Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 56

“Hmmph!” grunted Lanfusa Chiarmonte. “Scandalous.” She glanced at Aldigier, who merely politely sipped his coffee. “I said--it’s scandalous.”

“What’s scandalous, ma’am?” said Aldigier, his face completely impassive.

Lanfusa stared at the cup of darkish liquid before her, made a face, and then returned to looking at the hall. An increasing number of figures were dancing on it. “Those two!” spat out Lanfusa gesturing at Nisrioch and Alcina, whose fervent dance was demonstrating a tendency to get a bit too fervent. “Shocking behavior. Just shocking.”

“Mmm,” replied Aldigier, sipping his coffee.

“Mumsy,” muttered Malagise with a slight groan. “Let’s not forget the company we’re keeping…” He gestured at Belberith and Orrill. The sorcerer looked as awkward and strained as a man with a crocodile’s head could manage--which was a surprising amount--while Belberith seemed sublimely unaware of the entire matter.

“What?” said Lanfusa. “Lord Belberith? He should know that his daughter’s a--woman of questionable character.”

The entire table gave an almost visible flinch. Orrill glanced up towards the ceiling. “I thay! What thimply thmashing chandelier! I can’t believe I never notithed it in all the yearth I wath in Lord Shaddad’th employ…”

“Bother your chandelier,” snapped Lanfusa. “I’m talking about Her Worshipfulness.”

Belberith turned his head and regarded the elderly Erl calmly. “My eldest daughter is a woman of many fine qualities. Good taste in love is not one of them.” He frowned slightly. “And that is how the matter stands.”

Malagise gave a nervous laugh. “Ah, yes. A very--astute observation.” He glanced out at the floor and chuckled. “You know… it occurs to me… well, of course I can understand why you couldn’t let it happen at the time--your eldest daughter and Shaddad’s bastard--but--well, she’s clearly not going to wed anyone else, and he’s--now he’s the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste--one of the leading sorcerers in the Lands of Night--the man behind the man in House Cthonique…”

Belberith glanced at Malagise a slight smile on his lips. “Duke Chiaramonte--are you going to suggest that I allow my daughter and Nisrioch Cthonique to wed?”

“Well--yes,” said Malagise. “It’d take care of that unpleasantness with Lady Falerina, it’d be a good way of shoring up your alliance with House Cthonique--and blast it, they’re a handsome couple.” He gave an apologetic shrug. “At least, that’s my thoughts on the matter. Make of them what you will.”

Belberith smiled at Malagise, his mouth forming a thin curve. “Why I make very little of it, Duke.” He leaned forward. “You see--my daughter and Nisrioch Cthonique are never going to wed. I have so willed it. And my will shall make it so.” He looked at Malagise pointedly. “You see--they humiliated me, years ago, in what supposed to be a moment of triumph for myself and my House. And I do not take kindly to that. And so they will pay the price. They may pine for each other as much as they wish--they may couple with each other as often as they like--but they must both realize that if they ever go against my wishes in this matter, I will use all my power to turn their joy to ashes, and their lives to offal. The Heir of Ahriman is not mocked.”

Malagise nodded dully. Belberith calmly sipped his coffee, and then looked at the vaguely stunned company with a cheerful grin. “You know, Madame Lanfusa--your talk of scandal reminded me of a most amusing tale!” He leaned forward. “A certain elderly nobleman, of good family, low morals, and empty purse, married an upjumped gentry woman who had great wealth and more than a pinch of Goblin blood in her.” Lanfusa gulped. “Unfortunately, the old degenerate had lost all ability to--practice his connubial rights, leaving his rather hot-blooded young wife--cold. But she soon warmed herself by making a cuckold of her husband with his own bastard son.” Aldigier’s eyes widened in silent indignity. “He soon planted a bastard of his own in her belly, which the rather vain husband accepted as his heir! A man--leaving title and estate--to the bastard of his bastard!” said Belberith merrily. He laughed once, like a hound barking, and shook his head. “A merry tale, you’ll grant. And so scandalous!”

Lanfusa glared bullets at the Dark Lord. “Aldigier! I wish--I wish to go back to my chambers!”

“I shall take you there, ma’am,” said Aldigier, taking the old woman by her hand and frowning severely at Belberith. The pair headed off together.

Belberith gave an ironic shake of his head. “Amazing. What do you suppose offended them so?” He turned to look at Malagise, who was frowning quietly, and sipping his coffee. “Hmmm?”

Malagise finished his coffee, and looked Belberith squarely in the face. “You, sir, are a cad, a bully, and a villain,” he stated evenly. He smiled mildly at the Dark Lord. “I hope I am making myself clear.”

Belberith crossed his arms. “My, my. Suddenly the cream puff has claws. Has my little tale offended you that much?”

“Your tale did nothing, sir, other than confirming my earlier opinion,” said Malagise. “I knew you for what you were, Belberith, when you gleefully announced that you were willing to make your own flesh and blood miserable for the sake of something that happened years ago. The casual cruelties you inflicted on me and mine were merely a few drops in a plentiful flood of petty wickedness.” He shook his head. “They were also uncalled for, sir. My mother… is what she is. I often regret her behavior--but I do love her. She is my mother. And you humiliated her, simply because you could.” Malagise rose from his chair. “Pathetic. Pathetic and cruel. Heir of Ahriman or not, you are a blasted soul, Belberith. A blasted, withered soul, incapable of love, kindness and true happiness. I’d pity you, but it would be wasted pity.”

Belberith snorted and sneered at the Duke. “And you think I care what you think, you fat fool?”

“I know you don’t,” said Malagise. “But I simply felt that I had to say it. Simply to show you that I care as little about your good opinion as you care for mine.” He glanced at Orrill. “Since we are dropping all show of politeness I feel I must inform you that you are a hack whose reputation lies in your overcoming a lack of talent with a penchant for brutality.”

“Thir! I mutht proteth…” began Orrill.

“Oh, shut your ridiculous mouth,” snapped Malagise, “No one wants to listen to you mangle language to say your empty platitudes.” He turned again to the Dark Lord. “So, again, I do not care that you think me a fat fool. Most do. But no one thinks me a villain, Belberith. And by the Lady, none ever will.” He bowed. “Adieu, sir. I’d wish you joy, but as I noted, it’s a vain wish in your case.” And with that he turned and walked away.

Sacripant quickly rushed to his side. “I… Duke Chiaramonte… I…” He looked away. “I suddenly think I should be buying you a drink, or something.”

Malagise smiled broadly. “A Chiaramonte is NEVER bought drinks, Mr. Fenswater. He ALWAYS pays the bill.” He drew out a golden mark and expertly tossed it to Sacripant. “When this is all over, go to some tavern, and drain a jug with a toast to myself. I’d consider it an honor.” And with that, Malagise strode on the floor, every inch of him the Duke Chiaramonte, Lord of Cremonia and the East Shadow Wood.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 55

Jerzy was finishing his coffee as the music started. “My thoughts are wing’d with hopes, my hopes with love,” sang Tisiphone as she played her lute. “Mount Love in the clearest night--and say, as she doth in the heavens move--on Earth so wanes and waxes my delight!”

