At the center of every starship was a bonsai starship. It rested in the starship’s command garden and provided the magic that propelled it.

Novice Kei had known this longer than she had known her own name, especially since she was the eighth Kei who currently served at the Shrine of Budding Nights on the world known as Coronet. All the novices were named Kei or Asahi or Kaoru until they passed the initiation or left the shrine for destinies of their own. Kei-the-Eighth accepted the wisdom of this the way she accepted the shrine’s traditions—all but one.

The shrine’s novices came from all manner of backgrounds. Some were offerings from planetary nobility, meant to secure access to the shrine’s arts. Others came on pilgrimages, begging to be taught its secrets. Most, like Kei herself, had no choice in the matter: refugees, orphans, dust children with nowhere to go. If the shrine’s bonsai trees accepted them, they stayed; that was all.

For the most part, Kei delighted in the routines of the shrine, whether it involved raking the gardens full of river stones scavenged from worlds of metal and mourning or gathering up cobwebs complete with their spiders and moving them outdoors to the silken groves kept for that purpose. In the mornings she rose to the sound of bells, and at night she murmured meditations of rain and radiance to the music of cicadas and crickets. She was, if not the greatest and most attentive of the novices, not the worst either. The shrine priests rarely had occasion to chastise her.

Kei didn’t know how old she was, but she had been a small child when the trees accepted her, and she had studied the shrine’s arts for the past ten years. She had a woman’s shape now, although she laughed and demurred when the older novices invited her to their illicit games of poetry and kisses. Her heart already belonged to the bonsai.

Today she tended the three that had been given to her care in her first year. If she did well—if the bonsai starships matured into acceptable usefulness—she would be initiated; she would join the shrine’s priesthood. It was a fate she looked forward to.

The first bonsai jutted upward from the soil, crusted over with barnacles and fringed with anemones that waved in the fragrant air as though dreaming of ocean and aether, aether and ocean. The smells of salt and seaweed and wild journeys wafted from it, and at times Kei imagined herself running barefoot over beaches of glassy black sand. The bonsai was growing, obediently, into the shape of a nautilus shell; big enough to fill Kei’s hands, small enough to fit into the command garden of a starship. She never had to trim it anymore, or adjust the cage of twine and sticks that confined its development.

The second bonsai might almost have been mistaken for a tree in truth, down to the beads of sap-colored amber and the aroma of pine needles, if not for the stippled glimpses of fossil. Kei had incorporated the fossil templates carefully and lovingly; she loved the priests’ lectures on history, as she had no history of her own. The bonsai’s hull integrated holographic images of trilobites and ammonites, its translucent material revealing the rings of its age in tree-trunk fashion. Like the first bonsai, it grew tamely and tenderly, never resisting her plan for it.

The third bonsai—the third bonsai was different. This bonsai swayed in nowhere winds, to the bleak tides of distant and colliding black hole inspirals. It resembled black opal if you didn’t look at it too closely; if you didn’t realize that every hairline fracture in its hull opened into fractal vistas of protest and upended propaganda. It sawed against the twine with knifing growths, strained against the cage like a fretting animal. The other novices shook their heads and murmured words of sympathy whenever they saw the third bonsai with its splendor of recalcitrant angles.

Kei cared for all three of her bonsai, but since she had been raised by priests and not parents, no one had told her that she couldn’t have a favorite. She loved the third bonsai best, although she cared diligently for all three. She appreciated its wildness and the fact that it was not content to grow the way she reluctantly urged it, according to the orthodox precepts of beauty and utility she had learned from the priests.

This was the rule that Kei hated in her secret heart: You must rule the bonsai. The bonsai must not rule you. She thought of it often as she trimmed the third bonsai’s knifing growths; as she wrestled with it, as it wrestled with her. In her secret heart she longed to see what shape it would take if she let it grow as it wished—but she did not dare.

At least, not until the ambassadors arrived.

