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Fiction

The Ninth Seduction

Midsummer’s Eve

The sun had descended behind Lakefell as seven times seven goblin artisans gathered before the throne of Castellerine Lynder in the Serpentine Garden, their choicest and most enchanting creations for the year past held high. Chancellor Arrender walked slowly along the lines of scarlet cushions that glowed softly around the delights placed upon them, inspecting what the castellerine would soon consider. As always, he paused and nodded when he reached Raksar, the finest of Cumbriel’s master jewelers. Although he had no skills with magic, Raksar could coax such beauty out of metals that one would swear there was enchantment within them.

It was midsummer’s eve in the mortals’ year of 1449, but the world of mortals was paid little heed in Faerie.

• • • •

The palace of Castellerine Lynder was the most splendid of the many elegant mansions of Cumbriel. Its seven towers reached high above the trees on the forested slopes of Lakefell, and all were built of violet marble. Every evening the castellerine would walk in one of the seven gardens, her milk white hands clasped behind her back beneath her pale hair, and the train of her robe held by iridescent beetles that hummed, gleamed, and sparkled like living jewels in the waning light. She walked on no path, but on a golden carpet that floated just above the ground, materializing before her feet and dissolving once she had passed.

Seven Citadel Guards in electrum armour followed the castellerine into the Serpentine Garden, and behind them were her courtiers and the seven mortal youths who were vying to be her favourite for the night. With them was the Sorcerer of Oblivion, who would blot out two thousand years of her memories for a half hour, so that she could enjoy being seduced as a virgin of just seventeen summers.

The castellerine had gathered together orchids from all the lands throughout Faerie in the seven gardens of her palace. The walls of follies were smothered in vines and rock orchids, while within shadowy bowers the deadly cave orchids broadcast alluring scents to those who were passing. Birds fluttered down to the snareflowers, charmed by the scents, only to be entangled and drained of life by their filamentous tendrils. Lyre orchids played music like birdsong to attract cats and snakes that they might feast upon.

Most curious of all were the liberean orchids that grew in a row beside a wall where books were placed for them to read. As the castellerine walked past they bowed the flowers that were their eyes and displayed verses favored by her upon their broad leaves. An avatar orchid reared up to greet her by forming a flower in the shape of her face. A handmaid tossed it a live mouse, which it snatched out of the air with leaves lined with thorns as sharp as needles.

The castellerine smiled, because beauty and strangeness were her delight.

The throne of the Serpentine Garden was carved from jade and inset with every type of green gemstone. The floating golden carpet became draperies and cushions to smother it in softness before the castellerine sat down. She waited until her guards and courtiers had assembled into the order of their rank, then gestured to a troll that loomed high beside the throne. A pigeon was perched upon the index finger of its enormous hand.

“Pretty bird, pretty bird, tell me your tale,” said the castellerine.

“Ladyship, I bear a message from Prince Lortrian,” the pigeon declared, its head held high and its chest puffed out. “He will arrive in seven days.”

“Pretty bird, pretty bird, fly away home. Tell the prince that his tribute will be ready, and that I yearn for him with desire so strong that it causes me pain.”

As the bird flew away, the castellerine’s violet eyes flashed with fury, and her blood red lips parted to bare her teeth. Chancellor Arrender stepped forward.

“You have my sympathy, ladyship,” he said with his eyes cast down.

“Prince Lortrian has seven times seven elfknight guards, and I have but seven. Each year I must pay his weight in gold, present the choicest jewelry that Cumbriel’s artisans may devise, and share my bed with him for seven nights. Will your sympathy end all that?”

“Regrettably, no, ladyship.”

“What can you then do to ease my humiliation?”

“I could choose the tribute for you, so that the prince may have your jewelry, but not your choice.”

“That pleases me. Choose in my stead.”

• • • •

Once the castellerine had gone, Arrender called a mortal girl to his side. One by one she wore the offerings of the goblin jewelers, bringing them to life upon her flesh. Last of all, she lifted Raksar’s offering from his cushion, a tiger pendant made of vermillion gold and black silver chainlinks. It rippled with sinuous vitality above her breasts as she minced back and forth at Arrender’s bidding.

“As always, your work is chosen,” Arrender decided.

“As always, I am honoured, lordship,” said Raksar.

The others were dismissed, leaving Arrender and Raksar alone in the Serpentine Garden. There was an echoing shriek from somewhere in the distance, and the goblin glanced fearfully to Arrender.

