Next month, Tor.com Publishing will debut a new novella from the award-winning Kij Johnson (The Man Who Bridged the Mist). The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a fascinating, gender-flipped reconsideration of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. It’s a short, striking, lyrical work. Sample it below, and preorder it before its release on August 16.
Vellitt Boe was dreaming of a highway and ten million birds in an empty sky of featureless blue. The highway, broad and black as a tar pit. The birds, a cloud of them, like a mist writhing, like gnats pillaring over the dark marshes of Lomar or flickering shoals of silver fish in the crystal seas beyond Oriab. The sky: empty, untextured, flat. A great black beast crouching beside her growled steadily, but the birds were louder. One called with a high sweet voice, and it was saying, “Professor Boe? Professor Boe!”
Reality returned in rapid stages: the never-absent pain in her back; the softness against her face of sheets worn satin-smooth in the College’s laundry; the cold air; the moonlight graphed by the casemented windows onto the broad bare floor of her dark bedroom; the percussion of urgent fists; and the voice, soprano but strong—one of the students and afraid, so afraid: “Professor! Please, O gods, please, you must wake up!”
And she was awake. Vellitt pushed herself upright in her narrow bed. “Wait!” she called, caught her robe from where it lay across her feet, and stepped into her slippers. She went to open the door.
It was Derysk Oure, the third-year Chymical Studies scholar, one hand still raised from the knocking. In the sallow light of the hallway’s single gas-jet, her face was the color of drying mud, and more anxious than Vellitt had ever seen it. She was dressed in a pyjama suit—quite daring, really—but with a country shawl around her shoulders, and she was weeping. “Professor Boe! Please, please come right away! I don’t—It’s Jurat.”
Food-poisoning in the Hall, scandal, suicide: there were a thousand ways a women’s college might find itself destroyed. Clarie Jurat was a third-year, reading Mathematics with Vellitt, and her best student in twenty years of teaching at Ulthar Women’s College: a brilliant girl, strong-willed, charismatic and beautiful, with long laughing eyes and thick black hair she wore always in a heavy fishtail braid half down her back.
“Lead me.” Vellitt followed Oure down the stairwell, the girl still sobbing. “What about Jurat? Calm down, Oure, or I’ll have you on my hands, as well. This is not the way an Ulthar woman behaves.”
Oure paused, pressed her palms against her eyes. “I know, I’m sorry, Professor. You’re right. I was on my way to bed, and Hust burst out of their suite just as I was going past, and she said, She’s gone, she’s run away with him, so Martveit ran to get the Dean, and I came to get you. I don’t know anything else.”
“Jurat takes Exams in three months. When did she have time to meet anyone?”
Oure turned back down the stairs. “I don’t know, I’m sure.” It was a lie, of course, but the girl said no more.
They exited Fellow’s Stair and crossed the quad. Only one set of lights shone out, from Jurat’s windows. Good; the fewer awake in the first uncontrolled moments of this situation—whatever it was—the better. The shadows were all moving, visibly shifting as the moon drifted southward on some god’s whim. The cold night air was filled with the sharp scents of chrysanthemums and the first fallen leaves, and so quiet that Vellitt could hear cats wailing just beyond the College wall. A clowder had congregated within the quad, as well; they ceased whatever was their business and watched as Vellitt and Oure passed, and one, a small black cat, separated itself from the rest and followed them into Jurat’s stairwell. The cold light streaming in through the windows vanished suddenly as the moon passed behind the dining-hall’s tower, and they were left in the flickering amber of the weak gas-jets on each landing.
A handful of young women had clustered near Jurat’s door, wrapped in bathrobes or shawls or the blankets from the foots of their beds; the College did not waste its funds heating the stairwells. Their voices burst around Vellitt, high and nervous. She snapped out, “Women!” with the authority of long experience, and they fell silent, their anxious, sleep-worn faces tracking her ascent like poppies: the old women they would become for a moment showing through their youth.
There was a circle of space around Jurat’s door, the women’s curiosity in equipoise with their unwillingness to be associated with whatever crimes she might have committed. Only Therine Angoli had crossed, weeping soundlessly as she held Raba Hust, the Ancient Sarnathian scholar, a heavyset girl with warm brown skin turned the color of ashes and dust in the dim hall light. Hust was Jurat’s roommate. Angoli, Hust, and Jurat had been close, The Three Inseparables.
Vellitt announced to the assembled women, “It remains past curfew. Return to your rooms before the Dean arrives and finds herself obliged to take notice. I need not remind you that discretion is and must always be a byword of Ulthar women. Do not speak of this, even among yourselves, until we know more—especially, to no one outside the College. Miss Hust, I must detain you for another moment.”
