LIGHT. The light of that murdered sun still burns me. I see it through my eyelids, blazing out of history from that bloody day, hinting at fires indescribable. It is like something holy, as if it were the light of God’s own heaven that burned the world and billions of lives with it. I carry that light always, seared into the back of my mind. I make no excuses, no denials, no apologies for what I have done. I know what I am.
The scholiasts might start at the beginning, with our remote ancestors clawing their way out of Old Earth’s system in their leaking vessels, those peregrines making their voyages to new and living worlds. But no. To do so would take more volumes and ink than my hosts have left at my disposal, and even I, who has more time than any other, have not the time for that.
Should I chronicle the war, then? Start with the alien Cielcin howling out of space in ships like castles of ice? You can find the war stories, read the death counts. The statistics. No context can make you understand the cost. Cities razed, planets burned. Countless billions of our people ripped from their worlds to serve as meat and slaves for those Pale monsters. Families old as empires ended in light and fire. The tales are numberless, and they are not enough. The Empire has its official version, one that ends in my execution, with Hadrian Marlowe hanged for all the worlds to see.
I do not doubt that this tome will do aught but collect dust in the archive where I have left it, one manuscript amongst billions at Colchis. Forgotten. Perhaps that is best. The worlds have had enough of tyrants, enough of murderers and genocides.
But perhaps you will read on, tempted by the thought of reading the work of so great a monster as the one made in my image. You will not let me be forgotten because you want to know what it was like to stand aboard that impossible ship and rip the heart out of a star. You want to feel the heat of two civilizations burning and to meet the dragon, the devil that wears the name my father gave me.
So let us bypass history, sidestep the politics and the marching tramp of empires. Forget the beginnings of mankind in the fire and ash of Old Earth, and so too ignore the Cielcin rising in cold and from darkness. Those tales are recorded elsewhere in all the tongues of mankind and her subjects. Let us move to the only beginning I’ve a right to: my own.
I was born the eldest son and heir to Alistair Marlowe, Archon of Meidua Prefecture, Butcher of Linon, and Lord of Devil’s Rest. No place for a child, that palace of dark stone, but it was my home all the same, amid the logothetes and the armored peltasts who served my father. But Father never wanted a child. He wanted an heir, someone to inherit his slice of Empire and to carry on our family legacy. He named me Hadrian, an ancient name, meaningless save for the memories of those men who carried it before me. An Emperor’s name, fit to rule and be followed.
Dangerous things, names. A kind of curse, defining us that we might live up to them, or giving us something to run away from. I have lived a long life, longer than the genetic therapies the great houses of the peerage can contrive, and I have had many names. During the war, I was Hadrian Halfmortal and Hadrian the Deathless. After the war, I was the Sun Eater. To the poor people of Borosevo, I was a myrmidon called Had. To the Jaddians, I was Al Neroblis. To the Cielcin, I was Oimn Belu and worse things besides. I have been many things: soldier and servant, captain and captive, sorcerer and scholar and little more than a slave. But before I was any of these, I was a son.
My mother was late to my birth, and both my parents watched from a platform above the surgical theater while I was decanted from the vat. They say I screamed as the scholiasts birthed me and that I had all my teeth in my head. Thus nobility is always born: without encumbering the mother and under the watchful eye of the Imperial High College, ensuring that our genetic deviations had not turned to defects and curdled in our blood. Besides, childbearing of the traditional sort would have required my parents to share a bed, which neither was inclined to do. Like so many nobiles, my parents wed out of political necessity.
My mother, I later learned, preferred the company of women to that of my father and rarely spent time on the family estate, attending my father only during formal functions. My father, by contrast, preferred his work. Lord Alistair Marlowe was not the sort of man who gave attention to his vices. Indeed, my father was not the sort of man who had vices. He was possessed by his office and by the good name of our house.
By the time I was born, the Crusade had been raging for three hundred years since the first battle with the Cielcin at Cressgard, but it was far away across some twenty thousand light-years of Empire and open space, out where the Veil opened on the Norma Arm. While my father did his best to impress upon me the gravity of the situation, things at home were quiet, save for the levies the Imperial Legions pulled from the plebeians every decade. We were decades from the front even on the fastest ships, and despite the fact that the Cielcin were the greatest threat our species had faced since the death of Old Earth, things were not so dire as that.
As you might expect from parents such as mine, I was given into the hands of my father’s servants almost at once. Father doubtless returned to his work within an hour of my birth, having wasted all the time he could afford that day on so troubling a distraction as his son. Mother returned to her mother’s house to spend time with her siblings and lovers; as I said, mother was not involved in the family’s bleak business.
