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Chapter no 38 – Blood Like Wax

Empire of Silence

I NEVER LOST A round of single combat in the Colosso, never had to kneel beside one of the professional gladiators or my fellow myrmidons to await the judgment of the crowd. Not in five engagements. Not in ten. After seven months and a particularly clever turn using sand from the coliseum floor to short out a gladiator’s shield-emitters, I’d garnered quite the reputation. I’d not been made to kill anyone either. The proper gladiators were not permitted to die, and on the rare occasion that I battled one of my fellow myrmidons, I disarmed them. The commons loved the gallantry of it. Most of my fellow myrmidons lacked the proper training I had, and one-on-one duels were where I was most at home.

The risk of death only came in the group actions such as that first

combat I have described. To consecrate each day of combat to Earth and Emperor, those of us not fighting in the small pools or single-combat tournaments would shed our blood in the opening melee. Call it tradition. I participated several times, scraping by sometimes by the skin of my teeth and sometimes in spectacular triumph. Once we came through without

losing a single man. Another time only Switch and I remained. Kiri left the Colosso shortly after I arrived, and Banks died shortly after that, killed in

single combat with the gladiator captain Jaffa when the man’s spear struck a joint in his armor.

The Umandh were made to fight too. Once I watched a droning quartet of xenobites battle a pair of panthers brought from offworld. One of the beasts fell quickly, the great cats goaded by hunger and hormone shots that drove them mad. The others—learning that the alien things were predators

—panicked and tried to defend themselves, their tentacles lashing at the massive cats. They succeeded, but not before another of their number was

critically wounded, leaking its noxious green blood onto the bricks. I’d never fought one of the creatures myself. They were not permitted to battle against the human myrmidons. Even without proper combat armor the

creatures stood a chance of victory, and it wouldn’t have done for a child of Earth to fall at the hand—or what passed for hands—of a xenobite barbarian.

 

 

The myrmidons’ dining hall in the coliseum dormitories stank of sweat and vat-grown meat and smelled of home. After nearly a year in the Colosso,

after fifty-seven of my contracted group engagements and nearly as many nonlethal single combats, the musty place with its shallow-arched ceiling and sputtering lamps was more a home than Devil’s Rest had ever been. I was always greeted with friendly waves from Elara and the others who knew me and with whispers from the rawer recruits. The Legion troop

carrier Obdurate had limped into port recently, discharging a few foederati contract soldiers who wanted out of the war. For them the lives of myrmidons at Colosso on a strange new world was a vacation, paradise

after the rigors of real combat.

“Nearly wiped the Pale out at Wodan,” one was saying as I walked past. “First Strategos Hauptmann led the sortie himself.”

“Really?”

The foederatus nodded over his bottle of energy drink. “Sure. How do you think we took so many of the demons hostage?”

I stopped, listening. Cielcin hostages. The thought stirred a long-dead piece of me. Scattered words of their language played in my ears. Grubbing as I had in the streets, I had forgotten the war. Always it had seemed so remote, so distant. The monsters had seemed painted at the fringes of the map. They snaked their way closer now, worming their way out of the

Dark.

“Hostages?” It was Switch, seated at the table with the foederati. He

caught sight of me and waved. “Had! You’ve got to hear this.” He urged me over, and though I’d already eaten, I moved to sit on the bench beside him. “This is Kogan; he’s a mercenary.”

“Was a mercenary,” Kogan said, speaking in a thick accent I didn’t recognize, doubtless that of some hinterlands minority on some planet I’d

never heard of. He offered me a hand. I had finally learned the commoners’ gesture and shook it. “Kogan.”

“Had.” I glanced sidelong at Switch. “You were in the war?”

