IF IT WAS TO be believed, my little stunt with Ligeia Vas at dinner seemed to have endeared me somewhat to Lord Mataro even as it condemned me to walk on eggshells whenever I was not in the personal company of His Lordship or the royal children. Lord Mataro, I think, was one of those lords who chafed under the yoke of Chantry oversight. How many lords palatine, how many planets does that theocratic institution hold in the palm of its hand, quivering for fear of retribution, of the cathars’ knives? For fear of invoking the atomic wrath of the Inquisition, the planet-burning might of
weapons they would not permit even the Emperor to command? And yet, like Valka said, the Chantry is composed of men, and men can be outmaneuvered, tricked, mocked at table.
Gray-skinned vilicus Engin and the factionarius from dinner were all bows and scraping when the count, led by a trio of lictors armed and
shielded, exited the conference room to rejoin those of us in his train left to wait in the hall. Doctor Onderra and I stood, ending a conversation with a junior scholiast regarding the native life forms on Emesh that everyone
called bugs. “Not insects at all, really,” as he put it. A quintet of logothetes in drab brown uniforms scurried toward their lord, holograph tablets projecting, preparing audio recordings and ready to make annotations with glittering light-pens.
I fell into step beside Valka, sandwiched between a double line of green-armored guards. Ahead, Ligeia and Gilliam Vas shadowed the count, the former saying something to His Excellency in a dry monotone. How many times had I followed Father thusly as a boy? How many hundreds of times? The signet ring on its new chain was clammy against my chest, hidden by the cream shirt and fashionable silver silk robe I had been given for the
occasion. As the count’s train resolved from chaos into a line, a logothete dodged out of my way with a muttered, “Court Translator, sir.” I could not say if that was my proper title or if the man was merely confused. Self-
conscious, I busied myself with fixing the wide sash that secured the light robe about my narrow waist. I wished they’d permitted me a shield-belt, some sort of weapon. But no, only the palatine were allowed to carry
weapons in the presence of other palatine, and I’d my role to play. It may have won me a measure of friendship from the count, but my stunt with Ligeia Vas had put me in a precarious position. Tor Gibson did always say I was melodramatic. One day that mouth of yours will get you killed. Well, it had certainly gotten me exiled, and now . . .
“You know, I think I was wrong about you, Gibson,” Valka said,
steadying the Umandh comms box that swung heavily from her belt. We cut impressive shadows across the mosaic on the floor of the Fishers Guild’s main hall, tiles patterned artfully with images of men and Umandh pulling fish from the sea to feed a hungry city. It took me a moment to recall that
Gibson meant me, as if some part of me expected the old scholiast to speak up from a dingy corner, eyes bright but glassy, faded with time. He never did. By the time I realized I’d taken too long to answer, I decided to keep my mouth closed and wait the doctor out, using my silence to pull her into further speech. Presently she cleared her throat. “You aren’t a barbarian.”
“Not just a barbarian, you mean.” We passed under the shadow of a holograph plate mounted on the wall, its ghostly panel displaying footage from a Colosso melee not two days old. The sound was muted, but the
anchor’s words were captioned along the bottom in Galstani.
Valka snorted, glanced up at the screen just at it flitted to the face of the anchor, a handsome native woman, dark complected but with waving hair so blond it was nearly white. In Panthai, her native language, Valka said,
“Everyone here is a barbarian, but you’re all right.” She nudged me as we stood there watching the holograph.
In a stage whisper and in Imperial, I said, “That’s sweet of you to say.” By my smile I made it clear I was teasing her, and she looked away, frustrated.
The doctor cocked her chin upward, mock-offended. Still in Panthai, she added, “But you’re strange for an Imperial, you know.”
“We’re not all the same,” I said, the riposte coming out before I knew what I was saying. “There’s an ocean of difference between the count and
“You’re both palatine men.”
“Is that all you see?” I asked, darting a look her way. “My class? My sex?”
“’Tis what you are.”
Something twisted in me at those words. Was it not a species of the same argument used by the Chantry to dismiss the Cielcin as devils? Or by my father to dismiss his plebeians? By myself to dismiss Gilliam? These latter two were lost on me at the time, but their seeds were there, stirring that I might one day see. For the moment I saw only that Valka was blinkered herself because she did not see me.
