Master Artisan Harland Kler had a special talent for capturing the true essence of a subject in oils. The newly-crowned Regent of Rudkan Tertius Hive had not been flattered by truths revealed in his portrait.
Soon thereafter, Harland was pressed into the Guard, and shipped off to war.
Harland’s career as a soldier was comically short, his Leman Russ rendered impotent immediately during the attempted recapture of traitorous Port Odeim. Life as a prisoner of the T’au was austere, but no worse than boot camp. However, idle hands were tools of the Archenemy, and boredom threatened his soul. The other captives were likewise becoming restless.
Regarding the holding pen’s blank walls, Harland absently dipped a finger in a bowl of black gruel. The Emperor delivered inspiration.
Captive Guard soldiers kneeled in prayer before a masterful, wall-scaled food stain mural. Metal bars squealed aside, and a trio of armoured Fire Caste barged into the holding pen, armed with crackling batons and supported by warbling drones.
The prisoners halted their worship, defiantly shielding the painting with their bodies.
The T’au leader levelled a finger at Harland. ‘You,’ He ordered in halting Gothic, ‘Come. Now.’
Planted roughly onto a stool, Harland’s shackles rattled. Darkness was suddenly banished by a time-lapse holo-recording of his mural painting.
Harland looked across the table at a T’au quite unlike the brutish Fire Caste that stood guard in the interrogation room; taller, with a more regal bearing.
‘Explain this.’ Aun’Ngu requested in flawless Gothic.
Harland shrugged. ‘Saint Djjefrey smiting the Orks at Rostram. Not my best work,’ He replied.
The Aun smiled at him. The Fire Warriors remained stone-faced. ‘Nominally, vandalism earns punishment,’ Aun’Ngu continued. ‘But your skill is remarkable. Your cohort became quite docile.’
A motion of her four-fingered hand changed the holo to live feed. ‘That is, until facing the loss of your artwork,’ she added. The prisoners were on the verge of rioting.
‘Art is nothing without faith,’ Harland explained.
Aun’Ngu nodded. ‘Likewise, this world’s inhabitants had several thousand years of Imperial traditions. Cleansing the cultural slate will ensure future generations embrace our Greater Good.’
Harland processed this momentarily, then pounded his fist on the table. A pulse rifle was immediately pressed against his head. Aun’Ngu studied his reaction.
‘You’re going to destroy the holy Imperial art of this world,’ Harland realised.
‘Overlaid with works palatable to your people, encouraging them to embrace the Tau’va. This is now your purpose.’
Rage grew in Harland’s heart. A soft chime broke the tension. Aun’Ngu gave an order in her language.
The door whispered aside, and a native Odumian human entered. Her utilitarian, T’au-influenced attire was dreadful, but her features took Harland’s breath away.
‘Reporting per summons, honoured Ethereal,’ announced Itxaso. Harland stared like an idiot, still covered by the Fire Warrior.
Aun’Ngu indicated Harland. ‘The resource of a master artisan has become available for your unity project.’
‘–Only if I dictate the terms!’ Harland protested, struggling against the press of the weapon’s barrel. Aun’Ngu’s eyes dictated the T’au retort.
A rifle butt to the head spilt Harland onto the rockcrete floor. Stumbling to his knees, he defiantly stared at the Ethereal.
‘A questionable negotiating position,’ Aun’Ngu dryly noted, ‘but enlighten us.’
Harland turned to Itxaso. ‘Only if I paint you.’ Itaxso’s eyebrows raised, looking to Aun’Ngu for an answer.
Odeumsamnang Cathedral had been a modest place of worship by Imperial standards, with pews for sixty thousand worshippers.
Harland stood in the midst with Aun’Ngu and her grim bodyguard, while Itxaso conversed with the T’au and Humans, working together to repair siege damage and prime the vaulted ceilings for the massive fresco — his fresco. The opportunity of a lifetime, and betrayal of everything he was raised to believe.
‘Behold T’au’va, Harland Kler. Equals, working together for common goals of peace and harmony,’ Aun’Ngu said, with a hint of pride.
Harland was lost in concentration, performing calculations. ‘Four years. Twenty thousand litres of paint and three monotask servitors.’
‘We do not utilise such abominations,’ Aun’Ngu chided. ‘Drones will serve your needs.’
Harland spat, absently signing the Aquila. ‘Reference material to conceptualise a layout?’
‘Holo-tapes of approved themes will be provided,’ replied Aun’Ngu. Harland envisioned his life’s work, and what came after.
Time lost meaning as Harland created new frescoes for the Cathedral, — now the w’uiT’aun’va — conflicted between his passion for art and glorifying an enemy society. He had traded one prison for another.
With the passage of years, the ceiling’s inspiring propaganda came to life, glorifying Human and the allied races of the T’au as they turned Odeum into a productive jewel of the Sept. He had created a masterwork, but a hollow one — a means to an end. Harland’s loft was littered with sketches of human workers and T’au overseers, and prized renderings of Itxaso. The longer he worked on the Cathedral, the more he ached for his prize; capturing this striking, traitorous woman in oils. Long nights were spent praying to Him on Earth for forgiveness.
Making final reviews, Itaxso walked the completed Cathedral, flanked by Aun’Ngu and her bodyguard. A haggard Harland sat and impatiently sketched her from a pew. No longer needing to feign interest in painting T’au propaganda, he wasted no time in claiming his reward.
A frustrated grunt escaped his lips as the stylus hesitated. The graphite sketch was exquisite as usual, but this time Itxaso’s face was completely blank parchment.
‘We have all looked forward to this moment, honoured Ethereal. Allow me to capture this for posterity,’ Itaxso suggested, producing a large pict-thief.
Harland struggled to draw her face, to no avail, oblivious to Aun’Ngu and the Fire Warrior posing next to him. He tore off the sheet and feverishly started drawing again.
The bodyguard stiffened, speaking discreetly to the Aun’Ngu. City air raid sirens howled to life.
Harland’s blood ran cold, unable to comprehend a second blank portrait. He looked up in terror as the Callidus assassin wearing Itaxso smiled, and depressed the activation rune of the device that was no pict-thief.
About the Author
Thomas Throop was raised by vegetarians in the world’s mecca for barbecue.