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Empire of Silence
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Empire of Silence

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Author: Christopher Ruocchio
Publisher: Gollancz, 2018
DAW Books, 2018
Series: Sun Eater: Book 1

1. Empire of Silence
2. Howling Dark

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

It was not his war.

On the wrong planet, at the right time, for the best reasons, Hadrian Marlowe started down a path that could only end in fire. The galaxy remembers him as a hero: the man who burned every last alien Cielcin from the sky. They remember him as a monster: the devil who destroyed a sun, casually annihilating four billion human lives--even the Emperor himself--against Imperial orders.

But Hadrian was not a hero. He was not a monster. He was not even a soldier.

Fleeing his father and a future as a torturer, Hadrian finds himself stranded on a strange, backwater world. Forced to fight as a gladiator and into the intrigues of a foreign planetary court, he will find himself fight a war he did not start, for an Empire he does not love, against an enemy he will never understand.


Excerpt

Chapter 1
HADRIAN

Light.

The light of that murdered sun still burns me. I see it through my eyelids, blazing out of history from that bloody day, hinting at fires indescribable. It is like something holy, as if it were the light of God's own heaven that burned the world and billions of lives with it. I carry that light always, seared into the back of my mind. I make no excuses, no denials, no apologies for what I have done. I know what I am.

The scholiasts might start at the beginning, with our remote ancestors clawing their way out of Old Earth's system in their leaking vessels, those peregrines making their voyages to new and living worlds. But no. To do so would take more volumes and ink than my hosts have left at my disposal, and even I, who has more time than any other, have not the time for that.

Should I chronicle the war, then? Start with the alien Cielcin howling out of space in ships like castles of ice? You can find the war stories, read the death counts. The statistics. No context can make you understand the cost. Cities razed, planets burned. Countless billions of our people ripped from their worlds to serve as meat and slaves for those Pale monsters. Families old as empires ended in light and fire. The tales are numberless, and they are not enough. The Empire has its official version, one that ends in my execution, with Hadrian Marlowe hanged for all the worlds to see.

I do not doubt that this tome will do aught but collect dust in the archive where I have left it, one manuscript amongst billions at Colchis. Forgotten. Perhaps that is best. The worlds have had enough of tyrants, enough of murderers and genocides.

But perhaps you will read on, tempted by the thought of reading the work of so great a monster as the one made in my image. You will not let me be forgotten because you want to know what it was like to stand aboard that impossible ship and rip the heart out of a star. You want to feel the heat of two civilizations burning and to meet the dragon, the devil that wears the name my father gave me.

So let us bypass history, sidestep the politics and the marching tramp of empires. Forget the beginnings of mankind in the fire and ash of Old Earth, and so too ignore the Cielcin rising in cold and from darkness. Those tales are recorded elsewhere in all the tongues of mankind and her subjects. Let us move to the only beginning I've a right to: my own.

I was born the eldest son and heir to Alistair Marlowe, Archon of Meidua Prefecture, Butcher of Linon, and Lord of Devil's Rest. No place for a child, that palace of dark stone, but it was my home all the same, amid the logothetes and the armored peltasts who served my father. But Father never wanted a child. He wanted an heir, someone to inherit his slice of Empire and to carry on our family legacy. He named me Hadrian, an ancient name, meaningless save for the memories of those men who carried it before me. An Emperor's name, fit to rule and be followed.

Dangerous things, names. A kind of curse, defining us that we might live up to them, or giving us something to run away from. I have lived a long life, longer than the genetic therapies the great houses of the peerage can contrive, and I have had many names. During the war, I was Hadrian Halfmortal and Hadrian the Deathless. After the war, I was the Sun Eater. To the poor people of Borosevo, I was a myrmidon called Had. To the Jaddians, I was Al Neroblis. To the Cielcin, I was Oimn Belu and worse things besides. I have been many things: soldier and servant, captain and captive, sorcerer and scholar and little more than a slave.

But before I was any of these, I was a son.


* * *


My mother was late to my birth, and both my parents watched from a platform above the surgical theater while I was decanted from the vat. They say I screamed as the scholiasts birthed me and that I had all my teeth in my head. Thus nobility is always born: without encumbering the mother and under the watchful eye of the Imperial High College, ensuring that our genetic deviations had not turned to defects and curdle in our blood. Besides, childbearing of the traditional sort would have required my parents to share a bed, which neither was inclined to do. Like so many nobiles, my parents wed out of political necessity.

