The Stars Askew

Rjurik Davidson’s The Stars Askew—available July 12th from Tor Books—continues the story that began with Unwrapped Sky. With the seditionists in power, Caeli-Amur has begun a new age. Or has it? The escaped House officials no longer send food, and the city is starving.

When the moderate leader Aceline is murdered, the trail leads Kata to a mysterious book that explains how to control the fabled Prism of Alerion. But when the last person to possess the book is found dead, it becomes clear that a conspiracy is afoot. At its center is former House Officiate Armand, who has hidden the Prism. Armand is vying for control of the Directorate, the highest political position in the city, until Armand is betrayed and sent to a prison camp to mine deadly bloodstone.

Meanwhile, Maximilian is sharing his mind with another being: the joker-god Aya. Aya leads Max to the realm of the Elo-Talern to seek a power source to remove Aya from Max’s brain. But when Max and Aya return, they find the vigilants destroying the last remnants of House power.

It seems the seditionists’ hopes for a new age of peace and prosperity in Caeli-Amur have come to naught, and every attempt to improve the situation makes it worse. The question now is not just whether Kata, Max, and Armand can do anything to stop the bloody battle in the city, but if they can escape with their lives.

 

 

One

A revolution is a festival of the oppressed. Caeli-Amur was alive with color and energy. Demonstrations coursed along the thoroughfares. Chants reverberated among the buildings. Everyone seemed involved in that carnivalesque atmosphere. In the crisscrossing alleyways, hardy washerwomen debated the new world; in the redbrick factories, committees discussed the conflict between the vigilants and the moderates; on street corners, avant-garde theater acts performed bizarre agitprop. At the university, students held endless parties, breaking into orgies or fisticuffs before returning to their dwindling stocks of flower-liquors and their nasty Yensa fudge. Love affairs were begun; hearts were broken; new ways of living invented. Life itself seemed to have taken on a new intensity, and time itself expanded so that each moment seemed to last forever. And yet, everything was moving at such a pace!

In the grand Opera building’s northern wing, the moderate leader Thom pressed a letter into Kata’s hand, his eyes wild. Barrel-chested, his beard sprouting in all directions, the second-in-command of the moderate faction possessed an artist’s sensibility. He was nowhere more at home than in the Quaedian Quarter’s galleries and theaters. Kata had always liked his unrepressed romanticism, and he was popular with the citizens. His strengths were suited to the moment of liberation.

Now, in the Opera, Thom’s passion seemed to have taken a dark turn. His eyes were those of a haunted man. “I was meant to meet Aceline here earlier but was held up. Take her this letter. Guard it though.” He turned his head, eyed Kata with a piercing sideways glance. “I must attend to something, something…”

As she slipped the letter into her jacket pocket, Kata felt a cold rush over her skin. Thom often acted extravagantly, but there was something different about this request, a desperation she had never noticed before.

Kata had become a go-between for various moderates. She spent most of her days scurrying up along the alleyways, across the whitetopped cliffs, from Opera to factory to university. Most important, she carried letters between Thom and the moderate leader, the bone-white, childlike Aceline. It was a lowly role that suited her.

Thom grasped her arm, pulled her back. “Be careful.”

“What is it?” asked Kata.

Thom adjusted the large bag that hung from his shoulder. A shadow crossed his face as he looked at it. “Go.”

Then Kata was on her way, through the corridors, past the stream of people, and out into the square, where Dexion waited for her. The minotaur was like an image from ancient times, standing against that background of the red sun setting over the ocean. For a moment the rays blinded her, and all she saw was a magnificent silhouette: a creature too large to be a man, its bull’s head outlined against a ball of fire. Kata was mesmerized by his explosive energy, the scent of his spiced hide. The inky blackness of his eyes always captivated and frightened her, but occasionally his joyfulness would shine through and she would breathe again.

Small groups watched the immense creature carefully, turning away quickly if he glanced in their direction. An old man kneeled in supplication—many of the older citizens still worshipped the minotaurs. Even farther away, a group of young women watched Dexion in awe, yearning to approach him yet held back by fear. In the corners of the square, shadowy figures lurked, looking on from under dark hoods. Kata thought of the black market, of the demand for minotaur parts, of the sound of a saw cutting through horn and bone, of her own dark past.

