Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part Eight

Sacripant played his hand. “Grand Foldol, Hierophant to Knave of Moons.”

“By Darksome Lady’s Delectable Tits!” shouted Hagen. “You have the Dragon’s Own Luck, Fenswater!” The Ogre looked up to see Sacripant and Quiet both glaring at him. “What?”

“Language, Hagen,” said Sacripant grimly.

Hagen spread his hands. “What? Is it so offensive to state that Mother of All Creation, Font of All Good Things has the most exquisite bosom in the universe?”

Quiet nodded emphatically. “Yeah,” agreed Sacripant. “It’s--really offensive.”

“Country folk,” muttered Hagen. “I would say suggesting Mother Night’s breasts less than perfection is more offensive!” He glanced to his side. “Don’t you think so, Palamedes?”

Palamedes Woodash looked awkwardly away. He’d been rather pleasantly surprised to get a place at foldol with the Serjeant’s inner circle, but he’d never thought it would involve finding himself between an Ogre and a Ghoul in a religious argument.

With a Marsh Erl backing the Ghoul up. Couldn’t forget that one. Especially the way Fenswater was glaring at him.

“I have no opinion on the subject,” declared Palamedes firmly.

What he considered a brilliant noncommittal answer was apparently less acceptable to Sacripant. “You have no opinion on a blasphemy committed against our Most Sacred and Unholy Mother Night?”

Palamedes gulped and thought about a way out of his predicament. He considered and then rejected throwing himself on the ground and begging for mercy when salvation walked through the barracks door, in the form of the Serjeant. “All right, lazybones!” said Greedigut glancing around the room. He raised an envelope in his left hand and waved it. “Important message for His Excellency! From His Imperious Munificence! I need one of you lads to take it to him!”

Palamedes leapt from his chair. “I’ll do it!” He darted forward, took the letter, and then ran for the door. He stopped for a moment. “Where is--His Excellency? At the moment?”

Grizzel shrugged. “Don’t know. That’s why I need one you lads to deliver it. I have other things to do besides look for him all day.”

Palamedes nodded, and then ran out, leaving Hagen’s throaty chuckle behind him. He darted aimlessly through the halls for a while, until he passed the palace seneschal, Breus le Fidèle, leading his daughter Eurydice, Echidnae Bluebell, and Antigone Gorice. Palamedes managed a bow. “Seneschal. Mistresses.” He coughed slightly, as Eurydice and her friends all frowned at him. “You wouldn’t happen to know where His Excellency is? I have a message for him.”

Breus gave a stiff nod. “I believe he will be at the Chapel of Immaculate Light in Darkness shortly.” There was a lengthy pause. “We will be cleaning it shortly. You may accompany us, if you will.”

Palamedes bit his lip, and then nodded. “I--thank you, sir.” He fell into step behind them. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, he finally decided to chance it. “Eurydice,” he hissed quietly.

Eurydice pointedly ignored him, as did Antigone, though Echidnae glanced back at him. Palamedes plunged ahead. “Look--I’m sorry about what happened. But--I--a man has to prove things to himself sometimes, or he isn’t a man at all…”

Eurydice looked at Antigone. “What’s that buzzing noise?” she asked in a voice heavy with sarcasm. “It sounds like a certain someone who you’d think would have the sense to keep his mouth shut. But that can’t be right. I’m sure that certain someone knows that what he did was unforgivable, and I never want to speak to him again if I can help it. Especially if what he’s saying is an extremely foolish apology.”

Antigone sighed sympathetically. “You have to be right. That certain someone has to know he’s lower than an earthworm’s droppings.”

Palamedes winced. Truth be told, he was beginning to think that calling off their marriage to join the Guard had not been the wisest choice.

Not that he was going to admit that in front of her. Especially after she’d returned his troth. He had to have some pride, by the Darksome Lady.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part Seven

“--And here is one of Lord Medraut’s pens,” declared Nisrioch, showing the large quill with pride. “This is a roc feather--his favorite variety, though he would accept peacock or ostrich, in a pinch.”

Justinian managed a dull nod. “Fascinating.” Jean flopped over the railing to glance at Elaine, who was eagerly darting around the shelves, picking up volumes, and bringing them to her table, where she would leaf through a few pages, nod to herself, and then go darting around the shelves once again, repeating the whole process.

Nisrioch stepped forward and looked down at the lower level. “Enjoying your--researches, Elaine?”

Elaine didn’t even bother to look up, pouring through the books. “Yep. Hey, where exactly do you keep Tehrun’s Compendium of Useful Knowledge?”

“The red shelves to your left. Third level up,” replied Nisrioch.

“Thank you,” said Elaine with a nod, as she headed towards the shelves.

“It’s no problem,” replied Nisrioch. He glanced back at Jean and Justinian. “I can’t help but feel that you are--not enjoying this to the extent Elaine is.”

“I would no--” began Justinian.

“Oh, Gods, yes,” exhaled Jean. Justinian glared at her. “What? I’m bored, Sigma!”

Justinian looked towards heaven in despair. “You are SHAMELESS! Do you know that?”

“Well you say it often enough,” replied Jean with a chuckle.

“By the Darksome Lady!” gasped Elaine. “Is this… a complete edition… of the works of Huon Sans Espoir?” She gave a high-pitched squeal. “It IS!” She began to flip through it eagerly.

Nisrioch glanced at his niece, and then back at the pair. “Perhaps I should show you a more… exclusive section of our collection.”

“--‘And if things lie the way I so dread, then Earth cover this corpse, for ‘tis already dead’,” Elaine read aloud. She threw her head back, and whimpered in pleasure. “So… romantic!”

Jean glanced at Nisrioch. “Yeah, I think if we stick around we’re going to see Elaine in a very embarrassing moment.”

Nisrioch leaned towards her confidentially. “The thought had occurred to me.” He turned towards a small side hallway, pulling a silver key from his sleeve. As he approached the doorway at the end of the hall, it swung open. Morgaine stepped out, a small collection of scrolls and books under her arms. She blinked slightly at them.

“Ahh. So--you’re finally doing the--tour thing you’ve been talking about, Nissy?” she said, ending with an awkward cough.

Nisrioch nodded. “Special collection is the next stop.”

Morgaine blinked again. “Yeah.” She glanced away, and began to tap her feet. “Yeah.” She looked at Nisrioch again. “Yeah. You sure that’s wise?”

Nisrioch smiled. “Of course! I want to show them our many marvels!”

Morgaine gave a feeble nod. “Yeah. It’s the special collection, though…”

Nisrioch’s smile only grew broader. “Exactly!”

Morgaine sighed and walked away. “You are hopeless, Nissy. You know that?”

Nisrioch gestured to the small room, cluttered with books and scrolls. “The special collection is something of a point of pride for myself,” he noted as Justinian and Jean walked in. “Before I started it, these books were abused--denied by their owners--even destroyed on occasion, by folk who did not understand their value. An art form lay on the verge of death! But now--” He gestured around the room. “Look at it. The first and largest of its kind.” He pulled a scroll from the shelf. “I’ve heard that Asterot Maganza has begun his own--but even he can’t have anything that rivals--THIS!” He unfurled the scroll and held it to Jean’s and Justinian’s faces. Justinian gasped.

On the scroll were elaborate drawings of men and women performing acts Justinian had never thought to see elaborate drawings of, and in some cases had never thought of at all. “Yes, a genuine Manual of Love from the era of King Sekhmet XV! A classic of pornography--nearly lost if not for my tireless efforts to preserve it! The Lands of Night’s ancient and redoubtable tradition of erotica and sexually explicit art--kept safe by my own two hands!” He handed Justinian the scroll, and gestured around the room. “And this is but a sample! We have such classics as The Joy of Man and Maid, Delight Among The Elms, and The Pindlar and the Five Nubile Shepherdesses!” He gave a satisfied nod. “Looking at this reminds me of all that I’ve accomplished with my life!” He glanced over into a corner and clicked his tongue. “Oh, dear. I keep telling Morgaine to clean up after herself when she’s done in here. Pardon me for a second.” And with that, he began to straighten up a pile of scrolls that had been left rather haphazardly on a shelf. “I do apologize for any inconvenience.”

Justinian gave a weak nod, still staring at the scroll. Jean leaned forward. “That one is anatomically impossible,” she noted pointing to a picture in the left hand corner.

“Bu--” Hoppedance started to caw.

“Not now,” hissed Jean.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part Six

Justinian glanced out at the courtyard. “What--is Lord Mansemat doing?”

“Oh, those are just his sword drills,” said Elaine. “It’s all part of his ultimate warrior-philosopher prince… thing. He does that for an hour, every day. Then goes off and writes a poem.”

Justinian nodded, as he watched the Dark Lord ritualistically swing his sword while rapidly going through a variety of poses. He was starting to feel rather--glad he’d attacked the wrong Dark Lord. “An hour a day?”

“Sometimes two, when he’s really in the groove,” noted Elaine casually. She leaned towards Justinian. “If it makes you feel better the poems aren’t very good.” Justinian continued to stare at Mansemat’s nimbly darting form. “So,” said Elaine after a while, “you seem really eager to see that chapel.”

