By the time that the heli-cruiser had completed the short hop from the landing field to the Count’s residence, His Excellency Niam Jadipur, Duke of Artandies, Imperial Governor of the forty-third sector, was sweating. It was not the heat that was affecting him. The ambient temperature was quite low, in fact it was almost unpleasantly low and quite unusual for this time of year on Algronian. Nor was it any effect from flying in the heli-cruiser. He was fully aware that many people found such experiences unpleasant but His Excellency was grateful that he was not one of those, anyway Imperial heli-cruisers were very well equipped and quite spacious.
The thing was he was worried, very worried to be precise. What was the formal etiquette for meeting the Count. He had of course looked up the etiquette details in Burk’s and found that there was a wealth of information to be had in that source. Unfortunately it all referred to counts, not the Count. Anybody who thought that the Count De Rais had anything in common, or was remotely connected with any of the hundred million other counts in the Imperium was totally missing the point of the last two thousand years of Imperial policy or at least the policy of the Imperial Civil Servants.
There had of course been times when the Emperor, due to some oversight on the part of his immediate Civil Servants had actually tried to run the Empire. At such times their policy to the Counts De Rais might move from the long established policy of the Empire. Such deviations though were usually short lived. With predictable ruthlessness those Emperors who had tried to change the due order of things had been removed. Mostly by their Civil Servants, who naturally felt that a few hundred thousand military men under the nominal control of the Count, rampaging through the Imperial Household, was not good for their peace of mind. However, when, due to some unforeseen oversight, they had failed to undertake such removals, the Count of the time had inevitably ensured that the removal took place. Unfortunately such later removal were not often conducted with the finesse that the Civil Servants thought such events warranted, so as a matter of principle they preferred to deal with such situations themselves before the Count got involved.
Thus was the basic policy of the Imperial Civil Service established. That was to keep the affairs of the Emperor and those of the Count as separated as possible. It was, therefore, an unwritten rule in the Civil Service that any officer of the Imperium should, if at all possible, avoid any contact with the Count de Rais. Not, let it be understood that they had anything against the Counts. By comparison with most of the Emperors they were quite civilized and well behaved. No Count had annihilated a solar system without reasonable, or a least comparatively reasonable, grounds.
Therefore, being summoned, by way of an invitation to dinner, to meet with the current Count De Rais presented the Duke of Antandies with two problems. First, what to do about the invitation, the best course of action would have been to avoid it, but the wording of the invitation made it quite clear that this was not the a viable option. A normal printed invitation might be mislaid, a hand written one could not be ignored, especially when it was hand written by the Count and delivered by a brigade of storm troopers, such a presentation of an invitation intimated at the fact that it could not be refused.
The second was, as indicated above, was the question of etiquette. According to Burk’s a count should kneel to a Duke and kiss the Duke’s hand if proffered. Anybody who expected the Count De Rais to kneel to anyone was in for a very persuasive re-education. A re-education that in all probability would be quite short, sharp and discommodious, therefore, an experience best avoided.
Nain Jadpur almost collapsed as he stepped out of the heli-cuiser. The sweat that had been pouring off him was instantly replaced by a cold dread. He had expected a member of the household to be waiting for him on the helipad, given his rank and position in the Imperial Civil Service, it should have been a senior member of the Count’s household. Anything less would have been a major insult and one which it would have been difficult to ignore. Civil Servants of the Empire had for the last couple of millennium developed a great propensity for ignoring insults from the Count. It was simply a matter of survival. There were, however, bounds beyond which one could not go. As Nain Jadpur surveyed the heli-pad it was clear that there was no member of the household present to greet him.
For a moment he considered the possibility of returning into the heli-cruiser and instructing the auto-pilot to return him to the space base. That though he knew would not be feasible. He stepped off the steps onto the heli-pad. As he did so the steps retracted back into the heli-cruiser, leaving him marooned, then things got worse. Striding out across the expanse of the heli-pad a tall, dark haired, white skinned, individual approached the Duke. He wore a simple gray coverall, of the type that would be used by a simple robot’s assistant, except these were made from Ishamary silk, the finest spider silk in the known universe. The coverall was devoid of any sign of rank or insignia. The terror of the moment engulfed Nain Jadpur, he was being greeted by the Count in person. He threw himself forward to the ground and started the formal protestations that are given upon ones approach to the throne.