“There’s more to us than that,” I objected. “More than where we’re born or how. We are . . . more.” I finished lamely.
That brought a frown to her strange but lovely face. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “You should judge people by their actions, by what they do, not who they are.”
The Demarchist twitched to hear this and scratched at her tattooed arm. I didn’t appreciate its full meaning at the time, but the intense fractal intaglio decorating Valka from shoulder blade and breast to the base of her graceful fingers contained in its whorls and geometric angles the coded history of her line. A cultural, visual representation of the genes native to her very bones. She wore her history and her clan’s history on her sleeve, written in ideograms I could never understand. All this moved behind the lines of her fine-boned face in mute contradiction to the words I’d uttered. “’Twould be nice if you applied that generosity to anyone who’s not one of your nobiles.”
“I do! I try to.” She was still speaking Panthai, so I replied in kind, halting and thick-tongued though I doubtless was. “Where do you think the patricians come from? They’re plebeians who have been rewarded for their actions.” I had to remind myself that I was playing the role of a patrician.
“Whereas you were rewarded for being born in the right place.”
I set my jaw. “Would you punish me for who my parents are? They worked for what they had, built upon what their parents gave them, the
same as anyone else: palatine or plebeian. I have stolen nothing.” I stopped short, afraid I was close to revealing my palatine identity.
“Enough,” she said breezily, following the swish of the viridian-robed scholiasts ahead of us. “I never thought I’d see the day an Imperial prior was shamed at a lord’s banquet.” I took the change of subject to mean I’d scored a point, but I did not gloat.
Bogged down by my unfamiliarity with her language, I shook my head. “Is where you come from truly so different?”
“Yes.” We stepped through a static field and into the cloying air. The scream of fliers greeted the new day, their noise rebounding off the low buildings of Borosevo. “The Wisp’s far enough away that it can afford to be.”
I looked down at my boots past the hem of the silk robes. “I would like to see it someday.”
She stopped a moment, nearly colliding with the logothete behind her.
She was looking at me strangely, as if I’d said I wanted to destroy her
Demarchy and not visit it—or as if that were what she had expected me to say. After she stumbled her way clear of the logothete, we had to hurry to rejoin the line.
Perhaps the Chantry’s icona are real. Perhaps those spirits hear our prayers. Perhaps not. I have always considered myself agnostic, but you see, to a peasant, a serf who has never seen the Emperor—to him, our Emperor and those gods are the same. His Radiance laws still affect the provincial, even when there is no Emperor at all. It is a mistake to believe we must know a thing to be influenced by it. It is a mistake to believe the thing must even be real. The universe is, and we are in it. And by whatever strange forces move us through time, God or otherwise, our tour of the fisheries brought us to the same warehouse where I had first seen the Umandh years and lifetimes earlier.
It hadn’t changed, as if the metal walls and rickety catwalks were a museum exhibit, their artful disrepair well tended. Entering, I looked up, half expecting to see Cat crouched nervously on the walkway above. A pang spasmed through me, and I caught my hand forming the sign of the sun disc discreetly at my side—a damned stupid superstitious thing to do. Rest easy, and find peace on Earth. A sudden laugh threatened me, and I
fought it down, imagining what Cat would say to see me dressed as I was in fine silks and high boots.
My distress must surely have colored my face, for I caught Valka
watching me. Seeing her only made me feel worse. Had I truly forgotten Cat so quickly? No. No, life must move on, surely. I was no ascetic. I
should not be alone.
“Are you all right, Gibson?”
Hadrian, I wanted to say, as I had said at Ulakiel alienage. Call me Hadrian.
“Yes, I . . .” What could I say? That I’d once robbed this place years ago? “I was just thinking, sorry.”
“The workers all come in from the offshore compound, Your Excellency, as you know,” said gray-faced Engin, all cordiality and polite deference. His khaki uniform was freshly pressed, pinned with medals and the collar tabs of the civil service. The uniform made him look paler, more ashen than he
already was. He wrung a billed cap in his hands; the headwear might have been formal had it not been crushed in the vilicus’s square-fingered hands. He glanced nervously to where a team of his people had clustered a pod of droning Umandh along one wall of the musty warehouse.
