Tuesday, December 31, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 19

Morgaine stared at the little purple thing that stood on the table, glowering at her. “So that’s it?” she muttered. “This is your great display of sorcerous might? This little purple thing?”

“A sprite,” stated Malagise levelly. “From one of the Far Spheres.” He shrugged. “Admittedly one of the nearer ones, but summoned without apparatus or device, simply by incantation.”

The sprite nodded, and then stuck out its tongue at Morgaine. “Well, I’m impressed,” said Nisrioch. He turned to the Duke. “And this is, I assume, one of the simplest demonstrations of your latest work.”

“Indeed,” said Malagise. “There are more advanced techniques for more advanced entities. Though I am hesitant to use them in the context of tea parties. For a variety of reasons.”

Psyche gave shuddered. “P-putting it mildly. Th-that arm you suh-suh-summoned…” She shook her head.

“To be fair, we only assume it was an arm, my dearest,” said Malagise. “It might have been a leg.”

Morgaine and the sprite continued to glare at each other. “Yeah, well, whatever sort of limb it was, it sounds like an improvement of this thing to my mind.” The sprite waved its hand in what Morgaine concluded was a rude gesture. She turned to Malagise. “So, does this thing do anything besides be a sort of weird conversation piece at parties.”

“They can be instructed to do simple tasks,” said Malagise. “And more complex ones if they are manifested long enough--they seem to grow in knowledge and experience throughout their existence on this plane.” He scratched his head. “To be frank, I’m not quite certain if the things aren’t created instead of summoned.”

“I’d hope the latter, if I were you,” said Morgaine. “I for one would not want a hand in creating… something like that.”

“It… isn’t without a certain charm,” said Fiordespina, staring at the little creature. “It rather calls to my mind the late Baron Lysander’s pet monkey. Only, with less hair, and a bigger face, and…”

“Admit it,” said Morgaine. “You’re fishing for compliments about little ugly here.” The sprite began to jump up and down on the table before her, waving its fist and making little chattering noises. “Yeah, that’s enough of that. Nerghal! I SUMMON YOU TO BE AT MY SIDE! WHEREVER SO FAR AS YOU MAY BE, NOW--”

“You know perfectly well, Morgaine,” said the ghost, appearing by her side, “that you have no need to yell. Now, why have…” He caught sight of the Sprite, and blinked. “What… is that thing?”

“A sprite,” said Morgaine. “I want you to swat it.”

Nerghal stared at her flatly. “That is why you have called me.”

“I’d do it myself, but I don’t want sprite on my hands,” she noted.

Nerghal sighed. “No, Morgaine.”

“If you do, I’ll promise to do something you like!” said Morgaine.

“Such as?” asked Nerghal, his face remaining impassive.

“Like… not making you do stuff like this in the future?” she offered hopefully.

Agri Khan glanced at Balu Khan. “I’m so glad I’m not a wizard,” he said quietly.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 18

Better than Mansemat Cthonique?” said Alcina Ashurana, throwing her head back and laughing. “He actually said that?”

“Indeed, Your Worshipfulness,” said Antea, brushing the Dark Lord’s hair. She regarded her mother for a moment. “Then asked me not to mention all that to you.”

Alcina nodded. “And did you promise to do this?” she asked.

“No, but I did give words that he could construe in such a fashion,” answered the young Erl.

Alcina patted Antea on the head. “Clever girl.” Antea smiled as Alcina caressed her hair. She chuckled to herself. “Well, I see that Trufaldin has not lost his habit of making declarations far above his true talents. He used to do the same thing when we were young--promise immensity, and deliver puniness.”

“Really, Your Worshipfulness?” asked Antea, returning to her duties. “I had no idea you had such dealings with him in your youth.”

“Oh, a young maid may be forgiven a few youthful follies,” said Alcina. “Especially when they fall quite short of a true scandal. Very, very short of a true scandal.”

Antea nodded, and set down her combs and brushes. Living with her mother, she had gotten used to having conversations go in… this direction. “But what of his… claims?” she asked, picking up her makeup kit.

“More folly,” stated Alcina flatly. “I shall sit in Mount Qaf when father dies. Or rather, I shall have the right to sit it in it. I doubt I shall do much more than visit the ghastly place on Grand Occasions so that I may look properly regal before hieing myself back to Albracca. Leave it to a castellan the rest of the time.” She glanced at Antea. “Would you perhaps like the job?”

Antea shuddered as she wiped her mother’s face clean. “No… no, I would not, Your Worshipfulness.” She coughed politely. “But… may I ask how you are so sure of this?”

“My father said it would be so,” said Alcina. “And I wish it to be so.” She looked at Antea pointedly, red eyes narrowed. “And both those things carry a great deal more weight than Trufaldin Harpinus’ boasts.”

Antea lightly daubed her mother’s cheeks with rouge. “Still, Your Worshipfulness, he is correct about the Heir of Ahrimanes having not been a woman before,” she noted quietly. “And the Assembly has been… testy of late.”

“I’m aware of both these facts, Antea,” said Alcina bluntly. “And you have no need to tell me things I already know. So rest assured, it will all come to nothing, and I will be the Dark Lord of the Mountains of Sorrow in my time. Are we clear?” Armida nodded. “Good.” Alcina leaned back in her chair and regarded herself in the mirror. “I want a dark color for my lips. Dark and smoky.”

“Burnt umber, perhaps?” said Antea. “It would go quite well with the dress.”

Alcina smiled. “Ahh, my dear, you are such a genius at these things.” The Dev shut her eyes. “I do not know how I would manage without you. Especially with dear old Suky gone.”

Antea gave a slight bow. “You underestimate yourself as usual. All I know I learnt from you, after all.”

“And her,” said Alcina. “And the nuns at the Abbey of Perpetual Silence.”

“Oh, no,” said Antea. “They mostly taught prayer.”

Alcina quirked one perfectly trimmed eyebrow. “Really? Could I hear one? I have always wondered how people of the vow live…”

“Well, I could do one, but you couldn’t hear it,” answered Antea. “They’re silent prayers. You say them without words.” Alcina’s eyes widened. “It’s… mostly a matter of attitude,” Antea said quietly.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 17

Mansemat glanced at King Pelleas. “I do hope you’re enjoying yourself here,” the Dark Lord stated, at long last. “The Shadow Council can be intimidating to newcomers.”

“Council of…” began Pelleas, only to stop and shake his head. “Elaine is… a most insistent young woman, isn’t she?”

Mansemat nodded. “She does warm to people,” he stated. “But in her own time.”

Pelleas coughed. “Yes, I imagine that would be so.” He glanced at Mansemat. “So--might you need me to say something for my cause…”

“No, no,” said Mansemat mildly, shaking his head. “We will handle all that.” He coughed. “You know, custom and all that.”

Pelleas grimaced. “Yes. Of course. Custom and all that.” He turned to the Dark Lord. “Tell me, is there an actual purpose to me being here, or is it simply so you can show me to your fellows and declare ‘Look! Look! We’ve got a Pescheour! You’ve all wanted one for generations, and we finally have one!’” The King gave a cough. “To put it… bluntly.”

Mansemat glanced away awkwardly. “Umm… well… while there is an element of… wanting to show people that we aren’t… simply making you up… And that you are of sound mind, and so forth…”

“Well, thank you,” said Pelleas. “I’m glad that you feel that.” He thought it over. “Though considering your kin, I am wondering about your judgment…”

“I try to be broad-minded in these matters,” said Mansemat. “But look… the real reason you’re here is… well, I thought you might like a break from Castle Terribel.” He gestured around. “After all, this place is… well, something of an interesting spot.” He gestured up ahead. “I mean--look at that! The Mad King’s Tower! Built by King Huon Maganza in a mad bid to pierce the heavens!”

Pelleas stared at it for awhile. “My goodness. Quite tall, isn’t it?” Mansemat nodded. “Not exactly heaven-piercing, however…”

“Yes, well, Huon got bored halfway through,” said Mansemat. “So he gave up that project, and started a new one--piercing the utmost depths of the earth. That one he gave up in a more permanent fashion. Vanished touring his… well, hole. Which was then bricked up.” Pelleas stared at Mansemat for a moment. “He’s actually one of the nicer Goblin Kings, actually.”

Pelleas thought it over, and then gave a sizable shrug. “I have a predecessor who outlawed shoes in his presence. Because he said they bred scorpions. So, really, I’m in no position to judge.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 16

Ruggier Mongrane smiled at his guest. “It is good to see you again, Elaine.” He glanced at his sister. “I’ve been meaning to thank you and your family for your assistance with… that little matter in White Pine.”

Elaine shrugged. “You make it sound like we did something. Most of what happened was just… things happening.” She looked at Marfisa. “And your sister kicking ass.”

Marfisa glanced away. “I wouldn’t say that. I mean--they were just homunculi. They barely seemed to have bones…”

“Fine,” said Elaine, rolling her eyes. “You just beat up some homunculi. Still--all you.”

“Yeah,” said Marfisa, squirming uncomfortably in her chair, “I guess, but… it really… it really wasn’t anything big.” She glanced at the fireplace. “Anyway… I was just… happy that you guys were there to help with… you know. The crap with Malachel.”

Rodomonte patted her shoulder. “You’re well rid of him, meercat.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” muttered Marfisa. “I mean, with the kidnapping, and the debts, and the connections to weird crazy criminals. Also, the whole ‘creepy jerk’ thing. But… well… I’ve been engaged to him so long, I… what do I do now?”

“You’re about my age,” said Elaine. “It’s not like you are in danger of being an old maid. Just… spend your time practicing your swordplay, and… so forth…”

“Well, yeah,” said Marfisa, resting her head in her hands. “But I do that anyway. I need long-term goals.”

Ruggier and Elaine glanced at each other, in a look wherein the former communicated to the latter that, yes, Marfisa’d been like this for the last few months. Elaine coughed. “Well, it is great to see you again. Even in these… strained times.”

“I wonder if you realize just how much trouble you and yours have caused me,” said Ruggier quietly. “I’m afraid you’ve made my life as Dark Lord of the Crossing… quite interesting.”

“Sorry,” said Elaine.

Ruggier shook his head. “Oh, no apologies needed.”

“I’ve got it!” said Marfisa slamming her fist on the table. “I can master sword-juggling!” She sighed. “No, no, wait. That won’t take that long.” She shook her head. “My life is so directionless!”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 15

“I am, of course, the greater swordsman,” stated Trufaldin Harpinus as he reclined on his sofa.

“Indeed?” said the young woman with him, in a tone that at least simulated great interest.

“Indeed,” declared the Dev. “Oh, Mansemat Cthonique likes to pretend he’s something remarkable, but what was he before he got the Blade of Night? A nothing--a mewling brat, the puny son of a famous father.” A malicious glint touched the Serjeant’s eye. “Who despised him, I might add.”

The young woman blinked. “Mansemat hated Shaddad?”