“Such a high price to pay for the delights of the castellerine’s bed,” murmured Arrender sadly.

“Did he not please her?” whispered Raksar.

“Even the greatest skills at lovemaking would not have saved him. Her ladyship hates the handsome but vain Prince Lortrian, who fancies himself more fair than even herself.”

“An outrage indeed.”

“For every night she must sleep with him, she seduces a mortal and then has him put upon the ferry to the afterlife. It eases her humiliation.”

“I grieve for her dignity.”

“As do I. Speak of this to nobody.”

“Upon my life, never.”

“What price do you ask for your wonder of metal shaping?”

“Only to walk within this garden of delight for an hour, measured by your glass.”

“You merely ask to walk within one of the seven palace gardens every year, yet you could ask for gold.”

“There are no places more beautiful than the gardens of the Palace of Cumbriel, Lordship, and to create beauty I must look upon beauty.”

Midsummer’s Day

With a tallow torch to light his way, Raksar began the long walk back to the village of Westfell long after the other goblins had returned. He fell exhausted onto his little bed and slept as one dead, but at halflight he awoke to the distant rumbling of thunder. He paid it no heed, and drifted back into sleep.

As he ate breakfast Raksar again heard thunder, this time five sharp, echoing peals, yet the sky was clear and the air utterly still. His neighbors were as mystified as himself. Presently there were three more booms, and the last was followed by a mighty, rumbling crash that shook the very ground where they stood.

All work ceased in the goblin village, and artisans and their wives and children gathered fearfully to ask each other questions which none could answer. At noon there came a rider from the castellerine, who announced that all goblin artisans were to gather up their tools and hurry to the palace.

The goblins shouldered their packs, then climbed the path up the side of Lakefell. As they crested the ridge, Raksar saw that one tower of the castellerine’s palace lay smashed. Out on the lake a small, low ship poured black smoke from twin funnels. Near it was the half-submerged wreck of the castellerine’s pleasure barge, while patches of floating wreckage marked where two other ships had sank.

The goblins chattered with apprehension as they approached the palace, but as they entered the walls they fell silent. They were taken to the Garden of Dawnlight, and here the lady herself sat on the garden’s throne with Arrender at her side, yet not a single elfknight guard was present. Three hundred and forty three goblin heads pressed against the flagstones until they were told to stand and attend the castellerine. On the chancellor’s forefinger was perched a pigeon.

“Pretty bird, pretty bird, tell them of Wylver,” said the castellerine in a voice hoarse with anger.

“They are goblins, it is beneath my dignity to address them,” declared the bird haughtily.

The castellerine’s hand shot out and seized the pigeon. Bones crackled softly and blood trickled between her fingers as she crushed it. Tossing the body to a tangle of eager, grasping vines that grew along a folly wall, she pointed a bloody finger to the ship.

“That thing is from Earthlie. On this boundary day, at the boundary time of morning’s halflight, it crossed into our world at the boundary place on the Wylver River. It destroyed the lovely bridge whose curve mirrored my thighs, killed nine elven provosts, sank my three pleasure ships, then smashed down the lofty Glamoriad Tower. It breathes black smoke and moves by neither wind, current, oars, or tow rope. Clever artisans of mine, tell me what it is.”

All were afraid and none dared answer. Arrender pointed to Raksar.

“You, the finest of mundane artisans, answer her ladyship,” he ordered.

The goblin had an answer, yet the castellerine could end his life for any answer that displeased her. Raksar had visited Earthlie, and knew that mortals’ ships were weapons brought to life by those aboard them, unlike the vessels of Faerie that merely carried warriors to battle.

“It is a weapon vessel of Earthlie, a warship,” he said, going down on one knee.

His answer appeared to puzzle the castellerine, but she was satisfied.

“The ship is captained by Tordral, a fearsome sorceress,” she said, rising from her throne and descending the steps to stand before Raksar. “Twice seven years ago she was a maiden of Earthlie, the daughter of a mortal lord. My wastrel brother came upon her as she sat reading in her summer tower’s garden. He had a taste for the maidens of Earthlie, so he forced his will upon her, then blighted her eyes out of spite.”

“It is not my place to question the whims of elves,” said Raksar.

“At this morning’s halflight, my brother paid for that whim with his life, long after the act of lust that he had doubtless forgotten. Now Tordral the Twisted is here in Faerie, insane with hate, bent on ripping down all we hold fair.”

