Chapter no 49 – Brothers in Arms

Empire of Silence

“WHAT’S THIS ABOUT?” I asked the guard when I arrived at the palace barbican. “Your runner said there was someone here to see me?” I had ignored all the calls to my room’s holograph plate, had gone out onto the balcony until someone had sent a servant to fetch me, and so my silk tunic stuck to me, and my hair was slicked against my forehead. Still I drew myself up to my full height and tried to look presentable, trying to mask my trepidation.

The guard only looked at me, words clearly in retreat from his chapped lips.

“I’ll say you do!”

Pallino emerged from the guardroom, his laugh half fading as he entered the hall, an echoing place of tiled floors and high pillars. Another pair of guards followed, chuckling at something the old myrmidon had said. He drew up short, chewing on something that didn’t exist. A word, maybe.

Hands on his hips, he surveyed me with his one blue eye. “Ghen was right about the ‘Your Radiance’ thing. You clean up, kid.” Though it was a joke, there was a kind of strain in it.

“You look like shit,” I shot back, eliciting the smallest of smiles from the man. I tried to smile back, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to. There was

something in the older man’s demeanor, something frigid. How quickly his joshing manner with the guards had gone cold. A sudden dread seized me, and I asked, “Did someone . . . ?” Die? I couldn’t get the word out. Was it Switch? Siran? It could not be Elara—there would be no smile left in the man if that were so.

Pallino started. “What? No. We thought you were dead, you bastard.” He gestured to my fine clothes. “It’s plain you ain’t a prisoner, so why was this

a secret?” The old soldier looked like he wanted to spit, but he refrained, mindful of the mosaic. “You figure now you’ve got your fancy new friends you can just leave us high and dry, is that it? Switch was right about you.”

“I . . .” I looked round at the three guards as if hoping to find some answer in their faces. Behind the myrmidon, the open gate to the castle

hung open, admitting the daylight but not the liquid heat thanks to the static field that shimmered just inside the high arch. Just beyond that was the parade ground, a great plaza that stretched for nearly three miles to the low shape of the coliseum, all gray concrete and bright metal. “What?”

He wanted to do this here? In front of a small detachment of house peltasts? In the sight of Earth only knew how many different kinds of cameras? We were on the front steps of the castle, in Emperor’s name!

Behind me the incline lifts rose for dozens of stories up to the top of the

ziggurat and the castle mezzanine. The place was bustling with logothetes and the civil service, both Mataro and Imperial proper. There were even brown-shirted foederati mercenaries present, a coarse company in one

corner awaiting I knew not what. Pallino wanted to do this here?

“You up and vanished on us, boy!”

We couldn’t have this conversation here. We couldn’t have it anywhere near the castle. How could I answer truthfully without compromising my secret? The secret the count had all but ordered me to protect? A thought

occurred to me, and I turned to the nearest of the peltasts. “Guardsman, I’d like to speak with my friend here in private. Might we take a walk around the plaza?”

The man looked to his senior, a hard-eyed woman with a lantern jaw. She shook her head. They had their orders. They knew who I was, or at least that I was not allowed outside.

“The gentleman is not to leave the castle unescorted,” the peltast said in a flat voice, pointedly not looking me in the eye.

I held my wrists out to Pallino as if they were shackled. “I’m not exactly a prisoner, but as you see, I’m not exactly free either. I couldn’t send a message.” This last was not strictly true, was one of those small lies we tell to save our souls.

Pallino stood string-cut, taking in the new data. At last he managed the word, “Oh.”

A snort escaped me, and I gestured the aging veteran away from the gate and the guards. There was nowhere in all the castle where we could be

guaranteed privacy, and I didn’t doubt that there were those in the count’s service who would be very interested in my comings and goings. So I led

Pallino into the shadow of a red column. Eager to restart the conversation, I asked, “How is everyone? How’s Elara?” I clapped him on the shoulder, trying to take some of the tension out of the moment. Over his shoulder I

could see the three peltasts watching us from the outer door.

“What’s that?” The old man’s eye had wandered, taking in the frescoes on the vaulted ceiling depicting the Mataro conquest, the retreating

Normans unwashed beneath the ivory boots of the Legions. He had an almost wistful look on his face as he looked back round at me.

