Excerpt from Orb of Dreams by Gentillian Shenk
It is a place of great beauty and wealth, our Vespa. A place of pink-turfed hills and secluded bays. A place where starlight sparkles on waters of suffusing turquoise and makes reveries in the gentle arbours of the hills.
Along the planet's broad central band, in the steaming Sea of Tea, lie all the islands of the city-states, from Samos to far Arcadia, their rocks smoothed to softness by the attentions of the sea.
The Great City-States. Of the largest and richest there are perhaps a hundred. Heraklion, Naxos, Bodrum and Old Kos: places of antique splendour where villas stand in neat rows around the palaces of the tetraches, their gardens tinkling with birdsong and the gurgle of the springs.
Beyond the city walls lie vast holdings. Fields of opium, coca, wheat, maize and sorghum stretch as far as the eye can see. Viewed from afar, they seem a tranquil sea. Up close, one hears the crack of the whip, the lament of the slaves.
The great wealth of Vespa.
So long as the crops grow in abundance, so long as the grain is harvested and shipped to earth, we are left to our peace.
In their marble palaces, the tetrarchs plot and scheme. Jokes and pranks they may play on each other with impunity: a raid by pirates into enemy territory, or a slave rebellion whipped up by agent provocateurs. Jests, designed to dismay and annoy. They must satisfy themselves with this. For open warfare is not permitted by Grand Catai. By imperial decree, the Lords of Vespa must meet in conclave once a year to voice their complaints, make new alliances and judge the effectiveness of their pranks. In this manner, they are kept in their role as naughty schoolboys.
So much for the city-states.
To the North and South of the Sea of Tea lie stranger places, vast landmasses where stretch the hill-forts of Jagos and the Mountains of Wild Regard. These are arguably the planet's more interesting locales.
Here is the wild country, out beyond the imperial reach. Here is a place of swamp-dwelling hermits and mountain-side goatherds, ekeing out their lives at the very edge of civilisation. Here is a place of weird apostasy, where thaumaturges and diabolists work strange and terrible miracles in their mountain-top redoubts.
Along the coasts of Vermoullion and Gef lie the free towns. Here meth is cooked and rum brewed. From these places operate the famous Vespeen smugglers, shifting opium, meth, rum and the exotic creations of the apostates to the markets of New Orleans and Miami. It is these smugglers for which Vespa is best known in Grand Catai. These brave men and women form the backbone of the empire's underground economy. Without them, many of life's little pleasures would be missed.
The weeks sped by at Raj Niwas, giving Rudolf little time for reflection.
Every morning at 7am he attended Physical Training, usually in the form of a run through the woods, circuit training or battle training. Following breakfast, either taken with the men or alone, he then worked on whatever assignment Anastasia had set him that week. The afternoons were either reserved for magical combat training with Anastasia and her officers, or in assisting Sergeant Verma with administrative duties. He generally had evenings free, although he was expected to cover guard duty on a regular basis.
In addition to this were the frequent training exercises undertaken in conjunction with the other companies of the Guard. These generally took place at night in the countryside surrounding the palace, and covered a variety of scenarios ranging from basic manouvres to public order tactics, thaumaturgical incidence response and detainee operations.
The Viceregal Guard was much larger than Rudolf had initially suspected. A force of 30,000 was divided into multiple brigades, each assigned a territory of Indochina, there to ‘maintain peace and uphold the public good’, which they did in coordination with the various local constabularies. The force was under Anastasia’s command as part of her role as lictor. Frequently engaged with other matters, she left the running of the Guard to officers who were in turn satisfied to hand over day-to-day operations to their bullish sergeants. In this manner, the Viceregal Guard functioned much like any other military force.
It was 1st Battalion, 31 Brigade that held the honour of guarding the viceregal palace, and it was the second company of this battalion to which Rudolf was attached. Though he held no formal rank or title, he found himself employed as an orderly to Sergeant Verma, the handsome autocrat who had so humiliated him that first day. In this, he was forced to set his pride aside for a time.
