"Stand ready, everyone," he breathed, holstering his flintlock pistol and casting a hard-eyed glance around at his team. "'Ere We Go."
Reiner's palms felt damp as the lighter's ramp slowly lowered, the ship's servos emitting an ominous whine in the process. Though he had put on a brave face for the sake of his fellow acolytes, the dread he felt was still acute. Fighting xenos and heretics was one matter. Engaging in social interactions with this crew at his back was quite another. He looked down at Krash, whose mismatched teeth were bared in an ugly smile, and sighed in resignation. Nothing for it, then.
"Let's not tarry, Commissar," rumbled Tatsuo, his powerful voice filling the small lighter and steeling Reiner's resolve.
"Yeah, let's not," he agreed, and marched down the ramp.
Immediately the sun was in his eyes, conspiring to blind him and make him wince - an inexcusable signifier of weakness to any discerning observer. Instead of averting his gaze and losing his composure, Reiner squinted bravely and clenched his teeth, resting one hand on the hilt of his sabre. The weapon looked rather nice, but had no functional upgrades, and would have a hell of a time getting through anything thicker than flak armour. He supposed it was back to bayonet tactics, then: go for the head and make the first strike count.
There to greet the acolytes was a throng of nobles, ringed by a contingent of poorly-disguised guards. Civilian clothes strained over carapace armor; Reiner noted with disapproval that one man had brought along a heavy stubber, as if it were the most banal of things to be carrying. As the acolytes' feet met the stone landing pad, a portly nobleman in ludicrously opulent attire raised both hands in welcome.
"Well met, well met, friends!" He boomed, his voice augmented by an unseen device. "A pleasure and an honour to extend our hospitality to agents of the God-Emperor's most holy Inquisition."
The Commissar's stomach did a backflip. He heard Sister Vocifera sharply suck in air through her teeth, and Seachran utter something to the effect of "Stupid mon-keigh." For once, Reiner agreed wholeheartedly with the statement.
"A pleasure to be so warmly received," he lied, his voice loud enough only to reach the apparent head of the throng and his immediate entourage. "If I may ask, my lord - what is this?"
"Why are there so many-" Reiner held back the biting edge he was about to infuse his voice with. "Why are there so many people here?"
"Ah! A humble man, I see; unconcerned with pomp and circumstance. Unfortunately, I must now ask you to cast that humbleness aside, agents of the Inquisition. We have been informed of your coming by your superior, the honourable Inquisitor Epimetheus, and thus it is my duty as Planetary Governor to welcome you, our honoured guests, to Finis. My name is Ahnungslos."
Reiner had never been an ardent scholar of High Gothic back in the Schola, but he recognized that word. The End. No doubt named for being the furthest planet capable of supporting life from this system's star, but the morbid symbolism in the context of their mission was about subtle as a slap in the face. "How fortunate we are," he didn't quite snarl, "to meet with such hospitality and good faith. Could we be escorted to our lodgings and given a chance to gather our bearings? Our, ah, entry into the atmosphere was a bit rough."
"Oh, by all means, by all means!" Governor Ahnungslos exclaimed, clapping his hands. "My manservant shall escort you to your quarters. I expect you'll be joining me and my friends for dinner later on?"
"Well, that's just great. Bloody frakking amazing. Horus's shiny bald head perfect." Reiner hissed and withdrew his hand from where he'd slammed it against the wall in anger. That'd certainly be bruising later.
"That was... inopportune," Tatsuo ventured. There was no seating accommodation in the suite robust enough to endure his armored bulk, so he was simply standing, his warrior's frame at odds with the light pink wallpaper and bowl of petunias on the table next to him. "But I am sure there is a good reason for our... public welcome."
"Oh, so am I," the Commissar growled, removing his gloves and gazing at his reddening hand in annoyance. "No wonder all the acolytes before us ate shit. Epimetheus ruined their chances before they even started. With publicity like that, any heretics will have buried themselves so deep that it'll take us years to find them, let alone root them out. By then, it'll be too late to do anything about anything."
"Unless the heretics are as stupid as the rest of you mon-keigh," Seachran said, her fingers drumming restlessly on the hilt of her witchblade. "Then they'll be just as loud and obvious as that welcome ceremony."
