Elaine sighed. Mansemat, Nisrioch and her mother were in a detailed discussion over who got to do the Benediction at tonight’s feast. Exactly the sort of ceremonial minutiae that dominated Nightland religious practice. Sometimes she was almost glad that Shaddad had destroyed the local religious Colleges. Though she really shouldn’t be. Especially considering HOW he’d done that.
“Look, Nissy, no one is arguing that you’re the eldest,” said Mansemat. “But I am still Dark Lord of Castle Terribel, Her master in matters temporal and spiritual!”
“Ahh,” said Nisrioch. “But I am a Master of both Deep and Deeper Mysteries, AND an Initiate in the Deepest Mysteries to boot. And that is aside from the mystical position of a first son!”
Viviane coughed, and raised her hand. “Ahem! The Badb! Mistress of All Witchery! Queen of the Old Magic!”
“Which is very high ranking, Viv,” said Nisrioch. “But has no traditional place in Castle Terribel protocol.” Viviane arched one thin eyebrow. Nisrioch crossed his arms. “You can glare at me all you want, Viv. It won’t change the facts.”
Viv raised the other eyebrow. Mansemat frowned at his elder brother. “I believe that what my darling wife is trying to tell you in her own inimitable manner, Nisrioch, is that regardless of protocol and tradition, she’s now a vital part of Castle Terribel.” Viviane smiled at her husband, who smiled back at her, then turned towards Nisrioch again. “That said--I should do it.”
Viviane gave an exasperated snarl. “Oh, come on, Manny!”
Mansemat shrugged. “I worship and adore you, nightshade petals, but this is ritual we’re talking about. I really don’t want to muck about with it.”
Elaine glanced back at the Ashurana airship, which, presently, could not land fast enough for her. “Hey, something’s happening,” she noted.
The trio turned to look up. “Ahh, yes,” said Nisrioch. “Belberith has decided to make a dramatic entrance.” He gestured to the row of winged figures descending from the airship. “And--no herald either. Interesting.”
Morgaine snorted. “Oh, classic Belberith. Remind everyone that he’s so sure of himself, he doesn’t NEED to keep safe. And, lo--we all look upon the great man with wonder and awe.” She shook her head.
Jean glanced at Nisrioch. “So--nice to finally meet ‘her’…”
Nisrioch blinked and glanced at his apprentice. “Pardon?”
“Your mystery woman!” said Jean. “The one that’s got you out of joint! The Ogre! Whatsername!”
Nisrioch blinked again. “You mean--Idun? The skald!”
Jean nodded, with a smile. “Yep! That’s her!” She shook her head. “What did you do to her?”
Nisrioch fidgeted. “Ahh. That is--an interesting story. But she’s NOT the woman you’re thinking of--”
Nisrioch’s explanation stopped as Belberith flew directly overhead, the sound of his immense wings “House Cthonique!” the Dev shouted. “I, Belberith Ashurana, Dark Lord of the Mountains of Sorrow, Sovereign of the Dev, the Ashurana of Qaf, Supreme Duke of the South, and Presidium of the Shadow Council, have come at your request! Do you grant House Ashurana your peace?”
Mansemat nodded. “We do, sir!”
The Dev landed neatly in front of the Cthoniques, and elegantly bowed. “Then know I accept it!“ declared Belberith ringingly. And Elaine got her first clear look at Belberith Ashurana.
He was much older than Mansemat--in his late fifties at least--but despite that he was tall and muscular, a slight paunch and a receding, grey hairline the only real concessions his years had gotten from him. His horns were long and curled like those of a ram, while his grey beard was lengthy and immaculately groomed. His clothing was rich, but in a subtle manner, from his fine fur-mantled shirt of purple silk, to his gleaming, knee-high black leather boots. He regarded the Cthoniques with a distracted air, as the other Devs landed behind him, bowing in turn.
A female Dev in a yellow dress stepped to Belberith’s side and bowed. “I, the Lady Alcina Ashurana, Dark Lord of the Vale of Woe, the Ashurana of Albracca, and Geat of the South, also accept!” she declared. Her face, Elaine decided, was rather severe, with a pointed chin, and thin lips pressed in a frown, while her horns were long and thin. As she stood straight, Alcina clapped her hands together. “Well, that’s done. Now, let’s see Her Precious Grace.”
Malina stepped forward nervously, while Belberith gave his daughter a slightly reproachful glance. “Hello, Auntie Alse!” chirped the young Dev. She glanced over to Belberith and bowed nervously. “Grandpa.”
“Hello, dear” said Belberith, nodded mildly, while Alcina dove forward.
“Aggh! Auntie Alse!” protested a squirming Malina as Alcina inspected her horns.
“Oh, hush, Mal,” said Alcina. “This is for your own good. Now--spread your wings.” Malina pouted slightly and unfolded them. Alcina ran her hands over them, and then gave a slight smile and nod. “Very nice!” She glanced at the Cthoniques. “Her wings are growing just as they should!”
Viviane frowned. “We could have told you that.”
Alcina nodded, standing up. “Ah, yes. Because you all have such great experience with having wings.” She coughed. “Please pardon me, Mistress du Lac. I care very deeply for my niece, and I want to make sure that when I see her, she enjoys some of the attentions she requires that the… present situation has denied to her.” She tussled Malina’s head. “I just want Malina to be--all right.”
