Excerpt from 'Mage's Little Helper', an article featured in Perquisite Magazine, printed December 13th, Year of the Babbling Otter, 7th Era of Grand Catai
Originating as frontier hooch in Van Halen's Land on Vespa, the lean soon found its way to the French Quarter of New Orleans and thence to Beijing. Here it was marketed under the soubriquet 'Mage's Little Helper' due to its supposed fortifying effects against the mental strain of logogram retention. It later became known as 'Big Easy' and finally 'Vespeen Lean'- a reference to the tipple's narcotic effects. Synonymous with Beijing's counter-culture scene, the lean's reputation is epitomised particularly by the poet Ganganellus, who often remarked that the libation was entirely responsible for his career.
The recipe is as follows:
For the base, pour out a stiff measure of herbal bitters. The Vespeen use whatever bastard fernet they can lay their hands on; for our purposes a fragrant liqueur serves best, ideally one of gentian, rhubarb and rich yellow saffron.
Introduce crushed damiana leaf and a pour of cold, clear lemonade.
Allow three cubes of Stravanger's Rigid Kola to melt into the mixture, being aware of the heady vapours thereby released.
Heat a Rancher's Mint-Cake over a spoon (pewter is traditional) and introduce to the mix.
Add tincture of opium, according to taste and conscience.
Slowly stir for thirty seconds, first deisul, then widdershins.
Drink deep, until oblivion takes you.
Rudolf was overseeing a weapon cleaning detail when the note came. He accepted it without comment and returned to the rifle he had been inspecting. In between checking the bolt housing and receiver he unfurled the paper with one hand and scanned it. Rolling the note up with an abstracted expression, he then passed the rifle back without further examination. For the remainder of the afternoon his distraction was noted by the Quartermaster Sergeant and the men, to whose glee Rudolf now approved all rifles presented to him without interest. Since it was now generally accepted that ‘Lord Valentine’ was an officer in all but name, the QMS’ anger was directed elsewhere.
Rudolf left the men performing punishment exercises at the back of the armoury and returned to his apartments where he was able to examine the note with a mixture of anxiety and excitement.
Dear Novice Valentine,
I do hope you will forgive me my long absence. As you might guess, I have been engaged on several matters of importance since your arrival and, much to my regret, have not had time to engage or entertain you. I am happy to report that matters are now in hand and I therefore invite you to dine with me tonight on my private veranda, at the hour of sunset. I understand that Sister Anastasia has introduced certain matters to your attention that you are no doubt eager to discuss.
Lord Ghulam Sassani
Viceroy of indochina, Nawab of Andaman, etc.
Unable to settle to anything, Rudolf paced the room incessantly, his thoughts constantly shifting and reforming in the white heat of anticipation. Finally the appointed hour came. He dressed quickly and went out into the gathering dusk.
He found the viceroy seated alone beneath a lilac-tinged sky, sipping a milky concoction scented with kola and mint.
“Good evening, Rudolf.” Sassani said with pleasure, extending a hand. “Would you care for a Vespeen Lean?”
“No thank you, Your Excellency.” Rudolf replied, bending to kiss the proffered hand. “I find that opiates make me sluggish. I’d prefer to sample a wine from the cellar.”
A servant stepped forwards discretely from behind a screen and the viceroy gave instructions while Rudolf seated himself. He found himself at a white-linened table gently lit by tea-candles. The veranda was screened from the palace gardens by a series of white screens, leaving it open at one end. Before them opened a wide vista of forested hillside falling away towards the Indian Ocean, the waters glittering merrily as the sun sank towards them.
The viceroy smiled and said nothing, his attentions fixed upon the view before them.
It was an exceptionally pleasant evening.
A resinous tang wafted on the breeze, intermingling with the breath of the ocean. The garden was filled with the gentle susurrations of night-time insects, and this, along with the sleepy fussing of the wood-pigeons and the trilling of a nightingale, made for a gentle evensong.
Sitting in that warm Andaman dusk, Rudolf was infused with the sensation of a slow and gentle sigh being let out. And yet, there lay a weight upon his soul- a duty he must discharge before he could allow himself to relax. Stirring, he glanced over at the viceroy. But Sassani merely shook his head and gestured at the expanse before them.
Before them, the day reached its conclusion: the oranges and mauves of dusk masqueraded in succession across the sky until finally only a suffusing purple remained and the sun sank gently below the horizon. Wine and olives were brought and Rudolf watched as the stars gradually revealed themselves, the constellations mirroring the lights of Port Blair that twinkled in the bay below.
Finally the moon rose, wan and virginal, and Sassani bestirred himself with an appreciative noise.
“Beautiful.” He murmured turning to Rudolf with a wistful expression. “A simple thing, and yet so rare and precious. It is long since I refreshed myself upon such innocent beauty.”
He snapped his fingers and the last screen fell into place, shutting the veranda off from the evening vespers with sudden finality.
“Well, mageling. The heavens have concluded their pavane and dinner is yet to dance upon our tastebuds. What was it you wanted to say to me?”
