Chapter no 53 – A Game of Snake and Mongoose

Empire of Silence

THE COUNT’S TABLE POSITIVELY dripped with food. Even in my father’s house I had rarely seen such riches. Emesh boasted no royal forests in

which to raise game for the high table. The meat there was vat-grown and placed as far from the palatine family as possible, to be shared amongst the artisans and lesser functionaries of the court at the low end. The natural food was of all pelagic stock, some terranic, some native-form. Platters of grilled salmon and sautéed scallops bestrode boats of white sauce and plates of roast potatoes and stuffed peppers. The main course, arranged in neat

slices like geologic time, was a native congrid ten meters long, the alien eel-like creature roasted and swimming in a sauce of blue wine.

Static fields on the outer arches gave the hall the appearance of open space. Soft music played not through speakers but from an actual string quartet and harp in a far corner.

“What a lovely recipe,” said one guild factionarius to her wife.

“Wouldn’t you agree?” The woman’s companion nodded demurely, smiling all the while. The great hall was given over entirely to the one long table, as was customary on the occasion of such formal state banquets. There are

such occasions at the court of every lord in the Imperium, as if it were food that truly held our society together. As the count’s nominal ward, I’d earned myself a somewhat exalted position nearly a dozen places from the head of the table, the least of Lord Mataro’s personal guests, sandwiched between a perfumed merchanter from the green moon and a Legion lieutenant called Bassander Lin.

Valka was near at hand, seated beside her patron, Sir Elomas Redgrave.

Further to my right and up the table, past a smattering of logothetes and

scholiasts, were arranged the greats of Emesh System. Archon Perun Veisi

was there with his wife, seated to the count’s left at the head of the table, and Lord Luthor and the children. And there was Liada Ogir, the patrician chancellor, seated beside a hard-faced woman in Legion dress blacks with the stars and oak cluster of an Armada tribune on her collar tabs. She was the Knight-Tribune Smythe who had marched in Dorian’s Ephebeia.

The Chantry contingent was present as well, just next to the Veisi

couple, as close to the throne as propriety would allow. I was glad only that Gilliam and I were seated on the same side of the table, separated by several scholiasts and the leaders of the Whitehorse Mercenary Company.

“Have you been on Emesh long?” asked Bassander—Lieutenant Lin, I should say. He smiled thinly, his clean-shaven face relaxed but with an

underlying dignity bordering on the formal. There was a leathered tiredness in him, as if the banquet were some trench he’d found himself dug into, and he’d spoken not at all until that moment, focusing on the fine food as though it were some chore he’d been set. He did not belong at table, despite the polish of his immaculate ebony uniform.

You have heard, no doubt, that we met as rivals and fought a duel for the command of our army. It is not so. No, I met the Phoenix at table one quiet evening in Borosevo. Bassander Lin. My last friend, my enemy. Hero of the rout at Perfugium, where Hadrian Halfmortal failed. Veteran of a hundred battles, knight, captain, traitor. He would be all of those things, but not yet. That night he was only a dinner guest, as was I.

Not knowing any of this, I set my wine down, mindful of the formal gray suit I’d been loaned for the occasion. “A few years—not too long. I’m only recently in the count’s service. I’m . . .” A prisoner? A ward? A translator? “A tutor.” Pausing a moment to tear a piece from the communal loaf of white bread, I asked, “What of yourself? You’ve been long in the Legions?”

Lieutenant Lin pulled a face, scratched at the shaved side of his head just above his ear. “Well, that depends on how you measure. I’m nearly at

eighteen years’ active ship time, but . . .” He trailed off, seizing the moment to take a long draught from his water cup. He was not drinking alcohol.

“But if you factor in the ice time . . . gods of my fathers, it’s going on two centuries.”

“Two centuries?” Across the table, Valka nearly choked on a bite of pepper and imported goat’s cheese. “You can’t be serious.” For my part, I thought she’d focused on the wrong number—on two hundred and not

eighteen. He was palatine then, or so patrician as to make no difference.

Careful observation of his face revealed no signs of the scarring that marred Chancellor Ogir’s, or Gilliam’s, or that of the hard-eyed Dame Camilla,

who sat behind the count and his lord husband. What hair he had was precisely the color of burned wood, untouched by gray, and his steely black eyes smiled far more than they cut. He might have had a hundred living years in truth, but his bones carried no more than twenty of them.

Bassander inclined his side-shaven head deferentially. “Yes, ma’am.”

The guild factionarius beside Valka, a big bulldog of a woman, laid a ringed hand on the doctor’s arm. “Imperial officers typically undergo long periods between thaws.” She leaned forward, hand lingering on Valka’s arm

—a fact not unnoticed by the factionarius’s pale slip of a wife—and said, “The good lieutenant should be glad he’s not a conscript. Our legionnaires serve twenty-year terms, you know. And that’s active duty time, not

counting fugue.”

