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The Stars Undying
By Emery Robin
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A "dazzling" tale of empire and betrayal set among the stars (#1 New York Times bestselling author Casey McQuiston), this queer, spectacular space opera draws inspiration from Roman and Egyptian empires—and the lives and loves of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.Princess Altagracia has lost everything. After a bloody civil war, her twin sister has claimed both the crown of their planet, Szayet, and the Pearl of its prophecy: a computer that contains the immortal soul of Szayet’s god.
So when the interstellar Empire of Ceiao turns its conquering eye toward Szayet, Gracia sees an opportunity. To regain her planet, Gracia places herself in the hands of the empire and its dangerous commander, Matheus Ceirran.
But winning over Matheus, to say nothing of his mercurial and compelling captain Anita, is no easy feat. And in trying to secure her planet’s sovereignty and future, Gracia will find herself torn between Matheus’s ambitions, Anita’s unpredictable desires, and the demands of the Pearl that whispers in her ear.
For Szayet’s sake and her own, she will need to become more than a princess with a silver tongue. She will have to become a queen as history has never seen before.
"A glittering triumph of a book that weaves together history and tragedy into a star-spanning epic." —Everina Maxwell, author of Winter’s Orbit
THE TRAGEDY OF MATHEUS CEIRRAN
Notes for members of the Ceian Theatrical Performers’ Consortium
Memo: write announcement to consortium noting that ALL ASPIRING ACTORS must audition this year. I am tired of people expecting exorbitant salaries because they played similar roles in last year’s production of Ceirran and Semfontan. Half of that principal cast are dead now in any case and more importantly the theater is OUT OF MONEY!!! Put something in regarding exciting opportunities, troubled times, Art for Art’s Sake, etc., etc.
Altagracia Caviro Patramata, called Gracia, self-described rightful queen of Szayet. We are looking for SEDUCTION! GLAMOUR! WILES! The right actress should be like a snake in lipstick, and more lipstick = better. Sintian, but costumed to represent the ancient, mysterious, frightening rituals of the Szayeti people, etc. We will discuss details closer to dress rehearsal. (On wiles—I hope it is obvious that on no account should the actress come off as more intelligent than Commander Ceirran and co. Let’s be reasonable here.)
Arcelia Caviro Diomata, self-described rightful queen of Szayet. Gracia’s identical twin sister. Less seduction, less glamour, more muscles, more petulance, same schemes, same face.
Casimiro Caviro Faifisto, deceased king of Szayet. Her father. More of a father than a king, and not much of either. I want him well costumed, but embarrassingly so.
Alekso Undying, also called Alekso of Sintia, one-time conqueror of the galaxy. A dead god. Young man with an ethereal quality and a bad personality. Memo to talk to management re: special effects—halo in costume, possible lightbulbs/fire? Can we rig him to fly? Liabilities???
Caviro Orakolo, Beloved Disciple. His lover. Ten-times-great-grandfather of Gracia and Arcelia. Deceased these three hundred years.
Zorione, a maid.
Raimundo, a guard. Should we cut these last two roles? May be difficult to find people willing to play servants. Really very few decent actors left in the city these days.
Members of the Ceian Fleet
Matheus Ceirran, commander of the Fleet of Ceiao and governor of Madinabia. We want big, terrifying, arrogant, also romance, pathos, etc. Fine line to walk here. Please confirm whether we anticipate the new Admiral being in the city for the performance. (Memo: inquiries with management on potential emergency exits?)
Admiral Quinha Semfontan, Ceirran’s mentor and foe. A dragon, but if the dragon were a balloon, and the balloon had deflated in the night. Actor should be built along the lines of Ceirran—big, terrifying, etc.—but aged significantly. Speak to makeup about wrinkles?
Captain Galvão Orcadan, a Ceian officer.
Otávio Julhan, Ceirran’s young cousin. Something is wrong with this child.
Captain Ana Decretan, called Anita, a Ceian officer. Ceirran’s right hand. We were strongly, strongly advised to ensure that this actor is handsome.
