Dinner with the Inquisition

Part 5

Magos Maternin Shyendi slowly raised her hands in the air. The Inquisitor, Amberley Vail, held a las-pistol casually in one hand, the slender barrel gleaming viciously in the low light of the cellar.

"Your vox is turned off? Very good. Would you step away from the servitor please?" The Inquisitor's voice was full of well-meaning politeness. Maternin did as she was asked. The pistol barrel followed her as she moved to the other side of the room. Vail's lips pursed into a moue of consternation.

"Well, this is a bother." Vail walked over to the servitor that Maternin had left lying on its back in the centre of a floor. She knelt down, pistol still trained on Maternin, and ran her hand across the stitches, running a critical eye over the servitor.

"There is a bomb in that servitor," Maternin warned her. "If it detonates, it will release an electro-magnetic pulse that will disrupt the sky-mansion's anti-gravity engines and likely kill everyone here."

"You worked all that out for yourself?" Vail asked, unable to keep the flicker of respect off her face. "Velasquez did find himself a clever one."

"You knew the bomb was there." Maternin said.

Vail flicked hair out of her face and gave Maternin a slightly pitying smile. "Of course I did, my dear. I'm the one who put it there."


"You know, I've never understood the people who would answer that question. Bragging to someone about your schemes and plots? It seems somewhat self-defeating."

"It is an impulsive expression of irrational pride, I agree," Maternin nodded. "However, one that in my experience most schemers and plotters fall victim to. Of course, if you were to behave rationally, then your most sensible course of action from here would be to march me somewhere convenient to dispose of my body and then kill me. And I would strongly recommend against killing me."

Vail gave a small shrug. "Well, I find most people tend to be against getting killed. I don't generally take their wishes into account if they're in the way of Inquisition business. Why would I change that for you?"

"This would be a matter of self-preservation. You are making decisions based on faulty premises, correction of which would lead you to alternative conclusions. For example, you are under the belief that you control the activation of this bomb with a transmitter that you have placed on Lord-Captain Velasquez's person."

Vail smiled. "You really are a remarkable woman, Magos Shyendi. I could do with a few more like you in my retinue. Yes, all of that is correct. The transmitter keeping the bomb from detonating was placed on Jak's person."

"This belief is erroneous," Maternin pressed on. "I blocked the signal from the captain's transmitter and replaced it with an identical one that I myself am broadcasting. The moment you shoot me, the signal will be cut off and the explosion will detonate. If you try to force me to leave the premises I will cut the signal off myself and we will both die along with everyone else here."

The smile disappeared off Amberley Vail's face. She clicked her tongue with irritation, the gun wavering in her hand for a moment before, with a snort of frustration she tossed her hair back and holstered her weapon, somewhat over-dramatically Maternin thought.

"Very well, then. You win," said Vail.

Maternin felt herself sag in relief. In her years, she'd had more guns pointed at her than she could count (and she had an excellent mind for counting) but she never got used to the experience. "Thank you."

"So," Vail said, irritation still strong in her tone, "you seem to have gamed this all out. What happens now?"

"I would still like to know why you placed the bomb in that servitor."

Vail sighed theatrically, standing back up again. "I thought a clever priest like you wouldn't need it all explained for them. There's someone upstairs I wanted dead, and I was going to have the assassination pinned on your captain."

"But who? Your method is so complicated and indiscriminate. All the guests would have been killed at the same time. Which one was your target?"

The Inquisitor gave Maternin an arch look. "Isn't it obvious? All of them."


Still mulling over his confrontation with the Lord-Inquisitor, Jak returned to the main ballroom. A card game seemed to be the focus of attention at the moment, with a number of guests gathered around Admiral Kessiage, Yrobael Tzuma and De Astrata as they played Pharaohs. Hearts and Titans was more Jak's style of card game, one that every common sailor knew, but Pharaohs had caught on with the moneyed set in the northern parts of the galaxy, and he wasn't surprised to see it being played here.

"You there Shyendi?" Jak murmured into his micro-bead. He got no response from his technis majoris. She was likely completely focused on her efforts to defuse the bomb.

No else appeared to be confident enough to join the wealthy trio of merchant, Admiral and Inquisitor, so Jak shouldered his way through the crowd to claim a seat at the table.

"Deal me in at twenty, bank," he said, with a flashy grin for Admiral Kessiage. With a focused grunt, the Admiral slid a score of chips towards Jak without looking at him. Each one represented more wealth than most of the observers would ever see in their lifetimes. Jak placed his bets across the tarot images printed on the table, representing the cards he would wager on, whilst Tzuma and De Astrata did the same.

