Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
And from behind the curve of the large gaseous planet at coordinate B5682.76R1, the Emperor Twelve Solar-Flare arose on the bow of her ship, and she was a radiant blaze flooding all of the void. The rays of her light, reaching outward like the spear-spokes of her throne, struck the metal shells which were the dwelling-places of human beings in Sector B5682, and illuminated them brightly. The sensors of Twelve Solar-Flare’s ship recorded ten of them, each alike to the other, and this number has not increased since. Within the shells the men and women knew not seasons nor growth nor decay, but lived endlessly in orbit without benefit of a planetary home. The largest of these shells called itself Lsel Station, which in the language of its people meant a station that both listened and heard. But the people there had grown strange, and cleaved to themselves, though they were capable of learning language, and immediately began to do so…
—The Expansion History, Book V, lines 72–87, anonymous but attributed to the historian-poet Pseudo-Thirteen River, writing in the reign of the Emperor of All Teixcalaan Three Perigee
In order to expedite your travel into the Imperium, Teixcalaan requests the following as proofs of identity: a) a genetic record stating your sole possession of your own genotype, unshared with clonesibs OR a notarized document stating that your genotype is at least 90 percent unique and that no other individual holds LEGAL claim to it; b) an itemized list of goods, chattels, currencies, and objects of idea commerce which you intend to bring with you; c) a work permit from a registered employer in a Teixcalaanli system, signed and notarized, with salary and maintenance information, OR a record of superlative performance on the Teixcalaanli Imperial Examinations OR an invitation by a person, governmental entity, bureau, ministry, or other authorized individual specifying your entrance and exit dates from Imperium space OR evidence of sufficient self-supporting currency . . .
—Form 721Q, Visa Application Made from Foreign Sectors ALPHABETIC LANGUAGE VARIANT, page 6
Mahit came down to the City, heart-planet and capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire, in a seed-skiff, a bubble of a ship hardly big enough for her body and her luggage both. She squirted from the side of the imperial cruiser Ascension’s Red Harvest and burned atmosphere on her planetward trajectory, which distorted the view. Thus the first time she saw the City with her own flesh eyes, not in infofiche or holograph or imago-memory, it was haloed in white fire and shone like an endless glittering sea: an entire planet rendered into an ecumenopolis, palatially urban. Even its dark spots—older metropolises not yet clad in metal, decaying urban blight, the harnessed remains of lakes—looked populated. Only the oceans remained untouched, and they gleamed too, a brilliantine blue-turquoise.
The City was very beautiful and very big. Mahit had been on a fair number of planets, the ones closest to Lsel Station that weren’t completely inimical to human life, and she was nevertheless overcome by awe. Her heart beat faster; her palms went clammy where they gripped her harness. The City appeared exactly as it was always described in Teixcalaanli documents and songs: the jewel at the heart of the Empire. Complete with atmospheric glow.
<That’s what looking at it is meant to make you think,> said her imago. He was a faint staticky taste on the back of her tongue, a flash of grey eyes and sun-dark skin in her peripheral vision. The voice in the back of her head, but not quite her voice: someone around her age, but male, and quicksilver-smug, and as excited to be here as she was. She felt her mouth curve in his smile, a heavier and wider thing than the muscles in her face preferred. They were new to each other. His expressions were very strong.
Get out of my nervous system, Yskandr, she thought at him, gently chiding. An imago—the implanted, integrated memory of one’s predecessor, housed half in her neurology and half in a small ceramic-and-metal machine clasped to her brainstem—wasn’t supposed to take over the host’s nervous system unless the host consented. At the beginning of the partnership, though, consent was complicated. The version of Yskandr inside her mind remembered having a body, and sometimes he used Mahit’s as if it were his own. She worried about it. There was still so much space between them, when they were supposed to be becoming one person.
This time, though, he withdrew easily: sparking prickles, electric laughter. <As you will. Show me, Mahit? I want to see it again.>
When she gazed down at the City again—closer now, the skyport rising to meet her skiff like a flower made of scooping nets—she let the imago look through her eyes and felt his rush of exhilaration as if it were her own.
