone she walked on--seemed to scream ‘You don’t belong here’. And that was when she heard the skipping step that after only three months had become very familiar to her.

“Hey, Sis, wait up!” cried Malina. “My legs are shorterer than yours.”

And, so, in opposition to the part of her mind that wanted her to find some dark corner and curl up into a little ball, Elaine slowed down. Malina quickly caught up with her, her big red eyes full of concern. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Elaine seethed.

“Are you sure?” Malina frowned. “Your eyes are getting all--angry.” She looked nervously away. “Mommy Mom’s eyes used to do the same thing before she’d start yelling. And then she’d get quiet. And then she’d break something.” Malina shuddered slightly.

Elaine glanced at her stepsister. “I’m a little upset, Malina. That’s all.” She looked away. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Ohhh,” said Malina, nodding distractedly. “That’s good.” She fiddled with one of her horns nervously. “Sis--do you--like me?”

Elaine turned towards Malina and smiled. “Of course I do.” She lightly tussled her stepsister’s hair. “You’re a sweet kid.”

Malina smiled broadly back at her. “That’s good. I like you. And I like Mommy Viv. And so does Daddy.”

Elaine stiffened slightly. “Yeah. Sure.”

Malina frowned. “He’s a good daddy.”

“He’s not my daddy,” replied Elaine.

“Yeah-huh, he is!” declared Malina. “Mommy Viv is my mommy, and Daddy is your daddy. We’ve just got extras, is all. I‘ve got Mommy Mom, and you‘ve got--whoever your other daddy is.”

“Yeah,” began Elaine, wincing, “look, Malina, you’re only six. It’s--”

Malina stamped her foot. “I’m almost SEVEN!”

“That’s still six,” stated Elaine. “Look--it’s complicated. When you’re older--you’ll get it.”

Malina gave a rather dissatisfied nod. “Okay.” She paused and stifled a yawn.

Elaine stopped at her door. “Well--I’ve got to take that bath now.” She turned and smiled at Malina. “How about we go--do something tomorrow? Does that sound fun?”

Malina nodded eagerly. “I can show you the--Secret Room.” She glanced from side to side. “It’s got spiders in it,” she whispered conspiratorially.

“Sounds--great,” said Elaine, watching Malina cheerfully hurry away. Then she ducked into her room, and prepared her bath. There were very few things about Castle Terribel that Elaine liked. The baths were one of them. Not only did the Cthoniques have water running through pipes--but somehow, they could warm it up in those pipes, so you could have a hot bath whenever you wanted. As she eased herself into the water, she had to admit once again, this almost made living here bearable.

Almost.

Her blissful reverie was interrupted by a knock on the door. “Elaine,” came her mother’s voice, “can we talk now?”

“I’m taking a bath now,” replied Elaine. The door opened and Viviane stepped into the room. Elaine scowled. “Darksome Lady, Mom--did you think I was joking?”

“I’m your mother, Elaine. Trust me--I’ve seen it all before.” She glanced over at a nearby mirror. “And I wouldn’t even be doing this if you hadn’t made that--horrific scene earlier. Lady’s Love, Elaine--how could you do that? You were nearly killed!”

Elaine lowered her head. “I--I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“I wasn’t worried about what you meant, Elaine.” Viviane kneeled next to the bath. “I’m worried about what you did.” She shook her head. “And Mansemat--he’s a good, sweet man who only wants you to like him.”

“And to conquer the Lands of Light,” muttered Elaine. “Can’t forget that one.”

Viviane frowned. “Oh, come on. The Conflict never used to bother you. All your life you’ve known that the Folk of Night are locked into eternal struggle with the Lands of Light, and you were fine with it. You even used to make me tell you the stories about Maleagans the Cruel, Luned the Bringer of Woe, and Sanagran the Fist of Darkness. And those things are long, Elaine. I’d start one, and know exactly what the next couple hours of my life were going to involve.”

