Monday, August 30, 2010

Tears of Knowing (Part the Third)


    There are no floating motes of dust for the light to bounce from.  Indeed, there is little light at all.  Yes there is a fire, but two black dogs lay with dangerous boredom by the hearth.  Certainly they are finely groomed, but importantly, they are gigantic.  The light and the heat doesn't make it past their paws. 
    These creatures the King breeds for strength, speed and obedience.  Their more vicious qualities are bones from training only.  Here are two of five, all the others have been killed.  The King keep a tight leash on their breeding program.  No other dog can match a Wolfhound from the Northern Hollow, and no other Wolfhound can match the Royal Five.  The two here are bored dangerously because rather than be sleeping in the chamber by a fire, they would prefer to drag men on stone roads or chew on elk flesh.  But they are well trained, and lay down in front of the heat ready to obey the call of two voices and two voices only.
    The first voice is the King's.  He rules not from a throne, but from an oblong obsidian table, the largest cut of it's kind.  This table was taken from the only ship to return from a convoy voyage to Mt. Parnassus long ago.  It returned crew-less, the ship, and the King was happy to take the mysterious stone from within.  He rules from it now, in this room, with the counsel of one woman and two other men.  Those three are all sitting, bored like the dogs, dangerous like the dogs, waiting for their master to join them.
    Of the three, the Lady Diana Bouchard can command the dogs.  She sits perfumed in vanilla, fresh rain, and spice.  No longer the courtesan she once was, she has given up scanty trappings, but she still loves red.  She's well threaded in the passion color this afternoon.  She's laced up in a red and maroon affair.  Two holdovers from her younger days struggle to stay bound by the cinnamon and rose gown she wears.  Each inhale from her full lips strains the fabric further, threatening to unleash the flood.  But this is as she likes it.  The tight fit forces her to breathe calmly.  This gives her an air of authority when the men around her get heated and fight with their words.  She calms their heat with a whisper from her lips.  However, there are times when she gets agitated and when she is agitated no one can look away from her wrath, and no man from her breasts.  That also, is as she likes it.
    The mage Hu sits next to the Lady Bouchard.  He is desert kin, born far south of the king’s lands.  As such, for his ancestor's sake, he keeps no hair atop his head.  His thin mustache and long black beard are worn for the same reasons.  The bald man’s face is not wrinkled, his eyes lay narrow and flat against his face.  Haitang Hu is often silent, watching and contemplating as the fire darts and waves.  Of the other two, he is the most calm.  He may even be the most dangerous.  The smells of sugar and spice that fly to his nose from the perfumes of his female compatriot annoy him.  He has never understood the power of sensual experiences.  But he does understand emotional trial and pain.
    The Captain of the king’s guard is not annoyed by the Lady's smell, nor is he unfamiliar with the value of pain.  Where Hu is wise, Antony Blandt is strong.  He is cunning when the Lady is hot.  He is quiet when the King is speaking.  He is forceful when he speaks and doesn't back down.  He has not known the King for as long as Hu and because of this he treats the mage warily.  Blandt's stern demeanor are known throughout not just the Guard, but the entire army.  It is only discipline that keeps him in the Council Chamber.  He would rather be outdoors in the rain or snow or heat.  He hates these meeting and endures only by clenching his teeth, smelling Bouchard’s perfumes, staring at the rise and fall of her chest, and ignoring the magician across from him.
    In this way, the three of them sit in silence, each guarding thoughts of their own.  The room is guarded as well; from the outside, here are guards outside.  They are alone for quite a while until finally the door opens with a loud suck, click and grown from the solid mahogany double doors.  Their king walks quickly in.
    “Hello, my friends. Urgent business, as always, keeps my attentions from this necessary place.”  Captain Blandt rises more quickly than the others.  They all sit when the King sits.  The dogs haven't moved.
    “My Lady, how are the people this midmorning?  Will they soon be ready for a war?”
    Her shock red lips and her honeysuckle breath have kept Blandt at a medium flush.  But they have no effect on the King.  “Yes Lord.”  She says.  "They will soon be ready."    “And the dragoons?” He asks Blandt.   
