‘Where Machines Run with Gold’, Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Illustrations © 2019 Laura Anca Adascalitei

 [ On her hip a box hangs, © 2019 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] Leopards fill the city: some will say they are a recent addition, others will insist they have been here from the beginning, as much a part of the city as the skyscrapers’ foundation and the soil that pulses beneath the pavement. They are capable of extraordinary feats, even for cats, leaping across rooftops and pouring down windows, their pelts sleek as rain. They always land right, soft and quiet, and preen across the footpaths as if they have ownership of all they survey—the city’s lords, gilded and clawed and toothed as the sun.

The city is called Sumadram.

When the traveler arrives, she finds the streets quiet, the gate unmanned and the air empty of traffic. She did not pass through any checks on atmospheric entry, and no one barred her way or required her identification as she landed. From the vantage of her ship she saw Sumadram like a golden toy that she could capture in her palm; on the ground it seems a living mausoleum. People appear as thin shadows, gray and quick to vanish, peeking from behind their windows before fading to black. Tricks of the light.

The traveler, who calls herself Anoushka, listens to the echoes of her own footsteps. Leopards watch her from the walls, the roofs, from atop scattered chairs and tables. They have incandescent eyes, remarkable even for cats, orange and chartreuse. Storefronts she passes by are well-lit and well-stocked but empty. All evidence of human habitation is on pause. A scent of tea, freshly brewed, stays behind. Anoushka follows that: it has exuded with impossible strength, and leads her on like a trail—she is expected, though whether welcomed remains to be seen. She moves with the anticipation that at any moment a leopard might pounce and rip the meat free of her bones. On her hip, a box hangs strapped: every now and again she shifts, adjusting its weight. What dwells inside is a heavy thing.

The fragrance—a masala blend, she thinks, cardamom and cloves—brings her to a tall, stripped construction site. A building half-finished, draped in green growth and leopards. She mounts steps slanted like noon shadows, pocked by what might have been stray artillery. The true origins of Sumadram have been buried in memory: whether this semi-ruin is testament to a past of war or merely ornamental she can’t tell, and she suspects neither can any of its population. A city of blank pages, written and rewritten as needed, bound in chronology required by its master.

Anoushka climbs until she reaches the apex. There waits for her a figure in green, broad-shouldered and wide-hipped, so tall that ze dwarfs Anoushka’s considerable height. Ze is missing a head, though that does not impede zer balance or poise. The remaining neck is segmented and sealed in smooth metal.

She unclasps the box from her hip, lowers it to the ground and slides it across. It stops, thumping gently against the figure’s shin. “I thought you might want this back, Dushann, Lord of Sumadram.”

The body kneels: deftly and quickly it opens the box. Cold gusts from its confines, misting in the air. The head is extracted, turned this way and that to examine its wear and tear. Once Dushann seems satisfied, ze unseals zer neck and puts the head on, twisting it into place. A soft click. Zer eyes snap open, the same gold as the leopards’, and zer hair streams in the wind: as emerald as zer clothes and zer skin. “You took your time.” Dushann’s speech is sonorous, a voice made for song. “Have you thought of your boon, Lieutenant Anoushka of the Amaryllis? You’ve seen that I may grant most things.”

“You’re not human,” she says, into an air gone to iridescent greens: the world is veiled in peridots and absinthe, in the delicate shades of mantises and leaf capillaries.

“Some cyborgs can do without body parts,” ze says, though not with any particular seriousness, no real intent of evasion. A dragonfly blurs by: zer hand flashes, clenches, and releases a handful of vivid powder, chitin and shredded wings. “You decline the next step of our game?”

“I need to know how much you can do before I ask for what I want. And I’ll need to know what you are to determine the parameters of my wish.”

Ze smiles with full, verdant lips. “And I need to learn your wish so I may prepare to make it come true. We’re at an impasse, and will be standing here all day talking around one another. I have infinite patience and infinite time. It strikes me that you don’t.”

“I want,” she says, “to make the Armada of Amaryllis mine.”

On the day Dushann came to lay zer challenge, the Armada had suffered a humiliating defeat: a long siege laid across an asteroid belt, against ragtag fortifications that by all right should have dissolved months ago. The Armada had been hired to wage combat on behalf of a neighboring polity, hungry for the asteroid belt’s rare metals or simply hungry to show power. The Crimson Admiral herself accepted the commission—one that she had thought without challenge, but lucrative.

By month six, the tally of her forces and supplies spent had begun to exceed the pay offered; it was time to retreat. This decision was not made lightly, balanced against the cost to the Armada’s reputation. And what cost it was: the Armada of Amaryllis, until now untarnished by failure, the mercenary fleet that for the right price could achieve any impossibility, win any war, break any defense. Brought low by such a small nation, a place that on the grand maps of galaxies amounted to less than a dot.

The Crimson Admiral was not in the mood to receive chance visitors, let alone one like Dushann who had pierced her flagship and slipped unseen past guards human and not. But she did not get to her position without learning to adapt to the unexpected: if her security had not stopped Dushann, it would not stop zer now. She had at hand only her personal sidearms, the ship’s internal defenses, and five of her lieutenants. At Dushann’s appearance, she motioned at her second-in-command. “We have a guest, Anoushka. Would you do the honor of pouring us drinks?”

A circular table rose, extruding from the floor and assembling to accommodate the lieutenants, the admiral, the stranger. Anoushka and another lieutenant brought out long-stemmed glasses rimmed in seared steel; she touched a wall panel and it bloomed open to yield a bottle of liquor, distilled from black sugar palm and a suspended vision that transported the imbiber for a single prized instant to a flawless summer day. She poured. Gilded brilliance suffused the room. All present inhaled: all relived—save the admiral, Anoushka, and Dushann—a moment of rapturous perfection that had never existed nor ever would.

When Anoushka sat, it was directly opposite the stranger: she tracked zer movement, openly inspecting the minutiae of zer face. Ze had a set of features that looked hewn from stone, and not gently—a sculpture that drew and captured the attention, all the more striking for its inhuman stillness. A control of expression such that it seemed ze exercised absolute authority on every individual facial muscle. Ze returned her scrutiny but said only, “I’ve heard of your recent travails, Admiral.”

To which she smiled thinly. “Have you indeed?”

“Allow me to introduce myself—I’m Dushann, Lord of Sumadram, a very small city on a small world: I am no one. But I have resources of my own and it interests me to offer them to you, if you’d agree to a whim of mine.”

“And that is?” The admiral sipped her liquor. Anoushka did not.

