ALREADY NUMB FROM A stunner graze and clutching my useless left arm, I slalomed round a street corner and up onto a set of crates, using them to springboard over the parked float-palette that blocked the road. The gray
concrete glowed with heat, but my scarred and grimy soles could not feel it. I cannot say which day it was or how many months or years of my life had washed into those canals like so much garbage.
I heard shouts behind me and shrugged the straps of the stolen purse into the crook of my still-working arm. Gasping, I darted up a set of stairs and into an alley so narrow my broad shoulders almost scraped the sides. The buildings hung close above my head, piping and ductwork exposed and bracketed to metal walls. My shirt snagged on a bolt and tore, doubtless gashing my unfeeling arm in the process. The electric crackle of stunner fire and shouts of, “Stop! Thief!” followed me like the hounds in one of my late uncle’s foxhunts. My chapped lips pulled into a mean grimace, hair blowing in my face. I turned, shouldered past a pair of women carrying shopping baskets on their heads and onto a high street running along the saline bend of a canal.
Though my instinct was to run, though years of bruises and broken bones badly set by backstreet hacks screamed at me to keep going, I knew that would only make me stand out. Many’s the time I watched a crowd turn against a fellow thief, the brightly dressed throng transmuted into a wall of solid flesh as the prefects brought him down. Instead I slipped around an iron railing and settled at an empty glass table at the edge of a cafe’s sitting area. Holographs for ordering flickered on the glass surface, and I made a
show of riffling through my purse—no mean feat with one of my arms
stunned and useless. I did not doubt that there was a camera somewhere on
me, but I didn’t think that information would make it to the prefects before they slipped by me. I ignored the universal card in the purse and the identification forms, both belonging to the powdered man in the low-slung sarong I’d stolen it from. I found a pair of slightly ovoid glasses—silver-rimmed with lenses of ruby glass—that I shoved onto my nose. I took a moment to gather back my long hair and bind it with an elastic band, also courtesy of the bag. What’s more, I found a full half-kaspum note and nearly another kaspum in steel change. These I stuffed into my pocket with a small smile before setting the purse down beside my chair.
Behind me, I heard the drumming of boot heels on the pavement, but I did not turn. I bowed my head and pretended to look over the menu
embedded in the table.
“Don’t worry,” a rough voice said. “I won’t say a thing.”
I looked up to find an older man smiling at me from the next table over. He raised his eyebrows and smiled over the rim of his drink. We were the only clients for three tables. An old book sat closed beside one fist, and he wore an indigo jacket cut in Nipponese fashion, square sleeves patterned with gold and black diamonds about the cuffs. His graying hair was pulled back into a greasy topknot, frayed and bristling like a calligrapher’s long-abused brush.
I decided to play dumb. “I’m sorry?” My voice came out ragged, masking somewhat the effect of my clipped Delian accent.
“Your arm’s gone stun-lame and you’re breathing like the Duchess
Antonelli’s prize racehorse. Don’t take a scholiast to figure you’ve done a runner.” He wasn’t Nipponese either, judging by the craggy lines of his face or the tenor of his words. Indeed, I couldn’t place his accent. Durantine, maybe? Or one of the Norman freeholders, though he didn’t have their
coloring. I stood sharply, turned to go. “Don’t be that way. Old Crow ain’t going to say a word. Why don’t you sit awhile?” He kicked a chair out with a sandaled heel. When I didn’t answer or move, he sighed, slipping a loose lock of graying hair behind his ear. “How long’s it been?”
“How long has what been?”
“Since you was stranded, boy! You got the stink of space all over you, and anyone with eyes can see you’re no Emeshi.”
I let my numb arm fall and swallowed the impulse to object to being called boy, but I didn’t take his offer of a seat. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Couple of years.”
Old Crow frowned. “Couple of years . . .” He shook his head, topknot wavering. “That’s hard.”
I risked a glance over my shoulder to where the prefects—four of them
—were working their way through the crowd. Suddenly nervous, I slunk into the chair opposite the other man.
