Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 5

“All right! Look sharp!” Eurydice le Fidèle declared, clapping her hands together. Arete Oakleaves and Echidnae Bluebells both gulped and sprang to work, hanging up the decorations she’d brought. “Faster!” said Eurydice. “This is Her Precious Grace’s Birthday, people! A Significant Occasion!”

“We just had a Grand Occasion two months ago!” moaned Echidnae.

Eurydice fixed the junior chambermaid with an imperious stare. “Which is no excuse for slacking. In fact, it is only an excuse for further efforts in excellence!” She glanced at Arete. “Don’t you agree, Arete?”

Arete bit her lips nervously, nodded, and then began to put her share of the decorations up double-fast.

Eurydice smiled and turned to Echidnae, who followed suit. “Good!” declared Eurydice. “Your work is adequate !” She walked to the center of the Hall of Grim Necessity, and did a quick look around. “Yes, you two might just manage a passing job!” Further words of dubious encouragement were interrupted by a polite cough. Eurydice turned to find her father Breus, Chief Steward of Castle Terribel. She immediately bowed. “Chief Steward.”

Breus bowed back at her. “High Keeper of the Chambers. We need to have words. If you’d come with me…”

Eurydice nodded and fell behind him. As she left, Echidnae made a great sigh. “Oh, Darksome Lady be praised…”

Eurydice immediately twirled around. “I will pretend I did not hear that,” she announced while performing the Obeisant Gesticulation, before turning around and following her father out the hall.

Once he was certain, they were out of earshot, Breus turned, and regarded his daughter fondly. “Is--everything all right, Eurydice?”

The chambermaid blinked at the question. “Why--wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, let’s see,” noted Breus, patiently raising his hand. “Your fiancé broke off your marriage, and your best friend was a spy who tried to destroy the castle.” He looked at his daughter worriedly. “These things--effect people, you know.”

Eurydice took a deep breath. “I’m well over Palamedes. As for Antigone--well, that will pass.” She nodded. “It has to.” She shut her eyes. “I’m a le Fidèle. I will make it pass.”

“You know, Eurydice,” said Breus quietly. “There was a time, after… certain unpleasantness, when I thought that--personal joy, the joy of children, and descendents was closed to me.” Eurydice nodded. Her father was talking of the death of his first wife, and her elder brother Kynon, whom she had never known. “But--then the door opened again, and I had you and your sisters.” A smile spread on the formidable old man’s face. “And that has made me a far, far happier man. It… pains me to think of you unhappy, even though I know that sorrow befalls us all.” He chuckled. “In all honesty, I worry about that more than you--failing to be a good le Fidèle.”

Eurydice opened her eyes and looked at Breus. “I’m fine, father. It will pass.” She smiled at him, and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “But thank you for your concerns.”

Breus nodded. “Very well then.” The pair stepped away from each other and straightened. “Back to work then.” They headed back to the Hall.

“All right!” shouted Eurydice. “I can hear you slacking off!” Echidnae and Arete began to quicken their pace once again.

“I honestly don’t know who I’m scared of more these days,” hissed Echidnae quietly.

Despite themselves, both le Fidèles smiled.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 4

“Bogumil bin Konstanty has claimed the right of combat against Boguslaw bin Uriasz,” said the kneeling Kizak. “Boguslaw bin Roch and Waclaw bin Waldemar aren’t speaking to one another. And Boguslaw bin Ziemowit bin Ignacy and Boguslaw bin Ziemowit bin Donat each demand precedence over each other in the building of their new halls at Sienkiew.”

Jerzy bin Yan yawned. “Is that it, Radomil?”

The Kizak nodded eagerly and then stopped. “Oh, yes. And Przemyslaw is still demanding a new goat, Agri Khan.”

Jerzy nodded. “Ahh.” He stroked his chin idly. “Let’s see. Bin Uriasz will hide and wait for Bogumil to sober up, after which Bogumil will embarrassingly retract his challenge, just as he has retracted every other challenge to his fellow Elders that he has ever made. Waclaw and bin Roch will continue to not speak to each other until bin Boguslaw does something to offend them, at which point they will make up. As for the Gatekeepers, Boguslaw the Proud and Boguslaw the Prouder will both argue so much about who gets to build their new halls that neither shall begin said hall, and thus the matter will stand until I arrive and demand that each build the other’s hall.” He shook his head. “Przemyslaw’s goat though--that’s a tough one.” He glanced at his retainer Bolekiz. “Any thoughts?”

Bolekiz rubbed his chin, deep in thought. “I’m put in mind of the Great Dead Lake in the Weeping Waste, whose waters are beautiful too look upon, but that none can drink.”

Jerzy considered that. “So--tell Pryzemyslaw that we’re sorry, but no goat for now?”

Bolekiz nodded, his expression pained. “In all honesty, Oh, Agri Khan, if he were not an Elder and Keeper of the Great Horn of the Earth-Shaking Agri Khan--I’d tell him to by his own goat like everyone else. But then, he is, and I am not Agri Khan.”

“Why do I go to you for advice, Bolekiz?” said Jerzy after a moment’s silence.

“You delight in my mystifying manner,” said Bolekiz. “And now I ask a question. Why are we here?”

Jerzy shrugged. “It’s been five years since I was present at Malina’s birthday. I am her godfather--she should know me better.”

“Indeed,” said Bolekiz, sagaciously. “That does sound like a reason, Oh, Agri Khan. But might not another reason be you wish to continue avoiding the Elders, with their squabbles over halls, precedence and goats? And perhaps your three wives, two of whom are unbearable, and one of whom is an infant?”

Jerzy stared at Bolekiz in silence. At which point several members of the Guard passed by. “Maybe,” said one, a slightly pudgy Plains Erl, “we can cut the letter out, flip it upside down, and then reattach it!”

“Wouldn’t that just--tear up the banner?” asked another, a Marsh Erl, with a shake of his grey-skinned head.

“No--let him keep going,” said an Ogre. “This idea has potential!” A Ghoul following behind slapped his forehead with his hand, and shook his head furiously.

The Kizaks watched the Guard pass out of sight. Bolekiz glanced back at Jerzy. “May I assume the answer to my humble query is ‘yes‘, son of the Red Wolf?”

“You really are presuming, Bolekiz,” said Jerzy, waving his finger.

“So, I can,” said Bolekiz, with a satisfied nod.

Radomil watched the Agri Khan and his councilor in silence. It occurred to him that they’d forgotten that he was in the room. And then it occurred to him that they merely wished him to believe that. Really, with Bolekiz the Cunning and Jerzy bin Yan, it was hard to tell where you stood.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 3

“By the Darksome Lady, this is ridiculous,” muttered Elaine du Lac, passing through a hallway festooned with silver and purple ribbons.

“It’s your sister’s birthday,” said Jean sagely. “What were you expecting Mansemat to do? Put her on bread and water?”

“Bugger the bastards!” squawked Hoppedance, perched on her shoulder.

“Of course not!” snapped Elaine, ignoring the crow’s outburst. “It’s just--” She glanced at Justinian Sigma. “Don’t you have something to say?”

Justinian sighed. “Not really.”

“Than why the eye roll back there?” Elaine asked.

“Perhaps a bit of holy advice from the blessed Seven occurred to me that had a great deal of bearing on this situation,” said Justinian. “However, I felt it would be inappropriate of me to press it where it would not be wanted.”

“I’ll determine whether I want advice or not, pal,” said Elaine. “Spill it.”

The Milesian sighed. “If you insist, milady,” he noted with a sweeping bow. “A saying from the Hespiad. ‘To seek sorrow in the midst of joy is a profitless quest--to seek quarrels in the midst of peace is the fast way to the grave’.”

Elaine’s eyes narrowed. “Why is it you Lightlanders are so damn--preachy?” She leaned forward. “I have a perfect right to be miserable if I want to.”

Justinian nodded. “That I do not dispute.”

Elaine’s narrowed eyes turned into a glare. “Oh, you are just asking for it.” She gave a snort. “Misery is the natural condition of humanity! The one thing we all share! It is the thread that binds us all together! And you want to take it away from us!” She gave a shake of her head. “You monster.”

