Chapter no 34 – Men of Grosser Blood

Empire of Silence

“YOU OVEREXTENDED ON THE thrust again, Switch!” I called, ducking a blow from Siran, one of the other myrmidons on the team with which I’d been barracked. The red-haired kid didn’t listen, throwing himself at Kiri, who parried with the haft of her dummy lance and struck the young man in the back of his knee. Switch toppled into the dirt with a grunt, his short sword beneath him. Farther off, the other myrmidons laughed.

Ghen called over, “Leave him alone, Had. Let the boy figure it out. It’s not our problem.”

Holding up a hand for Siran to stop, I pulled off my helmet and

scratched at the shadow of stubble growing back over my scalp, trying not to think about how much I surely resembled Crispin. “It will be if he goes down at the end of the week, Ghen.”

“They’re giving us shields!” Switch said. “I heard the techs saying.

We’re getting shields.” The boy had opted against wearing a helmet, and his huge ears stuck out from beneath his angry red hair.

“They ain’t giving us shields!” called one of the others from across the yard. “Shields is for the proper gladiators. Got to protect their investments!” “They won’t matter none if you fall on your fool face, anyhow,” Siran

said. She wasn’t the oldest of our little platoon, but she’d been in the pits the longest, more out of a talent for keeping her head down than out of any particular skill in combat. An offworlder like me, she was paler than most of the natives, though still much darker than myself: her skin a warm brown, hair cropped short under her brass-plated helmet. Her face was marred by the gash in her right nostril, same as Ghen’s, each for some crime minor enough not to merit a tattoo on their foreheads—or else they’d paid the fine to avoid that fate.

Switch was an offworlder too: a milk-skinned, freckled catamite off one of the deep-space commercial haulers, his muscles all for show. He’d been trained to dance, to serve tea, to entertain the men and the rare woman to

whom his master sent him. He wasn’t a fighter, not by a long shot. By contrast, Kiri and Ghen were both native Emeshi, their skin darker than

Cat’s had been but from the same plebeian stock. Ghen had the thick arms and thicker neck of a day laborer and a strong, square jaw that made me think he’d spent his life chewing stones and not food. Kiri was an oddity, a plebeian woman in early middle age. Not a criminal like Ghen or Siran nor a vagrant like myself or Switch, but in the pits because she wanted to be

there. “Trying to put me son through the service exams,” she’d said brightly my first night in the barracks when I’d been introduced to the team by

Doctor Chand. “He’s so clever, Dar is.”

“We’re fighting as a team,” Siran said, speaking to the problem at hand, running her tongue nervously over her teeth. “The boy’s a liability.”

“Not with a shield-belt on, I won’t be!” Switch tapped his sword

anxiously against one armored calf. Without warning I threw my steel helmet at the boy. I meant to strike him in the breastplate, but the unbalanced thing slipped in my hands and took him in the belly instead. Switch doubled over, wincing, spluttering for words. He dropped his sword. The others all froze, none of them sure how to respond. Kiri sucked in a breath, surprised. “The hell was that?”

“His Radiance has finally gone mad,” Ghen said, laughing his deep laugh. I wanted to snarl at him, but the big convict was not our weak link— the boy was. So I ignored the nickname, crossing the open ground of the quadrangle, kicking up clouds of dust as I went. I may have been a poor thief and a poorer beggar, but I’d been schooled for the sort of formal

combats common in the Colosso. I may never have liked it, but it takes more than a couple of years to take the shine off muscle memory.

“A shield-belt wouldn’t have stopped that helmet!” I shouted. “It won’t stop swords or thrown spears, either.” Stopping about five paces from Switch, I spoke softly, emulating Gibson more than Felix in that moment. “We aren’t getting shields, Switch. Whatever you think you heard.”

“I don’t think I heard anything!” Switch said, color rising in his freckled cheeks. “I heard that—”

“Even if we were getting shields, they wouldn’t help us.” I kept a piece of my attention on the others in the yard, listening to the clangor of their

arms as they sparred, swords and spear-shafts tangled in the geometries of combat. “Shields are for high-velocity weapons: firearms, plasma burners, lances. They won’t help once you’re in range of the long knives.”

“You should listen to the Emperor here, whore-boy. Help him shove that stick farther up his ass.” Ghen barked a laugh, made an obscene gesture

with his thumb. He never took his eyes from Switch’s face. “You won’t last a nanosecond when the shit hits.” The big man tapped the flat of his sword against his shoulder, the metal slapping the interleaved plates there.

