Saturday, October 30, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 69

The doors of the Chambers of Whispers opened. Rodomonte regarded the company, with a smile. “The threat to this gathering has been thwarted, by the very hand of His Magnificence, Mansemat Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread.” The room filled with cheers and shouts of joy. Elaine gave a sigh of relief, though this was more due to the fact that this meant the singing was over. ‘Many Stars In The Sky’ had been followed by ‘That Most Gracious Lady’ and ‘The Banner of Darkness’, and would likely have been followed by ‘The Soldier On The Murkenmere‘, a song with an inordinate number of verses, and a lengthy chorus that rhymed ‘pale’ with ‘ail’.

Nisrioch stood up and smiled at the crowd. “Friends--if I may call you that--I think I speak for all of us when I state--hurrah!” The Dark Lord took a deep breath. “I feel a special relief. The first Council of Shadows was called by my great ancestor, Lugband Cthonique, as a way for the Nine to settle their problems peaceably. The tradition was kept by his son, Lamek, and his grandson, Kambyses, but it had fallen into centuries of disuse by the time my brother became the Cthonique of Castle Terribel. It has been the privilege of this generation to restore it. And to see something my House created to prevent bloodshed and death used to cause it…” He shook his head and sighed. “It would have broken my heart.”

Alcina Ashurana stood up. “A very pleasant reminder of Cthonique family history from our host. Now, seeing as the crisis is over, and the Presidium has left, shall we adjourn until tomorrow?”

Nisrioch nodded. “Sounds reasonable.” He clapped his hands together. “Do all agree?” Instead of an answer, there was an immediate mass egress from the chamber. Nisrioch sighed. “I shall interpret that as an affirmative.”

Malagise patted the Dark Lord on the back. “Ah, well, Your Excellency. I think everyone appreciates what you did for them. On some level, that is.”

Nisrioch bowed to the Duke Chiaramonte. “I believe you also played a sizable role, sir.”

The fat Duke gave a cheerful laugh, and patted his belly. “It is, alas, the only sort of role I know.”

“Well, rest assured--I appreciated it,” said Nisrioch, offering Malagise his hand.

Malagise took it assuredly, and gave it a shake. “Once again, sir--you are an honor to the House Cthonique.” He gave a surprisingly elegant bow--and then there was the sound of a throat being cleared in highly unpleasant manner. Malagise rolled his eyes, and turned around. “Yes, Mumsy?”

Lanfusa Chiaramonte stood there, leaning on Aldigier Chiaramonte. She frowned severely. “Well, Mal, I hope you enjoyed your little display.” She glanced away. “Can’t say I cared for it. But then, you showed you aren’t a total poltroon. Which counts for something. Doesn’t it, Aldigier?”

“Quite admirable, ma’am,” said Aldigier with a nod. He looked Malagise in the eye. “I believe the Duke has done the family proud.”

Malagise bowed. “As you both know, that is my greatest ambition.” He turned to Nisrioch. “If you’ll excuse me, sir, I must be off.”

“Some other time, then,” said Nisrioch. Malagise nodded fondly, and went to join his family. As the Chiaramontes receded from sight, Nisrioch glanced up at the balcony. “So, Elaine, you alone remain.”

Elaine shrugged, and began to stroll down the stairway . “The Mongranes wanted to talk to Roddy. And Jean headed out with Hoppedance. So--it’s just me.”

Nisrioch laughed. “Well, I appreciate the loyalty.”

Elaine raised an eyebrow. “It’s--more boredom.”

Nisrioch shrugged. “Call it whatever you like. It’s nice to have someone around to talk to.”

She glanced away. “You know--that speech of yours was just nonsense.”

Nisrioch smiled. “Oh, really?”

“Yes,” said Elaine bluntly. “Lugband Cthonique didn’t create ‘the Council of Shadows’. He called a ‘Great Council Under Shadow’--once--to get it across to the rest of the Nine that his son was the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste, and that was that. Lamek did something similar a few times, but he never called the entire Nine together--just whatever other Dark Lords he was trying to form an alliance with at the moment. And Kambyses--the closest he ever got to doing this was when he got the Maganzas, the Ashuranas, and the Utgardis together at the Palace of Shadows and made them pay him to leave.”

“Ahh, Elaine,” said Nisrioch fondly, as they headed out of the Chamber of Whispers. “I should have know that there was no hope of fooling your expert mind.” He shrugged. “What can I say? When you’re trying to get people to do something new, your best option is to convince them that they always used to do it, and only recently stopped.”

Elaine was about to say something when her mother and Mansemat rushed by, Mansemat’s arms clasped tightly around his wife’s waist. Elaine sighed. “I wish they wouldn’t be so… public about… all that…”

“Personally, I think it’s sweet,” said Nisrioch.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 68

Viviane frowned as she wound her ways through the tunnels. “I don’t like it here, Manny. There’s too much old magic.” She raised her pestle, the flicker of light at the end of it shining brightly, and nodded at the blue arrow etched on the wall. “It--feels wrong.”

Mansemat gritted his teeth as he turned down the hall. “You’re not the only one who feels it. Murgleys is whispering to me about the--stray spells. My family--well, we have tendency to allow our enthusiasm overcome our good sense. Charms have been lain here on top of charms. Some of them interact rather--oddly.”

Rodomonte shook his head, while wiping the sweat off his brow. “I can understand why she marked out her path, but--why blue?”

“Oh, it was the Magnate color during the Rising,” said Mansemat. “True blue, or some such nonsense.” He blinked and then coughed. “Uh, sorry, forgot…”

Rodomonte sighed and shook his head. “Feragau fought for the Ashurana. I did not. And even he did not try to claim that he was fighting on the side of right. Whatever nobility lay in the fight against Lord Shaddad drained away with the Traitor’s Treaty. But a warrior must stand by his obligations. Which is why I had left the service of House Ashurana many years before.” He nodded as he reached the heavy door marked with a blue arrow. “Here we are…” He glanced at the Dark Lords. “If you will allow me?”

“Of course,” said Mansemat.

“Normally, I could do it faster, but down here, I have no idea what would happen if I tried anything,” muttered Viviane, looking at the mildewed walls nervously.

Rodomonte nodded, and then tore the door apart with his bare hands, then rushed through, followed by Viviane and Mansemat. As they entered, they found themselves staring at a grimy Erl kneeling on the floor smiling as the lit fuse before him rushed towards a grate in the middle of the floor. “Too LATE!” he shouted triumphantly.

Mansemat rushed forwards as the spark disappeared into the grate, and then with almost blinding speed, drew his blade--and just as quickly replaced it in its scabbard. The southerner laughed triumphantly. “You see, don’t you, Dark Lord--it’s hopeless! It took me hours, but those barrels of mine are safe below the grate, and in a moment…”

Mansemat stared at him mildly. The southerner looked at him, his growing nervousness obvious. The would-be assassin crawled forward and looked down the grate.

The fuse had been snuffed out.

As the southerner stared at Mansemat in bafflement, several members of the Guard arrived, holding lanterns. Serjeant Greedigutt glanced at the Dark Lord. “I hope we aren’t too late, sir!”

Mansemat raised his hand. “Oh, everything is under control.” He gestured to the southerner. “Please take this sad, sad man away.”

Balthazar Subtle and Palamedes Woodash stepped forward and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Come with me, Mister Marcolf,” said the chirurgeon. “And allow me to state, you’ve caused me quite a bit of grief.”

“It’ll be worth it for the bets we’ve won,” said Palamedes.

Marcolf glared at Mansemat as he was taken off. “Don’t imagine you’ve escaped, Usurper! The Necklace may be delayed, but one day it will tighten around your throat! I am only a single Link of the Chain!” He gave a defiant laugh as the Guard took him down the hallway.

Viviane’s eyes narrowed. “The… Necklace?” She shook her head. “Why does that sound familiar?”

Mansemat frowned. “It was--well, this sorry little resistance group my grand uncle tried to start up when it became obvious my father was going to take the Plains of Dread.” He sighed. “Which has apparently had something of a resurgence. Oh, well. Our friend can doubtless provide us the details.” He turned to the Serjeant. “There are five barrels of hellpowder below the grate.”

The Goblin saluted. “They will be disposed of with every possible precaution, sir.”

Mansemat nodded, and turned towards Rodomonte. “Thank you for your help, sir.”

Rodomonte bowed. “It was my duty. I could do nothing else.”

Viviane looked at Rodomonte hopefully. “So--does this mean the duel is off?”

The Ogre frowned. “I will meet Lord Mansemat at the appointed place. This--is also duty.” He bowed again, and then walked away.

