A WEEK PASSED BEFORE the corrective brace came off my ribs, and though my hand was still trapped in its own device, I had an order to obey, so I dragged my fragile self from my bed. Shoes proved too difficult with only the one working hand, and not wishing to order a maidservant to put them on for me, I went without and took the lift-tram from my suites down to ground level of the Great Keep. I had been fussed over enough, and besides, I wanted Father to see the state of me. I descended into a series of underground tramways and up again into the offices of the prefecture
capitol, a deltoid building near the castle barbican crowned by a central dome and three square towers styled like the bell towers of ancient
cathedrals. Barefoot and attracting stares and whispers from the gray-uniformed logothetes of the various ministries, I crossed the great Marlowe seal on the floor beneath the rotunda and moved toward the highest of the three corner towers.
Father’s office was at the pinnacle, accessed by a circular metal door guarded by Sir Roban Milosh and a decade of lance-toting hoplites, faceless men and women in liquid-black ceramic armor and red capes. The knight-lictor grinned. “Young master! It’s good to see you on your feet.” He
stepped forward. “Here to see your father?”
I bobbed my head, numb, exhausted, and conscious of the awkward
weight of the medical corrective clamped to and laced through my flesh. I hid the grizzly thing behind my back, suppressing a wince as the
exoskeleton bumped against my backside. “I understand I’ve you to thank for my life, sir.”
Roban waved that off with his usual ill grace. “Doing my job, sire.”
Not one to be rebuffed, I set my good hand on Roban’s armored
shoulder—as much to steady myself as to thank him—and rasped, “All the same, sir. You saved my life.” I bowed my head. “Thank you.”
“Your father has been expecting you, my lord,” was all Roban said in answer, perhaps not knowing how to take such gratitude from one of his palatine masters. Or else the sight of the corrective on my hand offended him. The man was patrician himself and of decent birth, if not an exalted one. His genetic enhancements were coarser, after-market things, applied upon his ascension to knighthood. A mutant, as were many of his caste. “He’s inside.”
I took my hand away, sighed. “Well then.” I straightened my back. “Morituri te salutamus, eh?” I looked round at the decade of armed hoplites with their energy lances glittering. We who are about to die salute you.
“Latin, Roban,” I said, limping forward, my heavy callouses scratching against the mosaic work on the antechamber floor. I did not give him the translation. “Can you get the door? I . . . well . . .” I lifted my injured hand, noting again the little dots of dried blood crusted where the hair-fine needles pierced my warmed flesh.
“Aye, young master.” He reached forward, the articulated armor plates of his suit opening to bare his palm, which he pressed against a translucent hemisphere in the center of the door. The device scanned the veins within the knight’s hand, and heavy bolts slammed. That done, the door rolled
sideways into a slot in the wall, and Roban called within, “Hadrian is here to see you, my lord.”
My father’s basso voice came from within. “Send him in.” Curious that he did not address me, though I was well within hearing. But then, he did not look up either or at all bestir himself from the constellation of holographic diagnostics that englobed him at his monolith of a desk. I
crossed from the mosaic onto Tavrosi carpets an inch thick. Father’s high-backed seat was framed by a massive round window that looked out over Meidua and the arcing seaport. The sky across the southern country was
streaked by the contrails of rockets carrying payloads into orbit and beyond. The two side walls were packed with bookshelves. But where the shelves in Gibson’s study were stuffed, described by the chaos of long use and loving attention, my father’s were ordered and—I suspected—only free of dust because of the fleet of house servants who tidied the place.
I stopped almost in the precise center of the square room, just on the
edge of the high-angled sunlight, kneading my toes into the carpet. Like a penitent before the altar of a jealous god, I waited, head bowed.
At long last he noticed me, setting his tungsten stylus on the black glass desktop and dismissing the holographs with a wave of his hand. With the light behind him, he sat in shadow. He did not speak at first but
contemplated me in silence. After what felt like eons, he only said, “Take a seat.”
I stood for a moment, a beat, no longer than a couple of seconds. Father just watched me, unmoving, unspeaking. So I relented, falling into a low, round-backed chair opposite my father in his grand old confection of red leather and brass. Silence filled a single, acid moment between us,
stretching time in its unfeeling fingers. I waited him out. Patience is a
common trait amongst the peerage—and indeed amongst any of the nobile castes—but whereas I had the whole day open to my recovery, Father had doubtless allotted only a small amount of time for our appointment. I had the luxury of patience where he did not.
Presently he spoke. “Why were you in the city?”
“What?” I felt my shoulders tighten as if expecting a blow. “No, ‘How are you feeling, Hadrian? Are you all right?’”
