Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Child-Empress of Mars

Child-Empress of Mars by Theodora Goss (illustration by Galen Dara)

In the month of Ind, when the flowers of the Jindal trees were in blossom and just beginning to scatter their petals on the ground like crimson rain, a messenger came to the court of the Child-Empress. He announced that a Hero had awakened in the valley of Jar.

The messenger was young and obviously nervous, at court for the first time, but when the Child-Empress said, “A Hero? What is his name?” he replied with a steady voice, “Highest blossom of the Jindal tree, his name is not yet known. He has not spoken it, for he has as yet seen no one to whom he could speak.”

The Ladies in Waiting fluttered their fans, to hear him speak with such courtesy, and I said to Lady Ahira, “I think I recognize him. That is Captain Namoor, the youngest son of General Gar, who has inherited his crimson tongue,” by which I meant his eloquence, for an eloquent man is said to have a tongue as sweet as the crimson nectar of the Jindal flowers.

Lady Ahira blushed blue, from her cheeks down to her knees, for she had a passion for captains, and this was surely the captain of all captains, who had already won the hearts and livers of the court.

“Let the Hero’s name be Jack or Buck or Dan, one of those names that fall so strangely on our tongues, and let him be tall and pale and silent, except when he sings the songs of his people to the moons, and let him be a slayer of beasts, a master of the glain and of the double adjar.” The Child-Empress clapped her hands, first two and then four, rapidly until they sounded like pebbles falling from the cliffs of the valley of Jar, or the river Noth tumbling between its banks where they narrow at Ard Ulan. And we remembered that although she was an Empress and older than our memories, she was still only a child, hatched not long after the lost island of Irdum sank beneath the sea.

“Light upon the snows of Ard Ulan, he is indeed a slayer of beasts,” said the captain. The Ladies in Waiting fluttered their fans, and one sank senseless to the floor, overcome by his courtesy and eloquence. “He wounded two Garwolves who approached him, wishing to know the source of his singular odor. He wounded them with a projectile device. They are in the care of the Warden of the reed marshes of Zurdum.”

“This cannot be,” said the Child-Empress. “The Hero must go on his Quest, for that is the nature of Heroes, but he must not harm my creatures, neither the Garwolves singing in the morning mist, nor the Ilpin bounding over the rocky cliffs of Jar, nor the Mirimi birds that nest in the sands of Gar Kahan, nor even the Sloefrogs, whose yellow eyes blink along the banks of the river Noth. He must not bend a single wing of an Itz. Let us give him a creature to speak with, who can learn his name and where he has come from. Let us send him a Jain, and with her a Translator, so that he will perceive her as resembling his own species. Is there one of my Translators who would travel with the Jain to meet the Hero?”

All three of the court Translators stepped forward. From among them the Child-Empress chose Irman Adze, who was the oldest and most honored, and who signaled her willingness to make such an important journey by chirruping softly and nodding her head until her wattles flapped back and forth.

The Child-Empress said to Irman Adze, “Your first task is to remove his projectile device and replace it with the glain and the double adjar, so that he is suitably equipped but can cause no great harm to my creatures and the citizens of my realm.” Then she turned to the court. “And let us also send an Observer, so that we may see and learn what the Hero is saying and doing.” The Observers whirred and flew forward. She selected one among them and entered its instructions.

“And you, Captain,” said the Child-Empress, turning to Captain Namoor, “because of the pleasure you have brought us in announcing the arrival of a Hero, you shall be permitted to wear the green feather of a Mirimi bird in your cap, and to proceed after the Chancellor on state occasions.”

His training prevented Captain Namoor from blushing with the intensity of his emotions, but he must have blushed inside, for not one in a thousand receives the honor that the Child-Empress had bestowed upon him. Lady Ahira squeezed my upper left hand until it went purple and I winced from the pressure.

“What beast shall he slay, great-green feather of the Mirimi bird?” asked the Chancellor, in his ponderous way. He fancied himself a poet. The Ladies in Waiting hid their ears with their fans, and even the Pages giggled. His words were so trite, and not at all original.

“What beast indeed?” asked the Child-Empress. “Since I have said that none of our creatures must be harmed, let us send our own Poufli.” Hearing his name, Poufli rose from where he had been lying at the Child-Empress’s feet and licked two of her hands, while the other two stroked his filaments.

“Go, Poufli,” said the Child-Empress. “Lead the Hero on his Quest, but allow him eventually to slay you, and when you have been slain, return to me, and I will think of a way to reward him that is appropriate for Heroes.”

