Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 23

Hereward took a deep breath as he walked through the halls of the Scarlet Palace. It felt… wrong for him--a palanquin-bearer--to do this, even if, as the Prince’s equerry it was both his right and his duty. Those fine walls and elaborate decorations seemed to accuse him, seemed to whisper ‘go back to your place’.

He shut his eyes, and paused for a moment. He was being foolish of course. Why, his great-great-grandfather Arbolast had served King Wilhelm in this very role--though that had been on his mother’s side. Men rose--and fell--as the Holly Throne demanded. That was an iron law of Tintagel.

He turned down a hallway, and entered the third room on his left, then waited, his frustration building. Had he gotten the wrong room? He could have sworn that he followed Amfortas’ directions precisely…

“H-Hereward? Is… that you?” came a whisper. Hereward turned to see where it had come from, and immediately wished he had not.

She sat there in a very large chair, which made her seem smaller. And she was doing her best to seem as small as she could, huddling there, her knees drawn up to her face. There was something… awful about seeing her of all people, the Living Symbol of Tintagel like this. It went beyond the bruises on her face and the blackened eyes, to that awful look on her face and the entire way she carried herself. For as long as he’d known her, Queen Yolande had carried herself with perfect poise. Now she sat there, this shivering, nervous woman who he could barely recognize…

“I… Your Majesty…” said Hereward nervously, cautiously approaching. “I… what… what happened…?”

“She fell from her horse when we were out riding,” said Amfortas. Hereward wheeled around, trying to figure out where the Prince had come from. He was certain that he hadn’t heard him approach. As he did so, the Prince stepped forwards, a sad apologetic little smile on his face. “I am sorry for not being here earlier. A little bit of internal business came up, and I’m afraid I lost track of the time.”

“The Queen had a riding accident?” asked Herewad. “Sir… why has no one been informed…”

Amfortas stepped behind Yolande and placed two gentle hands on her shoulders. “Oh, it was a minor thing, really. No… serious harm done.” As the Queen shuddered beneath his touch, he raised a hand and lightly caressed her cheek. “I fear my dear little Yolande is a clumsy girl at times.” He smiled at Yolande “Isn’t that right, darling?”

Yolande gulped several times, and then nodded in a strange, unsteady manner. “Y… Yes… I’m s-so s-s-s-sorry for wor-worrying you. I’m clumsy. I’m clumsy. I’m…” She stopped speaking and sobbed softly.

Amfortas leaned down and placed a kiss on the top of her brow. “Now, now, dear. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” The Prince stood up, and walked towards Hereward. “I’ll need you to prepare a palanquin for me. I have a visit to… ahh, what was it again? Oh, yes, the Pomegranate Palace.” He chuckled lightly and shook his head. “Ahhh, the names you Tintagelians come up with for your places of state. It’s really quite enchanting.” He looked at Hereward smiling. “Just enchanting.”

Hereward took a deep breath and walked to the door. He felt very glad to be leaving this room, and yet also ashamed to feel so glad. “I will have one sent to the South Gate in an hour sir.”

Amfortas followed him to the door. “Excellent. I do so enjoy the punctuality with which you serve me. I made an excellent choice in you.”

Hereward was about to leave, but somehow, looking at that calm--almost smug--face, he couldn’t. “Sir, about the Queen…” Hereward tried to put it diplomatically, as he had been instructed to speak for years when dealing with his betters. A thousand polite ways of asking what he needed to ask popped into his mind. ‘She seems distraught’--‘Is all as it should be?’--‘Perhaps she should go out more often’. And he found he could ask none of them, only state the thing that was on his mind.

“What are you doing to her?” asked Hereward.

If Hereward had hoped to discomfort the Prince, it was a vain hope. Amfortas merely smiled. “Why merely what the Seven have permitted me to do.” And then he stepped forward, and placed a hand on Hereward’s cheek. “Perhaps, my dear boy,” he said, idly caressing Hereward’s cheek, “I can make you understand what that means, one of these days.”

Hereward backed away as if scalded. Amfortas nodded. “Ah, yes. You have to go prepare the palanquin.” The Prince walked back in the room. “Please do be quick. I have important affairs, to be dealing with.”

And then he shut the door.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 22

The Envoys of the Right and Left were meeting, as they often did, for a drink. Of course, when this occurred they were not Envoys, but merely two men named Solanius and Salerius, and by strict agreement never spoke of their business of their respective Courts.

The problem was, since the Prince of Leonais’ arrived, the most interesting things occurring in Tintagel involved the Courts’ business, especially as regarded certain requests the Prince had made.

“So… how’s the son?” asked Solanius.

“Oh, fine, fine,” replied Salerius. “And your daughters.”

“Also fine,” answered Solanius. He shifted awkwardly. “So… the Grand Harbor’s been just… bustling these days…”

Salerius nodded. “Indeed. Indeed.” He wondered if any detailed discussion of the reason it was bustling, the Prince’s orders to build a new fleet, would count as breeching their agreement. He decided to err on the side of caution.

