Sunday, September 6, 2020

Writing Techniques and Twin Dragons: Nobility

Summary: I consciously different techniques to write different sections of this story, from trying to write as phonaesthetically as possible, to attempting to hold the complete personalities of characters in my mind and letting them speak for themselves, to allowing visions to manifest themselves to me and simply describing them with as much accuracy as possible, to attempting to describe something within a set of extremely narrow constraints, to attempting to load as much Blanchian detail/conceptual density into a scene as possible. Sometimes I simply wrote what I felt I needed to, to maintain a coherent structure.

My own perception is that the best, most alive work originated when I simply described visions. They came out not just livelier but also more narratively cohesive than I expected; in other words, they were not just random chaff (although they might be odd and novel). Your mind knows what you are trying to do and it knows how; it knows what need be said. This worked for dialogue as well as description and action. I tried this because of an observation by preeminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin that the best writers he knew of simply wrote what they saw in their mind’s eye, and I think he’s probably right; there’s no underestimating natural ability, life experience and training, but in the actual act of writing I think the best fictional material comes out this method as long as the author knows what he’d like to explore.

I think this ties in somehow with the PbtA principle of “play to find out what happens” or the Narrativist idea of entering with a premise but not a conclusion. I have always found that applying these concepts in an RPG creates the most powerful and alive sessions of play that I have experienced.

    In any case, I’d really love honest feedback about what sections light your brain up and what parts don’t, so that I can see what techniques turn out to be most pleasing to others.

    This story itself is about an Arbitrator of the Adeptus Arbites who is thrust into the upper hive and finds the nobility to be very different than he expected.



Conceptual density:

Ruskin on writing what one sees in the mind’s eye:

Writing within constraints:

“Play to find out what happens”

Narrativism - Premise

Here is an audio version. People tell me my voice is my best quality.

Here are a couple of brief samples:

A formalized nighttime shit-talking contest between an Arbitrator, an Ecclesiarchal Crusader, a Rogue Trader scion, an Imperial Guard officer, and a nobleman.

Arbitrator Arcadia getting a mission from his grizzled Marshal.

Three descriptions of cyborgs as a writing sample:

A freakish cherubic angel descended from above. Its countenance was ursine, grim, and half-clad in iron with a glowing red eye. It was nude except for a wispy white smock. Its skin was inflamed and mottled and it carried in its fat arms a bronze harp. As it circled Arcadia a meter above, it strummed its charge and an incense descended upon Arcadia’s greatcoat. Each steely string was a censer, and the music came not from the harp, but from a voxcaster covering its mouth like a doorway.

Ahead, the guests laughed and disputed next to a legless maitre’d who was wired into some kind of reception desk; manifold cables connected to a vox-mask over his lower face, and ran along the marble floor of the hall until they connected to speakers here and there. Despite the technological ruin that had been made of his body, he had pulled his white hair back soberly into a bun at the nape of his neck.

Looming over him was a great, metallic, centipede-like figure; a human chest, riveted with plasteel bands, and a segmented thorax narrowing by rectangular plates into the ground, a mass of wiring and tubes connecting to a bank of terminals behind him, as if he’d pulled himself free of a sticky cybernetic netherworld. Over his mouth was a grill that emitted a rushing static while he breathed, and his eyes were blank and doglike. His hand, which was practically skeletal, like an emaciated old man, was raised and had a series of needles and hooks on his fingers, and a threat dispenser on his wrist. He was stitching the boy’s face.


Twin Dragons: Nobility

Trust me - A gift - The wall of sacrifice - Dark revelations - Sick betrayal - Bloodshed - Flight - The duelists - A turn of the face - Badinage - Passeri Hold - Family - A vision

Silver gossamer glass, a constellation spun aloft.

Prismatic rays from a radiant prism, sun, steam, and moonbeams lissom.

    Liminal and luminous, lancing light from a star in shadow.

Grave green ivory silky slick, glistening scales ouroboric.  

Dewy residue, coiling, smooth, whispering callous humming tunes. 

Bright blood gushing skitter scatter, white goes red now, pitter patter.

“Arcadia.” He opened his eyes. He’d been standing and waiting like a statue for an hour.

The old man had a wild, badger-colored beard and an eyepatch. No bionics. He wore a loose shirt of red and yellow arabesque, tied with red ribbons at sections along his biceps, elbows and forearms. Blue breeches over dead hard calves. His lower lip and jaw came out just a little past his upper lip and he spoke to Arcadia over crossed arms.

“You’re going to a party. I want a face no one’s seen before. You don’t have any impressions of the upper hivers, either. You’re the right man for the job. Don’t argue. You’re going to go and find a noble house who’ll let us operate from their property. Happily. Don’t even approach anybody who isn’t happy to see you.”

“But… Marshal-”

“Shut up. Do you trust me? There are reasons I’m picking you. Just do what you’re told. You’ll figure it out. Trust me.”

Arcadia bowed.

“You’re gonna go in my dress uniform. If you could put on some muscle you’d almost fill it out. But, you have a fresh face. That’ll work to our advantage. So find Pohrro the Sage in munitions and he’ll put you together.”

  “Yes, Marshal.” Arcadia bowed again and turned smartly out of the office.

He’d descended to the armory many times to be clad in black plate and leather musculata. This time sages and supply functionaries fell in behind him. They crossed a greenstone transom into a chamber of closets. Porrho tapped his chin-cogitator. Bundles of unplugged cybercord waved slowly beneath his tattered purple robe, raking the stones.

“Yes… that one!” he said, and led the procession to a mouldering steel armoire. Arcadia couldn’t tell if the greenish paint was fuzzy by design or if it was covered in lichen. The sage reached out slowly and then flung open the cabinet suddenly. Inside there hung a panoply of black leather garb and Arcadia immediately began to pick out ornate details he wasn’t accustomed to in Arbites uniforms.

“Bring it out!” ejaculated Porrho, stabbing a finger forth as if ordering a charge. The functionaries complied and ran forth to hurl themselves into the huge armoire, squeezing out with whatever articles of clothing they could lay their hands on. Porrho turned to Arcadia.

“Lord Master Arbitrator, please do us the honor of shedding your clothes that we might drape you in something more fitting.”

Arcadia doubted that. Biting his lip so not as to mock the sage, Arcadia shed his garb. First brought to him were gray breeches and a black doublet, which was subtly inlaid with patterns in a lighter shade. A blood red cravat was tied around his neck, passing beneath his earlobes and tucking into his top; then a white ruff was affixed to his neck.

They wrapped a black silk sash around his waist and then looped a leather belt above that. His gloves were tucked between his belt and the sash, and he wrists of the gloves were vast and the mouths were voluminous. Within them was red calfskin.

A pair of functionaries approached, each bearing a thigh-high boot. They were polished to a gleam. From the rear of each boot came a black, cast-iron metal spike a couple inches long like a fire poker. Arcadia stepped into each of them and was relieved at their fit. He stepped on his righthand toes with his left foot; invisibly, the boot had a steel cap.

