Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.

Greater of Two Evils, Reprise

Monday, August 31, 2009 - 10:09 PM

Having posted a little something to show the high end of the good guy perspective in Caradoc, I thought I might drop this one down to show one end of the bad guy perspective... though the Kingmakers aren't as nasty as some.

Closing the heavy cover of the Book of Lies, Lord Endelcar took his seat at the wide, mirror-polished black table. There were nine seats; the one at the head of the table was empty.

“This Convocation has begun,” he announced after a sip of wine. “We have had time to consider our courses of action, given what information we have brought to each other. There are a few decisions we must now resolve.”

“Indeed,” said the Advocate in his mellifluous voice. The voice did not match the seamed, scarred and craggy face it slid out of, nor did it match his hard eyes, which were like black stones. “And I for one am anxious to begin our work in earnest this year.”

“Our work is always earnest,” replied the Pander smoothly, narrow chin resting on the slender knuckles of one hand. Her smile made her rebuke an gift, and the Advocate merely nodded in acceptance.

“Don't mince words,” said the Reeve, eyes sliding like razors over the Pander's bare shoulders.

“Indeed not,” broke in Lord Endelcar. “We have a good many choices to deliberate over, and the sooner we bring our counsel to the Monarch, the better. Shall we begin?”

As he began to lead them down the list, he silently admitted that he too shared the Advocate's feelings. With a Monarch in the council at last, Lord Endelcar felt like a young man again. The bleak coals of his hard-won wisdom were afire with the subtle knowledge that now, just as the Advocate said, their work could truly proceed.

As they voted to collapse the economy of the port city Dardantus, he considered that all of the other Kingmakers were feeling the same elation in some way, even if they did not openly show it. The Manciple's debaucheries last night had been extreme, even for her. Even the normally austere and reserved Sacristan had exhibited more pomp and circumstance than usual when they'd met earlier in the evening. Indeed, the decision to have the Convocation at the mercenary pleasure-city of Arn was just as much a chance to celebrate as it was a safe place for them to meet.

“Do we remove Caradoc Manzoran?”

“He is troublesome, but he does not directly oppose us,” murmured the Pander, two fingers on her cheek in thought. “He cannot reach us readily, he knows it.. and neither can we remove him easily.”

“Further, he provides a hub of political and financial influence that is useful to us in the long term,” added the Voltigeur as he regarded his wineglass.

“The council therefore says no.”

Marking yet another decision voted upon, Lord Endelcar saw the differences in this Convocation. They were all ready to push, to drive forward and see bounds of progress instead of the small, careful steps they were prone to. All of them were people of great influence and power, and none of them ever made foolish mistakes. But now, they felt aggressive.

Changes are coming, though Lord Endelcar with satisfaction.

The questions moved on, and the Kingmakers chose.

“The Canon of Doctrine in Yhelm is proving problematic. Do we bring another church investigation forward to distract her?”

The wild-eyed Imprecator sneers at the Sacristan's conservative opinion. The Sacristan is unmoved by the Imprecator's scorn, and his deadly quiet voice continues to levelly defend his view against the precise arguments of the Advocate.

“Betrani trade embargoes against the Purayu islands continue. Do we break them?”

The Pander sways the Advocate again with nothing but a glance, and the Reeve notices. He folds his deadly hands in envy, perhaps. The Pander smiles warmly at the Advocate for everyone else's benefit.

“The House of the Sun has taken a passive stance on their border conflicts with Jashapur; is it in our best interests to foment conflict between them again?”

Laughing with a mouth that is not even his, the Voltigeur comments about the Manciple's expensive tastes. She watches him with pale eyes, and wonders things he might be able to imagine. The Sacristan folds his arms, shuts his brooding eyes and considers.

Finally, as he finished tallying the last vote, Lord Endelcar looked at the empty chair where Tristan would be seated, and then panned his gaze around at the other Kingmakers.

“Lastly... as you know, Prince Beckhardt Naseran Winthelgrim informally abdicated to Lady Angharad, and yet rather than formally abdicate, he has sent a huge tribute to the ones who slew Hope and preserved his province. We know that he shows no signs of relinquishing, and we know that Lady Angharad feels that the province should be hers. So... who shall we have as ruler there?”