“You might call me an eccentric,” said the stranger. “I’m curious as to the durability of my body. And I thought, how better to test it than to pit myself against a soldier of the Amaryllis? For your troops are the most renowned, the most grandly capable, each of your officers a marvel in their own right—war gods marshaled to the banner and purpose of a single great lord: you, their monarch and commander.” Ze raised zer drink in toast. “I propose this. Let one of your officers strike me, and agree to be struck in turn—with equal force and in kind—one year from now. To reward their courage, I’ll grant them any wish, whether that is on your behalf, Admiral, or theirs. You yourself may partake, should the idea catch your fancy.”

The Crimson Admiral gestured with her glass; Anoushka refilled it. “Peculiar, but I’ll play along. You haven’t demonstrated what you can do or what wish you’re capable of granting.”

“Of course,” said Dushann. “Can you access a public channel from that asteroid belt which gave you so much trouble? A news broadcast, for preference.”

The admiral obliged: one wall turned from blank slate to a live display. A channel which reported jubilation across the asteroid belt, now that the Armada had given up. Footage of festivities official and unofficial, large and ceremonial or intimate and small. Two brides wedded in celebration of the war’s end, radiant in blue-black suits, their hands twined in red thread.

Dushann grinned like a tiger. “Let me see, which of them was the thorn in your side? There were the soldiers, the not-incompetent commanders, though on the whole they were nothing special. But it was the envoy who secured aid from that one republic which decided the result, wouldn’t you agree? The envoy, then.” Ze raised zer hand high, snapped zer fingers. The sound was loud, like bones cracking.

In a minute, the broadcast came to a pause. Emergency news: a station lift had crashed, its cables snapped and its seal breached. The envoy was among the casualties, vented into the vacuum like flotsam. Equipment failure, even though it should have been impossible to fail so catastrophically and specifically.

A few seconds passed, during which the admiral verified the news, cross-checking with her intelligence brokers. “Who are you?” she asked slowly.

“No one, as I have said.” Dushann unstrapped from zer back a long, gleaming axe with a jade-colored grip and a blade like a waning moon. “But I’ve made my point. If one of you would be so kind. Do it with all your strength, please.”

Anoushka judged her fellow lieutenants; knew she would need to act fast. She stepped forward, closed her fingers around the axe. “By your leave and in your name, Admiral, I will take this challenge.”

The city fills, little by little, people emerging from their homes: a skittish crowd, holding itself as though a judgment of claws and teeth impends, prey among apex predators. Dusk spills across the streets like wine as Anoushka follows Dushann away from the ruined building, into a hedge maze walled high in peridot and quartz, as green as Sumadram’s lord.

“We spent a long while trying to figure out what you were,” Anoushka says. “The components in your head weren’t informative, what little of them we could uncover. Our technicians didn’t expect it to be impossible to shut down and for you to keep telling jokes the entire time, either.”

Ze turns and shows zer teeth: they are delicate green-white, the gradients of good jade. “I thought it might amuse them during their routine work. Keep them company. Technicians don’t have the most exciting jobs, do they, at war or at peace? I like to think I made friends.”

To judge by the technicians’ reports, ze very much did not. “What do you gain from this?”

“It’s a few days before you’re due to receive your returning blow, my dear lieutenant. Considering that you beheaded me in one stroke, you’re being rather even-keeled about it—and your boon cannot be to avoid that exchange.”

“I don’t intend to die here,” Anoushka says. A leopard’s head pokes through the hedge. It regards her for a few seconds then disappears, deeming her not especially interesting or worthy. “I could have just nicked you with that axe, but it felt dishonest to employ less than my entire strength as you requested.”

“You could have. That is why I initiated my game, to find just such a person—bold and true and ambitious.”

“Or monumentally stupid.”

Dushann glances over at her. “Are you?”

“That remains to be seen.”

At the maze’s heart stands a mansion three stories tall: tessellated windows, walls and doors in marble the green of moss shadows on a still lake. By its door a short, ample-figured woman waits. Her skin is dark and gleaming, as though it has been made to receive the sun’s grace, to reflect it in glory. Dushann bends to exchange a kiss with her, chaste, and she introduces herself, “I am Numadesi, wife to the lord Dushann. Zer guest is my guest. Be welcome, soldier.”

Anoushka follows the pair into a banquet hall so extravagantly immense that it seems a landscape unto itself: stone and evergreens and glass, contained and manicured by a battalion of staff in prim livery, black and verdigris, who are so expressionless she at first mistakes them for automata. They conjure a table and set it in short order—for three, though Dushann only gets a glass tapered like a candle. Water is served, pure and so frigid it sears Anoushka’s skull. Fruits come next, half-submerged in ice cubes, followed by slices of fish: raw and cold, white and pink and the bright red of livers. She dips each piece in soy sauce, takes delicate bites that thaw in her mouth. A taste of the sea.

“My lord has said you’re an officer of considerable renown,” Numadesi says over dessert. “How many sapient beings have you terminated?”

An odd way to phrase it, Anoushka thinks, sapient beings rather than people. As though another species exists that can think, outside humans. “I don’t keep a tally. That is for butchers and sadists who have something to prove.”

Numadesi smiles; she has the same one as Dushann, all teeth. Spousal mimesis, forged by habit and proximity. “Or a paragon of utmost empathy, surely, to memorialize the dead in your heart. But don’t let me sour the dessert. It was an idle question, honored guest.”

“Food doesn’t sour easily for me, let alone in company so elegant. And if you’re curious about anything I do, you can always ask.”


Anoushka glances at Dushann, who looks on, placid. “Anything.”

She is shown to a suite: a bedroom, a bathroom, a parlor whose window opens to the hedge maze and a view of leopards. Of the attendants, none come to see her and Numadesi appears to be her only guide to the mansion’s pathways. The lord zerself does appear once, arriving in the parlor with nightfall, seemingly materializing out of nothing: as ze did aboard the Amaryllis flagship. Ze puts a finger to zer lips and the leopards clear out from where they have clustered by the window. “They don’t always understand language,” ze says, “but it’s best to be safe. Two can keep a secret, don’t you think?”

“I believe the saying is that two can keep a secret if one’s dead. And certainly I can’t survive decapitation.” Anoushka gestures at one of the low, plush divans. “Don’t let me keep you standing in your own house, Lord Dushann.”

“I’m investigating the best methods for delivering what you want. But humor me. Why do you want to take over the Armada? Has the admiral’s rule begun to chafe—is it that disaster with the asteroid belt?”

“Not precisely.” She passes her hand over the pelt that covers the divan: not leopard but something else, much darker and unspotted. Antique gold, glinting with sparks of turquoise. “She’s never run it well. The Amaryllis banner has fallen low under her command—she was a superb soldier in her day, prodigious with slaughter, that’s how she won her office. But violence alone doesn’t make a good strategist, and she lacks the hunger that drove her early years.”

