Chapter no 58 – Barbarians

Empire of Silence

“ARE YOU INSANE?” VALKA demanded without pretext or hello, bursting through the door to the bottled garden where I was training for my duel.

“This isn’t the opera, Gibson—or whatever your name is. Who asked you to defend my . . . my . . .” She was flustered, words retreating from her. She

swore in Panthai.

“Your honor, ma’am?” Switch suggested, finishing the sentence for her. I’d been confined to the Sunglass Hall after my visit to the coliseum to see Switch, who’d been brought to me as I’d requested. I consoled myself that Gilliam was similarly sequestered, tried not to think about the chain of dominoes I’d set in motion.

Valka’s jaw worked words over soundlessly. “This isn’t Old Earth, damn it! I never asked for your help!” Her nostrils flared, and she leaned on what I would one day learn was her favorite swear word: “Imperials.” Switch pulled his lips down in a frightened grimace. I shook my head, glad to have my friend back, if only temporarily.

Burying my exasperation—rage is blindness—I propped my training sword against a white birch tree and turned to Valka. The truth was, I was

surprised she’d not come to yell at me sooner—she’d had a night and half a day. With the air of a man resigned to wrestle a viper, I said, “I’m sorry. I know you don’t approve of violence.”

“Violence is not the issue!” She combed back her hair. “I’d punch the little troll in his teeth if I had my way, but I—” She broke off, made as if to bite a fingernail, then stopped herself, closing her hand into a fist. “You’re not responsible for me, damn it!”

I felt my eyes widen, said, “Of course I’m not.” That hadn’t been my intention, not precisely. I thought back to the instants before I’d struck

Gilliam. He’d repeatedly called her a witch. A whore. My face went the

color of Switch’s hair. The myrmidon made a small throat-clearing sound,

and I said, “Doctor Onderra, forgive me.” I swept into a shallow bow. “This is my friend Switch.”

The myrmidon bobbed his head. “Afternoon, my lady.”

“She’s a doctor, Switch,” I murmured, curtailing the woman’s classic tart response.

“She the one you punched this priest over?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose in frustration. “That’s not helping.” The myrmidon at least had the good grace to look cowed and spent the next few heartbeats examining his shoes.

The doctor crossed her arms, compressing her chest a little. “You Imperials . . . You backward, chauvinistic kaunchau rhobsa mehar di . . .” She descended into some Tavrosi argot of which I did not understand but a word in twelve.

“We’re not! My mother once fought a duel over a woman,” I blurted, unthinking. “Well, two women. Well, two women and a horse. This isn’t helping.” I knew it was the wrong thing to say the moment the words

escaped my lips, thinking of the blue-skinned homunculus my mother kept in her harem.

Valka only looked at me. “Your mother—some great lady, was she?

Lord . . . Lord . . .”

“Marlowe.” I bowed again. “Hadrian Marlowe.” When I straightened, I stuck out my chin a little. That this was a mistake dawned on me only a moment later—it was more of the old aristocratic hauteur than the

egalitarian Valka could stomach. I felt so much the fool, the ring on my thumb more an affectation than the assumption of my true self. It felt as if it were not mine at all, as if I’d borrowed it, stolen it—and I suppose I had.

Switch stayed silent and did not look at the ring on my hand. “The count ordered me to hide my name. I’m in hiding, you see, and . . .” It was my conversation with Switch all over again. Only worse. So much worse.

Because it was Valka.

“Not anymore,” she said. It wasn’t a rebuke, wasn’t a condemnation, just a blank statement of fact. I stared at her, acutely aware of the blankness of my expression. Against all odds, Valka blushed and looked away. “I’m

sorry.” Strange emotions played across her face, the anger resolved and tangled with something . . . softer? I could not have named it if I’d tried.

At once I found I could not look her in the face; instead I played with a fraying bit of rubber on the edge of the practice sword’s grip. “You’re right. I’m the one who should apologize. Much good as punching the bastard did me, I suppose—” Here I paused, risking a look up at her. Valka was still

studying the back of her tattooed hand. “I suppose it was for the wrong reasons.”

