Chapter OnePart 1 - The Sister's Program
1-The Countess of Blanchefort
Sygillis, Countess of Blanchefort (formerly of Metatron), had faced many enemies in her long life, but this surely was the most implacable.
She stood there in the vast, semi-darkened room, standing stock still. Sixty feet away in the pooled light, was her enemy; silently mocking her. She was normally a fearless woman, but in this case she was tentative and unsure of herself. She leaned forward a bit, bent down and raised her weapon to her breast, gripping it tight; never once taking her eyes off the foe that had humiliated her time and again but was determined to master. She side-stepped to her left a couple of boards.
She and the enemy were at a standoff. The vast room around her was silent, save for the slight crinkling of her gown. Oh, this blood- gutted gown she was wearing! How was she supposed to do this attired in such a cumbersome garment?
* * *
She was a brand new countess and was still assimilating to the complex life at court in the League. She cut a stately, but somewhat comical, figure as she glided about the castle at her lord's side wearing her Blanchefort gown. She wasn't used to such a thing, but, for her lord, she was trying her best. At just a shade over five feet high, she was diminutive when compared to the tall, lean Blancheforts. She was more than a foot shorter than Lord Davage, her husband, though she often wore her wavy red hair "up" in the old Blanchefort style, and that certainly made up for her lack of height. Uncomfortable in a gown, she often lapsed in protocol. At a recent ball she was hosting, she was caught scratching her back behind a potted plant when she thought nobody was looking; her face turning as red as her hair. What might have been a humiliating scandal was dashed away when her lord promptly decreed the space behind the plant a designated scratching area and insisted that all in attendance have a turn (some guests even had a second turn behind the plant, scratching away).
It had been nine months since she had been wed to the tall, blue-haired man whom she adored and became the one thousand, four-hundred and sixty-third Countess of Blanchefort. The Blancheforts, as she had come to know, were notorious throughout history for having "different" sorts of countesses heading up the Household; ladies not of the usual, tea-drinking stock generally populating other Great Houses all over the League. Traces of these old Blanchefort countesses could be found all over the castle, hidden in the unseen places the ancient structure teemed with. She discovered the chapel of Lord Davage's mother, Countess Hermilane. She had been a fierce, pugilistic woman and the icon hanging in her hidden little chapel depicted her carrying a drawn rapier as proof. She discovered another one, of Countess Treiste from centuries ago. From her reading, she had been reputed to breathe water like a fish, and, sure enough, she bore a pair of gill-like slits on her neck. These were Dav's ancestors and she loved them all; since she had none of her own, she cherished his all the more.
Sygillis fell in love with this old castle. She had never had so much in her whole life. For nearly two hundred years she had been a creature known as Sygillis of Metatron, an evil, terrifying Black Hat of Hammer class and enemy of the League. The number of people she had remorselessly killed as a Black Hat was impossible to accurately count. She could do all the things that Black Hats could do: withstand hot and cold, find her way in the dark without error, determine lie from truth and, occasionally, see the future. Like her Black Hat sisters in their dark Shadow tech temples, she was fearless and of long life. Like her Black Hat sisters, she bore the mark-the Shadowmark. It was a twisting intersection of black lines wrapping around her right eye, ending near her cheekbone. It was the only blemish on her otherwise perfect complexion. Its black form was offset by her fierce apple green eyes; eyes that captivated the people. At first rather shy regarding the mark on her face as an evil stigma, she thought to cover it with a demure hand or a veiled hat, however she was moved to tears when, visiting a class of school children in the village one afternoon, she found they all had painted little marks around their eyes in tribute. To be accepted and loved without question or hesitation was something still new to her.
The Shadowmark, with its intricate design, looked like a tattoo, but was actually a birthmark. With it came Shadow tech, that ancient, illegal substance that grew within her body and gave the Black Hats their fearsome power. The Shadowmark was the key to Shadow tech's growth within her, except, in her case, her love for her lord had turned the black Shadow tech to silver: "Silver tech", he had called it.
A captain of the Fleet vessel Seeker, occasionally her lord Davage was compelled to away to some stuffy Fleet function or League meeting. His absences were never long, but the countess felt every moment. She was devoted to him body and soul.
