Chapter no 78 – QUALITY

Empire of Silence

SLAVE UMANDH LOADED THE shuttles as I stepped from the groundcar onto the private airfield beyond the edge of Borosevo. The red sun watched from the morning horizon, presiding over a day already hot, as my last day on Emesh must be. Setting my case at my side a moment, I pulled my dark red glasses from a pocket of the charcoal greatcoat the castle staff had found for me. My ridiculous coats, Gibson had named them. Well, he wasn’t wrong. I should have waited to put it on, for I could feel myself starting to sweat.

The effect was made so much worse by the lingering medical correctives taped to my side and arm.

The driver hurried from his door and dragged the rest of my meager luggage from the back of his car, then fell into step behind me as I took up my case and hurried along the tarmac to where a few figures waited—some to join me, others to see me off. Valka hurried forward, and I quickly urged the driver to leave the luggage with the Umandh and their douleters. I eyed the creatures nervously as Valka approached, recalling the lumbering,

spinning way they’d attacked us that afternoon in the warehouse. I had not been so close to them since, and my spine stiffened.

“You sure ’tis a good idea, this?” Valka asked, voice low so as not to

carry across the open field. Above us a flock of ornithons tumbled through the air, white wings beating the sky.

“No,” I said, unable to keep the humor and the relief from my voice.

“But I’m glad you’re coming, Doctor.” Instinct cried out in me to take her hand, but my mistake with Kyra tasted of iron on my tongue, and I recalled Anaïs’s kiss, and so limited myself to a smile.

Valka stepped closer, forcing that instinct into screaming panic, but I held my ground and my breath, too. She smiled, whispered so only I could

hear, “Well, it isn’t like I had a choice after helping you.” She drew back, her smile unmoved, unrepentant. “Though it may be I’ll learn more with you than I would here.”

“The Cielcin will have answers,” I said, confident I was right. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? And a peaceful galaxy to find them in?”

She smiled, stepping back. “I hope you’re right.” Valka glanced over her shoulder to where the others were clambering up the ramp onto the shuttle bound for the Obdurate and whatever wreck of a ship Raine Smythe had

selected for our use. “That swordmaster’s here. Your friend.” “Olorin?” I craned my neck, looking past her. “Why?”

“Said he wanted to say goodbye.”

I nodded stiffly. “All right, then. Guess I should speak to him.” “I’ll be on the shuttle.”

Olorin Milta stood to the side of the black beetle shape of the shuttle, wreathed in the clouds of chilly vapor from the fuel lines. At my approach he strode forward, one arm slung through his ceremonial half robe, the heavy silk snapping out behind him as he raised a hand. “Lord Marlowe!”

“Sir Olorin!” I bowed. “What an unexpected honor.”

To my astonishment, the swordmaster returned my bow, extending his right arm in imitation of the highest Imperial courtly style. “I wanted to see you before you went. I have something for you.” And to my greater

astonishment, he unclipped one of the three sword hilts he wore on his right hip and handed it to me, pommel first.

My numb fingers reached out to receive it without thought. Words fled me.

It was a sword such as Emperors might wield without shame. All the art and craftsmanship of the swordsmiths of Jadd was in her, and as it is the purpose of such crafts to render beautiful that which would be otherwise

without them no craft could elevate her. So fine a work I have not seen in more than fifteen hundred years. Not even the great mosaics and frescoes of the palaces of the Imperial Presence can compare, for they are gaudy and

elaborate things. Her craft was honest and clean: the hilt wrapped in leather so red it was almost black, her pommel and fittings of plated silver, with a single finger loop in her rain guard near the mouth whence the blade would spring.

“I can’t accept this—it’s worth more than I am.”

Olorin’s smile collapsed into grave seriousness. “You undervalue yourself. And you must take it. You are the commander of this strange expedition, are you not?”

I shook my head. “Only in name. Bassander Lin has the command.

I . . .” I was being ungrateful. “Thank you, domi.

He made a noncommittal gesture with his left hand that hung in the sling of his mandyas. “Try the balance. Please, please!”

At his word I squeezed the twin buttons, and the blade hummed, flowing upward like water into the red dawn. It was not the one Olorin had wielded in the dark of Calagah, but it shone the same way, its blade a spike of

crystal like moonlight.

The weight of it was a kind of poetry. Its shining blade shimmered in the light of the sun, sending silver highlights flashing. Extended, the balance

was so exquisite that it felt more than a part of me and less than weightless. And it sang, humming as the exotic nuclei of its atoms shifted, moving so that its cutting edge always matched the direction of its motion. It flickered, vibrating as I brought it up between myself and the swordmaster, the

surface rippling like the sea.

“Innana umorphi,” I said, the word umorphi implying not only that it was beautiful in appearance but also in function and ability. That it performed beauty like a painter or a poet. A dancer.

“It is!” Olorin agreed. “I am glad you like it!”

I squeezed the triggers again, and the blade melted like smoke into the crimson sunlight. “I still can’t accept it.”