Trufaldin sat up suddenly. “No!” He scratched his head. “Well--probably, yes, actually. But, no, no, I meant that Shaddad hated Mansemat.”

“Well, then it only makes sense that Mansemat would hate him,” said the young woman. “How could one not hate a parent that hates you? Such a person would be cruel and unnatural…”

Trufaldin frowned. This conversation was drifting off his favored subject--how incredibly impressive he was--onto subjects he held in less esteem, and, if he was forced to admit, subjects that were less likely to result in this young woman deciding that Trufaldin Harpinus was a man worthy of bedding, and that in fact, he was doing her an honor by considering performing this action with her. “It is of no import,” he declared suddenly. “What matters is, I am the greater warrior. And the heir to Mount Qaf, and the Mountains of Sorrow.”

The woman blinked. “I… had always thought that was the Lady Alcina.” She coughed. “She is the Dark Lord of the Vale of Woe…”

“A gift from a doting father,” said Trufaldin. “I am the only man who can serve as the true Heir of Ahrimanes. I’m the closest kin the Ashuranas have--my grandmother was Belberith’s cousin.”

The young woman stared at him, intrigued. “On what side?” She smiled at him. “I only ask because that is important to your claims.”

Trufaldin glared at her, starting to reconsider his previous efforts to sleep with her. “The Ashurana side, of course!”

“Ahh!” The young woman nodded. “Well, that’s clearer! You’re related through Lord Khemael, which would make you the closest relative on the Ashurana side. It’s just that Lady Celaeno had some siblings as well and they would have been Boreasi, not Ashurana which--”

Trufaldin began to rub his temples. “Yes, you have laid it out very well, Miss…”

She did a curtsey. “Antea,” she declared with a flourish. “Do you have anything else you wish to state, beside your being a fantastic swordsman, and heir to a Dark Lordship?”

“No,” said Trufaldin. “Not particularly.” He bit his lip. “You’ll not mention this little chat to Her Worshipfulness, will you?”

“I doubt she’d find it that interesting,” said Antea, as she skipped out of the room. Trufaldin fell back on his sofa, and grumbled to himself about uppity maidservants, and the uppity noblewomen who employed them.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 14

“…son of Uni Hunchback, son of…” Nan Walsing scowled and stamped her feet. “Damn it, I just HAD it.”

“Keep at it,” said Idun. “I didn’t make skald by giving up on the sagas, no matter how many impenetrable genealogies they threw at me.” The Muspeilun chuckled to herself. “Oh, those genealogies. I love how Njal Ironfist has two, utterly contradictory ones.”

Nan blinked. “Which one’s… right?”

“Depends on the saga,” said Idun with a shrug. “If it’s Ironfist’s Saga, then he’s the grandson of Eirik Whitehair. If it’s Ketil’s Saga, he’s Olaf Wormtongue’s descendent.” Nan stared at her teacher, clearly baffled. “The tale’s the tale, my dear. The facts are secondary. People are descended from who they need to be descended from for the story to work.”

“But… that’s…” Nan shook her head. “How do you find out the truth that way?”

“There are lots of truths, apprentice,” said Idun. “This helps us find the important ones.”

Nan frowned to herself, but nodded, if not satisfied, than willing to appear so. She shut her eyes, as if about to start another recitation, then stopped, and glanced at Idun. “So… these things always like this?”

“Sometimes worse, sometimes better,” answered Idun with a yawn. “Sometimes pretty much the same.” She looked at the young Ettin pointedly. “You want to head out for a walk?”

Nan began to stare at the floor while twiddling her thumbs. “Well, I do have all these sagas to memorize, and all these kennings to figure out, and all these…”

“Go out for a walk,” declared Idun imperiously. “I will not watch you work yourself into a nervous breakdown in front of me.”

Nan stared a moment, then bowed to her teacher. “Thank you, skald.” And then she darted out the door.

Idun chuckled to herself. She had to admit, this particular apprenticeship was turning out to be quite an amusing experience. Nan was proving quite amusing to gently torment.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 13

Asterot Maganza stared at the drink before him vacantly. “So… six thousand five hundred sixty-eight stairs in this place, by his count?”

“Or six thousand five hundred forty-seven,” noted Pinabel quietly. “I’m afraid he seemed… vague on that point. Amongst others.”

The Erlking of Goblins nodded, picked up his drink, and downed it in a gulp. “Well, it’s good the old boy is keeping busy.” He shrugged. “Post is practically a sinecure anyway. Who cares if he’s not quite up to it anymore? It’s a small enough matter, when y…”

Pinabel regarded his kinsman and king with rigid, ferocious dignity. “Sir, I fear Sansonetto is being taken advantage of by his staff. This would be as you say, a small enough matter if he were surrounded by loyal servants--but he is not. They are stealing from the Palace, my lord.”

Asterot gave a dismissive snort. “A few bottles here and there is hardly worth…”

“It is not a few bottles!” snapped Pinabel, his dry voice filled with surprising fury. “It is whole cases of liquor, great stores of food, medicine, draperies…” He shook his head. “I do not know if I will ever be able to produce a full list of what the Palace has lost, sir.”

Asterot regarded Pinabel for a moment. “Would you like a drink? Perhaps?”

Pinabel shook his head. “No, sir. I would not.”

“Are you sure?” asked Asterot. “It would calm your nerves.” Pinabel kept his solitary eye focused on the Dark Lord, and gave one sharp, definite nod. Asterot looked away, and poured himself another drink. “It’s just that you seem quite upset by all this. More than the whole matter warrants, I must say. And that’s as the man whose things are being pilfered, I’ll add.”

“He is my kin, Your Imperious Munificence,” answered Pinabel. “My father’s cousin. I do not like to see him humiliated in this fashion, undone by age…”

“Well, that get’s all of us,” noted Asterot. He downed his drink, then snorted. “Lady’s love, it’s getting me, and I’m younger than you. The Count was riding with my grandfather.” He looked at Pinabel significantly. “And your father.”

“He mistook me for him,” muttered Pinabel, his expression clouded with quiet sorrow. “Several times.”

“Ahh,” said Asterot knowingly.

“And one time…” Pinabel gulped. “One time, he asked after Uriees.”

Asterot considered releasing another knowing ‘Ahh’, but decided against it. “Your brother--was a fine man.”

“None finer,” said Pinabel simply.

“I could dispute that with you,” said Asterot. “But I won’t.” He took a deep breath. “I shall look into replacing the staff. After this Council is over. And, if it should be necessary, I will try to find some… other singular honor for Count Sansonetto to fill. He served with us, through all the Occupation, and deserves something he can feel proud about, after all.” Pinabel gave a satisfied nod at that. “Now, are you sure you don’t want a drink?” said the King, as he poured himself another.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 12

“…And then, you follow it up with a riposte, like this!” said Marfisa, mimicking a sword thrust.

Elaine brought a hand to her chin. “Hmmm. Seems a bit complicated.” She shrugged. “Manny says simplicity is a power all its own in a battle. Cutting through plots and plans like a knife through silk.”

Marfisa blinked. “Wow. You sounded just like him!” She looked at her friend hopefully. “So you two are getting along better now?”

Elaine nodded. “Yep. We are.”

“Well, that’s good. Family should get along,” said Marfisa. She grabbed Elaine’s arm. “Urrr… not that he’s… exactly your family--I understand how you feel about that, but he’s sort of…”

Elaine smiled, and shook her head. “No, no. He’s family. I…” She shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. “Look, there may be a… Milesian out there who… sired me on my mother, but… Mansemat is my father. In every damned way that counts.”

“Awww,” said Marfisa. “That’s sweet. Sorta like Roddy, to Ruggier and me.” She bit her lip. “Well, only he’s more like a great big uncle…”

Elaine nodded. “Pretty much.” She glanced around. “So, those two are around, right? I’d like to see them again.”

“Oh, sure, sure!” declared Marfisa, with a nod. “They’d love to see you too! Come with me! We’re staying the Mad King’s Tower!” She turned suddenly, almost dragging Elaine after her. “We can all chat! And have them send up hot cocoa! It’ll be fun!”

“Sure, sure,” said Elaine, as Marfisa pulled her along. The pair were soon walking the ramparts.

“They are going to be thrilled to see you!” continued Marfisa brightly. “You can tell them all about all these crazy things we’ve been hearing about in Leonais!” She turned. “Were you really there? In Joyeuse? When all the ships attacked, and all that other stuff happened?”

Elaine nodded.

Marfisa’s eyes went wide. “That sounds so incredible! You have to tell me about it all!” She coughed, as she saw Elaine frown. “If… if you want to. I… if it’s prying, well, I’d hate to pry, it’d be rude, and…”

“It’s complicated,” said Elaine.

“Right.” Marfisa nodded. “I understand. I’ll be quiet about it.” She pointed ahead. “Hey, who’s the old fellow talking to the Mameluke…?”

Elaine glanced up to see Pelleas standing by an airship, a Goblin next to him. The King of Leonais waved at her. She shut her eyes. “He’s… another thing that’s complicated. Now, come on. Let’s go to the Mad King’s Tower…”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 11

“…Ghouls have been going on about star formations,” stated Balu Khan, sipping his tea. “Apparently, one of their prophecies is coming true. Or might be.” He shrugged. “You know how they are about those.”

Nisrioch regarded the Kizak with an ironic smile. “Let us recall that I was on the scene the last time one of their prophecies came true. And that the whole affair proved quite memorable.”

Malagise frowned and put down a large biscuit he’d been nibbling on. “Nor is it unwise to go on about star formations. Several conjunctions are occurring in a surprisingly short span of time, which may have all sorts of effects on mystical resonances across the world. Why the strain on aetheric bonds alone…”

Psyche Zenobia coughed. “D-dear, you’re r-ruh-rambling again.”

The Duke gave his wife an apologetic smile. “Yes, I suppose the specifics would be a bit much for the layperson. Suffice to say, it should prove interesting.”

Jerzy blinked. “That doesn’t sound comforting.”

“It shouldn’t,” said Malagise with a shrug. “War, conflict, and transformation.”

“S-so like any other time then,” said Psyche.

“Yes,” answered Malagise. “Only more so.”

“These scones are DELIGHTFUL!” announced Nisrioch brightly. “Heaven in a crumbly form!” He smacked his lips in delight.

The group turned to him. “Oh, dear,” said Agri Khan. “It’s going to be that bad, is it?”

Nisrioch smiled forcefully. “What are you talking about? I am merely enjoying this delightful afternoon tea! Why is my doing so being treated as a prophecy of doom?”

“Because you can prophesize doom,” replied Balu Khan. “And when you start fidgeting when lesser prognosticators speak of dark times, and you want to change the subject, we get nervous.” He leaned forward. “So what do you know?”

Nisrioch was silent for a moment. “Nothing. Nothing I can be sure of. Bits and pieces and tidings. Riddles without answers. Things that are being kept hidden from me, by powers that are themselves hidden.”

