Featured Story • August 2016
Her skin unfolds into blades and obliteration vectors, artillery and potentiality disruption. On her back and waist and limbs she bears the weight of a dozen insurrections, fifteen sieges, and ninety-seven wars. Her might may be purchased, very dearly, though these days she prefers to sell her weapons rather than her services. Cleaner that way, much less demanding.
Hu Ziyi circles the solar system of her birth; her passage is obsessively chronicled, her appearance incorporated into augury sets, for always she makes or breaks a fortune. Some say she is not human but a comet that has chosen an anthropoid form. She does not confirm or deny.
It is when she passes the edge of Darathani that a signal goes up for her attention. She reads it, tapping its pollen-particles. They scatter and reform, message-murmurs clinging to her thumb.
After some calculation, she answers.
* * *
The city of Darathani is a sealed sphere: except at entry points and exits—and each allows only one or the other—none may enter or leave.
The city survives on the grace of a bargain between an insurrection’s traitor and the rulers she swore to destroy. There are stories, speculations. The facts are beside the point. The uprising failed and Darathani stands. Certain lineages have been quenched and the city’s rightful masters are ascendant, and so long as both are true nothing else can matter too much.
* * *
At the gate a Darathani historian greets the comet and asks, “How many weapons do you have?”
To this, Ziyi smiles. An impertinent but common question. “If I say none you will not believe me. If I disclose a number it will distort in the telling. Thus I will say that I have enough. Before we begin business, I’ll see Xanquin the mask-maker, whose sigil emblazoned your petition.”
“She will not see you here, where the breath itself is poison.”
Ziyi does not wear filter or helm, though the air is indeed toxic and would scorch most lungs. Many have sought to explain her invulnerability; some hypothesize that the mortar of myth has hardened her essence and extended her span beyond the mortal. “The mask-maker I know has always been in good health. Does she ail?”
“Do you pledge us peace?”
Ziyi may or may not be a comet, but she’s certainly an arms-dealer. It would be no trouble for her to break the entry point. “I usually ask for more information before I enter a business relationship, but very well. I will behave on proviso that I will act in self-defense, or in defense of those I see fit to protect.”
The historian opens the gate. “Your request has been granted. I will bring you to Xanquin of the masks.”
Armored historian and robed arms-dealer climb a punctured ash spiral, watched closely by sentries. Darathani was great before the uprising; its dimensions have contracted since, would continue shrinking until it is a fleck of dust, a grain of time. Ziyi listens and knows that the denouement machine that nearly destroyed the city remains here, latent.
Xanquin is ensconced in her work: a curtain of blindfolds made of spectral gradients, a partition of helms assembled from lion roars and tiger tails, a chandelier of respirators knitted from procedurally generated satires. But most of all—and Ziyi has an eye for this—Xanquin is dying.
The mask-maker uncoils from her seat, moving with the sleekness of velvet visors and the purpose of crosshair crowns. Sickness does not yet mark her straight on, but if one views her at an obtuse angle the disease evinces itself: her profile frays, her hairless head a bloom of rust and frostbitten husk. She bows to Hu Ziyi and kisses the arms-dealer on the lips.
The historian averts their eyes.
“May we have a moment, Liatrice?” Xanquin murmurs. And like a child caught eavesdropping the historian retreats, the wall of helms and headdresses sealing behind them.
“You’re being unkind.” Ziyi eases into the artisan’s lap. “The child is infatuated.”
“Exactly so, which is why I discourage Liatrice. They’re the kind of person who burns, having grown up in the city’s bowels where the ghosts gather and the poorest live, and having risen so far. And at their age tragedy and desire get all tangled up.”
The comet laughs. “What is so tragic about an adolescent crush?”
“They caused my imminent death, and for one so susceptible to love nothing can be more immeasurably sad.” At Ziyi’s change of expression Xanquin holds up her hand. “It wasn’t meant. They were doing research at the ministry’s behest, triggered a mechanism that aimed at certain lines of ancestry. A few onlookers unraveled instantly; as a distant offshoot, I decay at a more sedate pace. But the conclusion is the same, equally inevitable. A Darathani great-grandparent turns out to be quite the curse.”
All levity has chipped free of Hu Ziyi’s face. “What happened?”
Xanquin’s gilded mouth widens. “The traitor’s revenge. That is the problem they want you to solve.”
* * *
Liatrice does not bring Ziyi and Xanquin to the engine; instead they show both women a window that looks out onto a field of black fire and blazing hair. To Hu Ziyi, attuned to carnage, it is apparent what site this is even before the historian says, “This is where the uprising was ended, its members executed.”
