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Fiction

Crossing the Midday Gate

Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it—thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later—after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet—she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.

It was as if no time had passed. She paused under the wide arch of the gate, catching her breath, and remembered the smell of apricot flowers, and the familiar presence of Ai Nhi by her side as they discussed anything from the teachings of Master Kong to the proper way to culture samples.

Ai Nhi. Linh breathed in; managed to steady the trembling of her hands. For a moment, a bare moment, a seizure came on—and she was much older—white-haired and bent, standing in a wide courtyard, watching a ship descend towards the planet, the wind of its approach ruffling burning fingers into her hair—and then it was gone, and she was back in the Forbidden City, her eyes stained with tears. It meant nothing; meaningless scraps of possible futures, the side effects of her vaccine—and none of it would make the past, or the future, what it should be.

Things have changed, the imperial messenger had told her when he’d come to pick her up from her Heaven-forsaken planet. Your presence is required at court.

Things had changed. It didn’t seem that way; it didn’t seem as though anything would ever change here. The line of emperors and empresses was unbroken, all the way to the founding of the Dai Viet Empire; and the changes that spread like wildfire on the outer edges of the numbered planets only nibbled at the unceasing, incurious fabric of court life.

And yet . . . and yet, in the pavilion by the lotus pond, there was someone who’d called her back. She’d expected a man; but the person waiting for her wasn’t even human: a small, cat-sized avatar of a mindship, surrounded by a scattering of bots like an honor guard; purely honorific, since the mindship herself, The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea, was in orbit around the planet, and impervious to any attempts made on her life, or indeed any physical contact.

It had been years, and the ship appeared unchanged, save that the list of her titles and achievements were overlaid over her prow, and on her hull was the pelican and dragon insignia of the Grand Preceptor, the position the ship had always hungered for—the one denied to her when the vaccine scandal had broken out. Things have changed, the messenger had said, and now Dan Linh knew what. The court had given in; finally, against all its misgivings, had appointed its first mindship Grand Preceptor. There was no one else, not a single human or a single servant—only the two of them, and the growing, uneasy silence in the pavilion.

Gently, softly, Dan Linh abased herself on the painted tiles, ignoring the scuttle of bots moving out of her way, and the familiar twinge of pain in her knees. “Your Excellency. This is . . . unexpected.”

“Rise, Luong Thi Dan Linh,” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea said. “There is no need to be so formal.” But she had used Dan Linh’s full name, without any of the titles she had been accorded. “We missed you, at court.”

Of course she hadn’t. “You were better off without me,” Dan Linh said. Court intrigues had never been her forte: She was a scientist, first and foremost, afforded entry into the highest circles only because of the ship and her protection, only because she’d discovered the vaccine that had saved so many lives. “I didn’t know of your elevation,” Dan Linh said.

The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea rocked from side to side, in mild amusement. She had changed: no longer the earnest mindship who had argued with her about the necessity of getting the vaccine to as many planets as necessary, no matter the cost to the treasury. “You wouldn’t,” she said. “News doesn’t travel that fast, I’m afraid, and I’d already set your recall into motion as soon as it was confirmed.”

“I—I don’t understand.”

“There isn’t much to understand. I don’t have much time, Linh, so I will be brief—I apologize for setting aside the proper protocols. Your place is at court, with us, rather than wasting your talent on teaching children about basic biology. Your old laboratory could use a firmer hand.”

She . . . All she’d always wanted, the dream that had woken her up every morning of her exile—her old laboratory, her old teams back; the familiar hum of ovens; the familiar chatter of lab hands as they prepared samples for examination—everything casually handed back to her, with barely a flourish. “You jest.”

“I never jest,” the ship said.

Of course she didn’t.

Dan Linh had to ask. Now, before she lost her nerve; before the accumulation of favours bestowed on her shamed her into silence. “What of Ai Nhi?”

The ship’s voice was cold. “Ai Nhi is still at court. Her husband is the General of the Southern Flank.”

“And she heads the Cedar and Crane laboratory?” The same one whose direction the ship had just offered her.

The ship descended from the dais, and came to hover by her side—as she’d done, in the days where their relationship had been less formal. “Ai Nhi will be fine. There are other posts she can take up. You care too much about her. I told you, back then.”

Back then, Dan Linh could have denounced Ai Nhi—after all, it had been Dan Linh’s word against Ai Nhi’s, and wasn’t Dan Linh the head of the Cedar and Crane Laboratory? The inventor of the vaccine against Blue Lily, the savior of lives uncounted? What was a mere student, weighed against all of that?

