He might have been any young militiaman, or even a Guardian-apprentice. I judged him nineteen, perhaps twenty. An age when a young man begins to believe he’s an adult, and that the four or five years’ experience he’s accumulated actually amount to something. A dangerous age.
And this youngster wouldn’t get any older.
We were in a windowless chamber, stone-walled and with a single entrance, protected by a heavy door whose many cross-grained wood layers and metal covering grid would not have disgraced a Great House inner keep in time of siege. Glowglobes high in the upper corners cast a pale, even light. There was little furniture—three chairs, one of which did duty as a table, holding a tray with a pitcher of water and some cups. In the least comfortable chair, the young man was slumped, unconscious, restrained by padded fiber bonds that tightened only when he struggled. It was unfortunate, but he had already demonstrated a lack of composure that made it inadvisable to afford him greater comfort.
Next to me was the member of the Crooks’ Guild who was responsible for his presence. “How did you manage the capture?”
She shrugged. “It was hard, so—not difficult.”
The Master of the Veldmeet Crooks’ Guild, also present, grinned appreciation of the quip. I merely nodded. It was not difficult to guess from the Guildmember’s appearance that she specialized in the art of using physical attraction to ensnare unwary victims for criminal purposes.
The Master of Shadows glanced at me. “They have most peculiar sexual customs. Several cantinas and wayhouses have had to put their female staff on leave for the duration.” She shook her head. “At first, some of the city’s paicai were willing to do business with them—not least in the hope of gathering useful information. But there has been some trouble, and after they murdered one, the paicai Council placed them under embargo.
The paicai were not a Guild but they operated much as one in larger cities. They provided companionship, and often sexual engagement, under agreed-upon terms for their clients. They ranged from men and women of high training, professionalism, and refinement—and cost—to semi-amateurs with an inclination for casual, short-term liaisons who scratched out a living in the city’s travelers’ quarters. There were varying levels of cooperation between paicai and the Crooks’ Guild.
“Murdered one?” I frowned, and then made a gesture dismissing the subject. It could be pursued later.
The Klarosian in the chair was stirring. The Guild Master bent over him, checking the condition of his pulse, his skin, his eyes. She carefully avoided the swelling contusion masking the left side of the young man’s face. Finally, she lifted a cup of water to the prisoner’s mouth and tilted it so that he could drink if he would.
The Klarosian flinched from her touch, but swallowed several mouthfuls of water before half-turning his head in rejection. The Guild Master returned the cup to its tray, and glanced at me. I pulled the remaining unoccupied chair around so that its back faced the man directly, and sat down astride it, my arms folded atop the back.
The function of the College of Arms is to prepare the highest level of Royal retainers to undertake the service of keeping Veran’s human population reasonably prosperous, reasonably peaceful, and reasonably productive. No one who’s had even a first-year course at the College underestimates the complexity of that task, and no one misunderstands the primary material required to complete it. Heralds learn, above all, to gauge human motives and actions, and to communicate effectively.
Veran humans, at any rate. What of Klarosians? I studied this young man.
“I am Herald-Adept Ilvren, of the Royal College of Arms,” I named myself to him. I’d been told he spoke a garbled but passable Middle Veran, and that he’d named himself, and given his rank and some rigmarole of numbers when he’d first awakened. Before he tried to kill his guards, presumably to facilitate his own escape.
He’d been collected en route from a Klarosian patrol post in the Kutala district to the Klarosians’ main compound. He’d been with two others, but a very little effort on the Guildmember’s part had sufficed to separate him from his companions, who’d made no demur at leaving him to take advantage of his apparent good fortune. He’d been eager to seek out the company of what he called, in a clumsy verbal construction, a ‘comfort woman,’ but reasonably polite withal. Until he’d woken in the bowels of the Guild House, whereupon his veneer of manners had evaporated quickly.
He glared at me now with unconcealed hostility, but remained silent.
“I understand you are called Heavy Infantry Trooper Grade Six Urzek Borstan, of the Ninth Assault Company, Second Regiment, First Corps of the Second Legion of Klaros, is that correct? Favor my inexact pronunciation.”
He nodded, slowly. “Yes. And that is all I have to tell you, gorschesc. All, understand? You understand ‘all,’ or do I mispronouncing that?”
‘Gorschesc’ I understood to be an insult the Klarosians commonly used to refer to our people.
