Joric never imagined he would set foot inside Sybille von Ellrich’s estate.
Lowborn men like him did not have a place among the nobility, he knew, yet still he marveled at the sight before him. Lady Sybille’s ballroom was lit bright by three great glass chandeliers hanging overhead, each holding a dozen candles that shone like gleaming stars. Beneath the vaulted ceiling sat massive tables piled with enough strawberry tart and honeycakes to feed an army, too. Surrounding him were alabaster walls covered in rich oil paintings worth more than enough coin to pay for his own ship. Then, as if Joric had not already been tempted by the splendor before him, it was said that Sybille von Ellrich’s basement held over a thousand coffers stuffed with gold and gems. And it would all be his the moment he cut her throat.
Snakes and Servants
Even as Lady Sybille’s newest indentured servant, Joric made out rather well for someone in his position. Most thieves got tossed in a black cell far beneath the royal palace. Some had their hands chopped off. A few unlucky bastards were forced to endure both punishments. Despite that, Joric found a way to escape his sentence by learning about the king’s new Spymaster before she was even appointed. Her name was Serena and she was rumored to have had eyes all over city. She had also gained a reputation for being utterly ruthless. Everyone caught in her path risked facing the king’s justice.
But not Joric. Joric had always been proud of his charming wit, and not even the Royal Spymaster could resist his silver tongue. A pouch of gold coins helped, of course. The new Spymaster heard his bargain and signed an agreement then and there: Joric was to provide information regarding the crimes committed by his old gang in exchange for an easy job and the crown’s guaranteed protection far from the city.
While she was relentless in her pursuit to bring order to the kingdom, Spymaster Serena was not blinded by that typical sense of self-righteous idealism he had seen in so many previous harbingers of the law. She knew Joric was more than a petty pickpocket. Any man who survived in his business for as long as he did was certain to have connections.
He did not initially feel comfortable consorting with the Royal Spymaster. She ruled over the City Watch, and he had admitted to being a part of the criminal underworld she had sworn to dismantle. Luckily for Joric, Serena proved to be pragmatic enough to see the greater good in his proposal. So she gathered what she could from him and booked passage on the first ship out of the city that night.
“You are to be in service to Lady Sybille von Ellrich for the remainder of the year,” Serena told him before the ship departed.
“And what happens after my year is up?” Joric asked.
“Your debt to the law will be paid. If the Gods are good, you will return to a city cleansed of the filth that has plagued us for so long.”
Then the sails unfurled, the anchor was raised, and Joric was off. He slept most of the way, occasionally waking up to have a drink. The crew were a loud bunch who loved to scream and shout and sing their shanties. They spoke of the sea and of legends as old as time itself. The sailors cheerfully told tales of krakens beneath the waves, and of dragons and ancient ruins that housed all sorts of devils and demons in the lands beyond the sunset.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the journey to Lady Sybille’s estate. But not Joric. He had no interest in songs or krakens or demon-haunted ruins. He wanted to know more about the woman he would be serving. Joric did not plan to spend his days washing dinner plates and scrubbing floors. Why would he? If Joric wanted something, he would take it.
Into The Black City
Joric did not know when exactly the ship arrived at port. He could not see the moon through the sky, which had been painted with thick, black fog. It wrapped itself around Joric, pulling him in with the cold embrace of the night. The boatswain called for the men to follow him. He was old and haggard, with thin lips and small, pale eyes that looked like a pair of dying stars. Everyone stood in a single line as the boatswain corralled Joric and the rest of the new servants off the ship to lead them through the cobblestone streets.
The road ahead was dotted with lamp posts, though the mist seemed to drink in the dimly lit lanterns. There were buildings too, each built of black stone. There were hovels, halls, chapels, churches, all of them steeped in darkness. The city appeared empty at first glance. Not a soul wandered the streets, and Joric did not see any horses stabled. Even the sea was devoid of life. No fish swam beneath the port and no birds perched overhead. But Joric looked closer and closer at the buildings they passed and he noticed candles in their windows, all of them held by human shapes darker even than the shadows
No one spoke on the road to Lady Sybille’s estate. Whether it was fear that held their tongues or some unseen curse the city had on them, Joric could not say. He grew up in taverns and brothels, he had broken bones and sliced throats his whole life. Joric had seen grisly murders with his own eyes, yet this felt like something else entirely. Gods take me, he thought, what demons dwell here? Joric was not a man of the cloth. He never took to the Gods or their divine word, but now he sought their guidance. Or their mercy.