From his complexion and the strangeness of his dress and accent, it was clear he was as Emeshi as I was, so I asked, “Where are you from, messer?” I could have kicked myself. The messer made me sound more than half-
educated, not the common thief I seemed.
Crow smiled as if he understood, waving a hand around noncommittally. “Oh, lots of different places.” He peered over my shoulder, watched the prefects press on down the high street toward one of the many bridges that arched over the canal. “But I’m bound for Ascia, in the Commonwealth.
I chewed my lip, looked down at the table. I didn’t want to answer. I regretted sitting down. At last I said, “I’m from . . .”
He slapped the table. “Not that. Where are you going?”
Slowly I raised my eyes to his, confused. “Nowhere. What do you care?
I shouldn’t even be talking to you. Whatever you’re selling—”
“Not selling a damn thing,” Crow said, scratching behind one ear. “Just seeing a man in need’s all, only I ain’t got nothing to give, neither.” He groaned, leaning in over the table. “Bones don’t thaw like they used to.
Damn fugue creches.” Despite his complaints, he looked to be on the near side of middle-aged. I couldn’t guess his caste, or even if he had one. He splayed a hand on the tabletop, and only then did I realize the man was at least a little drunk. “A man’s got to be going somewhere. That’s why Old Crow here . . .” He gestured at the sky, trailed off. “Anyway . . .”
I rose to leave, checking my pockets for the coins I’d taken from the
stolen purse. They were still there, and I crumpled the half-kaspum note in my fingers. The prefects had vanished around a bend, and I peered out through the lenses of my pilfered red glasses, seeking them. The sailor made no objection to my leaving but said, “This planet’s a shithole, you know? How’s a man supposed to breathe? Even the whiskey’s wrong.” He made a face at his mug.
It was precisely the word I’d thought of a hundred times since my rude awakening on this world. It was all wrong. The sunlight, the two moons,
even the air. I could not have imagined my current state from the comforts of Devil’s Rest nor wished them on even the lowliest peasant. At once the stolen coins seemed a terrible weight in my pocket, a yoke upon my
The drunken sailor was still talking, though less to me and more to the world in general, it seemed. “Listen to Old Crow here. A man’s got to have a fire under him.”
“How’d you become a sailor?” I asked without thinking. There was a better life, one I might aspire to in my meanness. Thoughts of Simeon the Red—of traveling the unending night—filled me. Even if I would never be
a scholiast or part of the Expeditionary Corps, the adventure and mysteries I sought and the prestige of exploration need not be barred from me.
Crow cocked his head at me, scratching at his ear again, a look on his face like I’d asked him a hard question. “I was born one. So many are.” He pointed a finger at me, jerked his thumb like the hammer in an antique firearm. He winked, then squinted at me. “You ain’t thinking of signing on, are you?”
My heart leaped into my throat. The thought of again being on a cold
ship, clean and fed, positively swelled within me. I darted a glance over the cafe rail to the street, keeping an eye out for the khaki uniforms of the urban prefects. Interpreting my quietude for an affirmative, Crow said, “That’s a hard life, brother. You’d be better off getting a job in the hothouse farms than sailing. Black Earth! Be a fisherman. Fishermen make an honest living without all the damn freezing.” He rubbed at the back of his neck, grimacing. “Say, you thought about the pit fights? Strapping lad like
you . . . They got no shortage of need over in the Colosso. Someone’s got to fill in for the dead boys.”
“Are you a recruiter?” I asked.
“Am I a recruiter?” he repeated. “Shit no, just like a good fight.” He leaned forward, pointed at my chest. “You’d be great, though. Got the build for it.” Old Crow looked sourly at his drink and said, “Remember, though— be a myrmidon, not a gladiator. Girls don’t like the professional killers.”
That struck me as odd. Girls loved the gladiators in no small part because they were killers. Heroes. Real men. No one liked a corpse. Looking back, I suppose it was prophecy, or perhaps it was just because the old bastard was foreign.