“Remarkable,” he said quietly.

“Tisiphone is the finest lautist in the Plains,” declared Nisrioch fondly. “Despite her handicap…”

“Must make some aspects of her work difficult,” said Alcina wryly. “How is she sure of her--fingering?”

Nisrioch gave her a reproachful look. “That was beneath you, darling. It was a crude, low blow.”

Alcina glared at him. “I didn’t know you had a--soft spot for her.” She leaned forward. “Or perhaps… ‘soft’ is quite the inappropriate word…”

“Enough, Alse,” snapped Nisrioch. He narrowed his eyes. “You hold the key to my being. Both soft… and otherwise.”

“I hold the key,” said Alcina. “And yet they do slip in through the window.”

“And you have them seated on the doorstep,” said Nisrioch. “But I do not mind. It’s part of your--charm. To stand--so tall--above the crowd--well, it says a great deal about my--charm.”

“Distrust doth enter hearts but not infect,” sang Tisiphone. “And love is sweetest season’d with suspect.”

Armida stood up. “Care to join me in a dance?” she asked Nisrioch, offering him her hand.

Nisrioch took it and rose from his chair. “I have been waiting for you to ask on tenterhooks.” He glanced at Medoro. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Medoro gulped and shook his head. Nisrioch smiled, and glanced at Alcina. “Shall I lead?”

She placed an arm around his waist. “I believe that is the usual custom, yes.”

Jerzy watched the pair waltz off, and shook his head. “Whenever I find myself with them, I find myself giving thanks that I’m not married. And then I remember that I am--thrice over--and that they are not,” he noted to one his Kizaks.

The Kizak nodded. “My mind, Agri Khan, is reminded of the yale, whose horns turn to face the latest threat.” He gulped down his coffee. “Unfortunately, it’s a stupid bugger, and forgets the first damn threat it was facing.”

Jerzy glanced at him. “By the Lady, you are a cynical bastard, Bolekiz.”

Bolekis lifted his eyes to the heaven. “I speak only as I feel, oh, Agri Khan. And never with any disrespect to your vaunted person.”

Jerzy gave a wry nod, and then glanced at Medoro. The young Dev was slumped forward at the table. “Is everything… all right?” the Kizak hetman inquired.

Medoro emitted a vague whimper.

Jerzy placed a hand on his shoulder. “Listen lad--I don’t care what you think--that lady is not worth…”

Medoro glanced up at Jerzy, his face wrought with misery. “I’m one of her gardeners! She paid me twenty gold marks to accompany her here!” He groaned. “And let me state--it wasn’t enough! It wasn’t HALF enough!”

Jerzy gave a dull nod. “Oh.”

“Thoughts, hopes, and love return to me no more,” sang Tisiphone, “till Luna shine as she done before!”

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 54

Armida smiled at the serving maid as she put down the crème brulee before her. “Thank you,” she said, picking up her spoon, and cracking the sugary top.

“I’d think you’d want to watch your weight,” said Idun quietly.

Armida laughed gently. “Ahh, but I am.” She gestured to her generous figure. “I mustn’t allow myself to waste away, after all. There’re a few things more disturbing than a woman with my build turning to skin and bones.” Armida shuddered. “Thing’s begin to--hang.”

The Muspeilun skald looked Armida in her mismatched eyes, but then looked away. The stories were true--Armida’s eyes were horribly disconcerting to look into. Idun shook her head to clear her thoughts--and then realized just what direction she was looking in. “Oh… damn it…” she seethed.

“What?” asked Armida, sipping her coffee. The hostess blinked as she followed Idun’s gaze. “Oh. That.”

Across the hall, Nisrioch and Alcina were chatting in their usual flirtatious, intimate way. Nisrioch leaned forward and whispered something in the Dev’s ear, which caused her to laugh quietly. The rest of their table seemed slightly embarrassed. Especially, Alcina’s unfortunate escort.

Armida clicked her tongue. “They do have the most profound mutual attraction that I have ever witnessed, don’t they?”

Idun gave a choked sob. “You--don’t have to put it that way.” The Ogre slumped forward on the table. “I don’t handle being thrown over very well, all right? I’m not a--professional, like you are.”

“Just because I’m a hostess, doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings,” said Armida softly. She looked at Nisrioch. “It was supposed to be merely another client. Oh, a prestigious one, to be sure--but in the end, only another client.” Armida smiled faintly. “He even warned me. ‘My dear’ he said, ‘you must never expect to gain my heart. This is no fault of your own--I simply have already lost it, I’m afraid.’ I told him that this was no problem for me, that I was a professional.” She sighed. “But--I found myself caring. As did he, to his surprise. But--we both knew that the most vital part of himself--that I could never have. That was hers. It will be hers, until the day he dies.”

Idun stared at the hostess in sympathy, then frowned. “You’re lucky you got him to care.” Her eyes snapped shut. “I… I thought we had something. That…” She shook her head. “Oh, I didn’t expect him to marry me, but--I thought we were a couple. And then…” Idun slouched forward, resting herself on the table. “The first Shadow Council meeting, they just--hooked up. All over again. It was--it was like I wasn’t even there.”

Armida patted Idun on the shoulder. “He is--sorry you know.”

“I don’t give a damn if he’s ‘sorry’!” shouted Idun. “What he did to me--I can’t forgive him! I can’t!”

“I can understand that,” noted Armida. She shook her head. “He--Nisrioch doesn’t view the world quite the way most people do. He can’t. He--Sees things. How--things tend to go. It--there’s a distance. He does what he can to bridge the gap, but--it’s always there. Except with her.”

Idun blinked. “What?”

Armida looked at Idun. “He once told me. She’s a complete blank. He sees--only a woman. A woman who--loves him, in her fashion.”

“Oh.” Idun frowned, and choked back a snarl. “I love the bastard too. In my fashion. Doesn’t that count?”

Armida sighed. “It does, dear. But not enough.” She smiled. “Now--come on. Let’s quit this dreary talk. Plenty of fish in the sea, and so forth.” She glanced over at Ull. “For example…”

Idun snorted. “He’s my cousin. And my friend. Nothing more.” She chuckled. “Actually, there’s someone he’s got his eye on. Though he’d never admit it. Maybe not even to himself.”

Armida glanced over at Skadi. “Ahh. So that wasn’t just my imagination.”

“Oh, the worst part is she fancies him too,” muttered Idun. “But she’s even worse than him, and her damned Jarlthing…” The Muspeilun shook her head. “I despair of the Fangs some times. I really do.”

“They have their good points,” said Armida, with a grin.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 53

Palamedes Woodash made his way through the crowd, moving with the expertise that a life spent in the Castle Terribel kitchens could grant a person in that sort of thing. He looked around desperately for a black cloak. Serjeant Greedigutt needed to hear this, and as Palamedes had no idea where he was, he would need to find someone with a better handle of things.

