Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 19

Gulchenrouz glanced out the window of his watchtower, stared for awhile, then turned to his notebook.  "Four hours, fifteen minutes past the rising of the moon.  All is well," the young Erl jotted down.  Then he stared at what he had written, and sighed. 

His work as Officer of the Evening Watch of Bridge Perilous was... well, generally quite dull.  Which, while it left him plenty of time to write poetry was also quite fatal to his inspiration.  For once--just once--he wished something would happen. 

There was a sudden bang down the hall.  Leaping to his feet, Gulchenrouz rushed to the chamber's door, and opened it.

The cleaning woman was recovering the broom she had dropped. Gulchenrouz grumbled to himself and went back into his chamber.  Of course.  He should have expected that.  As he'd noted, nothing ever happened in this city.  A quick look at his clock confirmed it was time for another check.  He glanced out the window, and then went back to his notebook.  "Four hours, twenty minutes past the rising of the moon.  All is well."  He set down his pen, and tried to find some bit of inspiration.

There was a strange burst of noise from behind him, followed by a stabbing pain in his right side.  He attempted to cry out as his chair was yanked back, and he was tossed to the ground, but no sound came.  The form of his assailant came into view as he lay on the floor, a tall Dev with slightly crooked horns. The man smiled at him, watching him with amused orange eyes.  Gulchenrouz tried to say something but still his voice would not come. 

The man glanced at the clock, and after several minutes, went to the notebook, and began to jot something down.

It occurred to Gulchenrouz that he knew exactly what the man was writing there.

And that gave him an idea for a poem, one that he would never write now. 

He died many minutes later, cursing the world's unfairness.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 18

Suckling Squaretoe gave a convulsive shake as he stood in the great field by the River Skadh. A cold wind was blowing over the assembled Mamelukes.  "I tell you, I wished we could have just taken an airship."

"Shut up, Suckling," hissed Hearn.

"Well, we could," noted the younger Mameluke. 

Hearn gestured ahead, where an Erl on a horse had rode to the top of a hill and had now turned to address them all.  "The old man's talking."

Suckling stared ahead.  "The Seneschal?  Pinabel Maganza isn't old."

Hearn turned to hush him, then saw the Serjeant glaring at him, and kept quiet.  Turning his attention to Pinabel, he watched the one-eyed Erl begin to speak.  It seemed to Hearn that the man looked tired, but then, Pinabel Maganza always looked tired to him.

"Honored servants of House Maganza," said Pinabel, his voice carrying over the evening air.  "We thank you for enduring this grueling march.  Truly, you are the sons of honor, and carved of the same ebony as the throne."

Suckling gave a cheerful nod.  "Heh.  That's nice.  Always did like the Seneschal.  Knows how to make a man feel appreciated, he does."

"And as you have not stinted throught this, I ask that you not stint in the days ahead," continued Pinabel, his customary frown growing deeper.  "For now--now the House of Maganza has great need of you, great need of your loyalty, and your strength.  Do not fail us, sons of honor.  Hold your heads high, in the days ahead!"

Hearn felt troubled by all this, somehow, though he was not sure why.  "Hey, Hearn," hissed Suckling, pointing across the Skadh, "why's the Seneschal telling us this now?  Outside Tremisona?  We're still in the Shadow Woods!"

Hearn realized why he thought something was wrong then, staring at the flag of House Mongrane flying over the city.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Meetings and Conference--Part 17

Sacripant smiled broadly at the woman staring at him from across the table.  "This is... good," he stated.   "Very interesting gruel..."

"It's oatmeal," said Monica with a nod. 

One of the children, a young boy, seated nearby leaned forward.  "How come you're so funny-looking?"

Monica glared at her son.  "Pelle!"

"Well, he is!" said Pelle.  "I mean even for an Erl." A young girl seated next to him nodded.

"You still, shouldn't say that!" snapped his mother.  "And Elise--you shouldn't agree with him!  Apologize, both of you now."

The pair mumbled something that sounded vaguely like apologies.  "It's all right," said Sacripant.  "I've heard worse over across the River."  He shrugged.  "I'm a Marsh Erl.  We live near the water, and by Mother Night's Unholy blessing, we have been shaped to do so effectively."  He pointed to himself.  "I was a great fisherman, before joining the Cthonique Guard."

