BY THE DAY OF the Consortium’s arrival, the castle could no longer hide the signs of preparation. Wong-Hopper, Yamato Interstellar, the Rothsbank, and the Free Traders Union: these institutions transcended the boundaries of our Empire and bound the human universe together. Even in far-flung Jadd the satraps and princes bent to the demands of industry, and for all his greatness, my father was only a petty lord. Every stone and tile of the black castle I called home was made ready, and every uniform of every servant and peltast of the house guard showed immaculate. All preparations that could be done had been done: the gardens were trimmed, the hangings beaten, the floors waxed, the soldiers drilled, the guest suites brought online. Most telling of all: I had been banished from the premises.
“We simply do not have the equipment, lordship,” said the Mining Guild representative. Lena Balem flattened her hands against the desktop, winecolored nails gleaming in the ruddy overhead light. “The refinery at Redtine Point is badly in need of repair, and without increased attention to containment, worker death is likely to exceed five percent by the end of the standard term.” From her file, I knew her to be about twice my age, just on the far side of forty years standard. She looked so old. Her plebeian blood- undoctored by the High College-betrayed her in the graying of her golden hair, in the creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes, and in the softening of the flesh of her jaw. Time was already taking its toll on her, whereas she was little more than a child measured against the centuries I anticipated. I must have stared, or else been too quiet for too long, for she broke off abruptly and said, “I’m sorry, but I thought I was meant to be addressing your lord father on this matter.”
I shook my head, sparing a glance in the mirror above and behind her desk at the black-armored peltasts who awaited me by the gray metal doors, all leaning on the hafts of energy lances taller than they were. Their silent presence gave me pause, and it was all I could do to keep the crooked smile from my face. “My father is irretrievably detained, M. Balem, but I am happy to field any of your concerns. Though if you would prefer to wait, I can take whatever problems you have to him directly.”
The Guild representative’s brown eyes narrowed. “That isn’t good enough.”
“There has to be money to replace some of these machines!” She thumped the table with one hand, scattering a tangle of storage chits. One fell from the desktop at my feet. Without being asked, I stooped to collect the chit for her. It was a mistake, not a thing one of my rank ought to do, and I imagined the shade of white my father’s face might have turned to see his son so help a plebeian. Not commenting on my gesture, Lena Balem leaned across her desk to face me. “Some of the radiation suits for our miners are twenty, twenty-five years old. They’re not adequate to protect our workers, M. Marlowe.”
Without being prompted, one of the guards took a half step into the room behind me. “You will address the archon’s son as ‘sire’ or ‘my lord.'” Her voice was flattened by the visor of her horned helmet, vague and impersonal in its threat.
Balem’s prematurely sagging face whitened as she realized her mistake. I felt a strong urge to wave the soldier into silence, but I knew deep down that the woman was right. Father would have ordered the mining representative beaten for the offense, but I was not my father. “I understand your concerns, M. Balem,” I said carefully, focusing my attention on a spot just over the woman’s slumped shoulders, “but your organization has its mandates. We require results.” Father had been precise in describing what I was allowed to say in this meeting, what was acceptable to command this woman’s obedience. I had already said it all.
“Your house, sire, has kept quotas at the same level for the past two hundred years, all while doing nothing to recoup the losses to our equipment. We’re fighting a losing battle, and the more uranium we extract from the high country, the deeper we inevitably must go. We lost an entire drill rig to cave-ins along the river.”
“How many workers?”
I placed the recovered data chit back on the edge of her faux-wood desk with the utmost precision, labeled side up. “How many workers did you lose in that cave-in?”
“You have my deepest condolences.” Surprise flickered in the eyes of the peasant woman, as if the last thing she expected from me was anything resembling the faintest human kindness, hollow and meaningless as it was. Words are often that way. Still I felt it was on me to try. This was a tragedy, not a statistic, and the woman before me had lost people. The surprise held her mouth open a moment.
