When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.
But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…
Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast—available October 16th from JABberwocky.
Fish, Gate, River, Storm
The first inkling that things were going wrong was when the voices in Oanh’s room fell silent.
To Yên and Mother, Oanh should have been one patient out of many, another risk of infection and loss. And Heaven knew they lost so many of the sick, in the days after the breaking of the world, when medicine was a slow, laborious thing, and the few words of power the Broken-World Teacher had rediscovered didn’t make for more than painstaking stopgaps. But Oanh was Yên’s friend. The sight of her, shivering and pale in a bed so large and soft it seemed to be crushing her into insignificance, had tightened a fist around Yên’s innards until Mother—with one look at Yên’s still figure—imperiously sent her out of the room.
“You’ll call—” Yên had said.
“If I need you. Yes.” Mother leant on her cane with a snort. “Now go.”
Yên went outside without demurring, and listened to low voices from inside the room—questions asked, pulses taken, khi-elements around and inside the body numbered and weighed. The wooden floors were rough under the thin, frayed silk of her robes, and a faint smell of jasmine mingled with rot filled the dark space under the rafters. The few lanterns on the wall and on the low lacquered tables were not sufficient to keep the shadows away.
Then silence. Not an abrupt thing, but a slow fading of noise. A question asked. A hesitant answer, and nothing more. Had Mother decided to cast a spell? Surely there was something she could do, to cast out the virus?
Voices outside, familiar ones. And a different kind of silence: that of deference and fear. “I hope we’re not too late.”
“Don’t be a fool. We came as soon as we knew.”
The village elders. Yên rose, hastily rearranging her rumpled, stained dress. Not that she could do much about the reek of camphor and menthol ointment, or the red and black ink staining the faded embroidery.
They filed into the room, one by one: their clothes rich and colorful, their wrinkled faces in shadow, magnified and stretched until they hardly seemed human anymore. No, they were human. The worst of what it meant to be human, self-serving and greedy, expecting thoughtless, craven respect. A faint smell of sandalwood wafted to Yên’s nostrils, with a sour, unpleasant aftertaste.
“Child,” Elder Minh Tho said. She was the eldest of them, and the one who spoke for them all. Her voice was calm and measured, as it always was, even when sentencing someone to exile or death. “I see you’re still helping your mother.”
“A much-appreciated skill,” Elder Tho said. Her smile revealed sharp, pointed teeth, like a predator’s.
She was here because of Oanh. They all were. Of course they’d never come all this way in the dead of the night for an ordinary person, for Yên or Mother or any of the children Yên taught. But Oanh’s mother, Phuoc, was head of the village. Phuoc and Oanh, unlike Mother and Yên, were valuable. Valued and not forced to eke out a living with the constant fear they’d no longer be found useful, that they’d be cast into the wilderness to be taken apart by the Vanishers’ constructs, or infected by their plagues. Or worse, labelled as troublemakers and purified in the Plague Grove: slowly taken apart by the Vanisher artefact there under the eyes of the entire village.
Yên forced herself not to move, to remain bowing and submissive. “She’s inside.”
From the bedroom, a tinkle of beads as Oanh’s mother drew the curtain. Her face was pale, and the makeup didn’t quite hide the grey circles under her eyes. She gestured the elders in, in odd, dreadful silence. None of the elders spoke as they walked into Oanh’s room.
Other whispers. Yên couldn’t help it. She had to know what was happening. The elders and Head Phuoc in the same room with Mother meant nothing good for Mother. Mother, of course, would never see it that way: she’d long accepted that one day her luck would run out and she’d be exiled to die. She’d tried to teach Yên about respect and graceful acceptance of one’s fate. Yên, though, knew it wasn’t luck but the elders’ amused forbearance. And no one should ever have to depend on that to live. She crept closer to the door.
“You’re proposing to call myths to life.” Elder Tho said. “We all know what the cost of that is.”
“It’s for Oanh.” Head Phuoc’s voice was low and intense. “For my child.”
Mother’s voice, not loud, but slow and ponderous, the way she was when making a decision. “It’s the only way.”
Silence. Then someone moved closer to the curtain. Too close. Yên withdrew, far enough that she’d look to be plausibly fiddling with the mortar and pestle if anyone came in.
Myths. Legends. Before the world broke, they might have been comforts; but now everything was twisted and distorted, and spirits killed without so much as a warning. Mother couldn’t—
Before she could think, she was up and at the curtain again, and ran straight into someone.
