Do You Like Honey Tarts?

“Miss Clodagh, what is for dessert at the dinner party?” Rosomon asked in excitement as she watched the woman’s gnarled hands knead dough. She and the other staff had been preparing all week. A guest would be visiting, and the entire estate was in a tizzy.

“‘Tis a secret, little Rose.”

Rosomon’s eyes lit up at the nickname, “Mother said not to call me that…”

“Hah!” The woman laughed, “And do you always do what the Lady says?”

The girl’s lips broke into a full smile, knowing full well that she did not.

“Ach, I won’t be telling ye,” she insisted. Looking at the girl a moment she said, “But I will give ye a hint on somethin’ else.” Clodagh set the dough aside to rise again then turned to pull a quill and parchment from a drawer. Rosomon watched her curiously, wondering what sort of hint it would be.

Clodagh returned and handed her a paper, “Here ye are.”

Rosomon looked at the paper:

Hares & Boars
Nuts & Berries
Ye’ll Not Know
What We’re Makin
Til You Figure
Out The Writin

Her eyebrows furrowed, “This is not a hint!”

“Ah, everythin in this life is a hint – ye just need t’ solve the puzzle.” With that, the woman turned back to her craft.

Rosomon hopped off the counter and moved to a stool in the corner as another cook came in to assist Clodagh. She stared at the poem, rereading it over and over. Eventually she went through the side door into the garden. As she paced she noticed the misplaced punctuation makes. At first he had thought them ink droplets, but now they began to seem intentional. Dots, letters, dots, letters – her mind worked to make the connection. How could dots give her a hint?

“Ah ha!” Rosomon ran back into the kitchens to find Clodagh alone again. “Honey Tart!”

She turned to look at the girl, excited eyes and breathing heavily as if she had just run across an entire field. “Aye.” With that, she moved to an oven to pull out a tray. Dishing out the fresh pastries onto a plate before moving back to the girl still standing in the doorway, she bent to kiss the child’s head, “Happy Birthday, little Rose.”

The girl hugged her again for a minute.

“Now, get goin – I’ve got a lot to do and not a lot of time,” Clodagh shoos her out.

Rosomon takes the plate runs back out of the door. She ran across the bailey, hoping to find a cozy place to enjoy the tarts. Not looking where she was going, Rosomon ran into a pair of legs. She followed them up to see a tall man covered by a dark fur mantle. Everything he wore was dark, except for the grey peppered at his temples. His hair was pulled back, and she could not tell how long it was.

“Pardon me,” she said with a smile, still excited about her treat and solving the puzzle.

The man looked down at her curiously but did not look away. She was small, but he thought she may be older than he had initially thought. Flying through the bailey without a care as she had, the man figured she was probably not as demur as her father would have liked.

“Do you like honey tarts?” she queried.

“Pardon?” he replied in a deep voice.

“Honey tarts – do you like them?”

“Indeed – who would not?”

The girl held up her plate to him and said very seriously, “As an apology, sir, I would split them with you. I can assure you, they will be the best you have had.”

His lip tweaked. Sir? What an interesting child. “Apology accepted,” he said as he reached to grab his tart.

She watched him expectantly as he took the first bite, “Well?”

He simply nodded to her.

“Are you visiting? I can show you around.”

“I am, but exploring will have to wait. Can you direct me to the Baron?”

He watched the girl deflate a little, “Of course.” She grabbed his hand and started pulling him along. “Mr. Hayworth, will you please stable this man’s horse?” She did not notice to look in the man’s eyes as he froze watching them pass. “I am Rosomon, by the way.”

They ascended the steps. He opened the door for her, “It is a pleasure, Rosomon. I’m – “

The Baron’s hurried footsteps sounded through the entry. “Count!”

Ribbons & Dresses

Port Melandir
“Nana!” Rosomon exclaimed as she ran into Lady Faulkner’s arms.

“Ah, my little Rosomon,” she said, holding the girl tightly. “What have you been up to of late?”

The girl’s nose scrunched as she looked at her grandmother, “Studying, mostly.”

The older woman laughed, “Ah, well best not show your father this, then.” She pulled a wrapped gift from a nearby shelf.

“Thank you,” the girl said before running off to the other side of the sitting room to show Maegi her gift.

“Mother,” Isamina chastised.

“Oh hush now, girl, neither you nor that husband of yours is going to prevent me from spoiling my grandchild.” Sitting down primly on the settee she continued, “I still cannot believe, after all these years, that you were able to convince your father marry you off to that man.”

“Love, mother. Love is how I convinced him.”

