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Authors: Robert Jackson Bennett

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City of Stairs

BOOK: City of Stairs
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This is an uncorrected eBook file. Please do not quote for
publication until you check your copy against the finished book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2014 by Robert Jackson Bennett

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
www.crownpublishing.com

Broadway Books
and its logo, B \ D \ W \ Y, are trademarks of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bennett, Robert Jackson, 1984–
City of stairs : a novel / Robert Jackson Bennett. — First Edition.
1. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 2. Spy masters—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3602.E66455C58 2014
813'.6—dc23
2013040422

ISBN 978-0-8041-3717-1
eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-3718-8

Printed in the United States of America

Book design by Lauren Dong

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

First Edition

And Olvos said to them: “Why have you done this, my children? Why is the sky wreathed with smoke? Why have you made war in far places, and shed blood in strange lands?”

And they said to Her: “You blessed us as Your people, and we rejoiced, and were happy. But we found those who were not Your people, and they would not become Your people, and they were willful and ignorant of You. They would not open their ears to Your songs, or lay Your words upon their tongues. So we dashed them upon the rocks and threw down their houses and shed their blood and scattered them to the winds, and we were right to do so. For we are Your people. We carry Your blessings. We are Yours, and so we are right. Is this not what You said?”

And Olvos was silent.

—Book of the Red Lotus, Part IV, 13.51–13.59

Someone Even Worse
Bulikov—1719

I
believe the question, then,” says Vasily Yaroslav, “is one of
intent
. I am aware that the court might disagree with me—this court has always ruled on the side of effect rather than intent—but you cannot seriously fine an honest, modest businessman such a hefty fee for an unintentional damage, can you? Especially when the damage is, well, one of
abstraction
?”

A cough echoes in the courtroom, dashing the pregnant pause. Through the window the shadows of drifting clouds race across the walls of Bulikov.

Governor Turyin Mulaghesh suppresses a sigh and checks her watch.
If he goes on for six more minutes,
she thinks,
we’ll have a new record.

“And you have heard testimony from my friends,” says Yaroslav, “my neighbors, my employees, my family, my … my
bankers
. People who know me well, people who have no reason to lie! They have told you again and again that this is all just an unfortunate coincidence!”

Mulaghesh glances to her right along the high court bench. Prosecutor Jindash, his face the very picture of concern, is doodling a picture of his own hand on the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs letterhead. To her left, Chief Diplomat Troonyi is staring with unabashed interest at the well-endowed girl in the first row of the courtroom seats. Next to Troonyi, at the end of the high court bench, is an empty chair normally occupied by the visiting professor Dr. Efrem Pangyui, who has been more and more absent from these proceedings lately. But frankly, Mulaghesh is only too happy for his absence: his presence in the courtroom, let alone in this whole damn country, has caused enough headaches for her.

“The court”—Yaroslav pounds on the table twice—“must see reason!”

I must find someone else,
thinks Mulaghesh,
to come to these things in my place.
But this is wishful thinking: as the polis governor of Bulikov, the capital city of the Continent, it is her duty to preside over all trials, no matter how frivolous.

“So you all have heard, and you must understand, that I never
intended
the sign that stood outside of my business to be … to be of the nature that it was!”

The crowd in the courtroom mutters as Yaroslav skirts this sensitive subject. Troonyi strokes his beard and leans forward as the girl in the front row crosses her legs. Jindash is coloring in the fingernails on his sketch. Mulaghesh casts an eye over the crowd, cataloging the various ailments and diseases: the boy with the crutches, rickets; the woman with the scabbed face, pox; and she can’t tell what’s wrong with the man in the corner, though she dearly hopes what he’s covered in is mud. Yaroslav and a few others, as mildly successful Continentals, can afford running water, and thus in their examples one can observe the Continental specimen free of filth: stout, pale, heavy-featured, dark-eyed, and in the case of the men, sporting untamed mountains of beards. Mulaghesh and the other Saypuris, by stark contrast, are short, slender, and dark-skinned, with somewhat long noses and narrow chins, and as Troonyi’s utterly ridiculous bearskin coat attests, they are much more accustomed to warm Saypuri climates, far across the South Seas.

