Chapter no 7 – Meidua

Empire of Silence

THE AIR WAS COOLER outside, and the sounds of tumult from the Colosso were muted and far away. Afternoon was settling toward evening, and the hulking, pale sun reddened on her haunches above the low towers of

Meidua. In the distance our acropolis and the black castle of my home loomed like a thunderhead. And I was alone. The men and women ambling along the street outside the arena and the circus grounds might have been members of another species, so distant did they seem.

Perhaps my father was right to doubt me. If I could not endure the violence of the Colosso, how could I be expected to rule a prefecture as he did? How could I be expected to make the hard and bloody choices that are the soul of ruling? As I hurried from the coliseum, past the hippodrome and the grand bazaar, my mind turned to House Orin, to the shattered halls on Linon half a system away. I told myself I could not have done such a thing, that I was not so strong or so cruel. I thought of the dead slaves, of the gladiator’s boot smashing the whitened flesh until the head crunched beneath it. I walked faster, wishing I could walk fast enough to leave the

world entirely.

Immediately beyond the circus grounds, the city rose to loftier heights, its street lamps already lighted as the towers carved their shadows on narrow streets. A shuttle winged its way overhead, and in the far distance I could just make out the fusion contrail of a lifter rocket streaking heavenward. I wished I were aboard it, bound for somewhere—anywhere— else. I knew I should be heading back—to my own shuttle at least, if not to the box and the games—but the thought of returning to the coliseum, of

seeing Crispin at his bloody game, filled me with disquiet. I stopped a moment in the shadow of a triumphal arch, watching groundcars move past

as they wove slowly through the heavy foot traffic this near to the coliseum. A stiff wind blew up from around the bend in the road, carrying with it the scents of salt and sea and the cawing of distant birds. The fading day was fair with a faint chill hinting at the end of summer, and I shrugged my jacket a little closer about me. I would walk home, I decided, and damn Father and what he’d have to say about it. It was not too far to the castle: a few miles west and north up the winding streets, hooking around a bend in the limestone bluffs toward the stairs and the Horned Gate.

So I set off along the esplanade, moving parallel to the Redtine and up toward the falls with their great locks. Beside me the river thrummed with little fishing junks and heavy barges carrying trade goods from upriver. The sound of men’s voices carried far over the water, raucous and rough. I lingered there a moment, watching an old-fashioned galleus crewed by serfs go by, pressing against the slow current of the great river on its way back toward the distant mountains. Faintly over the waters I heard the cry of their oarmaster and the banging of the drum. “Row on for home, my lads,” he

cried, words in time with the drumbeat. “Row on for home.”

I stopped for a moment, watching the old-style ship until a freight tanker painted with the Marlowe devil blocked it from sight. The serfs didn’t stand a chance. They were forbidden the technologies allowed to our guild

workers, and so they made do with the sweat of their brows and the strength of their arms.

I had half a mind then to turn back, to make for the wharfs and the fish market I’d often toured in my youth. There was a Nipponese man there who rolled fish with rice in a corner store, and in Lowtown there were performers who pitted animals against one other. But I was mindful of my danger, a palatine nobleman walking openly down the street dressed in the finery befitting his station. I twisted the signet ring on my thumb self-

consciously and fiddled with the slim bracelet of my terminal. Instinct told me to call for backup, to at least alert Kyra that I was not going to meet her at the shuttle.

But I was protective of my privacy, as are all young men faced with difficult periods in their lives. Turning away from the riverside, I waited until the groundcars stopped rolling and crossed the front street, following a winding avenue upslope past blinking storefronts and stands selling produce and Chantry icona of printed plastic and false marble. I politely declined one woman’s offer to braid my hair, then ignored her angry shouts that

someone with my long hair must be a catamite. It was fashionable in those days for men to wear their hair short, as Crispin or Roban did, but I—and perhaps this was an emblem of my failures as an heir—preferred to ignore the populace. I wanted to point out to the woman that her archon wore his hair long, too, but I restrained myself and left her screaming on the corner.

