WAKING, I EXPECTED RESTRAINTS, but found none. I was seated, slumped in a fat armchair in a chamber dimly lit and climate controlled. I could not recall ever being quite so comfortable and sore at the same time. The shock-stick
—it was all coming back to me—had not been nearly so gentle as the
Whitehorses’ stunners. I felt almost as bruised as I had in Meidua after that gang had nearly killed me. I was only glad to be without corrective braces this time. A quick series of motions revealed no broken bones, and I set myself to studying my surroundings. After several years amid the mass-produced, neon-and-plastic world of the plebeians, the room was a sybaritic revelation, sumptuous beyond all my dreams. The walls were paneled not in imitation print but in genuine teak—so much of it that it had to have been flown in from offworld. The minutely tiled floor was draped in Tavrosi
carpets in shades of green and gold and brown, showing hunting scenes in timeless fashion. Silk hangings billowed around an open set of double doors, stirred by winds slowed by the faint shimmer of a static field. All of it looked handmade, for in our world of machined perfection where even gemstones can be generated to order, craftsmanship is the greatest treasure.
“You’re awake.” That deep voice—operatic basso profundo, darkly polished as the wood paneling on the walls. I knew it, but from where? “You must forgive my men, Lord Marlowe. They were under orders to
protect Chanter Vas’s little prize.” Count Balian Mataro walked slowly into view, a snifter clutched in one massive hand. His scalp shone where it had been recently waxed, black as a chess piece, and he glowed in a pale-green-and-off-white suit whose jacket trailed almost to the floor, held shut by a fat silk sash detailed in gold and cream. “Though I understand you nearly had them fooled. A fine performance, by the way. I’ve been watching the
recordings.” He drummed one fist in applause against a sideboard as his lictor—a wiry woman with skin nearly so dark as his own—moved into position by the billowing curtains. “Though I must confess I am a bit
confused as to why the son of a Delian archon is playing myrmidon in my Colosso. What is it you call yourself? Had of Teukros, isn’t it?”
Of course he knew. The moment I was unconscious and in his power, he would have had his scholiasts blood-type me and checked the entry against the High College’s Standard Registry. He knew I was palatine, knew which house I was from, what year I’d been decanted. Knew my family history, my relations. Knew I was part of the Imperial peerage, my blood distantly conjoined with the Emperor’s own. A thousand stories, all lies, spun like prayer wheels in my mind. What could I say? The man had read my blood.
There were no lies I could tell at this point, no matter how clever I thought I was. Sometimes, if you’re very, very unlucky, there is only one answer.
“No, lordship. It is as you say—I am palatine. My name is . . . is Hadrian Marlowe. Of Delos.” I swallowed, the words strange, almost painful on my tongue. Still sore from the shock-stick, I realized that I had not answered his question, though it was only after the big man raised sardonic eyebrows, gold chains tinkling about his bull’s neck, that I added, “It is a long story, lordship.” Those eyebrows did not lower. I had to remind myself that this
was a palatine, that patience was his native language.
Lacking in options, aware of the lictor to my right, her muscles like
whip-cord, and imagining hidden guards behind the hunting tapestry on the inner wall, plasma burners trained on my chest, I told him. About Demetri, about the flophouse clinic and the old woman, about Cat and the plague,
about Teukros and the letter Gibson had written for me. It took less time than I imagined, nearly three years of my life covered in some twenty minutes. I left out the adventure with the Umandh and any reference to truly criminal activity. I was not about to confess to the near murder of a plebeian shopkeeper or serial theft in the count’s hearing. But in short order I was done, and after a brief pause, I asked, “You haven’t waved Delos, have you, lordship?”
Balian Mataro at last ceased his pacing—he hadn’t stopped the entire time I’d spoken—and settled himself against a sideboard that glittered with crystal liquor bottles. “Should I have?” His skin was too dark, I decided.
Too dark in precisely the same artificial manner in which I was too pale,
both of us without blemish, fashioned, as it were, from two opposing kinds of stone.
In all my narration I had not given him a reason for leaving Delos, and he had not asked. “No, lordship.”
“They—my guards, I mean—said you spoke to the Cielcin.”
With some effort, I sat a little straighter in the chair. I still wore my clothes from the practice yard, and my sweat grated in them, dry and
granular. “Yes, lordship.” I ran tired hands through my hair. “My first study was languages. I’m no master by any means, but I can speak to the creature if need be.” I laughed, a small, weak sound.
