War of Letters
The young woman shut off the memo-quill with a thought, looking over the product of her work with unbridled satisfaction. The device floated in the air, supported by grav-repulsor plate keeping it at waist-height above the decorative rug that covered the floor of her room. Lines of calligraphic script ran across the screen made to simulate the appearance of ancient, venerable parchment.
On the Folly of the Machine-Worshippers, the heading read, kept atop the scrolling text no matter which section she wanted to review. Just under the heading, in smaller, angular letters at odds with the flowing calligraphy of the font, was the signature.
Miranda Iagos of Absolom Nonus, remembrancer, lately assigned to the Seventy Fourth Expedition vessel Hegemon.
She could have probably done with far fewer words, but the sheer number of statements after her name made her feel a little more accomplished, so the lengthy signature stayed. She rubbed her eyes and sighed with tired satisfaction.
Another pamphlet finished for the glory of the Great Crusade and of the Sixth Legion. Another item on a long list of works that justified her place amongst the spearhead of human exploration and advancement into the wider galaxy.
She stood up from a soft couch decorated with pastoral designs, forest green with streaks of light blue and white depicting scenes of some primitive, peaceful age. Miranda’s quarters aboard the Hegemon were on the small side, typically reserved for the artists and dignitaries whose standing did not warrant anything grander yet, but she did not mind it much. Only the very best were chosen for the remembrance duty, she told herself in the moments of doubt. Her presence here was a sign that she was considered worthy of commemorating the next phase of human expansion – that it was her, not like her former peers back on Absolom Nonus, not even the haughty products of Terra’s art academies and universities who would not have thought twice about the daughter of shopkeeper from some unimportant world in Segmentum Solar.
Not bad, not bad at all.
Miranda smiled at the thought, stretching after hours of sitting down, flexing her arm and leg muscles and cranking her neck. She would not be called beautiful by any standard, but there was enough spunk in her movements and easy-going charm in her manner to earn her a decent share of admirers amongst the mortal crew of the Sixth Legion’s flagship. Others often told her that her best, most attractive quality was making people laugh, which often made them forget little excess weight, or sun-kissed freckles upon the features that were not an exact replica of some ancient Grecian statue. Her hair auburn red, cut close to the shoulders with little regard for the latest court fashion, while the clothes she was wearing were comfortable yet utilitarian in their drabness – perfect for staying inside four walls.
Perhaps, this time around Terra will take notice.
For many of the other remembrancers and iterators assigned to the Seventy Fourth Expedition, the very thought of returning to the throne world was terrifying. Some, like dour Aigon van Halk, bristled at the idea that the Crusade could continue without him. Others, chief amongst them the ever-volatile Petros Varshavsky, claimed that they were yet to find the source of natural inspiration that new locales would bring.
Miranda suspected that vanity played a role in their proclamations, some of it real, some of it played up for dramatic effect. More than a few of her human cohorts were products of high-born families, whose dabbling in artistic pursuits was encouraged from the early age by doting parents and expensive tutors. To such people, the thought of not being held in exceptional regard as one of the men and women pushing back the Old Night was anathema. They could not stomach the idea of losing the mythical aura of exploration and danger often assigned to those who lived their lives at the edges of the known space.
They were also not the progeny of a well-meaning nothing, who traded unremarkable life writing scathing commentary on unimportant topics for bringing her talent for biting satire and fiery conviction to serve a greater purpose.
Miranda looked through the messages on her holographic reception cube. There was not much. A poet named Ikiri something-or-other asked for the pleasure of her company later in the evening. A vague recollection stirred Miranda’s thoughts – handsome dark face with almond-shaped eyes, hints of lithe yet sensuous figure under the flowing gown. A formal communication from the Hegemon’s quartermaster warned all passengers of the upcoming translation to the Immaterium once the ship reached the system’s nearest Mandeville point, still some time away by Miranda’s reckoning. Old news at best, she thought, pondering on whether she should reply to Ikiri now, or perhaps give it a little more time.
A mischievous smile curled one corner of her mouth. Perhaps a little more time would be good… few more hours.
She scrolled through the list of messages, dismissing stiff formal notices sent to the civilian crew “for their own safety during the Immaterium jump.” The phrase always made her chuckle, even after spending the last eight years of her life aboard the Imperial Redeemers’ flagship.
