The Cull

5/5 (1)

As she walked beneath the tall marble halls of Aegis, residence of House Strategos, Sister Lepida decided that Canoness Ismene had done quite well for herself. The Strategos had been ruling the planet Pallas for more than a thousand generations, a boon gifted by the Lords of Terra after an ancestor distinguished herself in battle. 

Now retired, Ismene was a dear friend of the Strategos, connected to them through distant but strong ties of kinship. In her youth she had been the chatelaine of the esteemed House until she was assigned to duties that required subtler skills; after all, Pallas was a relatively unimportant planet. Apart from the annual tithe in resources, there was little to safeguard, and an Adepta of Ismene’s calibre could not be wasted thus.

Lepida herself had been the beneficiary of Ismene’s wisdom; as a young orphan adopted into the Sororitas, she had sorely needed direction and patronage. All these Ismene had provided, and Lepida regarded the woman almost as a mother. The Sisters of the Orders Famulous may not have the blood-forged ties of shared battles that the Orders Militant boasted of, but their sisterhood was no less important.

As she was greeted in the grand foyer by a robe-clad servant and ushered through a long hallway, Lepida took the time to look discreetly about her. It would be uncouth to stare, and she would not embarrass her Order by such a display. She was normally stationed on Amatus, a small agri-world with few luxuries; the people were simple and their governor practised simplicity to reflect his esteem for them. She was unused to opulence. Pale wood-panelled walls rose around her, engineered so that green, pink and gold veins shot through them in spiralling, pleasing patterns that reached the tall ceilings, themselves painted with glorious scenes of battle. Large windows let in ample sunlight, illuminating the numerous portraits and statues of esteemed ancestors which were placed, strategically, to awe visitors.

Lepida considered herself sufficiently awed as the servant led her through a few more hallways, then ushered her inside a pleasantly furnished study. Bookshelves lined the walls. Low chairs and couches were placed here and there around the room, giving it a relaxed yet academic air. 

‘Dearest Lepida!’ The woman, who was sitting on one of these couches, now stood up gracefully. Ismene was tall, her carriage upright. She wore the embellished, light robes that were the current Pallas fashion, though she had chosen to eschew their figure-hugging aspect. Just as well, Lepida thought. We must not encourage needless thoughts of carnality, for they distract from our purpose. 

‘You are well, I trust? A pleasant journey?’ She bent to give Lepida a kiss on the cheek, a lock of white hair brushing against Lepida’s own orderly bob.

Lepida smiled. ‘It was tiring, but your welcome has rejuvenated me.’ Ismene had this effect; her grace and courtesy had always put everyone at ease. It was easy to forget the cunning intelligence behind the jovial eyes. 

Ismene nodded. ‘I am glad. Take a seat! I have taken the liberty of preparing a refreshment for you.’ She gestured at the low table, where two steaming cups awaited. ‘Tisane of silphium, a local beverage. Refreshing and most flavourful.’

Lepida let out a sigh as she sat down and allowed herself to relax. The servants had taken her belongings to deposit in her own rooms, so all she had to do was, for the moment, catch up with her old friend. They spoke of their latest news for a while, as they drank. A servant came in with hot cream-filled pastries, and Lepida was glad to feast; she was hungrier than she’d thought.

‘I trust you are content,’ she asked Ismene, trying to be delicate. The circumstances of the Canoness’ retirement had been a sore spot in the past, though it had been more than a decade since.

The Canoness shook her head. ‘As happy as anyone can be. In truth, I often reminisce on my days at the Orders Militant. Things had been simpler then.’ She clenched her jaw, and her fingers squeezed the cup so tightly, her fingers turned white. ‘Excellence was demanded and given unstintingly. In the Orders Famulous, circumstances can often be… complex.’

Lepida was taken aback at the vigour of the Canoness’ anger. It hadn’t been Ismene’s fault that the girl once in her charge had been foolish and disgraced herself, though, of course, she’d had to shoulder the responsibility in the end.

‘But to business,’ Ismene said after a few moments, her fortified smile transforming her into a different woman–the woman Lepida knew. ‘I am, as ever, grateful that you’ve decided to assist me. I am but one woman, and not even the official counsellor of the family; she had to be recalled, some business that’s hardly relevant. Her replacement will arrive in time for the marriage negotiations. They requested my help, and I was happy to do them this favour. But it is a monumental task, which I cannot do alone.’ She took Lepida’s hand in hers, squeezing it with true affection. ‘You will be invaluable.’

Lepida nodded in understanding. Ismene had corresponded with her extensively about the matter. Amalthea, the eldest and heiress, was of prime marriageable age. Naturally, there was a multitude of eligible bachelors to consider. Their family trees needed to be studied meticulously to ensure only the best candidate would become Amalthea’s husband, and then the marriage terms would have to be negotiated. Such an investigation might take months if not years. 

‘Has the girl herself shown any particular inclination?’ It was a happy accident when the inclination followed the official recommendation of a family counsellor.

Ismene let out a laugh full of meaning. ‘Not exactly. She is the sort that is excited enough to be married. She loves the pomp, Emperor bless her.’

