Chapter no 68 – HELP

Empire of Silence

WE WERE ALL HUDDLED in a shallow spot in the seaside cliffs when the

shuttles came, arcing overland and out along the coastline to come back toward Calagah from the sea. Their lights gleamed blue and white, their tread nearly silent on the air, buoyed by Royse repulsors. They came in like the longships of old, kicking up the surf with their engines, outboard

attitude jets adjusting their drift. Still more shot past, drives carving blue lines in after-image across the sky, angling toward the spot in the west

where the ship had crashed. They looked different in the dimness, oddly fishlike, glinting like brass as they streaked away.

The dozen that set down on the beach were squat lozenges, taller than they were wide. Their slanted front faces hinged open, turning to ramps. A moment later soldiers in rust-colored combat armor tramped out, the Veisi serpent twined across their chests and down their left arms. Their leader—a centurion, by the transverse crest on her helm—passed her lance to an

adjutant and unsealed that helmet, which she tucked under her arm. She moved forward, advancing on Elomas and young Karthik where they sat on a low shelf of stone. “Sir Elomas!” She was nearly bald, copper-skinned

and severe with a sheet of burn scar above one bright eye. I recalled her from Spingdeep: a good officer, resolute.

“Vriell!” Karthik rose and dashed to the woman, who stopped to embrace the shorter boy. “Are you here to take us away?”

“Aye, little lord!” She tousled the fifteen-year-old’s hair, then stood and spoke to the old knight. “Sir, if you would, I’ve orders to return you to Springdeep directly.”

Elomas had not stirred from his place on the low shelf of stone, boots dug into the beach, jacket thrown down beside him, shirt open to the

breastbone as he chewed on one of his chocolate bars. He looked drawn, pressed thin as paper, and yet he smiled at the severe-looking centurion. “What’s going on, Vriell?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, sir.” “Not even to me?”

“Not to anyone,” she countered, standing at attention, her hand on the hilt of her ceramic short sword—mere soldiers were not permitted true highmatter swords in those days. “Not my place, sir. Orders come straight from the top.”

“From Father?” Karthik asked, meaning Archon Veisi. He peered up at the centurion. “Or the count?”

“From the knight-tribune,” Vriell replied, then realized she’d said too much and set her jaw. “Please, sir. Let’s get everyone aboard the shuttles now.” She stepped aside, gesturing with one arm to indicate that Elomas should take the lead. “This way.”

The knight-tribune. I studied the centurion’s face from my place against the basalt cliff, glanced at Valka and Ada where they sat huddled among the few packs the technicians had liberated from the site. Knight-Tribune Raine Smythe? I summoned up a memory of the woman from the banquet, from Dorian’s Ephebeia and the triumph. Square-jawed and plain, face traced by patrician scars, her unremarkable brown hair cropped short. She had seized power on Emesh, citing some emergency protocol in the wake of what we

all knew, officially confirmed or otherwise, was a Cielcin attack. Count Balian would have ceded authority to her as the ranking Legion officer,

allowing her temporary command of his personal forces. That explained the Mataro green mixed in among the red and white of His Radiance’s Legions.

Lights still flickered in the sky, bursting and sparking as lighters and other starships tracked and dragged to high and lower orbits, bisecting the night sky with streaks of flame. Every now and again, a point silently blossomed into a rosette of pink-red flame: the death of some spacecraft. The poets romanticize space combat; holograph operas depict them as things of sound and fury. Even from within a battle it is not so, but from the outside they are only light and silence, save when the heavens come

crashing down. I rose from my place, craning my neck to look back along the shoreline to where the smoke of the distant crash muddied the air, lit from beneath by plasma fires and burning metal.

“How far off are they?” I demanded. “The Cielcin?”

The centurion looked at me, recognition in her bright eyes. Her

eyebrows—or rather, her eyebrow and the patch of burn scar—rose in surprise. “Lord Marlowe.”

“Centurion,” I said. Valka and Tor Ada moved steadily toward the fliers, pushing through the milling few dozen technicians and archaeologists. “We know it’s the Pale.”

The patch of burn scar above Vriell’s eye whitened. “Then you understand the need for haste.”

“Who’s on the other fliers?” I pointed up at the sky.

“Jaddians,” she answered, unsure how much my rank demanded that she share with me, “and the Legion.”

I glanced at Valka, then to Elomas. “Sir, you have to let me go with them.”

“What?” Elomas’s eyes widened, green even in the predawn light. “Why?”

“Out of the question, lordship!” the centurion said, taking a step forward to lay a hand on my arm above the elbow. “The count would never forgive me or Lord Veisi if you were to come to harm.”

I brushed her gauntleted hand off, but she reasserted her grip. What did I care if Archon Veisi lost favor in the eyes of the count at Borosevo? He was only a regional governor. A flicker of my father’s aristocratic ice slipped into the edges of my voice, and I hissed, “Get your hands off me.” Vriell quailed visibly, reminded for a moment that I was palatine. She released me. That I was to be the consort of her count’s future heir was a secret, was irrelevant, but my own breeding was enough to engender pause. “You’re going to back them up once the dig team’s secure?” She didn’t respond, just set her heavy jaw, chin thrust out. I took it for affirmation and clapped my hands. “Good. I’m coming with you.”

“Lordship . . . I . . .”

“I’m coming with you.” I brushed past her, making for another of the drop-ships, one the dig team was not pouring into.

Valka’s voice rose above the hum of repulsors and the lapping of waves. “Hadrian!”

I turned back, planted by chance on a slight rise in the craggy beach. My words were for the centurion, though I spoke as my father might, to the

whole group. “If any of the Pale survived, I can talk to them. I can get them

to surrender.” Whatever Valka had been about to say, she grew quiet. “I can help! Centurion, you know I can help.”

The truth was that I did not know what made me say it, what drove me.

Curiosity, perhaps? Or pride? Even now, after all the centuries, all the bloodshed, after the death of a sun and the death of a species, after all the good and evil done by me and in my name and in the name of mankind, it is that instant that rings true. If you seek a moment—the moment—on which to hang my life, it is there. Upon that stony shore at the margin of the world, on a night when fire reigned and fell from heaven, I found a purpose. I was Hadrian Marlowe again. I was like a man possessed, and I stood fidgeting with the wheal of cryoburn scar on my left thumb. I had lost my ring, thrown it away in Borosevo. I’d looked for it the next morning, but it had vanished. Stolen, I had guessed, by one of the servants, or else tidied away by some unthinking cleaning machine. I had not pressed my claim at the time. It was next to worthless now that my titles and holdings had been revoked by my father, and I’d had other things to worry over.

“It’s not safe.” The centurion shook her head and advanced on me again. “You have to go back to Springdeep.”

“Then you’ll have to stun me, Centurion, and then you can explain to Anaïs Mataro why it is you stunned her fiancé.” That struck true, and the color drained from the centurion’s face. Seeing my opportunity, I forged

ahead. “Let me go where I can help.” Vriell looked from me to Sir Elomas, but the old man only shrugged, wind pushing his mop of white hair over his face, obscuring it. “If I can talk to them, maybe I can stop further bloodshed. You don’t want to lose any of your people, surely.” Makisomn’s head rolled behind my eyes, and I sucked in a breath, eyes screwed shut for a moment as I marshaled myself and forced words out. “Three hundred years of fighting, Centurion, and in all that time we’ve never, never seen the Cielcin surrender. We can change that.”

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