Chapter no 31 – Mere Humanity

Empire of Silence

CID ARTHUR FOUND MORE than poverty when he escaped his father’s palace.

He found sickness, too. As did I. The Gray Rot had been on Emesh for some years, brought by some unscrupulous trader from offworld. The natives had no immunity, and the animalcule chewed through them like

paper and festered in the street. I was palatine. I was immune, Mother Earth have mercy on me.

Have you ever stopped to think about what it would be like to sit in the belly of an epidemic, untouched by it? I felt like a ghost. My body’s almost-alien biochemistry—the legacy of tens of generations and of millions of Imperials marks worth of genetic recombination—preserved me from every weeping sore, every bout of necrosis, every bleeding cough. It sounds like a blessing. It is no blessing to watch other men die, even less to watch the ones you love waste away. When I started this account, I thought to skip this part, so painful was my loss of Cat. But I was wrong. She matters. She must matter.

She held on longer than most, longer than could have been believed for someone so small.

It stank in the storm drain where I had left her on a high ledge above the main track of tunnel. We were beneath the stock exchanges on High Street and so elevated above the level of the canals. Night had fallen, and the light of Emesh’s two moons—one white, one green from the nascent

terraforming projects scrambling across its surface—bled up the track of the storm drain to where the girl lay on a damp cardboard palette. Beneath the

smells of moss and rotting garbage I could make out the sweet and rotting pall of sickness, the rot from weeping sores. You could smell it on every

street, in every canal, on every rooftop in that city. I had to pause at the base

of the stainless steel ladder a moment before climbing up to where I’d left her, long enough to marshal my forces, to quiet my stomach and settle my nerves.

We’d been together—partners in crime—for just under two standard years. That was all ending now, I knew. Had known for weeks.

Cat shivered beneath a thin sheet that had once been the curtain of an

abandoned tenement. We had spent a week in that house as it crumbled into the sea, playing as tramps might at the lives of common folk. Cat might have gotten a job if she’d wanted. I was doomed. Any employment, even the base-level jobs guaranteed by the count’s Ministry of Welfare, would have required blood-typing from me. They would have wanted to screen for health risks, for congenital defects, for drug addiction and mental deficiency—anything to deny me honest work. They would have discovered who I was, and I would’ve been packed off to a tower cell to

await the word and envoy of my father. Cat and I had been happy that week

—happy and naked and clean. The patterns of purple hyacinth printed on the curtains, which in the broken window had appeared bright and beautiful, now lay upon her like funeral garlands. But she was not dead, not yet.

Nor did she notice me. Instead she mumbled in her sleep, shuddering like a candle flame. I had never known sickness in Meidua, in Devil’s Rest. When I was small my grandmother’s mind had been faded, but Lady Fuchsia Bellgrove-Marlowe had been nearly seven hundred years old; my father was the child of her age and the same birthing vats whence I had been decanted. Cat was eighteen, younger than I had been when I left

Delos, when my life truly began. And her life was over. Proper medicine was in short supply, so I had spent what cash we had on compresses and new bandages. I had seen the broadcasts; images of beautiful newscasters on screens wrapped round street corners declared the disease proof against antibiotic treatment. Whole chunks of the city had been cordoned off,

canals dredged for corpses, bodies burned in city squares when the morgues reached capacity.

“I brought you soup,” I said, placing the paper cup on the stone beside her sleeping form. The liquid was cool by then. “No carrot, I promise.” I drew the curtains back, wrinkled my nose at the brown-green stains on

Cat’s bandages. She stirred but did not wake. “Broadcast says they think the plague’s running its course, burning itself out. I heard one man say he thought the plague was a Cielcin weapon . . .” My voice trailed away down

some corridor in my soul, and I sat in silence for a long time. “I wish I knew how to help you better,” I said at last, picking at an innocent scab on my forearm.

Still Cat didn’t answer. I laid a hand on her forehead, feeling the

sickness there, a fire under her skin as if one might expect there to be magma in her, not blood. I knew she didn’t have long. A day or two. A

week. No more. It wasn’t fair. I started undoing the bandages on one arm, revealing the chewed, diminished triceps, the way the brown skin had turned gray and blistered green and liquid yellow. I threw the ruined bandage aside, tore open a packet to apply a new medicine-soaked one.

Lacking the words I needed, I hummed as I went about my work, binding up the wounds on her arm and thigh and breast.

She did not wake, and her soup remained uneaten; whatever heat it might have had bled into the tepid, unmoving air. Water in the channel below us ran at a trickle. Here and there condensation on overhead pipes dripped back to ground, its droplets marking out the nonsense seconds of nature’s timeless clock. I thought—as I often still do—of Lady Fuchsia’s burial and Uncle Lucian’s. There would be no funeral procession for Cat, no canopic jars. No one to remove her vital organs or to burn her flesh to carbon. No true burial. No ashes for the Homeworld. No votive lantern released to the skies.

“Had?” The word was small as angstroms, the voice soft as the turning of a page.

I squeezed her hand as I had a thousand-thousand times. “Right here.” After an infinite second, she rasped, “Why . . . here?”

My brows furrowed of their own accord, and my words came unbidden: “What do you mean, why am I here?” She nodded weakly, as if in answer. “Where else would I be?” I smiled, tried to laugh. “I don’t like anyone else on this whole planet.”

Her laughter turned to coughing, and I cradled her head as pink sputum spattered the bandages over her ruined breast. I bit my own tongue to force back the tears, hoping—almost praying—that she would stop. She did after a moment. “Sorry . . .”

“Don’t apologize,” I said, shaking her gently, reaching up to move the stringy hair away from her sweat-streaked forehead. “Don’t apologize.

