Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 15

“Well,” said Meleagans Flaxseed. “I think that went rather well.”

Porone Belltower and Hadrub Brighthand stared at the man. “Meleagans--you more or less confessed that your employees are also your tenants,” noted Porone quietly. “And that you pay them less than you charge them for rent. So that they have to take loans. From you.”

Meleagans nodded, a smile on his face. “Well, naturally. Right clever bit of business that is. Get the bastards hooked good and proper.”

Porone and Hadrub stared at each other, and silently confirmed to themselves that Flaxseed had united the entire Folly, however briefly, in a burning mutual desire to see him thrown into a deep, dank hole. Possibly, several times in succession.

Meleagans seemed quite oblivious to this fact. “Hey, look! His Excellency’s gotten himself a melon somewhere!” he noted. Flaxseed patted his belly. “Reminds me--I haven’t eaten since breakfast! Best go remedy that!”

Porone and Hadrub watched him amble off. “If we’re lucky he’ll be torn limb from limb,” noted Hadrub quietly.

“If you’re lucky, Brighthand,” commented Porone. “Remember, I’m only a sympathetic bystander. And if Flaxseed becomes the face of matchstick factory owners, I will change sides.”

“And wisely so,” agreed Hadrub. He sighed, and gave a ferocious shake of his head. “I told them not to try and set off a riot. The problem with undisciplined violence is, you never know where it’s going to end.”

“So what was your plan?” asked Porone.

“Cut off the snake’s head,” replied Hadrub. “Find these ‘Foxglove’ and ‘Flamefist’ fellows and have them dealt with.” He nodded quietly to himself. “Men can handle suffering themselves if they’re desperate. But seeing men they looked up to crushed--that kills the fight in them. Most times.”

“Or dulls it for awhile,” said Porone. “Still--a better idea than your fellows came up with. Putting everyone on edge only resulted in tipping everything over it. And where it will all fall--the Darksome Lady alone knows.” He glanced away. “I hear Flamefist is coming forward.”

Hadrub gave a bleak laugh. “So they say. Personally, I doubt it. His sort always crawl back under their rocks once the trouble starts…” He smiled. “Besides, things aren’t so bad, really. Flaxseed makes a fool of himself? Well, we make sure he takes the hit, a few nice words are said, and then we get back to business as usual.” Brighthand slapped his hands together. “Just you watch. Nothing will really need to change.”

Porone was considering how to respond to that when a stirring came from the crowd. “Flamefist!” cried someone. “It’s the Flamefist!” shouted another. Porone turned to see this mysterious champion of the commons. And then he found himself grabbing Hadrub by the shoulder.

“Brighthand,” he noted. “You might want…”

Hadrub glanced over. “Wha--?” And then he froze. His son Menadarb was walking among the crowd, clad in simple clothing, head held high. Around him they chanted ‘Flamefist, Flamefist, Flamefist!’

Hadrub darted forward. “Menadarb! Boy! What--what is the meaning of this?”

Menadarb moved on, as if he didn’t hear Hadrub speaking, or even see him. He simply walked up the court steps.

“Menadarb! Menadarb!” shouted his father, as Menadarb disappeared into the building. “What’s going on? What is happening?” Hadrub gave a great sob. “Darksome Lady, lad, don’t you know your own da’!”

Porone rushed to his friend side, as Brighthand tried to hold back his tears. “Hadrub--are you all right?”

“Lady’s Love, Porone!” he cried. “That was my boy! My own sweet boy! And he--now he’s--” He shook his head. “What is happening in this city?”

Porone considered what to say, and decided to simply pretend he didn’t know the answer, while patting Hadrub’s shoulder.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 14

Nisrioch Cthonique spread his hands. “Hear ye, hear ye, people of Marsilion’s Folly!” He gestured to his brother, who sat on a large chair, his chains displayed prominently on his arms and legs. “Mansemat Cthonique, Slave of the People, Cthonique of Castle Terribel sits in judgment to uphold the law and keep the peace. May Mother Night lead us to truth, and the Dragon protect us with His mighty wings.”

“And may Darkness reign eternal,” proclaimed the assembled crowd in the Folly’s Great Court. Jean Crow glanced at Nisrioch as he took his seat.

“So--that’s it for you?” she asked.

“Until the case ends. Now I’m merely an observer,” he replied. “Comes with being the Cthonique of Lamek’s Needle. Traditionally, it was the Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread heir, though we’ve changed that somewhat… Still--the protocol is clear. The Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste opens the Court.”

“What is it you people and ritual?” muttered Jean. “The Church across the river has less of them.” She shook her head. “I’m betting all this is written in a book somewhere.”

“Several books, actually,” replied Nisrioch. “But--well, we lost so much to the Empire. I think a great deal of the Nightlander culture is about making sure we never lose anything else again.”

Jean stared out at the crowd. You could tell the owners from the workers rather easily. “You guys love lost causes, don’t you?”

“Best things to fight for,” said Nisrioch positively. “Well, aside from a good bit of melon at the breakfast table.” He licked his lips fondly, rainbow-colored eyes twinkling with delight. “I tell you, they are wonderful. Quench your hunger AND your thirst at the same time! And they work as their own bowl. So they’re very efficient, food-wise.”

Jean sighed and lowered her head. “I should just--stop expecting to carry on meaningful conversation with you, shouldn’t I?”

“Not for very long stretches, I’m afraid,” replied Nisrioch. “It bores me.” He smiled at her. “Has… Mother’s little mark been…?”

Jean touched her hand to the strange markings Zamial had placed on her forehead. “These days, I barely notice it’s there. Except when I look at myself in the mirror.” Nisrioch nodded. “Okay, there’s something you’re not--”

Mansemat clapped his hands together. “People of Marsilion’s Folly--I come here to speak of weighty matters. The peace of the city has been broken and I have been asked to sift through this matter. Both sides claim to be the wronged ones in this dispute, the victims of the other’s greed. In such cases, it is difficult to find the truth--and yet I shall endeavor to do so, to the best of my ability.”

