1874-08-01: The Black Cat Studies
The Black Cat Studies
Summary: Myrana recieves a manuscript of dubious origins.
Date: 1874-08-01
Related: Related Logs (If there aren't any, use None. If there is a log, use full URLs, like http://eternalcrusade.wikidot.com/logtitle)
NPCs: NPC names, if relevant

Was it wine or fireflies that swirled mad giddy motes about the people dancing on the bonfire-shining wet cobbles? Sparks flew up with each handful of juniper thrown into the fire, and the air was full of smoke and music. Watching the people of Fiorello-on-the-River offering their prayers for a good autumn harvest, she couldn't help but be dazzled as she was every year since she was a child. The fiddlers balancing cockily on crooked chairs and winking at beauties in the crowds of partiers vied with three-stringed malaika players for kisses and flowers. Someone roared and someone screamed a laugh, and the drummers on the fringe of the mad dancing beaded with sweat despite the first autumn winds. Baskets and baskets of juniper fronds stood under cover now and were being ferried still onto carts and wagons. It was one of the few crops harvested here in Fiorello-on-the-River, the County seat of Cair Armaz, and the river-people were never shy of a party after working. Most were dressed in their finest by now, having finished their work; beautiful coats and vests and skirts of fine wool and silk embroidered with vivid traditional floral designs in family designs, full ruffled underskirts against the cold, and men and women alike wearing jewelry in their hair, from simple brass beads at the tie, to small gems in tightly curling black beards and hairpins with dangling gold tasselure. , Many women wore ornate ornamental hair-combs carved of beautiful woods and horn and tortoiseshell, while others wore elaborate cloisonne, enameled or lacquered or made entirely of delicate silver or ivory. Gold wire sparkled in the crown of an old woman sitting on her own balcony on the other side of the square

Myrana wore one herself, and it's tortoiseshell teeth were buried in the plait of her hair against the nape of her neck; there was an art to wearing combs, and much of it had to do with having a thick head of secretly ravenous hair (and being careful of doorways if you are so fortunate, she thought, and smiled to herself), or at least, a talented hairdresser. She had both.

The carved fan she wore tonight was her best, and one given to her by her father after the siege on Cair Armaz. While the long teeth were carved of tortoiseshell, the fan of the comb was gold; A wild thicket of Armaz dogroses growing amid river rushes stood in relief; Tiny bees were figured in masterful detail, almost lifelike. It was heavy, and Sam had only extrapolated from there, anchoring a wild spraying crown of prickling juniper sprigs heavy with the powdery blue berries. The core of it was tortoiseshell, It was beautiful, and even though she ra and shivvering under the ermine blanket draping her lap. Her seat was in a place of honor, so here she would sit, freezing feet or not. A spark settled on her sleeve and she patted it out absentmindedly. She'd always wondered what would happen if, one of these years, the clematis caught fire.

And because there were sometimes very few benefits of being at an easily pick-uppable height, Myrana had taken to wearing decorative combs of gold and carved wood… though none so lavish as the one she wore now, they made her think of her home. And she was very prepared to add the extra inch or three to her total height when wearing them, no matter what Deverot had to say about it. Circlets and tiaras were no good, as they fell off her head every opportunity.

It was again terrifically old-fashioned, but Aequoran culture was nothing if not receptive to the application of brute force to fashion; She was never going to look good in a ruff.

She was the wrong proportions to look good in a ruff. Or the ruff could be just very very SHORT, not even going much past the edge of her chin, but then she felt that she was suffocating for hardly any dramatic affect at all. Even the rather more haute ones (that were the mode in Alasce before it fell) that started at the shoulders and sort of fanned out like a peacock's tail behind the head in a stiff raised collar like a bat's wing (making a pretty good target for bad-portrait jokes) were out of the question unless she wanted to wear her hair piled in a huge beehive of pins and combs and other structural support nonsense. And outside of treason hearings she was just not willing to deal with the headache.

Instead, and much preferably, she was dressed in clothing traditional to the river-people. Lavishly embroidered with the floral designs worn by men and women to show their craft and family lines, usually saved for special occasions and holidays like this one: A blouse of flax linen woven with cloth-of-gold and embellished with river pearl beads like droplets of water. A belted skirt and short vest of cashmeri wool blended with iridescent cricket-silk; the full skirt decorated with gold and crimson dogroses and warm despite its trunicated mid-calf length thanks to ruffled petticoats underneath. If she shook her head, she knew, juniper berries would drop out and roll away or get into her clothes. It wasn't comfortable, but she only had to wear these sorts of clothes on special occasions.

They'd had her light the bonfire before escorting her here, to the heir's seat, and kept refilling her cup with juniper wine and shouting toasts she could never properly hear up on the balcony. The 'bishop's home' was technically Dario's, but that was no matter; he rarely chose to stay in it since inheriting it from his predecessor. Too close to Cair Armaz, in his opinion.

