Chapter no 61 – A Kind of Exile

Empire of Silence

“THE INTUS WAS RIGHT,” said Lord Balian Mataro coldly, gathering his orange silk robes around him as he sat behind his desk. “That Tavrosi

woman’s got you by the balls.” The small obscenity coming from the mouth of a palatine lord of the Empire cowed me more than the anger in his voice.

At a sharp gesture from him, I seated myself across the desk, glancing around at the tinted glass walls of his office.

I remembered Father’s office in the capitol in Meidua. The two rooms had almost nothing in common. Father’s office was all dark stone and dark carpet and darkly polished wood, stuffed and cluttered in such a way that indicated a person of immense discipline, a man who dwelt in his mind more than in the wider world. This place, though, was all clean lines and modern whiteness; it might have been the combat information center on a Legion battle cruiser. I could not have said what kind of man it indicated had he not been sitting before me.

“I made a mistake, lordship, but you know the law.”

“As did you when you boxed that chanter into a duel.” Mataro’s face darkened. “My grand prior wants your head. Strike that—she wants you alive.”

Swallowing, I looked down at my hands, picked absently at the simple bandages glued to my forearm. I needed no medical correctives for this truly minor injury. “I know.”

“The boy was her son.” “I know.”

“Then why in Earth’s holy name did you—” He broke off, bit the inside of his cheek as he shook his head. “I need you out of my city, away from

all . . . this.” He waved a glittering hand. “Away from her. Until it quiets

down.” A servant entered then, evidently part of some routine, for the bronze-skinned young man’s eyes widened in surprise to see that his master had company, and he bowed out again, carrying the tea service with its

single cup out with him as discreetly as possible. “The Chantry has me by the balls, you know. And I can’t rule my planet with the Chantry turned

against me. If I don’t give Ligeia what she wants, she’ll stymie my trade agreements, subject my ships to search and seizure, hold my officers— anything and everything short of invoking the Inquisition. You killed her son, damn it!” He slapped his desk, emphasizing this refrain.

“Respectfully, sire,” I said mildly, unable to look the man in the face, “I was angling for first blood.” I watched my hands shake in my lap; I

couldn’t get the priest’s eyes out of my head, black and blue, unchanging. “You didn’t get it.” The count’s knuckles whitened against the edge of

his desk, then relaxed suddenly. “If I didn’t need you, I’d give you over to Ligeia right now.” He glanced toward the heavy metal doors, beyond which the guards who had dragged me from the sanguinary field waited. How easy it would be for them to drag me across the castle complex to the Chantry temple, to hand me over to Ligeia’s cathars and have done.

I shuddered. “I could leave. You could—” Then something the count had said clicked, and I straightened. “If you didn’t need me?”

The count lifted a jeweled box from one corner of his desk, disturbing a stack of leaflets and a holograph image of himself and Lord Luthor on a hunting expedition. He turned the thing in his hands, said, “Yes . . . well.” He cleared his throat. “I’d meant to keep this quiet for a few years, but this little spate of idiocy has forced my hand.” He swore violently, making me jump, and nearly crushed the jeweled box in one massive fist. Seeing that display, the size of him, I felt grubby and mean in my own genes. “Damn it, boy! I thought you were supposed to be clever.”

“Smart,” I said cleverly, “is not the same as clever. Like you said, I . . .” I had let Valka get into my head. She was still there, crouched just behind my eyes, scowling daggers. I clenched my fists in my lap to stop them

shaking. I couldn’t stop seeing Gilliam’s face, the mismatched eyes gone hollow as glass, relaxed, fixed on some light beyond the confines of mortal sight.

With forced slowness, the count set the little jeweled box back on the polished glass surface of his desk, brows knitting as he examined me from

his considerable height—by Earth, he was huge. “I was hoping to marry you to Anaïs after her Ephebeia.”

I was a minute closing my jaw and another collecting the potsherds of my wits enough to stammer, “Marry? Your . . . your daughter?” For a moment the glass-eyed specter of Gilliam Vas and the crouching, furious impression of Valka both blew away like smoke, clearing the air to reveal the figure of Anaïs Mataro, slender and full-breasted. Beautiful as an ice sculpture, dull as a puddle.

“Or my son, if you preferred. I only thought—”

“No! No, lordship.” I hoped my haste was not a reproach to him and softened it with a more politic, “I am honored, of course, but . . . me?” Married? To a palatine lady? I supposed it had always been among my possible fates, but it had been so many years since I’d been Hadrian

Marlowe proper that the whole thing felt like a lying dream. A nightmare. Trapped on Emesh, on the world where my life had gone to pieces. A thousand half-formed objections blossomed like weeds, and like weeds they choked me, permitting the count to continue.

