Thursday, September 29, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 11

The woman was sitting at a bench, eating a grilled sausage when Sacripant and Nathan approached her.  "You... you were the musician..." said Sacripant.

"Hello Nina," said Nathan quietly.

"Lamplighter," answered Nina, going back to her meal.

"I greeted you by  name," Nathan chided.

"Very well," Nina answered with a smirk.  "Nathan the Lamplighter.  Why do you darken my presnece at the moment?"

"I think you stole my friend's purse," answered Nathan, gesturing to Sacripant. 

"I?" said Nina.  "I am a street musician! I play the harp prettily to the applause of the crowd..."

"While your siblings lift purses," replied Nathan.

Nina smirked at that.  "The little dears need to do something."  She glanced at Sacripant.  "Anyway, he's no Lamplighter, so it's no business of yours, I believe."

"He's a guest, under our protection," said Nathan.  "Mine specifically."

"That should have been made clear," said Nina.

"The purse, Nina," snapped Nathan.

With a grumble, the woman produced it and tossed it at the Erl's feet.  "Oh, very well.  Count the coins if you wish--you'll find we didn't spend any of your strange Nightlander money yet. "

Sacripant picked it up and then glanced inside.  "I liked your song!" he said accusingly, as he replaced it on his belt.

"Then you have good taste," she said, going back to her meal. "Now... off with you."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 10

"Behold the hour is late!" said the masked man in the doorway.

Willard stared at him for a long moment.  "It is early evening, Aloysius."

Aloysius recoiled at that.  "You are not supposed to recognize me!"

"Yes, but I know your voice anywhere," replied Willard leaning back in his chair.  "Care for a drink?  I have some of that fine Nightland brandy here.  It really is quite excellent."

"A Voice of the Council must not drink on the job!" said Aloysius.

"I'm on the Council," said Willard with a sigh.  "You could consider it an order."

Aloysius peered at him imperiously through the mask's eye-holes.  "There are Ancients, and there are Ancients, Willard.  You are most assuredly not a member of the second group."

"How do you know?" asked Willard.  "They might have invited me to join them?"

Aloysius crossed his arms.  "No levity!  You are called to a secret council by the Voice!  Come immediately."

Willard nodded, stood up and got a bottle from the wall.  He poured himself a small glass.

"I told you I'm not having a drink!" snapped Aloysius.

"Yes, but I am," said Willard.  He gulped it down, smacking his lips.  "Ahhh.  That satisfied."  He turned to regard Aloysius again.  "You sure you won't have one?"

Aloysius stared for a moment, and then entered the room, grumbling all the while.  "Oh, very well.  But a different glass."

"Of course!" said Willard with a nod.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 9

Sacripant glanced back at the doorway.  "Well, that was... odd. Who was the...?"

"He could have you killed with a word, you know," said Nathan flatly, as he walked down the darkened hall.

"What?" Sacripant scurried to the Lamplighter's side.

"Crookleg could have you killed with a word," repeated Nathan. "His people were all around us.  A word, a nod, even a look from him, and you'd be dead."

The Erl blinked.  "You're serious.  Damn.  Who... is he?"

"A Master of the Guild of Beggars and Thieves. He handles security here.  For a hefty fee."  Nathan shook his head.  "Masters of the Guild do not like to be trifled with."

"So... why did you come here if it's so dangerous?" asked Sacripant.

"It isn't dangerous to me," said Nathan.  "Nor to you, if you follow my instructions. The Beggars do not attack the Lamplighters.  It's an arrangement we have.  An old one.  Old as the Great Tower and its bell."

Sacripant blinked.  "How old is that, precisely?"

Nathan considered things.  "I'm not really sure.  The King of Leonais did not rule in Joyeuse then.  That I know for certain."  He paused before a curtain and pulled it back.  Sacripant stared ahead into the darkness, and saw a crowd in a great chamber, eating, drinking, and... so far as he could tell... selling things

"The Thieves Market of Talossa," said Nathan.  "Follow me.  And don't talk to anyone unless I tell you to."

"What if I see the pickpockets who took my stuff?" asked the Erl.

