August 2012

Even though he was a trusted advisor and friend of the king, the Comte de Vézelay always attracted scandal at the court in Paris largely because of his family life. His first marriage to the Vicomte de Foix’s daughter had led, on the latter’s death, to an expansion of his lands but the marriage had been loveless and when the Comtesse de Vézelay died, many suspicions were voiced, especially after the Comte married again less than a fortnight later. This second marriage was with Madelaine de Lara, and the scandal of the first liaison paled in comparison to that of the latter. For one, the new Comtesse was from a branch of the nobility so debased and degraded in the eyes of the court that the marriage was practically a morganatic one. But King Henry was fond of the Comte and would brook no gossip about him within earshot, even after the new Comtesse gave birth to a son with bright red hair–a trait which neither his father nor mother shared.

The child, Charles, was precocious. He walked and spoke at much earlier ages than his contemporaries, and by the age of eight had composed poetry and chamber music that were performed for adult audiences. This did little to dull the harsh whispers about Madelaine de Vézelay; one of the long-running rumors about the de Laras was that their fall had been in part due to dabbling in witchcraft and making pacts with darker powers. Madelaine’s quietness and Charles’ intense and aloof demeanor for a youth were often cited as proof.

Eventually, young Charles de Vézelay was presented at court to Henry IV; the king enjoyed the youth’s seriousness and dedication, so unusual in an era of decadent and spoiled princes. Not long afterwards, Charles approached his father, troubled, and declared that he had a secret that was only for the king’s ears. The Comte, unable to glean the nature of this secret or how Charles came by it, arranged the meeting.

Observers in court saw Charles approach the king and whisper in his ear, after which Henry reacted by violently pushing the youth away. He called for the guard and ordered that Charles be executed immediately. This order, so out of character with the normally conscientious and fair King Henry, was questioned by many but the king was resolute and refused to discuss the secret. Charles, likewise, refused to reveal what he had said; indeed, the young man reportedly never spoke another word for the rest of his short life.

At the exhortation of Madelaine de Vézelay, Henry consented to tell her (and only her) what Charles had said. The interview, in the king’s private chambers, lasted scarcely five minutes. Madelaine emerged, shaken, and agreed that her son needed to be put immediately to death. She collapsed not long after and spent her remaining months as an invalid.

Charles was executed by swordstroke on the first of May. With the assassination of Henry fourteen days later and death of his mother in a sanitarium seven months after that, no one ever learned what the fatal secret had been.

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Friend – Aunt Ellthea Savage
The elderly patron of the former merchant house of Savage and Vic’s only remaining blood relative (aside from a few distant cousins). Well-built and caring, if inflexible in her morality, she and her late husband took Vic’s family in after their ruin. Out of obligation to her family, she will allow Vic to lay low with her after a caper and is willing to suffer the brief intrusion of his “friends” into her otherwise staid existence as a dowager. To make ends meet, she runs a small pastry shop with her husband’s daughter from a prior marriage, and she dreams of one day restoring the family fortune and seeing its line continue.

Friend – “Tapman” Scruthers

The barman and co-owner of the Lucky Ogre inn, and a former cutpurse in the city’s underbelly. He and Vic met as ne’er-do-well youths, and while he has managed to pull himself up from those humble origins he is always willing to share a drink with his old friend. While Scruthers has distanced himself from outright thievery, he still maintains a profitable sideline as a local information broker and is willing to rent rooms to thieves and others of low repute provided they behave themselves.

Friend – Pearcy Lightpocket
One of the city’s more successful thieves, Pearcy is something of an elder statesman, being all of 45 years old and still active as an occasional cutpurse—an unusual achievement. Though he generally works alone, he’s also the unofficial majordomo of a group of thieves that come to him for advice, which they trade for tips. Percy was something of a mentor to Vic some years ago and they will occasionally meet over ale to discuss comings and goings and techniques.

Neutral – Pickett the Fence
A pawnbroker of some repute, Pickett is also one of the most successful fences in the area, with a reputation for being able to turn around just about any item given enough time. While his rates are lower than some other fences, the fact that he’ll buy anything from anyone, provided that they have not crossed him in the past, has kept him afloat. His pawnshop deals entirely in legitimate items; the items he fences are farmed out to a network of apprentices in various other locations. His discerning eye for craftsmanship is legendary, as is his businesslike and professional demeanor.

Neutral – Constable Muttermelon
A sergeant in the city watch, Muttermelon has a reputation as the most corrupt and inept constable in the area. A family connection to the powerful Muttermelon clan keeps him gainfully employed and liberally supplied with information, but he is willing to betray anyone and anything for enough coin (with which he feeds a compulsive gambling habit). As such, he tends to be sought out by ne’er-do-wells as a bribery target, smuggling things in or out of the city prisons or passing on confidential information.

