The Magistocrats

Chapter One

Amendment no. 13 to Imperial Order no. 42: 'The Blue Principles', dated May 14th, Year of the Whistling Fox, 7th Era of Grand Catai.

1. The following practises and activities, undertaken in any degree whatsoever, without the explicit authorisation of the Imperial Authority, are strictly prohibited:

  1. Performing of magic within a private domain without the domain-holder’s permission.

  2. Extension beyond the natural lifespan by magical means.

  3. The constraint of magical effects into permanency.

  4. Interception and influencing of another’s words, thoughts or deeds by magical means.

  5. Research and experimentation into the creation of new spells and magical technologies.

  6. Traffic with demons and other-dimensional beings.

2. The following practises and activities are limited to the competence of Archmages and High Archmages, and may be initiated only by, or on behalf of, these august personalities:

  1. Creation of matter, life, or any actual thing ex nihilo.

  2. Instantaneous travel between distinct locations.

  3. Use or otherwise implementation of the counter-thaumic force.

  4. Use of magic to cure mortal wounds and ailments.

  5. Alteration of an object or being’s physical properties by magical means.

3. The possession or use of any spell, effect or artefact not listed under Schedule M is strictly prohibited.

By Order, HRH Philemon, Grand High Mage, Emperor of Grand Catai, Tyrant of Vespa, etc, etc.

[Signed]


The High Court of Mages

Though moments before he had lain in a cramped and sweltering cell, Novice Second Class Rudolf Valentine now found himself being marched into a cool and airy courtroom. And though it was but a dream, the gleaming white walls and high-vaulted windows had an air of impressive gravity.

Two grey-faced bailiffs held his arms, marching him through a space that warped and trembled before his eyes. He shook his head, fighting off the sick sensation of vertigo.

The effect was always jarring at first.

As his senses began to adjust, he became aware of a hushed whispering coming from above him and he craned his neck to look. On either side of the aisle down which he was being hustled two enormous galleries reared, their benches packed with the grandees of Grand Catai. Faces of all colours and types swam before his eyes, uniform only in the expressions of curiosity they wore as they craned to get a look at the criminal.

Not a bad turn out, he reflected with a grin.

They reached the front of the courtroom and he was thrust into the dock. The door clanged shut, the lock snapped to, and the bailiffs retreated. Rudolf winced as he rubbed his arms. The bailiff's grip had been as painful as any waking sensation.

He shook himself, turned to get a better look at his audience.

The lower levels of the gallery were packed out with novices and junior mages: those young magistocrats yet to make a name for themselves. Self-conscious and preening, they presented an arresting sight of brightly-coloured costumes and exotic hairstyles. Several of the faces were known to him from his time at the Akademia. Some he smiled and winked at. Others he pretended not to notice.

The higher rows held the more senior members of the magistocracy: those who had climbed the greasy pole and now occupied high positions in the imperial government. These magistocrats were a little more sober in their presentation, having already made their reputations. There were a few faces he recognised. There, up on the left, was Madame Xidane, champion duellist and a favourite of the emperor. Over there was Zazu Berieus, his former boss at the Colonial Office, robes ill-fitting and over-formal even in the dreamscape. There was Tristen Von Bek, Headmaster of the Akademia Arcanum, a peevish, grey-maned old goat. A few seats along sat Lord Marshal Amin Maputo, Commander of the Imperial Legions, a man dark-skinned and vital: rough, cunning and quick to anger.

They eyed him with ill-disguised contempt.

So you've come to witness my downfall? He thought, grinning up at them. You're going to be disappointed.

A thought suggested itself and he scanned the crowd with sudden impatience.

Ah. Yes. There, high at the rear of the court, was Horatio Crisp, his childhood friend and room-mate at the Akademia, now the Margrave of Montgomery.

Crisp met Rudolf's gaze and he gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Rudolf's grin widened. Crisp had done his part then.

His eyes swept the audience once more and he nodded and smiled at the disapproving faces, pleasure burning within his breast.

