Chapter no 75 – Mercy is

Empire of Silence

NIGHT HAD FALLEN ON the castle, and lights settled on the canals of Borosevo like the shimmering of swamp gas. Corpse fires burned, too, in plazas and on street corners, reminders of the plague, so long fallen away from my

everyday experience, that wracked the unhealthy commons in the world below. This high up, one could not smell the smoke, much less the stink of sickness and of rotten fish and algae that were the perfumes of the city.

A pair of watchmen passed me on the stairs up to the corner tower and terraced gardens that clung to the southern face of the ziggurat atop which the castle stood. In a strange way, the path recalled the winding stair down from Devil’s Rest to the abandoned wharf I haunted in childhood. I no longer noted the heavy, cloying dampness on the air or the dull weight of Emesh’s stronger gravity. The sea breeze cut wild and clean across me, gathering my hair in its fingers. High above I made out the blue-white spot of the Obdurate, locked in stationary orbit above the city and playing host to a constellation of glittering repair crafts dimmer than the stars. Debris from the engagement with the Cielcin still fell at times, carmine scars on night’s blue curtain. I watched just such a piece fall across the heavens, turned to ash by the heat of entry.

A wind tousled the terranic palms planted like sentinels in the earth, and somewhere an ornithon hissed. That garden high above the sea was a beautiful place, as the wharf had been, and Calagah, and the seawall at

Devil’s Rest. I think I might have been a sailor in another life—or perhaps we all were—for always in such pelagic climes I have found a fleeting but instantaneous peace. Ignoring the printed warnings, I clambered up onto the parapet and turned my face windward, loose shirt billowing.

And I was alone.

There were always the cameras, but there at least I was free of the

servants and courtiers and their incessant whispering. Unsteady, I seated myself on the stone rail, feet dangling above the next terrace fifty feet below. Part of me felt like a child, and I must have looked like one

compared to that mighty edifice of stone. The castle lurked behind and

above me, hanging like the Sword of Damocles above my head. A thousand feet below, the bastille crouched, an ugly concrete structure beside the

Chantry’s copper dome and slim towers.

I did not weep, though I had cause for weeping.

The only sound was the rustle of wind in the cedars, broken here and there by the quark of a night bird or the hiss of ornithons. Somewhere a frog croaked, and more distantly a man’s voice carried on the wind.

I heard none of this, could hear only the screams and animal snuffling of Uvanari in pain. Whatever differences there were between our species, pain was not among them. I clenched my jaw until it ached, hearing in my head its desperate plea: Will you kill me, Hadrian? I wasn’t sure I could.

The Cielcin fought for themselves, for their right to exist. We were no different. So long as their existence threatened our colonies, so long as our soldiers destroyed their worldship fleets, there would be no peace. So long as atrocity was met with atrocity, murder with murder, fire with fire, it mattered not at all whose sword was bloodier. The Chantry would torment Uvanari unto death. Then they would start on Tanaran or one of the others and achieve . . . nothing. All the torment in the universe could not give the priests coordinates the xenobites did not know, and nothing would change.

Where had I gone wrong? My good intentions had all boiled away, leaving only this labyrinth. Every choice I had bred suffering. Kill Uvanari

—if I could—and Tanaran would be next upon the cross. Or I would. Do nothing, and the captain suffered, and I suffered with it, if only in my soul. We were at war, I told myself, and hard times called for hard choices.

Images out of spiritus mundi crowded my mind, recalled from that horrible nightmare I had seen in Calagah. The Cielcin marching across the stars. A great host, beautiful and terrible, its white hair streaming in the sun. I saw them burned away by that dying star and heard screams louder still. My hands shook, and again the screams became the wailing of the infant I had not seen. Then there were only the three words spoken to me by that Quiet voice:

This must be.

Despite the heat of the garden, I shivered. And after what seemed half of eternity, I called up a holograph on my wrist terminal and keyed a message.

I waited.

“You know, I think Gilliam was right,” I said, hearing the approach of feet. “You really are a witch, sneaking up on a man like that.”