“It was the right thing to do,” she said quietly, still not looking at the ship. Ai Nhi had been kinless, and without status or protector: They had exiled Dan Linh, but they would have executed Ai Nhi for the same offence.

“Was it?” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea’s voice was soft. “Did you like the Sixty-First Planet, Dan Linh? I remember a more ambitious woman—one who wanted to leave her mark on history; who wouldn’t listen to her superiors’ orders when she knew what was best. What happened to her?”

She had shrivelled and died—that was what had happened, because out there on the Sixty-First Planet, where resources were so stretched they didn’t even have personal bots, there was no place for ambition—she’d got crushed into the rhythm of her life, into teaching children and teenagers with no motivation or talent, and, even when she did find a child whose grandiose dreams hadn’t already been reduced to nothingness, there was no way she could help them, no way she could get them out of the same exile they were all trapped into.

“You saved lives,” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea went on. “The entire Empire would have been devastated by Blue Lily, if you hadn’t been there.”

“Ai Nhi—”

“Ai Nhi has done capable work.” The ship’s voice was still terribly soft. “Kept things running. But she’s not you.”

No. She didn’t have the flashes of brilliant insight that made a good researcher, and, more damaging, not the capacity to surround herself with people who did—the vaccine, Dan Linh’s discovery, had been as much An Hang’s and Vu’s and Yen Oanh’s as it had been hers, meticulous teamwork in service of a common goal. Ai Nhi was Dan Linh’s mistake; the one student who had cracked and run under pressure—and the other, darker mistake, Dan Linh’s choice to remain silent instead of accusing her student, to endure twenty years of exile on a Heaven-forsaken planet for her sake.

“You can’t protect Ai Nhi forever, Dan Linh.”

She’d dreamt of this, staring at the stars as her daughter Lan nursed at her breast—wondering how things would have gone, had she not spoken up—had she remained at court. She’d wondered what she could have accomplished—at all the research on Blue Lily and other illnesses, all the other chances she’d have to affect things, to help people be more equal against the shadow of death—and she’d known it was nothing but bitter regrets, costly things she couldn’t afford, so far out on the edge of the Empire.

And now she had come back—and she had another chance. Another lifeline; a chance to walk again the corridors of the court with the support of a mindship turned Grand Preceptor—the highest rank of official within the court, the Empress’s personal advisor, the educator of her children and the policymaker of the Imperial Court.

“Well? What do you say?” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea, silent, hovering by her side, waiting for her answer, as she had waited, twenty years ago.

Another chance—and how many of these would she get, what little time she had left? She wasn’t like the ship—traversing centuries ageless and unchanged—she was merely mortal, and already standing in the shadow of death and rebirth. “I’m glad to be back, and will be glad to be of service.”

“Good,” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea said. “There will be a reception in two days to honor you. I’ll send attendants with . . . more appropriate clothes.” The ship’s voice was light, conveying quite effectively her amusement at the quaint, provincial things on her back—the clothes of the poor and exiled.

“To honor me?”

“Of course. It’s high time for justice, for the court to recognize what you did—the billions of lives you saved across the empire, Dan Linh.”

A reception. With her at its center. She felt . . . brutally exposed, with no protection. “I can’t—”

“You used to be prouder.”

And she’d been castigated for it, cast out without support and exiled for twenty years. “I—” she took in a deep breath. How was she going to find her place back, if she couldn’t bear even this? “I’ll be there.”

“Good,” the ship said. “You need to be. As I told you—things have changed. The court has ossified.” For the first time, there was emotion in her voice, the passion Dan Linh remembered from their evenings together. “We need to change, and the first step is to bring you back.”

A Grand Preceptor mindship; a youthful, dynamic one, nothing like the previous staid holder, who had been content to plot and backstab merely to keep his place—things were changing, indeed, and she was at the heart of it, and she wasn’t sure, anymore, if she had the guts for it in the wake of her return.

• • • •

The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea had assigned Dan Linh her old quarters—here, too, nothing had changed: the same three rooms spread around a courtyard with a cedar tree, and a slew of bots and attendants that seemed to slip into cracks when Dan Linh was not watching—bringing dumplings and tea, cushions, and a profusion of court clothes ranging from the traditional to the more modern confections changing colors depending on the mood and thoughts of the wearer. And, in the ambient mood system, her old starscapes and mountain watercolors hung, and the same quiet zither music played—as if she’d just stepped back in time, and all she had to do was walk back to her old laboratory to find Ai Nhi and Vu hard at work on samples, discussing the side-effects of the vaccine, or arguing about the best guidelines for production.

