Chapter no 26 – CAT

Empire of Silence

THE RAIN SHEETED OFF the canted roofs, over choking gutters, and into canals so bloated they swallowed the roads. I splashed over an elevated walkway, glad of the fresh water despite the storm. Whole sections of

Borosevo—the poorest—drowned whenever the storms came in. Lightning spasmed across the underbelly of the sky, caroming from one cloud to the next. I leaned against the plastic rail, shoved my hair from my eyes to protest the gusting winds.

I needed shelter. I needed food. I needed to stop hurting.

The streetlights went out, and the swinging chain of lights strung over the bridge with the power lines died too. Darkness stole over the raised

street, and I scrabbled on, bare feet scuffing the worn cement. I tarried a moment in the leeward face of a shuttered grocer and contemplated

smashing the windows. The prefects were not likely to risk action in a hurricane, not even for burglary . . . but no, no.

Out beyond the dark shapes of low buildings and the tiered sprawl of the city, a bolt of lightning struck the sea, turning all that darkness to gleaming glass. The thunder shook me to the marrow, rattled over Borosevo like the descent of starcraft. A striped awning snapped above my head, rain bouncing off it like the beat of a thousand tiny drums. Driven by instinct, I curled myself up on the stoop and hoped to wait out the storm. From my vantage point, I could just make out the looming mass of the palace

ziggurat rising over the city, its black shape crouched over Borosevo like a dragon on its hoard. The lights in its high towers flickered. Even the count’s power systems shivered in the wake of Emesh’s fury.

We had storms on Delos, blown in by the sirocco across the sea to our eastern shores, but they were nothing—nothing—next to the storms on

Emesh. Cloudscapes vast as empires towered over the city, filling the sky and burying all the stars. Despite the heat and steaming air, I shivered. A

light flicked on behind me, and a beet-faced man slammed on the glass with his fist, shouting dull words. I got the message, lurched awkwardly to my feet. How long had it been since I’d last eaten?

Rain lashed the concrete, pelted off glass storefronts and off tarps

shielding boats broken and bobbing in the swell. I hurried on, darting into an alley in the hope of finding some loading dock left open by mistake. But the people of Borosevo were diligent, well used to their storms, and I was left to wander. Old garbage stuck to the soles of my bare feet as I scuffed

along, leaning against the tin wall of a shed a block back from the front

street. I clutched my ring on its chain through the front of my soaking shirt, held it as a sorcerer might a talisman.

As a child I had wished for an adventure. I had wanted to see the galaxy, to plumb the hidden depths of the human universe and prize secrets from the darkness between the stars. I had wanted to travel like Tor Simeon and Kharn Sagara in the old stories, wanted to see the Ninety-Nine Wonders of the Universe and to break bread with xenobites and kings. Well, I had gotten my adventure, and it was killing me. At least the buildings in the

alley overhung the street. It wasn’t much, but the hanging eaves allowed for a stretch of space about a meter deep that stood dry. Drier. Trying again, I pressed myself down between two garbage bins, shielded from wind and

water as much as was possible.

Why had it all gone wrong? What had happened to Demetri? It wasn’t fair. I had done everything I was supposed to do, followed Mother’s plan as carefully as I could. I should have been on Teukros in a scholiasts’ cloister by now, listening to lectures on warp-space math and the diplomatic ties between the Empire and client states among the Normans and the Durantine Republic.

“What you doing?” I thought I had imagined the voice at first, so small was it, hissing sharp beneath the pounding of the storm. “You!” I looked up

—all the way up—to the roof of the building across from me. A small, dark face peered down at me, plastered with sodden hair. I wanted to slink away, to vanish. I had not spoken to anyone in weeks, not since the time a sailor on shore leave had given me half a sandwich when I asked for a kaspum.

You may think it odd, but if you have ever been well and truly alone for any

length of time, you will know how hard it is to come back to the world of people. So I just stared at her.

“Are you stupid or something?” When still I didn’t move, she added, “They didn’t sandbag the alley, rus. Fall asleep there, and they’ll have to

fish you out of the lagoon come sunrise. Climb up!” She jerked her head at a broken gutter that ran up one corner of her building.

I almost bolted. Maybe I would have if I had been healthier, if my ribs didn’t still ache from my third beating in as many weeks. But when I stood pain lanced up my side, and I keeled sidelong into the nearest garbage bin. The huge plastic tub slicked on the drenched concrete, fell sideways with a dull bang. I swore, apologized to no one and nothing. The girl’s face had vanished from the lip of the building. Had I imagined her? I clambered to the gutter. Its bulky brackets were nearly as good as a ladder, but they were far apart, and the sheet metal was slick. I only slipped twice, biting my lip as I splashed in the nearly two inches of water that pooled at the base of the building.