“Yeah--well, it was different when it was this thing in stories, instead of something where the troop preparations were going on where I live.” Elaine lightly splashed the water. “I want to go home, Mom.”

Viviane sighed. “Elaine--you are home. This is home now.”

“No--it’s not. It’s this--place you’ve taken me to.” Elaine looked at her mother. “Home is the cottage. Not here. Here is a place I don’t belong.”

“Home is where you make it, Elaine,” muttered Viviane, standing up. “You can be happy here, if you just let yourself.” She walked towards the door. “I’ll do what I can, Elaine. But you have to accept that things have changed.”

Elaine was quiet for a moment, after Viviane left. “I know things have changed. I just--don’t like how,” she said quietly.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stepdaughter of the Dark Lord--Part 7

Lord Nisrioch Cthonique watched as the gryphon glided gracefully down towards the ground. “You see? I told you they’d be fine.”

Viviane took a deep breath. “Oh, Darksome Lady be praised…”

Morgaine glanced at her. “I think it’s more, ‘Malina’s surprisingly large carrying capacity be praised’ myself.”

Nisrioch chuckled. “And yet you, little sister, are the one who is a major religious figure…”

“Hey,” said Morgaine, “I didn’t ask to fit the Ghouls’ stupid prophecy.” She brought a hand to her chin. “Though the ‘coming back from the dead’ part is cool. No complaints there.”

The gryphon landed, Elaine leaping off its back, and putting as much distance between her and it as possible. Viviane stepped forward, and hugged her. “Elaine--I…” She frowned at her daughter. “You are in so much trouble, young lady.”

Elaine nodded. “Yeah, I know, I know. Now--I really need to take a bath. Now. I smell like--gryphon.” She shuddered slightly and scurried away.

“Yes, well--we’re having a nice, long talk later. Understand?” Viviane shouted at her daughter’s receding form.

Mansemat sighed and scratched Blackbeak‘s head. “I don’t know what she’s complaining about. They don’t smell that bad.”

“Yes, they do, bro,” said Morgaine. “They smell like week-old puke. And I’m dead. It takes a whole lotta stink to make me complain.”

“I always thought it was more like rotting meat coated in dung myself,” noted Nisrioch.

“Oooh, that’s a good one,” laughed Morgaine.

Viviane shook her head, smiling. “It’s at times like this I wonder how you guys managed to fight every other faction in the Nightlands to a standstill…”

Malina fluttered down by her side. “Mommy Viv! Mommy Viv! Did you see? I flewed! I’m a good flyer!”

“You certainly are, dear,” said Viviane. “Now--why don’t you hurry inside, and keep an eye on your big sis. Okay?”

“’Kay, Mommy Viv!” she said, cheerfully skipping inside.

Viviane turned to look at her husband. “We’ve got to do something about those two. They both have way too much free time on their hands.”

Mansemat stood up, and began to lead Blackbeak away. “I agree. We can talk about it once I get Blackbeak back into the stables. And maybe have a proper lie down. The last few minutes have been--somewhat nerve-wracking for me.” He paused a moment to glance at his brother. “Say--Nisrioch--why exactly is the Guard chasing… giant… rats?”

A pleased smile came over Nisrioch’s face. “Groundhogs. Those are groundhogs. And actually, there’s a highly amusing story behind that…”

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Stepdaughter of the Dark Lord--Part 6

As Mansemat forced Blackbeak into a dive, he swore at himself. He should have taken one of the coursers up--Bloodwing, Swiftclaw, or perhaps Molasses. Blackbeak was a war gryphon, bred for stability and toughness, not speed. But it’d been a week since he’d taken Blackbeak out for a ride, and he’d always had a soft spot for the old charger. Besides, he’d reassured himself, despite his fears of what might happen, he was fairly certain nothing would happen.

