Part One: Jade Palace
The Emperor was dead.
Dying in fact.
Hestor watched from afar as the distant figure swayed and began to fall, drifting to the floor with a strange gentleness, like a paper bag caught in a slight updraught.
He grimaced, quite pulled out of the moment, his suspension of disbelief shattered. He knew poisons and none offered such grace in death.
Letting his gilded magnoculars drop from his face, he risked a glance at the others around him. The audience were staring in rapt wonderment at the spectacle unfolding on the stage in front of them, completely lost in the drama.
His eyes flitted across the crowd and he caught sight of a gaggle of high born ladies, their eyes glassy and wide, staring out from finely powdered faces.
Lavishly dressed gentlemen, their brightly coloured silken robes pulled tight about them, sat open mouthed in equal awe. Of course he caught a few bored expressions, pockets of people whispering conspiratorially to each other, but for the most part, the audience was captivated.
Turning back to the stage, his magnoculars twitched and whirred as they focussed in on the performer.
The doleful, sympathetic chords of music that had accompanied the actor's descent, now gave way to a sighing refrain, like the last breath of air rushing from a dead man's lungs.
With a final discordant note, the “Emperor” fell to the matte black surface of the stage, his voluminous robes pooled around him like spilled oil.
The Fall of the Jade Palace was a historical drama by playwright Xian Jinsen and in the one hundred years since it was first published, it had become acclaimed world wide as a masterpiece of the highest order.
It told the story of Styx's unification with the Imperium of man and how the planet was driven to the brink of civil war through the bitterness and jealousy of the Silken Emperor Hau Feng who refused to swear fealty to the Emperor of mankind.
The people of Styx had refused to follow Feng however, recognising the authority of the true Emperor. As the fires of conflict raged their planet, the people took up their work tools and what precious few weapons they had and had marched on the jade palace.
Nearing the end of a sweeping three hour performance, the denouement was upon them.
Hau Feng's chamberlain, wracked by guilt at the atrocities he has stood by and watched performed in his regent's name- slips a capsule of poison into Feng's decanter of Amasec.
The chamberlain is discovered in the emperor's chambers and is cut down by the palace guards.
The capsule had already dissolved in the liquor however and his final act goes undiscovered.
Alerted to the treachery of his closest ally, the silken emperor sweeps into his chambers, stopping only to raise a triumphant toast over the chamberlain's corpse. A few moments later and the poison takes hold and Hau Feng falls to the floor, his life fading as the forces of the Imperium breach the walls of the palace.
The play- written two years after unification- had resonated with the citizenry of Styx. It spoke of a people's victory, the act of a defiant world rising up to throw off the oppressive yoke of an insane and obsolete demagogue.
No-one mentioned the simple fact that they had simply exchanged one Emperor for another of course.
The play was Xian Jinsen's magnus opus, eclipsing the dramatist's previous work and forever blighting his future pieces with the heavy shadow of expectancy.
The fall of the Jade Palace had been the recipient of a myriad different productions and interpretations in the century following it's publication. This latest was a bold post modern staging that served as the showcase feature of Jun Ki-Un's residency at the Imperial opera house and Hestor had read many a glowing review that attested to the young director's craftmanship.
He found Ki-Un's interpretation to be far too gaudy and loud. Staged in the round, the audience loomed over the set in imposing, almost gladiatorial fashion, gazing down on the stage that squatted like a pool of obsidian. A plethora of stage lights hung above, sat in vast cross braced frames. Filled with shutters and filters, the lights would click and switch lenses, bathing the stage in a different hue.
Right now the stage was washed with a crimson glow, deep and rich like pooling arterial blood.
As a counterpoint to the lights, a flock of cherubs floated gently above the rafters. The augmented infants occasionally flitted down amongst the audience on tiny angelic pinions, their chubby hands clutching at brass censers that occasionally hissed out bursts of scented oil that ghosted softly over the crowd. On belts around their waist, tiny vials of different coloured oils tinkled musically as the cherubs moved in flight.
At changes of the lights, the cherubs would slip the appropriate vial of oil into the censer and the accompanying fragrance would waft down into the audience.
At this moment, the scent of regicide was a heady mix of elderflower and copper.
It was bold and clever direction, Hestor admitted. It was also gauche and overbearing, the sensual parlour tricks constantly threatening to overwhelm the story.
He cast his mind back eleven years, to the time when he had seen Yu Cao's enchantingly minimalist production of Jade Palace. This gaudy collection of cantrips just could not compare.
His gaze dropped from the stage as he slipped the sleeve of his robe up slightly, checking his wrist chron.
Affecting a faux sigh of disgust, he rose to his feet, striding along the row towards the aisle beyond. Whispered insults and hisses followed his steps and he fought to suppress a grin as he imagined the venomous stares directed at him from the porcelain faces of the noblewomen.