Neutral – “Pinchy” LaRoue
“Pinchy” is, as his name suggests, an infamous pickpocket. He is charming and popular and often hired on as additional help for rogues looking for an added put of muscle or finesse; this is counterbalanced by his occasional unpredictability and overwhelming selfishness. Rogues still talk of the Hannover Job, in which he was hired to steal a noble’s signet ring to start a feud between two houses. He performed as requested, replaced the ring with a forgery, and made a fortune selling it to an outside buyer as the noble houses and the thieves they had hired tore each other to ribbons.

Enemy – Kyr Whisperblade

Kyr is legendary in the regional underworld, not only for her skill and beauty but for her ruthlessness and ambition. She waylays, murders, steals, and plants on a whim, often stealing items or jobs from other thieves. In addition to being horrified by her methods, Vic has been upstaged, humiliated, and robbed by her on multiple occasions, and nurses a powerful grudge.

Enemy – Constable Graveline
A lieutenant in the city watch and Muttermelon’s supervisor, Graveline is a dedicated career constable who attempts to ruthlessly stamp out crime and lawlessness from his city. His adherence to the letter of the law and his willingness to take a personal hand in operations means that he has crossed paths with Vic multiple times, encounters that almost always end with Vic in jail or relieved of his stolen goods. As skilled a constable as Muttermellon is corrupt and inept, he is perhaps the most effective law enforcement in the city.

Enemy – Lady Faxhall
Lady Faxhall is the only child and heir of the Faxhall family, who were until recently a merchant family. They were ennobled around the time that the Savages were ruined, and profited greatly from buying their businesses at fire-sale prices during the plague. Some even claim that they caused the plague through sorcery to eliminate competitors; Lady Faxhall keeps a collection of family rings and sigils from families the Faxhalls have destroyed. Vic, in addition to blaming her for the misfortunes that befell his family, has been caught several times trying to steal Savage heirlooms back from her collection.

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“Okay, you’ve got your height?” Clarissa said.

“Five foot one.” Linda said from the doorway where the ruler was still balanced

“We’ll put five three,” Clarissa said. “Heels count.”

“Are you sure about that?” Linda approached the laptop, concerned.

“It’s internet dating,” said Clarissa. “Everyone expects you to lie a little.”

“If you say so.”

“And I do. Right. Body type is next.”

“Can I just put my BMI?” Linda said. “It’s 27.2. They made me calculate it in health class a few weeks ago.”

Clarissa squinted at the screen. “No, you have to choose a descriptor from a drop-down menu. Take a look.”

They both leaned in to read the list of approved terms:

A Little Extra
Big Boned
Full Figured
Generously Proportioned
Healthfully Big
More Of Me To Love
Natural Body Type
Plus Sized
Prime Figure
Ultra Feminine
Upper BMI
Venus of Willendorf
Well Built

“Umm…” Linda said. “Did that seem a little…?”

“Yeah,” Clarissa said. “Yeah. You want some carrot sticks? I have some in the fridge.”

“I’ll be in the bathroom for a minute and I’ll meet you there. Don’t forget the prune juice.”

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Some say she is the exiled princess of a kingdom beyond the veil of the day-to-day world, some that she is the illusory form assumed by a creature or consciousness beyond human comprehension. Perhaps the most parsimonious explanation is that she is a sorceress of the Old Order who has carefully struck deals with Time and Space to be exempt from both in exchange for some long-ago service.

When encountered, she is always dressed in foreign or exotic clothes; a Perytion shayshmyr robe in Uldar, Uldarian peasant culottes and dress in Peryt. She is always accompanied by two small figures in similar clothing but with concealed faces; they appear at first to be children but may be dwarves or even marionettes depending on the observer, the season, or the angle of the sun.

Of the travelers, farmers, and others that she meets on the road, a single question is asked: what is most precious in the world? Refusing to answer or giving an answer which displeases the asker seems to have no effect; she will pass by with a cutting remark or in total silence. An answer which intrigues her, though…that will bring the offer of a boon in exchange for a service. Someone who answers that their family is precious may be offered a larger farm; a person who favors gold may be offered a sack of it.

The boon will always turn out to cost the supplicant exactly what it was they valued. The farm will be infertile; the gold will lead to poor and bankrupting investments or be seized by highwaymen. And the boon? One year and one day after the service is rendered, the person who received it will vanish, never to be seen again.

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I’ve known many people who’ve lost a pet, but due to the circles that I find myself in most of those people are atheists or not religious. As such, I don’t have many antecedents, many examples, to help lead me through where I find myself now. I suppose a large part of that is the fact that I haven’t lost a pet since 1998, and I haven’t lost a family member who I knew well since 1996. That’s a long time without any kind of major grief.