Malina smiled and fluttered her wings. “I’m fine, Auntie Alse! And I’m a real good flyer!” She leapt up into the air, wings flapping frantically. She remained airborne for almost half a minute, then fell on the ground with a yelp. She sniffled, and then began to bawl. “It n-never WORKS when I want it to!”
Alcina knelt and wrapped her arms around her niece. “Oh, you silly, precious little poppet!” declared the Dev fondly, stroking Malina’s hair. “Not even Ahrimanes himself could have managed to get himself aloft that way!” She pulled away. “Our wings and our magic can only do so much, dear. We must let the wind do the rest. And thus--it helps to start from a high place.” Alcina spread her wings. “If I may demonstrate…” And then suddenly she vanished, reappearing high above in the sky. Diving forward gracefully, she twirled in the air, then circled down, coming to a landing before the Cthoniques.
“See?” Alcina stated, smiling at her niece. And as a laughing Malina rushed forward and gave her aunt a hug, it occurred to Elaine that the older Dev didn’t look so--severe now. Though that changed when Belberith coughed.
“Are we--quite done with this?” asked the elder Dark Lord quietly.
“Of course, father,” stated Alcina, gently stepping away from Malina. “Why ever should we risk a prolonged display of affection?” She watched Malina step back into the crowd with something akin to regret.
Belberith turned back towards Mansemat. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am afraid these old bones don’t handle travel as well as they used to.” He gave a half bow. “I shall retire to my chamber for a brief rest, then rejoin you at the feast.” He gestured towards Alcina. “I shall leave all arrangements for House Ashurana in my daughter’s capable hands, for the time being.”
Mansemat nodded. “Naturally, sir.” A hostess stepped forward. “Young Miss Ops here shall show you to your chambers. In the Basilisk Wing.”
Belberith nodded politely as the young Erl woman took his hands. “That sounds delightful. Adieu.”
As he walked out of sight, Nisrioch stepped forward, and took Alcina’s hand. “Alcina.” He raised it to his lips and kissed it.
Alcina regarded her fellow Dark Lord with a cynical smile. “Nisrioch. You look well.”
“And you look--exquisite,” replied Nisrioch, lowering the hand. “As always.”
Alcina nodded subtly, her smile becoming almost taunting. “I know.” She gestured behind her. “I don’t believe I’ve introduced you to Medoro.” A handsome young male Dev, his brown hair hanging neatly to his shoulders, stepped behind Alcina, looking for all the world like he’d rather be somewhere else at the moment. Alcina placed a fond hand on Medoro’s shoulder. “He’s my personal assistant.”
Nisrioch stared at young Medoro, with just the faintest twitching in his right eyelid. “Ahh.” He offered his hand. “A pleasure to meet you.” Nisrioch glanced at Alcina. “So--what exactly do his duties entail?”
“Absolutely nothing,” replied Alcina gleefully. “And he does it well.”
Nisrioch released Medoro’s trembling hand, frowning severely. “I seem to recall, dearest Alse, that I was quite good at… ‘absolutely nothing’.”
“Why, Nisrioch!” declared Alcina with a chuckle. “An honest appraisal of yourself!” She patted him on the cheek. “There’s hope for you after all, sweetness.”
Nisrioch choked a snarl and then laughed. “Ahh, how you thwart me, my lovely one. But--I forgive you. It’s part of your--allure.” He turned to Medoro and shook his heads. “Oh, the tales I could tell you, my lad! They’d curl your hair!”
Alcina covered Medoro’s ears. “Despoiling my poor innocent darling’s ears with filth, precious?” She shook her head. “For shame. For shame! What is House Cthonique coming to? Is all gallantry dead?”
“Slain at your pretty hands, my perfect delight,” declared Nisrioch. He grabbed her hand and held to his chest. “If you wish, Madame, you may check for a heartbeat.”
Mansemat stepped forward with a slight cough. “Perhaps it would be best if Lady Alcina would come with Viviane and myself to take care of House Ashurana’s--arrangements.” He smiled mildly, but forcibly. “Now.”
Alcina pulled away from Nisrioch. “I believe that would be best.” She glanced at Viviane, who was being tugged to Mansemat’s side by Malina, and frowned slightly. “I almost forgot to congratulate you, my dear Badb. Marital and romantic happiness with a Cthonique.” She glared at Nisrioch. “I’d come to believe it was a fairy tale.” She clapped her hands together. “Come now, Medoro.” The young Dev gulped and followed the retreating group of Dark Lords.
There was silence for a moment afterwards. Finally, Jean glanced at Nisrioch. “I thought Mansemat and her sister were the ones who were married.”
Morgaine snorted. “Oh, you got it right. You really should have been there for the ceremony.” She looked at her brother. “Isn’t that right, Nissy?”
Nisrioch nervously twiddled his fingers. “Look, Alcina and I can’t blamed for that. It was a lovely ceremony, and we were both simply overcome with emotion. Also, we both apologized to the Abbe. And the Sisters. Once they stopped crying.”
“Uh huh,” said Morgaine with a dull nod. “So should we remember to knock before opening any broom closets for the duration of THIS Occasion?”
Nisrioch turned angrily towards his sister. “Now see here! That’s unfair! It was a PANTRY!” The others stared at him quietly. He glanced away. “Well, it was.”