The comet cants her ear. She cannot smell the scorched hair, but she can hear chants in a dead language. The words she doesn’t understand; the sentiment she comprehends perfectly. They thrum with fury, the relentless cadence of a grudge. “Who was spared?” she asks.
“None.” The line of Liatrice’s jaw draws taut. “But the revolutionaries had children, some of whom were adopted into ruling houses or indentured. A few were of mixed parentage. Though both sides denied them at that time.”
Ziyi laughs, immediately understanding the origin of Liatrice’s complexion. “I’d ask if they deny it now, but say no more. Are you dying too?”
The historian’s expression has become an empty slate. “Everyone in Darathani is. None may escape. We all bear the blood of despots and heroes both.”
“The renowned traitor, what happened to her?”
“Buried records. We know only that she was an unsurpassed engineer.”
Xanquin pets the masks at her hip. “She never thought her people and her enemies would intermingle. There lies the trouble with zealots, all dichotomies. Though the ministers’ ancestors did do their best to purge her people, so her view was understandable.”
“I’m no engineer,” the arms-dealer says. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You are known for your intimate familiarity with slaughter.” Liatrice crushes the split tails of their sleeves in a fist. “It’s hoped that you will know how to destroy the traitor’s last artifice.”
In the window a sliver of bronze glints, visible only to Hu Ziyi. An anklet or a hairband, or perhaps the remains of a mask, a crown. All serve the same purpose: to conceal identity behind the trappings of role. “I still think you’d be better off enlisting a mathematician, but I’ll consider it. In the meantime take me to your ministers so we can discuss my fees.”
“The ministers have vested me with the authority to do that. They are uneasy with your presence.”
“I’ve promised peace,” Ziyi says. “If my word’s worth nothing, then neither are my services.”
Liatrice loosens their fists slowly; their expression creases. “Is saving Xanquin’s life not payment enough?”
At this the mask-maker chuckles, the staccato of flechette discharge.
The historian inhales, as though to find calm, and uncoils a thrashing fish from their belt. Liatrice breathes into its blue-green gills; it unfurls and takes off.
In sixteen minutes it returns a different color, ink scales and wine-dark tail. Liatrice spears the fish and threads it back on their belt. “The ministers will grant you audience at stormburn.”
* * *
Stormburn turns the air to jagged thunder and acid flowers, blue-red-white. Ziyi alone walks with her head bare, unprotected. She catches petals on her palms where they reform into mote-seeds. Their thorny cilia will latch onto walls and roofs, to the skeletons of elder houses. They will grow and fruit, pollinating into the next burn and cycling the city’s power.
She is received at the House of Hours where the ministry holds court and given a blindfold that she recognizes as Xanquin’s work. Once it is on, the world dims to gray mirage and distant cymbals.
She is guided ten steps, or none at all, before the blindfold is lifted.
The hall is empty; she is alone. Water pushes against water. Her senses adjust and she makes out wall-embedded tanks, in each of which a shadow curls fetal. A latticework of struggling fish cascades down before Ziyi: eel and lamprey entwined, anglerflish and moray in knots. She runs her hands down cool, damp flanks.
What transmits is not entirely a voice; it is the sound of air escaping lungs, of flesh succumbing to implosive death. Embryonic language slithers down her throat and thrashes sentences in her stomach.
Ziyi unties a dory and slits its throat. It bleeds communication onto the stone tiles.
The silhouettes move in their amber-glass wombs, stunted limbs held close. Each is ancient, Ziyi thinks, and was human once. The only ones alive in Darathani whose arteries pump unmixed ruler lineage. The first the machine will kill once it is free.
They negotiate; she names her price.
Xanquin is waiting for her in the House of Hours’ vestibule. Ziyi bows to the mask-maker and asks, “It’s not like you to get embroiled in politics. Why Darathani?”
“One must settle eventually. Unlike you not all of us own eternity. And I have ancestral obligations.”
“Were the insurrection to happen today, who’d you support?”
“The one that offers me the best chance of survival. Pragmatism is much thicker than blood.”
Ziyi steps aside, giving way to a city guard. The man, like Xanquin, is fading at the edges. “There’s always been a place for you at my side.”
“My dear, I will not be anyone’s appendage, not even yours.”
“Thicker than blood; thinner than pride. Besides, no amount of being with you will infect me with your invulnerability.” Xanquin quirks her mouth. “If it did, I’d never let you out of bed. So?”
The comet listens. Stormburn has ended. In its wake there is silence, city-skin pulled taut. “My fee will be the engine itself.”
