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Featured Story • August 2015

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Her Pound of Flesh

 

Cassandra Khaw

 
 

She wore her mother’s bones to the ball.

“You’re getting fat,” hissed the bejeweled skull on her hip.

She hushed her mother. It wasn’t the best arrangement. She had wanted a demure gown, green as limes, not the pale jade silks that foamed over her legs. The electric blues of her kingfisher mask were appealing, true, but they lacked the gravity of a hawk’s cruel smirk. And the slippers? Banana-gold slippers left much to be desired for.

At least, it was striking.

A courtier minced up to the unusually tall guest, even as she stood mulling over the state of her apparel. Next to his dusky flesh, her colorless skin glowed like the blind fish at the bottom of the ocean. He smiled timorously. She frowned.

“Introducing—”

“Yeh-Shen,” said the recent arrival. “Princess Yeh-Shen of the Ochre Mountains.”

The official nodded. He wasn’t about to argue with the garland of finger bones around Yeh-Shen’s throat, or the death’s head mounted on her side. He turned to the crowd, which had long since transformed from a laughing, living thing to a shimmering tide of faces frozen mid-breath.

“Announcing Princess Yeh-Shen of the Ochre Mountains.”

The gathering said nothing, expressions caged behind a bestiary of glittering masks.

Gingerly, the palace attendant extended a hand.

“Thanks,” Yeh-Shen demurred. “But I can manage.”

Yeh-Shen glided down obsidian steps, her every motion hounded by the eyes of the spellbound hall. The space was as tall as seven adult men and wide enough to room three generations of peasants. Massive chandeliers rocked gently between jewel-draped stalactites, buffeted by somnolent bats who would sometimes blink glowing honey eyes. Moss snaked across the ground, lush emerald against the bronze curlicues flattened onto the sanded-down cavern floor, life and artifice united in art.

The only sounds were the shallow rustling of breath and the percussion of the Yeh-Shen’s feet. The musicians no longer played their instruments. Instead, they stood with limp hands and mouths slightly agape, their kohl-kissed eyes tethered to Yeh-Shen’s face. Even the servants were like stone carvings, their duties forgotten. Glasses that should have brimmed with rich, red wines stayed hollow, while plates filled with half-eaten delicacies remained piled on silk-draped tables.

The Amazonian figure, who stood almost a head taller than everyone else, looked around and sighed. Yeh-Shen dug a fistful of black powder, crushed pearls and the viscera of a universe long dead, from one of the pouches circling her waist, and blew. A cloud of shadows exploded forward, rearing like a many-faced serpent over the heads of the gathered dignitaries. Black tendrils found cheeks and chins, teased apart crimson-stained lips, before worming down unflinching throats. Within the span of three heartbeats, the party was once again under way, its latest guest forgotten in the shimmer of practiced laughter.

“I told you,” said Yeh-Shen. “Too many rabbit hearts.”

“To make up for you being fat,” came the reply, dry as bone dust.

“I’m—” Yeh-Shen glared. “Very funny.”

Her mother’s skull grinned.

Under different circumstances, Yeh-Shen might have pursued argument but the squids’ prophecies allowed no space for dawdling, their meaning irrefutable as ink. It was now, or another century of waiting in the dark, in the kelp, in the luminous silence of the lantern fish. Another century of twisting with guilt in the belly of the ocean.

No, Yeh-Shen decided. She would not let that happen.

Her gaze sifted through tittering courtesans and round-bellied lords, none of whom paid her any attention as she stalked past, their eyes sluicing from her shoulders like rain from a leaf.

There.

Her heart jumped. Bai Xian. The girl that Yeh-Shen sought was barely more than a child, a doe-eyed sylph with a heartbreaking smile, a young willow tree dwarfed by the Emperor of the Seven Valleys’ round-bellied shadow.

She was beautiful, of course. But Bai Xian was always beautiful. It was the one constant that persisted from century to century, from reincarnation to reincarnation. But there was something brittle about the loveliness this time, something bitter, like fruit that rotted on the vine.

Poor thing, Yeh-Shen thought sadly, her mind filling with sun-scorched images of paddy fields and labor, of frigid nights spent knotted with a clutch of twig-thin siblings, starved for sleep and meat. Surely, that was why Bai Xian was so slender, her smile so pensive.