The result of this was several minutes spent by the pair fidgeting.

Finally, Solanius coughed, and looked away. “Don’t know if I like it. Sometimes I think the Leonais act as if they own the place now.”

Salerius considered for a moment, then turned away. “I hear things are… similar in the Free Cities at the moment. Though there it’s the Eremites. And they are… harsher. Amfortas is trying to get things in… order. The Prince… takes the Great War quite seriously.”

“Sometimes I wonder just where he draws the line,” muttered Solanius.

Salerius turned to his friend, surprised. “What was that?”

“The line. Between them and us,” said Solanius. “I was…” He paused, seeing Salerius’ concerned expression. “Just babbling drunkenly. It meant nothing.”

Salerius nodded. “Indeed. Indeed. So was I.”

The pair sat there, feeling surprisingly miserable, while trying to come up with a proper way to say that, an experience that was becoming increasingly common in Tintagel.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 21

Lanval Equitan regarded the eunuch standing before him idly. He’d always heard eunuchs were invariably grossly fat--thus it was a surprise to see that Mote, Master of the Chambers for the Maidens’ Palace was surprisingly, almost extraordinarily thin. Not that one was left with any doubts as to what he was when he opened his mouth, and those strange fluting tones came out, the voice of a young boy in the mouth of a rather old man. Still all added together to make for a very… disconcerting individual.

“I think you’ll find, Serjeant, that all our accounts are there in perfect order,” explained Mote quietly.

Lanval casually shuffled through the papers. “Well, it all looks in order. Of course, I’ll have to have my people look through it.” He turned back to Mote. “I have to admit, I’m surprised. Everything I heard made me suspect you’d be less… forthcoming.”

Mote bowed. “A eunuch becomes used to being despised for an intriguer, regardless of whether he is one or not. I’m afraid that I ruin the tales by being a simple honest man.”

“Or eunuch, to be more precise,” Lanval said smiling.

Mote simply stared. “I am used to such jibes, Serjeant. And not simply from those one would think. There was a great deal of resistance in Palace circles when I was named Master of the Chambers. You see, I did not begin my career as Maidens’ Palace eunuch, but as a boy soprano.”

Lanval blinked. “Umm… does that mean…?”

Mote nodded. “Yes. I was cut to preserve my voice. And it remains quite fine. King Erich kept me around to enjoy my singing, and eventually made me his secretary on discovering I had skill for figures.” Mote shrugged. “Oh, the Palace eunuchs snapped and fluttered when I was named. Said I had not been properly prepared…”

“Well, training for such duties tends…” Lanval blinked. “You’re not talking about training are you?”

Mote shook his head. “For a job such as this, the tradition mandates one who--to put it as we who have the insider’s view prefer to--has given up both berries and branch.”

Lanval shifted uncomfortably. “One would think just… the… berries would… suffice…”

“One would,” answered Mote. “And one would be wrong. There have been several noteworthy scandals involving such individuals.” He shrugged. “So, my foes were not completely without merit. However, King Erich assured them that I was a man who could be trusted with my charges. And so I have proven.”

“I see,” said Lanval, with a nod. “How very… admirable.” The Serjeant gave a cough. “Now then… the other matter I was sent here for. The Prince has placed me in charge of security, and wishes me to have the keys to the Maidens’ Palace…”

“And I cannot give them to you,” said Mote. “The Master of Chambers must keep the Palace inviolable. And so will I do.”

Lanval narrowed his eyes. “Queen Yolande has given her express wishes that her husband be listened to in this…”

Mote remained impassive. “If so it was remarkably foolish of her. She cannot force me to give the keys to anyone.”

Lanval bit his lip and took a deep breath. “The Senate…”

“Also cannot force me to do this,” said Mote. “Nor can the Left Court, nor the Right Court, nor both Courts acting in unison.” He smiled gently. “I fear, Serjeant, you are stuck with me.”

Lanval stared at Mote for a moment. “I can see why they speak of you with such frustration here.” He forced on a smile. “Very well. I will speak of it no more. You may keep the keys.” He began to get up, then paused. “You know, I heard a very distressing rumor. When the marriage was being considered, you opposed it, I was told. And did all you could to block it.”

“That is no rumor,” said Mote. “It is fact.” He shrugged. “As for why… well, I fear my reasons will prove boring to you, being no more than dull politics. I do not see that this marriage advantages my nation in any measurable way. Instead, I was for marrying her to Duke Blancardin of Bellamarina. Less lofty, but the trade deals would prove most agreeable. But the Courts were in rare agreement, the Senate was dazzled, and poor Blancardin was pushed to the side. Ahh, well. I played, I lost, and that is that. Prince Amfortas is Royal Consort and I will serve him in any way that follows the dictates of the Laws and Faith”

Lanval blinked, trying to process all this. “Recreating the Holy Empire is not an advantage?” he stated, trying put a chuckle in his voice.

