Chapter no 22 – Marlowe Alone

Empire of Silence

THE FIRST THING I noticed was the stink. Wherever I was, the stench of rotting fish and raw sewage was overpowering. Then it was the heat, damp and oppressive, clinging to me like wet canvas. And light. There was light. A universe of it, almost as bright as the light of Gododdin’s sun; perhaps it was that light, cast backward across time to blind me in my childhood, to turn me back. I could not see.

“He’s alive.” The sound was wrong, remote, as if I were hearing that voice down a long rubber tube or washed along with the surf of some moon-tossed sea. “Someone get water!” I could just make out the sound of bare feet slapping on stone, and then someone was propping me up, forcing me to drink water from a clay bowl. The white universe faded a little,

graying and reddening to indistinct blurs. I coughed, felt the water spill onto my chest. Then I doubled over, shoulders heaving as I forced something glutinous and sour from my lungs and throat. The same someone held my

shoulders, kept me from falling. “In Earth’s name, girl, get a fucking mop!” the voice called out. “He’s coughing up more of that shit again.”

It was all I could do to breathe, to still the sudden pounding in the capillaries of my skull. Groaning, I allowed myself to be pushed back

against the linens. I was in a bed. Gods, but I was heavy. My limbs felt like they were made of stone. “Where?” I rasped, voice barely more than a

croak. “Where?”

A rough hand settled over my eyes, testing my forehead. “You’re safe.

You’re safe now. Got you in off the street.”

“Street?” It didn’t make any sense. But a more pressing thought came to me, and I said, “I can’t see.”

The voice—that of an old woman—said, “Fugue blindness. It will pass.” I heard another person shuffle into the room, followed by a slopping sound. Someone had found that mop the speaker had shouted for. “The boys found you lying in an alley near the starport. Terrible business. Still, one sees it all the time in cases like yours.” I wanted to ask what she meant by cases like mine, but my tongue felt thick and swollen in my mouth, and I didn’t even try. “Terrible business,” the raspy voice repeated. “But at least they didn’t

sell you for meat, eh? Abandoned is better.” She jostled me by the shoulder. “We can fix abandoned.”

It was a good minute before I found my words again, during which time I came to distinguish a rusted blur above and to my right. It might have been the shape of the old woman. “Teukros?” I wheezed, coughing into the air above me; I felt flecks of spittle fall on my naked chest. “Was going . . . going to Teukros.”

“Teukros?” The ragged voice went paper-thin, and the rusted blur leaned in closer, so close I could smell the alkaline bite of verrox stimulant on the speaker’s breath. “Bless us, no. This is Emesh, in the Veil.”

“No.” I felt myself shake my head, but it seemed to be happening to someone else. “No no no . . .” I squeezed my eyes shut, willing them to work better, as if the strain would force the delicate muscles there to tighten, to sharpen again.

The stranger’s hand settled again on my shoulder. “It’ll be fine, lad.

You’ll be all right. You’ll see.” The water again, tepid and oily. I drank it greedily, spilling more of it onto my chest. It didn’t matter. Hands on my arm, my face. I think I dozed. It is true what they say about fugue: you do not dream. I felt . . . what? Displacement? Disconcert? Yes and yes, but it

was something more than that. I felt an incredible sense of discontinuity, the way I imagined an infant might feel if it possessed the faculty and the language for complex thought. There was no sense of what had come before, as a sleeper feels upon waking. I had no sense of yesterday and so felt hollow and blank. Distant, as if I were only then beginning to dream.

As if to confirm that supposition, I saw Tor Gibson’s face peering at me when I opened my eyes, the scholiast’s wrinkled visage comporting itself into a frown, the only clear point in all the blurry world. His lips moved, but I could not hear him, and when at last I blinked, he was gone, leaving me

awash in a place of indistinct color.

At least my words had found me. “Where am I?”

“You deaf?” the old woman asked, clicking her fingers beside my ear to prove her point. “I said you was on Emesh, didn’t I?”

Grunting, I said, “Specifically.”

There was a creaking of wooden joints. “In my clinic. The boys found you left for dead in an alley. I’d say it was a horror if we didn’t pull castoffs like you out of the gutter every other Tuesday. Ships dump their passengers all the time, pop them right out of their crèches and drop them where they think no one will look.” She sighed, throat rattling. “And with the war on, people are bringing in all sorts—the streets get more crowded every day.

