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Blackstone & Brenwen SWANSONG FOR A SIBLING


Other books by Andrew D. Mellusco

Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix


Copyright © Andrew D. Mellusco, 2012 Blackstone & Brenwen and all characters and elements are TM and © Andrew D. Mellusco

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. The right of Andrew D. Mellusco to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

First Edition 2012 CreateSpace.com ISBN-10: 147827395X ISBN-13: 978-1478273950 This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover composition ©Andrew D. Mellusco


For my wife, muse, and love, Claire.


Table of Contents

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Clown Courts ...……………………………………. 11 Monkey Nuts ...……………………………………. 18 Dead Hungry? ……………………………………... 26 Five Siblings ………………………………………. 31 Cynus Clienta ……………………………………… 36 Compromising …………………………………….. 45 A Grand Equation …………………………………. 58 The Dumb Price …………………………………… 64 Pyjama Party ………………………………………. 71 Fallen Tear ………………………………………… 75 >0.25%, Much > …………………………………... 81 Yo, Ho, Ho’ing ……………………………………. 84 Marry, Not Maim ………………………………….. 88 Witch-tricker…ier …………………………………. 103 Humps and Hinds …………….……………………. 111 Bubbles, Booty, …………………………………. 123 A-lad-In Time… ………………………………… 130 Pain For A Gain ………………………………….... 135 Deep Dilemma …………………………………….. 148 Just Wardens ………………………………………. 156 Uneasy Invitation ………………………………….. 161 Hoof Inspection ……………………………………. 175 If Bourbon Was… ………………………………... 181 Weeds It Is Then …………………………………... 190 2 Legs: Guilty Or... ………………………………. 197 Minotaur Meeting …………………………………. 206 Prize-Fighter Prod …………………………………. 214


28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53

Thrill Of The Race ………………………………… 224 Tri-Blessed Indeed ………………………………… 231 A Falling Tear ……………………………………... 239 Maw Smooching …………………………………... 250 Of Sausage Wishes ………………………………... 258 Branching Out ……………………….…………….. 271 A Jury Of Steers …………………………………… 277 Swelled Team ……………………………………... 283 Play On Worlds ……………………………………. 287 Wild Goat Chasing ………………………………... 291 Not As Beaded …………………………….………. 300 New Lamps for Old! ……………………………..... 309 Smoked To Death …………………………………. 318 A Stich In Thyme ………………………………….. 331 If It Looks Silly… ………………………………... 341 An Offer To Settle ………………………………… 351 Doing An “Elliot” …………………………………. 358 Innocence Odds ……………………………………. 366 Sky-bound Centaur ………………………………... 375 Beware The Babba ………………………………… 379 Evian Not Avian …………………………………... 384 There Is No Spoon ………………………………… 392 The Setting Sun ……………………………………. 402 Punctual Epona ……………………………………. 409 Great Pretender ……………………………………. 416 A Ruse Too Far ……………………………………. 421


Swansong for a Sibling Chapter one

Clown Courts ‘Oh, yes he did!’ ‘Oh, no he didn’t!’ ‘Oh, yes he DID!’ repeated Judy. ‘Oh, no he DID-N’T,’ replied Punch, again referring to himself in the third person, such was his manner. ‘Oh, bloody Caelum,’ sighed Elliot Blackstone under his breath, which was totally in keeping with his manner when court hearings were going less than courtly, which was often. ‘OH, YES HE-’ ‘Miss Judy,’ Elliot interrupted, ‘right now the floor belongs to Mr Punch. We shall come to your good self…’ ‘Miss? Miss? “Your good self”? I’ll have you know I’m happily married you saucy bugger,’ Judy replied. ‘HA! “Happily married,” told you all so!’ Punch piped up. ‘Oh, no you didn’t,’ sang the public gallery in unison, much to Elliot’s dejection. ‘Order!’ shouted the judge, as he unicycled himself into the middle of the circus ring. The great toad, which looked like he was treading water as his chubby legs rotated upon the unicycle’s pedals, skidded to a halt in front of Elliot and snapped his tongue out to the left of the attorney like a ringmaster’s whip. The court hushed. ‘If you cannot control your client, then I shall have no option but to hold you both in contempt Mr Blackstone.’ Both? Elliot thought. I should have chosen to represent Judy; at least she’s relatively sane. Had he continued upon that train of thinking he may have found himself wondering why in fact he was representing either of them at all. Work had been light of recent, owing no doubt to his client base in Delator drying up following his stinging indictment 11


Andrew D. Mellusco upon its Queen (and all the dire ramifications that followed) nearly six months ago, and Elliot found that he had little choice but to accept those cases that were less than conventional. So it was that he found himself sat upon a clown stool, in front of a puppet show, in the middle of a big-top circus tent. The background to the case was that Punch had been accused of punching his wife Judy’s “pet” crocodile. Punch maintained that his wife and her “pet’s” relationship was much less owner/pet than… well, something not considered appropriate for the puppet-watching child-public. Thus, before the ‘show could go on’ as the ringmaster proclaimed, referring to the following night’s performance, it was clear that the situation needed sorting out. Elliot, as well as the other circus performers, was under no illusion that the main protagonist to the proceedings was actually a Human male by the name of Pietro Gimonde, who was also known by his stage name Bobbo. Bobbo, however, claimed that Punch and Judy and Mr Crocodile each had their own personalities, and voice, and that it wouldn’t be proper for he himself to “speak” for all of them. Given Punch was technically on trial for assault and battery, and that Punch was operated by Bobbo, Elliot subsequently found himself instructed to represent a Human hand dressed as a puppet. His good friend and colleague Vincent Traum would have had a field day mocking him. Had Elliot the choice, which his mind had played upon, then he would have preferred to have represented Judy, but that was prosecution work and the young attorney was more predisposed to defending. He also had a dislike of lefties. ‘My apologies, your Honour…’ The toad judge turned down his wide and slobbering mouth. ‘I mean Maestro Gonzo,’ Elliot corrected, to which Gonzo the ring master and impromptu judge smiled in response before peddling his way back to the stalls to join the rest of his troupe. ‘Perhaps if Mrs Judy was elsewhere, my client might not have 12


Swansong for a Sibling occasion to conduct himself in such a manner.’ The judge looked over at Judy and shot out his tongue so that it made a load cracking sound upon the courtroom floor. Judy, or rather the hand inside Judy, began shaking, and her pinky and thumb-operated puppet hands moved up to cover her garishly painted wooden face. Elliot directed himself back to his client, who was staring at his slowly retreating wife (not that Elliot could tell given Punch’s wooden head was forever fixed with the same maniacal expression), and resumed his questioning. ‘Mr Punch. Let us return to the issue at hand, forgive the pun.’ A drum rolled and snapped and the audience applauded. ‘Would you in your own words describe what happened?’ ‘Okeydokey,’ replied Punch with a voice that sounded like a kazoo. ‘I went downstairs and found Mr Crocodile…’ ‘I can see you look very distressed Mr Punch,’ Elliot lied. ‘Perhaps if you skip to the part where you claim that Mr Crocodile attacked you.’ Punch disappeared beneath the ledge of the puppet-show stall and promptly reappeared with a skipping rope. ‘Well,’ the puppet began, whilst skipping, which Elliot considered quite impressive considering surely the thin rope couldn’t pass through Bobbo’s wrist. ‘Mr Crocodile came at me, after he stopped coming at Judy…’ ‘Saucy bugger!’ replied Judy’s voice from beneath the stall. ‘Shut it woman!’ Punch replied. ‘So anyway I picked up my truncheon and started whacking off…’ Thank Tartarus the young are innocent, this stuff is outrageous, Elliot thought. Elliot was not so innocent. ‘You tried to defend yourself Mr Punch?’ ‘Exactly, with my big truncheon. That’s the way to do it!’ ‘And after that you…?’ ‘Well after I finished beating off Mr Crocodile,’ Punch replied in a squeaky voice, to which Elliot rolled his eyes in despair, ‘I told him that if he ever uses his jaws on my dear, dear wife again then I’ll have his skin for boots.’ 13


Andrew D. Mellusco If only you had feet you wooden skipping freak, the defence attorney ruminated. ‘But you were in fear of your life,’ Elliot continued, using the term “life” in possibly the loosest sense that it has ever previously been used. ‘Very, very scary it was too. Sharp teeth has Mr Crocodile. Once I found scratch marks on the inside of Mrs Judy’s…’ ‘Thank you Mr Punch,’ Elliot quickly interrupted rising to his feet. ‘No further questions Maestro.’ ‘Sure?’ Gonzo queried. ‘Very, absolutely sure.’ Elliot had been at Blackstone & Associates for a number of ring-years now and, although the job had its ups and downs, he could at the very least depend on receiving quality work. Such was the reputation of his uncle Asmodeus Blackstone’s law firm. This case, however, was a stark reminder to the young lawyer as to how varied the assignments at the firm actually were. The firm was located deep within Arbor’s root structure in Tartarus; a region of the World-Tree where all the banished Angelic, of which Asmodeus was one as well as Elliot’s father Raphael, were sent following their side’s defeat in the Caelum civil war that occurred more than a thousand ring-years ago. Since that time Asmodeus had successfully established the first law firm to predominantly represent and, in those cases that demanded it, defend Human interests around Arbor. A civil war in the celestial realm of Caelum, high up in the boughs of the World-Tree, occurred because there were those who disagreed with the Caelum consensus; that the polluting, resource consuming race should be subjugated. The dissenters on the other hand believed that the Humans, with their capacity for ingenuity, compassion, passion and vision, should not be treated any differently from any other Arborian race. Asmodeus knew that there was another way to help the Humans besides eternal conflict and so Blackstone & Associates was born. If the Angelic could not win over the 14


Swansong for a Sibling fight for Human destiny with a fiery sword then perhaps he could do so by pressing for their right to freedom and equality amongst the rest of Arbor’s established and varied inhabitants. For Elliot, the choice to join his uncle’s law firm was a relatively simple one. At the ring-age of twenty-one, having just completed his law schooling, he was as idealistic as any other graduate was at that age. Coupled with this was the fact that he understood the need for those with power to protect the weak, however erratic their behaviour may sometimes be, for although his father was originally an Angelic from Caelum (albeit banished to Tartarus) his mother, Sophia, was Human. Elliot Blackstone joined Blackstone & Associates because he was Half-Human, and had he been of a fate-believing disposition then he may have suggested that his future could never have gone any other way; a chance meeting with the great Judge Hallbjorn, a travelling law bringer from Atlatia, when Elliot was but a boy was just the clincher. Yet never, in all his twenty-nine ring-years upon the World-Tree and all his long study and training, hard toil and erudition, did he ever imagine, beyond his wildest musings, that one day he would be representing a glove puppet. But for his sense of humour, he may just have started crying. ‘Mr Bubbles you may now call your witness,’ Judge Gonzo called. Usually Criminal hearings followed specific rules and procedures. First the prosecution would make its case, during which the defence would have an opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses the prosecution had called. The defence would then make its case whilst granting the prosecution the right to question its witnesses. It was all orderly, and more importantly, inscribed within the specific jurisdiction of the particular realm. Though there may be the odd differences, for example, the mode of addressing the judge or what a litigator was expected to wear, generally all Arborian criminal proceedings followed this format. All except the clown court of Maestro Gonzo’s travelling circus. Elliot had surprisingly discovered 15


Andrew D. Mellusco this fact having been asked to call his one and only witness (Punch) at the beginning of the trial, even before he had made his opening statement. At least this should be a short one, Elliot had considered in consolation. Mr Bubbles, Elliot’s opponent, didn’t so much have a skill at litigating as he did the ability to astonish the jurors, which was made up of every one of the fifty-three travelling circus performers, with his talent for juggling six coloured beanbags whilst making his case. This may have been a rare gift had Mr Bubbles’ assertions been relevant, but alas they were not. This made Elliot sigh that ever bit deeper, for the juggler would finish his speeches by catching his last beanbag in his mouth, before spitting it out, and with outstretched hands conclude with a ‘ta da’, to the jury’s riotous applause. Elliot’s noncircus-skilled efforts only received a slow clap from a bearded woman in the third row. Had Elliot not hidden Mr Bubbles’ beanbags during a short but distracting intermission, in which five Dwarves performed a slapstick fire-guards-tackling-a-long-hose skit, the clown counsel may actually have fared better. Mr Bubbles tentatively rose to his feet with a bemused look on his face. ‘The show must go on Mr Bubbles,’ Judge Gonzo called noting the clown’s trepidation. Mr Bubbles stared back at his ringmaster and moved his hands up and down alternately in a juggling like fashion before shrugging his shoulders. ‘Balls!’ Judge Gonzo replied. ‘Surely balls in the absence of beanbags?’ he continued snapping his tongue out to point towards Bubbles’ dressing room. ‘Objection, your Honour!’ Elliot called, ‘is the whole…’ whilst moving his hands up and down in a juggling fashion, ‘really necessary?’ The judge turned and gave Elliot’s opposition an enquiring look. ‘Well, erm…’ stuttered Mr Bubbles. 16