“A woman who keeps count of her kills, in other word.” Zer mouth quirks. “Your problem is one of aesthetic. Her ways are, to you, vulgar. Your reason doesn’t matter to me either way, only that you want. And I will arrange the matter. Starting tomorrow, I shall fetch such accoutrements and tools that’ll aid in your task and deliver them to you. In exchange, anything you find in Sumadram—however acquired, however trivial or crucial—you must yield to me over the next three days.”

“Even the food I eat?”

“Please don’t regurgitate at my feet or bring me dead birds, I have enough cats for that. The exchange’s within reason. I’m sure I can trust your judgment, Lieutenant.”

“And trust in my honesty.”

“Especially that.” Dushann taps the side of zer throat. “As you have objectively demonstrated. I have suspicions that you’re a paragon of virtue.”

Most would disagree, but Anoushka does not belabor the argument. She passes the first night without event, in a wide bed that seems fit to accommodate five: an expanse of mattress, the ice-blue sheets soft as rain.

Dawn sees her out of the mansion: the streets are empty of vehicles and people give her wide berth as she jogs past them. She paces herself, moving slow enough that she can observe. The marks of normal life exist here—she passes a creche, whose clear window gives her a look at the children. Three to six in age, bright-eyed and curious; they peer back and wave at her, far bolder than their adult counterparts. Next to the creche is a small school, a compound of two spherical buildings, one of black stone and the other of white. Students file between them, in black-and-white uniforms, like chess pieces that have escaped their board or forgotten their purpose, and also the rules of chess. Anoushka’s network overlays show her nothing. In that regard the city may well be an empty ruin, and what she sees only a product of hallucination, specters of children long gone to dust and shivering light.

On the high balcony of an emerald monolith, she sees a leopard bend to feed. Its muzzle is smeared crimson. The body beneath it is still moving.

A river cuts through Sumadram like a slim blade, its waters of striking clarity, unstained by human refuse. It runs fast and deep: a weak swimmer could easily drown. Two leopards lap slowly on the bank opposite. They hold her gaze without fear—she is not a threat, and not yet food.

Grass rustles behind her. “You left without taking anything to eat.” Numadesi gathers her skirt as she sits by Anoushka. “I thought I would bring you breakfast or an early lunch.”

She accepts the wrapped food: tandoori chicken and garlic naan, both still warm from the oven. Much more wholesome than the dinner and far more satisfying. She twists off a piece of naan, takes a bite of chicken. Whoever cooks for the mansion is a superb chef. “You knew exactly where to find me.”

“Indeed I do. It’s necessary.” The lord’s wife motions at the leopards across the river, who have straightened to attention. “And in some ways, I am the city.”

Numadesi is not wearing green today; instead her clothing is the color of fogged crystal, strands and ribbons of fabric strategically woven into bodice and skirt, baring her arms and back. The dress circumnavigates her left breast, which is exposed and painted in sunrays, the nipple glittering gold.

“How did you come to marry someone so unusual?” Anoushka nods at their general vicinity, flora and fauna and river alike. “I imagine you didn’t meet at work or a social function.”

“We met at a great ceremony. Every five to ten years the lord retires zer spouse and selects a new one, usually from fresh arrivals to Sumadram. We all vie for it—this is a lovely position, and I have access to the finest things. Ze may introduce me as a wife, but I’m closer to a concubine, not that ze takes me to bed.”


Unfortunately. I came into this expecting to be ravished every night—Dushann is very handsome, you might have noticed. Instead I decorate the mansion and play hostess to the rare guest like yourself. The rest of the time I do nothing.” Numadesi gestures, making the bracelets on her wrist chime. “I’ve never been able to figure out why ze goes through so many spouses. None of my predecessors could tell me either—most of them still live on this planet, quite comfortably. Certainly my lord demanded nothing of them.”

“Perhaps,” Anoushka says, folding the empty wrappings of her food, “ze simply likes beautiful things.”

“Now you flatter me.”

“I’m accustomed to speaking the truth.” She wipes her fingers clean and smooths down her lap. “I’m a soldier and haven’t much care for the state of my clothing, but your dress seems delicate—wouldn’t the grass stain it?”

Numadesi widens her eyes, lashes glinting gold too. “Oh, but you’re considerate.” She draws herself up, not bothering to brush off the grass, and straddles Anoushka. “Now my dress is safe, and you’re right, this is a most precious fabric—such luxuries are due any spouse of the lord’s. Are you here to supplant me, soldier? Did you come to Sumadram to be Dushann’s next wife?”

Anoushka places her hands on Numadesi’s hips, steadying the woman. “If ze considers me such a candidate, I haven’t been informed of it. Were ze to make the offer, I’d turn it down. My place is elsewhere.”

“Such as?” One hand cups the back of her skull, bracelet frigid against the back of her neck. “My lord can be very persuasive.”

“And I can be very resistant. I am a fortress, Numadesi.”

“Those can be broken down. Walls may be chipped away, gates can be tricked, and mortar may be worn thin.” Numadesi’s smile is sheened, metallic. “I’m beautiful, you said. Prove that you believe so, that it was no mere flattery.”

“So demanding,” Anoushka says and captures Numadesi’s lower lip between her teeth. She licks, sucks, and fondles the bared breast: it fills her palm and then some, and she runs her nail over the gold-painted nipple, kneading it with her thumb.

Numadesi’s legs constrict around Anoushka’s waist. When she breaks from the kiss, it is to whisper, “Ruin me, soldier.”

“Here?” She finds an opening in the iridescent fabric and caresses Numadesi’s stomach: as yielding and as luxurious to the touch as poured silk. “A little in the open, no?”

“I’ll lie down in mud if you would take me in it.”

“Now you flatter me,” Anoushka murmurs, “but it seems uncouth that on my very second day in Sumadram I should bed the lord’s wife. Perhaps someplace where we’re not watched by those cats, and some other time.”

“You are a fortress.” Numadesi pouts as she rearranges her dress, though there’s still no fabric enough to cover her painted breast: how taut its nipple, how inviting its softness. “But I’ll wear you down yet, Lieutenant.”

To what end, she wonders. Satiation of desire long unmet, perhaps, but she expects there must be more.

Numadesi stands and regains her poise, like a toppled doll righting itself, and gives a little bow. “I’ll see you at dinner.”

Left to her own devices, Anoushka continues exploring the city, though there is not much to see: physically its size is considerable, a place fit for half a million, but she would be surprised if even fifty thousand inhabit Sumadram. She looks for places of gathering, anywhere she can mingle and eavesdrop, but if they exist they are not in evidence: she stops at a cinema where all booths are private and opaque; she stops at a teahouse where every table is enclosed by physical screens and privacy filters. No one speaks to her, much as she attracts stares.