There was an uneasy silence. “How much of that do you actually believe?” said Jean after a moment, her eyes wide.

“I have no idea,” muttered Elaine with a sigh. “I simply--went where the words took me.”

Jean shook her head. “Yeah--I advise you avoid that place in the future…” She suddenly stiffened. “Oh, boy. It’s Ms. Manners…”

“Stupid bitch!” cawed Hoppedance. Justinian glared at the foul-mouthed bird, then turned to see Eurydice le Fidèle walking down the hall towards them, her arms stuffed with decorations.

“Your Estimable Grace,” Eurydice said with a bow. She smiled at Justinian. “Justinian.” Her eyes grew hard and her smile forced as she turned towards Jean. “Ms. Crow. Always an experience.”

“Eurydice,” said Jean with an equally forced smile. “Always a--something.”

Justinian felt an obligation to put an end to this. “Ladies, let’s all try to… get along…”

“But we are getting along,” said Jean, with a tone like honey mixed with acid. “We’re both being pleasant and polite and making no comments on how much we loathe each other.” She grinned at Eurydice. “Yep! No comments about annoying housemaids with delusions of grandeur! At all!”

“That’s right,” said Eurydice her smile turning into a grimace. “We are avoiding mentioning how some of us are misbegotten, big-nosed river scum with no breeding, no manners, and no brains.” She leaned forward. “And annoying pets! And did I mention the big nose? Did I?”

Justinian winced. Jean on the other hand stared at Eurydice for a moment, and then pulled up her sleeves. “Oh, it is on, bitch!” she declared clenching her fist.

Eurydice threw her decorations to the side. “If you insist,” she said with a slight bow--which neatly let her duck under Jean’s wild haymaker.

Jean stared at the chambermaid in disbelief, while Eurydice smiled serenely at her. “Hey… no fair,” she said weakly, as she took another wild swing.

“Ha!” said Eurydice confidently, as she casually dodged the blow with a light twirl. “So conversation isn’t the only area where you mistake intensity for ability!” She swiftly stepped forward and gave Jean a quick jab in the stomach. “Also, I repeat--nose. Big. Very, very big,” Eurydice noted as she deftly backed away.

“You… you!” said Jean angrily, clutching her side. With a growl, she leapt at Eurydice, who once again nimbly stepped out of the way.

“Please, please stop,” said Justinian weakly, burying his face in his hands, while Eurydice swiftly tripped Jean, who managed to spring up with surprising agility right after hitting the floor. He silently prayed to the Seven that this awful situation be ended, somehow.

“Look, my darlings!” shouted Nisrioch bursting down the hall. “Dragon Wands!” The Dark Lord raised the sticks he held in both hands, their ends shooting off bright purple sparks. Justinian blinked slightly at the sight. His companions’ response was more extreme. Jean, Elaine and Eurydice all visibly flinched and gave out a loud hiss at the sight. Looking at their eyes, Justinian was startled to see them light up with a strange glow, as their pupils narrowed into diamond-like slits. He gulped. It was moments like this you remembered that Erls were not humans, even the ones that didn’t have the funny ears. No, in their own way, they were as strange as the Devs, and the Goblins, and the Ogres, and the Ghouls. A Nightfolk was in the end, a Nightfolk.

“Lady’s Love, Nissy,” said Elaine, shielding her eyes, “do you want to blind us?” Justinian noted that Eurydice performed her usual succession of gestures at the mention of Douma Dalkiel.

Nisrioch raised the sparkling sticks to his face. As Justinian watched, astonished, the Erl stared at them without blinking, his strange rainbow-colored eyes glinting and shining in the light. “Mmmm. Sorry about that. I tend to forget others possess--less resilient eyes.” He frowned slightly. “I fear I’ve added a tad too much brimstone.” The Dark Lord shrugged. “Oh, well. So what have you all been up to?”

Eurydice bowed. “Umm--nothing important, Your Excellency.” She coughed. “Not really, anyway.” She then gathered up her decorations, and continued down the hall.

Nisrioch gave another shrug, then glanced at Jean, still rubbing her sore spots. “Anything wrong?”

“I just got my head handed to me by a chambermaid,” said Jean.

Nisrioch blinked and then laughed. “Oh, by Eurydice! Well of course! She’s a le Fidèle. Family’s fanatical about their combat training. Comes from the days when they used to squire for us.”

Jean nodded. “They’ve done a good job--keeping it up.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 2

Sacripant stared at the banner. “Okay--a little higher.” Quiet emitted a soft sigh, and shook his head. Sacripant turned to the Ghoul. “Do you have something to say?” Quiet raised two furious eyebrows, and turned away, his blue eyes livid.

Palamedes glanced up from pulling the rope, and coughed. “You really shouldn’t make fun of Quiet like that, Sacripant.”

Sacripant chuckled. “Oh, come on. He knows I’m kidding. Right, Quiet?” Quiet made a supremely rude gesture. “That’s a yes,” noted Sacripant.

Hagen blinked. “I’m not sure you are very accurate translator.”

“Well, I’m the best you’ve got,” said Sacripant. He turned to Palamedes. “Tell me you back me on this.”

Palamedes pointed at Hagen. “I’m with the Ogre.”

“Huh,” said Sacripant shaking his head. “To think you won’t stand by me, Woodash. It’s because he could toss you across the room, isn’t it?”

“I’m more worried about Quiet,” said Palamedes, gesturing towards the Ghoul. “He’s much spoo--” And then the Erl went white as a sheet--admittedly, not much of an accomplishment for a Plains Erl, but still an accomplishment.

“Hmmmph,” muttered Persante Woodash, wheeling in a tray of food. “Enjoying yerself with yer Guard friends, Pal?”

“Hello, da’,” said Palamedes sheepishly. The Guardsman began to look very nervously at his feet. “You’re looking well.”

“Hmmph,” muttered Persante, glaring at his son, and turning up his nose. “No time fer small talk. Got to prepare fer Her Precious Grace’s feast.”

Sacripant looked at his chunky fellow in sympathy. “You know--you helped save the whole castle a couple months ago…”

Palamedes gave a nod. “True. But I’ll never be able to make a roast that’s worth a damn. And to a Woodash, that means a great deal.”

There was a lengthy, and uncomfortable silence. “You are very messed-up, in family matters,” said Hagen. “You are aware of this?”

“Oh, I suppose,” said Palamedes, with a shrug. “But--who isn’t? Eh?”

The Ogre nodded. “You’d make a good Gothi.” He rubbed his chin. “Well, perhaps, you’d find dietary restrictions especially onerous…”

Palamedes glared at Hagen. “You weigh more then me, Hagen.”

The Ogre flexed one mighty arm. “All muscle, my friend.” He beamed at his fellow guards. “Like the name states ‘Greatthews’!” He gave a merry laugh.

“What are you guffawing about?” said Serjeant-at-Arms Grizzel Greedigutt, stomping towards his men.

Sacripant sighed. “Hagen’s showing off again.”

Grizzel nodded and looked over at the banner. “Who’s… ‘Walina’?”

The Guard stared at the banner in dull horror, while Quiet buried his head in his hands, and shook it in frustration.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Birthday Girl--Part 1

Malina leapt joyously on top of her parents’ bed. “It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday! I’m seven! Yay! It‘s my birthday!”

Mansemat’s eyes opened blearily, regarding his young daughter with very exasperated love, and very loving exasperation. “Is it now…?”

Viviane squirmed uneasily, looking at her husband with eyes heavy with sleep. “Have they broken through?” she muttered. “Should I get my pestle? Where are the dogs?”

Mansemat gave a sagelike nod to that, then glanced at his daughter’s smiling face. “Malina--what time is it?”

“It is six o’clock in the morning, Daddy!” she said cheerfully.

Mansemat nodded tiredly. “Ahh. Yes.”

“W-we’re not under attack, are we?” said Viviane blearily, turning to regard her husband. “And--there are no dogs.”

“That’s right, dear,” Mansemat said, with a yawn. He looked his daughter in the eye. “Malina--happy birthday. Now go back to bed.”

