No Pearls as Blue as These

Issue #232

When she comes we scatter coins before her, every disc polished, some so new they are still warm from the making. She walks bare-footed but does not seem hurt or troubled by this gleaming path. I catch her smiling from the corner of her mouth as she treads on these symbols of wealth, the luster and hard glint of Tarangkaya’s prosperity.

She is robed tightly, cerise brocade and propolis sash. Her scalp, shaven in the fashion of her country, is painted in red ink with the calligraphy—again her country’s—signaling luck, fertility, a hundred children.

I am similarly patterned, from the back of my head to my brow, my bare shoulders and my arms, as my skin makes for good canvas. In retrospect perhaps I should not have been there, a foreign and startling sight to the foreign and startling bride. But the household’s bulwark must preside, like a pillar or statue. I even gleam like one, mostly celadon and the odd tracery in umber and old ivory, the shades of my skin back when I was still mostly skin.

The bride glances at me once before she curtsies to my house-lord, proper and correct: she dips just so, the brilliant sash unfurling on the ground like abacus beads, and kisses the hand of Samonten Tarangkaya. They enter each other’s arms and hand in hand go into the house.

I hear that on the western continent, those like me are created en masse, roughly and madly. Their mothers die screaming in the act of childbirth, cut open and the weapon-child carved out like the pit of a nectarine. The infant comes out with flesh of rough stone or clay, brittle and uncomely. The result is inferior—they are the infantry of their nations, prone to short and brutal lives, someone else’s currency to spend.

In the bride’s country, there are no children created like me at all.

I’m watching the kitchen, where they cut fruits and tremulous pastries with a razor thread as though everything is a throat in urgent need of being garroted. I taste one dish, and another, confectionery and savory in no particular order. Nothing tastes like anything—peaches and oranges distinguished by texture rather than tartness, smoked pork in honey and jasmine rice differing in size and shape rather than piquancy. I could still taste, and enjoy, just five years ago. But as I come into my power, the inessential functions slough off. My sense of smell is fine. Taste is gone entirely.

What I retain is a palate for poisons and toxins, small malaises that can be baked—soil and fertilizer—into the growing of pepper flowers or chili fruits. These are the only things which make impression on my tongue. Sour, hot, sweet, even gingery; the world of poisons is possessed of infinite variety. I once asked the chef to make me a meal entirely of toxic things, cursed bean sprouts and vividly green poison-frogs, but the idea distressed him, and in any case his pride forbade him to cook something he couldn’t taste. In the end I came to an agreement with Samonten’s chemist, who concocts the most interesting cocktails and condiments.

On a tray of sanded wood and bronze lips, I put the plates I have tasted and verified, and I bring them to the dining hall. This is not proper precisely, but the household’s bulwark does what she wants. Unlike the servants, I cover the hall in steady strides, the weight of tray and plates light in hand. They did have to teach me how to balance it right, especially the tiered stand where each layer of bowls brim with condiment and shark-fin soup.

Samonten’s guests, especially innumerable today, watch as I pass their tables by. There is a competition among them to get me to serve them too, this being their one line of contact with the Tarangkaya bulwark. Some are artless, sending gifts. Others more guileful, positioning themselves where I walk or requesting certain drinks they believe I exclusively handle. I serve only Samonten and today also her bride, at the table they have to themselves.

Up close I see that the angle of the bride’s eyes has been sharpened by a line of ink; a lavender blush radiates on her cheekbones and her lips are rouged white, save for the midpoint where it is crimson as coins. Her name is Yut, which in her language means moon.

When I set out her food and Samonten’s, Yut vacates her seat and gets to her knees in obeisance. The lord and I share a look, her amused, me embarrassed. What has Yut heard about the thorn, when she has been sent to wed the rose? Samonten puts one hand on her bride’s shoulder. “Yut, my love, get back up. We’ll introduce you later. Not now.”

The bride makes mortified apologies under her breath. Around us the guests and relatives lean forward, avid. It is no secret that Samonten’s retainers and trade partners would rather she had accepted one of their own, if not as first wife then second or even third, and here a foreign girl comes along to claim the prize.

