The Rit-Phyr homeworld, Mnepsy, in the Syro Galaxy
A cold night, in the year 18.104.22.168…
The night was cold and dark, but the stone cathedrals, standing defiant against the rain, promised warmth, food and, most importantly, intrigue.
Mnepsy’s planetary capital encapsulated the characteristics of not only the entire world, but that of the sapient species that had crawled out of Mnepsy’s primordial muck so many millennia ago. Fræstubok was resplendent with castles and fortresses both medieval and modern, testament to the Rit-Phyr’s penchant for skeuomorphism and nostalgia.
One particular fortress, marked by a central tower that carved a jagged line into the dense fog, was perhaps Fræstubok’s most important building. Sequestered deep inside the battle-worn fortress was a labyrinth of underground passageways built on top of and around each other. Construction of the building never really ceased, and its halls extended far beyond the walls of the upper castle to wind around the perimeter of the city itself. Its warrens percolated into the hearts of many other secret buildings dotted around Fræstubok and the surrounding mountains.
The council sanctum was buried several levels below the ground, and was splendidly appointed. The onyx surroundings gleamed in the atmospheric lighting, the curves and lines of balconies and tables and chairs and statues complemented by richly upholstered purple rugs and curtains. The cushions adorning the chairs were made of the flawless silk the Rit-Phyr could produce from their very own bodies.
It was an enormous, cavernous space that expanded frequently, for the Empire had ever mandated colonisation, and each new territory would thus need a new Voivode to manage it. Having long since conquered space travel, the Rit-Phyr counted the number of Voivode’s in the thousands, each of whom were entitled to a seat in the hallowed halls of the sanctum.
Voivode Be-Phodris was an old Rit-Phyr, and as typical a Rit-Phyr as it was possible to find. She was stern and proud, simultaneously grotesque and alluring. In demeanour she was callous, and in her refined cruelty was a certain sensualism that had called many lovers to her side in her younger years.
The Voivode’s were technically all equally ranked and had no ruler to command them, but Be-Phodris was the oldest and wisest of them. Out of respect, or perhaps fear at the old lady’s considerable political power, the others often (always) allowed her to take the floor, allowed her to speak most, and deferred to her expertise whenever there was a matter of some debate.
She had taken her usual spot at the very far end of the hall (the better for her voice to carry to the other councillors), and in a further break with tradition and as testament to her enduring influence, had brought in a retinue of five trusted guards and one flunky. Said flunky was standing anxiously beside Be-Phodris as the old Rit-Phyr interrupted the din of discussion and addressed the council as a whole.
“And now, I do believe Voivode Ser-Maleek has an important issue he would like to discuss?”
She waved her wrinkled and spotted hand in the direction of the far right corner, and the solitary Voivode sitting there got to his feet.
Ser-Maleek was a middle-aged Rit-Phyr with a generically distinguished Voivodeship, a generically impressive resume and a generically handsome face. When he spoke, all listened out of a generic sense of courtesy.
“Thank you, Voivode Be-Phodris, and greetings to my honoured brethren gathered here tonight,” He began, peering around at the other councillors who gazed back at him, their faces made alien by the ambient lighting. “As you all know, for some time there has been speculation that I will shortly be abdicating my position as Voivode of Wermaxe. I will address these rumours – they are true.”
At that, there were shocked murmurs around the hall. Most of the reactions were entirely manufactured. Ser-Maleek was Voivode of Wermaxe, a small moon far from the core territories of the Empire and he was not often personally attendant at Council meetings.
Still, it looked good to seem as if you had a friendship of sorts with another Voivode, even one as mediocre as Ser-Maleek, and so the Councillors in the room muttered in false consternation and placed melodramatic hands to their breasts.
Ser-Maleek continued, stepping closer to the light of the nearby torch which flickered with artificial purple flame. “I have decided that it is time for me to step aside and allow another to take this mantle. I will still serve Wermaxe, of course, but perhaps in a more advisory capacity.”
At that, there was a great noise within the hall as his fellow Voivode’s set about rapping their knuckles against their palms in congratulatory, perfunctory, applause.