“Half the Holy Empire,” corrected Mote. “While entangling us in a war with the other half, with whom we have been at a hard-won peace for just over a decade.” He chuckled to himself. “Well, I suppose that both sides are a little less than half if you count the Nightland provinces, but the point still stands. I fear lack most of my fellows’ strange sentimentality for the Empire. Any honest reading of it shows that most of those in it were fighting to leave it while it existed. Which is probably why it crumbled so easily after Enkidu Cthonique killed Aurelian. But we are all convinced that it was a grand and glorious time, and so we all try to recreate what is probably best left buried.”

“And the War?” said Lanval. “Surely you worry about that?”

“Oddly enough, until Vitellus’ death, I didn’t,” replied Mote casually. “The truth is quite a few of our merchant companies trade in Albracca. Oh, a violation of the Synod’s declaration, but an unavoidable one, I fear. What little scraps we get from that did not make it sound as if the Dark Lords are preparing for any major activities…”

“The eternal struggle is eternal…” stated Lanval with more force than he really felt.

Mote merely smiled. “You know I often think that the eternal struggle that the Seven spoke of lies within,” he stated, touching his heart. “Against our own failings, our own urge to do wrong and wickedness, to call evil good, and our own whims Their Holy Precepts. Not in the endless butchering of a folk whose greatest fault so often seems to be being born with pointed ears, and six fingers on each hand.” Lanval thought he saw something hard in the eunuch’s eyes there. “But then I am a weak and frail mortal--and a eunuch to boot, and all know that we are prone to flee conflict and blood. So it is probably merely a foolish, and damning error on my part.” He smiled once again. “I so often pray for forgiveness for my presumption.” The eyes narrowed. “What do you pray of, Serjeant? May I ask?”

Lanval moved to the door with as much calm swiftness as he could muster. “Success in all my undertakings.”

Mote clicked his tongues. “My, my. If half of what I hear of your career is true, you are in more need of their forgiveness for those prayers than I am for my presumption.”

Lanval took a deep breath. “Master Mote, I am but a simple man, performing his duties, and do not deserve these…”

“No, you’re not,” said Mote calmly. “I recognize my own, Serjeant. And I recognize such as you. Even if I am one of the few in Tintagel who does, in these evil days.” Mote raised an eyebrow as Lanval’s hand went to his side. “Draw your mace, and you will be dead before you can even use it. I am not bluffing.” The serjeant took a deep breath, and glared at the Master of Chambers. “Now, scurry back to your master, and tell him that he will not get the keys, that you will not get the keys, and that neither one of you will be allowed into the Maidens’ Palace or its grounds for the foreseeable future. Goodbye, serjeant.”

Lanval turned to leave, than paused. “You just made a powerful enemy, eunuch.”

“How can one make an enemy one already has?” answered Mote. “Now then--scurry. Scurry.”

After Lanval had left, the eunuch Bramble emerged from his hiding place. “Was that wise?” he asked Mote.

“I do not know,” answered Mote. “But it was satisfying.” The Master of Chambers shook his head. “Ahh, Bramble, if it would do any good, I would go shouting the danger in the city streets. But it would not. All know me for a villain, and the Prince for a good man, and all the things that suggest otherwise are cheerfully forgotten. No, all I may do is prepare for what I fear is coming.” He shut his eyes. “And pray for my poor, sweet Queen.”

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 20

Speaker Vas sipped his ale, and tried to wrap his head around what had just happened. The Three Chambers had gathered, as was their tradition, and he had been doing the headcount while waiting for Metropolitan Vitellius to arrive.

Only Vitellius never arrived. Only the Prince’s serjeant, with his horrible news. And then Prince Amfortas had risen and spoken…

Vas stared at the mug before him. He’d been to Senate meetings for many, many years, and been the Speaker for the last ten of those. And he’d never heard a speech like that one there. Not ever. Not even when old King Erich had been alive, and apt to reminding the Senate of the Royal Prerogative.

Not that it was a bad speech. Just… odd. Odd in a way that was hard to put your finger on. Amfortas had been… respectful throughout. On the surface of things, anyway. But… there were rules for a ruler speaking at the Senate--even a Royal Consort. Actually, especially a Royal Consort. Rules that Amfortas had barreled right though. Oh, politely enough. But still…

Vas took another swallow of ale, and realized that his mug was empty. He signaled for it to be refilled. That speech. That speech. It had been inspiring stuff at the time, stuff about the Hand of Night striking where it would, of the need of those who served the Light to stand strong and firm. Of course, thinking about it now, it occurred to Vas it didn’t actually say that much, or go into any particular details on how they were going to stand strong and firm. Honestly, the more Vas thought about he and his fellow Senators doing such a thing, the more he had to suppress an urge to laugh. Most of them were men of his age, or at best, slightly less. The spirit was willing, but the flesh…

Vas chuckled to himself as the barmaid handed him a fresh mug, and regarded her for a moment. Yes, the flesh was most certainly weak. He shook his head. No, Amfortas’ speech didn’t really stick in one’s mind--just a general impression. What you remembered was a vague feeling, and that last bit where he drew…

The sword. The Sword of Light. That bit you remembered all right. The sword glittering there, its perfect light filling the Senate Hall. That light made a man feel… small. Unimportant. Impure. That light… deserved to be served. Needed to be served. And when the Prince asked for them to grant him the use of the Royal Prerogative in a time of war… well, they’d all said yes. How could they not? How could you say ‘no’ to that light?