“And that is really, all you can say?” asked Jerzy.

“Yo ho, my valiant steed!” came Morgaine’s voice echoing down the corridor. “To GLORY!” It was soon followed by the sight of Morgaine perched on the shoulders of Fiordespina Maganza, the pair gleefully racing into the room while rather scantily clad. They froze as they saw the little party assembled there.

“Ahh. Hello,” said Morgaine awkwardly. “We… uh… thought this room was empty.” She coughed. “Say hello to the nice people, Despi…”

“But I’m supposed to be your valiant steed, my deathless darling!” hissed Fiordespina. “Horses don’t talk!”

Malagise held up a plate. “Care for some cookies, perhaps?”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 10

Pinabel Maganza walked down the steps with his cousin Sansonetto, Count of the Copse, and Castellan of the Palace of Shadows. “I for one am happy to see the Council meeting here again,” stated the old man with a rather forceful nod. “This place feels so… empty in between these things.” He looked around the hall. “I fear I go slightly off. Last month, I counted the windows for something to do.” He turned to Pinabel. “There are four hundred sixty-one in the Great Hall alone. Including five picture windows.”

Pinabel nodded, glad, as he very rarely was, that his mutilated face hid surprise rather well. “Indeed?”

“Indeed,” said Sansonetto forcefully. “Four hundred sixty-ONE! Precisely.” He scratched his chin. “I wonder why that would be…”

“An important query for us both to consider in our official position as Castellans,” said Pinabel quietly. “Doubtless the answer is edifying.” He coughed. “Now, then, Sir Sansonetto, about the brandy stores…”

“Four hundred sixty-one,” said Sansonetto, turning around. “Ahhh, Anselm, the times we spent together in that hall! The wine, the women, the feasting--and think we never knew how many windows it had! Never had the least idea.”

Pinabel considered how to reply to this as politely as possible. “Pinabel, sir. It is Pinabel. Not… Anselm.”

“Pinabel!” muttered Sansonetto, turning around. “Pinabel is a lad, Pinabel is…” He coughed as he saw the Bailiff standing there, his single remaining eye wide. “Ahh, yes. Pinabel. My apologies. Forgot myself for a minute. Thought I was talking to your father.” A broad smile came to the Count’s face. “Ahh, dear old Anselm. A true gentleman and a scholar, he was. The times he and I had. Such times! Such times!”

Pinabel nodded. “Yes. Sansonetto--we need to speak of the stores. Many items here are missing. It is proving somewhat embarrassing…”

Sansonetto frowned. “Oh… ask Fausto. He handles all such matters. I’m much too busy!”

“Counting windows?” said Pinabel quietly.

“Yes, yes, yes,” said Sansonetto. “Among other things. Among other things!” He glanced around the room then turned to the Bailiff in an attitude of confidentiality. “You’d never guess how many stairs are in this palace. Six thousand, five hundred and forty-seven!” Sansonetto let out a laugh. “Isn’t that amazing?”

Pinabel nodded dully, and placed a comforting hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Yes. Yes it is.”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 9

Pelleas regarded the airship enthralled, wonder naked on his face. “So--how long will it stay up there?” he asked the large Goblin wearing a strange sort of hat--not a skullcap, like the others he’d seen wore, but a heavy cylinder of felt, topped with a tassel. Pelleas was fairly certain that it, like the rest of the Goblin’s outfit, had some official meaning, but he’d figured he could ask someone else about that.

“As long as it has to, sir,” said the Goblin. “It’s an airship. It’s what they do.”

Pelleas nodded. “Well, I gathered that,” he said. “But I was wondering… how long could it manage it?”

The Goblin blinked at that. “Well… I really don’t know, sir. Days, I believe. I… flew in one for a week.”

“Indeed,” said Pelleas.

The Goblin nodded. “Bit unsteady towards the end mind you,” he noted. “Me… not the airship. That was just fine. Believe it went on directly to another trip.”

“Remarkable,” said Pelleas, with a chuckle. “Any idea how they work?”

“Merchant Emporium trade secret,” said the Goblin. He looked around then leaned towards the King of Leonais confidentially. “Personally, I hear its Sylphs. They’ve got ‘em in that balloon thing.”

Pelleas blinked. “What is a Sylph?”

“One a yer lesser spirits,” said the Goblin. “Little girls with wings. They live on mountain tops, and gamble there.”

Pelleas’ blink had become a determined squint. “How precisely do they ‘gamble’?”

“Don’t know,” answered the Goblin. “But that’s what me Gran used to tell me. They gamble up their peaks, like little children.” He scratched his head. “Always figured they was playin’ foldol. Or maybe knucklebones. Somethin’ like that. For pennies, or flowers. Me an’ me cousins used to do that. From time to time.”

Pelleas nodded, as he realized that he did not have the heart to shatter this man’s pleasant fantasies with the knowledge that the word his grandmother had been using was almost certainly ‘gamboled’. It was a word Pelleas was well aware of, as his aunt Rosalind had used it to describe the behavior of pixies, charming spirits who she swore played and flitted about country roads. That brought back many pleasant memories--Rosalind had always been one of his favorite aunts.

Pelleas was rather suspecting that this Goblin’s ‘sylphs’ were about as real as Rosalind’s ‘pixies’. “So how do they keep the airships… flying?” he asked.

“They’ve got wings, sir!” exclaimed the Goblin.

Pelleas nodded. “Of course. How… foolish of me. Wings. That’s how they do it.”

The Goblin stared at the balloon rather wistfully. “Don’t figure they like it very much, mind you, bein’ cooped up in that big bag, never seein’ light. I hope the Emporium lets out, from time to time. Maybe gives ‘em a bit of dew.” He turned back to Pelleas. “That’s what they eat see. The dew on mountaintops. At least that’s what my Gran always said. ” He frowned. “Not sure they need to mind you, but I figure they like it. Else why would they do it?” He chewed fretfully at his lip. “So that’s what I hope. If they are in there. That they’re treated well. Otherwise, these things would be awful, wouldn’t they?”

“A noble sentiment,” said Pelleas. “And one that speaks quite well for you, Mister…?”

The Goblin offered him one oversized hand. “Noyt, sir. Of the Mamelukes, so there’s no honorific,” he explained. “And allow me to say, you seem like decent folk by Milesian standards.”

Pelleas smiled at that. “Why thank you, Noyt.”

“Yep. A real credit to yer people,” continued the Mameluke.

Pelleas suppressed a sigh.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 8

Ull Regni tore a huge chunk off the loaf of bread before him, brought it purposefully to his mouth, and then began to chew it, scowling the whole time.

Skadi Utgardi replied by raising her cold leg of turkey to her mouth, taking a huge bite, and chewing back at him

Ull swallowed. “Look at her!” he hissed at Idun. “Eating at me! Provocatively eating at me!”

Idun nodded slowly. “You are much put upon, Ull.”

Nan looked at her mentor, and then looked at the Dark Lord of the Ironfangs. She seemed about to say something when Idun raised her hand, and gave a quick shake to her head. Nan gulped slightly and fidgeted awkwardly with her food.

Ull squeezed the chunk of bread in his hand, his huge fingers leaving imprints on it. “Oh, how that woman tasks me, Idun! She tasks me and I will have SATISFACTION!”

“Not from me, you won’t!” shouted out Skadi.

“Oh, see I don’t, Skadi! See if I don’t!” declared Ull grandly.

“I most certainly will!” she shouted back.

Nan looked again at Idun, who calmly sipped her drink. Nan nodded and rather hurriedly began to gulp down her own.

“HA!” proclaimed Ull.

“HA-HA!” proclaimed Skadi.

The pair both considered another reply, thought better of it, and went back to furiously eating at each other.

Idun glanced at her cousin. “Do you require your skald here to record your epic deeds, Your Prominence?” Ull took another chew of bread, thought it over, and shook his head. Idun stood up. “Then I believe my apprentice and I are going to leave. We have finished our meal, after all.”

Ull swallowed, staring continuously at Skadi. “That’s fine. Go stretch your legs. I’ll call you if I need you.”

Nan swiftly rose, and walked behind Idun as quickly as she could. Once she felt they were out of earshot, she glanced at the skald. “Ummm… are those two going to fight, or--do the other thing?”

Idun smirked at her. “You are so delightfully small-town, that I find it refreshing.” She gave a shrug. “And to answer you, I’m not sure even they know for sure.”

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 7

Belberith yawned fitfully, as he jabbed at the log in the fireplace. “This weather has me out of sorts,” he stated, in an almost abstract manner, as if he were discussing someone else, a hypothetical figure who was not himself. “I fear I am not as young as I used to be.”

“Really, father,” said Alcina Ashurana with a roll of her eyes. “And what gives you that idea? The fact that a great many years have passed?”

The elegantly scarred face of Trufaldin perked into an equally elegant sneer. “One might think greater respect was due a parent--and one of the Dark Lords of the Nine.”

“To a Dark Lord of the Nine, most certainly,” said Belberith, raising one thin eyebrow as ironically as possible.

Trufaldin gave a slight bow to the Dark Lord of the Mountains of Sorrow. “My apologies, Your Supremacy. My blood grew heated at hearing you so ill-treated by Her Worshipfulness.” The Dev’s expression remained as calm as ice.

Belberith granted him a nod. “Very well, then. I will allow you to quit my presence to give me time to regain my equilibrium in the face of your provocation. Go in peace.”

Trufaldin nodded, then vanished. Alcina looked at her father. “He is getting altogether too familiar these days,” she stated calmly.

“Why do you think he’s here, and Orrill’s been left in charge back at Mount Qaf?” replied Belberith.

“Your great trust for--” She sighed and shook her head. “No, not even I have enough sarcasm to manage that whopper.” Alcina regarded him for a moment. “You’re genuinely worried about him, aren’t you?”

Belberith regarded her for a moment, then went back to poking the log on the fire. “I have no son. Not since Asmodei died. I have only you.”

“Me and Falerina,” stated Alcina, crossing her arms.

“I have only you,” continued Belberith. “House Ashurana must be made secure. That is and has always been the guiding rule of my life. And I have labored mightily to see it so.” Alcina felt a cutting remark about the manner her father had labored in, but it died on her lips. Her father was in one of his rare… talkative moods, and moments like this were the closest he got to, well, bonding with her. “You will stand in my place when I go. And Trufaldin and all the rest of our cousins may try all they like--they will fail to stop that. They will fail before they start.” He looked her in the eye. “Only my blood will sit in my seat, daughter. Only my blood.”

Alcina shuddered to herself as she tried to figure out whether to be complimented or frightened. She was leaning towards the second choice.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 6

Nisrioch sipped his cup of tea, and then gave a long, happy exhale. “Simply exquisite,” he said. “Your taste, Mistress Chiaramonte, remains as fine as ever.”