They wore brocade with dragons and ky lân flowing across the large sleeves, an intricate piece passed down in the family, generation after generation, from the single ancestor who had been a scholar-magician. They held Yên effortlessly, pushing her back into the room, step by step. Not that they needed to, for they could simply have summoned guards to take her away. “Child.”
Yên caught her breath. She looked down, to not be accused of disrespect, though Giang had always been kinder to her than most elders. “I heard—”
Giang’s angular face was very still. They were the youngest of the elders, ascended to the council because their family still had the wealth of their scholar-magician ancestors, and their wife’s relatives held most of the land around the river. “Then you’ll know to stay out of the way.”
From beyond the curtain came a low humming. Mother’s voice, in what seemed to be a prayer but became the familiar accents of a litany, words of power strung together with the same care as beads on a necklace.
Fish. Gate. River. Storm. Come. Fish, gate, river…
The curtain shifted colors. It was slow and subtle, but the rising feeling in Yên’s chest wasn’t. It was that familiar tightness, the sense that something within her was trying to work its way loose and cared little whether it tore her lungs out in the process. Magic. The Broken-World Teacher’s words: she could see them, syllables glowing with the iridescence of the diseased river, bright colors dotted with faded blue streaks like rot. Fish. Gate. River. Storm. Her own aptitude for magic was nonexistent, but she was a scholar, and she could still read them. She could feel them in the air, in the tiles beneath her, a low thrumming that spread from the room into Yên and Elder Giang—and then beyond, toward the village’s scattered houses, the river and the darker shape of the Plague Grove.
Fish, gate, river, storm.
The thrumming grew and then sharpened, as if a line, thrown taut, had suddenly caught. A shiver traveled up Yên’s spine. At the doors, the words flared: not going lighter or brighter, but, for a moment only, stretching to another shape, making the Broken-World Teacher’s words alien and incomprehensible.
And then it was all gone, but the feeling of tautness remained, as though they were on the edge of a storm. Elder Giang released Yên: their face was flushed, and their expression…
Yên wasn’t used to seeing it on the elders’ faces, but she knew it because it was her own. It was fear, and not just any fear: the fear of losing what you held dear, the idea that everything—your life, your dear ones—could be so much dust on nothing more than another’s whim.
Something…something was wrong. It took her a moment to realize that it was the floor under her, that it was vibrating, not strongly, not shaking, but merely giving them a distant echo of someone coming closer.
Giang shook their head. The beaded curtain had been pulled back, and Elder Tho was waiting, her wrinkled face unreadable. She didn’t even seem to see Yên. For once, she had no contempt, and no subtle or unsubtle reminder of how Yên was a burden on the village. Her entire attention was focused on what was coming. The floorboards under Yên were vibrating again, a low-key buzzing that would start and stop every few minutes. Footsteps.
Unlike Yên’s house, Head Phuoc’s had an outside door: the walls of a compound around it, and lacquered gates with peeling outer layers, all guarded. No matter how large the spirit was, they should have been stopped, or the guards should have been talking, or taking up escort.
Instead, the door opened.
“I am here,” a voice like the thunder of the sea said.
In its wake, nothing but a rippling, stifling silence. Yên had expected something large and monstrous, but it was merely a person standing on the threshold, bathed in the radiance of the diseased moon in the ragged skies. A woman: she’d used the feminine to refer to herself.
She was small and slight. Yên, malnourished as a child, had always been smaller than her comrades, and the woman was only slightly taller than her. But she held herself effortlessly with the decisiveness of authority and power. Scales mottled her skin and hands, and her fingers were curved and sharp, slightly too splayed out. Her hair was tied in a scholar’s topknot, the hairsticks holding it in place bare lengths of unadorned wood. Her clothes were dark, utilitarian silk: the dye that of the wealthy, uniform with no bleeding.
Her gaze swept the room, stopping for a bare moment not on Elder Giang but on Yên, and in her eyes, Yên saw the contained fury of the river’s storms, the floods that killed, the cold that froze bones until they shattered.
Fish, river, gate, storm.
Yên’s words seemed to have deserted her. She pointed, wordlessly, to the room where Oanh lay, where Mother and the elders waited. Ancestors, keep them safe. Please. Please.
