Mei Huang considers the merit of an objection and quickly finds it inadequate. The threadbare comfort of a riposte will not put rice in her bowl, or ingots in her purse. Worse, it might even soil her reputation, diminish her standing. So many hours, so much time invested into this. Mei Huang cannot afford wastage.
So she traces a prayer instead to She Who Hungers—singular motion of the finger, discreet—and smiles shark-toothed at the huddle of women opposite her own table, their skin the color of mulberries.
“What did they say?” Her companion is whalebone-pale, nearly translucent and scarred by freckles. Under their skin, there are tributaries of green and blue, starbursts of discoloration. Ugly, Mei Huang thinks, pain traveling upward towards the slant of her right collarbone before she strangles the word into silence.
Before he can argue the incongruity between tone and exposition, the food arrives. Tortoise belly, expertly roasted, the fat salted and luscious beneath a crisp rind. Purple rice, savory with mushroom extract. A sauce of fermented glass-fish and red chili, mashed garlic and rock sugar, a lacing of lime.
Mei Huang feeds her client perfunctorily: slivers of meat, alternated with dainty mouthfuls of rice and judicious compliments. The sauce, she keeps from him. His breed cannot abide heat. But what they lack in spice tolerance, they make up for in voracity. He devours their meal in minutes and then demands seconds, thirds, all in a roaring baritone. She can hear his terror, nonetheless, layered under the machismo, the pounding of a heart that will not yield its harvest, not without the fight it’d become accustomed to.
The waiters respond with golden mead, so thick that it clings to the lip of the pitcher. The smell of the drink is intoxicating. Cinnamon and wasp-blood, an accent of hibiscus. Almost sufficient to conceal the potency of the alcohol.
He drinks in gulps, her in sips.
It is only when his tongue cannot contort around even the simplest of syllables that she clasps his hand and rises, leading him upstairs with a hiss of tasseled silks. Things are always easier this way.
Not every ming-ren abstains from sexual congress, but Mei Huang is one of those who do. There is something elemental, after all, about seeing the body’s clockwork exposed, something that flenses the mystery from the flesh, that reduces a smile to a composition of meat. More importantly, the pursuit of rapture is not dissimilar from an addiction, every encounter only exacerbating the impulse to cultivate greater performances of hedonism. Distractions, all of it, and not a single one meriting its price of indulgence.
Mei Huang lays out her client on the sheets. He has been one of her easier ones. Quick to slumber and eager to please, but not eager enough that he would breach etiquette. A smile slits her face at the memory of his clumsy overtures, almost shy, the performance of a boy, for all his musculature would suggest a man. That was never a possibility. Mei Huang prefers to keep pleasure and providence separate; and besides, her heart lies elsewhere, preserved in resin for the devoted to see.
She disinfects her scalpel in a saucer of boiling water. When the blade is hot enough, she applies the tip to his sternum and cuts, slicing along the breastbone, down to his groin. Skin and muscle part into wings, otherwise undamaged. Mei Huang prides herself on her ability to leave minimal scarring.
Under the marble rungs of his ribs, viscera gleam and pulse.
For a moment, she can see how this vision might invite desire. To see someone, man or woman, revealed as such, to witness them so vulnerable, it is a kind of power, compelling in its rarity. But that is not what she is here for.
Gingerly, Mei Huang leans forward to inspect the glyphs inlaid into the man’s bones: government-issue agate, embedded without artistry; the stones dulled by mucus, no enchantment to preserve their shine. A soldier’s markings and a soldier’s future, a tragedy dug into the trenches. Dead before his twenty-third birthday, his eyes consigned to the crows.
It is strange, Mei Huang thinks as she intones a letter from the Lipless Prophet’s alphabet, how prophecy circumvents borders. No matter the continent or the practitioner, whether they dwell in nubivagant jellyfish or on the spines of the world-turtles, it is all the same, every icon and interpretation, every beginning and every end. The language of destiny is as consistent as mankind’s appetite for murder.
The air disgorges filaments of green and gold, a frothing of light. Like lace, she winds them around her fingertips, their brilliance massing in the cup of her palm. Another syllable is whispered, and reality bends along the axis of her desire.
She exhales. The effulgence unwraps, worms down her arm to seep into the porous calcium of his skeleton. He twitches. Mei Huang tugs the skeins, feels his future clatter into a fresh arrangement. Not a precise art, hers. Nothing that can turn have not into have, but powerful enough, nonetheless, to slide a future along the gradient of near possibilities.
Another death: this time on the battlements, skewered by lances.
“Again,” Mei Huang tells the universe.
And once more, he dies, suffocated by shit and mud.
The lantern-light convulses. Mei Huang repeats the rite so many times it becomes indistinguishable from breath, and still every iteration ends with the soldier dead. The hours gorge themselves on her as she works. Soon enough, she is hollowed through, every scrap of endurance devoured.
