“AND IUDARITRE IS ‘TO cut?’” Dorian asked, dropping out of Jaddian to clarify in Imperial Galstani.
I indulged the lordling with a pointed smile. “Quite right, lordship.”
Technically it was to have cut—the perfect infinitive—but for the purposes of our exercise it was irrelevant. I tugged at the chain about my neck, the one that held the ring I’d stolen back from the ship reclamation crews my first day on Emesh forever ago. Looking out through the shielded window, I could spy the starport at the watery edge of Borosevo, a flat, white concrete expanse dimpled with the round craters of blast pits. I returned to Jaddian quickly, recalling the mandate Lord Count Mataro had given me as the price of my secured position. “The trick with draw cuts—if you’re quick enough
—is to attack the arm,” I said, continuing my account of a battle against the gladiatrix Amarei of Mira. She’d been a guest of the court two weeks
earlier, and the lordling was still quite taken with the thought of her.
“Especially if you’re dealing with shorter weapons.” I put down my pencil, satisfied, and turned the journal around, revealing a charcoal portrait of the young lord in gladiatorial armor of the antique style worn by the myrmidons, not the high-tech safety gear of Amarei and her ilk.
The count’s son looked at it appreciatively and asked about the origin of my talent. “Pou imparato iqad . . . rusimatre?”
“Rusimiri,” I corrected and shrugged. “I’ve always enjoyed drawing.
Since I was little.” I lifted the pencil again, glancing sidelong to where
Anaïs sat in her sim goggles, some fantasy or other piped directly onto her retinas and into her ears. Gesturing at her I said, “My father discouraged us from such things—he said they weren’t holy—so I took up drawing instead. My scholiast supported it, said it was a classic hobby. A proper vocation.”
In Jaddian the word muhjin—vocation—also means talent, making it a subtle boast. The subtlety was lost on Dorian.
“You’re very good! You should consider work as a royal portraitist.
Anaïs, come see!” The girl did not immediately stir, so her brother scooped up a cherry from a side dish and threw it at her. Squawking, she prized the goggles from her face. “Hadrian drew me!” he announced.
The sister stood, languid as a cat, the look of petulant frustration on her pretty face morphing into one of surprised delight. “Oh, this is marvelous!” She flashed her mathematically perfect teeth, leaning over the table in such a way as to award the onlooker a view down the top of her blouse.
Blushing, I averted my eyes as Anaïs settled into a chair beside her brother. “Would you draw me next?”
“We’re supposed to be speaking in Jaddian, my lady,” I said tartly, inserting the pencil into the cheap plastic sharpener the lordlings’ guards had given me when they’d confiscated my sharpening knife.
Anaïs pouted, crossed her arms just under her chest. “Oh, all right.” She rocked back onto the chair’s rear legs. “I thought you were talking about the Colosso!”
“We were!” Dorian exclaimed, tapping the picture in my journal and
smudging the delicate charcoal in the process. “That’s why he drew me as a myrmidon.” He went on to catch his sister up on my duel against Amarei of Mira, when I’d stun-locked her suit’s functions with several small attacks,
slowly crippling her.
When he finished, Anaïs clapped appreciatively and asked, “Will you go back?”
“Alla . . . Colosso?” I asked. To the Colosso? I didn’t know the word for Colosso in Jaddian, or indeed if there was one.
“Yeah!” Anaïs brightened. “You could go back as a gladiator! You’d be perfectly safe!”
“Not this again!” I had to stop myself from standing, clamped my hands down on the arms of my chair. Valka’s false charge rattled in my head. Tell me, M. Gibson, do you enjoy killing slaves for your masters? I looked down and away. “Many of the fodder myrmidons are my friends, ladyship.”
Dorian pulled a face, but Anaïs said, “Well, that surely won’t be true for very long . . .” She hadn’t contemplated the full meaning of what she’d said, and when it hit her a moment later, her dark face turned faintly green. Eyes downcast, she mumbled, “Sorry.”
