THE FORBIDDEN City theatre of Sihnon – beautiful, imposing, and terribly, terribly exclusive. Famed throughout the Verse for being host to the finest productions and players of the Alliance.
No finer setting than this for one of the most rare performances in the Verse. There are very few artefacts which remain from Earth-that-Was, but thankfully much of the culture of that old homestead was preserved over the exodus of man, and the settlement of the new worlds.
The Operahouse had hosted some of the most gloriously decadent performances since its construction, but tonight the stage was set for something special. A great and rare performance of an opera for which the place may well have been built for.
Puccini’s Turandot – a story set in China, of Earth-that-Was, the forebear of the planet Sihnon in much of its culture – performed here at the Forbidden Palace – a production so great and exclusive that anyone who is anyone in the whole Verse just had to be there, or more accurately, be seen to be there.
The great and the good of the Verse rubbed shoulders with the great and the not-so-good. Anyone who had a noble sash or a shiny hat mingled throughout the Operahouse, posing and smiling for any and all passing media.Avoiding the throng of gilded patrons, a gentleman sat alone, half-shadowed, in a box, patiently waiting for the opera to begin.
Had anyone noticed him, they may have remarked how it seemed odd that he wore sunglasses indoors, and indeed in a room that would soon be darkened for the performance. However, no one did notice him, and for this he was grateful.
This gentleman was known to many in the room as the Dashing Mister Valentine, and dashing he certainly was; a Companion of the Highest Order, and highest price-range. A member of the Council of Three, Mister Valentine was the type of man one expected to see at these events, and it was for this precise reason he was happy not to be seen.
He wore his dark hair long, swept behind him. His features were masculine, and he wore a full beard and moustaches. In his black silk nehru, blood red cravat, and purple sash of nobility, he looked every bit the part of the gentleman, who one might expect to be wandering to and fro, glad-handing and bowing with the rest of the throng.
However, Mister Valentine, in his own mind, could well be one of the few attendees of tonight’s performance who was truly here for the opera. He sat alone, awaiting the arrival of his guest for the evening.
He had received hundreds of invitations to this performance – many accompanied by generous and even decadent gifts – but he had extended only one of his own, and that one invitation was accepted. It was, after all, his free night, and he wished to spend it for pleasure, rather than for business.
One thing he certainly enjoyed about sitting in a private box, Mister Valentine thought, was the privacy it gave him to think.
A Companion, he mused, is a member of the social elite, often accompanying the wealthy and the powerful. Accompanying, yes, but not serving. A common enough misconception – a Companion chooses their own clients, this was Guild Law. Custom with a Companion was a special relationship, not the purchasing of a service – the Companion was not bound to their client.
In the same way, the Companion Guild had a special relationship with the Alliance.
Companions were a regular and welcome sight throughout the corridors of the Parliament on Londinium, and on the arms of officials, both civic and military, across the Verse. The Companion Guild was licensed by the Parliament itself, and though the Guild was very much on the loyalist side of the camp, Mister Valentine knew, instinctively, that loyalty could fade should there be cause for it.
He had not fought in the Independence War, of course. He could, from a philosophical standpoint, understand the Independents and their cause, however he thought that they must surely have understood, on some level, that theirs was a doomed cause from the very start.
So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak – the Alliance military had every strength to its advantage. The Independents, though brave, and noble, had few.
Such a waste of life, Mister Valentine had thought at the time. Now, though, as time went by, and new and shocking information came to light, more and more he found himself questioning what he thought he knew about the Alliance.
Not as a whole, of course, for he believed strongly that the Alliance was the right and lawful way that governance should be conducted. But he did have to wonder at a government that allowed certain parts of its military and civil structure to do such things as they had…no, best not to let that sully what he hoped would be a lovely evening.
The life of a Companion was seen by many as glamorous and wonderful. Indeed, much of the time it was – parties and balls, grand tours, delightful company, intense spiritual connection, incredible sex – this was the summit of the art for which many, many years were devoted to studying. It was, he thought, a very rewarding life, having the opportunity to bring joy and companionship to others, and to use his mastery of the many arts to better their lives.
However, one couldn’t help but think that, from time to time, things were not all champagne and roses. By the nature of some of his clientele he was privy to many little nuggets of knowledge that perhaps he shouldn’t be. Of course he would never utter them to anyone, not even under pain of torture or threat of death – that was not the way of the Guild.
