Upstairs, in the little rowhouse on the thirty-sixth meridian of the city of Leth Marno, the scuffling grows louder. Heels ring out against the floorboards, and shouts are muffled; by the rugs, perhaps, or a hand that grasps to cover a mouth.
Anell Nath sits downstairs by the flower-arrangement pedestal. Her hands shake as she trims leaves from a bundle of pale peonies. She is more certain with the tools of her trade than with the instruments of the gentleperson’s art, but dissection scissors would make slow work of the thick waxy stems. As she works she counts the blows from the level above; categorizes and classifies each cry that makes its way down to her. Cool observation distances her from what is happening up there. That is her job, and always has been: to study, to take notes. To seek understanding, or at least knowledge.
Hasn’t she had enough understanding for a lifetime by now? How deep must understanding be, before she drowns in it? The blades of the shears snap methodically, and leaves fall to the ground between her bare feet.
Years of hard, grinding work in the library and the laboratory have honed the great desire of Anell’s heart into a scalpel, a sharp point ever driving toward that goal. The blade is so keen, though, that by its very nature it has flensed away everything else.
The shears are heavy in her hand. A scalpel would have been defter. She sits, and cuts, and waits.
At twenty-three years old, a graduate of the Hollow Universities of Kinnam Nath with all high honors and newly granted the privilege of a surname for her academic excellence, Anell Nath knelt and pressed her forehead to the carpet of Countess Liel’s study.
The Countess’s bare feet crossed beneath the hem of her lily-white robes. Her House color was represented too in the pale petals that littered the ground at either side; lilies, yes, daisies too, and the frail wisps of baby’s-breath. Anell did not dare look up at the massive arrangements that flanked the Countess, nor past her purple-veined ankles; only waited and counted the whispers of pages turned.
At last even the faint murmur of paper against paper fell silent. Anell’s breath cut through, separating the stiff body of the silence into parts smaller and more manageable. An exhalation, like a scalpel piercing rubbery flesh; a slow inhalation like cold fascia peeling away from the organs within. Until at last the Countess’s decision could be revealed. To secure patronage now would put Anell’s dreams within reach; to secure it here would put those dreams outside the grasp of the doubters at Kinnam Nath.
“Your credentials are impressive.” A swish of fabric as the Countess uncrossed her legs. Anell did not look up to study her face or guess at her mood. She had researched the customs of Leth Marno and the country of Walchem before coming here, a study no less desperate than what she had poured into any quarterly exam. “And your proposal intrigues me, of course, else I would not have paid your passage here.”
But was the word that the Countess dangled between them, daring Anell to bat at it with an unprovoked defense. Anell held her tongue, and after several long moments, the Countess stood.
This was Anell’s signal to sit up. When she rested back on her heels, the muscles in her legs jangled their indignation. She still did not meet the Countess’s eyes; only focused on the belt at her waist, where one liver-spotted hand rested.
“Intriguing,” the Countess went on, “and also unorthodox. Or perhaps that is part of the appeal.” She paused. “Of course, there is also the matter of the rumors that followed you here from Kinnam Nath.”
Anell’s breath hitched, but the Countess continued. “I hired an investigator to validate the soundness of such an investment. They uncovered some things of interest to me. A spate of thefts: not valuables, but oddments. Eggs, sprouted grains, pregnant cats.”
Anell’s tongue lay in the basin of her mouth, as thick and useless as that of a two-week-dead corpse. She felt certain that it would suffocate her, and more certain yet that no answer would roll off it that could please this woman.
“You were never tied to these crimes with any certainty,” said the Countess. “But there was also the matter of your... proclivities.”
A spasm of her throat forced a small sound out of Anell. The Countess folded her arms.
“I know that no matter whom I choose to sponsor, I’m not likely to live to see Victory. I seek only the few additional years that a sound scientist could offer. With the history of cancer in my line, your proposal seems the most likely to offer a return on my money. If, of course, that proposal is truly the vessel into which you intend to pour my patronage.”
The Countess folded back into her seat. So smooth and sudden was the movement that Anell failed to drop her gaze quickly enough and caught for a moment the Countess’ gaze, sapphire sharp. No; not sapphires but blue diamonds, honed into drill bits and ready to put the test to what fault lines lay beneath Anell’s surface.
“Well?” the Countess asked. “How do you answer?”
“Your Grace, I was a child then.” Anell wet her lips and immediately regretted the show of nerves. She’d made this speech before; usually it came more easily. It had been some years, though, and now there was far more than the specter of the Dean’s disciplinary cane at stake. “Interested in childish pursuits. Too drunk on teenage immortality to accept my duty.” All scientists fought for eternal Victory, or at least sought to make their own small scratches in that vast implacable possibility. If the Countess would let her, she would give her House as many years of life as she could scratch out of cold vials and ancient spells. And if she pursued other goals in her spare time, that needn’t trouble the Countess. “I learned from my mistakes. I’m a stronger woman for them. A more resolute champion for you and your House.”
Behind her, the door opened. A man said, rather loudly, “Mother, are you still tormenting the poor woman? We all know you’ve already decided.”
“Arantha.” The Countess sighed. The muscles in Anell’s neck twitched, begging her to turn and see who had interceded on her behalf. She held steady. “Will you not let me conduct my business in peace? The House will be your brother’s soon enough. If he’s content to let you pry into his affairs, that’s fine, but kindly wait until I have lost the fight against the After before you treat me as if I have.”
“Well, you’re delaying dinner, which I think is absolutely my business. And I have a real fear that your scientist’s legs will go gangrenous from sitting all this time and she’ll succumb to sepsis before you get an ounce of use from her.” Footsteps swept past Anell. “Here, have some sherry and come off it already.”