Gilliam pressed his kerchief to his face. “How many of the beasts do we still have?”
“At Ulakiel?” Engin frowned, glanced to his aide, a woman even thinner than me.
She had the look of one of Emesh’s northern tribesmen, denoted by the tight braids that ran in rows to the nape of her neck. Her twanging accent
confirmed my guess as she said, “Seventeen hundred and forty-three, Your Reverence.”
“And globally?” The count frowned, crossing over to inspect the gathered coloni slaves. Balian Mataro was no small man—was indeed
among the largest palatines I had seen—and still the aliens dwarfed him, their waving tentacles and finer cilia waving higher, swaying on their three legs.
The northwoman said, “Approximately eight million, Your Excellency.” The light flashed on her collar tabs, the left with the notched wheel symbol of her rank, the right with a silvery open hand against a black enameled background, sigil of the Imperial civil service. Not an aide, then, but Imperial oversight in the Fishers Guild’s offices. They may have served the
count, but all their books flowed straight to the Imperial office on Forum. I ruminated on split loyalty, and on the plight of the Umandh. What was it Engin had said when Valka and I had gone out to the Umandh alienage?
That they had sold a breeding population offworld? I imagined the beasts disseminated throughout the Empire, ornaments of human superiority like the homunculi wealthy men sometimes ordered as wives, the features of the women’s bodies crafted to suit their desires. Hollow, childish, cruel.
Prophet that I was, I imagined the Cielcin meeting the same fate. Man is a wolf to man and a dragon to the inhuman.
“That number is up since my last report on the matter. Significantly.”
Ligeia Vas swept silently across the floor, staying between her son and the lord she served. “It is my understanding that you yet allow the beasts their rituals.” How she wasn’t sweating through her brocade chasuble I
couldn’t tell you, yet she appeared completely untroubled, examining the vilicus and his assistant with those witch-bright eyes.
One of the junior ministers, a layman I did not know, exclaimed, “They ought to be brought to the light of the Chantry.”
I suppressed a snort, unwilling to cite the obvious logical fallacy inherent in the man’s piety. Luckily I didn’t have to do so. Valka glared at the man, then spoke as if over the heads of everyone in the count’s party. “Why would a xenobite ever consent to be embraced by your faith?”
The your was not lost on the dough-faced functionary, nor did it pass the prior and her chanter son unnoticed. Ligeia and Gilliam both held their tongues a moment as the stupid minister blundered in, “What . . . whatever do you mean, Doctor?”
Valka’s nostrils flared, and she looked ready to strike the man. Gilliam visibly sneered beneath his kerchief. “You’d have better luck getting rats to worship cats.”
The grand prior raised a bony hand and turned to address the vilicus and the count together. “I believe our mandate was clear when we accorded your house the terraforming technologies you required, Lord Mataro.”
That had been well over a thousand years earlier, and Balian knew it.
Still the weight of those years hung from him, though he had not lived them. His shoulders slumped, compressed as by a yoke. “Yes, of course.”
“The native culture must be obliterated. Take the children from their parents if you must, but we need no rebellions. We can tolerate no gods but the Earth herself and her Son.” She meant the Emperor.
Unseen, I glanced sidelong at Valka. The doctor stood with her hands
clasped behind her back, chin angled upward as if baiting a boxer to strike. I thought of what she had shared that day at Ulakiel—what she had shown me in her holographs. That simple, secret fact, terrifying and terrible: we were not first. Did Ligeia know? Did Gilliam? Even if the Quiet were a
secret known to only a few in the Chantry—those tasked with guarding their secret—surely the mother-and-bastard pair must know. After all, they were the highest ranking members of the Chantry on Emesh. No wonder the woman was squeezing so hard. It made we wonder why they hadn’t glassed the site from orbit, why none of the ancient sites had been obliterated by the Chantry over the years.
“Leave the doctor alone, Ligeia.” Balian Mataro placed a hand on his prior’s arm. “The girl is a foreigner and unused to our ways.”
“The girl is an infidel,” Gilliam put in, leering at Valka.
“And you’re a self-righteous little hobgoblin,” the count said, perhaps still angry and rattled by the comment about terraforming equipment.
I smiled in spite of myself, glancing down at my feet to hide my expression.
