The atmosphere was truly oppressive in the cathedral, and Langley found herself acutely aware of how hard she was breathing. Incense from the servo-skull-mounted burner flying overhead was catching in her throat, and although it wasn't enough to make her cough, it still made her throat feel incredibly dry. Everybody was looking at her and it took all of her willpower to stand still and listen for just a few more minutes.
The priest was droning on in front of them, some reverend father Langley had never heard of talking at her about the sanctity of marriage and the need for faith and stability in "these troubled times". How insignificant it actually seemed outside the cathedral walls, Langley reflected; how much people wanted to keep up appearances when it mattered, but how little they cared when they were in their own company.
And how much it hurt.
"I require and charge you both," the priest intoned, "as you will surely answer before the Golden Throne at the Time of Ending, when no heart can conceal its secrets and no tongue speak false, that if either of you know any reason why you may not be joined in the eyes of the God-Emperor, you shall confess it."
Langley looked across at Atherstone, doing her utmost to keep her expression as calm and measured as she possibly could. She prayed that he didn't spot the faint quiver of her lips as her composure started to crack.
"Thus do I also charge the faithful gathered in the house of the Lord of Mankind," the priest continued. "If any man or woman can show any just cause for why these two may not be joined, I bid you now speak, or else hereafter forever hold your peace."
Silence fell and Langley suddenly felt her mouth go dry as four, five, six seconds passed, the only sound in the cathedral hall coming from the servo-skulls as they went about their work. The priest turned to Atherstone, making eye contact as the situation demanded. In contrast with Atherstone's bespoke black-and-brown three-piece with the distinctive silver buttons that could only have belonged to him, the priest's off-white cassock and mitre were entirely unremarkable and might've been worn by just about anybody. For all Langley knew, the priest could just as easily have been the reverend father in charge of the cathedral as someone they'd had to draft in at short notice; all priests looked the same to her, and excluding the drill abbots and military chaplains, she trusted none of them.
None of these civilian clerics had seen the horrors she'd fought in the course of duty.
"Mikael Davide Marcas," the priest began. "Have you a free and unconstrained will to take as your wife this woman, Isabel Jemima, whom you see before you?"
"In the Emperor's name I do, father," Atherstone answered without hesitation, the faux pomposity of his accent eroding Langley's patience. She didn't want to have to hear that voice again, but the Emperor demanded that some sacrifices had to be made.
The priest inclined his head towards Langley.
"Isabel Jemima, have you a free and unconstrained will to take as your husband this man, Mikael Davide Marcas, whom you see before you?"
Langley looked first at the priest, then at the congregation in what must have looked like a sudden attack of nerves, before finally resting her eyes on a very expectant Atherstone. She turned slowly, looking him in the eye as her sheer disgust finally boiled over.
"No," she stated.
It was as if her words had been a knife in Atherstone's belly as shock and horror wrote themselves plainly across his face. The priest recoiled, astounded and flabbergasted by this deviation from the chain of events, and although Langley had since narrowed her world down to just Atherstone, she was sure the congregation was in turmoil as well.
"What?" Atherstone gasped.
"I said no," Langley repeated, already unfastening her bridal overdress. The tailored, yet slightly ill-fitting white suit underneath stood out in stark contrast to Atherstone's own attire, and seemed almost to shimmer as she discarded the cumbersome wedding garment.
Without the loose overdress to conceal it, a distinct -- if not especially pronounced -- roundness became visible upon Langley's waist. The priest's eyes fell on it immediately, recognising the bulge for what it was, but Atherstone ignored it entirely.
"But I am the scion to House Atherstone!" he protested. "For the Emperor's sake, Isabel, we--"
"Don't you dare, don't you frakking dare bring Him-on-Earth into this, Mikael!" Langley scowled, and Atherstone was stunned into silence by her outburst. "You've already broken His laws by coming in here, completely unrepentant for what you've done. You said you loved me. Promised me anything. Offered me a commission in exchange for this political formality you orchestrated to strengthen your position."
There was no longer any point in trying to conceal her emotions, and hot tears of rage were already welling in her eyes.
"And for what, Mikael? I know what you did. I know whose company you shared last night, in whose arms you shared an embrace and into whose ear you whispered your honeyed words."
"You lie...!" breathed Atherstone, fright overshadowing any conviction he might've hoped to convey.
"Give the sergeant an officer's commission, you said. Send her off to war and wait for her name to show up on the casualty list."
"Not true?" Langley sneered, half-mocking him. "Oh, you must think that I am so stupid. Allow me to give you a child, and then send me off to die so that you can have the child of a martyr to succeed you, while you elope with that bitch from House Tolcis, safe in your newly elevated position and with your legacy safe and sound."
She reached into her suit jacket, unfastening the concealed holster and drawing a small pistol. She was aware of the congregation exploding into panic and confusion, but she no longer cared.
"But if you think I'll be your pawn in all this, you're sorely mistaken."
"What the hell are you doing, Isabel!?" hissed Atherstone.
"Making sure you live with the knowledge of your sins," Langley informed him. "Or don't you know that I'm pregnant with your child?"
Atherstone blanched as Langley inspected the gun, disabled the safety, and pressed the muzzle to her stomach. Somewhere off to her right, the priest had fainted, but her world had collapsed down to just herself, Atherstone, and the gun. Everything and everybody else was irrelevant.
"A child that you'll never have?"
"You wouldn't... how can you..."
"Emperor forgive me," Langley muttered, closing her eyes.
There was a loud bang, a searing flash of agony, and then darkness.
"We still consider your survival to be remarkable," Cals commented, "even though your present good health renders this a foregone conclusion."
"That wasn't the best bit," Langley remarked dryly. "I missed. The child survived."
Cals paused, turning his head to look straight at Langley. "We are not aware of your descendant's existence. Please clarify."
"You wouldn't be. The Inquisitor took care of it."
Langley produced a note, handing it to Cals. "A girl named Theresa Stanton was given over to the care of the Ecclesiarchy on Erstenheme. Eight months old and they're already eyeing her up for the Adepta Sororitas."
Langley sighed, absent-mindedly fingering the bullet scar over her stomach. "Must be something to do with being born four months premature and still surviving."
Cals brought the note closer to his face, then held it away at arm's length, as if he were adjusting to a new pair of reading glasses. "Based on the data available from surveying a small infant, we believe that the Ecclesiarchy are failing to exercise the necessary level of patience. This would correlate with observed behaviour patterns."
"She'll be enrolled into a Schola Progenium on Erstenheme before long."
Cals cocked his head to one side as if mildly amused, but declined to comment further as he returned the note to Langley.
"I'll still never know how the Inquisitor knew to attend my wedding, or why I'm now an Inquisition agent," Langley continued, "but I guess being ready to shoot yourself to defy your enemies has to count for something. And you're probably aware of the sanctions that got imposed on House Atherstone."
"Archived data indicate that Mikael Atherstone has since committed suicide. We suspect that he did not wish to live with the burden of disgrace."
Langley smiled weakly. "Yeah."
She took a sip of her caffeine. "So what's your story?"
"We do not understand the question."
"You must've been made an Inquisition agent for a reason that didn't involve shooting yourself, right?"
Cals looked blankly at Langley. "We have been in Inquisition service for one hundred and thirty-two calendar years, and have served under multiple Inquisitors. Please refine your query."
"I can't even imagine living to that age," Langley remarked. "Alright then. Why are you with this Inquisitor?"