The silence about the Solar Throne filled the great hall like water, like the deep dark of the sea. Not a soul stirred. From my place amongst the courtiers, I watched the two common soldiers where they knelt on the mosaic. They had crawled the length of the hall, proceeding down the central aisle flanked by members of the Martian Guard like scarabs in their formal blacks. How long had it been since two persons of so low a station had come to that exalted place? The white vaults had stood like Olympos atop the clouds of Forum for more than ten thousand years, and save for the artisans who had crafted them—creatures whom the nobile people about me would have spurned like insects despite the beauty they had wrought—I was prepared to wager my good right hand that fewer than a hundred serfs had knelt before our Radiant Emperor in all that time.
That they were in that place at all was a signal—clear as the changing of bells—that the world had changed. That they would speak in that place of gold and carnelian, that hall of ivory and jet, was a sign that the change was terrifying.
Both soldiers knelt at attention, eyes carefully fixed at the base of the dais where fifty-four steps rose towards the gleaming throne flanked by the Knights Excubitor in armor of mirrored white.
By the stars at her shoulders I saw that one of the soldiers was a ship’s captain, but it was the other who spoke, rough tones betraying him for a common legionnaire. He had been prompted, coached on what to say and how by logothetes and by the eunuch homunculi who served the Imperial presence. But fear floated off the man in waves, and for a tenth and unnecessary time he bowed and pressed his forehead to the tile. “Your Radiance,” he said, voice breaking. “Holy Emperor. I abase myself before you. I am Carax of Aramis. I have been your faithful servant for nearly eight hundred years.” His tongue tripped over the words, and I could tell that he’d tried to rehearse them. “I were at Hermonassa, Radiance. Were on the Inviolate when it fell.” From the reports I’d seen of the battle, I knew the Inviolate had been the flagship of the defense fleet at Hermonassa. It had died nameless, for once violated it was the Inviolate no more. The woman beside Carax had been its captain. By rights, she should have ended her life after so devastating a defeat. Perhaps she intended to do just that when this audience was ended.
Carax spoke, describing the Cielcin attack on the flagship. “The Pale come aboard. Cut through the hull and swarm in. Ship’s leaking air. Life support’s compromised. I don’t know a thing about the battle outside, but the captain’s ordered retreat and we’re pulling back to decouple the bridge section when—”
“Get to the point!” snapped the slippered eunuch at the soldier’s side. At a gesture from the androgyn, one of the Martians advanced to chastise the legionnaire with the haft of his energy lance.
“Let the man tell his story in his own way,” came the voice Imperial, halting the androgyn and the Martian in their tracks. Carax and the captain at once pressed their faces to the floor as a child hides from the thunderbolt. Caesar’s words resounded from the throne, amplified by speakers hidden in the filigreed vaults above so that he spoke God-like from every corner of the hall. When he spoke again, it was not unkindly. “He has traveled far and seen much that interests us. We would not have his tale hurried.”
Spluttering thanks, Carax straightened, still on his knees.
“But you wanted to hear about it.” Almost I thought I could hear Carax swallow. “About the Pale King.” I guessed the man had given his official report when the survivors from Hermonassa had arrived on Forum, and from that report had been selected to come before the Emperor.
I glanced sidelong at Pallino where he stood beside me, but my old friend and bodyguard did not so much as blink.
I felt a shadow stir in my mind, but listened carefully as Carax continued. “My decade were left to guard the airlock. Last line of defense. On the Inviolate the bridge section’s got to by this long hall, and Thailles—he was my decurion—Thailles had sealed the door. A foot and a half of solid titanium, only they got through.” His voice shook on the last word, and he hunched where he knelt, eyes downcast. “Cut its way in with a sword like those our knights use. Highmatter. Cut through the bulkhead like it weren’t nothing, Radiance. Lords and ladies. Only it weren’t like no sword I’d seen. It were too big. And all...twisted. Cut through the bulkhead like it weren’t there.” He seemed to realize that he’d repeated himself, and his dark face darkened. “Cut through the men, too. I never seen one of the Pale so big. Had to stoop in the corridor as it came at us. All black and silver it was. And when it see us standing at the end of the hall behind the prudence shield it bares its fangs at us. Smiling, like.”