What’s down there, she thought. For you.
<The world,> said her imago, who had been Ambassador from Lsel in the City when he was still a living person and not part of a long chain of live memory. He said it in the Teixcalaanli language, which made it a tautology: the word for “world” and the word for “the City” were the same, as was the word for “empire.” It was impossible to specify, especially in the high imperial dialect. One had to note the context.
Yskandr’s context was obfuscating, which Mahit had come to expect of him. She coped. Despite all her years of studying Teixcalaanli language and literature, his fluency had a different quality than hers, the sort that only came from immersive practice.
<The world,> he said again, <but also the edges of the world.> The Empire, but also where the Empire stops.
Mahit matched his language and spoke out loud in Teixcalaanli, since there was no one but her in the seed-skiff. “You’ve said something meaningless.”
<Yes,> Yskandr agreed. <When I was ambassador it was my habit to say all sorts of meaningless things. You should try it. It’s quite enjoyable.>
In the privacy of her body, Yskandr used the most intimate forms of address, as if he and Mahit were clonesibs or lovers. Mahit had never spoken them out loud. She had a natural younger brother back on Lsel Station, the closest she would ever get to a clonesib, but her brother only spoke the Stationers’ language, and calling him “you,” intimate-otherself in Teixcalaanli, would have been both pointless and unkind. She could have said “you” to a few people who had been in those language and literature courses with her—her old friend and classmate Shrja Torel would have taken the compliment correctly, for instance, but Mahit and Shrja hadn’t spoken since Mahit had been picked to be the new Ambassador to Teixcalaan and carry the imago of the previous one. The why of that little breakage between them was obvious, and petty, and Mahit regretted it—and it wasn’t something she was going to get a chance to repair, except by apologetic letter from the center of the Empire both she and Shrja had wanted to see. Which almost certainly wouldn’t help.
The City had come closer: it filled up the horizon, a vast curve she was falling into. To Yskandr, she thought, I am the Ambassador now. I might speak meaningfully. If I wanted.
<You speak correctly,> Yskandr said, which was the sort of compliment the Teixcalaanlitzlim gave to a still-crèched child.
Gravity caught at the seed-skiff and sank into the bones in Mahit’s thighs and forearms, giving her the sensation of spin. It was dizzying. Below her the skyport’s nets flared open. For a moment she thought she was falling, that she would fall all the way to the planet’s surface and smear to paste on the ground.
<It was the same for me,> Yskandr said quickly, in that Stationers’ language that was Mahit’s native tongue. <Don’t be afraid, Mahit. You are not falling. It is the planet.>
The skyport caught her with hardly a bump.
She had time to gather herself together. There was some business with the seed-skiff being shunted into a long line of other such vessels, moving along a great conveyor until each one could be identified and come to its assigned gate. Mahit found herself rehearsing what she would say to the imperial citizens on the other side as if she was a first-year student preparing for an oral examination. In the back of her mind, the imago was a watchful, thrumming presence. Every so often he moved her left hand, the fingers tapping along her harness, someone else’s nervous gesture. Mahit wished they’d had longer to get used to each other.
But she hadn’t undergone the normal process of having an imago implanted, complete with a year or more of integration therapy under the precise care of one of Lsel’s psychotherapists: she and Yskandr had had a scant three months together, and now they were approaching the place where they’d need to work together—work as one person, compiled out of a memory-chain and a new host.
When Ascension’s Red Harvest had arrived, hanging in parallel orbit around Lsel Station’s sun, and had demanded a new ambassador to take back to Teixcalaan, they had refused to explain what had happened to the previous one. Mahit was sure there had been a great deal of politics on the Lsel Council as to what—and who—to send back, and with what demands for information. But this she knew was true: she herself had been one of the few Stationers both old enough for the job and young enough not to have already been brought into an imago-line—and one of the fewer still within that group who had any of the appropriate aptitudes or training for diplomacy. Of those, Mahit had been the best. Her scores on the Imperial Examinations in Teixcalaanli language and literature had approached those of an imperial citizen, and she’d been proud of that—spent the half year since the exams imagining that she would come to the City, sometime in her middle age, once she was established, and collect experiences—attending whatever salons were open to noncitizens that season—gathering up information for whoever she’d share her memory with after she died.
