Chapter no 11 – At What Cost

Empire of Silence

I THINK NOW THAT the old rascal wanted me to do it, that even during our little conversation by the strand he was pushing me, needling me so that I’d come round to my convictions on my own. I set myself quite privately to the business of escape, having only the vaguest notions of how to

accomplish such a thing. I, who had never once been out-system, dreamed up ways to charter or steal starcraft and pilot them somewhere besides Lorica College on Vesperad. I entertained notions of bribing the sailors

aboard whichever ship Father chartered for the voyage or of slipping away at some intermediate stop on our long cruise and lighting out for the territories. I knew it had been done, but the logistics were quite beyond my limited experience.

As I understood it, I had two essential problems: figuring out how to get offworld and how to pay for it. Perversely, the second problem proved far

easier to solve than the first. I was, after all, the son of a palatine lord, and I had access to certain avenues of wealth that the peasantry couldn’t even imagine. You will imagine, perhaps, chests of precious gems and gold diadems. While gold retains enough value for its scarcity as well as for its myriad practical functions, it is a relatively common thing, and the coined specie of the Imperium—gold hurasams, silver kaspums, and the rest—

circulate primarily amongst the lowest strata of our civilization. Gemstones, which are little more than carbon in most cases, have not held value in elite circles since before the rise of the Empire. Cut diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and the rest could be had cheaply by anyone with access to an alchemist.

Instead, the fortunes of the palatine caste are backed by the collected

chemical wealth of the Imperium. Gold is one such trade-worthy material. Uranium is another, and a far worthier one, particularly because one

required a license issued directly from the Imperial Office to mine it legally. Thus, whilst a single hurasam is available to anyone, the Imperial mark— nominally the standard currency of the Empire—is something available only to those whose occupations lift them from the dirt and engine grease at the base of our society.

Marks are worth much more, one-to-one, and they are much easier to move than a shipload of gold, being only data in an account. The trick was moving them unnoticed. Father’s logothetes and the secretaries of his various ministries—to say nothing of the house treasury—had enough to keep track of as it was, but there was always the chance that one overzealous clerk might glance too closely at my allowance and the various emergency accounts banked in my name. And there was also the possibility

—slim, I thought—that Father might be keeping a special watch on me.

Three months.

How little time that truly is, even though Delian months ran longer than standard ones, and our days were longer, too. Even for a palatine—perhaps especially for a palatine—the days pass quickly. I had to act just as quickly and turn to the one avenue of action to which I knew my lord father—for all his vaunted coldness—could never object.




“You want to what?” The Guild factionarius looked like I’d just slapped her, her deep-set, muddy eyes wide in her prematurely aging face.

Calmly I repeated my offer from across her cluttered desk, trying not to think of Kyra and the other two guards waiting just outside the office door, as if thinking of them might draw their attention to me and what I did. “I want to make a donation to the Guild. From my personal accounts.”

Lena Balem’s common face narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”

Not able to meet her eyes, I looked past her to the holograph on one wall displaying a bird’s-eye view of the Redtine Valley region in three dimensions. Its mining sites were marked with the yellow glyph of radioactivity, regions shaded by their corresponding levels of risk. I’d been out that way many times before. Despite the best efforts of biologists, only the hardiest plants took root in the hill country above the river. The

consensus was that some massive collision deep in the geologic past had

brought to ground the region’s uranium deposits, which were then exposed again during the subtle cataclysms of our long-ago terraforming.

At last I asked, “You’ve heard I’m leaving Delos?”

Taken aback, the Guild factionarius leaned forward, elbows on the edge of her cheap desk. “It’s true, then? They were reporting it on daytime broadcast, but I thought . . .”

I shook my head. “It’s true. I’m leaving aboard the Farworker on the thirty-third of Boedromion. But in light of all that’s happened in the past few weeks, I, uh . . .” Here I managed to look her in the face again,

conscious that it was the opposite of what my father would have done. “I felt bad about how I left things here. I understand the Consortium was able to meet some of your needs while they were here?”

She snorted. “One refinery crawler and a couple of drills. It’ll offset

some of our losses, but we’ve still got people down those shafts with hand equipment.” Distracted, or else trying to find her focus, Lena Balem reached forward and rustled an assortment of papers on her desk. “I have to ask, Lord Marlowe. Why the sudden interest in our operations?”