Then it was gone. “What good are your condolences to the families of these people? You need to do something about it!” Behind me I heard the peltast who had spoken earlier edge forward, and I headed her off with a gesture that went unseen by Balem, who continued, “It’s not just accidents, my lord. These machines are ancient-some of them as old as my grandfather, Earth take him. It’s not just the drill crawlers either but the refineries, as I’ve said, and the barges we use to sail the yellow cake downriver. Every part of the operation is on the edge of breaking down and falling apart.”
“Father does love his profit margins.” The pathos, the bitterness in my voice surprised me. “But you must understand, I am not empowered to offer reparations at this time.”
“Then there has to be money to replace at least a portion of these machines, m’lord.” She reached across her desk and dragged a small block across stacks of paper. “As it is, we’ve got men and women working down those tunnels with pickaxes and hand spades. Thirteen-hour shifts.” Her voice grew louder. “Do you have any idea how many people it takes to match the output of those machines?”
I felt my smile falter as it dawned on Balem that she had just raised her voice to one of the peerage. I imagined Crispin ordering his guards to strike her and set my jaw instead. I was not Crispin or my father. “M. Balem, those machines are produced offworld.” I wasn’t certain where. “With the Cielcin harrowing the colonies in the Veil, interstellar commerce comes at a premium. It’s very difficult to-“
“There must be something.” She cut me off, turning the cube over in her hands. Only a paperweight, I realized, staring at it. For a moment I had thought it was a storage crystal of the sort used to hold sim games and virtual environments. But no, the lower class was not allowed such things. They were forbidden even the technical know-how to replace their battered mining equipment. The means of production were left entirely in the hands of the noble houses and the handful of artisan-manufacturers who worked for them. High technology, even entertainment devices like sim games, were the province of the elite. This was a paperweight and nothing more.
“There very likely is.” Keeping my voice soft, I shifted my eyes away from the steel in hers.
Before I could continue my thought, Lena Balem cut in, “And the current mines will only last for so long, m’lord. Without those drills we’ve no way of cutting new shafts, unless your father wishes for us to use our hands.”
He may wish that, I thought, swallowing. “I understand, M. Balem.” I drew another breath.
“Then why is nothing being done to fix the problem?” Her voice grew in volume again. I was losing control of the conversation, if I hadn’t lost it already. One of Lena Balem’s hands closed around the steel cube, red nails like bloody claws closing around a heart.
“The Guild representative should remember that she is speaking to the son of Lord Alistair Marlowe.” The other peltast this time; both of them were watchdogs for my father.
The color fled Lena Balem’s cheeks, and she caved back into her seat. My father’s name had that effect in his lands and on the rest of Delos. Though ours was but one of 126 lesser houses in-system sworn to the planet’s vicereine-duchess, ours was by far the richest, the noblest, and the closest in council to Lady Elmira. Father had spent increasing periods of time in Artemia at the vicereine’s castle in recent years and had even served as her executor years and years ago, when she was offworld. It was not impossible that before long we would be asked to leave Meidua and Devil’s Rest to take up a fief and title on some new world all our own.
“I beg your pardon, m’lord.” Lena Balem set the paperweight down as if it had burned her. “Forgive me.”
I waved her apology aside, resuming my politest smile. “There is nothing to forgive, M. Balem.” I bit my lip, thinking of the soldiers behind me who had thought there was something to forgive. “I shall of course take your complaints to my father. If you have projections regarding the cost and benefits of these replacement machines, I think both Lord Alistair and his councilors will want to see them.” I checked the time on my wrist terminal, eager to be off. I still had a chance to catch the arrival of the Mandari visitors. “M. Balem, I also suggest you prioritize your needs before speaking with my father and his advisory council. But I must beg your pardon.” I made a show of checking my terminal again. “I’ve an appointment to keep.” My chair scraped the tiled floor as I stood.
“That’s not good enough, m’lord.” Lena Balem rose as well, looking down her overlarge nose at me. “People are dying in those mines regularly. They need at least adequate environment suits. My people are dying from radon gas, radiation . . . I have photos.” She rummaged through the collected sheaves of printouts on her desk, glossy images of lesioned torsos and scabrous flesh.
