SWITCH WASN’T SPEAKING TO me. It had been two days, and he hadn’t said a word, not even at practice. I couldn’t blame him. To his credit, he had not betrayed my secret to Pallino or any of the others that I knew of, for even in the depths of his displeasure he was loyal, the sort of friend everyone
wishes for but no man deserves. A cloud hung over me. I had lost my only true ally and with him my momentum. It was like losing Gibson’s letter all over again, but worse because I had done it to myself and my friend.
Three myrmidons—newcomers all—stood opposite me with blunted short swords. They wore printed steel armor and looked like medieval impersonations of Imperial legionnaires in their knee-length red tunics, their scratched plate painted pale ivory, flaking in places. The first rushed me, eyes wide. I sidestepped him easily, kicked him to the ground as he
passed. The second came in then, blade held high. I caught the blow against my vambrace and rang the girl’s helmet like a bell. She tumbled away. The third fared a little better. I parried a blow with a neat twist of my wrist and lunged. He managed to outdistance my riposte, but I caught his wrist when he followed through and yanked him forward, laying the edge of my blunted sword against his throat.
“Yield!” he said, voice surprisingly high.
I shoved him away, face turned up in disgust. “Is this it?” I demanded, looking round. “Is this all?” I held my arms akimbo, laying myself wide open. A black humor was on me, an anger difficult to dismiss. I glowered at the three of them, two sprawling in the dust of the training yard. “You three won’t last five minutes in your first bout.” I flapped my arms. “You have a distinct advantage, you know?”
The girl had her feet under her, and she advanced, more cautious this time. I kept my arms wide, willing her to make her move. She slashed at my head. I didn’t parry. I leaned. The blade whistled by my ear, and I twisted
away from a second blow. She was so slow. It wasn’t her fault. She was only human. She fell again in due course, cursing in the dust. I rotated, taking in the other two myrmidons-to-be. I flew at one, batting his sword from his hand, turning just as the other tried to catch me from behind. I
seized him by the cuirass just under the arm and hurled him away from me. “None of you seems to get it,” I sneered, taking a few lurching steps
toward the one who had yielded. He staggered back, jerking his sword up to guard. Laughing, I turned aside. “There are three of you! In Earth’s name!
You’re meant to work as a team!” I turned on my heel, letting them
surround me in the light of the lamps. Above us, the sky hung dark and pondering, the two moons like mismatched eyes half-closed in shadow. “We always outnumber the proper gladiators. It’s our only advantage!”
“That and our winning personalities.” Pallino’s voice cut the night like a whip. “Back off, Had.” The old legionnaire glowered at me with his one dark eye, white hair standing on end in the thick breeze. He helped the girl to her feet. “You three go clean up. You’ve got time before your first bout. We’ll get you straight before the time comes for knife work.” He watched them go, and I spied Elara and Siran hanging back in the shadow of the pillars that ringed the training yard like actors waiting in the wings. When the trainees were gone, Pallino rounded on me. “What in nuclear hell’s gotten into you, boy?” I stood, momentarily dumb, my sword in slackened fingers. “Those firsters don’t need you beating the piss out of them. Damn it, you’re supposed to be training them!” I expected him to hit me. I wanted him to hit me. I wanted him to try.
“They won’t last a round,” I said finally, my words as measured and controlled as I could make them.
“I seem to recall a certain red-haired boy Ghen used to say the same about.”
That stopped me. I cast my eyes around at the nearly empty yard, then down at my hands. They’d toughened in the years since Delos, thickened. They almost looked like Crispin’s hands. I swallowed and let the rage ebb until I could see again.
“Don’t talk to me about Switch,” I growled, guarding my shattered pride as I sheathed the practice sword at my hip.
The two women were advancing as I spoke, and Elara’s eyebrows
arched. “Lover’s quarrel?” I glared at her but said nothing. “The boy’s been downright sulky the past few days. Should have realized you’d be at the bottom of it.” Though silent, Siran was smirking at me in a way I did not like. “What’d you do?”
“What do you mean, what did I do?” I twitched my chin up, an unconscious gesture of defiance. “He’s the one who had a problem.”
“You’re the one’s gone all backed up with rage, though,” Elara said, clapping a hand on Pallino’s shoulder. “Says guilty to me.”
I held a finger up to respond, opened my mouth. The words wouldn’t come, though, so I shut my mouth again. The finger remained, a broken metronome. “Did he put you up to this?”
“Up to what?” Pallino crossed his arms.
“This . . .” What was the word? “This!” I waved my hands in a broad
sweep, then tugged my helmet loose, hair streaked across my high forehead. There was something in their eyes. Pity? Suspicion? No. “We went to look into buying a starship. Visited one of the repo docks down in Belows.”
Pallino sighed through his nose, derision made plain. Siran cocked her head. “What were you looking at ships for?”
Pushing her short fall of hair back from her squarish face, Elara cut in, “Had here and his pretty friend been planning to jump offworld fast they can once their term’s up.”
The prisoner-myrmidon looked affronted. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
I blinked. I hadn’t wanted to tell Siran—or Ghen, or any of the prisoners, for that matter—for the simple reason that they wouldn’t be
allowed to come. They were not here by choice, and only a writ of pardon from the count’s office could have unchained them. “I . . .” I looked again from one face to the next, trying to decipher that strange tightness of
expression wound up in the three of them. I sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you feeling left out.”
