Chapter no 39 – A Kingdom For a Horse

Empire of Silence

“THESE OLD ANDUNIAN MODELS will outlast the sun,” Gila said, wringing her hands in a servile fashion that clashed with my memory of her from my first days in Borosevo, when her workers had tossed me out after salvaging the Eurynasir. She had no memory of me, Earth be praised, though in her defense, I was no longer barefoot, no longer a recent-thaw, scuffed and

cryoburned. I wore my best, which while not especially fine still set me far enough apart from the urchin I had been. She was as ugly as I remembered, her balding head scabbed and covered in uneven patches of black-and-gray hair, her squashed face purpled by a wine stain across her nose and one

cheek. She was as plebeian as they came, her jumpsuit soiled, the green patches of the Mataro County service peeling from its shoulders.

I, on the other hand, pretended I held some vague higher status. Despite what I’d said, I was not there to buy that day but to get a sense for what sort of ships one could find in salvage. The Eurynasir was long gone, and I

stood beside the squat crew boss on the cargo ramp of a Blowfish-class

Andunian light freighter. She was an ugly bird, fat-bellied and cast of pitted adamant. Flat-nosed and inelegant, she had all the qualities of a brick.

“You know, I’d heard that about these old beasts,” I said, running a hand along one of the huge pistons that raised and lowered the ramp.

Switch was nodding, arms crossed. “How much will she carry?”

“Payload?” Gila asked, rubbing her chins as she checked something on her terminal. “Just under three hundred tons. She’s a good old-fashioned workhorse.”

I bit my lip, stumped up the ramp to stand on the cusp of the echoing hold. It was all square lines, ugly as the outside and just as plain. Rings of

rust glowered like eyes from a floor scraped clean as could be, and the whole thing stank of use and age. “How old is she?”

Gila swore. “Mother’s bones, man, that’s a question.” She broke off, narrowing her eyes at a pair of her subordinates as they hurried by on the tarmac outside. “Andun shipyards ain’t made shit in four centuries, easy. Ilium put them out of business, and Monmara.”

“Fucking Normans,” Switch said, sounding disgusted.

It must have been some manner of joke—a sailor’s meme, perhaps—for Gila spat, “Fucking Normans. Build cheap, build fast, but only Empire’s built to last.” She said this like it was some kind of slogan, but I didn’t know it. Switch was nodding, and the two of them went on in this vein for a moment. I was glad I’d brought the other myrmidon, though it had taken

some convincing.

What’s the point? he’d said. We’ve still got months left! I was even considering renewing my commission with the Colosso—another six

thousand hurasams wouldn’t hurt, after all. But I had a powerful need for more information. I had to do something. Now that I had a plan, I couldn’t just waste time loitering about the coliseum. I needed action, needed to do whatever I could to move a step closer to escape. Though the threat of them had faded in time, I still feared the Inquisition, still woke up sweating in terror of whatever punishment might befall my mother if her role in my

escape were ever discovered.

I fingered my family’s ring through the front of my shirt as if it were a talisman that might keep them away, not a lodestone to call them down upon me. I turned a thought in my fingers, one that had been growing for months. The same thought that had brought me back to these criminals and this chop shop on the edge of Borosevo. My secret weapon, if I played it right.

“These things are ancient!” Switch exclaimed, shaking me from my reverie. “I’d come out grayer than my grandfather if I rode in one of these!” He knocked on the acrylic lid of a fugue crèche. I couldn’t guess what the boy was seeing, but Switch had spent his entire life aboard starships, and between his nights of entertaining he’d acquired a fair bit of practical knowledge—so much that he had the makings of a fair spacer, whatever he thought of himself. He and Gila argued about the crèches for a long while, and I made a show of wandering around the hold, examining the place up

and down before returning to the entry ramp.