Two more functionaries approached him reverently with an enormous black leather greatcoat, their heads bowed. It had a high, stiff collar that would obviously reach far past his head; it was lined with white feathers, dotted here and there with black spots. It had bone-white epaulettes which were huge and round. It was bound at the chest with numerous gold chains hung on wrist-size gold rings; Arcadia could see they fastened like handcuffs. The lapels of his coat were pinned with a pair of badges; one was the golden polycephalous eagle of the Adeptus Terra, and the other was the steel fist and scales of the Adeptus Arbites. He turned slightly and the functionaries slipped it onto him. One of them looped a white cord around his neck, and hanging from it was an ornate Arbites symbol in bone, with silver scales swinging from the fist.

The functionaries brought a variety of accoutrements to him. 

A broad, tubular hat affixed with a red skull. It had only the slightest brim.

A freshly-groomed eagle with two heads. It clung to a scratched length of pipe and it let out a deafening screech that set Arcadia’s ears ringing, but otherwise it didn't move.

A sabre with its blade inlaid in high gothic: “case dismissed.” The lacquered scabbard was purple and affixed in gold with a narrative sequence down its length. Tiny scenes of famous arrivals, arrests and executions.

A ceremonial shock maul with a golden, scowling head, possibly the Emperor, which could be used equally well as a mallet for lawn games or for restoring order.

They caressed these things admiringly, but Arcadia waved them all away.

“Porrho, I think-” he said, but Porrho had already begun to speak,

“Calinyche! Fetch medals!” Porrho paused while his cogitator whirred. Arcadia could feel the heat coming off it, even from behind the sage, who turned to face the functionary, beads of sweat all over his face. “Close Combat! Trawler! Good Counsel! Go!” The hunched teenager darted off. Arcadia walked across the room, the claws of his boots etching little white lines in the floor, the feathers of his collar rippling like streamers while he walked. The functionary came back with a little wooden box built like a temple; he opened its double doors and pulled out a trio of broad, crimson medals. Each was hung with a glossy red ribbon, lending it the aspect of a gunshot wound.

Once the medals were affixed, Arcadia bowed out from the company. He climbed the stairs laboriously and slipped into a ready room to retrieve a few additions to the uniform. First was a long, silvery autopistol loaded with dumdums which he holstered inside his coat. Next he took a golden-hilted power blade with a wickedly curved trailing point and stuck it into his boot. He looked himself over in a signalling mirror. He could barely see himself in the uniform but he smiled. He was ready.


Arcadia had watched the hive descending endlessly through the pilot’s window, from where he sat in a spartan hold. He had looked through hundreds of irregularly-placed, dark little windows. He saw figures in robes of manifold hue, outpourings of steam, cruelly-twisted plants tumbling over the sills, ghostly green or bursting with garish color. 

Arcadia stepped off the coaching lighter onto a broad promenade surrounding an enormous stone spire. He stood in its shade and looked back into the steaming guts of the hive as the coach fell away. Thousands of buildings rose below like carbonous stone seaweed. Transports flitted between them like shoals of fish and street-bridges were stacked between the buildings like everything was a network of crenellated walls. It seemed to Arcadia like a labyrinthine prison of pits with depths for every crime.

The sun was setting. It splashed unevenly across the cityscape; further away from Arcadia the ferrocrete clocktowers, landing bays and palaces shone like bronze among the building tops. They cast a grid of shadows into the nether regions; but closer in the hive’s tendrils were dusty charcoal, the underhive invisible in darkness, though Arcadia knew that deep enough down there were places of light; he just couldn’t see them from here. He saw processions crossing bridges, great bronze statues that the sun never touched, bazaars in cloisters with people scattered around them like crumbs, sundial squares where people gathered for speeches, and a building wrapped in a banner several stories wide; it hung about the walls like a corkscrew. The wind blew at the precipice where Arcadia stood and he peered down the slab wall. He saw that it was stained in many colors and many places where things had been thrown from and blown into it. The bottom wasn’t visible but the effect was dizzying and he stepped back.

Arcadia’s destination was a glinting azure dome of glass and ceramic atop a sandstone building. The walls were gripped by lush ivy flowering blue, and were underlit handsomely between the windows, which were hung with ruby curtains. Already people were mixing within the venue; he could see the desert horizon beyond the vast double doors, and anticipated a magnificent view. Adjusting the sit of his collar and picking a bit of feather out of his hair, he walked towards the hall expectantly, in good spirits.

He walked along a stone wall with bone-clad statues pressed halfway into it. The statues held the actual bones of Imperial martyrs. The statues were formed in poses of agony, self-sacrifice, compassion, prayer and defiance, but actual bones were superimposed into their surfaces, so a friend holding a dying friend had a mottled skull’s face before his ears and hair, and his friend who should be grimacing or gazing up with soft-eyed thanks instead had a malign grinning countenance of death mirth.

Arcadia saw a saint woman wrapped all in robes, forearms sporting bone through her raiments, holding a skeletal little babe, its face large, perhaps taken from a soldier boy of sixteen, gazing up into the black enthusiasm of his co-conspirator, swaddled moon-like in her cowl.

He saw an Imperial Guardsmen on one knee, shinbone and kneecap bleached in the wind, an officer’s cap held over ribcaged chest, his head a full skull to underline its nakedness, gazing up in what must be reverend of the Emperor’s grace, but his grinning teeth and open jaw gave him the aspect of one saluting the greatest joke to have ever been told.

Passing the last of the statues, he neared the reception hall. He approached the vast doors, which were wood-gold and etched in layered frescoes. In the center were a simple man and woman with their heads bowed together, but surrounding them were a plethora of characters and places that had clearly been added in later millennia as tastes moved from simple depiction to ostentatious demonstration. The two looked like toymakers seeking a moment of peace among their clamorous creations but they were split now with the opening of the doors, and between them was a cacophony of riotous laughter.

As Arcadia walked, a freakish cherubic angel descended from above. Its countenance was ursine and grim, and half-clad in iron with a glowing red eye. It was nude except for a wispy white smock and its skin was inflamed and mottled. It carried in its fat arms a bronze harp. As it circled Arcadia a meter above, it strummed its charge and an incense descended upon Arcadia’s greatcoat. Each steely string was a censer, and the music came not from the harp, but from a voxcaster covering its mouth like a doorway.

Ahead, the guests laughed and disputed next to a legless maitre’d who was wired into some kind of reception desk; manifold cables connected to a vox-mask over his lower face, and ran along the marble floor of the hall until they connected to speakers here and there. Despite the technological ruin that had been made of his body, he had pulled his white hair back soberly into a bun at the nape of his neck.

Arcadia stopped short when he saw what the guests were wearing. Was this some kind of invasion from the lower hive? They wore an array of tattered rags, random objects, and butchered finery. There was no aesthetic union or even craftsmanship to any of their attire. Arcadia looked on in puzzlement; was this a charity ball? Were these underhivers? No; the attendees were large, well-nourished, with clean skin and expensive bionics. Clearly this was some kind of costume party. The Arbites had not been apprised.

