Chapter no 60 – The Sword, our Orator

Empire of Silence

THERE WERE WORSE PLACES to die, I decided, tightening my brown dueling jerkin. The grotto overhanging the white grass field was carved with the figures of Blind Justice, Wide-Eyed Fortitude, and Death herself, sheltered from the rain by a natural facade of raw sandstone. It was the same stone from which most of Borosevo Castle was fashioned. This altar, invoking the shrines of ancient pagan deities on Earth, stood at the narrow end of an

elliptical garden hedged by terranic yew, the deep green leaves black in the burnt rust of Emesh’s sun. They carved a lovely contrast against the bone-grass, white as milk, that carpeted the strange place.

And then there were the flowers.

They were native, those blooms, and large as a man’s head when closed. They suffused the high hedge walls, their copper-colored blossoms wet and heavy on their golden vines, filling the air with a heady perfume so lovely it made the sweaty air bearable. And they moved, opening and closing like the beating of hearts or the somnambulant blinks of so many hundred eyes. I felt transported, as if the arched gate into the grotto were a portal into faerie, as if this little garden were a slice of Cat’s forests on Luin.

My wounds from the encounter with the Umandh still itched. Count Mataro had seen to it that I’d received the best of care following that

afternoon in the warehouse, and truth be told I was astonished by how quickly I’d healed. The flesh had knit back together well enough, but the new skin still prickled where the correctives had been applied. Scratching, I glanced back over my shoulder at my small crowd of supporters to offer an encouraging smile. Valka was absent, a fact of which I was equally glad and aggrieved, but Switch was there, standing in as my second—he had already negotiated this spot with Gilliam’s second. Both Anaïs and Dorian had

come, much to my surprise, though they stood somewhat apart among their guards. Even more surprising was the figure of Sir Elomas Redgrave. The old man was seated on a bench, sipping tea from the cap of a heating bottle as he spoke softly to Switch. I watched them both a moment, a frown

creasing my face. Had Valka asked him to come? Was he her eyes?

“Scared, Marlowe?” Gilliam glowered at me from his camp across the white grass field, attended by a pair of Chantry anagnosts in black robes. The gargoyle himself wore high boots and black trousers, and even the leather of his jerkin was black. Without the heavy robes to disguise him, the myriad imperfections of his form screamed for attention: the pronounced hunch, his uneven legs, the way he carried himself as if he teetered on the

edge of some abyss.

I bowed my head. “Not at all.” I had been a myrmidon for years and a student of Sir Felix Martyn for more than a decade before that. I was tall,

healthy, my blood untainted, my limbs straight and clean. What threat could the intus possibly pose? I watched him scuttle crab-like over the grass.

“The combatants will not speak!” piped the plebeian officiant, a square-faced man with thinning brown hair swept from a high and furrowed brow. That stopped the intus responding.

Switch hurried over, ducking round a pair of officiants in the uniforms of city prefects. “They’re almost ready to start. You got this?”

The square-faced officiant drew a pair of matched backswords from a padded box. Dutifully the short plebeian checked the edges against his thumb, made a note on his wrist terminal. “I’ll cut him first and have done.” I shook my head. “The doctor was right. I shouldn’t have done this.”

Gilliam brushed his attendants off, tugging on a black fencing glove that looked tailored for his oddly shaped arm. I frowned at that. It looked well used.

“Yeah, no shit, Had,” Switch said reflexively. From the corner of my eye, I saw him freeze, stiffen. “Sorry, sir, my lordship, sir.”

“Stop that, would you?” I seated myself on a flat stone and unzipped my boots. “I am exactly the same person I always was.”

Switch shifted uncomfortably and looked away. “It don’t . . . It doesn’t feel like that.”

I had a real talent for alienation, it seemed. Looking up, I tugged my boots free and peeled my black socks off to bare the thick sheets of callous

on my soles. Switch had seen the routine a thousand times in training, so he didn’t ask. “Switch, thanks for being here. It means a lot. Truly.”

He never replied, for at that moment the officiant with the thinning hair raised his clear, nasal voice. “The combatants shall approach!”

“That’s my cue,” I said to the myrmidon, trying to appear jovial. I

wasn’t sure I’d carried it off. Barefoot I crossed the bone-grass to where the civil servants stood clustered about the equipment required by law for a duel palatine. Camera eyes orbited the cluster of men from the prefect’s office, prepared to record the duel. Even then one was recording video testimony of the legal witnesses, of whom Anaïs, Dorian, and Elomas were the principals. I had formalized my own charge days earlier, the evening of the Umandh’s abortive attempt on the count’s life. For dangerous slander against a personal acquaintance and to answer past charges of assault and insult against my exalted personage. The formal jargon chafed like a uniform collar. Maybe I had lost some of my Imperial polish.

