Chapter 1 - "A Visitor In The Night"
Iri Flina sat in the parlor of one of the mansions owned by the Crescents. Her visit in the night, unexpected and unannounced, had caused no small stir, for while she was a member of the Flina family, she was not a part of the Crescent bloodline - nor did she belong to the bloodline of their rivals, the Scardels. No, Iri Flina, who sat in the parlor with her one blue eye uncovered, with an eye patch covering her other, red one, had the blood of both houses flowing in her veins. And to the Crescents, that made her something of an unknown quantity, and one to be treated with caution, and more than a hint of care.
Such contradictions were nothing new to the realm of Darklore. Indeed, Darklore itself had never been a single house. Instead, it was an ill defined amalgamation of various factions. There were the Scardels and the Crescents - the two great houses among the vampire bloodlines. And then there was the Flina family. And the Witches - and the Alethians, and all manner of outcasts, heretics, and still stranger things.
But for the Crescents, their reputation for hospitality remained constant. They were overly fond of manners, and etiquette, and ceremony, for in some strange way, imperceptible to outsiders, these things were all linked to the great Puzzle Game, and to the Night Quiz.
And so they received Iri in the best room, in the formal parlor. Her visit in the night came as a shock to the poor girl who opened the door - being as it was halfway between a visit of state and a midnight knock on the door from a hunted refugee. So she put her in the formal room and told her to make herself comfortable, and to ask if she wanted anything, and then, bowing very low, she shut the pocket doors on her, and went off to ask Kris what on earth to do.
The formal parlor was very dusty, being used only for the reception of formal guests, and it wasn't very comfortable - the furniture had all been selected for the sake of appearances, more so than anything else, but Iri didn't mind. She chose for her seat a fine, old chair, whose winged back was much too upright to allow anyone sitting in it any chance to relax.
She sat with her sword against her left knee, propped against her lap, and turned so that it wouldn't get in the way if she had to get up suddenly, and could even be drawn while still sitting, if needed. This last part was done out of habit. Things between the Crescents and the wayward daughter of the House of Flina may have been strained, but they weren't THAT strained.
She was dressed all in black, the dark expanse being broken up only by the line of embroidered blue roses that ran down either side of her coat, until they became little blue scrolls around the hem of her skirt, and the cuffs of her sleeves, and the edge of her collar. What her coat didn't cover of her neck was modestly hidden beneath a black blouse, buttoned to the top button, and tied off with a bow.
Her silver hair was short, held in place by a series of pins, so that it hung down in several loose spikes. On her left leg was the sign of a bat. It was a birthmark of sorts - from her second birth, as a child of the night. All the members of the vampire societies, whether they were Scardel or Crescent, had such a mark somewhere upon their bodies. In Iri's case, it was on her left leg, perched just above her knee, and turned ever so slightly inwards.
Her chair was beside the fireplace, but there was no fire burning within, nor was there any lamp or candle lit anywhere in the room. The only light was the light of the moon, as it came streaming in through the window panes. But Iri did not mind this either. She could see perfectly well in the dark. And she'd been in much darker places than this.
"The Crescent Kris Flina", the maid announced, opening the doors again for Kris to pass, and then, once more bowing very low, shut them again after her, relieved to have no further part in the matter.
"Cousin . . .it has been . . .such a long time . . ."
The voice in the night was like the draft from a door that had been opened after being shut for a very long time. Or perhaps a forgotten tomb. Kris Flina made a striking sight, with her silver hair, as she stood in the moonlight, its white gleam, along with the pallor of her skin and the red tint of her eyes, all tell tale warnings that she was something other than human. And yet there was a certain warmth about her, somehow not altogether at odds with her chilly reserve, yet all the more disconcerting, as though the cold hand of death reached out from the grave, to offer its friendship.
She too was dressed all in black - in a manner that might have been in fashion a little over a century ago, maybe more. Her white hair peeked out coquettishly from under her bonnet, while her hoop skirt reached all the way to the floor, it's dark length made longer by a series of golden bands. Around her shoulders she wore a short cape, closed with a clasp, either end of which had been made to resemble the wings of a bat. Her blouse had puffed sleeves, which gathered at the elbows, before running down over the rest of her arms in a spray of black lace.
Her hands were clasped together, and on her left wrist, similar to the one Iri bore, could be seen the mark of a bat, for she too was one of the children of the night. In her case, the mark was very thin, almost delicate looking, surrounded with black dots and scroll work. Together with the slenderness of her fingers - each of which bore a nail polished to look like a black pearl - it gave her a fragile appearance, but when she spoke her voice held a quiet resolve.
Kris took a seat on one side of a tete a tete near the middle of the room. The meaning of the invitation was clear. The velvet upholstery of the double sided chair was rich with warmth, and the closeness of the two seats invited friendly conversation. But for all that, the thing that joined the two seats together was the wall between them.