“Of course you’re all right, boy.” The gray hairs at Sir Alistair’s temples and forelocks glinted silver in the high sunlight. “That’s why I’ve put off this conversation. No point in having it until you were all right.”
“You could have visited.”
My father sniffed. “You have not answered my question.”
“I was walking home.” Mid-answer, Lord Alistair’s eyes drifted from my face to the fine enameled globe of the planet at the extreme corner of his desk. It was of the sort made for wealthy collectors, lighting itself in real time with the rotation of the world and Delos’s twenty-six-hour day,
weather systems and cloud banks rendered in exquisite holography. “Walking. Home.” Somehow each word was a manifesto, a
condemnation. In my drug-addled state I struggled not to shrink from him. He did not raise his voice. He almost never raised his voice. That was one thing that made him so terrifying. “Do you know what you’ve cost us with this little misadventure of yours?”
“Misadventure?” My voice cracked as I slid forward in my seat, robe belling open at the chest as I repeated, “Misadventure? I was attacked, sir.”
The Lord of Devil’s Rest drummed his fingers on his desktop, upsetting a few loose sheets of formal vellum. Contracts, I supposed, if not writs of fealty. The truly important documents were all still done by hand. “The offenders have been apprehended and given to the Chantry for punishment.”
I held up my left hand for his examination, the signet ring screwed back onto the thumb. “So I’d guessed. Did you cut it off the poor bastard’s finger, I wonder?”
Father smiled. “The minute a peasant can harm one of our own is the minute our house ceases to be feared. This isn’t like the ancient days, son.
We rule, ourselves. Not as a body politic, not in the name of or with the
consent of the governed. Our power is ours—do you understand? And that power is ours only so long as we can hold it.”
“Obedience out of fear of pain,” I spat, remembering Gibson.
“That is the only way a man can govern a dog, boy.” He leaned back against his seat, the red leather crinkling. Taking a leaf from his book, I glanced past him to watch the distant ground traffic in the city below our acropolis and the tilt of white sails in the harbor.
A sick feeling formed in the pit of my stomach as I asked, “What have you done?” I strained, half expecting to see a burning city block or a blackened glass crater where the offending suburb had been.
“Placed a curfew on the district and shot anyone in violation of it.” “You can’t do that!” I objected, shaking my head. “It will only make
“You still haven’t answered my question.” Lord Alistair briefly fixed his attention on my face again. Before I could articulate a clarifying question, he said, “Why did you leave the Colosso?”
Half talking over him, I rolled my eyes and spat, “The bloodshed disagreed with me, Father.”
“Disagreed with you?” His lordship visibly sneered, lips pulling down
and away from his lower teeth. “Disagreed with you? And you wonder why there is a question as to whether you or Crispin will succeed me?” He
stopped his globe spinning with a slap of his hand. “Because I don’t want to sit through Colosso?”
“Because people saw that you didn’t sit through Colosso. That box isn’t opaque, you idiot child.” I was about to speak, but Father held up a hand for silence. “While you were busy trying to leave, your brother was standing
his ground with the best of my gladiators, standing for his people.” He banged a hand on the desktop. “And do you have any idea what your departure says to them? Do you know what message that sends? And then to be wounded by churls!” He shook his head, lips curled as if the last word had put a foul taste in his mouth. “They won’t fear you after this!”
“And they fear Crispin?”
“And they fear Crispin,” Lord Alistair repeated, drumming his fingers on the tabletop again. “It should have been you in that coliseum, boy. Felix tells me you’re the better fighter.” I tried to contain my surprise at this
statement. It was true, but I’d never expected to hear Sir Alistair say it. In the voice of a grim magistrate, he asked, “Do you understand what you’ve done?”
“Gotten myself beaten.”
“Forget the beating.” Father waved a hand, leaned back in his seat like a Chantry inquisitor about to issue judgment.
Forget the beating. I looked down at my hand prisoned in the corrective brace. Would that it were so easy. Eyebrows raised, I said, “I’m having difficulty with that at the moment.”
“Be quiet.” Father leaned forward so quickly it made me jump, prompting a spasm of pain across my torso. “The people love those games. The Colosso. You’ve now publicly spurned them. It was on the Meidua
Broadcast, did you know? Ran for five hours before Tor Alcuin and I could suppress it.” His cold eyes narrowed to mere slits, and he swung out of his seat, moving toward the window.
He was treating me like a child, and perhaps I deserved it. What he said made sense, and I should have seen it—would have but for the pain in my arm. Still it seemed unwise to speak, so I held my silence, watching Father as he surveyed his domain. “Bread and circuses, boy.”
“I beg your pardon?” I recognized the quotation as a very old one. From Juvenal, a man so dead I thought only the scholiasts remembered him or his kind. But then, I was the fool who’d spoken Latin to Father’s men mere minutes before, and Father had secret depths to him.