But there was . . . something else in the palace now—some shadow of unease she could feel; whispers in the corridors that ceased when she appeared—once, she caught the tail end of a conversation about the Grand Preceptor. The Empress might have appointed The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea, but the ship didn’t appear to have much support in the Forbidden City.

A younger scholar had smiled shyly at Dan Linh as she walked by, calling her “Honored Teacher” and telling her the vaccine had saved her sister—and Dan Linh had stopped; stood, tongue-tied and unsure of what to say. “You—” the scholar had said, and then shaken her head. “Forgive me, but you shouldn’t be here.” And had fled, reddening, before Dan Linh could ask her what she’d meant.

Someone—she assumed it was the ship, again—had left her documents, in the communal network: the year-end reports of the Cedar and Crane laboratories submitted to the court, and court memorials sent by the scientists. The temptation to open it—to find what Ai Nhi had done, in the past twenty years—was almost overwhelming.

Almost.

Dan Linh closed her eyes, for a moment, trying to step away from it all, to remember that she was no longer young, or powerful, or well-regarded. Then she asked the communal network to relay a message to her daughter Lan on the Sixty-First Planet—reassuring Lan that she was fine and the court hadn’t recalled her for some arcane punishment, telling her about The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea’s elevation and her own.

The Sixty-First Planet was barely within range of mindships; even if by some miracle she ranked that kind of courier, she wouldn’t get an answer from Lan for several days or weeks.

If only Chi Hieu had still been alive—if only he had been able to come with her—but he was gone now, the only trace of him contained within the mem-implants their daughter had inherited, the ones Dan Linh couldn’t bring herself to talk to—mere simulations of him, with nothing of the vibrancy and care he’d had when he was alive.

Chi Hieu was—had been—the greater spouse in their marriage, though most people wouldn’t have been able to tell. Though he had sat for the examinations and attained the highest rank, he had chosen to step away from it all, dedicating himself to his poems and his family, smiling negligently at court intrigues and never taking anything seriously. He would have laughed, would have written a short, biting poem on the situation, would have taken her into his arms and whispered sweet nothings into her ears until she could once more see clearly. But he wasn’t there, not anymore, and tonight the wound of his absence felt recent again, too imperfectly papered over not to ooze heart’s blood.

Their daughter Lan was an adult now, with responsibilities of her own—managing the orchards of a large estate on the Sixty-First Planet, planning with her usual cool head for planting and pruning and the ceaseless work throughout the seasons—and she couldn’t have come with her mother, even if she had wished to. Raised with disapproval of the court, she’d had no desire to come to the First Planet.

Dan Linh sat down, pulling a cup of fragrant, flowery tea to her, and started reading reports.

It was all there—the familiar, formal language of court memorials, the lines of equations cramped close together, science far beyond what her students were capable of—bringing back memories of what she’d done, back in the days of the vaccine—analyses of efficacy and ease of setup, of growth rates and sample sizes, a wash of information so raw and undiluted that it threatened to drown her.

The science was beyond her now, but the rest wasn’t—the stories of internecine fights, of the desperate hunt for funds from the treasury in fallow years, and all the hundred things that went into keeping a laboratory together. Past the first few years—past the miracle of the vaccine and the necessity of refining the production process for the entire Empire, the Cedar and Crane laboratory had slowly, inexorably dwindled away as Blue Lily was contained—its original purpose pared away, leaving nothing but trivial research, its talented researchers leeched away into better, more challenging postings. Ai Nhi had done her best, but even with court support she hadn’t been able to keep things together.

But Dan Linh was back now, and things would change.

Dan Linh took a deep, trembling breath, reached out for the tea again, and was surprised to find darkness spread over the courtyard, and the distant music and laughter of private poetry parties. Had it been so long?

The chimes of the door resonated across the room. She set aside the documents and moved—a scattering of bots on the floor as she moved, racing towards the door; an image of who was outside started to form, but Dan Linh had already flung open the door.

And then wished she hadn’t.

The man standing on the threshold hadn’t changed either: the same dark hair, the same thin, almost ascetic face; the scarred hands, a childhood accident on a remote planet where they didn’t have proper graft techniques. “Hello, Dan Linh.” No formality either, no recognition of her titles, but of course he wouldn’t.

Khiem.

Ancestors, no. Not him.

Dan Linh struggled to keep herself steady, to silence her frantic heartbeat—and the only thing that slid out of her mouth was the thought circling, again and again, in the emptiness of her mind. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“No doubt.” Nguyen Van Duy Khiem’s voice was dark, amused. “But let us observe the courtesies, shall we? Will you not share tea with me, Dan Linh?”