“’Surrender!’ it says, and Honorable Caesar I swear by Holy Mother Earth it spoke our words.” He rubbed his arms. “Said our lives were forfeit. That they’d taken the shipyards. Broken the fleet. We fired on him, but they had shields. Never seen that before, neither. Pale with shields. They just laughed at us, and their king, he said he was...” the man struggled with the name.
I hardly heard him.
I knew the name.
The Scourge of Earth.
The soldier’s words seized in me, and once again I beheld a vision I had twice seen. First in the darkness beneath Calagah, and again in the cold clutches of the Brethren of Vorgossos. I saw the Cielcin arrayed across the stars, rank upon rank, file upon file, ship and soldier and swords uplifted, scratching at the sky. And at their head there came one taller and more terrible than the rest. Black its raiment and black its cloak, and its horns and its silver crown were terrible as the glass fangs in its lipless mouth.
“Did it wear a crown?”
I realized a moment later that it was I who had spoken, I who had disturbed the air and perfect order about the Solar Throne. The courtiers about me drew away, leaving Pallino and me alone on a little island beneath pillars tall as towers. Someone giggled nervously, and I felt the eyes of the Martians pick me out through their suit optics, their faceless masks dispassionate.
Carax turned, and our eyes met. His eyes widened. Did he know me? I did not know him.
“We will have order!” cried a sergeant-at-arms.
Because it was expected of me, I went to one knee and bowed my head. I did not press it to the floor as the soldiers had. I was palatine, and distantly a cousin of our Emperor. Caesar’s eyes were on me, twin emeralds in that alabaster sculpt he called a face. Was it my imagination, or had one corner of his mouth turned upwards in ironic amusement? Whispers burbled around me.
“That’s Marlowe, isn’t it?”
“That’s Sir Hadrian Marlowe, the Knight Victorian.”
“That’s the Halfmortal?”
“Is it true he can’t be killed?”
The sergeant-at-arms slammed his fasces against the tiled floor, brass tip ringing against the stone. “Order! We will have order!”
Caesar raised a hand, and order was restored. A moment later, His Imperial Radiance, William XXIII of the House Avent, spoke in a voice that brought to mind the touch of fire and the scent of old wood. “Answer our servant’s question, soldier.”
Attention returned steadily to Carax and his captain. His eyes stayed fixed on me as he answered, ignoring Caesar where he sat amidst gold and velvet. “A crown?” the words seemed alien to the man, and he mouthed them stupidly, “A crown? Yes. It were silver.”
Alone, this revelation proved nothing. Prince Aranata had worn a coronet of silver. The Cielcin had dozens of princes, perhaps hundreds, each the master of a nation fleet that plied the waterless seas of space. I had no reason to believe that Syriani Dorayaica, whom the Chantry called the Scourge of Earth, was the creature from my visions.
And yet, I knew.
But Carax was not finished. “He called himself a king,” he said, and turning broke the inviolable protocol of the throne room by looking up upon the face of the Emperor. “He said he was coming for your crown, Honorable Caesar.” On seeing His Radiance enthroned atop the mighty dais, the soldier’s voice broke, and he prostrated himself once again, lying almost flat against the tile. No longer the center of attention, I stood again, peering over the shoulders of the richly dressed personages before me. “Your Radiance, he let me live. Killed everyone else in my decade.”
The smell of incense burning in golden thuribles above filled the air, but I smelled the smoke of fires and burning men. I saw the corridor in Carax’s tale as he spoke. The Cielcin king—if king it was—striding relentless, pale sword flashing. I imagined plasma fire and bullets breaking against its shield as its sword fell like rain. How bright the flashing of that blade! How terrible its glass-toothed smile! And when its work was done it seized Carax by his throat and plucked him one handed from a floor slick with blood and strewn with the limbs of dead men. How clearly I saw that moment then: Carax alone against the enemy. I pressed my lips together in pity. I had a vision of boots dangling useless above the floor, and of the Cielcin lord holding this man calmly in its grip.