As a palatine, as Hadrian Marlowe, I might have been able to stay offended. Hadrian Gibson did not enjoy that luxury. “Her ladyship is most kind to understand my situation.” I could not even recognize, officially
speaking, that she’d given me insult. Her regret seemed momentarily to have cowed her. “Forgive me, ladyship. Doctor Onderra’s opinion of the games has . . . somewhat colored mine of late.”
“Doctor Onderra,” Anaïs repeated. “Must we talk about the Tavrosi woman? She’s leaving soon.”
I stiffened, turned the page in my journal to hide my reaction. Leaving soon? To Calagah, of course. Emesh’s extreme tides would be changing, and when they did the halls and caverns of Valka’s ruins would emerge from the depths of the sea. Valka was only here to work with the city’s
Umandh, to learn what she might in her off-season. Once the true focus of her life’s work was available again, she’d be gone.
Dorian intruded on my thoughts. “Her opinion of the games? Do they not fight in the Demarchy?”
My mouth twitched, and I had to stifle a frown—I didn’t have a concrete answer to that question. I felt sure they must’ve had some sort of
competition, though I couldn’t have guessed what form it might’ve taken. “I just don’t think they have a proper Colosso, lordship. Perhaps this is a question better asked of the doctor.”
“They’re too busy worshipping their machines,” Anaïs sneered, leaning over the table and resting her chin on her arms.
I sat studying her face a moment, newly sharpened pencil poised. Then I set to work. “They don’t worship machines in Tavros.”
“They’re still heretics,” the girl said, head bobbing against her arms on the table. I began tracing the contours of her face. “I don’t know why Father tolerates her.” My lips quirked, recalling how patently amiable she had been when she’d introduced me. I wondered at the change in naïve perplexity, little seeing my own role in it.
“Her expedition is sponsored by Sir Elomas Redgrave, Sister—you know that. The Calagah site’s just some old tunnels. Why not let the offworlder dig around? What harm could it do?”
“I just don’t like her is all. Gilliam says she’s a witch, that she gave herself to machines.” She shuddered. “He says she’s not really human anymore.”
The count’s son raised his eyebrows, scratched at his blue-black hair. He had Lord Luthor’s high cheekbones and narrow eyes, though somehow in him the effect was one of earnestness and not distrust. He looked perpetually surprised. “Gilliam’s a priest. He’s meant to say such things.
The Demarchists are strange, I’ll grant, but there’s nothing inhuman about the doctor. I think she’s gorgeous, truth be told. Don’t you, Hadrian?”
I twitched so badly I nearly dropped my pencil. “What?” I looked him in the eye. “Oh. Yes.” I did not add that I’d been spending a couple of
evenings a week in her company, discussing the Umandh and the various places she had been. “She’s a brilliant xenologist, you know. Did you know she’s been to Judecca? To the tomb of Simeon the Red at Athten Var?”
“Really?” Dorian raised a carefully manicured eyebrow, dark eyes widening. “That’s incredible!”
Anaïs sighed and seated herself, picking up her goggles. “I’m not sure what you see in her. Offworlder like that . . .”
I smiled, but a touch of frost edged my words. “I’m an offworlder too, if it please her ladyship.”
The girl had the grace to look mollified, but her brother interrupted. Dorian leaned over the table, half mirroring his sister’s slumped posture. “Say, might I have that portrait you made of me?”
Against my will, my grip tightened around the charcoal pencil. The last thing I wanted was to rip a page from my fine journal. The book was perfect. And yet I could not refuse the lordling’s request. “Of course, lordship.” With stultifying precision I prized the thick white sheet free and slid it across the table to the young lord. Tearing it felt like breaking bone.
“Do you think Father would let me fight in the Colosso? As a gladiator?”
I glanced up at him, pencil stopping its work as I started on Anais’s portrait. “Might do. My father let my brother fight.”
Dorian heartened at once. “I feel I should after my Ephebeia. He didn’t let me kill the Cielcin.”
I traced a contour of Anaïs’s hair with my pencil, frowning. “Beheadings aren’t easy, as I understand. The White Sword isn’t highmatter, you know.