"You especially don't talk to them," answered Nathan.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 8

Crookleg sat before the building, his eyes closed, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.  A hoot disturbed the old man's apparent rest--his rheumy eyes opened, and glanced out over the desolate square. 

"Who is there?" asked the old beggar quietly.

The Lamplighter approached, the Erl behind him.  "Nathan, of the Guild of the Lamp," he answered.  "I come to call on the old agreements between Lamp and Bowl."

Crookleg snorted.  "Agreements?  Where were the agreements, when Yellow Tom and Suky Tawny were forced from the streets a week ago, mmm?  You Lamplighters grow ever harder on we poor, poor Beggars, and we do you no wrong, no wrong at all..."

Nathan crossed his arms.  "Yellow Tom was probably killing the men that Suky lured to him.  We can accept a certain measure of theft.  Not murder."

"Unproven!" snapped Crookleg.  "Absolutely unproven!  Oh, the cruelty of you brothers of the Lamp!"

"This is not presently under discussion," said Nathan.  "I am here one another matter."

Crookleg glanced at Sacripant.  "You I know.  Him I do not."

"He travels with me," replied Nathan.  "Under my protection."

Crookleg spat and turned away.  "A Nightfolk.  You bring a Nightfolk."

"I do," said Nathan with a nod.  "Now, will you let me in, or will I have to go back to my brothers and tell them the Beggars forget the old laws?"

Crookleg sat there for a moment, and then curled into a ball.  "Oh, very well.  Go in.  Go in.  See if it helps you.  I need my rest."

Nathan gave a formal bow, and then glanced at Sacripant.  After a moment, the Erl bowed as well.  "We thank you, Master Crookleg, for your forbearance."

Crookleg mumbled something inaudible as the pair entered the building.  As they vanished, he appeared once again to sleep.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 7

Nathan watched the Erl gulping down a mouthful of noodles.  "These are good!" declared Sacripant.  He glanced at the Lamplighter.  "I'm kind of surprised at all the stalls and stands and carts for food you have in Talossa...  Closest things to them in the Folly is coffee houses."

"They keep people fed," answered Nathan.  "You feeling better now?"

"Well, full at least," said Sacripant.  He put the bowl to his lips and drank down the broth.  As Nathan watch, the Erl licked around his lips with a rather large, long tongue.  "Very good."  He smiled at Nathan, who turned away awkwardly.

"So," began Nathan, "where exactly were you when you were purse was lifted?"

Sacripant scratched his head.  "Umm, let's see... You know the street with a hippopotamus statue?"

Nathan nodded.  "Water Street?"

"Ahh, thanks," said the Erl.  "I was two streets to the west of that,"

"That would be the Fine Way," answered Nathan.  He sighed.  "Come with me."

"You're saying that a lot, tonight," noted Sacripant as he fell in beside the Lamplighter.

"You've gotten yourself in a bit of a mess," answered Nathan.

"True," agreed Sacripant.  He yawned.  "So... Fine Way?"

Nathan shrugged.  "It used to be a very well-to-do neighborhood."

Sacripant's eyes went wide.  "What happened?"

"The same thing that happened to the rest of Talossa," answered Nathan.  "Time."

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 6

The sun was setting and the evening was beginning as Nathan made his way through the streets, lighting the lamps.  He'd drawn the early shift tonight, something he was grateful for.  It would be good to see Monica in the evening for once...

"Umm, hello!" came a vaguely familiar voice tinged with desperation.  Nathan glanced down the street to his Erl houseguest standing there in a stained cloak, glancing around nervously.  He considered things for a moment, then sighed and walked towards the Nightlander.

"Fenswater," said Nathan flatly.  "What are you doing here?"

"Being lost, hungry and broke," said Sacripant.  "Help me please."

Nathan stared for a second.  "You don't have much pride, do you?"

"Oh, I have plenty," answered the Erl.  "But not a drop of false pride.  You lose that quickly in the Guard." 

"Ahh."  Nathan nodded.  "So... how exactly did you run out of money?  You had plenty last I..."

"Stolen," answered Sacripant.  "By children." Nathan gave another nod at that.  "You don't seem surprised," noted the Erl.

"Most pickpockets are children," replied the Lamplighter with a shrug.  "The Guild  like to start them young."

