Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 18

“Has not this been a wondrous day?” said the old man, grinning broadly as he sat on the bed.

Doctor Aemilius Praetorious stared ruefully at his patient. “Indeed, sire. Most… wondrous. Filled with wonders of all kind.” With that statement, Praetorious went back to mixing the various vile-smelling liquids before him into something that smelled even worse. “Now, Your Highness, if you would kindly allow me to finish making… your medicine?” He leaned forward. “I fear it must be a very potent dose, this time. You have been… a bit disruptive today.”

Pelleas nodded absently. “Yes, yes, of course, of course.” He glanced away bashfully. “Doctor Praetorious… I… My bowels must be voided…”

The doctor winced. “I suppose you wish me to get your chamber pot?”

Pelleas managed a shy nod. “It would be most kind.”

With a frustrated growl, Praetorious stood up and walked to where the ornate pot lay waiting. This was not a task he enjoyed. Even with regular cleanings, the chamber pot always smelled rather off--and part of Praetorious’ duties was the analysis of the king’s… voidings. Unpleasant, but the only way to make sure that he was successfully drugging the king without killing him. Not that Praetorious enjoyed that part of this job either. Or any of the job, for that matter. After quite a few years of this, he was waiting for the Prince to finally announce that the time of King Pelleas’ lengthy illness was at its end, so that he could finish things and get on with his life. Praetorious had been enjoying living off a rather sizable fortune before Prince Amfortas had ‘recruited’ him, and he wanted to go back to that. Ideally, supplemented by the payments he’d received from the Prince-Regent, though that part could be abandoned if it turned out Amfortas was planning to simplify things by eliminating him once it was all over.

But all this pleasant speculation was for the future. For now--he had vital matters to attend to. Praetorious began to set the pot before King Pelleas. “Here you go. Now, let us try to make this…” began the doctor. At which point, Pelleas’ foot lashed out, striking the chamber pot with such force that it collided with Praetorious’ head.

Doctor Praetorious gave a shout in pain, and tried to steady himself, only for the King’s knee to strike him precisely in the stomach. As he toppled forward, Praetorious watched the pot fall from his grasp and dash to pieces on the ground. The thought of landing on its remnants filled him with such horror, he managed to yank himself backwards. While this did spare him from landing on what remained of the chamber pot, it also allowed Praeotorious to give him a very potent shove, followed by a vicious slap to the face.

The doctor fell to the ground, groaning weakly. As he watched, King Pelleas walked over to the vial of medicine he’d been brewing, and picked it up. Praetorious saw the anger flash in the King’s eyes, and then he knew. “I never… got you, did I?” he said weakly. “All those long years, and you’ve been sitting there, letting me think I had you broken, and hating me.”

“If it makes you feel better,” said the King softly, as he approached the fallen doctor, “until recently, you were far closer than you now imagine. Though never quite as close as you thought.” He learned forward, and grabbed Praetorious’ face. “Now, Doctor, it is time for you to take your medicine.” And then he began to pour the doctor’s concoction down his throat.

Praetorious gagged as the vile stuff filled his mouth, and found himself wishing he’d mixed for flavor instead of potency. Pelleas watched him swallow, then gave a satisfied nod. The King rose, and started away, his footsteps surprisingly light and certain on the floor. The doctor waited until they faded from his hearing, and then tried to rise. But the beating and the drug were both robbing him of mobility, and he succeeded only in flopping about uselessly on the floor. After almost a minute of this, he gave it up--he couldn’t waste his time this way. While he doubted the King knew it, the drugs he’d mixed were generally fatal when taken in the quantity he’d just choked down. And in his present situation, with no one coming to assist him, that meant he had one option.

Doctor Aemilius Praetorious opened his mouth wide, and forced two fingers down his throat. As he did so, he remembered to tilt his head to the side. The thought of saving himself from poisoning by choking on his own vomit failed to amuse him.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 17

“She’s close,” said Viviane quietly. “I can feel her…” She took a deep breath. “She--she’s not hurt. But she IS frightened.” Viviane bit her lip, then turned to the others. “We have to hurry! Mother Night knows what might…” She shut here eyes for a moment, then turned to look at Nisrioch. “You should have killed those Eremites.”

Jean coughed. “Yeah--honestly I think what he did to them was bad enough…”

Morgaine gave a slow nod. “I am going to be having nightmares about that for weeks.”

Nisrioch nervously twiddled his fingers. “I was feeling whimsical.”

“Still not an excuse,” said Morgaine flatly.

“Would you people listen to yourselves,” hissed Viviane. “My little girl is in the hands of a maniac, and you… make jokes.”

Mansemat stepped forward. “We are all worried, Viviane. It simply… keeping good cheer helps many of us cope with…”

Viviane gave a sharp nod. “Yes, yes. It doesn’t help me cope. And it doesn’t help her.”

Morgaine glanced around. “I never thought I would wind up being the voice of reason in a discussion.” She looked at Nisrioch for a moment. “Well, in a discussion that involved more people than just you, Nissy.”

Nisrioch gave a nod. “Oh, I know,” he said. “I’m incorrigible.”

Morgaine continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “But we all need to keep calm here. We are in the freaking capital of Leonais, working without a net, and…”

Viviane seemed about to reply to that when her eyes went wide. “What just…?” She gulped, and began to run off. “Don’t worry, Elaine! Mommy’s coming!”

Jean rushed off at her. “Wait! We really should be sticking togeth…”

Morgaine sighed. “Did you hear that? It was the plan, dying a horrible death.”