Rudolf roused himself from his torpor, reluctant now that the moment had come.
“I think it long past time I apologised for my behaviour, Your Excellency.” He began. “The court case; the way I tried to use you for my own benefit... Let me say that I was wrong to do so.”
He raised his eyes carefully. Sassani’s face was still, animated only by those magnetic purple irises. They examined him carefully, seeming to penetrate his very soul.
“That is not an apology, Rudolf.”
“I am compelled to speak truthfully, My Lord, and in truth, I do not regret what I did, since it served to bring me here, to act as your agent in the struggle for liberty... I can only say that I was wrong to act as I did, and I that I feel guilty for having done so. I swear that I will right the wrong- whatever intrigues you are embroiled in, whatever the stakes for which you struggle- only give the word and I will be your most staunch ally!”
The verandah was quiet for a moment, the silence broken only by the warbling of the unseen nightingale.
“Thank you, Rudolf.” Sassani said evenly. “I confess, I was baffled and hurt by the way you used me in the court case. But the gulag is an evil none should have to bear and your father would not have wanted you to throw your life away. For his sake then, as much as yours, I was compelled to act.”
Rudolf shifted uncomfortably, saying nothing.
“Just tell me one thing.” The viceroy said quietly after a moment. “How did you think it would all turn out?”
“I… I thought I would win.” Rudolf replied awkwardly. “I thought my false evidence would trump your case. I thought that if I could beat you publicly it would establish my reputation. It was nothing personal.” He added hurriedly, self-hatred and defiance battling in his guts. “I’ve lived a difficult and disappointing existence. It has made me bitter, desperate. And a bitter, desperate man takes his opportunities where he finds them.”
“I see. And it was nothing personal you say? I was just to be a puppet in your scheme? A shadow to be boxed at for the amusement of the crowd?” A mix of pain and amusement passed across Sassani’s face. Rudolf stared at the olive dish.
“Ah, but I know what desperation feels like after all.” The viceroy added in calmer tones. “You are a product of your environment, Valentine. And Grand Catai has long since elevated the production of desperate and alienated young men into an art form.”
The corners of his mouth showed their usual humour. But there was something else there too: a kind of sad gravitas emanated from behind the sardonic features. The words and the expression together filled Rudolf with hope and discomfort in equal measure.
“Am I forgiven then, Excellency?”
The viceroy’s gaze was unblinking.
“You may earn my forgiveness.”
“Of course, My Lord. You will never have a more loyal agent, this I promise you.”
“All in good time.” The viceroy remarked drily, draining his glass. “I suppose you would like to know more about your father?”
A steward announced himself then and Rudolf leaned back, forcing himself to smile and nod as his wine glass was refilled. The viceroy turned languid attentions upon the servant, evidently a favourite, and spent agonising moments exchanging pretty nothings with him as a fresh lean was prepared. Rudolf sat with gritted teeth, heart pounding in his ears.
Finally the steward left. Rudolf leaned forwards.
“Yes...” The viceroy blinked thickly at him then looked away, his expression becoming serious. He was silent for a moment, evidently deep in thought. “Hm. Lord Archibald Valentine, seventeenth Margrave of Westchester. Yes, let me think… How old were you when he was taken?”
Oh father, please! No, don’t let them take him!
Rudolf gave an involuntary twitch. He put his glass down abruptly.
“Six. I was with him the night they came.”
The viceroy nodded.
“And what reason was given for his arrest?”
“He was denounced on charges of apostasy- though the nature of his supposed crimes were never made clear to me or my mother.” Rudolf said in tones of bored savagery. “Considering that my uncle Clarence gained the family title by imperial decree and I was disinherited in favour of his line, I've always assumed it was his doing. I never saw my father again after that night. Two months afterwards we received notice of the result of his trial. That was our first news of him. The second notice came four years later: five lines informing us he’d died in an industrial accident. Mother did not take the news well.” He smiled bitterly, dark memories plucking at his heart.
No mother, please! I’ll be good. Don’t send me away too!
“And is that really all they told you?”
The viceroy shook his head slowly.
Rudolf shifted in his seat, dabbing angrily at his eyes and saying nothing. For a moment they sat in silence, Sassani’s face seeming to hover before him in the darkness like a phantom. He leaned forward suddenly and touched Rudolf’s arm.
“I’m sorry, my boy. I should have known… should have done more...”
Rudolf drew away, muttering incoherently. After a moment Sassani’s voice became steadier.
“It was, of course, the risk we took back then. Kastor’s reign did much to advance the cause of the other party, and all the high positions within government were occupied by them. I was a department head at the Ministry of Commerce back then- not someone greatly in the know. We met only in small groups with no single one of us knowing more than a handful of names; I didn’t even realise your father had been one of us until after the fact. Those were dark days, Rudolf. Kastor’s reign was probably the worst in living memory for its authoritarian character: the Blue Principles tightened and the gulags expanded. Peasant's rights reduced, taxation increased and a long and painful war. We struggled hard against each decree. But it was all in vain. Occasionally one of us overreached: put a word in the wrong ear or spoke a little too freely of our concerns. Then the machinery of tyranny would rumble into action. And for those without sufficient connections and influence, the result was inevitably the gulag. That is what happened to your father, Rudolf. He was not an apostate. He did not fall because of the greedy impulse of some uncle. He was a true and noble patriot. And they killed him for it.”