“Awwww,” murmured the young Dev, her face falling.

“We aren’t even where I think we are, are we?” said Viviane, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“Most likely not,” said Mansemat. “Now, Malina--mommies and daddies need their rest. And their privacy. Which is why you don’t apport in here at six. Or at any other time. Even if it’s your birthday. Understand?”

His daughter nodded sadly. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“It’s all right,” said Mansemat. “You didn’t mean to be rude. You just got overexcited. Just try not to do it again.”

“Okay,” said Malina, vanishing with an audible pop.

Viviane--increasingly awake and aware--glanced at her husband. “Two things--I’ve got to strengthen those wards again.”

Mansemat grunted and nodded in reply.

“And we should thank the Darksome Lady that the blankets held,” Viviane added.

Mansemat gave another nod. “Oh, yes. I’ll be burning a joss stick at the icon for that one.” He shut his eyes and squirmed in his blankets for a moment, then sat up slightly. He looked over at his wife. “Viv…?”

“Yes, Manny?”

“Are you… having any trouble getting back to sleep?”

Viviane looked at him. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Mmm,” said Mansemat, with a nod. “So am I.” He looked at Viviane hopefully. “You… wouldn’t happen to be in the mood for…?” He coughed politely and glanced away.

Viviane quirked an eyebrow at her husband and smiled archly. “Strangely enough, yes. Very much so.”

“Ahh,” said Mansemat. “Once again, so am I.”

Viviane chuckled. “Imagine that.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 12

“Bugger yerselves!” shrieked Hoppedance, toppling snow over the Guards’ heads.

Jean turned towards her allies. “Okay, they’re distracted.”

“Right,” said Elaine, with a nod. She looked at the others. “Okay--we may not have all started out on the same side,” she said, gesturing towards Jean and Malina. “And some of us have demonstrated a notable tendency for switching allegiances,” she noted, glancing at Justinian.

“It’s not my fault,” said Justinian quickly. “Nisrioch got bored and left! What else was I supposed to do?” He buried his head in his knees. “Don’t look at me with your accusing eyes!”

“Not important now!” snapped Elaine. “What’s important is--this is our moment! Like Bladud at the Mount of Thorns! Like Gordubac at the Deinre! Like Shars at Damogir! Here we make our stand or fall trying!” She patted her snowball together. “On my mark--unleash icy hell!”

Malina clapped eagerly. “Wow! Your words sound gooder than normal, Sis!”

Elaine thought it over, and then nodded. “Thanks, Malina!” And then with a yell, she rushed out, the others at her back, tossing snowballs at the Guards Morgaine had pressed into her cause.

“Stand firm!” shouted Morgaine to them. “We can defeat this rabble! You are the Cthonique Guard, standing with the Undying Lady of the Netherworld! None can resist us! NONE!” she noted, throwing back her head and cackling. Suddenly, a group of snowballs struck her.

“To me my Kizaks!” shouted Agri Khan, leading his men out from behind a wall. “Let our foes know snowy defeat!” With a mighty howl, they charged the Guard.

Viviane chuckled and shook her head at the scene taking place below her. Life was definitely wove on a tangled skein, if you were a du Lac. But then, that was true of anyone. The mewling growl of a gryphon broke into her thoughts. Viviane looked behind her to see her husband looking at her expectantly. “I was wondering if you were up for that flight now,” he asked cheerfully.

“You really are insisting on this one,” noted Viviane, with a chuckle.

“Well, I don’t know if it will last much longer…” said Mansemat worriedly.

Viviane blinked. “My, my. This does sound interesting…” Raising her pestle, she levitated herself to his side. “Can Bloodwing hold two? I don’t feel like breaking out the mortar on short notice.”

Mansemat scratched the gryphon’s head. “Of course, he can. He’s a strong boy, isn’t he?” The gryphon purred as he steered it upwards. “Now--I admit it’s not much…” began Mansemat gesturing below.

Viviane glanced down. “Wha… Ohhhh!” There on the ground was a mammoth snow sculpture of a bunch of roses. “It’s lovely, Manny!” She shook her head. “It must have taken you hours.”

Mansemat gave a casual shrug, and gestured to the Sword of Night. “Murgleys did most of the work. I just--directed. Though the detail was bothersome…” He shook his head. “Well--anyway--it was worth it. It’s been--a year. A year since we met. A year since you began to make me the happiest Dark Lord in the Lands of Night…”

Viviane turned to him and smiled. “Second happiest,” she declared, leaning in for a kiss.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 11

Elaine adjusted her books and nodded. There. All sorted by theme, author, and title. And it taken her only three hours. She glanced at the door. Her mother was still not home.

She looked back at her books. Perhaps--perhaps she should consider date in her organization scheme. Of course, that would leave the problem of epitomes. Would you sort them by date of the original, or date of the epitome’s writing? She clapped her hands together. Of course! Each group of epitomes would be sorted as according to the date of the original composition, with the individual epitomes sorted by THEIR dates! It was brilliant! And so obvious! Why…

Her mother came through the door. Elaine took a deep breath in relief. She was starting to suspect her mind was going slightly off the hinges. She stood up and turned to look at her mother. “What took you so long this time?”

Viviane bit her lip. “Elaine… I… I have something important to tell you.” She looked at her daughter seriously, for a long time. “Manny--Mansemat Cthonique has asked me to marry him. And--I’ve said ‘yes’.”

Elaine’s face fell. “What?”

“I’m marrying Mansemat Cthonique,” began Viviane.

“I heard that!” snapped Elaine. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Viviane gave a delicate smile. “I… love him. And he loves me.”

“You can’t love him,” said Elaine slowly. “You… can’t!” She began to wave her hands frantically. “I… this is about me isn’t it? It’s because--it’s because I’m not your Nemain! I… you need… an heir and I’m not good enough, and so you’re marrying…”

Viviane stared at her daughter in shock. “Elaine… what are… where is this coming from?” She shook her head. “I… this isn’t about you…”

Elaine’s lip trembled. “Mom, I’m--I’m sorry I don’t have any magic! I wish I did! But--you can’t do this!” She reached forward and grabbed her mother’s arm. “You can’t marry Mansemat Cthonique! You CAN’T!”

Viviane pulled her arm back. “I can do what I damn well please!” she shouted. “Don’t I have a right to be happy? Don’t I?”

Elaine was about to shout something--and Viviane was already preparing to shout something back at her--when Malina Cthonique landed on the table before them with an ‘oof’. As the young Dev righted herself, the du Lacs simply stared at her. “Ummm…, hi,” she said finally, staring nervously at the pair with her big red eyes.

“Malina,” said Viviane kindly. “Does your father know you’re here?”

“Yes,” said Malina with a nod. Viviane raised an eyebrow. “No.” Malina looked at Elaine, and then back at Viviane. “I heard yelling. You shouldn’t yell. It’s bad.” She waved at Elaine. “Hello. I’m Malina Cthonique.” She turned to look at Viviane again. “Ackkidney said you and Daddy are getting murried. Are you?”

Viviane took a deep breath. “Malina--I’m going to get in contact with your father. Understand?”

Malina nodded. “Yes.”

Viviane took out her pestle, and raised her hand to her forehead, shutting her eyes. “Mansemat…? Can you hear me…?” There was a pause as she waited for his answer. “I rather thought you would be busy. Are you looking for Malina?” She nodded slightly. “She’s right here, that’s how.” Another pause. “I plan on asking her that. Look--I’ll fly her right back to you, all right?” A smile touched her face. “Love you too, dear.” Viviane lowered her hand, and looked at Malina. “How did you get here?”

“I apported onto your mortar and hided myself,” said Malina bashfully. “Now are you murrying my daddy?”

Viviane smiled despite herself, and nodded. “Yes.”

“So…” began Malina hesitantly, “does that mean you’ll be my new Mommy?”

“I guess it does,” said Viviane.

