Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Made it and broke the Free Cities asunder.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Blanc was just…” began Bramimonde.

“You spy for Prince Amfortas,” said Blancardin.

Bramimonde sighed. “We think,” she added.

“Incorrectly,” said Brunello.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 9

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

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

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

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

He knew that now. Oh, yes he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 7

Belengier Nestor struggled forward, and took his seat. He glanced sheepishly around the table, giving his family the charming “I’m not even half as drunk as I appear” grin that had become the norm when dealing with his kin.

His father regarded him calmly. “Belengier,” said Naimon.

“Father,” said Belengier with a nod. He turned swiftly to his brothers. “Avor. Avin. Ugier. Bertram.” He turned briefly to his nephew. “Dudon.” Belengier shifted uneasily under the feeling of five rather disapproving sets of eyes taking him in, and finding him wanting. And Dudon’s just watching him guilelessly, which somehow felt worse.

“How have you been deporting yourself, Belengier?” asked Naimon quietly.

“Oh, well! Well! Quite well!” said Belengier. “Regaling Astolfo and Gurnemanz with witty tales.” He glanced over the crowd, and saw Astolfo sitting next to the Lasliez twins. “Astolfo!” he declared, waving cheerfully.

Astolfo turned, caught sight of Belengier, then turned away, covering his face with his plate.

Belengier coughed. “Ummm… you know how he can be. Shy. Retiring. But rest assured, we were laughing it up a little while ago.”

“Or you were,” said Naimon. “And I suppose, to your mind, that is the important thing. Am I correct?”

Belengier winced. “I… it’s… I…” He looked sheepishly at the table. “Sorry, father.”

“You are always sorry, Belengier,” noted Naimon. “And yet it never seems to lead to any changes.”

Bertram coughed in an effort to change the subject. “I’ve heard that Agrivain brought one of his bastard brood along.” He chuckled softly. “Some people.”

“Well, he’s a cousin,” muttered Belengier.

His family started to look at him again, after briefly stopping. “What was that, Belengier?” asked Naimon.

Belengier shifted awkwardly. “He… is a cousin. The bas--boy. Feirefiz. He is a cousin to the Lasliez. And… a lot of the people here.” He forced on a smile.

The rest of the Nestors regarded him for a moment. “Be that as it may, Belengier,” said Naimon softly, “that does not mean it is proper for the Duke of Montleon to bring him here.”

Belengier nodded. “Right. Right. Sorry. Right.”

Naimon nodded and glanced at Bertram. “That said, now that he is here, the best course of action--is to ignore his presence. We are peers of the Free Cities, not gossipy fishwives.”

And with that the Duke of Agrismont went back to regarding the hall with the same serene detachment that he regarded most things in life with.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 6

Astolfo and Belengier were well behind him, a fact that the Duke of Montfort was quite glad of.

Gurnemanz stepped forward, the press of the crowd weighing on his shoulders. We may be the free men, but we seem to go where we’re lead when there’s food involved, he noted to himself--then chided himself for his bitterness. When did he become such an angry old man? It was the times, he decided--it was hard to believe in loyalty, honor and truth when you saw them crushed and defeated so often.

But he was being foolish. The old days had hardly been a time of glorious innocence. Lord Shaddad had spent those years gathering his power, until at last he burst into the lands of Light like a storm--and he had hardly been the only wicked, ambitious man in those days. Ilarion Skarvsky’s former employer, Vasily Vasilovitch, was hardly better than the man who had replaced him as Easter King--and Duke Aquilant le Griffon had been causing trouble in the Free Cities for decades before Lord Shaddad’s invasion changed the situation utterly. It was simply the nature of the world. Men and women with power intrigued and schemed, to increase it, and defeat their enemies. Innocents were hurt in all this. Unpleasant--no, horrible, really--but also unavoidable. The only option a decent man had was to protect his own--that is if he wanted to remain decent. There were always plenty of options for the criminal.

More bitterness. Gurnemanz sighed. He should consider happy things. His children. His grandchildren. The motet he heard at the chapel last week…

“Did that seem off to you?” asked a quiet voice at his shoulder.

Gurnemanz turned to see Duke Brunello behind him. “Yes,” he said. “The selection of sherbets was rather lackluster. One must assume that they were rather pressed for funds.”

“That’s not what I meant,” began Duke Brunello.

Gurnemanz frowned. “And I don’t care to know what you did mean.” He frowned to himself. Brunello had a tendency to press himself that was quite irritating for a new man, ruling over a city in place of the Addanzes that had held it for centuries. The peers of the Free Cities could accept a newcomer, but it took time, and a willingness to… politely stay in the background. Brunello didn’t seem to realize that. Sometimes it almost struck Gurnemanz as suspicious, the efforts of a man who was trying to get close to people for… his own purposes. Or perhaps someone else’s.

