“NOT YOUR SMOOTHEST PERFORMANCE, Hadrian.” My mother’s voice carried well through the darkly paneled door that separated my closet from my bedchamber. Contralto; rich with the accents of the Delian nobility; polished by decades of speeches, formal dinners, and performances. She was a librettist by profession, and a filmmaker.
“Crispin wouldn’t move.” It was all the response I could muster as I fussed with the silver buttons of my best shirt.
“Crispin is fifteen and ill-tempered to a fault.”
“I know, Mother.” I flipped my braces up over my shoulders, tightened them. “I don’t understand why Father didn’t . . . didn’t include me.”
From the dullness in her voice, I could tell Mother had moved away from the closet door and toward the high window that overlooked the sea. She often did this. The Lady Liliana Kephalos-Marlowe had a tendency to drift toward windows. We shared this-that desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else. “Do you really have to ask?”
I didn’t. Instead of answering, I slung on my silk-and-velvet waistcoat, smoothed the collar down. Sufficiently dressed, I opened the door and stepped out into my bedchamber, seeing that Mother had indeed moved to the window. My rooms were high in the Great Keep, built into the northeast corner of the square tower. From there I had a commanding view of the seawall and the ocean beyond, could see for miles to where the Wind Isles lay dim against the horizon, though they were invisible at sea level. Mother turned to face me. She never wore black, never adopted the colors and the heraldry of Father’s house. She had been born of House Kephalos; her mother, the vicereine, was also the landed duchess of the whole planet, and she wore it proudly. For this occasion-the banquet welcoming Director Adaeze Feng and her party-my mother wore an elaborate gown of white silk so tight it must have been synthetic. It fastened over one shoulder with a gold brooch fashioned in the shape of the Kephalos eagle. Her honeybronze hair was pulled up in the back, left to fall in tight ringlets before her ears. She was beautiful in the way all palatine women are beautiful. An image of forgotten Sappho cast in living marble, and just as cold.
“Your hair is atrocious.”
“Thank you, Mother,” I said evenly, pushing my curling fringe behind my ear.
Lady Liliana’s red-painted mouth opened, searching for words. “It was not a compliment.”
“No,” I agreed and shrugged into my frock coat with the devil of my house embroidered above the left breast.
“You really ought to cut it.” She moved away from the window, reaching out to straighten my lapels with white fingers.
“Father confuses me with Crispin enough as it is.” I let her adjust my collar without comment save my most cutting glare. Her own eyes were amber, warmer by far than Father’s. Even so, I could not feel that warmth. I knew if she had her way she would be back in Artemia with her family and her girls, not with us Marlowes in this dim and ashen place. Us Marlowes with our cold eyes and colder manners, her husband’s coldest of all.
“He does no such thing.” From the muted haste in her tone, I guessed that she had missed my point.
“Then does he mean for Crispin to take my place?” Still I glowered at her as she smoothed the shoulders of my jacket.
“Isn’t that what you want?”
I blinked at her. I had no way to answer that, not without breaking the delicate balance of my world. What could I say? No? But I didn’t want my father’s job any more than I wanted to be First Strategos of the Orionid Legions. Yes? But then Crispin would rule, and Crispin . . . Crispin would be a catastrophe. I did not want to gain my father’s throne-I wanted Crispin to lose it.
Mother peeled away and returned to my window, heels clacking on the tile floor. “I can’t claim to know your father’s plans . . .”
“How could you?” I drew myself up to my full and unimpressive height.
“You’re never here.”
Mother didn’t flare up, didn’t even turn to look at me. “Do you think anyone would stay if they had a choice?”
“Sir Felix stays,” I retorted, shrugging my jacket more tightly about my narrow shoulders, “and Roban, and the others.”
“They see the possibility of advancement. Lands, titles of their own. A small keep.”
“Not out of loyalty to my father?”
“None of them knows your father, save perhaps Felix. I married him, and
I can’t say I know him.”
I knew that, but hearing it-hearing that my parents were strangers- shattered me every time. I allowed the smallest of nods, then realized my mother could not see it with her back turned. “He doesn’t inspire familiarity,” I said at long last, frowning in spite of myself.
“And neither should you, if you rule in his place.” Lady Liliana half turned to regard me through bronze curls, her amber eyes hard and tired. I think it was then that I first marked her age-not the early adulthood she wore outwardly, but the nearly two centuries she held in truth. The effect vanished in a snap as she continued, “You will have to lead your people, not stand beside them.”
“If I rule?” I repeated.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion,” she said. “He may yet choose Crispin or order a third child from the vats.” Anticipating my response, she added, “Just because House Marlowe has always honored the eldest child does not mean it must. The law permits your father a choice of heir. Assume nothing.”
A bit stung, I said, “Fine. It doesn’t matter, that’s-“
She cut me off. “Quite right, it does not matter. Come now, we’re nearly late.”
Stars, I thought, were born and died before dessert. I maintained my silence through the toasts, through the salad course, through cycles and cycles of servants setting and clearing the table. And I listened, all too aware of the anger that, like gravity, bent time and space around my father. Privately I was grateful the director and her contingent had displaced me far from my customary place at Father’s right. A day had passed since my late arrival to the throne room, and my father had yet to speak to me. That in itself was nothing strange, but that I had done what I’d done and not been reprimanded filled me with unease.
