Chapter no 55 – The Quiet

Empire of Silence

I STOOD WATCHING MY feet, long fingers clutching the bottle of Kandarene red Dorian had helped me smuggle from the castle cellars. Standing there I became acutely aware of the blood beating in my ears and of something

small and niggling in my left boot. Uncomfortable in stillness, I fidgeted, shifting the bottle so that I clutched it behind my back. After a mere half minute, when it seemed all the stars had burned out and the universe had

gone cold, the door locks cycled with a metallic whine, the latch rattled, and rose-gold light spilled into the hall, slicing a wedge across the intricately patterned wooden floor.

A naked man, handsome and gray-eyed, looked out at me, blinking, trying to conceal his genitals with a plaid blanket. I stammered an apology. “I’ve the wrong room, messer. Forgive me.” I was sure I did not have the wrong room. Averting my eyes politely, I said, “I thought I had the Tavrosi diplomat’s room. Has she been moved?”

“M. Gibson?” The voice rose from deeper in the room behind the naked man. “What is it?”

My heart—I cannot tell you what happened to it. It did not sink but rather left my body entirely and plunged toward the planet’s core. I glanced briefly at the muscled young man in the doorway. Plebeian, by the slight

asymmetries in his otherwise perfect face, but beyond that I could not say if he was a courtier or a servant. It mattered not. He was her lover, and she had forgotten about our meeting. She swung into view, languorous and light-footed as a cat, those golden eyes bright in the scant light of her

chamber. She had pulled a long shirt hastily over her head, and her red-black hair tumbled in wild disarray. A flush glowed on her pale cheeks, but there was no embarrassment in her. Before I could stop the silent screaming

in my soul and articulate a response, she gasped, “We had a meeting!” She pressed a hand to her cheek, remembering, and pressed the other against the back of the man in the doorway.

“We did.”

“What time is it?” she asked, glancing from me to her lover. I told her, and she hissed between her teeth, then said, “Out then. Out you go.”

Crestfallen, I swept into a bow, doing my best to conceal the incriminating bottle of wine. “Of course, my—Doctor.” I’d almost used the wrong address again, and it made me scowl. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, not you!” She snapped fingers at the man. “What was your name?


“Malo,” the man said in honeyed tones, moving to wrap an arm about her slim shoulders. I wanted to scream, but Valka brushed him off.

Scowling in turn, the other man slid out past me, not concerned in the least about his nakedness. One of the pleasure servants kept for the guests of the palatinate? Mother’s harem sprang to mind. Surely the count kept his own such harem, if only as a symbol of his lordly authority. “Dial in if you need me again, Doctor.”

Valka flashed a brittle smile and slapped the man’s backside. He jumped and hurried down the hall naked—but it was not uncommon to see one of the palace bedworkers so unclothed. I winced. Her smile collapsed the minute Malo vanished. I watched him go, then bowed to Valka again, more coldly formal. “Doctor Onderra.” I found my mouth suddenly dry, my

words breathless. “If I should come back at another time . . .”

“No, no!” She scratched her fingers through her hair. “Not at all. Do

come in.” She held the door open for me. “It’s my fault—the time got away from me.” She bit her lip. “Would you like something to drink?”

Anxious, hesitant, I revealed the green glass bottle from behind my back. “Actually I brought something, if you’d like.” There was a kitchenette in one corner with tiled counters and gas burners, every device of cold, brushed steel. I moved toward the couch—strewn with tangled blankets and the scattered remains of Valka’s clothing . . . and Malo’s. I do not know why the fact bothered me like it did. I might have availed myself of the palace body servants had I a mind, same as her. I never did. The two high windows dripped with dark hangings, occluding the bruised and twilit sky, admitting only scarce light. The artificial lights were similarly dimmed, glowspheres

gone faint as moonlight through cloud, hanging sensuously in the air like paper lanterns.

Valka eyed the Kandarene bottle and gestured to a cupboard near the

small kitchenette in the far corner of her small quarters. “You pour. I’ll find my things.” She sauntered off through an arched portal to the back room

while I found a corkscrew and glasses. I confess I watched her go—the

sway of her—with the bemused candor of all young men who believe their attentions unnoticed.

