Read an Excerpt
My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it's all mixed up in my head. I can't separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you. Even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth's face, and the face of the golem.
Esumi, do you remember the night before you left? We threw a grand ball in your honor. A skald sang of the glorious deeds. My deeds, my husband's, and even yours were sung. And Adel's glorious song eclipsed us all. Three hundred cantos extolling her deeds were barely enough for the ones who didn't know her when she was alive. I knew her. You didn't. I don't know if she was really our savior, or simply the monster who fooled us all. Both, perhaps. I don't know. I never did. I think she was my friend, but even that's fuzzy. For all I know I was a weapon for her, no better than any mercenary. Or perhaps I was her friend, like a trusted weapon at her side, a trusted warrior. And, she is a hero worthy of song.
In these letters I wish to tell you of us and his empire, Alameda.
Our empire was forged in bloodshed. First was my family's murder, and my grandfather's execution. Then, there was Adel's husband, Tycho, by her own shattered hand. And then I killed one more wicked beast, and secured my throne in the deed. I didn't even know I hadearned a throne at that moment.
I was just a girl. I was such a violent fool. You remember me after all of this was already over, Esumi. After you came home and we fought a war and took over the whole world for my foolish husband.
He tore us apart when our daughter was born, with your red hair.
Esumi, my love, come to me. I will take care of you, even from this bed. I will hold you close. I touch this vellum parchment and remember your rough skin. My stylus scratches into the page, and I remember my fingernails across your back.
My lips whisper softly what the ink tongues on the page.
I remember our daughter fading to a dream, and my dreams fading with her.
I remember Adel, and I remember a city. I remember my uncle who deserved to die, and his father who got what he deserved.
I remember so many things, Esumi. And I will give them all to you, for one glimpse of your true face again. Faces fade in this web, and my husband is tall and strong while you were fat and weak and then you are both together on the deck of a ship dazzling sailors with only a cloak and smoke. I yearn to see your face again, without all of the others tangled up in my web of death.
Come to me.
* * * * * * * *
Proliux, of course.
I see it in my mind at sunset. Tall buildings have long shadows just before sunset. Shadows rise and fall on top of other buildings like the fallen and broken future of the structures when downtown would fade to ramshackle huts. When ramshackle huts would fall under their own weight and the weight of the poor inside.
There were so many poor.
I walked through these buildings before sunset. I found new places each night, but all the faces seemed too much the same for me. All of them brown, with high cheeks and slender eyes. None pale like mine, no matter how hard I looked. No round eyes. No words like songbirds. Only the purring and the clicking of Proliux. That language sounds like cats dying slowly. I thought in words like crickets and birds, and only the pigeons spoke to me their two long notes. Coo Hoo ... Don't go....
And I walked in this city.
Walk three blocks; turn right. Walk two blocks; turn left. Walk three blocks; turn left. I mapped it out in my head. I had path-work grained into me by my sensei, in the Tsuin tundras and the pine forests. I rarely got lost. I always found new city blocks.
This night, this stretch of city, the cinnamon and yeast smells masked the normal stink of street. I was near a good bakery. My eyes lingered on the cinnamon sweetbread and the small teacakes. I hadn't eaten since the afternoon when the sausage-dealer sold me his most putrid creation yet.
I was not the only girl whose eyes lingered on the bread. A homeless girl, very young and all alone, stood on her tiptoes and reached up to the edge of the window. She peered over, barely tall enough to see the lowest sweet roll. She tried to stand taller. This only made her sway. She stumbled backwards into a pile of human refuse. The homeless girl uttered a foul curse. She sat on a filthy curb and slopped the refuse off of her bare foot with her hand. I slowed long enough to watch her do this, but when she cursed again, I looked away. I was the only person who cared to look.
Everyone else looked at me. My face is as white as death to these city folk. Their skin is dark as the cinnamon they eat all over their food. I can still taste bitter cinnamon on my tongue now, and remember their faces.
* * * * * * * *
I kissed one of these dark men in a public house, and cinnamon poured from his whole body, bitter and slightly dusty. I can still see that strange man's amorous eyes, slanted over high cheekbones. His greasy black hair in my fingers.
I was drunk, and it was midwinter, and I was celebrating the weather. No snow. No snow there, at any time of the year. I couldn't believe it until the rains came and went and then the equinox and that was that. All the people dressed in red and danced in the public houses and I came, too.
The pigeons cooed knowingly all the next morning, and it didn't snow. The seagulls laughed at me from above, and pooped down on the other porters and me, pretending to be snow clouds. I laughed with them, because I was full of joy. I had found a land where Alastair-of-the-Wolf refused to lay down her white cloak of death.