“What’s so amusing?” The count placed his emptied snifter on the sideboard.
I slid forward in my seat, shaking my head as I tried to stand. The lictor tensed in her place by the curtains but stayed where she stood. “It—the
Cielcin said my pronunciation was terrible.”
Balian Mataro smiled, stroked the thick, woolly swatch of beard on his square jaw. “That bad, is it?” Despite my unease, I found myself still
smiling. The count turned, poured himself another drink from a crystal decanter. “What else did it say?”
“It asked if it was going to die, lord.” I did stand then, though I was
careful to keep my distance from the royal person. Orienting myself so that I still faced his lordship and keeping my huge chair between myself and the thin lictor, I pressed ahead. “I told it that it was.”
Lord Balian tipped his snifter back and took a long drink before replying. “Well, you did not lie.” He licked his lips, a curiously thoughtful expression pulling at the muscles of his face.
Thinking of the parade they would hold, the one the guards said would culminate in the Cielcin’s death, I blurted out, “A triumph, Your Excellency?”
“For my son’s Ephebeia.” The big nobile tucked his thumb into his paisley sash, pointed past an arched wooden door into what must have been the rest of the palace. “He will be twenty-one standard in September.”
Five months. I thought of the Cielcin—of Makisomn—trapped in that sewer-cell for five months. I was not sure I’d last five hours, which was of
course my greater concern in that moment. “My congratulations. You must be proud.”
“Of course!” the lord count said, emphatic. “He is my son.” He spoke the words with endearing force. It was, I decided, how a father ought to
speak of his children. “But you haven’t truly answered my question, Lord Marlowe.”
Behind the chair, my back to the corner of the sitting room and to a glassed-in case containing antique projectile weapons, I sketched a careful bow. “Forgive me, lordship. Which question was that?”
“Why are you here?” Before I could reply, he raised one massive slab of a hand and spoke evenly in that operatic basso of his. “I understand how
you come to be here; it is why that most interests me. That and what exactly you were doing in my gaol.” There it was at last—the dreaded question, fallen on my neck like a sword. The count’s shadow might as well have been that of the executioner—and that was just the problem. “I am not in the least acquainted with your house. If this is an act of poine, some covert vendetta, I know of no reason why—”
“It isn’t poine, lordship,” I said simply, spreading my hands. “My father sold me, and I ran.”
The count took this in stride, relief spreading beneath that beard of his. “Sold you? To some baroness?” When I didn’t answer or nod, he cocked an eyebrow. “Baron, then? Well, that has its charms as well.” He grinned toothily, and the count’s lord husband sprang to memory, the willowy
Mandari man with the long black hair.
I folded, might literally have crumpled on the back of the armchair before me were it not for the aristocratic iron that held up my spine. “It’s not like that at all, lordship.” Count Mataro waited me out, his noble patience asserting itself in light of my laconic turns. When the silence
stretched and broke in me at last, I said, “I was to go to the Chantry.”
His momentary relief forgotten, the count froze. Gray-faced, he managed to find his words after only some small grasping about. “No one knows where you are?”
That’s done it, I thought, smelling an opportunity if not an advantage. “Not unless you waved my lord father.” Even as an abstract concept, the
Chantry was doing what the Chantry did best: putting the fear of Gods and Earth into men. Everything I’d seen for three years—every cloud and
sunset, every street corner and serving woman, every square scrap of land on this overweight world—belonged to the colossus standing opposite me. When he died, they would carve a statue of him for some temple, some
mausoleum like the one in our necropolis at Devil’s Rest. He would be portrayed with his booted foot planted on Emesh, a show of the power he’d held in life. Real power. The man could have ordered me dead in seconds, and here he was moved to silence by the thought of a ghost half a galaxy
He hesitated a moment before replying, toying with one of the massive rings on his fingers. “I’ve ordered no communications by QET,” said the lord count, referring to the entangled telegraph network that bound the Empire and the human universe together. “I’ll ask again: Does no one know you’re here?”
“The ship on which I arrived was abandoned, lordship, as I told you. I was bound for Teukros, not Emesh. I could not have predicted coming here.” The lictor was watching me with hard eyes, the hilt of her deactivated highmatter sword in her fist, ready and waiting. Gambling, I
said, “The wise thing to do would be to kill me, of course. Hide all evidence that I was ever here.” That said, I looked slyly up at the palatine, making it clear that that could not be less true, as if merely saying the words aloud
could dismiss the notion.