As I said, I felt almost a part of another species. Because of my family’s long history of genetic modification, I was—despite my short stature— taller than most of the plebeians I passed, my hair darker, my skin paler.

Though I was still but a child, barely twenty years standard, I felt ancient beside those prematurely aged merchants and laborers, not because I was ancient but because I knew those wrinkled faces and leathered hands were scarcely older than my own. Their bodies had already betrayed them.

Perhaps it was the barbarity of the Colosso, or perhaps my feelings have been clouded by what followed that walk, but thinking back to that moment I remember the faces of the Meiduans as little more than caricatures. Each seemed but a child’s sketch or primitive carving done by one who had only the barest inkling of what a human was meant to be. Their heavy brows and large pores, oily skin mottled and sun-leathered as mine would never be. I did not then stop to ask myself which of us was truly human. Was it me,

with my College-tailored genes and regal bearing? Or were they more human than I could ever be, their state the state of nature? I believed at the time that it was me, but as in the parable of the sea captain who repairs his

ship plank by plank until it is new again, I cannot now help but wonder how many lines one can rewrite in the blood before a man is no longer a man, or human at all.

The next street I found wound up and to the right, its limestone-and-glass facades curving around and artfully grown over with grape vines, though it was the wrong time of year for them to bear fruit. I passed the offices of several goods importers and a place where the commoners could pay to have someone replace their rotten teeth. Theirs did not grow back indefinitely and did so imperfectly, I’d been told. I had always found that

strange, but then I thought of Madame Director Feng and her stainless steel implants. Why had she opted for such when white ones were available?

This thought utterly absorbed me, and so I did not take the gunning of the bike engine for what it was or suspect the coming blow until it took me in the back.

My breath was knocked from my body, and I struck the paving stones

with a grunt, my long knife under me. My back ached, and it was all I could do to get my arms under me and rise to my knees. Too-black hair fell into my face, and suddenly I understood the utility of Crispin’s shorter style.

That almost made me laugh, but too much of my mind was absorbed in

what was happening. Where had everybody gone? And where was the vine-fronted street I had so admired moments ago? I must have wandered,

entering a broad alleyway that angled steeply upward toward the face of the bluffs and our acropolis. High above, the towers of Devil’s Rest still looked like the uplifted palace of some turbulent god.

Distantly I heard the bells in the city Chantry begin to chime the sunset, and the chanters’ voices, amplified by massive speakers both in the temples and on tent poles across Meidua, began to pipe the call to prayer.

“Get him, Jem!” a voice called. Something heavy and metallic smacked stone, and I turned just in time to see a big man on a powered cycle gun his throttle, the primitive petroleum engine belching poison into the air. Where he had gotten the thing—from some guild motor pool or back-alley deal—I never knew. He clutched a length of pipe in one hand, and from his posture I knew he had just struck the ground with it. The pipe also must have been what had struck me down. But it was the man’s face that caught my

attention. The left nostril had been clipped, sliced up to the bone so that the thing gaped awfully in the light of the burning streetlamps. And on his forehead, text proclaimed the man’s crime in angry black letters: ASSAULT.

“Get him!” the other boy cried out.

I snapped my attention sideways to where two other men on bikes

waited at the end of the lane ahead, egging on the man with the pipe. I held a hand up, staggered to my feet. “I yield!” I said, remembering my lessons about situations such as these, then discreetly thumbed the panic button on my wrist terminal. “I yield.” Dimly I recalled instructions from my

childhood, a reminder to surrender when unarmed or outmatched and to hope for ransom. Any palatine house would honor such a request as part of the rules of poine.

But these were no palatines.

“Fuck that!” said one of the two men behind me. “Fuck yielding.”

The other said, “You’re a pat, ain’t you? Fine clothes like that?” He ran his tongue over his crooked teeth. “All kinds of money on you, I’d bet.”