Mansemat raised his hand. “It… everything should be fine. I’ll go after them, and you two can… well, keep your eyes open, and make sure we have a way out of this place.”

Morgaine shifted uneasily. “I--don’t like that addendum to the plan, Manny,” she began. “See…” She sighed as her younger brother began to rush after his wife and Jean. Morgaine shook her head. “Nobody is listening to me tonight.”

“I’m listening to you tonight,” said Nisrioch.

“Nobody who needs to listen to me is listening to me tonight,” said Morgaine.

Nisrioch smiled cheerfully. “But I do need to listen to you. You’re my beloved younger sister, whose quirky sensibilities and surprisingly level head play perfectly off my own weirdness. If I didn’t have you to talk to you, I suspect I would go very, very wrong.”

Morgaine nodded. “That would be sweet. If we weren’t facing a good chance of death or--well, in my case--capture.”

“I think the fact we’re facing those things makes my admission sweeter!” replied Nisrioch with a grin.

“Yeah, you would,” said Morgaine grimly. She shook her head. “Gonna be a long, hard night.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 16

“Hello, my dear,” said Amfortas calmly, as he entered the cell.

Elaine opened her eyes wearily. “Hmmm,” she muttered. “I was wondering when you were going to come back for some more creepy taunting. Though some of your underlings are very good at it. That girl--Gilly… she’s a champ.” She gave him a bitter smile. “I suspect that’s why you keep her around…”

Amfortas smiled at her. “As the Porphyriad tells us, ‘All things under Heaven have been placed so for Heaven’s reasons, even those that go against the Will of Heaven.’ I pride myself on discerning those reasons.”

Elaine blinked. “Yeah. I’ve heard that bit before. It didn’t seem… as unsettling that time.”

“The truth makes the unworthy squirm,” said Amfortas, lowering his eyelids, “once they understand it.”

Elaine was silent for a while. “Is that… also in the Porphyriad?”

“An original,” answered Amfortas. “You’ve doubtless realized by now that young Gilly serves my purposes, just as you do.” He placed a familiar hand on her shoulder. “You’ve been excellent bait.” He leaned forward and regarded her earnestly. “Thank you.”

Elaine jerked back, her eyes going to the door as she did that. She stared for a moment, as a realization stole over her. “There’s… no one there.” She looked at the Prince. “You… don’t have any guards here.”

Amfortas nodded. “Correct. We are alone.” He smiled gently, peering at her intently. “Do you feel like trying to make a break for it?” Elaine stared at the door for a moment, then glanced at Amfortas. His hand was… uncomfortably close to a dagger on his belt, she realized. Elaine gulped and managed to shake her head. Amfortas’ smile spread a little on his face, and then suddenly he was leaning forward, planting a kiss on Elaine’s forehead. “That’s a good girl,” he whispered in a soothing, confidential tone.

Elaine let out a low whimper as he backed away. “Don’t be sad, my dear,” said Amfortas in perfect good cheer. “Your mother and stepfather have come, as you’ve been saying they would. Indeed, they likely have brought more of your family with them. Really, both of us should be quite happy. Everything has worked out as we desired.”

“Yeah, well, I think one of us is going to be disappointed very, very soon,” Elaine noted, shutting her eyes.

“I am never disappointed,” said Amfortas quietly, his expression cheerful and confident as always

“There’s a first time for everything,” Elaine spat out, almost without thinking.

Amfortas shook his head. “Not for that.” He gave a shrug. “I am a man… blessed with good fortune. Though to be frank I make much of it. Partially by being a man who is easily satisfied. For example, I am going to be asking you to come with me in a short while. If you say yes, then naturally, I will be pleased. But it you say no, I will likely--oh, who knows? Perhaps put a knife in your kidney. Perhaps in some other vital organ. And this also would be quite pleasing to me.” He smiled at her. “So you see--whatever choice you make, I will be happy. One’s outlook on such things is really the key to a successful, satisfying life.”

Elaine simply stared, and wondered how Amfortas could say such horrible things so casually, as if he didn’t quite realize how horrible they were.

Amfortas meanwhile regarded her as if he was committing her discomfort to memory. “Now then,” he said, heading to the door. “I am heading out. Would you kindly accompany me?”

Elaine watched Amfortas hand approach his knife again. And then she nodded.

“Excellent,” said the Prince, smiling broadly, as he took her by the arm.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 15

“You are late, Preceptor,” said Septimus Seraphim as Maximilian Rho entered the room with Arcadius Pi and Constans Mu trailing him. Rho frowned to himself. The Archon was flanked by a group of grizzled, older Eremites that he’d never seen before, men who were quietly glaring at him.

“I took a walk out in the garden. For old times’ sake,” replied Maximilian quietly.

Septimus’ always present frown deepened. “Is that answer supposed to suffice.”

Rho stepped quietly forward, his eyes narrowed. “It will have to.” The Preceptor’s eyes turned to the other Eremites. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced...”

The Archon nodded and gestured towards his men. “May I introduce you to Sir Ashareus Kerabim, Sir Tiresius Ophanim, and Sir Perseus Ishim. They are serving as my adjuncts.”

Maximilian attempted to keep his surprise under wraps. He was fairly certain he failed. “Quite a few knights,” he noted with forced casualness.

“Frankly, I’m rather surprised you have so few…” answered Septimus pointedly.

