The dust may have just settled in the failed war of conquest between the Holy Vaalbaran Empire and the Ominirish Republic, but the last Emperor’s surrender means little to a lowly scribe like Enitan…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa, out from Saga Press on July 11.
The dust may have just settled in the failed war of conquest between the Holy Vaalbaran Empire and the Ominirish Republic, but the last Emperor’s surrender means little to a lowly scribe like Enitan. All she wants is to quit her day job and expand her fledgling tea business. But when her lover is assassinated and her sibling is abducted by Imperial soldiers, Enitan abandons her idyllic plans and weaves her tea tray up through the heart of the Vaalbaran capital. There, she will learn just how far she is willing to go to exact vengeance, free her sibling, and perhaps even secure her homeland’s freedom.
The best part of Enitan’s day begins and ends with a cup of tea. She and her older sibling, Xiang, spend all their evenings perched atop their housepod with a full pot and their favorite mugs—gifts from the headwoman at their binding ceremony. Tea and the brilliant red gold of Jilessa are two of the few beautiful things left entirely untainted post-annexation. Tea because their Vaalbaran overlords share their appreciation for the beverage. Jilessa because Imperial technology hasn’t progressed far enough to destroy gas giants. Enitan supposes they could always black out the skydomes over each community, but they’d hardly benefit from doing so. The provisional governor tried it once for a week or so as a punishment, but life carried on as usual with the help of lanterns, lamps, and bioluminescent flora. And as someone born and raised planetside on Gondwana, he suffered more than any of his Korikese subjects.
As the skydome begins to dim for the night hours, Enitan hands Xiang a steaming cup. “What would you do if the world were different?”
Xiang grins. Enitan asks the same question every evening; the inquiry doubles as one of several informal greetings. Xiang’s answer changes each time.
“I’d go to one of those fancy schools in the Imperial interior, study architecture,” Xiang says. “Come back here and design housepods.” They take a sip of tea. “Oh, that’s good. What’s in this?”
“My own black uhie base, of course, with a little dried berraleaf sprinkled in,” Enitan replies, puffing up a little at the praise. “A mix of aromatic bark, seedpods, roots, and peppercorns for spice.”
Growing and preparing this particular blend was a pain. There are two primary species of tea cultivated in the system; uhie bushes thrive in the lush heat of Koriko, while the unforgiving climate of Vaalbara and Ominira’s shared planet, Gondwana, can only support theehma vines. But despite the perfect growing conditions here, crafting tea-grade uhie blends is still a grueling art form. She’s been fermenting this batch of leaves for years, carrying out a painstaking maturation process to produce a rich, full-bodied aroma and flavor. Crafting the perfect concoction of spices was yet another challenge. But the contented look on Xiang’s face makes it all worth it.
But then she frowns. “You can study architecture at Edoga.” It’s the university on the second ring, where she herself studied.
Xiang gives her a sidelong look. “The only classes they have now are on how to design those ridiculous monoliths. I don’t want to learn how to make Koriko look more Vaalbaran. I want to create. And for my designs to honor our own art.”
Enitan snorts, refilling her own cup. “How profound.”
“Fine, then, what would you do?”
She draws in air, and the heavy scent of home coats the back of her throat—night-blooming blossoms and savory-scented steam hinting at what the neighbors are having for dinner. And above it all, the darkly sweet musk of decaying vegetation from the marsh below the tiered city. She looks out over the wetland before them, a tumult of green mangrove and brilliant blue water, all gilded by the Korikese sunset.
A sudden breeze cuts through the air, and they both shiver.
“I’d craft tea,” Enitan decides. She tucks her arms one by one into her poncho, switching the cup from hand to hand as she shields herself against the wind. “I’d perfect a hundred blends and open a shop on the first ring—”
Xiang smirks. “You just want to be closer to Ajana.”
The name brings to mind faint, melodious laughter; ringed fingers intertwining with hers; a flash of skin, lit by silvery lanternlight.