Viviane sighed and snapped her fingers. “Well, can’t blame a girl for hoping…” As the room gradually filled with Guards, she and Mansemat departed.

Afterwards, when they’d reached the upper levels, she turned towards her husband. “Okay--how’d you do it? Is that some sort of ‘Blade of Night’ spell, or a Cthonique thing, or…?”

A smiling Mansemat shook his head. “No magic. Only skill.” He gestured towards a candelabras across the hall. “Watch.” His hand quickly went to the hilt of his sword, and fast as a snake, he drew. The flames on the wicks of the candles sputtered, and then went out. Mansemat grinned as he replaced the blade in its scabbard.

Viviane nodded. “I have to admit, that gives you real brag--” Suddenly, she realized that her dress seemed to be slipping off her. Glancing down, she realized why. “You--you…” she snarled at Mansemat while grabbing her gown by the waist, “YOU CUT MY RIBBON!”

Mansemat blinked. “Ummm--sorry?”

Viviane was engaged in an epic struggle to keep herself decent. “Did you think this was CUTE?”

“Kind of,” said the Dark Lord softly. He darted forward. “Here I’ll help you with that…” He looked Viviane in the eye. “You don’t find it--romantic? At all?”

“Not enough to make me not mad,” said Viviane as Mansemat helped steady her dress. “I really liked that one.”

“I’ll get you another,” said Mansemat. “No--two. No--several.”

Viviane nodded. “You damn well better. Now--are you ready? Forward MARCH!” And with that Mansemat Cthonique and his wife began to walk towards their chambers, holding up her dress the entire time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 67

Justinian Sigma was witnessing something terrible that he’d never imagined he’d see.

“Oh, my otherworldly vision!” whimpered Fiordespina Maganza, wrapping her arms Morgaine’s small form. “Is--this--it? Shall I die in your arms?”

Morgaine stood on her tiptoes and patted the taller woman’s head. “No--you’ll be fine, Despi! My necromantic might shall see you through!”

Fiordespina regarded the undead Cthonique fondly. “Oh, my Queen of the Beyond!” She kissed Morgaine on the forehead. “With your blasphemous self here, death seems not only nothing to fear, but a positive delight!”

Justinian turned away. Not only did it feel like spying--but the more he looked, the more he found himself considering the--mechanics involved. And that was just wrong. Glancing out to the floor he saw that Nisrioch Cthonique still stood there, smiling and waving, at the crowd, even now that Belberith had left with Orrill, citing urgent business back at the Ashurana airship. “Come now, everyone!” he declared cheerily. “Let’s not panic. If you stay here I can protect you. Leave, and--well, things get--more questionable.”

Malagise Chiaramonte, still standing next to Nisrioch on the floor, gave a hearty nod. “His Excellency is not fooling. Why, the Law of Sympathetic Resonance alone guarantees our safety, provided we do as our hosts request and do not leave this estimably well-protected little chamber.” The Duke gave a broad smile, which he doubtless thought was comforting. As he looked around the room, it occurred to Justinian that there was a steadily dwindling number of people to comfort. The Belfior Maganzas had fled, as well as quite a few random hanger-ons and about half of Skadi and Ull’s respective Jarlthings. But the Dark Lords of the Fangs themselves were still there, with Alcina Ashurana and Psyche Zenobia, as well as the Mongranes, seated near Elaine and Jean, and a little further off, the rest of the Chiaramontes, who sat there in stony silence. Nisrioch clicked his tongue. “They do not seem to be cheering up, my good Duke.”

“Mmmm,” agreed Malagise with a nod. “Perhaps--perhaps a song would do the trick, eh?” He looked around the room again. “Keep people’s minds off the problems?”

Nisrioch gleefully clapped his hands together. “An excellent notion, sir! Excellent and exquisite!” Reaching into his sleeve, he drew out his harp.

“Ahh!” said the Duke with a grin. “Is that a spatial pocket created through aetherial manipulation?”

“Indeed it is!” replied Nisrioch cheerfully, as he began to strum his harp. “I find it to be so much more flexible than simple apportation. You are clearly a knowledgeable man in the mystical arts.”

“A dabbler, sir! A mere dabbler!” said Malagise with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I merely happen to be doing a few minor experiments in that area, and thus recognized the principles you were using. That is all!” He coughed politely. “Now--may I choose the song?”

Nisrioch gave a nod, as he tuned his harp. “I would consider it an honor if you did.”

“Excellent.” Malagise cleared his throat, then glanced at Nisrioch. “Ahh, yes--this one begins with a bit of spoken verse. So I will recite it, and you can see if you recognize the tune. If you don’t--I’ll hum it. Very well?”

“Sounds simply smashing,” replied Nisrioch.

“Very good,” said Malagise. He struck a pose, and began to recite.
“‘When the day's begun
The mighty sun
No rivals will he brook
Alone he gleams
His light it streams
And on him none can look.’”

Justinian became aware that a chilly silence had spread over the rest of the room. Looking around he saw everyone was staring at the Duke Chiaramonte with a mixture of terror and interest. He turned to Morgaine and Fiordespina, who actually seemed to have noticed someone else in the room for the first time in quite a while. “What’s going on?”

Morgaine blinked. “This--this song--well--back when Dad was Dark Lord, this was sort of the Resistance’s anthem.”

Fiordespina gave a sigh. “All the times I heard it around the campfire when I was in exile. I can almost recite it by heart…”

Malagise continued to recite, as if oblivious to the unease he was causing.

“‘But then comes night,
With gentler light,
Shed by many a star.
Together they share
With no sorrow or care,
The sky that spreads so far.’”

The Duke turned to Nisrioch, who smiled and began to play his harp. Malagise gave a nod and started to sing. To Justinian’s surprise the Duke had a lovely baritone.

“There's room enough for all,
To war there is no call,
We are all one in the night
We do not need to fight
Why do we struggle and brawl?’”

As Malagise sang the next part, Nisrioch joined in.

“‘There are many stars in the sky
Shining from on high!
In the dark of night,
They share their light
The countless stars in the sky!’”

And then as Justinian watched, the entire room joined in the song.

“‘Why follow the day?
We know a better way!
Great things are done
When many are one,
So does the Lady say!’”

Once again, Justinian found himself realizing that he was an outsider here, seeing all these people singing the words to a song they all knew and he didn’t. And for the first time, he realized that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Though of course, he quickly put that thought out of his mind. Or tried to.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 66

Antigone Gorice sat very straight in her chair. This was because she was tied to it, her hands strapped behind the chair’s back. This was not the most dignified of positions and Antigone really wished that she could be alone while she was in it. However, she was not. Eurydice le Fidèle was in the room with her, staring at her with a look that mixed bewilderment and anger.

It was exceptionally uncomfortable. Antigone glanced away. She had enough to feel guilty about, what with failing the Necklace. Dealing with Eurydice on top of that was simply too much.

“How could you?” asked Eurydice, her voice dripping with accusation. “How could you… do this?”

Antigone thought about not saying anything, but decided Eurydice deserved an answer. “Quite easily. I just used everything I picked up working here for the last eight years to help my… associate. But I think you meant ‘why did I do this?’ And that’s easy.” She looked Eurydice in the eye. “My name should be Antigone de Gorice. After the holding in the south. But it isn’t. My family lost EVERYTHING to the Cthoniques and the True Folk. And why? Because we got tired of Lord Shaddad’s madness, and declared for the Ashurana! And what happened to us after that? We were thrown out of our land! My father hung himself! And me and my mother--we got to come here and do housework for them!” A sarcastic grin covered the former Magnate’s face. “Lucky us.”

“There’s nothing wrong with housework,” said Eurydice, with a frown. “Loyal service is a joy and an hon--,”she began.

“Oh, you tell yourself that,” said Antigone. “You tell yourself that all the beds you make are some sort of--sacred duty. That you are something more than a chambermaid with delusions of grandeur.” She glared at Eurydice. “My family were Magnates! Great people! We held the lives of our tenants in our hands! And I have had to--play nice to a girl who is proud that her ancestors have spent the last few centuries cleaning rooms.”

Eurydice was silent for a moment. “I thought we were friends.”

Antigone snickered. “You thought wrong. I know who my real people are.”