The footsteps stopped, and Valka’s bright voice rang out in the gloom, flattened somewhat by the wind. “How did you know it was me?”

“I didn’t,” I said soberly. “Glad it was, though. I’d have looked ridiculous if it had been anyone else.” I looked back over my shoulder, patted the rail beside me. Whether more afraid of heights than I or less foolish, she declined. “I was hoping we could talk. You know, quietly.”

She looked round the garden terrace, smoothed her shortened hair as she took in the palm trees and the bright flowers tamped to vague colors in the scant lighting set into the stone wall behind us. Behind her the safety lamps that lit the wall-walk dimmed, fuzzing silently out, then back on again. One continued to blink softly as if palsied. “All right, I’m running a loop on the three cameras out here, but we shouldn’t talk long.”

I chewed on the remains of my thumbnail. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about: this thing you can do.”

“What of it?”

“I need your help. Uvanari, the Cielcin captain . . .” I shook my head.

There was no good way to say it. There was no way not to say it. “It asked me to kill it, and I think I have to.” I was not looking at her but down at the hulking bastille far below. She didn’t speak, and I might have thought her gone but for the glaring sense that I was being watched. “They’re torturing it, Valka, despite all their promises and all the promises I made. I have a responsibility. I can’t save the captain, and it’s my fault it’s in there in the first place, so . . .” I told her my plan, all of it, withholding not even the

smallest detail. I spoke quickly, mindful of what little time we had. “I might be able to get something out of it, something that will keep the Chantry from harming the others. I want to return them to their people, to use them to open a dialogue with their leaders. To stop the fighting.” I swallowed.

“To end the war.”

Only then did I turn. Only then could I bear to see the judgment in those golden eyes.

There was none.

“You said once that what happened with Gilliam was my fault. You were right. But if I do nothing this time, then that’s my fault, too. And I can’t do it alone.”

The way her lips pressed together, the way her eyebrows drew down . . . I could not read it. She chewed her lip. “Very well, I’ll do it,” she said. And then she added two words I have never forgotten or deserved: “For you.”



The other Cielcin shared a single cell in the bastille. Unlike the steel bubble of the interrogation room, the holding cell was sectioned concrete, walls

and floor and ceiling. What lighting there was hung from pendant cables, the yellow bulbs dialed low. I was not allowed inside, but the Chantry’s own melodramatic tendencies had conspired to wall the front of the

communal lockup with actual metal bars, the white paint on them chipped and flaking. One of the Cielcin saw me—the one I’d shot with the stunner in Calagah, perhaps—and nudged its companion. Like a set of sails filling

with the wind, the ten Cielcin rose and turned to face me. Were they human,

I might have said they waited in quiet curiosity, or else that hatred burned cold in their corpse-like faces, but they were not human, and what they felt I could not say.

They had all been stripped of their armor, and but for Tanaran, they had only skintight unitards glistening with the coiled patterns of moisture-recycling and temperature-regulation tubing. Their clawed feet were bare

and looked more like hands than seemed right. One hissed, baring its teeth,

not in the gesture its kind took for smiling. “You!”

Weeks had passed since last I had spoken with any of the xenobites save Uvanari, and never before had I addressed them as a group. Conscious of Inquisitor Agari standing at the end of the hall and of the cameras like

spiders in the corners, I said, “I am sorry you are being kept this way. I had assurances it would be otherwise.” Always speak to one in a crowd, my father often said. A crowd can ignore you, but a man cannot. Tanaran was no man, not in any sense of the word, but I spoke to it all the same.

“Tanaran, I know what you are.”

The Cielcin noble narrowed its eyes. “You do not.”

A weak smile stole over my face. “The ichakta told me you are a root.

Baetan. I do not know what that means, but it means you are important.” I

darted a glance at Inquisitor Agari, then turned to speak to the other Cielcin, singling Tanaran out of the crowd.

But Tanaran spoke first, standing straight as the too-low ceiling would allow, its need to stand at attention defeating its good sense. “How is


I thank the Chantry’s imagined gods that the creature could not interpret my facial expressions, for I opened my mouth, distressed. Again I looked to Agari. “They ask after their captain,” I said to her in Galstani.

