Monday, November 1, 2010

Blog Note

After a week or so of deep thought on the matter, I've decided to put The Bentlefay Papers on an open-ended hiatus.  I've kept it up for almost a year and I'm starting to want to concentrate on other projects for awhile.  I'm going to take down the four chapters of "The Dahavi Diplomacy" on Friday the 5th and save them to post again when the whole arc is ready, but "The Marshweathrian War" and "The Norhammer Conflict" will remain up in their entirety.

If you've just stumbled upon Bentlefay, you can find the two complete story arcs of 35 chapters apiece in the Table of Contents.  If you've been following along this whole time, I'd really like to thank the four of you (hi Mom!).  This experience has taught me a lot that I really needed to know about fiction writing, and having you along for the ride has been great.  If you want to be notified when I start posting again, or even if you just want to say hello, feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email.

Thanks again!
Kathy Monahan

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Which the Honeymoon Occurs Without Us

Dear Readers-

Many thanks to everyone who kept coming back for more of the Norhammer Conflict -- I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did! Lynde and Tom's wedding seems to be a natural place to pause, so I'm going to take a break from updating for about the next month to rummage out another story from the archives.

So stop by again on Tuesday, October 12 for the next chapter in history, in which Bentlefay sends a diplomatic mission to a faraway land; Lynde experiences changes not uncommon to the first year of marriage; and a beginning does, in fact, finally happen for Princess Dulcie.

Thanks again! Hope to see you in October.

Next

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In Which a Wedding is Celebrated at Court

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

Well, we have had our wedding, and the happy couple is gone for a long month to Dumcruckle. My one consolation is that they have taken Master Falconer with them. He has been up the skirt of every lady and maid who will allow him there – I will say for him that at least he recognizes that distinction; we have had guests who do not – and the household has been in a state of chaos as a result. He has treated Mother and me like pieces of porcelain, but we and Lynde seemed to have been the only ones immune.

Lynde had been worried about my safety in her absence, but the matter was quite magically resolved, since with Rafe still too convalescent to do much, Tarpley is at quite a loose end, and it has been arranged that they will spend most of their time with me and Tarpley will be my bodyguard for the interim. It works out well for me at least, because as much as I love Lynde, she is just too kindly to be a truly fascinating conversationalist. Rafe has never had that problem, so the month will go quite quickly.

The ceremony was beautiful, and quite different from Winnie’s hurried wedding just a month ago. The whole court was in attendance for Lynde and Tom, and I am confident that it will be considered the fashionable wedding of the year.

It took place in the evening, with a real royal feast that took days to prepare. The household staff was pleased at the opportunity to show off their skills, and in any case they adore Lynde, even sour old Tess who scourged her myrmidons into a frenzy of simmering, roasting, basting, baking and boiling for the event.

We finally managed to finish Lynde’s green gown by dint of sewing feverishly on it at every waking moment, even giving up dancing in order to flay our fingers in the cause of fashion. The results amply justified our care: when we were arraying her to go out Lynde looked like the queen of happiness. Her hair was loose and streamed gloriously down her back, with a gold fillet keeping it away from her face. We had given her a golden torc for her neck and lent her small gold hoops for her ears, and the whole of her gleamed as though burnished.

“Tom will be awestruck,” Mother said.

“Maybe he will faint, and the wedding will have to be postponed,” I added, perhaps a touch hopefully.

“Dulcie!”

“Do you really think it is all right?” Lynde asked, more shyly than I would have expected from her.

“My dear,” Mother said, “you are as beautiful outside as you are in your heart, and I have no praise higher than that.”

So we went out to the hall, where Father already stood magnificent at the top of the room with Tom, and the massed courtiers made a gaily colored background. The household staff stood in the back, those who were not directly responsible for the feast at that moment, and there were many preliminary snifflings among the maids. I knew how they felt.

The bugles struck up, and Lynde swept into the hall on her father’s arm. I had seen her just a few minutes before and thought her beautiful, but now the glow of happiness that suffused her made her ten times more lovely. I sneaked a glance at Tom and did not see a trace of the awe I expected in his eyes, which irked me a little until I realized that he had not even noticed her dress but was looking at her self, with a certainty and gratitude that set all the trappings at nought.

I am ashamed to say that I hardly remember the ceremony. It seemed to come at me in impressions: Father’s solemn voice in the ceremony and the two clear voices in response, the sunset through the upper windows falling on Lynde’s hair, the look in Tom’s eyes, and finally the bugles playing them out, as resplendent as if they were king and queen themselves.

The feast was of course the kind of miracle that only Tess could perform, and most of the guests gorged themselves to repletion, but I found I could only pick at my food. Lynde would be going tomorrow, and although she would be coming back in a month, things were bound to be forever changed. Her first responsibility would necessarily be to her husband, not to me, and although I hated to think of myself as a particularly needy person, it made me feel awfully lonely.

Oddly enough, the one who understood was Tom.

The guests were at their dancing, the feast lay in shattered remnants on the trestles and Lynde was blithely receiving the congratulations of the household.

“She loves you, too,” he said, coming up behind me.

“Never mind about me,” I said hastily. “If I couldn’t bear not being the center of attention at someone else’s wedding, I’d be a selfish person indeed.”

He laughed. “Of course not. But, you know, it seemed a little as though you thought something was ending.”

“It is a little, though, isn’t it?”