Swansong for a Sibling ‘…Because,’ the Half-Angelic interrupted, ‘it’s not really a Law type… thing… prerequisite… whatever… your Honour, Judge Maestro Gonzo, ta-da,’ concluding with jazz hands much to the relish of the juror-spectators. ‘Sustained. Mr Bubbles, please proceed with your examination,’ directed the toad judge. The clown shifted from one foot to the other and, still juggling invisible beanbags, approached the puppet show box the main protagonists were situated behind. Mr Punch slowly sank beneath the box’s stage to be replaced by a particularly irate looking Mrs Judy, whose wooden head had been replaced with one that had puffed out cheeks and a different colour bonnet. ‘Erm… Mrs Judy,’ Mr Bubbles began, lost without his clown props. ‘Did Mr Crocodile attack Mr Punch?’ ‘Yessum,’ squeaked Mrs Judy. ‘Oh…. Erm…. And Mr Punch fought back in… selfdefence?’ ‘Yessum, with his big truncheon, whacking and whacking…’ ‘Oh.’ Mr Bubble’s hands stopped juggling and his right hand reached up to scratch the bald patch of head in the middle of his green wig. ‘Erm, no further questions?’ He continued turning to Elliot with a look of confusion. Elliot nodded his head patronizingly, though not without feeling some sympathy for his opponent. The clown counsel then dropped his hands to his side and shuffled back to the spectators’ stalls where a number of furrow-browed expressions from his fellow circus troupe turned to face him. Excellent, and now for the grand finale!

17


Andrew D. Mellusco Chapter two

Monkey Nuts ‘Work like a monkey, get paid in nuts,’ Elliot said, quite dejectedly, as he dragged his weary form through his office doorway. ‘Nuts?’ Epona replied looking up briefly. She had been at the firm for six months now and was trusted enough to work on simple court drafts, witness summons and evidence bundles without supervision. Not that her mentor particularly worried himself with general supervision anyway for his Centaur trainee had acted so admirably during the trial of Abigail Hood that Elliot believed Epona quite capable of completing the smaller, and admittedly more mundane, tasks without someone hovering behind and peering over her shoulder every half-hourturn. ‘Oh, nuts,’ she continued, eyeing the five conical shells spread upon Elliot’s upturned palm. ‘So you won. Congratulations.’ ‘Yeah, but…’ the Half-Angelic sighed, looking down at his fees payment in disappointment. Epona couldn’t quite understand her mentor’s unhappy disposition and she crinkled her brow in that frown one makes when realising someone else doesn’t really know what’s going on. ‘You have to open them.’ ‘What?’ ‘You have to open them,’ Epona repeated. ‘They’re not tree nuts silly, they’re pearl nuts.’ ‘Pearl nuts?’ ‘Uh huh.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ Elliot crinkled his brow because he truly didn’t. Pearls? ‘I know you don’t… come on.’ Epona rose from the straw 18


Swansong for a Sibling cushioning behind her desk, picked off the odd stalk that had stuck in her skirt, stretched her legs and rolled her hooves around one by one such that her fetlocks clicked, then trotted out of their office. ‘Where are we going Epona?’ Elliot moaned. ‘Brimstones, whiney-head.’ ‘Excellent,’ and Elliot’s frown quickly turned upside down. Apart from the massive yet majestically columned library that was Babel in Liber, Elliot’s other favourite place in all of Arbor was Brimstone’s Bar; located beneath the firm’s conical atrium, at sub-level ten, deep amongst the World-Tree roots of Tartarus where the firm was situated. Tending bar, as always, was William Dante, or Bill to his friends, or Bill the Blind Barman to everyone else, and today he was currently engaged in a challenge thrown down by Fabianus; a Liberan with an encyclopaedic knowledge base who worked out of the firm’s Research and Development legal department. Usually busying himself with his client’s legally challenged patents or funding applications that were subject to strict adherence to statute, today Fabianus, or Fabes to Elliot, was stood propped up against Brimstone’s Bar’s bar rapidly switching the places of five unlabelled bottles of varying liquor with his ten pairs of hands much like a side street hustler playing find the amber with three cups. ‘Ready?’ Fabianus checked. ‘Ready.’ The Barman rolled the tension from his shoulders (much for show than anything else for he wasn’t tense at all), which caused the peaks of his Angelic wings to momentarily bob up and down, and advanced towards the five bottles stood soldier-like in front of him. He then reached out carefully to where the first bottle might be, and felt the welcome cool of fine crystal on his fingertips bringing with it an appreciative smile to his face. Bill turned his right hand so that his knuckles were brushing the first bottle, then like a schoolboy flicking marbles he quickly tapped each of the glass bottles with the 19


Andrew D. Mellusco fingernail of his index finger. A chord of five notes, some dull, some not so, sounded on the air for the briefest of moments. ‘Ah… an excellent selection, Mr Fabianus.’ Like the FireNymph, Fury, in the firm’s Insurance department, Liberans only had the single name, the last four letters of which usually denoted the individual’s gender. Therefore, the simplest way to show respect to a Liberan was to use either Mr or Mrs. ‘I can tell from the chord,’ Bill continued, ‘that the first bottle you have picked out is a fine bottle of Merlot Diavolo, Fury’s favourite, and the second is…’ So he continued, correctly identifying the contents of all five bottles, much to the astonishment of Fabianus, from merely the pitch that they produced when tapped. He then inclined his head to the right as he heard the familiar footfalls and hoof-steps of Elliot and Epona, who were sauntering through the stalag-tabled floor of Brimstone bar. ‘You stole his beanbags!?’ ‘Hid, I hid his beanbags. There’s a difference,’ Elliot replied in his defence. ‘Not very sporting though, is it?’ ‘He was juggling! Fair enough if the assertions coming out of his mouth were… well, legally inspired. But no, he was juggling and spouting nonsense, and… and he was winning over the jury,’ Elliot continued with a puff of disbelief. ‘So you hid his beanbags… and concluded your closing speech with a double mid-air back flip.’ ‘And jazz hands.’ ‘And jazz hands,’ Epona said shaking her head. ‘Well if you can’t beat them…’ ‘Exactly. Hey, Fabes, Bill,’ Elliot greeted as he stepped up to the bar. ‘What’cha doing?’ ‘Mental mapping,’ Fabianus replied. ‘I believe that the only way Bill does what he does is, well, mental mapping, such that he knows what position each item of stock is enough to recover them effortlessly from the shelves.’ ‘But he was wrong?’ Elliot asked turning to Bill. 20


Swansong for a Sibling ‘But he was wrong,’ Bill confirmed. ‘It’s all in the harmonics, Mr Blackstone.’ A knowing grin spread across Elliot’s lips. ‘Can I have a go?’ ‘Elliot, I believe the only way you’d know about glass harmonics is from the shockingly regular occasions when you’re clinking cups toast-like,’ Fabianus mocked. ‘I’m shocked Fabes. Come on do your hundred knuckle shuffle,’ to which Epona had to roll her eyes, ‘and swap the bottles around. I promise not to peek,’ Elliot said closing his eyes. Fabianus had little choice but to humour him, and when he satisfied himself enough that the bottles had all switched places he tapped his colleague on the shoulder and stood ready to berate the roguish Criminal Defence attorney should he fail. Still with his eyes shut, Elliot leaned closer to the first bottle and gave it a flick. ‘Hmm, Convalis Creek,’ he answered, correctly, much to Epona’s amusement. ‘Lucky guess.’ Fabianus huffed. Second flick, ‘Arabilisian Knights.’ Third flick, ‘ah, Merlot Diavolo, Fury’s favourite.’ Fourth, ‘Morgana’s Spiced Rum, nice.’ And lastly, ‘Three Blind Mice, 80 per cent proof.’ ‘Elliot, you truly are an exceptional alcoholic,’ praised Epona. ‘Why, thank you.’ ‘Shocking,’ Fabianus added. ‘Very well done Master Blackstone,’ Bill piped in. ‘So what can I be doing for you today?’ ‘Do you have a nutcracker?’ Epona replied on her mentor’s behalf. ‘I do believe I’m all out of the Nutcracker Prince, Miss Brenwen.’ ‘Oh no Bill, a nut cracker… for cracking nuts, here.’ Elliot reached across the bar and dropped one of the walnut sized nuts onto Bill’s palm.’ 21


Andrew D. Mellusco Without the gift of sight Bill the Blind Barman took a moment to run his fingers across its pitted surface, gently stroked the thin lipped trench that ran around its circumference; where if enough pressure was exerted the two halves of the nut would part, before finally holding his palm up to roughly estimate the weight of the item. Bill then smiled for he hadn’t come across one of these in quite some time. ‘A Pearl Nut, how grand,’ said Bill. ‘Been clowning around have we Elliot?’ he continued grinning. ‘You could say that.’ ‘Work like a monkey, get paid in nuts: an old circus saying, for they actually praise the monkey for not only their acrobatic abilities but for their general good humour, which above all to a clown is what the business is all about – hence Monkey Business and Monkeying Around. As such a particularly talented circus performer will be paid in Monkey Nuts, which is the highest form of payment one can receive,’ Fabianus recalled from his knowledge bank, whilst still flicking the odd bottle in front of him to test whether he could emulate Bill and Elliot’s remarkable skill. ‘Fabes, you truly are an exceptional nerd,’ Elliot replied gently slapping his colleague on the back. ‘Particularly talented at monkeying around, that pretty much sums you up to a tee, Elliot,’ Epona teased. ‘You’re not wrong there Epona,’ Fury agreed. No-one had noticed her come into the bar except Bill who had picked up Fury’s distinctive yet pleasantly subtle scent, much like that of slow roasted chestnuts, that her flaming aura exuded as soon as she stepped through the entrance. The normally irate and irritable Insurance lawyer was today projecting an air that almost bordered on the innocently playful and happy childlike variety, such that Elliot had to look up to find out what was wrong for Fire-Nymphs are always tempestuous and rarely good tempered. ‘You’re wearing a dress!’ ‘Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me, 22


Swansong for a Sibling Elliot,’ Fury replied. But it was true, she was wearing a dress – a strapless knee length number fashioned out of the same ceramic weave, albeit shearer, that covered her couches back home which ensured it was flame retardant. She normally wore trousered body gloves, much like the diver’s suits the coral collector’s off the shore of Arabilis sported, but for a number of clay buttons here and there and perhaps the odd off-centre lapel, so today her colleagues felt that she looked positively naked with her arms and legs and shoulders laid bare to the World-Tree. Her skin, much like that of the Rock Golems that wandered the mountainous regions of Panonia, had the texture of grey pumice which glowed a subtle shade of orange and red from the extremely hot veins of lava that flowed beneath. As her mood was calmer now, her aura was not particularly life threatening or combustion inducing and only the occasional blue flame danced over her limbs and lapped at the edges of her non-flammable attire. Apart from her face, which Fury kept smooth with an application of mineral rich clay, Epona had never seen so much of Fury and was conscious that she was staring at her body longer than perhaps she should be. ‘You look amazing, Fury,’ Epona managed after a few more moments of curious inspection. ‘Why thank you. What do you think, Elliot?’ Elliot found himself with a hint of a sly grin playing upon his lips as he remembered the incident that led to his desk forever baring the marks of her buttocks. ‘Elliot?’ Fury repeated, almost blushing. ‘You look positively radiant,’ Elliot complimented sincerely. ‘And the occasion?’ ‘My, erm, fourth date with Vincent as it happens.’ She was exceptionally cheerful today. ‘Ah, I thought he was unusually absent from his office this afternoon. He must be getting ready,’ Fabianus noted, still tapping his bottles. ‘Fourth date. Getting serious are we?’ Elliot teased. 23


