Hurgomath’s dead maternal ancestor towered behind his shoulder, whispering predictions of doom. “Do not allow yourself to fall with the Principalities, child. Their pitiful resistance will not forestall annihilation. What sort of Giant are you to tether your fate to these tiny lives?”
“My oath is pledged, First-Among-Mothers.” His enunciation was careful; his words were intended for other ears. “My loyalty has been bought with treacherous blood, in accordance with the ancient pacts. What more would you have of me?”
The spectre looked down upon Hurgomath with the same expression of pitiless contempt she invariably preferred during the latter centuries of her life. “Of what account is loyalty if the last Giants are consumed by ravening nothingness?”
“Without it, we shall already have passed beyond meaning.”
“Cheeky sod,” interrupted Princess Naomi. “Is that any way to speak to your mother?”
The Kepheleq ruler and part-time witch stood on a scaffold raised to Hurgomath’s full height. From her vantage point she could not only consult with her tallest advisor, but also supervise the counter-offensive against the Nonemyr’s insidious mental siege. Past the parade ranks of combat artists at their easels and canvasses she looked, to the battlegrounds beyond. The forces of the Gleaming Principalities, drawn from a dozen different worlds, gathered in landscapes of ice and glass, in withered ballrooms and galleries of misery, in streams choked with regret, and streets paved with grief. The enemy’s power to corrupt reality conveyed a withering advantage in the selection of favourable terrain.
“The First-Among-Mothers died a century ago,” replied Hurgomath. “This is nothing more than a Nonemyr spectre, conjured to sew mistrust and confusion.”
“There’s a lot of that going around.” Princess Naomi unrolled a canvas to show the Giant. Slashes of charcoal and smudges of blood depicted the artist, a centaur from a company of Zomandi skirmishers, surrounded by accusatory, screaming faces. “She charged onto her own long-spear rather than face the order to launch counter-sketches. Just one of dozens we’ve already lost.”
“Mortals are brittle, worthless things,” the ghost told Hurgomath. “A broken cup can be repaired. What can you do with broken mortals?”
Hurgomath worked a wad of clay the size of an ox into a rough humanoid shape. The voice of his parent pricked at his surface, but beneath lay calm certainty. “They can learn. They can live their allotted span fulfilled by whatever meaning and grace they may value.”
“They will throw their allotted spans away in a futile gesture of resistance against the Nonemyr.”
“As I said,” replied Hurgomath, as he fashioned slender limb and attached them to his piece, “they pursue that which they value.”
Princess Naomi signalled to the Captain of Brushes, a hulking blue ogre with a necklace of snake fangs and a tiger-skin coat, who waited at attention beside a blank canvas as tall as two men and as wide as a stream. The ogre dunked both hands into a cauldron bubbling red and scrawled war-poems across the canvas in elegant blood calligraphy. The marshalled combat artists, armed with brushes and pens, attacked their canvases in a frenzy of inspiration, expanding on the Captain’s themes and opening up new fronts to counter the dismal Nonemyr offensive.
“Highness, who do you see?”
Her rueful smile apologised in advance for a lie: “More ghosts that I can count.”
Hurgomath saw otherwise, with eyes undeceived by Nonemyr’s corrosive illusions. Princess Naomi was surrounded on all sides by phantoms of the wronged, the neglected, and every other victim of the Principality of Kepheleq’s institutions and social mores, which she had cultivated with ruthless patience across the many decades of her rule, but only one ghost stood close enough to make itself heard.
Centuries ago, Hurgomath had met the Warrior-Queen Desoldra, both in battle and afterwards. She had been formidable in life, no doubt, but her legend had grown beyond her accomplishments in the years since. Was Princess Naomi dangerously invested in achieving some impossible standard of leadership falsely attributed to the Gleaming Principalities’ founder? Likely, thought Hurgomath, but voicing his suspicions might strengthen them. This battle was hers to fight alone, and the outcome of their conflict would turn on neither her success nor her survival.
He hoped she’d live. Of all the Principalities’ rulers, he disliked her the least.
“That’s not a very good likeness,” remarked the seditious ghost, as Hurgomath’s thumbs pushed clay into crude, bulky armour and soft human features.
“In life, your criticisms were pernicious and insightful, First-Among-Mothers, but your comprehension of creativity was never nuanced. The Nonemyr overplay their hand to express opinions about art in your voice.”
The ghost was silent. The notion he had offended it momentarily amused Hurgomath, but he knew better. The Nonemyr were entropy itself, the slow collapse of mountains into dust, and they had no use for feelings other than as weapons slicked with venom.
Princess Naomi’s army deployed their art. Strife-poets casts sonnets of devious wit and cunning; dancers turned whirlwind pirouettes, scattering malicious ghosts; painters drowned despair in studies of light and colour. A song of defiance and hope rumbled across the fields of war, sung by a battalion of armoured unicorns.
“It won’t be enough,” said the voice of every ghost at once.
“They’re right,” said Princess Naomi, as she watched a desperate gloom settle on her soldiers.
A bard strangled a fellow with a steel harp string.
A minstrel silenced her song in an icy well.
A kerosene bath for cleaning brushes became a funeral pyre for a painter lost to hope.
“They are not,” said Hurgomath. He turned Princess Naomi gently to display his finished statue. His fingers were as cold as ice.
She beheld the statue’s face, which already shone like baked porcelain. “Is that the Stewpot girl? The kitchen-hand?”
“You chose her well,” said the Giant, turning pale. He had given his all to the artwork. “Let her inspire your people to their salvation.”
The howls of thwarted ghosts rose as Hurgomath’s final spark passed into the statue.
Today’s late posting is brought to you by general malaise and a rather overwhelming week. (But it’s still Friday, so it’s totally on time, shut up).
This is, of course, another Gleaming Principalities story with a discreditable lack of mafia bunnies. I’ll attempt to make up for that next time.