Adopting a suitably imperious gait, he flashed a venomous glare at the usher posted by the exit. The man blanched visibly and hurriedly opened the door, allowing a harsh spear of white light to stab into the theatre. With a curt nod, Hestor swept into the foyer.
Belgrane was waiting for him outside the opera house, the engine of the lifter-shaw humming idly in the night air.
He doffed his cap as Hestor picked up the hem of his robes, settling into the divan at the rear of the vehicle.
As they pulled away, Hestor peered out of the canopy, staring upwards at the opera house.
It swept upwards into the night air, a giant cloche tower of burnished steel with fanned ridges like gigantic ribs, running along it's bulk. From the air it appeared as a metallic blister on the south eastern flank of the city.
From the air. The thought made Hestor chuckle, low and dark.
The city of Nandau was in fact an immense sky borne construct that drifted regally above the heavy cloud layer of Styx. Kept aloft by a bank of air bladders the size of hab blocks and kept in motion via vast propellers, the city constantly glided over the planet's surface.
Styx was a planet of industry, the products of it's cavernous and expansive spice mines were renowned throughout the system and in the years following it's induction into the Imperial flock- it's spices had become a sought after delicacy at many a noble personage's table.
The wealth of the city was evident in the many cloud provinces like Nandau that floated majestically in the heavens above. The true cost of the planet's relentless industry was hidden far below, beneath a terracotta dust barrier that the gilded skimmer cities flitted over with ponderous grace.
The surface of Styx was a broken and pockmarked landscape littered with vast mining complexes that ceaselessly tore into the planet's crust, delving ever deeper to find the spices that would be sent lightyears away.
The relentless tide of industry kicked up a constant abrasive pall of dust and spice that was thrown around by the wind with such force that it would tear the skin from a man after mere moments of exposure. The labourers on the surface spent most of the hours of their life enclosed in stifling bodysuits and re-breather hoods that filtered them a constant stream of acrid recycled air. Their homes were little more than bolt holes, crude bunker complexes punched into the earth of the planet; metal labyrinthine rat holes that hid them from the scouring wind.
It was by the hand of these workers that Styx was freed from the tyrannous yoke of the Silken Emperor and now they were trapped under the bones of the planet, toiling beneath a shroud of death whilst above them, the guild merchants enjoyed the fruits of their labours. Even the Jade palace itself had turned it's face from those who had liberated it, squatting mockingly on the Juntao plateau. It's atmospheric shield crackling and hissing as it loomed above one of the planet's larger mine works.
Ghosting over the surface of a city that itself drifted lazily above a wounded and choking planet, Hestor wondered about the fickle nature of man, that the people of Styx did not seem to mind that they had traded one tyranny for another. They toiled and bled, their lives cut severely short, all for the benefit of a select core of people who hid themselves in the heavens, hiding the true cost of their wealth beneath the terracotta cloud cover.
The lifter-shaw whined as Belrane guided it into the parking hub of the hotel. Cutting the impeller engine, the lifter glided gently to the floor, coming to rest on a y shaped frame.
Beldane stepped from the cockpit and opened the passenger door with a flourish. Picking up his robes, Hestor stepped from the shaw, giving a curt nod to his companion as they headed for the entrance of the hotel.
The Jovenstars gate was of typical upper Styxian opulence. The vast lobby greeted them as a sweeping expanse of gold and jade, towering pillars lining a lengthy obsidian walkway that terminated in a set of curling bejewelled stairs. Braziers hung from the curved ceiling, gusting breaths of scented oils that drifted down onto the guests.
A painted woman posted behind a counter of pure jade, accepted the ident pass that Beldane handed her with a somewhat forced smile, motioning them that they could proceed with a curt wave of her hand. Walking on, Hestor noticed her slender fingers terminated in preposterously long ceramic fingernails, painted with delicate motifs.
They stepped into the rostram vator, riding it to the eleventh floor, stepping off deftly onto the carpeted floor and making for the door of Hestor's private suite.
With a swipe of the ident they stepped through the portal, striding into the cavernous reception area. The expansive windows sat on the far wall, an entirely transparent section of the room showing the breathtaking vista of Nandau in it's night cycle, The illuminations from downtown glittering like far off candlemas lights.
The onyx floor was chased with golden patterns and sigils, that to the untrained eye- told a fraction of the history of the Styxian uprising. Each suite was gilded with a tiny section of the story so the hotel itself became one towering account of the ages. Stepping into his chambers, Hestor loosened the robes about his neck. Beldane followed, unbuttoning the tight, unadorned jacket of his chauffeur’s uniform. Reaching into the inner pocket of the jacket, he produced a tiny cylinder, no larger than a hand held lumin strip. Twisting the base, the device gave off a sharp hiss as three metal prongs slid from the base. Stepping into the centre of the suite, Beldane stabbed the prongs into the lush carpet, his fingers playing over keys set into the cylinder.