“So you left me out?” Siran smiled wryly, and I could feel that I’d lost the exchange already. And yet she didn’t seem hurt. That was one relief, at least.
At once the scuffed toe of my boot was very interesting, and I studied it with a concentration Tor Gibson would have praised. “I’m sorry. Switch
and I . . . We’d been keeping it private. Didn’t want everyone just jumping in, you know?”
“Only person I can think you’d not want is Ghen, and he can’t go
anyhow. Same as me.” Siran was smiling openly now, and in the lamplight her slit nostril almost vanished.
I conceded that point with as much grace as was left to me.
“The hell were you looking at ships for?” Pallino interjected. “Thought I told you you don’t have the money and not to fuck with it.”
“Technically you told me we’d talk about it when the year was up.”
The older man swore, glancing from Elara to Siran like he couldn’t believe I’d said that. “Twice twenty years on the Emperor’s coin and this is what I get? Lip?”
“Had’s been off since that priest stunned his ass,” Elara put in, drawing an icy glare from me.
Pallino’s blue eye widened. “What’s this, now?” He looked round at his paramour, reaching up to adjust his rough leather eye patch.
The last thing I wanted was to relate that particular tale right now. But I sighed, recounting in brief the incident with Gilliam the intus and his foederati compatriots. Much as I hated to admit it, I was glad of the reprieve, the momentary distraction from Switch and the damage I’d done. Despite what you may think reading this account, I do not enjoy reliving my mistakes, and that one still stung.
“The hunchbacked one?” Pallino frowned. “That’s the prior’s by-blow, ain’t it?”
“It is,” I agreed somewhat darkly.
“You think they’ve really got one of the Pale squirreled away down there?” He looked at Siran, who was after all a prisoner herself, free only here in the training yard. Siran only shrugged. I shifted my helmet from one hand to the other, unsure what to say. I had about half a dozen notions of how I could break into the coliseum’s gaol to see if there was any truth to
what the mercenary Kogan had told Switch and me what seemed like months ago. Looking back, I suppose it was that brush with the outer Dark that pushed me back to Gila’s repo shop, that had driven me to unlock a piece of my palatine identity, if only for a moment.
“Maybe,” I replied.
“It’s not important now anyway, Pal,” Elara said, putting a hand on the older man’s shoulder. Eyes on me, she asked, “You going to be all right
“I wasn’t entirely honest with him,” I said. “With Switch, I mean.” I was certainly not about to be entirely honest with these three either. Let them think I’d tried to swindle him on our deal. I did not mind being thought a
cheat. I had been called far worse. What I planned to do to Gila’s crew and the Mataro County should have been proof enough of that.
“Is that all?” Pallino shrugged his shoulders, leaning against the nearest of the squat pillars. “Black Earth, boy, I thought it was something more
serious, the way these two were going on . . .” He waved a hand at Siran and Elara, who bridled. “Look, we’ve got knife work to do here, like you
was saying to those poor sods. Get your shit together, Had. I don’t want you pulling any of this berserker nonsense in a real fight. You’re not a fucking Maeskolos. You can’t fight three at once, and thems won’t be trainees you’re tussling.” I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to that, but I didn’t have to. Pallino wasn’t done. “We may be your friends, boy, but if you throw yourself into a mess next time we’re on the floor, I’m not jumping in after you.” He drew a line across his throat to emphasize his point.
Ashamed, I bowed my head in understanding.
“We’re just worried about you, lad,” Elara said, putting a conciliatory hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged her off and made for the door. They were right, but I didn’t have to say it.
“This isn’t a game, boy! Not for us!” Pallino called after me. “Oy, we’re talking at you!”
It was too much. There comes a time past each of our mistakes when we must decide to stop adding to the weight of our errors. It comes before we are willing to carry that weight but after we take it on ourselves. I set my jaw as I turned to glare back at them. My mistake with Switch did not wash out the necessities of my condition. I needed that ship. I would have done
anything to get it.
Siran cut in, a voice of reason. “Can’t you just talk to Switch? He’s been downright unreasonable . . .”
“Then maybe you should talk to him,” I countered, glad of the simple riposte.
It was only after they left me alone as I deserved that I realized what the strange expression was that I had caught flickering candle-like on their
weathered faces. It wasn’t dislike or suspicion or even pity. It was concern. They feared for me. Not in the life-and-limb way Cat had done, nor out of white-knuckled fear of my father. They cared because they chose to, and they did so with a gruff but quiet indelicacy that propped me up in my despair and whispered that this was what it was to have a family. A ragged and blustering one, beyond a doubt, but I’d not have traded them for my natural one, not for all the ships in the sky.
And yet . . . and yet I was leaving them. Was trying to leave them, at least. I had been trying since before I’d met them, since I met the sailor,
Crow, that day in the cafe. Kogan’s tale still spun in my ears, his words
catching in me as Crow’s had, like sparks in tinder. I was remembering the boy I’d been not so long ago. Hadrian Marlowe. I wanted knowledge, knowledge like Simeon the Red had. That was where I had first erred,
wasn’t it? In the forgotten Latin, to err was to wander or stray, not to make a mistake. I had staggered from my father’s vision of my life and—like the
sinner in the old prayer—fallen from the narrow way into some unfortunate hell. I had wandered, but I was not lost. I had my way out. More than that, I had friends who cared enough to irritate me and hurt because of me. And I was close—I suspected—to one of the Cielcin. There was knowledge of the most special kind. Something even ancient Simeon had not seen or spoken to.
That was something else entirely.