Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 10

Edith peeked out from the palanquin’s curtains. “It sure is a dreary day,” she said forcefully.

“A bit cloudy,” said Isabel. “But hardly that notable. Now, back in. You know we’re supposed to stay in and keep the curtains closed.” Edith attempted to stare at her sister defiantly. “Mote would not be pleased.”

Edith ducked back in, grumbling. “It’s not fair. We’re princesses.”

“That’s why we have to do this, Edith,” said Isabel, shutting her eyes.

“I know that,” muttered Edith. “But still isn’t fair. King Gorloes didn’t have to spend all his time in palanquins, never seeing anything interesting. If he had, he’d have never conquered Tintagel in the first place.”

Isabel smiled at her sister. “Edith, are you honestly comparing yourself to the revered founder of our line?”

Edith fidgeted. “Not… exactly…” She turned back to the curtains, trying to get a good look at the outside world from them, and failing miserably. “Do you think Amfortas is handsome?” she asked suddenly.

Isabel shrugged. “They say a woman can go mad for love with him.”

“Who?” asked Edith.

Isabel blinked. “What?”

“Who is it that says you can go mad for love of Prince Amfortas?” asked Edith.

“People,” said Isabel with a frown. “I heard it from Cobweb, who heard it from somebody else.”

Edith pouted once again, crossing her arms. “Why is it the only people we talk to for any length of times are eunuchs? Everyone else we exchange a few words with at parties, and that’s it!”

“To keep us pure and unsullied so that if the most horrible thing were to happen, we could serve as a perfect Living Symbol of the realm,” recited Isabel. She considered adding that in the past, brothers and sisters of sitting monarchs of Tintagel had both destabilized the realm and been used to do so by powerful interest groups when they’d been allowed to roam about free, but decided against it. Her little sister was a rambunctious girl, who’d never really known her parents. Where Yolande had been shaped into the perfect Queen, and Isabel into her perfect heir, Edith had been allowed to more or less run wild. She’d grown into a child who spent half her time fighting imaginary dragons and ogres, and the other half planning elaborate pranks. (Supposedly, Edith slept occasionally, but Isabel was less than certain about that.)

“Isabel, why are you petting my head?” asked Edith suddenly.

Isabel jerked her hand back. “Habit.” She took a deep breath. “Now, just wait a moment. We’ll be at the banquet and you can see the Prince for yourself.”

Edith leaned back and rested her head on her sister’s shoulder. “Well, that will be nice.”

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 9

Hereward’s knees were beginning to ache from kneeling in the same spot for so long. Glancing at his grandfather, he wondered how the old man managed to do it without the slightest trace of unease.

A trumpet sounded. Hereward’s eyes turned back to the ship. A small party of men were walking down the ship. Hereward recognized officials of the Left and Right (though he couldn’t quite figure out who they were), two individuals in heavy robes and masks who he realized had to be Stylites, and there in the center a handsome man with long brown hair, clad in creamy white and sky blue. It had to be him. Prince Amfortas.

Hereward was surprised by the lack of ceremony. Where were the man’s escort--his eunuchs--his servants? The Pince of Leonais seemed strangely naked, standing there with virtually no accompaniment. And did he… walk everywhere? All the time? How could the Leonais handle having a ruler that lowered himself so frequently? The young palanquin-bearer shook his head. Perhaps it was because Amfortas was only a Prince, that they let him do these things, and when the man was king, it would be different. Though hadn’t Hereward heard something about the man’s father, Pelleas…

Amfortas bowed to the obscured form of Queen Yolande. “Your Highness,” he said, his voice gentle, and refined. “I have long hoped for this day.”

Hereward heard the Queen shifting in the palanquin. “Do not bow to me, my betrothed,” she said. “Rise. Rise and let me look upon you.” The Prince smiled and did so. “My goodness. Your portrait doesn’t do you justice.”

“I wish I could say the same,” declared Amfortas, “but I fear I have problems making you out, hidden as you are by those curtains.”

“I can remedy that,” said Yolande. “Lucinda? Emalia? Part the curtains.”

Her ladies-in-waiting rushed to the palanquin’s side and pulled the curtains back. Amfortas gazed at the Queen of Tintagel, his blue eyes unreadable. “And now,” he said, after a moment, “I can say what you have said. The picture I have of you did not capture… you.” He smiled. “You are most delightful to look upon.”

“Shall we go to the Chapel, my betrothed, and become as one?” asked Yolande eagerly.

Amfortas stepped forward. “That does sound advisable…”

Yolande gave a sharp little gasp. “Wait--no--you can’t simply enter my palanquin like that,” she proclaimed. “Your feet must be unsullied! Hereward!” Hereward blinked, surprised that the Queen remembered him. “Hereward, serve the Prince as you would me.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” he said, kneeling before the Prince.

Amfortas looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “Ahh. I see.” He shrugged. “You are very fortunate I chose not to wear my spurs.” declared the Prince, stepping onto Hereward’s back. It almost seemed to Hereward that the Prince dug his heels into him, but he decided that must be his imagination. “A most charming custom,” he heard Amfortas say. “If all Tintagel is like this, I think I shall enjoy myself here.”