“Aceline is at Marin’s water palace,” she said.

Dexion’s eyes gleamed. Still young for a minotaur, he was forever ready for new adventures, which pleased Kata no end, for the minotaur’s exuberance helped bring her out of her bleak moods. He was a good, if unreliable, companion.

Together they charged along the streets, cutting across the unused tram tracks and over the tiny bridges that spanned the canals running between Market Square and the Northern Headland, where Caeli-Amur’s famous water palaces and steam baths were built. A stench drifted over from piles of refuse banked up against the walls.

The sound of a protest march resounded in the streets ahead. First they heard chanting echoing between the buildings, drums setting the march’s rhythm. “Down with the Houses, down with the hoarders! Bread! Bread! Bread!” The protest turned a corner onto the long and narrow Via Trasta. For Kata, such marches were a joy, for she found herself dissolved into them, at one with the other demonstrators and their passions, calling out spontaneous slogans, the energy surging into her from the seething mass. There was something intimate about a march, and for that reason they were frightening, too.

Yet there was an increasingly strident tone to the recent demonstrations and open-air meetings. The blockade by the remnants of the Houses was taking its toll. House Technis had been crushed, but Marin had withdrawn its ships to the Dyrian coast, and the House Arbor villas to the south were refusing to ship goods—corn, wheat, grapes, anything—to the city. Varenis had joined the blockade, and Caeli-Amur’s machinery was slowly breaking down without the parts that would normally come from that great northern city. Now some of the marches bordered on riots; there was always some desperate cause, some grievance to be heard. A dark presence lurked in the free air.

Now the crowd pressed up against the walls of Via Trasta and reached a boarded-up bakery, where it milled around, engaged in conversation with lots of gesturing, and then a couple of men came forward and began levering open the bakery’s shutters. There was a crack of wood accompanied by splinters falling onto the ground.

A distressed-looking man burst from an alleyway between the buildings and rushed up to them. “Citizens! Please! There must be some kind of order!”

A woman in the crowd yelled back at him, “Hoarder!”

By the time the shutters had been broken open, Kata and Dexion were close to the doors. Several in the crowd glanced at the minotaur, alarmed, and for a moment Kata wondered whether she should intervene. But what would she do? This was no way to organize a city, but the citizens must be fed.

In any case, the tone of Thom’s voice urged her on, so she pushed through the milling crowd, Dexion beside her.

A squad of black-uniformed vigilant guards rushed down the street. Kata glanced back as the guards reached the crowd and pushed their way through to the bakery.

The baker cried out, “Finally I—” but a second later one of the guards had the man’s hands behind his back. He protested, “But I’m the owner!” The vigilant struck him anyway, and the baker slumped to his knees.

Kata pulled at Dexion. “Come on.”

Had it been just weeks since the seditionist movement had overthrown the three Houses? Events moved at a breathtaking pace. The Insurgent Assembly (though they had risen to power, they still called themselves seditionists—it seemed old habits die hard) was nominally in charge. Already it was divided. On one side, the cold Northerner Ejan led the vigilants, determined to use force against any resistance. On the other, Aceline and her moderates argued for freedom for all to express their opinions and take their own actions.

Kata aligned herself with the moderates. Like so many, the city’s transformation had reshaped her, too. After the overthrow of the Houses, Kata had begun to learn about friendship. It was the moderate leader, Aceline, who had opened her to this strange and frightening possibility. Kata approached it like a cat entering a new room, ready to flee at the slightest danger, but Aceline sat patiently, allowing Kata to come to her at her own pace. Together they spent long evenings discussing the philosophy of the seditionist movement. They both felt that the movement itself should embody the kind of values they hoped to bring into being—a world of justice and freedom.

Kata was a seditionist at heart, living in a city that finally belonged to them.