Miranda almost dismissed the last message before stopping herself. Her heart raced faster, adding a rush of excitement that she fought hard to suppress. Without a conscious effort, her smile turned into a wide grin.
This was it, the outcome of weeks of pleading and cajoling the powers that be, making requests and writing letters only to lose them in the morass of bureaucracy. This was the culmination of effort that allowed her to score one more coup before the departure to Terra, one last reminder that she would bear with pride at her literary accomplishments – and as a way to set herself apart from the mewling aristocrats playing at being artists.
All thoughts of Ikiri set aside for now, Miranda tried to calm her thoughts down, wondering what she would say to a Primarch.
* * *
Somehow, the absence of people made the Hall of Brotherhood more imposing. The statues took on aspects of pagan idols of yesteryear in the dimmed light, weaving elaborate shadows where only hours ago the Legion celebrated yet another conquest. Now, candles were arranged across the room in clusters, forming constellations, adding their aromas to the hall's ambiance. There was something soothing in the smell, something that appealed even to the grizzled warriors of the Legiones Astartes. It was the smell of peace, the smell of lazy afternoons in the heat of Apellene sun, watching the waves crash against the piers as the seagulls floated over the shore. It was the smell of bustling ports slowing down in deference to the elements, when all life retreated from the merciless gaze of the light, time of rest and camaraderie, when stories were exchanged and bonds were strengthened. It was the smell of home.
The tables were cleared away, leaving only the throne-like dais under the auspicious figure of the Emperor. Yusuf never noticed the throne before, not when it was occupied by Iskanderos. The Primarch usually drew all attention to himself, making it impossible to notice anything else even in plain sight. Now that Iskanderos was nowhere to be found, Yusuf could appreciate the Hall of Brotherhood for what it was – the heart of the Sixth Legion's domain, the symbolic nerve center of its campaigns, a testament to the unity of the nascent, rising Imperium.
“Are we ready?” asked Faisal Crateros. The Captain of the 68th Company displayed little sign of intoxication, now dressed in ceremonial attire of Apella's ancient heroes. It was odd to think of him wearing bronze armor and helmet crowned with red horse-hair crest, bearing long spear and large, round shield with insignia drawn from the home world's long history. Yusuf recognized sigils of a minor noble house interwoven with other, unfamiliar motifs, perhaps connotations of campaigns, perhaps signs of gene-lineage from other Imperial Redeemers whose gene-seed Crateros inherited.
El-Rahim shook his head, moving with deliberate slowness. “Patience, my friend. Patience.” The Astrologer was clad in long white robes with trim the color of congealed arterial blood. In one hand, he held a golden chalice that flickered with the reflected light of hundreds of candles spread across the hall. The other hand held a short knife with triangular blade, wide at the bottom, narrowing down to a point nearly too small for naked eye to see in the gloom.
Two others stepped out of the shadows cast by the statues. Tilsit Demetrios looked liked a titan given flesh by some forbidden sorceries, magnificent even in the armor made obsolete by advances in technology thousands of years before Iskanderos' arrival on Apella. Here, he was the very image of an ancient warrior of Apellan sea-clans, the men who established themselves as kings and princes of countless thalassocracies in the ages after the fall of the Old Night. Their proud and haughty bearing, just like their martial spirit, lived on in Demetrios, and he looked as much at home with Legionary-sized spear and shield as he did when in power armor, leading his Jond on campaigns of deliverance across the galaxy.
Miral Ahab, in contrast, looked out of place in the antique armor. His arms, thick with corded muscle and patches of augmetic joints showing through the synth-skin, threatened to pop out of the armor's confines, and even the oversized weaponry in his hands looked small and inconsequential next to his bulk. The Chapter Master's heavy-set face seemed almost grotesque under the bronze helmet, as if the symbol of ancient tradition and refinement was somehow befouled by association with the brutish man wearing it.
The Legionaries formed a semi-circle before the throne, two on each side. The throne remained vacant, as was proper in the absence of the Primarch. Yusuf, dressed in supplicant robes hastily procured for the occasion, felt naked and vulnerable before them, standing as he was several meters away from them.
“Now,” el-Rahim smiled, not in the least at the expense of Crateros' irritation, “are we ready?” As Demetrios nodded, the Astrologer motioned Yusuf to advance, not waiting for confirmation from Crateros and Ahab.