Tzuma's gestures gave him pause; the Inquisitor's fumbling of his chips and slight lurch forward in his seat gave every impression of drunkenness. Jak's one eye flicked up to look at De Astrata's and Kessiage's faces. Both seemed to be aware of Tzuma's inebriation and were focused on fleecing him of everything he had.

Jak paused before making his bet. On the one hand, there could be consequences for hustling a drunken Inquisitor. On the other hand, one of those consequences could be winning an obscene amount of money. Jak wagered heavily.

Kessiage began to deal cards from the x-ray and tamper proof dealing box; Jak sat back in his seat. He was mildly concerned about not having heard from Maternin, but he couldn't put his hand to his com bead in such a public setting, so he'd just have to enjoy the game. Solving the mystery of the assassin could wait, seeing as Jak was the one whose departure the assassination seemed to hinge on.

"My card!" Tzuma called out triumphantly at a winning draw, thumping his hand down on the table and causing the chips to bounce. "Steady!" Kessiage murmured, his outrage muted by the danger of confronting an inebriated Inquisitor. Tzuma pointed a finger at him, one eye twitching a little.

"Careful Admiral! You don't want anyone accusing you of heresy tonight. It could happen so easily if you annoyed the wrong man!"

There was a muted gasp from the watching crowd and Admiral Kessiage's face froze. Silence crept across the ballroom, only broken when Tzuma burst into a deep, rumbling laugh, his whole body shaking with mirth.

"Only joking, my friend! Old Inquisitorial joke. Oh, if only you could see your face right now."

The assembled guests sagged in relief, but only slightly; tension was still thick in the air. Admiral Kessiage's face was thunder, but he went back to dealing. Jak and De Astrata shared a glance. For the first moment all day their thoughts were aligned.

"This is what you get," Jak murmured, so softly that only De Astrata next to him could hear, "When you dine with the Inquisition."


"You wanted to assassinate all the guests at this dinner?"

"Almost all, yes," Vail nodded. "You have to bear in mind I did put together the guest list. This dinner was a pretext to gather together some of Cypra Mundi's most notorious rogues." She held up a hand and started ticking names off on her fingers. "Magos Delphan Gruss and his quest for the Omnicopaeia has caused all manner of conflicts that needed to be ended. Rear-Admiral Kessiage is grossly corrupt and intimately involved in the smuggling of certain artefacts of chaos into Cypra Mundi. De Astrata, as you well know, has been selling second-rate and tainted goods to Imperial captains for some time-"

"Do you have evidence for all of these crimes?" Maternin interrupted.

"Evidence? Indeed. Oodles of it in fact. I've been collecting it ever since I arrived on Cypra Mundi six months ago. My people and I have enough evidence to condemn ever man, woman and machine-priest up there."

"Then why not bring them to trial?"

"Because of Karamazov, of course. His presence has thrown the planet into chaos, paralysed the local Ordos, and provided cover for men like De Astrata, who seek to protect themselves by toadying to the Lord Inquisitor. His fire and brimstone blundering nearly ruined months of careful Inquisitorial work, and by the time he is finished all of my targets will have gone to ground or left the planet."

"So, you thought you'd eliminate him at the same time?"

A sneer crossed Vail's face. "I would be doing this planet, and the Imperium a small favour, although you never heard me say that."

"And Tzuma?"

"Ah, poor Yrobael. I do worry about him. That chat with Karamazov may have pushed him over the edge." Vail went quiet for a moment. She knelt back down beside the servitor and slipped a thin blade from somewhere within her dress. With practiced ease, she cut through the stiches in the servitor's abdomen.

"Tzuma is a radical you know?" She did not look at Maternin as she spoke. "Radical and not in the fun bound-daemon-for-a-best-friend way. He's going mad, and worse he's getting sloppy. Karamazov's purge will take years to recover from, but at least the damage can be repaired and the recovery is predictable. The path that Tzuma has chosen could do unimaginable damage in the blink of an eye. I personally would have regretted his death, but as an Inquisitor I have no question that it would have been for the good of us all. There," she said, lifting a small sphere from within the servitor's guts, blue lights still flashing across its surface. Vail gave a few short twists of the sphere, top and bottom halves moving back and forth, and the blue lights went dim. "The threat is over. Have I answered all your questions?"

"I have only one more. Why did you plan to pin your crimes on my captain?"

