Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 4

Ulwen Reedraft was bringing in his lobster traps and worrying about the cloudy skies, when he saw the man signaling him from the shore. As his coracle reached the dock, he realized, to a certain mild surprise, that he didn’t recognize him. One didn’t often see strangers in Valse--but one did see them every now and then, especially since the… Late Unpleasantness. Many settled in Valse, and eventually ceased being strangers, but others didn’t, simply passing through.

As he got closer Ulwen saw that the stranger was a Plains Erl, and quite well-dressed. The first item wasn’t so unusual--in some villages in the Marsh, there were more Plains Erl than Marsh Erls--but the second was rare. There wasn’t a lot of wealth in the Marsh, and what there was wasn’t in Valse. Not any more, anyways. And in Ulwen’s limited experience, wealth tended to gather in places where wealth already was.

“Oy!” said the stranger, in a voice that did not suggest great--or even moderate--wealth to Ulwen. “Are you Ol’ Man Reedraft?

Ulwen frowned. Yes, he didn’t like this man, based on the impression he was getting from him. But that was no reason to be rude. That was one of the first rules of the Marsh nowadays. Be polite to Plains Erls who seemed to come from foreign parts. The Marsh was more or less theirs now. And they knew it. “So some call me, your honor, so some call me. But my fontal name is Ulwen, it please you, sir.”

The stranger gave a dull nod, as if to indicate that such matters as proper names were of course important to backwards country folk. “Tithonos Greengrass,” explained the stranger. “Merchant in Perelion. I’ve ‘eard you do some work in the lobster trade.”

Ulwen placed his trap on the dock. “You’ve heard correctly, sir.”

Tithonos nodded sharply, and with a strange emphasis. “Excellent. My firm is interested in gettin’ its foot in the trade.” He yawned. “A bit of diversingfication. Broadenin’ our interests, an’ such.”

Ulwen nodded. “Of course,” he declared pleasantly, not believing a word.

“Dis ‘im?” came a heavy voice with an even cruder accent. Glancing over Tithonos’, Ulwen saw its owner, a tall, muscular Erl whose thickset body made Ulwen suspect he had a pinch of Ogre in him.

Tithonos gave another of his odd nods. “It is.” He glanced at Ulwen again. “My partner. Kyrus Maulstrike.”

“A pleasure,“ said Ulwen, forcing a smile. Kyrus scowled and glanced away. Well, that settled it. These men were no more merchants than he was. Smugglers, he suspected. Probably with a pressing need to find a man with a small boat, and a smaller amount of money on hand. Normally, Ulwen would have sent them packing, but money was short. He figured he’d at least listen to their offer, to judge if it might be a good one. He suspected it wasn’t, however--Messrs. Greengrass and Maulstrike did not inspire confidence as fair dealers.

Tithonos clapped his hands together. “Excellent. Every one knows each other now. Let’s go get a drink, an’ discuss further entanglements. Eh?”

Ulwen nodded, and the three men strolled away from Valse Harbor. As they reached the village green, where ivy grew thick on the walls, Ector Fenswater and his sons, Oliband and young Sacripant walked by. “Hello, Ulwen!” said Ector, bidding his sons to wave at Ulwen.

“Hello, Ector,” replied Ulwen. “Taking the lads out, eh?”

“The fish don’t catch themselves,” replied Ector with a grin, as his sons stared at Ulwen’s strange companions. “And the season only lasts a few weeks more.”

Ulwen nodded. “Well--be careful now. Don’t be caught in a downpour.”

Ector laughed. “I’ll try.” He tugged the boys away and headed down to their boat.

Tithonos glanced at Ulwen. “Well known ‘round here, Mister Reedraft?”

Ulwen shrugged. “Lived here the whole of my life, so I better be.”

Tithonos laughed. “Ah. Yes. Well put. Very well put. So I’m supposin’ you would know just ‘bout everyone in town, right?”

Ulwen’s eyes narrowed. “You’d be supposing right. But why might you ask?”

Tithonos turned around with such speed that Ulwen was startled despite himself. “Why, simplicity sir! Utter simplicity! Indeed you’d be ‘ard-pressured to encounter such a shining examplifier of simplicitude in all your long years! I wish to be sure that anyone my firm goes into business with is a well-connected personage in their communal niche!”

Ulwen frowned as he tried to work that out, and decided that Tithonos probably didn’t know exactly what it meant himself. And then he saw something that dispelled his dark mood, no matter how much he tried to keep it. “Hello, Mistress Viv!” He chuckled. “And Mistress Elaine! Why, aren’t you growing into a fine young lady?”

The young child smiled bashfully, while her young mother laughed cheerfully. “Well thank you, Mister Reedraft,” said Viviane with a grin. She tossled her daughter’s fair blonde hair. “Wasn’t that nice of him, Elaine?” Elaine nodded, and then glanced at her feet. Ulwen chuckled to himself. He couldn’t help it. Viviane and her little daughter were the sort of people it made you happy to look at. He’d been fond of them since the time they’d arrived in town four years ago and took up residence with Mistress Meg Mowton, the town witch.

Viviane glanced up at Tithonos and Kyrus, her expression wary. “So--who are your… acquaintances, if I may ask?”

Tithonos swiftly stepped forward. “A pair of ‘umble merchants, yer ladyship, with an interest in the lobster trade, which this fine town seems likely to give us countless inroads to build upon and ways and means upon which to build them…” He glanced at Kyrus who nodded. Suddenly, Tithonos darted forward and grabbed Elaine while Kyrus pushed Ulwen to the ground and then took a swipe at Viviane.

The woman moved with startling speed, and then to Ulwen’s amazement, easily shoved the large man away, sending him sprawling on the ground. By the time Kyrus had recovered, Viviane was holding a pestle that she raised on high. A bolt of lightning fell from the heavens, striking the pestle. Viviane lowered it and let loose the bolt on the rising, snarling form of Maulstrike, who briefly howled in pain, before the flames he was covered in blazed so hot as to incinerate him. Viviane watched her assailant perish with a look that mixed anger and satisfaction, before turning to regard Tithonos.

The smaller Erl stood there with a knife held to Elaine’s throat. He clicked his tongue regretfully. “Kyrus never was too bright,” he noted. “Always trusted in ‘is strength an’ those cheap counter-charms ‘e bought off hedge wizards. Only kept ‘im around ‘cause ‘e ‘ad a nose for magic. Very ‘andy for tracking witches, but other than that no great loss.” He gave an appreciative whistle. “‘ave to admit, ‘ad no idea just what we were facing. You ‘ear stories of the Badb, but--well, they’re just stories, really.” He chuckled nervously, and bit his lip. “Now--as I said, Kyrus was stupid, but I’m not. Just let me get away, an’ I won’t slit your little girl’s throat.” He gave a rather self-satisfied smile. “‘ave to admit, she was a pleasant surprise.” Elaine whimpered. “‘ush now, child. Your mother an’ I are having a bit of conversational.”

Viviane stared coldly at the man, leveling her pestle at him. “You see what I can do--and you threaten my daughter--to my face…”

Tithonos gave one of his strange emphatic nods. “Well, yes. Because if you can’t kill me without ‘itting the girl.” He chuckled. “Just let me go. I’m not worth the killing. You’ll never see me again.”

Viviane’s eyes narrowed. “No, of course not. You won’t just go to the Cthoniques, tell them where I am and try to get a reward that way. Nope. Would never occur to you.” A slight smile came to her face. “Oh, well. Doesn’t matter. You see--you made one simple mistake…” And that was when the ivy swiftly wrapped around Tithonos’ hand, crushing it. The knife fell as he gave a shout, and Elaine broke free and rushed to her mother’s side. Viviane stared at Tithonos coldly, as the ivy wrapped further, and further around him. “You assumed I’d have to aim.”

“Mommy,” said Elaine nervously, burying her head in her mother’s skirt.

“It’s okay, Elaine,” said Viviane, as Tithonos’ body was covered by the ivy. “The bad men aren’t going to hurt you anymore.”

Ulwen stared at the pair in shock. “B-Badb?” He came slowly to his feet--and then bowed. “Oh, gracious lady--it--it is you…! You--you’re not dead…”

Viviane favored the old fisherman with a smile. “Not yet.” She took a deep breath. “House du Lac continues. The line--will endure. But--I have to leave here. Now.” She bit her lip. “Tell--tell Meg thank you for me. I wish I could tell her myself, but…”

Ulwen nodded. “Of course, Badb. I… I’m sorry… I wish I could have… done more…”

“You were always kind to me and my daughter,” said Viviane. “I’ll--remember that.” She looked at Ulwen with a smile. “This will end, Ulwen Reedraft. The Accursed Marsh will be free again.” She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Remember me.” And then she was gone, carrying Elaine away with her.

