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Queen of Candesce

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Queen of Candesce

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Author: Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor, 2007
Series: Virga: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Dystopia
Hard SF
Space Opera
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Synopsis

Venera Fanning was last seen falling into nothingness at the end of Sun of Suns. Now, in Queen of Candesce, Venera finds herself plunging through the air between the artificial continents of Virga, far from home and her husband, who may or may not be alive. Landing in the ancient nation of Spyre, Venera encounters new enemies and new friends (or at least convenient allies). She must quickly learn who she can trust, and who she can manipulate in order to survive. Queen of Candesce is her story.


Excerpt

Chapter One

A low beamed ceiling swam into focus. Venera Fanning frowned at it, then winced as pain shot through her jaw. She was definitely alive, she decided ruefully.

She was—but was Chaison Fanning also among the living, or was Venera now a widow? That was it, she had been trying to get back to her husband, Chaison Fanning. Trying to get home—

Sitting up proved impossible. The slightest motion sent waves of pain through her; she felt like she'd been skinned. She moaned involuntarily.

"You're awake?" The thickly accented words had the crackle of age to them. She turned her head gingerly and made out a dim form moving to sit next to her. She was lying on a bed—probably—and he was on a stool or something. She blinked, trying to take in more of the long low room.

"Don't try to move," said the old man. "You've got severe sunburn and sunstroke too. Plus a few cuts and bruises. I've been wetting down the sheets to give you some relief. Gave you water too. Don't know what else to do."

"Th-thanks." She looked down at herself. "Where are my clothes?"

His face cracked in a smile and for a second he looked much younger. He had slablike features with prominent cheekbones and piercing gray eyes. Eyes like that could send chills through you, and from his confident grin he seemed to know it. But as he shifted in the firelight she saw that lines of care and disappointment had cut away much of his handsomeness.

"Your clothes are here," he said, patting a chair or table nearby. "Don't worry, I've done nothing to you. Not out of virtue, mind; I'm not a big fan of virtue, mine or anyone else's. No, you can thank arthritis, old wounds, and age for your safety." He grinned again. "I'm Garth Diamandis. And you are a foreigner."

Venera sighed listlessly. "Probably. What does that mean around here?"

Diamandis leaned back, crossing his arms. "Much, or nothing, depending."

"And here is...?"

"Spyre," he said.

"Spyre..." She thought she should remember that name. But Venera was already falling asleep. She let herself do it; after all, it was so cool here....

When she awoke again it was to find herself propped half-upright in a chair. Her forehead, upper body, and arms were draped with moist sheets. Blankets swaddled her below that.

Venera was facing a leaded-glass window. Outside, green foliage made a sunlit screen. She heard birds. That suggested the kind of garden you only got in the bigger towns—a gravity-bound garden where trees grew short and squat and soil stayed in one place. Such things were rare—and that, in turn, implied wealth.

But this room... As she turned her head her hopes faded. This was a hovel, for all that it too seemed built for gravity. The floor was the relentless iron of a town foundation, though surprisingly she could feel no vibration from engines or slipstream vanes through her feet. The silence was uncanny, in fact. The chamber itself was oddly cantilevered, as though hollowed out of the foundations of some much larger structure. Boxes, chests, and empty bird cages were jammed or piled everywhere, a few narrow paths worn between them. The only clear area was the spot where her overstuffed armchair sat. She located the bed to her left, some tables, and a fireplace that looked like it had been clumsily dug into the wall by the window. There were several tables here and the clutter had infected them as well; they were covered with framed pictures.

Venera leaned forward, catching up the sheet at her throat. A sizzle of pain went through her arms and shoulders and she extended her left arm, snarling. She was sunburned a deep brick red that was already starting to peel. How long had she been here?

The pictures. Gingerly, she reached out to turn one in the light. It was of a young lady holding a pair of collapsible wrist-fins. She wore a strange stiff-looking black bodice, and her backdrop was indistinct but might have been clouds.

