Husband’s new spouse is brought home in a hovering palanquin decked with red lanterns, its curtains displaying images of mandarin ducks and kingfishers—the symbols of a happy marriage.
First Spouse Liang Pao has gathered the whole household by the high gate, from the stewards to the cooks, from the lower spouses to their valets. He’s standing slightly behind Husband, with his head held high, with pins of platinum holding his immaculate topknot in place—in spite of the fact that he’s been unable to sleep all night. The baby wouldn’t stop kicking within his womb, and the regulators in his blood disgorged a steady stream of yin-humours to calm him down. He’s slightly nauseous, as when he’s had too much rice wine to drink—and he wonders why they never get easier, these carryings.
The palanquin stops, lowers itself gracefully as the steward cuts off the dragon-breath fields. The scarlet curtains sway, twisting out of shape the characters for good luck and long life.
Husband steps out first, holding out his hand to the spouse inside—he’s wearing his best clothes, white live-worm silk preserved since the days of the colonist ancestors, a family heirloom reserved for grand events.
And the spouse . . .
When she steps out of the palanquin, Liang Pao cannot help a slight gesture of recoil. He wasn’t expecting . . .
Behind him, the servants and the lower spouses are whispering in disbelief. Liang Pao turns, slightly, to throw them a cutting glance—and the whispers cease, but they don’t erase the facts.
The new spouse is unmistakably a woman—not a caihe like Liang Pao and the others, a woman with a live womb and eggs of her own. Except . . . Except that it’s obvious how Husband could afford to bring a woman home even though he’s not a High Official: her calm, stately face under the white makeup is older than it should be. She’s in her late fifties, at best—and her childbearing years are, if not over, very near their end. By the time her seclusion has ended, she’ll be useless.
Husband turns around, presenting her to the household, and Liang Pao’s ingrained reflexes take over from his shock.
From a faraway place, as distant as the heights of Mount Xu, he walks to her and bows, slightly—as befitting a superior to an inferior. “My Lady,” he says. “We wish you a prosperous marriage.” He hesitates for a fraction of a second, but still he completes the traditional blessing. “May you have the Dragon’s Nine Sons, every one of them with their own strength and successes.”
Pointless. She won’t have any sons, or any daughters for that matter.
“First Spouse,” Husband says, equally formally. “This insignificant person by my side is Qin Daiyu, and she humbly begs you to enter the house as a lawfully wedded spouse.”
Liang Pao blesses formalities—the only thing he can hold onto, steady and unvarying and as surely ingrained in his mind as Master Kong’s Classics. “She is welcome under this roof, for the term of her seclusion and for the term of her marriage. May Heaven bestow on both of you a thousand years of happiness.”
All this, of course, does nothing to quell the acrid taste in his mouth, and nothing to answer his question—the endless “Why?” swirling in his head like a trapped bird.
As manager of the household, Liang Pao is the one who assigns Fourth Spouse her quarters and servants of her own. The best thing for her would have been caihes, but he cannot very well ask one of the two other spouses to wait on her, when she’s still the youngest member of the household—in seniority if not in age.
Liang Pao selects the only two neutered valets he has, and takes them to help Fourth Spouse unpack her bridal things: three heavy lacquered coffers, antiquities predating the Arrival. If these could be sold, they’d fetch a price even higher than Husband’s silk robes.
Where under Heaven did Husband find her?
Fourth Spouse watches him the whole time, with a frank look of appraisal he finds disturbing—she’s neither as meek nor as demure as a woman should be.
But then, he knows so little of women.
When the servants have left, Fourth Spouse doesn’t move. She only bows her head, with a stately gesture that looks correct—but that sends a tingle down Liang Pao’s spine, a hint of wrongness. She says, “Thank you.”
“It’s my place.” He knows he should stay with the prescribed topics, wish her again health and happiness, but his curiosity is too great. “It’s unusual for our household to . . . welcome such a guest.”
“I have no doubt,” she says, then offers a mocking smile.
No opening, then, and he’s unsure of why he’s ever hoped there would be one. Ritual assigns each of them their place: to him, the running of the household, including that of her quarters; to her, the seclusion and the regular visits from the Embroidered Guards, the taking of her last few eggs to pay the tax on female marriages.
After a last bow, he’s preparing to leave, when she does speak.
“The stars have shifted their course to bring me here from the willow-and-flower house,” she says. Her formal speech is at odds with the frank gaze she trains on him.