“To sell to an enemy of Darathani?”
“I don’t facilitate feuds between potential and former clients. I’d disable it first. Do you really mean to stay here for good? After I leave it’ll be ages before I pass through again.”
“By which time I will be gray and shriveled, yes.” The mask-maker shrugs. “Compared to outright death within the month, being toothless decades down is an enchanting prospect. I must repeat myself: so?”
“Get Liatrice. I want to look at the engine.”
* * *
The mobile aquarium is the size of a house, guarded by viper-locks of venom and fang. Liatrice sits uneasily between its seawater partitions, shoulders and back tense.
“The traitor’s people had a name,” Liatrice says, not looking at Ziyi. “Records refer to them as the dulat-liha: children of the sand. The ministry lineage is the lepim-liha, children of the knife. No trace of the dulat-liha dialect remains, and so we come to the problem of the machine. What powers it. What activated it.”
“You don’t know?”
“The blame is mine.” A dory swims by the historian’s cheek, leaving a dusting of bronze. “But the exact nature of its mechanism eludes all. Our engineers may not approach it and monitoring devices malfunction in proximity. You, I imagine, would have no trouble.”
“Liatrice,” Ziyi says, “you’re dulat-liha, aren’t you? That’s why the curse didn’t kill you, even though you were at ground zero.”
“Both lines have been mingling a long time.” Liatrice lets an eel settle around their arm, its head around their neck short of a noose. “My survival likely has more to do with my setting it off.”
For which Liatrice doesn’t appear especially remorseful, but that is not Ziyi’s business. “How have they not executed you?”
“I’m useful. I’m the only historian who’s unearthed so much on the traitor, the only one who has some hope of stopping what I unleashed.”
“Which tribe would you have sided with, given the chance?”
The historian shakes out a platinum scroll; its interlinked leaves refract onto the partitions, casting a corona of vertical script. “I would choose the one that Xanquin chooses.”
“To yoke your cause to hers doesn’t seem wise.”
“To have no cause at all seems an empty way to live.” Liatrice holds a prism before the scroll; the script changes, spiraling into itself. “These are the traitor’s final words. I’ve been decoding it, but this is slow work and crucial parts are missing.”
The vehicle pauses, shudders. Water sloshes, a spray of wet salt on Ziyi’s cheek. “We can’t be there yet.”
“After this point, vehicles don’t function.” The historian puts the scroll away and pulls a twist of fabric out of their pocket. The cloth straightens into a hood, which shrouds Liatrice in ocean foam and heat haze. “I assume you won’t need protective gear?”
“No.” Ziyi laughs. “But you would like it if I die, wouldn’t you?”
“I’m not a child.” Liatrice steps down and rattles a word to seal the locks. “Your absence will not change Xanquin’s heart. She isn’t a prize to win.”
The streets curve upward, the pavement pocked by impact scars. Weeds have taken root in the cracks. They thrust leaves the shape of abattoir hooks, give fruits in clusters of needles. Black ash drifts into Ziyi’s face. She shields her eyes with one hand, peering at the remains of a school. Its frame is oxidized, its marble façade chipped. Her mouth tastes of agarwood, as of sacred offerings. “This was a residential area?”
Liatrice nods at a crumbling roof. “A private, exclusive institution. Politicians’ children, the best curriculum. The evacuation was desperate, but they did build on top of—that.”
“I thought the machine’s location was common knowledge.”
“It used to be inert, the area small and underground. Sheer superstition not to utilize the land. The ministry despises it, superstition.” A shrug; the historian’s expression is a curl of wave, a shimmer of sun.
The pavement grows more aged and the weeds more profuse. Cinders whirl like snow, starbursts of gaseous red and indigo. The rich air occludes the senses; Ziyi’s sight narrows and her ears fill with voices speaking on the edge of comprehension. Her other affinities jangle, too much interference to parse.
When the haze begins to pulse, Liatrice is the first to draw. The shot is scatter, halo-bullets singing past Ziyi’s ears. Five coalescing masses burst and dissipate.
“I like your gun,” Ziyi says in the silence. Her earlobes sting from the graze. “I don’t think I have anything like it. Local?”
“The gunsmith doesn’t serve foreigners. We should move on before more of those shadows show up.” Liatrice holsters their weapon. “We’re building containment fields, but the rate this area expands… Projections suggest that it’ll cover this quarter in three months. Exponential growth. And ours is not a city that can afford the loss of any land.”
They quicken their pace. It becomes harder to move and, if Ziyi weren’t what she is, she would have asphyxiated on fission shadow, her lungs seared by crematorium exhaust.