Eurydice nodded. “Murderers, thieves and liars. Nice folk.” She stepped forward. “You’ve got it wrong, you know. My ancestors… the first Fidèle took a bolt for Marduk Cthonique, on the Scarlet Field. Marduk practically adopted his children. A Fidèle served as Enkidu’s squire at the Triumph of Night. When Choas had to leave during Marsilion’s siege, he left a Fidèle to keep Castle Terribel. During the Retreat and the Rising, my father did the same thing!” She leaned towards Antigone. “That’s the family you’ve insulted! Men and women who have lived and died for the Cthoniques--men and woman who have made HISTORY, while your family was lording it over your sad little fief! My father is a great man! Yours was a drunk who hung himself over GAMBLING DEBTS! And your mother wasn’t much better! I seem to recall she drank herself into a grave! One paid for by all of us worthless peons that you’ve been polluting yourself working next to!”

Antigone bit her lip, and glanced away. “You--you--don’t you dare! My family--it’s in the blood! You and your Cthoniques can turn things around as much as you want, but you can’t change that!”

Eurydice looked away. “I suppose not.” She sighed. “I wouldn’t change places with you, you know that? Even if you still had your chateau and your fief--I’d stay with changing sheets in Castle Terribel.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Antigone darkly.

“Oh, I‘m serious,” said Eurydice. “Any lifestyle that could produced someone as two-faced and rotten as you is something to avoid.” She glanced at the captive furtively. “Was any of it real, Antigone? All the smiles--all the jokes--all the nice moments--were they all lies?”

Antigone was quiet, and then gave a bleak nod. “Pretty much.”

Eurydice shut her eyes. “Ahh. Well.” She choked back a sob. “That--definitely puts a new spin on the last eight years of my life. For a start--Echidnae is apparently my actual best friend…”

“I’d say you have my sympathies, but I’d be lying again,” said Antigone.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 65

Mansemat Cthonique tried hard as he could to look interested as the discussion dragged on.

“Where are you getting these figures?” asked Nisrioch, pounding his hand on the table before him.

“Through thorough and assiduous divinations,” said Alcina, frowning.

“Impossible!” declared Nisrioch. “They’re absurd!”

“My figures exquisite!” shouted Alcina. “They are the finest figures in the land!”

“Perhaps they were once,” replied Nisrioch. “But I feel they have declined some!”

Alcina’s eyes narrowed. “How dare you, sir! You always used to admire my figures!”

Viviane sighed and glanced at her husband. “Why is it that Nisrioch and Alcina can make even the dullest subject seem filthy?”

Mansemat shuddered. “It’s a talent they share.” He shut his eyes briefly. “Be glad you weren’t here for my first wedding. They both gave toasts. It was horrible.”

Viviane glanced at the pair. “Wasn’t that the one with the… washroom incident?”

“It was a pantry,” said Mansemat, shaking his head. He leaned forward, the faintest ironic smile on his face. “That’s one thing about having Nisrioch for a brother. One always has stories.” He glanced over at his sister, who was busily snuggling up to Fiordespina Maganza, who was just as busily snuggling up to her. “Morgaine too, of course. Though I’m happy she’s found--a companion.” Viviane struck him politely in the shoulder. “What? I--” His wife gestured to Belberith, who was quietly glaring at his fellow Dark Lord.

Mansemat resumed feigning interest. Belberith smiled. “So--a vote on the matter. Her Worshipfulness proposes to append His Excellency’s highway program to my postal program. All in favor?” Alcina raised her hand, quickly followed by Ull Regni.

Viviane, Morgaine and Mansemat all glanced at Nisrioch. After frowning for a moment, he nodded. The four raised their hands. Malagriff Maganza frowned, while his son Malachel chuckled. “Well, the Cthonique bloc has spoken…” Skadi Utgardi glared at the Maganzas, and then raised her hand.

Belberith stroked his beard for a moment, and raised his hand. “All opposed?” Malagriff Maganza raised his hand. Belberith nodded “Eight in favor, one opposed. The motion is passed. Now then, onto the postal…”

Agrican stood up. “If it pleases, Your Supremacy, I have a petition I wish read.”

Belberith frowned. “Agrican will remember that such matters must be sponsored by…”

Nisrioch raised his hand. “I sponsor the Agri Khan’s petition.”

Belberith stared at Nisrioch blankly. “Ah. Very well then.” He gestured the Kizak forward. “Bring it here.” Agrican placed the scroll in the Dev’s hand. Belberith opened it, his eyes passing over it quickly. He glanced at the Kizak. “So, the Kizaks and the Ghouls want a voice?” Belberith snorted. “You have them. Unless I am simply imagining the Dark Lords of the Howling Waste and Blasted Heath are sitting here.”

Jerzy frowned. “You know that’s not the same thing, Your Supremacy.”

“I know no such thing,” said Belberith. “And frankly, I find such a statement ridiculous.”

“And why is it ridiculous?” asked a loud voice. Everyone turned to its source to see the fat form of Malagise Chiaramonte standing to his feet. The Duke glanced around the room. “If I may speak my peace…”

“You may n…” began Belberith witheringly.

“No, wait!” said Ull Regni, raising his hand. “I want to hear what he has to say.” The Muspeilun gave a nod. “Seems to know what he wants, and that counts for something in my book.”

“Thank you, Your Prominence, “ said Malagise with a bow. “You are, sir, an honor to your family.” The stout Erl cleared his throat. “Now, we cannot deny that the hetman of the Scarlet Horde is not of the Nine. And yet there was a time when the Shadow Woods swore loyalty to them--indeed the blood of the Waste Erls still flows in the veins of the Three Houses of the Wood. Likewise, once the Prince of Ghouls claimed obeisance from your people, Your Supremacy, and before him, the Prophet.” The Duke shrugged. “The wheel has turned. Now the Dev stand supreme, and the Ghouls sit amongst their ruins and dream of better days. And yet, it would be no shame to show them kindness, and respect.” He smiled ironically. “Especially as the wheel might turn again, Your Supremacy.”

Belberith gave a snort. “And I suppose if we give seats to the Kizaks and the Ghouls, the Lords Paramount will want them as well.”

“My goodness,” said Malagise. “What a novel suggestion! The Lesser Dark Lords being acknowledged!” He laughed. “Oh, it’s true that every King of the Goblins must be sworn in by a Chiaramonte and a Mongrane. That we hold extensive rights in our own domains. That the Dukes Chiaramonte were receiving homage in the Fangs back when the Heirs of Ahriman were giving gifts to the Amirant in hopes of not being bloodily massacred. But what does that mean?” He smiled with an almost cutting irony. “After all, the grandeur of our past can’t hope to match the squalor of our present, when we are merely wealthy rulers of a prosperous province with connections to the very organization that you want to ferry your mail for you.” There was a great deal of silence in the Chamber of Whispers, as people dealt with the fact that Belberith was being spoken to like this. By a man that many of them had only the vaguest knowledge of at that.

At which point Palamedes Woodash entered, and handed Mansemat a message. He glanced it over, frowned, and stood up. “If I may have everyone’s attention!” the Dark Lord stated. “It appears that there is a rather large amount of explosive devices planted underneath this tower.” As people began to murmur and rise, he calmly raised his hand. “Now--let’s not panic! I’m going to take care of this--” Viviane coughed. “--With the aid of my lovely wife. My brother and sister will see to your safety.” Mansemat frowned. “Again--do not panic. Remain here. Fear is our greatest enemy now. Do not let it win.”

As Mansemat and Viviane began to leave, Rodomonte stood up. “If I may join you, Your Magnificence?” Mansemat stared at the Ogre for a moment in question. “As my charge’s bodyguard, I feel obligated to help you--help them.”

Mansemat thought it over, and nodded. Viviane turned to look at her husband in shock. “You can’t be serious! Don’t you remember that--”

“Rodomonte has challenged me to a duel in the manner of a chivalrous warrior,” said Mansemat calmly. “And as I know him as a man of honor, so I know he will not take advantage of this situation to betray me.” Rodomonte gave an almost surprised nod of agreement, and joined Mansemat and Viviane as they left the Chamber of Whispers.

It occurred to Mansemat that he was strangely calm. Then again, if forced to choose between bombs and Belberith--he’d take the bombs. No question about it. At all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 64

Balthazar Subtle looked around the room. “So then--I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here together?”

Eurydice glared at the Goblin. “No. It’s because you’re a self-important bother.”

Subtle nodded. “Very true, Miss le Fidele. But not the entire truth! Indeed, in this case, only the slightest sliver of what lies at the bottom of this!”

Antigone Gorice sighed. “Oh, let me guess. You’re going to talk a great deal!”

“Alas, Miss Gorice--incorrect,” said the Guard Chirurgeon. He gestured to Palamedes. “My young associate here shall do the bulk of the talking.”

“Oh, great,” muttered Antigone. “You actually found someone we’re even less interested in listening to.”

