Chapter no 33 – To Make a Myrmidon

Empire of Silence

THE VOMITORIUM WAS COLD compared to the outdoor swelter, and through the static field that held that temperate, thinner air in, I could see the heat ripples from the baking street outside the arena. During all my years in

Borosevo I had avoided this part of town, never having looked the part. But the coin I had stolen—the theft that had put five of Rells’s thugs into reeducation at the hands of the Ministry of Welfare and the cathars—had been more than sufficient to kit me out in new clothes, plain but functional.

I had paid in cash. I’d even sprung for a room in a flophouse near the

starport that had once thrown me out on my ear. The room was little more than a shelf, just tall enough to lie down in, but I was sleeping in a proper bed for the first time since before Cat’s death.

On a whim I’d regretted almost instantly, I’d purchased a cheap razor from a dispensary in the hotel lobby, glad of the cool air and the safety and the fact that no man or woman looked at me with suspicion. My hair was a nightmare, a monstrous tangle controlled by a rubber cord that kept it pulled back behind my head. I shaved it off, every scrap, until I was bald as an

egg, then cast the leavings in an incinerator just outside one of the hotel’s pay toilets, glad I no longer looked like a complete fool.

Indeed, the figure I cut striding up the vomitorium beneath hanging banners painted with the jade sphinx of House Mataro was one gaunt and terrible to behold. I caught glimpses of my reflection, distended in the massive brass gongs that lined the crowded space. Thinking back, I half looked like a Cielcin, all height and lean muscle, my skin still pale despite the past years of abuse. I lacked only the horns and massive eyes.

A line of women with casks balanced on their heads moved out of my way, and even one huge homunculus in the red uniform of the Colosso

service backed away, bowing its head in something like deference. My ring hung heavy on its cord about my neck, reminding me of its presence, almost calling out to be worn again. But that would have been disastrous. I knew this plan of mine would get me off the streets of Borosevo, but I would need to be extremely careful. I could not enter as a proper gladiator. I had no references and did not want to be subjected to rigorous examination. What I did have was nearly two standard decades of combat training, to say nothing of my years on the street dealing with Rells and his gang.

So I stopped the first Colosso staff attendant I could find, a woman as bald as I. I put my hand on her arm and said as politely as I could, “Are you all taking in people for the fodder pool?” I forgot to smile for a good five

seconds, then failed disastrously—if the look on the poor woman’s face was any indication.

The woman’s eyes went wide as she took in my appearance: the way my white shirt clung to whipcord muscle and the hard lines of my bones. After a moment she nodded.



I sat on the edge of the examination table atop a sheet of sanitary plastic, naked and unafraid. One light flickered in the corner of the low ceiling,

sending shadows over the banks of quiescent medical equipment. If you are not from my Empire, then perhaps you are unfamiliar with our greatest game, its mechanics and rules, its traditions. There are gladiators: the heroes of a million operas, champions of the sporting season. Children know their names, wear their colors and their numbers, follow their efforts. Even in wartime the people treat them as heroes almost equal to our knights and soldiers. They fight one another gloriously, one-on-one or in small groups. If they are wounded, they are escorted from the field, given over to scholiasts for treatment before they resume combat another day.

Then there is the fodder pool, the myrmidons. They come as criminals, as slaves. They come starving for the promise of a meal and the hope that they might survive a round or two. They come desperate or intoxicated or drugged. On some worlds the less scrupulous lords of the Empire kidnap

their own serfs from the streets to feed to lions and chimeras and azhdarchs. The myrmidons are broken men, mad men and desperate. They are angry

men and suicidal ones. I was none of these things. I was a rarer sort of fool. I was determined.

In truth, I’d expected them to take me for Colosso fodder without so much as a single page contract waving the rights of any kin for retributive legal action against the games’ proprietors, namely the House Mataro of Emesh and its count, Lord Balian. But I did sign such a contract and was made to submit to a physical exam.

The Colosso medic wore the bronze collar of a slave and had the slit nostril of a criminal and a punitive tattoo on her forehead that marked her offense clearly: DESERTER. There were other tattoos on her arm: an

armorial hawk on the inside of one wrist, a coiled snake on the other to hide what appeared to be burn scars.

