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.