Liang Pao stops, frozen in the doorframe. A willow-and-flower. A courtesan. That’s where Husband found her, then, in a high-class brothel—one that can afford a few women from the Ministry of Rites, in addition to their usual fare of caihes and boys.
“So that’s why he could afford you.” He doesn’t even attempt the usual courtesies; but he doubts she’ll be shocked by this breach. That’s why her gaze was assessing him then—as a potential client, even though the idea of a caihe sleeping with a woman is ludicrous.
She shrugs. Her robe slides down her shoulders as she does so, revealing skin the colour of the moon, and tight, round breasts that he could hold in one hand. And, as he thinks of that, the same deep sense of wrongness tightens in his womb.
There’s a smell in the air—blossoming on the edge of perception, a mixture of flowers and sweat and Buddha knows what. Liang Pao’s breath quickens. He knows what it has to be: spring-scents, tailored to arouse her clients. But he’s not one of them. He’s not even a man. It can’t be working on him.
“You’ve never seen a woman before,” Fourth Spouse says, as blunt as he is.
He shakes his head. “I was born the normal way,” he says. In an automated incubator, after his father filled out the necessary forms at the Ministry of Rites.
“I see.” Her lips curl—she’s amused, and bitter, though he doesn’t know why. “You were born a man.”
Liang Pao shrugs. It seems such a long time ago, when he was still a boy and still dreaming of being head of his own household, fantasizing over how many spouses he’d be allowed to take—long before he failed the exams, long before knives and needles cut into his flesh, before regulators moulded him into something else. Now it’s a faded memory, blunted and harmless. He’s caihe now—has always been so.
Fourth Spouse draws herself up, her chest jutting out in what looks like a practised pose. But the ease with which she does it belies that. It’s a reflex, as ingrained within her as politeness and courtesies are within Liang Pao.
His heartbeat has quickened; but underneath is the familiar languor caused by his regulators releasing new yin-humours, and within a few moments his breath grows calm again, his heartbeat steady once more.
He shouldn’t be here. Anything out of the ordinary could endanger the pregnancy; and though Husband’s post as a fifth-rank civil servant entitles him to nine transfers, he doesn’t want to be the one to spoil a perfectly good egg. “I’ll leave you alone,” he says.
The look of veiled contempt she gives him sears him to the bone. “You’re less than a man, then. Unable to give voice to your desires.”
He doesn’t understand. “I have no desires.”
“Not anymore, I guess.”
Liang Pao rubs his hand against the bulge of his belly—feeling the child twist and turn within him, wondering if the heartbeat he hears is his own or the baby’s. “I’m carrying.”
“I can see that,” she says, again. “Husband’s child by—”
He shrugs. She knows the ritual as well as he does: Husband donated the sperm, and one of the thousand thousand eggs in the huge vaults of the Ministry of Rites was unfrozen, fertilized—and transferred into him. That’s the way it works, with caihes.
Wives, of course, are different, and the transfer is much easier. Natural, one of his teachers at the Ministry said, once, in an unguarded moment—before closing his eyes and forcefully changing the subject. For most of New Zhongguo, wives are an unattainable dream: sold for fortunes by the Ministry of Rites, and all but reserved to High Officials.
Fourth Spouse laughs, a quiet, pleasant sound, the tinkle of a chime over a waterfall. “Carrying or not, you can’t change the fact that you’re a man.”
“You’re mistaken,” he says, calmly, carefully, in the same tone mandarins use to explain things to off-worlders. “I’m not a man.”
Fourth Spouse smiles, shaking her head in disdain.
This is ridiculous. He’s First Spouse of the household, carrying Husband’s child within him—and here she is, all but flirting with him, taunting him for what he is not. “I would seem to be disturbing you,” he says, as stiff and as formal as he can manage. “I will leave you to your rest.”
He goes away: walking as quickly as he can, feeling the languor in every fibre of his being, the regulators struggling to keep up with the quickening of his breath, with the tight feeling in his chest.
Caihe, he is caihe, he has to remember that.
Liang Pao never goes into her room, after that. He has his life and she has hers, and he won’t think on her words or of the images she’s conjured in him: memories of a distant childhood when he flew steel-yarn kites just like his own children are doing in the courtyard—just like the boy in his womb will do some day.
Still, he wakes up every night, in the privacy of his quarters—his heart beating madly for a few, interminable seconds before the yin-humours kick in and he sinks back into sleep again. In his dreams, in the waking world, he aches with a desire he can’t place, a need that seeks to supersede even the pregnancy.
