Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Lands of Light: Emperor Aurelian

The last of the Alcides, Aurelian was a man of medium height, with dark hair and grey eyes, like much of his family.  While it has become popular in Lightlander art to depict him as thin, in truth he was a somewhat stout man, who gained weight as he aged--had he lived longer, he might have become quite fat.

This sort of transformation is quite typical in their depictions of the man they hold to be the last "true" Holy Emperor.  Despite efforts to depict him as a virtual saint, most of his contemporaries found Aurelian to be a difficult man to get along with.  Simultaneously harsh and mercurial, he could veer from religious extremism to wanton sensuality with very little warning, upbraiding his courtiers for wearing sumptuous clothes on a religious feast day even as he plotted to force one of them to offer the Emperor his daughter as a mistress.

This style of rule managed to discomfit and offend everybody--even dedicated toadies found it hard to follow a king whose mind could change so rapidly.  Still, the Empire might have survived if Aurelian had been content to allow it to muddle on through his reign--but alas, no.  Aurelian, you see, saw himself as a reformer. 

Great effort was taken to centralize the Empire, placing as much of it as possible under Aurelian's personal control.  This frequently meant uprooting vice-regal families of long-standing, and more or less declaring war on various subject monarchs--acts which were frequently more or less identical.  As Aurelian threw the Empire into chaos, the Nightfolk rebels that had been striving with little success for decades to throw off the Imperial yoke saw their chance...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Lands of Light: The Holy Empire

Now a creature of the history books, at its height the Holy Empire held all of what is now termed the Lands of Light, and a sizable portion of the Lands of Night.  Starting from a single land-locked city, the Alcides built an empire through conquest, diplomacy, and marriage, an empire that seemed like it would last forever--and which came tumbling down in a single day with the death of Aurelian...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

'In Her Service'--Part 30

“…so, yeah, twice as many letters to write now,” said Elaine casually. “Which is… kind of annoying, because to my own vast surprise, I’m not a letter-writer, but still--it’ll be worth it. And Nan and Marfisa have a lot in common, so that’ll probably take some of the slack off me.”

Jean smiled enigmatically. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

Elaine scowled at her aunt. “Oh what are you talking about? Of course they’ll get along--they’re both kind of fluttery and nice, and…” She blinked. “Oh, crap. Oh, crap! Once they start getting along, they’ll abandon me! Just like always happens!”

Jean coughed. “I wouldn’t go as far as that, but…”

“Only because you don’t know!” groaned Elaine. “This has always happened to me! I go, or move, or something, and my friends all realize they don’t really like me!”

“What about me?” said Jean. “I still like you, and I’ve gotten plenty of time to consider how irritating you can be?”

“You don’t count!” said Elaine. “You’re family!”

“But I didn’t know that for a long time!” protested Jean.

“Yeah, but maybe, you felt it, or something,” muttered Elaine, shaking her head. “Oh, I’ve got to get to work on those letters now…”

Jean sighed. “Well, now I feel guilty for messing with you.”

“These have to be the best damn letters ever written,” said Elaine. “Letters so good, they both realize I am incredibly, incredibly awesome, and they are being HONORED to have my friendship…” She blinked and turned towards Jean. “I’m sorry--did you say something?”

Jean shook her head. “Not really, no.”

Elaine nodded. “Battles! Marfisa loves that stuff!” She scratched her chin. “But I don’t think Nan does…” Jean lightly tugged her niece’s sleeve. “Maybe… maybe I can open with a selection from the Trimegtian Odes…” Jean tugged again. “Look, Jehannine du Lac, I am deep in thought here, and…” Jean gestured towards a side hall. Elaine turned and saw Pelleas standing there. “Oh.” She nodded at the King of Leonais. “Hello there, Your Highness. Thought you were still deep in that strategy chat in the Chamber of Grim Finality.”

Pelleas blinked. “Why is a pleasant little tearoom called…?” He shook his head. “Never mind. I was. Your mother and stepfather, and the rest still are. But I felt I’d served my part. So I left.”

Elaine nodded. “Ahh.”

Pelleas nodded back at her. “Indeed.”

Jean looked at them for a moment, then began to walk away. “Yeah, I’m going to let you two iron things out here.”

“What?” Elaine stared at Jean in desperation. “But… you can’t.”

“Just watch me,” said Jean. She turned and shrugged. “The situation’s awkward enough without me hanging around.”

Elaine glared at her aunt, and then shifted that glare onto Pelleas. “Look, I don’t know what you imagine you are going to do…”

Pelleas raised a hand in fairly regal manner, and Elaine found herself quieting, despite wanting to continue to give the King of Leonais a piece of her mind. “Elaine--I have skated around this for months now, in hopes of a thaw, but as that has not happened, I’ve decided, with the bluntness that I am famous for in some circles--”

“‘Some circles’?” asked Elaine despite herself.

“Lightlander diplomatic circles,” said Pelleas. “Actually, many of them might be dead. Been out of the loop too long.” He coughed. “But that’s besides the point. Elaine--you are my blood--my granddaughter, and even though this relation comes in the most horri--”

“I don’t think of your son as my father, Pelleas,” hissed Elaine. “Do you understand me? He’s just this… awful thing that…” She shuddered. “Look, we both know what happened there. There is… no real family relation there. At all. Not in any way that counts”

“And I do not blame you for thinking that,” said Pelleas calmly. “But I am not he, and you and I, Elaine…”

Elaine’s eyes blazed. “What? What? Everything can be just fine and good and wonderful?” She bit her lips and tried to hold back the tears that were appearing to her own infinite surprise. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Pelleas shut his eyes. “Let me finish, Elaine. I… I don’t pretend that there is some way to destroy the horror of Amfortas’ actions. Things like that… linger.” He sighed. “When my wife died, so many old friends told me ’Do not worry, your grief will pass, time heals all wounds’. And by the Seven, they were dirty liars. I have reached the point where I remember only the memory of her face--and yet I still get a twinge in my heart thinking about her, as if she had died yesterday.”

