He was not a psyker.
He had been taken by the Enforcers more than once for testing when they performed their irregular sweeps, or when word of his "talents" had reached them and they checked for latent emergence. But they had found him to be well within acceptable limits, lacking any obvious psychic taint.
This had not noticeably interfered with his income. In fact, if anything, it had built upon his reputation. No one could be seen to be visiting an unlicensed psyker, after all. But one could visit someone officially sanctioned as definitely not a psyker... and whisper behind one's hand that his powers were clearly so great that he could deceive even the penetrating talents of the Emperor's Witch Finders!
He sat in the gloom of his "consulting room" and drummed his fingers impatiently on the table. He was expecting a client and it helped the atmosphere for them to find him deep in meditation in the dark room, its rich furnishings only hinted at among the shadows cast by the single burning candle upon the polished obsidian surface of the table that sat pertinently between him and the client: a barrier not merely between the mundane and the spiritual but also one between death and a fast getaway should it be required, as the table was artfully tricky to circumnavigate rapidly, thanks to the scattered stools and cushions hidden in the dark around it, and the expensive tapestry hung behind him and piously depicting the Emperor Victorious upon his Golden Throne concealed a small doorway, reinforced with steel plating and with a well-oiled two-way bolt on the far side.
But Madame diGallivere was running uncharacteristically late and he was getting bored. He had already stacked the tarot deck. Madame diGallivere was lanugishing in a loveless but advantageous marriage that had dragged her husband several notches up the social ladder, paid off her father's debts and provided her with a most comfortable income, not to the mention access to the services of some exceptionally enthusiastic young servants in her husband's newly-appointed household.
But she felt a spiritual gulf in her soul, or so she assured him. She felt herself destined for greater things: a destiny of which he had assured her and to which, through a careful reading of the cards and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the upper hive's social spider's web, he was supposed to be guiding her, at least until he had so much of her money under his control through the various shell companies, charities, hidden bank accounts and other services that he could have her dropped firmly into a down-hive brothel to encounter "greater things" to her heart's content.
A breath of cool air tugged at the luxurious hangings that draped across the room's door and he smiled: she had arrived. Then he buried his smile, closed his eyes and composed his face into a waxen expression of deep meditation.
But something was wrong. The tread of the footstep outside was too heavy. His eyes snapped open as the drapes were torn back and he shot to his feet, ready to flee, only to freeze at the sight of the wide pistol barrel outlined in the meagre candlelight.
'Sit down, Mister Zyconia,' breathed a gravelly voice from the black silhouette behind the gun barrel. 'Madame diGallivere's appointment has been cancelled. She graciously suggested I seek your advice.'
The massive pistol snapped up away from him, twisted in the owner's grip and slid away in to a holster beneath his heavy coat. The man's apparent mass, Zyconia quickly saw, was down to a military-style carapace breastplate, scratched and battered to the metal so much that it glinted dully. The candle outlined high, sharp cheekbones and an angular chin beneath a squat nose. Dark eyes gleamed.
'Who are you?' Zyconia demanded.
'I rather believe it's your job to tell me that,' the man replied, sitting down to face him across the table, elbows resting on its surface, fingers touching in a sharp steeple. 'Read the cards.'
'You should understand,' said Zyconia, scrabbling for his poise while his mind raised to locate the quickest way out that ended him as full of as few holes as possible, 'that it is rarely safe or sage to enquire too deeply of the cards, especially on a first reading. Pathways are opened to the mind, to the soul, to the past and to the future. We travel along them at our peril, ever mindful that a pathway runs in two directions.'
The man on the other side of the table smiled.
'Of course, you're correct,' he replied, and Zyconia allowed himself a moment's carefully-concealed victory, but then: 'all the same; read the cards.'
It was a long time since Zyconia had been forced to perform a cold reading and never had he done so with so little light to see his subject. The stacked deck was for Madame diGallivere, but it would help at least to have some idea of what should come out first to frame his answers, even if they were intended for someone else.
'Very well,' acceded Zyconia. 'You've been warned.'
He reached out for the deck that sat in an ivory box at the foot of the candle. With a practised flick, he withdrew the cards and smoothly laid the box to one side, ensuring that the design etched into its top was visible. Did his menacing subject's eyes flicker? Interesting.
Deft hands parted and shuffled the cards smoothly, for several long seconds. An unenlightened watcher would have considered the contents thoroughly randomized. But they weren't. The first card he turned would be the ten of Excuteria the Struggle.