“I know.” I turned away as my guards moved forward to place themselves at my sides. I felt the point of my parrying dagger bump my leg. I felt in that moment that this woman might attack me. She would never behave like this with father. I had been too soft. Father would have this woman whipped, put in the stocks along Meidua’s Main Street naked.
Crispin would have beaten her himself. I merely left.
“Success, my lord?” asked the young lieutenant after our flier took off from the Guild complex in the lower ward of the city below the limestone cliffs. We rose slowly above the tiled rooftops and past the sky-spires of
Lowtown, ascending to join the sparse air traffic. Below us the city of Meidua unrolled like an anatomical sketch along the seaside beneath the mighty acropolis on which my ancestors had raised the ancient fastness of our home.
I risked a glance at the lieutenant, shook my head. “I’m afraid not, Kyra.” The shuttle passed through a plume of white steam rising from a seaside nuclear plant as we banked wide over the water to approach Devil’s Rest from the east. Atop its acropolis of white stone, the black granite of the curtain wall and Gothic spires within drank the gray sunlight, looking out of place against the limestone bluff on which it stood, as if some inhuman power had pulled the stones still smoking from the heart of the planet, as indeed it had.
“Sorry to hear that, sire.” Kyra tucked a bronze curl up under the lip of her flight cap. I glanced sidelong at the two peltasts seated in the back of the shuttle, feeling their eyes on me.
Leaning forward against my straps, I said, “You’ve been with us for some time now, haven’t you, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sire,” she called back over one shoulder, briefly looking my way.
“Four years now!”
The afternoon sun streaming in through the front canopy edged her face in snowy fire, and I felt a pang for her. There was something in her that struck me as somehow more real than the palatine ladies to whom I’d been introduced, more alive. More . . . human.
“Four years . . .” I repeated, smiling at the edge of her face that was visible from my place on the back benches. “And did you always want to be a soldier?”
She stiffened, something in my voice putting her on edge. The accent, perhaps. I have been told several times since that I speak like the villain in some Eudoran opera. “I wanted to fly, sire.”
“I’m glad for you, then.” My attention could no longer stay on her face, and flushing, I looked out the window at the city-my city-taking in the tangle of it, the way the streets spiderwebbed across the bluffs beneath Devil’s Rest and above the sea. I could see the verdigris dome of the Chantry with its nine minarets like lances thrust at the sky, and at the opposing end of the main street the great ellipse of the circus, today open to the elements. “It is beautiful up here.” I knew I was babbling, but I found it distracted me from the thought of what I was flying toward: my father and the Mandari guests he’d meant to keep from me. I thought of Crispin and his jagged smile. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Only the other fliers, lordship.” I saw the corner of her mouth rise and, briefly, the milky flash of teeth. She was smiling.
I smiled too. “Yes, of course.”
“Do you fly, sire?” she asked before adding demurely, “If his lordship does not mind my question.”
Turning in my seat, I looked pointedly at the two peltasts sitting by the exit ramp at the back of the flier, their gauntleted hands clasping support loops that drooped from the gray-paneled ceiling. “I don’t mind. And yes, I
fly. Not so well as you. Ask Sir Ardian about it sometime.”
She laughed. “I will.”
Unable to shake the cloud settling on me, I changed the subject, now looking pointedly at the short-carpeted floor of the cabin. “Has the delegation arrived at the castle yet?”
“Aye, lordship,” the lieutenant answered, pushing our flier into a steep descent that brought us below the crown of the bluffs where the living rock ended and the imported black granite began. Somehow, looking at the old place from beneath like this, I always imagined the crash of thunder. “Some hours ago.”
It was as I’d feared and expected: I was going to miss the ceremony. “What does your father do, Kyra?” I had not meant the words to escape me, yet they had-small things, and dangerous.
“Your father,” I repeated. “What does he do?”
“He works the city’s light grid, sire.”
