Chapter no 12 – The Ugliness of The World

Empire of Silence

I HAD NO NOTION of how I was going to get myself offworld. I toyed with the idea of shipping out on a merchant vessel, working my way to Teukros or Syracuse or any world with a scholiasts’ athenaeum. But I was no sailor, nor had I any particular skill that would make hiring me attractive to a

ship’s captain. Besides, such a posting would doubtless have called for a blood scan, which would have instantly revealed my high birth and flagged my father’s office. Any passenger liner would require a scan as well, lest our planetbound serfs escape in violation of their bond.

Thus logic called for a less scrupulous class of businessman, even as prudence argued against the same.

And yet what other choice did I have?

In my youth and ignorance, I had hoped Kyra might share whatever childish hopes I had of some dalliance or tryst. In my long life I have known too many palatines, men and women both, who so abused their underlings. There are words for creatures who so abuse their power, but none shall ever be applied to me. In the innocence of my affections, I

thought I was different. I had not thought that I could be no different. No

amount of honesty or honest intent on my part could close the gap between Kyra and myself, and if she submitted, it would not be from desire but out of duty—or worse, out of fear. I had made a grievous error and been—if only for a moment and against my intentions—the very worst sort of man, which is almost no man at all.

So I hid from her and from much of the castle, save my teachers. Tor Alma administered a battery of medical tests before my departure,

subjecting my already substantial immune system to a series of slight

enhancements that would protect my cells against offworld pathogens and

the subtle radiation common even in the quietest parts of space. Sir Felix and I concluded our martial appointments a month before my departure

when it was announced that I was to leave by way of Haspida, spending my final week planetside with my mother at the summer palace. And of course there was Gibson and our frequent walks about the castle grounds.



“Pirates are a terrible idea!” Gibson said, grunting as I helped him up the stairs to the rock garden below his cloister. “Leastways hiring one off the street is. They’re not . . . well, they’re not the most reputable sort, are they?”

I conceded this point with a shrug, letting the scholiast lean on my arm as we crossed the courtyard, careful that we might not again be overheard. We were speaking Jaddian, the lilting syllables tripping like confused poetry so quickly that even the attentive might mistake seven words in ten. “I can’t think of anything else,” I said, turning to look the old man in the face and speak more directly into his deafening ears.

“Well, you may not have to,” Gibson replied, then pressed a crooked finger to his lips for silence at the approach of three passing servants in the deep red uniforms of the housecleaning service. One man bowed as I passed, but I waved them all on with a thin smile. We held our silence while we moved into the shadow of a colonnade, the inner pillars overgrown with ivy so dark it was almost blue. Anxious, I glanced up at the watchful little

cameras studding the shallow vaults above, hidden but not completely

concealed by the neat scrollwork in the molding. Thence we passed out into the topiary garden. The bushes—fantastically clipped into the shapes of men and dragons—appearing almost black in the silver sunlight.

Keeping up with our Jaddian, I said, “What do you mean, I might not have to?”

Gibson shook his head, hiking up the hem of his heavy viridian robes so as not to trip over them on the stones as we mounted an inner stair up to a wall-walk that fed into one of the castle’s many raised viaducts. “Not just yet. Wait.” Then, “Are you nearly ready to go?”

“I’ve finished packing, more or less. I’m not sure what to take. No matter what happens, I don’t expect to have very much to my name.” I did

not mention the twenty thousand marks charged to my new universal card. “I can’t keep anything, can I?”

Gibson stopped a moment, and I hung back as he caught his breath,

waving me away with a flapping hand. “The Chantry permits you one chest of personal effects, as I recall. Wasn’t that in the instructions your father passed along?”

I blinked. I hadn’t even read them. I’d been thinking that as a scholiast I would be expected to forswear everything I owned, so I hadn’t made any

serious preparations. At last I admitted, “I’m sorry, I haven’t read them.”

