In the city of Jiun-Shi the third shift was known as the goblin watch, but some of us were not very watchful. I, for one, was so absorbed in the daily details of living a lie that it took me three months to learn that one of the regulars at the Silver Fish Teahouse was a goblin. By the time our paths collided three years later, I had been promoted to third-shift manager, and my lie had been promoted to widely established fact.
Often during my shift I furtively watched him where he sat in his guise as a human poet and scribe-for-hire. Sometimes he was alone, his narrow shoulders slumped over a crisp rectangle of paper, his fine writing brush held in his gaunt left hand. Usually there were women at his table asserting their dominance, half-offended and half-fascinated that a man would bother to educate himself so thoroughly. To their credit, he looked the part of that second-class citizen of the Empire of Ru, the human male. But I—a liar smug in my knowledge of another’s truth—pitied those women who approached him in ignorance and waded in out of their depth.
He always remained tranquil, even as suitors playfully mocked him and threaded their fingers through his bird’s-nest hair. His sharp indigo eyes were always open, even when a woman leaned in to kiss his mouth. He never corrected those who treated him as a common plaything, but without fail a more experienced patron would whisper the secret into her sister’s ear just slightly too late to keep the poor woman from becoming infatuated.
It was heartbreaking each time to watch the goblin’s latest lover realize that his facial expressions, his exquisite manners, even his soul-stirring poetry came not from the heart—as a goblin he did not have one—but from a detailed study of the human race and its peculiar passions. Most limped on with their lives thereafter, never returning to the teahouse, but a few stopped eating, stopped sleeping, died of starvation or some simple fever. Two had killed themselves, one with poison, one, more appropriately, by drowning.
The name the poet used was Tuo, a common name in Jiun-Shi, almost comically so. He may as well have named himself “perfectly ordinary man” and had done with it. This along with his absurd hair amused me and kept me from having the fearful reverence I ought to have had for a creature possibly thousands of years old. Younger goblins could not achieve such a perfect human shape, particularly not for the entire night, but despite Tuo’s obvious power and experience, I declined to be intimidated.
I had long made note of what wearied and offended the great among our guests—the Seeresses in particular—so that I might never repeat those mistakes. But a goblin, oh, that was another thing altogether. How would one even begin? Goblins were known to dart in and out of human society wreaking recreational havoc during the night, but as children of the goddess Ru and creatures of Her divine chaos, things such as consistency and loyalty were antithetical to them. And yet the Silver Fish had hosted Tuo for as far back as anyone could trace history.
Given the reputation of goblins in general and Tuo in particular, I had decided it was best to simply avoid him, until I realized that he might be the very being who could solve the dilemma that circumscribed my existence.
The great are accustomed to having favors asked of them, and are on guard for it. I dismissed a hundred clever ways of attracting his notice, of fascinating him, and then one night I managed it quite by accident. At the time my attentions were entirely focused on the Mistress of Visions, who had come down from the Starlight Temple to grace us with her black-robed presence. I was preoccupied with trying to find out more about the Temple entrance examinations without drawing undue attention to myself, but when I turned away from her table I found Tuo staring at me. Instantly the Seeress was forgotten. I schooled my expression into something attentive and curious but unconcerned, a near-exact mirror of his.
He was alone for the moment, his idle brush resting across his teacup. He crooked a finger at me: a gentle, persuasive gesture. Curling my hands into my skirt just enough to clear the hem from the floor, I glided over to his table and dropped a fluid half-curtsey, grateful that my high collar concealed my pulse.
“Is there something I can do for you?” I asked politely.
At the sound of my voice, he leaned forward, as though catching nuances. His eyes skimmed over my face and body with neither furtiveness nor audacity. “Please sit,” he said, gesturing to the chair on the other side of the small tabletop. He continued to watch my movements as I sat, then leaned his jaw into the palm of his hand and looked at me from a canted angle. A smile appeared on his lips, but his eyes remained unchanged, neither warm nor cool.
“To what do I owe the honor of your attention?” I said, returning his smile politely. This close I could smell him, an odd mixture of ink and lakewater overlaid with a cheap spicy oil that one of the tea-boys might have worn.
“Kinship,” he said. He reached for his writing brush but did not resume his work, just held it poised as he continued to watch me. “I had not thought to find another like myself, here.”
