Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part 9

Justinian Sigma was distinctly unhappy as he walked down the streets of a city that he had wished to return to for months, and indeed, had a definite idea that there was little hope of his seeing again. But now he was here, and somehow, instead of the sweet triumph he’d imagined it was bitter as gall. Part of it was the awful return, seeing the Eremites rampaging through the city. Preceptor Rho had never seen any reason to give printers anything greater than a fine, and perhaps an exile if they kept at it after that. That… horror was the sort of thing Rho always called ‘Holy Folly’. Righteous fear is one thing, he recalled the Preceptor saying. Ungodly terror is another--and when it ends, you find yourself dealing with a very angry group of people.

But the Eremites were only part of his problem. The other was the way that he’d gotten back. He hadn’t expected it to sting, but the manner in which he’d… manipulated Elaine rankled. She was confused and angry, and he’d encouraged her in her ill-considered course of action. Because he had a duty. Many duties, really. But one in particular that he had to fulfill. And that he'd finally seen a way to do so.

He looked ahead and saw it--the symbol of a shepherd’s crook. “We’re here,” stated quietly, turning towards the small building.

“Where’s ‘here’?” asked Jean sharply.

“A sanctuary of the Sisters of Mercy,” replied Justinian, as they reached the door. “A holy order dedicated to charity and peace, pledged to give refuge to the poor and unfortunate.”

Elaine frowned. “And we should trust these people because…?”

The door opened. A young woman with long black hair, dressed in a white gown and white kerchief on her head stood there. “Greetings, those who seek shelter,” she repeated. “You have found… Ivanushka?” She dove into Justinian and wrapped her arms around him. “Ivanushka! Tatanya! It’s Ivanushka!”

A slightly older woman appeared. She was clad just like her fellow, and indeed, looked very much the same. “Ivanushka!” she declared, joining in the hug.

Jean placed her hands on her hips. “Well, this is cozy.” She coughed. “I thought your name was a big deal.”

Justinian broke free. “Elaine--Jean--may I introduce my sisters, Theodora Theta, and Julia Upsilon.”

Elaine stared at the pair. “Religious order sisters, or… real sisters?”

“Both,” answered Julia. “Do come in.”

The little group entered the small house. Justinian glanced apologetically at Jean and Elaine. “It was a… large family.”

Julia nodded, as she led the group through a room filled with small cots, in some of which could be seen rather dirty, battered individuals. “And girls had lower price than boys…”

Elaine’s eyes spread in horror--a fact that was probably increased by the fact that she had just seen a mother and her little, very skinny child. “Your parents sold you…?”

“It’s more a charitable donation to those whose needs are so dire they must give their children to the Church…” began Justinian. The group reached a small chamber in the back of the hostel.

“Exactly,” said Julia with a smile. “But boys get you a larger charitable donation.”

“Ivana!” said Theodora. She glanced at Jean and Elaine. “She is exaggerating. It is simply that a boy works more than a girl, so they realize that they are depriving a family of a very valuable resource.”

Justinian began to rub his temples. “Let’s--move on. I’ve… been out of the city for some time, and it seems… rather changed…”

Theodora clicked her tongue. “We were wondering why you hadn’t visited in the last… six months?”

“Seven,” corrected Julia.

“Seven,” agreed Theodora, looking at her brother sternly.

“I was put on a very important mission by… my order,” stated Justinian.

“Well, you could have written,” said Julia.

“No, I couldn’t,” said Justinian.

Jean, after glancing around the chamber, found a rather hard-looking bed to sit down on, and did so. “You know, Sigma, I don’t know if I’m getting the… safety thing…” She winced. The bed was as hard as it looked.

“Damn buggers!” cawed Hoppedance.

“This place offers sanctuary…” began Justinian.

Julia turned to glare the young sorceress. “And my sister and I trust our brother implicitly.” She crossed her arms. “His friends are our friends.”

Justinian nodded. “That’s good to hear. In fact…” He coughed. “Malina, you can… come out now.” And suddenly the young Dev appeared to their view, looking a little tired. She glanced at the sisters with hopeful red eyes, and waved, while her other hand went to fiddle with her horns.

“Hi,” she said nervously.

Julia looked at her for a moment, then dove in for a hug. “Ooooh!” she cooed. “She’s so cute!”

Theodora hung back, though she did manage a nervous smile at the little Cthonique. She glanced at her brother. “I feel you have much to tell us,” she noted.

“Likewise,” said Justinian. “Especially about… well, the Eremites.”

“Hee-hee-hee!” giggled Malina. “Stop tickling me!”

“But I can’t help it!” moaned Julia.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part Eight

Elaine looked at Justinian Sigma, standing uneasily at the alley’s mouth, his face gone pale as he stared ahead. “What are you looking…?” she muttered, forcing herself to his side. She froze, her mind trying to process what she was seeing.

It was a city square of moderate size. A bonfire had been built at its center, around which crowded a small cluster of men in ragged brown cloaks. The men were throwing pages onto the fire, heaps and heaps of them. A small crowd was watching from the sides of the square, their faces blank. More of the men in brown cloaks moved among them, hands going to swords kept on their sides. Elaine blinked, trying to figure out what all this meant, when a loud thud caught her attention.

The source of the noise was a tall man banging a staff on the ground. He was a thin man, with a pale, austere face, whose most notable features were a long, draggled beard, and a large, beaklike nose that made those who saw him think of a hawk. He was dressed very much like the men around the fire, though in addition to the ragged brown robe, a length of chain was wrapped around his waist. “Hear me people of Joyeuse! For too long have you allowed the ways of Darkness to grow like foul weeds, choking out the Light!” The man spread his arms expressively. “And so we have found you, we humble hermits in the Seven’s service, besieged by Error, and Sin! Indeed, some among you--” and here he gestured broadly at the crowd. “--are willing servants of Darkness, who allow our enemies in through the back gate. BEHOLD!”

As the man said this, several of his subordinates exited a building holding a large item over their heads. Elaine gasped. While she suspected much of the crowd had no idea what it was, she knew it immediately. It was a printing press. “Yes, behold!” spat out the man, his face furious. “Behold it, this font of evil wickedness, this creation of the vile spawn of Night! Some may scoff, but I consider it the greatest weapon they have yet devised in their war against the Light!” He turned away, his expression almost nauseous. “Its very presence here pollutes and taints us!” he shrieked. He stepped forward, towards a small knot of his followers. Elaine realized, as she looked at them closer that they were holding what looked like a small family--a middle-aged man, a woman, two young men, and a young girl. To her amazement, the family was not resisting, even faintly--indeed, their faces held the same dull, blank looks the rest of the crowd had.

The hawk-like man jabbed at the eldest captive with a bony, long-nailed finger. “You! YOU!” he shrieked. “You have brought this… FILTH here! You have spread it, and profited by it! SCUM!” He slapped the man. “WRETCH!” He slapped him again, and then after a moment, slapped once more.

The man whimpered. “Please… please, Archon… I’m… I’m… it was only a press, sir! That’s all…” He gave a hopeful, apologetic look at the man. “I never printed anything improper. Never!”

The Archon snarled at the man. “You… never… printed… anything… IMPROPER?” He spat on the man’s face. “That you PRINTED AT ALL is IMPROPER!” He raised his hand to the sky. “Did the Seven not give us hands to write? And the letters, and, yea, the words to put down! But you--VILLAIN--ROGUE--you have looked to the creatures of Night, and do as they, flooding the world with your script! You--you make mock of the Seven simply by PRINTING!” His captive looked away. The Archon glanced at the men holding the printing press. “Give it to the fire.” The men tossed it onto the bonfire, sending up a spray of sparks. The Archon gave a bleak smile, and turned to the small crowd. “And so you see now how Darkness shall be made into LIGHT! HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LIGHT!”

Elaine shuddered as she watched the printing press burned--a fairly distressing sight made worse by the clear misery the printer and his family were showing. And then, to her horror, things began to get worse. The Archon turned to one man among the throng he seemed to command--a man not in ragged brown, but nice, neat, immaculate white, who wore a mask of leather. “Master Strict,” stated the Archon quietly, “would you ready your brand?” The man nodded, and produced from the folds of his cloak a lengthy metal implement, which he then held into the fire. The Archon gave a grim nod, and then turned back to the printer. “For your crimes DEATH would not be too severe a penalty--but the ways of the Seven are the ways of mercy, love, and redemption, and the ways of the Seven are the ways of the Eremites and the Flagellants. You have forfeited the right to live as a free man, and so we will take it from you. Henceforth, you wear the slave’s brand, as shall your wife, and your children. Through labor, under the loving hand of the Order of Penitence Through Suffering, you shall, perhaps, cleanse the filth you let loose upon the world.” He glanced at Master Strict, who was removing his brand from the fire, the end glowing a dull red. “Mark the girl first.”

Elaine felt Justinian’s hand grab her arm. “Come with me,” he said. “You shouldn’t see any more of… this.”

Elaine glanced at him. “What…?”

The young Sacristan looked at her calmly. “You were about to step out to the street,” he noted, pulling her away. “Jean,” he noted. “Is Malina…?”

“She’s right next to me, between me and the wall,” whispered Jean, Hoppedance resting on her shoulder. The crow kept glancing back to the bonfire, then looking away, and almost… shivering. Whatever he was seeing, for once the foul-mouthed bird seemed to have no inclination to comment on it.

The little cluster moved down the streets for a ways in silence. Finally, Jean Crow spoke. “So… what are the Eremites doing here?”

“I have no idea,” answered Justinian softly. “This is all rather a… shock to me…”

Elaine looked at her feet. “What… Seven worshipers acting… Holy?”

“The Eremites---are another one of Militant Orders. More… stringent than the Sacristans.” Justinian’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “The Eremites… do not traditionally operate in in Leonais. They usually stay in the Concordat of the Faith…”

Jean nodded. “Yeah. He’s telling the truth. You don’t usually see the Brown Bastards out of their little hidey holes near Carcosse.”

“And… the masked guy? In white?” asked Elaine quietly.

“A… Flagellant,” said Justinian. “They handle the criminals after we… pass judgment on them. Usually, they keep an eye on them, and have them do menial tasks.” He shook his head. “I… they mostly get… murderers. Thieves. That sort.”

Elaine frowned. “Oh, well that makes it okay.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “The ways of the Seven are the ways of Light, Love and Redemption. But Light must be fed, or all will fall to Darkness, Love must be proved, or it is only vanity, and Redemption must be purchased with blood and pain.”

“You know, I always thought OUR religion was ridiculous,” said Elaine with a snort. “But you Milesians really have us beat.”

“Please don’t use that word on this side of the river,” said Justinian quietly. “It gives you away. Here… we are humans.”

“And we aren’t,” noted Jean with a nod. She took a deep breath. “Where the hell are you taking us?”

“A safe place,” said Justinian.

“That’s not much of an answer,” said Elaine, stopping.

Justinian turned towards her, and placed a hand on his heart. “I swear to you, upon my honor as a squire and a Sacristan, it is as safe a place as can be found in this city.”