Gibson looked at me long and hard, switching from Jaddian to Classical English. “You had best see to that.” He raised his eyebrows in such a way that said, Or else people will start asking questions. Once Gibson started

walking again, we passed a pair of peltasts with high lances gleaming in the sun. They saluted as we left them and rounded an exterior spiral staircase that curved around a tower leading up to the seawall.

On seeing the sea, people believe it is the water that first captures their imaginations, that first transports them and makes them dream of sailing and of lands unknown and undescribed. They are wrong. The sea’s first

actor is not its waters but the wind. And that struck me first and fully as we mounted the huge, nearly semicircular arc of black stone that formed the

easternmost expanse of Devil’s Rest. Though the age of siege warfare had died long before the vanished Earth, my ancestors had raised this massive wall as if to defend against armadas. The ramparts snarled with triangular merlons like the teeth of a saw blade, and between them even a small man could look out on the steel-gray waters where they broke on the cliffs below.

I took in a deep lungful of the wind and sighed, speaking in Standard for the first time that day. “I wish it would be all over with, Gibson. Everything decided.”

Safer out here than in many parts of the castle, Gibson matched my Standard, if only for a moment. “I understand that particular pain. Periods of change can be most upsetting, but they present the most opportunity for growth, I find. You’ll face what comes—”

“Or I won’t,” I cut in.

The scholiast sniffed, permitted me to lead him down the wall toward the knobby finger of Sabine’s Tower, almost a full mile around the arc of wall from the scholiasts’ cloister and the lower gardens. After a second of

this progress, Gibson—in Classical English again—breathed the words, “Fear is a poison, my boy.”

“Another aphorism?” I smiled my best Marlowe half smile. “Well . . . yes,” Gibson almost grumbled, “but it applies.”

“Don’t they always?” I mused, detaching myself from the old scholiast’s grip and switching to Lothrian as a patrol moved past—though this part of our conversation, at least, was entirely innocent. We made a habit of

switching like this, cycling between Standard, Lothrian, Jaddian, and

Classical English, sometimes supplementing with the mongrel Demarchy languages. Occasionally we even practiced the Cielcin language, which I

spoke almost fluently even in those early days. That we usually reserved for more private lessons, as anything to do with the Pale xenobites drew

suspicion from the Chantry devout.

“Teukros is far warmer than this place,” Gibson said, matching my Lothrian. “There wasn’t enough cometary mass in-system to start a lasting water cycle when it was terraformed. The settlers use sand plankton there to regulate the air because the surface temperatures run high enough in

summer to bake more delicate flora.” Switching back to Classical English, he added, “You’ll want to lose those ridiculous coats of yours.”

I shrugged my long coat more tightly around me, its high collar close to my face. “I think I’ll keep this one.” The truth was that I knew I would soon be parted with the garment and given either the white and sable of the

Chantry or the scholiasts’ viridian. “If we meet again, I’ll be in green like you.”

“We won’t meet again.” He did not say it cruelly. From a scholiast, it

could be no more than a plain admission of fact. But it stunned me as much as my father’s blows had done, and I said nothing, taking the time to let this sobering realization sink in. I had known that I would never see any one of these people again. The Empire was vast and the human universe vaster

still, and I was traveling across that quietude, frozen in fugue for years. I’d leave them all behind.

Into that silence Gibson injected the magic words, “I’ve written your letter.”

I brightened at once. “Have you?” I had to compress my joy, to stamp it into apathy as Gibson did to keep it from bleeding forth.

“And some ideas about getting offworld, aye. Ones that don’t involve gambling on the charity of pirates.” The old man tucked his chin against his

chest and advanced to stand in the shadow of one massive merlon, looking for all the world like some green-feathered owl, his robes flapping in the

wind. His hands were tucked into his voluminous sleeves, and they fidgeted with something concealed there. “Do you know, my boy, that we live on a truly beautiful world?”

