When starships wheel through the kaleidoscope between worlds, three things guide them: the maps, the stars, and the screamers. Voidmouths gape in kaleidoscope space, shifting their courses every time a ship enters or exits kai-space. Screamer squadrons search for the mouths with their beacons. Sometimes the mouths recede, and the ships arrive safely.
Sometimes the mouths swallow.
“Pigeon or canary?” asked the ship’s gaunt.
Cadet Serren Psora halted before the entrance to the briefing room and blinked up at the gaunt. She hadn’t realized how many bones you could see in such a translucent face. “Sir?” she said.
The gaunt’s upper lip curled away from his silvery teeth. No, not silvery; more a shimmer, as though he weren’t all there. Which, of course, he wasn’t. “Too polite to act bright, is that it?” he asked.
Serren had been staring. The senior cadet shouldered past her with a muttered apology, and she flattened herself against the wall. “Sir,” she said. She was determined not to offend the gaunt. Like all his kind, he was sensitive to voidmouth movements during the transitions into and out of kai-space. During those moments, he held the ship’s survival. He held her own and her cousin’s. “I’m not sure what you mean,” Serren said.
He laid three fingers on her shoulder. Human fingers. Serren felt the chill radiating from the fourth. Her stomach clenched. She hoped to make it past practicum without being drained into a gaunt, or worse, a sieve. “Sir,” she said, attempting to move past him. Beyond the gaunt, inside the room, her cousin, Aris Psora, mouthed his sympathy.
“Cadets think their individual talents matter,” said the gaunt. Serren flushed, thinking of her high ratings in kaleidoscope theory—the only thing she had exceptional ratings in. “When the voidmouths come after you, and everyone has to run, you’re reduced to two things. Run screaming, or die screaming. So long as the ship hears you and escapes.”
Pigeons survived the warnings they gave; canaries didn’t. “I understand the difference in outcomes, sir,” Serren said. The chill receded; she walked forward. She didn’t find the silvery gauntmark on her shoulder until later.
In the Psora family, Serren’s cousin Aris should have been the odd one out. He was shipborn, not stormborn upon a planet; he was a kaleidoscope child. He yearned after silence and metal halls in which no wind traveled. The rest of the Psorais gravitated toward tumultuous climates. They had a knack for throwing themselves into insufficiently-understood ecologies—dying at first, and thriving afterward. The ones who hated dancing in storms tended to slip the name off and leave.
Aris had kept his name. He had found stranger storms to dance in. Kaleidoscope space and voidmouths. He was shipborn; the Psorais expected this.
The Psorais had not expected his quiet, awkward, stormborn younger cousin to follow him. They assumed that Serren had glimpsed the stars through his eyes, and yearned after them.
The screamer academy interviewers, on the other hand, recorded Serren’s fascination with the first ship’s gaunt she had met, a childhood encounter her family had forgotten about. They teased out her nascent mathematical intuition. Of Serren and Aris, they wrote, She is not his shadow; he is hers. Neither of them realizes it.
The practicum instructor, Chuya Mwar, was the second-oldest living sieve. Her face was intact, and she had dark, slender hands. She paced before the arrayed cadets. Serren glimpsed Instructor Mwar’s spinal column and part of a pulsing lung as though they ghosted just outside her uniform. One of Mwar’s ankles flickered in and out of sight, giving her a peculiar syncopated gait. Serren caught her fingers twitching to the rhythm and curled them into a fist.
“For practicum,” said Mwar, “our training ship, the Ten-Nineteen, will enter kaleidoscope space. We will wheel in and out of local space until a voidmouth shows up. If you’re lucky and it avoids us”—she smiled thinly—”we’ll keep going in until your luck changes. When that happens, you practice screaming, and we run like hell.”
