The city of Ora is watching.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City, a multifaceted story of borders, power, diaspora, and transformation—available August 31st from Tordotcom Publishing.
The city of Ora is watching.
Anima is an extrasensory human tasked with surveilling and protecting Ora’s citizens via a complex living network called the Gleaming. Although ær world is restricted to what æ can see and experience through the Gleaming, Anima takes pride and comfort in keeping Ora safe from harm.
When a mysterious outsider enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around with the world with a story attached to each item, Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places—and possibilities—æ never before imagined to exist. But such knowledge leaves Anima with a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people?
Anima closes ær eyes and sees the world.
Æ borrows the body of a crow in flight. The two suns creep toward the horizon, casting long shadows from the floating islands overhead, shadows that cross the lapping waves of the Hǎilèi Sea to the shores of Ora, plunging the city-state into twilight, even as sunset engulfs the rest of the world. The glow of the streetlamps in Tiānkyo, capital of the Skylands, underlines the gathering clouds. Sheltered by trees, Ora bides its time below, cut off from the rest of the world by choice, dark save for motes of light that escape through gaps in the canopy.
Anima releases the crow and plunges into the body of a tomcat padding down one of the city’s alleys. Æ peers around a corner. A tall figure approaches, one hand wheeling an octagonal case. A black snake floats, weightless, above the figure’s shoulders, sleek scales refracting sunlight into rainbows. Feline eyes narrowing, Anima swishes ær tail, relishing the feeling of it: an extension of ær body, vestigial in ær human form.
Cccccclaccccccccckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk. The case clatters over the stones paving the street. The figure’s skin is dark, rich, copper brown. Ser hair, a cloud of tightly coiled black curls, halos ser. Perched atop that halo like a crown is a gold headband, charms dangling from it like a veil. A gilded floral motif decorates the high plateau of ser forehead. Heavy, gold rings rest around ser neck; gold bangles clink against ser wrists. Ser glittering earrings brush against ser collarbones. A wind catches ser dark cape, billowing it out behind ser, revealing the brilliant, ochre dress se’s wearing underneath, the material delicately patterned like a butterfly wing, shimmering in the slanted light.
Anima scans the figure’s face and pulses the data into the Gleaming. No matches. Æ pulls back, observes enough data to establish the figure’s gait, then pulses that data into the Gleaming.
Still no matches.
The figure’s heels clack against the sett-paved street, sharp staccatos piercing the humming noise of the city. When the figure is a few steps away, Anima turns and flees, silent as æ came.
Anima opens ær eyes, giving ærself a moment to settle back into ær true body. Pinpricks of light flow out from the stem rooted to the nape of ær neck. Æ lifts ær hands, observing first the palms, then the backs. Lichen crusts ær nail beds, but the golden light of the Gleaming still shines through the cuticles.
The amniotic bath ripples as Anima sits up. Milky-white waves splash against the fibrous walls of ær pod. Æ traces ær fingers along the walls, then pushes apart the dense fronds overhead to reveal the darkness of the room beyond. Vines twist away from the pod and form thick bundles that weave into branches and cling to the scaly bark of an inverted tree whose roots puncture the roughly hewn slate of the ceiling as its crown presses against the floor.
It takes Anima a moment to notice the sound, but it soon becomes unmistakable: the same sharp staccato of heels from the city echoes down the subterranean halls of the Hub, accompanied by a smooth whir of wheels.
Æ isn’t surprised, then, when the figure steps through the moon gate into the chamber. Se comes to a stop, pulling up the octagonal trunk beside ser as the snake settles onto ser shoulders, its muscled length twisting, dark eyes glittering.
“Hello,” Anima says, watching the figure intently. It’s been long enough since æ’s spoken to anyone else that ær voice has once again become unfamiliar to ær ears. “How did you enter the city?”
“Through the Io gate, of course,” the figure says, smiling. “You can check my registration, can’t you?”
“I already have. Your record says that you came in through the northern Io gate.”
“So what’s the problem?”
The figure’s gaze is dark, ser eyes like willow leaves, long and narrow, alluring and entrancing.
“I have no visual confirmation of you entering the city,” Anima says slowly. “I only saw you exit an alley onto Anatoma Street.”
There are all kinds of people in Ora, but the figure, still smiling as se stands before Anima, radiates something uncanny. Eerie.