That business was uranium. My father’s lands sat atop some of the richest deposits in the sector, and our family had presided over its extraction for generations. The money my father pulled in through the Wong-Hopper Consortium and Free Traders Union made him the richest man on Delos, richer even than the vicereine, my grandmother.
I was four when Crispin was born, and at once my little brother began to prove himself the ideal heir, which is to say that he obeyed my father, if no one else. At two he was almost as large as I was at six, and by five Crispin had gained a head on me. I never made up that difference.
I had all the education you might expect the son of a prefectural archon to have. My father’s castellan, Sir Felix Martyn, taught me to fight with sword, shield-belt, and handgun. He taught me to fire a lance and trained my body away from indolence. From Helene, the castle’s chamberlain, I learned decorum: the intricacies of the bow and the handshake and of formal address. I learned to dance, to ride a horse and a skiff, and to fly a shuttle. From Abiatha, the old chanter who tended the belfry and the altar in the Chantry sanctum, I learned not only prayer but skepticism and that even priests have doubts. From his masters, the priors of the Holy Terran Chantry, I learned to guard those doubts for the heresy they were. And of course there was my mother, who told me stories: tales of Simeon the Red, Cid Arthur, and Kasia Soulier. Tales of Kharn Sagara. You laugh, but there is a magic in stories that cannot be ignored.
And yet it was Tor Gibson who made me the man I am, he who taught me my first lesson. “Knowledge is the mother of fools,” he said. “Remember, the greatest part of wisdom in recognizing your own ignorance.” He always said such things. He taught me rhetoric, arithmetic, and history. He schooled me in biology, mechanics, astrophysics, and philosophy. It was he who taught me languages and a love for words; by ten I spoke Mandar well as any child of the interspace corporations and could read the fire poetry of Jadd like a true acolyte of their faith. Most important of all, it was he who taught me about the Cielcin, the murderous, marauding alien scourge chewing at the edges of civilization. It was he who taught me a fascination with the xenobites and their cultures.
I can only hope the history books will not damn him for it.
“You look comfortable,” said Tor Gibson, voice like a dry wind in the still air of the training hall.
Moving slowly, I pulled out of the complex stretch I’d folded myself into and flowed through the next position, twisting my spine. “Sir Felix and Crispin will be here soon. I want to be ready.” Through the small, arched windows set high in the stone walls, I could just make out the calls of seabirds, their noise muffled by the house shields.
The old scholiast, face impassive as a stone, moved round into my line of sight, slippered feet scuffing on the mosaic tile work. Stooped though he was by time, the old tutor still stood taller than me, his square face smiling now beneath his mane of white hair, side whiskers making him look like nothing so much as the lions the vicereine kept in her menagerie. “Looking to put the little master flat on his ass, are you?”
“Which ass?” I grinned, stooping to touch my toes, voice creaking a little with the strain. “The one between his ears?”
Gibson’s thin smile vanished. “You’d do well not to speak of your brother thus.”
I shrugged, adjusting one of the thin straps that kept my dueling jerkin flat over my shirt. Leaving Gibson where he stood, I crossed barefoot to the rack where the training weapons waited on display by the fencing round, a slightly elevated wooden disc about twenty feet across, marked for dueling practice. “Did we have a lesson this morning, Gibson? I thought it wasn’t until this afternoon.”
“What?” He tipped his head, shuffling a little closer, and I had to remind myself that though he moved well, Gibson was not a young man. He had not been a young man when his order commissioned him to tutor my father, who was himself nearing three hundred standard years. Gibson cupped a gnarled hand to one ear. “What was that?”
Turning, I spoke more plainly, straightening my back as I’d been taught in order to better project. I was to be archon of that old castle in time, and speechcraft was a palatine’s dearest weapon. “I thought our lesson was later.”
He could not have forgotten. Gibson forgot nothing, which would have been an extraordinary quality were it not the basest requirement for being what he was: a scholiast. His mind was trained to be a substitute for those daimon machines forbidden by the Chantry’s holiest law, and so could not afford to forget. “It is, Hadrian. Later, yes.” He coughed into one viridian sleeve, eyed the camera drone that lurked near the vaulted ceiling. “I was hoping I might have a word privately.”
The blunted backsword in my hand slipped a little. “Now?”
“Before your brother and the castellan arrive, yes.”
I turned and placed the sword back in its place between the rapiers and the sabers, spared the drone a glance myself, knowing full well that its optics were trained on me. I was the archon’s eldest, after all, and so subject to as much protection-and scrutiny-as father was himself. There were places in Devil’s Rest where two might have a truly private conversation, but none were near the training hall. “Here?”
