Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 36

The palanquin-bearers entered the Great Tomb by the Eastern Gate, as was their duty, mandated by custom, and tradition. Setting down the Great Palanquin, with its massive ebony coffin, Aedward looked around the room.

“Where are the priests?” he said quietly. “Where are the chanters--the flute players--the mourners? Where is everyone?”

His grandnephew Aedgar looked awkwardly at the floor. “The fires and arrests have… taken many, sir. We tried to gather them, but… none would come.”

Aedward shut his eyes. “I see.” Somehow there was something terribly fitting in the fact that Queen Yolande’s funeral was virtually unattended by all those who should have been there. Abandoned in death, even as you were in life, you poor thing. “Someone must speak,” he announced.

“But who?” asked his grandson Horsa. “A new Metropolitan hasn’t even been sent. And we have no…”

“I will speak,” said Aedward.

“Is that proper?” asked Horsa.

“It may not be customary,” answered Aedward, “but there is no priest here, not even a canon, and I… I have seen many of her kin, interred here. Indeed, I carried her mother, her father, her grandfather…” He choked back a sob. “And now her.” The aged bearer took a moment to recover his calm. “Her entire life has been encompassed by mine, and by my service to the Throne on which she sat. So, yes it is proper. Proper and fitting.”

He strode to the center of the room, cleared his throat and began. “Oh, Holy Seven, we commend to rest the Yolande, daughter of Eric, Queen of Tintagel. May the Earth receive her bones. May Sun and Moon lighten the path of her spirit. May the Wind and Water carry it to the Highest Heavens. May the Storm and Fire protect it from harm. And may the Holy Light…” He paused here. The traditional words were ‘keep Douma Dalkiel at bay,’ and yet they seemed inappropriate. He recalled all Hereward had said, and it seemed to him that the great enemy in Yolande’s life had not been an abstract spirit of darkness and death, but a genuine man of flesh and blood, who had high birth, and a boundless supply of cruelty and malice.

“May the Holy Light keep all evil from her,” said Aedward. “May it bring her to a place where those she loved, and those who loved her are. Her parents. The Master of Chambers and his men. My poor, poor grandson Hereward.” Aedward took a deep breath. “And may she know--may they all know, that one more will join them very soon.” He rested a hand on the coffin. “Tell them to smile on me, when I come.”

His fellows looked at the old man in concern, and Aedward could see it on their faces, the realization that he would pass to in time. He wondered just how he’d become an immortal to them--as constant as the Holly Throne--but then gave it no heed. These things… simply happened, after all. “Evil has been my fortune,” he said softly. “To see such days. To witness the passing of so very much that was beautiful. But that is what my fortune has been, and I must bear it. And if that is so--then I will not let it be said of me I did not perform my duties.” He looked at the others. “Come now. Let us place the Queen with her ancestors.”

The others nodded, and then went to work.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 35

“I can’t make head or tails of it,” said the scruffy man at the inn sipping his drink. “Some say the Queen is dead, others that she has left the capital, others that she is still there, under the protection of the Prince. Some say that what happened is the fault of the Senate, others the Courts, others the Nightfolk, and a few…” He sighed. “Well, best not to consider that one.”

“I heard the Prince is seizing those who riot and cause disorder, and having them work on his ships,” said a young man.

“That one’s true,” noted a slightly plump merchant. “I saw it happening in Camerlan. And they had a pretty broad definition of that--I was nearly seized myself. Would likely be pounding nails into wood, if I hadn’t let them take my wine.”

The young man gave a resentful shake of his head. “A freeborn Tintagelian--pressed into labor?” He spat. “To think we’d see the day.”

“Best watch yourself, lad,” said the scruffy man. “This is a time to keep your head down.”

“Aye--and get used to bowing to the Leonais,” muttered the young man. “I hear the Prince is sending back to Joyeuse for a governor to run things here for… the duration to the war.” He scowled. “Can’t even be bothered to rule the Holly Throne from Tintagel.”

“Didn’t you hear?” asked the plump man. “The Holly Throne is gone. Destroyed in the fire at the Senate.”

The other two men turned towards him, startled. “You--that has to be a mistake!” snapped the scruffy man.

The plump man shook his head. “No. Burnt to ashes. You may view it as a symbol, if you like. I know I do.”

The young man looked at the floor gravely. “Then all hope is lost, isn’t it?”

“I don’t see why that would be so,” came a high voice. “In the end, it was only a chair.”

The three turned to see a very young woman with pale brown hair, wearing a fine, if somewhat simple dress, seated a short ways away, and looking at them with interest. A shorter girl, with similar features, was sleeping in the chair next to her.

The scruffy man gave a snort. “Young lady, that shows what you know. That ‘chair’ was the sovereignty and lordship of the Isles. The man or woman who sat on it was…”

“The King or Queen,” said the young woman. “I know. But what if the Dark Lord Cthonique sat down in it? Would you meekly accept his rule?”

The group was silent for a while. “Well, of course not…” began the young man.

“So it is not the chair--it is the person sitting in it,” said the young woman. “The loss of the Holly Throne is a tragedy, yes, but it is hardly the end of our nation. All that has happened…” She looked very sad for a moment, then nodded. “A friend of mine used to say that no matter what one could say about Tintagel, none could deny its roots are strong. And I think that despite what has happened--that they are still strong. And that from them, shall sprout the renewal of our land. When this present horror is over.” A slender cloaked form entered the room, and waved at the young woman. “Ahh. It’s time for me to go. My apologies for taking up your time with my foolish prattle. The folly of youth, I fear.” She shook the young girl sitting next to her. “Come on, Edith. Time to move.”