“Not so much as you might think. And beginnings are nice too, take it from me.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing the library in a few months, certainly.”

I hesitated, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Congratulations, Master Crowder. You are a fortunate man, but it seems to me you are worthy of it.”

Tom put his hand to his cheek. “Is the kiss of a princess supposed to be good luck?”

I smiled. “You will have to make it so.”

“Tom, darling!” Lynde called at that moment. “Tess wants to tell you something!”

So he trotted over obediently and was absorbed back into the congratulations, leaving me with a little more to think about, but somewhat comforted.

Beginnings, I thought. I wonder if it will ever happen to me.

But just then the bugles struck up again, and I was unable to think about it anymore.

Friday, September 3, 2010

In Which Introductions Are Made

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

Well, Lynde’s young man got here today with her father, and I suppose I will have to let her go to him, damn his eyes.

They got here in the midafternoon right before I took my rest, and since of course they don’t travel with a herald they caught us on the hop. The majordomo sent a maidservant to give us the word, and she came in with her eyes as big as saucers and her hands clasped, and said “Please, your majesty, Mistress Lynde’s young man is here, and, oh please, Mistress Lynde, will you--?”

But by then Lynde was gone, and I had to scurry back into my regular dress and race down the stairs, by which point their first meeting was all over. I was disappointed at the time, since I always find that sort of thing very romantic to watch, but it worked out for the best, since Lynde was able to present her father Owen and her betrothed Tom without delay.

Master Falconer is a large old man, not as large as Lynde anymore since he is bowed by rheumatism and age, but still the sketched outline of the burly arms-master he once was. He has snow-white hair and an enormous, plumy white moustache, and his cheekbones and chin are hard and prominent the way they are in the north. His face is burned brown from the sun, and his eyes are as gray and bleak as the north wind. He bowed to me, awkwardly because of his rheumatism but quite correctly, and said I was a precious flower, or some such vintage-flavored compliment.

“I can see you mean to be a terror with the ladies, Master Falconer,” I said to tease him.

“I surely do,” he answered, not teasing at all. “We don’t have much scope for it up in Dumcruckle.”

“Father, you’re incorrigible,” said Lynde. “Come and meet Tom, your majesty.”

Tom is somewhat below medium height, which makes him a little taller than I am but almost ludicrously shorter than Lynde, and he is slight and perhaps a little bit stooped, in the manner of those who spend their days indoors. His hair is that dull mouse-color that the old nursemaids call dishwater, and his eyes are large and softly brown like a dog’s. His face is long and prematurely lined, with the grooves that go from nose to chin and with the laugh-wrinkles that radiate out from the eyes. The general impression he gives is of a schoolmaster with a slightly disreputable secret.

“So you are here to take Lynde from me,” I said, because I was still feeling a little bit resentful.

He grinned. “You can think of it this way,” he said, “you aren’t losing a bodyguard, you’re gaining a librarian. I think you are getting an excellent bargain, myself. In any case,” he grew solemn for a moment, “I will try to make it worth your while.”

I understood what he was trying to say, and relented. “I am sure it will be worth while,” I replied. “You needn’t try too hard.”

“Of course we will both try hard,” Lynde interrupted, not understanding at all. “Tom is not a slacker, any more than I am.”

At that moment Father and Mother created a diversion by bustling in.

“There!” Mother exclaimed. “Oh, Lynde, I am so pleased that your family has been able to make their journey safely.”

So the introductions had to be made all over again, and this time more formally, on account of Mother and Father being Queen and King. That did not stop Master Falconer from ogling Mother, and for the first time in my living memory I actually saw her at a loss for words.

“Your majesty,” Master Falconer said, “your face has just earned every drop of blood I ever shed for Bentlefay.

“Not that I wouldn’t have been pleased to do it for an ugly Queen, of course,” he added hastily.

“Well,” said Mother after an pause, “that certainly is one way of looking at it.”

“No offense, of course.”

“Oh, not in the world.”

I am offended,” Father said solemnly. “I didn’t think at my time of life that I would be faced with a rival, Master Falconer.”

“I couldn’t be a rival, your majesty,” Master Falconer said reasonably. “Not to a man who can clap me in prison any time he likes.”

“I suppose it is nice to know that there is something stopping you,” said Mother, and everyone laughed.

Tom went over similarly well, striking just the right balance between courtesy and friendliness.

“I feel that I am a poor addition to Lynde, but I hope that I will be a worthy one,” he said to Mother.

“If you can get that benighted library into some kind of order, you’ll be worth your weight in gold,” Father interrupted. “That room is like an albatross around my neck and I’ll be glad to hand over responsibility for it.”

“Excellent,” Tom answered. “I look forward to getting my hands on it. I enjoy a really knotty cataloguing problem.” And indeed his brown eyes gleamed acquisitively as he said it, so apparently he really does.

“We are pleased to have you here, for your own sake as well as Lynde’s,” Mother said more formally, and then fell back into the vernacular. “She has been pining like a dairy maid ever since we got word you were coming.”

Lynde blushed. “Of course we haven’t seen each other for quite a long time,” she began, and stuck there.

Mother took pity on her. “Why don’t you take Master Crowder to the solar and show him the view? Your father can come with the rest of us to my sitting-room and tell me more about my face.”