She harrumphed, “Money is more like it.”

“Have you heard of this day’s Parliament yet?” Isamina attempted to change the topic.

“Nay,” she said. “But I suspect we will at the Gale’s party tonight. Hah! We are not even in North Pass and they were able to put together an event!”

She looked over at her granddaughter who was in the middle of sorting the gifts and heard her say softly, “Look at this ribbon, Maegi! Here, it matched your eyes!”


Rosomon looked around the room crowded with imposing, well-dressed figures.

She felt a hand at her back. “Don’t wander off tonight,” came her father’s voice. They made their way to Viscount Gerald and his family. “Gerald, I was pleased to see you did not yield to Lord Bradford’s demands this time.”

“The man simply does not know when enough is enough,” he replied.

As the men talked, their wives caught up on the day’s ventures. Lady Peronell had found a lovely shop by the harbor with all of the latest imports from Hestralia.

Rosomon’s mind drifted off her gaze wandered. She spotted several other children around, most her age or older. She saw one girl with long brown hair and a pretty red dress. She looked down at hers – her family’s colors – and wondered why none of her dresses were red.

“There you are,” she turned at the familiar voice. “Kirk, you remember Rosomon,” Gunter told him.

“Of course, how could I forget your little thing.”

Gunter chuckled. “How have your lessons been going?”

“Very well. I have been studying the history of Rogalia.” She did not mention that she was mostly learning about where everything was located and other basics.

“Oh? Seems a heavy topic for a girl, especially one so young. What are you now, five?”

“Nearly seven,” Rosomon straightened. “Pardon me.” She turned around and walked a table with an assortment of treats on it with Maegi in toe.

“Those boys do not seem very nice.”

Rosomon looked up to see the girl in the red dress. “You are not entirely wrong,” she said, glancing behind her.

“I am Lady Alexandra Gale,” the other girl said.

“A pleasure to meet you, I am Lady Rosomon,” she replied. She paused for a moment, but could not hold back, “I love your dress!”

The End is Red

Rosomon, all of six years old, started her day as she had for nearly three years, sitting in the solar, focusing intently on the paper before her.

A A A a a a B B B…

At least, she tried to focus. The window kept drawing her attention. It was a beautiful, sunny day. She wanted to go outside and run around – maybe find someone to play with.

Sighing, she turned back to the letters and numbers before her. No fun was to be had here. Still, she wrote and wrote, methodically dipping her quill in the ink before returning it to the parchment.

“Morning!” A hand that was suddenly on her shoulder startled her, and the quill scratched across the paper leaving a large line. She knew she would have to start over, as her father would never accept such a thing.

She straightened address the older boy before her, “Good morning, Gunter. You startled me.” She looked pointedly at the mark on her paper.

“No matter – you can write just fine, so do it again.”

“Indeed, I certainly shall.” She pulled a blank sheet before her and picked up the quill.

A A A a a a B B B…

“You will never believe what I did today,” he said prodingly.

H H H h h h…

“Oh?” she replied without looking up.

M M M m m m…

“Yes…” Gunter went on to tell his story.

Z Z…

“Rosomon!” He grabbed her wrist to jerk her to face him, causing a mark to mar this paper as well. “Were you listening to a word I said?”

“You bested Marcus Olson at swordplay. Then the two of you went to the lake and found a boy catching frogs… and you threw stones at him,” she finished disapprovingly.

He pulled back to look at her a moment. “That’s right. ‘Bested’ is stating it lightly, though. I doubt he will even have the courage to challenge me again.”

Silence grew for a moment. “Ah! I nearly forgot! I have a gift for you,” he said proudly.

Her head canted to the side. “Truly?”

“I do.” Gunter took a step back to stand tall before her. He reached behind him, then bowed with a dramatic flourish. “My Lady,” he said holding a large rose in full bloom before her.

Her eyes lit up. “It is beautiful!”

“Of course – it is the first of the season.” He straightened and said kindly, “And it is for you.”

She smiled at him as he held it up to her. It was fragrant, and the petals looked soft to the touch. Gunter looked at her expectantly, so she reached her small hand to take the rose.

“Ouch!” She exclaimed as her hand closed around the stem.

A laugh cut through the air.

When she made to let go of the flower, his hands came up to caress hers. The move looked kind, but it exerted pressure to keep her hand closed around the stem and thorns. “Now, Rosomon, you do not want to drop your present.”

Her chin trembled and she felt tears behind her eyes, but Rosomon refused to cry. “Let go,” she said.

Gunter looked at her curiously, “Why would I do that?” The pressure increased slightly.