The young girl gave a disappointed groan, and then sluggishly stood up. The pair moved towards their guardian.

The plump man smiled at them. “I don’t think you owe anyone an apology for what you said, Miss. May I ask your name, so I know who to thank for the encouraging words?”

The woman turned. “Bell.”

“As in ‘Beauty’?” asked the young man.

“As in ‘something that rings’,” answered the young woman with a smile. “Do take care, gentlemen. You seem like pleasant men, and these are unpleasant times.”

The three men sat there silently for a moment, after she left, filled with a strange feeling of… hope, and unstated idea that the world was nicer with people like that in it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 34

Prince Amfortas was sitting in the chamber, drinking a glass of wine when Lanval Equitan entered. It was such a potentially normal scene that it made the fact that Amfortas’ clothes were splattered with blood all the more startling. Of course, Lanval’s attire was fairly blood-splattered as well--and also torn and close to ruined--but he was… acting as if it were. Amfortas was sitting there, casual as could be, while looking like he’d just slaughtered a hog.

Lanval found this… worrying. Not the killing--that had always been part of the Prince. But the growing sense he was getting was that Amfortas cared less and less about… keeping hidden. And that was bad. Very bad indeed.

Amfortas set down his wineglass. “How did things go at the Maiden’s Palace, Serjeant?”

Equitan took a deep breath. “Not… good, sir. The eunuchs were waiting for us. Armed and ready.”

The Prince chuckled. “Really, Lanval. When you arrived in this fashion, I was expecting less than pleasant news but this? It’s rather like being bested by a troop of performing dwarfs.”

“No, sir, it was like being bested by a trained squad of fighting men,” said Lanval. “Protecting the palace is what those… things do, and they prepare for it a great deal. The place is full of hidey-holes and secret passageways. I’ve lost sixty men to them already, not counting the wounded, and am like to lose more going the place over.”

“So the men without manhoods are the truest men in Tintagel,” said Amfortas with a pleasant chuckle. “Somehow it seems appropriate.” He shut his eyes, and took another sip of his wine. “I’ll send Gilly to set the place ablaze. That should flush your eunuchs out, and the little dear will enjoy it. Why she’s still positively giddy about taking care of the Senate.”

Lanval nodded awkwardly. “I can imagine.” The aging Almacian gave a cough. “Still--it’s a tad obvious…”

“These are grave times,” said Amfortas with a placid shrug. “The servants of Darkness strike with increasing boldness.”

“And there is the problem of not having the Queen,” noted Equitan.

“Do they know we do not have her?” replied Amfortas. “We will simply claim we do. If we must, we find a substitute. Few of them have ever seen the girl. In their day to day life, it will make little difference.”

“This does threaten our control of Tintagel, sir,” said Lanval bluntly. “We have this city, and a few of the ports, but much of the countryside, and the other islands…”

“Can be taken care of,” said Amfortas. “As long as work on the fleet continues, than our control of this nation is… sufficient. Do not get bogged down on side issues. Things progress. Not perfectly, perhaps, but adequately.

You’ve had things go your way for so long, sir, that I fear you are unable to tell when they aren’t, thought Lanval, without saying it. “Will you want clean clothes, sir?”

“Soon,” answered Amfortas. He glanced at the blood on his sleeves. “He did not last long, I fear. He was even begging me to kill him well before it was over.” He shook his head. “I do wonder sometimes why women are counted the weaker sex. They so often bear things so much better than men.” He sighed. “I admit I mishandled Queen Yolande. I should have listened to you on that matter. Had her killed first, when we arrived.” He looked at Lanval curiously. “How would you have handled that?”

Lanval shrugged. “Nothing much sir. Killed her, after a bit of torture--so they’d know it been done, you see. Perhaps--throw in some novel desecration of the body. Tear out the guts and use them to decorate the walls, for example. People find it unnerving.”

Amfortas nodded. “I suppose they do. These things never bother me, really. I suppose it is part of being the Champion of Light. The Seven desire their instrument to be pure and pitiless, judging all in the truthful glare of the Holy Light.” The Prince was smiling blandly as he said this. “That… little Erl child--the Badb’s daughter--she kept saying I was empty inside. But that was nothing more than the lies of Darkness. I am full--full of one thing, the urge to serve the Seven. An urge I follow to the utmost.”

Lanval watched as the Prince took another sip of wine. You have been coming unhinged, he thought. Or as unhinged as someone like you can become. And now I know why. You were supposed to beat those things in Joyeuse--whether you lived or died, they were going to do what you wanted. But that didn’t quite happen, now did it? If you were anything close to a normal man, you’d be scared--but you’re not. So instead you’ve got this vague feeling in the back of your head that you might lose, and that makes you eager to prove that you’re still in control. And that is what leads to bloody messes like this horror--because having that urge makes you… less in control.

Amfortas took another look at his Serjeant-at-arms. “My dear Lanval--I didn’t notice. There’s a wound on your arm.”

“It’s just a scratch, sir,” said Equitan. “I’ve had worse.”

“Do have a barber look at it,” noted Amfortas. “Wounds on the arms can prove most disabling. I’ve even lost men to them. And I can’t have that, Serjeant. I still need you.”