“Battle of Wodan, forty years back. Just ditched my contract with the Legions, left my company.” He scratched his beard. Kogan was—like me— a good deal paler than the Emeshi, though he wore a plasma burn high on one cheek that turned the plane into a sheet of bubbled scar tissue. His thick neck crawled with tattoos partially concealed by body hair nearly so dense as his beard. “Seized one of their worldships. What’s left of it, anyway. The demons scuttled it in orbit before their leader fled to warp.” He raised his plastic drinking bottle. “Score one for Earth.” He looked at me, speculative. “You’re the one, then? This Had I keep hearing about?”

This had ceased to surprise me, though it never ceased to discomfit me. I answered it as I might have done in my father’s court. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I’m the only Had here that I know of.”

“I hear you’re quite the duelist. Seen it, too. Your fight against that gladiatrix with the red hair. What’s her name?”

“Amarei,” Switch said, unconsciously patting down his own red mane. “That’s the one.” Kogan drained his bottle. “I hear you’ve got palace

training. That you’re some sort of nobleman.”

I studied Kogan, eyes narrowing in spite of myself. “I’ve been hearing that a lot.” Eager to get the focus off of me, I asked, “You captured Cielcin at Wodan?”

“Only a couple hundred. Hauptmann gave them over to the LIO,” Kogan said with a conspiratorial tilt of his head, referring to the Legion Intelligence Office. He leaned further in. “I was just telling your boy here that before I left my company, Commandant Alexei—that’s my old boss— retained a pair of the prisoners for sport.”

“Sport?” I frowned. “Never heard of anyone trying to keep Cielcin slaves.”

“Guess that shit about you being a lordling’s shit then.” Kogan grinned. “Way I hear it, the palatines have been trading Cielcin since the war began.”

One hand flitted up to press my ring to my chest through the fabric of my tunic, and I paused for the space of a breath to stop myself saying

something stupid. I’d never heard of any such thing, but that didn’t necessarily make M. Kogan a liar. Rather than disagree with him or say

something that might have laid open any sort of truth about myself, I asked,

“Which company were you with? The Cousland Drakes?” I’d heard mention of such a company attached to the Obdurate, their vessels stored in the massive carrier’s holds. Switch had been drinking in news of the orbiting battleship as if he’d been parched all week.

Kogan actually spat on the floor, raising more than a few eyebrows from the next table of myrmidons. “The Cousland fucking Drakes? I was with the Whitehorse under Sir Alexei Karelin. Do I look like one of Arno

Cousland’s pillow-biters? No.” He slapped the table. “I’ve done seventeen years of active service with Whitehorse Company. Nearly one hundred twenty years standard.” He was referring to his time in and out of cryonic fugue. “Served no fewer than five Legion contracts in seven major

engagements. Cousland’s bitches just shoved paper around and marched in Hauptmann’s fancy parades.”

I stood slowly so as not to be perceived as a threat and bowed fractionally. “I didn’t mean to cause offense, messer.”

“Offense?” Kogan shook his head, suddenly amiable. “No, you planetbound saps can’t offend me none. Just correcting your mistake.”

 

 

Some days later I left sparring practice and hurried out into the hall, grateful for the climate control system that worked its best to keep the place a little

cool and even more grateful for the sudden solitude. Kogan had been regaling our team at length about his exploits in the Battle of Wodan, how his foederated company had assisted the 437th and 438th Centaurine Legions

—under the direction of Duke Titus Hauptmann—in destroying one of the Cielcin worldship fortresses. It might have been a good tale if the teller hadn’t been a belligerent and erratic one.

I thought plaintively of a bath in the common area for the freed myrmidons. At the dinner hour it was likely to be nearly empty, and I had no combats scheduled for the next week. My mind wandered as I walked, recalling my previous bout, the one Kogan had mentioned against the gladiatrix Amarei. It had been my twenty-seventh single combat—my twenty-seventh victory—since registering with Doctor Chand and the

Borosevo Colosso. It had nearly been a defeat, in truth. She was as good as any fighter I had ever seen. I’d only won because I’d started gaming the

suit, not fighting like it was a proper duel. Amarei had been armored in a

combat skin-suit, same as all the proper gladiators. The suit had no way to simulate damage other than to seize up, and so repeated scrapes to her arms slowed her suit’s programmed response time. Underhanded, perhaps, but

she wasn’t the one with the weeping red lines on the inside of one arm and on her chest. She wasn’t the one bleeding her life’s blood into the ring.

