SEAWATER THREATENED TO SPILL over the tops of my boots as I jumped from the deck of the flier, droplets spattering my clothes, disturbed by the repulsor jets along the underside of the silver-black craft. A decade of
soldiers in Mataro livery went ahead, clearing a path along the tidal zone toward the place on the beach where the khaki-uniformed douleters waited with their Umandh slaves lined up for inspection. Remembering my
courtesies, I turned and helped young Lord Dorian—a man now, by all the rights of the Imperium—down from the flier. He accepted my hand graciously, as did his sister. Doctor Onderra came last, along with an older woman in the same khaki uniform of the Fishers Guild. Valka slapped my hand away and sloshed ashore just ahead of me, carrying her Umandh
comms box steadied against one round hip.
Lingering a moment by the quieting aircraft, I placed my red-glass
spectacles on my nose, squinting up at the sky. Today was to be a learning exercise: a proper visit to the Umandh alienage at Ulakiel. The royal
children were to learn about the native xenobites, and I—in my dubious capacity as their captive friend—had been dragged along. Given Valka’s presence, I had not complained. The island, like the southern continent of Valka’s stories, was one of a rare set of antique volcanic outcrops from a
time before Emesh’s tectonic death. Ugly black stone rose for perhaps half a hundred feet above sea level to a worn-down promontory, upon whose
crown the island’s human vilicus had built his keep, overshadowing the Umandh in their grubby hovels.
“See the palisade?” Valka said, pointing out to sea where a chain-link fence rose unrusted from the green waters. “Poor bastards can’t even swim away.”
“Electrified?” I asked.
Valka made a face. “Heated. On contact that fence’ll get hot enough to cook any organic matter it touches. The Umandh are stuck here unless they fancy burning off a few tentacles.”
It was my turn to pull a face. “That’s awful.” I had watched the Umandh beaten in that Borosevo warehouse and had seen them brutalized at the
Colosso. I had thought mine a strong stomach, but something about that heated fence tore at me.
“’Tis your Empire, M. Gibson.” She shrugged, hurrying up the berm to rejoin our noble charges, ignoring the armed peltasts who treated her presence as slightly hostile, edging closer to their young masters.
Something in the way she said the word your soured my stomach. I followed in her wake, shaking the salt water from my treated, still-dry clothes.
The man who greeted our party on the beach screamed offworlder almost as much as Valka and I. He lacked the rich brown skin of the
majority of people on Emesh. Rather his skin was ashen, a saturated gray color, not natural at all. My first thought was that the man was a homunculus, for he reminded me of nothing so much as the little beast
Demetri had kept on the Eurynasir, but no homunculus could have held a station in a guild on Imperial soil. Some mutation, perhaps, or a deliberate aesthetic choice purchased from some corporate bonecutter. “Lord and Lady Mataro, so good of you to pay us a visit on our humble island! I am Niles Engin, I’m the vilicus here at Ulakiel.”
Dorian made a gesture to signal that the man could stop bowing. “Thank you, Vilicus.”
The gray-faced chief overseer patted his curling black hair nervously.
“And Earth’s blessing on your Ephebeia, my lord. I watched the broadcast.” Anaïs took her brother’s arm. “He was so gallant, wasn’t he, sirrah?”
“He was, ladyship.” His eyes lighted on Valka and myself. “And these must be M. Gibson and the Tavrosi.”
Valka stiffened at being called merely the Tavrosi, but she offered no complaint and extended a hand. “Valka Onderra, xenologist.”
“Yes, yes.” Vilicus Engin clasped her by the forearm instead of the hand
—a subtle thing, that—and discreetly made the sign of the sun disc with the other hand down by his hip. Subtler work still. The Demarchy’s dissociation with the Chantry was well known; their autonomy maintained primarily by
their isolation. “You’re the xeno expert, yes? This little tour should be most educational, then. You can see how they live in their proper habitat.”
Valka’s lips compressed into a sharp, thin line. She glanced toward the concave bend of the shoreline, raising her slim eyebrows incredulously toward her red-black hair. I saw what she saw: the little hutment grafted to the base of the basalt rise, sprouting like fungus from the margin of the sea. Thick beards of rust hung from metal sheets; in places it had rotted through panels visible even at this welcome site. Ulakiel may have been the largest
single refuge for the native intelligent species, but it was not designed to put on much of a show for guests of any distinction. The five Umandh that had come with Engin’s party were curiously quiet, without even the faintest mewling or rasp. Their stony silence disquieted me, and I kept an eye on them where they loomed, tentacles seeming to taste the air, moving as blind man’s hands might in the hope of finding their way in the dark.