I accepted my blade from the officiant after Gilliam took his, going briefly to one knee to receive the weapon. “You will fight until one party bleeds, at which point the unbloodied will be granted an opportunity to end the engagement, as has been the custom under the Index and the Great

Charters of the Imperium since the Assumption of Earth.” The mere mention of the homeworld’s name prompted discreet sun disc signs from Gilliam and his Chantry associates while I, filthy apostate that I was, stood unmoved. The intus priest noticed my lapse and sneered, but he held his

silence. The little man was not done speaking. “If the opportunity to abort the engagement is not taken, the engagement will continue until one party can no longer fight. Is this clear?”

Two yeses sounded in the still air. Two men paced away from each other in the shadow of three officiant prefects. Three Chantry icona watched from the artificial wall of the grotto shrine, stone faces unseeing as funeral masks. Thin mist rose from the bone-white grass, thickening the dense Emeshi air with moisture. It was like walking through a dream, all clouded. All quiet. I did not truly hear the officiant as he recited the formal charges. Instead I watched Gilliam, his blond hair oiled back from his high and misshapen forehead, watching me with those slitted, mismatched eyes.

I pushed my sword forward, blade held at a slight angle, upthrust as I pressed my left fist to my breast. It was a knight’s salute, a gesture I had

little right to but one none would truly challenge. It kept the blade forward, ready.

“Have you confessed?” Gilliam asked, the ban on our silence lifted. “I’ll hear your sins before you die.”

I did not reply, did not move but to flex my toes in the damp grass. The day would be a hot one, the fat sun rising the color of blood. I might have been a statue, locked in that moment, every preceding second had carried to that grotto that damp and fog-bound morn. My previous decisions ensured that I could not but walk the path I was on. I had chosen.

Gilliam lunged, and I snapped the parry, retreating a step. The sound of naked steel, not the highmatter of true swords, was fine music in the

stillness. My eyebrows shot up. He was fast, far faster than his uneven legs belied. And his form was good, surprisingly straight and even despite the

crookedness of his frame. This would not be an easy contest, or at least not so easy as I’d believed. I allowed my earlier arrogance to fade away. Pride cometh before destruction. Gibson was never far, endlessly quoting in my ear. My own pride fell with my fortunes, retreating before the advance of

the priest. Teeth bared, Gilliam swept low. I turned to parry, distracting him as I lashed out with my off hand to cuff the man across the face. He

staggered back, gasping, a bruise already blossoming on his cheek.

With a snarl, he pressed a new offensive, and I circled left around him, unwilling to be driven toward the wall of the grotto where our witnesses watched. I heard a woman—Anaïs?—gasp as I battered Gilliam’s sword aside with a clangor. The whole situation wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Gilliam’s blade made a pass for one of my kidneys, but I turned it with an elbow snap, knocking his point aside before stepping into the range of his sword and pulling my own weapon up and around my head into a rolling cut, saber-fashion, that should have connected at the joint of his neck and shoulder.

But Gilliam vanished, dropping into a roll that carried him

counterclockwise by nearly ninety degrees. So stunned was I at this that I almost failed to jump aside. I felt the point of his backsword scrape the

brown leather of my jerkin. Had I grown so used to fighting with the heavy myrmidon’s round shield that I’d forgotten how to duel properly? I heard Switch hiss in unneeded sympathy.

Maybe Valka was right. Maybe we were barbarians. What need had I for this? If I hadn’t gotten my blood up, hot off the Umandh’s attack on the

count, if I hadn’t let my heart and my pointless feelings for Valka rule my head, none of this would have happened. But we all make mistakes and must stand by them. I cannot say if Gilliam’s competence, his skill, made the whole ordeal more a farce or less of one. He beat my weapon aside, made to lunge. I outdistanced him, able to retreat on my long, straight legs more easily than he could advance on his twisted ones.

It is the mistake of poets, of librettists like my mother, to believe that fighting is ever only one thing. They believe the work of the soldier, the game of the gladiator, the art of the duelist are all the same and that those are the same as the chaos of fighting on the streets and in the country villages of a thousand worlds. But there is fighting and there is fighting. I remembered the time I’d toppled Ghen in the training yard to get everyone behind me—to save Switch, in point of fact. Where was that Hadrian right now?