Was it my imagination, or did she grow still, just for a moment? But no, the moment was gone, and Valka was all Doctor Onderra again. “Thank you,” she said at last. Nicety stowed her outrage a moment, and turning to my myrmidon friend, she said, “Your name is Switch?”

The fighting man bobbed his head. “Aye, ma’am. Well, my name’s William—after the Emperor, you see—only there are too many Williams. Switch was my working name before I bought my way out of the pleasure house. I like it fine.”

“Switch it is, then. You’re one of Lord Marlowe’s, uh . . . friends? From the coliseum?”

For an instant, Switch’s earnest nature exceeded his plebeian caution,

and he said, “Had and me knocked about a bit, sure.” He scratched his head. “We were both trying to buy our way offworld. Light out for wherever, you know?”

Turning back to Valka, I said, “So you’re here . . . why? To tell me to drop the challenge? I can’t do it.”

“Why not?” Valka snapped. “I thought you palatines could do whatever you wanted.”

Try as I did to resist, I actually laughed in her face. “Whatever I want? I’m sorry. Did you miss the part where I’ve been living under an assumed name here?” I gestured at Switch, who was dressed in the synthetic mesh fatigues common amongst off-duty myrmidons. “Do you think I risked my life in the coliseum for love of the game? My father sold me, Doctor. Sold me to the Chantry. So don’t stand there making assumptions.”

Valka pursed her lips. “I didn’t know.” Her voice—her beautiful voice— lowered almost below hearing, strengthened only as she cocked her head for the rejoinder. “But what has that got to do with this Gilliam?”

“I can’t drop the challenge. Not for you or anyone.” I twisted the ring on my thumb. “Legally. You can’t back out of a formal challenge. I’m

committed.” I looked down and away, then snapped my attention back to her as I added, “And the son of a bitch had me stunned!”

Even at five paces, I could hear Valka’s teeth grinding. “That has got to be the stupidest custom I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s not!” Switch put in, taking a step forward, wiping his hands on his breeches. “If you know you have to commit to a duel, you’re less likely

to . . .” He glanced at me, words faltering. “Well . . . you’re less likely to start something. If you’re sober . . .”

I caught him looking at me. “I was sober, Switch!” “Just checking!” Switch grinned.

A wry smile—perhaps a trifle sad—twisted Valka’s lips. “You still

shouldn’t have done it in the first place. Even if you win you’ll make an enemy of that priestess. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I didn’t like him calling you a witch, all right?” I rubbed the back of my neck, turned away. “Is that what you wanted me to say?” I did not add what I was thinking: that societies without the duel replaced it with murder, and the power of Gilliam’s position might have allowed him to get away with

all manner of vile things. For all its apparent barbarism, our stupid custom provided a channel whereby the issue might be legitimately addressed.

She didn’t answer. Switch shifted uncomfortably beside me, and I walked away, creating distance between us. Part of me wished my myrmidon friend were gone, would suddenly remember an urgent

appointment elsewhere. Unjust, that, after all we’d been through and after what I’d put the both of us through. I was being ungrateful, but I really hated to have this conversation in front of anyone. At last she said, “Yes, my lord.”

Since I’d met the woman, she’d confounded me. Her foreign

strangeness, those golden eyes, the skin like new vellum, the iron-jawed determination, the obvious intelligence. Even her subtle cruelties. Whatever it says of me to admit it, she sang to me in a chemical language beneath and beyond poetry. Perhaps it was precisely because she challenged me? There was iron in her, and more than iron. Adamant, such as starships are made of. Highmatter. My lord. The words rattled in my ears. In spite of myself, my shoulders slumped, and I said, “Hadrian.”

“What?” She hadn’t heard me. “Call me Hadrian.”

The air escaped her in a rush. “Imperials.” She turned to Switch. “Your friend better not get himself killed.” She turned smartly on her heel and left, apparently having said her piece. “If he does, I’ll kill him.”