“Oh, wow!” said Malina. “I hoped you would be!” She leaped up and hugged Viviane’s knees. “I didn’t think I’d get a nice new Mommy! Thank you, thank you…!” She looked up at Viviane. “What do I call you now? I mean--I always used to call my mom Mommy…”

“Just--call me Viv,” said Viviane chuckling, and stroking Malina’s hair.

“Mommy Viv,” said Malina with a nod. “Yes.”

Viviane sighed, and stepped away. “I’ll go take set up my mortar.” She looked at Malina seriously. “And don’t think you’re not in trouble.”

Malina nodded as Viviane left the hut. She glanced at Elaine. “Is Viviviane your mommy?”

Elaine was still trying to make sense of all this in her head. “Yep. My name’s Elaine.”

“So--that means you’re going to be my sister now,” said Malina. “Neat! I wanted a sister! And now I got a big one, without having to get borned differently.” She smiled at Elaine. “I can just tell we’re going to get along great!”

Elaine stared at the small Dev for a moment. “You’re a strange kid, Malina. You know that?”

“Yes,” said Malina, with a nod.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 10

“So,” began Mansemat quietly. “What did you think about this Council?”

“I enjoyed the fact that we’re not planning on holding another for quite some time,” said Viviane, glancing over the rampart of Castle Terribel. “I didn’t enjoy the fact that Lord Asterot couldn’t get catering because of his dispute with the Emporium.” She smiled at Mansemat. “Thanks for letting me come over for a meal after it was all over.” She gave a contented sigh. “Very nice grouse.”

“It was nothing, really,” said Mansemat with a dismissive shrug. “A trifle from the Kitchens. Best we could do on short notice.” Viviane’s eyebrows rose in amusement. “I’m telling you the truth,” said Mansemat. “We have very nice kitchens.”

“You have very nice everything,” noted Viviane. She seemed to be about to follow this statement with another, when a loud voice from the courtyard interrupted her.

“--I’m telling you, Nisrioch--the Sevenfold Seven Binding will work just fine!” declared Morgaine loudly.

“This isn’t a minor summoning, Morgaine,” said Nisrioch confidently. “Sevenfold Seventy, that’s the way to go.”

“That would quadruple the time!” stated Morgaine. “At least! And let’s not forget the Echo Effect…”

Viviane looked at Mansemat. “What are they talking about?”

Mansemat waved his hand. “Some---mystical theory… thing.” He shook his head. “I really have--no aptitude for such matters.” He looked at Viviane curiously. “I’d think it be right up your alley.”

“I’m more mystical practice,” said Viviane with a rueful smile. She chuckled. “You know--it’s funny--six months ago--I’d have never imagined that I would--enjoy it here, but now--” She shut her eyes. “I hate it when I have to leave.”

Mansemat nodded. “I hate it too, you realize. When you leave.” Viviane looked over at him in surprise. “Well, I enjoy your company,” said the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel bashfully. “Very much.” He smiled. “You know--if you wanted--that is to say--if you really wished to--you could stay here. All the time. And only--leave when you wanted to.” After finishing this speech, Mansemat looked very fixedly at his feet.

Viviane stared at him, in surprised silence, for a long while. “Manny--wha--what are you--trying to say?”

Mansemat looked her in the eye, and took a deep breath. “I would like it--if you would like--to be my wife.”

Viviane blinked. “You--you’re asking me--to marry you?”

“Yes,” said Mansemat with a nod. “That’s the short of it.” He gave her a hopeful, furtive glance. “I--I love you. Rather--dreadfully.” He looked away. “I--I’m sorry. I had a rather more dashing way of saying this planned in my mind, but I’m afraid I can’t recall what it was, and I don’t know if I could say it if I did remember.”

Viviane nodded. “Yes, well--I… I have to think about this. All right?”

“Of course,” said Mansemat. “Take--as long as you like.” He turned away. “I--await your answer. Whatever it is.”

Viviane turned and set her mortar on the ground. She began to chant the charms and prepare it for flight--but then she stopped. “Manny?” she asked quietly, turning to look at him again.

He was heading towards the stairs, but stopped to smile at her. “Yes, Viv?”

“I’ve thought about it,” she said, taking a step towards him. “My answer is ‘yes’.” And then she hurled herself at him, and wrapped her arms around him. “I’ll marry you!”

“Viv, I…” began Mansemat, but the combination of Viviane’s weight and the fact that they were on a very narrow wall resulted in the pair losing their footing, and beginning to fall.

“Oh, crap!” said Viviane, pulling out her pestle and summoning up enough of a wind to slow their fall. Mansemat, she noticed, had likewise drawn the Sword of Night and was using it to a similar end. She bit her lip. “Okay, I admit, that did not turn out to be quite the gesture I thought it would be.”

“I would hope not,” said Mansemat quietly.

“Well, you’re in no position to be critical,” said Viviane. “That was probably one of the worst marriage proposals the world has ever seen.”

Mansemat nodded, noting that their descent had been slowed to a very comfortable rate. “I thought so too. In my defense--it was my first try at one. And--it didn’t work out so badly.” He smiled nervously. “I mean you said ‘yes’.” Viviane raised an eyebrow. Mansemat coughed. “Well, I didn’t say it was a good defense.” He glanced down again. “You know, this is--strangely romantic, falling togeth--”

Viviane kissed him. And then Mansemat kissed her back.

Down in the courtyard, Nisrioch and Morgaine watched the two figures descend gracefully to the earth. “This is so… so romantic,” said Nisrioch, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

“You are such a wimp,” said Morgaine, who then suppressed a sniffle. Nisrioch smiled at her. “Allergies,” she explained.

“Of course,” said Nisrioch.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 9

Elaine flipped through Mimar’s epitome, and tried to lose herself in his lilting prose. It was proving difficult, she thought with a frown. No matter how hard she tried to let the sentences flow over her, her mind would distract her with… the other business.

And that was when the other business came through the door. “So how’s my special girl?” said Viviane, taking off her mantle, and shaking the snow off of it.

Elaine’s frown grew deeper. “What took you so long?”

“The birthday party dragged on a little long,” said Viviane with a cheerful shrug, checking the charms she’d place to protect her daughter, and nodding. “You really should have been there. There were Kizak tumblers!”

“Sounds thrilling,” said Elaine in a tone that suggested it did not, which she produced by quashing the voice in the back of her head that suggested that it did, in fact, sound somewhat interesting. “You know I have better things to do with my time then go watch some--little princess get fawned over at her father’s command.”

“Mansemat doesn’t have to command people to treat Malina well,” said Viviane. “They do it anyway, because she’s a sweet kid.” Elaine gave her mother a skeptical glance. “She is. You’d like her!”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Elaine. “So--how are the negotiations going?”

“They’re… progressing,” said Viviane. “At their own pace. Which is a very… progressive pace.”

Elaine nodded. “You didn’t negotiate at all today, did you?”

Viviane spread her hands. “It was his daughter’s birthday party! It would have been rude. I mean, do you think we’d like it if he started going on about negotiations at your birthday party?” She clapped the hands together eagerly. “Hey! We could invite him to…”

“No,” said Elaine firmly. She shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. “Mom--do you remember when you first went off to that… Council of Shadows? How you swore that the Cthoniques were the ones who were going to have to be careful?” She looked Viviane in the eye. “What happened?”

Viviane looked away. “I--they’re nice, Elaine. I enjoy their company.”

“Yeah, I thought you did,” said Elaine. “You’ve been visiting them constantly for the last month!” She crossed her arms. “And when you aren’t visiting, you talk about them.” Her eyes narrowed. “They’re the reason most of our family is dead!”

Viviane frowned at her daughter. “That was their father,” she said forcibly. “And if I were going to hate everyone related to people who caused the du Lacs trouble, I’d have to hate both of us. My aunts tried to kill Great-Grandmother Ygraine, remember? And my mother, and--well, they actually succeeded with a few cousins, and each other.” Viviane idly rubbed her forehead. “The thing is Elaine--it’s one thing I’ve learned. You--you just can’t dwell on hatred and revenge. It--eats you, if you do that. You fall apart from the inside. Sometimes--you have to let go. Lord Shaddad is dead. I’m alive. And that’s the end of it.”

