Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 16

Sacripant Fenswater stared at the approaching airships. “Huh. I wonder who’s who?”

Grizzel Greedigutt, the Cthonique Guard’s Serjeant at Arms, leaned forward and rested his head on Castle Terribel’s battlements. “Let’s see--the gold and green is House Maganza of the Shadow Woods.” The Goblin paused to loudly spit, a contemptuous scowl on his face. “The red and orange is House Regni of the Ironfangs. The blue and white is House Utgardi of the Stonefangs. Old friends of the Cthoniques they are.”

Sacripant frowned. “What’s the difference between the Stonefangs and the Ironfangs? I never did understand that.”

Hagen Greatthews chuckled. “Easy. The Fangs are the mountains of the north. If a Jotun’s standing there--Stonefangs. If a Muspeilun’s standing there--Ironfangs. And if a Jotun and a Muspeilun’s standing there--it’s a war.”

Sacripant glanced at the Ogre. “Lady’s Love, Hagen, these are your own people you’re talking about!”

Hagen laughed and shook his head. “No, no--you Erls do not understand. I am a Troll. We headed south to get away from all the fighting, and all the damned Jotuns and Muspeilurs bossing us around.” He shrugged. “Wound up getting bossed around by the damned Devs and Erl Highborns instead, but--they pay better. So on the whole--marked improvement.”

Sacripant nodded to himself. Well, the last few days had been--educational, even if the scolding image of his mother was now setting up permanent lodging in his head. Especially about the courtesans. She really didn't approve of him being under the same roof as them. He glanced at Grizzel. “Why don’t we have an airship?”

Grizzel frowned. “We have gryphons.”

“They aren’t airships,” Sacripant noted. Quiet nodded forcefully in agreement.

“They’re better than airships,” said the Goblin. “Cheaper. Faster. Easier to maintain. More maneuverable.” He spread his hands. “These things are mostly for show. And damned tough to make--only twelve in existence, and the Emporium has kept half of them. House Cthonique would rather spend its gold making the lands run the way they should instead of on empty displays of power.”

“So--we’re not getting an airship then?” said Sacripant.

“Not ‘til the price comes down.” replied Grizzel.

“Umm--Serjeant…” said Palamedes Woodash, as he reached the top of the tower stairs. He paused to catch his breath for a while. “Subtle--wants to know if--West Barracks can assist Staff with moving furniture?”

Grizzel nodded absently at the pudgy Guardsman. “Sounds fine. Give him the go ahead.”

Palamedes nodded, and glanced at Sacripant. “So--nice weather, eh?”

Sacripant stared at him blankly. “I suppose.”

Palamedes gulped, then smiled benignly at the Marsh Erl. Sacripant’s mouth creased into a frown--and Hagen and Quiet joined him in staring rather sternly at Palamedes. “I’ll--be on my way,” he declared, standing to his feet as quickly as possible. “Job to do, you know.” He laughed nervously, and then darted away, trying all the time to appear perfectly calm. And failing.

Sacripant and the others watched him leave. Then burst into laughter. Hagen shook his head, grinning broadly. “We have to stop that. It’s too much fun!”

Sacripant chuckled and put a hand to his forehead. “I know. The worst part is he seems to think I’m some sort of dangerous badass.”

“You’re a Marsh Erl with a good ell on him,” said Grizzel. “To Palamedes, that’s not that far removed from the Dragon Himself.”

“His scales wind the World,” declared Sacripant, making a circular motion over his heart. He felt somewhat embarrassed until he noticed Quiet doing the same thing.

Grizzel sighed and shook his head. “Country folk.”

Hagen nodded in agreement. “Tell me about it.”

“Look, my family were Old Believers from way back,” said Sacripant. “My mother still sets the extra places out on Ladytide. I know it seems quaint to you, but--”

Grizzel raised his hand. “We’re only joking with you. A man’s faith is his, to do with as he likes, that’s my motto.” A slightly grim expression came to his face. “‘For in the time of our trials, we know that the Dragon stands at our backs, and enfolds us in His mighty wings, that we may be comforted.’”

The group bowed their heads as he spoke, and declared together “‘Tis so!” as he finished.

Grizzel raised his head and looked at the approaching airships. “Something tells me we’re going to need His Scaled Majesty’s help for awhile.” He nodded. “Aye, and the Lady’s too.”

Sacripant glanced at Quiet. “Did you--did you talk during the Confirmation?”

The Ghoul quirked an eyebrow and shrugged.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 15

Mansemat and his wife met with Armida and her hostesses in a greeting that was forcibly pleasant. And during it, Justinian Sigma stared at Agri Khan.

He hadn’t been sure at first. But now he was.

The heavy eyebrows. The jutting jaw. The long fingers. Like any child of the East, Justinian knew what that meant. He recalled the stories he heard from Old Grigori, the man he’d called ‘Grandfather’. Not that Grigori was his grandfather, unless the stories some of the village wags used to tell about him and his Grandmother Senka were true. He was--a cousin of some sort. People just called him ‘Grandfather’ because he was the oldest man in the Breakers. And because of his stories. Stories about things. Things that lurked in the darkness outside the hut, and beyond the fire. Things that plotted, planned and killed…

Justinian winced. He was trying not to think about what he was standing near. But somehow, it was tough to avoid doing that. He could tell himself that this was foolishness--superstition--and yet, still the thoughts were there.

“You still aren’t mad about what happened earlier, are you?” asked Jean, sidling up to the Milesian’s side.

“No, Miss Crow,” said Justinian with a sigh. “It is--another matter.”

“It’s the Agri Khan, isn’t it?” said Jean.

Justinian blinked. “How’d you…?”

“You’ve been giving him the hairy eyeball off and on since we’ve met him,” said Jean. She shook her head. “Honestly--Nisrioch’s right. Half of sorcery is just being clever and letting people fool themselves.”

“Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

“Exactly,” said Jean, with a nod, scratching her familiar’s head. “So--spill it. What’s Jerzy done that’s got you so bothered?”

“He’s a vitilak,” replied Justinian.

Jean simply stared at him for a while. “Say what now?”

“A vitilak. A skinchanger. A werewolf.” Justinian crossed his arms. “When it pleases them to walk in the shape of a man, they walk in the shape of a man. And when it pleases them to walk in the shape of a beast, they walk in the shape of a beast, stalk, rend, and kill.”

Jean blinked. “This--this is more of that Easter superstition, isn’t it?” She pointed at him. “This comes of having too much time on your hands on those dark, cold nights. You know that, don’t you?”

Justinian nodded. “Sometimes. But standing here--in the palace of a Dark Lord--in the Lands of Night…” He took a deep breath. “It makes such knowledge seem--inadequate.”

“A Dark Lord who spends a lot of his time playing with his pets or puttering about in his gardens,” snapped Jean.

“He’s still a Dark Lord,” said Justinian, “dedicated to the conquest of the Lands of Light.”

“I’m starting to think that might be an improvement,” said Jean. “The Cthoniques seem to prefer being pleasant and running things well to oppressing people. I can’t think of many nobles that’s true of in the Light Lands.”

Justinian sighed and shook his head. As Mansemat and Viviane moved away, Viviane’s smile visibly faded into a scowl. Mansemat whispered something to her, causing it to become a smile again. “Well, I’d never believe it,” said a soft voice. “Manny happily married.” The pair turned to find the Agri Khan at their sides. The Kizak chuckled softly to himself. “Well, he deserves it, the poor bastard.”

“Ahh.” Justinian made a slight bow. “Sir. I am at your ser--”

“He thinks you can change into a wolf,” said Jean.

Jerzy smiled, and raised a bushy black eyebrow. “Oh, really?” He looked the Sacristan over. “I thought you looked like an Easterner.” He shook his head. “Ahh, we sure left a dent over there, didn’t we?”

Jean blinked. “Wha..?”

Jerzy shrugged. “The Hordes used to have Great Raids. Head up through the Shadow Woods, hit the Fangs, then cross over to the Easter Kingdom. At least, until it became cheaper for the Goblins to repulse us instead of paying us.” He sighed. “Long before my time, I’m afraid.”

“B--but,” stammered Jean. She gulped. “Umm--are you saying you can--turn into a wolf?”