“Balian, please.” The grand prior swept forward. “A measure of decorum.”
“I am lord of this planet, grand prior. Have a care how you address me.”
From the far wall, the Umandh’s droning changed in pitch, warbling with a strange, constant rhythm. There must have been half a hundred of
them, all swaying like coral polyps in a strong eddy. The noise of them was incredible, rattling the cheap glass panes in the windows. “Would someone please shut them up?” Gilliam snapped his fingers in the general direction of the coloni, then used his kerchief to dab at the beads of sweat forming on his brow.
At the chanter’s command, one of the douleters clubbed the nearest creature to quiet it, doubtless counting on the message to translate to the
others, linked at they were. It trumpeted in pain, splintering its portion of the great harmony it shared with its brethren. I felt a terrible pang of déjà vu, remembering the last time I’d been in this place. But instead of meekly turning to aid their fallen comrade, this time the Umandh stretched their feelers far as they would go, their droning turned to a dry rattling like air through a busted trachea.
Beside me Valka sucked in a breath, tore her tablet from her belt, and glared at it in confusion, tapping at the screen with a forefinger. The count, not recognizing that the sound was a bit odd, turned to address Engin.
“Quiet your beasts, vilicus.”
Engin slashed the air, shouted an order at his douleters, who began fiddling with their tablets. “Get them under control and back on the ship, double-time!”
Among the adorators who dwell in the mountains above Meidua, it is said that pride is the greatest sin. I have not always agreed with that
supposition, or with my friend Edouard, who first shared it with me. But it was so here. The first of the Umandh boiled from behind its invisible line, breaking from its pack like a Jaddian dervish. It spun, twisting on its three legs in a strange, whirling charge, its own drone stretching to a high shriek as it threw itself toward our party like a frenzied beast. It caught one of the count’s guards, wrapping its tentacles around the man and falling atop him. They had counted on their weapons and a thousand years of oppression to cow the creatures.
The dam broke, and the pack of Umandh threw themselves upon us, shrieking like the tearing of metal in some deep pelagic hell. Gilliam
staggered back, then turned with surprising speed to shepherd his mother away. The remainder of the guards gathered together, forming a cordon between the suddenly animated horde and their count. I turned to look at Valka just as the other guards—the ones who had been dutifully holding positions outside—stormed in. The man the Umandh had tackled, whose green armor was slashed with white to mark him as a lictor, struggled, but the Umandh held him with countless arms, the tentacles squeezing tighter,
immobilizing the man. I heard bones crack beneath that armor, or dreamed I did. One of the other guards fired a plasma burner at the creature, burning a smoking wedge out of its side.
The Umandh howled like a deflating elephant, but it struggled on, kept squeezing until the fifth round from the plasma burner felled it.
“Get His Excellency outside!” shouted Dame Camilla, voice amplified by speakers embedded in her breastplate. Rounding on Valka and myself, she exclaimed, “You two, come with me!”
Valka was standing hunched, slightly aloof, fiddling with her tablet. She was not panicking, was barely sweating despite the sweltering heat in the
warehouse. I nearly tripped over an upended crate of fish getting to the knot of soldiers. “Give me a weapon!” I didn’t know what I was saying, but
when they hesitated, I snapped, “I’m not going to kill your bloody lord, just give me something!” I snapped my fingers, held my palm out. Something huge and scaly struck me, the rough texture of it tearing my fine silk robes, scraping the flesh over my ribs. My head struck the ground and rang like a bell. I snarled, fingers trying to find purchase on flesh as hard as coral, as
stone. The cloying stink of raw fish filled my nostrils, and then thin tendrils filled them, stopping my air as another appendage forced itself down my throat.
My vision blurred, and in my panic I bit down on both the tendril and my tongue. Copper blood filled my mouth, mingled with the sulfurous ichor from the Umandh’s veins. I was still choking, could not remove the thing from between my teeth. I could not move.
I could not move.
