Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 16

Sir Jerome Erelim glanced over the docks. “Still no sign of her,” he noted.

“Of course not,” said Sir Ambrose bitterly. “Face it, Jerome--she’s not coming here. This entire job is useless busywork that we’ve been given in punishment. The witch is too cunning to bother trying to escape from here. It’s the first place we’d look for her.”

Jerome coughed awkwardly and tried to think of something to cheer his fellow Eremite up. This was difficult. In an Order that regarded laughter as--well, if not quite a sin then certainly as suspicious activity--Ambrose was a notably grim individual, a man who modeled himself after Archon Septimus Seraphim. Indeed, sometimes Jerome thought that Ambrose dreamed about going further than the Archon, if that were possible.

This frequently made him very poor company.

“Well,” said Jerome, after a moment’s thought, “you should look on the bright side. Our presence has seemed to have put a damper on the local prostitutes.”

Ambrose nodded, and allowed himself the faintest hint of a smile. “Indeed. The whores may be lustful vixens, but they have at least enough sense to fear our righteousness.”

Jerome glanced around and wished they were a bit more inconspicuous. The Eremites had been getting glares from the sailors ever since last week’s riot--indeed it seemed to Jerome that the hostility had been getting steadily worse. He worried that it might take very little to set it all off again.

A young woman walked past. “Oh come to my house, pretty sailor boy,” she sang, “come for a bottle of wine. Come to my house, pretty sailor boy, and my love shall be thine…”

Jerome watched as Ambrose’s nostrils flared. He grabbed his comrade lightly by the arm. “Allow me to handle this one.” Ambrose nodded reluctantly, and stepped back. With a relieved sigh, Jerome followed after the young woman.

“Pardon me, miss,” he said.

The young woman turned suddenly. “Wh--what?” Jerome winced. She was very young, rather pretty, and had a sort of desperate innocence to her that frankly surprised the Eremite. He took a deep breath, reminded himself he was almost certainly doing the young woman a favor--assuming that innocence was not merely an act--and plunged ahead.

“I’d like you to come with me, miss,” he said calmly.

“W…why--I…” She gulped and looked around desperately. “I’m just looking for my brother, sir…”

Jerome looked back at Ambrose, who was impatiently tapping his foot, and then back at the woman. He wished rather desperately that she had come up with a better excuse. One that he hadn’t heard a thousand times before. “Of course you are,” he said, with just a touch of cynicism.

Apparently the young woman was very good at detecting touches of cynicism. “I--I am! You--you have to believe me,” she said, desperately, grabbing Jerome’s sleeve.

The Eremite pulled back. “I heard your song, miss. Young women who are looking for their actual brothers do not, as a rule, sing ‘The Delightful Doxy of the Docks’.”

The woman stared at him in shock. “I--I wasn’t singing…” she sputtered.

Jerome almost found himself believing her, which cemented his belief that her apparent innocence was an expertly presented act. “I HEARD you,” he began.

“Oy!” came a rough voice. “Look at the Brown Bastard! Botherin’ that little girl!”

Jerome glanced around. A crowd of sailors had gathered around him and the woman. They seemed more sullen then angry, but they also seemed like they were considering the matter and were perfectly willing to go in the other direction if given a good reason.

He couldn’t see who’d spoken.

“Someone ought to show him what’s what,” came another voice--this one wheezy and slightly shrill. Jerome glanced around desperately. He still couldn’t see who was speaking--but the crowd seemed to be taking these suggestions… favorably. “A good solid roughing up--that would learn the Brown Bastard…”

Jerome took a deep breath, and silently prayed to Ophiel for aid. He desperately, DESPERATELY needed away to defuse this situation.

“All right, you wretches,” snapped Ambrose, drawing his sword. “All of you back away now! The Eremites don’t take threats lightly! Now--who said that?”

As the sailors began to produce clubs and knives, Jerome silently prayed to Ramiel to slap his Holy Brother, who was apparently goofing off on His Divine Job. And then to Uriel to get them out of this situation.

Jean Crow backed away from the alleyway, watching the fight, and smiling to herself. Things had gone rather well, she thought.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 15

“…An’ Jean says if her ‘straction works, we’ll be able to save Sis, and Siggy, and Siggy two sisters--who I didn’t meet that long but who seem really, really nice,” explained Malina.

Pelleas nodded. “I see.” The old man coughed. “I have to say, it sounds rather dangerous.”

“Yes, well… Jean’s a sorceress, an’ I’m a mystical prod an jee,” said Malina grandly. “So we can handle anythin.”

Pelleas smiled, and patted her hand fondly. “Of course, you can.” He looked away. “Still, I will miss having you around. You have lightened my days considerably.”