“Tell your master I am coming,” it said, and Carax shuddered to repeat the words. Then it threw the man down like a child’s doll and turned, vanishing into the wreck it had made and was gone.
“I don’t like this one bit, Had,” Pallino said when the audience was over.
“I know, Pal.” I rubbed my chin, leaned my head back against the pillar behind me. The Martians had chivied the courtiers from the Sun King’s Hall after the Emperor made his departure, his massive throne carried on the shoulders of a hundred men and flanked by the Knights Excubitor. The vestibule outside the throne room was larger than many palaces, so high one could confuse the vaulted ceiling fifty stories above for the sky. Indeed, I’d heard it said there were mechanisms in the ceiling designed to suck all the moisture from the air, lest clouds form within and rain fall upon the nobility.
My lictor crossed his arms, “The bastards are getting smarter. Or this one is.”
“That’s the one,” Pallino said, then said again, “I don’t like this one bit. The Pale are animals. They’ve always attacked without warning or order, burned cities and carried off people for food. In and out. But this bastard...Hermonassa was a military target. He didn’t even raid the planet, just torched the shipyards and crippled the fleet. I bet it was him that did for the Legion base on Gran Kor, too.”
Still rubbing my pointed chin, I added, “And Arae.” Pallino had been at Arae with me, had seen the unholy mixture Cielcin and machine the Extrasolarians had bred beneath the mountains on that arid and airless world.
“Could be. You think he’s allied with the Extras, too?”
“It,” I corrected. The Cielcin were not male and female. “And I hope not.” An alliance between the Cielcin and the barbarians who dwelt between the stars would be a hideous thing. I shivered. Even after nearly a hundred years or waking life, the memory of my imprisonment in the dungeons of Vorgossos lay on me like a film. “It’s bad enough facing the prospect of a Cielcin chieftain who understands our warfare without dragging Kharn Sagara and his ilk back into the mix.”
Pallino grunted, and at last I lowered my gaze to look at the man who had come with me out of the fighting pits of Emesh, one of a mere handful of people who remembered me as Had, as only Hadrian, and not as Sir Hadrian, the youngest man not of the Imperial family ever to be named a member of the Royal Knights Victorian; nor as the Halfmortal.
When I had first met Pallino, he’d been an old man. Hoary, white-haired, and one-eyed. He’d lost that eye fighting the Cielcin at Argissa a lifetime before. Old as he was, he’d been strong after the way of old soldiers, and when I had asked him to enlist with me, to leave the life of a coliseum myrmidon for life as a mercenary, he had not blinked the one eye remaining him.
He had two eyes now, and the hair on his head was black again, though not so black as mine, and the skin of his face and hands—which once had been spotted and leathered with age and use—was smooth again and youthful, though shot through with a tracery of fine scars like silver wire, the mark of the surgeon’s knife and fingerprint of the gene tonics that had remade his body and elevated him to the patrician class. He’d received a new lease on life, and a second youth, all because I had asked it, all because I had named him my armsman and a member of my house when the Emperor knighted me.
He narrowed those eyes then, and made a warding gesture at the sound of Kharn’s name. “You think they’ll send us out again?”
“We’ll know soon enough...” I said darkly, watching the brightly clad nobiles flock in the shadows of those impossibly high columns. I felt shabby by comparison in my black tunic and high boots, the tall collar of my greatcoat close about my jaw. I leaned back against the pillar, hands behind my back.
“Lord Marlowe?” a low voice interrupted.
I looked round, expecting to see a servant in the Imperial livery. But the man who spoke was not suited in the servants’ white, but in blacks more worn than my own.
It was the soldier, Carax.