“Tell them he’s being well treated but that the wound he took before his capture is not yet healed.”

Swallowing the lump of shame in my throat, I rounded on the Cielcin. I might have vomited had the past few weeks not put me off food. How was I to say that? But say it I did. It seemed to comfort Tanaran, who looked down at its bare, clawed feet, teeth glinting as it smiled. Unable to help myself, I added, “This wasn’t what I wanted. If I had to choose, you would all be on your way”—I paused for a moment to draw them in and to ruminate on my next words—“. . . on your way back to Aeta Aranata.”

The sound that greeted this was like nothing human, a ululating wail of equal parts grief and fury. I had to stifle an urge to cover my ears. Tanaran padded closer to the bars, prompting the two legionnaires near me to stiffen reflexively. It had to stoop a little in the cramped cell, so tall was it. How

can such a creature bear the Emeshi gravity? I wondered, remembering how I had suffered in my first months on this outsized world. And these creatures dwelt in space, on ships with a fraction of the gravity of Delos, much less Emesh. They must have laminated their bones, reinforced their muscles. Changed themselves, adapted in order to survive.

Tanaran wrapped its too-long fingers around the bars, pressed its flat face between them. “The ichakta would never betray him like that. What have you done to it?”

“To Uvanari? Nothing.” I blinked, taking a step back in response to a nervous twitch from one of my bone-colored guards. Nothing—how hard that word had been to say, Nothing. And how easy. Almost I can still taste it on my tongue. “I spoke to it just last night.” I glanced up at the pendant lights, frowning. Valka had said there would be a signal, said she would cut the lights in the bastille with her Tavrosi magic so I would know the audio pickups were severed. What was keeping her?

“What else do you know?” The young Cielcin let out a quieter, mewling version of the wail the collective had emitted mere moments before and

shut the liquid shadows of its eyes. “You know where our scianda is? Our fleet? You will destroy it.”

“Veih!” I stepped forward again, coming to a halt at the painted red line on the floor that marked the minimum safe distance. “No. The ichakta

would not give us that. It said it couldn’t.” I looked at Agari again. I had to wait. Had to wait for Valka.

“That is what you would say!” shouted another of the Cielcin, this one more square-jawed and strongly built than the skinny Tanaran. Without

warning it lunged at the bars, thin arms stretching between the peeling steel beams. They seized my shirtfront, and I realized too late that the line had been painted to account for the length of human arms, far shorter than

Cielcin ones. I moved without thinking, assuming the creature’s skeletal structure was similar enough to my own to make the break feasible. I

shoved both arms up between the xenobite’s closed fists and slammed my

elbows down on its wrists even as I went face-first into the bars. I staggered free, fell square on my backside.

Agari shouted an order, and the two legionnaires advanced, tugging stunners from thigh holsters.

“Stand down!” I shouted, finding my feet again. My hair had fallen in my face. I blew at it, almost petulant. One of the legionnaires helped me to my feet. I thanked her and glowered through the bars at the other Cielcin, teeth clenched. “Rakur oyumn heiyui.”

“It was stupid,” Tanaran agreed more vehemently, glaring at its companion.

“This yukajji is the reason we are prisoners—”

Tanaran cut the larger creature off. “I know, Svatarom. Svvv.” It made a buzzing, hissing sound that I took for hushing. Tanaran pawed at its roughly cut hair as if lost in thought. Presently its eyes narrowed. “You say our people are safe?”

“Uvanari has not betrayed you, no.” I stayed carefully back from the red line now, estimating the full reach of Svatarom’s arms. Glancing up the dingy hall, I caught Inquisitor Agari watching me, offered what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Besides the name of your aeta, we know nothing. Only that yours was not an invading force.”

A third Cielcin spoke up in a voice higher and more feminine than the others, though such a gradation had no meaning amongst the xenobites.

“Are we the only survivors? The other ships . . . Did anyone . . .”

Again I glanced at Agari. She would not want anything revealed to these creatures, no betrayals of fact or data. She’d tell me to give them nothing. I shook my head. “Veih.” This was so vague an answer that I had to start over. “The other ships broke in orbit.” Broke. What a telling euphemism.