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 8

Milun de Chambre yawned. “So, is this whole ridiculous matter resolved yet?” he asked the Cupbearer of the Left.

“I believe it will be over swiftly, sir,” answered Guy Montaigne.

Milun threw himself back on the cushions of his divan with a pout. “This is absurd. It’s a wedding we’ve known was coming for months--no, years now. And it is taking us this long to get done with it?”

“The Prince’s decision to bring Stylites is quite unexpected,” said Guy.

“Well, why did he bring them?” muttered Milun.

Guy sniffed the flower he kept at his lapel. It was in fact odorless, but the image was quite bewitching he found. “He claims they are for security. The Dark Lords, you know, are quite the threat these days. Attacked Joyeuse itself. Or so they say.”

Melun gave an uncertain nod. “Well, then if that’s the case, why are we making an issue of it?”

“Precedent and custom, sir,” said Guy tiredly. One often wound up explaining things to Melun. “No one likes having the Knights of the Tower in their land. Even in the Concordat, they operate with severe restrictions.”

“Amfortas likes them around,” pointed out Melun. “At least he seems to.”

“Most likely, he needs them around, and wishes there to be no ill feelings between them and himself,” answered Guy. “I doubt he actually enjoys keeping them in his service.”

“Then why…” Melun shook his head. “Never mind. Nothing in this whole affair makes sense. You’d think he could have warned us about them, instead of dropping this…” He fidgeted. “I was hoping to enjoy a horse race, damn it.”

Guy bowed. “We must all make sacrifices

The Cupbearer had often turned over the fact that while the Chamberlain of the Right was a man too clever by half, who regularly tangled himself up in his own plots, his Left Court counterpart was a man who left thinking to his subordinates. And yet despite this seeming advantage, Caswallan was unable to secure his Court’s supremacy. Somehow, Melun always managed to muddle on, leaving the Chamberlain of the Right tearing his hair out in frustration at having been beaten again.

There was a lesson in that, though Guy never could figure out what it was.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 7

Master Sepulchre of the Stylites felt the sunlight warming his heavy robes as he stepped out on to the deck, Master Gravedust by his side. Warming his robes--not him. Like all Knights of the Tower, the full effects of the blessed radiance of Uriel were lost to him. Which was as it should be. Sepulchre was, after all, born cursed with the powers of Night, and thus damned. His life was a slow inescapable walk towards Hell, touched as he was by the Enemy, Douma Dalkiel. To deny this was to ensure it, to be the servant of Darkness--only by accepting it, and sacrificing his life to the Holy Light of the Seven could he hope to defy Her. And while this could only do so much--he was still inexorably damned--it was enough. He and his brethren would fight in the Great War against the dark power that had perverted them, blighted their lives, using its own arts against Her. And then they would be destroyed by the Light. As was only proper.

Sepulchre wondered why he was musing on such things today. He was a good Stylite--in so much as one of the Walking Damned could be good. He had been found, then painstakingly stripped of name and family, until he was only a Stylite, served his term as a nameless Acolyte, growing in power and skill, and then at last become a Master. Ever since that first part, which had been pain, he had served without complaint, and generally without thought. (Thought was an evil for the Walking Damned, for it led them to Douma Dalkiel. A good Stylite emptied his mind in the service, and only thought when the Order of the Tower required him to.) But that had changed, gradually, since the Stylites had gone to Joyeuse. Now, he found himself… considering things.

The Prince of Leonais paused from talking with a pair of Tintagelian priests--the Chaplains of the Right and Left, to judge by their uniforms--and smiled at the Stylites. “Master Sepulchre. Master Gravedust. Enjoying yourselves?”

“A Stylite enjoys nothing, but his service to the Light,” answered Sepulchre. “And he does so with the knowledge that the Light knows his vileness.”

Amfortas nodded pleasantly at that. “Well that is good to hear.”

Sepulchre stared at the Prince. He was what was doing this. Grandmaster Radiance had emphasized that the Prince was to be followed and supported and Sepulchre followed orders, but still… Amfortas was… unpleasant to deal with.

It was not the fact that Amfortas did things that were unwholesome that made Sepulchre uneasy--not by itself at least. A Stylite must do things that any right-thinking person abhorred in the performance of their duty. But that was the key--‘abhorred’. When Sepulchre and his brothers did these things, it was with the knowledge these things were evil, even if necessary. What joy they took was from the service to the Holy Light of the Seven, not the acts themselves, which filled them with repugnance.

Amfortas was not like that. He enjoyed those acts, even as he insisted that he did them in service to the Light. Sepulchre had no choice but be unwholesome--the Dark had tainted him--but Amfortas… he seemed to take a delight in those things. Sepulchre knew he was not alone among the Stylites in his feelings--knew that he had detected that same unease among his fellow Masters, and even the nameless Acolytes he directed. ‘Think of him as a sword,’ Grandmaster Radiance had said, ‘a sword we will wield to serve the great cause,’ and Sepulchre tried to, but even when he repeated it to himself, the thought would come to his mind that swords do not delight in bloodshed, do not leap to their owner's hand and start attacking men and women and children simply because they could, and then instruct the owner to dispose of the bodies as to make sure they were not found…

He is useful, repeated Sepulchre to himself. He is useful and necessary. We have never had an ally so highly placed. The Great Cause must be served, the Great War must be fought, and he is the instrument that we have to do that. If he is… flawed, well that is too bad. We will not likely get such a chance again.