Lepida misliked this. Such an attitude did not speak well for the young bride-to-be. ‘Has she not grasped the implications of such a choice?’

‘Amalthea is not the brightest of stars, so to speak,’ Ismene said casually. ‘That is part of our work here; Lady Xandra Strategos has expressed the preference that her daughter marry someone… prudent, intelligent, someone who will compliment her gifts with his own.’ 

‘I understand.’ And how delicately put, Lepida thought. So Amalthea is somewhat of an imbecile.

‘You will meet the family soon,’ Ismene reassured her. ‘When you see Amalthea you will get a feel for what would be the best choice of husband for her.’

+++

After an hour of rest, Ismene took Lepida through a preliminary look at the family archives. It occupied more than five hours of their time, yet they had barely scratched the surface. ‘The Strategos pedigree is beyond reproach,’ Ismene said, ‘as you will see. And this is why selecting a husband for Amalthea is challenging. Most noble families on Pallas do not have Sororitas by their side to give them advice on wise alliances. And so their family trees have become… entangled.’

More entangled than a bramble bush, Lepida thought. Many of these families were plagued by hereditary disadvantages; a blood illness here, a crippling idiocy there, disorders and deformities brought forth by careless breeding, lurking like time-bombs within the genes of their scions. For the serfs of the planet, such disadvantages could be ignored, as long as they could still be productive for the Emperor. For the heiress of the planetary governor, they would be an inexcusable disgrace.

This was still on Lepida’s mind as she accompanied Ismene to one of the Strategos’ multiple dining rooms. Amalthea did not have the wealth of suitors that Lepida had originally assumed she did, and a careful selection would be more challenging than she thought.

As they entered the dining room, the family stood up in respect. Even a planetary governor and her daughters would rise up for two Adepta Sororitas.

The long, polished table, made of true wood, dominated the room. Servants lined the walls, ready to serve. Lady Xandra sat in the place of honour; she was a tall woman, her wheat-coloured hair piled on top of her head in orderly curls. Her form, graceful as a statue, was clad in a semi-transparent, form-fitting white and golden peplos robe, the modish style on this planet. Its collar sprouted outwards into a semi-transparent ruff, its edges stiffened and decorated with teardrop emeralds. 

She looked like an exotic and poisonous lily.

Her two daughters stood on either side. Amalthea favoured her, with a similar carriage and hair, although her choice of pink gown was unfortunate for her equally pink complexion. Despite that, she looked in good spirits, a placid smile on her face. And the second daughter, Diona, was a mousy-looking creature with a much simpler robe, this one made of dull blue linen. Her dark hair was cut to her nape.

There was a fourth individual in attendance, a dark-haired man in crocus yellow robes. He was slight and unremarkable, a gentle smile upon his face, but his eyes were trained on Lepida herself.

‘May I present Sister Lepida,’ Ismene said to the company. She introduced Lepida to each member of the family with flawless courtesy, then gestured to the man in the yellow robes. ‘And this is Calligus Symeon, guest of Lady Strategos.’

They sat down to eat their lunch; a peppery, creamy fish soup, brought from the nearby harbour as Lady Xandra bragged. Spiced vegetables accompanied it, juicy and plump. It was the most luxurious meal Lepida had in ages.

‘How do you find my table, Sister Lepida?’ Lady Xandra asked, a proud smile on her face. It was clear she expected a particular answer.

‘It is very lovely, thank you,’ Lepida said with honesty. ‘And thank you also for your hospitality. The Emperor smiles upon your prosperity.’

Xandra inclined her head, accepting the compliment. ‘He does. But I must thank you for your aid with our affairs. Ismene has spoken of your wisdom and intelligence, and we will need it in the coming months.’ She turned to her eldest daughter to smile indulgently, a smile Amalthea returned.

Ismene? Lepida stiffened at the overly familiar tone that Xandra had addressed the Canoness with. The woman was taking liberties she was not entitled to. Perhaps when Lepida was more familiar with the family, she could address this. ‘Are you keen to marry, Amalthea?’ she asked, to redirect her own disquietude.

‘Of course,’ the girl piped up. She looked about twenty standard, with all the freshness and innocence of youth. ‘I cannot wait to meet my husband!’ 

Her mother coughed, very quietly, and Amalthea glanced at her nervously before looking back to Lepida. ‘And, of course, to do my duty by the Emperor and give heirs to my house.’ Her eyes flicked left and right as if she were focused on remembering something.

Diona snorted with unconstrained derision. Xandra gave her a hard stare, and for the first time, Calligus spoke. ‘Is something on your mind, Lady Diona?’ His voice was kindly as a breeze.

Diona gave a forced smile. ‘I can think of better ways to do our duty by the Emperor.’

‘Diona!’ Lady Xandra’s voice was cold fury, barely restrained.

‘We could start with the condition of the dock workers, for example. Working day and night with barely a rest, for a wage that cannot feed them.’ She shrugged. ‘I have seen this with my own eyes. Perhaps we could spare some money from my sister’s wedding celebrations to help them. I spoke to my mother of this–’

‘Diona!’ Xandra said again, louder. Amalthea’s cheerful smile slipped off her face.