Malina smiled at him. “I’ll miss you too.” The Dev looked around and then pulled something out of her sleeve. “Umm… Here,” she said, handing it to Pelleas. Taking it, he saw it was a little amulet with a bright blue jewel at the end. “I’m not going to be able to help with that stuff they’re giving you anymore… this is a be sore.” She scratched her chin. “Okay, actually the be sore is in the center of the jewel--and you don’t want to crack it open to look at it, ‘cause those things stink.” Malina looked away. “But--anyway--Mommy Viv made this one, and charged it and everything, and it will protect you from poison. For a while, anyway.” Pelleas turned to regard the little Dev. She looked at him hopefully. “Till we come back to help you, an’ free you from your imprismment, and then you’ll agree to be best friends with my Daddy, and Mommy Viv, and we won’t fight the Great War, and everyone won’t die, and we’ll all get along, forever, and ever. Okay?”

Pelleas smiled at her. “I will see what I can do in that direction, Malina.”

Malina peered at him inquisitively. “Promise?”

“I promise,” said Pelleas, placing his hand on his heart.

“You swear on all that you hold sacred?” added Malina.

“I swear by the Holy Light of the Seven,” replied Pelleas.

Malina nodded warily. “….With sugar on top?”

“With sugar on top,” agreed Pelleas.

“Okay. I’m holdin’ you to that!” she said. “Bye, King Pelican. See you again real soon.”

Pelleas watched as she vanished and sighed. “I hope so, child,” he whispered to himself. “I sincerely hope so.” He shut his eyes and said a small prayer to the Seven. And then he hoped.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 14

Edmund Erelim coughed, and shook his head. “How do you people stand this stuff?” he muttered.

Edward Delta glanced at him. “What stuff?”

“This fog!” snapped Edmund. “Damned stuff gets into your lungs. I’m surprised the entire Joyeuse Chapterhouse isn’t dying of the wasting disease!”

“Ehh, it’s not so bad,” explained Edward. “A bit chilly, but a good hot bath takes care of you.” To the Sacristan’s surprise the Eremite was staring at him in dull shock. “Ummm… what did I say?”

“You bathe?” asked Edmund. “Regularly...?"

“Yes,” replied Edward uneasily.

“Well that’s just…” The Eremite blinked in amazement. “Don’t you know how unhealthy that is?” He shook his head. “Our order never bathes if we can help it!”

“Yeah, trust me you don’t need to tell me that,” said Edward wrinkling his nose. He looked away from Edmund. “I always thought the ‘no bathing’ thing was another part of the whole ‘Eremite will despise the body’ thing. Like the hair shirts, and the rest.”

“No, no,” said Edmund. “It’s a health measure. A thick layer of dirt and grime wards away disease!”

Edward stared at the Eremite. “So you guys don’t get sick then? Because you never bathe…?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Edmund. “But we get sick less often than those who take baths.”

Edward was about to reply when an old hag walked by. “Alms for the poor,” she muttered, her hand outstretched. “Alms for the poor.” Edward and Edmund’s hands went to their coin purses. The beggar took their offering with a smile.

Once she was out of sight, Edward turned back to Edmund. “Look, if bathing is so bad for you, why is it so pleasurable?”

“For the same reason getting drunk and self-defilement are,” answered Edmund. “Temptation from the Douma Dalmiel.”

Edward considered coming up with a retort to that, but gave it up as a lost cause, and he and Edmund recommenced their watch in silence.

Several hours later, Edward realized his keys had disappeared.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 13

Elaine glanced at the bowl of gruel before her. It occurred to her that after several days of the stuff, she still wasn’t used to it--the bland flavor, the way it managed to be lumpy and watery at the same time, and the manner in which, after finishing a bowl, she was still hungry. She stirred the stuff idly with her spoon, and tried to convince herself it was something… palatable.

“It will only get cold if you wait,” said Amfortas cheerfully.

Elaine started and looked up. There he was, standing at the doorway. Elaine hadn’t even heard him enter. She gulped for a moment, then frowned. “I really don’t see much difference in this slop cold or hot,” she said as calmly as she could manage.

“Suit yourself then,” noted the Prince with a shrug. “Really it makes no difference to me. Simply as long as you eat it.”

“Ahh, of course,” muttered Elaine. “Don’t want me starving to death before the torture.” A fly buzzed around her dish, and then settled on the rim.

“Torture?” asked Amfortas, raising an eyebrow. “Who said anything about ‘torture’?” He stepped towards her.

“Well, you did mention pain, humiliation and… oh, some other thing,” said Elaine warily, as the Prince approached.

Amfortas’ hand darted out with an almost obscene speed, and grabbed the fly. “Suffering,” said Amfortas casually, raising the insect to his face to study it.

Elaine nodded nervously. “Yeah. That was the one. In my book, that would all be torture.”

Amfortas thought it over, as his fingers played with the fly. “Hmmm. I suppose if you consider all those things to be torture, then yes, you will be tortured.” There was a sudden flick of his fingers and two delicate little things that Elaine realized were the fly’s wings were falling on the table.

Elaine glanced away. “Well, I do.” She bit her lip. “What do YOU consider them?”