Empty ships found smashed on the trade lanes . . . You’re lucky you’re here.” Above me the whirling of a ceiling fan came into dull focus, and

around it the shape of a dingy red-brick room. My savior stood over me, a hunched, hook-nosed beast with warts stippling her red face. I think she

saw my eyes gain focus, for she smiled then, not unkindly. “You have a name, lad?”

“Hadrian,” I said, more on reflex than anything else.

She whistled. “That’s a proper fancy name for someone found naked in a gutter.” She squinted at me, her right eye gone blind and crusted over with

some red growth near the nose. “You some sort of lord?” Her white hair fell lank past her hunched shoulders almost to her navel, though she had tried in vain to tie it back. She looked like the witch character in Eudoran mask theater, and I half expected to see a black cat in her arms.

“No,” I said too quickly. “No, I’m not.” Then I noticed the small girl behind the witch-woman. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen,

willowy and fair but thin. So thin. And those freckles—they were plebeians, no doubt about it. Perhaps even serfs. Wherever I was, wherever this Emesh was exactly, I had washed out at the bottom of it. “What happened to

Demetri? To the Eurynasir?”

“That your ship?” The crone pulled a spindle-legged chair from one

corner of the baking, dingy little ward and seated herself beside me. Down the hall someone moaned, and turning I beheld several more beds like mine, a dozen or more. Most were empty, but three toward the far end had men lying on them. The old woman snapped her fingers. “Maris, go and see if the poor bastards’ beds need cleaning.” When the girl didn’t move but

seemed glued to the spot, the old woman snapped her fingers again. “Damn it, girl! I’ll be fine with his lordship here, thank you!” She waved a dismissive hand, and the young woman scurried off. When she’d been gone

a moment, the old woman grunted, folding twisted, thin-skinned hands in her lap. I didn’t like the way she’d said lordship, the word edged in mockery. “This won’t be easy for you to hear, lad—ships dump people. All the time. Captain gets a better price for his berth, changes his flight plan, decides your scrawny arse ain’t worth the fuel or the time-debt.”

Even as she was speaking, I was shaking my head again. “No, not this one.” It didn’t fit, wouldn’t fit. Demetri had nine thousand marks to collect on Teukros, to say nothing of my universal card. And there was my mother to contend with. Oh, the Empire was vast and the galaxy vaster still, but one did not simply cross the scion of an Imperial vicereine. There must be some reason, some explanation. Somehow it all had to make sense. I clamored for the calm of the apatheia, yearning to see as a scholiast sees, but my pretenses there were only that: pretenses. I bunched my sheets in my fists

and shut my eyes. “He hadn’t been paid yet. Something must have happened.”

“Well, if you say so, lad. If you say so.” She peered past me out the unglassed window at a world I could not see. She didn’t believe me. “When you’re well you can go to the starport, have yourself a good look round.

You’ll find your captain long gone. I bet dumping you was the last thing they did before dust-off.”

That silenced me a long while, and I shifted uncomfortably on the linens. Something scraped my hand, raw and painful, and looking down I saw a white bandage wound around my thumb where my ring had been. “How long?”

“Until you’re well? Tomorrow.”

I shook my head. It hurt. “How long was I . . . frozen? What year is it?” “It’s Year 447 of the Dominion of House Mataro.”

“No.” I tried to raise a hand but failed. “No good, what’s the standard year?”

The old woman’s expression soured. “I look like a spacer to you? What good’s the Imperial star date to me?”

A new thought smashed its way into my universe. “My things?”

“You didn’t even have pants on when they found you. You’ve bigger things to worry about than what happened to your effects. We’ll find

something for you in the back; poor dead bastards leave enough lying around to clutter the whole fucking Empire.”

“But my money!” I said, sitting up straight so quickly it made my head swim. “I have to pay you!”

The old woman smiled, baring her crooked teeth, the enamel stained the mint-green of the serial verrox abuser. “You’re a lord, ain’t you? It’s writ all over that pretty white skin of yours.” She traced a finger down my exposed arm as she spoke, and I yanked it away. “You got to have an account. With Roths or the Mandari or some shit. I don’t know.”

Then she left, still muttering, heaving herself onto her feet and passing down the hall to join her servant.