Knowing it would cut her hand more, Rosomon tore herself free of his grip. With one last glare she moved to leave the room.

“What? You don’t like it? Is it not enough? I can get you more!” He laughed behind her. “Come back.” When she did not follow his bidding, he stormed after her. “Rosomon. Come back. Agh! It was a joke!”

Finally reaching the door, she rounded on him, “There is nothing funny about using thorns or stones to hurt people!”

He froze, aghast, but before he could speak she was out the door. “You are no fun,” echoed after her.

Rosomon’s steps grew more hurried. She did not bother going to her parents – she would find no comfort there. So, instead of the rooms, she headed to the door leading to the garden. It was there she found her solace.

Bent over pulling carrots from the soft soil was Clodagh. The old Dunnick woman was always there for her.

Clodagh turned when she heard footsteps racing toward her; she barely had time to catch the child that flew into her arms.

“Miss Clodagh,” came a tearful voice, slightly muffled from her skirts.

“What ‘tis it then, little lady?” Clodagh stroked the girl’s soft curls.

She held up her hand, realizing that the rose was still clutched in it and little streams of blood trickled down her wrist.

“Ach! Whatever happened?” she asked, pulling Rosomon to a bucket of clean water nearby. She took the flower and set it aside, then began cleaning the cuts that looked too big on the girl’s little hand.

“Gunter played a trick,” she sniffed. Clodagh could see the girl was near tears but trying to keep them at bay.

“Hold fast, Rosomon,” she said encouragingly. “Life is uncertain. One day you get a rose, the next you feel the thorns – but the end result is red.”

Herding Sheep

“Rosomon,” Baron Renauld said sternly, “I have had enough of you running off to Banalis knows where! How many times must I tell you not to go off on your own?”

The young girl before him stood biting her lip and looking up with innocent eyes. She appeared sincere enough when she said, “I am sorry, Father,” but the effect was a bit dampened as she was covered head to toe in mud.

The man rubbed his hand across his face in exasperation and sighed, “Yes, I know you are – you always are. Run along and get cleaned up now, Rosomon.” The girl wasted no time in leaving. He opened his eyes and met his wife’s gaze across the room, “Fine.”

Isamina smiled, “The servant girl has herded sheep her whole life – she can easily herd a girl half her age.”

The Baroness had been trying to convince her husband for months to let her bring in someone to watch over their wayward daughter, who had a penchant for mischief. Isamina had spoken with her mother on the matter; the Faulkner Lady had laughed at her expense saying she ought to find a shepherd.

After thinking more on it, she knew her mother was right. She had heard mention of a girl – Maegi – who was nearing thirteen. The girl was an orphan with no family to speak of, meaning there would be no interference. Isamina had heard the girl was maybe not the brightest, but was humble and biddable. ‘Twould be perfect.

Do You See It?

A warm breeze brushed through the trees scattering freshly picked flowers. It was not strong enough to blow away the ones knotted together, though, as little Rosomon had been set about her task for the better part of the afternoon.

She looked up at the happy sounds coming from the other side of the bushes hiding her. She had been so focused that she did not realize the other children had gathered their flower crowns and are now ready to leave. “Maybe next time,” she said quietly, watching them go.

So badly did she want to join them – but she knew better. The last time she attempted as much they ran away before she could even say, “Hello, I am…” Had she scared them? Sometimes children are scared of silly things. She was afraid of that painting in the hall and Mother’s cat and even the pudding that Miss Cladogh loves to make. It was truly terrifying how the candlelight casts a jiggling shadow on the dining room wall! She did not think she was particularly frightening, but maybe they did… Regardless, she would rather learn to make their flower crowns than anything Mother would make her do – so behind the bushes she stayed.

At last, her crown was done. She placed it on her golden curls and scooped up the remaining flowers in her little hands. Making her way up the path toward home, she hummed a song the children like to sing. It was a lively tune, and she began to skip along.

As the house came into view, she noticed the sky beginning to change color. Perhaps she had been away too long?

Ascending the steps, her wrist was yanked on from below sending her stumbling back down. “How many times must I call your name!?”

All she could see are Gunter’s familiar blue eyes bent close to her face. “I am sorry, Cousin,” she replied kindly, already used to his moods.

The eyes narrowed for a moment before he leaned back to stare down at her, still holding her wrist too tightly. A charming smile came to life on his face, “Very well, then. Come… I have something to show you.”

The taller boy charged up the stairs, towing the girl along, headless of her having to nearly run to keep up and clutching flowers to her chest. He continued on, starting and stopping abruptly to vier through the people before reaching another set of stairs. The girl had never gone up the spiraling staircase before – Father had forbade her. She tried to tug away, but the boy simply tightened his grip and hauled her forward.