“Agencies of correction,” replied Amfortas, placing the fly before him on the table. He regarded it for a moment, then his hand darted out once again. “As I have told you, my dear, when I am finished, you will see what an obscenity you are, and you will wish me to kill you.” His hand pulled away. Elaine found her eyes returning to the fly. It was now missing several legs. She looked at Amfortas. He wasn’t looking at her, she realized--no, all his interest was on that little, suffering insect, his cold blue eyes regarding its struggles with a strange, icy sort of glee. It occurred to Elaine that she might be able to attack Amfortas--perhaps take her bowl and smash him over the head with it. She dismissed the thought. Somehow, she doubted the Prince was as oblivious as he appeared at the moment.

“And how will you do that?” she whispered.

Amfortas looked at her, and smiled. “I’ve already started to do that, child,” he said, his hand darting out and removing the fly’s remaining legs. “Physical suffering is after all only the simplest of tools at my disposal. You fear me, do you not?” Elaine considered shaking her head, but she realized that he would see through any such bravado, and so she simply nodded. “Of course,” said the Prince, crushing the fly under his thumb. “You fear me because I have taught you to fear me. That is the start, and the key to all that will follow. You have learned to fear me--you will learn to mix that fear with admiration--perhaps even adoration. And once you have learned that, then you will know that I am correct in all that I feel and do.” Amfortas leaned forward. “And that means when the time comes for you to die, you will know that it is as it should be, for it is what I have willed.”

Elaine took a deep breath. “Well,” she said quietly, “you sure are… well, sure of yourself.”

Amfortas stood up. “I am the chosen servant of the Light, Miss du Lac. I can be nothing else.” He bowed. “Well, enjoy your meal. I have had a most enjoyable talk.”

Elaine watched as he quietly walked to the door, and opened it. The thought of making a mad dash to the door occurred to her, but she quashed it. She realized, to her discomfort, that this was doing Amfortas’ job for him. Even more disturbingly, she realized this was probably exactly what Amfortas was wanted her to do.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 12

Jean nervously glanced around the dusky alleyway. It seemed to be a safe place, but as she’d learned over the years, in Joyeuse that didn’t mean much.

A sudden pop alerted her to the arrival of Malina. “I’m here! I’m here!” said the young Dev. She smiled nervously at Jean. “Sorry about taking so long. I had to say goodbye to King Pelican!”

Jean blinked. “What…? No, never mind. Don’t explain. We haven’t got time.”

Malina nodded eagerly. “Right. We have to be clever. And secretib. And stuff!”

Jean stared at her. “Yeah. This is serious business. Elaine’s in real trouble, Malina. And so is Justinian. And his sisters. And us.”

Malina looked away. “I know. I know. This is not a nice place. And not just cause it smells all icky. Everything’s gone wrong here. King Pelican says this whole city is going to--the bad place.”

Jean nodded. “Yeah, King Pelican sounds like a guy who knows his stuff.” Jean wished the spell she’d used to find Malina and the entire… crow sending thing had given her more than a vague impression of where it was Malina was. And who it was that she was with. The truth was, they needed all the help they could get here. “Anyway, I got a message back to your parents…”

“Are they mad?” said Malina worriedly.

“Don’t know for sure,” said Jean. “But probably. We are probably all in for some unpleasantness when we get back.” She emphasized that word ‘when’. It felt nicer to say than ‘if’. “And you know what? First, we’ll have deserved it. Second--it’s still better than here.”

Malina looked around. “Yeah. I don’t think they named this place well. It’s really not very hoppy.”

“‘Happy’, Malina,” said Jean. “The word is ‘happy’.”

“That’s what I said,” replied Malina. “Hoppy!”

Jean was about to correct her, but gave it up. “So--anyway, onto the important bit--Elaine and Justinian, and his sisters are all being held in the Palace of Repentance. Now, I know this is a lot to ask from you, but we need to get them out, and I need your help…”

Malina looked at Jean curiously. “Is this cause I’m so much better at magic than you?”

Jean sighed and looked away. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

“Cause you’re really improving,” said Malina. “That crow thing you did was NEAT!”

Jean shut her eyes. “Yeah. Thanks. Trust me, you don’t know the half of it.”

“Umm--that remind me--where’s Hoppedance?” asked the young Dev, looking around.

“Hoppedance is… gone,” said Jean sadly.

“Oh. Right.” Malina coughed, and then smiled at Jean. “Don’t worry! We’ll get Elaine out of this trouble. And Mr. Siggy! And his sisters!”

Jean stared at her quietly. “You sure are taking this well.”

Malina laughed. “One thing Mommy Mom taught me is when things get awful, you should laugh and smile, even if you want to curl up into a tiny little ball.” A frown touched her little face. “Because if you let yourself do that when you want to--the awful things will get you. And it will get more awfuler. Even when you thought things had gotten as awfulest as they could get.”

Jean simply looked at her. “Do you want a hug?”

“Yes, please,” answered Malina with a nod.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 11

“Your son is SPOOKY,” whispered Malina as she reappeared.