“It’s not something that I expect an Erl to understand,” replied Justinian as they began to walk down a lengthy set of stairs.

“My father was a Milesian,” noted Elaine, scowling.

Justinian glanced at her. “And did he tell you of the Holy Light, and the Seven? Of how important they are to us?”

Elaine nervously bit her lip. “Umm--no. I never met him. He died. Before I was born. I think.”

Justinian nodded. “Ah.”

“And here we are!” announced Nisrioch, opening the door. “Our library.”

Jean stepped in first. “Umm--wow. That’s a lot of books.”

“The largest collection of books in the entirety of the Lands of Night,” said Nisrioch cheerfully. “With adjoining collections in maps, paintings, letters, and paraphernalia.”

“Many of which used to belong to other people,” noted Elaine acidly.

“Where possible we are righting that,” said Nisrioch calmly. “We will return any book in this collection to its original owner after we make a copy, if the owner so wishes.” He arched one white eyebrow. “You’ll be interested to know that many of them--such as your mother--have opted to leave them in our collection due to its high standard of care. One that they are not able to maintain themselves.” He turned to a shelf and carefully took a volume off it. “And of course, many of our books were purchased by completely legitimate means. For example, this lovely copy of Kvasir the Elder’s Tapestry of History.”

Elaine’s eyes widened, then narrowed again, fixing critically on the book. “Like a volume of the Tapestry is a prize,” she said with a snort. “You can’t throw a stick at a bookseller’s stall without a hitting an epitome. I own four myself. Mimir’s is the best.”

Nisrioch merely smiled. “This is a true edition.”

Elaine blinked. “Com--Complete?”

Nisrioch gestured to the shelf behind him. “All twelve quartos.”

Elaine looked away anxiously, biting her lip, while her fingers twitched almost eagerly. “Well--of course, the translation counts…”

“The Fafolt,” said Nisrioch.

“With--annotations?” asked Elaine, with eager hope.

“Oh, most definitely,” replied Nisrioch. “And--funny you should have mentioned Mimir’s epitome--this is his copy. In fact, we possess his collection--the one which he used to write his epitomes and of course, the Root of Wisdom.” He opened the book, and gestured to a page. “As you would doubtless guess, these volumes are filled with the most fascinating marginalia--in the master’s own hand, so to speak.”

Elaine stared at the page for a moment. Then, with an cheerful squeal she darted forward, and took the book from Nisrioch’s hands. Rushing to a nearby table, she set the book down and began to flip through the pages.

Jean and Justinian stared at the young woman as she eagerly read. “You--really take books seriously here in the Nightlands, don’t you?” noted Jean.

“Some of us do, yes,” said Nisrioch, as he lead them down a hallway. “Literature is a window into the past, an anodyne to a weary spirit, and a good way to waste some time.” He paused, as he noticed his charges had stopped before a large picture. “Ahh, taking in our family portrait?” He walked up to it, smiling. “Used to hang in the gallery, but it felt--happier here..”

Justinian nodded as he took in the picture. A beautiful, rather wan Erl woman with long black hair was seated in a large chair, a pleasant smile on her face. Two cheerful-looking children sat on her knees, while a white-haired youth that was obviously Nisrioch stood behind the chair, beaming at the others. “Your--mother?” Justinian asked quietly.

“Morgaine and Mansemat’s,” replied Nisrioch with a chuckle. “My mother--doesn’t sit for portraits.” He pointed at the woman. “Lady Shamhat Sekhmetides Maganza. A delightful woman. I wish you could have met her, but…” He sighed and shook his head. “She truly was too good for this imperfect world.”

Jean nodded. “That’s--too bad.” She leaned towards the picture. “So--why isn’t your father in this one?”

Nisrioch gave a bitter laugh. “I wish I could tell you something like ‘he painted it’, or ‘he wanted it as a gift’. But that would show a sort of humanity Lord Shaddad lacked.” He frowned. “He was elsewhere when it was painted. Either at Orvest, or Split Oak, I believe, doing what he did best--making people very sorry to know Lord Shaddad Cthonique.” Nisrioch turned away. “Honestly, it worked out best for all involved. Father got to enjoy himself massacring people who had offended him in some matter, and we got to have a picture that didn’t have him in it. One reason we’re all smiling.”

Justinian fell into step behind the Dark Lord again. “You really aren’t fond of him around here, are you?”

Nisrioch glanced at the Sacristan. “Squire Sigma, it is custom for noble houses to make donations in temples in return for the monks saying prayers for their dead. In our bequeathals, we specifically instruct them NOT to include Lord Shaddad. As many of them are presently praying for his soul to be subject to the tortures of Hell, they find the arrangement--agreeable.”

Justinian really couldn’t think of a response to that. Neither could Jean. Hoppedance on the other hand had one on the ready. “Bugger the bastard!” he cawed.

“Precisely,” said Nisrioch with a nod.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Terribel Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 5

“Behold, the Plains of Dread!” declared Nisrioch Cthonique, his arms outspread. Jean and Justinian peered over the rampart’s edge. The Plains spread out before them, a vast panoply of green and gold, sparkling in the late morning sun.

Jean blinked. “Wow. Very nice.” She glanced at Nisrioch. “Are you sure you have the right plains? Maybe something with an--I don’t know--ominous fog…?”

“Quite sure,” said Nisrioch with a cheerful nod. “It does mist up around this time of year in the early morning and late evening, but the effect is actually quite charming.”

Jean fidgeted slightly. “Yeah, but--well, I’ve been trading up and down the river for years, and I always sort of assumed they got more--dreadful further in.”

“Nope,” chirped Nisrioch. “Green and fair all the way through. Soil so fertile we sometimes get an extra harvest in, and just the right blend of rain and sunshine.” He gave a cheerful shake of his head. “Truly, I consider it one of the most lovely places in the Lands of Night AND Light.”

Jean frowned. “So--why did you people name it--the Plains of Dread?”

Nisrioch chuckled. “We didn’t. In the Dark Tongue--well, it has a lot of names, but my favorite translates--somewhat roughly--as ‘Grasslands Most Beloved by the Mother’.” He shrugged. “However, nobody really speaks the Dark Tongue anymore.”

Justinian turned. “Why would that be?”

Elaine, leaning back against an abutment, started. “Wha--? You don’t know?”

Justinian glanced at her. “Obviously not. Otherwise, I wouldn’t ask.”

Nisrioch looked at him, and raised an eyebrow. “Why, surely you know of your Holy Empire?” He gestured to the Plains. “Once they conquered and held all of this.”

Justinian nodded. “Of course. During the reign of the Alcides. A golden age for the Lands of Light.”

“Hmm,” said Nisrioch frowning slightly. “I suppose so. Though, of course, the local perspective is somewhat different.” He regarded Justinian intently. “During this time, the Empire dedicated itself to eliminating the Dark Tongue. And it more or less succeeded. Except for scholars, and isolated pockets of resistance whose own versions became--rather different over the succeeding years--the Dark Tongue died in a generation. We Nightfolk use your people’s tongue and your people’s names. Some of which are less than appropriate.” He shrugged. “The Accursed Marsh isn’t accursed, and isn’t all marshland. The Mountains of Sorrow are mostly not particularly sorrowful foothills. The Shadow Woods are no darker than any other forest--where they are in fact forest. Even the name of my race--the Erl--is a corruption of the Dark Tongue Alvar.” His rainbow-colored eyes seemed to darken with sorrow. “That is how much was lost.”

Jean stared at him. “Umm… sorry about that?”

Nisrioch sighed. “It can’t be helped now. But I appreciate the thought.”

Elaine stared at Justinian. “How can you not know this stuff? I mean--Jean I get--she’s--uneducated…”

“Hey!” said Jean. Then she blinked. “Okay, fair call. But still--not nice.”

Elaine continued. “But you’re a member of a Holy Order. You’re supposed to know things.”

Justinian stared at her. “I read what I must read as a righteous follower of the Holy Light. No more--no less.”

Nisrioch shook his head. “Whatever happened to ‘Be as a magnet for knowledge, seeking it always’?”

“You know the Declamations of Julian?” Justinian queried.

“My faith is--a more confident one than yours,” replied Nisrioch calmly.

Justinian frowned. “You’re misinterpreting it. Julian was exhorting us to seek knowledge and revelation of the Seven. Not selfish and profane knowledge.” His mouth tightened. “Listen--I understand why these actions of the Empire’s anger and upset you. But they were undertaken out of love, to steer you away from the wickedness and degradation into which you have fallen. And you repaid this concern with blood and treachery, shattering and destroying the Empire.”

“My goodness,” said Nisrioch. “So we did. What a pack of ingrates we were. It’s no wonder you abhor us.” He smiled broadly. “Ahh, well. All water under the bridge now. Several hundred bridges, actually. No use dwelling in the past when the present is here and the future is beckoning. To our next stop! The prize jewel of Castle Terribel!”