Fourth Day comes round again: the moment of his moonly examination. The doctor arrives at the gates of the household, prim and on time, and is shown into the examination room, where Liang Pao sits hidden behind a chromed screen. The doctor takes his place near the entrance of the room. His caihe assistant goes back and forth behind the screen, observing Liang Pao’s symptoms and reporting to the doctor. As the cool, capable hands rest on his wrists and on his throat, taking one by one the twelve pulses of the heart, Liang Pao remembers other hands against him—wielding knives and injectors, gently pressing their blades until the skin broke and blood pearled with the first prickling of pain. He remembers the first yin-humours within him, the sickening taste in his mouth and the unfamiliar languor, as constricting as the cangue restricting a prisoner’s arms . . .
He comes to with a start. The caihe assistant has finished; behind the screen, the doctor is busy reporting. He’s been droning on for a while, about the rate of metal-humours and wood-humours in the body—nothing out of the ordinary, it would seem. Everything is going as well as expected, and within a few moons Husband will have a young, healthy boy.
Then he’s gone, but Liang Pao doesn’t move for a long while—not until the memories fade into harmlessness, and his hands stop shaking.
He’s never had dreams like those before; but then he has never been so close to a woman before. He’s been taught to be a good caihe: to sing and recite poetry; to walk in fast, mincing steps that make it look as though he’s swaying; to play soulful songs on the qin until his fingers are numbed to the pain from the strings. But he has never been taught what he should do with a woman—or what to do when his yin-humours struggle to keep up with the pregnancy.
Carrying or not, you can’t change the fact that you’re a man.
Is that all there is to it?
On a whim, he rises and walks to the freezer, and orders it to open. In the first drawer is a beaker engraved with phoenixes and dragons sporting among clouds—and within, hanging suspended in nitrogen, is a single egg, due to be transferred into Second Spouse’s womb at the next Moon Festival.
The second drawer . . .
In the second one are three elongated pouches, encased in layers of insulation, enough to keep them well below freezing point for a day.
His hand hovers over the leftmost one—the one bearing the characters of his own name, entwined on a background of peach blossoms. After a while, he withdraws it from the drawer, and holds the cool surface of the insulation in the palm of his hand.
It’s an old, old custom, dating back to the days of Old Earth—before the space exodus, before the colonist ancestors. Long before there were caihes on New Zhongguo, there were eunuchs—and they kept the excised parts with them, so that they might be buried with everything their parents had given them.
Here, resting snug in the palm of his hand, is proof that she was right—that he wasn’t born a caihe, that he will not die as one. That he is . . .
He doesn’t know what he is, anymore.
“You look thoughtful,” Husband’s voice says, behind him.
Liang Pao doesn’t start, or show surprise in any way—only small children are still impulsive enough to display what they feel.
Rather, Liang Pao turns, slowly, and bows to Husband, the precise depth required by ceremony. Today, Husband is wearing a robe shimmering with moiré; his hair is done in an immaculate top-knot, with the eight-metal pins denoting his status as a fifth-rank magistrate.
Husband shakes his head. “No need for that,” he says. Gently, he picks the pouch from Liang Pao’s hand, and turns it over. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you take this out.”
Liang Pao doesn’t quite know how to answer. It’s never been his place to bother Husband with his own problems, just as Husband’s troubles at the tribunal stop at the door of the house. “I—was curious,” he says finally.
Husband stares at the pouch, as if, like a poem, it might twist and turn on itself and reveal something else. “Something is on your mind,” he says, and he looks distinctly worried. “Isn’t it?”
How does he know? “It’s been—difficult, lately, for me,” Liang Pao says.
Husband’s eyes freeze: a minute expression that Liang Pao isn’t sure how to interpret. “You have a good life, Pao. Don’t you?”
The use of Liang Pao’s personal name is almost as shocking as the hunger with which Husband watches him—and Liang Pao doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know what to say to make things go back to the way they were. “Of course,” he says, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. “Fourth Spouse . . . “ he starts, and can’t finish.
Husband still watches him.
“Fourth Spouse is . . . unexpected.”
Husband relaxes a fraction, though his gaze is still harsh. “Yes, of course. I should have known. She’s not here to supplant any of you, Pao. I just—” He hesitates, but then goes on. “You should have seen her in the willow-and-flower house. You should have heard her make up verses to cap the poems of the customers—and such talent, when she played the qin . . . “
Liang Pao doesn’t speak. He doesn’t dare to. He’s never heard such contained emotion in Husband’s voice. He loves her, he thinks, and it’s a bittersweet thought, because he’s not quite sure how he should react to this.