Members of the Ceian Merchants’ Council
Jonata Barran, a councillor and former ally of Quinha Semfontan. Descendant of Valquíria Barran, the last commander of Ceiao. Dear friend of Ceirran. A fluffy dog with a strong sense of personal justice.
Cátia Lançan, a councillor and likewise former ally of Quinha Semfontan. A cat with a strong sense of personal affront.
Thiago Veguion, a councillor. Enemy of Ceirran. Snob.
Emiliana Barboulethan, a councillor and crony of Ceirran. Spineless. Perhaps this could be a part for one of our clowns?
Narcisa Cipon, a councillor. Enemy of Ceirran. Drunkard. Also possibly a clown role.
Túlio Cachoeiran, a councillor, writer, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, etc., etc. Defender of liberty. Galactically famed orator. Horrible little man.
Teo Pulcron, a councillor and a gangster. Deceased. Brother-in-law to Ana Decretan.
Sérgio Catílion, a councillor and likewise a gangster, and likewise deceased. Brother-in-law to Jonata Barran. In concert with Pulcron, once attempted to overthrow the government of Ceiao.
Celestino Xicaran, a wealthy man. Husband to Commander Ceirran. Unfailingly polite, congenitally unhappy, temperamentally unfun.
Flavia Decretan, a socialite. Sister to Ana Decretan, widow of Teo Pulcron. Alarming woman. Fabulous gowns.
Sílvio Barran, deceased, brother to Jonata Barran.
In the first year of the Thirty-Third Dynasty, when He came to the planet where I was born and made of it a wasteland for glory’s sake, my ten-times-great-grandfather’s king and lover, Alekso Undying, built on the ruins of the gods who had lived before Him Alectelo, the City of Endless Pearl, the Bride of Szayet, the Star of the Swordbelt Arm, the Ever-Living God’s Empty Grave.
He caught fever and filled that grave, ten months later. You can’t believe in names.
Three hundred years is a long time to call any place Endless, for one thing. Alectelo is no different, and the pearl of the harbor-gate was cracked and flaking when I ran my hand up it, and its shine had long since worn away. It had only ever been inlay, anyway. Beneath it was brass, solid and warm, and browning like bread at the edges where the air was creeping through.
“It needs repairs,” said Zorione, just behind my shoulder.
I curled my fingers against the metal. “It needs money,” I said.
“She won’t give it,” Zorione said. She was sitting on a nearby crate already, stretching out her legs in front of her. She had complained of her old bones and aching feet through every back alley and tunnel in the city, and been silent only when we passed under markets, where the noise might have carried to the street. “Why would she?” she went on, without looking at me. “She never comes to the harbor. Are the captains and generals kept in wine and honey-cakes? Yes? That keeps her happy.”
I said nothing. After a moment she said, “Of course—it’s not hers,” and subsided.
I knew I ought to be grateful for her devotion. Nevertheless it was not a question of possession that stirred me, looking at the curling rust on that gate framing the white inlet where our island broke to the endless sea. Nor was it a question of reverence, though it might have been, in better times. It was the deepest anger I had ever felt, and one of the few angers I had never found myself able to put aside. It was the second time in my life I had seen the queen of my planet be careless with something beautiful.
“It wouldn’t matter, anyway,” I said, and let my hand fall. “This is quicksilver pearl. It only grows in Ceiao these days.”
It was a cool day at the edge of the only world I had ever known. The trade winds were coming up from the ocean, smelling of brine and exhaust, and the half-moon-studded sky was a clear and cloudless blue. At the edge of my hearing was the distant hum of rockets from across the water, a low roar like the sound of the lions my people had once worshipped. I took it as an omen, and hoped it a good one. Alectelans had made no sacrifices to mindless beasts these past three centuries. But if Alekso heard my prayers, it was months since He had last answered them, and I needed all the succor I could get.
“How long until the ship?” I said.
