Chapter no 36 – Teach Them How To War

Empire of Silence

THE LIFT CLATTERED AS it carried the twenty of us up into the first event of the day’s Colosso, each fighter sweating and stinking in the confined space. Switch stood beside me, muttering a prayer to himself, a mantra invoking the Chantry icon of Fortitude. “Bless me with the sword of your courage, O Fortitude,” he breathed, voice barely a whisper. “Grant me strength in this time of need. Bless me with the sword . . .” I shut my eyes. Courage is the first virtue of fools, the patron of those too afraid to run.

The myrmidon on Switch’s other side nudged him with an elbow. “Can it, will you?”

Switch looked at the man, muttered an apology. I grimaced, adjusting the antique-style round shield I’d been given, same as everyone else’s, a three-foot carbon-fiber hoplon. For all my encouragement, Switch was right about himself—it would take far more than a week to make a fighting man of him. And Ghen wasn’t wrong, whatever Siran and Kiri said. The boy

wouldn’t last a nanosecond. I clenched my teeth, biting back a reprimand as the aged and hissing speaker system in the lift carriage let out a high

screech and Pallino’s rough voice rushed in over our heads. “Hold together like we rehearsed. Groups of five. Don’t let the enemy surround you.”

“Do we know what they’re packing, boss?” asked Keddwen, a local boy who’d made it through a few fights already, distinguishable by his bleached, ropy hair. He had to shout to be heard, his voice hoarse.

Pallino called back, “Same shit we’ve got: swords, spears, round shields.

But it’s Jaffa’s team, so expect the fuckers to be throwing javelins.”

“We’ll throw them back, then!” Siran shouted, summoning up enough raw energy that the men at her end of the carriage cheered, lifting their

weapons in the grimy orange light.

Sensing Switch’s nervousness, I leaned over and knocked on his round shield. “At least we have shields, right?”

The younger man grimaced, tamped down his helmet over his wild red mane. “Not funny, Had.” I understood him perfectly. I’d have given my left arm for a proper Royse shield.

There came a moment before every one of my fights in the Colosso, right before we all marched out onto the sand-dusted brick of the killing floor, when all I wanted was to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. I felt it for the first time then. My bowels twisted into knots; the blood hammered against the anvil of my skull. I stared up at the steel girders that supported the arched ceiling at the top of the lift tube, counted the massive bolts that held them in place. Why was I doing this? There had to be other ways to

earn passage offworld. It’s for your ship, I told myself, imagining. I could leave the Empire then, leave it and never return, lose the Chantry and Father and the rest. I could travel to Judecca, meet Simeon’s Irchtani, and see

Athten Var. I could become a trader in the Outer Perseus. I could turn pirate. Mercenary.

But the few hurasams I’d stolen from that corner store wouldn’t have bought a broom closet aboard a star cruiser, and anyway I was contracted to the coliseum for a standard year. Sixty-five combat engagements, and any one of them could be lethal. And any attempt to breach that contract, to run, would end with my feet lopped off, my nose slit, my body dragged into the Colosso and thrown at the mercy of the great beasts, fodder in the purest

sense of the word. The sponsors—Count Balian Mataro not least of all— would get their value out of me one way or another.

Standing there, trying to compose myself while my neighbor’s bladder emptied down her thigh, my thoughts turned to our enemy. They would be armored and shielded—truly shielded, not merely given the old-fashioned

antiques we carried. We were dressed like it was Homer’s Troy we meant to attack, not five gladiators in advanced sensor armor. The whole exchange

was a farce. Our blunted weapons could only dent their armor. The suits they wore would interpret the blows mathematically and inhibit their

wearers in simulation of damage without ever truly causing harm. True gladiators rarely died; professional athletes such as they were too great an investment. We could only immobilize them.

“Shock and awe, Hadrian,” I murmured to myself, kneading my eyes

with my knuckles, running my fingers through the sharp stubble of my hair.