The Agri Khan laughed. “Why, Miss Crow, of course not.” He grinned. “I am a wolf. It is simply sometimes I walk as a man.” He bowed

It occurred to Jean that the Kizak had very large, sharp-looking canines. As he walked away, she glanced at Justinian. “Not a word.”

Justinian smiled. “Why would I ruin this moment by talking about it, Miss Crow?” He shut his eyes. “I prefer to let it--wash over me.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 14

“I always thought ‘Agrican’ was a name,” said Jean Crow, as they walked back into the Great Hall. “But--it’s a title…”

Elaine smiled slightly. “It’s both. ‘The Kizaks, as a custom, keep several names, the birth name, the formal name, the secret name, and after death, the funeral name’.”

Jerzy glanced back at her. “I see someone’s been reading their Tarquin.” He smiled. “That’s about right, though plenty of Kizaks get by with a birth name and a nickname. But that’s what happens when you’re writing about an entire people based on the wealthy sliver you deal with…” He sighed.

“Something wrong?” asked Nisrioch.

“Yes,” said the Agri Khan. “I’m the hetman for Scarlet Horde. And I’m discovering that all the great reforms I’ve promised myself I was going to institute if this ever happened to me are running into the solid walls that are my Kizak brethren.” He shook his head. “The old ones think that things should stay the same, because that’s how it’s always been. The young ones think that things should stay the same because they personally are invincible and will get rich raiding. Leaving me and a handful of others as the only ones who realize that the present arrangement mostly benefits the scavengers and the carrion birds.” The Kizak shrugged. “But such is life.”

A footman hailed the group. “The carriages His Excellency had sent to the Folly have returned, sirs and madams.”

Nisrioch smiled and nodded. “Ahh, yes. That would be Armida and her girls. Tell Breus to prepare rooms in the Dandelion Wing for them.” He glanced at the others. “Well, there’s a huge load off my mind.”

Elaine’s eyes widened. “You mean--we have--’painted ladies’ here?” She glanced around in amazement. “At the Castle?”

Viviane frowned. “Oh, yes.” She glared at Nisrioch. “Under this very roof.”

Nisrioch coughed. “We talked about this, Viviane.”

Viviane’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. We did.”

“And we all agreed, as responsible, reasonable adults that we would need hostesses to make sure that this Council meeting was conducted in a pleasant atmosphere.” Nisrioch turned to Mansemat. “Didn’t we, Manny?”

Mansemat looked away. “Ahh, yes, well, I believe something like that was agreed on. I think. Yes.” He coughed and gave his wife an apologetic look. “At least, I believe so.”

Morgaine chuckled, raised her hand, and then lowered it suddenly, while making a snapping noise. Mansemat glared at her.

“Yes, we all agreed that,” said Viviane. “That doesn’t mean we all agreed to like it.” She arched one pale red eyebrow. “Am I clear?”

“As fine Albraccan crystal,” replied Nisrioch. He smiled nervously. “You know--they’re all lovely girls. In every way.”

Viviane nodded stiffly. “I’ve no doubt of that.”

Nisrioch pouted. “Oh, don’t be like that, Viv! I’m certain you’d like them!” He clapped his hands together. “Here! Let’s go greet them! It will be a good way of introducing you to them, and it’s customary to boot!” He darted away, followed by Agri Khan, Justinian and Morgaine.

Viviane glanced at her husband. “He really seems keen on this.”

“He’s very sensitive where Armida is concerned,” replied Mansemat. “He likes her quite a bit.”

“I can imagine,” said Viviane.

“No, I think you can’t,” replied Mansemat. “They are--Armida is one of the tiny handful of women with which my brother is seriously--involved.”

Elaine blinked. “Nisrioch has--a mistress?”

“Several, actually,” said Mansemat nervously.

“What’s a ‘mistress’?” asked Malina, her eyes full of curiosity.

Mansemat and Viviane turned nervously. “A mistress…,” began Mansemat. “A mistress is…”

“Well, Malina,” sputtered out Viviane, “when a boy and a girl love each other very much--but not quite enough to bind themselves in the bonds of holy matrimony that are most pleasing to the Darksome Lady--sometimes, they--that is…”

“Hey! Look at Hoppedance!” cried Jean. The crow began to fly around in daring circles, swooping and diving. Malina turned and clapped. As Jean lead the giggling child away, she shot a reassuring glance at the pair.

“Husband?” said Viviane.

“Yes, wife?” replied Mansemat.

“Is there a medal you Cthoniques give out to people who get you out of awkward situations with your kids?”

“No, but I’m going to invent one, and give it Miss Crow,” he said quietly.

Viviane nodded. “You do that.” She coughed. “So--Nissy wants us to be extra nice around his mistress…?”

Mansemat shrugs. “I wouldn’t say that--just--well, make an effort to get along with her…”

Viviane snorted. “Well, I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything.” She shook her head. “I know you Plainsfolk think we Marshfolk are bunch of hicks, but--we just don’t care for these ‘sophisticated’ customs of yours that license immorality.”

“I think it’s kind of cool!” declared Elaine. “I mean--actual courtesans! Here! And Nisrioch has--mistresses! Plural!” She laughed. “It’s almost dashing.” Viviane glanced at her daughter reproachfully. Elaine looked down at her feet bashfully. “Well, like I said--‘almost’. I mean--it’s Nissy.”

Viviane sighed, and shook her head. “Oh, Elaine...”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 13

“Foreigners,” spat out Calabrun Truegoods, rubbing the cap that covered his mostly bald head. “Can’t abide the buggers.” He sipped his ale.

“Mmmm,” agreed Brontin Goldleaf, stroking his long white hair. “Know what you mean. Them and their--foreign ways.”

Marsilion’s Folly’s Fellowship Hall of Worthy Gentleman of High Trades was surprisingly empty tonight, especially considering that it was Brumaire in an election year. Calabrun and Brontin were among the only members there, and even they seemed fairly listless tonight. A vague sense of unease had been stealing over them of late, a sense that their shared assumption that the world would always turn in their favor might not be as true as they’d thought.

“City’s going to be filled with them, on account of the Shadow Council meeting,” noted Calabrun after a moment’s silence. “Foreigners, I mean.”

“Mmmm,” murmured Brontin. “Even more than usual.”

Calabrun nodded. “Right. And that’s too many already!”

“Mmmmm” grunted Brontin, taking a swig of his drink.

“As if we didn’t have enough trouble already,” Calabrun declared emphatically. “What with the Hats lookin’ to take the Thing. And you know what that means.”

“Mmmm,” said Brontin, with an aggressive nod. “They’ll go for our liquor.”

“Bastards,” said Calabrun, shaking his head. “I’ll say this for foreigners. They don’t try to take our drink!”

“Mmmmm. Not so bad, the ones that know their place,” declared Brontin.

“Aye, aye,” agreed Calabrun. “Still bad though.”

“Mmmmmm. And foreign,” noted Brontin.

“True. Very true,” said Calabrun.

The door of the Fellowship Hall opened with a loud clatter. “I say,” said Menadarb Brighthand. “I just saw the most remarkable thing. A bunch of guttersnipes were marching around shouting something about ‘hands’!” He chuckled. “Quite peculiar.”

Calabrun and Brontin both frowned. Menadarb was a Fellow, but he was--young, and that rendered him untrustworthy, on the grounds that young men were not old, and did not seem to quite understand that everything had been better when the old men were young. Also he was handsome, which was a very unattractive trait in a man who also had youth.

Still, he was a Fellow, and a Cap, as every good Fellow should be, and his father owned half a dozen large matchstick factories, which meant that he always had money for a drink, and was generally willing to pay. And so the pair gave him a respectful nod as he approached.

“Probably a new way of asking for alms,” declared Calabrun.

“Mmmm,” agreed Brontin. “Ought to lock the buggers up. Put ‘em to work. That’ll show ‘em!”

“Right! Lazy bastards! Ought to be grateful to be livin’ here!” said Calabrun. “Instead of somewhere else!”

Menadarb shook his head. “I don’t think that’s what they were doing.” He sighed, and signaled for a drink. “I think it was--a protest, of some sort.”