Now she’d get to the City, all right: more important than any Teixcalaanli examination, her scores on the imago-aptitudes had come up green, green, green for this match. Her imago would be Yskandr Aghavn, the previous Ambassador to Teixcalaan. Who was now somehow unsuitable to that empire—dead, or disgraced, or held captive if still alive. Mahit’s instructions from her government included determining precisely what had gone so wrong with him—but she still had his imago. He—or, at least, the last version of him available to give her, fifteen years out of date—was the closest thing Lsel could provide to a native guide to the Teixcalaanli court. Not for the first time, Mahit wondered whether or not there would be a Yskandr waiting for her in the flesh when she stepped outside. She was not sure which would be easier, having one—a disgraced ambassador? A competitor for her, but perhaps salvageable?—or not having one, which meant he had died without ever giving to any younger person what he had learned in his lifetime.
The imago-Yskandr in her head was hardly older than she was, which was both helpful in finding commonality and uncomfortable—most imagos were elders or victims of early-death accidents—but the last record of Yskandr’s knowledge and memory had been taken when he’d last returned to Lsel on leave from his post in Teixcalaan, only five years after he had first gone down to the City. It had been another decade and a half since then.
So he was young, and so was she, and whatever advantage to integration that might have granted the two of them was belied by how short a time they’d been together. Two weeks between the courier’s arrival and when Mahit learned that she’d be the next ambassador. Three more weeks for her and Yskandr to learn how to live together in the body that used to belong to her alone, under the supervision of the Station’s psychotherapists. A long, slow time on Ascension’s Red Harvest, traversing the sublight distances between the jumpgates that were scattered like jewels throughout Teixcalaanli space.
The seed-skiff peeled open like a ripe fruit. Mahit’s harness retracted. Taking hold of her luggage in both hands, she stepped onto the gate, and thus into Teixcalaan itself.
The skyport gate had an airy utilitarianism constructed of wear-resistant carpet and clearly marked signage between glass-and-steel-paneled walls. Standing in the center of the gate’s connecting tunnel, a precise halfway between the seed-skiff and the skyport proper, was a single Teixcalaanli imperial official in a perfectly cut cream suit. She was small: narrow at the shoulder and hip, much shorter than Mahit, and she wore her hair in a fishtail-braid queue of black that spilled over her left lapel. Her sleeves, wide like bells, shaded through flame-orange at the upper arm—<Information Ministry coloring,> Yskandr told Mahit—down to the deep red cuffs that were the privilege of the titled members of the court. Over her left eye she wore a cloudhook, a glass eyepiece full of the ceaseless obscuring flow of the imperial information network. Hers was sleekly decorative, much like the rest of her. Her large, dark eyes and thin cheekbones and mouth were more delicate than was fashionable on Teixcalaan, but by Mahit’s Stationer standards she was interesting, if not quite pretty. She touched her fingers together politely in front of her chest and inclined her head to Mahit.
Yskandr lifted Mahit’s own hands to make the same gesture—and Mahit dropped the two bags she’d been carrying on the floor with an embarrassing clatter. She was horrified. They hadn’t slipped like that since the first week they’d been together.
Fuck, she thought, and heard at the same moment Yskandr say <Fuck.> The doubling wasn’t reassuring.
The official’s carefully neutral expression did not change. She said, “Ambassador, I am Three Seagrass, asekreta and patrician second-class. It is my honor to welcome you into the Jewel of the World. I will be serving as your cultural liaison at the command of His Imperial Majesty Six Direction.” There was a long pause, and then the official gave a small sigh and went on: “Do you require some sort of assistance with your belongings?”