Which would be about anyone. Palamedes did not suffer from any illusions about his level of competence or his place in the Guard. He’d always been an awkward young man, and had simply moved from being the awkward young member of the Kitchen Staff to being the awkward young member of the Guard. It may not have been the finest career move--but the clothing was much better. There was no denying that. He saw a large black cloak in a corner. Hagen. Well--he would do. Even if the Ogre often left Palamedes with a sensation that he was being laughed at. Albeit in a quiet, vaguely foreign manner that the Ogres of the Mountains of Sorrow were experts at.

Palamedes took a deep breath and tapped the black cloak. “Hagen?” The Ogre turned revealing an attractive female Erl nestled in his arms.

“Ahh! Palamedes!” Hagen gestured to the woman. “This is Meg!”

Meg smiled at him. “It’s short for ‘Megarea‘.” Palamedes nodded dully, realizing that this woman was one of Armida’s hostesses. “Oooh! Palamedes! I’ve heard so much about you!” she declared brightly. She shot a fond gaze at the Ogre. “Hagen always tells me the funniest stories involving you!”

Palamedes shifted awkwardly on his feet. “Ahh. Yes. Very nice.”

Meg looked at her paramour. “I have to say--he’s much cuter than you make him sound.”

Hagen gave a good-natured chuckle. “Don’t want your eyes wandering, nightingale.” He hung an affectionate arm over the hostess.

“Yes, Hagen--it’s--do you know where the Serjeant is?” said Palamedes, shutting his eyes.

“Around somewhere,” said Hagen with a dismissive wave of his hand. “What do you have to tell him?”

Palamedes coughed. “Right. Remember that cheese that--went missing?” Hagen nodded, a slight chuckle escaping his lips, while Meg politely covered her mouth. Palamedes decided to go on. “Well, more food’s vanished. A tray of biscuits during the salad course, two servings of Beef Azzur--and just under a dozen bottles of water.”

Hagen nodded. “So--people are thirsty, eh?”

Palamedes frowned, regarding the Ogre with narrowing eyes. “You’re not a Castle man, Hagen. You don’t know how things operate here. There’s always a little lifting going on in the Kitchens, yes. But trays? Servings? Whole bottles of water?” Palamedes was startled to hear himself standing up to Hagen--and yet here he was, doing just that. “But it’s that last one that’s important. As you said--people are thirsty.”

To Palamedes immense surprise, Hagen seemed more interested then offended. “Go on,” the Ogre said.

“Ever been Down Below, Hagen?” asked Palamedes. “It’s hot down there. In some spots, you can pass out from the heat, if you don’t get enough to drink.” He nodded. “That’s where our southerner is. He may be moving to and fro--but he is down there SOMEWHERE.”

Hagen nodded excitedly. “Oh, very good, Woodash! Never knew you had it in you!” He leaned forward. “So--let’s go look, eh?”

Palamedes coughed. “Ahh. Yes. That’s--another thing. Down Below is--kind of big. As in--you can get lost in there. As in we send people down below with ball of yarn, and have them unwind it so they don’t lose the path.” He looked away. “So--really, I’ve narrowed things down--just a tad.”

Hagen gave a furious nod. “Still better than they were.”

“That’s right!” said Meg, cheerily. “You deserve a reward for being so smart!” She leaned forward, and planted a kiss on Palamedes’ cheek.

Palamedes fainted.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 52

Nisrioch stared at the dish before him with a smile. “Ahh, Lord Assur Cthonique,” he stated, pressing his fork into the flaky pastry. “Legislator. Warrior. General. Victor in the War of the Tulips. Bon Vivant. And of course--gourmand.” He raised his forkful to his mouth, chewed briskly, swallowed and smiled. “He actually created this dish, you know. Beef, wrapped in pâté de foie gras, cooked into a pastry. Beef Assur. A gift to the Nightlands from the man who said ‘Every day should know joy’.”

Jerzy regarded his friend suspiciously. “He was the fat one, wasn’t he? The one who wound up big as a house, and died in bed with three women?”

“Correct,” said Nisrioch, chewing his next forkful. “But consider it, dear Jerzy. What a way to live. And what a way to die.” A gentle smile touched his face, while his rainbow-colored eyes gleamed in the candlelight.

The Agri Khan glanced at his fellow Kizaks, who were merely regarding the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste in stoical blankness. Though several were picking up their dinners and shoving them into their mouths. He sighed. “You know, Nissy--I’m not just here so you can wax philosophic and regale with tales of your lovably degenerate ancestors. There are other matters.”

“This about your talks with the other hetmans,” said Nisrioch. “And Amirant and Argalifa, if the rumors are true.”

Jerzy stared at his friend. “Darksome Lady, you’re an uncanny bastard, Nissy.” He shook his head. “I won’t even ask how you know, because we both know that…” The Kizak hetman was silent for a moment. “I haven’t actually talked with Argalifa, but I am in meetings with--” He sighed. “I think it’s his nephew. You know how the Argalifas are. The entire court of Irem is a maze.”

Nisrioch took another bite of Beef Assur. “You have my sympathies. So--may I ask what convinced the Lord of the Scarlet Horde to make common cause with the Black and White. And with both the Prince and Prophet of the Ghouls, I might add.” The Dark Lord shook his head. “That one truly amazes me. Kizak and Ghoul--speaking with each other without a Cthonique to keep the peace! Remarkable!”

The Kizark frowned. “I believe you once told me that everything needs a start.” He shrugged. “It’s not really hard to explain. Enryk is Balu Khan, and Ostrorog is--well Gali Khan has come to rely on him.” He sighed. “We keep some of the old rivalries up--the Elders won’t let things just end--but--damn it, Nissy, we grew up together! We defended the walls of this bloody castle together! A man doesn’t forget that, no matter what custom dictates. Peace is coming to the Waste and Heath. Not today. Perhaps not even tomorrow. But--soon.”

“Father’s hand is still felt,” said Nisrioch with a smile. “If not in the manner he imagined.”

Jerzy stared at his friend pointedly. “We don’t want the Cthoniques--gone. We’ve shared too much, and there’s too much advantage for us in your rule. We just want--a place at the table, Nissy. We’ve EARNED it.”

Nisrioch looked at Jerzy. “My, my, my. I thought this day was coming in a year or two. But now…” He smiled. “Marvelous.”

The Kizak stared at Nisrioch in shock. “You’re--you’re not mad?”

“Of course not!” said Nisrioch. “The Hordes working for autonomy and representation? Unity and peace across tribal ties?” He shook his head. “That’s the goal, Jerzy. That’s where we want it all to end.” He gestured to the floor. “Look at it, Jerzy. The Maganzas here as guests. The Ashuranas not having two ends to play the middle against. Jotuns and Muspeiluns not killing each other.” He grinned. “And nobody--nobody--seems to quite realize just how amazing that is.” He raised an eyebrow. “They simply--accept it.”

Jerzy stared at Nisrioch in wonder. “Unholy Darkness, Nissy… I… this…” He shook his head. “I just bloody realized it. This--this is your damn TEA idea writ large.” He looked at the crowd again. “‘Bring everyone together over a nice cup of tea and…’”

“…Let them chat it out,” finished Nisrioch. He shrugged. “What can I say, Jerzy? I’m a man with a few fixed ideas. One of them being that hats make everything better.” He took a sip of red wine. “I assume you have a petition?”