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Greater of Two Evils, Epilogue

Friday, October 17, 2008 - 2:57 PM

I've had my head underwater for a little while now. This is a bit overdue, but here it is... enjoy.

Drifting unseen over the vast city of Yhelm, Tristan surveyed the spread of lanterns, fires and candles below him. It created a lovely webwork of warm, golden light that made the darkness surrounding it so much richer. Very soon, he would be leaving the city, but he had one final task to attend to before his departure. Then it would be west again, to meet with the Hierophant.

Over the years, Tristan had wrested a fair number of supernatural powers from dark spirits and demons. Not wanting to take them for granted, and preferring to stand on his own merits, Tristan did not use them often. Generally, he brought them to the fore only when needed.

But occasionally he did indulge himself. He could have walked to the north docks, and there was no need for haste, after all. Earlier, standing on the tower balcony with the wind in his hair, Tristan had craved the opportunity to fly, and so he chose to make his way to the north docks through the night air. He could not move as swiftly as Serina, but the speed was enough to suit him and it was in no way tiring.

So, slipping through the air like a pike through water, he drifted, floated and rushed his way over Yhelm, occasionally pausing to let whispers and words reach him. There was no hurry, and though he knew some of his servants would be concerned about his solitary wandering, he was not worried at all.

Some of them would eventually learn that Tristan never did anything unless he'd considered the risks and found them acceptable. He was careful, and preferred to think five steps ahead in all things. It was always refreshing to find someone else who thought so far ahead; those were the ones he preferred to recruit.

Sweeping silently down over the gloom of the docks, he spotted the isolated guard post he was looking for, and faded back into view as he landed. But when he approached the guard post on foot, he found it empty.

The slightly raspy voice that came from behind him was courteous but cool. “The only reason you are not dead is that you came here openly.”

Tristan smiled. “May I turn to face you?”

“No. Stay as you are, state your business, and then leave the city.”

Nodding, Tristan reached into his sleeve... slowly... and withdrew a folded piece of paper, which he dropped on the ground. “You already know that one of the Practical Ones has come to the city, but you haven't found him yet. That is where he is hiding.”

“Why give it to me?”

Tristan knew what the paladin Keira looked like, and in his mind's eye, he knew that her face would not have changed expression. She understood the need for masks, and he understood that hers would be one he couldn't remove. “He threatens one of my interests. I have the means to locate him, but I am not the law here. So I give him to you.”

“Clever,” came the calm voice, without much inflection. “Is that all?”

A few conversations flowed through Tristan's mind, but he dismissed them. It would be impossible to recruit Keira, as much as he'd love to do so. There was no compromise in her; she understood what he was, and far better than any other paladin in the city. Best to keep it short.
“No, that would be it. May I leave?”

“Seeing as you are here,” Keira said in the same level, slightly rusty tone,“... you have my warning. Never come back to Yhelm. The next time you do, there will be no talking. Now go.”

Pleasantries were also useless, so Tristan simply nodded, and strolled away on foot, back towards the center of the city. He and his entourage would have until morning to leave, and he fully intended to do so. The work in Yhelm was done. After walking briskly a good distance, Tristan faded from view and flitted back into the night air, heading back towards his balcony.

He knew Keira would find the Practical One, but not for him. It was an opportunity, and she understood opportunities. Most paladins, being armored of purpose and mind, would have immediately considered his actions a trap in some way, and utterly refused. But Keira had been an assassin; she knew that even among the wicked, there were laws. She would wonder at his interest, yes, but that was to be expected. But she knew he was not a fool, and that meant his offering was a tribute, a mutual interest and nothing more.

The ones Tristan had an interest in were the same as those Keira called friends, after all.

The Practical Ones were masters of death, subtle or unsubtle. Their prices were very high, their contracts very strict, and any failure of theirs would only be whispered, if at all. If Keira found and killed the assassin, the contract would be over, and the Practical Ones would wash their hands of the matter. If the Practical One killed Keira, Tristan could return to Yhelm sooner than later.

Either way, he had the Reeve to settle the difference, if need be, and the world would never know.

Yes, he thought as the wind whistled past him. Without men like me, there would be no heroes. I wonder how many heroes know how much men like me treasure them.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 5

Friday, October 3, 2008 - 7:26 PM

All three of the men had something in common; they would not look Tristan in the eye.