The next day, the Jain, with the Translator strutting beside her and the Observer whirring and darting around them, left for the slopes and caverns of Ard Ulan, where the Hero had awakened. Poufli bounded off in the opposite direction, to where the Child-Empress intended that the Hero should encounter his final Obstacle.


We watched, day after day, as the Hero traveled across the valley of Jar. The images transmitted by the Observer were captured in the idhar at the center of the Chamber of Audience. I preferred to watch in the mornings, when the mist still hung about the bottoms of the pillars but the dome high above was already illuminated by the rising sun, and the Mirimi birds were stirring in the branches of the Gondal trees. I would splash water on my face from one of the sublimating fountains, eat a light breakfast of Pika bread spread with Ipi berries, drink a libation made from the secretions of the Ilpin that were kept at court, and then sit on one of the cushions that the Child-Empress had provided, watching, with the other early risers, as the Hero performed his ablutions and offered his otherworldly songs to the gods of his clan.

As the Observer transmitted, the Translator interpreted for the Hero and simultaneously showed us what he saw, so we were confronted with our own landscape made strange, like the landscape of another world. The Ipi bushes, the yellow Kifli flowers that grew at the edges of the reed marshes of Zurdum, the waters of the marshes, all were flatter, as though they had lost one of their dimensions, and they lacking many colors of the spectrum. The Jain had become tall and pale, although the Translator did not disguise her undulations. The Observer had become organic. It bounded rather than flew, and was covered with a fine brown fur.

“Dog! Come here, dog!” we heard the Hero say, and “Would you like something to eat?” to the Jain, whose articulations he listened to with care, as though she were speaking a language he did not understand.

I preferred these quieter, intimate moments, although each day, in the late morning or early afternoon, the Child-Empress sent the Hero an Obstacle: once, a swarm of Itz to sting him, so that he swelled up and the Jain had to cover his arms and legs with the leaves of an Ipi bush soaked in marsh water; once, two Habira that he fought off with the glain and clever use of a flaming reed; once, a group of warriors from the town of Ard, so that he would know he was approaching the towns and cities where the citizens lived. Once, the citizens came out of a town to offer him welcome, placing a garland of pink Gondal flowers around his neck and giving him cups of the intoxicating liquor that westerners make from an iridescent fungus they call Ghram, which grows on the roots of the Gondal tree. Once, he was placed in a cage at the center of the town, and the citizens came to see him, until he said a word that was the name, they told him, of an ancient god who was still secretly reverenced.

As court Poet, it was primarily my responsibility to create the events and Obstacles of the Quest, although the Child-Empress was an enthusiastic collaborator. After my morning viewing, I would go to her chamber. However early I went, she was always lying upon her couch, absorbed with matters of state, attending to the wellbeing of the citizens. But she would put aside her work, waving away the Chancellor and the Courtiers that were gathered around her, and say to me, “Good morning, Elah Gal. What have you thought of for my Hero today?”

The morning that the Hero reached the court of the Child-Empress, the Translators occupied themselves with interpreting us to the Hero. We looked at ourselves in the idhar, translated. We were still ourselves, yet we were no longer ourselves—Lady Ahira still blushed blue, although her knees were stiffer, and an entirely different shape. The Courtiers were stiffer as well, more angular—and silent. I must admit that I did not miss their chirring. Many of us were only partly visible, and the Translators themselves appeared only as a shiver in the air. The Pages still ran back and forth behind the cushions where we sat, but on two slender legs, like Ilpin. I had to remind myself that they would not fall—they were only translated.

The Child-Empress was still herself, still a child, still an Empress, and yet how different she was. Substantial parts of her could no longer been seen, and when she clapped, it was with only two hands.

“That must be what a child of his species looks like,” whispered Lady Ahira, and would have whispered more had not the Hero walked in, with the Jain at his side and the Observer, grown positively shaggy, by his feet.

“Welcome, visitor from another land,” said the Child-Empress. “Do you come from far Iranuk, or fabled Thull? Tell us what land you come from, and your name.”

“No, ma’am,” said the Hero. “My name is Jake Stackhouse, and as far as I can make out, unless the stars are lying to me, I’m from another planet altogether. What planet is this I’ve landed on?”

“Planet?” said the Child-Empress. “This is Ord, the crimson planet. Have you truly learned to travel across the darkness of space? You must be a great wizard, as well as a great warrior.”

