Excerpt from A Little Person's Guide to Big Magics by Kermit Weiveld
If your family can spare the admission fee, if you be astute enough to pass the entrance exams, then Congratulations! A place at the Akademia Arcanum shall be made for you, and your entry into the Magistocracy assured.
But not all Magistocrats are created equal, my young friends. Since before the empire's inception, a table of wizarding grades has been used to determine one's merits and decide his or her place in the pecking order.
Whilst under tutelage at the Akademia, you shall hold the grade of Tyro – barely a Magistocrat at all! But master the basics of spellcasting and pass your exams, and you shall graduate with the grade of Novice Second Class! Now you may apply for a position within the Imperial Government, or hold a commission in the Imperial Legions! Your progress from here is determined by the number of spells you are able to retain and cast. Successfully hold the logograms of four spells within your mind, and you shall ascend to Novice First Class; master eight, and you become a fully fledged Mage! Advancement from here depends mainly upon service and loyalty to His Majesty The Emperor. Years of faithful service and assiduous use of magic will see you ascend to an Archmage, one for whom powerful spells and high positions in government are reserved! Magical mastery, tireless labours and undying loyalty are the proofs required to reach the final grade, and only the most worthy may distinguish themselves with the title of High Archmage.
At this point, the potent magics you wield may begin to overwhelm you. No doubt you have noted the bizarre mutations and deformities common among the more powerful Archmages and High Archmages? But fear not, my darlings, for these are but marks of power; to hold logograms within one's mind exerts a considerable toll on the mortal form.
So work hard and apply yourself. Who knows? One day you too may sport a serious deformity!
For the second time in the short space of the dream, Rudolf's senses were assaulted.
The court seemed to fade in and out of focus. Coruscating lights played about the edges of the covered balcony with each pulse. The whole court felt a twang across their nerves as the dimensions of dream-space buckled under the weight of the imperial mind.
A sick hopelessness convulsed Rudolf’s mind, quickly giving way to a maddening series of images both terrifying and erotic. The image of two human-shaped slugs urgently copulating flashed across his frontal lobes, before dissolving into an impression of formless and frustrated space. Spinning within this void came the impression of a twisted organic form, an idiotic cacophony fluting from its vocal organs. The image faded, to be replaced by that of a pale, smirking face. It grew in his mind’s eye, almost unbearably close. Its cold, black eyes were pits into which he was tumbling, losing himself, his mind dissolving.
And then, quite suddenly, it was over.
The court gasped with relief. Rudolf shook his head. Colours and sensations had normalised and the dream now seemed as realistic as before. The imperial box occupied its place on the wall, as outwardly solid and unremarkable as any other furnishing in the courtroom.
“All kneel for His Majesty, The Emperor Philemon!” Starov screeched, stepping down from the stand to take a knee. The rest of the courtroom followed suit and a tense silence fell.
There was a faint rustling from the rear of the court.
In spite of the light which flowed through the courtroom, a deep gloom pooled within the box, as though the awning that covered it was intended to hide something shameful and repulsive. And yet, in spite of the dread that clutched at the hearts of all those present, the voice that now spoke from within the gloom was that of a youth.
“You may rise, my mages.” It said. “And let the proceedings continue as before. I trust these matters will soon be brought to an end; the hour of my conjugal playtime approaches.”
The voice was heard doubly by all present. First heard was the reedy and petulant tones common to many a teenaged boy, not normally possessed of authority. This impression, however, immediately gave way to the growling bass which accompanied it – not so much heard, as felt in one’s bones – a mark of the ageless beast bound within that delicate form.
“Your Majesty,” Starov began, rising, “we are about to hear the evidence of the defendant, one Novice Valentine, who is accused by Lord Sassani-”
“I am aware of the details of the case, thank you.” The emperor replied. A tongue of flame flared within the box for a second, revealing a cruel and narrow face. “And I find it all most amusing, I assure you. Now- continue without further interruption.”
The light died away, leaving the impression of two perfectly black eyes, like those of a shark. The cup of a hookah glowed redly within the gloom, sending gouts of smoke wafting into the courtroom.
Rudolf stood transfixed, his lips trembling. Finally, he turned back towards the witness stand. It seemed his efforts to sensationalise the court case had been more successful than he'd anticipated.
“The plan.” He whispered to himself. “For Xristos’ sake, stick to the plan.”
There was another popping sensation, and a small man appeared on the witness stand. Rudolf took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Lines he'd rehearsed a thousand times blew through his mind like chaffs of straw. The man steadied himself for a moment as his shock passed and his eyes settled upon the novice before him.