But being here was important.

Her father had never attempted to thwart her closeness to the people of he- HIS county; wherever she chose to go in Fiorello among her people, she was certainly protected. But there were some things Adriono's will enforced regardless of Myrana's wishes or attempts at circumnavigation; no-one here would dance around a roaring, spitting bonfire with the Heir of Armaz.

Juniper berries kept falling in her wine. There was nothing for it but to drink them (undesirable after the first), or pluck them out with her fingers. She popped the last of the figs from her plate into her mouth and washed it down with a sip of the wine. Someone would come to bring food for her soon, or so she hoped. Her stomach was a fist, and the juniper wine swam through her most pleasantly. There was nothing else to do but drink.

Another shower of wild sparks and a cheer as youths in uniforms of the academy tossed in packets of ratspice (floor sweepings from Armaz spice frigates) and coloured agents that made the bonfire plume with fragrant smoke. Gazing up at that incredible contrast of mad bright sparks against the fuming woodsmoke and glitter-black sky, it was hard to be upset. Her homeland was beautiful, and she loved her people. The musicians had started playing one of her favorite songs, and she tapped her toes along with it in better spirits.

Despite both the scarred tom and the ermine blanket on her lap, Myra was hard put not to shiver, and sit up straighter in her chair. "Brr! Cat, you've got to get fatter." The cat offered no arguement. "So should I. It's much too cold. If Ramius were here, we could go dance and warm up." She leaned her chin on her hand, making the lightsilver bell pendant she wore at her throat jingle. "This is terrifically boring without anyone to argue with. You are much too personable. People will pick you up to keep you out from underfoot if you don't learn to hiss a bit more, or at least get big enough to be bothersome."

When she picked her wine up again after dance reel. it was refilled, but the plate of mozarella and figs drizzled with honey remained empty. The sliced bread was gone too. A deep breath brought her the smell of spitted lamb and lemons in the juniper smoke and her stomach cramped jealously.

"Well," she addressed the scarred old ship cat on the ermine in her lap. "You'll have to do, handsome sir. Will you dance?"

The tom purred under her hand, but didn't get up to put on any dancing shoes.

Another toast shouted below over the fiddles and three-stringed malaikas. Many outside of the unstoppable orgiastic dancing around the bonfire stood up or turned around and raised their glasses to the balcony before drinking amid the cheers that always followed a good one. Myrana smiled, but had stopped trying to take a sip with every toast to the river, the bees, the summer harvest, the autumn harvest. Her head was spinning. The bracelets layering her wrists felt like stone weights, clucking together as she stroked the purring tom.

'To the Count!' someone shouted down there, and emptied her new cup judiciously.
Armaz! Armaz!

A merchant, his black braid plaited with gold beads and juniper sprigs, threw a handful of resin into one of the smaller braziers for the delight of his children (and, oblivious, to the good cheer of a nearby guard). Others came and went, silhouetted by the bonfire to a shadowplay with hints of colour and flashes of jewelry.

This year had been the one she meant to ask Ramius to come with her, so the could offer their wishes to the bonfire together. But War took precedence, as it must. She pulled a juniper berry from her crown and tossed it at the bonfire below, but it wasn't really the same. There was no knowing if it hit the mark, either.

Another swarm of sparks lifted in a mad drunken swirl into the night sky and the musicians and dancing singing drinking river people shouted up after it. No one would sleep tonight.

On the docks, on rooftops gardens, in the markets beyond this wide square, the party danced on. The cats of the city were nowhere to be seen on the streets, but dogs barked excitedly and children laughed wild and excited to be up so late among the festivities. The riverside markets and neighborhoods had been transformed into a nighttime lantern maze of temptation and bright colours and out on the river there'd be people setting little burning grass boats out from the docks and riverbanks. People took their sweethearts to the bridge leading into Fiorello-on-the-River to watch those bright little boats pass underneath and burn out downstream.

She saw a man pick up his wife in her best embroidered skirts and spin her around against the glow of the fire and felt a pang of jealousy so fierce that she rose to her feet, restless.

The cat in her arms hooked claws into her sleeve. "I've affronted you," she said. The cat accepted this as an apology and made itself comfortable with a few adjustments before sniffing at her juniper crown, whiskers twitching.

Myra walked to the garlanded railing and looked out away from the bonfire and in the direction of the market, skirts dragging heavy over the ermine blanket now dumped on the floor. Fiorello-on-the-River rose in switchback streets from the bank of the Fiore and she could just see her little yacht The Hippocampus with its peach sails rocking alongside her escort, the much less fantastically named Pulveri. Little fisihng boats bobbed there, and…

She peered out drunkenly over the balcony, one hand supporting the cat on her shoulder and the other braced on the railing. Whose ship was that in dock beside the Armaz merchant barges?