“Nein, nein, my dear Duke”, the Count sounded out, “this is an informal private meeting, we do not have dwell on etiquette. Get up and let us descend to the warmer terraces.” The Duke rose from the ground, his sense of foreboding rising within him at the mention of the words informal and private. The very last thing any Civil Servant wanted was an informal and private meeting with anyone, much less the Count. Any such meeting was always liable to be misinterpreted by those above one, below one and around one. Far better for anything to be formal and public, as such it would be fully recorded and commented upon.
An informal and private meeting on behalf of one of the leading Imperial Civil Servants with the person of the Count could be interpreted in all sorts of ways, none of them good for the Emperor. If word of this got out, even the slightest hint of the meeting was to reach any ears that it should not, and that meant any at all, the impact could be enormous. The Duke made a mental note to call his broker and place an order to buy shares in armaments. The very hint that a senior Civil Servant had met with the Count would be enough to indicate a possible coup, every warlord within the five Galaxies would be wanting to rearm, as would all the regional governors. He quickly did a mental review of his own forces and considered which of the possible candidates for Emperor would be the best bet.
The Count extended a solicitous hand to assist the Duke in ascending from his prostrate position. Then lead him down from the heli-pad to a turbo lift, which descended to an entertainment terrace many thousand of metres below. Only when they were approaching a dinner table, which the Duke observed was set for two, did the Count re-instigate a conversation.
“I am grateful that your grace was able to respond to my invitation.” Nain noted the skill with which the Count could at one and the same time observe the strict form of address due to a Duke and by removing all verbal capitalization from the words reduce them to total insignificance. He was not about to do the same.
“My dear COUNT, it was an honour I could not refuse.” Though of course they both knew that he had tried his hardest to find a way of doing so. He would have preferred to have spent the day in the boudoir of a Hasanian Snake Women, than having dinner with the Count, and although the Snake Women of Hasan are famed for the height of sexual arousal they can induce in a man, it has to be remembered that they have a tendency to consume their partners after consummation.
“No my friend, it is you who are honouring me.” Things were getting worse. The Count indicated a chair and took his place at the table opposite. As he was seated five youths clad in Ishamary silk appeared and placed a selection of dishes upon the table. Nain could not help but be drawn to the youths. Given the golden colour of their skin the Duke cold not help wondering if they like the silk they wore were from the planet Isham. The Count observed his looks.
“Yes my friend, they are Ishamites. Very rare and exquisitely trained. You may have a pair, I have not doubt that you will have use for them.” Nain blanched, as much as his ebony skin would allow. A pair of Ishamites slaves, and personal slaves at that, how was he a sector governor going to account for such possessions? What did the Count want that he would part with such wealth? Noting the Duke’s discomfort the Count continued. “Oh, do not be concerned by such a gift. I own the planet.” That was one piece of news the Duke had not been acquainted with. The last thing the Duke had been aware of was that Ishama was the property of the Grand Duke Hassain, first cousin to the Emperor. The Count observed Nain for a moment, perceiving the questioning look in his eyes. Then he continued to enlighten the Duke. “Our beloved Emperor felt that the Grand Duke was somewhat too near the throne. Upon becoming aware of that the Emperor was of this opinion the Grand Duke felt he had a sudden urge for the quite life, well beyond the bounds of the Empire. As you have no doubt observed, in such circumstances, living a simple frugal existence is very expensive.”