He sat comfortably in a velvet-lined chair, the ocean-borne wind whistling over the tower balcony and tousling his long, dark hair slightly. His customary colors made him a handsome study painted in blood and night, and at his feet slept his two hoarfoxes, ghostly white and silver in the late evening gloom. Behind him, beyond the low balcony guard, the vast tiered city of Yhelm spread out in a maze of shadows and lantern-light.

“My lord,” one of the three began. Tristan lifted his chin slightly, and the man went quiet.

“You know,” said Tristan, “what comes of excuses. Are you so weak as that? Bring me the truth.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the one again. He paused. “They have many friends among the alfarkinder, and so it is not easy to ask questions.”

“Did you attempt it?”

“, my lord,” came the hesitant reply.

Tristan saw a sideways glance from another, and noted it. Elis wants promotion, and thinks he can get it.

“Good,” said Tristan decisively, and the predicted surprise on their faces was quickly hidden. “Anything else?”

“Yes....yes, my lord.”

Serin, a nervous shadow of a woman, slipped up and gave Tristan a goblet of wine while the man started reciting some tired information. Much of this Tristan already knew, but he enjoyed discovering how thorough his servants were. Or how treacherous, if they choose to leave something out he knew they'd find.

Many people believed Tristan's perception was supernatural, that his words carried more than mere sound, but the truth was he simply knew what to say and when, to whom.

Yes, he had supernatural means as well, but he preferred to rely on the mundane.

“That's all, my lord.”

“You two,” Tristan indicated the others. “Go.”

There was a furtive silence, and the two left, shown out timidly by Serin, who then cringed back to Tristan's left to fold her hands and sit very still. In turn, Tristan peered at the leader, who was very nervous.

“Be at ease,” Tristan said, and put his smile in his voice.

The man looked up despite himself, eyes wide, caught himself and tried to look down, but he could not.

“Do you understand why I approved of your choice, regarding the alfarkinder?”

Uncertainty flickered over the man's face, trying to reconcile threat with the pleasant warmth that Tristan was projecting.

“No, my lord.”

“When you figure that out, come back and see me again. Keep your men in line, and watch Arrald and Elis both. They'd like your position.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Good. You may go. Also, kill Murdoch.”

“...Of course, my lord. I do your bidding.”

The man bowed deeply, and waited for Tristan's leave to go, which was granted. Serin shut the stone door, avoiding the man's regard, and shivered against the door when it was closed. The shiver turned to a ripple, smoky wings spread from her back and her body redrew itself into long, graceful lines. When she walked back to Tristan, the shadow of the timid, wary Serin was utterly gone.

“Murdoch is valuable,” she said in her true voice, all candles and winter.

Tristan regarded her with idle fondness, and sipped at his wine. “Yes, he is. But his loyalties are conflicted, and his death will push the others to make choices of their own. We need that right now.”

Serin nodded, leaning against the side of his chair and curling one of her wings over him like a blood-spotted canopy. “He's also very popular.”

“I don't like popular men without firm loyalties, Serin... at least, not in this case.” He stood up, accidentally waking the foxes. One tilted its elegant snout up at him, peered sleepily, and then tucked itself back into a large, silvery ball.

Tristan moved to the balcony edge, looking out at the moon rise over the city. “We're almost done here, in any event.”

Serin turned, sweeping her other wing out of his view, and leaned towards him again, resting an elbow on the balcony's rail. She did this with the eerie grace of her kind, as if the tower itself had adjusted slightly to accommodate her movements. “And what of the priest and his friends?”

Tristan nodded, thoughtful. “The priest understands sacrifices. The rest will eventually, or so you said.”

“Yes,” said Serin quietly. “That is what I have seen in them. But they will be your enemies, Tristan.”

“Does that trouble you?”

She tilted her veiled face to one side, watching him with crimson eyes. “It does not. I know you. And yet, they are clever adversaries. Do you not worry that they'll undo what you have built?”

Tristan shook his head slowly. “Right now, we are on the same side, whether they like it or not. Whatever I do, it will be serving them, just as I have done for others. Some succeed, and some fail. That is how it has been since the beginning.”

“They will never accept you as an ally, Tristan.”

