“Next time, I’ll bug the hell out of you just to know where you are!”, Solomon hissed when they found him on the bridge. He still made an effort to uphold a friendly smile but his features looked strained with desperation.
“Could you please tell me why Niurah Gastradés killed a member of the staff with a carving knife and then tried to slit her own throat in a hurry?”
“Was she successful?”, Titus inquired instead of an answer.
“I don’t know”, the legate snapped, his careful demeanour cracking up. “They took her away to medical treatment but her blood had sprayed further than she is tall so I don’t think she’ll survive!” He was pale, the burn scar on his face unpleasantly pink against the rest of his features.
“Sounds like she’s out of it”, Titus agreed. He made the mistake to shoot Vox a glance at this point. The legate picked up on it immediately.
“You did that?”, Solomon gasped. “You can do something like that?”
“On line of sight if I have to”, Vox confirmed gloomily and gave the scenery an evasive look.
“And you are still walking around?”
“Solomon!”, Titus cut in before Vox could snap a reply. He saw how hard his little brother clung to his composure and how easy it would be to make him slip. He straightened up to his full height to loom menacingly over the legate while he stepped between the two of them.
“Vox is entitled to use all of his skills without penalty by sentence of Commander Ferone”, he declared firmly. “Do you wish to question this? Then file a formal complaint! Right now, please tell us what you were able to find out!”
Solomon had visible difficulty to pull himself together.
“Lord Kelrik Sterdizian of Implicit was the last heir to House Sterdizian”, he recounted. He stroked his beard nervously but focussing on his work seemed to cool him down.
“They controlled a third of the production when this was a mining world, right?”, Titus provided to help him along.
“Well remembered, sergeant.” Solomon folded his hands behind his back. “Even though they have not done well in the change they still hold, or rather held, a lot of money and power. With Lord Kelrik’s death, however, the line is extinct. Barela Gastradés, Niurah’s mother, is a cousin of Lord Kelrik. All belongings will fall to her. Interesting fact though: Kelrik Sterdizian has a living daughter but she has been disinherited. Apparently she has been involved in the murder of a deacon a few years ago and do you know what?”
“Tell us”, Titus prompted.
“That daughter, Aurea Sapharina Sterdizian of Implicit is her name, is the niece of a certain Teniel Makkar, who is the owner of most of the upper class brothels here in Implicit City. He took Aurea and her mother in after Kelrik expulsed them.”
“How very interesting”, Titus said with a deadpan expression. He was certain that he would never get this bucket of snakes out of his far too good memory.
“I must meet Admiral Linkersky”, Solomon said and started to walk towards the shuttle port on the end of the bridge. “And it’s urgent. I think he might be one of the few loyalists left here and maybe he knows who the others are. In the meantime, I would like you two to visit Makkar and ask him all the questions you can think of.”
“Right you are”, Titus replied. “Tiberius, Dankwart?”, he voxed on their team line. “Come in!”
“You need to take over.”
“I’ll pick them up”, Solomon said. While Titus relayed this information, the legate arranged for their shuttles to fetch them.
All four bridges were thronged with people. The guests with the weaker stamina fled the scene of carnage inside and it took a moment before their pilots had inserted themselves into the queue of waiting vehicles. Solomon used the time to write Makkar’s address on a piece of paper.
“Your pilot will hopefully be able to find that and Makkar will hopefully be at home and he’ll hopefully talk to you.” He hesitated a moment. Then he swore. “I hate it when there is this much hope involved. Good luck and remember: No vital information via vox!”
“Did he mean Vox or vox?”, Vox asked while they climbed into their shuttle.
“Reassuring. Oh, damn.”
“What is it?”, Titus wanted to know.
“I forgot my whore.”
“I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“Yes, but a heads-up to Makkar would have been nice.”
“Right”, Titus said ironically. “Because I totally would have let you do that after Niurah.”
Vox looked him in the eyes with a deep, tired sadness in his features.
“If I have time, the consequences aren’t so bad”, he declared solemnly.
“They’re not?”, Titus asked in surprise.
“No. If the subject is willing, it’s usually even less of a problem. A bit icky for both sides maybe… like sex I suppose.”
“You suppose?”, he prompted.
“Well, do you have experience in that field?”, Vox asked half-heartedly.
“No!”, Titus exclaimed.
“See?”, his friend said flatly. “Me neither. That’s why I suppose.”
“Wait a second!”, Titus demanded to gain some time.
Vox waited, watching him.
“You can enter the mind of another person without leaving it scrambled?”
“Yes”, Vox confirmed.
“Then why did I just find you in the minaret like you were?”