The Duke nodded. He remembered the time his own family had decided to seek the quite life, during the final years of the Great Empress. She, of course had been the Count’s Great Aunt, and a major disaster in Imperial politics. The whole of the operation of the Empire was based on the principle that one should keep the Count De Rais and the Emperor as far apart as possible. That had been a political strategy that had worked quite successfully for nearly two thousand years, until the unexpected happened, an Emperor actually had something that one of the Counts wanted. Or rather something which would enable the Count to get rid of something he did not want, namely his sister, Isabella. So the Count had arrived at the Imperial Court with half his battle fleet, which meant he had ten times the force of the Emperor, and a proposal of marriage for his sister and the Emperor, who, at twelve years of age, was somewhat young and had only recently ascended the throne.
Given the way that the petition was presented and the inducement that went with it, some fifty star systems, the Emperor had naturally agreed. Somewhat to the annoyance of the Lady Isabella who it appeared had not been consulted on the matter. However, that annoyance was somewhat moderated on her wedding day when, after a very well aimed shot with a lead weighted bouquet thrown from the departing wedding heli-cruiser, she found herself reigning Countess. A couple of Civil Servants had pointed out that strictly the De Rais title could not pass to the female line. The Lady Isabella had quickly pointed out that such petty restrictions had not prevented three of her noble ancestors becoming reigning Countess. It was also pointed out that (a) she was now wife of the Emperor and (b) the Civil Servants in question were late for the Space Braque that would take them to their new posts in a more unpleasant part of the Empire. Anyway the whole question of her right to sit as reigning Countess became totally irrelevant when the Emperor, whilst undertaking his duties and trying to father a son upon the Countess, had a fatal, pillow induced, seizure. The Grand Vizier had pointed out to the Empress that technically the late Emperor’s third cousin was now technically the Emperor, being the nearest direct male relative in the line. A piece of news that appeared to relieve the Empress so much she offered the Grand Vizier a glass of Naumbian wine. It was only in the final moments of his death troughs that Grand Vizier remembered why his predecessors had made it a strict rule never to drink in the presence of a member of the Imperial Family. The late Emperor’s third cousin upon hearing of this decided he preferred the quite life in a galaxy far far away.
Nain returned his attention to the meal before him. In customary manner, as the host, the Count leaned forward and picked up a delicacy with his chopsticks and offered it to his guest. The Duke, mindful of their respective ranks and influence, raised his chopsticks and removed the proffered morsel, which he delivered to his mouth without checking to see what it was. There was no point. There was no way that he would not eat it and if it was something that disagreed with him, then it would just have to disagree. A disagreement from his stomach was much preferable to the disagreement that could arise from upsetting the Count.
He flinched, as his palate was assailed by an intense sourness, then relaxed as sweetness beyond description filled his mouth. The experience was indescribably. Smiling he looked at the Count. The man was smiling with satisfaction.
“Tharssean Golden Fruit!” he confirmed.
“I thought it was impossible to transport them?”
“It is, once picked from the tree they have to be served within two hours. No means of preservation has been found and all attempts to grow them away from the soil of Thars has failed.”
“My orchards on Thars grow a number of trees in large pots. As they come into fruit, they are loaded on a faster than light transport and shipped to me. Oh the trees will die, but they live long enough for the fruit to delivered fresh to my table. It is all about care for the quality of things, which I why I had to ask you to join me for dinner.”
The Duke tried to look complacent as he picked up a morsel from the table. Again he did not take any notice of what it was. This time though it was because he was preoccupied in trying to think what it was that the Count wanted?
“My life, as you are no doubt aware, is dedicated to quality. Everything around me is of the best quality. I deplore anything that undermines the quality of what is available.” The Duke nodded in acknowledgement of what the Count was saying. A quick glance around him illustrated the point beyond anything that the Count could say.
“You, my dear Duke, are governor of a sector which has specialized in child farming.” The Duke acknowledged the fact with a nod. None of the star systems in his sector had any great worth and the planets were resource wise quite poor. The system as a whole was too far out from the main centres of the galactic population to make the transportation of grain or cereal products economic. Given these facts there was not much else in his sector that would earn foreign exchange and the raising of children for the export market was a profitable line of business which had a constant demand for its products. “Have you ever visited any of the planets involved in the industry?”
“Erhm ..”, responded the Duke.