Elaine glanced at Jean, who nodded. “He means it,” she said. She shook her head, as they walked forward. “And anyway, do we have anyplace better to go?”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part Seven

Elaine looked at her little sister, the worry obvious on her face. “Malina! Why did you come with us? Why?”

The young Dev shifted nervously. “Umm, well, I heard you all talking and it soundeded all dangerous, and so I thought you’d need me.” She glanced up at her. “And the Lands of Light soundeded all neat.” She sniffed again. “Though I didn’t realize they’d smell all… nasty.”

Jean gave a rueful smile. “That’s Joyeuse for you. You get used to it.” She wrinkled her nose. “Kind of.”

Justinian wished he could launch into a defense of this aspect of his homeland, but to be honest, even he preferred that aspect of the Lands of Night. Joyeuse, like most such cities, was not scrupulously cleaned. The Flagellants were supposed to take care of that, but by most accounts they’d never been that good at it, and were in fact growing steadily worse. He coughed. “Your Precious Grace,” stated Justinian politely. “While I think we all appreciate your concern for your sister, the fact remains that as opposed to her you are… rather conspicuous here.”

Malina fiddled with her horns, while idly flapping her wings. “What’s ‘contspick you us’ mean?”

“Noticeable,” answered the Sacristan. “You stand out.”

“Oooh,” said Malina with a nod. “Well, I can take care of that.” She shut her eyes and vanished from sight.

Justinian blinked. “What?”

“Magic,” said Jean wearily. “Remember.” She squinted. “I can kind of make her out. If I try.”

Justinian nodded. “All right.” He started down the alleyway. “Now… if you will follow me, I’ll get you to a… safe place I know.”

Jean raised an eyebrow. “A ‘safe place’? How… convenient.”

“Well, I have lived here for most of my life,” said Justinian as he reached the mouth of the alleyway. “I know this city pretty well, an…” The Sacristan froze and stared at what lay before him.

It was, to put it mildly, a surprise.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part Six

“So,” said Elaine, staring at the strange contraption of wires, and hoops, “you think this’ll do the job?”

“It was made by Nisrioch,” said Jean Crow, dragging the thing into the proper position. “It may--or it may fail hideously. In fact, let me emphasize that. Fail hideously.”

“Bugger the bastards! Bugger the bastards!” cawed Hoppedance, flapping around his mistress ominously.

Elaine nodded. “We’ll risk it.” She raised an eyebrow. “You know how to work it?”

“Yeah, Nisrioch showed it to me one night,” noted Jean, fiddling with the spectrosphereo-transporter. “He was pretty drunk, but he still managed to get himself into the Great Courtyard without incident.” She looked pointedly at Elaine. “Of course, he insists getting back is the only problem.”

“Another reason to have you along,” said Elaine calmly. “You’re a river trader. You know people. When we’re done, you talk to them. And we go home.”

Jean stared at her for a moment, then stared at Justinian. “You know, you picked a hell of a time to stop being responsible!”

Justinian shrugged. “Let me simply state that I sympathize with Miss du Lac’s predicament and wish to see her satisfied in her desires.”

Jean sneered at him. “Yeah, let’s, you conniving…” She grumbled and then got back to work. “I wish I could say why I was helping.”

“Because Miss du Lac is your friend, and you realize she needs you to help keep her out of trouble in all this,” said the Sacristan.

“You honestly think there’s any way trouble isn’t entering into this?” noted Jean.

Justinian mulled that over. “Well, let’s say a reasonable amount of trouble.”

“HA!” snorted Jean, brining two wires together. The device began to glow an eerie yellow. Tiny glowing bubbles started to emanate from it. Jean nodded. “Okay. It should start working soon.” She turned to Elaine, handing her a long wand. “You need to think of the place you want to go. An idea, at least.”

Elaine nodded. “A secluded alley in Joyeuse. Where nobody will see us arrive…”

Jean turned to the contraption, out of which bigger, and bigger bubbles were emanating. “Yep, any second now…”

Hoppedance flew down to her shoulder. “Shit-for-brains,” it cawed quietly.

“Love you too,” said Jean quietly. She looked at Elaine, hoping the young Erl was having second thoughts.

Elaine clearly wasn’t. Suddenly, something fell down from the ceiling with an audible ‘oof’.

“Malina!” shouted Elaine, looking at her little sister.

The little Dev gave a nervous wave. “Hi,” she said sheepishly. At which point the glowing bubble engulfed the group. For several minutes they were surrounded by that strange yellow glow. When it ended, they were in a dusty, decrepit alleyway with not a soul around.

Justinian glanced around. “Ahh. The Rue d’Auseil in Old Town.” He nodded in satisfaction. “We are now in Joyeuse, brightest city in the Lands of Light.”

Malina sniffed, and frowned. “It smells like wee-wee,” she said in displeasure. “Old wee-wee.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part 5

“You can’t be serious,” said Jean, as they rushed through the hall. “I mean--I know you’re a little crazy, Elaine--but this is just completely insane!”

“Shit-for-brains! Shit-for-brains! Go bugger yourself!” cawed Hoppedance.

Justinian coughed politely. “While I wouldn’t put it with quite the same… fervor as my learned associates, I do think they make a valid point. Your father, you say, is alive and in the Lands of Light. Well, and good. But I fail to see why you’d imagine that you could just… well, drop in and then--find the man on the street.”

Elaine turned to look at her friends. “Look--I am a du Lac, the daughter of the Badb. The ways of fate are etched onto my soul. If I do this--then I’ll find what I’m looking for.”

Jean blinked. “But… I… you always go on about how you’re not the Nemain…”

“That’s something else!” snapped Elaine. She took a deep breath. “I… don’t have magic. But… I have the blood. And… that’s what counts for things like this. We go where we have to and… things happen…”

Jean stared at Elaine for a moment. “Shit, shit, shit,” cawed Hoppedance. The young sorceress turned to her truculent familiar.

“My bird’s got it right,” said Jean. “That sounds like… well, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care what your bird thinks it sounds like,” said Elaine. “It’s the truth.”

Jean snorted. “Come on, Elaine. You’re not selling anyone on this!” She turned to Justinian. “I mean, even Sigma…” Jean stopped mid-sentence, and blinked. The Sacristan was standing there thoughtfully. “Ummm… Justinian…”

“If it did work as you think it would… where would you need to go?” said Justinian quietly.

Elaine shrugged. “Somewhere… anywhere there was people,” she said. “I… I’d wind up where I needed to be…”

“Joyeuse seems a likely spot to begin,” noted Justinian. “It’s the capital of Leonais, it lies close to the Free Cities and the Murkenmere, AND it received a large portion of the Milesian refugees during Lord Shaddad’s wars.” He stared at Elaine pointedly. “Many of which remained there.”

Elaine gave a nod. “That sounds like a plan.”

Jean stared at her friend frantically. “Come on, Elaine--this is Sigma we’re talking about. He--look, he’s a nice guy here, but back in Joyeuse--he’s a freaking Sacristan! A Knight of the Seven! He was sent here to spy on you guys by his Order!”

Justinian raised his left hand and gestured to a mark. “May I remind you Jean that I am under the same geas you are, and cannot act against the wishes of the Cthoniques?”

Jean frowned and turned to Elaine. “Listen--you cannot trust Milesians on their home turf!”

“My father’s a Milesian,” said Elaine calmly. “So are you.”

Jean turned away. “I’m Riverfolk. We’re mongrels.”

Elaine nodded. “Something else we have in common.”

Justinian coughed. “I think I have a more a solid objection to all this. It is… countless miles to the Murkenmere from here. Even more to Joyeuse.” He shrugged. “Unless you can think of some way to travel the distance quickly, without attracting the attention of your mother and the Cthoniques, then this idea of yours will prove nothing but an idle fancy.”

“Well, there’s the spectrosphereo-transporter,” muttered Jean. “But that damned thing is…” She realized that Justinian and Elaine were watching her intently.

“Shit-for-brains, shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

“Shut up,” muttered Jean.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part 4

Jean Crow stood in the Small Courtyard, practicing her stances underneath a crabapple tree.

“You look ridiculous,” commented Justinian Sigma, sweeping the path underneath.

“Says the man carrying a broom outside,” snapped Jean.

“Bloody bastard,” cawed Hoppedance from the crabapple tree.

“Paths need to be swept in the early spring,” noted the Milesian calmly. “I used to do the same thing back at the Chapterhouse.” He continued to sweep. “I find it… relaxing.”

Jean frowned. “I’m surprised your girlfriend isn’t here with a broom of her own.”

“Eurydice and I are merely friends,” noted Justinian. “Remember, I have a vow…”

“…Of perpetual chastity,” said Jean. “Yes. You mention it every now and then.”

“Bugger yourself!” cawed Hoppedance.

Justinian chose to ignore both the crow and the Crow. “That stated,” he began levelly, “she’s busy with the East Wing. Everything from the Hall of Undiminished Woe to The Chambers of Exquisite Agony has to be fully cleaned out after winter.” He shrugged briefly. “That’s why I’m out here, really. To give her a little help.”

Jean Crow perched herself on one foot, and stared at Justinian. “She’s got you well-trained, you know that?”

“The Sacristans trained me,” said Justinian. “Eurydice is merely giving me the chance to utilize my training. For which I am grateful.”

“Yeah, well… this is training too,” said Jean. “Supposedly, when I get done with this, I’ll be able to move mountains. Kind of.”

Justinian chuckled. “And I’m comforted to know that such awesome powers will be granted to such a responsible person. Within a decade. Possibly two.”

Jean snarled and began to wave her arms around erratically. “That’s it!” she yelled. “You are aching for a lesson, asshole!” She gave an imperious wave of her right hand.

“Ow!” yelped Justinian as a quick sharp pain struck his cheek. His hand went to it, and he regarded Jean in mild surprise. “Was that you?”

“Yeah,” said Jean, placing her hands on her hips. “You want more of that? Cause I got plenty.”

“Once is enough,” said Justinian going back to his sweeping. “I concede, a great improvement. Now, instead of an amusing embarrassment, you’re a mild nuisance.”

“And I intend to keep on in that manner,” said Jean. “Why, by the end of the year, I should be a positive menace.”

“Shit-for-brains, shit-for-brains,” cawed Hoppedance coming down to rest on his master’s shoulder.

“You should hope my mother doesn’t hear that,” said Elaine du Lac, stepping outside.

Hoppedance flew nervously back to the tree. Jean smiled at her friend. “Hey, it’s Hoppedance’s neck, not mine. So, any more news on the whole ‘birthday’ thing?”

Elaine gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Nothing really. Actually, I’ve come to get you two to help me with something else.” She glanced around idly. “I need to get to the Lands of Light.”

Justinian and Jean simply stared.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part 3

Elaine traipsed down the halls of Castle Terribel, swearing to herself under her breath. If that fat little Guardsman--Popop, she thought his name was--didn’t like her, well that was just fine. She didn’t like him either, and little Mr. Popop could go to hell, even though on reflection, she was pretty sure his name wasn’t Popop, and was in fact something like Palal. Or possibly Padally. Something along those lines, she was sure. Elaine tried to figure out why she was bothered by the opinions of a fat little Guard whose name she didn’t even really know and who was far from an impressive figure. She decided it had something to do with her birthday. And her mother. And Malina. Whose own birthday would have been quite enjoyable if Falerina hadn’t shown up to spread terror and death.