Remembering some other earlier life? “Elara’s fine. One of Amarei’s new lads bruised her jaw in the last melee, but she’s a tough old bitch.” He

smiled a lazy smile. “Love this mural.” He reached a hand up, waving it to take in the scope of the image.

“It’s a fresco,” I said, unable to help myself. As I spoke the overhead lights flickered and went out for a moment. I frowned at them, but such brownouts were common in the castle. Storm damage, or so the servants said.

Pallino didn’t seem to notice or care; the sunlight was ample enough. “I know it’s a fucking fresco, lad. I wasn’t born in no barn.” The lights

sparked back on.

Ducking my head, I murmured an apology, then stood square facing the older man. “I suppose we’ll have to cancel buying that ship, eh?” There. I’d said it, and I hoped it was innocuous enough that I wouldn’t be answering

any pointed questions later from the count or his inquisitors.

Pallino blew out a long breath, seeming almost to deflate. “It wasn’t a bad plan.” Robbed of the anger of his original purpose and a chance to yell at me, the man was bereft. He didn’t know where to take our conversation. That was good. That was something. At least he wasn’t shouting anymore. At least he wasn’t making a scene. “Buying the ship with some land of your dad’s . . . smart.”

I jerked as if stung, shocked. “Switch told you?”

“I’ve got to say, it don’t make any sense.” He hooked a finger beneath the strap of his leather eye patch, scratched his face. “Why would a rich kid like you be fighting in the pits with dogs like us? Especially when you

could come on up here and get treated like some kind of royalty?”

How could I answer that? It was worse now than when Switch had asked me after our visit to the shipyard. That time I hadn’t been under

surveillance. What was it I’d said to Switch? There’d be nothing but trouble until I left the Empire. That was it. If I left the Empire.

“Same as you,” I said pointedly. “It was my best option. That’s what Switch and I were fighting about.” Pallino took this better than Switch had. He only grunted, arms crossed over his barrel chest. His attentions were still on the fresco. Still he didn’t answer, leaving me to question exactly how much Switch had told him. “He didn’t believe me.”

The myrmidon grunted again, slowly moving his eye from the image of conquest on the vault above. Beside us a door opened and a group of logothetes and guild representatives filed out of one of the conference rooms, stranding us for a moment in a sea of drab gray and violet suits. At length Pallino spoke, shaking his head. “You rich kids.” That blue eye focused on me beneath furrowed brows. I was sure then that he knew, sure Switch had told, and I was grateful—so grateful—that the man had the tact to keep quiet. I had to remind myself that Pallino had been a soldier once. Discharged a First Line Centurion. He had seen active service on Imperial dreadnoughts, hadn’t been one of those below the freeze line, kept in reserve for centuries at a time. He knew what it meant to be monitored, to be under the scrutiny of other men every waking instant of his life.

“It’s not like that,” I said, not sure what either of us meant but knowing I was different in that way all young men do. “I had to leave home, Pallino.” I leaned into the word had, pouring every ounce of determinism I could muster into it. He needed to know I meant it, but I had to let him know

without saying anything to compromise the tenuous nature of the count’s charity. As courtiers so often do, I was dancing barefoot on the edge of a

knife. Between the truth and the necessary illusion. Between admission and security.

The man must have taken my meaning, for he backed off, changing topics instead. “They letting you out any time soon? Be good to have you back.” I gave him a look. They were never going to let me fight again. This thought penetrated, and he changed tack. “At any rate, be good to have you come round for drinks next time we win.” A thought flashed behind his eye, and he added, “You heard about Erdro?”

Swallowing, I bobbed my head, and it was my turn to look up at the frescoed ceiling. “I saw.” Unsure what else to say, I scrambled and added,

“I thought he had Jaffa for a moment.”

“It was a fool’s game,” Pallino replied. “Those antique weapons demos are about as stacked against our side as it gets. He should have known that, shouldn’t have charged that bastard.”

“He was a good man,” I said simply. “A good fighter.”

“He was.” Pallino rubbed his sleeve above the spot where his Legion tattoos decorated the biceps. “Maybe it’s good you’re out. I’d have hated seeing you end like that, Had. Who knows; maybe this is a good place for you.”

