The Citadel of Weeping Pearls was a great wonder; a perfect meld between cutting edge technology and esoteric sciences—its inhabitants capable of teleporting themselves anywhere, its weapons small and undetectable and deadly.
Thirty years ago, threatened by an invading fleet from the Dai Viet Empire, the Citadel disappeared and was never seen again.
But now the Dai Viet Empire itself is under siege, on the verge of a war against an enemy that turns their own mindships against them; and the Empress, who once gave the order to raze the Citadel, is in desperate needs of its weapons. Meanwhile, on a small isolated space station, an engineer obsessed with the past works on a machine that will send her thirty years back, to the height of the Citadel's power.
But the Citadel's disappearance still extends chains of grief and regrets all the way into the fraught atmosphere of the Imperial Court; and this casual summoning of the past might have world-shattering consequences...
Aliette is so versatile, and truly one of our great SF writers. The following is a new novella set in her magnificent Xuya universe, a world Aliette has been building throughout her award winning work. – Lavie Tidhar
There was a sound, on the edge of sleep: Suu Nuoc wasn't sure if it was a bell and a drum calling for enlightenment; or the tactics-master sounding the call to arms; in that breathless instant—hanging like a bead of blood from a sword's blade—that marked the boundary between the stylised life of the court and the confused, lawless fury of the battlefield.
"Book of Heaven, Book of Heaven."
The soft, reedy voice echoed under the dome of the ceiling; but the room itself had changed—receding, taking on the shape of the mindship—curved metal corridors with scrolling columns of memorial excerpts, the oily sheen of the Mind's presence spread over the watercolours of starscapes and the carved longevity character at the head of the bed—for a confused, terrible moment as Suu Nuoc woke up, he wasn't sure if he was still in his bedroom in the Purple Forbidden City on the First Planet, or hanging, weightless, in the void of space.
It wasn't a dream. It was the mindship: The Turtle's Golden Claw, the only one addressing Suu Nuoc with that peculiar form of his title, the one that the Empress had conferred on him half out of awe, half out of jest.
The Turtle's Golden Claw wasn't there in his bedroom, of course: she was a Mind, an artificial intelligence encased in the heartroom of a ship; and she was too heavy to leave orbit. But she was good at things; and one of them was hacking his comms, and using the communal network to project new surroundings over his bedroom.
"Ship," he whispered, the words tasting like grit on his tongue. His eyes felt glued together; his brain still fogged by sleep. "It's the Bi-Hour of the Tiger." People plotted or made love or slept the sleep of the just; they didn't wake up and found themselves dragged into an impossible conversation.
But then, of course, The Turtle's Golden Claw was technically part of the Imperial family: before her implantation in the ship that would become her body, the Mind had been borne by Thousand-Heart Ngoc Ha, the Empress's youngest daughter. The Turtle's Golden Claw was mostly sweet; but sometimes she could act with the same casual arrogance as the Empress.
"What is it this time?" Suu Nuoc asked.
The Turtle's Golden Claw's voice was thin and quivering; nothing like her usual, effortless arrogance. "She's not answering. I called her again and again, but she's not answering."
Ten thousand words bloomed into Suu Nuoc's mind; were sorted out as ruthlessly as he'd once sorted out battalions. "Who?" he said.
There were two people whom the mindship thought of as Grandmother; but if the Keeper of the Peace Empress had been dead, Suu Nuoc's quarters would have been in effervescence, the night servants barely containing their impatience at their master's lack of knowledge. "The Grand Master of Design Harmony?"
The lights flickered around him; the characters oozed like squeezed wounds. "She's not answering," the ship said, again; sounding more and more like the child she was with every passing moment. "She was here; and then she... faded away on the comms."
Suu Nuoc put out a command for the system to get in touch with Grand Master of Design Harmony Bach Cuc—wondering if that would work, with the shipmind hacked into his comms. But no; the progress of the call appeared overlaid on the bottom half of his field of vision, same as normal; except, of course, that no one picked up. Bach Cuc's last known location, according to the communal network, was in her laboratory near the Spire of Literary Eminence—where the radio comms towards The Turtle's Golden Claw would be clearest and most economical.
"Did you hack the rest of my comms?" he asked—even as he got up, pulling up clothes from his autumn chest, unfolding and discarding uniforms that seemed too formal; until he found his python tunic.
"You know I didn't." The Turtle's Golden Claw's voice was stiff.
"Had to ask," Suu Nuoc said. He pulled the tunic over his shoulders, stared at himself in the mirror by the four seasons chests: pale and dishevelled, his hair hastily pulled back into a topknot—but the tunic was embroidered with pythons, a mark of the Empress's special favour, bestowed on him after the battle at Four Stations: a clear message, for those who affected not to know who he was, that this jumped-up, uncouth soldier wielded authority by special dispensation.