She did not understand why he insisted upon dragging her everywhere, for she would follow him if he would but ask. But, no, this was always how it was no matter how old they were. She could not remember a time when he did not tow her about. Sometimes he would show her interesting things, but she knew that when he finally let her be her wrists would be sore for the next two days.

They reached the top, and she froze there, forgetting to breathe because of the beauty before her. Everything was coated in red with the setting sun – the leaves, the grass, the stones, the people…

The boy took her closer to the edge and stood beside her, “Look at it all… Do you see it?”

Of course she saw it. What did he mean? He was surely a confusing boy.

She must have not been paying him enough attention, because he grabbed her chin and grinds, “Do you see it?”

Her eyes widen, “Yes.” It was the same as she had seen her whole life. What does he want her to see?

Seemingly satisfied, he let her go and turns to the view, “Did you hear? I will be leaving soon.”

“Oh?” she was having a hard time following his thoughts.

“‘Tis an honor, really. I will train more, and I will fight. I will show those in defiance that they will never win.” The boy stepped closer to the edge. “Do you see it?”

The girl did not like this anymore, but he tugged her to the edge with him before she could step back. “Do you see it?” All she saw was the fever in his eyes as his gaze met hers. “Since you are clearly too simple, I shall tell you. It is mine – everything my eyes land upon. The mountains. You. The trees. That horse. Everything.”

The boys chest puffed out in pride, but his eyes narrowed once again when she did not immediately concur. “Fine – you can just stand here until you can see it…”

At last he let her go and stepped back, but her arms flashed out to balance her trembling frame. In her effort, the crumpled flowers fell from her fist. As she watched them sink to the ground below she thought, This is not silly.

A Thing of Duty

“I expect you will teach him well,” Viscount Gerald told his friend.

“Of course,” Renaurd responded, clasping the young boy on his shoulder.

Gunter was but five years of age. His blue eyes sparkled in excitement as his father attached a wooden sword at his side.

“Take heed and listen well. You are becoming a man – it is your responsibility to learn to protect this domain,” Gerald told him firmly before stepping back.

The men stood talking for a time, and though the boy listened intently, he could not truly follow the conversation at hand.

“Go say goodbye to your mother, Gunter.”

The boy nodded, excited to be able to move. He was not entirely sure what was going on, but he knew that his father and mother would be leaving him here for a time. And he knew his father deemed it important.

He went to join his mother and Lady Isamina who were clustered near the well looking at whatever the lady was holding. They seemed transfixed, cooing at the thing.

“What are you looking at? I want to see,” he said indignantly upon approach.

“Here you are,” Isamina said. She turned the bundle to face him.

“What is that?”

“Tis a babe. Her name is Rosomon.”

The boy moved closer, “It’s hideous!”

Peronell gasped, “Gunter!” She could not believe the child had said that.

“It’s quite alright,” Isamina said as she laughed gently. “She may not suit you now, but one day she will.”

The boy hummed doubtfully.

“Trust my, little Lord, she will. It is her duty. After all, she will be your wife.”

He thought on her words as he stared at the babe wrapped in a blanket. She yawned and shifted, just waking up. “You mean she is mine?”

The women looked at one another and shrugged delicately. “You could say that,” Isamina replied.

“Well then,” he said, pointing at the babe’s face, “you had best do your duty well! I am doing mine.” He was not entirely sure what “duty” was, but the grown ups sure liked to talk about it a lot.

The babe just cooed happily at him and reached for the finger before her, not knowing in the slightest who the boy would become.

Born to Goodly Parents

Men sparred in the bailey, their breaths like clouds in the morning chill. Renaurd felt his muscles tighten as he blocked the onslaught of maneuvers.

“Is that the best you’ve got, Gerald?” he scoffed at his friend.

The other man guffawed, “Nay, it isn’t.” With that, he arched his blade to meet the other.

The men had been up the entire night. It had started out pleasant enough with dinner and cider. The men and their wives enjoyed visiting together during the winter months. With the Lady of the house, Isamina , late into her pregnancy, Gerald and Peronell had made the trip this time.


Early last eve, they had all been sitting in the great hall taking turns telling stories of the year’s campaign. It was brought to a halt when Isamina began having shooting pains in her abdomen.

“‘Tis too soon,” she fretted.

“It will pass with no trouble,” Peronell told her.

They eventually realized that it would not pass and sent for the midwife. The women went above stairs to rest. They all waited and waited, but no one came.