His time of reckoning had come. This was the moment that future biographers would mark as the beginning of his rise to fame and fortune. The charges against him were light, yet quite audacious. And this, in addition to the contrast between himself and his opponent, had attracted the attentions of almost the entire magistocracy, precisely as he'd planned.

Before him, the faces of the crowd gleamed in the soft light of the dream.

He would be louche. He would be debonair. He would be the perfect lightning-rod for their sordid desires.

If only he'd thought of this sooner!

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud fanfare from the rear of the court.

The doors opened and the prosecution entered the court. At the head of a gaggle of animal-form lawyers glided his opponent, High Archmage Ghulam Sassani, the Viceroy of Indochina.

Sassani presented an odd counterpoint to his title as he swept through the room. Tall, lithe and almost hairless, the viceroy was possessed of an unearthly androgyny. His shoulders were thin, his chest and hips ambiguous and his entire body was animated by a grace and fluidity that bordered on the sensual. This impression was further confused by the viceroy's baby blue skin and the purple irises which gazed out from a pair of smoky eyes. As the viceroy took up his seat at the ivory prosecution desk, these same eyes now flicked upwards to meet Rudolf’s, leaving an impression of mocking playfulness.

There was much in that gaze that made Rudolf uncomfortable.

He had thought everything out exactly during those long hours spent in his cell. It was all quite straightforward. His plan would work. It was working. So why was it then, that those eyes unsettled him?

But no, he thought, returning the viceroy’s gaze with as much boldness as he could. What did he have to fear from that pillow-biter?

The viceroy smiled again – a brief twitch of the lips, his eyes dim and teasing. Then he turned away to confer with his attorneys.

Rudolf shook himself.

No, he had nothing to fear. Crisp had done his part. All he had to do was win over his audience.

For it was the feeling of the crowd, ultimately, that would sway the judge and decide Rudolf’s fate.

He would be louche. He would be debonair.

He just had to stick to the plan.

CRACK!

The bailiffs banged their heels in unison.

A hush fell over the court and all attention focused upon the empty judge’s bench at the front of the courtroom.

“All rise for His Honour, Justice Starov!” A voice cried out.

Starov?

The name was familiar.

Rudolf stood with the rest of them. A door had appeared behind the judge’s stand, seeming at first flat and unreal, now rapidly solidifying before the gaze of the onlookers. A pulse seemed to emanate from somewhere and the substance of the courtroom shifted unpleasantly. Rudolf gritted his teeth. The door shifted again, then assumed an appearance of polished mahogany and became quite still.

The sensation of pulsing remained, however, as though the door restrained some silent monster.

The court held its breath.

With a creak the door opened and a tall figure stepped through into the courtroom.

For a second Rudolf was still, swallowing dryly. Then he threw himself down onto one knee.

The figure ascended the bench, settled into its chair and leaned forwards to survey the court. Seeing the large number of grandees assembled, its lips twitched slightly. Finally the cold eyes settled on Rudolf.

Archmage Andrei Starov, Associate Justice of the High Court of Mages.

Oh father! Please, no! Don’t let them take him!

The memory rose unbidden; Rudolf suppressed a shudder, his blood running cold.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the High Court of Mages is now in session.”

The gavel rapped. Rudolf regained his feet along with the rest of the court. Starov was silent for a moment, peering down his long nose at the novice. Rudolf returned the gaze as steadily as he could.

So this was Starov. The man who had sent his father to the gulag.

Was it fate? No. He couldn’t believe that.

“Ah, yes,” Starov said in a cold, high voice. “The case of Sassani versus Valentine. I understand that the accused has insisted on being tried by this court for infraction of the Blue Principles rather than face criminal proceedings on Andaman island. Is this correct?”

A ripple of amusement passed through the courtroom. But Rudolf did not hear it.

Did Starov remember? Did he know? No – don’t think of it!

Rudolf cleared his throat, the sound unnaturally high-pitched to his own ears.

“That's right, Your Honour.” He intoned, forcing his voice deeper. “In this case, I feel it is important to address this attack on my reputation in full view of the magistocracy.”

“And no doubt you also feel it's important to avoid a public flogging before the Andaman courthouse, eh, Valentine?” Starov grinned cruelly while the court laughed. “And are we to further understand, Valentine, that you have refused the legal representation that was freely offered to you for this proceeding?”