“Blood and thunder.” A groan escaped past my teeth. I missed Gibson. I missed Roban. I even missed Felix. The castellan would have known what to do, could have thought of at least a dozen ways out of whatever it was we faced. A hundred. I felt suddenly that I should have paid more attention in tactics. I hadn’t learned all I needed to know. Now I never would. Felix was hundreds of light-years away, and Gibson—well, only my father and

Mother Earth knew where Gibson was. I took a moment to secure my helmet, tightening the jaw strap.

The lift juddered to a halt, and almost at once the huge, heavy doors ground their way open, metal grating on stone. I swear the sound hit us before the sunlight did, the great, crashing squall of it deep and crushing as the sea. The animal sound of eighty thousand human voices screaming,

shouting with drunken delight and the joyous rage of spectacle. That sound affected each man in a different way, flattening him or lifting him up.

Fear is a poison, I told myself, repeating the old words as Switch had done his prayer. Fear is a poison. I felt that poison like ice in my veins.

Rising, I followed Ghen and the veterans out into the sickly orange

sunlight, hefting the carbon fiber shield as I drew my short sword for

combat. The floor of the arena stretched nearly a hundred yards long and was perhaps half as wide. We had entered into a forest of stone pillars

distributed at random throughout the arena, according the combatants cover. No two were the same, their heights and diameters variable, but all thrust from the brick floor, crowding what otherwise would have been level and open ground.

Ringing the massive expanse of the arena rose a sandstone wall twenty feet high, pierced at intervals with steel lift doors like the one from which we had emerged. A high-class energy shield shimmered above us, washing out a portion of the cheering, the bellows, and the jeers. It was there to

protect the crowd from weapon fire, as it had been on the day I’d seen thirty slaves butchered on stage by the Meidua Devils. Couldn’t have a stray plasma burner slicing up the wall and into some watching logothete or guild functionary.

None of that registered. The spartan battlefield was so much dead space, mere foreground for the overgrown jungle of color and movement that was the crowd distorted by the Royse field blur. And there they were, arrayed by a gate at the far end of the field: five gladiators dressed in the armor of Imperial legionnaires, the white plate ceramic painted green and gold. Each

held a spear taller than he was and watched us through faceplates of solid green, unjointed and without details or eye slits. Patient as mossy stones.

“The shield’s up,” I said, grabbing Switch by the triceps as we all hurried onto the field.

Distantly, as if I were hearing her from the bottom of a deep well, I could make out the muddy words of the Colosso master of ceremonies,

though what she said was lost in the cheering and the murky effect of the field. We had no need to hear it. We knew why we were there.

Switch leaned closer. “What did you say?”

My attention was split: half on the gladiators opposite us, five of the Borosevo Sphinxes in full kit, and the other half on the lord’s box at the

midpoint of one wall and on the man seated in it behind still more layers of energy shielding. Balian Mataro, Count of Emesh. I had seen him on city broadcast screens, but there he was in the flesh, seated between his lictors and his Umandh slaves. Even as we entered, a pair of the alien creatures

was helping their human douleters drag the corpse of some cephalopoidal land predator through a side gate and onto another lift, trailing green blood on the bricks. We weren’t the first event after all. I made Switch hang back, waited for Kiri and Pallino to join us with a recruit I did not know.

I jerked a thumb upward, repeated, “They have the prudence shield up.”

Pallino squinted up at it one-eyed. “Oh, fuck me,” the veteran swore just as the first shot struck the bricks above our heads, violet plasma scorching the wall black. Off to one side, Banks was forming up his cluster of five— three spearmen and two swordsmen—all crouched low to make as much use as possible of their carbon fiber shields.

“Get down!” I screamed, throwing my arms around Pallino and Switch, dragging them down with me as a salvo seared through the air above our heads. “Will these stop lance plasma?” I asked, propping my shield up in front of me to afford my body some cover where I lay in the dust.

Pallino grunted. “Aye, but don’t depend on it long.”

“Then let’s not take long, sirrah,” I said. Kiri and the raw recruit ran forward, somehow having avoided the shots that had nearly claimed us. They kept their shields up even as they helped us all to stand. “This way!” I pointed toward one of the many pillars that rose from the arena floor, hoping to put an obstacle between us and the gladiators with their energy lances.

