NEITHER ANAÏS NOR DORIAN was aware of my proper identity, or so I thought
—they believed me the son of a minor merchanter engaged in trade with Jadd. Before long their scholiast tutor insisted I speak to them only in
Jaddian as an exercise. I was not truly their friend, not truly anyone’s friend. My possessions were recovered from the coliseum dormitories by house guards. Emperor knows what Switch and the others thought about that. I
was confined to the vast palace atop its concrete and steel ziggurat, a thousand feet above the city and sea level. From my room in the outer wall, I could see all of Borosevo rolled out like a dirty carpet, a stain upon the green waters of the world.
I left an engagement with the two noble children, crossing a mosaic floor in a quadrangle decorated with tinkling fountains with green copper statues in the centers. A pair of collared Umandh stumped past, wobbling on their three legs, their scaly, coralline hides cracking in the air as they
carried a massive statue of a Mataro sphinx in their strong feelers. A float palette might have been easier, but using the xenobite slaves was something of a status symbol. House Mataro kept several hundred in the palace.
Mostly they performed aesthetic chores such as waving fans at important personages in the open air or carrying things about the palace as visibly as possible. Emesh may not have had much in the way of material wealth or political significance, but it had the xenobites. I watched them retreat down a colonnade, their soft droning fading with their progress.
“M. Gibson! Hadrian!”
I turned, recognizing the voice. “Lady Anaïs.” I bowed almost before I’d turned round. “Forgive me, were we not through for the day?”
The count’s daughter was taller than me by a head, the perfect blend of her two fathers. She smiled down at me, hands on the soft swell of her hips. “No, we were. I was hoping I’d catch you is all.”
“Catch me?” I pushed a fall of hair from my eyes, the strands already damp with sweat from the damnable press of the air.
She smiled—she smiled like an open flame—and said, “There’s a boat race around the harbor at the end of the week, you know?” I hadn’t, and I told her so politely as I fell into step beside her, matching her long stride as best I could. “Everyone from the city attends. It’s the event of the season— not counting Dorian’s Ephebeia, of course.” That announcement had been made weeks before, along with the revelation that a Cielcin would be
sacrificed in a Chantry triumph to commemorate the occasion. Perhaps that was why the lady’s boat race had escaped my notice. “Lord Melluan’s sons are down from Binah”—that was the green moon, a place said to be
covered in woods as vast as the fabled forests of Luin—“and Archon Veisi himself is up from Springdeep. Everyone who matters in-system.”
I nodded politely. “It sounds like quite the showing.”
She linked her arm through mine, laughing sweetly. “It will be, M. Gibson, truly.” We descended a curve of staircase, passing through the shadow of a square tower from one of the inner, higher sections of the
palace toward the lower, outer wall. High above, the Spear Tower rose like a column of smoke into the firmament, tall as the ziggurat on which it sat. It looked narrow as a reed, as if the wind might bowl it over. I stopped a moment, looking down on the shaded garden where it wrapped beneath the wall of a higher terrace. Sailcloth awnings decorated with the dyed patterns of dragons and manticores snapped above our heads.
“Is there much sailing on Emesh, then?” I stopped to let a decade of household soldiers march past, a group of peltasts with familiar energy lances. “I confess I’m not much familiar with the culture. Short of my time in the Colosso, I’ve not had much time to experience your fair planet.” I did not mention my time in the streets. Would not.
Anaïs squeezed my arm, leaned against me a little. “Oh, you must come with me, then. Any one of the ships would be honored to have me aboard. You could be my escort, if you wanted.”
“My lady, you honor me.” I inclined my head in a slight bow.
“It might be fun!” she laughed, then released me. Around the corner the droning of more slave Umandh hummed softly as they were directed by a
pair of servants calling instructions in raised voices. Doubtless one or the other had one of the droning communications boxes I had seen years ago with Cat in the fish warehouse.
Then a voice—the voice—first broke into my universe. There are moments, instants that divide. Time fractures about them so that there is a time after . . . and so that all that was before is a kind of dream. “No, no, damn it—you’re doing it wrong.” I did not know it then, but my life had split, was cloven evenly in two from the moment I heard those words. I peered round the sandstone pillar of a colonnade and out onto the balcony
beneath a vaulted ceiling overlooking the parade ground. In a few months’ time Dorian Mataro’s Ephebeian triumph would begin there, processing through the streets and along the canals of Borosevo to the coliseum, where at last the Cielcin Makisomn would be sacrificed by the Chantry grand prior, Gilliam’s mother.