Vas stared at his mug, which was, to his surprise, empty again. Odd. He didn’t recall doing that. Still, an empty mug called for one course of action. He signaled for another one. As he did so, he tried to recall why it was Queen Yolande hadn’t been there. Something to do with her health, he believed. Which he could believe--he’d seen the Queen grow up, and she’d always struck him as so… frail… Still--there was an odd determination in the girl. He couldn’t help but suspect that even bad health wouldn’t have kept her from the Senate by itself. Most likely it was backed by a loving command by her new husband. And that was good. Yolande needed someone to look after her.

The barmaid set another mug before him. Vas nodded to himself. Odd day. Very odd.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 19

Metropolitan Vitellus adjusted his garb. As Primate of the Faith in Tintagel, he held a very high place on the Senate’s Chamber of the Faith--indeed, tradition mandated he open the Session with an Invocation. And that being the case, Vitellus did not wish to cut a poor figure.

“The surplice is such a hassle,” came a voice from behind him. “One never knows when one is getting on right.” Vitellus turned to see Lanval Equitan, the Prince’s Serjeant standing in the doorway.

“Ahh, yes,” muttered Vitellus nervously. “You were a Canon, I believe, before your… retirement…”

“The proper word would be ‘expulsion’,” answered Lanval. “The Faith does not smile on priests who operate as bandits. At least--not as openly as I did.”

Vitellus nodded. “I was aware of this, Serjeant. I was simply trying to be polite.”

“Yes, you are all very polite here, in Tintagel,” said Equitan. “It’s a very polite society. Quite different from Almace in Leonais, where I grew up.” He shrugged. “We’re right on the border of the Easter King’s domains, and that when he isn’t sending troops over to conquer us, we’re dealing with raiders and pirates that he can’t be bothered to stop. Makes a people hard. Austere. My father was a count, you know, with counts in his family tree for twenty-three generations. And we lived in one large manor-house with a few rooms, with dogs in them. Not that we minded. Kept the place warm in the winter.”

Vitellus wondered what he should say to that. “You have my sympathies.”

Lanval’s eyes went wide. “What, for sleeping with dogs as a boy? Naaah! Like I said, I never minded that. In fact, it was grand.” He sighed. “I did mind having to go into the Church, but--well, as my father explained it, I had to. I was a third son, and what’s more, the diocese had been in the family for some time, and we couldn’t afford to lose it. Still--I thought that would be it. No more brave fights against those bastards from the East, and everyone else who wronged us--just sermons and collecting rents.”

The serjeant stepped before the metropolitan, his face oddly grim. “And then Gaston died of the Bleeding Cough. And Father and Guillaume were killed by the Ferraus.” Lanval was frowning now. “Well, someone had to lead the family, and Guillaume’s sons couldn’t--they were just babies. And so, I stepped up. And I did what my family needed of me. That’s how we do things in Almace. You look after your kin, and you do what you have to. It may not always be the sort of life the Seven laid out as proper, but we see no shame in it. Perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps not. It’s how we are.” He took a deep breath. “Shall I help you with your surplice? I wasn’t joking about the damn things being nuisances.”

Vitellus smiled and nodded. “Of course, sir. I would appreciate your help.”

Lanval quickly got to work. “There you go,” he said after a few moment’s work. “Neat as can be.” He adjusted his hands slightly. “Now just one last thing….” And he plunged the dagger into the old man’s chest. Vitellus fell to the ground swiftly, gasping desperately for air, his eyes looking pleadingly at the serjeant for answers.

Lanval gave a deep sigh. “Now--I bet your wondering why I did that. Well, orders, really. And I felt a fellow member of the cloth deserved a proper send-off. Which is why I’m here, and not one of my men.” He shrugged once again. “What can I say? I’m an odd man in my fashion.” He knelt to look Vitellus in the face, smiling. “Now, I’m going to go out there, and tell your men that I found you like this. And they’re going to believe me, because despite what I was, I’m the Prince’s Man, and that means I can be trusted.” He chuckled. “See, I really did mean what I said about how polite you all are. So polite that impolite things--dirty, awful things, don’t even occur to you.” He rose to his feet. “It’s really quite lovely. Like a glittering soap bubble in the sun.” He turned to head out of the room. “And the most lovely thing about bubbles--the thing that makes them not just pretty but beautiful is--they’re bound to pop. Sooner or later.”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 18

The Great Palanquin wended its way down the Granite Path towards the Scarlet Palace. Hereward had heard of the place, but never seen it. Not that it was a difficult journey from his home--obviously it was quite easy. It was simply that there was no need to go there, and so he hadn’t. It was, after all, exceptionally ill-considered for a bearer to go where he was not wanted.