She remembered him—his eyes burning in the painted oval of his face, as he called her behavior inappropriate—as he advocated for her death as an example, a reminder that one did not deceive the Imperial Court. She remembered the Empress turning to look at him, the desperate prayer on her own lips, to her ancestors and whatever deities might be watching, that the Empress not listen, that she not be swayed by Khiem’s dark, angry eloquence.

She hadn’t been, but it had been close, and Khiem had never stopped. Even on the day she’d left, he’d petitioned the head of the Embroidered Guard to have her arrested.

Khiem walked in, not waiting for her answer. The bots clustered around him, like eager pups; a swarm of them dragged tea and hot water from the kitchen corner; another swarm pulled the low table in the centre of the room, set up plates and chopsticks. He sat cross-legged, still smiling, and waited for her to do the same. The communal network, obedient to his cues, changed the surroundings: The room faded, became the sharp slopes of a mountain with the outbuildings of a temple complex clinging to its slopes—the angles of the rock broken, here and there, by the curve of a roof, the circle of a longevity symbol on a door. In the distance, a flock of cranes wheeled, making mournful calls like reed flutes, and the air was moist with a hint of approaching cold.

“Why are you here?” Dan Linh asked. She sat down, feeling the smoothness of cut marble underneath. The table was polished mahogany, but only the food and tea on it was real; the rest was only ambient.

Khiem smiled. “I thought I would welcome you back.”

She would never be welcome, not so long as Khiem was at court. But he was Third Rank—and The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea Grand Preceptor—vastly outranking him. She was safe. She had to be.

“What do you want?”

“Oh, Dan Linh. Still as bad as ever. I thought twenty years would have taught you diplomacy.”

“You know I’m a scientist. Not an official or a courtier.”

Khiem shrugged. He swirled the tea in the cup, staring at it for a while. “No. You were never that. The games we play . . . they genuinely don’t interest you, do you?”

“Games? You wished me dead. You hounded me to the Midday Gate calling for a death sentence.”

“Forgive me,” Khiem said, and it didn’t sound like an apology at all, more like a raised eyebrow, wondering how she could be uncouth enough to raise such fuss, twenty years after the facts. “‘Games’ is the wrong word. Perhaps some think of it as games. I’m in earnest—but there are rules, and I follow them. You . . . you never did.” He smiled. “Not eight hours back into the Purple Forbidden City, and you already flout them as though they didn’t exist.”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“As I said.” Khiem set his cup on the table. A crane alighted on one of the rocks: watched them for a while, before shaking its wings open and flying away. “I admire you in many ways, Dan Linh, I genuinely do. You move through life untethered by anything but the purity of your craft. Tussles of power never interested you, did they—or who supported who and for what reason? I wonder how well you’d have done, if you’d stayed at court.”

Better than Ai Nhi, she thought, sharply—remembering the litany of losses in the report; and Khiem must have seen her face, read it as easily as an open book.

He said, “Ai Nhi . . . did well, all things considered. She found herself a protector—”

“You?” She was married, The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea had said, to the General of the South Flank. On the communal network, the General was in disgrace, deployed to a faraway place on the edge of the numbered planets, and Dan Linh didn’t need to play the intrigues of the court to read significance into that.

Khiem shrugged. “Perhaps. Does it matter?”

“It should.”

“And perhaps it shouldn’t,” Khiem said. “As I said . . . Ai Nhi was more . . . accommodating than you were, though perhaps she didn’t have your fire for science.”

No, she’d never had—which was why Dan Linh had been surprised, when Ai Nhi had come up with the improved manufacturing process—surprised, and pleased, and was this the reason why she hadn’t checked Ai Nhi’s results thoroughly enough? She’d asked herself that question often enough, and had no answer. “She was head of a laboratory,” Dan Linh said. The laboratory that she’d founded, with her discovery of the vaccine, that she’d been forced to leave in disgrace. “That’s all that should matter. Keeping the laboratory safe. Making discoveries that matter. That help people.”

Khiem’s burning, mocking eyes held her. “You think more discoveries would have saved the Cedar and Crane? The plague is gone—your vaccine has saved us all. There’s no money for esoteric research.”

“Esoteric research which gave you the vaccine.” Her voice was sharper than she’d thought it would be. “What were you going to do, come the next plague?”