“Tide won’t be in for another few hours,” one of Engin’s men said, pointing at a series of stakes hammered into the beach to mark water points. Because of its two moons, Emesh’s seas rose and fell wildly. On impulse I glanced up at the sky. The green moon, Binah, hung low over the horizon, dark
where it occulted the edge of the giant sun. The white moon, Armand, was nowhere to be seen, sojourning on the other side of the world. Dorian jostled me, hurrying to catch the vilicus and Anaïs.
That day—like every day on Emesh—fell hot upon us, choking,
smothering as a blanket. I pushed my red glasses up my nose. The coastline stank of fish and rotting seaweed, though how any of either found its way into the alienage’s limited waters was a grand mystery. I had to suppress a Gilliam-like instinct to wrinkle my nose.
“’Tis a damn waste,” Valka breathed, coming off the heels of a question about population density. “A neurological wonder of the universe, and these tank-brains have them fishing.” Her shoulders hunched a little as she brooded.
I could only look away and repeat, “It’s awful.” Not far off, an Umandh emerged from the surf, dragging a net half-filled with fishes the color of tarnished silver. It started droning, low and monophonic, rattling out from the aperture in its head whence sprouted the long tentacles. I felt Valka’s
eyes on me but could not turn to see the expression there, for to do so would have been to signal what an admission that had truly been. I was still seeing Makisomn’s head, too-long tongue lolling as it shook in Dorian’s fist. The lordling himself walked not far off with his sister and the vilicus.
I took in the shantytown the Umandh had built, watched the creatures droning along, attracted by the one’s song. They moved with apparent mindlessness, directed as ants are by a communal urge to pull together. As we watched, the one newly in from the sea dispensed its catch in a flurry of tentacular motion, distributing the little fishes out one and two at a time to its brethren, who passed the morsels up over the rims at the tops of their trunks and into where I assumed their mouths must be. It was not hard to imagine their immobile ancestors rooted to the seabed, trailing tentacles through the waves to strain for prey.
“We actually just exported a thousand of the natives to Triton. A fair breeding sample, though reproduction is not a particular challenge for the beasts,” the vilicus was saying. Two of his khaki-uniformed officers tapped shock-sticks against their thighs, watching the coloni closely. Farther off, our own guardian escort stood at quiet attention, itching hands not far from their sidearms should the children prove threatened by the slave creatures.
Dorian frowned visibly, but it was Anaïs who said, “I didn’t realize we were shipping the Umandh offworld.”
“House Coward on Triton seems to believe the creatures can be trained to lay wiring on the seabed.” Engin frowned. “Not that I’ve known them to do so much as screw in a light bulb.” I shot a glance at Valka. Was that not what they had been doing on the day I’d first met her? Helping to repair one of the castle’s frequent power difficulties? “But that’s Coward’s problem,
and if they can find a use for the mongrels, all to the good. Even the Normans couldn’t find a use for them when they ruled here.”
I had the measure of the man then, could smell his place in the worlds. “You were a trader yourself?” It is said that xenobites from the other coloni races are still traded along the spaceways, coupled now with the Cielcin
slave trade, my unfortunate legacy.
“Yes, indeed,” said Niles Engin, puffing out his chest. “Ran a line in the Cavaraad trade from Sadal Suud to the inner systems. Helped spice up the old courts.” I had never seen one of the Cavaraad, the so-called Giants with their staved-in faces, like someone had taken a clay effigy and pressed his thumb in to hollow out the face. They’d been popular in the Colosso circuit
some centuries before, their massive size pitted against myrmidons such as I had been.
“Cavaraad?” Dorian repeated, confusion in his dark face. “You were a slaver?”
“Is,” Valka huffed from the fringes. I watched her stalk off, shoulders hunched in that way she had as she studied the readout on her tablet. She was listening, trying to understand the Umandh’s song. I left the palatine children with the vilicus and the guards and moved off to stand beside the doctor, boots giving way in the sand. She pointed, indicating a series of woven chimes hanging from the garbage houses the Umandh occupied.
Shading my eyes with a hand, I nodded. “Are they wind chimes?”
Though they looked nothing like them, they reminded me of the wooden
and paper prayer cards that hung in the vestibule of Chantry temples or lay at the feet of the icona—prayers for strength, for health, for courage.
Prayers for love and wealth.
“No one knows,” Valka said. She moved off toward the nearest
structure. “They’re all over the Umandh barracks in Borosevo. Could be religious.” She hissed air out between her teeth. “I hate we can’t just ask them.”
