They departed in separate shuttles. Vox and Titus would enter alone and meet Solomon inside. The other two would make their way to a hideout nearby.
The ball was the annual founding ball of House Anstir, an ancient noble line on Implicit. The building, the event took place in, was a magnificent structure. Suspended in the air between four towers, it graced the centre of Implicit City, the capital of the planet. It was called the Marble and did its name proud. Built of black marble, its lower half was rounded. The upper half was crowned by innumerable gothic spires and minarets, reaching towards the sky like humanity had always done it. Warm lights illuminated the surface, making the polished stone glisten in an unearthly gleam. In a place like this, heaven and hell could gather to set the world on fire.
It was easy for Titus and Vox to get in. Their appearance was all the identification they needed. Even close to the frontiers of the Jericho Reach, most worlds had no presence of Adeptus Astartes until Tyranids tried to eat them. The treatment of the Emperor’s Angels was unsullied by habit.
A reverential hush spread out when they entered. Deep bows and curtsies went through the crowd like a giant wave.
The heads of house Anstir solemnly walked up to them, repeated bow and curtsy and greeted them loudly and full of awe. Titus had just estimated that the humans seemed cowed enough to retreat presently when Vox asked to be introduced to some people close by.
There was nothing in the question at first. Only after an hour of continued introductions did Titus realise what they had been plunged into. Each new acquaintance knew someone whom the Space Marines urgently had to meet.
Titus had long run out of original things to say when someone tried to introduce a certain Lieutenant Solomon. To the Ultramarine’s relief, the man reminded him that they had met and drew him aside for a few private words. Shortly afterwards, the meeting frenzy was over. Maybe Implicit’s nobility had run out of members. Titus deemed it a possibility.
A few speeches followed, the buffet was opened and the musical act started. Apparently someone had invested in instruments resembling ancient terranean artefacts.
Freed from the worst throng of people, Titus took to walking around. He wanted to get a feeling for the terrain. The layout of the place was a nightmare.
The floor of the central ballroom was at equator height of the Marble. Three galleries looked down onto it, a second floor made up the ceiling high above. All the walls were lined with entrances to alcoves or balconies. The turrets they had seen from outside were accessible via spiral staircases. In this kind of structure, a whole company could get lost without trace. It was exactly the kind of building where a conspiracy would want to brew.
Always conscious of his duty, Titus sent a glance towards Vox whenever he gained line of sight. The friend was lingering at the foot of one of the stairs leading up from the central ballroom. He was constantly beleaguered by alternating womenfolk, who made use of the fact that the stairs brought them to his eye level. Titus wondered about the animation his little brother showed in conversing with them.
The sergeant, on the other hand, seemed to draw more company of the military kind. During his slow march of exploration several men tried to engage him in discussions about tactics. It was depressing to find that most of the officers here had never seen an enemy up close. In fact, he found only one who had taken an active part in battle. He stood out by the noticeable lack of terms like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ in his sentences. For the others, war was just a matter of numbers. A great, exciting game. Titus could imagine how readily these people would take any conflict all the way.
After he had disturbed a couple of smooching humans in an alcove, he spared himself the exploration of the remaining niches along the wall. Instead, he visited Vox on his stairs. As he walked up, his young friend just pulled one of the women close and whispered something into her ear. She giggled and then the whole group fled.
Titus lifted an eyebrow.
“So, you have a date for later?”, he teased his little brother.
“Indeed”, Vox grinned.
“You do realise that it will take half the night to get out of your armour, yes?”
“It’ll be worth it.” Vox gave him an insolent smirk while watching how he would react.
“Alright. What, in the Emperor’s name, is going on?”, Titus demanded.
“These women are whores, serge. Or rather: Courtesans”, Vox corrected himself. “There are a lot of them here and can you imagine? I had at least six of them at any time for me alone. Isn’t that interesting?”
Solomon was just coming down the stairs to join them.
“You mean to say that someone has identified you as the threat you are?”, he asked with a benevolent smile and toasted towards them. His demeanour was so contrary to his words that it took Titus a moment to realise that he wanted it to seem like they were making polite conversation.
“Yep”, Vox answered his question. “His name is Makkar. Ever heard of him?”
Solomon thought for a moment.
“That rings a bell…”
“Very considerate man”, Vox said with a renewal of his grin. “He even sent me a few boys to check my alignment.” The young man waggled his eyebrows and Titus felt himself blush for this behaviour.
“And?”, Solomon inquired while he took a smiling glance around.
“Still true to the Emperor”, Vox replied with a shrug of one shoulder before he went on: “Makkar’s clever and I have to admit that I lost the little hide and seek we had. I turned to him when he showed himself on the gallery up there and he knew at once that I’m a reader. I’m sorry to say that he left in a hurry about ten minutes ago.”
“Did you catch anything?”, Titus wanted to know.