The girl was undeterred. ‘But she has ignored me. Perhaps you, Sisters, may impress upon her the importance of charity, in the Emperor’s name?’ She looked from Ismene to Lepida and back, challenging them to speak.

Xandra slammed her hand on the table. ‘You are dismissed. Go to your rooms and stay there until I come to you!’

Pouting, the girl stood up and sauntered out. Lepida was mortified on behalf of the family; such a lack of discipline. The girl may, of course, be in the right about the workers, but this was no way to bring the subject up.

‘She is certainly outspoken, is she not?’ Calligus said in his soft voice, his eyes on the girl as she left. ‘A childish innocence. But such naïvety can often lead to dangers.’

Lady Xandra blanched visibly. ‘My lord Inquisitor,’ she said, her voice urgent. ‘I assure you she meant nothing by it. Nothing! She is a child, speaking of things she cannot understand. And I have been lax in my discipline.’ She glared at the door that Diona had sauntered out of. ‘A mistake I shall rectify soon.’

Inquisitor. Lepida looked at Calligus again. Despite his placid looks, his gaze was penetrating. What she thought was a soft smile now looked like an expression of cynical irony. Here was a man without mercy for the enemies of the Imperium. Diona had been foolish to speak in such a way in front of the man. But what was he doing in the house of the Strategos?

Xandra shook her head and smiled with such good grace that Lepida decided to ignore the effort behind it. ‘Please, let us forget this little episode.’ She clapped her hands exactly once. ‘Bring the fruit,’ she commanded the servants.

+++

‘I have as much respect for Inquisitors as anyone,’ Lepida told Ismene later in their quarters, ‘but I would not see them being easy guests at any households.’

Ismene smiled at her. ‘He had been passing through the planet. I took the liberty of asking Lady Xandra to stay with us for a duration.’ Her smile grew a touch indulgent. ‘He has seen much in his time in the Ordo Hereticus. But I can assure you he can be very personable when he wishes. I have been his friend for a long time.’

‘Ah.’ Lepida only permitted herself a small smile Ismene was a busy woman, and a discreet dalliance was understandable. Manoeuvering events so that she could dally in someone else’s household was certainly unorthodox, but she was, after all, performing a goodly service to the Strategos family. Why not reap a small, harmless reward? ‘I am sure. But Diona?’ The girl had been on her mind since the catastrophic lunch. ‘I hope he will not misunderstand. I am sure the girl meant nothing,’ she said, wondering if she was trying to convince herself as much as Ismene.

Ismene nodded. ‘I will speak to him and make sure the matter is cleared. I should speak to Xandra also. The girl is willful. I have seen her go and come back at odd hours. She will need stricter discipline.’

Lepida felt a shiver of anxiety flutter along her spine. ‘Have you investigated the nature of these outings?’

‘I have been remiss,’ Ismene admitted. ‘I had not considered her capable of doing any damage. But perhaps you are right.’ She looked at Lepida with a frown. ‘I have been rather busy, is the issue.’

‘I can keep an eye on her,’ Lepida said at once. The girl’s words had been alarming. Heresy had often started with such innocuous beliefs. She wished desperately to be wrong, but vigilance could do no harm.

Ismene nodded. ‘Very well. But please remember we have our own duty here. Not to play nursemaid to a teenage girl.’

‘I will.’

+++

It was not difficult to keep a discreet eye on Diona; The Orders Famulous may not be expected to be martial but they had varied skills, especially when the safety of the Imperium was concerned. Lepida had followed individuals before, and with her slight frame and an unassuming, drab outfit that ensured she blended in, Diona would be none the wiser.

The girl left the house around midnight, taking care to use the servants’ entrance; she was dressed in a shapeless robe with a small cowl covering her face. Lepida followed her as faithfully as a hound. As she exited, she almost collided with a young man who was being ushered in hurriedly by a footman. The smell of the harbour clung to the rags he wore, and his mouth was set in a grim line. It was very late for visitors; Lepida wondered, in passing, but she had more important things to worry about for the moment. 

Diona made her way past the Imperial district and towards the docks; here, the inhabitants lived in small shacks constructed with leftover corrugated iron. The pungent smell of fish blanketed the air.

Here and there people and groups walked or stumbled, aided by merriment and alcohol. The streets, barely maintained were slick with mud and treacherous. Diona made her way to the largest of the shacks; it seemed to function as a gathering spot, judging by the clusters of people standing outside and the cacophony coming from the inside. Someone was shouting, the sound punctuated here and there by the agreements of a crowd. The girl entered and, after a few moments, Lepida followed quietly, dodging the revellers.

Her initial guess had been correct; it was a rudimentary pub, but tables and chairs were pushed aside and a middle-aged woman stood on the bar. The harsh lumen lights above revealed a weatherbeaten face aged by hardship and sun, but her eyes were alight with passionate fervour. ‘And why must we pay more taxes in order to finance the Strategos’ daughter and her wedding? Have they, not enough? Must they suck even more blood out of us? I say we stop working altogether and see what they do then!’

