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.