“What is this then?” Renaurd demanded of the servant who bore the news.

“Apologies, my Lord…” he drifted off, not having any answer for the man and not wanting to incur his wrath.

An elderly Dunnick woman with grey weaving through her dark red tresses entered from the kitchens. “I believe I can be of assistance, my Lord.”

Looking down his nose, he replied, “Do you now?” Gerald watched the exchange from near the fireplace in amusement. A little boy sat at his feet banging toy soldiers together, and another sat off to the side studying.

“Aye,” she said, confronting his gaze steadily. “Delivered all of m’ grandbarns m’self.”

Renuard held her gaze. When the woman would not look away, he waved his hand dismissively, “Well be to it then.”

He returned to his friend, where they sat and drank until becoming too restless to sit any longer. The boys were taken to bed, and the men moved out of doors to work off some energy on the lists.


Their swords met again. “Gah! What is taking so long?” Renuard spat in frustration.

Just then, a servant ran up to them, staying clear of the blades. “My Lord!”

“Finally!” The men stopped their sparring and made their way across the yard to the building with the servant girl trailing behind. Before reaching the door, Renaurd turned on the girl and said, “It is a boy, yes?”

Her steps faltered, “Nay, my Lord.”

“Damn,” he said, walking into the keep.

Gerald laughed at his friend’s expense. “There is always next time,” he said throwing his arm over the other man’s shoulders.

“I suppose,” his mood was dark indeed.

“You have a daughter – and so what? I have sons,” he said proddingly.

Catching on to the man’s train of thought, Renaurd felt his mood begin to lighten. “You are right!”

They made their way up the stairs to his wife’s chamber. Gerald waited outside while Renaurd continued in. Peronell sat on blood coated sheets while pressing a damp cloth to Isamina’s forehead.

“I am sorry, Renaurd,” she said weakly.

He ignored the blood around the room, having seen much of it in his life. “Do not fret, Gerald and I have it sorted. Besides, they’ll be a boy next time.”

“I think not, my Lord,” the old Dunnick woman said from across the room. She held a small infant in her arms, rocking it gently. “The birth was hard on my Lady.” She said nodding to the sheets and piles of soaked linens, all stained red. The woman lying on the bed, nearly unresponsive, should have been evidence enough.

He did not let her words dampen his mood, but felt the need to remind her, “When was there ever a time a Dun knew more of this world…?”

Black Bard Journal #5

Reflections and a Bottle of Gin Black Bard Journal #5

Setting: Very late at night in the Black Pistol Inn, Roger Black Bard is alone. His Ward, Claude de Bouchet is uncharacteristically absent tonight, almost certainly avoiding the intense glare of the Black Bard’s soul-piercing and judgmental eye.

In the dim candlelight of the inn, the Black Bard spots his reflection in the mirror as he reaches for a dusty bottle on the back shelf no one ever touches. “Genever”, it says on the label, “flavored with juniper berries”.

He talks to himself in Capacian.
“This looks like the drink for me tonight.”

He pours a shot, raising it and saying, “To my long dead brothers-in-arms, may they live forever young in my memory!”

He downs the shot, then pours another.
Addressing his reflection in the mirror he raises his glass again and says, “And to you, Roger, you should not have survived when better men died… and yet… here you are!”

He downs the shot, exhaling sharply.
As he pours another shot of the strong spirit he begins to have a conversation with himself out loud.

“You know, Roger? This feeling we are having, it is called ‘ennui’, no? I wonder, is there a Gothic word for this feeling? Maybe they just say ‘ennui’…”

He shrugs then downs another shot and grimaces.

Waving the empty glass at his reflection he says, “Roger, be honest with yourself, what good are you doing in Stragosa? What is your real purpose here? You’ve come here for coin and now you’re richer than you’ve ever been in your entire miserable life. You have enough money right now, you don’t need to work for years. No one hears your songs of rebuke anyway. If you’re looking for justice, you’ll not find it here! The poor will be fed without you. So why does the melancholy minstrel go back to that bloody butcher shop every day?”

The Black Bard ponders and groans.

“The dark spirits of this town have found you and told you you’re doing nothing good for young Claude. Do they lie? Indeed he seems to be in trouble right now and will not seek your guidance. Do you still care if he’s somewhere safe tonight…?”

He pours another shot, letting it sit on the bar as he continues to rant at his reflection.

