1. On the Other-World War, and its Implications for Imperial Policy
The following excerpt comes from a paper submitted by bureaucrat Samsen Meridicus to the 113th Symposium of the Mezzanine Club, an event run by one of the earliest Imperial salons and advocacy organisations to debate matters relating to the future of the empire.
Mr. Meridicus, a gentleman with an extensive personal interest in alchemical and thaumaturgical matters despite his lack of training in the disciplines, is known as a sober and respectable scholar, and as such his wilder claims were given more credence than they would otherwise. However, for undisclosed reasons, Mr. Meridicus withdrew his paper from consideration the very next day after submitting it. Furthermore, the one extant copy of the submitted paper was lost in the shuffle at the Dreary and Sons print shop.
Such suspicious events are far from abnormal in the Trade, of course. That this paper was censored is not proof of its veracity, especially when its claims are nakedly heretical; it may be that the Mezzanine Club simply wished to avoid a religious controversy. Nevertheless, we at the Perpendicular Press cannot help but be intrigued by its claims. And as luck would have it, a copy of Mr. Meridicus’s paper has made its way into our hands.
So read on, and judge Mr. Meridicus’s claims for yourself. For was it not said, “let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world”?
… Now, the testimony of Defendant ‘HC’ has generally been dismissed, the desperate ranting of a torture subject who would make any promise to make the pain stop. And yet, if you pursue the matter, a certain pattern does indeed come to light. To the extent I can verify, the murders, thefts and vandalism she attributes to agents of ‘Titania’ and ‘Oberon’ are all genuine, and many would be hard to discover. Furthermore, the stout soldiers of the Empire who assisted in her capture are unanimous that she displayed thaumaturgical powers, despite no evidence whatsoever emerging that she is trained in the Art.
Such claims nevertheless remain hard to swallow. After all, the Sacred Geometries make clear that the world is naught but earth and sky; there is simply no room for other worlds to exist. And yet, for learned souls such as we, a little flexibility in interpretation may be warranted. Even if this investigation is merely a flight of fancy, or a metaphorical description for a mundane conflict between merely terrestrial forces, such a roundabout route may cast an unexpected light on the truth.
For this reason, I undertook to search the Northbank Archive for any further mention of ‘Oberon’, ‘Titania’ - as well as the other individuals claimed to be associated with them, such as ‘Puck’, ‘Peasebottom’ and ‘Mustardseed’. To my surprise, my research bore fruit. These names do not recur frequently, but that is, as I will show, actually all the more curious. Crimes similar to those of ‘HC’, by individuals who claim to be motivated by one of these entities, have been attested over a timespan that represents not mere decades, but all the way back to the the first years after the beginning of the Record of Criminal Affairs.
Yet in each case, little seems to have been made of them. Perhaps these incidents are simply too infrequent for the link to be discovered. Or perhaps, I dare to speculate, some force within the Imperial Judiciary has a vested interest in ensuring the unifying factor is not detected.
At this point, you may imagine that my interest was piqued, to say the least. Whether a being from another world or the assumed name of some clandestine organisation, ‘Oberon’ and ‘Titania’ seem to have worked tirelessly to shape our empire from the very dawn of the Geometric Era.
Which naturally leads to the question: perhaps even before?
After the Geometrists’ Sacred Revolution, it is a sad fact that most records from the Ancien Regime were destroyed. I could not comb judicial records as I had before. And yet, a number of diplomatic papers survive, notarised and copied during the Ecumenical Accords, during which the diplomatic obligations of the nascent Empire were determined.
And here, in a dusty archive, written by forgotten people in an archaic tongue, I found something astonishing: a peace treaty and set of economical agreements with the Kingdom of Oberon.
No such kingdom is known in recorded history; unfortunately the treaty did not give any indication of where this Oberon’s kingdom should be located, geographically. Yet the terms of the deal were intriguing. The trade deal involved nothing so everyday as grain or copper, but rather involved of receipt of a certain quantity of ‘draíocht’ in exchange for a far larger quantity of ‘aisling’; we can translate this as witchcraft (i.e. pre-thaumaturgical magic) for dreams.
An unlikely trade, with an unlikely partner. Does this continue into the present? Remarkably, it seems that a representative of this Oberon attended the Ecumenical Accords, for the agreement has been filed as a renewed commitment of our own Empire. Is our Empire involved in some sort of clandestine trade monopolised by the Imperial House, a trade that passes unknown to the Exchequer?