“We lost a lot of men when Lord Shaddad invaded,” said Maximilian, crossing his arms. “After that for a long time, we weren’t getting enough squires to fill the gaps. And then the famine happened, and we got quite a few all at once.” The Preceptor shook his head. “The Sacristans are built of old men and young boys these days. Not ideal, but one makes due with what one has.”

Septimus managed a mirthless chuckle. “I’ve often noted that your order’s keeping to such an old, lax Rule has left it in a sorry state. It is most fortunate that we have come to pick up your slack.”

Maximilian felt an urge to mention that the state of their respective orders might have more to do with the fact that while the Sacristans had been boldly dying against Lord Shaddad, the Eremites had been boldly sitting up in the Concordat. He stifled it, largely because of the man who entered the room at that moment.

“Let us not cast aspersions, Archon,” said Prince Amfortas calmly. “The Knights of the Sacristy have served Leonais and the Faith nobly and well these many years, just as the Knights of the Hermitage have served their calling.” He gestured to the cloaked Stylite by his side. “Or the Knights of the Tower serve theirs. You are all here because Leonais needs you, in her hour of need.”

The Archon bowed. “You are right, Your Majesty. My apologies for my uncharitable words. My temper is… less than well, tonight.” He blinked as he regarded the Prince. “I… Sir, is that..?”

Amfortas raised the sword at his side. “It is. This is the Blade of Day. The Holy Sword of the Seven. Clarent.” Maximilian stared at the sword for a while. It was a strangely… humble thing, a sword with a plain hilt, kept in wooden scabbard that had been lacquered white at some point in its past. And yet despite this, it was… strangely impressive, on some root level. “This shall meet Mansemat Cthonique’s Blade of Night in battle. And it will destroy it.”

Septimus and the Eremites seemed to regard the sword with an almost religious relevance. “May--may I touch it, sire?” asked Septimus in a quiet voice.

Amfortas lowered Clarent. “No, it is best for me to keep it at my side.” The Archon gave a disappointed nod. Amfortas turned to the Stylite. “Master Bloodstone, is all ready?”

The Stylite gave a single nod. “Master Sepulchre is with our acolytes. We move when we are told to.”

“Excellent,” said Amfortas cheerfully. “That means that soon…”

At that moment, another Eremite rushed in. “Apologies, Archon…” He glanced at Amfortas and bowed. “Your Highness.” He looked away nervously. “I… the squires we set to watch the east wall have not finished their most recent rounds…”

Amfortas raised an eyebrow. “My, my. It seems we have less time than we thought.” He chuckled. “Oh, well.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 14

Jerome and Ambrose walked on the outer walls of the Grand Palace of Joyeuse. Jerome glanced over to the Murkenmere. The lights of the hastily reassembled blockade flickered in the distance. Jerome squinted as a particular bright beam struck his eye, and then wished he hadn’t. His face was still sore from the beating he’d taken at the hands of the angry mob.

Still, there were small comforts. Ambrose looked even worse, and likely felt that way, though the grim young Eremite was so unpleasant normally, it was hard to tell.

“Keep your eyes open!” snapped Ambrose, scratching at the bandages that swathed his left cheek.

Jerome glared at his partner. “I am!”

Ambrose let loose a cynical laugh. “Ahh, that’s why they were getting that far away look!” He turned on Jerome. “Do you think you’re fooling me? You may be happy serving this holy order as Squire Jerome Erelim, but I am going to climb in name and rank, as every proper Knight of the Seven should!” He shook his head. “Truth be told, serving in this city has been a disaster for the Order. The Hermitages force discipline on a man. City life--at the rate we’re going, we’ll be as bad as the Sacristans before too much long…” He sniffed. “What’s that smell?”

Jerome took a deep breath, and then gagged. An Eremite got used to a certain level of bad odors--that was the result of belonging to a Holy Order most of whose members frowned on bathing--but this was… beyond that. A smell of large amounts of rotten meat, left out in the open air… Jerome glanced back at Ambrose, and saw that he was standing stock still. “Look, it smells… bad,” Jerome noted. “But it’s not…” Ambrose raised his hand and gestured behind Jerome. The young Eremite slowly turned.

What looked rather like a large, four-legged vulture was hovering there, a very tall figure with a shock of stark white hair and bright, rainbow-colored eyes sitting on it. “Salutations!” it declared cheerfully.

Jerome let out a shout and jumped backwards.

The figure clicked his tongue. “Now, that isn’t very friendly!” said the… Erl, his face taking on a rather hurt expression. He peered at the Eremites closely. “The proper thing to do is to introduce ourselves. I’m Nisrioch Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste! And you?”

Ambrose had managed to get enough nerve up to draw his sword. “Die, demon in the name of the Holy Sev--”

“How rude.” Nisrioch pointed, and Ambrose froze in place. “I cannot abide rudeness. It is so… unpleasant.” He put a hand to his chin. “Hmmm… perhaps my apprentice can be of help…” He shut his eyes for a moment. “Jean, would you be a dear and tell me if you recognize these two gentlemen?” After a brief silence, he nodded. “Ahh. I see. Thank you.” He opened his eyes, and smiled at the pair. “She says you’re both very unpleasant people.” Nisrioch shook his head. “Ahh, me. What to do, what to do?” He leaned forward. “You see, I am supposed to secure this area for entrance of… our people. Make sure you can’t… notify others.”

Jerome gulped, despite himself.

“Mmmm, yes,” continued Nisrioch. “So many options. Why I’m like a child in a confectionery! Oooh! Perhaps…!” He stopped and shook his head. “No, no. That would leave a mess.” And then a sizable grin covered Nisrioch’s face. “Ahh, yes. Yes. That will be perfect.”