I descended a flight of metal stairs and exited into a curving hallway, passing lines of dormitory chambers, names glowing on wall panels above palm-locks. Following the hall, I reached the place where it intersected with a tunnel that ramped up onto the street and the complex landing field, then crossed that path into the baths complex near the holding cells where the

convicted myrmidons had their block. I rounded the corner at a brisk walk and nearly knocked over a tall man in black robes.

Not black. Darker.

He spluttered, falling back on a guard in a strange brown uniform with

cream epaulets. “Watch where you’re going, slave!” He straightened, taking in my appearance and my simple attire, pressing a perfumed cloth to his face in the rank tunnel.

Cautious, I bowed deeply, straightening my right leg out before me. “Forgive me, Your Reverence, but I am no slave.”

The chanter lowered his kerchief, revealing a hooked nose wrinkled in disgust. “No, no, I suppose you’re not, sirrah.” There was a lisping,

aristocratic drawl to the man’s voice, a liquid hauteur that tightened my fists. He stood tall almost as myself. At a glance I’d thought him palatine, short for that exalted caste. But continued study revealed that he was patrician; the slight surgical treasons that were the hallmark of that lesser, artificially enhanced caste betrayed him.

No, not patrician either. My jaw tightened, and my skin began to crawl.

There was something wrong about the priest. Something off. In the scant light, I could see that one eye gleamed a piercing blue while the other was black as pitch. He had a head of thick blond hair, oiled and combed straight back from a square face and heavy jaw; his nose was bent, his broad

shoulders hunched. The high blood that ran like fire in my veins stuck in his like wax. Half a hundred tiny imperfections evidenced themselves in his face, in his posture and carriage, more so even than in the bulk of the serfs

and plebeians I had known. “Out of the way,” he said.

Dutifully I stepped aside, back against the wall, and focused my attention on the quartet of guards. The uniforms were completely

unfamiliar. Dark brown jackets belted at the waist, high black boots. Each bore a patch on his right forearm, an armorial white horse rampant against that brownness. Kogan’s words came back to me. The Whitehorse

Company. Free mercenaries. Foederati. They marched a standing fugue cylinder on a carriage between them, the heavy device buoyed several inches from the floor. It stood empty, quiescent, the running lights dim. They’d come up from the prison section. Standing against the wall, I glanced back down the way they’d come, bit my lip.

I made a decision and cleared my throat. “Forgive me, messers. You’re not with the Whitehorse Company, by chance, are you?”

The chanter’s escort turned, slowed up a little. The robed man went on a little farther, then stopped as the oldest of his four guards said, “We are.”

“Under Alexei Karelin?”

“Walk away, pissant,” the chanter said, narrowing his eyes in that broad, unhandsome face as he glared right at me. “Right now.”

Sir Alexei Karelin,” a younger soldier corrected, pride overriding his master’s command.

“Forgive me.” I bowed, not quite so formally as I had moments before, buying a moment to examine the floating fugue crèche floating in its

suppression field. It was far too large for any man, a floating lozenge large

enough for a cow. If Kogan had been telling the truth, I knew what had been in that crèche. Not a cow, but no human either. “Forgive me, I’d not realized the man was a knight.” I paused, licked my lips. The top one was still split from where Amarei had broken it with a punch the week before. “Are you hiring?” It was an idle question, not one I truly expected to get me

anywhere.

The chanter produced his kerchief from his sleeve again and pressed it to his face, those mismatched eyes suddenly hard as he moved toward me. Ah, the look of aristocratic contempt. I’d seen it so often in my own father. No

—this was more like the light in Crispin’s eyes, rampant and feverish. “Are you deaf, boy?” He seized me by the shirt front, slammed me against the

wall. I’d had worse, so much worse, and tried not to smile at the effort. Let the man think he was in control. “I said walk away.”

