Chapter no 37 – Might Never Die

Empire of Silence

WE CELEBRATED IN THE city, taking our bonus purses to one bar after another until money and darkness ran out and the sun came up in fire. Many of my companions would remember nothing of that victorious evening, but to me it is forever bright. I bought nothing, saving every bit and every crumpled five-kaspum note of my share of the bonus. I had a ship to think of. Still I did not want for drink. None of us did. It was only that the others spent as if they had not thought to see tomorrow. I thought of little else.

You might think it was a sad occasion, glasses raised to Keddwen and the others we lost. But while there was some of that, and while there would be offerings burned before the icons of Death and Fortitude in the Chantry the next day, we rejoiced, for we were young and strong, alive, and assured in that moment of our immortality. We raised a glass to our dead and

several to ourselves, and though many of us said we wished we were dead the next day, not a one of us meant it. Headaches be damned, for they are fleeting, and we felt we might never die.

It was the first of many such victories, and in time our little band of myrmidons became known, celebrated by the fans who greeted us. And so I walked upright down streets where once I had run or cowered in fear of the prefects and my fellow criminals. I will say no more of that celebration—or of any other—but for a moment we had on the road back to the White

District and the hulking mass of the coliseum. For by the wan, red light of morning we passed a small cafe with an iron rail. The sky was dark, bruised only slightly with day’s fire, and the night wind was still cool and damp as the breath of a cave. The sight of that cafe lit something in me, rekindled a conversation I’d had earlier with Pallino and Elara, another veteran of the pits. She had not fought with us that day, being on another team, but it was

well known that she and Pallino were lovers, and he had brought her with us.

“But look,” I said, words slurring only slightly as we weaved, “we can’t be doing this forever.” I made a vague gesture with one thin hand. “Switch and I’ve been talking. When this contract’s up, we’re going to take our pay and get a loan on a starship.” As I said this, I staggered against the cafe’s rail, not three yards from the table where Crow had helped hide me a lifetime before.

“After only a year?” Pallino scratched his stubbly jaw, steadied by Elara hanging on his arm. “You couldn’t afford a damn leaky tub on six thousand. You’d need a hell of a lot more.”

I smiled thinly, staggering a bit. “That’s why I’m talking to you both.” I lay a hand on Pallino’s shoulder. “You were a legionnaire—a thirty-year man, was it?” I undershot the number on purpose. “You must be tired of this life!”

“Twice twenty years, and you know it, lad!” Pallino groused, pulling Elara closer. She yelped, and the old myrmidon proclaimed, loud and drunkenly, “My sword was first wetted on Sulis!”

Elara swatted him. “Everyone knows, dear.”

“Killed forty of the Pale for His Radiance!” Pallino said to all who’d listen. He put an arm on my shoulder. “For the Emperor, yeah? Not you, Your Hadrian-ness. Ness . . .”

I knew it wasn’t the time for a conversation like this, but we were all drunk and riding high on the taste of blood and victory. “Switch and I were thinking you two might want to join us. Look. We buy the ship jointly, divvy up shares—”

“We can talk about it,” Elara said, looking over her shoulder to where a mostly sober Switch helped a sick Erdro along. “If the whore boy don’t bite the dust come Summerfair.”

“I won’t!” Switch bristled, face red as his hair, flush with wine and the courage of his survival. “I’ll make you eat those words!”

“Hope so, lad!” she shot back not unkindly, ignoring Kiri’s shouts to leave Switch alone. “But a year’s a long time. Miracle old Pal here and I are still kicking after five and three!”

Pallino’s one eye widened. “Miracle? It’s no such thing, woman. It’s skill!” And from there the old veteran swung into another of his too-familiar tirades about how the gladiators were no proper soldiers and no

match for those who were. He beat his chest in an approximation of the Legions salute. “Cost me my good eye to stay alive, it did. That’s more than those green-armored boy-fuckers can claim.” He coughed a bit, stopped to

sway uneasy on his feet despite the woman supporting him.

I shook my head, exasperated. I liked Pallino. The old soldier had a gruff charm and bravado in him that spoke to a certain atavistic part of me, as if he were—to use Switch’s term—a proper man, back when that meant only one thing. For all that there was an honorableness in him that ran deep, and he’d kept his head in the thick of the fighting, as befit a veteran of forty years. I wondered at his age and reasoned that he must have a drop or two of patrician blood in him. He had to be older than sixty standard, perhaps halfway to seventy, and yet he moved like a man of fifty, a construct of horn and hardened leather.

“Look, Had,” he said, seeming suddenly more sober. “It ain’t a bad notion, but you don’t know how much money it takes to get even a pissy old lighter spaceborne and staying there. Even with what the woman and I have stored away, you’re not going to get anything new.” He shook his head, and by the tone of his voice I knew I’d pressed far enough, so I ducked my head and followed him. I hadn’t planned on buying anything new. It just needed to fly. “You ain’t going to buy nothing with six kilos in specie. A decent ship’s worth the price of a township, son.” We went on in the droning, slurring noise that passes for quiet among the truly drunk and happy. After a few blocks Pallino seized my arm again. “Don’t buy nothing

with VX-3 ion engines. Norman crap’ll shake you right out of the sky.” And I knew I had him, at least for now. It was a start, the first step down a road that would take me off of Emesh and into the heavens, away from this long, dark purgatory of the soul. I said no more, but Pallino’s words had lit

something in me. The price of a township. Well, I still had something worth that much, didn’t I? How could I have forgotten?

So I did not press the matter but sang softly with the others from

“Between the Worlds So Shining Bright.” And for once—perhaps for the first time—I knew what it was to be among friends and was content.

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