Three Umandh were attempting to replace light fixtures in the ceiling, their cilia struggling to manipulate tools and electronics meant for the five-fingered. Even as I turned the corner, one dropped a huge fluorescent rod, shattering the bulb to dust. One of the douleters, a fat man in a house
uniform of muddy green, slammed his shock-stick into one of the creature’s legs. It went to two knees, dropping tentacles to brace itself as the human
screamed, “Fucking squid-tree-looking filth!” Off to one side, his companion twiddled the dials on one of the droning boxes used to communicate with the Umandh.
The man pulled his stick back for another blow, and suddenly there she was, her tattooed hand closing around the man’s wrist. “Go ahead, try it.”
Her voice rang clear and high and polished, strangely accented. Hearing it, I recalled the tattooed doctor from the Eurynasir on my fateful trip away from Delos.
The fat douleter tensed as the slender woman held his arm, eyes wide. The strength went out of him, and he shook her off, casting a violent look over his round shoulder at the woman. I like to imagine now that he cast a warding sign her way, superstitiously fending off his demons. Anaïs came up just behind me. “Oh! Hello, Doctor Onderra!” she said, surprised.
“Repairing the lights?”
The slender woman snatched the Umandh comms terminal from the
second douleter, who was too busy bowing to Anaïs to protest, and fiddled with it for a good five seconds before responding. When she finally spoke,
it was in even tones, the voice airy, musical and amused. “Lady Mataro, good afternoon!” She did not bow, curtsy, or make any gesture of deference or obeisance. She only smiled, full lips parting as she clasped her hands behind her back. “And yes, there was another brownout in this wing of the castle late yesterday. I thought I’d offer my assistance with the Umandh
since some people”—and here she glared at the douleters—“don’t understand them worth a damn.”
“Brownouts?” I asked, looking to Anaïs to explain.
The palatine girl bobbed her head, wiping the newborn sweat from her hairline. “Castle generators have been a bit broken since the storm season started.”
“Things break,” the foreign woman said hastily, eyes sharpening on me. “Messer . . . ?”
Anaïs squeezed my arm. “This is Hadrian!”
“Hadrian . . . Gibson,” I managed, offering my hand as I had learned to do in the coliseum.
She was nearly as pale as I was myself—a sailor’s pallor, though so
white and unblemished that I decided her skin must be proof against solar radiation, like my own. In high boots and simple trousers, she looked drab next to Lady Anaïs Mataro in her flowing kaftan, but she wore them proudly as any queen. Her arms were bare to the shoulder, the left tattooed in a dense intaglio of fine black lines, whorls, and angles spiderwebbing from deltoid down to the start of each finger. Still smiling, she moved forward, extending her right hand—which entirely lacked tattoos—and took my hand in hers. “Valka Onderra Vhad Edda, xenologist.” I don’t know how I responded, though I guessed I’d said the correct thing, for Valka
smiled again and said, “Lovely to meet you.”
I do not consider myself a great artist, though she made me wish I was. I could not have known at this first meeting how many times I would fail to capture her, in charcoal and in life. The brazen declaration of her: the pride
in that upturned chin, the pointed nose, and the tidy carelessness that put her above the opinions of lesser men. There’s little sign of her wit—so close to cruelty—in any of the drawings I made of her, and this poor prose cannot
contain her beauty, body or soul. Even holographs fail. They are only echoes, as is this.
Any Imperial aesthete would have told you she was too much of too many things: too severe, too serious. Her skin too pale. Her eyes too wide.
Those eyes. Golden eyes. I have never seen their like, before or since. They knew things, and they laughed at what they saw even as they cut it to ribbons. There exists no word for the color of her hair, such a deep red it looked black in all but the brightest light. She wore it short, and what
excess there was she gathered into a bun at the top of her head, loose
strands playing across her forehead and about her small ears. She smiled like a razor at a joke only she ever understood and stood like a soldier at parade rest, waiting patiently with that terminal clasped behind her.
After what I feared was an embarrassingly long moment, I managed to ask, “You work with the Umandh?” I could have melted through the floor then and there. What an astonishingly bland question. If I had known who she was—what she would be—I would have strangled myself from the
The doctor glanced back over her shoulder, frowning at the three
creatures, now intent on scooping up the shattered remains of the broken bulb. “Only incidentally. My primary focus lies with the ruins on the
“I wasn’t aware Emesh had a southern continent.” What ruins? I made a mental note to steer the conversation in that direction later on. I’d heard nothing about Emesh playing host to alien structures—but then I’d known nothing of the Umandh until Cat had taught me better.
“Anshar!” Anaïs offered. “It’s not large. It’s where Tolbaran is—the old capital from back before my great-grandfather took the planet and built
Borosevo.” That had been a bloody mess, I later learned. Before Emesh had become an Imperial palatinate, it was dominated by Extrasolarian interests and a Norman Freeholder group. When House Mataro descended on the planet more than a millennium ago, backed by three Imperial Legions, they’d built the oldest parts of Borosevo on an isolated atoll, leaving the old capital to molder in the hands of their servants.