The castellerine gestured to a distant scatter of bodies on the littoral road beside the lake.

“She annihilated my elfknights, then demanded your labor, my artisan goblins. Go to her, all of you. Go to her camp by the littoral road and do as she bids.”

• • • •

Upon the beach, the crew of the Earthlie ship had begun to gather driftwood and burn it for charcoal. Nearby were the bodies of the castellerine’s seven elfknight guards and their horses, cut down as they charged the mortals. Tordral awaited the goblins, clothed in chainmail and wearing a helmet with glass lenses in the triangular eye slits.

“Who speaks for you?” she asked.

Raksar raised his hand.

“I must replenish the powder that drives my gonnes and bombard,” she declared. “Bury the dead, then fetch me yellow sulphur and needles of the moon.”

• • • •

That evening Raksar laid an offering wrapped in cloth at Chancellor Arrender’s feet, then pressed his forehead to the ground. Dust from the tower’s fall coated everything in the Garden of Halflight, and the servants were cowering as they washed the distressed and wailing orchids. Arrender unwrapped the device, which was an iron tube bound to a wooden stock.

“A consummately ugly trifle,” he observed.

“The mortals call it a gonne,” said Raksar. “It was dropped and forgotten in the morning’s fighting.”

“Without the spell that gives it life, what use can it be?”

“No spell gives it life, only black powder that is thunder made solid. We artisans could make many hundreds in a few days; they are simplicity itself. Just as impetus is stored in a drawn bow, so too is it stored in the black powder made from needles of the moon, sulphur, and charcoal, all ground fine. When touched by a burning ember, it discharges a pellet of iron with mighty force.”

“A pellet of iron? Nothing more? No enchanted arrow or forge-hot casting of tangled death?”

“Just a pellet, lordship.”

“How did you learn this?”

“The mortals think we goblins are too stupid to understand the workings of these devices, so they talk freely before us.”

The goblin’s voice trailed into a whisper as an enormous white cat with scimitar fangs sauntered into the garden, licking blood from its muzzle. It stopped, regarded Raksar with disdain, nodded to Arrender, then walked on. The castellerine followed, treading her floating carpet and clothed only in softly glowing spiderwebs.

“Ladyship, this goblin has tidings that will please you,” said Arrender.

Midsummer’s Ante

Tordral required the goblin artisans to test their own mixtures of the black powder. If too weak, it produced a shot that would barely spit the pellet from a gonne’s tube. If too strong, it would burst the tube. After an artisan was carried home with most of his head following in a pail, the others realized they had good reason to take care. The target for the tests was a helmet taken from a vanquished elfknight, placed on a stake driven into the grass of the littoral. Even at ten paces only one shot in two actually struck the helmet.

“What do you think of gonnes?” asked the ship’s yeoman cheerfully after Raksar had survived the test of his first jar of powder.

“With the greatest respect, Master Ward, they’re inferior to even goblin bows.”

“In what way?”

“In all ways. I may shoot off seven arrows while you reload a gonne once, and gonnes are not accurate over an arrow’s range.”

“True words, Master Raksar, but how long does it take to learn a bow’s use?”

“Seven lunar months to build strength of arm, seven to learn shooting, and seven to perfect shooting’s art.”

“And who makes the bows?”

“Skilled artisans, using a very particular balance of green wood and heart wood.”

“What of arrows?”

“They are works of art, with heads, shafts and flights made by families that have perfected their fashioning over countless generations.”

“Yet you goblins have learned the use of gonnes in an hour’s quarter, and any metalsmith could turn out two or three dozen gonne tubes in an afternoon. The making of gonne powder can be left to children, and any metal scraps will do if no iron pellets are to hand. In two or three days you could raise a goblin army, and for little cost.”

“But archers are so much better as warriors.”

“And while you spend twenty-one months training your archers, I can raise a thousand gonners and conquer your lands.”

• • • •

Castellerine Lynder was too despondent to use the throne in the Garden of Cascades, and abased herself by sitting on the green marble steps of its dais. Her courtiers stood motionless, downcast and fearful as Arrender brought Raksar before her. In her hand was a dagger, and her bedrobes were soaked in the blood of her third seduction.

“I have no guards,” she said, looking up at Raksar. “The seven elfknights of my palace had three thousand years of martial exploits and deeds of arms between them. In moments, all gone. How could those clumsy, ugly gonnes vanquish such prowess and skill so easily? Answer me this, goblin.”