Elaine realized that she probably should keep that out of her mind. It’d been fairly… unpleasant, after all. No, best to focus on something else completely. A very good idea, she couldn’t help but think. Was it Kvasir the Elder or the Younger who’d suggested that as way of dealing with things the mind was to discomfited by? Hmmm… That was a riddle, wasn’t it? She would have to go to the Library tonight and see which…

“…really don’t think she needs to know right now,” came a quiet voice.

Elaine blinked. That sounded very much like her mother.

“I disagree” came another voice, a low one that sounded very much like Mansemat. “She’ll want to know the truth one…” And then the voice faded from her hearing.

“Wanting is not the same thing as needing,” said her mother, her voice raised. “I… When she’s older… maybe, but right now, Elaine…”

Elaine nodded to herself. She’d been fairly certain they were talking about her. Still it was nice to have a confirmation. Thought perhaps not, considering the apparent subject matter.

“She isn’t ready, or you aren’t?” asked Mansemat.

“Both,” muttered Viviane.

“I won’t press the issue,” said Mansemat. “I just feel… this needs to be resolved. For both of you.”

Viviane muttered something that Elaine couldn’t make out after that.

“You’re probably right,” agreed Mansemat.

“No, no,” said Viviane. “I was being mean. You’ve touched a nerve.” Mansemat said something else, something Elaine couldn’t hear, and then, Viviane spoke again. “Well, it’s just--it’s a big deal. This is Elaine’s father we’re talking about… I… I’m pretty sure she thinks he’s dead. And…”

Elaine felt something strike her knees. Looking down she briefly wondered exactly how the floor had gotten so close before realizing she’d fallen into a crouch. As she steadied herself and began to rise, she heard one last snatch of conversation between her mother and Mansemat--one where the phrase “Lightlands” was spoken. (She wasn’t sure by who.) As she grabbed the wall to finish the business of righting herself, she did a mental list of what she now knew. Her father was apparently alive, and living in the Lands of Light. Something her mother had never bothered to tell her. Well, Elaine knew what that meant she had to do.

With a nod, she went off to find Jean and Sigma. They were her official companions, and by a great snatch of luck, they were precisely who she needed to see for the business she had in mind. A plan was already forming in her head, and while it might be a bit crude at the moment, she had no doubt it would soon acquire the polish it needed to lead her to success.

For truly foolish undertakings, youth is always a benefit in quelling doubts about a plan’s wisdom, or indeed, sanity.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part 2

Palamedes idly tapped the table. “Maybe we can get an elephant from somewhere.”

Sacripant Fenswater blinked, while Quiet merely stared. “An… elephant?”

The chubby Erl shrugged. “Just throwing ideas out.” He sighed. “I mean, Her Estimable Grace is… a bit hard to get gifts for.” He scratched his head. “I mean--she’s a bit… icy.”

The Marsh Erl regarded his fellow Guardsman cynically. “What do you mean by that?”

Palamedes glanced around awkwardly, finally settling on his hands. “Well--she’s not very… nice. I mean--well… I mean--think of Her Precious Grace,” he muttered awkwardly. “Everybody loves her, right?”

Sacripant and Quiet hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Well, everybody reasonable,” said Sacripant.

“Exactly,” continued Palamedes. “She’s sweet. And she’s nice to everybody. A kind word for anybody who crosses her path, no matter who they are. She can be a little willful and troublesome on occasion--but she cares about people. While Her Estimable Grace…” He sighed. “She keeps to herself. Ignores you most of the time, and when she does bother to notice you it’s to tell you to get out of the way. She lives here in Castle Terribel, but she’s not a part of Castle Terribel. If you understand what I mean.”

“She hasn’t been here that long,” noted Sacripant.

“Neither has her mother,” noted Palamedes. “But damn it, the Badb has taken to this place like a fish to the sea. While Her Estimable Grace… she’s floundering.”

Sacripant stared at Palamedes pointedly. “You’ve never seen the sea.”

Palamedes coughed. “Well, no, but…”

“I have,” said Sacripant. “So has Her Estimable Grace. She may not be a Ladysworn Marsher, but she’s still from the Marsh, and life out there--you Plainsfolk can’t understand it. The Plains of Dread--they’re one of the finest spots in the Lands of Night. The Accursed Marsh, however--it’s tough living out there, even in the good years. That’s probably why we still have the Badb, while all the other Witch Queens have vanished--we need every bit of help we can get. And living like that--it makes a lot of us--reserved. Quiet. We keep to ourselves.” He leaned forward. “And that’s why I say--she hasn’t been here that long. Give her time.”

Palamedes looked at him weakly. “You don’t know if Her Precious Grace has seen the sea/”

“We used to be neighbors,” said Sacripant.

Palamedes blinked. “Really?”

“Yep,” answered Sacripant with a shrug. “Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. And I had no idea we’d wind up in this situation. Hell, considering her age, I doubt she even realizes we knew one another.”

Palamedes gave another sigh. “Well, fascinating as all this is, you’ll at least allow me my opinions, right? I find Her Estimable Grace to be cold, hard, and put-offish. And I’m not alone in that.” Palamedes waited for a reply. It didn’t come. Glancing up, he saw his friends staring at him blankly. Quiet gestured to the doorway behind him. Already suspecting what he would see, Palamedes turned.

Elaine du Lac stood there, holding a book. The chubby Guardsman coughed. “Your… Estimable Grace. I…” He stood up from his chair, and attempted a bow. “This is… an hon…”

Elaine shot him a look of withering contempt, and then walked away. Palamedes collapsed back in to his chair. “Well, I’ve just made an utter ass out of myself,” he noted quietly.

Quiet placed one blue hand on his. “Don’t feel bad,” she said. “That glare kills puppies.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Joyous Occasion--Part 1

Elaine threw herself on her bed, with a sigh. “It’s good to be back.” She rolled around on the mattress. “Oh, comfy bed. How I’ve missed you!”

“You’ve been gone for a week,” said Jean Crow, leaning against the wall. She thought it over. “Okay, maybe ten days. Still not enough time to get sentimental about things.”

“Bugger the bitch! Bugger the bastards!” cawed Hoppedance, flying into the room.

“Awww! There’s mommy’s baby!” cooed Jean, as the raven came to rest on her shoulder. Hoppedance nuzzled her neck. “Are you hungry? Are you? Mommy will get you something good and rotten, okay?”

“Bugger them all!” cawed Hoppedance happily. Jean patted his head, and then glanced at Elaine. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” said Elaine.

Jean nodded. “Good.”

Viviane du Lac appeared in the doorway, and rapped lightly on the door. “Ummm… hope I’m not interrupting anything…”

Elaine smiled at her mother. “No, no you’re not. Hey, Mom.”

Viviane stepped into the room. “So how’s my little girl doing?”

“Pretty good,” said Elaine. “How was the… river thing?

A rather blissful smile came to Viviane’s face. “Oh, it was very… sacred. And relaxing. And nice. They gave us flowers. And cooked us fish, after the blessing.” The Badb blinked, then coughed. “Umm, anyway… guess whose special day is coming up soon?”

Elaine stiffened. “Oh, Lady’s Name…”

Viviane crossed her arms. “You’re young. You’re supposed to like birthdays.”

Her daughter glanced away awkwardly. “Yeah, but…you’re going to do something, aren’t you? Make a big production out of it.”

“What makes you think that?” asked Viviane with a snort.

“Mom! Please! Don’t make a big deal out of it!” Elaine got down on her hands and knees. “Just--some small, little thing. Maybe even just you and me.”

“And what about Mansemat? And Malina? Nisrioch, and Morgaine?” suggested Viviane.

“Okay, okay, I’m not saying they can’t be involved, but…” Elaine glanced down at the floor. “Nothing too fancy, all right?”

Viviane nodded. “Of course, dear. I only want you to enjoy yourself.” And with that, she departed.

Jean glanced at her friend. “Oh… Happy…”

“It’s a week from now,” said Elaine. She idly scratched her neck. “Well, a week and a few days.”

“Ah,” muttered Jean. “You’re really worried she’s going to try for something… big aren’t you?”

“Knowing my mother--it’d be elephants,” said Elaine grimly.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

From The Prince Of Dead Leaves...

"Know you what comes?" said Arthelane.

"In my Old Stone have I looked," said the Prince of Dead Leaves, " and in it I have seen wrack and ruin, and the blood of children soaking the stones."

"And can it be stopped?" asked the young man.

"Child, my life has been spent trying to direct the course of fate," said the Prince. "Behold me, I am worn, and ruined, and have lost all but a single keep. And all of this has come from my efforts to avert my doom. Ask me no such question--it is too bitter to my ears."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

From Baldander's History...

But while the Liberators had united to face Bernlad, once that was done, each saw themselves as the true Lord of the Plains of Dread. And so it came to pass that Attar, Mordaunt, and Lamek the Younger came to blows. And as each sent their troops out in the colors of House Cthonique, they each chose a different colored tulip to serve as their symbol so their troops could recognize each other--the red for Attar, the Orange for Mordaunt, and the Yellow for Lamek. And so it came to be called the War of the Tulips...

...The fighting was long, and bitter, and all three claiments would die before Attar's son Assur assumed the throne...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From 'The Book of the Living'

In the beginning all was Darkness, and the Darkness was the Great Mother, who we call Night.

And Mother Night, the Darksome Lady, was lonely, and desiring companionship, and so She did make the Dragon to converse with. And in the making She sought to create one who could be a friend and companion to her, wise in all things, and She did succeed, and it was good.

And then Mother Night grew bored, and it seemed to Her that it would be a great delight to make a world of creatures, after her own image. And She did speak of this to the Dragon. And the Dragon did say 'Lo, my Mistress, such You could do. But if You did this thing, that which You created would be bound to You for all eternity, and always would You have to think of it and its welfare. And all this I ask You to think upon before You undertake this.'

And in this, the Dragon spoke as it had been made to speak, but the Lady was not pleased, for She had wanted it to praise and exalt Her plans. And so She banished the Dragon from Her presence, and did as She intended to do. But the world She made was unsightly, and filled with beings murderous and cruel, and they did hate Her, and try to destroy Her. And as the Darksome Lady tried to undo what She had done, She gave a mighty cry, and the Dragon came to Her, and captured the world in the fold of its mighty wings.

And Mother Night did ask the Dragon, 'Why did you come for Me?' And the Dragon did answer 'So did you make, and so I am.'

Saturday, December 3, 2011

From Eschen's "Book of Loves"

...And so Atlante came to the gates of Alabracca, and raised her sword. "Where is your false lord?" she shouted. "Where is Tarquin Nibelung? For he said he would come to my side when the snows of Frimaire melted, and it is now Messidor, and the snows have long been gone, and yet I do not see him."