“They go back to the government, when they’re too old to procreate,” Husband says. “They’re sold to High Officials as ornaments—as pretty things, exhibited before one’s friends at receptions and festivals. That’s . . . That isn’t a life for her. You understand?”
Liang Pao isn’t sure if he does, but he nods all the same. “You rescued her?”
“Yes. Rescued her. But she’s not here to take your place. She isn’t here . . . “
To carry his children. Liang Pao shakes his head. “I understand.”
“Good. Good.” Husband smiles, looking relieved, and puts the pouch back in the freezer.
And then it occurs to Liang Pao: Husband didn’t know. There is one time in his life when a caihe receives his pouch—for the last few breaths, the last few heartbeats, that he might die as he was born.
No, he wants to say. I didn’t want to commit suicide. But Husband has already moved on. “You should go and see her,” he says. “Be friends with her. For the harmony of the household.”
Husband’s words are commands, of course, even if he doesn’t always realise it. “I will,” Liang Pao says, but the last thing he wants is to talk to Fourth Spouse.
That evening, Liang Pao goes into the garden, and stands for a while, listening to the plaintive accents of a qin wafting from inside Fourth Spouse’s quarters.
It’s a song he knows, a poem about the pain of parting:
“Two regal daughters are weeping
off within green clouds
They went along with the wind and the waves . . . “
He should go in. He should enter her quarters and talk to her, as Husband has asked.
For the sake of the household, if nothing else. But he can’t . . .
He can’t go in there again.
“ . . . the Xiang may stop its flow
only then will the stains disappear
of their tears upon bamboo.”
The qin falls silent, and nothing moves within. He hears the scuffle of the valets withdrawing from the inner chamber; her evening is over, and she will be preparing herself for bed.
It’s not too late, he tells himself, but he knows he’s only lying to himself. His swollen breasts hang over his chest—his nipples tingle, and the same feeling climbs from his womb, mingling with the baby’s heartbeat within him. He aches with need.
That’s when he hears the door slide open—and sees her shadow slip out of the quarters.
At first, he thinks Fourth Spouse is only there to enjoy the moonlight—but something in the way she walks tells another story. She looks left and right, pausing every few steps to make sure no one is following her. That’s no mincing, womanly walk, but the careful step of someone on reprehensible business.
Surely she wouldn’t—
Liang Pao starts walking faster, heedless of his body’s protests—his muscles ache, and his breasts, unhampered by any underwear, shift up and down on his chest, to the rhythm of his race. He takes care to stay hidden, but she’s running now, heading towards the back of the garden and the small passageway that opens only for the Moon Festival.
Surely . . .
She stands by the door—and then she reaches inside her wide sleeves. She throws a last, furtive glance behind her—Liang Pao presses himself harder against the trunk of a willow tree, tries to merge with the night . . .
She doesn’t see him. With a shrug, she slides a card into the door and it slides open, infinitely, heart-wrenchingly slow.
That’s not meant to happen, Liang Pao thinks, standing frozen where he is. The door can’t just . . .
There’s no time to think about all of this. One more moment; and she’ll pass through into the passageway, through the door at the end, and she’ll slip outside and they’ll never find her.
Fine, that’s his first thought. Let her be gone, her and her disturbing presence, and the feelings she evokes within him. But then he remembers Husband’s voice when he spoke of Fourth Spouse—brimming with an emotion Liang Pao has never heard from him. Her flight, he knows, will break Husband’s heart.
He moves before he can think. He runs—his head spins, and the unaccustomed weight of his belly forces him to bend backward, but he doesn’t stop. He has to reach her.
She’s squeezing herself through the door, pressing against the metal panels even though they’re not open yet—and he’s not fast enough, not strong enough to catch up to her before she goes through. So he does the only thing he can do.
“Stop,” he says. His voice echoes against the walls of the empty garden, triggering a flood of soft lights from the garden walls.
But that doesn’t work—she’s still pressing on, still hoping to pass the second door and lose herself in the deserted streets of the city. “Stop”, Liang Pao says, again. “Or I’ll call.”
She freezes, then. “You wouldn’t. You don’t want me here.”
“I already told you. I have no desires,” he says.
Fourth Spouse watches the open door, her face half-turned away from him, washed smooth by the soft, swirling light emanating from the garden walls—and he stands, already out of breath and waiting for the adrenaline to leave his muscles. Thankfully, each garden section is independent: the light will be small, and barely visible from Husband’s quarters. For now, it’s just the two of them.