The woman nodded, and walked away without a word. Her robes—the cloth was ordinary, but they trailed as she moved, halfway between a tail and a spread of cloth—and in the vast blackness that followed her, Yên saw the sweep of words. Not the Broken-World Teacher’s script, but something that could have been its ancestor, as Classical had been to Viêt before both languages diverged. Magic. The letters shifted and changed, the alphabet almost but not quite familiar, tantalizingly close to words Yên could make out.
Elder Giang breathed out. The sound broke the silence, but not the tension in the room.
Once, dragons had watched over rivers and rain, dispensed floods, protected villages—drowned, sometimes, but only when Heaven willed it. Once, they had been fair and just. But the Vanishers had poisoned the world and left, and everything had twisted and died in their wake, spirits included.
“She’ll be fine. Your mother—”
“You can’t know that,” Yên said.
Behind the closed door came voices she couldn’t hear. She was desperate to move close once again, to know what was going on. A price to pay, the elders had said. She’d heard the stories from other villages. It’d be the summoner or the sick person or both, depending on the dragon’s whim. Mother or Oanh. Too much to hope it would be the elders, but of course they would sacrifice anyone else if it allowed them to wriggle out. Elder Giang, perhaps not, but Elder Giang was too young to have much influence yet.
“She’s been a healer for decades, hasn’t she?”
Yên shook her head. Mother used magic but didn’t summon spirits. Too dangerous. But, when the life of the head’s child was at stake… For the first time, it occurred to her that this mightn’t be about her friend, but about the consequences of letting the daughter of a powerful woman die. “It’s unfair,” she said, before her brain could stop her mouth.
Elder Giang chose not to notice. “Trust your mother, child.”
Trust wasn’t the issue. Yên did trust Mother. Oanh too, though Oanh was too sick to matter much; she’d always stood up for Yên with the village’s other children. And that was all the people Yên trusted. Most of all, the woman—the dragon—Yên trusted only to follow her nature.
Light flared in the slit between the threshold and the door: a soft slow radiance like an underwater sun. In its wake, shadows spread, the same blackness that had followed the woman, gently filling the available space. No. Yên turned toward the open door of the house and saw that the blackness didn’t stop. It went on, growing fainter and fainter, toward the gates of the compound, towards the river. It wasn’t new. It had been there since the woman had come, but now it was dark enough to be visible. In its depths glimmered the words that Yên had already seen, the ones she could almost read. That one looked like a more complex version of “duty”, this other one like a stylized version of “growth”, this one like “dreams” or “thoughts”….
She shook her head. What was she thinking? The words were hypnotic, but they weren’t the focus. She should be thinking of Mother, of what could be happening in that room. “Please,” she said to Elder Giang. “If I could come in…”
Elder Giang shook their head. “Do you want to disturb her?” It was clear who they meant.
If it meant saving Mother’s life… Yên bit her tongue to prevent the disrespectful words from escaping her. If nothing else, Mother would remind her to respect older people, but none of this applied to those who made both of them live in fear for personal gain.
The light died. For a moment, a single agonized, suspended moment, no noise came out, but surely they would have screamed if any of them had been harmed? Yên pushed at Elder Giang again, but Giang wouldn’t budge.
The door opened. The dragon walked out, but not alone. She was holding Mother’s limp shape in her arms. The words Yên had seen in her wake had now climbed up her arms, and the same light, too, danced on Mother’s own arms and hands, luminous text swimming like shoals of fish beneath her skin. No—Yên’s heart was in her throat—something gave in her, and with a strength she didn’t know she had, she pushed Elder Giang aside, to stand in the dragon’s path. Beneath her, the darkness had faded, but the words were still there, gently drifting in and out of shape as the dragon walked toward Yên.
For a while they faced each other in silence. Let her go, please. She’s all I have, Yên wanted to say, but the words were too trite, or too biting, or both. The dragon’s gaze was unreadable. The storm swirled in her pupils, pulling at something in Yên’s chest.
“Here,” the dragon said. She held out Mother to Yên. Yên took her, arms bowing under the weight. Mother was old and frail, but to carry her as effortlessly as the dragon had… “She’s exhausted herself summoning me,” the dragon went on. There was no emotion in her voice.
Yên opened her mouth and tried to speak, but found no words in the scorched desert of her heart.
“Take care of her,” the dragon said. “I’ll be back.”
And, without a further word, or even a further glance, she walked out of the house. Oily, glimmering darkness followed in her wake, a mirror of the diseased skies above.
Excerpted from In the Vanisher’s Palace, copyright © 2018 by Aliette de Bodard.