That caught me by surprise. “You think I am a Daughter of Ru?” His kind objected to the term “goblin.”
“You are a daughter of no one,” he replied.
Now it was I who leaned forward, latching my gaze fiercely onto his for a moment. I had suspected that he might see the truth of me, which was one reason I had avoided him. Affecting restrained indignation, I lowered my voice. “I would request that you be careful of what you say, and how loudly you say it.”
“While I’m aware of the reputation that my kind have made for themselves among yours,” he said, “I am not here to pull the threads of your life and watch them unravel. I am simply here to observe, and learn what I can.”
“And what do you expect to learn from me?”
Instead of answering, he reached across the table and took my hand. The gesture shocked me so much I pulled back, but not before the soft coolness of his palm sent a shudder through my spine. My discomfort caused something so lovely and transformative to happen to his face that it might have been taken for a sudden infatuation, but I had observed too many scholars not to recognize an academic epiphany.
“Let us retire to an upper room,” he said, “so that we may speak with more privacy.”
“The others will think....”
“...that their manager is a courageous and fortunate woman,” he finished. From any other lips it would have been arrogance; from his it was arid, unembellished fact.
I led Tuo to the back stairway, conscious of the shocked gazes of my coworkers. The tea-boys had long ago learned not to so much as brush their fingertips over my sleeve.
I unlocked one of the larger rooms and swept by the silk-curtained bed out onto the balcony, where I settled carefully into a lacquered chair. He locked the door behind us.
It was past midnight, but many of the shopkeepers’ stalls were still open. The lantern-lit streets were washed with the tides of their chatter and the smells of spiced fox and yellow rice. Tuo seated himself in the chair next to me, but his gaze floated past the activity in the street and settled on the narrow Lunar Canal, where two six-passenger water taxis carefully passed one another on their ways west and east.
“How long have you been disguised?” he asked me, just when I thought he had forgotten I was there.
“Seven years,” I said. He had not yet specified the nature of my disguise, and I knew enough of goblins not to volunteer the whole truth myself.
“Why?” His tone was insistent but touched with a perfect facsimile of sympathy.
“My hope,” I said carefully, “is to earn enough money to take the Temple examination and become a Seeress.”
He turned his eyes to me then; in the dim light they appeared bottomless. “I thought only females of your kind were touched by the Goddess.”
I felt muscles loosen that I had not realized were knotted. “So the High Seeresses say. My older brother claimed to have the Sight and was executed for blasphemy.”
“And yet you believe the same of yourself? Why?”
I shrugged. “I could name a hundred small things. I draw my hand back just before someone spills her tea. I make people look away from me if I wish not to be seen. Simple tricks of the untrained. But at heart it is a certainty, as present and constant as my sense of smell or hearing.”
“Does your family know?”
I shook my head. “I was told that my mother is a tertiary to the Mistress of Shrouds here; I haven’t seen her since they cut my cord. My father is still toiling away in the saltworks, if he lives.”
“Has anyone seen the truth of you?”
“Even a Seeress does not often probe past surfaces that appear as expected. Nor a Son of Ru, if you’ll forgive me; I have worked your preferred shift for over three years.”
Relentlessly impenetrable, Tuo did not acknowledge my implied question. “Will there be a physical examination when you apply at the Temple?”
“I don’t know. For now it’s irrelevant, as I do not have the money I need. When the time comes, my hope is that I will have a chance to demonstrate my talent conclusively before I am executed.”
“What would be the purpose of that?”
“To throw a stone into the pond, as it were. Perhaps open the way for other men, if the ripples I make are large enough.”
“Self-sacrifice,” said Tuo thoughtfully. “A concept that has always eluded me. Social change, on the other hand, I find both necessary and pleasing.”
He leaned back in his chair, his eyes falling half-closed in thought. “What intrigues me most about the Empire,” he said, “is that despite its alleged devotion to a goddess of chaos, its structures and hierarchies have remained crystalline for centuries.” He paused, and then the corners of his mouth lifted in a tepid smile. “It occurs to me that perhaps I could be of assistance to you.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” I considered asking what he desired in return, then reminded myself that a goblin offered what it pleased him to offer and took what it pleased him to take, heedless of fair play on either side.