“No, ma’am,” said Jake Stackhouse. “I’ve got no idea how I ended up on your planet, though I sure would like to find out, so I can go home again. And I’m not a warrior or a wizard, as you call them. I’m just a ranch hand, although I’ve had a few knocks in my life, and learned how to take care of myself.”

“You do not know your way home?” said the Child-Empress. “I am sad that you are not able to return to your clan, but what is a misfortune for you may be fortunate for us. I have heard that you fought the Garwolves and defeated the warriors of the western marshes. Surely you are the most courageous man on Ord. I ask for your aid. We are threatened by a fearsome beast, called a—” I suddenly realized that when we had created this encounter, the Child-Empress and I, we had not given our beast a name “—a Poufli. This beast is ravaging our eastern cities and towns, eating and frightening our citizens. If you will defeat this beast, I will give you ten hecats of land, and one of my Ladies in Waiting to be your mate.”

Captain Namoor, who stood next to the Chancellor, turned orange down to the tops of his boots. Let him, I thought. A little jealousy would do him good.

“I don’t want a mate, ma’am. Just this girl here, who’s traveled for the last three days, the strangest days of my life, at my side. She’s saved my life a couple of times, I reckon. I don’t know her name, so I call her Friday.”

“You would have that female for your mate?” said the Child-Empress. “Then know, Jake Stackhouse, that she is a priestess of her people, the Jain of Ajain, from the far north, where the river Noth springs from the mountains of Ard Ulan. To mate with her, you must win her in battle with the glain and the double adjar. Are you willing to fight for her, Jake Stackhouse?”

I could not help blushing pink with surprise and appreciation. What an improvisation this was, not the words we had created together and so carefully rehearsed, but the Child-Empress’s own, created at that moment. Around me I heard a scattering of applause as the court realized what had just happened. I applauded as well, pleased with her spontaneity. How honored I was that my Empress, too, was a poet.

“All right,” said Jake Stackhouse, “I’ll fight this Poufli for you, and then fight for the girl I love best in all the world. I never thought I’d marry a green bride, but underneath that skin of hers, she’s as sweet and loyal as any woman of Earth.”

“It is well,” said the Child-Empress. “Defeat the Poufli for me and I will give you ten hecats of land by the upper reaches of the river Noth, where the soil is most fertile, and I will ensure that the Jain becomes your mate. Now, take some refreshment with us, Jake Stackhouse.”

The Pages brought platters of the roasted fruit of the Pandam tree, and a sauce made from the sap of the Pandam, and stuffed roots, and the sweet lichen that grow on the roofs of the houses of Irum, in the south, and Ghram that had been brought from Ard for the Hero’s Feast. The Hero sat on a cushion, with the Jain beside him and the Observer at his feet, and told us stories of his planet and the place he had spent his childhood, the Land of a Single Star. He spoke of towns in which warriors battled each other with projectile devices, thieves who stole from transport vehicles, and herds of creatures that stretched over the plains so you could see no end to them. He spoke of females so beautiful they were given the names of flowers. The Ladies in Waiting were so eager to hear his stories that they listened without respiring, and some of the more delicate Pages swooned or emitted the scent of marsh water. I myself, Elah Gal, the court Poet, listened and recorded, so that these stories of another planet could be placed among the Tales of the Heroes, which my ancestress Elim Dar had begun when the Child-Empress herself was only a dream of her parent’s physical manifestation.


Grief and consternation spread throughout the court on the day the Observer transmitted the tragic news: the Hero was dead. His body was brought back to the palace, and three Healers examined him to determine the cause of his death. They reported their findings to the Child-Empress. Poufli was not to blame. He had played his part both enthusiastically and with care. The Hero’s wounds were minor. But his dermal layer, when they examined it, had been covered with red spots. He must have had a reaction to Poufli’s emissions, or perhaps to the touch of his filaments.

But Poufli was not to be consoled. He lay submerged in one of the palace fountains, beneath the translucent fish from Irum, refusing to eat, refusing to sleep, as had been his custom, at the foot of the Child-Empress’s couch.

The court grieved. The Courtiers put on their white robes of death, and I myself put on the death robes that my mother had worn when her spouse of the second degree had chosen to demanifest. The Ladies in Waiting would not blush. Lady Ahira postponed the celebration of her union of the fourth degree with Captain Namoor, for which luminous mosses had already been grown on the walls of the Chamber of Audience. The Pages stood silent, neither giggling nor emitting scent. By orders of the Child-Empress, the murals on the walls of the palace were muted, until only faint outlines reminded us of their presence. The palace Guards wore mourning veils, and drifted around the halls of the palace like gibhans of the dead. The Jain was inconsolable, and filled the halls with the mourning wail of her kind. A cold wind seemed to blow through everything.