Elaine stared at him, suddenly aware of how old, and tired he could look. “I… I’m sorry…”

Pelleas smiled at her. “I don’t break easy, Elaine. If the years have taught me one thing, they’ve taught me that.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t claim that the shadow of Amfortas’ evil can ever be simply--expelled between us. But I like to hope that we can have a decent relationship despite that shadow.” He shook his head. “It’s funny, in that… bitter way. When I was a younger man, I used to dream of having a granddaughter. Sometimes I think the Seven have toyed with me much of my life, giving my dreams in… such horrible ways.”

Elaine shifted awkwardly. “Well… I’m… glad you understand how awful it is being related to that… horrible… horrible man, and having his creepy eyes in my face…”

“You… what?” Pelleas stared at her. “Why do you think you have my son’s eyes…?”

Elaine realized she was crying bitterly now, and wasn’t quite sure when she’d started. “It’s how he recognized me,” she sobbed. “I’ve got the Pescheour eyes…”

“Well, that’s certainly true,” said Pelleas softly, “but--well, that covers a lot of ground. From men with chunks of ice in their sockets like my son to… well, someone like you.” He smiled at her gently. “Bluish-green, like a running river. My wife had eyes like that. You look a bit like her, in the face.”

Elaine sniffled. “R-really?” Pelleas nodded. “What… was her name?”

“Lydia,” said Pelleas. “Her name was Lydia.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

'In Her Service'--Part 29

“So, in the end, the question is this--if we cross the river--truly and definitely cross the river, not merely venture over it like we did a few months ago--will Belberith attack us?” said Mansemat quietly.

Viviane frowned, and leaned back in her chair. “I lean towards ‘no’ myself. Belberith’s always been good at backstabbing, but not so good at war. I think getting us worried about what he’ll do if we do anything was a large part of his game.”

Morgaine nodded. “He does have a rather lengthy record of us kicking his ass to look back upon.”

“I quite agree on Belberith,” said Pelleas. “I’ve known the type--proud men more fond of their bloodlines of their children, who feel an eternal need to demonstrate how clever they are. I’ve no doubt if he’s reached his home by now, he’s sitting alone in some antechamber, enjoying a strong drink and sneering to himself.”

“You sure you’ve never been to Mount Qaf?” asked Morgaine.

“As I said, I’ve known the type,” replied Pelleas. “Belberith will want the greatest effect at the least cost. But therein lies the problem--he is not the only man we are dealing with. There is also Asterot Maganza, and he’s also a type I’ve known well--young, hasty, and insecure. A man with things to prove. And also a man who has been receiving regular--and mysterious--shipments from the Mountains of Sorrow over the last three months.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment.

“How did you…?” asked Mansemat.

“His servants told me,” said Pelleas. “It’s quite amazing what people will tell you with very little prompting if you are simply pleasant and attentive to him. I once decapitated a plot against me by listening to my tailor.” He shrugged. “People talk. Often loudly and in front of other people as if they are unaware they are in the room.”

Nisirioch entered the Chamber of Grim Finality quickly, and glanced around. As usual, the place looked pleasant and homely--the Dark Lord Apsu had had the place built to house individuals waiting for execution, and as Apsu had figured that they enough unpleasant things to think about, he’d made it as comfortable as possible. Indeed, it was so comfortable that Apsu’s son Choas had started throwing parties in it, a use that had quickly outstripped its original one. Now, his siblings, along with Viviane and Pelleas were all seated around looking rather grim. He coughed. “So have I missed anything important?”

Morgaine gestured to Pelleas. “The King of Leonais just revealed he has a quiet genius for espionage. And that Belberith and Asterot are plotting together.” She smiled at Nisrioch. “So--how’s… your daughter settling in?”

“Very nicely,” said Nisrioch as he took a seat. “She quite likes her room, and she and Malina are getting along well, though Malina is a battery of questions.” He sighed at Morgaine. “So… collusion between the Ebony Throne and the Heir of Ahrimanes for some months to do what…?”

“Who knows?” said Morgaine. “Despi says Asterot’s been shutting everyone out on these things--her, Pinabel, everyone. And drinking a lot more. She’s kind of… worried about him.” She shuffled awkwardly. “And--I’ve got my own shocking bombshell. Nerghal--appear!”

The spectral form of Nerghal Cthonique faded into view. “You realize you didn’t have to yell…” he began.

“Oh, whine, whine,” muttered Morgaine. “Come on--get to the revelation!”

Nerghal nodded. “Lady Morgaine had me looking out for safety concerns. I found none, but the morning of the council meeting, a livery man displayed a little dangling chain of brass to one of the men delivering fodder. The pair then began to have a lengthy and involved conversation involving the weather. While I didn’t learn much--the damned thing was in code--well, it piqued my interest. I kept my eye on them, and they met for another chat after your duel.”

Mansemat sighed. “So the Necklace was spying on us.”

“Spying or plotting or doing something…” said Viviane. “Does any of us know what those people are up to?”

“What’s the Necklace?” asked Pelleas.

Morgaine raised her hand. “Ehh, long story. The short version is--a weird conspiracy of people who hate us.”

Nisrioch looked at Nerghal. “You created the Necklace, Nerghal--did any of this seem familiar?”

“I created an idea--an outline,” said the ghost. “This thing is a reality, one that has gone far beyond my own plans. After all--the Necklace I wanted to create was supposed to be a stopgap. They’d tie up Lord Shaddad while I hid out in the hills, and tried to gather support to put me back on the throne. What exists here…” He shook his head. “It is not what I planned, if it ever was. Not anymore.”