As such, I find myself at a crossroads about what to believe happens…afterwards. A little research has, if anything, muddled the question. My strict religious relatives would probably argue that animals don’t have souls, and they’d probably be on more doctrinally solid ground than I (to say nothing of what to think about my food as an avowed carnivore under those circumstances). The New Age concept of a “Rainbow Bridge” that links a “green meadow located this side of Heaven” with the hereafter where departed pets wait for their masters to join them isn’t satisfying either. It seems like a trite 1970s flower-power storybook; the fact that the people I know who cleave to it are also largely irreligious also has a galling quality to it.

In short, I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know that I ever will, honestly. So what’s left to me, in the face of the loss and the need to do or to feel something about it?

I think the only avenue that I can fully embrace is something I’ve already begun to do. In the face of uncertainty, take the steps you know will lead to remembrance and existence, even if only in an abstract fashion, after the sorrows of the world have been rolled back. So I’m left with art: creative writing, journal entries, photographs, and paintings. Taking pictures and collecting those from happier times. Spelling out how I feel with words and images. Incorporating what I can of the lost into a painting: a pawprint here, a pinch of fur mixed with the acrylics there.

Soul or not, heaven or not, Rainbow Bridge or not, those things will be a lasting remembrance as long as I or others are around to see them.

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This post is part of the August 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “fire and ice”.

The other night I just about lost it. My dog was pacing endlessly, refusing to go to bed and running downstairs every time I brought him up. I’d taken him out dozens of times during the day and during the night but he’d only gone inside the house where it could be tracked all over. Then my mom called and said she had decided to put the dog, who is technically hers, down not at the end of August but immediately, one week from today. She and my brother fly in today.

Kind of puts things in perspective, having to call the vet and the funeral home to schedule euthanasia and cremation.

In my head, I know she’s right. He has end-stage senile dementia and incontinence that won’t respond to the most powerful medication we can throw at it. Despite or perhaps because of the anipryl, which he’s been on for two weeks, my dog’s sundowner pacing and incontinence have gotten worse. Since I picked him up from the boarder a week ago 75% of his excretions have been in the house, to the point where I had to cover the floor with puppy pads just for my own peace of mind. I’ve gone through nearly 50 pads and 2 bottles of cleaner in that time. And, as happened the other night, sometimes his pacing is so bad that neither of us sleeps a wink.

In my head, I know it’s no kind of life for either of us to live. My dog is always afraid, always confused, and not at all himself. I’m bound to him like a straitjacket, with no ability to live my own life; I have to come home in the middle of the day, I can’t go out at night, I can’t even work out upstairs for more than half an hour. Mopping and Glade plugins can only do so much for the cleanliness of my house when the flow of excrement just won’t stop.

And yet in my heart I am devastated, I am torn apart, by the thought of euthanizing my dog. Despite all my frustrations, when I’m confronted with what our life has become versus his death, I’m almost willing to take that on as a burden. To keep him alive, I’m willing to put up with a level of responsibility that any dog owner or even me circa 2009, would cringe at. I can take it, I tell myself. For his sake.

After all, he’s my mutty buddy who’s lived with me for two years, the puppy who used to run with us on the Lake Michigan sands, the dog who was always so happy to see us that he’d charge back and forth barking with his favorite squirrel toy. He was born into a house of giggling Michigan teenage girls in 1998, named after a character in Titanic, an enthusiastic snowpuppy who used to come in with snow and iceicles matted into his fuzz. Even moving down here to the land of volcanic summers and no winters with my parents abroad, he’s been the only one to greet me, the only one to be happy to see me, the only one who I could hug after a long day in what’s been a very lonely and often depressing period for me.

It may be that we’d do the same for any family member, if we could, who was too far gone mentally to have any quality of life. For me, making those surreal calls to vet and crematorium in which I couldn’t bring myself to use the real words for what I was doing…I can’t honestly say which is worse, not knowing when a loved one may die, of knowing down to the second. The man at the crematoria took pains to tell me how they treat pets like humans, giving them all the dignity and care that they would any other body. He mentioned having to lose his own three dogs, which I appreciated, one pet owner to another.

The vet said I’ll have the option to be there with him at the end. It will destroy me, but I think I should.

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Flanked by the local brass band and banners proudly promoting Republic Days ’13, Commissioner Reynolds stepped up to the microphone on the Republic Park dais.

“Welcome, everyone, to Republic Days 2013!” he cried. “You know, our fair town and county has paid a terrible price for our loyalty to the Union during the Civil War. Harassment by the Home Guard, brother against brother violence, and of course the postwar era when the state capitol deliberately withheld state aid and funding. But as I look at all these smiling faces in front of me, as I recall the success of the last ten Republic Days festivals, and as I consider the strong economic growth of the past decades…I think our forefathers would agree it was all worth it!”

He was met by cheers from the assembled crowd.

“Without further ado, I ask that you turn your attention to the field to your right,” Reynolds continued. “Some of our fine Civil War reenactors have a presentation they’d like you to see.”

