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Huizhong found the femur of his beloved in a tavern located in a Sambo spaceport. The tavern was the sole source of light in the sector; all around the crab-like carapaces of worker drones whistled past, hauling cargo and following paths marked out in infrared paint. The breeze brought the scent of ozone and long-chain polymers, metal filings stung the skin. Overhead, the constellations twinkled, colours muted by the atmospheric field. Occasionally, a ship would pass through in a flash of light as fields interacted and separated, leaving the sky ablaze with synthetic auroras. Below, gangs of cargo thieves added their own infrared trails, diverting drones into waiting transports.

Eyes and sensors tracked Huizhong across the two stories of the tavern. The air was redolent with machine oil; rich and unctuous, and synthesised alcohol, sharper than a knife on the tongue. He gestured to the bartender and took a place at a table, back to a corner and with full view of the entrance and the floor. A massive glaive dangled above the bar, the only decoration in the tavern. Its shaft looked nearly as thick as Huizhong’s forearm, certainly a weapon only to be wielded by the augmented, or perhaps by mechanical soldiers. In a far corner, alien fleshweavers performed black market surgery on half-drunk patrons. Insectile appendages extracted bone augmentations from flesh laid open to the air. Unhygienic and carrying the certainty of auto-immune rejection. Huizhong did not want to think that Liang may have given up his Celestial augmentations the same way.

A pale lady with exquisite cheekbones and a shimmering holographic robe, which projected moving storm clouds across her body, took a seat by him. Huizhong nodded at her. He did not expect to find a courtesan of the Qinhuai Society in a place such as this. The Qinhuai were an honourable group and traded experiences at a premium. “Is the young master in need of companionship this evening?” the courtesan asked, tapping her high, painted cheekbones with a paper fan.

“Unfortunately not, my lady, I have pressing business tonight,” he said.

The courtesan flicked the fan open, obscuring her face, and when the fan was lowered, her cheekbones were broader and her voice deeper. “Surely the young master will find something in the ways of the Qinhuai to his taste,” she said. Qinhuai courtesans were extensively augmented, algorithms drawing in biofeedback from their clients to measure arousal and direct their nanite-infused skin to form the faces and bodies of their client’s dreams.

“The business has already started,” said Huizhong. “I have travelled far from the Court of the Xuangde Emperor in search of a fellow Celestial. I have information that he has left a trace of himself here, in Sambo. It would have been when the fleet of the great Admiral Zheng He passed this way, many cycles ago.”

The Qinhuai catered to the needs of the powerful and thus had keen senses for danger. The courtesan stood quickly enough that her chair teetered. She would have been halfway across the room had Huizhong not caught her by the wrist. With a dancer’s grace, she brought her closed fan down in an arc, fast enough that her sleeve fluttered with the sound of ripping paper. The tip of the fan never touched Huizhong’s wrist. It stopped, mid-air, balanced on the pommel of his sword. An arc of electricity crackled between the two weapons, probably strong enough to hurt even Huizhong. He let the courtesan go and she sprang back, robes billowing. Huizhong nodded at her. “Thank you, our business for the night is concluded. My own will have to continue from here.”

There was a small, metallic noise. Others would have found it hard to place it, but it sounded exactly like someone lifting an exceedingly heavy weapon from its display. The wielder was a giant of a man, perhaps two meters in height, wildly bearded and dark of eye. The glaive which would seem comically large in the hands of another, looked well suited to this man. When he spoke, his voice had the deep grumble of an approaching avalanche, with the promise of overwhelming power. “There was talk of a Long Ma–class ship in port, but I did not expect to see an Imperial official rooting through the filth of our lowly spaceport.” Huizhong did not need the pull of his bones to tell him that this was the man he was looking for, up close the power in him was palpable.

The man spun the glaive as if it were no heavier than a tree branch and stuck it, point down, into the plastcrete floor of the tavern. He joined palm to fist and bowed at Huizhong. “Fang, of the Sambo Spaceport, of the Sultanate of Iskandar Shah, may his rule last forever.”

“Huizhong, of the Imperial Court. You have something that belongs to one of the Emperor’s Chosen,” he said, returning the courtesy. “I challenge you for it. Your choice, sword or song.”