    Blandt stops chewing his teeth.  “The Calvary should be near to Moeltown by now.  The children will soon be yours.  I have sent Quinn with them in order to deal with the matter personally.”
    Hu comes from his far away thoughts.  “Children?”    “Of course mage,” says the King.  “Go on.  Tell me Captain, when will you know?”
    “One of the mage's birds is kept with Quinn his men.  As soon as we have them, you will know.”
    "Their orders?"
    "The same you gave me, my Lord.  Kill the father, take the children."   
    “That is well.  And how go the dwarves?”   
    “They wait, Excellency.” Hu says.    
    “Are the grey beasts with them?”   
    “No, sire. But they will make it to the caves shortly.  Before your dragoons, I have no doubt.”   
    “Thank you.  That is all I needed to know.  Send for me if anything changes today.  Just as yesterday, even if the sun has fallen, if anything comes up, you will have me informed.”   
    Lady Bouchard raises an eyebrow.  “Lord King.  At the first of the month I was puzzled why you did not leave with your dragoons, or have Blandt at least go with them.  I’m especially curious now, for it seems you are keen to meet every day.  Not only do you have us wait here for you everyday, but these exquisite gatherings are over so quick.  So suddenly assembled and so quickly dismissed." She pouts, her lips kiss themselves.  "Why have you passed on such a great adventure?  You know that I am always eager to have the palace to myself.”  Her smile is sin and bone.   
    “I do.  And I would have.  But I am more prudent than quick, my dear.  I did not travel with them because I did not wish to be caught away from this mighty place and your wonderful company if they do not succeed.”   
    “If they do not succeed?” scoffs Blandt. 
    “Of course they shall succeed.”   
    “Yes, of course Captain.  And if they do, I am certain that our ever-mindful Duke Yarbrough will haste to our borders with arms and men eager to knock down our walls and slit my throat, such are his allegiances to foolish legends.  If my, pardon me--when my dragoons succeed, I wish to be here, so that I can asses the situation from a distance,  so that I might be clear in thought when I respond to the inevitable.  War rolls quickly once the fires start burning.  We will be able to conscript shortly, yes.”   
    “Yes Lord.” Says Blandt
    “Very good.  However, it occurs to me just now that they might fail. Quinn, I mean.  It has happened before.  Even I, heavens forefend, have failed in this pursuit before.  Many times men just disappear into that god forsaken fog.  It's not far away!"
    "My Lord," begins Blandt.  "The fog is days aw—"
    "No.  No it's not!  Well, maybe it is.  But it might happen.  And if that happens, then I also wish to be right here.” He lets out a sigh and inhales the darkness of the room.  “This table is such a gift, don‘t you think?  A trophy.”  The King spreads his fingers out along its smooth surface.  He pets the stone.  "There has been successful conquest before, and there will be again.  We will walk among the stars.  You shall see.  It shall be."
    “I am glad to know it is not our company that keeps you happy, your Majesty,” says Hu.
    “Indeed, I’m sure you are.”  The King almost smiles.  “I have also, just now, decided to send an emissary to the Duke in the West.  And while I’m confident Hu has plenty of reasons to talk to that old acquaintance, I’ve decided that Diana should go.”  Suddenly calm, Cassius looks at Bouchard impassively while rapping his fingers against the cool black tabletop.
    “Oh really?” She asks.  “Why?  And why me?”
    “I thought you might like a little ride in the country.  Or through it.  Whichever.” Hu wryly smiles as the king continues his sarcastic tone.  “And I know that you so enjoy being alone, away from me.  But mostly," He says honestly.  "Mostly I think you may be able, with your generous and plentiful gifts of charisma and, oh, personality, to persuade Yarbrough not to come attack me directly.  Or at least, stall his response when he learns that I'm killing trees and burning children or whichever.  I could burn them, the children I mean.   Either way, if we can stall our conflict with the bastard Duke we're all the better for it.  You do like challenges, don't you Diana?”
She says nothing.
    "Or don't you?"