The ambassadors came on a winter afternoon, in a vessel the color of winter. Kei was not the first to see it; nor was she the last. Outside in her coat she was shoveling snow with several other novices: another Kei, a couple of Asahis, a sullen Kaoru. They thought at first the large pale structure that had appeared above the shrine was some phenomenon of snow renewed; that there would be more work yet to keep the shrine’s paths clear.

“It’s a ship!” Kei exclaimed when recognition struck her all the way down to bone, and never mind the ship’s outlandish shape. It was the silver of ice in the moonlight, the white of newest snow. It was icicle-sleek, cold and cruel as night; its very presence, vast and overshadowing, promised the never-ending dominance of the dark of space.

In silence, the novices stood with their brooms and shovels as a ramp descended from the winter-ship and watched the ambassadors emerge. Kei was not thinking of the great and grim personages with their sleek white suits, their silver guns, but the bonsai that surely grew within the ship’s command garden. Had some priest shaped it into inflections of winter hunger, intimations of wolf rapacity? Why would a priest, who taught the joys of contemplation and peaceful living, deliberately create a violent bonsai?

Ten years at the shrine, and this was not the first full-sized starship she had seen; but it was the first she had seen so close.

This can’t be right, Kei thought. This can’t be what our bonsai are meant for.

The ambassadors were four, an inauspicious number. Four is death, Kei remembered. No one ever tended four bonsai. Three or five, or sometimes fortunate seven; nine, on rare occasion, to appease the mercurial kitsune. But never four.

The tallest appeared to be their leader. A coronet set with a shining white jewel rested in her hair. “We are ambassadors from the warship Winter Devastation. We have business to discuss with the shrine elders,” she said. “Take me to them.”

“I will bring you,” Kei-the-Eighth said, quite overcome by curiosity. It did not occur to her to ask why the ambassadors did not name themselves. She assumed, to the extent that she thought about it at all, that their names were too grand to be shared with mere novices.

She carried her broom with her, surefooted on the path that she had known all her life. The ambassadors followed her wordlessly, looking neither to the right nor to the left, as though all they saw before them was their terrible pinpoint desire. Their footsteps were not loud, but they were not quiet, either.

The main building of the temple rose above them, the pillars painted in motifs of flower and fungus and leaf, the curving roofs bedizened by snow and the memory of snow. Kei took the steps up to the great double doors and knocked once, twice, thrice. Waited.

“Bring in the visitors,” said the voice of elder priest Ichika.

Kei opened the doors and bowed to indicate that the ambassadors should enter the great hall. This they did, still looking neither right nor left. Directly ahead of them stood Ichika, in her robes of raw silk the color of tarnished sunlight. She stood in a pool of light, radiant as a queen, her long hair falling unbound to her sandaled heels.

“Kei,” Ichika said, “bring tea for the guests.” And without waiting for Kei to bow and back out of the hall, she added, “You are early.”

Kei itched to hear the words they exchanged while she fetched tea from the kitchens. When she returned bearing the tray with its kettle and five cups, Ichika and the ambassadors were sizing each other up coolly. At a gesture from Ichika, Kei poured for all five; and because she was trained to the shrine’s ideas of hierarchy, she offered the first cup to the priest.

The tallest ambassador made a pinched noise of disapproval. “Does your novice not understand the significance of this meeting, Priest?”

Kei, still attuned to the shrine and not to the politics of the wider galaxy she had never visited, turned her eyes to Ichika. Surely the priest would tell her what to do, and who to listen to. She sensed as she made the gesture that this, too, displeased the guest.

“I will instruct her,” Ichika said, placid and implacable as ever. “Kei, what do you think is the purpose of our guests’ visit?”

Kei had never learned to dissemble, except in the matter of her third bonsai. She gave her first and simplest guess, based on Ichika’s remark that the guests were “early.” “They are asking for starship trees.”

“‘Asking,'” the tallest ambassador said, almost in wonder. “We have protected your world from invaders and pirates; we are owed something for it. Especially now that war threatens the homeworld of the Empress of All Stars.”