It worked. His black eyes narrowed, and his jaw tightened beneath that thatch of beard. “Do you think me so great a fool, Marlowe?” He’d omitted the ‘Lord.’
Got you. Half a dozen quips on this point danced in my mouth. I bit down on them, indeed bit my lip to keep from smiling, from sighing a breath of relief. No executions today, not for me. I struggled to reply for a moment, but before I could speak, the door opened, admitting a rapier-thin Mandari man: the count’s husband, Lord Luthor Shin-Mataro. “You started without me, my lord?” He raised a fine eyebrow, a tight frown carving
channels that framed his small mouth. Lord Luthor had the bronze
complexion and high cheekbones familiar to anyone who has seen an interstellar plutocrat; the same blue-black hair; the same astonishing, forest-green, almond-shaped eyes; the same frigid composure. Those eyes . . .
were they an after-market mutation? The Consortium had their bonecutters too, their surgeons and magi, and they were less interested in the boundaries the Chantry imposed on human modification. The color mattered little, but there was something about Luthor’s eyes that suggested he saw more than other men. Into the ultraviolet, perhaps, or the infrared. I couldn’t say, nor
was I certain the Chantry would take exception to Luthor’s eyes and pluck them out. I know only they disturbed me.
“The boy woke earlier than Tor Vladimir expected, Luthor,” the count answered, taking me in with a sweeping gesture that displayed one flared and finely textured sleeve. “We have only just decided that our best course is to see his head off and be done with it.” The curtains blew in a little, pressed by the slow exchange of temperatures across the static field in the open doorway.
The thin foreigner paled. “Balian, you can’t!”
The lord count’s broad face broke into a grin, and he dissolved into bass laughter. “No, of course not,” he said, still chuckling, “but by Earth, the look on your face.” He pointed, smile unabated, before turning to look at me. “Hadrian Marlowe, may I introduce my lord husband, Luthor Astin-Shin-Mataro, formerly of the Marinus office of the Wong-Hopper
Consortium, and my Minister of Finance.”
Remembering my courtesies, I turned and said in perfect trade Mandar, “Rènshu ni hěsn rónxong shun, Zhu Luthor.” A formal greeting, polite. I bowed deeply, nearly at a right angle to the ground, a bow befitting the man’s exalted station. At once I regretted the gesture as blood pounded in my ears and the bruises on my back and neck reported horribly. I had to
clutch the armchair to right myself.
Politely ignoring my difficulties and clearly surprised, the foreigner raised his perfectly sculpted eyebrows and responded in Galstani, doubtless for the benefit of his husband. “You speak Mandar very well. Where did you learn?”
“I had a scholiast tutor as a boy. As I have told your lord husband, sire, my first training was in languages. I speak Jaddian as well, and Lothrian, Durantine, and Classical English, and I’ve a smattering of some of the
Tavrosi languages. Nordei and Panthai, mostly.”
The Mandari man whistled his approval. “All this in addition to the Cielcin tongue? Most impressive.”
“Indeed.” The count frowned. “Our interloper is full of surprises.” Interloper. I imagined someone taller, more mysterious, probably with a black cloak and a cloth mask. Sensing that this was not the moment to interrupt, I maintained a diplomatic silence and tried to picture my parents
—a more traditional couple by some outmoded standards—having a discussion such as this. The vision wouldn’t come. I kept imagining them
trying to outdo one another in impersonating a glacier. “You were in the fighting pits to . . . what? Earn money?”
Glad for a concrete question to answer, I brightened. “To buy passage offworld.” Almost too late, I added, “Your Excellency, sire.”
“To go where?”
“Tavros, I think,” I said, deciding on that answer only in that moment.
Beyond those polities that knelt at the Chantry’s altars, amongst the technocrats and demoniacs at the galaxy’s edge, I might outlive Father and any Imperial interest in my future. “Anywhere the Chantry won’t look for me.”
The Mandari consort exchanged glances with his husband. “The Chantry?”