Only when Anima looks down does the difference become clear.
The figure’s shadow is detached from ser body. The gap between ser feet and ser shadow is about the length of ær palm.
“Who are you?” Anima asks.
“My name is Vessel.” With an elegant swoop of ser arm, se gestures to the trunk beside ser. “I have come to Ora to exhibit my qíjìtáng.”
“You need a business permit to do that,” Anima says reflexively, but with little conviction. Ær gaze lingers on the trunk, made of dark-cherry rosewood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and semiprecious stone, braced with bronze filigree corners. Vessel’s slender hand rests on top. The dim light reflects a line of ethereal red off the wood and onto ser hand. Ser long, coffin-shaped nails are lacquered black, the fourth fingernail inset with a sparkling
ruby ringed by a fine braid of gold.
“Do I? I’m not selling anything.” Vessel lifts ser hand, another graceful gesture like water flowing over a stone; se cradles ser cheek in ser palm, ser other hand propping up ser elbow. “Would you like to see what I have?”
Anima parts ær lips, about to speak, but Vessel snaps ser fingers.
“Ah, I should mention,” se says, “in order to see the collection, you must promise to add an item to it. Are you willing to do so?”
Ær stem pulses. Anima’s vision washes out into the gold of the Gleaming, spreading fractal-infinite through ær sight, plunging ær in the flow of particles and light.
The suspect’s face flashes directly onto ær retinas: masculine, vulpine; alabaster pale, eyes ocean dark. Anima takes note of the suspect’s physical signature—gait, balance, tempo, pheromones, body odor, voice—and confirms receipt. The Gleaming retreats like a thousand-petaled lotus folding in on itself. It takes Anima a moment to adjust back to the dim light of ær chamber.
“Come back later,” Anima says, cuticles and pupils pulsing with golden light. Before Vessel can reply, Anima sinks back into the amniotic bath of the pod, drawing the fronds closed after ærself. As the last of the glossy, green stalks interlace together, Anima catches a glimpse of Vessel’s willow-leaf eyes lingering, watching.
Anima borrows the eyes of a rat, scrabbles along the rooftops, claws catching on rough imbrices and tegulae scabbed over with lichen, tail held out for balance. Ær rat heart beats six times faster than ær human heart as æ sniffs the air, nostrils flaring and relaxing like semaphores. Thescents of the city map out on a layer over the buildings and streets: humid, verdant air trapped under the canopy; sour whiffs of garbage waiting to be collected; methane from the sewers; urine and other markings from the animals living in the urban jungle; scallions frying in a nearby apartment; the sillage of someone’s perfume; pheromone traces from all the people moving throughout the city—including the suspect’s.
Anima seizes the note and follows its trail.
Æ slips through a hole in a roof and lands in an attic. Chasing the signature, Anima scurries through inter-linked crawl spaces to cut through the dense neighborhoods, then darts out through an open window. Æ hops from awning to awning, clings to balconies and eaves, then makes ær way down tangled vines back to the ground. Peony Lane: Anima recognizes it immediately by the floral motifs on the bollards blocking traffic into a pedestrian area.
Anima releases the rat, then borrows a rock pigeon and takes flight. Ær olfactory map of the city shifts to accommodate the new vessel’s sensory limits. Anima pinpoints the suspect’s trace, then scans the crowds for the suspect’s gait and other signatures. Within moments, Anima locks ær gaze on the suspect sprinting through the crowd toward the treetop walkways.
Anima releases the pigeon and dives into the body of a raccoon hunting through trash in an alley beside the entrance to the walkways. Æ launches ærself off the bin, scrambling for a hold on the setts as æ swings around to block the fugitive’s path. The suspect skids to a stop. Anima scans his face, taking in his expression: panic, then a blaze of will. Æ snarls, fur puffed out, striped tail swishing.
The fugitive glances up. Anima follows his gaze to see an unfamiliar shadow flickering past the gaps in the canopy, too dark to be the Skylands’ regular eclipsing of the suns. Anima hesitates, unsure whether to release the raccoon and investigate the shadow or to apprehend the fugitive while æ has the chance.
The fugitive makes the decision for ær. He darts past Anima. With a screech, Anima leaps onto the fugitive—only to be flung off, hard. Anima crashes onto the stones, breath knocked out of ær. Æ twists and turns to get back onto ær feet, pressing ær belly to the ground as ær head spins. No use trying again.