The call was still ringing in the emptiness; he cut it with a wave of his hands. There was a clear, present problem; and in such situations he knew exactly what to do.
"Let's go," he said.
* * *
Grand Master Bach Cuc's laboratory was spread around a courtyard: at this late hour, only the ambient lights were on, throwing shadows on the pavement—bringing to mind the old colonist superstitions of fox shapeshifters and blood-sucking demons.
It was the dry season in the Forbidden Purple City, and Bach Cuc had set up installations on trestle tables in the courtyard—Suu Nuoc didn't remember what half the assemblages of wires and metal were, and didn't much care.
"Where was she when you saw her last?" he asked The Turtle's Golden Claw.
The ship couldn't descend from orbit around the First Planet, of course; she'd simply animated an avatar of herself. Most mindships chose something the size of a child or a Mind; The Turtle's Golden Claw's avatar was as small as a clenched fist, but perfect, rendering in exquisite detail the contours of her hull, the protrusions of her thrusters—if Suu Nuoc had been inclined to squint, he was sure he'd have caught a glimpse of the orchids painted near the prow.
"Inside," The Turtle's Golden Claw said. "Tinkering with things." She sounded like she'd recovered; her voice was cool again, effortlessly taking on the accents and vocabulary of the court. She made Suu Nuoc feel like a fish out of water; but at least he wouldn't have to deal with a panicked, bewildered mindship—he was no mother, no master of wind and water, and would have had no idea how to do in this situation.
He followed the ship into one of the largest pavilions: the outside was lacquered wood, painstakingly recreated identical to Old Earth design, with thin metal tiles embossed with longevity symbols. The inside, however, was more modern, a mess of tables with instruments: the communal network a knot of virtual messages with cryptic reminders like "put more khi at G4" and "redo the connections, please", notes left by researchers to themselves and to each other.
He kept a wary eye on the room—two tables, loaded with instruments; a terminal, blinking forlornly in a corner; a faint smell he couldn't quite identify on the air: charred wood, with a tinge of a sharper, sweeter flavour, as if someone had burnt lime or longan fruit. No threat that he could see; but equally, a slow, spreading silence characteristic of hastily emptied room.
"Is anyone here?" Suu Nuoc asked—superfluous, really. The network would have told him if there were, but he was too used to battlefields, where one could not afford to rely on its presence or its integrity.
"She's not here," The Turtle's Golden Claw said, slowly, patiently; an adult to a child. As if he needed another patronising highborn of the court... But she was his charge; and so, technically, was Grand Master Bach Cuc, the Citadel project being under the watchful eye of the military. Even if he understood next to nothing about the science.
"I can see that." Suu Nuoc's eye was caught by the door at the furthest end of the room: the access to the shielded chamber, gaping wide open, the harmonisation arch showing up as de-activated on his network access. No one inside, then.
Except... he walked up to it and peered inside, careful to remain on the right side of the threshold. Harmonisation arches decontaminated, made sure the environment on the other side was sterile; and the cleansing of extraneous particles from every pore of his skin was an unpleasant process he would avoid if he could. There was nothing; and no one; no virtual notes or messages, just helpful prompts from the communal network, offering to tell him what the various machines in the chamber did—pointing him to Grand Master Bach Cuc's progress reports.
Not what he was interested in, currently.
He had another look around the room. The Turtle's Golden Claw had said Grand Master Bach Cuc had vanished mid-call. But there was nothing here that suggested anything beyond a normal night, the laboratory deserted because the researchers had gone to bed.
His gaze caught on the table by the harmonisation arch. There was an object there, but he couldn't tell what it was because Grand Master Bach Cuc had laid her seal on it, hiding it from the view of anyone who didn't have the proper access privileges—a private seal, one that wouldn't vanish even if the communal network was muted. Suu Nuoc walked towards it, hesitating. So far, he had done Bach Cuc the courtesy of not using his accesses as an Official of the First Rank; hadn't broken into her private notes or correspondences, as he would have been entitled to. Long Quan would have called him weak—behind his back when he wasn't listening, of course, his aide wasn't that foolish—but he knew better than to use his accesses unwisely. There were those at the court that hadn't forgiven him for rising so high, so quickly; without years of learning the classics to pass the examinations, years of toiling in some less prestigious job in the College of Brushes until the court recognised his merit. They called him the Empress's folly—never mind his successes as a general, the battle of Four Stations, the crushing of the rebel army at He Huong, the successful invasion of the Smoke People's territory: all they remembered was that he had once slept with the Empress, and been elevated to a rank far exceeding what was proper for a former (or current) favourite.
But The Turtle's Golden Claw wasn't flighty, or likely to panic over nothing. Suu Nuoc reached out, invoking his privileged access—the seal wavered and disappeared. Beneath it was...