Pointedly I ignored the priest holding me and spoke instead to the four guards. “I speak eight languages, five of those well, and I’ve almost a year’s Colosso fighting experience.” The thought had literally occurred to me as I spoke it, yet there it was: a way for me to leave Emesh, and soon. Switch

could come with me, and Pallino and the others, if they wanted. The foederati shifted uneasily, eyeing the angry priest. Still I hoped business was business. It was the soldiers I needed to listen, not the Chantry’s man.

It might have worked, but the priest slammed me back against the wall again. My head struck stone. I winced, losing focus for a second as he

stepped back, wiping his hands on the front of his synthetic black robes. Still I didn’t fight back. The man was a priest of the Holy Terran Chantry, anointed with the ash of the Homeworld herself. No matter my blood, it would have been death to strike him. He made a gesture to his guards.

“Stun him.”

“Reverence?” one of the guards asked, glancing from the priest to his superior.

“Stun him!” the priest shouted. “And leave him here!”

I don’t even remember the weapon coming free of its holster, nor do I remember hitting the wall.

 

 

Something struck my face, forcing my eyes open and admitting the damned light. All I could see was brightness. For a mad instant I thought I was

waking up in the accursed flophouse by the starport landing field, that I

would see the red-faced old woman and her twiggy assistant, that my time on Emesh had begun again. “The hell’d you go passing out for, momak?” An old woman’s voice, thickly accented. She slapped my face again, shone the light in my eyes. But it was only a penlight, checking my pupils for head trauma. It was only Doctor Chand. Switch stood behind her, worry

evident on his face, his arms crossed, chin tucked. “Is he all right, Doctor?”

“The priest,” I said, the whole world swaying as I tried to sit up. Chand clamped her hands hard against my arms to steady me, nails biting flesh.

“Ow! Let go, damn it!”

“Only if you stop trying to move.” She let go of my arms, brow furrowing, blurring her tattoo. The slave-doctor checked the scanner on the floor beside her, then pressed it to my skin. It tingled, sent a short pulse through me. “Conductivity’s up. If I weren’t wise on so much common

sense, boy, I’d say you were stunned.”

“I was stunned!” I insisted, allowing myself to rest against the rough stone at my back. “By the priest. Where is he?”

“What priest?” Switch and Chand asked at the same time.

I described him, massaging my face with my hands. My side ached, a portion above the ribs still thick-feeling and sluggish. My clothes all clung to me. I ran a hand up through my shaggy hair, which had grown back in the months since my indenture in the Colosso began. When I broke into a fit of coughing, Chand passed me a bottle of the blue-green drink they always served at the coliseum. I drank it down, grimacing at the cheaply sweetened chemical taste of it. By the time I’d finished recounting the episode, Switch had gone the color of milk—or would have, were it not for the omnipresent freckles. His fine-featured face looked drained. He sucked the inside of one cheek, arms still crossed over a chest broadened by months of fighting and

strength training. I knew he was having the same thought as I, and I said, “If what that Kogan fellow says is true, I think there’s a Cielcin in the prison block.”

“But why?” Chand closed her medical kit, snapped her fingers up at Switch.

He didn’t move, just stood there nodding, pale eyes wide as he worried at a thumbnail. “I hope you’re wrong.”

Before I could answer, Chand glared up at the younger myrmidon.

“What’s the point of all those muscles, lad, if you won’t help an old woman off the floor?” Mollified, Switch helped her stand. I swear I heard her bones creaking. She sucked on her teeth, leaning on Switch’s arm. “I’d say let it go, lads. Chantry ain’t worth fucking with.”

Still sitting with my back to the stone wall, I looked back up the hallway, following the direction the nameless chanter and his Whitehorse guards

would have taken out of the complex, back to the street and the Red Canal. “Any idea who he was?”