“The capital agrees with you, I see,” I called from my place by the tiled counter.

“What’s that?” Valka’s bright-edged voice trilled from the other room, strained a bit with the effort of searching.

“I said, the capital agrees with you!”

The doctor emerged some time later, carrying her wrist terminal and a

series of data crystals. Setting the accouterments down on a low table by the settee, she said, “I wouldn’t say that.” She had sonicked herself clean and

sorted her hair, though she still wore her loose, flowing shirt. The front and left sleeve were printed with ghostly human skulls wreathed in smoke

above the logo of some Tavrosi musical group, and she’d donned trousers of some elastic weave of the sort often worn for exercise. They suited her.

In the pressuring way many young and foolish men believe passes for subtlety, I said, “I meant your companion.”

“What?” She plugged one of the crystal flakes into a read slot on the terminal, squeezed the projector. “Oh, Malo!” she snorted. “He’s just . . . well, he’s all right.” I felt a little better as I passed her the wine, which she took with a grateful bow just as the holograph phased into laser clarity.

Long legs up on the table, Valka raised her glass and said, “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.” She reached out and lay a warm hand on my arm. “I’m sorry.”

I bobbed my head, swallowing the little wine I’d sipped. “It’s all right.” I tried not to think about her gentleman companion, palace servant or no.

“We all forget things.”

“I don’t.” She spoke without boasting but said this as if it were only a fact. “I must have lost track of the time . . .” Here she glanced wryly at her lap, as if to indicate that it was a bit late for such mannered consideration. I struggled not to blush, steeled myself with thoughts of Cat that arrested my desires quite handily and replaced them with a sick, yawning guilt. “How

goes it with you?” We continued in this vein for a couple of minutes, Valka gathering a blanket from the back of the settee to cover herself.

During the first lull in our conversation, I said, “There’s something that’s been bothering me.”

One eyebrow arched teasingly. “Just the one?”

I sniffed bemusedly. “For the moment!” We exchanged private smiles, and I hid myself behind the rim of my wine cup. “You said Calagah was

made of stone, but while we were at Ulakiel . . . The Umandh, well . . . they hardly seem capable of anything so complicated as masonry.”

Valka sat stone-still a moment, watching me. Then, like a spider stirred to sudden movement by the vibration of a string, she stood, blanket falling to the floor. “I haven’t shown you my holographs!” She hurried to her room again, then returned carrying a tablet terminal, which she deposited on the drinking table before the couch. “I’ve been meaning to show you . . .” She toggled through a couple of settings on the small screen, then clicked a hardware switch on the device’s frame. “This is Calagah.”

The image projected in a concave sweep of laser light before us showed satellite images of a complex built into a deep cleft between cliffs of

columnar basalt, vestiges of Emesh’s ancient and long-since-ended volcanism. Valka described its latitude and the dimensions of the site in question, cycling through image after image with languid waves of her free hand. She recited facts and figures with a casual offhandedness that belied a level of memorization even the scholiasts would respect.

At last she cycled to ground images, revealing a geometry more precise than the natural shapes of the basalt pillars—flat faces of black stone like obsidian, pillared and arched like a mathematician’s fever dream. It looked . . . how can I put this? The ruins did not seem to be a part of the

surrounding rock face. Rather it was as if some immense artist had inserted them into the landscape by some malfunction of computer programming, a fault in the process of rendering that had clipped the facade through the cliff face.

“It’s beautiful,” I breathed at last. Surely here was one of the Ninety-Nine Wonders of the Universe, or the unlisted hundredth. “When did you say it was built?”

Valka’s eyes sparked as she leaned back against the settee. “Now, that is an interesting question. ’Tis difficult to date. The material the builders used shares some similarities with obsidian, but hydration dating is out due to the

site’s history of flooding. But that would only date the material in any case, and there’s no mortar or organic material on-site. No paints or pigments. No graves.”

“But you have a guess?” I asked.