I have never heard of pirates on Coronet, Kei almost said, but she caught herself. If the ambassador was telling the truth, the pirates would never have reached the world itself. It troubled her that all this time she had taken the shrine and its surroundings, the serenity that permitted her to concentrate on the bonsai, for granted; that it had never occurred to her, even as an orphan child, that there might be a price to pay.

Ichika touched Kei on the shoulder, kindly. “You did not bring a cup for yourself,” she said.

Kei gazed up at the priest. “I can drink later,” she said, since she did not want to mention that she was thirsty. Her work in the shrine had accustomed her to small privations.

The tallest ambassador ignored the exchange, while the others murmured restlessly among themselves, then said, “The Glorious Fleet has been ingloriously defeated. It is necessary to raise a new fleet in its stead, so that the Empress may reconquer what belongs to her.”

“Many of the bonsai are not yet mature,” Ichika said. “Your fleet will be untidy, unruly, prone to rebellions small and large.”

“We can master mere bonsai. The crucial thing is numbers.”

Kei dared to speak: “What happened to the bonsai within your ships, after the defeat?”

The tallest ambassador’s gaze flicked to her. “Their sacrifice was necessary. They served their purpose.”

The answer told Kei all she needed to know.

Ichika’s brows drew down. “Your new fleet will be no equal to the Glorious Fleet, which was conceived in wonder. What good are our arts if they will only be used to breathe life into warship carcasses?”

“You care about beauty,” the tallest ambassador said. “But there is a time for beauty, and a time for war.” She took notice of Kei, then. “You have bonsai of your own for the harvest, do you not?”

Caution, whispered a voice in the back of Kei’s head. She bowed rather than committing an untruth to words.

The implied submission satisfied the tallest ambassador. At last she deigned to sip her tea, which Kei knew from experience would still hold a robust flavor. The ambassador said, “You have one week to prepare for the harvest. The Winter Devastation will take every mature bonsai.”

Their ship was aptly named. “How can you fit all the bonsai in your ship?” asked Kei, who had some idea how many bonsai grew in the shrine’s grounds.

“How indeed,” the tall ambassador said; not an answer.

“You may return to your duties, Kei,” Ichika said, with some semblance of tact.

Kei bowed again and withdrew from the hall. She knew now what she had to do to save her trees, and that she had only a single week in which to do it.

The priests were too dignified to gossip (or so they pretended), but the other novices had no such compunctions. They crowded around Kei, asking for details. When she demurred, aware of the shrine’s precepts and principles, they chattered among themselves, spinning their own versions of the meeting and speculating about its purpose. The ambassadors wanted to foster one of the Empress’s children at the shrine; the ambassadors had come to make a donation of rare incense and innocent woods; the ambassadors were negotiating to begin a new shrine, daughter to this one, upon another world.

Kei kept to herself, smiling a frozen smile quite unlike the true one with which she usually carried out her daily tasks.

The first day was the worst. After that, the other novices took to listening in on the priests’ conversations, and Kei herself became a less desirable source of information.

It did not take long for Ichika’s orders to set the shrine and its inhabitants in disarray. “Prepare for the harvest,” she said. “If a bonsai must be trimmed back, forced, caged, do it. There is no more time for kindness or nurture. Do whatever is necessary to give the Empress her due.”

Before this week, Kei had not cared one way or another about the Empress; had barely remembered that she existed. And why should she? The Empress (so she thought) had nothing to do with the simple arts of trees, the engineering of star-travelers. The Empress held her court on a faraway world; waged war around faraway stars.

Except nothing to do with was a lie, and the Empress, whom Kei would never meet, had reached out with an unseen hand to upend the foundations of Kei’s life.

On the fourth night, four for death, Kei sneaked out from the dormitory, bringing with her a bag of food purloined from the kitchens and her tools. She was conscious of the numerology. The bonsai would be too; would respond to the one-two-three-four knelling of their fate.

In the course of her novitiate, Kei had picked up small magics, useful for raiding the kitchen after curfew. One of them made her no more noticeable than a mouse in the dark, no more interesting than a seed-tuft tucked into a corner. The charm would not have protected her from the priests’ regard, had they been looking; but the priests were busy with the ambassadors’ demands, and they failed to look.