I looked out over the tarmac where I’d once broken a man’s arm to the low line of hangars opposite. There was the one where the Eurynasir had been all those years ago. As I watched, one of the hangar doors rolled upward, rattling in accompaniment to the shouts of the work crew. And there it was.

It was a ship, but it was as unlike the Andunian lighter in which I stood as my grandmother the vicereine was unlike the plebeian woman at my back. For a moment my hands ached for want of my pencils to capture the image of her in the orange sunlight, her crimson hull—dinted and scorched

—turned the color of wine. She was no yacht, not gaudy and rare, but beautiful in the way that a sword, well made and unadorned, is beautiful. She was vaguely deltoid in shape, like an arrowhead or one of the mantas I have seen in the aerial rivers of the Mandari stations with viewports of mirrored alumglass. She had no wings, for her whole body was one large one, lifted not by fusion burners but by Royse repulsors silent as space itself.


“I’m sorry?” I turned around and was almost surprised to find that I was not alone. “Did you say something?”

Gila opened her slash of a mouth, but Switch spoke first. “Do you want to see the rest of the ship?”

“What?” I glanced at the other vessel across the way. “I . . . What about that one?”

The crew boss frowned. “The Uhran? That ain’t hardly a cargo hauler.”

I waved her away and hurried across the yard toward it, only half listening as the crew boss rattled off a list of specifications: payload,

acceleration, maximum warp. “How much?” She said a figure. I almost

swore; it was nearly twice the price of the Andunian, which was still several times more than the paltry six thousand hurasams Switch and I each had been promised as chattel myrmidons. In a pained voice I asked, “And

what’s the price in Imperial marks?”

“That was the mark price,” Gila said, shrugging. “The county won’t take specie unless you’re willing to pay in full up front.” My heart sank: 3.2 million Imperial marks. Even with Pallino and Elara, we couldn’t hope to put so much as a down payment on the ship—either ship—much less pay for the whole thing. I might have despaired—would have but for one little thing.

I crossed my arms, tucking my chin as I looked up at the red sweep of the Uhran lighter. I had badly misjudged the price of a starship. Father had always talked of such purchases with a cool detachment bordering on disinterest. But I still had my secret weapon. Nervous, I eyed Switch. I hadn’t mentioned it to him, and I wasn’t sure how he would react.

“I don’t suppose you’d take a loan from the Rothsbank?” I said without much hope. “Or set up a payment plan with a Mandari account?” I had neither and no way of getting either, but it was all part of the dance. Switch was watching me, arms crossed. Was I losing him? Surely I was. There was no way we were going to come up with 3.2 million marks—not by year’s

end, not by the end of the decade. Not in a hundred standard years.

“That is the normal way of doing business,” Gila said, moving to stand beside me as I admired the Uhran lighter. “Only had one man—a Lothrian

—pay in hard coin in all my years working for the county. Damnedest thing.” She was shaking her head. Behind her Switch was slashing at his throat, silently asking me to cut it short. It made sense. This was always meant to be just an exploratory visit to confirm my suspicions.

As a young man I’d witnessed my father and the house staff bargaining with the Consortium, with other Mandari trading houses, with others of the Imperial houses’ palatine. I knew how business was done. What’s more, I had been a beggar, and I knew the intonations and the mannerisms of the desperate as intimately as I knew the languages of the Commonwealth and of Jadd. I’d misstepped in my obvious appreciation of the Uhran starcraft. I ought to have continued my mask of disinterest. “That’s still rather more than my associate and I are willing to pay.” Unwilling, but not incapable.

Switch’s face went studiously blank. I imagined the conversation we were bound to have later.

We don’t have any money, Had! Not any! Did you forget?

“What about trade?” I asked, fingering the fine chain about my throat. Gila took half a step back, looking up at me. “Excuse me?”