The 54th Captain stepped forward, one slow deliberate motion after another. He became acutely aware of some inexplicable, almost instinctive desire for home brought on by the smells, confirmed by the imagery summoned by the Companions' attire. Their armor made them look like ancient heroic statues that still adorned most of the home world's poli – warrior in prime of his martial ability standing guard before his king, philosopher teaching the disposition of heavens to his associates and imparting the mysteries of the universe to all who would listen, conquering heroic general crowned with laurels from a successful campaign of subjugation and glory, barbarian whose crude appearance belied primitive yet pure strength and honor.
“Take a knee, brother,” el-Rahim commanded. It seemed that he was chosen to lead this ceremony.
Yusuf did as he was told. He bent down on one knee, not taking his eyes off the Astrologer. “Sons of Apella do not lower their eyes in the face of the unknown... I like it!” The warrior in philosopher's robes smiled. El-Rahim's knife moved almost too fast for the naked eye, slicing the Lord Commander's hand at the wrist. Red droplets, almost black in the candlelight, dropped down into the chalice, at first a stream, then drop, drip, drop as el-Rahim's Larraman cells worked to repair the damage. Yusuf's nose caught a whiff of rich, succulent Legionary blood.
“You next, brother,” el-Rahim nodded to Crateros, who extended the spear-bearing hand, using the weapon as a clutch. The 68th Captain winced as the knife sliced through his skin, although Yusuf could not tell if it was from pain, or from some hidden resentment.
“Brothers.” El-Rahim repeated the ceremony with Ahab and Demetrios, drawing blood from each. In Ahab's case, with the Chapter Master's many augmetics, the Astrologer drew blood from the vein under his arm.
The Lord Commander of the Second Jond stepped forward towards Yusuf. The chalice had a large amount of liquid sloshing around in it. Yusuf wondered if el-Rahim saturated the cup with anticoagulant beforehand to prevent the Legionary blood from clotting as it was wont to do.
“Your hand, brother.” Without a word, Yusuf extended his right hand, still flesh and blood. His other, metal hand, was situated across his knees.
The Astrologer cut Yusuf across the wrist, letting blood flow into the chalice until the stream slowed to a trickle. He raised the cup over his head.
“We are the sons of Apella, no matter the birth world,” el-Rahim said, his voice booming across the Hall of Brotherhood. “Under the auspices of the Emperor, beloved by all, we are the force for good in the dark galaxy. We exist to bring enlightenment out of nothing, and for that, we must thank the Emperor, the giver of all.”
“But most of all, we are the Sixth Legion, the sons of Iskanderos, he who made us what we are. We owe our very being, our very soul to our father. Our glory is his glory, and our victories are his victories.”
“And yet, even when we give our flesh and blood unto him, the debt we owe Iskanderos is far greater.” The Lord Commander's voice rose in volume, seemingly expanding through the darkness until it was an almost physical presence in the vast, vacant hall. “It is the debt we owe him for peace on our home worlds, and prosperity of mankind across the galaxy. It is the debt of a kind that even if each one of us were to die a thousand times after slaying a thousand enemies, we would still not be able to repay. He is the light in the darkness, and he is the redemption of mankind too foolish to follow into enlightenment.”
Something about the words disturbed Yusuf. Was it not the Emperor's role to watch over mankind at the expense of lesser, false guardians? Then, his thoughts returned to the image of his Primarch, perfection made war, sitting under the auspices of the Emperor. Fealty to Iskanderos was fealty to the Emperor. Was he not an extension of the Emperor's own will?
They were, after all, doing the good work. The right work.
“For this reason, we are the Imperial Redeemers,” continued el-Rahim. “And for this very reason, when our Lord Primarch calls, we answer.”
“We are brothers, yet this brotherhood must stand apart even above the ties of blood and fraternity of the battlefield. For our father has unique need of us. We are to be his eyes, his ears, the voice of reason, the infallible, the trustworthy. We are to follow him in this world and beyond, and share in all triumphs and misfortunes as they come.”
“For this is a sacrifice, make no mistake, brothers,” the Astrologer said. “Our lives and fates are given to the Primarch before our Chapter, before our Company, before our closest comrades. If our father calls, we answer, no matter the call, no matter the deed.” His voice grew somber and serious as he looked Yusuf in the eye.
“Is this the bond that you willingly accept, Yusuf al-Malik?”
Thousands of thoughts ran through Yusuf's head, until he settled on one. The only answer he could give.