“Mmm,” noted Pelleas with a nod. “I know. Don’t have any idea where he got it from. His mother was the soul of gentleness, poor thing.” He shook his head. “They say madness runs in the Pescheour blood, but I always thought they exaggerated that. The only one I know of besides my son who would qualify was my great-uncle Tor--and the only thing wrong with him was he’d occasionally think he was a frog.” The King sighed. “This did often prove distressing, but not to the same degree as my son’s actions do.” Pelleas stroked his beard. “Well--there was the time he tried to declare war on the storks of Leonais…”

The little Dev blinked. “Umm… how did that go?”

“Not very well,” said Pelleas. “The Grand Council allowed him twenty crossbow men, which he then lead around the countryside for three months, shooting storks, and anything Tor thought was a stork. It caused some trouble, but as I understand it, the Council was simply happy to have him out of the way, so they considered it a fair trade-off…” He coughed. “I believe I’ll go back to my bed now.”

“Right.” Malina darted over to his side and took the old man’s hand.

“Thank you my dear,” said Pelleas. “It’s so nice to have a some help in these matters.” The pair walked back to the bed. “It is good to stretch one’s legs, I find.” Pelleas lay back down, and pulled the covers up. A fluttering sound over by the window caught his attention. “Well, look at that.” Malina turned and saw the crow that had landed on the windowsill. “Don’t see that very often,” said the king smiling.

“Ma-li-na!” cawed the crow.

Malina’s eyes went wide. “Hoppedance?”

The crow flapped its wings wildly “No! Jean!”

Pelleas regarded the young Dev in mild surprise. “So you know this… individual?”

“Yeah, but she’s usually human,” whispered Malina.

“Ah,” said Pelleas. “That explains a great deal.”

Malina darted forward, and started whispering to the crow. After a moment, she turned to Pelleas. “Ummm… King Pelican? Jean wants me to go somewhere quiet where we can talk. Is that all right?” She fidgeted slightly. “I’ll--be right back.”

Pelleas smiled at her. “Of course, dear. Of course. I know you have things to attend to.”

“Thanks!” said Malina, grinning back at the King. She shut her eyes, and started to concentrate, then stopped. “Umm… King Pelican? All that stuff you said. About the angle? Did you mean me?”

Pelleas nodded. “That’s right.”

Malina blushed. “Oh. Thank you.” She shut her eyes and vanished with a slight pop.

Pelleas chuckled to himself and shut his eyes. Such a nice little Dev.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 10

“In truth, sir, his behavior has been somewhat… odd of late,” said Aemilius Praetorius to the Prince, as they passed by the keepers.

Amfortas turned to the doctor, an eyebrow quirked in curiosity. “In what way?”

“He has… been pacing,” said Praetorius. “Talking to himself. That--sort of thing.”

Amfortas nodded slightly. “I thought his medicine would take care of such activities…” he said, with just a hint of good-natured reproach.

“It should, but, well, I have known people to grow… accustomed to their medicine, over time,” explained Praetorius. “And--he has been taking his for quite some time now.”

“I thought your expertise was in avoiding such… problems,” said Amfortas.

“My expertise has limits,” replied the doctor. “I have been treating the King for eight years now. This is the longest time I have cared for a patient. And it has been the most difficult case I’ve ever had, working within the… limitations you proscribed.”

“Those limitations are necessary,” noted Amfortas. “Indeed, if they did not exist, you would not have been called to serve in this matter.”

“And I know this,” said Praetorius. “But you must understand, Your Majesty, there are DIFFICULTIES in the task. I have had to change your royal father’s medicine three times. I have had to change dosages multiple times. All to keep the delicate balance of treating your father’s ailment without killing him.” Praetorius looked at the Prince pointedly. “Seven help me, sire, for my wickedness, but some times I cannot help but think it would be easier for all involved if His Royal Majesty were to… finally end his journey.”

Amfortas sighed at that. “One might think that, if one were ignorant. But aside from the awful and inconsolable grief which would grip both us and our subjects if this were to occur, there are other matters. The Leonais are a people of rules and strictures, good Doctor--quite unlike your native Concordat. There are forms that would have to be observed if a King dies. A General Council would have to be called. The General Council would have to select Seven Worthies who would go over the government of the realm before turning it over to the new monarch.” He shook his head. “This is just the beginning. Trust me when I say that in many way the position of Regent is superior. I hold all the power, and suffer few of the limitations.” He shrugged. “Strange, I suppose, but that is how things lay in this matter.”

Praetorius nodded, biting his lip. “I understand. Still… in this matter of war…”

“Ah, but we are not at war, doctor,” noted Amfortas mildly. “Nor shall we be for as long as the Grand Council can avoid it. If we were, it would change things. But we are not.”

Praetorius nodded again. The pair walked on in silence for awhile. “I hear that the wedding goes forward,” said Praetorius after awhile.

“Indeed,” said Amfortas. “The Tintagelian Senate has at last relented. Queen Yolande shall be my darling wife by Messidor, joining at last the Oaken and the Holly Crowns.”