She knelt before the three bonsai she had cared for over the past ten years. “I will not,” she whispered in the half-light of the half-moon. “I will not give you up!”

The first bonsai murmured to her in a voice of sea and tide, and said, “I will go where you go.”

The second bonsai murmured to her in a voice of wood and wind, and said, “I will go where you go.”

The third bonsai reached out with its jagged spikes to cut at her hands. Kei dodged it easily, accustomed to its wild ways. It spoke to her in a voice of vacuum and victory, “We are your threefold heart, Kei-the-Eighth. Set us free, and we will take you away from the Empress and her ambassadors, away from her new fleet, away from her vicious vision of conquest.”

Hearing this, Kei went cold. The third bonsai, with its aggression, would make a fine heart for a warship. She could only imagine the kind of devastation it would cause in the hands of someone like the ambassador.

The tools Kei had brought with her were the foundations of her trade: shears and saws, cutters and pliers of varying sizes. They rested in a pouch around her waist, dragging at her every movement like regret. It was not too late. She could do as Ichika bade her—as Ichika bade the shrine entire—and carry out her duty. Bind the third bonsai so tightly that its protestations would dwindle into nothing but a nagging memory.

It would be so easy. It would be so hard. Tears stung Kei’s eyes as she thought of the ten years she had spent tending the bonsai, spraying them with herbal concoctions to discourage pests, trimming blemished leaves, encouraging them to grow in the direction of beauty.

“It is easy for you to say that you would go where I go,” Kei said. “But where would we go?”

“I will go where you go,” said the first bonsai. “I will go where you go,” said the second bonsai in its turn.

Their complaisance cut into Kei’s heart like a knife, like the cutters she had used on them the past decade. It was as well that only she, as the one who had nurtured them, could harvest them. She doubted they would resist the priests otherwise. Their pliability was no more than she deserved; no more than what she had done to herself, pruning herself into the shrine’s traditions. “There’s no map,” she said, despairing.

“Set us free,” the third bonsai said, “and we will make a map.”

That decided her. Kei took up the greatest of the shears. Worked carefully, meticulously, the way she had trained since girlhood. There was no point in going rogue if she was going to botch the job, after all.

She cut the twine and the cords from great to small, small to great, following the heartspring logic of the knots and bindings. As she did so, memories flitted through her mind like migrating birds. Her first day at the shrine, when the priests had seemed as tall as thunder. The first time they allowed her to prepare the tea, and the first time she burned her tongue on it. Listening to the stories that the other novices told about planetary pirates and space stations vaster than whales, and failing to pay attention because she didn’t care about the wide wild world that had nothing to do with trees; so she had thought.

I should have paid attention, Kei thought. Her lack of interest in the world outside the shrine had made her a good novice. She had failed to anticipate that she would need to cast the role aside and escape.

The first two bonsai were easy enough to free. She uprooted them, careful of the root balls, and wrapped them lovingly in canvas. I will give you the stars, she promised them, and not the tyranny of the Empress’s admirals.

Kei had more difficulty with the third, because it did not know how to yield. In truth, she would have worried if it had given way meekly. She was halfway through struggling to release it when a shadow fell over the snow and the footprints there.

Ichika stood there, wrapped in a fur-trimmed coat, her gray-streaked hair whipping about her in the wind that Kei had stopped feeling. “I have come for your part of the harvest,” she said. “I am sorry. But there is no choice, not if we are to preserve the shrine. The Empress’s fleets may be much diminished, but they are powerful enough to reduce us to dust.”

Kei’s first thought was that she should have realized that her plan was proceeding too smoothly. “Priest,” she said, then stopped. Couldn’t think of what to say. Words of opposition did not come readily to her.

But the proof of her defiance rested before her: the two bonsai wrapped and ready for transport; the third partway loosed, even now surging against its remaining bonds like a trapped and terrible tiger.