“What have they got to protest?” muttered Calabrun in bewilderment. “They live here! In the greatest city on the Plains of Dread.” He shook his head. “No! The greatest city in the Lands of Night!” He pounded his fist on the counter. “NO! The greatest city--in the world!”

“Mmmm,” said Brontin. “The bloody pride of all Mother Night’s bloody children.”

“Maybe they’re upset about the Shadow Council meeting here,” said Calabrun. “As well they should be!”

“Mmmmm,” snarled Brontin. “Bloody foreigners!”

Menadarb gave a nervous nod. “That might be it. I don’t think it is, mind you…”

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” came a quiet voice from the corner of the room. Menadarb turned to see who it was, and smiled.

“Why, Porone!” he chuckled. “Sitting there quiet as a ghost!” He waved him over. “Come join us for a drink!”

Porone rose and walked forwards. “Don’t mind if I do.” Calabrun and Brontin frowned again. Porone Belltower was older than Menadarb, and not anywhere near handsome, but--he was a New Man, and he didn’t seem quite as loyal to the Caps as he should have been. And he had a bit more money than a New Man ought to, in all honesty.

“So,” said Menadarb, as the merchant took a seat. “You think this Shadow Council is stirring them up?”

Porone shrugged. “Who knows? Still--it promises to be quite fascinating, doesn’t it?” He smiled and raised his glass. “One for the history books.”

Calabrun nodded. “Bloody foreigners.”

“Mmmm,” agreed Brontin.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 12

The tall Kizak Erl stood before Nisrioch, magnificent in his gold-fringed purple turban, his lion-skin cloak, and his embroidered scarlet tunic. “I am fast as the wind,” he declared. “My arm is strong. My aim is sure. I hunt the lion, the elephant, the monoceros, the yale.” He raised the curved bow that sat in his hands. “By my arrows, they are slain. By my hand, they die! I am a child of the Red Wolf of the Plains! I am Agri Khan!” He drew a curved blade that rested at his side, and howled. “Lead me to your enemies, oh, Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste! I shall slice open their bellies, and drink down their blood!”

Nisrioch nodded. “You are vicious, Agri Khan. But are you loyal?”

The Agri Khan gave a furious nod of his head. “Loyal? Beyond reproach--nay, beyond reason! Ask me to slay my brother--he is a dead man! Ask me to give you my favorite wife--she is yours!” He knelt before Nisrioch, and pressed his head to the ground. “Ask me to kneel here, until the sun scorches me and the wind freezes me--it will be done!”

Nisrioch nodded. There was a lengthy silence. Finally, the Agri Khan peeped up at him. “Lady‘s Name, Nissy, let’s just get this little pantomime finished, and then, perhaps, enjoy a nice glass of mulled wine, eh?”

“Oh, very well,” said Nisrioch with a sigh. “There is no need, oh Agri Khan. Arise, oh, Master of the Scarlet Horde, and serve me as my strong blade.”

The Agri Khan rose, and took Nisrioch’s hand. “Then you are as my elder brother! It is so!” He took a deep breath. “That was damned sadistic, Nissy,” he noted, giving the Dark Lord a reproachful look. “I didn’t create that ridiculous oath. I just say the damn thing.”

Nisrioch sighed. “I know--but sometimes I can’t help myself. The chance for humor shows itself--and I take it.” He looked at the Kizak musingly. “I have to confess, Jerzy, I’m having a tough time seeing you as the Agri Khan.”

“Father did seem to embody the role, didn’t he?” said Jerzy. “Even I had a hard time of thinking of him as anything but ‘Agri Khan’.” He shook his head. “But here we are.”

Morgaine coughed. “Umm--I hope his death wasn’t… too bad.”

“Unfortunately, it was slow, painful, and humiliating,” said the Agri Khan. A sad, distant look came to his eye. “By the end, he was little more than skin, bones, and small portion of liquor to keep it all… preserved. No way for a warrior to die.”

“Oh.” She glanced away, frowning. “Sorry about that.”

The Kizak shook his head. “It can’t be helped. All men must die. And he had a--good life. On the whole. He--led the Horde well.”

Nisrioch raised an eyebrow. “You know--I rather thought Yagello was the favorite to take his place.”

The Kizak gave a bitter laugh. “He was. Which is why he thought he could get away with bedding an Elder’s wife. Who was the sister of another Elder. This proved to be--a rather mammoth miscalculation on his part.” He spread his hands. “That left me and Keistut, and the Elders decided that an Agri Khan who’s been dandified by your soft ways was preferable to an Agri Khan who has a hard time counting to three. With assistance.”

Nisrioch nodded. “So--how are things in the Waste?”

The Kizak shrugged. “Things endure. Balu Khan raids our herds. We raid his. Gali Khan raids our herds. We raid his. Amirant raids our herds. We raid his. Occasionally, someone decides to liven things up with a battle.” He sighed. “Really, it’s the strangest combination of terror and boredom that I know.”

“Jerzy?” The Agri Khan turned towards Mansemat. The Dark Lord was straightening his apparel as he approached, a rather puzzled expression on his face. “You’re Agrican now? I thought it was going to be one of your brothers…”

“He’s just been explaining the whole story to us, Manny,” said Nisrioch. “It appears your old playmate has pulled in from behind.”

Mansemat smiled and shook his head. “Some things never change.” He patted the Agri Khan on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you, old friend.”

Jerzy smiled back at him. “Likewise. Though I’m sorry to say that I’m here for politics as much as friendship.”

“Oh well.” Mansemat shrugged. “That’s the reality of the lives we lead, I’m afraid. Why didn’t you just--introduce yourself earlier? Why all the heralds and emissaries”

The Agri Khan shrugged. “Custom, Manny. You know what the Horde’s like.”

“So--this Agrican’s a friend of yours?” said Viviane as she walked into view, smoothing down her hair.

“Viviane, I’d like you to meet my former foster brother, Jerzy bin Yan,” said Mansemat. “Jerzy--my wife, Viviane du Lac.”

The Agri Khan gave a deep bow. “A pleasure, Madame.”

Mansemat coughed. “I do hope that I wasn’t too familiar…”

“Oh, no,” said the Kizak. “Your wife is on birth name basis with me, Manny.”

Viviane smiled. “Why, thank you.” She gave a slight bow. “I’m honored.”

“The honor is all mine,” he declared. “Allow me to state, as a man with three wives, if but one of them was as pleasant as you, I’d be content.”

Viviane raised an eyebrow. “Now, you’re flattering me.”

“I assure you I am not,” said the Agri Khan. “Each of my wives is spectacularly unpleasant. Though her wet nurse assures me that in the case of Wife Number Three, she will grow out of it, if I merely wait a decade and a half.” He shook his head. “Marriage and politics. A frightful brew.”

Mansemat nodded. “I’ll vouch for that.”

The Agri Khan winced. “Sorry about that one, Manny. One gets so wrapped up in one’s own misery one forgets…” He raised a hand, and shook his head. “Never mind. It’s all in the past now--and better for it.” He turned and regarded Malina, who was hiding behind her stepsister’s legs. “But how’s the little dear?” Jerzy knelt and offered her his hand. “Hello, Malina. I’m afraid it’s been awhile, but…” He smiled gently. “I’m your godfather.”

Malina stared at him nervously. “Do you really hunt all those things?”

The Agri Khan nodded. “On occasion. But I don’t like it very much.”

Malina gave him a nervous smile. “Oh.” She leaned forward, her eyes eager. “And are you really fast as the wind?”

The Agri Khan nodded, a broad grin on his face. “Oh, yes. Most definitely.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 11

Elaine smiled as she looked at the pennant that was being carefully hung by the servants. A woman held a bloody sword before her, a pensive look on her face. A single tear ran down her cheek. “All My Tears Have Been Shed,” declared the words below in bold black letters.

Oh, yes. This was what she wanted. It was perfect. And also, kickass. Even the servants seemed to think so, if she was judging their awestruck gazes right.

“Yeah,” said Morgaine. “You sure this is what you want?” She spread her hands. “I mean--people will see this.”

“Oh, great advice, Miss ‘My Heart Is Dead’,” said Elaine a chuckle.