“Just above that hill,” the boatswain guiding them mumbled. “We’ll be at Lady Sybille’s estate in a moment or two.” Everyone nodded. The castle he pointed to was just as dark and foreboding as the rest of the island. A few shuffled their feet. Suddenly the prospect of working for a wealthy noblewoman grew far less desirable.
“What will be required of us?” Joric had the nerve to ask.
“You lot will be served dinner tonight. Lady Sybille wants to give a royal welcome. I’ll never understand why she goes through the trouble for a few dish washin’ bootlickers,” the boatswain shrugged, “I suppose the old woman hasn’t had much company since her lord husband died off years ago. The rest of her family don’t bother checkin’ in, either.”
Joric didn’t have to guess why the old crone rarely received visitors. Just walking through the black city gave him a headache worse than any hangover. As they approached the castle, it became clear that not even an invading army could hope to enter the walls. There were towers lined with arrow slits that jutted above the crenellated outer entrance and parapets resting above the mist. Lady Sybille’s home was not an estate, it was a fortress.
A moat surrounded Sybille von Ellrich’s castle, but this was no ordinary moat. The water surface looked like a glass window leading into a realm of infinite darkness. He could not see the bottom, but Joric noticed that unlike the docks they arrived on, the moat was not empty. Fish swam beneath the drawbridge leading to a great metal portcullis, except these fish were unlike any he had ever seen. These fish were glowing bright green and blue, their eyes mismatched and misshapen. They were monsters in their own right, and no amount of gold would convince Joric to ever actually eat one.
Then above the moat were fireflies, and they were larger and brighter than the lanterns that lined the streets Joric had walked through earlier. As they passed by the fireflies, Joric heard faint voices whispering in a language he had never heard before. You’re imagining things, he told himself. One of the men told the boatswain that he wanted to go back to the ship. “I can’t do this. Gods take me, I can’t do this,” he said, and the boatswain merely grinned.
“Then go,” he spat, “I won’t stop you. But if you set foot on that boat, the cap’n has a crossbow waiting. We’ll toss you overboard before your pants turn brown, lad.” Something about the boatswain’s crooked smile implied that this was not some empty threat. Everyone backed away slowly, but not Joric. Joric would not be intimidated by a few old sailors and a wealthy noblewoman. He had fought far worse in his day, and though he was aging, he still had plenty of good years left in him.
The drawbridge creaked and moaned with each footstep, and the great doors before them burst open with a thunderous roar that sounded like the underworld’s black jaws were ready to swallow them up. Suddenly a high pitched voice cried out from the void, and Joric cocked his head back in surprise as a cheerful dwarf in motley danced towards them. He donned a jester’s cap with silver bells that jingled and jangled with each hop.
“Oh my, oh my, look at what we have here! Lifeless puppets and an old puppeteer,” he sang.
“Trippetto, my boy,” the boatswain waved. “Tell the good lady I’m sorry for the delay. Urgent business in the capital. She’ll understand.”
“Oh my, oh my, I shall tell her at once! As for you lot, just follow the grim dunce!” Trippetto retreated as quickly as he came, and within moments the boatswain brought them into the Great Hall.
A Royal Welcome
“Gods be praised!” one of the men shouted. “This is… This is beautiful!” And it was. The Great Hall had smooth grey walls that climbed to a ribbed ceiling, and on the walls were sconces with mirrors beaten behind them so that the flames appeared even brighter. There were seven trestle tables, three on the right, three on the left, and one sitting on a raised platform at the far end of the room. The tables were covered with foods fit for a High Lord. Joric’s mouth began to water and his stomach let out a growl. Trippetto the Fool arrived again, he was juggling apples and humming some strange song.
“Take a seat my friends, any seat my friends!” Trippetto whistled. “Why, the Lady will be here soon, my friends!” Then another jester arrived. A woman this time. She was short and stout like Trippetto, but her singing voice was rather sweet. “Ah!” Trippetto cried, “Squat-Frog is here now! Look at that arse… Wow!” A few chuckled as the dwarves danced with each other, yet Joric didn’t find the dwarves amusing. He was irritated. And hungry.
“For your butt, a seat! Now, some food to eat!” Squat-Frog sang as Trippetto continued to juggle his apples. The men sat close enough together, but not Joric. He sat at the far end of the table. They had annoyed him throughout the journey to this strange island together and he wanted to be alone with his thoughts.