Her face is unreadable under the harsh neon light. “Surely you can understand.” Her voice is flat, emotionless. “I will humbly remove herself from your presence, and the house will return to harmony.”
Liang Pao puts both hands in his sleeves—standing away from her, both feet firmly planted in the muddy, fragrant earth of the garden: a gesture of disapproval.
The door is closing again—between that and the door at the other end of the passageway, that’s two sets of doors now, two barriers against her escape. He doesn’t move, though, to stand between her and the panels; that would be showing weakness.
Finally, Fourth Spouse says, “Let me go.” Her voice is shaking now. “You have to.”
“You’ll break his heart,” Liang Pao says. “Why should I let you go?”
She shakes her head, in that oddly disturbing way. “I’m not meant for him.” She looks at him, and some of the same freezing contempt creeps back into her face. “But you don’t understand, do you?”
“I—” Liang Pao says, and she’s right: he doesn’t understand a word she’s saying. But her voice—her voice is like an electric tingle in his body, and he can’t seem to focus on anything but the carnation of her lips, and her wide eyes.
She bends her head towards him, gracefully. “We didn’t only have New Zhongguans, at the willow-and-flower house. We had navigators and engineers, and other people sailing the space between the stars.” Her voice is oddly reflexive. “Some of them were women—we used to lie against each other afterwards and whisper sweet nothings on the pillows—” and it’s all too clear she’s not talking about women, but about one woman in particular.
He doesn’t want to hear that. Women sleeping with each other—it’s as unnatural as a fish out of water, or Heaven under Earth. His throat is pulsing again; he fights an urge to come closer to her.
Fourth Spouse’s smile is malicious. “Rubbing each other’s nipples, and pleasuring ourselves with tongues and fingertips . . . “
The tightening in his womb has become unbearable. “Stop,” he whispers. “Stop.”
“She’s out there,” Fourth Spouse says. “Waiting for me—waiting to take me away from all this, to a place that’s meant just for me. Let me go.” Her voice is low, urgent, and the odd, frightening smell of her spring-scents saturates the air. “Let me be free.”
He gives her the rote answer, the one they taught him at the Ministry of Rites: “A woman’s true place is in the house, with her husband.” As is a caihe’s place.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” She’s not smiling anymore. “You were a man, once—before you changed. I thought you’d understand. I thought—” She looks at him, tears glistening in her eyes. “Don’t you want me to be happy?”
Her eyes are wide, and he feels himself falling into them, a fall that has no end.
She whispers, “Don’t you remember what it felt like, being a man? Don’t you remember the life you were promised—the fight against the shenghuans on the boundary, the grand merchant adventures in space—dreaming of what it would feel like, kissing a wife? Don’t you remember?” She moves closer, and her scent enfolds him, an intoxicating tingle on every pore of his skin.
Like the kites, her words mean something to him—stir the same indefinable longing in his womb—but this is wrong, all wrong, those are selfish dreams. “This doesn’t matter,” he says. “This isn’t my place.”
“Then you’re a worse fool than I thought.”
But he’s had enough of being dominated by her—woman or not, she’s still the most junior member of the household, and he’s still First Spouse. “No. You’re the fool, Daiyu. You think that all you have to do is walk through that door, and you’ll be free.”
“More than you.”
He shakes his head. “You and your—lover . . . “ He spits the word, ignoring the odd taste it leaves in his mouth. “You wouldn’t go past the first street. You’re still in seclusion, remember? You owe a tax, and you haven’t paid it in full.”
Her lips purse, and he can well imagine what kind of fire she’ll be hurling at him. He forestalls her, quietly. “You may think her clever enough to evade the patrols. But the guards at the space-harbour—they won’t overlook you. Two women, without any kind of travel permit? You’ll stand out like Buddhist monks in a crowd.”
“You’re wrong,” Fourth Spouse says. “We have the papers.”
“Faked papers?” Liang Pao says, slowly, carefully enunciating each word. “Is that what you think it takes to leave? For an off-worlder with a New Zhongguan? The first thing they’ll do is call this house, to check that you do have a travel permit.” He takes a deep breath to steady the erratic beat of his heart, and says to those wide, entrancing eyes, “And even if they don’t call . . . I’ll make sure Husband knows you’re missing the moment you run through those gates.”
He doesn’t move; he simply watches her, trying to ignore the fluttering in his womb.
“No,” Fourth Spouse says, finally. Her voice is bitter, angry—but she’s not looking at the door anymore, and the anger is directed in equal parts at him and at herself. “All right,” she says, shaking her head. “Next thing I know, you’ll blackmail me into staying here in exchange for not reporting this little . . . incident.”