I take my place by their side, sipping tea that tastes like nothing, not even rain. Taste is a visceral thing, a breed of information the human mind does not easily retain the way it retains numbers or names, or even the syntax of foreign tongues. I understand in the abstract when others say tea is bitter. But I no longer recall what type of bitter precisely—the bitterness of arsenic, or charred wood, or quicksilver? So it goes with all the others.

Once or twice I catch Yut studying me, hypnotized in the way of a mouse before a leopard. I finish my tea.

A proper introduction then, in the library where past house-lords and bulwarks gaze down on us, an assembly of portraits and busts. Oil and anglerfish ink, jade and ivory, at least a hundred different materials to commemorate much more than a hundred years of history. We sit like so: the newlyweds on one side, myself on the other, separated by a sliver of table.

Yut keeps her gaze down. I am not the first bulwark she has seen. Two or three escorted her from the port, but they were in their prime, fully arrived at their endpoint—immense, like mountains in motion. I am still human in scale if not much else.

“Go on,” Samonten is saying to her bride. “Ask. Bidaten will not bite. She has been my companion since we were very young.”

“I don’t—” Yut begins, quickly stops.

To Samonten I say, “Perhaps discussing my nature in front of you seems inappropriate to her. Perhaps she’s not that curious, my lord.”

“She is very interested in bulwarks. When we met back at the Coral Garden that was all she’d talk about. Why, if your hand were available, Bidaten. Can you take her to the wall tomorrow?”

“Of course,” I say over the bride’s protests—I wanted you, my lord; as for the wall I don’t want to impose—and arrange a time. Once a week I visit the wall; it may as well be tomorrow. We agree, or at least I say and she doesn’t disagree, on two hours past noon. She’ll need the morning to get familiar with the household, with Samonten.

Theirs was an unexpected courtship. There is advantage in it, but that was more serendipity than calculation. There were more convenient picks at home, with greater prestige and dowries; Yut’s foreignness is an unnecessary hindrance. But Samonten wanted, and was wanted in turn. I never thought she would be drawn to someone like Yut, nearly ten years younger and timid, built like a stage mannequin. Slender limbs and narrow waist when Samonten usually prefers women broader, more solid. A first for everything.

Most of the night I spend patrolling the estate. I still need sleep but less and less of it. The labyrinth that cups the Tarangkaya land in its palm extends on, seemingly without end to the naked eye. It curves back upon itself; a visitor crosses a bridge into the fourth gate only to find themselves back at the entrance. They might enter a pavilion of basalt teeth and chalcedony chairs and find themselves exiting a pagoda of bronze banners and silver tiles. Without guidance from the house-lord, bulwark, or (sometimes) the designated heir, navigating the land is a futile matter.

I check each defense post, passing my hand over the bells and the beetles to ensure they are awake and alert. I climb up the roof, breathing in the smell of autumn, damp and floral and coppery. The roofs are turning blue and the canopies of eyes and ears have extended their branches, preparing to blossom and fruit for the winter. Few animals inhabit our land; most fall prey to the needlebirds with their taste for fresh meat, their tendency to attack in flocks.

More than Samonten’s, the labyrinth has been my domain since I could walk and comprehend, and she cedes it to me as such. It will remain mine until I leave, though that may or may not be in her lifetime. The stages of a bulwark’s life resist exact forecasts. Samonten and I are peers in age, but in growth physical and intellectual I’ve been developing much faster since I was three.

Yut’s retinue stays elsewhere in the city, will remain here a week before they depart for their island home. Her family, I think, chooses to linger in case she quarrels with my lord early and the matter proves irreconcilable. After that, Yut will be on her own. In a way, I’m glad I could never have been sent abroad. Samonten is the only one of our house I genuinely love, but I wouldn’t want to adapt to another household, one in which I’d be always the lesser, the stranger.

Come noon I perform my routine at lunch preparation. One of the noodle dishes tastes sweet-sour, radiant to my palate. The chef and I isolate the poison down to the oyster sauce. I ask for the whole bottle; he is offended but accedes and goes off to chase down the supplier. And then to scorch, if not discard, every last utensil that came into contact with the sauce. His labor is demanding, and Samonten treats him better than most of her cousins.