He sucked in a deep breath—clarity filling his mind like a pane of ice, everything in the room sharpened to unbearable focus; the harmonisation arch limned with cold, crystalline light, as cutting as the edges of a scalpel.
The seal had hidden five pellets of metal; dropped casually into a porcelain bowl like discarded food, and still smelling, faintly, of anaesthetic and disinfectant.
Mem-Implants. Ancestor implants. The link between the living and the memories of their ancestors: the repository of ghost-personalities who would dispense advice and knowledge on everything from navigating court intrigues to providing suitable responses in discussions replete with literary allusions. Five of them; no wonder Grand Master Bach Cuc had always been so graceful, so effortless at showing the proper levels of address and languages whatever the situation.
To so casually discard such precious allies—no, you didn't leave those behind, not for any reason.
But why would an abductor leave these behind?
"She wouldn't remove—" The Turtle's Golden Claw said. Suu Nuoc lifted a hand to interrupt the obvious.
"I need to know where the Grand Master's research stood. Concisely." There wasn't much time, and evidence was vanishing as they spoke. The ship would know that, too.
The Turtle's Golden Claw didn't make the mocking comment he'd expected—the one about Suu Nuoc being Supervisor of Military Research and barely enough mathematics to operate an abacus. "You can access the logs of my last journeys into deep spaces," she said, slowly. "I brought back samples for her."
Travel logs. Suu Nuoc asked his own, ordinary implants to compile every note in the room by owner and chronological order.
"Did Grand Master Bach Cuc know where the Citadel was?" he asked. That was, after all, what those travels were meant to achieve: The Turtle's Golden Claw, Bach Cuc's masterpiece, diving into the furthest deep spaces, seeking traces of something that had vanished many years ago, in a time when Suu Nuoc was still a dream in his parents' minds.
The Citadel of Weeping Pearls—and, with it, its founder and ruler, the Empress's eldest and favourite daughter, Bright Princess Ngoc Minh.
The Citadel had been Ngoc Minh's refuge, her domain away from the court after her last, disastrous quarrel with her mother and her flight from the First Planet. Until the Empress, weary of her daughter's defiance, had sent the Imperial Armies to destroy it—and the Citadel vanished in a single night with all souls onboard, never to reappear.
"There were... trace elements from orbitals and ships," The Turtle's Golden Claw said, slowly, cautiously; he had the feeling she was translating into a language he could understand—was it mindship stuff, or merely scientific language? "Images and memories of dresses; and porcelain dishes..." The ship paused, hovering before the harmonisation arch. "Everything as fresh as if they'd been made yesterday."
"I understood that much," Suu Nuoc said, wryly. He didn't know what arguments Grand Master Bach Cuc had used to sway the Empress; but Bach Cuc's theory about deep spaces was well known—about the furthest corners, where time flowed at different rate and folded back onto itself, so that the past was but a handspan away—so that the Citadel, which had vanished without a trace thirty years ago, could be found in the vastness of space.
If you were a mindship, of course; humans couldn't go in that deep and hope to survive.
"Then you'll understand why she was excited," The Turtle's Golden Claw said.
"Yes." He could imagine it—Grand Master Bach Cuc would have been cautious, the ship ecstatic. "She thought you were close."
"No," The Turtle's Golden Claw said. "You don't understand, Book of Heaven. There were a few analyses to run before she could pinpoint a—a location I could latch on. But she thought she had the trail. That I could plunge back into deep spaces, and follow it to wherever the Citadel was hiding itself. She thought she could find Bright Princess Ngoc Minh and her people."
Suu Nuoc was silent, then, staring at the harmonisation arch.
He wasn't privy to the thoughts of the Empress anymore; he didn't know why she wanted Bright Princess Ngoc Minh back.
Some said she was getting soft, and regretted quarrelling with her daughter. Some said she wanted the weapons that Bright Princess Ngoc Minh had designed, the technologies that had enabled the citadel to effortlessly evade every Outsider or Dai Viet battalion sent to apprehend her. And still others thought that the Empress's long life was finally running to an end, and that she wanted Ngoc Minh to be her heir, over the dozen daughters and sons within the Purple Forbidden City.
Suu Nuoc had heard all of those rumours. In truth, he didn't much care: the Empress's will was absolute, and it wasn't his place to question it. But he had listened in enough shuttles and pavilions; and his spies had reported enough gossip from poetry club competitions and celebratory banquets, to know that not everyone welcomed the prospect of the princess's return.
Bright Princess Ngoc Minh had been blunt, and unpleasant; and many had not forgiven her for disregarding her mother's orders and marrying a minor station-born; and still others didn't much care about her, but thought she would disrupt court life—and thus threaten the privileges they'd gained from attending one or another of the princes and princesses. One was not meant, of course, to gainsay the Empress's orders; but there were other ways to disobey...
"Book of Heaven?"
Suu Nuoc swallowed past the bile in his throat. "We must report this to the Empress. Now."