So Lynde and Tom went with alacrity, and everyone else made their way to Mother’s sitting- room while I trailed back to my room for my rest – a little bit irritably, I don’t mind admitting. It seems I won’t even have the comfort of loathing the wretch. I suppose I didn’t imagine that Lynde would choose unwisely, but for some reason I don’t feel all that much better about it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Which Plans are Made, and Gratitude Expressed

Lynde Falconer to Thomas Crowder:

Dear Tom,

I most certainly wish to be married soon, and my heart lifted when you suggested it – and then fell, when I thought of leaving my friends and the place I’ve been able to make for myself here. Oh, please don’t think I have second thoughts – I would live with you at Dumcruckle, or in a mountain cave, or at the bottom of the sea so long as we could be married. But the princess has made us a most interesting offer, to which I hope you will give serious thought – it seems to me the answer to prayer.

She would like us to make our home here at the Tower, where I can continue my duties as her bodyguard and, it has become, somewhat as her lady-in-waiting, as well. Of course you would need to take up a post of some sort here, and she thought of that too: currently, Bentlefay Tower has a large library and archive, with books from the Nine Kingdoms and beyond as well as documents going back into the mists of history, and the whole thing falling to pieces in the absence of a full-time archivist. Generations of kings have added to their collection, putting the books in the shelves with no reference to order and relying on their own memories to know where everything is. In this generation it is the princess’ memory that serves as a catalogue, but she has duties of her own and cannot be expected to put in the hours of manual work each day that it would require to put everything in order and make a written list.

It seems to me that this is the perfect outlet for your particular talents, and that you could do real good here. I know that we will be missed at home, but Sir Roger and Lady Dumcruckle would have had to make new plans for the school and the archiving anyhow when you and I wed and began to farm. The only matter unresolved would be Father, and he could come and live with us just as easily as he could back home.

What do you suppose, dearest Tom – shall we do it? I admit that the prospect interests me; I have seen so much of history over the last weeks that it would seem dull to be out of the way of it – although of course, you made history of your own at Dumcruckle during the siege, which shows you how much I know.

Please do not refuse right away; give it a day or two of thought. I would not want to press you, or to influence you to take a step that you are reluctant to take, but do think about it. We can always go back home if we do not think the arrangement is working – that is the nice thing about home; one can always go back.

Your loving,
Lynde

----------

Thomas Crowder to Lynde Falconer:

Dearest Lynde,

Of course we will go and live the high life at the Tower; I began packing my things before I even finished reading your letter. Finally I can tell you just how bestially envious I was that it was you who were going into the world to make your fortune, and I who was staying at home to spin. Why, in the last week I have been chewing my own pillow at nights in agony that I would never travel farther than the next estate, and that you would always hold it against me.

The description you give of the library has my mouth watering to sink my teeth into the project. Our library here, though comprehensive for a remote country manor, would be sadly modest on the world stage, and in any case it has been in perfect order for at least the last fifteen years, leaving little scope for my talents.

I have discussed the matter with your father, and he will be very sorry to have you so far away, but he was utterly firm in the matter of staying where he is. He says that he has spent his life here and he has the respect of his years of service; in the capital he would only be a burden to hold you back. I did my best to dissuade him, but I can rather see his point; a healthy country life is better for an old man than the glittering court you describe. Now that Minnie and Mistress Rebecca are settled at Dumcruckle for good, he will have his family with him and all the care, affection and daily arguments he needs to keep him hearty.

The one condition he would make is that he would like to see you married, and of course I said we would do whatever was needed to make it so. He is perfectly fit to travel with me to the capital if we take it easy, and you and I could bring him home together, if the princess is willing to allow you a honeymoon.

Lynde dearest, you have no idea how much this suggestion has done for me. To be an expert among books instead of an amateur on a farm is a far more fulfilling future than I had expected.

I will be with you in a week, my darling – dream of me!

Your own,
Tom

----------

Christina, Queen Consort of Bentlefay, to Robert “Long Bob” Langstrom of the Golden Gull:

Dear Bob,

I owe you a debt for keeping Dulcie safe through what turned out to be much more exciting an adventure than most of us anticipated. On the other hand, of course, you seem to have given her a story she can hold over my head any time she cares to, so in that sense, we can call it even.

Ah, well, I can forgive much in a man who has ensured the safety of the realm in general and my daughter in particular – not that I was ever able to stay angry at you for long. You are a good man, with a generous heart, a nimble wit and a prodigious reach. But then, I have had no reason to believe that you would have altered in any of those respects from your youth.

I have sent you along a nice selection from our treasury in an attractively carved wooden chest which you may recognize, as it is of our mutual great-grandfather’s manufacture and the one upon which I happened to be sitting when you first proposed marriage twenty-six years ago. The treasure, if you would be so kind, is to be divided among all the men who fought on Bentlefay’s behalf. The chest is for you – in gratitude, and in remembrance.

Yours very truly,
Tina

Friday, August 27, 2010

In Which Our Heroes Arrive Home

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

I have always gotten on well with my parents but I don’t believe I have ever been more delighted to see them than I was when we got home yesterday. After much head-scratching in the matter of logistics, I was finally able to arrive at court just in time for the receiving like everyone else seems to. Thus, our reunion turned out to be embarrassingly public as I found myself haring up the room at a full run, hurling myself on Mother and bursting into tears in front of the entire court.

“There, now,” she murmured, with a tenderness in her voice which I haven’t heard since I was in short skirts, “such a fuss.”