Khiem smiled, a bare tightening of his lips. “Oh, Dan Linh. This is exactly why you wouldn’t have done better than Ai Nhi. Exactly what got you into trouble, twenty years ago. You think of what is right—of, say, the necessity to get your vaccine to as many people as possible, regardless of what else it might imply or whom it might vex, regardless of the deaths it might cause.”

“It didn’t happen like this,” Dan Linh said, more forcefully than she’d expected. Was the wound still so raw, her foolishness still boring a hole in her self-possession? “You know it didn’t.” And how pathetic, wasn’t it, to still feel she needed to justify herself to a man who’d never listened to her or valued her?

“Didn’t it?” Khiem smiled, an expression as thin and as cutting as a razor blade. “I had a stroll back into the archives, when I learnt you’d be coming back. I . . . remembered.” He closed his eyes, his tone slow enough to suggest he was quoting from memory, rather than using a note in the communal network. “‘In the light of the available evidence (see graphs 3a and 16), we believe in the necessity of modifying the manufacturing process to attain greater efficacy. The slight loss in concentration of the active organism would be compensated by the ease and speed of delivery of the vaccine throughout the numbered planets (see graph 19d).’ Your words? Ai Nhi’s? Do you even remember?”

The words of her nightmares, of sleepless nights wondering if that was where she’d gone wrong, where she’d let her arrogance let the better of her—and sometimes she’d have a burst of anger, and remember that it was Ai Nhi’s process, Ai Nhi who had checked the experimental results with her, over and over again, seeing nothing wrong—only what they’d gain, checking the devastating spread of Blue Lily so much faster, so much more easily. And that Ai Nhi was still at court, was still rising through the ranks of civil service, while all Dan Linh had for herself was exile and bitterness.

“I didn’t mean the deaths,” Dan Linh said, slowly, carefully. “We honestly thought—” But it was about the deaths, about those who’d lined up, eager to get vaccinated—trusting her and Ai Nhi, only to catch a side infection—a less deadly one than Blue Lily, but was it truly much comfort, if they were still dead at the end?

She’d made her amends for that, said her prayers, over and over, and burnt incense at shrines, day after day, year after year, praying for swift passage, and swift rebirth. She would be torn apart in Hell if the King of the Underworld thought her still guilty, and she accepted that—but that was for the gods to judge, and not for people like Khiem.

“Oh, Dan Linh.” Khiem smiled again, that expression she wished she could wipe from his face. “Have you understood nothing, in your exile?”

Anger flashed, red-hot, searing. “The Sixty-First Planet is a place of dust storms and small settlements, and children who grow up and become settlers themselves, never leaving the planet, let alone the solar system. Where do you think I would have kept up in court graces?”

Khiem picked up a dumpling, held it to the light until the filling of pork and chives glistened, pink and green flecks through the translucent skin. “A lesson, then, Dan Linh—in honor of your return. We’re not fools. We know that vaccines have risk. Your process was . . . contaminated and flawed, and for that, yes, you’d have been blamed, possibly dismissed from your post. But I wouldn’t have called for your death, or . . . hounded you, as you said, on the basis of that.”

“Then why—”

Khiem shrugged. “It wasn’t you, Dan Linh. It was never about you.”

Then who . . . She clamped her mouth on the question before it escaped her. If not her, if not Ai Nhi—there was only one other person Khiem could mean.

Her protector of the time—and her current one, too. “You wanted The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea in disgrace.”

Khiem smiled, a teacher pleased at a student’s answer. “Of course.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s a mindship,” Khiem said, slowly, carefully, as if Dan Linh should have known, all along.

“And thus not worthy of her post?” Just as scientists like her hadn’t been worthy of joining the court?

“Because, despite subtle hints from the court, Grand Preceptors have clung on to their posts until the breath left their bodies. What will you do, if The Serpent Pearl’s in the Sea refuses to step down?”

She . . . she had never stopped to consider it—as Khiem had said, oblivious to anything that wasn’t the work of the laboratory. Mindships were immortal, or close enough—much longer-lived than humans, unchanged for generations. “Why would I care?” she asked, bluntly. “She’s shown me more constant favor than any high-rank official.”

“Because—” Khiem exhaled, as if talking to a small child. “Because emperors and empresses need to live and die, and so do courts and officials. Because the base unit of our lives is still human, still mortal and aging. Because anything that holds onto power that long ossifies. Do you remember the tales of the Auspicious Destiny Emperor?”

Every child did. He’d ruled for over eighty years, by the end of which the court was bloodless and drained of energy, the functionaries too settled in their ways to even envision new ideas. “That’s not the same,” Dan Linh said, more sharply than she’d intended. “And The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea isn’t like that. She’s dutiful and filial, and she would obey the edicts of the Empress.”