“When I return to my country and am kneeling before my prince, do you know what it is I will say?” The question seemed not to follow from

anything that had come before, so I stood confused, still holding the sword hilt in my hands. I could see the heat shimmers where the ramp’s static field trapped the cold air within and longed to be on the other side of it. Valka

waited in the shuttle along with the others I’d asked Raine to conscript. Olorin took a step back before answering. “I will tell him I met a man, a lord of the strange Empire. I will tell him of your quality.” His smile

capered on his face. “And your quality will be known in Jadd and on the battlefields of our war before ever you find yourself there. You will have friends.”

“My . . . quality?” I repeated, words unsteady. Uncomfortable with this praise, I asked, “You helped me—in the council meeting, I mean. You made

sure this would happen.” I gestured at the ship. “I don’t think Smythe would have listened to me if you hadn’t pointed out how useless the Chantry’s been.”

The Maeskolos took a half step away, slippered feet scuffing the fused ceramic of the tarmac. “In Jadd we say a man must be either a swordsman or a poet. This is not true, of course—we are having all sorts of men. And

women. But these people . . .” He made a vague gesture toward the city and the castle looming like a weathered finger above it. “They are swordsmen, though they call themselves priests and politicians. The war has had enough of such men, I am thinking.” He leaned forward and clapped me on the arm. “So we are sending them you! Make peace, my friend. Iffero fosim!” Bring light. He retreated then, step by careful step, bowing slightly as the wind over the tarmac gathered the sleeve and flowing hem of his robe and spread them like the pinion of a one-winged angel. Mamluks I had not seen before emerged from the shadows of other beetle-shaped shuttles, the fabric of their uniforms flowing from matte black to striped blue and orange. And for a moment the morning light cast their shadows back across the landing field, silhouettes blotting out the sun—none greater than his—and Olorin

Milta stood tall and straight as a king.

When at last he’d left by the tatty gate in the wired chain fence of the airfield, I slipped the sword hilt into the inside pocket of my heavy coat and, sweating, turned and climbed the ramp into the shuttle, breathing a sigh of relief as I passed through the static field. A cry went up from the shuttle’s occupants, raucous, joyous, and clean. I found myself grinning,

surrounded—undeservedly—by friends. Valka smiled languidly in a corner seat, the one beside her empty, reserved for me. Behind her sat a mix of Imperial and Jaddian officers, all strangers to me but for Jinan Azhar, the

Jaddian lieutenant who had accompanied Olorin into Calagah. She alone

smiled at me, black eyes bright in her olive face. I smiled back, and then my eyes went to the others, to the motley crew I’d requested be added to our gang of pretend mercenaries.

I had promised them a ship, after all.

Ghen was first on his feet, pounding me on the back, bellowing

something about “Your Radiance!” and grinning like a bull shark. Siran followed, then old Pallino, who said something about being a soldier to the end. A few other of the myrmidons came forward to shake my hand and pound me on the back in turn, each glad to be there and free of their fatal

contracts or their prison sentences. Switch was the last to approach with a small, sheepish grin.

I embraced the fellow, saying, “I’m glad you’re here, Will.”

He pushed me back, punched my arm. “Just call me Switch, lordship— or whatever.”

“Only if you call me Had!” I said, and I looked around at the friends who had known me as such. “With you all, I’ll always be just . . . Had.” I turned, still grinning, then felt the smile harden on my face and sag.

Bassander Lin stood in the narrow arch of the pilot’s cabin, his wood smoke hair neatly combed, the sides of his head freshly shaven. He alone wore the blacker-than-blacks of his Legion uniform, collar tabs depicting the triple

sunbursts and silver diamonds that marked his new rank of captain. I took my arm from Switch’s shoulder and saluted. “Are the Cielcin ready for transport, Captain?” I asked, fist still pressed to my chest.

Bassander inclined his head, polite but stiffly formal. “Very nearly, but we’re ready here.” The ramp had retracted while I spoke to the others, the hatch sealed. “You all’d best strap in. Dust-off’s in five if we’re to rendezvous with the Obdurate.” He turned smartly and returned to his pilot officer in the cockpit, door hissing coldly behind him.

The Legion officer was a problem for another time, I decided, settling into my seat beside Valka. I wanted to laugh, to cry, to do something. “Are you all right?” she asked.

I looked round. Valka was staring at me, eyes filled with something rare and precious: concern. Swallowing, I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

Her hand was on my knee, fingers warm. I smiled at her, then out the window to the landing field as we began to move. “I am now.”

So much had happened, so much had changed, all of it lasting, all of

it . . . over. I had departed Meidua in a storm, but here we rose through clear sunlight and heat, passing through cloud and air to the silence beyond night.



There are endings, Reader, and this is one. Some part of me will forever lie on Emesh, in the canals and the coliseum, in the castle and the bastille of Borosevo. It lies with Cat at the bottom of a waterway and on the killing floor of the Colosso. It lies with Gilliam and Uvanari, dead at my hands;

and with Anaïs, whom I never saw again. If what I have done disturbs you,

Reader, I do not blame you. If you would read no further, I understand. You have the luxury of foresight. You know where this ends.

I shall go on alone.

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