To a distant extent—
very
distant—Mulaghesh can understand Troonyi and Jindash’s disinterest: the Continent is steadfastly, defiantly, stubbornly backward, to the degree that one sometimes forgets the many unsettling reasons why Saypur bothers occupying such a miserable nation. (
Though can we really call ourselves occupiers,
thinks Mulaghesh,
if we’ve been here for nearly seventy-five years? When do we graduate to residents?
) If Mulaghesh were to offer everyone in the courtroom money right now and say, “Here, here is something to get you the medicine you need, to buy you fresh water,” it’s all too likely the Continentals would spit in her hand before accepting a single red cent.

Mulaghesh understands why they resent them so. She has to, as her duty as polis governor is to ensure the Bulikovian Continentals aren’t a threat to Saypur
and
to each other, functioning as both watchdog and babysitter. For though they may look like no more than paupers and beggars, these people were once the most powerful and dangerous human beings alive.
Which they remember, of course,
Mulaghesh thinks as she watches one man stare at her with naked rage.
Hence why they hate us so …

Yaroslav summons up his nerve.

Here it comes,
thinks Mulaghesh.

“I never
intended,
” he says clearly, “for my sign to reference any Divinity, any trace of the celestial, nor any god!”

A quiet hum as the courtroom fills with whispers. Mulaghesh and the rest of the Saypuris on the bench remain unimpressed by the dramatic nature of this claim. “How do they not know,” mutters Jindash, “that this happens at every single Worldly Regulations trial?”

“Quiet,” whispers Mulaghesh.

This public breach of the law emboldens Yaroslav. “Yes, I … I never intended to show fealty to any Divinity! I know
nothing
of the Divinities, of what they were or who they were …”

Mulaghesh barely stops herself from rolling her eyes. Every Continental knows
something
about the Divinities: to claim otherwise would be akin to claiming ignorance that rain is wet.

“… and thus I could not have known that the sign I posted outside of my millinery unfortunately,
coincidentally,
mimicked a Divinity’s sigil!”

A pause. Mulaghesh glances up, realizing Yaroslav has stopped speaking. “Are you finished, Mr. Yaroslav?” she asks.

Yaroslav hesitates. “Yes? Yes. Yes, I believe so, yes.”

“Thank you. You may take your seat.”

Prosecutor Jindash stands, takes the floor, and produces a large photograph of a painted sign that reads:
yaroslav hats.
Below the letters on the sign is a largish symbol—a straight line ending in a curlicue pointing down that has been altered slightly to suggest the outline of a hat’s brim.

Jindash swivels on his heels to face the crowd. “Would this be your sign, Mr. Yaroslav?” Jindash mispronounces the man’s name. Mulaghesh can’t quite tell if this is intentional: Continental names are so teeming with -slavs and -ilyas and -ulyas and whatnot that navigating introductions is nigh impossible for anyone who hasn’t lived here for more than a decade, as Mulaghesh has.

“Y-yes,” says Yaroslav.

“Thank you.” Jindash flourishes the photograph before the bench, the crowd, everyone. “Let the court please see that Mr. Yaroslav has confirmed this sign—yes,
this
sign—as his own.”

CD Troonyi nods as if having gained deeply perceptive insight. The crowd of Continentals mutters anxiously. Jindash walks to his briefcase with the air of a magician before a trick—
How I hate,
Mulaghesh thinks,
that this theatrical little shit got assigned to Bulikov
—and produces a large imprint of a similar symbol: a straight line ending in a curlicue. But in this instance, the symbol has been rendered to look like it is made of dense, twisting vines, even sporting tiny leaves at the curlicue.

The crowd gasps at the reveal of this sign. Some move to make holy gestures, but stop themselves when they realize where they are. Yaroslav himself flinches.

Troonyi snorts. “Know nothing of the Divinities
indeed
 …”

“Were the estimable Dr. Efrem Pangyui here”—Jindash gestures to the empty chair beside Troonyi—“I have no doubt that he would quickly identify this as the holy sigil of the Divinity … I apologize, the
deceased
Divinity …”

The crowd mutters in outrage; Mulaghesh makes a note to reward Jindash’s arrogance with a transfer to someplace cold and inhospitable, with plenty of rats.