That was not the sort of question one expected of a scholiast, even of one as human as Gibson of Syracuse, and so I was taken aback and turned to look at him. There were dark circles under his eyes and a profound

weight upon his stooped shoulders. He seemed an aged Atlas, nearing the end of his heroic struggle to carry the weight of the world. Overcoming my surprise and the previous moment’s grief, I said, “Yes, I suppose we do.”

Gibson smiled, a gesture fine as gossamer in the burnished light. “You sound unconvinced.” Against my wishes, I turned back and looked at the

edifice of black granite and mirror-glass that comprised the Great Keep and bastion of my home. That same sunlight that frothed the sea to silver glass had no luster for the castle of my forefathers, which—though it was perfectly sunny—seemed cast in cloud-shade. I heard the scholiast laugh. “I suppose you don’t believe me, but you haven’t seen this.” And without looking, I knew he meant the ocean.

“I’ve seen it.”

“Kwatz,” the scholiast spat, rebuking me. “You are only looking. You have not seen.”

I looked.

The ocean was as I have told you: a sheet of rippled glass edged with leaden fire. The Wind Isles were invisible at this hour and from this altitude, and what few clouds there were cut deep shadows on the sea, turning the

silvered water to a black that gleamed like the deep of space. Gibson was right—it was beautiful.

“In spite of all that’s happening out there around the farther suns,”

Gibson intoned, hands still fidgeting within the sleeves of his robe, “and in spite of events here . . . In spite of all that ugliness, Hadrian, the world is beautiful.” He drew his hands out, and I saw that in one he clutched a small, brown leather book. “Hold that tight.” Gibson took in a deep breath. “A final lesson, then, before you go.”

“Sir?” I accepted the book and read its title aloud. “The King with Ten Thousand Eyes? Kharn Sagara?” I flipped the front cover open, turning the book to its first page. Tucked in tight against the binding was a small, off-

white envelope. The letter I had asked Gibson to write to the scholiasts. I

shut the book quickly, fearing that a camera drone might fly overhead at any moment, though the air was clear save for the distant circle and cry of the gulls. “The pirate king? Gibson, this is a novel!”

Gibson raised a hand to quiet me. “Just a gift from an old man, eh?” He waved that raised hand in dismissal and self-deprecation. “Now hear this. Here’s a lesson no tor or primate of the college will ever teach you, nor any Chantry anagnost—if it even can be taught.” He turned again and looked out to sea. “The world’s soft the way the ocean is. Ask any sailor what I mean. But even when it is at its most violent, Hadrian . . . focus on the beauty of it. The ugliness of the world will come at you from all sides.

There’s no avoiding it. All the schooling in the universe won’t stop that.” So overawed was I to hear a logician like Gibson speaking like this that I did not stop to wonder what he then meant by the ugliness of the world.

Now I wonder if he knew what that very day held for us both or how quickly the boot would descend, as it had on the face of that poor slave in Colosso. “But in most places in the galaxy, nothing is happening. The nature of things is peaceful, and that is a mighty thing.”

I did not know what to say, but I was spared at once when Gibson closed the subject, saying, “You’ll do well, whatever happens.”

I slipped the book up into the crook of my arm and acting on impulse, again hugged the old man who was better to me than a father. “Thank you, Gibson.”

“I don’t think you’ll let any of us down.” I made an objecting sound low in my throat, but before I could get the words out, Gibson added, “Your parents, either. They will learn it after you’ve gone.”

“I’m not so sure.” I released the old man. I had two weeks to make my preparations, to say my farewells. But aside from Gibson, there was no one much worth saying farewell to.

Gibson smiled, showing a rank of small white teeth. “None of us ever is.”

Was it my imagination? Or some trick of the silver light? I thought I saw a shadow fall across Gibson’s face, as though the sun had gone behind a

cloud. When I bring Gibson’s face to mind, it is as I saw him in that moment, stooped and wind-tossed on the battlements of the seawall,

shrunken and sad. An old man leaning on his staff. To recall him in any

light other than that of that beautiful day is somehow sacrilege, as though all our other days were ugly.

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