“It’s a cull!” Pallino spat on the dirt as we took cover behind the pillar. When I just looked at him, uncomprehending, he jerked his chin to indicate our fellow myrmidons. “Thinning the herd.” Switch had gone deathly silent. Pallino seized me with his free hand. “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

My mind went blank. “Me?” I spluttered. “What in Earth’s name has this got to do with me?”

“They saw your little speech in the yard. Must’ve done.” The other man released me, drew his sword again. “They’re taking us down a peg.”

That was an understatement. We were about to be slaughtered. I tried to slow things down. To think things through. To breathe. “Fear is a poison,” I murmured, trying to calm my fast-beating, mutinous heart. We outnumbered the gladiators four to one, but their armament outmatched ours by millennia. Already I knew the original plan would fail. If we

clustered into little fighting units the way legionnaires did in ground

assaults, fighting shielded, back-to-back, we would all surely perish. “We need to split them up. Try and isolate them.” I peered out from behind the pillar, saw Siran and Ghen pinned down behind another massive column.

There was a chance. The pillars were certainly not a default part of this coliseum’s construction. They would have gotten in the way of the horse and dog races common in such places and certain forms of the combat.

“Switch, stay with me. The rest of you break left; keep the pillar between you and them.”

“Since when are you in charge?” asked the raw recruit, the man I didn’t know.

Fate chose that moment to interfere, and a bolt of plasma fire took the man in his chest. It singed my clothes as it passed, followed by the chemical stench of molten metal and cooked human flesh. The man didn’t even have a chance to scream. I wanted to scream, to cry. Something. Anything. But

all I could think was, What is the point of all this armor, then? I gave Switch a shove with my shield, pressing him forward and away from whoever it was who’d saved me the trouble of answering the recruit’s

question. Above the floor of the Colosso, the master of ceremonies’ high voice narrated events in rapid-fire, her words still lost through the prudence shield.

Five. They’d sent five men to kill us. Five professional toy soldiers in their fancy armor, each doubtless kill-ready, blood soaked in testosterone

supplements. Five Crispins. That thought nearly brought a smile to my lips even as I half pushed, half dragged Switch around another of the columns. We needed to put space between us and the man who’d killed the recruit.

Pallino and Kiri hadn’t followed, had peeled off another way. Whether they’d taken my advice or just been swept away by the chaos I never knew. In memory that first day hangs as if in a cloud, some moments outlined in brilliance, silver-edged and radiant. Others are shadowed, burned, as if those gray pillars were smoke and the clamor of the ground a distant, primal thunder.

“Split up!” I called, seeing a knot of our myrmidons crowded behind pillars. “Groups of two or three! Fan out!” I didn’t stay to see if they heeded me. Someone screamed, and I thought, Now we are eighteen. I hoped I was right, hoped I’d not missed another death in my haste. Switch had gone nearly catatonic beside me, frozen, eyes wide with fear. I shook him. “Snap out of it!” I pushed him against the pillar with my shield. “I need you here!” The boy’s eyes focused slowly, and I punched the wall beside his head with my sword hand. “I need you if we’re going to get out of this!”

“Get out of this?” Switch echoed, looking round. “How?”

“I have a plan.” It was only half a lie. I had an idea. A feeling.

Banks’s voice cut through the din. “You two! With us!” The leather-faced veteran stood with a group of six behind the fattest pillar on the field.

I shook my head. “You need to break up, Banks! We have to outflank them!”

“What?” he shouted, brows furrowed beneath the lip of his helm. “Are you insane?”

“Are they fighting together?” I called back, leaning on the word for

emphasis. “Do you want to line up for them, or do you want to fight back?” Just then I spotted one of the gladiators—a tall woman in the characteristic green and gold—passing between two pillars. She hadn’t spotted us in the chaos, had her lance leveled in pursuit of another target. Without waiting, I dragged Switch along to the next pillar, dogging her steps.

Banks saw this and snarled, following with two of his myrmidons. They fell in behind a pillar opposite ours, leaned around to take stock. The gladiatrix stopped a moment, the bayonet end of her lance lowered as she fussed with some setting on the shaft and ejected a heat sink with a tinny ring. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Banks spat.