The population here is varied, from anywhere and everywhere: natives to Krungthep Station, the Diamond Republic, and even the reclusive Rama’s Flotilla. Why here she can’t imagine, this city which is like a cenotaph, a habitation for leopards and wilder things. Possibly the entire population comprises of exiles, those who for one reason or another were forced to flee their birthplaces. Dushann can’t be too restrictive in whom ze accepts. Once or twice she considers shooting a leopard and opening it up, to verify whether they are true animals or replicants or something else, but that might be drastic and not as informative as she would like.

This raises the question of where Dushann gets zer resources—maintaining Sumadram itself, keeping zer subjects fed and housed in comfort. This place is not on any map and until Dushann visited the Armada, Anoushka had never heard of Sumadram. She has seen no mark of any foreign influence or support: wherever Dushann is getting the funds, it’s not from any polity she knows.

On the way back, Anoushka is almost certain that some of the people she passes have Dushann’s face, if not zer remarkable build—that mountainous body, that giant’s physique. Perhaps it is a common phenotype around here or else Dushann’s subjects have taken to adopting zer appearance. Or it is something else: these strangers with Dushann’s features hold her gaze too long, give a smile too knowing.

Dinner comes and goes. Once Numadesi has exited—and the staff have cleared out—Dushann says, “Shall we have our exchange?” Ze holds up a data array wound around zer wrist like a chain of stardust and cubic spiders. “I’ve hunted far and wide for this, and I expect you’ll find it of use. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Today I have received food. I have received the sight of the river that cuts through Sumadram, watched a production of The Woman With Butterfly Eyes that was more literal than usual, and received a token that I’ll now pass on to you.” Anoushka circles the dining table with its vestiges of another frigid meal, fruits like icicles and confectionery like sinking icebergs. She has to lean down, but not far, to place a kiss on Dushann’s mouth. Zer lips taste of nothing and zer breath is likewise odorless, as if in zer entire life food has never passed through zer mouth.

“Very good.” Ze does not ask from whence the kiss came; probably ze is aware. The data array spills from zer hand into Anoushka’s. “Have you thought of how you’ll survive an axe to the neck?”

“Something will occur to me.” She fingers the array; it twitches and scuttles in her grip. “I do need to ask, are you and Numadesi the same person?”

The lord guffaws. “I’m not so charmless that I’d need to marry myself. What brought this on?”

“Nothing.” Though she knows ze will not believe that.

The data array contains access privileges that would let her take control of Amaryllis communication channels and one of its primary relays that fold vast distances and make the Armada’s business at all possible. It is no little thing—in fact it is treason of the highest order, and even if Dushann delivers nothing else, with this alone she would be able to sabotage the Crimson Admiral. If she is motivated by spite, and by fear of her impending execution at Dushann’s hand.

She is motivated by neither. What moves her is long calculation. Instead she rests soundly—tomorrow will be another day, and she will come closer to uncovering Dushann’s plans.

Sunrise brings her to a high spire where the lift flies as though gravity is an abstract concept, prone to bend and mold to Sumadram’s demands. She disembarks in a hall where the floor, ceiling and walls are so clear it is as though she stands on thin air and solar reflection. There is no significance to the location—she chose it primarily for the view, the vantage point. From here she may observe the school, the theater, Dushann’s mansion itself and the hedge maze that encloses it.

She extends her overlays. Anoushka is not a spy—intelligence work has never been her forte—but she’s conversant with the fundamental, the basics. A city of this size does not run on human administration alone. Her copy of the primary Amaryllis AI emerges, sluggish. An eroded, dated fragment of the intelligence Klesa at the Sacred Root—she couldn’t have stolen anything better without the admiral knowing. It spreads itself like moonlight on quicksand, scouting out Sumadram’s network nodes. After a moment it says, “There’s nothing here, Lieutenant.”

“Nothing? No traffic management, water allocation, power grids? There’s no local AI?”

“None, Lieutenant. There is a rudimentary navigation system, which I can access for you.”

Something else occurs to her. The empty skies. “Where does Dushann store zer ships?” She has seen nothing that resembles docking bays when she flew in: no ships inbound or outbound, no apparent interplanetary movement. The nearest relay is several stars away.

“There is a hangar to the west of Sumadram. It appears to be where ships are stored that bore emigrants to this world. Logs indicate they haven’t moved for months or years. I can fetch their serial numbers, registration, and likely origins if you wish.”

That still doesn’t line up. “Which ship brought Dushann to the Amaryllis?”

“From their logs, Lieutenant, it appears that ze has never left this planet.”

“Impossible.” Though it may be possible—she has heard of cyborgs who can pilot more than one body at once. Rare and taxing, and such users would be coveted by any organization, spy or military. But even that doesn’t explain: the distance between Sumadram and where the Crimson Admiral held court at the time would have caused latency to the point of uselessness. Dushann appeared responsive back then, reacting in real time.

Numadesi takes longer today to appear. When she does, it is in a cerulean gown that susurrates like currents, held in place at shoulders and waist with slim platinum chains. A far less risqué ensemble than yesterday’s, though it is slit high and exposes the thick curve of her thighs with each step. “An odd spot, Lieutenant.” She lays down a covered basket and draws from it a bottle of chilled wine, a platter of tamarind candies, and two cups of coconut puddings. “Why here?”

“The view is beautiful.”

Dushann’s wife snorts and clicks her tongue: two chairs bud from the empty floor, as delicately transparent as the rest of the room, upholstered in material like clouds. “Let’s eat like civilized people, at least.”

“What does a woman like you see in a city like Sumadram?” She helps transfer the food and utensils onto a table that Numadesi has summoned. “I would have thought you more suited in some glittering metropolis, carried everywhere on a palanquin.”

“What does a woman like you see in the Armada of Amaryllis?” Numadesi pours the wine into a spiral cup: the room fills with the scent of honey. “You seem more philosopher—or artist or possibly poet—than soldier. There’s no reek of blood about you.”

“I’m very much a soldier,” Anoushka says lightly, “you just haven’t seen me on the battlefield, where some would deem me a terror. But if you want, I joined the Armada partly because it seemed a profession that resonated with my temperament, and because the Armada offers recruits a physical overhaul. Anything one wishes for, from the most ordinary cybernetics—eye colors, new limbs—or the most thorough organ remodeling. The body I was born with happened not to suit and so I took up the Armada’s offer.” A piece of something personal, offered as currency.