“Ladyship, a single gonne may shoot a dozen scraps of iron, and so poison the enchanted flesh of many elfknights,” said Raksar. “Gonnes are easy to make and use, that is their virtue. Give me three days and a purse of silver, and I can give you seven times seven times seven goblins armed with gonnes to defend your palace.”

There was a silence longer than breath may be held before Castellerine Lynder replied.

“You would have my seven gardens, my violet towers, my treasures, my very person defended by goblin lowborns?”

“By loyal goblin lowborns, ladyship.”

The castellerine’s lips tilted into a grim smile.

“Courtiers, advisers, sages, nobles, can any of you suggest better guards?” she asked.

No answer was dared.

“Three days, you say?” she now asked Raksar.

“Less, perhaps. There are few skills needed, but the gonners must be drilled over and over in the loading and firing of gonnes, so they will not panic or falter amid the carnage on a battlefield.”

“Then get you gone with a purse of silver and build me a new palace guard.”

“They will be ugly to look upon,” warned Raksar. “They will soil the beauty of your palace.”

“The ruins of Glamoriad Tower soil the beauty of my palace already, goblin. Go with Lord Arrender, tell him all you need.”

Midsummer Secundus

Raksar steered the barge laden with provisions from Wylver Market as a troll towed it through the lake’s shallows. It was a stout, inelegant vessel, the size of the ship from Earthlie. Like all goblin boats, it had no enchantment to bind the planks or allow it to slip through the water as smoothly as a skate over ice. The mortal Guy was beside Raksar, and had been choosing what Tordral Required.

“This must seem a slow and tiresome way to carry goods,” said Raksar with carefully studied innocence. “Your ship’s machine rower is surely the prince of wonders by contrast.”

“Hah, its principle is but the soul of simplicity,” said Guy, “yet the machine itself is the most advanced in all of Earthlie. Its making requires the strength of a blacksmith and the touch of a jeweler.”

“I am a jeweler,” said Raksar.

“Are you indeed? Perhaps you might help with its tuning, it needs more of that than a minstrel’s harp.”

“My lady castellerine has commanded that I serve you in all ways.”

“Then you shall indeed tend it.”

When they arrived at the camp, Guy carried Raksar out to the ship. The goblin was shown the bow pipes where water entered, the complex of levers and valves for directing water and steam, the enclosed cauldron where steam was raised to a very high pressure by a furnace, and the pipes where that steam expelled water with great force to drive the ship along.

“This machine is a treasure of greater worth than the Queen of Londarion’s crown,” the goblin declared.

“Like a crown, it needs a jeweler to keep it in good repair,” said Guy.

• • • •

The goblin’s audience with the castellerine was in her bedchamber. Beside her, on the silken sheets of a bed wider than Raksar’s cottage, her lover of the fourth seduction lay on his stomach, his face staring up at the roof beams and his body lifeless. He was naked, as was the castellerine.

“I have seen the secret of the ship’s machine rower,” Raksar said uneasily, glancing from the body to the castellerine and back again. “It is simple in principle but complex in execution.”

The castellerine glared.

“I desire only good tidings,” she warned.

“Oh, but I have those, ladyship. I have already devised a simpler but more powerful mechanism, a rectangular oar on a hinge, thrust out by a piston. It could be working in weeks.”

“You have days.”

“Days will suffice for what else I plan.”

“Tell me your plan.”

“The steam rower’s advantage is that it consumes wood, which may be found anywhere. A hundred rowers could propel the ship just as well, but they must eat bread, cheese, and meats, and drink ale. All of these are scarce on a long voyage along strange waterways, so they must carry their own provisions on the ship.”

“Come to your point or displease me,” said the castellerine.

“Put a hundred goblin rowers on a barge with a bombard mounted at the bow, and you would have the Earthlie ship’s match. Such a barge need only venture a mile or so onto the lake for a battle, and need not carry provisions.”

“But I have no bombards.”

“I am making a sly study of the mortals’ bombard, ladyship. It is simple in principle.”

“Your services to me venture far beyond mere loyalty, goblin,” said the castellerine after some thought. “Why is this so?”

“You are my castellerine, ladyship.”

“And what else?”

“Nothing else.”

“Do not lie to me! Go to my library, you will find it overflowing with tales of great ladies who were so beguiled by the beauty of goblin jewelry that they suffered to have the ugly creators between their thighs as the price of purchase.”