Æ releases the raccoon and takes possession of another pigeon, intending to swoop in and slow the fugitive’s escape. As æ rushes toward the fugitive, a point of golden light appears in ær peripheral vision: another node coming in as backup. A bubble of relief rises in Anima—then bursts.
Of course it’s Enigma.
Anima flaps ær wings harder, hoping to incapacitate the fugitive alone. But the fugitive races into one of the elevators, foiling Anima’s efforts to attack him. Angrily, Anima releases the pigeon and plummets into a squirrel clinging to a branch near the elevator platform. Chittering, claws scrabbling at the bark, Anima darts up and down the trunk, agitated as æ waits for the elevator to climb the three thousand units to the walkway. The pinprick of light in ær periphery becomes erratic, suggesting that Enigma, too, is leapfrogging through multiple bodies.
When the elevator doors open, the fugitive doesn’t continue down the biometal walkway—instead, he climbs the branches of the trees themselves, nimble even as sweat drips down his brow and sticks his shirt to his skin. Anima launches ærself off the trunk, nipping at the fugitive’s heels, scratching his arms. The stench of adrenaline emanates from him, protecting the fugitive from the pain as he ascends, brows knit together in focus.
Anima releases the squirrel and makes a beeline for a toucan farther away, its wingspan wider than the pigeon’s, its brilliant beak larger and far more formidable. Stomach weightless with flight, head spinning with vertigo, Anima flaps ær wings with all ær might to fend off the nausea of such rapid body-hopping. Æ chases the fugitive through the top of the canopy and bursts into the bright sky. The twin heartbeat suns are on the far ends of their orbit, signaling the end of the month with their dimmer light—but neither they nor the floating islands cast the strange, unfamiliar shadow over the canopy.
A Skylander zeppelin floats over the treetops, ladder hanging from the gondola’s open door.
The fugitive kicks off from the last branch, leaping for the ladder. Desperate, Anima pings the growing light on ær periphery.
But Enigma doesn’t acknowledge receipt of the message. Cursing, Anima musters up all of the toucan’s energy and erupts with a burst of speed, vision locked on the fugitive’s fingers, which are firm around the rungs of the ladder. By ær calculations, at the rate the fugitive is climbing and at ær own velocity, æ should be able to make it—
A man runs into the doorframe of the zeppelin. He kneels and grabs the fugitive’s forearms to haul him up into the gondola. The fugitive pulls the door shut behind him; it clicks into place, locked from the inside. Anima cries out as æ slams into the door, ær claws scrabbling fiercely for purchase. Æ hammers at the round window. Filament-thin cracks spider out on the surface, but the thick glass holds.
Anima pulls back and bombards the window again. This time, the glass craters in a few tenths, not enough to pierce through the door, but enough to wedge ær beak in, keeping ær anchored in place even as æ beats ær wings to free ærself.
Frustrated, Anima shifts ær gaze past ær beak and into the gondola. The fugitive stands, dusting himself off. Tears spring to his eyes as he takes in the pilot, dressed in traditional Skylander garb. They step toward each other, the gap between them closing, until finally, they embrace, their love written in the fondness of their touch.
Shock ripples through Anima, compounding the force of ær final push. Ær beak comes free, hurtling ær backward. Thrown off-balance, æ drops far enough to see the zeppelin cross the aerospace border between Ora and the Skylands—the limits of Anima’s jurisdiction.
Furious, Anima releases the toucan. For a moment, æ lets ærself simply plunge through the Gleaming, all gold and light, data and sortilege, physics and thaumaturgy: the place where the world simply is.
Æ lets ærself drift into the body of a gecko, if only to curl ær tail around ærself and sulk.
Enigma has the gall to show emself at that moment. Borrowing the body of a house sparrow, e lands on the branch beside the trunk Anima rests on, making it sway gently beneath eir feet. E hops over, cocking eir head. Anima’s gecko eyes register the sparrow’s fast blinking: translucent eyelids briefly obscure the bird’s brilliant, black eyes. In human form, perceiving the sparrow’s rapid blinking would be hopeless. But even while the gecko’s eyes take in the bird, Anima can see Enigma’strue face in the back of ær mind: delicately heart-shaped, surrounded by golden ringlets, eir eyes a rich, dark brown, eir lips pouty, eir nose small and flat.