Sacripant stared.  "The... Guild?  There's a guild of pickpockets in this city...?"

"A guild of thieves," answered Nathan.  "Well... criminals in general really.  Used to be a guild for beggars--still is to a degree--but they realized crime paid better."

"And you don't try to catch them, or anything?" said Sacripant.

"Not my job," said Nathan.  "I just light lamps, and stop random crimes and acts of violence."  He peered at Sacripant for a moment.  "Still..."    He gestured.  "Come on."

"Where are we going?" asked Sacripant, falling behind the Lamplighter.

"To get you a bowl of soup," replied Nathan.  "You said you were hungry."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 5

Sacripant chomped the bread that hunger at last compelled him to buy at one of the many stalls on the street.  It was surprisingly tasty, though Sacripant found he had to make a concerted effort not to wonder what the ingredients might have been.  The sound of music struck his ears. 

"...And the King did come, saying 'what does ail you my lady? Your eyes they look so dim, your eyes they look so dim'..." sang the pretty young woman playing a small harp.  Sacripant smiled.  That was another thing that was everywhere in Talossa, during the day--musicians.  They played old songs, and were paid by passer-bys.  They all seemed to stay a certain distance from each other, following some strange code that the Marsh Erl didn't even claim to fathom. 

They were, as a rule, quite good at it.  He could understand why people lived here, when he passed them.  A group of cheerful children skipped by Sacripant, jostling him slightly.  He gave a forebearing chuckle.  He had to admit, this wasn't such a bad place on the whole...

He stopped.  His hand had idly gone into his cloak, as he did every so often, and not felt the familiar weight of his coin purse.  He checked again.

It was definitely gone.

Sighing he turned around and headed back down the streets, eyes looking for the children who'd jostled him.

Who he couldn't see now.

Damn it.  This was becoming one of these days.   He nodded.  He would just have to head back to his host's house and...

He then realized that he had no real idea what street he was on, exactly.

Damn it again.  He attempted to tell himself that things could not get worse.

That was when a bird shat upon his cloak.

Damn it yet again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 4

Willard's eyes darted over the accounts.  Grain was up, the new spice sales were expanding to meet the burgeoning supply, and coin was rolling in.  On the whole, it was proving quite a profitable season, even if the war was going on, and the Nightfolk were here now. 

Possibly because of that.  It was hard to be sure, of course.  One should never jump to conclusions in such matters.  Especially when they were such controversial ones.  An Ancient had to remember that he was a respectable citizen of Talossa.  One of the most respectable, which is why he had been vouchsafed the right to meet in the Chamber, to ask and to direct, instead of being called there, to answer and to obey.

And yet a man had to remember that even an Ancient could find himself brought before the Chamber if he was not careful.  No man was greater than Talossa.  The Ancients' rights were based on their understanding that, and seeking to answer and obey the needs of the city, as they discerned it. 

Which presently meant a Dark Lord was serving as Lord Protector.  Largely because the Dukes and Nobles in the East had insisted on it, but still, everyone could agree that Amfortas had been remarkably bad at it.

Though the Faith was still apparently in the middle of its delusion that a man who had been imprisoning his own father was a great and worthy champion of righteousness.

Which was another problem for the Ancients.  But one an Ancient was expected to avoid talking about.  Or even thinking about for a prolonged time. 

Willard glanced back at his accounts.  Yes, they were good.  Very good.  

And he was tired.  Very tired.

And it was only the beginning of the day.  Swearing quietly to himself, Willard cursed all the sinister plotting that being an Ancient involed him with.  One could repeat the old formulas over and over, but in the end, the same damn problem emerged--you were scheming, and scheming tended to be bad business in the long run, especially when you had no clear payoff for them.

He'd told them that, of course, but they hadn't listened.  They rarely did.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 3

Sacripant stared at the Goblin at the airship station.  "So... no messages for me?"

She glanced at him with such startling suspicion that he had to wonder what was going. "No.  Not at all.  Not for some time."  She leaned forward.  "Don't expect any in the future, either.  At least, not from the Emporium."

Sacripant raised an eyebrow.  "So... I might get one... not from the Emporium?"