Liang Pao shakes his head. “I know enough to guess it wouldn’t work.”
Fourth Spouse’s lips tighten in a smile. “You have that right, if nothing else.” She turns to leave—but Liang Pao stops her.
“The card,” he says.
Her smile is a terrible, wounding thing. She throws the card in the air—a shard of light spinning upwards, and then plummeting into the soft air. “That cost me dearly. Two moons of negotiation with your doctor’s assistant. Two moons of promises and cajoling,” she says, contemptuously—whether of him or of the assistant, it’s not clear.
“You won’t have that opportunity again,” Liang Pao says.
She doesn’t move. “I guess not,” she says, more quietly.
And, as quick as an unsaid thought, she spins on her heels, and walks back to her own quarters, leaving Liang Pao alone in harsh moonlight—shivering in the night cold and no longer sure of the right thing to do.
In spite of what she thinks, he doesn’t denounce her—but he finds himself watching her, wondering if she’s still thinking of escape. Liang Pao calls the assistant, seemingly on a trivial matter about yin-humour dosages-and shows him the card, quietly making it clear to him that such things won’t happen again.
As far as he knows, Fourth Spouse keeps within her quarters, obsessively playing the qin, and painting, with decisive flicks of the pen, landscapes of New Zhongguo—from the red canyons where shenghuans ambush the unwary, to the settlements scattered among the dust plains. He resumes his old routine, and never speaks to her.
Her words, though, still haunt him.
Don’t you remember what it felt like?
He remembers a boy flying a dragon kite, and laughing at the way the thin aluminium sails flexed against the wind; he remembers cutting the string, and standing on the red hill, watching the kite flying high in the sky—growing smaller and smaller, taking away his sorrows and bad luck. His father had smiled, then, and said this presaged success at the exams, and many happy marriages—but that was before everything changed, became as dead as the wilted plum flowers in the garden . . .
Don’t you remember the life you were promised?
“I don’t,” he whispers, when he wakes up, shivering in the night. “I was never promised anything.”
He wasn’t—not then, not now. He has his life and he manages Husband’s household, and that is all he needs.
It is enough. It has to be.
When Fourth Spouse’s seclusion ends, the whole family accompanies her to the Monastery of Cleansing Mercy, to receive the monks’ formal blessing. All, except Liang Pao’s third son, born only one moon ago and still too young to risk the harsh air of outside.
Liang Pao himself has come, hiding the slight quiver of weakness, the slight dizziness that threatens to blur the world around him: the last remnants of a mostly untroubled birth, a night spent in labour before he beheld the wrinkled, crying face of Third Son—and warmth flooded his chest, tightening like a fist around his heart.
He stands in the temple, already missing the familiar touch of the baby nestled against him. His breasts are heavy with milk, longing for Third Son’s lips to close on them; and he wonders how long it will be before he gets back to the nursery.
He holds First Son’s hand, and feels it quiver in his own, feels the boy’s eagerness to leave the staid ceremony and run in the temple’s gardens. An eagerness that was his, once—but he doesn’t remember that.
Before the image of Guan-Yin, bodhisattva of Compassion, Husband and Fourth Spouse kneel, humbly accepting the sutras recited by the saffron-garbed monks. The air is saturated with incense and sub-vocalised prayer chants from the choir. The goddess herself is represented snatching a boy from hungry waves, her eyes directed towards the viewer—her unreadable gaze not unlike that of Fourth Spouse.
The children fidget, and Third Spouse sharply calls them to order. Liang Pao is watching Husband and Fourth Spouse—but he sees nothing untoward until the end of the blessing.
An elderly monk brings a cage containing a pair of lang birds, their shimmering wings beating against the metal bars. They attempt to peck the monk’s hands when he reaches inside and withdraws the first one—they struggle and shriek, and at least one finger is bleeding, but the monk is used to it; and with a smile he throws the bird upwards. “Thou shall have a heart of compassion, a heart of filial piety . . . Thou shall use all expedient means to save all living beings,” he intones.
The second bird joins the first; they wheel together in the sky, hesitant at first, but gaining speed as they realise they’re no longer confined. Soon, they’re both lost to sight.
“He who hurts not any living being, he in truth is called a great man . . . “
Husband and Fourth Spouse turn to face the family. Husband is smiling, looking fondly at Fourth Spouse; but she in turn is looking straight at Liang Pao, and her gaze is a reproach.
Don’t you remember the life you were promised?