Arcadia sighed. Well, it wouldn’t do for him to show up in some kind of raggedy costume. He was there on official business and he’d act like it. But he scowled.

He approached the maitre’d. There was a couple in front of him. They turned to him and looked him up and down in concerned astonishment. The woman wore a threadbare and musty wedding gown over a weatherbeaten set of Imperial Guard flak armor, and she had a gigantic mustache that Arcadia hoped was fake. The man wore a voidship captain’s tunic, out of date by a millennium and in absolute tatters, with his hairy chest visible through the rips. He was barefoot. The woman asked,

“And you are..?”

“Arbitrator Arcadia, Adeptus Arbites,” Arcadia said tightly. The couple glanced at one other in wonder, and then both of them smiled.

“A public servant…” the woman said, as if she were referring to a public latrine or pleasure slave. They both pursed their lips knowingly at one another and turned away.

Arcadia’s brow furrowed and he didn’t know what to do. A crowd of nobles, already drunk, appeared behind him. A man dressed in a pillowcase with a huge lightbulb worn over his head like a void suit helm was hooting and tickling a laughing woman. She wore an extremely fine dress, actual silk, midnight blue, obviously bought for this occasion, but it was sewn all over with rotten, stained and filthy patches of fabric. He called to Arcadia, “Enforcer! Enforcer! Arrest this one! Look at what she’s done to her dress!” Arcadia heard the maitre’d clear his throat in a short blast of vocoder static. Arcadia turned to him. The bloodshot eye of the maitre’d narrowed a whit in something like malevolent mockery, and his blood-red eye flickered in some acknowledgement of Arcadia’s dark and voluminous presence. He spoke, and Arcadia could smell his fetid breath whisping through his vocoder.

“To whom do I owe this honor?” the maitre’d growled.

“Arbitrator Arcadia, Adeptus Arbites.”

The maitre’d waited for Arcadia to say who he was going to arrest, before repeating his pronouncement quietly over the voxcasters in the main hall while staring at Arcadia. Arcadia paused, gazing at the maitre’d, then walked in.

He saw the festhall had walls of dun red clad in flying loops of gold, and the revelers waved streamers of cloth tied tassels and knucklebones. The floor was perfectly polished and had golden picture frames set within every tile, visible just below the surface. He was consumed by the smell of incense from the icy smoke cast off by taxidermied cherub-corpses flittin through the skylights. Servo-skulls, painted wild stained-glass colors or affixed with golden livery, whirred between the churning legs of the guests like stunt-fighters, clipping them now and then. The skulls launched flashes at society ladies, sending them stumbling with ill-timed illuminations.

Many contemptuous or concerned eyes fell upon Arcadia, but then turned away again at the sight of his dress uniform. He cast about for a receptive eye, but he was met with studied avoidance. He guessed that more nobles would be arriving soon, so he decided to simply wait for more. In all this congregation he would find one who was interested in him. And that one would have the Arbites’ friendship.

A woman approached him in a shag mane that was like a vast, greased ushanka; she smiled at him, and he saw that her teeth and tongue were mechanized. Her tongue was a golden mechadendrite, her teeth were tiny diamond drillbits. She wore around her body a shawl of scribbled prayers for credit; blasphemous, except for the plausible deniability that people actually carried such things. Arcadia closed his eyes and turned; but we he opened them again, he found that she’d tucked a sprig of nightshade between his close combat medal and his chest; the medal was a grotesque screaming face with a combat knife rammed from chin to crown and she’d daintily pierced the sprig with the tip of the little knife. Arcadia swept the nightshade from his chest and ground it beneath his boot, deeply annoyed.

More guests arrived. “Polyhadron, House Vicaresque!” “Hypnophilus, House Lacuna!” And so forth. More ludicrous, outlandish, demented costumes. A man with a dozen purses strung around his neck and shoulders, forming a bouncing lamellar cuirass of old leather. A woman wearing on her head a lampshade with eyeholes, a breastplate made of purple and green crabshells strung together with a filthy fishing net, and a too-tight red dress. Another woman called to her, “Elucia! You look so young! What have you been bathing in?” She replied “Bathing! I had to give that up once my juvenat dealer had all my money! Now I’ve got ten thousand Orks for lovers and they keep me young!” “Why, you’ll have to send me some!” “Afraid I can’t spare any! Why do you think I’ve been gadding about these last five hundred years? I can never find enough!”

Arcadia’s jaw had dropped; he’d never heard such crass discourse in High Gothic. A servo-skull came before his face; it had gems for teeth except for its canines, which were Ork. Set deep within the eye sockets were coats of arms; Idion and Aramygalin. Arcadia backhanded it before it could splash-capture him and it spun into the midst of whirling dancers.

The vox-nests crackled to life again. “Rogue Traders! Stop your wallowing and lend your ears to your host, Rheuminox of House Idion!” There was a loud assortment of hoots, screeches, cheers, jeers and raspberries from the assemblage. A man stepped forward from the double doors; he was nude except for dozens of scrolls hung from his body’s every precipice, clearly Adeptus Administratum debt arrears, including a tiny scroll rolled up and pushed through his septum. Both of his hands had been replaced by gleaming golden power claws, and he raised with a grin as he entered.

“Rogue Traders! It is I, Rhipheus Herpetostigma Necromondo-Andura! I welcome you from your freezing sojourn in space and I hope that you’ve found enough grandmother’s antiques to keep your rustbuckets belching smoke another year! For the good of the Imperium, I might add!” There was general laughter. He turned halfway and gestured with a glittering claw to the fading light of the doorway. “Behold now, how my humble voidsmen provide for you!”

Dozens of filthy, bald-shaven servants who were dressed in the smocks, tunics and boiler suits of the poorest voidsmen hurried into the hall. Their clothes were all torn, stained, and of the lowest possible quality. There was uproarious laughter from the assemblage. The servants were carrying ice chests full of delicacies, wine and deserts. They quickly began laying them around the edges of the room.

The ice chests were metal and their plating was shaped into neat towers, with walkways and arches between them. These were prosaic buildings in this hive of interwoven, flowing black spires, which glowed with their lights like yellow spots on the tentacles of a poisonous black octopus. There was food in these chests like Arcadia had never seen; slimy and rubbery meat that smelled of standing water, slices of grox flesh so delicate that one could see through them, steel painter’s buckets of curdled cream and glistening, red, marble-like eggs.

Following this came a gang of servants who carried in an enormous cake shaped like a rickety voidship while making chugging noises with their mouths. They threw the cake onto the floor, vocalizing a dramatic crashing and burning noise.

Arcadia understood now. All of the madcap garb and theater was intended to mock the Rogue Traders and their inimitable fashions. The whole party was a joke at the expense of House Necromondo-Andura, whose freighter had arrived the week before with goods from the Imperial rim. Most likely every ounce of food and drink had been bought from Rhipheus’s shouters, with the obvious exception of the cake. Rhipheus would not be among the attendees; instead, the host Rheuminox impersonated him.