If so, I believe that - whatever the circumstances dictating the secrecy in the past era - it is imperative that the truth of the matter with this ‘Oberon’ be made clear, at least among learned individuals not like to panic. After all, we are of like understanding that many aspects of the Parallelogram’s teachings are best understood as metaphors, without negating their indisputable truth; why might the same not be true of the existence of other worlds? Surely it would benefit the Empire that our extraterrestial allies - if allies they remain! - be a known quantity.
2. The Chairman’s Court
In the court of Oberon, King of the Fey—or Chairman, as he preferred to style himself—all was mayhem.
The great king slumped in his throne, his brow furrowed as if cut by a plough. No splendour would move him; nor had it for seven nights. Tension filled the air. The King looked perfectly radiant, of course, but there was a touch of orange colour in the wreath crowning his head, and though nobody would dare utter it, even a streak of grey tracing down his vast mane of golden hair. And so the trees outside the open veranda had started to flash red in their leaves, and autumn fashions had spread across the court.
It was an ill omen. None could say how long Oberon’s reign would last before the next Oberon would replace him, and some renowned Oberons had achieved their greatest works in their autumn years, but all the same, it portended weakness.
Before him spread the same old tableaux of cruel revelry; the highest officials of his new regime so unified in snideness that they might have been wearing masks. Here, a foolish serving-boggle had let slip its true name, and now the elves around it—true elves, they would sneer, not the degenerated parody that passed themselves off as ‘elves’ in the Material—cackled with glee as they commanded ever greater humiliations. There, a satyr was proudly demonstrating a technique by which an animal—or even an unfortunate kelpie—could be split down the middle and still live. The onlookers were already growing bored at the tacky display.
Amidst this fray, Oberon’s diehard loyalists stood out not by their strangeness but their uniformity: crisp, well-tailored white dress uniforms, clean sharp haircuts. A new model of fey for a new century. Many of them were low-born compared to the fey aristocracy—some were the elves’ material cousins, some not even elves at all! They kept to themselves, for the most part. Elsewhere in the city there might be brawling, but here in the court of Oberon, they commanded a frosty fear.
…yonder was the delegation from the Annwn colony. Where, damn it all, the Isle of Avalon had been sighted once more.
It was getting to the point that Oberon’s reluctance to hold court with the delegation would be taken as a slight. Annwn, though de jure annexed by the fey, was still a bitter frontier land, ruled in truth by strange animal gods. In prior ages, fey scholars had looked dreamily at Annwn and modelled their lives after its obtuse affairs. But with the Druids long gone, Annwn had festered, an anarchic waste, her immiserated residents preyed on daily by the other planes. So it had been, too, with the Fey—but now the Fey were strong. One day, Oberon dared to hope, Annwn would look up to the Fey instead.
Yes! On that longed-for day, Oberon would call up the Wild Hunt and chase down the great deer that guarded Annwn’s gnarled forests. The Hunt had not escaped Oberon’s drive for modernisation, and now they bore long rifles and hwacha and other exciting toys culled from the dreams of the most sadistically ingenious humans: a highly mobile magic-infantry combined-arms force to stand against any across the planes. If they moved out in force, tired old Annwn would collapse.
But then came the Civil War. Even now, Avalon could appear anywhere, at any time, and disgorge a swarm of guerillas into the countryside… to withdraw the Hunt would be arrant foolishness. And worse, Gwyn ap Nudd would never tolerate the intrusion.
There was no helping it.
Oberon raised a perfect hand, slender fingers gleaming against the warm autumn colours of the open veranda. The conversations began to die down. (The stricken boggle crawled away, lucky to have escaped its ordeal with the loss of just one eye. One of the elves kicked it.)
Oberon’s herald, the Puck, stepped forwards.
“oh hush you all! our goodly King does speak
a Chairman fair of hair and fair of hand,
let now the troubles o’ this doleful week
pass by, and firm a grip ‘gain steer our land.”
said he, and turned to Oberon with a bow and flourish. No other fairy could speak to the King so sarcastically, but the Puck’s existence was one of the hard laws of the fey lands, and it would be a long time and much work before Oberon could dispose of him.
So Oberon merely nodded. It was worthwhile to have the Puck on hand, in any case: to draw into the open the rumours that swirled in the court, where they could be beaten into submission.
“We would hear the entreaties of the good Governor of Annwn Colony. May he present himself before the Court.”
Gwyn ap Nudd moved forwards, resplendent as always in pearl-white robes, his skin so pale as to suggest a man drained of blood. He strummed once on the harp held in his arms, and smiled a wide sardonic smile.
“How gracious of you, my King, to hear my pleas so promptly.”
Oberon’s eyes narrowed. It was one thing for the Puck to speak so, but Gwyn ap Nudd must be confident indeed of his position. Better remind him of his place.