“Right again, Your Honour. I feel I must defend myself personally against this egregious slight on my reputation.”

Starov gave a wave of his hand.

“As you would have it, boy. Present your opening comments to the court.”

Rudolf braced himself, turning to address the galleries.

Louche. Debonair. The words had almost lost their meaning now.

He began to speak, forcing an ironic smile to his lips:

“My Lords and Ladies, you see before you one who is falsely accused! The charges brought against me are two-fold: first, it is alleged that I was involved in the sale of faulty magical artifacts at the Port Blair Market on Andaman island, and second, that I practiced offensive magics within High Archmage Sassani’s domain without his consent. The first allegation is simply a misunderstanding: I was, in fact, working to combat the sale of these items by infiltrating the band of criminals who operate at the market. My intention was to protect the High Archmage’s interests, and it is this that makes the viceroy's allegations all the more painful. High Archmage Sassani claims that I made unprovoked use of an offensive spell in his domain, a deliberate violation of the Blue Principles. He wants to see me sent to the gulag for it. Well, it's true that I cast a spell. I admit it! However, I only did so to protect myself from the criminal thugs upon their discovery of my true intentions. So now I find myself before you, my reputation in ruins, wrongfully accused in this nightmare court. Is it a crime to defend oneself against violence? No. Is it a crime to act as defender of the public good? To oppose vice and depredation where you find it? I say again: No! It is under these circumstance that you see me here before you, an honest and honorable magistocrat: one who has always served his emperor faithfully, and one whose only wish is to have his good name restored in the eyes of the magistocracy!”

He swung back towards the judge’s stand with a bow. Behind him, the crowd murmured; whether in amusement or sympathy, he couldn't tell.

“A most interesting submission, Novice Valentine. You have stirred my deepest sympathies.” Starov said drily. “Now, let us hear what the plaintiff has to say.”

Rudolf resumed his seat and looked over to the plaintiff’s desk.

Sassani was conferring with what was evidently his head lawyer: an enormous raven, all ruffled feathers and haughteur stuffed into a set of robes. It nodded along to Sassani's whispered directions, its cruel eyes never leaving Rudolf's face. This was an astral being, appointed to Sassani for the trial. Rudolf had been offered – and refused – the same.

The thing rose and began to speak in a rasping voice:

“Your Honour, we would like to present the following details for your consideration. First, it should be noted that my client is only pressing charges in this court at the insistence of the accused. Although it was known at the time of arrest that Novice Valentine had illegally performed a spell in High Archmage Sassani’s domain, it was intended only that he receive the usual penalty for petty crime under the laws of Andaman island: thirty lashes across the buttocks. However, upon his removal to the Port Blair jail, the accused demanded that a thaumometer reading be taken in the vicinity of the market, threatening to afflict the jail sergeant with severe indigestion until the task was performed. He then demanded that he be tried in this court on the basis of that evidence rather than receive a public flagellation. In other words, the accused has grossly misrepresented the circumstances of this trial and we ask that his motives for doing so be taken into account.”

Rudolf felt himself flush as loud snorts of derision echoed from the rear of the court. The raven gave a harsh caw of amusement and continued:

“As to the circumstances of the accused’s arrest, several complaints were made to the Andaman constabulary of faulty magical articles being sold in the Port Blair Market in the weeks leading up to the arrest. The supposed perpetrators were a gang of vagabonds led by a young man answering the accused’s description, reported to be operating from a stall known as 'The Bazaar of the Bizarre'. Several items were presented by locals as evidence. Examples included ‘Weasley’s Wenereal Wemedy’, a lotion which resulted in several hospitalisations, faulty copies of the Perfunctory Pick-Up Charm and a number of supposedly magical amulets that caused skin complaints in all who used them. When two constables were dispatched to investigate, they discovered a scene underway in which several of the vagabonds were accosting Valentine over unpaid wages. At this point, Valentine made use of what was later identified as a Psychedelic Spurt spell before attempting to flee the scene. The accused was caught, placed under arrest and subsequently removed to the Port Blair jail, where he instigated the thaumometer reading. Upon making demands that he be tried for violation of the Blue Principles instead, the accused was then moved to a holding cell at the Office for Thaumic Oversight’s regional headquarters in Jakarta, where every comfort has been made available to him. In summary, despite the accused’s outrageous claims, he is clearly guilty of the charges made against him – charges that he insisted upon! My client is certain that Your Honour’s clear-eyed wisdom will triumph in this case. However, he hopes that you will be lenient in dealing with the accused, who is plainly a troubled young man.”

