The Magistocrats

Chapter Twelve

Excerpt from the Duellist's Association Handbook

  1. A referee of good character must be appointed by common consent to oversee proceedings and ensure all goes fairly.

  2. All play is limited to the confines of a hastilude green measuring forty by twenty yards, the boundaries of which must be clearly defined.

  3. The use of weapons, sleights, caltrops and other such appurtenances not germane to proceedings are impermissible.

  4. Duellists start on the forty yard line and then may advance as necessary once in play.

  5. Lateral movement is permissible; retreat is not. To quit the green for any reason results in instant disqualification.

  6. Play is initiated by referee's countdown and the dropping of a handkerchief.

  7. The challenger gets first cast; after this cast is made, free play reigns.

  8. Points are granted when a spell connects or is deflected, on a one-for-one basis. Points are deducted for illegal conduct; should a duellist's points slip below zero, they are instantly disqualified.

  9. Play continues until either one or both duellists are eliminated – either through incapacity, death or by running out of spells – or once a pre-agreed points margin is reached. When one duellist is eliminated, the other wins by knock-out, regardless of points distribution. Should both be eliminated simultaneously, the victory is decided on points. In the case of a tie, the duellists are obliged to shake hands, if possible, and share a tot of aquavit, all past differences resolved.

  10. Spells intended to bemuse and befuddle the mind are illegal. This does not apply to spells of illusion, although it is admitted that the distinction is slight: the referee has discretion where circumstances are unclear.

  11. The hastilude green must remain clear of outside influences at all times. Where incursions occur, play is paused until the green has been cleared, to which responsibility falls the referee.

  12. Recommencement of play following a hiatus results in both duellists starting again from the appropriate start-line; free play resumes once the handkerchief drops.

The Past Redeemed

The spring rains came, fresh and clean to the parched valleys of Andaman. In the night skies, a warmer moon showed her face. Just over two months of Rudolf's servitude to Lord Sassani had passed. Two months of his year's service. During this time he had not seen or spoken to the viceroy except in the most fleeting terms. Having returned to Raj Niwas following the sting operation, he felt his excitement start to build once more.

It was obvious that his time on Andaman Island was coming to an end.

Between his training with the Viceregal Guard and the various research assignments set for him, Rudolf came to understand that a certain something was being planned for his future. And in his self-regarding way, he did not require much thought to convince himself that he was being prepared for some important and clandestine role.

He did not have to wait long to put the theory to the test.

It was on a fresh afternoon in April that he found himself, the sun in his eyes and a breeze at his back, squinting down the hastilude green at Sister Anastasia.

He stood half-crouched, knees soft, jaw clenched. His hands were held ready at his sides.

At the opposte end of the green, Anastasia was casual, a condescending smile in place. She raised a hand-

“ǞǬ!”

Rudolf threw himself to the side, rolled-

“ʆʓ!”

It arced past. He came up awkwardly, almost stumbling-

“§ʯʑ!”

A bolt of green light sped towards him.

“ƛÏ!”

He made the cast just in time; a pulsing shield appeared around his clenched fists- half an instant later, her bolt hit. The shield rang like a gong and he was knocked backwards off his feet. He rolled and came up at a crouch, panting with effort.

“Good!” Sister Anastasia remarked. “You're getting faster. Again!”

They went through the motions again, her casting, him trying to dodge or block as necessary. He gasped with effort, his face sheened with sweat, eyes burning. She cast without effort, her expression dull and condescending. Five times she cast, five times he countered. She threw her final Stun and he dodged. This time, however, he landed squarely, his eyes narrowed-

“ǞǬ!”

A Flickerdart of his own – she dodged it with an effort, faced him with eyebrows raised.

“Oh, really?” She laughed. “You think you're ready, do you? As you like. Pick your spells and move up to the 20 yard line.”

Rudolf turned away, his cheeks burning. He took up the sheaf of logograms he'd copied out, forced himself to concentrate on the shapes, trying to ignore the hammering of his heart. Two minutes passed.

His teeth gritted, he marched up to the 20 yard line, hands working sweatily at his duelling harness.

Anastasia's face was calm and amused. She was a hell of a lot closer now. Still, he'd been watching her. He knew her tells by now.

“Ready?” She smiled. “I'll count us down.”

Rudolf nodded sharply, his heart hammering against his ribs.

I am smart. I am in control. I am Rudolf Valentine.

“3... 2... 1...”

He saw her spell coming- twisted deftly aside, lips moving as the Acid Arrow lanced past.

“ǞǬ!”

Another Flickerdart, too high. She dropped-

“Ŧƍ!”

It blurred along the ground towards him. He made an awkward leap. But it found his ankles, and he crashed to the ground, his feet entangled by a Phantasmal Bolas. He cursed, spitting clods of grass as he rolled to face her-

“ƾƋƑ!”

His eyes widened. Eight Anastasias bore down on him, their hands raised to cast. He flopped desperately-

“ƻÝÙ!”

The Psychedelic Spurt. Rays of multi-coloured light projected forth. Six of the copies were hit, fading to nothing in mid-air. The two survivors grinned in triumph, moving swiftly to flank him. He gritted his teeth- Which one?

His spell flew-

“ʆʓ!”

A grin faded to nothing-

Then she was upon him, her knife-blade pressed against the soft flesh of his neck.

“Xristos.” He breathed.

It was over.

Anastasia rose, flipping the blade and sheathing it in one smooth motion. The Phantasmal Bolas faded to nothing and Rudolf struggled to his feet, blushing furiously.

“Not bad.” She smiled. “Better than I'd expected, in fact.”

He stared at her sullenly, straightening out his duelling harness.

“You have a tell.” He said. “You always lean in with your right shoulder when you're bluffing- I can tell by your stance what you're going to do.”