The pressure was too great; my every limb felt stressed to breaking, and I imagined glass pillars splintering under weight. At once I went blind, went weak, felt the world slipping away. Would that I had died there, died and
spared the universe the stink of me. Another monster strangled in its crib,
snuffed out before I could be inflicted on the universe. The blood slowing in my ears carried with it the sound of tramping feet, the fall of starships, and the burning out of suns. The world faded into darkness, the true Dark of
which the chanters sing. White faces bloomed like flowers in that darkness, only to be snuffed out and blown to dust. I saw my father’s face and
Crispin’s. Cat’s and Valka’s and my mother’s. And Gibson’s, nose slit, back straight, eyes undimmed.
He shook his head. “Go back!” he said, then shrank into shadow, leaving only green eyes that turned to glass. To starlight. To darkness and no more.
There was light. Light and the air came rushing back into me, and the glass-splintering feeling in my bones turned to raw aching. Valka had tugged the Umandh tentacle I’d bitten off free. “Are you all right?”
Why, Doctor Onderra, fancy meeting you in a place like this. My oxygen-deprived brain made me giggle at the thought. Two creases formed between her eyebrows, and she started when I sat up abruptly. “Yes.” My
eyes widened. “Down!” I seized her by the shoulders, nearly blacking out again as I tugged her down and rolled atop her just as another of the
Umandh tumbled past, tentacles lashing. Valka lay frozen beneath me, eyes wide. I didn’t want to move, but I staggered to my feet with a groan, the fat sash that held my robes in place coming undone and the garment tangling about me. With a growl I shrugged out of the garment, stripping down to my cream shirt and trousers. The shirt clung to my torn side where the blood flowed hot and sticky. I hauled Valka to her feet. “You all right?”
That I had deliberately mirrored her tone was not lost on her, and she found a small smile. I nearly missed it; she played it off as a compression of the lips, skin whitening. “Yeah.”
“Come on.” I seized her by the wrist, moving toward the very ladder I’d once descended to steal fish. “Up that way! Quickly!” Where was the
count? I couldn’t see through all the confusion, through the tangle of
Umandh slaves and humans, through the haze of plasma smoke and the beginnings of fire. Valka was still lingering on the first rung of the ladder. “Go, damn you!”
Her eyes widened, and she climbed. One of the Umandh must have heard our escape, for it hurtled straight at me, nine feet of stone skin and waving tentacles. Stupidly I dove sideways, rolling as I hit the ground on the far side of a row of open fish containers and slamming into the next. The Umandh crashed into the boxes, tumbling over them in its blindness. I scrambled to my feet, seizing a pair of frozen carp.
Numb, confused, I threw them at the staggered creature as I backed
away and sought some sort of weapon. Maybe one of the douleters had left a shock-stick lying around or some injudicious dock worker had abandoned a pry bar for the refrigerated crates. Or maybe there’s an Imperial Legion
waiting in ambush, buried under all the fish.
I looked about for the soldiers, but they were too busy completing their massacre by the doors to help with my stray. There were so few of them.
Most of the reinforcements who had come streaming in to supplement the men who’d been there from the start had vanished, retreating with the vanished palatines. I thought I saw Engin’s gray-skinned body face down and bleeding on the concrete floor, but I didn’t waste time on him.
The Umandh was on its feet, hissing past the tentacles snaking from the mouth at its crown. Translucent golden slaver flew from its mouth, and as it tipped forward I saw the little studded fangs orbiting the lining of its trunk. From that perspective I realized the tendrils weren’t arms—they were tongues. I scrabbled backward and nearly tripped again over the carcass of a seven-meter-long congrid. Something metallic clattered against the row of boxes. When I saw what it was, I almost laughed aloud. The machete was one of several used to gut the massive congrid eels and the terranic sharks harvested by the Fishers Guild, no doubt left there by some careless slave or douleter, just as I’d hoped. I could have kissed whoever had left it there, and I snatched it up, rolling to face my opponent. The edge bit through two of the Umandh’s tendrils, notched another, kinked a fourth. The creature bellowed and body-checked me, trying to sweep my legs with one of its own. I twisted, catching one of its tentacles in my fist. I brought the blade down, then slammed my booted foot against the inside of one of the
colonus’s three spindly knees.
I felt the bone break, and the Umandh’s war cry warbled in pain as it fell. I placed the point of the machete against the creature’s bony
exoskeleton and raised my other hand to slam the pommel and pierce the tough hide. It groaned, made a sound like the crying of brass whales in the waters of my home, and lay quiescent. My hand hung there, raised like an executioner’s sword, my shadow like the shadow of a cathar cast across the
body of the guilty. As I hesitated, I glanced upward and saw Valka watching me from the catwalk, just where Cat had once watched me, where I had
watched the douleters beat an Umandh with no name.
