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THE CORORM is Unsolvable.
That was the thought that distracted him as he swung his axe the following weeks. He wondered what else in the Cororm was Unsolvable, and if the young women trapped inside it could use its Unsolvability to their advantage in order to protect themselves. It didn’t seem likely, given that the Hadavsmoban had never revolted. If any of them ever knew of the home’s Unsolvability, they never took advantage of it.
He couldn’t forget about Tzani. On the day he was ordered to accompany Pios to the Cororm he stood outside and seethed, trying not to think of what she was doing to sate the lust of the Lord of the Demons. He had had no idea if she was still alive, but when Pios entered he caught a glimpse of her kneeling. She didn’t see him. He closed the door behind the monster and waited and seethed.
She’s still alive, he thought. She’s still alive.
Pios and Trajan routinely killed the Hadavsmoban. Aside from the simple sport of it, they did it because they grew tired of the same girls. Days later he heard two Tracluse in the barracks laughing and saying how they envied them and wishing they could have a constant supply of “fresh meat to play with.”
Tracluse were violent, and sometimes fights erupted in the barracks. They were minimally tolerated by the sergeants, who sometimes enjoyed watching them, and were on occasion guilty of inciting them. Otoro, knowing this, waited for both Tracluse in the morning, and when he saw them broke the neck of the first and drowned the second in the toilet before heaving his dripping body on top of his compatriot. The barracks sergeant watched it happen but did nothing but grunt, “Guess it’s good another dreadnought came in last night, eh, Queril?” as Otoro passed.
Otoro went to his bunk and dressed. Tracluse watched him out of the corners of their eyes. They had no idea why he had killed those men—he had killed one of his fellow Tracluse only once before—but none of them dared ask.
At the docks he swung his axe. He stopped long enough to look up when a double flash of white light briefly brightened the skies and cast vivid shadows everywhere, and then when the ground shook sometime later, startling everyone. An hour after that a voluminous roar silenced the city. It sounded like a dreadnought full of ordnance had blown up in the bay. The dock colonel snarled, “Get back to work!” and back to work the Tracluse and Otoro got.
In the afternoon the colonel ordered everyone to stop. The Lottery that had been whipped and prodded to the Audience Chamber was brought back to the dreadnought.
This was unprecedented. It had never happened since Necrolius Anaxagorius rose to power. Otoro went to the supervising sergeant to ask.
“No one’s talking,” grumbled the sergeant. “Word has it that the Lord Emperor is away and will be for a while. We’re to keep the Lottery alive and fed until he gets back. We need extra Tracluse manning the ship, and the two due in a week. So unless you’re on assignment with the Cardinals, you’ll be on board babysitting, got it?”
Otoro saluted and left. He cleaned his block and then marched back to the barracks, where he witnessed another unprecedented event.
Imperials were rioting.
He sifted through the smoking rubble of the barracks days later searching for his locker, which held his axes. He didn’t find it until enough of the barracks had been cleared away—almost another week. Most of the locker had melted in the furnace-high temperatures of the fire … but one of his two axes was unscathed. A Tracluse noticed its condition.
“What is it made of, Queril? Infinitum?”
Queril hefted it and walked away. “It’s made of death.”
The Tracluse hurriedly stepped out of his way.
Pack over his shoulder and axe in hand, Otoro marched to the sergeant, who was busy ledgering those who had died.
“What do you want, Queril?”
“Permission to store these off-base, sir, and for leave. You’ve got enough men on clean-up here. The dreadnoughts are staffed to the teeth, and—”
“Permission granted,” interrupted the sergeant. “Report back in four days.”
Otoro saluted and left for the city, considering that there had never been a time when “things” weren’t “normal.” The sergeant’s attitude was telling.
Imperium Centrum was little more than a colossal slaughterhouse. It had one purpose: to oversee the deaths of millions of non-Tracluse human beings, either by marching them to the Lord Emperor himself, or by means of the axe or Mephastophians. Its silence was blood-soaked, permanent, and impenetrable.
But then the flashes … and then the earthquake … and then the great roar. The Lottery had returned, and the Imperials rioted. It hadn’t been confined to the barracks or even the
, but had,
apparently, occurred everywhere over the face of Aquanus, all at once. That was
the prevailing rumor. It was like a world-sized nest of hornets had been
disturbed. The city still burned in many parts. Otoro looked up to see smoke
rising from at least a dozen areas. The sky was darkened and low with soot. Raped
Tracluse were generally granted leave from their duties once a month. Usually they were given five days. To sate them were numberless pubs and whorehouses. Tracluse ran them, of course, as well as the various supply and food outlets needed to maintain a minimally functioning state economy. Senior Tracluse were assigned homes they could relax in during leave, though most preferred the barracks and didn’t use them. The two who had been assigned to Otoro’s house with him were long gone. He killed one of them, and that was all it took to keep the second away.