“Quite an accomplishment,” noted Echidnae Bluebell.

Palamedes frowned, but then began. “Now, we are fairly certain that the southerner who’s infiltrated the castle is presently Down Below and has an assistant among the staff…”

“Ridiculous,” snapped Eurydice.

“And it was realized that only high serving staff had the time and the freedom to go to both areas,” continued Palamedes.

“Ahh, here it comes,” said Echidnae.

“And then I recalled that you three were all in the general area around the time the first items disappeared from the Kitchens,” he stated.

Antigone snorted. “Ooooh! ‘The general area’. Brilliant!”

Palamedes took a deep breath. “Further there was the matter of the grease I had placed on the water jug cases when they started vanishing like hotcakes. Grease that told an interesting story when a certain young woman went to the laundry staff to have stains removed.”

“Oh, come on, Woodash!” said Antigone, laughing. “Now you’re just making things up.”

Palamedes and Subtle glanced at each other. “Well, I’ll be,” said Palamedes. “It worked just like you said it would, sir.”

“The accolades go to your exquisite performance,” said Balthazar.

Antigone’s eyes went wide. “Wha… What are you… What worked?”

Palamedes turned towards her as Balthazar moved to the doorway. “You were absolutely right, Antigone. I didn’t have them put grease on the jugs, and no one went to the laundry with any grease stains on their clothes.” He narrowed his eyes. “So how do you know that?”

“Well, it stands to reason,” she sputtered. “I mean… the whole thing’s ridiculous…”

“What part?” said Palamedes. “That I would have grease put on the cases to capture a traitor, or that the traitor would be caught trying to dispose of the ruined clothing?”

“Well…” said Antigone nervously.

“You see, Miss Gorice,” said Subtle, “the only person who would find the story ridiculous is one who knew that grease was not put on the cases. And that person would be--the person who took a second case Down Below last night.” The Goblin smiled. “Which would be you.”

Antigone stared in horror, while Eurydice and Echidnae stared in surprise. “I… I… You have no proof…”

Palamedes coughed. “Actually, we do, Miss Gorice. You see--I’m afraid I was lying earlier. The ‘three of you’ were not in the general area when the items disappeared. Only--you were. And there was that--tray of the main course you took from the kitchens, which happened to exactly match the amount that turned up missing. And then I recalled that like our mystery man--you’re a southerner.” Antigone gulped.

“Of course, all that my friend just mentioned is--circumstantial,” noted Balthazar. “And yet when added with your oh, so clever dismissal, it paints a rather--damning picture, does it not?” The Goblin smiled at the young Erl. “So--why don’t you come clean? We really don’t want to bring one of the Dark Lords into this, do we? They are--so less pleasant than we are on these matters.”

“Th-there must be some mistake!” said Eurydice.

“He’s under the Tower,” said Antigone suddenly. Her friend stared at her. Antigone smiled, with the faintest note of triumph. “He’s about to set off five barrels of hellpowder. So--really, your Dark Lords can be as unpleasant as they like. In the few minutes they have remaining.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 63

Justinian Sigma sat in a corner of the Chamber of Whispers, regarding the crowd. It occurred to him that he was seeing Nightfolk that haunted the dim legends of the Lands of Light, from the fearful vitilaks represented by Agrican and his Kizaks, to the mountain demons represented by Belberith and his retinue. And it also occurred to him that they were all being horribly polite, and insisting on avoiding any trouble.

It was rather--embarrassing actually. He could only wish that the monthly Service at the Sacristans were this orderly.

At the Presidium Pillar, Belberith regarded the crowd with benign disinterest, while waiting for the noise to die down. As soon as it did, he bowed his head. The others joined him. “Hail to Our Unholy Mother in Darkness,” he recited.

“From Her all things come, to Her all things go,” said the crowd.

“Praise and adore her with great rejoicing, the Queen of Sacred Night,” said Belberith.

“For the Dark shall overcome the Light, and reign eternal over all,” came the reply.

Justinian gulped. This was the sort of thing he’d always imagined Nightfolk saying. And somehow, seeing even the ones like Viviane and Elaine--the ones he was starting to see as normal--say it, made it even more unnerving. And yet somehow--relieving. The mask was finally off. They really were evil monsters plotting to destroy the Lands of Light. Something they would start to do shortly.

Belberith looked up, and regarded the crowd. “So, first item on the agenda--and it’s an important one--the new postal system.” The Dev raised an eyebrow. “I think we can all agree the speedy dispatch of missives is vitally important to us. Yes, sorcery is quicker--but the numbers needed for common usage are simply too great. Hence--postal system. Understood?” Nisrioch coughed, and raised his hand. Belberith sighed. “Yes, Dark Lord of the Howling Waste? Presidium recognizes you.”

Nisrioch stood and smiled. “I am in total agreement with you on the matter of the postal system, Presidium. However, I cannot help but feel this is--how shall we say it--premature? Without the shared infrastructure needed for such a project, any moves we make on the matter will accomplish nothing but waste.” He glanced around the hall. “What the Lands of Night need to get a new postal system, is an interstatal highway system. This will facilitate the movement of goods, and of course, postage.”

Belberith squinted at Nisrioch somewhat furiously. “But that would be far more expensive than what I am proposing.”

“The initial investment, yes,” said Nisrioch. “But ultimately it would pay for itself. The increase in trade…”

“Is purely speculative,” said Belberith severely. “May I remind His Excellency NOT to waste the Council’s time with idle speculation?”

“It is hardly idle speculation, sir!” replied Nisrioch. “Common sense alone would dictate that with ease of travel would come greater trade.” He raised an eyebrow. “And I must ask where exactly the means to create your postal system would come?”

“The Allied Goblin Trade Emporium,” said Belberith. “Their airships provide a preexisting means for such a system--one that requires almost no investment on our parts to begin.”

“The Emporium?” said Nisrioch. “You’d empower a party to handle the business of the entire Lands of Night that lies heavily in the power of one Dark Lord, and one alone--the King of Goblins?”

“I say! I say!” said Malagriff Maganza standing up. “This is too much! Too much! Is His Excellency honestly claiming that my family--will be unfairly advantaged by all this?” He glared at Nisrioch, and then looked around the room. “All know that the Cthoniques trade DIRECTLY with the Emporium by terms of the Treaty of White Pine! And that they are SOLEY responsible for the growing autonomy of said organization!” He snarled at Nisrioch. “It is the height of hypocrisy for the Dark Lord of the Howling Waste to worry about a primacy that he himself has done so much to DESTROY!”

“Has the Emporium moved its headquarters from the Alts?” asked Nisrioch. “Do the majority of its halls no longer lie in the Shadow Woods?” He chuckled darkly. “Pray, if so, when did this miracle happen? I must note it down! It will lie in my book of dates--the day the Emporium broke free of the Ebony Throne!”

“Gentlemen,” said Alcina suddenly. “We are in danger of derailing the entire meeting on secondary matters. The relationship of the Emporium and the Ebony Throne is far too detailed and complex a matter for us to turn our attention to at this moment.” She glanced around. “Now--I propose a compromise. The Presidium desires that we create a postal system--His Excellency desires that we create a highway system. I propose we do both.” There was a flurry of interjections at this. Alcina drew a scroll from her sleeve. “Wait! Allow me to elaborate…” She unrolled the scroll, which was covered with figures. “Now, as we see here…”

Justinian stared ahead dully. Somehow, this was not how he imagined the Council of Shadows spending its time. He shook his head. And things had begun with such promise.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 62

Elaine du Lac glanced at the crowd gathering the Chamber of Whispers. “Hmmm,” she said. “No Asterot. A plus!” She turned to Jean, who was coddling Hoppedance. “What are you…?”

“Hoppedance is annoyed, because Mommy ignored him all last night,” said Jean, stroking the crow’s head. “Isn’t that right, baby?”

“Go bugger yerself!” cawed Hoppedance.

“See?” noted Jean. “He’s all sulky.”

Elaine nodded and turned back to the crowd. Mansemat and her mother were entering, both looking resplendent in their fine dress clothes. Viviane was wearing a formal green gown, with a great yellow ribbon, while Mansemat was in his usual black with gold trim.

“Elaine!” came the voice of Marfisa Mongrane. The Marshal rushed to her friend, looking desperate and miserable. “I--I just have to tell you… I… Roddy… he… I didn’t… I had no idea…”

“You had no idea Rodomonte was planning to challenge my stepfather to a duel?” said Elaine.

Marfisa bit her lip and looked at the floor. “Ummm… yeah.”

Elaine smiled. “It’s okay. I pretty much figured that.”

