Chapter no 74 – The Labyrinth

Empire of Silence

THE DOOR’S PNEUMATICS HISSED behind me, leaving me embalmed in darkness. The weeks had taken their toll, and as the prisoner had suffered, so too had its cell. The place stank of rotting meat. If you have passed by a peasant’s shack in the country and smelled the carcass of a poached deer

skinned and left waiting too long for the stew pot, you can imagine the

stench. Red lights shone low on the walls, their dimness a perverse courtesy to the night creature that was the cell’s sole occupant. Part of me envied poor dead Gilliam. The stench of rotting flesh and blood and raw, inhuman sewage filled the air, and I longed to press a perfumed kerchief to my face to mask the odor as the priest might have done.

In the dim I beheld Uvanari. The ichakta was again strapped to its cross.

It had been there for two days, the whole ensemble canted backward to keep the patient conscious, moved at intervals by automated controls to reduce the incidence of pressure sores.

Its crowned head looked up at the sound of the door, black eyes narrowing to slits as it saw me. “You,” it hissed, and then it saw the object I held. “What is that? Have you come to kill me?”

“Veih,” I said in answer. No. I held the hypodermic up for its

examination. “For the pain. Our doctors examined your blood chemistry; they think this will work. Please.” I held the thing up again, offering.

Uvanari turned its head, weak but . . . defiant? Resigned? It was the turning away of a broken predator who knows the hunter has come to fell it,

exposing its neck. I jabbed the needle into its arm instead, then stepped back to let it take effect. While we waited in silence, I reflected on all the

ancient legends that spoke of truth serums, of magic drugs that made a man reveal his innermost secrets. All false. No such medicament exists.

Scopolamine. Thiopental. Amytal. All alter the mind, open doors, but truth

truth is something else entirely. Something separate from knowledge. Besides, whatever effect such poisons have on the human spirit, Uvanari was not human. It was a miracle we could do anything for its pain, much less make it talk. Still, I dared to dream.

After a minute had elapsed, the Cielcin began to relax visibly. Its

appearance had degraded badly in the time since its imprisonment. The right arm was flayed, skin stripped bloodlessly from wrist to elbow, the bluish tissue salved with something wet and glutinous that kept it from rotting. I had been present when the skin was peeled off like a woman’s stocking. I can still hear the screaming, as I heard it then in the silence of that cell. Good prefect, bad prefect, I told myself, and I said, “I am sorry,

Ichakta. I didn’t know they would do this.” But I had known, hadn’t I? I had seen what the Chantry had done to our own people. The butchered criminals and branded heretics that littered Meidua and Borosevo and doubtless every city on every planet in between. Ignoring a thing is not ignorance, and he

who holds his silence is an accomplice every time.

“Okun detu ne?”

The question surprised me so much that I echoed it. “Why me? What do you mean?”

“All this time, you. You stand there with those . . . creatures. The others.

You speak for them. Why? Who are you?”

Time fell past while I struggled to answer this. I set the anesthetic down on the cart with the torture equipment, one piece of mercy amongst all that pain and suffering. “I told you, I’m just a man. I’m not anybody. Just . . . I just know the words. That was why I was in the cave, and it’s why I’m still here.”

“I thought you would say that.” While it spoke, I moved behind it,

changed the angle of the adjustable bit of scaffolding that held its arm in place, angled it down so that blood and feeling might return to the injured limb. The cathars had bandaged the declawed and shortened fingertips, and the dried blood shone black against the white gauze. Uvanari moaned softly as its flayed arm moved against the padded backing of the rig. I winced in

sympathy, but the creature said, “You are a slave, then?”

I shook my head, then realized that it could not see me. “No.”

I had spoken in Galstani reflexively, but the Cielcin seemed to understand. “You are not diyugatsayu.”

“Free?” I repeated. “I am free.”

“He who works for others is not diyugatsayu,” Uvanari said. “You are a slave.” I walked around again to face the creature. Was it really nine feet tall? Its suffering had shrunken it like a silhouette crushed by intense light. “That is well—we are all slaves, Hadrian.” My name pronounced by its inhuman tongue was a kind of accusation, and I flinched away. I felt eyes watching me: the two inhuman ones, and the countless artificial ones in the walls and ceilings through which humanity present and future looked in on me. I knew I should not flinch. I had no right to. I was not myself in that moment but humanity’s avatar, speaking for us all to Uvanari, who spoke for its kind. Humanity must not flinch, whatever Hadrian felt.