“Avalon has risen in your domain, Gwyn.” A murmur rushed through the Court; this was not yet common knowledge. “Do you come to call on the Hunt, or are you yet too proud?”
Gwyn’s mouth twitched slightly. In the early years of Oberon’s rule, before the Civil War, he had been purged from his post as leader of the Hunt on suspicion of loyalty to Titania with the pretense of assigning him a glorious colonial mission. For him to be forced to call on Herne’s forces now would be a further humiliation.
“My King.” said he. “I have no need to call the Hunt. For when my scouts approached the Isle, they found not a trace of Titania, nor her forces. Yes!” he turned to face the court at large “Let it be said to all! The Isle of Avalon stands unguarded, its keep empty, its terraces untended. I, Gwyn ap Nudd, have found it so!”
He turned back to Oberon, dropping to one knee, his eyes yet fixed on the Chairman-King. “And now, my King, I come to plead my case to annex it, by right of simple conquest.”
Silence. The Court waited. Oberon stood from his throne, spreading his hands. The traditionalist fey were willow-thin, but Oberon and his followers took a form of lean muscle and towering height. His raiment was military, elegantly cut.
Oberon laughed. A great bellowing laugh, that rolled across the walls of the court.
“We did not think you so gullible, Gwyn ap Nudd. What you claim is but a glamour.”
Gwyn remained kneeling. “So thought I, my King. But my investigation found it solid in every respect. ‘Twould seem your wife-enemy was a paper tiger in sooth, and has vanished away like the dew. I press my claim!”
A frown caught the corner of Oberon’s mouth. He had expected Gwyn’s plea would be permission to lead a personal assault on Avalon—an operation certain to fail. But to refuse him and order him to receive the Hunt without trying his hand would anger the traditionalists in the court. Instead… this was unexpected. Worse, Oberon had a suspicion of what had happened.
“If that is so.” Oberon frowned severely, the aspect of a displeased father. “We remind Gwyn ap Nudd that we now command a Commonwealth, and that he is a governor and not a seigneur. If the Isle of Avalon is so unexpectedly liberated, it belongs now to the State, to be administered as to most benefit the Fey.” He made a brief hand gesture, and raised a hand to his ear. His frown deepened as he listened to some private report.
The Puck cackled, and capered forwards.
“Merry the game our fairy king does play.
A ‘public would he build, yet sovereign he stay!”
Some of the fairies giggled. Oberon’s face remained steady, and he lowered his hand. “You broke the meter there, Puck.” he said, to a louder laugh.
In the tense silence that followed came another figure, stepping forward from the mass of courtiers. From the neck down, he was dressed in a Modernist uniform, smart as any—yet his fierce grin and great crown of antlers made the Generalissimo of the Seelie Armed Forces quite unmistakeable.
“If I may, my King.” said Herne the Hunter. Oberon gestured for him to take the floor, and Herne stepped forward, teeth bared. “If Gwyn ap Nudd’s claim can be believed, surely there is a matter more pressing than the administration of the misty Isle. If Titania has vanished from Avalon, she is at large to make mischief—hiding in Annwn, there can be no doubt. Perhaps Gwyn should tell us where the trail leads, before he claims to be a conqueror!”
“We welcome our Generalissimo’s counsel.” Oberon said. He paused significantly. To reveal what he had just been told would perhaps incite panic. To keep it secret might be worse. “But if matters are as Gwyn ap Nudd says, there may yet be a greater threat. Tell us, Gwyn ap Nudd: did you watch closely the scouts who set foot on the Isle of Avalon? Did you, yourself, ascend its shore?”
Gwyn blinked. “Why, my King. I did, of course, survey the land myself, and found no trace of Titania, nor any of her Court.”
“And what, Gwyn ap Nudd, of your shadow?”
This set another wave of whispers—largely confused ones. But Gwyn’s composure weakened a tic. “My King. I know not of what you speak.”
“We shall see.” Oberon stepped forward, walking past the kneeling Gwyn ap Nudd, towards the centre of the Court.
In his hands, as if from nowhere, was a staff. In the hands of an Oberon past, this would be a swirling tree-branch, its leaves resplendent—but this Oberon’s staff was straight, carved with a geometric pattern of inset green porcelain that only abstractly resembled leaves. Elegance, in all things. A new decorative art.
“Witness.” Oberon said, and rapped his staff once on the ground. In an instant, the light fled the room; outside the open veranda it was suddenly a moonless night. Oberon snapped his fingers, and abruptly his staff gleamed, the single brilliant light casting the whole room into chiaroscuro blocks.