Serren bit her lip. She hadn’t expected practicum so soon; none of them had. The sector had seen an unusually high rate of disappearances and ships half-devoured in transit: Maverick. Pale Coin. The great stateship Your Game. Aristocratic Forever Voyaging, which had never stopped longer than a day at any station, until this year. It was still undergoing structural repairs. The academies had accelerated their schedule to ensure that enough trained screamers would be available.
“The faster you realize the mouth is incoming,” Mwar said to the cadets, “the faster we start running.” Mwar stopped pacing and did not smile this time. “We lose three or four of you every year. We would do it if we lost all but three or four.”
Untrained screamers were said to be worse than none at all.
Pacing, pacing, a tightening spiral. Mwar said, “This sector expects practicum to be complete within the next ten days. During that time, we can transition in and out of kai-space as many times as necessary, and the resulting perturbations of kai-space topology will not interfere with anyone’s itinerary. After those ten days, most of you will be alive. If you take too long to learn, some of you may become gaunts. Or worse.”
Serren thought, I will not be a canary. I will not be a gaunt. I will not be a sieve. I will not die. I will not fail.
Mwar displayed the squadron assignments. Her footsteps never changed tempo.
Serren steeled herself and looked for her name. Chuya Mwar had put her in charge of the primary beacon. Serren’s role would be to twitch the beacon—scream—the moment a voidmouth slipped past the secondaries, so the ship knew which way to “run like hell.”
She shifted her gaze to the senior cadet, Rachian Raios, who was almost as tall as the ship’s gaunt. The set of his mouth suggested puzzlement, not annoyance, that he’d been assigned to a secondary. The second senior, who had the highest rating in aggregate response time, shook her head. And Serren’s cousin Aris Psora, who could reproduce several hundred engine blueprints without the augment, lifted his shoulder at her. She restrained herself from sticking out her tongue.
Instructor Mwar halted. For a moment, she dimmed. Storm-colored light surged through the briefing room. Serren’s shoulder throbbed. Sound was sucked out of her hearing; shadows shifted like strewn petals. Then Mwar came back into focus, except both lungs were now visible in the flickering.
Rachian Raios, who had been standing nearest Mwar, flinched. For a second, the flesh of his hand was pale and transparent.
A ship’s gaunt, whose substance was merely thinned rather than a channel elsewhere, could expect to live for decades, if the ship’s screamers were good. A sieve was lucky to last five years.
“Sir,” Serren said before she could stop herself. She heard her own breathing. Heard the others’.
Mwar’s lightless gaze met hers. “Your first time around a sieve, Cadet Psora? If you’re fortunate, you’ll be around many more. Dismissed.”
Serren dragged her steps to make her cousin stop waiting for her. She couldn’t bear the sympathy in his face. He knew how she hated being singled out. Serren couldn’t help feeling that the gaunt and the sieve were triangulating on her all the way out of the briefing room.
Serren Psora didn’t mind the beaconship’s lightless claustrophobia. The screamer-augment shuttled the essential data inside her skull, bypassing ordinary vision. Ship-immersed, Serren saw kaleidoscope patterns without having to close her eyes. The cradling stillness suited her. It was polite in a wordless way.
Her cousin Aris often griped that the simulations hadn’t prepared him for this, but Serren could barely feel the difference. Another reason she shouldn’t command the primary beacon, which depended on fine-grained perception.
No voidmouths interrupted the first three kaleidoscope transitions. None had yet interrupted this fourth one. Serren was pleased to find that her analysis of critical searchpoints corresponded to the dataflow, patterns that moved like blossoms beneath rainfall. The primary beacon sweep bloomed across the kaleidoscope, touching off reflections and resonances along the secondaries. The patterns matched the inward sense that Serren had cultivated, the equations twining into each other.
Minutes trickled past. An hour. The beacons wove and unwove. At last, the secondaries flashed inward at Serren, and she relayed them to the Ten-Nineteen.
They spun out of the kaleidoscope, nine beaconships surrounding the Ten-Nineteen in symmetrical formation. Serren, as primary, was the first to roost onto the training vessel. Beaconships had minimalist maneuver drives. Most of the other cadets, unlike Serren, were qualified to pilot larger drives.