“You are without shame.” The Countess rustled, an opaque shift of skirts and sleeves. “Rise, Nath Anell.”
Anell froze before climbing to her feet. She swayed briefly on stiff knees as blood and sensation returned. If she had been bidden rise, the Countess had reached a favorable decision. Anell stared full-on into the Countess’s face, and the thunder of those blinding-blue eyes echoed in the hollow places inside her.
A flicker of movement behind the Countess stole Anell’s attention. He was of an age that he would be the Countess’s elder son, but his left eye was one of polished black glass. Those born death-touched, with sightless eyes or withered limbs, would see a younger sibling inherit first—at least unless the new Concerns in the capital managed to push their reforms through into law. As Anell gawped at him, he tipped a sherry glass her way, then drank.
“The remorse is real,” said the Countess, lifting her chin to study Anell’s numb face. “The Universities’ masters did their work well in teaching you not only the nature of the world but of your place in it.”
“I hope I will never give you cause to regret becoming my patron.” Anell bowed in the way she had read of, with her hands folded and pressed to her forehead.
“Your predecessor’s facilities have been emptied and cleaned.” The Countess plucked the sherry glass from her son’s hand. “My people will provide you with a line of credit to acquire what you need in terms of furnishings or materials that he lacked.” She thrust one finger into the webwire board beside her chair and turned a ring. The study door opened, and one of her household officials appeared. “You may be a risky proposition, but he seemed a safe one. May you fare better than he did.”
“Thank you,” said Anell, to the Countess, and to her son Liel Arantha as well. The Countess did not respond in any way, but the young man smiled at her as the official led Anell away.
Anell’s predecessor had died in the line of his work—not an uncommon end for a scientist but still an embarrassing one. Many of Anell’s profession struggled to keep from pouring a little too much of their soul into their work, from testing a new elixir or spell on themselves first. They wanted the glory of a great advance toward Victory, of course, as Anell did too. Glory was not won in a slow hesitant creep of borrowed hours, and the After did not give up its secrets gently.
In the case of Anell’s predecessor, the issue had been the development of a new mechanism of Permanence. Anell had studied spellcraft briefly at school, before she found her primary interests lay not in the misty probabilities of magic but in the material world of chemicals and moving parts. Alchemy was useful, absolutely, but the perfect clockwork of biology was a kind of magic in its own right. The gentleman in question had, in any case, devised a way to open and stabilize bubbles of Permanence that did not require their contents to be frozen to preserve them. The technique was now used in Temple hospitals across Walchem, to move and store organs for transplant.
A scientist who served one of the Countess’s rival Houses had explained much of the situation to Anell. At least as much as he knew, from his vantage point outside House Liel, and as much as he wished to tell without inadvertently handing her too many pieces of the puzzle. From what Anell gathered, it wasn’t customary for rival Houses to fraternize much. Normally in the streets of this city, couples and trios showed their affection freely, joyfully, and artfully—in such ways that would make the romantic poets of Camrain blush and turn aside. But this lover only ever met Anell by dark of night. On this side of the Sea, Counts and Countesses jealously protected the fruits of their patronage. What one House gained in mortality abatement was denied to the others, unless their own scientists could unravel the same secrets. No House wanted to fund the longevity of their neighbors, or worse yet, be outlived by them.
But from Anell’s cursory study of House law, such associations weren’t strictly forbidden. Discouraged, yes, but permissible, especially when they were strictly sexual—or at least appeared to be so. As Anell crouched alone in her rival’s bathing-chamber with a glass vial pressed half an inch up her cunt, she wondered if he too had convinced himself that this was just a brief fling. She certainly didn’t mind the trappings of such a thing. This man, whose name she currently couldn’t quite remember, was a student of psychic alchemy—a far different field from her current official area of expertise, which made it very difficult to stumble together into a work conversation. And what lay beneath the crisp crimson of his House robes made a very pleasant game indeed of the necessary deception. She put one elbow on the rim of the bathtub to brace herself and waited.
“Are you all right in there?” Anell’s head came up to confirm that she’d shut the latch on the door. But his voice reached her from a distance, as if he hadn’t actually gotten out of bed to investigate her absence. “It’s getting late. If you like I could ring along the webwire for some dinner. There’s a place just down the meridian with Camrainian food?”
Anell pictured the local take on her fathers’ mushroom dumplings and the runny yogurt that passed for sour cream here. She grimaced. There was a slight shift in the weight of the glass tube. A wad of semen had slithered out of her and into the tube. She pulled the tube free of herself and capped it, subvocalizing a trigger word. The nacreous glimmer disappeared into the bubble of Permanence she’d salvaged from her predecessor’s study. She straightened, letting her undershift fall back into place. “Cabbage pancakes?”
“Lovely.” She heard the rings of the webwire turning. Ismal! That was his name: Cadist Ismal. She stood, and cleaned her hands, and when she opened the door he smiled up at her. He hadn’t contrived to cover his nakedness while she was out of the room. A sudden impulse tingled electric over her: to share that openness, to be simply what she seemed on the surface and not less and not, and never, more. Her gauzy undershift peeled away. Ismal’s cock twitched against his thigh, and Anell climbed astride him, to taste him once without thought of samples or studies.
Only later, in the quiet of the study in her own apartment, did she discharge the vial of semen from its waiting-space. With infinite patience, she painted a sample onto a glass slide and inserted it into the viewing-platform of the lightscope she had ordered with Countess Liel’s money. The lightscope was a fine model, better than what she’d used in school. All the better to observe and study the growth of blood vessels, the angiogenetic principles that nourished the inception of cancerous tumors. And all the better to grant the clarity of detail for which she now hoped. She bent her eye closer, drinking in the details of the tiny animalcule sleeping inside the head of each serpentine cell.
