Been Around the Block
Castle Kailte was not an easy place to find. Then again, Captain Yain Burdell supposed that was the whole point. Nestled in the cloudy depths of a gas giant, the pitch-black Drukhari airship was built from several modules loosely connected by narrow catwalks. Its many segments and protrusions gave it a somewhat repulsive, insect-like appearance. The roof of each module bristled with anti-air batteries. A dozen shuttles were docked to one of the modules; some of Imperial make, but most belonging to various xeno civilizations.
In his two decades as a pirate, Burdell had seen his fair share of ports and waystations, but never one that welcomed such diverse guests. Of course, he was not naïve enough to mistake this place for some sort of haven of peace and harmony. Anyone who was here had come for one reason and one reason only—to trade in goods of the living, breathing kind.
Eryna docked the shuttle with all the practiced ease of a former Aeronautica Imperialis fighter ace, then turned to her captain. “We getting the merchandise out, boss?” she asked. She always avoided any term that might humanize their captives. Burdell suspected that it was her way of easing her conscience.
“Let me get a feel of the place first,” said Burdell. “This is our first visit, so I’m guessing the local bigwigs will want to meet us.”
He was correct in that regard. As soon as he stepped out of his shuttle and into a dark, narrow corridor, he found himself face to face with four Drukhari warriors in full combat gear. “You are Captain Burdell,” said one.
It took Burdell a moment to understand that this was intended as a question. “Yep, that’s me.”
“Dracon Duuzarne, of the Kabal of the Obsidian Rose, requests the pleasure of your company for dinner,” said the warrior in fluent, only slightly accented Low Gothic. He paused, cocking his helmeted head. “But first you must disarm. I trust you were informed of the rules of Castle Kailte when your contact gave you the coordinates.”
Burdell relinquished his weapons with some reluctance, instructed his pilot to guard the shuttle, and followed the four warriors to the central module. On his way there, he passed many slave pens, an ongoing slave auction, a drinking den and a pleasure house, all bustling with activity. Obviously this place was doing good business, and he could not wait to join in. Castle Kailte was almost mythical, at least to the rare few criminals who even knew of its existence.
Duuzarne’s chambers were richly decorated with the spoils of many raids and campaigns all across the galaxy, including liturgical objects from the Imperium, a T’au battlesuit, racks of exotic swords and knives, a huge chandelier made entirely from what looked like tyranid claws, and a collection of stuffed heads from every sentient race known to Burdell and some he had never heard of. Duuzarne himself was tall, thin and pallid even by the standards of his race, and greeted his guest with a smile that did not in any way soften his cruel black eyes.
“Captain Burdell! Your reputation precedes you,” said Duuzarne in a deep, silky voice, letting him in and closing the door. “My business partners have nothing but praise for the quality of your merchandise.” Somehow Burdell doubted that the Drukhari crime lord chose that term for the same conscience-preserving reason as Eryna. “Please sit. I hope I am not imposing on you, but I like to take the measure of every newcomer before I allow them to mingle with my other guests. Have you ever had Commorragh soulwine?”
Burdell sat down in an armchair slightly too narrow to be altogether comfortable. “Can’t say that I have…”
No sooner had the pirate finished his sentence that a glass of clear, iridescent liquid was being handed to him by a white-clad young brunette, who had escaped his notice until now. He blinked in surprise at the slave and accepted the glass, a “thank you” almost escaping his lips. Glancing at his surroundings, Burdell spotted five or six more slaves in the room, some male and some female. All stood as still as statues inside shadowed recesses, seemingly trained to blend into the background like chameleons until their services were required. They each wore immaculate white clothes and a variety of jewels that seemed more fit for princes than servants. Unlike most slaves Burdell had bought or sold in his career, they bore no signs of physical mistreatment such as bruises or scars, and seemed well-fed enough. Whatever his host did to keep them in line, it was more subtle than beatings and lashings.
Burdell tried to ignore the slaves and tentatively brought the glass to his lips. The soulwine had a powerful and immediate effect, causing his veins to pulse with an intoxicating bliss unlike anything he had ever experienced. He felt ten years younger, both in body and spirit. As the wave of pleasure faded, it left him with a strange feeling of shame and guilt, as if merely tasting this liquid had been an act of unspeakable depravity. But that did not deter him from taking another, slightly larger sip. If he was damned now, then so be it.
“Tell me a little about you, my good captain,” Duuzarne prompted, steepling his long fingers.