She passed the time by removing her regal Blanchefort gown, putting on her black Hospitaler bodysuit, and prowl barefoot through the labyrinthine castle. If she was clumsy in her gowns, she was as agile as a panther in her bodysuit. Using her Black Hat skills, she explored the castle with relish, knowing precisely where she'd previously been, and she never failed to discover more. On her many expeditions she'd discovered lost passageways teeming with ancient treasures, huge forgotten halls plunged in walled-up darkness (one of which was gorgeous and was crying out to be refurbished), hidden courtyards overgrown with ivy, and obscure libraries full of the arcane
As she fared the stars at her lord's side in the Seeker, her time in the castle was limited and she made the most out of every moment.
* * *
The standoff with her foe was finally over. Ready at last, the countess attacked. With short, pounding steps she glided down the wooden floor; her knees maddeningly slapping against the heavy fabric of her gown. She cranked back with her weapon and let it fly in a graceful arc. The midnight blue ball leapt from her hand, slid down the lane and hit the tenpins with a satisfying commotion.
She stood up straight and inspected the damage. Hmmm ... Five pins down. She had gotten the 1, 2, 3, 6 and 10. She returned to the scoring table and looked at her totals. After ten frames, she had scored a 74.
Bowling had quickly become a passion for her. In her crawling adventures through the tunnels and hidden spaces of the castle, she had accidentally discovered the Blanchefort's secret bowling alley that nobody had told her existed. She found a tiny chute beneath the stately Palantine Courtyard in the northern wing of the castle and squeezed through it, popping up in the pin pit of lane 3. Seeing the pins lined up in order, she thought this must be some forbidden, pagan temple she'd stumbled into. Pulling herself out of the pit, mouth open with wonder, she walked up the immaculate wooden alley, nearly slipping and breaking her body-suited fanny on the heavily oiled surface.
The jig was up and she confronted her Lord. What was this place? She demanded to know. What sorts of things went on there?
"Bowling," he said, leading her by the hand through the Ten Gardens, "is a common game that we of the Great Houses openly abjure. It's a vulgar sort of thing and we, accordingly, dismiss it as such. However, we all love to bowl, truth be told. That is a common feature of the League, Syg, to openly dismiss a thing while heavily partaking of it in secret. We bowl on Nether Day by tradition. We bowl whenever we can. It is a hidden passion we have-appearances, though, are everything. Blues are not supposed to like bowling. All Great Houses have a hidden bowling alley on their grounds that they do not speak of. And, if you wish to impress other ladies about the League, Syg, your bowling average is an important, if understated, talking point to challenge the ladies with, though I thank Creation you are not heavily concerned with such banal Blue trivialities."
He took her through the secret entrance in the Palantine Courtyard and down the hidden stairwell. And there was the fabulous Blanchefort alley, hidden from all eyes except theirs for centuries. It was pristine and ornate in the Vith style. There was a bar and well-stocked service made of carved marble and other decorative stones. Lit from above by pools of hidden light were three long lanes of compact, yellowish maple-wood boards bordered on either side by a metal depression that she was told was called a "gutter". At the end of the lanes were ten, neatly arranged white clubs called "pins". The Blanchefort coat-of-arms was stamped on each one in bold red. Lining the walls in multi-tiered galleries were life-sized statues of past Blanchefort lords and countesses, tall and proud, dressed in their best and all holding carved stone balls.
Before each lane was a small console with plush chairs where the game was observed and scored. Near to that, was an elevated "hole" where balls appeared. Several brightly colored balls sat on rails near the hole.
"How is it played, love?" she asked, quite intrigued.
He served her a cool summer drink from the bar and seated her at the console of Lane 1. As she sipped her drink, he took a ball, squared himself up, leaned over and trotted down the lane in a slight crouch, his CARG jangling at his hip. He wound back and threw the ball at the pins; she thought he looked ridiculous as he accomplished the action. Small wonder they performed this activity in secret.
His ball spun down the lane with an ominous rumble and then struck the pins, making a great clash of noise that shocked her. He knocked all of the pins down. Some sort of robot or crafted sorcery then gathered and reset them into position.
"Ah," Davage said, smiling. "That is a strike, you see, ha ha! Bravo!"
Seemed simple enough. She set her drink down and stood to give it a try. He gave her a ball (it was rather heavy and smooth), helped her stick her fingers into the small holes and showed her how to hold it. She then trotted down the lane in her gown and threw the ball, having trouble with her bare feet (the countess hated shoes) sticking on the wooden floor. The ball travelled a bit and then went into the gutter on the right side.
"What is that?" she asked.
"A gutterball, Syg. It's not a good thing."
She surveyed the situation. "May I have another ball, please?"