Switch and I stood staring at each for a good thirty seconds,

communicating wordless exhaustion. At last I said, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

The myrmidon arched his thick red eyebrows. “Don’t die, obviously.” “Thanks, Switch.”

We returned to our uneasy silence, neither of us moving. After a moment, the myrmidon jerked his chin, mouthed the words, Go after her.



“Wait!” I caught up to Valka in a dim colonnade, pink marble bruised by the withering sun. I felt grubby and small before the Tavrosi woman, dressed as I was in exercise clothes and my own shame. “Doctor Onderra, wait.” She turned, a hand resting on one prominent hip. In contrast to myself, the doctor might have been carved from ice—but was that a small smile on those lips? Laughing at me? There was no way out of it. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I hit Gilliam because of what he said about you. I couldn’t stop myself.” Visions of Crispin unconscious on the floor flashed before me, and for a moment I saw him lying on the smooth marble between us.

Somewhere in the trees beyond the colonnade a bird cried out, screeching at the afternoon blush. I turned away from the image of my brother, closed the fist that had struck Gilliam. In a small voice I added, “My fault.”

Rage is blindness, the scholiasts say, calmness sight. They eschew anger as they eschew all extremes of emotion, mud in the mind’s clear pool.

Perhaps it is good I never made it to Teukros, to Nov Senber. Fear. Fear lay at the root of it all, a dragon in the classic sense, birthing monsters. Death to reason. Why was I afraid? What was it about Valka that took familiar feelings and turned them strange as the stars in Emesh’s sky?

“You’re right,” she said, bright voice soft and dark as the air beneath the pillars of the vaulted colonnade. “’Tis your fault.” She didn’t offer anything more, but she didn’t leave either. I tried to focus on that, to quiet the galloping terror in my blood. Terror of what? That she would hate me? Did hate me? Would never speak to me again? Maybe she was a witch, by Earth and Emperor, and I her thrall.

I cleared my throat. “I mentioned I was going to be a diplomat one

day . . .” And how wrongly that had gone. Punching Gilliam in the face had been the least diplomatic thing imaginable. “In diplomacy you have to be

willing to forgive people their . . . their differences. You have to at least try to understand them . . . for a time.” I was babbling. I knew I was babbling, but I pressed on the way a drowning man might in hope of shore or of a bit of driftwood to cling to. “I’m sorry that I acted in your defense—that wasn’t my place. But I can’t take it back.” Still she didn’t say anything, only drummed her fingers against the comms tablet that swung from one hip,

casual as a sidearm in its holster. “I only . . . He shouldn’t have been making those accusations.” A new thought occurred to me. “You’re not actually under any suspicion, are you?”

Valka shook her head. “They’d have thrown me in the Chantry dungeons already, diplomatic pass or no.” She spread her arms. “I wouldn’t be free if they thought me responsible for the uprising. ’Tis why you shouldn’t have interfered. The Umandh acted alone, the desperate fools.” She relaxed her

confrontational stance, leaned against a pillar as she stooped to hitch up a boot where it had slipped down her calf. “Honestly my supposed role in this would have been forgotten already if you hadn’t clocked the mutant.”

“Someone had to do it.”

“No!” she flared, straightening. “Someone didn’t. I did! He was my problem.” She tugged her vest down to settle it, eyes hard. “You had no right to get involved.”

“I had every right! Given our history, given his insult to both you and me . . . And I didn’t see you lining up to defend yourself. Did you want to?”

“No!” she snapped. “Because fighting doesn’t solve anything.”

“Who told you that?” I demanded, genuinely nonplussed. “If you fight to solve a problem and win, that problem’s solved, Valka.” I didn’t know what I was saying, but if I had it might have saved me a lot of pain when the war came—or when I came to the war.

“And you’ve created seven new problems you have to deal with.” “Seventy-seven new problems,” I agreed. “But you keep fighting,

because if you can choose when to fight, you have some control. If you bury it, let it fester . . .” I shook my head. “Gilliam’s done nothing but threaten me since I got here.”