Andrew D. Mellusco ‘We’re taking it slow Elliot, slow, you know… romance? Besides we work together and you know there’s always a risk of it getting weird.’ There was that grin again on Elliot’s lips. ‘Why, Elliot, you’re not jealous are you?’ She sauntered closer to the Half-Angelic and pressed her warm palms on his lapels quite seductively. Epona made a noise that sounded like ‘tishh’ or ‘pishh’, and blurted ‘why would he be jealous, I mean it’s not like he doesn’t go out and…’ and then she stopped when she noticed everyone was looking at her. After a few moments she nervously kicked the floor with her hind hooves, picked up the bottle of Merlot Diavolo, and said ‘I’m just going to go over there,’ before awkwardly trotting off to their usual table feeling a tad embarrassed as she went. ‘Erm, so what are you guys up to?’ Fury asked. ‘Master Blackstone came down here for a Nut cracker, Miss Fury,’ Bill replied. ‘Now where has she got to…’ he continued, ducking behind his side of the bar. ‘Shouldn’t it be Mrs Traum?’ Elliot whispered just enough for Fury to hear. ‘Don’t bother, Bill,’ Fury replied, ‘I’ll crack his nuts,’ while flexing her interlaced fingers enough to send tiny sparks darting from her knuckles. ‘Ah, here she is.’ Bill stood up and produced an animated brushed-silver figurette, much like Elliot’s Valkerie quillholder that stood upon his coffin-desktop, albeit this one was wearing a particularly skimpy bathing suit and had questionable ridges on the inside of her thighs. Bill gave the Pearl Nut to the figurette and Elliot, Fury and Fabianus watched, gob smacked, as she placed it between her legs and did what she was enchanted to do. The figurine then brushed off the bits of shell before stooping to pick up the pearl, which in her hands looked like a beach ball. She handed it to Elliot, who took it thankfully with a wink, before turning and sauntering off down to the opposite end of the bar, but not before turning back to Elliot to blow him a kiss and spank her 24


Swansong for a Sibling own right buttock. ‘I have got to get me one of those.’ ‘You have issues Elliot,’ Fury said shaking her head despairingly. ‘Now where in all of Arbor is Vincent?’

⚖ Above ground, near the patchy grassed area in Delator where Blackstone’s frog porter usually crouched to welcome those not using the Syngraphus portals to enter the firm, a particularly angry swan that had a golden crown on its downy, white head was attacking Vincent Traum.

25


Andrew D. Mellusco Chapter three

Dead Hungry? Hasim could no longer feel his hands. The dock leaves he had used for gloves had worn through the previous day and now the nettles were piercing his palms. Yet, like the self-flagellating warrior monks of the Abura-bō experienced, this was a different kind of pain; the relentless nature of its sting demanding the unflinching attention of the sufferer. The young man would have otherwise broken down before it, curled up into his tattered rags to wait for death to take him. How had he let it happen to him? He had been so careful and always so wary of the fort’s watch and their probing stares. He had hidden the nettles, without doubt... but then. Surely the Princess had not betrayed him? Questions, always the same questions played upon his weary mind when the pain was at its most unbearable, as if finding the answer might be curative. A fresh sting brought him back around with a wince, his hands shaking now and his head dizzy. Must keep going he willed… wanted to shout. If only he could explain. She would understand; such a pure love as theirs always had a room for an abundance of understanding. Two more shirts... should be enough nettles for two. Pass through the pain. Hasim’s cell was modest enough, a bed with a soft mattress and fresh linen atop it, and a clean wash basin to soothe his scored palms. Not unlike his fort chambers before his arrest. Had he known what his love had bartered for these relative luxuries then he may have damned it all and taken to the floor, his head upon cold hard stone with only the nettles of the shirts he had sewn together for warmth. Their relationship was forfeit. He knew that much now. The only time the Princess had visited, during his brief incarceration, her face was awash 26


Swansong for a Sibling with tears. They were tears that concealed an even deeper sorrow beneath her bloodshot eyes. The prisoner had contemplated his sisters then and recalled their own tears falling onto his shoulders as he held them all, corralling them with his now broad manly arms. An overwhelmingly emotional reunion after so many ring-years exiled to their separate fates. Still the sisters recognized him though. He had not changed so much from the young boy who read from the amber crystal book in their childhood. His hair was longer, almost to his shoulders, now broad having filled out along with his chest; the only welcome metamorphosis from his fall to pauper. His facial features were still as youthful as his sisters had remembered. There was a rosiness about his cheeks that gave him an effeminate air, much like their mother. And with his thoughts now filled with the loss of happier times, with his mother and father and sisters, he had joined the Faun Princess in her anguish. Together they held one another until fatigue then sleep swallowed him whole. When he came around she was gone, and he knew that he would never see her again. But for the knowledge of the fate of his sisters, Hasim would have taken his own life there and then. Death seemed to come so eagerly to him he had once believed. His first hunting trip almost ended his life; his first kill came upon by a bear of such size that it took Hasim’s breath away. Only a sidestep to tumble down a ravine had saved his life from the charge of that frenzied beast, nothing to say of the inches missed almost dashed by the ravine’s rock face as he fell. The first time taking to one of his father’s fast-attack feluccas was not without its peril either, when a boom whipped across deck near cutting him in half. Then the practice duelling pistols, meant for him, misfiring and taking the hands of his teacher. It was not that he was clumsy or careless. His father had ironed out enough of those childish traits, before his death, to ensure his son’s ascension was a suitable one. It was just that Hasim somehow attracted peril, so much so that there seemed 27


Andrew D. Mellusco to be some malicious design to his ring-life. Death... with so many near scrapes, was he still fearful of its touch? He put his materials down a moment and with great strain took to his feet and slowly advanced, so as to ease the aches to his thighs, towards a mirror the other side of his barred cell. He gazed at his face, still the reddish tint about his cheeks from over-exertion no doubt, and the anxiety of fighting off those wincing responses to the repeated stings, but something else also. It was as if a decade of World-Tree rings had rooted about his temples and forehead. Perhaps Manawayat, Lady Death, was speeding her grip upon him by unnaturally ageing him. His eyes were bloodshot and the unblinking progress of his endeavours had turned once emerald pools to a dull grey. He looked away from the mirror to examine his hands and nails. No longer manicured to their usual standard, these were hands that had worked and toiled and scratched at the roots of the World-Tree. Had his father still been alive then there may have been pride for Hasim, for what the young man had become following his exile in this realm of mud and cold and rain. Then back to the mirror, picturing himself roping it with his linen enough to bring it crashing down, a shard of glass close to the bars enough to slip through, and the glass piece sharp enough to open his wrists. He wanted so much to end the hopelessness. Your sisters, think of your sisters a voice spoke within him. It was the same voice that always pleaded out at his most anguished, the tone of the voice not unlike that of his mother. So with only the memory of his loving sisters to keep him going, he rallied and returned to his needle work and the nettles strewn about his feet; the foliage looking as if Arbor itself was trying to claim him. As Hasim returned to his work, Silenus, the head warden of Arcadia and chief gaoler, regarded him with suspicion from the other side of the mirror. Why nettles, why weeds? he thought to 28


Swansong for a Sibling himself, irritated that his investigation thus far had yielded no damning evidence against the young man in custody. The primary charge of witch-trickery would not be enough without hard evidence and he knew that he had to find something that would stick, something that would have the man burn. Maybe The witches could help him, the warden considered almost against his better judgement for the witches were a herd left to themselves; arcane remnants of when Panonia believed in the oil-soaked sap and not the roots of the World-Tree as it did now. Yet there was little choice. He had to know what the prisoner was not telling him. Silenus had to get intoxicated, fast. He picked up his goblet of ambrosia, laced with a substance not meant for legal consumption, and gulped down the remaining mouthfuls. The gaoler savoured the warmth the liquid exuded as it slipped down his throat. As the concoction coursed through his body, he found the tips of his fingers start to tingle. Closing his eyes Silenus let out a soft purr of satisfaction, his tail curling in upon itself. A cold sweat suddenly broke across his brow and his eyes flashed open. The drink was taking effect and the Faun’s usually golden brown eyes succumbed to the dilation of his pupils, drowning them in pools of scarlet. He looked down at his hooves but they seemed unusually far away, as if his legs had been extended by several calf lengths. As he looked about the hidden monitoring room the walls slowly began to pull away from him, the corners disappearing and it seemed the room was being unfolded into a smooth canvas. Mist emerged around the furniture dissolving he pieces on touch. Silenus felt engulfed in a thick expanse of fog, which brought with it the smells of the barrows at the boundary of the Arcadian stronghold. He was being taken to the witches. The fog began to dissipate and he emerged hovering over a number of broken tombstones. The figure of the prisoner was tearing at the ground between them, uprooting fistfuls of nettles and stuffing them eagerly into a hessian sack that hung from 29


Andrew D. Mellusco his shoulder. From the edges of the graveyard a number of Witches of the Oil Sap emerged, their horns aged and cracked, their unattended hooves slowly succumbing to hoof rot; the cavities filling with moss and mush-fungus. Hasim heard their approach and quickly hid behind a stone sarcophagus for he couldn’t bear to watch the witches partake in their evening ritual. Neither could Silenus for that matter. Yet the Faun warden had to see the conclusion of the vision or risk sleepless nights filled with images of rotting flesh being torn from bones, of decaying skin being shredded by witch’s teeth; his imagination always conjuring something more graphic than reality when left to wander. So he allowed the scene to continue, a curiosity developing in him as he watched Hasim leave his hiding place and approach the witches and pick up after them, the black robed Fauns paying little regard to the Human in their midst. The gaoler’s head jerked once, then twice, and then the fog returned blocking out the sight of the prisoner collecting the nettles as the witches around him dug up the bodies of the dead. Silenus screwed his eyes tight, and tensed his body as if the act could push the tainted ambrosia out of his skin. The mist dissipated and the room began to reform. The prophetic vision was over and he had his answer: Hasim, at some point in the not too distant future, would leave his cell and consort with the Witches of the Oil Sap in the desecration of the dead; a criminal charge for which the Human would surely burn.

30


Swansong for a Sibling Chapter four

Five Siblings Huddled atop a small island the size of an upturned rowing boat five sisters clung, naked but for the thick eiderdown lined shawls that were draped across their shoulders, the only protection from the lashing rains and the howling winds of the maelstrom that thundered around them. The youngest was sixteen ring-years of age and she gripped her eldest sibling’s arm so tight, and tighter still every time a great bolt of lightning flashed across the clouded night sky, that the oldest almost lost the feeling in her forearm. She knew she was hurting her sister, but she knew Nadia would not protest. She would let go in time, when the storm died down, but for now the warmth of her sister’s skin provided a welcoming comfort. ‘Tell us again, sister, of how our brother used to read to us,’ the youngest whimpered. The oldest looked over the faces of her kin, some of which shed small tears, others with their heads tucked under the nape of their shawls. They were all afraid. The crossing was getting harder as ring-year followed ringyear. But no crossing had been more important than this one. ‘Close your eyes now,’ the eldest began. ‘Such a sweet voice he has, gentle, but with such regal authority beneath, like our father’s. We believed every story he told us and even the ones that didn’t come from the book. Do you remember the book?’ and she paused then, as she recalled from memory their reading parlour and the crystal plinth upon which the book rested, and herself and her sisters huddled together before their brother’s feet as he softly read to them… It was ten ring-years ago, when Nadia was thirteen ring-years 31


Andrew D. Mellusco of age and her brother was seventeen; he being tall enough now to reach the precious volume that adorned the centre of their reading room, as if it were some holy tome laid open upon an Al-Kahen’s alter. More important than his height, however, was that he had reached an age enough to be entrusted with the most precious object in the realm. Rumoured to have cost half a realm’s wealth (though modesty kept the owner from revealing which realm) the 234 pages of Tatar’s Book of Wondrous Tales were crafted from the purist sheets of polished Amber. Etched upon each folio were stories of myth and legend, tales from when the WorldTree was but a sapling, such as the Greedy Woodpecker that told of how Arbor’s oceans came to be. The young man opened the pearl-inlaid covers of the book, ran his fingers across the calligraphic text which had been delicately chiselled into the first page, complimented by borders of lovingly illustrated characters, such as Nymphs and Unicorns and Centaurs, all bejewelled and filigreed. He looked up at the reading room’s glass domed ceiling and smiled for rays of summer sunlight were cascading down upon him. Inspired, he raised the book carefully so that the first page was directly underneath the dome, and with a slight alteration in angle he caught a ray of light upon its surface. Immediately a burst of golden colour painted his attentive audience, and the characters adorning the first page danced from sister to sister through the translucent amber. The youngest sister, who was but six ring-years back then, clapped her hands in delight and held out her palms as if to catch a wondering Faun from a beam of light. The sister next to her put out her hand and snatched the creature away, and all the sisters and their story-telling brother laughed great giggles. Then suddenly the Prince put a finger to his lips, hushing his excitable siblings, leafed through to the middle of the book and lowered his eyes. ‘Do you know of how the oceans of our World-Tree were created, dear sisters?’ 32


