The Stars Askew by Rjurik Davidson: An Extract

An oppressive regime has been overthrown and the city's citizens are finally in power. Yet all is not well. The people are starving and many call for violence against their enemies. And when the seditionist leader Aceline is murdered, the trail leads to a conspiracy in the shadows . . .

Our friend Rjurik Davidson has returned with The Stars Askew, the second novel in his electrifying Caeli-Amur series, following 2014's Unwrapped Sky. Prepare to re-enter the ancient city with its warring families, fearsome minotaurs and philosopher-assassin Kata with this special extract... 

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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 white-topped 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 semicomatose, 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.