By Kai Weiss
Chapter 1: 'Xenos and me'
Being an Imperial citizen, I never liked xenos. It comes like a natural thing for every one who was raised under the Emperor's light. From the moment of your birth, you are taught to dislike all that is non-human, and hate everything that poses a threat to the Imperium. And Imperium has a looong list of such threats, so you end up hating almost everything which has no Aquila strapped to it. Yes, we, Imperial folks, are a charming bunch.
I don't like xenos. Not only because I was taught to do behave like that, but rather because of my personal experience, which still gives me nightmares fom time to time. I learned the hard way that all those 'Suffer not' yells preachers spewed during sermons were, actually, very wise. You really can't trust a xeno. Never. Ever. Try to forget that golden rule, and you're in trouble, or dead - it depends on the Emperor's mercy and quickness of your legs. So when I received an offer from the local Trade Guild to attend a 'bargain party' with a group of Tau merchants, my first reaction was to send a polite refusal, written on an absurdly-expensive paper and encased in some golden tube, speckled with diamonds. You know, just to show that I take the High Trade Council seriously. Those snobbish aristocrats liked golden, richly ornamented things. But before I took an auto-quill, I received another message. A runner from the local Astropatica guild brought me an armoured cylinder with a big 'I' seal on it. Believe me, when you see that seal - everything becomes bad and complicated in a heart beat, and your chances of survival drop to a very discomforting level. The runner was guarded by a whole squad of heavily-armed men in full carapace armour. I instantly recognised the symbols on their shoulder pads - 'Royal Lions', the King's elite guard. Yes, the world I chose to build my summer residence was governed by a king, and yes, it was a medieval world. Don't ask. I felt romantic when I made that decision.
The runner, whose garments were so tastelessly-rich that it was painful for my eyes to look at all that glittering mess, gave me a cylinder in a way the old custom demanded it - from hands to hands, and I felt like the heavy shadow of something bad appeared above my head in a form of a big target sign. When you deal with The Inquisition, you always become a target. No exceptions. I exchanged some polite words with the runner, as the custom demanded, and wished him a safe road, seeing from the top of my balcony as he entered his car and disappeared in the morning fog, surrounded by Lions on military bikes. Nobility. Why everything they do must be so pompous...
I called for Mahina, and a few minutes later shy tech priestess gently knocked at the door of my study.
- Hina, you are not a guest in this palace. - I said in a loud voice, coming to a door. - So, as I said many times before (I sighed), you can enter without... - I opened the door and saw a small figure in red robes. The hood was pushed back, showing me a familiar face of my tech expert. - ...knocking. The bathroom is the only exception.
- Y-yes. - she replied in a soft voice, trying to evade my glance.
Mahina was a good young woman. Sometimes - too good and polite, and timid, and full of compassion, and other good things that you can rarely see combined in one person. Maybe it was because she spent most of her life serving in a Shrine world chapel, or maybe it was because her mentor or parents were decent and good-mannered. Whatever the reason, I liked her personality. Sometimes she, along with Ursula, was my moral compass, because with my line of work you can easily forget how to be human. Mahina was the embodiment of all that was good in humanity, so I tried to keep her nearby as a vaccine from idiotic behaviour that usually comes with big money and fame - two best friends of every rogue trader.
- Ehh, come in already. - I took her cold metallic palm and gently dragged her in the room. - I have a message I need you to decode.
- Of course. - she eagerly replied. - where's... oh. - she saw a seal and looked at me, worrying. - Do you have problems with the Inquisition?..
After those words my lips formed a sarcastic smile.
- Ha. The Inquisition works differently. If it deems you 'problematic', you find out about it when you're already dead, or cuffed to an interrogation chair located Emperor knows where. So no, I'm not in danger. - I gave Mahina the tube. - At least I hope so. We'll find out soon enough.
The tech priestess took the tube and connected one of her dendrites to a special slot at the top of the tube. Few minutes later a lens on another side of the tube came to life, turning on a small pict-projector. It flashed, and not-so-straight rows of glowing letters appeared in the air before my eyes. The handwriting was too familiar to hope for something good. It was inquisitor Blackwing, and she was the master of spoiling my life. The letter was written in Kate's usual manner - without unnecessary pleasantries and high-gothic rubbish. That was the only thing I liked about her - direct approach to everything.