The palace lived up to what he’d heard. Gleaming domes of copper and gold, freshly polished, shone dimly in the moonlight. Walls of pink marble interlaid with carnelian and sard loomed high, covered with statues and images. Hereward’s breath caught in his throat. There it was--the work of centuries of Kings and Queens of the Holly Throne to create something of beauty.

The gates swung open as they approached, seemingly by magic. In truth, staff had been dispatched to the Palace yesterday to get in working order, and indeed, had been cleaning it for the last year. But that was what they did--make everything in Tintagel function so quietly and surely, it seemed to happen by itself.

The path to the Bronze Gate, the Palace’s primary entrance, was long and prone to digressions, built more to allow those traveling to it time to enjoy the Palace’s elaborate grounds. Hereward felt his arms begin to strain as they passed the twelfth ornamental hedge. Impressive as it all was, a part of him was wishing that the royal family had had a bit more restraint in their decorations.

At last, they came to the Bronze Gate. The palanquin was brought to the stairs before it, and laid down. Hereward heard the curtains flutter. “And here we are,” said Queen Yolande. “I’ve seen pictures, but the actual palace is so more magnificent.” She stepped out of the palanquin and onto the stair.

“Why, dearest, don’t you require your bearers’ assistance for that?” asked Amfortas cheerfully.

“Oh, no,” replied the Queen. “These stairs are pure-made of marble, covered with gold, and cleaned this very day with rosewater.”

“Ahh,” said Amfortas, as he joined the Queen. “How wondrous.” He turned to regard Hereward. “Now, then, I shall need you early tomorrow. My serjeant is planning a meeting with the Senate for me, and I have no plans to leave those fine gentlemen waiting. Further, I always rise early.” The Prince gave a casual shrug. “I have very little need of sleep.”

Hereward nodded. “I will not delay, Your Highness.”

Amfortas smiled. “Excellent. It will be a pleasure to see you.” He stepped to Yolande and took her hand. “Now, then my lady, would you be so kind as to show me these exquisite chambers of yours?” Yolande shyly looked away as they walked up the stairs to the Bronze Gate.

It occurred dimly, to Hereward, that this was the second time he was watching the Queen and her husband vanish from his sight.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 17

Sepulchre stared at the Prince’s sword. “And he will be wanting it for the Senate meeting tomorrow?” he asked Gravedust.

“Indeed,” answered his fellow.

Sepulchre let out a sudden hiss. “Does he understand the difficulties involved in his… play-acting? Those little displays of his are not easy to achieve!”

Gravedust remained immobile. “But our duty is to allow him to achieve them,” he stated simply.

“Amongst other things,” noted Sepulchre. “We are being wasted on these little follies.”

“Does the hammer choose its task, brother?” recited Gravedust. “Does the knife protest that it is cutting bread when it could be engaged in weightier matters?”

“It is not these matters weight that I am concerned about,” replied Sepulchre. “It is their necessity.”

Gravedust merely regarded his fellow. “That is for Grandmaster Radiance to consider. Not you.”

Sepulchre nodded. “I understand. Nonetheless, my misgivings remain.” He peered at Gravedust closely. “Do not tell me you do not feel it as well.”

The other Stylite stood there, quiet and still for a long moment. “I shall get the prima material.” Gravedust turned and left the room.

Sepulchre busied himself with his preparations, writing the runes and completing the circle. Work of this sort was good in difficult moments; Sepulchre could lose himself--or what little of himself remained, anyway--in the delicate curve of sigils, the intricate web of meaning that lay in every circle, the subtleties of the Forbidden Art…

It was a sin on his part of course, to find any enjoyment from the curse that Douma Dalkiel had afflicted upon him. But he was Damned, and thus some sins were inevitable.

Gravedust entered with the prima material, nestled in his arms. Sepulchre regarded the boy for a moment. “He sleeps?”

“I gave milk, laced with poppy extract,” replied the Stylite.

Sepulchre regarded his fellow for a moment. “And what else?” he asked.

Gravedust was silent for a moment. “A lemon cake,” he declared at last. “And an apple.” He shifted nervously under Sepulchre’s gaze. “The boy was hungry. I found him in an alleyway, sifting through trash.”

Sepulchre nodded. “Lay him in the circle.” As Gravedust placed the boy there, Sepulchre turned and readied his paints. “They have alleys here?”

“Yes, and also trash,” said Gravedust. “But they do their best to hide it.”