“I’ll consider it.” I took a mincing step away, making for the gate to the street, aware now that my standing was drawing the attention of a few other diners. The impulse to run warred with my desire to stay, and I must have looked a fool, dancing as I was from foot to foot. If I did, the sailor paid no mind. He was again in his cups, one finger tapping on the ordering service built into the table. I thought I saw a flash of khaki in the crowd and jerked back. My movement drew the other man’s attention, and for a moment all the drunkenness seemed banished from his craggy face.
“You can’t go on like this, brother.” He waggled a finger at me. “That’s no way for anyone to live. You’re lucky it were me this time, but next time you duck into a cafe with some lady’s purse”—he kept his voice low
—“someone might just call the guards.”
I looked down at my bare feet, at the mud caked there. I wanted to ask him to take me with him, but I thought of Cat—about her smile and her
crooked teeth—and I bit my tongue.
“You don’t know me,” I said sharply.
“Sure don’t,” Crow said. “But folk ain’t that different, one-to-one, no matter what’s on the outside. Doesn’t even matter where you been. Hurt the same, need the same. Need someone to remind them they’re human.” He
scratched at his ear thoughtfully. “You got means, boy, even when you got nothing. You got you. And I don’t mean blood.” From the way he cocked his eyebrows, I swear he knew me then for what I was: nobile, palatine,
scion of the peerage now fallen. But then he grinned, a gold tooth flashing, and the impression that here was a man wise as sages was shattered and obscured by all that roughness the way an ancient bit of shattered pottery only hints at the vanished empire that crafted her. “Who you are don’t mean shit. Don’t mean enough, anyhow. It’s what you do as matters, you hear?”
He spoke the truth, but I was not really listening, and it was a long time before the drunken sailor’s words penetrated that armored bunker I called a skull. But I was nodding, craning my neck all the while to get a look round the street corner through the windows of the cafe.
From behind me I heard a shout from the high street, and looking back
saw one of the prefects pointing straight at me. I felt the blood tighten in my veins even as Crow raised his cup in salute. “Run,” he said. “But run
somewhere, eh?” I ran.
Chapter no 29
WITH OUR POCKETS UNUSUALLY heavy from a trade with a less-than-
scrupulous pawnbroker, Cat and I stopped and bought sandwiches with
slabs of vat-beef thick with juices from a shop whose owner did not turn us away on sight. We came to the back door, as she had said to do the time before, and ate on the street corner in view of the canal, watching little boats go by, poled or motored across the stagnant channel.
“Tell me again about your castle, Had,” she said when she had finished half her food.
I had told her, of course. Who I was. What I was. She hadn’t believed me at first, thought I was just another lying sailor abandoned on a strange world. But I had shown her my ring, and she had believed with the innocence of someone whose personal world was bounded by the margins of a city, of someone to whom the vastness of the Empire and the galaxy was only a fairy story.
I finished my bite, wiped the juice from my mouth with the back of my hand. “Not much to say, really. You know the story.” I had explained a bit about why it was I’d fled. Just a piece.
“Not the story!” She poked me on the cheek, turning my head away. “What was it like?”
Smiling, I set my sandwich back in its little paper tray and looked at her intently, my head cocked at an angle. I tried to speak, then looked away
abruptly and clapped my hand on her knee. I have never been much of a poet, and so the words came haltingly. “It was cold, and everything was
clean. It wasn’t the sort of place that felt like people lived in it, you know? Everything had a place, and everyone, too.” I shook my head. “It’s hard to explain.”
“What did it look like, though? Were there towers?”
I barked a laugh, pulsed my grip on her knee. She slid a bit closer, laid her hand on mine. “Yes, there were towers, all granite and black glass
catching the sun . . .” I watched her as I shared with her the story of how
Julian Marlowe had raised the old pile after he helped Duke Ormund secure power on Delos. As I spun stories about the ancientmost days of the Empire, I caught the light in her honeyed eyes and felt the caul of ice in me crack. Just a little. I was remembering a night some few weeks before, kissing her beneath a bridge leading up into the White District. She had kissed me. “And when the clouds were right,” I said, “you could feel them like a roof just over your head and see the sunlight playing on the gray sea.”
“You want to go back?”