And that was that. She quickly developed a love/hate relationship with bowling. She loved the sounds of the ball rolling and the pins clashing and the feeling of the hidden place. She loved playing with her lord and his sisters (his sisters were very good). She would sit there at the scoring table in her gown (she was told by Dav's sisters that ladies always bowled in their gowns, though it seemed pointless to her. After all, they were doing this in a secret place; who was to know what they were wearing as they bowled?) and tingle with excitement at the whole thing. On days when they were going to go to the alley and play, she found herself thinking about it ahead of time, savoring the thought. Dav's sister Pardock, blue hair drifting about her back and shoulders, played with coiled passion, winding up and clobbering the pins as if they were anathema to her.
The countess hated the fact that she was terrible; that she didn't dominate. Therefore, she would practice until she did dominate, come what may be.
* * *
Another throw. Nice pin action, though she left the 7. Gods! Why didn't the ball bite more? She simmered in frustration.
Her lord was at a Fleet meeting to the south and Lady Poe was away on an outing. The countess was alone for the day. She'd been bowling for hours. Davage had assumed that she didn't care for League Blue society nonsense like status and gossip. However, the countess was quickly beginning to enjoy such things, regardless of what her husband thought. She wanted a good bowling average to impress the ladies-though hers refused to break 90. And, she had actually spread some gossip around for the first time the other day, pulling some shopkeeper in the village aside and filling his ear with little tidbits that she'd heard. She was turning Bluer by the day and hoped to be a true gossip machine and feared bowler by the end of the year. Oh, what Dav will say about that.
Her hard work in the alley was beginning to pay off. She had perfected her approach, swing and release. She now could determine a good throw from a bad one as soon as the ball left her hand. She had several custom-made balls that she prized very much. She was getting better, bit by bit.
Alone in the private alley, she eventually stripped off her gown and bowled nude-wearing nothing but her bowling shoes. Nude, or in her bodysuit, seemed much better suited for bowling than her blood-gutted gown, which got in the way. Maybe she should suggest it to Davage, that they all bowl nude. Perhaps it might become a tradition. She should insist upon it. She was always amazed at what she could get away with when she insisted on things around the castle.
Standing there naked, her empty gown propped up at the scoring table like some sort of lacy ghost, she kicked at the floor with her right shoe. It didn't feel right. The countess hated shoes of any kind going back to her Black Hat days when she was forced to wear the fearsome Dora shoes, however she could not bowl barefoot; the floor was too grippy on her feet. Several head-over-hips tumbles down the oiled lane proved that to her. Her sister-in-law, Lady Poe, had suggested she be fitted for a good pair of bowling shoes.
Shoes? She was outraged.
Poe lifted the skirt of her gown and showed her hers: an odd, mostly flat shoe that looked like something the factory workers wore. She swore up and down they were quite comfortable. Master Krenshaw had made them for her and she highly recommended the countess summon him to the castle for a fitting.
Dubious but rather desperate as her body was taking quite a beating, she summoned this Master Krenshaw to the castle and, truth be told, was rather rude to him and uncooperative as he patiently tried to fit her. Quickly though, he put her at ease with a calming wit, fitted her, and made a special pair just for her with extra padding and holes for ample breathing. They were wonderful. She could barely feel them. These shoes, allowing her a proper run up and slide, were like a pair of lanterns leading her to bowling glory. Her average immediately jumped up thirty points.
* * *
She kicked the floor. After much use, her right shoe was definitely feeling a little soft and was throwing off her approach. The left shoe was very taught to the floor, while the right slid easily by design. But, today it didn't feel normal. Something was wrong with her shoe. Her shoes were starting to get worn.
Oh! She remembered Master Krenshaw promised to have her new pair ready today. She was excited. With those shoes she might stand a chance of staying with Davage's sister, Countess Pardock of Vincent, for a few frames. Pardock was a torrid bowler and she was to arrive for a visit in a few days. Syg had "thrown it down" in a recent letter to her and Pardock was slavering to have at her.
She needed her new shoes in a bad way and was going to the village to fetch them. Her staff did not approve. If she had business with Master Krenshaw, then he should make an appointment, be announced and admitted, and conduct the business here in her study as was proper.
Nonsense, the countess loved going to the village and walking around. She was glad to go to him for her shoes.
She left the alley and changed into one of her beloved Hospitaler bodysuits and hit the tunnels. There were untold tunnels under the west wing-the castle and the lush Telmus Grove behind it were shot-through with them. There were dark spaces and crawlways leading this way and that through the old stone, some huge and spacious, others sickeningly small and tight. Some exited in the lush green and stone of the Telmus Grove, some ended in little shrines tucked in the towering mountains, and many ended up in various parts of the village.