“It wouldn’t have been for at least three years,” he said, suddenly more awkward than angry. The change alarmed me. “Two until the Ephebeia, then another for the betrothal period, per custom. I had hoped to keep this quiet, give you time to acclimate to life here in Borosevo, to know the girl, but this lunatic behavior of yours . . .” He broke off, hissing air through his teeth.

Still drowning in the ringing noise sounding in my ears, I spluttered, “But . . . me? Sir . . .” It was not the correct address, and a flicker of

contempt spasmed across Balian Mataro’s brick-chiseled face. “I have nothing to my name. I left home in some difficulty, as you know. And my father is only a petty lord, an archon. Landed, I’ll grant, not posted, but all the same, I—”

“How old is your father?”

The tangential question shocked me, sent me spiraling off along a new track. “My father! Dark take me! Excellency, if he were to find out where I am—and the Chantry! They’d kill me for running!”

The count raised a hand for quiet. “How old?”

After a moment I composed myself and said, “I . . . I don’t know. Just shy of three centuries, I think?”

“And his father?”

“He would’ve been four hundred and twenty-some? But he was assassinated by the Mandari—”

“Why?” the count asked, then waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter. His mother, then?”

I squinted at the count, trying to follow this bizarre tangent to its logical denouement. “Six hundred and . . . ah . . . eighty . . . two?” I had to struggle to remember. “What is this in aid of?”

“And how old do you think I am?” Again he lifted the tiny jeweled box, made it vanish in his huge fist.

I took a shot in the dark. “Two hundred?” “One hundred and thirty-three next fall.”

“What?” I blurted, unable to contain my surprise. That was entirely too young. There was gray in the black of his hair, and the lines about his mouth seemed too firmly pressed into the skin of his face.

The day’s sins temporarily forgotten, the count spread his massive hands in innocent defeat. “We are a minor world—a minor house—and our blood is not so nobile as yours. I had that lovely genome of yours scanned when we took you in. What you carry in there”—he pointed at my face—“would cost my house its title to obtain. How your family came into such patterns

—how it’s been able to hold onto them—is beyond me. Do as I ask, and I’ll make you consort to the highest post in this system. All I ask is your genes.”

“Uranium license,” I said simply. “What?”

“The wealth,” I clarified, not knowing what else to say. “We have a uranium mining license.” That was part of it, but I’d also inherited a great number of hyperadvanced gene complexes from my mother, daughter to a duchess and an Imperial vicereine and a distant cousin, some dozen times removed, to the Imperial house itself. Those complexes, reinforced across generations of breeding with House Kephalos and House Ormund, who had held the duchy of Delos in Lord Julian’s day, made my family line as desirable as that of many lords far greater than my father. Things grew quiet between the count and me, and again I clenched my hands, this time as much to clutch my anger as to squeeze off the palsy of horror and grief

attached to Gilliam’s death. Something twanged within me, tinny and broken. I should have known, should have realized. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Then another thought, almost as dark as the first, rose from my chest and burst from me. “I’m not your damn stud!”

“Yes, you are!” The count slapped his jeweled box down on the table with such a crack that I expected to see shatter marks, but the surface was unmarred. “You are whatever I say you are. You’re not in a strong bargaining position, Lord Marlowe. You’ve killed a member of my senior staff!” His voice grew stronger with each word, hands planted on the arms of his chair.

My fists clenched convulsively. I could still feel the sweat there, caked on from my duel. I looked into Balian’s eyes, black as the one of Gilliam’s. “By law that was no murder.”

“By law!” the count echoed. “Do you think that will matter to my grand prior? If you think the writ of law will protect you from what you’ve done, you’re a fool. You need my help.” In tones suddenly soft and reasonable, he said, “I am not asking anything unpleasant of you. You should be glad. You know the girl, and she’s fond of you, which is more than can be said of many arrangements.”

Ligeia Vas’s frozen gaze haunted me as I sat there, hands fidgeting in my lap. There was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go. I could not refuse,

could not run. I frowned and nodded slowly. “But what of Anaïs herself? Does she know about all this?”

The count scowled. “What do you take me for? She’s known since you arrived here.” At last he opened the jeweled box, peeled a sheet of candied verrox leaf from a sticky bundle. Since I arrived. At once her actions since we’d met came into sharper focus: the way she’d always been around me, always asking me to social events, touching me, clinging to my arm. It was all so obvious, so . . . calculated. I felt cheap, less than a person because it

wasn’t about me after all. “Moving forward, her children by you will inherit your gene complexes, and my grandchildren will be admitted to the peerage.”

I saw a flaw in the count’s plan and jabbed a mental finger at it. “But Dorian is your heir, is he not?”

“Presumptive.” The count flashed a smile. “But the complexes in your blood are worth a slight change of plans. Both of the children are young; there is time yet to make a proper lord out of either of them. Wouldn’t you say?” He slipped the verrox leaf into his mouth, chewed. Unbidden, his

eyes drifted closed, then snapped back to alertness as he swallowed.