“Another for the fighting pits, is it?” She eyed me from under too-long brows. One eye was clearly glass and pointed the wrong way. The other

shone dark in her hard and wizened face. The word inked on her forehead wrinkled as she looked at me with that one good eye, hands on her hips.

“What’s your reason? Fame or fortune?” She sniffed, pushing back her grubby sleeves and pulling on sterile examination gloves kept in a bin on the counter.

I cleared my throat. “Just trying to get by.”

“Trying to get by, is it?” The woman sniffed again, sidled closer. “What?

Does the Ministry of Welfare not need thugs to beat the Umandh into submission anymore?”

A flash of the old aristocratic hauteur flared beneath the surface, and I bridled. “I’m not a thug.”

“Oh, excuse me,” the woman said, biting off each word like dried meat. “I thought you were trying to get into the Earth-damned fighting pits. Don’t tell me you’re not a thug.” She slapped my arm. “Budge along. No need to hide your cock, lad. No one here cares.” I moved my hands away slowly, not looking the old woman in her face. “Well, you’re a strong lad, and no mistake.” She prodded at a scar along my ribs. “History of violence, is it?” When I didn’t answer at once, she poked me again.

“Few fights,” I allowed.

“No need to be so fucking terse.” She glared at me, glass eye looking off at something I could not see. “You have a name?”


“The fuck sort of name is Had?” She broke away, crossing to the counter at the opposite wall, returning with a stethoscope and a scanning probe in her crooked fingers. “Short for something?”

I held my silence a moment, watching as the woman counted my heartbeats. At last I said, “It’s Hadrian.”

That single black eye watched me, colored with suspicion like a sheen of oil on the sclera. “Hadrian, is it?” She frowned. “Fancy fucking name for a thug.” My instinct was to deny that I was a thug for a second time, but I

sensed danger here. I could not see a camera anywhere in the examination chamber, but that didn’t mean we were really alone. No one is ever truly

alone, not in the Sollan Empire. Not anywhere. So I only shrugged, and the doctor said, “Well, have it your own way then.” She pulled the stethoscope out of her ears, left it swinging from her neck. “Name’s Chand, not that you were wondering.”

“Chand,” I repeated, trying to place the name’s provenance and the heavy gutturals in her accent. “Don’t you have somatic scans?” I indicated the stethoscope. “You really need to use that?”

“Nosy for a thug, too. Scanners get confused.” She held up the scanner in question, a metal cylinder long as my hand. “Better to listen, but we’re still going to run the full battery. Stand up.”

I complied, followed her gesture to the scale at one corner, allowed myself to be weighed and measured. She took other measurements, too, besides my height. “Want to get armor as fits you,” she said by way of explanation. Then, “You’re proper fit, aren’t you? I’ve seen actual gladiators in worse condition than you.”

“What did you mean, ‘full battery’?” I asked, slapping her hand away.

“I mean you’re getting a proper physical, boy. I may not look it, but I’ve been chief medic here since before you were a dram in your daddy’s balls, so how about we cut the questions, eh?”

Undeterred, I asked, “Including blood work?” Without replying, the doctor reached up and flicked my ear. I yelped.

“Thought I said to cut the questions.” She glared up at me, the tattooed word on her forehead crumpling as the leather-brown skin creased. When I didn’t break eye contact with her, she laughed. “You’re a tough one, aren’t you? That’s critical, that is. A proper myrmidon. Crowd likes the ones that don’t piss themselves first time they see the Sphinxes squaring off with them in full kit. You’ll give a good show of it.” I had no response for that. I

hoped she was right. When she caught me still glaring at her, she said, “Yes, it includes blood work.” She eyed me seriously. “Any reason it shouldn’t?

You a user?” “User?”

“Drugs, boy.” She directed me back to the examination table and began to measure my reflexes, to check the dilation of my eyes with a penlight.

This brought a renewed frown to my face. “Why’s the Colosso care if its sending addicts to the fodder pool?”

“They don’t,” she said, tutting over another thin scar on my leg, “but if you are a user, they want to make sure they get that pretty nose of yours

clipped. Make you more fearsome.” She pulled a face, baring snarled and yellowing teeth. Glancing at my shaved head she said, “Well, at least I can say you don’t have lice. Shame.”

I looked down at her, unsure how to respond to this latest confounding piece of conversation. At last I opted simply to repeat her word. “Shame?”