Sepulchre grumbled as he began to paint the symbols onto the boy’s skin. “I should have expected that. Really, these are such a foolish people.” He stared at the child for a moment. “What is the boy’s name?”

“He called himself Corrin,” replied Gravedust. “But I do not know if that was his given name. Neither did he.”

Sepulchre picked up his knife. “Begin the chanting.” As Gravedust recited the words, he raised the knife expertly to the boy’s throat, then, at the right moment, slit it. The blood flowed into the circle which began to glow with a ruddy light.

“Bring the sword,” said Sepulchre, nodding slightly. They were born damned, the Stylite reminded himself. That damnation had to be used, or the Darkness would win. And if unseemly acts were performed…

Well, they were born damned.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 16

Princess Isabel poked at her food awkwardly, glanced at Prince Amfortas again, then glanced away before he noticed and turned to look at her. That had happened the first time, and she did not wish to repeat the experience.

He was, she had to admit, a handsome man, very well-dressed--really, everything a prince should be.

Except for his eyes. Amfortas’ eyes were… Isabel took a deep breath. Earlier in the evening, she’d looked into them, and it had been… unpleasant. There was something cold in Amfortas’ gaze, something that made her think of the time she’d lifted a rock, and found a large number of centipedes underneath it. Her stomach had… turned, it was so awful.

Of course, Mote had told her afterwards that she shouldn’t hate creatures like centipedes who were merely as the Seven had made them, and she had to admit he had a point, but Amfortas was a man, and she expected to see… human feelings when she looked into his eyes. Not that… strange blankness.

Isabel took a deep breath. She told herself she was being silly. That Amfortas was a perfectly fine Prince, a good--no, an exceptional husband for her sister. But the image of his eyes… staring, cold and… hungry came to her, and she shuddered despite herself.

She looked around the dining hall. The Peers and their families were all cheerful and happy, and Isabel suddenly felt an urge to stand up and shout “Can’t you people see that he’s staring at you?” She didn’t of course, even as she realized it was true. Amfortas’ eyes were calmly regarding the entire room in that awful cold way he’d looked at her, appraising the people for… something. Isabel didn’t know what it was--only that you didn’t look at people that way if you wished to do something pleasant to them.

“Are you all right, my dear?” whispered Mote in her ear. “You’ve barely touched your food.”

“I… I feel a bit… queasy, Mote,” replied Isabel. “I… wish to return to the Maiden Palace.”

Mote regarded her for a moment, then looked over the dining hall. The eunuch gave a swift nod. “Yes, perhaps it is best. The din here can be upsetting.” He turned to Edith. “I believe both of you should leave.”

“But I’m not feeling ill at all!” snapped Edith. She pouted. “They haven’t even served the cake yet.”

“I will have Mustardseed bring you some,” replied Mote. “But it is best for you to leave together. Come now.”

The pair rose from the table, while Mote sent one of his fellows to explain the matter to the Queen. As the sisters walked down the hall, Edith glared at Isabel. “You are being dreadful. I wanted to stay, and ask the Prince if he’d ever killed Nightfolk!”

Isabel gulped, and thought about Amfortas’ eyes. “I’m pretty sure he has, Edith. In fact, I’m positive.”

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 15

As Queen Yolande and Prince Amfortas entered the dining hall of the Moonlit Palace, the assembled Peers burst into applause. Yolande smiled. She’d been worried for so long that this marriage would fail--that the Courts of Left and Right would protest--but they seemed happy. Taking a deep breath, she began her speech.

“Greetings to you all! Peers of the Left! Peers of the Right! Your good wishes and kind feelings are treasured by your Queen, in the depth of my heart. Allow me to join you in hoping that this marriage be joyous and fruitful, that it bring prosperity and glory to the Holly Throne!”

Another burst of applause. Amfortas smiled, and leaned towards her. “May I have a few words?” he whispered in her ear. Yolande nodded. Amfortas turned towards the assembled Peers.

“Lords and Ladies of Tintagel, you do me great honor, and I honor you for it. I have heard of the fineness of your manners, the age of your traditions, the beauty of your land, and am pleased to discover that these stories are not exaggerations, but understatements.” His smile broadened. “I cannot tell you the joy it gives me to have such a friendly land clasp me to its bosom, to gain the service of your good people, to… simply be here.”

There was some more scattered applause. Amfortas raised his hand.

“Good Peers, we live in dark times. The Dark Lords of the Lands of Night are preparing for the one last strike to obliterate all that is good and holy. If they succeed, the Light shall be blotted out forever. But I know they will fail. I know that we will defeat them, by setting aside our petty differences, and working, as with one mind to defeat them. It will not be the Light that fails, but the Dark! And we will usher in a new era--a new Holy Empire that shall endure for a thousand years!” The applause began again, rather more spirited now. “It will not easy. The fight will be difficult. Sacrifices will have to be made. But I assure you--the glorious future ahead of us, will make it all worth while.”