As Yeh-Shen watched, the Emperor wrapped a pudgy arm around Bai Xian’s shoulders, dragging her closer. His laughter was thick and wet. In three years, he would drown on the very air he breathed, his lungs overrun with the bulbous growths already taking root in his chest. Yeh-Shen could see his death as clearly as she could see his salvation. But, she would never share her visions with him nor the whereabouts of the roots that would prolong his existence. Not with the images of Bai Xian’s future blazing in her mind’s eye.

Bai Xian. Yeh-Shen clutched the name like a talisman as she pushed forward. She would save her sister, as she had done a hundred times before.

“Child.”

Charcoal eyes met her own. The lack of recognition in Bai Xian’s gaze hurt, but the dull ache was nothing Yeh-Shen was unaccustomed to. She flashed the girl a wan smile even as she removed the kingfisher mask, revealing a face both gaunt and bloodless, an ageless visage that could have been anywhere between fifteen and fifty. In answer, the girl curtseyed, a line of question crinkling her smooth brow.

Colors that man had no names for slithered through the air like the ghosts of snakes. Without the mask, Yeh-Shen’s glamours had nothing to anchor themselves to, boiling away so the court could see Yeh-Shen for what she really was. The panic was immediate. Screams whipped across the hall. The Emperor of the Seven Valleys began shouting, pendulous chest heaving wildly. Guards circled around Yeh-Shen, their eyes hard with suspicion and their breaths shallow with fear. Only Bai Xian was unmoved, loam-skinned and sable hair and wide, watchful eyes.

“Who are you?” the Emperor of the Seven Valleys demanded.

A long, uneasy silence stalked through the chamber. Yeh-Shen’s behaviour perplexed. Where others would wilt in the heat of the monarch’s wrath, she stood straight-backed and unmoved. Her black eyes showed no interest in the crossbows trained on her neck, no fear of the blades reflecting her unsmiling face.

Finally: “This unequal one is your Sea Witch, she supposes.”

The crowd hissed like a nation of cats.

“You suppose?” The Emperor of the Seven Valleys bellowed.

Yeh-Shen felt an odd pang of affection for the man, who apparently bore a backbone under his lurid finery. “This unequal one is many things, Lord of Ten Thousand Years. One of them is a Sea Witch. This unequal one is also daughter, goddess, storyteller, sister. ”

Her eyes darted briefly to Bai Xian.

“But, in the context of this conversation, Sea Witch seems most appropriate.”

The Sea Witch grinned and the mortal throng ebbed backwards.

She took a long step forward. Then, another. And another. The guards melted from her approach, their swords still pointed impotently in her direction. There were no longer enchantments to distract from the bones in Yeh-Shen’s hair, or the smell of offal and sea salt that clung to her skin. There was no longer a way to ignore the ritual scars that hugged her neck like a possessive lover. Witch, their thoughts shouted. She could turn us all into bottom feeders if she chose.

And they were right.

But Yeh-Shen did not turn them into crabs, or the awkward sea cucumbers that limped across the ocean floor. Instead, she knelt before their Emperor of the Seven Valleys, arms opened like emerald wings, lips curved like a scimitar. For a moment, Yeh-Shen’s eyes gleamed amber as she swallowed the saffron hidden under her tongue.

“This unequal one apologizes,” Yeh-Shen purred. “But, there was no other way. Invitations to such grand affairs are so rarely sent to us Sea Witches.”

Trust, the saffron sighed. Trust everything she says. A tremor of laughter eased through the couriers, shaky and wild, a sound drunk on spice. Only the Emperor of the Seven Valleys wrestled with the magic, unwilling to submit to its opiate kiss. In the end, his spirit caved and fell docile.

“Well,” The Emperor huffed. “We didn’t know that we had a Sea Witch in our waters. If we had, we’d have sent invitations and a chariot to ease your passage here.”

“You are too kind, Lord of Ten Thousand Years.” Yeh-Shen unfolded, tall and straight like the tibia of a giant. “And for that, this unequal one would like to reward you.”

She turned to face the assembly with a flourish, gossamer green silks fanning outwards. Without warning, Yeh-Shen locked her fingers around Bai Xian’s delicate wrist and tugged. The girl stumbled forward with a yip, eyes engorged with emotion. Was that fear or anger? Yeh-Shen wondered.

“My friends,” Her voice sang with the spice-drug. “My … betters. I am here to make right a wrong.”

What Bai Xian heard was, “We’re here to free you from the Emperor.”