Bassander Lin allowed that this was quite correct. “I knew a centurion once who enlisted during the reign of Emperor Aurelian III.”

“That was twelve hundred years ago!” the factionarius said, aghast. At the same time, Valka hissed a word through her teeth in Panthai:

“Anaryoch.” Barbarians. She did not see me, but I smiled at her in

sympathy. The change to lifetime service had occurred only recently. Before that soldiers had served twenty-year terms, some as many as four. Many of the houses palatine had opposed the change. I would have, had it been my


Valka came by her outrage honestly, I later learned. Her own people

eschewed standing armies as a rule, preferring to rely on their technological terrors to ensure a shaky peace. The threat of planetary annihilation—of mutually assured destruction—held their clans in line. To Valka it was preferable that all men might die than that any man did. I supposed I could respect that, barbarous as it was.

The factionarius tittered, removing her hand from Valka’s arm to pat the other woman on the knee. “Well, I think soldiering is more properly men’s work. Wouldn’t you agree, Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Lin appeared to consider, dabbing his forehead with his napkin. “In my experience, ma’am, soldiering is soldiers’ work.” He took

another swig of water to punctuate his statement with what struck me as the

grace of long practice. He emerged from his pause with a neat turn to Valka. “If I may ask, ma’am, your accent—you are Tavrosi?”

Valka slid a fan of hair back behind one small ear. “I am.”

Seizing hold of this escape from the factionarius and her awkward questions, the lieutenant said, “My whole ship was loaned to a Tavrosi

company once. For the Mathuran Campaigns. I wish I could have spent my time there better.” This reference to Tavrosi history went over my head, and I ducked over my plate, not seeing a way to apply myself to the

conversation with grace. Bassander asked, “What brings you to Emesh, my lady?”

“Doctor,” Valka corrected smoothly, wiping her mouth with her white napkin, golden eyes narrowing on the lieutenant. “The coloni, in point of fact.”

The keyword commanded Sir Elomas’s attention from Valka’s far side,

and he broke off a conversation with a Welfare Ministry logothete. “Talking about the Umandh, are we?” He combed back his mop of white hair, set down his knife with a perfunctory clink. The old knight moved with

spiderlike precision—no wasted energy, each little motion minutely

calibrated. It was the hallmark carefulness of a lifelong duelist. “Have you had a chance to examine the natives, um . . .”—he squinted sea-foam eyes at Bassander’s collar tabs—“Lieutenant?”

From there the conversation turned to the Umandh for the next few minutes, and I seized the moment to finish my food, signaling a server to recharge my wine cup and place another slice of the congrid on the rosy china.

This conversation topic exhausted or else played through to its natural terminus, the lieutenant—starved for conversation and apparently unwilling to engage the scholiasts on his right—turned back to me. “And what is your role here, messer? As tutor, you say?”

“Hadrian.” I extended a hand as I’d learned in my coliseum days, an awkward gesture at such close range. “Hadrian Gibson.”

“Bassander Lin.” He shook my hand.

“The lad speaks the Cielcin tongue,” said Sir Elomas with a strange glint in his eye.

“Truly?” Lieutenant Lin raised his brows, eyes nearly all whites.

I licked my lips, conscious of Grand Prior Vas and Gilliam a few places further along the table, and pitched my voice low. “Yes.”

The big factionarius leaned in. “Why in Earth’s holy name would you learn that?”

I felt tempted to repeat the answer I had given Gilliam in the courtyard days earlier: To see with eyes unclouded. But something told me my sense for the melodramatic would not be appreciated in that moment. Instead I fell on Hadrian Gibson’s line. “My father—we were very fortunate for merchanters, you understand—took on a scholiast to tutor my brother and me. He was meant to be teaching us Jaddian, but I had something of a knack, if you don’t mind my saying.”

“For languages, you mean?” Bassander asked, signaling another of the servers for more to drink. The mousy woman brought wine. Lieutenant Lin politely declined and waited as water was brought for him instead.

I nodded. “They just sort of stick up here.” I tapped the side of my head. “Even Cielcin. I’d hoped to learn to communicate with the coloni here, but Doctor Onderra tells me their language is thoroughly impossible.”

“But the Cielcin,” the factionarius’s small wife said, looking even paler than her usual sallowness. “Such . . . horrible creatures. Demons . . .” I half expected her to make the sign of the sun disc.

Pointedly I looked at Valka; some part of me was still trying to overturn her initial impression of me. “They aren’t demons, madame.” She did make the sign of the sun disc then, pressing circled thumb and forefinger to her brow. “You know, when I was a child, I—”

The factionarius laughed, cutting me off. “You must forgive my wife, messer. She’s very pious.”