The air holds still.
“Again,” Mei Huang repeats, louder, the taste of tin welling in her mouth.
She daubs her lips with her tongue, finds blood there too. When was the last time she drank water or sipped from her broth, meticulously prepared the evening before, bone and rich offal boiled to pale liquid? Mei Huang curses her negligence as she paces the cramped guest room, a knuckle wedged between her teeth. Maybe that was why she failed. Maybe, if she had been careful, if she had paced herself, if she hadn’t been so incompetent, the outcome would have differed.
Flagellation refines to fury, and Mei Huang digs nails into her palms, throat constricting. Trembling, she smoothes a hand over her skull and then scratches against her chest, just below the collarbone. Her hair is matted and slick with sweat. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What would Mei Ying have said?
A groan alerts her to a new dilemma: the man is stirring.
Mei Huang stumbles to the bed. His chest heaves once, twice, before sleep cauls him anew, cossets him in restive silence. Perhaps the situation isn’t completely irredeemable, Mei Huang decides, plucking thread and needle from her kit.
Quickly, breath starved to flutters, she sews the soldier back together. Her stitches are uneven: one longer than another, one skewed to the right, irrefutably ugly. But Mei Huang cannot indulge in perfection. Up she goes, pursued by necessity, faster and faster, needle glimmering topaz and lucent brown.
She is almost to the top, almost past the summit of his ribs. Hope batters at her lungs, and then his eyes beat open, sclera glistening white as tendon.
A scream unknots in his throat.
“No. No, no, no.” Mei Huang straddles his chest, hoping to pin him down, palm over his mouth. There is so little left to do, so little distance between her and resolution. It cannot end like this. In her panic, she forgets the difference between their physiques, his size and her stature, the ponderosity of muscles engineered in war, and the debility that results from an existence consigned to She Who Hungers. In her panic, she almost forgets how long she’s been waiting for this.
He flings her away. Mei Huang thumps into the wall and slides into the crevice between mattress and masonry, the air jerked from her lungs. She scrabbles upright in time to see her client sit up, see his sutures undo; intestines disgorging over his thighs in oily loops. He gazes down, face bled of color, before his mouth rounds into animal despair.
As a baying loosens, the man’s organs slithering the way of his digestive tract, Mei Huang makes a choice, embraces the inevitability that awaits every ming-ren. She’d expected–wanted—more years, more time in the Courts of Hunger, more opportunity to whet her art, develop finesse. Better now than later, she supposes. A shortened destiny in exchange for a foreshortened grief.
No words are spoken. There is no air, after all, in the sovereignty of deep waters, the rivers that run through the dark of the body. No terrestrial sound save for the moaning of the whales, the dreaming heart. Mei Huang scrawls a prayer with her needle, threading a pattern into her inner arm. It doesn’t take long. In the brain-blindness between saccades, something takes form on the mound atop the soldier’s lap, a smell of salt and anise.
“L-Lady–“ Mei Huang prostrates immediately, improvised kowtow that is barely sufficient for its purpose, but enough, at least, to carve a laugh from the figure. The world inhales and all motion is pinned to its place. The murmurs in the hallways, the susurrus of footsteps, the clamor of a sleepless inn: all stilled save for the clamor of Mei Huang’s heart singing at last at last at last.
“Littlest Sister,” It repeats, fond, extruding cartilage and wet wisps of hair; a figment of womanhood, sinuous, numinous. Teeth manifest in a sickle-grin, too wide, too sharp. No other features follow. There is only maw and skin, joints limned with proboscises, like crane-feathers, the lengths curling to ink: trade-aspect of She Who Waits, she who sits opposite of She Who Hungers, murder-mother and parasite-king, end and evolution. “What have you done?”
“I–” Mei Huang shivers, an infant again, language leached by awe. She Who Waits is more splendid, more terrible than anything imagination could have stitched.
“Such sloppy work.” The deity grazes fingers along the soldier’s mouth, palpating the bloodied fat. Its hand drifts to where skin opens to ribs. The man does not react, not even when She Who Waits laces fingers through his bones. “Littlest Sister, did you call me to save you from yourself?”
“What will you give me? What can you give me? Your heart is already forfeit and your soul is no good. As for your bones, well, we both know that there is no fortune worth bartering there. What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”
Mei Huang shudders, all cognizance pared down to instinct and custom, the ritual words like a second heartbeat. To the simple understanding that there is, was, could only ever have been, one option; one future. At last at last at last, her heart repeats its glad hymn.
“My hunger, Lady.”
“And how vast is your hunger? How rich is the wellspring of your desires? What do you want, Littlest Sister?”
“Everything.” Mei Huang wets her mouth, trembling. “Everything, every scrap of knowledge every spoken, every wet rind of wisdom. I’d suckle the libraries dry, crack the sternum of every scholar that I can glut their experience.”