“Yes, you can read me like a book.” She smiled. “Must be why you wound up face-down in the grass waiting for my blade. All part of your plan, eh?”

A spasm passed across his face. But he controlled himself and smiled instead.

“Yes, well- You've quite a bit of experience on me. And a much larger repetoire of spells.”

“Years of experience.” She nodded. “Years spent hunting apostates, diabolists and worst things besides- all in the service of Luna. But I underwent rigourous training first. I had to reach a certain level of competence.” She paused, watching his face carefully. “You fight as well as can be expected for a Novice Second Class. But three spells only? There's not much you can do with that.”

He looked away, a red flush creeping across his features.

“Why haven't you made advances, Rudolf? You could easily move up the grades. Seven Hells, you could be a full Mage within the year if you put your mind to it. There's no doubting your talent. It's only your laziness that holds you back.”

He considered his response, staring angrily down at the ground.

“It's a critique I'm used to by now, Sister.” He smiled thinly. “The masters at the Akademia made quite a habit of repeating it at me. Well, there's a simple enough answer. I'm a perceptive and intelligent individual. And as such, I see little point in playing games in which the cards are stacked against you from the start. Such games are for chumps and I refuse to play them. That's all!” He looked up with a brittle smile. “Speaking of which, I'd have done much better if you hadn't resorted to underhand tactics. The use of an illusion effect in a duel? Hardly sporting.”

She smiled in turn.

“No such thing as a fair fight in the real world, Valentine. Many's the time I've seen an honorable duellist tricked with Dubolais' Dubious Doppelganger or the Multiform Mitosis. And after the trick comes the death strike. No.” She shook her head. “Our enemies have no respect for the rules of fair play. I'm not training you to duel. I'm teaching you to fight for your life.”

They stared at each other for a few moments.

“You must have noticed,” she added, “that all is not as it seems here.”

He said nothing for a few seconds, his heart throbbing with excitement. The moment had come at last.

“I've noted a few details which point in that direction, yes.” He said, fighting to keep his tone casual. “The purpose of the large and heavily armed viceregal guard, for instance, seems to go somewhat beyond normal security detail. This, in addition to a few other incidences, leads me to believe that the viceroy is embroiled in a struggle against powerful enemies.”

She watched him with amused condescension.

“Indeed?”

“I also observe that military responsibilities, undercover assignments and magical combat training are seldom given to one intended to be a rent boy. It appears you are considering recruiting me as an agent in this struggle.”

“Oh really?” She replied lightly. “And why couldn’t you be both an agent of the viceroy and his rent boy? The two roles need not be exclusive.”

She turned aside and moved towards a small pavilion where refreshments awaited. Rudolf removed his duelling harness and followed at a dignified pace.

“I cannot deny you've proven an asset thus far, Valentine.” She said, handing him an iced lemon water as they seated themselves. “You lack neither intelligence nor ability and your haste occasionally translates into bravery. But – and I say this without malice – it is clear that your prime motivations are ego and vanity.”

Rudolf merely sipped his water, his face carefully composed. Opportunity hung delicately in the air. He mustn't scare it off.

Smiling, Anastasia continued.

“Involvement in high and secret matters. Proximity to power. Plots and drama. These are what you crave, no?”

“Of course.” He replied. “Am I not a magistocrat?”

Her smile widened.

“I understand you have already experienced something of the struggle in which Lord Sassani is embroiled?”

“Yes. The Lord Preceptor, anticipating my usefulness to His Excellency, tried to kill me.”

“And this did not dismay you?”

“It caused me frustration.” He replied steadily. “That I should die without knowing why.”

“Then I shall tell you.”

She paused for a moment, then leaned forward to speak huskily.

“There exists within the government of Grand Catai two factions engaged in a secret and deadly struggle: one group dedicated to maintaining the centralisation of power in the hands of the Supreme State Council and the other committed to loosening the chains that shackle the people of Grand Catai. Both believe themselves to represent the common good. One is a lie, the other truth. You may surmise for yourself which is which. This is the battle that has long raged within the magistocracy, one that underpins much of its history and character. Many prominent mages have engaged in this struggle through the centuries, and many have been stripped and sent to the gulag for it- your own father included.”

The glass slipped from Rudolf's hand and crashed to the floor, unheeded. Of all the possibilities he had considered, this was not one of them.

She nodded briskly.

“Yes, Rudolf. The Margrave of Westchester was ever a loyal ally of the cause. And it is for this reason that Lord Sassani acted to save your life. It was in order to prevent this very conversation from occurring that Von Bek and his cronies decided to kill you. You are a talented magistocrat, Valentine- your father’s son. You could achieve great things in the struggle for liberty.”

Rudolf sat dumbfounded. It was the revelation he had been waiting for. A weight he'd not known he was carrying fell away and suddenly he was able to breathe. The fear and bewilderment with which he had regarded Von Bek and the viceroy; the sense of helplessness and frustration he had lived under since the night his father had been taken- these feelings had dissolved into a pure and wonderful clarity.

Anastasia’s voice came to him as if in a dream.

“The only question is this: are you prepared to do what it takes in order to advance the cause of liberty? To serve in total faith and obedience until death, madness or glory takes you?”

His eyes shone. He felt himself upon the cusp of a vast new existence, new vistas of possibility and meaning extending beyond the scope of his understanding. This was what he had been seeking. This was the truth that underpinned every facet of his existence. At long last, here was his destiny.

He had been chosen.

“Yes- yes-!” He moaned, barely knowing what he was saying. “I will finish what my father started- to struggle faithfully until my last breath- I swear it!”

“I accept your oath.” She said, extending a hand with a smile he did not see or understand. “You will abide by it, that much I promise you.”

Christopher Moiser