Yeh-Shen thrust Bai Xian’s arm upwards. All eyes were were trained on the two women, one like a dangerous goddess, the other her maiden sacrifice. “The Oracle of the Sea told me that a great injustice would take place this evening. Our Emperor of the Seven Valleys was destined to meet his love here. In this very hall. And their love would have birthed ten thousand sons, each as bright and golden as the sun.”

“But, a Witch took notice.”

As one, the congregation gasped. The Emperor of the Seven Valleys purpled as he glared down at Bai Xian.

“What?” The words that spilled from Bai Xian carried a rasp of steel. “What are you saying?”

Yeh-Shen stared into the girl’s eyes, scorching in their fury. Bai Xian struggled against her imprisonment like a wildcat, kicking and clawing at her captor, nails tearing red furrows into Yeh-Shen’s iron hold.

“Trust me,” The Sea Witch murmured, her grip jolting tighter. Surprise poured indignant anger into her voice. “I’m here to make sure this fat boar of an Emperor does not destroy your life.”

“I don’t need rescuing!”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what awaited you.”

“I don’t care.” Bai Xian snarled. “This is what I want. No one forced me. For as long as my name is tied to his, the Emperor’s line will watch over my family line, ensuring prosperity for generations to come. Unless you ruin it.”

“You will die terribly,” Yeh-Shen roared in return, still uncomprehending, still dizzied by the unexpected opposition. “Why can’t you understand that?”

“It’s a small price to pay for love, you stupid Sea Witch.” Bai Xian paused, panting, black hair plastered over her face like the spiderweb of cracks tunneling through Yeh-Shen’s plans. “Not that your kind would understand what that means.”

A cackling laugh from Yeh-Shen’s side. “If only you knew, little tadpole!”

Bai Xian lurched backwards. “What is that?”

“A long story.” Yeh-Shen sighed, as the crowd murmured restlessly to itself, aware that her concentration was wavering. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“I do mind! Let me go, you stupid fiend! Let me go, let me go, let me go!” Gone was the illusion of a pliant child. What stood before Yeh-Shen was heat and purpose, elemental in its soaring rage. Bai Xian’s gaze blistered. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because you are my sister, damned by a mistake I made millennias ago. Because I promised I would make that wrong right.” Yeh-Shen snapped, her own patience guttering, dimming to a smoky sullenness. “Now, if you don’t mind.”

The revelation shocked Bai Xian into an owl-eyed silence. Yeh-Shen breathed out. That, at least, was one problem resolved. Every new iteration of her sister recognized the truth when it was spoken, the story intrinsic to the topography of their spirit. No challenge arose, only silent appraisal.

Now, Yeh-Shen needed to contend with the court. The issue with magic was that no matter how powerful the enchantments, it was not all-encompassing. There were limits. It could be stretched like a hide over the bones of a drum, but too much and a spell would begin to fray. Although the courtiers heard nothing of the bickering exchange, their spirits recognized a slackening in their chains, a weakening of purpose that could be honed into escape.

Yeh-Shen felt her breath narrow, felt the skeins of will that tied her to the crowd tighten around her ribs. She only had one opportunity before the quelled masses erupted from their bondage. “This was your Emperor’s true intended. Betrayed, slain, and left to dream among the eels, her image was taken and funneled into this changeling beast. But, do not fear. On this most fateful of nights, this unequal one has brought her home. To you.”

“To her love.”

Not even death himself could have torn the congregation’s attention from the Yeh-Shen, or her mother’s skull, which she lofted in one pale hand. Drama was a magic of its own, she decided giddily. Yeh-Shen released Bai Xian’s arm with a flick of her wrist, before locking her attention on the wide-eyed emperor.

“The sea is a mercurial goddess. Some days, she is ravenous. Some days, she is kind. And like her husband the Moon, she is of two faces. Despair. Hope. Death. Life.”

“Are you saying—” the Emperor gasped.

“Yes.”

And it was then that Yeh-Shen exhaled a single Word. It was not the most potent Word in her arsenal though no one else knew this but the Sea Witch herself. But it resonated with power, which, at that instant in time, mattered more than the weight of the Word itself. Trust, crooned the saffron, its voice amplified by the grandeur of the moment. Trust everything you see.