I spread my hands, all innocence. “I just want to correct a mistake I’ve made.” I waited a couple of seconds before adding, as if it were an

afterthought, “And where I’m going I won’t need the money. Father’s sold me to the Chantry.” Before she could have time to think about the implications of these words, I plowed on ahead. “So I want to make a donation. One hundred and twenty thousand marks.”

Her eyes went wide as dinner plates. “You’re serious?” Had her jaw dropped off like that of poor Yorick’s skull and hit the desk, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Perfect—exactly the reaction I wanted from her.

“You could outfit a dozen work crews in hazard suits with money like that, couldn’t you? New ones? Electron shielding and all?” I shook back the sleeve of my frock coat, checking the time on my terminal.

Lena Balem reached under her desk and drew out a packet of T-free

cigarettes. She paused a moment, as if asking permission, before lighting one up. When I raised no objections, she put the thing to her lips, the end glowing cherry-red as she lit it and blew smoke between us. “We could, but that still doesn’t answer my question.”

“Which question, Factionarius?” “Why are you doing this?”

“I told you,” I said with feigned exasperation, ramping up to the truth. “I don’t want those men’s deaths on my conscience. If my father won’t pay for the equipment, I will.” I inclined my head at the desk, as if to indicate some nicety of paperwork. “Draw up a contract if you won’t take my word. You

can have it in writing. In fact, I insist.” More smoke clouded the air, and I tried to clear it—coughing—with a wave of my hand. I knew the game she was playing, trying to discomfit me. I smiled, exhaled sharply. The gene-tailored tobacco wouldn’t leave deposits in the lungs, but it smelled foul. I should have told her not to light it. Maybe I was too soft.

She rummaged around on her desk, located a file bound in false leather, and, opening it, produced a crystal tablet and rubber-tipped stylus. Her

cigarette held in her yellow teeth, she said, “Here.” Silence hung on us a moment, save for the sound of ground traffic in the street beneath the Guild hall windows.

Now for the delicate part.

I took the tablet and filled out the simple form with ease, tapping the screen with the stylus as it converted my handwriting to Galstani’s neatly ordered script. Then I repeated the process in a new tab. My work nearly

finished, I paused, knowing my moment had come, and set the tablet down on the table. “You know, M. Balem, it occurs to me that we could help one another out.” I gave her my best, least-Marlowe smile.

Her weak-chinned plebeian face darkened. “How is that?”

I maintained my politest smile. “You agree that one hundred and twenty thousand is an . . . adequate sum, yes?” With the air of one waiting for a Eudoran sorcerer to complete his bit of hand magic, she nodded. Once.

Slowly. Saying nothing. “What would you say to one thirty?”

Absurdly, my mutinous heart beat faster against my still-sore ribs. I had spoken softly, felt sure that my guards had not heard me from the hall. Not through the plain rolled steel of the door. Why should I fear? I held all the power here; I had the money, the name. The Guild factionarius had . . .

what? The means to expose me? But that would only implicate her, if she accepted. And she would accept. I knew she would accept, and knowing this, I spoke my offer. “I will sign this contract in the amount of one hundred and fifty thousand marks if”—and here I swiped my hand across

the tablet twice, shooting the pair of documents across to the wall holograph

—“you sign this parallel contract for one hundred and thirty, which I will keep on my person. Unfiled.” I saw confusion in her eyes and pressed on. “I

want you to give me the difference on a universal card, or—even better—in hurasams, if you have them.”

“Do you know how many hurasams that is?” Balem sounded incredulous. “Do you have a lift palette?”

Chastened, I waved this away. “The card, then.” “You’re asking me to launder money.”

“No, I’m not,” I insisted, hoping I could keep up with the ploy in my own head. “I’m asking you to . . . to feel guilty about the large sum of money I’m gifting you and to return a paltry amount of it to me quietly. To salve your conscience.” I smiled, only this time it was the crooked Marlowe smirk. Carefully I unscrewed my signet ring from my left thumb, held it ready to seal the two contracts and so pass on the terabytes of formal

encryption keys. I thought of all the ring signified: my name, my blood, my genetic history, my personal ownership of twenty-six thousand hectares of land in the Redtine Mountains.