“A sordid tale of misdeed, Lord Sassani.” Starov replied smoothly. “Be assured that I have never yet failed to exact justice where it is due. Now be so good as to produce your witnesses and evidence.”

Rudolf sank low into his seat with a scowl. The events surrounding his arrest certainly sounded absurd when voiced aloud. That lawyer with its ridiculous croaking prattle! Well, impudence came at a cost, as the overgrown crow would soon learn. The first thing he would do upon his acquittal would be to track the beast to whatever astral realm it called home. There, feather after feather would be plucked with exquisite deliberation – one for each arch comment made!

Still, he thought, pulling himself erect. No need to panic.

His ace was still firmly up his sleeve.

The examination phase of the trial now began. Rudolf stirred as a stiffly dressed stoat rose and began giving evidence against him.

First, some ten witness statements were produced. After this long and painful reading, the Andaman constabulary’s report was produced, providing a forensic confirmation of both the spell and the thaumic signature which linked it to Rudolf.

During these proceedings Starov hunched over the desk in an attitude of mute attention. His eyes moved from exhibit to exhibit according to the invitations of the stoat, while his face wore the expression typical of one impatiently awaiting their turn to speak. His gaze frequently broke from the proceedings to rest hungrily upon Rudolf.

It was in these moments that Rudolf’s faith in his plan were most sorely tested.

Finally, the last of the statements was rolled up and the stoat took its seat with an obsequious salute.

A third lawyer in the shape of a rather corpulent toad now struggled to its feet. It made a gesture to one of the bailiffs, who nodded before closing his eyes and winking out of existence. The substance of the dream shimmered and, with a subliminal 'pop', a very ugly man appeared on the witness stand. Rudolf immediately recognised one of the vagabonds he had employed at the stall. The man stood stunned for a moment, letting out a choked cry upon spying the monstrous shape of the toad.

“We realise that this may be a shocking and surreal experience for you, Mister Suriya,” The toad said mildly. “However, please remember that you are in a court of law and must conduct yourself accordingly. Now, you are aware that you are here to testify against Novice Valentine, yes?”

“Ah, yes,” The merchant quavered. “The police sergeant explained it all to me before I drank the dream-tea. Of course, I meant no offence to you, Sir Frog.”

“But of course, Mr. Suriya.” The toad replied smoothly. “Now then, first you must be sworn under oath. Tell me, do you follow the seven principles of the Hyperdivine?”

To Rudolf’s chagrin, Suriya quickly got over his fear and adopted an air of respectful ignorance. After much evasion on the vagabond’s part, the toad finally interposed.

“In summary, Mr. Suriya, would it be accurate to say that Novice Valentine cast a spell upon your person after you and your colleagues confronted him?”

“Objection, Your Honour! A leading question!” Rudolf exclaimed.

“Overruled.” Came the flat response.

“Why yes, Sir Frog, that’s the gist of it. And I hope the esteemed magistrate condemns Valentine to the water torture too, if you’ll excuse my saying so.” Suriya replied, doffing his cap to Justice Starov.

“And what caused Valentine to lash out as he did?”

“I’ve no idea, Sir, no idea at all.” The merchant replied in mock-sorrow. “My fellows and I were only asking Master Valentine for what he’d promised us. We didn’t threaten, in fact we were the very picture of politeness, in view of him being a magistocrat and all. But he let loose with a nasty trick rather than hand over a few meagre rupees. It’s a hard enough for a man of my poor health to put food on the table without dealing with crooked wizards.” He shot Rudolf a sly look before continuing. “And please know, Sir, that we merchants didn’t realise the geegaws Valentine had us selling were fakes. ‘Don’t you boys worry yourselves about it’ he said with a vulgar wink. We were mortified when we found out!”