The home was one of the smaller ones lining the perimeter of what was once a grand oval park. Otoro entered it and disappeared into the master bedroom, where he placed the axe in the closet. He lit lamps and stoked the furnace, then busied himself with dusting and cleaning, which were tasks for slaves, but it calmed his mind, which was bubbling like a vat of acid.
Something had happened to the Lord Emperor—and that something caused Imperials to riot. That was his working theory.
The house warmed and he felt drowsiness creep up on him. He ordered the slave to bring him hot water (the old man had seen the lights come on and had knocked); when he returned Otoro bathed, then changed from his uniform into robes. The slave readied his bed. Otoro ordered him to report back with food at nightfall, then sent him off. He flopped down on his bed and fell asleep immediately.
He stood at attention in full dress uniform with a thousand other men. A translucent Tracluse—the actual parasite—floated just before his face, as one did before all of them.
The city’s Overseer stood on an imposing dais along with Dreamcatchers from the Horg Audience. Behind them was the Audience Chamber, marble-white and gleaming. The Lord Emperor, high, high above, stood at the edge of his throne, peering down at them.
“Your solemn and sworn duty is to serve the Lord Emperor,” the Overseer declared. His gravelly voice echoed between the buildings. “Your eternal commitment to him floats bodily before you. Once the Amgod is wedded to you, the Lord Emperor’s will and your will become one. There is no higher glory!
“Only the bravest and truest may become one with an Amgod! Be proud, my brothers, for you are the
Chosen! Open your mouths now and
shout your joy!”
As one, they opened their mouths wide, shouting. The parasites reached with black tentacles and crawled inside.
Otoro felt the parasite reach past his tongue to the back of his throat. He was told that he would not gag, that it would prevent it from happening. He felt it move farther in, and suddenly he had a violent urge to swallow. This too was normal, he was told. Out the corner of his eye he watched the other men swallow hard. He did too.
The men were shouting anew. He kept his mouth firmly closed.
The Tracluse settled, and then tried to vomit itself out. He kept his mouth firmly shut, his jaw quivering. No one noticed.
The beast clawed at his insides, trying to escape. He felt it tear at his throat, at the back of his tongue. He did not flinch. He snorted and swallowed hard again.
The Amgod, thrashing, started to dissolve. But he was bleeding internally, blood pouring into his stomach, and he didn’t know if he could keep from puking. The men were still shouting. He looked up and spied the Lord Emperor, who was still watching. He forced a vicious grin to his mouth. Sweat beaded on his forehead, ran down the back of his neck. He clenched his teeth harder.
The Tracluse inside him actually emitted a dying squeal that several around him heard. A soldier slapped his back and said, “Queril, was that you? What was that?”
He held his gaze on Necrolius and let his grin widen a little. The Amgod was dead. He fought the urge to vomit and brought his glare to the men staring at him. His grin disappeared.
He opened his mouth, and no Tracluse from that day on dared challenge him. For a vile, foul green smoke issued from it. “My Amgod is very pleased,” he said, blowing the smoke out. “How is yours?”
He woke. The slave was knocking. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood, stretched, then went to the door and opened it.
The man bowed, a basket of foodstuffs in hand.
“Come in,” said Otoro.
The slave was scarred from whippings. The pinkie finger on his left hand was missing. He walked past him into the kitchen, where he stoked a fire and began cooking after chopping up vegetables.
Otoro watched him, said: “Tell me about yourself.”
The slave looked up from his work. He didn’t answer.
Talking to slaves wasn’t illegal, but it certainly wasn’t an accepted practice. Otoro needed to talk; he needed to find a way to quiet his mind.
“I want to know something about you,” said Otoro, leaning against the door jamb.
The man kept his mouth closed. He must’ve thought it was a test. Talking to Tracluse was dangerous in the best of times.
“You may respond,” said Otoro. “I will not punish you for speaking. Do you have a daughter?”
The slave looked up, alarmed. He went back to his cooking, staring down unblinkingly.
“What’s your name?”
The slave said nothing.
Otoro grunted and began pacing back and forth.
“I was admitted into the Cororm recently,” he said. “The prince murdered five women. He ripped them apart …”
The slave winced.
Otoro caught it, though the man was facing away from him.
“You do have a daughter.”
The man went back to stirring the pot, the contents of which smelled deliciously like stew. Otoro’s stomach grumbled, and he thought of the dream, one he’d had many times. It was a dream of pure and true memory, for it had all happened exactly as he dreamed it. It was a dream he had when he felt frustrated and ready for war, and so he’d had it many times these past weeks.
“I met someone’s daughter in there,” he said. “Beautiful. Young. She was ready to die that day, and tried to provoke me into killing her. I should’ve. Her sole task is to entice the Lord of the Demons to spill his vile seed!”
The last came out of him in a roar. The slave had stopped stirring and now stared at him, terror stretching his face.
Otoro fixed his glare on him. “Your name. It will be your ticket to wake another day.”