“Hail to His Magnificence,” shouted the assembled crowd, both groups trying to shout louder and with more enthusiasm than the other. “The people’s Lord is the people’s slave!”

Nisrioch rubbed his chin fitfully. “Oh, dear.”

Jean glanced at him. “What’s wrong?”

“I seem to have given myself a craving for melons,” said Nisrioch wistfully. He sighed. “Hopefully, I can last until the first recess, but if not…” He let out a low moan. “Oh, cruel fate! To make a man desire melons, and yet keep them from him!”

“I’d think you’d be used to that,” muttered Jean. “What with being involved with Alcina…”

“Mmm, she does hog them some mornings, but usually, she and I enjoy a delicious sampling of melon, followed by peaches and dumplings,” said Nisrioch.

Jean winced. If this conversation wasn’t obscene, then it damn might as well have been.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 13

Justinian wandered down the hall, lugging the ponderous ebony box with him. A few moments past, he’d been recruited by Eurydice to carry the heavy thing to Mansemat, as it was part of ‘the Lord’s regalia’. As far Justinian could tell, that seemed to be code for ‘ridiculously heavy item that serves no actual purpose, save to get lugged out on occasion and put someone’s back out.’

That was more or less what it meant back at the Sacristry. At times like this, Justinian couldn’t help but feel that crossing the Murkenmere and being impressed into the service of House Cthonique really wasn’t that great a change for him. He was still lugging heavy objects around for purposes he only vaguely understood in exchange for room and board.

Of course, there was the difference of loyal service to the Church and Faith in contrast to grudging service to his spiritual enemies, but on the day-to-day things, that didn’t make much of a difference.

Justinian stopped before the large copper-studded door Eurydice had directed to and knocked. “Your Magnificence? It’s me. Justinian Sigma. With your… box.”

“Ahh. The chains of office,” came Mansemat Cthonique’s voice from within. “Just in time. Please, enter.”

Justinian set the box down, and opened the door, then dragged the damn thing into the chamber. Mansemat stood inside, wearing a short-sleeved doublet, and a pair of silk pants. An elaborate robe covered with images of dragons, lotuses, and holly leaves hung nearby. The Dark Lord stepped forward and knelt by the box. “Thank you, Squire Sigma,” he stated. “I appreciate this.”

“Don’t…” began Sigma and then stopped as he saw Mansemat’s right arm.

The Dark Lord paused and glanced at the lengthy scar than ran to his elbow. “Old wound,” he said quietly. “Not as bad as it looks. I barely feel most days.” He popped open the box.

“I didn’t mean to stare, sir,” began Justinian, “it’s just…” And then he got a good look at what Mansemat was taking out of the box. “I… Those are your…”

“Chains of office, yes,” said Mansemat, as he fastened the gold-plated, jewel-encrusted shackle around his wrist. “Supposedly they’re Marduk’s originals--though I have my doubts…”

Justinian nodded dully. “So when you sit in court, you are… wearing chains. I see.” He bit his lip. “Why?”

“I’d say ‘tradition’, but it’s one that had fallen to the wayside when I became the Cthonique of Castle Terribel,” noted Mansemat. “I restored it. I thought we needed to remember where we came from.” He fastened the other shackle on and smiled. “Marduk Cthonique, founder of my line. Born a slave, in Mount Cthonique, like a hundred others. Lead his fellows in an uprising, and helped free the Plains. He kept his chains to show people that there was still one slave left--himself, servant to the people’s will.” Mansemat shook his head. “His descendents prettied the chains up--which only made them more cumbersome--and then they created a nice little symbol of the chains to wear, so they wouldn’t be inconvenienced.” He sighed. “If you ask me, that was when the rot set in, the things that lead us to Nerghal and my father…”

Justinian nodded. “So--Asterot wasn’t just… venting back at the Council. You are descended from a slave.”

“From many slaves,” said Mansemat. “The first of whom lead his people to freedom against odds that were by all rights impossible.” A smile came on the Erl’s white face. “I see no shame in this aspect of my heritage, Squire Sigma. Only pride. The pride of being a member of a family who climbed so high through the favor of Mother Night, and in the service of her causes--justice and freedom. Let other’s keep their storied names, their descent from divine heroes and spiritual beings. I’ll take my chains and wear them gladly.” Mansemat turned back to the box, then paused. “Squire Sigma--could you help me with the leg irons? They--tend to be a bit of a hassle…”

Justinian nodded. “Of course, Dark Lord.” It occurred to him that there were other times, like this, when he felt that his situation had changed beyond all belief.

The frightening part was he was getting used to it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 12

“They did what?” said Mansemat Cthonique, his eyes wide. Breus quietly refilled the Dark Lord’s glass.

“Unleashed their… hired muscle on the protestors,” said Mayor Latheawl. The muscular Erl’s face twisted into a grimace. “Of course, they all deny that’s happening, or claim that it’s somebody else. But, really it’s all so transparent…” He waved his hand. “All over three drunken Caps getting some sense in them.”

Mansemat nodded and looked at his brother. “I thought you were bringing matters under control.”

“Trying to,” said Nisrioch admonishingly. “You know how tangled these things can get.”

Mansemat leaned back in his chair, and sighed. “Yes, but I was hoping against hope this would be one of the simple times.” He turned again to the Mayor. “So--how bad is it?”

Latheawl looked away. “Well, they aren’t fighting it out in the streets at the moment. Largely because the owners were surprised at the resistance, and the protestors--well, they know how that ends up.” Mansemat and Nisrioch both nodded in grim agreement. “Everyone is expecting something to be done, though exactly what is a somewhat thornier issue.”