I kicked the back of Gilliam’s knee, staggering him in advance of a descending overhead blow. Once. Twice. The third cut I brought in from the side, but the little goblin of a priest parried each with a strength that

astonished me. He was on the retreat now, and briefly I saw the waxen

expressions on the faces of the two Mataro children. What would they think if their new friend killed their priest on this sanguinary field that bleak morning? I needed first blood, needed to call off this farce I’d written for myself, needed to apologize in action as well as word. Needed to redeem myself to Valka.


I never saw the strike that cut me, only felt the raw, rusted pain of it lance up my arm. Red blood wept into the cream of my torn sleeve, faintly brown in the fabric. How had I missed it? I hissed, staggered back,

swearing under my breath in Mandar of all things, groaning as my promises ran out with my blood. Medically the wound was minor, a clean slash

across the top of my forearm. In a way that transcended the facts of our dispute, the wound was mortal.

“Halt!” The officiant’s nasal voice was deep now; the man was affecting a sergeant’s tone of command. “First blood to the defendant!” He focused his square face on Gilliam, green eyes wide beneath furrowed brows. “Is the gentleman satisfied?” he asked in deadly earnest.

There was no blood on Gilliam’s blade, none at all; he’d moved so quickly. I resisted the urge to clutch my arm and backpedaled, holding my

sword at the ready in a haggard echo of my earlier salute. Only then did I realize my chest was heaving, that I was tired. Earth and Emperor, I should have kept up my regimen after coming to the palace. Ye Gods, the last few months had softened me. I set my jaw. The wound ached, but that was not the worst of it.

I had no power in that moment, waiting for Gilliam to answer. My word hung on that answer, my promise to Valka. I had failed. I had been so sure that I would get first blood, that I could end everything at that critical juncture and bow out with some grace and dignity. I had been so sure. Now all that was taken from me and left in the hands of the asymmetrical

creature holding the twin of my sword. I held my breath and felt the world suspended in that breath.

“No!” Gilliam sneered, and he lunged. Damn my talent for making enemies!

I turned the first new attack, batting the blade down past my sinking heart. Time narrowed before me, the futures ahead of me thinning, reducing from the vague quantum smear of potential to a single pair of doors.

Through one I stood above the mute’s body, a bloodied sword in hand. Through the other our positions were reversed. I slammed my sword up, stepping in and to the right to block a charge and angle out of the way as Gilliam redoubled his attack.

“Surprised, boy?” he asked through gritted teeth. “Expected it would be easy? Brave of you . . .” He blocked a thrust with a neat slipping motion of his sword, stepped in with a low jab that ought to have skewered me in the thigh. I danced back, threw a retreating cut at the intus’s shoulder. Strange, I reflected, that the man’s mother was not here. “Brave of you to challenge a cripple.”

I slashed the chanter across the front of his left thigh. The black leather sighed open, and Gilliam winced. “You should have taken the blood. I

won’t make the same mistake again,” I said, redoubling my attack, driving the intus backward across the white grass toward the wall of pulsing flowers, steel ringing in the thick air. My left arm smarted, weeping blood as I advanced, but I ground my teeth and pressed ahead, cutting at the priest’s head and shoulders. The truth of what I’d tried to tell Valka rang in my ears: I was not a killer, had never been one.

Gilliam threw himself at me, spitting. His sword lanced straight at my eyes, and I was saved from blindness or death only by a reflexive slash-

block that left me open to remise, and I was lucky that the speed of my defense had startled Gilliam into stillness. We stood there a moment, watching one another. If there were a moment to talk, to come to an understanding, it was then and there. But we never did.

The little man snarled and threw himself at me again. I parried his blade, binding it, slicing down and across to jab Gilliam in the right hip. The point of my sword hit bone, and he bit down a cry. For a moment there was a

clear line of attack open to his throat. I didn’t take it but backed off—as I had a thousand times with Crispin—and waited. One of the officiants murmured something to his square-faced compatriot. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was one of anxious disapproval. I glanced at the

crowd. Elomas’s wizened face darkened as he watched me, sipping his tea. “Could have ended it . . .”

I circled Gilliam, blade in a low guard, pivoting to keep my right side oriented toward him. “En garde!” I said. Stand and fight, you bastard. “En garde!” I cried again, and I rattled my saber, tip jouncing in anxious little circles. I wanted to goad him, to bait him into making a mistake. Crispin had gone for it nearly every time, his brain chemistry blanched in its own androgens, blinkered as surely as a horse on parade. It didn’t work. The limping priest held his ground, jaw set, shoulders square as he could make them.

I could wait no longer and moved forward, sword falling in blow after blow against his guard. The priest was fighting carefully. No more of the spastic movements and quick footwork I’d come to expect. With a snap of my shoulder I brushed his blade aside and again exposed a clear line of

attack, baring the man’s pigeon chest.