And the herald said, "Lord Tarquin Nibelung is dead, Great Lady. Of a fever.:

"You lie!" shouted the mistress of the Black Wolf Horde, and she ordered her men to take the city....

...And when the city was taken, Atlante discovered the tomb of her love, and fell upon it, and wept. "All has been for nothing," she declared. "All has been for nothing..."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Old Fragment, Preserved in the Araxerxes Compendium

One to hold the sky and the sea,
One to hold the mountain and the stone,
One to hold the the river and the tree,
One to hold the darkness and the bone.

Let them meet where all things merge
Let them greet where all things end
Let them stand where begins the verge
Let their duty be the wounds to mend.

--Author unknown

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

From Kvasir the Younger's "Looking Glass of History"

...Why the Nine? To this day, after all, there are far more than nine Dark Lords. While many state that the Nine are the most prominent of Dark Lords, one must question this--is the are the Sekhmetides of the Blasted Heath truly more powerful and influential than the Mongranes of the Crossing? And while the Great Khans of the Howling Waste were a major force, the present Dark Lords of the Waste are nothing more than a title held by the Cthonique heir. Are they truly more worthy of membership in the Nine than the Belfiors?

And again, why Nine? Why not Ten, or Twelve, or Six? The Pallasians say that it is symbolic of the Nine Created Beings of Mother Night--the Dragon, the Light, the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, the Water, the Wind, the Air, and the Fire. But the Pallasians have ever been few in the Lands of Night--could they have influenced such an essential thing? We turn to the past, but the way is closed to us--all our earliest references are to the Nine, and they speak as if talking about a long-held custom.

In the end we are forced to conclude, the Nine are the Nine, because they are the Nine...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 36

Jean Crow leaned back in her seat. “It’s good to be going home,” she muttered softly,

“Technically, you’re our guest,” noted Elaine.

Jean frowned at the young du Lac. “Castle Terribel is the first place I’ve lived in for more than a month. By my standards, it’s now home. Do you have a problem with that?”

Elaine glanced at her friend. “No.” She glanced out the window. “I really wish we’d gotten a chance to stay here longer. There were some places I was hoping to visit, but never got around to it.”

“Your family practically owns it,” said Jean with a roll of her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll get plenty of chances to visit.”

“I suppose,” said Elaine with a shrug. “I just feel a little cheated. All my time got eaten up by that wedding.”

Jean stared at her in surprise. “Wha… but that was the whole reason we were here!”

“Still doesn’t mean I have to like the damn thing,” muttered Elaine, crossing her arm. She glanced at her sister, who was playing with a little wooden doll. “Don’t tell Mom I said that.”

Malina paused and nodded. “ ‘Kay.” She held up her doll. “Isn’t this neat? Pinador gave it to me!” The little Dev grinned. “When we get married it will be just like that. Only with more sassins and jivalrous warriors.”

Elaine stared at her stepsister for a moment, then patted her little horned head affectionately. “You’re a real sweet kid, Malina.”

Jean glanced out her window. “Well, we’re heading out the gate. Goodbye to White Pine.” As she stared at the immense carving of Mother Night, it occurred to Jean that when you looked at it from a certain angle it DID seem to smile at you…

“What are you staring at?” asked Elaine.

Jean blinked. “Oh, I was just noticing…” She stopped. “Nothing, really. Just something I thought was there but wasn’t.” Jean shook her head. She’d been certain it had been smiling, but on closer inspection, it must have been an illusion.

At least, she hoped so.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 35

“Sixty linen sheets,” Eurydice le Fidelé placed a check on her list. She nibbled her quill idly, then jotted something down. “Condition--good to fair.”

“Are you really going to review every item on that list?” said Justinian Sigma quietly. “After all--we were only here a few days…”

“Steward’s duty,” replied Eurydice. “If my father were here, he’d be doing it. He isn’t. So I am.” She shrugged. “That’s what it means to be a Fidelé. Especially the Fidelé.”

“So--what happens to your children,” asked Justinian. “I mean they won’t be Fidelés…”

“Of course they will be,” replied Eurydice. “The only way they wouldn’t count would be if I married someone from a more prestigious family than myself, and that won’t happen.”

Justinian nodded. The more he came to know the Lands of Night the more he came to appreciate the strange, subtle differences. The Fidelés spent their lives doing things that in much of the Lands of Light would have marked them as menials--here, they were some strange sort of nobility, right between the Dark Lords and their subjects. A strange sort of nobility, in a strange sort of land. Seven help me, I wish I could I hate these people again. It would make my life so much simpler. Even Malachel’s crime inspired more a sad pity than any real hatred--the pathetic scheme of a pathetic man.

“Well, this is it,” sniffled Morgaine Cthonique, as she ambled into view with Fiordespina Maganza on her arm. “Our last time together for… a while.” To Justinian’s surprise, the Dark Lord was clad in surprisingly simple clothing for once--a plain white gown.

Fiordespina buried her head in Morgaine’s hair. “I shall miss you, my dark enchantress of the netherworld.”

Morgaine wrapped her arms around Fiordespina’s waist. “And I’ll miss you, Despi! Write! Write as often as you can!”

Fiordespina pulled away for a moment. “You know that I will, my glorious cadaver.” Then she leaned forward for a kiss.

When it was over, and Fiordespina had left, Morgaine wiped a tear from her eye. “Are you going to blame that on allergies?” asked Justinian quietly.

Morgaine glanced at him. “I’m starting like you, Sigma. Don’t make me kill you.”

Justinian sighed. “It’s just that while you were preoccupied, quite a bit happened…”

Morgaine shrugged. “Yeah, I know. I don’t care. I mean--you cannot imagine what we were up to. Literally.” She chuckled. “I have a hard time figuring out how she comes up with some of this stuff!”

Justinian sighed. Oh, yes. He really, really wished the world was simple once again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 34

“That went well,” said Faileuba cheerily, as she and her partners rushed to the West Gate of White Pine.

Gwyd glared at the Erl. “In what way does that qualify as going well?”

“We got a job offer!” replied Faileuba as she darted out of the way of the carriage.

“From the husband of the woman you offended so badly that you’ve been hiding from her this entire time!” snapped Gwyd. “In fact, that’s why we’re fleeing!”

“Fleeing is a bit strong,” said Meliadus, jumping across a puddle. “This is more of a strategic retreat.”

“Right. Fleeing suggests pursuit!” noted Faileuba. “We are leaving, as quickly as possible, just to make sure pursuing never crosses anybody’s mind.”

Gwyd stopped for a moment, and then stared at her. “You know--sometimes, I just pity you Fai.”

Faileuba snorted. “Yeah. When you enter a state of utter denial of how awesome I am.”

Gwyd glanced at Meliadus. “Back me up on this. For once.”

Meliadus shook his head. “Sorry, Gwyd. I’m with Fai on this. Encountering your past has merely confirmed my longstanding belief that you are a badly discontented individual who has always fit in badly with those who surround you--further, you secretly enjoy being with a couple of people as dashing and chivalrous as Fai and myself.”

Gwyd frowned. “Why is it you can never be this insightful on anything important?”

Meliadus scratched his disheveled hair. “Just goes against my ethos.”

“You don’t even know what that means, do you?” said Gwyd placing his hands on his hips.

“I might,” replied Meliadus with a shrug.

Gwyd was about to reply to that when a tumult behind the trio caught their attention.

“Out of my way, you ignorant wretch!” shouted a loud voice.

“Out of your way? HA!” shouted another loud voice in reply. “You are clearly in my way!”

The three chivalrous warriors stepped to the side as the Vanir and the Aesir contingents headed down the road. “Miserable toad of an Aesir!” shouted Manodante at the Margrave who rode next to him.

“Crawling worm of a Vanir!” replied Dolistone. As the Count-Palatine and the Margrave, their embarrassed relatives quietly rode beside them.

Gwyd shook his head as they passed. “You know, those guys are lucky they are Dark Lords…” Meliadus nodded, and then glanced at Faileuba, who was staring at the Mountain Lords.

“Fai…?” he asked.

“Who’s that guy?” she said, pointing to a young Erl riding behind Manodante.

“That’s Brandomarte,” said Gwyd, “Manodante’s son and heir.”

Faileuba blinked. “How do you know that?”

“Unlike you two, I actually asked around when it looked like we were going to get a JOB out of this, instead of having to run out of town broke--ONCE AGAIN!” snapped the Goblin.

“Ahh. Okay.” She pointed to a young female Erl following Dolistone. “And who’s that?”

“Fiordelisa,” said Gwyd. “Dolistone’s daughter.”

Faileuba nodded to herself. “Right. They were behind a pillar making out before the wedding.” She smiled. “I sort of interrupted them.”

Meliadus smiled back at her. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yep! A clear call to adventure FROM THE CODE!” announced Faileuba. “Clearly, the feud between the Aesir and Vanir is about to take a very dramatic turn--and we must be there when it does! As Chivalrous Warriors, it is DEMANDED of us!”

“Then let’s AWAY!” declared Meliadus, running after the Mountain Lords.

Gwyd blinked. “Guys--wait…” He sighed, and then took off after them. “I am getting too old for this crap…”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 33

“My friends,” began Malagise, raising his glass, his face dignified. “This has been a… unique experience, I hope.”

“That is putting it mildly,” said Lanfusa with a snort.

“Mumsy!” hissed the Duke. He straightened himself. “You have seen the uniting of two lonely souls, a glorious old city, and…” He sighed. “Assorted other things. In truth, I would say little of this has gone as I planned, as we’ve had to deal with… interruptions.” Lanfusa snorted at that. Malagise shot her a glance. “But that is life, my friends. That is life.” A smile spread on the Duke’s fat, froglike face. “And in truth--are not our existences enriched by the unpredictable? Do they not add--savor to the stew?”

“Not really,” muttered Lanfusa.

Malagise coughed. “I had planned to tell everyone of a child who came here to a wedding many years ago, and had a lovely time in this magnificent old city. And who saw two people dancing with such style and grace that the memory has stayed with me to this very day.” He gestured to the orchestra, who began to play a strange lilting melody. “I wonder, if the Lord and Lady of Castle Cruel would… care to dance?”

Pinabel and Tessina glanced around nervously, then stood up, and walked to the center of the room. As the music played, they began to dance, their movements graceful and relaxed. “They are v-very good,” said Zenobia to her husband, quietly.

“They don’t call Pinabel Maganza ‘the Flower of Chivalry’ out of any great appreciation of his beauty,” whispered Malagise. “Largely because he has none. At least not of a physical nature.”

“They really love each other, don’t they?” murmured Zenobia. She gave a contented sigh. “Well, that g-gives me hope. We fr-freaks can do a-all r-r-rig-right for ourselves.”

Malagise raised his glass to his bride. “To you, my dear. And to life.” And with that, he gulped down the drink.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 32

“This man,” began Roince Sans Pitie, gesturing at the Dev, “is Coppelius Spalanzani, a debtor of mine.”

Spalanzani glanced up, frantic. “I deny it! You’re lying! You must be thinking of someone else!” He looked around the room. “I have never seen this man before. Also, my name is… Spappelius… Colanzani…”

Roince coughed. “He is… slightly touched, I’m afraid.” He then turned towards Malachel. “Of course, this man is also in my debt. For a rather considerable sum, I must add. Which is how they met at my offices two months ago.”