As he lead them over the rampart, Jean darted up to his side. “Hey--if we can’t trust the names--well--what’s the Screaming Waste like?”

Nisrioch shrugged. “You can trust SOME of the names. The Screaming Waste is a waste. And it screams. Just like the Weeping Waste is a waste that weeps.”

Jean nodded. “Ahh. Good to know.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 4

Elaine watched as Jean fanned the unconscious Justinian’s face. “What did she say to him?” the young river trader asked.

Elaine shrugged. “Mom’s the Badb. Mind-numbing terror is a specialty.” She spread her hands. “Plus he skipped breakfast. That can throw you off.”

Jean sighed. “Yeah. Poor Justinian. He keeps trying to play the hero, but he just doesn’t measure up.”

“Are you and he…?” Elaine asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Of course not,” said Jean with a snort. “He’s practically a monk. And I mean that literally. He used to go off on being ‘just one vow away from a lifetime in service to the Seven’. It could get very irritating…”

Justinian’s eyes blinked open. He glanced around, uneasily. “Is--is she gone?”

Elaine nodded. “Yep.”

“Can I ask…?” began Jean.

“No, I will not tell you what she said,” stated Justinian, rising to his feet. “Truth be told, I want to get it out of my head.” He shuddered, then glanced at Elaine. “Your mother is a singularly terrifying woman.”

Elaine looked away. “She’s the Badb. It comes with the territory.”

Jean smiled at her. “And one day, all this will be yours.”

“I’m not the Nemain,” snapped Elaine.

“The what?” said Justinian.

“The Nemain,” explained Elaine. “The Badb’s heir. I’m not the Nemain. Understand?”

“Not--really,” muttered Jean awkwardly. “I--thought being the Badb was a family thing.”

“It is,” seethed Elaine. “This is--sort of a big deal. In all kind of ways.”

“In what…?” began Justinian.

Jean motioned for him to stop. “I’m going to guess in all sorts of ‘not really our business’ ways.”

Elaine nodded. “Very--good--guess.”

Jean took a bow. “I am a magician.”

“Actually, I’m a magician,” noted Nisrioch, leaning forwards. “You’re a conjurer.”

Justinian stared at the tall Erl. “How--long have you…?”

“Just got here,” declared Nisrioch. “I’m very stealthy when I want to be.” He smiled at the Sacristan. “Heard you want to see the chapel?”

Justinian looked away. “Uhh… yes…”

Nisrioch nodded. “Oh, excellent! I was so hoping to give you two the grand tour so to speak!” He grinned at Elaine. “Perhaps you would like to come along?”

Elaine fidgeted slightly. “Yeah, I’d love to, but I have… other things to do…”

“Put them off!” suggested Nisrioch cheerfully. “That’s what I am doing. I have some dreadfully interesting arcane experiments I was planning. Ones that could allow me to crack the veil of obscurity on several subjects and understand the fundamental laws of our world. But I’m putting them off.” He stared at Elaine in ardent interest. “So what are you planning on doing?”

Elaine glanced away. “It can wait.” She forced a smile. “So--tour of Castle Terribel?”

Nisrioch nodded. “Excellent!” He turned and headed for a nearby staircase. “I think you’ll find I know this place better than anyone! Oh, it shall be splendid!”

As they followed the Dark Lord, Jean glanced at Hoppedance. “Viviane’s really got you spooked, hasn’t she? You haven’t said a peep.”

“Go bugger yerself,” cawed the crow. Very quietly.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 3

Justinian looked around the crowded dining hall. He had, it seemed, missed breakfast--and to judge by the platters being carried off, it had been a large one. Still--that was probably for the best. He was a Sacristan, pledged to poverty, and sworn to eternal war against the blandishments of Darkness. Especially--bacon. Cured in maple syrup if his nose wasn’t deceiving him.

Justinian told his stomach to stop grumbling. That rebellious, sinful organ refused to follow his instructions. And that was when Hoppedance landed on his shoulders.

“Shit-for-brains!” cawed the crow.

Justinian knew that Hoppedance was a witless animal, whose horrifically well-timed utterances were nothing more than coincidence, and that despite these appearances, the crow could not in fact understand human speech. Despite knowing this, he declared, “Look, I know we’ve gotten off to a bad start, but I’d appreciate it if--”

“Sigma!” declared Jean, appearing at his shoulder. “Glad you could make it!” She grinned at him. “At your--morning prayers a bit longer than normal?”

Justinian stared at her resentfully, as her crow flew to her. “No. I overslept, and then had an… internal debate on my apparel. Among other things.”

Jean looked him over. “You had to--debate whether to dress--like that?” She shook her head. “That doesn’t say much for your judgment. You look--like a farmer with a petition he wants read.”

Justinian’s eyes narrowed. “A Sacristan is expected to keep himself presentable yet modest in dress, so that he upholds both the knightly ideal of graciousness and the priestly ideal of humility, and by upholding both, makes both greater.” He leaned forward. “Also, as this clothing is a gift of the Dark Lords of House Cthonique, I have had to weigh carefully what would be seeing to my needs, and what would be succumbing to the temptations of Darkness.”

Jean snorted. “As opposed to an unrepentant sinner, like myself?”

“Exactly,” stated Justinian pointedly.

“I’m in blasted silk for the first time in my life,” noted Jean. “So, the unrepentant sinner thing--it’s working out for me.”

Justinian nodded. “For now.” He smiled. “‘Heavy shall hang the head of the scoffer under the weight of heaven, when the world is broken, and all is made anew’.”

There was an impressed whistle to Justinian’s left. “Wow! You just--rattle that stuff off, don’t you?”

Justinian turned and regarded Elaine. He gave her a sweeping bow. “My lady. I--did not see you there. My humble apologies.”

Elaine stared at him. “I thought I was--one of the temptations of Darkness. Or--whatever.”

Justinian took a deep breath. “You are, in fact, a scion of Darkness, and a member of an accursed lineage that blights the Lands of Light and defies the Will of the Serene Seven. But you are still a noblewoman, deserving of all the respect that rank allows, and if I failed to show you this earlier, I most humbly apologize. As is written in the Porphriad, ‘All things under Heaven have been placed so for Heaven’s reasons, even those that go against the Will of Heaven’.”

Elaine blinked. And then burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, that makes no sense. So--Heaven is behind everything--that‘s against Heaven.”

Justinian nodded. “That is more or less correct.”

Elaine smiled slightly. “So--Heaven--by your reasoning--is against Heaven?” Jean raised a hand to her mouth, and snickered.

Justinian sighed. “Let’s leave theology for another time. I--need to speak to--your father. My lady.”

“My stepfather,” said Elaine. She turned and beckoned him to follow. “I’ll take you right to him.” Justinian quickly fell into step behind her, with Jean hovering next to him, and Hoppedance hovering next to her in a more literal fashion. The crowd politely parted for her as she lead them though it--Justinian found himself wondering if Elaine was even aware of this fact.

“So--” he began, in a somewhat desperate attempt at conversation, “have your mother and Mansemat been--married long?”

“They kissed the axe four months ago,” replied Elaine evenly.

“They--what?” Justinian stared at her, hoping for some clarification.

Elaine paused, and regarded the Sacristan, puzzled. “They--kissed the axe. You know--the marriage ceremony. Where they both hold an axe between them. And pledge mutual support and protection. And then--kiss it.”

“Ahh.” Justinian gave an awkward nod. “The ceremony in the Lands of Light is… somewhat different.”

Elaine stared at him, clearly quite interested. “What do you do there?”

“Usually the couple goes to a priest, and he--sanctifies their union.” Justinian shrugged. “If they’re from wealthy families, they might exchange rings.”

Elaine stepped towards him. “What’s that?”

Justinian took a step backward. “Well, the wife gives the husband her family ring to show that she--is giving up their protection, and the husband gives her his family ring to show that--she’s under his.”

“Hmm.” Elaine wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “You Milesians are weird, you know that?”

Justinian winced. “I am starting to realize that our customs seem as strange to you as yours do to us, yes.”

Elaine sighed. “Not quite what I meant.” She turned around. “Come on. You wanted to see my parents.”

Mansemat and Viviane were in a small gallery, talking. Their whispered conversation came to an end as they saw Elaine and her companions heading towards them. “Elaine!” said Viviane, stepping forward. She affectionately stroked her daughter’s cheek. “Having a good morning, dear?”

Elaine stiffened somewhat at her mother’s touch. “I’ve been chatting with--Jean, and--Justinian some.” She nodded slightly. “It’s been--all right.”

Viviane regarded the pair for a moment, a slight frown on her face. “Ahh. Yes.” She managed a weak smile. “Hello. I hope you are both--enjoying Castle Terribel.”

“As do I,” declared Mansemat, making a stately bow. “Despite the--unconventional beginning of our--association, I consider you guests and sworn servitors, to whom I am obligated to prove a worthy host.”