Lanval stood and bowed. “And I am proud to know that, sir.” He turned to leave, and wondered to himself how long that would be the case, as well as wondering how long the reverse would remain true as well.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 33

Lanval Equitan was rather startled how easy it was to enter the Maiden’s Palace. He’d merely taken his squad down the various paths--all of which had exceptionally fancy names--with nary a sign of resistance.

It actually had him worried.

Noseless Leil turned to regard a rather tasteful nude statue of a nymph that was posed by the path. “They let children see that? Little girls?”

Lanval sighed. “It’s art, Leil. It acclimates them to beauty or some such thing.”

Leil spat and then gave a snort that, due to his lack of a nose, came out sounding very unpleasant. “These Tintagelians ain’t got no propriety. When my ma caught me looking at something like that, she used to beat me black and blue.”

And look how well you turned out, thought the Serjeant. For all that Almace had done in forming him into the man he was today, he was rather glad to have left the place, on the whole. Especially when he was around Leil.

“Serjeant Equitan,” came the high fluting voice Lanval had been expecting to hear for some time. “I must state this is not a surprise.”

“Master Mote,” said Lanval quietly, trying, despite himself, to still a chuckle. The eunuch was flanked by a large party of his fellows, all of whom were clad in large scarlet robes, and carrying what appeared to be rather cumbersome swords. “I have been expecting to meet with you as well. I’ve come for the young Queen and her sister.” He gestured to the men behind him. “As you see, I’ve come well prepared, and there are more of my troops waiting if you cause any trouble. So--let’s just make this easy, shall we?”

Mote raised his blade, which the Serjeant realized was more of a polearm than a sword, as well as being considerably less cumbersome than one might think. “That would be a violation of my vows, sir. So, no I will not.”

Lanval stared at him for a moment, readying his mace. “And what do your fellows think of all this? They should realize what we’re willing to do.”

“Fellows of the Chambers, what have you given to the Holly Throne?” recited Mote.

“Our manhoods, and all chance of descendents,” they replied.

“What are you willing to give in the future?” continued the Master of Chambers.

The eunuchs raised their blades. “All else.”

Mote nodded. “There then is your answer.”

“You’ll all die, you know,” said Lanval, with a just a bit of respect in his voice. “These men are trained killers. Not a bunch of castrated babysitters.”

“We are more than that, Serjeant,” said Mote. “As I told you, I was the King’s secretary. And also his bodyguard, and a general, when one was needed.” He smiled. “These men with me are my students, prepared to stand with me in what is in all likelihood our final stand. We may all die in this--but rest assured, you will not get Queen Isabel as you got Queen Yolande.” The man took a deep breath, and began to march forward, singing. “Oh, the Holly it is evergreen, its berries bright and red--and honor is eternal, kept by the blood we shed.”

Lanval and his men prepared as the eunuchs headed towards them--only to hear an answer to Mote’s song coming from behind them.

“Oh, the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer…,” said the force of eunuchs that was marching towards them from the other direction. “The playing of the lute, the sweet sound of the horn.”

“Attack! Attack!” shouted Lanval. “Take as many down as you can!” He charged forward, mace at the ready, suddenly aware that while he’d been expecting something to happen this was… several degrees worse than his most pessimistic imaginings.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 32

The flickering white flame in the center of the brazier shot up angrily. “Madness!” hissed the voice of Grandmaster Radiance. “Sheer madness!”

“Such were my thoughts, Grandmaster,” said Sepulchre. “It is hard to see how the Prince has served the cause in this so much as he served his own disgusting appetites.” While Stylites were taught not to think about such things, Sepulchre could almost feel his face smiling somewhat beneath his mask. “In truth, Grandmaster, I wished to contact you earlier on this matter, but was opposed.”

“I apologize for any mistake I have made in this matter,” said Gravedust. “But until the Queen’s suicide we were operating from rumors. I did not think we had anything grave enough to warrant any deviation from our initial instructions, an error I lament.”

“There is no need for any severe castigation for a Servant of the Tower in this matter,” said the Grandmaster, the white flame that represented him changing to a dull flicker. “Flawed or no, the Prince of Leonais remains one of our most valuable tools--incidents such as these are inevitable while this is so. All that has occurred is that we must now recognize that he is indeed growing more… volatile, and remember to take suitable precautions.”

Sepulchre stiffened, slightly. “And what would those precautions be?” he asked.

The flame suddenly shot up, and seemed to peer in Sepulchre’s direction. “Brother Sepulchre, you seem… rather testy for a loyal Servant of the Tower.”

“This task has proven difficult enough without any additional burdens, Grandmaster,” answered Sepulchre. “I, poor sinful worm that I am, have problems seeing what these precautions could possibly entail, but doubtless your mind can tell us how we can safely control the Prince.”

The flame focused on him, and for a moment, Sepulchre feared he had earned the Grandmaster’s displeasure. But then a sound escaped that sounded like a sigh. “I see. You misunderstand me. The precautions will not involve the Prince. They will involve making certain the goals of the Tower are not threatened.” There was a pause as the flame fell back into the brazier. “Amfortas has always been a tool for our purposes, and we shall use him as such until he has no use left in him. The Prince may have fooled himself into believing that he is destined to rule over the world that is to come--we know otherwise. There is no more room for monsters like him in that glorious realm of peace and light, than there is for monsters like ourselves.”

Sepulchre bowed his head. “I understand, Grandmaster. I am sorry.”

“Do not be alarmed, Sepulchre,” said Grandmaster Radiance. “Your feelings are natural, for as our designs reach their completion, service to the Tower recedes from those levels we have all grown accustomed to and enters new realms that shall cause us strain, and difficulty. Further, there is much that you do not know--and indeed cannot. Rest assured that what you see now is only the smallest portion of our plans.”