All the portraits were of women, some two dozen by her estimation. Some were young, some older; all the ladies seemed well-off, judging from their various elaborate hairdos. Their clothes were outlandish, though, made of sweeping chrome and leather, clearly heavy and doubtless uncomfortable. There was, she realized, a complete absence of cloth in these photos.

"Ah, you're awake!" Diamandis shuffled his way through the towering stacks of junk. He was holding a limp bird by the neck; now he waved it cheerfully. "Lunch!"

"I demand to know where I am." She started to stand and found herself propelled nearly to the ceiling. Gravity was very low here. Recovering with a wince, she coiled the damp sheet around her for modesty. It didn't help; Diamandis frankly admired her form anyway, and probably would have stared even if she'd been sheathed in plate armor. It seemed to be his way, and there was, strangely, nothing offensive about it.

"You are a guest of the principality of Spyre," said Diamandis. He sat down at a low table and began plucking the bird. "But I regret to have to inform you that you've landed on the wrong part of our illustrious nation. This is Greater Spyre, where I've lived now for, oh... twenty-odd years."

She held up the picture she had been looking at. "You were a busy man, I see."

He looked over and laughed in delight. "Very! And why not? The world is full of wonders, and I wanted to meet them all."

Venera touched the stone wall and now felt a faint thrum. "You say this is a town? An old one... and you've turned gravity way down." Then she turned to look at Diamandis. "What did you mean, ‘regret to inform me'? What's wrong with this Greater Spyre?"

He looked over at her and now he seemed very old. "Come. If you can walk, I'll show you your new home."

Venera bit back a sharp retort. Instead, she sullenly followed him through the stacks. "My temporary residence, you mean," she said to the cracked leather back of his coat. "I am making my way back to the court at Slipstream. If ransom is required, you will be paid handsomely for my safe return..."

He laughed, somewhat sadly. "Ah, but that it were possible to do that," he murmured. He exited up a low flight of steps into bright light. She followed, feeling the old scar on her jaw starting to throb.

The roofless square building had been built of stone and steel I-beams, perhaps centuries ago. Now devoid of top and floors, it had become a kind of open box, thirty feet on a side. Wild plants grew in profusion throughout the rubble-strewn interior. The hole leading to Diamandis's home was in one corner of the place; there was no other way in or out as far as she could see.

Venera stared at the grass. She'd never seen wild plants under gravity before. Every square foot was accounted for in the rotating ring-shaped structures she called towns. They were seldom more than a mile in diameter, after all, often built of mere rope and planking. There was no other way to feel gravity than to visit a town.

She scanned the sky past the stone walls. In some ways it looked right: the endless vistas of Virga were blocked by some sort of structure. But the perspective seemed all wrong.

"Come." Diamandis was gesturing to her from a nearly invisible set of steps that ran up one wall. She scowled, but followed him up to a level area just below the top of the wall. If she stood on tiptoe, she could look over. So she did.

Venera had never known one could feel so small. Spyre was a rotating habitat like those she had grown up in. But that was all she could have said to connect it to the worlds she had known. Diamandis's little tower sat among forlorn trees and scrub grass in an empty plain that stretched to trees a mile or more in each direction. In any sane world this much land under gravity would have been crammed with buildings; those empty plazas and tumbled-down villas should have been awash with humanity.

Past the trees, the landscape became a maze of walls, towers, open fields, and sharp-edged forests. And it went on and on to a dizzying, impossible distance. Diamandis's tower was one tiny mote on the inside surface of a cylinder that must have been ten or twelve miles in diameter and half again as long.

Sunlight angled in from somewhere behind her; Venera turned quickly, needing the reassurance of something familiar. Beyond the open ends of the great cylinder, the reassuring cloudscapes of the normal world turned slowly; she had not left all sense and reason behind. But the scale of this town wheel was impossible for any engineering she knew. The energy needed to keep it turning in the unstable airs of Virga would beggar any normal nation. Yet the place looked ancient, as evidenced by the many overgrown ruins and furzes of wild forest.

Copyright © 2007 by Karl Schroeder


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Queen of Candesce

- Mattastrophic
  (4/7/2012)

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