Three men in anachronistic blue uniforms from circa 1885 stood on the green clutching trapdoor Springfield 1873 rifles. A further three approached from the direction of the Republic Tree, wearing grey uniforms with kepis and braided sleeves of the sort that the Confederates had never been able to afford for their most elite troops, much less the ramshackle Home Guard.

“We’re looking for Col. Winston,” the lead “Confederate” demanded. “The Confederate Home Guard demands that his men disarm themselves, submit themselves to the rule of Richmond and President Davis, and provide the Confederate Army the conscripted men she is due!”

The lead reenactor, “Winston,” hefted his rifle. “We the people of Crittenden County have resolved to have no part of this wicked conflict,” he intoned. “It has been forced on us by the rich plantation owners to be fought by the poor who own no slaves, like us. We in Crittenden county have declared ourselves the sovereign Republic of Crittenden until such time as the rightful Union authority can be reestablished, and will brook no interference from the so-called Confederates.” His lines, delivered in a clear strong voice, were wildly applauded by the crowd.

The lead “Confederate,” wearing the red-rimmed uniform of an artilleryman despite brandishing a carbine-length musket, sneered. “Strong words from a man married to a negro,” he hissed, carefully pronouncing the latter bowdlerization so the crowd would have no doubt that he hadn’t used the much more offensive term any real Confederate would have. “The Home Guard will take from the so-called Republic of Crittenden by force what is owed it by rights.”

Blank gunfire erupted from both sides; when the black powder smoke cleared, the three “Confederates” were sprawled on the ground.

From the stands, Ms. Hanna Maurer watched the pageantry with rheumy eyes. It was all very well and good, she thought, to see the town so proud of its past.

Pity it was all based on a lie.

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“I was living with my lazy older sister and her smarmy, scheming boyfriend. My parents’ deaths had driven a terrible wedge between us, and her boyfriend’s greed and two-faced ways made things worse. I watched as he viewed the child they had out of wedlock as a ticket to more money from the government, and I had to give him my obsolete computer, the only one I had, just to convince him to try and get me a job at the bank where he worked.”

“Tell me more.”

“All the while we were living in a run-down two-story apartment on the bad side of town. It opened onto a maze of city alleys and a small dilapidated green. I…you sure you want to hear the rest, doc? You’ve already practically got me in a straitjacket.”

“Yes, tell me everything. It’s the only way to begin the healing process.”

“Well…strange things began to happen. Choruses of whispers from the shadows. Strange rustlings. Noises I couldn’t hear but were the sort of thing that maae my loyal dog cower. And a strange mailman, not our usual guy, seemed to be standing in front of our house every time I opened the door. But he never delivered anything. I…no one else could see him, and he drew nearer each time I was at the door. He’d vanish before reaching me, a sight which always filled me with such terrible dread…”

“What happened next?”

“Finally, he made it all the way to the door before I could close it and began to speak. His voice was horrible, shocking…I slamemd the door in his face, but he simply passed through it in a flash of blue light. He began speaking to me, very strangely in that horrible voice, asking where things were (assuming that I knew what he was talking about) and cautioning me that ‘they’ were nearby and anxious to get their hands on ‘it,’ whatever ‘it is.’


“The…the conversation goes nowhere, until he barged past me into the long, thin storage and tool room at the back of the apartment. I heard him ransacking the place, looking for something. I followed him, and he was waving around a rusty screwdriver like a shiv. He shouted at me to shut the door, to be quiet (even though he was being pretty loud) for fear of attracting ‘them.’ There was a sound outside, and he nervously slid up to the door, ready to attack it. It was just my dog, doc, but…he just keeps rambling and ransacking the place. All the while it’s seeming more and more eerie, more and more familiar, then then…well…”

“Come on, don’t stop there.”

“I gradually realized, doc, that the guy was me years in the future. It was clear as day from the way he talked and the way he acted.”

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No one is quite sure how it got there, or how it remains even after the annual mini-monsoons in late July. But every time a curious onlooker walking their dog near the vet’s office peeks over the lip of the drainage ditch, it’s visible. Mud-spattered and a little rusty, but still there.

A child’s bicycle, still with training wheels, set upright in the drainpipe under a bridge, like a refugee from a bloated Stephen King horror.

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“You don’t know what kind of guy you’re dealing with here. Richardson named his own daughter Euskara after the Basque word for Basque.”

“So? Celebrities have named their daughters after the English word for apple before.”

“And after that he only spoke to her in Basque. He wanted her to follow in his footsteps and being a native speaker of a language isolate was his first move.”

“Hm. Did it work?”

“We contacted Euskara after Richardson didn’t come home. She lives in an artist’s collective in Prague, goes by Kara, and told us she hoped her father was dead. If that answers your question.”

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