My lips twisted, formed a poor joke. “Do you want to trade?”
The castle at Devil’s Rest, product of an age grander than our own, was itself large as a city, though less than a tenth the number of souls dwelt within it than clambered about and below its walls. When its first walls were raised, the Sollan Empire sat heavy on the stars, unopposed in might and majesty, the sole human power in the cosmos. While those halcyon days of blood and thunder were long since gone, still she endured, a confusion of buttressed spires and knuckled masonry rising like so many weathered bones from the hill above Meidua. Grand as she was, the old fortress was small by the standards of the day. The Great Keep, a massive, square-sided bastion of steel fronted in dark stone, rose only fifty levels above the plaza in which it sat. Still it dwarfed the other structures in the castle, even the minarets of our own private Chantry. The small, twelvestoried tower of the scholiasts’ cloister looked pitiful in its extreme corner by the gardens and the outer wall. I strode toward the Keep, passing through the shadows of a colonnade, boot heels clacking on the mosaic.
I’d lost my two guards in the landing hangar and left Kyra to finish powering down the flier. But I was not alone; light-armored peltasts and hoplites with body shields and full ceramic plate were posted at intervals along the colonnade and the grand stair that led to the viaduct that fed into the plaza at the base of the Keep. There I rubbed shoulders with a throng of uniformed logothetes of the house staff who administered our little slice of empire. Even had I been the only one on the path, I would not have been alone. None of us was ever alone. The cameras were ever watchful.
I passed the statue of Julian Marlowe-long dead and mounted on his horse, sword held defiant against the heavens-and ascended the sweeping white marble stairs. I continued through the main gate, pausing to acknowledge Dame Uma Sylvia, the knight-lictor on watch at the door. “My father?” I asked, the question ringing clear in the afternoon air.
“Still in the throne room, young master!” Sylvia replied, not breaking her perfect attention.
I crossed the white-and-black tiles of the floor, darting straight across the copper sunburst of the Imperial seal and toward the inner stair. Black banners hung heavy on the high walls, and the noise of foot and trumpet echoed up the hollow shaft in the center of the space for thirty of the Keep’s fifty levels. That noble banner, sigil of my fathers unto the very deeps of time, sullied now by my hand. Perhaps you’ve seen it? Blacker than the black of space, its red devil capering, trident in its hands above our words: The sword, our orator. Two such devils faced one another beside the wrought-iron doors to my father’s hall, dwarfing the pointed arch there and the men guarding it.
Strange things, those doors-weighty things of poured iron, raw and treated with some dull resin to guard against rust. Each door was three times the height of a man and several inches thick so that the confusion of human forms done in relief upon each surface stood out sharply. Each door must have weighed several tons, but they moved gently, balanced by slow counterweights so that even a child might open them.
“Master Hadrian!” said Sir Roban Milosh, a furtive, dark-skinned man with tightly curling hair. “Where have you been?”
My eyes narrowed, and I was a moment collecting myself, breathing a scholiast aphorism under my breath: “Rage is blindness.” Rage is blindness.
To Roban I said, “I was detained with the Mining Guild, father’s orders.
Are they inside?”
“For about the last thirty minutes.”
Uncomfortably aware of my disheveled appearance, of the wild tangle of my too-long hair and the wrinkled imperfection of my formal jacket, I clapped the knight on the arm. “That just means we’re through the boring part. Let me by.” I moved to pass him, pressing one palm flat against the door. Roban’s counterpart stepped forward and seized my arm. Outraged, I whirled and glared at the hoplite. His helmet, like the helmets of most combat suits, had no visor, only a ridged carapace of solid ceramic that hid his face. Cameras piped images to a screen inside his mask, giving the impression that he was a statue and not a man at all.
“Lord Alistair says no one’s to enter while he’s receiving the director.”
He released me pointedly and firmly. “Sorry, young master.”
Working to contain my sudden surge of outrage, I repeated the scholiasts’ aphorism in my head, trying not to let myself focus too much on the persistent dread rising in me. I should have turned and walked away. It would have been easier.