Inside the beaconship, light unfolded across lines and colors. Serren disembarked, shivering.
Aris caught her eye. “Serren.”
She walked faster, scrubbing at her eyes as though she could wash away the light, or her cousin’s worried eyebrows, or both. “Don’t want to get in the way of the maintenance crews,” she said.
Ship’s etiquette gave screamers their own partition, a ship within the ship. Screamer’s etiquette, impressed upon them by Chuya Mwar, bade them avoid ship’s crew whenever possible. “We unsettle them,” Mwar had said. “They look at all of you, any of you, and see me.” Her smile had made a terrible, narrow hole in her expression.
“Hey,” said Aris, catching her by the shoulder. She flinched. His grip eased. “It’s not your fault the mouths are keeping their distance.”
“Maybe they know I’m too incompetent to give them a challenge,” Serren said.
“Serren-” He didn’t insult her by calling her by her childhood nickname, Serre-ya, but it was that tone.
She shook her head, and he desisted. Her shadow passed over his feet as he stared after her.
In the last hours before waking, Serren’s gauntmark ached. She did not mention it to her cousin, who would have taken out his worry on the ship’s gaunt. She did not even mention to the senior cadet, with his sievemark.
Three or four, Chuya Mwar had said. Three or four would become gaunts, or sieves, or die. Which ones would it be?
None of us, Serren thought into the dregs of sleep. None of us, if they were good enough.
On the fifth kaleidoscope transition, Serren became absorbed in the searchpoints highlighted by the beacons. They had drifted in ways that tickled her curiosity. Measurement error? Petals and whorls, drawn by her pattern-craving brain in order to replace the noise in the dataflow?
The eight secondaries had been refracting into a standard searchnet around the Ten-Nineteen when three of them screamed in tandem, indicating the voidmouth’s trajectory. The resulting vectors fed into the primary and jolted Serren out of her contemplation. No time to think idiot idiot what was I doing stupid canary-
The searchnet frayed, leaving dangerous blind spots. The trefoil flared again. Shifting topologies warped the beacons upon themselves, forming useless knots. Serren went numb, as though her bones had been rinsed in light. She should magnify the secondaries’ scream, triggering the beaconship formation and the Ten-Nineteen to shunt out of kai-space in the safest rotation.
Too slow stupid canary-
Her eyes ached in the darkness. She could feel the voidmouth preparing to devour her marrow. She could end up with her substance sucked out, like the gaunt, or as an extension of the voidmouth, like Instructor Mwar, fading piece by piece and taking parts of the world with her. Like Rachian Raios.
Serren had to guide the ship away from the mouth. But the safest way was the wrong way. She felt it in the dataflow, the beacons’ knotted trajectories.
She could taste her cousin and the other screamers shouting at her, even if there were no intership communications in kai-space other than the beacons. Shouting. Demanding to know why she hadn’t already pulled them out.
Serren yanked the primary back toward the voidmouth and triggered her own scream.
No. I’m right, dammit.
No override came. The instructor didn’t intervene to save them.
They sheared out of kaleidoscope space just as a second voidmouth yawned toward them where the first had been, distorting the topology further-and enabling their escape.
Too close little canary-
It was the gaunt’s voice, in her memory. She wondered what his name was.
Serren flung herself back in the beaconship cradle and looked behind her eyelids. She stopped breathing. Started again. It had never occurred to her that voidmouths could swallow—and disgorge—each other.
Rachian Raios caught up with Serren on their way to stationside debriefing. She stopped; he kept from skidding into her. “Your cousin,” Rachian said to her.
Serren said bitterly, “You can hardly tell he’s a gaunt.” Only the way the light tangled in his hair, only the brightness of his veins against pallid skin. “They’re keeping him under observation in case of complications. To help him adapt. If I’d figured it out faster-”
“Trigger reflexes aren’t everything,” Rachian said.