“Oh, I know. But I am their ally regardless, even if one day I must kill one of them.” He took one of Serin's hands, feeling the silken warmth there, and gave it a gentle kiss.

“They won't take that well,” she replied wryly, her veil hiding a slight smile.

“Now you are trying to be funny,” Tristan said quietly, smiling despite his admonishment. “But I'm being quite serious. What freedom fighter comes to greatness without oppression, Serin? What man takes up the sword to right wrongs if all he knows are peace and prosperity?” He paused, setting her hand back down. “It doesn't matter whether or not they understand. They'll do what they were meant to do, and the world will benefit from it.”

“And you, Tristan?”

Turning to look out at the city, he thumbed the edge of his ruby signet ring, and for a moment, he was a boy looking out at the poverty of Shanmora. “I? Without men like me, there would be no heroes.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 4

Thursday, October 2, 2008 - 2:10 PM

For twenty years, Lord Endelcar had sifted gold and silver out of seaborne trade, ranging from the coast of Jaevarrin to the Purayu isles and all the way south to the deserts of Antambil and even the far tropical jungles of the Ixte. Though he had little land of his own, his words were valuable to the merchant guilds in many nations, and his wealth and influence were quietly considerable. But like many men of power, Lord Endelcar could not rest. Even as old as he was, he still captained his own ships on occasion, and was constantly traveling, always seeking something more. As his son would describe him, he was 'grey like iron, not like an old man'.

Of course, he suffered from barbed rumors, creeping up behind him with accusations of dishonorable conduct or fraud or hidden sins. He knew the score; no one liked to see another man succeed beyond the norm. Bitterness and envy would always bring hatred to your doorstep. But Lord Endelcar was secure in his reputation as an honorable, educated, disciplined and generous man. After all, that part was true.

He was also a devil worshiper, but there were no rumors about that.

Resting his rope-worn hands on a marble balustrade, he watched the members and guests file in below him. The grand dome above him was painted with a marvelous depiction of a view from beneath the sea, resplendent with jeweled fish and the prow of a boat, and he found it quite lovely. The pageantry of the Kingmakers was important, and finding a place splendid enough for their grand Convocations was a duty intrinsic to his position.

“Is he here yet?” The voice that reached him was hollow from behind a blank mask. It was the Reeve, who usually came and went unnoticed.

“He is not,” replied Lord Endelcar. He didn't trust the Reeve entirely; no one did. The Reeve was there to do things the other Council members were unwilling to do, or those things which would compromise them. As the Hierophant, Lord Endelcar had bound the current Reeve with dreadful oaths and dark promises, so he knew how secure the Reeve's loyalties were. Even so, the man was just a monster, albeit a carefully controlled one.

The Reeve continued after appraising the gathering below. “Do you truly believe he is what he claims?”

“I saw the proof of it,” said Lord Endelcar shortly. “There's no disputing it. But all will... all must see for themselves tonight. That is why we are having a Convocation.”

The Reeve's flat eyes did not change, but he bowed in the slightly awkward yet congenial way he favored. “Forgive my doubts, grand Hierophant; I'll not dispute you.”

You had better not, thought Lord Endelcar, watching as the orrery of people below him began to establish themselves into the proper orbits. The other Council members were taking their places to either side of him now, greeting one another quietly. Convocations occurred only at great need, so many of the Council had not personally met in quite some time. The eight had ways of keeping in communication, but it was a rare day indeed that all were present.

After tonight, the Council would be nine, and the thought of this happening at long last put both dread and wonder into Lord Endelcar's armored heart.

The Manciple, all in black with a precious metal abacus cradled loosely in one arm, approached and offered him a smile, which he returned. They exchanged polite greetings momentarily, and he could see the questions coming. So he put up a hand to silence her, and indicated the neatly arranged audience below.

“He is there,” said Lord Endelcar, and the other Council members looked as one at Tristan, who was entering the great hall.

With Tristan came silence, and his poise swayed the court as if he were an oncoming storm and they were merely reeds. All in red and black, his flowing desert garments matched the ones worn by his unearthly vizier as well as her wings, all blood and shadows spreading out from her back. She was veiled, and on his arm, escorted like any lady of the court.