“We do. Based on the age of the surrounding strata.” She smiled and encouragingly asked, “How old would you think?”

As a young boy, I had gone with my uncle Lucian to see an old stone town some of the first colonists had built on Delos in the first centuries of settlement. They had been poor, and but for a couple of prefabricated

structures, they had quarried the native granite. The stone for Devil’s Rest came from the same place, you know, he had said. The quarry’s up in the

mountains. But the stone of that town was poorly cut and worse jointed, and though it was a protected site by order of the viceroyalty, it was showing its age. These alien ruins reminded me of that dilapidated town, thick with the caul of history and the ghosts of all that time.

“Five, six thousand years?” I said, adding in another couple of millennia for good measure.

The xenologist shook her head. She pushed her hair back before she answered, “No.”

“More?” I asked. “Surely no more than ten . . . twelve thousand years?” Her grin widened. “No.”


“Hadrian.” She said my name like it was a child’s name—like I was a

child. “These ruins are more than seven hundred thousand years old. Maybe so much as a million.”

I gasped fishlike for a good ten seconds. “What?” I couldn’t even begin to articulate all my questions. How could something possibly endure so long? What exactly was it built of? How had it survived seasonal flooding for all those uncounted eons? I spoke without thinking, so absorbed that for a moment I was heedless of my surroundings. “The Umandh couldn’t have built this. That would make them . . . so much older than we are. They

should have advanced past us.” But the raw truth was staring at me out of the laser light. “They couldn’t have built anything like this. They don’t have the technology!”

Valka stopped my roll. “And so we come back to Philemon and

Unnatural Grammars.”

“You’re not seriously proposing that the Umandh have been a static

culture for the better part of a million years? We’re just over a quarter of a million years old ourselves, and . . .” I held up my hands, indicating the vast expanse of human civilization, as if my spread fingers could encompass all those stars and planets and the Dark between them. Frustratingly, Valka

shrugged. She looked away, playing with the hem of her shirt. Not for the first time, I felt there was something she wasn’t saying. I remembered our

encounter with Engin the slave trader and spoke again. “Take the Cavaraad, for example. Hemachandra’s ethnography—what was it called?” I could not remember the name of the volume and gave it up. “He describes the

Cavaraad in Mattar Prefecture on Sadal Suud as approximating the late Bronze Age in their development. That’s why he pushed to get the planet protectorate status when House Rodolfo sought to stake its claim.”

“Claim . . .” Valka repeated, taking a sour sip of her wine.

“But as a species, the Cavaraad are only about fifty thousand years younger than we are!” I protested. “Surely you’re not going to pin that delta solely on the fact that they speak.”

“Sing, actually.” Valka slammed back the remainder of her wine with an agility that made me wince—the vintage was worth the price of a flier.

“They have no lips—they work their diaphragms like bellows. Changes the pitch.” She made a gesture with her free hand, pressing on the air as if on a bladder. It made me think of bagpipes. An apt comparison, that, if you have never heard the Cavaraad sing.

“You’ve seen them?” I sat forward with greater interest, as she had touched upon this great obsession of my youth. “The Cavaraad?”

White teeth flashed in the dimness. “I spent a summer on Sadal Suud, actually.” Valka reached out for the bottle, refilled her glass. “What is this, by the way? ’Tis quite good.”

“Archduke Markarian’s finest bouillir. The ’969, I think?” I wrested the bottle from her, rotating the label. “Yes!”

“Markarian?” Her eyes widened. “This must be worth a fortune!”

“Lord Dorian acquired it for me from his fathers’ cellars.” When Valka’s eyes did not contract, I dismissed the enormity signified by the vintage. I had hoped to have another conversation that night, so I said, “I told him it was for a lady.” Her face darkened, and I added, “I didn’t say it was for a doctor.”

I looked away, covering my new embarrassment with a long drink. We fell into silence, unsettled, uneasy. The only sound that remained was the faint, edge-of-hearing whine of the holograph projector in Valka’s terminal. My nerves finally overpowered my patience. Eager to get back on track, I began, “On Sadal Suud, did you see the Marching Towers?”