The flame in the brazier moved inwards, taking a shape like a circling sphere. “The Servants of Darkness, and those who have failed the Light shall scream and cry at these things--and they shall miss our true plan, until we stand triumphant.” A sound like a dry chuckle emerged from the flame. “But that is to come. For now, you shall continue to stay near Amfortas. When he chooses to leave Tintagel--and I suspect he will do this soon--you will go with him, and I shall send Mourn and Shroud to take your places in this land. Understood?”

“Yes, Grandmaster,” answered the Stylites in unison.

“Very good,” said Grandmaster Radiance. “Remember always the Highest Oath of the Tower. The true victory of Light…”

“…Is the extermination of Darkness, and the purification of the Holy Light that is now into the Perfect Holy Light that shall be then,” recited Sepulchre and Gravedust. “Hail to the Seven. Hail to the Tower. Hail to the Holy Light. Highest hail to the Light That is to Come.”

The fire brazier flickered out, leaving a tiny pile of soot and charcoal at the bottom.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 31

Isabel was half asleep when Bramble came into her room. “Wake up, my dear. Mote… wishes you to be prepared…”

Isabel roused herself slowly, and then she felt the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. “It’s about my sister, isn’t it?” Bramble gulped and nodded, his face with sorrow and pain. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” whispered Bramble. “Yes, she is.”

Isabel awoke quickly then, and dressed. “Does he wish me… what does he wish me to bring?”

“Things have been prepared for you,” answered Bramble. “He wishes you to move swiftly.”

Isabel did so. Soon they were moving down hallways that were familiar to her, and yet now seemed strange, and filled with hidden menace. She looked at Bramble from time to time, considering asking him something, but deciding against it.

“…have to go NOW?” came Edith’s voice from down the hall.

“You must trust me, Princess,” said Mote quietly, as Edith gripped his hand. “It is imperative that you leave the Maiden’s Palace…”

“Listen to Mote, Edith,” said Isabel, as she walked into the room.

The Master of the Chambers turned and bowed. “Your Highness,” he stated. “Everything is prepared. Bramble and a few others will escort you out of the capital, to the country. Once there, you will have to move quite a bit, as you get in contact with the barons and squires. They…”

“Your… Highness…” said Edith, blinking slowly. “But… Yolande is ‘Your Highness’… Isabel is… just…” She gulped. “What’s… what’s happened to Yolande?”

Mote coughed. “It… you can be told later, but right now…”

Edith’s jaw set. “Tell me now. What happened to my sister?” Mote glanced away. “She… she died, didn’t she?” The chief eunuch nodded slowly. Edith choked back a sob, took a deep breath, and looked at Mote firmly. “How? Was it… the Nightfolk?”

Mote looked at her, then glanced at Isabel. “Tell us, Mote,” said Isabel. “We need to know.”

“It was suicide,” answered Mote quietly. “Brought on, I believe, by Prince Amfortas’ cruelty…” Isabel winced, while Edith looked at the Master of Chambers in shock.

“But… he was her husband…” whispered Edith. “The Prince of Leonais…”

“He is also…” Mote considered his words carefully. “A very bad man. Which is why you two must leave. If the Prince can get a hold of you, he can strengthen his claim to be Regent…”

Edith’s nose wrinkled. “Well, the Senate won’t like that…”

“We suspect they are already dead,” answered Bramble. “Or will be shortly.”

“So much depends on you, Your Highness…” said Mote.

Isabel took a deep breath. “As the Living Symbol of Tintagel I…”

“No,” said Mote fiercely. “Forget that. Don’t be the Living Symbol of your nation--just be… you. The young woman whose intelligence, spirit, and judgment I respect.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “I… wish I could have told your sister that, while she lived. But in the end… I failed her.” He placed a hand on Isabel’s shoulder. “But I will not fail you.”

Edith stared at the old eunuch. “Mote… you’re… not coming with us… are you?”

Mote shook his head. “As I said, the Prince shall try to seize you. I shall make certain he cannot.” He smiled at his charges. “Do not fear for me, my dears. I have had… on the whole… a good run of things. My life has been in the service of your house. And it shall be to the end.” He looked at Bramble, who nodded, and headed towards the door of the chamber Now… hurry. Go.”

Isabel took her little sister’s hand, and began to walk away, then paused. “Mote… thank you,” she said suddenly. “For all that your have done…”

“You are welcome, my dear,” said Mote smiling gently.

Isabel did what she could to fix that last image of him there, smiling, cheerful, in her mind. And then she followed Bramble out of the room, with her sister.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 30

Lanval Equitan shook his head, as he strolled down the hall next to the Prince of Leonais. “Well, that was a bloody mess.” He frowned to himself. “You know, sir, I kept telling you, you had to show some restraint in this…”

Amfortas gave a wistful nod. “Indeed.” He sighed lightly. “I thought she could… endure more.” Lanval turned to regard his employer. “She was a Queen,” explained the Prince.

Equitan nodded slowly. “Well, that’s… done now. Yolande is dead, and with that… your situation here becomes… tenuous.”

“I have soldiers in the capital,” said Amfortas. “That is not tenuous.”

“Not now, but… sir, this will produce resistance.” The Serjeant coughed. “It will likely make the local guards and militias unreliable. It will mean we will have to send for more troops, when…”

“I am certain all this can be handled,” answered Amfortas, his voice quite firm, even as he smiled pleasantly.