The girl stared at him wide-eyed.  "Grampa is a fisherman," she whispered.

"Well, that's nice," said Sacripant.  "I'm sure he and I have a lot in co..."

The girl shook her head.  "He doesn't like Erls."  The boy nodded in agreement.

Sacripant coughed and went back to his meal.  "So... oatmeal?"

"Mmm-hmmm," said Monica.  "Nathan swears by it.  Keeps him going every night."

The Guardsman looked to the door.  "He going to be back soon?"

Monica stared blankly ahead.  "Lamplighting is a great responsibility," she said.

"Right, right." Sacripant gave a quick frustrated breath, and then went back to eating the oatmeal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 16

The three Stylites regarded Prince Amfortas dispassionately.  "Sire, it is time you awake," stated one.

"I am not sleeping," said the man lying on the filthy mattress before them.  "I do not sleep anymore.  My mind will not stop." He coughed.  "It is the Nightfolk.  They are whispering in my ears.  All the time.  The wicked things.  Trying to break my concentration.  Ahh, but they do not know, they do not understand I cannot be broken.  I am the glorious... the glorious..."  He blinked.  "Where is Doctor Praetorious?"

"Elsewhere," said one of the Stylites. 

"I need another..." began Amfortas.

"No," said a Stylite.  "He himself stated he would not give you another dose for some time.  It is he who recommended we deal with you."

"The men are worried," stated another.  "Your lack of appearances are concerning them."

"The men are warriors in our holy cause," murmured Amfortas, turning over.  "They may trust in me from a distance.  My thoughts are with them."  He stirred weakly.  "Where is Doctor...?"

The Stylites glanced awkwardly amongst themselves.  "We just told you he is not here," said one.

"Then go get him," muttered Amfortas, burying himself in his blankets.  After a moment, he gave another turn.  "Flowers with human faces..." The Stylites remained around him.  "Which ones are you?"

"We are Moldwart, Graveworm, and Fingerbone," stated one.

"New ones then," said Amfortas.  "You people come and go so quickly these days.  Makes me wonder why...  The sky... the sky is blue.  And green.  And yellow."

The three Stylites stood there motionless for a while, and then filed out of the room.  "This is most awkward," said Graveworm.

"He seems to be getting steadily worse," said Moldwart.

"Should we send the mad girl in and have her... shave him?" said Fingerbone.  "He needs to be... presentable, and he won't let anyone besides her and the doctor near him these days."

Moldwart nodded.  "This seems like a reasonable approach."

Graveworm sighed.  "I have been here half a year, and he doesn't recognize me."

Fingerbonre regarded his fellow for a second.  "That is disturbingly self-centered, Graveworm."

"You are right," said the Stylite abashed.  "I am becoming flustered.  It is this mission.  I will abase myself before Grandmaster Radience when next we talk."

The trio nodded in unison and filed out the hall.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 15

Mansemat Cthonique stood at the solitary tree that lay in the distance.  He wasn't sure what sort of tree it was, really.  Possibly an oak.  Or perhaps... an ash.  He'd have to ask Viv.  She was good with trees.  For him--well, he knew the general fact that some had needles and others had leaves, but the specifics were he had to acknowledge, rather beyond him.  But Viv would know.  Or Nissy...

He winced.  He'd forgotten for a moment there.  But then it was hard.  For his entire life, Nisrioch had been this familiar presence, always there, or at least, within range.  And now... gone.

Because Mansemat had sent him away.  Because he had to.  Because years and years of plots and plans, and promises that it was all for the greater glory had at last gotten too cloying, too ridiculous to keep up with, no matter how much he loved his brother.  Because you could never know what those strange Demon's eyes saw, could you?  Could never be sure where you measured up in them...

That tree bothered him.  It bothered him on a fundamental level. And he didn't know why.  It just gave him a fundamental sense of dread.