In answer she bent over her terminal and keyed in a couple of

commands. A moment later the image in the air dissolved, replaced by a flat image of a smiling Valka standing on a ridge line, gripping the straps of a knapsack on her shoulders. Behind her a series of black stone towers rose from the next ridge line like spines on the back of a dragon. “I hiked the old stone road with a caravan from Mattar to Port Shiell.” She toggled the image, showing a series of ox-drawn wains. “I can’t believe you people still make animals do things like that.”

“That’s why they were domesticated on Earth,” I said, brushing this jibe away. “That must have been a wonderful trip. Can you go inside the towers?” I’d never seen holographs of the alien towers before, and the

accounts I had read as a boy were mostly apocryphal.

“Oh no,” Valka said. “They’re more obelisks than towers. The Cavaraad used to drag these massive stones from the lowlands to line the ridge.” I

saw one of the Giants in her next holograph. It must have been thirty feet high, its gray flesh like wet clay, its face a featureless black pit. How it saw with only that gaping hole for a face, I did not know. The holograph moved, and the huge creature lumbered off into the fungal forests, dwarfing the treelike mushrooms. The holographs began to toggle then, flipping through images of Valka’s trip. A close-up of one of the towers dominated the field in one. It was like a piece of night, black as the stones of my home, so dark I could not make out any features. That bothered me, but I had another thought pressing at my teeth.

Coming back round to the topic, I said, “Much as I like Tor Philemon, I’m not sure his hypothesis explains everything. If Calagah is really so old as you say, then there’s something . . . something very wrong . . .” I was

about to say with the Umandh, but I had just seen the obvious fact. When next I spoke, it was in a voice with all the juice pressed from it: flat and lifeless, full of fear. “The Umandh didn’t build Calagah, did they?”

Valka’s expression was completely unreadable. I’d like to flatter myself and think that she was surprised, but the woman has always remained one part mystery to me. She seemed far away, as if focusing on a noise in a

distant room. At last she stirred and shook her head, reaching for the bouillir as she did. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” I echoed, pressing.

“No,” she said more firmly. “The Umandh are only perhaps half a million years from the evolutionary womb.”

My problem with her holograph of the Marching Towers snagged

suddenly like a cloak on the sharp edge of my mind, and I sat straighter. “It’s all the same!”

Valka did look surprised then. “What?”

“The Towers, Calagah—I bet even the Temple of Athten Var on Judecca.

It’s supposed to be all black stone too.” I stalled out, then pointed at her.

“You’ve been to Athten Var! You don’t study the Umandh or the Cavaraad. You study . . .” I trailed off, staring through the image of one of the

Marching Towers of Sadal Suud, standing defiant against a binary sunrise. Momentarily unaware of the heresy I spoke, I breathed, “It’s all one culture, isn’t it? One species.” I sat in a kind of fugue, in a sort of religious transport. It is said that our forebears looked up from Earth’s face and into the Dark and asked if we were alone in the universe. We were not. But this. This.

We were not the first.

That basic cornerstone of the Chantry’s faith was—and is—a lie. I felt myself, my world, shrink in that moment. I became smaller than an atom, crushed beneath the weight of all that space and time, and mankind shrank with me. All its proud kings and emperors; all its warriors; its great poets and artists; its farmers and sailors; its great accomplishments; its greater

atrocities. All vanished into the context this conclusion provided. And it

was all confirmed, rendered for me as immutable and natural law by Valka’s consecrating word: “Yes.”


The Chantry knew. The Chantry had to know, or else why would they so police our words, our thoughts, in the name of our souls? This fact threatened the very foundations of their belief, of their power, and so they held on tighter, limited offworld travel, limited datasphere access.

Datasphere access. Valka’s own terminal was disconnected from the planet’s network—dark, unmonitored. But that thought drained the blood from me. We were speaking heresy.