I am Louche. I am Debonair. I am Rudolf Valentine.
Rudolf’s eyes opened. Pulling himself erect, he angled his body so that the emperor would see his face and gestures clearly.
“That’s right, Barthit!” He roared. “It is I, Rudolf Valentine! You remember me then. You are here to assist the course of justice! Answer my questions honestly and no harm shall come to you!”
Barthit blinked uncertainly, his face screwed up as he cast about for a memory.
“Answer questions? Yes. The Sergeant explained something of the sort. This isn’t what I was expecting though-”
“Of course not!” Rudolf interrupted. “How could you expect to be facing me again so soon? But perhaps you should explain to His Majesty and the court how we know each other.”
The merchant swayed in angry confusion, his gaze dumbly sweeping the courtroom. His eyes settled upon Rudolf with a look of rage.
“How we know each other? Yes, of course I know you, thrice-accursed wizard! For it was you who foiled my business at The Stall of the Strange!”
“The Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Rudolf corrected.
Disconcerted whisperings had broken out at the rear of the court. Starov glowered down in angry confusion.
“So you admit it!” Rudolf shouted quickly. “You were the ringleader of the whole operation!”
“I-I’m not here to talk about that though! Why, am I here? I don’t understand…”
“Ah, of course you play the fool, Barthit! But perhaps you’d prefer to discuss the spell which I cast upon you?”
“Yes…” The merchant said slowly. “I came to indict you. That was it. But I -”
“The spell which I’ve been charged with here today! The information you give now could be my death sentence! So tell the court, Barthit, why did I cast the spell?”
The merchant snapped once more into maddened wrath.
“Because I was going to rip your throat out, you dirty rat! Because you threatened to report my entire enterprise to the police, after all I did for you!”
“Ah ha!” Rudolf shouted, relief coursing through his body. “So you admit you were going to attack me when you found out I had infiltrated your illegal operation with the sole intention of terminating it?”
“Precisely!” The merchant bellowed. “Couldn't have said it better myself!”
“Well then, my case rests: no further questions.” Rudolf said with casual finality. “Bailiff, you may remove this man from the courtroom.”
He turned and began essaying an assiduous bow towards the imperial box.
“Not so fast.”
A honeyed voice cut through the hushed courtroom. Rudolf froze mid-bow, a needle of ice in his heart.
Ghulam Sassani had risen and now approached the front of the court. There was a rustle of hushed excitement from the stands; the lion had appeared on the savannah and was now closing upon its prey. A long plume of smoke emanated from the imperial box accompanied by a quiet chuckle.
“Your Honour, since Novice Valentine has seemingly finished giving evidence, I would like to cross-examine the witness.”
Starov nodded his assent and Sassani turned amused eyes upon the whitening Rudolf.
“Perhaps you should sit down.” The viceroy said gently.
Rudolf opened his mouth, croaked once and sat down. Sassani glided smoothly towards the witness stand.
“Barthit, I am Ghulam Sassani, Viceroy of Indochina and the plaintiff in this case. I trust you will answer my questions truthfully? Unfortunately Novice Valentine was in too much of a hurry to place you under oath.”
Rudolf sank further into his seat.
“Y-yes, Lord. I'll answer as best I can.”
“You seem rather confused by your present circumstances, Barthit. Could you please tell us why you are here today?”
“I think I'm here to indict Novice Valentine on several charges, Lord. Or am I here to testify on his behalf? For some reason I am not sure which. Why would I testify for him after he wronged me? My thoughts are strangely confused…”
“Most vexing. But you are sure that you were the ring-leader of the operation?”
Barthit’s expression instantly changed from puzzlement to certainty.
“Why yes, M'Lord: I was master of a fine montebank’s market. The Stall of the Strange, if it please you.”
“The Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Sassani corrected. “And how did you come to helm such an – ahem – ingenious operation, if I might ask?”
Barthit’s face lapsed once more into confusion.
“I… I confess I cannot recall. It seems strange to me now…” The vagabond’s confusion gave way and he smiled at Sassani with slightly crossed eyes. “What did you ask again, Lord? I’m not quite sure why I’m here... By heavens, the rodent infestation in your wizardly courts is terrible! Look at that fat rascal there, dressed just like a man!”
“The man’s wits begin to leave him,” Sassani shook his head sadly. “I suspect magic has been misapplied here. Note, Your Honour, the robotic quality of the answers given to certain questions: Barthit, why did Novice Valentine assault you in the marketplace?”