An account. I cannot easily describe the fear that thought put in me. An account; my family. The old woman had said this planet—Emesh—was in the Veil. That would have to be the Veil of Marinus, where the Norma Arm just began to stretch its way around the galactic core and away from the Empire’s heart in the old Spur of Orion. The crest of the wave of colonial

expansion that had brought our mighty civilization into contact with the

Cielcin. The gods only knew how far I was from home, how lost, and how much time had fled from me. I shut my eyes, squeezing out tears as another more horrible realization struck me. Worse than my situation; worse than the fact that I was lost and alone on a world I had never heard of; worse than the loss of my hard-won universal card.

I had lost Gibson’s letter.

The letter of introduction he had drafted to the scholiasts at Nov Senber.

The letter of introduction without which I would never gain admittance at the athenaeum. I’d be turned away at the gate. I tried to tell myself that a scholiast would not cry. But I was not a scholiast, would never be a

scholiast. I slammed my fist into the mattress. Once. Twice. I hit my thigh, wordless sounds leaking out from between my teeth, anguished and

accursed. Maybe it was only a dream. It had to be. It all had to be a dream, some awful nightmare. Maybe you did dream in fugue. Maybe I was dreaming then. Maybe I would wake up in a minute to Demetri’s irrepressible grin. On Teukros.

I never did.

The thought of my family consumed me. Of orders shunted by QET wave between the stars. I could imagine my father demanding the local prefects hold me until I could be retrieved. I wondered where he would deliver me. To Vesperad? Back to Delos? Or simply out an airlock? I had shirked my duties, abandoned my role as a son. By the Great Charters, by

all the laws of the Empire, I was his to command. Hadrian, name for me the Eight Forms of Obedience. I wouldn’t. Somewhere in the nameless city, the bell towers of a Chantry sanctum began to chime. I wondered if I had dozed again, drifted off toward the deathlike state I had occupied for uncounted years until that day. For a mad instant I thought they were the bells of the

Chantry sanctum in Meidua and that I was home again, that my father might come striding up that ward, through air stinking of rotting fish and old mold.

And I knew. Knew I could not let anyone scan my blood. The moment my genomic fingerprint hit the system on this world, I would be flagged, and there was nothing in the universe I could do to stop that information

from reaching all the way back to Meidua. The instant my genes turned up on some census, the moment I tried to pull funds from my out-system

accounts, they would know in Devil’s Rest. Interplanetary extradition was such between Imperial worlds that whoever it was who ruled this sweat-

soaked rock the old surgeon had called Emesh would have no choice but to jail me and pack me off on a return journey to Delos.

So I had to disappear.



Night fell with astonishing speed, and soon the bleary red-gold light through the open windows was replaced with the inconstant yellow

sputtering of the ward’s lamps. The men at the end of the hall moaned incessantly, their trauma the only sound apart from the rumble of groundcars outside. I slept fitfully, my whole body feeling like someone had struck me with a meat tenderizer. When I woke, it was to that awful smell

and the sight of the ugly crone and her willowy assistant walking up or down the aisle of that desolate place. During one of those waking cycles it struck me at last that I had seen no sign of proper medical equipment: no drip-bags, no monitor equipment, no scanners. Thankfully I saw no

corrective braces. I felt as if I had wandered out of the world I’d known and into some meaner universe such as the fantasies in Mother’s holograph operas, places where the printing press was magic and healing meant draining the blood from a man. I half expected those guttering light fixtures to be gas lamps.

“Is he really a lord, ma’am?” The girl looked back over her shoulder from under flaxen hair, her voice hushed and breathy. I closed my eyes to the merest slits, pretending as only the truly tired can to be asleep.

I heard a tinny rattling, then the sound of those bony jaws crunching something. The old woman’s verrox leaves, I didn’t doubt. “I think he is, Maris. Yes.”

“He’s very tall,” the girl said, voice even lower than before. “Do you think he’s a prince?”

The old woman shook her head, limp hair flipping about her face.

“Princes all have fiery hair. Everybody says so. We’ll find out who he is when the money comes in, girl. Leave the poor boy alone.”

Something oily twisted its fingers in my guts, and I turned my head

away, unwilling to continue looking at the two women who had helped save my life. I might have thrown up again if I’d had anything left in me worth losing. The fishy soup they’d fed me was little more than broth, and it had

stayed down. But I couldn’t stay.