The device gave out an electronic whistle of affirmation and Beldane stood, walking over to Hestor. The two men observed as a tiny bloom of blue light began to emanate from the top of the cylinder. It swelled and grew, rising from the device as it climbed to the ceiling of the suite before cascading over the walls like a breaking wave.
After a few moments, Beldane lifted the cuff of his jacket sleeve to his lips, speaking softly into the vox mic secreted in the material.
“Rahab” He whispered. The blue light covering the walls rippled in sympathy, absorbing the acoustics. Turning to Hestor, he gave the man a curt nod. “Acoustic baffle functioning.”
“Confirmed.” Hestor replied, checking his own mic. He was vaguely aware of how his voice cracked and realised his vocal chords had given way to a slight entropy, It had been 48 hours since he had last spoken a word out loud and the silence had almost stolen his voice. Slipping the voluminous robes from his person, he stripped down to the plain grey bodyglove he wore underneath. Beldane did the same, stepping out of the starchy uniform until he stood, similarly clothed.
“Take in the show?” He quipped with an ugly grin. Massaging his face, Beldane worked the synth putty from the ugly knife scar that ran along his face. Far from an attractive man, the smile he gave his associate pulled the tight line of scar tissue into an ugly fold, giving it the appearance of a ragged tributary of some mighty river, snaking its way along his pock marked face.
Once again, Hestor was struck by the differences between himself and his partner.
Where Beldane was built squat and bullish, Hestor was thin and willowy, his sharp, aquiline features in stark contrast to the mashed, pugilist countenance of the other man. Hestor was every inch the Imperial noble, whereas Beldane carried himself with the heavy, rolling gait of a Necromundan sump brawler. Both men possessed fearsome intelligences of course, their masters demanded nothing else from their operatives.
The opposites manifested in the two men had served them well on dozens of operations, their build and breeding setting them naturally into assigned roles- Hestor the highborn and Beldane the rough dog's body. They played their parts with utter conviction of course, more so, thought Hestor wryly, than the painted fops up on the round stage of the opera house.
“It was loud and almost unbearably gauche in it's presentation, and the staging steals several aspects of Lemarchand's residency” Hestor replied, reclining in a wooden chair sat by the Jade bureau “of course, the local nobility will lap it up.”
“Surveilance?” Beldane enquired gruffly, his squat body propped against the wall by the doorway.
Leaning back in his chair, Hestor brought his delicate fingers up to his temple. Moving them in slow circles, it appeared as though he was nursing a migraine. After a few moments, a small slit appeared in the skin of his temple. Pressing his fingertips to his skull, there was a dull metallic click before Hestor deftly parted the slit, reaching delicately inside his head.
Like many of his master's operatives, Hestor had undergone augmetic surgery, subtle technological enhancements that aided him during operations. These enhancements varied greatly in scope and design, with some being crude, brutish augments simply stapled onto the flesh. Hestor's were a work of art however. Nanite camera units had been implanted within his retinas, linked through uplink cables no larger than a human hair; to a data cache stored in his cerebrum.
Letting out a sigh of effort, Hestor slid his fingers from the fleshpocket in his temple. Pinched between thumb and forefinger, he held a tiny metallic wafer up to the light. Wiping it clean of his blood, he passed the data wafer to Beldane who inserted it into a blocky gunmetal reader he held in his hand.
The stock operative frowned for a while over the data, the screen of the reader casting a sickly green pall over the operative's craggy features.
“Hmm, good visual coverage...” He muttered almost to himself, scrolling through the pict feeds Hestor's ocular implants had captured during the performance, taking picts of the layout of the performance space, noting vantage points as well as the dispersal of vid screens and speakers through out the hall. With a satisfied nod, he ejected the wafer and tossed it back to Hestor, who secreted it back in the flesh pocket.
“The meme package?” Hestor enquired, running a hand through his hair.
“I spoke with our contact at the Scezh-un docks,” Beldane replied, perching himself on the foot of the bed, “the crate has been stamped with appropriate clearance codes and is currently being waved through surface customs. All being well, it should be expected to arrive on Henan at Six hundred local time.”
“The delivery system?” Hestor asked, picking at some dried blood caught under his fingernails.
“Standard uplink bundle, I'll be handling the installation. Do you have a suitable window in which we can act? We need maximum exposure if the operation is to succeed.”
Flicking away a scab of dark dried blood, Hestor looked up at his associate,
“In two night's time, Jun Ki-Un's residency at the Imperial Opera house will draw to a close. Planetary tradition dictates that the closing night of a theatrical production is a time for the nobility of the province to bid farewell to the piece and to also give thanks to the artist.”
“That's our window then,” Replied Beldane, standing up and smoothing down the creases in his trousers. “Can we be sure of maximum exposure?”