Before I could answer, the man took a halting step back, mouth half-open. “It is you. God and Earth and Emperor...” he sketched the sign of the sun disc then, touching forehead, chest, and lips in rapid succession. “It is you.” His hand lingered on his chest, touching some amulet through the front of his uniform jacket. “I thought it were you in there. When you spoke to me, I...I almost didn’t believe you were real.” He glanced round at the nobility flowing around us. At the logothetes in their black and gray suits, at the guards in white and Martian scarlet. He had the air of a man who yearned to be invisible, which was impossible in the Eternal City. Ten thousand eyes were watching us, and ten times ten thousand. Cameras and microphones, hoverdrones and spydust and sensors of all descriptions kept their ceaseless vigil, spying on and protecting the Emperor and the cream of the Sollan Empire from treachery and death.
No one was invisible. Not even a lowly legionnaire.
“I’m real enough,” I said, coming off the pillar.
Unheard by all but myself, Pallino muttered, “Enough to be a real pain in the ass.”
I threw the old soldier a glance, and he flashed a rueful grin.“You spoke well today. I’ve seen many a great lord do worse.” We stood opposite one another a long moment, neither speaking. The legionnaire was bald as any enlisted man, and I could see his identification tattoos standing out black against the dark skin of his neck. More than once he seemed on the verge of saying something, but he kept stopping himself. I had grown familiar with his affliction in the years since I’d risen to knighthood. Offering the fellow my best, most crooked smile, I said, “They said your name was...Carax, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, sir! I...lordship.” He stood a little straighter, leaped almost to attention. “Carax of Aramis, sir. Triaster. Second cohort of the 319th Centaurine Legion, sir. Lordship. Sir.” Only then did the fellow remember his salute and pressed a fist to his chest.
Returning the gesture I said, “Just sir will do, Carax. We are both soldiers.”
When had that happened? When had I become a soldier? I hadn’t set out to be one. I’d left home to study languages—to become a scholiast. Not to fight. Certainly not to kill.
“Is it true?” he asked. I knew what he wanted to know, but I let him ask it anyway. “They say you can’t be killed.”
Mindful of the cameras all around us, I knew I couldn’t tell him the truth. Even if I could, whatever I said would not be believed. If I said yes, he would think me a fraud, and if no—a liar.
“That is what they say.”
Carax nodded as if I’d answered his question. “They say you killed one of their kings with your bare hands.”
“Princes,” I said, raising two fingers, “Two of them. Though I had a sword.” I caught myself toying with the ring on my left thumb, the ring I had taken from Prince Aranata’s hand after I killed it. I clenched my fists to stop them fidgeting. I had taken the prince’s head after it had taken mine. I could remember the sight of my own headless body toppling before the darkness took me. Before I came back. I felt Pallino stir beside me. He had seen it all. He knew the truth.
“Will the war end soon, sir?” Carax asked, eyes downcast, as if he feared to look at me. “Only...I’ve been on the Emperor’s dole since before the war began. So much time on the ice, you know? Not been home in...I don’t know how long anymore. Seven hundred years? Reckon I’m a grandfather a hundred times over. Family won’t even know me when I get back. Lot of lads like me in the service. Lads never going home. Lads got no home. Just want the fighting done.” His hand tightened on whatever it was he wore beneath his shirt.
Something in me broke for the poor soldier. Just how long had he spent in cryonic fugue, slumbering between the stars? His was the fate of many soldiers: to be locked away in an icebox to await their day, to serve their tenure piecemeal. A month—two months every decade. It wasn’t just, but then, the universe is not just. There is no justice in creation—save that which we bring to it ourselves.
“I don’t know,” I said, and took a step nearer the other man.
He stepped back, as if afraid I might burn him. “But they say you can see the future.”
“They say a lot of things,” I said. I couldn’t. I had only been shown the future. I had no power in myself. They say a man should never meet his heroes, and I feared I was letting this poor soldier down, but I could not tell him the truth. I stood in the Emperor’s favor, and that offered me some protection, but to talk too freely in that place was to court disaster. “But the war will end, Carax. One day. And perhaps we will meet again when that happens, eh?”