The voidsmen-servants begin cracking open bottles of amasec and other alcohol, which were haughtily snatched away from them by the partygoers. After the first round was passed out, Rheuminox Idion called out with glee,

“We’re boarded by Ork privateers! My loyal servants! Stand to and repel boarders!”

The servants glanced at one another confusedly. A gang of surly, grim and roughly tattooed hive scum poured in through the doors. Their skin was painted all in green and their clothing was nothing but grox skin cut so freshly that it bled away their body paint. The gangers held a variety of blunt instruments from pipes to lengths of rebar to chair legs wrapped in barbed wire. The nobles hooted and hollered, clumping up into little groups to let the gangers pass by.

These gangers were mad looking; many had their lips curled over their teeth and Arcadia couldn’t tell if they were grimacing at their task, at their collective experiences, or if they’d done away with their lips by the knife, and their mouths had grown wizened thereafter. Their bodies were lean, hard, and angular, but smaller than the nobles.

The hive gangers set upon the mild-mannered servants, beating them mercilessly with their tools and fists. Arcadia was frozen; stunned as he saw a terrified servant lurch into a stand of amasec bottles. The man knocked it over and a half dozen bottles smashed onto the floor; his own blood dripped from his forehead, which had been cut open so severely that a flap of skin hung down over one of his eyes. He reached out blindly, tripped over the wine stand and fell into the glass before a pair of gangers who had been slipping around in the wine began kicking him in the liver and jaw; moments later he was out cold, breathing ripples into the amasec through a broken nose. The two gangers turned to look at a servant who was using a serving fork to hold off a pair of the thugs; the four of them rushed him, hefted him into an open ice chest and rained fists and boots on him; one of them threw the serving fork furiously through a glass window, to the expected amusement of the nearby nobles.

“Fight! Fight them!” cried Rheuminox. But the servants weren’t fighters, and tried desperately to escape.

Arcadia took a step forward, his heart pounding. He glanced about for where to begin, but it was already over. The nobles burst into wild applause while the green-skinned gangers dragged the beaten servants from the room, their faces bulbous and distorted, trailing blood as they went. Arcadia saw the smashed face of a servant; his lips were torn in two by his teeth, his nostrils beaten wide and made pools of dark blood. His eyes were open, still and sorrowful, his hair totally askew. 

The ork-gangers set the crashed freighter-cake afire on their way out. The salivar crystals that gave it its color burst into flame and caramelized into a sultry black smoke that visibly stained the ceiling. Running from the melting wreck came little wind-up voidsmen, simple metal things, that had obviously been primed before the delivery. 

Arcadia watched the gangers leave, aghast, and a noble standing near him said through a mouth full of shellfish, “Why not follow ‘em, lawman? Wasn’t there a crime?” Arcadia looked at him furiously, but there was a new manifestation of chaos from the double doors. Dozens of young women, also painted green, came running in with additional platters of amasec. The applause continued, someone screamed out “Ork maidens!” and now the maitre’d began piping a quiet musical air throughout the room, and the little groups broke up into general revelry.

The serving girls were trying to have fun with the role, grunting atavistically that they much preferred human men, but Arcadia saw nobles begin to abuse them. A drink-sodden boor in a backwards smoking jacket with a garbage bag for a sash was sobbing openly, and when a serving girl asked what was wrong, he launched a massive kick into her side, bawling, “Get away from me, whore! I want only my darling Miranda! Why did she have to leave?

Across the room a pair of animal-eyed House Idion scions began outraging a serving girl, tearing at her clothes with their hands stained green, shouting “Let’s see what you’ve got under there, xenos scum!” Arcadia’s cheeks burned with rage and he grimaced with bared teeth. How common was this in high society?

Had he intervened, the whole assemblage would have turned on him and his mission from the Marshal would be failed. But how could the Arbites work with such dogs in the first place?

There was a sudden shout for help; a young nobleman had been stabbed several times and was loping for the door while he bled into his costume. A woman in a dress that looked like a melted red candle hurried after him, one hand hitching up her dress, the other raising a steak knife. “Help me, she’s gone mad!” the terrified young man cried. “I’m gonna kill you!” the woman shrieked after him. Bystanders cleared the way but no one followed them out the door.

Arcadia’s heart was filled with black bitterness. Damn them all.

His charter as an Arbitrator directed him to punish the nonpayment of tithes, blasphemy against the God-Emperor, disloyalty to the Imperium, and alien infiltration. Petty crime was not a priority.

Imperial worlds set their own laws and were policed by their own Enforcers. Yet, many times an Arbitrator would dispatch a petty criminal in the course of his investigations. What would happen if Arcadia dispatched a criminal here?

He knew. It would throw the whole hive into chaos. The blood obligations between the noble families would create a tight-knit opposing force; an enemy that could strike with deniability, and with private armies who had never known direct Imperial control.

The Arbites had the right to depose the aristocracy of any world if it became corrupted or seditious according to the Lex Imperialis, but Arcadia knew the Arbitrators were too few, and the upper hive as yet too unfamiliar, to decisively win such an engagement. It was not his prerogative to begin that war in this hall.

And so he stood with his fists clenched, jaw clenched, eyebrows knit, looking on in helpless rage. He gave his heart to spite as he watched the man and woman rush through the doors. Damn them. If he wouldn’t punish Rheuminox Idion for brutalizing his servants with hive gangers, if he wouldn’t stop Idion’s sons from manhandling the serving girl, then he wouldn’t stop the knifing either. But he burned with shame.

All around him now, eating contests began as the first round of bottles was finished. Men gathered around the ice chests and heaped empty wine platters high with shellfish, meat slices, scoops of cream agglomeration, and crushed wedges of cake. They pushed this mass down their gullets as their fellows cheered them on, an undifferentiated mixture of fish oil, cream residue and pastry frosting caking their hands and faces.

Drunks began to vomit, some of them into corners, others into ice chests still full of food, which troupes of noblemen carried out to the balcony and dumped over the edge, screaming “Taste our plenty, scum! Eat up! You really owe us now!” Soon, chests of unsullied food were being dumped as well, the empty chests hurled down onto the foot bridges below. The smell of vomit and urine drove Arcadia from his standing place, and he pushed towards the center of the room, casting about for a sign of sanity.

Arcadia saw one noble step on another one’s foot. The trespassed said,

“Do it again and you die.” The trespasser smiled and wiped his foot down the length of the first man’s shoe. He received a stunning crack on the jaw, staggering backwards. 

The aggrieved drew a power sword from its scabbard and it crackled to life. The struck man pulled a brace of power blades from his waistband, and those too were engulfed in arcs of light. The crowd surged away from the two as they came together, drunk and reeling, staggering with their swings. The duelists were amateurs and Arcadia could have taken them both barehanded drunk as they were, but he stood his ground. The man with the power blades got lucky and cut a hand off of the swordsman. It remained clinging to his power sword but rotated away from his body, before he stepped in and cut the other man’s legs off with a wide sweep.