It was a familiar phrase, and it had never before failed to convince me that any childish fancies of fear or hurt were just that, but this was altogether different. I found myself stammering out the story from the very beginning, complete with backtracks and interjections when I forgot something.

I suppose I must have been growing rather hysterical – an unfortunate tendency of late; I’ve never had it before – because by the time I was done with the thing I found myself in my own room with Mother and Father and Lynde, without being quite sure how we got there.

“Heavens!” Father sputtered when I had dithered to a close. “Head in a basket! What damned infernal … impudence. I never wanted to send our daughter to sea with pirates, Christina. I knew something like this would happen.”

“Oh, nonsense,” Mother retorted. “You see they took excellent care of her – she came home without a scratch. I told you we could trust Long Bob.”

I felt that she was not taking my great adventure seriously enough and could not resist a dig.

“He asked to be remembered to you, by the way – for the sake of old times.”

“Well, yes,” Mother said equably. “I told you we once knew each other quite well.”

“Not as much as he told me,” I rejoined, and had the pleasure of seeing Mother look disconcerted.

“I shall certainly have to write him a line or two in gratitude,” she said in the manner of one to whom the subject was closed. “Now, you clearly need a good night’s rest if the performance you gave is any indication. I will have a tray sent up. And, Lynde, if you are not too tired to come with me and give me your briefing, I would be very grateful.”

She swept grandly from the room with Lynde in her wake, but Father lingered for a moment.

“I’m glad you’re all right, little girl,” he said gruffly, and then his face squinched up and his voice wavered. “I can’t spare you, you know.”

He swept me up in an enormous bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek so firmly that I can feel it yet, and trotted hurriedly after Mother. I slept the whole night like I’d been hit on the head with a hammer, and I had no dreams at all.

Lynde horrified me deeply this morning by appearing at my bedside at dawn dressed in her fighting leathers, and informing me that it was time to go out and drill.

What?” I croaked with all the strength I could muster. “That’s the maddest thing I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard Mortimer Bleake. Can’t I sleep in for one morning after the time we’ve had?”

“We might not get many more chances,” Lynde said somberly, “and I’d like to think you can take care of yourself once I’ve left.”

“Once you’ve –” I began, but she feigned deafness and I was forced to dress hurriedly and trail after her to the practice ring, snatching up a handful of bread from the dining hall as we passed through.

I had hoped we would become embroiled in girlish talk and forget about drill altogether, but to my disgust, it wasn’t until we had run through the whole practice and were walking around the ring to cool down that she deigned to elaborate.

“Tom wants to get married soon,” she said abruptly out of nowhere.

I was thoroughly exhausted and inclined to be uncaring. “Well, of course he does. Don’t you?” I snapped.

But then I realized what she meant. “Oh. That means you’re going to leave me and go play at farming in Dumcruckle, doesn’t it?” I sighed. “I told you that you should have let me sleep.”

Lynde wrung her hands. “It isn’t as though I want to,” she said. “You know I’ll never be as good a farm wife as I am a royal bodyguard – it feels like early death when I think about it. I’ve always been rather a freak in Dumcruckle and even Tom complained that they had gone back to taking him for granted. I don’t imagine I’ll ever do so much good for anyone as I’ve been able to do here.

“But I love him, and he’s right – we can’t just live our whole lives apart.”

There seemed to be no answer to this, and I was preparing a very bad mood indeed, when an idea struck me.

“I say, Lynde,” I said diffidently, “you don’t suppose he’d want to come and live here? I’m sure we could find him a post of some sort that’s more in his line than teaching school in Dumcruckle. The archives are getting out of control, for instance – we could use someone who knows what they’re doing, and it sounds like he enjoys that sort of thing. Why don’t the two of you get married and then stay on here? Tom could be the archivist, and you could go on being my bodyguard. I’m sure we’d appreciate both of you more than they would back home.”

Lynde stopped in her tracks and looked dazed. “I never thought of that. We don’t have to live in Dumcruckle at all, do we?”

“Do you think he’d consider it?”

“I don’t know. It’s worth a try though, isn’t it? Oh!” she exclaimed, and leaped over the rail of the practice ring in a single bound. “I’m going to write to him right now!”

And she was off with the speed of wind, leaving me to hobble back to the castle under my own motive power. With Lynde off duty, I didn’t think anyone would notice if I went back to bed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In Which Amends are Made

Lynde Falconer to Master Owen Falconer:

Dear Father,

Our latest adventure has been unlike any other I’ve ever had, and among other things has altogether disinclined me ever again to go on the sea for any reason. However, it has all ended well, and I have done my duty toward the protection of the princess once again.

The pirates are most interesting folk, if not particularly predictable. I have never met people like them before, and although I had my doubts about them at the beginning, they fought well and loyally on our behalf when things came to that, and I am now proud to call them my friends.

After two days at sea we made our rendezvous with the pirate ships, and the princess signed the treaty with them on behalf of Bentlefay. The pirates then were our hosts for an impressive feast, but just as we finished the sweet course the watch called a warning. Our ships were being attacked by three Norhammer vessels, and since the pirates are not to be beaten at sea, we defeated them handily.

In my foolishness I thought that would be the extent of our adventure, but I should have known by now that that man Bleake would have a trick up his sleeve. He and a contingent of Norhammers used the distraction of the battle to board the flagship, where they were able to take us utterly by surprise and capture the princess and I into custody.