The Duchess Psyche Zenobia Chiaramonte gave the slightest of smiles and the slightest of nods. “W-well, Your Ex-s-cellency, I’ve had many long years to become acc-cu-cuh-customed to your tastes. How is, the L-Lady Alcina, by the buh-by? I heard you saw her n-not to long ago?”

“You continue to astound, milady,” stated Nisrioch setting down his cup, “with the acuteness of your perspicaciousness.”

Duke Malagise Chiaramonte nodded, and firmly pressed his flabby hand onto his wife‘s dainty one. “She is a treasure,” he declared fervently. “Why do you know that she actually managed to convince Mumsy NOT to stalk my heels at this Council?” He stared lovingly at his wife. “A true miracle.”

Psyche’s face spread into a buck-toothed grin that struck Nisrioch as quite lovely, even if it did confirm the reason the recently-minted Duchess stuck to the slightest of smiles most of the time. “Oh, that was n-nothing,” said Psyche. “One m-merely had to f-find something to occ-occupy the D-duh-dowager.” She regarded Malagise with a quizzical look. “The in-inspec-inspection of the Brinewater d-distilleries is going well, yes?”

“If Aldy can be believed, excellently from Mumsy’s standpoint, less well from the Guild of Brewers,” noted Malagise.

“Ahh, well,” said Nisrioch, “There’s no pleasing everybody. I’m happy that marriage seems to suit you two.”

“It does indeed,” said Malagise fondly.

“…Will he accept two goats in apology then?” said Jerzy bin Yan, Agri Khan of the Red Horde strolling into view.

“It’s Kazimir bin Kazimir, Jerzy” stated Enryk bin Jerzy, Balu Khan of the Black Horde. “He doesn’t want goats. He wants bloody vengeance.”

“Have you explained to him that you can’t eat bloody vengeance?” asked Jerzy.

“Often and at length,” said Enryk. “He doesn’t care.” The Balu Khan shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t think he even cares about his nephew getting a hiding. Just looking for an excuse to be objectionable.”

“Typical,” muttered Jerzy, shaking his head. “And you just know when his clansmen are starving he’ll blame you. And the other Hordes…” Suddenly, the Kizack’s face brightened. “Hello!” He wolfishly sniffed the air. “Smells like a spot of tea!”

Enryk turned and sniffed. “With… ginger cakes.” He licked his lips.

“Would you g-gentlemen care to j-join us?” asked Psyche.

The two Khans swiftly walked up to the small table. “Yes, yes, we would,” said Agri Khan. “Anything beats talking about blood feuds all day.”

“Really?” said Duke Malagise. “That sounds rather interesting to my mind…”

Balu Khan grabbed a ginger cake and started to butter it. “One would think so, but usually it’s a lot of stupid old fools bickering over foolish things simply so they can bickering over things. A bit of pleasant conversation would be a breath of fresh air. ”

Nisrioch nodded. “I was complimenting the Chiaramontes on their good fortune in marriage.”

The Khans gave two slightly bitter nods. “You have my envy, sir,” said Agri Khan. “As a man who’s had rather too much bad fortune at it.”

“Likewise,” said Balu Khan, taking a bit of his ginger cake. “Mmmm. Exquisite!”

Thursday, November 28, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 5

Elaine slashed forward with her sword. In her mind, it was Amfortas before her, and she was cutting him into ribbons. If course, she knew that he was not before her, that she was simply in her room at the Palace of Shadows, but it felt so satisfying to imagine him slashed to pieces. Occasionally she’d imagine him begging for mercy, but that never felt quite right, so she’d settled on just killing him with her superior skill.

This was also a stretch, but not as much of one, so it didn’t feel so ridiculous.

And so, as Elaine enjoyed the pleasure of imagining Amfortas split gut to gullet, she heard the door behind her open, turned to greet whoever it was…

And found herself pressed to the wall with an elbow at her throat, as her sword clattered from her hands onto the floor…

And then found herself let go to cough weakly and stare at a very apologetic Marfisa Mongrane. “I’m so… so… sorry!” said Marfisa, sniffling. “I… I didn’t quite recognize you, and I saw the sword, and I panicked and my training kicked in, and…”

Elaine gave a few more weak coughs, then shook her head to clear it. “I’m fine. Only thing you really hurt is my pride.”

Marfisa gave another sniffle. “Well, I just feel terrible. Here I go to see you, and tell you how great it is to see you again, and I make a botch of it, and now you’re standing there like a gasping fish, and I’m standing here like a fish that doesn’t know what to say, and…” She looked at the sword lying on the ground. “So… you’ve taken up swordplay?” She looked at Elaine hopefully.

“Yep,” said Elaine casually.

“Well, that’s great!” declared Marfisa brightly. “I mean, we’re such great friends already, and now you’re a fellow warrioress, and that means we have even more to talk about, and we have so many things to talk about, and…” She shifted slightly, and then embraced Elaine. “Oh, this will be so neat!”

Elaine sighed. “I’m not sure ‘warrioress’ is a word.”

“Well, it should be,” said Marfisa, stepping back. “And if you agree with me on that, I’ll show you the secret Crescent Moon Slash! Deal?”

Elaine thought it over. “Sure, why not. Dictionary has to expand somehow.”

Marfisa leapt into the air, and gave a delighted squeal.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 4

“Oooh, eeesss daddy’s beeg babies?” crooned Mansemat scratching his gryphons’ heads. “You ees! That’s who! You eeeees!” Blackbeak and Molosses began to scratch at the ground ecstatically.

“I knew I’d find you here,” said Viviane, sliding up behind him. She clasped her hands around his waist.

“You always have,” said Mansemat. “Right from the start.”

“Mmmm,” she murmured, nestling her head against his back.

Mansemat glanced at her. “I should warn you, I smell of gryphon.”

“I’m starting not to mind,” she whispered. “Proof that you’re driving me insane.”

“And now you’re returning the favor,” said Mansemat, placing his hands on hers.

“That’s the idea,” stated Viviane.

Mansemat shut his eyes. “You know, it’s very nice, to just… stop worrying about all this. Even if it is only for a little while.” Viviane made a little noise that might have been intended as an affirmative. Mansemat decided to interpret it as one and go on. “These are… trying times, after all. Even if things are quiet now, there’s no telling what brand of hell is going to come across the river. So these little moments where we… enjoy ourselves.”

Viviane paused. “You’re spooked, aren’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I be?” said Mansemat. “I was half expecting Belberith and Asterot to beg off this Council meeting. Instead, they insisted on it. Which has me thinking they’re planning something unspeakably nasty.”

“Belberith, maybe,” said Viviane. “Asterot just wants an excuse to break out his best liquor.”

Mansemat nodded. “Ahh, well. Whatever it is, I shall bear it as best I…” Viviane gave him a little shove. He turned towards her, blinking. “What was that for?”

“Killing the mood,” stated Viviane.

Mansemat considered it, and took her hand. “Right. Consider the discussion… shelved.” He pulled her forward for a kiss.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 3

Asterot Maganza lay in his bed, groaning weakly. “Ohh, my poor aching head…”

Fiordespina glared at her brother from her vanity. “You should have considered your poor aching head BEFORE you decided to top off two bottles of plum wine with a whiskey chaser. A foolish move, Asterot. Very foolish.” She regarded herself in her mirror for a moment, fluttering her eyes coquettishly, then gave a satisfied nod.

“I need it,” muttered Asterot. “All the damn Cthoniques around, and no… no hope of watching them all get blown to pieces. Walking about the halls of my damned ancestors, with their damned Cthonique faces and Cthonique smiles, being all… Cthonique. It turns my stomach.”

“Once again, brother, that’s the drink, not the Cthoniques,” said Fiordespina.

“Hmmph. Traitor,” muttered Asterot. “Our ancestors are doubtless turning in their graves at your unnatural dalliance with that… Cthonique thing…”

Fiordespina rose and stretched her arms. “And saluting with honor your lying nearly comatose on your bed, in groaning misery, no doubt.”

“I’m not nearly comatose!” protested Asterot. He shut his eyes. “Wish I were. The headache wouldn’t bother me then.”

“I stand corrected then,” said Fiordespina. She went to her brother’s side. “Are you sure you don’t want to perhaps head out for a stroll? Fresh air can work wonders.”

“That’d require walking,” muttered Asterot. “I’m not up to it.” He shifted away from Fiordespina. “Just head out. Leave me alone.” He coughed. “Maybe--maybe have the servants send up a little something to wet my throat…”

Fiordespina crossed her arms. “I will most assuredly not do that.” She regarded Asterot sternly. “You need to deal with people brother. You need to do your duties.”

“No good. Can’t.” Asterot shuddered. “Not when we’re all… up to our elbows in Cthoniques…” Fiordespina smiled at that. “What… what are you grinning like a loon ab…?” The Erl King of Goblins blinked, then grimaced. “Oh. Oh, you are filthy, you…” He shuddered again, and started to make retching noises.

Which of course was exactly the moment that Pinabel Maganza entered the room. After regarding the pair for a moment, he glanced at Fiordespina. “Is His Munificence all right?”

“Last night’s drink is disagreeing with him,” said Fiordespina, smiling slightly.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 2

Pelleas Pescheour smiled benignly at the person sitting before him. “Now… allow me to begin by stating how much I am honored that you have agreed to assist the befuddled old man before you with these matters.”

Elaine du Lac stared flatly back at him for a moment, her fingers tapping on the table. After a while, she spoke. “There are two ways this can happen, Your Highness,” she stated, her tones flat. “The first way, you annoy me, I stand up, and that’s that. The second way, you don’t annoy me, and I try to help you with things.” She leaned forward. “Right now, the first way is winning.”

Pelleas gave an abashed nod. “Understood.” He shifted awkwardly in his seat, and began to idly stroke his beard. Elaine had to admit, the exiled King of Leonais was looking much improved these days--that beard, (and indeed his hair in general) was now neatly groomed, and he was now dressed in things that actually made him look… well, regal.

“So… you want… questions answered?” asked Elaine.

“Indeed,” said Pelleas. “Now, this Shadow Council…?”

“Council of Shadows,” said Elaine. “An ancient custom that brings together the Nine, Dark Lords of the highest degree, to meet and discuss things.” She scowled. “Only, not really. It’s actually a recent creation patched together out of old stories and random ideas. But we all pretend it’s old, because that keeps us from having wars all the time, something we’re really tired of.”

Pelleas nodded. “Seems reasonable.” He coughed. “So, any… recommendations for me when I make my case to them?”

“Yeah, don’t,” said Elaine. “These are pretty suspicious people for the most part. The King of Leonais isn’t quite the Holy Emperor come again, but it’s close enough. Just let Mansemat and Nisrioch plead your case.” She thought it over. “And possibly, Mom.”

“What about Morgaine?” asked Pelleas.

Elaine stared at him. “No, no, no, no.” She shuddered. “Unless you’re aiming to be strung up.”