“And what of you, sir?” asked Mansemat.

“Don’t see where I have much choice,” replied the mayor. “Blood has been shed in the streets of my city. And so I invoke the Dark Lord’s Judgment.”

Mansemat nodded, and shut his eyes. “Very well. Tell the folk to gather in the Court. I will hear the case.” He looked at Breus, and gave a slight nod of his head. “Break out the chains of office, le FidelĂ©. The Dark Lord of the Plains sits in the Court.”

Breus bowed. “It will be done, Your Magnificence.”

As the High Steward left the room, Nisrioch turned to regard his brother. “Well--look on the good side, Manny--it’s not the latest iteration of the pig case.”

Mansemat winced. “I swear, Redroot and Gristmill have managed to find more wrinkles on that matter than I thought possible!”

Mayor Latheawl coughed politely. Nisrioch glanced at him. “Oh, don’t worry, sir. We complain about Redroot vs. Gristmill in front of all the Lord Mayors of the Folly.”

Corin nodded, and then stood. “Well--still, I must be off. Have to prepare for things. And spread oil on the waters, so they don’t try to burn down the rest of the city…”

Mansemat regarded him for a moment. “You know, Mr. Latheawl, I have to ask--has it all been what you thought?”

Corin stood there and regarded the Dark Lords calmly. “I suppose to say it’s been a surprise. But honestly--this is exactly how I thought things would go if I ever sat in the Mayor’s seat.” He chuckled grimly. “Knew this wouldn’t be an easy job, Your Magnificence. Just a necessary one.” He bowed slightly to Mansemat, who bowed slightly back, and then left the hall.

“There goes a dangerous man,” noted Mansemat to his brother.

“Only to his enemies,” replied Nisrioch.

“Let’s hope we’re never counted among them,” said Mansemat. He shook his head. “By the Lady, who’d have thought so small a thing could become so great a matter? All this--over matchsticks.”

“Well, it falls to you to resolve things, Manny,” noted Nisrioch.

“And I shall,” declared Mansemat ringingly. “Eight years of listening to disputes over a pig have not been wasted. My legal acumen and judgment have been strengthened so--ow!”

“What’s wrong?” asked Nisrioch.

“Bit my tongue,” said Mansemat.

“Oh, I hate it when that happens,” noted his brother. “Would you like some ice water?”

“Yes, please,” said Mansemat quietly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 11

Calabrun Truegoods tottered through the streets. “Love--loved that cricket!” he proclaimed to his companions.

“Fine animal,” said Elias Clabbermouth. “Credit to his species.”

“Mmm,” said Brontin Goldleaf. “Died with h--hon--honor.” And then he suppressed an urge to vomit, due to his extraordinary drunkenness, a condition shared by his two friends. They’d set out from the Fellowship Hall with the idea of cheering Calabrun up through the reliable help of alcohol. And yet for once, this reliable helper had failed--Calabrun only seemed to get more depressed as he drank, regaling his friends with anecdotes of the deceased Black Anguish, who Calabrun made clear had been a paragon among crickets.

It was all rather disconcerting when you got down to it. This was, after all, a cricket.

This probably explains why the trio failed to watch where they were going and wandered into one of those sections of Marsilion’s Folly. The sections that when sober they not only avoided, but pretended did not exist. Or when that was not an option, loudly opined shouldn’t exist. On a later recollection, none of the three could remember the exact moment when they strayed into an area where the sight of three well-dressed men in caps didn’t merely cause a mild annoyed roll of the eyes. They simply became aware of the fact that there was a not-small crowd following them.

If they’d been sober, the three would probably have recognized this as a situation that required them to keep their mouths shut, and move along quickly and quietly. But they were most certainly not, which is why things fell out like they did.

“Hey!” shouted Elias. “Are you following us?”

A scruffy-looking Erl came out of the crowd. “Just… keeping an eye on you, sirs,” he said, in a voice that managed to approach politeness, and yet ever so subtly miss it. “Making sure you don’t come to no harm. There’s rough sorts out in the Folly these nights.”

Calabrun turned and lifted his cap. “And do these ‘rough sortses’ wear the Cap of a High Worthy of Trade Gentleman?” He raised a fist, an act far less intimidating than he imagined it to be. “Well, do they?”

The scruffy-looking Erl handled this response with surprising aplomb. “Some do, yes,” he said, crossing his arms. “The Caps send folk here looking for fights.”

“Nonsense! The Fellows are the most worthy peoples there is in the city!” cried out Calabrun. “Are you saying they’re not?” He took a fighting poise. “Come over here and say that!”

Elias and Brontin, who were somewhat less drunk than Calabrun, grabbed him. “Keep calm, Truegoods,” said Brontin. “It’s not worth it.”

“I say we give him what he wants,” muttered one of the men.

“Remember what Flamefist said!” snapped the leader.

“Please, let’s all be calm!” said Brontin. “My friend’s had a rough night.”

“Right! You have to excuse him,” said Elias hopefully. “His fighting cricket just died.”

One member of the crowd blinked. “By the Lady! He’s gone soft-headed over a damned cricket?”

Calabrun snorted, and broke free from his companions. “Black Anguish wasn’t just any cricket! He was a champion!” he shouted, then punched that man in the jaw.

That was all it took to set it off. Afterwards, nursing their bruised and broken bodies, the three agreed they had perhaps a little more drink than was good for them, and that Calabrun had been ever so slightly out of hand.

But that was afterwards. At the time, they were much to busy being beaten up to form any real observances.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 10

Porone Belltower sipped his wine. “So that’s it, eh?”

“There’s not much His Excellency can really do,” noted Hadrub Brighthand. “And he’s a man who has his own, strange agenda, though the Dragon knows what it is.”