Elaine looked away. “I’m just--I worry about you, Mom. I--I don’t know where spending all this time with the Cthoniques will go.”

Viviane was quiet for a long time. “I’m a young woman, Elaine,” she said finally. “I know I don’t seem like that to you, but--I’m twenty-six. I--need friends. I need to have fun, with people my own age. I’ve gone without that for such a long time, Elaine, and it… it wasn’t good for me. I like being able to relax.”

Elaine nodded quietly to herself. “So--do you plan on telling the people around here about--well, the fact that you’re their ruler anytime soon?”

Viviane shrugged. “Eventually. Maybe. I mean--they’re Milesians. They think the Badb eats children and poisons wells.”

“Come on, Mom,” said Elaine with a laugh. “We’ve been here for seven years. They know you don’t do that. Nothing would happen.”

Viviane stared at her a moment, and then laughed to herself. “Sorry, Elaine. You’re so mature most of the time, it’s easy to forget you’re a kid.”

Elaine gave a grateful nod, feeling that the subject was now more or less over. The fact that she and mother hadn’t really addressed the problem--and had completely ignored several other problems that lay underneath this one--failed to register.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 8

Viviane flipped through the pages of the book. The Properties of Rare Herbs was a du Lac family treasure, one that she had given up for lost. But here it was. In the Castle Terribel library. She looked at the page before her. “Saffron. The flowers make a good dye. Also a spice, if rather strong, with a flavor that is interesting.’

Admittedly not the most thrilling read. But it had family history. That made it special. Viviane closed the cover, and glanced around the library. It was strange. This was the largest collection of books she’d ever seen. It should have been--intimidating. And yet--somehow--it seemed pleasant and homey instead. She smiled to herself. She’d have to show Elaine this. She was certain her daughter would love it.

That was when she heard the noise--something like a whimper. Turning rapidly, she saw several books on the shelf behind her fall from their place, followed by the appearance of a young female Dev rapidly flapping her wings in a desperate, futile effort to stay afloat. As the girl landed with a yelp, Viviane got out of her chair and looked at her in what she hoped was a pleasant manner. “Hello there.”

“Hello,” said the girl shyly, fiddling nervously with one of her tiny horns, and looking away from Viviane.

“You’re Malina, aren’t you?” Viviane asked gently.

“Yes,” said the Dev quietly. She then looked up pleadingly at Viviane, her big red eyes wide. “Please don’t be angry, Badb. I know I’m not s’posed to be here! I just--I hearded you were here, and I wanted to take a look at you, and--” She gulped. “Don’t be mad.”

Viviane laughed. “I’m not.”

“Really?” said Malina, her lip trembling.

“Yes, really,” said Viviane cheerfully, leaning forward to look Malina in the eye. “And call me ‘Viviane’.”

The young Dev smiled. “Oh. Okay. Has Daddy brought you here to be my new mommy, Viviviane?”

Viviane blinked. “What…?”

“It’s just Auntie Morgaine said…” began Malina.

“Yeah, I can guess,” said Viviane. “Your aunt has a big mouth, you know that?”

“Yes,” said Malina with a nod. “And a very loud voice. And she’s a tribble.” Malina glanced around confidentially, then whispered, “That means she likes women, Viviviane.”

“I know,” said Viviane. “Though it’s a bit rude to talk about it behind her back.”

“Oh,” said Malina. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Viviane replied. “But--to answer your question--no, I’m not here to become your new mommy. Okay?”

Malina gave a relieved nod. “Oh, yes.”

Viviane raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you--want a new mommy?”

Malina looked around the room nervously. “Well… Daddy would pick her. And he picked my old mommy. My mom. And…” The Dev bit her lip. “She really wasn’t a very good mommy. At all.” She sniffled slightly. “How… how can I be sure… the next mommy he picks will be better?”

Viviane frowned for a moment, and then patted Malina on the head. “I’m sure, if he ever does decide to--get you a new one, your daddy will do his very best to make sure that your new mommy is good at her job.” She smiled. “He’s a good man, and he loves you very, very much.”

Malina gave a hopeful little smile. “You really think so?”

Viviane nodded emphatically. “Positive. Also--it‘s ‘Viviane’. Not--‘Viviviane’.”

Malina nodded back at her. “Got it. Vidiane.”

Viviane bit her lip. “Viviane.”

Malina gave another nod. “Viviade.”

“Just--call me ‘Viv’,” said Viviane with a sigh.

“Viv,” said Malina. “Yes. Yes. ‘Viv’. I’ll call you ‘Viv’.” She and Viviane looked each other in the eye for a moment, and then Malina broke the silence. “Do you want to see a place that has lots and lots of spiders?”

“There you are, Flibbertigibbet!” said Mansemat, as he entered the library, a short Erl chambermaid by his side, while Viviane tried to think of a good reply to Malina’s comment.

“Ooooh, Miss Malina,” said the chambermaid. “Can’t you ever stay put?”

Malina glanced at the floor. “Sorry Yurdicey.”

The chambermaid sighed. “Eurydice.”

Mansemat gave his daughter an amused smile. “You really should get to bed, dear. You’re five years old, and you need your rest.”

“I’m almost SIX!” said Malina with a stamp of her feet.

“That’s still five,” said Mansemat quietly. “Now, come on. Why don’t you go with young le Fidèle to your bedroom?”

“Okay, Daddy,” said Malina with a nod, shutting her eyes, a look of intense concentration coming over her face.

“The traditional way,” said Mansemat.

“Awww, Daddy!” whined Malina. “That takes longerer. And it’s sooooo boring!”

Mansemat crossed his arms. “But it lets us keep track of you.” He took a deep breath, and then suddenly, as if he could simply no longer maintain such a stern front, kneeled and kissed his daughter on the forehead. “You know I only ask you to do things like this because I want you to be safe and well, my little Flibbertigibbet. Understand?”

Malina gave a long sigh. “Okay.” As she trudged along after Eurydice, Malina suddenly paused, and turned to regard her father. “Oh, and if you do decide to make Viv my new mommy--I don’t think I’d mind. She seems nice. She smiles like Granmama Shamhat.” She gestured to the family portrait that hung on the wall. “In the picture! See?”

Mansemat winced slightly as Malina walked away with Eurydice, then glanced at Viviane. “Sorry about that. She’s--a bit presumptuous at times.”

“It’s okay,” said Viviane with a giggle. “She’s a sweet kid.” A frown came over her face. “Who really doesn’t seem to… like her mother.”

Mansemat nodded quietly. “It takes a lot of effort on a mother’s part to make her child fear and hate her--but Falerina was willing to make that effort.” He shook his head. “My ex-wife was a deeply troubled woman, Viviane, who made both my life and the life of our daughter very difficult. And that is why we are no longer married. And why Falerina has been exiled to the Shadow Woods.”

“I thought it was… the murder attempts,” said Viviane.

“That was a manifestation of the unpleasantness,” said Mansemat. “And--really, they were all very badly done. Honestly the way she treated Malina worried me more.”

Viviane looked at him. “Did you… love her?”

Mansemat Cthonique shut his eyes. “No, I did not. And that is my crime in the whole affair.” He shook his head. “It was a political marriage. Her father assured me that--love would come with time. It didn’t. Couldn’t really.” He looked at Viviane, frowning slightly. “I--told myself I was doing my duty by her. But that’s the path to a hundred crimes, when you get down to it.”

“I’m sorry.” Viviane glanced at the family portrait Malina had pointed at--one that showed the Cthoniques as children and their mother, with not a sign of Lord Shaddad. “Your mother left a big impression on you, didn’t she?”

Mansemat smiled sadly. “For the little time we had her. She died when I was eight.” He shook his head. “Too good for this world, Nisrioch likes to say. She--practically adopted him, you know. I think he took it harder than any of us. Quietly though. That’s his way.” Viviane gave Mansemat a skeptical glance. The Dark Lord chuckled and shook his head. “Believe it or not, Viv, he’s a very sensitive man under his gadfly exterior.” He glanced around the room. “This library--his idea. He’s the reason Father simply didn’t burn any books he came across.”