The creature hung its head, air whistling from its nostrils as through broken teeth. Two other Cielcin hurried to catch the creature as it sagged to its knees. Was it sobbing?

Tanaran’s own face hardened, and it shut its eyes. “I see.”

The lights dimmed, replaced by red emergency lights low on the floor.

Agari said, “What’s going on?” She repeated the question into her wrist terminal. “Another outage? I thought support had this sorted!”

Valka had done it—or at least I hoped that she had. There wasn’t much time; whatever she’d done with the neural lace implanted in her head, she had said it would not hold for long. Tanaran looked around, confused.

“Look,” I said, words soft beneath Agari’s confusion and shouted orders. “Look. Listen. I have a friend who’s grayed out the surveillance here, and none of the others speaks a word of this language. We can talk a moment.

You and me.”

“Iugam!” Svatarom slammed its hands against the bars. “It is a trick!” “I don’t lie!” I said, though I had lied for too long. “What’s wrong with

the lights?” I asked Agari, feigning ignorance, pretending I knew nothing about the Tavrosi witch camped on the castle walls, her mind interfacing with the datasphere and the bastille security systems. She was, I reflected,

precisely the reason the Chantry kept so close a watch on technology within the realms and polities it policed. The inquisitor shot back the answer I

expected, and I rounded on Svatarom and the others. “This has not gone like I hoped, and we’re wasting time. Uvanari asked me for mercy.”

“Ndaktu?” Tanaran echoed, its voice etched with a grief any species could recognize. “Why?”

I chewed my lip, then hissed under Agari’s shouting from the end of the hall, “Because they’re torturing it, the ichakta.”

My words seemed not to penetrate for the better part of a minute, and we stood in half darkness, staring at one another. At last, Tanaran spoke.

“They’re . . . hurting Uvanari?” I nodded, then realized the futility of the

gesture and made the wordless grunt that was Cielcin for yes. For a second I thought the xenobite might break into tears, saw a muscle in its jaw tense.

“Your people do not want us to know.” It was not a question.

“Veih.” I shook my head, forgetting to make the alien gesture instead.

Tanaran cast its eyes down at the barren concrete floor, long scarred from countless eons of metal doors dragged across its surface. “Then we thank you.”

Svatarom’s jaw hardened, glass teeth flashing. “The yukajji must make it right. It is responsible.” The Cielcin whom Uvanari called a root was silent for a long while. Too long. “Tanaran.”

The robed xenobite stretched its lower lip down past its teeth. The

expression meant nothing to me, but it said, “Svatarom is right. You are responsible.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. “It asked me to kill it.”

“Yes.” In Cielcin, the word was barely even a syllable, an unvoiced breath of air. “Among the People, it is not right that one such as the captain should suffer.”

It was what I had feared it would say, what I had feared was true and

why I had come here in the first place. It was why Valka had grayed out the cameras. Not long now. Not long. “So I have to kill the ichakta?”

“The one who causes dishonor to must do everything—everything—to end that dishonor. You say this is your fault. You are right. You say you wish you could send us home. But it is too late . . .” Its voice broke.

“. . . too late for the ichakta. To return home as it is . . .” It could not finish its sentence.

“Would be disgrace,” Svatarom spat, then actually spat. “You did this.

You promised we would not be harmed. You gave your word.”

The safety lights flickered, causing me to glance at Agari as I said, “I know! Why do you think I’m here? I understand what I have to do, but I need your help to do it.” I had told Valka much the same thing the night before, whispered beneath the wind on the garden terrace beneath the terranic palms. I need to get them to leave me alone with Uvanari. That’s when you sort the cameras, and I . . . I . . . My voice had broken then,

choked off into something very, very small.

Valka had lain a hand on my arm, had murmured that she understood.

But you don’t have to do it.

I can’t do this anymore, I can’t. I tried to explain what I thought the Cielcin had been trying to tell me: that it wanted—needed—to die.

“What are you going to do?” Tanaran asked.