“Can’t you use your tablet?” I waved a hand at the device that was again swinging from her hip like a legionnaire’s cingulum. “Just ask them?”
She shot a glance at me with those golden eyes. “’Tis not a language, M. Gibson. The Umandh harmonize at different frequencies to accomplish tasks. One sings that ’tis hungry, say, and others harmonize with it until they are fed. They’re smarter in packs, but not much smarter than chimpanzees.”
“So you’re saying that all the tablet does is—”
“—is spoof one of their signals. They know we’re different from them when they hear our signal, but your people have taught them to obey.”
I did not rise to the bait. She wasn’t talking about me. “How many words—How many signals do they have?”
“Only a few dozen that we know of. Honestly, do you know how unlikely it is that the Cielcin have something we recognize as grammar? How unusual?”
“About one in twenty-five species,” I said automatically. Valka’s eyes lit. “Don’t be clever.” But she smiled.
I crossed my arms and leaned toward Valka. “I read a theory that language like ours facilitates the growth of civilization, that it’s the reason the Cielcin and we are the only spacefaring cultures in the universe.”
“In the known universe,” Valka corrected. I could sense her standing rigidly at my side, made stiff as by some hidden concern. “You’re talking about Philemon of—”
“Philemon of Neruda!” I cut her off, enthusiasm overriding my native
sense of propriety. “Unnatural Grammars!” I twisted to regard Valka, who looked surprised to find I knew the name of the man and his treatise.
The doctor pursed her lips. Impressed? She put a hand to her face. “Tor Philemon’s convincing, but our sample size . . . ’Tis too small. And the Irchtani and Cavaraad have languages but no star travel. I like his hypothesis, though ’tis only a hypothesis.”
“You’re saying we can’t support his claim until we survey more—” “—until we can survey other species. Very good!” She was grinning
openly now. “Not bad for a brathandom like you.” I didn’t know the word, but I could tell she was mocking me. No, not mocking—teasing. She was teasing me. When had that started?
There would be time to dwell on that later, I decided, and I pushed it aside. Interesting as they were, it was hard to imagine a truly collectivist species like the Umandh developing the technical know-how to design
shoes, much less starcraft. Instead I said, “So if it can’t really translate, what does that box do?” I flapped a hand at the comms tablet on her belt.
“Have you ever tried telling a cat what to do?”
I looked up at her, shaking my head. “No.” The truth was, I had never
seen a cat. We did not have them on Delos, and if there were any on Emesh, they were inside where the ornithons could not get at them.
The doctor was not looking at me; she had stooped over the very tablet we were speaking of, fiddling with its dials. “’Tis not easy, Gibson.” She arched one brow, hair slipping out from behind her ear to coil between us. “’Tis not like with your Cielcin. The Umandh do not think as we do. Their consciousness operates on completely different principles.”
While she spoke, I studied what could be seen of the coloni hovels.
Trash and bits of old buildings piled together the way a bird might build a nest. What looked like the floor of an old prefabricated house leaned against the cliff face, sagging where time and stress had bent its composites so that it clung to the fascia like limpets might. “What are those?”
I pointed to a set of metal rods the dotted the landscape about the low
structures. Hoops hung from them, their surfaces woven with bits of string and wire and some corded substance that might have been gut. Though they glittered with color, there was no apparent pattern, so the colors were meaningless and left a brown impression on the mind the way paints do
when mixed by a child.
Seeing them, Valka brightened and led me further along the shoreline. I followed the Tavrosi xenologist, sparing a glance toward the spot below the berms where Engin crouched, surrounded by what I could only guess were Umandh children. The fries were indistinguishable from the adults, save that they were shorter. Engin was passing out bits of candied fruit from a paper bag. Anaïs laughed as the creatures plucked food from her hands.
Valka had pulled one of the hoops down from its place on the pole, and only then did I see the thongs hanging from it. There must have been a dozen of them, knotted and braided with bits of shell and stone that clacked softly in the breeze and with the motion of the hoop. Noting this, I asked the obvious: “What is it for?”
She shrugged, passing the hoop to me.
Feeling as if I were being tested, I took it, turning the thing over in my hands. “These stones couldn’t possibly make very much noise.”
“To you or me,” Valka said, clicking the tablet back into its holster at her hip. “The Umandh see with their ears.” She tapped her own ear for
emphasis. “’Tis louder to them.” She moved a little closer, peering over my shoulder as I examined the thing. They were the only things in that place of recycled trash that seemed crafted well and honestly. I ran my fingers over the weaving that spiderwebbed the hoop, pulled gently at one of the tassels. On impulse I shut my eyes, imagining I was seeing the thing as an Umandh might.
