Chapter no 24 – Those Mindless Days

Empire of Silence

THREE DAYS AND NIGHTS have passed since last I put pen to vellum. Long have I pondered how to proceed, how best to relate those days and years lost to the streets of Borosevo. They say that when he was a boy, the prince Cid Arthur was kept in a pleasure palace by his father’s faithful archon, isolated from death, disease, and poverty, for a vate had prophesied that if he should see the ugliness of the world, Cid Arthur would renounce his father’s throne and become a preacher himself. I had always wondered at this, for I had grown up in a palace myself, and I knew of poverty and

sickness and had had my own brushes with death—first with my grandmother, then later when Uncle Lucian had died in his shuttle crash. I could not understand how Arthur had been so blind.

I understood it now.

Just as there is a difference between the news of a distant planet’s destruction and the bloody death of a coliseum slave, it is one thing to know there is poverty and illness and another to walk among the poor and

suffering. Often I saw beggars covered in black sores and peeling skin beseeching the Chantry for deliverance not from evil, but from sickness. The Rot was rampant in the city, the gift of some alien animalcule very like a bacterium. It blackened skin and wasted flesh and hardened lymphs and lungs. The city prefects piled bodies in squares and burned them, and the

smoke carried votive lanterns to a heaven that seemed deaf to all prayer. My own palatine blood defended me, but there was no defense from the horror of it.

My father’s face haunted me at night, his and the funeral masks of our forebears and the screaming of nameless prisoners in the bastille he wished to send me to. For their sake I suffered, and for my mother. I dreamed I saw

her dragged to the whipping post, lashed by a blindfolded cathar in unfeeling black. When I awoke, sweating and sobbing in a cardboard pile between a clothier and a bakery, it was to thoughts of Gibson. The old man had suffered for nothing, was exiled for nothing. For there I was, rotting on the edge of the Empire and the Veil in a system looking out on the Sullen Gulf between the Arms of Centaurus and Norma.

But I forced myself to go on.

Like Cid Arthur on his quest for the Merlin Tree, I did what I had to do to survive. I ate fish raw from the canals, raided compost bins. I depended upon the kindness of street vendors—a class of men not much noted for their charity—and I learned to beg. I will not say I was good at it, but desperation eventually broke down the dregs of my palatine dignity.

I suppose I might have surrendered at any moment, submitted my blood and ring to the count’s authority and waited for my father to collect me. I was tempted—sorely tempted—those first weeks most of all. The years

slipped by in squalor, and the days were long. Mad as it sounds, despite the misery and the struggle, despite the prefects and the gangs . . . I was happy. For the first time in my life I was truly free. Of my father. Of my station. Of everything.

It was not enough. Free I might be, but to be free and less than a serf is small consolation. Each night the stars called to me through Borosevo’s haze. They had never felt so far away. All I needed was a way offworld. I longed to find some unscrupulous merchanter who would hire a man

without the necessary papers, but I couldn’t get within half a mile of the landing field. Trespassers were shot on sight.

In time, whatever lofty dreams I had faded into dreams of food. I missed wine with a passion I find difficult to describe, and fruit, and hot meals . . . and water most of all. Do you know what it is to miss water? I was made to siphon off rain barrels. All the while I brooded on my fate, on the utter destruction of my hopes and dreams. In my mind I saw Gibson’s letter afire, black smoke curling from its corners as it twisted like a dragon devouring its own tail.

I was never going to Teukros. I was never going anywhere.

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