The crowd roared its agreement, fists punching the air. Lepida fought to not turn away in disgust; this woman was preaching heresy, and here was this crowd revelling in it. The Strategos represented the authority of the Emperor himself. They were owed obedience, yet these people sought to judge them, their ordained betters. She spotted Diona somewhere in the crowd. The girl was nodding her agreement, Lepida could see. Her fist was raised, like the rest. Was this teenage rebellion against a strict mother or true heresy? The girl’s very life may depend on how Lepida might interpret her presence here.

The woman on the bar spouted a few more platitudes about the state of the people on Pallas and what was to be done about it. She showed little respect for the Strategos, and the crowd continued to agree, clapping and cheering for her. So did Diona. Lepida was almost sick with disquiet, but she was resolved to stay and trail the girl; she might walk later, to further heresies.

Not soon after, the woman stepped down, accompanied by hearty cheers. But the event was not over; someone else stepped up after her. It was a lean young man, the cowl of his robe fashioned into the strange shape of a long-extinct Terran owl. A totemic animal in Pallas, as Lepida understood. Its presence denoted auspicious omens and the path of wisdom.

But wisdom was the last thing that man had in mind. ‘My friends,’ he began. ‘Let me first applaud Elektra for her decisiveness and wisdom.’ He nodded towards the woman, who nodded back in acknowledgement. More cheers filled the air. ‘But let me say this; it is not enough. We are looking at the Strategos as the architects of our misery when they are only the boot that keeps us down.’ His voice was loud, passionate, and full of rage. ‘The boot belongs to a mighty, insidious giant, and he is the true enemy.’

The crowd had gone silent. Lepida held her breath. Surely he would not…

‘I speak of the Carrion-God we have been told to worship! The so-called Emperor of Mankind. I have my doubts on whether he exists, but if he does, he is behind our misery, our pain and our poverty. And we are meant to be as ants to work to the death for him, and to be trodden upon when we are no longer of use!’

Lepida put a hand in her mouth, to keep herself from denouncing the man on the spot. She ached for the laspistol she’d brought on the planet, a basic weapon assigned to even the non-militant Sisters. She would have shot him dead if she could.

But his words seemed too much even for this heretical crowd, for most of them started booing and shouting expletives at him. A few grabbed the hem of his cloak to pull him down, but he kicked at them, and they let go. Some few were still cheering at his words, and loud disagreements were rapidly breaking out between his supporters and detractors. 

And where was Diona during all this? Lepida sought her out. The girl was rooted to the spot; she was not cheering anymore. Thank the Emperor for that, Lepida thought in relief. At least this highest of heresies had not infected her yet.

As the disagreements turned into shouting matches and the shouting matches into fights, Diona slipped out. Lepida followed her carefully. She had no intention of ending up in a brawl, but she made a careful note of as many faces as she could. These faithless scum would have to be reported to the Ordo Hereticus immediately. In fact, what luck that there was an Inquisitor at hand, as the guest of the Strategos no less.

Outside, a small cluster of people spoke in hushed but animated tones. ‘Who let that man speak?’ one of them said.  ‘It’s one thing for us to want to improve our lot, quite another to deny the will of the Emperor!’ His fingers traced the aquila hurriedly on his breast.

Agreements and one or two ‘hear, hear,’ rang out. Diona left the company after that. And as much as Lepida wanted to stay behind, to observe all in the meeting, she had a more important mission; to care for Diona’s soul. She followed her back, making sure the girl was safe. But as she went back to her quarters, she spied the same young man who’d entered before, who was now being ushered away from the Lady Strategos’ bedroom. His eyes were downcast, and the marine smell from before was gone; he must have washed. Lepida looked away, her spine crawling with distaste. Such arrangements were usual when the planetary rulers decided to overstep their privileges but tolerated. So the mother was venal and the daughter a possible heretic. One was a venal sin, the other a mortal one. Would Inquisitor Symeon show discernment and mercy or damn the entire family? She had to speak to Ismene first. 

+++

‘I have known the girl for a long time,’ Ismene said, her face a picture of worry and contemplation. ‘And she had always been spirited, true, but she has also been faithful to the Emperor; she had always been a sweet child, only recently become… intractable. Yet it is difficult to imagine she would be agreeing with such vile heresy.’

Lepida nodded in contemplation. She had decided to speak to Ismene in her study, while they were poring over old, dusty data-slates. Now these were abandoned as the two Sisters sat together on one of the couches, deriving comfort from each other. ‘Perhaps,’ she said carefully, ‘she is not. Perhaps the child is foolish and simply wishes to rebel, as you said.’

Ismene reached out, her hand clutching Lepida’s warmly. ‘Indeed. We must be very careful here. Remember our training. We must gather incontrovertible evidence before we make accusations; this situation is no different.’