“Perhaps she is. Perhaps she’s not.” Khiem rose, slowly gathering his robes around him. “That’s not the point. There . . . is fear among the civil servants, Dan Linh, and it’s not unjustified. It never was.” He pursed his lips, looked as though he might stop speaking, might stop spearing her with words, but then he went on, regardless, “You say you could have done better than Ai Nhi. Well, here is your chance to prove it, but I don’t think you’re starting out well.”

“What do you mean?”

Khiem waited until he was all the way to the door before he turned to face Dan Linh. “Ask yourself this—why are you back here?”

Dan Linh had had enough of him, and of his supercilious guessing games. “Do tell me. Since you’re being so helpful.”

Khiem laughed, with no joy or amusement whatsoever. “You’re the woman who banished the plague. The one who ended the era of Blue Lily and ushered in our new age of prosperity. What better way to reassure the court than to have you by the side of The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea?”

And then he was gone, but his words remained in the room, casting a pall like the miasma of fog over everything.

• • • •

The laboratory was deserted: It had changed in thirty years—filled with more and more complicated machines, every available surface covered by bots. Dan Linh stood, for a while, watching the lights blink on the panel of the ovens, remembering the nights she’d spent there, the sleepless manufacturing of batches—the graphs that told her, again and again, that she couldn’t outrace the plague, that the vaccination rate was always going to be lower than Blue Lily’s mortality rate. Her initial vaccine—the one she’d rashly, foolishly tested on herself—took too long to produce, too many resources. She—and Ai Nhi—had believed there had to be another, faster way.

But she didn’t want to go there, couldn’t afford to.

“Professor,” a voice said, behind her.

She turned, and saw Ai Nhi.

She’d changed so much, and so little. The face was the same, a perfect oval with the hair pulled back in a classic topknot, the mouth thin, elegantly delineated with vermillion—but the eyes were deeper, darker than they had been, and she stood ramrod straight, the awkward and gangly girl hammered into shape by years and years of propriety and dancing around court intrigues.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Dan Linh said. But really, she ought to have known that coming back to court would be like summoning, one by one, the ghosts of her past, of her failures and her regrets.

“Where else?” Ai Nhi’s voice was sharp, cutting. There was a younger woman with her—maybe twenty, twenty-five years old? Not much younger than Ai Nhi herself had been, back then. “This is Cuc,” Ai Nhi said.

If Ai Nhi was impeccable, Cuc . . . was not. Her fingers were stained with ink, her five-panel dress frayed, and she didn’t appear to be capable of sitting still. “You work here?” Dan Linh said, guessing.

Cuc nodded. She looked at Dan Linh, awe-struck. “You—” She swallowed, started again. “You’re Professor Thuong Thi Dan Linh. They said you were back, but—”

“Cuc.” Ai Nhi’s voice was distantly amused. “Forgive me,” she said to Dan Linh. “She thinks of you as a living legend.”

The woman who ended the plague, Censor Khiem had said. The one who ushered in a new age of prosperity. Dan Linh felt it, trembling on the edge of unfolding—a seizure, a vague, blurred image of the court, of kneeling before the throne of the Empress with someone at her side—another meaningless, illusory image from a future that might never come to pass.

“I’m no goddess,” Dan Linh said, when the seizure was gone. “And no different from you or Ai Nhi.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” Ai Nhi said. She shook her head. “The one who walked away.” She made it sound—like a failure, her voice a sharp reproach, but beneath it was something else. Anger? Remorse? “I thought you would come here, to haunt familiar places—” She shook her head. “Do you find it much changed?”

“Yes,” Dan Linh said. “But of course it would change.”

“New masters, new ways.” Ai Nhi’s voice was ironic—such bitterness, such anger within her. Dan Linh had always thought she’d be happy—that, if someone was going to be bitter, it might as well be her, lying awake listening to the slow, steady sound of her husband’s breathing, wondering what was happening at court, and having no way to find out in her distant exile.

She hadn’t expected Ai Nhi to—to turn into this tall, commanding woman, hadn’t expected the barely contained bitterness—but then again, how else would Ai Nhi have looked, with the remnants of her dreams turned to ashes, the inexorable decline of the laboratory, and finally Dan Linh’s return, like a slap in the face?

“I didn’t expect this,” Dan Linh said, finally. It hadn’t turned out like either of them wanted, or hoped.

Ai Nhi shrugged. “I did. The moment your protector—” she spat the word, “—ascended.”