“Drink.” El-Rahim handed him the chalice, and Yusuf partook of his brothers' blood. It was sweet, rich with nutrients, warm and laced with something that kept it liquid. He felt it roll on his tongue, savoring every sip.
The Lord Commander of the Second Jond rose his hand in near-benediction. “Does any of the assembled find the aspirant unworthy? If so, speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
Yusuf's eyes darted to the corners of the room. Ahab and Demetrios were stone-faced, impossible to read. Crateros looked like he wanted to say something, but kept to wiser council. It seemed that the question was more ritualistic in nature than anything.
“Then, brother, rise,” el-Rahim commanded. Yusuf stood up, feeling little dizzy. Whatever additive was mixed in with his brothers' blood must have had intoxicating properties.
“Then, Yusuf al-Malik, Captain of the 54th Company, son of Iskanderos, I name thee one of us.”
* * *
She was led into the Golden One's quarters by a small crowd of haughty-looking serfs, each dressed in some elaborate costume that seemed utterly impractical. Miranda tried not to laugh when they introduced themselves, giving out their titles and occupations as if they were the most important thing in the universe.
How could the Hegemon run without the dutiful service of a Second Porter-In-Waiting! How could it ever play its assigned role in the Great Crusade if Junior Personal Assistant to the Primarch's Majordomo could not attend to her duties with the pomp and aplomb expected of her?
No doubt, some family on a Core World was proudly telling all their friends that their scions served on board the Imperial Redeemers' flagship, basking in the respect and recognition of their peers. To Miranda, it was more humorous than anything.
Then, wars were often won by small things, not just the force of arms and the brilliance of their generals, but also by the infrastructure that allowed warriors and generals to do their job without being bothered by lesser things. In that respect, the Imperial Redeemers had little to worry about.
It took Miranda four years to finally be granted an audience. Some would have considered it a pinnacle of a remembrancer's accomplishments to get a Primarch's attention, a recognition of her craft and of her useful contributions to the Great Crusade. Others yet saw it as another source of inspiration, something to brag to their peers about, or perhaps something to share with their grandchildren in due time.
She wondered what the Primarch himself might think of that. Surely, he had more interesting and important things to do than indulge every two-bit writer, poet, artist, or sculptor. See my amazing painting and tell me how great I am, never mind that there is a campaign going on!
At that thought, she could no longer hold the smile back. If her time amongst the bohemians taught her one thing, it was that they all had an inflated sense of self-importance, and she was smart enough to recognize her own hubris when it counted. She was not sure if Iskanderos would find it annoying or amusing, but at the very least she had the courtesy to show up on time, when asked.
After four years, the Primarch himself ordered, no, asked her to keep him company. And Iskanderos, the Lord of Apella and its Network, was not the kind of being whose requests were frequently turned down.
* * *
The Primarch was everything Miranda had imagined and more. Sure, she saw the video-picts and documentary footage, took note of the statues and works of art inspired by the Sixth Primarch, but to see him in the flesh was an entirely different experience.
Miranda heard that some people fainted at the sight of him, unable to stand so close to the majesty of one so nearly divine. Standing only few meters away from Iskanderos, she could believe it.
The master of the Hegemon was more than twice her height, yet perfectly proportioned like a statue from a culture that prized aesthetic accomplishment. Where the Legionaries were hard to mistake for a human with their exaggerated gigantism and overmuscled bodies, the Primarch was the very essence of healthy perfection, human male at the peak of his youthful progress, just writ larger than mere mortals. It was made all the more miraculous by her knowledge that Iskanderos was centuries old, quite possibly as old as the Great Crusade itself, yet here he was in all his magnificence, looking scarcely older than her twenty nine standard years. From a distance, and lacking a sense of scale, he would have looked more human than any of his warrior-sons.
And yet, there was something else about him, some kind of indescribable sensation that defied all reason. Maybe it was the grace of his movements, seemingly impossible for mere mortals; perhaps it was the way his presence filled the room, or the subtle, almost invisible radiance he exuded. Miranda had a thought about the presence of something supernatural, something divine that could not be put in mere words, then suppressed the concept.
After all, the Imperial Truth empathethically rejected the existence of gods, demons, and supernatural. Still, if there were no gods, then what was standing in front of her?
“Welcome to my humble abode,” Iskanderos said with a smile before Miranda had a chance to overcome her dazed state. The Primarch waved one arm around, as if showcasing his reception area to her.