Ulwen touched his cheek fondly, and then went back to his hut. As he did so, he realized that Viviane had worked a greater spell than the ones she’d used to kill Kyrus and Tithonos. Somehow--she’d made the Accursed Marsh a land again. To him at least

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 3

Viviane huddled beneath the tree. It was a cold, windy night, and her cloak was not as warm as she’d imagined it would be. She was doing her best to be a pile of sticks, which involved sitting very still and thinking stick thoughts, which were very, very dull. Viviane kept at it however, because her mother had told her to, very seriously, and because Lord Cthonique’s troops were in the region, looting, killing, and causing trouble, and if they found her, they would kill her, likely after a bit of torture. And so Viviane kept sitting under her tree, and thinking stick thoughts. She was the Nemain now, and her family and the Accursed Marsh were counting on her.

These exceedingly dull stick thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something crashing into a nearby tree. “Viviane,” came Elaine Blanchebras’ voice sounding pained and unsteady. “Viviane? Where are you?”

Viviane gritted her teeth, and kept quiet. Her mother had warned her that Shaddad’s sorcerers might use the old ‘vampire trick’ on her, imitating her voice to draw Viviane out of hiding. “Viviane. My Nemain. By oak, ash and the thorn bush.” Viviane took a great relieved breath. It was her mother. Standing up, Viviane walked out towards her mother’s voice.

She found Elaine Blanchebras leaning against a tree, holding her mortar and pestle tightly in her delicate white hands. Her mother was breathing heavily. “Vi--Viviane…? Why… why didn’t you come…?”

“You told me not to,” said Viviane gently.

Elaine Blanchebras gulped and nodded several times. “I… yes. I did. That was… good of you, Viviane…” She nodded again, her eyes glazing over. “You’re a good daughter. I’m very proud of you.”

Viviane looked around anxiously. “Where… where’s Gigi?”

Her mother was silent for a moment, her expression mournful. “Gigi… Gigi is… Don’t worry about…” And then she began to cough blood.

Viviane had seen a player in the part of Bellicent cough blood during the deathbed scene, and she’d done it very quietly and discreetly, making it seem tragic, yet somehow romantic. But when her mother did it, first it came out in a great, ugly gush, that drizzled down her chin, and then Elaine Blanchebras fell to the ground, coughing and wheezing with the blood forming little bubbles in her mouth, and Viviane was so horrified that she wound up stepping back as her mother writhed on the ground in agony. “Mo--Mother--what…?”

“The… Sworn…” began her mother, taking several deep gasps. “N--Nisrioch Cthonique… he…” Elaine Blanchebras began to cough again, but stood unsteadily. She pressed her mortar and pestle into her daughter’s hands. “Thou--thou art the Badb. Mother to daughter--sister to sister--blood to blood…” She leaned forward suddenly and kissed Viviane’s forehead, staining it with blood. “I love you Viviane. And I am so sorry tha…” And then she fell again.

In later years, Viviane would wish that she could say that her mother had died then. But she didn’t. She lingered in agony and delirium for hours, coughing and panting as Viviane wove charms to hide them, and realized that she could do nothing to save her mother. Sometimes, she would seem to regain consciousness and would attempt to say something--but those moments never lasted long enough for her to do that, and they happened less and less as the ordeal stretched on. Eventually, Elaine Blanchebras was cold and still.

Viviane closed her mother’s eyes, and then willed the body into the earth, then made sure that the area appeared undisturbed. And then she walked deeper into the woods, gripping the mortar and pestle tightly in hands. Her mortar and pestle now. She was the Badb. The Queen of the Old Magic. The Mistress of All Witchery. The Descendent of the Nimue. The fate of House du Lac was on her shoulders. She said a silent prayer to the Unholy Mother of Night, and hoped that she was up to it. And that she would find a warm place to rest. It was a cold, windy night, and her cloak was not as warm as she’d imagined it would be.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 2

“Come on, Gigi!” pleaded Viviane du Lac, looking at her baby sister hopefully. “Touch your nose!”

Gigi smiled cheerfully at her big sister--then grabbed Viviane’s nose. “Bibaibabali!” Gigi declared. “Pfffft!” Viviane sighed. She really shouldn’t expect much. Gigi was only just barely two, after all. Not a big girl like Viviane, who was eleven.

The two sisters were playing in the gardens of Chateau du Lac, one of their favorite pastimes. Well, it was one of Viviane’s favorite pastimes, but Gigi definitely seemed to enjoy it, and Viviane was reasonably certain that if Gigi could answer questions in an intelligible manner, she would also identify it as one of her favorite pastimes. Right after trying to eat bugs.

As Viviane tried to get her little sister to release her nose, a quiet laugh came to her ears. Turning, the young girl found herself suppressing a gulp. Her grandmother, the Badb, sat nearby, looking at her descendents. Ygraine du Lac was a stately and beautiful woman, her long grey hair done in a braid. Her eyes looked at Viviane and Gigi with a strange mixture of love and sadness. “Enjoying yourself, my dears?”

Viviane nodded eagerly, as Gigi released her nose. “Yes, Badb.” She felt an obligation to be formal and on her best behavior. Grandmother Ygraine was not a commonly seen sight in the gardens--not to Viviane’s mind. She kept to herself these days, and had ever since the affair with Viviane‘s aunts, Lyonors and Lynette. She’d been a different woman before then, one that could laugh, smile, and joke. She spent most of her time at the Dolmens now, staring at graves and sighing, a shadow of what she’d once been. At least, that was what Viviane’s mother said. To Viviane, her grandmother had always been a grand, sad presence, seldom seen and strangely intimidating, with a quiet sense of tragedy about her.

Ygraine’s eyes flickered at Viviane’s address. “Please, dear, call me ‘Grandma’.” She glanced at Gigi, who responded to her gaze by hiding behind Viviane. “Practicing being a mother, I see.”

“No,” said Viviane, patting Gigi’s head fondly. “Just a big sister.” She smiled at Gigi, who now stared up at her with big blackish-brown eyes filled with adoration. “‘Cause I’m going to be one for the rest of my life!”

Ygraine smiled fondly. “Are you really now?” she said, and then gave a laugh. “Yes, yes, I suppose you are. But one day, you’ll be a mother, as well. With a husband. A quiet man, fond of animals, children, and all things that grow…”

Viviane frowned. Her grandmother was not merely the Badb--she was a Badb of extraordinary reputation, and when she said things like that, they generally came to pass. And yet--Viviane was a du Lac, and would one day be the Nemain, and after that, hopefully, the Badb, and it seemed to her she did NOT want a husband who sounded--rather dull. And so she stiffened, and declared grandly, “That’s what you think, Grandmother. My husband shall be a Prince! The grandest Dark Lord in the Lands of Night, with the greatest Castle in the Land! All shall respect his power!” And with that she stamped her foot on the ground, hoping to get across that this was absolutely true.

The slightly amused look on Ygraine’s face suggested she may not have succeeded. “Well, if you say so, my dear, it must be so.” Her smile took on just a hint of sadness. “For you are a daughter of House du Lac, and we are a family woven into the tangled skein of fate. We are moved where we need to go. That is the price we pay for power.” Ygraine was silent for a while, then glanced at Gigi again. “And what about you, Gigi? Any thoughts to share?”

Gigi peeked shyly at her grandmother from behind Viviane. The youngest du Lac seemed about to say something when a familiar voice declared, “So there you are, Mother.” Gigi immediately went back to hiding behind her sister, as Viviane turned to look at the one woman who terrified even more than her grandmother--her mother, the Nemain, Elaine du Lac, called Elaine Blanchebras for her delicate white hands, had entered the garden from the Southern Gate. She walked forward with a sigh, moving a strand of her silky blonde hair out of her face. As she did so, her gaze fell on her daughters. She smiled at them, and leaned forward to pinch Gigi’s cheek. “Hello, my darlings.”

Gigi pulled away from her mother, and began to cling even tighter to Viviane’s leg. “Vivi! Vivi! Helf!” she whimpered.

Elaine Blanchebras raised an eyebrow. “She’s tired,” explained Viviane, picking her sister up.

“How long has she been saying…?” began her mother.

“Two weeks,” said Viviane, betraying a certain amount of pride. “She’s so clever.” Gigi nuzzled her neck, every now and then shooting a terrified glance at her mother. “But shy.”

Elaine Blanchebras nodded, and then turned back to Ygraine. “You two should probably--go elsewhere. I’ve--business to discuss with the Badb.”

Viviane turned to go, Gigi clinging tightly to her shirt, when her grandmother declared, “I don’t see why they have to go. How imp--”

“Shaddad Cthonique is invading the Frontier,” said her daughter flatly, her eyes narrowed.

“What?” said Ygraine with a start. “Im--Impossible. Not even he could be so mad…”

“Apparently, he can,” said Elaine Blanchebras. “He has.”

Ygraine frowned and gave a nod. “Yes. Yes. You two should be along.”

Viviane began to walk away, singing softly to her sister. “Golden slumbers kiss your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise…”

“I tell you, Elaine, there must be some mistake!” came their grandmother’s voice. “Lord Shaddad swore…”

“You think he cares about oaths?” said their mother, her voice bitter. “House Maganza could tell you about that. You ignored me for years on this one, and now…”

“Sleep, pretty wanton, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby,” continued Viviane. “Rock her, rock her, lullaby…”

“Bbbianbii, blu” said Gigi looking at her big sister worriedly. “Pffft.”

