I DID NOT PAY Gilliam Vas much mind. Though he was a priest of the Holy Chantry—a chanter, no less, and no mere anagnost—my childhood on
Delos had acquainted me with such high-powered antagonists. Besides, the intus’s appearances were few and far between. And I had other things to distract me. My outings with Dorian and Anaïs continued as before, and their Jaddian improved, which was well. Emesh was expecting an
ambassadorial visit from the Principalities, and the count and Lord Luthor wanted to impress the soon-to-be-visiting Jaddian satrap governor with their family’s fluency and culture.
I had never met a Jaddian palatine, one of the vaunted eali al’aqran. The Jaddians had been Imperial citizens once. Drawn together by their ethnic identity—their distant ancestors had peopled the Mediterranean and were
among the last to leave Old Earth—they had rebelled against Forum and the Solar Throne more than nine thousand years ago. Against all odds, those once-provincial worlds on the outer edge of the galaxy had won their independence and the right of their nobiles to control the genetic destiny of their own children. Few as they were—a mere eighty-some princely families and their leal vassals—they were mighty, with armies of cloned mamluk soldiers and a strong tradition of military service that shamed even imperialist Turkey of old. Never again would those rebel princes kneel before our holy Emperor. Free of the Chantry’s grasp—though many in the Principalities still worshipped Mother Earth—those foreign nobiles bred themselves beyond anything the Imperium would allow. They embraced
eugenics in ways Sol never would, reassured by the supremacy of their genetics program and their way of life. They were a nation of supermen, of demigods.
I hoped to meet them. Tales of the crystal courts of the Alcaz du Badr, of the harems of Prince Aldia, and of the inhuman speed and skill of the
Maeskoloi swordmasters were legend in the Imperium, exotic as the vicious Cielcin, strange as the whispers of Vorgossos and of the Extrasolarians who hid between the stars.
After that afternoon at the Ulakiel alienage, Valka and I had spent more time together. Whatever our differences, we had found common ground in our respect for the xenobites and in our contempt for the Chantry. She knew I had spoken truly that day on the beach, out from under the Imperial thumb for a moment. She had seen me, the boy who had fled Delos rather than be shipped away to Vesperad, and she had not despised me.
But I was still not allowed outside the palace unsupervised, and so
speaking further truth to Valka was not in the cards. Doubtless there were places in Borosevo Castle where we could truly speak in private, but only the count and his senior staff would know about them, and asking them was out of the question. And so I found myself outside Valka’s door, not for the first time and not for the last. She never let me inside, but we walked the palace colonnades and the vaulted halls or else descended to the terraced gardens that studded the south face of the castle ziggurat.
This time she did not open at my first knock, nor my second. I stood there in uncomfortable silence for a long while, counting the herringbone tiles—black and tawny—that covered the floor. A logothete hurried by,
escorting an offworld dignitary in Durantine robes. Neither spared me more than a passing glance, and I pretended to be absorbed in the holograph display on the wall opposite the doctor’s room: a swirling, impressionistic cloudscape of rose and violet mist enveloping the white geometries of a
stone monastery of Mandari design. A panel in the corner of the misty image said it was the Bashang Temple on Cai Shen.
Cai Shen was gone. Laid waste by the Cielcin. I wondered if those white stones still stood or if war had turned them black. What cruel joke of gods or Fate had tuned that holograph plate to Cai Shen? I ran a hand through the image, pressed my fingers to the metal of the wall behind. I turned away, trying not to think about how the temple and its whole world were glass now. The image fizzled, and the lights dimmed so that only the evening
sunlight pierced the high windows to either side of the holograph. The brownouts had grown so common that I didn’t even blink but knocked on the doctor’s door again and rattled the knob. “Valka?”
It wasn’t locked. Had it been left that way? Or had the power malfunction fouled the electronic lock? In any case I found myself opening the door to a room I ought not to have opened. All right, boy. In or out?
Despite the lack of illumination, I could see that Valka’s rooms were finer than my own and larger. For all that, they were a mess. I stopped for a moment, reminded by a green undergarment left on the floor that I was intruding. The clutter humanized her, though like all young men I clung to my shattering image of Valka’s perfection. Clothing littered the floor, hung from the backs of chairs, lay atop printouts and storage chits strewn on the low drinking table and the higher dining one. I forced myself to reevaluate the doctor, to remind myself that at the other end of my private affections was a person and not the dream of one. Remembering myself, I cleared my throat and said in a weak voice, “Doctor Onderra? The door was unlocked. I . . . Are we still on for this evening?” No answer. The sense that I was intruding only grew stronger—and rightly—but I felt I had pressed too far to give up yet. Unwilling to go much farther into the room, I repeated myself. “Doctor Onderra? Valka? It’s Hadrian.”