Jean smiled. “Finest place I’ve ever been. Then again, it’s not facing any stiff competition.” She coughed, and then managed a curtsy. “Jehannine, daughter of Gautier of the Riverfolk, called by all and sundry ‘Jean Crow’.” Her crow lighted on her outstretched hand. “And this is Hoppedance.”

“Bugger the bastards,” he cawed loudly. Mansemat and Viviane stared at the two in bafflement.

Jean smiled nervously. “I trained him to speak when I was twelve. I’ve come to regret this.”

Viviane nodded. “I’d hope so.” She looked the crow in the eye. “All right, Hoppedance--you can have as filthy a tongue as you like, in general, but I’d like you to watch your tongue in front of me and my daughters. Am I understood?”

“Go bu--” began the crow.

Viviane merely raised an eyebrow. “Go on. Finish that sentence. I dare you.”

Hoppedance hid his beak behind a wing. Jean blinked, then glanced at Viviane. “How’d you--?”

Viviane smiled. “It’s a gift.”

Justinian stepped forward. “I feel I also owe you an introduction. Justinian Sigma, Squire of the Knightly Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian.” He managed a bow. “Your--Lordship, I wish to discuss certain matters.”

Mansemat smiled. “Of course. Though, I should point out that the proper mode of address is ‘Your Magnificence’.” He coughed slightly and looked away. “Not that I really care, but it will avoid embarrassment when we have company over.”

Justinian nodded. “I will remember this, Dark Lord.” He shut his eyes. “Sir--it is about--the icon of--Mother Night in my room. I wish it removed.”

Mansemat stared at Justinian blandly. “I am sorry, Squire Sigma--but I cannot comply with this request. I hold the Darksome Lady in the highest regard. This would constitute an insult on Her August and Serene Majesty. ”

Justinian realized he was waiting for Mansemat to perform the ‘forehead, mouth, heart’ gesture. The Dark Lord didn’t seem about to. “I understand that you Nightfolk hold these idols in high--”

“They are icons,” declared Mansemat. “Not idols.”

Justinian nodded. “Understood. But I do not wish to be near a thing of my spiritual foe.”

“Then you are an unfortunate man,” declared Mansemat calmly. “All things are of Mother Night. None lie beyond Her grasp.” His thin black eyebrows raised slightly, while his emerald green eyes narrowed. “Understand, Squire Sigma--our icons show our reverence and spiritual closeness to the Darksome Lady. That is all. If I took it from your room, She would still be there. Only She’d be angry. And that is not something any of us want.”

Justinian blinked. Somehow that sentiment didn’t seem easy to dismiss, on this side of the Murkenmere. “Very well then.” He glanced away. “I--believe you have a chapel to the Holy Light here…”

Mansemat nodded. “I’ll have Nisrioch take you to it. He mentioned--showing you around earlier.”

Justinian bowed. “Thank you, Your Magnificence.”

Viviane stepped forward. “You know--I’d like to take this opportunity to make something clear.”

Justinian turned to look at her. “Yes, milady?”

Viviane smiled at him. “Well, Lord Nisrioch has vouched for you and told me he has made sure that all things are under control. But--you’re going to be spending time with my daughter…”

“I’m right here, Mom,” noted Elaine.

Viviane ignored her, leaning in towards Justinian’s ear. “And if you do anything--anything at all--to hurt Elaine, I will…” And then she whispered exactly what she would do to Justinian, in a calm, pleasant voice, smiling all the while.

When she finished, Justinian got very pale. And then he fainted.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 2

Elaine was of two minds of breakfast at Castle Terribel.

On the one hand, the Cthoniques had a magnificent spread. At the Cthoniques’ breakfast table, Elaine had come to enjoy foods she’d only heard vague rumors of before. Everything was prepared well, and in sizable quantities.

On the other hand, it was a rather chaotic affair. As opposed to dinner, where there was ritual, places, and settings, for breakfast the Cthoniques simply heaped food on a table and invited people to serve themselves. And people did. The Cthoniques. The Guard. The servants. The servants’ families. Everyone stopped by the table, took what they wanted and then found a convenient place to eat. And ate. And chatted. And sang. And squabbled.

“--I’m telling you, bro--it WON’T work!” said Morgaine. “The celestial and terrestrial forces will simply cancel each other out.”

“Bah!” said Nisrioch emphatically. “Nullification requires a concerted, directed effort. Maugrys and Bungay demonstrated this…”

“In a controlled setting with only the pettiest of charms!” replied Morgaine triumphantly. “Nissy--in the parameters you’re setting, you’re just going to get a big lot of nothing! At best some stray dweomer will leak out--and probably be as unstable as all hell to boot!”

Elaine sighed as she helped herself to some eggs. As irritating as these--conversations of Nisrioch and Morgaine’s could be, at least while they had them, one could somewhat understand how their fearful reputation as sorcerers had come about.

“HEY!” shouted Morgaine. “Are you--you’re finishing off the marmalade!” She took the butter knife off her plate and knocked Nisrioch’s away from the marmalade jar.

Nisrioch turned to his sister and raised his butter knife in reply. “En garde!” he declared, and struck her knife with his own.

Morgaine parried, a confident smile on her face. “The marmalade shall be MINE, fool! I have sworn it!”

“Upon my life, I deny you, blackguard!” shouted Nisrioch, as their knives clattered against each other.

Elaine winced. Yes, as opposed to--times like these. When they appeared to be a pair of lunatics.

“Wow. Are they always like that?”

Elaine started at the voice at her shoulder. “Oh. Miss Crow.” She managed a polite cough. “You’re up.” She glanced back at Morgaine and Nisrioch. “Yeah. More or less.”

“Just call me ‘Jean’,” declared the former river trader, eyes darting over the food. “Never felt like much of a ‘Miss’.” Elaine nodded, and regarded her newly-appointed companion. Jean Crow had apparently had her first taste of Castle Terribel’s baths the night before; she was clean and well-dressed in a pretty green silk gown, her long black hair hanging down past her shoulders. One could almost imagine she was a princess.

If you ignored little things, like the broken nose, the lack of carriage, and of course, her vocabulary. “Bloody hell and fiery damnation,” muttered Jean under her breath. “This is a shitload of food! You Cthoniques sure know how to eat!” She pointed to a bowl. “What’s that stuff?”

“Pomegranate seeds,” said Elaine. “They taste a bit funny, but they’re pretty good.” Elaine watched as Jean began to heap the seeds on her plate. “So--Lord Nisrioch tells me you‘re going to--be living here?”

Jean nodded while sampling a pastry. “Yep. As your professional buddy.” She shrugged. “So we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

Elaine looked away. “Where’s your bird?”

As if on cue, the crow flapped down from the rafters of the dining hall. “Bugger the bastards! Bugger the bastards!” it squawked.

“I figured Hoppedance might be a bit--rough for this company,” Jean said, chomping on a pear. She glanced at Nisrioch and Morgaine, whose mock-swordfight had taken them onto a nearby table. “But honestly, you Cthoniques seem pretty laidback for nobility,”

“I’m a du Lac,” declared Elaine. “We’re older than the Cthoniques. We’re older than anybody.” She looked at Jean intently. “The Badbs predate the Nine Lords of Darkness. We weren’t even called House du Lac then--but it was us. Ancient, powerful, and eternal. There’s always been a Witch-Queen in the Accursed Marshes. Always.”

Jean stared at her for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. I’ll try to remember that.” She looked Elaine over. “Just one question--if that’s the case--why are you in--pantaloons?”

Elaine blinked, and then despite herself, laughed. “I said we were old. Not that we were snooty.” She shrugged. “And I find them comfortable.”

Jean nodded and glanced around the hall. “So where are Lord Mansemat and the Badb sitting? I’d like to get a look at them.”

Elaine gestured over to a corner. Mansemat and her mother were eating berries dipped in cream. Or rather, they were feeding each other berries dipped in cream. By hand. With the occasional mutual giggle.

Elaine reminded herself that she was going to try and not let things like this bother her.

Jean stared at them, her jaw open. “But they’re so--so young!” She turned to Elaine. “I mean--I know they must seem--older to you, but--I thought they’d be--well--old! The Badb looks more like your sister than your mother! How young was she when she had you?”

Elaine raised a single eyebrow. “Quite young.” She served herself a slice of melon. “I always thought you river folk were clever and good with words.”

Jean laughed awkwardly. “That was my father. I just trained my crow to dance and did magic tricks.” She handed Elaine a bracelet. “Is this yours?”

Elaine stared at the bracelet, which she had sworn had been securely on her arm a short while ago. “I’m guessing that your audience didn’t always know you were ‘performing’ while you did your… tricks.”

“Not as often as you think,” said Jean, walking over to a small table, and taking a seat.. “Less money in picking pockets than people realize. The risk is rarely worth it. Getting run out of town isn’t fun. And it can come back to haunt you.” She scooped up a spoonful of pomegranate seeds. “Anyway--sorry if I offended you. I was just--surprised. The Dark Lords--aren’t what I expected.”

Elaine nodded as she sat down. “Lord Mansemat--can be somewhat disappointing,” she said quietly.