Sepulchre realized that one of the Tintagelians was speaking to him--calm, empty words of greeting. “We are honored to be here,” he stated, when the man stopped talking, topping it off with a stiff bow.

The chaplain nodded at that, but Sepulchre could see the disgust in his eyes. He was used to that. He deserved it. But even so, to see that disgust disappear as soon as the man’s eyes went to the Prince--to see him smile and laugh and mean it…

It is necessary, repeated Sepulchre to himself. It is all necessary.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 6

Yolande glanced at the ship before her at the dock--or tried to at least, as the thick curtain of muslin obscured what was before her. She considered parting it, to get a better look at what she was seeing, but that was impossible. She was the Queen of Tintagel, and to view the world without some form of protection between her and it would be both unprecedented, and a hideous failure of her duties as Living Symbol of her nation.

Still, it was a nuisance. Yolande could barely tell what was she was seeing. Was that shape on the foredeck a man or simply a shadow? If it was a man, was it her future husband, or simply some sailor, strolling around, doing whatever it was that sailors did when a ship was at dock? How could she be sure? The temptation to part the curtain came again. She suppressed it again.

Yolande took out the miniature of Prince Amfortas she kept by her heart, and looked at it. Supposedly, it was a good--no, an excellent likeness. That had been the ambassador’s word. Excellent. And if Yolande could not judge her betrothed’s face by an excellent portrait, what could she judge it by, save by seeing it itself? For the hundredth time, Yolande regarded this reproduction of Amfortas, to see what she could discern there.

Once again, she had to admit the Prince had a handsome face, strong and even, with the piercing blue eyes that supposedly were the heritage of the Pescheours. The Prince’s eyes were half-lidded in the portrait, which instead of making him look sleepy, made him look… Yolande wasn’t sure. Confident? Taunting? Alluring? Enigmatic?

Perhaps all at once. But definitely the last. The Prince of Leonais was a mystery to her. Of course, so were most men, but something in this portrait suggested that Amfortas was more so than most, that there was something he kept buried at the heart of himself that very few people got to see.

But she would see it. How could she not, when they be so close to each other? She was to be his wife. The Senate had at last agreed to it--she was to marry him, the Prince and Regent of Leonais, as well as the Lord Protector of the Free Cities, and the Synod’s Legate in both Leonais, and the Concordat. She’d seen it on a map, this vast territory that her husband-to-be ruled. It was three times the size of the whole of Tintagel even when you added in the Scale Islands.

Yolande wondered how he managed it. Tintagel was smaller, but required so much to be done, even though her duties were largely matters of form and ritual. The Courts ran things, and the Senate, and all Yolande had to do was agree to what they had done. Even so, they did so very much, that sometimes that agreeing in that formal, ritual way took hours and hours of her time, and left her tired.

She looked at the miniature again. No, Amfortas didn’t seem tired at all. She would have to ask him for the secret, after they were married. Perhaps--if it wouldn’t be too much of a bother for him.

Yolande had been taught from an early age not to be a bother. Not being a bother was a large portion of her job. The Chamberlains of the Left and Right had made it clear that they did not want to have a queen who caused trouble and raised a fuss, and Yolande had made sure to be exactly the sort of queen they asked for.

There was a polite scratching at her curtain. Yolande turned to see her First Lady in Waiting of the Left kneeling by her palanquin--Lucinda, that was her name. “My apologies, Your Highness,” said Lucinda in the half-whispered tones that were best for addressing the Queen, “but there is a delay. His Highness, the Prince has brought… some Knights of the Tower with him, and insist they be allowed to accompany him to our land. The Courts are hoping they may be allowed to our nation with… minimal fuss, and that will require your assistance…”

Yolande frowned. “Isn’t this a matter for our Cosmopolite?”

“Indeed, Your Highness, but that will take some time.” Lucinda smiled lightly. “For the moment, if you would kindly sign a Writ of Protection and Visitation, that would let them enter for the few days that it would take the Cosmopolite to officially allow them entry…”

Yolande nodded. “Of course. Have the Courts write them up, and I will sign them.” Her Lady in Waiting turned to leave. “Oh, and Lucinda…?”

The woman paused. “Yes, Your Highness?”

Yolande shut her eyes, and took a deep breath, as she gathered her thoughts. “That man on the ship’s deck? Is that the Prince?”

Lucinda regarded the figure for a moment. “I believe he is captain of the Prince’s guard, Your Highness.”

“Oh.” Yolande nodded. “Very good.”

She felt… oddly disappointed.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 5

Jernis growled as he watched the dice come up Black Bitch’s Eyes. “You win again,” he spat out to Noseless Leil.