The skull began to spiral into the air, driven upwards by a corkscrew of oily green smoke, its empty eye sockets now pits of molten jade. The vapors thickened and spread. They grew into lithe arms and legs that seemed to arch into perpetuity, into full breasts and flaring hips made to fit the circle of a man’s hands. Before anyone could react, a woman emerged from the fumes, naked and perfect save for the skull that grinned triumphantly above the marble column of her throat.

Yeh-Shen saw Bai Xian’s eyes widen as the homunculus was embraced by the sobbing Emperor, who seemed oblivious to the fleshless mien, the hollow gaze, the unadorned bone. She allowed herself a weary smile. Yeh-Shen had won, if barely. As the applause surged, inarticulate with good cheer, Yeh-Shen clasped Bai Xian’s lean shoulders.

“Come,” said Yeh-Shen, motioning for silence with her free hand, even as she sharpened the last tatters of the saffron’s influence into an arrowhead, wicked enough to split doubt and distrust.

“What—”

“Mother will be home when she is good and ready. She loves playing queen.” Good enough, Yeh-Shen thought. She untethered the magic, let it howl free.

“Mother? That’s your Mother? “

“Ours, actually. “The Sea Witch glanced over a shoulder. “Each ocean can only host one Sea Witch at a time. As I’ve said before, it was a very long story. But, we have plenty of time to speak. You’re still very, very young. Come.”

The saffron pierced deep.

“I don’t—” Bai Xian shook her head, dislodging strands of ink-dark hair from an elegant buyao, voice muddled with indecision. Her feet moved unbidden, yoked to sorcerous compulsion. “And, who are you?”,

“Your sister, hell kitten. I thought I said so already.” Yeh-Shen smiled as they wove through well-wishers and the excited courtiers, each and every one blind with borrowed excitement. In the distance, their mother stood, monstrous and improbable, regaling the crowd with stories of a glittering, impossible future.

“Once upon a time,” Yeh-Shen began, suddenly feeling old and tired at the prospect of repeating the tale again, its words worn down by centuries of repetition. Was this what it was like to grow stoop-shouldered and bowed with gravity, bones and sinew singing with endless complaint? “There were two sisters. One was destined to a servant’s life, while the other was destined for the palace. Their mother, who was a sorceress of considerable renown, disagreed with this arrangement. She knew that latter had power in her veins, and witch-queens were seldom good news for anyone—including themselves.”

“And thus, she swapped their fates.”

The two ascended the steps and exited into the cold night outside. The air tasted of brine and endlessness, a natural scent that Yeh-Shen discovered she had already come to miss. “The second sister, the one born with magic in her veins, eventually found out about what her mother had done. Incensed, she decided she would punish her sibling. So, she cursed her.”

Bai Xian said nothing.

Yeh-Shen sighed. “She cursed her to kings. To forever marry into royalty. To always be the country’s plaything, a dangling ornament on a monarch’s arm. If that was what they wanted, the girl thought. That was what they would have. She would take away her sister’s right to love, to live, to choose for her own. Just like their mother had done to her. And for a little while, the witch-sister was pleased.”

“So, you were a sullen child who decided to condemn … me to eternal torment?” Bai Xian’s voice was a viper uncoiling into rage. “Just because you wanted to play princess?”

“Yes.” The word came barren of excuses.

“Monster.”

The Sea Witch did not reply, nor did she stop Bai Xian from wrenching herself away to pace cat-footed along the earth. The girl moved like a leopard on the hunt, Yeh-Shen thought. Each step economical yet fluid, never more than what the situation demanded. It was remarkable what a minor shift in carriage could expose, what a smile and long lashes could disguise.

“I don’t believe you,” said Bai Xian. No longer did she speak in a manner befitting a member of royalty, trading courtly colloquialisms for the coarse music of the commoners. The words ran rough and sharp, like dark city alleys.

“You don’t have to.”

“I’m going back inside. I’m taking back the life you tried to steal.”

“You can’t.”

Bai Xian spat. The glob of phlegm barely missed Yeh-Shen’s feet. “Why?”

“Mother already has them in thrall. There is quite literally nothing that can be done, unless you have wish to murder the entirety of the palace.”

“Fuck,” said Bai Xian. And then again, in a voice like a tiger’s laugh. “Fuck.”

The two women fell silent for a time. The ocean outside of the palace was velvet-black, its spumes silvered by moonlight. From time to time, a bird would rupture the waves and claim a metal-bright fish from its depths. Once, the sea reciprocated, lunging upwards to snare a passing gull in knife-studded jaws.