‘Of course.’ Lepida squeezed her hand, and voiced the question that had been in her heart ever since she saw Diona in the shack by the docks. ‘Should we alert the Inquisitor yet?’ Inquisitors were not inclined to mercy or patience. In the name of the greater good, they might condemn a thousand innocents before letting one of the guilty slip away.

Ismene looked at her sternly. ‘Do you think it wise?’ The tone was very much unlike her. ‘Such actions cannot be undone. He can be severe. Of course, if it is deserved and necessary, even a decree as harsh as an Exterminatus must be endured… as much as it would pain me.’

Lepida had not anticipated that possibility. Surely such an extreme measure would not be necessary? After all, even the rest of the unruly mob from the docks had been appalled by the owl-masked man’s vile message. For that alone, a merciful death should be considered. And to condemn an entire planet to purify the crimes of a few would be… heartbreaking.

But was she too merciful in this? It was often said, by certain devout members of the Orders Militant, that Sisters Famulous lacked the true zeal necessary to do all that was needed in the service of the Emperor. Lepida had resented such accusations all her life. Yes, they were armed with diplomacy and communication instead of power-sword and bolter, and they may extend an open hand before a fist, but in the end, the Famulous served the Emperor’s will as well as any other Order. Yet even so, they must always be mindful of sympathy and mercy. Too much, and they risked endangering the souls of their charges, not to mention their own.

Would she be endangering Diona’s soul if she decided to hold off from alerting the Inquisitor at once? Lepida looked within her heart and decided she did not. She was merely taking caution to not condemn a child who may more likely be foolish than evil. ‘Perhaps not for the moment,’ she said in the end. ‘I will try to observe Diona some more. But we will be alerting him in due course, certainly.’

Ismene smiled at her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I believe that would be a most wise course of action.’ Her eyes were distant as if she already imagined it.

+++

Lepida was determined to watch Diona for several days, but the young woman kept closely at home, even trying to involve herself in the preparations of her sister’s wedding plans. Lepida took heart in that; perhaps the heretical words spoken by the owl-man in those corrupted surroundings had made her realise her folly. 

That was all to the good for Lepida also because she was able to devote herself to her original business on Pallas. Between them, Lepida and Ismene rejected at least half a hundred suitors on behalf of Amalthea. Young Mineus Tython was intelligent and accomplished, but a cousin on his mother’s side had been born a psyker; the accursed mutation made its appearance at age fourteen when the cousin set a clumsy servant on fire with nothing but a thought. The incident was hushed up, but the Sister Famulous in that cousin’s household had, of course, alerted her Order, and the knowledge had made its way into the archives accessible to all of them. ‘A shame,’ Ismene said, shaking her head. ‘I have met the boy. His skills with a harp are wondrous. But we cannot risk introducing a mutation into a bloodline this close to the High Lords of Terra themselves.’

‘How about the youngest boy of Lady Abraxia?’ Lepida pointed out. ‘An impeccable pedigree and the lad did well in his academic examinations. His talent has led him to train as a medicae in the local university.’

Ismene took a look at the description of the young man and made a note in her small digi-pad. ‘Indeed,’ she said. ‘He will be a likely choice. Let us add him to our list.’

Such work distracted Lepida, but the matter of Diona did not stray far from her thoughts. The child herself visited, soon after her talk with Ismene, to speak to her, as Lepida was investigating the pedigree of some local bloodlines. ‘Sister?’ she asked, in a curiously small voice. ‘May I speak to you?’

Lepida gave silent thanks to the Emperor for the chance. ‘Of course, child. Come.’

Diona closed the door and walked in. ‘I had some curiosities for some time now… curiosities of a… theological nature. Sister Ismene has been indulgent, and I wonder if I could beg your own understanding as well.’

Lepida nodded. ‘Of course.’

Diona took a deep breath. ‘I have often wondered… there is so much suffering in the world.’ She gestured towards the window. ‘I see it with my own eyes. The Emperor…’ she looked away for a moment, blatant guilt in her eyes. ‘Why will the Emperor not correct such faults, such sins?’

Lepida pushed down her disquiet at this blatant questioning of the Emperor’s divine will.  ‘It is not for us to doubt, child,’ she said softly. ‘The Emperor allows such evils in the universe to test the faithful. The xenos and the heretics, they are all challenges for us to overcome. If the world was a paradise already, what would we strive towards? How would we be tested?’

Diona looked at her for what seemed a long time, then nodded. ‘I… I see. I thank you for your perspective, sister Lepida.’

+++

If Lepida had hoped that this talk would be edifying towards Diona’s spiritual health, she’d been nursing false hopes. Scarcely a week after her first illicit outing, the child was ready for another one. Lepida could tell; Diona requested to retire early, after she had spent an entire day looking fitful and distracted. Lepida’s heart sank as her hopes that Diona would not repeat her mistake floundered.

This time, Lepida felt more confident following her. The girl was nothing if not predictable, and of course, her destination had not changed. As Lepida made her way, discreetly, to the docks, a few beggars asked for succour. She gave them the little she had on her person; the Emperor smiled upon charity, after all. 