Barthit snapped to cross-eyed attention.
“I was going to rip out his throat after he threatened to report my entire enterprise to the police!”
Sassani shook his head once again.
“Bailiff, please go make inquiries at the Port Blair jail. We need a record of all visitors received by Barthit while held there pending trial.”
The bailiff saluted crisply before vanishing.
“This should only take a moment, Your Honour.”
“I am beginning to comprehend the situation quite nicely, Lord Sassani.” Starov growled, giving Rudolf a look which almost turned his bowels to water.
The court was silent.
A slow minute passed in which Rudolf avoided all eyes, staring at the ground without seeing or comprehending anything. The dull pain of his fingers gripping his chair was the only sensation his brain seemed capable of registering.
The bailiff reappeared with a ‘pop’. Rudolf looked up, pale with terror.
“Four separate visits are reckoned, Your Excellencies. Three from a woman and child identifying themselves as the prisoner’s family, which are entered into the jail ledger. A fourth visit was made by a hooded stranger. The visit does not appear to be entered in the ledger. The duty corporal swears to the occurance however, and recalls that the figure spent several minutes in conference with the station captain.”
“Most instructive. Thank you, Bailiff.” Sassani turned back to the judge’s stand. “Your Honour, please let me state that I intend a full investigation into this matter. I expect the results will show that poor Barthit here has had his wits addled by an ineffectual application of the Mnemonic Nurple spell, which Novice Valentine arranged by means unknown. May I suggest that the trial be suspended until the investigation is complete?”
“I think not, Lord Sassani.” The judge said, fixing Rudolf with a gleeful stare. “Though your fair-mindedness is commendable, no further enquiries will be necessary. The truth, I should think, is glaringly obvious to all. It is clear that Valentine has made a bungling attempt at intrigue, amounting to great impertinence to you, this court and the reputation of the magistocracy itself. Therefore, in addition to the charge of first degree violation of the Blue Principles, I find the defendant, Novice Second Class Rudolf Valentine, guilty of perverting the course of justice!”
The gavel fell with a resounding crack. Rudolf shuddered, gazing up in blank incomprehension. Just an hour ago he had been sat in his cell writing a poem. He had been louche. He had been debonair.
This couldn’t be happening.
“Normally, the sentence for such a crime would be death.” Starov said, his eyes gleaming with cold malice. “However, in light of the breathtaking impertinence you have displayed today, as well as your eagerness to sully the reputation of Lord Sassani, I feel motivated towards a more severe punishment. I hereby sentence you to a lifetime of indentured service in the Uralian-Pacific Special Economic Region. Hopefully this ruling shall discourage the novices of Grand Catai from similar effronteries against their betters!”
The gavel struck a final, decisive blow.
Rudolf rose and attempted a bow, but his legs failed him and he fell back weakly.
The courtroom burst into noise: chatter and bustle from the galleries as onlookers craned to get a look at the criminal novice, the clamour of Sassani’s attorneys congratulating their patron and the banging of staves upon the ground as the bailiffs called for order. Starov turned away with satisfaction, calling for the bailiffs to remove the condemned.
Rudolf heard none of it.
The Uralian-Pacific SER. A lifetime in the work camps. Folding pig-iron in the foundry for eighteen hours a day. Stripping leaky fusion cells from the wreckage of destroyers. Directing work gangs of rapists and murderers. Fishheads, stinking camp swill and lice-ridden bunkhouses unheated in the winter. How long would he last? Months? Years? Decades? Perhaps he would be shanked in the cookhouse over a scrap of food. Perhaps he would be left to freeze after falling too many times. Perhaps, in a moment of madness, he might misdirect the force of a compression spell and cause his brain to leak from his ears. None survived the gulag. One day, years from now, his mother, rousing herself from a drunken stupor would be driven to final madness by the telegram detailing her son’s death.
Like father, like son.
He shuddered weakly and vomited, vaguely wondering if he might suffocate where he lay comatose in his cell. The buzzing in the court reached a crescendo and began to recede as whiteness obscured the edges of his vision.
Unnoticed by anyone, Sassani turned towards the imperial box and, raising his voice over the general tumult, spoke directly to the emperor.
“Your Majesty, I would like to petition on Novice Valentine’s behalf for an alternative punishment.”
The effect was instantaneous.