“I knew,” Ichika said, in a voice so calm it froze the blood in Kei’s veins, “that this would be the only way we could persuade you to carry out your duty. It is a hard thing to bow to necessity. You have the makings of a good priest—not the best, but not the worst either. You don’t have to throw away your future.”

“‘Duty,'” Kei said, shaking. The shears dragged at her hand. “You can’t force me to hand them over.”

“Do you think that I am one of the senior priests of this shrine for nothing?” Ichika said. “I know arts that novices only guess at, calling the winds and the wheel of the seasons. I can make the moons fall from the heavens and hurl the mountains into the sky.” She almost sounded kind. “A single novice cannot stand in my path.”

Kei could have attacked Ichika anyway and didn’t, even if she might have taken Ichika, proud as she was, by surprise. Kei was sworn to the shrine’s ways, for all that its peacefulness meant nothing once its bonsai became weapons of war. Ichika and the priests might be hypocrites. That didn’t mean Kei had to become one too.

Instead, Kei slashed through all the bindings of the third bonsai, a single reckless motion. The bonsai screamed in triumph. She thought for a second that she was damned, that everyone in the shrine and in the million million worlds beyond had heard the sound.

A black-violet glow sprang up around the third bonsai, and a wind like the whip of winter. It had already grown to the size of Kei herself, all angles and anger. Kei had just enough presence of mind to snatch up the first two bonsai and take shelter behind the scourging branches of the third.

The earth cracked open between Ichika and Kei with a thunderclap boom. Kei wouldn’t have been surprised to see the sky above split as well. Her eyes were dazzled not by light but by the absolute earthen darkness that roared before her.

“There is nowhere you can go upon this world,” Ichika cried, “that you can escape the shrine’s justice.”

“Nowhere upon it,” Kei returned. The bonsai filled her arms to overflowing. She had only this one moment.

She jumped, and the fissure closed over her.

Kei fell.

Kei fell for a long time, and for no time at all. She hurt inside, as though someone had pierced her threefold. The pain went on even longer.

She fell beyond layers of earth and the labyrinth lives of worms. Fell beneath layers of sand and fossil and compressed stone. Fell, at last, into the molten heart of the world itself. And yet none of these things harmed her, oppressive as they were.

“I wished to save all the bonsai,” Kei explained. She could not feel her mouth, or her tongue, but the three bonsai that accompanied her in this place of earth and shadows understood her well enough. “Instead, it is only the four of us.” Four for the end of an era, she had imagined, rather than this inadequate torment.

She could not feel her eyes, either. Was she crying, or only hallucinating the water on her face, like the cold dew of caves? “Not even that,” she said. “I was selfish. What will become of everyone else?”

“Sometimes,” said the third bonsai, in a voice of knives and static, “saving yourself is how you save those who matter to you.”

The first and second bonsai did not contradict it.

“This is our command garden now,” Kei said, as the realization thrummed through her. “The entire world is our starship. There’s a way out after all.”

Kei fell—and she flew. In the depths of the world known as Coronet, she no longer had eyes, mouth, limbs. She had the ringed heart of a tree, and the fractal roots of a tree, and the threefold soul of a tree. She was the pulse within Coronet’s furnace heart, the breath that moved in its command garden.

Kei hung suspended at the center, and the world known as Coronet was a world no longer but a starship that moved at her will. She sensed, with a starship’s senses, the Winter Devastation, and the fleets beyond it.

She set out along a course that would take her away from the Empress and her ambassadors, the Empress and her denuded fleets, and to the quietude of unconquered galaxies, where no one would ever use the bonsai for war again.

No one ever heard of Coronet again, or its bonsai starships, except in the language of leaf and light.

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Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared on Tor.com, in Clarkesworld, and over ten times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including “The Mermaid Astronaut” in BCS Science-Fantasy Month 5, a finalist for the Hugo Awards. He is the author of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, and his standalone fantasy Phoenix Extravagant was released by Solaris Books in June 2020.  Yoon lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat and has not yet been eaten by gators.  Visit him online at www.yoonhalee.com.