“So to sum it all up,” said Viviane, “the Necklace is doing something, and we don’t know what, Asterot Maganza is doing something, with Belberith egging him on, and we don’t know what, and suddenly, one of the Free Cities wants us to help them, but we don’t know what will happen if we do.”

Mansemat nodded. “That is it, more or less.”

Viviane frowned. “Well, this is certainly clearing things up.”

“Hey, sometimes it helps to know how ignorant you are,” noted Morgaine. “That way, you aren’t totally surprised when things go insane as a result of your stumbling around in the dark.”

“That’s not very comforting, Morgaine,” said Mansemat quietly.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'In Her Service'--Part 28

Jean stretched her limbs, taking a few practice steps to get used to walking again.. While she was getting used to being a bird from time to time, she felt an obligation not to get too used to it. Her elder sister had suggested that it was quite possible for people with such abilities to lose themselves, and become more animal than human if they weren’t careful--possibly even simply forget that they’d ever been human to begin with. And while a part of her suspected a bit of jealousy on Viviane’s part--shape-changing was not something the Badb was particularly good at it--she had to admit she often FELT strained if she kept such a shape on too long. Of course there were other choices--partial transformations and the like--but those were harder to achieve and virtually useless for long trips. And so, changing into a crow was her best option.

She was just thankful that people in Castle Terribel were leaving her clothes in a small secluded area when she landed. Yep. It definitely made her life easier.

At least, as regarded being a shape-shifting witch, anyway.

The rest of the travelers were chatting when she joined them. “…not planning on hanging my hat on this,” said Mansemat, waving the note in his hands ever so slightly.

“You don’t wear a hat,” said Morgaine.

“It’s just an expression, Morgaine,” noted Mansemat quietly.

“Nissy’s the one with the hat thing,” continued Morgaine. “I’ve seen him wear two… three at a time, when he’s in the mood.”

“An expression, Morgaine,” said Mansemat. “A turn of phrase.”

“I don’t even know how he manages it,” said Morgaine. “I think he warps time and space to do it, but it’d really be a stupid, silly reason to do so…”

“I agree,” said Mansemat. “Let’s get back to the matter at hand. The Lady Idun’s note…”

“Tells us damned little,” noted Pelleas quietly. “Speaking as one who was dealing with this sort of… hedging before any of you were born, I recognize a man making sure he’s seated securely on the fence before the hurly-burly starts. Which is all that King Ull is trying to do here…”

Jean coughed. “Umm… Hello.” The others turned to her, awkward. “So… what have I missed…”

Viviane turned towards her. “The Ironfangs are willing to support us in the war.”

“Conditionally,” said Pelleas with a sigh. “The entire note is a mass of vagaries…”

Viviane frowned. “Look, this is from Ull Regni! King of the Muspeilun! If there was one thing you could count on the Regnis doing--aside from declaring war on the Utgardis--it was declaring war on the Cthoniques! And now--he’s not even considering it!”

“He states he isn’t considering it,” said Pelleas. “There is a fine distinction between the two.”

Mansemat raised his hand. “Listen, you both are bringing up valuable points, which I would love to give a detailed consideration of at a later time, but first let us all settle in and…”

“Where’s Nisrioch?” asked Jean suddenly.

Morgaine gestured up towards the sky. “His latest whatchyamcallit has landing troubles. It’s taking him forever to get here.”

Nisrioch’s vehicle landed with a thud.

Morgaine turned with a smile. “Well, speak of the demon! More or less literally! So, how’s your latest magical flying hoodad…”

To Morgaine’s surprise, Nisrioch ignored the good-natured ribbing to leap from his seat, and then rush to his luggage. “Are you all right, dear? Has the jostle harmed you in anyway?”

“I am fine!” came a voice from the luggage. “I am well-cushioned in here, and it all felt like a comfortable little bump.”

As the general sense of bafflement grew, Mansemat stepped forward. “Nissy--what is going…?”

Nisrioch looked back as he fiddled with the fastenings of the massive carrying case. “All explanation will offered shortly, brother of mine!” He threw the case open. With a sudden crash, a rather short Erl emerged from the case toppling unsteadily towards the ground. Nisrioch grabbed her by the arm, and helped her stand. “Are you all right, dear?”

The girl answered with a swift little nod. “Absolutely.”

“Very good!” Nisrioch turned to the others. “Allow me to introduce Antea Cthonique, the natural daughter of myself, and Alcina Ashurana.”

The girl waved. “Salutations!”

As everyone processed this, Malina appeared before them. “There you all are!” she said cheerily. “We’ve got guests! Milesians! From over the river! They came yesterday! I’ve been giving them cocoa and playing the hostess with all the knoblessay I can! They want to talk to you, Daddy! They’re a brother and sister, and…” She turned to look at Antea. “Who’s that?”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

'In Her Service'--Part 27

“I told you I should have come with you,” said Viviane to her husband as they walked to the gryphon stable.

“Would you have lobbed a gout of flame at him?” asked Mansemat quietly.

“Of course not!” stated Viviane. Mansemat raised an eyebrow. “I’m not kidding! There are lots of things I could use besides fire!”

Mansemat nodded. “Good. Yes. You definitely should have come with me. And used whatever supernatural implements of destruction you may call upon.”

Viviane blinked. “Wow. He did get you mad.”

“I am still quietly seething,” said Mansemat. “To create difficulties, and quite possibly risk the lives of thousands--perhaps even more--all in the name of petty spite…”

“Oh, come on, Manny,” said Viviane. “It’s Belberith… We all knew he’d pull something like this…”

Mansemat nodded. “Yes… well… perhaps it’s more indignation from being used as a personal executioner. Even if it was only for Trufaldin,” he added quickly, before Viviane could state it. “The man may have been a wretch, but he was still a man.”