Balem glanced from my face to the contracts on the wall holograph, then at the door. I could see the cupidity alight in her muddy eyes. Her cigarette was burning down in her fingers, momentarily forgotten. “And if I refuse?”

Did I have to spell it out? “That’s what the other contract is for. I file it with the treasury and say someone on your end must have hacked the

contract file and amended the sum. Who do you think will be believed? Father’s already rather cross with you after that mess with the Consortium.” I saw her rough complexion go a shade paler. “Of course, you’re welcome to turn down my offer.”

She bared her teeth, eyes aglow with contempt. “This was never about charity.”

I smiled sadly, a proper smile again. “I do want to help, M. Balem.

Whether or not you believe that doesn’t matter, but you must help me as well. These are my terms.” I held the ring up, ready to apply it to the two documents. “Shall we?”



With twenty-thousand marks writ to a numbered universal card tucked into the inner pocket of my coat and the data for both the public contract and the one I thought of as my insurance policy stored in the matrix within my ring, I sat in the rear of a flier as we took off again for Devil’s Rest. The old

fortress looked like a thunderhead above the city today, itself beneath skies overcast with the threat of summer storms.

“It’s decent of you to donate to the miners like that,” Kyra said over her shoulder.

From her of all people, this statement filled me with shame. After all, I hadn’t done it for the miners, had I? My tongue felt suddenly thick, and I turned my face away. “Thank you.” Should I say something to her before I went? Tell her she was beautiful? Strong? My hands clenched into fists in my lap, the right one aching horribly, bones sore. But I forced the pain on myself, feeling somehow deserving of it. I had read once that the priests of one religion or another would scourge themselves with knotted cords that their pain might redeem their sins. I have not found it to be so, only that pain so often feels like justice.

“Lieutenant,” I said at last, voice hushed. “Sire?”

“Could you change course, please? Take us to the city penthouse.”

One of my two guards objected. “Sire, do you really think you should go into the city after the last time?”

Midsentence, I turned and glowered at the man, glad perhaps for the first time in my life that I had the same eyes as my father. I spoke over him.

“Corpsman, I remind you that I am your archon’s son.” There was a sudden venom in me, brought on by my newly grown sense of shame. “I appreciate your concern, but let’s consider the damage from that affair done, shall

we?” I snapped my attention back forward. “The penthouse, Kyra, if you would.” I did not want to go back to the castle, not that day.



Now I had the other problem to consider, and it was by far the more complicated one. In a sense I had less right of travel than the meanest plebeian. Any common dock worker or urban farm technician not

planetbound by blood might earn passage offworld, or else enlist in the Legions—there was a war on, after all. But I . . . I was scrutinized, guarded, protected. At least when I wasn’t getting myself pummeled nearly to death by a bike gang in the streets of Meidua. And yet that particular episode did inspire in me a measure of confidence. I had slipped away from my

watchful sentinels once, hadn’t I?

I could do it again.

The sun was sinking, yellowing to gold above the western mountains,

and below and about me the lights were coming alive in the city of Meidua, the snaking trains of groundcar traffic slowly flicking their running lights into night mode. A holograph panel taller than a house began to glow brightly from the tower across from me, first advertising the Meidua Devils

—the gladiators—and then displaying a recruitment ad featuring a strong-jawed woman in the bone-colored armor of the Imperial Legions. I leaned heavily against a carved stone balustrade, sagging against the rail. Already my guilt over blackmailing the factionarius was fading, and a part of me

was giddy with my success. I had twenty thousand marks in my possession, totally unknown to my father, and when or if the logothetes and the house bankers checked my accounts, they would see only my generous donation to the Meidua chapter of the Delian Miners’ Guild.

Who could object to such civic piety? I was going to be a priest, after


Weakly, I laughed into the crook of my arm, hoping that Kyra and my

guards could not see me. My actions that day had left me with a powerful need to remain unbothered, unobserved. Alone with my thoughts. As much as I longed to leave my ancestral home, I feared that parting just as much. The stars blossoming in the growing dark pressed themselves upon my mind, looming as Devil’s Rest never had.