Pelleas blinked. “I see. So, your recommendation is to do nothing, and let the Cthoniques speak for me. Except, of course, for Morgaine.” He looked at her pointedly. “A course of action that would mean that you have more or less done everything you need to.”

“Yes, it does,” she agreed, standing up. “Glad to see you understand that!” She walked towards the door. “See you at the Council meeting! And enjoy your meal! I recommend the stew.”

Pelleas considered telling her to stay, but decided against it. It occurred to him that this was the first time in a while he missed having guards who did what he said around him.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 1

Morgaine Cthonique leaned back in the fine wooden chair painting her toenails, her feet perched on the table before her. After a moment, she put down her brush, and whistled. “Nerghal! Admire my toes!”

The spectral form of Nerghal Cthonique materialized. He stared at his grandniece bleakly. “You are not seriously asking me to do this, are you?

Morgaine crossed her arms. “Yes, I am.” She gave her toes a wiggle. “Now admit it--those are cute toes. Exceptionally cute toes!”

The ghost rolled his eyes. “Yes. They are darling. You’ve painted them a very nice shade of pink.”

“HA!” declared Morgaine, pointing at him. “Shows what you know! That color is orchid!”

Nerghal nodded dully. “Indeed. Thank you for… enlightening me.”

“You’re very welcome,” said Morgaine. “Now--make with the praise!”

“I just did,” stated Nerghal flatly. He glanced around, his irritation obvious. “Tell me, is this really how you wish to spend your existence?”

Morgaine smiled. “Making myself beautiful for the woman I love? I can think of worse ways.”

“And you likely have,” muttered Nerghal.

“Oh, don’t be so gloomy,” she laughed. “I tell you it’s people like you that give the undead a bad name! You make people think we’re all miserable! You’ve got to learn to step back, and enjoy life.” She scratched her chin. “Or the ghoulish facsimile of it with which we have been endowed. Which is really getting pedantic on the subject, but hey, I know you’re one of the ones who likes precision.”

Nerghal crossed his arms. “Much as I am trying to feel happy for your situation, my dear, the fact remains that it reminds of the differences between it and my own.” He leaned forward. “Any luck finding my wife yet?”

Morgaine glared at him. “Not really, no. Have you considered Deidre may not want to be found?” The ghost flinched. “Or that she may have moved on, returning to the Great Wheel of Existence?”

“Both thoughts have occurred to me,” said Nerghal. “But I know what I saw. I know what I heard.”

“Over thirty years ago,” noted Morgaine. “During a time when you were not in the clearest of minds.”

Nerghal stood there, frowning, still as only a dead man could be.

Morgaine gave an exasperated groan. “All right. I’m sorry for bringing all that up. But honestly, I find the search as frustrating as you do. Trust me, when I find her, the Lady Deidre is getting a piece of my mind.” Nerghal remained silent. “So… find any assassins, or plots or the like?”

“Not really,” said Nerghal. “There’s a floating foldol game the servants are trying to keep hidden, but that’s about it.”

“Good, good,” said Morgaine. “Last Council of Shadows, somebody tried to blow up Castle Terribel.”

“Yes,” said Nerghal. “That’s what you said to me when you told me to come along with you.”

Morgaine glanced around her guest chamber in the Palace of Shadows. “Well, it’s nice to know we won’t be seeing any repeats. Now isn’t this a nice room? I think it’s a really nice room.”

Nerghal gave his eyes another roll.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 21

Gurnemanz’s carriage wound its way through the narrow streets of Montfort. As opposed to many of the other Free Cities, with their planned boulevards and town squares, Montfort had begun life as the fort its name suggested, the settlement that had come to be springing up around it, a chaotic tangle of buildings that stood in their places with little thought to why that should be the place. While the Garharzes could have perhaps taken steps to bring the streets of Montfort to a sort of order, the family had never had the will. And so, even as Montfort proper changed from a mountain fort to a palace, the buildings which surrounded it had simply grown ever more chaotic.

And this overgrown jumble was Duke Gurnemanz’s home and his charge, which he had sworn to protect and to nurture in the name of the Seven, when his father died, all those long years ago.

Gurnemanz’s musings were cut short by noise outside his carriage, a sound of scuffling and shouts. The Duke glanced out his window to see a pair of Eremites grappling with a young boy, who looked to be seven or so years old. Gurnemanz signaled for his carriage-driver to stop, and leaned out his window. “Hoy there!” he stated in as impressive a voice as he could manage. “What are you doing with that young lad?”

The elder of the two Eremites turned to the Duke, his expression polite, and slightly contemptuous. “Good evening your Honor,” said the Eremite quiet. “We were just teaching this young scalawag a lesson, regarding the proper respect for one’s betters.”

“He lobbed a rotten apple at us!” shouted the younger.

Gurnemanz nodded absently. “My, my, that is serious.” He eyed the young boy magisterially. “Tell me, young lad, have you learnt not to throw rotten fruit at the Eremites?”

“Yes, yer Honor,” said the boy, shifting awkwardly in the Eremites’ grip.

“Very well, then,” said Gurnemanz cheerfully. “Release the boy. If you’d be so kind. He’s learnt his lesson, so really there’s no point in pursuing the matter.”

“What?!” shouted the younger Eremite. “You believe this little lying guttersnipe’s bull--”

“Leave it, Squire,” said the elder Eremite. “It’s not worth it.” The pair released the young boy. As they did so, the elder stared at him levelly. “Remember, lad--we know where you live.” The boy gave a nervous nod, and rushed off. The Eremites turned to regard the Duke. “So, Your Honor,” said the elder. “Did your little fete end early?”

“More or less, sir,” said Gurnemanz, signaling his driver to start again. He really didn’t want to stay around the Eremites for very long, these days.

A few minutes later they were in Old Montfort--the Garhazes lack of a policy had produced a city where the palace lay remarkably close to the slums--and shortly after that, Duke Gurnemanz was stomping his way to his wife’s room.

Little Gandin stood by his mother’s bed, while Belacane slept peacefully, her babe lying on her breast. “Hello, father,” he whispered. Gurnemanz smiled at him, then knelt by Belacane’s side, kissing her on the forehead. His wife’s eyes opened. “You’re back, my dear,” she said, softly.

“Indeed, darling,” answered Gurnemanz. “Things… ended earlier than I’d imagined they would.”

“Oh, that is too bad,” said Belecane. “I know how much you enjoy these things.” She sighed. “I wish I could have come with you. Still--perhaps next year.”

Gurnemanz nodded slowly. “I suppose. Yes, next year.” His daughter’s eyes opened. “Hello, Blanchefleur. I hope you’ve been all right.” The baby gurgled at that.

“She’s missed her father,” said Belecane, her young face smiling impishly. “Much as I have.”

“Well, that will not be a problem for much longer,” said Gurnemanz. “I’ll be staying around Montfort for a while, my dear.” He turned to Gandin. “Come on, my son,” he said. “Let’s let your mother and sister rest.” Gandin nodded, and took his father’s hand as they left the room. Gurnemanz regarded his son, an eager young lad of seven. Five decades lay between them--five and a few years. Oh, righteous Seven, let me live to see my youngest son grow to be a man, he thought to himself. Let me dance at my daughter’s wedding feast.

“Father,” asked Gandin, “why are we climbing the Watch?”

Gurnemanz smiled at the lad, as they emerged onto the balcony of Old Montfort’s tallest tower. “I felt like enjoying the view,” he said. Father and son looked at the Murkenmere, spread out in the distance, its waters black and cold. On a clear day, you could see to the other shore, but this was a misty night, and the Lands of Night were hidden in fog.

“Look at it, my son,” said Gurnemanz. “There… there is the land of our enemies. The Nightfolk. We are sworn to protect these shores from them. Firmly sworn.”

Gandin peered into the fog. “I… I can’t see anything, father.”

Gurnemanz nodded. “Nor I, son. And yet I know… they are there. Plotting. Waiting. Scheming.” He shut his eyes, and gripped his son’s hand tighter. That was the source of his fear, that was why he could not side with the Duke of Montalban. The Dark Lords were out there, somewhere, and who knew what they were doing? Who knew?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 20

Allard shook his head as he and his elder brother walked through the apple grove. “I don’t know why you keep that man about you…”

“That man is a Duke, Allard,” said Rainald. “A high Peer of our order, who rules a city of great renown…”

“A city once of great renown,” said Allard. “Even Brunello admits that Carrarra’s seen better days.”

“It has also seen worse. Far, far worse,” noted Rainald. “Father took me to see Brunello’s coronation. The city was all but deserted. Half the streets grew with weeds. A corpse of a city. Now… it lives again. In no small part thanks to Duke de Carrarra’s patient handiwork.”

Allard frowned. “Which does not change the fact that he was a merchant before Pelleas plucked him out of obscurity to rule Carrarra.”

“The head of a merchant house, and a cousin to the Addanzes, albeit a distant one.” Rainald smiled. “It was Brunello, or war between half the Free Cities. With us already at war with Lord Shaddad on top of that. I consider it a solid decision on King Pelleas.” The pair walked on for a while. “It is good we got the twins out of this.”

Allard nodded. “As much as we are able to.” He sighed. “Do you trust the Cthoniques?”

“A son inherits his father’s cause,” said Rainald with a sudden vehemence. “Mansemat Cthonique will cross the river, in the hopes of succeeding where Lord Shaddad failed. And… by all I’ve heard he’s a… saner man than his father was. More apt to bargain and make alliances than old Shaddad ever was.”

“So that is yes,” said Allard.

Rainald shook his head. “No, it is not. What means is that I trust in his willingness to make reasonable choices for now. Should I be disappointed… than I will withdraw that trust.” He turned to his brother. “We part ways here. You are to go assist Guiscard in Montalban. He has much on his plate at the moment. I… have people to meet.”

Allard bowed. “As you will, brother. Seven be with you.” He turned and walked away. Rainald watched him leave, and then headed down a small side path in the grove. After a while he came to a small copse of trees. Five people, clad in ragged clothing stood there. “My apologies for this delay,” he stated. “And for what I have done to…”

One of the five, an old man shook his head. “Don’t you worry, your Honor. We don’t want to be no trouble…”

Rainald sighed. “So you said earlier. And I still wish you had agreed to… dine with me and my fellows. It would have been… instructive to them.”

“We didn’t want to see Ruth that way,” said a young woman with flashing eyes. “It’d be upsetting.”

“I… I know,” said Rainald, nodding quietly. “Again, I am… sorry to have used your sister’s body in that fashion, Lily. I… simply needed to make it clear to them all what was at stake here. About what was being done to us. To all of us.” He gulped. “She… she will be buried here. As I promised.”

An older woman sobbed. “And bless you for it, sir. Bless you! Keeping our Ruth from the potter’s field…” She burst into inarticulate tears, causing Lily and the old man to comfort her.