“Thank you, thank you,” Ser-Maleek said graciously, bowing slightly at the waist. “This therefore brings into question who will take over stewardship of Wermaxe. The law of succession of course demands that the new Voivode be selected from the available pool of Generals. As it happens, we have but one General and she is…Well, that is to say, the General of Wermaxe is…”
Voivode Ta-Ratann, who at that point had been almost dozing in his seat, bored, and who actually did have a friendship of sorts with Ser-Maleek sat up straighter in his chair. He blinked rapidly as an idea occurred to him and then caught the eye of Ser-Maleek, profoundly dismayed. “General Sa-Kolis stands to inherit Wermaxe!”
Immediately, the chamber became filled with agitated and angry mutters, peppered with the odd sputtering protest. This time, the reaction was not fake. Ser-Maleek was not a particularly noteworthy Voivode, but his General, Sa-Kolis, was infamous.
The ethics of her tactics would have been grounds enough for notoriety, and she had offended more than one person in the Sanctum with her abrasive personality. Sa-Kolis was far more than that, though. Sa-Kolis was a Vitiate, a member of a despised minority, and her steady rise in the scheme of things had been unprecedented and unwelcome.
Be-Phodris tapped the nail-guard of her finger against the arm of her throne, displeased. “A troubling proposition,” She said gravely, more to herself than anyone else.
“A Vitiate cannot take over a Voivodeship,” A young Voivode insisted from the topmost corner. “They don’t possess the intellectual capacity to make these kinds of decisions. Would you let your child pilot a starship? Would you let your family pets run your household? The idea is ludicrous!”
An unknown Voivode from the second floor who was draped in shadow, shouted out into the sanctum, raising an angry fist. “I will not stand for a slack-jawed mongrel to sully this hall with their filth. “
Another Voivode from the opposite side of the room called back to her. “Your hatred of the handicapped is primeval. The Vitiated cannot help that they are half-formed -“
“They’re not children. They know exactly what they do,” The first Voivode sneered.
“And everywhere you see them all you get is crime, and filth and trouble. It may not be politically correct to say it, but I’ve never been one for political correctness, only for the truth, and the truth is, the only time a Vitiate should be inside this Hall is when they are cleaning it.”
At that, the hall broke out again into shouts of vehement agreement and counter-arguments.
Ser-Maleek held out his hands placatingly and spoke confidently over the rumbling arguments of his peers. “I sympathise with the plight of the unfortunates. I have always been a very progressive person. After all, I allowed Sa-Kolis, a Vitiate, into my Voivodeship. I treated her much the same as anyone else. I even acknowledged her merits, gave her the opportunity to prove herself in the meritocracy. That does not mean, however, that I am prepared to allow a Vitiate to step into a role that only a true Rit-Phyr can perform.”
“Then you shouldn’t have promoted her in the first place,” Someone else said darkly. “Vitiates ought to be kept on the perimeter. They’re born delinquents, too dangerous and stupid to be around normal people.”
Be-Phodris held up another lazy hand, bringing the rumbling chorus of the Voivode chamber to but purr of dissent. “To question Sa-Kolis’ rank is to question our own authority. We all ascended through this Hegemony through merit, and as the General has done the same, we cannot cast doubt on her accomplishment.”
At that, there was a general roar of outrage and mockery that Be-Phodris quickly quelled with a slap of her hand on the podium. “Silence! I have said that Sa-Kolis’ position is legitimate, but not that she is suitable for the task laid out before her. As a Vitiate, she of course would be an entirely unsuitable candidate. It is impressive that she managed to get this far with her disability but the fact remains that her infirmity would impair her ability to perform her duties as a Voivode. The law of succession is clear, though, and cannot be overturned even if the successor in question is less than desirable. Should we ignore her claim to the title, we invite similar treatment for ourselves.”
The assemblage began muttering amongst themselves in renewed agitation, for they had caught the truth of their leader’s point. Sa-Kolis was hated, but to deny her the rewards merit had brought for her would also be to deny the legitimacy of their government, for who was to say which Voivode would next be passed over for being in some way ‘undesirable’?
“My son is Castellan of the Wermaxe Voivode, third in line, and I can vouch for him. He would be an outstanding leader,” Ser-Maleek said proudly over the annoyed crowed.
Yuna-Opoima, a young Voivode who was slouched in his chair three seats down from Ser-Maleek, gave the older Rit-Phyr a sidelong glance. “He would also be the beneficiary of your nepotism, I suspect.”
