Excerpt from The Murcheon of Staunz by Ganganellus
In the antique land of Staunz, from a castle on a cliff, ruled the final Murcheon, and her name was Alma, Fifth.
A sensitive woman was Alma: tall, dismal and mild. And if she had one sorrow, it was that she did not have a child.
For though she had ten husbands and applied dilligence to her task, her womb remained untrammelled: a sealed, unbroken cask.
As middle age drew closer and her chances reached their lowest ebb, the Murcheon grew desperate and hatched a plot instead.
She searched all through the kingdom for a mage of zest and worth, and chancing on young Falstaff, she called the poor chap forth.
Now consider our man Falstaff: a wizard of some repute; an explorer of the whirling void and a nobleman to boot.
He'd travelled the lands of High Qalume and danced the Tarantella- a smart young buck, a man of worth, and most accomplished fella.
But when Alma made her request, our Falstaff did abjure: “I've examine-ed the auspices, and on this point they do demur.”
“It's an inappropriate use, of my most cogent pluck, to defy the natural order and provide a fruitful ruck. Nature in her wisdom has decreed you stay bereft; to overturn this ruling would be to rend the natural weft.”
Unimpressed by Falstaff's words, Alma threatened sharp duresses, and so the mage approached the bed and made his cold caresses.
While seabirds whirled and shrieked above, the very castle quaked, for strange forces were awakened by the coupling they maked.
And when at last the deed was done, Falstaff fell back with a gasp. He knew at once that ruin was apparent in their task.
“A son you shall have, my lady, a lad of the eeriest sort. But most unwise our dalliance was, for this I must report:
the boy shall be no lover, nor a fan of jestive sport. His coming will bring you sorrow- on this all signs comport.”
Manoeuvres In The Dark
The stewards bustled themselves, setting out the platters with rhythmic elegance. A nod of the head, a smile; wine was poured, bottle neck resting on a pure white napkin. The viceroy smiled- took a bite of this, a sample of that. His hand rested for a moment on the sleeve of a favourite and he spoke a soft word, his eyes dim and teasing.
Rudolf's thoughts were heavy and confused. He smiled and nodded, dipping his chopsticks rhythmically, oblivious to everything.
Dining in private with the Viceroy of Indochina. A conspiracy cutting to the heart of the empire. Thinly veiled promises of his own advancement. This was more than he had ever dared to hope for.
He stole occasional glances at the viceroy in between mouthfuls. But if there was anything in Sassani's manner but easy pleasure in the meal, it did not show. The viceroy caught his eye with a knowing smile.
Finally the plates were cleared away and the pavilion emptied of stewards. Sassani lolled in his seat, speaking candidly of matters affecting the magistocracy. His inhibitions lowered by the leans he drank, his manner became ever more insinuating. Rudolf sipped his wine, head whirling, nodding impatiently at everything the viceroy said. Finally, he could contain himself no more:
“Pardon my interruption, Your Excellency, but I must know- what part do you wish for me to play in all this? How might I help further the cause?”
Sassani smiled lazily.
“Very well then. Since you are so keen to be of service... What would I have of you? You are to become my recruiter among the lower grades of the magistocracy.”
“The job is more interesting than you might imagine.” The viceroy continued, his expression amused. “I would not have chosen you for it if your talents did not suit it. You are an intelligent operator, Rudolf: talented at appraising situations and finding ways of turning them to your advantage. You possess charm and guile, and, perhaps most importantly, you are not adverse to risks or danger, and have proven yourself capable of handling them when they arise.”
He paused for a moment to let this sink in, the corners of his mouth twitching. Rudolf sat up in confusion, glowing with pleasure and embarrassment.
Sassani’s smile widened.
“The task will not be an easy one, but I trust your abilities will carry you through. As I have alluded, the reform camp within the government was much weakened during the latter years of Kastor’s reign and our numbers are small. Recruitment remains a key problem. So this is where you come in. As I am sure you are aware, there exist a number of cliques, fraternities and social sets within the lower echelons of government; various social salons, organisations such as the Knights of Avalon, Exiguum Caelum, and the Stonecutters. I am sure you belonged to one or two of these yourself during your time at the Colonial Office.” He added with a sniff. “I therefore require you to infiltrate several of these networks and assess the sympathies and viewpoints of their members. You will profile. You will compile a list of names and pass them back to Sister Anastasia, who will guide your efforts. I expect,” he added, “that your recent brush with infamy will make you an object of much interest in the circles I require you to infiltrate. Make no mistake: this task is instrumental to advancing our cause.”
Rudolf nodded vigiorously while the viceroy spoke, his brows furrowed, one foot jiggling restively at his knee. A mixture of foreboding and excitement battled within him.
To return to the halls of government, to the stage upon which his ambitions had already once before been dashed? To salons in which fashions were devised, favours courted, and the latest scandals dissected? To airless passages in which imaginary power and influence was squabbled over by fools with blindfolds and bared ankles? To be exposed once more to the bellweather of popular opinion, turned to and fro by gossip and idle speculation? To resume his place among the youth of the magistocracy, as vain and deluded as himself in every respect?