* * * * * * * *
I walked the streets only at sunset because I spent my days at the docks. The men and women of the seaside stared at me less, and I was as strong as most men. I was often mistaken for a man by these folk. I was a porter, among their strong men. The other porters avoided me, or chased me off with large numbers and empty threats. None would work with me. I did what I could alone. After work, I wandered the city until I grew tired. Then, I returned to the docks and slept until the first boats of morning rang their sea bells.
I shared an alley with two beggars and a large pack of tomcats. I slept with my back against the white plaster wall of a warehouse. A jagged metal rod was always ready in my lap.
The two old beggars picked through piles of garbage they had collected, giving what little edible things they found to the cats. Then, the old men found a public house and drank as much as they could afford.
I woke up when they returned because they sang slurring songs. They slept and drifted in and out of sickness until morning. Some nights they touched each other, gently. I slept through it all as best as I could.
Their noise and stench kept me from sleeping too deep. They left me alone.
* * * * * * * *
My eyes closed; my face pointed at the fire. I sat up, and tried to ignore the salt smell in the air, and the lurch beneath our floor. For days after this boat, I would feel the ocean in my bones, pushing and pulling. I hated the oceans. When I had any food I gave it to the children of the boat, mewing at my legs like tomcats.
Uncle Seth touched my forehead. Are you asleep? he whispered.
Not yet, I said.
Are you feeling better?
I hate the ocean, too, he said. Last time I saw it, I nearly lost my leg.
I know, I said.
I was bitten by Alastair-of-the-Wolf, he said.
He didn't listen to me. My leg swelled up like a sausage. Baba cut me at my knees and drained the yellow puss away. Another shaman, all the way from Pascanus had come to the village, too. He had come to fight the diseases there. Baba and I had only come to trade for herbs, and discovered the village this way. She never got it. I nearly died. The shaman from Pascanus fed me all kinds of things. All of them tasted terrible. They thought I was going to die. I thought I was, too. My leg hurt so much. A whole village was infected with the same disease. People walked around with arms and heads all swollen up. A woman had one breast the size of her whole body. She wouldn't let Baba cut it open. She screamed and screamed all day long until it exploded and she bled to death. I thought I was going to die. I smell the air here, and I can remember it. Goddess, I hate the ocean.
I opened my eyes, and I punched Uncle Seth's arm, hard. Do you always tell the same hideous stories over and over again, I said, or will you eventually remember something new?
He winced. He rubbed his arm. I'm sorry, he said. I guess I do tell the story a lot. Not much happened to me like that. He poked the fire with a black iron rod. A bruise began where I had struck him. His bruise was the color of my sickness after I tried to eat anything.
We were on the deck of a ship. Other people sprawled out on the deck, sleeping. We slept on the lowest deck around a wood fire burning in an iron bowl. We passengers stayed near the sides of the ship, out of the sailors' way. When it stormed, we moved below deck until the bad weather passed. Below deck we huddled together, crammed in like seeds in a pod, and it stank horribly down there and it was so hot I couldn't see.
This night was clear enough. I had spent the day very ill. Uncle Seth told me to lie down, and he would take watch at least until I felt better. He told me that story three times in one week. I had heard it before, too many times. We had little to do on our long journey besides talking. We only had each other to talk to before we really learned the new language.
If you want my sympathy you won't have it, I said. The first time you said it, I felt sympathetic. Now I'm just sick of hearing about it.
I'm sorry, he said. I just felt like talking, that's all. I just wanted to say something.
A person at our fire rolled over and grumbled at us. We knew that he had told us to be quiet, though we didn't know precisely what he had said. We waited until the man's eyes drifted shut.
I spent my day throwing up, I whispered. I don't want to hear about sickness. Tell me something else.
Seth leaned in close. He whispered into my ear, Right, I'll tell you a story about a shipwreck.
A shipwreck? I snorted. How comforting.
A ship just like this one, he said. I heard about it in that village. The other shaman told me. I don't remember his name. Close your eyes, Zhan. Lay back, and close your eyes.
I found a remotely comfortable place on the foul-smelling wooden planks. The deck smelled like bird shit and old fish. I placed my hand beneath my head.
Uncle Seth's voice whispered over a vast abyss of darkness. I felt him breathing into my ear. I felt the heat of him, close to me. He whispered a story.
* * * * * * * *
Fest Fasen stared at a spider web with glassy eyes. He stared at the web's ghostly shadow flickering in the torchlight. He tapped his fingers in time to Partridge's voice. He growled. He flashed his steel fangs. The spider was the monster, though. Fest was only a man.
The coin-sized monster held still while its shadow swam through stones. Its mandibles were only a slight twitching in the darkness across the trapped fly's wriggling back.
Seth told me about icebergs once, said Fest, too loudly, and a shipwreck.
Seth told me that story, I said. He didn't tell it to me very much.
He didn't like it, said Fest. He looked down from the spider. That's why he didn't tell it much. How did it go, again?