Viviane nodded. “Right. A man who tried to kill you to earn points with his boss, and was hoping to take over the Mountains of Sorrow, and who knows what else…” Mansemat sighed. “Look, dear, all I’m saying is, don’t beat yourself up about killing a man who had it coming. From where I stand, it’s annoying habit of yours.”

“Understood, nightshade petals,” muttered Mansemat. “I shall endeavor to follow your example and be a remorseless killing machine.”

“Hey, I’m not remorseless--just tough,” said Viviane. “Like a tree. Or a catamount. Or any number of forces of nature.” Mansemat gave a silent nod. “You’re just humoring me, aren’t you?”

“No, dear,” said Mansemat quietly. “I agree with you absolutely.”

Viviane snorted as they reached the gryphon stables. “You are so lucky this is a diplomatic function. And in so much trouble when we get home.”

Mansemat bowed. “I await with bated breath.”

Viviane took out her mortar and pestle. “So, so much trouble.” She leaned forward. “You beg for mercy when I’m done with you.” Mansemat started another bow, only for Viviane to shake her head. “Just quit while you’re ahead, dear. Really.”

“Understood,” said Mansemat glancing around. “So are we all ready here?”

“Yep,” said Morgaine, putting a large book into her saddle-bags. “And Nissy--this time I GET cool old guy!” She turned to look at Pelleas. “That okay, Cool Old Guy?”

Pelleas nodded. “I consider it acceptable, Tiny Dead Girl.”

“HA!” Morgaine slapped her knee. “And THAT is why you’re Cool Old Guy!” She waved him towards her gryphon. “Come on, I’ll help you on. And the way back we can swap witticisms on the horrible, horrible smell. It’ll be great!”

Nisrioch nodded, as he hefted his bags onto the vehicle he’d taken. “I’ve no problem with the arrangement. I’m afraid the Ceruleosphere can only handle me and my luggage on the return trip.” He coughed quietly. “Souvenirs, you see. I picked a few up.” He stared at them for a moment, then got onto the strange collection of pipes and fans.

“So, where’s Elai--?” began Viviane.

“…MISS you!” bawled out Marfisa as she approached with Elaine and Nan. “Both of you!”

Elaine nodded. “I’ll write you a letter as soon as you get home.”

Marfisa sniffled and nodded eagerly. “And I’ll write you one!” She glanced at Nan.

The young Ogre shifted uneasily. “And… I’ll try to write both of you letters. As well.” She blinked. “Oh, Your Excellency!” Nisrioch and Morgaine both turned at that. “Nisrioch Your Excellency! Not Morgaine!” She pulled a crumpled letter from her pocket. “Idun wanted me to give this to you.” She offered it to him. “She said it was a ‘not-swearing’ letter.”

Nisrioch nodded and took it. “Well, this will be a novelty.”

Mansemat smiled to himself, and started to prepare Molasses for the trip, when a gravelly voice intruded on his ear. “Dark Lords. I assume you are saying your goodbyes.”

Mansemat turned to regard Pinabel Maganza. “I suppose we are. Do you wish to be one of them?”

Pinabel nodded. “I feel I have to. You see, I rather like you, Your Magnificence--and yet I suspect the next time we meet, we are going to be enemies. For a while at least.” He bowed. “And so I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know that no matter what politics does to us, you continue to hold my highest respect.”

Mansemat offered the man his hand. “Likewise, Bailiff Maganza. Likewise.”

Pinabel took it, gave it a shake, managing as much of a smile as he could, and then released it and walked away.

Mansemat went back to preparing to leave.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"In Her Service"--Part 26

Belberith Ashurana dipped the small biscuit into the coffee before him. “On the whole--satisfactory,” he noted.

Asterot Maganza looked at the Dark Lord of Mountains of Sorrow with something akin to wonder in his bleary eyes. “Have you a drop of blood in your veins, or is it all ice water?”

Belberith nibbled his biscuit. “Oh, it is all the former, Asterot.” He smiled slightly. “Though I recommend you avoid any experiments to verify that. If you were fortunate, I fear carrying one out would cause you to lose your lunch. And if you were unfortunate…” Belberith’s slight smile deepened. “Well, you would lose so much more.”

Asterot blinked, and leaned back in his chair. “I know what you mean by that, Belberith, and I’ll have you know that I do not take…”

The Dev gave a weary roll of his eyes. “Asterot, as it is all but impossible to make my esteem for you diminish any lower, I will grant you a rare chance to raise it an iota, by not finishing that preposterous sentence you were uttering.”

The Erl King of the Goblins was silent, prompting that slight smile of Belberith’s to return. There was a knock at the door to the chamber. “Ahh,” proclaimed the Dev. “I was expecting this.”

“What?” asked Asterot.

“Do come in,” said Belberith, his head turned towards the door. “It isn’t locked.” He glanced at Asterot. “This will be Mansemat Cthonique, here to harangue me, unless I miss my guess.” The door opened, and Mansemat Cthonique entered. Asterot shifted nervously in his seat, Belberith sipped his coffee.

“Your Supremacy,” said Mansemat with a bow. He glanced at Asterot. “And Your Imperial Munificence.” He forced on a smile. “What a pleasant surprise,” Mansemat stated, in tones that suggested it was in fact neither.

“No need to stand on ceremony here, Mansemat,” said Belberith calmly. “Even I must relax it on occasion.”

Mansemat frowned. “I see you are being treated as a guest in your own quarters now,” he noted quietly to Asterot.

Belberith smiled broadly. “Why, my goodness. Lord Maganza just said something quite similar. Or started to.”

“It was… rather more forceful,” spurted Asterot.