Yut is pink-cheeked when I see her again, animated. When she says my lord’s name it is in a whisper, a change of pitch, a certain heft. As she climbs onto the elephant, she asks whether I’ve ever fallen in love, perhaps an inquiry as to the psychology of bulwarks. Adjusting her buckles and securing her to the seat, I say, “Not exactly.”

“Not exactly! Surely the answer must be absolute.”

“I’ve had my share of lovers. The first made a mark, for a while.” A magistrate who seduced me for novelty, curious what sleeping with a bulwark would feel like. Dead since, of a natural cause: assassination. “But I wouldn’t say I have ever given my heart to anyone. And to be sure, they do say we don’t have hearts. Not the sentimental organ, at any rate, merely the cardiac one.”

We pass the temple where Samonten and Yut will visit in several days to make their nuptial offerings. Like most of our city it is a composite of plant, fabric, glass; wooden boughs and chiffon leaves, delicately blown shells. A flock of needlebirds and two bulwarks for defense. I know neither intimately. Bulwarks are never raised together unless they are adopted into the same household, or in this case, the same house of worship. Like me they are human-sized and, perhaps from familial proximity, they look very alike: verdant skin striated in silver, deep-set eyes fringed with petal lashes. Yut gives them the same glance she gave me on arrival, albeit briefer. Losing interest, or—hopefully—more interested in Samonten now.

We disembark from the elephant. She keeps pace with me as we scale the wall, up its sheer white steps. She does get winded halfway, but I’ll be fair: it is a great deal of height and the stairs are steep. There are no lifts or pulleys to bring us to the top, a matter of security. Laborer or magistrate, we all climb.

At the summit, unsheltered from autumn sun, she looks down on the bulwarks who range our city wall. Her breath hitches, audibly. Below us, my future: the bulwarks from the city’s foremost houses and temples, commanders of our matchless army. Bipedal or pronograde according to their inclination, earthbound or airborne. Our mature shapes are deeply individual, smelted from long lifetimes. Beasts that exist and beasts that never will, conjoined to human elegance.

“A friend of mine,” I say, gesturing to a six-limbed bulwark: humanoid from the waist up, leonine from the waist down, plated flesh and snakeskin mane. The other gate-guard is tower-tall, acute angles all over, four prismatic eyes and six glass hearts arrayed along her collarbones . Decorative; at that stage our heart disappears entirely and our brain becomes our sole vital organ. I catch their gazes and bow to them. They acknowledge with seismic nods.

Yut exhales. “They are so beautiful. Not that you aren’t.”

Normally I’m indifferent to flattery—bulwarks are beautiful by definition—but she is earnest and artless. I half-smile; she colors brighter, though that’s mostly exertion. “I’m a long way from what they are. There’s no comparison.”

“Oh, but you’re already so...” She stops herself. “What will you look like, when the time comes?”

“I’m not sure yet. Some of us develop it over years, sketching, sculpting. Watercolor or charcoal or nielloware. Tattoos.” An understandable preoccupation. One wants to be one’s best self at the final stage.

“Not you.”

“Not really.”

She glances at me sidelong. “What if you wanted to dedicate yourself to some other pursuit? Making beautiful pots and cups. Building stunning houses. Priesthood and the glory of prayer.”

Desertion is a solemn sin. I would be executed and my house dishonored. “I don’t see the appeal, not particularly.” Most bulwarks don’t think much of prayer, even though—or because—our grown forms inspire comparison to apotheosis.

“You say that a lot,” Yut murmurs. “Do you have to be so ambivalent?”

Toward her specifically, or in general. I suppose I’m prone to evasion, not that anyone else but Samonten would say it to my face. On the way down Yut is quiet, thoughtful. Her sweat has the scent of fresh baking, a hint of pepper.

An entire week passes before someone tries to kill Yut.

She is on her way to a cloister where icons from her native land are housed, the gods of braided rice and dried roses, deities who hold sway over fishing and pearl-diving. The lane toward it is narrow, lined with vendors who drape their stalls in variegated tarp and chittering, darting lizards. She insists I must try the plum pastry and the toasted tortoise. Able to taste or not I still have to eat, so I oblige. The textures are interesting, if nothing else, the aromas quite pleasant. As an aside, I let her know these are safe for her consumption. It is around then that the first shot comes, ricocheting precisely toward Yut’s head, a phalanx of comet arrowheads veering exactly for her heart.