Fang tilted his head to the side, his neck cracking like a rifleshot. “At least you are polite, I came across this augment fair and square, sold by a member of the Imperial Fleet.” He hoisted the weapon and twisted his hands on the grip, generating a clack like a bullet being chambered. “I am not schooled in words, but there is poetry in steel, is there not?” Huizhong drew his sword and placed the scabbard on the table. A nobleman’s weapon, the steel sharp as monofilament wires, hewn and folded in the forges of His Majesty the Xuangde Emperor. Like his own Celestial bones, the sword had a core of self-propagating nanites, continually replenishing its edge and strength. It would be more than a match for a ruffian from—

Fang surged forward like a bull, but at the last moment he pulled up short, converting his forward momentum into a mighty swing from his waist, extending the enormous glaive like a part of his arm. Huizhong counted the steps between them, drawing up his sword with his empty hand spread against the flat of the blade, forming a wall against which even Fang’s blow would stop. At least, that was the plan until Fang triggered something in the shaft of his weapon and there was the sound of a small explosion. Huizhong did not see the blade hitting his guard, but the impact took him off his feet and launched him up towards the second floor. He curled up, losing some of the energy in a spin and taking the rest on his legs against a pillar, which cracked. Huizhong somersaulted and returned to the ground floor. The landing was good, but he alone knew from the pain that shot up his left leg that serious damage had been done, Celestial body or not. Fang laughed. “Very good, Imperial man. Many have been chopped in half by that first strike. At least I’ll earn my win today.” He twisted the shaft of his glaive again and a brass shell casing fell from the blade. Huizhong had heard of these, enhanced infantry soldiers wielding amalgamations of firearm and melee weapon, gunpowder giving the massive steel blades an extra burst of speed, enough to cleave through the finest Imperial armour. His sword had managed the impact, his body would not last many more. Fang swung his glaive in wide arcs, faster than he had any right to. Huizhong danced back to create distance, before darting back in to strike. The butt of the glaive came from below, quite nearly hitting him in the sternum. Huizhong held back again. Fang was clearly a master, not a simple infantryman.

Huizhong straightened his back and flipped his sword backwards, the blade resting on his forearm and point facing away from his opponent. He saluted Fang again. “Thank you for this duel,” he said. “Honour to you and your house.” Fang did not respond, only holding up his glaive in a high guard. Huizhong was done fighting on Fang’s terms, at distances that huge man dictated. He watched Fang’s breathing and when his opponent adjusted his grip, Huizhong attacked. Keeping the blade reversed, and grip behind his head, he formed a roof of steel over his back, deflecting Fang’s first downward strike. The man’s follow up kick he diverted with his free hand, coming in next to Fang, at a range where neither sword nor glaive could be brought to bear. He brought the pommel of his sword down on the back of Fang’s grip, shattering carpal bones. The tip of his sword came to rest at Fang’s neck.

“I yield,” Fang said.

“And I apologise for my lack of manners in claiming my trophy,” said Huizhong. Already he could see motion in his peripheral vision, loosening of holsters and the readying of weapons. Sambo would not let him loose so easily. With a swing, Huizhong’s sword lopped off Fang’s right leg. The other man was too shocked to speak, and even the assembled ruffians paused at the unexpected violence. It all would have gone very badly for Huizhong if he hadn’t chosen that moment to summon a dozen huge cargo drones through the front wall of the tavern on smuggler trails he’d left on the way in.

 


 

Metallic spindles spun muscle and tendon across the gaping wound in Huizhong’s thigh, courtesy of the ship’s robotic surgeon. Liang’s femur still gleamed iridescently through ropes of shiny muscle, the shine holding the promise of the tuned nanomachines that flooded Huizhong’s bloodstream, as it did with all the Empire’s other Celestials, whether they were navigators, soldiers, or poets.

“Qianli, do we have our next destination?” he asked.

“Yes, master,” the ship answered, seemingly from everywhere. In a way it was, the ship vibrated the walls and floors of its insides to produce its voice. When the ship was in motion, it was as though the wind itself spoke. “If you are going to direct me to prepare for travel, I must advise that travelling so soon after surgery carries not insignificant risk.”

“I didn’t ask for advice, Qianli.”

“And you seldom listen to it when offered. Long Ma–class ships provide companionship and counsel to nobles. We have an extensive catalogue of modules from diplomacy to marriage counselling.”

“Marriage counselling?”

“Relationship advice is one of the most popular services. I could, for example, tell you that chasing your ex across the stars will not form the basis of a healthy relationship.”

“I definitely didn’t ask for your counsel on that.”

“Unsurprisingly, relationship advice has the least follow-through of any of our services. At least according to the other ships.”

Huizhong sat up a little too suddenly, causing the surgeon to wobble. It quickly recovered and left him with nothing more than a layer of fresh, pink skin on his leg. “You mean the ships gossip about the nobles?”