I imagined the Inquisition cutting out tongues, saw the tattooed foreheads and the branded ones. I imagined men and women sitting blind and hunched under bridges, hands out for alms, the word HERETIC large

and dark against their skin, ragged cheeks torn in the agony of the blind and dumb. How often had I seen such people in Meidua and in Borosevo, their truth cut down by the cathars’ knives, turned to rumor and folklore in the

whispering of crowds? Too often. I clammed up, knowing the damage was done, knowing that Valka and I would both be questioned, that I at least

would join those mutilated husks on the steps of the city temple where once I had begged with Cat. I half expected armed guards to burst through the door at any moment.

Nothing happened. And Valka, for all the worlds, seemed unconcerned. She understood what we were saying, surely! She must know what would happen. But she only smiled at me and drank her priceless wine.

It was all mad. I heard a voice—my voice—speaking anyway. “What do you call them?” I gestured weakly, nearly sloshing wine from my cup. “The builders?”

Valka glanced upward, as if checking something written under the arch of her skull. “Ke kuchya mnousseir.”

“The . . . Grave?”

“The Quiet,” she corrected. “I really shouldn’t be telling you this.” Her tone shifted, turning almost wooden, as if she wanted the words out of the way. “The diplomatic suites aren’t officially monitored, but I don’t trust a one of your bureaucrats.”

Ordinarily I might have argued with that. This was the palace and seat of a palatinate. Every room was monitored. Every one. When the next day and the next dawned with neither of us tortured or tormented, I would decide that Valka had been right. But in that moment, my longing for knowledge— that same impulse that had driven me down into the coliseum’s gaol and into the hands of Balian Mataro—pinned me to my seat like a butterfly to the mounting board.

“Why do you call them that? The Quiet?” I bit my lip, glanced nervously at the door. “It’s a bit . . . dramatic, wouldn’t you say?” And I would know,


“Because at all their sites—here, on Sadal Suud, on Judecca, Rubicon, Ozymandias, Malkuth, and all the rest—there’s nothing.”

“Excuse me?”

“No tools, no ships, no bodies, no artifacts of any kind.” The whole time she was speaking, those gold and amber eyes never left my face. At any other moment, I might have enjoyed that contact, but then it only chilled me. “Just the buildings. They’re mute. Quiet.”

This slammed another wave of silence down upon us, and we sat, me processing, Valka allowing me to process. Something she had said juddered into place, and I asked, “No bodies? Are you serious?” I took up my

wineglass again. “How is that possible? Where did they go?”

Valka performed the least eloquent shrug I have ever seen, an

achievement in itself. “No idea. It does make the Chantry’s job a fair bit easier, wouldn’t you say?”

“You suspect them of carrying off everything? Looting the sites?” “What?” Valka’s eyes went wide as dinner plates. “No! ’Twould be

impossible.” Those brilliant eyes narrowed. “Your Chantry is composed of men, M. Gibson, not gods.”

I had to stop myself from grinding my teeth. “It’s not my Chantry.” A small sound escaped Valka, the seed of laughter. “If you say so,

barbarian.” I looked up at her to bite off a retort, but her eyes were smiling. Only then did I note that she had said the word softly, almost teasingly.

That caught me so much by surprise that I stammered as I pressed ahead. “But surely the bodies can’t be gone. They must have done something with their dead. Must have left—”

“Nothing,” Valka finished and shrugged again, “Nothing, M. Gibson.

Just the structures themselves.”

I frowned, opened my mouth. When the words did not at once come to me, I disguised the failure with a swallow of wine. “That’s not possible.”

“It’s true.”

“Nothing at all?”

Valka waved a hand. Once, twice, several times, each gesture cycling her terminal from holograph image to holograph image. “Just the carvings I told you about, the ones the Umandh emulate with their story knots.” With another gesture she conjured projections of the objects in question, though I recalled them well enough, have even drawn one in my journal.

“Completely unreadable, of course.”

My heart sank. “No one knows how to read them? Outside the Empire?” “Not that I’ve ever heard of. Some rogue scholiasts have tried, but

without any idea how the symbols relate to the spoken language, or if they

do . . .” She trailed off.