Bai Xian carded her hair with her fingers, dragging coils free from their elaborate coif. With each pass, the motion grew more savage, more wild. “Is this a game to you? Is this what you do for fun? Go from lifetime to lifetime, destroying everything your sister has built? ”

“No. That was never my intention.”

“Then, why are you doing this to me?” Dark eyes flashed, like chips of obsidian polished to a killing edge.

“I wanted to rescue you,”

“From what?”

Slipping her hands into voluminous sleeves, Yeh-Shen strode closer, eyes charting the length of her sister. She could see now the taut muscles cording Bai Xian’s arms, the coarseness of her palms, the mosaic of half-healed scars striping the woman’s neck.

How had she not noticed, indeed? Yeh-Shen wondered. The Bai Xians of the past, the ones that she saved and the ones she did not, were like dolls, porcelain-frail and breakable. This Bai Xian was steel and stone, predator-sure and sleek.

“You’d have died,” said Yeh-Shen. “Three winters from now, after attempting to birth as many stillborn sons, your womb ruptured by poison.”

She hesitated. “Before you ask, I did consult the deep oracles—every future in the palace would have flowed to the same ending. There was no other way to save you.”

Bai Xian nodded once. “It would have been an honorable death, however.”

“A needless one. For a man you did not love.” Yeh-Shen replied, voice dense with ghosts.

“For a family I care about, that I love more than all the blood in my veins.” Bai Xian shrugged. “Now, you have doomed them to live and die by chance.”

“Is that so bad? All mortals live and die by chance.”

The look that Bai Xian leveled at Yeh-Shen was flint and iron, rust and hate. So foreign from anything Bai Xian’s past selves might have donned, Yeh-Shen reflected. Less yielding, yes, but also so much more becoming in its dangerous newness, this shark-sister and her hunter stare.

“Ah,” A pause. “I did not mean to offend.”

Silence again, awkward and hulking, round with histories undivulged. Yeh-Shen was the first to break the new quiet, a stammering entreaty. “I could assist your family myself. It’s possible.”

“Can you promise them fortunes?”

Yeh-Shen nodded. This was a script she was accustomed to. Every Bai Xian she had rescued before was rooted in the physical, their catalog of desires pragmatic. Doting husbands, a plot of fecund land, wealth enough to survive generations.

“Gold enough to buy the Emperor and his concubines three times over, jewels to ransom this kingdom a hundred times more.”

“Can you buy my grand-nieces placement in the best universities? Can you weed the slyness from the local shopkeepers? Can you extort the markets to offer my aunts only the best fruits? Can you turn squids into suitors for my children, and their children, and their children’s children?”

“With difficulty, but yes.”

“That’s the problem.” Bai Xian’s voice gentled. “Somewhere, somehow, someone will slip between the cracks, and they will suffer. I can’t have that.”

“The Emperor is only a mortal.”

“The Emperor is an institution.”

Yeh-Shen inhaled. There was no sidestepping her sister’s logic, or the hopelessness that crouched in her gaze. “I’m sorry.”

An almost imperceptible nod. “You should be.”

Fireworks erupted above their heads. The muffled celebration within the palace walls had reached its apex. The crackling hues webbed the sky in brilliant greens and ochres, in fusillades of stardust and amber, before finally fading to a faint tang of gunpowder.

“Sister,” said Yeh-Shen. “Whatever I can do, I will do. I have spent three hundred lifetimes attempting to atone for my childish stupidity. I do not intend to stop. The curse can never be broken, but I have tried my best to turn its blade each and every time. If there is something you desire that is within my power to fulfill, you need but name it.”

“Well,” said Bai-Xian. “I can think of one thing.”

“And what is that?”

“Since I cannot become an Empress by marriage, you shall help me become an Empress by force.” Something not dissimilar from a smile crept onto Bai Xian’s lips. “You will assist me in staging a coup, Sea Witch. You owe me and I intend to have my pound of flesh.”

And Yeh-Shen, who had rushed into the palace to rescue a girl only to discover a warrior, who had expected menial wants but instead found the birth of a revolution, began to laugh.

 
 

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Cass_smCassandra Khaw is the business developer for Singaporean micropublisher Ysbryd Games. When she is not busy with work, she can be found pecking at various pieces of fiction. Her work can be found or is forthcoming at The Dark, Terraform, Shimmer, Lackington’s, and more. She is also publishing a novella with Abaddon Books later this year and is mad excited about it.

 

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