Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.
Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.
Scale-Bright is a contemporary fantasy novella published by Immersion Press and introduced by Aliette de Bodard. Due out July 2014 in limited edition hardback, it blends Chinese myth, interstitial cities, and the difficulties of being mortal and ordinary when everyone around you has stepped out of legends.
Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.
He wears white paper creased into sleeves and robe, and on his head black paper folded into a cap. His faceted eyes are amber glass on an ivory face. But it is when the rush hour parts around him that his inhumanity becomes beyond dispute.
Smiling he bares blunt shoeshine teeth and again asks, “What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”
She ignores him, gazing out the window where the tunnel blurs by in a gray-black haze. Overhead, the indicator blinks green between one station marker and the next. Fortress Hill, Tin Hau. The man disappears before her stop. The crowd flows back into the space he left behind without ever acknowledging he was there.
Afterward she does not remember what the man looks like and his words fade. This is the first strange thing she encounters that day.
(Julienne does not count her aunts as strange. It would be rude, and they are the best relatives one could hope to have.)
In the afternoon, having spent her half-day off in pursuit of a low-calorie lunch, Julienne goes to work. Sunlight around her neck noose-tight, she encounters the second strange thing: a woman bleeding under the clock tower. She wears a vivid shade of good emeralds from eyeshadow to stiletto heels, marred by that one slash of red. The woman bears this coldly, eyes straight ahead, only now and then caught by a spasm that tautens her lips over her teeth. Her gaze catches Julienne’s and holds fast. Some ten meters separate them.
Julienne looks away, hurries into the Ocean Terminal where conditioned air loosens the heat’s chokehold and lets oxygen pass into her lungs again. There is a woman in so extraordinary a color; there is a woman who bleeds–and no one has noticed. So there must be no woman, or there is no blood.
Her aunts have taught her that Hong Kong is not quite the city she knows. Not half so safe; not half so dull.
She works, finishes, and has an indifferent dinner with coworkers in the food court. She buys pastel notepads and browses books at Page One, heavy hardcovers on architecture and interior design that take up far too much space to justify their purchase. The requirements of normalcy having been fulfilled, she makes her way out assured in her expertise of ordinariness. In the face of the peculiar it’s best to shore herself up in an ecstasy of the mundane.
At an hour bordering on too-late, she goes back to the harbor with its familiar smells of sea and fast food, with its crowds clustering around taxi and bus stops, salt-sweat of an evening. For the length of a hesitation, she pauses before the turnstile to the Star Ferry. She goes past.
The woman remains at the precise same spot, bathed in yellow light. Blood has stained her shoes and pavement an uncertain black. She remains upright, but she has become so pale her eyes look immense, tinted as though with expensive jades ground down to dust.
When the distance between them has shortened to nothing Julienne purses her mouth, licking off her lipstick, cloying mango-scent. “Do you need help?”
The woman blinks rapidly, shaking herself out of lassitude, setting herself on the correct side of consciousness. “I thought I’d bleed out my life before you overcame your cowardice.”
Julienne stares. “What?”
“You see a woman bleeding to death and don’t think to give her succor until the hours have passed, the sun has set, and she could well be lifeless carcass come the night? What barbarian are you? Did your mother and father teach you no courtesy?”
She inhales slowly. “Are you going to let me–”
“Yes,” the woman says, imperious, and falls into Julienne’s arms: a weight of green like emeralds, a smell of butchery thick as velvet.
* * *
The woman’s clothes have browned in the way of wilting leaves. She is congealed heat against Julienne on the ferry, on the taxi, then in the elevator ride up to her apartment. Strangers’ opprobrium chases Julienne; she must look like she’s shouldering a friend drunk into stupor.
In Julienne’s arm the woman is light, as though acrylic on cardboard, bold strokes and bright splashes without dimension. Julienne chews on the possibility that this is a ghost, the possibility that this woman-seeming will fall apart to wood and fabric. She guards against this thought. As long as it is out of sight it won’t come true.