But of course it had. Mother Night punishing him for presumption once again. Please, Darksome Lady, he silently prayed. Not my daughters. Ask me to give anything of myself, and I will give it, even if it be my life. But not them. I know I cannot truly know your ways--but I feel while they may be hard ways--they are not cruel ways. I believe this. I must believe this. Because to believe anything else is to go down the path my father walked, and that I will not do… Mansemat spurred Blackbeak on, hoping against all hope that he could pick up just enough speed to catch them. And then a light giggle reached his ear.

“Oh, Sis--you’re so silly! Going up high when you can‘t fly!”

“Yeah,” said Elaine in a slightly nervous voice. “Silly. That’s definitely a good word for it.”

Mansemat stared at the sight of Malina holding her stepsister up in midair, her leathery wings (so often tucked neatly around her shoulders like a cape) unfurled. “Well, it is silly,” she stated confidently. “What if you falled and I couldn’t catch you? I bet you wouldn’t like it.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I definitely see your point, Malina.”

Mansemat laughed slightly, thinking to himself that he‘d never imagined that a day would come when he was glad that Malina took after her mother in something. “Good work, Flibbertigibbet! You really are getting the hang of flying.”

Malina smiled, and gave a cheerful little nod. “Yep. I’m a good flyer!”

“Yes, you certainly are,” agreed Elaine. “Can we go to the ground soon? Like--now soon?”

“Maybe I should take Elaine,” suggested Mansemat.

“Yeah, she is kinda heavy,” said Malina. “Holding her is making my arms achey.”

Elaine shut her eyes and groaned in embarrassment. “Ohh, Mother Night, take me now.”

Thank you, thought Mansemat. Thank you.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stepdaughter of the Dark Lord--Part 5

When Sacripant Fenswater was asked why he’d joined the Cthonique Guard, he would loudly proclaim that it was his dedication to serve the foul cause of Darkness, and strike a blow against the holy forces of Light. He said this, because he had a general idea that telling people that he’d joined because he was tired of gutting fish for a living, and Lord Mansemat paid six copper marks a month would not make a favorable impression.

That said, there were times when he wondered about his decision. Now being one of them.

“Grizzel,“ he said, leaning his aching body against a wall, “you’ve been in the Guard longer than anyone, right?”

The weathered Goblin sitting beside Sacripant put a hand to his pointed chin. “Well, Ol’ Cambyses joined five years before I did, but he caught an arrow two years ago in the Disputes with the Regnis. So--longer than anyone living, yes.” He glanced up at the young Marsh Erl. “Why?”

“Do you have any idea why Lord Nisrioch is making us do this?” muttered Sacripant.

Grizzel shrugged. “No, and I don’t try to. His Excellency is cannier than you or I or anyone else. He has his reasons, and they’re good ones, even if they aren’t obvious to the likes of us.” The Goblin chuckled. “There’re reasons I pledge my loyalty to House Cthonique and not House Maganza.”

“Aside from the fact that Lord Asterot is a shit?” said Sacripant.

Grizzel nodded. “Aside from that one, yes.” He gave Sacripant a companionable slap on the shoulder. “Ehh, relax, boy. This is nothing. During the Rising, we had a weeklong fighting retreat, through the Blasted Heath. If this puts you out--that would have killed you.”

Sacripant nodded. “Yeah--yeah. I get it--you’ve been through more than I ever will…”

Grizzel ran his hand over his bald head, laughing. “Did I say that, boy? Did I? I’d be a fool if I even thought it. Your hour will come. The present good times won’t last. Right now the Nine Lords are all cozy as lice, and the Lands of Light are scared to cross the Murkenmere--but that won’t last. Somebody will lose their temper, and the old squabbles will start again--or the Lightlanders will send an expedition over the river.” The old Goblin cracked his knuckles. “Or maybe the Great War truly will begin. Who knows? It could happen. In my lifetime yet. ”

Sacripant shifted uncomfortably. The conversation had headed in a direction he really hadn’t expected, and was fairly certain he didn’t like. He looked idly to his left, in an effort to change the subject. “Hey, Hagen--what have you been staring at for the last ten minutes?”