That said, the contents of his mind, he knew, were valuable, and this made him a target. The Guild offered protection, of course, and his own not unformidable skillset, he allowed himself to gloat, would do for most would be attackers or detractors.
The information which took up the fullness of his attention at that time, however, was certainly more dangerous than anything he had previously been privy to. Rather than a confession or discussion with a client, this had first come from an overheard conversation within the Companion Guild’s temples on Sihnon.
Taking some time to meditate in one of the roof-top zen gardens, Mister Valentine had overheard a conversation which, he surmised, those conversing never thought would be overheard. If there was any worry of that, they would have been more careful.
Be still as the mountain, he willed himself, as he overheard the conversation. He could not see the men, not fully. He saw grey suits on two, and Companion robes on another. The strangest element he spied, however, were the hands; the men in suits were wearing blue gloves. At the time he didn’t think much of it, but now…he knew more. Much more.
Too much, he thought, bitterly, but swiftly shook that thought from his head. It was much better that he knew what he knew, for if he did not, he could not act, and this did indeed call for action.
This had been coming for some time, he mused. He recalled the state of the Council in the wake of the Miranda transmission. Some of his own clients, very top-brass in the military and some grand folk in the Parliament, were themselves in tatters over the matter. No one could make heads nor tails of the matter. Few could believe it, though as more and more information came from the various investigations of the media came across the Cortex, few could disagree with the evidence.
And then, from out of nowhere, he’d received a secretive message to meet with someone claiming to be an old friend with troubling news. Never one to shy away from a mystery, Mister Valentine had made the rendezvous as requested – alone, bladeless, skulking in a park in the dead of night. Quite fun, he had thought at the time. Then, she’d stepped forth, out of the shadows, that dear girl he had himself taught at the Madrassa, looking not a day older than the many years since he’d last seen her, save for the furrowed brow and concerned look. And the information she imparted…oh, that fateful, awful news.
They’d been in semi-regular contact ever since, keeping one another abreast of goings on. Her last message played through his head, over and over. Jinlong, he called her, lest anyone overhear them, had given him what he had need most – names.
Now, he had his start. Now, he could begin.
He knew now that it was time for action – he would delay no longer – but he needed support.
He needed, he laughed inwardly, companions. Jinlong could not help – she had her own trials to face, and had put herself in great danger just to speak with him. If she had been traced, if her crew had been found…
He tried to turn his mind from troubling matters, but found himself drawn back again and again to the matter.
In training since the age of twelve, years and years of discipline and preparation before even the faintest mention of the acts of physical pleasure for which the Companion Guild seemed to be most famed in less than couth society…
A terrifying prospect, he thought, should someone seek to subvert this training, and compel the exceedingly capable graduates of the Guild into a service more martial than ceremonial.
Should these blue-handed demons have their way, every echelon of society which found themselves in the company of a Companion could, at the mere utterance of a word, find themselves instead facing an adept and capable warrior.
Companion training included social and physical grace, some level of performing arts, and, very importantly, psychology. This, when combined with some of the less common training regimens, such as the ones he undertook in the Academy – martial arts, marksmanship, swordplay – and, well, he shuddered to think of the possibilities.
An army of assassins, activated by a code-word, at the beck and call of the most shadowy element of the Alliance military. The thought of it sent a wave of ice throughout his entire body.
No. It would not do, and he would stop it. He had time, he was sure – the plans were clearly in their infancy, from what he’d managed to discover of late. For this desecration of the sacred arts of the Companion Guild, the ruling council would need to be overthrown and replaced by those sympathetic to the Alliance’s militaristic side. There were few enough of these, he mused, though there could be more every day – he had no true notion of the Alliances powers. If they could alter the mind of someone enough that a word would send them from graceful to gutting, what else could they have up their sleeves?
There were some in the Guild he was certain could be trusted, but not so certain about many others. He knew not where the eyes and ears of the Alliance had secreted themselves, so a cabal within the Companion Houses of Sihnon and Londinium was a less than wise move.
Inspiration, however, had struck when he had travelled over to Londinium, to White Chapel, on Guild business. The Companion Guild received its licence to practice from Parliament – Registered Companions operated across the Verse – but further out from the Core, where the influence of the Alliance dwindled, so too did the reach of the Guild.
Across the Frontier worlds one found whorehouses – where only the carnal arts were practised, and, Mister Valentine thought, practised was a generous term. Out on the Rim it was very rare to find a Registered Companion, though there were some who travelled.
Increasingly of late, he thought, more Companions ‘took to the Black’ as they called it – a trend, perhaps a lasting one, and he knew where that had started.