Swansong for a Sibling All of girls shook their heads in response for they had yet to hear that story. And as the younger ones curled up upon the softest of cushions and as the older sisters played at braiding their hair the Prince read of how a great crested bird called the Skyamsen, greedy for the rich sap deep within the WorldTree’s trunk, pecked four great hollows upon Arbor’s surface. ‘But after three attempts the Skyamsen had still to reach the sap from which it would takes its fill, and so for a fourth attempt did he try. Pecked and pecked for hundreds and hundreds of ring-years did the great bird until, fatefully, its beak broke,’ their brother continued. The second youngest sister put her hand to her mouth in shock. ‘The bird cawed out in pain and thrust into the air, its rainbow coloured wings the span of continents pounded the dawn sky and when it was at its highest the bird gave out a terrifying screech which shook all the clouds of Arbor into raining, for they were all frightened.’ …‘And all the clouds all at once cried tears of fear and the hollows became flooded with their waters.’ All but Nadia and the next oldest sister were awake, for despite the thunder that rang out around them the rest of the girls were now sound asleep. ‘I remember him telling us that story,’ sighed Sakinah as a bolt of lightning illuminated her face. ‘How naïve we were back then.’ She cast a resentful look at the body of water that threatened to sweep them away with every rise of its swell. ‘Not naïve, just happy,’ Nadia replied. Before he came for us, she thought. ‘Do you think she made it?’ ‘She is the fastest, but…’ ‘But the shore was half a day away.’ ‘She’ll make it.’ Nadia spoke with assurance in her voice, for her sake it seemed more than her sister. ‘Junah the sunrise-chaser,’ Sakinah whispered, then closed her eyes and slept. One of the twins to Nadia’s left stirred to which the eldest 33


Andrew D. Mellusco pulled her shawl tighter around the girl’s shoulders. More protection for the younger ones. She cast her eyes up to the heavens and caught sight of starlight. A tear, then another, welled at the corner of her eyes and quietly she huddled beneath her own cloak her arms still wrapped around the sisters to her right and left. They would survive the crossing. As the storm died around her, she knew they would live but still she cried for her brother and the sister that was racing toward the Port Delator. May you always be one beat ahead of the setting sun, Nadia wished before she too descended into a deep sleep.

⚖ As the storm raged above its surface, six fathoms away suspended beneath Archipelago’s Cradle, the vast ocean encompassing the islands and desert plains of Arabilis, L’Angelinie lay, her arms opened out and her splayed fingers tracing small wakes in the waters around her. Her long blonde locks fanned out around her head like a thousand Slip-Glass sea snakes, each strand moving nervously as if aware of the ruminations spilling about the Mermaid’s enquiring mind. She looked up and away towards the surface and contemplated the great underwater mountain that terminated in the small island the daughters of the Humans had sought refuge upon. She recalled her youth spent ridge running the rock formation with her cousins. A perilous pastime for the salt in the waters had cut the mountain folds into sharpened razors. One race had ended in her slicing her arm open from wrist to elbow after a particularly daring overtaking manoeuvre. After L’Angelinie’s three cousins had swam her back to her father, and to a harsh reprimand, they were warned against such recklessness and she was warned to be wary before swishing headlong into such perilous endeavours. Though the wound of that race had long since healed, her father often reminded her 34


Swansong for a Sibling of the repercussions of underestimating the mountain’s savagery. Yet as she looked up she could not help but think how kind it could also be, in providing the island above, the sole piece of land for three hundred leagues around, and nurturing an underwater ecosystem which fed her realm below. They’ll bring him here. So far away but soon he shall be here and we shall be together. She then kicked her tail out and propelled herself down towards Mermadom at the bottom of the sea.

35


Andrew D. Mellusco Chapter five

Cygnus Clienta Vincent leapt into Elliot’s office, hair dishevelled, the right cuff of his shirt torn, and with an angry adult swan snapping at his heels. He looked out of breath yet was conscious enough to decide not to double over at the waist to gasp much needed air into his lungs, mainly for fear of his backside being bitten. Elliot looked upon his colleague with a look half of bemusement and half complete incredulity. The word ‘why’ was forming on his lips but an equally vexed Epona, rising to her four hooves, snatched the lawyer’s attention away. ‘No sudden movements, Epona,’ Elliot advised in a calm manner much removed from his Sandman friend. ‘They can be vicious, pretty but vicious... a bit like Fury.’ ‘Hey!’ Vincent objected. The swan seemed to shake its head in disappointment before advancing towards Elliot, a certain purpose in its waddle, which made the lawyer slowly lean away from his desk. The bird stopped a few webbed feet from Elliot, swayed slightly and, with what looked like a great amount of effort, unfurled its wings to full span and flapped them forward in three swift thrusts. The resulting gust of air sent a set of particularly tiresome precedents on Delatorian legal timeframes, bundled in a loose leaf folio entitled Limitation for the Limited, scattering from the surface of Elliot’s coffin top. The young attorney was growing quite grateful for this strange distraction. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be on a date with Fury? What’s with all the...’ Elliot asked waving a hand from Vincent’s distressed apparel to the equally distressed looking swan before him. ‘Well, as you can imagine,’ Vincent began. ‘I was happily minding my own business, thinking of Fury...’ The Sandman 36


Swansong for a Sibling seemed to phase out, lost in musings of a romantic nature, of Fury and her soft porous glowing skin, of her warm full lips… ‘Focus.’ Elliot rolled his eyes. ‘Minding my own business, as I said, when this... psychotic, vicious...’ ‘Honk,’ interrupted the Swan. ‘…when it just started attacking me. Must have been following me for two streets before launching its bloody, unprovoked...’ Vincent tried to continue between repeated honks from the bird’s beak. Elliot, with an ever widening grin, caught himself thinking back to the banks of the river Ladwa in Arabilis and the amusing sight of one of these majestic creatures running terrified from an enthusiastic baby Fire-Nymph not yet three ring-years old. The child was all teeth and maniacally uplifted cheeks of joy, perhaps of the mind when I get you, I’m gonna ride you, gonna get you, and the swan with wings flapping wildly, waddling enough to outpace its pursuer, perhaps of the mind always on a blessed rest day. Elliot imagined the roles reversed and transposed upon the two protagonists in his office; Vincent as the child being chased, the Dream-Runner’s arms flailing like a toddler and the swan giving chase, emitting a subtle honk-honk as if chuckling to itself. Elliot concluded that it was definitely more amusing. ‘So you didn’t try to, you know?’ Epona asked, nodding her head at the swan’s golden crown. ‘Well, hmm, odd thing for a swan to have don’t you think?’ ‘Shocking. And you didn’t notice the message tube tied to its neck?’ ‘Actually, Elliot, I did. That’s when I lost the cuff,’ Vincent replied, holding up his shirt sleeve and flapping it pathetically in front of him. ‘There are fresh shirts behind the dress mirror. Help yourself, unless Fury likes the rough and tumbled look,’ the young attorney offered, knowing full well that was exactly what Fury liked, or lusted after, which were conveniently 37


Andrew D. Mellusco analogous inside Elliot’s often debauched head. Whilst Vincent flicked through his colleague’s extensive range of shirts, some shockingly gaudy, and others courtroomattire conservative, Elliot withdrew from behind his desk and knelt in front of the swan. The gesture wasn’t out of respect for the crown, and that was a curiosity he had still to satisfy, but was for want of proximity, to feel a closeness to something that inexorably drew him towards it. Elliot could open up his Half-Angelic senses such that he could feel the desires of any mildly inebriated female half a bar’s length away, as was the manner he often employed his gift. Yet animals remained a mystery. Perhaps it was obvious they should have remained so for there were simply another set of behaviours to interpret and unfathomably unfamiliar emotions to analyse, not to mention the language barriers, as Elliot had yet to learn how to speak swan... though he could speak sparrow as well as gutter-rat, which Vincent liked to tease him about. All emotions though outwardly displayed, and for Elliot inwardly readable, were essentially only discernible by attaching the appropriate label to them. Thus the exhilarated feeling the lawyer got from another’s increased heart palpitations he could easily attach the label ‘nervousness’. And though this relatively obvious association could be reached by anyone mildly empathic enough, in Elliot’s case the ability was innate and never incorrect. He could close his eyes and bathe himself in the emotions of five separate individuals in a packed auditorium of five thousand if he wished. Elliot couldn’t read swans, could never read them, but he could read this one. In every fibre of his being the HalfAngelic could feel the swan’s trepidation, its tiredness and its urgency, which all ultimately begged the question: how? ‘She has so much sadness in her.’ ‘How do you know she’s a she,’ Vincent asked while struggling with a metro-sexually, tight-fitting, salmon-pink, dress-shirt that didn’t at all suit him. 38


Swansong for a Sibling ‘How do you know she’s sad?’ Epona added with a hint concern in voice. She took a tentative trot forward, conscious of not wanting to startle the creature. ‘I just know,’ Elliot replied looking up at his Equinmare trainee with a furrowed brow and eyes that seemed to look through Epona, as if to peer into a realm of reality where emotions had substance. ‘I shouldn’t know, but somehow I do.’ The swan looked exhausted now and she slowly bent her long neck forward and lowered her head. Tears began to well at her eyes before falling with a soft pit-patting sound upon Elliot’s knee. Epona felt her heart break at that moment and had to struggle to swallow the lump growing in her throat that would otherwise have started her sobbing. Even Vincent, who had paused momentarily from his struggle with Elliot’s shirt, one arm in while the other still out, stood solemnly with his mouth half-open as if ready to utter some word of support. The swan then shuffled forward slightly, raised her majestically crown-topped head to meet Elliot’s gaze and then collapsed into a weak feathery heap upon the lawyer’s lap. Elliot gently removed the message tube from the exhausted swan’s neck before beckoning his trainee over to cradle the bird. ‘Still breathing,’ Epona confirmed with relief. The slow rise of the swan’s chest felt soft and gentle upon her bare arms. ‘How do you think she’s come to be in such a state?’ ‘Don’t look at me. She had enough energy to jab at my ankles when she came after me.’ ‘Of course, Vince. Vincent Traum: Harasser of Swans... You know that’s a crime in some realms.’ ‘You should know, Elliot,’ the Sandman retorted. ‘Good point.’ Best to concede that one, thought Elliot. The attorney returned to his desk and examined the tube, rolling the delicately carved silver cylinder between his palms. His Valkyrie pen bearer who had been following the action closely left her ink-pot post and sauntered closer to Elliot’s 39


Andrew D. Mellusco hand, reaching up to his forefinger’s edge enough to hoist herself up on her toes for a closer peek. ‘Not now, babe,’ Elliot whispered before playfully flicking the bronze bottom of his favourite stationary accessory, to which the Valkyrie and Epona both rolled their eyes in despair. Elliot carefully prised the top from the tube with his thumb nail and tipped the now open end towards his desk top. A soft rustling preceded the fall of a rolled sheet of parchment that unfurled slowly as it glided to a rest in front of the lawyer. He gently picked up the message for he could discern some form of scrawl on its underside, turned it over slowly, leant back in his leather upholstered recliner and began to read. Two unnaturally long minute-turns of silence followed. Though both of his colleagues were curious as to the contents of the message, Epona occupied herself with stroking the downy head of the swan as if it were that of a sleeping child, while Vincent tried to satisfy himself that salmon-pink really was his colour in Elliot’s dress mirror. Elliot closed his eyes and took a deep breath. How is it I never get normal cases? The message was indeed a new instruction. He rose to his feet and looked at Vincent, then shook his head for salmon-pink wasn’t the Sandman’s colour. He then turned to Epona who looked up at him with more than a hint of inquisitiveness. ‘I’m... hmm... I’m just going to see Fabianus,’ Elliot announced sidestepping the knelt form of his swan-cradling trainee to make towards the door; the message back in its tube and tucked in his waistcoat. ‘I hate it when he does that,’ Epona sighed, craning her neck to watch her mentor disappear into the corridor outside their office. ‘This shirt really isn’t me, is it?’ Epona sighed again and considered Vincent a moment. She then shook her head. ‘No, Vincent, that shirt is definitely not you.’