At her side, her hand found a slab of paper, a piece of charcoal. She wasn’t the first to observe and draw the germinative animalcules inside a man’s seed. But as with any field that did not serve the greater goal of abatement, studies into reproduction had fallen by the wayside. And Anell intended, after all, to do more than merely observe and draw. This way lay greatness, the kind that could not be scraped out of a lifetime’s long work tacking minutes onto the sunset days of her head of House.
With a spiderweb-slender glass wand, she transferred another minute particle of Ismal’s semen to the softly glowing, pulsing balloon that currently occupied the place of honor beside the lightscope. The sheep stomach had been rescued from the local butcher, and while an actual uterus would have been preferable, it would have been much more difficult to acquire without drawing unwanted questions. Then she unbound her predecessor’s Permanence from its bubble and wove its loose ends through the magical catch-points she had embedded in the ex vivo womb. Enhanced with all the science and psychic alchemy she could muster, it should serve its purpose: to not only convert the animalcule into a macroscopic free-living infant but also to inoculate the resulting child against the onset of death and decay. Anell’s hands did not begin to shake until she had finished the transfer, and she set the wand carefully into the decanter of sterile elixir before she could cross-contaminate her working surface.
Yes, Anell would pass someday into the After, but not this being, not the life she had made with her own hands. She would be the first to put a foot on Death’s neck; it was only that it would not be her own foot she used. The patrons of the great Houses sought to battle sacred Death on Death’s own ground, using their own bodies as fodder; the universities of Camrain did little different except to experiment on those who could not afford to say no. Even if her predecessor had solved Permanence in, well, a more permanent fashion, she had no wish to lock her being away into a waiting-space for a hundred or a thousand or an eternity of years, hoping some clever soul would snatch immortality from its secret halls in the After in that time.
According to the masters back at Kinnam Nath, her work was deviancy, a perversion of the sacred fight against the eternal nothing. “Your mysteries have been solved by every back-alley bitch in heat,” the Master of Psychic Alchemy had said, when she had presented her proposal on a new grand theory of emboitement. Let them batter themselves senseless on the gates of the After. She would pass quietly through, when it was her turn, if she could but leave this one thing behind her.
Sometimes ugly rumors were true. It occurred to her that if her career in Leth Marno ended in tatters, her fathers and grandmother might hear of it even across the sea in Camrain. Perhaps they would be disappointed. Perhaps they’d be relieved.
When Ismal called on her again, a few days later, she did not answer the door-bell. He left a flower-invitation hanging by its ribbon from the entry pediment. She forgot it there until another week had passed. By then, the thing had dissolved into rot-slick yellow petals on her pavement and a ribbon-tangled gnarl of leaves that crumbled at her touch.
As the months quickened, the ex vivo womb did not. Sample after sample of semen disappeared into the fleshy maw, and the animalcules inside only withered and died without taking hold. Anell adjusted the alchemical ratios, adding more vitality, but nothing affected the rate at which her would-be creations vanished into the After without ever truly knowing the Now.
At intervals, the Countess required updates on Anell’s above-the-board work. She did not demand minute accounting of where her money went, but she insisted on six-month reviews in which she could determine to the best of her ability Anell’s progress.
Anell produced what she was asked for: demonstrated the effects of innovative biochemical substrates to block the development of new blood vessels; showed how, in culture, a tumor would shrivel when deprived of its nutrient source. She was candid too with the project’s shortcomings. Sometimes, as she showed the Countess with a series of drawings and diagrams, a tumor could overpower the chemicals she bathed it in and find new ways to call capillaries to heel. These, too, she could find a way to halt, given more time. It was only ever a matter of time. And money, but the Countess had a far more generous supply of that.
But there were deeper pits to dig than the biannual justification of her efforts. Most Walchemians hewed far more seriously to the practice of religious devotion than was customary in Camrain or Cowak or Rumannal. Twice a year—the same frequency as the Countess’s accounting—Anell was required to subject herself to temporary Surrender.
She had no family or friends to come express their mourning before or to celebrate the reprieve of life afterward. At dawn on the required date she would present herself to the high temple on the meridian closest to her apartments. She had dressed in her best, or what must pass for finery among the rough choices of her closet. She did not hesitate to spend the Countess’s coin where duty or desire called, but pouring money into a garment she would wear but twice a year did not tug at her purse-strings.
Outside the Temple narthex, attendants greeted her solemnly as she presented them with the elaborate bouquets she must make beforehand: lilies for peace, white alpinum for eternity, pale purple anemones for regret and loss. They would adorn her tomb for her four-hour vigil, and then their petals would be crushed into a perfume by the attendants to anoint her when she emerged.
Typical for the good people of Leth Marno to enjoy a family feast afterward, or to join a friend in drinking away the sour tang of Death’s kiss. After her first few Surrenders, Anell had gone home alone and hurried through the day’s work that she’d been deprived of. Surrender was supposed to remind her to grasp hold of life with both hands, but mainly it provided her with ample and unwanted time to ruminate on the failures of her personal project. Like most other House scientists, she would serve the family well for a few decades, then crumble into ash and be forgotten.
On her fourth such effort, after nearly three years in the Countess’s service, she emerged from the suffocating darkness of her borrowed tomb to find that she was not, in fact, alone. Not even after the attendants smeared her brow with crushed and weeping petals and departed to minister to another soul brought back from its brief sojourn into the simulated void. The Countess’s son Arantha rested at the kneelers where vigilant loved ones might wait and grinned up at her when she approached. “Finally!” he said. “My legs have gone entirely numb, you know. Did you have to be dead quite so long?”