You’ll be fine soon. You’ll see. I’ll help you.”

Slowly—so slowly—she reached up, cupping a hand against my face.

Cat made a shushing noise. “Don’t have to stay,” she murmured, lips exposing gaps where her teeth had fallen out. “Not got long . . .”

“Don’t say that.” I tried to smile, but I could tell the expression was only pained. “You’ll get better.” We both knew I was lying. She was half a

corpse already, her once-fiery eyes soft with fog. One, I thought, was blinded or else had gone beyond sight. How fast she had changed. Weeks before—mere weeks before—she had been whole and hale and healthy. Who was this ghost?

“No.” The echo shook its head. “Promise me . . . Promise me one thing.” “You are going to be fine!” I insisted, helping to lower her head back

against the wadded scraps of cloth that passed for pillows.

Her hand closed on my leg. “Promise me you won’t let them burn me.” She meant in the huge pyres, I knew. The bodies piled in squares.

We believe our lives are coherent things. That they have meaning.

Direction. Weft. That there is a purpose to us as there is a purpose to a player in a drama. That, I think, is the soul of religion, why so many people I have met—even my own brother—believe the world must be controlled, the universe planned and guarded. How comforting it is to imagine that there is a reason for all things. Millions of theologians and magi, the cult-priests of a thousand dead gods, have taught this lesson. Cat taught me

something else, dying in that storm drain for no reason at all. I am wiser now, but know that no matter what I said, I could not help her. I could not even die with her.

I could only watch her die.

“Tell me . . .” She lost her words for a moment, and perhaps her

wakefulness, and for a moment the only sound beside the dripping and the quiet runnels of water was the ragged, wet breathing in her throat. Before I could move, could grab for water or for the rag I used to clean her face, she continued, “Tell me a story, would you? One last time.”

My fingers found her weak ones, closed between them. “You shouldn’t talk like that.” She did not reply, turned her thin face away. She was done

arguing with me. We sat in silence a long while, hand in hand. I watched the mingled moonlight that leaked into the storm drain, the color of pale jade.

My other hand went to a corner of the curtains patterned with hyacinths.

Her blankets. Her shroud. I remembered how we’d torn them from the wall in the heat of the moment and how Cat had stolen them when the prefects

staved the doors in, answering reports that we’d been squatting there. That week, that perfect week . . . Had it only been two months ago?

Not even two.

“All right.” I sucked in a rattling breath, held it so it wouldn’t come out a sob. “I’ll tell you a story.” A year passed, it seemed, or a century before I

chose a story for her as I had countless times. It was one she’d heard before and one I knew almost as well as Simeon’s. “Once upon a time, on an island far from Earth, upon the margins of untrammeled space, there stood a city of poets. The Empire was young in those days, and the last of the Mericanii were broken.

“The city of poets had been built as a haven, as a place for men to hide from the Foundation War and compose their arts in peace. The city had only one law: that none may use force against another. So the city flourished and was made beautiful by all the artists who dwelt behind its walls and prospered by their fellowship.”

“Except for Kharn.”

“Kharn had not chosen the city for his home but had been born to it, the child of a great poet. And as the children of great warriors are often not

warriors themselves, so he was no poet. He dreamed of being a soldier, a hero like those in the epics his people composed. His people would hear none of it. ‘We have no need for soldiers here, nor the burden of arms,’ the poets said, ‘for we are far from Earth, and the walls of the city are strong.’

“‘Those who will not live by the sword will die by one,’ Kharn insisted, for so the poems said. But the poets did not believe their own words, believing stories to be dead trifles under their command. Yet truth is neither opinion nor its slave, and the day came when the sky was darkened by sails. The Extrasolarians had arrived. Men like monsters in the Dark, the children of the Mericanii in their black-masted ships. And they burned the city and the poets in it.”

“Except for Kharn.”

Here I paused to brush the hair from Cat’s face and to mop her brow. That accomplished, I continued, “Kharn fought them, and the Exalted—

who are kings among the Extrasolarians—recognize only strength. So they spared him even as they cut the hearts from his people and set their bodies to crew their vile ships. They spared him. And Kharn lived among them for many years and with them pillaged other cities, other worlds.”

I do not know how long I spoke or how long I held her hand. I told the whole story. How all the while Kharn Sagara harbored vengeance in his heart. How he turned the Exalted against one another, slaying their captain and taking command of their ship for himself. How he set a course for their home: the frigid Vorgossos and its dead star. I told her how he took their planet for himself, how he made himself king of that dark and frozen world. It was the story from the book Gibson had given me, The King with Ten Thousand Eyes. It was not a happy story, nor was it a short one.

Somewhere in the middle of it Cat’s fingers went slack, then steadily colder. I did not weep or stumble in the telling. I had had enough of

weeping, and she would not have liked it if I had stopped. Instead I

squeezed her fragile hand, kissed it, said, “The end.” Only it wasn’t. Funny thing about endings—until the suns burn down and all is cold, nothing is

ended. The players only change.

Though Cat’s story had ended, the sun was rising, promising another day of Emesh’s eternal summer. I wrapped her body in the flower-dappled

curtain. Death had reduced her to skin and bones, and she was light in my arms. I didn’t burn her. I carried her through back alleys and along access tunnels and the semiflooded walkways that ran along some of the side

canals right at the water’s level. It wasn’t right that she should be gone so

soon, so young. It wasn’t fair. I laid her to rest in the waters, as in the tale of the Phoenician sailor, and weighed her frail body down with stones. I never found the place again, never returned to light a votive lantern and send a prayer for her soul drifting skyward to the vanished Earth.

Then, truly alone, I turned away and made my way back to the world of the sick and living.

My own story was not yet done.

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