“Your pronunciation is impressively accurate for one who has acquired my language so recently, Heavy Infantry Trooper Grade Six Urzek Borstan.” I said nothing of his grammar, usage, and sentence structure.
His eyes narrowed, and he turned his head and spat on the floor. I considered the significance of such an uncouth gesture and decided I was safe assuming it to have a negative tone.
“Yeh, so, if you gorschesc knew anything about the HCC, you will know all I have to tell you is my name, rank, unit, and tamt qav.” He apparently did not know the Middle Veran vocabulary for at least one term, but the context suggested the string of numbers he’d spouted earlier.
“It is true that Veran is not a signatory to the Hub Conflict Conventions. But it is not our practice to compel the disclosure of information from an unwilling individual.”
In spite of his stated refusal to provide information, I had already learned much from him. His demeanor, with its apparent bravado, and the reiterated refusals to provide information (although he did not seem inclined to avail himself of the option of silence,) showed a lack of self-discipline I would have found shocking in a fifteen-year-old. The simplicity and repetition, combined with his crude (and unsuccessful) physical outburst showed either a lack of imagination, a lack of initiative, or perhaps both.
It might be dangerous to generalize from this single specimen to the larger universe of Klarosian enlisted, but in combination with other observations and information, it suggested an interesting pattern.
His eyes narrowed. “Better you must let me go. And I’d, um… give back favor by making sure that you three got a, uh quick easy death and no extra retaliations by occupation rules.”
I waited to see if he had any more to ask, then shook my head regretfully. “I would not leave you so deeply indebted to us, Heavy Infantry Trooper Grade Six Urzek Borstan, nor would I incur such debt in return. But if you are concerned about the Hub Conventions you cited, you might consider those same Occupation rules in that context.”
I had seen these “Occupation Rules”, posted in an odd, squared-off version of common script, on every news kiosk I’d passed when I arrived in Veldmeet. ‘For the injury of one Klarosian, the death of five Veran. For the death of one Klarosian, the death of ten Veran.’
“Keep civil order to protect a hostile population from violence—permitted under HCC,” he growled.
I had an inexact memory of the article he cited but I was fairly sure that this novel Klarosian interpretation of its provisions would have surprised those who formulated them.
“My people will find me soon, you will all die.”
Assuredly we would all die, not even the advanced technologies of the Inner Hub have produced practical immortality, but that was probably not what he meant.
“You refer, no doubt, to the locator strand embedded in your clothing?”
This produced an expression of wary shock, and narrowed eyes. It also confirmed my hypothesis. But he did not answer, which I suppose by his standards qualified as a refusal to disclose information.
“You must understand, Heavy Infantry Trooper Grade Six Urzek Borstan, that we have no intention of keeping you so long as to provoke such a search.”
Again, his face made speech unnecessary. Relief was superseded by a kind of cocky assurance. “Time you got smart. And you do not require to address me all rank, unit, and name every time you talk to me.”
I nodded. “Just so. How may I address you without offense?”
He snorted again, a gulping laugh. “You worrying about offense-ing me? That is tobka, really tobka.” He looked at me, and when I made no reply, he said with an air of reluctance, “You are permit address me Trooper Borstan. Not that it make you any good, so I will still not tell you anything.”
“Mine the debt. You may address me as Adept Ilvren, or just Herald-Adept.”
“I do no really want to address you.”
“You are under no obligation to do so, Trooper Borstan.” I rested my chin on my arms, and watched him in silence for some moments. He stared back at me with growing uneasiness.
“What are you do with me now?”
I shrugged, not hiding my regret. “If our conversation is over, we will return you to your people.”
His brows shot up, then lowered. “Let me go?”
“Not as you hope, I think, Trooper Borstan. Rather, I will incur a life-debt through you.” I repressed a sigh, thinking of the balance of such debt I already carried. “I will remember your name, Heavy Infantry Trooper Grade Six Urzek Borstan.”
I saw realization dawn in his eyes. “Is there any necessary ritual of comfort you wish to perform? Before you set upon the Starlit Path?”
His eyes narrowed. “You know occupation rules.”
I quoted them to him: “For the injury of one Klarosian, the death of five Veran. For the death of one Klarosian, the death of ten Veran.”
He nodded, slowly, watching me.
