THE EMPTY WINE BOTTLE bounced against the floor tiles, rolling away under the table. I let it go. I had half a mind to call Switch on my terminal. I
shouldn’t have been alone in that moment, and yet I knew I could not stand to be with anyone. It wasn’t even dark out; that day—that interminable day
—refused to end. The orange sunlight fell darkly through the narrow
windows, casting my spartan apartments into relief. My wine depleted, I dragged my journal from the small table beside my short couch and keyed a control in the tabletop to polarize the light from the windows, dimming the world.
I sat sharpening my pencil, twice breaking the thing in my unsteady fingers. Gilliam’s face kept asserting itself. “Don’t trust,” he had said,
“don’t trust . . .” Perhaps the Chantry gods were real, I thought. Perhaps they hated me; perhaps I was to atone. Lord Consort of Emesh . . . I ground my teeth. The bird cares not that his cage is gilded. A great honor, even if it was a kind of prison. A kind of poison. I would be a lord in title as well as blood, and a greater one than my father.
I scooped up the empty glass, raised it in a dramatic toast. I had to suppress an urge to dash the glass against the wall, but I settled for
slamming it back onto the side table with a scowl. Slumped against the arm of the chair, I raised a hand to no one in particular—to the cameras in my
suite, perhaps—and made a rude gesture. I forgot in my drunkenness that they were not the cameras of Devil’s Rest.
The door cycled open. I’d locked it, wanting to be alone. Half panicking, expecting to see a cathar or Chantry assassin, I raised the scalpel I used to
sharpen my pencils, pointing it like a plasma burner. In my haste my knee slammed into the arm of the couch, and I staggered and fell back into my
seat, knocking my glass to the floor. “Damn it . . .” A sob shook me, blessedly quiet. Unable to look at Valka, I looked down at the shattered glass instead, at the wine puddling on the hardwood.
“If you’re trying to drown yourself,” she said with affected coldness, “there are larger bodies of water on Emesh.”
I glared up at her from my place on the floor, then down at the scalpel in my hand. Contemptuously I threw the thing aside, watched it clatter over to the small table by the kitchenette. “Wasn’t water.”
“’Tis the problem, I think.” She filled a glass of water from the sink and passed it to me, helped me to regain my place on the couch. “Drink.” Her hand touched mine briefly, and even through my haze I felt and remember the warmth of it. There was care in the motion and a tenderness I did not deserve that day of all days.
I drank, rested my head against the back of the couch. She moved off to recover the scalpel. She turned, caught me staring, and arched one winged eyebrow. I had seen uglier statues of Venus in old archives, though surely here was Pallas. That thought forced a laugh through my nose. It collapsed into silence, and after the better part of a minute had passed—during which time the xenologist seated herself in a narrow armchair by the windows—I managed to mumble, “I’m sorry.” Then again, more strongly, “I’m sorry.” I pressed my eyes closed, pinched the bridge of my nose. “There’s more
wine . . . somewhere. Sir Elomas had a case sent up. Thank him for me?”
“I should think you’ve had enough.” She gave me a look that diminished me, made me feel a part of the couch I half lay upon. Those golden eyes took in the bottle that had rolled onto the floor, the pencil shavings, my rumpled clothes, and the tangled blankets that lay scattered on the floor between the sofa and the open door to my bedchamber. She crossed her
arms. “I was going to come knock some sense into you, but I think the damage is done.” She kept watching me.
“Sorry . . .” My tongue was thick and fat in my mouth, slow to follow the scant lead my brain had on it. “Valka, I was only going to wound him, but he cut me.” I held up my bandaged arm for inspection. “The bastard cut me. Faster than I expected.” I shuddered, shut my eyes. I couldn’t look at her, not in my current state. Maybe if I closed my eyes she would go away. She shouldn’t have been able to get inside in the first place. “Stupid . . .
I . . .”
“You are an idiot,” she said, but she smiled, if only barely. “But you’re not a liar.”
“What?” I looked blearily up from my journal. It had fallen open to an image of Devil’s Rest, the castle in undetailed black as seen from the streets of Meidua—seen indeed from that very street where I had almost died a lifetime ago. Had it really only been three years? Or thirty-five?
Valka’s eyes narrowed to slits, glowing in the dim umber light of
afternoon, but her smile didn’t waver. “You’d never killed anyone before.” “I’m not . . . I . . . No.” I wanted to cry, but more than that I wanted to be
all right, or at least to present as all right in front of this strange and
exquisite foreigner. She was a colossus, tall and calm and remote as the stars.
After a pregnant moment, she said, “It’s not easy, is it?”
She was being subtle. I was too drunk for subtlety at the moment. It was a struggle to keep my words cogent, to stop them from running like a man’s makeup in the rain. “What?”
I cocked my head at her, numb fingers working to close my journal. “Yeah.” Her voice had not been that of an academic but was drawn with painful experience. I did not press her. Valka sucked on the inside of one cheek, kept her attentions fixed on my face, lost in thought. Blearily I gathered up what wits remained me and asked, “What?”
She shook her head, pressed a fall of red-black hair behind her ear with a determined gesture. “What will you do now?”