I offered the two women my most encouraging smile, feeling somehow reduced, like a biological sample on its slide. “I’m sure the Empire needs all the piety it can get, madame.” Carefully I took a sip of the dry Kandarene

wine. “But as to my small ability, I’ve always considered it an investment in the future.”

“What do you mean?” Bassander Lin shifted in his seat to get a better look at me, and something in the movement communicated to me that he was far closer to the twenty years he appeared to have than he was to the

hundred or so that were outwardly possible. Forty, perhaps? I could not stop thinking of him as the junior lieutenant.

I spread my hands. “Well, we can hardly fight forever, can we?” I asked, having said much the same to Adaeze Feng at table so long ago. “When the fighting is done, someone will have to speak to them.” When the

factionarius’s wife was on the verge of commenting with doubtless more pieties, I raised a hand. “If only to secure their surrender.”

“Surrender?” At the sound of that voice behind me, I knew the woman across from me had not been about to argue but to warn me. Ligeia Vas

stood, a witch-shadow stooped by time, resplendent in robes of Terran black, her thick white braid twice wrapped about her shoulders. In her face I saw echoes of Gilliam—those two blue eyes, frozen as distant stars, were identical to Gilliam’s one. Whence his black eye came I never learned, nor did I care to. The features that were in him a twisted parody of humankind looked finely chiseled, as if from marble, in the grand prior’s time-folded features. “We do not want their surrender.” That said, she addressed the

entire segment of the high table, speaking loudly enough to reach Lords

Balian and Luthor in their matching high-backed chairs. “The Cielcin must be wiped from the face of our galaxy. Purged.” She slipped then into the guise of a preacher, total and absolute. “In the Cantos it is written, ‘Go out into the Dark and subdue it, and make for your dominion all that is there

and will bend to you.’ So too it is written, ‘Thou shalt not suffer demons to live.’”

I turned my back on the priestess, brows raised. The factionarius and her wife both bowed their heads, and the smaller of the two women murmured something into her barely touched plate. Inanely I thought that anyone who would so pick at the finest food on the planet must be a madwoman or a fool. “That last was borrowed from an ancient cult’s writings,” I said. “The original quote refers to witches, I believe.” I braced my shoulders like a man half expecting a knife to plunge between the blades. Turning my back was a dangerous play, but it was worth it for no greater reason than the brief, bright smile in Valka’s eyes.

I heard the leather groan as Ligeia Vas’s hands tightened on the back of my seat, and I swear even the copper-skinned Bassander went white as death beside me. “You’re the one my Gilliam warned me about—the demon-tongued boy.” Demon-tongued: Ligeia was the first to call me such. She would not be the last. I heard the factionarius’s wife murmur the words in echo of her priestess. The seed was planted to flower as it may. The priestess spoke in Classical English—the language both of the scholiasts

and of high Chantry ritual—quoting directly from the source I referenced, an ancient religious text belonging to one of the adorator cults endemic in

the older parts of the Empire. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Returning to standard Galstani, she began, “It means—”

“I know what it means,” I said, replying in English and drawing stares as far up the table as the high lords.

Apparently recognizing the language, Lord Mataro laughed. “What did I tell you, Ligeia? The boy’s a proper talent.”

The prior sniffed but did not take her hands away from the back of my chair. “This was the Colosso slave?”

“He wasn’t a slave, Reverence,” said young Dorian, gallantly swooping to my defense. “He was a myrmidon. Quite a good one.”

I turned my attention up the table, looking past Bassander and the

scholiasts, past the foederati, past Gilliam and the Veisi couple. Gilliam was smiling, a lopsided gash in his lopsided face. Recalling that old maxim

about never letting the enemy see you bleed, I returned a smile just as crooked. It was all I could do not to break that smile when Ligeia Vas intoned, “Would not a man who speaks the language of demons be a witch?”

The temperature in the room—chilly for Emesh—practically froze.

Gilliam, damn him, laughed. Lord Luthor’s lips quirked in acknowledgment of the fact that the old woman had scored a point.

Yet there is a response to such absurd accusations—I retreated into

absurdity. Speaking round the rim of my wine cup, I breathed, “I prefer the term magus, if it’s all the same to you.”

Elomas broke out laughing, a tinny, false sound that nevertheless invited his neighbors to join in. I could have kissed the man. A poor joke and an

awkward one, but it had been my only recourse. “You’ve some stones on you, lad!” Sir Elomas barked, still grinning.

I risked a glance back over my shoulder to look at the woman. Despite the suddenly warmer climate in the dining hall, the grand prior’s face was icy. “Have a care, my child.”