Doctor Onderra smiled again. “Your companion is not from here, is he?” She said it just like that, no honorific, no ladyship. The doctor only clipped the Umandh comms tablet to her belt the way a chanter might his prayer book, jounced by her hip. She had not addressed me directly; she spoke to Anaïs as though she were my handler and I her servitor.
Her ladyship clutched my arm again, pulled me close in spite of my
attempts to maintain distance. “No, he’s from Teukros. He was a myrmidon, did you know? Fought in the Colosso for a year.”
The Tavrosi academic raised her eyebrows, the sort of hollow, unimpressed expression of an adult entertaining a very small, very irritating child. “Was he indeed?” Gone was her earlier openness, her warmth,
snuffed out by this new datum. Belatedly I remembered that the Tavrosi
clans took a dim view of blood sport. Among those strange men at the edge of the galaxy, violence was a thing for primitives and machines. War among the clans, such as it was, was almost exclusively economic. I could feel the doctor’s temperature toward me cool. That bothered me, and it bothered me that it bothered me. I threw a glance at the palatine lady on my arm, sharply as I could. She didn’t see it.
“Tell me, M. Gibson, do you enjoy killing slaves for your masters?”
It took me a moment to realize the woman was speaking to me. I had forgotten my assumed name. When her words hit me, they did so like a blow to the liver. But then, she was Tavrosi. They did not have the Colosso in that strange and distant country, nor slaves. They had sim games and mandatory public work and a peace maintained by therapy and reeducation, protest where we had order, chaos where we had peace. They discouraged families, so much so that long associations between couples were disrupted by their mongrel state, and they committed that greatest of abominations: mingling their flesh with that of machines. Deciding that she had not understood the myrmidon-gladiator distinction, I said, “I fought with the
slaves, my lady. Against the gladiators.”
“Against them?” Valka Onderra sneered. “Well, I suppose ’tis all right, then.” She pressed a strand of that red-black hair back behind one ear. “And I’m not a lady, I’m a doctor.”
She was a scholar like me, then, as she had already admitted when she’d said she was a xenologist, but that point had escaped me for the barest
second, making my brain numb and the rest of me feel the fool. She broke off a moment and shouted instructions to the two douleters, gesticulating with that intricately tattooed hand. The two men responded, circling the
Umandh with their sticks, and Valka tossed them the comms box from her belt clip. “Amateurs.” She said the word like a curse, an effect heightened by the snapping Tavrosi accent, and tapped a finger against her temple, those golden eyes narrowing in frustrated analysis. She burbled a stream of swear words in a Tavrosi dialect. I caught the word okthireakh—Imperials— and another that sounded awfully like barbarians.
Barbarians, was it? I dusted off my Tavrosi languages, cracking my metaphorical knuckles. I switched to Nordei, the most common of the
Demarchy’s languages. I had only the barest understanding of it, but I tried anyhow. I asked, “The device you use to communicate with them—how does it work?”
Valka Onderra’s fine eyebrows rose in surprise, but the woman responded—not in Nordei, but in Travatsk, another of the Tavrosi languages. Sly. I didn’t know a word of it, so I spoke instead in Panthai, the only other clan language in which I could string together a sentence, though I must have sounded like a thick child. “I didn’t understand a word of what you said.”
Incredibly, the Tavrosi doctor’s face split into a smile. Anaïs was looking from her to me, bafflement on her perfectly gene-sculpted face. “Was that Tavrosi? Do you two know one another already?” She looked
pouty beneath that sheer curtain of blue-black hair. I resisted the urge to tell her ladyship that there was no such thing as Tavrosi.
The foreigner looked at me again as if for the first time, stroking her pointed chin. “No, no, ladyship. I’ve never seen the man before in my life.” Her attention briefly flickered from my face to Anaïs’s, then returned to me. “Not many Imperials learn a Tavrosi language, much less two.”
“I’m not many Imperials,” I said, standing a little straighter and—I hoped—taller in the doctor’s eyes.
“Plainly.” She cocked an eyebrow. Then she changed tack. “The Umandh aren’t like us. They don’t think.”
“I’m sorry?” I said. The subject change had given me whiplash. “What does that mean?” Anaïs said at the same time.
Valka jerked her head over her shoulder to where the xenobites had returned to replacing the light fixtures under the watchful supervision of their overseers. “They aren’t individuals, really. They’re more like . . . well, like a neural lace.” I had no idea what that was, but I kept my face impassive. In the face of ignorance I’ve often found that silence is the best tutor.