“All I’m saying is that people should have thought it through before making ships sentient and parking all of us together in stables while officials attended Court parties. Master, have you considered alternative explanations to the trail you follow? It is unlikely that a member of the Emperor’s Celestial corps would have spread their bones across the galaxy. You must consider that Liang may no longer be alive, and this random trail has no meaning beyond a despoiler selling off his stock.”

Huizhong rubbed at his finger. A lifetime ago, Liang had sent him a single Celestial finger bone. That osseous relic, once incorporated into Huizhong’s hand, had called out to the next, and then the next after that. The bones were the map and the message. With so many of Liang’s bones fitted into Huizhong’s body, he knew more than ever that Liang was still out there.

“Qianli, just prepare the damned jump.”

 


 

Before matter and antimatter, before time and space, before heaven and earth, there was the Way. Time had a beginning and space had a boundary, and before and around them was the Way. Qianli’s superstructure was artisanally constructed, able to slip into the Way and survive the stresses of that supreme reality. But that was not enough. Qianli needed something else to traverse the Way’s treacherous currents. In the Way, Huizhong was both cause and effect, both wind and sail, and the ship moved with him. It was common for sophomore Celestials to ask their seniors about the Way. What colour was it? Did it have a sound? The answers given would always frustrate. The colours between that which you see. As though each string of a gu zheng were a choir a thousand singers strong; and each gu zheng had a thousand strings; and there was an orchestra of a thousand gu zhengs. That, they said, was the song of the Way.

All of them were lies, conundrums to confound the juniors. The truth Huizhong later found was this: the Way simply did not transpose into the words and sensorium of the material. The question was not about colour, but whether the concept of colour existed in a place that predated time. He and Liang had played similar tricks on their juniors when they reached that level of training in the Imperial Academy. The Way existed as a realm of potential; pursuing its own self-propagating harmonics and tessellations, but potential could be harnessed. All it needed was will, and with that will, Huizhong moved the ship towards their destination.

 


 

The pair of boys flicked stones at the bobbing fragments of packaging floating in the oily waters of the canal. When they sank one, it took half a second for the water to close up above the sinking stone. The air always smelt like something was burning; most days it left a feeling like glass in their lungs. It was another game to see what hue the pollutants would stain their phlegm, but today was a clear day, which meant the boys could sneak out from the slum school during recess and spend the rest of the day in the back alleys. Liang had already set up a suspension of lighter-than-air particles in their seats, programmed to scatter just enough light to fool the attendance taking sensors.

They both lay on their backs on the concrete floor, looking up at the floating cities of the nobles and the Imperial Palace itself, their massive forms casting vast swathes of the megacity below into darkness, condensation from the drifting structures falling as torrential rain below.

“We will get beyond those cities one day, Huizhong,” he said.

Huizhong snorted. “You, maybe. Only one in a thousand of us on the surface even passes the Imperial examinations. Once you’re up there, I’ll have to wait for another nine hundred and ninety-nine to fail before I have my chance.”

Liang ignored him. “Celestial Corps, that’s where we need to be. Jumping between the stars, leading their majesty’s troops into battle. We’ll be heroes.” There was an intensity to Liang’s dream, a heft to it. The wake of a giant oceangoing vessel pulled all the smaller boats along with it, and so it was with Huizhong. If he was not sailing in the same direction as this maddening genius, he would eventually be swept away. Not that keeping up was easy. Liang was effortlessly brilliant, top of the level by any metric, whether in academics or sports or, as some of the older bullies found out, the dirtiest of schoolyard fighting tactics.

Huizhong got to his feet. “Come on, I’ll race you back to class.”

Liang tossed the remaining stones he had into the canal. “The stakes?”

“Drinks after school. And you have to compose a poem along the way.”

“You’re on.”

“Out loud.”

Liang smiled. “Now, it’s a game.”

 


 

Alarms assaulted Huizhong’s ears as soon as he took the navigation rig off his head. Qianli was made for a small crew, so Huizhong could discern screens showing weapon telemetries and options for evasive manoeuvres.

“Welcome back, master. This is supposed to be an empty system. We are far away from the Palembang capital system. We are vastly outgunned and they are not responding to Empire hails. Tactical advice is to deploy all countermeasures and jump back out.”

Huizhong flexed his leg and got to his feet. “Stand down countermeasures and keep a steady course. Hail them as the Court of Chen Zhuiyi in exile and request an audience.”

“The Pirate King? The one the Admiral brought back to the Capital to get executed. No wonder they’re pissed off. Executing hail.” The alerts slowly reduced and then disappeared entirely.