The surface of the weaving inside that hoop stood out in ridges, some fainter and harder to feel than others. There was a pattern to it, a geometry. “It’s an anaglyph,” I said, opening my eyes.
Her golden eyes lit, surprised. “Have you been reading about them?”
I shook my head. “No.” The truth was that I’d been too busy sulking about the loss of my freedom to do much studying.
She narrowed her eyes, chewing again on her lower lip. After a moment she said, “It took the original Norman survey teams the better part of a decade to work that out.”
“Maybe I’m just lucky.” I don’t think Valka took me at my word, but she shrugged it off. “Is it some sort of writing system?” It made sense that a blind species like the Umandh would keep records that could be read by touch.
Valka shrugged again. “Writing, art, maps. We can’t be sure.” That made sense, given how difficult it was to understand the Umandh mind, and yet I sensed Valka knew something she was not letting on. “It certainly means
something, but . . .” The way she said the word something had a brightness to it that defied questioning even as it invited curiosity, and yet I sensed a shadow on her words—or fancy now that I did.
Unsure, I let the silence stretch between us as I examined the tassels that hung from the bottom of the plate-sized hoop. Looking round at the others marching away down the shoreline, I asked, “Why circles?”
“Look at the frames,” I said, pausing long enough to reach up with both hands and mount the chime back on its pole. “They’re perfect. Nothing here is perfect.” I gestured at the hovels around us. “Why do they care about these things?” I tried to imagine all their fine tentacles twisting the bits of
salvaged wire and reed into shape, teasing, smoothing them out with care of a sort I had not seen from their kind in any other task. At once I felt a
sudden, crushing sense of otherness, a wall to understanding greater than any mere language barrier. I rounded a small crest in the beach and peered under the slanted bit of floor that had been turned into a kind of roof.
Another question settled on me, and since Valka had turned so inexplicably taciturn, I asked it. “What are your ruins like? I haven’t been able to find
any holographs on the palace’s datasphere.”
“Calagah?” Valka asked. “I thought you were not reading about them?” She was standing just behind me, and she followed me as I slipped down a shallow embankment and into the cool, close space beneath the old floor. It was drier than I had imagined, and the walls teemed with bits of trash tied
onto strings that swayed slightly, disturbed by our passage. I wondered what they looked like to the Umandh, what quiet music they added to this dark
and ugly place.
“No, I meant I was not reading about the anaglyphs.” “Ah,” Valka said. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, if they built a civilization before the Normans landed on Emesh, I’d be interested to learn what they built it out of. There’s not enough land
to grow anything like wood, surely. Stone?” Somehow I could not picture the tree-like amphibians as masons. Valka was standing in the doorway,
squinting back out at the shore where the others stood. I could not see what she saw, and she did not answer. “Doctor?”
She twitched, looked round at me. “What? Sorry.”
“What is it?” I asked, moving toward the opening to look back at Engin and the others. The Umandh children had scattered and were spinning in the shallows, their droning high and ululating. Was it laughter? “What are you looking at?”
“See those brown stripes on that one?” She pointed. The trunk of one of the older Umandh had deep brown welts with thin lines spiraling from them in the random way an eggshell breaks. “Engin beats them.”
I felt a sick knot form in the pit of my stomach and looked away. After a second I told myself I was acting the fool. I had seen men and women mutilated on the Chantry’s steps. Homo hominis lupus. Why should this bother me more? I made myself look. “He has them whipped?”
Valka was still speaking, the luminous edge of her words cutting through the woolly cloud in my head. “. . . thought I’d gotten them to stop.
Meonvari tebon kahnchob ne kar akrak. He can’t whip them! He has them pinned down and chiseled.”
I felt myself flinch. “What?”
She passed a hand over her eyes and turned from the beach. “You anaryoch are obsessed with pain.” Over her shoulder I saw Dorian Mataro lift one of the Umandh children into the air, laughing as he did so. What the creature felt I could not say.
“Chiseled?” I repeated, my earlier question utterly forgotten. Laughing, Vilicus Engin retrieved the alien child from Dorian’s grasp and returned it to the water with surprising care.
Valka mimed driving a spike down with her fist and pushed past me into the hushed dimness beneath the floor-turned-roof. “It’s that bloody church of yours.”
“They normalize violence. Look at you.” She waved in my general direction. “The gladiator.”