The third time a small, strong hand seized me by the wrist. “The fuck’s wrong with you?” She wasn’t strong enough to haul me up, but she bought me time to plant my feet again, time enough to finally seize the lip of the building and pull myself over. A light flier passed overhead, running lights blinding in the close air. “You some sort of idiot?”

“I’m not!” I snapped, baring my teeth. She recoiled, wiping the rain from a face suddenly poisoned by fear. All at once the wind went out of me, and I said, “Sorry . . . I . . .” I bowed my head, darted a glance back at her.

“Thanks for the leg up.” She was younger than I, perhaps sixteen standard, copper-skinned and round-featured, her eyes smiling out of her rough, plebeian face despite the wary set of her jaw. Her clothes were patched and torn worse even than my own, suggesting a body lean and undernourished. She was like me: homeless, helpless in the storm.

She cocked her head to one side. “You’re not from here, are you?”

I shook my head, looked away, taking in the rain-swept rooftop. A bank of dinted solar panels marched along the far edge, and a washing line hung barren and swinging in the wind. Another peal of thunder shook the world, echo of some unseen lightning. From our meager vantage point the low

sprawl of Borosevo unrolled like trash caught in a gyre. “You offworld?” she asked.

“Yes.” I eyed the bank of solar panels at the far edge of the roof, shuffled toward them. With the girl’s help, I lowered myself beneath one of them.

The roof was still wet, but at least the rain no longer fell directly on our heads.

She slunk in after me, making me budge aside to make room. “You hurt?”

“I ran afoul of some . . .” I was about to say local color. “. . . people.”

The words sounded lame even to me, and the girl made a face. “Ran afoul?” she repeated. “That mean yes?”

I grunted in answer and leaned back, ducking my head where the panel canted backward at an angle to face the south. The concrete roof felt unspeakably good just then, and I lay flat on my back, not moving. “Nice spot you’ve got here.” For a storm, I was hard-pressed to think of a better one. The solar panels proved a good cover from the rain, and the rooftop was clean and above any level like to flood.

To my surprise, she brightened, revealing crooked teeth when she

smiled. “Got lucky—owners ain’t in.” She went quiet then for a moment. “Why you trying to drown yourself in the street like that?”

“I was just trying to sleep.” My eyes were closed, my breathing deliberately shallow, protesting the pain in my sides. The waif didn’t say anything for five seconds. Ten seconds. After half a minute I cracked one eye, found her crouched, watching me. “What?”

“Ain’t you got money?” she asked, confusion obvious in her tone.

“Offworlders always got money. You could get a room.” Was that hope in her voice?

“I don’t have anything,” I said, forcing my hand not to grasp my ring through my shirt. The last thing I needed was to give the little street rat an excuse to rob me. After another unsteady silence, I asked, “What’s your name?”

This earned me a sharp look. “What’s yours?”

I opened both my eyes but did not sit up. “Hadrian.”

She made a face that to this day I can’t describe. “I’m Cat.” “Is that short for Catherine?”

Her nose wrinkled. “No! What sort of name’s ‘Catherine’?” She ripped a strip of tape off the roof beside her, exposing an old wire that ran down from the solar panel overhead. “It’s just Cat.” After another pregnant

silence, she echoed, “What sort of name’s ‘Hadrian,’ anyway?”

I shrugged. “An old one. Mine.” My unfortunate gruffness stalled the conversation out again, and I pressed a hand to my ribs, wincing at the hot

pain there. The girl moved, unsure how to help, hands hovering above me. Thunder rolled. The roof was drenched beneath me, but it didn’t matter. For once I was grateful for the uncomfortable warmth and the weight of the air.

“How bad you beat?”

“Two fractured ribs, I think.” Remembering what had happened that night after the Colosso in Meidua, I added, “I’ve had worse.” Only this time I wasn’t going to be given medical correctives. I groaned. I had thought I

could get away with stealing from a group of teenagers. They’d been

stronger and meaner than I could have believed, and there had been twelve of them.

She bit her lip. “Can’t do nothing for that.”

“No,” I agreed. I listened to the lashing rain a moment, fighting the blurred vision of encroaching sleep. “Why’d you help me?” It didn’t seem like a smart thing for a girl alone to do.

Cat sat a little straighter. “I wouldn’t leave no one in the low streets in a storm, rus.” She gave me a speculative look. “Can you even swim?”

“Maybe if my ribs weren’t broken.”

“My ma said some offworlders ain’t even got water. I weren’t sure . . .” She trailed off, playing with the little strip of tape.

I offered a thin smile, hoping it would go some way toward repairing the damage I’d done by glaring at her. “I grew up by the sea. I can swim, I

just . . .” I cast about the rooftop with my eyes. “Everything’s different here. Air’s all wrong, gravity’s too strong. People are strange . . .” I winced. I was rambling.