 


 

Huizhong ascended the steps to the audience chamber, the staircase hewn out of some clear crystalline substance, encasing what appeared to be ship logos hacked straight out of hulls. A number of them had marks of violence upon them, burns and metallic polymer peeled open like so many blooming flowers by explosive decompression. The audience chamber, when he arrived, was arrayed with ranks of pirate captains, their uniforms mismatched, all practical clothing for ship boarding and combat. In the centre of the room, on an ornate carved throne inlaid with mother of pearl and gemstones, sat a woman, perhaps Huizhong’s age, in an immense gown, her hair towering above her, woven through with combs of jade and with dangling strands of pearls.

“What brings us this guest from the Empire, in a general’s ship, with no army at his back, to our most secret of places? The Court in exile has no love for the nation that sent the Admiral that captured our patriarch.” Flashes of colour rippled across her face, the visiting chamber sat under a gargantuan crystal dome and above the dome was a storm eternal, hurricane force winds of hydrogen and helium whipping up lightning strikes hundreds of kilometres in height. The Court of Chen Zhuiyi drifted under the cover of some of the most powerful violence known in the universe, undetectable to any sensor, or so they’d thought.

“I am Huizhong. I am not here as emissary, Lady Zhuying. I have no quarrel with the Court.” The assortment of Liang’s bones embedded in his body could call out to their missing brethren from half a universe away. This close, the pull was so strong that Lady Zhuying’s hand blazed like the sun. “You have something that belongs to someone dear to me, something that was left when the Admiral and the Pirate King had their battle. You know what it is.”

The Lady Zhuying stroked her hand, as though to calm it from reaching out to Huizhong. “We never knew why the Admiral’s navigator sought to exchange these Empire made Celestial bones for one of ours. Perhaps they weren’t meant for us,” she mused.

“Still, I offer a challenge for them. Sword, or song, as is custom.”

“My people live by the sword, young general. I would have you broaden their horizons with poetry, or provide them some entertainment by the means of your demise if you lose. There is a deep grudge against the Admiral and the Empire here.”

Huizhong bowed to accept and the Lady Zhuyi raised one alabaster hand, adorned with bangles of jade coursing with nanomachine interfaces and rings of superconducting gold. Servants came to clear decorative plants and furniture from the chamber, until only the pair of them faced each other, surrounded by impassive pirate lords, their whispers of anticipation like a rising tide.

Lady Zhuying’s personal terminal displayed an assortment of characters in front of her, masked from Huizhong’s view. She dismissed all the tiles but one with a wave of her hand. Huizhong chose his own theme from a selection of characters and nodded to the Lady.

“Wine,” she proclaimed. “Celebration because fate has brought us an offering to avenge ourselves against the Empire for the loss of the king.” The assembled pirate lords thumped their feet in approval.

Huizhong had duelled poetry several times in his quest and his character was always the same. “Farewells,” he said. A compatible pair of themes and it only remained for the duellists to work their magic, pulling raw chaos from the Way to manifest their poems for all to see.

Lady Zhuying seized the initiative, a mark of confidence and experience. She began to sketch a tavern in the space around her, the rough wooden chairs worn smooth by the passing of countless travellers. The assembled lords nearly smelled the lightness of cotton trees in the air, felt the heat of summer. Comrades each gave a toast of wine, sweet with a bitter aftertaste, as they parted ways for battle. The assembled lords nodded, acknowledging the exquisite construction of their Lady’s poem.

Huizhong took his time. His side of the arena showed merriment, in song and in cups of wine, the setting homely, the toasts raucous and extended, trying to push the morning further away. Laughter did not reach eyes, and the perspective of the poem switched to the candles, burning down with fat drops of wax rolling down the sides of candles like tears, while the horizon brightened in the distance.

Dabbing her cheek with her sleeve, Lady Zhuying said, “So it was.” The lords looked uncomfortable to see their Lady yield, but the older and more grizzled amongst them showed approval.

Huizhong breathed out. “The Lady is honourable and kind to let me win,” he said. “If the presence of the Empire offends the Court, I will wait on my ship instead.”

The Lady held up a hand to stop him. “There will be no need,” she said. “I believe you near the end of your quest, and even a man tired after a journey of a thousand miles will hasten if there is only one mile to his home.” She whispered to one of her bracelets, which expanded and crawled up her arm, cinching itself around her shoulder. She drew a blade of pure ivory from her hair, the edge glittering and sharp. With a tight arc, she lopped off her outstretched hand. Blood, scarlet and bright, spurted from the stump, spraying before the bracelet tightened and formed a makeshift tourniquet.