“Your associations are empty, Black Bard. You have no one and nothing. Maybe you are cursed. Your family and comrades in war are all long dead. And it seems that anyone who comes close to you meets an unfortunate end. Perhaps Claude is wise to avoid you. Luca the Woodcutter became your friend at dinner one night and died the next day. You sing for Sybill, the little Inquisitor and she died that night. You sing for the famous Balthazar, he died that night too. Corvo has always been good to you, now he’s leaving town. Your bodyguards, they care more about pursuing their own sinful pleasures than learning your songs. Maybe your songs aren’t as good as you think. Lady Gale though, she sees your talent and she commissioned you to write a song about the dead mage Balthazar, of the power of true love, something you don’t even know anything about. You’re a fraud, no?”

The Black Bard picks up his glass, viewing the candlelight through it as he contemplates a moment. He sniffs the piney shot of gin, and again confronts his reflection in the bar mirror.

“Do not come to me for pity or empathy. Your mock gentility is as obvious as a missing limb and your gloomy nature is as prickly as a fretful porcupine. Oh yes, the good people here—Principessa, Guildmaster Borso, Molly the Cook– they care for you, but that is nothing special. They care for everyone. “

The Black Bard looks down into the glass, slowly swirling it without spilling a drop.

“Last Forum, when the angry Gothic man came into the tavern and interrupted the ‘Vendetta’ song, putting a sword right in your face, you forgave him and offered to set things aright. Where was your mighty wrath, your vengeful streak of youth? You stood there in confusion as the tavern goers rushed to your aid. Are you getting soft in your old age? Is that why you are buying up so much ammunition and firearms lately? Are you so afraid of a fair fight you’ll blast a man to smithereens rather than face him with a blade in your hand? Has courage totally abandoned you?”

The Black Bard puts down his glass with an angry clunk and pulls out a loaded pistol, looking dangerously long into the barrel. He pulls back the hammer to half-cock, then full.

“Would you survive a gun blast to the head, Black Bard?”

The Black Bard moves the pistol closer, peering long and hard down its deadly barrel.


He un-cocks the flintlock and sets it on the bar, picking up the resting shot of gin.

“So why do you live, then, out of stubbornness? Existing? Nothing but existing?”

He looks deeply into the shot glass, as if to glean some secret message.

“Yes, the tavern people sometimes dance and sing to your music. They offer good coin, but their troubles are still with them the next day. There is no true victory… is there some point to all of this?”

The Black Bard ponders that a moment, downs the bitter shot, and closes his eye for a moment.

“And what of the Dark Beauty…? The sight of her is so intoxicating. You cannot look at her, you cannot look away. You cannot tell her how she makes you feel, lest you risk sin. All you can do is sing her song and hope she never notices you.”

Then he opens his eye and looks intensely into it in the mirror.

“Is it really a sin to escape your pain?”

He reaches for the bottle then stops. He turns again to the mirror with resolve and says to himself, “No. You cannot sin if you contend to be the most virtuous man in town.”

The Black Bard sets down his empty glass, then picks up and looks at the bottle of spirits.

“I was going to take you with me, my little juniper berry friend.”

He smiles a wry smile and lovingly places the bottle back on the shelf. He cleans and dries the shot glass and puts it back with the others. The Black Bard holsters his pistol and takes another look at himself in the mirror.

“Be patient, you one-eyed bastard. You can take much more pain than this. You are a soldier, so you soldier on. Don’t worry, young Claude will return. He will,” said the Black Bard as he looked in vain out the front window.

“It’s not ennui. It’s only your 55th birthday and you miss your friends.“

The Black Bard licks his fingers and snuffs out the remaining candles. The late winter sun’s first rays are just peeking through the tavern windows. He trudges upstairs to bed, nodding to his reflection one last time in the bar mirror.

“Good night, sir. Thanks for the drink…”


On the sacred subject of the dining table

Allegra had 10 copper left to play. It was a week’s worth of food if she spent it right, but it didn’t look like much piled up like that. The lure had worked anyway, ensnaring the two boys who had settled down across from her with their dinners a few hands ago. She was laughing hilariously at a story one of them- a couple years younger than she was and wearing a formed leather half-mask- was telling, when Marco finally slid into his seat at the table behind them. ‘Late’ she flicked a short hand sign at him, not looking, and so she didn’t see him scratch his nose with one meaningful finger.

As she dealt the cards, Marco started eating, casually signing around his spoon and making sure no one one was watching them. ‘Right: seven coins, two, King. Left: five coins, ??, ??.’ She didn’t like not knowing what was in the second boy’s hand, but Marco’s position wasn’t perfect. She tried to place the table cards so he’d shift to one side, and Marco snapped an update- ‘Left: five coins, Knave, three.’ Each time she dealt cards, Marco would sign what they were behind her opponent’s backs, and she’d play accordingly.