Much as I wanted to explore philosophy with this mind so unlike the minds of men, I had a script, a mission to obey. As Uvanari said, I was a kind of slave. The good prefect. I cleared my throat. “They want you to give them something. If you do, they will stop all this. Heal you. They can graft your arm.” The word for graft was a mystery to me, and I spent the better part of ten seconds stumbling around a way to say it. I settled on using the word caenuri, to heal, again. “Please. Who is your leader? Your aeta?” The word was typically translated as prince, but it shared etymological

connections to words like makerowner, and master.

“I am done speaking with you, Hadrian.” The alien looked away, shut its eyes.

Though its arms had been stretched wide when I entered, the cathars had folded their victim into a sitting position on the adjustable cross and cast a blanket over the ichakta’s grubby nakedness. It just sat there, arms half-open, face turned away. Not speaking. As a child I had learned of the blessed victims of ancient religions, men and women slain for their unwavering conviction to their now-forgotten gods. The Chantry had

adopted such images and used them in the worship of the Heroes, those men and women who had devoted their lives to the realm or given their lives for it. Images of men tied or chained to trees or crosses, their faces turned to the heavens, composed not in rictuses of pain but in quiet piety. With so demonic an alien visage crowned with horns of white bone, the parody was almost obscene. Almost a sacrilege, even to one like myself who could not pray.

“You need to give us something.”

“All I have left to do is die,” Uvanari said, and I could almost hear

Gibson decrying the creature for its melodrama just as he had me for mine. “It was a mistake to surrender. I knew it would come to this.”

I took in the burns, the dried blood on its fingertips, the flayed band of flesh. “Then why did you do it?”

“For the same reason you gave.” Then the creature did something I have never forgotten, something that remains etched in my memory as if in laser light. It shook its head. Not the neck-stretching gestures by which it typically signaled yes or no. It did the human gesture, having learned it in

speaking with me. “This is not my war, as it is not yours. We inherited it, same as you. When you said that, I dared to hope.”

“We have a saying.” I straightened my back, thrust out my chin. “My teacher always said that hope is a cloud.”

Whether it was introspection or pain that slowed the alien’s response, I couldn’t say. “It sounds very wise.”

“He.” The Cielcin blew air from its angled nose slits. I continued, “I want to return you to your people, Itana Uvanari. To your aeta.” Your

master? Your owner? Your maker?

Was that light in the ink spots of Uvanari’s eyes? Hope?

Hope is a cloud, Gibson’s voice said in my ear. A part of me.

Uvanari turned those eyes to the ceiling, spoke as if to the congress of invisible watchers: the inquisitors and logothetes, or perhaps the more invisible and unhearing gods. “To my people? After all your people have done? You think my master will thank you for this?” It tried to move its flayed arm against the electromagnetic restraints.

“I thought you said you were a slave. What are your lives worth to your master?” I twisted my questions as though they were a knife. “How much more will those lives be worth in trade with us?”

“We are kasamnte,” it whispered. “Nothing. Do you understand? Not even Tanaran matters to him.”

I stopped my slow circling of the Cielcin on its opposable cross, hands frozen at my sides. For a moment there was only the frost of our breath misting the air, going up in steam. There was so much to unpack in that

sentence; had it been a lesson with Gibson, I might have asked him to repeat himself. Tanaran? I tabled the bit about Tanaran a moment, focusing on the pronoun: him. Uvanari had definitely used the active-gendered pronoun, o-kousun. But it was the object of the sentence, following the

neuter-neuter structure one expected around a linking verb. It felt wrong, like a broken tooth.

“Him?” I asked. Uvanari didn’t answer; it wouldn’t even look at me.

This was the part where Inquisitor Agari would strike it, or tear the blanket from its nakedness, or order another tooth or claw removed with pliers. I was not Inquisitor Agari. “What do you mean, him? Your master? Your aeta?”

“My . . .” Uvanari clamped its jaw shut, head lolling in the counterclockwise negative gesture. No.