His body fell between his legs and he looked down at himself with a shocked expression before the swordsman cut him in half from the crown to the crotch, leaving a molten stripe in the polished stone floor where his power sword had cut. Instantly the bleeding swordsman was besieged by women who rushed forward into him with offers of a dance, a drink, a departure together. He tried to push them back with his stump and soaked them in his blood, and one of their dresses was set on fire by his power sword, which was still activated and lolling forgottenly.

Arcadia spat on the floor. He’d seen enough, and he stalked out the door through a procession of laughing and leering faces, many masked or bedecked in savage headdresses, blurry in the incense-smoke like a vision of the Warp. He pushed by the maitre’d, sweeping him with his coat, and onto the promenade. He took several breaths of air, as it had become very hot and foul in the party and his heart was racing

He walked along the promenade and gazed into the dark sky and the blue desert, breathing deeply, spitting again at his memories.


Night had fallen. The sky was a blood blister. The aircraft and hive below, flies on a ribcage. Arcadia heard a clanging noise as he walked and glanced up.

He saw two needled forms darting back and forth around each other; two men were having a swordfight amidst a colonnade that was built atop the building below and supported the building above.

The columns were cut into naked Imperial saints and commanders, each looking up and moaning with expressions of suffering and horror, for they bore the terrible weight of the hive above, their muscles taut and straining.

One of the duelists was an Imperial Guard officer stripped to his breeches, and the other was a hairy, wildlooking man dressed in voluminous blue trousers. Arcadia shook his head at this further violence before he noticed droplets of sweat coming off of them; unless these two were perfectly matched, this was no duel, but sparring match.

Arcadia glanced around; it was very dangerous to enter a noble’s property unannounced, but in an alleyway which had little garden rows built into the walls there was a broad, white staircase that led up to the practice area from the street. Arcadia mounted it, passing ceramic balusters shaped like artillery shells hefted by priests and angels. He arrived at the cobblestone plain where the contest was taking place. A servant in a tunic was there, resting his hand upon a wheeled clothing rack that had upon it a suit of blue finery, an Imperial Guard service uniform, and a full set of plasteel armor. 

Standing further in, watching the duel, were two swordsmen, soaked in sweat as well.

One was a blonde man in a long ponytail. His eyes were huge, hard, gawking and perfectly round, and he had a drawn face. His white shirt had its sleeves rolled up to his biceps, and he had numerous tattoos on every subject, from the Emperor’s taming and subjugation of the Omnissiah to the engine-penitence of the radical Inquisitor Musculus. He wore red trousers and loose tan boots with white boothose.

The next was a blase woman in a black naval coat. She wore a vast, floppy tricorne hat pinned up so as to not block the duel. Her hat had a raised section like a conning tower or a smokestack with a red plume perched within it like a flower in a vase.

The Imperial Guardsman’s flesh was unmarked save for a number of livid, strawberry red brands down his right arm; a cross-eyed Ork’s head whose tongue formed a noose around its own neck; a tyrannic ouroboros on a barbecue spit; and some kind of angular skull with a big X superimposed over it. He had an oculus providentia over one eye, glowing red, sweat trickling from beneath it.

The duelist in loose blue slacks was remarkable looking. He had deep, geographic scars across his cheeks, lending him the aspect of a tiger. His long brown hair was tied at places into a soldier’s queue, and his body hair stood an inch off him across his chest, shoulders, arms and fingers. His ears were bulbous and distorted like the ears of a pit fighter, and his knuckles were bulbous and uneven from giving blows or from taking swipes of the training sword. As he snarled, Arcadia could see that his teeth were all cracked on one side.

He was drenched in sweat and had a look of absolute, sick agony on his face as he fought; an expression which approached animal frenzy. He heaved ragged breaths, almost hyperventilating, and his eyes seemed to show a mix of fear and barbarous rage.

Finally the agonists paused, heaving breaths, looking tremendously alive, their skin steaming in the cool evening air. Then, slowly and mutually, they lowered their swords and gave stiff-backed bows. Arcadia could see that they both wanted badly to sit, and they bent a little at the knees, but otherwise resisted the urge. Slowly they developed small smiles as they spoke. The man in red and the woman in black stepped forward to congratulate the duelists when the man in red noticed Arcadia standing in the darkness, leaning against the torsioned leg of Saint Fabula, blending in with his black greatcoat, and called warily and sharply in High Gothic, 

“To what audience do we owe a bow?”

“No bow; but an ovation is mine,” said Arcadia, stepping forward, careful to not be presumptuous. “Arbitrator Arcadia of the Adeptus Arbites, naturally at your service.”

The company looked him over and glanced at the scarred man in blue, but he nodded at them to introduce themselves first. The woman in black grabbed her hat with one hand, the other on the pommel of her sword, and stepped a leg forward, saying,

“Lissiana Tetradactyl Violatear-Gigantea, House Andura, at the service of my father Rhipheus Herpetostigma Necromondo-Andura.” She was a Rogue Trader scion, and she’d arrived on the black freighter. Her family was being mocked by the nobles.

The man in red and white spoke next, softly and steadily despite his mad eyes,

“Crispirin of Cyanoct, servant of Inquisitor Herrani.” Arcadia had seen this one before without realizing it; a sworn Ecclesiarchal Crusader, rarely seen outside his ornate plate armor. His helmet was a great skull, jagged and cragged with deep-set red eyes and no lower jaw.

His pauldrons were as vast as any servant of the Emperor and one of them bore a reverential map of his order’s golden city. It bore azure etchings and golden inlays deep and tall enough to be the towers and the acidic aquamarine streams of Cyanoct.

His other pauldron mounted a snaking spotlight that blinded the unrighteous before a sword blow; alas it often shined itself in Crispirin’s eyes, seeking comfort or direction, and thus he normally wore a steely black mask with quartzed lenses when his helmet was at his side. The mask was shaped like a slavering wolf’s head, and its lolling tongue was a conduit for acid-etched evil spirits, daemons and chimeric monsters to trudge resignedly into an inferno in the wolf’s gullet. There were gaps in the flame like the grinning features of an elemental, but now Crispirin was blessedly free of all this panoply, and his eyes served as his only distinguishing feature.

“Captain Burl Datasmith of the 12th Chrysanthemum, in the service of Lord General Pyrrhocoma.” Arcadia’s ears were ringing with High Gothic names and he was grateful for the Captain, who served as a nice in-between compared to the nobles and the rancid creatures Arcadia encountered in the lower hive: Jackrat, Glumdrop, Glambush, Socket Wench, Switchblame, Gigantisocial, Casket Case, Roast Thief. Arcadia shuddered.

Finally the man in blue spoke.

“Arielus Passeri, master of his House and servant of the Emperor. You must be handy with a shock maul, Arcadia. I invite you to test yourself with the longsword.”

“Very good,” said Arcadia, smiling an ‘of course’ to himself, “I’ve learned not to say no to these things. But I can’t raise my arms either because of this uniform; a worthy handicap, perhaps?” Arielus paused, then nodded with a smile and raised his sword. Captain Datasmith stepped forward and offered Arcadia a hilt.