Praetorius smiled and opened the door. “Your Royal Father, sire.” Amfortas nodded and stepped into the room. Praetorius saw, to his surprise, that Pelleas was out of his bed, standing by the window.

“Father,” said Amfortas warmly. “It is good to see you up.”

Pelleas rolled his eyes and snorted. “Spare me your words, Amfortas. If I wanted to hear empty pleasantries, I’d go to Bellamarina and buy a parrot.”

Amfortas’ smile widened, even as his eyes narrowed. “It is good that you have no such desire then, father, for such birds come from Albracca across the river. Or so I hear.” He stepped forward. “It would be most wrong for the Most Faithful King to keep a creature of Night to amuse himself, would it not?”

Pelleas chuckled at that. “Oh, naturally. We mustn’t offend the Holy Seven.” He gestured up at the ceiling, and shook his head. “We owe them so very much.”

Amfortas regarded his father carefully. “Father--please lay down this ill humor--the result of your lengthy illness…”

“HA!” barked Pelleas.

Amfortas continued as if the King had said nothing. “…And realize that I care deeply about your health.” Pelleas appeared to consider another laugh, but decided against it, and merely contented himself with a scornful shake of his head. “It is these concerns that have brought me here. The love a son has for his father.”

Pelleas turned to look at his son, his grey eyes filled with scorn. “I must say, Amfortas, I find your company most… marvelous of late.” A bitter smile touched his lips. “How can a man be so false--so utterly false? I do not think a single true word has left your lips since you came here. Is this a conscious choice on your part, or is it simply habit? I am unable to decide.” He shrugged. “In truth, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that when you breathe, you lie.”

Amfortas stepped towards his father. “I’d heard the baths of Froberge had worked wonders. I must say I credit it. You have not been this lively in… some years…”

“The baths did nothing,” replied Pelleas. “I owe it all… to an angel.” A beatific smile came to the king’s face. “Yes. An angel of the Seven, sent to me from the Heavens, to tend me in my hour of need.”

To Praetorius’ immense surprise, Amfortas actually seemed to be nonplussed by that. “An… angel,” said the Prince. “How… glorious.”

“Yes,” said Pelleas. “A glory and a wonder of the Seven, the Holy Light be praised.” He stared up at the ceiling. “Even now, this celestial being’s gentle presence suffuses this room, giving me strength and succor.” The King took a step away from the window, tottered slightly, then grabbed its sill to steady himself.

Amfortas watched all this, and then stepped away. “Well, father, I leave you to the ministrations of your… angel.” He headed out the door. Praetorius shut it behind him. The Prince glanced at the Doctor. “He appears to be… further in decline then I’d imagined.”

“Like the death of a bull in the ring, the last days of a king are an agony to observe,” noted Praetorius.

“Very true,” said Amfortas. “Do keep me informed on his health. And try to keep him alive.”

Praetorius nodded to himself. It occurred to him that he did not quite believe the Prince’s explanation on why he did not simply have his father killed. Oh, there would be difficulties--but nothing Amfortas couldn’t take care of. No, Praetorius had his own explanation--simple cruelty. Amfortas enjoyed the idea of his father’s suffering, and was paying the doctor to prolong it as long as possible.

Not that Praetorius objected to any of this. He was a man who believed in earning his pay, regardless of what services were asked for. Besides, a man who’d poisoned his father, two uncles, an aunt, and three wives was really in no position to claim moral superiority, if he happened to think such a thing existed.

Doctor Aemilius Praetorius did not.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 9

“That was a farce,” muttered Alexandria Tau, as she walked away from the Palace of Repentence. “If that little Erl is a threat, then I’m the Flamens Dialis.”

“The Church could do worse,” said Maximilian Rho, with a chuckle. “And in truth, it damn well has.” He frowned to himself. “Still, she did confess to being the Badb’s daughter,” he noted.

“Pfft,” snorted Alexandria. “And what does that mean? That the child is frightened or mad. If that little chit of a girl is the actual child of the Witch Queen, then…”

“You’re the bloody Flamens Dialis.” The Preceptor sighed. “I do love you, Alexandria, but you get a mite predictable at times.”

“As do you, Maximilian,” said the Mother Superior. “I always know that you’ll find some way to infuriate me.” She glanced around the street, and seeing it fairly deserted, kissed the Preceptor on the cheek. “You silly old dear.”

Maximilian sighed. “Well… to return to this matter… Amfortas is still our Prince. And whatever you may say, the fact remains that your young sisters gave shelter to Nightfolk…”

“As have half the Sisters of Mercy in Joyeuse and throughout the Free Cities,” snapped Alexandria. “Heavens’ sake, Maximilian--for all you men stare at the Murkenmere, it’s just a large dark river. Things come over it quite frequently.”