Your fathers only wanted to ensure the thing was done right, I’m sure.” “And it was a Chantry ceremony anyhow.” Anaïs sat up again. “Old
Ligeia likes to make sure everything’s just right.” She pushed herself away
from the table, turned away, then turned back brightly, somehow catlike. “You could teach us!”
This thought didn’t follow on the heels of the earlier conversation, and I sat at the table, squinting up at her in confusion. “What in Earth’s holy name are you on about?” Pointedly I set the pencil down in the ruined fold of my journal.
Anaïs gestured to herself and her brother. “Sword fighting, I mean. You were a myrmidon. A good one! I looked you up on the holographs.”
“Don’t you have a master at arms?”
“Not a very good one—just old Sir Preston Rau. The man’s hideous. You’d be so much better! Dorian, tell him he’d be better.” She rounded imploringly on her brother, slapped his upper arm.
She’d surprised Dorian halfway through the process of eating another
cherry from the chilled bowl on the table. He pushed the fruit into his cheek and said, “It might be fun. Why not?”
I opened my mouth, shut it, opened it again. Anaïs beat me to responding. “You wouldn’t be really fighting. Just teaching.” She looked down at her hands, then up again shyly through dark curls. I groaned inwardly. I knew when I was outmaneuvered.
“But why do we have to train outside?” Dorian moaned when I’d disarmed him for the twelfth time. He waved off a lictor who tried to help him stand, also for the twelfth time. The swarthy man glared at me for having brutalized his young charge.
My bare feet scuffed on the fine clipped grass, and I tapped the plastic-and-foam training sword against my shoulder. We’d foregone shield training in favor of clearer channels of communication, a move that had
excited my two companions almost as much as it had vexed their security. After reminding the muscle-jawed security sergeant that I was hardly likely to kill Anaïs or Dorian in front of a decade of house peltasts in broad daylight, the man had relented. I tapped the earth at my feet with the sword. “Your myrmidons train outdoors, lordship.” I glanced at Anaïs, whose bodysuit clung to her like a sheen of white oil. To her credit, she’d not offered a single complaint, leaving that emasculating role to her brother.
“It’s good to get used to fighting in conditions like these. That way when
you have climate control, you appreciate it.” Sir Roban had said something very like that to me as a child when he’d first taken me running through the castle grounds in winter rather than in the castle’s gymnasium.
Mopping the sweat from his face, Dorian shifted his weapon from right to left. The boy had been demonstrating a frustrating tendency toward
ambidexterity, which required twice the footwork practice. Anaïs hadn’t been kidding about their training. I did not wish to speak ill of this Sir Preston Rau of theirs, but the children were as incompetent a pair of fencers as I had ever seen. Had Sir Felix been so good a teacher? Thinking of Felix put me in mind of Gibson—of what happened to Gibson—and I looked
away from my two charges, fearing they might see something of my hurt in my face.
“I suppose that makes sense . . . but by Earth, it’s hot.”
“Would you stop whining?” Anaïs put in, taking her turn to square off
against me. She slanted her training sword between us, hand forward in the traditional saber guard. “You said this would be fun.”
Dorian grimaced, seated himself in the shade of an overgrown arbor
against one wall of the courtyard, and propped his sword beside him. “I said might be fun. This is just . . . melting.”
“Forgive me, lordship.” I turned to look at him. “If you want to fight in Colosso, you had best get used to it.”
“The gladiator suits are water-cooled!” Dorian objected.
It was my turn to grimace. The expression turned into a snarl as Anaïs went for a sneak attack, striking my inside hip. I parried the blow without
so much as turning to look, focused in time for the riposte to take her in the shoulder. The memory fabric of her target suit bruised red where I had
struck her, and she scowled. “How did you do that?”