That dramatic expression triggered something in me, for I almost rocketed to my feet. “But sir, my father!” I’d been about to bring the question up earlier, but the tangent about age and gene complexes had driven it straight from my stress-addled brain. I needed sleep, needed focus. “He’ll never approve!” I was desperate by then, grasping at straws, at

whatever means of escape I could find.

Lord Balian Mataro reached into a drawer beneath his desk and drew out a sheet of crystal paper. He turned it on the glossy surface and pushed the document toward me. Ordinarily such writs were done on vellum, signed by hand. But this was a copy, clearly sent to Emesh across the vast and echoing quiet of space by quantum telegraph. I felt my blood temperature drop when I saw the seal printed beneath the holographed fractals beside the

signatures: the crimson devil capering with its trident raised above its head against a field of darkest black above the words “The Sword, Our Orator.” It matched the bezel of my ring exactly, had indeed been made with an identical ring hundreds of light-years away. And the names beside it:

Alistair Diomedes Friedrich Marlowe and Elmira Gwendolyn KephalosMy father and my grandmother, the vicereine.

It was another terrible minute before I realized the nature of the thing they’d signed. So long, in fact, that the count’s deep voice asked, “Do you know what this is?”

“A writ of disavowal,” I said, eyes going to the graphic of the Imperial sunburst at the top of the long sheet of white crystal paper. I read: We

resolve beneath the mark of His Imperial Radiance, our Emperor, William the Twenty-Third of the House Avent, Firstborn Son of the Earth, etc., to dissolve all ties legal and familiar with the renegade Hadrian of the House Marlowe, formerly of Meidua Prefecture, Duchy of Delos, Auriga Province.

In concert with the examinations of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, his conduct . . .

“. . . his conduct has been found wanting of the standards and grace

expected of his station. He has betrayed his house and his lord father and brought shame upon his family name and upon the viceroyalty of Delos,” the count recited—or perhaps read upside-down. “Grievous charges.” I took it as a mercy that he did not keep reading.

I did not answer. There were tears in my eyes and something like tears in my throat. I could not speak. My ring was a lead weight on my thumb, dead and pointless. It was just a lump of metal. I had nothing, then. Truly

nothing. Before, when I was destitute in the streets of Borosevo, I’d had the private dignity of my hidden station and what holdings were tied, however tenuously, to my name and rank. But now I was truly destitute, with nothing but the genes in my bones. Mataro was right. I was a stud, and in the most unflattering sense, like a famous racehorse lamed in the slip. I tried not to think about Switch, about Pallino and Elara and the ship I’d meant to buy

with the ghost assets on my ring and a song.

No longer. I would almost have to prostitute myself to Anaïs and House Mataro to survive.

“I’m sorry to tell you this.”

“No, you’re not,” I said in a voice like grave soil. I had just seen the date on the writ and knew what had been done to me and by whom. “You sent to him. To my father. You telegraphed him right after I arrived.” The day I’d

arrived, if I’d read the date right. He’d been planning this since we met, since I sat unconscious in his chair upstairs. That was why he’d been

willing to keep me in his house, why he’d tolerated my antics in the

coliseum hypogeum and at dinner with the prior. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to deny it. His face did not so much as twitch. He knew he had me. “For all I know, you urged him to do this. Made some deal to keep me. What was it? Thirty pieces of silver?”

The man’s face went blank. “What?” He didn’t understand me. “You should be honored. You’re to be my son.”

“I’m to be a whore.” I almost choked, took a moment to crush the sob in my throat before it could escape. Grief is emptiness. So chastised, I filed my grief, turned to practical matters. “What are you going to do with me, then?” There would be time to dwell on the day’s horrors later—would be time to drown them, if necessary.

“You brought this on yourself, boy.” The count tugged the writ back toward himself. “Now, to present matters. Once you’re married, Ligeia

won’t be able to move against you without moving against my house, which she will not do.” He stood with a swirl of orange silks and paced anxiously to the curved arc of windows—view screens, in truth, which projected an image of Borosevo in all its rusty, low glory, the canals green-choked by

algae. “The problem is those three years between now and then. You’ve made yourself a powerful enemy, you know.” He paused to peel another verrox leaf off the bale, hand vibrating visibly. “I’ve a mind to send you to Tivan Melluan, up on Binah, to get you out of harm’s way.”

I did not respond; I was staring at my hands again. They too were

shaking, though not from verrox toxemia. My long hair fell over my face, curtaining me off from the count. Tears milled across the surface of my

eyes, unfallen. Too much—it was all too much.

At length I looked up from my hands, resigned, and said, “My lord, a question, if I may.”

It was worth asking. It was all I could do.

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