Marfisa smiled nervously back at her. “Okay.” She looked out at the crowd. “Wow. That’s a lot of people. I mean--I saw them all at the dinner last night, but that seemed more… spaced out. Kind of. If you understand what I’m saying.”

Jean turned from petting Hoppedance. “Personally, I’m amazed at how sober they all look. Especially the Fangs contingent.”

“Ogres love their drink,” replied Elaine. “Or so I’ve read. Never seen that many of them in the Marsh. They like things a bit less… damp.” She frowned. “Except for the Reivers.”

“Who are…?” began Jean.

“They’re… freebooters,” said Marfisa. “Pirates. They do navy work for the Stonefangs.”

“Oh,” said Jean. “Sound like fun people.”

“Who is that with Morgaine?” Elaine asked no one in particular.

“That is Fiordespina Maganza,” said Ruggier. “Asterot’s--rather odd sister.”

Marfisa glanced at Elaine. “She collects skulls. And… other things.”

Elaine nodded to herself. “Well… nice to see she’s met someone with mutual interests.”

“Ahh, my little charges,” declared Rodomonte, heading towards the Mongranes. “There you are. It is good…” He paused as Elaine crossed her arms and glared at him. “Ah. Your Estimable Grace.”

Elaine gave a bitter nod. “Ahh. Guy who wants to kill my stepfather.”

Rodomonte stared back at her calmly. “That is a rather--bald way of putting it. There is an affair of honor between us.”

“Yeah,” snapped Elaine. “And you want to kill him for it.” She looked away. “Look, I really can’t approve of that. And I don’t even like the guy. But if he dies, my mom is going to be pissed. And no one in their right mind wants that.”

Marfisa turned to look at Rodomonte urgently. “Roddy--you… this… I…” She turned away, and looked at her feet.

Rodomonte patted the Marshal’s head fondly. “Oh, my little meerkat,” he chortled. “What is it?”

“Don’t die, Roddy,” pleaded Marfisa. “You were going to teach me about bolas, when we got back, remember?”

“I will do what I can, meerkat,” said the Ogre calmly. “I will do what I can.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 61

Sacripant glanced at Hagen. “So… this guy is your king--right?”

Hagen raised his hand and shook it slightly. “Spiritually. He is the Prince of Kitvekh.”

Sacripant nodded. “Right. So what do you plan on doing if…?”

Hagen glanced at the Marsh Erl. “Ask me again after His Magnificence kills him.”

Sacripant chuckled, while Quiet gave a nod. The three Guards glanced over the small crowd entering the Chamber of Whispers. The large hall of the Tower of Melancholy, Cthoniques had been signing treaties and making arrangements here for centuries. And now, the Council of Shadows was meeting in it.

It occurred to Sacripant suddenly that he was witnessing History. The big sort that made it into the books, and occasionally had an entire volume to itself.

Nisrioch and Morgaine entered the hallway from opposite directions. Both were cheerfully whistling. “Hello, darling sibling!” said Nisrioch.

“Hey, dear brother!” chirped Morgaine. “Isn’t this a GREAT morning?”

“Amazingly splendiferous!” replied Nisrioch with a cheerful lilt in his voice. He eyed his sister for a moment. “May I enquire…?”

“No, you may not,” said Morgaine, glancing away. “A gentleman, brother, never kisses and tells.”

“Why, Your Excellency!” came a thrilling female voice. Morgaine turned eagerly, and rushed towards Fiordespina Maganza. “How pleasant to catch you.”

“Despi!” shouted Morgaine joyously, rushing to the lady’s side. She eagerly grabbed Fiordespina’s hand, and gave it a familiar squeeze. “You look great!”

Fiordespina smiled enigmatically at Morgaine. “And you are a vision of netherworldly enchantment, cast upon the shore of life from the ocean of death.”

Morgaine gave an eager squeal. “Oh, Despi, you say the nicest things!” She turned to Nisrioch. “This is Fiordespina Maganza. Asterot’s sister. We’re… friends.”

Nisrioch gave the pair an amused nod. “Always happy to see people getting friendly with one another.”

Fiordespina gave a courtly bow. “Thank you, Your Excellency. Allow me to warn you--my brother, claiming illness, is not attending this meeting. Poor, sweet Pinabel is holding his hand as Asterot suffers from what he calls ‘a stomach ache’. He wanted me to attend as well, but I told him that I have reached my limit of tending him through his self-inflicted maladies.” She gave a slight roll to her eyes. “Well, I suppose the liquor plays its fair part in the infliction, but the bottles do not leap into my brother’s hands of their own accord, no matter what he claims. The short of it is--you are in the cheerful hands of our cousins, the Belfior Maganzas. Expect much harrumphing, much hand-wringing, and much ‘I say’ing from Malagriff and Bilet, while dear, dashing cousin Malachel sits nearby and sneers.”

Nisrioch bowed back. “I appreciate the warning, Your Imperious Grace.”

Fiordespina shrugged. “One cannot choose one’s family. Only one’s friends.”

Morgaine beamed at the young noblewoman. “Hey, you want me to get you a good seat?”

Fiordespina grinned. “I would consider an honor beyond counting, my exquisite cadaver.”

The pair went into the chamber arm in arm. Nisrioch smiled and then glanced at the guards. “Tell me, Il’Mok--Mr. Fenswater--Mr. Greatthews--do you find this situation--amusing?” The trio gulped and shook their heads. The Dark Lord sighed. “A pity. Well, be seeing you.” He headed into the Chamber of Whispers. Sacripant glanced at Hagen and Quiet.

“Damn it, I thought he wanted the ‘your sister’s happiness is no laughing matter’ response,” he muttered.

Hagen shrugged. “Lord Nissy--he’s a funny guy.” The Ogre shook his massive head. “Remember when he created--Hat of DOOM?

Quiet shuddered and Sacripant gulped. “That… was a mistake. How was he to know that wearing that much popped corn on your head would attract birds…?”

Hagen stared ahead bleakly. “I still hear caws in my nightmares.” The Guards all winced in unison.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 60

Morgaine Cthonique trudged somewhat awkwardly behind her younger brother, whose wife Viviane clung by his side. Morgaine kept her eyes on the ground, looking at her feet, and thinking of nothing. Elaine walked beside her, with Malina in tow.

“So…” said Viviane, glancing at Mansemat. “How… good is this ‘Rodomonte’?”

“I don’t know,” said Mansemat quietly. “If he’s anything like his master Feragau, then excellent. A true chivalrous warrior, and a master of the two-handed blade.” He shook his head. “One of the fiercest fights I ever had. Though finding a witness to swear it was fair fight is more or less impossible. By the Lady, I hate war.”

“Hmmm,” said Viviane with a nod. “He’ll be using that--giant sword he’s carrying, right? And… and that’ll be slow…”

“Oh, no,” replied Mansemat casually. “That’s the whole point of the Cloudsplitter school. Immense reach, joined with incredible speed. A deadly combination in the hands of a master.”

Viviane stopped, and then stepped in front of her husband. “Manny… I know you’re… you practice a lot… an awful lot… But… well--I… I’ve never seen you actually fight…” She gulped. “Can he win, Manny? Can he beat you?”

Mansemat shrugged. “Anything’s possible. I am, perhaps, the finest chivalrous warrior in the Land of Night. And I bear the Sword of Night, though in a contest such as this, Murgleys--will not grant me unfair advantage. It’s an honorable thing. I am fairly certain my Seventeen-Style School can beat his Cloudsplitter. And the Dragon is at my back, walking where I walk, enfolding me in His mighty wings. But--every battle is unique. And I do not know the extent of his skill.”

Viviane stared at him. “I was hoping for a ‘no’.”

“I don’t lie very well,” said Mansemat.

“Then--why? Why did you accept?” asked Viviane, her eyes wide. “You--you could have said…”

“Oh, come on, Mom,” said Elaine stepping up towards the pair. “You know the drill. It’s the great code of the chivalrous warrior, where people with weapons attack each other, to demonstrate their chivalry, and their honor, and all of that. Just like you and your witchy code, of witchiness. This is what he HAS to do.”

Viviane looked at her daughter. “Elaine…”

Mansemat sighed. “No, she has it about right. If I refuse a formal challenge without proof of its spuriousness, then I demonstrate a lack of honor. That causes me to lose stature, and… well, let’s just say there are side-effects.” He sighed. “Honestly, this whole situation is a mess. Aside from the matter of losing, if I win--well, I’ve killed a member of the Mongrane retinue, AND a Prince of Kitvekh. Which will make things in our Mountains of Sorrow holdings--difficult.”