“I’ll draw her fire. You hit her from behind.”

“Behind, eh?” Banks bared his teeth in a feral grin.

I felt my face flatten of expression. “Do grow up.” I turned to Switch. “Stay right behind me, got it?” The boy nodded, then looked down at the sword in his hand as if it were some deadly tumor. He didn’t answer, just

kept looking at his sword. I cursed myself. Ghen had been right about him. For the second time I shoved Switch against the pillar. “You don’t have to fight. Just stay with me.” I didn’t wait for him but tore off across the bricks, the sound of my armor slapping against itself drowned out by the noise of the crowd. I could only hope she wouldn’t hear me.

The gladiatrix had her lance raised and pointed at some target to my left, the haft tucked into the crook of her arm, the weapon at eye level as she

sighted along it. Blood pounding in my ears louder than the crowd. I

slammed the flat of my blade down on the length of the lance even as she fired. Violet plasma coughed against the bricks at our feet, turning the loose silicates in the sand to molten glass and filling the air with a chemical

smoke. The woman let out a surprised sound and whirled, trying to take me across the face with the butt of her lance. I smashed down with my round

shield, the whole thing ringing unpleasantly as the handle jounced my hand. I grimaced but pressed forward, backing her toward Banks and his people.

Switch had vanished somewhere in the madness. I ground my teeth hard, lashing out with my sword.

The weapon actually caught the gladiatrix in the leg, and I heard an

artificial whine. She staggered on her next step backward, and she tried to bring her weapon to bear on me. It was too long, a bad option in close quarters. And now her suit had betrayed her, registering my strike on her leg as battle damage, protecting her own precious, well-paid flesh. She let out

an angry growl through the speakers in the neck of her underlying skin-suit and dropped the lance, hands going for the long knife at her hip. Brave move, sensible. It might have worked against Switch or even Kiri. It might even have worked on me, strung out on nerves as I was.

But Banks crashed into her with one of his myrmidons, one blade

crashing through her energy shield—unaffected for its human slowness— and ringing against her helm. She swore vilely as the jade suit of armor

seized up, knocking her out of commission. I thought of the cephalopoidal monstrosity the slave Umandh had dragged from the field, imagined the

stony, three-legged xenobites dragging this woman to a side lift to have her armor unlocked. She’d lose a bonus for this upset. The crowd let out a roar,

above which the muddy, shield-flattened words of the compere narrated the whole thing.

Banks was grinning like a fool as he said, “All right, we’ll use your plan.”

“There’s still four left!” said his nearest companion, the woman with the peeling skin. “Can we use that?” She pointed at the lance the gladiatrix still held in her seized-up fingers.

The veteran shook his head. “They’re made to interface with the suit gloves. Won’t fire if we try.”

“We have the numbers!” I craned my neck. “Where’s Switch?” “The slut?” The woman shrugged. “No fucking clue.”

I pushed past her, hurrying back the way I’d come, calling out for Switch. I silenced myself quickly, realizing our hunters were as like to hear us as anyone. I passed two of our bodies smoking on the bricks—was that the one I’d seen die earlier? Or were they both new? Were we sixteen then? Or seventeen?

“Oy, Your Radiance!” Ghen’s deep voice carried above the sounds of the crowd. “Over here!” He crouched as he cut between the pillars, hiding as much of his bulk behind his carbon shield as was possible.

Back braced against one of the pillars, I waited for him to approach, Siran in tow. The two convicts fell into place beside me just as—distantly— someone screamed. The part of me that thought in Gibson’s voice ticked

another one off, dispassionate. Fifteen? Keeping my eyes out for another attack, I said, “We got one. Banks and me. I lost Switch.”

“Saw him with Keddwen and Erdro just a second ago,” Siran said. “He looks like he’s about to piss himself.”

“Heard someone already did.” Ghen grinned.

I shook my head. “It wasn’t Switch. He’s just scared. What’s the score?”

Siran shrugged. “They’ve got four of ours, I think?” She rubbed her ruined nose with the back of her sword hand, ducked her head to look past Ghen.