Morgaine scowled. “That is a statement of fact!” Elaine smiled at her. “You are ASKING for a sending from the netherworld, young lady!” She crossed her arms. “You should respect your auntie.”

“I try, but you make it difficult,” replied Elaine. She heard the sound of footsteps coming behind her, and turned, a grin on her face. “Hey, guys! Isn’t this the…

“What is Sir Chiaro’s device doing out?” said Nisrioch, staring at the pennant in dull surprise. Jean and Justinian followed a short distance behind him, both looking slightly worn out.

Elaine blinked. “Who is…?”

“The… Knight of Doleful Countenance,” replied her uncle. “One of our House’s greatest warriors. Lord of the Western Marches. Found himself up against his brothers in a bit of a civil war we had. Won. Lived the rest of his life regretting that fact.” He sighed. “Really, quite a depressing story, when you get down to it.”

Morgaine looked at her elder brother in surprise. “Well, look who’s Mr. Mopey today!” She nodded, and raised an eyebrow. “It’s cause SHE’s coming, isn’t it?”

Nisrioch frowned at her. “That’s cruel of you, Morgaine. I don’t go on about Skadi, do I?”

“Only because you know this time, I’m going to succeed,” said Morgaine with a chuckle.

“Of course, you will, Morgaine,” said Nisrioch. “After all, we’re only talking about just shy of a decade’s worth of failure. This time--this it will be different.”

“It WILL be different,” replied Morgaine confidently. “This time I’ve got an approach that will melt even the Dark Lord of the Stonefangs’ icy heart.”

“Ha! ‘Icy’!” declared Nisrioch, slapping his knee. He shook his head. “I have to hand it to you, Sis--good pun.”

Morgaine blinked. “It wasn’t intentional.”

Nisrioch’s face fell. “Oh.” He looked at his sister with a friendly grin. “You can pretend it was!”

“Thanks,” said Morgaine. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Why is it that I am the only member of this family with a healthy appreciation for puns?” asked Nisrioch with a despairing shake of his head.

“Because you have no such thing,” declared Mansemat, entering the room with Viviane and Malina in tow. “What you have is a unhealthy addiction for the horrid--hello, what’s this?” He stared at Elaine’s pennant.

Viviane glanced at Nisrioch. “Agrican is here. We’ve set him up in the East Courtyard.” She shook her head. “He insists on sleeping in a tent.”

Nisrioch shrugged. “The Kizaks are a fascinating people with many customs.” He blinked. “Which reminds me--I’m not expected to eat anything raw this time?” He raised his hands defensively. “Not that I mind--well, not that I mind that much, but I do prefer being warned.”

Viviane shook her head. “No. But he’s brought a lot of yak butter as a gift.”

Nisrioch bit his lip. “Mmmm. I see.” He sighed. “Well, I’d give it to the poor, but I’m afraid they’d give it back to me…”

“It’s not so bad,” declared Mansemat. “Just like regular butter. Only more--yakky.” He turned to Elaine. “You chose--Sir Chiaro’s device?”

Elaine blinked. “Umm--yeah. It’s--cool.”

“Mmm. I suppose, but…” Mansemat clicked his tongue in concern.

Viviane stared at her husband. “What’s wrong?”

“Well--it’s sort of--cursed,” he explained.

Morgaine snapped her fingers. “Knew there was some reason I felt uncomfortable about this.”

“‘Cursed’ is the wrong term,” stated Nisrioch. “It’s more there’s a prophecy involving what would happen if it were ever hung in the Great Hall.” He glanced at the others. “As has clearly come to pass.”

“What sort of prophecy?” asked Jean.

“Oh, the usual,” said Nisrioch. “Doom, conflict, child against parent. Boilerplate stuff, really.”

Viviane sighed. “Figures.” She shook her head. “Are there any nice prophecies?”

Mansemat smiled at her. “A few. For example, some folk say that if the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel and his wife kiss under the fourth arch of the Great Hall, they shall enjoy a long and happy life together.”

Viviane glanced up and counted the arches, then smiled at Mansemat. “Some folk say, eh?”

Mansemat nodded. “Absolutely.”

Viviane wrapped her arms around Mansemat’s shoulders. “Fair enough.” She leaned in for a kiss.

Nisrioch took Malina’s hand. “Now, who wants to see me talk to the Chief of the Scarlet Horde?”

Malina yawned and then smiled at her uncle. “That sounds like fun!”

Elaine nodded, doing her best to avoid looking at her mother and Mansemat. “Yeah. Kizak nobility. Sounds great.” Nisrioch headed out, the remainder of the group following him.

Shortly afterwards, the pair broke their kiss. “You made that up, didn’t you?” said Viviane with a smile.

“Technically, I only said that ‘some people’ said it,” replied Mansemat. “I gave no indication of the prophecy’s age or who those people were.”

Viviane nodded. “So--what happens if they kiss twice under it?”

Mansemat thought that over. “Peace and harmony throughout the Lands of Night, I believe,” he declared.

“Well, then,” said Viviane, with a chuckle, “it sounds like we have obligation.”

They kissed again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 10

Marcolf de Montfalcone waited half an hour after Nisrioch Cthonique left Armida’s to finally leave The Laughing Pilgrim. Porone had left earlier, with his copy of the Report folded under his arm, and a kiss on the cheek for Iseult. Marcolf passed a burly man giving a speech on the corner --Marcolf suspected a touch of Ogre in him, from the build and the mustache--to a rather enthusiastic crowd--something about the local political foolishness--and made his way to the Mumblety Pegs, one of Marsilion’s Folly’s less pleasant slums. Once there, he went to the Gentleman’s Last Resort, one the Mumblety Pegs' less pleasant tenements. From here he went to its dingiest smallest apartment to find the Second Link for the Plains of Dread, Astyanax de Tolometto, nicknamed ‘the General’ by his fellow members of the Necklace .

When Marcolf entered his room, he was sipping weak tea, and pouring over his maps, chuckling to himself. “Ahh. Magnate de Montfalcone! Excellent news!” Astyanax brought up a grubby finger with a long nail, and then forcibly punched the map. “Here--here is where our brigades will attack!” The old Erl smiled to himself, his wizened face alive with malignant joy. “It is perfect--perfect I say! Those decadent Cthoniques will never know what hit them.”

Marcolf nodded in agreement. “A worthy strategy, General.” Astyanax had a brilliant strategic mind, but age, hardship, disappointment and very cheap liquor had all conspired to chip and crack it somewhat. He could easily manage the workings of one of the largest networks in the Necklace, with two dozen Third Links under him, each with their own collection of Fourth Links and Fifth Links--but he also remained convinced that he had to plan for a massive invasion that was likely never going to occur. The Necklace had no army. It needed none. There were others to do the job for it. But there was no convincing Astyanax of that. Marcolf had learnt to treat Astyanax’s eccentricity with a certain mute tolerance, and what limited contact he had with the General’s First Link suggested that the higher-ups in the Necklace were of a similar persuasion.

“Isn’t it though?” declared Astyanax, with a grin. Rising unsteadily from his chair, he limped towards the wall, and lovingly caressed another tattered map that lay there. “I tell you, our victory is inevitable now! There’s no way the Pretenders can resist us now!” He looked at his coconspirator with rheumy eyes. “What shall you do with Montfalcone when you get it back, Friend Marcolf?”

Marcolf shrugged. “I neither know nor care. It is justice against the Pretenders that moves me, General.”

Astyanax managed an unconvinced nod. “Ahh. Good of you, sir. Very good. As for me--when I get Tolometto back, I shall have all my rebellious tenants killed, and their bodies used for fertilizer.” He smiled. “Yes, yes, that seems like an estimable and practical plan. Don’t you think?”

“It will doubtless be quite effective, sir,” said Marcolf, suppressing a sigh. “I’ve just met with the Provisional Fourth Link for Marsilion’s Folly, sir. He can obtain the supplies for Force Majeure in the time frame needed, though the price will be higher than normal.”

Astyanax turned to look at Marcolf, while wrinkling up his nose. “The Provisional Fourth Link… that’s the merchant and black marketeer, yes?” Marcolf nodded silently. Astyanax shook his head. “Ahh, what a world. That we--the finer sort of Erls, must deal with this base rabble…”

“His heart is in the right place, sir,” said Marcolf soothingly.