“The boy is a seminarian, Luthor,” the count intoned. He put his glass on the sideboard again, then turned to his lictor. “Camilla, please open those damned curtains. It’s dark enough as it is.” The hard-eyed woman saluted,
somehow managing the action without peeling her eyes from her nobile charge. Impressive. Beyond, night was falling over Borosevo and the
surrounding ocean, the sky bruised, tattooed with cloud. Turning back to his husband, the count said, “We’ve got a truant on our hands.”
“A truant?” echoed Lord Astin-Shin-Mataro, green eyes widening with fear more than interest. “From Komadd?”
I shook my head. I had never even heard of Komadd. Some provincial Chantry-controlled world, no doubt. “Not Komadd. Vesperad.”
“Vesperad?” the count and his husband said in shocked unison, and for good reason: the Synod itself met on Vesperad. There was no greater seat of the Chantry’s holy authority, not in forty thousand worlds. I will say this for Father—whatever strings he’d pulled to land me my dark appointment, they had sung true. History will say what it will of Alistair Marlowe, but the man was a virtuoso where politics were concerned. Count Mataro continued
speaking. “You turned down an appointment to Lorica College? Are you insane?”
“Not turned down,” I corrected smoothly, honestly. “Ran away from.” All this truth was starting to sour on my tongue, turning to the dry press of something very much akin to fear. What was to be done with me? What
were they planning to do, these lords? I half expected a liveried servant to barge in and declare that Lord Archon Marlowe was on the telegraph plate in the next room, demanding the return of his apostate son.
When nothing of the sort happened, I briefly considered falling back into the chair I’d awoken in. I refrained only for fear that in my diminished state I would fall asleep then and there in front of this great lord and his consort. “Your Excellency, I cannot go to that place.” I thought of Gibson, of the blindfolded bald cathar slicing the old man’s nose open. I thought of the mutilated slaves at the Colosso in Meidua, dressed to play Cielcin. I thought of Ghen and Siran and the wet-paper-tearing sound of flayed skin. That
would have been my life, my legacy. It would’ve been me.
Luthor of the too many surnames narrowed his emerald eyes, studying my face, but he spoke to his husband. “He cannot stay here, Balian.”
The count raised a hand for quiet, into which I hastily interjected,
“Speed me on my way, then. I wouldn’t need a good ship, lordship, or even a ship at all. Just a berth on something reliable.” It was a mistake; I knew that as soon as the words passed my lips.
Balian Mataro’s huge face composed itself into a frown. “I’m not in the habit of wasting valuable people, Lord Marlowe.” He glanced at his husband. “What happened to the guards who brought this matter to our
“They’re our guests at present,” said the lord consort, picking at an invisible mar on one gray sleeve. Guests indeed. In a detention cell, I’d warrant.
“Have them transferred to some new posting as far from here as possible
—to one of the moons, perhaps. Somewhere where their talk is just that. Camilla!” The count snapped his head in the direction of the lictor, indicating that she should join us. She crossed the floor in even, heavy-booted strides. I tensed in spite of myself, knowing full well that in my
current state I could do nothing against someone armed and shielded. But it was nothing, and the count continued, “Be a dear and tell one of your
compatriots in the hall to send for Vladimir and Lady Ogir at once.”
Dame Camilla—the woman was certainly a knight—looked pointedly down her genetically resculpted patrician nose at me. “But my lord . . .”
The lord count patted her arm reassuringly. “I’ve nothing to fear from Lord Marlowe here. Not in the thirty seconds this will take you.” He pushed her gently toward the doors through which his husband had arrived. “Go on.” When she’d moved away, Balian Mataro asked, “You speak how many languages, Lord Marlowe? Four? Five?”
“Nearly eight, lordship,” I replied, not seeing the relevance when we’d been talking starships. “Though perhaps five fluently.” A slight
exaggeration—my Durantine was good enough to fool poor kitchen
servants, but I was hardly prepared to have tea with one of the consuls of that far republic.
The count looked at his husband with an odd glint in his black eyes.
Approval? Triumph? Whatever it was, it must have disquieted Lord Luthor, for he said, “What are you thinking, Balian?”
Smiling beneath that beard, Lord Balian pressed on. “And how old are you, Lord Marlowe?”
I hesitated on the edge of saying twenty-two standard. It was likely the correct figure, but I couldn’t be quite sure. My own Ephebeia had passed
entirely without pomp while I was living on the streets of Borosevo. I knew the local date, but the standard calendar mattered only to those who traveled beyond the circles of the world or dealt with sailors from the Dark. I’d not
seen the standard date in years or had access to the nobile datasphere. “I was nineteen when I left home, lordship,” I said at last, “but I don’t know the current Imperial Star Date.”