There were exceptions, of course – a fringe group of, well, they called themselves Companions, but the Guild did not recognise them – this alternative Guild had set themselves up and began to service the Rim.
To some in the council, this rogue sect was a thorn in the side, but Mister Valentine could not help but see their actions as an opportunity. He had argued in Council that the Guild send a deputation to treat with the Lotus. This had been soundly rejected, as he knew it would, but he had managed to convince the Council to allow him to appoint an unofficial ‘ambassador’ to the Lotus.
Indeed, it was both a matter of Guild future-proofing, and personal insurance that he was keen to forge such a relationship. In time, Mister Valentine knew, there could be some form of steady relationship established. It was this business which brought him to Londinium for the grand finale of the Sports Ball tournament, to the dingy district of White Chapel, where he knew the Lotus Guild would be for the celebrations.
He knew that they kept regular company with one of his own, a Registered Companion named Eva Nightingale, for whom Mister Valentine had always held a slightly paternal soft-spot.
He trusted Eva – time and time again she had proved herself to be capable, intelligent, and loyal – though of course, he allowed a small smile to himself, she had had an exceptional teacher at the Madrassa.
Under the guise of testing Eva’s abilities, he was able to meet with, and indeed assess, some members of the Lotus Guild themselves. One evening was enough for him to know that these were good people on whom, he allowed his faith in his own judgement to tell him, he could rely on to aid him. His psychological abilities bordered on the preternatural, he’d been told in his training days, and they’d yet to steer him wrong.
He had appointed Eva as the Guild’s ambassador to the Lotus, which allowed him to maintain regular contact with them, without drawing any unwanted attention or suspicion. The Council would, he was sure, chalk it up as another one of Mister Valentine’s strange ideas, and leave him to his devices.
It had, of course, allowed him to arrange this evening’s meeting. The orchestra began to slowly fill the pit – it wouldn’t be too long now before the commencement of the Overture, and he sincerely hoped his guest wouldn’t miss that.
There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard – he mused on a recent reading, allowing his mind to drift from the troubling thoughts. It would not do to let them spoil the evening, even though they must be spoken after a time.
“Care for another glass, Mister Valentine?” asked his box’s servitor.
He considered this for a moment. “Actually I’m quite alright, thank-you.”
This was not the same servitor by whom he had been welcomed to the box. It could be that there had been a change of servitor, but this was unusual. So too, he thought, was the fact that his servitor was now male, unshaven, had a large tattoo creeping up his neck over the ill-fitting servitor uniform, and indeed that the servitor was pointing a gun at him.
“I think you ought to come with me, Mister Valentine.”
He thought for a moment – there will be no shooting here in the theatre; the amount of nobles and dignitaries present meant that the level of security was higher than the already fairly high level at the Forbidden City Operahouse. No, they’d be taking him away somewhere.
The fact that they were here at all meant there must be a significant amount of investment in this move, to be able to get inside the Operahouse with a weapon and up to the private boxes. Not too much, he thought, as this is clearly a street thug in a borrowed disguise. To have undertaken this with finesse, if he’d been doing this himself, he would have laced the champagne with a sleeping draught. This was too sloppy – there were too many variables open here.
No, this was the mark of a lack of sophistication. No one in the Guild, he was confident, would have hired thugs, or even contracted out to someone who would handle this in such a manner.
He was safe then, he surmised, from this being a move based on the fears he had so recently been mulling over as he awaited the night’s entertainments. It followed that his tardy companion was safe too, which relieved him somewhat.
“Of course, do lead on” replied Mister Valentine.
“No no, you first, I insist,” said the thug, gesturing with the pistol.
Not that stupid then, thought Mister Valentine. As they stepped out into the hallway behind the boxes he noted that there were no security present – they must have been bought off then – definitely a decent bit of cash had been thrown at this, still not enough to make him worry too much.
Damn. He would miss the entire bloody opera, which was criminal enough – when the opportunity to view Puccini presents itself, a chap should go through hell and high-water for it – but he would also miss the delightful company of the charming lady with whom he was to spend the evening.
Terrible on its own of course, but moreso given the necessity and timeliness of their meeting, for he had much to impart that desperately needed imparting.
Out through the servitor’s door behind a curtain, and through to a staircase. Ah, he thought, as they entered the stairwell – here were the man’s friends. An array of four thugs stood waiting for them on the first landing of the stairwell.