Leil gathered up his winnings. “What can I say? Born lucky, I was…” He scratched idly at the scar left over from having his nose chopped off by an Almacian justice.

Razalic glared at the former cutpurse and clenched his fist. “I’ll bet.”

Jernis realized that he was watching something very dangerous beginning, and that his (admittedly nebulous) duties as the man left in charge meant he had to stop it, much as the thought of Leil coming afoul of his partner comforted him. “Now, now, Razalic. Folks can be lucky, some of the times. It’s the way of the world.” He grinned at the hulking man. “We just have to remember, we’re playing for bigger stakes then a little dice game. His ‘ighness wouldn’t be happy if fell to quarreling.”

Razalic growled, then contented himself with fixing Leil with a stony stare. Gilly gave a frustrated yelp, and kicked at the side of the ship’s chambers. “How long are we going to be here?” she muttered. “I’m bored.”

“The Prince will tell us when we’re needed,” said Jernis. “Just you wait, Miss Gilly. He’ll send the word, and there we’ll be, enjoying Tintagel.”

Gilly pouted. “But why can’t we go out there NOW?”

Jernis regarded his large, rather threatening partner, the scarred young girl, and of course, Noseless Leil for a moment. Jernis knew it said something that he was, perhaps, the most normal-looking man in this company, not least because of a life spent hearing comparisons between himself and various rodents and weasels that usually ended favorably for the animal. “We’s a tad rough for his present company. But rest assured, Gilly, he’ll have need of us, and when he does, we’re gonna stroll around the isles, and show ‘em what they’ve been missing.”

Gilly’s pout remained. “The Serjeant doesn’t have to stay here.”

Jernis gave Gilly a smile that only she would have found reassuring. “Ol’ Lanval’s a nobleman. He knows their ways. We’re a commoner sort, Gilly, who His ‘ighness as lifted up outta the offal to ‘elp him with his great task.”

Gilly was silent. “So I’ll get to burn things?”

Jernis nodded. “Most definitely,” he declared with confidence. True, he didn’t quite know Amfortas’ plan, but the fact was, if he’d brought Gilly along, there was going to be a need for fire.

That was pretty much her function in the Prince’s Men, after all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 4

Right Chamberlain Casawallan sipped his wine. “So then, no rumors of any mistresses?”

Alexandre le Desirous shook his head. “None whatsoever. The Prince seems to live a life of exemplary virtue. No female companions. Barely touches liquor. Spends a great deal of time in church.” The Cupbearer of the Right shrugged. “Either he’s practically perfect, or he works hard to seem that way.”

“In which case he’s a man whose support would be handy,” finished Casawallan. He nursed his wine for a long moment, then glanced again at the Cupbearer. “I understand there’s some issue with his Serjeant-at-arms?”

Alexandre nodded. “Lanval Equitan. He’s an Almacian bandit. A fairly notorious one, in his day. Apparently Amfortas pardoned him on the eve of Shaddad’s invasion, and recruited him into his personal guard. Equitan’s been moving up the ranks ever since.” Alexandre shrugged. “A bit odd, but still--I’d chalk it up to idealism. And it seems to have worked--Lanval’s a reformed character. A bit blunt at times, but reformed.”

“Or so the Prince would like the world to believe,” said Casawallan. Rising from his chair, the Chamberlain walked to the window, and glanced at the Prince’s ship. “I’ve been dreading this day,” he said quietly. “Queen Yolande is getting married.”

“I thought you said that it was the only way to break the eunuchs,” said Alexandre.

“It is,” replied Casawallan, his eyes straying to the Chambers of the Left across the well-paved street. “But it also changes everything. And that is dangerous. Right now, old Milun is plotting in that building, just as we are plotting in ours. If we hesitate--if we make a wrong move--then the Court of the Left shall triumph, and the Court of the Right will fall.” He growled. “Why couldn’t those fools in the Senate have let her marry Terynon?”

Alexandre stepped beside the Chamberlain. “You might as well ask, uncle, for the Seven to come down and turn the entire Court of Left into dust and ashes. The Senate were never going to favor a candidate with strong ties to EITHER Court. It’s only by balancing against each other that they hold what power they possess.”

“And meanwhile, the eunuchs get fat,” spat out Cassawallan. He shook his head, grey eyes flashing with anger. “These are evil days.” He frowned, and turned back to the Prince of Leonais’ boat. “Approach the Prince after the wedding. See what he wants. Try to see what he’ll accept. Then come to me and I’ll see if it’s workable.”

“This is the most worried I’ve ever seen you,” said Alexandre.

“If what you’re saying is true, then I’m left with two obvious possibilities,” said the Chamberlain. “Either the Prince is a pious fool who has been on the whole rather lucky, or he’s an exceedingly clever man. Neither one fills me with hope.”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 3

Serjeant Lanval Equitan looked out over the water. “And so we can’t leave the ship until the Queen arrives?” he said.

“No, sir,” said the Envoy of the Left. “It is tradition.”