“So in other words--expect little and you won’t be disappointed,” noted Porone.

Hadrub laughed, then shook his head. “True. True. This is… a muddle.” He bit his lip. “Everyone else is blaming the Mayor, but honestly, I think Latheawl’s as nervous as we are. It’s these leaders that are to blame. Foxglove and Flamefist. The bastards seem to know just how to hit us. Last week, Melissa Flaxseed had her Debut ruined by a group of them chanting outside Meleagans’ mansion.”

“Leaders can be dealt with,” noted Porone simply.

Hadrub rolled his eyes. “If you can find them. Foxglove used to run with the Street Orphans, so he knows how to hide. As for Flamefist--no one’s ever heard of the man before a few weeks ago. And all we do know is that they think he’s going to tear the city down around the Caps.”

Porone laughed. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“Go, Black Anguish!” shouted Calabrun Truegoods, waving his cap. “Slaughter the bastard! You’ve got him!”

“Don’t listen to their talk, Red Lightning!” said Gosric Milkbeard. “You’re a champion, if there ever was one!”

Hadrub glanced at Porone. “Do you ever find the Fellowship Hall cricket fights a tad… depressing?” he muttered quietly.

“I try to find a measure of satisfaction from them,” replied Porone. “Think of it, Brighthand--men of wealth and prestige among the Caps--betting on which cricket will bite the other’s head off like a bunch of urchins in a back alley.” He waved a hand mildly. “There’s something almost--poetic about that, in my mind.” Hadrub gave a distracted nod. “How’s your son?” asked Porone quietly.

Hadrub looked at his friend with just a touch of desperation. “I can’t make head or tails of it, Belltower. Never had this sort of problems with him in the past. Oh, he was a bit driftless, and he spent money like it was water, but…” The older factory owner shook his head fondly. “Well, hell’s bells, I climbed so he could live like that. I wanted a son with… polish.” Hadrub looked at his wine bitterly. “But now… leaves at all strange hours. Comes back with dirty clothes. Last morning--he made it sound like he’s on Latheawl’s side.”

Porone nodded, and took another sip of his tea. “I ever tell you of the time I met Lord Nerghal?”

“No, you haven’t,” said Hadrub. He regarded Porone with a puzzled look. “What’s that…?”

“Let me tell you, and it should all make sense,” said Porone. “After he killed old Ailil, Nerghal made a tour of the Folly. He visited everyone, even us in the Bells. First Dark Lord I’d ever seen. This was after my father’s accident, so I was on water duty, even though I was only nine. Well, no sooner has Nerghal seen me, then he has me come to his side, and he starts asking me questions. Wants to know if I like it in the Belltower. Well, he’s the Dark Lord, so I tell him the truth--I say ‘no’.” A smile touched Porone’s features. “Well, everyone is staring at me in terror, and Nerghal, he just laughs and tossles my hair. ‘Then you better run, my lad,’ he tells me, ‘fast as you can.’ And then he handed me a gold mark.” Porone was silent for a while. “I worshiped the man after that. Oh, I knew he’d just come because he had to make his little bloodbath look like a proper Judgment of the House--but he listened to me. And in that moment--he cared.” Porone finished his wine. “I took his advice. And it carried me--a long way.”

Hadrub looked at the merchant in puzzlement. “How does that…?”

“I’m just trying to make it clear, Hadrub,” said Porone. “Everyone’s a hero to someone. Even a man who slaughtered most of his immediate family.”

“Hurrah for Red Lightning!” shouted Osric in joy.

Brontin Goldleaf and Elias Clabbermouth patted the weeping Calabrun on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Truegoods,” said Elias. “It was a good match. Black Anguish died with style!”

“Mmmm,” agreed Brontin. “Best one I’ve seen in a while. Red Lightning tore his head clean off!”

Calabrun buried his head in hands.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 9

“This is an outrage!” shouted Meleagans Flaxseed. He gestured at Corin Latheawl. “Remove this man from office, Your Excellency!”

Corin Latheawl frowned at the man. “The Thing can remove the Mayor, Flaxseed,” he stated levelly. “Not the Dark Lord of the Waste. You know that.”

“Aye, and the Thing is packed with your--disgraceful followers,” snapped Meleagans. He looked at Nisrioch imploringly. “They’re encouraging this lawlessness! Even the Hats understood that you had to nip this sort of--restlessness in the bud! Use the vigils! We pay them for something!”

“To keep the peace,” said Corin. “Which they are doing. Such as when a group of men who were found to… work security for you tried to assault the picketers.”

“That was their own initiative,” said Meleagans quietly glancing furtively at the door. “Don’t you see how these people are tearing the Folly apart?”

“These people are as much a part of the Folly as you or I, Flaxseed,” replied Corin. The Mayor’s frown deepened, looking almost menacing on his large block of a face. “Some would say they’re more a part then some of us.”

“Don’t try and bring up your Hand nonsense!” shouted Meleagans, his face growing red. “This city was working before you started up!” The factory owner glanced at his fellows, who were all doing their best to look away from Flaxseed’s rather unseemly display. Meleagans shifted awkwardly, suddenly aware that he was not helping his case as much as he imagined. “Well, it was,” he said. “Folk did what they were told, and were happy to do it! But then you--” He turned to the Mayor, and pointed an accusing finger-- “came along and started telling them a lot of nonsense about how things ought to be, and now it’s all gone to hell. What with the grain dole, and all that rot…”

Corin stared at Meleagans quietly. “Flaxseed, do you honestly believe that the Cheapside fire would be less of a problem if I hadn’t reintroduced the grain dole?”

“Well, yes,” said Meleagans. “Because then folks would have to go back to work for us, so they’d shut their mouths, and not get ideas. But thanks to you, they can avoid working for a while, and that makes them get ideas.”