    “Oh, I enjoy challenges my Lord.  As you would say so eloquently, I know how to stroke a man's charisma."  With a shake of her head Diana asks when she should leave.
    “Immediately.”  Royal eyebrows scowl at her for a brief instant and Bouchard believes that she might be being punished for the one instance she refused the King’s bed.  No matter.  How perfectly male to push something away in an effort to get it back.  She can play games too.
    “I see.” She stands.  Blandt does as well.  “Well come along boys!” she calls to the dogs.  "We'll leave these beasts here to their business."
    They rise up and the room immediately shrinks to a quarter its normal size.  Their massive coats extinguish the flame between them, squishing it from view like a spider running from a fearless thumb.  She adds to the men in the room.  “And when shall I return?  You will, as you put it, send for me, I’m sure.”  Her deep breath inhales six mortal eyes.
    “Indeed I shall.”  Says the King.  "No run along.  Us dogs have work to do."
    “Very well.”  The Lady Diana Bouchard opens the two mahogany doors and follows the wolfhounds out.  With a gentle crunch, the door closes and Blandt sits back down.
    “I grow weary of her,” confesses the King.  “I believe her usefulness is at an end.”Blandt looks at his King intently. “Do you want me to do something about it?”
    “No Antony, it is not an immediate concern.  She can serve me elsewhere and I believe she will."
    Hu laughs.  "Are you certain?"
    The fire in the hearth blasts with raging ferocity with the two large shadows gone.
    "Very well.  Anthony yes, there is something you can do.  She will succeed in keeping Yarbrough at bay, for she is as interested in what the elves have to offer.  She will want to keep him uninvolved as I do, as do you,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
    “But I do not want to share the fairies' little fruits with the Duke should he change is mind and try to ally with us.  Can you imagine the insult?!  If our purpose were to become clear he might try to share our power.  It is an unlikely possibility, but it is present.  Find a man, your best, and Quinn is not your best.  This man should be unswayable to her persuasions.  He should be unwavering in duty and compelled to follow command.  Find him and task him with her life, and Yarbrough's too, if things go too well while she is away and wants to bring home friends..”
    “I could go.” Hu offers smiling.  “I have only ever seen her fully dressed.”
    “Please, mage.  Silence.  I too have seen her dressed and would have her dressed down if I believed Blandt could persuade Yarbrough to wait."
    "I could do that, my Lord," says the Captain.
    "No I think not.  An ambassador requires certain natural gifts and certain levels of skill."  Cassius looks to Blandt and traps the man with his eyes. “Your best.  So that when I say it, she will die.  A man’s passions lead to blood, not tears.  Do you understand?"
    “I do Lord.  And I know you know I too have seen her undressed.  But I swear to you I can do this thing you ask for only men who have slept with that woman and know it for what it is, could resist her charms."
    "Interesting," says the King and he claws at his beard.  "I'm immune.  In fact, I want her dead!  And I've slept with her.  But you?"
    "My Lord, I could do it.  I want to do it, but not enough that I'm unwilling to give the duty to another."
    "Fine.  You may go.  But I'll bet she's leaving now, so make sure to let Hu know how you were planning to arm and organize the expected conscripts."
    "Yes Lord," says Captain Blandt.
    “Thank you Captain.  And bring a chalice with you, I want you to be able to send word when the boys are dead."
    "Dead my Lord?  I thought only the Father?"
    "Yes, fine, either one.  Kill the Father and take the kids."  The King raises his hand but the gesture is unnecessary.  Blandt has already bowed stiffly and headed for the door
     “And you, Hu.  What do I need from you?”
    "Jesting you were not.  Our presence does not keep you at ease, or if it does, look at how quickly you banish your comfort!  You have cleared the room Majesty."
    "Of everyone but you," says the King.
    Haitang breathes through his nose.  He enjoys doing this.  His sense of smell is excellent, and with Bouchard gone he enjoys the smokey flames and the smell of stone.  He measures his thoughts with care, and eventually opens his mouth.
    “There is one thing.”
    “Always one thing, mage.  Ever since the beginning it’s been one thing.  I am eager to hear it.”