I couldn’t pay them.

In the near silence, I thought I heard the dripping of the water in the mausoleum of my forebears, the march of soldiers in Marlowe livery. I

could not go back. I had beaten my own brother nearly to death and fled in the night. For that alone, my father . . . I do not like to think what my father might have done to me. But it was more than that. If I feared Lord Alistair’s fury so much, I would never have left home. No, it was for my mother that I feared. What might happen to her if Father knew what part she had played? I hoped my grandmother would protect her.



Night came, as night must. True night, so that even the street without grew hushed, and I—who had slept most of that day and for untold years before

—pulled myself naked from beneath my sheets. My muscles felt slack,

weak, heavy as lead weights, and I slumped against the aluminum bedstead as I stood. I was grateful that I was alone in my nakedness, remembering how the mutant Saltus had mocked me. Where had they gone? What had happened while I’d slept frozen? What had changed? The crone who ran this clinic—I never learned her name—swore that this was typical of Free

Trade vessels, that passengers were tossed aside like so much chaff. I couldn’t quite make myself believe that it was so.

Fearing the poor girl would choose that moment to enter the hall, I dragged my sticky sheet off the bed and made a toga of it, holding it shut with my hands, grateful for the thick callouses on my feet from years of training. My bandaged thumb ached, my head swam, and I swayed against

one peeling plaster wall. I had to find clothes. I couldn’t go out into the city in naught but my skin. Leaning against the corner of the landing at the midpoint of a narrow flight of stairs, I thought back. The woman had said

she would find clothes for me in the back. The back. A storeroom? A closet? Surely there was something lying about.

There was, as it happened, behind a dinted green metal door on the first floor, past a supply closet and a pair of drinking fountains. The room

smelled of fungus and rot, as if it had been underwater more than once and never properly aired. Never cleaned. I didn’t want to waste time, fearing that Maris or the crone would find my bed empty and come looking. I found a shirt, a gray pullover with a black star inked on the chest. After several

attempts, I found a pair of trousers that fit well enough at the waist. They were baggy, their dun legs covered in mismatched pockets, variously

stained. Of shoes, socks, or undergarments there was no sign. But nearly fifteen years of fencing barefoot and of running the walls at Devil’s Rest and Haspida unshod, had turned my soles to horn. Those hardened soles slapped the grimy floor as I left the medica, moving toward the double doors. A ceiling lamp flickered, highlights glittering over the white-and-

black-checked tiles. A rat scampered across the space, causing me to start. I watched it go; so like myself it was, stealing into the night.

I squeezed my fist around my bandaged thumb, pain lancing up my arm to my teeth. With a grunt, I set my jaw. Whatever had happened, the bastards had taken my ring along with all the data it held. All the proof I

was who I said I was, of my titles and holdings. There were people for

whom the mere sight of a palatine seal opened doors, greased palms. That ring might have helped without putting me on high society’s damned genetic map, might have kept me off Chantry and state registries.

The doors moaned as I threw them open, pressing against the wet night air. It hit me like a wall, like a wave. I had thought it hot and humid inside the musty clinic, but I was mistaken. Breathing the heavy air was like

sucking in a lungful of water, and I felt my stolen clothes start to stick to me.

Something smashed against the floor behind me, glass and metal and the clatter of wood. I turned and caught Maris staring at me from down the hall, the remains of someone’s meal—mine?—shattered and spilled on the

checked tiles. She looked ready to scream, to cry. She bit her lip, hands twitching before her, and I knew then that she knew I was running, stealing the help they had given me, leaving them with nothing. I thought of the rat again and ran. She did scream then, but the word was lost in a sudden gust of night air.

I ran then, ran for blocks, splashing through filmy puddles in the warped and sagging tarmac, past the neon windows of storefronts and under the overhangs of the upper stories of short buildings that looked rust-colored in the light of orange street lamps. Rain fell soft and warm on my downturned face, and though I knew it was wrong, I ran anyway, chest heaving, head pounding as my blood, long still, became reacquainted with the necessities of living. At long last I stopped, slumped against a rubbish bin outside a bakery, a lone figure in stolen clothes, crouched against the night. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.

And I realized that it was not rain on my face, but tears.

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