Corin was thinking of some way to respond to that when a loud slurping noise that caught everyone’s attention saved him from doing that. Nisrioch Cthonique was guzzling a cup. After a moment, he put it down with a satisfied sigh, and then smiled apologetically at the assembly. “Sorry. It’s simply the last bits of tea tend to be the best, and I haven’t had a first rate cup in a while.” He smiled at everyone again. “I have been paying attention. Honest.”

Hadrub Brighthand stepped forward, on the theory that someone--anyone--other than Meleagans Flaxseed needed to speak for the owners. “We do not doubt it, Your Excellency. We have called you in because we feel that the Mayor is not looking after our interests.”

“And the Mayor does not feel you are looking out for his,” noted Nisrioch gently. The Erl stood to his full height--a rather unnerving sight. “Rest assured, Mr. Brighthand, I wish this matter to be solved to the satisfaction of all, you included. But House Cthonique must look to the interests of all who we are pledged to serve, even in something as small as the matter of the matchsticks.” He looked at Hadrub sympathetically. “Surely some sort of compromise can be reached…?”

Hadrub frowned slightly. “You must understand Your Excellency--this goes beyond a labor dispute. These people hound us throughout the city, demonstrating outside our clubs, our theaters, and other places of amusement. They hound and harass us, and they work against our interests.” He turned to Latheawl. “While I feel my… colleague has overstated matters, the fact remains that it is hard not to feel that the Mayor and his fellow Hands are encouraging this situation for their own purposes.”

“We are simply trying to run this city by our principles,” said Corin. “A key one of which is justice for all, not merely those with wealth.”

“Ah, so that’s how you view it,” said Hadrub, frowning bitterly. He looked at Nisrioch. “Someone is giving direction to these people, Dark Lord. Their aim is a little too unerring to be mere luck. Someone is telling them where we are.”

“Are you accusing me?” snapped Corin. “If you are, just say so. This dancing around the issue does you and yours no credit, Brighthand!”

“Gentlemen,” said Nisrioch, raising his hand. “Let us all keep our heads. We are all ultimately working to the same ends, I hope.”

“I hope it as well, Your Excellency,” said Brighthand. “But hopes are a slender reed in these times.” Hadrub turned as he heard a skipping sound behind him.

“Uncle Nissy! Uncle Nissy!” said Malina as she rushed in. “Thecla had babies! There are baby seals now! Baby seals!”

Elaine followed her sister in. “I tried to tell her, but…”

Nisrioch sighed. “It’s all right.” He looked at his niece. “So--how many babies?”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 8

Justinian stared out at the streets of Marsilion’s Folly from the comfort of Nisrioch’s carriage. While he hardly considered himself an expert on life in the Folly, the atmosphere in the city seemed tense. Crowds of slightly ragged men and women milled about on the street, some of whom were holding blunt objects, and others of whom were holding signs. Justinian read one which declared ‘The Wellbeing of Marsilion’s Folly Is Built Upon The Labours Of Its Abused Workers Who Are Neglected By The Owners Who Have No Idea Of How Absolutely Vital They Are…” At which point, the sign bearer finally passed out of view.

It occurred to Justinian that the Folly’s higher rate of literacy had some rather odd side-effects. Still, the obvious tension was worrying. It put Justinian in mind of the Black Year when the harvest around Almace had failed, and people had become… restless. They’d crowded the streets calling out for bread, for coins, for something. A few odd street prophets had risen up, claiming that the end times were upon them, that the King had been stricken ill for his failure to abide by the Precepts of the Faith, that the Great War was at hand and that Heaven demanded the overthrow of the House of Pescheour. The Sacristans had actually been called out to patrol the streets when things reached their worst, though Joyeuse had been spared an outright riot. But it had been close.

Marsilion’s Folly didn’t seem quite as bad. The crowds parted to let the carriage through, with many saluting Nisrioch as he glanced out the window. Justinian was growing used to how fond their subjects seemed of the Cthoniques, but every now and then it still surprised him.

“You’ve got that far-off look,” said Elaine. “It’s kind of spooky.”

Justinian turned and bowed. “Just… musing, Your Grace.” He looked back out the window of the carriage. “About home, strangely enough. This situation… brings back memories. Impossible as it may seem to you.”

“So you have poor people in the Lands of Light?” said Elaine with a rather exaggerated gasp. “And--they get upset on occasion? By the Darksome Lady… how can this be?”

Justinian winced. “I really should lean how to avoid your sarcasm, shouldn’t I?”

“Well, normally, I’d say ‘no’, but you just stumble into rejoinders from everybody, Sigma, so I’ll agree with you,” replied Elaine. “I mean--you’re too easy. I feel guilty about it afterwards.”

“Well, thank you,” said Justinian with a satisfied nod. “Now, if Jean would just come around to your way of thinking, my problems would largely be solved.”

“What about Morgaine?” asked Elaine.

“Her Excellency is a force of nature,” replied the Milesian. “A sarcastic force of nature. I expect reasonable improvement, not miracles.”

Malina clapped her hands together. “Oooh! The menagerie’s open!” She looked at her uncle. “Can we go later?”

Nisrioch was peering worriedly at the crowds when this question was asked, but turned immediately to smile at his niece. “If this little matter doesn’t last too long, then of course, Mal.”

Malina nodded. “Yay! We can see the seals!” She turned to her sister. “I like the seals.”

Elaine nodded. “I’ve heard.”

Nisrioch sighed as the carriage came to a stop in front of large imposing building with a statue of Mother Night holding a sword placed in front of it. “I’m afraid that was a ‘maybe‘, Malina. It depends on this crowd, and--well, they seem to mean business.”