“Three Seagrass” was an old-fashioned Teixcalaanli name: the numeral half was low value, and the noun half was the name of a plant, even if it was a plant Mahit hadn’t seen used in a name before. All of the noun parts of Teixcalaanli names were plants or tools or inanimate objects, but most of the plant ones were flowers. “Seagrass” was memorable. Asekreta meant she was not only Information Ministry, as her suit suggested, but a trained agent of rank, as well as holding the court title of patrician second-class: an aristocrat, but not a very important or rich one.
Mahit left her hands where Yskandr had put them, which was where they belonged no matter how angry she was at how they’d got there, and bowed over them. “Ambassador Mahit Dzmare of Lsel Station. At your service and that of His Majesty, may his reign be a radiant blaze upon the void.” Since this was her first official contact with a member of the Teixcalaanli court, she used the imperial honorific she’d picked carefully in consultation with Yskandr and the Council government on Lsel: “radiant blaze” was the epithet for the Emperor Twelve Solar-Flare in The Expansion History as Attributed to Pseudo-Thirteen River, the oldest account of imperial presence in Stationer space. Using it now was thus a sign of both Mahit’s erudition and her respect for Six Direction and his office; but “the void” carefully avoided any intimation of Teixcalaanli claim on parts of Stationer space which were not, in fact, space.
Whether Three Seagrass was aware of the implications of reference was somewhat difficult to tell. She waited patiently while Mahit scooped up her luggage again, and then said, “Keep a tight grip on those. You are urgently awaited in the Judiciary concerning the previous ambassador, and you may need to greet all sorts of people along the way.”
Fine. Mahit wouldn’t underestimate Three Seagrass’s capability to be snide, nor her capability to be clever. She nodded, and when the other woman turned smartly and walked up the tunnel, she followed.
<Don’t underestimate any of them,> Yskandr said. <A cultural liaison has been at court for half as long as you’ve been alive. She earned the post.>
Don’t lecture me when you’ve just made me look like a flustered barbarian.
<Do you want me to apologize?>
Are you sorry?
Mahit could imagine his facial expression all too easily: arch, as calm as a Teixcalaanlitzlim, the lusher mouth she remembered from holographs of him dragging her own lips up and askew. <I wouldn’t want you to feel like a barbarian. You’ll get enough of that from them.>
He wasn’t sorry. It was marginally possible that he was embarrassed, but if he was, he wasn’t feeling it with her endocrine system.
* * *
Yskandr got her through the next half hour. Mahit couldn’t even resent him for it. He behaved exactly like an imago ought to behave: a repository of instinctive and automatic skill that Mahit hadn’t had time to acquire for herself. He knew when to duck through doorways built for Teixcalaanlitzlim instead of Stationers; when to avert her eyes from the rising glare of the City reflected in the glass of the elevator that crawled down the outside of the skyport; how high to step to climb into Three Seagrass’s groundcar. He performed courtesy ritual like a native. After the incident with the luggage he was careful about actually moving Mahit’s hands, but she let him have charge of how long she maintained eye contact and with whom, the degree to which her head was inclined in greeting, all the little ways of signaling that she was less of an alien, less of a barbarian, something that might belong in the City. Protective coloration. Going native without ever having to be a native. She could feel curious eyes slide off of her and fixate on the far more interesting court dress of Three Seagrass, and wondered how much Yskandr had loved the City, to be this good at being in it.
In the groundcar, Three Seagrass asked, “Have you been within the world long?”
Mahit needed to stop thinking in any language but Teixcalaanli. What Three Seagrass meant was a standard bit of politesse small talk, a have you ever been to my country before, and Mahit had heard it like an existential question.
“No,” she said, “but I have read the classics since I was a very small child, and I have thought often of the City.”
Three Seagrass seemed to approve of this answer. “I wouldn’t want to bore you, Ambassador,” she said, “but if you’d like a brief and verbal tour of what we’re passing by, I’d be pleased to recite an appropriate poem.” She flicked a control button on her side of the car, and the windows faded to transparency.