Viviane nodded. “Well, I’ll thank him the next time I see him.” She flipped through the book in front of her. “Really, this is excellent. It actually looks--cleaner than I remember.”

“He insists on the best care,” said Mansemat with a shrug.

“It shows,” said Viviane with a smile. She shut her eyes. “This is a lovely room. Actually, this is a lovely place. Castle Terribel, I mean.”

“Thank you. We try very hard to make it so,” said Mansemat.

Viviane fiddled idly with the book before her. “And it shows. I… like it here.”

Mansemat bowed. “Then come whenever you desire,” he declared, with the slightest of smiles.

“I will,” said Viviane, regarding him fondly.

“Good,” said Mansemat with an nod, beginning to head out of the room. He frowned and turned towards her. “Though it would be a nice touch if you tried to call before you came, mind you. And you might want to avoid coming next week. Nisrioch and Morgaine are hosting a symposium of erotic woodcut collectors.”

Viviane stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I’ll steer clear of that.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “What do…?”

“I have planned an expedition with my daughter to Marsilion’s Folly,” said Mansemat. “I’ll get some business done, we’ll take in a play--and then we’ll go to the menagerie.” He smiled. “She likes the seals. Especially Thecla. She’s a trained white seal who does tricks! Malina likes to feed her herrings.” Viviane smiled at him. Mansemat coughed. “And I also like to feed her herrings. On occasion.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 7

Viviane shook her head as she walked out of the Council meeting. “That was the most incredibly dull thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said to Mansemat.

Her fellow Dark Lord nodded. “Yes, well--they do get better.”

“Really?” she asked in surprise.

Mansemat sighed and glanced at his feet. “No, not really. But you get better at tuning them out except when something interesting is happening.” He looked at her. “And you discover how to look as if you’re paying attention when you’re not.” He suddenly stood up straight, frowned, and narrowed his eyes, seeming to be intent on something--and just as suddenly fell back into his previous pleasant and mild expression. “I can turn it on and off, just like that,” he stated, with a snap of his fingers.

Viviane nodded. “Well, I definitely know who to come to for tips on the subject.” She glanced away. “I’m guessing I’m going to be coming to lots of these in the future.”

“Did I hear someone saying something about attending meetings in the future?” said Nisrioch Cthonique cheerfully, sliding around the corner. He giggled and clapped his hands together. “I see you’ve been bitten by the legislative bug.” He glanced at Viviane hopefully. “Tomorrow night--we’re doing water rights!” He gave a fond shake of his head. “It promises to be thrilling. Thrilling, I say!”

Mansemat chuckled ruefully. “My brother can summon arcane forces from the Far Spheres. And he finds going over treaties with upwards of seventy subclauses--thrilling.”

“Well, good legal work is so wonderfully intricate,” said Nisrioch. “Whereas arcane forces from the Far Spheres--well, you spend twelve hours summoning the damn things, and the only thing they generally care about is ‘Can I eat this?’” The wizard sighed. “It is such a dull way to spend your time, really.”

Viviane stared at the white-haired Dark Lord. She was having a hard time figuring out which of the Cthoniques had proven most surprising. But Nisrioch was at the moment leading the pack.

“Hey, guys, did you see that?” announced Morgaine. “Skadi looked at me!” The diminutive Dark Lord made a punching motion. “I told you I was making progress!”

By a hair, mind you. But definitely leading.

“Of course you are, Morgaine,” said Mansemat with a sigh.

“Well, can’t stay to chat,” announced Morgaine. “I’ve got an appointment with a ladder and a window!” She gave her brothers a wink and dashed off.

Mansemat shook his head. “That is not going to end well,” he noted, rubbing his forehead worriedly.

Nisrioch shrugged. “Yes. But it will not end well in an extremely amusing fashion. Much like Asterot’s demand that Madame du Lac provide proof that she was the Badb.”

Mansemat glanced at his brother. “You consider something that starts a fire--amusing, Nissy?”

“It was only a small fire,” said Viviane defensively. “And he was a real jerk.”

“Exactly,” said Nisrioch. “Oh, I’m a little disappointed to see fine Albraccan brandy wasted like that, but less disturbed than I am at seeing it being wasted by having Asterot drinking it.” He grinned. “In the end, it was exactly the sort of thing the Council was created for--bringing us all together, so that we may come to appreciate each other.”

Somehow, the awful difference between the Nisrioch she’d imagined for over a decade and the Nisrioch before her became too much for Viviane at that moment. “Wish you’d thought that when you crossed paths with my mother.”

Nisrioch’s face fell. He was silent for a moment. “Yes, well… dark times.” He bit his lip. “Dark times.” And then he walked away.

Mansemat stared at her. “What do you… know about that?”

Viviane frowned. “Only the essentials. That Nisrioch helped kill my mother.”

“The Sworn killed your mother,” said Mansemat. “Nisrioch tried to save her.” As she looked at him, Mansemat turned away. “They--captured her. Tortured her with binding spells. Nisrioch stopped them and helped her escape. Father was furious.” He shook his head. “Of course, the final rupture between the two was… well on the way, by that point…”

“How--how do you know this…?” began Viviane.

“I was there,” said Mansemat. He gulped slightly. “My father… thought he could make me into someone like him, if he tried hard enough. Learn how to enjoy subjugating my foes, and the like. He failed, Darksome Lady be praised. I remain my mother‘s son.”

“And--my--” Viviane took a deep breath. “She--had my sister with her when she went off. Do you know…?”

Mansemat shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t. Your mother was brought to our camp alone. That’s all I know.”

Viviane didn’t know what to say to that, and Mansemat didn’t seem to wish to say anything else, and so they were silent for a moment. Finally, Viviane spoke. “I should probably apologize to Nisrioch.”

Mansemat nodded, as they headed down the hallway Nisrioch had disappeared into. “He’d appreciate it. I know my half-brother seems odd, but he needs sympathy as much any person does--and he’ll never admit it but these things are as frustrating for him as anyone else.” He shook his head. “Personally, the sooner I’m back home with Malina, the better…” He glanced apologetically at Viviane. “Malina’s my daughter…”

Viviane nodded as the pair reached a courtyard. “Ahh. Yeah. Same boat, really. I’m hoping this doesn’t last too long. I’ve sent Elaine over to a friend’s…” She coughed. “My daughter. Named after my mother…” Viviane was spared having to turn this into a full conversation by the discovery of Nisrioch, with his arms around a figure that Viviane was startled to recognize as Alcina Ashurana.

Mansemat coughed politely, causing the pair to separate and wheel around. “Ah, Manny! Madame du Lac.” Nisrioch nodded. “Alse and I were…”

“I had something in my eye,” stated Alcina.

“Yes, and I was getting it out,” said Nisrioch. “Of her eye.”

“He’s very helpful with things of that nature,” said Alcina.

“Among other things,” added Nisrioch.

“Such as--astronomy,” murmured Alcina with a slight smile. “You know I need some help finding some constellations, Nissy…”

“The Charioteer, perhaps? Or the Roaring Lion?” said Nisrioch hopefully.

“I was thinking more--the Dancing Maidens. Perhaps even--the Fiery Tower…” replied Alcina.

Nisrioch’s eyes lit up. “Oh, my. Those are… intricate ones,” he said, rubbing his hands together eagerly.

Alcina leaned forward. “Exceedingly… intricate.” She arched an eyebrow. “I trust you can assist me.” She gestured towards a nearby tower. “I’ll be on the roof of Mad King’s Tower.” With a sudden pop, she vanished.

As she stared at Nisrioch, Viviane wondered if she should ask for some--explanation of that conversation. And then decided against it. “Umm--I just--want to--apologize for what I said earlier. I really--didn’t know the situation.” She frowned and shut her eyes. “And I thought I did for the last fifteen years…” She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “I--thank you for helping her.”