“Of course, Your Highness,” said Equitan. “But… it will not be easy…” He regarded the Prince steadily. “We are spreading ourselves increasingly thin. The Concordat and the north of Leonais will stay loyal. But the south has always been problematic, and the Free Cities… well, we knew there would be troubles there… Tintagel was supposed largely peaceable… Something we could keep with minimal effort…”

Amfortas nodded. “I understand, Lanval, and we will discuss this in full once the situation is calmer. But right now, I need you to get to the Maiden’s Palace, and secure the new Queen, as it now appears we must put your original plan into play…”

“Murderous dog!” shrieked the man who rushed at Amfortas, his first raised. “You vile… you monstrous…”

As Lanval watched, Amfortas easily dodged his blow then grabbed his opponent, and shoved him against the wall repeatedly. “Do you need help with that, sir?”

“No, no,” said Amfortas cheerfully, tossing the stunned man to the floor. “Everything is in control.” He began to drag the man into a nearby chamber. “Ahh, Hereward, my boy. After all I’ve done for you…”

“You are evil,” muttered Hereward weakly, blood dripping from his split lip. “You are a devil… Douma Dalkiel given form…”

Amfortas gave a pleasant chuckle. “Oh, silly, silly Hereward. You are mistaken about me. I am all that is light and pure in this world.” He regarded the man for a moment, smiling. “But you will learn. You will learn.” He leaned forward smiling. “You asked what I did to your Queen, and I told you what the Seven permitted me, and that one day, perhaps, I would show you what that meant.” He gripped Hereward by the shoulders. “That day is come, my dear boy.”

Lanval coughed. “Should I be on my way then?”

Amfortas turned briefly and nodded. “Yes. Please do. Also--it would be most obliging if you would shut the door.”

Lanval did so, and then went on his way.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 29

Speaker Vas regarded the Great Door nervously. It had been many months since he’d seen Queen Yolande come through it, and he found himself torn between his desire to see her again, and the desire not to see her, if the distressing rumors he heard were true. It also struck him how… strange it was to be relying solely on rumors about the Queen--how her Ladies-in-Waiting had not been called back to serve her in the Scarlet Palace… how the Queen had not been seen… how…

The Great Door opened. Vas turned to his fellow Senators and struck the ground with his ceremonial Mace. “The Queen of Tintagel enters! Honor her, you Ancients! Honor…” Vas blinked as Yolande entered the Hall, Amfortas at her side. One look at her, and Vas realized the rumors were true. “Honor her greatly, “ he declared, continuing with his acclaim, “the Queen on the Holly Throne.” His part said, the Speaker of the Senate shuffled back to his seat.

Amfortas helped Yolande to the Holly Throne, and then turned to the Senate. “My wife, your Queen, has asked me to speak a few words before her, for she is been made most distraught by these calamities that have befallen Tintagel. These are dark times for your land--for all the Lands of Light. The Nightfolk are striking at us from the shadows, through their agents, men and women who have been subverted to the cause of Darkness. That is what resulted in the brutal slaughter of your two Courts, a cynical game played by cruel puppet-masters. The hour is grim--and yet there is hope. It is my wife’s firm belief that I may lead you from the darkness, and to the light, if you will let me.” He gestured to Yolande. “As she will now tell you.”

Yolande remained sitting silently on the Holly Throne.

Amfortas waited a moment, then turned, and motioned for her to stand. “Yolande, my dear, these good men wish to hear you speak,” he said, his voice kind and pleasant. “Would you not do them the favor of talking?”

Yolande shut her eyes, nodded, and then rose unsteadily from the Throne. “Good… Good Senators… of Tin… Senators of Tintagel…” She began. “I… these times… These terrible times… Times… Terrible…” She stopped for a moment, and took a deep breath. And then suddenly a knife was in her hands. She stared at it, with a deep fascination, her breathing coming in heavy gasps.

“Yolande, my dear,” said Amfortas, his tone cajoling, “Wherever did you get that knife?” Yolande glanced briefly at him, then stepped away, holding the knife before her. “Put it down, Yolande, my dear. My sweet. My wife. Put the knife down.”

Yolande held the knife to her own throat.

Amfortas moved forward, hands outstretched, making sure to make no sudden motion. “You are distraught, my dear. These horrible times have unhinged your wits. You are performing actions you know to be wrong. Put down the knife. Put down the knife, and we shall return home.”

Yolande looked at him for a moment. And then she slit her throat.

What happened next was a blur to Vas. He remembered rushing forward, and embracing the dying Queen--and he remembered her body being rushed out by the servitors--and he thought he remembered the Prince leaving, but he couldn’t be sure. But it was all strange and indistinct, as if it happened to another person.  All he knew is that when all the bustle was over, he sat in the Senate with a room full of frightened old men, looking for him to leadership. He sat there, and tried to come up with some words that would encapsulate the horror of what had just happened, and he failed.

And that was when Senator Col discovered that the doors to the Senate had been locked from the outside.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 28

“It is not for us to question what occurs between the Courts,” said Aedward quietly, as he cleaned the Queen’s palanquin. Hereward watched as his grandfather lovingly polished the handles with the greatest of care, even though this wasn’t a Great Palanquin, but merely a Lesser one. “Our place is to serve, to serve well, and without complaint.”

Hereward shut his eyes. “And I have tried, sir, but… the Prince… he is…” Evil. Cruel. Mad. Wicked. “Unwholesome,” Hereward finally managed.

