Wednesday, 22 April 2020

The Blatant Bards of the Black-Tongued Harp

The Bardic tradition, strong in the Mountains of Reality and still found almost everywhere in Blackwater, carries its own strange legends. Bards tell stories, but there are stories only Bards are told.

One such story is that of the Black-Tongued Harp.

For those Bards of a mischievous spirit, an ill temper and a cunning mind, for those who, through bitterness or malice, delight in shaping words of harm, not for any gain but for the pleasure of the thing itself, there is a music only they can hear.

An unusually-specific point; the stories all agree on where it is heard; around Nightspyre*, the most Westerly of the Queendoms of the Mountains of Reality. (Since Nightspyre looks over the Rust Red Road between the Mountains and the Grey Cities, almost all Bards will pass through there at least once in their lives, and likely many times.)

Each Bard who hears this dark, low tone, has a choice; they can see now, fully, the path that they are on, turn back, change their lives and their art and hopefully return to good, or they may follow the sad music.

Sometimes the music leads them to a cave, sometimes into a cellar in the New Town, or even a dungeon of the blue-black palace of the Sapphire Queen. On this the stories differ.

Then they come upon a white harp with black cords, played by a woman veiled down to her smile. Her mouth opens in a half-gasp of silent pleasure, and delicately, multiple black tongues reach out to lick her lips. Around her, listening in rapture, is the secret society of the Blatant Bards.

The mythic origin of the Harp is well known. A Quileth or Daemon of Old Esh, named 'The Blatant Beast' existed purely to degrade reality with rumour, calumny and lies. 

Agnes Miller Parker
See! And you all said reading the whole of the Faerie Queene would do me no good!
(Nobody actually said that)

A dark angel of discord and suspicion, it grew larger with every soul lost to the suicides, murders or penury brought by the lies it told. The annihilation of the spirit through deceit was its purview. The Quileth had many forms but it always had a hundred or more writhing tongues, and its voice could speak a thousand lies at once.

This creature was destroyed by unknown heroes, but its servants came upon its remains and cut the tongues from its mouth and the bones from its jaw. The tongues, cured and now black, became the strings of the Black-Tongued Harp, and the jawbones made its ivory frame.

Whomever hears and chimes inwardly with the music of the Black-Tongued Harp is imbued with a shadow of its power, which grows greater the more deeply it is used. Their charm is amplified, their lies are believed more often the more often they are told, they gain insight into mortal hearts and can see and sense what lies will harm the most.

They become vampires of reputation, for every name destroyed they grow more gilded, more shimmering, beautifully, charismatic and believable. The more lives they destroy they more innocent they seem. For every life lost to suicide caused by their lies, they gain life and youth and strength.

If they go on long enough, their tongues split. Perhaps ultimately it is they who will play the Black-Tongued Harp in some hidden vault beneath Nightspyre.

Many Bards believe this story metaphor; a lesson about the dangers of malice and power, and the fate of those who feed on lies. An insult amongst their kind; "Damn Sir you are a Blatant Bard!".

Of course, the only ones who really know are those who hear the lilting, moaning music of the Harp as they pass beneath the black mountain of the Sapphire Throne. Of those who turn back, how many can there be? And of those who go on, and listen to the music of the woman in the veil… well, how could anyone suspect them? The most charming Bards of all?

*The Queen of Nightspyre

Not night-spire, but Nights-pyre, which refers to the red burning of the sky as the sun sets beyond the Grey Cites, as seen from the sides and slopes of the Westernmost peaks of the Mountains of Reality.

As much as the Beothoborg, facing east into the Waste and the rising sun, gives one particular viewpoint on the world, the view from Nightspyre gives quite another, and quite opposite impression.

As the sun sinks down over the Blackriver plain, the Queen, watching from her Sapphire Thone, can see the Red Road, running right for Declension, dividing the flat land in two, and beyond that, to either side are the shadow-towns and the pale networks of road and river that link them. Nightspyre looks out onto a landscape of human possibility. The Waste may be advancing or retracting at any time, but the view seems endless. Potential brims.

Potential and threat, for Nightspyre is also the closest Queendom to the Grey Cities and many times armies of one kind or another have walked the Red Road or roved in the Blackriver plains. More than once Declension has besieged Nightspyre or Nightspyre has sent its Chivalry, Druids, Vantar and Feudal levies to besiege Declension. (The acceptance of the Vantar as subjects during the reign of Queen Cadfael is still a source of some irritation to Declension).

Other Queens may dream of the oncoming Waste, of Her children, or the Entropic Wyrms, or of alien armies of the Tertarchies marching out of the nothing and into the nearly indefensibly-huge borders of the Realities, but when the Queen of Nightspyre dreams, more often than not, she dreams of human threats and human dangers.

Much as Declension is often considered the most culturally 'mountainous' of the Grey Cities, so this most Westernmost Queendom of the Realities is often thought of by the other Queendoms as being rather 'urban' and 'cosmopolitan'. In comparison to almost every other Queendom, it is an exceedingly busy place, though it often shocks visitors from the Grey Cities as "the smallest city they have ever seen".

What they regard as a 'city' is actually a vast Caravanersi built in the shadow of Nightspyre on the Western side. This place exists purely to hold and manage the huge number of wagons and other travellers taking the Red Road. It is built in a near-Grey-City style and visitors in its streets might be forgiven if they occasionally thought they found themselves in Declension. This is the 'New Town'. (Many sophonts have remarked on the huge presence of Nightspyre peak in-effect acting as a kind of ‘natural megastructure’ which dominates the city in a very similar way).

Higher up the mountain, on the Eastern side, is the True city of Nightspyre. As it faces the Mountains, this is where the business of the mountains is conducted. Here farmers go out to the terraced fields every dawn, here barefoot Druids can be seen walking the cobbled lanes or a simple Vantar bringing their Yaks down for trade.

And further up the mountain, again on the Western side, overlooking the New Town, but totally inaccessible from it, is the blue-black Palace of the Queen. No-one can reach the palace from the New Town. Any visitor must cross over into the Old Town on the Eastern slope, be examined, and only from there climb again to the Western side.

Nightspyre pulls almost as much wealth from the city-mountain trade as Declension, but unlike Declension, there are no corporations, and the only Guilds and families allowed to exploit the trade do so under direct Royal decree. This makes the Queen of Nightspyre one of the wealthiest single beings in the whole of Blackwater.

The Beodomor may have more *status*, and may perhaps ultimately control more resources, but the Queen of Nightspyre has more cash, and she uses it. Her palace is a tumbling symphony of luxury and night-blooming flowers, a pleasure-garden and princely court the likes of which few in Blackwater will ever conceive, and unlike the buried courts of the Emperors of the Grey Cities, this place is alive with intrigue, scheming, plots, relationships and magnificent costumes.

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