Yolande smiled at her husband as they walked to their seats in the hall. What Amfortas said filled her with hope. And it was true, she knew it was! A new era was starting, and she for one could not wait for it to begin.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 14

Lanval Equitan glanced at the hall. “So… this is the Senate, eh?”

“The Senate Hall,” replied the Envoy of the Left.

“The Senate is the body of august gentleman who meet here,” explained the Envoy of the Right.

“Yes, yes,” agreed the Envoy of the Left. “Quite distinct from the Senate Hall. Why, if they were to meet somewhere else, they’d still be the Senate.”

“Whereas this would merely be a hall, if that were to occur,” noted the Envoy of the Right. The pair shared a familiar laugh that caused Equitan to realize that they’d made this joke before.

Many times before.

Lanval allowed himself a deep, calming breath. “But then, this is where they meet?” The pair nodded. “And they govern Tintagel…?”

“Oh, no!” replied the Envoy of the Right. “Seven forbid! The Queen governs--through the agency of the Courts--and the Senate advises!”

The Envoy of the Left nodded, his masked face bobbing eagerly. “Yes, it would be the height of impropriety for the Senate to govern the land. They simply offer their honest opinion on the matter.”

“And the Queen--through the Courts--may act on this as she sees fit?” muttered Lanval, rubbing his temples.

“Exactly,” said the Envoy of the Left.

“Though it is always advisable to do what the Senate wishes,” said the Envoy of the Right. “And indeed, should Her Highness choose to do otherwise, she is required to notify them and provide her reason, for the Senate to muse on.”

Lanval stared at the pair for a moment. “And… what if the Senate does not approve of her reasons?”

“Why, then they may censure her,” said the Envoy of the Right.

“And that does what?” asked Lanval, a note of harshness in his voice.

“Why it’s a tremendous embarrassment!” declared the Envoy of the Left. “A black mark on one’s reign. Only five monarchs have ever been censured.”

The Envoy of the Right nodded. “It’s a great, great shame.”

“And of course, no monarch of Tintagel could deal with such… shame,” muttered Lanval.

“Indeed,” said the Envoy of the Right eagerly. “All five who were censured died shortly thereafter--four by suicide, and one by sheer shock of being improper.”

“We are a very honorable people,” said the Envoy of the Left.

Equitan suppressed a groan. “May I suppose that the Senate has certain… unofficial duties, as well? Serving as a place where the Courts may iron out their differences, for example.”

The two Envoys looked at him as if he had proposed they marry their sisters. “I should say not!” declared the Envoy of the Left. “The Senate is completely distinct from the Courts of the Left and Right! The forms of the government of Tintagel demand it!”

The Envoy of the Right crossed his arms. “Higher members of the Court may not even set foot inside this Hall. And even lowly members such as ourselves may not do so when the Senate is in session!”

Lanval shut his eyes and nodded along. “Of course not. That would be… improper…”

“Exactly,” the pair said as one.

Equitan sighed to himself.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 13

The Moonlit Palace not accurately named on this particular night, for the sky was overcast, and the moon was new. But then, it didn’t have to be. After all, mused Hereward, the Path of Orchids on which he was walking had barely any orchids on it, while he, like all his fellow palanquin-bearers, was a Gentleman of the Palace of Oak, which had burnt down three centuries ago, and had never been rebuilt. (The bearers still received a stipend for the Palace’s maintenance every years, which they usually spent on housing and meals.)

Hereward glanced at his grandfather, who somehow, after this long walk, did not seem to be the least bit winded or tired. One day, the Seven be willing, that would be him--a pillar to his nation. The palanquin reached the Marble Stair. The bearers lowered it to the ground.

As he heard the curtains rustle, Hereward rushed to the side, and knelt. Within seconds, Yolande’s foot was on his back, as she stepped out of the palanquin and onto the carpeted stair. “Thank you, Hereward,” the Queen said, turning to him with a smile.

Prince Amfortas followed her. It seemed to Hereward that the Prince’s feet were heavier than the Queen’s, and once again he was left with that niggling feeling that Amfortas was digging his heels into Hereward’s back. “My, my,” stated Amfortas. “Such remarkable service.” He smiled at Hereward. “I must thank you.” He glanced at his wife, raising an eyebrow. “My dear, would it be possible for Hereward to serve me as a groom, perhaps?”

Yolande considered the matter. “You are allowed a gentleman of the chamber… though I would have thought you’d take one of your Leonais for that…”

“Ahh, but what good would that do me?” asked Amfortas. “You silly, silly dear. I need someone who knows your land and its customs, who is familiar with Tintagel to help me become familiar with it.”

“Oh, I see,” said Yolande with a chuckle. “Yes, you are right. Quite silly on my part.” She turned to Hereward. “Yes, Hereward would be perfect for that. If he would wish it.”

“Your wishes are my wishes, Your Majesty,” answered Hereward.