Her time in the tomb had equally benumbed Anell’s mind. The best response she could manage was, “Why are you here?”
Arantha stood and stretched with a groan. Anell might have done the same, if her patron’s eldest son weren’t in the room. Over the past year they’d exchanged polite greetings, the occasional conversation about what art troupe was displaying in the meridian plaza; they’d been seated adjacent at a few of the Remembrance holiday dinners that Anell was obliged to attend in the family home. “My mother mentioned in passing that you would be here today. I hope you’ll forgive me for inviting myself to come celebrate with you and your friends.”
Anell rested her hands on the belt of her grave robes. “Are we friends, Liel Arantha?”
“Are we not?” Arantha turned his head side to side, taking in the otherwise empty reception room with his good eye. “It seems to me you could use a friend, Anell Nath.” He smiled, not unkindly. “Likely more than just one, but I have only myself to offer.”
Walchemian society didn’t smile upon those who fraternized with rival Houses; its stance on taking up similar associations with the highest members of your own House was more opaque. Possibly more dangerous, too, whichever way she stepped. Anell thought of the waiting ex vivo womb in her study, the scrawled experimental outlines in her books, all the work yet to do. But perhaps the Countess had pushed her son here, in the hopes of a less-formal assessment of Anell’s research. Even at the bottom of a bottle of wine, she was certain she could stay her tongue about her secret work. Best give the Liels what they wanted, so that they would continue to do the same for her. “I am always at the service of House Liel. If you would like to celebrate my return, I would be honored.”
Arantha flushed. “Eternal After! This isn’t a House order. If you’d much prefer to go home, pour a pot of chocolate, and read one of Martis’s Dialogues, you mustn’t let me stop you.”
“What do you want?” The despair she was meant to have left in the tomb carried into her voice.
“What do you want?” he countered. “Shall I take my leave? Or shall I wash your hair with wine in the square?”
Again Anell’s thoughts darted to the recalcitrant womb and the nib-slashed pages of her notebooks. The looming probability that this life was all she would leave behind her, and with it, her chance to touch a moment’s fleeting pleasure. “The square,” she said, and the breathless words were crushed out of her by the weight of that terrible, enchanting chance.
Arantha washed her hair with dark red wine that smelled of old wood and tasted like smoke and vanilla. Many others danced in the square, laughing and toasting another six months of life. Sweet wine dripped from their noses and chins too, and friends kissed each other on the lips and eyes to share the vintage. Only Arantha, though, drank the wine from the hollow of Anell’s neck, and when she took the taste back from his lips, he shed his robe upon the stones and laid her back upon it.
The sun of Leth Marno bled sunset-red on Arantha’s shoulders and her breasts as he undressed her. When he penetrated her, she remembered the bubble of Permanence. Perhaps she should have cleaned it out and tried a different man’s offering, lest there were some defect in the Cadist line. Her hips rose to meet Arantha’s. Behind him, a celebrant cheered and released a spray of sparking wine over them both. The wine stung her eyes, but she had no mind for the cold.
After, they lay naked in the sunshine, sticky and empty-headed on wine fumes. The dancing had not ceased nor the music quieted; no one stared at them save Anell at herself, marveling at her own nudity. “You’ve wanted this for a while,” she said, as he lazily stroked himself.
He laughed and rocked his hips to match the motion of his hands. “Since before you arrived. I know! Foolish to romanticize the idea of this stranger, hurrying toward our doorstep with dark rumors biting at her heels. That idea shattered when you showed up, all Camrainian chill and dolor.”
His hand moved, slid between her legs, which she parted. As he explained the joys of reacquainting himself to the reality of her rather than the shade he’d conjured, his fingers slid inside and melted against the shape of her. Images of their past meetings shifted and bent under her fresh consideration as she rose to meet him, and whether she or him had curved to fit she could not say.
At thirty-four years of age, Anell made an extra journey to the great Temple of the After on the city’s central node to perform the rite of Reproductive Annihilation.
Half an inch of water stood in the street, the last gift of the dying rainy season; the air buzzed faintly with the wings of the gnats and midges that had taken advantage of the floodwaters to lay their eggs. Anell’s clogs slashed through the water and clattered on the dry temple steps that rose above street level. There, above the water line, a few supplicants suffering with waterborne flesh-rot waited in the hopes of attention from the temple physicians.
Arantha, who had accompanied her from her apartments, stood beside her as an attendant walked out from the narthex, an older woman named Mylish. Mylish was Death-touched, as most attendants of the After were, having lost or sacrificed her arm below the elbow. A common enough injury; nearly half of those here had once worked in the grain-threshers of Lesser Marno. Perhaps in some other lifetime, Arantha would have served here too, if he had been less valuable an accountant to the affairs of his House, if his brother had feared him more as a rival to inheritance. “Don’t let my mother talk you into anything you don’t want to do,” he said, as Mylish pressed a kiss to Anell’s forehead.
“This is what I want, too.” The sacrifice would bind her to Liel service for the rest of her life, or as long as she desired it. A long bargain, and in the offing all the Countess wanted was the guarantee that Anell’s attention would not be split away to the minding of offspring. That rival Anell had taken into her bed so long ago—Ismela? Oshmal?—had tried to strike a similar deal with his House and been turned away by his Count.
Anell’s position had been more firmly secured by the successful application of her research to stave off the growth of a small mass the Countess’s doctor had identified on her kidney. A further experimental use of her angiogenetic inhibitors had staved off vision decay in the Countess’s husband until his death of apoplexy last year. Anell wasn’t certain whether the securing of her services was what concerned the Countess, or whether the Countess feared that after all this time Anell would get a child and call it Arantha’s to claim an heir to the Liel name.