“Oh no, ladyship, never!” declared Raksar with horror that was not feigned. “I adore beauty. I could not even bear the thought of a base and ugly goblin such as myself befouling your exquisite form with his touch. Just to worship the sight of your unclothed loveliness inspires me to create jewelry that would make all who look upon it swoon with despair or weep with desire.”

“Then look upon me and be inspired, goblin, then return tomorrow with the secrets of the mortals’ bombard.”

Midsummer Tertius

The ship of wonders had been hauled so close to the shore that it was grounded in the shallows. Raksar helped carry firewood aboard, then took a broom and made a show of sweeping up sand and detritus that had been brought aboard. He worked his way toward the bow, where the mighty bombard was mounted. Renard, the mortal known as the bombardier, was sitting astride it, watching over the toiling goblins.

“Who told you to sweep?” he asked.

“Mistress Tordral, master.”

“Aye? Then if Mistress Tordral trusts you, so must I.”

“Master Ward said that the bombard is just a gonne made big, but to me that seems like comparing a god to a goblin.”

Renard frowned, then his face brightened into a smile as he realized that the goblin’s regard for the weapon was little short of worship.

“Ward’s gonnes are hardly more than toys. This bombard is a machine of great precision. See here, wheels for it to recoil upon, and ropes to catch the recoil. Now see this, a ratchet lever for increasing or decreasing the elevation for long or close shots. Mark well that the bombard is thicker in all proportions than those little gonnes. This is to guard against it bursting, for it fires with a thousand times more force in proportion.”

Raksar had earlier noticed that Renard seemed lonely. Perhaps no others understood or appreciated his astoundingly powerful weapon, so here was a chance for him to boast of its virtues to someone who would appreciate them. Raksar let him talk at great length, and interrupted only to heap compliments upon the bombard.

• • • •

When Raksar was shown into the castellerine’s bedchamber, her lover for the evening was gone, but there was blood upon the pearly white sheets and her pale skin. She beckoned him closer.

“I—I have, ah, learned enough of the bombard to fashion one,” he stammered, his eyes fixed on the red stains that said so much yet so little.

“Build me seven, twice over,” said the castellerine.

“Fourteen, ladyship?” gasped Raksar. “All the brass in Wylver Market would barely suffice.”

“Then seize that brass in my name and cast me seven and seven bombards! Begin tonight, be finished on Midsummer Quintus.”

The task was close to impossible, yet Raksar knew that whatever had killed the castellerine’s lover would be close at hand and still hungry. Exquisite, elegant bronzes, centuries old, would perish in goblin furnaces, but the castellerine was not inclined to debate the virtues of art over weaponry.

“It shall be done, ladyship.”

Midsummer Quadrus

On the evening of Midsummer Quadrus, Raksar was fearful of how his tribute for the day would be received by the castellerine. As Arrender led him into her bedchamber, he saw that the castellerine’s lover lay dead beside her on the bed, while a rustling, writhing assembly of vines, leaves, and tendrils retreated through the window, leaving thin trails of blood on the sheets, rugs, and flagstones.

In the goblin’s hands was a gift from the mortal Guy, a mechanism of wooden cogwheels, strings, and weights, with a single arm set against a dial with twelve numerals. It was beguilingly intricate, and would have been beautiful had it been fashioned from precious metals and glittering gemstones.

“This mortal’s struggles lasted a full quarter hour,” the castellerine declared. “Should Fortune grant me a chance to kill Prince Lortrien, I believe I would again choose my faithful green assassins. How would you kill the prince, goblin?”

“I—ah—the—the prince is surpassing handsome, ladyship, even though his spirit be foul. Should not his death also render his face ugly?”

“Wise words, goblin, and clever. What weapon do you have for me today?”

What Raksar held was no weapon, so he feared her displeasure.

“It is called a clock, ladyship. As a ruler marks length, a clock takes a measure of time.”

“How is this deadly?”

“It is . . . useful, rather than deadly. If you can mark time, you can control how time is used. Mortals use clocks to regulate work. You might use it to speed the building of gonnes.”

“True, but think on this. I might measure time by how long a goblin takes to die of bleeding, yet a sundial, hourglass, or marked candle can also do that.”

“Ah, but a sundial needs the sun, an hourglass needs to be turned every hour, a marked candle might blow out, and a goblin would be better employed carrying a gonne into battle.”

“Truly? I am pleased. Make this . . . clock work for me.”