“Imperial law forbids the planetbound serf class from operating anything more complicated than a groundcar, discounting anything required by the disparate guilds. They’re made to grub around with livestock and
combustion engines, and do you know why?” “Because they might rebel?”
“Because they might start to think they have a right to.”
“Excuse me?” I took offense to that, a blow to common decency I hadn’t known I could feel.
My father did not turn, did not bother to acknowledge the shock or the outrage in my tone. “Look at the Eudorans, the Norman Freeholds, the Extrasolarians. Do you know what they have in common?” Before I could answer, my father slapped his hand against the frame of that round window. “They have no leaders. No order. The Empire is order. Us.” And here he turned, pressed a ringed hand to his thin chest. “It’s the same with the
Jaddian princes, the Lothrians. Order. Without that, civilization on a galactic scale is impossible. It breaks down.”
“The Eudorans get on just fine!” I objected, thinking of the nomad caravaners with their net of asteroid stations spread throughout human space. “And the Freeholders.”
“Please.” Lord Alistair sneered. “Those inbreds can’t hold a single planet together, much less a thousand.” And with an impatient hand wave he dismissed billions of human lives from our conversation as one shoos away a fly. “Do you know that some of those Freeholder worlds have
countries? Nation-states like those from before the Exodus? Some of those little colonies can’t even build starships! They fight themselves as much as they fight anyone else.”
I shrugged. “And we don’t?”
“The rules of poine have their admirers in the Imperium, I’ll grant. But the Chantry regulates our actions, minimizes collateral damage.”
“They threaten dissident lords with biological weapons, you mean. What has any of this to do with circuses?”
The Archon of Meidua thrust his chin out. “We aren’t like those other nations, son. There’s no congress, no body politic here. When I make a decree, I make it. Personally. No proxies, no fallbacks. The old systems of democracy and parliament only allowed the cowards to hide. Our power depends not on the consent of the people but on their belief in us.”
“I know all this,” I said, shifting forward to the edge of my seat. My nostrils flared. I had not forgiven the man for abandoning me to my injuries. He was my father, in Earth’s name. My father. And I was being lectured because I had been brutalized. Still, he was right. I was not just a boy. I was his son, and there was a responsibility on me to carry the weight of my house. There was power in that responsibility and an accountability, too. It
is for this reason that a lord was better than parliament. A lord had no
excuse. If he abused his power, as I feared Crispin might, he would not rule for long. If he was cold in the application of his power, as I knew my father was, he would not rule easily.
“No, you don’t,” the lord snapped, smoothing a curling lock of hair back behind one ear. “We have to engage with the churls. We have to show that we are people, boy, not some abstract political concept. That is what they understand. That is why I sent you and Crispin to the Colosso while I treated with Elmira. I am patriarch to the people of Meidua, and you both
were sent to represent me and our house. Personally. Crispin played his role admirably; the people love him now because they see him as part of their
world. He fought in their Colosso, while you . . . you turned your back.” While he spoke, Father drew a small crystal chit from inside his sleeve.
It was perhaps four inches long, one and a half wide. He turned it over in his fingers like a blind man trying to figure out what it was, as if he were weighing a gold hurasam in his hand to determine if it was counterfeit. “It would have been bad enough if you had just left, but you managed to get yourself hurt as well. Our power is intensified when our people understand that we are above them. And you damaged that understanding.”
“By bleeding?” I couldn’t keep the incredulity from my tone.
“Yes.” Father snapped the chit down on the table and retook his seat. I could see his seal plainly visible on top, the red devil glinting against its dark background embossed on the bluish crystal.
“I thought we had to show that we are men, not ghosts.”
“We have to show that we are not abstractions,” he corrected, “that we are tangible powers. Not that we are human.”
In vanished Egypt, the pharaohs were expected to behave like gods: placid and impartial, above the fever and the fret of mortal life. When a pharaoh failed to match these expectations, he revealed his mortality to his subjects, and in so doing invited reprisal from those who had served and worshipped his divinity. We were little different—no lord was. With our genetic tailoring and enhanced lifespans, we were like gods in ways those long-gone pharaohs could never have dreamed. Though he was a mere
archon, a provincial governor, Father’s domain was greater than the size of storied Europe, and our family’s distant relation to the Imperial family only elevated us further. My mother’s mother ruled not only a planetary palatinate—a duchy—but an interstellar province. She was vicereine of all
the stars in Auriga Province, some four hundred in all, and reported directly to the Solar Throne and the Emperor, who was her distant cousin. Through my mother, I too was cousin to His Radiance and in line for the throne, though several thousand steps removed from it. My father too shared royal blood, but more distantly, as it had been several generations since House
Marlowe last wedded into the constellation of the Imperial House. Despite our old blood and considerable wealth—the envy of many newer and more powerful houses—only a scant billion people owed their allegiance to my father or were owned by him: planetbound serfs and artisans and slaves.