* * *

Great pillars adorned the façade of Marin’s water palace of Taium. Its many domes rose above them like a collection of bubbles in the corner of a soapy bath. The entry hall was equally wondrous. Water coursed along channels to each side of the entryway. Glorious mosaics decorated the walls, depicting minotaurs standing on the rocky island of Aya and looking far across the ocean toward the Sirens singing back at them from Taritia.

Inside the water palace was a maze of corridors and pools, rocky open-air gardens and long halls filled with great spheres. Apparently, a complex of rooms in the center of the palace could be filled with superoxygenated water, allowing the bathers to swim through worlds of imagination and fancy, breathing water as they journeyed. The notion of total submersion filled Kata with horror.

As Kata passed from room to room, great clouds of steam drifted around her, at one moment obscuring everything, the next revealing half-naked figures laughing giddily at their newfound freedom. Once the sole province of the upper echelons of the Houses, Marin’s water palace was now constantly filled with seditionists, members of the Collegia, thaumaturgists liberated from the yoke of the Houses, and workers who had never been allowed in such a rarefied building. The once-stratified world was mixed up, and since one group of social rules had been shattered, why not others?

A long-haired woman bumped into Kata, then drunkenly staggered toward the archway that led to the steam rooms, renowned as a place for easy sex. Just beyond it, a group of students lay semi-comatose, arms and legs draped over one another, half-empty bottles of flower-draughts loosely gripped in their hands or toppled over beside them. Kata was both attracted to and repelled by these libertines. She pictured joining in but crushed the idea the moment she had it.

Kata’s eyes roved the place for Aceline’s lithe figure and close-cropped black hair. Aceline had been coming to the water palace recently, which surprised Kata, for Aceline was a moderate in all things: philosophy, politics, personal predilection. Still, House Technis had captured Aceline just before the revolt and subjected her to the terror-spheres in their dungeons. Who knew what nightmares she needed to escape from? Despite their newfound friendship, Kata did not dare ask her about it yet. But if Aceline needed the louche attractions of the baths, Kata could not judge her for it.

The minotaur shifted his great bulk and looked longingly at the baths, half obscured by steaming air. Linked by thin channels, they formed a labyrinth of connected baths—some circular, others square or octagonal.

“Oh, go on,” she said.

Dexion’s eyes blinked rapidly in excitement. In seconds he had dropped his clothes onto the floor. He leaped, seeming to hover for a moment in the air above one of the pools, while the other bathers’ eyes widened in fear. They screamed, grimaced, and tried to push themselves away through the water, but Dexion crashed into it and drenched them before they could escape.

Kata passed through an archway, heavy wooden doors and exquisite crimson circular patterns disappearing and reemerging in the roiling mist.

At the end of the corridor, a half-hidden figure lurked. Kata moved closer until she caught the young man’s profile: a fine nose and lustrous shoulder-length black hair. Walking close to the wall, Kata stopped beside the young man and examined the frigidarium beyond, where citizens plunged into the icy baths, laughing and giving cries of pleasurable shock. Others staggered from the cold waters and ran through another archway, toward a great central complex containing the water-spheres.

“So, Rikard,” Kata said. “Ejan has you spying on his opponents, does he?”

Spying is such a cruel word, don’t you think?” Rikard turned his brown eyes to Kata. He had just recently passed over the cusp of adulthood and had a newly grown, soft, thin mustache. His father had died in the tramworkers’ strike against Technis, and Rikard had joined the seditionists not long after. Now there was a steely cast to his high cheekbones and thoughtful eyes.

A couple embraced in one of the nearby baths. They dropped beneath the waters, then burst up again, calling out in joy.

Kata said, “Have you seen Aceline?”

“Taking a message to her, are you?” Rikard asked nonchalantly.

Kata smiled grimly. “Always at work, I see.”

This time Rikard shrugged and raised his eyebrows rapidly, a half-humorous gesture he liked to disarm people with. “Tell me the message, and I’ll tell you where she is.”

Kata checked Rikard with her shoulder. “Don’t do that, Rikard. You’re too kind for such bargaining.” When Rikard didn’t reply, Kata changed the topic. “All this space devoted to quick pleasure— Ejan must hate it.”