“The sovereign is possessor of all of Tintagel,” explained the Envoy of the Right. “Thus, all enter it with her permission. For many minor individuals--merchants, ambassadors, and the like--this is implicit, and thus entrance may be granted with a few simple measures. However, for individuals like Prince Amfortas, such permission must be granted in person.”

Equitan sighed. “So, the Prince must beg permission of his bride-to-be to enter her country.” He shook his head. “Not a promising beginning for a marriage.”

The Envoy of the Left laughed lightly, a sound muffled by his heavy red mask. “Not ‘beg’,” he said. “Merely--ask.”

The Envoy of the Right nodded. “And of course, that permission will be granted.” Equitan couldn’t help but suspect a superior little smirk was hidden behind his blue mask. “Really, this is all a formality,” he declared cheerily.

“Then why bother with it?” said Equitan.

“Tintagel is a land of custom and formality,” replied the Envoy of the Right.

“We do things as they are to be done,” added the Envoy of the Left. “To do otherwise would signify unsettling things.”

Lanval nodded. “And we wouldn’t want things to become unsettled.” He rubbed his forehead. “Are you certain you can’t talk to the Prince?”

“Ohh, no, sir,” said the Envoy of the Left. “We are mere Envoys, far too insignificant to be brought to his attention. We would sooner die, than disturb his august presence.”

“Leaving that job to me,” said Equitan ruefully.

“You are the Serjeant of his guard,” answered the Envoy of the Right. “He has chosen to allow you to do this.”

Lanval sighed. “And that is why I must stand here talking to two men who won’t let me see their faces, and both tell me the same thing.”

“We cannot show you our faces because we do not meet you as men, but as representatives of the Courts,” explained the Envoy of the Right.

“And we must BOTH meet you, because to meet with an Envoy of one court, but not the other would be to insult to the court that was not included,” said the Envoy of the Left. He laughed again. “And trust us, if you imagine that merely waiting for Queen Yolande is an ill-start to this marriage--well, a marriage that began with a feud with either the Court of the Right or the Court of the Left would be most inauspicious.”

“And of course, we wouldn’t want that,” muttered Equitan. “The auspices must be of exceeding auspiciousness.”

The Envoys nodded together. “Exactly.”

Lanval narrowed his eyes. “Tell me--why two courts? Why not one?”

The pair stared at him with a surprise that even their masks couldn’t hide. “Why, to balance each other,” said the Envoy of the Left.

“Yes. If there was only one court how could the Left or the Right be sure their interests were being served?” queried the Envoy of the Right.

Equitan began to rub his temples. “But if there were only one court there wouldn’t be… Oh, never mind.” He bowed to the pair. “I will go inform the Prince of your tidings.”

Lanval stamped back to Amfortas’ quarters. The Prince of Leonais was enjoying a meal when the Serjeant entered--though ‘enjoying’ might be a bit much. Amfortas Pescheour ate food with a certain bland detachment, as if meals were simply a task with no greater purpose than to give him the nourishment that kept him going. Lanval wasn’t really surprised at that--he knew the Prince well enough to know his real appetites. “Tell me,” said Equitan, “why has no one bothered to burn this damned place to the ground?”

“They don’t have the ships to do it,” answered Amfortas, cutting the steak before him with careful precision. “This is an island nation, Lanval. With a very fine navy.” He shrugged. “That is why we are here. We need their ships. Their ships, and their wealth, and their manpower.”

Lanval gave a regretful nod, as Amfortas chewed his steak. “And will all that be worth this ridiculous rigmarole?”

“Absolutely,” answered Amfortas, dabbing his face with his napkin. “My associates in the Tower assure me I need those ships. Simply crossing the River has failed too often. We must try something new.” He shrugged. “And I will be joining the two great lineages of the Lands of Light. The symbolism alone is worth dealing with a score of meddlesome courtiers.” He smiled lightly. “Besides, I wish to give marriage a try. They tell me it is rewarding.”

“Wouldn’t know,” said Lanval. “Never did give it a try, what with my vows.” He scratched his head. “Oddly enough, only part of them I kept. But there you go.”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 2

Princess Isabel glanced out the window, watching her sister enter the palanquin and go away from the Maiden Palace forever. No longer would Yolande be here at nights, to tell her stories, or share sweetmeats with her, or sing along with Isabel’s harpsichord playing. From now on, she would only see Yolande on state occasions. Isabel held back a tear. It was a good thing that her sister was marrying, to continue the Royal Line of Tintagel. It was an especially good thing she was marrying the Prince of Leonais, uniting the two lines and quite possibly creating a kingdom that could truly consider itself the heir of the Holy Empire.

But she still would miss her sister.

“I hear Prince Amfortas crossed blades with the Dark Lord Cthonique--and lived!” announced Princess Edith excitedly.

Isabel gave a frustrated sigh. Well, more exactly, she would miss her eldest sister. “Of course, he lived, Edith,” said Isabel patiently. “If he didn’t, he couldn’t marry Yolande, now could he?”