Arcadia knew some dueling from the Schola but this was different; this man had techniques in his brain Arcadia could never have conceived of, and he kept sliding his sword around Arcadia’s guard in ways that seemed to defy logic and were impossible to predict, and yet there they came again and again, the hard, thin blade rapping Arcadia’s arm or cheek, leaving marks he knew would bruise. It was like Arielus’s every movement was a trap, and the burden of his greatcoat made the contest even more infuriating; for them both, as it turned out.

“Shed your lunatic’s garb!” hissed Arielus finally, almost throwing down his sword, “this is child’s play! I’m fighting a half-melted man! Pull yourself free and wake me up!”

Arcadia nodded. He belted his sword and pulled off his heavy greatcoat, heaving it to the servant who nearly fell over with it. He turned to Arielus and loosened his steaming collar, deciding there was nothing to lose in experimentation; he would hug the middle distance and try to surprise even himself with his attacks.

Arcadia was much fresher than Arielus. He blazed into him with a looping stab which was little telegraphed. Arcadia caught Arielus across the chin and opened a cut with the training blade. Arielus’s eyes flashed.

“Good! Now, you’re in play!” he hissed. He whipped his sword into Arcadia’s trespassing hand. The tip smashed into Arcadia’s wristbone and he dropped the sword, instantly recovering it with his other hand. He launched a slash from below, turning it into a stab mid-flight. Arielus barely deflected it from his chest. There was a single spark from his sword, and Arcadia could smell the heat coming off it. Arielus glared at Arcadia as he launched a counterstrike. Arcadia ducked, but felt it scrape across his scalp and his wax-pressed hair. Arcadia brought his sword up but Arielus simply leaned back an inch and it missed him.

So the duel went on. Arielus had been run ragged by his fights. As Arcadia looked down the length of Arielus’s arm, twisting and rearing like a viper, he saw his own patheticness in close combat; and as another merciless slash whipped past his face, he saw days to come when they would duel again. Arielus put his hand out where Arcadia couldn’t hit it and followed it with a slash that clipped Arcadia’s brow and sent hot blood dripping past his eyeball, black shadows only red in memory. Arcadia leapt in and brought his sword into Arielus’s body, and Arielus gritted his teeth and put both hands on his blade, heaving Arcadia off him and away. Arcadia landed painfully on his heel and braced to rush Arielus again, pausing as if he was playing at racquets, taking just enough time for an intelligent attack. But he was thinking, too; this was like discovering a frying house or a beautiful prayer. Arcadia knew he’d have to return to Arielus many times, because if he ever met an enemy of equal skill, he’d die.

Arielus held his sword in both hands, walking forward in a half-crouch, ready to meet Arcadia’s charge; from this position he was equally capable of springing into a slide or leaping away with a wide slash. His face had been contorted with rage a moment before; now it showed great determination; a warrior determined to win as if this was a battle. But his arms were quaking slightly, his hands were shifting on the blade, resting each muscle. He was in agony from fatigue.

They were at a distance. Arcadia held his pause, and then raised his sword slightly, away from Arielus. Arielus looked at him, impassive, and raised his sword a hair as well. Then they both stood straight up, and Arielus nodded his satisfaction. Arcadia was flooded with relief. 

Arielus’s demeanour broke and he strode forward as if they were in the party. 

“Arcadia,” he said, clasping his shoulder, “You’ve got the makings.”

Arcadia tried to speak evenly despite his short breath. “You’ve got a saint’s makings if we can get you near the enemy.”

Arielus smiled, his teeth exposed, and Arcadia could see it was like he had a second set rotated into the right side of his face; this was where a sword had smashed him, and Arcadia could see faint scar tissue around the corner of his mouth. The servant came up and began brushing glue into Arcadia’s cut brow and Arielus’s chin.

“So what brings you here in such frippery?” he asked, raising a flap of Arcadia’s shirtcollar. 

“Out on a party,” Arcadia answered, glancing over the lip of the colonnade’s drop-off to see that electric blue dome. Buildings were in the way; decks with little shrines and statues in the crook of their parapets.

“You’re quite a specimen. You can imagine there’s not many who love the Emperor’s yoke here,” he remarked. The others looked at one another subtly. 

“What do you mean?” Arcadia asked, his affect flat. He knew.

“I mean an Arbitrator shouldn’t expect to be welcomed at a party, though swordfights I think you can get used to.” He looked right at Arcadia. “There’s no love for the Arbites in this place.”

“No love?” asked Arcadia.

“I love the Emperor. The Arbites, well, I’ve never known one.”

“Perhaps we can change that,” said Arcadia, “I’ve come to find a noble who loves the Emperor. I’d been despairing of that until now. So who might you be then?”

“My House loves the Emperor,” said Arielus, “And all His true servants. In what service do you seek us?”

“In the service of my Marshal, and the Emperor,” said Arcadia, “and myself, after what I’ve seen.” Arcadia knew the words were dangerous.

“Oh? And what might that have been?”

“A mockery of the Administratum,” said Arcadia, “and the human corpus. The bond between master and servant. And the charter of the nobility. Murder, and attempted. And so on, and forth.”

“House Idion, was it not,” said Arielus, a statement.

“It was,” said Arcadia. “Are they a degree worse than the norm?”

“A degree. One degree,” said Arielus. 

“And you?”

Arielus wasn’t smiling. His lips were pressed together. Then he said,

“I wish you hadn’t seen their kind first. There are those who remember their duty.”

“I can see that,” said Arcadia, nodding at Arielus.

“Consider us in your search,” Arielus said shortly.

“There’s no competition,” said Arcadia, raising an eyebrow dryly.

“Naturally,” said Arielus. His word was bitter. He turned to the others, who’d kept a respectful silence. “Let’s take our stroll to the coaching station.”

Together they descended the steps and walked along the many deep doorways and foyers of noble houses.

After walking in silence for some time, Arielus shot a breath out through his nose, and said,

“Let’s show Arcadia our ‘tradition’. Badinage. After all, we find dueling of every sort edifying. Crispirin, you start.”

Crispirin smiled and spoke to Lissiana in an old, formal High Gothic.

“I smell your father’s ship on you, a murk of seaweed’s fetid goo.”

She answered, “Fall back to your convent, friar, for your habit is as unknown to woman as to flowing water.”

Datasmith said, “Knaves both, wanton wanderers. Bloodhound, wisps of warp still suck at thy holiness lamprey-like, see how they pull the flesh from thy sockets; and wench most vile, you wear the flesh of a young girl but the quacks sweat like colonnade saints to stick you back inside, greased by your sire’s substance.”

Liss retorted, “Peon poor, fill a grave as your shovel-forking folk are wont to do; I’ll pass by it ten millenia hence and say… what was that borrowed boxlike name?”

Crispirin added, “True as light, and luminous true; servant of servants of servants, too. Toy soldier, jammed in metal box, Datasmith, corrupted, stiff, tossed off.”