“Do not mention it,” said Rainald. He looked around. “I… I have heard it said that this is one of the most beautiful places in the land. I hope she… enjoys it here.” He took a deep breath. “And more than anything… I hope she enjoys the justice I will get her.”

Lily looked at the Duke. “That’s why you’re doing all this then? Justice?”

Rainald looked around at the trees. “So I like to imagine. And who knows. Perhaps it is the truth.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 19

Rainald and Allard turned behind them to see their guest.

“Duke Brunello,” said Allard with a bow. “I assume you managed to discover… something of value.”

“Count Morgante can fit three whole eggs into his mouth at once,” said Brunello, sidling up to the brothers. “A notable feat, though one which makes one wonder what inspired him to make his first attempt…”

“Brunello,” chided Rainald. “You know what my brother meant.”

The Duke of Carrarra smiled. “Of course I do. I know many things. It’s what keeps me alive.” Brunello gave an exaggerated yawn. “Let us see. I know that Duke Naimon sent a letter to Duke Uton Rabicano, whose oh-so-charming son just tried to kill you, shortly before leaving here. I know that the Duchess Angelica has hinted that she is willing to leave the rule of Orgagna to her first cousin, the Provost of Carcosse.”

Allard winced. “Well, the Nestors are no surprise--Naimon’s the sort of old fool who won’t admit that it’s time to change your plans when the weather changes. But the Duchess…”

“…Is old, temperamental, and a great deal more cunning than Duke Nestor,” said Rainald. “I wouldn’t count her out just yet. A hint is not the same thing as definite ‘yes’. And the Concordat is not Leonais.”

“Not quite, at least,” said Brunello. “But close enough to recommend you not expect any miracles from that direction. Still, I have some good news. Countess Bramimonde is quite fiery in her defiance of the Lord Protector. I don’t think she’s quite up to open rebellion yet, but she will head that way with very little prompting…”

“And Duke Blancardin?” asked Rainald.

Brunello considered for a moment. “Valfonda is… a very angry young man who wishes he were not, and wants to be taken for a very placid one. He tries to keep up the pretence that he is a dutiful little Peer, with no unnecessary pride, but I’d say he hates Amfortas more than Bramimonde does. And let me add he is quite fond of the lady, and dotes on her good opinion.” A slight smile touched the Duke’s lean face. “He also still carries a picture of Queen Yolande with him. So, yes, he too will incline towards you. In a very short time.”

The brothers nodded. “Thank you, Brunello,” said Rainald. “You’ve been helpful, as always.”

“I wish I could do more,” said Brunello. “But Duke Aquilant did not leave much. Carrarra is still small, and poor, as a result of many decades of wasting its funds and its men waging on war on the world…” He sighed. “And not inclined to attack Leonais again for my sake.”

“When the time comes, you’ll do what you can,” said Rainald.

“You make that sound noteworthy,” muttered Brunello, with a shake of his head.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 18

“You could have told us,” snapped Amante.

Allard looked away. “We had to keep things quiet. We weren’t sure you wouldn’t tell some one who shouldn’t know…”

Richardet, who was standing by the study’s back door, fixedly looking at a painting of a summer’s landscape, turned to regard his brothers. “Yes, goodness me, we couldn’t have sister or I telling a traitor before Rainald informed the entire peerage of the Free Cities that we were attacking the Eremites, and seeking help from the Nightfolk…” He raised a dark eyebrow. “It’d be untidy.”

Rainald chuckled at his youngest brother’s comments. “There’s a method to my madness, Richardet. I… I’d reached the point where I had to act. And that meant pitting myself against Leonais. But the White Mountain cannot stand by itself. It needs allies. That’s how it always has been.” He shut his eyes. “The moment we acted, I knew some of our sister cities would betray us… stand with the Lord Protector. But others… others might lean in our direction, if given a chance.” Rainald spread his hands. “So I gave them their chance.”

Amante stared at the Duke incredulously. “So that’s what you were trying to do? Get allies?” A harsh laugh escaped her lips. “Didn’t exactly work, did it? The Peers didn’t exactly stand up as one and start shouting ‘Death to Amfortas’!”

“They weren’t supposed to,” drawled Rainald. “Honestly, if anyone aside from Agrivain had I’d have been suspicious. No, this was to make sure that they knew what we were doing, when it began. Instead of simply hearing the Leonais version of our activities. And that is the start. Many of those who’ve come here will leave with doubt gnawing at their breast, if it wasn’t already. And as time goes on, that doubt will grow, and grow, and grow, until at last they join us.”

“Assuming we’re still around to join,” noted Richardet.

“Obviously,” said Rainald. “But I prefer to be an optimist on these matters.” He shrugged. “After all, if I’m wrong I’ll probably be beyond caring by that point.”

“Good point,” said Amante.

Richardet frowned. “Well, there’s another aspect to all this that our brother’s ignoring.” He stepped towards Rainald, and grabbed his hand. “I am not happy at being ignored. In fact, I’m downright insulted. You trusted Allard and Guiscard to stand with you on this--must poor Richardet be left with no part to play.”

Rainald smiled at his youngest sibling. “Actually, Richardet, I do have a very important task for you.” He glanced at Allard, who nodded, and darted out of the study. “I need you to serve as an embassy. It will be a difficult job--even a dangerous one, but I think you’re up to it.” He looked Richardet in the eye. “Tell me, are you willing to cross the river for me?”

Richardet blinked. “You’re sending me over there?”

“If you’ll go,” said Rainald with a nod. “The Cthoniques are going to likely want some proof our sincerity before they come to our aid. You’re to provide it.”

“You mean I’m to be it,” said Richardet. “You don’t need to treat me like a child in these matters, Rainald. I know how they work.”

“Wait, you’re sending our little brother to the Lands of Night, alone?” said Amante. “That’s--you can’t!” She crossed her arms. “I’m going with him.”

Rainald looked at her. “Are you sure about this, Amante? It will be dangerous. Remember, these are Dark Lords.”

“Exactly,” said Amante. “And he’s my little brother.”

“By a few hours,” muttered Richardet.

“It still counts,” snapped Amante. She took a deep breath. “We came into the world together. I’m not letting you leave without me if I can help it.”

Rainald nodded. “Very well then.” Allard re-entered the room with a small young man dressed in rather ragged clothes. “Flambeaux--there’s been a change of plans. You’ll be taking my sister along as well. Think you can manage it.”

The River Trader bowed. “Oh ho, Flambeaux the ways does know.”

Allard rolled his eyes. “I take it that’s a yes.”

Flambeaux gave a quick nod. “If they’ll come with me I’ll get them into something… better for long journeys.” He looked Amante over. “I believe I have a few bits of woman’s clothing in my wares. They should tide you over till we reach civilized climes, my dear mademoiselle…”

“If you keep talking to me like that, I will break your arm,” said Amante. She turned to Rainald. “Before I go, I have one last thing to say--stay alive, brother.” She glanced at Allard. “Both of you.”

“You can trust us that we plan on trying,” said Allard.

Amante shut her eyes, and nodded. Then she and Richardet followed Flambeaux out of the study. Allard and Rainald watched the pair walk down the hall, slowly fading from sight.

“Well,” came a voice, “that went well.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 17

Belengier Nestor had filed behind his father and brothers and was now preparing for the lengthy trip back to the Nestor’s own little chateau, which would likely be followed by a lengthy trip back to Agrismont. His elder brothers were all talking to Naimon, their faces grave, their tones low, with the occasional glance back at him serving as a sort of visual punctuation. It was all, on the whole, rather distressing.

Belengier debated what do about it, considered going forward and trying to join the conversation, and then decided against it. Instead, he checked his saddlebags for the tenth time, confirming that yes, everything that had been in the ninth time he’d checked was still there.

Footsteps approached. Belengier turned to see Duke Agrivain and his little son Feirefiz walking towards their horses. As they drew near, Agrivain favored him with a nod, and Feirefiz waved. Belengier waved back, and felt somehow cheered.

So of course, when he turned back to his horse, his father stood there, gaunt face lined with disapproval. “Belengier, my son,” stated Naimon, “we need to talk.”

Belengier gulped and nodded. “Of… of course, father. You know I… hang on your instructions.”

“Would that were the case,” replied Naimon dryly. He regarded his son for a moment. “Belengier… I… hold no illusions as to what you are. A wise father knows that while all his children will have his love, not all will have his pride.” Belengier winced at that. “You are foolish. You are wild. You act without thinking. And… I accept this. It is your way. But Belengier--these are no longer safe times, times that allow a scapegrace like yourself to do as you will, without thought of consequences. They are dangerous, and that means, my boy, that I will have to insist that you do as I say while they remain so.”

Belengier nodded. “I understand father.”

Naimon glanced around worriedly. “I will have to insist you watch who you associate with… Your actions here have made you… suspect. It might have been better if you had done other than you did. Still, we cannot change that, much as we’d like…”

Belengier blinked. “Father… excuse me, for I must be mistaken--but are you… genuinely suggesting that it would have been better had I allowed Astolfo to kill the Duke of Montalban, in his own hall, after breaking bread with him.”

Naimon took a deep breath. “Unpleasant as it may sound, perhaps yes.” The Duke of Agrismont grimaced. “Lasliez’s folly will spill blood in the Free Cities. If he’d died here, it might have ended sooner. Now…” He shook his head. “And now… now people will see you as a supporter of his. It is… dangerous.”

“Father, just because I wouldn’t let the man be killed in cold blood when he was my host doesn’t mean I support Rainald’s revolt!” snapped Belengier.

“That may be,” said Naimon. “But that will be for you to prove.” And then he moved away before Belengier could reply.

As he stood there, trying to figure out how an action he was proud of had become a mistake, Belengier saw his nephew Dudon standing before him. “I thought you were amazing,” whispered Dudon.

Belengier glanced over at his father and brothers, once again absorbed in their own conversations, and then reached out and tussled his nephew’s hair.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 16

Blancardin Valfonda shuffled slowly out of the hall, casting wistful glances back at it. “Perhaps, if we go back, and ask them n-nicely…”

“We aren’t getting dessert, Blanc,” said Bramimonde Gradasso.

Blancardin gave a disappointed little groan. The Countess responded with a comforting pat to his shoulder.

“Let’s look on the bright side,” she noted. “At least now we’re done with the creepy Duke of Carrarra, acting all creepy to us.”

A sudden smile came to Blancardin’s hangdog face. “Oh, yes! That is…” He suddenly stopped, and gave a cough. Bramimonde stared at him in puzzlement, until he subtly gestured behind her. The Countess turned, and saw Brunello standing there.

“Duke de Carrarra,” she said, through gritted teeth. “What a… pleas…”

Brunello yawned, and then produced a small necklace with a miniature at the end of its chain. “Duke Valfonda,” he said, handing it to Blancardin. “I believe you dropped this.”

Blancardin snatched it away. “You… you damned sneak! Don’t let me see you again! Not…”

Brunello gave a deep bow. “If you insist…” he stated quietly, and then with a click of his heels, stood again, then walked away.

