On International Women’s Day, several of the best writers in SF/F today reveal new stories inspired by the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted”, raising their voice in response to a phrase originally meant to silence.
The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the day of March 8th. They are collected here.
The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor
She was warned. She was given an explanation.
After long years, it came to pass that the Unquiet Emperor was seized with the desire to show his true heart to one of his subjects. He sent out his chief emissary, but gave the creature no time to put his body on, so that when he came to the house of the ordinary woman, she saw him naked before her as he truly was: a ghastly, suppurating, tooth-crowded mouth, and nothing more.
The mouth licked its incisors and groveled upon the woman’s unswept floor. “He has taken an interest in you. I cannot promise you will enjoy it.”
“Why me?” The ordinary woman gasped at her own insolence and hurried to hide it. When he was a young man, the Unquiet Emperor had banned questions, inquiries, curiosities, rhetoric, and finally question marks entirely, for such things were surely the source of all the mistrust and isolation in modern society. “I am only a baker of bread. I live alone, without care for another living soul, as the good law decrees. I am no one. I am nothing.”
The mouth took pity on her and answered, though the Emperor had wisely placed an embargo on answers (direct and indirect), commentary, and backtalk.
“You spoke kindly of him.”
“That’s not—” This time the ordinary woman caught herself. The Unquiet Emperor had banished the words true and false from the kingdom, along with all their arrogant synonyms, which dared to cause division in his sacred realm.
The mouth smiled, but without a face, it looked nothing like a smile. “In your sleep last night, you turned on your side and sighed in the shape of his name. He heard, from far off in the capital, and sent me, for the tenderness of your sigh, for the sweetness of your longing.”
“I only dreamt, sir.”
“Then you must beg him to spare you the punishment of thieves. You know very well that all dreams belong to the Emperor. You may take a dream from the hoard only by his leave, and his majesty does not grant such favors even to me. You will come with me to his palace. You will not look away when he opens his chest. You will not cry out. You will not beg him to close himself again. You will not touch the heart of the Emperor. You will bow down. You will tell him it is a beautiful heart, the best heart. You will thank him for this unimaginable gift to you. You will weep in your abject awe. And when you return, you will tell no one exactly what lies in the chest of your master, only that it was a glory you did not deserve. What is your name, woman?”
The woman bowed her head. She had once known her name. She had once been a maker of poems as well as a baker of bread, before the Unquiet Emperor had executed the written word, since nothing could be free if it was locked inside a prison of text and subtext. “I do not remember, sir.”
The naked mouth was satisfied with her obedience. The Emperor had outlawed memory long ago, and all names but his own.
And so she was brought before the Unquiet Emperor in all his finery, in his scarlet and gold, in his flame and his endless hunger. His chieftains surrounded him, roused from their beds without their bodies, just as his emissary had been. One was a single dead black eye. One was a naked bone. One was a bent penny. One was an unsheathed knife.
“At last,” coughed the Emperor, and when he coughed, coal sludge clotted with ancient coins dribbled from his mouth. He reached for her with a swollen hand covered in golden rings. “At last. It is she, just as I said. The woman who truly loves me. I am so tired. I have waited so long.”
With a clotted and intimate sigh, the Unquiet Emperor fumbled at his body and pried open the rotting barrel of his chest. The ordinary woman peered inside. There, she saw not a heart, but the name of the Emperor in cold, gilded letters, slung with cobwebs and vast spiders. Each letter cried out with the squall of an unloved and unloving infant and the grinding of gears long gone to rust.
The woman reached out her hand to touch the heart.
“Stop,” cried the single dead eye. “His heart cannot bear your ordinary touch.”
“He will feel the heat and blood of your ordinary life,” wailed the bent penny.
“He will suffer the oils of your ordinary nameless flesh,” shuddered the naked bone.
“He will hear the hideous pounding of your own ordinary heart,” hissed the unsheathed knife.
“Love me,” whispered the Unquiet Emperor, his chest gaping. He writhed at the nearness of her fingers.
The open mouth called out to her. “Stop. One touch of your filthy hand; your questioning, remembering, answering, dreaming, writing hand; your hand which makes the signs for true and false even in your sleep; your rebelling, thieving, apostate hand; and the name of his heart will crumble to dust and the world we have built so carefully crumble with it, like a flower shriveled brown. The old world will come rushing back in across the dunes. He will no longer stand between you and the wasteland. No one will protect and shield you, as we have done. No one will be left to keep the devils at the gate. Without him, you will drown in an ocean of reality.”
The ordinary woman’s eyes glittered, searching through the infinite shadows of the Emperor’s chest.
“Stop,” roared the Unquiet Emperor’s chieftains.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making (and the four books that followed it). She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Prix Imaginales, Eugie Foster Memorial, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, Romantic Times’ Critics Choice and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.