They locked me straight away in the galley where I was, as you may say, effectively neutralized. Fortunately, the princess was locked in the captain’s cabin and left to her own devices, so she was able to send a message to the pirates via mermaid. I know – it sounds ridiculous when written out like that, but she swears with her hand on her heart that that is how it happened, and I have never known her to tell a lie. I saw a much larger group of merfolk with my own eyes the following morning, so I can assure you at least that they exist.

In any case, the pirates came to our aid the next morning at daybreak. It was a grand battle, most of which I only heard from my place in the galley. Once I was released, it was only to find that Norhammer’s captain, Duke Harker, still held the princess captive and was preparing to bargain with her person for a long list of political concessions, most of which he would likely have gotten had the princess not managed to extricate herself through her own strength and daring, in the form of a well-placed blow below the belt.

We brought our captives back to Seaward, but the night before we got there we discovered the brig broken open, the guard unconscious and Bleake and Harker gone without a trace. When we got to Seaward, we found Harker’s body washed ashore, but Bleake remains at large, and as much as I’d like to think that he is gone for good, I’m afraid that the sea wouldn’t keep him, and he will be back somehow to plague us all.

Meanwhile, the Norhammer crewmen gave us a surprise by begging us to allow them to remain in Bentlefay. They said they would happily remain prisoners or even work as slave labor, since the dishonor of losing a battle without being killed would make their lives unlivable back in their native land. The king and queen are taking the matter under advisement, but I feel sure that the ultimate fate of these men will be more humane than they fear.

Though the day was saved by a combination of forces, one thing I have grown to realize is that there is nothing like danger at sea to make one appreciate the amenities of land. I long to hear how things go with you and with everyone else at home, and though we have only been gone a week, I feel a changed person. If I could presume upon you to give Master Crowder my apologies for my behavior, and tell him that I wish him happiness in whatever choice he makes, I would be very grateful.

With love,
Your Lynde

----------

Master Owen Falconer to Lynde Falconer, with difficulty:

Dear Lynde,

Stop being an imbecile. The boy can’t stop pining for you and has become a thorough bore. For lord’s sake make it up with him. I am an old man.

Yours,
Father

P.S. Your cousin Minnie has announced her betrothal to Timothy Dumcruckle, so can things please go back to normal?

----------

Lynde Falconer to Thomas Crowder:

Dear Tom,

I have tried with every ounce of brain I possess to craft a letter that will make you forgive me, through passionate mellifluousness if nothing else. But the only thing I can say is that I’ve been a fool. I thought so low of my value as a wife that I suppose I just assumed that you would look elsewhere so long as you had the opportunity. I cringe with shame when I think of how I behaved; you must have thought me possessed.

But that is all gone now. I never would have thought that going to sea with pirates to have such a clarifying effect on one’s emotional intelligence, but that is how it has turned out. I hope you can look upon the whole thing as an aberration, and forgive me.

Your loving,
Lynde

----------

Thomas Crowder to Lynde Falconer:

Dear Lynde,

Oh, my darling, the fault was all mine. You needed love and reassurance, but I couldn’t see past my pride. I was convinced that poor Minnie was an excuse for you to rid yourself of an entanglement that had become unwanted since your exposure to grander and better men at court. It was my discontent speaking, and it was unfair of me to take it out on you.

Ah, well, I hope that as two fools, at least we deserve each other. When can we be married, dear Lynde? We have been apart far too long.

Your own,
Tom

Friday, August 20, 2010

In Which Goodbyes are Said

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

(continued from here)

There was another feast this afternoon, more raffish and less formal than yesterday’s but by the same token much friendlier and more comfortable, now that we had all seen each other bruised and unconscious and captive and bleeding, experienced adversity together and come out the other end.

Lynde had apparently made her (lack of) intentions known to Masters in private conversation, and he was taking it on the chin although I could tell he was feeling it. He did not sit down for the feast but busied himself instead with the logistics of the thing – directing boats back and forth, setting watches on all the ships and generally keeping in the background.

The Norhammer crewmen had been utterly deflated by the revelation that their generations-long superiority complex had been built on sand, and while they were invited to join the feast in exchange for their oath, they actually preferred to remain bound. Bleake and Harker were of course not given this opportunity and shared the Porteous’ tiny brig with a crewman in charge to make sure they didn’t do each other any irreparable damage.

The Porteous hosted today’s feast and since it lacked the facilities of the Gull, we contented ourselves with fish stew, fresh bread and wine from the captain’s own barrel, and found nothing lacking. When we could eat no more, the crew of the Porteous assembled to sing, which they apparently make rather a thing of, and dazzled everyone with their plaintive harmonies.

The sun was low enough to be in our eyes, and the men had moved on from exhibitions into round singing, when Masters materialized at my side without warning.

“I beg your pardon, your majesty – may I have a word?”

I had been gazing dreamily at the singing men with my chin in my hand and my elbow on my knee. The effects of my broken sleep the night before were beginning to seep into my bones, and I wasn’t at all sure I hadn’t nodded off.

“Oh, of course,” I said hastily. “I haven’t even thanked you for your help in saving us. If you hadn’t sent Kah-ee-lah along last night, we’d be on our way to Norhammer by now.”

“I had in mind quite a different effect,” he admitted wryly, “but of course I am glad it worked out as well as it did.” He looked across the deck at Lynde, being taught by the second mate to play the ocarina, and sighed.

I put my hand on his arm. “I’m sorry.”