"Well, firstly, let us clear up one misunderstanding, my dear; It's not a crime if an Inquisitor does it. And secondly, the charming Jak Velasquez was simply going to be an unfortunate casualty of the perfect murder. When Tzuma invited him, I knew that his very public spat with De Astrata would give me the cover I needed. Originally, I had hoped to make the failure of the anti-gravity engines look like an accident, but this was so much better! The death of so many dignitaries was surely going to arouse suspicions, suspicions that could jeopardise the work of the Inquisition for months to come. And then along came a man with clear motive for murder, on whom I could pin the whole thing. And he blithely wandered into the web without needing more than a hint of encouragement."

Maternin considered this for some time. "It appears to be act of cold rationality, to the point of callousness, to destroy an innocent man's life for the sake of convenience."

Vail gazed at Maternin silently for some time, till the little magos became deeply uncomfortable looking into those piercing blue eyes.

"Yes, I am well aware of the perimeters of my principles," Vail said finally. "The Inquisition does quite a good job teaching you that any amount of wrongdoing can be justified in the name of the greater good. Still, look at this way: had my plan succeeded, one innocent man would have suffered, and I have no doubt that any concerted look into Lord-Captain Velasquez's activities would throw question marks over the word 'innocent'. Regardless, he is one man. But, now that you have succeeded in foiling my dastardly plan, how many more innocents will suffer because of the criminals that you have allowed to live? It is not so simple a thing as you think."

Maternin opened her mouth to protest, but she was unsure what to say. "Never mind," the Inquisitor continued, "I'm not dressed to be debating philosophy. You've won, my dear, but I don't want you thinking that any good has come of it. Revenge, justice, self-preservation, all could be reasonable motives for murder. But I really did just want to keep the Imperium a safer place. It's the prerogative of every Inquisitor to decide for themselves how to do that. Now shall we head upstairs and see if everyone is ready for dessert?"


The tension was mounting at the card table. De Astrata was the bank and he put down his final card.

"The tower!" Admiral Kessiage crowed triumphantly. "That's my round! Thankyou gentleman." He scooped up the tokens on the table, drawing them to his growing pile.

"You're having a very lucky night, Admiral," said Tzuma. Kessiage beamed.

"That I am, sir. That I am."

Jak hadn't gotten as far as he had in his young life without having a finely-honed sense for danger and there was something in Tzuma's eye that had him easing his chair back from the table. The Inquisitor's manner was as smooth and urbane as ever, but his drunkenness made him sway slightly and there was something in his eye that flashed of madness.

"You know there is a school of thought that says luck is a non-existent concept," Tzuma said. "Within Inquisitorial scholarly circles I mean. Luck, chance, serendipity, all are simply the malign forces of the Empyrean at work. Do you understand what I mean?"

Kessiage threw a nervous smile towards Jak who shrugged and lit another cigar. De Astrata was moving his chair further away from the Admiral now, too. "I don't know that I do understand your meaning, Inquisitor Tzuma."

"I mean that I think you are cheating, sir. I think that you are a cheat and I think you are cheating tonight."

Admiral Kessiage stood up quickly, his face flushing red with outrage. De Astrata was up as well, backing away from the table. Jak puffed on his cigar. This certainly wasn't where he had expected the night to be going; perhaps Karamazov had gotten further under Tzuma's skin than he'd thought.

"What do you say to that, Admiral?"

"I say that my honour has been besmirched, Inquisitor." The attention of everyone in the ballroom was on the two men now, but those closest had moved themselves away from the card table. No one wanted to be too close to an Inquisitor throwing out accusations.

"What honour do you speak of?" Tzuma made a show of standing up slowly, his stature intimidating even out of his power armour. He sneered as he took in the elderly Admiral, who was shaking with anger. "You are a petty portside powerbroker, Kessiage, a venal, washed up, corrupt old goat who uses his connections to control half of the infernal smuggling on Cypra Astu."

"How dare you?" Kessiage bellowed. "To accuse me of smuggling?

"You deal in the coin of chaos itself!"

"And who do I deal with, eh? You're one of my best customers!"

"Heretics!" A voice boomed from the other side of the ballroom. The crowd spun around to see Karamazov there. The Lord Inquisitor had heard everything that he needed to. He lifted his arm, finger pointing at Tzuma and Kessiage. "Burn them!"