“But these times,” said Maximilian. “The Easter King amassing armies and seizing cities. The Dark Lords of Night, meeting, it is said, to discuss the overthrow of all that is good and holy. King Pelleas, ill and afflicted…”

“And are these things so completely novel that all must be overturned for them?” said Alexandria. She shook her head. “No, Maximilian. Boundaries must be set. The Prince has asked for more and more over the years, until inch by inch we found ourselves in our present situation--with the Eremites sitting in this great city, in defiance of the Edicts, and every agreement between the Concordat and Leonais…”

“His Highness only seeks to do what is right…” objected the Preceptor.

“I don’t deny that,” said Alexandria grimly. “But the Prince’s version of what is right is like a sculpture made of ice. It sparkles prettily enough in the sunlight, but on closer examination it is a hard, cold, grim thing for all its apparent beauty.” She sighed. “I do not think Joyeuse has much love for it right now.”

“And so what will you do?” asked Maximilian.

“Write to my cousins,” said the Mother Superior. “Have them assemble the Old Lords. And allow matters to proceed as they may from there.” She shrugged. “What else can I do?”

Maximilian was silent for a while. “You know--my Order also has a member in the Palace of Repentance. And yet we remain loyal, mindful of our vows…”

Alexandria stared at the Preceptor sadly. “Are you trying to convince me, Maximilian, or yourself?” She turned and walked away. As Maximilian watched her leave, he realized that he didn’t know the answer to her question.

When she had at last vanished down a street, the Preceptor turned and started back to the Chapterhouse. It occurred to him that Alexandria Tau had been exceptionally unjust in her accusations. Alexandria Tau, after all, had been born Amante Gwynedd, a daughter of one of the wealthiest houses of Joyeuse, with friends and allies in the highest circles of Leonais society. He, on the other hand, had been born Mathonwy Bramble, a poor peasant in Hauteclaire, and all his allies had been earned through years of service to the Faith and the Royal House. He was not made to bite the hand that feed him, while she came from those who made it their business to bite it, and quite frequently, to bite it hard. Nor did he want to bite it in this case, even if the Prince’s methods did strike him as rather harsh, even if that young girl in that cell struck him as no danger, even if the Eremites made his skin crawl. He was a Sacristan, and a servant of the realm, and these things defined him.

And so the Preceptor tried to kill and bury his misgivings.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 8

Elaine turned to the door as she heard the familiar, hated sound of Amfortas’ voice. “And here is my honored guest,” he stated cheerily, as the door opened. The Prince-Regent entered, followed by the hawk-like Eremite that Elaine had first seen when she arrived in Joyeuse, and then two individuals she didn’t know--a tall older woman with a high-browed, aristocratic face who wore a cowled uniform that looked like a more elaborate version of Justinian’s sisters clothes, and short bulldog of a man wearing a white surcoat which bore the image of a red goblet. All in all, not the most promising of gatherings. Amfortas gestured at her. “May I present to you Her Estimable Grace, the Princess Elaine of the Plains of Dread.”

Elaine bit her lip. “Actually, I’m the Princess of the Western Marches,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster.

The woman was peering at her. “My goodness,” she said. “You are a bedraggled little thing, aren’t you?”

“And you’re a rude old lady,” said Elaine, her hand going almost instinctively to her hair, which as usual was sticking up in over a dozen different directions at once. She was suddenly acutely aware of how much she wanted a comb right now.

“Typical” said the Eremite, with a harsh, flat laugh, and a flare of his rather large nostrils. “These Nightfolk bite at any hand offered to them by the Light, whether it be a fist to strike or no.” He glanced briefly at Elaine then turned away. “She is the daughter of the Badb, you know. And as great a witch, too.”

To her surprise, the woman sneered at the Eremite’s comment. “Oh, really, Archon Seraphim. Then how are we holding her here, with no Stylites in the city?”

The Archon smiled broadly. “By the power of our faith, and our prayers to the Holy Light.” The woman laughed at that, while the older man merely rolled his eyes, The Archon stared at her in shock. “You dare mock the Holy Seven, Mother Alexandria?”

“The Holy Seven?” replied the woman. “Never.” Alexandria leaned forward. “But you Septimus--without hesitation.” She frowned at him. “If our prayers were as efficacious as you have them being, the Empire would never have been overthrown.”

“And yet, there this Erl maiden sits,” said Amfortas with a smile. “You may question whether she is held here by the power of our faith, or simply the rather excellent steel and sturdy stone of the Palace of Repentance, but held here she is.” And with that the Prince turned, and looked at her fixedly.

Elaine shuddered despite herself. It was strange, she thought, staring at the man. The Prince of Leonais was not an intimidating-looking man, nor was his voice especially harsh--in fact, he was handsome, and his voice was sweet and light. And yet Elaine found him to be the most unsettling person she’d ever known. And this wasn’t just because he was holding her hostage and threatening her life--after all, he had some pretty stiff competition in that area. No, it was the absolute coldness at the heart of the man. Amfortas just--did not give a damn about the things that made people human. He studied them, he imitated them--but he didn’t really care about them. It was the difference between him and the Archon. The Eremite really believed all he said about the Light and the Dark. For Amfortas it was just… something else to say

“Yes,” said Mother Alexandria, after a while. “There she most certainly is.” She turned to Amfortas. “And this is why you hold two of my Sisters?”

