Chapter no 25 – Poverty AND Punishment

Empire of Silence

I CROUCHED ON THE old drinking cooler I used as both treasure chest and

chair in the storm drain I had called home for the past ten nights, eating half a smoked eel I had stolen from a street vendor outside the coliseum. The meat was tender, brushed with garlic and soy sauce, vaguely smoky. I had been a thief now for the better part of a week and had decided I was good at it, though my whole body ached from gravity fatigue.

It was a good spot. Dry, unless one counted the channel in the bottom of the storm drain. Enclosed, unless one counted the open mouth of the tunnel that spilled out onto a canal some twenty feet below. It was one of dozens built into the side of the White District, so called for the color of the lime-washed bulwark that separated it from Belows. The White District clustered about the base of the castle ziggurat, fifty feet or so above sea level, relic of the days when the Empire seized Emesh from the Norman United Fellowship, which had colonized it. There lived the planet’s wealthy, its patricians and offworld plutocrats, the guild factionarii and important businessmen, local celebrities and gladiators. The Chantry sanctum was there, a copper-domed structure beside the brutalist concrete mass of its

attendant bastille. We beggars were not tolerated in the White District save on the day of the High Litany, which cycled through the week as Emesh’s day-and-night cycle failed to tally with the standard calendar.

I sat on the very edge of the drain, looking down and out upon Belows, the warren of canals and low buildings with rooftop gardens. The sun was going down, bruised and bloody into the blackened sea, and I dangled my bare and aching feet over the edge, airing them. I ate the last of my eel with something resembling contentment, wishing I had something more than rainwater to wash it down.

A flight of terranic pigeons rose from the street corner, and I watched a paper votive lantern rise above the rooftops. They were always rising from the city, carrying prayers toward Mother Earth, entreaties for the souls of the Rot’s victims. I leaned against the side of the drainpipe, resting my head on the whitewashed concrete.


How is it you can always tell when a word is directed at you? Every muscle in me tightened like bowstrings ready to fire, and I looked round, terrified for a moment that someone had come through the barred grate behind me. But no. I saw the culprits at once: a man and a woman in the dun khakis of the urban prefects. They were standing on the edge of the

sidewalk by the canal, hurrying toward the accessway that arched over the water to the ladder bracketed into the wall.

“Come down!”

I scrabbled to my feet, tripping back and falling over the cooler in my panic. It was a damnably stupid thing to do. One of my spasming feet

caught the cooler I’d been sitting on and kicked it right over the ledge. I felt a yell choke off behind my teeth, dismay and frustration coloring my

surprise. Everything I had in the world—excepting my clothes and my family’s ring—was in that little blue crate. My extra food, the two magazines I’d lifted from a newsstand three days earlier, the empty bottles I used for collecting rainwater. And my money. I had managed to scrape together a few dozen steel bits until I had nearly so much as a single silver kaspum. That kind of money could have bought me a night in one of

Belows’s many flophouses. I was saving it for shoes.

A ragged yell escaped me, and before I could much think on it, I hurled myself down after it, diving feet first toward the green water of the canal. The prefects yelled, but the sound fell away in the liquid rush of air past my ears.

I hit the surface of the canal like a boulder, my legs tucked up around me. When I surfaced, I cast about for the heavy plastic of the cooler. I hadn’t seen where it had fallen. Had it sunk? Had it managed to fall on the street instead of in the water? Damn it, I’d acted too fast. Stupid, stupid,

stupid. There it was, bobbing low in the water by the concrete wall I’d leaped from. I swam to it, mindful now of the shouting behind me. “What were you doing up there?”

Maybe I could talk my way out of this. Treading water, clutching the

cooler’s handle in one hand, I pushed off the wall of the White District and made for the sidewalk just above the canals. The prefects both hurried from the arched access bridge to intercept me, but I was faster, vaulting onto the sidewalk, trailing green and stinking seawater. A line of schoolchildren hurried by under the watchful eye of their teacher, pointing and laughing at the dripping man with his wild hair. “Just enjoying the view, ma’am. You

can see the whole city from up there.” I tried to smile, tried to pass off my wild state as the fault of my spectacular dive, not of more than a month

spent without a wash.

The prefect glowered at me, black eyes measuring as she tapped her stunner in its thigh holster. “Them drains is off-limits to the public.

Everyone knows that.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I bobbed my head, taking a step back, clutching my cooler to my dripping chest. “Sorry, I—”

“Papers,” the other prefect snapped, holding out a hand. “Let’s see your identification.”

I took a step back. “I . . .” What could I say? “I don’t have it with me.”

The second prefect sighed. “You’ll have to come with us, then.” He held out a hand.

Crispin’s unconscious shape moved just beneath my vision, haunting me. What was I supposed to do? My signet ring seemed to hang more heavily about my neck, and I glanced from side to side. There was a small alley wedged between two shops not far off. If I could make it to that

alley . . .

“Come on, you.” One of the prefects made a grab for me. I took a violent step back. The prefect seized my wrist. I panicked, swung the still-dripping cooler in a wide arc that took the officer in the side of his head. He reeled back, released me with a cry of surprise and pain. And the lid sprang open. Coins and magazines and half an old sandwich fanned across the two officers, damp banknotes and napkins sticking to the inside of the box. I

choked back a sob and turned and ran.

I didn’t make it far.

The stunner bolt grazed my leg, and the muscle there went slack as old rubber. I stumbled, lost my grip on the now-empty cooler. It clattered away across the pavement. I struggled to stand. Before I could so much as reach my knees, a boot slammed down on my shoulder, pressing me to the earth.

My vision went dark as my head struck the pavement, and it was all I could do to crawl forward. The stunner had only grazed me. I could still run, if only I could ignore the needling sensation humming up my leg, if only I

could find my feet. Someone kicked me below the ribs, and I winced. Visions of that night in Meidua spasmed in me, and my breath came hard and caught. The ragged sound of my blood pounding in my ears drowned out the prefects’ muddy swearing. Something battered me across the head,

and my vision blurred again. I lay quiescent, flat on my face, and gritted my teeth to keep from sobbing or crying out.

I felt hands patting me down, turning out my pockets. They found a pair of steel bits and a coupon from a chain of fish carts promising a discount.

They did not find my ring, did not so much as bother to turn me over. “Bastard’s poor as dirt,” the woman said.

“He’s gutter trash, Ren,” the other prefect said. “Ain’t worth booking.” He spurned me with his toe, and I bit down on my tongue, tasted iron blood. “Should have run faster, neg.”

She swore, and I felt a pressure on the back of my neck. Something hard slugged me square on the back of my head, but I didn’t black out, just groaned. The stunner fog turned my whole side warm where it had

skimmed me, and now I doubted I could have so much as walked in a straight line, much less made a break for the alley. I thought of how I’d trashed that dockworker a month before and felt shame rise in me. The

prefect was wrong. I shouldn’t have run faster. I shouldn’t have run at all. I bared bloody teeth and spat on the cement beside my head.

Just then the woman seized me by the hair and peeled me off the

concrete. She crouched close, breathed in my ear. “Don’t let me catch you where you don’t belong again, neg, or you’ll regret it.”

A retort—something about laying off the illegal horse hormones— formed and fell from my lips. I let it go, struggled toward a calm like the apatheia. I went limp, felt my face bruise as she dropped me to the pavement. I do not know how long I lay there or why none of the passing men and women stopped to help me.

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