That brief conversation remained impressed upon Viviane for the rest of her life, because it was the last time she saw her grandmother. Ygraine du Lac died shortly after that, in the violence that engulfed the Accursed Marsh when Shaddad Cthonique and his forces streamed over the border.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 1

Viviane du Lac stood on the ramparts of Castle Terribel, and watched the snow fall. It was lovely, seeing it cover the Plains of Dread like a glittering, white blanket. As she clenched her hands together in her fur muff to keep them warm, she hoped that she would always find this so lovely. She’d seen snows before in the Marsh, but they were ugly things that clumped up in ugly mounds and grew a darkish, brownish color very quickly. Snow on the Plains was not merely different--it seemed a completely separate phenomenon. Viviane smiled and took a deep breath, enjoying the cold, fresh air.

At which point that fresh air took on a smell that was--less fresh. Viviane turned to regard her husband, Mansemat Cthonique, seated on one of his gryphons. “Riding in this weather, Manny?”

Mansemat scratched his gryphon’s feathered head. “It’s good for them. They like the brisk air.” He leaned forward. “Don’t you schweetie? Don’t you wike fwying in dis weader?” The gryphon gave a purr of contentment. “That’s wight, Bwoodwing. You wike it! Oooogie-ooogie-ooo!”

Despite herself, Viviane smiled at him. “You really love those things, don’t you?”

“They’re affectionate creatures, Viv,” said Mansemat, as Bloodwing licked his fingers. “Very social animals in the wild.” He looked at his wife hopefully. “So--care to--join me in a flight?”

“Mmmm, maybe later,” said Viviane. She leaned against the wall. “I’m--just--thinking right now.”

“Ahh.” Mansemat nodded. “Well, later then. Perhaps. If you don’t mind.” He smiled gently and then turned, flying off. And that was when Viviane heard a piercing scream.

Glancing down into the courtyard, she saw Elaine, ducking behind a tree, as Jean and Malina threw snowballs from the cover of wall of snow they’d put up. “GUYS!” Elaine howled. “This isn’t funny!”

“Of course not!” stated Jean. “It’s war! It’s deadly serious!”

“Surrenendur at once, Sis!” declared Malina.

“Never!” shouted Elaine, kneeling to gather up snow herself and forming a rather indifferent snowball, which she then launched at Jean.

Jean snickered as the snowball disintegrated before ever reaching her. “Ha! Is that your best? I scoff it! Scoff it! You have no hope against our superior forces!” And then a large mass of snow smashed into her, knocking her off her feet. Rising with a sputter, Jean looked in the direction the icy missile had come from to see Morgaine, another large mass of snow hovering in the air before her.

“I am the god of snow warfare,” declared Morgaine, “Do not beg for mercy, for I have NONE!”

There was a popping noise, and then Malina appeared behind Morgaine and launched a snowball at her aunt. Morgaine yelped, while the snow hovering in front of her smashed into the ground. “Magic in snowball fights is for cheaterpants!” shouted Malina joyously.

“Ohh, you little…” began Morgaine, only to take another snowball in the face, followed by another in the chest.

“Our little niece is right, sister,” declared Nisrioch, preparing another snowball. “There’s only one way to do a snowball fight proper--magic-free!”

“But ganging up one person is all right?” said Justinian as he packed another snowball.

“Tell me, Squire Sigma,” Nisrioch inquired pleasantly, “who terrifies you more?”

Justinian launched another snowball at Morgaine. “I’m here with you, aren’t I?”

Viviane chuckled to herself, as she watched the scene below. It’d been a year. One year since she’d met Mansemat Cthonique. One year since her life took a turn she’d not seen it going in for such a long time. One year, in a life that had taken so many strange, strange turns…

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 78

Astyanax de Tolometto sipped the small cup of liquid that he swore was tea, and frowned. “So…” he stated at length. “All for nothing.”

Porone Belltower sighed. “I’m afraid so, Friend Astyanax.”

The old man sniffled, choked back a tear, and then took a gulp of his drink. “I… loved that boy, you know, Friend Porone. As a son.” He raised a grimy hand and scratched his wild, greasy mane of hair. “My children--do not acknowledge I exist. But Friend Marcolf…” He sighed and glanced at one of the tattered, slightly decayed maps on the wall. “Ah, well. Foolish to weep. He’s finished now. Nothing I can do.”

“Not foolish,” said Porone quietly. “I wept myself, when I heard. I always admired Friend Marcolf, and his dedication to our glorious cause.” He shook his head. “To die like that…”

“Yes, yes,” said Astyanax. “So… like a Magnate. They thought they could make him betray the Necklace’s secrets, so he battered his own brains in.” A slightly off smile came to his face. “An inspiration to us all.”

It occurred to Porone that “the General’s” choice of words was rather poor. But he kept this to himself, as he rose to his feet. “I must be off, Friend Astyanax. My business you know… It eats into my time.”

“Mmm,” murmured the old man. Like many Magnates, he viewed ‘business’ as a distasteful pastime kept by individuals of poor breeding and character, who tended to treat it with unwarranted respect, and insist it held equal importance with the vital things in life, such as hunting, or keeping track of one’s genealogical tree. “Well,” declared Astyanax, after a long moment’s consideration, “you should be off then. Yes. You certainly should. Indeed.”

Porone nodded in agreement, again taking in the squalor of the old man’s apartment. “You know--Friend Astyanax--I think I will bring you--some new cups, when I arrive next week,” he announced.

“The General” grew haughty. “I am a Magnate, Friend Porone!” Astyanax proclaimed. “I need no charity!”

“Not charity,” said Porone. “Tribute! For how can the Necklace endure without our strong Second Link, the irreplaceable General, Astyanax de Tolometto?”

Astyanax smiled, despite himself. “A… yes. A… tribute. Yes. That would be… acceptable.” He nodded idly, and looked out his window--a pointless action, as said window was covered in grime. “I must say, Friend Porone for a man of low breeding you are most worthy.”

Porone bowed low. “I am honored, Friend Astyanax. Honored, and incapable of describing to you the emotion that your words fill me with.” And with that he slipped out Astyanax’s room, and breathed a great sigh of relief. Porone had much experience of the Mumblety Pegs, and he’d never thought a day would come when he be relieved to be breathing the air there. And yet anything was better than the atmosphere in Astyanax’s chambers, with its distinctive odor that combined the scents of mold, piss, cheap liquor, and failure into something new, and very unpleasant.

The slightly heavyset, newly-minted Third Link of the Necklace turned into a slightly better section of Marsilion’s Folly--but only slightly better. A huge crowd stood there before the balcony of a large hostel, as the massive figure of Corin Latheawl regaled them with a speech. Near him stood six gentlemen--some respectable-looking, others slightly wild, and yet all united by the quiet intensity with which they regarded Latheawl. “…Been called a rabble!” declared the Hand leader thunderously. “We’ve been told that we are beyond contempt! And yet the fortunes of the Caps and Hats who have ruled this city for too long--too, TOO long--were built by our labor, our sweat, and our blood. The Caps gave us the vote because they thought we’d just let them stomp us, instead of the Hats. Because none of them--not Hat, not Cap--thought we had the brains to realize we were being cheated! But we’ve always been a bit keener than they thought, haven’t we people?” The crowd gave a mighty yell. Corin gestured to the men behind him. “That’s right! And that’s why when the jars are opened, they’ll put into power the first Thing this city has seen that shall look to the interests of those who earn their bread by their own hands!”

Porone felt a vague wave of unease as he watched the crowd cheer. A young girl stepped up to him, and smiled. “Broadsheet, sir?” She raised a packet of papers, and waved them hopefully. “It has all the important news in it! Three copper marks!” Porone regarded the girl for a while. She was young, and the heavy clothes she wore were on the threshold of being ragged. She regarded the merchant with the most hopeful expression imaginable. He took the broadsheet, and handed her six copper marks. She smiled enthusiastically, and raised her fist. “Thank you, sir! Stand together! The Hands shall be the city!” As she walked away, humming to herself, Porone glanced at the broadsheet, which it appeared was called The Work of Our Hands, the image of a raised fist next to this title. “The Scandal of the Workhouse!” declared the leading article.

Shaking his head, Porone walked down the street, glancing briefly at a vegetable stand, offering the last of this year’s local squash, and some oranges transported from the fringes of the Heath. Picking up an orange, he paid the vendor, and began to peel it.

“You are late, Friend Porone,” said a soft voice he knew well.

Porone turned and bowed. “Friend Tisiphone,” he said, offering the blind woman his arm. “I was detained by… the General.”

Tisiphone smiled as she took Porone’s arm. “I see? And how is that mighty champion of the Magnates?”

Porone sighed. “I do not know whether to hate the old fool, or to pity him.”

“Indeed.” Tisiphone nodded, as they walked towards Armida’s. “You continue to rise in the Chain of Bronze, then?”

“Of course,” said Porone. “In Gold, and Silver, and Bronze, and Copper, and Lead--Agate has sent me, and I obey.” He frowned. “Though I’ve begun to wonder… why?”