I deflect them without much effort and look for their source. A balcony, high up. Yut has exhaled a conjuration of shadows, inky blots that unfold tattered and owlish; that surprises me—she is not panicking, not even distraught.

The shadows come with me as I give chase, flitting where I point, tangling in the assassin’s limbs. They cut the way razor threads cut fruit or tender meat. Straight through fat, muscle, bone.

When I’ve dispatched the assassin (human necks are easy to wring), I check for marks that’d reveal their allegiance and credentials; finding none, I behead them. Samonten will be able to dissect the brain and skull and get answers.

“You’re very calm about this.” Back in the carriage—temple trip aborted—I wrap the head in a bag. Sopping the blood up is a logistical problem and I don’t want any of it on the upholstery.

Yut blinks, undisturbed by the arterial reek. “When I was very young I ventured outside our walls, thinking to dive for wild pearls. The ones we cultivate are white, the wild ones blue, and I fancied the latter terribly.” She holds up her hands. There are silver lines there, old lacerations. “My family had me schooled after for self-defense. Besides, I used to be sickly, and learning the shadow steadied my health.”

“You don’t have bulwarks. What defends your wall, shadows like yours?” The seas are less infested than the land, but they have their share. The world itself is made of monsters, everywhere. Ocean or prairie, barren waste or bounteous earth. Walls alone keep us safe. Walls and soldiers, in whatever form they take.

“Not precisely.” Her mouth pulls into that half-smile, the one I saw when she first arrived, and her tone mimics mine. Noncommittal. “It’s something of a state secret.”

Once more I’ve misjudged my lord’s bride. Over and over I’ve allowed her surface to distract me. Whether what is underneath is a danger to Samonten remains to be seen.

When I bring it up, my lord knows that Yut is not defenseless. Yes, the island families train their scions in conjuring. No, Yut is not dangerous to her; Samonten trusts my judgment but she has never thought Yut an artless ingénue, for what interest would she have in such a creature? Yes, I can shadow Yut if I wish, am I not already doing that in any case? I escort them to plays and flower-viewing, to markets and museums. No further incident occurs. Poisoned items in the kitchen become no more or less frequent. The chef is as harried as ever.

When Yut gives me gifts from her trousseau, I have them checked by our chemist, then priests. But they are clean, just jewelry. Strings of pearls threaded loosely, filigreed in steel. Earrings, also pearled. Each bead is perfectly round and deeply blue. Out of courtesy I put them on and they look as though they were grown for me, matched to my celadon coloring. It delights Yut inordinately to see me decorated. When I ask whether she fetched those pearls herself from the deep, she laughs. “Perhaps.”

On we continue this way, me quietly cautious, the two of them perfectly harmonious. Perhaps I have been paranoid. One month pupates into three, the way months tend to in their promiscuity. My time to range beyond the wall comes.

I thought Yut would be glad to see me gone, a respite from my vigilance. Instead she fusses over my departure and sends along one of her owls to see me off. The shadow bird is surprisingly soft, weightless on my shoulder and affectionate, nudging my chin with its burred head. It dissipates before we reach the gate, the limit of Yut’s sending.

There are a dozen of us, bulwarks drawn from households and magistrates’ courts, at the same stage of life as I am. We know each other in passing. We know our duty much better. On foot we leave. No beast of burden is fleeter or more enduring than we are, and most would spook at the sight and smell of the parasites. The alloyed gate lifts quickly, drops behind us just as quick. No one wants it to stand open longer than necessary. Twice a month our scouting party ventures forth to check whether parasites have come to nest in proximity to our gates and, if we can, dispatch them early.

The land spreads green and sunlit: a room without a roof. Some primal part of me always wants to roll in the brilliant grass and get dirt under my nails, to have flowers bleed onto my scalp and stain it gold. The sky is very clear, as if it weren’t an interplay of light and water and air but an immeasurable pane of glass. Even the quality of the air is different from within the walls, pure and varnished by the distant sea. As a child I wanted to run out here, not on a patrol-path but a course of my own forging. Children’s fantasies are so simple.