Instead I cleared my throat. “Soldier, stand aside.”
“Hadrian.” Roban put a hand on my shoulder. “We have orders.”
I turned, and I confess that my frustration undid me. “Get your hands off me, Roban.” And I shoved the door open before either the knight-lictor or his lieutenant could stop me. The door made no noise as it swung inward. The damage done, I turned and glared at the hoplite, who was halfway to seizing me. I had the same eyes as my father and knew how to use them. The man quailed.
No fanfare accompanied my entrance, unless one counted the nods of the peltasts just within. There is a limit to the vastness of space which the human eye and mind can fully appreciate, beyond which the impact of grandeur overwhelms. The throne room exceeded that limit, being at once too tall, too wide, and too long. Rank and file of dark columns retreated left and right, supporting frescoed vaults depicting the death of Old Earth and the eventual colonization of Delos. Though human senses could not detect it, the distance between floor and ceiling subtly shrank between the doors and the dais at the far end so that the supplicant was deceived into perceiving the archon as larger than any human ought to be. It is said the Solar Throne on Forum makes use of such a trick, that the Emperor might dwarf even the lordliest duke of his constellation.
The throne itself sat wreathed in shadow, and the two curving horns at its back-in reality the ribs of a great brass whale-towered halfway to the distant ceiling, blocking the light from the rose window behind the throne so that the figure seated upon it was veiled.
The Consortium retinue stood assembled before the throne, standing tall at the base of the dais, their silhouettes absurdly stretched by the microgravity of the ships they lived aboard. There were seven of them, all in matching robes, attended by two dozen soldiers in matte gray, each carrying a short rifle instead of the energy-lances favored by my father’s troopers.
“Forgive my lateness, father.” I used my speaking voice, bringing the full force of the rhetorical training Gibson had given me to bear. “The
Mining Guild representative went on a little longer than intended.”
“Why are you here?” The sound of that voice in this place curdled within me, and I felt a cold wind blow through my soul. Not only had Crispin known about the visitors from the Wong-Hopper Consortium, he had been invited.
I ignored Crispin’s petulant question and approached within ten paces of the line of Consortium guests as they stood beneath my father’s throne. I was not yet in the shadow of that great chair, and my father was only a darker shape amid the blackness of that ebony and wrought-iron seat. Going to one knee before the throne, I bowed my head before the Mandari visitors. “Honored guests,”-the practiced depth of my voice pleased me after
Crispin’s whinging-“forgive my lateness. I was detained by local matters.” One of the tall visitors took a couple of steps toward me. “Rise, please.” I did, and the Consortium representative turned to look up at my father. “What is the meaning of this, Lord Alistair?”
In his throne, my father stirred. “My eldest son, Director Feng.” His voice, which ought to have been as familiar as my own, was as a stranger’s to me.
The woman who had addressed me nodded, letting spidery hands fall to her sides in a rustling of gray sleeves. “I see.” The other Consortium members shuffled on slippered feet.
“Take a seat.” My father slowly resolved into focus as my eyes adjusted to the deep shadow of his throne. He was more like me in appearance than Crispin; the genetic looms had built father thin and lean and hard with an aquiline face, all sharp edges and hard angles. Like myself, my father eschewed the local fashion. His hair was long and combed straight back so that it curled slightly below his ears. His face was clean-shaven, thicklipped, and cold, and his violet eyes watched all that was below him, unfeeling.
I swallowed and brushed past Director Feng and her associates, my attention on a line of three chairs below and to the right of the high seat. Crispin sat there alone on the seat nearest Father. I stopped, staring down at my brother as surely as Father was staring at me. “Move over, Crispin.” I kept my voice low.
My brother only raised his eyebrows, gambling-quite correctly-that I would not push the issue in front of our guests. I didn’t. I was too much the gentleman for that. But I was enough the child to pick up the small bloodwood chair next to him and carry it two steps up onto the dais. I sat, ignoring the muted outrage I could sense pouring from my father on his dark throne.