“I have been looking for someone that I trust to carry out an experiment,” he said.
“And you trust me?”
“I trust anyone whose secrets have not stained my writing brush,” he said, shifting his gaze back out to the water.
“Do you remember Liru?” he said, surprising me with the jarring change of subject. “Niam Liru.”
“Ah... yes,” I said, blinking away the image of her drowned, bloated body. “A regular here, four or five years ago? Worked for the Canal Bureau.”
“You are courteous not to mention her end. But I think of her every day, and others like her, dead before their time.”
I turned to study his gaunt, strangely-made face, not certain if I should believe what I was hearing. To my knowledge, goblins were not capable of remorse.
He either did not notice or did not mind my scrutiny. “I came here once or twice as a woman,” he went on, “to see if it would help me understand. The tea-boys I dallied with did not come to the same ends. I am not certain I understand why.”
“Boys are raised with very different expectations,” I said.
He looked back at me then, his eyes reflecting lamplight. “What do women expect?”
From his silence, I might as well have been speaking a foreign tongue. In another dizzying change of subject, which I began to expect might be commonplace with him, he asked, “May I see your true form?”
“I am not a shapechanger,” I said. “I only dress to hide my shape.”
“I understand,” he said. “But I would like to see you as you were made.”
“And I you,” I said, as a gentle way of refusing his request. In the untold centuries since Tuo had begun visiting Jiun-Shi, not a single person had ever seen him without his veneer of humanity.
“It seems a ‘fair exchange,’” he replied immediately.
I took a moment to conceal my shock. “Not here,” I said at last. “I can’t take the risk some drunken merchant or magistrate might blunder in. But I do not work tomorrow night. I could meet you at the fourth bell, at the Lunar Gate, under the wall. The taxis retire at two bells; there will be no one there.”
“I will do my best to be punctual,” he said.
The wind the following night was robust enough to make me stagger; it tore snakes of black hair loose from carefully placed pins and thrashed my dress against my bones until the silk cut like broken glass.
I followed the Lunar Canal to the westernmost edge of the city, where it flowed beneath a vine-streaked arch in the gray stone wall. There was just enough of a lip along the edge of the canal to allow a slight person such as myself to edge her way carefully beneath the archway and sidestep along it out it toward the moat. I found my way to the deepest shadows beneath the wall, flattened my back against chill stone, and waited.
I stared down into the water, imagining for a moment I could see beneath its oily black surface, catch glimpses of the pale yellowed bones of those who had come to end their despair or to meet in secret with a betrayer. The thought crossed my mind, not for the first time, that Tuo intended me harm, but I dismissed it as vanity. Then my mind’s pendulum lurched in the other direction, and I wondered if he would forget to meet me.
No sooner had the humiliating possibility occurred to me than I saw a disturbance in the canal, near a rotting wooden ladder so darkened with algae I had not noticed it. It was propped on the far edge of the canal on the city side of the wall. The surface of the water wrinkled and shuddered, and something moved just beneath, something invisible and preternaturally quick. A qualm seized me, and I pressed my spine harder against stone, fighting the urge to turn my face away. I forced myself to hold still, to keep my eyes on the ladder.
The creature that slithered its way up the rungs was only roughly similar to a human in shape. It was smaller than I expected, and covered in slick, froglike skin. I could make out few details in the light of the half-moon, only that the dark hands were webbed, the head spherical and grotesquely smooth, as I had seen depicted in drawings of goblins before.
As it climbed up onto the lip of the canal I saw that it had an articulate, wormlike tail, and that its hind legs bent in two places like an animal’s. Its locomotion was somehow disorienting; it seemed to pour across the stone like a shadow from a moving light source. As it made its way under the wall, I suddenly found myself intensely grateful for the twenty feet of water that separated us.
“Tuo?” I said softly.
I cannot speak to you aloud. I have no tongue. His words hovered in my consciousness as though they had recently been uttered.
Stiffly, not wanting to linger on formalities, I began to disrobe. “Can you see in the dark?”
Of course. But I had not realized there would be such wind. Won’t you be chilled?
“You may leave your pretense of concern behind with the rest of your disguise,” I said, working irritably at the tiny buttons embedded in the dark silk. I bit my tongue, then. I needed Tuo to be kindly disposed toward me; what I needed from him no one else in the city could give.