Amfortas nodded. “Excellent. If you would please… rise so that I may shake your hand…?”

Hereward took a deep breath, and rose from his kneel. Amfortas swiftly took his hand. The Prince’s hand seemed remarkably soft, though its grip was quite sure. “Welcome to my service,” said Amfortas quietly. As Hereward caught the Prince’s gaze, he found himself flinching under it. Amfortas’ eyes were a striking blue, and had a rather startling intensity. The eyes of the Pescheour, he realized. The stories are most certainly true.

“I am most gladdened that I will have your services, Hereward,” said the Prince as he turned to make his way up the stairs with the Queen. “Indeed, all of my stay here in Tintagel have been most delightful, so far.” As Amfortas and Yolande ascended the staircase, a fanfare began, a peal of trumpets that slowly drowned out their footsteps.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 12

Casawallan eyed the plate before him furtively, and wondered if he could pick up a single grape without being seen. The Chamberlain of the Right tapped his fingers nervously. No meal in the Moonlit Palace could begin before the Queen arrived. To be seen eating before she arrived was an act so gross, so unmannered as to ruin a man’s standing and reputation permanently.

Unfortunately, Casawallan had arrived early, in hopes of impressing people with his zeal, and he had not eaten, in hopes of impressing them with his appetite at the meal. And so now, he sat there, stomach grumbling, trying not to think about food, as people around him engaged in whispered conversation.

He glanced across the hall at his rival, Milun de Chambre, who was looking plump and well-fed as he always did. Doubtless he was not feeling any hunger pains at this moment. Indeed, the man had doubtless eaten before arriving, and could sit in pleasant conversation, allowing all to note his manners and graces. Casawallan suppressed a snarl. That oily bastard. Always one step ahead of him. As he watched him laugh at some comment from the lady seated next to him--Milun’s niece, he believed, or possibly a granddaughter--it occurred to Casawallan that the man was secretly laughing at him at this very moment. The way he always did.

Well, let him laugh. He’d had a long lucky streak, but it had to break eventually. And when it did… when it did… well, then Casawallan would move his pieces into place, and he would finish him, and put the Court of the Left in its proper place. After all, despite years of effort, Milun had never managed to truly defeat him. Always, always, Casawallan produced some last second stratagem that secured his survival and at least SOME prosperity for the Court of the Right. Eventually, all the odds would stack in his favor and that would be that.

Across the hall, Melun nodded cheerfully to Esmeralda’s remarks. “Mauve you say? How splendid! And what color shall the gloves be?”

“I am thinking a bright green,” replied his cousin.

“Great-uncle,” said little Pallas, tugging on Melun’s sleeves. “That scary man is staring at you.” Melun followed his little grand-niece’s hand.

“Oh, that’s just Casawallan. The Right Chamberlain,” replied Melun. He shrugged. “Don’t pay him any mind. I seldom do.”

Pallas nodded. “All right then.”  She squinted.  “Hmm. That was odd.   He just grabbed furtively at a grape.  Then dropped it.”

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 11

“So, that was it?” stated Amfortas calmly, as the Great Palanquin wended to the Moonlit Hall.

“The Sovereign of Tintagel is married by the Old Rite,” said Yolande. “And that is a simple affair.” She shrugged. “They say the first to worship the Holy Light came from a place of great darkness. They neither needed nor wanted a marriage ceremony overflowing with action, words or ritual.” She shrugged. “Perhaps it is foolish and old-fashioned. If you wish, I could speak to the Senate about changing it…”

Amfortas shook his head. “Oh, no. I found it rather… uncluttered.” He yawned, and began to play idly with her hair. “And now we have this… banquet, yes?”

Yolande nodded. “It will be your first meeting with the Peers of the Realm as my Consort. It’s really quite important.”

Amfortas suddenly gripped her face lightly in his hand. “You have exquisite skin,” he stated slowly.

Yolande gulped, despite herself. “I… thank you, my dear…” Her husband was leaning over her now, his fingers tight on her skin, the feeling a strange sensation between caressing and clawing.

“Like fine chamois leather,” Amfortas continued, almost not seeming to hear her. “Oh, to have a pair of gloves made from such… superb material.”

Yolande shut her eyes. Her husband’s compliments, though quite flattering seemed very strange to her. But perhaps that is simply the way of Leonais. The way of princes. I know so little, after all. I must not allow new things to scare me, simply because they are new.  I am a Queen and a Queen shows no fear.

She placed a hand on his. “Dearest--we will be at the banquet soon.”

Amfortas pulled his hand back. “Mmm. Quite right. I almost forgot.” He leaned forward, and placed a kiss on her forehead. “Thank you for being such a kind and considerate wife, who reminds me of my duties.”

Yolande smiled at this, and felt Amfortas tickle her neck lightly. “Yes, I shall have to thank the Seven for giving such an exquisite little creature to me.”