Arantha had asked her for such a child, of course, though she didn’t know if his mother knew about those late-night requests that sometimes slept in the bottom of a brandy-glass or under a listless starlit night. Before she could submit to the Rite, the Temple had required her to undergo ritual intercourse with an attendant, without the shield of medicine or magic to prevent pregnancy. Life and After were constantly struggling for dominion over every human existence; the After always won in the end, but she must give it the battlefield of her body first. In this, she hoped for Life to lose this one fight so that she might advance her own private war against the After.
She’d chosen Arantha for the attempt, of course, and had spent the next weeks cold and flushed, angry and melancholy by turns, counting down the days of her moon-month. She had made nearly two dozen floral arrangements by the time her blood came, elaborate and increasingly overwrought affairs that nearly collapsed under their own weight. Her fathers and grandmother had always hoped she’d take an interest in that gentleperson’s art, though likely they hadn’t expected it to be purposed toward funneling away nervous energy.
To finally see her undershift stained with blood had sent her to the bathroom to vomit in relief. Of course the rite itself meant nothing to her except as a means to secure her future. Now she could guarantee all her effort would be poured into the eternal war against the After—what else was there, when to choose otherwise was to sentence one’s entire potential lineage to permanent silence? But there were other irons still in her fire, and she looked forward to searing her hands with their heat. There was the small quiet pleasure of producing solid work on behalf of House Liel. There was Arantha. It was enough.
Mylish held her hand to guide her through the Temple, past the open nave. Inside, cleaners swept up the sand that had not clung to the fingers it whispered through during the morning’s remembrances. It would be collected, Anell supposed, and used again on the morrow. On the far side of the nave were the Temple’s care-rooms, where attendants had counseled her on what was to come, where she would undergo the procedure and recover. “It’s a challenging moment,” said Mylish, reading reluctance into Anell’s quiet. “It’s not weakness to mourn what the After takes from us.”
The After took nothing. Anell gave. “I’m ready for what comes next.”
At the door of the care-rooms, Arantha was obliged to bid her goodbye. Only the physician-attendants and their patients were permitted past that point. He kissed her on the forehead and held her hands as she stepped backward across the threshold. She turned away only when Mylish murmured to her and led her away.
While Mylish undressed her, scrubbed her body with astringent cleaners, and drew arcane marks to guide the surgeon’s blade, Anell’s mind wandered. It was a good life she had here, yet not a great one. That was enough. Wasn’t it?
They laid her down on cold clean linen sheets and bared her to the waist. The hairs on her legs prickled in the chill as the attendants sang the Rite, to bless the surgeon’s blade and to mourn the death of Anell’s line. When the priest-attendant bent over her face, to mark her with the sigil that would send her mind away from her body for the duration of the procedure, she stilled his hand with a word: “Wait.”
Mylish knelt beside her, ushering the priest aside. “It’s not too late to turn back now,” she said. Anell’s grandmother sprang to her mind, and the sharp edge of memory raised tears in her eyes. Surely her father’s mother had passed on to the After by now. “Many do. It’s no shame.”
“It’s not that.” Her eyes flicked to her folded robes, which lay on a shelf beside the door. “It’s silly, perhaps, a bit strange.”
“If we could ease your passage through the Rite...”
The words almost stuck to Anell’s dry tongue, but she forced them past her lips. “It sounds petty to call it a souvenir. But if I could keep an ovary with me, as... let us say, as a remembrance. Of what I have given up. And of... and of...” She struggled, briefly, with the words: trying to turn them just the right way so that they meant something to the attendants and still held true for her. The thought of lying to Arantha cut her across the grain, in parts of her soul that were too tender to bear it, and she was glad he was not there to hear her. “Of what may yet lie ahead for me.”
Mylish squeezed her hand. “I think we can honor this request. Unusual though it is.”
Anell directed Mylish to the clothing pile, where she produced the little pocket of Permanence. Long dormant these past years, cleaned and bereft of whatever specimens it had once held; though Anell had never yet managed to throw it away. This time when the priest advanced, she did not stay his hand.
It was Arantha who pressed the bauble back into her hands, afterward. She did not recognize it for what it was, at first, her senses still benumbed as they were by the dull haze of laudanum that smogged the air in her lungs. “I hope,” said Arantha, as his fingers left hers, “that this choice will lead you to ever greater victories in the endless battle, if that is what you want.”
Anell studied the whitish organ, still stuck about with fragments of clear membrane. It was smaller than she would have thought; no bigger than a walnut. “I am ready to do great things.”
The fragment of Permanence endured while Anell recovered enough to be returned to her own apartments. Arantha visited her, during her convalescence and after, bringing her a dessert from the ice-fruit vendor on her meridian or an extravagant floral arrangement. Anell sometimes attempted to return these gestures, but she had not the fine eye for the gentleperson’s art, nor the peculiar patience for it. Some weeks after the Temple physicians had permitted her the full range of her former activities, Arantha brought her perfume of olibanum, with which they anointed one another before an evening’s gentle love.
“You’d be welcome in the family home, if you wanted to move your sleeping quarters,” Arantha said, as he combed the sweet citrus scent into her hair. Her breath slowed, but he did not offend her by asking next for her to consider upmarriage. She’d never made a secret of her disdain for the popular representation in market-dramas and songs of the destitute foreigner, saved from a lifetime’s empty drudgery by a wealthy benefactor. She would offer him the equality of lovers, not more and not less.
She turned her face to kiss his mouth. “This is home enough for me. But let me be a frequent visitor in the lovely country of your company.” The braid and comb slipped from his hand. Her hair, long and unbound, fell all around them like curtains of silk.
That night when he had gone, she opened the ovary-case for the first time, parting the fragile strands of magic that had held the thing closed. In her study at home, Anell cut into the cold organ, and, under a magnifying glass, excised tiny fragments to examine under her lightscope.