She wadded up the tape and threw it out into the rain and looked at me with a sudden intensity I found almost frightening, and I shied away despite the pain in my chest and arms. “You talk funny, Hadr-Hadrian.” She

stumbled on my unfamiliar name. “Where you from?”

“Delos,” I said, as if the name could mean anything to her.

You talk funny. That thought stopped me short of saying anything further.

It was so obvious now that I’d had it pointed out to me. Whatever I looked like, I still spoke like a Delian nobile, like a palatine of the Imperium. I

should have noticed that—no wonder the others among the city’s poor mistrusted me. I stood out like a broken finger.

“Where’s that?”

Only a few of the unfixed stars peered through the storm, watchful and timeless. Around one of those lights was home. I could not say which, for though I knew the names of the stars, their positions were strange here. It

could be any of them or none, my home lost under cloud or in the Dark. But the truth is poor poetry, and my mother had taught me better. I bit my lip— in part to subdue another wave of pain from my burning side—and pointed. “See that star, there?” I coughed. She nodded. “You can’t see it, but there’s another star behind it. Much, much farther away. That’s where I come from.”

“What’s it like?”

“My turn for a question!” I interjected, trying to sit up. No good. As is so often true in cases of exhaustion or hurt, rest was the best and worst thing for me. I couldn’t make myself move. “You don’t have any painkillers, do you? Nothing heavy. No narcotics.”

She shied away, face darkening. “I don’t . . .” I wasn’t sure if she was answering me or not. Her voice broke. Was it fear? Why? I couldn’t understand. “I don’t know these words.”

“Drugs,” I said. “Medicine?”

“What exactly happened, anyway?”

That brought a grimace to my face. “Tried to steal off the back of a lift-palette from some bastards with white armbands.” I gestured to my left biceps.

“Rells?” Her dark face went pale. “Shit, rus, you are crazy.”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” I laughed weakly, trying to undercut my own foolishness. I waggled my toes. “I wanted . . .” My voice trailed off, broken by exhaustion, by pain, by the interminably long night.

. . . shoes.



I must have passed out. When I awoke, the Emeshi night stood deep upon the world. The clouds had rolled on, and the fierce squall had diminished to gentle rain. I was alone, unmoved from my spot beneath the solar panel. Cat was nowhere to be seen, and I lay aching and soaking and cold on the hard rooftop. Whatever comfort I’d felt in the place before going to sleep was gone, replaced by a bone-deep stiffness and a dull throbbing at the base of my skull. I lay a long time before Cat came back, watching the underside of

the solar panel and the swirl of clouds along the horizon. The storm passed away north, lightning now only distantly visible, thunder reduced to the dullest drumbeat.

“You’re not dead,” she said, small mouth going up at the corners. “I wasn’t that badly off.”

She placed a plastic shopping bag on the roof beside me and opened it, one of the heavy sort sailors and housewives insisted on never throwing

away. “Any of this help?”

I had to grab one of the solar panel’s support spars to haul myself into a sitting position. The bag was full of half-emptied medicine bottles, the labels torn or blurred or written in foreign scripts. I began sifting through them. “Where’d you get all this?”

“Trash,” Cat said simply. “Might still work okay.”

I was in no position to be choosy. I set five bottles of vitamins aside as well as three with labels written in a form of Mandari strange to me—no sense playing dice. At last I found a bottle written in the distinct blocky

Lothrian alphabet. Naproxen. I shook it before unscrewing it. There weren’t many left. “You sure I can have some?”

She made a throwing away gesture and went out into the still drizzling rain. I took three of the pills, ignoring the bottle’s recommended dosage, and left the bag beneath the solar panel. It took a great effort to make myself stand again and more to peel off my soaked shirt, which I left hanging from a bar beneath the panel. I paused a moment, taking my ring off the cord round my neck. I stuffed it into a pocket of my soaking pants instead. A moment later I sagged onto the ledge overlooking the city. The

water had risen nearly a foot and a half in the alley below, and I averted my eyes. Tired as I had been, I might not have awakened until it was too late.

Cat and I sat there a long while, unseen by the world, seeing all of it. At last I asked, “Why did you help me?”

“Told you,” she said, making the throwing away gesture again. “Ain’t gonna let anyone drown in their sleep like that.” I held her gaze for a good long while, and something in my face must have spoken to her, for she

added, “And you was crying. I know what that’s like. Being alone.”

“You said something about your mother,” I put in, curiosity overcoming tact.

Cat’s face crumpled, the pretty, common lines drooping. I felt something in me break for having caused that sadness as she said, “She’s dead. Sick.

The Rot, you know . . .” She tossed something over the side of the building

—a chip of the concrete ledge, perhaps. “You got a family?”

I shook my head, resisted touching my ring where it lurked in my pocket. “No.”

You'll Also Like