Gods, he said to himself, I have to spend a year with this lot. And these bloody singing dwarves. But such thoughts could be pushed aside. Spread out before him were tempting dishes that could not be refused. Stuffed capers rolled in sea salt, trenchers of hardbread and sweetbread and brown bread dripping with honey, and white trout glazed in lemon called out to Joric. Then he saw the venison, cooked and battered in beer and barley. There were plates of aurochs, too, basted with so much butter that the meat began to split.
It tasted better than it looked. Joric savored every bite as if it were his last. Any misgivings he had simply vanished. Then, as he finished a spoonful of oxtail soup, the dwarves announced the arrival of Lady Sybille von Ellrich herself.
“Come one, come all, bow you snivelling thralls!” Trippetto and Squat-Frog sang in unison as a young woman emerged from the shadows and took a seat at the raised table in front of them. Joric and the rest bowed as custom dictated, then waited for the woman to speak. She had thick raven hair that tumbled in ringlets and skin as pale as fresh milk. Her cheekbones were high, her lips were full, and Joric felt his heart sink as she smiled at him. Her eyes, cold and grey, scanned the Great Hall as if she were looking for something specific.
“Gentlemen,” she spoke in a honeyed tone that was sweet and soft, yet regal. “I thank you for visiting. Your services to this great and noble house will certainly be appreciated. I have taken the liberty of learning about all of you, and I look forward to meeting each and every one of my guests. For those unaware, my name is Sybille von Ellrich, and tonight you are all lords.”
This is Lady Sybille? Joric thought. He expected an old crone or some hobbling cripple, not a goddess. Joric was smitten. He always preferred blondes, but this woman seemed like she had come from a dream of his own creation. She moved with grace and elegance, eating with small, proportioned bites and taking careful sips from her chalice. Lady Sybille peered over them and watched as they ate their fill.
“Do eat more,” she encouraged everyone. “We have imported the finest livestock in the kingdom. You will want for nothing here,” Lady Sybille licked her lips and took another sip of her wine while the men carried on eating. But not Joric. He had tasted his share of food. Now he hungered for something else entirely.
As the night carried on, Trippetto and Squat-Frog continued to sing and dance. The boatswain stood in the corner with his arms folded, and the rest of Lady Sybille’s new servants bestowed all sorts of praise upon their new employer. Sybille accepted their compliments and let them carry on, but then she walked over to where Joric was seated. His blood grew hot and thick as if poison were sunk into his veins as she made her way to him.
“Is everything to your liking?” Lady Sybille asked.
“Oh yes, m’Lady. It is a wonderful evening. I look forward to serving you,” he lied.
“You’re different from the rest of those cattle,” she waved her hand to the other servants. “Oh yes, I know about you, Joric. The Royal Spymaster says you’ve helped her a great deal. And tomorrow night it will be your turn to help me,” she brushed a slender finger against his cheek. “Be sure to get plenty of rest. Trippetto will help get you familiar with your duties.” Then she stood up, winked, and sauntered away. Joric’s eyes never left her.
They all slept in separate rooms in a tower on the other side of the castle. Their beds were soft and their sheets were warm. And for the first time in a long while, Joric fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, only interrupted when Trippetto woke them up with a loud blast from a horn. He and Squat-Frog collected the men and set them out in different directions. One was assigned to scrub the floors, another to wash dishes, two were tasked with clearing dust from the rafters. The other three were sent to the kitchens. Joric, however, was given a special duty. He was to tend to Lady Sybille’s books. Trippetto explained that Joric was the only one who could read, so he had access to her own personal quarters. Joric was a poor reader in truth, and his writing was barely legible, but Lady Sybille did not require much from her letters.
Every day for a month Joric would grab a quill and parchment paper, jot down whatever Lady Sybille dictated, and send either Trippetto or Squat-Frog away. Some of the letters were simple correspondences; Lady Sybille was doing well, she missed her sisters, she looked forward to hearing from them again. It grew routine, and eventually Joric’s handwriting improved. And every night Joric ate enough food to feed three men. The new kitchen servants may have been fools, but they knew how to cook.
Each dinner was splendid. Joric devoured dishes of poached swan smothered in spiced wine and saffron, pigeon pies, roasted lamb with crushed garlic, and sweetbread that was light on the tongue. He did not know where Lady Sybille got her food, nor did he care, for he had lost his slender frame and replaced it with a protruding paunch. His flesh became soft, too, as Joric no longer spent his days roughing up undesirables and running from the City Watch. He began to dread the day he would be sent home.