When at last she put her eye to the lens, she stifled a cry—of alarm and exaltation. The previous studies of female reproductive cells had left behind drawings of vast, indolent spheres: nothing exciting compared to the vibrant life contained in spermatozoa. But here, under Anell’s lightscope, she could make out the faint lines of a tiny form contained at the heart of the ovum. She changed the focus and increased the light output by only a fraction, in case too much more heat would desiccate and destroy the slide’s contents before she could fully observe it.
Yes: it was unmistakable. Anell’s hand shook as she drew what she saw. In the ovum there slept an animalcule, the equivalent to what dwelt inside spermatozoa. As Anell watched, its tiny fists clenched and loosened, its mouth puckered silently, its legs idly flexed. It was dwarfed by the ovum around it; small wonder that earlier scientists had missed it with their more primitive lightscopes, before the reproductive arts had been dismissed in favor of further advances in the delay of death.
The vast ovum must be the answer to why the spermatozoon’s animalcule had failed to thrive: the spermatozoon was simply not equipped with the resources to endure implantation into her artificial womb. The existence of that lesser animalcule was likely an evolutionary relic, both necessary and useless in the same way as nipples without mammary tissue behind them.
Anell swept aside the lightscope and its pinned slide, where the animalcule’s fitful twitching had slowed—perhaps she had overstimulated it with the light after all. She withdrew a fresh sample from the flayed ovary and without hesitation deposited it into the artificial womb. This time, she was certain, the conception would take hold. She would show the masters of the Hollow Universities her work, when she had something worth showing. An immortal child, forged in the ex vivo womb sewn through with every thread of Permanence that Anell had ever mastered. Anell would die, but through her creation and its future siblings, her work would live forever.
In answer to her offering of the living ovum, the womb swelled, suffused with a sudden scarlet warmth. Anell touched it briefly, then rose and left her office, closing the doors behind her.
The womb produced a living thing, but only just.
The child that emerged when the wet leathery flaps of the ex vivo womb peeled back had a pulse. It breathed and opened its eyes, and when Anell put a bottle of milk to its lips, it drank. Its eyes were her eyes, in miniature; the same amber-brown color, the same soft round curve of cheek and line of nose. But the creature did not move, nor reach out for her, nor react in any way except to sit or lie where it was placed. It was the size of an infant but lacked the appearance of one; it looked like an adult in miniature, though with a smooth unlined face and only the barest fuzz of hair upon its head. If she spoke to it, it did not answer or make any indication of awareness, neither with the language of an adult nor an infant’s gurgles. It existed, and that was all.
Anell could not draw diagrams of such a thing and submit them to the Great Journals for her peers to dissect its meaning and fate, but then neither could she bear to destroy it and start again. It was alive, and it was hers, and she still hoped that it might grow into the faculties of a sentient being. So she fed it, and dressed it in doll’s clothes, and watched it grow. While she worked or ate or dressed, she did not need to fear for its well-being, for it only slept or stared vacantly at the wall beside its cot. If she left a bottle of nutrient broth beside it, so that its lips just brushed against the nipple, the bottle would be half-empty by the time she came home. And the child-thing grew, in size if not intelligence, so it must be drawing the nutrition it needed. If Anell’s calculations in creating the ex vivo womb were correct, it would live forever, given water and air and food, without ever grasping what forever meant.
She feared now, as she never had before, that when Arantha spent the night in her bed, when he sprawled beside her table as she served riceleaves and tea, he might seek to learn what lay behind her office doors. A son of Liel would not, she thought, take kindly to the kinds of experiments that occupied her time; especially not the kind soul who had helped bear her the Rite of Annihilation. To lose him might be a mortal blow, but to surrender her research at such a tender and potential stage surely would be.
She would force the duality of the situation into a tenable middle ground. She only needed more time.
Later that month, after holding vigil during Arantha’s Surrender, she begged off on account of overworked exhaustion and retired to her home without him. If Arantha was disappointed, his gentle kiss did not show it, and he went off with his friends from the temple to celebrate the continuation of life while she went home. But she did not fall early into her unmade bed; only paused to consider it. The petals of roses, remnants of a never-finished arrangement, curled black at the edges where they lay strewn about the sheets. Anell turned her back and retreated into her office for another night’s work. Her weariness had been an excuse but not a fabrication; each time Arantha was absent from her bed she spent a sleepless night behind her lightscope.
Twice more she had tried to incubate an ovum, and twice more she had failed to produce a sentient being. These secondary creations she destroyed, which was more of a kindness to them than the half-life she had granted their eldest sibling, who still lay lifelessly beside her as she worked. There must be some fundamental principle she had missed or mistaken in building the womb or in understanding the needs of the animalcule. She sat back down before her lightscope and rubbed her thumbs in her burning eyes.
Once again, the ovum she placed on the slide contained a perfect human being in miniature. If Anell had still cared to draw her observations, she could have limned tiny nostrils, fingers, even the dark frail bones of the spine and ribcage where the light pierced through the delicate flesh. And yet even in the bright glare of the lightscope, the spark of vitality still lay hidden somewhere Anell could not find it.
She sat back to clear her eyes with a blink, and dull colored shapes danced in the darkness behind her lids. Amid their mad dance, inspiration glittered: perhaps she had missed something in the magichemical trigger with which she’d initiated the implantation. She had issued commands to grow, to engorge with angiogenetic tendrils, to increase and multiply along nature’s intended design.
If she were to observe the original process fully, perhaps she would be able to glean some information about what was lacking.
That, however, would require an additional sample.