No answer I could have given would have satisfied that greed. I had only a second to take in my surroundings. The man with the pipe opened up the throttle of his bike, rear wheel spinning in place, kicking up dust and stone chips loose on the road. Then he rocketed toward me, pulling his arm back for another swing. Almost all my years of combat training fled me then, and I lurched sideways up onto the sidewalk, hoping the small bit of curb there would slow my attacker. During the scramble I thumbed the activation box on my shield-belt, felt the dry hum of the energy curtain coalesce around me. The sounds around me all went muddy, but it occurred to me that even on his bike my attacker would be too slow for the shield to do any good.

The threshold of a Royse field’s usefulness was faster than any human

could move. It would protect me if one of the bastards had a gun, but from that length of pipe? No.

The man’s blow went wide, and he turned his bike into a skid, laughing as he wheeled about to face me again. I should have run, but I stood my ground instead and drew my main gauche. The knife was only about as long as my forearm, its ceramic blade milk-white in the red of twilight. “Who

sent you?” I demanded, adopting a defensive crouch. Absurdly my mind went to the azhdarch-baiting I had witnessed earlier that afternoon, but I

realized quickly how little that situation had in common with my own. The flying xenobite had outmatched the slave gladiators with ease. This was more like the bullfights of old, which were still practiced when the Colosso lacked for more colorful monsters.

And I was a poor matador without even a proper sword.

“Who sent you?” I repeated, now more challenge than question. The other two men flew at me on their own vehicles, one brandishing a prefect’s blackjack, the other an aluminum bat such as children played ball with. I threw myself forward, counting on the fencer’s strategy of closing distance to save myself from the assault. It only worked in small part, and before long I found myself flat on my backside. Clotheslined—that was the word. Surrounded, I rolled onto my knees and recovered my ground, tapped the panic button on my terminal again. Roban must have gotten the alarm,

along with Kyra and the other guards. I tried to imagine peltasts piling into Kyra’s shuttle, imagined energy-lances opening like jewel boxes into attack mode.

“Take his rings, Zeb!” said the man with the pipe. “You see them things?”

No, I realized with a start. Not a man. A boy. My assailants were all

children. Ephebes no older than Crispin, their faces patched with sad little twisted hairs and pockmarked by acne. Common street rats. A gang. But

where had they gotten the bikes? Such things could not come cheap, surely, even though they weren’t regulated by the Chantry.

The Chantry . . . the sanctum’s infernal bells were ringing all over the city now, and above in Devil’s Rest Eusebia would be preparing for that

evening’s Elegy. People were praying, or else worshipping the bloodshed at the Colosso. I imagined Crispin standing in the dusty ring of the coliseum

as rose petals showered down upon him and his vanquished foes. Somewhere Sir Roban would be homing in on my location, but around my little knot of chaos, the world went on unchanged.

I held my knife out. “Fight me fairly!” I called, foolish and naïve. This was no duel, no refereed, back-and-forth, man-to-man fight with matched weapons, the tide of combat dependent solely upon skill.

“Thought you yielded!” said one of the other boys—Zeb, maybe. I never learned which was which. The two behind me circled closer, bikes idling.

“Fucker probably lives in one of them spire palaces up in Hightown, and he talks about ‘fairly.’” The boy spat. “Knock him down again, Jem. This ain’t his turf.”

“This is my—” I was about to say city when the big lad with the pipe drove straight at me. I lunged sideways, aiming to bring my knife around— too slow. The pipe caught me in the arm just above the wrist, and I dropped my knife. Howling, I went to one knee, knowing my wrist was shattered.

The two other boys whooped and jumped off their bikes. Clutching my broken arm to my chest, I scrabbled across the concrete, chasing my dropped knife.