It occurred to Jerome that Ambrose appeared to be shivering.

“Now, gentlemen, I promise you,” declared Nisrioch, “this will be… memorable.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 13

“The Prince asked for me,” said Lanval Equitan.

The two Stylites posted at the door regarded the Serjeant of the Prince’s Men with an almost naked hostility and suspicion. Lanval was honestly surprised that two men whose faces were hidden could manage to make such emotions clear, but there they were. He waited for a response. The Knights of the Tower continued to simply stare at him, their eyes narrowed. Finally, Lanval raised the small iron key he held in his left hand. “I’m to bring this to him.”

The Stylites continued to stare. “It’s all right,” came Amfortas voice from inside the door. “Let him in.” The pair nodded and opened the door.

Lanval stepped inside as quickly as he could, and shut the door behind him. Amfortas stood there shirtless, tightening his belt. Lanval stared at the long jagged scar that ran across the Prince’s left side.

Amfortas caught his gaze and tapped the old wound lightly. “A memento from my campaign in the Accursed Marsh. I use it to remind me of what needs to be done.” He shook his head. “To think it’s been fifteen years since the Lands of Light moved against the Lands of Night. Such a waste of time…” He picked up a small packet sitting next to him and tied it on his wrist.

“I understand, sir,” said Lanval. “Vengeance is a wonderful thing to fight for.”

“Oh, no,” said Amfortas, with a light, easy smile as he put on a shift. “Not revenge. Simply… duty. A great task has fallen to the Oaken Throne. Blood must be shed, and I am the one who must do it. Shed until the old world drowns in it, and the new one is revealed.”

Lanval glanced back to the door. “Are you sure they can be… trusted?”

“As much as any can be,” said the Prince, picking up a heavy leather jerkin. “They serve their own ends, of course, but then--who does not?” He regarded his Serjeant quizzically. “How does that saying of yours on that matter go? I can never remember it…”

“All men are on their own sides,” stated Lanval. “It is simply that some of those sides happen to be moving in the same direction occasionally.”

“That is it,” said Amfortas with a nod. He looked at Lanval, and raised an eyebrow. “And are our respective sides still moving in the same direction?”

Lanval grinned. “Well, sir, as you said, you’ve blood to shed, and I am a man who’s very good at seeing that done. So--it would appear yes.” He showed Amfortas the key. “Here’s something to help you shed it.”

Amfortas laced up his jerkin. “And the Council gave you no troubles?”

“You were there when they agreed to do this,” said the Serjeant.

“They’ve been known to change their minds,” replied Amfortas casually. “Truth be told they are a most… unsteady bunch. It often makes ruling Leonais difficult.” He shrugged, as he took the key. “The Blade of Day is something they rather often prove sentimental about. It’s been over a century since they let Clarent out of its vault.”

“Not even for Lord Shaddad?” asked Lanval.

“Don’t think my father didn’t try,” said Amfortas. “Though one could argue he didn’t try hard enough.” He sighed. “That was ever father’s weakness. Too pliable a man. Too prone to caring about the opinion of others. Too hesitant in doing what must be done.”

“We are fortunate that his illness has left you in charge while we face this crisis,” said Lanval with a smirk. “Tragic as his poor health may be.”

“The ways of the Seven are mysterious,” said Amfortas, smiling slightly. “How goes it on the docks?”

“The men have settled in,” said Lanval. “Though truth be told, I’d be happier if we were here protecting you.”

“The Eremites will serve,” answered the Prince. “As, alas, they will not on the docks. And I would like to keep you in reserve. For the time being.” Lanval nodded, and turned to the door. “And Serjeant…?” Lanval stopped and looked back at Amfortas. “Please remember that I am counting on you.”

Lanval bowed. “I never forget, Your Highness.”

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 12

“And then the Princess kissed the Prince, and he stopped being a statue, and his magic horse came alive again, and they got on it, and flew away to the Kingdom of Gold, and got murried,” said Malina cheerfully. “And that’s how come there are seasons. The end!” She smiled at Justinian. “Wasn’t that neat?”

Justinian managed a nod. “Very nice, Your Precious Grace,” he whispered.

“Do you want to hear another story?” she asked eagerly. “I know bunches of them!”

“I think I shall have to decline,” the Sacristan replied gently. “I am… rather tired.”

“Awww.” Malina pouted. “Not even the story about the Dragon and the rainbow? It’s real short!”

Justinian lay back and shut his eyes, and tried desperately to come up with an even more polite way to say no. At this point, he was saved by the door opening, and Balthazar Subtle entering the room, with Justinian’s elder sister in tow . “How’s my favorite patient?” asked the chirurgeon.

“Tired,” said Justinian.

“Ahh, yes,” said the Goblin. “I have something for that.” He glanced at the young Dev, and smiled broadly. “If Your Precious Grace would be so kind as to get me my satchel, it’d be of great help. It’s back in my quarters.”

Malina nodded. “Right! I’m helping! I’m good at helping!” She shut her eyes and vanished.

Theodora chuckled gently. “You know if the Cthoniques ever want to change their reputation in the Lands of Light, they should introduce Malina to more people.”

“The enthusiasm of youth is wondrous tonic,” noted Balthazar with a chuckle. He glanced at Justinian. “Though sometimes, its dosage must be… regulated. I do hope your pains are lessening…”

Justinian nodded. “Faster than I thought they could. Though I’m amazed at how… tired I feel…”

“We are encouraging your body to heal more swiftly than is the norm,” said Subtle casually. “This process… tends to be somewhat exhausting.” He gave the Milesian an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “You should be fine.”