Gurnemanz sighed. It was the times. Or him. Or both.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 5

Amante and Richardet rushed down the pathway to the Great Hall. “I can’t believe we’re missing this!” shouted Amante.

“Relax,” said Richardet. “These things always take forever to get started. All we’re missing is stale conversation over little servings of sherbet. Things only really begin when they play the f--”

A fanfare echoed up ahead.

Amante glared at her brother. “Go on. You were going to mention the fanfare, weren’t you?”

Richardet stopped for a moment. “Obviously. So why dwell on it, eh? Why?”

“Oh, you know why,” said Amante, crossing their arms. The pair glared at each other for a moment.

“You know, this is only making us later,” stated Richardet.

Amante growled, and then started rushing to the Great Hall. With a sigh and roll of his eyes, Richardet joined her.  Their eldest brother was in the middle of the invocation when they arrived. 

“--IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” he sang as they rushed to their seats, and hoped he didn’t see them. Given that his eyes were fixed on the glass of wine before him, he almost certainly didn’t. He’d just finished up as they sat down, which meant they got to join everyone in stamping their feet as he downed his drink, and then through it to the ground and crushed it under his feet. Amante and Richardet cheered amidst the general applause.

“Your brother has a powerful set of lungs,” noted Duke Naimon Nestor, his eyes twinkling.

The pair fidgeted awkwardly. Naimon almost certainly HAD noticed them coming late, a fact that made them feel like naughty children being gently chided by a beloved old uncle. Which was more or less what Naimon was--not an uncle exactly, but close. The nobles of the Free Cities were in some ways a tight knit group, where everyone knew each other and was related. The good opinion of a man like Naimon mattered, in a quiet, unstated way.

“We’re very proud of him,” said Amante in a near whisper.

Naimon’s eldest son, Ugier, waved his hand. “He’s starting his speech.”

Rainald de Lasliez smiled at the company. “Friends--brethren--I salute you!” As usual, the assembled nobles of the Free City took the opportunity to applaud the notion that they were fantastic people. Rainald waited for them to stop clapping before continuing. “I am honored in these difficult times, you come here to my house to honor the anniversary of my birth.” A slight frown touched the young Duke’s face. “Truthfully--I deserve no such honor.” A few of the peers began to cheerfully protest, but Rainald silenced them. “No--no, I do not. I am young, and untested, and came to this throne by the unhappiest of circumstances.” There was a rather awkward silence at this, as the various peers tried to figure out what they thought of the Duke of Montalban referring to his father’s murder at this time. The general consensus was they did not like it. “And yet despite this, you came for me. Never let it be said that we of the Free Cities forget our customs, our ways, our honor and our bonds, for they are what makes us us.” The peers considered this a great improvement over the last bit, and started to applaud again. “It is honor of this--and not my mere birth--that I have called you all here, to enjoy the feast you all so richly deserve.” He took a deep breath, and bowed. “Again, my thanks.” He clapped his hands. “On to the feast!”

As the guests shuffled out of the Great Hall into the Grand Banquet Hall, Amante glanced at Richardet. “Was it just me, or was that speech rather… odd?”

Richardet nodded. “It could have been worse, I suppose. He could have stopped in the middle of it, and started singing a bawdy song.”

Amante shuddered. “Yes, that reminds me--I will not be attending Belengier’s next birthday. Because of… plague.”

Richardet scratched his head. “That excuse might be overdoing it. After all--what happens next year.”

“Good point,” said Amante, nodding to herself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 4

Blancardin Valfonda, Duke of Bellamarina nibbled the spoonful of sherbet idly. “Oh, no,” he said quietly. “It’s nothing… too severe. Nothing that Bellamarina can’t survive, at least.” He looked at the sherbet before him. “This is nice. Is it lime? I do so love lime…”

Bramimonde Gradasso frowned at her friend. “So they aren’t seizing your ships then?” she asked.

“Oh, they are, but only the large ones,” said Blancardin. “M-most of the business we do comes from small traders. Those are being left alone. For the most part.”

“The new River Trader regulations, you mean,” said the Countess of Druantuna forcefully.