"I didn't say that!" she snapped.  "Don't ask any more questions!  I'm not allowed to answer them!"

"Not any?" asked Sacripant.

She fidgeted and turned away.  "Have to tend the shop!  Spice exports!  They're vitally important!  Vitally!"

Sacripant sighed.  "Right.  Right."  He began to walk out the station, and then paused.  "Will they be sending any more...?"

"No questions!" she yelled, rushing outside to board the airship.

Sacripant headed outside and glanced at the tall building, trying to figure out what it had been before it had been the Emporium had purchased it to keep their airships near when they were in the city.  Whatever it was, it was ungodly tall.  But then, so were all the buildings near it, especially the Great Tower.  He wondered what it was about Talossa that made its inhabitants want to make everyone there feel small, and then gave up with a shrug.  It wasn't something unique to Milesians.  There were places in the Lands of Night like that, after all.

"Sausage, sir?" asked a man, pushing a cart with a brazier through the street. 

Sacripant eyed the greasy things suspciously.  "What's in them?"

The man stared at him as if he'd asked him to name an obscure figure from history.  "Meat?" he at last managed.

"I think I'll pass," said Sacripant, moving on.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 2

In the old town, the streets of Talossa were clad in marble.  Not the finest marble now--not for a long time.  It was pitted, and blackened, and covered in graffiti.  But still marble.  The morning mists put a strange sheen to it, when the light struck it, that made it seem strange and dead.

Grunewald shook his head. He was being foolish, but then, he'd been foolish in this manner quite a bit recently. Somehow, it was hard these days to move about Talossa and not feel the best days had passed--passed before he was even born, leaving men like him to live in a withered, battered shell, dreaming of a glory they knew only in stories. 

It was depressing, but you went on.  It was all you could do.

Ulrich and Morrell were waiting for him at the corner.  "So... what's Nathan told you about the Erl?" asked Ulrich.

"Not much," said Grunewald.  "He apparently keeps to himself.  And Nathan..."

"Birds of a feather," said Morrell with a snort.

Grunewald nodded.  "Aye."

"Well, keep asking," said Ulrich.  "The Lamplighters do not need this matter to become more of an embarassment.  It's bad enough as it is."

"I know that," said Grunewald eyes flashing with resentment.

"Did we suggest you didn't?" said Morrell.  "This is a friendly reminder.  We are all one fellowship here.  One brotherhood, with one purpose."

"And serving one city," added Ulrich.

Grunewald nodded.  He didn't like being a spy for his fellows in this matter, but that's what being a Lamplighter meant.  You went on.  It was all you could do.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 1

Sacripant Fenswater awoke to the sound of the great bells of Talossa tolling and groaned.  Shutting his eyes, he did his best to try sleep again, but it was hopeless.  Rest escaped him, in the manner of his uncle's little pug dog when Sacripant was on orders to try and clean it.  He would appear to be on the verge of holding it in his hands, only to have it slip away.

He gave a frustrated yawn.  He knew he was tired now--he was getting poetic.  And nostalgic.  But the bell kept ringing, and so Sacripant rose from the too-lumpy mattress and changed into his uniform. 

The ringing finally stopped as he fastened on his cloak. Sacripant scowled.  He blamed being a country boy for not getting how these city dwellers allowed their lives to be ruled by the clanging of bells and the rules of strange fellowships.  In Valse, your parents woke you in the morning, and then you fished. 

Because everybody in Valse had parents, and fished.  It was exciting, but it was regular.

Talossa was different.  The Guilds were everywhere.  The Great Bells rang on their appointed hours, and men and women lived by them.  Sacripant had never seen anything like it.  Not even in the Folly, with its clubs and sworn brotherhoods.  Compared to Talossa, the Folly seemed a simple place. 

He'd been here almost a week, and he still had not seen the Ancients.  Indeed he was still saying in the Lamplighter's home, despite promises that he would be moved to a more private set of rooms, promises that never varied in their pleasantness, in their vagueness, and indeed, in their very language.

"Hello, Mr. Fenswater," said the Lamplighter's wife as he came down the stairs.  "The oatmeal's ready, if you'd like it.   Apples and raisins."

"Thank you, Monica," he said.  He glanced around.  "Where's Nathan?"