On his arm! Not bound, nor subservient; nor clearly the teacher and he the student. But on his arm! Lord Endelcar felt it difficult to breathe for a moment, but he mustered his voice to announce what all present already knew. “The Council recognizes the Monarch.”

As Tristan continued, climbing the stair, Lord Endelcar felt dizzy with the significance of the evening. It had been three generations since there had been a Monarch. Oh, yes, there had been pretenders... and devils were very good at discovering the truth, and very good at punishing liars. Lord Endelcar had craved the title, of course. Who among the Council did not? But to hold one of the Council seats was demanding enough, and by the time they claimed a seat for themselves they were old and wise enough to know the Emperor of Hell would not have accepted their petition. Indeed, He would have crushed them for bringing Him a flawed offering.

Pride, so the Book of Lies said. Pride so pure that it was untainted by arrogance, or fear, or need. Pride that demanded nothing Less, that burned away the flaw of hubris.

And Pride is very young this time, thought Lord Endelcar with a sliver of envy.

Tristan took his place at the balcony, with the vizier standing slightly behind him, and raised the gleaming red signet ring. At the same time, the air around his head scarred and tore, slits of seething crimson light that flared, burning red and white, and describing a barbed crown of letters in a jagged script.

Lord Endelcar began to kneel before he even realized it, but he restrained himself just long enough to be the last to do so. Even so, his grudging pride was swept away entirely by numbing elation as Tristan's voice filled the hall with dark beauty.

“What is Mine?”

The Kingmakers all replied in a humbled murmur, lifting their words up to him like the smoke from a burnt offering.

“The right to Rule.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 3

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - 12:26 PM

With his entourage camped in the murmuring quiet of an oasis a few miles away, Tristan exulted in his solitude. Around him, the desert's empty landscape dissolved into the dark of night, with only a few scattered stones to mark the endless sand. The bright of the moon made everything pale and grey, even the rich red and black of his flowing scarves. There was a power in these wide roaring spaces, especially at night when the horizon was destroyed and distance was a dream. He remembered experiencing such a place in his youth, standing at the cliffs that overlooked Slumberdrake glacier, and he was pleased to find the same wonder in himself now.

Squalid crowds, ancient teetering cities and the decadence of a people who had nowhere to go; these things were the legacy of Tristan's birthplace. For the spirit to survive, one found a way to drown the poverty or one reached inside to find silence and space. Half a world away from his birthplace, and half a world away from the desperate, frightened and determined boy that he'd been, Tristan felt as if he'd finally come home.

Alone, listening to the howling of the arid eastern wind, he felt the first true smile he'd had in weeks come to his face.

Part of it was the success, he knew. His arrival was the conclusion of a long pilgrimage of ruin. Like a subtle fire, he'd swept through a good many demon cults, secret societies and splinter religions on the way south. He'd left them in ashes, sparing only those few with potential or loyalty enough to suit his purpose. Over time, he'd painstakingly collected certain secrets, little tatters of legend and rumor, and it had created a map for him.

Now, walking through pearl-gray sand, his mind matched the broken stones around him to the map he'd drawn. The worn nubs of stone were like the hands of dead men, rising from the earth in a last attempt to be remembered, and Tristan was pleased to know them. Following their guidance, pausing on occasion to discern the correct direction, his walk began to take him towards a great heap of rock and sand.

The fragments were the corpse of a city. Like its name, it had been eroded near to nothing by the passing of time. It had been a wise and cruel place, full of learning and sophistication, a place of monuments, kings and scholars. Tristan did not know why it had come to an end, but he'd known why it was built.

Tristan's first teacher had been a failed scholar, a plodding man with no intuition and no imagination. From him, Tristan had learned about devils and spirits, and the dangers of making pacts with them. He learned instead, with his own fierce determination, how to find them, bind them and steal power from them. His refusal to become a pawn to the infernal drove him further than he'd expected, but he eventually had to recognize the risks. Tristan had been lucky, and he didn't like relying on luck.

So, he'd found a patron worth an alliance with. He would gamble one last time, dare to beg that patron's indulgence, but if he succeeded, he would have the authority and power he wanted. He would be above and beyond the constant infighting and squabbling that was the only constant of demon cults. Here, in the ruins, that patron would select his chosen. Never a pawn, but a peer.