Reiner was on the verge of giving her a proper military dressing-down when the fanciful notion took hold and spun his thoughts around. His eyes widened as his mind began to race, considering, considering... "Sister Vocifera, have you figured out how to use Trip's functions?"
She started at suddenly being addressed, nearly dropping the precious instructional dataslate in doing so, but managed to catch it at the last minute and began working her fingers across its surface, adjusting her glasses to better read its contents. "Some of them. I-I've skimmed the list of functions, and they s-seem very useful and intuitive. I'll need a f-few minutes to really get something down. What is it you n-need?"
"A way to transmit a private message to N-37713. Even if that bastard didn't deign to give us what intelligence he had on this world's heretical activity, he must have info stored somewhere, or else he wouldn't have sent us down here. N-37713 being who she is, she'll have access to all of the data on the Master Baiter's cogitators. She's made it clear to us that she wants us to survive, so she'll do this for us, or we'll fail and probably die." Reiner began to pace beside the table, snatching one of the petunias and twirling it between his unbruised hand's fingers as he went. "I think you might be right, Seachran-"
"Princess Seachran to you, mon-"
"Oh, shove it." Reiner ignored the expression of shock and outrage on her face and pressed his point. "That thing you said? Might be more than facetiousness to it. Look at how unsubtly the Planetary Governor handled our arrival. Anyone with half a brain cell knows that the Inquisition functions almost exclusively undercover, so naturally we can assume that either he hasn't got half a brain cell to speak of, or someone in his entourage advised him to make our arrival a public event. In the first case, we can assume that it'd be facile for people with heretic designs to get into his good graces, him being dumb as a rock. In the second, someone close to him is manipulating events to make us easy to track and, when it comes to it, eliminate. In either case, the figure we're looking for has no need to hide, since no one around is discerning enough to realize they're a traitor."
Reiner stopped pacing, realizing that all eyes in the room were fixed on him. Seachran's offended surprise had shifted into intrigue, and Vocifera had paused in her reading to stare at him, her shoulders tense as if he might suddenly start shouting. "Dat sounds roight smart," Krash squeaked. "Roight smart. Iz it?"
"It's a start," Reiner answered, reminding himself not to jump to conclusions. "Send the request for info to our ex-Explorator as soon as possible, Sister. I want to know if this train of thought's going places."
"Y-yes, sir!" she stammered, and quickly delved into the reading of the manual. Reiner watched her focus, intrigued by the change on her face and in her body language. When she wasn't being spoken to, there was a sharpness to her poise, her eyes keen as they flickered down the walls of text on her dataslate. Though he'd only known her for little more than a day, he suspected that her convent had made a serious blunder in giving her away. The better for this operation, then; as long as they didn't fail.
Her reading and comprehension proved efficient beyond Reiner's imagining. Within half an hour, she had translated the relevant section of the document from T'au to Low Gothic and had found out how to use Trip's picter. As soon as she'd explained it to him, the Commissar planted himself in front of the lens and recorded his request for information. Trip let out a little boop sound, which confirmed that the sending was successful, and Reiner dropped onto a couch, tapping his foot impatiently. Now all that remained was to wait for the answer to arrive from N-37713. His only hope was that she'd be able to snatch the key info from under Epimetheus's nose, though, with him being... who he was, Reiner doubted his digital security was very well-guarded.
All the bureaucratic clout in the galaxy, and his biggest worry was the temperature of the air in his office. It was enough to make Reiner queasy. What he wouldn't give for a pack of lho sticks to calm his nerves.
Trip booped again. Reiner shot to his feet, walking almost tentatively towards the drone. If N-37713 really had come through, even if his train of thought had been misguided, it'd be a start. Now they had a hope of not being stuck on Finis for the rest of their (possibly quite short) lives. He reached out and pushed the button that made things go boop, and Vocifera flinched as the screen of her dataslate suddenly lit up. "A new file's been uploaded to the slate," she said, her stutter momentarily gone. She seemed to recognize its absence, withdrawing back into herself as soon as she saw she was in the center of attention again. The rest of the acolytes moved to stand behind her, peering at the luminous screen as she scrolled down.