But it wasn't.
He stared, for a moment, at the Knight of Excuteria the Magus.
'I... see,' he said, furious at his mishandling of the deck, that could only be ascribed to the tension and shock of the situation. Not to worry. 'The keystone is the Magus, who knows all, sees all. You are a man of education who seeks knowledge.'
His subject didn't nod or even stop himself from nodding. He merely stared across the table, through the candle, at Zyconia.
Well then, he thought, if the first card was the Knight, then he must have mis-shuffled by two cards. So the next card should now be Major Arcana XIX, Sol.
But it wasn't.
It was the Ace of Mandatio the Hive.
He had completely cocked this up, he realized. He was winging it, now: flying on the moment, like he so often had on his climb up the slippery pole of life... like he hadn't had to for years.
'You... have ascended, I see, from mean beginnings.'
That was safe enough. The serious firepower, heavy armour and rough coat were the trappings of someone acclimated to the bare minimum, not to the luxury of the nobility. 'The third card, then, should tell us something of the mysterious purpose that has brought you to my door.'
He assayed a warm smile, but was met with the same hard stare as before.
The third card was the Jack of Discordia the Traitor.
'An unexpected change of circumstances befalls you?' he asked, not expecting a response. 'You've found the hive spires less accommodating than you might have hoped, I see. The noble classes can be less than welcoming to those not born to them. I think we must delve more deeply into your needs, yes?'
Seven of Adeptio The Citizen Inverted.
'An outsider?' he murmured. 'Traitor and Citizen sit head to head: subversion is on your mind, is it? You seek to overturn the natural state of things decreed by the Emperor. Should I be contacting the Enforcers?'
His subject reached into his coat slowly and withdrew the pistol once more, slowly. Zyconia froze, sensing the sweat bead o his forehead. He was armed himself, of course, with a slim and elegant compact laspistol. The weapon on the table before him was a bolt pistol, and not the elaborate showpiece of an aristocrat: it was as scuffed and beaten as the armour beneath his subject's coat. It was a weapon that stank of death. His subject released the weapon and raised his fingers back to a steeple.
'Well then,' he conceded, strangling the shake in his voice, 'let's go on and see where this path might take you.'
Major Arcana XX, Judgement.
'Judgement, of course,' said Zyconia hurriedly, 'can be for us as well as against us, yet we fear it all the same. Why? Because at Judgement, our sins are laid bear for all to see, is that not what the priests tell us? Our secrets are revealed and our souls exposed. Are you ready for exposure?
'The rules say that at the lay of Judgement in this position, the future may take one of two paths. This is the first...'
The Three of Adeptio The Assassin.
'They say there are three forms of death shown in the Tarot,' said Zyconia, 'this is one: the slaying of the ego; the destruction of self; the smooth transition from state one to state two. The Assassin is an honourable killer who ushers us across the border into our new lives with the minimum of pain and the minimum of fuss but, just as with the other forms of death, there is no going back.
'Let's look at the second...'
The Four of Excuteria The Emperor's Peace.
'Ah,' sighed Zyconia. 'This is the second form of death in the Tarot. It is cessation. An end to travails and suffering that is much sought after but rarely found without, first, passing through those travails and enduring a great deal of... suffering.
'You are obviously a man of violence,' he went on, looking up from the cards to meet the stare, emboldened by his continued survival. 'One doesn't need the cards to tell one that. But I see you are a man set on fomenting a quiet revolution, rising up from the depths to a position of influence that you plan to abuse. So I must tell you that your plans are about to be revealed, whether you mean them to be or not. You will have a choice, mysterious sir, between the path you crave, but which will leave you with nothing or a the path you fear, which will usher in a new life of spiritual renewal!'
His subject sat back and picked up the pistol.
'You're not a psyker,' said the man, his voice harsh, deep and quiet even in that silent room.
'I never said I -'
'But I am,' said the man. He twisted his head to the side, exposing an old and faded sanctioning brand on his neck. 'And that wasn't my reading, Mister Zyconia.'
Zyconia looked down at the spread before him: the man of knowledge who rose from the depths with a plan to overturn the natural order and tip arrogant nobility into the filth of the underhive...
'It was mine,' he breathed.
'And this is judgement, Zyconia,' said the man with the pistol. 'What will it be? The Assassin, who ushers you across the boundary to a new spiritual fulfilment? Or the Emperor's Peace, and an end to all woes?'