I spied her at last, seated with her back to me on the broad sill of one window, obscured by the hangings. Padding softly around a pair of
abandoned pants, fighting the conflicting emotions accompanying the thought that Valka might be undressed, I moved carefully into her line of sight. She was dressed, but her eyes were closed. Asleep? “Doctor?”
Her eyes opened, and only by degrees did she seem to become aware of where she was or who I was. “Hadrian? How did you get in here?”
Offering my deepest, most effusive bow, I said, “The door was unlocked. I wasn’t sure if you’d left it that way or if the power . . .” I waved my hand around the darkened room. “They really ought to do something
about it. These are the diplomatic apartments, and if doors are coming unlocked in these outages—”
Valka smirked. “’Tis fortunate for me, then, that I’ve a young man like you bursting into my room to defend me.” Her wording confused me, and I stalled out before I remembered that Valka was much older than I was, the product of Demarchist gene editing not unlike my own.
I knew when I was being mocked and had the good grace to blush and look away. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ll let it go,” she said, an edged smile cutting the white planes of her face. “This time.”
The lights chose that moment to flicker back on, accompanied by that quiet machine whir that we do not notice until it is gone. Under the overhead lamps, Valka’s clutter looked even worse. Embarrassed, I backed off, looked down at the drinking table by a couch covered in a tangled blanket. Beneath the remains of a half-eaten meal, the table was coated in papers, some fresh, some yellowed and likely older than I was. In contrast to her housekeeping, Valka’s handwriting was remarkably neat. I could not read the swirling Tavrosi script, but I recognized her sketches of the
Umandh anaglyphs. She had drawn several of them linked together like soap bubbles. It reminded me of . . . of . . .
“Have you ever seen Cielcin Udaritanu?” I patted myself down, remembered belatedly that I had neither a pen nor journal with me. There were some examples mixed in with the portraits and landscapes and illuminated quotations that were my custom.
She blinked at me. “Come again?”
“Their writing!” I smiled brightly. “Do you have a . . .”
Valka produced a pen from nowhere and lobbed it at me. I caught it
without thinking and perched on the edge of the couch. Finding an unused sheet of paper in the mess, I held it up. “May I?” She signaled assent with an upraised hand, and I began scratching at the page. The ink was poor, but I set about my task. “The Pale use this nonlinear calligraphy. For artwork. Poetry, monuments, and the like.” I held the sheet out to her, marked with a few quick glyphs. While she looked at it, I stood to peer past the curtains
and over her shoulder where she sat on the sill. “See, they use the relative size and position of the logograms to convey grammatical structure.” I pointed out a curling train of glyphs diminishing in size. “So this whole
string—this clause—is subordinate to this subject.” She looked up at me, one winged eyebrow raised. Suddenly sheepish, I scratched at the back of my head. “I’m sure I got one of the logograms wrong somewhere, but you see the principle.”
“You think the Umandh anaglyphs are like this?”
She handed the sheet back, and I retook my seat. “I can’t say—they only looked like them. Gi—My tutor used to draw blocks around the different
elements in a sentence when I was learning. It looked sort of like this.” I tugged her own paper free, showing her the interlocking Umandh circles. “Do the Umandh ever link their symbols up like this? Or are they just on
those bone chimes you showed me at Ulakiel?” She was smiling at me. Widely. Too widely. “What?”
The lights sputtered as she reached out to snatch her notes from my hands. “I was saving paper, you idiot.” She did not stop smiling, and so her words had no sting.
“Oh.” I smiled too and wadded up the markings I had made.
“Don’t do that!” Valka objected, rising from her place at the window. She’d dragged pillows from the other room to better make her seat by the glass. She held out a hand, waving for me to give her my drawing. “May I keep them?” I must have made a face, for she added, “For inspiration.”
Outside it was starting to rain again, and in the distance, over the green
waters, the umbral mass of a storm scraped its back against the roof of the world, casting heat lightning like sparks from a grindstone.
Sensing a break in the conversation, I asked, “Why were you sitting here in the dark?”
“What?” She turned toward me, plainly distracted by something I could not see. That was strange, for she wasn’t staring out the window but into the corner by the kitchen, where there was nothing. “Oh, sorry. I was just thinking. You know the tides will be in retreat at Calagah before long?”
I leaned back a little against the cushions. She had the same couch in her rooms as was in mine, a plush thing upholstered in brown leather. “Will you be leaving then?”
“Only for a season,” she replied, “and not for a while yet. ’Tis long, the local year. Soon does not mean the same thing on Emesh as it does out there.” She twirled a finger at the beamed ceiling, pointing through it to the sky beyond. Valka moved to the kitchen area, and I watched her go,
watched her pour a glass of water, her hair in her eyes, and slam it back in one swallow.