I had asked three times in the last half hour, but Zorione said patiently, “Ten minutes,” as if it were the first time. “If she hasn’t caught it yet,” and she made a sign against bad luck in the air and spit over her shoulder. It made me smile, though I tried not to let her see it. She was a true Alectelan, Sintian in name and parentage but in faith half orthodoxy and half heathenism, in that peculiar fanatical blend that every born resident of the city held close to their hearts. And though she carried all unhappiness as unfailingly as she carried my remaining possessions, I had no interest in offending her. She had shown no sign, as yet, of being capable of disloyalty. Still: I had so little left to lose.
The water was white-green and choppy with the wind, and so when our ship came skipping across the sea at last, it was only the sparks that gave it away, meandering orange and red toward the concrete shore like moths. At the very last moment it slowed and skidded onto the runway in a cloud of exhaust, coming to a stop yards from our feet.
My maid was coughing. I held still and listened for the creak of a hatch. When the smuggler appeared through the drifting grey particulates a moment later, shaven-headed and grinning with crooked teeth, Zorione jumped.
“Good morning,” I said. “Anastazia Szaradya? We spoke earlier. I’m—”
“I know who you are,” she said in Szayeti-accented Sintian. Her eyes took me in—cotton dress, dust-grey sandals, bare face, bare arms—before they flicked to Zorione, behind me. “This is the backer?”
I kept my smile wide and pleasant. “One of them,” I said. “The rest are expecting our report from the satellite in—I’m sorry, was it three hours? Four?”
“By nightfall, madam,” Zorione said, looking deeply uncomfortable.
I gave her an apologetic look behind the smuggler’s back. If I had had a choice in who to play the role of the backer, I would not have chosen Zorione, who as long as I had known her had despised deception almost as fiercely as rule-breaking, and rule-breaking like blasphemy. But she knew as well as I did what a luxury choice had become for us. “By nightfall,” I repeated. “Shall we board the ship?”
The smuggler narrowed her eyes at me. “And how long after will the pearls be sent to the satellite?” she said. “You said three days?”
I flicked my eyes to Zorione, who cleared her throat. “A week,” she said. “The transport ship will bring them, if they find her safe and sound. Only if,” she added, in a burst of improvisation. I rewarded her with a quick nod.
“A week?” said the smuggler. “For a piece of walking bad luck? Better I should be holding a bomb! Was this what we agreed to?”
Zorione’s face went blank. “You know,” I said hastily, “you’re very right. Speed is of the essence. I would personally prefer to leave the system as soon as possible. Madam Buquista, might your consortium abandon the precautionary measures we discussed? I understand the concern that the army not trace the payment back to Madam Szaradya—of course the Ceians might trace it, too, and come to investigate her—but is that really my highest priority? Perhaps instead—”
The smuggler snorted. “Hush,” she said. “Fine. Keep your precautions. You, girl, can keep your patience. Meanwhile”—she nodded at Zorione’s outraged face—“when your ship comes for her, we discuss delay fees, hmm?”
Zorione looked admirably unhappy at this, and I would have nodded at her to put up a lengthy and losing argument, when there was a low, dull hum, akin to the noise of an insect.
Then the sky wiped dark from horizon to horizon. The sea, which had been glittering with daylight, flooded black; the shadow of the smuggler’s ship swelled and swept over us, and we were left in darkness. The smuggler swore—I whispered a prayer, and I could see Zorione’s silhouetted hands moving in a charm against ill fortune—and above us, just where the sun had shone and twenty times its size, the face of the queen of Szayet opened up like an eye.
She was smiling down at us. She was a lovely woman, the queen, and though holos had a peculiar quality that always seemed to make it impossible to meet anyone’s eyes, her gaze felt heavy and prickling as it swept over the concrete and the sea and the pearl of the harbor-gate below. She had braided her hair in the high Ceian style, and she had thrown on a military coat and hat that I was almost certain had belonged to the king, and she had painted her mouth, hastily enough that it smeared at her lip as if she had just bitten into raw meat. Around her left ear, stretching up to her hairline, curled a dozen golden wires, pressed so closely to her skin they might have been a tattoo. An artfully draped braid hid where I knew they slipped through her temple, into her skull. In her earlobe, at the base of the wires, sat a shining silver pearl.