My mother, I later learned, preferred the company of women to that of my father and rarely spent time on the family estate, attending my father only during formal functions. My father, by contrast, preferred his work. Lord Alistair Marlowe was not the sort of man who gave attention to his vices. Indeed, my father was not the sort of man who had vices. He was possessed by his office and by the good name of our house.

By the time I was born, the Crusade had been raging for three hundred years since the first battle with the Cielcin at Cressgard, but it was far away across some twenty thousand light- years of Empire and open space, out where the Veil opened on the Norma Arm. While my father did his best to impress upon me the gravity of the situation, things at home were quiet, save for the levies the Imperial Legions pulled from the plebeians every decade. We were decades from the front even on the fastest ships, and despite the fact that the Cielcin were the greatest threat our species had faced since the death of Old Earth, things were not so dire as that.

As you might expect from parents such as mine, I was given into the hands of my father's servants almost at once. Father doubtless returned to his work within an hour of my birth, having wasted all the time he could afford that day on so troubling a distraction as his son. Mother returned to her mother's house to spend time with her siblings and lovers; as I said, mother was not involved in the family's bleak business.

That business was uranium. My father's lands sat atop some of the richest deposits in the sector, and our family had presided over its extraction for generations. The money my father pulled in through the Wong-Hopper Consortium and Free Traders Union made him the richest man on Delos, richer even than the vicereine, my grandmother.

I was four when Crispin was born, and at once my little brother began to prove himself the ideal heir, which is to say that he obeyed my father, if no one else. At two he was almost as large as I was at six, and by five Crispin had gained a head on me. I never made up that difference.

I had all the education you might expect the son of a prefectural archon to have. My father's castellan, Sir Felix Martyn, taught me to fight with sword, shield- belt, and handgun. He taught me to fire a lance and trained my body away from indolence. From Helene, the castle's chamberlain, I learned decorum: the intricacies of the bow and the handshake and of formal address. I learned to dance, to ride a horse and a skiff, and to fly a shuttle. From Abiatha, the old chanter who tended the belfry and the altar in the Chantry sanctum, I learned not only prayer but skepticism and that even priests have doubts. From his masters, the priors of the Holy Terran Chantry, I learned to guard those doubts for the heresy they were. And of course there was my mother, who told me stories: tales of Simeon the Red, Cid Arthur, and Kasia Soulier. Tales of Kharn Sagara. You laugh, but there is a magic in stories that cannot be ignored.

And yet it was Tor Gibson who made me the man I am, he who taught me my first lesson. "Knowledge is the mother of fools," he said. "Remember, the greatest part of wisdom in recognizing your own ignorance." He always said such things. He taught me rhetoric, arithmetic, and history.He schooled me in biology, mechanics, astrophysics, and philosophy. It was he who taught me languages and a love for words; by ten I spoke Mandar well as any child of the interspace corporations and could read the fire poetry of Jadd like a true acolyte of their faith. Most important of all, it was he who taught me about the Cielcin, the murderous, marauding alien scourge chewing at the edges of civilization. It was he who taught me a fascination with the xenobites and their cultures.

I can only hope the history books will not damn him for it.


* * *


"You look comfortable," said Tor Gibson, voice like a dry wind in the still air of the training hall.

Moving slowly, I pulled out of the complex stretch I'd folded myself into and flowed through the next position, twisting my spine. "Sir Felix and Crispin will be here soon. I want to be ready." Through the small, arched windows set high in the stone walls, I could just make out the calls of seabirds, their noise muffled by the house shields.

The old scholiast, face impassive as a stone, moved round into my line of sight, slippered feet scuffing on the mosaic tile work. Stooped though he was by time, the old tutor still stood taller than me, his square face smiling now beneath his mane of white hair, side whiskers making him look like nothing so much as the lions the vicereine kept in her menagerie. "Looking to put the little master flat on his ass, are you?"

"Which ass?" I grinned, stooping to touch my toes, voice creaking a little with the strain. "The one between his ears?"

Gibson's thin smile vanished. "You'd do well not to speak of your brother thus."

I shrugged, adjusting one of the thin straps that kept my dueling jerkin flat over my shirt. Leaving Gibson where he stood, I crossed barefoot to the rack where the training weapons waited on display by the fencing round, a slightly elevated wooden disc about twenty feet across, marked for dueling practice. "Did we have a lesson this morning, Gibson? I thought it wasn't until this afternoon."

"What?" He tipped his head, shuffling a little closer, and I had to remind myself that though he moved well, Gibson was not a young man. He had not been a young man when his order commissioned him to tutor my father, who was himself nearing three hundred standard years. Gibson cupped a gnarled hand to one ear. "What was that?"