To which Numadesi laughs. “What a coincidence; I was lured to Sumadram by the very same—where I was from, such an operation would have cost more than I could earn in a decade. Here anyone may acquire the mortal shell of their dreams. So Sumadram it is, a haven for exiles and outcasts, and for those who can have here with ease what they’ll never obtain elsewhere.”

“There’s a lot of us around.” Anoushka takes a piece of sweet tamarind. “It doesn’t explain why you stay. I stay in the Armada because I enjoy power and I enjoy violence, and I mean to achieve greater mastery at both still.”

“I stay because—” Numadesi lifts her wine to her mouth. “You will not consider marrying my lord? Ze would let you do what you want, including dominating your Armada and conquering star systems and turning entire worlds into abattoirs in your favorite style. You wouldn’t need to stay here, just visit every now and again.”

“First you suspected I’d usurp you, now you invite me to?”

“You like power. I like you. And we have a thing or two in common.” Still holding her glass, she vacates her seat and leans over Anoushka. “You did terrible things to me by the river. Allow me to return the favor.”

Anoushka raises her eyebrow. “You may try.”

Her jacket is a complicated affair, but Numadesi proves adept with it and quickly has the buttons unraveled. She whistles softly when she sees that under the jacket Anoushka is wearing nothing, and hefts one breast as though appraising a rare, favorite fruit. “How delightfully made you are, soldier.” Numadesi trails a finger down her abdomen, nail tracing the lines of musculature as if she means to commit them to memory. “The stars themselves must have given you form. An instrument of war. All of you attuned to its intricacies, the way a hawk is to the currents of the air, the breath of its prey.”

“Yes. That is what I am.” She grips Numadesi’s wrist, forces the glass to tip: wine spills, rich and golden, onto Anoushka’s chest. “Clean me up, Numadesi.”

Her host starts from her stomach, tongue wet and warm and diligent. She sucks at the skin between Anoushka’s breasts, catches the spill in her palm and laps that up too. When she is done there is wine all over her cheeks, dripping down her mouth, viscous and sweet.

Anoushka tilts Numadesi’s chin up with her finger. “Not exactly pristine. Good enough.” She stands and guides one of Numadesi’s hands to her waist. “On your knees, my lady.”

No further instruction is required—Numadesi unbuckles her belt, inhaling sharply when she discovers that Anoushka is bare beneath her trousers, a mound of thick wiry hair and a cunt running slick. Numadesi wastes no time: she applies her talented mouth, then her equally talented fingers. Her lips close on Anoushka’s engorged nerves, that most sensitive part; she fastens her mouth and sucks as though the world is a desert and Anoushka is the last drink within it, the final oasis.

By force of will, Anoushka remains on her feet when she comes, though the force of it bows her, wrings a hoarse cry from her throat. She seizes Numadesi by the shoulders and drags her up, and tastes herself—mingled with wine—on Numadesi’s lips. Sugar and salt and tang.

When they pull apart, Anoushka is breathing hard. Numadesi’s eyes are bright. “Did I do well, soldier?”

“Quite.” She draws Numadesi in for another kiss, pinching one of those full, full breasts. She entertains, briefly, the idea of testing the integrity of that watery gown. “Does Dushann leave this world often?”

“I’ve just pleasured you with my mouth and all you want to hear about is my lord?” Numadesi gasps as Anoushka nudges her legs apart. “Ze isn’t going to walk in and catch us, it’s not as though ze cares who I bed—or get bedded by—but ze is always around the city, yes.”

“Always? You see zer every single day?”

“Harder, Lieutenant—yes. Ze’s never far. Sumadram’s maker, Sumadram’s guardian.”

She holds Numadesi through a loud, shuddering release. The lord’s wife turns limp in her arms, boneless and sweat-dewed, a goddess subsumed by temptation. Anoushka strokes Numadesi’s tousled hair, finds traces of sticky wine in it still.

“You’re everything I could have dreamed,” Numadesi whispers. “I want you to brand me so that when I touch myself or when I’m with another, it would be you I think of, Lieutenant. You and you only.”

“Prove yourself worthy.” Anoushka eases the woman her into a translucent chair and kisses the back of her hand. “Then I’ll take you as you have never been taken before. Not just once but as often as you desire. I’ll brand you inside and out, under the light of nebulae you’ve never imagined exist.”

It could be a ploy: Dushann might have put Numadesi up to this, to bait Anoushka for any information Dushann doesn’t yet have. But Anoushka hasn’t survived this far by being a bad judge of character—carnal indulgence aside, Numadesi longs for more than this desolate world where she is constrained to a single city, a single monotonous duty until Dushann selects zer next spouse. And Anoushka can offer Numadesi not just a way out but an assurance of continued comfort. To leave Sumadram alone and penniless is one thing; to leave Sumadram by the side of the Amaryllis’ new master is quite another.

At dinner, Numadesi has redone her hair in a complicated coiffure of gold and rubies, and changed into another watery gown, russet this time. So prim that it is difficult to imagine that mere hours ago, she was covered in honey and perspiration and Anoushka. She makes desultory conversation, proper and philosophical, and curtsies prettily when it is time for her to leave.

Once more the room empties, and once more Anoushka is alone with Dushann. Ze draws from zer scant clothes a long cylinder of plain sanded brass. Nondescript. “I’m eager to see what you have found today, Lieutenant Anoushka.”

“As before, I have nothing concrete to exchange with you. I’ve gazed upon most of Sumadram and discovered a few facts about its topography, as well as where the population’s vehicles are stored. I’ve discovered Sumadram’s absence of networked governance, and I was informed that you’ve never left this world.” Anoushka kneels and puts her mouth to Dushann’s bare stomach: it is a plane of sharp ridges, even harder and more sculpted than her own. Then she repeats the kiss on zer lips. “This will be all, Lord of Sumadram. I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“On the contrary.” Ze slides the cylinder across the table. “The game proceeds well and I’m enjoying myself. I hope you are, too, albeit it can’t be as exciting as your usual duties.”

“Yours is a long game.” She takes the cylinder. “A year and then some.”

“Oh, it’s been in the making for much longer than that—but I shan’t bore you, so much detail, so many moving parts. Arranging and rearranging them, the way you must with toys a toddler has scattered in a fit. What dull processes. Have a good night, Lieutenant.”

This time, Dushann has given her administrative control over Klesa at the Sacred Root—control usually exclusive to the Crimson Admiral. A knowing nod to what she’s been trying to find out today. She doesn’t indulge herself and try the AI out against Sumadram once more; this gives her total access to the true Klesa, not the obsolete fragment she brought with her. Someone back on the Armada might notice unusual activity. For now, she will bide her time.