He smiled, a surprisingly sweet smile. “I’ll live.”

Lynde blew into the ocarina, making a sound like a dozen dying crows, and burst out laughing. Masters turned to me.

“Tell me – if you would be so kind. This young man of hers. What kind of a man is he?”

I thought for a moment. “I suppose he's a hero,” I said slowly. “He broke a siege practically on his own during the last war. He saved an entire manor from harm and hardship, and when they forgot about it, he continued to serve them with loyalty and a sense of humor. To tell the truth, it puts me to shame when I think about it.”

“Ah.” His chin sank on his chest dejectedly. “He is worthy of her, then.”

“I really do think he is.”

We sat in maudlin commiseration for a moment or two.

“She has told me that she will remain my friend, at least,” Masters said at length.

“Well, I certainly can’t think of a better one.”

“Then I will try to be comforted with that.”

Long Bob got up at that moment from where he and our captain had been in earnest conversation and came up to us, trailing pirates and bonhomie.

“We’d better get ourselves gone,” he said to Masters. “They will want to get their prisoners home into a real jail for safety’s sake.”

“Certainly.” Masters turned to me. “Thank you, your majesty, for the hospitality of your fleet. We are all pleased with the new alliance, and hope it will be a long and fruitful one.”

He bowed over my hand and moved away, leaving me to make another round of farewells to Long Bob.

“Goodbye again,” I said, feeling as though ceremony was no longer necessary. “Although I’m almost afraid to say it lest another attack rise up out of nowhere.”

“Ah, no, those poor scoundrels have had their bubble burst for a generation. A rare bother they’ve been to the merfolk, too, with their posturing.”

“Ah, yes, the merfolk,” I said as casually as I could. “How is it that you are acquainted with merfolk, if I may ask?”

Long Bob hesitated. “I’m afraid there’s a bit of secrecy about it,” he said eventually. “Let’s just say that it’s a pirate thing, and leave it at that.”

“Fair enough,” I answered. “You’ll have to visit us at court someday – maybe Mother will get it out of you.”

The mention of Mother seemed to get Long Bob onto a new tack.

“You’ll tell her everything?” he demanded. “You’ll tell her the welcome we gave you, and the feast, and the way we protected you even in harm’s way? You’ll remember me to your sainted ma?”

“Of course,” I said, surprised. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Long Bob heaved a sigh. “If I tell you something, will you swear to keep it?”

“I suppose,” I said, surprised at the sudden fourteen-year-old girl direction that the conversation was taking. “Although if it has to do with national security or some such, I’d better not.”

“No, it’s just the sad tale of how a smart man can do a stupid thing, especially when it comes to love.

“I talk a good line, as you can see, about your ma throwing me over for your pa, and of course it makes sense that a girl like her would prefer his majesty over a pirate on the wrong side of the law – even a pirate of the stature of myself. But the truth is--” and I was surprised and a little embarrassed to see tears in his eyes – “it was I who broke off the engagement, like the touchy, over-proud cockerel that I was. I broke it off twenty-five years ago this month, over a foolish kid argument, and I never spent a day without being sorry.”

“Oh,” was all I could think of to say. “Dear. Well, you don’t need to worry about Mother’s feelings – she and Father are deliriously happy and I really do think they’re best friends.”

“Yes.” Long Bob sighed again. “I was afraid of that. And she deserves every happiness the fates please to give her. Ah, well, my life is not such a bad one and it’s pleased I am to be able to do her a service after all these years.

“I see the boats are ready,” he went on with a look over my shoulder, “so I’ll say, till we meet again, young Dulcie. Goodbye is unlucky, as you noticed.”

And with that, our pirate adventure was, at last, concluded.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Which a Couple of Questions are Resolved

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

(continued from here)

Lynde came hurrying up to me as I shook my paralyzed hand.

Ow,” I exclaimed. “I never knew a grown man’s groin had so much … bone behind it.”

“It’s my fault,” Lynde said remorsefully. “When we were practicing, I never gave you anything to actually hit. I suppose I thought it was just going to be for fun.”

“It does feel a great deal different from drill,” I admitted. “But the point is, it’s over. And I for one will never be setting foot on a ship at sea again … unless it’s for your wedding.”

“My – oh.” Lynde looked puzzled, and then enlightened. A maidenly blush crept into her cheeks and then ebbed away.

“No – you’re wrong,” she went on softly, gazing across the deck to where Masters was directing operations. “Although, it was … nice, I won’t deny that.”

“It certainly looked nice from where I was standing,” I interjected, but she went on as though I had not spoken.

“It taught me … well, you remember what we talked about the night before we left?”

“Goodness, yes. It taught you that you’re desirable, and by someone who ought to know. He certainly has done you a service, if that’s the case.”

“Yes. But when one is in trouble, one realizes what is most important in life. Captain Masters is an honorable man – a strong leader, and an excellent fighter. But all the time I was locked up in that disgusting little galley – they eat an awful lot of fish on shipboard – I could think of nothing but Tom.”

She sighed. “I’ve been a fool.”

“Well,” I said, “if you can look Masters in the eye and say so outright, you’re a stronger woman than I am.”

Masters himself came striding up at that moment and I added hastily, “I’ll just leave you two alone.”

But they had already forgotten me, and I edged away unnoticed.

Long Bob was attending personally to the strapping up of Bleake’s wrists, and making a meticulously thorough job of it as far as I could tell. Bleake himself had lost the cringing fear he had shown before Masters’ sword point, and was endeavoring to be haughty and above it all.