I was curious. “Are your people so eager, then, to incur such life-debt?”
His face showed the struggle to parse that out and frame a reply. “Not Klarosian debt. You kill a Klarosian, you kill ten Veran.”
I glanced at the Guildfolk. They showed no surprise, and did not bother to hide their contempt, so I realized he might be serious. I wondered if it would be worth the time to explore the implications of this peculiar belief with the Klarosian, and whether his grasp of Middle Veran syntax would be sufficient to make it possible.
I shook my head. “We do not have such a belief, Trooper Borstan. We believe that who wills the death, bears the debt.”
“Yes, you kill a Klarosian, you will the ten Veran death. You…” his brow furrowed, he was clearly searching for Middle Veran vocabulary that exceeded his knowledge. “You know you do something, a…a result will be. You will the thing, you will the result.” Sweat had appeared on his forehead, and his respiration rate had increased.
It was an interesting viewpoint. I wished he had better Middle Veran. I pursued the abstract, to give him a space to bring his fear under control.
“But a result that is not intrinsic to the action—an unbreakable chain of consequence—is not always a result of the action. And particularly, an action that is under the control of one person cannot be a result of another person’s action. Do you understand?” I spoke slowly, watching him to see if he had enough Middle Veran to grasp the concept.
He shook his head. His respiration rate had not decreased, and his eyes were dilated now. Nevertheless, he sought for a return of the assurance he’d spoken with before. “I understand this: You kill me, you kill ten Veran. You know if I die, ten Veran die.”
“Tell me this, Trooper Borstan. You are a Trooper, a soldier. You take orders from those above you, yes?”
He nodded, warily.
“The people above you will you to obey their orders, so they bear the debt for your action when you obey, yes?”
He nodded. “Yes,” he confirmed, on solid ground now. His hands, bound to pads on the chair frame, clenched.
“But what if the person who gives you orders gives you an order you know to be wrong? If you obey, who incurs the debt?”
All Guardians knew the Hub Conflict Conventions, even though Veran is not a signatory and we have our own codes governing conflict.
His lips tightened, and he shook his head. “You kill me, you kill ten Veran. You do it, you will it.” He had to take a breath as he spoke, and his voice was hoarse.
I sighed. He was making no effort to recover composure, or he saw no need to do so. Either way, my well-intended efforts to provide him with the opportunity to maintain decorum were futile. Perhaps the only debt-favor I could grant him was to die with his beliefs intact. “No dispute, Trooper Borstan. I will remember your name.”
I took a final look to fix his face in memory, all of it—the swelling contusion, the thin-bladed nose and short, square chin, and the eyes, widening with the shocked realization of mortality. If I were a believer, I would have commended him to his god, or gods. I think the comfort of belief must have great value to believers. Sometimes, like now, I regretted that I could not share it. I nodded to him, and we all turned to leave.
Outside, the room was a narrow, dimly-lit corridor. Leaning casually against the wall were two men, not particularly large, but both very muscular. One carried a full drinkskin.
“We cannot delay,” the Guild Master said, “already that contusion is maturing.”
“Did you get anything useful?” the Guildmember asked. I considered the question.
“Yes, I believe so. Veran is in your debt, Guildmember.”
“Veran’s need accrues no debt, Adept,” she murmured, but her shoulders had straightened and her chin lifted a millimeter or two.
At some signal from the Guild Master, invisible to me, the two men straightened up, and entered the room we’d just left. “B’naleu, stay and guide them, please,” she asked the Guildmember. The Guildmember nodded, and the Master of Shadows led me away.
I had every confidence in the ability of the Guild to fill the Klarosian’s system with ethanol, and inflict a fatal head wound that would blend seamlessly with the existing contusion and pass easily for the result of a fall. It was also unlikely that there would be any difficulty for them in arranging the discovery of the body in the Kutala canal, not too far from the area of cheap cantinas and wayhouses that were sometimes visited illicitly by low-ranking Klarosians in search of intoxicating liquors.
I had less confidence in the willingness of the Klarosians to accept an accidental death. They’d shown themselves eager to demonstrate the supposed potency of the occupation rules. It was indeed possible that ten Veran would die when Trooper Borstan’s body was discovered. I knew how poisonous it would be to accept the debt for their deaths, which accrued only to Klarosians who decreed them, but I felt the weight of my own debt-burden grow all the same.