Even after I shrugged off the outer layer that covered me from neck to ankles, I was still not recognizable as male. The fashion was to use undergarments to create an androgynous, columnar shape. Removing the armor of these undergarments was something I had only ever done in a windowless room behind at least three sturdy locks. It had been years since I had felt wind on my skin, and as I peeled away the bindings from my chest I began to tremble.
May I examine you more closely?
“If you need to,” I said between chattering teeth. I realized I had nowhere to put my clothes. I held them to my now-naked belly as he dived into the water, scarcely disturbing its surface and then emerging just to my right. As I was wondering how he would climb the three feet of stone between the water and the lip of the canal, he simply flowed up the sheer surface like ink into a brush. I wondered about the ladder, before. Had he acquired human habits? Or had he been trying not to unsettle me?
His smooth dark head reached only to my shoulder, and I was not particularly tall. He looked up at me with large, featureless, dusky eyes; if he had pupils of any kind I was unable to see them in the dim light.
I am going to touch you, he warned me.
I stiffened a fraction of a second before he laid a hand under each of my elbows. His skin was wet and impossibly cold as he lifted my arms and the clothes bundled in them so that he could stare unrepentantly between my legs.
Do you find it ugly? he asked me. Distasteful?
“I suppose. I hadn’t really thought of it,” I said. My teeth were chattering so fiercely that I could barely get the words out. “I don’t know how I would feel about it if it weren’t a death sentence.”
Your skin is smoother than what I wear in your shape. He stroked a palm down the center of my chest. The contact was oily and frictionless, my visceral response humiliatingly visible.
“I would prefer that you not touch me.”
Would this make you more comfortable?
Before my eyes, he shifted, making me feel as though I had pitched over the edge of an abyss. I had to lean back against the wall to keep my footing.
A young woman stood before me, as unclothed as I. Her hair was a tangled mess, her mouth parted slightly, her pale skin covered with gooseflesh. The illusion was so real, so insistent to my senses, that my knees buckled in shock and I sank onto them. She knelt too, slipping her arms around me. My own arms were still full of clothing, and I told myself this was why I did not pull away. She kissed my mouth even as her small silken hands investigated me in a decidedly dispassionate manner.
My eyes opened wide at that; I had not realized that I had closed them. Hers were open too, inches from mine, and their emptiness swallowed me. Before I even knew what I intended, I gave her a fierce shove toward the water. She had no time to simulate an emotion as she toppled backward into the canal.
I hugged the bundle of clothing to my body and fled.
I slept in fitful bursts throughout the following day, haunted by oblique, mythic nightmares that did nothing to address my real terror. A sleep like a black tide fell over me in the early evening, and I woke hours later, groggy and perilously close to being late for my shift. I dressed and hurriedly scraped sparse stubble from my chin and upper lip before rushing out into the dark street and waving down a water taxi.
When I arrived at the teahouse, no sooner had I disembarked than I felt a familiar presence in my thoughts.
Do not come inside. Someone saw you running naked through the streets last night. Rumors abound.
I cursed aloud, looking for Tuo but not finding him. I ducked into the alley beside the Silver Fish and hoped he would find me.
In a few moments, a black cat bumped against my legs. I can change you, if you like. If Tuo held any ill will toward me for the way I had treated him the night before, it did not reveal itself through his speech nor the animal’s body language.
Female. In case they should search you.
A shiver ran through me. So casually, he offered what I had spent weeks pondering how to ask. The cat began to purr, and I felt the scrape of a fang on my bare ankle as it rubbed its head under the hem of my skirt.
“If you can do that,” I said tensely, “then be quick about it! I’m late.”
It may feel unpleasant at first, he said.
I was about to demand that he get on with it when I suddenly felt the world tilt like a boat in a storm. This time I was not staring into the abyss, I was plunging into it headfirst. I would have cried out, if I’d had any connection whatsoever to my physical form.
And then I stood, in the same clothes and the same hair, feeling utterly reassembled. I wrapped my arms around myself, disconcerted by the fluid way my skin shifted over my muscles. As I took a step back, my hips threw me slightly off balance, and I steadied myself against the shingled wall.