Malachel glanced around nervously. “I’m certain you must be mistaken, sir…”

“One does not rise in my business with a faulty memory, Malachel,” replied Roince casually. “I recall the day perfectly. You had come for a scheduled meeting and Spalanzani burst in, demanding I give him a little more time.” He clapped his hands together. “Now--I must speculate on the rest, but I feel it is all--reasonable speculation. You must have inveigled Spalanzani into a rather… ill-considered kidnapping plot involving your fiancée. Assuming that was the anticipated source of funds you were going to pay me.”

Marfisa stared at the usurer. “Oh, that’s ridiculous!” She put her hands on her hips. “I mean--I know Malachel is… well… But he wouldn’t… or… well… I’m not that…” She began to fidget. “All right that’s probably not true. And… he could probably ask for extra-dowry afterwards for… Well… he couldn’t be sure…” She bit her lip. “But--anyway, it would be stupid. I mean--it’s not like he’d get paid immediately.” She spread her hands. “And look at everything that could go wrong…”

“Congratulations, Marshal,” said Roince. “You’ve put more thought into this in the last three minutes then Malachel put into it from--oh, however long he’s had this foolish little plan.”

Malachel glanced around nervously. “This is absurd. Absurd. I don’t have to listen to all this. I am leaving. Leaving these libelous and disgraceful accusations.” He started to head for the door.

Roince gave a distracted nod. “If you must. Oh--and Malachel?” The Maganza turned. “Consider our matters at an end.” Malachel’s eyes widened in fear. “Oh, don’t be a fool man. You’re the heir presumptive to the Ebony Throne. I’m not going to have some thugs go over you in an alley. I never much cared for that sort of method in any case. No, I shall merely have my men take what they can from your possessions, and write the rest off as a lost.” He yawned. “Of course, this finishes your credit everywhere, Malachel. There’s not a lender left in the whole of the Lands of Night who will touch you now.” Malachel gulped quietly, and then rushed out of the room.

Jean glanced around. “Shouldn’t somebody try to catch him, or something?”

“Justice may be level, but the law’s a slanted beast,” said Roince quietly. A crooked smile came on the moneylender’s face., as he pulled a silver length of chain from his coat pocket, and began to idly play with it “Still, I’ve wounded him in the only way a creature like him can be wounded. Well, my apologies to you all for this little scene. Good fortune follow you, and may my hosts have an excellent marriage.” He managed a stiff bow. “Adieu.” He started to head out, then turned to Marfisa. “I recommend you call off your engagement.”

As the red-clad man headed out the door, Nisrioch waved at him. “Are you sure you don’t wish to stay, sir? You seem like a fascinating fellow.”

Roince Sans Pitie shook his head. “Oh, no. Business else where, I’m afraid.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m afraid I’d disappoint you terribly. I really am an awful brute. I just--know how to parcel my brutishness out.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Ahh. Well, perhaps some other time.”

The Duke Chiaramonte raised his glass. "Ladies--gentlemen--if I could get on with my toast..."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 31

“I cannot believe they have forced us to sit next to each other!” shouted Manodante. He stuck his chin up in the air defiantly. “Now--pass the salt.”

“It is a grave injustice to see your hideous face while I eat,” replied Dagomir, as he handed Manodante the shaker. “The wine if you please?”

“My hideous face? My hideous face?” declared Manodante. “What of yours, you baboon? Red wine or white?”

“A baboon he says! A baboon! The indignity!” muttered Dagomir huffily. “Red. Goes better with a meat pudding, I find.”

“Friends, friends, a toast!” called Malagise from the front of the hall, as he ended his dance with his wife. “I bid you all--”

And that was when a man in dark clothing was hurled onto the floor, quickly being followed by Marfisa Mongrave, who jumped on top of him and began to rain blows down upon him. Several more dark-clad individuals crept out to the floor and rushed on the girl. This proved to be far less advisable then they apparently imagined, and soon they were falling forward in voiceless pain. Marfisa stood up, and dusted herself off. “Umm--sorry about this,” she muttered awkwardly. She coughed. “Really. Sorry.”

The entire hall was filled with excited murmurs. “Really, Duke Chiaramonte,” said Malachel, rising from his seat, “I must protest! Twice now the peace has been broken by this… unseemliness!” Roince Sans Pitie sitting next to the young nobleman, rolled his eyes. “If this sort of… rudeness is going to continue to trouble your wedding feast, then I shall leave. Immediately!” As he started to the door, the way was barred by Nisrioch.

The Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste spread his hands. “I must insist everyone stays seated. There is mischief afoot, which my… friends here have uncovered.” He stepped out of the way, allowing Faileuba, Meliadus and Gwyd to enter. The three Chivalrous Warriors escorted a disheveled Dev with off-center horns and rather scrawny wings between them.

Gwyd stepped forward and gestured to the Dev. “We were just taking advantage of His Excellency’s Clemency to get the--leave this fair city, when we found… this guy behaving suspiciously.”

“This is an outrage, an outrage,” muttered the Dev. “I’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. Noth--” Suddenly he saw the dark-suited figures writhing on the ground. “Oh, my poor babies! My poor dears!”

Malagise knelt next to one of the figures and nodded. “Homunculi. Well, this explains a great deal. I was wondering how the damned things didn’t register on the defenses I set up at the chapel…”

Malachel blinked. “Well--then--the matter is solved. So, if you’ll excuse me…”

Nisrioch stroked his chin. “Actually, I would say it is not solved at all. There is still the question of why our interloper sent his creations to attack us…”

“He’s mad,” snapped Malachel. “Doesn’t that answer everything?”

“Not really,” replied Nisrioch.

“Actually,” said Roince Sans Pitie, “I believe I can venture a guess.”

Manodante shook his head. “Well--this is a damned nuisance!” He glanced at Dagomir. “No way we’re getting seconds soon!”

“Like you need any, you fat sack of entrails!” snapped Dagomir.

“Everyone’s fat next to you, you scrawny sack of bones!” snapped Manodante.

The rest of the Houses of Aesir and Vanir all sighed. In truth, Dagomir and Manodante were both of perfectly average builds, but they regularly ignored this fact in their insult matches.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 30

Marfisa smiled as she watched the Duke and his wife dance. “Awww.” She leaned forward on the table. “I’m so glad I got to go here. And without Roddy!” She coughed. “I mean--I love him--but… he tends to hover and… not that I’m ungrateful--he’s like a--”

Elaine looked at her levelly. “He isn’t here, you know.”

Marfisa collapsed on the table, and let out a squeak. “Please don’t tell him I said that.”

Elaine looked away. “I won’t.” She turned over to Jean, then kicked her lightly in the foot.

The apprentice sorceress’ eyes snapped open. “Hmm. What? Wha…?”

“You were dozing off again,” said Elaine.

“I was not!” declared Jean, with a yawn. “I was just--meditating.”

“Drooling onto the table is meditating?” asked Elaine.

“Yes! Ask Nisrioch, he’d tell you!” Jean looked around. “Where is he?”

“He went off after Pinabel and Tessina twenty minutes ago,” said Elaine. She raised her hand. “And before you ask--Morgaine and Flordespina reappeared, then vanished shortly thereafter--Pinador and Malina went back to the sweetmeat table right after that.”

Jean blinked. “So it’s just us?” Elaine nodded. “All right then,” said Jean, who then lay her head back on the table.

Elaine kicked her lightly in the shin. “Oh, come on!”

“What?” said Jean. “We got through all the important stuff. Now it’s all just… socializing. And I’m tired.”

“Remind me how you functioned as River Trader again?” asked Elaine.

“Badly,” murmured Jean. “I sucked, remember? Now… sleep!”

Marfisa giggled. Elaine turned towards her. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh--nothing really,” she said. “It’s just--well, I like having people my own age to talk to. Back in Tremisoma, it’s just me--and Ruggier. It get’s lonely at…”

Marfisa would have finished that thought, if a black-draped arm hadn’t slumped down from above, and a cold hand hadn’t grabbed her shoulder.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 29

“A Conclave of Hierophants and Knights,” said Faileuba.

Meliadus sighed and pushed his little pile of buttons towards her. “Okay. You win.”

“AH HA!” declared Faileuba cheerily. “All mine!” She glanced at her partner. “Want to play another hand?”

Meliadus nodded. “Sure but you’ll have to spot me another loan.”

“Okay, but you’re already sixty buttons in debt to me,” said Faileuba. “I’m not a button bank, you know.” As she dolled out the buttons, she coughed. “You know, I think I’ve got the entire situation figured out.”

Meliadus looked at Gwyd. The Goblin had seated himself on the floor, like a Contemplative, and had resolutely shut his eyes. “I think we’re in for a fun one,” Meliadus noted.

“Quiet, you fool,” snapped Gwyd. “I’m trying to find inner peace.”

“Good luck, then,” said Meliadus. He turned to Faileuba. “All right--shoot.”

“So--we’ve got guys in dark suits, who vanish mysteriously, right?” she said. Meliadus nodded. “Well, it’s clear then--King Sutekh’s back! He’s gathering his undying hordes, and he’s preparing to conquer the Lands of Night once more! Just as he vowed at his defeat!”

Gwyd’s eyes opened wearily. “And he’s starting at the… wedding of the Duke of Chiaramonte.”

Faileuba glanced away. “Well--he has to start somewhere…”

Gwyd took a deep breath and glanced at Meliadus. “Okay, I admit it--you were right.”

Meliadus shrugged. “Do you think I’m surprised?”

Gwyd stood up, and walked to the end of the cell. “When I contemplate the direction my life has taken since I left the Guild of the Sword, I am filled with horror.”

“Gwyd--is that you?” came a voice. The Goblin looked up in horror. A thin, muscular Goblin stood there, dressed in a bright red jacket laced with gold thread and dark black pants.

“Coristan?” said Gwyd nervously. “Fancy meeting you… here. “

“I was about to say the same thing,” noted Coristan.

Gwyd gave an awkward nod. After a long, uneasy silence, he asked, “So I see you made Master.”

“Yep, yep,” said Coristan. He looked at his old friend for a while. “So--how has leaving the Guild to seek your fortune gone…?”

“Take a guess,” snapped Gwyd.

Coristan looked awkwardly away. “Right. Well. I just got orders from His Excellency--you three are to be released as an act of…” He pulled out a piece of paper and read it. “'Clemency on the day of the Blessed Anclesus'.”

Faileuba clapped her hands together. “Woo-hoo! Thank you, Blessed Anclesus!”

Meliadus scratched his head. “Isn’t he the patron spirit who wards away scrofula?” Faileuba looked. “What? I had a religious upbringing.” He coughed. “I mean, part of it involved knowing all the ways to cripple and kill--but it also covered the normal parts of religion.”

Gwyd turned to Coristan. “Any chance you could leave them in here?”

“Nope,” answered the tall Goblin

“How about just me?” asked Gwyd.

Coristan shook his head again.