“I would differ on that,” answered the Dev. “Though certainly it strived to achieve the appearance of violence.”

“Much as it would delight me to listen to you banter,” said Mansemat, eyes narrowed, “there are things that must be discussed. Lord Ashurana, you have ended this meeting of the Shadow Council…”

“Yes,” stated Belberith. “You killed the captain of my guard. Who was also a kinsman of mine, however distant.” He yawned placidly. “So naturally I am quite put out.”

“Crying your little heart out, no doubt,” said Mansemat.

“I would not go that far,” said Belberith, pausing to sip his coffee. “But I do find it makes me somewhat melancholy. Musing on the impermanence of things, and whatnot.”

Mansemat crossed his arms. “Let’s stop wasting time with this infuriating charade, Belberith. I know you do not think much of my family’s intelligence, but we are wilier than you give us credit for as individuals. And since we work as a group--well, you really shouldn’t imagine that there is a scheme you can create that we cannot detect.”

“But I am the prideful one,” said Belberith quietly.

“I did not say we would invariably detect them promptly,” stated Mansemat. “But we will find out what your doing. Especially as it’s rarely that complicated. Calling off the Council before we even get to discuss the Leonais matter is hardly that subtle.” He glared at the older man. “The various little arrangements you let pass through beforehand were, I suppose. A nice little programs of bribes in public before you quietly bring up the first in private.”

Belberith smiled. “I will probably not even ‘bring it up’ at all,” he said. “As you are now proving, so many of my fellows have rather active imaginations. They see things that I never mention nor intend.” He shrugged. “There’s no reason to threaten a man when he fancies a dagger in a greeting.”

“Sees, Belberith, not ‘fancies’.” Mansemat looked away. “You are not so clever and ingenious as you imagine. You never have been.” Belberith calmly sipped his coffee, while Asterot continued to squirm awkwardly, and wish he was somewhere else. “The only thing I’m wondering,” said Mansemat, “is how any of this is to your advantage, aside from discomfiting my family somewhat.” The tall Erl stared at the Dev, his face severe. “The Great War touches us all, Lord Ashurana. You know that as well as I do.”

“Great War?” said Belberith with a slight smile. “There is no ‘Great War’, Mansemat. I always thought that you knew that as well as I did. But apparently I was wrong.” Mansemat stared at him in quiet puzzlement. “What exists is a series of conflicts centered on the Murkenmere between those states on our side, and the Milesian states on the other. Nothing more. Oh, circumstances have conspired to give the matter an appearance of cosmic significance--but there is none. Simply wars to expand interests and gain territory. Much as when we Ashuranas suppressed the Nibelung.”

Mansemat looked at Asterot who was now backed as far into his chair as he dared without causing it to fall, then again at Belberith, who was calmly pouring himself another cup of coffee. “You speak of it frequently, for a man who does not believe in it,” stated Mansemat quietly.

“As do we all,” said Belberith with a shrug. “How can one avoid it? It has become part of the language of the Lands of Night, in place of the Dark Tongue we all but lost. You Cthoniques especially have made sure of that.” He chuckled to himself. “Tell me what is that little motto of yours? The one with that awful poem attached to it…?”

“‘In Her Service’,” stated Mansemat. He continued, reciting softly almost to himself. “In Her service, all chains shall break, all ways be made secure. Justice shall belong to each and all, and peace it shall endure.”

Belberith nodded. “Ahh, yes. That’s the one. You people recite that nonsense, and then you wonder why people don’t like you.” He shook his head. “Quite mystifying, to my mind.”

“I suppose you’d rather we’d kept to my father’s way of doing things,” muttered Mansemat acidly.

“Oh, no,” said Belberith, with a yawn. “Poor old Shaddad never could see there was a point to stop. Made him a danger, in the long run. But you--well, you’ve decided to respond to his outright ambitions by becoming obsessed with justice. Substituting one brand of folly for another, I’d say.” He set his cup down before him, and idly fiddled with one of his horns. “And now, it appears to have lead you to set the Plains and Leonais tear into each other once again. Just as his did. Well, who am I to allow you Cthoniques your amusements? But you not get the Ashuranas into your bloodletting. Not this time. No, we shall sit back, snug and secure, and if any ask us why we are not leaping to the defense of the Lands of Night, we shall say, ‘Mansemat Cthonique killed Trufaldin Harpinus’, and there will be the end of it.”

“We--we will not fight either!” said Asterot suddenly as he rose from his chair, eyes flashing, and fist waving. “You may be playing up the Chiaramontes and the Mongranes, and even the damn Emporium, but it’s the Maganzas who rule the Shadow Woods when all is said is done, and you don’t tell us what to do, and you never--”

“Be quiet, Asterot,” muttered Belberith. Asterot collapsed back in his chair.

Mansemat watched all this, and turned to leave. He paused at the door to look at Belberith. “Well, Trufaldin is proving quite useful to you in his death.”

Belberith nodded. “Indeed. It fills me with a gratitude towards the boy I never felt in life.”

“I understand that.” Mansemat’s frown had become quite pronounced. “Indeed, I understood he was becoming a problem. Starting to gather the interest of those who don’t want your daughter to succeed you. One wonders that a man who stood to gain so much if he were clever, and watchful of himself would risk himself against me. One wonders what put the idea into his head.”

Belberith’s smile remained serene. “It is possible that remarks he heard from certain high quarters--which he interpreted poorly--set him on this course of action. It is things like that which turn dangerous fools into useful fools.”

Mansemat nodded, and glanced at Asterot. “I would be very, very careful if I were you. You’ve just gotten to see how being a friend and ally of Belberith Ashurana ends.” He glared at Belberith again, and then with a shake of his head left the room.