“Always, Your Reverence.” I bowed my head, turning away from her, all too aware of her hands, like talons, grasping the brass knobs decorating the corners of my seat’s backrest. “Though it is kind of you to worry about me.”

That withered ice crystal of a face looked incapable of evincing such mortal emotions as worry or concern. Glancing at Gilliam’s uneven face, I

decided it was no small wonder the creature had turned out as unsavory as he was, victim of so unnatural a mother.

Then, like a bolt of sunlight, salvation. Valka cleared her throat. “Beg pardon, priestess, but M. Gibson was about to tell us a story when you

walked up. Might he continue?” Story? What story? I scrambled, mind doing a mad dance to sort itself. Obligingly Valka said, “You said: ‘They aren’t demons, madame. You know, when I was a child, I—’ and then our friend here interrupted you.” She indicated the factionarius. Was it my imagination, or had Valka imitated the precise tone and cadence of my

earlier delivery? The basic fuzz of memory jarred my sense of déjà vu. I frowned at her.

And then it came. I had been about to tell a story about Gibson sharing the holograph images of Cielcin warriors, but I thought better of it. A new thought was flowering in the shadows of my skull and growing fast. That inner part of me capered and rubbed its hands together. I went for it, saying, “When I was a boy my . . .”—My lictor? My bodyguard?—“my uncle

Roban took me to a Free Trader fair. A troupe of Eudorans were in-system at the time, and I recall that there was one man, a trainer, who pitted

animals against one another while men gambled.” I broke off, permitting the mousy server to recharge my glass. “A strange fellow, as I recall. Not a homunculus, but blue-skinned. While we were watching, the man paired a mongoose against a snake, one predator against another.”

One of the foederati captains cut in, “What’s a mongoose?”

“A sort of terranic mammal not unlike a cat, I’m told.” Taking a deep breath, I continued, turning my eyes up-table toward the lords and Archon Veisi. “I begged my uncle to let me place a bet on the contest, which I did, backing the snake despite his insistence that I vote for the mongoose. Five kaspums—my monthly allowance. The creatures battled in a damp culvert by the roadside while we looked on. Most of them left disappointed. Can you guess who won?” I looked round the table, hands open in a gesture of invitation. “Anyone?”

Elomas—increasingly the good sport, though somewhat ignorant of terranic ecology—spoke up first. “The snake?” This elicited a chorus of nods and faint agreements from the assembled guests.

In the far corner, the string band changed its tune to something ever so

slightly familiar, and I smiled before continuing. “That’s what the onlookers thought. Obvious choice, really. The thing outmassed the mongoose three-

to-one without question, and that’s to say nothing of the venom.” I took a moment to explain for the edification of the foederati captain and some others that terranic serpents carried powerful toxins in their fangs. “But no, it was the mongoose who won.” I took a sip of wine, made an appreciative face, and half turned in my chair to study the still-standing prior. “The onlookers all cursed the man for a swindler, but they left when he threatened them with another of his snakes.”

“Is there some point to your story, M. Gibson?” asked Ligeia Vas, arching ghost-thin brows.

“There’s not. Not truly,” I said, revisiting my crooked smile. “Except for an observation my uncle made at the time.” The laws of proper delivery demanded my silence then for a space of some seconds, my own brows

arching. “He remarked that the behavior of animals should not surprise us. They are, after all, only animals, and a tiger cannot change his stripes, if you’ll pardon the cliché. Mongeese have always been great hunters of

snakes, as any student of literature might tell you. This alone is not remarkable, but the Eudoran, it turned out, had altered his mongoose so that it was proof against the snake’s venom.” I smiled brightly at the grand prior, hoping she would see this insult for what it was. “The problem, you see,

was that the Eudoran was a kind of snake himself, rigging the fight. My uncle said that that was the trouble. You never know which men are snakes and which are mongeese. Not until you bite—or have been bitten.”

Silence floated like smoke, punctuated by the soft strains of harp and viola. Somehow the music enhanced the quiet more than it broke it. After a moment I tore my gaze from the star-eyed prior and focused on my plate.

Valka was smiling at me—smiling—the lone candle flame in a sea of ashen faces. By that token alone I decided the whole gambit had been worth it,

whatever else happened. The band—true soldiers—had not missed a note through that awful quietude. Then the count laughed, pounding his empty tumbler against the tabletop in raucous applause. “A proper talent indeed! It would seem, Reverence Vas, that we must not make the mistake of

considering the myrmidon a fool.”

With kneading motions the grand prior tightened her rope of uncut white hair about her time-weighted shoulders. Her nostrils flared, but she smiled, paying me what she doubtless believed a fine compliment. “You would make a good priest.”

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