“You favor the same cut coming off the line,” I said, referring to the painted line on a proper fencer’s round, were this a formal duel. I mimed the cut at half speed for her. “You take the easy shot, straight to the left hip each time. Try something—” She howled and brought her sword down like an executioner’s. She wasn’t strong, and so I parried the blow easily,
sidestepped, and pivoted to press the edge of my blade against the flat of her stomach. Mindful of the watching guards, I did not follow through on the blow, though the pain of one might have better taught her to remember her mistake. She stepped back, pressure from the blow tracing a red line
across her torso like an angry wheal. I found myself wishing we’d had the
garments when I was growing up. Felix had been a traditionalist, but they would have stopped Crispin denying that I’d hit him. “You just need practice.”
We continued in that vein as we had for the previous hour, with Dorian and Anaïs taking turns fighting me. Neither landed a hit, but that was only to be expected. The peltasts, armored in Mataro green and gold, shifted nervously with each blow, but they intervened less and less as it became
apparent that I was not going to kill their charges with the foam training weapons.
Dorian successfully turned one of my attacks, then stumbled as he lunged for the riposte. I let him fall, muddying his knee in the grass.
Dutifully I offered him my hand and helped him rise just as the familiar drawling voice of Gilliam Vas wafted into that space. “Here you are, young masters.” He froze, seeing me standing above the beaten Dorian, and his uneven nostrils flared. “You again!”
“The young masters asked me to instruct them at fencing, Your
Reverence.” I swept my blade behind me and bowed. “I shall withdraw.” Anaïs stepped forward. “Hadrian, no!”
Gilliam Vas turned, glancing at the escort who had peeled off when he’d entered the courtyard. “Master Dorian, my lady Anaïs, your fathers sent me to collect you.”
The young lordlings stepped forward as I collected their weapons and made to leave, glad to shrink into servile invisibility. Dorian asked, “What’s going on, Gil?” Gil?
“Nothing of import. Lord Balian wishes for you to attend him.” He spread his hands. “I believe a trip to orbit was mentioned.” Gilliam
smoothed his oiled hair back from his forehead, apparently unbothered by the heat and the thick, cloying air. As I moved past him, he caught my arm, fingers surprisingly strong. “A moment, M. Gibson.”
“Of course, Your Reverence.” Three swords under my arm, I stood
aside, fumbling in the pockets of my trousers for my red glasses, anything to put a shield between myself and the awful priest. Gilliam showed the young lords back inside, left them in the custody of the house peltasts. I loitered in the sunny courtyard for some time, kneading my bare toes in the soft grass.
When Gilliam returned he found me standing in the shadows of the arbor, leaning on one of the training swords. The other two lay against a
pillar near at hand. Without preamble Gilliam seized me by the biceps and leaned in close. “What’s your game, offworlder?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Not too long ago you were bottom-rung in the coliseum, now you’re . . . you’re . . . wrestling with the young lords.”
I arched my eyebrows above the oval rims of the glasses. “Wrestling?
Chanter Vas, the nobile children asked me to show them a few moves from my days in the fighting pit. It would have been rude to refuse.”
“Rude?” Gilliam repeated, baring artificially straightened teeth. “Rude?” He released me and took a lurching step back, as if saying the word twice had reminded him of its meaning. Standing straight as he could, the intus
angled his chin upward. “Some among His Excellency’s retainers feel it is improper for a man of your . . . your station to commingle so obviously
with the palatine caste.”
That earned Gilliam my most acerbic of grins, edged and knowing. “My
station? The count himself requested that I attend his children.”
“Lord Balian has queer notions about propriety,” Gilliam said with
edged glee. Was that a pun? The old prejudices were known to rear their heads from time to time, even among the palatine caste. Apparently aware of his error, Gilliam reddened. His mistake only made him angry, brows drawing down over those mismatched eyes. “Listen. You’re being too familiar with the count’s children. It isn’t . . . proper. Do you understand?” And this from an intus bastard, a mutant, the fleshly avatar of impropriety.
Really, it was almost too much for my cultivated sense of irony to take. I stifled a narrow smile.
“Proper?” I echoed, playing dumb. “If you think I’ve touched Lady Anaïs, I assure you I’ve no intention of doing so.” What was Gilliam to them, or they to Gilliam? Was this court puritanism only that? The
protection of palatine blood from the lowborn humanity Gilliam perceived me to be? He was palatine but marked by his affliction as less than a homunculus in many ways. Often I have found that such outsiders cling hardest to those labels that are denied them, Thus weak men are the most
aggressive and unskilled ones loudest to boast. Gilliam was palatine, so the fact that he thought I was not was important to him. It was petulance and little more.