I wished only that someone had taught Anaïs Mataro that same lesson. “What’s that?”
The Tavrosi cocked an eyebrow, “Each of the Umandh is like a cell, and they . . . The droning is not so much their communication. ’Tis not a language. They’re . . . networking.”
Networking? It was a datasphere term, I knew, but I had as little understanding of the arcane workings of a planetary datasphere as a dog has of human mating rituals. This time my curiosity surrounding this semi-forbidden field of study overcame my trepidation. “You mean they’re a
The doctor brightened, glanced from Lady Anaïs to myself. Her brows knitted together, and she inclined her head in a slight affirmative. “Not
entirely. They’re distinct—they don’t share tissue—but the droning lets them harmonize.”
“Literally harmonize.” I cracked a thin, crooked smile, which Valka returned. Somewhere in my breast, a shadow of the old Hadrian—the
scholiast’s pupil—stirred as if from fugue. This was what I had lived for as a boy. Had it really only been four years ago? Four years for me, I
amended. Nearly forty in truth.
Clearly unhappy to be boxed out of the conversation, Anaïs leaned forward. “Are you staying in the capital long, doctor?”
“Only until the storms pass. Calagah gets a bit . . . well, ’tis underwater this time of year.” The Umandh were finishing their work, the pitch of their song rising, a steady beat joining the suddenly disjointed sound of their
chorus. I still couldn’t see how they made the sound, though I figured they had to have mouths somewhere in their tops, somewhere amongst the tentacles. As one of the tripod creatures trundled past, I marked the thick
white glaze it had plastered over itself, daubed in whorls down the length of its narrow trunk and radial thighs. Some sort of tribal marking? I wanted to ask about it, but I filed that away too for another time.
Instead I followed the natural flow of the conversation, resisting the temptation to pursue any number of tangents up their blind alleys.
“Calagah? Would those be the ruins you mentioned?”
To my small amazement, it was Anaïs who replied, not the doctor. “You really don’t know?”
I really didn’t, and I was growing a bit tired of the pattern of non-answer shaping up in this conversation. Still I kept the edge off my tongue, mindful that one of the ladies was a palatine and that I—in my current guise as M. Hadrian Gibson—was not. “No, my lady, I’m afraid not.”
Valka ran a thoughtful hand up and down the tangle of lines on her arm before she turned those unlikely golden eyes upon me. “Calagah is the ruins, yes. Um . . .” She eyed Lady Anaïs, biting her lower lip. When Anaïs
neither complained nor made a move to stop her, the doctor said, “’Tis very old, not human. The site predates the Norman settlement here by thousands of years.”
That made me blink. “Umandh, then?” I’d never heard of the Umandh building anything so permanent. Their homes, built along the seacoast in one fenced-off ward of the city and on their island alienage—were accretive structures mounded from debris. They’d taken the wreckage of boats and
starcraft, bits of crumbling buildings, and whatever else they could find and lashed them together to make lean-tos. Their village on the water—in the
water—looked like nothing so much as a gyre washed up upon the shore. It would not last a decade unattended, much less centuries.
The doctor wrinkled her nose. “’Tis the obvious conclusion.” Doctor
Onderra eyed the palatine lady on my arm and spoke more plainly. “We are not the oldest race in the cosmos, though most seem never to leave their home worlds. Extinction catches them first.”
“Like the Arch-Builders on Ozymandias?” I asked, naming the first extinct civilization that came to mind.
Valka blinked. “Quite, but the ruins at Calagah are far older. The Arch-Builders have only been extinct for—”
“For forty-three hundred years, yes,” I finished, eager to prove my knowledge. Valka looked surprised, and I added, “I’m a bit of an amateur enthusiast.”
The Tavrosi woman crossed her arms. “Indeed. Well, some of us make a living at this, M. Gibson. Though I’ve several holographs of the Calagah
site. If you’re really interested, you could stop by my chambers.” I smiled, sure that she was warming to me—or I was, until she came down for the
sting. “That is, if you’re not too busy killing people.” Then she brushed past, leaving me small and sweating in her wake.
She was in the shadow of the arches back out to the colonnade, following the Umandh and the two douleters, before I found my words. “It was very nice to meet you, Doctor.”
She didn’t look back, but she waved. “I suppose it was.”
I had no response for that, and I stood there, Anaïs forgotten on my arm.
No words came to me, and for a time only the distant sounds of Borosevo came through from the balcony. The lights the Umandh had installed flicked on. The word that finally came to mind was Classical English:
dumbstruck. Literally to be struck speechless, as by a blow. We have no word for it in Galstani, but no other word applied.