He thought he heard a flutter of wings near him.  He was about to turn to face it, when he heard a voice.  "Ahem...  Give me just a second..." muttered Jean.  "There!"  Mansemat turned to see his sister-in-law standing there.  "You know I'm so glad I figured out how to apport clothes.  Makes shape-shifting so much easier."

"I'm glad to see things are working out so well for you after our latest ordeal," replied Manesmat.

Jean stared at him suspiciously.  "Is that sarcastic?"

"No," said Mansemat, shaking his head.  "Why would you think that?"

"Ehh, maybe it's just all this diplomacy, and other stuff..." muttered Jean.  "I'm starting to distrust everybody, and... you know, we just aren't getting the time to hang out like we used to.  Justinian's out near Joyeuse, handling those damn talks with the damn Easter King, we're here in the Folly looking for the damn Necklace, Nissy is..."

Mansemat coughed and pointed to the tree.  "What is that?"

Jean arched an eyebrow.  "A tree."

"Yes, but what kind?" asked Mansemat.

"Well, I'm not a big tree girl--Viv would be better--but I'd say that's... a birch," said Jean.

Mansemat blinked and stared at it for a long moment.  "Really?"

"Yep," said Jean.  "See the whitish bark?"

Mansemat nodded.  "Ahh.  Well, thank you.  That was bothering me, you see."

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 14

Justinian did his best to look forcefully into the chubby man's eyes.  "So," said the Eastern ambassador, "yet again, after your assurance that meaningful talks could begin today, we are again presented with more delays."  He gave a sigh.  "Such a... pity."

Justinian glanced away.  "Things have happened."

The chubby man gave a little sniff.  "This seems to happen quite freqently."

"Well, yes," said Justinian.  "We live in a shifting world.  Things are constantly happening.  In this case, they mean that I alone am talking with you."

"Indeed," said the man with yet another sigh.  "On my side, the Emperor's court has... given me an indication of the Most Worthy's thoughts on this matter..."

Justinian gave a dull nod.  The Easter King had countless honorifics, all exaggerated, all faintly ridiculous.  "And what were they?"

"That the truce, alas, must end," said the ambassador.  "In a week's time, if the Emperor is not given reason to think otherwise, our troops will besiege Joyeuse."

Justinian did his best not to fall out of his chair.  "That... surely Skarvsky realizes that..."

The man gave a slight smile.  "I would not dare claim to know the mind of the Illustrious Gate.  But... let us consider.  Over and over we suffer delays.  Bothersome delays.  And vague tales of disorder.  And that indicates that the eye of your Dark Lord is turned from this area.  And so the Emperor asks himself, what does he risk by attacking? And he decides, very little."

Justinian took a deep breath.  "Yes, but..."

The man raised one plump little hand. "Indeed, before you object, I am only speculating.  Foolishly!  Foolishly!  For who am I to speak for our great and glorious Emperor.  A flea, a speck, a bit of dirt!"  He gave a shrug.  "And yet, that is who you must deal with for the moment..."

"Of course," said Justinian, rubbing his temples.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 13

Sacripant glanced at the massive bell-tower ringing out the the time in the town square.  He'd been supposed to meet his contact with the Talossan government here, and now, after nearly half an hour, was starting to wonder if this man existed.  Which had him wondering if perhaps he should go back to the airship, while it was still here, and listen to the pilot explaining how cloves were selling in the Free Cities.

Which was how he knew he was bored out of his skull, at least, to an even greater degree than listening to her would have made him.

"Are you... Fenwater, of the Cthonique Guard?" came a quiet voice.

"Fenswater," he replied, turning to see the pale man with long brown hair and a face full of stubble.  "Yes, that's me."

"Nathan Aaronson, of the Lamplighters," said the man.  He glanced away.  "I... found the body."

"Ahh."  Sacripant offered his hand. "Well, it will be a pleasure working with you."

Nathan nodded, shaking the Marsh Erl's hand awkwardly.  "Yes. Yes.  Indeed.  Yes."  He bit his lip and looked away.  "Do you know where you will be staying?  While you are here?"

Sacripant stared for a moment.  "I thought that was taken care of."

Nathan's eyes went wide.  "Ahh.  That.. does make some difficulties."  He coughed.  "I... there's a spare room at my house.  You can stay there, while we look for an available room to let..."  He leaned forward.  "It's not very fancy."