He was trying to be polite. It hurt. “I’d rather be offworld.” “Why?”

I had expected the question, but still it was not an easy one. How to

explain to a plebeian that wealth and power came with a cage? He would only see the silks, not what it cost to wear them. “This isn’t home, Pallino.” I shrugged, focused my attentions on the older man. “It’s not me.” I broke eye contact, unable to bear the gaze of his single eye. “We could still buy the ship.”

That eye narrowed. “How, if you’re stuck here?”

“I could front it with my—my dad’s land. You, Elara, and Switch could work for me. You wouldn’t have to risk your lives anymore. It’d be steadier work. Safer.” I broke off, rubbing my jaw. “Suppose I’d have to hire a pilot, but . . .”

That snagged something in the myrmidon’s mind, and again he chewed on something that wasn’t there, eye flicking up to the ceiling in thought.

Neither of us spoke the unspoken—that I’d implied I would still be alive to collect the owner’s share of any income. If he were paying attention—and he was—he knew then that I was at least of patrician breeding. “That

wouldn’t be half bad, to be sure.”

“You’ll think about it?” I brightened. If I could not escape my

circumstances, then at least I might help my friends. And although the

chances were slim to none in that moment, perhaps I harbored a hope that I might find a way to escape, to get away from Emesh and onto a path chosen by myself for myself.

Pallino’s mouth turned up into a tight smile. “Might do, aye.” He

chewed his lip, smile collapsing like a wave. “And I’ll talk to Switch, see if I can’t make him come round. It’s not right, a man not talking to his brothers.” Was that what we were? Naturally the word made me think of

Crispin, the only true brother I’d ever had, though the loss of him had not stung so deeply as the loss of my myrmidon companions. Hearing that

word, brothers, sparked a deep loneliness in the base of my soul of the sort I’d not felt since Cat died. Not because I was alone, but because I was not and perhaps deserved to be.

Tucking my chin, I had to shut my eyes to stop them from watering. “I’d appreciate it,” I said, voice halting. “I’d go myself, but . . .” I made a noncommittal gesture in the direction of the guard room. Seeking to lighten the mood, I asked, “What did you have the guards laughing about?”

“War stories, son,” the myrmidon said, clapping me on the shoulder. “War stories.”

“He say anything about me?” I turned to stand beside the shorter man, crossing my arms. We stood in silence a moment, both staring up at the

image that so enamored my companion. Directly above us hung an image of an Umandh struggling against two Imperial legionnaires with glowing lances. One man had his boot on the trunk of the colonus, and I recalled the way the gladiator in Meidua had stood upon the body of his mutilated foe.

Pallino leaned away, twisting slightly to look at me. “Who, Switch? He and Ghen talk shit now and again. Reckon he misses you.”

“Tell him I’m sorry,” I said, clasping my hands behind my back, “and that I’d tell him myself if I could.” I jerked my chin up, pulling on an ounce of aristocratic poise to choke down my emotions. “I know I owe you both

an explanation for . . .”—I gestured at my fine clothes and the opulent surroundings—“but I can’t discuss it right now. Can you trust me?”

The older man was smiling when I turned to look at him. “You know, in the Legion you learn to trust the men on your decade. Even the bastards.

Sometimes especially the bastards. Don’t matter what they’re about. You’re all pulling the same way, you hear me?” I said I did, and Pallino pointed a finger at my face. “You’re not the worst bastard I ever met, Had. Not even close.” He pointed at his own face, then at me, then himself. Pallino grinned. “We’re pulling the same way.”

We stood then awhile and talked of small things, of our friends and the coliseum and how stupid my fine clothes looked on me. But soon enough

Pallino had to go—he had drills to conduct training the new fodder recruits. I turned to go first, to ride the incline lift to the palace proper. He seized my wrist. “This ain’t goodbye, you know?”

“What?” I blinked at him, genuinely confused. “No, of course not.”

The old veteran grinned like a wolf. “Good, because I’m holding you to that ship thing. Now you’re in with the gentry, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to manage.” I wanted to correct him, but there was no time. The leathery myrmidon clapped me on the back and said, loudly and apparently in jest, “And who knows? You might need us if you ever wanted to skip town!” And with that he went out into the rippling daylight, waving

casually over his shoulder.

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