Something moved behind her and she turned to see the butler standing in the lamplight inside the house. More sparks threw her shadow across him for a moment and a queasy feeling leeched at her.

Turned around too fast, she thought to herself, planting her feet a little more steadily. "I'm sorry, master; you startled me." she stroked the cat, reflecting privately that it was in somewhat poor taste to keep refilling her winecup when it was unwatched, while she and Ravio (at the door outside) were brought nothing to soak it up with. They were both starving. "You haven't got anything to eat, have you?"

"I'm afraid I am not the butler, lady. I am Pinette."

"Ah," momentarily taken aback, Myrana met Ravio's gaze past Pinette, where he stood at the far end of the adjoining room for a moment before nodding to her and stepping back out of sight behind a vase. It was alright. She turned to face the man fully and sat gingerly on the railing behind her, feeling the heat of the bonfire warm her back. "My apologies, master Pinette. I didn't expect you til tomorrow."

The cat leapt down off of her shoulder and slunk beneath the garlands. The publisher's agent.The cold air cleared her thoughts and banished that creepy feeling. After a moment's gathering herself she forgot it entirely. "Please join me."

"Thank you," said Pinette with a bow, and stepped out into the red glare of the bonfire, though he did not approach more than arm's length, staying out of the view of the people in the square. "Here is the manuscript you requested, Countess." He handed her a filthy portfolio wrapped in a clean cloth. No explanation seemed forthcoming, but Myrana knew it had come from one of the archives in the deep basements of Four Corners' printing houses. They'd warned her it might be in poor condition, but this… She lifted it to her nose. No mildew. But rank enough all the same.

Dirt cracked away from the leather folio as she unwound the leather tie and she cut a look up at Pinette.

"I must tender my most sincere apologies."

"This was in the archives?"

"It was buried."

Myrana felt that sick twist in her stomach again. But she hadn't drunk that much. What was this feeling of apprehension?

Her hands on the folio were tight and she realized she was gripping it with bloodless knuckles. More sparks flew up behind her with a sound like igniting resins (more of the ratspice, this time likely from a brigate carrying fragrant oppanax or frankincense from Partharia), and again she had the queer feeling that they rushed up around her, too, swarming her like fireflies and flying up into the little glass lamps hung among the garlands and clematis growing on the bishop's-house. If she closed her eyes, they would pass her by; she pulled the weight of her braid forward over her shoulder and set the filthy leather folio on the rail, exposing the sheaf of yellowed papers bound with waxed twine, without cover and without proper spine reinforcement. Pages threatened to slip free.

"This is the manuscript?" She looked again at Pinette. "But where are- Ah! There are drawings here."

"Millet was quite mad," Pinette folded his hands together and his eyes were like a rat's in the firelight suffusing the gold-threaded white linen of her blouse and turning the gold comb and pins in her snowy hair to glow. She did not invite him to come closer. "He died atop it, I'm afraid, and so it is, as you know, unfinished."

"The man died on top of his work?" Myrana looked down at it and smoothed her hand over the illustrated second page. Millet's handwriting was almost criminally bad, but she would pour through it. The Goddess Death and the Riverman. Was it what she'd been hunting for these past five years? Trapped beneath a deadman, could his studies into the mythos around Death be worth anything? Certainly he hadn't gained anything from it.

"Thank you, Master Pinette," Myrana didn't look up again, but had to swallow down a fierce urge to open it up at once and dismiss her guest without further ado. The base stitching (post-mortem) seemed undamaged, and the paper itself was, while reeking of… something, felt strong. Not very old at all.

"You did very well in finding this," she murmured, resting it on her lap as she leaned her backside on the railing, opening to the next page despite herself. It was not so dry that the sparks floating up from the bonfire would light it up in an instant, but it paid to be cautious, and after all that wine and no dinner… "Master Faglioni was mad, but he compiled such wonderful stories. A poet and an illustrator. It is a pity he drank like that…" She sighed. "I would have liked to commission him for an opera. But this is… Oh."

What was underneath this chart of humors? She plucked at the page's edge with her fingers, but resisted. This would take care, and tools. Faglioni's awful penmanship became illegible; he had drawn this after glueing the page in over another, and the paste had dried in wrinkles. A poet, but no spy. A smile tugged at her lips and her blue eyes narrowed to self-congratulatory slits; how many little mistakes had he pasted over? What was Faglioni hiding in this, his last work?

"It might be nothing," she murmured to herself. "But then, what does a drunken heretic find shameful enough to hide? Gloves are in order. Master Pinette, thank you very much. My man Ravio will—"

The book dropped to the balcony with a thud from nerveless hands. Pinette was no longer there.