Her door is numpad-secured. At her old place it’d have been an ugly lock and fumbling with keys, but her aunts can afford seemingly anything.
She thumbs the light on and lays the woman down on a faux-leather sofa, then props herself against the wall. Her arms ache and she can’t think. At the sight of handprints she’s left on the switches and door her stomach churns.
Under the tap cold water numbs her skin, sluicing pink. It occurs to her while she lathers her hands that the woman might already be dead. How many liters of blood in a body? Is it different when she is so obviously not human? There’s a medicine cabinet in the living room. Aspirins, indigestion pills, bandages. She can’t begin to imagine what she could do with them.
Logic slowly reasserts itself: an ambulance. “We should’ve gone to a hospital,” she says aloud in the shredded hope that the woman might still be alive and aware. “I’ll just make a call. All right?”
The woman reaches for her. “Don’t.”
“You need an ambulance.”
“No.” A weak tug. “Stay.”
“You’re going to die and it’ll be on my head.”
“I’m not; it won’t be.” A small, desperate noise. She never opens her eyes.
Gradually her breathing evens out and she eases into what seems more sleep than unconsciousness. Feeling absurd Julienne continues to hold the stranger’s hand, her fingers a twitch away from dialing 999.
A minute passes, or an hour. Morning arrives with an odd abruptness. Julienne is in her bed; on the nightstand her phone flashes. For a while Julienne stares blankly at the LED blinking orange, white, orange, white. A slant of sun peers through the curtains, glares off the floor-length mirror in its art-deco frame.
She stays under the blanket until she can no longer bear the disgusting thickness in her mouth. The air-con hums; she doesn’t remember having switched it on. She touches her blouse where the stains have faded to thin smears, as though they were never blood.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, nightrobe. The clock says half past five. She tries to recall what it said when she came home last night. Eleven?
Her skin feels much too cold, the robe much too warm. When she steps into the living room she braces herself against anything, the way she does at general check-ups: against news of sugar level too high, blood pressure too low. Cysts. Cancer.
But there is just her aunt-in-law reading on the sofa. A faint smell of cigarettes. Hau Ngai takes care not to smoke indoors, and never near Julienne. She sits like a man, ankle propped on knee, in a way Julienne would never dare. “Julienne. How do you feel?”
“I’m not sure.” She tries again. “Auntie.” Five months of saying that and still awkward.
She takes the wingback chair, flinches when Hau Ngai leans over to cradle her face in a hand rough with calluses. The pressure behind her eyes lightens and the throbbing in her temple slows. What little sunlight there is stops strobing in her vision.
“I’ve lent you some vitality. Tell me what transpired.”
“Oh.” Julienne looks down. She has never grown past the embarrassment at the deep, intoxicating attraction she felt when she first met Hau Ngai, not knowing who this older woman was, understanding only that she was elegant and impossibly self-possessed. “There was a woman.”
As Hau Ngai listens her mouth becomes thinner and thinner until she’s lost all expression. “Did it not occur to you, niece, that there was anything strange? Of all mortals she singled you out. Hong Kong is not small, the crowd was not thin. If it was aid she sought, then she went about it strangely.”
“I… know, Auntie. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But she was harmless. I couldn’t have walked by.”
“She drank your youth, a few years torn out from the weave of your span. Your charity’s to your credit, but what you brought home was malicious; a viper, unless I’ve misread the signs. Reptiles are beguiling.” Hau Ngai shakes her head. “I’ll call Seung Ngo.”
“I don’t want her to worry–”
“Your aunt won’t forgive me if I did not tell her. But I’ll do that tomorrow, if that eases you.”
Julienne pushes herself to say, “I know I’m a burden to you both.”