Astyanax nodded. “Yes, yes, that’s good.” He shook his head again. “I tell you, Friend Marcolf, I loathe this city. It is so beastly. Last evening, when I went out to buy some tea, a man hooted at me. Or at least I think he did. He hooted. That’s enough. I should be able to have him killed for that. But not here. Not here.” The old man grumbled to himself, his words becoming unintelligible.

Marcolf watched him for a moment, a vague feeling of concern stealing over him. “Is everything all right, General?”

The old man moved on to another map. “No,” he said. “I’m old. I live in a single room. I smell of piss and mildew, and rotting paper. My wife is dead. My children have disowned me. My grandchildren have no idea I exist. No, Friend Marcolf, nothing is all right. Nothing has been all right for a long, long time.” Astyanax forced a smile on his face, and scratched his long, grey hair. “Still--victory is in the wings, eh?” He chuckled. “Opal truly is a genius, eh? Turning the Pretenders’ own vanity against them?”

Marcolf smiled. “It is a thing of beauty.”

Astyanax cackled. “Indeed. What will the Cthoniques do, Friend Marcolf, after all shadows gather, for the last time?”

“My hope, General, is die,” replied Marcolf.

The old man laughed and licked his lips. “Oh, that much is certain, Friend Marcolf. That much is certain.” He cackled some more and then coughed awkwardly. “Say--you wouldn’t happen to have a few spare marks, would you? I’ve run through my stipend, and I need some more--tea…” Astyanax looked at him hopefully. “I shall repay you! I swear it, as my honor as a magnate!”

Marcolf sighed, and riffled through his pockets.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 9

“Is there a reason you’re grinning like a loon?” asked Jean.

“Mmmm,” murmured Nisiroch. “Merely musing on the manifold threads of the Wyrd, and how they are all woven, so tightly together.”

“Ahh!” said his apprentice. “Your usual portentous crap.” She shook her head. “I should have known better than to ask.”

“Well, that’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” said Nisrioch. “I mean--‘mystical gobbledygook’, I can see. Or perhaps ‘meaningless drivel’. But ‘portentous crap’?”

“What did you do to that poor man?” said Justinian, as he watched the walls of Castle Terribel come into view.

“Do to him? Oh, surprisingly little,” noted the Dark Lord. “Mostly I just guaranteed him his place in the histories.” Nisrioch shrugged. “There was a good chance he was getting in anyway, but I do like to be sure.”

Justinian stared at the Dark Lord for awhile. “What are you trying to do, sir?”

Nisrioch shut his eyes. “I’m trying to--well, make a better world, Squire Sigma. It is a long, arduous, uncertain work, but it is how I justify my existence.” His eyes opened, the prismatic irises gleaming dully. “I have been privileged to See the shadow of the Threads. If there is a purpose to this, it must be a noble one. If there is no purpose, than I shall make a purpose, and make it noble.”

Jean leaned out the window. “We’re here.”

“Ahh, good,” said Nisrioch with a nod. He glanced at the pair. “I am sorry if I’m not quite my jovial self. As this present meeting of the Shadow Council nears, it brings with it certain affairs of the heart that have never been satisfactorily resolved, I’m afraid.” He sighed. “Ahh, me. Amour! A force that even wizards and Dark Lords of the highest power tremble at.”

Jean glanced at her employer as she exited the carriage. “May I ask who she is?”

“You may ask anything you like,” said Nisrioch blandly. “However, I will neglect to answer.”

“Damn, now I know you love her,” declared Jean. “This is the first subject you’re not eager to prattle about when questioned.”

“Everyone has a limit,” replied Nisrioch, brushing off his robe. He turned towards the Great Hall as the footmen took the carriage away. Justinian glanced at Jean.

“Wow. He really is a bit of out of sorts.” The Sacristan shook his head. “I wonder who she is. And how she got under his skin…”

Jean smiled. “We’re going to find out who she is in a little while. As for the ‘how’--well, it seems obvious to me.” She chuckled. “Of course, I don’t expect you to understand it…” Hoppedance lighted on her shoulder. “Ahh, there you are!” She patted the crow’s head. “Mommy missed her little baby!”

Justinian turned towards Jean angrily. “You know, Jean, despite all the mockery you place on my vows, I am aware of certain… things that you feel I am completely ignorant of.” He snarled. “Do you think I’m a complete idiot? Half the blasted order has “special friends” tucked away in some corner or other! I’m not oblivious to--things of that nature. But despite this, I am resolved to follow my vows, and I would like you to respect that!”

“Easy, Sigma,” said Jean, raising her hand. “I was only joking. I really--just hope you’d lighten up on things. But I am sorry if I went a little too far. Okay?”

Justinian turned with stony dignity. “You apology is noted.” He took a step forward, lost his balance, and fell. As he righted himself, he glared at Jean.

“Sorry,” she said, trying to repress a chuckle.

Justinian sighed. “The universe conspires against my dignity, doesn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” declared Jean, as she helped him up. “That sort of suggests you had some, wouldn’t it?”

“Very true,” noted Justinian, as he regained his feet. He glanced to the side, and frowned. “Who are they?”

Jean looked at him quizzically “Who are who?”

“That small cluster of ominous-looking people lounging about,” said Justinian, pointing at a group of Erls clad in light scarlet robes, and purple turbans.

“Oh! Those are Kizaks!” said Jean. “They’re--nomads who live in the Screaming Waste.” She shrugged. “Sometimes they come up north, working as guards, mercenaries--that sort of thing. Might be up here for some security work.”

Justinian nodded. “Ahh.” He started to head towards the Great Hall. “Well, I have a lengthy cold bath, awaiting me.” He glanced at Jean. “You really are something, you know that? Barbarians at the gates--literally--and you have no interest whatsoever.”

“Of course, I do,” she declared calmly. “But I prefer to wait and see, instead of jumping to conclusions. Like about--closed rooms. The identity of certain Dark Lords. The bookcase in my room…”

“I thought there was a secret passage behind it!” Justinian groaned and shook his head. “I really am a prat aren’t I?”

“It’s part of your charm,” said Jean with a slight smile.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 8

Corin Latheawl looked at the crowd before him, and frowned. It was small--too small. The crowds were always too small. At times like this it struck him that what he was doing here was madness. It had been easy enough to start this, but to keep it going--that was growing difficult. Not because of any real hardship, mind you--but because it seemed like he was achieving nothing, furthering nothing in following this path.

Corin gritted his teeth. He’d promised himself he’d stick with this no matter what happened. ‘Absolutely nothing, really’ was clearly covered by that vow. Corin looked out into the crowd. It was the usual assortment of a dollop of well-wishers, and a small group of people gathered to look at the lunatic. His friend Zerbin was there, and poor old Fulgoso, the man Corin sometimes feared he was becoming. And his wife, Doralice, watching with concern. It occurred to Corin--and not for the first time either--that he didn’t have to do this. And then he saw them, out there just beyond the crowd as usual. A gentleman in a top hat, and a gentleman in a skullcap, both looking on with acute boredom. And he realized once again, that actually--he did have to. He took a deep breath, then coughed to clear his throat.

“The Caps bleed us! The Hats beat us!” He glanced at his two watchers, checking to see if that thunderbolt had shocked them loose from their eternal complacency. It hadn’t quite, but they were both scowling. He decided to continue in this vein. “The Caps promise us progress--promise us a better a life! Well, who gets it? The Cap bosses! We get to work in their factories, at their hours, for their wages! Progress seems to mean they feast, and we starve! I’m sick of it! The Hats promise to make things like they were again--to bring back the good old days! And that always seems to mean more toughs hired to smash folks down if they act up, and taking away whatever pleasures those that toil have! That’s their ‘good old days’! It makes me ill! We need a new way--a better way--because the two ways we’ve got ain’t working!” He slapped himself on the chest. “I’m Corin Latheawl--a simple working man like most of you here! I’m running for Ealderman! Vote me to the Thing, and tell the Caps and the Hats where they can stick it!” He shut his eyes. Not the best of speeches--not a soaring example of eloquence. But he liked to think it got the point across.