Ever the mother, Kiri hurried forward and placed a hand on Switch’s shoulder, offering mute support. She murmured something to the boy,

something soft. Siran punched Ghen in the arm. “Would you shut up?” “What?” The big man rubbed at his ruined nose, trying to hide his

embarrassment. While they bickered, I took a breath to compose myself, in small part regretting throwing my helmet at Switch. Since I’d come to the coliseum two weeks earlier, I’d come to realize how hard-edged my time in the streets had made me. Those weeks, those months since Cat’s death had done their damage. I recalled the robbery I’d carried out with Rells’s gang

—the way I’d betrayed them and the knife I’d buried in the shopkeeper’s

shoulder. The temperate edges that had separated me from the others in my family had been chipped away, a mosaic defaced by the iconoclast. These past days amongst the myrmidons had made that clear, had become an

exercise in reconstruction. I held that breath a long time, glad of the cooler night air, thick with the haunt of flies and the hiss of ornithons. I wiped the sweat from my brow.

At last I spoke, my baritone restored to a portion of is former polish— one of the benefits of proper food and clean water. “Look, you must shore up your footwork.”

“Oh,” Ghen cackled, “you must. You hear that, whore-boy? You must.”

“Shut up, you,” Kiri put in. “Leave him alone.” The woman took a couple of steps closer to the big man, a fierceness in her that I wouldn’t

have challenged had I been called to do so. A mother’s fierceness. A thing I’d not truly seen before, except the once.

“Or you’ll what?” Ghen said, pressing toward Kiri so they stood chest-to-chest, the laborer-turned-convict staring down his wide nose at the

woman below him. “Old bitch like you?” Kiri didn’t move, didn’t strike the bigger man. She didn’t retreat either. She just fixed her jaw and glared at him, her amber eyes flinty.

Siran moved forward. “The hell’s gotten into you, Ghen?”

The big man broke away from Kiri, looked to his fellow criminal. “This is the worst group we’ve had since we got here, Siran. Look at them!” He gestured, taking in Switch, Kiri, myself, the others scattered in training knots about the field. There were a few scarred veterans like himself, like Siran, mixed into that group. Most were criminals. Borosevo had produced a terrific multitude of criminals since the plague, and many had found themselves in the coliseum’s hypogeum, in the sweat-soaked concrete dormitories we called home. Better that than hang or face the full extent of the cathars’ corporal punishments.

A part of me started to question the wisdom of my scheme. When at last I’d convinced Doctor Chand to sign off on my application, listing me only as Had of Teukros, I imagined that I’d be put on a team replete with

leathery convicts. Men of grosser blood. I hadn’t expected the desperate, the hungry of Borosevo. I hadn’t expected the concerned mother, the male prostitute, or the one-armed gondolier who, lacking for family, had come into the coliseum to go out in glory. I wondered what Father might have

said about the company I kept now. I suppose he’d have been glad to find me in the Colosso at all. I suppose there is an irony there. My disgust with the fighting pits had—in a dramatic sense—started off my whole misadventure, and now there I was, dressed in the nearly medieval armor of a fodder myrmidon. Not even a proper gladiator, I reflected, imagining Father’s contempt.

Ghen was still talking. “This is a shit show, Siran. You know it; I know it. Banks knows it; Pallino knows it.” He jerked a finger at a pair of older myrmidons training opposite fresher meat. “And you can bet your ass the promoters know it too. They’ll be advertising our slaughter on public broadcast.” I had seen such advertisements, plastered on the huge screens that dominated street corners all over the city. He cast his eyes around at Switch and Kiri, at a few of the other myrmidons who’d peeled away from the crowd to hear what all the ruckus was.

I kept my mouth shut through all of it, watchful not of Ghen but of the gathered dozen myrmidons in their scratched and dinted plate. No two suits of armor were quite the same, though the faces the men made were identical. Each had the same drawn-lipped, wide-eyed look of a deer in

sight of the hunter. One didn’t have to be a Legion psychologist to see that

Ghen was scaring them. None of the other veterans were in the little knot of onlookers, I noted. All were green as I.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” Switch said, no real conviction in his high voice. I was struck by how young he was. Younger than me—young enough that his beard grew in patchily on his narrow jaw. I was young myself, though how young was a mystery. Twenty-one? Twenty-two? I had only

ever seen local calendars, wasn’t sure of the Imperial Star Date. How many years I’d been in fugue aboard Demetri’s ship I could not say.