“Gwyn ap Nudd,” Oberon said, “wherefore have you two shadows!?”
A murmur; everyone glanced at the floor, and sure enough, Gwyn ap Nudd’s shadow forked, as if lit from two directions. The second shadow seemed to shrink away guiltily to align itself with the true shadow—but Oberon pounced, striking the shadow with the end of his staff. He raised it like a fish speared in the ocean.
The light returned. Oberon reached forward, and grabbed the shadow in his broad hand. It squirmed, at first resembling Gwyn, then a knot of biting snakes, until at last it seemed to spend its energy and collapsed, like a wet rag. Still Oberon gripped it tightly.
Beside him, Gwyn ap Nudd had collapsed, gasping for breath and clawing at his neck. He reached vainly for the mass of shadow. The light now fell strangely on him, as if on a cloudy day, a flattening effect. But look closer, and you would see: there were no shadows anywhere upon him.
Most of the fairies stared, uncomprehending. To play with shadows was not so uncommon a fey game, but something about this shadow felt different, painfully alien. The shadow in Oberon’s hand was like a hole in the world; the eye slid over it and failed to find purchase.
But some seemed unsurprised. A small group of fey stepped forwards, each in the smart Modernist uniform. At their head stood Secretary Mab, shorter than most fairies but with a commanding presence and sharp silhouette that demanded respect. Behind her, two of the Cat-Sìth, Oberon’s feline secret police.
In times past, Mab had been a well-respected trickster, but under Oberon, she had attained power like never before. Her expertise in dreams had given her an indispensible niche as Oberon sought to build his new economy, and she had overseen the rise of the great dream-spinning looms that processed the raw material from the poppy fields into everything a fairy could desire.
Mab was now part of Oberon’s inner council, one of the most powerful fairies. Not for nothing did the fey call her ‘Queen Mab’, and rumours swirled of an affair. Some even whispered that a loophole might be found to annull Oberon’s former marriage and appoint Mab a new Titania, or that she might one day usurp him, perhaps with Herne as successor, or even changing her gender, as was sometimes done.
The two Cat-Sìth walked upright on their back paws, each black with a white patch under their chins. Most of the time they assumed glamours, acting as Oberon’s eyes and ears among fey of all stations. Only at a raid or an execution might they be seen to walk openly.
“Chairman.” Mab said, saluting sharply, the Modernist salute with a closed fist across her chest. “A brazen move from the shadow.”
“I agree.” Oberon looked sternly at the black mass in his hand. “Would you dispose of this? I have decided it is time to tell our Court about Edmund’s dirty secret.”
Mab nodded. The fairies behind her crowded closer—the mention of Edmund bringing out a hiss of righteous anger.
Behind him, Gwyn ap Nudd had curled into a foetal position, all his haughtiness seemingly torn away with the shadow in Oberon’s hand. Oberon looked at him without pity.
“Gwyn ap Nudd, it would appear you have consorted and conspired with enemies of the Commonwealth. You are hereby stripped of the rank of Governor of Annwn and further, charged with high treason. Secretary Mab, you will see to arrangements for his trial.”
Gwyn ap Nudd whimpered. The two Cat-Sìth picked him up by the shoulders, unceremoniously, and half marched, half dragged him out of the room. Mab, meanwhile, withdrew a slim lacquered box from the pocket of her uniform, inlaid with a geometric pattern resembling a star. She snapped it open, revealing a mirrored interior and the gleam of light. Oberon pushed the shadow towards the box, and it animated once again, shrinking away—but it could not resist the king’s force, and in moments, it was stuffed inside. Mab snapped the box shut.
Oberon turned his gaze to Gwyn’s retinue, whose faces were for the most barely disguised terror. “Who among you accompanied Gwyn ap Nudd to the Isle of Avalon?” A few uncontrolled glances gave him his answer. More Cat-Sìth melted out of the crowd, and swiftly marched the identified fey out of the room after Gwyn.
“We hereby decree: the Isle of Avalon shall be sealed. No fey is to set foot on it. Any who have must be arrested and examined for signs of compromise. Herne, you will deploy the Seelie Armed Forces to this effect.”
Herne nodded, saluted, and walked away briskly to carry out the order. Oberon nodded, satisfied, and at last stepped back to his throne. Settling there, he leaned forward conspiratorially as Mab took up a position at his elbow. He gestured to the court…
“Come forward, my friends.” he said, no longer speaking in the official tone, no longer a royal we. “That sordid business is done, and you see perhaps the source of my troubles. And yet, I think this threat we face shall be a boon.” Oberon took a deep breath. “I am going to tell you a story—a story of the time an enemy captured me, and what he did next…”