“And what will you do if you win?” asked a cultured voice. Corin’s eyes opened in surprise. It wasn’t that he was unused to questions by now--it was that questions weren’t generally asked in tones that sounded genuinely interested.

“My job,” said Corin, scanning the crowd for his questioner. “”Making sure that the folk of this city are living well. Making sure Marsilion’s Folly runs as it ought.”

“Why that sounds lovely!” said the speaker. A tall figure that Corin thought he recognized immediately. Briefly, he hoped he was mistaken. But there was no use fooling himself. It was him. Nisrioch Cthonique, the Dark Lord of the Howling Waste was talking to him. “How do you plan to do that?” He shrugged. “The Hats and Caps both say the same thing, after all, and you don’t feel they’re doing it.”

Corin gulped, and then straightened. ‘No matter what’ was ‘no matter what’. “The roads and walls are getting worn down. Want to seem them fixed. The Caps and Hats always swear they’ll get around to it, always hire folk to do it, but somehow, it never gets done. And there are other problems. Folks are hungry, Your Excellency. I want to see that they get fed. The monasteries used to help with that, but--well, your Father took care of the ones around here. We’ve got to take their place.”

“You want us to take care of freeloaders and riffraff?” came a cry from the crowd. Corin looked out into trying to locate it--and realized that suddenly, there was a real crowd here, one where he couldn’t keep track of all the faces. He didn’t have any illusion about why they were here now. ‘Nisrioch Cthonique--talking to that mad Latheawl fellow! How novel!’ Still--they were here. That was a start.

“No, sir!” declared Corin. “I want this city to take care of those of us who’ve suffered misfortune. If you’d ever seen a family out on the street--you wouldn’t throw those words around. These our people--our neighbors--fellow citizens of the Folly--and they’re suffering! We have to do something!”

“There are private charities and poorhouses,” declared his questioner. His Cap observer, he noted, though he’d taken care to remove the telltale garment. “And jobs in the factories for those that want them.”

“Aye, jobs--jobs that pay a copper mark a day, if you’re lucky!” Corin glared at the Cap. “That’ll keep a man alive--barely. Not a family. Unless they all work in the damned factory, breathing in flax threads, or sulfur, or whatever other awful thing they’re working with.” He looked out at the crowd. “There’s a reason so many beggars in this city have the Cough now. As for the charities and the poorhouses--heh. The charities do too little, and the poorhouses--they do too much. A day’s work of labor for a night’s worth of sleep, and a spoon’s worth of food--and three or four people to a bed.” He shook his head. “It’s no wonder many people prefer the streets.”

“My goodness,” said Nisrioch. “It sounds horrid.”

“Aye, Your Excellency, it is,” said Corin. “Truth be told, sir--well, me, my father and my brothers were True Folk in the Rising. We manned the barricades for Your Lordships, we fought for you, we bled for you, and we--well, some of us died for you.” He shook his head. “I’m not saying I regret it, Your Excellency--but some days I wish we’d asked for a higher price.”

“Now, see here!” shouted the Hat observer, still wearing his top hat. “This is the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste you’re talking to! You can’t snap at him like he was a servant!”

Nisrioch raised his hand. “It’s all right. I appreciate such candor.” The Dark Lord made a half-bow at the crowd. “And I am a servant, after all. Of Unholy Mother, and you, Her Blessed Children.” He reached forward and took Corin’s right hand, while placing his left on Latheawl’s shoulder. “Marsilion’s Folly is fortunate--quite fortunate--to have such a forthright, civic-minded man running for Ealderman.” He nodded, and looked Corin in the eye. “You‘re a good man, Mr. Latheawl. I can tell.”

Corin shifted slightly, uncomfortable under the Dark Lord’s rainbow-eyed gaze. “I--thank you, Your Excellency,” he said, shaking Nisrioch’s hand.

“Your Excellency,” came a voice. A Milesian dressed in the livery of House Cthonique stood nearby, looking distinctly ill at ease. “The carriage is ready.”

“Ahh.” Nisrioch nodded and turned. “Well, then, let us be off, Squire Sigma.” He walked a ways, and then turned. “Best of luck, Mr. Latheawl, to you and all your fellow--oh, my.” The Dark Lord brought a hand to his chin. “I just realized I don’t know what to call you. You’re not a Cap, and you’re not a Hat. What is the proper term?”

“There is none,” declared Corin. “I’m only a simple man, speaking for all of us that must work with our hands to put food on our tables.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Ahh! So you are a--‘Hand’ then, I suppose.” He waved. “Well, best of luck to the Hands.”

“Thanks for the kind words, Your Excellency,” said Corin. As he turned back to the crowd, he notice that it had become quite large and quite interested over the last few minutes.

The rest of the afternoon was something of a blur for Corin. He spoke there for another hour, and when the time came to move to another spot, quite a few people followed him. Several hours later, when he had to take a break, a few of them talked in his place, among them Fulgoso, who announced he was running again after all. And when the evening came, a sizable number of well-wishers followed Corin home, where he discovered that someone had broken into his shop and busted it up.

Somehow, this discovery only cheered him further.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 7

“So what if I move this… here?” asked Jean, placing the game piece on a red square.

Alecto shook her head. “You cannot do that. It is an illegal move. A Dragon may never end its move on a square of the same color as it started on.”

“Ah,” said Jean with a nod. “So I can move it here?” She placed the Dragon on the black square to the left of her original choice.

“Yes, but it would be unwise,” said Alecto calmly.

Jean looked the board over, intrigued. “Why exactly?”

Alecto took the Dragon with her left Elephant. “That’s why. Check.” She regarded the apprentice. “I am now one move from checkmate.”

“Shit! Shit!” cawed Hoppedance.

“Ah. I see,” declared Jean sagaciously.

“Esches is a difficult game to master,” declared Alecto sympathetically. “I myself have been studying under Madame for many years.”

Jean nodded. “Well, it certainly shows.” She glanced at Justinian. “Doesn’t it, Sigma?”

Sigma remained ramrod stiff, eyes closed, while Ate massaged his feet and Ops massaged his shoulders. His lips moved quietly. Ate shook her head. “He’s so--tense! This cannot be healthy.”

“He must need more assistance,” Jean declared cheerfully. “Rhea! Why don’t you apply a cool compress to his overheated brow!”

Ops leaned over him, frowning. “He seems to be muttering something under his breath.”

“He’s praising his good luck,” said Jean, moving her right Lion before the Elephant.

Tisiphone stopped playing her lute. “Actually--it sounds rather like the Canticle In Praise of Chastity…”

Alecto took the Lion with her left Gryphon. “Checkmate.” She glanced at the two girls caressing Justinian. “Please leave off. It appears the client doesn’t desire to be treated this way.”

“Hey, I desire it!” said Jean.

“Bugger the bastard!” cried Hoppedance.

Alecto leaned back in her chair. “Miss Crow, this is a social house. It is a point of pride with us that our clients enjoy their time here.”

Jean crossed her arms. “Spoilsports.”

“I am sorry for this, Master Sigma,” Alecto said, glancing at the young Sacristan. “Believe me, sir, if I had known earlier, it would have ended.” She frowned. “Why didn’t you mention something?”

“Didn’t--want--to be… rude,” muttered Justinian. He shook his head. “A Sacristan must always show courtesy to a lady.”

Alecto gave a bow. “Your manners do you credit.”

Jean frowned. “What--I don’t count somehow?”

“That is correct,” said Justinian.

Jean looked away. “I’d be careful if I were you,” she said with a scowl. “I’m getting up to curses.”

“If your aptitude for sorcery in any way resembles your skill at that game, I shall take my chances.” A sound of doorway opening made Justinian turn around hopefully. Sure enough, Nisrioch Cthonique and Madame Armida emerged into the house’s common room.

“…of course, House Ashurana is out, and House Utgardi is headed by an exceptionally strait-laced woman,” said the Dark Lord cheerfully. “Which would make your choices House Regni, and House Maganza.”

“House Regni it is then,” declared Armida. “I had my share of Lord Asterot four years ago.”

“We all had our share of him four years ago. And yet the man persists.” Nisrioch took out his watch, and sighed. “Well, I really must be heading out.” He grinned. “I’ll send some carriages to pick you up in a few hours.”