Elaine blinked. “Wait… he’s a Prince of Kitvekh? The… City Below the Lake?”

“House of Nin. Yes.” Mansemat sighed. “Ogres are such a… strange people at times.”

“Trolls, Manny,” said the disheveled Nisrioch as he strolled by, Alcina hanging on his arm. “The House of Nin are spiritual leaders of the Trolls.”

“It’s the same thing,” said Mansemat. “Essentially.” He sighed. “Well, all Trolls are Ogres, even if all Ogres aren’t Trolls, and the entire morass of Jotun/Muspeilun/Ettin/Troll relations are a complicated tangle that we outsiders find hard to get a hold on.” He looked at his elder brother. “Happy?”

Nisrioch hugged Alcina. “Exquisitely so! Alse and I have an evening of… entertainment planned.”

“I can guess,” said Viviane. She looked at the pair critically. “Care to tell me why you two emerged from one of the rear alcoves with your clothing in disarray?”

The pair seemed nonplused for a second. But only a second. “Well, you see, Viviane,” announced Nisrioch, “Alcina decided she wanted to see the alcove.”

“Architectural nooks of all kind fascinate me,” interjected Alcina.

“And we were frightened by rats,” finished Nisrioch.

“Hence our clothing being out of order,” noted Alcina.

Viviane turned towards the Dev, eyes narrowing. “And your blouse was unbuttoned because…?”

“Ahh, that,” said Alcina. “Well… while I was falling back…”

“From the rats,” said Nisrioch.

“I started to choke on the dust,” continued Alcina.

“Which is why I unbuttoned her blouse,” added Nisrioch.

“To help me recover my breath,” finished Alcina.

Viviane took a deep breath. “Am I supposed to believe all that?”

“No,” said Alcina. “You’re supposed to take it as a polite excuse from a pair of consenting adults who do things together that could get you arrested in some places.”

“She’s not kidding,” said Nisrioch. “Some of our little… games are capital offenses in Irem.”

Viviane bit her lip. “My daughters…”

“…Are right here,” said Elaine. “Let’s just--leave them to their… thing.” She shuddered. “I’m creeped out enough already.”

Alcina nodded as the pair walked away. “We have that effect on people.”

“Part of our charm,” declared Nisrioch. They wound around the corner, and disappeared from sight.

Viviane rubbed her temples, and glanced at her daughter. “Elaine… Malina…”

Elaine nodded. “Yes, Mommy Viv?” said Malina with a yawn.

“Don’t ever act like your uncle, and his paramour,” said Viviane.

Malina nodded with an eager effort to display comprehension. “ ‘Kay!”

“Yeah, not really a worry,” said Elaine quickly. She tugged Malina’s arm. “Come on, Malina. Time for bed.”

Malina gave another nod, and then turned to Mansemat. “Night, Daddy. Don’t let Rodomonkey kill you. ‘Kay?”

“I’ll try,” said Mansemat gently. Elaine stared at him for a moment, and then walked away. Mansemat glanced at Morgaine. “You’ve been quiet.”

“Nothing to talk about,” said Morgaine. “It--it hasn’t been a good night for me.” She waved him away. “You and Viv go enjoy yourselves. Or… whatever. I… I need to be alone.”

Mansemat stared at his sister for a moment. “I… Be well, Morgaine.”

She waved again. “I’ll try.” They looked at her in concern, and then walked away. Morgaine sighed. So, she was dead--alone, and likely to stay that way--and oh, yes, her little brother was facing a duel to the death. Super.

She hated Occasions. She always had. After the time her father had demanded she sing ‘The Vampire at the Door’ before the company. And she’d forgotten half the words. And gone with the dirty version. Which really wasn’t that dirty, but still, hearing an eight-year old say those things tended to discomfit people.

Yeah. Another memory she really shouldn’t dwell on. Then again, her head was crowded with those things, including her whole… murder. It was really amazing that she kept up her sunny attitude the way she did.

Morgaine turned--and collided with Fiordespina Maganza. The young Highborn Erl woman stood there, stock still, staring at Morgaine quietly. “Oh. Hi,” said Morgaine quietly.

“Hello,” replied Fiordespina. Her voice was a light alto, with the strangest tremble to it. She continued to stare Morgaine.

Morgaine scratched her head. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I…”

“You’re the most degenerate creature I’ve ever seen,” said Fiordespina. “A twisted thing beyond life and death that should not be.”

Morgaine blinked. “Yeah. Well, same to--” She was about to finish this comment, when Fiordespina’s hand darted out faster than Morgaine would have thought possible, grabbed her by her blouse, and pulled her in for a kiss.

Morgaine stared at Fiordespina in shock. “Umm… What…?

Fiordespina leaned forward. “Take me,” she whispered. “Take me NOW!”

Morgaine gulped, considered saying a silent prayer to whatever power was doing this, decided not to as the thing obviously had a sick sense of humor, and then began to fumble with Fiordespina’s blouse. “Right,” she declared.

“Oh, you magnificent cadaver!” laughed Fiordespina, twining her hands in Morgaine’s hair.

Morgaine paused. “You have issues, you know that?”

Fiordespina narrowed her eyes, and forcibly pulled Morgaine’s head back. “Less talking, more taking.”

“Got it,” said Morgaine with a salute.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 59

Justinian looked out over the crowd. Ull Regni was dancing with Armida, while Idun danced with another Muspeilun from the Dark Lord of Ironfangs retinue. Malagise Chiaramonte and Psyche Zenobia were dominating the floor with a surprisingly graceful waltz, while Pinabel continued to show Elaine the finer points of dancing. Nisrioch and Alcina, once so conspicuous, were now conspicuously missing. He found it amazing that so many Nightfolk were simply--enjoying themselves. Just as if they were Mil--humans.

Just as if they were humans. Justinian had to remind himself that he was a human, and these were Nightfolk. That was a distinction you couldn’t afford to lose.

That was when he felt himself tottering. He quickly steadied himself. Da--By the Holy Seven, he couldn’t fall now. Not when he was dancing. Especially not with this partner.

“Hee hee!” giggled Malina Cthonique. “You’re a good dancer, Mister Siggy!”

“Sigma,” said Justinian. He bit his lip and reminded himself that Malina was a small child, whose feet were presently perched on his, in a manner that a less gracious man would find extremely painful. “I am a knight, Miss Cthonique. Well, more or less. I am trained in all the arts of court.”

Malina blinked. “So--you… help people with pigs?”

Justinian paused for a moment. “Wha…?”

“‘Cause when Daddy sits in court, that’s what he does!” beamed Malina. “People come to him with dipputes ‘bout pigs, an’ Daddy sits there wearing his chains of office, listening to ‘em, an’ when they’re done, he tells them what they should do ‘bout the pigs!” The young Dev giggled. “Daddy’s a great DARK LORD!” She looked around the room. “I don’t think I could sit an’ listen to people talking ‘bout pigs all day.”

“We’re… talking about a… different sort of… court,” said Justinian quietly.

“Oooooh! The other kind of court!” said Malina significantly. She glanced around the room, before leaning up towards the Sacristan’s ear. “So you’re trained how to… make babies…?”

Justinian blushed and tried to work out exactly how the conversation had taken a turn down this road, when Malina suddenly turned. “HIIII, Miss Yurdicey!

“Eurydice,” said the chambermaid with a smile, regarding the Milesian and the young Cthonique with considerable amusement. A rather formidable looking old man stood behind her--Justinian recognized him as the Chief Steward. Malina leapt off Justinian’s feet and rushed to give Eurydice.

“Ahhh… yes,” said Justinian. “I… Malina asked…”

“It’s all right, lad,” said the Steward. “Always good to see someone making sure the Young Mistress is enjoying herself.” He offered Justinian his hand. “Breus le Fidèle, at your service, sir.”

Justinian took it and gave it a firm shake. “Justinian Sigma, at yours.”

Breus gave a friendly nod, and then gestured at Eurydice, who had taken over for Justinian in helping Malina dance. “And of course you know my daughter.”

Justinian was about to say that he’d have thought Eurydice was his granddaughter. He didn’t, a fact that he congratulated himself for in his head. “Of course. She is… a very… nice…”

Justinian’s effort at coming up with suitable praise for Eurydice that could safely be delivered to her slightly intimidating father was interrupted by the sound of glasses being struck by silverware. Glancing over, he noticed that the dancing had stopped, with goblets being handed out to the crowd. “Toast! Toast!” many people in the crowd began to shout, with Ull Regni and the Duke Chiaramonte being especially loud. As Justinian watched, Mansemat Cthonique stood and raised his glass high.