A number of things happened so quickly that Jak was only able to put them all together in hindsight. The servitor atop the Throne of Judgement stirred to wakefulness with a sudden jerk. Its multi-melta swivelled towards the card table and fired, superheated energy leaving the muzzle with a soft fwump. Something hit Jak chest-on, throwing him out of his seat and to the floor just as the air around him seemed to boil. Tzuma and Kessiage were less fortunate, the blast hitting them directly and the gathered crowd would never forget the sight of two men caught in the melta beam, bodies disintegrated to blackened nothing in the blink of the eye.

His face feeling as if he'd just stood too close to a roaring fire, Jak blinked muzzily and looked up into the face of Amberley Vail. She lay bodily across him, having taken him to the ground with the full weight of her body.

"Thank you," he murmured, still shocked. She beamed down at him. "I thought you'd be glad to see me." To Jak's surprise, he felt her hand running down his chest. "Or is was that just the secret transmitter in your pocket?" She winked as she lifted herself up, having slipped the transmitter from him. Standing, she adjusted her dress and glanced with distaste at the blackened ash on the floor that had once been Inquisitor Tzuma and Admiral Kessiage. "Poor, Yrobael."

"All of you worms and parasites!" Karamazov bellowed. "Go to your homes now and repent your sins, before justice comes next for you!" The crowd did not need to be told twice. There was a rush for the doors. Vail gave an exasperated shake of her head and was off before Jak could say a word.

In the chaos, Maternin found Jak, still standing shell-shocked next to the remains of the Inquisitor and the Admiral.

"Shyendi, I think I've discovered who our assassin is," he said, somewhat dazedly. Maternin looked at him impassively.

"Yes, Sir, well done. But she's decided not to go ahead with her plot, and the bomb has been defused. We can leave." She looked about. "We should leave."

Jak shook his head, and looked about himself, suddenly focused after his near-death experienced. He caught sight of De Astrata, scuttling about trying to reassure his panicked guests. Jak's good eye narrowed.

"Not yet. There's one thing I want to do before we go."


Three days later…

For once, a cloudless sky greeted Jak Velasquez, as his people made their preparations to return to the Jackdaw. He stood to the side of the open-air docking bay, nominally supervising the loading of cargo while Tahrir did the majority of the actual work. Jak took a deep, satisfied breath, knowing that he would soon be returned to the familiar recycled atmosphere of his ship.

In a break from yelling at dock-loaders, his seneschal joined him.

"We've had word from the Mandeville observatory, my Lord. De Astrata's ship left the system a few hours ago."

Jak took a deep, satisfied, breath. "Very good then. Any indication that they'd found the cargo?"

Tahrir smiled. "No, Lord. We were monitoring their vox and they appeared to be utterly unaware. It's a two-week journey through the Warp before their first stop along the Viridian road, so they'll be some way away from Cypra Mundi by the time everything comes to a head. We've passed on word through untraceable channels and I expect that we'll see a black ship departing orbit any moment now."

"Excellent!" Jak crowed, slapping his seneschal on the shoulder. "Well done, man. Your little network has done exemplary work here."Tahrir gave a modest inclination of his head.

"I should return to our preparations here, Sir," he said. "I look forward to the Jackdaw being well away from Cypra Mundi also."

Jak left Tahrir to his work, and walked across to where his navigator, Sirenna E'Al'Xandros, was contemplating the skyline of Cypra Astu.

"You're looking well," he said congenially, feeling more at ease than he had in weeks.

Sirenna sniffed. "You're a liar, Velasquez. I look like fruit that's been left out in the sun."

"Aye, but that's looking well at your age." She gave a dry chuckle. "You escaped the noose again."

"Aye. And you were right by the way."

"I'm always right," was all she said in reply. Jak looked out thoughtfully across the busy metropolis of Cypra Astu. There were no parades today, no great plumes of smoke.

"Three betrayals, three lies. It turns out that I told the third lie to Shyendi." Sirenna gave him a sidelong glance.

"You broke a promise to Maternin? Be careful, captain. Your fates are intertwined, you need her by your side."

"So you've told me repeatedly."

"And I'm always right. The foreshadowing is a cruel gift, but it never fails."

"It's not the kind of thing you can take to a gambling hall though, is it? 'By the way Jak, the pretty blonde is trying to set you up for murder, best not head to dinner tonight, and by the way bet everything on red'. Now that's a useful prophecy."

"You're alive, aren't you? And you got what you wanted. Be happy and then be silent. You are disturbing my meditation." Jak chuckled, and ignored her cantankerous insubordination.

"What are you meditating on, old crone?"

"The nature of the Inquisition. Consider this," she held up one hand, counting with her fingers as she spoke. "Three Inquisitors. One murders from the shadows, striking at the enemies of the Empire however she sees fit. A second pursues the knowledge of daemons, willing to make any foul bargain to achieve his aims. The third would burn a whole world to the ground to save its soul. Which has followed the right path?"