“No matter, I suspect you have more important things to consider. I have, however, made a point of visiting a number.” The Count looked directly at the Duke, who finding himself under the gaze of that person suddenly found the meal, despite all its delicacy had suddenly become somewhat bland. “Don’t worry, I am not one of those campaigners who wish to see such a lucrative industry stopped. Indeed I very much encourage it, it provides such a vital contribution to our way of life in the Empire. No, I am not one who wishes to extend the rights of the intellectual to all and sundry. One might as well be asking me to give up my slaves.” As if to emphasis the point, or merely because he had partaken sufficient of the tidbits that had been laid upon the table and observed that his guest was no longer eating, he clapped his hands twice. The Ishamarian youths who had been motionless around the perimeter of the dining zone sprang to life clearing the table and laying it for another serving. The Duke observed that it was set for fish and wondered what exotic specialty the Count had imported?
“As I was saying,” continued the Count, “I have made it my business to enquire into the conditions in which the children are reared. In recent months I have visited Perius, Dalangan, Vinus and Martomique, and looked into the farming methods on each of those planets.” The Duke made a mental note to have somebody’s head served up on a silver platter. The most powerful man in the Galaxy had been wondering around his sector for months and nobody had mentioned it to him. There again, he thought, would he have mentioned it in their position? Probably not, there was always the possibility that such an event might pass unnoticed. It was not as if there would be any paperwork. The Count De Rais did not normally make application for a visa or landing rights. So provided nothing happened you could be reasonably certain that nobody would ever find out. This time though something had happened, he had been invited for dinner, so he had found out, definitely good justification for head serving, and probably justification for serving other parts of the offending official’s anatomy first, rather slowly.
“I found the practice of child farming rather interesting. There is just so much one assumes about things is there not?”
“Did you know Niam, oh you don’t mind my use of the familiar do you?” The Duke shook his head, indicating acquiescence. The Count could call him what he liked so long as he was able to get away in one piece and was able to square things with the Emperor later.
“Oh, good. I do get so tired of all these minor titles.”
“Most understandable.” The Count scowled momentarily at the Duke, who taking the hint added, “your Excellency.”
“Quite, there are so many titles around these days and so few that have any meaning. Most seem to have been purchased.”
The Duke nodded in agreement. Most titles were purchased. His had cost his father slightly over two thousand million Thalers, an amount that the family had considered a good investment. The sale of titles was a profitable industry for the Empire, though had become somewhat more restricted in recent centuries due to the lack of ongoing expansion. However, the rampage of the Empress Isabelle through the aristocratic families of the Imperium had result in a number of vacant titles and a subsequent flow of cash into the Imperial coffers. It had also resulted in a situation where few families could show a grant of title that went back more than two or maybe three generations. There were of course some exceptions, old families whose title went back to before the founding of the Empire. They generally were now without wealth and so did not come to the attention of the late Empress. Then there were the De Rais.
It was not a case of them having an historic grant of title. To be precise, so far as anyone had established, they had never had a grant of title. It seemed that the family were just a bunch of space pirates who were somewhat better about their business than the competition. While the majority of the Galaxy was occupied with the War of the Republics, they were occupied in grabbing anything that was lying around. By time the War of the Republics came to an end and the Empire was established they had some two thousand star systems, albeit all in the periphery, a war fleet bigger than that of the Emperor and the title Count De Rais. The first Emperor, having assessed the situation, had decided not to question the use of the title. An act which seemed very responsible, especially given the fact that the then Count De Rais had responded with a magnificent coronation gift. He had crashed a Star Cruiser onto the Senate House during the coronation, thereby removing all of the first Emperor’s potential rivals.
“Yes, I had always presumed that the farms must have vast stables of brood females to give birth to the children. It’s not the case.”
“No, they remove the ovaries from any female children they are selling, it prevents them from being matured into breeding lines. Those ovaries are then matured and the generated eggs fertilized and raised in culture. There is a short period of implantation in a surrogate womb, just long enough to establish the foetus, after which it can all be done in the vats and incubators.”
