The tomb of the Empress has breath, and bone, and muscle. I can feel her shiver and moan beneath my hands, and though my fingers tremble I know the vibrations are more than my own weakness; they are a pulse that runs deep to the caverns of her far-off ventricles and atria. The tomb of the Empress lives, and we live inside her.
There is one window before which the Empress’s coffin lies at rest. The coffin is gold, the only bright embellishment amid the hall of grays and silvers and coppers, and it bathes in the reflected light of the passing planets. When there are no planets to be seen, and no suns, the window is black and cold, the coffin shadowed.
“That star,” whispers Baozhai to me on the first night, pointing out the window at a distant dot of white. “It is our destination, set in place by the astrologers and the architects as it has been for every Empress. We sail directly for its centre, and the seven of us will kneel before our Empress’s coffin until the window cracks and we burn in a crucible of white fire.”
Else, we will all starve first.
• • • •
For three nights we can hear the sound of the engineers. At first the sounds are angry and male, and then they are wet and bloody, and finally they are silent. As the astrologers and the architects intended, the secrets of the Empress’s tomb lie unspoken by the engineers’ bodies—or at least, such I imagine, for we can see nothing but the metal door behind which the men are locked. We press our ears to the door, but we can neither see nor hear anything any longer.
“Such fools are men,” says Yanmei. “To beat themselves bloody; if they only followed our example, they would yet live.”
The white star hangs in the window; today it is but a single bright point amidst a black ocean.
“Come,” says Suyin. “Come back to the Empress.”
She shuffles to the tomb, kneels beside the coffin and bows her head. The others follow her, kneeling beside her in a neat row, each girl perfectly equidistant from the other. My place remains empty. I turn back to the door, and run my fingers over its hinges.
“Qiaolian,” says Suyin without opening her eyes. “Come back to the Empress.”
I do as she bids.
• • • •
At first there is thirst, but this is a matter easily rectified. The tomb of the Empress is encased in water, its skin beaded with tanks that absorb the light of the universe and shield us from its heat. The engineers knew this, and I know this, and so perhaps this knowledge remains only mine, but irrespectively the evidence is before our eyes: The window to the stars ripples and bends with the weight of water on the other side. It is a contradictory effect, the sensation that we are both submerged and airborne.
Yanmei kneels before it and prays that the gift of water might be granted to us to wet our dry tongues. She presses her head against the cool glass. Her lips move silently, begging.
While they sleep, I arise from my knees and scavenge the ship. As with any great machine, there are parts that seem to serve no utility, and I select one such part—a long, sharp part—and coax it free of its fastenings.
When my sisters awake, it is to a small hole and a thin stream of water. They quench their thirst, and I wait until they are done to drink.
• • • •
Second there is hunger, such hunger as is impossible to describe in words.
The tomb groans. I wonder if, with the engineers grown still in her belly, the ship also feels empty. When my sisters kneel, I kneel, but when my sisters sleep, I search, examining every gantry and balustrade. I press my ear to its veins, hear steam roaring inside. I follow the sound into its ribcage to where shadows press tight around gears and motors.
I have always been the one to watch and listen, to determine the single necessary word of influence; human or machine, there is little difference.
I startle. Wenling has awoken, come looking for me. I am thankful that it is her, for she is mild and unwearied by the world—on occasion, she has shown me kindness. Better her than the pious Suyin, or the capricious Baozhai. Or Yanmei—that thought does not bear consideration.
“Qiaolian, come,” she says. “You know you must not exert yourself.” She looks at the gargantuan mechanica atop which I crouch, and shivers. “You must rest.”
Perhaps she is right. My heart is quivering; the blood sings through its rebellious hole.
I follow her back to the Empress.
• • • •
My first time before the Empress, I can barely breathe nor stand. I have been taught the proper stance in which to appear: hands held supplicatory before me, head bowed. “At first, you must not look above her feet,” I am told, and so I do not. She has such beautiful lily feet—the size of a child’s, enclosed in delicate shoes embroidered with lotus flowers. Between the edge of the shoe and the hem of her robe is alabaster skin that I imagine cool as porcelain to the touch.
“Approach,” she says.
I am led forward by the men, as if I am theirs to give.