“I saw the first one after the rest of you did.”
“That’s what the secondaries are for,” Rachian said. “We see the details so the primary doesn’t have to.” He was silent for a moment. They watched each other.
“If I’d pulled us out before it came so close-”
“-we’d never have found out that voidmouths travel as one,” Instructor Mwar said, entering. Her eyes were tired, but the corner of her mouth tilted upward. “All those years we’ve been pulling out ships too fast—or too slow. This changes the math.”
“How do you keep doing this?” Serren asked Mwar. “Leaving pieces of yourself behind?” It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t polite.
She had to ask.
Mwar looked at her a long moment. “I do it every time someone’s cousin doesn’t return. Or someone’s brother. Someone’s sister. Someone like you.” She tapped her foot as though keeping a tally. “I do it every year. Three or four always get swallowed. The holes in me are nothing compared to that.”
Rachian Raios touched Serren’s elbow. Behind him, two other cadets were pale, brooding.
“That’s terrible,” said Serren.
“That’s why I do this, little pigeon,” said Instructor Mwar. “Isn’t it the same for you?”
Serren opened her mouth. Closed it. She saw her cousin’s face in her mind’s eye. One piece of herself was already gone; more would follow. But she could not turn away. “Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Sybil’s Garage. She is a section editor at The Internet Review of Science Fiction.
As for inspiration, I wrote this story as an exercise at Viable Paradise VIII. The prompt involved “space opera, odd body types, and pigeons”; the other prompts involved either romance or “Luther, Faust, Hamlet, and Horatio at Wittenerg.” I can’t write romance to save my life and it’s been years since I’ve read Hamlet, so I panicked and went straight for the space operatic pigeons!
There are secret places in the world. Our maze was one of them. Sometimes a queen or an astrologer or a poet followed some inward silence and found our maze; sometimes a king or an architect or a musician followed some outward cacophony and sought our maze, and we hid ourselves.
We saw the army first, but the woman, the woman we welcomed. She came out of the mountains, hiding herself from the soldiers who roved the hills like wolves. We opened the lids of the books-that-watch, whose text was etched upon our gates, and saw her: scarred; carrying a shortbow of wood, horn, and sinew; at her belt, a knife with a hilt of bronze and gold, a cut-off tassel hanging from the horsehead pommel. She came afoot, although we guessed her to be a horse-nomad. In her heart was silence.
None of her people had passed this way before. This made communicating our greeting a difficulty. She reciprocated our efforts. If she had been deaf to the mysteries of language and the treasures of our maze, we would not have admitted her.
Early efforts resulted in a pidgin of some dozen languages. We spoke local trade tongues to her, hoping that some borrowed word, some accident of similar syntax, would ease her learning. When she could understand and be understood with only occasional confusion, she spoke of her origins in terms of myth: where the hawk flies, where the first archer shot down nine of ten suns, where footprints flower in the grass. Our glimpses of her own language placed it in a familiar category, further dispersed than expected, and changed in ways that pleased us to contemplate.
We learned a name that might have been her true one: Nanmori. We did not ask her about the pursuing army. She made no offer to tell us. However, she demonstrated her archery upon targets of bamboo and pale paper, assisted in the preparation of foodstuffs, and marveled at our aboveground gardens, which spelled out sustaining words from the books-that-eat. We gave her salves for her scars and teas for her aches.
Seasons passed, and she wove herself into our routines of gardening and bookbinding. We judged that she understood us well enough to receive the full, formal greeting, and ask the questions that hounded her here.
We said this to Nanmori, as we had to astrologers and explorers, exiles and shamans: The world lies in sound and in silence. We are the secret of its speech, the silence at its heart. You have found that we lie above a great maze, whose voices you may study. Some day we will write all that is to be written here, and open our pages to the world at large. You may leave whenever you please; you may add your bones to the gardens if it suits you.