“I know that!” snapped Edith. “The point is--he fought with a Dark Lord! Sword to sword! And survived! Even Emperor Aurelian didn’t do that! It must have been so exciting!” She leaped from her seat, picking up a knitting needle, and did a bit of mock sword-play, dancing back and forth on the floor. “Ya! Yaah! Ho ha!”

Isabel leaned back in her chair, rubbing her eyes. “Do sit down, Edith.”

Edith pouted at her sister. “Well, you are being a great big spoilsport. The Great War is starting, and soon the Light shall triumph over the Darkness, and everything will be beautiful and glorious forever and ever, and you are just sitting there, knitting, and not enjoying how incredibly exciting all this is!”

“Very well, Edith,” said Isabel with a sigh. “You are right. This is all tremendously exciting. Now will you sit down? Please?”

Edith returned unhappily to her seat. “Think about it, Isabel. Soon our soldiers will be in the Lands of Night, cleaving Erl skulls, and slaughtering Goblins!” She clapped her hands together. “I wish I could be there! Killing things!”

Isabel rubbed her temples. Her sister was… a rather disappointing princess, on the whole.

“Is everything all right, my dears?” came a familiar, slightly high-pitched voice. “I heard… shouting.”

Isabel turned towards Mote as the palace’s Chief Eunuch entered the room. “Edith is being a little beast,” she announced calmly.

Edith crossed her arms angrily. “I am not! I was just saying how exciting it is to have Prince Amfortas here, and the Great War starting!”

“While jumping about like a savage!” said Isabel. She turned to Mote. “She wants to be in the Lands of Night! Slaughtering Nightfolk!”

Mote chuckled gently, his thin chin shaking ever so slightly with mirth. “My dear Princess Edith--that would be most improper behavior.” He stepped forward and tussled Edith’s hair. “You should be glad you won’t have the opportunity. War is, I’m afraid, horrifically unpleasant.” Isabel was enjoying a smirk, when the eunuch turned towards her. “And you should not tattle on your sister for such minor matters. She is blood of your blood, after all, and the pair of you are likely to be spending a great deal of time with each other in the years ahead. I think you’ll it is more pleasant if you try to avoid spiting one another.” He clapped his hands together. “Now, let us get ready for the wedding feast, shall we?”

Isabel rose grimly from her chair. “Of course, Mote. As you wish.”

Mote rested his hand on her shoulder. “The Queen does love you, Isabel. And if the laws of Tintagel permitted, she would let you--and Edith--stay with her. But they do not. Still--you have each other, and me and all the rest of the palace staff.”

Isabel took his hand, and pressed it gladly. She knew people said that Mote and the rest of his fellow eunuchs had far too much influence in the court these days--that they were a scheming lot of wretches who were ruining the country, the way eunuchs always did when they got their hands on power. But she could never credit that--not for Mote who was so good, and kind to her and her sisters. Her mother had died when she was a very young child, and her father had died not long after, and the chief eunuch had stood in the place of both.

Of course, she could never tell him this, but she figured he already knew.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 1

The palanquin-bearers entered the Maiden Palace by the Southern Gate, as was their duty, mandated by custom, and tradition.

“Keep your balance,” said Aedward to his grandson, as they walked down the Path of Lilies.

“I’ve carried a palanquin before, grandfather,” said Hereward.

“Yes, but not a Great Palanquin,” declared Aedward. “This is one of the defining moments of your life, Hereward, where you will render Queen Yolande the greatest service you are capable of. Only four times does a Queen Regnant of Tintagel use a Great Palanquin--on the day of her blessing, when she is a young Princess, on the day of her coronation, when she becomes Queen, on the day of her wedding, when she leaves the Maiden Palace for the Crimson Palace, and on the day of her funeral, when she leaves the Crimson Palace for the Great Tomb.” A smile touched the old man’s face. “I have carried the Queen on two of these, and I will carry her on this, the third. But unless the Seven are very kind to me or very cruel to her, I will not carry her on the fourth.” He looked at Hereward. “That will be your duty. And your burden.” Hereward nodded.

Aedward’s face tightened. “And it is a great one. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. Never let yourself be drawn from the path of loyal service to the crown. The Holly Throne is great. Those who reflect its glory share a small portion of that greatness.”

Hereward nodded again. He knew his grandfather was speaking--obliquely--of Hereward’s father, Aemund, who’d embezzled funds, and been cast from the service, and died a ruined drunk. It was, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed--but then Aemund had nearly ruined their family. It was a great honor that Hereward had actually been allowed to gain this post--and a sign of how loyally his grandfather has served the Holly Throne. He would not fail him. He would prove an honor to his family, and a pillar to the Throne.

The palanquin reached the Great Rosewood Gate, where the Queen stood, flanked by sixteen ladies in waiting, eight on each side. These were the daughters of the great Ministers of the Right and Left, the twin courts that kept Tintagel functioning. As Yolande walked towards the palanquin, they cast rose petals before, to make sure that the Queen’s feet never touched common clay.

The palanquin-bearers knelt before the queen. “My lady,” said Aedward. “It is a pleasure to be at your service.” He positioned himself before the palanquin‘s door.