So I ate and listened, studying the strange, almost alien faces of the Consortium dignitaries. The plutocrats spent their lives in space, and the centripetal imitation of gravity aboard their massive spinships did not stop them from changing. Were it not for gene therapies almost as rigorous as my own, they would not be able to stand on Delos-with its one and onetenth standard gravity-but would be crushed and gasping as boned fish upon the strand.
“The Cielcin have gone too far, pressing beyond the Veil,” said Xun Gong Sun, one of the Consortium junior ministers. “The Emperor should not stand for it.”
“The Emperor is not standing for it, Xun,” said Director Feng mildly. “That is why there is a war on.” I studied the director. Like all the members of the Consortium party, she was utterly hairless, her cheekbones and the shape of her brows enhanced to accentuate the slant of her eyes. Her skin was darker than that of the others, almost the color of coffee. She turned to speak to my mother and father where they sat at the head of the table. “The Prince of Jadd has committed twelve thousand ships to the war effort under the command of this grandson of his, this Darkmoon. Even the Tavrosi clansmen have set sail.”
My father set his glass of Kandarene wine down on the table, pausing a practiced second before responding. “We know all this, Madame Director.”
“Yes, indeed.” She smiled, lifting her own wine cup. Her fingers were like stick insects waving. “I only mean that all these ships will need fuel, my lord.”
The Lord of Devil’s Rest stared hard at the director, teeth sliding against his lower lip, and folded his hands on the table. “You don’t need to convince us. There’ll be time for it all soon enough.” This elicited mild laughter from the ministers at the foot of the table, and across from me Crispin smiled. I glanced at Gibson, raised my eyebrows. “Fortune passes everywhere, and the current situation accords us a moment of advantage, despite the recent tragedy on Cai Shen.”
Often I had observed my father in this mode, didactic and imperious. His eyes-my eyes-never settled in any one place or on one face but drifted over all that surrounded him. His basso voice carried far, resonating in the chest rather than in the ear. He had an air about him, a cold magnetism that bent all who listened to his will. In another age, in a smaller universe, he might have been Caesar. But our Empire had an abundance of Caesars. We bred them, and so he was doomed to suffer Caesars greater still.
“Is it true the Pale eat people?”
Crispin. Blunt, tactless Crispin. I felt the muscles tighten in every person at that long table. I shut my eyes and took a sip of my own wine, a Carcassoni blue, waiting for the storm to break.
“Crispin!” Mother’s voice carried in a stage whisper, and I opened my eyes to see her glaring at my brother where he sat regarding the Consortium director. “Not at table!”
But Adaeze Feng only smiled sidelong at my mother. “It’s quite all right, Lady Liliana. We were all children once.” But Crispin was no child. He was fifteen, an ephebe on his way to manhood.
Completely unaware of his faux pas, my brother said, “I heard from a sailor once that it was true. That they use people for food. Is it true?” He leaned in intently, and for all the gold on Forum I could not have said that Crispin had ever looked so interested in something.
Another of the Consortium executives spoke up in a voice deeper than the trenches of the sea. “Like as not, it is true, young master.” I turned to watch the speaker where he sat beside Gibson and Tor Alcuin midway along the length of the dining table, near a bowl of steaming fish soup and a collection of wines in red-figure ewers. He was the darkest man I had ever seen-darker than the director, darker even than my hair-which made his teeth appear white as stars when he smiled. “But not always. More often they carry off a colony’s native population and use them as slaves.”
“Oh.” Crispin sounded disappointed. “So they aren’t all cannibals?” His face fell, as if he had been hoping the aliens were all monstrous, maneating, murderous.
“None of them are cannibals.” Everyone looked at me, and I realized it was I who had spoken. I drew a slow breath, composed myself. This was my area of expertise, after all. “They eat us, not one another.” How many hours had I dedicated to studying the Cielcin with Gibson? How many days had I spent dissecting their language, extrapolating from those few texts and communications intercepted during the three hundred years of war? They had fascinated me ever since I could read-perhaps even sooner-and my tutor had never balked at the extra lessons I asked of him.
The dark-skinned scholiast nodded. “The young master is quite correct.” I wasn’t, I later learned-the Cielcin ate one another as readily as anything.
It was only that no one knew it in those days.
“Terence-” Junior Minister Gong Sun placed a hand on the darkskinned fellow’s sleeve.
The other man, Terence, shook his head. “It is an ugly matter to discuss at table, I know. Forgive me, Sir Alistair, Lady Liliana, but the young masters should understand what is at stake. We’ve been at war for three centuries now. Too long, some would say.”
I cleared my throat. “The Cielcin are nomads and carnivorous almost to a fault. Raising livestock in space isn’t easy, even if you simulate gravity. It’s easier to take what they can from planets. And the average Cielcin migratory cluster averages about ten million strong, so surely they can’t have taken all the people on Cai Shen.”
“It was a very large cluster, the reports say.” Terence’s nonexistent eyebrows rose in surprise. “You know the Cielcin well.”