The table re-laid one of the Ishamarian servants approached carrying a single silver dish which he laid upon the centre of the table. The Duke looked at it, a sense of disbelief filling him. The most powerful man in the Galaxy, a man famed for his taste in fine food and wine was serving him salmon. It was not even served in a strange or exotic sauce, it was plain and simple, the most basic of preparation and laid on a dish. A simple salmon, the fish grown on mass in breeding tanks throughout the Galaxy to feed the drudges. The Duke could not believe that he was being offered such food, food he would not give to his slaves. More importantly the Duke could not work out how he should react. What was the Count trying to prove?
For a couple of minutes there was a stillness at the table, a pregnant pause in which each was waiting for an action from the other. This they both understood was a test. The Duke sensed things could not be as they appeared. He took his chopsticks and broke of a piece of the flesh, which he transferred to his dish. It was red, a deep red, far deeper that the pink flesh of the salmon he saw in the drudges markets. He observed that the Count was also helping himself to some of the flesh. Not wishing to be seen hesitant to partake of the fish, he moved some of the flesh to his mouth. There was a subtlety of flavour so intense that it was beyond description. In his whole life the Duke had only partaken of salmon on three or four occasions, when it had been necessary to taste the food of the drudges. What he had tasted then was nothing like this. The Count, observing the expression on the Duke’s face spoke.
“Wild salmon from an obscure planet called Terra. There are some who claim that it is the ancient home of humanity and that this fish originated there. I doubt such claims but what I do know is that the wild fish from its rivers have nothing in common with the farmed fish of the tanks.
“That, brings me to the point I want to make. The conditions in which an animal grows affects it. This salmon grew in the open sea of a world that may well have been its original home. It was caught, not so many hours ago, on a line and fought for its life. It is a wild and free creature. So different from what we grow in our tanks.
“I have visited the main child farms in your sector. Which are, therefore, the main child farms in the Galaxy. The children in most of them are treated with what can only be described as brutality. They are herded, fed and given what little is needed for the maintenance of their health, but nothing else is done for them. There is no attempt to provide them with even the most basic comforts, or with any form of entertainment or stuff to interest them and pass their time in the farms.
“Those that control them do so with sticks and electric prods. Many will go the whole of their lives in the farms without hearing a kind word spoken to them. And as soon as they are at an age where they can be sold they are sold to whatever buyer will purchase them. Is it any wonder that they are malnourished sour creatures who look at one with eyes full of hate and contempt?”
“Is your Excellency suggesting that we should improve the treatment of the children in the farms?” responded the Duke, taking even more of the delicious fish to enjoy.
“That is precisely what I am suggesting.”
“I am not sure that would be feasible. One only has to look at the fiscal returns for Perius, Vinus and Martomique and one can see that they are barely economic. The increase costs of the type of welfare you are suggesting would almost certainly bankrupt them.”
“I note Niam that you have not mentioned Dalangan, does that mean it has a healthier ecomomy?”
“Well, I only see the fiscal returns for the planets and do not know their financial details, that is the concern of the local procurator fiscal. However, I must say that from recall Dalangan is apparently a much more prosperous planet than the others you have mentioned.”
“You have never wondered why, they are all the same class of planet involved in the same industry, yet one is much more profitable than the others?”
“I must be honest and say I have never looked into child farming all that deeply. It is only just over 10% of our sector’s GDP.”
“Of that I am aware but it is also you single largest source of foreign exchange income for the sector. As such I would have thought you would have taken an interest in its economics,” the Count stated, with just a hint of ‘oh what have we got here’ in his voice. The Duke made a mental note to become an expert on the child farming activities of his sector by time he got back to his palace, and then to grill some of his staff, literally. It was only just that they should suffer.
“As I am sure you will be aware, of all your child farming planets Dalangan has the lowest level of output, yet it returns the highest profits. Have you any idea why that is?” The Duke, realising that he was totally out of his depth shook his head, and continued to enjoy the fish.