“You wouldn’t have been attacked if they didn’t smell gods on you. It’s irresistible to demons who extend their centuries by leeching off humans’ time. For them the scent of heaven is spice to such a meal. This isn’t your fault. It’s appalling that neither of us has granted you better protection.” Hau Ngai reaches into her shirt and draws out a small metal triangle. “Keep this. Through it I’ll know where you are, and be able to answer if you call.”
The tip is weighted, tapering to a piercing point. An arrowhead. “Thank you, Auntie.”
“It’s no chore to keep you safe,” Hau Ngai says. “You’re my wife’s niece, and that makes us family.”
Which to Julienne simply sounds like it’s an obligation, but she tries not to think that way. Gratitude is the only correct answer; she attempts a smile. “When I was a child I’d have loved to be able to say my aunts were that Seung Ngo, that Hau Ngai. Bragging rights.”
Between curtain-cast shade and dawn-light the archer god might have smiled. “Then other children would’ve said you meant your aunt and uncle, called you a liar, and pelted you with whatever mortal children pelt one another with these days.”
“Rocks and mud balls, I’m afraid.” She yawns and stifles it behind her hand.
This time Hau Ngai chuckles as she lifts Julienne in her arms without effort. “Mortals,” she says as she tucks Julienne back into bed, “never truly change.”
* * *
When Houyi makes the call to her wife she expects an argument and, as so often, that is what she gets.
“If you weren’t out to butcher every single demon in Hong Kong.” The intake of Chang’e’s breath is an effort to keep calm. Houyi imagines her in a park, a field, somewhere under an open sky gold-blue with daylight. “If you didn’t have this reputation for being a rampaging zealot who massacres indiscriminately. If not for these, do you believe one of them would’ve been after my niece’s life?”
“Yes,” Houyi says, rebalancing the phone. “Demons hardly need encouragement to act on their instincts. Scenting us on her is reason enough.”
“They aren’t animals.”
“Technically many of them are.”
Another sharp inhalation. “I’m not going to debate the technicalities of demonkind. Had you left them well enough alone instead of heading out every other night to slaughter them by the score they’d have found no provocation to do this.”
“This is the first time they’ve gotten close to Julienne.”
“They don’t need a second. I’m not going to expect her to defend herself from demons.”
“I could teach her to, but in the meantime I’ve given her something to carry. I do mean to keep her safe.”
“I know you do; I know you will keep her well. Sometimes I feel like I ran away and left you with an illegitimate child to raise.” On the other end Houyi hears an old woman’s voice raised in song. Clacking of wood on wood, the purr of thread turning to fabric. “It’s not that I don’t wish I was at your side. It’s not that I don’t resent how little time we have together.”
“I understand that. When this has calmed down, I will…” The strength of her reaction to Chang’e–to her wife’s absence–always catches Houyi off-guard, like a shot that’s gone astray without reason. “I’ll find the viper. Perhaps negotiate an agreement.”
Chang’e laughs, without humor. “That’d be new. Do try it, even so.”
The last echo of Chang’e’s voice dies away.
Houyi stands on the first letter of HSBC, ancient myth-feet resting on logo black on red, under which throbs a mad rush of numbers and commerce and machines: trades riding cellular waves and fiber optic, fortunes made and shattered in minutes. She does not shade her eyes. Centuries of driving the sun chariot have inured her; the light and heat only remind her of the trajectory, the making of dark into dawn. It’s not a duty she may shirk for much longer.
The height gives her half of Hong Kong to peel open, but though she can see as far as she needs–and narrow her attention where she wills–the city is a hoarder of secrets, of blacked windows sealed tight, and what do reptiles excel at if not hiding and slithering in the shade?
Houyi pinches the strand of hair she’s plucked out of the sofa. No scales: the demon was not so slovenly as that, to revert to fangs and a tail as long as skyscraper shadows. From her shoulder Houyi unslings her bow, and choosing an arrow knots the hair to its tip.
Notch. Pull. Loosen. The motions come easily, an extension of arms and fingers, a release of tension pleasant-familiar as nostalgia. The arrow sails high. It flashes once, a verdant burst.