I shrugged, moved as if to grab a bottle from my side table, only to remember too late that it was empty and on the floor. I mumbled something about the marriage, then told her everything. About Gilliam, about Anaïs,
about my father and the Chantry. “The count wants to send me up to Binah. To keep me away from Vas.” I paused, cleared my throat. “But I asked him to let me go with you.”
“What?” Valka’s head snapped up. “Why?”
“I don’t want—I don’t mean to invite myself, it’s just . . . I think you’re right. I don’t think the Empire’s good for me.” I stifled another sob,
slammed my head back against the sofa. Once. Twice.
If ever there were a moment, a point at which Valka warmed to me, it was then. I could almost feel it the way one feels the sound of ice cracking when water is poured into a glass. Her cold and brittle smile softened.
Instead of answering, she rose and tugged my empty cup from my hands,
went to refill it. I was left in silence for the better part of a minute, watching the bob and dart of tiny ships against the distant celadon sea. In the evening sunlight the green waters turned the color of mud, and all the world was
cheap as a bad painting. The ugliness, I thought. This was what Gibson
meant about the ugliness of the world. But perhaps the world was perfect and it was myself who was hideous.
The woman returned, this time settling herself onto the low coffee table before the couch. She pressed the water on me. “Why Calagah?”
I lied, “For the aliens. The history.” For you. To escape. “If you’ll have me. I don’t want to be a . . . a burden.”
“The count will allow it?” Valka looked nervous. The expression did not suit her.
“I can’t stay here, not after”—I waved an incoherent hand—“today.” Nodding, I slumped sideways onto the arm of the couch. “I’m sorry.”
“Came here to yell at me,” I mumbled. “Right thing. Now you’re being all nice.”
She pursed her lips, eyes darting out the window to the painted, putrid city. “I’ll yell at you later.” Then, “Your father disinherited you?”
I shook my head, regretted the gesture at once as the room started to
spin. So I shut my eyes. “Disowned me. My grandmother did, too.” A laugh escaped me, mad and thready and broken. “I’m not really Hadrian Marlowe anymore. I’m Hadrian nobody.” I pulled the signet ring from my thumb— the damn thing had gotten me into all this mess in the first place. With little effort I flung it across the room. Let the cleaning drones have it; let them
sweep it into a bin and bear it to the incinerators. It was worthless anyhow, disinherited as I was. My holdings would have been canceled the moment it had happened. The land I held on Delos had defaulted to Meidua prefecture and to House Marlowe.
I’d believed I was House Marlowe, but I was only an extension of it. An appendage. I’d always thought my house composed of individuals, but even on that strange world I had depended on my name and on the ring that
symbolized it to mean something. We think ourselves the masters of such symbols, but they are our masters. Devils. Sphinxes. Suns. I had clung to
the bloody thing like a talisman, hoping it would protect me, save me. It had
damned me instead, had made my idiotic behavior catastrophic. “The Sword, Our Orator!” I hissed, saying my family’s words. I made of them a curse. “Would that it weren’t so.”
The lights dimmed in one of the castle’s too-familiar power fluctuations.
Valka struck me hard across the face without preamble or warning. The sound of it startled me more than the force of it, and I pressed a hand to my cheek, stunned. “Stop it,” she said, brows knitting as she leaned in. “’Tis
well you’re having second thoughts, but ’tis too late. You have no one to blame but yourself. You understand? This isn’t happening to you, ’tis happening because of you.”
The fool believes the iniquities of the world are the fault of other men.
Gibson’s voice, dry as old manuscript pages, had never been more clear. The truly wise try to change themselves, which is the more difficult and less grand task. What need had I then for House Marlowe? For the worthless ring?
My face ached where Valka had stuck me, but the pain was far away. I didn’t argue. She was right. “His eyes, Valka. His eyes. Gilliam’s. I . . . I
saw them . . . hollow. One minute he was there, and the next . . .” I had seen dead men before, had seen their eyes—like distant suns and with just as little heat—but never once had I seen the moment of passage. Even Cat,
who had died in my arms, had crossed over with her eyes shut. “It was horrible. Horrible . . .” I fancied I saw his pale blue eye shining at me now, filmed over in death. The eye of a vulture.
The Tavrosi woman made a hushing sound, ushering in a long and
agreeable silence. I teetered on the brink of sleep, that soft and temporary oblivion. Teetered but did not fall. At length I said, “Can I go with you? To Calagah? I don’t want . . .” I pawed the air in the direction of my ring. “I don’t want any of this.”
Her lips curled, and she said, “What about Anaïs?” I sniffed. “What about her?”
“You’re betrothed.” She gestured at the room around me and by extension at the castle beyond. “You have to come back here.”
“I know.” I drew my legs almost to my chin, blew my hair from my eyes. “But I don’t have to stay here.”
Valka smiled again—the warm smile she had shown me earlier, not the cold one that was her custom—and rested her tattooed hand on my cheek. She spoke words I could not hear, or perhaps she did not speak at all. The
moment is a warm haze, a smear across my memory as darkness and the trials of that day washed me away.