Though Verma and his guards initially took great pleasure in their impertinence towards Rudolf, he quickly puzzled out the pecking order and sought ways to insert himself into it. To this end, he interceded in a rivalry between two of the troop’s foremost members over the affections of a scullery maid and successfully broke the nose of the largest guard in a disagreement. These investments, along with his quick wit and ability to procure alchohol, did much to improve his standing amongst the men, who soon took to calling him ‘Lord Valentine’. The title was initially meant as an ironic one. But since it implied status, Rudolf saw no reason to oppose it and the sarcastic tone with which it was used soon died away.
The weeks passed in a flash of well-organised activity. Rudolf worked hard, ate well and slept soundly. He took pleasure in the improved strength and tautness of his body and the increasing responsibilities assigned to him by the laconic Verma. His dreams of power and prestige were taking on a certain reality, as both he and Anastasia noted with separate satisfaction. Lord Sassani, rarely seen, was soon forgotten.
After the first month, a development occurred.
Rudolf had just finished delivering a presentation on the Beijing magistocracy to Sister Anastasia, focusing, as she had requested, on the various secret societies and fraternal orders that operated in the capitol. He was not quite sure why she might be interested in this topic, but nonetheless, he felt that the presentation had gone well. Having made his concluding remarks, he rose and saluted the Valkyrie.
“Will that be all, Ma’am?”
He stood rigidly to attention, eyes crossed in an exaggerated display of militarism.
“Sit down, Valentine.” She said without looking up. “There’s someone coming up from Port Blair I’d like to introduce you to. It may be that you can help them with something.”
She went back to the paperwork on her desk, as though he weren’t there.
Rudolf merely smiled, assured in his belief that he had mastered masking his thoughts from her. He watched her as she went over the papers, occasionally licking a finger before turning a page. In spite of her outward demeanor, he noted, she was an extremely attractive woman.
He often thought to detect certain undercurrents in her. He knew that the sisters swore oaths of dedication to Luna, had heard they held binding ceremonies and exchanges of blood amongst themselves. He knew that they swore a vow of chastity. But still. Those vows were intended to guard against something. And that something, he was confident, could never be fully extinguished.
She looked up, her eyes narrowing.
“Ah, Captain. Please come in.”
The stiffly-dressed police officer standing in the doorway was unknown to Rudolf. Sister Anastasia made the introductions.
“Captain Singh, Novice Valentine – Novice Valentine, Captain Singh. Congratulations on your promotion by the way.” She added, gesturing the officer into a seat. “The captain here was recently raised to the Port Blair Command; her predecessor was dismissed for accepting a bribe.” She added by way of explanation.
Rudolf found it quite difficult to articulate his thoughts regarding this.
“No need to explain yourself, Valentine. In a sense, you helped highlight an incidence of police corruption which otherwise might have gone unnoticed.” Singh remarked. “Still, I am glad that you feel remorse for your wrongdoing and I offer you the chance to repay the damages in full. The force requires a steady stream of volunteers to work as undercover agents in the local drugs trade, you see.”
“I am sure you will distinguish yourself, Rudolf.” Anastasia added. “And yes, the viceroy is aware of this arrangement. Here is a written order authorising the loan of his slave to the Andaman Constabulary- I insist that you read it.”
And so for the next month or so Rudolf found himself occupied with a new and interesting challenge.
The sting operation was not elaborate or well thought out. It involved Rudolf impersonating one of Port Blair’s chief pushers, Alphonso “Blu-Glu” Lulu, a large, roughspun man of unknown origins whose nickname was due to the blue tint characteristic of the crystal meth he slung. It was a simple task, or so Captain Singh claimed.
Infiltrate the dealers and find the supplier.
“Open your mouth, Blu-Glu! Look- do I really have to do this?” Rudolf remarked to his handler as he rammed the swab into a gap between two of Lulu’s crumbling teeth.