This time, the Owl was pontificating on the perceived lies of the Emperor relatively unopposed. Somehow, he had amassed some followers–burly enough–that stood, stone-faced, amidst the other scowling faces, as if daring the naysayers to jeer as they had before. Diona watched the heretical display rapt. In disgust, in agreement, Lepida could not say. Diona would always face away from her.

If only she could see Diona’s face. That first night, she had been cautious not to face her, perhaps if she was careful enough, she might manage it, manage to peek upon the girl’s face and read the truth of her heart there. A heretical heart, or one true to the Emperor? Lepida manoeuvered, carefully, through the crowd, trying to reach around Diona–

The doors exploded inwards with a dreadful clamour.

The crowd yelled in fright and anger as a veritable stream of Enforcers descended upon them. Lepida could tell by their uniforms above their standard-issue armour; a modified robe of the planetside fashion, in an austere cut and pitch black, the gold aquila on one breast and the phoenix of the Strategos on the shoulder. They gave nobody a chance to speak; one after another they used their sticks to beat down members of the crowd and take them away unceremoniously. A woman’s terrified scream was cut off abruptly as an Enforcer drove a fist into her stomach. One man collapsed on the ground, his head almost pulverised. 

Diona was dragged away, crying and struggling weakly. Lepida felt sick; she had utterly failed in her mission. Her eyes flitted towards a side door, and she saw the edge of a ragged cloak fluttering past. The Owl-man. Her despair was overlaid by fury. If any here deserved the full wrath of the Enforcers, it was him. She ran after him, her training allowing her to easily slip through the clamouring crowds.

She pursued him as he ran away, never taking her eyes off him. He turned around and saw her chasing after him, and let out a frightened yelp; he ran a little faster, but she was strong, hale and athletic and he was hungry and thin. Soon enough he started flagging, and she gained on him rapidly.

With a well-calculated leap, she fell on him. They tumbled together on the ground, she in silence as he squealed and yelped in protest. She pinned him down with her body. ‘Please!’ he cried out pathetically. ‘I’ve done nothing, I swear, I didn’t want–’

From a small holster on her thigh, she took out a discreet dagger–the misericorde, the subtle weapon of every Sister Famulous. She brandished it before his terrified eyes. ‘Silence. I can use this to slice ten different arteries in the space between one breath and the next. You’ll bleed out seconds after you start talking.’ Subdued, he closed his mouth, shivering. She moved slightly, still keeping some of her weight on him, pinning him, but leaving him enough breath to talk. ‘We are going back to the Enforcers together,’ she told him. ‘You will face the Emperor’s justice for your heresies.’

‘What– I told no heresies!’ His hood had slipped off his face and she could see him now, younger than she’d thought. He was scarcely older than Amalthea. He looked incredulous and outraged, his eyes that of a cornered animal, in a place beyond fear. ‘It was all a game!’

‘You think slandering the Emperor is a game?’ Lepida spat at him in outrage. 

‘No! I swear to it! The Sister said it was alright!’ He made the sign of the aquila in the air with a pinned hand, then pointed towards a fold of his robe.  Lepida stiffened, but she had not sensed any weapons on him. She let one hand free. From a pocket, he took out a small, heavy pouch, which he presented to her. ‘Please. I want no trouble. Give it back to her, if she wants it. If she doesn’t want it, give it to my mother. We are poor, that’s why I accepted the money. But I did not agree to this. They’ll torture me to death, they will! I was told it was a game, a test for the Enforcers, that you all knew! I swear I am loyal to the Emperor and his Angels!’

What are you talking about?‘ Lepida’s mind connected the dots. Apart from her, there was only one Sister on this planet. She voiced the question that she hardly wanted to believe.

‘Canoness Ismene told you to-‘

 The Enforcers shouted in the distance, terrifyingly close. The man let out a cry of despair and pushed her away with all his might. ‘Wait!’ she yelled at him as he ran away. 

The Enforcers took aim. It was over in seconds; a bullet, two. The man was suspended in the air for a moment, as a bird might, before crashing down into the dirt of the street. His blood mingled with the mud.

How had it become such a disaster, so quickly? And whose game truly was this?

+++

After Diona’s arrest, the taint of her shame naturally spread to the entire House of Strategos. Calligus Symeon revealed the face of the Inquisitor to everyone involved. He stood stern in his black coat and breastplate, bearing the Inquisitorial rosette, his tall hat shadowing his face, as he spoke to Xandra and Amalthea about the disgrace of their family. Their crying and screams did not make him flinch, and neither did their struggles as he ordered them taken to the basements, to be interrogated alongside their servants. For days after Lepida could hear their screams. Then the executions started, and the house was filled with the wails of the dying and the horrible smell of smoke as they were burned. Lepida wished to escape more than once, but the city housed yet more horrors; the sounds of firing squads rang out constantly. Blood stained everything as Enforcers executed people haphazardly wherever it may be convenient.

Diona confessed to treason, to hating the Emperor, to not believing in His existence. Lepida doubted this was all true – more likely the girl said anything that might make the pain stop. Lady Xandra protested her innocence, but Amalthea followed her sister’s lead. She also confessed that she knew of the Owl–he had been her mother’s lover once, before she seduced him away for a time. 