We do a circuit around the city, pacing ourselves at first, conserving stamina. None of us speaks, saving our breath for reconnaissance. Our path widens little by little. Parasite nests can be easy to miss, even for us. They begin life so small. Become so hard to defeat.

Half a day’s run from the wall, we locate the corpse of a full-grown parasite.

Like any of them, it used to be one of us, the size of a house. A nielloware head and a short, sturdy neck; in parasitic corruption the skin has grown brittle with minerals, drawn up from the earth perhaps, and from the eye sockets loll a string of tongues. The shoulders are cantilevered with blades.

The court bulwark beside me recoils, his brushstroke-skin blanching gray; he knew this one in life. The rest of us set to work, hacking the forearms and thighs apart, puncturing every knot of flesh and fat, every writhing tumor until we find the parasite. It has a hound’s shape, blind and bloated from months inside the bulwark, muscles in frayed atrophy.

We build a vast, hot fire and feed it the host, the parasite, the young it spawned within the bulwark’s belly. A revolting syncretism, a ghastly consummation. Some of the young scramble to escape, tiny tumors with legs. I gather them up to throw them back into the flames.

I watch the grass brown and wilt. Hosted parasites eat humans but not non-mature bulwarks. Young parasites in search of a host infest mature bulwarks but not us. We are an exact balance between, and this our perfect task, to hunt and butcher and burn. I hear that, for a time after infestation, the bulwark remains aware. Conscious of what’s happening to them, cognizant of who they used to be. It doesn’t last. They become a vehicle, a puppet. There is no cure, no reversal.

Inevitably the parasites come, drawn by the scent of their own dead, their footfalls like earthquakes. Some of them move too fast, scampering on all four or six. Others crawl too slow, on shuffling disobedient feet. By unspoken agreement we stay to make a count. They move in packs, or not. There is no exact order to their behavior save in their habits of consumption and infestation.

Three this time, loping toward us on hands and feet, talons and tails converted to another set of limbs. One I recognize as a former commander, our city’s best in her generation. Limbs like spears, a gaze that knows no fear. Not then and not now. This is how we all end if we fall in combat, and more of us fall in combat than not. Until then, we keep our lords and our city safe as long as we can. Our ultimate future, our inexorable destiny.

There is no room for sentiment or even personal honor. It would be brave to stand our ground and fight and then fall, but our first duty is to report. We turn back to the safety of the walls.

On Yut’s insistence, Samonten holds a small feast to celebrate my return. Patently ridiculous; I join the scouting contingent every few months, the matter as routine as the chef ordering grocery.

It also appears that Yut has had a long, persuasive talk with the chef. Instead of tea, I’m served a full course. Steamed dumplings, noodles, deep-fried radish cakes—all full of poison lethal to humans. It’s experimental. The dumplings taste saccharine; the ginger and spring onions make an eccentric admixture of salty and corrosive sourness. But it’s an effort.

“I’m so glad you are back,” Yut tells me as she brings the dessert, evidently having received a lesson in balancing trays and plates too. “I worried far more than is sensible.”

At her seat, Samonten drinks plain, cool water. For the feast—a private affair, just the three of us—she and Yut eat nothing, to make sure what’s cooked for them is not contaminated by what has been prepared for me. My lord gives me a look and the slightest nod: Do as you wish. A weight settles in my stomach, inevitability rather than dread, and I wonder what I will choose.

I skip patrolling. In my room I run a bath and spend a frivolous amount of time soaking, even more time choosing the soap. Which too strong, which too sweet, which might offend. I stall, even though the act of grooming already forecasts my decision. My body does not produce much odor, but old habits—from when I was chiefly fluid humors and soft viscera—make me self-conscious, and so I put on a scent. Oodh, chamomile. A loose robe and her pearls at my ear, around my wrist. There are bulwarks who relish in drawing human lovers to us like filings to lodestone, but I’ve never been one of those. Nor do I understand attraction readily. What tips me, slowly, toward saying yes to Yut? Is it her seeming naivety, is it her looks, is it simply the familiarity fostered over months?

I’m still ruminating, no closer to the answer, when she knocks.

Her feet are bare and, though she’s not wearing her wedding garb—that’d have been an insult to Samonten—she is in an opalescent dress, pinned at shoulders and cinched at waist, the Tarangkaya symbol placed exactly over her heart: this is who she is, this is who she belongs to, the same as I. She enters on tiptoes, clinking red coins.