Yolande raised a hand, her violet eyes regarding Aedward gently. “Rise, old man. I will not burden your aged back with my weight.”

Aedward looked up at her, nervously. “My lady--it--it is no burden, I…”

“I will do it!” said Hereward, rushing from his place to kneel before the palanquin’s door. “Use me instead!” He gulped. “My… your… Majesty.”

Yolande smiled at the young man. “Why thank you, young sir.” She stepped on Hereward’s back, and then entered the palanquin. The bearers stood up, Aedward smiling at his grandson.

“Well done, lad,” he noted quietly, as they prepared to lift up the palanquin. “Now--onto the docks. The Prince awaits.”

Hereward glanced back at the Queen, as always the image of perfection, not a pale blonde hair out of place. Queen Yolande was the Life and Soul of Tintagel, Living Symbol of the last bastion of the Holy Empire. And on this amazing day, she would marry Amfortas Pescheor, Prince-Regent of Leonais, tying the two true heirs to that Imperial authority together. It was the start of a new era, of prosperity, of glory, of the victory of Light over Darkness.

Hereward smiled. Today was a good day.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 24

Roland Miller took a deep breath and walked into the council chamber. To his surprise, the council were all there, looking rather tired and anxious. Usually a call to discuss ‘urgent business’ early in the morning saw up to half the council staying home and sleeping. They really were worried about this, he realized.

“Well,” asked Industriousness-Pleases-The-Holy-Light Smith, “how have your talks with the Sacristans gone?”

“Surprisingly well,” said Roland. “The Preceptor understands our concerns, and is of course, quite willing to pledge the peace.”

“Pretty words,” said Njal Hammerhand. “But is he willing to back them?”

Roland nodded. “Indeed he is.” He clapped his hands together. Two Sacristans entered the room. “I’d like you to meet Arcadius Pi, and Edward Delta. They’re here to hammer out an arrangement with the village. Afterwards, Arcadius will be returning to the Chateau, where he is serving as Acting-Chancellor, but Sir Delta will remain here as liaison. I am certain that…”

The Smiths glared at the pair. “If you think this will settle things…” said Blessed-Be-Those-Who-Follow-The-Precepts.

“On the contrary, I am certain it will not,” said Edward Delta. “That is why I am here.” He glanced around the room sincerely. “We know that you all have many reasons to distrust us. We know that we must earn your trust, and keep on earning it, if we are to live here for a while. And we are willing to do this, if only we are given a chance.”

The speech was met with sullen silence.

Arcadius Pi coughed, and produced a large jug. “I’ve brought some fine Tintagelian White so that we can begin this new era on a promising note.” He began to set bowls before the Council.

The Smiths continued to glare. “Your fools if you imagine we can be bribed with liquor,” said Industriousness-Pleases-The-Holy-Light.

“Now, now, Smith, don’t be hasty,” said Gahaltine Clark, as Arcadius poured his wine. “No reason to be rude to the man.”

Roland Miller sat back and watched, quietly pleased that for once the guiding rule of his father’s life seemed to be working.

For a little while at least.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 23

The Hedley Kow’s strange mocking laughter echoed in the forest. As Viviane watched, it seemed to swell, to grow more looming and more huge.

“You think he… I mean it is compensating for something?” asked Maud Lynne.

Viviane suppressed twin urges to chuckle, and tell Maud Lynne to shut up.

“One last strike,” declared Elaine, raising Caladbolg.

Viviane nodded, and raised her pestle. She noted, with a certain amount of pleasure, that her fellows were preparing their own spells.

Suddenly, the sound of crows began to echo in the forest. Viviane tried to place exactly where it was coming from only to realize it was coming… from inside the Kow. The thing’s horrid laughter slowly died, while the big blank eyes began to take on a concerned appearance.

And then a horde of crows ripped the Kow apart form the inside out.

Viviane watched as the thing fell to pieces. One of the crows was holding what looked like a large glittering red gem. The other birds flocked to it, and then… somehow it started to grow larger. Then there was a strange… bird person flapping its way towards the ground… and then Jean stood there. She glared at the red… thing, and then crushed it in her hands. An awful keening resounded in the forest, as what remained of the Hedley Kow shriveled into grey dust.

Jean turned to the witches, and took a deep breath, the marking on her forehead gleaming with a spectral light. “All right, I’m naked, I’m covered in… whatever it is that’s inside pwcas, and I just stopped being a lot of birds, all in the name of saving all your asses. So--are you going to all accept that I’m the Nemain, or do I have to get… unpleasant?”

Cait Sith glanced at Livia and Urganda, who nodded. The group bowed. “We are satisfied. You are the Nemain.”

“All hail the…” began Grace and Melissa, only to have Elaine tap them on the shoulder. They both quickly stopped and stepped behind her.

“All hail the Nemain!” declared Elaine, who then glanced back at the cousins, and waved her hand.

“Hail!” shouted Grace and Melissa. “Hail!”

Jean shivered as the cry was taken up by others. “Yeah. Very nice. I need a cloak or something, now. And then a long, hot bath. But right now a cloak, because once again I am naked, and aside from the other issues, it is cold out here.”