Myrmidon, I thought, but I did not correct her. I didn’t speak at once but contemplated the braided cords hanging from the roof above. Only slowly did it dawn on me that we were standing somewhere free of cameras, of the
constant, watchful eyes of court and Chantry. So I spoke not as the fictional son of a merchanter nor as the myrmidon he had been before, but as
Hadrian alone, without pretense. “What they do is . . . is vile.”
I felt the pressure of her strange eyes, but I would not meet them. There must have been something in my voice, a gravity. I clamped my jaw shut, suddenly afraid of saying too much, or that I’d already said too much. I
wanted to say more, to tell her about my father, about my duty to the
Chantry. But that was Hadrian Marlowe’s duty, and I was Hadrian Gibson. For a moment we were like two puzzle pieces whose owner understood they fit together but could not see how. Had we a day or even an hour, it might have been different, and all her lingering antipathy for me might have washed away.
But it was not to be.
“I thought ’twas against your laws to say such things,” she said.
“It’s blasphemy,” I corrected, “to be heard saying such things.” I risked a look up. Valka stood amongst the hanging ropes the Umandh had
arranged, head cocked to one side, sweating through her thin shirt, hair
stuck to her pale face, an expression like unexpected moonlight. “You can
say them if they don’t catch you.” I squared my shoulders, my old sense for the dramatic flaring up. “And if you can say them, you should.”
Valka nodded, combing a stuck strand of hair from her face, and I understood Shakespeare’s impulse to be a glove. Her hand lingered on her cheek as if in quizzical exasperation, and she shook her head. “What am I supposed to say to that?” She crossed one arm to prop up her other hand
and slumped into it.
“It doesn’t matter, I . . .” The impulse to look over my shoulder for listeners was too great. “I just wanted you to know we don’t all think like that. It’s not easy living like we do. We’re not all . . .” Monsters?
Barbarians? “We’re not all what you think we are.”
She closed the space between us and lay a hand against my triceps. Her fingers tightened even as her face formed a sad, sweet little smile. “I know that.” A shout from outside shook us back to our here and now, and she
said, “What were we talking about? The ruins?”
“What?” I could still feel the cool spot where she had touched me through my sleeve, knew and feared that the sensation would fade in moments. “Oh. Calagah! I asked what the Umandh built the ruins out of. You’ll pardon me, but they don’t seem up to building much of anything.”
The woman looked at me a long while, chewing over her answer.
Almost absently she stroked one of the hanging bits of Umandh art. I was aware of just how close she was standing, of the smell of her sweat and mine and the faint perfume of her hair beneath the salt and rotting fish
smells of that place. She must have reached some decision, for she said, “The Umandh didn’t—”
“Hadrian!” Anaïs peered under the lip of the slanted floor above us.
I sprang back from the doctor and turned the motion into a supercilious bow, one hand pressed to my chest, making the sticky cotton cling there.
The palatine girl’s jaw tightened when she saw Valka. “Oh, Doctor
Onderra, I thought you were with the xenos. Don’t you have shots to give them or something?”
Valka smiled like a chip of broken glass, but she bowed as well. “Not that sort of doctor, ladyship.”
While she straightened, Dorian appeared over his sister’s shoulder and said in a baritone on its way to his father’s basso, “Oh, now this is cozy, isn’t it?” He didn’t sound sincere. They both looked terribly out of place in their water-treated silks with their bright colors and rich embroidery—
Dorian’s houppelande especially struck me as so fine as to diminish the hovel about us.
An old thought returned to me unbidden, that we palatines were not truly even human. Saltus’s words cackled in my ears: We are both children of the tanks. I scowled. Inhuman. The word applied to homunculi, to the Extrasolarians, whose bodies were perverted by machines. Not to the blood palatine of the Imperium. I felt queasy all of a sudden.
“Oh, hello M. Gibson, Doctor Onderra,” Dorian said. He rested a hand on his sister’s shoulder, seeming to notice us for the first time. “Wondered where you’d wandered off to.”
Vilicus Engin popped up an instant later. “What in Earth’s name are you doing in there? Out, out! Don’t just stand there!” He made a snapping gesture, then remembered who he was speaking to and temporized, “These hovels aren’t stable! Come, come, my lord and lady, come!”
Anaïs was staring—no, glaring—at the doctor, as if she’d caught her
stealing, her contraband midway to her purse. I wondered at that a moment, but I dismissed it when the palatine girl seized my hand. “You must come
see the primitives! The vilicus is going to have them dance for us!” I shot
Valka a besieged expression, but the doctor only looked glassily back at me, that hard-edged smile catching in me like fishhooks.