“I am sending you to Lorica College on Vesperad to enter the seminary.” “No!” I actually rocketed to my feet then, knocking the small, delicate
chair to the floor with a dull thud. “No, you can’t!”
Lord Alistair Marlowe watched me with only mild surprise, genuinely perplexed. “I thought this would please you. Your faculty for languages
would be quite useful there; the Chantry always needs new ambassadors.” “New missionaries, you mean.” I could barely contain my sneer. I knew
what the Chantry was, and I despised it. No true religion, as among the adorators who yet keep the old gods. Only the fist in the Imperial glove, anointed with holy oil. Only the cynical posture of faith, its prayers memorable but hollow, dripping with unearned tradition. It was an
instrument of terror and holy awe, the largest circus under Sol. Obedience out of piety. A certain amount of suffering will ever be a part of the human universe, but I call such terrors by their names and love them not.
“Words, words,” muttered the archon distractedly.
The larger implications of his decision washed over me. “You’re disinheriting me?”
The lord’s face darkened, brows drawing down, casting his familiar violet eyes in craggy shadow. “I never declared you my heir.”
“But I’m the eldest!” I objected. I was unable to stoop and right my fallen chair; the mere act of standing had sent a horrid spasm through my chest, and I imagined spiderweb fractures redressing my mended bones, still brittle from their stem cell treatment. I knew that mine was a weak
objection, that birth order meant little in the Imperium, less than the decree of the respective lord. “Crispin . . .” I couldn’t get the words out.
“Crispin . . .”
Father found them for me. “Your brother will remain here at my side and take my place in his time, provided he continues to prove himself.”
I nearly choked on the thing in my throat that would not declare itself a laugh or a sob. “Prove himself? By beating another serving girl? Or killing another eunuch in the coliseum? There aren’t two connected neurons in that boy’s head!” I was right up against the edge of the desk now, staring down at my father where he sat. He rose like a bolt of thunder and slapped me mightily across the face. Lightheaded, already unsteady, I went reeling to one knee, then tried to push myself back to my feet. In my haste and
confusion I used my injured hand, and though the hellish contraption kept me from flexing my fingers, the mere pressure pushed on all the needles in my flesh and sent pain flashing up my arm. I howled and half expected Sir Roban to come see what the commotion was. But no one came.
“Crispin is your brother. I will not have you speaking of him like that.”
Rather than respond, I recovered my footing, summoning up every last scrap of my dignity. “I don’t want to be a priest, father.”
“You will address me as ‘sire’ or ‘my lord!’” my own father said,
coming round his desk like a stalking panther. Lacking other options, I swept into my lowest bow, one meant for a planetary lord. A petty vengeance, as he was not one.
As I straightened, swaying, I said, “I want to be a scholiast.”
The second blow took me on the other cheek, but I was ready for it and turned with the slap, keeping my feet this time. “Is that really what you
want? To be an adding machine for some borderworld baron?”
“I want to join the Expeditionary Corps, to travel the stars like Simeon the Red,” I replied, using my good arm to support myself on his desk.
“Simeon the . . .” Father repeated, trailing off. He snorted, and why not? Even to me it now seems a childish dream. He changed tactics, falling back on logic. “The Chantry exercises real power, Hadrian. You could be an inquisitor, perhaps even one of the Synod.” His jaw tightened, lips barely moving. “We need someone in the Chantry, boy. Someone on our side.”
Something hollow and sucking formed in the pit of my stomach. By the Dark, I thought. “You’ve been planning this?” I shook my head. “I won’t do it.”
My lord father stood more than a head taller than I, and he stood a mere inch away, looking down that hawk’s beak of a nose at me, eyes narrowed to microns. “You will.” He pressed the crystal chit into my hand. “You leave for Vesperad at the end of Boedromion.” He referred to the local month that marked the beginning of autumn.
“That’s just three months from now!” I objected, fearing another blow.
“This incident has accelerated our plans. I need you out of the public eye before you cause me more embarrassment.”
“Embarrassment!” I could have screamed. “Father, I—”
“Enough!” And for the first time in the whole conversation, he raised his voice, nostrils flaring, eyes wide. “It is decided!” His lips curled in
contempt as he took in the corrective brace on my hand. “Get out before you injure yourself further.”
It was all I could do not to scream, to howl in his face, to take up the
small chair I’d knocked over and smash it across his Grecian sculpture of a face. I sucked in a deep breath—as deep as my aching ribs would allow— and, drawing myself up to my unimpressive height, turned on my heel.