Ghen’s hairless eyebrows rose, incredulous. “Maybe it won’t be so bad?” He sneered the words, repeated them more loudly. “You’ll go ass-up for the enemy the minute you get a chance.” The great ox pushed forward past Siran with an outthrust arm. He seized Switch by the throat. “I don’t want to get plowed, boy. Do you?”

There. That was my cue. I laughed. Not boisterously, not so much as to deliberately call attention to myself. I confess I learned the trick from my father, if not the laughter. The quiet noise caught in a brief space of silence, snagged and yanked Ghen around. The nearest trainees cleared a space

around me, and I shook my head to dispel the canned laughter. The yard had gone deathly silent, and the only sounds came from the other groups training at the far side of the yard, steel clashing in the shadow of the


“Did I say something funny, Your Radiance?”

I laughed again, more shortly this time, and spread my hands. “You’re the only one here talking about being plowed, Ghen. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were lonely,” I said. Siran barked a short laugh, and a couple of the trainees tittered nervously.

The big man shoved Switch back, letting the younger man tumble into the dust and the dry grass. Ghen rounded on me and drew his sword with a rasp. “You want to do this, boy?”

“What?” The man was so predictable he might have been reading off a playbill. “Right here? In front of everyone? Without even dinner first?” The laughter was a little stronger this time, strong enough to make Ghen angry. To make him stupid. “You’re hardly for me . . .”

I saw the blow coming from parsecs away, a wild slash that would have cleaved my bare head in half had it come anywhere close to landing. I ducked the blow easily and sprang back up, catching the man by the wrist and by his hyperextended shoulder. My own sword bumped my thigh in its

sheath as I torqued the bruiser’s weapon down and away, overbalancing him. He staggered, and I seized the opening to draw my own blade. “Too slow, friend.”

When Ghen whirled, he found me waiting, sword held in a high guard, angled before my face in the warm air between us. The whites of his eyes stood out in his dark face, as did his bared teeth. He didn’t speak, just

charged me again. It was, I noticed, much like fighting an angry Crispin: all size, no sense. He fought like a man used to winning and winning quickly.

My years on Emesh had hardened me, but Ghen was born there, his flesh shaped by its invisible hand. He was built like an ancient tank, square and squat and solid.

That solid mass fell on me, and for a moment I nearly folded under it.

Then I slipped sideways, bringing my sword in hard to slam the man in the stomach. Ghen gasped, but his steel breastplate took the brunt of the attack. The blade was blunted anyhow: a training implement. I danced behind

Ghen, planted a booted heel on his ass, and kicked him into the dust. All too easy.

Instinct would have had me speak only to Ghen at my feet, but I was moved by greater necessities, so I held my blade threateningly beside

Ghen’s face as he lay quiescent. Instead of addressing the beaten man—he was only a symptom—I raised my voice, calling on hundreds of hours of oratory training at Gibson’s hand. “Would you divide our strength when we need it most?” Like my father, I let my eyes strafe over the crowd, fully

aware of what I was doing and who I was emulating, my heart going leaden in my chest. But I was not my father. I did not want them to fear me. The faces of the recruits watching me—men and women as new to this as I was

—were jaundiced with that same skin-tightened expression of fear I’d observed moments before. “People are expecting to watch us all die. You!” I pointed at a young woman with pale hair, her skin red and peeling in the sun, nearly obscuring the word THIEF tattooed across her forehead. “And you! And you! And me.” I struck my chest with my fist in imitation of a

salute. “I aim to disappoint them.”

“Brave words from a first-timer!” shouted Banks, a lantern-jawed, leather-faced man near the back of the crowd. This was met with cries of agreement from the more seasoned gladiators, all but Siran, who watched me with an unreadable expression. “You don’t have the gravitas for

command, son!”

“Gravitas?” I smiled. “Fancy word.” But I’d expected the response, had even guessed it would be Banks who’d say it. It would have been Ghen, but embarrassment and rage had the other man seething at my feet. “I don’t have any fancy words for you all,” I said, “only desperate ones. I don’t want to die, do you?” I paused only for the barest instant, hoping someone would respond but not counting on it. No one did. “None of us would be here if we had another choice.”

“That pretty nose of yours says different!” said the pale woman with the peeling skin, voice older than I’d expected.

This surprised me, and for a moment I stood, blade still pressed against the side of Ghen’s head, chewing on my tongue. “That doesn’t mean I’m here by choice. We’ve all got our reasons. I think Kiri is the only one of us here who doesn’t have to be.” I waved my free hand to take in the peasant woman, her dark face lined with care. How old was she in truth? Forty

standard? Fifty? So young. My own mother was nearly three hundred and

appeared almost less than half this woman’s age. “But even she is here for a reason. We all are.”