“I wouldn’t say I was disappointed!” said Jean, throwing the Dark Lord an admiring glance. Mansemat was kissing Viviane’s fingertips. “Well--perhaps about the ‘married’ part.”

Elaine wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Ick. You…”

“Let me guess--‘I’m shameless’?” said Jean archly. “I’ve been hearing that an awful lot lately.”

“No, I was going to say you’re really bad at this whole ‘polite conversation’ thing,” noted Elaine.

Jean nodded. “Oh, I’m shit at it. Comes of living on a boat most of your life. And spending the last year with only this little bastard for company hasn’t helped.” She gave Hoppedance an affectionate pat.

“Go bugger yerself!” the crow squawked, affectionately rubbing himself against her hand.

“What happened to your father?” asked Elaine, nibbling on her melon.

“He died,” said Jean. “Drowned, actually.”

“Oh. Sorry,” muttered Elaine quickly.

Jean waved her hand. “It--it happens. When you owe the River your livelihood, you owe the River your life. And the River generally collects.” Jean glanced around as a strange popping noise filled the air.

“Hey, Sis!” chirped Malina. She smiled at Jean. “Oh, wow! You’re the crow lady!”

Jean nodded nervously. “Yep. I certainly am. Jean Crow, at your service.” She coughed. “How’d you get here?”

Malina beamed with pride. “I apported here. I’m very good at it.”

Elaine smiled at her stepsister. “And she’s also a good flyer.”

Malina nodded. “Yes.” She glanced over at the great table. “Are there still crullers?”

Elaine took another bite from her melon. “Last time I checked.”

“Yay!” shouted Malina, rushing to the breakfast table, her wings trailing behind her.

Jean watched the young Dev hurry away. “How do you get used to this place?” she asked Elaine.

“HA! I am VICTORIOUS!” bellowed Morgaine, holding the marmalade jar aloft. “The delightful fruit spread of my choice is SECURE! I shall enjoy it on a slice of toast! No, TWO sl--” Morgaine glanced into the jar and let out a despairing moan. “No! No! It’s gone! While we quarreled over it--others finished it off!”

Nisrioch gave out a deep sob. “Such is always the way of war, sister! Oh, what fools we have been!”

Elaine glanced at Jean. “I’ll tell you when I’ve done it. Three--no, four months now. And counting.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 1

Justinian Sigma opened his eyes. Oh, radiant Uriel, sublime Anael, mighty Ramiel, wise Ophiel, magnificent Tamiel, enduring Sofiel, and resplendent Jehuel--I have no candles to burn at the moment, but I beg you--protect your servant from all the blandishments of Darkness, he prayed. Especially amazingly comfortable beds.

For most of his life, Justinian had slept on a straw pallet. This was not an extremely comfortable thing to do--it was itchy and hard and had to be cleaned out every month to take care of mildew and fleas. The Dark Lords had given him a luxurious--to his mind at least--and sizable bed with an incredibly soft mattress. This experience was quite new to him, and had apparently resulted in his sleeping a bit longer than he was used to. Judging by the sunlight pouring through the window. And the knocking at the door.

Yes, he had to do something about that. “Umm, hello?” he asked quietly.

“Hello,” answered an equally quiet voice. “This is Eurydice. The chambermaid.” The voice paused. “I was just wondering if you’ll be up soon. And--when you wanted your room turned out. And--stuff.”

“Uhh, yes.” Justinian sat up and began to get himself together. “Just--um, let me get dressed, and we can discuss this--well, face to face…” He looked around the room. “Where are my clothes?”

“In the wardrobe! By the fireplace!”

“No!” said Justinian. “I meant MY clothes! That I was wearing!”

“Oh--those things!” said Eurydice dismissively. “I--sent them out to get washed!” She coughed. “You left them in the--entry hall. If you’re--wondering how I got them. ”

Justinian nodded. He had been wondering that actually. “Ahh. Thank you.”

“Right. I didn’t go--I wouldn’t--I--I’m a good girl, sir!”

“Understood.” He glanced around the room looking for the wardrobe, and noticed a small black cabinet in the corner. Figuring that was it, he went to it and tried to open it. It was apparently latched. A closer examination found a keyhole with a small black key in it. Turning it, he opened the cabinet and looked inside.

It was not a wardrobe.

“WHAT IS THIS?” shouted Justinian at the top of his lungs.

Eurydice apparently overcame the bashfulness that had put her on the other side of the door, and ran in. “What’s wrong, sir? What’s--?” And here she paused and gave a little squeak at seeing Justinian in his nightshirt.

Justinian blushed as she covered her eyes, and grabbed a blanket off his bed. As he wrapped it around himself, it occurred to him that he’d know nuns less bashful then this Nightlander. She was--very clearly--an Erl, though truth be told, Justinian had never imagined one could have a pug nose. “All right--I’m--decent now. Relatively anyway.”

Eurydice uncovered her eyes and looked Justinian over, her expression not entirely approving. “S-sorry about that, sir. I--when you yelled--I thought…” She coughed. “So what’s--wrong, sir?”

Justinian gestured to the cabinet. Inside was an image, carved in wood and embossed with gold and precious stones, of a crowned woman with a serene expression riding on the back of a dragon. Eurydice took one look at it, and gave a slight bow, touching her left hand to her forehead, her mouth and her heart before turning back to Justinian. “That’s your room’s icon, sir.”

Justinian stared at her blankly. “The--icon?”

“Yes,” said Eurydice, clearly wondering what sort of man didn’t know about icons. “Of Unholy Mother Night.” And again she touched her left hand to her forehead, her mouth and her heart. As she finished, she smiled at him weakly. “Were you--at your devotions to the Darksome Lady? Sir?”

Justinian winced. “No. I am a worshipper of the Holy Light.”

“Ohhhh!” declared Eurydice with a nod. “So you’ll be down at the chapel then?” She smiled. “Well, that’s good! It’s been a while since it’s seen use. Such a shame too--it’s so pretty.” She blinked. “Ooh! I’ll get Antigone and Echidnae to give it a light dusting! So when you do your devotions it will be all ready for you!”

Justinian took a deep breath. “You have a chapel for the Holy Light here?”

Eurydice nodded again. “Oh, yes. Lord Enil built it. But that was before my time!” She turned back to the icon, once again touching her left hand to forehead, mouth, and heart. “Will you make an offering then? For the Darksome Lady?” And again--forehead, mouth, and heart.

“No,” said Justinian narrowing his eyes. “I will not.”

Eurydice turned to him in utter shock. “But--that--you--the icon…” Her lip trembled. “It’s uncovered. You’re supposed to--She gets mad if you don’t.” And again--forehead, mouth, and heart.

Justinian was strongly considering asking her to stop that, but suspected that would make the present situation worse. “I am a worshipper of the Holy Light. Which opposes Douma Dalkiel--or as you call her Mother Night.” He nodded slightly to himself as Eurydice went through the by now very familiar hand motions. “My Faith sees her as the enemy of Light.”

“How--how can you think so, sir?” she asked, her expression puzzled and sad. “It is from Darkness that Light is born, and to it Light shall return. How can you think She hates Her children? And that Her children hate Her?”

Justinian waited for her to finish her gesticulations. “I--do not see things that way. Light is Light. Dark is Dark. And that is the way of things.”

Eurydice nodded dolefully. “I… see.” She looked at her feet. “May--I make an offering, sir?” She looked at him furtively. “Please?”

He stared back at her for awhile. “Very well,” Justinian finally said with a sigh. “But make it brief.” He sat down on his bed. If she tries to sacrifice something, I am going to stop it, he thought. Even if she does burst into tears and goes through a hundred more repetitions of those damn gestures.

Fortunately for Justinian’s ease of mind, the offering was nothing more than a stick of incense from a small drawer in the cabinet. Eurydice quickly set it alight, and genuflected before the icon. “Oh, most blessed Mother Night--may we find favor in your sight--and underneath the stars so bright--help us keep the way that’s right,” she recited.

Truth be told, Justinian was rather disappointed. He’d expected something more--memorable from Nightfolk religious beliefs. But perhaps they kept the human sacrifices for the more--significant rites.

Eurydice rose, blew out the incense, and then shut and locked the cabinet. She turned to Justinian and smiled. “Thank you, sir,” she said with a bow. And then she darted out of the chamber.

Justinian shook his head. It was clear that his sojourn among the Nightfolk was going to be difficult in ways he hadn’t thought it would be. But still, he was sure he’d muddle through somehow.

And that was when he realized he still needed to get dressed.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 24

Mansemat stood on the Grand Balcony, looking at the North Courtyard. The Emporium’s delegates had been and gone, the trade agreement was signed and sealed, and most marvelous of all, he’d seen Elaine smiling this morning. And she hadn’t stopped simply because he was in the room.

True, there’d been some very strange occurrences as well, but on the whole, the trip had gone rather well. By his estimation, at least.

“Well, you’re looking happy, Manny,” said Nisrioch, walking up beside his brother.