She places two fingertips on my chin and raises my face to hers. I am wrong; her skin is warm.
“Come,” she says.
There is a filigreed elm-bed, draped in rich fabrics—not a bed for sleeping but a bed for pleasure. The men respectfully close a screen behind us; only my new sisters remain, lined up, gazes decorously averted. Baozhai, Dongmei, Wenling, Liu, Suyin, Yanmei—soon I will know their names as intimately as my own.
Liu reaches around to disrobe the Empress. First I see white, and then I see black.
• • • •
Such a hunger as is impossible to describe in words can be described in looks.
“There’s meat,” Suyin says, “if we could only open the door.”
“The men have been dead six days,” says Yanmei. “They will be spoiled now. We would die if we partook of their flesh.”
Perhaps the hunger is hardest on me; I am frail and small already, and so my veins ring as hollow as my stomach. But then again perhaps it is easiest for me; I am accustomed to the weakness of my body, and how to push it away and carry on.
“Meat must be fresh, or else you will be poisoned,” Yanmei says. Though she is not the oldest, she was the first, and wears this fact like a crown. “The flesh must be living, or near to.”
She does not look at me, nor do any of them.
Fear chokes my frail heart, a candle guttering in a night wind.
I pray to the Empress to stave off my hunger, and theirs. I was your favourite, I remind her. I could not be touched then, and I would not be touched now.
I cannot hear what lies in my sisters’ prayers.
• • • •
I become the girl without use—after all, what is a concubine who can give neither pleasure nor utility without fainting? But somehow, the Empress’s interest in me does not wane. She brings me before her physicians, who diagnose me with myriad conditions that none can agree on. One suggests that my heart is a weak vessel pierced at birth; the other physicians mock his description, but there is an echo inside my chest that convinces me he is right.
I petition the Empress to permit me to touch her as the others do; even if my heart bursts, it is the purpose for which I was brought, but she refuses. She will not allow me to die for her pleasure.
I am dispensed to help the calligraphers, the astrologers, and the engineers. I learn to write, I learn to read the stars, and I learn the intricacies of automata.
“You are lucky,” Wenling tells me one day, catching me lying beneath a flock of mechanical birds to which I have given flight. Her hair is combed and shiny; she is on her way to meet a summons from the Empress.
I do not feel lucky, but I say nothing.
• • • •
It takes several days before they come for me, when the hunger has grown to a howl that cannot be ignored. I have anticipated, and apportioned my time accordingly.
It is not murder, they reason. Qiaolian, the girl who trembles in the presence of her Empress, the girl who can neither climb nor carry nor scrub. She is a candle already out; is it our fault if in her terror she falls down dead? As is it our fault if we choose not to waste the gift of flesh before us?
It is Wenling who knows where I will hide; it is Yanmei who leads them; it is Suyin who calls out to me to come back to pray before our Empress. “It is your duty,” she says.
I slip between gears into the heart of the machine. I have learned my way around but I cannot hide forever; every crevice of the ship is familiar to me, and I have tested every chink in the perimeter to no avail. Today they may give up, but tomorrow they will be hungrier.
I straddle the metal veins of the ship. My heart races fit to burst.
“I am here,” I call.
• • • •
You know the story of Wu Yueniang, of course? The blacksmith’s daughter? The beautiful concubine of an immoral man, toiling beside her ninety-nine sisters to tow his boat along the river. You know about her beautiful bound feet too, of course, in her delicate shoes embroidered in lotus flowers. Shoes so beautiful they could not help but draw the man’s attention—a fatal mistake, for Wu Yueniang had concealed a small sword inside the bindings of her feet, and when he came close, she drew out the sword and stabbed him.
My bindings do not contain a sword; the engineers taught me tools as weapons.
It is unwise to underestimate the one who can do nothing but listen and learn. I watched the calligraphers, the astronomers, and, most importantly, the engineers. I have learned how to fashion metal into birds, into language, into oceans, into ships. The tomb of the empress has breath, and bone, and muscle, and I am its physician.
I press my face against its pipes, grip its rivets, whisper words that sink into its bloodstream and fly a-quiver to the heart of this ship, my beloved Empress’s resting place. They are coming for me, I say.