“Is that so?” The toad replied. “Could you please describe the effects of Novice Valentine’s spell on yourself and the others for the court?”

Suriya's expression was thoughtful.

“Well, just when we thought we’d cornered him with, um, a very reasonable argument, Valentine made as if to reach for his coin purse. But then he leapt back, bellowing and waving his arms. And all of a sudden, beams of coloured light were shooting in all directions. I tried to get out of the way, but I was hit. A purple one, I believe. There was a great flash, as though the Hyperdivine themselves had sundered the veils and I was blinded for a few moments. When my sight came back, Valentine had gone. But his magic trick put us in a terrible state. Thaksin was turned into a statue. Mongkut took sick with the dropsy and poor Chanchai now spends his days kneeling by the road believing himself to be a public bench. As for myself, I am cursed with the appearance of the old man you see before you. Before Valentine worked his mischief on me, I was a handsome young lad. Young maidens used to blush at my glance. Now I'm taken for a lecherous old goat. I therefore beseech Your Excellencies – undo this terrible spell and restore me to my former self! Oh, and there's also the matter of unpaid wages for myself and the others, which I estimate at 6,000 rupees.”

“A damning testimony.” The toad intoned. “Let the record show that Novice Valentine’s actions far exceeded the circumstances. As for your unpaid wages, Mr. Suriya, you must seek them from Novice Valentine upon the conclusion of this trial. No further questions, Your Honour.”

Suriya began to remonstrate at this, but was ejected from the dreamscape with a sudden ‘pop’.

The toad returned to the prosecution desk. After a moment’s conference and a slight nod on Sassani’s part, the raven stood and once more addressed the judge’s stand.

“Your Honour, you have heard the evidence. We believe there can be no doubt that Novice Valentine performed a Psychedelic Spurt within High Archmage Sassani’s domain, in direct contravention of the Blue Principles. Furthermore, the violent effect of Valentine's spurt was out of all proportion to the supposed danger he was in. We hope that this evidence is sufficient to incriminate Valentine on the charges against him. The prosecution rests.”

Starov smiled darkly.

“Indeed, indeed. I am most curious as to how you will refute all this, Novice Valentine. Any cross-examinations to be made?”

Rudolf sat up as proudly as he could, dislodging several beads of sweat which had collected on his neck.

“No, Your Honour. I wouldn’t want to delay the proceedings any further. I shall proceed directly to giving my evidence: the examination of a single witness.”

“Well Novice Valentine, your sense of showmanship is acute, whatever your other faults. A career on the stage beckons – perhaps. You may proceed.”

Rudolf did not much appreciate the tone with which this remark had been delivered. He stood and made a gesture to a bailiff, who once more winked from the dream.

Rudolf stood quietly, painfully aware of his audience's eyes upon him, seeming much less friendly than at the onset of the trial.

The more he tried to gather his thoughts, the louder the whispering in the court seemed and the more conscious he was of Starov’s eagerness to pass judgement on him. He tried to calm himself, tried to ignore the sick pangs within his stomach. But it was no good. Every second he lost worrying only agitated him further. His heart pounded in his ears, threatening to drown out all other sounds. The bars of the dock seemed to press in close upon him. He raised his hands towards them. Bars? There were worse things than bars where he was going.

No, don’t think of it! A voice rose from somewhere within him. It’s all been taken care of! Just keep your head, say your lines and you'll be fine!

THOOM!

A violent jolt passed through the courtroom. Rudolf lurched forwards, the trial suddenly forgotten. The pulsing came like the motion of a monstrous dynamo and he turned to see that a covered balcony had appeared high at the rear of the court, above the public galleries.

Again? What could it mean? Unless-

“Oh Xristos, no!” He moaned softly.

There was a fanfare of trumpets. A voice cried out importantly: “All rise for His Majesty, The Emperor!”

Rudolf's panic reached a pitch. Trying desperately not to retch, he stood to attention once more, his legs trembling beneath him.

Christopher Moiser