Belbertih watched him leave, then turned to Asterot. “Well, he seemed to be in a rare state of dudgeon, did he not?” Asterot looked fixedly at the floor. “By the Lady, you look terrible man,” said Belberith in a perfectly placid tone. “It makes me fear for your health.”

Asterot slumped back in his chair and tried to imagine a fine drink to take his mind of what had just happened.

He failed miserably.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"In Her Service"--Part 25

As the Bailiff shouted, Mansemat and Trufaldin bowed, then rose, lightning-quick, hands on their swords. Mansemat drew the Blade of Night swiftly, but even as he did so, Trufaldin vanished.

Jean blinked and turned to Elaine. “Wait… he’s allowed to do that?”

“In a fight to the death,” answered Elaine with a nod. “Same as Mansemat’s allowed to use Murgleys. ‘In a fight to the final extremity, all honorable skills may be used, in an honorable fashion’.”

During this discussion, Mansemat had replied to Trufaldin’s apportation by spinning around rapidly--the Dev swiftly appeared in the spot that had been behind the Dark Lord and was now in front of him. Mansemat parried his blow, and struck at Trufaldin himself--Trufaldin dodged and leapt out of Murgleys’ reach, then apported again. Mansemat wheeled around again, then with a sudden bit of insight leapt backwards, just as Trufaldin glided down at him from above.

“Honorable?” said Jean with a snort.

“It’s a… broad definition of honor at times,” noted Elaine. “It operates by odd little guidelines. He can’t leave the circle. He can only go so high as it is wide. And so forth.”

The fight had continued, with Trufaldin attempting to use apportation to get Mansemat off-guard--but still the Dark Lord had proven difficult to off-balance, moving swiftly after each disappearance by his foe, forcing Trufaldin to deal with a different battleground than the one he had left when he reappeared. The time between the Dev’s vanishings was growing longer and longer, and he was breathing harder.

“Doesn’t seem like the master strategy he thought it was,” muttered Jean.

“It usually isn’t,” said Elaine. “Traditionally, the Devs tend to use it for surprises and quick retreats, because anything more elaborate tends to be tiring.”

Mansemat was circling in closer to Trufaldin--the Dev suddenly spread out his wings, and leapt at the Erl. Mansemat ducked out off his way, and then struck at him with Murgleys’ pommel. It struck Trufaldin in the side, causing him to land on the ground in an ungraceful heap, with an unpleasant snapping sound that produced murmurs of concern from the onlookers.

“Mercy is yours,” stated Mansemat flatly, as he leveled the Blade of Night at Trufaldin, “if you ask for it.”

Trufaldin gave a hiss, then spat at the Dark Lord and vanished. Suddenly, he was above Mansemat’s head once again, though this time the distance was shorter, and his fall was wild and erratic, Mansemat did his best to move out of the way, while raising Murgleys to ward off any blow from the Dev.

Trufaldin hit the blade with a thud. He gave a shriek as it pierced his flesh, that grew louder as Mansemat pulled it free. As Mansemat moved well out of the way, Trufaldin’s body struck the ground--or rather, the two pieces that had been his body did.

Pinabel struck his staff on the ground three times. “The duel is over. Trufaldin Harpinus is dead.

In the background, one could hear cries of horror and concern, and Asterot Maganza retching.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"In Her Service"--Part 24

Pinabel Maganza struck his staff of office--a long piece of ebony, carved with old symbols--on the marble floor. “Oyez, oyez, oyez,” he declared in his harsh rattle of a voice. “A challenge of the sword has been issued and met. The challenger, the Dark Lord Mansemant Cthonique, the Cthonique of Castle Terribel, Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread, Dagda of the Accursed Marsh, Protector of White Pine, Ally to the Three Hordes, Friend to the Prophet and the Prince of Ghouls, proclaims that his honor has been grossly insulted by the challenged, Trufaldin Harpinus, Captain-Serjeant of the Ashurana Guard, Lord of Hedel, Heir to the County of Klost--”

“And the Mountains of Sorrow!” hissed out Trufaldin.

Pinabel ignored him. “…And demands satisfaction. Trufaldin has proclaimed it a battle to the final extremity.” He looked out over the crowd. “Who shall be the judge?”

Rodomonte strode forward. “I will see that the ways of chivalry are followed in this affair.”

Pinabel glanced around the crowd that stood in a circle around the fighting grounds. “Does deny the Prince of Nin’s right to stand in such a position?” There was silence. Pinabel gave a sharp nod. “Very well then.” He struck his staff three times on the ground. “Join me at my post.” The Troll walked to Pinabel’s side. “Mansemat Cthonique. Trufaldin Harpinus. Come forward.”

The two men entered the circle from opposite ends, and walked purposefully forward until they stood before Pinabel. “I will strike my staff three times, then retire with the Prince of Nin to a secure vantage point. When that is done, I will again strike my staff three times, then announce the duel’s commencement, after which the combatants may draw their blades. Is this clear?” Mansemat and Trufaldin nodded. Pinabel raised his staff, and struck the floor three times, then turned to move away. Rodomonte followed close behind.

“At last we meet in a proper duel,” said Trufaldin. “No distractions. No battles raging. Just you and I, matching our skills against one another.” Mansemat stared at him quietly. “Terrified you into silence have I?”

Mansemat merely raised an eyebrow.

The sound of Pinabel’s staff striking the floor rang out. Once. Twice. Thrice. “Begin!” said Pinabel.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"In Her Service"--Part 23

Jean fidgeted in her chair. A part of her had expected that taking part in a Council of Shadows as a member, instead of just an onlooker would be… different. But, no, it was the same tedious discussions of things that she barely understood. True, every now then her name or title would come up, but it would inevitably be attached to some vague point that drifted off into strange waves of obscurity. Glancing at Viviane and Mansemat, she envied the pair their ability to sit watching these in interest. At least--that’s what she thought the expression on their face was. It was, on further reflection, hard to be sure. Perhaps their breakfasts were disagreeing with.