40


Swansong for a Sibling Fabianus was precariously balancing ten heavy leather bound law reports in his ten pairs of hands, stood atop a set of stairs that looked far too small for his bulk, when Elliot rounded the corner into the firm’s law library. Elliot loved libraries, as did his Liberan colleague. Both of them found it innately humbling to stand before racks and stacks of tomes, upon which the knowledge of ages threatened to topple over them in waves of fiction, fact and rhetoric. The only difference between the HalfAngelic and the Liberan was that the latter never had to revisit a text once finished, owed much to his race being lucky enough to possess photographic memories. Elliot on the other hand had a memory like a sieve with a great big hole in it and would often have to pull out a dusty, old volume, much to his pleasure, when a precedent had slipped his mind. ‘Need a hand?’ ‘I have twenty, Elliot, any more and I’d have to re-tailor my waistcoats.’ Fabianus pushed his slug-like body up a notch, the Liberan equivalent of standing on tip-toes, to tuck the first of his books back into its shelf space. ‘What do you know about swans?’ ‘Swans?’ ‘Yes, swans.’ ‘Didn’t take you much for a bird lover, not the ornithological kind anyway,’ the Liberan replied with snigger. ‘Humour me.’ ‘Swan, or Cygnus, is from the water-bird family known as Anatidae. An adult swan, usually white feathered in plume mate for life, they’re monogamous, Elliot, not that you’d understand.’ Harsh, Elliot thought yet let his colleague, who spoke as if reading from an encyclopaedic entry, continue. ‘A female can birth a clutch of between three and eight eggs, which hatch into Cygnets. Usually the young swans start out a dirty grey colour before giving way to their white feathers in later life. This transformation has been used often in literature as being symbolic of attaining beauty with age. Whilst they do migrate to Arcadia they are exclusively 41


Andrew D. Mellusco indigenous to Arabilis.’ ‘Exclusively,’ Elliot interrupted. ‘So there are no swans in Delator?’ ‘There are no swans on this whole side of the World-Tree, Elliot.’ The Half-Angelic attorney flopped into the nearest chair and did his staring into the distance thing he did when the cogs of his mind were whirring. ‘None in Delator?’ ‘Nope, not unless it’s stuffed, which is illegal under Arabilisian trade law, for swans are protected in that realm.’ ‘Hmm, Fabes, I’ve got one in my office.’ Elliot’s statement caused his colleague to involuntarily slide down a step, upsetting Fabianus’ hold on the remaining books so he could grab onto the handrail to keep himself from falling. The volumes landed on the library floor with seven dull thuds in quick succession. ‘For Kumuheas’ sake, Elliot, you don’t have to make fun of me,’ Fabianus snapped. ‘Is everything okay? You seem unusually unenthusiastic.’ The Liberan, head bent low and his twenty thumbs twiddling in nervousness, for anger was much out of his character, squidged into the chair opposite Elliot and let out a slow sigh. ‘Sorry, Elliot, it’s just… well… Labiana is expecting at the end of the month and my head’s in a bit of a spin.’ ‘Fabes, that’s amazing news. You work fast you old stud you,’ Elliot teased while lightly jabbing at the Liberan’s belly, which Fabianus was feebly trying to deflect with three of his hands. ‘Please, Elliot, I’m not in the mood.’ The Liberan, looking as if the whole of Arbor was burdening his shoulders, rested his head on the table in front of him and closed his eyes. Elliot could sense the unease and weariness in his colleague comparable to those feelings felt by the swan currently being nursed in his office. The young attorney rose to his feet and 42


Swansong for a Sibling then took a knee in front the Liberan. I’ll have to get knee pads, he briefly thought, or figure out a way of showing sympathy while standing. ‘I can think of no better a person to be a father. You have the kindest heart in this firm. And because of that it has always been an honour to work with you and to call you my friend.’ There was sincerity in Elliot’s voice and in the small gesture of him placing a hand upon the Liberan’s shoulder that made a smile appear on Fabianus’ face. ‘Smooth talker.’ ‘I know.’ ‘No wonder Epona…’ ‘Epona what?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Seriously, Epona what?’ Elliot repeated. Fabianus unflopped his head up from the table and looked at Elliot with a keen twinkle in his eyes that wasn’t there before. ‘Do you seriously have a swan in your office?’ Elliot folded his arms and nodded in reply. ‘It was also carrying a message tube. Like the ones tied to the legs of the Pegasi, only substantially smaller.’ ‘Well that seems unlikely. Swans aren’t carriers; they can’t be because they only know how to fly between Arcadia and Arabilis. And you couldn’t hope to train one because no-one can take one out of Arabilis, that’s illegal. They wouldn’t know how to navigate, Elliot.’ ‘She does.’ Elliot returned to his seat, brushed a hand through his hair and puffed out his cheeks. ‘There’s another thing. You know I’m Half-Angelic?’ ‘The wings were a surprise though. Quite a public way of revealing yourself.’ ‘Ah, the thing with Malaphar last ring-year, well, the occasion called for it. Anyway, I’m able to read people, sense their feelings, their fears… their loves,’ Elliot continued with a raise of his right eyebrow. ‘Deviant.’ 43


Andrew D. Mellusco ‘Quite. So I can read most people, but not animals. I’ve never been able to.’ ‘But?’ ‘But I can read the bird in my office.’ Fabianus lifted his bulk out of his chair and pulsated back to the shelves at the far end of the room picking up the books he had dropped as he went. ‘Then it... sorry, she, is not a swan.’ He spoke with his back to Elliot and was adeptly placing the volumes in their correct spots having regained some of his focus. ‘If you can’t read swans, Elliot, but you can read her then logic dictates that she’s not a swan. She just appears to be a swan.’ When he had slotted the last book into place he turned around to find Elliot gone. ‘I hate it when he does that,’ the Liberan whispered to himself. Then a small grin spread on his lips as he recalled the lawyer’s kind words to him. Elliot did have some redeeming qualities. Not many, but some.

⚖ ‘Uncle, I have a swan for a client. She may not be a swan, which is why I’m taking the afternoon off to visit a vet. She’s paying by golden crown apparently, which should cover the cost of most of the preliminary work. Just thought you should know.’ Asmodeus peered above the rim of his octagonal spectacles to the entrance of his office but his nephew was already making his way down the corridor. ‘Don’t forget the conflict check, Elliot,’ the senior-partner of Blackstone & Associates shouted after him. Elliot was already out of earshot. ‘Note to self,’ he dictated quill in hand. ‘Must get counselling for Elliot.’ Asmodeus then crossed out the note and returned to his court bundles. ‘I hate it when he does this,’ Asmodeus sighed, hoping Elliot wasn’t about to alienate the firm from another monarchy. 44


Swansong for a Sibling Chapter six

Compromising Elliot stood in the doorway of his office, leaning against the door frame, watching his trainee gently stroke the swan’s head. Never that normal here, he briefly thought to himself, a worry playing about his mind that was now dampening his usually jovial disposition. If someone had gone to the trouble of enchanting themselves into a bird just to fly to Blackstone’s faster, it obviously concerned no trivial matter. The message tube that was tied around the swan’s neck could easily have been delivered by Pegasi, no need really for such drastic measures. ‘She’s sleeping,’ Epona whispered looking up at her mentor. ‘What do think?’ ‘Bit weird really. Vet?’ ‘Well, whether truly a swan or not, she’s a swan for now so a vet it is.’ ‘What’s wrong, Elliot?’ ‘Nothing, just, well... a bit weird really,’ Elliot replied with an emerging smile. Weird was definitely his thing, weird and drinking... and women... preferably women who drank... lots.

⚖ ‘Vincent! You look...’ ‘Do you like it?’ the Sandman replied, turning a slightly effeminate twirl. ‘No, not really. It’s awful. Elliot’s?’ ‘Yep.’ Fury rose to her feet and sauntered over to Vincent with a blazing sort of passion behind her eyes. Vince read the sign 45


Andrew D. Mellusco well and caught her embrace as she slid both her arms around his waist. Her lips, warm and glowing, brushed his teasingly at first before she pressed them upon the Sandman’s with a predatory hunger. ‘What happened to yours?’ the Fire-Nymph whispered into his ear as she slowly pulled away. ‘Ruined by a Swan.’ ‘You’ve definitely been hanging around Elliot too long.’ ‘Hmmm, well I’d rather be hanging around you.’ ‘Just hanging?’ ‘Maybe a little lying too.’ ‘I’m actually not that hungry... we could always…?’ Fury suggested not particularly needing to finish her sentence. ‘The Syngraphus to Delator, less chance of bumping into anyone on the way out the office,’ Vincent replied taking the Fire-Nymph’s hand. ‘Good plan, we are supposed to appear to be taking it slow.’ ‘There is that.’ ‘And you don’t want anyone else to see you in that shirt.’ ‘Would you stop...’ then Vincent caught sight of himself in Fury’s mirror that hung by her doorway, ‘actually it is pretty awful, the Portal it is.’

⚖ ‘It’s a swan.’ ‘Wow, Vicki, seven ring-years of vetological school obviously paid off.’ ‘As funny as ever, Elliot, using humour to compensate for your lack of...’ Vicki replied with a hint of sarcasm, flicking her eyes down to his crotch. She was tired and when she was tired she was cranky and when she was cranky Elliot loved teasing her and Vicky always replied with something equally mocking. Such was theirs that kind of relationship. That last one was quite literally below the belt though, gauging by his 46


Swansong for a Sibling trainee’s small spurt of a chuckle in response, so Elliot decided to call it quits for now. Vicki was slightly older and slightly taller than Elliot and ever so slightly tomboyish, the latter precluding any kind of romance between the two given Elliot was a bit too boyish anyway. But they did flirt for he still saw the vetologist as attractive and intelligent, two traits the HalfAngelic Attorney greatly admired in the fairer sex, and she could also drink, which he admired even more. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ Epona asked. ‘Just exhaustion, perhaps some dehydration, and most probably a bit of malnutrition as well, looking at its chest.’ ‘She, it’s a she,’ Elliot corrected. ‘Very good, Elliot,’ replied Vicki, ‘never pegged you for a bird lover, not the ornithological kind anyway.’ ‘Fabes already used that one.’ ‘I’d recommend rest and some food and water, plenty of water, when she wakes up,’ the vet prescribed. ‘Nothing else?’ Epona enquired. ‘No, if what Elliot told me by Candlelight is true, and she just appears to be a swan, then anything pharmacological I could administer might have adverse effects when she transforms back into her original form.’ ‘Can she...’ Elliot asked pointing to the rear of Vicki’s surgery. ‘Fully booked I’m afraid. It’s been like a veritable Ark around here lately, something seasonally nasty is making the rounds.’ ‘I’d offer to put her up, Elliot, but I might roll over and squish her... which would be bad,’ Epona added. Elliot remembered the incident with Jack last ring-year and nodded his head in silent agreement. Squishing clients was definitely not on the top of his agenda. ‘Then mine it is,’ the young attorney sighed. He’d have to prepare the spare room, which was a chore and he didn’t much like those. ‘Well thanks, Vicky.’ ‘You’re wel-’ 47


Andrew D. Mellusco ‘...For being no help at all,’ Elliot continued. ‘Swine, get out before you infect any of my patients with your deviancy.’ ‘I guess you would be an authority on that matter.’ ‘You wish. Drinks soon?’ ‘If you’re lucky, bye, Vicky,’ the attorney concluded with a flourish as he made for the waiting room in front of the surgery. ‘Bite me!’ Vicky called out before turning to Epona. ‘I’d watch that one, scoundrel that he is.’

