Chapter no 32 – Stand Clear

Empire of Silence

THE PREFECTS’ STUNNERS TOOK two of Rells’s minions in the back, dropping them into a deep puddle at the end of the winding street while I watched, crouched in the shadow of a cluster of dishes and antennae on the roof of the corner store we had robbed together. I still clutched the purse: two hurasams, perhaps fifty kaspums, and a fistful of steel bits. A small fortune to the creature I’d become. Not enough to buy my way offworld— not nearly—but it was all mine. I had tripped the store’s alarm while the bastards beat the shop girl. Hypocritical, perhaps, as I had stabbed the manager in the shoulder. I still held the knife, the blood wiped imperfectly from its scarred surface. The older woman would live, or so I hoped. I’d missed the heart and hit bone. It must have hurt.

Seven prefects, sweating in their khaki uniforms and blue windbreakers, fanned out to corner the two boys and one girl still standing. “Stand down!” called their leader, a tall man with hair almost as dark as my own, his eyes hidden behind bright lenses. He held his stunner square on Tur, the biggest of the three still on his feet. I could see the stunner’s aperture glowing its icy blue, a narrow vertical stripe of light at the end of the dark weapon. “On your knees, all of you!”

“Kaller’s drowning, you bastards!” cried the girl, cowering behind Tur’s massive shoulders. She pointed to where one of the two stunned thieves had gone down, his face buried in the puddle. The bespectacled prefect-inspector didn’t move, but his partner—a small woman with her dark hair in a bob—moved off to pull Kaller from the mud. I didn’t move. I might have been carved from stone, a gargoyle such as decorated the walls and buttresses of Devil’s Rest.

The female prefect checked Kaller’s pulse, his breathing. “He’s alive, Gin.”

The man in the glasses didn’t so much as nod his head. He didn’t seem to care. Behind him, the only other woman in the group of seven prefects moved off to help her counterpart, hauling the other stunned thief from the mud. The crowd waited behind holographed cordons projected from

subintelligent projection drones allowed by Chantry religious law, the kind that had human operators back in the prefects’ office in the palace complex above and at the heart of Borosevo. The drones looked like little more than dustbins studded with sensor and projection equipment balanced on single rubberized spheres. They were not rolling now but standing sentry about the active crime scene.

For a moment I lost track of the conversation below me, could only hear the repeating recorded feminine voice broadcast from each and every one of those cordon drones: “This is the Criminal Response Division of the

Borosevo Prefects’ Office. Please stand clear. A crime is underway. Please stand clear. Repeat. This is the Criminal Response Division of . . .” The

words retreated beneath hearing, becoming—like the sounds of water and of aircraft—a part of the ambiance of the scene.

“We should stun them, Gin,” said another of the prefects, a gangly man with thick sideburns, beanpole thin and tall as a palatine. “Bag them and take them in for conditioning.”

“Bleed that!” Tur growled, spreading his arms to cover his girl companion. “Don’t want you fuckers fucking with my head.” He

brandished the hooked length of pipe he always carried. “Stay the hell away, you Earth-bleeding sons of whores!”

The man with the sideburns shot Tur square in the chest, stunning him.

He toppled backward, nearly crushing the poor girl beneath him. She

shrieked and cowered against the painted-glass storefront, and the other thief—I forget his name—rushed to her side. “Stay down!” the man with the glasses said, training his stunner on the others. “I don’t want to have to shoot either of you.” Then, to his associate: “Ko, hold your fire.”

“The guy was rabid, Gin,” the other man said.

“I said hold your fire,” the prefect-inspector snapped, glancing back at his associate. “Where’s what you took?” he asked the thieves, looking at their empty hands; my own tightened about the stolen purse.

The girl thrust out her chin. “Gone, lawman.” She grinned. “You bitches are too slow.”

“This is the Criminal Response Division of . . .”

The prefect-inspector thumbed some switch on his stunner, and the blue line of the emitter glowing brighter. “On your knees. Surrender.”

“So you can take us to the bonecutters and get our heads straightened out?” the man responded. “I’m with Tur on this. No thanks.”

The prefect-inspector took a step forward. “Surrender, and you don’t have to. You can go to the Colosso; they need more walking corpses.” The thief’s bronze skin went white, and he said nothing. Beside him the girl was even paler. Still I didn’t move, hidden as I was among the antennae, hoping my one-time accomplices would not see me. I needn’t have feared. No one ever looks up.

“. . . Division of the Borosevo Prefects’ Office . . .”

The girl was shaking her head. “No. No, I’ll take the bonecutters.” I thought of the slaves in our own Colosso in Meidua, the mutilated men and women dressed as Cielcin dying at the hands of professional gladiators. I

could not blame her for fearing. Even the peasants who entered the ring voluntarily didn’t usually last long against those professionals. The Colosso was a death sentence, and a humiliating one, to go to one’s end mutilated by the cathars: noses slit, foreheads branded.

I did not blame Tur and the others for changing their minds.

The prefects didn’t take chances. At a signal from the prefect-inspector, the man called Ko opened fire, dropping the other two thieves. I thought of the bruised shop girl and the manager I had stabbed, nodded my approval. Rells’s gang was a bunch of vicious thugs, worse than I ever was. What happened to them felt like justice. And when at last the criminals and prefects had left the street, after the holograph cordon and the projector drones had packed up and rolled away, it was not the public address that had repeated so many hundreds of times during the incident that stuck in my head. Instead it was what Prefect-Inspector Gin had said to Tur. You can go to the Colosso.

They got no shortage of need over in the Colosso. The words came back to me with a strange, lucid insistence. That old sailor, Crow—he had

suggested I might fight in the games. It would be a way to earn a living, maybe to earn enough for passage offworld. It would be dangerous, but

what other choice was there? At once that chance encounter took on prophetic proportions, and I leaned back against the rooftop antenna cluster.

Why hadn’t I done it sooner?

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