"Sleeping," she answered.  "He had a late night."

"How can he sleep through that?" asked Sacripant as he took a seat.

"You're not the first person to ask that," she answered ruefully.  "I think it's a family trait.  Lamplighters, five generations back."  She sighed.  "He warned me it was a strange life, but I was smitten."

"Well, make damn sure he realizes he's a lucky man," noted Sacripant.

"Rest assured, I do," she said with a smirk.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 21

Mansemat smacked his lips and wondered when they'd feel normal again.  He gave himself another mental kick.  He'd known the tea was much too hot, but had gulped it down anyway, and then managed to spill it on his mouth as he jerked the cup away. 

Viviane glanced at him.  "Do you want me to...?"

"I'll be fine," said Mansemat.  "Just fine.  It's really not worth bothering."

"Yeah, well, I don't want you doing that all through the meeting," she said.  "It's really annoying.  And it makes you look kind of like an idiot."

Mansemat considered noting that he never talked about her tapping her fingers on tables during meetings, but realized that was a self-nullifying statement, and said nothing.  Instead, he allowed himself to scowl, something that continued as Mayor Corin Latheawl entered.  As the big bluff face was also scowling, Mansemat immediately tried to put on a more pleasant face.

He disliked making bad situations worse.  It brought back bad memories from his youth.  "Mayor Latheawl," began Mansemat.  "It is good to see..."

The man continued to frown as he took his seat.  "If that is your opinion, it will soon change," he said.  He stared at the Dark Lords flatly. "Marsilion's Folly cannot pay for this war indefinitely, Your Magnificences.  We are forced to refuse your request for an increase on the salt tax." 

Viviane blinked. "Wow.  You don't pull punches."

"That's why I was elected mayor of the Folly.  Twice," replied Latheawl.  "As the Black Caps will tell you, I'm not a man to be trifled with."

"And we will not do this," said Mansemat trying hard to smile.  "We respect you, Mayor, respect you greatly and..."

Corin glanced around.  "Where is Lord Nisrioch?"

"Elsewhere," said Viviane quietly.

Latheawl sighed.  "A pity.  He is well-versed in local matters."

Mansemat considered pointing out that he regularly appeared in his chains of office to discuss just that, but decided against it.   Instead he fidgeted nervously, and glanced at the door, hoping for a knock.

When it came, he had a sinking feeling he shouldn't have made the wish.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 20

Justinian watched the flaming pot rushing through the air, streaks of fire trailing in its wake.  It landed in a small shop with a thatched roof.   As the familiar crackle reached his ears, he turned to the short man by his side.  "Call the buckets!  A fire on the Golden Street!"

The man scowled at him, as he loosened his horn from his belt.  "I can see that!"  He sounded a quick series of notes, which was apparently a sort of code.  Sigma could scarcely credit it, but sure enough the men were appearing in the streets, buckets in hand.

"The Guilds know their business!" said the man with a grim smile.  "If you'd only let us run more than a few streets prior to this, the damned Prince would never have done what he did."

Justinian gave a dull nod.  "Now is not the time to discuss the problems of Joyeuse's government, Valdemar."

"It's always the time," said the Guildmaster.  "There's going to be changes in this city, you can trust me on this."

Justinian considered a reply to this, but decided to focus on the Easterner assault on the walls.  The janissaries were trying another battering ram assault on the gates.  It occurred dimly to him that it was somewhat distressing the differences in Amfortas' army's shamble of a siege compared with Ilarion's disciplined one--but then Joyeuse was not Montalban.  The city was difficult to defend in the best of time--months of strife and jangled nerves had not helped.  And then there were all the nobles who had headed to their home estates once Amfortas' government had toppled.  Not that he could completely blame them--the north was also ablaze, as the Prince's loyalsts raided and looted in his name. 

It doesn't help that we're all fighting for a thousand different causes, in the end.  Amfortas had promised a new age of glory for Leonais--now it looked as if the kingdom might cease to exist after his rule. 

It seemed a fitting epitaph.

"So when are your Nightfolk friends coming again?" asked Valdemar with a scowl, as he watched the battering ram burst into flame.

"They should be here soon," replied Justinian, hoping he was right.