“I… thank you.” Justinian shut his eyes once again. “Honestly, I’m almost ashamed to be taking up so much of your time.”

Theodora sighed. “Ivanushka…”

“It’s just… after all I’ve done, the Cthoniques continue to shower kindness on me,” the Sacristan said. “I have never felt so low…”

“Ten years ago, during the Festival of Saint Irene,” said Theodora.

“All right, all right,” said Justinian. “I’ve seldom felt so low.”

“Boy, my family spent two decades trying to kill the Cthoniques,” said Subtle. “Their ultimate response was to pay for my entrance into the Chirurgical Guild.” He shrugged. “‘Don’t bemoan mercy’ is my motto…”

“I thought it was ‘fools are common everywhere’,” said Justinian.

“…in these situations,” finished the Goblin. “I have many mottoes, Squire Sigma. Many of which are applicable at many times.”

“I’m BACK!” said Malina, handing Balthazar a small bag. “Can I tell the story now?”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 11

Maximilian Rho walked down the hallways of the Grand Palace, frowning to himself. It occurred to the Preceptor that he was doing that an awful lot these days.

“So this is the Grand Palace, eh?” muttered Constans Mu. He glanced around the Palace, and shook his head. “Don’t know. Bit underwhelming, really…”

Sylvester Khi glared at his fellow Squire. “You are in the political and spiritual center of Leonais! Have some respect!”

Arcadius Pi coughed, and gestured to the rather dingy walls, which appeared to be in rather dire need of paint in spots. “You know, I hate to be agreeing with Constans on ANYTHING--but I have to admit, this is… less than grand.” He idly scratched his nose. “More like the Adequate Palace, really…”

“Exactly,” agreed Constans. “Half the brothels in the city are swankier than this place! And I know ‘cause I been in ‘em!”

Sylvester sighed, and glanced at the Preceptor. “Sir, could you--PLEASE--please do something about these two?”

“Squires Mu and Pi, stop making Squire Khi upset, you damn jackasses,” stated Maximilian wearily.

“I know that voice!” came an eager cry. The Preceptor’s face went wide. “Maximilian! Old friend! So good to see you!” As Rho watched, Pelleas Pescheour, King of Leonais tottered towards him.

“Y-your Highness,” proclaimed Maximilian uneasily, managing a crude bow. “It is… good to see you.” The Preceptor found himself almost amazed how… worn the King looked. His skin was wrinkled and pale, his silvery hair and beard long and unkempt, and he wore nothing more than a bed robe.

Pelleas smiled blankly at the Sacristans. “And it is good to see you! By the Light it has been a long, long while.” He scratched his beard idly, and began to stare intently at the Preceptor. “By Uriel, Maximilian, you’ve gotten OLD!”

Preceptor Rho turned away. “That is generally what people do when years pass, Your Highness.”

Pelleas nodded absently, and then suddenly handed Maximilian a flower. “Look! A posy!” Pelleas nodded eagerly. “I picked it in the garden!” He gave a witless chuckle. “Spring has sprung! Praise Holy Sofiel!”

“There you are, Your Highness,” muttered a small man who came rushing down the hall. As the Sacristans watched, he took the King of Leonais firmly by the shoulder. “My goodness, you gave me such a fright!” He began to pull Pelleas away. “Now--come along. It is time for your medicine….” He glanced up at the Sacristans. “I do apologize for any… trouble His Highness has caused…”

Maximilian found his frown deepening. “He has been no trouble,” he said, his grip tightening on the posy. “We are honored to be of service to him.”

“This is Maximilian Rho, Doctor Praetorious!” said Pelleas cheerfully. “My old, dear friend!”

Doctor Praetorious managed a rather smug smile. “Well, isn’t that wonderful, Your Highness. Now… please come with me…”

The Sacristans watched the King and his doctor retreat into the distance for some time before anyone spoke. “Well… the King is… most definitely lively today,” said Sylvester suddenly.

Constans snorted. “That’s a bloody bright way to put it.”

Maximilian gave a sad nod. “Pelleas has… not been well for some time. He began to get… odd after defeating Lord Shaddad. I’d heard of his… decline, but seeing him…” He took a deep breath. “I have a sudden wish to see the garden for a moment. Do you suppose the Prince can wait that long?”

Arcadius shrugged. “For the important news that everything is exactly the way he wants it? Why not? After seeing that, I need a break myself.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 10

“The water’s a bit… faster than I’m used to,” muttered Sacripant, clutching the pole as he helped guide the skiff.

The River Ox nodded. “Aye. Mother Ocean’s old and she’s got a temper--but the River is her feisty daughter, and she makes her momma look like a kind and gracious lady.”

Palamedes shook his head. “Do we have to listen to this pagan nonsense? When push comes to shove--this is just a river.”

The River Ox smiled at the chubby Erl. “Best hope she doesn’t hear you.”

Palamedes looked over the edge. “I hope ‘she’ does.” He cupped a hand to his mouth. “Do you hear that river? You’re a fraud! There is no God but Our Unholy Mother in Darkness!”

Sacripant sighed. “Woodash, stop provoking the river.”

“Oh, come on, Fenswater!” snapped Palamedes. “You can’t tell me you believe this stuff! You’re the most religious man I know!”

“I most certainly am,” said Sacripant with a nod. “And that is why I’m telling you to not provoke the river.”

