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Chapter no 40 – A Monopoly on Suffering

Empire of Silence

“YOU COULD HAVE SAID something!” Switch hissed when we left the lot. The sun hung near its zenith, and the daylight beat on me like a rain of fists. I drew out my stolen dark glasses and pushed them up my nose, tucking my shoulders as I hurried along the canal, eager to be home. I had a lot to think about, but Switch granted me no time to think. The younger man seized me by the shoulder and turned me around. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what, Switch?” I demanded. I wasn’t playing stupid. I knew what he meant. I just didn’t know how to say it. “Tell you what?”

His cheeks flushed nearly red as his hair, pointed jaw working as if he

were trying to crush a pebble between his molars. “I get wanting to play the merchanter, but you could have told me!” He twisted the fabric of my shirt in his fist, then repeated more softly, “You could have told me you were one of them.”

He said that last in barely more than a whisper. Almost on reflex I pulled myself up to my full height, angling my chin so that I looked down at him. I’d not registered it until that moment, but I was much taller than he. Had I grown so used to being surrounded by plebeians that I was now blind to their smallness? I am not tall—not by the standards of the court—but I felt myself a colossus then, and clung to my palatine height like the emblem that it was.

But Switch was not cowed, not the scared boy he’d been a year ago. He jabbed me in the ribs, eyes wide. “You’re supposed to be my friend, Had.” I can still hear the reproach there, see the way he bared his less-than-white teeth. “You’re supposed to tell me these things.”

Something twisted in me, a fraction of the old nobile’s rage brought on by bargaining with the dockyard foreman. “Tell you what? About this?” I

drew the ring out and held it up for Switch’s inspection, the silver transmuted to bronze by the bloody sun. “What did you want me to say?”

The younger man worked his jaw again, struggling for words that would not come. He looked away, up at the looming wall of the White District fifty feet above our heads. A series of cable cars bobbed overhead, carrying people from the richer part of the city down into Belows. I felt I should say something. Anything. Everything. About my father, Crispin, Kyra. About

Gibson and what had been done to him. About my mother and what I feared might be done to her. About the Chantry and what I was sure they’d do to me.

In the end I told him none of these things.

Instead I said, “It . . . didn’t seem important.” The words sounded dismissive to my ears, shadows cast by these higher concerns. They were small things, and I was made smaller by saying them. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Didn’t seem important?” Switch still hadn’t let me go. He shook me.

“Didn’t seem important?” His voice shot up, drawing stares from a passing courier and a young couple in matching sarongs. “Why are you even in the Colosso? You don’t need the fucking money!”

My jaw clamped shut, and I placed a conciliatory hand on Switch’s arm. “It’s not that simple, Switch—”

“Of course it is!” he hissed, pulling so that I bowed at the waist. “You’re one of them. Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter.” I saw something move just beneath his face, a shadow coloring his face. The memory of what he’d been came to the front of my awareness, and recalling the houris in the vicereine’s harem and the way Crispin and my mother used them, I

shuddered. What had Switch’s experiences of the palatines been like? Thinking of Kyra, of how she had frozen in my arms, I froze in turn. “Is this a game to you?” he demanded. “Slumming it with the rest of us?”

“No!” I snapped. “Damn it! No. Don’t be absurd!” Absurd. It was not a plebeian word. Switch’s face twisted at it, or perhaps at my clipped Delian accent—recognizing it now as a token of what I was.

“Ghen was right about you, Your Radiance,” he sneered, and he shoved me back.

“It’s not like that!” It was all I could do not to scream at him. A couple of people were staring openly now, so I hissed, “I wouldn’t use this unless I had no other choice. The minute I do it’ll be nothing but trouble until I leave the Empire! Do you understand?”

Switch was practically snarling. “What’d you do? Beat one of your father’s concubines when you couldn’t get it up?” That touched a nerve, lighting on my grandfather’s murder at the hands of one of his concubines.