⚖ Vincent popped his head around Asmodeus’ office door, a desperate Fury still clutching his hand out of sight. ‘Is there something wrong with the Syngraphus? It’s not working.’ Asmodeus looked up from the stack of papers he had been considering all morning and afternoon to eye the Finance lawyer a moment then returned to his reading. ‘You have to throw the capsules at the wall, Vincent,’ he replied having astutely noticed some bat’s blood on the Sandman’s collar. ‘I did, three in fact but they didn’t work.’ ‘Have the Mages in maintenance look at it. Fury, can I tear you away from Vincent for a moment?’ the Senior Partner continued still eyes-down at his desk. Fury gulped nervously then popped her head around the door frame as Vincent’s disappeared. ‘Any conflicts in representing the Mers against Aqulaim?’ Fury did a quick mental check then answered in the negative. ‘Nope, our retainer with that marine insurer ended some time ago, why?’ ‘The Mers had another claim rejected, so they want to consider suing, or going to war with the company, or sinking the next ship that drops anchor on any more of their conchhomes... whichever is easiest for them it seems.’ ‘I’ll make contact and discuss the options with them.’ 48


Swansong for a Sibling ‘Excellent. Take Vince with you, maybe he could gauge their response to an offer of some re-financing advice... gold coins, sunken plunder and pearls locked away in chests can’t be working for them as well as they could or should be.’ ‘Okeydoke,’ and her head disappeared out of sight as she and Vincent skipped down the corridor giggling. Asmodeus took off his glasses, pinched the nape of his nose and massaged the inner corners of his eyes then retrieved another loose sheaf of parchment. ‘Memo,’ he began, again quill in hand, ‘inter-office romances... are... fun.’ Although he realised the risks of coworker dalliances he did realise that they were often a benefit to those partaking in them. As such, he couldn’t bring himself to write anything otherwise which would be writing something he didn’t believe to be true, quite a rare quality for an Arborian attorney. He sighed, slipped his glasses back on, and continued reading, whilst wishing and hoping that Vincent and Fury would make it work. After all, they were a cute couple. ‘I’ve never been to Mermadom before.’ ‘Me neither,’ Vincent replied, ‘are you going to be, you know, all right?’ he continued looking her up and down. ‘You mean will I fizzle out and die if I submerge myself in water... because I’m a Fire-Nymph?’ Fury answered with a wrinkled brow in mock confusion. ‘I know, stupid of me. Fire-Nymphian...’ ‘Very good.’ ‘Thanks. Fire-Nymphian biology-’ ‘Geology, it’s complicated.’ ‘Exactly, it’s not my strongest subject.’ ‘Not yet anyhow,’ Fury teased before biting the corner of her bottom lip. ‘Focus.’ ‘Gladly,’ still biting her bottom lip. ‘I said fo...cus.’ ‘Oh. We can take the Bubble down from Arabilis, let’s just 49


Andrew D. Mellusco hope the Delatorian Syngraphus is working otherwise we’ve a long journey ahead.’ ‘I best get back and pack some things up then,’ Vincent added tentatively. ‘I’ll help you, meet you topside in half-an-hour turn, just have to make sure nothing’s left outstanding before I go swanning off to Arabilis.’ Vincent nodded and kissed her ever so tenderly on her cheek, which warmed the Fire-Nymph’s heart considerably. ‘See you soon, pretty eyes.’ And as Vincent turned and walked away, Fury watched him longingly and thought that, oddly at first for she hadn’t felt this way for some time, their relationship had to work.

⚖ ‘You two have an interesting relationship. You ever… you know?’ ‘No, she likes animals more than people.’ ‘Oh!’ ‘Not like that,’ Elliot clarified with a chuckle. The duo were making their way back to the attorney’s home, both eager to bed down the swan before anyone noticed them with it. Private possession of that particular Arabilisian protected species was illegal, especially out of Arabilis, as Fabianus had pointed out, which is why Elliot had the majestic bird hidden in a baby wrap at his chest instead of being borne upon Fury’s back. The Equinmare felt a hint of broodiness as she caught sidelong glimpses at her mentor. Elliot felt his back ache. ‘By the way, what was on the note? The one she was carrying.’ ‘Not much, here take a look,’ Elliot replied retrieving the message tube from his jacket pocket. Mr Elliot Blackstone, 50


Swansong for a Sibling We are in dire need of your services. Our brother

is

currently

being

detained

in

Arcadia, Panonia, on suspicion of witchtrickery.

He has been denied counsel and

we fear that without your help he will surely burn. We know your heart to be true and that you will fight our cause but in case payment is of issue then please accept the golden crown as compensation for your time. With hope, and faith, and the Eyes of the Great Creator protecting you,

‘Web print,’ Epona pointed out. ‘Yeah, cute. The script does get a little messy towards the end.’ ‘She uses “our” and “we”; family perhaps?’ ‘Could be.’ ‘More like her?’ the Mare’ess asked flapping her arms briefly to which Elliot couldn’t help himself a small smile. ‘Maybe.’ ‘Not saying much are you?’ ‘She’s not a duckling you know. She’s heavy,’ Elliot 51


Andrew D. Mellusco replied with a struggle. ‘Wimp.’ ‘Oh, no.’ ‘What?’ ‘It’s Madame Payne, don’t wa...’ but Epona ignored him and gave the Vampyre a wave. The seductress smiled and then seemingly glided over to join the lawyers; seemingly given that Epona couldn’t see her feet move beneath the hemline of the ball gown she was wearing, and also noticed no discernible bob to her step. Elliot knew that in fact Madame Payne had two left feet and walked much like someone with rickets, it was just that her vampyric hypnotising talents allowed her to project herself walking normally, or hovering, which was far more vampish. She was also talented lying down, but the Attorney didn’t know anything about that, honestly. ‘Miss Brenwen, Elliot,’ Madame Payne greeted. ‘Has Sister Stalk finally delivered us our bundle of joy? ‘Wrong species I’m afraid,’ Elliot managed with a nervous chuckle. ‘Oh well, there’s still time you know.’ ‘Lucrecia, I don’t think the World-Tree would be safe with a baby Half-Angelic-Vampyre flying around and biting people.’ ‘Hmm, perhaps you’re right, why spoil what we already have.’ ‘But w...’ ‘Shhh, Elliot, it’s ok, I’ll always be at your disposal; costumes on standby,’ Lucrecia Payne whispered touching a finger to the Lawyer’s half open lips. ‘Perhaps you could make a Pegasi with Epona?’ causing the Equinmare to trip her left front hoof on a cobblestone. The Vampyre seductress then threw Epona a quick wink before, seemingly, gliding past them. ‘Now you two definitely have an interesting relationship, Elliot.’

⚖ 52


Swansong for a Sibling

‘I love packing,’ Fury purred. ‘Me too,’ Vincent replied rolling over to his side of the bed, newly discovering that it was the left since he had never really had a side before, being a bachelor and all. ‘This isn’t too fast is it?’ ‘Who cares?’ The Fire-Nymph turned to face sidelong at the exhausted looking Sandman. She tongued her top lip playfully then singed off one of his few remaining chest hairs that had survived in the armageddic aftermath of their coupling. It had been a while for both of them. Vincent feigned disapproval by sulking. ‘So what do you want to call our children?’ ‘Ha ha.’ ‘Seriously,’ Fury continued seriously, ‘you do know Nymphs conceive first time every time with a new partner?’ Vincent’s eyes flashed open and he snapped his neck so sharply to meet Fury’s gaze that he cricked it a little. A long half-minute-turn passed, his jaw agape, her expression unchanging, before an evil grin spread across the FireNymph’s mouth. ‘Unbelievable.’ ‘Too easy.’ Fury giggled mischievously as Vincent slid an arm underneath her neck and rolled her close to him, breathing in her hair, enjoying the warmth of her face upon his neck. ‘Apparently the Syngraphus isn’t working to Arabilis so we’ll have to take a boat. Exciting huh?’ ‘Who told you that?’ ‘One of the Fairies in accounts, what’s her name? Vera, you know the one with the big wand.’ ‘The scary one with the spectacles?’ ‘Hmm, so I went down to check when we’d last invoiced Aqulaim...’ ‘And?’ ‘Long ago enough that there’s no conflict in us bringing a claim against them if need be, so my conflict search can be 53


Andrew D. Mellusco ticked. Anyway, that’s when Vera told me we’re pretty much sunk if we’re without a ship to get us over the Delatorian Strait and through Archipelago’s Cradle.’ ‘Can’t we just stay in bed? I can sail you to paradise underneath these covers,’ Vincent offered. ‘Cheesy, one of Elliot’s?’ ‘Maybe,’ the Sandman half-admitted. ‘And what will you do?’ ‘Assess their assets. Scrutinise their ledgers... all the boring stuff.’ ‘Royal ledgers? Oh dear,’ Fury sighed, remembering their work together on the case of the Carmen Speculum. ‘I’m sure everything will be above board, no pun intended.’ He felt her lips form a small smile. ‘Yep, as boring as usual.’ ‘I should pack an easel for the crossing; it’s been a while since I painted a sky from the ocean.’ ‘O’er the hills and far away,’ Vincent sighed. ‘I hate sailing.’ But Fury was drifting off on a dream of sienna sunrises bursting upon blue horizons and the smell of sea-salt on the ocean spray. The Sandman, grateful to be in close proximity to a sleeping soul for sake of his own sanity and serotonin levels, pulled the bed covers over the both of them and closed his eyes, eventually succumbing to a dream-realm filled, oddly enough, with swans. Swans and fire.

⚖ Epona had left a couple of hour-turns before, having briefly consumed a rushed dinner at Elliot’s, and was eager to get back to the office to collect her document bag and travel saddle. Elliot, a thick volume on Arcadian Theoretical Criminal Justice entitled Pan’s Legal Labyrinth resting on his chest, the gilded spine glowing by the light of the fireplace, was feeling his eyes go heavy when a dull thud sounded from the guest bedroom. Probably a nervous twitch from its feathered occupant winging the bedside lamp he thought drowsily closing his eyes again. 54


Swansong for a Sibling Then came the unmistakable footfalls of something more ominous and distinctly less avian-like. Although only half to his senses, Elliot twisted his head and rocked his chair backward enough to glimpse past the hallway father-time piece to the guest bedroom door. The ornate handle, crafted in the likeness of the Scales of Justice atop the court house of Compenso, twisted this way and then that before the catch released with a click. ‘Hello?’ Elliot called softly not quite knowing what to expect. No reply but the eerie creak of an old door being pulled inward. Then quite suddenly the door flew open with a crash revealing a weary looking young girl of perhaps sixteen ring-years of age, draped only in an eiderdown shawl, her modesty uncovered owing to her hands propping her tired form between the door frame. Elliot fell over backwards in his chair much to the girl’s amusement. ‘I see we have something commonplace.’ She pointed a dainty digit towards Elliot’s sprawled body and the white wings upon his back. The maiden stumbled forward and threatened to fall but for the Attorney’s Half-Angelic reactions catching her mid-flop. Through a dry mouth and hoarse throat she whispered ‘water’ then passed out in Elliot’s arms. He managed to shoulder her weight to the living room couch where he gently laid her down, adjusting the shawl as if a blanket upon her. He then rushed to the kitchen to run a glass of water. When he returned he found Epona, standing in his entrance way, staring dejectedly at the young girl sprawled on her mentor’s couch. ‘Sorry, I should have knocked... I didn’t realise you had...’ she said quietly whilst scratching at the porchway nervously with her hind hooves. ‘It’s not what it looks like,’ for so often for Elliot it usually was what it looked like. ‘She’s...’ ‘You don’t have to explain, Elliot.’ The Equinmare’s eyes lowered as if embarrassed as she turned to leave. ‘Really, it’s not. It’s the swan, I mean the swan is her, I 55


Andrew D. Mellusco mean she is the swan.’ Elliot was conscious he was gesticulating wildly between the empty guest bedroom and the living room couch. Epona turned back slowly and trotted towards the unconscious maiden then lowered herself onto her side to stroke the young girl’s ebony locks. ‘Is she okay?’ ‘Vicki was right, she seems dehydrated. And hungry no doubt.’ ‘I’ll fix her something,’ Elliot’s trainee offered hopping to her hooves and brushing past him to the kitchen. Elliot took her place beside the couch and tested the girl’s pulse. It was faint but present. ‘All packed?’ Elliot called amidst the odd clang and clash of pan and crockery. ‘Almost, just showed up to tell you the Syngraphus to Arabilis is out of action. We’ll have to arrange passage by boat, hopefully one that’ll take us on to Arcadia.’ ‘Great, more much needed time wasted.’ Outside Elliot’s house five sisters were peering over the ledge of his living room window jostling for a better viewing between urgent whispers as to who was going to knock upon the attorney’s door first. As always it fell to the eldest. Elliot left the girl a moment as it wasn’t the first time a comatose girl sought solace in his sofa’s embrace, the lawyer thinking back to Snow White and bringing to the fore a memory which made his jaw tingle. He quickly inspected the bedroom the maiden had emerged from only to find nothing untoward. He thought he heard Epona call something out but was too lost in his ruminations, stood in the middle of the room as if a channelling psychic, to really pay any great attention. It was a different kind of crash that roused him enough to dash back to the living room. He found five half-naked sisters sprawled over Epona, who had apparently been rushed to the floor upon opening his front door. Epona bent her head back and innocently proclaimed, ‘it’s 56


Swansong for a Sibling definitely not what it looks like,’ to an upside down Elliot. ‘I’ll get some more water.’ The Half-Angelic attorney sighed, eager for some sleep, betraying the slightest hint of disappointment in the denial of a decent snooze. ‘I’ve never had a slumber party before.’