The massive Ogre gave a shrug. “Gryphon flew up to the Tower of Melancholy a while back. Then it just sort of hovered there. Kind of--strange.”

Sacripant glanced towards the tower. “Oh, really?”

Hagen frowned. “Gone now. Dived down a little while ago.”

“Huh.” Sacripant mulled it over. “I wonder what that was about.”

“None of our business, boy,” said Grizzel, raising his twisted form from the ground. “Now come on. We’ve rested long enough. Those groundhogs won’t catch themselves.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stepdaughter of the Dark Lord--Part 4

The Dark Lord Mansemat Cthonique and his stepdaughter, Elaine du Lac, stared at each other in awkward silence, as she lay sulkily on the roof of the Tower of Melancholy. The silence was finally broken by the gryphon Mansemat was flying on, which suddenly emitted an irritated squawk that sounded like a combination of a cat yowling, and a bird screeching. “Tch, it’s okay, Blackbeak,” he said, stroking the beast’s head. He gave Elaine a reproachful look. “You know, he really doesn’t like hovering like this…”

“Tough,” stated Elaine in monotone, indolently raising her left leg, and stretching.

“This place can’t be that fascinating, can it?” noted Mansemat in tones of quiet desperation. “It’s just--a roof. I mean--it’s not even the highest tower in the castle.”

“Only one you can get to easy, though,” noted Elaine calmly, as she lowered the leg back in place.

Mansemat fidgeted slightly. “It’s just that I’m getting a feeling--a crazy hunch I admit--that this is less about enjoying yourself--and more about irritating me.”

“And if it is?” said Elaine leaning upwards, with just a hint of defiance.

“Well, there are better ways to spend your time,” replied Mansemat. “For example--we have a sizable library. And a picture gallery. And that’s off the top of my head.”

Elaine snorted. “Yeah. And one’s full of creepy old books, and the other’s full of creepy old paintings. Good times.”

“Oh, they aren’t all creepy…” began Mansemat, when a loud popping noise interrupted him.

“Hey, Daddy! Hey, Sis!” came the cheery voice of Malina. “Mommy Viv said you were up here, fighting! So I came to stop you!” She placed a hand on her hip, and waved the other in reproach. “Don’t fight! It’s bad!”

Mansemat, despite himself, smiled, as he turned to look at his daughter. “We’re not fighting, Malina. Just having a talk,” he said in a gentle voice.

Malina beamed at her father, red eyes full of adoration. “Promise?”

Mansemat placed his left hand on his heart. “Promise.”

She giggled at him. “That’s good, Daddy. I don’t like it when you fight. It makes you sad.”

Mansemat glanced away from his daughter, his smile taking on an almost forced quality. “I’ll try to remember that, Flibbertigibbet.”

Elaine sat up and coughed slightly. “Is there a reason why it’s not a big deal that she’s up here?”

“Well, I’m not going to say I’m happy about it, but Malina has the magic to take care of herself if something happens, and you--” Mansemat paused, partially because he realized that this was not coming out the way he wanted it to, and partially because Elaine was now glaring daggers at him. “Right. Bad--phrasing.”

Elaine nodded. “Yeah. That’s one way to put it.”

“Daddy! Sis! Look! LOOK!” shouted Malina. The pair turned, as much to avoid looking at each other as to see what Malina found so fascinating.

That turned out to be the fact that she could do a handstand.

“See! I’m on my hands! I’m ON MY HANDS!”

“That’s--very nice, Malina. Now--please stop…”

Malina ignored him and began to raise her right arm, humming cheerfully, and tottering in a way that had Mansemat’s heart in his throat despite himself. And that was when Elaine darted forward, and grabbed her, in hopes of steadying her stepsister.

This hope proved false when she lost her footing, sending both of them toppling over the roof’s edge.