“Don’t imagine you can keep me prisoner for long,” he sneered when he saw me. “My destiny is for greater things.”

“Listen, it isn’t as though we want you,” I retorted. “It wouldn’t even arise if you didn’t keep trying to conquer us. What on earth do you need with Bentlefay, anyhow? I’ll bet you could have stayed at Norhammer for as long as you wanted and ended up with lands of your own if you’d thought to flatter Duke Harker a little more.”

“A sheltered life as a court lickspittle? No, thank you. Any toady with court manners can find himself a comfortable berth to grow old in. My talents belong on the stage of nations!” A burst of spray flew out of his mouth with the cascading sibilants, and he surreptitiously wiped his chin on his shoulder.

“Well, kingmaking hasn’t worked out so well for you so far, has it?” I said kindly. “Once we get back to Bentlefay I can set you up with some embroidery. We wouldn’t want you to get bored in our dungeons.”

Bleake’s face boiled purple and I would always be sorry not to hear what he would have responded with, but at that moment a sound of roiling water off the port side announced a diversion.

“Ah,” said Long Bob. “We have visitors. Stow this one safely away,” he said to one of his men as he handed Bleake off to him, “but fetch the other one here. We’ve got a bit of a surprise for him.”

Harker was brought between two men, his hands bound and his face still brittle and drawn. Long Bob, at his most expansive, took him in hand.

“Now, your grace,” he boomed. “Some friends of mine have arrived that I want to introduce you to. You’ve never met,” he added with somewhat of a peculiar smile, “though I understand that you think there’s a connection.”

We all went over to the port side of the ship with the manner of a diplomatic entourage, to be met with a sight out of my wildest imagination. Scattered through the water between the Porteous and the Golden Gull, some perched sidesaddle on scaled horselike monsters, some propelled by their own glistening tails, and a few floating on elaborate gilded rafts like royal litters, were the merfolk – dozens of them. They were as impressive as any court caravan I had ever seen and more fantastic than any I could have imagined. I was dazzled.

My own acquaintance Kah-ee-lah was in front and waved at me with a sunny smile. She was even more striking in the bright sunlight and her compatriots looked very like her – dark hair and eyes, blunt slanting features, and dusky brown skin. None of them bothered with any clothing but several of them wore jewels in their hair and around their necks and arms. They looked elementally beautiful, regally proud, and not even remotely like a single one of the Norhammers. I shot a look at Duke Harker, who was opening and shutting his mouth.

“What – who – what – who –” he began.

“This,” Long Bob said with relish, “is the Ah-lo-ah-lee-ee clan of merfolk, and unless I am mistaken, they have something to say to you.”

Six broad-chested mermen pushed forward one of the great rafts, and its occupant, a barrel-chested sage with curly white hair and a diadem of purple shells, lifted an ornate megaphone and spoke in a voice like a roll of thunder.

“Harker of Norhammer,” he said. “I am King Mahi and I speak on behalf of my people. It has been known for generations that your race claims kinship with ours. Until today it has been a cause for our mockery, but now that you have used the claim to justify conquest, it has become a matter of honor.

“Let it be known, Harker of Norhammer and all others of your blood – we repudiate your claim and your actions. Your ships will no longer be tolerated in our waters, and all the tides of the ocean and the four winds of heaven will stand against you. Now, have you any response?”

Harker opened and shut his mouth twice more, and turned furiously on Long Bob. “They can’t all look like that,” he hissed. “They’re nothing like us. They can’t possibly all look like that. What do I say to him?”

“It’s true I haven’t met all of them,” admitted Long Bob easily, “but I must say none of the ones I’ve ever seen could possibly be related to you. I’m thinking they have the right of it, and unless you want to antagonize them further, I’d stick to apologizing for the mistake and thanking them for their time.”

King Mahi had already grown impatient and cleared his throat meaningfully into his megaphone.

“Oh. Yes,” called Harker, and his voice sounded thin and whining by comparison. “Er – I apologize for the mistake, and, er – thank you for your time.”

“Noted,” said the king. “Mind my words, and deliver them back to your people.”

And in a single motion, quick as thought, the entire contingent sank beneath the surface of the water as though sucked through a straw, leaving nothing but a settling mass of foam to mark their passage. We all stared stupidly at it for a moment, and then Kah-ee-lah surfaced briefly by herself, blew Harker a prolonged raspberry, and was gone.

(continued here)

Friday, August 13, 2010

In Which the Day is Saved By ... Well, Everyone Really

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

(continued from here)

There was a pause, and then the four of us went out on the deck, moving in a sort of rigid toddle which I would no doubt have found amusing had I not had a knife to my throat at the time.

The scene on the deck was everything I would have wished. The Norhammers lay about in heaps, either unconscious, bleeding freely, puffy and mottled with bruises, or some combination of the three. The crew of the Porteous, their honor now avenged, was doing most of the tying up, while the contingent of pirates looked on tolerantly, with the exception of Jock Masters, who stood astride a pile of three men with menace in his eye.

“Where is she?” he demanded as soon as he saw us, taking no notice of my plight. “I can’t get a straight answer out of any of these morons.” He gestured furiously at the three men under his feet, who were thoroughly unconscious. “Damn you, tell me where she is or I’ll start slitting their throats one by one.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Harker airily. “Not when every drop of blood shed henceforward by one of my men will be shed three times over by her majesty here.”