“Maybe we can ask them to go see the seals with us?” suggested the young Dev.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 7

Elaine was halfway through reading The House of Memory when her candle went out. As she was right in the middle of an incredibly interesting sentence, involving a revelation of just who was the actual heir of whom, she grumbled to herself, and went to her drawer for a matchstick. She opened the drawer, and placed her hand inside. It struck wood.

Elaine blinked. This was… odd. Actually, it was unprecedented. She ran her hand through the drawer, in hopes that a match might be in some little corner. There wasn’t. Elaine looked around the room to make certain her mother was incapable of hearing her, and then swore quietly under her breath. This was serious. Elaine put on her serious expression, and headed out of her room into the hall.

The hall was extremely dark, and she had to make her way through it by touching her hand to the wall. This worked well enough, until she struck a little form that went ‘oof’, that nearly sent her strongly. Elaine clutched the wall as tightly as she could, then coughed politely. She knew that ‘oof’’. “Malina? Is that you?”

“Yes,” said her sister. Elaine heard some rustling, and then felt Malina’s hand tugging at her shirt. “We are under attack by the Owlie Men.”

“Allemanes,” said Elaine. “And they were disbanded four centuries ago.”

“But they’re back, and they’re attacking us, so we have to put out all the lights, and be extra quiet,” declared Malina.

“Yeah. No, we aren’t, Malina,” said Elaine. “Now, any idea where your father is? Or someone who might know what’s going on?”

“Jean’s in the Small Courtyard,” said Malina. “I’ll take you to her. You have to be kept safe from the Owlie Men!”

Elaine sighed, and rustled her little sister’s hair. “Sure, Malina. Sure,” she said, with a light flick of the young Dev’s horns.

The pair made their way to the Small Courtyard, which was actually quite large, but much smaller than the Great Courtyard, which had been built after it. To Elaine’s surprise, Jean was standing on a post with her arms stretched out. “Ummm, Jean… what…?” she began.

“Magic practice,” said Jean bleakly. “Just be glad it isn’t you.” She shook her head. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Not… really,” said Elaine. “Ummm… do you know where my mom is? Or Mansemat? Or Nisrioch? Or… anybody?”

“I’ve been standing here for several hours, Elaine,” replied Jean. “I barely know where I am.”

“Ahh.” Elaine glanced around awkwardly. “Well, this is awkward, because I really need to talk to one of them.”

“The Owley Men are invading!” declared Malina brightly.

“No, they aren’t,” said Elaine. She sighed. “You’re making me regret reading the Tapestry to you, Malina…”

“Awww,” said Malina looking at Elaine pleadingly. “But I want to see who wins!”

Elaine shut her eyes. “It doesn’t quite work that way, Malina.”

“Salutations, nieces,” declared Nisrioch as he wandered into view. He glanced at Jean. “How goes the training, apprentice?”

“I’ve settled down from a burning need to kill you, to dull urge,” said Jean.

The Dark Lord nodded. “This is usual.”

“Nissy, I’m out of matches,” said Elaine.

Nisrioch turned towards her. “Ahh, yes. That. We’re all out of matches. The matchstick factories are still closed.”

Elaine blinked. “What…?”

“Remember that fire in the Folly?” began Nisrioch. “It started in the matchstick factories…”

“That was a month ago,” said Elaine. “Shouldn’t they be fixed by now…”

“They are,” said Nisrioch awkwardly, “but… well, it’s complicated.”

“I’m reading de la Marche’s novels,” noted Elaine with a cross of her arms. “I can handle ‘complicated’.”

Nisrioch studied her for a moment, his rainbow-hued eyes glinting in the moonlight. “Very well. I’ve been thinking of a trip to the Folly. Interested?”

Elaine nodded. “Sounds great.”

Malina clapped her hands together. “Yay!” She looked at her sister. “They’ll help us fight off the Owley Men!”

Nisrioch glanced at Elaine. “You’ve been reading her the Tapestry, haven’t you?”

“Yep,” said Elaine rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“Ummm--Nisrioch? Sir?” said Jean quietly. “Can I get off this post now?”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part Six

They were meeting in the fourth-cheapest tavern in Marsilion’s Folly. This was because they had to meet somewhere, and a taverns was the only place they could think of. They were in the Black Sign because it had to be affordable, and the three cheaper ones had reputations for knife-fights and assorted mayhem that was not very conductive to meetings.

Especially the sort of meeting they were holding.

“--down with Flaxseed! Down with Staghorn! And down with Brighthand!” shouted Cole Foxglove at the top of his lungs. The gathered workers applauded, while allowing Cole to refresh himself with a drink. As soon as he’d wetted his throat, he began speaking again. “We work, and they get rich! We wreck ourselves, and they build mansions. We die, and they flourish! Well, I’m sick of it! The Hands hold the City Thing! Now’s the time to act! NOW!”

The assembled men and women applauded, as Foxglove had said what they were all thinking. Now was definitely the time to do something. Exactly what that something should be was harder to figure out, but it clearly had to be some sort of something. After all, they’d been trying nothing for years, and it really wasn’t working out.

Cole gave a satisfied nod as the applause continued. Cole was not a handsome man, or a strong man. He was a lean, wiry man who’d aged before his time working at the flax looms, and then the matchstick factories. But something had taken root in him--a burning conviction that things were wrong, and that folk like him needed to do something about it.

The applause lasted for several minutes before ending. Indeed, one man kept applauding long after everyone else had stopped. “Excellent! Capital! Well put!” he shouted. “How do you intend to do it?”

Cole blinked and looked through the crowd. His questioner was standing on the edge of it, as if trying to keep out of sight. “We’ll make the bastards listen to us. The Thing’s on our side.”

“I don’t think you appreciate how bad your situation is,” said the questioner softly. “These men see you as bricks, and mortar. Material, to be bought and replaced as needed.” Cole saw him then--a young gentleman, in fine clothing, so conspicuously out of place here. “You cannot reason with these men, for they do not see you as having reason. You are things to them. A commodity.”