Gibson’s reedy voice carried from farther down the table. “Young master Hadrian has had an interest in the Cielcin for many years, messer. I’ve been teaching him the aliens’ language as well. He’s quite good.”
I looked down at my plate to hide the smile that had flickered onto my face, afraid Lord Alistair had seen it.
Director Feng twisted in his seat to look at me. I sensed renewed interest in the foreigner, as if she were seeing me for the first time. “You’ve an interest in the Pale, have you?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak until I remembered my courtesies.
This was a director of the Wong-Hopper Consortium speaking to me. “Yes,
The director smiled, and for the first time I noted that her teeth were metallic, reflecting the table’s candlelight. “Most commendable. It is a rare interest for a palatine, particularly for one of the Emperor’s own peerage.
You ought to consider a career with the Chantry, you know.”
Unseen beneath the table, the knuckles of my left hand whitened against my knee, and it was all I could do to force a smile. Nothing could have been further from my desires. I wanted to be a scholiast. One of the
Expeditionary Corps. I wanted to travel on starships, to go where none had gone before, to plant the Imperial flag across the galaxy, and to see things wondrous and strange. The last thing I wanted was to be chained to an office, least of all to the Chantry. I tossed a glance at Gibson, who offered a weak smile in return. “Thank you, madame.” A brief look at my father was enough to know I should say nothing else.
“Or with us, perhaps, if your father could spare you. Someone will need to do business with the beasts once the war’s over.”
Father had been notably quiet during all this, and I could not help but feel his wrath was imminent. I looked to him where he sat beside my mother, head slightly bowed as he listened to a footman who’d come to relay a message. Father muttered an instruction and was thus distracted when Crispin said, “You could sell them food!” My brother’s face split with a macabre grin, and the director smiled sharp as a scalpel blade.
“I expect we will, young master. We sell everything to everybody. Take this wine, for instance.” She gestured at the bottle from which I’d been drinking, a Carcassoni St-Deniau Azuré. “An excellent vintage, Archon, have I said?”
“Thank you, Madame Director,” Father said. Without looking, I knew his eyes were on me. “Though I do find it curious that you have such an open mind where the Cielcin are concerned, particularly given the recent tragedy.”
The director waved the suggestion away, setting her knife and fork on her plate. “Oh, the Emperor will be victorious, Earth bless his name. And
Mercy’s cup is overflowing, or so the priors say.”
One of her junior ministers-a woman with golden streaks tattooed on her pale scalp-leaned round the director and said, “Surely after the war is ended the Pale must become subjects of the Solar Throne.”
“Must they?” asked my mother, elegant brows arched. “I’d feel better with them gone.”
“That would never happen,” I said sharply, knowing I had made a mistake. “They have an advantage over us.” Both my parents’ faces had gone hard as stone, and from the tightness in Father’s jaw I knew he was about to speak.
But the Consortium junior minister spoke first, smiling sweetly.
“Whatever do you mean, sirrah?”
“We live on planets. The Cielcin are like the Extrasolarians,” I said, referring to the backspace barbarians who plied the Dark between the stars, always moving, preying on trading vessels. “They have no home, only their migratory clusters-“
“Their scianda,” said Gibson, using the Cielcin term.
“Exactly!” I skewered a morsel of pink fish with my fork and ate it, pausing for effect. “We can’t ever be certain that we’ve wiped out the Cielcin. Even if we break a whole cluster-an entire scianda-all it takes is a single one of their ships escaping to ensure their survival. They’re atomic, Protean. You don’t crush that with military force, Mother. Messers, ladies. You can’t. Ultimate extermination is impossible.” I took another bite. “Now the same is true of us, but most of our population is planetbound. We suffer attacks harder, is it not so?” I looked to the director, counting on the lifelong sailor’s vision of the Empire to vindicate me.
She seemed about to do just that when my father said, “Hadrian, enough.”
Adaeze Feng smiled. “Not to worry, Archon.”
“Do let me worry about my son, Madame Director,” Lord Alistair said softly, setting down his crystal goblet. A servant hurried forward to refill the glass from a clay ewer decorated with wood nymphs. Father waved the woman away. “Particularly when he flirts so with treason.”
Treason. It was all I could do to keep the surprise from my face, and I clamped my jaw more tightly. Across from me, Crispin pulled a face and mouthed something that looked rather like “Traitor.” I felt the flush creeping up my neck and the embarrassment running down like so much wet clay.
“I didn’t think-“
“No,” Father said, “you didn’t. Apologize to the director.”
I looked down at my plate, glaring at the remains of my baked salmon and roasted mushroom-I had avoided some of the more exotic fare prepared specially for our offworld guests. Glowering, I held my silence. It struck me then how my own father never called me by name, how he spoke to me with commands or not at all. I was an extension of himself, his legacy made flesh. Not a person.
“There is nothing to forgive, sir,” the director said, glancing briefly at her juniors. “But enough of that. This has been a lovely meal. Sir Alistair, Lady Marlowe . . .” She bowed her head low over the table. “Let us forget this conversation. The boys meant no harm-either of them-but perhaps we could return to business?”