"Some things can be taught, others acquired by simple exchange of coin. What is truly important, though, is carried in the blood."
- — Viola Del Sheen, Matriarch of the Del Sheen
The Highborn, also known as Noble Born, are the elite of Imperial worlds, the nobles, princes, and lords of cities, star systems, and planets ruling over boundless populations alongside other equally-privileged noble scions. To be born into such a setting is to have been given the best that the planet has to offer, raised apart from the struggling ranks of Mankind and destined to take on positions of great import and power. This might be the finest pelts and Grox meat of a Feudal World, or the most potent of narcotics and off-world delights on a mainstay Hive World. It is also to enter into a world of deadly politics and ancient feuds, where children grow up with terrible enemies and sleep knowing there are those that would cut their throats for a taste of their hereditary position. Highborn often live their lives apart from the rest of their world, sometimes never leaving the high castles, spire cities, and sky palaces far above the teeming masses. They are content in the knowledge that they are the instruments of Imperial dominance on their world and the voice of the Emperor to their people, and anything that would disrupt such a state is unthinkable anathema.
Highborn are a breed apart from those they rule. Many Imperial noble houses span the stars in an intricate web of kinship, marriage and political alliances that ensure their power and influence go on, even if the fortunes of a single world fail. Products of careful breeding and cultured refinement over Terran centuries (or even millennia), the lineage they hold in their blood is the history of the Imperium of Man itself and they are the finest that humanity has to offer -- or so they would have others believe, at any rate. Nobility of birth has never been a guarantee of character, unfortunately, because for every example of true enlightenment or greatness, there are dozens of capricious and self-obsessed men and women who prove, by their base failings, that measuring superiority by birth alone in the Imperium is a lie. Worse still than the dissolute idlers and petty tyrants, are those whose dark inclinations spill over into heresy and true malignancy, often for no better reason than boredom or a sadistic love of power. It is this last, supremely dangerous group, that the Inquisition watches for, and combating such powerful and well-resourced Heretics is one reason the Ordos draw from the nobility's own ranks to find some of their servants.
From almost their first breath, those born to the high Imperial nobility are schooled in the role they must play and how they must play it. Their fine education covers not only the ins and outs of history, commerce and power-politics, but an education in the fine-points of taste and etiquette: how to wear a mask of one's own choosing, how to give an intended slight, how to curry and mete out favour, the defence of honour and how to comport oneself in all situations are all lessons deeply ingrained. In some great families, these arts have darker nuances yet; the correct use of poison, a well-executed betrayal and the employment of assassins, all being among them. Connected, socially-skilled, highly-educated and able to move in the high circles of Imperial society, those of noble blood are frequently as ruthless as they are charming and as dangerous as they are well-mannered, making for skilled infiltrators and subtle Acolytes of the Inquisition.
Life as a Highborn
"Yes, I especially liked that vintage so I enslaved the village to ensure a steady supply."
- — Leisi IX, Planetary Governor of Pallon Secundus
Highborn exist on nearly all worlds in the Imperium, from the towering spires of its hive cities to the stone forts and caves of its feral kingdoms. They are the privileged and powerful of their worlds; those fit for governance not by the will of the people but by the providence of their birthright. While their powers and purview might differ from world to world, their function remains the same: to lead their people and control the resources and political might of their planet. Most Highborn grow up being groomed for this power, taught to govern justly by fair and even-handed peers or, more likely, instilled with a disregard for those below and ingratitude for the influence and position they have been given. Many are so ingrained into their opulent lifestyle that they have little or no notion of how the majority of their society lives. Generations can be spent in supreme if relative comfort, be that a heated cavern shielded from omnipresent blizzards or an orbiting pleasure-satellite that rides auroral clouds. Here they are content to shield themselves in the trappings of wealth and privilege, while focusing on the real threat to their existence or to that of their family: other Highborn.
The scale and size of the Imperium is reflected in the nobility of its worlds. Just as it has endured for millennia and covers the majority of the galaxy, so too are there noble families, sector lords, and Planetary Governors whose lineage stretches back thousands of Terran years and whose holdings comprise whole star systems or wide regions of Imperial space. It is also reflected in its diversity, with each world's ruler as unique as the world itself. Some worlds are ruled through Imperial agencies such as the Adeptus Ministorum or Adeptus Mechanicus, where the rulers are more the result of power plays than hereditary bloodlines or the decree of the Adeptus Administratum. Some rulers flicker and fade, having barely made their presence known. Others form dynasties lasting the entire history of a world. Often a family or lineage can draw great power to itself, slowly but surely acquiring planetary control and resources, seeding its spawn throughout positions of influence and authority until there is no place on a world untouched by its grasp. Over the years, such great families will wax and wane in their power, so that a minor Highborn might find himself recently risen up on the fortunes of his line, newly gifted with wealth and fame, or he might be lamenting the reckless deeds of his ancestors that have seen his family fall from grace, a mere shadow of what they once were.
Being Highborn means more than being born into power and position; it means the lifelong obligation and struggle to protect the interests of the family or clan, and to try and better them. It is the nature of political power that those that do not have it crave it, and those that have it crave more. Noble families thus conduct warfare with each other to garner and defend power, in battles often masked with subtlety, disguise, and innuendo but no less deadly than open combat. At such levels, mere currency is worthless, and power is traded in favours and debts. In these struggles for power, there are few rules, and should a family fall from favour they have little recourse for justice when targeted by blackmail, treachery, or murder, save to respond in kind.
Noble Houses and the Adeptus Ministorum
On many worlds, the power and influence of the noble houses are tied directly into that of the Imperial Church. This relationship is one that dates back to the founding of most worlds where the families that would one day rise up to be called nobles brought with them the Imperial Creed. In fact it is a tradition on many worlds that the second-born son of a noble family be given up to the Adeptus Ministorum for training as a cleric or Confessor as part of an ancient pact that ensures good relations between the nobles and the Ecclesiarchy. A variation on this practise is known as the Chance of Faith, which waits for children to reach their naming age before setting them a religious task such as finding the image of Saint Drusus in a stone wall or spending a night in an ancestral tomb to see if they dream about the Emperor. If they pass, then the Emperor has called them and they are sent off to be trained by the Church. Of course, should the child get wind of the purpose of the test, most conspire to "fail" in favour of a life of noble decadence rather than one of religion. On some worlds, such as Tephaine, the links between Ministorum and the nobility are almost indistinguishable, with siblings sharing the power of both Church and state between them. On others, such as Malfi, the roles of noble and priest are kept strictly separate. Regardless of local politics and the feelings of individual nobles, the fact remains that the noble houses rely on the Ministorum, as much as they chafe against its strictures, as an inviolate part of their society.
- Dark Heresy: Beta Core Rulebook (2nd Edition) (RPG), pp. 23-24
- Dark Heresy: Blood of Martyrs (RPG), pg. 36
- Dark Heresy: The Inquisitor's Handbook (RPG), pg. 15