You must understand that all of this occurred some thirteen years ago, when I was young still and the Empire had but newly begun its campaign to rid the realm of the Wildness.
We were told—and not without foundation—that the Wild represented a threat to the ongoing unification of the realm, dispersed as they were throughout the lands, yet uncontrolled by any form of sanctioned governing body. Moreover, rumor had persisted over a course of decades that certain of the Great Families had been pursuing some sort of complex schema of interbreeding, intended to result in the birth of a child with unprecedented affinity for all aspects of the Wildness. It was therefore generally agreed that reining in the Wild, particularly among the Families, was not merely a judicious course, but a necessary one in order to ensure the continuance of the Empire. No one strongly objected, as I was far from the only one who had heard some story or knew someone who knew someone who had experienced some calamitous upheaval wrought by an untutored expression of the Wildness.
It is known, of course, that not all of the Wild were eradicated. Some of the affinities were deemed to be of use to the realm and therefore permitted to endure, albeit under the constraints of that wondrous Cantment that regulates every moment of its subject’s life, from breeding to breathing. To this day, maritime commerce and conquest alike are sped onward by the billowing winds summoned by the indentured SkyWild, always with a stalwart adept of Cant at hand to ensure that his charge’s Cantment is loosed only enough for the time and task required. The FlowWild, likewise, are kept in isolated reserve against instances in which rain may be required to alleviate drought; or conversely, when torrential downpours threaten the more flood-prone cities of the realm, such as the densely-packed, haphazardly-grown capital itself.
But now I misremember, for that was the old capital. The new one, it is said, is a triumph of planning and architecture—brilliantly conceived, meticulously executed. I have never been there myself; it is the old capital that I remember, and of which I speak.
There is always work for soldiers in an Empire so vast and so ancient that any other name it once had has long since been forgotten; in those days, however, the Wildness campaign kept the garrisons so busy that entire companies of soldiers were constantly in and out of the capital city, conveying intelligence, receiving orders, reporting for direct commendation or censure, and so on. They were celebrated by the general populace as well as generously compensated during that time, more so those that had managed to especially distinguish themselves on campaign. These heroes of the Empire were frequently accorded promotions upon presentation at court, and invariably awarded a significant purse in recognition of their valiant efforts on behalf of the realm. And the contents of very many of these purses inevitably found their way into the coffers of Madame Astranzia’s House of Boundless Bliss.
Then, as now, there was of course a plethora of pleasure houses to be found across the capital, and indeed throughout the realm wherever soldiers were known to be detailed. Many of these boasted courtesans reputed to be every bit as lovely and willing as those at Madame Astranzia’s; and every one of these other establishments was certainly considerably lighter on a man’s (or woman’s) purse. But the House of Bliss was exceptional, and not only because one of its ladies was rumored to be the favorite of the eldest prince of the realm.
From the outside, it appeared to be no more than another luxury establishment amid the prosperous hostelry district in which it was located. It was crafted of costly stone, with tasteful fretwork at the eaves and true glass, not shimmersheen, at each of its sumptuously curtained windows. It had a modest yet lush lawn, well-maintained with a carpet of green grass regardless of the heat or cold at any given time of year, though not a single flower graced the House’s premises on the exterior.
For the flowers were all inside, Madame Astranzia was wont to say—with a lifted eyebrow and complicit smile—and bloomed best out of the heat and light of the noonday sun. Indeed, of the residents of that House, none but the domestic staff and Astranzia herself were ever seen outside its rose-colored walls. But any male in the capital above a certain age could recite, whether from hearsay or experience, the use-names and descriptions of every coveted courtesan behind that discreet façade.
Once inside, it was said, one instantly perceived that the much-observed walls were in fact pared from stone so fine as to allow sufficient illumination from both moon and sun to bathe the interior in a muted roseate glow. This hushed incandescence was augmented as necessary by Cantment-crafted glass globes, which floated obligingly along to follow each courtesan and each guest, if they so desired; and in which floated, as if stirred by some internal current, infinitesimal glowing motes of that precious mineral called lambent, which even the highest Families of nobility possess only in short supply.
In either the muted or immediate glow of these light sources, the reception chamber of the House was revealed to be a most marvelous amalgamation of the most opulent indulgences from all corners of the Empire. Fine wines, cheeses, fruits, and sweetmeats—including, on occasion, such exotic delicacies as pickled slivers of adarna tongue or the cloudy, heady liqueur distilled from the potent tears of lung—were served to guests awaiting their favorite companions, or suffering an agony of indecision over which exquisite beauty to select for the night’s pleasure.
(to be continued next Tuesday)
This story was originally published in Dean Alfar's Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, on sale now at Comic Quest and better bookstores.Check out the rest of the posse!