I pulled the machete away, raised the blade in silent salute to the doctor above me.
Then one of the count’s soldiers shot the creature at my feet.
“It was the foreign witch!” Gilliam was shouting when at last I emerged into the sunlight. He was irritatingly unharmed, one arm sheltering his mother. The grand prior, looking more the part of a witch than Valka ever
could, nestled against her son in spite of the heat. “She can use that terminal of hers to talk with those . . . those . . . creatures!” he sputtered. “And
Mother knows what else she’s capable of!”
The count wiped his sweating forehead on a patterned sleeve. “We’ve used those tablets since the colonization. They have nothing to do with our Tavrosi emissary.”
“Then she’s sullied it with some foreign perversion. Some device of Tavros!”
Dame Camilla strode forward, smoothly cutting the intus’s stream of implications off at the head. She saluted and bowed to her lord, said, “All dead, Excellency.”
Lord Balian Mataro sagged against a crate. “Very good. Cut them up and throw them in the sea, Camilla.” He waved his dismissal, hand heavy with the weight of rings and orders.
She didn’t leave, and I imagined those jewel-hard eyes of hers locked on the count beneath her helmet. “And our own dead?”
“Three,” the knight-lictor replied, as if it were just a number. “Engin and two of ours.”
I glanced at Valka, raised my eyebrows at her as if to ask, Did you have anything to do with this. She shook her head, more tired than affronted, and the count addressed one of the surviving slave-handlers. “What the hell happened?”
The douleter, a woman with yellow-white hair, stood ramrod straight when speaking to the count, her eyes on some spot above his massive
shoulders. “I . . . I don’t know, my lord. Your Excellency. I’ve never seen the like. I’ve seen them get mad sometimes, seen them charge, aye. But this . . .”
“They were frenzied,” said Ligeia Vas, shrugging free of her son’s protective embrace. “Enraged.” Above us the drone of Royse repulsors filled the air, and several fliers—military landers escorting one sleek,
chrome blade of a skiff—circled into view, falling like samaras in
springtime from the cloud-dappled sky. “They should be wiped out, the
“They heard you say you were the count,” Valka said, thrusting her chin upward in a gesture that made her appear a cubit taller. “’Twas the moment when their droning changed. Perhaps they understand our tongue better than we thought, sir.” Some of the surviving retinue winced at the overfamiliarity in her address, but she ignored them.
Gilliam stumped forward. “You will address the count correctly or not at all.” He turned imploringly to the man in question. “I tell you, the witch is responsible. Who here knows the creatures better? Hmm? Who has more reason to want you dead? I’ve warned you from the start, Excellency! She is a foreign agent!”
I felt a muscle pulse along my jaw. “You cannot prove the doctor is responsible, Chanter,” the count said wearily, going stone-faced as the first fliers settled into the sea a ways out and powered inland, sending up great clouds of mist that formed glittered rainbows in the umber sunlight. “Do
drop your accusations until we’ve returned to Borosevo Castle, at least.” He gazed up at the castle, which rose in the middle distance like a fairy tale
above the low buildings and the algae stink of his city.
“What other explanation could there be?” Gilliam limped forward, mopping his beaded brow with the kerchief from his sleeve. He pressed the kerchief to his chest. “She’s a foreigner, lordship. A Demarchist witch.” My mouth twitched at the word, the Chantry’s label for anyone who flirted with the hated thinking machines without their divine consent. How easily it tripped from Gilliam’s lips.
“It could be simple rebellion,” I blurted, edging into the conversation with a perfunctory bow. “Like the doctor said, they know whose boot it is on their necks.” I glanced from the count to the prior, bowed my head. “So to speak.”
Gilliam’s twisted jaw worked, those mismatched eyes flitting from my face to that of his lord. Whatever else he was, the man was no fool. He pointed a square finger at my chest. “See? She has the lowborn under her sway. The witch is behind this, mark my words!”