“It’s a Rosetta problem,” I said, and when she raised curious eyebrows at me, I explained that on Old Earth there was once a people whose writing

could not be read. Not until a monument was found that showed the ancient writing alongside two other known languages of the time. It was like a key that opened up all the writings of that lost empire. “And the strangest part,”

I added, babbling now to mask the welter of emotions churning in my

stomach, “was that the hieroglyphs weren’t ideograms at all, but a system of comingled logograms and alphabetic elements . . . What?”

She was smiling at me. Not with her eyes alone, but properly smiling. It lasted only a moment, then collapsed under the weight of my gaze. She

shook her head. “Nothing.”

“But why come here?” I gestured inchoate at the glimmering holographs, at the stone facade of Calagah, black and smooth as poured glass. “There have to be a dozen sites outside Imperial space where the Chantry doesn’t hold power.”

At last she answered, “Not that aren’t controlled by the Extras.” She jabbed a finger at me, words slurring from Markarian’s strong wine. “Only barbarians in the universe worse than your lot.” She snorted, and I could not tell if it was in derision or with laughter.

“My lot?” I knew what she meant, but it helped me to distance myself.

Outside the narrow windows an ornithon hissed at the setting sun. “The Sollan Empire.”

My lips pulled back from my teeth, snagging briefly on the chipped end of one incisor, relic of a bout in the Colosso. “I don’t know anything about the Extrasolarians.” I wasn’t sure how to continue this line of conversation, so I changed tracks instead. “So these . . . the Quiet. They’re the object of your study? Not the Umandh?”

Doctor Onderra took a more measured sip, conscious now of the value of the vintage. She gave an insistent nod, pushed the hair from her high forehead, fingers lingering in the red-black whorls. “As you say.”

“I still can’t believe this is a secret, that it’s true.”

Valka sniffed. “Your great houses control information. They control datasphere access and restrict offworld travel to a few and allow the

Chantry to run roughshod over them at every turn. You can’t have known.” “We—The great houses don’t let the Chantry run roughshod over them.

They just can. The Inquisition would sooner destroy a planet than let it go

to heresy, and they have the means. Plagues, atomics, weapons the Mericanii left behind. Things that crack planets, Doctor.”

“Heresy . . .” Valka snorted again, a decidedly unladylike sound.

“Truth is treason and all that.” I waved a hand, trying to recall the source of the quote. Gibson would have known, but Gibson was gone.

The woman’s face composed itself into a grave mask. “Sin.” “I’m sorry?”

“You Sollans have made crime and sin the same thing. You couldn’t see the truth if it danced naked in front of you.”

“I could,” I snapped, defiant, a trace of my old palatine hauteur—

Hadrian Marlowe’s demeanor, not Hadrian Gibson’s—creeping though. I gestured at the twinkling holographs, still glittering treacherously in the air above the low table.

Valka stood, leaving her emptied wine glass on the drinking table between us. “Maybe you could, at that.”

My tact momentarily discarded, I asked, “Why haven’t they killed you?” She looked down at me over her shoulder. “Excuse me?”

“All this!” I waved a hand over the shimmering holographs. “You know all this. I don’t believe they’d let you just . . . walk around. Breathing Imperial air.”

“You think you own the air?” Her accent congealed around the question, making her seem somehow stranger and more foreign.

I waved this aside as strenuously as I could. “The Chantry can’t want this spread about. If they knew you were telling me . . .” What was I

saying? Of course they knew. “We’d both be dead. Worse than dead.” I had to stop myself from spiraling off into a description of exactly what worse than dead meant.

Valka repeated her peculiar gesture of staring up at the ceiling. She

scratched at the back of her neck, exhaling sharply. Presently she crossed the space between us and placed a hand on the side of my neck. I flinched but all too quickly relaxed into her grip. “They aren’t going to find out,

Hadrian. Peace.” She smiled, but in that way that older people reserve for children who do not know any better. “I’ve been here for years. I told Elomas right here in this room.” Her smile transmuted, turning from wood to mocking moonlight. “He’s just fine, isn’t he?”

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