She said, sweetly and very slowly—I could hear it echo, as I knew it was doing on docks and in cathedrals, in marketplaces and alleyways, across the whole city of Alectelo, and though I had seen the machines in the markets that threw these images into the sky, though I had laid hands on them and shown them my own face, my breath caught, my heart hammered, I wanted to fall to my knees—
“Do you think the Oracle blind?”
She paused as if for a reply. There was none, of course. She added, even more sweetly, “Or perhaps you think her stupid?”
“Time to go,” said the smuggler.
We scrabbled ourselves up the ladder as quickly as we could: the smuggler first, then me, Zorione taking the rear with the handles of my bags clenched in her bony fingers. Above me, the queen’s voice was rising: “Did you think I would not see,” she said, “did you think the tongue and eyes of Alekso Undying would not know? I have heard—I will be told—where the liar Altagracia Caviro is hiding. I will be told in what harbor she dares to stand, I will be told in what ship she dares to fly. You are bound to do her harm, all you who worship the Undying—you are bound to do her harm, Alekso wishes it so—”
Zorione, swaying on the rungs, made another elaborate sign in the air, this time against blasphemy. “Please don’t fall,” I called down to her. “I can’t afford to lose you. But I appreciate the piety.” She huffed and seized hold of the ladder again.
When we had all tumbled into the cramped confines of the ship, the smuggler slammed the hatch shut above my head, and shoved lumps of bread and a pinch of salt into our waiting hands. The bread was hard as stone and tasted like lint—it must have come out of her pocket, a thought I immediately decided not to contemplate—but I swallowed it as best I could, and smeared the salt onto my tongue with my thumb. The queen’s voice was echoing even now through the walls, muffled and metallic. I heard worship a lying and demand by right and suffer the fate, and turned my head away.
The smuggler had gone ahead of me, through the bowels of the ship. I made to push past Zorione, but she caught my arm at the last moment, and stood on her tiptoes to whisper into my ear, “Madam, I’m afraid—”
“I know,” I said, “but we knew she would only be a step behind us—we have to go.” But she shook her head frantically, leaned closer, and hissed:
“What is the thief going to do to us when she finds out there isn’t any consortium?”
My first, absurd impulse was to laugh, and I had to clap my hand over my mouth to stifle it. When I had myself under control, I shook my head and bent to whisper back: “Zorione, how can it be worse than what would have happened if we hadn’t told her that there was?”
She let me go, her face pinched with worry. I wished I knew what to say to her—but I had a week to find an answer, and here and now I made my way through sputtering wires and hissing pipes through the little hallway where the smuggler had disappeared.
I found her in a worn chair at what I presumed to be the ship’s only control panel, laid out in red lights before a dark viewscreen not four handspans wide. “How long until we’re out of the atmosphere?” I said.
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” said the smuggler. “If you have any service complaints, you’ve got three guesses where you can put them.”
Three guesses seemed excessive, but it was more munificence than I had been offered in months. “If I stand here behind you,” I said, “will I be in your way?”
“You’re in my way wherever you are,” she said, and shoved a lever forward. Beneath us, the engines coughed irritably to life. “Don’t go into the back, it’s full of Szayeti falcon jars. Eighteenth Dynasty.”
I would remember that. I let it settle to the floor of my mind for now, though, and tucked myself into what little space there was behind the smuggler’s chair. We had begun our journey back across the water, bouncing over the flickering waves. The spray threw rainbows around us, so bright my eyes streamed, and my first warning that we had arrived at the launch spot and begun to rise was a hum in my ears, low at first and then louder—and then a pain in my head, as sharp as if someone had clapped their hands to my temples and squeezed. The smuggler was mouthing something—I thought it was here we go—
—and then the sky was fading, blue into colorlessness into a deep indigo and the ocean was shrinking below, dotted by scudding clouds. The floor of the ship shook, then coughed. My ears popped.
“Simple part done,” said the smuggler. I was beginning to believe she liked having someone to talk to.