Palamedes gave a snort. “Ridiculous.” He gestured at Quiet. “I’d expect this sort of nonsense from a Pallasian, or…” He stopped and stared at the Ghoul for a moment. “Quiet--are you all right?”

The Ghoul sat there, clutching desperately at the side of the skiff, her blue eyes wide and her form stiff. She glanced at Palamedes and managed a nod.

Palamedes looked at her for a moment. “Right.” He turned to Grizzel. “Should we…?”

“If Il’Mok needs to be relieved, I’ll tell you,” said Grizzel. He looked over the water. “She’s… just not used to this, is all.”

“Oh, right. Blasted Heath, and all that,” noted Palamedes quietly.

Sacripant looked up at the Ghoul. “You know--this is a pretty calm night. Nothing to worry about.”

Quiet lifted one hand from the skiff, and gave him a thumb’s up.

Palamedes smiled at the pair, then turned to Grizzel. “I really don’t like this plan, sir,” he whispered.

Grizzel regarded him seriously. “Not your job to like it, Woodash. Just to follow it.”

The Erl’s mouth tightened. “I… this one gives me a bad feeling. Last time a plan made me feel like this, one of us didn’t come back.”

The Goblin was quiet for a long time. “I know Greatthews death still--hurts, Woodash,” he said quietly. “But that’s just the risk that come with the job. Hagen knew them--and he accepted them. If he were here right now, he’d tell you that dying in the service of a cause you believe in is a worthy death.” Grizzel tightened his gaze on Palamedes. “Or do you think we should leave Her Estimable Grace to die in Joyeuse?”

Palamedes frowned and turned away. “Low blow, sir.”

Grizzel chuckled. “My specialty.”

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 9

Lanval Equitan still recalled the first person he’d killed, a sullen twelve-year old boy who’d imagined himself a man. Lanval had shown him how wrong he was. He’d been eight.

If he thought on it harder, Lanval could even recall more of the circumstances of the killing--a typical Almatian feud, fought between the region’s Leonais armigers and their Eastern counterparts. The boy had killed Lanval’s guard as the man took a piss, and then gone after Lanval with his axe. Lanval had drawn the dirk his father had given him, and plunged into the boy’s stomach. The boy had screamed, dropping his axe, and then fell to the ground whimpering, and begging for mercy. Lanval had given it to him--he’d cut his throat. Afterwards, his father and uncles and elder brothers had found him, and praised him. His father had lifted him up in his arms, and told him he was now half a man.

He’d gotten the other half six years later. That had not quite stuck to his memory quite as well, though he suspected the wine he’d drunken that night had a great deal to do with that. Still, he recalled the fortunate girl’s name--Eleanor de Leon--while he could not recall the unfortunate boy’s. At least--not off the top of his head.

All that was behind him now. Eleanor was a happily married woman living in Almace, with five children, the eldest of whom had children of her own, while the boy was still dead, and lying under the Almatian ground. But Lanval Equitan had moved on with his life, and was now serving the Prince-Regent of Leonais as Serjeant-at-arms, after overlapping stints as a bandit, an archdeacon, and a general.

It could not be said of Lanval that he had lived a dull life. Even the quiet moments tended to be precursors to great disturbances. For example, right now, he was going to his men with a slip of paper. A very simple, commonplace occurrence. However, on this slip of paper were orders for a likely upcoming battle with a Dark Lord of the Lands of Night. If the battle occurred, it would be the first such battle in just over fifteen years.

The fact that he was involved in such momentous undertakings had ceased to be a wonder for Lanval quite some time ago. A fact he did occasionally find somewhat disturbing.

“Serjeant Equitan,” came a harsh voice.

Lanval stopped with a sigh. “Yes, Archon Seraphim,” he stated wearily. He was glad that the hawk-like Eremite was the only Archon there. Due to the blasted Rule of the Hermits, every Archon was ‘Archon Seraphim’, but they hated to be called by their first names.

Septimus Seraphim frowned. “I understand you have been with his Royal Highness.” Lanval debated his response, and decided to stick with a nod. “Has the Council agreed to his requests?”

Lanval smiled, and gave another nod. “The Stylites may stay, and the Prince may unseal the Sword of Light.”

“Excellent!” said Septimus, a thin smile spreading on his face. “I tell you, Serjeant--it is at moments like this one must avow the hands of the Seven in our present circumstance.”

Lanval gave a nod. “Indeed, Archon. Can any deny it? ‘For we are but little things, and may hope to see the ends of the Holy Light in reflection only’.” Lanval was the first to admit he had not been much of a priest--but he had a genuine talent for sermons that had remained with him through all the years. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, Eminence, I have orders for my men.”

“Of course,” said Septimus with a nod. “May you walk in the Holy Light of the Sacred Seven, Serjeant.”

“As may you,” agreed Lanval. He moved out as quickly as he could. Truth be told, he rather disliked the Archon. The feeling was, he was fairly certain, mutual, though to the Archon’s credit, he rarely showed it. For that matter, neither did Lanval. The Serjeant-at-arms was a professional, after all.

Most of his men were gathered in a circle when Lanval arrived. “What’s going on?” he asked Jernis.

“Gilly’s burning rats,” said the slender ex-bandit. He gestured to the little Prince’s “Man”, who as usual, went about her amusement with an utter absorption that was quite impressive, in an eerie way. “She’s pretty good at it,” finished Jernis.

Lanval nodded, and turned to Gilly. “And how was the young Nightlander?”

“All right,” said Gilly in a low monotone. “She’ll be fun to burn.”