Mansemat laughed. “Oh, just thinking about our little trip. It went--rather well, all together.” He glanced at Nisrioch. “Your--prisoners…”

“I’ve given Justinian and Jean some very nice apartments in the Hall of Eternal Mystery,” said Nisrioch. “And they’re not prisoners. They’re employees.”

“Yeah, I don’t think they see that distinction,” said Morgaine sharply, walking out to join her brothers. “What with the death sentence hanging over their heads.”

“I like people to be motivated,” said Nisrioch simply. “How’s the hangover?”

Morgaine shrugged. “It’s moved past ‘apocalyptic’ into merely ‘horrific’. Thanks for asking.” She winced, and rubbed her temples. “Ow. Raised my voice a little too high there.”

Nisrioch smiled at her. “Just hang in there, sis. This too shall pass.” He glanced at Mansemat, who was continuing to stare at him in a rather fixed matter. “Manny--are you musing again?”

Mansemat nodded. “Just a tad. It simply--occurred to me that you were a major supporter of attending the Harvest Festival. And that you were the one whose--comments sent the Goblins there.”

“Why I suppose I was. Fancy that.” Nisrioch glanced innocently up at the sky.

“Nissy, don’t try and pretend you didn’t have a scheme going on,” said Mansemat. “I’ve known you my entire life, and after twenty-six years, I’ve managed to recognize that extra pinch of smug you develop when a plan goes off exactly as you wished.” Mansemat smiled. “So what was it?”

Nisrioch sighed. “Oh, Manny--you are so suspicious. Has it occurred to you that I simply wished a splendid time to be had by all?” He shrugged. “And if--perhaps, closer ties were established between the Milesian settlements and the Emporium--well, let peace and plenty flow like the waters of the Murkenmere, that’s my motto.”

Mansemat eyes narrowed. “Indeed.”

“Yes, like the waters of the Murkenmere,” said Nisrioch, the levity slowly draining from his voice. “Which one day you must cross.”

Mansemat took a deep breath. “Nissy, not this again! I’ve told you, we mu--”

“Let me finish, Manny,” said Nisrioch. “One day, you must cross the river, as so many have done before you. Lords of Night, seeking to conquer the Lands of Light. Lords of Light, seeking to destroy the Lands of Night. Failures, all of them, leaving nothing behind them, but bones, ashes, and if they are lucky, a tale to be told to encourage the next poor fools to cross the river. Thus it has been, always and forever.” He regarded his brother, his eyes gleaming in the light. “You may be able to escape their fate, oh, Lord Mansemat, my brother, if there are those in the Lands of Light who see you as a man, not a monster. If they see that you dream and hope, and love and live, as they do.” Nisrioch shut his eyes. “Yes, this you may do, if you have the courage to do what must be done, the strength to see it through--and the heart that knows exactly what ‘it’ is. Or so my Sight tells me. I See things but dimly, after all.”

Mansemat nodded. “Of course, Nissy, one could point out that it goes both ways. That by having me deal with Milesians, you ensure that I view them as beings like myself.”

“Hmmm. I suppose one could,” noted Nisrioch quietly.

Mansemat smiled sadly. “Still following your vision, I see?”

Nisrioch smiled back. “If I do not chase my dream, Manny, then I will be nothing, and have done nothing but ill for this world in the grand scheme of things. But in this know that always, I’m looking out for you, little brother.”

Mansemat fondly grabbed his brother’s arm. “I never doubt it, Nissy. I never doubt it.”

“Awwww,” said Morgaine. She rushed forward, and put her arms around her brothers’ waists. “Cthonique family hug!” She winced. “Ow! Got to remember to watch my voice…”

Mansemat gently broke away from them. “Well, I should be off.” He took a few steps away, then turned to look at his siblings. “I love you two. Despite all the little troubles you cause.” He shook his head and chuckled. “By the Eternal Darkness, sometimes I love you because of them.”

Morgaine watched him head inside, then looked at Nisrioch. “You know, Nissy--about that spiel you gave him on the Harvest Festival…” She grinned. “I personally got the impression that the big deal for you was the food.”

Nisrioch nodded. “That was a significant part in my decision to go there, yes.”

Morgaine laughed. “Tell me, Nissy--do you actually have these subtle, brilliant plans all mapped out--or do you just do what you want, figure out how it advantages you, and then emphasize that so that you look like an extraordinary genius?”

“I operate by a combination of both,” said Nisrioch with a smile, “though the exact proportions of each I shall leave unknown, to keep my eerie mystique.”

Morgaine narrowed her eyes at her brother. Suddenly, a loud shriek was heard, followed by Mansemat screaming “Get it off me! Get it off me!”

Nisrioch blinked. “My--it’s already next week, isn’t it?”

Morgaine grinned. “I warned him. So, Nissy--want to see our little brother fend off an undead ferret?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Nisrioch, heading inside with his sister. And so life in Castle Terribel went on as normal.

By a rather relative measure of ‘normal’, of course.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 23

Elaine watched as Mansemat untied the gryphons from the tree to which they’d been tethered. A rather large crowd of children had gathered around the beasts, and had been watching them eat with amazed interest. Mansemat kept glancing at the crowd nervously, while scratching the gryphons’ heads affectionately. He lead the beasts forward, the children quickly darting out of his way. As he rejoined the other Cthoniques, he turned and took another look at the crowd, then smiled. “Molasses, Bloodwing--bow for the nice children.”

The gryphons lowered their upper halves to the ground in perfect unison. The children laughed and clapped in appreciation. Viviane glanced at her husband. “Show-off.”

“I just want to instill a healthy love for these noble creatures in the hearts of those children,” said Mansemat.

“And that’s why you trained them to bow,” said Viviane.

“It took me weeks to do that,” said Mansemat. “Please don’t spoil this for me.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with a laugh. “It really is sweet.” She leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek.

Mansemat blushed slightly and chuckled. “Okay, you’re right,” he noted, placing a hand on his forehead. “It is a silly thing to do. I’m a silly man sometimes.”

Viviane giggled and grabbed his arm. “And that’s why I married you. I needed someone to be silly with.”

Elaine bit her lip. It was time to just--accept it. Her mother was married to Mansemat Cthonique. Because he made her happy. And vice versa. They really were in love, and wanting them not to be in love, and for Mansemat to be a terrible, evil person she could safely hate was not going to accomplish anything.

Her head was onboard with this. Her heart was proving more problematic. And her stomach was insisting on having a sinking, queasy feeling. Though that might have just been the Harvest Festival food, some of which was best described as grease fried in grease, topped with sugared grease, with perhaps a little grease on the side.

Elaine was suddenly very glad to be going home to Castle Terribel, which had a remarkably clean and unobtrusive privy system.

As the Cthoniques prepared to leave, a sound of music being played was heard from the Festival grounds. Elaine turned. “What’s…”

“I think the Emporium is giving a concert,” said Nisrioch. “As a sort of thank you for Ulverrun’s hospitality.”

“Oh.” Elaine nodded. “It’s really… pretty.” She began to hum along with it.

Nisrioch raised his hand. “Might want to hold off on the take-off, Manny. At least until ‘Bobadil’s Overture in G Major’ is finished.”

Mansemat glanced at his brother. “Why would I--?” At which point a large explosion cut off his question.

“Wha’s going on?” asked Malina, awakening in Viviane’s arms with a yawn. She looked up and saw the rockets going off. “Ooooh! Pretty!”

“Keep it down!” yelled Morgaine from her perch on Nisrioch’s shoulders. She clutched her head. “Oww. Nissy, is the banging in my head, or out of it?”

“I believe both at once, Morgaine,” said Nisrioch calmly.

“Damn it, why does getting drunk have to feel so good while you‘re doing it? And so shitty afterwards?” she noted to no one in particular.

Elaine looked up at the fireworks demonstration going off in harmony with the music. “So--why are they doing this?”

“Goblins feel that no work of music is complete without explosions,” said Nisrioch. “Which is why, despite its amazing harmonics, Goblin orchestration has not made it into enclosed music halls.”

“Oh.” Elaine nodded. “Kind of neat, actually.” She stood there, with her family , listening to the music and watching the fireworks. The show ended with a massive display, bursting red, and yellow, and purple in the sky. She turned to say something to Malina, and saw it. Mansemat and her mother. Kissing. And not some casual little sign of affection. This was the sort of the kiss that showed up in romantic ballads, accompanied by elaborate descriptions and metaphors involving paradise and wine and honey. Elaine sighed and looked away. The worst part of it all was that Morgaine had been right earlier. They were an incredibly cute couple.

It didn’t take long to get ready to go once the show was over. Elaine sat in her mother’s mortar, watching the ground gradually get further, and further away. “So, how was it?” asked Viviane.

Elaine looked at her mother, waving her pestle in the air to help get them afloat. “It was… I don’t know, Mom. Something.”

Viviane looked at her. “Well, did you have fun?”

Elaine shut her eyes. “Some.” She took a deep breath. “It was… good seeing Ulverrun again. But I’m ready to go home now.”

“That’s… nice to hear,” said Viviane, smiling gently.