"I've slept in barracks and tents," replied Sacripant.  "I'm sure you're room is fine.  Hell, I'm sure your shed would be fine, if it came down to that."

Nathan looked away, as they walked down the streets of Talossa. "I don't have a shed."

"It was just a..." began Sacripant.

"My cousin does, though," continued Nathan.  He gulped.  "It's magnificent."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 12

The Mamelukes marched through the mud, even as it turned their shiny red boots a dull, awful brown. 

"So, where we going again?" whispered one of the younger members to the Goblin in front of him.

"North," stated the other. "Now be quiet.  Don't want the Serjeant seeing us."

The young Goblin nodded idly, and continued marching, and then coughed.  "But why?"

"Because the King wants us to," said his fellow.  "Now, hush, Suckling."

"Yes, but... I want some idea who he wants us to kill," whispered Suckling.  "Is it the Ogres of the Ironfangs, or the Stonefangs, or is it the Cthoniques, same as usual?"  He paused.  "Well, not usual. Ain't been any fighting for a long time, really.  Quite pleasant that, actually.  Me mam tells me..."

"Hush, Suckling," hissed his fellow.

"Oh, you hush, Hearn," snapped Suckling. 

"Don't you hush me..." snarled Hearn, only to be interrupted by a tap on the shoulder with a truncheon.  He gulped and turned to see Serjeant Liveoak standing there.

"No talking, Lightfoot," said the Serjeant quietly.

Hearn gulped and nodded.  "No... no, sir.  Of course not."

The Serjeant smiled at him, and gestured at Suckling.  "You might do to consider the example of Squaretoe there.  Quiet as a mouse.  A credit to his unit."  He tipped his fez at the young Goblin.  With that the Serjeant moved down the line. 

Hearn glared at Suckling.  "You...?"

"Hey, don't get cross with me," said Suckling.  "I'm a credit to the unit."  He sighed.  "Do wish I knew who they wanted me to kill, mind you..."  And with that he began to whistle as the Mamelukes moved through the mud.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 11

It was raining when Nathan reached the Lamplighter Hall that evening.  Old Reliable was behind the counter, as he always was.  "A bit of courage to warm you this cool night?" he asked, polishing his bottle. 

Nathan shook his head.  "Not tonight," he said.  "I've promised Monica to keep a clear head.  And with the..."

The older man raised his hand.  "You know why I don't go out anymore to the light the lamps?"

"Because of the... sacrifices you've made in the service," muttered Nathan. 

"If you mean my wooden leg, yes, that's why I'm back here now," noted Old Reliable.  He flexed a gnarled hand, then winced.  "That and the cold that's gotten into my joints.  But more the leg, really.  I kept at it for awhile, after I lost it, but it proved too difficult in the long run.  Do you know how I lost it?"

"Grunewald said it was a fight," noted Nathan, looking away.

The old man gave a curt nod.  "That's the charitable way to put it.  When I first joined, the Red Blinkers ran the docks.  The White Scarves ran the taverns.  It was a neat arrangement, until the White Scarves got hungry, and decided they wanted both.  A bit of war started up.  And I, fool that I was, tried to stop it. "  He poured out a drink of aqua vitae into a glass before him.  "What I did not understand was that the White Scarves had clever leaders.  Men who gave money and time to... certain influential persons connected to the Ancients when they made their plans.  And so I, thinking I was doing my duty, made certain enemies.  And so, one evening, I was given a route through a rough bit of territory.  And ambushed by the White Scarves."  He sighed.  "The barbers saved my life, but not my leg."  He looked at the younger man pointedly.

Nathan look back in silence.  "Why are you telling me this?" he asked.

"To make a point," said Old Reliable.  "After this happened to me--well, I had an idea who had done this to me.  And I considered... acting against them.  But I did not.  Because we Lamplighters--we serve the government of Talossa.  Not any gods.  Not any great ideals.  Just the government of Talossa.  And when I decided to play the hero--well, it may have made me feel all grand, but it was exceeding my duties.  And I paid for it."  He leaned forward.  "Now... I will not speak of certain matters.  After all, neither of us has any idea just what the other knows, and I think it should stay that way.  I will simply advise you that if any difficulties in your instructions come in the days ahead to remember what your duties as a Lamplighter are.  And to keep to them."  He stamped his peg on the floor, the smacking noise almost making Nathan jump from his seat.  "Oh, yes.  You keep to them, lad."