I made you as similar as could be. It will last the night, but the rays of the sun will dispel it.
“I appreciate your skill,” I said. My voice, too, was the same. “I owe you my job, if not my life. Although I know it is not your tradition, I must repay you somehow.”
Meet me at the Starlight Gate after sundown, on your next night off, he said. It was hard to tell if he meant that this would settle my debt.
It was with almost savage delight that I undressed in a back room for the canny old crone who owned the Silver Fish. Her eyes and hands were corpse-cold, but the rumors died at her word, and that was that. When I returned to my natural form in the morning I felt a new distaste for it, and the three days that intervened between that disappointing dawn and my night off were an agony of subdued anxiety.
To the east of the city lay Starlight Lake, a manmade reservoir fed by the many small streams that cascaded down out of the mountains. From the lake, the broad Starlight Canal entered Jiun-Shi through a mosaic-encrusted tunnel—the “Gate” to which Tuo had referred—then cut a curving path roughly northwest through the city. The many shipping boats that used this artery to carry their wares out of the city would then find their meandering way west to the Weeping River and eventually to the sea.
The Lake itself was a watery pleasure-park, populated with floating restaurants, brothels, entertainment acts and gardens that were open at all hours. In seven years, I had not once visited it; every Scale I earned was hoarded at the Fox-Lunar Bank.
I received more than a few odd looks as I stood at the Starlight Gate watching the sky turn from red to violet, ignoring taxi after taxi and waving others ahead of me. It was a peculiar place to wait, and I wondered why Tuo had chosen it, until the lingering glow of twilight began to fade and I saw him approaching along the avenue. He was dressed for a night of revelry, trousers of blue-gray silk hugging his slender legs, his boots polished to a high sheen. As he approached, greeting me with an unabashedly florid lovers’ bow, my palms grew damp.
“Adored mistress,” he said, adopting the submissive form of address that the tea-boys used, “I am ready to serve your whim until dawn stirs behind the mountains.”
I did not know how to respond, particularly with crowds of people elbowing their way past me onto the latest boat, and so I simply let him approach and take a handful of my skirt. I escorted him thus onto the taxi, keenly uncomfortable. I ought to have been contented to play along, given that I had spent a third of my life as an impostor, but something about the slight tug at my skirt as we moved to the rail set my teeth on edge. I could not shake the feeling he was mocking me.
Our stop is the last one, he said to me. A boat called The Mirror. It is mine, and tonight it is empty.
The other passengers disembarked by the dozen at the restaurants, in pairs to the gardens, a handful of women at each brothel, until Tuo and I were alone. The taxi’s oarsman steered us then to what appeared to be an empty section of the lake, whereupon Tuo released my skirt, stepped off of the taxi, and instead of plunging into the water as I expected, disappeared into thin air.
I hesitated for a moment until I saw his arm reappear as though reaching to help me disembark. Only then could I see the rest of him, standing on a ramp leading to a magnificent two-story pleasure-boat whose existence my eyes had refused to acknowledge. Seeresses were known for weaving Shrouds to trick the eye, but never of this size or profundity. Wondering if this ostentatious display of power was deliberate, I allowed Tuo to take my hand and carefully stepped onto The Mirror.
The craft’s ambiance was a testament to centuries of obsession with the human race. Nearly every available surface was painted with fashionably austere illustrations of the Empire’s history, with no particular regard to chronology. Every blank space in the scenes was littered with his poetry, like swarms of black insects. On our way to our unnamed destination aboard the boat, we passed through a ballroom dominated by a monochromatic mural that depicted in loving, almost pornographic detail the bloody sacking of Huo-Ru.
A bamboo staircase led to the upper level, which was largely open to the chill air that moved across the moonlit lake. There was one area closed off by undulating blue curtains, and it was here that he led me, parting the silk so that I might pass through ahead of him.
Behind the curtain was a tremendous bed. I recoiled so violently that I backed into him, only to turn and find myself face to face with the fetching young woman who had kissed me the night before, draped now in charcoal-colored silk.
“No,” I said.
“I need to understand,” she said, slipping her gown slowly from milky shoulders. The gown was only for effect, to tease me with the revelation of flesh, and it dissipated like smoke.