“With the signatures of all three hetmans, and Amirant,” said Jerzy. “Also, Argalifa has sent one of his seals. Or so his possible nephew tells me.”

“Well, present it at the Council meeting,” said Nisrioch. “I will sponsor you on the floor.”

Jerzy nodded. “What about--Belberith?” He shook his head. “I know for you Cthoniques he’s simply a rather unsteady ally, but in the Waste, we still talk about the Thunder of Qaf, and his little--incursions.” He frowned. “I admit it’s been a while since he’s butchered a small settlement of us, but I doubt he’s grown into a champion of Kizaks. The murderous old wretch…”

“Talking about my father, Agrican?” Jerzy jerked to attention, looking behind him. There she was--Alcina Ashurana, large as life, and twice as unpleasant.

“Ahh! Your Worshipfulness! Of course not…” Alcina raised an eyebrow. Jerzy looked down at his plate. “Yes. Sorry.”

Alcina took a seat. “Oh, don’t worry. Papa acts in such a way as to ensure that people will whisper nervously and resentfully about him behind his back.” The Dark Lord of the Vale of Woe yawned. “He considers it a sign of power.”

Jerzy rubbed his temples. “How do you manage that, Alcina?”

“Turning up like a bad copper mark?” Alcina smiled and glanced at Nisrioch. “I had lessons from a master. Are you going to finish that, my sweetness?” She pointed to the last of Nisrioch’s Beef Assur.

Nisrioch speared it with his fork. “Enjoy it, my merriment.”

He delicately brought the fork to Alcina’s mouth--she swallowed the food with notable relish, licking her lips afterwards. She glanced over her shoulder. “Why don’t you take a seat, Medoro?”

Nisrioch nodded. “Please do! Always enjoy a little company.”

Medoro whimpered softly, and pulled out a chair.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 51

“There we go!” said Morgaine, as Justinian reattached her left leg. She bent it a few times, then nodded. “Good as new!”

“In a relative manner,” muttered the Sacristan.

Morgaine snorted. “Oh, ha ha. You should be counting your blessings.” She grinned at him. “After all, I don’t often let men get their hands on the exquisite portrait of dark loveliness that is myself. ”

“Well, now you’ve made my day,” said Justinian. “I really should just give up. There’s no way it’s going to get better.”

Morgaine stared at him for a moment. “Are all you Sacristans this sarcastic?” she asked.

“We’re a monastic order of holy knights pledged to an impossible ideal,” replied the Milesian. “So, yes.”

Morgaine nodded to herself, and glanced at the Mongranes. “I hope we haven’t been a bother.”

Ruggier shook his head. “Believe me, Your Excellency, I’ve found the whole matter--fascinating.” Marfisa nodded in mute agreement.

Morgaine grinned and looked around the hall. The Belfior Maganzas and Fiordespina all stared at her, though they quickly looked away when her eyes lighted on their table. Except for Fiordespina who had to be yanked away by her elder cousin, Malagiff.

“Yes! We RULED!” said Jean, returning to the table smiling broadly, Elaine following closely behind.

Elaine looked away. “We did all right.”

“‘All right’?” said Jean. “We were great! I wanted to do an encore! Maybe--’Sweet Fern’, or ‘Redsleeves’…”

“Not going to happen,” said Elaine, taking her seat.

“But she’s right!” said Marfisa. “You were really good!” Elaine turned to look at her. “That is--I thought--I… in my opinion…”

“Thank you,” said Elaine.

Marfisa smiled nervously. “You’re welcome.”

“Al-allow m-me to ag-agree,” said an uneven female voice. Elaine turned to see a Dev in a bright red dress standing nearby. The Dev bowed. “The La-Lady Ps-Psyche Zenobia at your ser-service.” She smiled. “Bu-but you can ca-call me Suky Snobbs, if you wi-wish.”

Elaine stared. It was hard not to. Zenobia was not like most of the other Dev she had seen. Her face was plain, with buck teeth, her wings were twisted and stunted, and she had a single, twisted horn, growing at an odd angle out of her forehead. “Umm--hello, Miss… Zenobia…”

“And a m-merry hello to yo-you!” noted Zenobia with a grin as she helped herself to her seat. “I mu-must co-confess, y-you cau-caught my si-sight al-almost as soon as ent-entered the dining ha-hall. Such a str-stri-striking outfit. So bold! So true!” She shook her head. “I sa-said to myself ‘Su-Suky you must sp-speak to this youngster! Cul-cultivate her! She is one who will d-do gr-gre-great things.”

Elaine nodded. “Umm… sure… I…”

Zenobia laughed. “It’s my st-stutter, isn’t it?” She gave a fond shake of her head. “I’m af-afraid that the Da-Dar-Darksome Lady has seen fit to give me a ra-rather broad set of aff-affli-afflictions.” The Dev spread her hands. “B-but I feel she has repaid me by giving me an eye for e-ex-excellence.”

Morgaine stared at her. “I’ve heard of her. Your Alcina’s little… pet, right?”

“I am her ar-arb-arbitrator, yes,” declared Zenobia, smiling enigmatically, picking up a glass.

Jean frowned. “Isn’t that a judge?”

“Of a sort, my dear, of a s-sort,” said the Dev. “I judge style. I tell Her W-Wor-Worshipfulness what is w-worthy, and what is b-base. What shall make her court sp-sparkle, and what shall make it a-appear dull.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Morgaine with a snort. “I can see your indispensable.” She chuckled. “So any hints for me?” She leaned forward, challengingly. “I’d be dying for a critique, if that were possible in my condition.”

Zenobia gave a dismissive wave. “Oh p-pshaw! As if you could l-learn a-an-anything from m-me! L-look at your m-mag-magnif-magnificent e-en-ensemble!” She pointed at Morgaine’s outfit. “Every bit of it g-gaudy, t-tasteless, and a-appalling! You, my dear, d-def-defiantly hurl your challenge at the w-world, with a shout of ‘Pr-propriety and t-taste be gone! I shall have none of you!’” Zenobia shook her head. “It is, as I said a m-mag-magnif-magnificent e-en-ensemble. I would ap-applaud you if I were not holding my drink.” She took a sip, smiling all the time.

Morgaine stared at the Dev in naked malice. “Boy,” she said, after awhile, “it must be something when you and Orrill have a chat.”

Zenobia giggled. “I n-never talk to the man. It g-goes against my b-belief that we f-freaks should hang together, but--a cr-croc-crocodile head? How utterly a-app-appalling.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 50

Mansemat sat watching as Nisrioch began to play a different tune. “Must say, Lord Cthonique, I’m enjoying myself far more than I thought I would,” noted Ull Regni.

Mansemat nodded. “I’m glad you are.”

“Makes me sorry about the entire--invasion matter,” said Ull quietly. He coughed. “Well, you know. Not my idea. The blasted Jarlthing. Told me it would be perfect. No way it would fail.” He shook his head. “It always can, can’t it?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Mansemat. The Dark Lord of the Ironfangs nodded grimly, and stared ahead silently.