Blood rushes to Enitan’s face. “Shut up,” she snaps, putting down her cup to lightly smack their arm. Not for the first time she’s grateful for her complexion, which is dark enough to hide a blush. “Most shuttles land on the first ring,” she continues. She cannot help but smile as she leans back, looking up at the skydome. Thick glass and bioplastic panels encase the dense fluid that provides radiation shielding and insulation for the community. Despite all those layers, the view outside is perfectly clear. “People from every community would come to sample my wares.”
“That sounds nice.” Xiang takes another sip of tea and settles onto their back beside her. “I’m sure a few of my friends would want to help out.”
Enitan grimaces, running a hand through her hair. It’s getting far too long; tomorrow she’ll have it trimmed down to its typical cap to combat the heat. “How would they possibly find the time between smoking skeyroot and selling it?”
Xiang lets out an exasperated sigh, barely audible above the hum of the last few shuttles still buzzing about before curfew. “Not this again.” She looks down at them, her brow furrowing. “Yes, this again.” Enitan places her hand on Xiang’s shoulder. “You know I don’t like your new friends. They’re reckless young fools, and reckless Korikese are rarely long-lived ones.”
The warm, rosy glow of Jilessa tints Xiang’s golden skin pink. “You don’t like anyone.”
“I like you sometimes,” Enitan says. “So I’m going to watch out for you, whether you like it or not. You’re all I have, Xiang.”
“You have our entire community.” They grin. “And the headwoman is sort of a mother.” They say the last word in Akyesi, the common tongue designed by Imperial scholars specifically for provincials. Korikesian has no word to describe parents. “I think you’re her favorite, actually. You have to put up with Imperials nearly as much as she does.”
Enitan stares flatly at them.
Xiang rolls their eyes. “I can take care of myself, you know.”
Enitan links her arm through theirs. “But you don’t have to.”
All fifty-nine communities of Koriko are remade for the Festival of Ten Thousand Stars, one of the few holidays permitted to the people by the Supreme Abbot of Vaalbara. Enitan and Xiang have made a tradition of going down to the upper-middle rings of the city just after sunset. At dusk, the brightly painted star-shaped lanterns that festoon every building in Ijebu Community light up the world itself. Normally, elders would walk the streets throwing smaller lanterns into the air, but not this year, and likely not the next. Many of the elders lost their lives when Enitan was small.
The siblings have special matching garb just for the occasion: robes of shimmering green to wear over tunics and trousers of sapphire-blue and sun-yellow cloth. Enitan strides out of the sleeping area and into the housepod’s living room decked out in her festival best, only to find Xiang hunched over their writing desk in their everyday clothes. Warm orange light illuminates their work, cast by a single potted alabaleaf. The genetically engineered plant serves three purposes: its frilly bioluminescent leaves serve as lamps, its curling stems bear several species of snacking fruit, and all of the housepod’s data is backed up in its genetic code. It was gifted to the pair when they first moved in. But now is the time to move out, at least for a few hours.
“Hurry up and get dressed!” Enitan sidles up to their side, peering over their shoulder. “We’re going to miss the best part!”
“I can’t go,” Xiang says miserably. They gesture half-heartedly at the slowly rotating hologram before them.
It takes Enitan a moment to recognize that the spinning transparent object is a replica of a monolith, complete with a seamless black surface of solar panels, a superstrength synthetic fiber underlayer, a skeleton of carbon nanotubes and aluminum, a number of self-contained quark fusion reactors, and a discreet array of wind turbines tucked in toward the bottom. However, unlike most of its slimmer, smoother brethren, this levitating structure is shaped like a torus. It looks much like a slyythfang swallowing its own tail.
“It’s the Imperial University of Opuroth. The prompt of the main essay is to point out all the flaws in the design and list the ways we would improve them.”
