Saturday, November 30, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It does indeed,” said Malagise fondly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep,” said Elaine casually.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the idea,” stated Viviane.

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

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

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

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

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

“Killing the mood,” stated Viviane.

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

Saturday, November 23, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Morgaine?” asked Pelleas.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

'In Her Service'--Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you likely have,” muttered Nerghal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerghal gave his eyes another roll.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that is yes,” said Allard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 19

Rainald and Allard turned behind them to see their guest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Duke Blancardin?” asked Rainald.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 18

“You could have told us,” snapped Amante.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good point,” said Amante.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By a few hours,” muttered Richardet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belengier nodded. “I understand father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blanc, just shut up,” declared Bramimonde.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Lords of the White Mountain--Part 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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