Cole stared at the young man for awhile. He had started to recognize this wealthy stranger as he spoke, and now Cole was sure. “Young Brighthand,” he said calmly. “Go crawl back to your father, and tell him we are not intimidated.”

Menadarb winced, especially as the crowd began to surround him, but remained standing. “I am not here on his behalf. I’m here on my own.” Menadarb bowed his unadorned head. “I’d like to help you.”

Cole glared at the young Erl. “We do not need help from the likes of you, Brighthand.”

Menadarb stepped forward, his expression almost eager. “I think you do.” He gulped, rubbed his hands together, then looked over the crowd. “They have weak spots. You just have to know what they are, and how to strike them. And I have some--ideas on that…”

The crowd looked to Cole for leadership. Menadarb’s comments were… confusing. They had a natural distrust for the people they worked for, one that was based on experience. Still, Menadarb sounded horribly sincere, and this could be very good for them. But if he wasn’t sincere, then it would be very bad for them. Worse then now, actually.

As he often did, Cole demonstrated why he was unofficially in charge by coming up with a good way to sum all these conflicting ideas. “Tell us why we should trust you?”

“You need me,” said Menadarb. “And I need you. If I ever want to have a good’s night sleep again. If I ever want to look in the mirror and not see something horrible. Then I have to help you.”

Cole nodded. “Don’t know if that’s the best answer,” he said. “But it’s a start.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 5

Porone Belltower was in Armida’s place drinking with his associate Gama Copperboots, with Cybele and Ops serving the wine and Tisiphone playing her lute. “How much can you bring into the city over the next month?” asked Porone calmly.

“Bricks are heavy,” noted Gama. “You can only put so many in a cart before you have to add more mules. Or bring in a few hedge wizards, and they aren’t cheap. And I’ve only got so many carts. Still… a few hundred thousand at least.”

Porone nodded, and sipped his drink. “The profits will go to those who bring them in quickly. I’ve got the contacts to buy them--transport is the only problem…”

Gama gave a fond laugh. “Well, Belltower, I’m your man.” He picked up his glass, gulped it down, then slammed it on the table. “A little more! Some Albraccan White, if you have it!” Ops darted forward, and poured the drink, while Gama eyed her appreciatively. As she finished pouring, he gave the young woman an appreciative slap on the rear. “Ahh, that’s one thing I love about Armida’s,” he declared. “So much… quality scenery.”

Porone nodded in agreement, while reminding himself to give Ops an exceptionally generous tip for her troubles. He turned to Tisiphone. “I’m in the mood for Lord Assur’s Ballad, if you’ll play it.”

The blind lautist nodded, and began to play. “Pastime with good company, I love and shall until I die. Grudge who lust, but none deny, Lady be pleased so live will I!” she sang. “For my pastance, hunt, sing and dance, my heart is set! All goodly sport, for my comfort, who shall me let?”

Porone tapped his feet in time to the lively tune. As he raised his glass, he saw young Brighthand enter the establishment. “Menadarb! A pleasure to see you!” Menadarb gave a tense wave. Porone gestured to the seat next to him. “Please take a seat! Copperboots and I were just concluding a deal.”

“I--I’m here to see Miss Rhea,” began Menadarb nervously.

“Youth must have some dalliance, of good or ill some pastance,” sang Tisiphone. “Company methinks then best, all thoughts and fancies to digest. For idleness is chief mistress of vices all! Then who can say, but mirth and play is best of all?”

“It will take her a few moments to arrive,” said Porone. “A cup of wine in good company is good way to spend that time.”

Menadarb bit his lip then sat down. Cybele filled the cup. Menadarb stared at it for a moment, then took a lengthy swallow. Setting it down, he stared at the wine. “So… Belltower. Have you any thoughts on the fire?”

Porone shrugged. “A tragedy for some. A nuisance for others. An opportunity for such as I, I am not ashamed to admit. Such is the way of such things.”

Menadarb nodded dully, then looked the merchant in the face. “Should it be?”

Porone frowned. “I don’t understand you,” he said.

“Should it be the way of such things?” asked Menadarb pointedly.

Tisiphone began to sing again. “Company with honesty is virtue, vice to flee. Company is good and ill, but every man has his free will! The best ensue, the worst eschew, my mind shall be: virtue to use, vice to refuse, thus shall I use me!”

Porone still hadn’t come up with a reply to Menadarb’s questions when Rhea arrived. Menadarb stood and bowed. “Good evening, sir.” Porone watched him join the hostess, and head away.

“Nervous fellow,” noted Gama.

“Mmm.” Porone nodded, and finished his drink. “I shall have to keep an eye on him.” Gama looked at him puzzled. “He left half a cup of wine,” said Porone. “Now, I ask you, is that the action of a healthy man?”

“Virtue to use, vice to refuse, so shall I use me!” sang Tisiphone as she finished her song.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 4

Menadarb Brighthand sat down at the breakfast table next to his father. Hadrub Brighthand was enjoying his typical breakfast--five poached eggs, with a side of smoked salmon, and made no notice that his son had joined him. Menadarb was somewhat surprised at that, as in fact, he almost never ate breakfast with his father, often sleeping through the meal entirely and starting his day with an afternoon tea. Hadrub had complained about this habit quite frequently to his son, and regularly stated that he wished to see Menadarb at the breakfast table more often. So somehow it came as a surprise that when he actually appeared Hadrub simply went on eating his food and reading the Castle Terribel Regional Shipping Report.

Menadarb coughed politely. “Good morning, Father.”

Hadrub looked up from his paper, and grunted. “Menadarb. Good to see you’re up.” The older man yawned. “For once.”