A direction; a beginning. She has located the trail.
Houyi steps off the edge of the building, and follows.
* * *
Temple Street at night: too many foreigners, too many smells. Billboards warm the air even in winter, and in summer it is sweltering. Here is too far from waves and harbor, too far from the breathing brine.
A street opera enacts snatches of drama–behind the powder and paint each actor could be woman, man or elsewise. One plays the part of Daji, Nuwa’s fox, luring an emperor to her embrace and his dynasty’s demise. Houyi appreciates their grace, their ability to perform in the limited stage eked out from gaps between pedestrians and stalls. The actors are not without aptitude, and the accompanying band if strident manages to spin noise into poetry. But she will not find her quarry here. Too obvious, too garish.
Vendors hawk stringed coins not unlike what young men used to buy during imperial examinations seasons. Zodiac animals in glaring gilt line tables cheek-to-jowl with paper-mache icons of Chairman Mao. Houyi lets the crowd carry her forward, moving at its pace rather than her natural gait. Intuition and hunter’s sense will serve her here, not tracks on asphalt. None exists in any case; the city fleets, overwriting and overwritten.
She drops onto a cracked plastic stool without invitation or solicitation. The palm-reader looks up at her, startled to find someone who looks so obviously local giving her patronage. She is mid-forties, tired and trying to hide behind cosmetics: young for a palm-reader, which indicates that like most lining this street she is better at reciting a chiromancy manual than reading fate-lines. For foreigners’ benefit the woman wears a cheongsam.
Clipped palm charts flutter as she unhooks her magnifying glass. The smile she gives Houyi is thin-lipped, impatient. “Good evening, miss. Is there anything specific you’re after?”
Houyi hands over a couple hundred-dollar bills. “A consultation,” she says amiably; even if the palm-reader knows no talent, she will see that Houyi’s lines are not quite what they should be. They would suggest Houyi has already died once, an interruption in the tributaries of her destiny. “I’ve had a reading done before, but it wasn’t favorable. I’m considering a surgery to change that. Do you have recommendations?”
An honest chiromancer would have told her the idea is absurd, but this one apparently has a plastic surgeon for a brother-in-law and has pages of advice on what Houyi might want to change, which part to keep and which to overwrite–“The one for your lifespan of course, and if you have conjugal troubles…”
Houyi’s smile stiffens. So she has. Such a mortal thing, to turn a corner and find uncertainty lying in ambush against understanding that has outlasted dynasties.
While the woman speaks she takes the opportunity to acquaint herself with table, charts, equipment, brushing her fingertips over the naked lightbulb. The viper has been here, and often; the deep pouches under the palm-reader’s eyes are not just sleep deprivation. A touch here, a touch there, like a tongue lapping at a teacup’s lip.
She lets the barest sliver of her vigor seep into the woman. Chang’e will not like it, berating her for being too much the god, too free with her protection. These days it seems they are constantly in the middle of a disagreement or verging on the next. Just as well they found Julienne already a woman grown, not a fifteen-year-old orphan, or they would have worse debates over how to rear the girl. Neither of them would have adjusted well to the parameters of parenthood.
She pays the palm-reader an additional fifty, far more than the “consultation” is worth, and leaves for a noodle shop. It is noisy, far too hot, and quite perfect for contemplation. In her days she would have found a remote spot, drawn weapons, and sharpened them–but remoteness in Hong Kong is a commodity rarer than gold and far more precious. She’s learned to align her thoughts to noise, to sharpen her alertness on the whetstone of distraction. The steam brings her the smells of red pork, soy sauce and pak choi.
The god’s intent pricks her skin long before he enters the eatery.
“Marshal Tianpeng,” she says as he arrives along with the waiter, who sets out a bowl of noodle and a plate of youtiao she didn’t order.
“Nobody’s called me that for eons. Zhu Baije, these days. Your courtesy is peerless, as ever.”