Malina glanced up at her father. “Wow! I didn’t know Uncle Nissy could play so goodly!”

Mansemat smiled at his daughter. “He--doesn’t play as often as he used to, I’m afraid.” He looked over at the table the Ashuranas were sharing with the Chiarmontes.

“Why not?” asked Malina.

“Oh, he has his reasons,” said Mansemat, tousling her hair.

“Ooh, look! It’s Mommy Viv and Sis! And the crow lady” said Malina clapping her hands. “Yay!”

Viviane and Elaine du Lac walked to the center of the Hall, with Jean Crow in tow. Viviane nodded in time with the tune, and then began to sing. “I've found a sweet haven of peace at last.”

“With the Lady abiding above,” sang Elaine and Jean.

“Her dear arms around me are lovingly cast,” they all sang together, “and sweetly She tells me her love!”

“The tempest is o’er!” rang out Viviane.

“The danger, the tempest forever is o’er!” sang Elaine and Jean quickly beneath her.

“I’m safe evermore!” continued Viviane.

“I’m anchored in hope and have faith evermore!” chanted Elaine and Jean.

“What gladness, what rapture is mine!” sang all three together. “The danger is past!” declared Viviane.

“The water is peaceful, the danger is past!” sang Elaine and Jean.

Viviane looked at her husband. “I’m anchored at last!”

“The anchor is holding, I’m safe now at last!” continued Elaine and Jean. Viviane joined them in the chorus. “I’m anchored in Love Divine!”

Ull looked at Mansemat. “You really are lucky, you know that?”

Mansemat turned to look his fellow Dark Lord in the eye. “Oh, yes. Beyond a doubt.”

Ull smiled sadly. “Of course, you do. You’d be a fool if you didn’t--and one thing you’re not, Mansemat Cthonique, is a fool.” He sighed. “By the Darksome Lady. I’m starting to feel--old, Mansemat.”

Mansemat raised an eyebrow. “You’re only a few years older than I am, Ull.”

Ull nodded dully. “I know. I know. But--the things--I--that we all lived through…” He shook his head. “I’ve gone through so much, Mansemat. And--I don’t have anybody. To help me with it. Not really.”

Mansemat looked at his brother. “You’re not alone in that.”

“Lady’s Love, I feel like such a fool,” said Ull. “We’re old enemies, Mansemat. You know that.”

“I don’t view you as an enemy, Ull,” said Mansemat quietly. “I’d rather have you as a friend.”

“Maybe, maybe,” said Ull quietly. “One day. Perhaps.”

Malina looked at the Muspeilun. “Don’t be sad, Your Promininence. You’re NEAT!”

Ull looked at the young Dev and chuckled. “You--you really are a treasure, Miss Cthonique.” He looked back at the performance. “I’m not sad. Not really.”

“Then why are your eyes all--weepy?” asked Malina.

“Sometimes--we grown-ups do this--when we’re feeling happy,” said Ull Regni, Son of Thunor, Dark Lord of the Ironfangs, and Konig Muspeilheim. He glanced at Mansemat and coughed. “You know--it’s--this probably not the time to bring it up, but--what’s this I heard about--hedgehogs?”

Mansemat frowned. “Groundhogs. It was… groundhogs.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 49

Malagise Chiarmonte nibbled delicately at his salad. “And what do you think of Master Abraxas on this matter? Surely his work on the Spheres suggests there might be something to the theory?”

“Drivel, abtholute drivel,” said Orrill haughtily. “While I freely acknowledge that the Sphereth move in wayth beyond our underthtanding, there’th no reathon to drag in talk of other worldth into it.” He shook his reptilian head. “It ith all completely unwarranted thpeculation.”

Malagise sighed. “But come now! Surely you will acknowledge the fascination of the concept,” the fat Duke asked. “Worlds upon worlds, all influencing each other in ways both subtle and blatant!”

Sacripant groaned to himself. Not only was this conversation completely over his head--but he was at a table with--Orrill. A man who those from the Marsh held in special dread. And not simply because he had the head of a crocodile. No. It was more--what he’d done for Lord Shaddad. And how he’d chosen to do it.

“You are a romantic, my dear Duke,” said Orrill. “A hopeleth romantic.”

Malagise raised a hand. “Guilty as charged, sir. And a dabbler. A total dabbler.” He looked over at Belberith. “I do hope you will forgive me, Your Supremacy. I simply find myself unable to pass up a chance to talk to such a master of his field.”

Belberith forced on a smile. “Oh, think nothing of it, Duke Chiarmonte.” He gestured towards his sorcerer. “Why, Lord Orrill and I have similar conversations all the time.”

“And what fun they are,” said Alcina dryly.

“I can imagine,” muttered Lanfusa, as Belberith gave his daughter a reproachful look. The old woman gestured at Malagise. “This one never shuts up about ‘Aether’, and ‘Celestial forces’, and other such nonsense.” Lanfusa gulped down her drink. “Sometimes, it’s enough to put one off one’s meal.”

“Mumsy!” said Malagise, looking at Lanfusa reproachfully.

Lanfusa ignored her son, glancing at Aldigier. “What do you think about this fare? So much green--I wonder if the Plainsfolk think we’re all cattle.”

Aldigier frowned, and ate some more salad. “They are a folk with strong customs regarding food, Madame.”

Lanfusa snorted. “You can call it what you like--I say, bring on the meat courses. As many as you damn well please.” She shook her head. “Lady’s Love, I’m practically skin and bones as it is.”

Malagise began to tap the table. “My mother. A woman of rare--oh, yes, very rare--character.”

“And isn’t that a blessing?” said Alcina.

The table broke out into an awkward silence. A serving maid arrived, and began placing small dishes before them, causing Sacripant to groan inwardly. “Ahh! Sorbet course!” said Malagise cheerily.

“Another chance for you to stuff your fat face, that’s what you mean,” declared Lanfusa, glaring at her son.

“Mumsy!” he groaned. “We are in polite society!”

Lanfusa rolled her eyes. “Oh, bother polite society!”

Alcina licked her first spoonful of sorbet clean. “I must say, I find your mother quite inspiring.”

“We all find her something,” muttered Malagise glumly. He plunged his spoon into his bowl, thought better of it, and glanced at Sacripant. “Have you eaten, Fenswater?”

Sacripant looked away. “We don’t eat on guard duty.”

Malagise handed Sacripant his sorbet. “Lady’s Name, eat the damn thing. I have to save some room for the main course, and your eyes are practically jumping out of their sockets.”

Sacripant was amazed to watch his opinion of Duke Chiarmonte rise dramatically. “Thank you, sir,” he said, as he began to polish it off.

Malagise gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Don’t mention it. I’ll simply clear the palate with water. Need to lose some weight anyway.”

A musical tinkle pervaded the room. The entire table turned to look at the center of the Hall. Nisrioch Cthonique stood there, strumming a harp. He began to chant in a strange tongue.

“Ahh,” said Aldigier. “The entertainment.”

“I didn’t know Nithrioch wath a harpitht,” said Orrill.

“Oh, he’s brilliant at it.” Alcina gave a wicked smile. “He has the most exquisite hands. Believe me.” Medoro gave an uncomfortable cough. Alcina turned to look at him. “Cold, dear?” Medoro gulped and looked away.