“You said he was a hunchback?” Switch asked.

“Eh?” Chand looked up at Switch; next to her the boy looked half a giant, she was so small. She patted the boy’s arm absently. “Patrician blighter, was he? Face that makes you want to step on it?”

Unbidden I thought of Severn, old Prior Eusebia’s aide. The knife-faced chanter had possessed much the same air of cruel dignity, and I had no difficulty imagining that Eusebia herself must have sneered thusly in her

youth. Perhaps they learned that at Vesperad, in seminary. “Golden hair, two-colored eyes.” I pointed at my own eyes, waggling my fingers.

Chand hissed air through her teeth. “That’s the grand prior’s bastard.

He’s in all the time with the count’s party.”

“The grand prior’s . . . bastard?” I frowned. That didn’t make any sense. Palatines didn’t have bastards—not often, at any rate—and the grand prior was certainly palatine. It simply wasn’t done. The High College vetted

every palatine couple’s request for a child, ensured that the parents’

extravagantly altered genetics did not result in a stillbirth or in just such a monster as this. That was how the Emperor kept the control of his nobiles: by controlling their genetic destiny through their children, by ensuring that any palatine seeking an heir would have to kneel and scrape before the throne. I thought of the myriad failings of the priest’s flesh: the hunched

shoulders, the crooked nose, the swollen brow and mismatched eyes.

Mutations caused by the untended flowering of his palatine genetic inheritance, the excess chromosomes soured in his blood. We have a word for what he was. “He’s an intus?”

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Chand said sharply. “Gilliam Vas sits on the Count’s council. He’d have you pilloried before you could bow an

apology.”

“No, he couldn’t,” I snapped. “You don’t get pilloried for slander. The Indexed punishment is no more than twenty lashes.” No more than fifteen, in truth—I had to consult a copy of the Index. There was a time when I knew the formal punishment for every sin, crime, and disobedience in the Chantry canon. Father had insisted. That was long ago. I have forgotten much that once I knew. “And it’s not slander if it’s true.” The soreness from the stunner charge was ebbing, turning into a pain more akin to hate, thick and ulcerous. Groaning, I tried to stand but gave up with a shake of my head. I had to push Switch and the doctor away. “Just stay here a minute,” I murmured, shutting my eyes. A moment later, I asked, “Is it true?”

“About Chanter Vas?” Chand spat, grunted something in Durantine that I didn’t quite catch. “Reckon so. I mean, you saw the man. Something’s

clearly crossed in his nucleotides.”

We humans have always ascribed moral virtue to beauty, we palatines most of all. I wonder now if such mockery and abuse shaped Gilliam in

spirit to match his mutation or if his petulant cruelty was native-born. I can

almost, almost pity him now, but the stunner ache and aching pride made such emotion impossible for me at the time.

I wasn’t listening to her; my attention had gone back to the hall, the one leading down to the prison section. Sweating as I was from the stunner bolt, I wanted that bath, but now the place was likely to be crowded with the other myrmidons, and I was still enough the palatine to seek solitude for

such things. My old curiosity had me in its talons, and something of it must have bled onto my face, for Switch said, “Had, don’t.”

“Don’t what?” I looked up at him and Chand, trying to sound innocent. “Leave it be,” Switch said, prising himself free of Chand to stand over

me. “Kogan’s full of shit.”

I didn’t answer him but sat in silence, legs thrown out across the hall. Dimly I thought I heard the sound of sandals scuffing on the rough floor, but when I looked up there was no one. Unbidden I thought of Gibson, whom I had not thought of for months. Kogan’s story. The chanter. The

foederated companies. The Legion carrier in orbit around Emesh. Rumor, truth, or total fiction: each datum was a piece of colored glass, a mosaic’s tessera. Gibson would have had me step back and try to discern the

complete picture. I was not a scholiast, but still I glimpsed what was going on.

“There’s a Cielcin in the coliseum dungeon.”

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