“Are we going to have an argument on the suitability of a mindship Grand Preceptor again?” Dan Linh said, wearily. She’d had that with Khiem, had had her draught of doubt and upended worldviews for a lifetime.

“No.” Ai Nhi shook her head. “I don’t take part in such fights.” But Cuc, by her side, looked ill at ease. There is . . . fear among the civil servants, Khiem had said—and everyone knew that Dan Linh didn’t take part in court intrigue; and almost everyone was like Cuc, remembering her as the scientist who had ended the plague and chosen to go into exile—a symbol, both an omen for a prosperous future with countless blessings, and a reminder of her integrity in the face of pressure. “This isn’t about The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea.”

“About us, then?” Dan Linh asked, gently. About the laboratory, about what Ai Nhi had made of it.

Ai Nhi’s hands moved, encompassed the entirety of the laboratory, the machines softly beeping, the temperature-controlled incubation chambers. “I imagine that you’ve read the reports by now.”

“I’ve read them,” Dan Linh said. Over and over again, trying to see where it had gone wrong, where all the small decisions Ai Nhi had made had turned into disasters. Khiem had said Ai Nhi had done well, considering; that it was none of her fault. That there was nothing Dan Linh could have done better than her.

Khiem was wrong.

Or was he?

“You would, no doubt, have done things differently.” Ai Nhi smiled—again, an expression that never reached her eyes.

“No doubt,” Dan Linh said. Except it was so easy, wasn’t it, to analyze things afterwards? To dissect errors, as people had taken apart their new manufacturing process—tracing the contamination back to a faulty concentration in the second step of attenuating Blue Lily—and then passed judgment on them. And then, because it was late, because she was tired and adrift, and unsure of what she could cling to, “Do you ever regret?”

Ai Nhi’s face didn’t move. “Cuc,” she said, gently. “Can you go direct that bot cluster, please? It’s a precise maneuver, and it requires a knowledgeable hand.”

Cuc, startled, looked at Ai Nhi; and then at Dan Linh. “I . . . guess so,” she said. They heard her footsteps, dwindling away on the tiles of the laboratory—and then only silence, and darkness spread from within the communal network, muffling all sounds.

Ai Nhi walked closer to Dan Linh; stood, for a while, looking at her. “Regret that I’m here?” she asked.

“I didn’t mean that,” Dan Linh said.

“No,” Ai Nhi said. “I didn’t think you did.” The floor and the laboratory had vanished, and she stood in utter darkness, as though she hung within the starless void of space. “I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t know, back then.”

“Neither did I.” Dan Linh stared at Ai Nhi—because there was nothing left, only the void, only themselves. “But they still died.”

“And some of them still lived.” Ai Nhi’s voice was sharp—as cutting as jagged glass. “Does it balance out?”

“I don’t know,” Dan Linh said. She would never know. Khiem would say it didn’t—or perhaps he wouldn’t, not really caring about what it all meant—and The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea would say that it did, that she was the saviour of untold billions, the woman who had mastered Blue Lily—and Dan Linh wouldn’t believe either of them. She knew her faults, all too well.

Ai Nhi looked as though she was adjusting her hairpins, but her topknot came loose, and a spread of black hair, sprinkled with grey, spread behind her back. She was . . . old—no longer the student Dan Linh remembered, and perhaps no longer with the faults she remembered, or imagined. “I’m not a fool,” Ai Nhi said. “I know what I owe you.”

“Nothing,” Dan Linh said.

Ai Nhi smiled, sharp, cutting. “Twenty years? Don’t lie to me, Professor. It ill suits you.” In the darkness, her eyes seemed to shine, illuminated as if from within. “I won’t make a fuss. Not that I was ever in a position to make one.” She shrugged again, but Dan Linh read the quiver in her shoulders, the suppressed grief and fear. “It’s only fair. Things change. People rise and fall from grace, and the balance of power shifts like the wheel of rebirth.”

And Dan Linh, her fate tied to The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea, rose with the mindship’s fortunes.

It’s only fair.

Was it?

“You love this laboratory,” Dan Linh said, slowly.

A flash of something, in Ai Nhi’s eyes. “What does it matter?”

Dan Linh wanted to ask about the General, about whether it had been a marriage of love like her and Chi Hieu, about whether they had shared sweet nothings on the pillows, and walked side by side, laughing at the way the world worked—but she found the words frozen in her throat: too casual, too familiar for this woman whom she was going to displace.

“You’re right,” Dan Linh said, slowly. “It doesn’t matter. Thank you.”