Ismene was rarely seen and seemed to avoid Lepida, claiming urgent business. She would certainly be helping the Inquisitor gather more evidence on the guilt of the Strategos–perhaps she may even be assisting the interrogations.

There was one thing for Lepida to do; she considered the pouch. There was a large amount of money there. The Owl-man had bid her to give it to his mother. His last words haunted her. Despite his actions, she had glimpsed into his eyes. With her skills for truth-seeing, she had seen the one thing she’d never expected.

Innocence.

He was dead now, and she could not wrest the truth from him. But for the sake of the truth and justice, she might do one last thing.

+++

The Owl’s mother lived in the poorest area of the city, near the docks. It had not been easy to find her; Lepida had to rely on the locals, with information given up reluctantly. It had been a week since the first arrests, and the planetary enforcers were still making arrests. The people were wary.

But she was still a Sister of the Adepta Sororitas, and for many that counted for something. With a small blessing, people would open up to her, and give her their blessing in return to go fight the unclean xenos, along with information. Lepida never corrected them on the fact that she was not, in fact, a Sister Militant. It would serve nothing and nobody.

She knocked on the corrugated iron door of the shack, the sound echoing unpleasantly. The woman eventually appeared, her expression careworn, her hair unbrushed but her dress in order. Her eyes darted here and there with fear, but she relaxed a fraction when she saw the Sororitas insignia on Lepida’s collar. ‘Sister?’ She inclined her head.

‘My name is Lepida, and yes, I am a Sister of the Sororitas. May I come in?’

The woman ushered her in with badly hidden trepidation leading her to a tiny parlour. The few rickety chairs arranged tidily around the small steel container that served as a table did nothing to dispel the absolute poverty of the place, Neither did the small blue rug covering the dirt floor, but at least everything was clean and tidy. Lepida sat. ‘I am here about your son.’ The woman started, and Lepida lifted her palms in a gesture of peace. ‘I mean no trouble, I swear it.’ She took the pouch from her coat and offered it to the woman. ‘I believe he wanted you to have this. He mentioned you… in his final moments.’

The woman started weeping soundlessly, a hand pressed over her mouth. She released it a moment later, wiping her tears. ‘You were with him?’

Lepida did not wish to give her the sordid details, but there was no harm in comforting her. ‘I was. It… it was quick. And he thought of you.’

The woman shook her head. ‘Oh, my boy. My boy. I never saw him… but the Enforcers said his name. They said he was a heretic. But he was not, I swear it, he was a good boy, always!’ She pointed at one side of the corrugated iron wall, where a crude pict of the Emperor hung, a halo surrounding His glorious head, nine heroic figures flanking him. ‘We prayed together, always, to the Emperor and His angels.’

Lepida stood up, unable to bear the woman’s misery. She still held the pouch in her hand. ‘Please accept this,’ she told the woman solemnly. ‘I must go. You are blessed in the Emperor’s sight, my daughter. Take heart in your loss, and He will always be with you.’

The woman let out a weak, heartbroken smile.

+++

Ismene was in her personal chambers, packing away her belongings when Lepida entered. She smiled, so innocently. ‘I sought you out before. We should make arrangements to leave together. Such tiresome journeys are often relieved by company, do you not think?’

Lepida was tired of the charade. ‘Perhaps by good, honest company, but such is scarce upon the ground these days.’ She shook her head. ‘I wished to speak to you, and you have avoided me. I’ve had enough, Ismene.’ 

Ismene’s eyes grew suddenly cold. ‘You surely appreciate how busy I was with the work here.’

Lepida arched an eyebrow. ‘Oh, yes, you were certainly hard at work! Only tell me this. How long have you been working for the downfall of the Strategos? I’d hate to not give you the proper credit, after all.’ She clenched her fists together, trying to calm herself, but rage coursed through her, rage that had been fueled by the tortures and violence she had witnessed, by the anguish she had allowed for far too long.

Ismene’s mouth fell open for a fraction of a second. The Canoness schooled her face into absolute composure, but she did not deny it. ‘I will not insult you by directly lying, of course. I think you would see it. How did you find out?’

‘So you’ll not even deny it!’ That had been Lepida’s last hope; that she’d been misguided, utterly wrong. How she wished it so at this moment. ‘The boy you paid off to act the heretic told me everything. You were unlucky–he didn’t die fast enough.’ She dragged a trembling hand through her hair. ‘You are not the Canoness I know. You were happy to cause all this suffering!’

Ismene frowned. ‘Suffering? The suffering of a venal House, put into power by the equally venal Lords of Terra? A Lady of the house who eagerly corrupts the local youths, an heiress with no brains to speak of and a foolish spare who swings in the wind like a weathervane, subject to any influence only to spite her mother? Is this a fitting House to rule?’ She opened her arms, gesturing at the walls around her. ‘Is it any wonder the serfs were ready to revolt?’

‘So you did this to bring them down,’ Lepida said. ‘Even though they are your kin?’