I sat beneath the Jindal tree in the palace garden and tried to create a poem about the Hero, but how can one commemorate defeat? The Child-Empress herself would not leave her chamber. I went in once a day to try to consult with her, but she simply sat by the aperture, looking out at the garden. I did not wish to interrupt her contemplations. Even the Chancellor stood by her couch without stirring, waiting for her to emerge from her grief.

On the seventh day, she came into the Chamber of Audience. She wore robes as red as the Jindal flowers, and she had adorned her arms with bracelets of small silver bells, which jingled as she moved. Poufli was at her side, pushing his noses into her robes.

“Citizens and creatures,” she said, “you are sad because the Hero has died. We cannot now celebrate his victory, nor follow with fascination the story of his life here on Ord. Is this not so?”

The Ladies in Waiting, the Courtiers, the Guards, the Pages, all nodded or waved or emitted to signal their assent.

“But we should not be sad,” she said. “To watch the triumph of the Hero would have been like listening to a poem by Elah Gal, or watching the blossoming of the Jindal flowers, or attending the union of Lady Ahira and Captain Namoor. It would have been most satisfying. But there is another sort of satisfaction, when Elah Gal pauses and there is silence, or the blossoms fall from the Jindal tree, or lovers part in sorrow after their time together has ended. Do we not take satisfaction also in the passing of things, which we can no more control than we can control the way of the Mirimi bird in the air, or the way of two loves once they are mated? The death of the Hero reminds us of our own demanifestations. This too is a poem, perhaps a greater poem than the Hero’s triumph would have been, because it is more difficult, and to understand it we must become more than ourselves.

“Let the Hero, whose physical manifestation our Healers have so artistically preserved, be placed on a pedestal of stone from the quarries of Gar Kahan, beneath the branches of the Jindal tree in the garden, where their blossoms will fall upon him. And let us celebrate the death of the Hero! Let us celebrate our own demanifestations, which are to come. Let the Jain be returned to her clan so that she can differentiate and deposit her eggs, and let her offspring be raised at court, in recognition of the service that she has performed for us. Let Elah Gal create a poem about the Hero, a new kind of poem for a new time, and let it be included in the Tales of the Heroes. And let us all celebrate! Come, my friends. Let song and laughter and blushes return to the palace! But I shall withdraw, for I have important work to do. Tonight, as the moons rise over Ord, I shall begin to dream, so that, in your children’s children’s lifetimes, another Child-Empress will be born.”

For a moment, there was silence around the Chamber of Audience. Then, the murals on the walls began to glow. The Ladies in Waiting began to clap and laugh and blush. The Pages leaped into the air and landed again on their toes, emitting the scent of Kifli flowers. The Guards cast off their veils and clashed their disintegrators on their shields, so that they rang through the halls. Everywhere, there was the sound of joy and of wonder. I myself could not keep my orifices from misting. To live at a time of the dreaming! The Hero had indeed brought us something greater than we could have imagined.

I wondered, for a moment, if I would become one of those poets who are celebrated for having created what no other poet could have—if I would create the poem of the Child-Empress’s dreaming, of her becoming no longer a child but the full essence of herself, until eventually she emerged in the perfection of her non-physical manifestation. But then my humility returned. Such poems were still to be created. The first of them would be about the Hero, of how he had died and yet fulfilled his Quest.

But today was a day of celebration. We sang and danced in the Chamber of Audience, celebrating the union of Lady Ahira and Captain Namoor. At the height of the festivities, the Child-Empress withdrew. But we knew now that it was not to contemplate her grief but to begin an important new event in her life. And we leaped higher and turned faster with joy, while the Musicians played their kurams and their dharms, until night fell and the mosses illuminated the ancient murals, and the moons rose, and the Jindal flowers spread their fragrance over the palace.

© 2009 by Theodora Goss.
Originally published in Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing,
edited by Delia Sherman & Christopher Barzak.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is the World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Award-winning author of the short story and poetry collections In the Forest of Forgetting (2006), Songs for Ophelia (2014), and Snow White Learns Witchcraft (2019), as well as novella The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), debut novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017), and sequels European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. Visit her at