Finally, he stood before the remains of a sphinx, faceless now except for the scars of wind-driven sand. Once there had been an aisle of sphinxes, a great hall of columns with a tremendous oculus peering down on a great dias. Now, it was only a single twisted heap of rock and pools of sand, but Tristan imagined the grandeur it would have been in the past. Standing beneath the featureless oval of the head, he peered up to check the positions of the stars, and found that he had only a few moments yet to wait.

Being in the exact right place at the exact right time filled him with a tranquil confidence. From here, there were only two possible futures for Tristan, and he had done all that he could to ensure one of them. There was an inevitability in the situation that pleased him. For years, he'd struggled against doubt and uncertainty. He'd managed to stay alive and unbroken in his cold-hearted homeland. He'd outwitted his enemies, betrayed and destroyed so many of the wicked, and piece by piece built the beginnings of his own merchant house.

Now, the months-long ritual that began with the destruction of the Crimson Boar cult would come to an end, one way or the other. It would not be his choosing. There was no room for doubt.

Extracting a gold pin from his cloak clasp, he pricked one finger and let a droplet of blood fall on what remained of the sphinx's withered paw. The droplet made a small black dot on the stone, and then there was a great rush of hot wind that whipped Tristan's scarves around his shoulders. With it came coils of dark red flame, whirling into a spiral as if it were dust or sand, and it howled and hissed into a tall shape with plumes of blazing shadows. A second later, and it was a slender, lethal, crimson-lit thing with wings that bled, and then it was a woman wearing the sashes, veils and scarves of an age lost. She flowed into a slight and antiquated curtsy.

“Your blood is the blood of kings,” she pronounced with a heady voice. “You are the recognized Heir, to bear again the inheritance of the Iron Crown. To you comes the authority of the Trueblood Scepter, and the right to rule.”

A ring had taken the place of the drop of blood. She swept this up and offered it. “Your signet. Behold, your court awaits you even now, and you have but to claim it.”

Accepting the ring, he slipped it onto his hand, steadily looking at the dark eyes which studied him in turn. “Does my patron offer any other message?”

“Your patron, my liege, knows that you need no messages.”

Tristan, for the first time in his life, bowed with all sincerity.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 2

Friday, September 26, 2008 - 10:47 AM

Tain hated Tristan, but he did so quietly.

From the smoky shadows of the Crimson Boar hall, Tain watched the dark-haired man, lounging next to the priests of the demon cult. Around them, the other cultists were enjoying the spoils of their furtive labor; they'd sacked a caravan earlier that night, and had dragged what remained to their lair.

And of course, there had been whispers about Tristan. It was Tristan who found the route, Tristan who convinced the caravan master to hire certain guards, Tristan who discovered the opportunity. Tain was thankful they'd looted a lot of fine wine; the whispering had since faded, replaced by far more raucous activity as the cult started abusing the surviving caravaners or each other.

This bothered Tain also, but it was a small, gnat-like bother. He'd joined the cult to get away from banditry. The Crimson Boar cult had terrorized the region for well over two years now. No one went into the dripping, mossy forest where they met, and no one dared to come against them now. He'd wanted that power, to belong to something greater. That drive had made him a captain in the cult, but the priests called him too weak to be ordained.

This rankled him considerably, particularly when it was Cena who said so.

She sat next to Tristan, with her lover Naul to the other side, and Tain tried to stave off the brackish envy rising in him by taking a long drink of wine. She was everything Tain wanted. His fingers ached to touch the little scar that hung from one corner of her mouth, or to breathe hot words in her ear. But Naul was a fierce and jealous man, and a sorcerer besides.

And yet, there Tristan lounged, and Naul seemed content with it, glutted though he was on wine. Even a light touch from Tristan to Cena's hand went unnoticed... but Tain saw. Even through the dim haze of the hall, he could see the softening of Cena's eyes, and wondered how Naul could possibly miss it.

You have them deceived, thought Tain, but I am not.

It hadn't take long for Tristan to win the admiration and envy of the others. He was vastly clever, eloquent, handsome and only threatening to the cult's enemies. His many blessings were offset by a sliver of need in him, the the need to be accepted and approved of. It made him vulnerable, just enough to be safe, to make friends with for the bloody-handed cultists.
No, Tain had never trusted him, but he'd wanted to.