"Wot's it say?" Krash asked, balancing precariously on the back of the couch.
"I'll tell you when I've read it," Reiner said, lips parted as his eyes panned down the text.
Exacta unfulfilled... suspect activity... embezzlement?... political maneuvering... traced... positions of governmental authority.
Oh yes, Reiner thought, a smirk spreading across his face. He'd make Epimetheus choke on that stupid hat of his when they got off this world. He drew back, letting out a contented sigh. Things were still awful, and they still didn't know their enemy's name, but now they had a clear idea of where to look for them. Not to mention, they'd received a golden opportunity to have a look at the government officials. If, indeed, the foe was among the planet's government, there was a chance the acolytes could meet them this very night.
"Tidy up, everyone," the Commissar ordered, striding over to a gold-framed mirror on the wall and adjusting his collar. "We have a dinner to attend."
"Have I really got to take my helmet off?"
"Yes, Brother Tatsuo. It really does need to come off; that skull mask will send the wrong message. We're trying to play along, not terrify the heretics into hiding."
"But then the enemy will know who I am!"
Seachran looked the Space Marine up and down, all nine hulking feet of him, and smirked. "I think they'll recognize you anyway, mon-keigh."
"Do you mean to tell me that they have already acquired a pict-capture of my face?"
Reiner sighed. "Whatever. Tatsuo, leave the helmet. I promise you're not going to need it. Don't Space Marines go bareheaded half the time anyway?"
Tatsuo snorted derisively. "Not the smart ones."
Reiner thought about saying something, but decided against it. He turned to the mirror, doing his new ruffled shirt up to the second-last button and brushing a belligerent lock of black hair away from his eye. He studied his reflection, running his fingers over his freshly shaven chin, and turned slightly. Nobles' raiments had been laid out in their chambers in expectation of their heeding the Planetary Governor's dinner invitation, and though some had been ridiculously garish, enough were sensible that he had been able to put together something that looked half-decent.
"Nice loot, boss," came Krash's reedy voice. "You looks like a flash git with dat on." Reiner wasn't sure how to take that, so he decided to make no comment about it, and glanced over. He barely managed to restrain a snort of laughter at the sight: Krash had looted a long, flashy coat that wouldn't have looked out of place on a rogue trader, along with what appeared to be one of those dreadful white roll-haired wigs that Imperial lawmen sometimes wore. The coat and its sleeves trailed behind him as he waddled over to the table and scrambled up on top of it to examine himself. "Dat's well good!" he exclaimed. "If only da gitz back 'ome could see me now. Shame dey all got krumped."
"You both look ridiculous."
Reiner turned his head to answer Seachran, but upon seeing her, instead let the previously-withheld laugh spill out. "Look who's talking!" he wheezed. She had apparently decided that she'd wear the clothes over her armor, rather than suffer the indignity of letting mon-keigh clothing touch her skin. She also hadn't been discerning enough to pick and choose bits of the opulent clothes, and so was wearing everything that had been laid out for her. Thankfully, they were clearly women's clothes; unfortunately, the outfitters hadn't taken into account that the Eldar woman was a few inches shy of seven feet tall, and so the garb was awkwardly stretched out over her armored body, nearly tearing in some places. "I'll warn you, Princess, that something is going to come off during dinner if you go like that."
"So be it," she said, raising her chin defiantly. It was a graceful, noble movement that was entirely robbed of gravitas by the deformed bulk of her attire. "I'll not stoop to your artless human customs."
"Suit yourself," Reiner snorted, wiping away a tear of mirth. "How's that helmet coming, Tatsuo?"
"Off," said a soulful tenor voice that was definitely not Tatsuo's. The Commissar spun around to see the speaker, and his jaw damn near hit the floor.
Under his skull-faced Reiver helmet, it appeared that the Primaris marine was not only handsome, but verging on androgynous beauty. A pair of soul-piercing dark eyes stared out at the other acolytes from under glossy semi-long raven hair. Were it not for the wires embedded in his neck, he could easily have belonged on the cover of a pleasure world mag. "...Oh, sorry," said the pretty marine, looking somewhat embarrassed. "I have not cut my hair in some time. I promise it rarely gets in my eyes, though; the wind has a way of blowing it just enough so that it parts when the situation is dire."