“And how much do you crave it, Littlest Sister? How much do you desire its birth?”
“With all of me.” A truth. “With every thread of vein and skein of sinew.”
“Yesssss,” the divinity hisses, its tongue to the hollow of Mei Huang’s throat. “Littlest Sister, you smell so sweet. A perfect gift. Will you waste it on something like this boy? You don’t love him. You don’t even know him.”
“It isn’t about him.”
The goddess laughs into Mei Huang’s skin, a razored noise, teeth applied to her collarbone just so. The tiniest nip. Mei Huang shudders. “If you insist. If you insist, Littlest Sister. I will not turn down a gift.”
She Who Waits is not uncompassionate. The trimmings of liver that It takes from Mei Huang and the soldier are insignificant, almost vestigial, cuts so small they may as well be nothing.
“Aren’t I the better one?” It coos into Mei Huang’s ear as It seals her belly, leaving behind a puckered line of black tissue.
Mei Huang, gasping curses into the cloth between her teeth, finds no answer to give. But she does think to herself, even as the goddess makes room in the wrap of Mei Huang’s intestines, head rested against diaphragm: this is not so bad she would tolerate depravities that are a hundred times worse if she had to, all for the sake of her.
“You weren’t pregnant when we began—”
Mei Huang studies the palm aligned below her own, meaty, textured with scars, one finger foreshortened. “No. No, I wasn’t.”
“Is it mine? Was this something that she demanded?”
They are all the same, Mei Huang reflects. Every last one of them. These foreigners and fears, birthed of willful monotheism, always so leery of the goddesses, unable to fit their mouths around the sacred names without shuddering disapproval. Yet still they come to the gilded city of Hong, still they track the world-turtles, always searching for a better death than the one they’d be given.
“No. And even if it was, this is not your business to know.”
“But if it is my child—”
“It is not. I promise you. Even if was your cum that warmed my womb, stirred it to sudden life, it would not be your child. It would be mine and my sisters and my temple’s own.”
He blinks slowly, stupidly. “But if it was my semen that—”
“No.” Mei Huang sighs. “This child is not yours.”
The soldier—so exasperatingly young, his skin pink where it isn’t laced with scars—changes direction, fumbles through a worse question. “Did we—”
“No. No, we did not. Please. No more questions. You are embarrassing yourself with your ignorance.” Mei Huang interrupts, sighing again, hoping to circumvent any coital fantasies, hand retracted so that she can steeple fingers above a knee. Her guts aches, the skin pulled tight over an embryonic tumescence. “You have what you need.”
“I suppose.” His eyes, shaded by gelatin-colored lashes, are uncertain. “I—I don’t know what I’d expected. I thought your order granted immortality.”
“No. And even if we could, we would not. Immortality is a poor gift, a gorgeous lie. Everyone thinks they want to live forever, but they don’t know what it means. And before you ask, it means boredom. Endless boredom. There is nothing beautiful about infinity. It is tiresome and you’d soon wish you were dead. What you have is so much better.” Mei Huang leans forward, pats his thigh in sympathy. “There are people who would kill to be able to choose their own deaths.”
“Is that even possible?’
She nods, prim, and folds her secrets under latticed fingers. Idiot foreigner. Of course it’s possible. He’d died already, had walked his road to the end she’d foreseen—a vision of disembowelment, entrails steaming over snow. Or white linen, Mei Huang appends dutifully, silent as the soldier counts her payment out in the smallest possible denominations; his thumb stroking orbits across each coin, as though the heat from his skin might linger, might incite a change of heart. “Yes. Many do it every day.”
“What do I do now?” he asks, at last, with a tremor in his voice. “What do I do with this gift?”
Mei Huang, heaving with predatory divinity, shrugs. “Live and hope you choose enough of the right decisions that you don’t die any time too soon.”
The streets of Hong are narrow by necessity, its stacks of shops and houses cut deep into the world-turtle’s shell. Gutters and gargoyles jut from the balconies while housewives flap laundry over the balustrades, exchanging gossip as they go. From somewhere, a woman calls for customers, promising lobes of curried offal, the ingredients so fresh they still shudder with the world-turtle’s life force.
Below, Mei Huang wanders the tableau without a seeming purpose, a hand over her belly. The goddess had grown tremendous in the last hour, so much so that it has become impossible to walk without waddling splay-footed over the cobblestones. She halts at a lamppost and sucks in a ragged breath, wincing at the strain on her spine. Mei Ying, she thinks. Mei Ying, I hope you’re watching.
A hand fits itself around the small of her back. “Ma’am, could I be—Mei Huang?”
She looks up. The face above hers totters on familiar: soft-boned and round, its lips full. Black hair wisps from a maiden-braid, worn ironically in this case. Lei Yang, necromancer, scrutinizes Mei Huang, expression cloying.