“Friends! Friends!” he declared. There was a cheer. “Allow me to state--it’s wonderful that you are all enjoying yourselves here!” Another loud cheer followed, though there were a few cynical boos scattered in it. “You have come here--from across the Lands of Night--to enjoy the fabled hospitality of Castle Terribel. I hope that we have not disappointed.” There was yet another loud cheer, though this time at least one naysayer declared ‘You have’, albeit very faintly. Mansemat tactfully ignored this. “And so, as it is time for me to give this evening’s toast…”

“MANSEMAT CTHONIQUE!” shouted the rumbling voice. “BY DEATH AND DARKNESS, I CHALLENGE THEE!” Justinian turned to see the speaker, and was shocked to recognize the Mongrane’s bodyguard, Rodomonte, who stood there, his massive blade drawn. The effect on the room was almost instantaneous.

Viviane du Lac immediately appeared before her husband, her pestle raised, a whirlwind issuing from the tip. Morgaine, standing in the corner, raised her hands and chanted. A lengthy skeletal snake appeared in the air above her, screaming “BLOOD AND BONES! BLOOD AND BONES!” Nisrioch, looking rather disheveled, appeared in a corner, his hands bathed in scintillating light, followed by an equally disheveled Alcina, whose hands were engulfed in black fire. A short distance away, her father Belberith stood remote and stern while Orrill wove glowing threads around him. Pinabel Maganza stepped before Elaine, and drew his sword. The Duke Chiaramonte produced a ball of flame which he held in his hands, while Zenobia produced a rod from her sleeve, and raised it on high, a blade of lightning emerging at one end. The Guard drew their weapons, followed by the Mamelukes, followed by Justinian who looked and realized that Eurydice and her father were both now holding knives with rather startling expertise. The Regni and Utgardi parties each produced weapons, though both seemed half inclined to attack each other. The Kizaks rose from their seat at Agrican’s bidding, weapons drawn and howling. And in another corner, Marfisa Mongrane, frowning severely, had grabbed a candlestick, and was now twirling it about, her brother standing behind her. Asterot Maganza sat and grinned cynically at the entire company. And there was Jean, humming to herself while creating a rather malformed golden sphere.

Mansemat Cthonique raised his hand. “Hold, everyone! HOLD!” Perhaps it was surprise to see such a mild-mannered man yell. Or perhaps it was the fact that, as Justinian was amazed to discover, when Mansemat yelled his voice became a deep imposing rumble that you felt in the back of your skull. But whatever it was, people held.

Mansemat nodded. “Thank you.” He regarded Rodomonte. “This is then a formal challenge?”

Rodomonte gave a bow. “Indeed. Rodomonte, Prince of the House of Nin. Master in the deadly Cloudsplitter school. Instructed by Feragau, of Bridge Perilous.”

A look of immediate comprehension came over Mansemat. “Ahh.” He sighed. “I killed your master. At the Battle of Bezerta Walls.”

“Correct,” replied Rodomonte stoically.

“But that is not cause for a duel!” noted Mansemat sharply. “It was fair combat.”

“So you claim,” said Rodomonte, sheathing his sword. “But I know this to be impossible. Master Ferragau was my equal in swordplay. My better, in some respects. No man could have done what you did in a fair fight.” The Ogre’s eyes narrowed. “Especially not a boy of seventeen. I charge treachery. If you would refute the charge, do it in a manner befitting a chivalrous warrior. Which I understand you claim to be.”

Mansemat nodded. “Very well then. I accept.”

The Ogre bowed again. “When shall me meet in battle?”

“After the talks,” replied Mansemat.

Rodomonte nodded. “I await the coming struggle eagerly.” He walked back into the crowd, rejoining the Mongranes, who regarded their bodyguard with concern.

Manasemat looked out over the crowd, most of whom had relaxed and put away their weapons. “Well, it appears the evening is over. Let us all retire.” The crowd all stared at him. “Come on, people. I’ve only just received a formal challenge to the death by the code of all chivalrous warriors. It’s nothing to concern yourselves with. Let’s be off.”

Breus put his hand on Justinian’s shoulder. “You heard His Excellency, lad,” said the Steward, with a smile. “Nothing more to be done now.”

As the crowd dispersed, Fiordespina Maganza paused before Morgaine Cthonique, staring at the floating skeletal snake that still hovered over the Dark Lord’s head. Morgaine coughed apologetically. “It… takes him a while to wind down.”

“BLOOD AND BONES! BLOOD AND BONES!” screamed the snake.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 58

“I have a confession to make,” said Alcina as Nisrioch’s arm wrapped around her waist.

“Is it that Medoro is NOT your lover?” asked Nisrioch, dipping her towards the floor.

Alcina gave a sharp laugh. “However did you guess?” she asked, brushing his face.

“A man who has sampled your charms--giving you up without a fight?” declared Nisrioch, as the pair rose. “Impossible. An absurdity. A blatant farce upon reality.”

Alcina twirled expertly. “Flatterer,” she said.

“If I flatter, it is with truth,” he replied, as she stepped towards him into a tight embrace.

Alcina frowned and looked at Nisrioch seriously. “I do have other lovers, Nisrioch.” Nisrioch quietly nodded. “That said, none of them wished to attend me here. Not after what happened to Serpintin.”

“Ahh,” murmured Nisrioch. “Sorry about that. Things--got out of hand. Tell me--did he--enjoy the fruit basket?”

She sighed. “Sadly no.”

“People are such BOTHERS,” he muttered. “Why can’t they simply--enjoy each other while they can…?”

“Because they lack our equipoise,” said Alcina. She glanced around the room. “You know--speaking of other lovers--you’ve quite the crowd here…”

“Mmm,” murmured Nisrioch, brushing the hair from her ear. “Everyone aside from Orgilla. Who by the way is very much enjoying her religious retreat.”

“Good to know,” said Alcina, reclining gracefully in his arms. “And Idun and Armida appear to be getting along quite nicely.”

“Making friends is Armida’s great talent,” said Nisrioch. “Well--one of her many great talents, would be more precise…”

Alcina leaned back on Nisrioch’s shoulder. “Hmmm. Tell me, Nissy, did you bring up that little request of mine…?”

Nisrioch sighed. “It’s been mentioned. She won’t.”

Alcina frowned. “What?” She looked at him angrily. “But--I did--the thing for you…!”

“And you enjoyed the thing,” said Nisrioch, leading Alcina to a small alcove. “You even had me do it again! Which nearly put out my back! You had quite the pleasant experience!

“Yes,” agreed Alcina. “Just like you would if we did this!”

“You don’t know that!” said Nisrioch. Alcina raised an eyebrow. He sighed. “All right. Yes, you do. Still doesn’t matter. She won’t do it. So, no go.”

Alcina stepped away. “Did she say why?”

Nisrioch shrugged. “She said that she didn’t like the way we treat each other. The bitterness. The rivalry. The one-upmanship. She finds it… unhealthy.”

Alcina sighed. “She’s right. It is very… unhealthy.” The Dev shook her head. “We’re chasing--a memory. No. We’re chasing… the shadow of a memory.” She unfolded her wings, and shaded her face in them. “Why, Nissy? Why do we keep doing this?”

Nisrioch embraced her. “Because we love each other.” He knelt before her. “Marry me, Alse. I… need you.”

Alcina glanced down at him for a moment, and then laughed. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Nissy. You know I can’t.” She shrugged. “Besides, in a week, we’d kill each other. At the outside.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Now--do go get up.”

Nisrioch smiled up at her, his multi-hued eyes shining devilishly. “Ahh, but Alse, I told you I was going to show you all the practice I’ve put into… crawling,” he said, tickling her ankle.

“Why, so you did.” Alcina gave him a crooked grin. “And we are in a fabulously secluded alcove.” She ran her hands through his white hair. “Well then--I believe--a demonstration is in order.”

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 57

Elaine watched as more and more people began to pair up and join in the dance. “This is ridiculous,” she noted to her table. She looked around at all the faces, looking for some sign of agreement. Not finding any, she decided to plunge ahead anyway. “I mean--dancing. Come on!”

Jean sighed. “You want someone to ask you to dance?”

“Wha--?” shouted Elaine. “No! Of course not!”

“So--that’s a yes,” said Jean.

Elaine looked away. “Don’t be ridiculous. Actually--this goes beyond ridiculous.” She glanced at Jean again. “Don’t be ludicrous.”

Jean rolled her eyes. “Yeah. That’s what I’m doing.” She leaned forward. “Look, there’s an easy way to get a dance partner. You just…”

Agri Khan approached Jean and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “I say, Jean--as none of my wives are here, I have a rare opportunity to dance with a woman I actually enjoy spending time with,” he explained. “Care to join me?”