“In the cloister.” Distracted a moment, Gibson looked down at my bare feet. “No shoes?”
Mine were not the feet of a pampered nobile. They looked more like the feet of some bondsman, with sheets of callous so thick I had taped the joints of my largest toes to keep the skin from tearing. “Sir Felix says bare feet are best for training.”
“Does he now?”
“He says you’re less likely to roll an ankle.” I broke off, all too aware of the time. “Our word . . . can’t it wait? They should be here soon.”
“If it must.” Gibson bobbed his head, short-fingered hands smoothing the front of his robe and its bronze sash. In my sparring clothes I felt shabby by comparison, though in truth his garments were plain: simple cotton, but well dyed to that hue that is greener than life itself.
The old scholiast was on the verge of saying more when the double doors to the training hall banged open and my brother appeared, grinning his lupine grin. Crispin was everything I was not: tall where I was short, strongly built where I was thin as a reed, square-faced where mine was pointed. For all that, our kinship was undeniable. We had the same ink-dark Marlowe hair, the same marble complexion, the same aquiline nose and steep eyebrows above the same violet eyes. We were clearly products of the same genetic constellation, our genomes altered in the same fashion to fit the same mold. The palatine houses-greater and lesser-went to extravagant lengths to craft such an image so that the learned could tell a house by the genetic markers of face and body as easily as by the devices worn on uniforms and painted on banners.
The craggy castellan, Sir Felix Martyn, followed in Crispin’s wake, dressed in dueling leathers with his sleeves rolled past his elbows. He spoke
first, raising a gloved hand. “Oy! Here already?”
I moved past Gibson to meet the two. “Just stretching, sir.”
The castellan inclined his head, scratching at his skein of tangled grayblack hair. “Very good, then.” He noticed Gibson for the first time. “Tor
Gibson! Strange to see you out of the cloister at this hour!”
“I was looking for Hadrian.”
“Do you need him?” The knight hooked his thumbs through his belt.
“We’ve a lesson now.”
Gibson shook his head swiftly, ducking into a slight bow before the castellan. “It can wait.” Then he was gone, moving quietly from the hall. The doors slammed, sending a temple-hushed boom through the vaulted hall. For half a moment, Crispin did a comic impression of Gibson’s stooped, lurching step. I glared at him, and my brother had the good grace to look abashed, rubbing his palms over the coal-dark stubble on his scalp.
“Shields at full charge?” Felix asked, clapping his hands together with a dull, leathered snap. “Very good.”
In legend, the hero is almost always taught to fight by some sunstruck hermit, some mystic who sets his pupils to chasing cats, cleaning vehicles, and writing poetry. In Jadd, it is said that the swordmasters-the Maeskoloi -do all these things and might go for years before so much as touching a sword. Not I. Under Felix, my education was a rigor of unending drills. Many hours a day I spent in his care, learning to hold my own. No mysticism, only practice, long and tedious until the motions of lunge and parry were easy as breathing. For among the palatine nobility of the Sollan Empire-both men and women-skill with arms is accounted a chief virtue, not only because any of us might aspire to knighthood or to service in the Legions but because dueling served as a safety valve for the pressures and prejudices that might otherwise boil into vendettas. Thus any scion of any house might at some point be expected to take up arms in defense of her own honor or that of his house.
“I still owe you for last time, you know,” Crispin said when we had finished our drills and faced one another across the fencing round. His thick lips twisted into a jagged smile, making him look like nothing so much as the blunt instrument he was.
I smiled to match his, though on my face I hoped the effect was less swaggering. “You have to hit me first.” I flicked the tip of my sword up into a forward guard, waiting for Sir Felix’s say-so. Somewhere outside, I heard the distant whine of a flier passing low above the castle. It rattled the clear aluminum in the windowpanes and set my hairs on end. I placed a hand on the catch of my thick belt that would activate the shield’s energy curtain. Crispin mirrored me, resting the flat of his own blade against his shoulder.
“Crispin, what are you doing?” The castellan’s voice cut across our moment like a whip. “What?”
Like any good teacher, Sir Felix waited for Crispin to realize his error. When the realization didn’t come, he struck the boy on his arm with his own training sword. Crispin yelped and glared at our teacher. “If you rested highmatter on your shoulder like that, you’d take your arm off. Blade away from the body, boy. How often must I tell you?” Self-conscious, I adjusted my own guard.
“I wouldn’t forget with highmatter,” Crispin said lamely. That was true. Crispin was no fool; he only lacked that seriousness of person that predicts greatness.