The third round was about to close on Allegra’s modest- but not too modest- lead, when she glanced up from her cards to find that Marco had disappeared. She only had a moment before panic was replaced with confusion as her own leather purse landed upside-down in front of her, spilling a silver coin and a fistful of copper across the tabletop.

“Game’s over, ragazzi. Take whatever you lost and go find somewhere else to play cards,” came a woman’s voice from over her shoulder, and Allegra suddenly understood what had happened to Marco. The boys, who had barely even gotten into the ‘losing’ portion of the evening, each scraped a frankly disproportionate pile of coins into their palms and were gone. A heavy hand fell inescapable on the back of Allegra’s neck and lifted her bodily away from the bench. She knew better than to try to slip free- Gioss might not be able to catch her, but she’d still have to come back eventually.

“They wasn’t even ours, cap!” Allegra protested, shuffling quickly to keep the driving hand from knocking her flat on her face. “I never even seen that kid with the mask- I’d remember- and the other one sounded like a Rog!” There was no response from Giuseppina, who steered the girl out the tavern’s front door and across the street towards the low curb and the canal beyond. She walked them right up to the edge and stopped without letting her death grip loose.

“What did I tell you about hospitality?”

Allegra’s face wrinkled as she tore her eyes off the ominously rippling surface of the water and tried to remember an answer that didn’t sound stupid.

“Like… stuff… with guests?”

She did not succeed. Gioss sighed.

“When you sit with someone, eat and drink, that’s a time for peace. When you put your plate down, you’re making a truce. ‘Now we are eating. Later we will fight.’ You understand?”

A sly, sideways smile crept over Allegra’s face. “But that’s exactly the best time to-”

Gioss moved her hand- still holding the girl by the neck- a startlingly significant couple of inches forward. Allegra twisted sideways and back to keep from falling into the murky water a few feet below them, but her capa’s grip was like prison iron.

“You see in there?” the woman asked, shaking her arm gently to make her point. “There’s ghosts in there. More men betrayed and thrown in that water than you’ll meet in your whole life. They know the cost of staying alive, they respect that, but you cheat someone when you’ve made a truce and they will fly out of that water in a second and tear you apart.”

They stood silent, Allegra watching nervously for any sign of the ghosts and Giuseppina Galdi wondering, not for the first time, if her pain-in-the-ass pesan was worth her temperament. After a moment, Allegra opened her mouth again. “There’s no ghosts in there, just the sharks. I’d’ve heard if there w-”

Gioss pushed.

Allegra’s feet scrabbled on the stone curb for a second, but the capa stepped clear of her pinwheeling arms and she went in with a shriek and a splash. It only took a minute or two for the girl to fight her skirts and her new-found respect for canal ghosts and struggle to a rope ladder, hauling herself out of the scummy water. She stomped back over, dripping, fists in furious balls, and Gioss met her impassively with an outstretched handkerchief. Allegra snatched it away, wiping her face with as much spite as she could summon up.

“Listen, bambina. Our rules are all we have.” She tapped Allegra under the chin, tipping her angry face up. “We keep them, or we fall into chaos. You’ve never seen a good churn, maybe, but when the rules go, we all suffer. Only ones do good in a churn are the brutes, and the very lucky. Plus-” Her mouth twitched into a quick, dry smile. “-ghosts.” She ruffled the girl’s soaking, slightly slimy hair and gave her a little push back towards the tavern. “And tell Marco to keep his hands down, or they’ll hear him all the way in Holy Lethia.”

When Allegra was gone, Gioss stretched, considering the dark water below. She’d contributed her fair share of ghosts to these canals, but she knew the real threats were the living left behind. Some day these dumb, unshakable children would figure out the importance of walking the line between being weak and disdainfully ignoring the established order of things, but until then… tales of the mystical dark would have to do. And if they didn’t, well. There were always plenty of real monsters around to do the job.