“The new order is fragile. The Directors, officiates, and subofficiates of the Houses—they all wait up in their mansions in the Arantine and here on the Northern Headland, out in their country villas or on the Dyrian coast. All the while, their agents are among us, encouraging this dissoluteness, weakening us by the minute. Just when we need discipline, the seditionists indulge themselves. Flower-draughts, hot-wine, gorging on food—look at them. How different are they from those who came before?”

Kata looked on. “Don’t they have the right to celebrate their freedom?”

Rikard pushed his hair back with his hands. “You call this freedom?”

Kata knew if she could establish some rapport with Rikard, he might help her. She tried another tack. “We look alike, you know. We could be brother and sister.”

Rikard pressed his lips together, the closest he came to a smile, and ignored her attempt. “Not all of us are uncertain about what should happen. We’re not all like you moderates.”

“Certainty can be a dangerous thing.”

“No! It’s uncertainty that is dangerous. Audacity is what made us victorious. That’s what I don’t understand about you, Kata. You’re a woman of action. Every part of you screams it. You grew up on the streets, fought your way up and out. Your soul and your allegiance to the moderates will always be in conflict.”

“I liked it more when you used to stand silently as if you were mute.” Kata smiled. “Can’t we go back to those days?”

Rikard pressed his lips together again. This time, the edges of a smile did appear. Dark and brooding, romantic—already he was a favorite among the young women of the city. Rikard seemed unaware of this—or, perhaps, like the cold-blooded leader Ejan, he had cut off that personal part of himself. For Ejan—and perhaps for Rikard—the seditionist movement was the four points of the compass.

“Come on, Rikard. This is serious. I need to find Aceline.”

“She’s in one of the private rooms along this corridor. I didn’t see who she met, though. Come, I’ll show you.” They retraced Kata’s steps along the corridor and stopped before a closed arched door. So it seemed Rikard had been spying on Aceline, after all. Kata kept the accusation to herself.

“They’re probably…” Kata let the sentence drop away.

Rikard shrugged and knocked on the door. No response came. He knocked again. “Aceline?”

When there was again no response, he finished her sentence. “Enjoying themselves too much.”

Kata placed her ear against the wooden door and heard what sounded like a single knock, followed by a groaning sound. Images sprang to Kata’s mind of Aceline writhing with whomever she had met that day, her pretty face distended into a leer, groans escaping from her lips. But the sound also brought thoughts of violence to her mind.

Kata turned the handle, but the door held fast. “Aceline—it’s Kata!” She knocked insistently. Anxiety gripped her. She turned to Rikard, who shook his head. They threw their weight against the door, but it didn’t budge.

Kata said, “Wait. I’ll get Dexion.”

Dexion had dried himself and was half dressed when she found him. He rapidly threw on his remaining clothes and followed her. Kata pressed her ear against the door again. There was a slight thudding clunk—perhaps someone banging against a table—then all was quiet.

She stood back and nodded at the minotaur. He placed his immense hands against the doorway, which groaned briefly. There was a crack; shards of wood burst into the air; and the door broke open.

One quick look into the room and Dexion stepped back, his nostrils flaring.

A few feet in front of the door, the body of a short heavy man was sprawled facedown, the smell of burning flesh drifting from it. A second man lay on his back in the middle of the room, the skin of his face seemingly melted, white froth around where his mouth had once been. His arms lay above his head as if he were stretching. Both wore black suits, the traditional uniforms of the thaumaturgists.

In the corner, Kata caught a glimpse of Aceline’s black hair, her skin whiter than ever.

Kata raised her fingers to her lips. “Oh no,” she said. “Oh no.”

Grief gripped her heart like a ghostly hand, for Aceline’s eyes were rolled back in her head. Death had taken her into the land of light.

* * *

Kata had cried only once in the last fifteen years. She did not cry now, though grief seemed to press her from her insides, threatening to erupt at any moment.

Rikard turned and whistled. A moment later a grubby little urchin was at his side. “Ejan. Immediately.” The guttersnipe took a brief look into the room, his mouth as wide as his eyes. Rikard grabbed him by his torn jacket. “Keep that trap shut.”