Armida nodded. “I’ll go prepare.”

Nisrioch watched her leave, then turned to Jean and Justinian. “Well, you’ve both been very patient. Kudos!”

Justinian bowed. “Your Excellency, I have a request.”

“Yes?” asked Nisrioch with a nod.

“When we return to Castle Terribel, may I be free to take a lengthy cold bath?”

Nisrioch frowned. “How lengthy?”

“Several hours,” replied Justinian promptly.

The Dark Lord considered things for a moment. “I find the request highly amusing, so consider it granted.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency,” said Justinian. “It’s nice to know that I can trust in your--unique sense of humor to grant me the occasional favor.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Yes. I’m quite fantastic like that.”

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 6

Mansemat Cthonique stared at the banners. “On second thought, Breus…,” he declared. “Pink roses might make a better border for Malina’s crest…”

The High Steward nodded. “I see your point, sir.” He looked the display over pensively. “Will we be staying with the purple and silver colors on the device itself, or trying something different?

“It has to be Ashurana colors,” replied Mansemat with a sigh. “Belberith would never let me hear the end of it otherwise.” He looked at the arrangement musingly. “Still--perhaps, we could add some yellow…”

“What are you up to, husband of mine?” asked Viviane in a puzzled tone, as she entered the Great Hall. Morgaine followed with Elaine and Malina in tow--with Elaine rather desperately trying to get out of tow.

Mansemat took this all in with no comment. “Hello, nightshade petals. I’m just putting the finishing touches on our display of arms.” He grinned. “Also, my latest poem went really well! I think it’s my finest ever.”

“Ah, setting the bar very low, are we?” said Morgaine.

Viviane glanced at her reprovingly. “Oh, hush.”

Morgaine sighed. “What? We all know it’s true. I’m just stating the obvious.” She glanced at Elaine. “Stop squirming.”

Elaine glared at her aunt. “I will not! You lied to me! There was talk of unread Trismegistian manuscripts!”

“I didn’t lie,” said Morgaine. Elaine glared at her. “Okay, I did lie, but the manuscripts do exist. Just not where we’re taking you.” She looked away as Elaine continued to glare. “Lady’s Love, Elaine, you’re acting like we’re going to pull teeth. It’s a dress fitting. They’re kind of awkward at times--but you get to put on pretty dresses!”

“Yay! Pretty dresses!” said Malina.

“That’s the spirit, Malina,” said Morgaine, smiling at her young niece. She turned to regard Elaine. “See? Now Malina wants to do this? Why can’t you!”

“I hate dresses!” hissed Elaine. “Especially pretty dresses! They’re hot, they’re heavy and they restrict your movement!”

Morgaine snorted. “So what do you want to do? Attend the festivities in a suit?”

“I MIGHT!” shouted Elaine.

“Perhaps you all could help me with the display,” suggested Mansemat. “An opinion on what I’ve done so far might help me with new ideas.”

Viviane smiled. “Why, that’s an excellent idea.” She looked at her daughter and sister-in-law pointedly. “A really excellent idea.”

Morgaine and Elaine immediately fell quiet, and looked at the great display of banners. “Now,” explained Mansemat, pointing at the wall, “I’ve placed the Cthonique and Du Lac arms on the top, side by side, Cthonique on the right, Du Lac on the left.” The right banner was a great pennant of black and gold cloth with an image of a young woman breaking a chain that had held her to a rock. The words ‘In Her Service’ were embroidered below. The left was pale blue and sea green pennant with an image of a tower on a lake, a star hanging in the sky behind it. ‘Heaven To Earth, River To Sea’ declared the words below. “You’ll note the banners are now linked by a row of pear blossoms, standing for friendship, and oak leaves, standing for constancy.”

Viviane nodded. “Nice touch.”

Mansemat smiled. “It’s the little things that matter.” He gestured to the smaller banners below. “Now--my device stands at the top left section beneath the House Cthonique arms.” Said banner consisted of a stoical beggar being broken on the wheel by a man in sickly green and a woman in off-white, both of whom were richly-clad, and laughing cruelly. ‘I Endure’ was inscribed below.

Elaine frowned. “Okay, I’m guessing you’re the guy on the wheel, but who are the torturers?”

“The man is Envy, the woman is Malice,” replied Mansemat. The others stared at him. “It’s all standard heraldic imagery.”

Viviane bit her lip. “You made that during your teens, didn’t you?”

Mansemat frowned, but made no response. He pointed again. “Your device, Viviane, stands at the top left hand corner below House Du Lac’s arms.” Said device showed a unicorn rampant on a heart, with the words ‘Love and Truth’ written below.

Morgaine and Elaine glanced at her. Viviane looked away awkwardly. “I was ten. Okay?”

“I think it’s very nice,” replied Mansemat. “I’ve linked our devices with red and white roses, to symbolize true and eternal love.”

“Awww!” said Viviane. She leaned over and gave her husband a kiss on the cheek. “That’s for being sweet.”

Mansemat grinned broadly at his wife for a while, something that was only stopped by his sister coughing. “Can we finish this?” she muttered. “Some of us have a dress fitting to attend.”

“Right, right,” said Mansemat. “Your device Morgaine, is on the right next to mine.” Morgaine nodded cheerfully at the image of a crowned skeleton holding a broken heart in its hand, with the motto “My Heart Is Dead,” written below--then frowned.

“Why is it lower than yours?” she asked.

“I’m the Cthonique of Castle Terribel,” replied Mansemat. “You’re the Cthonique of the Tomb of Ancients. I outrank you.” Morgaine pouted. “What? You know this is true.”

“But it’s an Occasion!” cried Morgaine. “Are you going to let me be humiliated before a company of foreigners?” She gave a dramatic sniff. “What did I ever do to deserve such treatment?”

Mansemat frowned at her. “Do you really want an answer to that, Morgaine? Because if I started at the beginning, we’d be here at least two days.”

Morgaine glanced at her feet. “Oh, yeah.” She looked up hopefully. “Would it be helpful if I said I regretted all of it?”

“No,” replied Mansemat. He pointed back at the banners. “Look, you have little to be disappointed in. I put you directly on my right-hand side. Nisrioch isn’t even that close. He’s to your right! See?” Mansemat pointed to a banner showing a stylus before a globe. ‘The Master of the Art, the Wonder of the World’ was written below.

Morgaine nodded. “Eh. Fancy that.” She smiled and clapped. “Yes! Take that, Nissy! In your face!”

Mansemat coughed. “Yes, well--Malina’s device is below mine.” The banner showed a white eagle flying to the right, the words ‘Surpassing All Others’, written below.

Malina blinked. “That looks--like Mommy Mom’s arms. Only different.” She looked at her father for an explanation.

Mansemat smiled gently. “Well, Mal, as a result of--that unpleasantness, you are technically the holder of your mother’s titles and arms. But it didn’t seem--right to just fly her banner, so I had them make you one with the colors and directions flipped. Understand?”

Malina nodded. “It’s very pretty, Daddy. Thank you.”

Mansemat patted his daughter’s head, and then pointed at the banner below Viviane’s. “Now, as Elaine didn’t have a device, and we didn’t have time to make her one, I raided the vaults, and picked one out for you.” Elaine stared at it, a picture of a bee with a woman’s face and a crown. Below it were the words ‘Sweetness I Have Made’. “That was my grandmother Hathor’s!” Mansemat declared cheerfully. “She was the last Sekhmetides!” He blinked. Elaine seemed to be--glaring at him.

“It’s a bee,” she declared.

“A queen bee!” replied Mansemat with more cheer than he was feeling at the moment.

“That’s still a bee,” replied Elaine.

Mansemat glanced away. “Well--you could--take something else, I suppose. If you really want to.” He coughed. “They’re in the Hall of Whispers.”

Elaine darted away with nary a word. “This doesn’t END your fitting, Elaine!” shouted Morgaine. “It only delays things!” She glanced at her brother. “I am going to go to make sure she doesn’t damage anything,” she announced, before rushing after Elaine.

“Of course, you are,” said Mansemat quietly.

Morgaine ignored him. “You hear that, Elaine? A pretty dress is YOUR DESTINY!”