And walked away, unsure of what to think anymore.

• • • •

Two hours before the reception, The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea found Dan Linh in the antechambers of her quarters, kneeling on the floor with the ill-fitting grace of someone unused to court protocol. “You should be getting dressed,” the mindship said—her voice puzzled, with just a hint of anger.

Dan Linh took a deep, trembling breath; thought of Khiem and Ai Nhi and darkness spreading across the laboratory. “I can’t.”

Things change, Ai Nhi had said. Some things did, some things didn’t, and the laboratory was all that Ai Nhi had left: her own work, her own stand against the encroaching darkness of old age and death. “Can’t?” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea’s voice was smooth, quiet—the calm before the storm struck.

“I can’t displace Ai Nhi just because you have a need for me.”

“I’ve told you before.” The ship was angry now, and the effects of that rippled in the communal network, casting the sheen of oily water upon the marble floor. “You care too much for Ai Nhi.”

“I won’t do better than Ai Nhi,” Dan Linh said, wearily.

“This isn’t about doing better. This is about doing what is right.”

“What is right for you?” The words welled out of her mouth before she could take them back. “To have my support?” In Dan Linh’s mind, Khiem smiled, revealing the fangs of tigers. This is exactly why you wouldn’t have done better than Ai Nhi.

The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea was silent, for a while. The sheen on the floor spread, seemed to cover the entire room, until even the scuttling bots seemed alien lifeforms. “Perhaps,” she said. “And perhaps I was genuinely trying to help you. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t keep you safe. I couldn’t keep you here.”

And Dan Linh hadn’t even been able to keep Ai Nhi safe. The weight of failures, of the deaths that she would always carry with her, of her arrogance and belief she knew better than anyone else—twenty years of exile were not enough to make amends for any of it.

“But you’re right,” The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea said at last, when Dan Linh didn’t speak up again. “It’s a risky thing, to tie yourself to me—to face the hostility of the court—and I shouldn’t have expected you to do that, merely on the basis of old friendships. I was . . . dishonest with you. For that, I apologize.”

Dan Linh stared at the floor, at the bots. The ship had asked her whether she regretted her decision, twenty years ago. Ai Nhi hadn’t, but then, Ai Nhi had known the value of it, and the cost. She’d done the right thing then, and she couldn’t do anything less now.

And she’d always known, hadn’t she, what the right thing was?

“What’s past is past,” Dan Linh said. And, more slowly, “You can still have my support. But I can’t be here. I can’t be at Court, not even for you. You said there were other posts for Ai Nhi. Surely there are others for me, too. Surely . . . A lab on a small planet,” she said, finally. “Somewhere I can continue my research.”

“You would return to your exile?” the ship’s voice was . . . amused? Angry? She couldn’t tell, not anymore. “Running away from court and all our intrigues?”

“I’ll take the nomination from you,” Dan Linh said, slowly, carefully. “That will be a political act.” A clear message sent to the Court, of whom Dan Linh supported, of whose integrity she approved of—a paradoxical acceptance that marked her, now and always, as a part of the ebb and flow of court intrigue.

Silence, in the wake of her words. At length, The Serpent’s Pearl in the Sea spoke. “There are some laboratories that might need a new head, yes. I would need to think . . .” And then, with a hint of anger, “You don’t know what you’re asking for.”

Dan Linh rose, wincing at the ache in her knees; stood silently, watching the mindship—the first Grand Preceptor who wasn’t human, the first who would outlive the Empress herself—the one she had chosen to trust, because she couldn’t share Cuc’s fears, or Khiem’s unthinking prejudice. Because she had to believe in something better, because she’d always done so.

“I don’t know all of it,” she said. “But I know more than I did, twenty years ago.”

“I see,” the ship said. “Thank you.”

Outside the antechamber, the maw of the court waited to swallow Dan Linh again—to honor her for the lives she’d saved, to excoriate her for the ones she’d lost—all her choices leading her to stand here, trying to make things better. Khiem would laugh, tell her she was a fool, and Ai Nhi would tell her to stay out of the politics that would only break her, but she was beyond either of them now.

In the end, faced with the uncertainty of deciding, all she could do was choose to do right—without knowing what it would bring—whether it would be a bright, shining future, or one scattered with the jagged shards of bitterness.

Some things changed, others didn’t—and she wouldn’t burden herself with regrets.

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard by Lou Abercrombie

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her space opera books include The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a book set in the same universe as her Vietnamese science fiction novella, On a Red Station Drifting. Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz, 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace/Gollancz)She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.