“I couldn’t be bored,” Mahit said honestly. Outside, the city was a blur of steel and pale stone, neon lights crawling up and down the glass walls of its skyscrapers. They were on one of the central ring roads, spiraling inward through municipal buildings toward the palace itself. Properly, it was more of a city-within-a-city than a palace. By statistics, it had several hundred thousand inhabitants, all of whom were responsible in some minute fashion for the functioning of the Empire, from the gardeners on up to Six Direction himself: each of them plugged into the information network that was guaranteed to imperial citizens, and every last one bathed in a constant flow of data that told them where to be, what to do, how the story of their day and week and epoch would go.
Three Seagrass had an excellent voice. She was reciting The Buildings—a seventeen-thousand-line poem which described the City’s architecture. Mahit didn’t know the precise version she’d picked to declaim, but that might have been Mahit’s own fault. She had her own favorite narrative poems from the Teixcalaanli canon, and she’d memorized as many of them as she could in imitation of Teixcalaanli literati (and to pass the oral portions of the examinations), but The Buildings had always seemed too dull to bother with. It was different now, hearing Three Seagrass recite it as they passed the structures being described. She was a fluent orator, and she had enough command of the metrical scheme to add amusing and relevant original detail where improvisation was appropriate. Mahit folded her hands across her lap and watched the poetry going by through the glass windows of the groundcar.
This was the City, then, the Jewel of the World, the heart of the Empire: a collapse between narrative and perception, Three Seagrass making adjustments on the fly to the canonical Buildings when some building had changed. After some time she realized that Yskandr was reciting along with Three Seagrass, a dim whisper in the back of her mind, and also that she found the whisper reassuring. He knew this poem, and thus she knew it too, if she needed to know it. That was what imago-lines were for, after all: making sure useful memory was preserved, generation to generation.
They traveled through forty-five minutes and two traffic snarls before Three Seagrass concluded her stanza and stopped the groundcar at the base of a needlelike pillar of a building, quite near the center of the palace grounds. <Judiciary complex,> Yskandr said.
Good sign or bad sign? Mahit asked him.
<It depends. I wonder what I did.>
Something illegal. Come on, Yskandr, give me a general sense of the possibilities here. What would you do to get yourself thrown in jail?
Mahit got the impression of Yskandr sighing at her, but also the queasy sensation of someone else’s nervousness setting off her adrenal glands. <Mm. Sedition, mostly.>
She wished she could be sure he was joking.
Surrounding the pillar of the Judiciary was a perimeter of grey-uniformed guards, clustered more closely at the door: a security checkpoint. The guards carried long, slim dark grey sticks rather than the energy weapons that the Teixcalaanli legions favored. Mahit had seen a lot of the latter on Ascension’s Red Harvest, but not these.
<Shocksticks,> Yskandr said. <Electricity-based crowd control—these were not here when I was last here. They’re anti-riot gear, or at least they are in tabloid entertainments.>
You’re fifteen years out of date, Mahit thought. A lot might have changed—
<This is the center of the palace. If they’re worried about riots at the Judiciary, something hasn’t changed, something is wrong. Now go find out what I did.>
Mahit wondered what had gone sufficiently wrong to create security theater at the door of the Judiciary, and if Yskandr had helped it go that wrong—felt prickles go up the back of her spine and down through her arms, the ulnar nerves crawling unpleasantly—and then had no time for more distressing reflection, as Three Seagrass was escorting her through. She offered up her thumbprints as well as Mahit’s, and stood with her eyes politely averted as a Teixcalaanli security guard patted chastely at the pockets of Mahit’s traveling jacket and her trousers. Her luggage was decorously placed in their custody, and she was promised that she could have it back on her way out.
Once the guard was done breaking all of Mahit’s personal space taboos, she advised Mahit to avoid wandering off without escort, as her identity was neither recorded on cloudhook nor otherwise authorized to be present within the Judiciary. Ma-hit raised an inquiring eyebrow at Three Seagrass.