Choked cries were heard from the galleries. At the bench, Starov stood immobile, gavel hanging loosely in his hand, his lips pressed together, eyes wide with shock and rage. All eyes turned upwards. The imperial box was still.
Then, as if in response to the will of every squinting magistocrat, the light from the high windows blazed intently for a moment, revealing the outline of a head and shoulders within the haze of tobacco smoke that coiled there. All saw the cold and unreadable eyes that shone down upon the viceroy, holding his fate and that of Rudolf transfixed in their gaze.
If he felt any relief at this, the viceroy did not show it. Giving a curt bow, he continued:
“Valentine’s actions represent a major breach of the law, not to mention good taste, Your Majesty. It is right that his punishment should fit the weight of those crimes. However, I respectfully question whether Valentine’s stupidity should warrant a life wasted in hard labour. I believe he is capable of much more in the service of your government. And though the boy has sullied both his own reputation as well as that of the magistocracy, I feel that rehabilitation is both possible and desirable in this case.”
Rudolf looked up, a glimmer of hope starting somewhere below his navel. The imperial box, enshrouded in darkness once more, remained silent. Sassani continued:
“I request that Valentine’s punishment go some way towards repairing the inconvenience he has caused me. Specifically, I cite ancient precedent and ask that he be bound into my service for the period of a year and a day. Should you permit this, he will perform various trifling and irksome tasks for myself and so negate the expense of employing a household servant. In this manner then, Valentine will pay off his transgressions, be kept from further mischief and perhaps learn something of rectitude before returning to polite society.”
Several of the mages in the gallery rose in protest at this, but they were silenced by the harsh blows of Starov’s gavel.
“Silence!” He screamed. “His Majesty will decide the villain’s fate!”
Rudolf noted with weary indifference the face of Lord Marshal Maputo amongst the protesters. Their eyes locked for a second and a spasm of disgust passed across the marshal’s features before he turned aside to exchange angry words with his neighbour.
For a few moments, the courtroom was quiet. Then, leaning forward, the emperor’s boyish features were starkly revealed in the glaring light of the courtroom. It looked down upon Sassani with knitted brows, the expression of those terrible eyes revealing nothing of its thoughts. Finally, a flicker passed across its face and it gave a sudden shriek of laughter.
“I see it all clearly!”
Rudolf held his breath, his heart fluttering madly.
The emperor glanced from one direction to the other, evidently inviting the assembled magistocrats to share in the joke.
“Lord Sassani thinks to confound us with his high-minded cant, my mages. Not so, viceroy, not so! You wish to take young Valentine here for your plaything. Sly pederast!” It waggled a finger in mock reproach as a few cautious chuckles ventured from the galleries. “Why did you not state your desires plainly? Of course, the fellow has inconvenienced you greatly through this little drama; it is only fitting that you should receive your pound of flesh in return. It has been a long time since one of our number was placed under the Geas. The results will be most amusing, I trust. And perhaps at the end of his sentence, young Valentine here will have learned a few lessons in humility.”
Sassani’s face was impassive. He remained motionless for a heartbeat then bowed stiffly, to the emperor’s further amusement. It turned towards Rudolf, a sadistic grin revealing small, perfectly even teeth. Rudolf flushed as relief and dread coursed through him in equal measure.
The emperor held up a hand to quell the chuckles echoing through the court, its face suddenly grim.
“The sentence is commuted: Novice Valentine will be released into the custody of High Archmage Sassani for the period of a year and a day. During this time Valentine shall be the chattel of Sassani, to be disposed of at the viceroy’s discretion. A decree shall be written up authorising a summoning for purposes of laying the Geas. Justice Starov, you may bring the court proceedings to a close.”
The gavel rapped ominously.
“Court is adjourned! Bailiffs, return the prisoner to his cell to await Lord Sassani’s pleasure. The rest of you, remain seated!” Starov roared. His eyes roved the courtroom furiously, as if daring another challenge to his authority. His lip curled as a fresh cruelty suggested itself.
“There is still the matter of selecting His Majesty’s playmates for the afternoon.”
Starov's eyes scoured the gallery before coming to rest on a pale, frightened archmage.
“Madam Stone, you are a woman whose beauty was once profound. Tell us- has your daughter reached the age of menarche?”
An outcry now erupted in the galleries, but Rudolf’s attentions lay elsewhere. He looked over towards Sassani, but the viceroy did not meet his eye. Rudolf stared down in glum reflection until he felt hands grasp at his lapels. Standing, he was led ponderously from the courtroom, the shrieking protests of Madam Stone ringing in his ears.