Mother Flint chuckled as Semele of the Shout rushed forward to cover Jean with her cloak. “Well, she’s definitely a du Lac.” She smiled at the witches as she backed into the trees. “Good evening to you all. It has been most amusing, I must admit. But now Mother Flint bids you all adieu.”

Viviane turned to watch her leave. “Flint,” she said. Mother Flint paused. “Will you be attending the next Coven?”

Mother Flint smiled once again, walking into the shadows until only the gleam of her strange teeth could be seen. “Perhaps I may, perhaps I may not. Mother Flint’s a thing of whimsy and impulse after all.”

And then she was gone. Viviane turned back to the others. “Well. Now that matters of the Kow and the Nemain are settled, we can call this…”

Cait Sith crossed her arms. “Wait a moment, Badb. We have other concerns that need to be addressed.”

“Oh come on,” pleaded Viviane. “We just killed something. Doesn’t that take care of everything?” Cait Sith and Livia shook their heads. “Fine,” declared the Badb. “Just take the matter up with my herald. She’ll… put something together.” She glanced at Elaine. “If you don’t mind, dear.”

Elaine shook her head. “Oh, no. Sounds like fun.”

Melissa and Grace coughed. “Ummm…” began Grace. “Badb, now that that’s done, could… could we have our old jobs back, due to our showing proper contrit--”

“No,” answered Viviane. The cousins looked at her with wide, disappointed eyes. Viviane sighed. “But I’ll give you a new job. You two are now my… banner-bearers.” She pointed to Grace. “You, Grace Greenteeth, Witch of the Ruhl, are the Bannerbearer of the East, and you, Melissa Marshstepper, Witch of the Coalo, are now Bannerbearer of the West, for where you stood when you supported my daughter and herald. It is a job that requires skill, dedication, and keeping very, very quiet for long periods of time.” Viviane arched an eyebrow. “Am I understood?”

Grace and Melissa both nodded eagerly, and darted away. “Nice save,” said Jean. “That should keep them happy.”

“Yep,” said Viviane. “At least until their descendents start complaining that the other one got the good side.”

“Which will not be our problem,” declared Jean. “Look, I need that bath. Now.”

“I think I may be able to help with that,” said Meg Mowton, approaching with Malina in tow.

Jean eyed her suspiciously. “Will I have to drink cider?”

“Only if you want to,” said the older witch. She clasped a hand on Jean’s shoulder. “Well done.”

“I took care of the Kow, eh?” Jean said with a grin.

“For a while,” replied Meg. “The pwca will reform, as it has in the past. But it will be small and weak for many, many years. Perhaps even centuries.” She shrugged. “Such cycles are the way of the Badb and Nemain.”

“Right, right, I’m the heir to bunch of circles and old stones, got you,” sighed Jean. “Just bring on the bath.”

“Auntie Jean,” said Malina. “You were cool.”

Viviane glanced at her daughter who was gazing abstractly into the distance. “Is something…?”

“Thought I saw something,” replied Elaine. “But I guess I was mistaken.”

As the witches trickled away, a small object, that looked like a pebble, rolled into the bushes, apparently of its own volition.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 22

Elaine blinked. “It… it just ate, Jean…”

Maud Lynne nodded. “I… yes, it…” And suddenly Elaine gave a scream. Swinging the Sword of Light wildly, she charged at the Kow, and began slashing through it. Maud Lynne shrugged, and started chasing after her.

“Wha…?” muttered Melissa watching the Witch of the Grove rush off. “Maud Lynne, why…?”

“Do you two really want to get left behind with that thing?” hissed Maud Lynne.

Grace and Melissa looked at each other, then shrugged. Shouting what they hoped, in vain, were hearty war cries, they followed the pair into battle.

Elaine screamed at the top of her lungs, cutting a path through the Hedley Kow with Caladbolg. “Do you have a plan?” asked Maud Lynne rushing alongside of her.

“Yes,” said Elaine after taking a deep breath. “When I run out of Kow to cut, I’ve won.”

Maud Lynne nodded. “Well, it does have a certain elegant simplicity, I’ll grant you.”

Elaine slashed through another length of Kow, and found herself face to face with her mother. “Elaine,” said Viviane. “Trying to kill the Kow through sheer persistence?”

Elaine gave it a moment’s thought, then nodded. “You?”

“The same,” answered Viviane. A massive booming sound shook the area, followed by an ear-piercing whistle. Viviane turned to see Pell and Semele making their way towards them, while Mother Flint clacked her teeth together and caught the sparks in her hands. When she grabbed them, they somehow remained there, until she formed them into balls and hurled them at the Kow. Cait Sith, Livia, and Urganda followed close behind, striking at the creature.

“We seem to be rallying,” Viviane announced.

Suddenly, the Kow reared up, an immense pillar of flesh, covered in eyes and mouths. It stared at the witches, and began to laugh.

Viviane winced. “I really should avoid saying things like, shouldn’t I?”

Elaine nodded.