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Soldiers of Paradise [Starbridge Chronicles 1] [MultiFormat]
eBook by Paul Park

eBook Category: Science Fiction Locus Poll Award Nominee, Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee
eBook Description: Where the seasons last for generations, hard winter makes for hard religion. The worlds of the solar system are the hells through which all souls must incarnate on their journey to Paradise; all, that is, but the Starbridges, nobles who serve to enforce the "divine will." In the lowest slums of the city-state of Charn, a Starbridge doctor and a drunken prince defy the law to bring medicine to the poor and hear the story-music of the refugee Antinomials, a wild people who shun words, infidels pressed to the edge of extinction. As a decades-long pitched battle approaches the city and the Bishop of Charn herself is condemned for impurity, the doctor and the prince will follow their compassion into the heart of a revolution, just on the eve of spring, with its strange and treacherous sugar rain. (This is the first book of the Starbridge Chronicles, and is followed by Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness.)

eBook Publisher: Electricstory.com, Published: 1987
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2001

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To those who remember starlight, the spring sky over Charn is one of the most desolate sights in all the universe, for by the second hour after sunset there is not one star in all the sky. During the first few thousand days of the new season, the canopy of heaven dwindles and grows dark, until by midspring the night sky is so black it almost glows, and the eye plays tricks, seeing color where there is none--iridescent clouds of indigo and mauve.

On winter nights the sky is full of stars. But as the season changes, a stain of darkness overtakes them from the east, a microsecond earlier each night. There at the galaxy's edge, staring out over the brink of space, the citizens seem grateful for any clouds or mist, which might cast a veil between themselves and their own loneliness. Twice each season Paradise fills up the sky for a few dozen rotations, and then the people crowd into the temples, praying for clear weather. But otherwise they hate it, and they line the streets with bonfires, for comfort's sake. On clear nights the city burns like a candle far out over the hills, and to refugees and pilgrims coming down out of the country, it shines like a beacon under the black sky. At waystops and lodges high up along the trail they swing their bundles to the ground; and on benches set into the rock they sit and hug their knees as evening falls, and watch the temples and the domes of Charn light up against the dark, each one outlined in neon or electric bulbs.

And as they watch, the whole river valley seems to fill up with fire, for at dusk the lamplighters come out in Charn, and with long prehensile hooks they pull down the corners of a web of ropes slung between the roofs. Acetylene lanterns hang suspended from long pulleys, and they sway slightly in the evening wind as the lamplighters hoist them back into a firmament of nets.

The lamplighters are small and semihuman, with soft blobby faces and bright eyes. They stand barefoot in the muddy street, dressed in the green overalls of their caste, listening to the temple bells, to the cadence that directs their labor. They are listening to the music. And on the ridge above the city, a traveler hears pieces of it too. He has wandered down from the courtyard of the hillside shrine where he has left his blanket. Grimacing, kicking at the stones, he has clambered out onto a pinnacle of rock. There, looking out over the lights, he turns his head a little, straining to hear. It is what has brought him to this place. He has heard wisps of it along the trail, even in far lands where the prophet's name is never spoken, perhaps in the mouth of some begging preacher or some thick-lipped merchant in the marketplace humming over his pile of salt. But in Charn, the prophet's birthplace and the center of his worship, he hopes to hear the music in its purest form. Down below, it fills the mind of every citizen--harsh, rhythmical, sedate, issuing at sunset from the doors of all the temples, mixing with incense and yellow candlelight, coiling like smoke above the town.

On Durbar Square, the doors of the temple are thrown open. At the altar, the priest conjures to the image of Beloved Angkhdt, and then he steps down towards the kneeling rows of worshipers, a basket in his hands. It is piled high with packages of artificial flour, each one enough for one man for one day. In the city, all is quiet for an obligatory count of four, but on his rocky pinnacle above the walls, the traveler paces nervously. He has heard about this part of the ritual. His enormous frame is gaunt with hunger, because in spring it is the starving time in Charn and all those northern dioceses. The melted snow of twenty thousand days' accumulation has scoured the hills to their foundations and stripped the pastures clean. The trail that he has followed south has run through red rock canyons full of broken timber, and valleys full of stone. He has passed through ruined villages, and hunted for garbage in the burned-out shells of factories. Other travelers on the trail have stood aside to let him pass, and spat into the dust, and made the sign of the unclean. He has not sung a song in many months. But on the pinnacle above the city, he smiles as if for the first time. He shakes the hair back from his face, black hair with a streak of white in it. He squints out over the city, smiling to himself. He takes a wooden flute from the pouch at his side, and as the music rises up from all the temples of the town, he plays a few notes of another darker melody and hums a few notes of another song. On the hillside above him at the shrine, the keeper puts her fingers to her ears.

* * * *
In spring of the year 00016, scattered families of antinomials started to appear in Charn, and they hid from the police in a neighborhood of abandoned warehouses between the river and the railway yard. Immense, sulky, powerful, they had drifted south over the course of a generation, down seven hundred miles from their villages in the farthest north, victims of religious persecution and the driving snow. They were a silent, terrifying race, unfit for any kind of work. But in time they became famous for a sad ferocious music of their own. Rich people risked their lives to seek them out. And one night towards the end of July, in the eighth phase of spring, Abu Starbridge and his cousin made the journey through the slums to a deserted warehouse built on pilings out over the river. They had difficulty finding it, though the prince had been there once before. But finally they came in under the cowl of a long building, and inside it was black as night, save for a small fire at the far end, past a row of steel pillars stretching up into the dark. There, a gigantic antinomial sat cross-legged on the floor, holding a wine jar in his hands. But he didn't even raise his head when they got close. He didn't even look at them, though they had brought a basket full of chocolates and fruit. And he had started to sing already, even though at first there was no one else around. From far away they could hear him. "There had been others before," he sang. "Of course there had been. There had been others."
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