“I never touched one. I never would. I don’t know what you went through, Switch, but it wasn’t at my hand. Do you think we’re all monsters, is that it? I am the same man I was two days ago. The same man who saved your ass in the coliseum a hundred times over. The same man.”

“You’re not,” Switch said. “You’re one of them, and you lied about it.” “I couldn’t tell the truth!” I spat. “I can’t. It’s too dangerous.”

“It didn’t look dangerous when you were waving that ring around!”

I did not have the patience to discuss the finer points of financial transactions between planetary houses. “They would have had to give me the ship because of who I am. They would have trusted the ship to me.”

“Because of who you are,” Switch sneered.

“I was trying to steal from them, to put one over on my father and these Mataro people,” I growled, gesturing to the grimy street and the tin-roofed houses and storefronts around us. “You think I want to be here? You think I wanted this? Do you really think I’d be here if I had another choice?” It was the worst thing I could have said.

“What’s so wrong with us?” Switch countered, barely keeping his voice at a growl. “This is what life’s like, Your Radiance. Real life. You don’t know!”

“I don’t know? Really? Me?” I countered, but choked on my

explanations. I could feel the blood pounding in my head. My lips were pulled back in a rictus more snarl than smile. “You’re not the only person who ever suffered! Three years I ran around this city sleeping in gutters.

I’ve been beaten, stabbed, nearly raped. I survived the damned Rot. I buried my . . .” My what? My lover? My friend? “I lost people in this city. Just because some perfumed merchanter buggered you up and down the

spaceways doesn’t give you a monopoly on suffering!” From the way Switch’s face went white, I knew that this was truly the worst thing I could have said. I felt all my explanations, justifications, and pride rush out of me. I could handle my pain; I shouldn’t need it to make a point, even a fair one.

I folded like a jewel box closing, shoulders caving in. How I wish I could say that it was my father’s voice speaking from my mouth. How I wish I

could say it was Crispin’s, my mother’s, Uncle Lucian’s . . . but it was only my own.

I didn’t see the blow coming until it landed square against the side of my chin. It snapped my head back, and I almost lost my footing, staggering back against the wall of a bakery. Someone gasped, and as my vision

adjusted I saw two young men in the silver livery of some ship or other fiddling to get their terminals out to record. I spat. Was there red in it? Or was that only the indecent sunlight? For a moment I was made especially

conscious of the way my clothes stuck to me in the damp and smoking air. I did not respond at first, just straightened my brown shirt. Switch was glaring at me, the color slowly rising into his face. He held his fists at his

sides, but they remained clenched. The scholiasts tell us that the flow of time is absolute, but standing there with half the street looking on, I felt the seconds dripping by like eons.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last. Weakly. However I had suffered—and I had

suffered—it didn’t give me a monopoly on suffering. I thought of that night Rells’s gang had dragged me from my hovel, of the many times I’d been

stunned and beaten by the city prefects. We were not so different, Switch and I, whatever our breeding. And here I was, accusing him of exactly my failure. “I’m sorry. I just can’t talk about it.”

“Why not?” Switch glowered at me.

I rubbed my mouth with the back of my hand. “That was a good hit.” I looked at my arm. There was red in the sputum. “I deserved that.”

“Why won’t you talk to me?” Switch moved a step closer, blocking the sailors recording on their terminals from view as they circled like the masked crows in a Eudoran dumb show. He practically whispered, “Did you kill someone?”

I shook my head, glaring past him at the onlookers, the vacuous fools

with naught in their lives but to peck at the lives of others. I sucked air past my teeth and shook my head again. The first was a denial, the second a refusal to say more. Switch spat—not quite at my feet, but near enough as made no difference. My jaw ached, and I wondered with some detachment if I’d lose a tooth. One felt loose. It would grow back. I am palatine. They always grow back.

I cleared my throat. “Switch, I . . . I can’t. I’m sorry, I . . .” He raised a hand. “Save it.”

Then he turned and went away. I watched him go, lowering myself

slowly until I sat with my back against the wall of the shop, just like the beggar I had been.

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