57


Andrew D. Mellusco Chapter seven

A Grand Equation How Ahban loved to reminisce about torture. ‘I’m telling you I do not know anything?’ ‘You see, now how can I trust you, my friend... you are my friend, yes?’ ‘Yessss, I am your friend.’ ‘Well how can I trust you when you begin with a lie?’ ‘But I was not-’ ‘Surely you know the sky is blue...’ ‘But...’ ‘And that the middle moon is the largest at the Trilunary?’ ‘Ye-’ ‘Then you do know something. So you were lying,’ and so Ahban Nazeer broke the prisoner’s middle finger. A scream tore through the chamber and reverberated off the half-domed ceiling and spilling into the other chambers where those not yet screaming would soon be. Then, as expected, the tears and pleading started. ‘Tell me where they are?’ ‘I don-’ ‘And don’t tell me you don’t know.’ Typically at this very early point in the proceedings a hint of inner conflict would start to penetrate into the prisoner’s mind, that survival instinct kicking in after the receipt of such searing pain, the body desperately begging the head not to succumb to any more. Ahban liked to be right up close to their faces then, his head animatedly moving as he examined each of their eyes, the beads of sweat slipping down their foreheads, their lips pursed as if holding back. Which way would they go? Continue denying or reveal all. But they nearly always 58


Swansong for a Sibling revealed all, or something; the Arabilisian tolerance for pain not being incredibly high. The prisoner’s lips began moving and as if one were connected to the other a cruel smile spread upon the torturer’s wide thin mouth. ‘I swear...’ oh dear, for swearing always preceded some form of denial, ‘by the Creator,’ and swearing upon the Creator! Ahban clapped his hands together. This was going to a good one. ‘…That, when they return your head will be the first to fall, lamp wielder,’ the prisoner spat. How surprising Ahban thought as he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. This one evidently knew far more than he was telling. He knew far too much in fact. And so he stuffed a rag into the prisoner’s mouth, for this would otherwise be ear-destroying, and broke all nine of the man’s remaining fingers. The advisor passed out. ‘Don’t worry,’ the torturer whispered. ‘I will be here when you wake up.’ He stroked the prisoner’s beard then, almost caringly as if to express ‘we are all in this together, we are going to get through this’. Ahban knew he was of course but things were not going to turn out okay for the Prince’s chief advisor. It began four-and-a-half ring-years ago, during the period after a military coup had seized control of Aviditas, in the wealthy capital of Arabilis. Little blood was spilt as the citizenry were not staunch supporters of the Leading Seich enough to take up arms against the vicious Ebony Guard, so the transition of power was a relatively easy one. It happened just as Ahban had promised the Grand Vizier. But there was a powerfully faithful few, those that had accrued much amber during the short reign of the Prince, who would not be silenced without some encouragement. Two weeks after the coup the Grand Vizier, under the advisement of Ahban Nazeer, had the Prince and the Princesses publically declared enemies of the state and were to be exiled. The families fell into line after that, all of them. 59


Andrew D. Mellusco One thing, however, had not been foreseen; the escape and disappearance of the children. On the day they were to be exiled Ahban had argued for their execution but the Vizier had stayed his hand. And then the situation got away from him. He was always so meticulous, so precise in his calculations, how had he not accounted for that anomaly? It was no good. He had to find them and silence them or risk them returning and reclaiming the thrones or, worse still, risk his losing the support of the Vizier and the military. Prisoners followed prisoners, and the screams bellowed below the capital for half a ring-year. The advisor was the last, caught chartering a felucca to Delator, and in the end he did give up all that he knew, which subsequently raised more problems than previously envisaged. Ahban would have to return to his calculations and the children of the Sultan would have to wait. No mistakes this time, everything would be accounted for; all eventualities. Of course he could have wished for their capture and incarceration, but he only had two remaining and how precious they were back then. The first was sought by all but attained only by a blessed few; Immortality. ‘Do you know me?’ he had asked of the Grand Vizier at the first of many secret meetings. ‘I do.’ The general was a man of few words. ‘And have you heard what they say about me?’ The Vizier was stretched out upon his rug while two young Arabilisian women applied a vigorous four handed massage to the General’s back. ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you believe what they say about me?’ ‘No.’ ‘And if I gave you reason to believe?’ The Grand Vizier shrugged off the masseuses and waved them away from his tent. He contemplated the once humphorse-trader with curiosity. How had this simple con-man, a brigand, managed to inspire such reverence? ‘Then you would 60


Swansong for a Sibling surely be a valuable ally. Please sit, drink.’ And Ahban did so, and drank from a cup of the purist of poisons, and didn’t die. ‘And now I believe. What is it you want of me?’ ‘No, grandest of all Viziers, what is it you want from me?’ But wishes always came with a price. Ahban was immortal and couldn’t die but he found that he could still bleed. What good was living forever if he could still bleed? Or be injured, or worse, be maimed. An eternity as a cripple was a harsh forfeit for such a wish as life never-ending. So his second wish was for invincibility. The lamp wielder bled no more, for nothing could scratch the surface of his skin, not even the serrated arms of the Ada’Manti. How truly great he was now. It wasn’t until the passing of another four ring-years that Ahban Nazeer spent his final wish. The Genie had asked of him thrice whether he was sure of this one, to which he replied thrice in the affirmative. There were too many variables even for an Arabilisian such as him to account for, and after hourturn after hour-turn tweaking formulae and equating for even the tiniest of eventualities, and with an ever suspicious Grand Vizier ruling the land, Ahban was no closer to securing the capture of the Prince. ‘Are you sure this is what you wish?’ ‘It is.’ ‘This power has been known to drive lesser minds to madness.’ ‘Lesser minds Genie, but not mine. Grant me what I wish.’ The Genie fully emerged now from the lamp and hovered at full height. Such power within that great frame yet tempered by a humility that was even more awe inspiring. The blue tattoos that covered his skin as if clothed in satin print glowed gently; all the forces of time threatening to expel from them with such an energy that would overwhelm the whole of creation. Yet the Genie remained floating, arms crossed, unflinching. ‘Then repeat your wish Ahban Nazeer.’ The lamp wielder did so and the Genie, with an imperceptibly small smile upon 61


Andrew D. Mellusco his dour visage, granted it. Ahban returned to his chamber with a stinging pain searing across his back. Tearing the robe from his body, he stood straining his head to glimpse his naked reflection in his washroom mirror. Across his shoulders and down his spine, above his kidneys, and in the spaces in between, the blue markings that had adorned the body of the Genie tattooed themselves painfully into his once impenetrable skin. It seemed that whilst he was still immortal, and that his flesh would suffer no permanent damage, he could once again bleed. When at last his back was covered a blinding cacophony of noise and light like the birth of a sun burst within his head and he lost consciousness. He awoke three sunrises later with a terrifying lucidity, no longer the need for sap clay to order his thoughts. The lamp wielder pulled himself to his feet and dragged himself to his study. He surveyed the parchments that covered every space of the walls, contemplated the scrawls upon each, the symbols and letters and numbers which before, although incomplete, seemed to make sense. Yet now they made him nauseous. Ahban violently tore the documents down‌ all of them. In a pyre, as if funereal, he burned his work. And as the smoke rose he thought he could see the ink scrawling rise from each page untouched by the flames, floating in front of his eyes, spiralling around his head, reforming and switching over to what his grand equation should have been. He spent another four sunrises locked away in his study, bothering not with paper scrolls, taking to the walls directly with the charcoal from the fire. This time there were no mistakes, no strikethroughs and abandoned ideas, half-finished sums and strings un-terminated. Everything calculated perfectly first time. To achieve his goals he needed a war and he needed a lawyer and his grand equation told him with frightening accuracy how to acquire both. 62


Swansong for a Sibling Words were sent to the sea witch and a chain of events put into motion. All Ahban had to do now was wait for the lawyers to drop anchor in Arabilis, and then everything thereafter would proceed exactly as calculated. Impatiently he began counting on his fingers the number of days that would pass before he would be breaking those of the Prince’s. Praise the Great Creator! The days of glory were returning, and with a smile he closed his eyes, stroked his long beard and recalled to memory the advisor’s screams, for how he loved to reminisce about torture.

63


Andrew D. Mellusco Chapter eight

The Dumb Price He was nearing, as was the time when she would need legs, and it had been so long a time. But there would be a trade. Strange that the witch would request that particular item as payment, the same item that sank the night she had met her beloved. ‘Daddy, I’m going out for a swim.’ ‘No racing the ridges, and no...’ but L’Angelinie had already swished past the palace walls. She was fast and agile given her petite frame and her streamlined form and strong tail fin propelled her through the water with both grace and speed. ‘Under the S- Oh, hey honey,’ her favorite lobster. ‘Where are ya cousins?’ ‘You know them, Johan, always chasing tail.’ How’re you?’ ‘So, so. All this kelp does be getting’ in ma claws.’ ‘Such lovely claws though.’ ‘There is dat. Well you be gettin’ off now, and stay away from...’ ‘I know.’ Sweet Johan, always watching out for her ever since the first of her scales started shedding. She would miss him the most. There were her cousins and her father too of course, her mother having passed some time ago, but she had already played out the goodbyes in her mind a thousand times and in essence she was already gone in spirit. They’d never understand. A Human and a mermaid; it was almost too cliché for words, the taboo of the five seas now scoffed at for there was never a man to take a fish wife or ever a Mermaid whose draw to the ocean wasn’t absolute. And yet L’Angelinie had always daydreamed of legs and of living beyond the waves. As a young Merminnow she used to slip salvaged ballet shoes onto 64


Swansong for a Sibling the tips of her split fin and shuffle around awkwardly, like a debutante in her first calf-hugging ball gown. Her own conch, separated from her father’s pool (Mermadom term for ‘estate’) was gifted to her when she came of age. It provided a welcome retreat from her cousins and the school of hussy-fins that constantly trailed in their wakes, and was given over every inch to those items from the Human realm that she had managed to salvage. Little finds of lost treasures, a silver hand mirror here a trinket box there, conjured a life so far removed from the shell and coral and sea water that seemed to erode everything not living to a ghostly white. Sometimes the stray monogrammed neckerchief would allude to a past and L’Angelinie would then fill in the void with her imagination; some Princess pining for a handsome Prince to swim to her rescue from an amber inlaid hair brush with a stand of brilliant blonde still clinging resolutely to its bristles, or a young maiden preparing for her first prom from a crystal broach. The items seemed so distant now from their previous uses but no less glorious for she kept the memories of their former owners alive. Better that than laying them to rest under the sand with the bodies that once bore them. There was a momentary shift in the undersea current and the brief chill of cooler water flowed past her. It shocked the Mermaid from her daydream, of him, and whispering curses she dived back down to her conch. It must have been the excitement for how else would she forget the one thing that would help her go to him. As the young Mermaiden passed back within the city limits she felt both rebellious and saddened; the former for following her heart when others would have forbid it and the latter for what she would miss of this realm: The schools of young being swam to school as coral fronds drifted to and fro as if waving at them. The great hump-back Leviathan, huge transports to those deeper depths when they weren’t rising for air and casting shadows on the sea bed like the hulls passing above. The always jovial clown fish entertaining the crowds, and the 65