“I counted at least five,” I said darkly. “We can’t spend five people to one of theirs. Banks and I caught one alone. Hammer and anvil.”

Ghen nodded. “I’d be fucking surprised if Pallino’s not done one in already. Bastard’s been working over the Sphinxes for five years now.”

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”

The big myrmidon turned out to be right. We passed the locked-out body of the second gladiator sitting against one of the columns not far off, and my heart went a little lighter, then sank when we found the bodies. One was decidedly Keddwen, the local boy with the ropey hair who called Pallino

“boss.” The other was not Switch but a local girl who looked too much like Cat for my comfort. Only three left.

We found three more of our dead before we found the other gladiators— all men—standing back-to-back-to-back in a tight legionnaire’s triad. I had heard of such a thing, would see it countless times on many battlefields.

The proud soldiers of the Emperor’s service: white ceramic gleaming, crimson surcoats snapping about their knees, their faceless white visors impassive in the face of incredible challenge. The Cielcin, whiter still,

pressing in on them from all sides. It was we who pressed here, ducking behind pillars to avoid plasma fire. One of the three men had lost his lance and held one of our swords in each hand.

The crowd above, I realized, had gone oddly quiet, holding their

collective breath. I’d fouled my count somewhere in the struggle. Thirteen of us remained at a glance. There was Switch, huddled, crouched in the

shadow of a pillar with Kiri. I breathed a sigh of relief. “The fuck’s

everyone standing around for?” Ghen barked. “They’ll drop the pillars if we don’t move.”

I didn’t have time to ask what this meant, for Pallino shouted, “They’ll have to come to us.”

“That’s not going to happen!” Siran snapped. I agreed with her.

A series of ratcheting clicks sounded deep in the floor below us, and

with a grinding roar the concrete pillars began to sink. They would descend until they were flush with the level of the floor, leaving us exposed. I glared at Pallino, at Ghen, looking round. “We have to go now, or they’ll be able to pick us off at their leisure.”

“At their leisure?” Pallino repeated, scorn evident in his tone. “That’s what this is, boy. That’s what this all is.”

“Fine,” I snarled, turning to Ghen. “I’ll do it. You with me?”

The big man looked down at me, brows furrowed beneath the lip of his helmet. He nodded. “We’re running out of time anyway.”

“Me too,” Siran said. “What’s the plan?”

I hefted my shield. “Leave the one with the swords for last.”

“That’s not much of a plan,” said a nameless myrmidon who’d moved to join us.

“No,” I agreed and sheathed my sword. Ordinarily one attacked the

enemy himself. But for now I needed to strike his weapon. That gave me a notion, a mad one.

We didn’t shout. Shouting as one charged only drew the enemy’s

attention. I wanted as little of that as possible. Ten paces of open space

separated the knot of gladiators from our shrinking cover, plenty of time for the trained killers to fix their two lances on us. I saw the muzzles glow

blue-hot, heard the whines as the weapons sucked in air to heat their plasma. One of the slow-action models, air-fed, without ammo reserves. Good. He’d have only one shot.

The weapon spat fire.

When you fight—no matter the cause—you make a choice. You choose to set aside everything else for that moment. Choose to funnel everything you are, everything you’ve been, and push it through the eye of a needle.

You risk everything. The plasma charge broke on my shield, heating a patch of the carbon fiber until it glowed. The second gladiator panicked, his own shot going far wide. The gladiator with the two swords turned, stunned, just in time for Kiri and Erdro to come tearing around from the right flank,

emerging even as the pillars shrank to naught. Someone behind us shrieked as a plasma shot from the second gladiator caught her. I didn’t turn to look.