The urchin nodded—mouth still agape—and sped off through the mist. A couple, arms thrown around each other, staggered toward them along the steamy corridor.

“Come on.” Rikard stepped lightly into the room. “Close the door.”

Dexion forced the damaged door back into its frame, jamming it when it wouldn’t fit.

Kata surveyed the scene. The door’s latch lay shattered on the ground. On the left side of the room, a large bath was cut into the stone floor. On the right side, three massage tables were lined up against the wall. The three bodies lay in between: the two men closest to them, and Aceline up against the far wall, near the edge of the bath.

Kata stepped gently across the room to Aceline’s body. She avoided looking at the dead woman’s empty staring eyes. She needed to focus, to reconstruct events.

“Look.” Rikard knelt beside the shorter man. He pointed to the ground near him. “There’s some kind of burned black powder on the floor.”

“Here too.” Dexion pointed to a place nearer the center of the room, close to the thinner thaumaturgist. “His face has been completely melted.” Dexion’s nostrils flared again with distaste.

Kata knelt beside her former friend and noticed several tiny black specks on the skin between her nostrils and mouth. A thin deep red mark encircled Aceline’s neck, bleeding slightly in places. “Aceline was strangled.” There were no cuts on her hands, though. It was almost as if she’d given up without a struggle.

Kata felt a familiar pressure building within her. She took a flask from her bag and swallowed some of the medicine that kept her seizures at bay. Without the precautionary medication, the fits came at moments of stress and left her incapacitated for hours. Now her mouth was filled with the pungent taste of dirt and ul-tree roots. She gagged, steadied herself, and returned the flask to her bag.

Delicately, using the edge of her knife, she lifted as many of the black specks from under Aceline’s nose as she could. She looked around hopelessly for a vial, then placed the knife carefully onto the nearest massage table. Then Kata began to scrape some of the blackened powder from the floor with her second knife, until she had recovered a thick curl.

Rikard pushed his hair back with his hand. “The thaumaturgists must have killed each other.”

“I suppose they knew the same thaumaturgical formulae,” said Dexion. “A burning conjuration. Like two gladiators who strike at the same time, each mortally wounded the other with the same spell.”

Kata agreed. “They probably dispatched Aceline first. One held her down; the other did the strangling. But afterward they fought. It must have been this one I heard falling when I pressed my ear to the door.” Kata pointed to the heavy thaumaturgist near the entrance. “Maybe he was making his last effort to escape.”

Kata took in the rest of the room. A glorious mosaic depicting one of the Eyries of the Augurers decorated the far wall. The rocky pinnacle rose into the sky, breathtakingly thin against an azure sky. Through a window, an Augurer could be seen seated in the center of a room, her wild hair waving in the air. With one black and piercing eye she stared toward the viewer as if inviting them in, as the line of Augurers had invited citizens of Caeli-Amur and Varenis since the time of the ancients. Around the pinnacle, the griffins circled in the sky, their feathered wings beating against invisible drafts, their eagle heads rearing up proudly.

The mosaic covered the arch of the roof above, the tiles there becoming first the light blue of the sky, then the dark blue of night. On the wall behind them, the mosaic depicted Caeli-Amur, a thousand little glittering lights in the night. At its center stood the door with its ruined latch.

Leaving Dexion and Rikard to guard the room, Kata slipped out and searched for an attendant. There seemed to be none working—perhaps they were gone for good—so it took her a few minutes to find a storeroom, which had already been ransacked, presumably after the uprising. She snatched two vials, returned to the room, carefully dropped the tiny specks into one vial, and screwed its lid back on. Kata then scraped the blackened powder from the second knife into the second vial.

There was a rattle at the door, and Dexion opened it. Ejan strode into the room and surveyed the scene with his usual Olympian cast. Tall, glacial-eyed, and with white-blond hair in a city predominated by olive-skinned and dark-haired people, it was ironic that he had become the preeminent seditionist leader. He stood out, and he used this fact to his advantage. Kata had never liked the man’s calculating, machinelike mind. She felt that if she ever touched him, she might find his skin cold like ice. The vigilant leader built those around him in the same mold: a collection of lieutenants ready to take any action. Even those who had begun with a touch of softness, like Rikard, soon took on the harness of a hammer.