“We cannot allow those who aid the enemies of Light to go unpunished,” said the Prince calmly.

Mother Alexandria regarded the Prince for a moment, then turned away. “No, I suppose not.” She took a deep breath. “Well, I have seen enough. Let us go.”

Amfortas nodded and bowed. “Of course.” He rapped lightly on the door, which swiftly opened again, and then stepped out. His guests soon followed, though Mother Alexandria and the man in white both paused to look at her as they left the cell.

It occurred to Elaine, watching them leave that many people of Leonais who really knew Amfortas knew something was wrong. But they didn’t want to admit that to themselves.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 7

Maximilian Rho, Preceptor of the Knightly Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian’s Joyeuse Chapterhouse, frowned to himself as he headed to his meeting. There were many things in his life of late that bothered him. This meeting however, was especially bothersome, as the woman he was meeting was rather special to him, and he suspected she would be very unhappy with him, and what he had to say, a thought that upset him. But duty was duty, no matter how damned unpleasant it was. And so the Preceptor entered the Rectory.

Alexandria Tau, Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Benevolent Mercy of Anael, stood there in her robes of office, her silver hair done in a tight bun. This made her look stately, refined, and ever so slightly intimidating. And this was quite unpleasant for the Preceptor, as Alexandria Tau always looked stately, refined, and ever so slightly intimidating, so that anything that increased these qualities made her even more difficult to deal with. Maximilian coughed, forced on a smile and approached her. “Mother Superior,” he declared cheerily. “May the Holy Light shine upon you and all you…”

“Maximilian,” she snapped, “do I appear at all in the mood for pleasantries?”

The Preceptor turned and sighed. “No, but you can’t bloody well blame me for trying,” he said sourly.

“I can blame you for anything, Maximilian,” said Alexandria, crossing her arms. “You know that.” She took a deep breath. “You are holding two of my sisters in the Palace of Repentance. Young women, of good repute, and high standing in my order. I bid you release them.”

“It… is not so simple,” said Maximilian slowly, cursing inwardly. “The women you refer to are held by orders of the Prince.” He shook his head. “I cannot free them.”

“What?” Alexandria peered down her aristocratic nose at Maximilian. “That… there are laws regarding these things! Canon and secular! Does Amfortas imagine he can…?”

“Imagine I can do what?” said the Prince, as he stepped into the room.

The Mother Superior turned, nervous, and regarded Amfortas for a moment. Finally, she managed a bow. “Your Majesty…” She looked away. “I… Two of sisters of my order…”

“I believe you speak of Theodora Upsilon and Julia Theta,” said Amfortas, his voice level. “And they are being held for such defiance of the laws of this realm as would make even you quail.”

Alexandria glanced away. “But, sire… the Edicts of Leonais…”

Amfortas regarded her for a moment. “I am well aware of the Edicts, Mother Superior. But we live in grave times, I’m afraid.” He smiled at her gently. “I know this may seem hard to believe, but if you will allow me to show you something, I think you will come to agree with me as to the gravity of our plight.”

“What is it you wish me to see?” asked Alexandria, eying the Prince warily.

“It is less a ‘what’, and more of a ‘who’,” replied Amfortas with a chuckle. “But come. She is at the Palace of Repentance.”

Maximilian’s eyes went wide. “Your Highness… is… damn it, is this wise?”

Amfortas turned to the Preceptor and nodded. “I am certain the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy can be trusted. Just as I am sure the Preceptor of the Joyeuse Chapterhouse can be trusted. Or the Archon of the Eremites of the Humble Hermitage can be trusted, to give another example.” Amfortas suddenly turned, as the Archon Septimus Seraphim stepped into view. “Ahh, there you are, Septimus. Strangely enough, I was just speaking of you.”

“The words of the righteous prince are the voice of the Seven,” said the Archon with a bow. “I hope that I stand high in your sight.”

Amfortas placed a hand on Septimus’ shoulder. “Archon, I know you to be a good and loyal servant to the Seven, who does what is needed of him.” He smiled faintly. “Come. It is time for you all to see our guest.”

As they fell behind the Prince and his Eremite companion, Alexandria leaned over to the Preceptor. “How did His Highness find out about our meeting?” she whispered.

Maximilian sighed. “Let’s just say that the Prince has knack for such matters, shall we?”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 6

“…And then Mommy Viv kicked Mommy Mom’s butt! She’s so cool!” said Malina cheerfully. She blinked and glanced at Pelleas apologetically. “Though she wouldn’t like me using bad words,” the little Dev explained in a whisper. “Like ‘butt’.” she added, to clarify.

“It’ll be our little secret,” said Pelleas smiling slightly. He glanced towards the window. The sun was finally peeking out from the rain, and it was fairly high. He turned to the door. Any minute now…

Almost as if on cue, a knock came to the door. “Ahh. Your Highness,” came a low voice. “Are you awake?”