They come to a corroded museum. Exhibits have blackened and fossilized; human bones strew the grounds, a marble-veined femur, a ribcage giving nest to lilies. The hair lashes at Ziyi’s ankles and the voices draw blood. She wipes pinpricks from her arms. “We should have a chat. Ministry surveillance doesn’t work here. Does it?”
The historian’s head moves. Their face is the shades of dawn striking waves. “What do you imply?”
“You triggered the engine on purpose but underestimated its potency. You wanted it to catch certain… persons, not the entire city. The trouble with zealots,” Ziyi says, amusement a low churn in her throat. “You wanted a surgical strike. Instead you caused a genocide.”
Liatrice has stopped walking. They are still, arms relaxed at their sides, but Ziyi has seen how quick they can make gun leave holster.
“Don’t. Not to be crass, but my guns are bigger.” Ziyi holds up both hands empty. “I’ve no intention of turning you in. I’m only interested in your motive.”
“The city’s rotting from the inside. Every pinch of sweet or sour is regulated, every shard of stone and grain of spice rationed. So much,” Liatrice murmurs, “goes to keep the ministry alive. The fish alone. Their cultivating and nurturing, do you know how many people that could feed or clothe in a day? We must change or we will break under the ministry’s desire to govern forever.”
Ziyi wants to press for more, but she supposes this is all she will get. Corrosive winds chase them down the museum’s carcass, clawing at Liatrice’s armor, testing Ziyi’s skin. For the moment, neither yields.
The engine is every color and none, glittering edges at impossible angles, its genesis blueprint pushing through its hide: elegant equations and honed heuristics reaching out to decide and detect. Friend or foe, neutral or target. Ziyi can feel it scan her, a tongue flicking against her scent, unseen eyes fluttering against her throat.
“Hu Ziyi,” Liatrice says, a sliver of words in the weft of engine howl. “I’ve solved the puzzle of your immortality. Many of your orbits ago, in a city whose name you’ve erased and whose people you’ve exterminated, you were imprisoned for a turn of the sun. During that time you could be hurt; the strength of your body failed before bullets and disassembly fields. Eventually you could be cut by something as primitive as a knife. The myth of the comet must be held up on your end, or else you wither and become as mortal as any of us.”
“Child,” the arms-dealer murmurs, “I could break Darathani over my knee.”
“Yes. Since that time, you’ve always armed yourself well so that would never happen again.” The historian opens her hands, echoing Ziyi’s gesture. “Some of yours weapons won’t work here, but many will. I didn’t survive this far to die here.”
“Then why bring it up?”
“To let you know I’m aware so we’ll deal candidly. Scans of your physicals from then were disseminated. I’ll give you a copy, the identities of those who possess the same, and a master key with which you can wipe out all copies.”
“Data has a way of propagating beyond control,” Ziyi says dryly, “like roaches. What’s to stop me from killing you after you turn over all that?”
“Your honor.” The historian steps closer. They are trembling slightly: armored or not, the denouement machine still exerts its might on human flesh. “You never strike your client unless threatened. I want to hire you to assassinate the ministry—the key and information will be my fees, and as insurance the knowledge that the ministry has the same data I do. They mean to act on it, robbing you of your myth-made heart and trapping you here as their weapon.”
“Forgive my suspicious nature, but it sounds like you’re coaxing me to double-cross your ministry.”
“I can prove it.” Liatrice stumbles. “Will you agree to my terms then?”
Ziyi studies the historian. They will be on their knees soon; simply being so near the engine is torture on cartilage and cranium, on sinews and tendons. “I can’t decide if you’re a born negotiator or simply desperate. Revolutionaries and their dreadful bargains; zealots and their terrible ideals.”
* * *
“I’m leaving,” Ziyi says in the chamber of stone, tearing a silver bass apart to convey speech. Its fluids gush dark against her fists. “I’ve looked at the engine and found no suitable solution. My pride stings, but I prefer to be direct.”
Their answer transmits in low vibrations.
“It’ll be a while before a gate may be opened?” Ziyi pulls down a mud-colored loach. “I was under the impression points of entry may be sealed or unsealed at will. Exit is different? I see. Of course I defer to you. When can I depart?”
A number whispers along her spine. It is too long a time for her to stay in any single place. But the comet makes a good-natured bow. Liatrice has been taken, she hears, to the city’s prison. Perhaps the ministry thinks that with Ziyi trapped, Liatrice’s use has expired.
Ziyi finds a discreet corner and pulls a length of wire from between her collarbones. She twists it into a wasp. Easier to convince wire to fly when it’s shaped like wasp or bird than when shaped like crabs or toads.