“There were questions of speed,” Three Seagrass said, proceeding briskly through a multiplicity of irising doors into a cool, slate-floored interior, toward the elevator bank. “Your registration and permission to move about the palace complex will of course be taken care of as soon as is possible.”
Mahit said, “I’ve been in transit more than a month, and there are questions of speed?”
“We have been waiting for three months, Ambassador, since we sent for a new representative from the Station.”
<I must have done something quite spectacular,> Yskandr said. <Down below are secret courts and interrogation chambers, or so the palace rumors always went.>
The elevator chimed in fourths. “And one more hour matters, after three months?”
Three Seagrass gestured for Mahit to precede her into the elevator, which was a sort of answer, if not an informative one.
Waiting for them below was a chamber that could have been a courtroom or an operating theater: blue-metal floor, and amphitheater-style benches arrayed around a high table on which lay some large object covered in a sheet. Floodlights. Three Teixcalaanli strangers, all broad-cheekboned and broad-shouldered, one in a red cassock, one dressed identically to Three Seagrass in the orange-and-cream of the Information Ministry, and one in a dark grey suit that reminded Mahit of nothing so much as the metal sheen of the shocksticks. They stood around the table, arguing in low, rapid voices, and blocked Mahit’s view of whatever was lying on it.
“I still would like to make my own examination, for my Ministry, before he’s returned,” said the Information Ministry courtier, annoyed.
“There’s not a single good reason to just turn him back over to them,” the Teixcalaanlitzlim in red said, with some finality. “It won’t do us any good and might spark an incident—”
Dark Grey Suit disagreed. “Contrary to the opinions of your Ministry, ixplanatl, I am entirely certain that any incident they could induce wouldn’t be more trouble than an insect bite, and as easily soothed.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, argue later,” said the one from Information, “they’re here.”
The man in red turned toward them as they entered, as if he had been anticipating their arrival. The ceiling was a low dome. Mahit thought of a bubble of gas, trapped under the earth. Then she understood the shape on the table as a corpse.
It lay on the table under a thin sheet, hands resting on its chest, fingertips touching as if it was preparing to greet some afterlife. Its cheeks were sunken and its open eyes were filmed over with a hazy blue. The same color had infiltrated its lips and nailbeds. It looked like it had been dead a long time. Perhaps . . . three months.
As clearly as if he had been standing next to her, Mahit heard Yskandr say <I got old,> with wondering horror. She was shaking. Her heart raced, drowning out the sound of Three Seagrass introducing her. A dizzying rush, worse than falling toward the planet, panic out of nowhere. Not her panic: Yskandr’s, her imago flooding her with her own stress hormones, enough adrenaline to taste metallic. The mouth of the corpse was slack, but she could see the smile lines at its corners, feel on her own mouth how Yskandr’s muscles would have had formed them over time.
“As you see, Ambassador Dzmare,” said the man in red, whose name Mahit had completely failed to catch during the introductions, “a new ambassador was necessary. I apologize for preserving him in this fashion, but we did not want to disrespect any funereal processes which your people might prefer.”
She came closer. The corpse stayed dead, stayed still and limp and empty. <Fuck,> Yskandr said, a fizz of nauseating static. Mahit was horribly, helplessly sure she was going to throw up. <Oh, fuck, I can’t do this.>
Mahit thought (or Yskandr thought—she was having trouble keeping them apart, and this wasn’t how the integration was supposed to go, she was never supposed to be lost inside his biochemical panic response hijacking her own endocrine system) about how the only place that Yskandr existed now was inside her head. She’d considered that he was dead, when Teixcalaan had demanded a new ambassador, thought about it intellectually, planned for it, and yet—here he was—a corpse, a hollow rotting shell, and she was panicking because her imago was panicking and an emotion-spike was the easiest way to fuck up an integration that wasn’t finished, an emotion-spike would burn out all the tiny microcircuits in the machine in her mind and oh fuck he was dead and oh fuck I am dead and the blur, the nauseating blur of everything.