At that, there were a few more angry shouts, even from those who had not heard Yuna-Opoima’s quiet comment and merely wished to have another opportunity to complain as loudly as possible.
Be-Phodris eyed Yuna-Opoima disinterestedly, the way a predator might regard prey which is too small to make a worthwhile meal. “You cloud the issue, and cast aspersions on Ser-Maleek’s son as well. Would it please you instead then, to break bread with one of the Unfortunates?”
The grumpy Voivode from the second floor again took the opportunity to be belligerent. “Can we not just…be rid of her?”
Ii-Tamasu, a Voivode close in age to Be-Phodris and well-known for his obsession with propriety, shivered in outrage at the suggestion as if he had been doused in cold water. “An assassination? Outrageous!” He said indignantly, his blunt fangs twitching in unconscious threat display.
Voivode Yuna-Opoima inelegantly huffed through his mouthparts in scorn. “Is it so outrageous? This council was built with the hands of murderers and thieves, did you not know?”
Be-Phodris narrowed her eyes dangerously, fixing all four of them upon the impertinent upstart. When she spoke, her voice was quieter than ever but it shut the jaws of every other person in the room. “Voivode Yuna Opima, I appreciate your desire to stir the pot, but one more statement without regard for respect or etiquette and I will personally eject you from this council room, understood?”
Yuna-Opoima bowed his head deeply so that his face was obscured, although it was anyone’s guess whether he was properly chastened or temporarily leashed. Be-Phodris seemed satisfied that she had quietened him down, though, for she turned her attention back on Ser-Maleek.
“Getting rid of the general…The idea has merit. And no,” She addressed Yuna-Opoima, who was still ducking his head, apparently humbled, “I do not suggest anything so crude as an assassination attempt.” She wryly swayed her head from side to side. “I emphasise the word ‘attempt’ because I want to make it clear that General Sa-Kolis, no matter her personal faults, has served as a soldier with some distinction. She has some measure of…popularity. I should not wish to make her a martyr for undesirable social change. So, what to do then?” She asked rhetorically.
Looking serenely upon the crowd, it was clear to all that Be-Phodris already had an answer, and they were not disappointed. “We should promote her.”
Ser-Maleek startled. “Promote her? But then she would be Voivoi-“
“We will not promote her upwards, we will promote her sideways,” Be-Phodris interrupted with relish. “Give her a title and an assignment and send her on her way to complete a frivolous task. There will be no demotion, and Ser-Maleek will make the announcement before he retires so the fool General does not suspect.
Voivode Ii-Tamasu was intrigued. “And how will we do this thing? Where shall we send her?”
Be-Phodris hummed. “Well, we have not had an Ambassador in many, many centuries. Perhaps it is time to revive this particular occupation and rank.”
“You want a Vitiate to represent our people? You want someone like Sa-Kolis to be our diplomat when dealing with aliens?” Ii-Tamasu asked disbelievingly.
“Why not?” Be-Phodris said slyly. “I have no love for them. Should Sa-Kolis disrespect them, as is her custom, then I shall be much pleased. And if they in turn throw her into a prison, that too would bring me some satisfaction.”
“And if they seek recompense from us for Sa-Kolis’ slights?” Yuna-Opoima chanced.
“Let them come and taste their apologies from the edge of my sword,” Be-Phodris said dismissively.
At that, the assembly stirred in honest admiration, for the idea of metaphorically thumbing-their-noses at other races was genuinely delightful to them. Be-Phodris was crafty, and a master of guile, and if there was anything Rit-Phyr politicians enjoyed it was those two things.
Be-Phodris clapped her hands together. “Excellent! If this solution pleases you all then, all that remains now is to tell the hot-blooded Sa-Kolis of her good luck. I believe such a duty falls within your purview, Ser-Maleek.”
Ser-Maleek stifled a chuckle. He did not relish telling the tempestuous Sa-Kolis that all her parvenu ambitions had come to nothing.
“Hmm. Yes, it does. Perhaps I will let her know through an instant message?”
There was a smattering of malicious laughter at that.
Be-Phodris tapped her nail-guards on the armrests of her throne again, this time in triumph. “Give the General our good wishes, a ship, and tell her to leave on assignment right away. I personally am looking forward to not thinking about that fool for the rest of my days.”