Proteus squatted in front of the cowering prisoner, scalp-caked kukri in one hand, bloodied cleaning rag in the other. He fixed the wretched with a piercing jade gaze.
“And why haven’t we’s killed him?” He asked, as though the whimpering House Guard wasn’t curled into a ball inches from his face. Mur said nothing, but his subtle shift in eye line told me he wondered too.
“Humanity is imperfect,” I responded, glowering at the prisoner, “Some more than others, and imperfection begets rebuke. But if all rebuke ends in death, what of humanity would survive?”
Both killers looked back at me, somewhat dumbfounded by the foundations of Imperial law. I changed tack, picking something a little more relatable to their sensibilities.
“And besides, he’ll know where the rest of his comrades are so we won’t blunder into any ill-conceived ambushes. Isn’t that right?” I jabbed the House Guard with an armoured toe and he snivelled in assent.
I grabbed him by the scruff of his poorly-fitted uniform and forced his face into mine. It was creased with stress well beyond his years and his eyes were bagged and bloodshot.
“Where’s Rauth? Where’s your master?” I demanded, affecting a tone and volume that could shake fillings loose.
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” He sobbed. I glanced back at Proteus, who had finished picking the last bloody clump of hair from his blade. He made a flourishing gesture that said ‘so we can kill him then?’
“You know something that will be useful to us,” I continued, “Who knows where Rauth would be? How many troops does he have left? Do you know how to access his chambers?”
“Th- th- th- the manse!” He stammered, acutely aware of an impending ramping up of interrogation techniques to knife-related persuasion, “there’s a few of his personal guard left in the manse to watch over the civilians. The quickest way is through the East wing! Look, I can show you!”
He began scrambling to his feet, clawing at the tiles to get traction on the marinade of blood and urine he was lying in. A steel-capped boot connected with his jaw, jerking his neck and spinning him round. He fell awkwardly, out cold.
Mur regained his footing and shrugged lightly. “I would prefer to carry him than to keep an eye on him.”
Proteus let out a mirthless laugh. I added another name to my mental list of people not to fall asleep around. There was a conspicuous throat-clearing behind us. By the Saints, can she move quietly in that plate armour.
“If you’re quite done ‘rebuking’, the Tech Adept and I have found a way in.” Leora spoke softly but with a mettle I had never encountered before. Her voice carried the weight of a Drill Abbott and the honeyed velvet of a practiced diplomat.
The pair had unfurled the estate map on an overturned pew and we gathered round. Mur had shouldered the prisoner like an empty kit bag. Crisis barely looked up, muttering to himself and making meticulous shorthand notes around the periphery of the map. From his offhand wristguard sprang several slender auto-tools; protractors, measuring devices and other instruments I couldn’t hazard a guess at, and they danced their way across the map, sending calculations to his dataslate.
“The southern atrium will be most detrimentally impacted by crossfire,” Crisis said, addressing no-one in particular, “the risk of serious injury is too high for me to recommend that approach.”
“Youse cogboys are trained in first aid right? Youse can patch us up if things get hairy.” Proteus chipped in, largely ignoring the map or accompanying discussion. Crisis’ beard bristled and his autotools flexed in visible vexation.
“My specialty is in industrial and agri-engines,” Crisis retorted, “I replace resistor modules larger than your head and reattach fuel couplings as wide as I am with only my teeth. If you enjoy the notion of me treating your considerably more fragile innards as I would a container of shorted spark plugs then by all means, let us take the southern atrium.”
“I believe what Crisis is saying is that the East wing is our best chance.” I interjected. Fury should be directed at our enemies, not each other.
Proteus threw his hands up in feigned surrender, “Got it, got it, upworlder! Youse say jump, yadda yadda. Say…” he interrupted himself, sniffing the air deeply through a wrinkled nose,
“…can any of youse smell burning?”