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 10

Sarvar glanced at the Devs assembled in the courtyard and frowned.  They were not so good as the group he had lead all those years ago, across the river with Lord Shaddad. These were young men--untried, who probably had known only personal duels.  Indeed, he did not recognize a single one of them.

But what do you expect?  You've been out of circulation for too long, Sarvar.
  One hand began to idly stroke his greying beard.  The Ashurana haven't needed you for a long time.  But now they do.  The whelp's dead, and you're all that's left. All that's worth anything, anyway...  He took a deep breath, and walked out before them.  "All right," he declared, crossing his arms.  "I'm not going to ask if you know who I am.  Largely because I know not a one of you does.  What I ask of you is do you realize that I am the man your Dark Lord has placed in charge of you since Serjeant Trufaldin's... untimely demise?"  He leaned forward.  "Because I most assuredly am."

One of the young men smirked at this, and let out a chuckle.  Sarvar nodded.  He'd known something like this was coming.  To an extent he welcomed it.  "Something funny, young man?" he said, stepping before the smirking.

"Yes.  Your speech," said the young man.  He stepped forwards, hand on the hilt of his blade.  "I don't know where Belberith dug you out of, but somehow the idea of a fossil like you taking the place was amusing enough before you made that sad little attempt to be intimidating.  Now it is downright hilarious."

"Ahh."  Sarvar stepped away, turning his back.  "So, you wish to ignore Lord Belberith's orders, mmmm?"

"Oh, noooo," said the young man.  "He says you are the Serjeant, and I, Lord Mitokht of the Amber Mountain, agree.  I simply find you exceedingly amusing."

Sarvar nodded.  "Well, it is unadvisable for a Guard to laugh at his Serjeant."

"How unfortunate," said Mitokht.

"And so I demand you take action," continued Sarvar.  "Attack me, Lord Mitokht.  Demonstrate how laughable I am."

The young Dev stared at him in bafflement.  "You're joking?"

"No," said Sarvar.  "Funny as you find me, I rarely joke, young man."  He drew his weapon.  "Come at me.  I'll even give you the first strike.  And I am fighting with nothing more than a practice blade--nothing more than a stick.  You have every advantage..."

Mitokht stared for a moment, then darted forward.  Sarvar watched him, and then watched him flicker out of sight.  He chuckled to himself as he felt the familiar flutter of air, then pivoted and struck.  He smiled slightly as Mitokht produced an ear-piercing shriek.  "Every advantage, save ability and training, that is," muttered Savar.  He turned to the remaining men.  "I am well aware that the Ashurana Guard has become nothing more than a place for young dandies to gad about and practice their... ineffectual swordplay.  That changes now. I am in charge, and I will restore this unit to its former ability, starting today."  A thin smile came to his lips.  "The Ashuranas have need of us.  And I will make certain that they are not disappointed."  A hand began to idly play with his greying beard.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 9

Nathan sat at the table and ate his oatmeal quietly.  His wife regarded him, eyes low.  Eventually, she coughed.  "Is everything all right, dear?"

The Lamplighter glanced up, and smiled.  "Of course, Monica.  Why should it not be?"  He forced a soft laugh from his lips. 

"Well, you've managed to make that one bowl of oatmeal last for twenty straight minutes," noted Monica. 

Nathan blinked then laughed again.  "Why... yes, you're right.  Sorry about that."  He began to shovel the food into his mouth.

Monica massaged her temples.  "Nathan... that is not what I meant by pointing that out."

"Good oatmeal," declared Nathan.  "I say, the way you mix in the cheese is..."

"Don't change the subject, Nathan," said Monica.

"You're the one who mentioned the oatmeal," replied Nathan defensively, standing up.

Monica winced.  "Nathan, I do not want to have conversations like this..."