Masters cocked an eyebrow and I wondered if that was all that much of an incentive to him. To my relief, however, he strode over to where Long Bob had hold of Bleake and put the point of his sword to Bleake’s throat.

“How about you?” he cooed. “How much of your life’s blood would you like to sacrifice in exchange for three times as much from the princess?”

“She’s in the galley,” shouted Bleake, who then glared at Harker. “For god’s sake, you ass, why do you have to be like that? They were just going to find her anyway.”

I felt Harker shrug. “Not so much a strategist where your own neck is concerned, eh?”

Bleake started forward with murder in his eye and was caught more tightly by Long Bob, whereupon Harker caught me more tightly in response, and my neck was starting to hurt a little before Masters, who had been fumbling with the door of the galley, got it open and Lynde came bounding out like a savage tiger.

She had battle in her eye, but Masters clearly had his own opinion on the matter since he snatched her bodily and planted a toe-curling kiss, which went on long enough for her hands, which were all I could see of her, to register astonishment, impatience, tentative enjoyment, and then enthusiasm.

Those men who were still in possession of their wits looked on in gleeful surprise, and we all would have enjoyed ourselves very much if Harker, who evidently has no sense of romance except insofar as it involves his own personal legend, became impatient and cleared his throat.

“Very touching,” he said smoothly, “but shall we get down to business? I begin to grow weary of this spot of sea.”

Lynde leaped away from Masters, took in the situation with a glance, and then demanded – rather redundantly, I thought – “What does this mean?”

“It means that one may lose all one’s pawns but still win the game if one has the king in check, Mistress Falconer. I have your princess; she will die if you try to take her back. Therefore I must ask you to leave this ship and take yourselves back to Bentlefay along with my ultimatum.”

“And that is?”

“The princess’ hand in marriage and the annexation of the kingdom as Norhammer’s protectorate, or her severed head in a basket before the next full moon.”

He cocked his head in Bleake’s direction. “Oh, and you can take him with you if you like. I have no opinion on the matter.”

Lynde and Masters looked at each other and then at me. I began to realize the seriousness of the situation, which had so far been moving too fast for much thought. Harker was certainly not bluffing – I had all the evidence I needed as to his respect for human life. My breath began to catch shortly as I wondered if I would ever see Mother and Father again, or home. What had I thought was going to be so wonderful about adventure, anyhow?

I was well on my way to hysterics again, with who knows what repercussions, when I became aware that Lynde’s stare held more meaning than I had first given it credit for, and that her lips were moving slightly. It took a moment for me to puzzle out what she meant, but by moving my lips in the same shape I realized that she was mouthing “drill.”

Drill?

Drill!

In an instant Lynde’s plan became clear in my head – the only weakness being that for the first time in my life my safety lay in my own hands, and I was not at all certain I had the courage to defend it.

My mind seemed to move through panic as sluggishly as through mud, but thinking one step at a time I reasoned that if my study of military tactics had taught me anything, it was that to make oneself underestimated shaped any subsequent events to one’s advantage.

I wasn’t sure Harker could estimate me any lower, but to make doubly sure I decided to stage a mock half-faint. With a slight sigh, I made myself as limp as I could, forcing Harker to catch and support me.

“A weak royalty makes a weak nation,” he observed nastily. “And I had thought Bentlefay a worthy opponent. Ah well, at least your farmland is rich.” Bastard, I thought, but dared not move a muscle.

By the second tactical step, Harker needed to have his attention distracted elsewhere. I couldn’t do that myself, of course, but Masters was equal to the occasion.

“Look here,” he began in just the brash rudeness of tone which a bully like Harker would be most likely to respect, “what do you think we fight for? We wouldn’t have lifted a finger against you if we hadn’t been paid handsomely and I for one intend to be paid handsomely to stop.”

“I think you are forgetting –” Harker began but Masters cut him off.

“You may shed as much royal blood as you like,” he sneered, “it has no effect on me.”

“Now then, the princess is our kin,” Long Bob added to the discussion, dividing Harker’s attention further.

“She’s your kin,” said Masters. “If you want to keep fighting, do so by all means, but you’ll be having to fight me too.”

Harker turned his head from Masters to Long Bob and back. It was clear the situation had complicated itself beyond his ability to solve it by threatening me and as my value slackened in Harker’s mind, so did his grip on my throat. I estimated it only needed one more dig to take his mind off me altogether and Masters did not disappoint.

“In any case,” he said, turning back to Harker, “if you are na├»ve enough to think the pirate clans are respecters of nations, you should leave the sea for your own fishponds until you learn wisdom.”

“Listen, you puppet-king of a gang of no-account ruffians,” shouted Harker, confusion making him angry as it was bound to, “I am a descendant of merfolk; how dare you tell me my place on the sea? I’ll teach you your own place with my bare hands once I’ve done.”

Unconsciously he sketched a gesture with the hand holding the dagger and it was all the opening I needed. Springing swiftly to life, I crouched inside his reach, rammed my left elbow into his gut with all my weight behind it, dropped to one knee and shot my fist into his groin, backed by all the rage that had been building in me since the watch first called at the feast last night.

Harker froze, gave a short high-pitched moan, and toppled magnificently over like a falling tree, to be leapt upon by every available man from the pirate and Porteous crews.

The stalemate was over.

(continued here)