I hesitated a moment, glancing up at the rafters of the hangar and

searching for cameras. I did not see any, but this impound shop belonged to House Mataro and the Empire. Just because I couldn’t see them did not mean they weren’t there. But then, perhaps there were no cameras. These were, after all, the very criminals who had left me for dead in some back

alley. You should be up and up, you know? Cat’s words turned over inside my chest, and my fingers tightened around my family’s ring. Way you talk,

you belong in a castle. Well, I had belonged once. I looked at Switch for a moment, and I felt a smile touch my lips, thin and ghostly as hope. But hope didn’t enter into it. “I have the title for twenty-six thousand hectares of land on Delos, held in my own name under the seal of the prefecture government and the sector vicereine. It’s worth more than either of these.” It was worth both, worth more than that.

For a moment Gila’s eyes widened in surprise. Surprise, I hoped, and greed. Her commission would be handsome, I guessed. Then that dream died, smothered by the narrowing of her eyes. “You’re not serious.”

This was the critical moment. You see, there was a chance that Gila had seen my ring years ago. I drew it out, held it before her slitted eyes. They

widened, dark and muddy as a dried-up puddle. There was fear there, but no rage. No recognition. Switch said nothing, but over Gila’s shoulder I saw his eyebrows shoot up. His eyes darkened to something terrible even as

Gila’s widened in surprise. For the first time in a long time, the crooked smile stole across my face. I put Switch’s reaction aside a moment and focused on the woman before me.

“This real?” Gila asked, reaching out to touch it.

I jerked my hand back, summoning a piece of Crispin’s ire. “Don’t touch it!” I nearly slapped her hand away, as would have been only proper. My uncle Lucian, dead before his time, used to carry an antique riding crop for just such occasions. I’d hated the man, but a piece of him moved me. After a beat had passed, I said, “Can a trade be made? Would you be willing to hold the ship until such time as my business in Borosevo is complete?” She made to speak, but I raised one finger. “Before we proceed, be honest: is this even a transaction you’re authorized to make? Or shall I fetch the logothete pluripotentis?” At home, use of a pluripotentis incurred a fee that was levied not from the buyer but from the merchanter’s commission. It

was meant to prevent or at least curtail predatory practices on the part of the salesman and was a privilege reserved only for palatine and patrician


Gila bowed with surprising grace. “I’d not realized sire was palatine.” She stayed bowed. “My apologies.” The crew boss paused for a sour moment, then glumly said, “The county might trade offworld holdings, but as your lordship says, that’s not for me to handle.”

I nodded. “That’s all I need for now. You can hold it for me?”

“It’s still being repaired,” she said, wringing her stubby hands. “It isn’t for resale. Not yet.”

“Capital!” I said, speaking as if the issue were decided. “It’s good land

—been in my family for generations.” My gaze flicked to Switch. His

expression was inscrutable. “Father left it to me when my brother inherited, you understand.” I did not so much as look at Gila as I spoke, knowing my father would not have.

Even if Father had frozen my assets on the occasion of my disappearance, the ring would still register my ownership of them. He hadn’t had an opportunity to change that. The ring carried the authority and weight of my house and name. If I used it to promise something, House

Marlowe was legally bound to deliver on that promise. Because of this, the merchanter would not delay me and my departure, for it is the privilege of palatines to be trusted in such transactions even as it is our duty to uphold the pledges we make under the sign of such a ring—pledges enforced by the very Inquisition I hoped to avoid.

But Father would doubtless contest the trade. I didn’t doubt he’d already reclaimed my land holdings following my disappearance. I hoped he had— that would rob Emesh of any gain in this situation. What’s more, I could be on my ship and on my way out of the Empire before Gila or the Emeshi pluripotentis realized what I’d done to them, before the news of the sale

even reached Delos and home. The Chantry would come and discover that the dock workers had not only abetted my escape but had decanted the missing lord Marlowe in the first place. In a single stroke I would buy myself a ship with land I had no right to sell and revenge myself upon the very people who had thrown me into the street and robbed me of Gibson’s letter.

As revenges go, it would have been perfect, had it ever played out.

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