    “I have been sitting on this a while.  And am only now fairly sure.  This stone, it's dwarven stone.  It's cold and black.  It's well polished.  But the dwarf lord is not well polished.  He is, I believe now, and I only realize this now, not a dwarf.  He should be well considered, the master underneath the hills.”  Haitang looks into the fire.  He sees the rolling south country; the caves hidden under almost every hill.  The alliance is a delicate balance.  The dwarves are building and singing, crafting and drinking, in their hills.  They sit at council every night in a grave stone hall.  Here in Campbello, the mortals aren’t singing or drinking.  Around this table it is all strategy and brooding.  But not under those hills. "I can see it, Majesty.  The dwarves are dwarves, but the Dwarven Lord; it is a different beast."
    Down underneath the yellow grass of South March, one being sits on a throne.  It listens to the dwarves as they bring complaints, praise, or simple story tales.  It is larger than the others and shrouded by a swirling cloud of coal and gold.  Its arms are thick and stubbed, hairy and strong.  Its eyes glow red as rubies with irises that shine diamond white.  “Yes Lord, he is not a dwarf.  When we are ready, we must be wary.”
    “Thank you mage, but we are already wary.  And I for one am weary of being wary.  It is time to act, and take the consequences as they fall.  Their Lord is not Valkyrie?"
    "No, I did not say it was."
"No, you did not.  But if you did, it might as well be true. Listen mage, and listen well.  We are playing with all fates.  Every creature, every being, every soul on either side of this earth and beyond.  We are toying with destinies of powers we have never even seen.  We only know they exist because I've seen their opposite.  That's all.  I know they're real. They're more real than stories, Mage.  So yes, I am wary."
    "They are real," agrees Hu.  The mage drops the point.  The dwarf king may be more dangerous than anyone, even the eldest ones.
    "Does it have a name, their Lord."
    "Yes, I've heard it in fairy tales.  It's name is Koshei."
    "Ah yes.  I've heard that before.  And truly I care not if the little children in Yarbrough's scattered tribes curse the monster.  We will use their fear, for they have already sewn it among themselves."
Haitang nods grimly.  The King is right.  Before the dwarf war, men were alone.  They were new and young on the earth with nothing to fear but themselves.  Now they are not so young.  Nor are they alone.  There is more to be afraid of than there once was.  Hu stands and thinks that perhaps he should not be referring to men as they.  For he is one of them, is he not.
    "If that is all?"  Asks the mage.
    "You may go," says the King.
    When Hu bows his robes pool out across the floor.  He is at the door when he hears the King's last words.
    "One more thing, Hu.  You are not a pawn on my board.  But know too that I am not a pawn on yours.  I will kill the children.  I will bring them to me and I will drain them or train them.  I think it more likely that they will die.  I know you don't like it, and you need not understand it, but you will suffer it."
    Haitang Hu does not turn.  He simply opens the door, but his leaving is interrupted again.
    "I’ll see you tonight, in your spire.  For you're right about one thing: When we’re done with our dwarves, we'll need that dwarf Lord dead.”
    After Hu leaves, The King stares.  He looks into the fire and thinks on the mines just south of the castle.  He thinks about the Meckineers working under Blandt’s orders to build a machine that spews fire.  That will be a beautiful sight.  He thinks of the Yeff'ry that Haitang has enchanted and what they will look like when they are enraged and spitting fire of their own.  He thinks of the metal army being built under the Hollow to the west.  That one will be the greatest trick, a metal army that will burn the forest to the ground.
     Unlike Hu, Lord Cassius can’t call forth the future and watch it dance its portending steps.  He can't see meaning in the past through brick backed shadows.  He can’t hear distant voices or see long lost faces.
     But he doesn't need too.  The fire is enough.  It is pure and brilliant and cleansing.  It soothes him and coos to him.  It promises to him that when he has all Dominion, he will place humanity among the stars.  Among the legends.  He will do it.  He will do it because no one else will.
    When his mania has taken him and his heart races with happiness, Cassius closes his eyes.  He lets his spirit fly into waking dreams, dreams of a great tree burning forever in an endless night.

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