"I bet it does," Reiner muttered, shaking his head to refocus his thoughts. "No worries, Brother, I think you're going to be just fine. That leaves... Vocifera?"
"Oh!" Her voice from her room elsewhere in the suite, sounded panicked. "I d-don't mean to h-hold everyone up. E-excuse me, I'll be out in a m-moment!"
True to her word, she wasn't long. The Sister Dialogous emerged into the main room wearing a white silk dress embroidered with gold tassels. They were still decadent clothes for a Sororita to wear, but she looked almost plain compared to the ridiculousness of Seachran and Krash. She fought down a blush, struggling to make her eyes meet Reiner's. "S-sorry," she said quietly. "I'm ready."
"At ease, Sister," the Commissar responded, turning towards the door. "Remember yourselves while we're there. Keep an eye out for suspicious individuals, or..." It almost felt too silly to say, but given how things had gone until now, he decided it was worth putting out there. "...Or evil-looking people."
"Evil-looking?" Seachran asked, arching a brow.
Reiner sighed. "Yeah, giving off an evil vibe. Sinister whispering. Maniacal cackling. A slithering voice. Heretical symbols. Hell, mutations, even. I know it sounds absurd, but every Throne-damned thing up to this point has been pretty frakking absurd, so..."
"If it's got two 'eads, shiv it in da gobz?" Krash suggested.
Reiner opened his mouth to answer, but settled for a simple nod before striding for the door. Almost as an afterthought, he shoved the flintlock pistol through his belt, leaving it concealed behind the back of his navy blue vest, and led the acolytes out into the hallway. The Planetary Governor's manservant was there, having been on the verge of knocking on their door, and looked pleasantly surprised to see them ready. The Commissar gave him a terse smile, and without further ado, they were led to the dining hall which was to be their hunting ground.
"Ah, Commiffar," the Planetary Governor exclaimed through a mouthful of pastry when he saw the five of them enter. "Fo pleafed to fee you joining uf after all."
"The pleasure's all mine, Governor," Reiner answered, even as he let his gaze wander across the room to take in the proceedings. It was, it seemed, not so much a dinner as a dinner party. A great deal of money had evidently been dedicated to welcoming the Imperium's secret agents to Finis, in a manner as indiscreet as possible. The sight of a banner proclaiming 'WELCOME INQUISITION' had Reiner shaking his head and sighing. Mysterious ways, he reminded himself, as he'd had to every hour since his boarding the Master Baiter, and turned his attention back to the matter at hand. Their purpose in coming here would be easiest to achieve through socializing, much as he dreaded the thought of any of his teammates having a go at interacting with nobility, and so, with sweat beading on his forehead, he unleashed the acolytes upon the gathering.
Seachran drifted amidst the crowd, briefly integrating herself into conversations. The nobles were cautious of her at first, but intrigued enough to listen to her. This was always short-lived, as she managed to offend them one by one with some comment about their appearance, or their posture, or their scent. Truly enough, the smell of expensive perfume pervaded the air of the dining hall, but it was the sort of thing one wasn't supposed to mention, out of courtesy. This was something Reiner had thought might transcend the boundaries of race, but now that he thought about it, being a corsair princess, it was possible that Seachran had never been in a position where she'd had to be respectful towards someone before. If there was to be a wake-up call in that regard, Reiner doubted these nobles would be the ones to provide it, seeing how easily she breezed from one conversation into another, uncaring of the flaming ruins she left behind.
Krash darted through legs and under dresses, prompting startled shrieks as he blazed a trail towards the snack tables. Appetizers disappeared with incredible speed, snatched by clever green fingers and vanishing between crooked yellow teeth. "We ain't got dis stuff back in deff camp," the gretchin said between bites. "Dat's well good." Reiner guessed that the point of the mission was already gone from Krash's mind, and resigned himself to only having two committed teammates.