Just as the Hall of Brotherhood was for the Legion affairs, Iskanderos had his personal reception room outfitted to meet every sort of dignitary, from machine-men of Martian Adeptus and dour Administratum bureaucrats to representatives of exotic cultures encountered by the Imperial Redeemers on campaign, and perhaps even the few members of xenos species deemed sufficiently harmless, or perhaps sufficiently useful to be afforded a degree of Imperial protection. That such protection rarely outlasted the immediate need was a rarely mentioned truism; the Imperium was first and foremost the domain of humanity, and no alien species would be allowed to challenge the supremacy of the sons and daughters of Terra.
Miranda's eyes swam across the multitude of trophies, weapons and armor decorating the walls, pieces of priceless artwork scavenged from hundreds of subjugated cultures, specimens of exterminated alien species crushed over five centuries of the Legion's campaigns maintained in stasis like discarded mementos of Imperial Redeemers' dominance. There were so many objects vying for her attention that she could not focus on any of them, all of the artifacts blending into one mass of bright, shining gold and opulence undreamt of even by the wealthiest citizens of the Imperium.
A thought came nagging in her head; Iskanderos' abode was anything but humble.
“My lord,” she finally gathered the presence of mind to reply, curtsying like a proper denizen of a Terran court. This elicited a laugh from the Primarch. There was something good natured about it; he was not laughing at her, but at the elaborate form etiquette she was trying to follow.
“We are not at a high society ball, my lady,” replied Iskanderos. His grin was infectious, and very quickly Miranda found herself grinning from ear to ear. Something about the Sixth Primarch's manner was disarming, inspiring of trust and confidence. It was almost impossible to conceive that the master of Apella had blood-toll of trillions on his hands, no less and perhaps even more so than his more savage, less agreeable brothers.
The mere presence of Iskanderos demanded attention. Miranda had to force herself to keep calm and not to descend into mindless stupor, too dumbfounded to do anything but adore the gene-forged majesty in front of her.
Iskanderos walked closer to her, now being less than two meters away. Though he towered over the remembrancer, she did not feel threatened. The Primarch motioned her to a cushion of red velvet and gold embroidery, while sitting down in a chair more fitting his gargantuan physique.
“How goes the Crusade from the remembrancers' quarters?” he asked, mischievous sparks playing in his eyes.
Miranda tried her best to keep herself from stuttering, but still the words came out too fast. “We... cannot presume... to make the same kind of contribution... as the warriors of the Legions...”
He laughed. It was a booming sound of health and vigor, as if he found something genuinely amusing.
“Please,” Iskanderos said, shaking his head. “No need to be so formal. This is not an interrogation.” He gave her a measuring look, then grinned again. “I don't bite, Mistress Iagos.”
She felt a measure of confidence return. Not many of her rank would have had a chance to spend some time with one of the Emperor's sons; in fact, most remembrancers would consider themselves lucky if a lesser Legion officer deigned them worthy of his attention. Miranda thought that Iskanderos would be either impossibly haughty, or so far removed from anything human that she would only be capable of staring at him, mouth agape. The giant keeping her company did not seem like any of those things.
“Miranda,” she said, eliciting a quizzical look. He procured a glass of wine from somewhere, then leaned over, offering her another. His glass was larger than her head, yet in his hand it seemed tiny. Hers was more proportionate to her size. The remembrancer wondered where the drink came from; as far as she could tell, there were no servants around, no storage where the bottle could have been kept. She took a cautionary taste, rolling the liquid on her tongue.
“This makes the best wines from the Poet's Corner taste like rubbing alcohol,” she said, appreciative of the quality.
Iskanderos made a mock bow, still sitting down, smile never leaving his face. “Always happy to oblige.” He leaned back, relaxed and secure in his majesty. The very air around him appeared to shimmer.
“Did you know,” the Primarch continued, “I have always found much to appreciate about your work.”
“You have?” Miranda was surprised. Certainly, her pamphlets and narratives served their purpose, and her words supported the cause of the Crusade through leaflets and broadcasts on thousands of worlds, but somehow, she thought of them as more utilitarian than anything. There was talent to what she did, there had to be. But art? Art enough to interest a demigod, even?
“The Storm Cult,” said Iskanderos. “I found much to learn from it.” When she did not respond, he continued. “You can conquer the worlds with weapons, but you can keep them with laughter.”