“Shut your mouth, lad, or I’ll shut it for you!” called Pallino, an old veteran with the solid build of a career soldier and a leather patch over one eye.

Planting one foot on Ghen’s back, I raised both arms, sword still in hand. “You are welcome to try me, sirrah.” I took my foot off of Ghen and

stepped forward, a little closer to the crowd.

This pronouncement sent a surge of whispers through the gathered crowd. One small, rat-faced man leaned toward his companion and

murmured, “Bastard.” I ignored the whispers, narrowed my eyes at the one-eyed veteran.

The distant scream of a flier passing toward the massive shadow of the palace ziggurat filled the air. Pallino didn’t step in to challenge me. When the droning of the flier had ceased, I stooped, offered Ghen my hand. In a stage whisper aimed at the man I had bested, I said, “Here, man.”

Ghen rolled onto his side, caught sight of the lowered hand. He seemed to chew his thoughts, to literally work them in his teeth like he was

worrying at gristle. Then he took my hand and allowed me to help him up. “You’re fucking fast, Had.”

I allowed myself a shadow of the old Marlowe grin. “That’s ‘Your Radiance,’ to you, old-timer.”

I should have been a librettist, a playwright like my mother. The man’s emotions played in him precisely—precisely—as I’d imagined, as I’d hoped. I should have been an actor. I should have been . . . something else, anything other than whatever I was or became. A soldier? A sorcerer? An explorer like Simeon the Red?

Ghen looked for a minute as if he wanted nothing more than to strike me. Then the emotion was gone, crashing back beneath the surface or behind a cloud as a wild grin stole over his coarse features. He laughed, not as I had moments ago, but loud and long and clear. Pallino’s threat was forgotten, erased by that clarion instant. “Back to work, everyone!” Ghen bellowed, clapping me on the shoulder. “The kid here’s right. It’s those

cowards in the nice armor we mean to kill, not each other!” A halfhearted cheer went up from the gathered trainees, overwhelming the quiet veterans.

Ghen sauntered off, Siran peeling off with him for a spate of quiet conversation.

Groaning, I stepped forward and stooped to collect my helmet by the broad flange that guarded the neck. It was an ancient-looking thing, more than medieval, made of beaten steel and shaped in the same fashion as the helms of the Imperial legionnaires. Only where theirs had faceplates of

seamless white, mine was open, the cheek guards swinging off hinges at the temples. This one wasn’t forged, of course, but had been printed in the

coliseum armory, the steel threaded with carbon wire—finer than the finest hair—to strengthen it. I screwed the thing onto my head, tapped Switch lightly on the leg with my sword. “Come on, we’ve got to sort out that footwork.”

“I need practice,” Switch moaned, not looking up from his boots.

“Aye,” I agreed, glancing over at where Ghen and Siran were talking to three of the raw recruits. Siran had found a long spear—a dummy lance

without the plasma burner housing attached—and was leaning her weight on it. Seen from the left without the scarred ruin of her right nostril, there was something in the lines of her face, in the shape of the high cheekbones and the narrowed eyes, that made me think of royalty. She was nothing like Cat had been. Thinking of Cat darkened my mood, and I chewed my tongue, distracted. “We all need practice, Switch. That’s why we’re here.

We’ve got a week.”

He shook his head, red hair fanning about his face; he’d forgotten his own helmet in the barracks when we’d all kitted out to practice in the quad.

“It isn’t enough time, Had. It isn’t.”

Pressing my lips together in mute conciliation, I clapped the younger man on the shoulder and stalked away. I whirled into a low guard: knees bent, back straight. Earth and Emperor, to hold a sword in my hand again! I had not thought I’d miss it. The blood was still pounding in me, drumming as surely as the beat of some martial parade drum. Brief as it had been, my fight with Ghen had been a proper fight, not some back-alley squabble. I

suppressed a grin and lied, “Of course it’s enough time. We’ve got a week, Switch. You can do loads in a week. Here, front foot forward, and keep your back straight—that’s why you’re overextending. Makes you lean.

See?” I showed him, performing a wild, vaudeville impression of his mistake, unbalancing myself so that I dropped to one knee, entirely too vulnerable. That accomplished, I repeated the move correctly, careful to keep my back straight. “Your go. Show me.”

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