Pelleas looked at Malina who took the hint and… somehow… vanished from sight. “Yes,” said Pelleas in a weak groan. “I am enjoying the sunlight. It is ever so delightful. Uriel be praised!”

The speaker remained silent for a moment. “Ahh. Very… very good then.” The door opened, and a very thin man with long black hair entered. He was dressed in a jacket of red velvet and dark black breeches. “Why Your Highness,” stated the man, with a patently insincere grin, “you look so improved! I told you the baths would do wonders.”

“Oh, they did, Doctor Praetorius,” said Pelleas, mustering a simpering smile. “I wish I could have stayed longer.”

“Ahh, well,” said Praetorius, with a wistful sigh, as he produced a small black bottle. “One can’t overindulge in these things, Sire. Weakens their efficacy.”

“What a pity,” said Pelleas quietly. Of course, both he and Praetorius knew that the real reason Pelleas had been returned to Joyeuse was because he’d nearly succeeded in contacting his cousin Rivalen. But the pretence that he was simply serving as the King’s Doctor kept Praetorius happy, and Pelleas found that a happy Praetorius was a Praetorius who didn’t start suggesting things like straps, so he went along with it.

The doctor had measured out a rather smelly spoonful of medicine, and was now bringing towards Pelleas’ mouth. “Now then, Sire,” said Praetorius pleasantly, “I believe you know what time it is?” Pelleas frowned, despite himself. “Now, now, Your Highness. You need your medicine to get better. No matter how it bitter it tastes.” Pelleas grimaced as the stuff went down his throat. There’d been a time when he’d fought and struggled--but that time was past. Praetorius was a man who knew how to win such battles, and win them in ways that were not merely uncomfortable, but humiliating. “There now,” said the doctor, once the ordeal was over. “Now, sleep soundly, Your Highness, and remember--rest heals.” And with that Doctor Praetorius left the room.

Pelleas leaned back and waited for his mind to slip from him as the vile concoction took effect. Instead, he felt a small hand touch his chest, and then a soothing warmth run through his body. He turned to regard the little Dev standing next to him, her little red eyes full of concern. “Umm… I hope I’m not buthering you, King Pelican,” she whispered. “But that mean-smiley guy wasn’t actually helping you. The medysin he gave you making you sick.” Malina stared at him for moment. “Why are they giving you it? There’s nothing wrong with you!”

Pelleas leaned back in his pillow and sighed. “Oh, many reasons, child. The largest one is, I’m an inconvenience.”

Malina raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s a long sad story,” said the King of Leonais. “Let me just say that my son and I have… differences, and leave it at that.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 5

“…I hear she’s a witch,” said the Eremite, as he tossed the rubbish into the alleyway. “She gestured at the men they sent to catch her, and they all turned to crows.”

“So how’d they catch her?” asked the Sacristan.

“The Archon’s such a holy man, her spells had no power over him,” answered the Eremite in a fervent tone. “He then said a prayer and the crows were turned back to men.” The Sacristan coughed at that. The Eremite scowled. “Go on. Scoff, Squire Edward Delta. But remember whose order has a man sitting in a cell right now.” The Eremite raised an eyebrow. “I hear that he’s her lover. That she bewitched him with her dark chams, and now he is her slave.”

“That, Squire Edmund Erelim, is the biggest bunch of folly I’ve ever heard,” snapped the Sacristan. He turned and shook his head. “I’ve seen your ‘witch’. That child is simply a poor, Darkness-befuddled Erl from across the river, who’s wandered into the wrong city.”

“Say what you will,” replied Edmund. “I will merely count it as more proof that the Sacristans cannot recognize ancient evil when it comes in their midst. Your poor Erl-child is the spawn of witchery, mark my words.”

“Mark your own,” said Edward, scowling.

From the shadows, Jean Crow smiled to herself. She was starting to like Squire Edward Delta, which made the fact that Squire Edmund Erelim was ultimately correct rather irritating. Still, best to look on the good side. She now knew that Elaine and Justinian were in the Palace of Repentance, Joyeuse’s very own prison that everyone refused to admit was a prison. As her father once noted, the Leonais were a very tender-hearted people, and thus insisted that everything unpleasant they did have a name that didn’t upset them.

Jean’s musings were interrupted by the Sacristan glancing towards her. She kept to the shadows and concentrated very hard on not being seen. It seemed to her as she did so that Zamial’s mark was itching, but she was fairly certain that was all in her head.

Fairly certain, mind you. Not ‘absolutely’. That was a pretty good rule when dealing with the Zamials of this world, Jean found. She glanced back at the doorway. Edward Delta and Edmund Erelim had ducked back inside the Palace. Jean smiled to herself and headed back to the street.

Where she found several Eremites had just exited the Palace and were walking down the street. Jean gulped, then pulled the ragged shawl she’d picked up recently around her head. Her best bet was to brazen this out. “Alms,” she declared, walking past the Eremites. “Alms for the poor.”

When the Eremites started going towards their money pouches to pay her she knew she was in the clear.