“What?” I froze. I pulled my hand away and looked down at the
sandwich in my lap, then at the fraying front of my shirt where my ring hung. “No. God, no.”
“But you make it sound so beautiful.”
I couldn’t remember when I’d clenched my fists, but it took an effort of will to unclench them. “It was, but . . .”
“You can’t . . . can’t like this.” She flapped a hand around at the street. “This is shit, Had. You don’t belong hereabouts.” I looked up at the sound of something fragile in her tone. The way she ran a self-conscious hand over the knee of her threadbare dress, right where I had touched her, broke my heart. “You should be up and up, you know?” Cat jerked a thumb
skyward. “Way you talk, you belong in a castle.”
“I don’t!” I said, recalling the dream I’d had of my father’s statue in the crypt with its red eyes like dying suns. I had not dreamed that dream in years, not since I’d awoken to this strange and stinking world.
“Well, you don’t belong here,” she said flatly, then leaned her head on my shoulder. Her hair tickled the side of my face, and I put an arm around her, as if by that gesture I could prove her wrong. I couldn’t think of
anything to say. She was right. “If you could go anywhere—anywhere in the whole great Dark—where would you go?”
Teukros, I almost said. Nov Senber. That answer died sharp and sudden on my tongue, and I picked at the few roast potato chips in the bottom of my lunch tray. “Have you ever heard of Simeon the Red?” She shook her head. I forced myself not to blurt a panicked “What!” at her and said instead, “He was my greatest hero. Simeon was a scholiast. No court vizier,
but a ship’s science officer and part of the Expeditionary Corps. This
was . . . oh, thousands of years ago, back when the Empire was young. His was one of the first ships into Centaurus, surveying worlds for future
colonies. Mostly they found freeholders, barbarian men who preferred the frontier to civilization, like the Normans today. These they let be or traded with or conquered in the name of the Emperor, striking ever outward into the Dark. There they found a strange new world, a freezing, craggy place ruled by giant birds and by a race of flying xenobites.”
“What were they like?” Cat asked. “The xenos?”
“Like birds themselves. A little smaller than us but with great wings for arms and short beaks.”
“And talons?” She leaned her weight against me.
“Oh yes,” I said, gesturing. “And claws at the end of their wings that they used to wield cutlasses tall as I am!” I raised a hand to indicate how tall those weapons were. “So Tor Simeon led missions to the surface, trading with the natives. The Irchtani, they called themselves. He learned to speak with them and to understand the sign language they used, and all was well between our people and theirs.
“But they had sailed too far for the crew. The men were sick at their guns and for want of home and human women. And while Simeon was on the ground with his guard and his science team, the crew mutinied, killed Simeon’s captain and the other officers, and were going to take their ship out to the freeholds and live like pirates. But they made a mistake.”
“They forgot Simeon?”
“Oh no, they didn’t forget him. They wanted him. Simeon could speak to the Irchtani, see? He could persuade their chieftains to sell their enemies to the mutineers as slaves. No one in the galaxy but them had seen an Irchtani before. Imagine the price one of them would fetch! For research at an athenaeum, or in Colosso, or sold to some old-blooded lord. They meant to be rich, you see, and they thought Simeon would help them. No, the mistake they made was thinking Simeon could be bought. He couldn’t.
Simeon was a scholiast and renounced wealth when he donned the green robes of his order. Worse, Simeon had befriended the Irchtani princes and banded with them to fight the mutineers when they came in their shuttles to find him. Simeon had never been a soldier, but he led the xenobites against the human traitors all the same and helped organize their retreat to the temple at Athten Var, the holiest of holies to the Irchtani people.”
“What was it like?”
I waved a hand. “They said their gods built it all of black stone on the highest mountain on the world and that it could be defended. That was
where they made their stand. Simeon and the Irchtani were victorious, the mutineers were thrown off the mountaintop, and Simeon retook his ship.