"That's an easy answer. None of them. Too much bloody power in the Inquisition, if you ask me, and no one to answer to. I wouldn't trust any of them to know the right path."

"And the Warrant of Trade does not give you too much power?" She asked, raising one withered eyebrow. "Who do you answer to Lord-Captain? Who curbs your power? What guides you towards the right path?"

Jak was considering his reply when he was distracted by the two figures approaching from the far end of the docks. With a concerned scowl, he went to meet them.

"Good morning, Lord-Captain!" Amberley Vail called out. She wore a grey cloak that flapped in the breeze, her delicate features framed by its hood. She looked ravishing as usual, Jak thought, and he would be well advised to get as far away from her as possible. It would take a braver man than him to tangle with a woman so dangerous.

The Rogue Trader Orelius loomed over her shoulder, and graced Jak with a curt nod. "Captain Velasquez."

"Inquisitor Vail, Captain Orelius." Jak bowed with a flourish. "How kind of you to see us off." Vail laughed, a deep, rich peal.

"I wanted to make sure that you weren't mad at me," she said.

"Now why in the void would I be mad?" Jak asked, trying to give nothing away in his face. Vail studied him with her piercing eyes, and an awkward silence grew between them. Orelius was the first to break it.

"Is that a Peregrine-class?" He asked, looking towards the gun cutter. Jak nodded with a smile. "If you don't mind, I might go inspect it." Vail smiled at his discretion as he departed.

"So…" she said.

"What came of Karamazov murdering a fellow Inquisitor with no provocation?"

"Oh an Inquisitorial conclave was hastily convened and it was agreed that Tzuma was a heretic who'd publicly confessed his crimes and deserved everything he got. A carta extremis was issued post mortem, so that's sadly the end of old Yrobael's legacy."

"You did not speak up in his defence?"

"Me? Throne, no." She gave him a sceptical look, but couldn't quite hold his gaze and ended up staring out across the clouds. "I was going to do the business myself, quietly, and protect his reputation. But Karamazov does so like his pomp and ceremony."

"Perhaps it is better that some things happen out in the open." Jak said quietly. Vail spun on him, her eyes flashing with fury for a moment.

"He's a rabid dog, you know, completely without a leash. You don't try to get rid of their type by attacking head on."

"No, you throw a bone as far as you can and hope they chase after it." Jak said.

"Well, in any case, I won't be staying here much longer. The whole affair has left a sour taste in my mouth. I've asked for a transfer and Orelius will be taking me to investigate some alien affairs on the other side of the galaxy. Do you know much about the Damocles Gulf?"

"Nothing at all," Jak admitted.

"Well if you happen to pass through, you can always pop in and say hello."

Jak smiled, but said nothing.

"I might just do that. And what of Fyodor? I hear the Lord-Inquisitor has left the planet."

"Yes," she said, those piercing blue eyes on him again. "How interesting that you have that news, given that his ship hasn't even departed yet. It seems that someone tipped Karamazov off that the merchant De Astrata is smuggling a vase crafted by Ithrilli daemon worshippers, along with other artefacts stolen from Tzuma's collection, and the Lord-Inquisitor plans to personally chase him down to interrogate him."


"Like a dog after a bone."

"Just so."

Vail waited expectantly for a time, and when it was clear that Jak was going to say nothing more, she gave a disappointed sigh. "And here I thought you were a different breed, Velasquez. You're just as duplicitous as the rest of us."

"I'm just a humble trader who came to Cypra Mundi to resupply my ships."

Vail snorted. "Yes, and I'm a lounge singer." She gestured to Orelius over Jak's shoulder. "Very well, I'm off." She smiled. "Till next time, Lord-Captain."

"Till next time Inquisitor." Jak watched the two depart the dockyards until they were out of sight. With a small grin and a shake of his head, he walked back to the gun cutter, and called out to Maternin.

"Are we ready to go Chief?"

"Aye-aye, Sir. We depart on your order." Jak smiled wide and joined his seneschal, navigator and technis majoris on the gang-plank.

"I've thought about what you said," he said to Sirenna as they watched the gang-plank rise up into the cutter. "The answer to all three of your questions. Easy. It's the crew." He nodded to Maternin Shyendi, who smiled. "Give the order, Chief. Let's go home."




The End

But Jak and Maternin's continuing adventures can be found in The Very Devil of the Stars…