Viviane glanced at her husband. “You know--I think that went fairly well on the whole.” She nodded. “And it is a lovely display.”

Mansemat rubbed his temples. “I seemed to have dodged any serious trouble.” And then he heard it. The sound of a great horn, being blown in the distance. He gulped. “Oh, no. Not… Agrican.” Viviane patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 5

“So, then,” said Armida, standing up from behind her desk, “you’ll want a full complement of our best hostesses, for the duration of the Shadow Council meeting.” She glanced at Nisrioch quizzically. “How--friendly do you want them to be?”

Nisrioch stopped running his fingers through a bowl of orange blossoms Armida had placed on her desk. “Friendly enough to make people at ease, but not friendly enough to cause an international incident,” said Nisrioch. “We want our guests to enjoy themselves, not to gather blackmail material.”

“You make it sound like a choice,” Armida noted with a chuckle. She looked deeply into the Dark Lord’s multihued eyes. “And do you--want me for this little gathering?”

“But of course!” declared Nisrioch. “You, Armida, are the acme of your profession. To hold this gathering without you--it would be madness. Or at least, folly.” He placed a hand on her chin. “You really do have the most startling eyes I’ve ever seen on a woman. Have I told you that?”

“Many times,” replied Armida, stepping back coyly. She glanced away, and picked up a tiny sculpture placed in the corner. “Now--I assume that she will be there, yes?”

Nisrioch sighed gently, and turned to regard a painting hung on the chamber’s wall. “That’s really quite lovely. When did you get that?”

Armida placed a hand on his shoulder. “Two years ago,” she said. “When you gave it to me.”

Nisrioch’s eyes went wide. “Well, I do have excellent taste then, don’t I?”

She took a deep breath. “Answer the question, Nisrioch.”

Nisrioch frowned and turned to look at her. “You already know the answer. Of course, she’ll be there.” He glanced away again. “Honestly, why even bother asking? It’s absurd.”

Armida leaned against the wall. “To politely and properly broach the subject so that I could announce that I will not be attending on you for this gathering.”

Nisrioch stared at her in surprise. “Why not?” He smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Dare I hope it’s jealousy?”

Armida smiled. “You may dare anything, Nisrioch, but that wouldn’t make it so.” She fondly shook her head. “You know I am as capable of jealousy as you are of modesty.”

“And why should I be modest?” declared the Dark Lord cheerfully. “I’m a perfectly splendid individual.” He pointed at Armida. “As are you, I might add. That’s probably why we suit each other so well.”

“I can’t argue with that,” said Armida with a dismissive wave of her hand. “But again, Nisrioch--it’s not jealousy. I neither expect or even want your exclusive attention and affection. Considering who we both are, it would be a disservice to us both if I were to get them.” A rueful smile touched her face. “I don’t mind sharing these things with her. Lady’s Love, if that were all, I wouldn’t mind sharing a bed with her. I’m broad-minded!”

Nisrioch leaned forward eagerly. “It’s funny you should mention that…”

Arimda loudly cleared her throat. “Allow me to finish, Nisrioch. You see, that’s not all. There’s how you two treat each other.” She frowned. “It’s not healthy, Nisrioch. You hurt each other. And not just in the fun way.” Armida took a deep breath and shook her head. “I’m not jumping into the middle of that battlefield again.” She looked at him seriously. “Honestly, if I thought it were an option, I’d advise you both to try and end things. But then--it really isn’t, is it?”

Nisrioch gulped slightly. “Why do you persist in asking rhetorical questions, Armida?” He glanced pointedly away. “I… understand what you’re talking about. I’ve even--considered it, but… well, a sixteen year habit is hard to break.” He shut his eyes. “And really--what would be left of me if I managed to succeed?” He shuddered slightly. “Not something I like to think of.”

Armida smiled sadly. “Do you ever wish you met me first?”

Nisrioch turned to regard her. “Ahh, but the man who met you is the man who met her, who loved her, who had his heart torn and tattered in the pursuit of her. Without that--who knows who I’d be?” The rainbow-colored eyes glinted in sadness. “But--do I sometimes wish you and I might have met free of all the--complications that have ruled our respective existences?” He nodded. “Oh, yes. Every so often, in a foolish moment.” The Dark Lord shrugged. “What can I say? I am a fool, at the bottom of things.”

Armida took his hand. “I’ve always found that to be one of your more endearing traits.”

Nisrioch nodded, and then looked at her. “Where does my whimsical sense of humor rate?”

The hostess put her hand to her chin. “That one depends on my mood…” she noted with a nod.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 4

Breus le Fidèle looked over the assembled ranks of Castle Terribel’s servants, and nodded to himself. The Castle was fully staffed. Oh, most were younger--greener than he liked--but they would suffice. He’d see to that. Now--to finish the preparations. The Head Steward stepped forward, and coughed.

The room immediately fell silent.

“All right, you sluggards, slatterns, and general layabouts!” Breus declared. “We’re facing a Grand Occasion! Haven’t had one of those since Lord Shaddad had the Muster, fifteen years ago!” He nodded as eyes widened, and a few people began to nervously whisper to each other. “That’s right! A few of you remember that--and the ones that don’t, have heard tales of it!” The Head Steward frowned. “Well--this one promises to make that one look like a mere Occasion! All Nine Dark Lords--you heard me correctly--all Nine--will be descending upon Castle Terribel, with adjuncts, retinues, and hangers-on in tow.” He regarded the group significantly. “Now--I know you all realize that this means more work, for a bunch of demanding bastards who’ll think they can do whatever the hell they want because they happen to be guests. But there’s more. Each of these pernickety ponces will come with their own staff--who will see fit to jump in and interfere with us doing our work at one wave of their nibs’ fancy gloves. So what do we do about this?”

He clapped his hands together. “I’ll tell you what! We are going to do our damnedest to make sure that these finicky fops get the best damned service they’ve ever received in their wasted, parasitic lives, so their little errand boys wind up standing around with their thumbs up their asses, that’s what we’re going to do!” Breus raised his hands. “Staff review!” He gestured to his right. “Keepers of the Kitchens! How do we stand?”

Calchas Woodash stepped forward, and clicked his heels. “Stores are stocked, High Steward! Stoves are scoured, High Steward! Fuel bin is filled, High Steward! Kitchen staff are READY!”

Breus nodded. “Excellent!” He gestured to a row of chambermaids. “Keepers of the Chambers? How do we stand?”

Breus’ daughter Eurydice stepped forward, and stomped her foot once on the floor. “Guest chambers have opened and turned out, High Steward! Beds have been stripped, and then made with the fine sheets, High Steward! We are on double dustings until the Grand Occasion commences, High Steward! All furniture has been scrubbed and polished, until it looks new--but not too new, High Steward! Chamber staff are READY!”

Breus nodded at Eurydice, and gestured at the row behind them. “Keepers of the Wash? How do we stand?”

Iseult Redhands stepped forward and bowed. “Soap stores have been tripled, High Steward! We are working double shifts to clear out the back log, High Steward! Stones and sticks have been checked, High Steward! Wash staff are READY!”

Breus nodded, a smile touching his face. “Very good. I tell you, people, we might just pull through this.”

One of the pot boys glanced at a footman. “The Old Man’s really going mad with this, isn’t he?” he whispered. “I mean--what’s he got to boast about?”

The footman stared at him. “You don’t know? That’s Breus le Fidèle! During the Mustering, he requested the Captain of the Vulture’s Friends get his feet off the table--and when the Captain said he’d slice his throat if he spoke up to him again, the Old Man told him it wasn’t wise to threaten the man who cleans your sheets.” The footman turned to regard Breus with something akin to reverence. “And the Captain took his feet off the table.”

Another footman patted the pot boy on the shoulder. “The Old Man will see us through--you can be sure of that. He ain’t just a High Steward--he’s THE High Steward.”

Breus coughed. “You there! Bramble! No talking during Review!”

The footman stood at attention and clicked his heels. “Of course not, High Steward! I’m sorry, High Steward!”

Breus nodded. “Don’t let it happen again. Keepers of the Grounds! How do we stand?” As Erbin Birdwhistle stepped forward, the pot boy’s heart slowly filled with the feeling many of his fellows already had--that somehow, the old man would see them through this.