Menadarb looked away. Even now, at three-and-twenty, his father made him feel like a boy. That weathered flat face, with eyes like gimlets always broke his nerve. Menadarb grabbed a biscuit, spread some butter on it, and waited for his father to go back to reading. When Hadrub’s face disappeared behind the Report again, Menadarb coughed and, after nibbling on the biscuit for strength, decided to try talking to him. “So, Father…” he began.

“Yes?” said Hadrub nonchalantly.

Menadarb froze. This was unexpected. Or rather he expected it, but had not expected how difficult the actual experience of talking to his father would be. But finally, he managed to take a deep breath. “It’s about the fire…” He cleared his throat. “In Cheapside.”

“Ahh, that.” Hadrub shrugged. “Don’t worry. We’re already rebuilding. It doesn’t take much to make a matchstick factory.” He scowled. “Though the workers are getting… uppity. That damn fool Latheawl’s encouraging it.”

“That… was not what I wanted to talk about,” began Menadarb. He took a deep breath. “I’ve been--checking things. You see… I… the fire--I couldn’t understand how it started…”

“Matchsticks are made of very volatile material,” replied Hadrub nonchalantly. “It seems self-evident.”

“Oh, of course.” Menadrab nodded. “But that’s only… part of the how. After all… it was late at night. One would think that the factories would be empty then…”

Hadrub gave a mild snort. “And one would be wrong. Day or night, one can still make matches. And every hour counts.”

“Yes, that’s what I discovered,” said Menadrab. “Also, that many of the workers work twelve hours without rest.” He fidgeted nervously. “Lanterns, and late hours. With people working around… as you say, volatile materials.” He looked at his father significantly. “Do you understand my meaning, father?”

Hadrub put down his paper and looked at his son. “I believe so. But you had better tell me so that I may be sure.”

Menadrab gulped, but found somehow, he’d gotten the courage to look his father in the face, and speak. “We are directly responsible for the fire, Father. All that destruction and loss of life lands directly on our doorstep.”

The older Erl regarded his son for a moment. Then Hadrub raised one weathered hand to his face and stared at the palm. “I still have calluses,” he said after a moment. “From all those years as a journeyman smith. Did you know that, Menadarb?” Menadarb nodded silently. Hadrub shook his head. “There are men who speak of the glory of ‘honest labor’, but I’m not one of them. It was nothing but sweat and toil, and weary hours. But I did it, dreaming that my son would not have to. And when an opportunity came to make that dream true, I took it. Now, in keeping this dream a reality, I sometimes must perform actions which some might find dubious. And yet, they are necessary.” He rested his hand on the table. “Now, does this answer whatever question you were ultimately hoping to ask?”

Menadarb was silent for a moment. Then he stood up. “I suppose it does.” He bowed to his father, and left the room.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 3

“So, what was His Magnificence like?” asked Calabrun Truegoods.

“Mmmm,” muttered Brontin Goldleaf, sipping his drink. “Very proper. Listened to me most intently.” He slammed his mug on the wooden tabletop before him. “I tell you, it’s good to know the Plains have him lookin’ out for them!”

The various members seated in the Fellowship Hall of Worthy Gentleman of High Trades all nodded in agreement. “Aye, aye,” said Gosric Milkbeard. “A fine Dark Lord. Very fine.”

“Fine?” declared Elias Clabbermouth. “He’s the finest Dark Lord there is! We’re lucky to have him!” He looked around at the other Fellows, who all heartily nodded in agreement.

“I said ‘very fine’!” said Gosric querulously.

The Fellows were in the midst of a debate of whether ‘very fine’ was an adequate compliment to pay to the Dark Lord of the Plains when Menadarb Brighthand walked in. To everyone’s surprise, he walked right to the bar, put down a few copper marks and declared. “A whiskey.”

The assembled Fellows watched as their young comrade stood there quietly, his expression meditative--even pensive--for once. It was strange. Mendarb was usually a cheerful young man, a man who whistled and smiled and made pleasant comments. But now, he was doing nothing but standing there, and waiting for his drink.

Gosric Milkbeard blinked. “Master Brighthand--what’s that on your sleeve?” he asked in dull wonder.

Menadarb shook his head then glanced at the blackened satin vest. “Ah. That is… soot. I believe. From the--fire.” He shuddered slightly, and then turned to accept his drink, which he gulped down immediately. “Thank you,” he stated to the bartender.

“You were at the fire?” asked Calabrun.

Menadarb glanced at his shoes for a moment. “Yes. I… I was helping that… bucket brigade when the Dark Lords came.”

Brontin shook his head. “You ought not to have done that, Brighthand. Remember--Fellows stick together! The Mayor had no right to order us to put it out, and we were demonstrating that!”

Menadarb stared at him for a moment, then headed to the door. “Have to be on my way. Rhea’s waiting. Just needed a drink.” He was about to head out when he stopped with a jerk and turned to look at the assembled Fellows. “Pleasant evening to you all,” he said with a mechanical wave. And then he was gone.

Everyone was silent when he left. “I think something’s wrong with young Master Brighthand,” said Elias. “He seemed… off.”

“Mmmm,” said Brontin. “Well, you know, his father owns so much of Cheapside. Probably worried how much this will cost his family.”

“Aye, aye,” said Calabrun. “That’s almost certainly it. And who can blame him? He’s had so much for his whole life--losing it all must seem awful.”

“No fear of that though,” said Gosric. “I know for a fact that old Hadrub has an arrangement with the Emporium for this sort of thing happening.” He nodded, and sipped his drink. “A canny man. Very canny.”

“As canny as they come,” agreed Calabrun. “But I doubt Menadarb knows that. So one can understand why he’s worried.”

“Indeed, indeed,” said Elias with a nod. “Just being a dutiful son.”

“Mmm,” agreed Brontin. “Of course, he ought not to have helped that bucket brigade.”

“True, true, true,” said Gosric Milkbeard.