I tried to remind myself that the body was just as ephemeral, but I could not tear my eyes away from her imperfect breasts, puckering in the cold, or the soft dark line leading down from her navel. Tuo had seen, touched, smelled enough women to make the illusion achingly real in its untidiness.
“No,” I said again. The rest of my vocabulary seemed to have dried up.
“Why?” Tuo asked.
I could not conjure up, much less articulate, a logical reason, and I did not feel equal to the task of trying to explain terror and confusion to a goblin. Despite my years living as a woman, I had been raised properly as a boy whose only purpose was to produce more girls, and so I let the phantom woman begin undressing me. In some distant part of my mind I noted the irony of my very male submissiveness as my very female clothing fell to the floor piece by piece.
“Why?” I managed to ask, when she let me up for breath between liquid kisses.
“I need to understand,” she repeated.
After that there were no more words. She was as silent as death, her eyes fastened intently on my face as she transformed me subtly into something else, something primal, a beast who existed only to bear her weight and disappear into her. She drew back the bowstring of my frustration and solitude until I thought the flimsy composite of man and woman that made up my soul would splinter under the strain.
But once that arrow had loosed, the world became hazy and splendored, and I had never known anything more perfect than her small form sheltering my chest and belly from the moist draft off of the lake. I held her to me, closing eyes that stung with salt.
“What happens now?” I said when I could speak again.
She laid her palm on the center of my chest, and the bed seemed to fold and shudder beneath me as my flesh rounded and softened on either side of her hand. I squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them, Tuo was as I had always seen him at the Silver Fish. His hand was gentle, almost pleading, as it cradled the breast he had made.
“Now,” he said, “It is your turn.”
I became careless at work over the following days, perhaps because I was still adjusting to the transformation that now happened nightly, even in Tuo’s absence.
The body was my own, and not my own. It was no mere trick for others’ eyes; my very joints seemed strung together more loosely, and my breasts ached under the tight bindings I had always worn. By the end of each night I had nearly adjusted, only to be wrenched back to my natural form at the first whisper of dawn.
I broke two teacups in a single week, and at the end of the night my tallies never seemed to add up. Tuo came most nights, but he hunched over his work, waving off the women who tried to start conversation with him. I wondered if this was an attempt at loyalty, but I could never get him to meet my eye. On my nights off, without advance arrangement, we always appeared at the Starlight Gate just after sunset and boarded the same taxi.
For two weeks, not a word was said between us. But soon my contentment in the absence of explanation began to vex me as tellingly masculine, and I made a concerted effort to ask more questions. Once I began the exercise, I found that his answers only caused my questions to multiply, and my curiosity became a very real thing.
By the fourth week of our affair, my fear had evaporated, leaving giddy disbelief. None of his other lovers had lasted this long.
“Paper might be better,” I said, burying my eyes in the crook of my elbow as his writing brush traced intricate wet shapes along the inside of my thigh.
“This poem is only for you to see,” he said.
“Do you do this for all your women?”
“Only you,” he said. Too smoothly.
Feeling sudden self-loathing for my moment of forgetfulness, I sat up. “I am your experiment. You want to see if I will despair and die.”
“Yes,” he said evenly, without pausing in his writing. The text was something about masonry and lotus blossoms. His wrist was in the way.
“You think my having seen your true form will protect me against illusions.”
“Perceptive,” he said, finishing the symbol for longing.
“Or is it because I am a man, beneath, raised with the expectations of a man, accustomed to being unimportant?”
“That is also an excellent observation.”
“But which, if either, is true? Or is it both? And of all the people you have met over hundreds of years...” I couldn’t say the rest; it was too plaintive, too self-effacing, too male.
He stopped then, and looked up at me, and for a long moment I thought he was prepared to answer all of my questions, both spoken and unspoken.
Instead, he simply interlaced his fingers with mine, drawing my hand closer to him so that he could write on the inside of my wrist. “For centuries,” he said, “your Empire has been a lake so still your people could look into it to count the stars.”
I waited for more. He released my hand, and I turned over my wrist to look at the two characters written there. Throw stones.
I stared at the black ink on my blue-veined skin. “You’re not here to unravel my life,” I said. “You’re here to unravel the Empire.”
“Incisive,” he said.