You've received a message from the Guild - accept their offer. You have to meet that Tau delegation. Come to a meeting place and agree to accompany them. Play along. You can even sign a deal or two to keep them relaxed. Your only objective is to keep them occupied - our other agent will do the rest. See? Nothing difficult - pure fun. So don't complain at least this time. If something will go wrong - don't pay attention. It's the part of the plan. See you.
Your favourite inquisitor, Kate Blackwing.
There's only one invitation. You'll go alone.'
That was bad. I knew too well that Kate didn't give a crap about my safety, so there was a big chance that I was already written off as 'another good man who gave his life for The Imperium'. That's what pisses me off about the Inquisition - you are nothing to them unless you wear one of their 'I' pendants. I wore none.
Mahina saw my face and timidly asked:
- So... you do have problems with the Inquisition?
I loudly exhaled, scratching my shaved head in a futile attempt to describe my relationship with the Inquisition in polite words.
- Ehmm, let's say that the Inquisition likes me too much. That's why they call for me every time they need help. I have almost no information, but it seems that this time I'm just a decoy. So, if everything will go as planned, I'll make just another business trip.
- And if it won't? - asked the tech priestess, looking at me with her glowing red eyes.
- I'll find myself in the middle of a mess.
Mahina hesitantly touched the edge of my sleeve.
- Can you refuse?
My lips formed a grim smirk.
- I wish...
- I can make a medicine that will simulate the symptoms of... - started Mahina hastily, but I interrupted her.
- No. They will find out. I have to accept this job. But I really appreciate your concern.
I smiled and ran my fingers through Mahina's soft blond hair, gently stroking her head. I was more than 200 years old, so I could officially afford those 'kind grandpa' actions. Mahina smiled in return, but I saw that she was worried. Heh. Anyone would be worried. When the Inquisition gives you a mission you know nothing about - all your friends and enemies start to see you as a walking corpse. Mortality rates and all that. I didn't want to make Mahina worry about me, so we spent an hour or so drinking recaf and chatting. Then we started to discuss propulsion systems, which momentarily carried Mahina away, and, instead of worrying, she happily spent another hour arguing with me about Ork space ships.
A more serious discussion awaited me in the evening, when Ursula returned from her trade meeting. She was pissed off and exhausted - a standard condition which strikes you after a day spent in constant arguing and political manures. But Sula put everything aside as soon as Mahina told her about my new 'adventure' and came straight to me.
- I'll file an official protest! - she started in her usual 'I'll defend you, my master!' manner. - The Ecclesiarchy has enough power to influence the Inquisition. I'm sure that this 'order' can be cancelled.
As usual, she stood straight like a soldier in front of me. Again. I was sitting on a sofa, which made me feel myself very uncomfortable. I hate all that lord-ish nonsense when you deliberately distant yourself from your subordinates to show your authority. I didn't even have a throne in my castle, despite the constant attempts of the King to present me with one. So I tried to keep my communication with subordinates informal, but they stubbornly refused to accept it.
- I'll gladly hear out the rest of your speech, but only after you sit on this sofa near me. - I stated jokingly.
That was sudden enough to make Ursula stop and look at me.
- Uh? - she said in surprised voice, focusing her eyes on me.
Oh, Ursula. I could bet she already started composing a complain letter in her head and think about influential persons among the Ecclesiarchy who could help her to free me from the Inquisitorial grasp. She was so dedicated that sometimes it made me smile. She was a good friend, and she took her job very seriously.
- Come, sit with me, and we'll talk like normal friends. Because currently I feel myself like a governor-militant running a parade, with you as my trusty veteran.
Ursula blinked, and, after a second or two of silence, her lips formed a badly-concealed smile.
- Just don't drown me in forbidden pleasures like one of your numerous maids. - she said, trying to keep her serious face.
Sula sat near me with grace of a noble woman. As always, she just didn't know how to relax. I took a small pillow and gently hit Ursula with it.