The ancients had a saying, a kind of curse, that reads: May you live in interesting times. I suppose I did. With the sun setting and the black of

space becoming visible above, I felt somehow that the Cielcin grew closer. I felt almost as if I could see their vessels descending like castles in the night air, though I had never seen one in truth. In my mind their towers stretched like the fingers of frigid hands, delicate structures rimed with ice that shone like a palace of grim faeries. Was it a vision or a waking dream? Or else the future pressing on my present? Perhaps it was only a dull fist clenched

around my soul—the aching terror that I was about to leave home.

It only began to hit me then. Father’s declaration that I was to join the clergy had never felt real because I had rejected it so handily. But with the plastic of the universal card tucked into my breast pocket and the taste of blackmail still sour on my teeth, the thought that I was leaving that miserable city—the only home I’d ever known—came upon me sharp and sudden as those plebeian thugs on their motorbikes.

“My lord?”

“Lieutenant?” I started, stepping away from the rail. Kyra stood primly just outside the door to the penthouse proper, hands clasped before her, eyes downcast. “Is something the matter?” I smiled at her and found that hers

was a face I could keep looking at without glancing away as I must with Father. Her hair was the color of beaten bronze, curling like some Petrarchan vision about her heart-shaped face, the curves of her body gone to slimness.

“I only came to tell you the suite’s locked down. No one’s coming in or out without triggering house security.”

“What?” It took the words a moment to penetrate the clouds in my brain thrown up by her beauty and my shame. “Oh, yes . . . Very good, Kyra.” I

smiled again, more weakly this time. “Tell the two hoplites they may retire, then. Or take up shifts, if they wish.”


“The shifts thing,” I said, wagging a finger. “Have them do that.” The lieutenant pressed a fist to her breast in salute. “Of course, sire.”

She turned to go.

“Kyra.” She stopped, shoulders tense, though the meaning was lost on me.

“My lord?” Her voice was soft. Then a moment of bravery: “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?” I blinked, genuinely lost.

Her back still to me, she said, “Call me by my first name. It isn’t proper.”

My father’s voice echoed within me, cold. It isn’t proper, my lord. I

silenced it, unsure how to answer that. But caution outweighed desire, and I said, lamely, “I wanted . . . to feel close to someone, is all.” She turned back, and there was understanding in her green eyes—understanding

and . . . fear? Surely not. “I’m sorry if I’ve given offense.”

“I am your servant, sire. You’ve no need to apologize.” She shook her head fiercely, then shut her eyes and asked, “But . . . why me?”

“I’m sorry?” A flier swung low overhead, coruscating the penthouse shields so that the air shimmered with disturbed lines of force. Briefly I

turned to watch it go, running lights blinking red and green in the twilight.

The lieutenant stood a little straighter, thrusting out the fine point of her chin. “You’ve ordered me to take you about on your errands for weeks now,

even before the accident.”

Accident, I thought bitterly, ordering my face into stillness as I recalled my mugging.

But Kyra was not finished and repeated, “Why me?” Her face was still downcast, eyes closed. I crossed the infinite space between us, reached down and clasped her small, calloused hand. She grew tense as a coiled

spring and stopped—I think—to breathe. Braver then than I had ever been and lacking any words to explain, I kissed her.

She froze.

I squeezed her hand in what I hoped was a comforting way. I was barely more than a child and didn’t really know what to do. They say time freezes in these instants, but it is only your breathing that does.

And Kyra. Kyra was still as stone.

I drew away, embarrassed and afraid. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have. I . . .” One of her hands pressed against her breast; the other still clasped in mine. I let it go, stepped back. Her tanned skin had drained of its color. Still babbling, I looked away, formal again, and said, “Lieutenant, I . . .”

In a dead, dry voice, a voice that confirmed her deepest fears about me, she said, “If my lord wishes, I . . . I could . . . I could join him in his . . .”

I never heard her say “bed,” for I shouted, “No!” Not like this, damn it. Not like this. I froze too, realizing that it could have been no other way. I was palatine, the son of an archon, slated to be a prior of the Earth’s own

Chantry. How could she, a lieutenant in household guard, ever refuse? I felt sick, cheap. A coward. I brushed past her into the suites without another

word, not trusting myself to speak.

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