That, at least, I knew how to indulge. “Simple part?” I said, as bewildered as if I did not already know the answer. “What comes next?”
“That,” said the smuggler, pointing with grim satisfaction. I allowed myself a moment of pride—it had been excellent timing—and looked past her pointing finger to where the Ceian-bought warship sat black and seething like an anthill in the center of my sky.
“We can’t answer a royal customs holo,” I said, making myself sound shocked.
“Wasn’t planning to,” said the smuggler. “Imperial pricks already gave the queen my face. Do you know, three decades ago, I flew six times a year through thirty ports from here to Muntiru without stopping to tell any man my name. Now every asteroid twenty feet across is infested with barbarians in blue, asking for the sequence of every gene my mother gave me.” She paused. “Wonder whose fault that is.”
It took a great deal of faith to attribute that kind of influence to any Oracle, let alone the Oracle she meant. But faith, unlike warships, had never been in short supply among the Szayeti.
“What will we do?” I said. “Speed through the army’s radar?”
“Better,” said the smuggler. “We outweave it. Hold on.”
That was the only warning I got. In the back, I could hear Zorione yelp as the ship spun like a top, suddenly and violently. The smuggler shoved a lever forward, yanked it to the left, and pushed three sliders on the control board up to their highest positions. A holo had sprung to life on the dashboard, a glittering spiderweb of yellow lines delineated by a wide black curve at their edge. Within it was a single white dot: our ship, I guessed, and the edge of the atmosphere.
“What’s that?” I said anyway, and let the smuggler explain. She liked explaining, and it distracted me, which I knew after only a few seconds I would badly need. Flying with the smuggler was not unlike being a piece of soap dropped in the bath. She might have lost control of the ship entirely and I would never have known the difference, except for the unwavering fierceness of her smile. “How many times have you done this?” I attempted to ask through rattling teeth as we swiveled and plummeted through empty air.
“At least twice!” she said with malicious cheer.
It was difficult to tell when we passed the warship. Certainly the smuggler did not seem to know. I think she must have thought that, were I sufficiently bumped and jolted, I would give up and go join my nursemaid in the back, but I hung on stubbornly to the back of her chair, and stared from the control panel to the viewscreen to the holo and back again, matching each to each in my mind. It was an old trick I had, when fighting off illness or pain or plain misery, to focus on something at which I felt very stupid, and learn each detail as if it were another tongue. At other times it had served me well. Now, hungry and tired and nauseous at once, it was more difficult, and by the time the ship turned one final time and settled into stillness, I was clinging to the smuggler’s chair as if it were my father alive again.
The smuggler smirked. “Twenty minutes,” she said. “New record. Hey,” she added in Szayeti, mostly to herself, “maybe she carries good luck after all.”
“I try to,” I said, in the same language, and caught the flicker of her first true smile. Below us, I could see the broad white edge of the planet, beginning to shrink against the darkness. I had seen it from this distance only once before in my life.
My people are a people of prophecy. Long before Alekso Undying came from old Sintia to our shores, long before my ten-times-great-grandfather, weeping, bore His body from the palace at Kutayet to the tomb where I grew up, my people spoke with the voices of serpents and lions, falcons and foxes, who roamed this world and who saw the future written in blood. The people then said what was, what is, and what will be; and though Alekso’s beloved and his descendants are their rulers now, and though they have had no god but their conqueror for three hundred years, they have not forgotten that they once told the future as freely as any queen. They never will.
The queen of Szayet had prophesied, these last eight months, that she was the only and rightful bearer of the Pearl of the Dead. She had prophesied herself the heir to the voice of Alekso our conqueror, the Undying who had died all those centuries ago. She had prophesied that her words were His words, and her words were the future, and that there was no future in them for Altagracia Caviro Patramata, father-beloved lady of Alectelo, seeker of the god and friend to the people, her only rival, her only enemy, her only and her best-beloved sister.
As the rust-green coin of Szayet receded before me, and the night crept in from every corner of the viewscreen, I leaned across the smuggler’s shoulder and pressed my fingers to the glass as I had to the arch at the harbor, and I whispered: “I will see you again.”