On the last day, Anoushka stays within the mansion. She explores the thin, rib-like corridors that curl through the floors, all of which are uneven and arranged like lopsided puzzle-boxes within the outwardly conventional façade of Dushann’s home. The staff scurry out of her way. She considers cornering one of them but determines that it would do little good—Dushann would have instructed them not to talk, and she’s not about to hold any of them at gunpoint to force the issue. Such threats lose effectiveness unless she demonstrates willingness to carry them out, and her host will probably not appreciate viscera splattered on the malachite paneling.

 [ In the hedge maze, © 2019 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] She finds Numadesi in the hedge maze trimming topiary: transforming rough overgrowth into a kinnaree of foliage skin and high, petaled breasts.

“You’re good with shears,” she says. “Other sharp things too, I imagine.”

“Not as good as I hope you are, soldier. I should like to see how you wield a knife on a woman’s skin, your tender mercies.” Numadesi snips off a few more leaves, sets the shears down. “Have you ever seen the Golden Magnolia?”

A Theravada temple built like a great wheel that holds at its heart an immense magnolia: the entire edifice altogether the size of a city, suspended in space, a jewel in the dark. Five years ago, it fell into Vatican hands through mismanagement and byzantine debt transference. “The Armada was commissioned to retake it, and I was there personally to spearhead the charge, though of course we left the holy object alone, we weren’t barbarians. The Vatican was trying to renovate it into a cathedral at the time, some synecdoche papal seat, an amusing enterprise if you think about it and logistically improbable. We returned the Magnolia to an order of monks. A pilgrimage site now, I believe,” says Anoushka. The mercenaries hired to defend the Magnolia deserted as soon as they sighted the Amaryllis banner and the Vatican has since fled for refuge in Pax Americana.

“I’d like to see it with my own eyes one day. I’m no Buddhist, but by all accounts, the Magnolia is a marvel of engineering.”

They walk together down the length of shaped bushes and vine-thick walls. Every now and again a leopard darts by, leaping overhead: a flash of gold like spontaneous lightning. “Have you not had an opportunity?” Anoushka plucks a damask camellia and tucks it behind Numadesi’s ear.

“I journeyed to Sumadram some time ago. I’ve been here ever since, and I became entwined all the more after wedding my lord. Once you’ve accepted zer rule, you can only leave if you forfeit zer grace and acquiesce to banishment.”

“That seems a harsh policy.” Practical for retaining subjects, possibly even practical for building loyalty.

“Most people who came here heard of Sumadram as a quiet haven that asks no questions, the one world that’ll take in those who have nowhere else. No strings attached, it’s not as if my lord conscripts them as cannon fodder or makes them fight in pits for sport. Most of us don’t want to leave behind what we’ve built here, our partners and friends and family. Life here is not so bad. For most it’s even excellent.”


“Let me show you the gazebo. The hedge maze is my lord’s; the gazebo belongs to me.”

The structure in question is more of a small, free-standing room. An octagon with lapis roof and glass walls veiled by fluted calla lilies and yellow-and-scarlet maidenhair ferns. Not one trace of green. Inside the air is frigid, the furniture slight—one divan and one bed, both mountainous with cushions and pillows in cream, sunrise, and scarab-blue.

“Nowhere is truly private from my lord.” Numadesi sweeps aside a few cushions, inviting Anoushka to sit. “But this chamber is closer than most. I asked for it, to have a space of my own. Ze obliged—said I could have an entire complex out in the city, but I was modest in my requests as befits a good wife. I have not been entirely ignorant of my lord’s nature all these years, and so I have something to give you. A favor for you to wear, as it were.” She draws from her dress a black cube. “When ze moves to strike you, use this and you will be saved.”

Anoushka takes the box: it is small in her palm, very heavy, an alloy much denser than steel. “That defeats the point and shirks the challenge. I don’t have to go to meet that axe. I could fight back. But the game’s rules require that I submit to the blow.”

“Ze will land the blow,” Numadesi says blandly, “but it won’t be on you. That’s the crux of it, yes? One strike for one strike. Ze doesn’t get a second try.”

In the most technical sense, it is fair: there was no prohibition against Anoushka protecting herself, only that she must stand and receive the axe. She loops the chain onto her neck, clinching it in place so there would be no chance of losing it, even if she comes to disarray in the next few minutes. “Thank you. I’ll treasure this.”

Numadesi arches an eyebrow. “My reward, Lieutenant?”

“Naturally. I keep my word and I’ve rather been looking forward to it.”

A small laugh—Numadesi catches her hand and kisses her knuckles. “Have you indeed? Indulge me.” She sweeps her arm outward. A wall grows opaque and unfolds: a collection of what seems, at first, like esoteric art. Snakes of various breeds and colors, knots of octopuses in brilliant black and iridescent red, and a handful of oblong, peculiarly shaped flowers with fluttering sepals.

“These are… unique. Stunning craftsmanship.” Anoushka places her hand on one of the snakes: it is thick and cool, pulsing like an actual animal. Its eyes brighten to life, slit and arctic, and a bifurcated tongue flicks in her direction.

“Choose one instrument, soldier, or even two.”

“Greedy,” she murmurs, and draws the black snake down, letting it coil around her waist. Heftier than it looks and finely segmented, and from the thrum of it there are a thousand intricate motors and actuators inside. As supple as human muscle, far more prehensile, and very long. “Come here, my lady.”

Numadesi’s clothes are more complex than they have ever been, lattices of threads crisscrossing and overlaid on one another, layered glittering spider webs. Anoushka thinks of simply ripping it all off—a single motion and it’d be in shreds—but she takes her time, teasing the webs apart, pulling strands loose with her teeth. She pins Numadesi against the wall, lifting her a few centimeters off the ground as she bites tender skin and licks the hollow at the base of her lover’s throat. Teasing, for a moment, the thin sheath of epidermis that protects the jugular.

“Yes,” Numadesi whispers, holding onto Anoushka’s shoulders. “Sear me. I want you to scar me—”

Anoushka presses her hand between Numadesi’s thighs: finds her already drenched, the tempest heat of monsoons. She kisses Numadesi again and slides the snake’s tail into her. It is not a small thing, and Numadesi moans as she is filled, centimeter by centimeter. Anoushka dictates the rhythm, unhurried even as Numadesi’s voice climbs.

From somewhere in the room, a cloud of butterflies emerges and flutters towards them. Not butterflies, Anoushka soon realizes as one alights on her neck. They are small drones, the wings and chassis hiding tiny, human-like teeth and tongues. Several make their way under her jacket and latch onto her nipples, sucking and nibbling. More have congregated on Numadesi to perform much the same task, with the same appetite.

Anoushka yanks open her belt and tosses it aside—it lands with a clang, sudden discord—and guides the snake’s head into herself, as much and as deeply as she can take. There is sufficient length and slack between them to keep the snake secured to her waist: the device is ingenious, must have been created for precisely this purpose. She seizes Numadesi by the shoulder, spinning her around.