Miranda thought back to the work, one of her lesser pieces as far as she was concerned. A propaganda piece, if she was truthful.
“Did you know that there are at least thirty two different versions in circulation, all slightly adapted to be context-appropriate?” Iskanderos sipped slowly on his wine.
“I am sure some iterator out there is having a field day now,” answered Miranda. “But learning from it? I don't understand.”
“Miranda,” the Primarch said, with an edge of someone explaining a painfully obvious thing. “Our war is only half of the greatest conflict our species has ever known. It is not sufficient that we defeat every military force with greater force. It is what happens when the Legions leave, and life returns to normal.”
“A peasant in the jungles of Drongari will go back to worshiping his idols, and a bureaucrat on Sartorus will go back to his papers, just with a different stamp. Few years, a decade or two, and they will forget every lesson taught by the Legions. You see, Miranda, the real challenge of our times is not making those worlds pay lip service to Terra, but to make them productive citizens of the Imperium even when the Legions are not there to keep order.”
“I give them something to fear, or something to look up to. You give them promise that the Imperium gives more than it takes. People like you are the reason we can move on and leave happy, productive worlds behind.”
That was, she had to admit, flattering, and she said so. Iskanderos nodded.
“Is it flattery when it is true?” the Primarch asked.
“Then again, perhaps not,” Iskanderos finished. He seemed content to direct the conversation, whether because Miranda still felt a little timid, or because his very nature brook no interference.
“Which is why I wanted to talk.” He set his arms on his knees, leaning forward with a conspiratory look on his face. “Have you ever considered using your talent for written word in another setting?”
* * *
“I don't think he likes me very much,” said Yusuf quietly, casting a sidewards glance at Crateros. He washed the residual taste of blood with a liberal helping of sweet, aged wine. Something about the taste remained on his tongue, giving it a coppery tang.
El-Rahim shrugged, his face expressing only mild amusement. “Faisal does not like anybody, unless that anybody happens to be a Chapter Master or a Lord Commander.”
Now that the ceremony was finished, the serfs appeared seemingly out of nowhere, bringing out tables and refilling them with food and drink. Yusuf did not feel particularly hungry after the victory feast, but he did not let it hinder him. While technically he was the same rank as Crateros, he was still the newest Companion, and it did not do well for him to break with the other warriors on their age-honed tradition.
“It will pass,” said el-Rahim. “Once he gets to know you, and especially if he does not deem you a threat to his own ambitions, he will be much friendlier.”
Yusuf nodded, taking in the scenery. Demetrios and Ahab seemed deep into a conversation of their own, absent-mindedly partaking in their drinks about thirty feet away. Yusuf could not hear them very well, not even with his enhanced hearing, and very soon he stopped trying to make out the words. That left him with Apollus el-Rahim for company.
The master of the Second Jond did not bother changing from his ceremonial robe, now stained with drops of blood from the chalice. Still, there was nothing barbaric about his appearance. Even playing the role of the high priest (Yusuf assumed that was a reenactment of one of many ceremonies inherited from Apella's distant past), the senior officer was an imposing figure, almost regal at times. There was nothing comical or exaggerated in his bearing; el-Rahim clearly took his role in the ceremony very seriously.
Now that the ceremony was over, he reminded Yusuf of Telennios. They had the same bearing honed on the palace grounds and chambers of political councils, the same refined accent that only noble-born could pull off without much efforts. The captain of the 54th company wondered what world his battle-brother called home, and what it was like. Was he, too, a scion of some aristocratic family who traced his ancestry to long years of the Old Night?
“So, what do you think so far?” el-Rahim broke the momentary silence. He smiled, just enough to put Yusuf at ease without being condescending.
“Not much to think about, yet,” admitted Yusuf. “What exactly are the Companions supposed to do, anyway?”
El-Rahim raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Straight to the point, yes, brother?” He fixed the imaginary crease on his robes. “A somber tradition, this one, born of Apella herself.” The way he said the homeworld's name made Yusuf think that el-Rahim had some unrequited longing for claiming affinity with it, almost jealousy towards those who, through no merit of their own, shared birth place with Iskanderos' own. “Are you familiar with the campaigns of king Mykandros?”
Yusuf' scratched his head, thinking. The name was vaguely familiar in the same way that one might recall history lessons from childhood, no doubt a grandiose tale, but not particularly relevant thousands of years afterward. “Mykandros...” he said slowly, summoning old memories. “Wasn't he the one that conquered... the Grailian Coast?”