I closed distance between the nearest gladiator and me, passing my

shield from my left hand to my right, clutching the glowing disc by the rim. Then—disregarding the common sense of a thousand generations—I ground to a halt, counting the seconds until I thought the man could fire

again. The lance whined as it sucked in air, and Ghen and Siran drove past. I saw the gladiator’s thoughts scanning behind that faceless visor, sensed him trying to pick a target. The Royse field barrier of his shield shimmered in the distorting heat of the day, crackled with static from the dirt and grit. I threw the shield, the light carbon slicing the air like a discus in the Summerfair pentathlon. The man ignored it, some well-trained part of his mind perhaps expecting his energy shield to deflect the blow without incident. It didn’t. Fast as it was, my round shield was too slow for the man’s energy curtain. It struck him in the chest, jerking his arm up even as he fired again, spraying the round up against the prudence shield. He


Then Ghen was on him. And Siran. I drew my sword and cut in and past them, positioning myself so that Ghen’s bulk shielded me from the second still-armed gladiator. I heard the whining of servos in the man’s chest as his

armor seized under Ghen’s assault. Siran kicked his lance away. I lashed out with my blade, striking the second lance-wielding gladiator so hard in the

arm that his suit forced him to drop the lance. His arm swayed at his side, joints frozen, the polymers of the skin-suit hardened to something like

stone. Not yet giving up, he drew his belt knife, whirled to stab me. It was nothing a real opponent would have done. My blow might have severed the arm of a man dressed as we were, but the gladiator was himself not truly injured. His attack caught me off guard, and the weapon skirted off my breastplate, leaving a deep furrow.

“Not left-handed, then?” I asked, and I stabbed the man in the thigh. His suit whined and hobbled him, but he didn’t fall as a man ought, and I had to snap a neat seconde with my sword arm, elbow cracking the blade down to disarm the man before I finished him with a ringing blow to the head.

Then it was over—the final gladiator had fallen to Siran and one of the others. As with Crispin, I expected there to be some glorious instant, some

swell to mark the end of battle. Nothing came. It never does. The fight ends, the needle is threaded, and all you were before comes crashing back. For a moment all I could hear was my blood still drumming in my ears; all I

could feel was the weight of my armor cutting into me by its leather thongs. All I knew was the rise and fall of my chest in time with breaths labored in the thick and dripping air.

Then the prudence shield snapped out of existence, and the ecstatic triumph of the crowd swept us along, giving me my moment of crescendo. An upset. A titanic upset. I wondered how many people had expected us all to die. Only eight of us had died. Twelve stood. Amid the clamor I looked up at the count’s box. Beneath the striped gold-and-jade awning, Balian

Mataro stood, a great bull of a man with another slender man at his side. I could just pick out the black witch-shadow of a Chantry prior not far from him. He raised a hand, his image projected on screens beside his box—

screens I had not even noticed until that moment. The crowd’s tumult

subsided until at last the nobile’s amplified voice carried over it, rich and superlative.

“Well fought, my myrmidons, well fought!” He was clapping, and even thirty feet below him I could see the gold glittering on his fingers, on his

forehead, at his throat. The metal stood out sharply against his coal-black

skin. He was as ostentatious as my father was spare, a true aesthete, and his voice was like strong wine. “I can truly say none of us gathered here thought to witness so great a surprise as this.” He leaned against the blond wood rail of his box.

I looked up, for the first time noting the swarm of camera drones orbiting the field. I stooped to collect my burned shield, stumped over to where Switch was standing. We exchanged words, enough for me to know the younger man was all right. Looking round I caught sight of a look on Ghen’s face. The big man was grinning, but there was something in his

wide eyes other than joy. He caught me looking, nodded, and kept on

smiling. Was it respect? I wasn’t quite sure, but I didn’t think I had anything more to fear from the big man. Kiri pushed forward to embrace me, murmured some soft congratulations. “That thing with the shield,” she said as she hugged me, “was damn clever.”

“I’m just glad we made it,” I returned, extricating myself from her

embrace. One-eyed Pallino grinned at me, and I saw he’d chipped a tooth in the fight. The one-time legionnaire pressed his fist to his chest in salute, bobbed his head. I returned the gesture with a slight bow.

The count was still speaking, addressing the crowd more than we the victors. “Such a fight we have not seen in many seasons! Many seasons. We are well pleased, and hereby award each of you a sum of fifty hurasams for your gallantry!” The cheer that went up was engineered, a palliative to wash the taste of plague from every heart and mouth.

I touched the spot on my breastplate beneath which my house’s ring still hung on its cord.

Bread and circuses.

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