Enitan draws back a little, seized without warning by a heart-clenching burst of anger. A vein pulses in her neck. Is Vaalbara not satisfied with crushing her homeland beneath its iron girth and taxing the communities nearly into collapse? Is its lust not sated with the blood of all those who spoke out against the outrage? Must it extend its devouring grasp to her little home and her sibling?
“Isn’t Opuroth the institute that reverse engineered our environmental enrichment technology to leach precious metals from the asteroid belt?” she says, her voice tightening. “When you said you wanted to study architecture in the Imperial interior, I thought you meant when the everything was different. Which it has not become since yesterday.”
“What did you think I’ve slogged through all this standardized testing for?”
“I thought it was just to prove a point,” Enitan mutters sourly. She realizes how foolish it sounds as she says it.
“It’s not like I’m going to get accepted anyway.” Xiang groans. “I can’t find a single mistake.”
Enitan’s fury softens, its edge dulling to nothing as Xiang presses their forehead into their palms. “That’s probably intentional,” she says. “I bet they made the application impossible on purpose.”
The entrance exams to Vaalbara’s greatest institutions are known for being perfectly meritocratic—as long as one is wealthy enough to afford the top Imperial tutors, the dozens of rare texts needed to study for the tests, and a seat in the assessment chambers. At that point, supposedly, scores are based on skill alone. And yet, Xiang has passed each and every exam with flying colors, only to find yet another challenge set before them: a surprise essay, assigned only to provincial applicants.
“I know you’re happy I’m stumped, though you’re hiding it well,” Xiang grumbles, but it’s clear the frustration in their tone is not directed at her. “You hate the idea of me leaving Koriko.”
“I hate the idea of you going to Vaalbara,” she corrects. “And coming back as someone I don’t recognize. Study in Ominira, if you wish. They won the war, after all.”
Xiang snorts. “Their so-called victory is a hollow one, and you know it. If the Imperator hadn’t lost his daughter and decided he was sick of fighting, the Republic would be ash and rubble by now.”
Enitan tries a different tactic. “Why would you want to spend four or five years in a place where everyone hates or fears or looks down on you?” She jabs an angry finger at the spinning monolith. “And most importantly, why would you want to live in that stupid ring? There’s your design flaw: it’s stupid.”
That gets a laugh out of them. “I wouldn’t be living there,” they say, their smile turning wry as it slants upward at one corner. “ ‘Primitives’ like us can only apply to special ancillary schools taught in Akyesi so we don’t taint their holy tongue.”
Enitan quickly tamps down the urge to point this out as yet another glaringly obvious reason her sibling should stay on Koriko. She leans against the desk, gesturing again at the hologram. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Xiang sighs with a great heave of their shoulders. “No, not really.” But then they light up a little. “You could bring me back some food from the festival? Maybe a slice of spice cake?”
Food hawkers are likely flooding the streets right about now, waving trays of delicacies so their aroma fills the air. Enitan salivates at the thought of sweet fried noodles and fruit, fragrant bean pudding freckled with black salt, and skewered berries shimmering in a crunchy shell of colored sugar. She snaps herself out of it when the implication of Xiang’s request hits her.
“So you’re going to stay here all night?”
“I have to. The application is due tomorrow.”
Enitan pulls her own chair over and plops down into it.
“What are you doing?” Xiang’s eyes dart across her face. “The festival—”
“If you’re not going, then neither am I,” Enitan interrupts. She crosses her arms over her chest, as stubborn as stone.
“Enitan, go. I know you wanted to see Ajana. It’s fine. Really.” They reach out to muss their sister’s hair.
Enitan deftly ducks under their hand. “I wasn’t. Ajana’s busy. And anyway, we’re done. I thought I told you.”
Xiang lets out a soft, exasperated sigh. “You guys were done the last two times.”
“Well, third time’s the charm.” Enitan pulls her communicator from her robe pocket. “I’m ordering food. Spice cake, you said?”
Excerpted from The Splinter in the Sky, copyright © 2023 by Kemi Ashing-Giwa.