Tatsuo made a valiant attempt at striking up a dialogue with some of the gentlemen present, but was instead swarmed with curious women, both young debutantes and older ladies - more than a few of whom were married, much to the consternation of the gentlemen the Space Marine had been trying to make contact with. Forced to weather a bombardment of questions and flirtations entirely out of his realm of expertise, Tatsuo cast a despairing glance in Reiner's direction, making discreet military signs in a request for reinforcements. The Commissar pursed his lips, weighing his options before realizing there was a pack of lho sticks lying unattended on a table near the circle of noblewomen surrounding Tatsuo, and decided that, come hell or high water, he'd be having a smoke.
"Come along, Sister," he said, lightly tugging on Vocifera's arm. "Let's go save our Astartes friend from his new admirers." His words seemed to spark some life in her; for the first time since entering the room, she exhaled, remembering to breathe, and gave the Commissar a look of utmost terror.
"I-I-I'm s-s-sorry, C-C-Commissar," she whispered. "Th-there's just, just, so many p-p-people here, I-"
"I understand, Sister. I'm with you." Reiner laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. Her eyes went from it to his face; she looked afraid that he might suddenly slap her. "With any luck, we'll tie all of this up quickly and be out of here within the week. But until then, we've got to do our duty. For the Imperium and the Emperor, we're going to get in there and talk with this lot. Come, there's nothing to fear - any one of these people looks and sounds a million times more foolish than you ever could."
A smile, tiny and fleeting as a snowflake, found its way to her lips. Though it vanished almost before it arrived, she gave a tense, resolute nod, and followed the Commissar into the fray. The two of them wound their way through the crowd, eddying around the capes and heels and dresses, until they had reached the table where Reiner had spied the pack of narcotics. To prevent the women from truly encircling him, Tatsuo had backed into the table, nearly tipping it over in doing so. Deftly weaving around a pair of twins whose attention on the handsome Astartes prevented them from seeing anything else, Reiner snatched the lho sticks, jammed one of them into his mouth and lit it on one of the candelabra on the table. The smoke rising from his mouth drew some attention, and some of the young debutantes flitted over to him and Vocifera.
"Oh, Commissar," said one, "you simply must tell us about your life as an agent of the Holy Inquisition!"
"Ah, well," he prepared to answer, letting a long, smoky breath escape his lungs. "To be perfectly honest, miss, it's absolute tosh."
Clearly this was not the answer they were expecting; he heard a few scandalized gasps from some of the people within earshot, and the voice of one nobleman saying "Well, I never-!" though whether that was to him or to the remark Seachran had just made comparing his complexion to a grox's, Reiner wasn't sure.
"Oh, yeah," he said, rather content at the opportunity to indirectly besmirch Epimetheus's reputation. "I'll let you in on all our secrets." This was a complete lie; even if Reiner had intended to divulge all the the Inquisition's shady goings-on, he really didn't know much about them past their default state of operations and terrifying power to bypass Imperial bureaucracy and impose their authority on anyone, anywhere. The tale he spun for the noblewomen was one of hilarious and improbable incompetence, of panderers, philanderers, cupidity, timidity, mistakes, fakes, rhymes, mimes, tumblers, grumblers, bumblers, and fumblers. Of course, it was almost entirely made up, although he used the character of Epimetheus for much of his inspiration, and the story featured several glaring inconsistencies, but it had the intended effect: Tatsuo was partially freed from the net of feminine attention, and as soon as he saw an opening, he zigzagged off through the crowd. With Vocifera using him as a human shield, Reiner went on spinning his degrading yarn, up until the Planetary Governor called the gathering's attention.
"Esteemed highborn of Finis, we are assembled to bear the warmest of welcomes to our honoured guests from the Inquisition." A round of polite applause circulated the dining hall, to which Reiner smiled in false gratitude as a bit of him died on the inside. "I trust many of you have by now acquainted yourselves with his, hum... colourful entourage."
"Oi, dat's us," Krash observed from his spot on the floor, his overlong coat spread out around him and his mouth full of chocolate danish. "Boss, 'e means us."