Blancardin opened the miniature, and looked at it for a long moment. “Is that… her?” asked Bramimonde, trying to get a peek at the picture.

Blancardin nodded and turned the picture towards Bramimonde. “Queen Yolande,” he said. “This is all I ever got from her. Still, I consider, it enough.”

Bramimonde eyed the portrait critically. “She has a weak chin.”

“Some men like that,” stated Blancardin. Bramimonde frowned and turned up her rather strong chin. “While also liking strong chins.” The Countess’ frown remained. “It really depends on the woman’s face. Some look good with one sort of chin, others with another sort of chin, and…”

“Blanc, just shut up,” declared Bramimonde.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 15

“We’re doomed. We’re dead. They’re going to hang all of us from the damned walls,” muttered Amante.

“Oh, just Rainald,” said Richardet. “We’ll probably get our heads cut off and stuck on pikes.” His sister stared at him angrily. “After some torture,” he added.

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” Amante declared huffily.

“Just a little,” her twin admitted. “Truth be told, I am nervous about all this.” Amante narrowed her eyes. “All right--more terrified then nervous. Are you happy?”

Amante sighed. “Not really. How could I be when all this is hap--”

And then came a scream, and a flurry of activity. The twins turned to see a huddle of bodies in the center of the hall--the Nestors, pulling Belengier off of Astolfo. “You oaf!” shouted Astolfo. “You clumsy oaf!” To Richardet’s surprise, their brother Allard, whom had not been exactly making himself visible throughout the evening was striding purposely towards that knot of people, flanked by a pair of Montalban men-at-arms.

Richardet blinked. “What just happened here?” Amante tugged on his sleeve and gestured to their eldest brother.

Rainald was staring at a knife that had buried itself in the wall just behind his head.

“Restrain that man,” said Allard, gesturing towards Astolfo. The men-at-arms quickly flanked the young nobleman. Allard smiled. “Well, cousin, you have developed… interesting habits.”

“Lies!” snapped Astolfo. “Lies. It was… It was this oaf…” He nodded at Belengier.

“YOU’RE THE LIAR!” shouted Belengier, waving his fist. “He--he tried to kill Duke Rainald. Under his own roof. After taking his bread… He tried… he tried…”

Allard nodded. “We know, Belengier. We know.”

Agrivain stared at Astolfo, eyes filled with loathing. “Plotting to kill your own host. The crime of the lowest of the low…”

Naimon coughed. “These are serious allegations against a peer of the Free Cities…”

“Damn it, Duke Nestor you’re an old fool, but you’re not senile yet!” snapped Agrivain. “Your own son just stopped this… filth from violating the laws of hospitality. You should be proud!”

“You will not tell me how to handle my family,” said Naimon simply.

Astolfo glanced around desperately. “This… is a disgrace…”

“Be quiet, Rabicano,” said Rainald, stepping forward. “Be quiet, and be thankful that I don’t like to shed blood here, of all places.”

“You’re not going to kill him?” asked Allard.

“No, no,” said Rainald. “He has guest-right. House Lasliez does not forget the ancient unwritten laws. Even when it would seriously wish to.” He looked Astolfo in the face. “Now crawl back to your father, and be very thankful that is the case.”

Astolfo gulped, then mustered up a bit of courage, and looked Rainald in the eyes. “You deserve to be killed, Lasliez. You are destroying everything.” He turned away, his eyes darting around the hall. “He is DESTROYING EVERYTHING!”

Rainald nodded. “I will take your words, Rabicano, as seriously as I take you.” He glanced at the men-at-arms. “Get him out of here.”

Allard clapped his hands together. “You heard the Duke. Throw this trash out.” As they took Astolfo away, Allard cupped a hand to his mouth. “Use the back way! As if he was refuse! Since he is!”

Rainald shook his head, giving his brother a reproachful chuckle, then turned to his guests. “Well, it appears this year’s celebration are over. My apologies for this being such an… unusual party.”

Amante turned to Richardet, mouth open. “I know,” he said. “And we didn’t even get to dessert.” He gave a wistful sigh.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 14

Belengier sat awkwardly at the table, as his brothers made sure to give him warning glances that he’d learnt to understand as ‘keep your mouth shut’. And so he listened to Rainald de Lasliez, defiant and unapologetic, and Lord Astolfo, indignant and arrogant, and his father, proper and offended. And every now and then… Duke Agrivain.

“…not change my mind,” said the Duke of Montleone. “Strange as it may sound, the Duke of Montalban is right. Lord Shaddad bad as he was, was merely evil. Prince Amfortas is evil and mad.”

“You insult our Lord Protector with surprising ease, Beacurs,” said Naimon

“He has earned my insults,” said Agrivain. “And realize this is my opinion of the man based on his actions here. If even HALF of what I have heard out of Tintagel is true, then the Prince of Leonais has gone beyond evil into a monstrous inhumanity that neither the Lands of Light nor Night have seen since the days of King Sutekh.”

Belengier’s father eyes went cold as a long winter’s night. “I would still think you of all people would the need for reason in matters such as these. Of not allowing common prejudice overwhelm our judgment.”

Agrivain’s eyes narrowed, and seemed to Belengier to go as hot as Naimon’s had cold. “What do you mean by that, Nestor? Explain yourself.”

“I think it would be obvious,” drawled Astolfo. “Your reputation is not so unblemished as you can cast stones with impunity.”

Agrivain nodded. “So, my suspicions were right, and I will tell both of you, Naimon Nestor and Astolfo Rabicano to leave my family out of this.”

“Your family?” muttered Astolfo. “Dear me, who ever deign insult the great house of Beacurs? Their honor is ancient and unimpeachable.” He smiled, his eyes lighting on little Feirefiz. “Of course, their demimondes and by-blows are another mat..”

“Watch your tongue, you little slime!” shouted Agrivain, striding towards the young noble. “You will watch your words with me!”

Rainald was standing now. “Agrivain--keep calm…”

Naimon nodded. “Our host is right in this, if nothing else. This affair is not worth losing your temper over…”

Agrivain turned to Naimon, nostrils flaring. “Shut your mouth, you sanctimonious greybeard! I’ll not have my wife and children insulted by this worthless jackanapes!”

Belengier shifted. Everyone’s eyes were now on his father, and somehow, that made Belengier uncomfortable looking at him. His eyes shifted over the crowd, which proved only slightly less uncomfortable, and then to Astolfo. And what he saw there stopped his gaze.

A glint of metal, in Astolfo’s hands. And more startling it did not appear to be aimed at Duke Agrivain.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 13

Gurnemanz sat in numb shock. He’d come to Sans Souci with the idea of escaping the troubles that were engulfing the Free Cities, and here, the Duke of Montalban had thrown them in the entire company’s face. A part of him resented Rainald’s provocations--another wondered if he was simply being foolish, asking the world to pass him despite his duties to Montfort. Around him, his fellows muttered to themselves, shouted at the Duke of Montalban in anger, or pledged him their support. Gurnemanz merely kept quiet, not having any idea what to say.

One of those who fancied they did spoke. “More allies?” said Astolfo with a snort. “What, have some fools here signed up with you in secret? Or perhaps the Ancients of Talossa or Corniglia have some compact with you?”

“No, none of those,” said Rainald. “Though I hope both will be the case shortly. I’ve been in communication with the Sacristans, and they have agreed to help get my messages to…”

The murmurs started again, only louder, deeper, more worried. Duke Naimon stared at Rainald, the fear open on his face. “Your messages? Seven help us all, Rainald, are you trying to league yourselves with the Dark Lords?”

Rainald considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Mmm. Yes. Yes, I suppose I am.” He spread his hands. “I could quibble with the wording--I’d say it’s more seeking their immediate support for the moment than out and out leaguing--but really, that is simply me being technical over things.”

“Well, this clenches it,” said Astolfo. “You are insane. Do you know what the Nightfolk would do if they were over here?”

“What, Astolfo?” said Rainald. “Establish a tyrannous reign over us? Sneer at our laws, and our institutions?” He gestured to the body before him. “Kill our children?” Rainald’s hand slammed into the table, the sound quieting the furtive discussions being carried on in the hall. “Tell me, little lord of Monteriano--how is that different from what is happening to us now? Seven help me, I wonder if Lord Shaddad would have treated us as ill as the Prince of Leonais does now!”

“That does not bode well for your judgement, Duke Rainald,” said Naimon. “That you would forsake your sacred duty to your people…”

“Am I?” snapped Rainald. “I tend to think--the opposite. Be that as it may--I have made my choice. Let the Seven be the judge of it.”

Gurnemanz gulped quietly to himself, wishing desperately that he could find the words to say that would solve all this, make it go away. But he could not. History… history would not judge him the same way it would Duke Naimon, or Duke Rainald, or even Lord Astolfo. When they wrote accounts of this, he would simply be one of the crowd who sat quietly when Duke Rainald made his declaration.

Made it and broke the Free Cities asunder.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 12

Rainald watched as the assembled peerage of the Free Cities muttered amongst themselves, leaning back in his chair. He felt a strange sort of satisfaction at this--at having shocked them out of their complacency. Even if they were at the moment, more talking of the late Aymon’s eldest son following in his father’s footsteps and running amok than the hideous iniquities perpetuated by Prince Amfortas. The one would, he imagined, lead to the other.

The murmurs were at last dying down. Duke Naimon had stood and regarded Rainald almost plaintively. “Duke Lasliez…” Naimon sighed. “Rainald. You are dear to me. You are my kin, the child of my beloved niece. I wish what is best for you. But in this… rashness, I do not know what I can do. I can only ask…”

“…‘Why’?” said Rainald with a yawn. “Naimon, you are dear to me as I am to you, my kinsman, uncle to my mother. And the fact that you can ask this question is a dagger in my heart.” The Duke of Montalban stood. “Have we fallen so far? Have we forgotten that the Lord Protector serves at the pleasure of our peers, and our assemblies? Once the Kings and Princes of Leonais counted themselves lucky to hold the title--when we let them. None, Amfortas imposes upon us, and imposes upon us, and has his butchers shed the blood of our citizens in our streets. And we stand here, either quivering with indignation, or nodding that alas such things are necessary, and none of us remember that we can end it.” He slapped his chest. “Well, I remember. I, Rainald, Duke of Montalban, know who I am--the son Aymon, and the heir to the line of Lasliez, which was ruling here in splendor when the Pescheours were squatting up north by the ocean shores, ruling over pirates and fishermen. And I know that I’ll be damned if I let the Leonais change all that, much less let them do so in the cruelest, vilest fashion possible. I am throwing down the gauntlet. The rest of you are free to stand with me, stand against me, or stand around and do nothing, as you feel.”