The doctor snorted, hardly able to contain her scorn. “And that gives you the right to try and murder him? That’s even worse, my lord.”

I bit my tongue before I could say, You wouldn’t understand. By the fire in her eyes I knew that would be a lethal mistake. Instead I paused, marshaling myself to say, “It’s a formal duel, not murder.”

She snorted. “Okthireakham anaryoch kha.”

“Maybe we are barbarians. Maybe it’s different where you’re from—I don’t know. I do know that if you let someone like Gilliam act with impunity, he will trample over everyone in his path, a great many of whom could never hope to challenge him. I’m palatine. I can.”

The doctor cut me off. “And what’s that about, anyway? Who the hell are you?”

“I told you: My name is Marlowe. Hadrian Marlowe. My father is Lord Alistair Marlowe of Delos. I . . . He wanted me to serve the Chantry. I

had . . . other ideas. I didn’t lie to you more than I had to. Any more than the count demanded of me. All that about the Umandh, the Cielcin . . .

Calagah. That is me.” The full weight of what that meant settled on me. Old gods—the Chantry would know. Once I was released from my quasi-house arrest—if I survived—would they come for me? For my mother? I gave

Valka an abridged version of the story—how I was stranded on Emesh; how I was robbed, left destitute along the canals. “I didn’t have a choice about the coliseum. I had to eat.”

“You could have come to this castle at any time. ’Tis not like they’ve punished you.”

“Yet,” I hissed. “The count’s kept my presence a secret from my father and the Chantry. Why, I don’t know.”

Valka snorted. “You don’t know?”

I had some theories, but none I was in the mood to share. “I am a prisoner here, Valka. Why is that so hard to explain? I can no more leave here than the Umandh. Why do you think I worked so hard to stay in the

coliseum? I didn’t want . . . any of this. I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t ask for Gilliam to have it out for me. I didn’t ask for you—” I broke off before I said something truly foolish and looked away. “You cloud things up.” A flier arced past the castle, framed in the arches of the colonnade. Valka didn’t speak, didn’t move. “I sure as hell wish it were elsewise.” After a moment’s silence, I risked a glance.

The Tavrosi woman chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. At last she nodded. “You know what you’ve done, right? Hadrian?”

“I’m sorry?” I looked up sharply from an examination of my hands. It was the first time she’d used my first name.

“You made this happen,” she said, then clenched her jaw tight around the next words. “You made this about me. Someone’s going to die because

you needed to prove . . . what? That you’re a man? You were a fighter, by the gods. No one doubts that.” She grew momentarily silent, her eyes fixed like a corpse’s on something beyond the mortal world. “I don’t want

anyone’s death on my conscience. I don’t want anyone to die because of me.”

I took a step forward, reaching for her hand but afraid to touch it, needing to and knowing I should not. “You’re right,” I said. “You’re right. But whatever happens, it won’t be because of you. It was my choice. I’m sorry I dragged you into it.” I pulled my hand back, feeling suddenly very foolish. “No one has to die.”

“But you said—”

“We have to fight if our seconds can’t talk and resolve our differences, which they won’t, but first blood’s enough. I’ll strike the first blow and have done. I swear it.”

Her lip curled. “What about solving problems? What happened to”—her tone changed, mimicking my earlier words with frightening accuracy

—“Gilliam acting with impunity, trampling over everyone in his path?”

“That isn’t fair,” I said. “Do you want me to fight him or not? You can’t have it both ways.”

It was her turn to look away, arms crossed. She didn’t say anything. “I can’t apologize any more than I already have,” I said truthfully. “I

can’t back out, and I can’t run away. But I will try to make things as right as I can.” My words died slowly, growing softer, losing force. “I hope . . . I hope you will forgive me.” More softly still I added, “I don’t want to kill

anyone, Doctor Onderra.”

“Valka,” she said at last. “Call me Valka.”

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