Her head lifted a little as we spoke. When we had finished, she pressed her hands together, then bowed. Her eyes shone. She stayed.
The books-that-watch opened upon words of iron and bronze, numbers marching in precise columns. A general’s poems wrote themselves upon the books-that-dream, filling our sleep with sword-weight and shield-burden. We had a legend to maintain in the world’s whispers. We had a guest to safeguard. We whispered back to the books-that-watch and the books-that-dream. The roads rewrote themselves, and the rosters unnumbered their tallies. We left the poems intact, admiring their pointed brutality.
We closed ourselves to the army, and thought little more of those wandering soldiers.
Nanmori descended into the maze’s mouth. There, words echoed in litanies while a wind scoured out of the passages. She asked what the words were and what our libraries had to do with them.
Nanmori could not read. Words were a thing of the body, shaped by lips and fueled by lungs. Counting, too, was a thing of the body, following a sequence from fingers to earlobes, elbows to ankles. Our previous visitors had been skilled with stylus or brush, counting rods or codes knotted upon colored cords. Answering Nanmori required more seasons teaching her the shadows that sound makes upon paper, bamboo, clay. Her hands, which competently wielded the knife or guided arrows, never mastered the simple writing system we devised for our Nanmori-pidgin. She persevered with her large, awkward letters. It sufficed.
We showed her the library where we transcribed the maze’s words, our slates and scrolls in ever-descending stacks. We showed her the notation we used to capture the syllables and their intonations. We read her countless examples.
She asked why the transcription of maze-words consumed us.
We had to teach her mathematics beyond the simple sums that had sufficed in her past. We taught her that nothing was a number, and how to contemplate numbers smaller than nothing. We showed her subtraction with piles of fruits, then arithmetic and the nuances of more difficult systems. After she accepted the numerality of nothing, the rest came with greater ease.
Then we told her the nature of the maze-words. Each word spoken in the world’s hearing has one and only one inverse, which is rarely an antonym and need not be in the same language. A pair of inverse-words spoken together forms a moment of irreproachable silence, a return to the void that birthed the universe. When a word is spoken outside our sanctum, the maze breathes its inverse, which echoes until it is transcribed.
Nanmori’s eyes showed a taut, terrible eagerness when she heard this. She suggested that we spoke of a bowstring’s motion, which could be canceled by opposing vibrations: the superposition of waves. Her understanding, once again, was a thing of the body, and it was correct.
What Nanmori sought to unsay, or to whom, we could only conjecture. It concerned the halfway tassel, the absent horse, the literary general. It fed the uncanny sense that led her through our indexes and archives. We began to dream her voice in the maze, her footsteps in the library. Her presence became part of our geography. Sometimes we dreamt of another’s voice in answer, or a chorus of voices. Upon waking, we could not say which.
The general stopped writing poetry. When he put brush to paper it was to send discouraged reports to a distant ruler. In the weeks that followed, his army frayed. We untangled its path in hope of more poems. We almost convinced him. One evening he put brush to paper, stopped, started again.
That night, Nanmori disappeared. She left her latest bowstring with its ends knotted together. We took this as her farewell and inscribed her name within our garden, imitating her round, awkward hand. Then we tangled the paths to keep the general from her, or us. We were safe, but we missed her.
The next morning, the books-that-eat starved themselves of color. The books-that-watch closed their covers.
We found a poem in the books-that-dream, a Nanmori-poem in the language she never shared entirely. Did it answer the general’s last poems? Was she seeking him or fleeing him? Had she spoken the right words too soon or the wrong words too late?
The bowstring was a loop, a representation of nothing. Her world, unstrung. As the books sang and fluttered, we heard the impossible word that Nanmori alone had sought. It is the singular word that is its own inverse, which cannot help but annihilate itself, just as nothing and nothing make nothing. Or so we had understood it.