“Are you ready to fly back now, Viviane?” asked Mansemat.

Viviane turned and grinned at her husband. “Oh, I’m ready. Are you?”

Mansemat raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I follow you, nightshade petals…”

“A race,” Viviane said cheerfully. “You up for one?”

“Well, it’s a bit late--you’ve got the girls with you…,” noted Mansemat apologetically.

“So that’s a ‘no’ then,” said Viviane, with just the subtlest hint of mockery in her tone.

Mansemat’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, it is on.” He leaned forward. “We go on ‘three’.” He patted Molasses’s head. “Three.”

“Why, you cheater!“ laughed Viviane as she took off after her husband’s vanishing form. As Malina cheered, Elaine shut her eyes, and felt the wind blow over her face. She couldn’t say life was good, but it wasn’t bad. And that counted for something. It really did.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 22

“Well, a brilliant plan,” declared Jean. “Tell me--what step was ‘failing to kill the wrong damn Dark Lord, and getting captured’? Was it step five, maybe? Or perhaps six?”

“You don’t have to tell me I failed,” muttered Justinian grimly.

“Yeah, but it’s fun,” she replied. “If I’m going to be stuck here because your shitty plan backfired, that’s something I’ll need a lot of.”

“You’re here because you tried to kill the Dark Lord. Despite my telling you to just run!” Justinian stared at her. “What made you DO that?”

“I honestly don’t know!” shouted Jean. “Looking back I think I was worried about your sorry ass! Damned stupid of me, eh?”

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

Justinian glanced at the crow. “I’m amazed that… bird found you again.”

Jean gave her pet an affectionate scratch on the head. “Eh, Hoppedance knows who butters his bread.” She laughed. “Well, okay, it’s not ‘bread’, it’s ‘rotting carcasses’, and it’s not butter, it’s--”

“Do I look like I want to hear this?” shouted Justinian.

“Do I look like I want to be in a cell?” screamed Jean in reply.

“Hey could you guys quiet down in here?” said the Erl guardsman with the brownish-grey skin, who’d escorted them to the airship. “We’ve got a game of foldol going on outside. You guys screaming is making it hard to concentrate.”

Justinian coughed awkwardly. “Sorry.”

The Erl raised his hand dismissively. Justinian noted that the fingers seemed to be slightly webbed. “Ehh, it’s no big deal.” The Erl turned around, then suddenly paused and glanced back at them. “Also, you’re not in a cell. This is just an empty grain bin.”

Jean stared at him. “And we should care about this--why?”

The Erl shrugged. “I’m a stickler for details sometimes. But still--look at it this way--we trust you enough not to put you under lock and key.”

“Yeah, ‘cause your crazy boss put a curse on us,” said Jean with a snort.

The Erl leaned forward, naked curiosity showing on his face. “Did Lord Nisrioch threaten to turn you into mushrooms? I heard he did that once.”

Justinian shook his head. “No, the thing he did to us is fatal. If we set it off.”

The Erl nodded. “He sure is something, isn’t he?” He offered Justinian his hand. “Sacripant Fenswater, by the way.”

Justinian took it, and gave it a shake. “Justinian Sigma.”

“Jean Crow,” said Jean grimly. “And this is Hoppedance.” The crow flapped his wings. “You seem pretty blasé about this, Mr. Fenswater…”

Sacripant shrugged. “Well, like you guys said--you’re both facing a death sentence if you try anything. And you seem like reasonable people, so I figure you won’t.” He scratched his head. “So--Sigma. Funny name.”

Justinian gave a weary sigh. “It’s a church name.” He looked at Sacripant pointedly. “And what about ‘Fenswater’?”

“Pretty normal name for a Marsh Erl,” he replied casually. “We’re fisher folk, and our family names tend to show that.”

Jean snickered, and glanced at Justinian. “Well what do you know. You two might be cousins.” She glanced at the puzzled Erl. “Sigma here’s from fisher folk himself.”

“Heh. Ain’t that something?” declared Sacripant cheerfully.

“No, it isn’t,” replied Justinian bleakly.

Sacripant ignored him and clapped his hands. “Tell you what--seeing as you and I are spiritual kin --we can play foldol in here--teach you the rules! That’ll give you something to do--and let us play foldol! I mean--Grizzel’s been meaning to go get a drink with his old pal--this way everyone wins!”

Justinian sighed. “We really aren’t--”

“Sounds great,” said Jean.

“I’ll go get Quiet,” said Sacripant. “Be right back.”

Justinian glared at Jean as soon as he was out of the room. “You’re just doing this to get on my nerves, aren’t you?” he said.

“That and to keep from going nuts from the boredom and the arguing,” said Jean.

“Bugger the bastards!” cawed Hoppedance.

Justinian threw his head back and sighed. “Oh, well. It’s not a total loss.”

Jean blinked. “What?”

“If you’ll recall, I was supposed to spy on the Cthoniques. And now--they’re employing me.” Justinian shrugged. “So this isn’t completely unfavorable.”

“Except for the fact you can’t report anything without dying,” noted Jean.

“I’ll figure something out,” noted Justinian. “It’s just a matter of time.” He shut his eyes, and tried very hard to believe that.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 21

“I’m… not sleepy,” protested Malina, stifling a yawn.

“Of course not, dear,” said Viviane pleasantly, stroking her stepdaughter’s hair. “I know you’re aren’t.”

“Good,” said Malina, shutting her eyes. “Because I’m not sleepy at all.” She yawned again, and then fell asleep, snoring gently.

Viviane smiled. “Well--now we’re down two…” She glanced at Morgaine’s supine form. “Will this--wear off soon?”

Mansemat grimaced. “That depends on what you consider… ‘soon’. Also, your definition of ‘wearing off’ will come into play.”

Elaine stared at the drunken Dark Lord. “How does she even--get drunk? She’s--well, DEAD.”

“A worthy question!” said a cheerful voice

Elaine turned to see Nisrioch looming above her. “Ahh! Where the hell did you come from?”

“Watch your language, Elaine,” said Viviane. “Nisrioch--where the hell did you come from?”

“Ohh, I was simply taking care of a little business,” he said, walking over to his sister. “And I’m very stealthy when I want to be. But to answer your earlier question--its extremely difficult to explain, and in fact, I’m not completely sure I understand it myself. Still--it seems that my sister responds more to the spiritual qualities of drink, so to speak.” And then he slapped his knee, and burst into laughter. “Oh, Nisrioch, you card , you!” He grinned at his family. “ ‘Spiritual qualities’! Meaning either metaphysical or alcoholic!” He shook his head fondly. “I tell you, sometimes my own wit amazes even me.”

Viviane and Elaine glanced at Mansemat, who was rubbing his temples. “He’s like this all the time,” he noted bleakly. “One simply has to get… used to it.”

Nisrioch kneeled next to his sister. “Hello, Morgaine. How much did you drink?”

Morgaine’s eyes cracked open. “L--lost count after the third barrel.” She lifted up her mug. “I won a cup! See?”

“Yes,” said Nisrioch. “It’s very nice.” He coughed politely. “Can you--move?”

Morgaine grinned. “Yep.” She began to desperately twitch her arms and legs trying to right herself. After a moment, she gave up. “Nope.” Morgaine raised her arms. “Carry me!”

Nisrioch lifted her up, and then shifted her onto his back. “All right--are you holding on tight, like a little monkey?”

Morgaine nodded. “Mmmm-hmmm.” Nisrioch stood up. “Wheee!” giggled Morgaine as her elder brother gave her a piggyback ride.

Mansemat winced. “Ahh, yes. There they are. The most feared sorcerers in the Land of Night.”

“Oh, stuff it, most ominous Black Dragon of the Plains,” declared Nisrioch cheerfully. He grinned at Elaine and Viviane. “I’ve brought presents!” He pulled a pair of dolls out of his sleeves, and handed them to Elaine. “You and Malina can fight over who gets which when we get home.”

“Yeah. We’ll do that,” Elaine said regarding the dolls with a frown.

Nisrioch smiled. “Also, I’ve managed to acquire a pair of good-natured companions for you, Elaine. A young Sacristan, and a river trader with a highly amusing trained crow!”

Elaine blinked. “Their names aren’t ‘Justinian’ and ‘Jean’ are they?”

“Actually, yes,” declared Nisrioch in pleasant surprise.

“Hmm.” Elaine glanced away. “Small world.”

“No,” said Nisrioch. “Big world. Small wyrd.”

Viviane glanced at Nisrioch suspiciously. “Wait--how did you meet these two… people?”

“They’re the ones that tried to kill me!” chirped Nisrioch. “But don’t worry--that’s been taken care of! They’re really quite nice.” He glanced at Morgaine. “Stop squirming. You might lose your grip.”

“I’m a monkey,” muttered Morgaine.

Mansemat raised his hand. “Well, I think we should get going. We’ve been here quite a while, and if we stay here much longer the del…”

“Lord Cthonique!” came the voice of Coll Brainworm. “We want a word with you.”

“Oh, Darksome Lady,” groaned Mansemat quietly.