Standing in the man's place instead was a creature that was sightless. Sightless becuase were eyes should have been was smoothed over skin. The creature's skin was pale, so pale that it appeared to glow as if the skin was made of the same material as one of the moons. Large, and somehow imposing black wings, as if from a crow flexed out from its shoulders and the mouth was split in a wide, malicious grin, wider than a human's, and ringed with sharp razor like teeth that glinted off the firelight.

In a stride the creature that was Pinette took Myrana by the throat and lifted her from the floor. This motion must have somehow alerted Ravio becuase he charged in drawing a gladius and a brandishing a cestus with hsi other hand, the blades of both glinting menacingly in their own right. However, the creature moved with a swiftness that was strange given it's form and with his sweep of one of his wings, slapped the gladius from Ravio's hand. In that same motion he gripped the arm with the cestus and lifted Ravio form the floor to fling him into the ceiling before crashing roughly to the floor in two quick and brutal thuds. A sickening crack from the second impact indicating the breakage of a bone, but which one, Myrana could not be certian.

Then, the creature turned it's gaze slowly back to Myrana, the unsettling sightless spots of the eyes feeling as if they were somhow and terribly, boring into her soul. "Little. Black. Cat." The creature that was Pinette says ina raspy and frightening voice that sounded as if a tumbler of gravel was turning as he spoke. Each word punctuated so that Myrana knew he was refering to her, even if somehow she couldn't figure that out from the hold on her neck and the gaze slowly grinding her soul into eternity.

"You search for the eye. The eye that was lost by the One Emperor who could rule this damned forsaken land. You seek it for knowledge? To learn the truth of rebirth and salvation?" The once Pinette leans in and sneers, the breath smelling faintly of rotting roses. "But do you think my Mistress will let you through the gates after your stint in the Abyss or your thrice damned Kingdom of the Sun and your high and mighty One. You. Will. Fail, Little Black Cat. In that failure you will find only pain and those whom you claim to love, if you can claim such a vaunted thing, will suffer the most."

The once Pinette drops Myrana and turns to leave. The movements normal yet somehow strange and just wrong in it's movements. As air returns in grat gasps and fits to her lungs the creature turns to look over his shoulder at her with thsoe damned sightless eyes of her. "If this path still be what you seek Little Black Cat, then in those pages will answers be found. If not. Burn the book and maybe you can find peace your wretched existence in mortality."

Then, like that the once Pinette is gone, and Myrana is alone with a groaning Ravio and her own gasping lungs.

The people below had seen nothing. Firecrackers went off below and a huge whoop went up after it and the shrill wild sound of a woman's laugh.

Myrana helped Ravio turn over with numb hands, letting her cousin grip her shoulder to pull himself up with the hand not still fixed in its cestus, as if he could not unclench those fingers. It scraped across the floor as he leaned on her, and the both of them, so close to swooning sat for a moment, shaking and coughing and reeking of acrid fear. Myrana was weeping, but didn't realize it until Ravio, letting go of her shoulder, grabbed her hard by the jaw, turning her head to see the sickly green roses blooming around her throat, terrible bruises made by a too-long hand. She swallowed her tears and met his gaze, wincing as he let go of her jaw and touched the bruises with shaking fingers, making sure she was not cut somewhere.

"You are well?" He tried to ask more but blanched and almost swooned, letting go of her to clutch at his cestus arm, face a sudden rictus of pain. Now the cestus fell with a clatter, and he curled in on himself to contain a scream, teeth gritted down so hard about it that cords stood out on his wiry neck.

"God!" Myrana's voice, smoky at the best of times after the events at Elder's Eye, was a witch's caw. Tasting blood, she called for help, but her voice came out not much louder than before. But before thought could make it worse she siezed his arm in both hands and, squeezing her eyes shut, pulled.

Ravio did scream this time as his shoulder went back in, and that brought a flood of servants from other rooms, who finding the Heir of Armaz half swooning over her bloody bodyguard, erupted into panic. They fell on the two Armaz and, seeing the bruises on her throat, summoned the guard and sent for the nearest doctor.

In the chaos, Myrana slid the book into the underside of a nearby divan. The healers would strip her, she knew, and she couldn't let it fall into her father's hands, or anyone else's. Ravio saw this; his blue eyes glinted at her when she turned back. He looked as though he might be sick. Would he tell her father where it was? That she had hidden something here? There was no way she could hope to stop him if he meant to do so, and if Adriono knew…

She clutched her throat, tears threatening to spill down her face again. If Ramius knew what she was researching… He would be furious with her for risking her life on research like this. For not involving him. But…

That was nothing compared to the alternative.

"What was that thing? It did not come by the hall." Ravio took her hand with his good one, breathing heavily and sweating after the shock of a reset shoulder. A broken rib, maybe more. "One of Teleko's creatures?"

But Myra only shook her head, the world spinning around her and her throat burning. "N-Not his," she rasped. Then finally burst into tears.

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