Physically he is imposing: a former commander of some eighty-thousand celestial soldiers can be nothing less. But his presence, she’s always felt, is very small. Houyi regards him in silence, long enough for him to begin fidgeting with his youtiao.
“Beautiful Houyi,” he wheedles, “why so cold? Are we not friends of old?”
“You were sent to earth in swine form for making unwanted advances toward my wife. Though I see, of course, that you’ve since regained a shape more manlike.” She tries a spoonful of soup, finds it insipid. The beef brisket is an improvement, seasoned and braised with a sure hand, someone with a zeal for strong flavors.
“That was centuries ago!”
“You were entirely aware that not only was Chang’e married, she didn’t want men in general, nor you in especial; you didn’t even take the trouble of becoming a woman to woo her. I’m concerned that she couldn’t protect herself–as is obvious, she could and did–but I’m unable to comprehend why you’ve decided to join me for a meal.”
“Chang’e seemed lonely, and at the time you were absent from heave…”
“Banished to mortality in the human realm, yes. Very humorous, if you think about it, given your own sentence. But I wasn’t aware the absence of one partner signals a marriage’s dissolution. Not that I have ever leafed through a book of heavenly laws, to be sure. Perhaps you can enlighten me.”
He holds up his hands. “How cross are you, truly?”
“Marshal, can you not tell? Here I understood you were the final authority on women’s fickle moods. Indeed reports say that fickle was what you called my wife when His Majesty summoned you for judgment.”
“We’re all immortal, Marshal. Pretend that I am a man. Your equal, if you will. Would you expect a husband to let pass this slight?”
Tianpeng looks down at his plate, shredded remains of youtiao: fried dough going limp in a cooling puddle of oil. “Houyi, your words cut deep.”
“They don’t need to. I do carry weapons. But to save us both time and keep up some semblance of manners you could tell me your reason for having sought me out.”
“Ah,” Tianpeng says. “Ah. About that. I have what mortals would call a… liquidity problem.”
One of the waiters is scowling in their direction. They’ve kept their table too long. “We can talk as we walk. If you must.”
Food smells linger on them. From the marshal she catches a cloying hint of cigars. An odd choice, and no suggestion of liquor. The Tianpeng she knew in heaven was so fond of drinks he offered to dig her a wine lake as wedding gift.
The market has frayed with the lateness of the hour; stalls are packing up and the opera troupe is gone, leaving behind synthetic feathers and tatters of faux silk, a promise of the next performance. Come daylight the street will have acquired a seediness, an emptiness of spirit that comes with storefronts shut like clenched fists and garbage bags on the footpath.
She stops at an apothecary to buy candied dates for Chang’e, then remembers that Chang’e is not here, will not be here for a long time. She buys them anyway; they will keep, and her wife always eats compulsively after she’s off a plane. “Liquidity problems,” Houyi says as they pass a bakery offering the last of its egg tarts at half price. “Do I understand that right, Marshal? You have financial troubles. How did you come by them? You’re a god.”
“Mercy and pity, Houyi! A pig for three hundred years.”
“It’s been how long since–” She glances at him sideways. “No, don’t tell me. You’ve been trying to purchase women’s attentions.”
Tianpeng rubs the side of his temple. “Of all people you can surely appreciate that! Chang’e is unmatched in beauty, but one can’t possibly be enough. It does no harm to have many loves.”
“Marshal, I suggested that you pretend I’m a man as a rhetorical bid–one I hoped would bring you a glimmer of self-awareness. This seems to have met with abject failure. I understand the virtue of fidelity. I enjoy it.” Houyi shifts the phantom weight of her quiver. “But I’m not entirely unsympathetic to your plight. Are you acquainted with demons?”
The god tugs at his beard, uneasy. “Not by choice. This is an infested city.”
“Yes, it is rather. If you can introduce me to one who might speak with me regarding a specific demon, it’d go some way to make amends for the slight you offered my wife. We can discuss your bank accounts after that.”