“Touch Lady Ana . . .” He trailed off, voice going tight in his throat as he repeated my words. “A degenerate like you and the young lords . . .” He
shuddered, his jaw working as if trying to tear boiled leather, and for a moment I thought he might hit me.
Very carefully, drawing on my guess and my politest speaking voice, I said, “Your Reverence, I assure you that my intentions toward the young
lord and lady are entirely innocent. I am only at court because of the count’s orders. Given a choice I would have been on the first ship out-system.” I did not add, But I’m a fugitive from my own house and trapped here to protect your lordship from the Inquisition. I shuddered to think what a
Chantry inquisitor would do to a nobile house caught harboring a fugitive like myself.
“Then explain your espionage.”
“My . . . what?” I blinked at him behind my red glasses. “You mean my visit to the coliseum cells?”
Gilliam scowled. “You broke into His Excellency’s gaol. You can’t honestly tell me your intentions were innocent.”
“They were!” I objected, perhaps too hotly. “Well, perhaps not innocent, but harmless! I wanted to meet the creature. To speak with it.” Here at least was something reasonable. Even I had to admit that breaking in to see
Makisomn looked far from innocent, which made the truth seem a weak excuse.
“Consortation is a grievous sin, M. Gibson. One of the Twelve,” the
Chanter hissed, subconsciously making the sign of the sun disc at his side. “What could you learn from such a beast?”
“I’ve no idea. I only wanted to see it with eyes unclouded.”
“With eyes unclouded,” Gilliam mocked, voice stretching to a high note, though from the way his eyebrows relaxed from their intense frown, I knew this had surprised him. Not the answer he’d expected, then. Coldly he
“Innocent curiosity.” I shrugged, knowing this answer—while almost true—would not satisfy the man. Perhaps I ought to have said monomania. “I wanted to meet a member of the only species to ever challenge mankind’s primacy in the universe.”
“Blasphemy!” he snarled. “No species can challenge mankind’s place!” I thought he would grab me again.
Taking a step back, plastic sword twitching in my hand, I almost
whispered, “Tell that to the warship recovering in orbit. Tell that to your guardsmen.” Some piece clicked into place. Gilliam’s dislike of me was not
only due to the fact that he thought me baseborn. It was not only that he thought me a spy and a danger to his lord. He thought me a heretic. I
suppose I was a heretic, given my interest in the xenobites.
The chanter’s lips quirked, and I could almost see the impulse to punch me spasm across the surface of his addled brain. Instead he changed tack. “I understand you can speak their vile tongue.”
“Not very well.”
“Perhaps that’s for the best.” Gilliam half turned to go. “Call it innocent curiosity all you wish, but there will come a time when the count loses interest in you, boy. You know the punishment for consortation, surely?”
“I surely do.” And despite the warmth of the day and my dislike for the malformed priest, I felt a chill, fancying that I heard the sharpening of
ceramic knives and the sound of quenching iron on the wind. The cathar-torturers of the Holy Terran Chantry did not have their reputation without reason. Heretics so heinous as to consort with the inhuman were flayed,
crucified, and left to die.
His threat spoken, Gilliam smiled. “Do consider what I’ve said, and stay away from the young lords.”
He was halfway back to the doors and to his two foederati guardsmen before I said, “Your Reverence, a moment.” Gilliam turned, lumbering to a halt—was one of his legs shorter than the other? He waited. So as not to make his famously twitchy guards point stunners in my direction, I stayed under the arbor. I wanted to say something threatening, something impressive. I wanted to cow the little gargoyle of a cleric. But all that came were insults about his condition, and whatever my personal feelings about his sort, I would not stoop to such low behavior. Instead I took a step forward, removing my glasses to fix the priest with my best, most violet
stare. “Don’t assume you know everything.”