They walk back to where Liang Pao is standing, side-by-side—the only time in their lives when they will be positioned as equals.
Liang Pao bows, and hands Husband a scroll commemorating the event: two mandarin ducks, holding a lotus blossom and a lotus fruit in their beaks. “May you find bliss and harmony for a thousand cycles.”
Husband smiles, and shakes his head. “No need to be so formal. Walk with us, will you?”
In the gardens, monks watch automated units as they hoe the rough, dry soil of the planet—few things grow on New Zhongguo. From time to time, they unscrew the filter container, and release the underground insects trapped against the grid.
“Hard at work,” Fourth Spouse says, non-committal.
Husband shrugs. “They serve New Zhongguo. As we all do.”
Even wives. Even caihes.
Husband’s gaze turns back towards the monastery. The abbot, accompanied by a few of the monks, is making straight for him. “That will be for my donation. I’ll leave you two alone,” he says—and the way he says it makes Liang Pao sure that he’s intended this all along.
He and Fourth Spouse watch Husband start an animated conversation with the abbot, waving his ample sleeves.
“He’s a good man,” Liang Pao says, though he doesn’t know why he says that.
“And I’m his wife.” Fourth Spouse’s tone is lightly ironic. He expects her to talk about leaving, or to mock him once more—but instead she holds out her arm to him, in the prescribed position for a chaperone. “Come,” she says. “Nothing says we have to revolve around him.”
As on most of New Zhongguo, the gardens are sparse: the few fields are devoted to the production of natural grain. Further on, a small fountain breaks the monotony of wheat, its spout of water shaped like a blossoming lotus flower. Monks toil in the fields, supervising the automated harvesters, or carefully trimming the stalks—an atmosphere of reverent industry almost alien to Liang Pao, who cannot remember the last time he did manual work outdoors.
Fourth Spouse’s arm is warm against his skin—and his breath has quickened again. With the pregnancy over, he isn’t as strong as he usually is; and he fights an overwhelming urge to bring her closer to him, and to . . .
“What do you want?” Liang Pao asks, when they’re out of earshot.
Fourth Spouse shrugs. “Some time on my own, I guess,” but he sees that’s not it—and she’s pressing herself closer to him, her grip changing, becoming a caress through the silk.
There’s the same smell in the air as when he first met her—except much, much stronger: flowers and sweat, the faint odour of sugared ginger overlaid with a stronger, more acrid one, and his breasts tightening, hungering for her touch . . .
Spring-scents, he thinks, desperately. That’s all there is to it. Spring-scents.
But he’s reacting, unstoppably—his yin-humours just aren’t as efficient now that the pregnancy is over. He’s free of the languor, and something tingles within his womb, spreads to his whole skin, a haze of desire he’s never felt in his life . . .
He wants to . . .
Almost instinctively, he reaches out, tipping her face upwards, bringing those wide, enthralling eyes closer to his own—breathing in the sweet smell of her scent, imagining her skin brushing his, her sweat mingling with his—he’s not thinking, not any more—save of the need burning through him, the ache deep within to be more than what he’s been turned into . . .
And in her moist eyes, too, he sees only the reflection of that need—a fire that sears away prudence and reason and education.
He needs . . .
Her lips part, revealing teeth the colour of white jade—they brush his, and the fire arches in him, from breasts to womb, reaches its crux.
“So you’re a man after all,” she whispers, and he doesn’t care, he doesn’t know if she’s right or not, it doesn’t matter.
But, against the wave of desire, something within him is reacting—beating fists against a glass panel, struggling to be heard. He brings her closer to him, for a second kiss, a second brush of fire, frantically seeking the warmth of her hands through her loose sleeves . . .
We used to lie against each other afterwards and whisper sweet nothings on the pillows . . .
And he sees it in her eyes, in the set of her jaw, in the name her lips open on, which isn’t his own. He sees it in her arms and in her stance—the coiled muscles of someone straining to be free, to flee by any means possible.
His breasts ache—heavy with milk, and not with this alien, frightening desire. Gently, he releases her. She watches him, panting, her cheeks flushed.
“I’m not her,” he says, slowly, softly.
“Do you think it matters?”
“Yes,” he says.
He remembers the kite, cut free of its string—and the way it disappeared from sight, taking his sorrows and sadness.
“Of course it does,” he says—but so low he isn’t sure she can hear.
He goes to see Husband, afterwards. He finds him ensconced in a chair within the library, watching a multi-sensorial shadow-play to the plaintive music of oboes and the smell of sandalwood.
