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“WHO are you?”
Baru jerked awake. Slammed her head against wet wood. It was real! It had all been real! The madness in the embassy, the traitor-admiral waiting for her in the dueling circle, the Kyprananoki rebels hemorrhaging black Kettling blood from their swollen eyes. Governor Love screaming as the plague carriers disemboweled themselves and smeared their gore on his face. Aminata’s marines firing the embassy, shooting the guests. Spilled palm wine on burning lilacs.
And then the shadow ambassador had led Baru down to the secret way beneath the reef. The swim to the ocean. Saltwater pouring off black whaleskin. An orca with a human skull embedded in its breaching back. A woman with swollen cancer in her womb.
Real. It was all real.
She had gone to the embassy on Hara-Vijay islet in Kyprananoke. She had gone to find the Cancrioth, and the Cancrioth had found her first.
“Who are you?” asked the voice from above.
“Barbitu Plane,” Baru croaked. Her cover. “I’m from the Ministry of Purposes. I’m on a diplomatic mission with…”
She’d had someone with her. She couldn’t remember. Her tongue was slimy, her throat dry. She’d been mouth-breathing for hours. She must have been drugged. As a girl she’d been so embarrassed by the idea of gaping like a fool while asleep that she’d trained herself to frown while she dreamed.
“Where am I?”
“You are in Tubercule.”
She tried to look up and slammed her scalp into a metal clamp. No way to see except by desperately rolling her eyes. She reached up to pull the clamp off and found her hands jammed against the walls of a narrow wooden chute. Claustrophobia loped up growling in the dark. Gods of fire it was so deep dark.
“Tubercule.” Speech now the only way she could act, and therefore desperately necessary. “What’s that?”
“Where the dead go to grow.”
“I’m not dead.”
“How do you know? Can you move? Can you see?”
Dog-legged claustrophobia licked at the back of her knees. How deep underground was she? Below the water table? The walls angled in to a joint beneath her. She had to kick and scrabble to keep her feet from sliding together in the pinch. A splinter of soft wood found a toenail, dug beneath. Baru gasped and twisted away. Nowhere to go! Nowhere to go! Water dripped on her scalp and slithered down her body—
Baru made herself be still, and took comfort by measuring the water level. Counting always soothed her: she never did her figures wrong. She was not imagining it. The water was rising around her legs.
So it was going to be like that.
“What do I need to tell you to get out of here?”
The voice above her was silent.
“Ask me, damn you!”
The sound of water kept the time.
“Let me answer!”
“Who are you?”
“I told you! I’m Barbitu Plane!”
A pedal thumped. A valve opened. Piss-warm water slapped against her back and coiled down her legs. “You’re lying. Your name is Baru Cormorant.”
“Who told you that?”
“Unuxekome Ra told us.”
She remembered that name as hands around her throat. Unuxekome Ra, exiled duchess, mother of the Duke Unuxekome who Baru had betrayed. She’d hauled Baru out of the water off Hara-Vijay. And then she’d tried to murder Baru. Someone had stopped her.…
The shadow ambassador. The woman from the embassy, with the tumor that looked like pregnancy. She’d stopped Ra. They’d been on a boat, Baru and the shadow ambassador and Unuxekome Ra and Shao Lune and a man with no lips, and … and …
“Tau!” she gasped. “Where’s Tau-indi?”
“The one who renounced you?” The voice echoed down the shaft above, doubling, doubling again. “Tau-indi Bosoka, who was once a Prince?”
* * *
“NO,” Tau gasped, “no, no no no, please don’t—”
“I cut you,” said the shadow ambassador with the tumor in her womb. “I cut you out of trim. Na u vo ai e has ah ath Undionash. I call this power to cut you. Alone you will serve us, Tau-indi Bosoka, alone we will be your masters, to save the nations we both love. Ayamma. A ut li-en.”
“STOP!” roared Enact-Colonel Osa. The little fishing felucca rocked as the Prince’s bodyguard scrambled between her charge and the shadow ambassador, powerless against sorcery, desperate enough, anyway, to try.
Unuxekome Ra caught her and kicked her down.
The shoreline was burning. The beautiful embassy at Hara-Vijay, all its lilac trees and wine and all the people inside, was aflame. Masquerade marines had torched it to contain the Kettling plague. But right now all the pity and fear in Baru’s heart was for Tau-indi Bosoka, who was being cut.
“Ayamma,” the shadow ambassador repeated. “A ut li-en. It is done.”
Tau-indi Bosoka fell weeping to their knees. Had their hands been severed from their body, Baru could not have pitied them more. But she could not go to Tau. She was paralyzed by astonishment.
The shadow ambassador was Cancrioth. The words of the sorcery she’d spoken were Cancrioth. They were real. And she’d done something to Tau. Was it real? It couldn’t be real. Was it real?
The shadow ambassador lowered her hand. A trick of firelight and setting sun seemed to make her fingers burn cool green. “Well,” she said, shivering now, “that’s over with. Ra, take the boat west. We’ll lose our tails in the kypra and then go home to Eternal. I’ll signal our return on the uranium lamp.”
“Incredible,” Shao Lune breathed. The navy woman huddled stiff at Baru’s side, her proud uniform and elegant face all wet, staring in astonishment. She was Baru’s hostage and uneasy companion, fled from the service of the Traitor-Admiral Juris Ormsment. “They think they’re doing magic.…”
Unuxekome Ra laughed as she unstayed the boat’s tiller. “You stupid little girl. You think it’s just theater?”
“I know it’s just theater.”
“Is it?” Ra pointed past her. “Is that theater? Is that theater?”
A school of ghostly white jellies had surfaced behind the boat. Thousands of them together, their feeding tentacles intermingled. And through that jelly raft sliced a blade like the moon.
It was a fin. A whale’s tall black dorsal fin edged in sharpened steel. And behind that fin, a tumor ruptured the sleek back. At first Baru thought it was a huge barnacle, or an infection, but no barnacle was that unnatural sun-bleached sterile color. The tumor was bone. And though it knobbed with spines and bulbous growths, it wept no pus. The wound was clean, the skin knotted tight with scar tissue around the extrusion. Even its contours had been streamlined by the flow of water.…
The creature rolled to bare its passing flank. A tremendous white false eye gazed on Baru: beneath it was a black true eye, keen, aware. Teeth glimmered at her from a carnivore yawn. The whale’s body passed alongside her, and she saw, embedded in the tail end of the tumor, a grinning human skull—its lower jaw subsumed into the flesh—its empty eyes filled with furry, cauliflower-textured bone.
“Oh Himu,” Baru moaned.
The whale blew mist and the blowhole whistled like thunder piped down a thigh-bone flute, like the mad shriek of an archon folded into the world from pre-created space. Baru scrabbled up onto the boatwale, battering the two stub fingers on her wounded right hand, crying out in pain but desperate to see.
“What is it?” she begged. And forgot, for a moment, poor maimed Tau-indi, lost on her blind right side.
The shadow ambassador whistled to the whale. “Good boy, Galganath!” She threw a fish. The whale’s huge jaws clapped shut on it. Unuxekome Ra grinned in delight, her own jaws full of silver and lead, and murmured to her first mate.
Baru sank back into the boat. She’d done it. She’d succeeded catastrophically. The lure of Iraji’s face had worked too well. The Cancrioth had her in their power. They would want to know how she’d discovered their existence. She had to secure her position immediately, find some leverage that would keep her safe. She’d lied once already: told Unuxekome Ra, in a moment of desperation, that she was carrying Ra’s grandchild.
Copyright © 2020 by Seth Dickinson