- Arrgh. Those rumours again. - I grumbled jokingly. - There were only three of them, and sweet cake fights are not forbidden!
A genuine smile broke through Sula's 'I'm a serious young woman' mask. I liked when she smiled - it made her look cute. A second later a muffled laughter utterly destroyed the rest of her mask, showing me the true Ursula.
- Do you remember the first time I came to you? - she asked, like if I could ever forget that.
- Ohh, yes. You believed that all those rumours about me were true. You thought that I was a cruel animal who lived only to corrupt innocent ladies with my brutal manly desires. So you brought a laspistol with you and held it in your hand until you left my residence.
Sula giggled and lowered her head, trying to conceal a faint blush.
- I was so stuuupiiid. - She closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling. - It's so embarrassing to recall it! And you was like: 'Oh, this lady brought a pistol to our first meeting. I'm all right with that.' - She giggled again.
- I noticed that you was a good person, so I gave Krep a sign to stand down. Later he told me that all that time that we spoke he wanted to jump out of a concealed niche behind the fake wall and cover me with his body.
Ursula imagined that scene and snorted.
- That would be hilarious. - she said in a merry voice. - I'm sure I would drop that laspistol in fear and ran away.
- And I would run after you, shouting something like: 'My lady, but you haven't told me your name!'
Sula covered her red face with her palm, jokingly pushing me in the shoulder.
- Stop it. I'm too embarrassed already...
I looked at my smiling assistant/second in command/personal bodyguard and thought that I would miss her. I mean, if anything will go wrong during the mission. Strange thing - we usually don't value good people around us until they are gone. I liked my crew, but I perceived them as something constant and everlasting too often. I was a rogue trader, and every day of my life I was at risk. Assassins, envy governors, political rivals, other rogue traders who want to kill you and take away your business - I could die at any moment. Usually I'm too carefree to think about it, but Ursula made me notice that unpleasant truth. I really wanted to see them again. Maybe I would. I'd hug each of them in that case.
Sula turned her face to me - her eyes were serious again.
- So... You're going on a mission you know nothing about, without official support and without us. If only I could prevent this... - she sighed, silencing my answer with her raised palm. - I know. I can do nothing to help. - she frowned in stubborn anger. - Inquisition can do anything with us, and we have to yell 'For the Emperor!' and give our lives for some shady goals we'll never learn about. This really pisses me off.
- You're a Sister. - I raised a brow. - Isn't 'Dying for the Emperor' is a good thing in your book? - I tried to joke around, but the time for jokes passed.
Ursula frowned even more.
- To die for the Emperor, defending the helpless, to die, defending the holy relics, to die, saving lives of the innocent - that's what good in my book. But to do someone's dirty work or become a mindless puppet... I won't call it a good cause. - Sula took a long pause. - I guess it's one of the reasons why Sisterhood sent me away to serve you - I was too stubborn to be an obedient bolter on two legs. I asked difficult questions, so I ended up here. - Ursula smirked. - But I regret nothing.
At that moment my inner romantic personality broke its chains. I reached out and hug Ursula. To my surprise, she firmly hugged me in return, burying her face in the golden pauldron of my jacket.
- Sula... - I gently whispered in her ear.
- Y-yes?.. - she replied in a muffled voice.
- My pauldron.
- You can scratch your nose against it. I will never forgive myself if you do.
A small knuckle hit me in the chest.
- Urrgh! You've ruined such a moment...
The next morning was a busy one. My most trusted crew members, my 'inner circle' was informed about the real reason of my departure. The others were told that I received another assignment from the Guild, which happened quite often so there was no fuss over it. But my close friends knew about the mission, so they were busy with preparations. Mahina used her connections and asked tech priests in the local star port to keep a close eye on me. She also sent an urgent request to one of her old friends, an eccentric, but very gifted magos, and he gave me a set of armoured official garments. I guess that my reputation as a 'friend of Adeptus Mechanicus' played its role, too. Krep dived into the depths of a local black market and got me an impressive set of concealed weapons. Some designs were obviously non-human, but, as a rogue trader, I got used to 'bending the law', especially when that could save my life. My dear mentor spent several hours sanctifying my clothes and praying for my protection. When the chronometers showed mid-day, everything was ready.