Trembling, the slave approached and rolled up the sleeve on his right arm and presented it to him. On the soft underflesh was a brand:
Otoro grinned. He snatched the man’s wrist before he lowered it and squeezed. The slave grimaced, his face bleached with fear.
“Your name. I will not ask again.”
The man whimpered. Otoro squeezed harder and he dropped to his knees.
“F-Firr!” he cried out. “Firr Rourn! Please, Mr. Queril, spare me! I beg you …”
Otoro held the grip, then let him go.
“Stand, Mr. Rourn.”
He watched as the slave got unsteadily to his feet, shaking visibly and rubbing his wrist.
“When is the stew ready?”
Almost inaudibly: “You may eat it now.”
“Only if you share a bowl with me,” said Otoro. “Don’t refuse, and don’t give me more trouble. Eat with me. Serve me, then serve yourself. You’ll have seconds.”
Would the slave report him? Otoro’s actions were as the events of the past days: unprecendented. Tracluse took great pleasure in abusing and killing slaves, not feeding them. So completely compassionless were they that no Tracluse had ever been disciplined for showing mercy to a slave.
He watched as Firr Rourn fetched a second bowl and, after serving him, poured a single scoop of stew into it.
“Fill it,” ordered Otoro, glaring.
The slave did as told.
Otoro was seated at the table. “Come. Sit with me. Keep me company.”
The man came and sat across from him, spoon in hand.
Otoro held his glare on him, then dug in after twisting a loaf of bread and giving half to him. The stew was good. The slave took a spoonful and brought it to his mouth. He sipped it, then shoved it full in. His eyes glazed over with tears. It was obvious that he struggled mightily with taking his time and enjoying the meal, probably the first good one he’d gotten in six years.
“Vanerrincourtian,” said Otoro.
The old man wiped his mouth and stared down at the table. He nodded.
“Tell me about your life before the Lord Emperor. Speak, Mr. Rourn.”
The old man held up. Very quietly he said, “Portmaster. I was … the … the Portmaster. Here.”
“Quadris Empiricus,” said Otoro.
The man blinked. Speaking of one’s life before the Imperium was punishable by death, and so was speaking the former name of Imperium Centrum.
Otoro noticed that the slave’s bowl had almost magically emptied, so quickly had he eaten.
“Go!” Otoro motioned impatiently towards the big pot. “I said two servings!”
The slave hurried to it and refilled his bowl, came back. But he didn’t eat. He stared at Otoro, who knew exactly what he was thinking.
Otoro stared at him, and then shook his head.
The old Portmaster stared disbelievingly back, then resumed eating.
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
Firr Rourn held up.
“I have … I had … two,” he finally answered, eyes wet once again. “Permose and Entia.”
“Wife? Dead too?”
He nodded again.
“I need your help,” said Otoro.
The slave stared.
“Finish your stew,” ordered Otoro, who rose and went to the big stock pot and ladled himself a second bowl.
They ate in silence. Once again, the old man’s bowl emptied at an astonishing rate. Otoro noticed. “There’s some left,” he said, motioning with his chin. “Finish it.”
This he did. When he put his spoon down, he did so with a long sigh. Tears spilled down his cheeks. He wept without sound.
“Veteran Tracluse can make slaves exclusive to them,” said Otoro. “My barracks were burned. Tracluse are currently doubling and tripling up in those they didn’t torch. It won’t last long. The sergeants will tire of them and assign the senior Tracluse to their homes in Quadris until new ones are built in order to relieve the crowding. Without the constant presence of the sergeants, they’ll treat it like it’s leave. And you know what’ll happen then.”
The old man stared.
“I don’t have to tell you that killing slaves is a sport to Tracluse,” continued Otoro. “With them barely in control of themselves, a great many slaves are about to die very horribly. The more horrible a death they can put a slave through, the better. With two dreadnoughts waiting to be offloaded, there will be a fresh supply of slaves to take the place of the murdered ones. Demons will get their share too. Something has happened to the Lord Emperor, and those Lotteries stuffed in the dreadnoughts will require food and drink and care if they are to survive to ‘bless’ him, which, I’m guessing, might be quite some time. Understand?”
Firr Rourn nodded. He closed his eyes when Otoro said, “They’ll tire eventually of all that work. The demons too have become erratic. The Mephas Lord, it is said, can barely keep them under control. You know what’s going to happen then, don’t you?”
The old man clenched his jaw.
“You’ll be my personal slave. You’ll leave now and bring your belongings here. There is a cellar. For appearances’ sake you’ll put your stuff down there. But you’ll sleep in the second bedroom like a man does, and you’ll help me. You are still a man, aren’t you, Mr. Rourn?”
The Portmaster, his eyes still closed, nodded again. It seemed to take all his effort to do so.
“What am I to help you do?” he asked very quietly. He didn’t look up.“You’re going to help me kill Lord Pios and free the Hadavsmoban,” said Otoro.