Blancardin lifted his empty cup of sherbet and frowned, clicking his tongue. “Oh, dear. Should I--I ask for another?” He fidgeted nervously. “I don’t want to ruin my appetite for the feast, you know, but… but… well, I did skip breakfast this morning…”

Bramimonde’s fingers tapped on the table in quiet irritation. Through the long years of her friendship with the Duke of Bellamarina, she’d learnt that if one wanted Blancardin to reach the point, one would have to put up with the conversation heading in odd directions when its path was heading a way he didn’t like. “I’m sure it will be fine, Blanc,” she said. “So--what you’re saying then is that aside from the Eremites seizing any large ship that lands in your harbor to send to the Seven know where, and them doing what they can to harrow the River Traders, things in Bellamarina are fine?”

Blancardin started to nod, then stopped, then started again, then stopped. “Well… they are causing trouble for the Mikhelites,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I quite approve of that. B-but that’s probably just me being a poor fool again. They are heretics and blasphemers, after all. It’s just--they don’t cause much trouble, if you leave them alone…” He smiled at her. “So--how are things in Druantuna?”

“Awful,” said Bramimonde. “The Eremites have got the city on the edge of a riot. And if that happens, I’ve half a mind to go down and join the rioters.” She crossed her arms in irritation. “They can’t treat us this way, damn it! We’re the Free Cities, lived in by the free men!”

“And women,” noted Blancardin softly.

“Yes, us too,” said Bramimonde, with a nod. “You can’t make us kneel and expect us to… just take it.”

Blancardin glanced around the Great Hall. “You know, I think I w-will have another cup of sherbet. It’s good for the palate, after all… And I did skip breakfast.” He began to wave at the one of the stewards.

Bramimonde nodded quietly.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 3

“…And there I sat,” said Belengier Nestor de Agrismont, “covered in cheap wine.” He threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, the merriment! The merriment!”

Duke Gurnemanz Graharz de Montfort and Astolfo Rabicano de Monteriano both nodded grimly, cursing the seating arrangement in the Grand Hall that had landed them next to Belengier. His father Duke Naimon was the soul of propriety, and his brothers were men of standing and renown. But Belengier--was a different sort of a man, a man whose grand ambitions in life seemed to be drinking vast amounts of liquor and visiting a vast assortment of brothels. This was problematic, but forgivable--indeed, men like Count Morgante de Serana and Duke Brunello de Carrarra had similar habits, and none grudged them it, save, perhaps, their wives. But most understood such things were to be kept to oneself. Not dragged out in stories that one repeated, over and over, at dinner parties.

“Ahhh, you should have seen it,” said Belengier, wiping a tear from his bleary eye.

“Considering where you were, no I should have not,” said Gurnemanz simply. Belengier frowned slightly, while Astolfo suppressed a chuckle that made the Prince of Montfort almost regret his words. Gurnemanz debated apologizing, but did not. Instead, a sickly silence spread over the trio’s small corner in the Grand Hall of Sans Souci.

“Astonishing isn’t it?” said Astolfo all at once, gesturing to the end of the hall. “That he should be here…?”

Gurnemanz turned and saw him there. Aged, his red beard streaked with grey, but still handsome and vital. Agrivain Beacurs, Duke of Monleone. A man who, in his youth, had commanded the respect--no, the worship--of the peers of the Free Cities. Now, a man who they were determined to ignore when possible. “Well, he is a cousin,” said Gurnemanz quietly. “And he is still the Hammer of the Crossing, the man who stopped Lord Shaddad cold…”

“Wasn’t he having some feud with the Eremites?” said Belengier. “Had them holed up in the Chapterhouse…?” He chuckled approvingly. “Well, that’s Agrivain for you. Won’t see him let the damn Hermits hold him back.”

“Not the Duke,” said Astolfo quietly. “The one next to him.”

Gurnemanz blinked, as he saw him. Young, with black hair worn a trifle long for a boy, and very fair-skinned, but with what was in the end his father’s face. Agrivain’s son, Feirefiz, staring at all around him with wonder. Gurnemanz had seen once, two years before, peering secretly at him through a doorway. There was a sister, and an elder brother as well, he’d heard--but they had the good sense to keep themselves scarce. The lad noticed Gurnemanz, and recognized him, waving with a six-fingered hand.

Gurnemanz sighed to himself. Poor boy. He could not help what he was, and what his mother was. And he’d heard the people of Monleone had become as fond of her as the Duke was. Gurnemanz took a deep breath, and turned to regard Astolfo. “He is also a cousin,” he stated in a calm, commanding voice.

And as usually happened in conversations when Gurnemanz used such a voice, that was that.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 2

Rainald de Lasliez leaned out the window, and regarded the gardens below. A few children played idly running around the paths--the twins stood before a fountain, clearly in the middle of another of their silly little arguments. He smiled to himself. The gardens of Sans Souci, the work of generations of the Lasliez family, truly were a marvel.

“Are you all right, Rainald?” asked Allard.