“Where were you?” Anima snarls. Ær voice carries through the Gleaming directly to Enigma.
“I was at the other end of the city. You can’t blame me for taking a while to get here.”
“Bullshit,” Anima says. “You could’ve borrowed anything. You were taking your time on purpose.”
“What’s wrong?” Enigma says, cocking eir head again. “Shit happens. People get away. What, are you having doubts over one failure?”
Anima doesn’t dignify Enigma with a response.
“Or . . .”
It infuriates Anima that æ can see Enigma smiling, even though the sparrow before ær has its beak tightly closed.
“Are you surprised to see Orans and Skylanders having relationships—even though it’s forbidden?”
Anima storms out of the gecko’s body. Released, the gecko slips down the tree trunk, toes rustling against the bark.
Anima settles back into ær human body, aching despite the regenerative amniotic bath, ær stem aflame with data streaming outward in golden packets. Æ sits up, fingers aching to touch something real, something to ground ærself. Æ reaches up to push apart the fronds. There’s not much æ can do to release ær agitation, but even a little exercise should be enough to let off some steam.
The last fronds pull apart.
Vessel is seated opposite the pod on the octagonal trunk. The snake flicks out a long, forked tongue.
“So,” se says, standing and stepping aside to reveal the carved rosewood, “have you decided whether you’d like to see the qíjìtáng?”
Anima grinds ær teeth. Some part of ær says æ shouldn’t make any decisions while still irritated at Enigma and hurt over a failed mission.
But another part asks, What harm can it be?
“Sure,” Anima says, letting more irritation slip than æ’d like. Then, after a pause, æ adds, “But I have nothing to give.”
“Nonsense,” Vessel says, smiling warmly. “Everyone has something to give. Take your time deciding what you’ll contribute. You needn’t offer it now.”
Doubt constricts ær heart. But when Vessel opens the trunk, all that vanishes. Anima stares, awestruck, as the trunk unfolds. Clasps undo with soft clicks; mechanisms turn deep in the heart of the trunk, unlocking drawers that slide out with a clean snap, like a fan opening with a single flick of the wrist. Partitions slide away, revealing staggered tiers of shelves, each holding peculiar items labeled with cards in an elegant, handwritten script. The last piece to fall into place is a páifāng: twin ebony pillars rise up and mount a lacquered, wooden panel over the cabinet, inscribed in a language Anima doesn’t recognize. Vessel says nothing as the last sounds die away, allowing Anima a moment to take in the cabinet’s full size. It is now taller than Vessel and wider than ser arm span.
“Go ahead,” Vessel says, bowing slightly and holding ser arms out to gesture at the shelves beside ser. “Pick an item, and I will tell you its story.”
The sheer number of colors and textures and materials is a feast of sensory data that makes Anima’s head tingle. Warped glass bottles, curiously shaped stones, bundles of documents, glittering trinkets and ornaments, dried flowers still scented with fragile fragrances, textiles woven from unfamiliar threads, taxidermied animals æ’s never seen in the city…
Eventually, ær gaze rests on a doll—no, a marionette, bone-white, face painted like a skull with fine, floral patterns adorning her brow, silk flowers and pearls crowning her raven-dark hair. Her brightly embroidered dress flares out to just below her knees, revealing elegant dancers’ shoes on her feet.
“MayI?” Anima breathes, hands reaching out. Æ must have climbed out of the pod and crossed the span of the chamber, but æ has no recollection of doing so. Amniotic fluid pools at ær feet, but ær fingertips are dry.
The moment Anima touches the fine stitching on the dress, the Gleaming reveals itself: golden embers spot various parts of the marionette. Of course, the maker of the marionette may not have called it the Gleaming, but the qì lingers still.
“An excellent choice,” Vessel says, straightening and taking the marionette in ser hands. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
Eyes still fixed on the marionette, Anima waves a hand. Vines and tendrils undulate from the upside-down tree. In moments, the greenery has woven into a bubble chair suspended from a liana, the inside of the round frame lined with lamb’s ear and gently scented with sage. Anima sits cross-legged on the petal-soft leaves and folds ær hands in ær lap.
Vessel takes hold of the wooden controller. The marionette comes alive, standing up straight, hands clasped together.
“Let me tell you a story.”
Excerpted from In the Watchful City, copyright 2021 by S. Qiouyi Lu