“Our cause is noble,” said Tisiphone. “You know this.”

“Do I?” said Porone. “Perhaps, I did--once--but now it seems that the Necklace spends as much time warring among itself as it does trying to unseat the Pretenders. If that is what we’re trying to do.” He looked at Tisiphone gravely. “Why allow this… foolish plot to go forward? Why, knowing that it was going forward, endanger yourselves by attending the Council? And why--why kill that poor, ruined fool Marcolf?”

Tisiphone regarded Porone calmly. “The ways of the Necklace are like an intricate chain, so subtly done, that only a master craftsman can see how it is fitted together. It is not given to you to know exactly how, Friend Porone.” She smiled a very slight, very cold smile. “Simply know--Opal was rising, and now is falling, due to this failure. And that though this failure was thus… useful to Agate, there was a need to be certain… the Necklace was… protected.”

Porone gave a single nod, his frown somewhat deeper than before. “And that was what Marcolf’s death was, eh?”

Tisiphone was silent for a moment. “Tell me, Friend Porone, do you wish to leave our employ?”

The merchant gave a sharp laugh. “I’m not such a fool as that, Friend Tisiphone. This affair simply leaves me feeling… sullied. That is all.”

The blind woman was silent. “He was a very wicked person, Friend Porone. Very wicked indeed.”

“So am I,” said Porone. “So are you.” He sighed and shrugged. “I pitied that man. For all that he despised me--he was simply so… lost.”

“So am I,” said Tisiphone quietly. “So are you.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Porone. “But I--do not have to fool myself about what I am.”

The pair went on in silence, until they reached Armida’s. Then Tisiphone detached herself from the merchant. As she reached the familiar doorway, she turned and seemed to regard him. “Never forget, Friend Porone--Agate, and the true Dark Lord of the Plains appreciate all your efforts, even if they cause you doubts. Perhaps especially if they do.” Porone watched the blind hostess retreat into her social house, her bearing straight. There was a woman who never doubted or wavered. Much as Marcolf had never doubted or wavered.

Until, perhaps, he was killed.

Porone Belltower could not make such a boast. It seemed madness at times, the life he’d plunged into, a life where he answered to the likes of Tisiphone and Marcolf, all for the indirect pat on the head from people he’d never seen, and only knew by pseudonyms. Marcolf had known what he fought for. And Tisiphone had never said what it was--but she radiated such faith in her cause that he didn’t doubt that she knew, or at least thought she did. But Porone--Porone had stumbled into the world of the Necklace, and was only kept afloat by a natural talent for intrigue and treachery that had guided him in his life so far.

He took a bite of his orange. The clock tower began to chime six bells. Porone nodded to himself. Time to get home. It grew dark early as winter approached. As the bells rang, it occurred to Porone that his cousins were probably working them, as the Belltowers had done for generations, worked the bells to tell the hour ‘til they went deaf and couldn’t hear them anymore, and then kept on working them. His father had done it--until the day he slipped on a wet stair and couldn’t do it anymore--or anything else for that matter. But not Porone. No, he’d broken free of that. Made his mark on the world. A small mark, but--still a mark. Perhaps that was why he’d joined the Necklace. A desire to make his mark--bigger somehow. Porone sighed, and spat out his orange pips. He glanced at the broadsheet he purchased. The Hands--how quickly they’d spread--were offended. The city ealdermen, it seemed, had been paying a stipend to the workhouses for years for ‘maintenance and upkeep’. Most of which, instead of going into maintaining the workhouses, had gone into the pockets of the workhouse owners. Who, in the piece de resistance, happened to be either the city ealdermen or relatives thereof. ‘And so a rich race of sluggards grow fat off the public good’ declared the broadsheet, ‘while those who earn their living struggle and strive, and are told it is for their own benefit.’ A snowflake landed on the paper, and then another. Porone glanced up at the sky. The first snow of the year. In a few days, it would be Frimaire, and winter would truly begin.

Porone’s gaze lowered until it reached Castle Terribel. The Hands were another thing that worried him these days. They were so--different from the Caps and Hats. Those were just clubs, with a few agreed on tenets, who mostly competed for the Thing as a hobby. The Hands… had a philosophy. And they looked like they might gain control of the Thing--or at least a voice in it. And he had no idea what that meant. But the Cthoniques--seemed to be for it. The old Cthoniques, the rock of the Plains of Dread--stood behind a movement that was under a month old. The future was coming, and the past was helping it along the way. Porone shook his head. Perhaps this was another reason he supported the Necklace--a man needed a place to stand, when everything was changing, when every day brought another innovation. Where would it end? Where?

He pulled his clothes around himself for warmth and headed down the street, hoping to get away from the cold.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 77

Orrill glanced around the Great Hall of Qaf, and gave a relieved breath. “Tho nithe to be home again!” the sorcerer proclaimed, his scaly crocodilian head making a futile effort to smile.

His lord and master, Belberith Ashurana followed him in, clenching his fists and unfurling his great wings. “That fool! That blasted fool! That blasted, drunken, treacherous fool!”

Alcina Ashurana entered behind Belberith. “Who are you talking of, father?” She raised a dark eyebrow. “Someone--foolish I presume?”

“Asterot Maganza! The thrice-damned King of the Goblins! That’s who!” snarled the Dark Lord of the Mountains of Sorrow. “I hand him the Cthoniques on a platter, and he--he botches it!” The old Dev began to rub his temples. “Tell them that the Palace of Shadows is damaged, I said. Make them host the damned Council at Castle Terribel. And bring the Mongranes. They’ll bring their bodyguard, Rodomonte will pursue his little vendetta, and even if he doesn’t kill Mansemat, the whole affair will create enough embarrassment and ill will to end the whole family’s accursed pretensions! And what does the Maganza of Altaripa and Altafoglia do?” A bitter smile covered Belberith’s face. “Oh, he follows my advice--while running ANOTHER scheme at the same time, which would have left ME AND MINE DEAD!” Belberith gave a growl of frustration. “And while that scheme THANKFULLY fails, it cancels out my scheme, in such a way as to INCREASE Mansemat Cthonique’s prestige. Asterot not only ruined the plan he was supposed to help with--he ruined it so that it accomplished the EXACT OPPOSITE of what it was supposed to!”

Alcina yawned. “Are you finished screaming, father? Or do you wish to bay at the moon, perhaps?” Belberith scowled at his daughter. “I don’t know why you’re surprised,” she continued. “Asterot Maganza is a man of straw, and you asked him to do some heavy lifting. I warned you that any plan relying on him would likely fail.” She sighed and shook her head. “He’s too--spiteful, father. He’ll latch on to anything to hurt the Cthoniques. Men such as that always feel a need to… improve plots.”

“I do not need a lecture from you, daughter,” said Belberith loftily, his face gradually returning to its usual stony serenity.

“Are you sure of that?” asked Alcina. “You ignored the last one, and see what happened?”

Belberith and his daughter stared at each other in uneasy silence, which was broken by a scream. Turning, they saw Orrill chanting quietly, a sickly yellow glow emanating from his hands. A servant--a young male Erl--had fallen on the ground before the sorcerer, screaming in agony. As they watched, the poor man seemed to collapse on himself, as if turning into rubber. Eventually, he lay on the ground, a whimpering heap of flesh. Orrill turned to regard the Dark Lords. “He jothtled me. Tho I melted hith thkeleton.” The sorcerer nodded. “Do not conthern yourthelveth overmuch. He will die shortly. Of thuffaction.” He shook his head. “Oh, it ith tho good to be back here, where you can deal with problemth rationally.” He took a deep satisfied breath, and looked Belberith in the eye. “You know, thir, I think I shall be down in my thtudy, releathing thome of the fruthtration that fat fool Chiaramonte left me with.” Orrill shrugged. “Not the thame ath releathing it on him, but that day will come, that day will come.” A strangely hopeful expression came over his crocodile head. “You’re welcome to join me, Your Thupremathy.”

Belberith looked around somewhat uncomfortable. “I… shall pass, Orrill. But… thank you for the… offer.”

“As you wish, thir,” said Orrill with a stately bow, before turning to head away. Belberith watched him leave with an expression akin to disgust, then walked away in silence.

Alcina looked at the… body on the floor, and felt a mixture of repulsion and pity. “Wh-what is that?” came the unmistakable voice of her friend and Arbitrator Psyche Zenobia.

“Orrill has been at his amusements,” said Alcina quietly.

Psyche Zenobia gulped, and then drew her wand, striking Orrill’s victim with a glittering beam. “I consider that a mercy,” she muttered as the body dissolved into ash.

“Your stutter’s dropping,” said Alcina quietly.

“D-does that at t-times,” said Zenobia. “I’ve n-no i-idea wh-wh-why.”

Alcina smiled at her friend. “Well, I should warn you, the Crocodile has it in for your new beau.”

“Then, the C-Cro-Crocodile should w-watch himself,” said Zenobia with a smile. “Mal is a for-formidable figure, un-underneath his façade.”

“Indeed,” said Alcina, nodding emphatically. “A man of weight. And substance!”