At this hour the outside of the Liel estate was dark but for the low braziers of incense burning in the courtyard. Anell ducked her head as she stepped under the great arches. Two servants looked up from their act of love in the shelter of the blacklace tree; they watched Anell pass by, but no questions nor offers of assistance left their swollen lips. Anell knew where Arantha’s room was, had visited it often enough. She entered the foyer, where golden candlelight spilled down the stairs in fits and starts to show her the way.
Anell found the Countess before she found her son. Liel’s head of House reclined in a shared salon through which Anell was obliged to pass to reach the sleeping quarters. When Anell tried to stroll through, robes pulled taut across her shoulders, the Countess called out to her to wait. “I meant to send for you to meet with me tomorrow, but as you are here now, let us talk.”
Trembling legs brought Anell closer to the Countess as the old woman set aside her reading. No need to kneel before her patron after the many years of their association, but she sat on a stool opposite her so that they would be eye-to-eye. “Nath Anell,” said the Countess. Not once had she ever called Anell by the Camrainian custom. “I saw you briefly after my son’s Resurrection this afternoon. Have you been at work all the while since?”
“I have,” said Anell, sidestepping the matter of what exactly she was working on. “Your Grace, I hope you will not begrudge me the time I took to be present for his return to us. I underwent the Rite to show you that I will serve you above all else, but I won’t turn my back on all other ties.” Of course she had already forsworn her vow to put House Liel’s interests first but did not say so. “I am a scientist, not an automaton, and if I do not live I can’t create.”
The Countess raised one hand to still Anell’s tongue. “I did not mean to rebuke you. Or if I did, it is for the opposite of what you presume.” Liver-spotted hands drifted over the cover of her book: a religious text Anell did not recognize. “You should feel welcome to celebrate the joys of this House. You have served me aptly enough these past years. And I hope you will serve my son Temat the same way.”
A question bubbled inside Anell, then burst under the weight of its callousness. Carefully she stumbled through a less invasive alternate. “Your Grace, do you mean to abdicate soon on Temat’s behalf?”
“I met with the Lord Physician today.” Time had not dulled the piercing luster of the Countess’s eyes. “He has given me my sentence. A few months, perhaps three to six, he thinks.”
“Does not trouble me. My heart, however...” The Countess shrugged. “I never expected to see true Victory. You will of course devote yourself in the interim to researching cardiac disease, and reaching out to friendly colleagues who have spent more time working on the same. But I know the time frame is not a kind one. When I worsen, I will go down to the Temple and ease myself into the After, as all those who have fought a long and valiant fight ought to do.” A small smile touched her lips. “My son wanted to upmarry you into the family. To make you a gentleperson and ease your life of work and worry.”
“I never wanted that.”
“I know.” The Countess leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “I’m glad that you have found what you want, and found it here with House Liel. Go, take your leave. I must rest a spell before I finish my reading for the night.”
Anell fled. Arantha had not yet returned, so she knelt on his soft mattress to wait. When he stumbled in some hours later he cried out in wordless surprise at the sight of her. His breath was humid with wine as he undressed her and covered her mouth with his. She rose to his touch but had no patience for his gentleness tonight. When his body was ready, hers was not, but she thrust herself astride him and drove relentlessly against the cradle of his hips.
Her pleasure did not come to her, but his did to him, and she waited scarcely till his thrusting had stilled before pulling away and making the same old weatherworn excuses. Arantha clung to her hand a moment longer, and then she was off and away into the hall with her name dying on his tongue. She paused only a moment in the stiff shadow of a garden pillar to deposit the formless mass collecting on her undergarments into the orb of Permanence. Then she let the night carry her homeward.
Her creation watched, expressionless and still as ever, as she worked. Trembling hands assembled a fresh slide: a single ovum and its soft sleeping animalcule, a swiftly-painted sample of Arantha’s semen. The lightscope bruised the bony sockets of her eyes as she observed, and in the twisting of her fingers she broke her pen. Rather than miss a moment of what unwound before her, she let the hungry folds of her robes blot up the black ink.
The spermatozoa seemed to be aware of the ovum’s presence, and they oriented toward it as if the animalcules they contained could direct them by those tiny tight-shuttered eyes. She reconsidered her earlier hypothesis, that the spermatocyte’s animalcule was an evolutionary dead end. It must serve some purpose in navigating toward the ovum, even if not truly by sight, though what goal that might yet serve evaded her imagination. Whatever the cause, in their hordes the spermatozoa battered at the ovum’s cold hard moon of a surface. Anell marveled that the ovum’s animalcule could sleep through such a barrage.
Then, at last, one spermatozoon pierced through into the ovum’s cytoplasm. Eternal After! Perhaps it was this moment that fully quickened the ovum’s animalcule, the brief rupture of the cell membrane. The change in equilibrium. Perhaps—Anell caught her breath.
The ovum’s animalcule had opened its eyes.
And now, yes, now it moved, too, short jerking strokes of arms and legs. Reaching, pulling; a sort of primitive swimming stroke. Anell muffled her cry of triumph with her clenched fists. At last the mysteries of Life unraveled before her eyes. Now she could mend those fraying strands, loop them around themselves to create a new kind of pattern: one that need never know the pain of an ending.
A flicker of movement at the corner of the slide asserted itself into her attention. An odd development: the male animalcule, too, was on the move. The head of the spermatozoon had dissolved around it, so that it could swim freely in the cytoplasm. It oriented itself toward its counterpart and lurched toward it under the power of spasmodic kicks.
What would happen when they reached one another? Perhaps they would merge into a single animalcule—lightning crawled up and down the length of Anell’s spine. But of course; if the animalcules integrated into one another, that might explain the mixing of parental traits observed in offspring and would neatly parallel the adsorption of the spermatozoon into the egg.