Jindash finishes: “… known as
Ahanas
. This sigil, specifically, was believed by Continentals to imbue great fecundity, fertility, and vigor. For a milliner it would suggest, however peripherally, that his hats imbued their wearers with these same properties. Though Mr. Yaroslav may protest it, we have heard from Mr. Yaroslav’s financiers that his business experienced a robust uptick after installing this sign outside of his property! In fact, his quarterly revenue increased by
twenty-three percent
.” Jindash sets down the imprint, and makes a two with the fingers of one hand and a three with the other. “Twenty. Three. Percent.”

“Oh my goodness,” says Troonyi.

Mulaghesh cannot bear it: she covers her eyes in embarrassment.
I should have never left the military.

“How did you … ?” says Yaroslav.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Yaroslav,” says Jindash. “I believe I have the floor? Thank you. I will continue. The Worldly Regulations were passed by the Saypuri Parliament in 1650, outlawing
any
public acknowledgment of the Divine on the Continent, however peripheral. One may no more mutter the name of a Divinity on the Continent than write their name in bright red paint on the side of a mountain. One need only make any acknowledgment—
any
acknowledgment—of the Divine to be in violation of the Worldly Regulations, and thus incur punishment. The significant financial gain does suggest that Mr. Yaroslav installed the sign with both knowledge and intent—”

“That’s a lie!” cries Yaroslav.

“—of its Divine nature. It does not matter that the Divinity the sigil referenced is dead, and the sigil could not have bestowed any properties on anyone or anything. The acknowledgment is made. As such, Mr. Yaroslav’s actions incur the formal punishment of a fine of”—Jindash consults a note—“fifteen thousand drekels.”

The crowd shifts and mutters until it is a low roar.

Yaroslav sputters. “You can’t … You can’t possibly …”

Jindash retakes his seat at the bench. He gives Mulaghesh a proud smile; Mulaghesh strongly considers smashing it with her fist.

She wishes she could somehow bypass all this pomp and pageantry. Worldly Regulations cases usually only go to court every five months or so: the vast majority of all WR infractions are settled out of court, between Mulaghesh’s office and the defendant. Very, very rarely does anyone feel confident or righteous enough to bring their case to court; and when they do, it’s always a dramatic, ridiculous affair.

Mulaghesh looks out over the packed courthouse; there are people standing at the back, as if this dull municipal trial were grand theater.
But they are not here to see the trial,
she thinks. She glances down the high court bench to Dr. Efrem Pangyui’s empty chair.
They’re here to see the man who’s caused me so many problems. …

However, whenever a WR case does go to trial, it’s almost always a conviction. In fact, Mulaghesh believes she has acquitted only three people in her two decades as polis governor.
And we convict almost every case,
she thinks,
because the law requires us to prosecute them for living their way of life.

She clears her throat. “The prosecution has finished its case. You may now make your rebuttal, Mr. Yaroslav.”

“But … But this isn’t fair!” says Yaroslav. “Why do
you
get to bandy about
our
sigils,
our
holy signs, but we can’t?”

“The polis governor’s quarters”—Jindash waves a hand at the walls—“are technically Saypuri soil. We are not under the jurisdiction of the Worldly Regulations, which apply only to the Continent.”

“That’s … That’s ridiculous! No, it’s not just ridiculous, it’s … it’s
heretical
!” He stands to his feet.

The courtroom is dead silent. Everyone stares at Yaroslav.

Oh, excellent,
thinks Mulaghesh.
We have another protest.

“You have no right to do these things to us,” says Yaroslav. “You strip our buildings of their holy art, loot and pillage our libraries, arrest people for mentioning a
name.
 …”

“We are not here,” says Jindash, “to debate the law, or history.”

“But we are! The Worldly Regulations
deny
us our history! I … I have never been able to see that sign you showed me, the sign of, of …”

“Of your Divinity,” says Jindash. “Ahanas.”

BOOK: City of Stairs
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ads

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