"So it has . . ." Iri said, wavering in her purpose.
For a moment the two regarded each other. And then Iri made up her mind.
" . . .but I didn't come here to see you."
A frown wrinkled Kris' brow.
"I came here to see Conundrum . . ."
"Conundrum!" Kris shouted, once she was out of the room, and out of Iri's hearing. It was a very quiet, polite sort of shout - just the sort of thing one would expect from a lady of Kris' refinement. But it was a shout none the less. "What on earth could she want with Conundrum!?" she said, her voice growing louder.
The poor maid, who thought she had escaped further trouble, was powerless to answer.
"I don't know my lady . . ."
Kris continued to mutter under her breath.
"Shall I tell her that the Lady Conundrum is indisposed? Busy with her studies perhaps?"
"No", Kris said, considering. Iri seemed different somehow. And it had been a very long time. "I don't like it. But if we don't let her see her, we will never know what it is she wants to ask."
An unexpected visitor, in the middle of the night. Someone not seen in years. Not a Crescent, not a Scardel, but a Flina. This was a riddle, a puzzle - a mystery. As a Crescent, Kris couldn't resist.
"Send for her", she said at last. "But she won't be going in by herself. I'll keep an eye on things."
"Yes, my lady", the maid said, and hurried away. "If I ever get through this", she said to herself, as she gathered her skirts before climbing the stairs, "I am going back to the agency, and asking for a different job!"
"The Crescent Conundrum", the maid announced, hoping the agitation in her voice wasn't too self evident as she fairly slammed the pocket doors.
Kris and Iri exchanged a look.
"Iri!" Conundrum shouted, making Kris frown as she broke free from her grasp and went running to greet the silver haired girl with a fond embrace.
"Conundrum, that is no way for a young lady of the Crescent household to conduct herself . . ."
"Oh, but Kris - she's our cousin - and we haven't seen her for such a long time!"
As the youngest member of the Crescent household, Conundrum was also expected to look and act the part of a young noble lady - but she hadn't quite gotten the hang of it yet. Her outfit was every bit as elaborate as Kris' - but of a decidedly different character.
She wore a pink dress with white pin stripes, and this itself was over a white blouse with puffed sleeves, which, like Kris', gathered in at her elbows. On her legs she wore a pair of tights, and for her hands, a pair of short gloves. A small cape was draped over her shoulders, with a mantle of golden stars, and on her head, she wore a top hat, with a matching pink bow. This last piece was her calling card, and she never went ANYWHERE without it (much to Kris' chagrin.)
"And how is my favorite cousin doing these days?" Iri asked, regarding her warmly. "How are your studies? Are you ready to take the Night Quiz yet?"
"Kris says my scores are really good! And I might even get to go to the Convention this year!"
"Is that so?"
"The problem has never been Conundrum's scores", Kris said. She was still a bit cold towards Iri, but she couldn't resist warming, at least slightly, where Conundrum was involved. "Her scores have always been very high. The trouble is they don't even have a category for someone Conundrum's age. There aren't any rankings or percentiles or anything."
"Nyetimber says I'm still too young", Conundrum added shyly.
"Nyetimber says a lot of things", Kris said diplomatically, "-and some of them quite right. But she has nothing to do with whether or not you go. She has no say in the matter."
Conundrum looked relieved.
"Oh, but how are you?", Conundrum asked, suddenly remembering some of the manners Kris had been working so hard to instill in her. "How rude of me - it's been ages since we've heard from you. How have you been?"
Iri paused for a moment as she and Kris exchanged a look. It was a brief moment, but in passing contained a century of meaning.
"I've been . . .well", she said, carefully turning the phrase.
Kris relaxed slightly.
"But I'm afraid I didn't come here for just a friendly visit. There's something important I came to discuss."
"You aren't getting mixed up in any of that Great Society business, are you?" Kris asked sharply.
Iri dismissed the idea with a wave.
"I need your help with something."
"What is it?" Conundrum asked.
"It's a riddle."
"A riddle?" Conundrum perked up. "What sort of riddle? Is it a question about the Continent? Or perhaps a puzzle from the Library of the Stars? What sort of riddles do you like?"
"What have you been doing at the Library of the Stars?", Kris asked, crossly.
"This riddle isn't for me", Iri answered.
"Then who?" Conundrum asked, inching forward, by now wholly absorbed. "Is it for Nyetimber? Or Aligote - she's much too serious - or maybe even for Kris?"
"It isn't for anyone in the House of Crescent."
"Then one of the Scardels perhaps? Could it be for Merlot? Or Viognier? Or maybe for Pinot? Kris says I'm not to play with her - that she's dangerous - but she's always been very nice to me."
"It isn't for the Scardel's, either - or for anyone else from the House of Darklore."
"Then who!?" Conundrum asked, no longer able to contain her excitement.
"This riddle is for the Knights of Crux . . ."