“Figured,” said Gwyd with a deep look of disappointment.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 28

The homunculi were weeping when Coppelius Spalanzani saw them--or attempting to do so as best they could as barely coherent clouds of vapor. “Oh, my poor darlings! My poor babies! Some nasty fellow has hurt you!” muttered the alchemist. Turning to his oversized Philosopher’s Egg, he lit a small fire. “Come inside, my dears, and we’ll get you all properly sorted out.” The homunculi slid into the equipment with contented sighs.

Spalanzani sat back, and ran a hand through his disordered black hair and over his slightly off-center horns as he watched them. The sacrifices he had to make for his art. A well-constructed homunculus was the highest expression of alchemical expertise--despite what those fools who chased after the Stone and the Elixir might think--life brought forth from its Essential Elements, by the application of the Art. True, they couldn’t speak, and required a great deal instruction to perform tasks, but then--wasn’t that true of all children?

As he watched his creations reform, Spalanzani wiped a tear from his eye. He hated taking jobs such as this, and risking his precious darlings. But if he didn’t, he couldn’t afford to create more homunculi.

Several of them had already reformed. Spalanzani started to lay out clothes for them. Simple black suits were good enough, he found. Some liked to put them in more elaborate outfits, but Spalanzani noted that the poor things rather frequently got confused by them. He was interrupted by thoughtspeak from his employer.

You bumbling fool! Imbecile! Is this what I am paying you for?

“Dreadful apologies, sir,” said Spalanzani, who decided not to mention the fact that his employer hadn’t paid anything yet. “I… they are… a bit unused to such detailed work.”

They were supposed to get the… target.

“They’ll try again, sir.” answered Spalanzani.

‘Try‘? I cannot afford having them ‘try‘. They will succeed, or you and your little… pets will pay. Even if you fail, I’ll have the power to make sure of that.

Spalanzani gulped. He knew his employer wasn’t simply boasting about that. “I… yes, sir. I’ll get them on it.”

Very good.

As his employer’s mind ceased to intrude on his thoughts, Spalanzani took a deep breath. At times like this, he almost wished he’d never taken up the High Art. Still--he had, and indeed, it had brought him what moments of joy existed in his life.

He turned back to his homunculi and noticed that several were trying to put on their clothes One had gotten its head in a shirtsleeve. Spalanzani gave a fond shake of his head, and went to assist the poor thing.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 27

Elaine glanced around the table. “Well--it’s definitely been… interesting.” She bit her lip, and fidgeted slightly. “I mean not many weddings have riots…”

Tessina glanced at her husband and chuckled. “You should have seen ours…”

Pinabel nodded. “We had to flee the chapel just as the ceremony ended to escape Eudropin’s hounds.” He gathered a forkful of food, and then paused. “Does anyone know what happened back there? Aside from the obvious?”

“I believe the present theory is that the trio staged an attack to ingratiate themselves,” said Nisrioch. “Thus, allowing themselves to move closer to their targets.”

Pinabel stared at the Dark Lord pointedly, his one eye fixing on Nisrioch. “And you do not believe this, I gather?”

“When I met them on the road, all those three were thinking about was getting their next meal--by illicit methods if necessary,” stated Nisrioch. “That is not the behavior of professional assassins. It is barely the behavior of professional mercenaries.”

Pinabel nodded. “I must confess--I find Roince Sans Pitie’s presence here--unsettling.”

Jean glanced at him. “Why’s that?”

Pinabel hesitated in his response--only to have Tessina make it. “He’s a professional usurer. Malachel is deeply in debt to him.” Her husband glanced at her. “What? It’s open knowledge. The young King-in-waiting loves to spend money but doesn’t know how to earn it. That’s chased away most the reputable moneylenders, and left him prey to people like Roince.”

Pinabel stood up. “I believe I shall go get some drinks.” He walked away.

Nisrioch looked at Tessina. “I fear you’ve offended your husband.”

Tessina nestled her chin in her hand. “Oh, life these days offends Pinabel, the poor dear. He put such faith in the Great Lines to put things right, and now look at how things stand. Asterot is a drunken disgrace. The Belfior Maganzas are all horrible in their own unique way. Fiordespina’s the only one with any lick of sense and--well, a woman can’t sit on the Ebony Throne. Especially not a… you know.” She shook her head. “He did so much to save the family--and now it’s still dying.”

Nisrioch smiled. “You really love him, don’t you?”

“Would I have married him otherwise?” answered Tessina.

“I knew it had to be pretty deep, because of the…” began Jean--who then stopped, and looked away.

“Were you going to say ‘the face‘?” asked Tessina. She shrugged. “My husband is a great man--a hero. I consider that far more important than his appearance.” She looked at Jean pointedly. “He’s my second husband, you know. My first--Baltazar--was far better looking--even before Pinabel had his accident.” Tessina’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, a glory to behold Baltazar Druines. Handsome as could be without--foul as could be within.” She took a deep breath, and shook her head. “I do not miss him. In the least.”

“What--happened to him?” asked Elaine.

“He had an accident,” responded Tessina blankly. “Fell down some stairs in Castle Druines. Died immediately.”

Elaine nodded.

“Hey, guys!” said Marfisa, returning to the table with Pinador and Malina in tow. “We’ve got sugarplums!”

Malina chewed hers contentedly. “They’re very good!”

Tessina glanced at her son. “Now--Pinador--don’t spoil your appetite with sweets.”

“Okay, mother,” said the young boy, wolfing down his sugarplum.

Marfisa looked at Elaine. “What were you all talking about?”

“This and that,” answered Elaine nervously.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 26

“That was brilliant,” snapped Gwyd, as the guards escorted them to the cells.

“Hey,” said Faileuba. “The Code!” She turned up her nose. “I was justified.”

Meliadus nodded. “She’s got you there.”

Gwyd stared at the pair for a moment. “Tell me--is the Code written down anywhere, or do you just make it up as you go along?”

The two Erls both appeared lost in thought for a while. “Really,” said Faileuba, “it’s more of an intuitive thing.”

“Right,” said Meliadus. “You know you’re following the Code when you are.”

Gwyd’s lip trembled for a moment. Then he blinked several times in succession. “Are you two out of your puny minds?”

Meliadus nodded. “Probably.”

Faileuba glanced at her partners. “Oh, I’d say definitely.”

Gwyd sighed as he entered the cell. “Honestly, I should view this as a relief. A way out of this damned association.” He smiled to himself. “Maybe--maybe they’ll send me to the salt mines. That’s good, productive labor.”

Meliadus glanced at Faileuba. “I think we broke him.”

“Ohhh,” groaned Faileuba. “That means the only person I have to make fun of is you. And that’s no fun, because you don’t care.”

“Hey, I’m in the same position!” noted Meliadus. “Well, sort of--only ‘me’ for ‘you’ and ‘you’ for ‘me’.”

“Yeah, I kind of figured that,” said Faileuba. She stretched her arms. “Hey, wanna try a quick game of small foldol? I have some cards.”

“Are they marked?” asked Meliadus.

Faileuba looked around awkwardly. “No. Of course not,” she said weakly.

Meliadus thought it over, then shrugged. “Well, not like I have anything better to do.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 25

Malagise walked with his family towards the Festhall. “Well, on the whole, a lovely ceremony,” said the Duke finally.

“S-s-save for it being interrupted by a r-riot t-towards the end, y-y-yes,” noted Zenobia with a smile.

“Note I said ‘on the whole’,” stated Malagise firmly.

“That is an interesting way of putting it,” stated Lanfusa. “And I guess if a man loses a leg, he should be considered ‘on the whole’ quite lucky.”

Malagise frowned. “Thank you for your opinion, Mumsy.”

Lanfusa snorted and glanced at Aldigier. “Well, I see marriage hasn’t changed him.”

“Mmm,” muttered Aldigier.

“I sh-sh-should hope it wouldn’t,” said Zenobia. “I married him as he w-was, after a-all.”

Lanfusa stared at her new daughter-in-law, a disapproving frown coming over her face. Lanfusa Chiaramonte was not a woman used to having people talk back to her--indeed, she was used to them staring at her blankly as their minds tried to process the fact that a little old woman had said that. She had a great distrust of people who didn’t react that way. They were usually trouble.

“Well,” she announced suddenly, “You didn’t have much choice in that, did you? Mind you, I’m not saying I don’t appreciate it. I’m happy Mal found someone willing to put up with him.”

“Oh, I am,” stated Zenobia calmly. “And ev-ev-everything that comes w-w-with him.”

Lanfusa blinked. Not only was that reply prompt, and seemingly apt, but on further reflection it seemed to have--implications that Lanfusa wasn’t sure she appreciated.

Malagise laughed gently, and patted his wife’s hand. “Isn’t she wonderful? Come on. To the Festhall. I think you will find it is a MARVEL.” Malagise and Zenobia strode ahead.

Lanfusa watched them head to the door of the Festhall, then glanced at Aldigier. “Stop smirking,” she declared, her eyes tightening into a glare.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Aldigier good-naturedly.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 24

Jean turned suddenly, as the shout reverberated throughout the church. “What the…?”

In the back of building, a large fight was going on. The participants were the three “Chivalrous Warriors” Nisrioch had picked up and a large group of individuals in dark clothing. Said individuals were losing rather badly--especially to Faileuba and Meliadus, both of whom were fighting bare-handed.

Elaine glanced at her uncle. “This is your fault.”

“Fault?” said Nisrioch innocently. “I prefer to see this as… entertainment.”

“You would,” muttered Jean, as she watched Faileuba take out one of the dark-clad people with a kick to the chest, then follow it up by doing a handspring off of the falling man’s shoulders. She blinked. “That was impossible.”

“Then how’d she do it?” asked Elaine, as Meliadus launched a rapid flurry of blows on the chest of the man in front of him, while kicking the man behind him in the shin with such force as to make his foe collapse.

“No idea,” muttered Jean, as Gwyd disarmed a sword-wielding opponent with his staff, then knocked the man unconscious. She looked over at Nisrioch who was watching all the havoc with interest obvious in his multi-hued eyes. “You saw this coming, didn’t you?”

Nisrioch shook his hand dismissively. “Only vague hints of it. Really, half the reason I came here was to see it all unfold.”

Meliadus launched into several of his foes, knocking them aside easily. One of them slashed at him desperately with a knife. The Erl side-stepped the attack with such eerie grace, and speed that all his opponent managed to strike was his shirt. Meliadus smirked at him, then struck him down with a powerful blow to the head. As the last few dark clad men fled, he clapped his hands together, and looked at the assembly confidently. “A job well done!” he declared, just a tad too loudly.

The Abbot stared at him in shock, then pointed. “The… the Br-broken Circle!” he said in a quavering voice. “A Cruel Disciple!”

Meliadus glanced down at his chest, where the image a circle cleft in two was tattooed. “Ah. Yeah. That.” He slapped his hand to his forehead. “Whoops.”

Faileuba stepped in front of him. “Okay, everyone stay CALM!” she shouted. “I mean--he’s done nothing wrong, and if you try anything, I will hurt you.” With that, she flexed her hands together, causing them to crackle with a pale yellow light.