Zenobia narrowed her eyes. “You do realize that he’d be the first to make that joke, Alse?”

Alcina gave a polite cough. “Sorry. It slipped out.” She looked away. “You--really are fond of him, aren‘t you, Suky?”

“Y-yes,” said Zenobia brightly. “I’m a-afraid, Alse, that I m-may soon have to give up my p-pos-position. The D-duke is l-looking for a D-duchess. And he th-thinks he’s found her.” Alcina frowned, despite herself. “Oh, I’m s-sorry, Alse. I so w-wanted to tell that…”

Alcina raised her hand. “Never mind, Suky. My life is my life. I’ve had my good times. I can’t deprive all those around of me of them simply because of the bad.” She glanced around the dark halls of Mount Qaf. “By the Lady, I cannot wait to get home to Albracca. Every time I visit here, I feel as if a funeral is going on.”

“B-because one p-probably is somewhere in here,” muttered Zenobia, as she wandered away. Alcina watched her friend go away, and then hurried to her chamber. She slipped into the room, and then wandered over to a chair and sat down in it.

As if by magic, her maid, a pretty young Erl with an eager face, appeared at her side. “Oh, Miss,” she said, beginning to fuss over Alcina. “I didn’t hear you come in. Are you all right? Do you need any--?”

“I’m fine, Antea,” said Alcina quietly. “All I need is rest.”

“And you won’t get that with those hairpins in,” said Antea, carefully undoing Alcina’s hairstyle. “Here, allow me…”

“Only because there’s no refusing you at times like this,” said Alcina. “So--how have you been?”

“Keeping to your chambers except for meals,” replied Antea. She shuddered. “I really prefer Albracca, Miss. There’s something… unwholesome about Mount Qaf.” She bit her lip. “I know it’s your home, but--”

“Albracca’s my home,” said Alcina. “Qaf is just a place I spent a long stretch of unhappy years.”

“Well, I wish I could have gone with you,” said Antea.

“You know what Lord Belberith is like,” said Alcina. “My father insists that every servant on such a trip be one he knows personally.” Antea nodded silently. Alcina reached up and patted her hand. “Perhaps next time.”

Antea gave a slight nod. “So how was it?”

“Interesting,” said Alcina later. “I’ll tell you the whole story when I’m less… exhausted.”

“And Lord Nisrioch?” continued Antea, placing Alcina’s hairpins on the table nearby.

“The same as always,” said Alcina with a smile. “Foolish, and gallant, and frustrating. The Dark Lord of the Howling Waste is a unique experience.” She sighed. “Much like madness.”

“A pleasant sort of madness, I’d imagine,” said Antea.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 76

“You are a disgrace,” said Fiordespina Maganza. “Did you know that brother? A disgusting, diseased, disorderly disgrace.”

“You should have said ‘dyspeptic’,” noted Asterot, as he slumped forward in his chair. “My stomach is killing me, so it would have been tremendously witty.”

His sister raised an eyebrow, while Pinabel glanced away. “Don’t try to change the subject, Asterot. Not when you’ve tried to kill me. I simply--lack the patience for it.”

Asterot winced and glanced nervously out the window. The airship was over the Shadow Woods. In a little while, it’d arrive in the busy heart that were Altaripa and Altafoglia, the twin cities that the King of Goblins ruled personally. Somehow that failed to cheer him. “I tried to get you to stay with me. Away from the blast.” He took a deep breath. “You’d have been safe.”

Fiordespina’s disgust with her brother only seemed to increase. “You actually think that’s an excuse, don’t you?”

“It is… what it is,” said Asterot, the weariness thick in his voice. “I’ve never pretended to be… excusable.”

“Only you, Asterot,” said his sister, with a sigh, “ would consider that a virtue.”

“I don’t consider it anything,” he said quietly. “It is simply--another thing that is.”

Fiordespina was silent for a moment. “You’re killing yourself, brother. Killing yourself with drink, and spite, and sheer unpleasantness. I hope you realize that.”

“I thought death was your great love,” muttered Asterot.

“I seek life in death,” said Fiordespina quietly. “It helps me to value living more and look on death without fear. You seek death in life. It makes you despise both.”

Asterot gave her sidelong glance. “Well, I just hope you enjoy making love to your corpse,” he said softly.

“That exquisite cadaver makes love to me, brother,” replied Fiordespina, standing up. “I should go prepare my things. And perhaps enjoy less--repugnant company.” She turned to Pinabel. “You are, of course, not meant by that.” She bowed at the High Bailiff. “I must say, cousin, I envy your ability to cope with His Imperial Munificence.” And then with a frown, she left the chamber.

Asterot looked at Pinabel. “Ha. I envy your ability to cope with me. If I had half of it, I wouldn’t be in the awful mess I am now.”

Pinabel gave a single nod. “I would hope not, sir.”

Asterot looked once more out the window. A crowd of Goblins and Erls were gathering out below, waving banners of green and gold. Somehow, that turned his stomach even more. “Be honest with me, Pinabel. I’ve--disgraced myself beyond all measure, haven’t I?”

“You have not covered yourself with glory, no,” replied the High Bailiff, his one eye narrowed. “In truth, sir, I wish you had told me of this plan. So I could tell you not to do it.”

Asterot nodded bleakly and swallowed. “How… how do you live with me, Pinabel? After all… all you lost…”

Pinabel shook his head. “I--still look on my service to you with pride, Your Imperial Munificence. Even when you go out of your way to make it difficult for me.” He sighed. “You’re a better man, sir, then you’ve allowed yourself to become of late.”

Asterot shut his eyes and rested his head on the table.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 75

“I must admit,” said Nisrioch to Malagise Chiaramonte, “I will miss these fascinating little chats we’ve been having.”

“As will I, Your Excellency,” noted the Duke, hands behind his back. “Truth be told, I don’t get enough conversations with sorcerous experts back in Cremonia. All the major practitioners are in the Alts.” He sighed. “A few hedge wizards and practical thaumaturges in the employ of the Guild are all we have. All good in their fields, but with little interest in theory.” He shrugged. “It makes me perhaps a tad too eager for this sort of discussion, I’m afraid.”

“Then you must write me, sir!” declared Nisrioch eagerly. “For me, discussion of the Occult Arts is a fine wine! The more I have, the more I desire!”

“Then you shall have it, Your Excellency!” said Malagise, offering Nisrioch his hand. He chuckled. “Well--that’s two new correspondents. Yourself, and the exquisite Madame Zenobia.”

“Ahh,” said Nisrioch with a nod.

“Indeed,” said Malagise. “Well, the world must be peopled, Lord Nisrioch, even if it’s by such sorry souls as myself. And I like Suky very much.”

“I wouldn’t call you a sorry soul, Duke Chiaramonte,” said Nisrioch. “I’d call you a great one.”

“In mass, perhaps,” said Malagise, slapping his belly.

“Mal!” shouted Lanfusa from across the courtyard. “Stop wasting the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste’s time!”

“I’ll be right there, Mumsy!” Malagise sighed. “Ahh, well. Pleasant chatting with you. But you must understand--my mother gets very concerned when she sees me enjoying myself. She thinks it’s a sure sign there’s something wrong with me.”

Nisrioch nodded in sympathy. “Best of fortune to you, then, until we meet again.”

“And after, sir!” said Malagise as he waddled towards Lanfusa and Aldigier. “And after!”

Nisrioch was still smiling when Armida reached his side. “You’re in a good mood, Your Excellency,” said the hostess.

“Oh, simply musing on things,” said Nisrioch. “I shall have to keep the Duke Chiaramonte in my Sight. A most fascinating fellow--and one I most certainly did not See coming.” He laughed. “It is so delightful to be surprised! Especially in a pleasant manner!” He shook his head. “This is just like my first time adding lemon juice to my tea!” Armida stared at him. “It’s quite good. You should try it.”

“Perhaps some other time,” said Armida. “And--how--was she this time?”

Nisrioch shrugged. “Alcina--was Alcina. It hurts to see her--and yet that pain...” He bit his lip and smiled. “It is the sweetest feeling I know.”

Armida sighed. “I shall--take your word for that.” She frowned. “I will, of course, be going shortly.”

“Of course,” said Nisrioch. “The Council’s held you captive long enough, and you have a business to run.”

“Ahh, Nisrioch,” said Armida. “You’re one of the few men I know who doesn’t see our… professional arrangement as some form of… rented ownership…”

Nisrioch looked at the hostess seriously. “No one can own anyone else, Armida. Not in any way that is true.” He sighed. “Truth be told, few ever get around to owning themselves.”

Armida laughed. “Such a philosopher, Your Excellency. I always enjoy your company so. A shame we didn’t spend more time together during the Council. Why, we never got to play a game of Esches!”

Nisrioch looked her in the eye. “Are you sure about that, my dear?” He leaned forward, smiling. “Absolutely… positive?”

Armida smiled back at him, her mismatched eyes, one a dull blue, the other a murky green, looking into his rainbow-colored ones. “Perhaps we did enjoy a game,” she answered smoothly. “In fact--on reflection--I’m sure we did.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 74

Ull Regni shook Mansemat’s hand. “Well, Your Magnificence, I have to say, of all the times people have tried to kill me, this was the time I enjoyed the most.”