Still, a voice whispered at the back of his mind. You have a powerful ally now. Things will be different this time.
His face would be well known in Beijing by now. He'd achieved, perhaps, a certain kind of celebrity. And with Sassani's patronage came a certain prestige.
In a sense, his plan was working perfectly.
He glanced over to where the viceroy lolled, watching him with with a teasing smile.
Rudolf smiled in turn.
“The scheme is a sound one, My Lord. I shall pursue your goals with the full quota of craftiness the Valentine blood has apportioned me.”
“I would expect nothing less from you.” Sassani replied softly. “Well then. Here are your instructions: I will have a whirligig put at your disposal and arrange a position for you at court in Beijing. Under this pretense, you will ingratiate yourself into the numerous lower circles that exist there, learn all you can about their political leanings and connections and report to Sister Anastasia on a regular basis. Further instructions will follow in due course. Do you understand?”
Rudolf grimaced, feeling the weight of the command settle upon his soul.
“Yes, Your Excellency. I shan’t let you down.” He licked his lips, calculating his chances. “May I suggest that a set of apartments in a stylish neighbourhood be put at my disposal? It would allow me to ingratiate myself more closely into the social scene.”
“We shall see.” The viceroy replied brusquely. He examined a candied cherry before popping it delicately into his mouth. He chewed with eyes closed and gave a sigh of pleasure before glancing at Rudolf again.
“Your safety and the secrecy of your mission are the paramount concerns. Sister Anastasia will arrange these matters on my behalf.”
Rudolf changed tack.
“Well then, what of my function at court? Best if I were well-placed- a prestigious role close to the major players-”
Sassani held up a hand, his expression bored.
“I think that’s enough discussion for tonight, Rudolf. It's late and you have your regular duties to attend to in the morning. Sister Anastasia will instruct you once the details of your court appointment are arranged.”
Wordlessly, Rudolf drained his glass. He stood, gave a curt bow and turned in the direction of his chambers, thoughts bent upon both the spoken and unspoken happenings of the evening.
Sassani was still for a few moments. He pushed his glass aside and sat up with clear eyes.
A dark shape appeared at the far side of the pavilion.
“Every bit as self-willed as I had thought.” The viceroy smiled. “A savant for lying and manipulation, brimming with animal cunning. And yet, he is almost helplessly stupid in all other particulars. Still. He will serve well enough.”
He examined the shape with amusement. “What can I do for you, Sister?”
Anastasia moved forwards and gave a slight bow. With a quick gesture she cast: the pavillion was enclosed in a bubble from which no sound could escape. She moved quickly forwards and made an examination of the pavillion, carefully checking the undersides of the chairs and table while the viceroy watched without comment.
Finally, she seated herself at the table. Sassani's expression was deadpan.
“My Lord, I have reason to believe Raj Niwas has been compromised by our enemies.”
“Yes, I rather thought you might. Do explain.”
“It's an odd tale.” She said stiffly. “Earlier this evening, Lieutenant Andreivitch approached me in my office to make a confession. Said he'd been helping himself to your liqour cabinet while performing his nightly security checks. The reason for this confession was that he'd seen a mechanical insect watching him from within the cabinet and thought that it was some security measure of your own. A metal beetle with shining red eyes as he described it. I checked the counter-surveillance wards and found nothing. The babblings of a guilt-ridden drunkard- or so I thought. Corporal Jones had overheard us talking- came forwards with information of his own. He claimed that while serving on Qixi a few years ago he'd come across something identical to what Andreivitch was describing. A mechanical device, used by the Qixites to spy on Grand Catai's forces, proof against all counter-surveillance effects and monitors. I made calls to several of Jones' former superiors and they all corroborated the tale and the description of the devices: mechanical creatures, remotely operated, often at long distances, from a central node. They infiltrate a location, record all that they see and hear and broadcast it back to their master. The perfect spy. At some point quite recently, these things were introduced to Raj Niwas. Your office is compromised, My Lord. Maybe other areas too.”
The viceroy nodded tersely.
“Who else knows about this?”
“Only Andreivitch and Jones. I've ensured their silence, but taken no other action so far.”
“Good. You've done as well as could be hoped for. My thanks. Have Andreivitch and Jones transferred to guard duty in Port Blair.” He added. “I've a feeling this could work to our advantage.”
She sat up a little straighter at this.
“The Lord Chancellor and his fellows want to know of our plans.” He smiled. “Best we provide them with some.”
She gave a stiff nod, her eyes thoughtful. He examined her carefully.
“How goes that other matter then? You've not discussed it with anyone but me?”
She shook her head sullenly.
“No, and that's the way it'll stay. But it's coming along well enough. I'm still working to flip a few of Ishak's staff. Shouldn't be difficult- he treats them badly enough. Once it's done I'll settle the details- do everything down in Port Blair to avoid detection. Small, hand-picked team. Night-time insertion, help from the inside. Then- ”
“Then the chess pieces will start to fall.” He nodded. “First we take the chancellor. Then we get our war. And after that-”
“Revolution.” She growled, her eyes smouldering in the dark. “And the end of Grand Catai.”