At this point, there was a nervous cry from the room. “Thanatos! Thanatos!”

“HEY!” shouted Faileuba. “Didn’t I tell you to calm down? I mean--we just saved you all from…” She glanced around at their felled opponents. “What appears to be a bunch of… empty black clothing.”

Gwyd winced. “I knew coming here was a bad idea…” he muttered.

Elaine heard a rustling behind her, and turned to see that Morgaine and Flordespina Maganza. “Hey, guys!” said the diminutive sorceress. “What did we miss?”

“How… where did you…?” began Elaine.

“Not important,” replied Morgaine. “Now answer the question.”

“Umm, sure,” began Elaine nervously. “The ceremony was--well, typical, and kind of long and tedious, and then those people Nisrioch picked up got into a fight with this… other group of people, and now the other people are gone, and it turns out the people Nisrioch picked up were a Cruel Disciple, and a Thanatos.”

Morgaine stroked her chin. “I’m probably going to have to get that explained to me again. Likely several times.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 23

Gwyd stood at the back of the building, watching the ceremony with a slight smile on his face. He’d forgotten what a lovely place White Pine could be, when a person didn’t get distracted by unpleasantness.

“Gwyd!” shouted Faileuba.

Gwyd turned, as the unpleasant distraction grew closer. “What is it Faileuba?”

“You won’t believe it!” she said gleefully. “Meliadus and I just had an awesome fight with a bunch of shifty characters!”

Gwyd sighed as Meliadus approached. “Mel…” the Goblin stated accusingly.

“She’s telling the truth,” said Meliadus. “And they attacked us, so it’s completely legitimate.”

“Yep!” agreed Faileuba with a nod. “It’s all in the Code.”

Gwyd turned around and rested his head against one of the temple’s pillars. “So--a bunch of… shifty characters… attacked you. Any idea why?”

Faileuba shook her head. “Nope. All I know is that for once, it has nothing to do with me.” She stroked her chin nervously. “At least--so far as I know…”

Meliadus nodded. “Yeah. We even went over every grudge she could recall on the way here. None of them quite work.”

Gwyd nodded dully. “So… what do your… mystery attackers look like?”

“Oh, just a bunch of guys in dark clothing,” answered Faileuba with a shrug. She looked over the room and then blinked. “Sort of like that… guy over there. Trying to hide behind the pillar. All… sinister like.” A slow smile spread over the Chivalrous Warrior’s face. She began to walk away. “Just… give me a minute.”

“Fai--Fai!” hissed Gwyd. “This is a wedding! A WEDDING!” He turned to Meliadus for support only to see the lanky Erl was cracking his knuckles and preparing to follow Faileuba. “You too…?”

“You have to understand, Gwyd,” stated Meliadus, “it’s been--oh, fifteen minutes since I had a fight. And when I’m given such a clear opportunity to have one--in the cause of good--well, how can I resist?”

Gwyd watched the Erls walk towards the man in the corner. “You two are crazy, you know that?” He shook his head, and then readied his staff. “I am getting much too old for this crap,” he muttered, as he headed off after them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 22

Justinian leaned back in the pew, his face pale. “That poor goat.”

“It’s ritual,” hissed Eurydice. “Now, sit up straight.”

Justinian did so. “Sorry.” He looked over at the Vanir and Aesir contingents, who were both busily ignoring each other. “You know, I have to ask--why were they invited?”

“They’re cousins to the Chiaramontes,” answered Eurydice.

Justinian blinked. “Both of them?”

“Yes,” said Eurydice. “It’s the result of many years of the Dukes Chiaramonte playing both ends against the middle.” She sighed. “The Mountain Clans used to cause a lot of trouble. Back in the old days.”

“Tell me, why is you people seem to spend more time fighting each other than the Lands of Light?” asked Justinian quietly.

Eurydice shook her head. “Typical.” She sighed. “Sometimes, Squire Sigma, I almost forget your from… over there… and then you say something like that.” The chambermaid shut her eyes. “We Nightfolk aren’t like you Milesians. We’re proud of our lands, and we value our independence. You won’t see us bowing to any Holy Emperor!”

“You won’t see us doing it either,” said Justinian. “There isn’t one anymore.” He frowned. “Well, all right, the Easter King says he is, but no one takes him seriously…” He glanced over at pillar. “Eurydice?”

“Mmm,” muttered the chambermaid with a nod.

“Who is that guy in dark clothing, trying to hide behind a pillar?” he asked, with a nod of his head in the direction he wanted her to look in.

Eurydice glanced to the side, and then blinked. “I… don’t know.”

Justinian nodded. “Tell me--is my--impression that this is bad news… correct?”

Eurydice bit her lip, and then nodded herself. “Probably.”

“Thought so,” said Justinian. He sighed. “Why is it something always happens? Eh? It always seems that we’re going to have a nice, pleasant time, but then--something happens.”

Eurydice merely buried her face in her hands.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 21

Elaine and Jean watched Marfisa slowly, formally walk forward through the cathedral, holding the axe before her, while stately organ music played in the background “You know,” whispered Jean. “I always got the impression that Nightfolk weddings were more… casual things.”

“They can be,” said Elaine. “Mom and Mansemat just went for standing under a tree and kissing the axe. But some people splurge.”

Jean nodded, and then tapped Elaine in the shoulder. “Hey--look at Malachel.” Elaine turned her head, only for Jean to gesture for her to stop. “Not like that. He’ll see you looking at him.”

Elaine rolled her eyes. “So you want me to look at him, without… looking at him.”

“Exactly,” declared Jean. “Just move your eyes.”

Elaine tried to follow her friend’s instruction. “Okay.” She blinked. “Damn. He’s--staring at her.”

“Yep,” muttered Jean. “So… at least their marriage will have that going for it.”

Elaine shuddered slightly. “Yeah. Somehow--I don’t think so. That’s not… good staring. It’s… creepy staring.”

Jean nodded regretfully. “Yeah. You’re right.” She sighed. “Why does someone as nice Marfisa have to draw an utter slime like Malachel?”

Elaine waved her hand. “It’s these Shadow Wood noble houses. Big on arranged marriages, and the like. You should read The Prince of Dead Leaves to give you a feel for it…”

“I’ll pass,” said Jean.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” chided Elaine.

“Yeah, I do,” answered Jean. “A book. A very long, very elaborate book.”

“Have we missed anything?” asked Nisrioch as he sat down next to the pair, with Malina beside him.

“Just a lot of walking,” said Jean. “Where…?”

“She was with Pinador,” answered Nisrioch. “It was rather sweet.” He glanced over the crowd. “Who is that fellow in red next Malachel Maganza?”

“Roince Sans Pitie,” said Elaine. “Some kind of… business associate, apparently.”

“Malachel has business?” said Nisrioch incredulously.

“Apparently,” said Jean.

“So where are Morgaine and Flordespina?” asked Nisrioch.

“We don’t know,” said Elaine. “And we don’t want to.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Well, that’s sensible, I suppose.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 20

“This is damned annoying,” muttered Faileuba as the trio raced ahead. “Have I mentioned that?”

“Only a half a hundred times in the last twenty minutes,” said Gwyd.

The Erl blew a stray bang out of her face, and then glared at the Goblin. “That is not an accurate count,” she declared.

“Actually, it is,” said Meliadus. Faileuba glared at him. He glanced away sheepishly. “Hey, I’m just trying to be neutral here.”

Faileuba snarled as she turned away. “Yeah, whatever.” Her eyes brightened. “Hey, this looks like a shortcut to the cathedral! Great!”

Gwyd raised his hand. “Faileuba! Wait…” He sighed, and turned to his partner. “So--remind me again--she’s the one who insisted on keeping her distance from the Arbiter--she’s the one who got the directions wrong--she’s pretty much the cause of this entire mess--and we stay with her…”

“The Code, man,” said Meliadus with a shrug. He looked at Gwyd pointedly. “Want to go get her?”

“You do it,” said the Goblin, turning away. “I don’t know if I could handle it.”

Meliadus nodded and raced after his companion. “Hey, Fai! Wait up!”

Faileuba glanced back at him. “Excuse me? We’re already late!”

“I really don’t…” began Meliadus, and then paused. “What’s that?”

Six men dressed in dark clothing stood there, staring at the pair in surprise. “Ummm… hi!” said Faileuba, with a casual wave.

The six men stared at them for a moment, then drew knives and dove at the two chivalrous warriors.

“Oooh! A fight!” declared Faileuba joyously. As one of the men slashed at her, she blocked the blade with her hand.

To her assailant’s immense surprise, his knife snapped in two. Looking at the female Erl, he watched as her hands began to glow. Glancing over at Meliadus, he saw that the lanky Erl had just dispatched two of his fellows with a single kick.

It suddenly occurred to him that now would be a good time to run.

Meliadus looked at Faileuba as their opponents beat a hasty retreat. “Any idea what that was about, Fai?”

“None at all,” answered Faileuba. Meliadus raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m telling the truth.”

“Well, come on,” said Meliadus. “It’s--you. You have to understand my skepticism.”

She nodded. “Okay. Point.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 19

Malina skipped merrily down the road, while Pinador followed her. “Now this is the most neatest thing!” explained the little Dev. “I saw it while me an’ Sis an’ Jean were out yesterday!”

Pinador glanced back at the crowd. “Sh-shouldn’t we go to the wedding?”

Malina gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “We’ll just say we forgot. I do that all the time, and it always works on grownups.”

Pinador blinked. “Really?”

Malina bit her lip. “Well, sometimes they get a little mad, but then you just frownen your face up, and say you’re really, REALLY sorry, and things go all right.”

Pinador scratched his head in disbelief. “If you say so…”

“Oh, don’t be a baby!” said Malina. “This is so neat and cool it’ll be worth it!”

Pinador nodded. “Okay. Okay. It’s just--it’s spooky not having any grownups around.”

“Is not!” said Malina, putting her chin up. “I don’t get scared by stupid things like that! I’m like my Daddy, brave and jivalrus.”

“My Daddy is jivalrus too!” said Pinador fiercely. “He lost an eye saving the King--and he saved my mommy’s life when she was on trial by jousting!” He looked around. “That’s when two people get on top of horses and try to knock each other off with sticks.”

“I know what jousting is!” said Malina. She glanced at the young Erl. “What was your mommy on trial for?”

“Murder,” said Pinador casually.

“Ohh,” said Malina with a nod. “Was she guilty?”

“No!” replied Pinador. “That’s why Daddy was able to save her.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Well that and he’s the greatest jouster ever. And their love was true. And other stuff.”

Malina clapped her hands together. “Wow! That’s a much neaterer story than how my Daddy married either of my Mommies!” She glanced ahead. “Okay--we’re here!” She gestured to a small fountain carved in the shape of a naked Goblin boy urinating. “See?”

“Oh, neat!” said Pinador.

“Yeah,” Malina agreed with a nod. “It’s cool because he’s peeing,” she added in a confidential whisper.

“Mmm hmm,” said Pinador. Malina regarded him for a moment, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Pinador pulled away. “Ewww!” He looked at the young Dev. “Why’d you do that?”