Lanval nodded. “All right, people, the Prince’s orders have come in.”

“He want us at the Palace?” asked Razalic.

Lanval shook his head. “The Eremites and the Sacristants are guarding the Palace. We’re manning the walls and the docks.” Lanval took a deep breath, and began to enlarge on Amfortas’ design. As he did so, he had a sudden epiphany.

Demetrious. That had been the boy’s name.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 8

Lucien de Cortana glanced out the window. “Will he be here soon?” he asked quietly.

Augustus Gwynedd frowned to himself. “Let us hope so. We can’t afford to let our stay here drag on,” he noted, as his fingers tapped the table

“You don’t have to tell me that,” snapped Cortana. He turned to the Duke of Hauteclare. “Do you think the Prince suspects?”

“That we oppose him?” replied Augustus. “That he knows. That we are working in concert? That he almost certainly infers. That we plan on meeting with the Count of Bayard?” He took a deep breath. “That I hope not.”

Cortana shuddered, then glanced out the window again. “He’s here.” Lucien went to the door, and opened it. “Count Sesyll,” he said with a bow. “You hon--”

“Don’t say my name,” hissed Sesyll Pescheour, Count of Bayard. He swiftly stepped inside. “The Prince has ears everywhere,” he noted, nervously unwrapping his cloak.

Augustus stared at the Count in surprise. “You can’t be serious…”

“Can’t I?” asked Sesyll. “It took years to get my cousin into Froberge. And what happens after only a few months, just as we’ve nearly established contact with Pelleas? He’s whisked away back to Joyeuse! About the only thing we accomplished is proving to ourselves that he isn’t dead!” The Count shook his head. “My young cousin has agents, Augustus. Both obvious, and… hidden.”

Cortana nodded. “I’ve checked. Lanval Equitan IS Amfortas’ Serjeant-at-arms.”

“The Archdeacon of Hell in the Prince’s service,” muttered the Duke of Hautclare. “What is Amfortas thinking?”

Sesyll glanced down at the floor, his expression grim. “I wish I knew. When this all started, I thought it was… well, a fairly typical play for power. A bit unpleasant--a bit more like something out of the Concordant, or even the Lands of Night than Leonais--but still--understandable. But now…” He gulped. “Political enemies of the Prince die, gentlemen. Sometimes they die quietly, sometimes they die horribly, sometimes they die with their heads on the block for crimes anyone who knew them would hardly credit. But they all die. Amfortas talks constantly of the safety of the realm--and yet, after all his preparations, the Easter King seizes Precieuse, and now we’re told Dark Lords are going to attack Joyeuse.” He shook his head. “What is happening in Leonais? I have been trying to understand for years now, and I still don’t…”

“Does anyone?” muttered Augustus. “Prince Amfortas has taken the part of the Faith in every dispute that’s come up in the last ten years. You’d think they’d love him. But if my sources are right, most of the Flamens find him as disquieting as we do…”

“Because he doesn’t follow them, he makes them follow him,” said Sesyll. “Look at the whole Metropolitan matter. Ilarion may be a treacherous, ambitious bastard, but you can reason with him. If Amfortas had stayed out of it, the whole affair would have probably resolved quickly. But he stepped in and kept… escalating things. And things… progressed.” He turned suddenly to Cortana. “You’ve been quiet.”

Lucien continued to peer out the window. “I think you were followed, Count.”

Augustus and Sesyll both turned. “What?” shouted Augustus.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” muttered Sesyll harshly.

“I wasn’t sure,” snapped Cortana. “And if I was right, I didn’t think panicking would help us.”

Sesyll nodded at that. “A good point.” He turned Augustus. “Is there a back way?”

“Yes.” The Duke of Hauteclaire rose from his chair. “I’ll show you.” As they left the room, Augustus glanced at Sesyll. “Can you believe that it’s come to this? Peers and Princes of Leonais, skulking like common criminals?”

A bitter smile touched the Count’s face. “I’m an old soldier, Gwynedd. I can believe anything that is happening to me.” He sighed. “That doesn’t mean I like it, though.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 7

“Come on you big, stinky pile of stink,” muttered Morgaine, as she pulled on Blackbeak’s reins.

Nisrioch shook his head. “Now, now, Morgaine. You know what Manny would say if he saw you yelling at good old Blackbeak like that…”

“Yes,” said Morgaine, clenching her teeth. “Because our little brother is the only person in the entire Lands of Night who finds these disease-ridden balls of filth endearing.” Blackbeak stared at the little Dark Lord balefully for a moment, then dived forward. “Ahh! Ahh!” shrieked Morgaine. “I take it back! I take it back!” Blackbeak licked her face, and then backed away.

Mansemat and Viviane entered just as Nisrioch doubled over in laughter. “What is going on here?” asked Viviane.

Morgaine wiped desperately at her face. “I am in covered in gryphon stink, that’s what’s happening,” she said bitterly.

“Come again?” said Mansemat.

“Blackbeak licked her,” replied Nisrioch, straightening.

Mansemat smiled broadly. “Awww! That just shows he wuvs you!” He moved up to the gryphon. “You wuv Morgaine, don’t you, you big sweetie? Don’t you?” He began to pet its head. “Yes, you do! Woogie woo! You big sweetie, you! Ooogie-ooogie-oogs!” Blackbeak began to lick his face. “Dat’s right! Kiss daddy! Give daddy big kisses!”

Morgaine stared at Viviane. “How do you live with him? Really, I have to know this.”

“Baths in rosewater are a major component,” said Viviane.