Still, some people were definitely interested in the goings-on. Nisrioch was having yet another lengthy discussion of some arcane point with Belberith at this very moment, while Elaine was actually… jotting things down. And King Pelleas, while keeping very towards the back of the group, kept a keen eye on the proceeding, and was frequently nodding to himself. Somehow, she knew that this old man who had been in the Nightlands a few months had already outpaced her on these subjects.

Oh, well. At least there were some people even more obviously clueless about all this than she was. She glanced at Morgaine, who was leaning back in her chair, staring at the ceiling, and occasionally turning her head to blow a kiss at Fiordespina. Though it occurred to Jean that on further reflection, Morgaine was at least enjoying this.

“Well, thank you, for explaining these points on the Deinre trading rights as regards Cremonia, Your Imperial Munificence,” stated Nisrioch to Asterot Maganza. “It was, to my mind, edifying.”

“I’m glad it was to someone,” drawled Asterot, and then, in apparent surprise at having said something close to witty, let out a loud laugh.

“…But now I feel I must bring a petition before the Council,” said Nisrioch. “From the House Cthonique and its dependents regarding the recent reopen--”

“House Cthonique!” came a loud voice that Jean had never heard before. Turning towards the source, she saw a tall Dev with a long scar on his face. The Dev strode forward. “Do not make me laugh, demonspawn! It is House Pescheour whose petition this truly is!” He gestured towards Pelleas. “Even now this old man sits in their councils, plotting with them to rope us in to his dirty little dynastic dispute, much as the Cthoniques have already been so ensnared!” He raised his fist defiantly. “Well--I’ll not lend my sword to such a rotten fight!”

The room burst into murmurs and shouts, as Belberith quietly and ineffectually muttered for order. Asterot rose from his seat and applauded. “Well put, man! Well put! Send the bastards back over the Murkenmere!”

“Trufaldin,” stated Mansemat, walking forwards--Jean realized he had gotten to his feet during the Dev’s spiel-- “if you are going to utter such wild accusations, then perhaps it would be better if you left these chambers.”

The Dev glowered at Mansemat. “Perhaps it would. But before I left I would have to say to all here assembled, that Mansemat Cthonique is a traitor to his own kin, his own people, and indeed, to Mother Night herself.”

Mansemat stared at him for a moment. “You would say that to me?” He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “To me? Here?”

“I would,” said Trufaldin. “And I have.”

Mansemat nodded, as he regarded the Dev earnestly. “Very well. Then the consequences are on your head.” He narrowed his eyes. “Trufaldin Harpinus, be you a warrior of chivalry?”

“I am,” answered Trufaldin proudly.

“Then we shall settle this dispute you have made as such,” stated Mansemat. “How shall it be done?”

“I do nothing by half-measures, Dark Lord,” answered Trufaldin.

Mansemat nodded. “The place, then, and the time.”

The Dev grinned. “Here and now, I reply.”

Jean looked at Elaine, whose eyes had gone wide. “Umm… does all this mean what I think it does?”

“Yep,” said Elaine. “Duel.”

“Man, do people challenge each other to fights to the death at ALL of these things, or just the ones I go to?” asked Jean.

“Well, we haven’t been doing them all that long, but so far it’s happened in about three-quarters of them,” stated Nisrioch.

“Hey, Llefelys had it coming!” declared Morgaine, crossing her arms. “Plus he chickened out. So it really doesn’t count.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"In Her Service"--Part 22

“…So, after that, you all sat around and drank hot cocoa?” asked Idun.

Nan nodded. “I had them spice mine,” she said quietly. “It was wonderful.”

Idun sighed as she and her apprentice followed the crowd into the Grand Chamber. “I’ve no doubt. Just… try to keep a level head.”

Nan glanced around the room, eyes wide. “What do you mean by that?”

“We’re skalds,” said Idun. “Our job is to watch and record. To judge if necessary, but as levelly as possible. To see beyond the obvious, into what is hidden.”

Nan peered up above her. “Wow, that’s a big dome!” she said. “And look at that artwork!”

“King Tostig had it done,” said Idun, tiredly. “To commemorate his victory over the Mongranes.”

“It’s got a lot of horses! And bulls! And eagles!” stated Nan. “And naked women!”

“Those are nymphs,” noted Idun. “Representing the Crossing.”

“…And guys holding large g…” The Ettin blushed. “Those aren’t gourds, are they?”

Idun shook her head. “And those guys represent the Shadow Wood. Or… certain aspects of it.” She sighed. “Tostig had a filthy mind.”

Nan nodded. “Well--still--this will be interesting! Seeing the Council of Shadows in action!”

Idun looked at her and chuckled. “You’re a good kid, Nan.”

“Well, thanks,” said Nan brightly. “Though I don’t think of myself as a kid…”

“Don’t know if you’ll ever make a skald--but you’re still a good kid,” Idun finished.

Nan frowned. “Well, now I’m sure if you’re complimenting me or insulting me.”

“Little of both,” replied Idun, as she reached her chair.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

'In Her Service'--Part 21

Pelleas sipped the cocoa, and shook his head. “This is an astounding beverage. I hope you people realize that.”

“Well, we don’t import it from the south because we think it’s only okay,” noted Mansemat. He took a drink of his own. “Of course, some of us prefer tea, but I myself have… something of a sweet tooth.” He shrugged. “Morgaine, too. We probably got it from Mother.” A slight smile touched the Dark Lord’s face. “She could drink three or four mugs at a sitting, if she was allowed to…”

“Well, as I’ve seen portraits of her,” said Pelleas with a chuckle, “I will assume she was rarely allowed to. Or that she was most fortunate in her ability to keep her figure.”