“Sixteen one seventy-one zero four.”
Had I been drinking, I might have spat it out. Thirty-five years. It had been thirty-five standard human years since I went into fugue aboard the Eurynasir. Earth and Emperor, Crispin would be nearly fifty, assuming he’d never left home himself. I was not the elder brother anymore, just as I’d
said in Haspida. I had expected a slip of thirteen years between Delos and Teukros. But thirty-five? It is a fact of space travel that we get left behind. Time’s arrow flies in one direction. Despite the ubiquity of this fact in palatine life, I shut my eyes and forced myself to be still.
The count put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?” In lieu of an answer, I said, “I’m twenty-three, lordship.” “I have a son, as you know.”
“And a daughter, Anaïs, both a little younger than yourself,” Lord Luthor interjected.
Count Mataro resumed speaking. “They have few enough companions their own ages. I have command of only four lesser houses, and two of those are offworld exsuls. I would take you as ward of the court. I would have you instruct my”—he glanced at Luthor, smiling—“our children in languages. They could use a little practical experience.”
Luthor bristled. “I still think this is a mistake, Balian.”
“This man is a palatine lord, Luthor. One of the Imperial peerage, of the constellation Victoria. Old blood.” Balian Mataro raised an eyebrow to underscore those last two words, then said to me, “You wouldn’t be using your true name, naturally. But as I see it, it’s better to keep you safe here than to send you away.”
“In case someone comes looking?” I asked. “Then I can say, ‘No, Lord Inquisitor, these nice men saved me.’ I can be your shield.” I saw it clearly
—I was to be their prisoner. Well kept, but a prisoner all the same. I felt the walls closing in around me and knew I was cornered. Old blood, the count had said. Whatever his noble title, Count Mataro was the ruler of a provincial backwater, a lord with little name. I was of the peerage. My family could trace its blood back to Avalon, to the first days of the Empire and to old William Windsor himself. It was surely something they couldn’t have ignored.
“It is a cage, Your Excellency.”
“Rather a nicer one than you deserve,” Luthor snapped, his words directed to Lord Mataro more than myself. “Balian, I really must protest.”
The doors opened again, admitting a scholiast and a woman dressed in the gray suit of an Imperial logothete. Both bowed, appearing to sense the sudden tenseness in the room. The woman—clearly the superior of the pair
—said, “You summoned us, my lord?” She was older, her patrician face revealing the subtle surgical enhancements that told me she’d been born a peasant. Her graying hair was cut short above a copper face, and her eyes— also gray—seemed to look right through all they beheld. Her name, I later learned, was Liada Ogir, High Chancellor of Emesh and the power behind the Mataro throne.
The count briefly introduced me and my situation. “He’ll need a set of false credentials within the day. Something that won’t raise too many
eyebrows. Vladimir will advise. Perhaps something patrician; that might draw less attention, don’t you think?”
“Of course, Your Excellency.” A column of five guards had entered as well, hoplites in gilt green with long white capes trailing on the ground behind them. They did not carry lances like the Imperial legionnaires or my father’s men but instead wore ceramic long swords on their hips and phased disruptors strapped to their thighs. Better options for interior work. Judging
from the scope of this one chamber, Borosevo Castle was a tighter sort of place to maneuver than Devil’s Rest. “What should we call him, my lord?” asked Chancellor Ogir.
Lord Mataro looked me up and down. “They already know him as Had from the fighting pits. Hadrian is fine. Hadrian . . .”
“Gibson,” I interjected, not even thinking about it. “Hadrian Gibson.”
I caught Lord Luthor glaring at me and bowed my head politely. I
wanted that look wiped off his too-handsome face but suffered myself to be led.
“One last question, M. Gibson,” the count said, holding up a hand as the hoplites moved to escort me from the study. “You never did say: Why did you go to see the Cielcin in the first place?”
That puzzled me for a moment. I had no answer ready, so I chewed my lip, reflecting. “I wanted to know if it was a monster, my lord.” So much nuance in the change of address, mine and his. What details they implied. “I wanted to see it.”
The other palatine nodded gravely. “And was it? A monster, I mean.” “I don’t think so, my lord,” I replied. “It was afraid.”