Nisrioch began to play more fervently, now singing in harmony with his harp. “My, my,” said Malagise. “That is quite lovely. What is it?”

Alcina was watching Nisrioch perform, a smile on her lips, and a faint sadness in her eyes. “It’s--an old folk song, in the Dark Tongue. In the Common Tongue, I suppose you could call it ‘If You And I Could Be As Two’…” She began to sing along with Nisrioch, speaking in the Common Tongue as he sang in the Dark. “‘If we could dream--and by our dreams--sew this wicked world up at the seams…’”

Lanfusa licked her lips. “Is it just me, or is this sorbet a bit too--tart?”

Malagise sighed. “That is the idea, Mumsy…”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 48

Viviane made her way through the crowd. Soup course was finished, salad course was beginning, and that meant sorbet and entertainment shortly. And that meant she would have to talk to Elaine.

“--How--how did you manage it?” came a familiar voice. “HOW?” Viviane turned to regard Justinian Sigma.

“Squire Sigma,” she said, quietly.

The Milesian twirled around, blinking. “Ahh. Your Magnificence.” He bowed. “My pardons. I am--distracted.”

Viviane stared at him for a second. “What by?”

Justinian frowned, and then lifted up Morgaine’s bodiless head by the hair.

“Hey! Watch it, pal!” snapped Morgaine.

“Your sister-in-law after--SOMEHOW, despite all our precautions--getting herself completely drunk IN THE FIRST COURSE OF THE MEAL…” Justinian took a deep breath. “Made untoward advances towards Her Eminence. When Her Eminence threatened her with violence if she didn’t cease, Madame Morgaine persisted and,…”

“She tore my right arm off and started beating me with it,” said Morgaine. “Then, I copped a feel with it. And she really lost it.”

Viviane winced. “Oh, Morgaine…”

“Hey,” said Morgaine. “It was worth it!” She grinned broadly. “For a moment--my hand was in--the Promised Land…”

Justinian frowned. “Yes, Your Excellency. Your getting torn to pieces, and almost setting off a diplomatic incident--it was all worth touching a breast for a few seconds.” He glanced at Viviane apologetically, and bowed. “Pardon my language.”

Viviane rubbed her temples. “It’s forgiven.” She glanced at Justinian sympathetically. “You know--you really do have a tough life.”

“What, sworn into the service of my spiritual enemies, living in terror of you, your husband, and Lord Nisrioch, AND having to play nursemaid to Lady Morgaine at times like this?” The Sacristan shut his eyes. “I consider it penance sent by the Seven, Your Magnificence. Though for what sin, I have no idea. Save that it was a great one.”

“Yeah, yeah, your life sucks, we get it,” snapped Morgaine. “Now come on! I’m pretty sure my torso’s over there.”

Justinian sighed, and began to move on. “Of course, Your Excellency.”

“You know,” Morgaine declared. “You should be terrified of me as well. I mean--I can survive this. That says a lot right there…”

Viviane shook her head as she watched the pair head away. She really was getting a bit worried about Morgaine’s drinking. She glanced over towards Asterot’s table. Oh, well, it could be worse. The King of Goblins sat bleary-eyed at his table, his head nestled in his arms, staring blindly at the gathering, while his cousin Pinabel sat by him, his scarred face filled with concern. She sighed. She’d only known Lord Asterot for about a year--and yet every time she saw him, he seemed a little worse. If there ever was a man dying by inches, it was Asterot.

She moved on. It was no use worrying about Asterot. Truth be told, he barely deserved such concern. This was a night to be happy about. And she was going to.

“Damn it, this is good!” said Jean, chewing her salad. “I didn’t know there were so many sorts of lettuce! And all this crunchy--bread stuff! Hot da--” The young sorceress blinked as she realized that Viviane was standing over her. “Oh. Hi. Your--Witchiness…”

“It’s ‘Magnificence’,” said Viviane. “Same as my husband. Or ‘Badb’, if you want to be traditional about it.”

Elaine sighed. “Stop tormenting Jean, Mom. It’s not funny.”

Viviane smiled. “Certainly. Can I torment you instead?”

Marfisa coughed. “Umm--hello. Badb. I--Elaine’s really nice.” She looked at Viviane with big eyes. “Please be nice to her. If you could. I mean. Not that’s it’s any of my business. How you treat her. But I’d like it if you were nice. I mean.”

Viviane suddenly wanted to hug this young woman. “I’m only joking, Marshal Mongrane. It’s something mothers and daughters do.”

“Oh,” said Marfisa. “Right. I knew--well, more I guessed--I--my mother--she…”

Viviane patted her on the shoulder. “It’s all right.” She glanced at Elaine. “So--entertainment is coming up soon. I’d like us to sing together.”

“Mom!” groaned Elaine, ducking her head down. “In front of these people?”

“You have a lovely voice,” said Viviane. “And I let you wear the suit!”

“Fine,” seethed Elaine. She collapsed on the table, pouting.

“Good!” said Viviane brightly. “I was thinking we could do ‘Love Divine’.”

Jean snapped her fingers. “I know that song!” She sat up eagerly. “I could sing it with you! I’m a professional--sort of.” She clapped her hands. “It’d be neat.”

Viviane rubbed her chin. “I don’t know…”

“Please, Mom,” said Elaine, looking up at her mother. “It’d be--less humiliating. Slightly.”

“Okay, Elaine. But only because I love you.” She glanced at Ruggier Mongrane. “You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?”

“I prefer to see myself as ‘prudent’,” replied the young Duke, twirling his walking stick in his hands.

Viviane nodded. “Good point.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 47

“--A disgrace,” muttered Jarl Egil, tugging on his beard.

“Agreed,” said Jarl Erik. “I mean--Thunor might have been a lunatic, but he kept a proper figure as a Dark Lord.”

“Didn’t shave his beard off, for one,” noted Egil.

Erik nodded. “Right. A murderous villain--but he kept his beard.”

Skadi Utgardi suppressed a groan. At times like this, she really wished she could figure out some way to be rid of her Jarlthing. Such as, for example, sitting them on a catapult and hurling them towards Angbodra Peak.

“Aye, aye,” said Jarl Emil, at last speaking up. “For what is an Ogre without a beard, I ask you? What?”

She tapped her fingers on the table before her. Oh, yes. That was a very tempting course of action at times like this.

Her musings were interrupted by a serving girl who poured out a greenish soup into the bowl before her.

“What? What’s this?” said Erik, staring at his bowl with suspicion.

“Looks like grass,” said Emil, an eyebrow raising.

“They expect us to eat grass?” asked Egil glancing around the room in wonder.

“Sorrel soup,” said the serving girl with a curtsey. “A taste treat of the Plains.”

Egil nodded. “But--is it grass?”

“It’s an herb,” said the serving woman.

“Ahh,” said Egil. “Grass then.”

Skadi snarled, picked up her spoon, and with no hesitation, began to eat the soup. Her Jarls stared in wonder. After the gasps of surprise let up, Emil leaned forward. “How is it?”