“Social Protocol dictates that the heads of all guild houses as well as the household of the governor attend this closing performance. They are hide bound by their own traditions my friend.” Hestor flashed the stocky man a winning smile.
Beldane's face remained creased in thought for a moment, pulling his ugly scar tight across his skin before he gave a distant nod. He brought his forearm up to his face, almost as if he was checking the time on a wrist chron. His fingers played over the keys on a small device mounted on the sleeve of his bodyglove.
“Suppose we better report in then eh?”
Hestor turned away from the bedroom window, he nodded his assent to his fellow operative. As he worked away at the keys of the device, Beldane reckoned he caught a glimmer of apprehension on the taller man's face.
“Everything alright?” He asked.
“What?” Hestor replied vacantly “Yes, yes of course. Why'd you ask?”
Hestor let out a long sigh, his eyes drifting back towards the window. He scratched absently at the fabric of his body glove, itching at a spot on his forearm.
“Come on Icthius,” He said “Two decades we've spent in their service, two decades of successful operations and after all that time, can you tell me honestly that you feel comfortable around one of them?”
The bullish man gave a low chuckle, “They do cast a somewhat lofty shadow.”
Hestor nodded, giving a faint smile, “So please allow me my moment of unease, for all that they aren't, I remain human, old friend.”
Beldane thumbed a final key, the device giving off an echoing keening note. The two men stepped back to the periphery of the room, leaving a wide berth in the centre out of past instincts.
For a while there was nothing. Then suddenly, a low humming began to sound, growing in pitch, clawing at the nerves of the two operatives, their gums aching with the steady hum. The acoustic baffle shield rippled and warped as it fought to contain the noise.
As they watched, the room caught alight with a white light that began to grow in intensity, blooming in the centre of the suite. They stared for as long as they could, until the light grew to encompass the whole room and then they shut their eyes to it, sunspots dancing against their eyelids.
Then came the thunder. A booming of displaced air that swept through the suite, carrying with it the stench of burnt ozone as it washed over the operatives. Then for a moment, there was silence.
Hestor and Beldane stood rigid for a moment, letting the warm air waft over them, slowly willing their eyes to open. When they finally did, they saw they were no longer alone.
He was simply monstrous. Where there was empty space moments before, was now occupied by a looming figure clad in hefty battle plate and draped in a loose chain surplice. The hulking figure that now loomed in the centre of the suite, turned to regard them with it's mask of cold ceramite, still ghosting the dead scent of the void into the room.
It's form was so expansive, the room seemed to contract in around him everytime he drew breath.
The operatives regarded their visitor with the same heady cocktail of mute awe and terror that they had experienced over the last two decades. The thrumming of the warrior's armour remained the only sound in the room until mercifully, the figure deigned to speak.
“Hydra Dominatus”. The sound was appalling. The voice that came out of it's vox grille was twisted so far beyond humanity. Even these two simple words were a rumbled threat when tainted with the helm's grinding electronic cadence.
As one, Hestor and Beldane lifted the sleeves of their body gloves, revealing the naked skin of their forearms. Set into the flesh of both men's arms, a ragged patch of knotted, old scar tissue, shaped like a rearing multiple headed serpent, was prominent. They presented the brands to the figure who turned his gaze over them, appraising them with a clinical air. After a moment, he touched his fingertips to his pauldron, whereupon sat the same symbol, finished in a rich, reptilian green.
He nodded curtly and the operatives slid their sleeves down. After a brief pause, the warrior reached up and lifted the hood of his surplice from his face.
Like the plate of his armour, his helm was a deep mix of rich purple and cobalt; the two colours ran like oil sat on water, a contrast to the sharp green of his pauldron symbol. The lenses in his helm were a deep arterial red, pooled vitae set into the eyes. He reached his fingers up to the collar of his helm, the bulky digits working with an impossible delicacy as they disengaged the seal on the helm, pulling it away with a sibilant hiss.
Clasping the helm at his side, the Legiones Astartes regarded the two men with eyes like chips of flint, dark and unyielding. Despite years of service, Hestor's eyes dropped to the floor, quite involuntarily and he cursed his human frailty.
The warrior's face was unremarkable, despite it's alien proportions, his close cropped hair and deep set cheekbones could have been cast from a mould. There was nothing distinctive about the figure in front of them and still Hestor felt his bowels clench with fear.
The two operatives bowed low, their knees pressed into the lush carpet of the suite. Raising his head, Hestor finally found his voice.
“Arthashastra” He spoke, trying vainly to disguise the awe in his voice.
The Astartes loomed over the mortal, his hands sweeping up to make the sign of the Imperial aquila across his hulking breast. After a while he spoke again and even without the distortion of his vox grille, the voice that left his lips, still carried the promise of the death of worlds.
“Report” He said simply.
Edited by witchunter kraine, 28 September 2011 - 09:40 PM.