Goblins wearing comely masks and silk tunics removed the dead mortal while Raksar attached his clock to a lamp hook on the wall. He adjusted the drop stones, set the reciprocating weights in motion, and moved the hand to where he guessed day’s hour might be. The little machine began to mark off time with regular double clacks.

Midsummer Quintus

“I have been thinking about the weapons of Earthlie,” said the castellerine the following evening, after Raksar had reported great progress with equipping and training the goblin guards. “In Faerie they are secrets, and should be kept as secrets.”

“I have warned all artisans against gossiping, ladyship.”

“Ah, but their little cottages and workshops may easily be visited by spies. If my goblin artisans were gathered to work at benches in the great hall of my palace, with a clock mounted above them to mark their goals, think of how well I could guard my secrets and speed the building of gonnes and bombards.”

“But that would be unbearably ugly, ladyship. Your palace is the crowning jewel of all Cumbriel’s fairness.”

“What has beauty ever gained me but servitude?” said the castellerine, her tone suddenly colder than wind blowing across the icy wastes of the north. “Tordral’s ship of wonders is less comely than a warthog, yet like a warthog it is powerful and deadly. Each day I look down upon that ship, and yearn to be its mistress. Then I look upon the ruins of Glamoriad Tower, and feel that my palace is all the better for it lying in ruins. Now I look upon your ugliness and wonder if power may be intertwined with it. Goblin, come here.”

With fingernails sharper than an assassin’s dagger, the castellerine slashed the tunic from Raksar’s body, then she drew him onto the bed beside her.

“Ladyship, your form enchants me, but—but . . .” Raksar began.

“Fear not, goblin, I shall not call my vines to drink your blood.”

“No, no, I fear only that I pollute your beauty with my presence.”

“Then conquer that fear, goblin. Embrace me with your ugliness and thus make me powerful. Deny me this, and you shall incur my wrath. Now think thoughts of lust, not beauty.”

In morning’s halflight, as he dressed himself in the rags that his tunic had become, Raksar was as distraught as if he had been ordered to take a hammer to the graceful statues of dancing nymphs in the palace gardens. The castellerine’s body had been touched by his, and like Glamoriad Tower, his loyalty to the House of Cumbriel lay in ruins.

Midsummer Sextus

Raksar wrestled with his conscience for all of the day that followed. By late afternoon, his inner voices were silent and spent. Dressed in a new tunic, and with the tools of his art hidden beneath it, he approached the fearsome Lady Tordral.

“Great and powerful lady, you must flee, and I beg that you take me with you,” he pleaded softly. “I am a spy, and I have harvested the secrets of your ship of wonders for the castellerine. We her goblins have made many gonnes and bombards in secret, and enough gonne powder to fill a wagon. With these she will destroy your ship.”

“Why has your heart changed loyalties?” Tordral asked, neither alarmed nor surprised.

“The lady castellerine has embraced ugliness, but I worship beauty. Thus I can no longer be her master jeweler, yet all other goblins remain her loyal and willing servants. Only the gates of her enemies are now open to me.”

“Honestly spoken, Raksar, but I already know much of what you have said. See here.”

Tordral handed him a tube of polished brass that had curved glass at both ends.

“Put this to your eye, point it at Wylver Market,” she said. “Tell me what you see.”

Within the tube the image was upside down, but that image was of distance brought wondrously close.

“Elfsight!” gasped Raksar.

“No, a trifle of my own devising. What do you see?”

“To my shame, I see bombards on carts, built by my artisans for the service of Castellerine Lynder.”

“All to destroy my ship of wonders.”

“That is true, and I burn with shame. Kill me now, if it pleases you.”

“Kill you, when you have done my work so well?”

“Your work? Ladyship, I do not understand.”

“Then come along, we must visit the castellerine.”

• • • •

Arrender knew he should always take Raksar or Tordral to the castellerine when either entered the palace, and now they arrived together. He led them to the Garden of Dark Waters, and by a pool of deepest indigo stood Lynder and her mortal lover to be, their robes at their feet.

“Goblin, mortal, this is not the time for visiting,” she said.

“Young man, if you embrace the castellerine in that pool, you will be drawn into its depths and drowned once you have pleasured her,” warned Tordral.

The castellerine said nothing, but there was the promise of death in her frown.

“Who are you to question the intent of my lady?” the youth replied with a sneer.

Tordral extended her hand and dropped an iron pellet into the water. All at once the plants at the water’s edge shrieked and chittered as they withdrew long and sinuous tendrils that writhed and lashed with distress. The youth went very pale, and began to tremble.