The answer comes back with speed, the wire reshaped into a butterfly: half yes, half reproach. But still, yes. She draws out more wire and makes a bigger courier, this time a hawk.
Though she prefers not to, she may go without rest, and so she stands in that same shadow waiting. The hawk returns by next day’s noon, the folded mask in its talons falling soft into Ziyi’s hands. Xanquin must have worked quickly, but the result is perfect: a face at rest with shut eyes and long lashes, a thin relaxed mouth.
Ziyi visits the prison at stormburn. She does not have to kill too many guards before reaching Liatrice’s cell, a construct of creased fox-gleam and viper-swarms. She gloves one hand in potentiality disruption, touches the cage, and watches it dissolve.
Liatrice blinks up at her, eyes adjusting to sight; the cell kept them blind.
Ziyi does not bother to comfort the historian, simply passing them the mask. “You entrusted Xanquin with an archive of what you’ve got on the traitor-engineer, what you’ve decoded from that scroll. I asked her to make this. Put it on and the machine will believe you are its progenitor.”
“Xanquin is the mask-maker, unparalleled.” The comet gives Liatrice her arm, helping the historian upright. “For what it’s worth I’ve never seen Xanquin complete a mask this fast for anyone. Let’s go.”
Under stormburn they race, Liatrice carried and sheltered by a scarab of wire and steel plates. The scarab loosens as they near the engine, falls apart at the edge of its malice. They make the rest of their way on foot. No shadow materializes to impede them this time; the voices fall quiet and the hair flat. The traitor’s long-dead face clinging seamless to their own, Liatris approaches the denouement and reaches to touch it.
It turns still, colors going static, edges going soft. Liatrice glances over at Ziyi.
“Xanquin,” Ziyi says again, “is the mask-maker.”
The historian lays their palm flat against the machine-shell. They give no command aloud. But it shudders and shrinks, folding its protrusions and beaks and claws, pulling the dead’s hair into itself.
Membrane-wings, a body of thorns and claws. It heaves, flanks and sinews gathering with light. A rolling stretch and it is gone, the trajectory and surety of a homing warhead.
* * *
The House of Hours is smoke and rubble. Puddles of oozing liquid, shards of crushed glass. Of the shadows in their tanks nothing is left. Ziyi supposes the creature of denouement devoured them to the last morsel. Liatrice strikes her as the type.
The engine itself lies inert, frozen into its final shape. She collects it. It may prove a novelty, or more, with much to unlock and repurpose. Ziyi has a terrible weakness for hoarding. The density it adds to her is not easy to bear.
As they see her off, Liatrice presses into her hand a clutch of asteroid leavings, molded into the rough shape of a key. A quick bow, but the historian offers no more beyond that. Their transaction is concluded.
Xanquin, her outline steady once more, brings her mouth to Ziyi’s. It is a sharp, biting contact, demanding a promise. Ziyi gives it, a nod; she will return soon, for if her orbit is set in stone, her speed is not.
“One day you’ll wish to give up eternity,” Xanquin says, at the gate, “and find the ones you want have moved on.”
“Will you reconsider Liatrice’s suit then?”
“Well, I’m no longer dying.” The mask-maker smiles. “Perhaps next time you pass by I’ll be married and will add you to the collection as a wife. Shall we plan for that?”
“Liatrice will kill me—they come across very devoted to monogamy.”
“They’re young. People change. Even you.”
Ziyi touches the key. “I’ve got ill-wishers to hunt down. After that, if Darathani hasn’t torn itself apart in civil war or whatever Liatrice has provoked, who knows?”
“After that,” Xanquin agrees. “I’ll hold you to it.”
Ziyi leaves the city’s bounds behind, already measuring the weight she’s newly added to herself, calculating how she might divest it. She climbs the air, up a spiral of myth that draws her into her course.
Into the sky she goes, resuming her way: a blaze across the dark, to make or break a fortune.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a bee who dreams of strange cities and beautiful futures. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. Her first novella, Scale-Bright, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association award.
About “Comet’s Call,” she shared, “When I started writing ‘Comet’s Call,’ I had a basic, simple concept in mind: an intergalactic arms dealer. She’d be an outsider, and not all that inclined to get personally involved anywhere, the ultimate neutral party. But a lot of my stories turn to relationships, to history and resisting history as written by power, and I wanted to challenge myself by writing something of that scope within a small space. It’s also one of my first overtly science-fantasy stories and my first edited by Mike Allen that doesn’t involve even a single bee.”
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