Andrew D. Mellusco octopi carousel she had enjoyed riding as a Merminnow, whirring around and around, the constant threat of a vortex ever increasing the screams of merriment from those lost in wild abandon. Then there was the Bubble, how she loved the Bubble, miraculously produced from a narwhale’s blow-hole, of a size and keeping oxygen enough to bring those visitors without tail or fin or gill down to her underwater world. The craw-crabs the size of conch homes tirelessly pulling at the nemo-net lines that kept the Bubbles from being loosed off up and away before the occupants’ decompression journey time had completed. How she wished to be rising like those she glimpsed. There were Wood-Nymphs the Water-Nymphs would call driftwood, perhaps out of some jealousy for the former’s solid form and substance. Rotund bean counters from Arabilis, who always looked as if their minds were elsewhere calculating trade returns with their Great Creator. Then the Equinpares and Equinmares, who constantly seemed distressed for, as one stud had once told her, “you can lead a Centaur to water but dragging it fifty fathoms beneath the surface was an entirely different kettle fish altogether”. Ah, to be a tourist. L’Angelinie swished back to her home in no time, stopping briefly to admire her garden of previously abandoned oyster shells now given new purpose as well as the lattice like sponge fence that circled the perimeter. She felt sadness then as she remembered the marble statue that used to adorn its centre, removed by her father for reasons of obscenity. ‘But it’s just the Human form, daddy, please!’ she pleaded, but he always failed to see past the lack of loin cloth and absence of decency, quite ironic given the Mers’ lack of modesty when it came to all things apparel. She had spent ring-years admiring the statue ever since it had fallen from above as if it were a clipped-wing Angelica that had plummeted from grace. It had landed with the softest of thuds, considering its size, causing fine sediment to rise from the sea bed in a soft cloud. When the sand had settled the 66


Swansong for a Sibling statue was standing in front of her conch-home and in its arms was a mariner so close to Depth’s doors. Wary that all those not visiting via the Bubble and logged upon entry were usually accused of sub-version, she took it upon herself to gift him sanctuary in her shell. For two tides the mermaid brought him air bubbles battered from a former acquaintance now turned customs O’fish’al, until the sailor had regained enough strength to follow her to an undersea cave and to the surface thereafter. And, bathed in tri-moon-light, they had shared their first kiss. She waited on him for ten more tides and brought him kelp weeds to sustain him as the mariner scanned the horizon for a passing ship to pick him up. Before one appeared the young man swore his love to her and promised to return. The following month he came back, this time by Bubble, but a sad look was in his eyes for war was threatening the seas far to the east and he had once again been pressed into service. They had lay together that night, their embraces soft and gentle. That had been four-and-a-half ring-years ago. So many tides ago. The statue had served as a reminder of their love for each other and so she built and planted a garden around it. Her family teased her of course but she had become adept at ignoring them. But her father in turn could not ignore those rumours that labelled his daughter a biped lover. So he went to the King-Fisher and the Monarch declared that all such statues and likenesses of Humans were an affront to undersea decency. The Mermaid’s was the first to go in order to dispel the disquiet more than to discourage his daughter’s growing passions. But no amount of sea water could quell the fire in the young Mermaiden’s heart. She had screamed and yelled and threatened to swim far away as the statue, the symbol of her love, was dragged from where it stood tearing up the garden surrounding it. In anger she secretly released the King’s prized racing hippocampi and vowed that she would go to her love for how could she be anchored to an intolerant realm? And even if it meant denouncing her tail and all the swishings it came with; 67


Andrew D. Mellusco it mattered little as what was the point of wanting to be a Princess if she was denied her Prince. The item, previously hidden in a secret niche in the base of the statue, L’Angelinie had sea-squirreled away in an old mariner’s trunk beneath her oyster-bed. The Mermaiden retrieved it with ease remembering those stolen tide-turns coveting its beauty soon to be sunk to distant memory. She was always dazzled by its perfection, its polish, and whilst the occasional streams of light from far above were few at that depth it still caught what little there were and turned them into a spectacle of colour splashed across the inner walls of her shell home. It would be hard to part with it but she knew that it was the only way to escape. ‘Tell me again child, what is it you want?’ ‘To be free of this underwater world. To walk upon two feet. To be with my love.’ The sea witch’s cave was dank and its waters murky and stained with ink from its inhabitant. An odour of rotting fish was infused into the rock, and bones that weren’t of the seabound lay bunched in recesses as if offerings to foreign deities. Others were wise to heed the warnings attached to the cave and its occupant, and only a very desperate few ever ventured into its confines; never to be heard from again. It was L’Angelinie’s third visit, and perhaps her resolve had given her an inner strength at first, but now she felt anxious. It was just the nerves she told herself, nerves and that unfathomable feeling of passing through to where there can be no return. A suckered tentacle slowly emerged from the darkness and hovered in front her, silently swaying as if a sea snake hypnotizing its prey. The tip slowly stroked the Mermaid’s cheek, and it was all she could do not to yelp and swim away. Her heart pounded. Another tentacle joined the first and pawed at the other cheek. The Mermaid held her breath. She had yet to set eyes upon the witch’s face. She had only heard her voice 68


Swansong for a Sibling and the soft sucking sounds of those padded appendages echoing from the cavern walls. Grim stories had painted a horrific image of the witch; an aberration possessing a humanoid upper body just as the Mers but coupled with the monstrous body of an octopus, six more of those tentacle arms protruding from her bulk. But it was the stories of her face that were far more disturbing. A deformed beak for a mouth stretching from ear to ear, strong enough to snap the biggest of bones, and huge saucer like eyes devoid of pupils big enough to catch sight of prey in the darkest depths. L’Angelinie held her breath now as those myths flooded her mind and her eyes desperately wanted to shut but too wary of those arms upon her face to do so. ‘Did you bring the item?’ the voice from within the cave’s darkness softly purred. ‘I have brought it,’ L’Angelinie replied swallowing hard. ‘Good, good. Such a good sweet Mermaiden. And you remember what I told you?’ ‘I can never return to my realm once I set, foo...’ the words came harder now, as if they were taking a substance of their own that lodged in her throat, ‘once I set foot on land.’ ‘Yes, yes, the price of the transformation.’ It was a price she would gladly pay a thousand times over, for a return to her realm meant that love had failed, and if love had failed then there was little point in living. ‘There is one more thing I require.’ ‘But I thought...’ ‘Shh, shh.’ Those tentacles still stroking her face as if calming a distressed child. ‘Just one final act on your part. Think of it as a test of your resolve.’ L’Angelinie’s shoulders sank and her head dropped a little. The arms backed away slightly to give the Mermaid room to contemplate, or perhaps to change her mind. As her fingers tightened around the item she was holding, her body began to tremble. She had resigned herself to her fate at last and she was ready to give over anything or die in the process. Into what 69


Andrew D. Mellusco depths am I descending? ‘Anything,’ she whimpered, ‘please, anything. What more do you want from me?’ ‘Just your voice, my dear sweet child, just your voice.’ And, as L’Angelinie’s blood chilled, one of those saucer-like eyes appeared from the gloom. A scream welled up within her but before she could release it two more of those suckered arms lashed around her body and tail and pulled her into the black heart of the cave. It was the last anyone saw or heard of the Mermaid ever again.

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Swansong for a Sibling Chapter nine

Pyjama Party From left to right, eldest to youngest, sat Nadia, Sakinah, the twins Yaminah and Fadheela, and then Asalah. The sixth sister Junah, still exhausted, lay across their laps. All were as beautiful as their mother had been. Raven black hair crowned each of them, shorter for the twins, as they liked to consider themselves unique from their sisters, yet of a style equally striking. Oval faces with high defined cheekbones, their skin a radiant tan, smooth as Arabilisian marble. Curious eyes but soft as if from some sadness, atop which dark elegant eyebrows were raised waiting for Elliot to begin. The attorney had offered them each a set of checked jimmy-jams while their shawls were tumble cleaned in the kitchen, and it very much looked like the girls were worn out from slumber party pillow fighting shenanigans and ready for hot cocoa. Epona wondered why exactly her mentor kept so many bed clothes but ditched the train of thought as it was becoming increasingly lewd. ‘I got your message,’ Elliot began, ‘and naturally...’ ‘And naturally you have many questions,’ Nadia finished, ‘but, Master Blackstone, there are not enough grains of sand this night to answer all of them.’ ‘Are you talking about the time frame for your brother’s trial?’ ‘Yes, and no. Each night time is against us for when the sun rises we...’ ‘You turn into swans,’ Epona guessed. ‘That is right,’ Yaminah and Fadheela replied in unison, to which Elliot shifted in his seat a little, and Junah allowed a small smile from the reaction for often had the twins agitated those not used to their synchronicity. ‘Who did this to you?’ Elliot and Epona asked. Everyone 71


Andrew D. Mellusco grinned and Elliot offered a placating hand towards the twins. ‘Our apologies, we don’t mean to mock, we just share the same concern.’ ‘It matters not about our condition, only that of our brother’s,’ Sakinah affirmed, emulating the strength of her elder sister. It was clear that she and Nadia continued to shoulder a huge responsibility in keeping their siblings safe. ‘I understand. Panonia is subject to the same treaty in respect of Humans and their rights, and our first move will be to assert this. I have a contact in Arcadia who can assist us before we make landfall there. She can temporarily go on record as acting in defence of your brother.’ Elliot quickly made a mental note of the time difference and satisfied himself that Alexis would still be awake to answer her candlelight, if of course she wasn’t busy buffing her hooves or brushing her tail, both of which she did frequently. ‘When was the last time you saw your brother?’ Epona asked, a quill ready in her hand as she took notes of the, albeit unorthodox, consultation. Asalah shifted as if uneasy then dropped her head, her hair hiding the tears that were gently falling down her cheeks. ‘I understand this must be difficult,’ Elliot said, and then waited a moment for the sisters to compose themselves enough to continue. Asalah recounted when they last saw Hasim, how healthy he looked though seemingly preoccupied with thoughts unknown to the sisters, which was quite out of character. She should have guessed something was wrong but how happy they were to see him. He was dressed in fine garments not of their native land but of Panonia and Asalah remembered Junah giggling as she pointed out the sewn up rear of his tunic where a tail would otherwise have been poking out. The brother’s hands looked raw, and the embraces that revealed them, whilst loving and caring, were brief for soon they were behind his back or in the pockets of his robes. But he seemed happy and that was always reason enough for smiles to be shared. So 72


Swansong for a Sibling many it seemed were those occasions when they were all together again as they exchanged affections as if it might be their last opportunity to do so. How cruel the Sun had been that day in rising. And soon the sisters would have to join the migratory flock back to Arabilis and then wait another full semester before they might see him again. They were not unfamiliar with hardships, of past and present, but how had it come to this. Why was the life of their brother once again in jeopardy? ‘You must all be exhausted. Please stay here tonight. Questions may be raised at Sun-up if you were to stay elsewhere and be seen as... in your other forms.’ ‘Thank you, Master Blackstone.’ ‘Please, call me Elliot.’ ‘Thank you, Elliot,’ Nadia replied sincerely. ‘I’ll get in touch with my contact in Arcadia. Epona if you could show our clients to my room.’ Elliot retired to the kitchen where he yawned deeply and rubbed his eyes. It had been quite a day and was proving to be quite a night indeed. He prepared himself a scarlet candle, lit the wick, and then waited. It wasn’t long before the flame flickered. ‘Alexis, it’s good to hear from you too... No, I’m still single... Yes, there’s no surprise there... How are the hooves?... You keep polishing those and you’ll go blind... I know I am.... Look, I need a favour... I know I still owe you for last time... Anyway, apparently a Human has been charged over your way... Ah, good, you’ve been following the case... Everyone has? That’s curious... Could you go on record as acting in his... Excellent, thank you... No don’t bother sending the scrolls through, we’ll be there by the time they arrive here... Erm, yes, just get an extension, depending on our time frame... Great, I’ll see you soon, and thanks again you old goat.’ Elliot blew out the candle and slumped into his chair. ‘Bit rude wasn’t it?’ 73


Andrew D. Mellusco ‘Oh, it’s actually a term of endearment in Panonia.’ ‘What do you think?’ Epona asked. ‘Well we’ve six sisters who are swans during the day, and their brother who is being charged with witch-trickery.’ ‘Do you think he’s responsible?’ ‘No, the way Asalah told it, it seemed that they’ve been that way for some time. Bit worrying though.’ ‘Any relevance?’ ‘Maybe. We really need to talk to the brother.’ ‘The Syngraphus is out of action so we’ll have to take a ship.’ ‘Bloody-Caelum, that’s just typical.’ ‘Worry not! Your trusted trainee has booked us on a vessel that can take us on to Arcadia after a brief stopover in Arabilis.’ ‘Impressive. I just hope Alexis can get that extension. Time really is against all of us it seems. The boat?’ It had been a while since Elliot was on the open ocean and worries about the case aside he was looking forward to this unscheduled sailing expedition. It would give him time to brush up on Arcadian law, and on witch-trickery, which he had little courtroom experience of. ‘A fine ship,’ Epona replied confidently. ‘The finest and the fastest!’

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Swansong for a Sibling

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Blackstone & Brenwen: Swansong for a Sibling