Mansemat nodded as he drew his hand back, flexing it slightly. “Very well put, Your Prominence. Very--well put.”

“Don’t forget to write!” came the voice of Mansemat’s stepdaughter, Elaine. She rushed by with Marfisa Mongrane.

“I will!” said Marfisa. “That is--I’ll write. Not--I won’t forget. I’d never do that, it’d…” Suddenly, the young Marshal turned and looked at Mansemat for a moment. “Ummm--Elaine--could you--give me a--it’ll just take a second.” She bounded over to Mansemat. “I--I’d like to say--you--it--I…” She gulped and gave the Dark Lord a hug. “Thank you for not killing Roddy,” she whispered, then gulped again, and rushed off.

Ull gave Mansemat a teasing glance. “Well, well. Quite the ladykiller, aren’t we, Lord Cthonique?” Mansemat sighed. “Only joking!” said the Muspeilun. He looked away. “Tell me--what you said--when you let off that Troll--did you mean it?”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t,” replied Mansemat quietly.

“And they say your siblings are the odd ones in the family,” said Ull. “Still--wish there were more of your sort about, Manny. Be a better world.” The mighty Ogre glanced up at the sky and gave a pleasant sigh. “I have enjoyed it here. Very much.”

“Your Prominence!” came a familiar voice. Agri Khan approached, his Kizaks behind him, carrying a package draped in silk. “I hoped you hadn’t left yet.”

“No, no,” said Ull absently. “Still here for a little while. You?”

Agri Khan bowed. “I’ll be staying for Her Precious Grace’s birthday. She is my godchild, after all.”

“Ahh! Young Malina. Very charming child. Very charming.” He nodded. “Wish I could stay here, but--you know. Kingdom to run.” He coughed. “Not that--I’m not saying you don’t have a kingdom to run.”

“I don’t,” said Agri Khan. “I’m hetman for the Crimson Horde. It’s--well, generally the Elders can manage without me. For a while, at least.” He coughed. “But--well, I really shouldn’t waste your time. I have a gift.” He clapped his hands together. The Kizaks removed the silk, revealing a massive bow of the Kizak design, the ends curved, with a quiver of arrows. Ull stared at the bow in surprise. “For an Ogre of the Folk of Fire, who has the soul of a child of the Scarlet Wolf,” declared Agri Khan, handing the bow to Ull.

The Muspeilun took the bow, a look of rapture on his face. “I… thank you.” He coughed. “This is lovely.”

The Kizaks bowed to him. “Consider it a sign of our respect,” said Agri Khan, turning to the silk. Ull nodded, and then bowed in return.

As he straightened, Idun Bragi approached. “Well--I really must be off.” Ull smiled nervously and then joined his cousin.

“Dragging out your farewells?” said the skald.

“Well, come on, Idun,” said Ull. “Even you have to admit this went well. And that Armida woman was damned charming.”

Idun nodded. “I have to admit, I liked her,” she acknowledged as they headed towards the Regni airship. “Still--you’ll understand that I may not have found it quite as--enjoyable as you did.”

“Right, right,” said Ull stepping on board. The crew of Goblins were busily preparing themselves as the Muspeilun, Ettin, and Erls that made up his retinue headed towards their chambers. Glancing across the way, he saw Skadi Utgardi standing on the bow of her own airship. Ull turned and raised his bow. “Oy, Skadi! Look at this! From Agrican!”

The Jotun turned and cupped a hand to her mouth. “It’s still a peasant weapon, Ull!”

As Idun watched, Ull seemed to consider a reply--then paused, strung his bow and sent an arrow flying through the air, which buried itself inches away from the Dark Lord of Stonefangs’ head in the mast of the airship. Idun stared in shock as Skadi turned, pulled the arrow out, and regarded it for a moment.

“You--you…” sputtered the skald at her cousin. “You just endangered EVERYTHING the Council…”

“Oh, it’s just a lark!” said Ull dismissively. “You know that, and more importantly, Skadi knows that. She may have a temper like a mad aurochs, but the Queen of Jotuns has a good head on her shoulders under it all.”

At that moment there was a piercing war cry and a battleaxe buried itself in the mast behind Ull. Idun crossed an arm. “She knows it’s a joke, eh?”

Ull turned and pulled the axe out, then glanced at Skadi who was grinning defiantly at him. “Of course she does,” said Ull. “If she didn’t, I’d be dead.” He handed the axe to Idun and then gave her the piece of silk. “Now, wrap that up. It’ll make an interesting memento.” He glanced at the gash in the mast. “Also, tell the captain I’ll pay for the repairs.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 73

Mansemat Cthonique glanced at the letter with suspicion. “So--the King of the Goblins wishes to pay his last respects before heading off?” He sighed. “Very well, Breus. Let him in.” He turned to his brother as the Chief Steward headed off. “Now, Asterot cares about formalities.” Mansemat shook his head.

Nisrioch shrugged. “He’s a Maganza, Manny. He cares about them when they let him show off.”

Viviane, seated in a corner, glanced at the pair. “Do you think he--suspects--we suspect?”

“I doubt it,” yawned Morgaine. “He’s not that smart. Just mean.”

Breus opened the door, with a flourish and bow. “Lord Asterot Maganza, King of the Goblins, Holder of the Ebony Throne.” Asterot entered, looking at the group warily as Breus ducked out of the room. He was clad in his usual finery, but his eyes were bloodshot, with heavy circles under them. After a second, he coughed.

“I want to assure you all I’ve had a lovely time,” said Asterot. “At least--I assume I did. I fear I have forgotten much of it.”

“Ahh, yes,” said Mansemat. “Due to your drinking. Of course.”

Asterot frowned severely. “Listen, I know my habits are perhaps--unseemly, but this sort--”

“Cut the crap, Asterot,” said Morgaine, popping up from her seat. “After the hellpowder incident, I found myself looking at some very strange facts. You were apparently drunk all the time--but you weren’t demanding any more drinks than anyone else. In fact--rather less. You’d brought your own liquor, it seemed. So I had one of the Guard get a hold of a portion of that bottomless supply of drink.” She gave a tight smile. “Watered-down ale. To get as drunk as you apparently were, you’d have to drink several barrels of the stuff. In one very short sitting.”

Mansemat nodded. “And seeing as not even you could do that, we came to the conclusion that you weren’t drunk at all.”

Viviane stared at the Maganza balefully from her corner, her hand going to her pestle. “Which means on that day when everyone was supposed to be blown to pieces--you probably weren’t “sick”. Which strongly suggests you knew what was going to happen. Which strongly suggests you had a hand in making it happen.”

Asterot looked at the Cthoniques calmly. And then he smiled. “That is a base accusation, against a fellow Dark Lord of the Nine. I would be within my rights to bring this up to the Council of Shadows. Of course, I will not, simply to avoid the scandal, which would prove most distressing to the entire Council.” He looked Mansemat in the eye. “Would it not?” Mansemat bit his lip. “Indeed, I heartily wonder why you have bothered telling me this, since any move to formally accuse or detain me would create diplomatic incident of--incredible severity.” Asterot’s smile deepened. “Might even kick off a war. And we know you don’t want that.”

Mansemat frowned and looked away, his voice taking on an angry edge. “Yes, Asterot, we aren’t going to do anything to you. You will leave Castle Terribel a free man, unhindered by our accusations. We--simply wanted you to know--we know.”

Asterot nodded slightly, and he glanced out the chamber‘s window. “You know--I wanted to be drinking water the whole time. But I’m afraid my sins are catching up to me. When I tried to go without--I began to shake. And to see things.” He sighed. “Most distressing. Still--I’m as clear-headed as I can get these days. Sadly, I did all this only to witness my defeat, instead of yours, but--it’s been an interesting experience.”

Mansemat stared at the King of Goblins for a moment. “Why, Asterot? Why did you try to cause such--bloodshed?”

“You assume I was behind all this,” said Asterot. “But I am only one of--many players. Most of which I don’t even know. Still--why was I involved? Easy. I hate you, Mansemat. I hate you and your entire family.”

Mansemat shut his eyes. “Asterot--you know I mourn my father’s--mad ambition, and the horrors he committed because of it,” he began.

The King of Goblins gave a dark laugh. “Shaddad has nothing to do with this. Or--very little. Oh, he killed my kin, stole my land, had me living the life of an exile--but all that I could live with.” A bitter smile touched his handsome face. “Truth be told--those were the finest moments of my life, the years I spent fighting Lord Shaddad. Didn’t realize it at the time, mind you. No, that’s not why I hate you, Mansemat. I hate you for what you did to me.”

Mansemat eyes widened in shock. “I--have done nothing to you, Asterot, save be a friend to you! When your little deal with the Ironfangs went sour, I saved you. I even gave you back the Shadow Woods.”