Arielus was bent over laughing. “Lissiana, Burl, can’t you rhyme? Crispirin, you win this round.”

Burl spake drolly, “Behold the master of his clade, bent whorelike by rodomontade.”

Lissiana said, “A master first of sickly jests, scarred and burnt by foemen best, see how his cheeks are graven deep since first he dared an uttered peep.”

Crispirin cut in, “Silence, warts, or I’ll ice you, your tongues are slothful as fondue, your wit as treacly as the sludge in sewer pipes that will not budge.”

Arielus added, “A servant of seventy, senior my, still daddy’s girl, in bucket fly, and Burl, a wooden scratching post for yawning Tyranidic host.”

Arcadia went ahead, “You all are stupid as the birds that root for worms in their own turds, this pointless game is fallow field so all of you, now mutual yield.”

Arielus admonished, “Arcadia, I just took you on and made you tremble like a fawn, what’er they teach in precinct house hath made thee mighty as a mouse.”

Lissiana too, “Arcadia, I will call on you when my lost cat needs found anew, until that day sink to the hive and don’t forget to duck the knives.”

And now Burl, “Arcadia, I pity you, the Schola did you dirty, beau, you could have been a Guardsman jack, but I thought you my own bootblack.”

And at last Crispirin, “Arcadia, leave the fencing, boy, for those whose words inspire joy, your tongue’s as rigid as a thumb jammed windward up its master’s bum.”

Arcadia was laughing under his breath now, uncontrollably, upright but otherwise unable to speak, as they arrived at a little stone promontory reaching out over the swirling vast. Little transport lighters were waiting to take their prosperous charges to whatever their nights held next. Arielus bowed to his companions and they exchanged pleasantries with Arcadia. The three stepped aboard and dropped into the evening air, the lighters emitting uneven, whining exhaust.

Arielus turned to Arcadia. “Do you drink burnt amasec, Arcadia?”

“When I can.”

“I doubt that’s often. Shall we take some at my hold?”

“Sure, though given the conversation we just had I think it’s best if you’re first through the door.”

They went back to meet the servant.


Passeri Hold sat atop a vast, tan ferrocrete floor which extended out over the emptiness from where it was moored against a spire face. Hundreds of feet below there lay a drainage plain with ancient, abandoned buildings surrounding it on every side, though the plain itself was open. It was segmented into many indistinct rectangles that could dump water into the lower hive as needed. It was totally dry, disused, and most of the panels were caked with rust.

But the Hold was a beautiful jumble of rectangular blocks, most of which had large glass sections for the desert light, and atop it all was a second tan ceiling, similar to the floor, so that the whole mass was ultimately bracketed by a pair of great stone planes, the corners of which hung out into space. There was an electrified steel wall and a gate between the property and the hive, and at the gate there stood several splendid armsmen wearing electric blue tunics and berets, white breeches and gold trim. They carried lasguns stocked in pearl with plating of bright silver. Arcadia noticed that within their guardsbooth were several fit young men in plainclothes discussing matters around a table.

Arcadia and Arielus walked towards the hall and the floor here became a patchwork of walkways over the great stone irrigation plain below, with gardens and fountains along the way forming oases of surface. It was late evening and no one was there; only the disappearing blue forms of the guards behind them.

The mazework of little stone bridges and standing sections ended and they approached the reception hall. It was a great room taking up several stories, set low into the structure and near to the gates and bridges. A great glass wall extended from the floor, reaching outwards and up into a ceiling section, and within it the floor was made of round aquamarine tiles laid in glass, and beyond that handsome tropical wood paneling imported at great cost from some Death World. Several sofas sat near the window and by the fire, and there were tombshelves and a vast fireplace flanked by skulls with great candles upon them; there were words of prayer inked upon their foreheads, and as the men entered, Arielus gave a bow to each one, saying quietly, “Grandfather. Grandfather.”

Arielus led Arcadia up a very short flight of stairs into a circular room with a stone floor, and in the center there was a fountain with a natural rock spire set into it. Arcadia heard the most beautiful harp melody he’d ever encountered. It vastly surpassed the little copper things that were carried in the slums. Both Arielus and Arcadia stopped dead; there were a number of small rooms surrounding this one. In the nearest was a girl of middle teenage years sitting with an enormous harp; she was wearing a green dress and had the harp pressed between her knees, Arcadia wasn’t sure how she could even reach the furthest strings.

Arielus and Arcadia stood a long time listening; the melody began prosaic, then became more and more complex, and then relaxed and appreciative, then complex again until it built into a sound of risk and grief, until calming into reflection, then building again suddenly; then the breaking of day, and the calming into a norm that was changed by the journey. Arielus and Arcadia stood with their eyes closed and their chins raised slightly when the music fell silent.

“Daddy…” she said musically, chiding him gently, “tend to your affairs…”

“Yes of course, dear,” he said, remembering himself, “Arbitrator Arcadia, this is my daughter, Alaria.” Arcadia gave a small bow.

She smiled but didn't greet him, instead beginning an aria, humming along to it. Arcadia longed to stay but walked on with Arielus; another sacrifice for the Emperor.

They walked past a second room and Arcadia saw that it contained a central drafting board and was full of tools for the creation of scale prototypes for engineering projects. A tremendous quantity of pinions, twine, stakes, copper wires and small electric motors could be seen in small boxes hanging from the walls. Arcadia longed to remain for the sake of this room too but Arielus continued.

“Our patrimony consists of several hab blocks in the middle hive; Jacketer, Gunblack and Seven Smiths. All of them contain various artisanworks; Seven Smiths supports the die tooling center of the same name.” Arcadia knew of it. It was a quiet, hidden bastion of order. They passed an alcove with a sculpture of a robed woman with scepter and decanter, possibly a saint, all woven from the long dry grass of another world.

“Several of my sons are there now, serving directly as administrators, and my youngest daughter too. Most of my daughters-”

He stopped short. There was an odd, rapid hydraulic noise coming from a room to the right along the hallway, and there were sharp intakes of breath from within, as if from pain.

“The medical servitor’s at work,” said Arielus darkly.

He walked quickly to the door, and Arcadia followed. First he saw a boy in coattails of shimmering blue, with white slacks and black boots. He was sitting on a white ceramic bench and he had a deep, ruby slash across his cheek, and blood had soaked his pantleg. Looming over him was a great, metallic, centipede-like figure; a human chest, riveted with plasteel bands, and a segmented thorax narrowing by rectangular plates into the ground, a mass of wiring and tubes connecting to a bank of terminals behind him, as if he’d pulled himself free of a sticky cybernetic netherworld. Over his mouth was a grill that emitted a rushing static while he breathed, and his eyes were blank and doglike. His hand, which was practically skeletal, like an emaciated old man, was raised and had a series of needles and hooks on his fingers, and a threat dispenser on his wrist. He was stitching the boy’s face.

Arielus drew in a short, sharp breath through his nostrils. His jaw was clenched.