“The lord has given you permission,” I say, a matter of course.

“Yes. We’ve been discussing it. I feel very foolish. At home this would’ve been unthinkable. There everyone’s monogamous.”

Samonten has never asked exclusive commitment of her partners, though not all house-lords are so generous. A house-lord may have multiple spouses, but each is meant to be faithful to the lord alone. “Are you here because I’m a bulwark and you have been curious all your life?”

Yut knits her fingers together. “No. Yes. A little. But it’s mostly that you have been so kind. The way you smile. And I wanted to work it out—or not—before you leave for another scouting shift. Where I am from, we used to reconnoiter by ship. A lot of our scouts didn’t come back.”

Her voice catches. Despite myself I take her hand, lacing my fingers into hers. Small and, like all humans, fragile. A softness to her that I’ve left behind long ago.

She touches the pearl at my ear. “You were right. I did dive for these personally. Underwater, even monsters can look beautiful. Some of them take on the guise of anemones, coral reefs. In the air they are birds—most of our scouts fly now, and I think that’s what drew me to Samonten. She brought needlebirds to the Coral Garden.” Her hand moves down to the plumage-patterns on my clavicles. “If you’d been there with her, I might have courted you too.”

“Bulwarks can’t marry.” I unravel the threads that hold her dress together, wondering even now. Moonlight and shadow make her contours infinite, her body a labyrinth where there is no end to the hollows, the shrouded corners. Forever there is something hidden, forever there is something that would not reveal. She kisses my wrist, her mouth very hot, and it tugs—desire doesn’t arise in me as quickly as in most, but here, now. I bend to her breast, scraping lightly with my teeth; one of her hands in my robe, seeking between my thighs. Humans like to ask whether we still possess nerve-ends, whether we retain the wherewithal for carnal pleasure. Yut doesn’t ask, seems to know, from previous experience or else intuition. However far we drift from humanity we’ll always be animal.

Orgasm is abrupt, nearly unbearable. She strokes the blue-green pinions down my flanks as my heart and breathing slacken, slipping down from their seizure peak. When she kisses me, she tastes of a memory—I try to locate it: mango or jackfruit? Alarm goes through me like a knife. I pull upright at once. She tries to hold me down, saying, “No—it’s not what you think. Let me show you.”

In an instant I can end her. I push her off me. “You have a moment.”

She passes her hand over her belly, and then I see. A body of secrets after all. Her skin goes from flesh to translucent quartz, and her breasts are the palest brass. Her pupils have brightened to pewter, narrow as a cat’s. “When I was a child and came home wounded, close to death, my family chose this for me. Learning the shadow wasn’t enough, wouldn’t save me in time.”

From her neck up, and from below her hips, she looks much the same as before. I have never seen anything like this. Bulwarks are marked from the start; no part of the infant could be mistaken for human. “Bulwarks can’t be made,” I say slowly, “not after conception.” The process begins within the womb, through drugs and rituals and injections.

“In my country, they can.” Her smile is pinched. “There it is, our awful secret. We turn perfectly normal children from the poorest families, as needed. Most are made into—not like you, but into flying beasts. Mindless and tame, for our soldiers to ride into combat. When my condition was discovered, my family resisted handing me over. They were exiled, and me with them. Our entire line. Outside the walls we lost children to parasites, and one by one we made each other into this half-thing so we could survive. A family of bulwarks, from root to stem.”

I look her up, down. Her entire retinue. Yut has stayed looking mostly human, and her conjuring has hidden the rest, made her as chameleon to her environment as the parasites. “You can’t stay here.”

“I don’t mean to. What I wanted... I wanted to meet with other bulwarks, to let them know there is a way other than being used by their own people. Their own people, who think them less than human. Even ones as honored as you are bound to this relentless vocation. Once you reach maturity you will lose all this—your household, your lovers, your own lord. Duty is all you will be. You’ll fight, die, become a host and your successors will slay you, as you have the ones before.”

My robe is crumpled under us, damp with sweat. Mine scentless, hers fragrant. I stand; she doesn’t try to draw me back onto the bed. “Samonten will have to know. A house-lord may not have as lawful spouse a bulwark.”