Ejan’s bodyguard, Oskar, stood behind him, straight like a flagpole. Scars from the House wars ran across his arms, and a long scar ran in a jagged line from forehead to chin on the left side of his face. Kata knew him immediately as a pragmatist, one of the philosopher-assassin schools that had remained aloof from events, mercenaries for hire. Oskar possessed the same cold distance as his employer.

At the rear of the group, the wide-eyed waif edged around the door and looked at the bodies with amazement. For a moment Kata felt as if she were in a play, some surrealist tragedy: enter the leader, enter the assassin, enter the urchin. Each would play his role.

Ejan turned to Oskar. “This must remain secret. The city is already teetering precariously; if the citizens discover Aceline has died, who knows what vengeance they might take? We’ll take the bodies back to the Opera and bring the embalmers in.”

“Wait,” said Kata. “There may be answers here we haven’t yet discovered. They’ll be lost if we move too quickly.”

No one moved. In the silence, Oskar sized up Dexion. Sensing his gaze, Dexion let out a soft and deep grumble, like the growl of a lion. Oskar’s eyelids twitched once before his impassive and dark stare returned.

Kata stepped closer to Ejan. “You can’t stage-manage everything. Aceline deserves recognition. Her death is not only a personal matter, it is a matter for the entire movement. For the city. If we suppress it, how can anyone judge the truth of things? Freedom requires knowledge.”

“The dead don’t have rights,” said Ejan. “You know that people are already carrying out private vendettas. Our guards can barely keep the peace. Once Aceline’s murder becomes known, mobs will wreak vengeance on the city. Is that what you want?”

There was truth to his words. In these overheated days, who knew what the consequences might be? But the seditionists had to rule in a new way. Kata shook her head. “We can’t continue the secrecies and lies of the Houses.”

“And who are you to make this decision, Kata? Who do you represent?”

Kata froze. She had no authority over Ejan, an acknowledged leader of seditionism. Kata remembered the great demonstration on Aya’s Day, which had led to the overthrow of the Houses. She recalled the way he and his troops had placed themselves at the head of the march, a symbolic position gained as much by audacity and assertiveness as by anything else.

But Kata was only a foot soldier with a lifetime of crimes to make up for. She hated to think about the biggest betrayal of them all, informing Technis of the location of the seditionists’ hideout just before the overthrow of the old system. How many had been captured or died because of her? Aceline was one of them, Maximilian another. She couldn’t bear to think of it. A foot soldier was all she wanted to be.

Ejan turned to Rikard. “What do you think?”

Rikard took a breath. “I suspect these thaumaturgists are House agents. Blocking the grain supply and moving their ships up to the Dyrian coast surely isn’t enough for them, so they’ve begun a campaign of low-intensity warfare. Trying to decapitate the seditionist movement to leave it weak and confused.”

“Find out who these thaumaturgists are and who they represent,” said Ejan. “I want to know what occurred here.”

Words tumbled from Kata’s mouth. “I’ll work with Rikard.”

Ejan shook his head. “You’d only be wasting your time.”

“I’ll pursue it on my own, then. Aceline was…” Grief swept over Kata again. She looked at the tile floor, which blurred from the tears swimming in her eyes. She blinked.

“Was?” Even Ejan’s inquiring look was unnerving.

“She was my friend, and you have no control over me. I’m sick of people telling me what to do, Ejan. I’ll do it whether you like it or not.”

Ejan tilted his head to one side and eyed her calculatingly. “All right, then. You’ll work together, and report to me.”

“I’ll report to Thom. He is the leader of the moderates now,” said Kata.

Ejan shrugged and turned from her as more seditionists arrived, wrapping the bodies in blankets and treading over the floor with great dirty boots.

Rikard spoke softly to her, as if he might disturb the dead. “Shall we find out what Thom knows about this fatal meeting?”

Excerpted from The Stars Askew © Rjurik Davidson, 2016

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