“Because she was neither willing nor did I have time”, Vox said darkly. “Even then we were too late, remember?”
“But with the whore, this would have gone differently?”
“I’m quite sure that whores should be used to let strangers inside themselves.”
It took Titus several seconds before he realised that his mouth was hanging open. He shut it.
“That was rather tasteless.”
“Yeah, I feel like it”, Vox said bitterly. “Do you know what really bothers me?”
“There is something bothering you? I couldn’t tell!”
“She didn’t know anything”, Vox said, ignoring his stinging sarcasm. “She was full of idealistic crap about how good the Tau are and how rotten the Imperium is. Heretic to the core but only because of misinformation. She knew about the assassination because she had overheard her parents talking about it and she was rather bright and had concluded a few things. That’s why she spotted Solomon but she wasn’t a major player. She didn’t know names nor faces nor times. Nothing!”
Titus looked at his brother and felt the annoyance subside.
“That wasn’t worth the trouble”, he agreed.
“Well, we’re here”, Vox said absent-mindedly just before their pilot could be heard: “My lords, we are here.”
“That was quick. How far away are we?”, Titus wanted to know.
“We are still in line of sight of the marble”, the human informed them. “I have clearance to land on the roof of the building. Do you want me to do so?”
Titus and Vox exchanged a surprised glance.
“Yes, but open the door first”, Titus ordered. While they tried to get cover to each side of the door he continued: “I feel insufficiently armed.”
“I feel insufficiently jump-packed”, Vox said drily.
A lone woman awaited them on the roof. They had seen her at the ball already, Titus was sure but he was unable to put a name to her. Her expensive, dark red dress whipped around her in the wind-stream of the sinking shuttle but her gaze never wavered. The Space Marines exchanged a quick glance and reached a silent agreement. Titus would speak and Vox would listen into the warp from here on.
The woman curtsied deeply when they stepped up to her.
“My lords, I am Varrha D’Equille, madam of my master Teniel Makkar. He awaits you in his study. Will you please follow me?”
Since Vox said nothing, Titus made no objections. They followed her into the house.
It was like entering the veins of a living creature. Warm air awaited them in a corridor with a dark red carpet. Curtains of the same hue were draped every few steps to frame a door. The yellow walls had a structure to them that made them seem almost organic. They dispersed the light and crept into shadows, giving everything a mild glow.
The atmosphere was highly disconcerting for the Space Marines. Especially because the corridor was built to human proportions. Had the lamps not been located on the walls, they would have had a few illuminating encounters on the way.
Behind the corridor they entered the central hall of the building. It spanned all floors, a spiral staircase in each corner. Numerous passages were accessible via galleries on all four walls.
Varrha D’Equille led them to the approximate middle of the building. The corridor they entered was bereft of doors and curtains. Instead it was hung with paintings of landscapes and a few portraits in between.
“Is this Miss Aurea?”, Vox wanted to know suddenly. He had stopped and pointed at a portrait. It showed a young woman with luxuriant, brown curls. Their guide turned to him with a polite, nondescript smile.
“Indeed, my lord. How did you recognize her?”
“She’s similar to her mother”, Vox answered, pointing at the painting opposite and before the woman could ask where Vox had met the mother, he continued: “My deepest sympathies, by the way.”
“We all miss Lady Verienna”, the madam said, lowering the gaze of her light brown eyes. “She was a kind soul.”
Uncertain what his friend was getting at, Titus nevertheless filed the information that Makkar’s sister was dead. When there were no further comments, Madam D’Equille approached the door at the end of the corridor. She knocked and held the door open when the reply came. With graceful discretion, she closed it behind them.
The room they had entered followed the same colour scheme like the rest of what they had seen so far. Its furnishings were heavy and dark, the ceiling high with a chandelier shining its soft, yellow light on the scene. There probably was a window in the room but it was hidden behind the drawn, dark red curtains. Behind the desk stood a man, clothed in simple but elegant robes of a light grey. He was clean-shaven and his hair, curly and short, had been of a dark brown before it had started to go white at the temples. He had awaited the Space Marines with a friendly, blank expression and came around the table when they entered.
“My lords”, he said with a deep bow. “I am honoured and delighted that you found your way here so fast. I apologise for the games at the ball. Did you have time to speak to Nazán? I specifically asked her to deliver a message for me.”
Vox moved. He shouldered Titus in the chest and sent him flying backwards. The door broke under his weight. He had just turned the motion into a roll and landed on his feet when Makkar was flung into his arms.
A glimpse of Vox in the middle of the room was all he could make out before it exploded into flames.