“Who did this?”

“It was just Quercy Nestor. He came up behind me and tried to take my eye but he only got my fleshy bits. He hit me too but he wasn’t very strong at all.”

“Why’d he do it?”

“Astria Weaver.”

There was a pause.

“Then what happened?”

“I pinned his arms to his waist, picked him up and smashed his head on the ferrocrete. I couldn’t believe he let me do it. It was like he’d never wrestled before.”

Arielus nodded grimly. “Did he die?”

“I left him on the ground all shaking and foaming at the mouth like a hound. I didn’t do for him, though; the astronomy sage mother picked out for me really likes Quercy. Only the Emperor knows why.”

“A better reason’s to avoid a feud. Hmm…  he might have died…” said Arielus reflectively. “If he has, no one will blame you, or us… people will speak highly of your ability, in fact. If he did walk home, and his father has caught wind of what happened, he might thrash the boy too… and if he does, it might finish a wound that you started… in that case, all would grieve for the man but none for the boy.” Arielus nodded. “Such is the way of things. You’ve done well. I’m proud of you. This won’t be the last cowardly attack you suffer, but keep training, hard, and you’ll stuff the next one too. Now, don’t go smashing every boy who looks at you sideways, because after this you’re gonna want to. Just make yourself ready, learn what you’re capable of, push it, and you’ll teach the whole hive what happens to somebody who crosses a Passeri, or your friends, or little Astria Weaver.”

“I understand father. If he’d gotten my eye, it would have been a good time for a panoculus bionic, which would still be very useful. Maybe this was an auspice, father?”

“Master your Emperor-given gifts before you turn to the Omnissiah for help. You’ll find your arm in greater harmony with your eye than whatever telescope you could stick in your skull. Though if this was because of Astria Weaver it might be best to get your pecker replaced with a mechadendrite…”

“Father! We have company!” The boy said, mortified. Arielus laughed and led Arcadia from the room. BWhen they crossed their next threshold, into a storeroom room filled with mechanical chiseling equipment, Arielus let out a long breath and looked at the ceiling. 

Arcadia placed a hand on his shoulder.

“He’ll be alright. Bodes well for his future.” Arielus looked at him with his blue eyes glad, but still worried.

“He takes after my father. When I was a boy... “ he breathed a laugh and looked away. “These things didn’t happen. Not till later. I was a late bloomer when it came to street violence.”

“Not mixing it up with the girls?” smiled Arcadia.

“No,” smiled Arielus, “Emperor Protects, I had a business to run! Well, not a business, but my father turned it all over to me pretty early. I only really learned what defending it meant later... and I wasn’t ready.”

Arcadia nodded.

“Well, your boy is. Does he take after you in ‘business?’”

“Every one of my sons do,” said Arielus simply and gratefully, “and my daughters have a genius of their own. I can’t teach them anything. It’s like they already know, they just give me this little smile they learned from their mother. Emperor, Arcadia… ah, but you’re a single man! Do the Arbites marry?”
“Depends on the branch…” said Arcadia.

“Ah! A celibate then!”

Arcadia grinned.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Oh, you foxhound, I’d better get away from you before I catch Nurgle’s rot.”

Arcadia shook his head amusedly but Nurgle’s name somewhat cooled the jesting for him.

“It’s got worse names in the underhive. Before we interest the Enemy in our peckers, let’s talk about the Arbites and your House.”

Arielus turned to face Arcadia, his brow growing serious.

“Very well Arcadia. Before we begin, I think the first service I can do the Emperor’s Arbitrators is to lay out in no uncertain terms what is happening in this Hive. We are not ready. Not ready for war, not ready for disaster, not ready for discipline.”

Arcadia clenched his teeth. He could feel the dangerous implications of this simple pronouncement rising all around him like a black fog, clouding the future, erasing all security.

“Go on,” he said tightly.

“First. The planetary defense force is a fiction. There are enough men to secure the Governor’s Palace. No more. There are a hundred thousand men on the books who are not under arms.”

“You’re joking,” said Arcadia.

“No. The marshals get paid on those numbers but there are no men. That’s not all. The Imperial Guard’s the same. They’ve suffered huge desertions. Nothing goes reported by the company commanders. They’re like a secret society, damned of the Emperor, and they take bloody fortunes of materiel off the Munitorum. And guess what they do? They trade it to the gangers or the Governor for favors. Live like kings. Like little warlords. They have the gangers kill any junior officer who gets loose lips.”

Arcadia’s heart was pounding. If this was true it would be war getting rid of the traitors.

“How do you know?” he asked, not doubting.

“Captain Datasmith. The common folk in my hab blocks run off deserters, but when my men catch one… well, he tells me the same thing.” It all clicked for Arcadia. The Arbites thought they’d had a desertion problem linked to those blocks. Actually, they were the only ones where there wasn’t a problem. What do we do? he asked himself.

“And the nobility?”

“They laugh at the Emperor’s name, most of them,” said Arielus, turning and closing his eyes.

The icy bitterness from the party returned to Arcadia. Arielus looked at him, his brow low and eyes narrow.

“We have to work together,” Arcadia said. It was a statement of fact. Both knew what would come.

“I can tell you who else can be trusted. There are some,” he turned, “but not all are resolute.”

“It’ll have to do,” said Arcadia, “Arielus. I’m glad I met you after that party.”

Arielus nodded.

“We all have to learn at some point. This was all bound to come to a head.” He walked to a great arched doorway, dagger shaped, leading out onto a spiral-tiled deck with a parapet. There were a few ceramic pots, perfectly polished, which held plants that seemed to long to descend into the hive; they tumbled over the balcony and wove their way together in a still cascade, languid and curling, like knit fingers. Green, almost transparent. Arielus put a hand on the doorway and gazed into the spires of the hive, which looked like burned logs aching with cinders. He smiled a little and looked at the plants.

“You’re making it real, Arcadia. I knew the day would come when the Imperium would catch on to this rat’s nest. You’re a spark, and this is a dead dry wastepaper basket.” He raised his head, gazing into the emerging stars like he was looking into the face of the Emperor. “But it’s got to burn,” he said, not vengefully, but speaking as if seeing a prophecy fulfilled.

Arcadia was fascinated. This had been waiting for him the whole time. Arielus was silhouetted against the deck, blue on blue. Arcadia looked at the hive and in his mind’s eye he saw it burn.


The Marshal stood upon the roof of the precinct-fortress, gazing into a vast valley of trash between two hab blocks, rubbish blown high against the walls like desert sand. Arcadia finished his report.

“... Arielus Passeri agreed to host us but recommends we engage in plainclothes actions until we have the lay of the land. To reiterate, the situation in the upper hive is extremely dangerous, sensitive and precarious. Investigating Arbitrators can expect to risk beginning a war or being assassinated on a daily basis.”

“Oh good,” said the Marshal, “cause I’m promoting you to Intelligencer and giving you a task force. You’re gonna kick over their anthills and beat up their beehives. Good luck!”

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Art - First Run