The soulwine was effective at untying Burdell’s tongue, and he found himself sharing many details about his life and career—his promising start in the Imperial Navy, his first command, his gambling debts, the fateful day he decided to sell the refugees he was carrying instead of relocating them to their new planet, his fall from grace when his slave-trading ring was uncovered, his escape from prison, his new beginnings as a pirate…
For his part, Duuzarne spoke little, though he listened intently. His glass of soulwine was frequently refilled by his slaves without him even needing to ask, but he seemed to be accustomed enough to the drink to avoid becoming too talkative. Whenever he opened his mouth, it was only to ask questions.
On a silent cue, slaves came in with dinner. There was no main course to this meal, but a wide range of exotic sides and appetizers, each preceded by an eye-wateringly spicy fragrance. The Drukhari are said to love extremes, thought Burdell, his foggy mind clearing a little at the sight of the food. This must mean they don’t skimp on seasoning. And he was right. Each dish was an explosion of taste upon his tongue. Everything he had ever eaten before was as bland as stale bread by comparison.
Feeling full, Burdell pushed his plate away. The young brunette who had served him the soulwine took the plate almost immediately and moved to return it to a hidden backroom.
“You,” called Burdell sharply. “Wait a second.” Something about her gave him pause.
The slave froze and turned to face him. “Y-yes?”
Her features remained smooth and expressionless, but in her green eyes was an unmistakeable hint of sheer terror, as if she thought she had gone against her guest’s wishes by removing the plate and knew she was about to suffer Duuzarne’s wrath. Burdell was positive that he had never seen a slave so fearful of her master.
“Um. Forget it,” mumbled Burdell, ill at ease. “Carry on.” The slave scurried off.
“Anything wrong, captain?” asked Duuzarne, arching an eyebrow.
“Nothing, no,” Burdell assured him. “She just reminded me of someone.”
“She’s a spitting image of Lady Myranza Valimund, an opera singer from my homeworld. Famous across the entire Imperium.”
Duuzarne’s thin lips twisted in what looked like wry amusement. “Is that so?”
Burdell nodded. “But… Valimund went missing a couple of years ago during a space voyage. Warp storm, most likely.”
The Drukhari’s smirk widened. “Ah, well. Unfortunate for the opera lovers of the Imperium.”
Silence stretched for an uncomfortable time, until Burdell decided to break it by changing the subject. “I must say, this is the first time I deal with your kind. Most Aeldari I’ve met had nothing but disdain for… how do you call us? Mon-keighs?”
Duuzarne was quiet for a moment, as if assessing whether this was a safe topic to elaborate upon. “An excellent observation. I will let you in on a secret—my dealings with the lesser races are not by choice, but by necessity. My men and I, the Shard of the Eclipse Unending, were cast out of Commorragh by Lady Aestra Khromys, archon of the Kabal of the Obsidian Rose.”
Burdell was not sure what to say to that. “My sympathies.”
“I blame my predecessor, Sauselekh,” Duuzarne went on. “I did try to tell him his scheme was flawed, but he went through with it regardless. He was an ambitious man, you see, and he dreamed of murdering Khromys and taking her place at the head of the Obsidian Rose. He gave her a gift of four exquisite slaves to share her bed. Each was secretly conditioned to become a berserk killer if they heard one of nine trigger phrases… which I shall not translate here, for they are, ah, quite salacious by mon-keigh standards. Well, Khromys must have uttered one of them, just as planned, for the slaves attacked her in her own bed.”
“And… I take it they failed?”
“Oh, yes,” Duuzarne sighed. “Sauselekh chose the slaves only for their beauty, not their ability. That was his mistake, for which he paid with his life. Now, as his former lieutenant, I lead the Shard of the Eclipse Unending in his place. You see, our lady Khromys was outraged by the four imperfect slaves we sent to kill her, and demands that we bring her four hundred flawless slaves as reparations for the insult. This is why I run this slave market. I get first pick of any goods sold here. And of course, I also take a percentage from each transaction.”
The Drukhari pushed his plate away and had a slave refill his glass. “There is a reason why you were invited here while others were not, Captain Burdell. You are known for taking quality slaves, who you care well for until it is time to sell them. Other slavers and pirates may move larger volumes, but each of their slaves is a wretched thing, all emaciated and unhealthy and covered in sores and whip marks. No, these will not do. I demand quality, and I know I can get that from you—and anyone else I let inside Castle Kailte. I pay very well for quality. To me, a single perfect slave is worth many, many imperfect ones.”
Burdell’s eyes gleamed with barely suppressed greed. “So I imagine you’ll be wanting to look at my merchandise, then.”
Duuzarne stood to his full height, once again with that smile that did not reach his eyes. “Please, if you will let me. Afterwards you will be free to deal with the other slavers. I am sure you and I will be doing a lot of business in the future, so you may as well get to know this place.” He spread his arms. “Welcome to Castle Kailte.”