And as a gift the Irchtani gave to Simeon a great cloak such as their princes wore. ‘It is like your robe!’ the Prince of the Birds said, but it wasn’t. The Irchtani do not see color like men do, and the cloak they had made was red, not green. And thereafter Simeon was called ‘The Red’ for the cloak of the Irchtani, and he called the planet Judecca for the treason that was suffered there. The Empire named him captain and furnished him with a new crew, and they traveled farther into the Arm of Centaurus and brought to many other worlds the light of the Imperial Sun.”
“And what happened to the xenos?” Cat asked. “When the Empire arrived? Are they gone now?”
“They’re still there,” I said. “I forget which house rules Judecca now. Calbren, maybe? Or Brannigan? There are actually Irchtani auxilia in the Imperial Legions, fighting the Cielcin. I once heard talk that the Emperor was considering citizenship for those who served the standard twenty-year period.”
“Really!” I said, squeezing her with one arm. She had finished eating as I spoke, and she stole some of my potatoes despite my weak protests.
Realizing I’d not answered her original question, I deflected, saying, “What about you? Where would you go?”
She shrugged. “Ain’t going nowhere. Nowhere but here, that is.” “Neither am I.” I plucked at my threadbare shirt.
“You could, though,” Cat said, sitting up to look at me with her bright eyes. “You could show that ring to any old trader, and they’d have to do
whatever you said. You could take me!” She smiled sweetly, displaying her crooked teeth. There must have been a look on my thin face, for her own fell, and she breathed, “I know you can’t.”
We were quiet then, and after a moment I finished the last bits of my sandwich, passing the remaining potatoes to Cat. We sat awhile then,
watching a group of well-dressed people our own age hurry by, laughing
and joking, uncaring and unconcerned. After a long while, Cat said, “I’d go to Luin. Ma always said there were fairies in the woods there and silver
trees taller than that.” She pointed to Castle Borosevo, its sandstone towers and walls an artful riot atop its terraced concrete ziggurat. “She used to say the fairies guided people through forests to magic pools that no one else had ever seen before.” She smiled up at me, and I smiled back, knowing deep down that the phasma vigrandi of Luin were actually luring insects closer to the flesh-eating trees that made their world so beautiful. Not fairies at all.
“I want to see xenobites,” I said breathily, leaning back on my elbows to look up at the lurid green-orange sky. Suddenly I recalled the sailor, Crow. Inspired, I said, “I wish I had my own ship, that I could travel. That way Father and the Chantry would never find me. I’d sail to Jadd, to Durannos, to the Lothriad and the Freeholds, too. I want to see everything.” It was a good while before I noticed I was still talking. I must have babbled for five minutes. For ten. It felt good to dream again out loud, to lay bare the naked wantings of my heart.
I hadn’t realized that what I’d said was true until I’d spoken it. I wanted a ship, wanted the freedom of the stars. If I could not be a scholiast and learn secrets written down and stored, I would seek out truths where they lived. If only I could find the coin. Between Cat and I both we had less than a single silver kaspum, and that would not buy me shoes to walk in, much less wings to fly. Cat never stopped my gabbling, never interrupted. That
was more than passing strange. She was watching me carefully, as if unsure of what to say or how to say it. A small crease formed between her
eyebrows, and she bit her lip.
“What is it?” I asked, prodding her in the shoulder. “It’s not like you to go all stiff.”
In a papery voice she said, “You really want to leave, don’t you?”
I blinked, looked round at the sweating canal and trash plastered to the roadside. “Well . . . yes.” I waved a hand. “I’ve just got to find a way offworld is all. Someone who’ll take us away in secret, you and me. I’ve just got to find the money.”
Cat shook her head. “I can’t leave. I’m planetbound.” She’d grown very quiet, and I wondered at that.
“I’m not going to leave you here!” I murmured, nudging her with a shoulder. “Do you really think I’d just abandon you? We’ll figure
something out. Then we’ll see Luin and meet the Irchtani. I’ll even buy you a dress that’s not all torn.”
“You don’t got to leave Emesh to see xenos.” She looked down. “You can stay right here.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, sitting up.
She made a face. “You don’t know dust about us, do you?” Cat stood then, leaving the ruins of her lunch on the curb. “We got xenos on Emesh.”