Maybe, said his bitter inner voice, Naul doesn't care if Tristan sleeps with Cena. Maybe he lets it happen, because he trusts thrice-bedamned Tristan.

Tain took another long drink of wine, and did not feel it.

Something changed at that point, and he was surprised to realize that he could hear Tristan speaking. There was a confused mumble from the hall as others realized it too.

“Without me,” said Tristan in an even, clear voice. “Without me, you'd all just be thugs paying lip service to some demon. And I don't have any interest in your petty demon, either, considering he's content with drunkards and base violence.”

Naul blinked fully awake, his face reddening, and then his face went white because Cena stabbed him.

Suddenly, Tain was in the middle of frantic murder. Stunned by the cudgel of incomprehension, he scrabbled backwards to put his back to a corner, and tried to remember where he'd left his sword. There was nothing clean or elegant about what was happening; wine-soggy heads were smashed in by firewood, wine-numbed hands slapped ineffectually against the knives that found their mark again and again. Panicked, Tain managed to find his dagger, but he realized that no one was attacking him.

He saw Tristan standing, unhurried and quite unmoved, studying the bloody ruin that the hall had become. The ones who had killed their own were either watching him or making sure of the wounded. Tristan smiled, then, and the smile froze Tain into the corner where he crouched. He could only watch as Tristan turned and offered a hand to Cena, who breathlessly took it and stood, only to have her throat cut from behind.

There was a horrible moment when Tristan looked straight at Tain, but he turned away again and faced the altar near the hearth. Tain did not understand the words that came from Tristan, but they slipped through his ears and rooted in his bones like threads of ice water. He dimly understood that the others were kneeling now, and his instincts told him that to stand was death, and worse than death. Tristan's words became comprehensible, delivered with iron-clad courtesy.

“Hear me, Kingmaker, Iron-Crown, Overlord of the Ruby Scepter. I do not acknowledge greatness other than yours and mine. I invite you now to my court, taken by my hand from a petty Baron who is not worth your regard. Recognize a new peer, a master over humanity and a possessor of hearts. With our alliance, you shall grant me power over your realm, and I shall in turn grant you power over mine.”

The hall timbers groaned. The blood-stained altar stone split with a resounding crack, and with a sudden chill, Tain realized that Tristan had been heard, and not by the Boar.

“Leave us,” said Tristan in a voice so inevitable that he and the others would have run to the door if they'd had the strength to stand. As it was, they crawled.

Later, Tristan found Tain not far from the hall, shivering not entirely from the cold. Tain saw no sign at all of the vulnerability everyone had seen in Tristan before, and Tain knew in his heart it had all been lies.

“I never trusted you,” said Tain, after a moment. He knew Tristan's traitors were watching, waiting. “Why did you not kill me, too?”

Tristan smiled slowly. “Because you are not a fool, and I have a need for wise men. Come with us; you will never be a mere bandit again. Lead my men for me, Tain.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 1

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 - 11:43 PM

'Salu catamite' was the first thought Deivon had upon seeing the young man before him. To Deivon's eye, the slight girlishness in the lad's features would harden into rather handsome lines in later years, and the dark eyes would not seem so large. But with his long, sleek black hair and light complexion, the boy would probably fetch a fine price on the slave markets to the south.
But the boy did not have a slave's modesty. He stood at ease, eyes downcast and undaunted, and his shoulders were back. The stony calm around him was one that Deivon recognized, however; it was the sort that covered turmoil, not the kind that came from the heart.

So, the lad's done something, at least.

Deivon was the High Magistrate of his province. It was a coveted position, and he'd wheedled, intimidated and bribed his way in. Secure in his station, Deivon presided over all provincial law in interpretation, approval and condemnation, and was never called upon except for the most severe of cases. Generally, unless it was something to benefit one of his powerful friends, he passed on his cases to lesser Magistrates.

This time, the Lord Whitemire made it clear that Deivon should provide, in no uncertain terms, a conviction. He also made it clear without saying so that Deivon would find himself quite a bit richer if all the loose ends were cut.

Buying his son another title appealed to Deivon, so he agreed.