Yskandr, she tried, aiming for comfort and missing by a long distance.
<Get closer,> he told her, <I need to see. I’m not sure—>
He moved them before she could decide to do what he asked. It was like she’d blacked out for the space of time it took to approach the corpse, blinked and was there, and this was going so very, very awry, and she couldn’t stop it—
“We burn our dead,” she said, and didn’t know who to thank for the fact that she’d said it in the right language.
“How interesting a custom,” said the courtier in dark grey. Mahit thought he was from the Judiciary itself; this was likely to be his morgue, even if it was the man in red who was the mortician.
Mahit smiled at him, too wide for her face and too uncontrolled for Yskandr’s, an expression that’d horrify any serene Teixcalaanlitzlim. “Afterward,” she said, searching for the correct vocabulary, a spar to cling to through the roiling waves of adrenaline, “we eat the ashes as a sacred thing. His children and successors first. If he had any.”
The courtier had the grace to blanch and the stubbornness to repeat himself. “How interesting a custom.”
“What do you do with yours?” Mahit asked. She came nearer Yskandr’s corpse, drifting. Her mouth seemed to be under her control for the moment, but her feet belonged to Yskandr. “Excuse my inquiry. I am, after all, not a citizen.”
The man in red said, “Burial is common,” as if it was a question he answered every day. “Do you wish to examine the body, Ambassador?”
“Is there some reason I should do so?” Mahit said, but she was already pulling down the sheet. Her fingers were sweating, slick on the fabric. Underneath, the corpse was naked, a fortyish man with all of his skin tinged that same blue at its most translucent points. An injectable preservative, all through him. The injection points were strikingly visible, holes surrounded by a halo of pale, swollen flesh—at the carotid, and in the ulnar veins of both arms. There was an extra injection site at the base of the corpse’s right thumb, distorting the shape of the hand. She found herself staring at it, in another one of those blanked-out moments—she’d been looking at his face, and now she was looking at his wrist, as if the imago needed to see every place his former body had been altered. Even if Mahit had wanted to claim her rights as his successor to the dust of his flesh—and she wasn’t sure she wanted to—she thought that it might be a very stupid idea to ingest whatever the man in red had filled him up with. Three months without rotting. She could taste bile in her throat, under the metallic endocrine cascade. Bodies should decompose, and be recycled.
But the Empire preserved everything, told the same stories over and over again; why not also preserve flesh instead of rendering it up for decent use?
She was touching the wrist, the imago tracing her fingertip over the injection site, and then further, into the palm, following the line of some scar. The flesh was rubbery, plasticky, too much give and not enough all at once—her Yskandr hadn’t gotten that scar yet; her Yskandr wasn’t dead yet—there was another one of those dizzying nauseous waves, the edges of her vision irising to fizz and sparks, and she thought again We are going to blow out all the circuitry, stop it—
<I can’t,> Yskandr said again, an enormous negation inside her mind, an avulsion that felt like a spark gone to ground—and then he was gone.
Dead quiet. Not even the feeling of him watching through Mahit’s eyes. She felt gravityless, full of endorphins she hadn’t produced on purpose, and horribly alone. Her tongue was heavy. It tasted like aluminum.
Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.
“How did he die?” she asked, and was amazed that she sounded entirely normal, entirely unfazed; asked for the sake of continuing to talk. None of the Teixcalaanli knew about imagos, none of them would even be able to understand what had just happened to her.
“He choked on the air,” the man in red said, touching the corpse’s neck with a practiced span of two fingers. “His throat closed. It was very unfortunate; but the physiologies of noncitizens are often so different from ours.”
“He ate something he was allergic to?” Mahit asked. This seemed absurd. She was shock-numb, and apparently Yskandr had died of anaphylaxis, and if she wasn’t careful she was going to have a hysterical laughing fit.