“Young man, leave,” said Tordral. “Lord Arrender, go with him.”

Both looked to the castellerine. She nodded, and they left.

“You have my attention,” the castellerine declared, turning on Tordral with her hands on her hips, flouting her naked beauty like a warrior’s sword.

“Castellerine Lynder, I have seduced you,” declared Tordral, unmoved.

“I believe I would have noticed,” replied Lynder, shaking her head, yet puzzled.

“Would you, indeed? Did you notice that I had this master jeweler tutored in the way of gonnes and their black powder, in the machinery of steam power, and in the arts of using gonnes to overwhelm even elfknights? Are the workshops of your goblin smiths and artisans not given over to casting bronze gonnes and bombards? Tell me that your goblins’ children are not scouring the caves hereabouts to harvest needles of the moon from bat dung.”

“You wanted me to steal your secrets?” asked the castellerine, the confidence suddenly leached from her voice.

“That I did.”

Suddenly doubt and fear crowded about Lynder. With haste she gathered up her robes and tried to dress, but without her ladies in waiting the task was beyond her and she shouted for help. Maids converged from all directions.

“I schemed to set you against Prince Lortrien when he arrives this evening,” the castellerine admitted once she was clothed. “I hate him, he fancies himself more beautiful than me. I hoped you would destroy him and his elfknights, then my goblin gonners would annihilate your warriors while they sat resting. Thus would I gain favor with the queen by avenging her son, yet have his head above my bedchamber’s hearth, preserved in a crystal jar of sour wine.”

“Then think boldly upon what you may now do with your gonnes and bombards, castellerine. Within the hour’s quarter I shall step aboard my ship of wonders and depart.”

“Depart of your own will, with no battle?”

“Yes.”

“I do not understand.”

“You shall.”

With that Tordral turned and strode from the palace, followed by Raksar. When they reached the beach, her ship was trailing smoke from its twin funnels, while muttering to itself in its clank-clang, hiss, chuff voice. She handed the goblin her brass tube.

“Take this toy, I have another,” she said. “Use it to learn the secrets of farsights.”

“Ladyship, my deepest thanks,” said Raksar, dropping to one knee and bowing.

“You love beauty, is this not true?”

“With all my heart, yes.”

“Then flee this place. Before the sun’s setting there will be a battle here. While all are distracted and confusion reigns, steal a pony and ride for the salt sea’s coast.”

“Your command is my deed, ladyship, but can I not come with you?”

“No, because my revenge on elves will be to seduce all Faerie, in the way I have seduced the castellerine. It would break your heart to see the ugliness soon to come.”

• • • •

In the afternoon of Midsummer Sextus, seven times seven times seven goblins stood in seven rows across the littoral road, each with a gonne at his shoulder. Seven carts carrying gleaming brass bombards stood ready, and seven barges bearing bombards were at anchor offshore.

Lortrien arrived at the head of his elfknights, archers, and warlocks. Confronting them was the Castellerine of Cumbriel, mounted upon a black horse and holding a sword of adamantian. The prince had his warlocks brought forward, but they perceived no threat from enchantment. He called for his marshal of elfknights, who stared with elven eyes, then reported no danger.

“Turn about, flee for your lives!” called Castellerine Lynder, holding her sword high.

“It is I, Prince Lortrien,” the prince called back. “How dare you to meet me dressed in electrum armour instead of gossamer bedrobes? Why do you present me with rough-wrought pipes of bronze and not the finest jewelry that Cumbriel can craft? Where are your fair elfknight guards, why does this shameful rabble stand behind you?”

The castellerine swept her sword down. The seven bombards upon the wagons fired iron chains that spread as they flew, and tore through the ranks of elfknights, archers, and warlocks.

“Castellerine’s First Gonners, fire!” shouted the castellerine, and a kneeling row of seven times seven goblins fired their gonnes into the chaos that Prince Lortrien’s escort had become.

“Castellerine’s Second Gonners, step forth!” commanded the castellerine. “Second gonners, fire!”

Lortrien’s bravery was never to be doubted. He charged at the head of his decimated ranks of elfknights as the third row of goblin gonners fired, and they were but yards from the fourth row of goblins when their volley slashed out. The battle on the littoral road was no easy victory, and seven goblins died for every elfknight, but at close range the gonnes of the fifth, sixth, and seventh rows were hard pressed to miss, and the bombards on the barges slew those who sought to flee. Time and again the sweet breath of sulphur mixed with needles of the moon and charcoal flung cold iron into elfknight bodies, then goblin pikes quenched lives that had begun before Rome had been founded.

