The Citadel of Weeping Pearls
By Aliette de Bodard (excerpt)
The world around Diem Huong shifted and twisted; and vanished – and, for a moment, she hung in a vacuum as deep as the space between stars, small and alone and frightened, on the edge of extinction – and, for a moment, she felt the touch of a presence against her mind, something vast and numinous and terrible, like the wings of some huge bird of prey, wrapping themselves around her until she choked.
And then she came slamming back into her body, into a place she recognized.
Or almost did. It was – and was not – as she remembered: the door to Mother’s compartment, a mere narrow arch in a recessed corridor, indistinguishable from the other doors. From within came the smell of garlic and fish sauce, strong enough to make her feel six years old again. And yet… and yet, it was smaller, and diminished from what she remembered ; almost ordinary, yet loaded with memories that threatened to overwhelm her.
Slowly, gently – not certain it would still remain there, if she moved, if she breathed – she raised a hand, and knocked.
She exhaled. And knocked again – and saw the tip of her fingers slide, for a bare moment, through the metal. A bare moment only, and then it was as solid as before.
She was fading. Going back in time to Lam’s lab? To the void and whatever waited for her there?
No use in thinking upon it. She couldn’t let fear choke her until she died of it. She braced herself to knock again, when the door opened.
She knew Motheer’s face by heart; the one on the holos on the ancestral altar, young and unlined and forever frozen into her early forties; the wide eyes, the round cheeks, the skin darkened by sunlight and starlight. She’d forgotten how much of her would be familiar – the smell of sandalwood clinging to her; the graceful movements that unlocked something deep, deep within her – and she was six again and safe; before the betrayal that shattered her world; before the years of grief.
“Can I help you?” Mother asked. She sounded puzzled.
She had to say something, no matter how inane; had to prevent Mother’s face from creasing in the same look of suspicion she’d seen in the monk’s eyes. Had to. “I’m sorry, but I had to meet you. I’m your daughter.”
“Diem Huong?” Mother’s voice was puzzled. “What joke is this? Diem Huong is outside playing at a friend’s house. She’s six years old.”
“I know,” Diem Huong said. She hadn’t meant to say that; but in the face of the woman before her, all that came out was the truth, no matter how inadequate. “I come from another time,” she said. “Another place.”
“From the future?” Mother’s eyes narrowed. “You’d better come in.”
Inside, she turned, looked at Diem Huong – every time this happened, Diem Huong would wait with baited breath, afraid that this was it, the moment when Mother would start forgetting her again. “There is a family resemblance,” Mother said at last.
“I was born in the year of the Water Tiger, in the Hour of the Rat,” Diem Huong said, slowly. “You wanted to name me Thien Bao; Father thought it an inappropriate name for a girl. Please, Mother. I don’t have much time, and I’m running out of it.”
“We alle are,” Mother said, soberly. She gestured towards the kitchen. “Have a tea.”
“There is no time,” Diem Huong said; and paused, scrabbling for words. “What do you mean, we’re running out of time?”
Mother did not answer. She turned back, at last; looked at Diem Huong. “Oh, I’m sorry, I hadn’t seen you here. What can I do for you?”
“Mother -” the words were out of Diem Huong’s mouth before she could think; but they were said so low Mother did not seem to hear them. “You have to tell me. Why are you running out of time.”
Mother shook her head. “Who told you that?”
“You did. A moment ago.”