Aedward turned to stare at his grandson. “Hereward--you have been granted a great advancement, one that brings honor to our family, that crowns our long years of service. And your answer to this is to cast aspersions on the character of the man who has done it, and to make wild accusations…”

“They are not wild!” said Hereward. “Eadric saw Prince’s Men assisting the Court of the Right during the Sack before they were even supposed to arrive! The man engineered this horror! He…”

“Hereward, enough,” said Aedward quietly. “I have heard these rumors myself, but…” He shut his eyes, and shook his head. “That is all they are. Wild rumors, circulating because of the evil days we live in. They are not true. They CANNOT be true.” The old man took a deep breath. “We will require a herald as we go to the Senate. You would be the obvious choice for this position. Will you take it?”

Hereward realized that there was nothing else he could say to his grandfather, and so simply nodded his acceptance. Taking up a bell, he walked outside, and waited for Aedward to gather another bearer. The palanquin emerged nearly half-an-hour later, carried by Aedward, and Hereward’s cousin Horsa. Herward stepped before the palanquin and walked briskly ahead of it as they headed towards the Scarlet Palace. It occurred to him, for the first time in his life, that travel by palanquin really was remarkably slow, and he wondered why anyone would even come up with it.

He blamed Amfortas for these thoughts.

The Prince was standing there with the Queen when they arrived. Yolande was bundled up and shivering as if it were cold, though in fact it was a warm spring day. As Hereward stepped forward, he found himself dreading seeing her, seeing whatever degradations Amfortas had caused her to suffer had turned her into.

He realized he was not alone from this dread, when Yolande shrank away from him. “Ahh, Hereward!” said the Prince, “excellent to see you here so promptly. You are such a credit to this place. Such a credit.” He wrapped an arm around Yolande and pressed her forward. “Now, now, my dear sweetling,” he murmured. “This is Hereward. You are fond of him. He is good and kind.” Hereward thought he heard a note of insult in the Prince’s last words, and suppressed an urge to use his bell to strike the man.

“Hereward…?” said Yolande haltingly, her voice hoarse. Hereward gulped as he saw her haggard, bruised face, the eyes wild and strange. She moved forward, her motions slow and halting, and then made a desperate grab at his sleeve. “Hereward… I… I…” She lowered her face to his sleeve, and began to weep. “Help me. Help me. Help me.”

“You heard my wife, Hereward,” said Amfortas pleasantly. “Help her into the palanquin.” Hereward tried to keep his gorge down as he walked the sobbing Queen to the palanquin, Amfortas smiling that… horrid mask of a smile he had. As soon as Yolande was safely seated, he turned to the Prince. “Will you be coming with us, Your Highness?”

“I will follow along shortly,” he said with a shrug.

Hereward nodded, managed a bow, and then walked before the palanquin. As they began to move again, he rang his bell. “Hail Yolande! Hail the Queen of Tintagel! Hail her, Living Symbol of our land! Hail!” Hereward felt something wet on his cheek and realized he was crying. When he looked back, he saw his grandfather was weeping too.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 27

Alexandre le Desirous glanced around at the burning buildings that surrounded him, unsure of how to feel. As Cupbearer of the Right, he was supposed to seek his Court’s advancement, and the defeat and thwarting of the Court of the Left. But somehow--somehow this left a bad taste in his mouth. The struggle between the two Courts was supposed to be clean. Precise. A game between two rivals that operated under certain rules, rules that this… slaughter seemed to violate.

Still--Alexandre comforted himself with the knowledge that the Court of the Left had broken the rules first. They had been spying for the Dark Lords, killing good members of the Right at the behest of those sinister creatures of Douma Dalkiel’s creation. Men who could do that… deserved this.

Alexandre dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief. The smoke was irritating his eyes. As he dried them, he heard the steady clop-clop of a horse approaching.

“Good work, Alexandre,” said the Chamberlain. Casawallan shook his head, as he surveyed the carnage. “Well--in a manner of speaking.” He gave a great sigh. “Ahh… to think that we have come to this. The Court of Left, a haven for worshipers of Darkness… infiltrators in our own Court…” He glanced at the Cupbearer intently. “Who was that man who had to be knifed to the death to keep from warning these… traitors?”

“The Envoy?” said Alexandre. He shrugged. “I… cannot recall it.”

Casawallan gave a dismissive wave. “Ahh, well, it does not matter. What matter’s is that after many long years, we have won. The Court of the Left lays defeated, ruined, never to rise again…”

“MURDERERS!” came a howl. “BRUTES! VICIOUS THINGS!” The pair turned to see a ragged man making his way towards them. After a while they realized it was Melun de Chambre, made hard to recognize by his present ruined condition. “How… how could you…?” he shrieked as he approached them, his chubby face quivering with indignation. “They--they’re all dead, and…” Melun clenched his fist and waved it. “You--the Senate will hang you all for this! ALL OF YOU!” He glanced around at the various members of the Court of the Right, still busy with their marauding. “My… my family… My nieces…” He gave an inarticulate sob.

“What, de Chambre, those children dead, and you alive?” snapped Casawallan. “A pity. A pity that those children are killed as a result of your vile treachery, but you live!” The Chamberlain drew his sword and advanced on his old counterpart.

“Wha… What are you talking about?” asked Melun, baffled. “Treachery? What treachery?”