Just Business- A Gale Party

“This is boring as all hell,” grumbled Count Strongbull. “Not a single auroch in sight.”
“That’s because this is civilization, Richard.” Count Archibald shook his head.
“It’s late spring now, the aurochs are at their most aggressive. This is the *perfect* time for some wrestling.”
Dame Josefine brushed past William. “Raimunde is looking for you.”
Sighing, William pushed off from the wall and started toward his most recent employer. The party, or ball or whatever, was in full swing now and he found Raimunde Gale talking to Kirk Renett. Perhaps an alliance, though frankly William disliked the boy. He stood to the side and waited for their conversation to end.
“I can’t *believe* Rosomon and Alexandra are going to be finished schooling soon. It’s such a waste,” the Renett boy was saying.
“What do you mean?”
“Well. Why *should* they study. It’s not like they’re going to be doing anything *important*. Just wives and mothers. Why don’t they learn things that would be more fitting to them?”
Raimunde shifted uncomfortably. “Well, it’s better for everyone when knowledge is more widespread. Otherwise why would the University be there.”
“*I* don’t think women *belong* in the university. Like I said, they should be learning things more fitting to their future tasks.”
Raimunde smiled to William, then looked back to Kirk. “I’m sorry, I’ve been waiting for news. Perhaps we’ll find more time to talk later.”
Kirk looked at William. “He looks like a clown to me. I thought you’d grown out of that sort of thing, what’s with the mask?”
Raimunde shook his head, but maintained his smile. “Excuse me.”
Leading William away from the boy, he apologized. “My father told me I should make friends. No one my age seems to be worth knowing, frankly.”
“I’m sure that I couldn’t say, my Lord,” William replied.
Shaking his head again, Raimunde sighed. “Anyway. Did you hear anything interesting?”
William glanced toward the table where the representatives from the Houses were sitting, specifically toward Count Dracian, who he assumed was the one who was really employing him, rather than Viscount Harlan, Raimunde’s father, who sat beside him. “Oh yes,” he began.
“I heard a rumor that Baron Valerian there came in the same carriage as Count Bradford. The Valerians *could* use the support and the Bradfords haven’t the military to defend themselves if anything were to happen. Though at the same time, Baron Telford sent a few gifts towards the Valerians as well, so perhaps it has something to do with trade, rather than warfare.” He paused as one of the Ascalon servants passed by.
“Master Corvo di Talmerin, there, with the Baines family. He swore he’d seen a servant of House Drake slipping a sealed note to Viscount Avery when she was pouring his wine. Meanwhile I also heard that Count Gareth Addison has sent his second son in secret on a vampire hunt towards the City of Lanterns as well. I *believe* that his eldest hasn’t yet had that opportunity, so perhaps there’s something there.”
Raimunde smiled and pressed a coin into his hand. “Thank you. You’ve done wonderfully so far.”
William nodded, bowing slightly. “There’s nothing else for the moment, but I think I’m going to go wait by the drinks and see who comes around.”
Nodding, Raimunde put on a more serious face.
William laughed. “Keep smiling Raimunde, you’ll find better company that way.”
Raimunde’s façade broke somewhat and he smiled again. William patted him on the back and headed toward the drinks. He stopped at one of the tables on the way and wrote a quick note, then handed it to a passing servant. “Can you take that to Dame Josephine please?” He gestured in her direction. The servant acceded and headed that direction. William watched until Josephine had received the note and had started heading toward its true intended recipient before he continued toward his destination.
Sir Harry Callahan met him there and William smiled again. “Did you talk to Baroness Ismania Faulkner?”
Harry nodded. “She says there’s nothing you can do about the trade guilds on Ard Kreight.”
Sighing heavily, William shook his head. “I wish more of these noble houses acted like the Telfords. They’re not *all* bad.” He wrote another note and did the same as the last, sending this one toward Corvo.
Turning back to his companion, William shook his head. “I’m sorry, Harry. You probably don’t care.”
He laughed. “You asked, I answered. I owe you after how you helped me with the Faulkner’s problem.”
William shrugged and smiled. “I’ll find you later if I need anything else. Thank you. I mean it.”
Harry shrugged and took a drink, then walked away.
William listened for a while longer, then moved to a corner to write his reports. As he worked, he hummed along with the Wind Singers guildmembers staffing the party. A hand came down on his shoulder and he looked up, glad he’d been writing in his own personal code.
“You are William, yes?”
Nodding, William covered his notes and turned. “How can I help you?” He noted the House Valerian sigil on the man’s armor.
“You will come with me now.”
William stood. “I’m sure there’s no need for that. Perhaps we could talk here? Or someplace quieter?”
“Come with me.”
The man walked away and William sighed, waving to Harry as he followed.
They walked out onto the balcony and the man punched William in the gut. He fell to his knees, winded, and let out a groan of consternation. “What was *that* for?”
“Stop looking into House Valerian’s business. It’s none of yours.”
William shook his head and stood, using the balcony railing for support. “Alright, alright. I have nothing against you or your house.” He backed away a little, putting a hand between them in case the man tried to hit him again.
The man went inside and William sighed and straightened. A moment later, Harry came out. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m alright.” He shook his head again. “Just business.”