There’ll be no taking him out just now, thought Mister Valentine. He noted the array of weapons before him – only one pistol, the rest were blades and bats – it could have been much worse.
“Take his stick off him,” said one of the thugs.
Mister Valentine looked down at the cane in his hand. “Would you mind if I kept it? Only, it really does help me to walk.”
“Give it,” said the pistol thug, snatching the cane up. The cane contained a sword, of course, though he doubted the thugs had any notion of this – they merely wanted to remove any form of weapon from his hands.
Faking a limp, Mister Valentine began to slowly head down the stairs, leaning heavily on the bannister.
“Hurry up,” said the pistol thug, digging the barrel into the back of Mister Valentine’s neck.
“This is as fast as I can go I’m afraid, old sport. Bit of a war wound, you see.”
Appear weak when you are strong, he thought. He had been re-reading the Art of War only last night, on his annual revisit of the tome. More Companions, he thought, should make a study of the many elements of war. When he taught at the Madrassa House he had made it a required reading for his students, along with the various Sutra.
The thugs led him to the bottom of the stairwell, the grandeur of the Operahouse steadily receding into the more dull, service-based areas of the lower portions of the complex. A door at the foot of the stairs led through a loading area, where a group of servitors, smoking on the far-side of the bay, hurriedly disappeared as they saw the thugs approach.
Mister Valentine stumbled a few times on the walk across the bay, to reinforce the thug’s view that he was indeed in need of the use of his cane.
No security down in the bay, Mister Valentine noted. No obvious kidnap vehicle either. The service door on the far side of the loading bay led to an alleyway, he guessed. That would be the place. Move not unless you see an advantage, he thought to himself. Give them enough time and they’ll make your opportunity for you.
The alleyway brought in a rush of night air, and darkness consumed the group as they stepped outside of the loading bay. Here and there along the alleyway were lamps, creating small islands of light along the gloomy pathway.
Mister Valentine missed his footing, descending the single step into the alleyway, and lurched forward, falling against a large bin, punching the metal to make the impact sound more impressive. He groaned as he tried to right himself, and was roughly yanked upwards by one of the thugs.
“I thought you lot were meant to have special training and be all dangerous as well as graceful. You’re a limping mess. Are we sure we’ve got the right one?” spat one of the thugs.
“Of course it’s the right one,” grunted the thug with the pistol.
“We are trained in a variety of art forms. If you have a teapot handy, I can give you a demonstration?” quipped Mister Valentine.
That earned him a thwack in the side of the head from the thug with the pistol, which knocked his glasses from his face.
Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt, he thought, as he reeled from the contact of the weapon. He struck swiftly, yanking the top of his cane, freeing the blade from the thug’s hand. He stumbled like a drunken monkey into a spin, and slashing his blade fiercely as he did so. It made contact with one of the thug’s face, drawing a crimson lightning bolt across his face, sending the thug reeling back in pain.
The alleyway was suddenly bright with the flashes from the pistol’s muzzle and the thug began to fire wildly in shock. Mister Valentine counted the shots and he righted himself, enjoying the knowledge that one of the thugs had just been peppered with friendly fire.
Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood, attack like the Fire – the axioms went through his mind as he darted between two of the thugs whose badly aimed swings with their bats missed him by mere inches, and made an almighty clack as they collided.
More light in short bursts, more noises blaring from the gun as it barked to life. The wise warrior avoids the battle, he knew, but when you’re led into an alley at gunpoint by a group of thugs, there are only a few ways that situation will go.
One, bullet-full, slumped against the wall. One, red-faced, writhing on the floor. Two, reeling from smashing one another with bats. One, firing wildly. The latter, he knew, would be dealt with last, after he’d finished panicking. The other two were the more imminent threat, as long as he kept them between him and the pistol.
A bat came toward him. Mister Valentine shifted his footing and twisted out of the way, pointing his blade into the path of the batsman’s follow-through, and piercing him deeply. Deep enough that the blade was yanked from Mister Valentine’s hand as the body fell.
Damn. Fisticuffs it is then, he thought as he rounded on the second batsman, allowing his hands to fall around the lower portion of the bat as it came down on him, shuffling aside to use the momentum, disarming the poor fool, and breaking the bat in twain over his head as he span.
Mister Valentine dropped the now useless handle, and turned to face the final thug.
“Is that it? Are you done now? All your fancy karate gimmicks spent? You’ve no gun, you’ve no blade, you’ve no fucking chance.” spat the thug.
Mister Valentine shook his head, “I’ve no need of those now.”