"Congenial folk, aren't they?" Ahnungslos continued, either ignoring or oblivious to the gretchin's interjection. "We are blessed by the Emperor's Auspices to have them with us. I hope and expect that the feast tonight will be to their liking. If everyone could find a seat..."
Nothing more needed to be said. The nobles milled around the four tables (Odd, Reiner thought, when the hall's big enough for a single long one.) searching for seats beside people familiar to them. None of them wanted to sit near Seachran, who was by now slightly contorted due to the tightness of her clothing around her armor. Next to her, Tatsuo warily eyed a sturdy-looking chair, ultimately deciding that the risk was worth it. He tentatively took a seat in it, and was on the verge of breathing a sigh of relief when its back legs gave way and the chair began to tip over. Reiner watched, dumbfounded, as the Space Marine cartwheeled backwards from his falling position straight into a jug of punch-wine that promptly went flying all over a particularly well-dressed noblewoman's white gown. This was followed by a smug comment from Seachran that the new colour suited her, and it was then up to the woman's husband to prevent her from frisbeeing her dinner plate straight at the eldar's head. Krash giggled and headed over to scavenge bits of broken wood from the wreckage of the chair.
While Reiner had his eyes fixed on this debacle, a pair of young women had decided that corrupting the shy Sister Dialogous would provide wonderful entertainment for the night, and had proceeded to spirit her away, in spite of her wordless protests, to the table where all their friends had decided to sit. The Commissar swore under his breath, but made no move to follow them, not wanting to create any more of a scene than what had already transpired. So he extinguished his lho stick and sat down next to an elderly gentleman of leisurely mien, who gave him a welcoming smile and offered a handshake, which Reiner took.
"Everyone's very pleased to see you," said the old man, his vigorous grip belying his age. "It's good to know that the Imperium hasn't forgotten about us, even tucked away here in our little corner of the sector."
"The Emperor remembers all his faithful," Reiner said dutifully, somewhat taken aback. It was... nice to be received with something other than fearful looks and dark mutterings. The arrival of the Imperial Guard rarely heralded pleasant times; then again, the presence of the Inquisition should have tipped these people off that something was amiss on Finis. Was it possible that they didn't know what the Holy Ordos's purpose was? Or perhaps they were really so obtuse as to not have put two-and-two together.
"Indeed, indeed," came the man's jovial answer, just as a musical chiming of bells pealed through the dining hall. The gathering suddenly became alert and attentive, as the doors swung open to admit a tall, thin man clad in black. "Tell me, Commissar, have you heard of the Emperor's Auspices?"
"I... can't say I have," Reiner answered, even as his eyes remained fixed on the man in black. The man's features were long, and slightly wizened, but there was nothing hunched about him. He moved with an upright grace, leading with his chest as he practically glided to stand at the head of the four tables, looking over each one with a gaze that was as close to predatory as could be ascribed to a human being's stare.
"Consider yourself lucky, then," came the elderly nobleman's answer. "You'll learn all about them in a moment."
"BLESSED BE THE AUSPICES," the black-clad man boomed, his tall, feathered hat flipping this way and that as he scoured the gathering with his serpentine gaze, "FOR 'TIS THEY WHO GRANT US ALL THE LIFE AND FORTUNE TO LIVE, GROW AND PROSPER IN THIS GOLDEN AGE OF MAN. HONOURED BE THEIR VIRTUES; HOISTED BE THEIR BANNERS; HALLOWED BE THEIR NAMES. ALL GLORY TO THE FOUR."
Though his voice was loud enough to boom around the dining hall with startling strength, the man was not shouting. Indeed, his voice seemed almost to slither through the air instead of carry, except for that very last part. It had echoed, unnaturally, as if there had been many speaking at once: men, women, children, and... other things.
"Do you see?" the elderly gentleman whispered, leaning over to nudge Reiner amicably. "When he speaks with the voices of the Auspices, there can be no doubt of their divinity."
No there can't, Reiner thought, unsure of whether to laugh in relief or cry out in horror. Across the table, he saw Tatsuo's eyes narrow and the corners of his mouth turn downwards. Beside him, Seachran had suddenly straightened up, with a rather unsubtle sound of cloth tearing. I'd stake my life on it - that's our man.