“A bit sour, but tasty,” said Skadi, before swallowing another spoonful.

The Jarls nodded sagely among themselves, and began to eat. After a moment Erik spoke. “You know, Her Eminence is right. This is nice. For grass, I mean.”

Skadi gave a nod. Another crisis averted thanks to her strong leadership. If only they could all be solved by taking the plunge and trying out the greenish soup.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.

And then all of the Dark Lord of the Stonefangs’ musings were interrupted by two thin arms snaking around her waist. “Skadi! Darling!” whispered Morgaine Cthonique in her ear, with a soft, insinuating voice, and breath that smelled like a bottle full of rotgut.

Skadi whimpered. Damn it. And the evening was going--all rightish. “Your Excellency,” she said, in a calm formal voice. “Please let go of me.”

“But I’m just a lost little lamb, looking for her great, big shepherdess, to make her safe and warm,” pleaded Morgaine, nuzzling her head against Skadi’s shoulder.

Skadi took a deep breath. Right. No reasoning with some people. Especially when they could get drunker then most people could even imagine. She placed a firm hand on Morgaine’s right arm. “Morgaine--let go of me, or I will yank your arm off, and beat you with it.”

Morgaine started at this, then chuckled. “You’re bluffing!” She nuzzled Skadi some more. “You’d never do that. Not my sweet Skadi.”

Skadi tightened her grip. And then she tugged.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 46

“Hey! Hey! Guys!” said Elaine waving her hands wildly.

Jean glanced in the direction she was waving. “Who--? Oh! It’s those--Mongoose guys.”

“The Mongranes,” said Elaine. “They’re a very old family.”

“Old as the Cthoniques?” said Jean.

“Everyone is older than the Cthoniques,” said Elaine. “The Mongranes used to be kings. Before the Maganzas ground them down.” She smiled as Marfisa and Ruggier approached the table, the massive form of their bodyguard behind them.

“Hi, Elaine!” said Marfisa cheerily. She gestured to the Ogre. “This is Rodomonte. Our bodyguard. And--stuff.” She looked at Jean. “Oh. Ummm. Hello. I’m--Marfisa. Mongrane. The Marshal of Tremisona.”

“Jehannine of the River Folk. Called Jean Crow,” said Jean, with a smile. She looked at Ruggier. “Elaine was just telling me that your family used to be kings.”

Ruggier chuckled as he took his seat. “Yes, of a quarter of the Shadow Woods.” He shook his head. “Tell me--is it that good to have been a royal lineage? The Cthoniques killed the first of their number who dared to crown himself. And yet they’ve ruled over the Plains of Dread for centuries, and were considered members of the Nine from the moment Castle Terribel took shape. Whereas my family produced over a dozen kings, and never managed to rise that high.” He looked out into the crowd. “And now--we are an afterthought…”

Jean snorted. “Yeah. Feel sorry for yourself. My family has spent its time heading up and down the Murkenmere, and ruling whatever boat they were sitting on.”

Ruggier smiled at her. “My apologies. The worries of Shadow Wood gentry must seem silly beyond all count to you.”

Elaine glanced at Rodomonte. “Would you like to take a seat?”

The Ogre shook his head. “A guard must remain ready for action.” He nodded. “But I thank you for your courtesy.”

Marfisa smiled at her bodyguard. “Roddy’s such a worrywart. Like anything’s going to happen here!”

Rodomonte shrugged. “One never knows.”

Marfisa gestured towards herself. “Anyway, if it did, I’d handle it.”

“Oh, would you, little meerkat?” said Rodomonte, with a chuckle.

“Well, you haven’t been training me for nothing!” declared Marfisa, standing up. A trio of Mamelukes walked by, and snickered to themselves, one gesturing towards Marfisa. She frowned, and then bowed to the table. “Ex--cuse me. If you don’t mind. Just for a minute.” She left the table and walked towards the Goblins.

“Oy! Sol--DIERS!” she shouted, her voice like a whip. The Mamelukes blinked. Marfisa scowled and crossed her arms. “The Marshal is talking to you, Sol-DIERS. At ATTENTION!”

The Mamelukes gulped and then straightened. “Y--yes, yes, sir!” said one. Then shuddered. “Urr--ma’am. Urr…”

“Did I say you could talk, MAGGOT?” queried Marfisa, glaring at the Mameluke. She breathed furiously through her nostrils, looking the Mamelukes over with contempt. “Now--do you know why I stopped you?”

“N--no,” muttered the leader, nervously licking his lips.

Marfisa pointed at his uniform. “You are wearing your sash wrong, your shirt is untucked, and your fez is crooked.” She pointed to the next Mameluke. “Your fez is crooked, your shirt is buttoned incorrectly, and your belt is untied.” She pointed to the next one. “Your fez is crooked, and its missing its tassel, your shirt is missing half its buttons, and if I don’t miss my mark, those shoes are painted cloth, instead of leather.”

“I--I… I’ve been losing money at the tables,” the last Mameluke declared apologetically.

“DISGRACEFUL,” said Marfisa. “I don’t care why you three want to traipse around and make people think the elite guard of our mighty nation aren’t up to snuff, but you will NOT do it at an Occasion!” She clapped. “Back to the airship. Get your things in order. And if you don’t have any uniform-quality clothing, then don’t come out again! Is this clear?”

The Mamelukes began to sputter. “Ye--we--ye…”

“The proper response is ‘Yes, Marshal!” said Marfisa, clicking her heels.

The Mameluke’s clicked their heels. “Yes, Marshal!”

Marfisa nodded. “Good. And if you do as I say, I won’t issue a formal complaint to the Bailiff.” The Mamelukes bowed, and then rushed off.

Marfisa returned to her table. “There. All done.” Jean and Elaine stared at her. “I--I thought I--well, you see--I really don’t like…”

“That was brilliant,” said Jean.

“Oh.” Marfisa blushed. “Thank you.”

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 45

Breus gently rang the silver bell he held delicately in his hand. “Take seats, people, take seats,” he said in a clear voice. “Soup course will be served shortly.” He smiled. “Tonight’s soup is a delicious sorrel with leek.”

Sacripant licked his lips despite himself. “Say--will--is there any extra…”

“Should have thought about that before guard duty,” said Grizzel.

Sacripant considered protesting that he’d spent the hours before the dinner looking for Subtle’s possibly imaginary southerner but decided against it. Instead, he simply sighed. “Don’t you ever have to eat, sir?”

Grizzel smiled. “Occasionally.” The Goblin’s face creased back into its usual business-like calm. “The Guard gets first dibs on the leftovers, Fenswater. Old tradition. Now--we need you to be sharp. The entire Nine are seated in here, and many of them aren’t as pleasant as the Dark Lords we’re usually guarding.” He glanced around the room. “Of course, the rest of the Nine aren’t the ones to watch--they have their feuds, but they’re smart, and they usually respect ritual. No, it’s the hanger-ons. They’re the ones who feel obligated to prove how loyal they are by doing something stupid.”

Sacripant nodded. “Got it. Keep an eye out for the little guys.”

“And the southerner,” added Grizzel.