“No you don’t, pat!” Someone seized me by the back of the coat. I twisted, cracked the serf in the chin with my good hand. I heard him cry out and bared my teeth in satisfaction, nostrils stretched, chest heaving. The other boy snarled and pounced. Thinking of Crispin—how he would fight

almost the same way—I snapped out with a kick, taking the peasant between his legs. He winced and stumbled back, according me enough time to get back to the knife. I recovered it just as the boy with the pipe joined the fray.

I knew I couldn’t win. Maybe with both hands I could have bested three hoodlums in the streets of Meidua. Maybe. If I were armed properly with a

sword? Certainly. But as I was? Broken and ambushed and with only my knife? All I could do was play for time. I was lucky, and the boys got in one another’s way more than, say, three legionnaires of the Imperial forces

would have done. So I stood, abandoning all my breeding and education like the troglodytes who abandon civilization and live as beasts.

The one with the pipe—Jem, I think—came at me first, and I slipped backward even as one of his friends circled round behind me. I slashed at him, but I was too clumsy and slow with my off hand. I was many things, but left-handed was not one of them. Something clubbed me in the back— the blackjack or the stickball bat—and knocked the wind out of me. I

staggered and fell, and a boot slammed hard into my ribs. What little air

was left to me fled, and I gasped, tried to rise. Another foot slammed down on my good wrist—not hard enough to break it, but enough that I dropped the knife. I lost consciousness for a moment. They must have kicked my head. Something hit my back again, but only with the immediacy of distant cannon fire. I think my spirit tried to rise even as my body ran itself to ground and darkness. Dimly I washed back to faint awareness, heard one voice hiss, “Ought to teach you to come down here like you own us!”

“Take his rings, Zeb!”

“He’s got a terminal, too! Snag it!”

Hands tugged my signet ring from my left thumb and started on my terminal’s magnetic clasp. Then I heard it: “Guys, we’re fucked. Look.” I smiled, though my face was in the pavement. I knew he was showing them the ring. “He’s a fucking Marlowe. We’re fucked.” I wanted to smile, but my lips would not respond. A palatine’s ring is everything. It holds his identity; his genetic history, both of his family and his constellation; his

titles; and the deeds to his personal holdings. If they took it and tried to use it anywhere on Delos, Father’s men or Grandmother’s would find them.


I don’t remember anything else except darkness and the absolute

certainty that I was dead. Crispin would rule. No question about it now. Let him have his throne, his place in the Imperium. Let Father grow to lament his choice. I didn’t care.

Certain scholiasts teach that each experience is only the sum of its parts.

That our lives may be reduced to a set of equations, that they may be factored, weighed, balanced, and understood. They believe the universe is one of objects and that we are only objects among objects. That even our

emotions are no more than electrochemical processes carried out in our brains, accessories to the pressures of Bloody-Handed Evolution. This is why they struggle for apatheia, the freedom from emotion. This is their great failing. Human beings do not inhabit a world of objects, nor did our consciousness evolve to live in such a place.

We live in stories, and in stories, we are subject to phenomena beyond the mechanisms of space and time. Fear and love, death and wrath and

wisdom—these are as much parts of our universe as light and gravity. The ancients called them gods, for we are their creatures, shaped by their winds. Sift the sands of every world and sort the dust of space between them, and you will find not one atom of fear, nor gram of love nor dram of hatred. Yet they are there, unseen and uncertain as the smallest quanta and just as real.

And like the smallest quanta, they are governed by principles beyond our control.

And what is our response to this chaos?

We build an Empire greater than any in the known universe. We order that universe, shaping outward nature in accordance with inward law. We name our Emperor a god that he might keep us safe and command the chaos of nature. Civilization is a kind of prayer: that by right action we might bring to pass the peace and quiet that is the ardent desire of every decent heart. But nature resists, for even in the heart of so great a city as Meidua, on so civilized a world as Delos, a young man might simply take a wrong turn and be set upon by brigands. No prayer is perfect, nor any city.

It was suddenly very, very cold.

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