“Already? I thought it’d be another five years, at least,” Lei Yang says.
“It was that or a dead soldier in the inn’s bed.”
“Would that have been so terrible? There are so many of them. Thousands. Like ants crawling all over the world-turtle’s back. No one would have noticed his loss.” Bone-beetles shift in Lei Yang’s hair, chips of luminescent white against the dark.
“You’re not wrong.” Gingerly, careful to make no contact, Mei Huang circles to Lei Yang’s right. An instinctive gesture, worthless in truth. Lei Yang might have an sold an eye for greater power, but she sees as well with one as others do with six. Her children—bone-beetles, marrow-roaches, like so much glass in her black hair—chitter at Mei Huang.
“I have never been wrong. You know that. And you didn’t answer my question.”
Mei Huang narrows her eyes. “No, it wouldn’t have been that terrible.”
“So, why do it for him? Of all the people you could have given up yourself for. You chose a foreign soldier. It seems such a waste.” Lei Yang raps her chin, theatrical. “Did he spurn you? Was that why? Is this a question of love, Mei Huang?”
“You should know the answer to that. We’ve spoken about it.” Mei Huang traces a spell with the edge of a nail, repeating the sigils, over and over, until her skin bleeds into the patterns. Beneath her dermis, She Who Waits stirs like a worm in her blood.
“Yes.” Lei Yang’s pupils divide, once and then again, so that four black circles spin in each of her irises. “Yes, we have. Is it time then, Mei Huang? Is it time to send you to her palace? Is it time to take you to her? Now, Mei Huang? Is it time now?”
She’d hoped for someone less garrulous, more refined, but you don’t choose these things. You grasp them with both fists and cling tight even when the world conspires to unbend your fingers. “Yes. Why not?” Mei Huang whispers. “Yes, sister. Yes.”
A flash of a bone knife.
The cut barely hurts at all. It spreads the skin of her chest into two halves; the blade leaves no scratch on her breastbone. Mei Huang’s blood washes onto the streets of Hong, vermilion on dusty red, a spill as bright as the sun. It feeds into the slits sliced into the world-turtle’s shell, anointing the massive reptile, a sacrifice, a gift.
Somewhere, Mei Huang’s goddess must be stirring, irate that another of her own is now consecrated to She Who Waits. But all things come to those who wait, as they do to She Who Waits. Like death, like life, one lies at the end of the other. Mei Ying, Mei Ying, sings her failing consciousness. Wait for me. I’ll be there soon.
She wakes in scarlet; like a child, newborn. Her robes have been replaced by more aureate finery, carnelian and lustrous ruby, the drag of her cape a shade of burgundy so deep that it is almost black. The air is hot.
“Littlest Sister.” She Who Waits traces Mei Huang’s cheek with a blood-rinded nail, her disapproval clear. “That was a mean trick.”
“It wasn’t a trick.”
“You crossed faster than I thought you would.”
“It wasn’t a trick,” Mei Huang repeats, smoothing a hand down her belly. It is smooth again, no scarring beneath the fabric.
“I am still hungry, Littlest Sister. It is cold here and none of my children have desire to spare.”
Mei Huang blinks the salt from her eyes, vision adjusting to the penumbra. There are other people here in the bones of Hong. A throng of shapes, each and every one draped in carmine. Head bowed, they are anonymous, inscrutable, unidentifiable. Only She Who Waits draws the eye, stark in her myriad extremities, her grinning scrutiny.
“It wasn’t a trick,” Mei Huang says for the third time, inspecting now the rungs of her ribs. There. Relief throbs through her, even as she digs nails beneath a panel and tugs. Mei Ying, she repeats in silence. I’m here. Finally, I’m here.
“Then what is it?”
A violent motion: fabric tears and her flesh unhinges, pivoting on gears of enamel. With a gasp, Mei Huang unsheaths the dagger –it is bone, only bone, but a sister’s grief can sharpen anything, even a sliver of a femur, lovingly preserved against one’s heart—and flings it at the crowd, trusting that it will find its way home. Blood calls to blood, bone sings to bone. Like death, like life, you always find your way to yourself.
She Who Waits does not scream, only tilts her head as the dagger buries itself not in her divine chest but the belly of one of her red-dressed acolytes. The figure slumps forward, palms curling around the hilt of the blade. They slip onto their knees, crumble, and fall with a sigh that not unlike relief. There is no worse burden that immortality, Mei Ying had told her sister, those rare days she was allowed to speak, to be less than a deity’s avatar, to be more than a mouthpiece.
A ming-ren cannot provide fortune, but they can sometimes author a better death.
“There.” Mei Huang sighs and shuts her gaze against what must come next, a future as red as the glow outside her eyelids.