I didn’t take it. Couldn’t take it. I didn’t even see my opportunity, blinded as I was by sentiment. I had not killed, and so I could not. I gave ground, retreating to the safety of guard. I sensed the watchers’ disquiet, though I did not then understand it, confusing it for the discomfort anyone would feel knowing they were to witness a killing. “I don’t want to kill you,” I said at last, crouching lower in my guard.

Gilliam circled to my right, and I followed the arc of him, keeping my leading foot pointed in his direction. “Hadrian, you’re playing with him!” The voice belonged to Anaïs, high and sick with nervous tension. There followed a moment of supreme stillness, the holo of our lives paused,

suspended. Only the flowers moved; only they breathed.

Something like a shadow passed across the chanter’s uneven face,

worming its way through his eyes to his soul. Like gravity, it could not be

seen save by its effects. The twisted lips twisted, the dark eye darkened, and the blue one froze over and cracked. Every cord in the man was taut as a bowstring, and he snarled, “I’ll kill you, heretic. I’ll not let you twist this place. These people. My people.”

Long have I sat in my cell here at Colchis without writing a word. The vermilion ink which my hosts provided for me had dried, and the candles guttered out. I sent for a fresh bottle and new light—the night here is interminable. Perhaps there is some meaning in all this.

Gilliam’s rage moved him, blinded him. It nearly blinded me, so fast did that sword move. His haste and fury made him sloppy, and thrice more

could I have slain him: once with a strike to the abdomen, once with a wide slash to the throat, and again with a blow that would have staved in his ugly skull and dyed his blond hair red. Yet I couldn’t do it. You must think it

strange that I, who has supped on more blood than have most empires, could not kill a single man. I say again: a single death is a tragedy.

I stabbed him in the hip again instead, steel grating against bone. The point of my sword came out red, startlingly bright in the morning air.

Gilliam flashed his teeth at me, and I half expected to see blood on the gums. But he spat, “Demoniac! Abomination!” What was he talking about? I staggered back, keeping my sword between us, trying not to think of the blood on its point. “Threat . . .” he was saying. “Spy . . .” He still believed me part of some conspiracy against the country, against his faith. And all because I’d been interested in his Cielcin.

Sometimes there is no climax. A thing happens, and it is over. Gilliam lunged again. I parried, extended into the riposte. In a simple motion, my blade swept across my chest, point still aimed forward to brush the wild thrust aside. I stepped forward, tucking my right shoulder to bring the point in line with Gilliam’s ribs, metal grinding on metal. On leather. On bone.

And then red blossomed there, black against the black of his jerkin, and the breath went out with it in a wordless groan. Red and black, I thought. My


Gilliam’s forward momentum carried him straight onto my sword. He

sagged there, transmuted to dead weight. He wheezed, a wet sucking sound deep in his chest. I must have punctured a lung. There was nothing for it. I shoved him back, had to plant a foot on his chest to free my sword from his

ribs. He hit the grass with a moan that turned to burbling. I had to suppress an urge to throw my sword aside. I was on display, my silent audience vigilant. My knees turned to water, and I fell, propping myself on the treasonous blade in my lying hand. Valka, forgive me.

The intus’s sword had fallen from his slackened fingers, and I had enough presence of mind to toss it aside. Tradition forbade medical

intervention. We walked onto the field knowing what we were about to do. I could feel Valka’s scorn already. My hands were shaking, and each beat of Gilliam’s heart spat blood upon the earth. It was hot. Too hot. The chanter raised a hand, and unlike mine, it was steady. He reached out slowly, and I thought he was about to make the sign of the sun disc in final benediction.

Instead he reached for the crowd, for the royal children. “My lady . . . Lord Dorian. Do not . . . trust . . .”

I looked up sharply, glaring across the swath of field with burning eyes. Anaïs and Dorian stood bracketed by Elomas and the prefect officiants. Her dark face had gone somehow white. She shook her head furiously, then darted for the arched exit. Her brother called out after her, and a pair of

armored peltasts rattled in her wake. I knelt openmouthed, watching her go.

The priest was a long time dying, chest rising and falling in smaller and smaller increments, diminishing by decay. Smaller, smaller, smaller.


I was still kneeling beside the priest’s corpse when the soldiers came for me. Their leader, a tall woman I did not know, her pauldrons marking her as a centurion in the count’s personal guard, said, “Lord Marlowe, you must

come with us.”

I did not answer, only shut my eyes and—with a tremendous effort— stood.

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