“There’s at least one man here who’ll stand with you!” came a deep voice. Duke Agrivain stood up. “Montleone is tired of these Eremites. And its Duke is more tired of them than anyone else. Save one.” Astolfo rolled his eyes, and let out a short laugh, only to quiet immediately as soon the Duke of Montleone glanced in his direction. Agrivain turned back to Rainald. “We’re with you. You may believe that.”

“And I do,” said Rainald, with a smile.

Naimon glared at Agrivain. “Duke Beacurs, I know you have your reasons to back him in this--but still, this would be two cities against the might of Leonais. Do not tell me you have no idea how that would turn out!”

“More than two cities,” said Rainald. “Much, much more than that.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 11

Duke Brunello chuckled to himself, listening to the concerned chatter fill the room. “Well--he’s certainly gotten people’s attention.”

Countess Bramimonde glared at the Duke of Carrarra. “I’m glad you find all this so amusing.”

“If it makes you feel better, my dear, it is very darkly amusing,” said Brunello.

“Oh, be quiet!” said Blancardin. “Everyone knows about your little business, so be quiet!” Brunello and Bramimonde turned to look at him, rather surprised to see the normally mild-mannered Duke of Bellamarina so emotional.

Several others were also surprised, as the little table found itself under the scrutiny of several of its neighbors. Brunello gave a charming cough, and waved at several of them, while Blancardin and Bramimonde smiled awkwardly.

“Now, what was that about my ‘little business‘?” asked Brunello quietly.

“Oh, Blanc was just…” began Bramimonde.

“You spy for Prince Amfortas,” said Blancardin.

Bramimonde sighed. “We think,” she added.

“Incorrectly,” said Brunello.

“Well, you would say that,” noted Blancardin.

“Valfonda, if I was a spy, don’t you think I’d be a rather poor one, given everyone suspects me,” said Brunello calmly.

Bramimonde frowned at him. “Don’t talk to him like that,” she said. “Blancardin is a better man than you are. Don’t treat him like an idiot.”

Blancardin raised a hand. “I am used to it, Brami.” He regarded Brunello. “You don’t need to be very good. Just hand the Prince of Leonais what you know, that he needs to know.”

Brunello nodded. “True. With the power so in Lord Protector’s hands he doesn’t need good spies, as he has… so many of them.” He shrugged. “Of which I am not one. So you see, Valfonda you are not the only one here who faces unjust insults on a common basis. I am many unpleasant things, as my wife could tell you, but I am not a spy.” He smiled to himself. “At least, not for Prince Amfortas.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 10

Amante looked at her twin, eyes wide. “What… what is he DOING?” she hissed at Richardet, nodding her head at Rainald as vaguely as possible.

Richardet stared at his eldest brother in uneasy fascination. “Off the top of my head, I’d say he was going mad.”

“I can see that!” snapped Amante. “But… why… why did he do this now?”

Astolfo Rabicano stood up. “What is the meaning of this mad folly, cousin? Why do you insult us, your kin and peers, with this grotesque display?”

Rainald turned to Astolfo, his face tired. “An insult? Perhaps it is. Perhaps. But what happened to young Ruth is an insult to us all. It is an insult to everything that makes the Free Cities free. And if it maddens me that we take it, well, it is mad for the rest of you to do so. A line must be drawn. And I say it is time to draw it.”

“And that is why you have called us all here?” asked Duke Brunello. “To chide us, and try to get us on your side.”

Rainald smiled. “No. I called you here to celebrate my birthday.” He sat down. “That this was a good opportunity to chide you and get you on my side was… an advantage.”

Brunello nodded. “Well, that is true. So… what is this line you wish to draw?”

“Stay out of this, Carrarra,” snapped Astolfo.

“Oh, dear,” said Brunello. “I guess I don’t count as a real peer after all.” He gave an exaggerated sigh. “What a pity.”

Astolfo glared at him, then turned back to “Don’t you realize the danger you’re putting your kin in by making these… provocative statements?”

“I know the danger I’ve put them in by saying nothing,” replied Rainald calmly. “I decided this was the better choice.”

Richardet glanced at his sister. “Well, good to know he cares about us.”

Amante winced. “We’re finished socially, aren’t we?”

“Hey, at least now you don’t need to think about an excuse to avoid going to Belengier’s next party,” stated Richardet. Amante nodded.

Duke Naimon rose. “I fear young Astolfo is--well, somewhat right, Rainald. These present actions do you little credit. Still, I have no doubt we can make certain that any report that reaches… the Lord Protector is balanced by the testimony of peers of good standing that you were… not yourself when…”

“Any such report will have to deal with what I’ve already done, Naimon,” said Rainald flatly.

“Which is regrettable, but forgivable for a young man on edge,” said Naimon.

Rainald gave a dismissive wave. “Oh, no, this--this is nothing. I’ve done much more.” He chuckled softly to himself. “I’ve expelled the Eremites from Montalban. And barred the gates to them.” The young Duke gave a shrug. “I’m afraid it was… slightly violent. But well worth it.” He smiled at Naimo. “But go on. Explain to me how you can make Prince Amfortas forgive me for this. I suspect I will find it… amusing.”

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 9

Rainald de Lasliez looked out over the hall, and saw all the familiar faces. Old and weathered, young and cheerful, handsome and strong, ugly and doubting, these were the faces of his people. And in all of them, he saw it--the same doubt, the same worries. Some of it was doubtless the result of his own mood, making him see his own misery everywhere, and conveying that misery to others. But Renaud couldn’t help but think that much of it was the times. For ages, the peers of the Free Cities had boasted of their independence, of the thousand means they’d developed to protect that. And now, in a handful of months, Prince Amfortas had tested those bulwarks and found them wanting--found them indeed to be weak as water. Years of snorting at how the people of the Free Cities wouldn’t take things like a Leonais, and when the time came, they took it exactly like a Leonais.

No one likes to see an illusion shattered, especially a treasured one. It rankles. And to see it shattered by Eremite boots on your streets, by Leonais commanders entering your halls and proclaiming that things were to be just so from now on…

Well, it did more than just rankle. Much, much more.

Rainald took a deep breath. He’d hesitated enough. Everyone had, and that was what had created this whole mess. The time had come to act. And to place one’s hope in the fact that doing something could hardly have more disastrous consequences than doing nothing.

He knew that now. Oh, yes he did.

“My friends!” Rainald stated, his voice clear and loud. “I hope you are enjoying this meal!”

His guests began to nod and murmur to themselves.  Rainald thought he saw some nervousness in their glances, however, a note of “What’s the Duke of Montalban going to say now?” doubtless the result of his earlier speech’s oddities.

Well, he couldn’t deny that nervousness was well-warranted.

“It seems to me, that the time has come for us to move on to the main course,” proclaimed Rainald. “The great meal that has brought all of you here.” He forced on a smile. “You may rest assured, peers of the Free Cities, that it is a meal you well deserve.”

The crowd turned as a platter was wheeled out and brought before the Duke of Montalban. He took the lid, and with a flourish, lifted it.

Underneath the lid was a child’s skeleton, clad in the simple dress of a commoner.

Rainald felt a strange sort of satisfaction at the din that filled the hall. Belengier Nestor stood up, clearly enraged. “Oy, Rainald, have you gone mad?” he declared, waving his fist. “Do you expect us to eat that?”

“‘That’ is--or perhaps, was--a she, Belengier,” said Rainald flatly. “Her name was Ruth. And I do not think I am asking much, for we have all been made to eat meals such as these, since the Eremites took over our cities, under the auspices of the Lord Protector.” He regarded Ruth’s skeleton. “I was made to eat poor, poor Ruth not too long ago. The Eremites declared that Nightfolk were hiding in the poorer sections of Montalban, and went storming into the place. They found none, but they did succeed in trampling this poor child to death.”

Belengier shifted awkwardly. “Oh, well, that’s too bad, but you really shouldn’t make us eat…”

“He’s speaking metaphorically,” snapped Duke Brunello. “You oaf.”

“Hey!” declared Belengier, as his brothers and father all shared a wince. He glanced at Rainald. “Is that right?” The Duke nodded. “Ahh. So… we’re not actually going to eat that skeleton.”  Rainald nodded again. “Well, what are we eating then?”

Rainald sighed. Belengier, aware of a growing impatience with him, glanced around the room. “What? I just want to know!” He turned back to Renaud. “Are we having a stew? Perhaps?”

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 8

“And what if I told you I did not care?” stated Bramimonde flatly.

“Oh, but it is quite important,” said Blancardin. “I have it on good authority that lamb is going to be the main course, and it would never do to serve heavy greens with lamb. The flavors would w-war with each other.”

Bramimonde rolled her eyes. “And with all that’s occurring, it is vital that the flavors not war.”

“I like to think that small matters matter more in times like this,” said the Duke of Bellamarina. “Keep us… civilized.”

“A very pleasant, if useless sentiment,” muttered Bramimonde. “With our sovereign rights being tramp…”

“Pardon, may I sit here with you?” came a deep voice. The pair turned to see Duke Brunello standing there. He smiled at them, and shifted awkwardly. “I fear my originally designated seat was… taken by an unexpected arrival.”

The pair eyed him with suspicion. “And so, you decide to sit here on a whim?” said Bramimonde.

“Well, I could claim that it was the radiant gleam of your eyes that brought me here,” said Brunello, taking a seat. “But in truth it was simply that you two seem to have a table all to yourselves.” He casually shrugged his shoulders. “That being somewhat rare, you appeared to be the obvious choice.”

Bramimonde snorted. “I think I’d have preferred the radiant eyes.” Blancardin gave an affirmative nod that was joined with a frown that suggested that the Duke of Bellamarina in contrast did not prefer that reason. However, as neither indicated Brunello should leave, he simply remained seated.

“Ahh, but preferences have so little to do with the truth,” said Brunello. “I for one suspect all three of us would prefer if the Eremites were gone, but they are not, and are preferring otherwise will not change this.”

Blancardin coughed. “That is… presumptuous of you. Speaking for us on this matter. Very… presumptuous.”

“I freely admit it,” said Brunello. “And if I presumed wrong--well, simply tell me, and I will make a note of it. I must acknowledge I would find talking to those who want the Eremites around… interesting, after a fashion.”

“Are you trying to get us to reveal something?” snapped Bramimonde with a glare.

“That is the general purpose of conversation,” said Brunello. “But in this case--yes, I am sounding you out on this subject.” The pair stared at him quietly. “Listen I know you do not trust me, and are half convinced I’m in the pay of Leonais, so I will quell your doubts and reveal that, yes I am.” He smiled. “They pay me certain sums to help keep the Murkenmere secure.”

“But they do that for everybody!” said Bramimonde. “Hells, Blanc and I both get the same sums.”

Brunello turned to regard the crowd. “Indeed. And yet people are mystified that the Lord Protector’s enemies come to bad ends.” He shook his head. “I admit, I was not born a peer, and that makes me find many of your ways… odd.” The Duke of Carrarra sighed. “And also na├»ve.”