Rhia Harlyn risks death for science. Accused of heresy for promoting an unorthodox cosmology, she must defend herself, her work and her House alone. If only she could rely on her feckless brother Etyan, transformed through the combination of an occult scientist’s experiments and the harsh rays of the skyland sun. But she knows she cannot.
When Dej, Etyan’s half-alien lover, finally uncovers Etyan’s dark secret she runs off into the perilous skyland. She is looking for peace in a world that has rejected her; what she discovers instead will change everyone’s lives.
Meanwhile, overhead, the very stars themselves are shifting. Rhia is about to find herself proved disastrously right...
File Under: Fantasy [ Unnatural Science | Making Contact | Lost Secrets | Out of Darkness ]
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“The charge,” intoned the cardinal, “is heresy.”
Rhia Harlyn met Marsan’s gaze. “Right.” She had known this day might come. But not yet. It was too soon. “I see. Can you be more specific, Your Holiness?”
Cardinal Marsan looked down from his high-backed chair. Rhia had last been in this small private courtroom two years ago, for her brother’s trial. She had hoped never to see it again. “Heresy is heresy,” he said with a sniff.
If she sighed, the cardinal might hear. The two guards behind her and the young clerk sitting to one side certainly would. So she inclined her head as though accepting this idiocy as wisdom and said, “Of course. Yet I have a right to know the details of the charge against me, in order to prepare my defence.”
The cardinal’s left eyebrow twitched, as though expressing his outrage at the idea that there was a proper defence against heresy. “You have proposed, against all common sense and, more importantly against the teachings of the First, that the world is not at the centre of the universe.”
Damnation! But what else could it be? The Church might not approve of the natural enquirers, but it tolerated them – if they kept quiet. She had been betrayed.
The wretched man wanted an answer. Should she lie? Feign ignorance? No, her words were being recorded by the clerk. Lying now could make things worse later. She drew a deep breath said, “Yes. I am indeed working on a theory that rather than the Sun and all the stars going around the world, our world and certain other celestial bodies go around the Sun.”
Rhia clenched and unclenched her jaw. “It would be if the world was flat, yes.”
“So you also propose that the world is not flat?”
Actually she had got that from the writings of Watcher of Valt. But she was not about to break the enquirers’ code, even if someone else had. “I do, yes.”
“Hmmm. That is indeed a heretical concept. And did you come up with this ‘theory’ by yourself?”
“I am not sure what you mean, Holiness.”
“I know you are unmarried but perhaps a man of your acquaintance proposed the concept to you?”
Now Rhia did sigh. Then she made herself take a fresh breath, and force a smile, before replying, “Were you thinking of any man in particular, or merely commenting on the general inferiority of the female mind?”
“It is a reasonable question.”
The cardinal’s icy tone froze her ire.
“No. This theory is all my own.”
“Really.” Marsan sniffed again.
“Yes, really.” She could feel her voice rising. “With respect, Cardinal, I do not believe that the relative locations and movements of the Sun and stars are explicitly stated in the Scriptures.” Had she been given any notice, she might have researched this but the pair of militiamen sent with the summons had been instructed to bring her straight to the palace.
“And you are an expert on the Scriptures, are you?”
A tremor of tension danced down her spine, “Of course not, Your Holiness.” She swallowed, “If there is such a passage, please tell me.” Just put me out of my misery, because if I really have contradicted the Scriptures, I may as well burn my papers now. Despite the close heat of the small room, her blood ran chill.
The cardinal held up a finger. “The First, in his wisdom, felt no need to impart such a self-evident truth as the disposition of heavens.”
Rhia let herself breathe. “Then I would humbly suggest that this interpretation of the skies might not go against the Church’s teachings.”
“It is not for you to interpret the will of the First!”
No, that’s your job. A lightheaded and inappropriate sense of relief settled on her. She – and more importantly her work – was not doomed. But the Church still had a case. She kept her gaze low and took a deep breath before replying. “My apologies, Holiness. I spoke out of turn.”
“So you did. Now that you have formally heard the charge, I will confer with my fellows and set a date for your trial.”
“Trial?” Of course there would be a trial.
“Yes. Do not think your status will protect you, Countess.”