My sister had called me a liar today.
I am a liar, of course. But I meant to be a prophet, too.
I had loved Quinha, more’s the trouble.
In the whole Empire of Ceiao, for all its rabble and reputation, there’s only a fistful of citizens who have the born-or-bred true talent of a military general. Fewer with the charisma and the money to handle the populace, and fewer still who have any head for politics, and only a sprinkling, only enough for me to count on the fingers of my good right hand, are that rarest of things: a damn fine pilot. Quinha had been all of these, and a friend besides. I’d fought with her, I’d plotted with her. I’d cared for her. I hadn’t wanted to kill her.
She was coming up the meteor bank when her ship slipped into our sights: an imperial dreadnought twenty klicks wide, blooming on our radar screens as a mass of shifting yellows and reds. In the darkness of the accretion-tide she was hardly visible. If I’d been in my fighter I might have caught her and picked off her cannons, one by one, and my fingers itched for the controls. But those days were gone and had been for many years, and I had my governorship to think of, and my dignity besides.
“Let me at her,” said Ana, who had neither. She was sprawled in a curved white chair at my right hand. She liked that sort of thing, Ana did. If she had ever been able to find the patience for subtlety, she wouldn’t have looked for it.
I considered the thought. Ana was no ace, but she was a quick draw and a vicious brute in battle, and it paid to indulge her, more often than not. But I shook my head in the end.
“I want her pinned to a planet,” I said, “and coming out ground fighting. Bring the soldiers their force-shields, and pull around Laureathan to port. We’ll drive her up the bank toward the star-well.”
“Like conquerors we’ll do it,” said Ana. “Bring her corpse before us to the city gates.”
- "Has the dramatic force of space opera and the lushness of the very best historical fiction. It takes the larger-than-life figures of the ancient world and recasts them against a backdrop of drowned worlds and interstellar empires with extraordinary verve. Gorgeously written, impeccably characterized, and profoundly aware of the way the ghosts of history linger."—Emily Tesh, author of the Greenhollow duology
- "An epic tale of love and conquest."—Kirkus
- "Emery Robin deftly wields the conventions of science fiction to make old stories new. The Stars Undying is a fascinating, wonderful ride full of exquisitely realized societies and bold, history-shaping personalities. I did not know I could weep for Antony, love Cleopatra, or lament Caesar, but through Ana, Gracia, and Ceirran, I do."—Maya Deane, author of Wrath Goddess Sing
- "Gorgeously written, clever and captivating."—Kristyn Merbeth, author of Fortuna
- "A glittering triumph of a book that weaves together history and tragedy into a star-spanning epic. I fell into this book and didn't come out for a long time."—Everina Maxwell, author of Winter’s Orbit
- "Dazzling, transportive, boundless, precise—and dares to ask, what if Mark Antony was the hottest butch girl in space?"—Casey McQuiston, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "Beautifully written, with poise and wit and grand epic sweep, The Stars Undying has everything I want from a space opera."—A.K. Larkwood, author of The Unspoken Name
- "There’s much that will appeal in this galaxy of clever, casually queer characters scheming and double-dealing through the stars."—Publishers Weekly
- “An ambitious and sweeping debut, The Stars Undying shimmers with that transformative potential … The Stars Undying manages to transmute its famous truths and infamous lies into something breathtakingly new.”—Chicago Review of Books
- "There is a great deal to love about this book. Fans of Roman history will have particular fun picking out which characters stand in for which historical figures ... a welcome new update of an old story." —Wall Street Journal
- "A dazzling debut ... The Stars Undying will attract fans of plots with scheming and double-dealing in centuries past--among the stars, no less ... Readers will be eager for the sequel."—Shelf Awareness
- "Definitely one if you're a fan of Arkady Martine or Ann Leckie or Yoon Ha Lee. If you love a juicy political space opera that has really interesting worldbuilding and lots of great characters, it ticks all the boxes." —Book Riot
- On Sale
- Nov 8, 2022
- Page Count
- 528 pages