Turning, I spoke more plainly, straightening my back as I'd been taught in order to better project. I was to be archon of that old castle in time, and speechcraft was a palatine's dearest weapon. "I thought our lesson was later."

He could not have forgotten. Gibson forgot nothing, which would have been an extraordinary quality were it not the basest requirement for being what he was: a scholiast. His mind was trained to be a substitute for those daimon machines forbidden by the Chantry's holiest law, and so could not afford to forget. "It is, Hadrian. Later, yes." He coughed into one viridian sleeve, eyed the camera drone that lurked near the vaulted ceiling. "I was hoping I might have a word privately."

The blunted backsword in my hand slipped a little. "Now?"

"Before your brother and the castellan arrive, yes."

I turned and placed the sword back in its place between the rapiers and the sabers, spared the drone a glance myself, knowing full well that its optics were trained on me. I was the archon's eldest, after all, and so subject to as much protection--and scrutiny--as father was himself. There were places in Devil's Rest where two might have a truly private conversation, but none were near the training hall. "Here?"

"In the cloister." Distracted a moment, Gibson looked down at my bare feet. "No shoes?"

Mine were not the feet of a pampered nobile. They looked more like the feet of some bondsman, with sheets of callous so thick I had taped the joints of my largest toes to keep the skin from tearing. "Sir Felix says bare feet are best for training."

"Does he now?"

"He says you're less likely to roll an ankle." I broke off, all too aware of the time. "Our word... can't it wait? They should be here soon."

"If it must." Gibson bobbed his head, short- fingered hands smoothing the front of his robe and its bronze sash. In my sparring clothes I felt shabby by comparison, though in truth his garments were plain: simple cotton, but well dyed to that hue that is greener than life itself.

The old scholiast was on the verge of saying more when the double doors to the training hall banged open and my brother appeared, grinning his lupine grin. Crispin was everything I was not: tall where I was short, strongly built where I was thin as a reed, square-faced where mine was pointed. For all that, our kinship was undeniable. We had the same ink-dark Marlowe hair, the same marble complexion, the same aquiline nose and steep eyebrows above the same violet eyes. We were clearly products of the same genetic constellation, our genomes altered in the same fashion to fit the same mold. The palatine houses--greater and lesser--went to extravagant lengths to craft such an image so that the learned could tell a house by the genetic markers of face and body as easily as by the devices worn on uniforms and painted on banners.

The craggy castellan, Sir Felix Martyn, followed in Crispin's wake, dressed in dueling leathers with his sleeves rolled past his elbows. He spoke first, raising a gloved hand. "Oy! Here already?"

I moved past Gibson to meet the two. "Just stretching, sir."

The castellan inclined his head, scratching at his skein of tangled gray-black hair. "Very good, then." He noticed Gibson for the first time. "Tor Gibson! Strange to see you out of the cloister at this hour!"

"I was looking for Hadrian."

"Do you need him?" The knight hooked his thumbs through his belt. "We've a lesson now."

Gibson shook his head swiftly, ducking into a slight bow before the castellan. "It can wait." Then he was gone, moving quietly from the hall. The doors slammed, sending a temple-hushed boom through the vaulted hall. For half a moment, Crispin did a comic impression of Gibson's stooped, lurching step. I glared at him, and my brother had the good grace to look abashed, rubbing his palms over the coal-dark stubble on his scalp.

"Shields at full charge?" Felix asked, clapping his hands together with a dull, leathered snap. "Very good."

In legend, the hero is almost always taught to fight by some sunstruck hermit, some mystic who sets his pupils to chasing cats, cleaning vehicles, and writing poetry. In Jadd, it is said that the swordmasters--the Maeskoloi--do all these things and might go for years before so much as touching a sword. Not I. Under Felix, my education was a rigor of unending drills. Many hours a day I spent in his care, learning to hold my own. No mysticism, only practice, long and tedious until the motions of lunge and parry were easy as breathing. For among the palatine nobility of the Sollan Empire--both men and women--skill with arms is accounted a chief virtue, not only because any of us might aspire to knighthood or to service in the Legions but because dueling served as a safety valve for the pressures and prejudices that might otherwise boil into vendettas. Thus any scion of any house might at some point be expected to take up arms in defense of her own honor or that of his house.

"I still owe you for last time, you know," Crispin said when we had finished our drills and faced one another across the fencing round. His thick lips twisted into a jagged smile, making him look like nothing so much as the blunt instrument he was.

I smiled to match his, though on my face I hoped the effect was less swaggering. "You have to hit me first."

Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Ruocchio


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