I’d seen the gesture before in my fellow myrmidons and in myself after a night of hard drinking following a victory in the arena. “Are you all right?”
“I get headaches,” she said, putting a hand to her eyes in absent emphasis. “’Tis nothing, really.”
“Can I get you anything?” I asked, unsure of what else to say.
Her smile returned. “We’re in my apartments, M. Gibson.” She poured another glass of water and returned, settling onto the edge of the sill.
Framed there—curved lines against square glass, against the rain—she
looked larger than she was, a statue like the bright carvings of my home. “You’re staring.”
“Sorry.” I shook myself, looked sharply down. Unconsciously mirroring her, I said, “I was just thinking.” Not strictly true, not in any concrete sense. I had been lost in some vague dreamscape of thought without lodestone or compass, caught amongst my family, the Chantry, Demetri, Cat, my myrmidons, Valka and House Mataro and the Umandh. My world had grown so large, and I was so small. I couldn’t tell her any of that, couldn’t be myself as I had been at Ulakiel, not with the cameras watching. Instead I asked, “Do you like it here?”
“Mmm?” She spoke through her nose as she drank. “On Emesh?”
My hair, darker than hers, fell across my face as I shook my head. “In Borosevo. In the castle.” I patted the arm of the couch as I spoke,
emphasizing its material presence.
The woman took a long draught from her water glass, golden eyes darting to the side. “Things are very different from my home.”
“Mine as well,” I said, not knowing if it was completely true. “Do you want to go back?”
Valka grinned. “Gods, no. The xenobites are all out here.” “None in Tavros?” I asked.
“Only a few,” Valka said, setting her glass on the sill beside her. “Some the Extrasolarians brought in before the clans drove them out, but
they’re . . . socialized. They’re as unalien as aliens can be, and there’s nothing like Calagah in the Demarchy. Nothing . . . old. ’Tis like . . . ’tis like . . .” She broke off, massaging her eyes. “You have to be there to understand. The ruins are so old, older than anything we’ve built. It makes you feel . . . small. It makes all of us small.”
I didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. It was that contextualizing, the way
she placed humanity in among the creatures of the stars and not above them that called down the Chantry’s ire. Valka was Tavrosi—a diplomatic nightmare, as in the Demarchy all persons of adult age controlled weighted shares in their electorate. She was both private citizen and foreign dignitary. Accusing her of heresy would be tantamount to declaring war on her nation, a war the County of Emesh did not want and could not afford. Perhaps that was why I thought of her as lonely. A person made into a state, that state
embodied in her person. She was rather like a palatine, though she would never admit it.
Contorting my answer into something for the cameras took a measure of doing, but I said, “I know what you mean. It’s a big universe. Even our great accomplishments feel humble sometimes. Not so humble as the
Umandh, of course, but humble all the same.”
“The Umandh?” she repeated, brows knitting, then shooting up. “Oh, yes.”
“Strange that they’ve not accomplished more in all their thousands of years,” I noted, seeing a way to say the truth without saying it. “It’s like Philemon of Neruda said. Language is necessary to the development of
civilization. If what you say is true, the Umandh’s . . . songs are little better than what the ancient dolphins had.”
The Tavrosi doctor surveyed me for a long moment. I knew she would recall our earlier unrecorded conversation about Tor Philemon. A thin light shone in those gilded eyes, alight with wan sorrow. “The dolphins?” She
considered this a moment, reflecting on the long extinct species. “That’s a fair comparison. They’re cleverer than dolphins, but perhaps only because they can use tools. Do you know . . .”
Have you ever seen someone speak of something that consumes them? That lights them up from the foundations of their soul? Valka spoke with such fervency that I forgot myself for a time. Whatever animosity she had felt toward me upon our first meeting seemed to have mostly evaporated,
vanished into a hesitant respect for me and for my situation. And I? I feared her. I feared what she represented, and that I cared what she thought of me.
I feared the secrets I was made to carry. My name, my blood. I feared that she would think me false, my respect for her work feigned, when it was the thing I’d shown her that was most true. Thus we are all destroyed by those things that matter to us, as she mattered to me in my loneliness.
At length I broke into her dissertation—too abruptly, I still can hear my pitchy tone—and asked, “Doctor, have you eaten?”
She brightened. “No, would you like to?”
That was the first of many meals we shared, in Borosevo and after. I could sense Valka’s attitude toward me changing. I was no longer only the barbarian, the butcher of the fighting pits. I cannot say when the change began—whether it was at Ulakiel or after—but when we returned to her
rooms that night, she left me with a smile and a soft word, a promise that we would speak again on the morrow.