• • • •
The steam screams when I release the bolts. For a second I am reminded of my Empress arising from her baths, steam wreathing around her, my sisters shuffling forward with oils and robes. Then the steam turns bloody, and Yanmei’s screams meet it in chorus.
My heart convulses; the killing of Yanmei took nothing more than the flick of a wrist, but still my body is rebelling. I breathe, calm myself. I have coaxed the ship into a new shape to suit my own rebel physiognomy, but it can do nothing to combat the battery of emotion.
I pull the lever; metal grinds closed. The vent seals. Yanmei’s body falls to the ground, and the smell fills the room.
Forgive me, but she smells . . . delicious.
My sisters back away. Suyin is clutching a metal pipe, torn from the ship. She drops it.
I point to Yanmei. “Meat,” I tell them. “Food.”
I delve amongst my robes, pull out one of my tools, a file sharpened to a point. It is not strong, but it is enough to cut flesh. I throw it down to them; it bounces across the floor and skitters to rest against Yanmei’s body.
“Food,” I repeat.
• • • •
They carve her into portions, and when those portions aren’t fit for eating, they place them in front of the vent and I pull the lever. I am fair; I do not eat more than they do.
They feed to near-delirium, then return to the Empress. First is Suyin; her piety is expanding into Yanmei’s absence, and the rest fall into her pattern. But I see the cracks spread: first through my sisters, and then around the splintering hole in the window, as if manifested by their pain.
One night the window breaks, and a great deluge of water bursts across the deck. My sisters, though sheltered from the worst by the coffin, still emerge soaked and coughing.
Perhaps they imagine themselves washed clean by the wave, absolved of their guilt, but with that gone there is room once more for the hunger.
I do not climb down to bathe in the water; I do not share their concern. Perhaps it is because I value my survival more highly than my soul, or perhaps it is because, always separated from my Empress by a mere screen, I have long ago made peace with my desire for the taste of flesh.
• • • •
It takes three days, but they come. I am ready; when Baozhai and Dongmei place their feet on the weighted panel, a whisper passes from cog to cog beneath it, magnifying until it triggers. Springs in the walls are released; metal struts snap down, and they are impaled.
I expand our culinary ability; I cannibalise plating from the walls, and redirect the steam vents such it bursts out against a flat metal sheet that heats until it is red hot. I bid Suyin and Liu to slice apart the bodies and place each strip of meat on the makeshift griddle until it is cooked.
Wenling refuses. She backs away, and vanishes beyond my sight.
This time they do not fall upon the body and devour it. It is rationed as long as they dare—seven days until there is nothing but bone. In all that time, there is neither sight nor sound of Wenling, though I bid them call for her to come and eat.
I have been keeping an eye on the window; the star is larger, though still distant, and without an ocean between us it shines clearer, highlighting the Empress’s tomb bright white in the dark.
• • • •
Suyin and Liu return to their vigil at the coffin; it is the only way they know how to stave off the hunger. I dare to climb down; I have grown spoilt hidden up in my self-made nest, my body untaxed. Now, the simple exertion of moving through the ship again leaves me breathless, my chest aching. It fills me with fear: If Suyin or Liu (or Wenling, wherever she is) sense my weakness, even my ingenuity may not keep me alive. I cannot rely again on a right-placed foot, on weights and tricks.
Once, an engineer taught me to make a stork, more complex than my copper sparrows or brass mice. The stork could flap its wings, turn its head, walk in a circle. It had been intended as a gift, the engineer said, but then pressed a finger to his lips. “Watch.” He stroked its beak, and the moment skin touched metal, the bird’s neck snapped forward. The beak, serrated and sharp, bit at his hand as he pulled it away, laughing.
I marvelled, begged him to show me how the trick was done.
There are three skeletons on the deck. I can no longer tell them apart.
• • • •
I hear Suyin and Liu talking, and see them look towards me. It is a look I have grown to recognise. I wonder—on the days when the screens were drawn around my sisters and the Empress, and I was left to stand with the men listening to the panting of ecstasy from within—whether my face also betrayed such an uncontainable hunger.