The transport had to wait for me near the southern watch tower. When my inner circle and I reached the place, there was no one around. It was my fault - I always was too cautious and preferred to attend meetings an hour or so before the set time. So we had an hour to kill. We visited the tower and met its inhabitants. It appeared that the tower was operated by only three PDF soldiers. They were nervous at first - a figure of my magnitude (and I'm saying this with sarcasm) had never visited their tower before. But my easy-going demeanour fixed that issue quite fast. Twenty minutes later we were drinking cheap booze, chatting about the latest hot gossips, like the marriage of a local duke, sexual scandal which included a local noble and some animal, upcoming Emperor's Glory parade and many others. Those soldiers also told me that their superiors sent them too many rations, enough to sustain a full company, and that they had no idea why. Time passed fast, and my hour of free life suddenly ended, returning me to the harsh reality where a huge black car waited for me to get me to the Tau delegation. The 'farewell ceremony' was fast. Every one was genuinely worried about me, which warmed my heart. Being a 'fearless leader', I concealed it to look 'professional'. Of course my crew saw through that, but it was more for the passengers of that car. My crew is one thing, but I couldn't afford myself to lose prestige in front of strangers. I knew the power of gossips too well. When your enemies feel your weakness, you end up dead, or those you care about end up dead. In any case, I had to play a tough captain and a powerful land lord in front of those ridiculously-dressed 'official representatives'. Only Krep allowed himself to hug me because it was usual among Valhallans. Doing so, he whispered in a low voice: 'Come back alive', and I silently nodded in response.
The car was huge and pompous. It had so many golden engravings, small statuettes and gems on it that I wondered how that construction could even move. Everything inside was covered in expensive red leather and dark-blue silk with a flower ornament which symbolised the royal house. The car was truly impressive. Not for me - if only you could see what I've seen with my eyes, but for any local it looked like a moving royal palace. The air inside this 'palace' was filled with perfume. The aroma was so strong that it was hard for me to breathe, but three nobles who accompanied me showed no signs of discomfort. They lazily threw meaningless phrases at each other, imitating a polite conversation. Alas, I had to join in because those individuals were representatives of the Big Triumvirate, as some people call them, and other, not-so-important factions. As to 'Triumvirate' - three old families with wast resources and capitals enough to buy several planets decided to join forces 100-150 years ago. Few treaties, several marriages, and instead of three sharks, subsector received one huge shark with a very strong appetite. The Triumvirate didn't see me as a threat because our clients came from different sources. The Three had deals with promethium, metals and heavy machinery, when I had deals with art, land, food and construction. Actually, I built five huge promethium factories for the Triumvirate, and two more were on their way, so The Three saw me more like an ally. Why not. They paid well, in time, and never broke a deal. But they were nobles, which meant that all our communication consisted of boring official visits, even more boring letters and other 'high society' activities I had to participate in.
- ... and I'll say it again - we should get rid of those aliens. - grumbled the Triumverate representative in a high-pitched and ever-tired voice of a spoiled noble. - They represent the direct threat to our business. Besides, we are the citizens of The Imperium, and we have to eradicate all xeno threats as our beloved Emperor teaches us.
Ohh, hypocrisy... I almost forgot that nobles can't live without it, especially when they want to look 'good'. So they always talk about 'Our Holy Emperor', 'Enlightened Ecclesiarchy' and other right things. Well, 'While on Terra...'
I folded my palms on my chest, making aquila sign. See? I'm a good citizen too.
- Absolutely agree with you. - I said in a serious tone. - We do not need xenos here, or anywhere else. Sooner or later they will strike us in the back, no matter how 'peaceful' they look now.
My words made the exact effect I counted for - the Three representative produced satisfied smile and continued his monologue.
- It seems that Lord Eisenhauer an I see the truth of this situation. Still, - he tried to look disappointed, but I knew that he was already counting money in his head. - we have to cooperate with them, for now.