Nanmori told us differently-had tried to tell us in the language of dreams. In the end, she returned to her first, most natural language, a thing of the body: She walked outside to open our doors, hoping we would follow so she could return hospitality for hospitality. For we are the word at the center of things, which cannot be erased by anything save itself.
We write, and the books heed us no longer. We speak without feeding our words to the maze. Its secrets, like Nanmori’s, will remain unbreathed. She has unstrung us. Now we scatter our pages to the world’s winds. Perhaps wiser ones will find that words upon words create more than words, that literature does not sum to nothing.
Until then, we will remain silent, listening.
For Myn and her semiprimes; for Mrissa and her inverses.
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Sybil’s Garage. She was inspired to write this story by abstract algebra and a friend’s remark that languages might have inverses.
The queen in her dark halls kept a mirror of ice that had never known the sun’s kiss. Within it was frozen a maiden with pale lips and sweet eyes. A man appeared in the mirror’s cold depths. The queen breathed over its surface, erasing his reflection, and turned. Waited.
The man was not yet old. His eyes were large and dark, seeing too keenly into the shadows of this gray place, its listless shades. He opened his hands to her; dimly, even at a distance, the queen felt their warmth. A musician’s calluses marked his fingertips. His hands were beautiful even so, strong and lean.
“I thought you had come to play for my husband,” said the queen.
The musician’s smile was ironic. “The echoes in these your halls cast strange dissonances. You know, you and your husband, what I came for. Why bring music into it?”
“We hear music so seldom here,” said the queen. She did know her purpose. It pleased her to delay mentioning it. Here, where no green things grew, she felt winter. Blinded, chained, she would have felt the sun’s withdrawal and the fallen leaves, the dead flowers. She was neither blinded nor chained. Winter made her restless in her husband’s halls.
“Are there no poets to praise your eyes?” said the musician. “Or the long fall of light over your shoulder?” His gaze never moved beyond her to the mirror.
She liked the effort. Spring, youth, light–these must be newly painful to him, not the welcome, bitter ache they had become for her. “That’s not the trouble,” she said. “Who can speak of fruits on the tongue, or the color of the sea at twilight, when everything here is either gray or forbidden?”
“Then speak of other things,” he said. “The rocks. The shadows upon the rocks. The footsteps–” His breath caught. A dim shape moved in the halls beyond, bearing an unbearable burden. A moment later, the musician said, “I’m sorry. Manipulation is too easy.”
The queen laughed. “Isn’t that what your singing does? Isn’t that what music is?”
“No,” said the musician. Then: “Yes. That’s part of it.”
“And the whole?”
“They say–you know what they say happens when I sing, how the wind stills and the birds listen. When I play the lyre. The best poetry, the cruelest, remembers what we will become.” His eyes were compassionate. “The best music. And so.”
“And so?” the queen asked, in spite of herself. She watched the way the shadows defined his mouth and gathered in his hair. “Say why your music moves people. Why it is power.”
The musician did not flinch from the word, her implicit rebuke. He had meant to bribe her and her husband with music, to still death’s hand. “What we become,” he said. “The future describes the past; numbers describe the world. What is music but a cult of number? Ratios, rhythms. All I do is sing what I see.”
“Surely anyone could do that,” said the queen.
“Surely,” he said. “I do it.”
“And I cannot.” Unlike him, she lived outside the world’s weave.
“Surely,” he said again. “What good is any of it? I can number and unnumber the days, but they will not run backwards.”
He was coming to his purpose. The queen supposed it was inevitable. She, too, could not unnumber days. “Your wife,” she said. And, because she wanted to hurt him, see that mouth flinch, the eyes unwarm: “Who betrayed you.”
“No more than she would have betrayed me at the end of her thread of years,” said the musician, “or I, her.”
“She left you. For my halls.”
“She chose the snake at her heel instead of the snake in her belly,” he said. “I don’t fault her. She wanted my child. I wanted hers. Death before dishonor.” His empty hands tensed and untensed. “Child or no child, let her come back to me and live out the last of her thread.”