“Now listen, both of you,” Felix snapped, cutting off further argument from Crispin. “Your father will hand me to the cathars if I don’t make firstclass fighters out of the both of you. You’re damn decent, but decent won’t do you any good in a real fight. Crispin, you need to tighten your form. You leave yourself wide open to counter after every move, and you!” He pointed his training sword at me. “Your form’s good, Hadrian, but you need to commit. You give your opponents too much time to recover.” I accepted the criticism without comment.
“En garde!” Felix said, holding his blade flat between us. “Shields!” Both of us thumbed the catches to activate our shields. The energy curtains changed nothing where the human speeds of swordplay and grappling were concerned, but it was good practice to get used to them, to the faint distortion of light across their permeable membranes. The Royse field barrier would deflect high-velocity impacts with little difficulty; it could stop bullets, halt plasma bursts, dissipate the electrical discharge of nerve disruptors. It could do nothing against a sword. Felix dropped the blade like the headsman he sometimes was, dull point clipping the floor. “Go!”
Crispin boiled off the line, blade tucked back to put the power of his elbow and shoulder behind it. I saw the blow coming from light-years away and ducked under it as it whistled over my head. Spinning, I came back to guard at Crispin’s right with a perfect angle to strike at his exposed back and shoulder. I shoved him instead.
“Stop!” Felix barked. “You had a perfect opportunity, Hadrian!”
We continued in this vein for what felt like hours with Sir Felix laying into us at intervals. Crispin fought like a whirlwind, striking wildly from above and the sides, aware of his greater range of motion, his power and strength. I was always faster. I caught the turn of his blade against my own each time, stumbling back toward the edge of the round. I have always been grateful that my first sparring partner was Crispin. He fought like a freight tram, like one of the massive drone combines whose arms sweep entire fields. His superior height and strength prepared me to do battle with the Cielcin, the shortest of whom stood nearly two meters high.
Crispin tried to trap my blade, to force it down and so allow himself time to strike my ribs. I’d fallen for that gambit once already and could feel the bruise blossoming beneath my jerkin. My feet scraped against the wood, and I let Crispin have his way. All the force behind his blade made him slip, and I clouted him on the ear with an open hand. He staggered, and I struck him a blow with my sword. Felix clapped, calling a halt. “Very good. A bit less focused than your usual, Hadrian, but you actually hit him.”
“Twice,” Crispin said, rubbing his ear as he returned to his feet. “Damn, that hurt.” I offered him my hand, but he swatted it away, groaning as he rose.
Felix gave us a moment, then squared us up again. “Go!” His blade clipped the wood floor, and we were off. I circled right as Crispin charged, sweeping to my right and into the first parry to bar his attack as he slipped by me. I clenched my jaw, whirling-too late-to strike his back. I heard Felix expel his breath through his teeth.
Crispin spun wildly, slashing a wide arc to clear space between us. I knew it was coming and leaped away. Sword low, I lunged. Crispin slapped my blade down, aimed a cut at my right shoulder. Recovering, I turned my wrist and parried, catching Crispin’s sword with mine. He kept hold of his sword but twisted, exposing his back.
“Crispin!” The castellan purpled in frustration. “What the hell are you doing?”
The force of Sir Felix’s voice gave Crispin pause, and I thumped him soundly across the stomach. My brother grunted, glaring at me from under heavy brows. The knight-castellan stepped up onto the round, dark eyes fixed on my brother. “What part of ‘tighten your form’ do you not understand?”
“You distracted me!” Crispin’s voice went shrill. “I was getting free.”
“You had a sword!” Sir Felix shook his open hands before himself, palms up. “You had another hand! Go again.”
He sprang off the starting tape, sword high in both hands. I pivoted to the right, slapping hard to the left to block my brother’s wild slash. I cut in, striking at Crispin’s back, but my brother turned and caught my riposte on counter-parry. His eyes were blazing, his teeth bared. He knocked my sword aside and rammed into me with his shoulder, crouching to throw me up and back off the round. I hit the floor, the wind knocked out of me. Crispin loomed over me, six feet of angry muscle dressed all in black.
“You got lucky, Brother.” His thick lips quirked into that jagged smile. He threw a kick at my ribs, and I winced, gasping for air. I ignored him as he continued, saying how if I’d fought fair, I never would have hit him. If Sir Felix said anything at all, I took no note of him. Crispin was close, towering over me. He finished talking and turned to go. I hooked one foot around Crispin’s ankle and pulled. He came tumbling down, landing facefirst on the edge of the fencing round. I was on my feet in a second, snatching up my sword. I planted one bare foot on Crispin’s back and tapped him on the side of his head with the edge of my sword.
“Enough,” Sir Felix snapped. “Go again.”