“-y ‘oysh’ll ‘ucking ‘ill ‘oo!” The outraged mafioso declared with some difficulty.
“Of course they will.” Rudolf replied glumly.
In the event, they did not kill him. With the viceroy’s permission, the saliva sample was rendered into an transformation matrix, by which means Rudolf’s appearance was made convincing to Lulu’s gang.
“How comes they let you out so quickly, Boss? What the coppers say? We got problems?”
“What’s with all the questions? You know I get enough ‘a them offa my bitch wife.” He rounded on them with Lulu’s trademark scowl. “I kept my mouth shut is what. The cops didn’t have anything on me other than the word of a few soon-to-be-dead snitches. ‘Course I know none a youse would ever rat on ol’ Blu-Glu. Right?”
The dark faces surveyed one another shiftily.
“Now pass me some ‘a the stuff, Enzo. That police coffee’s got my palate all fucked up…”
In order to distract and appease Blu-Glu's underlings, Rudolf embarked upon a campaign of rooting out snitches and moles within the gang. Through this, it emerged that all but a handful of drug-dealers in the Port Blair area were already on the police payroll; a fact that had gone unremarked upon up until now. After several meetings the last hold-outs were bought off and the sting was ready to proceed.
Rudolf arranged the meeting with the supplier for a damp evening in early March.
It was a drizzly, moonless night at the Port Blair docks. Rudolf stood hunched at the end of a pier with four of Lulu’s most spineless guys at his back, their weapons unloaded.
We’ll strike as soon as he appears. His handler had told him. Throw yourself down when the spotlight comes on so we can hit him with a Stun effect.
Rudolf roused himself. The sounds of water lapping against metal reached his ear; a black shape appeared at the end of the pier.
“Time to shine, boys.” He whispered.
The supplier, one Phylum Erasmus, was unimpressed by his reception. He strode up and down the pier venting his frustration whilst the lackeys unloaded the shipment. The Vespeen had the sunken eyes and jaundiced skin that marked long-term exposure to a leaky fusion rig and the unsettling aura common to meth addicts.
“In and out. In and out. That’s the way I do things, Lulu!” Erasmus hissed, repeating himself with rising anger as he eyed Rudolf. “And you bring four guys to unload three hundred kilos? What is this?”
“Less bodies attractin’ less heat, Erasmus. You know I got problems with the law.”
Rudolf's gaze swept the darkened pier.
Come on, come on. Where in the seven hells were they?
Erasmus spat, eying the pistol at Rudolf’s belt with calculating eyes. Suddenly he turned aside, striding to where the last of the resin was being unloaded.
“I told you idiots to be careful with the packaging! The stuff oxidises easy!”
He’s going for a weapon.
Rudolf flexed his damp fingers. He was so close to proving himself.
A light flared somewhere, then died away.
“Stay where you are, Erasmus!” Rudolf bellowed. “You’re under arrest!”
“I fucking knew it!” Erasmus screamed, turning with pistol in hand to blast wildly across the pier. Rudolf threw himself down, his fingers tracing the final logogram; luckily he had not neglected to memorise the Psychedelic Spurt.
“Well done, Valentine.” Captain Singh said later that night as a heavily sedated Erasmus was heaved into a cell. “I’d like to thank you on behalf of the force for the work you’ve done.”
“My pleasure, Captain. I'm grateful for the opportunity to redeem myself in the eyes of the law.” He said through gritted teeth.
They shook hands.
“I must ask, by the way,” he added, “why the arresting officers didn’t appear when they were supposed to?”
“Unfortunately, they were unable to locate the target.” She said, eyeing him with amused condescension. “It seems we spent so much money bribing drug dealers that we couldn’t afford a replacement bulb for the spotlight. No matter. Happily, you were able to deal with the situation.”
“Very happily.” He agreed through gritted teeth.
By chance, the force had procured a large crate of medals just before the fiscal crisis was discovered. After showing it to everyone who would look, Rudolf placed his in a bedside drawer and promptly forgot about it.