“You’ve nothing to thank me for,” said Nisrioch quietly. “I did far less than I should.” He shook his head. “I--should have stopped it all earlier. But I kept hoping Shaddad’s--better nature would come through.” A sad smile came to his face. “Foolish, of course, but--he was my father, and boy will have his illusions. That’s the story of my life, I fear. Too little done too late for most of it.” He sighed, and then turned. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an astronomy lesson to give to Madame Ashurana.” Nisrioch paused for a moment. “You know it occurs to me--matters between the Marsh and the Plains are so entangled, it will take some time to come to come to a reasonable settlement. Why don’t you come around to Castle Terribel some time after the Council, and we can iron things out? It will allow us to do it in a peaceful place, at our own pace, without any distractions.” His usual cheerful grin returned to his face. “And we’d probably enjoy the company. Most of the pleasant Dark Lords are a ways a way. As an example, our closest neighbor besides you is Asterot Maganza.”

Viviane glanced at Mansemat. “Well, if it’s all right with your brother. I mean it’s--his castle. And technically, he’s the head of your family, isn’t he?”

“Of course it’s all right. I tend to listen to my brother’s advice in these matters,” said Mansemat with a gentle smile. “He makes very sure of that.”

“Well then, it’s settled,” said Nisrioch firmly. “Now, adieu. I really MUST be off. Alcina does not like to be left waiting when we have an astronomy lesson planned.” He took a pinwheel from his sleeve, and blew on it. Within seconds, he floated up towards the roof.

Viviane watched him vanish. “So--how long have he and Alcina…?”

“About a decade and a half now,” said Mansemat. “It’s an on-again, off-again matter.”

“Hmmm,” said Viviane with a nod. “The way they were fighting back in the Council, I’d have thought they hated each other.”

“They do,” said Mansemat. “But they also love each other. It makes for a very… interesting relationship.”

“And what do you think about her?” asked Viviane.

Mansemat shrugged. “She’s preferable to her sister.” He turned towards Viviane. “Falerina. She was… I was married to her.”

Viviane gave an understanding nod. “Ahh. Malina’s mother…?”

“Yep,” said Mansemat quietly. “It…” He sighed. “Our relationship--did not end well. Or begin well. And the middle wasn’t particularly pleasant either. Frankly the only good thing to come out of it was my daughter.” He gave a sad smile. “Marriage is a complicated thing, isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t know,” said Viviane. “Never been married.”

Mansemat nodded. “Ahh. I’d say you were fortunate, but we both know that’s not true.” He shook his head. “And I’m told it works out for some people. I just wasn’t one of them.”

Viviane gave a bitter smile. “Sounds rather like life.” She chuckled. “It’s funny. I always thought it was just me--that I was screwing up being the Badb because I didn’t feel impressive. But we’re all like that, aren’t we? When you get down to it. Just--people. Living our lives, and trying to get by, the same as anyone.”

“Yes,” said Mansemat. “And the ones who insist they aren’t tend to be extremely unpleasant.”

It occurred to Viviane that this was an odd conversation to be having with a man she’d imagined as a mortal enemy prior to meeting him. And then it occurred to her that it was rather odd that she and Mansemat both seemed to be stressing to each other that they were unattached.

At that moment, something slammed into the ground with a scream. Mansemat rushed forward. “Morgaine? Are you all right?”

“Yep, yep,” muttered the dazed undead Dark Lord, as she lay on the ground. “Fortunately, my spine absorbed most of the shock of the fall.” Morgaine blinked. “Ow.”

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 6

Viviane du Lac touched down on the ramparts of the Palace of Shadows in the early hours of the evening. The Frimaire weather this year was quite mild--even so, she’d had to pass through several snowstorms on the way here. Shaking the snowflakes off her mantle, she glanced around the rather ornate spires of the Palace, and shook her head. The Palace had rather clearly been chosen for prestige rather than comfort, or ease of navigation, a fact that she couldn’t help noticing as she tried to decide which of the five identical pathways to head down, once she shrunk down her mortar.

At that point a voice helped her by giving her a sense of direction. “Awww, eees widdle Swiftcwaw frightened? Awww, ooogie-oo! Aww, oogie-oo!”

Not intentionally, of course, but hearing that--whatever it was--gave her an idea which way to head. And so after, ten minutes of winding her way towards the noise, she found herself--at another section of the ramparts. Among several large beasts that Viviane guessed were gryphons, purring contentedly as they chewed some bones, and a solitary male Erl in the livery of House Cthonique, who kneeled in front of them and scratched their heads affectionately. “Yesh, Mowasses! Youse ees my pwecious tooo!”

Viviane coughed. The Erl glanced to the side, with a strange expression of embarrassment, and ran a pale hand through his long, jet-black hair. “Ahh. Hello,” he noted in a far more dignified voice then the one he addressed his animals with.

Viviane nodded. “Hello.”

The Erl coughed, and stood up. “I… May I… assist you in anyway?”

“My goodness,” said Viviane, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “You’re a tall drink of water, aren’t you?”

The Erl glanced away. “You should see my older brother.” He straightened, and gave a polite half-bow. “The… Badb, I presume? This is an honor.”

Viviane was about to ask how he presumed that, but then she realized she still held her pestle and mortar in her hands. “Umm, yes.” She nodded. “That’s me. Viviane du Lac. The Badb. Queen of the Old Magic. Yep.” The Erl nodded at her. She nodded back. It occurred to her that this was a rather limited form of communication. “Umm, so--you--work for House Cthonique? Tending their animals? And stuff?”

The Erl placed a hand on his chin. “That WOULD be one way of putting it, yes.” He nodded.

Viviane nodded back, then coughed awkwardly. “Sooo… would you know where… Lord Cthonique might be?”

“Ummm--which one do you mean?” said the Erl looking around nervously. “Lord Nisrioch is with the rest of the Nine, at the moment…”

A frown came to Viviane’s face. Nisrioch Cthonique. Now there was a name she remembered. “Yeah,” she said quietly “That sounds about right.”

“I’ll take you right to him,” said the Erl, heading towards a pathway and gesturing for her to follow. Viviane fell into step beside him. “You know,” he noted, “you’re not at all what I expected you to be.”

Viviane sighed. “My apologies if I disappoint.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” noted the Erl with a slight smile. “You are simply--not how I pictured the Badb in my mind.”

Viviane threw him a rather critical glance. “And how was that?”

“More--fearsome, less--pleasant,” said the Erl, quietly.

Viviane thought it over and then chuckled. “I guess that’s a compliment.”

“It was meant as one,” noted the Erl. “I’m just not very good at them.”

Viviane nodded. “It shows.”

She was about to say something when a loud voice shouted, “THERE you are!” A female Erl walked forward from a large arch, wearing a blood-red dress, a necklace of bones, and a helmet depicting a clawed hand holding a heart. She would have been quite intimidating, if she were more than four ells tall. In what Viviane quickly realized were platform heels. The strangely-clad figure glanced at the male Erl. “Honestly, Manny--I don’t know how you can do this! You’re holding up EVERYONE!” She glanced around with a frown. “Well, you and the damned Badb, assuming she even decides to show…”

‘Manny’ coughed. “Morgaine, may I present Viviane du Lac, the Badb.”

Morgaine looked at Viviane a moment, then nodded. “Right.” She shoved her hand forward, pressing it into Viviane’s. “Morgaine Sans Coeur, Undying Mistress of the Netherworld. I can get away with putting my foot in my mouth like that, because I’m awesome.” She glanced Viviane in the eye while giving her hand a shake. “I’m the sister, if you’re wondering.”

Viviane blinked and tried to decipher that, as the tallest Erl she’d ever seen (whose shock of white hair made him look even taller) appeared in the doorway. “Now, what’s this I hear?” he declared in a cheerful voice, glancing around with his eerie, rainbow-hued eyes. “Has the prodigal Dark Lord returned to us?” He stepped forward with a swish of his grey robes and grasped ‘Manny’ by the shoulders. “Ahh, mon frere! So good to see you again! I’d given you up for lost! But once more--once more you are among us!”

‘Manny’ frowned. “It’s been twenty-five minutes, Nissy.”

The white-haired Erl glanced at Viviane. “And you have brought a friend! The Badb I presume?” He bowed. “Nisrioch Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste, at your service.” Viviane started. “I hope my younger brother has been treating you well.”