I close my eyes. I am learning now, the time between desire and action. I have some hours before the hunger outweighs the guilt, before need outweighs fear. When it does, I am prepared.
It is Liu who ventures near first; I am surprised, for Liu was always reticent. Where I was subjected to the moans and cries of the others, she was always silent, and thus I was forced to imagine her pliable and unmoved by the Empress’s attentions. She was never kind to me, but she was never cruel.
When she draws within striking distance, my creations move as one. Pistons lever their arms; the clanking workings within their ribcages jettison gouts of steam. They brandish what weaponry I could fashion—more struts pried from the walls.
Liu spreads her arms. “So be it, Qiaolian.”
• • • •
Suyin refuses to touch the body, so I order her to step far away and manoeuvre my creations between us. I have made alternative use of the plate, and so I sever a gas pipe and strike a spark. It leaves the meat blackened and tough and I laugh to myself that I can raise such a criticism in the circumstances.
Suyin does not look at me, nor see me laughing. I can only imagine how it would appear if she did. I offer her food, but she prays without response. I wonder what unspoken history of Suyin’s sets apart the flesh of Liu from the flesh of the others.
I return to my nest. The star is nearer; somehow I have imagined that the simple act of continuing to survive every day will delay its arrival, but the truth is quite the reverse. I have lived only in order to meet my death.
The secret to changing the ship’s course died with the engineers. The door behind which they lie would be easy to open, but I do not dare risk descending to the deck.
The full stomach lulls me; I fall to sleep and dream of the Empress.
• • • •
I am awoken by the sound of death. I find Suyin prostrate below me, one hand reaching for a slab of meat, the other pinioned beneath the feet of one my creations. A strut enters and exits her head on either side of her blank eyes.
Tears well for the first time. Suyin had come for food, not for me. She had not earned this end.
I let myself down from the nest, and find that my legs can barely support my weight. I crawl to her. I kiss her on the forehead and whisper an apology. No doubt she would prefer a prayer, but my prayers are to the Empress and not a god, and I doubt Suyin would approve.
I inspect the door behind which the engineers are walled. Many weeks have passed—surely the engineers must all be dead by now; I can risk entering. It is a matter of disconnecting the right pieces of machine, re-connecting the wrong pieces in the right places, and it is soon achieved.
An army of statues is waiting for me in half-shadow. Between their legs lie the engineers, bloody and crumpled. The smell is putrid and tears at my stomach.
• • • •
Wenling is waiting for me when I return. She rests against the coffin; her face is drawn, her body leeched of life like a dried flower. I do not know how she is still alive, and I do not ask.
“I felt it change,” she says. Her hand rests on the floor. Does she feel the ship like I do, as viscera and sinew? “We’ve turned away from the star.”
“Yes,” I say.
Wenling’s eyes close tight. If there are tears, I cannot see them in the gloom. “We were meant to burn with her,” she says. I hear some of my own pain in her voice, and I realise that perhaps Wenling loves the Empress as I do. Perhaps you imagine this would soften my heart towards her, but instead I feel a hot jealousy that she was permitted to both love the Empress and partake of her body. And besides, my heart is already soft enough.
“I wish to burn,” Wenling says.
There is a gas pipe, and a spark by which to make a flame.
“As you wish,” I say. “May you live eternally in the embrace of the Empress.”
She smiles. “May you, also,” she says.
• • • •
The tomb of the Empress has breath, and bone, and muscle, and I can feel her turning beneath me, shifting width by width away from the star. A green-white-and-blue planet rises into view—it seems so beautiful compared to the crimson planet I have left behind.
I lie face down on the coffin lid, and close my eyes.
She places two fingertips on my chin and raises my face to hers. First I see her face; she is beautiful in a manner unparalleled (and though in my life I am permitted to see no women besides the Empress and my sisters, I hold this to be an unequivocal truth.)
My heart swells, and then I see black.
I think about stripping my creations of their mechanisms, levering open the coffin, reattaching them to the Empress. I could bring her alive, make her dance with me. Her touch would be as cool as I once imagined. I am sure that this time I would not faint.
But alas, I fear the exertion of opening the coffin would be too much. My Empress will remain separated from me by stone as she has always been, by a screen, and a treacherous heart.
Spread the word!