“Because bulwarks are tools,” Yut says softly. “Infertile yes, but what are second and third spouses for. If you consider it closely there is no reason at all bulwarks cannot wed.”

“It would be unnatural. You might preach your ideal, but how would you make existence—roving as a bulwark-band? Build your own walls?” I shake my head. “Go. My first fealty is to my lord, whose heart you’ve broken and whose dignity you’ve trampled on like a savage. But I’ll give you a head start, if you can navigate the labyrinth.”

Yut starts to reach for me but lets her hand fall, recognizing perhaps that there is no point. She can no more sway me than she can sway the sun. Still she tries: “We can make something of our own. Together we can survive—there is no deadweight among us, everyone protects each other equally. I will go to other cities, and seek, and speak. One day we’ll build something better.” Yut puts her clothes to order, breathes out the shadows that give her the seeming of a fully human person. Eyes black once more, skin fair again. “I will wait by the western gate. As long as I can.”

For what. In case I change my mind.

I imagine telling Samonten what has transpired, and consider the optimal result. Should I go to her with Yut’s head in hand? I know my lord, but this situation has no precedent. Nothing will restore Samonten’s honor and consequently Tarangkaya’s, not in the short term. Perhaps we can spread the rumor that Yut was a foreign spy—not far from the truth—and by containing her... Only no. It has been too long, three entire months. My lord would look a fool, and I a failure.

In the labyrinth, I find nothing save the needlebirds, not even a corpse. Yut is gone.

I love Samonten fully and deeply. This is not merely duty—it is shared childhood, shared lifetime, the understanding that she deals with me fairly and considers me as good as a sister. But I will outlive her. Have I ever loved Tarangkaya itself? Do I love the city?

Weighed on a scale, what species of love is truer and greater? Does one supersede for having been there the longer? What can Yut begin to offer—an empty, inchoate promise?

There is a small possibility that, if I go to her, my lord will shut her eyes and say only, Do as you wish. She will forgive, and she’ll arrange her own fiction. Perhaps if I am gone it will be easier, a tale of an ungrateful bulwark and a ghastly wife united in treachery. Or perhaps Yut owes us blood.

I’ve dressed myself, and armed myself. Nothing at all will stay or impede me, not conjured shadows or sentiment. I may not know this creature Yut fully, but I know that she is not tried. In combat I can best her, nascent bulwark that she is. The shadows are not as fast as I am, not by half. I’m a weapon. Yut is a child’s imitation.

Pre-dawn as I leave the estate. The sky still gray as I reach the western gate.

She has put on a foreign mask with owl feathers, loitering there like some far-traveled entertainer, but I recognize her posture, her body. I have come wearing her pearls. To keep her pacified, to symbolize. One or another. She glances at me and stiffens but does not run. Does she see the pearls first, or the weapons? Does she expect me to, overnight, have come to accept her strange vision?

Love, I hear, is blinding. A brilliance like looking up at the sun in zenith. That is a common belief.

I go to her side. We exchange no words; she does not plead, though she holds my hand. Simply we wait in quiet for the gate to open, as it does every three days.

She turns to me. Beneath her mask, perhaps she’s smiling. I look at the widening gap between within and without, the gate gaping just enough for departing travelers to pass under. Then it’ll drop shut. It will be fast. The moment of decision.

“Yut,” I begin, and my hand strays. I think it touches the pearls at my ear first, then the weapons, or perhaps the other way around. That sequence functions in lieu of my tongue, and it says everything.

The gate lifts a little more. Beyond its alloy mouth, a glimpse of the rolling green land reveals itself, slowly turning white with frost and cyclamens. It is a room without a roof; it is a body without limit, transcendent and immaculate. The shoulders stained gold, the arms immense as eternity.


Read Comments on this Story (No Comments Yet)

ShareThis with Friends

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared on Tor.com, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and year's best collections. She has been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella Scale-Bright has been nominated for the British SF Association Award. Her epic fantasy novella Winterglass is forthcoming from Apex Publications.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“A Courtship of Beasts” by Michael Anthony Ashley

Return to Issue #232

Comments & Scrivenings

Comments are closed