Valka’s nostrils flared, and she took a step forward, her lithe body coiled as if to strike. “Say ‘witch’ again, priest, and I’ll make you wish I were one.” I swear Gilliam quailed beneath the light of those golden eyes. I like to imagine he took a step back. I fought down a smile. Unnoticed, momentarily forgotten in the wake of Valka’s threat, I edged closer to the
chanter. How dare he?
“She threatens me, sire!” The intus tried his best to straighten his twisted spine. He did not respond to Valka but rather spoke to his liege lord. “This foreign . . . woman.” He did not say ‘witch.’ “Who else has the know-how to communicate with the Umandh? I saw her! I saw her fiddling with that
device right before the attack! And now she threatens me, sire! This offworld whore with her forbidden—”
Gilliam never finished the sentence but instead went sprawling. I didn’t even know I was going to hit him; the thing happened of its own accord. I stood above the priest in his tangle of black robes, shaking out my bruised fist, alone in the eye of an abyssal silence. I didn’t feel rage or contempt or even hatred. I felt . . . clean. Justified. Righteous. I rubbed my knuckles, torn side momentarily forgotten. I took in a deep breath, pushed the air out through my nose. “That’s quite enough from you.”
Blood dribbled from the crooked man’s broken nose. Coming out of his stunned state, Gilliam pressed his kerchief to the flow as he pointed with his free hand. “Barbarian!” he squeaked, recovering his feet with surprising
speed. “You hit me!”
“And would do it again!” I stepped forward, still remarkably calm. I had just struck a priest of the Terran Chantry. By rights I should have melted in fear of the cathars and their knives, but I just sucked on my teeth, staring down. “Apologize to the lady.”
“M. Gibson!” Valka moved forward, but one of the surviving guards moved to hold her back, as if afraid my heretical violence was catching. “What in the hells are you doing?”
The priest bared his yellowed teeth. “You’ll pay for this, peasant.
Guards! Guards, you saw what this barbarian did! Seize him!” Beneath their mirror-black visors, the guards looked from one another to their lord. Balian Mataro, who had so recently survived his brush with death, just looked at me, worn out. By the gods, the man looked nearly every one of his years in that instant, his black eyes dim and distant. Gilliam was still
shouting, “What are you all waiting for! Seize him! Stun him!”
Stunners came up, blue slits gleaming as two hoplites closed in to take my arms. Valka’s face went white. “Wait!” I said, raising my hands. “Wait! The man gave offense, lordship. You heard it yourself.” The keywords were gave offense, words any nobile of the Imperium would recognize. I chose them precisely, hoping to capture the sportsman I knew the count to be. I had few enough cards to play, but I’d dug my own hole. It fell to me to
climb out of it. “I demand satisfaction.” There was a way, slim and dangerous as a monofilament scythe, thin as a cord, a chain hanging about my neck.
“Monomachy?” The count cocked an eyebrow, but his eyes glinted. “Surely the doctor has more right to that than you.”
I watched Valka long, trying to decipher the feelings embedded in the lines of her chiseled face. Anger? Fear? She shook her head. I could practically hear her mutter the word barbarians again. “He said I was under her sway; he thinks me simple.” A paper shield, that. And maybe I was
simple, letting him goad me as I had. Now I had no recourse, no way out but forward. Hello, Father. Well, it was that or die. Before anyone could challenge me, I added, “And the man has assaulted me twice before, my
lord.” This raised a few eyebrows, but I pressed forward. People had died, inhumans had been slaughtered, and this pedant was finger-pointing. “First he ordered his foederati escort to attack me in the coliseum, and then he
accosted me in your palace after your last feast.”
“Excellency, this peasant has no right!” Gilliam protested. “You don’t deny it, then?” I bared my teeth.
“You’ve no right to a duel,” said Ligeia Vas. “My son is palatine. You’ve no right to challenge him.”
I looked Balian Mataro right in the face, expecting the man to shake his head. He knew. Knew I had no other choice and knew his delicate game
was up. And mine. With unfeeling fingers, I snapped the chain from round my neck and slipped the ring onto my thumb, holding it up. “I have every right.” I glowered at Gilliam. Briefly I glanced at Valka and saw surprise
etched on those delicate, hard-edged features. “I told you, Your Reverence. You don’t know everything.”