“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.