Anell’s hands were shaking again. She pressed them into her ink-stained knees as the animalcules reached one another, and the ovum’s animalcule opened its mouth to tear a hunk of flesh away from the spermatozoon animalcule’s shoulder.
Anell wasn’t squeamish, but she would have screamed if she’d had breath left in her body. The sight drove all the air out of the room, rewrote elegant biological hypotheses with cold cruel data. The spermatozoon animalcule clawed for its counterpart now, and rent a long tear in the ovum animalcule’s torso. But too late; now its gaping maw slashed through only cytoplasm. The ovum animalcule had maneuvered behind it. When the ovum animalcule bit down, it tore into translucent skull. The spermatozoon animalcule spasmed, then stilled, as the ovum animalcule consumed it: cranium first, then moving slowly downward through the soft flexible spinal cord, the diaphanous viscera. Anell gagged. She had desired this, she had initiated it. She would witness it through to its end.
She shoved back from the lightscope. Arantha stood in her office doorway, one bare foot just breaching the sanctity of this space. “You shouldn’t be in here,” she said, but her gaze wavered: from him to the lightscope’s eyepiece.
“Is this what’s been occupying you day in and day out? Anell, whatever my mother may demand of you, losing your life to only work is a sort of death in itself. Eternal After! Don’t make me argue theology, it makes me sound like my brother and no one wants that.” He edged forward, as one might walk toward a wild animal in a trap.
Anell realized she was still holding the broken pieces of her pen and let them fall to the floor. Now Arantha moved in close, draped her shoulders with one solicitous arm. His body was warm against hers, wicking away the cold burn in her muscles. “Come away from here. Lie down and take your rest, and—what is that?”
She looked. In its pillow-stuffed box on her desk, her creation lay silent and still as the faraway moon. Arantha drew away from it and pulled Anell with him. Her feet tangled and she nearly brought the two of them down together but for Arantha’s swift recovery.
“Anell,” he said, his voice small now, “it looks just like you.”
“I made it,” she said, and could offer no other explanation, nothing that could possibly satisfy the man who loved her not in spite of her choice to violate the Rite but because he had been spared an awareness of it. Nor could she satisfy herself, not with the afterbirth of her own understanding still pulsating fresh and too hot. Her creation would be immortal and lifeless without the violence of its conception to thrust it forward into sentience. Too late for this half-being to battle for its life against its counterpart. And if her laboratory were lost to the anger of House Liel, she might never see the creation of another. She wanted Arantha to love it, this awful lifeless thing, when she could not even stir her own heart to such an affection. “I made it.”
Against her, Arantha went still. Then the hard lines of muscle softened into swift-flowing purpose. He urged her out the door and down the stairs to the little galley kitchen; he settled her in a chair and put the kettle on. On the kitchen table were the viridescent entrails of an unfinished bouquet. She picked up a pair of hand shears and a fistful of lavender.
“I’ll take care of this,” Arantha said. He knelt before her, and put his hands on her knees. “Anell. Are you listening?”
Anell looked down at him. She tried to imagine a reason he might ignore such a breach, a way their life might continue uninterrupted. No. More than that. A path around life’s cruel and inflexible rules. “You’re going to try to destroy it.”
“I’m sure that Temat would entrust me to do so. I may never be head of House, but at least—” His fingers knotted into her wrinkled skirts. “I can take care of this, Anell.”
All things ended in destruction, given enough time. If she could have, Anell would have chosen to keep them all: her work, her passion, her love, her House. But she could not have them all. Perhaps could not have any, but then, yes, perhaps this one thing. She made her choice and bent to press a parting kiss to his temple.
“Wait here. I’ll be back in a moment.” With that, he broke away.
She turned the shears to trim the lavender to size as his footsteps fell too heavy on the stairs over her head. On its own lavender meant healing; in combination with olibanum it meant regret. She would have to get some olibanum before she could be finished.
The kettle sings out, shocking in the sudden noise—the upstairs has fallen silent. Anell sets aside a last sprig of lavender and rises to remove the kettle from the flame. For a moment her hand lingers over the gas valve; then she closes it, and the blue flame smothers in its cradle.
Her feet find the stairs. She lurches upward, knowing what she will see and dreading it all the same. The choice is made, the sacrifice paid. It is not her eyes that will drink down that cost but her heart.
Her creation sits cross-legged on the office floor. Blood, drying dark and scarlet-fresh, paints her mouth and cheeks and she chews, chews, chews. Her once-sunken belly now strains against the gore-streaked doll’s chemise that covers it. By her side lies the pillow of her cradle, torn and shredded, and on the floor sleeps Arantha in endless Surrender. Not an easy Surrender, nor a gentle one. Not what he deserved at the end of his days, sung sweetly into that final rest by the ministrations and medicines of beautiful young temple attendants. His good eye is gone and his glass eye shattered; deep gouges mar the bare skull where it shines through ruined flesh. The skin of his left arm hangs in ribbons from the bare, marrow-sucked bone. A sob rises in Anell’s throat, but she strangles it when her creation shivers and turns toward her. One eye hazel-green, the other milky and dull. Arantha’s eyes.
“It’s all right,” Anell says. She holds out her hand, and the creature studies it. When this overture provokes no further reaction, she draws nearer and kneels beside the creature. She combs her fingers through the soft fine hair. The creature leans into the contact, presses hard against Anell’s palm. It would be very easy to grasp that head with both hands, to twist sharply. To unmake her work.
Anell’s hand cups the creature’s cheek. No, no, this is not right. She will have to stop calling her “creature” or “creation” and give her a proper name. “It’s all right,” she says again, and she is already composing abstracts, penning imaginary proposals, to build from scratch a world where it will be.