Viviane turned to glance at Manny--no, it had to be--Mansemat Cthonique?--and gulped. She noted the sword on his side, and wondered how she’d--missed it. “He’s been--interesting…”

Nisrioch clapped his hands together and laughed cheerfully. “Oh, delightful! You’ve made this a splendiferous occasion! Splendiferous I say! Come with me! The rest of the Nine are dying to meet you! Especially the ones who insist that we’ve been making you up!”

As she walked after Nisrioch Cthonique, Viviane glanced at Mansemat. “How come you didn’t tell me…?” she whispered.

“I didn’t want to embarrass you,” he replied.

“And this is not embarrassing?” she seethed.

“Well, I didn’t say it was an especially good idea,” acknowledged Mansemat. “But on the plus side, I’m sharing in your embarrassment.”

Viviane sighed. Well, he had a point.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tangled Skein of Fate--Part 5

“Is there a bookkeeper stall you won’t raid, Elaine?” said Rosalind Miller. “I mean--you’re holding all your Samhain money in your hands right now.”

“A good epitome of the Tapestry of History is priceless,” said Elaine positively.

“I’d say it has a price,” said Celia Miller. “Ten silver marks. What you paid for it.”

Viviane smiled to herself as she planted her bulbs in the garden. The frosts would be coming soon, which meant she had to get them in the ground while she could, even if it meant missing Ulverrun’s famous Harvest Festival. She was getting used to Ulverrun. Working with her garden, listening to her daughter talk with her friends--she was putting down roots here. And she didn’t mind that. Oh, it wasn’t as pleasant as her life could have been, and it wasn’t quite the place she would have liked to have been--she had only head down to the Ulver and look across the water to see that. But--it was home. And that was enough.

“Don’t you own--two of those already?” noted Rosalind as the girls came into sight.

“I own three different epitomes of the Tapestry,” said Elaine. “But this is the Mimir version! The best! He manages to condense over seven thousand pages into a mere five hundred, while keeping the narrative thrust!”

The Miller sisters stared at her. “And this is worth ten silver marks?” asked Celia.

Elaine stared at her friends, her eyes narrowed. “To the right person, yes.”

Viviane glanced up at her daughter and her friends. “Enjoying yourself, dear?”

Elaine smiled nervously, and raised the codex she carried in her arms. “Got a new book.”

Viviane chuckled. “Another one? We’ve barely got room for your library as it is!”

“But, Mom! This is essential reading!” said Elaine pointing to the book. “You can’t tell me you don’t want me to know about my people!”

Viviane shot her daughter an amused look. “My goodness. This sounds suspiciously like the reason you insisted on hearing the tale of Luned the Bringer of Woe every night for a month when you were eight.”

“Mom!” Elaine looked away, and then glanced rather hopefully at her mother. “You know--if you got a bigger house, we would have plenty of room for my books. And I could sleep in my own room.”

Viviane was about to comment on that when a horse loudly whinnied. “Easy, Tachebrun,” came a calm voice. It belonged to an older Erl man, dressed in black and gold, with a holly leaf badge on his heart. He smiled at the group. “Pardon me. Is this the home of Mistress Viviane, the local witch?”

Viviane and Elaine stared at the man quietly, while Rosalind nodded. “That’s her right there,” said the Milesian girl, gesturing at Viviane.

Elaine tried to suppress a dirty look, as the Erl dismounted. “Excellent.” He drew a long green branch that had been strapped to his saddle, and glanced at Viviane significantly. “I have business to discuss with her.”

Viviane smiled at the Millers, as the Erl tied his horse to the fence. “You should probably get going. This is a… private affair.” The Milesians nodded and headed off.

The Erl looked over at Elaine. “And you, Miss…?”

“Elaine du Lac,” she said forcibly, once she was sure the Millers were out of earshot. “I’m the Badb’s daughter.”

The Erl gave a nod, smiling slightly. “Always a pleasure to see family looking out for each other.” He glanced at Viviane. “And a reminder that… things endure.” He bowed. “Breus le Fidèle, Seneschal to House Cthonique and Chief Steward of Castle Terribel, at your service.”

“No,” said Viviane with a frown. “At the Cthoniques’. And don’t try and pretend that’s the same thing. We know it isn’t.” She sighed. “I always knew this day would come…”

Breus raised the branch. “I meet and speak with you under the auspices of the green branch of peace, Badb. I trust you to honor what it symbolizes.”

“I haven’t killed you yet,” said Viviane. “Consider it a sign.” She gestured towards her hut. “Well, come into my humble abode. I apologize if it isn’t up to the lofty standards of a Seneschal and Chief Steward…”

Breus walked into her home, glancing around. “It will do fine, Badb. I accept what hospitality I’m offered.” He glanced at Elaine. “Must say I’m pleased to see there’s a Nemain.”

Elaine winced. “Yeah. Great. Take a seat. Let’s get this over with.”

Breus sat down at the small table, and coughed. “I come to you, from the Cthoniques, to declare that they do henceforth consider all Cthonique claims to the Accursed Marsh invalid, and restore this domain to your ownership, if you so wish it.”

Viviane stared at the seneschal in shock. “You--they’re giving me back the Marsh?” Breus nodded. “But--why?”

Breus smiled. “To see justice done.” He shrugs. “My masters have little interest in trying to defend a dubious claim well into the indefinite future. It is both costly and dishonorable. Better to restore House du Lac to its lands, and try to restore the damage done.”

“Yeah, well, wish they’d thought that before putting a price on my head,” muttered Viviane bitterly.

“That was Lord Shaddad Cthonique,” said Breus quietly. “His children are running things now, and they have--a rather different outlook. For example, they cancelled that bounty. As soon as they heard of what occurred in Valse, actually.” He sighed. “Truth be told, we’ve been looking for you for--some time, but--well, you’ve done a rather good job of hiding yourself, and we’ve had other concerns…”

Viviane glanced around idly. “So--what does the Marsh being mine again mean? What happens to the garrison over in Dathan?”

“Whatever you wish,” said Breus. “House Cthonique would rather you let it stay there for the time being.”

“Ahhh,” said Viviane. “So it’s that sort of ‘giving back’. What if I say I want it out as soon as possible?”

“Then it would be done,” said Breus. “Of course, as we have been providing security to the Marsh in place of a standing army for over a decade now, you would discover all sorts of problems starting up. The Ashuranas might decide to--keep you safe. Or the Regnis. Or perhaps you would find yourselves paying host to--guests from across the River…”

Viviane sighed. “I see your point. Fine. They stay there. Until we find some better way of handling things.” She brought her hand to her forehead, and rubbed it idly. “So this is it? I’m the undisputed Dark Lord of the Marsh?”

Breus nodded. “More or less. Some sort of official recognition will have to be arranged. And we would like to clear up certain matters of the borders. Which brings me to another matter.” He looked at Viviane pointedly. “My masters have reinstituted the Council of Shadows.”

Viviane and Elaine both blinked at that. “The what now?” asked Elaine.

“The Council of Shadows. A gathering of the Nine, to discuss matters of importance in the Lands of Night to be held at the Palace of Shadows.” Breus gave a shrug. “The hope is that it will help us avoid this rather troublesome habit we’ve fallen into of having wars to settle our troubles.” The Seneschal smiled. “Your attending would convince a few--fence-sitters to finally sign up fully.” He spread his hands. “The next Council is to be held on the fifth of Frimaire.”

Viviane nodded. “Of course.” She smiled. “Consider me interested.”

Breus rose and bowed. “I shall tell them to expect you then. Adieu, Badb.”

Elaine watched him leave the hut, then glanced at her mother. “So--do you believe any of it?”

“I don’t automatically disbelieve it,” said Viviane with a shrug. “And--well, things have settled down. If they wanted to kill me--they really don‘t have much reason to hold back.” She sighed. “And I’m tired of running.”

Elaine gave a worried nod. “Okay. If you say so” She looked her mother in the eye. “Mom--be careful.”

Viviane smiled at her daughter. “Trust me, Elaine--the people you should be saying that to are House Cthonique.”