I changed tack. “What do you mean about Tanaran? ‘Not even Tanaran matters to him,’ you said. Hejato Tanaran higatseyu ti-kousun. What is

Tanaran in this?” I reflected on the younger Cielcin as I stood facing Uvanari, worrying at a thumbnail. Tanaran had not been dressed in the

combat armor Uvanari and the other soldiers wore; it had worn only light fabrics in green and black. “Is Tanaran aeta?”

“Tanaran?” The Cielcin almost laughed, hazy now with the painkiller I’d administered. “Tanaran is baetan.”

I blinked, tore a sliver of the thumbnail off with my teeth. “A root?”

“Will you kill me, Hadrian?” The words came as if from nowhere, a non sequitur, but their presence had hung over all that preceded, over every

word we’d exchanged that day. It had all been tipping forward to this . . . this . . .

I looked sharply up at the creature through my lank hair. Uvanari was looking at me, its inhuman face drawn and paler than milk. One of the horns in its crown had been snapped off, I saw, and none too cleanly—what remained of it was a jagged nub. I had missed that somehow in all my observations, all my sessions of standing like a ghost in the corner of this room. Not a ghost—a daimon, same as the machines Valka’s people used to translate.

“Biqa o-okarin ne?” I asked. Kill you? “I can’t kill you. And what did you mean about Tanaran?”

“It will . . . could be aeta one day,” Uvanari said, then changed tracks. “You have to kill me. It is the way. If you are truly sorry, it is the way.”

A cold stone sat in my throat, a cold, hard, dead lump of coal without the fires of redemption in ancient fables. I could not speak past it, not to

Uvanari. The words that found me were in Galstani. “I wanted to help. I

wanted to . . . to make things better.” The floor gleamed the color of knives,

scuffed and scratched, brushed clean. How many people had ended their lives in this room, their stories snuffed out, pasts and futures erased? “It’s my fault.” This was what Gibson meant: the ugliness of the world. I

switched back to the Cielcin language, said, “I can’t do that.” “You must. It is ndaktu.

Mercy. No—a sort of formal mercy. I tried to remember the precise definition of the word, the almost legal implications of it. I tried again. “Where is your fleet, Uvanari? Your people?”

It rocked its head in the counterclockwise negative, seeming almost to have some sort of fit. “No. No.”

“I want to contact them. There must be a way. A way that doesn’t put them at risk. I want to see you and Tanaran and the others returned. Really.” I was not a liar, but I was made one by the machinery of context. I knew that whatever I did, whatever I learned would be twisted. I recalled the last words of an ancient general, their meaning lost or never understood: How

will I ever get out of this labyrinth? But I had to keep walking as Theseus had: always forward, always down, never left or right. I was complicit in these horrors only as a fox is complicit in the hunt or the rabbit in a dog race. I sought escape. I knew everything I did and said would serve their cause. And yet how could I do anything else?

The ichakta spat onto the grate at the base of the cross. “I will not betray my people. Not to you yukajjimn.

“Do we have to say ‘vermin’?” I muttered in Galstani. I hung my head, rubbing at my eyes in frustrated defeat. We were not on a first-name basis any longer. But I had learned one thing—that I should speak with Tanaran, not Uvanari—and so I turned to go.

“Wait,” the xenobite said. I stopped, already halfway to the door. “His name is Aranata.”

“Whose?” I asked, though I knew what Uvanari meant the moment I’d finished the word.

“My master’s,” the captain said. It had used the masculine pronoun

again—who else could it have meant? “Aranata Otiolo. You will not find him. But . . . you will stop now?”

Turning fully around to face the prisoner, I asked, “Are you going to cooperate, then? Are you going to tell us where your people are?”

There was silence for a moment, terrible as the death of stars. Then, “No. I cannot. I do not know. We move.”

“You must have some way to find home again,” I said, unbelieving. Its head lolled in the negative direction. “No. Veih. No.”

“Then I can’t make them stop.” I couldn’t make them stop anyway, no matter what Uvanari told us. I could never make them stop.

Another pause, shorter this time. “If I tell them what they want to know, will they kill me?” When I didn’t answer, the Cielcin spoke again, its voice little more than the dry whisper of leaves on broken glass. “Biqaun ne?”

Will you?

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