Ismene scoffed. Her eyes were ice now, so unlike their usual warmth. ‘Why does it matter? The girl Amalthea confessed to me of her youthful dalliance, and how she was glad to steal him from her mother.’ She made a face of disgust. ‘An impoverished young man who ran like a dog at the heels of whoever could provide him with gifts and money. It was easy. Using him created a connection to the entire sordid house of Strategos, and he was happy enough to take the money for what he thought was an empty bluster, devoid of consequence. Not to mention how glad he was to revenge himself on the women who discarded him, the fool. Did you know he offered himself to me? He was used to bargaining with his body, it seems.’

‘So an innocent man was killed.’ Lepida shook her head. ‘How could you bear to do this? Do you think I will not speak of the truth?’

‘I think of the bigger picture, Sister,’ Ismene said resolutely, the light of fanaticism in her eyes. ‘Truth has its purpose, and so do lies. The downfall of the Strategos will allow a more deserving family to rise. I have several in mind, and with my newfound influence, I may have a say in the selection. I did uncover a conspiracy, after all, with your invaluable assistance.’ She chuckled. ‘In any case, who could gainsay me? The boy is dead, as you said. And you…’ The look she gave Lepida was one of scorn. ‘Forgive me, but even in my reduced state, I have more influence than you could have ever dreamed of. Nobody will believe you over me.’

As much as Lepida wished to contradict her, she knew it was the truth. ‘You must be satisfied, then. It is all for your rise, after all.’

Ismene closed a chest with a slam that startled Lepida. ‘I deserve it. Do you believe a woman with my talents deserves forced retirement, only because she lost a damnable political game? After decades of faithful service, I made one mistake in not foreseeing that my charge was foolish enough to elope with her servant and bring forth a psyker bastard. And for that, to be cast out, lose my influence?’ She laughed, harsh and ugly. ‘I think not. I was wasted, and such waste is intolerable. But take heart, Sister. You will also be recognised. After all, you too were part in unveiling the Strategos conspiracy.’

‘A reputation built on the dead.’ Amalthea had already perished in custody, one amongst the many arrested.

Ismene scoffed. ‘Our job is to judge prudently. The rot must be cut away, even if it pains the patient. You will learn that in time. It is not only arranging marriages for flighty young nobles. Now come with me.’ An impatient frown crossed her face. ‘We must make the arrangements.’

Lepida’s hand itched to pull out her dagger. Would this serve? The Strategos had been venal, truly, but such dishonesty was unbecoming of a Sororitas. A corrupt tree will ever bring forth evil fruit. Ismene could not be trusted.

‘I can see what you’re thinking, Lepida,’ Ismene warned. ‘Do not. I used to be a Militant. You will not stand a chance, and it would be a waste of your talents. Waste is what we must avoid from now on.’

Lepida set her shoulders straight. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘I regret, however, that I cannot travel with you. After we part here, I would prefer that I never see you again.’ Speaking so pained her, but it was the least she could do. 

Ismene rolled her eyes. ‘Foolish girl. Have it your way, then.’ She pointed to the door, explicitly throwing Lepida out. Numbly, walked towards it.

Her senses were still alert; the only indication of danger, as she turned her back on Ismene, was a shadow fallen across the floor, shifting. She turned around rapidly, only just in time to dodge Ismene’s knife. Her foot slipped and she fell, rolling away at the last moment, as Ismene kicked.

Enough, she thought in a rage. With her foot, she tripped the Canoness, who fell hard on the floor beside her. Lepida’s own knife was in her hand before she even knew it; with a quick motion, she drove the blade across Ismene’s throat. Blood sprayed her face and clothes; she turned away, disgusted.

She stayed there, frozen, for a long time, willing herself not to cry. At last she reached out and closed Ismene’s eyes. The Canoness’s last expression was of uncomprehending surprise. In the end, neither had expected Lepida to prevail. For all her experience and prowess, Ismene had been slowed down by age. 

Lepida stood up and considered the situation. She didn’t find it likely that her tale would be believed, and both people that could have spoken of the truth were now dead. Even so… Do I still believe in the Emperor’s justice? she asked herself.

Even after all this, she found out that she did. There was only one thing to do. She stood up and tidied herself, and Ismene, as best as she could. Then she exited the room.

One stray servant, one of the few that had been released after interrogation, was hurrying down a corridor. Lepida hailed the girl. ‘I must find Inquisitor Symeon,’ she said hoarsely. ‘Lead me to him.’

‘He is down in the… the basement, Sister,’ said the girl, stumbling over the words. Nervously, she rubbed a faded bruise on her jaw.

Lepida’s heart fell. ‘I shall make my way there, then,’ she told the girl and walked away. The only way forward, she insisted to herself, was to trust that justice would be done. Any other thing would be a terrible waste.

About the Author

Asenath is a software engineer from northern England with a secret creative side that expresses itself in writing. She has a lifelong fascination with dark fantasy and horror, and the macabre and gothic often end up making an appearance in her stories. When not writing, she spends her time reading, crocheting and unwisely watching creepy Youtube videos before bedtime.