Mansemat frowned. “Not so fortunate. Not… fortunate at all.”

Pelleas coughed awkwardly. “Ahh. Sorry. Misspoke there.” Mansemat remained silent. “My wife, you know, she was quite fond of sweet things herself. She… died quite young herself, actually…” He took a great gulp of his drink and sighed. “Well, damn it, now I have made both of us depressed.”

The door clattered open. “…And THAT should answer any further questions as to your legitimacy before they get asked!” declared Viviane brightly.

Jean nodded. “Yes, yes, it should.” She shuddered slightly. “For any future questioners’ sakes.”

Viviane crossed her arms. “I didn’t hear you complaining at the time! Quite the opposite!”

“I was caught up in the heat of the moment!” said Jean. “Also, I didn’t have vocal cords at the time…”

Mansemat smiled at his wife. “I assume this is something I’ll hear about shortly.”

Viviane turned towards him, and nodded. “Oh, yeah. They aren’t going to forget this one…” She blinked as she realized that Pelleas was sitting there. “…Not anytime soon,” she said quietly.

Pelleas shifted awkwardly, and then managed a smile. Jean responded with a slight wave. And the door opened again. Elaine entered with Marfisa and a young Ogre. “…still don’t get it!” said the Ogre. “Of course, he flounders! He is a flounder! That’s what they do!”

“It’s a pun!” explained Marfisa. “That’s the point, Nan! He’s a floundering flounder!”

“Yes, exactly!” said Nan. “That makes it not a joke at all.”

Elaine coughed, and gestured to her friends. “Hey--this is Nan--Marfisa and I bumped into her, and… we brought her along. For cocoa.”

“Oddly enough, Lord Mansemat and I were just talking about this marvelous drink of your Lands of Night,” said Pelleas brightly.

Elaine shut her eyes. “Yeah. That’s great.” She turned to Mansemat. “Can you… maybe have them get some mugs ready? Please.”

Mansemat looked at, consecutively, his wife, his stepdaughter, his sister-in-law, King Pelleas, and his new guests. “Certainly,” he said at last, rising from his seat. “I’ll go tell them to get some ready.”

“…as a moral victory!” proclaimed Morgaine, as she stepped in the room, Nisrioch and Fiordespina following her through. “Nerghal could so clearly have taken that thing if he wanted to.”

Fiordespina nodded. “Yes, my dearest. That makes all those rude gestures from the sprite the childish taunting of a fool.” Nisrioch gave her an appreciative nod.

“Right! I could have easily crushed that little purple thing, but didn’t bother because it was… a little purple thing!” Morgaine spread her arms. “It should be obvious to…” She looked around the room. “Umm, are we… interrupting things?”

Viviane shook her head. “No, Manny just went to get cocoa.”

Fiordespina bowed. “If you are wondering about our apparel, well, Morgaine and I were enjoying a pleasant game wherein I was her valiant steed…”

“We weren’t wondering,” said Jean.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

'In Her Service'--Part 20

“Well, that was nice,” said Elaine, as she and Marfisa walked back from Ruggier’s chambers. “Even though your brother does seem… preoccupied.”

“Oh, Ruggier’s always like that,” proclaimed Marfisa. “Whenever I have an official marshal meeting with him, he starts talking about things like ‘elan’, and ‘deployment’, instead of practical things, like making sure we have enough dress saddles.” Elaine stared at her friend. “For parades. Parades are important. It helps keep the hussars’ spirits up. Keeps them trained on lots of little things”

Elaine smiled to herself. “So it keeps up their fighting spirit, and teaches them how to correctly arrange themselves in short order, right?”

“Precisely!” stated Marfisa with a nod. Elaine let out a chuckle. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, just some odd little joke I heard,” stated Elaine.

“Oh, I love jokes!” said Marfisa. “What’s it about?”

Elaine blinked. “A… fish,” she said at length.

“Is it the one about the flounder?” said Marfisa. “I love that one!” She slapped her thigh. “I FLOUNDER!”

Elaine bit her lip. “No. Different joke. About a different sort of fish.”

“What kind?” asked Marfisa.

“Haddocks,” said Elaine.

“You said a fish,” noted Marfisa.

Elaine nodded. “Yes. Yes, I did. It was a haddock.” She shut her eyes, and prayed to the Lady for something to kill this course of conversation dead.

A moment later, she collided with something surprisingly large. “Oh, sorry,” came a female voice, as Elaine started to fall. A large hand grabbed her shoulder. “I… I really should be more careful.”

Elaine turned to see the tall Ogre standing beside her, smiling awkwardly. A woman--a young woman, actually--her hair done up in an elaborate braid. An Ettin, she realized--the hairstyle alone proved that. “Thank you, Miss…”

The Ogre shifted slightly. “Nan. Walsing.” She coughed. “That is my name is Nan Walsing.”

Elaine nodded. “Right. Elaine du Lac.”

Marfisa stepped forward and offered Nan her hand. “And I’m Marfisa Mongrane. Marshal of Tremisona.”

Nan nodded. “Ahh. Yes. Well. I’m a skald.” She coughed. “In training. I’m not a real skald yet. But I will be when Idun stops training me.”

Marfisa nodded. “I see.”

“Idun Bragi? King Ull’s cousin?” asked Elaine. “That’s… odd. I always thought the Walsings tended towards the Stonfangs’ side of things.”

Nan looked away, her feet shifting slightly. “It’s… complicated. Very complicated.”

Marfisa stepped forward. “And that sounds like something we can talk about as we head over to Elaine’s apartments!” She looked at Nan levelly. “She has hot cocoa.”

“Oh,” said Nan. “I like hot cocoa.”

Marfisa nodded. “Everyone likes hot cocoa,” she declared emphatically.