Though he may not have intended to unravel my life, the divine chaos he channeled had a way of leaking into everything that touched him, whether he willed it or not.
I became more and more reckless, less attentive to customers. Six weeks into our affair, such a shocking discrepancy occurred in my nightly figures that I was formally accused of stealing and dismissed from service. This catastrophic event ought to have sent me into a panic, but I reacted with almost goblinlike calm, meeting Tuo the next night and telling him what had happened once we were hidden away on The Mirror.
“Perhaps it is time, then, that you apply for testing at the Temple,” he suggested as he began to undress me.
“I’ve only half the fee saved.”
“I can provide the other half.”
I stopped his hands. He gazed back at me with an amiable, attentive expression, and I kissed the coolness of his palm. “I understand the reason for your generosity,” I said, “but I do want to know why—if you have those sorts of resources—you didn’t send me to the Temple before now.”
His eyes drifted upward, the way they often did when he sat at a table with the handle of his writing brush playing over his lips.
“Am I to assume that your more personal experiment is not finished?” I said. “If you need more time, perhaps I could stay here on your boat until it is complete.” Something about the idea made warmth seep into my bones despite the breeze off the lake.
“I have the answer I sought,” he said. “You told it to me at the start, though I did not understand at first. I think I came to understand after our first night together.”
“Then why am I still here?”
His narrow shoulders lifted briefly. “What other company can I keep?”
It had not occurred to me until that moment just how much his studies must have separated him from his people. I looked at his odd, hollowed face, and felt a heaviness in my chest and throat as I touched it with my fingertips. He appeared to need shaving, so scrupulous was he in his attention to detail.
“I want to see you,” I said.
I expected resistance, but he said nothing, shrinking and melting into his natural form.
I drew him against me, an ugly wet creature not meant to be long out of water. When I pulled back after a moment, he gazed up at me with blank round eyes. I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the slick skin of his forehead; it tasted of salt and fish and something acrid I could not identify. The immediacy and honesty of it hit me like a gust of dry wind blowing fog from water.
I spoke slowly, carefully. “While I appreciate that you have enjoyed our time together, and while I have enjoyed it myself—if you have the money to send me to the Temple, then it is in both our interests that you do so.”
Tuo looked at me for a long time. I would like to say that I did not search his alien eyes for some sign of anguish. I would like to say that I searched and found it. I would like to say that he was right about me, that I was unique, that I was the one person he could touch without destroying.
The examination was held at night, and even the High Seeress could not see through Tuo’s profound magic. I was treated just like the others, be they laborer’s daughter or cousin to the Empress. The Temple primaries peered into our minds, induced horrifying visions of disasters we would cause, interviewed us via direct mental communication while holding us underwater. Of the twenty who applied, ten were sent back to the city. I placed seventh of those who passed.
I waited for a rush of triumph that did not come. There was only a cot in a tiny room, a drab black robe just like the others, and a nightly grind of lectures and testing and casual verbal abuse. The Mistress of Astrology despised me for my ineptitude; the Mistress of Shrouds despised me for my talent. My mother had long since been promoted and transferred to Snowfeather Temple in Huo-Ru. I evaded friendly overtures from my fellow students, and the overtures were eventually withdrawn.
I tried to remind myself that I was living a grand and dangerous adventure, but the nights slipped by like the beads of an abacus, each like the other, counting time.
Just before dawn each morning, before my illusion was dispelled, I locked the door to my west-facing room. I slept each day until afternoon, and then I would rise, the only man on the mountain. No one thought to disturb me. Behind a locked door I practiced my runes, or meditated, or read about the ancient tapestry of history whose loose thread I now held between my fingertips.
When rusty sunlight began to slant through my window and cast its shape onto the stony floor I would pull my chair over to the sill and gaze out, waiting for the last rays to fade so that I would be free to roam the halls of the Temple. But my eyes always went to the water, gazing at its spangled surface, meditating on its depths.
Sometimes, in these quiet moments, it would occur to me that I had forgotten to eat the night before, and I would reach for my writing brush and paint two symbols on the inside of my wrist, to remind myself not to repeat this mistake.
I owed him a debt, though he would never see it in those terms. And so I would watch the nights slip by, smooth as glass, until I rose to a height worth throwing from. I would live long enough to matter, even if it no longer mattered to me.