“Are we sure he even exists?” asked Sacripant. “Subtle’s really the only one pushing this…”

“Balthazar Subtle is the pompous, self-important bastard get of Alt Gentry,” said Grizzel. “But the bastard is smart. If he says something is going on--then something might be going on.” He shrugged. “Besides--Woodash saw him too.”

Sacripant rolled his eyes. “And that is a sterling recommendation. The Guard know-it-all, and the Guard goat.”

“Don’t cast aspersions,” said Grizzel. “You’re the Guard hick.”

Sacirpant blinked. “I am not a hick! Valse is an ancient and respectable fishing community. We were the capital of the Marsh before the Badb moved it to the Tower!” Sacripant realized that the Serjeant was staring at him in mild amusement. “We have a really BIG lighthouse!” He glanced away. “Which has largely collapsed.” Grizzel chuckled. Sacripant looked at his feet . “Okay, so I admit, it hasn’t been a major center for Nightland culture for the last few centuries. But--it was once. And we remember. Vaguely.”

“And now that you’ve got that out of your system--your job for the duration of the dinner,” noted Grizzel calmly. “You’ll be guarding one of the Lords Paramount.”

Sacripant gulped. “Which--Lord Paramount…?”

“The one that requested you,” said Grizzel, gesturing towards the table.

“Ahh--Fenswater, is it?” asked Malagise Chiaramonte. He slapped his flabby, ring-bedecked fingers together, his froglike face contorting with glee. “So good to see you again!” He glanced at Lanfusa. “Isn’t Mumsy?”

Lanfusa snorted. “I suppose if you say it is, it is,” she mumbled then raised her glass and swirled it around. She glanced at the severe-looking Erl at her side, who appeared to be roughly her own age. “Is it me, or is this wine… thin?”

The man gave a portentous frown. “I defer to Madame’s judgment on these matters,” he stated in a grave voice.

Lanfusa sniffed it. “Smells all right,” she declared, before gulping it down.

“My half-brother Aldigier,” said Malagise, gesturing to the severe Erl.

Aldigier looked at Sacripant and nodded. “Charmed.”

“Man of few words, my half-brother,” said Malagise. “But I more than make up for him!”

Sacripant wondered if this was what Hell was like. And then dismissed the possibility.

The Darksome Lady couldn’t be that cruel if she tried.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 44

Morgaine shook her head as Nisrioch took the seat next to her. “I am so glad I didn’t have to do that.”

Nisrioch smiled. “As am I. You have a horrible singing voice.”

Morgaine leaned back in her chair and pouted. “Well at least I don’t subject people to Kizak throat-singing,” she said with a scowl.

“It’s a grand tradition of the Lands of Night, stretching back centuries,” said Nisrioch. “And I am Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste.”

“Howling Waste,” said a sharp voice at Nisrioch’s side.

The Dark Lord turned. “Both terms are correct renditions of the Kizak name, dearest Alse.”

Alcina Ashurana sighed and shook her head. “Only in the most general of senses, sweet Nissy.”

Nisrioch looked over the crowd in apparent disinterest. “So, where is your youthful swain? Is it his naptime?”

Alcina rubbed her chin and smiled. “I may have tired him out.”

Nisrioch shook his head. “The young people of today simply do not measure up!” He raised an eyebrow. “You will grant me that whatever my faults, exhaustion has never been one of them.”

Alcina opened her fan and flapped it before her face coquettishly. “You are the only man I know willing to rise to any challenge I present, I’ll grant you that.” She snapped the fan shut. “But are you prepared to crawl?”

“I’ve been practicing,” replied Nisrioch with a smile.

Alcina leaned forward, looking him in the eye. “I might have to see that.”

Nisrioch craned his neck towards her. “And I might have to show you.”

Alcina grinned. “My, my. This is promising to be an entertaining visit.” A quiet cough came from behind her. She turned. “Ah. Medoro. There you are!” She offered the young Dev her arm, which he quickly took. “Well, adieu for the nonce, my delight. We shall have to take in that demonstration together in the near future.”

Nisrioch watched her leave, smiling to himself. “I really don’t know what you see in her, bro,” said Morgaine, shaking her head.

“Oh, my first love, for a start,” said Nisrioch. “A woman as brilliant and as unconventional as myself for another.”

Morgaine coughed.

“That I’m not related to,” amended Nisrioch. He rested his chin on his hand. “And of course, the most impressive wingspan in the Lands of Night.”

Morgaine blinked. “Yeah. You just creeped me out. That’s an accomplishment.”

“Oh, Morgaine,” said Nisrioch with an exasperated sigh. “For a woman who proclaims herself the family standard-bearer in debauchery, you really are such a prude these days.”

“I’m having a bit of a dry spell,” said Morgaine.

“For the last decade,” drawled Nisrioch.

“Well, it’s hard to meet nice girls when you’re dead,” said Morgaine. “And when you add in the obstacle I’m already facing…” She shut her eyes. “I’m working on it.”

“Skadi?” said Nisrioch chidingly. “Really, Morgaine. She’s not interested. Stop deluding yourself.” He spread his hands. “You may criticize what Alcina and I share, but we do share it. All that exists between you and the Dark Lord of Stonefangs is childish infatuation on one side, and utter repugnance on the other.” Nisrioch shook his head. “Stop pursuing it. You’re only making yourself ridiculous.”

Morgaine glared at him. “You are such a drag when she’s around.”

“I am not,” said her brother.

“You are. You could be used to keep ships anchored.”

Nisrioch sighed and looked over the crowd. “Why look! There’s Jerzy! I’ll go pay him a visit.” He rose up and headed towards the Kizak, who was seated among his followers.

Morgaine frowned. “Yeah. You better run off.” She signaled one of the servers for a drink. “Like I need his advice,” she muttered as the woman approached. Morgaine turned towards her. “Yes, I’ll be taking a small glass of white…” The Dark Lord blinked. “Hecuba?”

The server gulped. “Your Excellency.” She forced on a smile. “It’s been--a long time.”

“Umm, yeah,” said Morgaine. “You--look great.” Morgaine glanced at her own lap. “I--didn’t know you were working here again.”

“I’m not,” said Hecuba, pouring Morgaine’s glass. “I’ve been brought on for the Occasion. I work in a house in the Folly.”

“Ahh.” Morgaine nodded, and rested her hand on Hecuba’s. “So I guess this is just the luck…”

“I’m married now,” said Hecuba, politely pulling the hand back. “With two children.”

“Oh,” said Morgaine. She frowned slightly. “I--really meant it. You do look great.”

Hecuba sighed. “It’s been over a decade, Morgaine. Just--try to put what happened between us behind you, Morgaine. I know I have.”

Morgaine bit her lip, as Hecuba moved away. She looked at her cup of wine for a moment, and then began to pick it up. After a moment’s thought, she put it down again. Reaching into her sleeve, she took out a small bottle of liqueur and added some to her glass. Suddenly she paused.

Fiordespina Maganza and the Belfior Maganzas were staring at her.

Morgaine poured out the rest of the bottle into her cup, raised it to them in salute, and then swallowed the mixture of wine and liqueur down.