The delegation walked towards the Cthoniques, with Coll at its head, while a solitary Guard--it was Hagen, the Ogre--followed them. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” declared Coll, taking out his pocket watch and winding it. “You may recall an earlier agreement which was widely viewed as highly favorable, by all but myself and the Mechanists.” The Goblin gave a deep bow. “I am now willing to reconsider my original position, and accept this agreement--with one additional provision.” He looked the Dark Lord in the eye. “Full trading rights with the Milesian settlements in your territories for the entire Emporium.”

Mansemat stared at him. “Really. That’s your demand.” He nodded. “Well, I think…”

Nisrioch coughed, and stepped forward. “If I may speak for my brother--House Cthonique considers such a measure highly advantageous to both parties, provided of course we may enjoy our usual levy in honor of our role in facilitating trade.”

Coll nodded. “That is fair and reasonable.” He then paused to stare at Morgaine who was minutely picking through her brother’s hair.

She paused to smile at the Goblin. “I’m a monkey.”

Mansemat gave a weary smile. “As you can see, my family really must be going home. So, we’ll draw the up the papers tomorrow…”

Coll nodded. “Of course, Your Magnificence. I’ll swear to it.” He raised his right hand to his mouth, spat, and then offered it to Mansemat. Suppressing a frown as best he could, Mansemat spat in his own hand, and then shook with the Goblin. “Excellent. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we plan on seeing a few more of the sights.”

Mansemat watched the delegation recede into the distance. Viviane leaned towards him, Malina still nestled in her arms. “You’re wiping that hand off, aren’t you?”

Mansemat nodded at his wife. “As soon as they’re out of--there you go.” He took a handkerchief out of his pocket, and began to rub his hand clean.

She sighed. “The sacrifices you make for the common good.”

He tucked the handkerchief away, and glanced at Nisrioch, who was beaming at him. “Quite,” Mansemat noted calmly.

“Yep, I’m a monkey,” muttered Morgaine, before silencing a hiccup.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 20

Nisrioch looked at the water heating on the brazier. “Ahh, perfect.” He placed a dipper in, and then carefully filled a cup. “Perfectly heated water is the key to perfect tea. Too cold, and the flavor doesn’t travel. Too hot--the flavor is spoiled, and you can’t drink it.” He smiled as the water in the cup took on a golden-brown color, and then smiled at Justinian and Jean. “This is my own special blend,” he noted setting the cup before Jean. He filled another cup. “The finest, freshest tea leaves, mixed with bergamot, ginger and just a dash of mint.” He smiled as he set the second cup before Justinian. “I call it ‘Lord Nisrioch’s Delight’.” He poured out a third cup. “I can assure you, the flavors are exquisite.”

Jean stared at the cup. “So--you’re serving us… tea.” She coughed slightly. “We tried to kill you--and you’re serving us tea.”

Nisrioch nodded. “I like to think most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone simply had a nice little chat over a cup of tea from time to time.” His eyes went wide. “Oh, and I almost forgot…” He reached into his sleeve, and pulled out a large tray. “Cookies!” He gestured to the yellowish pastries, which had still had steam rising from them. “These are lemon flavored. They’re very nice.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “I call them ‘Lemon Snaps’. Because they have such a sharp flavor!”

Jean and Justinian stared at the tea and cookies for a long time. “I’ll never talk, Dark Lord,” declared Justinian after a while. “No matter what you do to make me.”

Nisrioch smiled at him. “Your tea should be ready. Do give it a try!”

The pair gripped their cups and stared at them grimly. Jean looked at him. “Is this--poisoned?”

Nisrioch gasped. “Poison--tea? What kind of a monster do you think I am?” He frowned severely. “A man who would ruin tea--with poison--is my enemy!” He paused for a moment, as if in thought. “Also, poisoning in general is wrong. But poisoning tea is especially wrong!” The pair merely stared at him. He sighed. “Very well. It’s a breach of tea etiquette, but I shall make the sacrifice.” He picked up his cup and took a deep sip. His eyes shut and a smile spread across his face. “Ahhhh! Bliss!”

Jean looked at the tea, then looked at Justinian. She picked up her cup, and gulped it down. She frowned, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. “That’s… not bad.”

Justinian took a large quaff, and nodded. “Has an… interesting flavor.”

Nisrioch sighed. “I’m surrounded by heathens.” He picked up a cookie and dipped it in the tea. “Still, we’ll get you civilized eventually…” He took a discrete bite. “Now then--who are you, and why did you try to kill me?”

Justinian glared at him. “I told you, Dark Lord--I’ll never talk. I have no fear of torture or death, so--”

“I’m Jean Crow. The stupid shithead who won’t shut his mouth about not talking is Justinian Sigma. He’s a Sacristan. As for the whole ‘killing you’ thing--well, he was sent over to spy on you guys, but he heard you were going to be here, and suddenly he just HAD to play at being the great warrior of light, and try to kill you.” She shrugged. “Things just kind of got out hand after that.” She coughed. “Sorry about the crossbow.”

Nisrioch grinned, and clapped his hands. “Very good. You get a cookie!” He handed her one, which Jean quickly scarfed down.

“Mmmm! This is good!” she declared. She glanced over at Justinian, who narrowed his eyes. “Oh, come on! First of all, I’m not involved in this little mission of yours by choice. Second, he’d have gotten the damn information out of you somehow. So I decided not to let things drag on.”

Justinian crossed his arms. “You are shameless…”

“Now, now.” Nisrioch wagged his finger. “Talk like that won’t get you a cookie!” He laughed. “Oh, who am I kidding? You’re too adorable! Have a cookie!”

Justinian frowned. “I will not--” His objection was stopped by Nisrioch shoving a cookie in his mouth. To Justinian’s mind, the worst part of his indignity was that cookie was sweet and delicious.

Nisrioch took another sip from his tea. “So then, now that we all have enjoyed our tea and cookies, and you’ve cleared up the whole matter of your murder attempt, let’s deal with the little problem of what to do with you…”

Jean winced. “Just make it quick. I’ve been living on borrowed time anyway.”

“By the Darksome Lady!” said Nisrioch, his eyes widening. “What sort of savage do you think I am? You can’t kill someone after having tea with them. It’s bad manners!” He shrugged. “Besides, you’re clearly both confused. You think my family are evil people--and that’s just silly. We’re very nice. Oh, we’ve had our bad apples, started a few major wars--but really that’s not too unusual for a family in our line of work.” He smiled at them cheerfully. “And because I’m certain this misconception can be cleared up, I’m going to suggest you two pledge service to House Cthonique.”

“I--respectfully decline that… suggestion,” replied Justinian stonily.

“Yeah, I’m not that hot about it either,” said Jean.

Nisrioch took another sip of his tea. “Oh, dear. I was afraid this might happen.” He sighed. “I fear I shall have to become vulgar.” He set his cup down, his eyes glinting strangely in the light. “Both of you should look at the palm of your left hand.”

Justinian did so and started. A rainbow-colored spiral had appeared there.

“What the HELL?” yelled Jean.

“You are now both under a geas that I have cast,” replied Nisrioch calmly. “Should either of you willingly and knowingly act against the interests of House Cthonique, you will break the geas.” He smiled. “I do not recommend doing that. The results would be--unpleasant. To put it mildly.”

Justinian frowned. “You mean we’d die.”

“Eventually,” Nisrioch said pleasantly. “As I said--it would be unpleasant.”

“Oh, very nice,” snapped Jean. “I see we have an incredible range of choice in this matter…”

Nisrioch’s eyes narrowed. “You always have a choice in this, Miss Crow. But as always is the case, your choice has consequences, a fact that you clearly have failed to grasp in your life.”

Justinian glared at him. “How’d you do it? Was it the tea? Or the cookies?”

“Not precisely,” said Nisrioch. “It was more--what they represent. You have taken food and drink from my hand. That invokes the laws of hospitality and obligation--powerful old magic. You have placed yourself under my power.” He nibbled a cookie. “Be glad I am--a merciful man.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” said Jean.

Nisrioch was silent for a moment. “My niece is a lonely young girl,” he finally said. “She needs friends. Or at least company. I’d like you to give it to her.”

Jean stared at him. “That’s it? That’s all you want us to do?”

“Oh, I’m sure other tasks will come up,” said Nisrioch dismissively. “But that would be your core obligation.” He finished up his tea.

“I don’t believe this.” Jean shook her head. “A blasted Dark Lord wants me to be a nursemaid!”

“I wouldn’t say that,” replied Nisrioch. “She’s about your age actually.” He frowned. “Well, a little younger in fact. But very mature. And you two are notably immature, so it all balances out!”

Jean snorted. “That’s an interesting way of figuring it.” She sighed. “Well, not like I have any real say in the matter. I’ll take your offer.”

Justinian gritted his teeth. “I also… accept.”

“Oh, excellent!” said Nisrioch with a titter. “This calls for more cookies!” He pulled another tray from his sleeve. “These are Raspberry Thumbprints! And they are scrumptious!”