Justinian sat under the tree, and looked up into its branches. Little, wrinkled green fruit hung from them. Limes, he believed they were called.
It was quite a lovely tree, actually. It was amazing that it was growing--well, indoors.
“Have to give him credit!” declared Nisrioch. “He’s really brought the old place back up to snuff.”
“This--this really is AMAZING!” declared Jean. She looked around. “You have--gardens indoors?”
“Greenhouses, yes,” replied Nisrioch. “Of course, this one had fallen into disrepair after…”
“LADY’S LOVE!” declared Morgaine as she walked through the doorway. “He… he fixed it!” A joyful, slightly pained smile came over her face. “This--this place hasn’t--since Mom…” She sniffled, and wiped her eyes. “Sorry. The pollen. Allergies, you know.”
Viviane looked at her. “You have allergies?”
Morgaine narrowed her eyes. “Tempting my undead wrath?”
“Of course not, Morgaine,” said Viviane with a fond shake of her head. She looked around the greenhouse. “This IS lovely.”
“I was RIGHT, wasn’t I, Mommy Viv?” chirped Malina cheerfully. Viviane ruffled her hair fondly.
“Yes, you were, dear.” Viviane shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. “It’s wonderful.”
“It was going to be your birthday present,” said a quiet voice. Viviane turned.
“Mansemat! You did all this for…”
Mansemat shrugged as he walked into the greenhouse. “Oh, not just for you.” He looked around at the greenery. “This place has been a shambles since--well, Mother died. I think I wanted to say--that we’ve recovered. That there’s a family living in Castle Terribel again.” He glanced at Viviane and smiled. “Of course you are the love of my life, and the motivating force for those sentiments, so in a sense--I did do it all because of you.”
Viviane smiled at him and shook her head. “Why did I marry you again? I know it wasn’t for the exceedingly awkward compliments…”
Mansemat scratched his chin. “My desperate sincerity, perhaps?” He looked at her pointedly. “You know that I mean what I say. Because there is no other reason to say these things.” Viviane hugged him.
“It’s a lovely garden, Manny. Thank you.” And then she kissed him.
As the pair stepped out of their embrace, Mansemat glanced around. “So--may I ask who let the cat out of the bag?”
Elaine glanced up from her book. “Hey, don’t look at me! I knew it would be something silly.” She looked away awkwardly. “It is a neat garden though.”
“I’m afraid I’m responsible,” said Justinian, standing up. “My… interest was… piqued by your… earlier actions…”
“He thought there was an army of com strucks in here!” declared Malina happily. “But he couldn’t open the door--so I ordered him to!”
Nisrioch glanced at Justinian. “Ah ha! I see someone has found his first loophole!” The Dark Lord tittered. “Oh, I knew you'd be fun!”
Mansemat shook his head. “Well, Squire Sigma, I’m afraid you discovered the terrible secret of Castle Terribel--real Dark Lords simply don’t measure up to the ones of story and song.” He spread his hands. “My apologies for having interests besides spreading terror and death.”
Justinian bowed. “I--am sorry, Your Magnificence. My actions were presumptuous in extremis, and there is nothing I can do to make up for them. Any punishment you would devise would be appropriate.”
“I’ll have them ready the boiling oil then,” said Mansemat. Justinian blinked. “Only kidding, Squire Sigma. In the end, all your actions have resulted in is my spending a pleasant afternoon with my family. I hardly think that warrants any punishment at all.”
Viviane stared at Sigma, her hand resting on her hip. “Though for future reference, I’d like you to note that certain orders are most definitely against the wishes of this member of House Cthonique. If you understand me”
Justinian gulped. “Of course, milady. I… that is, I’ll…” He glanced off to the side. “I’ll go stand behind that tree. On the far side of the garden.”
Viviane nodded. “That sounds lovely.” She watched as the Sacristan scurried off. Mansemat took her arm.
“You know--this place does have a ninepin court. Which is gloriously and perfectly level,” he noted.
“Ahh. So there’ll be no excuses when I kick your ass,” said Viviane.
Mansemat frowned. “Don’t be so sure. I’ve been practicing. And there are always more excuses.”
Nisrioch coughed. “You know, Manny, I hate to be the bearer of bad news on this merry little gathering--but--well, I got a message from Lord Asterot. The Palace of Shadows was damaged in the recent flooding. We can’t hold the next Council meeting there.”
“What?” said Mansemat, frowning. “But where else can the Nine meet? I mean, we do have some important things to discuss this time…”
Nisrioch smiled. “Believe it or not, there was a fairly unanimous agreement.” He spread his hands. “The rest of the Nine would like to meet--here.”
“In Castle Terribel?” Mansemat stared at his brother in shock. “Castle Terribel is supposed to pay host to the retinues of five more Dark Lords?”
“Manny--consider it!” said Nisrioch beseechingly. “It took us three years to get the Nine to even consider sitting down together and talking. And now--they trust us enough that they WANT to meet at our house.” He shook his head. “Don’t you see? This has never happened before. It’s the sort of preeminence that generations of Cthoniques strived for.” A gentle smile came to Nisrioch’s face. “And in the end--we didn’t win it with blood and violence. We won it with kindness and reason. We’ve proved--without a doubt--that our way is better.”
Mansemat stared at his brother, smiling fondly. “Damn it, Nissy, there you go playing on my ego again.” He shook his head. “All right. Go call up those objectionable bastards, and tell them they can come to Castle Terribel, and complain bitterly about everything we do. Somehow--I’m looking forward to it.”
Nisrioch patted his brother on the shoulder. “I knew you’d see it that way. I already agreed.”
Mansemat nodded. “I rather suspected that.” He sighed. “Well, let’s enjoy one pleasant afternoon before the entire castle is turned inside out in preparation for being turned further inside out.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Viviane. “Ooooh! It’ll be Elaine’s Coming Out! She can wear a pretty dress!”
“Not happening, Mom,” said Elaine without even glancing up from her book.
“Ha! Just you wait!” declared Viviane. “I will see you in a pretty dress!”
“Can I wear a pretty dress, Mommy Viv?” asked Malina.
“Of course you can,” said Viviane. “It’ll be a great Occasion. We’ll ALL be wearing pretty dresses.” She paused. “Except for the men.”
Elaine looked up. “What about Nisrioch?”
“This is a robe,” declared Nisrioch, pulling on his clothing. “The difference is it’s looser around the waist.”