I had expected the man to slump, defeated by my lack of a proper response, but he brightened and stood a little straighter. “Wanted to give you something, sir. If you’ll let me.” He spoke as if the thought had just occurred to him, and at once he drew a slim chain from around his neck and offered me the little silver medal on his outstretched hand. “I were at Aptucca, sir. I only wish it were something better, but I don’t have much.”
It was prayer medal with an icon of Fortitude embossed on its front. I took it and held it in my palm, trying to keep my feelings from my face. I did not and do not believe in the Chantry religion. But I smiled. “Thank you, soldier. I’m glad you were at Aptucca, I—”
“How did you do it?” The words came spilling out of him. “How did you get the Pale to retreat without firing a single shot?”
“I...” My words trailed off as I turned the medal over. It was a small thing, no larger than the end of my thumb and round as a coin. On its back side was the Imperial sunburst, twelve rays twisting. But over it—carved as with the point of a knife—was a crude trident, a pitchfork such as a devil might carry. Such as the pitchfork embroidered on my greatcoat in crimson thread. Its shaft passed directly through the heart of the Imperial sun precisely as the one on my chest pierced a pentacle. I shut my fist and hid the thing at my side. “I killed their prince, too.” I smiled, though it was not the whole truth. They had taken me aboard their vessel when I challenged Prince Ulurani, and the Prince had accepted, that it might avenge the death of its fellow prince, Aranata. While I’d distracted them with the duel, Pallino and Lieutenant Commander Garone had managed to place charges throughout the interior of their ship. We had held them to ransom, and they had fled.
The Cielcin were not human. They could not be reasoned with like humans.
I realized that Carax was looking at me, hoping for a story. I shrugged, trying not to think about the treasonous, blasphemous amulet he had given me. “The Cielcin don’t have laws exactly. They have rulers—and if you kill one—they don’t know what to do. When I defeated their prince at Aptucca, they retreated to choose a new leader.”
“A bloodless victory,” the soldier said, grinning ear to ear.
“Nearly bloodless,” I said, but it was Aranata I thought of, black blood staining the pale grass in the gardens of Kharn Sagara.
“Would you bless me, sir?” Carax stammered. “Lordship? I thank Earth every day she sent you to us. I’d have died at Aptucca, I know it. I had dreams about it for weeks. But you saved me. Saved all of us.” And then he went to one knee, head bowed as one about to receive knighthood, hands clasped above his head.
“Oh, get up,” Pallino mumbled, but Carax did not hear.
“Halfmortal Son of Earth, protect us.”
The edges of the medallion pinched against my hand. I had known for a long time that there were those in the legions who thought of me this way, but none had come to me before. My own men knew me well enough to know that I was a man, though many of them had seen my death with their own eyes. But the legend of me had gone beyond me, traveled with Bassander Lin and his soldiers back amongst the wider legions.
There were always cults among the soldiers, though worship of any gods save Mother Earth and the God Emperor was forbidden. As in Rome so long ago, when the soldiers worshiped Mithras and the Unconquered Sun, so our soldiers worshiped the Cid Arthur and—like my friend, Edouard, and the Romans before him—the ancient Christ.
This lonely soldier worshiped me, and I had no power to bestow blessings, and no hope to give. I glanced again at the medal, at the crude engraving sliced across the face of the sun. Did they light candles to me in some out of the way airlock when their officers were not looking? Did they pray for the Halfmortal to deliver them from evil?
I felt at once very, very tired.
So I took his hands in mine. They seized me with a fervor I had not expected, nor felt in any person save Valka for more years than I could recall. “Get up,” I said, and pressed the medallion back into his hands, imagining that to him it gained some special significance because I had held it.
It was a relic now.
There were tears in the soldier’s eyes when he stood. “They say that it’s hopeless, master. The war.”
Master. The word echoed in my ears.
“They say a lot of things,” I said again, and drew back. “There is always hope.” And I clapped the man on the shoulder and sent him on his way. He looked back the whole while, bumping into court logothetes and women dressed in bright gowns, until at last he was lost in the throng of people and swallowed up.
I never saw him again.