Chand pulled a smile so wide it buried her face in wrinkles, reducing her glass eye and her black one to mere slits. “Never known a palatine with lice before, have I?” The last two words fell flat, choked off as she backed

against the wall, retreating as I rocketed to my feet. I realized mid-action that this was precisely the wrong thing to do, that it would serve only to confirm whatever suspicions the doctor had about me. I hunched my

shoulders, turning half away from the slave woman, who laughed. “I take it I’m right, then? I can tell one of your lot a mile away. Have to be an idiot not to.”

I didn’t deny it, but I didn’t answer her, either. Suddenly my brilliant plan to enter the Colosso as a fodder myrmidon struck me as incredibly foolish. Snatching up the pair of pants I’d folded on the counter, I made to dress myself.

“Where in Earth’s holy name do you think you’re going?” Chand asked, an unseen frown evident in the lining of that guttural voice. She hurried past me to stand against the door, one true eye trained on me as I slipped on my pants.

I could have moved her aside, struck her, thrown her down in an instant, but I waited, worked on the fastenings of my new boots. “You can’t help me. This was a mistake.”

“Mistake, was it?” The slave’s face arranged itself into a thoughtful

expression, tattooed crime distorting as she cocked an eyebrow. “Never met

a palatine as didn’t want his name trumpeted from the temple minarets.” “I’m not a palatine,” I insisted, eyes trying to pick out the surveillance

gear I felt certain was in the dingy little exam room.

“And I’m not a slave. I’m the meretrix of the Imperial harem and get my ass oiled by muscled bronze eunuchs every second Thursday.” She did not move from the door. “Answer my bleeding question, boy. Ain’t no one here but us.”

I stopped midway through the act of buttoning my shirt. “What question? You haven’t asked one.”

“Why aren’t you shouting your fancy-ass name from the temple minarets?” she asked, rephrasing an earlier statement. “We could be fitting you for a proper suit of armor upstairs right now, your lordship.” There was an odd note of mocking in the slave doctor’s voice when she said those last two words, something that jerked me upright, forced me to my full height.

“I’m not a lord,” I said again.

She snorted, put a hand against the door to stop me from leaving. As if she could. She stood tall as she was able, her wispy white hair swaying in the air from the vents. “Answer the question, momak.”

It finally clicked. The strange accent I couldn’t place. Durantine. She was of Durannos, or had been. The tattoos on her arms were Imperial Legion, plain as day. An auxiliary? I wanted to laugh, to cry. A plan had come from nowhere, sprouting full formed like Pallas Athena from my head.

“Ti si od Resganat?” I asked, speaking the heavy tongue of that distant Republic. You are from the Republic?

The woman’s eyes went wide, and in the same language, she said, “You speak Durantine?”

“Haan,” I replied, inclining my head. I had to play it carefully, though I had an advantage already in that the woman was hearing me out. Perhaps

she was bent; perhaps she let myrmidons into the fodder pool unqualified all the time. I reached into the back pocket of my new trousers, fingers

skating over my ring on its tangled cord. I fished out one of the hurasams I’d stolen with Rells’s gang. I held it out for her to see, the Emperor’s

aquiline profile gleaming in the light. “Take it.”

The doctor looked like she wanted to spit. “The fuck do I want with your gold, boy?” She hooked a finger under her collar and pulled, indicating her slavery and how little coin was worth.

Offering money like that was exactly what she would have expected of me, and I didn’t want to disappoint. That offer made and rejected, I plowed ahead, counting on the republicans’ stiff-necked assertion that class and

caste meant nothing. “Fine, then. Look.” I paused, sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t want to be a lord.”

She eyed me with her one good eye. “Why’s that, then?”

I was perfectly happy to lie to her. “No one should be.” She snorted,

clearly disbelieving. “The worst that happens is I get killed in the pool and the universe will be short another palatine. You were a soldier, right? An

auxilium?” I indicated her tattoos. “Here’s your chance to order a nobile to his death and not the other way round.”

She gave me a very strange look, said, “Why would you want this?” “I don’t have anything else,” I said. She looked about to argue, and I

said, “I’ve been sleeping on the streets in this city for three years now. I don’t have anything else.” Maybe she took pity on me, or maybe it was delight at seeing a nobile in a position like my own, but I sensed she was on the edge of a decision and added, “Put me in the pool. Please.”

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