Vox shook his head.
“Only that he knew I spotted him but I bet my whore didn’t just take a fancy to me. She’ll know something.”
“Alright, but we’ll need to talk to Makkar directly”, Solomon said.
Both of the Space Marines nodded in agreement.
“Incidentally”, Vox mentioned. “Makkar is one of three people here who are suspicious of us.”
“Who are the other two?”, Solomon wanted to know.
“Can you see the elderly gentleman with the monocle on the second gallery right opposite us?”
“I know who you mean”, Solomon said. He refrained from moving his gaze while Titus turned to look. The sergeant sighed inwardly and vowed that he would get a grip on himself at once. The other two were far better at this political nonsense but Titus still would not suffer himself acting like a virgin. At least in these matters. This thought knotted itself most unpleasantly in his head. Vox had gotten through to him with his cheeky comments.
“White hair, vivid scar on his neck?”, the legate meanwhile described their quarry.
“Yes”, Vox confirmed. “By the feel of him, I’d say he doesn’t buy our story but is pleased to see us.”
“He is Admiral Linkersky”, Solomon told them. “A veteran of the Imperial Guard. He doesn’t stem from Implicit but has been stationed here since the upgrade has begun. Who is the other one?”, he wanted to know and brushed two fingers through his short hair.
“The black-skinned woman with the unbelievable curves and magnificent brown hair over at the buffet”, Vox said. This time Titus refrained from turning in her direction, just regarded her from the corner of his eyes.
“She doesn’t like any of us here”, his little brother informed them.
“I think that’s Niurah Gastradés”, Solomon was able to provide. “I don’t know much about her, only that she belongs to house Gastradés. They have done rather well in recent times.”
“Have I seen you talking to the admiral?”, Vox asked Titus. “I couldn’t make him out very well from this angle.”
“Yes”, Titus confirmed. The admiral had been the one man with a tight grip on what a battlefield looked like.
“He seems annoyed with the people here. They deem themselves warriors but have never seen action.”
“Then be so kind as to deliver him this”, Solomon said, pressing a piece of paper in Titus’ giant hand. “I’ll inquire about Makkar. Could you keep an eye on Lady Niurah, Vox?”
“Sure. Do you want me to talk to her?”
“Whatever you deem necessary.”
Vox nodded and turned to Titus while Solomon left them.
“So”, his friend said and Titus scolded himself inwardly. He had been about to walk away at the same time as Solomon. Of course, this would look like they had been planning something. Vox had held him back just in time.
“How was your time?”, the young man inquired noncommittally.
“Awkward”, Titus admitted. “How are you doing?”
“Well, I can read minds. That’s pretty helpful. Also”, he said and started to grin provocatively. “I’m the young, handsome warrior here and don’t have to worry about company.”
Titus shot him a reproachful glance.
“I’m ashamed of you, Vox”, he scolded his friend. “I thought you’d stay faithful to Inquisitor Elaine.”
“Elaine?”, Vox burst out. “I’ll do a lot of crazy things, hunting in the commander’s territory isn’t one!”
“The commander?”, Titus asked in surprise.
“Take heart, serge. You never saw them in one room. Now, before I rob you of your sleep tonight, dear Ultramarine”, his friend said and raised a calming hand. “I’m sure, they never get physical but, oh, the longing! You wouldn’t believe it! I always want to cuddle someone if I just pass them by.”
Titus looked around uncomfortably. For a moment, his fingers brushed over the service studs on his forehead.
“So, no one to be faithful to then”, he said helplessly and estimated that this comment would only help to make things worse.
Suddenly, the grin drained from Vox’s face.
“Just whores to read”, he grumbled despondently.
Finally, understanding dawned. Titus had almost gotten lost in the confusion of the ballroom himself. How could he expect Vox to navigate all the layers of strange consciousness and stay unaffected? Without thinking about it, he reached out to pat Vox’s silver left shoulder guard.
“Stay faithful to the Emperor, my friend”, he said. “He will not abandon you.”
“Oh, I’m faithful”, Vox said bitterly, averting his gaze. “Don’t you worry.”
Titus frowned but did not know what to make of this.
“Alright”, he said. “I think we have reached a point where it would seem quite natural to part. Let’s get back to duty.”
“Aye, sergeant”, Vox said with a slightly artificial smile. From the corner of his eyes Titus noticed that Niurah Gastradés walked over to Vox as soon as he had left.
He wondered what the piece of paper in his hand contained. Probably a request to meet Solomon later.
Handing it over to Admiral Linkersky was the work of a moment. Titus assumed that a skilled eye would easily have picked up on the transfer but did his best to act naturally.
While he exchanged another few words with the admiral, he sent his habitual glance over to Vox.
His bail had disappeared from the stairs.
This worried him. He quickly ended the conversation and changed his position to try and make out where Vox had gotten to.