“It’s no use lying, de Chambre!” shouted Casawallan. “I know all! How the Dark Lords suborned you, made you their creature! How the moment the Prince came to our shore you went to work, killing those who might oppose them… and you!”

“You’re mad!” shouted Melun. “This is madness! I never did any such… you’re mad!”

Casawallan charged forward. “Enough of your lies!” Melun turned to run but it was too late, especially for a rather plump man being chased by a rather fast horse. Casawallan’s blade struck him on the back of the head, and the former Chamberlain of the Left struck the ground with a thud.

Alexandre looked away--there was something discomfiting about their old enemy’s body. “At last! At last!” laughed Casawallan. “I’ve won! I’ve won!”

“My, my, my,” came a man’s voice, sharp and darkly amused. “What a shameful glee.” Alexandre turned to see the Prince’s serjeant, Lanval Equitan had arrived, surrounded by the Prince’s Men. “I expected more restraint from a Chamberlain of the Right.”

Casawallan chuckled. “You must excuse me, Serjeant. But this has been a thing I have long waited for.”

Lanval nodded. “I can see.” He clicked his tongue. “Treachery--murder--brutal slaughter in the streets of Ys…” He shook his head. “This cannot be allowed to stand, Casawallan.” Equitan turned to his right and nodded to one of his men, who leveled a crossbow at Casawallan.

The Chamberlain blinked. “But… it was on your… express orders… Yours and… and the Prince’s…” he said, his voice wavering, and growing less confident the entire time. “You--your men even lead us in this…”

Lanval smiled. “No, no, we didn’t. What happened here is that the Court of the Right treacherously slew the Court of the Left in defiance of law and custom. And the Prince’s Men put a stop to it.” And then the Prince’s Man on Equitan’s right fired. The bolt struck Casawallan’s horse in the throat, causing the poor beast to whinny and convulse in pain as it died. Casawallan was throne from his seat, landing with a yelp that was followed by a howl as the horse landed on him, pinning his legs. Lanval smiled, drew his mace, and advanced.

“No…” murmured Casawallan. “No. No. You can’t… No…” Words failed him when Lanval reached him--he merely began to scream in horror as the Serjeant began to pound on his head until he screamed no more.

By that time, Alexandre was running. He was a fool. They were all fools. Fools, and murderers, and other awful things that they’d never thought they could be. The Prince had used them all, he saw, though for what he had no idea. Indeed, he could not imagine why anyone would engineer something so vile. Still--he could get away--get away and make up for this awful…

Something grabbed him by the arm, and threw him to the ground. He felt his arm twist, and he heard a crack, following which the pain began. “This’ll be a fun night, eh, Razalic?” said a rough, rather high voice.

“Yup,” answered a deep, unpleasant grunt. And somehow, when he heard that, Alexandre knew he was not going anywhere.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 26

“Very good, my dear,” said Bramble, smiling at the simple still-life of the vase his charge was painting.

Princess Isabel glanced at her teacher. “Do you think my colors are a bit too… vibrant?”

The eunuch shook his head. “Oh no, child,” he replied. “You capture the inner spark of beauty.” He gestured to the painting. “To me it seems that what you paint here is not the vase as it is, but the vase as it should be…”

Isabel averted her eyes. “I… Bramble, I simply chose the colors I thought would be pretty.”

The eunuch patted her hand gently. “Exactly.”

“Fire! Fire! Fire!” shouted Edith, rushing into the room.

Bramble turned swift as can be. “All right, you two must follow me now. If we move quickly, and precisely, we can avoid any misha--”

Edith blinked. “Oh, not here. Outside. In the capital.” The young princess shifted awkwardly. “I thought you should know about it.”

Bramble stared at his young charge for a moment, and then sighed. “My dear, I must admit you are… an experience…”

Mote rushed in followed by several others. “All right!” declared the Master of Chambers. “We are here. Now--if we hurry though here quickly, we…”

“The fire isn’t in the Maiden’s Palace, Mote,” said Bramble tiredly.

Mote blinked. “But… why…” Bramble gestured to Edith. Mote stared, then nodded. “Ahh. Yes. Of course.” He took a deep breath. “So then, my dear, may I ask where this fire is?”

Edith pivoted, her excitement obvious. “Oh, just come out to the Grand Courtyard! You can see the smoke billowing, all black and… smoky!”

Mote and Bramble shared a glance as the Princess darted out, then stepped to follow her. “We have spoiled her dreadfully,” said Bramble, quietly.

“She deserves it,” answered Mote. “Usually.” He was surprised to see Isabel rising to follow them. “You aren’t going to finish your painting?”

Isabel shrugged. “Well, I do feel an urge to see if I’m in any danger of being immolated…”

The eunuchs nodded. “That is sensible,” agreed Bramble.

“See? See? See?” said Edith gleefully, as she danced outside, gesturing to the great clouds that were streaming from the city. Mote, Bramble, and Isabel stared at it in horror. “A fire! A fire! A fire!”

Isabel stepped forward and grabbed her sister by the shoulders. “Edith!” she hissed. “This is serious! People may be--are probably dying right now!”

Edith blinked, and looked away, embarrassed.. “But… This is Tintagel. We have the finest fire brigades in the Lands of Light.” She gulped. “I’m sure that they’re making certain things don’t become too awful.”

Mote turned to Bramble. “Go get some runners, and see what is happening,” he said. “If we can help stop this, do so. If not…”

Bramble nodded. “Return home safely.”

Mote shut his eyes as his fellow headed away. “Mote…” said Isabel quietly. “It--it won’t spread here, will it?”