Numadesi makes a little gasp, then a louder one, as she is shoved into the wall. “Lieutenant.” Her breasts slap against the glass. “Anoushka.”

“I’ll brand you.” Anoushka licks her mouth. Each time she thrusts, the part inside her whirrs and twists. More butterflies nip at her exposed skin, the back of her knees, her ankles, her spine. “I’ll ruin you, Numadesi.”

Two butterfly drones choose that moment to clench down on her breasts. She climaxes clutching onto her lover’s hips, juddering and arching. Barely a second after, Numadesi follows her and screams into the glass, a high sound that she makes no effort to muffle or restrain.

For a time they hold still, kept in place by Anoushka’s strength, covered in butterflies. Their mingled breathing is loud, engine percussion, the aftermath of combat.

When Anoushka loosens her hands, there are prints of her fingers on Numadesi’s hips, thin long welts. Harsh against the dark, fine-grained skin. She pulls the tail-end out of Numadesi, then the head out of herself. The snake slithers to the floor where it curls into a dark circle, glistening with the exertions of two women.

“I’ve never been so well used in my life.” Numadesi falls onto the divan and shuts her eyes. The camellia has survived against all odds, still behind her ear. “You’ve acquitted yourself as a true champion. I’m going to be sore for days.”

Anoushka bends to lazily stroke Numadesi’s back, kneading her yielding curves, the bounty of her contours. “You’ve been too long without a lover to master your body.”

“And how I yearn to be mastered like this every afternoon and every night.” She nuzzles Anoushka’s thigh. “Women the galaxies over would commit mass slaughter to spend an evening with you. They would go mad for you and throw themselves at your feet to petition for a kiss, a glance. If soldiering ever begins to turn stale…”

“But the fact I’m a soldier is the draw, Numadesi.” Anoushka kisses Numadesi’s jaw. “That I kill for a living, yet leash that violence to fuck you just so. That I have shot enemies in cold blood and carved open their bodies, but would cut you up only if you ask.”

“Oh, stop, Lieutenant. You’re going to make me wet all over again and I’ll need you to split me in two, absolutely smash me to pieces.” A heavy sigh. “Survive tomorrow morning, please. I’d like to dream of you—alive and well, glorious and potent and irresistible—for a very long time to come.”

“If I live,” she murmurs in Numadesi’s ear, “I’ll give you much more than a dream.”

On the last night, Anoushka kisses Dushann thrice on the mouth. Ze gives her a serrated disc that grants her authority over the Crimson Admiral’s flagship, absolute and total. It would open to her like a flower or burn up every single one of its engines if she requires.

“You can take care of the rest, I daresay.” Ze has two leopards in zer lap, their heads pillowed on zer knees and the rest of them draped around zer like shawls. “How do you feel about tomorrow morning?”

“No differently than I felt about it the previous days.”

“Wondrous. I like to see you in high spirits.” Dushann runs zer hands down the leopards’ golden heads, their starry coats. “See you in a few hours, Lieutenant.”

As before, Anoushka sleeps well and deeply in the splendid bed. As before, she wakes up refreshed. She takes her time grooming herself and putting on the Amaryllis uniform. Not for symbolism so much as the sharpness of it, the precise lines of trousers and jacket, the bespoke tailoring: the Crimson Admiral demands impeccable presentation of her officers. Anoushka ensures every pin and button is in place, set against the faceted fabrics dyed in Amaryllis colors. Oxblood and burgundy for now. She intends to reinvent them when she has the leisure.

A leopard waits outside her door. It leads her out of the mansion and past the hedge maze into a grove of primeval trees: trunks like the legs of prehistoric predators, canopies so black and complete they blot out the morning. The beast lures her deep into this grove, sidestepping protruding roots with dainty grace. The air is green and deeply damp, jungle-warm, as of being inside a great naga’s belly.

They stop at a shrine of old stone robed in lichen and cleaved by a single door that gapes like a long, grotesque grin. The leopard darts out of sight, duty fulfilled. Anoushka squeezes through the entrance.

The interior is lit by wall lamps, smelling of earth and wet granite and clay. Dushann stands in the far corner, silhouetted like an apocalyptic harbinger, methodically sharpening an axe against a whetstone. Scrape scrape scrape, an ancient and anachronistic sound in the age of artillery that makes cinderous lumps of worlds. A copy of the axe ze left behind as an offering to the admiral: the same elegant blade, the same jade grip, altogether too bulky for practical use—a thing for deadly play and no other purpose. “Eminently punctual of you, Lieutenant.”

“Punctuality is a soldier’s watchword, Lord of Sumadram. In a way it’s the marksmanship of decorum. So how are we going to do this, then? I sense you don’t stand on ceremony.” Anoushka sweeps her hair to one side, exposing the back of her neck, the smooth skin there. “Should I put my throat someplace convenient? The slab over there—will that do?”

“Much obliged.”

She kneels and places her chin on the rough, viridescent stone. From above she hears the drip-drip-drip of forest dew. She has not offered to bind her hands—after all Dushann didn’t, back on the flagship—and the little black cube sits nestled in her palm, waiting, warming to her body heat. The rest is listening for the trajectory of the swing and keeping blind faith in Numadesi’s gift.

Dushann does not prolong the moment, does not stretch it out with a sadist’s languorous delight. There is a whisper of metal on stone as ze hefts the axe: up, contesting gravity without effort. Anoushka curls her fist, squeezing the cube’s trigger.

The axe hisses as it lacerates the air. It falls, thunderous, on stone.

She springs away from the slab, from where Dushann has sundered the granite to cracked, crumbling halves. Anoushka doesn’t draw her gun though there is temptation and there is instinct; instead she stands at the ready for what is to come, a shift in the mood, a shift from game to true violence. Dushann is working the axe, loosening it from where it has lodged deep.

“It looks like I missed,” ze says calmly. “How embarrassing, yet so goes the rule that I myself established. No need to be urgent, Lieutenant, I’m a civilized being and will not be swinging at you. One blow for one blow, that’s the spirit and the letter. Quite clever to disrupt my vision in this place where I’m limited to one pair of eyes. I can guess how you came by that solution, but I shan’t press. This has worked out well for you, hasn’t it?”

Anoushka lets the quiet run its course, a pause in which she does not dignify that with an answer. “You always meant for me to survive.”

“Did I, now?” Ze bares bioluminescent teeth, garish green in the dim. “Whatever gave you the idea.”

