Soldiers of Paradise

S
OLDIERS OF
P
ARADISE

 

 

Copyright © 1987 by Paul Park. All rights reserved.

 

ISBN: 1-930815-40-9

 

 

Published by ElectricStory.com, Inc.

 

ElectricStory.com and the ES design are trademarks of ElectricStory.com, Inc.

 

 

This novel is a work of fiction. All characters, events, organizations, and locales are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously to convey a sense of realism.

 

 

Cover art by and copyright © 2000 Cory and Catska Ench

 

 

eBook conversion by Karen and Robert Kruger

 

 

eBook edition of
Soldiers of Paradise
copyright © 2000 by ElectricStory.com

 

 

For our full catalog, visit www.electricstory.com

 

Soldiers of Paradise
The Starbridge Chronicles: Book I

By Paul Park

 

ElectricStory.com, Inc.

 

For my sisters

 

Prologue

 

T
o 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.”

 

Part One:
Rangriver Fell

 

T
here had been others before, of course, traders and travelers—our house was full of things only barbarians could make: glass and steel, products of slavery and the burning South. The first barbarian I saw with my own eyes, my brothers and sisters were coming back from somewhere, down from Rangriver, where we lived in those days, when we were still free, before the soldiers burned us out. That’s not fair. We would have gone anyway, soldiers or not. The world was changing, and we changed freely—from the time I speak of, I cannot now remember anything but snow. From farther north, whole households had already ridden through, searching for food.

This barbarian was on muleback and alone. We followed him along the cliff’s edge, singing and throwing snowballs. He was taller than I expected, though not so tall as a man, and he smiled and gave us sugar candies wrapped in real paper. His teeth were black. There are barbarians who pull their children’s teeth in babyhood, canines and incisors—they leave gaps on both sides, and later they smoke cigarettes. Their speech is slurred and indistinct. Because they are closer to beasts, they love them more. They eat no meat, raw or cooked. They wear no leather or wool, for their own bodies are hairy past belief. How can they live where it is hot? When I was young I never asked. I was still free, nothing in my mind, wisps of things, snatches of songs, clouds in the sky. We capered around him, grabbing at his stirrups and the heels of his rubber, spurless boots, looking for his tail. “Is it a rat’s, a rabbit’s, or a dog’s?” we sang, each in a different mode. He reached down to pat our heads. He was keeping it hidden in his pants.

At the top of the gorge, we came up through cinder pines, and here it started to snow again. And here we found people waiting, in from hunting, the horses steaming and blowing, and kicking at the snow. I can identify the time, because the horses still looked sleek. Later, they ate bark from the trees. Bears and lions, unnamed from hunger, came down to find them in their pens.

My sister stood away from the rest, and when she saw us, she turned her horse. Not knowing whether the barbarian had been among us before, I hummed a word of possessiveness and pride, for this was how I would have chosen my people to be displayed before a stranger. A woman on horseback, her shoulders wrapped in bearskin, the rifle on her back, her long hair matted and tangled, she looked so transient. The dead buck hanging from her saddle. Child as I was, I felt her beauty in my heart. But barbarians are a practical people. This one felt nothing. He dismounted and walked towards her, talking, and we could hear behind the words of her reply a hint of music, tentative welcome, as was proper, in a mode of strength to weakness. Not that it mattered, because though like all barbarians he knew everything, there was something the matter with his ears. He could hear our speech, but not our music. In his country, the sun has bleached out melody from rhythm—they know all languages, and speak them in dry cadences that mean nothing to us. They hit the bald words like drums. They never try to listen, they only try to understand. He looked so puzzled. He couldn’t hear that in her music she was offering a place to stay, freely, gladly. She meant no harm. Our town was close by, over the ridge. It seemed so easy in those days.

Two ponies pulled a sledge piled with gutted animals, and when he saw it, the barbarian spat, and touched his nose with the heel of his hand, and ducked his face down into his armpit. It is your ritual of hatred; seeing it for the first time, standing in the snow, I found it funny. My brother had climbed up onto the mule, and he was kicking his boots into its ribs, while I kicked its backside. “Look how he hates death,” sang my brother, as the barbarian muttered and prayed. “He hates the sight of it.” A strutwing goose trailed its beak along the snow from the back of the sledge, its feathers dripping blood. “He hates it,” sang my brother.

 

*
My lords, how hard it is for me to tell you this. To tell a story in the mode of truth from beginning to end, a man is chained like a slave. We were a free people then. This means nothing to you, I know. To me it means my memories from this time are wordless. The beast on the mountain, what is in its mind but music? Chained, it understands each link. It fingers them, it memorizes the feel. Barbarians have their prayers, their work, their things, their names, their families to think of. But we had nothing. No names for ourselves. No words for so many things. No future and no past. Good—here, now, I can be proud of that. But it makes it difficult to begin. Difficult to remember a whole world. But I remember the death of this barbarian; he was a scholar. He was studying a place familiar to us all, unnamed in our tongue, Baat—or Paat—Cairn, something like that, in his: an empty city high up between the mountain’s knees, where the river runs out. I used to go so often. And of all the places of my childhood I remember it the best, because I know that now, right now as I speak, it is there unchanged—the great stone walls and staircases, the fallen columns and carved figures many times my height—unchanged, just as I remember it, in that eternal snow. We were a transient people then, dancers, musicians, hunters on horseback, sloppy builders. We were in love with things that disappear: the last note of the flute, the single flutter of the dancer’s hands. And in that old barbarian city, people had lived and disappeared. They would never be back.

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