“Yes, like you were doling out presents to the needy on Ladytide ,” spat out Asterot, the venom in his words and face astounding. “Men fought and died for me for a decade and a half--I made that--horrible bargain with the Ashuranas and the Regnis--all so you could simply--give the Woods back to me.” He gave a sharp sob. “By the Dragon, what was it all for? They died for me--in FRONT OF ME--under my banner, shouting my name! I told them that it would all have been worth it--that there would come a day of glory, and you KILLED it!” He glared at Mansemat. “You killed my honor, Cthonique. You killed every part of me that isn’t flesh.”

Mansemat stared back at the King of Goblins for a long time, then looked away. “By the Darksome Lady, Asterot--get yourself well. If you can.”

A sickly bitter smile came to Asterot’s face. “Ahh, perfect,” he said. “Now you give me your pity.” He turned away. “Another thing I neither need, nor want.”

“It would never have worked, Asterot,” said Morgaine suddenly, stepping before the Dark Lord of the Shadow Woods. “The spells on Castle Terribel are strong. Stronger than you can imagine. Our ancestors saw to that. You’d kill a lot of people--but we’d be fine.”

“That was the idea,” said Asterot with a chuckle. “Most of the Dark Lords die at Castle Terribel, leaving only the Cthoniques, and of course--myself.” He snarled. “All the Lands of Night would unite to see your heads placed on pikes. And I would be leading the charge.” He chuckled. “Or so I was told. I had my doubts it would go in quite that manner. But still--rest assured, your probable survival was not a failure--it was the point.”

Morgaine stared at him in shock. “Damn--you did your research…” Her amber eyes narrowed. “How…?”

“As I told your little niece--Falerina Ashurana sends her regards,” drawled the King of Goblins.

Morgaine frowned severely at him. “Your sister and I are lovers now. Wanted you to know that.”

Asterot gave a nonchalant nod. “Well, that just means there really is someone for everyone. She sleeps in a coffin, you know.”

“She mentioned it to me,” said Morgaine with a defiant tilt of her head. “I think it’s adorable.”

Asterot gave another nod, and headed to the door. Nisrioch coughed. “I have--debated sharing this with you, Asterot, but--now it seems inevitable, and really, I must. You are going to die.”

Asterot stopped and stared at the tall Dark Lord. “That is the fate of all, Nisrioch.” He gestured at Morgaine. “With a few odd exceptions, of course.”

“Yes,” agreed Nisrioch, “but your death is coming sooner than you might think.” He regarded Asterot gravely. “There are only a few years remaining to you, Asterot Maganza, Erl King of the Goblins. Perhaps as few as two. Perhaps as many as six. But no more than can be counted on one hand.”

Asterot continued to stare at Nisrioch, a sickly curiosity naked on his face. “How--how will it--?”

“That is hidden from my Sight,” said Nisrioch. “I only know that one day--soon--you will come to a place under a mulberry tree. The berries are dark purple, and the silkworms spin their cocoons. In that moment--in that place--you will die. That is all I know.”

Asterot looked at the floor and swallowed. And then he took a deep breath, and a smile came to his face. “Well--excellent. That means that soon--this awful ordeal will be over.” He shook his head. “The only real good news I’ve heard in a while.” He bowed. “I thank you for it.” And then he headed out the door, his head raised high, and was gone.

Nisrioch shook his head, his rainbow-hued eyes filled with pity and sorrow. “That poor, poor tormented man.”

Morgaine sighed. “Yeah. I’d almost admire the bastard, if he wasn’t an evil bag of evil spite that tried to evilly kill every other Dark Lord in the Lands of Night, because he‘s evil.” She shrugged. “I mean--he’s got pluck. You have to give him that, if nothing else.” She frowned deeply. “And I mean absolutely nothing else.”

Viviane looked at Morgaine awkwardly. “So--you’re--involved with--Fiordespina Maganza now…?”

Morgaine gave a cheerful laugh. “Yep. It’s great. She’s even sicker than I am!” She glanced at Nisrioch. “But not as sick as you and Alse. If you’re wondering.”

Nisrioch spread his hands. “I was. And it’s good to see that we are maintaining our record for debauched depravity.”

Morgaine smiled. “Hey, I like to spread the joy around.”

“Uh-huh.” Viviane gave a nod. “Well--we’re happy for you. Aren’t we, Manny?”

Mansemat looked at his wife. “Of course, I’m happy. Why shouldn’t I be?” He glanced at his sister. “And she’s--fine with the whole--undead thing?”

“Despi thinks it’s a draw,” said Morgaine.

“Well, that’s excellent,” said Mansemat happily. “Maybe she can come visit by herself sometime. Get to know the family.”

Nisrioch grinned. “Why, we can have her over tea! It’ll be delightful!” He clapped his hands together. “Oooh! I can serve her these new tarts I’ve got worked up! They’ve got limes in them!”

Viviane coughed. “And I’ll… find something to do. That’s pleasant.”

Morgaine chuckled. “They really don’t prepare you for my sort in the Marsh, do they?”

“Well, there were a couple of witches who shared a hut near Luned’s Well,” said Viviane with a sigh. “But then, they might have been sisters. Or cousins. Or something.” She shrugged. “I never really inquired.”

Morgaine patted Viviane’s hand. “My poor, rustic sister-in-law…”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 72

Jerzy bin Yan, better known to the world at large by his titled name of Agri Khan, sat sipping his wine. The Council of Shadows was coming to an end, and truth be told, nothing had topped the startling attempt to blow up the entire proceedings for interest. The would-be assassin’s enigmatic death--apparently shattering his own skull against the walls of his cell--had added just the right touch of horror and mystery to the whole affair. But a week later, even this was buried beneath the typical procedures of the Council of Shadows--dull procedures and duller treaties.

Though the Fangs’ delegations had added a bit of life when they’d gone on a spree in Marsilion’s Folly, and had busted up several taverns. But even this hadn’t been that exciting. Still, thought the Kizak, glancing across the hall, there was still some drama left in the gathering. Mansemat Cthonique sat at the breakfast table, eating his meal. His famed sword was at his side, and every now and then, Mansemat would look the hall over while clutching its hilt. And Jerzy knew the reason why. The Council was over--now was the day of his duel with Rodomonte, the Prince of Kitvekh. Jerzy sighed. The Trolls were a strange folk. They still named a prince to a ruined city that had been underneath a lake for the last thousand years, which to his mind was about insane as you could get. And he said this as a man whose people drank fermented mare’s milk regularly, and raved about its medicinal properties.

“Ahh! Agri Khan!” came the voice of Nisrioch Cthonique. “Enjoying your melon?”

Jerzy glanced at the tall sorcerer and sighed. “As much as can be expected.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you Cthoniques do it.”

“Get melons?” asked Nisrioch casually. “Well, we’ve got a lovely greenhouse in the Castle…”

“No,” said Jerzy. “I mean--stay calm. With so much potential hell on hand.”

“Ahh.” Nisrioch nodded, and sipped his drink. “We are, under our madcap, cynical shells, committed optimists.” He gave a shrug. “Things will generally work out, if one keeps one’s wits about you. Despair doesn’t help that. Why look at your petition! Didn’t that go marvelously well?”

Jerzy blinked. “All that happened is that now we may attend your meetings under our own power. We still can’t vote, or even speak without the Nine sponsoring us!”

Nisrioch spread his hands. “These things are done in steps, Jerzy. First, we establish that you belong in the room. Then we move on.”

The sound of a walking stick on stone reached Jerzy’s ears. The Mongranes were arriving. And that meant Rodomonte was here. The Kizak sighed. “So--now it comes.”

Ruggier Mongrane limped into the dining hall, his sister hanging on his arm, while the massive Ogre walked behind. Once his charges were safely seated, he bowed to them, and then walked towards Mansemat. “Lord Cthonique,” declared Rodomonte in his rumbling tones, “the time has come for our duel.”

Mansemat sighed as he rose from his seat. “Could we at least go someplace secluded, and not disturb these people’s meal?”

Rodomonte shook his head, drawing the massive blade that hung on his back. “I want this to be witnessed.” He laid his sword at Mansemat’s feet, and then knelt. “I have slandered you, sir, and charged you with wrongdoing that you did not deserve. My charges were unwarranted.”

Mansemat stared. “What has--brought this admission on?”

The Ogre gave a rueful smile. “I have seen your fast-draw, Your Magnificence, and previously, I had not.” He shook his head. “If you possessed half that skill ten years ago, then you could defeat my master in a fair fight. Just as you could defeat me now, in a battle.” The Ogre touched his head to the floor. “I have dishonored myself, sir, by charging you without merit. By the code of the chivalrous warrior, my head is now yours, and I give it willingly. And this also I say--the Black Dragon of the Plains is a warrior beyond compare.”

Mansemat stared for a moment, then placed his hands on Rodomonte’s shoulders. “Your head is mine, you say? Very well then. Let it rest on these mighty shoulders, for I say, Rodomonte of the House of Nin is a great warrior, with a noble heart. It is my wish that that noble heart keep beating, and that great warrior keep fighting.” Rodomonte looked up at the Dark Lord for a moment, and then formally kissed Mansemat’s hand.

