Authors: Paul Park
Soldiers of Paradise
The Starbridge Chronicles: Book I
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.
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.