“My death would’ve brought you no benefit, not even fleeting amusement. You don’t have a grudge with the Amaryllis such that killing one of its officers would bring you satisfaction. You’ve given me the Armada’s reins, and though I haven’t yet verified how functional they are, I don’t doubt their authenticity. From my perspective it appears you’re handing me all this for no reason, so why behead me on the last day? One way or another, I’m more valuable to you alive. And there’s the fact of your eccentric governance. Your gathering of the exiled and the lost. Your selecting of spouses. To me all this is nonsensical; to you there must be a reason.”

“It’s true,” ze says, leaning against the axe, “I did wonder if you would make a suitable bride. This is nothing to do with your inclinations or looks, rather to do with factors of… compatibility. My goals were twinned. One was to see whether you could be a candidate for this experiment, and the answer is no. Another was that, in the near future, a new country shall be founded. It shall be wild and strange, unlike any other before or since, and I wanted insurance.”

“Like a fleet commanded by someone aligned with your interests, someone who owes you a favor.” Anoushka pauses. “Why not steal the Armada for yourself, become its admiral? That’s more efficient.”

Dushann chortles. “No no no. That does not suit my temperament at all. To be responsible for so many in that particular way. To be a tyrant! And to engineer violence on such scale, to gaze upon a thriving world and see its future in ash and stellar dust. Yet those things are your forte, no? They are the bones that scaffold your ambitions. To what end I wouldn’t presume to say, but they run parallel to my plans. What will it be, then? Will you take up this deal, let’s call it another game?”

“What kind of military protection are you expecting for this hypothetical country of yours?”

“Nothing concrete. I want to avoid conflict by main force. The important thing is the aegis of promise—the threat. Of course you’ll need to salvage the good name of the Armada of Amaryllis, which of late has been quite dragged through the mud…”

Anoushka loosens her stance, though that does not mean anything: for her violence is as easy as breathing, and she requires no transition to switch from civil conversation to its obverse. “Was that your doing?”

“I’m not omnipotent, Lieutenant, and the Crimson Admiral is not infallible. Defeat happens, even to the sharpest tactician. When this country of mine is born, you’ll hear of it at once, and that’s when I will collect my debt. Nothing dreadful compared to an axe blow, wouldn’t you agree?”

And far more inescapable than a falling axe: what ze has given her, ze can take away. “Reasonable enough. I commit myself to our transaction. One last question—what are you, and what was your experiment?”

Ze puts a finger to zer lips. “Those are two questions and the answer is that it’s a secret, Lieutenant. Next time we meet, I believe I shall be addressing you as Admiral.”

Anoushka packs in no time: she travels light, the habits of any soldier, toiletries and medications, guns and ammunition and knives. A few changes of clothes and armor. And now, to add to the load, the gifts from her hosts—Dushann’s and Numadesi’s, though the black cube now lies inert, of no particular use. Someday she might have it dissected, reverse-engineered, and through that learn Dushann’s true nature. For now, it is a memento.

Altogether her suitcase weighs next to nothing. She leaves the mansion lighter than when she entered Sumadram: Dushann’s head was greater freight than anything she owns. The mansion staff have surfaced to watch her leave, perhaps because she is the first arrival to do so in decades, if not ever. The sole person with the choice and ability to depart. She activates her access to Klesa at the Sacred Root, the true and complete instance. At once it fills her vision with classified data—troop movement, supply chains, the readiness of each Amaryllis relay—that should be reserved for the Crimson Admiral alone. To the intelligence Anoushka says, “Status on my ship.”

“It has not been tampered with and remains in perfect condition. Energy level at eighty percent, all systems awaiting your pleasure. I acknowledge you as my master, Lieutenant Anoushka. Do you wish to revoke all other users’ accesses to me?”

“Not yet. Leave them be for now. Keep me apprised of the positions of all Amaryllis vessels.”

The leopards have emerged from their dens, flowing parallel with her like slow, sunlit rivers: an escort to ensure she is undisturbed, or to ensure she does not change her mind and stray. Now that they have made their arrangements and Dushann has stated zer terms, ze has no use for her continued presence. Her potential to suborn zer citizens. She smiles to herself briefly at the thought.

An overcast day. All the city’s gold moves with her, nearly soundless, whiskered and clawed. Creche guardians have brought their charges out to observe: she is an object lesson. In what, she can’t imagine—for or against leaving Sumadram, the merits and demerits of a leopard procession. She doesn’t expect they will remember her for long. Life here proceeds at its own inertia. Tomorrow may be rewritten, every rule switched out or reversed according to Dushann’s whims or new axioms ze would like to test. Ze may take a new consort, decide to have two or five at once, or none at all. Another step toward zer nation, another step toward a future in which she will need to repay zer favors.

But that is a distant event yet. For the moment she has a commander to depose, an armada to subjugate and turn to her own purposes.

Her ship, small and sleek and silver, rests beneath its canopied cover: just as she has left it, as Klesa promised. And, close by, Numadesi. In a splendor of fabrics like onyx and fire opals, her hair bound up in rose pearls. She stands with her hands clasped around her stomach, her expression solemn. “I thought I’d see you off, Lieutenant. In Sumadram there’s always too much audience, and I wanted my last moment with you to be private.”

“Why so, my lady?” She puts her suitcase down. Lets it roll the rest of the way into the ship, which opens to swallow it up and then seals once more, seamless. “Was there anything you wanted to say that was for my ear alone?”

“Yes. Obviously.” Numadesi takes a small breath: it stirs her delicate clothing, tendrils moving like smoke. “You weren’t here long, but you reminded me there’s a world outside Sumadram. For that, I thank you. Where you’re going, and what you’re setting out to do, you won’t require a companion.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Anoushka lowers her voice. “You haven’t packed. I thought I promised you that you’d have more than a dream of me. Or if you’d rather remain here—”

A quick glance up, down, as though not quite believing. “Oh.” Numadesi exhales. “I didn’t expect you to keep that part. My lord has delivered all you wanted and I haven’t anything left to offer. I… won’t I get in the way?”

“My immediate future may be very dangerous. That’s true. I can come back for you later, once I’ve secured my post and station. I don’t think Dushann will stop me or stop you, and if ze does I will remind zer that it behooves zer to be in my good graces.”

“Well.” Numadesi’s fingers twitch, clench. Relax, little by little. “I’d like to see that. But more than that I’d like to come with you. I’ve always preferred gratification now rather than deferred.”

“That I can believe.” Anoushka holds out her hand. “My ship’s small, but there’s room for two. And I have so much to show you. The Golden Magnolia, and anything else you wish to witness.”

“Yes,” whispers Numadesi, stepping into her arms. “Show me the universe, Lieutenant, show me the furnaces and the stars that forged you. Show me everything, and show me your heart.”

© 2019 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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