Rudolf was still for a moment, shamed by his own emotions. His view of the viceroy had become obscured, though he noted with annoyance the eagerness with which Sassani leaned towards him. He turned his head slowly away, careful not to dislodge the tears that welled in his eyes. In his chest and around his eyes a sensation of intense pressure grew. Lip trembling, he longed for the tears to flow, for bittersweet release. And yet he could not permit himself. Swallowing abruptly he turned back to the viceroy.
“Sister Anastasia mentioned a struggle between two groups in the government… But I don’t understand. What is it all for? That is has to be done secretly and people die for it?”
Sassani surveyed Rudolf for a few moments. He leaned back in his chair and spoke with his eyes half-lidded.
“It rarely occurs to anyone that the Supreme State Council might do anything but advise the sovereign as to the best course of action.” He smiled gently. “And in a sense, they are correct- the imperial bloodline, immune to almost all forms of magic, supported by a vast and sprawling apparatus, wields absolute power. And though none would dare to directly challenge that power, it is possible to sway the emperor’s opinions. This is the nature of the struggle that has long raged within the magistocracy then; to sway the supreme autocrat in one of two directions. One faction pushes for tight control over the rights and duties of the individual; for the centralisation of power in the hands of those closest to the throne. The other faction seeks to loosen the strictures that bind the magistocracy, improve conditions for all and allow some measure of liberty to the peasantry: it is to this second faction that your father belonged.” The viceroy paused with a gleaming eye, warming to his subject.
“They did not, I suppose, teach you anything of our history at the Akademia? No? Well. The empire has always been autocratic, Rudolf. That is the nature of things you see; for all its ceremony and ostentation, magic is simply a means to power. The power to create. The power to destroy. The power to bring the forces of the universe to heel- to do anything that might conceivably be imagined. But what becomes of a world in which the individual may wield unbridled power? Why the powerful are free to work their will upon the weak, to struggle for mastery among themselves, leading to unbridled chaos; pure hell on earth.” He held up a hand, gesturing vaguely to the echoes of the past. “Any society in which magic exists must then, by definition, be authoritarian in order to function. Hence the Blue Principles. Hence the rigid hierarchy of the magistocracy and the rights by which it commands the peasantry. Simply put, the key principle of Grand Catai is not to use magical power, Rudolf, but to contain its excesses. This is the great paradox of Grand Catai then: so long as magic exists – so long as anything is possible – we can never truly be free.” He sighed, a sound of deep weariness. After a moment, he continued quietly. “Did Severin save or damn us all when he bound the beast to himself? None can say. But for better or worse it happened, and through the measures that he introduced, life was ordered into the patterns that endure to this day. First comes the slow push for greater freedoms, then comes the reactionary withdrawal of those freedoms. A grim and predictable cycle.” He sighed. “But if the magistocracy is to exist, supreme authority is necessary. And so long as supreme authority exists, we find ourselves locked in this cycle of reform and reaction. There is no escape.”
Rudolf sat quietly for a moment, trying to digest this information.
“And so how does the situation sit at this moment? Which faction holds the upper hand?”
Sassani made a half-hearted gesture.
“Do you feel empowered, Rudolf? Are you capable of exercising influence, of making your voice heard?”
“No.” Rudolf replied quietly.
“In truth, Kastor’s reign all but snuffed out the reformist movement. By the end, when he was felled by the assassin’s grenade, our activities and ambitions had been reduced almost to nothing. Of our number, only I and a handful of others now remain in government. Still, the situation is not without hope. I have thought to detect signs of virtue within our young emperor. His first act as supreme autocrat was to bring an end to his father’s war in the Pleiades. Encouraged by this auspice and having finally reached high office, I set to work. Through my dilligence, the Blue Principles have been loosened, taxation reduced and conditions in the gulags much improved. But my efforts have not gone unnoticed. Those others have gotten their hooks into His Majesty and well-!” He made a sudden gesture. “All my efforts now hang in the balance. Philemon is getting older, becoming ever more independent in his thoughts. Now is the crucial window. If we can rout out those accursed vipers; if we can find others of our mind and bring them into the council, then – ah, then! – The future of Catai and all its peoples will be bright indeed.”
He lapsed into silence, smiling wistfully down at his glass. After a moment he gave an embarrassed cough.
Not knowing what else to do, Rudolf took up his glass and raised it aloft.
“To the future of the empire.” He proposed.
The viceroy's eyes were calculating. He raised his glass with a smile and chinked it against Rudolf's.
“To our future, Valentine. Yours and mine.” He took a slow sip as the attendants stepped forth into the pavillion. “Now let us dwell on more earthly matters: dinner is served at last.”