Without waiting to see her order followed, she disengaged Hust from Angoli’s clinging arms and thrust her into the room, to close the door.
Jurat and Hust’s sitting room was disordered, the wardrobe doors ajar and clothing distributed over every flat surface. Open-faced books teetered in irregular stacks on the paper-strewn floor, and a tray of dirty crockery from the buttery had been shoved halfway beneath one of the two unmade beds. Even the framed prints on the walls, scenic photographic views of the Naraxa Valley from a generation ago, were crooked. The room looked as though it had been ransacked during a particularly violent abduction, but all the women students’ rooms did these days—as though there were a fad among them of being as sloppy personally as they were disciplined in their studies.
Hust fell into a padded armchair and, with the heedless flexibility of the young, pulled her feet up, wrapping her arms around her knees and hugging them close to her chest. She was still sobbing.
As Vellitt moved piles of old Articulations from the two wooden study chairs, there was a brisk knock at the door, followed immediately by the entrance of a small woman with short grizzled hair and the clever eye of a hunting bird: Gnesa Petso, the Dean of Ulthar Women’s College. She was dressed in a soft woolen robe, once red but a decade old and dimmed by age and laundering. Without preliminaries, she seated herself on one of the cleared chairs, and said briskly, “Hust, every moment is important. What has happened?”
Hust gave her a piece of notepaper, folded twice. The Dean read as Hust said, “When I came back from the library tonight, Jurat wasn’t here. That was nine o’clock, I think. She hadn’t said anything to me about being out late, but I assumed she had a late pass to be at a lecture or a reading-party, or—” But she was flushed, lying.
The Dean, casting a bright black eye up from the note, said, “Or that she slipped out to be with a man. Miss Hust, do not disgrace yourself trying to sustain someone else’s lie.”
Hust ducked her head. “I found her letter under my blankets. I’ve been working on Articulations, so she knew I wouldn’t see it until late.”
The Dean passed the note to Vellitt. Clarie Jurat’s handwriting was as beautiful as everything else about her.
Do not be distressed! You know what this says already, don’t you—You always see everything so clearly. I go to be with Stephan—I know it is shocking, but there is such an enormous world, and I cannot see it here. He says there are millions of stars, Raba. Millions. Please show this to Therine. I am sorry for the people who will be hurt, but how could I ever explain this to dear old Prof Boe? To the Dean? To my father? It is impossible—they could not understand—and Stephan tells me it must be tonight or never—and so I go! The greatest adventure, yes? Be happy for me.
The story was soon told. Clarie Jurat had met Stephan Heller when the Three Inseparables had attended a Union debate four weeks ago. He had struck up a conversation outside the Hall, buying them all coffee at the Crévie. He had been captivated by Jurat: no surprise, Hust said—a little wistfully, for of the Inseparables, Raba was the plainest. What was a surprise was that Jurat found him equally attractive. He was good-looking, tawny-skinned and dark-eyed with excellent teeth, and very tall (Hust sighed), but it wasn’t any of that. There was just something about him.
The next afternoon, it had been tea for Hust and Jurat—Therine Angoli had been unable to join them because of her Maritime Economic History tutorial—and then it had been Jurat and Stephan, Stephan and Jurat, weeks and weeks of high teas and low teas and tiffins, of walks through Ulthar’s quaint narrow streets and punting upon the Aëdl; of after-hour bottles of wine shared in the sorts of public places where the kellarkips did not ask about the University status of young women. That Jurat’s studies had not suffered during this month was more a sign of her innate brilliance than of any devotion to her work.
And now this.
The Dean said, “We need to bring her back before this becomes a known thing. Is he a student?” No, Hust rather thought he seemed older than that. “Well, where does he stay? You must know that, yes? She must have said something.”
Hust hesitated, biting a cuticle.
Vellitt snapped, “I know you have no wish to break silence, Hust, but believe me: this is the right thing to do. We must find her. Do you know who her father is?”
“She never talks about her family. What does it matter, anyway?” Hust dropped her hand, and looked up a little defiantly.
The Dean explained, “Jurat’s father is one of the College’s Trustees, and he reports to the University’s board.”
Hust said, “She’s a grown woman, and she’s in love. She is permitted to plan her own life, surely? What’s wrong with that?”
Vellitt snapped, “What’s wrong is that her father may have the College shut down—”
Hust looked aghast. “Oh, surely not!”
“—and perhaps get women banned from the University altogether,” said Vellitt. “This is why we must find her quickly and bring her back. Where does he live?”
Hust bit her lip. “I know Heller has been staying at The Speared Hart. He’s not from Ulthar. I thought I said: he was special. He’s from the waking world. That’s where he’s taking her.”