House Voluptas, purveyors of the finest flesh in the Spiral, stood atop the legalized sex trade through the nimble use of politics and persuasion. Their rise had been meteoric, as previous generations had languished as nothing more than minor players is the flesh trade. It took a ruthless visionary, Horatio Voluptas, to create the perfect alchemy of supposition and coercion, eavesdropping and extortion.
Young Horatio was the third son and by far the fittest to lead the House. After the suspicious deaths of his two older brothers, Horatio assumed the Lordship when his puerile father succumbed to the coughing plague.
The boy’s appetites were almost as great as his cunning and such distractions could only be satiated with coin. Impossibly large numbers of coin. And so he set his mind to work.
Within a decade Horatio had outmaneuvered, outworked, and outshined his competition. House Voluptas was a force in the political landscape of the Core with bordellos stretching from the Eastlands to the Fractured West. At their zenith, some twenty years into his reign, the House controlled over one thousand brothels, ran countless smuggling operations, and commanded a personal army of no small measure. House Voluptas had arrived. And yet, Horatio was unable to fully enjoy the fruits of his conquests. There was one conquest yet to be had. A conquest that would take the full measure of his essence.
Though his ambition strained the bounds of mortal men, Horatio was, at heart, a pragmatist. House Voluptas had thrived in no small part because of his uncanny political instincts. His ability to push to the very precipice of disaster only to pull back at the moment of optimal gain was preternatural.
As is known to any with even a passing knowledge of the social vagaries of polite society, there is a distinct stratum among the Houses of the Spiral. At the pinnacle of those layers are the Imperial Houses. All but untouchable, the ‘Houses Imperium” are above all but the most egregious of political offenses. Horatio was determined that before his passing he would elevate House Voluptas to that rarified standing.
And so, with secrets, favors and no small degree of temerity, he crafted an undertaking so audacious in its complexity, that its success relied on not on the tumbling of a single domino, but rather on the toppling of hundreds. Yet, such a master manipulator had he become, a puppeteer of unparalleled ability, that those within his House refused to cross him.
As with most men of ambition, it is the very thing that propels them to greatness that ultimately is responsible for destroying them. And Horatio was, despite numerous reports to the contrary, just a man.
His plan to blackmail the Grand Mayor of the Clockwork Empire was as brilliant as it was elaborate, a machination for the bards and baristas to tell tale of for the ages to come. Like a master marionettist, he pulled, tweaked and tugged at the strings, and the puppets all danced, while the dominos fell in a mesmerizing pattern.
His grand scheme shifted and chameleoned through its stages. His reactions were perfectly sure. The layers unfolded like the petals of a rose awakening to the brilliance of a new morning. There had perhaps never been an a more perfect architect of deception. The stories tell of a man at the height of his power and genius. A man who fully expected his House to be the first human House ever elevated to Royal Imperial status within the Empire.
If not for the resilience of a single domino that refused to be toppled; a single puppet whose sharp, splintered edges sheared the strings that Horatio had so carefully threaded, the history of House Voluptas would most certainly be different.
But as he hung from the gallows, his neck not broken, slowly suffocating as he spiraled listlessly to a meeting with his maker, his lips pursed together in a silent howl.
One word, whispered in the language of the dying. A curse. A lamentation. A vow.
The Empire had been simmering since the cessation of the Second Ether Crusade. In the boardrooms and parlors, the taverns and the estate galas, Horatio’s death was the tinder. With no explanation from Parliament as to what his offense was, the seething undercurrent of discontent rose to the surface once more.
The Third Ether Crusade was about to begin with the most unlikely of catalysts.