“At dinner with the Minister for Science Ten Pearl, no less,” said the last courtier, the one from Information. This one looked like he’d climbed out of a classical Teixcalaanli painting: his features were unbelievably symmetrical: lush mouth, low forehead, perfectly hooked nose; eyes like deep brown pools. “You should have seen the newsfeeds afterward, Ambassador; it was quite the tabloid story.”
“Twelve Azalea means no disrespect,” said Three Seagrass from where she stood by the door. “The news went no farther than the palace complex. It would be inappropriate for the general population.”
Mahit pulled the sheet back up to the corpse’s chin. It didn’t help. He was still there. “Was the story also inappropriate for the stations?” she asked. “The courier who asked for my service within the City was unnecessarily vague.”
Three Seagrass shrugged, a minute shift of one shoulder. “Ambassador, while I am asekreta, not every asekreta is privy to the decisions of the Information Ministry as a whole.”
“What would you like done with his body?” inquired the man in red. Mahit looked up at him; he was tall for a Teixcalaanlitzlim. His eyes, an unnervingly friendly green, were almost even with hers. She had no idea what to do with a corpse. She had never burnt anyone herself; she was too young. Her parents were both still living. And besides, what you did was you called the funeral manager and they handled it, preferably while someone you loved held your hand and cried with you over the mutual loss.
She had less idea what to do with this corpse. No one was going to cry over Yskandr, even her, and there weren’t any funeral managers in Teixcalaanli space who would know where to begin.
She managed, “Nothing yet,” and swallowed hard against the remains of the nausea. Her fingers felt electric, all prickle-shimmer where they had touched the dead man’s skin. “I will of course make arrangements once I am better acquainted with the facilities available. Until then, well, he’s not going to rot, is he?”
“Only very slowly,” the man in red said.
“Sir—” Mahit looked to Three Seagrass for help; she was a cultural liaison so she could damn well liaise—
“Ixplanatl Four Lever,” Three Seagrass said obligingly. “Of the Science Ministry.”
“Four Lever,” Mahit went on, dropping the man’s title—it meant “scientist,” in a very general sense, scientist-with-credentials—entirely on purpose, “when will the rot be noticeable? Another two months, perhaps?”
Four Lever smiled enough to show off a sliver of teeth. “Two years, Ambassador.”
“Excellent,” Mahit said. “That will be plenty of time.”
Four Lever bowed over the triangular press of his fingertips, as if she’d given him an order. Mahit suspected she was being indulged. She’d take it. She had to. She needed space enough to think and she wasn’t going to get it here, in the bowels of the Judiciary with three courtiers and a ixplanatl morgue attendant all waiting for her to make some irrevocable error and end up like Yskandr had.
Betrayed by his own physiology. After twenty years of living in the City, eating what the Teixcalaanlitzlim ate. Did she believe it?
Yskandr, she thought at the blank place where the imago ought to be, what did you get us into before you died?
He didn’t answer. Reaching for the blank spot made her feel like she was falling even though she knew her feet were steady on the floor.
“I would like,” said Mahit to Three Seagrass, slow and even and in the correct language, trying to hide the vertigo and the fear, “to be registered as the legal Ambassador from the stations to Teixcalaan, and also to see to my luggage.” She wanted to get out of here. As fast as possible.
“Naturally, Ambassador,” said Three Seagrass. “Ixplanatl. Twelve Azalea. Twenty-Nine Infograph. As ever, your company is a pleasure.”
“As is yours, Three Seagrass,” said Twelve Azalea. “Enjoy the Ambassador.”
Three Seagrass did that one-shoulder shrug again, as if nothing anyone had said could affect an asekreta of the court in a fashion that mattered. Mahit liked her, abruptly, and was aware that the liking was more of a desperate grasp at an ally than anything else. She was so alone, without the imago talking to her. Surely he’d come back in a moment. Once the shock was over. Once the emotion-spike had faded. It was fine. She was fine. She wasn’t even dizzy anymore.
“Shall we, then?” she said.
Excerpted from A Memory Called Empire, copyright © 2018 by Arkady Martine