Husband shifts positions when Liang Pao comes in, surprised. “First Spouse? What is—”
Liang Pao cuts him short—something he wouldn’t have dared do, only a day ago. But desperation makes him brave. “Flowers can’t bloom, if the earth isn’t right.”
“I don’t understand,” Husband says.
Liang Pao kneels, putting his left hand on the floor in front of him, and the right arm against his back—the posture reserved for a supplicant before the Emperor. “I humbly and reverently beg you to let your spouse Qin Daiyu go.”
He stares at the ground, hearing only a swish of robes as Husband comes to tower over him. “I thought you’d talked to her,” Husband says.
Liang Pao doesn’t move. He forces himself not to. “I have.” And, more quickly, before he can remember what he’s doing, “Her place wasn’t with a High Official. Her place isn’t here. Flowers wither if the earth is too shallow, and caged animals only waste away. I beg of you—”
“Enough.” Husband’s voice is curt. “Do you have any idea how much I paid for her, Pao? How many favours I had to ask from High Officials?”
Liang Pao says nothing. There is no answer he can make.
“I rescued her,” Husband says. His voice, too, comes fast, the words tumbling one atop the other, like a children’s game with paper cubes. “I took her inside this house, where she’d be happy. I . . . “
Liang Pao lets Husband’s voice fade into silence before he speaks. “I know,” he says. “And it is not a humble spouse’s place to tell you what to do. But Fourth Spouse is not someone you can cage. She—” He knows he cannot mention the woman—whoever her name is. To Husband, that relationship will only be an abomination.
There is only silence, in the wake of his words—broken by the bursts of music from the shadow-play in the background.
Finally, Husband says, “She’s not happy, is she?”
Liang Pao tilts his head backward, sucking in air through his teeth—signifying, without words, that it’s very difficult. The message is as clear as he can make it, without saying “No” outright.
He hears nothing; only Husband’s slow, steady breath. Even the shadow-play has fallen silent.
“I see,” Husband says. “I will consider this.” Which, coming from him, is a good as an affirmative.
“I humbly thank you,” Liang Pao says. He rises—only to meet Husband’s piercing gaze. He’d throw himself to the ground again, but Husband raises a hand, preventing him from doing so.
“Stay here, Pao. Tell me something.”
“What about you?”
What about—? He says nothing. He thinks of Husband standing by his side in the examination room, worry etched on his face; and of the sweet smell of lips brushing his, kindling a fire in his womb. He runs his hand against his breast, squeezes and feels the milk seep into the silk of his tunic.
“Not all lang birds long for the sky,” he says, finally. Not all birds will see the bars of their cages open; nor do they wish to. It’s enough, sometimes, to be reminded of who you are and what you chose. “My place is here.”
He sees Husband smile—a small, barely visible upturning of the lips, soon hidden. Emotions destroy, he thinks, but he knows it’s not quite true.
Sometimes, like metal, things need to be destroyed—fed through the fire so they can emerge stronger.
Moons letter, he receives a package, and a letter traced in a quick, deliberate hand that breathes strength onto the paper. It’s not signed; but he knows who wrote it.
I humbly thank you for everything, the letter says. I have the audacity to hope that the following gift is acceptable—in remembrance of our meeting.
Inside is a small, round box engraved with the characters for “dragon” and “phoenix”—the symbols for man and woman. When he opens it, he sees that a miniaturised refrigerant unit occupies most of the inside—and that the small, rectangular sheath at the centre contains a liquid he knows all too well: nitrogen. Within, suspended, is her gift: one of her last eggs, the most precious thing a woman can give to a man.
He sits in his chair for a while, staring at the characters sprawled on the page—Third Son blissfully suckling milk at his breast. From outside come the noises of steel-yarn unfolding in the breeze: First Son, Second Son and Husband flying their kites, challenging each other to go higher and higher.
Liang Pao feels, once more, the tightening in his womb, the alien feeling he associates with her and dares not name.
So you’re a man after all.
Gently, he sets the box apart—out of his reach. No, he thinks, realising that she never really understood him. I am what I am. I have no regrets. I am caihe.
Rising, he descends into the courtyard, to help his family cut the strings of sadness and misfortune.
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a dayjob as a Computer Engineer. In her (far too limited) spare time, she cooks, practises foreign languages, and visits old monuments all over the world. Her trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, Obsidian and Blood, is published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has appeared in various venues such as Clarkesworld, Interzone and Asimov’s, garnering her a BSFA Award, and nominations for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit http://aliettedebodard.com for more information.
Reprinted in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013 from Prime Books.