“Too fucking right you don’t.” The thug advanced.
“The supreme art of war,” he said “is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
He saw the pistol flash up to meet his face, a grin on the attacker’s face as it did so.
“Makes it a lot easier for me to kill you then,” the attacker gloated.
Mister Valentine only smiled.
“Any last words, Companion?”
Mister Valentine looked his attacker squarely in the eyes. “Perhaps a final lesson? Who wishes to fight must first count the cost.”
The attacker’s smug expression was replaced by confusion slowly melting across his face.
“I don’t get it,” he said, jabbing the barrel of the pistol into Mister Valentine’s nose.
“I was quoting. Throughout this fight of ours I’ve been recalling my lessons, from an ancient tome that came with us across the stars from Earth-that-Was. Really, the quote doesn’t have too much relevance here, but I was struggling to come up with something fitting about counting.”
“How many bullets do you have left, friend?”
Another, darker expression began to melt over the thug’s face. No more time for words, Mister Valentine thought, recognising the look of a man about to kill.
*click* *click* *click*
The thug blanched, and stepped back.
Mister Valentine merely observed him. The thug’s lip began to tremble, but he quickly regained himself.
“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious,” said Mister Valentine.
The thug opened his mouth to speak, his words emerged as a silver point, followed by a spout of red which dribbled down his chin. The point receded, and the thug crumbled to the ground.
Mister Valentine straightened his nehru, ran his fingers through his hair to return it to his trade-mark sweeping mop, and graciously accepted the return of his glasses from the hand which proffered them from the shadows.
In return, Mister Valentine produced a handkerchief, and offered it to the shadowy figure. Stepping forward into the small pool of light from the streetlamps, the dapper figure wiped clean his blade with the handkerchief, and slid it deftly into the scabbard which hung from his belt. Steely haired, dressed in an elegant court-jacket of a similar colour, and nobly belted, the gentleman made to hand back the kerchief to Mister Valentine.
“Please,” Mister Valentine protested “do keep it.”
With a smile the figure let the handkerchief, now more claret than its original white, drop onto the body from whence its colour had come.
“I thought you would be around this evening,” Mister Valentine spoke to the gentleman “I would have been terribly shocked if you had missed an opportunity to view Turandot.”
The gentleman inclined his head in agreement.
“I take it you saw me exit pursued by several bears, and followed?”
The gentleman nodded his assent.
“Well I’m terribly glad that you did,”
The gentleman raised an eyebrow, and cast a swift look around the alleyway at the variety of bodies.
“Perhaps I had the situation in hand, yes. But it’s always nice to have a friend show up with an extra pair of hands.”
The gentleman smiled.
“The lady is nearby, I presume?” asked Mister Valentine.
At this the gentleman nodded, and pointed towards the sky, just as the sounds and lights of a shuttlecraft filled the night.
“Flair for the dramatic, you Lotuses have. Did you teach them that, Fleider?”
The gentleman grinned.
Another noise followed the roar of the shuttle’s engine as it washed over them – the unmistakable sound of sirens approaching, and the muffled sounds of shouting from within the loading bay.
“Ah,” Mister Valentine retrieved his blade “I wondered when the gunshots would attract attention. Time to leave, I think.”
The shuttle landed in a square just beyond Fleider’s end of the alleyway – Mister Valentine and Fleider departed the body-crowded alleyway, and boarded quickly.
Taking stock of his surroundings, Mister Valentine found himself in a shuttle not much larger than his box at the Operahouse. He considered for a moment that they might return in time for Act Two at the very least, but dismissed the notion as quickly as it came.
Seated at the helm was darling Eva, who gave him a warm smile as she piloted them away from the Forbidden City Operahouse. She wore a black leather pilot’s jacket, and for all the sweetness about her face, Mister Valentine knew her to be just as talented with a blade as she was with the singing voice which gave her her name.
Stood next to her, the other occupant of the cockpit turned to face Mister Valentine. Clad in a red silk cheongsam, fastened with a golden dragon clasp – a nice touch, he allowed himself a smirk – stood Siren-Mei of the Lotus Guild, the lady with whom he had hoped to enjoy Turandot that evening.
“Mister Valentine. I am not a woman who is accustomed to being stood up – you had best explain yourself.” she exclaimed with mock anger, one eye twinkling with mischief, the other unreadable beneath a black, jewel-encrusted patch.
The author writes under a nom de plume
Illustration: Library of Rebirth, Noah Bradley