"Then you married the wrong man," replied Nathan.  "I'm a Lamplighter.  We see things.  Awful things.  Things we cannot speak of. "

Monica raised an eyebrow.  "Is this...?  Did you people have another drunken party in your guildhall?  Is that what this is about?"

"Our initiation ceremonies are not drunken parties!" said Nathan. "And no.  It is... something else.  Something I cannot speak of."  He peered at her significantly, and went to the door. "Now I must be off.  I will be meeting with someone I cannot talk about soon, to  speak of things I cannot tell you about."  And with that he strode out the door.

Monica sat there and waited for him to come back when he realized he had forgotten his lunch.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 8

"Have to say," noted the airship pilot cheerily, "it's such a pleasure taking these ships over the River."

Sacripant nodded.  "Indeed?" he said at last, increasingly aware that the Goblin expected a response.

"Oh, yes," said the pilot with a smile.  "Think of it!  When I was a lass, there was none of these flying about, and now--not only am I flying them, but I'm flying them to the Lands of Light!  Across the river!"  She glanced at him.  "You know, we're doing great business over there!  Why, bringing in the Free Cities has more than doubled our spice exports!"

"Fascinating," muttered Sacripant.

"It is," agreed the pilot.  "And remember, we've just begun.  Who knows where the trade will be in a year or two?  We could see it double again!  Or even triple!  Can you imagine what that sort of change in our trade patterns could do for the Emporium?  It's unprecedented!  The wealth available here is astonishing!"

Sacripant glanced away.  "Astonishing," he mumbled.

"It  is," answered the pilot with a nod.  "So what are you doing in Montfort?"

"Waiting for the ship to go to Orgagna," he answered.

The pilot blinked at that.  "Ahh.  And what are you doing in Orgagna?"

"Waiting for the ship to go to Talossa," answered Sacripant.

The pilot bit her lip.  "When we hit Talossa, are you just waiting for the ship to go to Bellamarina, or...?"

"No, no, I've got business in Talossa," answered Sacripant.  "Nothing too important.  Just a murder to look into."

The pilot gulped at that.  "Ahh."  She was silent for a moment, then nodded.  "You see, I prefer spice trade.  Nobody gets hurt.  Unless they try to do something foolish like swallow a lot of cinnamon all at once."

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 7

Nathan stood outside the door listening to the occasional shout and angry exclamation from within the Chamber of the Ancients.  Grunewald glanced at him, briefly, and made a fitful cough. 

"Do not fear," said Grunewald.  "The Ancients are simply in debate.  It will pass, and we will give our report."

Nathan stared at the older man quietly.  "I know that."

Grunewald nodded.  "Well, you looked nervous," he said, "I felt I should work to calm you."

"I wasn't," noted Nathan.

"Well, you looked it," said Grunewald. 

Nathan snorted.  "I doubt it."

"Are you calling me a liar, lad?" snapped Grunewald.

"Are you calling me a 'lad'?" replied Nathan.  "By the heavens, I'm a long-married man with children at home in bed, Grunewald."

"You're still younger than me," replied Grunewald.  "Anyway, you don't know how these things go.  This isn't some old drunk, knifed to death in a back-alley, or even the son of an Ancient getting a bit frisky with a freeborn girl.  This..."  He licked his lips.  "Did you ever hear of the Willigot case?"

Nathan frowned.  "It... doesn't sound familiar."

Grunewald gave a dark laugh at that.  "I suppose I should have expected that.  They buried it well, that one. It all began..."

The door to the Chamber opened.  The Keeper of the Keys regarded them for a moment.  "Master Nathan of the Lamplighters.  The Ancients call thee to speak before them."  Without another word, Nathan bowed his head and walked into the Chamber. It seemed to him that Grunewald, who had been on edge the entire time they were there, now was openly fearful, but perhaps Nathan was simply letting his own nerves get to him.  It was not every day one saw a dead body, much less a dead Nightfolk.  As he entered he saw that a copy of the Charter had been placed near the door with what looked like two strips of cloth attached to the bottom. 

"What...?" he began to whisper to the Keeper of the Keys.

"Do not ask on these matters," replied the Keeper.