“The answer is quite simple. On Dalangan the children are much better treated. Instead of being grown in vast warehouse complexes they are raised in small units, not more than ten children to a unit, each unit overseen by an adult and a mix of ages of children in each unit. They also have room to go outside and facilities for play and exercise.
“Unlike the other planets which dispose of the children as early as possible, on Dalangan they are allowed to mature. No child is sold off before his or her tenth birthday. Most stay on the planet till they are twelve or thirteen. They have grown up in an atmosphere of care and consideration. There is little or no brutality. As a result the Dalangan children are not sour and sullen. They are happy, lively children. Such children demand a much higher price in the market place. They appeal to the tastes of those who are more fastidious in the taking of their pleasures.
“Also, unlike on the other planets the Dalangan’s have taken a specific interest in breeding for the market. They have identified what brings the best prices and have set out to produce them. This is in total contrast with the situation on Perius. There the whole breeding program is targeted at mass production. “
The Duke realising at this point that he was expected to take part in the discussion made a comment. Not much of a comment it must be admitted. What he said or even the tone in which he said it was immaterial, he was being addressed by the Count De Rais, all that was required was that he acknowledge that he was being addressed.
“I am quite aware that many within the Imperial circle are not too fastidious in their tastes but even those can be educated to expect more from the pleasures that are on offer. As for those who will not see the benefit of paying extra to ensure the higher welfare standards of the children being supplied to them, well one must ask if people of such low humanity should be in such positions.
“How can one expect to get pleasure from something that has been bread and treated like an animal all its life. One might just as well make use of an animal, if fact my experience is that you will often get far more from a well-tended animal than one of the products of some of the Child Farms. The product from Dalangan though is always quite amenable to ones requirements. They have now produced a very fine Nubian Oriental cross, which, I can assure you, is quite exquisite. “ The Count paused for a moment, the Duke took his queue.
“I have heard something of that. There have been a number of sales to the Imperial Court. Unfortunately though my sector produces such products, it is not wealthy enough to provide me with the income I would require to enjoy them.” The Count looked at him knowingly. The statement had been a simple statement of fact. There was no way, even with what he was skimming off the Imperial accounts, that this petty bureaucrat could hope to raise the funds to purchase the product of Perius, never mind the much more expensive luxuries provided by Dalangan. The meaning of the statement was well understood by both of them. Anything was possible in the Empire if you wanted it that is provided you could pay the appropriate price for it.
“Oh, I well understand your predicament,” the Count responded, indicating to his servants that they could now clear the table and lay the next course. “I am sure though that finances would improve considerably if you were to increase the quality of production, with, of course the subsequent increase in price. There would of course be some drop in output without a beneficial increase in price during the change over period from the present system to one based on high welfare, but I am sure that you could be compensated for any personal loss you might suffer.” The Duke looked at the Count questioningly, the later just gave a slight nod of the head and continued. “I am after all a patron of worthy causes and have many charities that are beholden to me. Without doubt one of them would take an interest in making sure that you were more than well compensated for bringing in appropriate welfare measures in your sector.”
“That would of course make life much easier and allow me some impartiality in making my decision to introduce the welfare measures you are suggesting.”
“So Niam you are prepared to accept my suggestion?”
“Of course, your Excellency. I would be lax in my duty if I did not.” The Duke carefully did not state if that was his duty to the Empire, his family finances, or his sense of personal survival. In all probability it was the later. Those who upset the Counts De Rais tended to have unexpectedly short working lives due to unforeseen terminal health issues.
“I am so pleased, my Chief of Administration will contact you tomorrow with a draft proposal, I am sure you will find it acceptable.” The Duke was equally sure he would.
The Ishamarian laid a large silver bowl on the table, filled with steaming cuts of meat. The Count reached over with his chopsticks and selected a piece, which he passed over to the Duke. The later taking in his chopsticks conveyed it to his mouth. An expression of pure delight crossed his face.
“Yes,” commented the Count, “Dalangan Nubian Oriental cross, now you will appreciate why I feel that growing them in good conditions is so worthwhile. One has to take care of one’s food; you owe it to your palate.”
Copyright © 2015 Nigel Gordon