Jean took his arm. “I’ll tell you when I get back.”

Elaine watched as the pair spiritedly danced away. “Hmph.” She glanced at Marfisa. “Fine weather friends, eh? Who needs them! Deserting you at the first dance offer!” She frowned forcefully and slapped her hand on the table. “It should be a crime! A crime!”

Marfisa coughed. “Well--actually… you see… it’s… it can be… some people… they…”

At that moment, Malachel Maganza approached the table. “Ahh. Lady Marfisa.” He bowed. “I believe a dance is in order.” He then looked away idly, preening somewhat, and smoothing out his fine velvet clothes.

Marfisa meekly took his hand as Elaine stared in astonishment. “I… he’s my… we’re engaged,” said Marfisa. She looked nervously at her feet as Malachel whisked her away.

Ruggier stood up. “I believe you must excuse me.” He glanced at Rodomonte, who nodded quietly. “Malachel bears watching. Sometimes he gets… overly familiar and poor ‘Fisa has hard time realizing she can fend him off.” He bowed. “I hope you realize--this is an obligation for her. She much prefers your company.” And with that he headed off, Rodomonte at his side.

“It a-appears we are a-alone,” noted Psyche Zenobia, leaning forward. “Y-you know, I b-believe I kn-know the secret Ma-Madame Crow wished to tell you.”

Elaine glared at the Dev. “Yeah, well, I don’t care.”

“S-sadly, I shall t-tell you a-any-anyway,” replied Zenobia, as she stood from the table. “Y-you ask them.” She walked towards a rather plump Erl walking determinedly on the floor. “P-pardon me, sir--m-may I have this d-dance?”

The Erl bowed. “The Duke of Chiaramonte never refuses the request of a lovely lady. It is, I’m afraid, a family fault.” He gently took her hand.

Zenobia’s eyes went wide. “My g-goodness! The D-Duke of Chiaramonte!” She laughed. “S-sir, you are quite t-taking my b-breath away!”

“My goodness!” declared Malagise. “To think that I have received such a treasured gift from you. I am astounded! You honor me! Your precious breath! I will cherish it, my dear, cherish it.” He took her arm, and with a surprising dexterity, lead her onto the dance floor.

“B-but d-dear m-me, Duke,” said Zenobia coyly. “I n-need my breath. Why, I can b-barely form s-sen-sentences with it! W-without it I shall be q-quite l-lost.”

“Well, then,” said Malagise with a nod, “at the first opportunity, I must give it back to you, Madame…?”

“Psyche Z-Zenobia at your s-service,” replied Zenobia. “But--you must call me ‘Suky Snobbs’!”

“Oh, must I?” asked Malagise with burning sincerity.

Elaine watched the pair move away with a sinking feeling that she couldn’t quite place. Was she--envious? Of Psyche Zenobia? A woman who looked as vaguely mangled as she talked? Who was dancing with a man who probably weighed as much as two of her--quite possibly weighed down by a case of ninepin balls each?

Well, yes. Because fat or not, he was dancing with her. And, ugly or not, ridiculous or not, Psyche Zenobia was enjoying it. Very much.

It occurred to Elaine that in the tales, this was a where a handsome prince always showed up and made everything better. And then she heard a sharp cough.

Elaine turned. Pinabel Maganza stood there, looking at her rather austerely with his one eye. “Would my lady care to dance?” he said in his wheeze of a voice.

Elaine made a mental note to find the graves of all the people who wrote all the tales and spit on them. “Ahh, yes,” she said nervously. “Look, I hope you don’t think…”

“I am a happily married man with two children,” stated Pinabel in a slightly tired voice. “This is done as a favor, as a young woman should not be left alone during the dance, on the Occasion of her Debut.”

Elaine blinked. “So that’s it, eh? Help the lonely girl out?”

“If I were unmarried--and significantly younger--than it would be significantly different,” said Pinabel. “But I am what I am. And if this does not find favor in the lady’s eyes, than I am sincerely sorry.”

Well, now she felt guilty. Elaine decided to take him up on the offer before the whole thing took a turn for the worse and she wound up on her hands and knees, begging for forgiveness before the entire gathering. “I… I don‘t really know how to…,” she said, taking his hand.

“Follow my lead,” said Pinabel gently. “Right foot… left foot…”

Elaine did so, and was amazed to discover that dancing was far less difficult than she’d thought it would be. She coughed. “Umm--thanks,” she said. “I… I…” She bit her lip. “So, you’re married?”

“Happily so,” said Pinabel. “I realize that this may seem hard for a girl your age to realize, but many women want more from a man than a pretty face. Though my wife is a treasure beyond all counting.” He smiled gently for a moment, then grew serious again. “As for my scars--they mark the time I saved the life of my king. There is no shame in them.”

“Aside from the fact that the King was Asterot,” muttered Elaine. Then immediately wished she hadn’t.

To her surprise, Pinabel only gave a subtle sigh. “I… He was not always as he is now. During the Occupation--in the Woods--he was a braver, better man than you could imagine. I can recall him still, in Clove Pine. A young man. So much on his shoulders. But laughing, keeping our spirits up, reminding us what it was we were fighting for. It was an honor to serve him then. An honor and a joy. But, afterwards…” A tremble entered Pinabel’s voice. “It was if a fire at first gradually dwindled--and then went entirely out. Leaving only--ashes and dust, and the smallest portion of… blackened wood. He went through so much, suffered so much--and he--he cannot let go. Or will not.” He shook his head. “It makes… little difference. Lord Asterot survived the war--but now the peace is killing him. Or he is killing himself because of it. It amounts to the same thing. Those years still take their toll on him. And will until the day he dies.”

“He’s not alone in that. Everyone was touched, even the people who were too young to understand exactly what was going on. Lord Shaddad dragged us all through hell,” said Elaine.

Pinabel gave a bitter laugh. “I sometimes think, my lady, that we give Lord Shaddad entirely too much credit. Even without him it would have been a long bad season for us. He was only the spark to the tinder. And there was plenty of that. The Fangs had two of the most tyrannical Dark Lords they’d ever produced--the Royal Branch of Maganza was in the midst of an especially terrible dispute for the Throne--your own house had just had its little squabble, and…” He sighed. “I’m sorry. The fault of… old men is that there’s a part of us that’s always remembering what happened when we were young. The fault of foolish old men is supposing that life was better back then.”

Elaine glanced at him for a moment. “You--don’t look that old. Not really.”

“I am forty-eight,” said Pinabel. “Still in my prime, I suppose. But my generation… well, most of us followed our parents and older siblings into the war. And found ourselves left to sort out matters with our younger cousins afterwards.” He sighed. “It’s been disconcerting, I must admit. But that‘s how it stands. We are a lost generation. Old before our time. Worn out by overuse earlier than expected. And with years to go before we’re finally discarded.”

“Wow,” said Elaine. “You really do open up.” She looked at him sincerely. “I mean it. You didn’t say this much during the entry, and you were acting as herald then.”

Pinabel shrugged. “I don’t get many chances to not be the High Bailiff,” he replied. “I try to enjoy them when they come. And a lovely lady always brings out my sociable side.”

“You are really making me reconsider my stance on House Maganza,” she noted.

“Well, we are not all bad,” said Pinabel wryly. “Your stepfather’s mother was a Maganza--though of the now-extinct Southern Branch. And your grandfather…” He frowned. “No, wait, that was your aunt. Viviane’s father was the Count Ulfius.”

Elaine frowned quietly. Her mother didn’t talk very much about her relatives. Especially about Elaine’s aunt, Viviane’s sister, who she’d always gathered died young. That was just--part of what having Viviane as a mother was about. Not hearing things.

Even if you wanted to.

“I’m losing my thread,” declared Pinabel. “Sorry. I do tend to ramble. As I was saying--some of us are quite nice. And we all have our moments.” He gestured to Lord Asterot, seated quietly in the corner. “For example, His Imperial Munificence pointed you out to me and said you looked lonely. I suspect he trusted my sense of chivalry to take care of the rest. Which it did.” Pinabel shrugged. “As I said. Moments.”

She looked at Asterot again. He looked back at her, nodded, then shut his eyes. He looked tired, and sad. And so, so very, utterly alone, even amidst all these people. Perhaps even especially amidst all these people. As if being around others forced him further into himself, where he got lost in all the darkness, and the pain, and the memories…

Elaine sighed. Damn it. The bastard would go and ruin things by being human. Just her luck.