Rainald turned to his brother. “How can I be, Allard? With things as they are… how can I be?”

Allard frowned, then slapped his brother lightly on the shoulder. “Hardship has afflicted this family before, brother. We have withstood a hundred invasions from the Folk of Night, and a score of tyrants plucked from this side of the river. This present evil will pass. The Lords of the White Mountain will remain. As we always have.”

Rainald sighed at that. “So doubtless said the Bayards.” He scowled and shook his head. “And before them, the Alcides, if one wants to be particularly grand. That things have always been so does not mean that they will always remain so. Something our present circumstances have proven.” He shut his eyes. “Did I do well, Allard?”

Allard considered for a moment. “In the end, I do not think you could do other than what you have and remain a man,” he said.

Rainald nodded sadly as he walked away from the window. “I hear rumors out of Tintagel. Rumors of blood in the streets, and the Holly Throne burnt to ash…”

“Who could imagine it would come to this?” muttered Allard, as they headed down the hall.

“Father did,” said Rainald. “He warned everyone what Amfortas was. What all these moves to ‘protect’ us meant. And look what happened to him.”

“Astonishing, is it not?” said Allard. “The Nightfolk, who haven’t crossed the Murkenmere in strength since Lord Shaddad’s invasion, suddenly murder the man most opposed to the Prince’s designs.”

“Indeed,” said Rainald with a dark chuckle. “The tendency for the Lands of Night to attack not the Prince’s allies but his enemies is most astonishingly poor tactics on their side.” The pair were silent for awhile. “Guiscard remains secure?”

“I have his latest message,” said Allard. “All remains under control--indeed, he doesn’t think word of the action has spread beyond Montalban.”

“That will change soon,” said Rainald. “We have thrown the dice, Allard. Let us hope they land in our favor.”

“They didn’t come up ‘Black Bitch’s eyes’,” replied Allard. “At least, not yet.” He smiled at his brother. “So, let us prepare for your party eh?”

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Lords of the White Moutain--Part 1

Amante sketched the fountain before her, eyes fixed on it with a rather surprising intensity, pencils flying on the paper. She worked quickly, hoping to finish her drawing as swiftly as possible. If she kept up at this rate, she could be finished before the party began. She felt her hand shake slightly, and took a deep breath, inhaling the fragrant air from the nearby apple groves. The shaking stopped. Amante smiled and got back to work. Really, the Chateau Sans Souci was an enchanted place, just as they said, a place where your worries…”

“Hello, sister!” came a loud voice. Richardet de Lasliez leaned over Amante’s shoulder. “What are you drawing? Is that a flag? Or a belt buckle, perhaps?”

Amante winced as the feelings of harmony that filled her were suddenly replaced by a simmering rage. She took another deep, calming breath, and reminded herself that Richardet was her little brother--not by much admittedly, but every little bit counted. He was the baby of the family, young and indulged--first by their parents, and then by their elder brothers. He did things like this. It was his nature.

“It is that fountain,” she said quietly.

Richardet stared at the fountain, then at her drawing, then at the fountain again. After a second, he made an awkward cough. “Well,” he proclaimed, “it’s… a startling likeness.”

Amante glared at him. “Your lack of sincerity is noted.”

“It’s my fault that your drawings of fruit look like belt buckles?” He squinted at the drawing again. “Or… a bell?”

“No, but the fact that you feel the need to share this opinion is your fault,” noted Amante, crossing her arms.

Richardet gave an exasperated sigh. “So your drawings are lousy! So what? I’ve been trying to learn how to play the lute for all my life, and the best I can do is to sometimes play ‘The Lady of Precieuse’ so it sounds kind of like it should. But do you see me complaining when people tell me I sound like a goat? Of course not! Because they’re right! I do sound like a goat! Or one of any numerous farm animals! That is simply the way of the world!”

Amante took a deep breath. “This is drawing is supposed to be gift to Rainald.”

“Ahh.” Richardet nodded. “Well, this explains some aspects of your emotional state, but leaves others opaque. Why are you giving him one of your terrible drawings as a birthday gift?”

“Well, with everything that’s happened,” said Amante, “I thought he would appreciate something small--something from the heart…”

“You forgot to get something before we left, and you really don’t want to go back to Montalban,” said Richardet. “Because the Eremites are creepy.”

Amante sighed. “Yes.”

Richardet patted his sister’s shoulder. “You know, you could have just told me. I can let you go halves with me on the claret I bought him.”

Amante looked away. “Could I pay you in installments?”

Richardet sighed. “Some times, sister of mine, you do not make it easy to be kind to you.”

“I know,” said Amante with a nod. “And could those installments start… next week? Or… next month would be even better…”