By the time afternoon became evening, all but three elves lay dead upon the littoral road. Bleeding from more wounds than could be counted, Prince Lortrien was bound by goblin hands and forced to his knees before Castellerine Lynder.

“What manner of victory is this?” he cried. “Seven goblins have died for every elfknight slain by your infernal weapons.”

“But goblins are many, quick to breed, and quicker to learn the use of gonnes,” the castellerine replied, sheathing her sword, then holding her hand out.

Arrender stepped forward, wearing elfknight armour for the first time in his long life. He presented a gonne to the castellerine, then gave her a smoking match fuse.

“No elfknight will ever again fight for you after this day,” the prince warned.

“What care I for elves, when so many loyal and valiant goblins would die for me?”

“Your days as castellerine are numbered.”

“But my days as queen lie ahead.”

Castellerine Lynder pointed the tube of her gonne between the eyes of the prince, braced the stock against her shoulder, then pressed the glowing end of the match fuse into the touch hole. As the white smoke cleared, she gazed down at the ruins of prince’s face with satisfaction.

“He is now surpassing ugly, but I prefer him that way,” she said to Arrender. “Have all my goblin subjects from far and near rallied, and parade them past this battleground. Invite any and all to fight and plunder beside me.”

“Consider it done, ladyship.”

“With gonnes I can build lowborn armies in days, and conquer as fast as they can march.”

“All of Londarion will tremble at your very name, ladyship.”

“Lady Tordral did indeed seduce me, Arrender, and her seduction has given me more pleasure than a thousand years of lovemaking.”

“My heart shines with the reflection of your pleasure, ladyship.”

“But where is that goblin jeweler and spy, the one who worships beauty? I wish to make him my master armourer, to shower him with gold, to embrace him as I wash away the blood and grime of this battle in perfumed bath water.”

“I shall send a runner to fetch him, ladyship.”

Arrender was not to know that the helmeted runner he had dispatched was Raksar himself. By halflight’s end the goblin was ten miles beyond his village and leading his stolen pony west by torchlight.

Midsummer Septimus

The following evening Raksar gave his pony to a beggar on the docks of Westernport, then walked along the pier of sweetly resinous wood to where a Levantrian trader was moored. A single guard with a scimitar stood at the foot of the gangway.

“Let me pass, I wish to buy passage to Levantria,” said the goblin.

“Return to your home, the price is too high,” replied the guard.

Raksar held up a single coin of red gold.

“I can pay.”

“The price is greater. Once at sea, your pack and purse would be seized, and you would be flung to the waves.”

“But I am a master jeweler.”

“Then you would be sold as a prized slave in Levantria.”

“And would my new master be a prince?”

“Most likely.”

“And would he bid me fashion jewelry of surpassing beauty for the delight of himself and his ladies? Would I serve in a palace of such elegance and enchantment that the very Queen of Londarion would weep with despair at the sight of it?”

“All of that, indeed.”

“Then stand aside and let me aboard.”

“But why flee this land? Have you slain your master, or worse?”

“No, but there is ugliness spreading behind me, and I delight in beauty. One day that ugliness will cover all the world, but for now I may stay ahead of it.”

“Then step aboard, slave to beauty.”

As the sun vanished beneath the horizon, the ship was drawn out to sea with the tide. Raksar stood at the bow, staring with pleasure at the myriad, intertwined shades of red, yellow, and orange on the western horizon, with his back turned on the gathering darkness.

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Sean McMullen

Sean McMullenSean McMullen is an Australian author with twenty books and seven dozen stories published in over a dozen countries. He has won fifteen Australian and international awards for his fiction, and been nominated for the Hugo, BSFA and Sidewise awards. He is best known for his neo-steampunk novel Souls in the Great Machine (1999), and his two most recent books are the collections Colours of the Soul (2013) and Ghosts of Engines Past (2013). For three decades Sean had a career in scientific computing in parallel with his science fiction and fantasy writing, but resigned to become a full time author in 2014. Before he began writing, Sean was a professional singer and actor, performing in venues as diverse as the Victorian State Opera and the folk-rock band Joe Wilson’s Mates. He lives in Melbourne, and has one daughter, Catherine.