Mansemat turned and regarded the hall. “Dark Lords--Nightfolk, high and low--it is easy, in the troubles that beset us at times--in the dull procedure that generally dominates our meetings here--to forget why we come together in the Council of Shadows. For generations, the Lands of Night have brought forth the finest warriors, the largest armies, the greatest sorcerers. And we have wasted this immense treasure in pointless squabbles, petty rivalries and foolish wars. And so, time after time, the Milesians have come with their armies to find us already having done half the job for them! This cannot go on! We must--MUST--learn to act together. And as so many tyrants have demonstrated--from King Sukhet, to the Holy Emperors to my own father--this cannot be achieved by force. The Folk of Night have many differences, but one thing we all share is a love of freedom. We each have our own ways of doing things--and we keep to them.” A smile touched the Dark Lord’s face. “And that is as it should be. Time after time, the things that have saved us have been that diversity and that stubbornness. And yet, some among us have tried to stomp it out--a foolish, vain undertaking. We are the folk of Night, and as a brave man once pointed out, there are many stars in the sky.” He pointed at Malagise Chiaramonte, who smiled sadly. “He was this man’s uncle, and my father killed him for saying it, I am sorry to say. But I have taken those words to heart. We can learn to live together. We must learn to live together. We WILL learn to live together.” He took a deep breath. “And I swear to you--I will endeavor with every bit of strength in me to see that the Lands of Night know peace and friendship, so that the next time the Lands of Light cross the Murkenmere--they will find us ready. And we shall truly teach them fear.”

There was a massed applause as Mansemat sat down. Nisrioch smiled at Jerzy. “And now, you see why I need my brother, just as he needs me.” He gave a fond shake of his head, his rainbow-colored eyes seeming to shine. “He’s a good man, my brother. A good, honorable man. I can dream great things, but Manny--Manny can do them--and make other people do them as well. I am the advisor, the wizard--but he--he is the…” Nisrioch paused here, looking for a word.

“King?” suggested Jerzy.

“House Cthonique has no kings,” said Nisrioch, with a strange sternness. “You know that, Jerzy. Manny’s more--the leader, I suppose. If you understand me…”

Jerzy nodded. “Oh, yes.” The Kizak sighed and shook his head. “Wish I’d known that. Then I wouldn’t have put centipedes in his bed that time.” He coughed. “In my negligible defense, I was ten, and Morgaine put me up to it. Still sorry though.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 71

Marcolf de Montefalcone was awoken from his slumber by the sound of a door opening. The first thing he noticed was the throbbing ache in his joints from the way they were bound. The second was the sound of footsteps, coming closer to him. The Magnate snarled to himself. So this was how it ended. Well, he would show them how a Magnate died. With honor, and his head held high. The way his mother died. Marcolf raised himself to face whatever hired knives the Pretenders had brought in to kill him.

He found himself staring at a pair of women--one tall, rather voluptuous, with an enigmatic smile, the other short and delicate, staring ahead vaguely. He blinked in surprise. “You--you’re not what I expected.”

The taller woman laughed. “Well, I’m afraid you are exactly what we expected. That fool who was arrested trying to blow up Castle Terribel.” She sighed and shook her head. “That was a silly thing to do. I hope you realize that.”

Marcolf frowned at her. “I know you. You’re those--hostesses, aren’t you?” He gave her a grim smile. “Whores like you can’t hope to understand the glory of my cause. What seems silly to you…”

“You are--three Links from the Pendant, are you not?” asked the tall woman suddenly. Marcolf stared at her in shock. She turned towards her companion. “Now, dear--good you remind me what Link you rate at? I find I forget…”

The girl nodded. “I am one Link from the Pendant, madam.”

“Tha--that’s impossible!” spat out Marcolf. “I--I--the General would have given me a hint…”

“Ahh, but the Necklace has many Chains, and those Chains have many Links,” said the tall woman. As she looked Marcolf in the eye, he saw that her eyes were different colors. “Do not assume, Friend Marcolf, that you understand the Necklace’s workings. Few do.”

Marcolf gave a nervous nod. “I see. So--you have come--to aid me? Or to… take care of things?”

“More the latter,” said the tall woman. “Though for my young friend here, there is a personal element in this.” She gestured towards the younger woman. “If you’ll look at her closely, I think you’ll remember her. It is something that she can no longer do.”

Despite himself, Marcolf looked at the other woman. And as he did so, he remembered her. “N--no,” he said with a whimper. “It--it can’t be you--the Necklace--you--why would you…?”

“Haven’t I just told you not to assume you understand the Necklace?” said the tall woman. “Yes, my dear Magnate de Montefalcone, this is the girl you blinded. How the wheels turn, eh?”

“I--it--I--it wasn’t me!” whined Marcolf. “Mother--mother did it! I--I only…”

“Erminia de Montfalcone put the lye into my eyes,” said the blind girl--was her name--Termina--perhaps? “But Marcolf de Montefalcone told the lie behind the lye.” She smiled quietly, seeming to stare Marcolf in the face. “I did not steal your mother’s earrings. But you said you saw me take it, and so Erminia gave me one of her famous… punishments.”

“I… It wasn’t me! I--I had to tell her something! I--they fell into the fountain!” muttered Marcolf.

“Oh, hush, Friend Marcolf,” said the tall woman, looking Marcolf straight in the eye. “No one wants to hear your excuses. This--is the time of reckoning.” She smiled gently at him. “Now--look into my eyes. Aren’t they beautiful, in a strange way?” They were beautiful, in a way, one a murky green, the other a dull blue, but oddly--deep… “A person can--become lost in them, or so I’m told.” Her smile took on a cruel edge. “Become lost in them, Marcolf.” It occurred to Marcolf that he suddenly felt cold. The tall woman looked at her companion. “He’s ready for you, Tisiphone. Can you feel his fear?”

“Indeed, madam,” said Tisiphone. “And it is delicious.” And then she began to sing. “Come, heavy Sleep--the image of True Death… and close up these weary, weeping eyes…”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 70

Eurydice le Fidèle walked determinedly down the halls of Castle Terribel, Echidnae Bluebell on her heels. “So--we’re not going to die?” asked Echidnae nervously.

“Not today,” replied Eurydice wearily. It occurred to her that she was really going to have to invest in a better class of best friend. Arete Oakleaves had always struck her as a proper sort of chambermaid. No doubt a few days turning out rooms together, and everything would fall into place.

“Well, that’s good,” said Echidnae. “Not dying is really--really nice.”

“I suppose it’s generally better than the alternative,” said Eurydice. There was an awkward silence. That was strange. Echidnae Bluebell generally never lacked for an ability to produce pointless generalizations and idiotic statements to “make conversation”. Glancing at her friend, Eurydice saw that Echidnae was staring ahead nervously. Turning ahead, she saw Palamedes and Quiet escorting a bound and blindfolded Antigone Gorice. Palamedes glanced at Eurydice for a moment, then turned to the Ghoul.

“Can you take Miss Gorice the rest of the way by yourself?” he asked. Quiet nodded, and headed off with the disgraced chambermaid. When they were out of sight, Palamedes turned to Eurydice. “I wouldn’t worry too much about her. She’s not going to be killed. She’ll simply be leaving with the Maganzas. Officially, she’s being sent to serve on Lady Falerina’s staff.” Palamedes frowned. “Strangely appropriate, somehow.”

Eurydice looked away. “Did I even ask you about her?”

“Not out loud,” said Palamedes quietly. He took a deep breath. “I know you liked her, Eurydice…”

“You know wrong,” said Eurydice forcibly. “I’m a Fidèle. She’s a traitor, spawned from traitors. If I liked someone, it wasn’t her. It was the person she pretended to be.”

Palamedes bit his lip, and looked away. “I… I never blamed you for how things turned out between us, Eurydice.”

“Of course you didn’t,” said Eurydice. “It was all your fault.”

Palamedes chose to ignore that comment. “You’re a good person, Eurydice, and you deserve all the best. Which most likely does not include me as a husband. I just think you should know that.” He bowed. “Well, I should get going. Sacripant’s come into a bit of money, and he’s taking me and the boys out for a drink.”

Eurydice watched Palamedes walk away. It occurred to her that perhaps for the first time in his life, there was an air of--confidence in the way he moved. Or possibly the second--he’d been very happy with himself when he won the Castle pie eating contest eight years ago. Until he’d gotten sick.

Echidnae leaned forward. “You know it’s such a shame things didn’t work out between you two…”

Eurydice glanced at her. “Echidnae--go dust out the Great Hall.”

“But--!” began Echidnae, only to receive the most baleful glance that Eurydice was capable of. “I’ll be extra thorough,” said the young chambermaid quietly, following which she darted off.

Eurydice shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Good. Now she was alone. Very good. Yes. “Oh, Eurydice!” She turned and saw Justinian Sigma standing there. “Is something wrong?” the Milesian asked. Eurydice bit her lip, and then rushed forward. She wrapped her arms around the Sacristan, and began to cry on his shoulder. As she felt Justinian’s hand nervously begin to stroke her hair, it occurred to her that he had no idea what she was crying about. And somehow that didn’t matter.