“Not yet,” he whispered. “Not for awhile.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 25

Lanval Equitan glanced at the Right Chamberlain as they entered the small room. “Naturally, Your Honor, we have to ask that this meeting be kept… confidential.”

Casawallan nodded. “Naturally, sir. Naturally.” He took a deep breath. “I will be… the soul of discretion.” The Chamberlain’s eyes darted around the room. “Now where is His…”

“Do not speak the rest of that title, sir,” said Amfortas. The Prince was sitting in a chair, his hands neatly folded in his laps. “Walls so often have ears, I find. Especially in this place.”

“Understood, sir.” Casawallan stepped opposite to the Prince. He coughed as he took a seat. “You must know, this is a grave step for me. Such unofficial meetings are frowned upon by Court tradition, but…”

“But we live in dangerous times, where we must do what we must,” stated Amfortas with a smile.

“Exactly, sir,” said Casawallan, nodding frantically.

Amfortas sighed. “I am sorry about all this, you know. I fear if I had not come here, none of this would be happening. The Nightfolk are my especial enemy, who seek to do me harm. My arrival in your kingdom may have…”

The Chamberlain of the Right gave a hearty shake of his head. “Oh, no, sir,” he said. “I admit, I had my doubts. Thought the Queen should stay… closer to home in her choice of a husband. But… well, sir, there was some foolish talk about the Duke of Bellamarina, but in the end you were the only clear choice for a foreign husband, and I think… you’re the best man we could have gotten in these bleak times.”

“Why thank you,“ said Amfortas with a slight chuckle. “I do wish I could here such a compliment in better circumstances.” He sighed. “I do wish others thought well of me. The eunuchs are being difficult.” Cassawallan gave a dismissive snort at that. “And the Court of Left… well, we have suspicions…”

“More than that, sir,” said Equitan, looking around furtively. “We know for a fact that they are working with the Dark Lords…”

“Lanval,” muttered Amfortas. “It sounds a tad hard to credit…”

Casawallan was stroking his chin. “No--no… this explains everything. Why else have we been targeted so fiercely? The Court of the Left’s always been heavily involved with the Merchant Companies, and everyone knows where they get their wealth.” He shook his head. “We’ve all been so BLIND!”

Amfortas nodded gravely. “Well, then, there is one thing to do… I can have the Prince’s Men arrest the Court of the Left, but… I’d need your help… Yours and the rest of the Court of the Right.”

“And you have it!” said Casawallan fiercely, standing up. “I’ll put the word out…”

Lanval shook his head. “No, no, no. No words. We can’t alert them. Merely have your men arm themselves--and then we can get to work….”

Casawallan nodded. “You’re right. You’re right. Best avoid notice.” He headed to the door. “I’ll do as you say…” At the door, he turned, gave a silent bow, and then was gone.

Amfortas glanced at Equitan. “That was surprisingly easy.”

Lanval shrugged. “When frustrated grudges are involved, it usually is.” He smiled. “When I was a boy, my uncle had two hounds who had to be kept on chains to keep them from tearing each other apart. One night, me and some friends let them loose on each other in a small room.” The aging Almacian chuckled. “They tore each other apart.”

“Sounds like good sport,” said Amfortas.

“Oh, it was, sir,” replied Lanval. “The best.”

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Queen on the Holly Throne--Part 24

The man stood on the street corner, playing his hand organ, singing along to its simple tune.

“Oh, five great lords of the Court of the Right

Brutally butchered on the course of a night.

Their bodies were broken in a way awful to see

The murderers escaped and roaming free.

Oh to live in such days, so drenched in blood,

Where lives are cut short, where men die in the mud.

Cruel the fate of we, born in such times

Our lives measured out by the bell’s chimes.

What man can tell how it will end?

What man knows what the Seven send?

Pray to our saviors who watch from above

Ask that they protect those that you love

For this might be the day, might be the hour

When your salvation lies in their power.”

As passerby placed their coins in the cup set before him, it occurred to the minstrel that the recent wave of murders was proving quite good to those, like himself, in the moriat business. It was not there was ever exactly a dearth of crimes to sing about, but many particularly interesting. But a procession of brutal killings among the powerful with no known suspects?

Moriat gold. Or at least silver, he noted with a glance at his cup.

“You write that song?” came a harsh voice.

The minstrel glanced up, to see a short, ugly balding man, with a tall, ugly hairy man standing behind him. “The words, sir,” answered the minstrel. “The melody is traditional.” And he noted to himself easily learned, and quite playable, so that one could set any number of moriats to it.

The little ugly man beamed at the minstrel. “Well, would you look at that, Razalic? A bloody poet!”

The big ugly man nodded. “Good to hear quality work, Jernis.”

“You, sir, have brought cheer to us on this black night,” declared Jernis, placing two gold coins. “Never doubt your gifts, boy--Razalic and I is most dis-kerning musical critics. Not a lot of work brings a smile to our faces.”

Razalic nodded. “And flute music is right out.”

“It most certainly is, Razalic,” noted Jernis. He cleared his throat. “Well, we must be on our way. Business to attend to. Just thought we’d tell you we appreciate you work, sir.” And then, with another nod, he and his friend were off, humming the moriat’s tune.

The minstrel smiled to himself. What nice, generous gentlemen. Moment’s like that kept you in the business. Still, they weren’t the only thing that fed you…

“The body found by the Crystal Fount,

The list of horrors, oh do they mount.

The skull it was crushed, the arms torn off…”