“Everyone who comes here has a story,” said the queen, “a reflection plucked out the world’s eye.” She looked at him sidelong. “Why should you two be different?”
“Because everything here is gray or forbidden,” he said. The earlier passion, the violence, waned. Only his eyes remained other than colorless, and they were still dark. He opened his hands, then closed them.
“Send her back,” he said. “We will return to you in the passing of years. We were born to your kingdom. We have never departed. The future describes the past. Dream that our future describes yours.”
He was speaking to her. To her, not her husband. To her, not the grim shapes that moved in the halls.
If she leaned closer, she might taste his mouth, and his throat, and the warmth that winter denied her. She might let his sun-browned hands taste her skin. She said, “There could be a child.” She stood straight, unashamed, lips curving. She was a queen, not the laughing girl in the mirror.
The musician bowed over her outstretched hand. His breath stroked her skin. “The past,” he said in a low, low voice. “Your past. There could be a child between us.” He straightened and lifted his hand just short of her ear. “She would not have flowers in her hair. She would not catch the sun in her eyes.” His head tilted back a little. “Beautiful, yes. Treasured like the earth’s ores, yes.” He lowered his hand. “Gray. Ashen. Forbidden.”
Just as she was forbidden to leave, these winter months. She had not realized she was holding her breath. “And to think it was your singing I feared,” the queen said.
“What do you think I was doing?” The musician’s smile became crooked. “Did you think I needed a lyre?” The smile vanished. “I would give many things to have my wife walk beside me. That is not one of them. And it would not fill the silence in your heart.”
He had not questioned that she had one.
They stood in silence, neither yielding. The mirror captured him, but left the queen untouched. It already had the maiden.
“There is a price,” the queen said. She ran her thumb along the mirror’s edge, her gaze never leaving the musician’s, then drew the sheen of water across her lips and along the ridge of one tooth. “You are halfway to paying it.”
He stared into the mirror. “My wife,” he said.
“That is the other half,” she said. “Can you ask her to live beneath the sky but avoid the sun? Can you ask her to accept what I shall give to you, which cannot be given back?”
“She is accustomed to difficult choices,” the musician said. His eyes were steady. His voice was not.
The queen drew his head closer. Her fingertips bade him not to close his eyes. She kissed him redly, without tenderness. In the dark halls, the echoing silences, the musician made no sound but his heart’s last beats, an irregular and not unpleasing rhythm. He sank to his knees, staring up at her, blinded. Chained by what she had given him, the life that is not life.
“Go,” said the queen, smiling. “She will be at the gates. You must walk without looking for her face or her reflection. You must walk until you stand beneath the night. And there you must give her the red kiss, and she shall return to you.”
“My queen,” he said. The music was gone from his voice. He bowed deeply and greatly, despite his unsteadiness. His skin remembered sunlight, but it would soon forget. The queen regretted that.
Then the musician departed, as she had told him.
The future describes the past.
So it does, thought the queen, knowing the musician’s story. Knowing herself complicit in the second separation to come, and all the separations, the pomegranate kisses, that happened in the sunlit realm.
Within the mirror, the queen saw the maiden in her forever winter. The musician’s reflection, too, was wrapped and motionless. In the realm above, no water or metal would show him his face. The queen raised a hand to her mouth and wiped away the red.
So, she said to the maiden in their shared silent heart, you have companionship now.
She was a queen, and the maiden was not. It made all the difference.
The queen broke the mirror, leaving warm red fingerprints on the pieces, and thought no more of music, or spring, or any such thing so long as she dwelled in her husband’s dark halls.
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in F&SF and the anthology In Lands That Never Were. She lives in Washington state with her husband and daughter.
“The Sun’s Kiss” arose from exasperation with mythological heroes who undertake apparently foolish actions, and wondering if there might in fact be a good reason for said actions.