“The Grailian Coast, the Branat Highlands, and a whole lot more,” elaborated el-Rahim. “About, oh, five thousand years ago, give or take few centuries.”
“Ancient history, then?” Yusuf realized the Lord Commander was trying to make some sort of a point, but the point itself eluded him.
El-Rahim chuckled quietly, polite sound ready-made for ballrooms and diplomatic missions. “One would do well to learn from it, brother,” he said softly, sipping more of his drink. Yusuf followed suit. The taste of blood still lingered on.
“Mykandros was perhaps the best general of his age,” el-Rahim continued. “Alas,” he raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if making a dramatic point, “he was a poor judge of men outside the battlefield. Once the campaign was over, he did not even make it back to his capital before he was poisoned.” Another chuckle, then. “He could not always tell which of his generals were plotting against him, and which of the conquered people he could trust when they petitioned him to resolve their disputes. Sadly for him, he was also stubborn, and believed he could do no wrong.”
“So he ignored the signs of treason?” Yusuf asked. The very thought seemed wrong. How would it apply to a Legion that, more than any other, embodied loyalty to the Imperium? What would tale about treason signify?
“His successor, Leander, was a bit smarter, even if no genius of war. “ El-Rahim went on, as if he did not hear Yusuf's question. “He could not have conquered the empire Mykandros built, but he managed to keep it. How did he do that, you ask? Simple. He listened to others. Had his sons only been better at learning from his example, perhaps the empire would have stood to this day!”
That, Yusuf had to admit, was a very long and roundabout way to make a point. He nodded, still not entirely sure of himself to say that out loud.
“You have something on your mind,” said el-Rahim, giving Yusuf a piercing look.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
The Lord Commander laughed loudly enough to make even Crateros, Demetrios, and Ahab take note. Demetrios cocked his head, an invitation for an explanation.
“You will enjoy this, my friend,” el-Rahim spoke up after a fit of laughter. “We are the Companions, brother. When we are away from our companies and before the eyes of our father, there is no distinction of rank amongst us. Well,” he said, nodding at Demetrios, “other than the equerry here, who is technically the senior companion. Do not let this go to your head, brother,” he said to Demetrios with a smile.
“What Apollus is trying to say is this,” Demetrios answered for him. “Our mission is to advise the Primarch on matters of importance. If we get too lost in matters of rank and hierarchy, then our advice will be useless. Your voice, captain al-Malik, is important.”
“This is an honor,” said Yusuf, trying to go back to his original thought. “But... why the story about Mykandros? Is there something I am missing?”
“A diplomatic way of saying that I tend to get off track,” laughed el-Rahim. By now, the other Companions abandoned their private conversation, walking closer to Yusuf. “If you are to do well as one of us, you should not be afraid to admit faults – your own and others!”
“Here he goes again,” said Demetrios with exaggerated sigh, rolling his eyes. Something about his manner suggested that the two Lord Commanders had much experience with friendly jabs against each other.
“Politics, my friend, politics,” said el-Rahim. “This is the part you are missing.”
“Mykandros was a great warrior, but a terrible politician. He built the empire, but could not keep it. Leander kept the empire, but could not make it greater, and within two generations his grandsons squandered it away. Thus, talent in war or aptitude for politics alone are not enough for the crusade we are fighting.”
“The Great Crusade is almost over,” continued el-Rahim, with approving look from Demetrios spurring him on. “The war, though... Oh, the war will continue for a long time.” He chuckled, as if amused at his own wit.
“It will continue on a different battleground,” said Demetrios, picking up seamlessly from where el-Rahim stopped. Yusuf saw both Ahab and Crateros nod, and wondered just how much truth there was in el-Rahim's words about the lack of ranks amongst the Companions.
“If we are to come with Lord Iskanderos to Terra, we will need to advise him. We will need to bring our knowledge of war, and our expectations for peace, so that he can have a trustworthy, honest word in his ear when he asks for it.” Demetrios walked closer, putting one hand on Yusuf's shoulder. He leaned in, speaking quietly as if imparting a secret. “The Primarch likes the way you think, and wants yours to be one of the voices he listens to.” He pulled back from Yusuf, now addressing the entire group.
“Terra will be a different kind of battle for us all, brothers. Let us hope that we are its equal.”