“What are you saying to it?” Agari demanded.

I waved her into silence. The cool air in the cell stank of rot, as if

something damp had died and taken up residence in the concrete. But I breathed deeply, eyes never leaving Tanaran. The lights flickered again, and I heard the faint whine of distant generators coming online. No time. No time. “I am going to kill Uvanari. Ndaktu. Mercy.” I tried to find refuge in a scholiastic aphorism, something to reassure me that I was on the right

course. Mercy is . . . Mercy is . . . There was nothing, or none that I had ever learned. “I need you to do something next time these lights go out.”

And I told them.

The lights came on again within a minute of the end of my little speech, and the cameras with them. “Another thing, Tanaran,” I asked, stopping as I pretended to turn away. “Uvanari called you baetan. What does that mean?”

The young Cielcin’s chalky skin flushed a dark gray, black blood flooding capillaries in its cheeks. The other xenobites nearest Tanaran hissed, startling the guards nearest me. I held up a calming hand, repeated my question.

“It means I belong to him. To the aeta.”

“I thought all Cielcin belong to their aeta, to his dominion.” I caught Agari watching me, nodded as reassuringly as I knew how, though I am sure now the expression was strained. “Are you not all his slaves?”

That outrush of breath, the slitted nostrils flaring yes. Tanaran took a mincing step back toward the bars. “I am his.”

A concubine? A wife? I squinted through the bars. I had begun to think of Tanaran as male—had begun to think thus of all the Cielcin, truth be told. I reassessed, reminding myself that neither was this a woman before me but something more, something less . . . something else entirely. I was beyond humanity here, beyond the grasp of translation. The Cielcin’s sexual modes did not even map onto ours, not biologically, not sociologically. It was only our desire to humanize them that did. “What does that mean?”

“I am his. He is carried by me.” It pressed a hand to its stomach in some gesture I did not understand.

“Carried?” I repeated. “Does this have something to do with children?” It occurred to me that I had no notion of how the xenobites reproduced.

And I still have none, for Tanaran stepped back, startled. “What? No!” It rolled its head in a furious negative. “I carry a piece of him. His authority.”

Images of the Imperial auctors flashed before me. Those elite were gifted with all the Emperor’s authority, the ability to act in his stead, in his absence, so titled that they were equal with the Emperor in authority, though they had none without him. They shared in the Imperial Presence, spoke with its voice. Was this like that? Or something else? Perhaps it was

like that, and so Tanaran was the leader of this . . . expedition? Pilgrimage? I did not inquire further, pressed as I was for time.

“One other thing,” I said hurriedly, conscious that I was once more under the ten thousands eyes of the state. “Uvanari said you came here to pray. To the others? To the . . . first ones?” I wanted to say “the Quiet” but knew the label would mean nothing.

“The gods,” Tanaran agreed. “The Watchers.” It seized the bars. “They made us, yukajji. Us.” It bared its fangs, somehow fierce all in an instant.

Sensing the change in Tanaran’s attitude, the inquisitor approached.

“That’s long enough, Marlowe.” Agari grabbed me by the elbow. “What did it say?” She jerked her shaved head in the direction of the cell.

“Nothing—they told me to go to hell,” I said, shaking my head. “I thought I was getting through to them, but . . . they blame me for it all. I can put together a transcript. Did you get a recording?”

“Partial,” the inquisitor said in answer. “Another one of those brownouts. They’d been localized up in the castle, but . . . It shouldn’t be possible.”

I tugged my arm free, bowed my way into the lift carriage that would take me back to the bastille’s processing level and the exit. “I’ll get the transcript written as fast as I can. It isn’t much, but I’ve confirmed one thing.” There was nothing for it; I had to give Agari something. Something to distract her and her superiors from what the Cielcin wanted of me.

“What’s that?”

I opened my mouth. Anything, to mask the true purpose of my visit. I only hoped that I was not dooming the young xenobite to hang on a cross of its own. Perhaps its baetan status would protect it. I hoped so as I said,

“The one without the armor? The little one?” “Yes?”

“It’s nobile, or whatever passes for nobile among the Pale.”

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