“I never do. I put my faith in the truth.”
The cardinal shook his head slowly, his eyes narrow. “We will inform you of the process in due course. You may go.”
Her heart heavy in her chest, Rhia turned away. The two militia guards stood aside to let her pass.
As soon as she was back in the corridors of the palace proper she accosted a footman. “I must speak to the duke at once!” Despite her foolish words to the cardinal, she intended to use every advantage her position gave her.
The footman’s alarm might have been comical in other circumstances. “I… I do not know where his Grace is at this moment, Countess.” The servant knew who she was of course: everyone at court knew of the eccentric noblewoman with the quarter-mask.
“Then find him!” But even if she managed to locate Francin, he might not grant her an immediate audience. “Find him and tell him that I, and my work, are in danger, and I need to talk to him. I will be at my house. You understand the message?”
“Good. Thank you. Now off you go!”
Outside, evening was creeping across the city, cooling the hot, dry air. The streets were empty, though Rhia caught faint sounds of a commotion from the lower city. There was often some commotion in the lower city these days.
Back home, she had just put a foot on the stair when the kitchen door opened and Markave emerged. “Is all well, m’lady?”
“Not really.” Sometimes she wanted to confide in her steward, however inappropriate that might be. “It’s... it’s nothing you need worry about though.”
“If you are sure... Will you want supper in your study?”
“Please.” She could not remember the last time she had eaten in the townhouse’s grand dining room.
Halfway up the stairs a black-and-white streak darted out from the landing. Rhia leaned down and scooped up the cat. “Got you!” The furry bundle squirmed in her grasp, purring all the while. “You know what, Yithi?”
The cat favoured her with a blank golden stare.
“Some days I wish I was a cat.”
Yithi’s response was to kick her legs, claws extended. She had always been more Etyan’s than hers. Insofar as any cat was anyone’s. Rhia took the hint and put her down. “Go on then.”
When Rhia reached the room at the top of the house, her gaze skittered over the usual comfortable mess – papers, books and instruments piled high on desks and workbenches – before settling for a moment on her unfinished celestial model. She had just been getting somewhere with it when the summons arrived, having wound the Maiden a quarter circuit around the Sun without the mechanism sticking. The model was still not even half-finished but right now she needed the comfort of the sky.
She strode across her study, grabbing the sightglass from its stand as she passed. She climbed the wooden ladder, slammed the trapdoor at the top open, then pulled herself onto the observation platform tucked into the high roof. She clicked the sightglass into its tripod with a sigh.
Whitemoon was up, though low. The Harbinger dominated the other side of the sky, a bright point trailed by a smeared arc of spangled light. The wandering star appeared larger than it had when it rode overhead a few weeks ago – an illusion; she had observed the same phenomenon with the Moons – yet also dimmer. The bright tail which streamed behind it like a shower of water droplets frozen in place was straighter than it had been when she first sketched it, though not as straight as the second, dimmer tail which the star had recently developed. No enquirer had mentioned this second tail. But her ironwood chest contained only a subset of the knowledge in the enquirers’ network, and it had been several generations since the Harbinger’s last appearance. So many glorious questions... Faced with matters of such cosmic importance, the opinion of one set of churchmen in one shadowland was nothing.
People saw this “bearded star” as a grim portent. Combined with yet another rain-year that brought little rain, its return had triggered unrest. But for all its dramatic appearance, the Harbinger was just a celestial body of irregular habits. Her observations showed its slow crawl across the sky to be an illusion borne of perspective. She was sure the Harbinger’s true path was around the Sun and if she could prove this, she could also prove her wider theory of celestial mechanics.
But her interest lay in observing, and finding patterns. Numbers were a necessary evil. Yet for her theory to have weight, and be irrefutable by scholar, guildmaster or priest, it must be backed up by calculations; and she could not make her calculations fit her observations. Which was why she had asked someone more comfortable with mathematics to aid her. A mistake, it now turned out.
What if this was all a mistake? Perhaps the reason she could not prove the Sun was the centre of the universe was because it wasn’t. She had staked her reputation on a near-death revelation. It had seemed so obvious at the time, but perhaps she was about to be tried for an unprovable fever-dream.