“For you or for him?” asked Morgaine with a frown.

“Yes,” answered Viviane.

Morgaine nodded. “Right.” She considered it for a moment. “Hmm. I wonder if Despi would be up for that…?”

“I just missed an incredibly disturbing conversation, didn’t I?” asked Jean Crow, as she joined them.

Nisrioch waved his hand. “Only mildly disturbing,” he declared. “From your point of view, I’ll add. I find it rather sweet.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a degenerate,” said Jean.

“I prefer the term ‘libertine’,” replied Nisrioch. “It sounds classier.”

Jean nodded. “Right. So… what insane contraption are you having me take now?” She grimaced. “I warn you, if it involves pedaling, you will regret it.”

“Alas, I have brought none of my remarkable inventions with me,” said Nisrioch. “We are traveling by gryphon.”

Jean blinked. “Ahh. That… sounds… dangerous.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” said Mansemat. “An ancient pastime of the Southern Kings!”

“Yep,” declared Morgaine flatly. “Why it’s just like riding a horse. Through the air. A meat-eating horse. That smells of rotting death.”

Jean nodded and looked at Viviane. “Do you have room in the mortar?”

“Yep,” said Viviane.

Jean nodded again. “Thank you,” she said.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 6

Edward Delta stared at the assembled Stylites in the refectory. “Why are they even here if they aren’t eating anything?” he asked Edmund Erelim.

The Eremite glanced at the heavily cloaked Knights of the Tower for a second, then hurriedly turned away. “Do not look at them,” he hissed.

“What?” asked Edward. He continued to stare at the Stylites. “Will something bad happen?” He scratched his head. “I mean--their outfits are a bit creepy, but I don’t…”

“You know how you Sacristans view us Eremites as a bunch of out-there weirdoes, who take things a bit too seriously…?” whispered Edmund.

“We don’t think that!” declared Edward brightly. Edmund stared at him. The young Sacristan looked away nervously. “Okay, yes we do. Most of us, anyway.” He smiled at his friend. “But hey--look at us! Proof that we Holy Knights can just shelve our differences and…”

“Yes, yes, yes, I know,” muttered Edmund, nodding rapidly. “Thing is, we sorta view the Stylites that way. Only… more so.” He took a deep breath. “These guys are insane. They study things people really shouldn’t study, and it makes them… weird. In all sorts of ways. You really--really don’t want to attract their notice.”

Edward snorted. “That IS ridiculous.” He pointed at his friend. “You are being ridiculous.” He leaned forward. “Have I made it clear how ridiculous you are being?”

Edmund sighed. “I’m getting an idea, yes.”

“I’m going to demonstrate how silly what you just said is,” declared Edward, standing up. “I will go talk to the Stylites. Thus you will see that they are just like us, when you get down to it.” He turned and walked to the table where the hooded Knights of the Tower were sitting. “Hello there, gentlemen! I am Squire Edward Delta, of the Knightly Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian. I wish to thank you for your service to our city, in its hour of need.”

The Stylites did not answer him. Indeed, they barely seemed to respond to his presence. Instead they merely remained huddling at their table, their faces hidden by the hoods of their cloaks--and to Edward’s surprise, heavy shrouds worn over them, so that only the eyes were visible. Edward stood there in awkward silence for awhile, then coughed. “Well,” he said, shifting awkwardly. “I hope that I have made my good wishes known…”

“What are you doing?” came a low, growling voice behind the Sacristan. Edward Delta whirled around. A tall Stylite in a rich robe stood there. Like his fellows, he was cloaked--however instead of a shroud, he wore a heavy metal mask, shaped into the image of a scowling face.

Edward gulped, then managed a bow. “Umm--pardon me, sir… I was just… introducing myself to your fellows…”

“They are not my fellows,” said the Stylite. “They are my Acolytes. I am their Master. Men call me ‘Sepulchre’.”

Edward blinked. This was… getting odd. “Ahh… yes. Squire Edward Delta. Of…”

“I know your Order’s name, Sacristan,” stated Sepulchre. “There is no need to speak it.”

“Right.” Edward nodded. He glanced at the Acolytes. “Umm… are… do these guys talk…?”

“The Rule of our order requires that Acolytes remain silent,” said Sepulchre. “It is a matter of discipline.”

Edward stared at the silent, almost motionless men. “Ah.” He bit his lip nervously. “Maybe… maybe you could introduce me to…”

“Acolytes of the Tower do not have names,” said Sepulchre. “Only those who have abandoned all things may serve the Tower. Only when they have become masters is a new title given to them.”

Edward tried to look Sepulchre in the eye, but found the mask too unnerving, and glanced away. “But… what do you call them?”

“Usually nothing,” said Sepulchre. “When we need an Acolyte to serve a task, an appropriate label is given, until it is no longer needed.” He suddenly pointed to one of the Acolytes. “You there! You are now called ‘Worm’! Worm--stand up, and bow to the Sacristan.” The Acolyte stood up, and bowed politely to Edward. “Now, Worm--sit.” He did so. “Very good. You have served your task. You are now free of adornment once again. Serve us faithfully and namelessly, Acolyte.” Sepulchre turned to Edward again. “Do you see?”

“Ummm…. I guess so,” mumbled Edward.

“Do you have anything else you wish to discuss with us?” asked Sepulchre. Edward shook his head, and began heading back to his table, with the occasional glance over his shoulder at the Stylites. They never moved, or showed the least response to him.

Edward sat back down in his chair. “Not a word,” he said to Edmund.

The Eremite merely smirked.