“Because I like you!” she said. “Now we have to get married!”

“Nuh uh!” said Pinador shaking his head.

“Uh huh!” said Malina.

They were still discussing this matter when Nisrioch found them.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 18

“I m-m-must say,” said Psyche as they walked down the Red Path, “this has all b-b-been m-m-most ex-ex-exquisite.”

“Ahh,” said Malagise, “just wait my love. The wonders I have to show you beggar all description!”

Psyche snickered. “That is s-s-so like a m-m-man,” she stated gleefully.

Malagise glanced at his fiancée. “Hmm?” He blinked. “Oh, that. No, not I was talking about. That is completely normal, and utterly unremarkable.”

“You p-p-poor thing,” said Psyche.

“It serves its function well enough,” replied Malagise. “And anyway, I do all the hard work for the damn thing, and it gets all the credit.” He sighed and shook his head. “Frankly, it makes for a rather strained relationship at times.”

Zenobia shook her head. “W-w-well, M-m-Mal, I’ll s-suh-say this--conversations with you will never be d-d-dull.”

“I should hope not, Suky,” noted Malagise. He gestured ahead. “Look--Our Darksome Lady In Perpetual Gloom!”

The building at the end of the wide red-brick road was a massive edifice that looked like a fortress. It was covered in engravings and statues--the familiar images of Mother Night on her Lotus Throne, resting on the Dragon’s back, an image of the Dragon fighting with a gigantic winged lion, images of children, followed by images of men, followed by images of old men, followed by images of skeletons. And then there were birds, beasts, and fish--flowers, trees, and bushes--rivers, lakes, and oceans.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” noted Malagise, his voice a fervent whisper. “I first saw it years ago as a boy. I swore then if I’d ever be wed, it would be in there.:

“Ahhh, so the tr-tr-truth is revealed,” said Zenobia. “That is why White P-p-Pine.”

“What can I say?” answered Malagise. “I am sentimental. Can you forgive me for this trifling flaw?”

The Dev smiled. “It is why I’m m-m-marrying you,” she noted. “My parents were wed w-w-without sentiment.” She shook her head. “Let us say--it was not a h-h-happy marriage and leave it at that.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 17

Jean Crow watched as Lady Psyche Zenobia and Duke Malagise joined hands.

“You know,” she whispered to Elaine, “they’re actually kind of… sweet.” Elaine looked at her. “Proof there’s someone for everyone, I mean.”

Elaine raised an eyebrow. “You know--I always thought that was a pretty damn stupid saying.”

Jean rolled her eyes. “Right. Right.” She sighed and shook her head. “I should realize by now that this isn’t something I can talk about with you.”

“You should,” agreed Elaine. She turned to see Justinian Sigma approaching them.

“Miss du Lac, Miss Crow,” he stated with a stiff bow. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around very much. Eurydice needed my assistance.”

Jean smiled crookedly. “I can imagine.”

Justinian frowned. “We’ve been cleaning bedrooms. That is all.”

“Oooh, so that’s what you call it,” snickered Jean.

“I really don’t know why I bother,” said Justinian with a sigh.

“Well, I can guess that,” said Jean. “After all, bedrooms must be cleaned every now and then.”

Justinian seemed about to turn, when Eurydice reached his side. “Squire Sigma!” she stated. “I just realized I never got around to thanking properly for all your help…” Jean began to giggle furiously. Eurydice paused. “What’s she…?”

Justinian brought a hand to his forehead. “Take a guess,” he stated tiredly.

Eurydice thought it over, and then frowned. “I see.” She glared at Jean. “You have a filthy mind, Miss Crow. To imagine…” She bit her lip. “I’m a good girl.” Eurydice crossed her arms. “Anyway nothing untoward happened. We merely turned out sheets, dusted, and straightened things.” A twinkle came to the chambermaid’s eye. “It was wonderful!”

As a beaming Eurydice walked away, Elaine looked at Jean. “You know there might be something in that saying after all…”

“Shut up,” muttered Jean.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 16

“So,” Faileuba asked Gwyd, “why are these the Ghoulish Stairs again?”

“Because Ghouls made them,” said the Goblin, with a woeful sigh.

Faileuba frowned. “Well, that’s just stupid. I mean--would you call this wall the ‘Erlish Wall’ because Erls made it?”

“Not really,” answered Gwyd. “Because Goblins made it.”

Faileuba bit her lip. “That was a hypothetical example.”

Meliadus glanced at her, as music began to play. “Do you even know what that means?”

Faileuba snorted. “Of course I do! It…” She blinked. “Uh oh. I know that tune.” She darted behind Meliadus.

“Ummm… what…?” muttered the Erl nervously.

“It’s the Arbiter!” Faileuba hissed. “I have to hide!” With that, she ran off into an alleyway. A moment later, a pair of Mountain Erls--a man and a woman--emerged from it, looking rather shaken., and then pointedly began to walk in opposite directions of one another.

“Hmmm. Looks like someone was getting lucky,” noted Meliadus.

“Until they got Faileuba,” said Gwyd with a sigh. He shook his head. “I do wish she’d tell us what went down in Albracca. We might be able to help.”

Meliadus nodded. “And I wish you’d tell me what happened here. For the same reason.”

The Goblin raised his hand. “It was just--Guild of the Sword bullshit. Not important to anybody but me.”

“Not much of an answer, pal,” said Meliadus.

Gwyd glared at his partner. “Yeah. Well, it’s all you’re getting. There are things we keep private in this association. Which is why I’ve never asked you about those tattoos of yours.”

Meliadus nodded. “Fair enough.” The pair watched as the female Dev with stunted wings walked down the stairs towards a fat little Erl dressed in rich clothes. “I’m still trying to figure out who’s the lucky one in this relationship.”

“They’re both richer than we’ll ever be,” said Gwyd. “Descendents of some of the oldest families of the Lands of Night. So really--are we in any position to mock?”

“Yes,” answered Meliadus. “I have to do something to feel better.”

He glanced back at the alleyway. Faeileuba briefly stuck her head out, saw Madame Zenobia, and then went back to hiding.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 15

“You know, people forget this bit,” announced Morgaine as she and Nisrioch raced down the hall. “They talk about the inconveniences, but nine out of ten of any of these things is standing around waiting for stuff to happen.”

Nisrioch glanced at his sister. “We aren’t exactly doing that, are we?”

“I’m being figurative!” shrieked Morgaine. A male and female Erl jumped out of a nearby nook in surprise, stared at the Cthoniques for a moment, then rushed away.

“Very loudly so,” noted Nisrioch.

“Quiet, you,” snapped Morgaine. She shook her head, ruefully. “What are we doing? Rushing to the Ghoulish Steps so we can stand around and wait for the freaking Bride to walk down them! Honestly, bro. I really regret getting dragged along for this.” She pointed at her brother. “I mean--can you name one good reason for me to be here?”

A pair of thin pale arms snaked around her. “My magnificent cadaver,” purred a familiar voice.

“Despi!” squealed Morgaine, falling back and nuzzling with the taller Erl.

“Mmm, my exquisite vision of netherworldly enchantment,” murmured Fiordespina Maganza, resting her head on Morgaine’s. “Have you missed me?”

“You have to ask?” said Morgaine, taking Fiordespina’s hand. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard you had an invitation,” replied Fiordespina. “So I acquired one for myself.”

“Oh, you’d do that for me?” cooed Morgaine, fluttering her eyelashes.

Fiordespina curled one of her fingers in Morgaine’s hair. “Anything for my Lady of Dark Desire.”

Morgaine shut her eyes. “Mmmm,” she whimpered blissfully. Nisrioch coughed. “What?” asked Morgaine, her eyes snapping open.

“The Ghoulish Stairs…” noted her brother quietly.

Morgaine gave a dismissive wave. “Yeah. Go on without me. I’ll catch up. Eventually.” Fiordespina planted a kiss on the Dark Lord’s forehead, causing Morgaine to release a cheerful giggle.

“Well, I see you can now think of ONE reason to be here,” muttered Nisrioch as he walked away.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Guests at a Wedding--Part 14

The Abbot of Eternal Darkness coughed. “Rather nippy today, I think.”

Aldigier Chiaramonte nodded. “Mmmm. It’s early Ventose. So--it’s to be expected.”

“True, true, but…” The old Erl sighed, and fiddled with the necklace of beads that hung at his side. “This is colder than the norm. It’s rare to see a cold Ventose after a warm Pluviose. Some say it’s an ill omen. Things not following their natural course, and so forth.”

Aldigier raised one grey eyebrow. “Lord Abbot, some say a calf being born with one horn is an ill omen. They may be correct, but I have my doubts.” Having said that, the Bastard of Cremonia returned to his usual silence.

The Abbot picked up the heavy tome before him. “So then--you wish for--the traditional service, yes?” Aldigier nodded brusquely. “Oh, good, good!” declared the old man cheerily. “Too many people want the quick version these days.” He sighed. “I tell you, it is depressing, seeing them wishing to rush through the most sacred rite that produces the most sacred bond…” The Abbot realized who he was speaking with, and coughed nervously. “Well, one of the most sacred bonds, anyway.”

Aldigier smiled despite himself. “Of course.” He yawned. “So--I assume you are prepared for all this.”

“Oh, yes,” noted the Abbot. “I’ve even purchased the required goat.” He smiled. “Pure black! Quite auspicious.”

Aldigier nodded again. “I assume so.”

“I must thank you once again for the donation,” the Abbot stated. “Your family has been most generous to our See.” He sniffled. “We have fallen on hard times.”

“Many people have,” replied Alidgier.

“Aldy!” came the shrill voice of Lanfusa Chiaramonte. “You must do something! Mal STILL hasn’t bought more liq--” The little old woman blinked as she saw the Abbot there. “Oh. Reverence.” She mechanically performed the Obeisant Gesticulation. “Pleasure to see you.”

The Abbot coughed. “Ahh. Yes. You as well.” He fiddled with his robes. “Well. I really have to get things in order. Sacrificial blades don’t sharpen themselves…”

Lanfusa watched him leave, a subtle sneer on her face. “Tell me, Aldy--didn’t the old Abbots used to fight it out with the Maganzas?”

“Quite regularly, ma’am,” replied Aldigier. “Of course, that was a long time ago.”

She nodded. “What happened to ‘em?”

“What happens to us all,” said Aldiger levelly. “Time.”

“Hmmmph,” snorted Lanfusa. “Lady’s Love, I hate weddings. They make me feel old.” She shrugged. “Well, older than usual. And this one…” Lanfusa sighed. “Our little Mal. A married man.” She shook her head. “If that doesn’t drive you to drink, nothing will.”

“That is a way of looking at it, ma’am,” replied Aldigier.

“It’s my way, you mean,” muttered Lanfusa. “Tell me, Aldy--do you think anyone there will even consider that I was young, and pretty once?”

Aldigier bowed. “Of course. I will, ma’am.” He smiled at her, and took her hand. “I have never forgotten that.”

Lanfusa chuckled and then caressed his face. “You old dear.”