Now, he wasn't sure why the Lord Whitemire was so emphatic about all this. The court was full. The commoners had their blood up. It wouldn't be difficult at all to hammer in the last coffin nail of a conviction. The commoners would even do all the work; he'd seen it time and again. All they needed was a reason to blame someone else for their problems, or a chance to hate someone more than they hated their own lives. It was an easy thing to make them do it.

He was assessing the lad for any similarity to nobles at court, entertaining the notion that the boy was a bastard that needed removing, when the warrants came to him. He glared at the warrants, sat back in surprise, and then looked down at the bailiffs who towered over the boy.
What he had intended to say changed when he saw the bailiffs. They hardly knew Deivon was there. They kept looking down at the boy with the attitude of a very large dog who, having discovered that the cat can inflict great harm, is anxious for permission to hurt back. Rather than address them, he spoke to the boy.

“Is your name Tristan, of the house of Sarna?”

The boy did not look up, and pronounced a firm and rather serene 'Yes.'

Deivon glanced at his peers, and the other Magistrates present looked back at him with cold and wary eyes. He'd heard rumors about devil worship in the province, but there were always rumors, usually targeting little hedge mages. The Tristan rumors were different, though. There was a ring of cold truth behind them, threatening.

He'd expected Tristan to be older.

Filing quickly through the warrants, he noted the silence of the crowd. That was usually preface to the havoc before a hanging, he thought. And what IS Whitemire's interest in all this? He briefly considered finding out Whitemire's interest and using it to push the very rich Lord, but dismissed the thought.

The warrants told him what he'd already heard, but with the dagger pointed at Tristan quite definitively. Evil omens, disappearances, blackmail, a couple of mysterious deaths and a plethora of other complaints he assumed were false accusations. Raising his eyes, he noted Tristan was now watching him directly with dark, hot eyes, and this unnerved him for some reason.

“Tristan ahn'Sarna, you have been accused of commerce with devils,” he snapped, lifting the warrants for emphasis. “You are also accused of causing the curse-death of Magistrate Lira Detweys...”

Here Deivon was forced to pause due to a blast of outrage from the crowd. Lira had been very popular. He let the crowd rant for a moment, and then rang the bell for silence.

“...and of Master Mathlan of Grofae, and of counterfeiting money, of theft, of the disappearance and possible death of five peasants, property of the Lord Whitemire, and of creating evil omens and vile marks in the land. There are a good many other crimes listed here, but they are incidental compared to your first. Do you deny the charges against you?”

Tristan paused for a moment, lifted his chin and spoke in a voice that carried through the courtroom.


The boy is mad, thought Deivon. “Such a crime, confessed, warrants a most painful death. Do you have any contrition? Asking the court for mercy and repenting of your crime may lessen your suffering.”

“I will not ask mercy for my crimes,” said Tristan clearly, and Deivon noticed how everyone listened. “But I will beg the court's indulgence to explain how I came to this, and reveal the name of a fellow conspirator.”

Deivon, at this point, believed the boy a fanatic. Fanatics unnerved Deivon, and he did not want it to show. Looking disdainfully at Tristan, he used his best world-weary but stern voice. “Speak, then, but be brief.”

There was a rumble of assent from the gallery, and Deivon was pleased until Tristan started speaking again. He was beginning to understand why the Lord Whitemire hated Tristan so much. The lad had the sort of poise and voice where people listened, even if they didn't want to.

“Brief as you like,” began Tristan, looking momentarily upward. “You and your fellows leech the wealth from those who create it. You and your fellows use the law to secure your own success at the expense of others. You and your fellows squat atop your hoards of spoiled children, of property and privilege, and you sneer at the common for having nothing. Yet the commons support you, buoy you up, and you keep them ignorant so that they never understand how little they have. And then, you and your fellows put on a kind mask and coerce your sad little followers into dying and starving just to make you richer. You, lords of the land, protectors of the people.”

Here, Tristan paused, and there was silence. Tristan looked at Deivon, carefully, as if he wanted to remember every detail, and Deivon saw a sliver of bright fear in those dark eyes.
Spurred by that fear, he was ready to condemn Tristan but the boy's soft, powerful voice kept him silent.

“Better that I consort with devils, who are sincere about their work, than the hypocritical monsters who judge me now.”

Then, the red flames erupted throughout the court, and when Deivon tried to scream, the fire ripped the air from his lungs and burned the life from him.

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