Joric devised a plan to remain in the castle. His indentured service would be over, but he could still stay if he were married to Lady Sybille. The idea may have seemed outrageous a month ago, yet now… He was no doubt attracted to Lady Sybille. He had time alone with her. If they bore a child together, she would have to marry him. If not, he would cut her throat and take over the castle. Who would stop him? The dwarves? The other servants? He’d eliminate them one-by-one if need be.
A Dance With Lady Sybille
One morning Lady Sybille asked Joric if he would attend a ball as her escort. The answer was yes, of course, for Joric could never refuse her. He had asked if invitations were necessary, but Lady Sybille told him it was an exclusive ball and only a few would be in attendance. Ever since her husband died, she explained, she did not have the desire to host such functions. Now, however, she felt it was time to begin healing and moving on.
After a week of continuing Joric’s normal duties, he prepared for the evening Lady Sybille had planned. He dressed in a fine black doublet with silver buttons and a pair of doveskin gloves. His clothes fit perfectly and, in his mind, Joric had never looked better. He knocked on the door to Sybille’s chambers and stood wide-eyed at the woman before him. Gods, he thought, the heavens are smiling at me. Lady Sybille looked even more radiant than the first time he saw her. Her cheeks flushed red when he knelt before her. Her dress, a slimming black laced with scarlet silks, clung to her. She wore a necklace cut from rubies and garnets as well, which complimented the vibrant accent colors. Joric only wanted to tear it all off.
“Come,” she whispered, “I wish to dance.” And so they walked down to the Grand Ballroom. Along the way Joric, whether it came from nerves or some spell entirely, asked the question.
“Is there a future for us?”
“Whatever do you mean?” Sybille seemed genuinely confused.
“Well,” Joric mumbled, “I… I believe you to be a woman of great virtue and beauty. Though I come from a more… Humble place in society, it is my hope that you would see beyond that. Perhaps I could even stay in this castle as a permanent resident?”
“You think beyond your station, Joric,” Lady Sybille kissed his cheek. “I admire a man as ambitious as you. As hungry as you. But our guests will be left waiting if we dally any longer.”
The doors to the Grand Ballroom were already opened when they arrived. It was massive, with wooden floors polished to a mirror sheen. At one end of the room stood a staircase with gleaming bannisters that branched out to both sides. On the other were a pair of double doors that opened to a foyer leading outside, though Joric had no desire to leave. The strange black city seemed almost like a distant memory to him.
But no one was there. The ballroom was empty. There were tables and plates set, but not a single person around. His eyes circled in every direction, desperate for some trace of life. None of the other new servants were there. Not even Trippetto and Stout-Frog could be found. Suddenly his blood grew hot and his heart beat faster than a dozen wardrums.
Then he heard it.
“Must you always do this, sister?” Joric jumped in shock as a familiar gruff voice slithered behind him. It was the boatswain, still tired and haggard and sour as ever.
“I find it fun, don’t you?” Sybille asked.
“I think it’s cruel,” he shrugged. “Best get on with things. We’re setting out to collect another herd tomorrow.”
Joric was confused. Why was the boatswain there? What did he mean another herd? What did Sybille find fun?
“That one’s silent,” the boatswain pointed to Joric. Then another familiar voice cut in.
“Funny. Joric here sang like a canary just last month.” The Royal Spymaster emerged from behind and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, yes, he had quite a lot to say about his old friends back home.”
“Sister,” Serena spat, “I don’t want him scared just yet. The blood tastes best when it’s hot.” Joric’s legs buckled. It felt as if he were paralyzed. The thoughts rushed to his head, but they could not take form. Move, damn you! Run! Punch! Hit them, take the dagger! Gods damn it all, they’re gonna kill me! They’re gonna kill me!
And he was right.
Sybille took a knife from the table and, with a swift slash, sliced his wrists open. She planted her lips on the wound of his left hand and sucked the blood with her tongue. The Royal Spymaster licked the side of Joric’s neck. Then she planted a wet kiss against his cheek before sinking her teeth into his flesh. Joric felt himself growing weaker and weaker as they drained him.
“Well, how does it taste?” the boatswain asked after a few moments.
“Better than the others he came in with,” Sybille said. “Where are Trippetto and Squat-Frog?”
“Practicing their dance for the next batch,” the boatswain shrugged. “I’m gonna take the other arm if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” Sybille nodded at the old man, “there’s plenty of him to share now. Just remember to save some for the dwarves.”