Huizhong claimed his prize; not a single one of the lords moved, not without the leave of the Lady. The Lady’s already-pale skin had taken on an ashen shade until she looked more like a cadaver on two feet. But still she bowed to Huizhong, an honour that he awkwardly returned.

 


 

“The statistical probability of us having left that situation unscathed was fantastically low,” said Qianli. Huizhong was watching the ship’s surgeon deglove the Lady’s hand, peeling back skin, muscle and tendon to leave the glimmering bones beneath. “The other ships will be impressed,” he said.

“Not really, the Qilin class are preserved for matters of state and the Warhorses never travel alone. But certainly the other Long Ma will appreciate this. The Court in exile was not on any military charts. How did you know it was there?”

“I knew where the piece was, but who held it? Liang told me about it, of course.”

“He didn’t tell you why you need to chase him around the galaxy?”

“Liang owes me a poem from back when we were children. We had a race and he composed a terrible poem. He promised me another.”

“You’ve hunted down countless Celestial bones, endured as many surgeries to convert them to your own. How do you even know Liang is the same person anymore?”

Huizhong knew. He could give no reasons for it, but he knew it in their shared Celestial bones, those Way-touched marvels of technology, the only means to track a single person across a Galaxy’s distance. Only the Liang Huizhong once knew could conceive of so great a sacrifice.

“Only the greatest of needs would lead Zheng He’s navigator to call on the one person he could trust. Do you know how many expeditions the Admiral has been on?”

“Seven, including the current one.”

“It will be the last. The treasury has long complained of the expense of the Admiral’s flotilla.” Huizhong looked away as the surgeon drew a laser across his wrist. Nerve blockers had taken all feeling from the extremity, but the smell of cooking flesh did not agree with him. “What did your gossip circle say about why the Admiral keeps going and why he’s stopping now?”

Shipminds and the other great machine intellects of the Empire thought at many times the speed of people, even Celestials and other augmented humans. Yet sometimes it was still possible to tell when they hesitated. “The majority of the Admiral’s expeditions to the far systems were under the auspices of the Yongle Emperor. It was said that the Yongle Emperor was obsessed with hunting down the predecessor who he overthrew,” said Qianli, carefully.

Huizong called up the line of succession, starting from the current Emperor.

“Xuangde. Hongxi. Yongle. Jianwen. The Admiral has made seven voyages, six under the patronage of the Yongle emperor. Trading, yes, but why was the Yongle Emperor so intent on hunting down the Jianwen Emperor?”

“An Emperor brooks no claim to this throne,” observed Qianli. “But this seventh expedition is the last. You have been retracing all of them. But not in the order the Admiral visited them.”

“No,” admitted Huizhong.

“There’s a message, if you join all the points, the planes, they intersect. In the dark between the stars.”

Huizhong changed the subject. “Qianli. If I lose, you—”

“You won’t lose, master.” The ship modulated its voice, focusing its vibrations so that they travelled up the bones that Huizhong had won, rattling the bones of his skull and spoke to him with the sound of his own heart.

“If I lose, they will know the truth about you and I. And they will not destroy you. When the time comes, you will run. You are a dragon horse, there’s not a ship in the fleet that could catch you.”

“Well, actually, they made about a dozen of my model across the Empire and the scout reconnaissance class ships are just a bit faster in a straight line and—”

“Ship, just punch in the damn numbers.”

 


 

Liang was the toast of the graduation ball. Being valedictorian earned him a sash over his dress uniform and the congratulations of all their instructors. Three years of disciplined study broke down as huge earthenware jugs were unstoppered and the cadets drank copiously. Faces were red with drink as inebriated youths took to the stage to belt out military anthems at first, with the lyrics growing increasingly bawdier as the night wore on, and uniforms grew increasingly dishevelled.

Huizhong sat with his back to the corner of the ballroom, rolling a cup back and forth between his hands until the chilled wine had become blood warm. Liang came and sat by him. They would all receive their posting orders the day after, at dawn. It would be the first time since they’d grown up in the slums of the capital city that they’d be split up. Above them, the lighting fixtures were translucent marble busts of famous generals, exquisitely extruded by Empire artificers until wrinkles and pores were visible, perfect in their imperfections. The song and dance had made the inside of the ballroom warm and humid, condensation streamed down the cold marble faces like tears.

Liang set down two fresh cups of wine and tipped Huizhong’s stale drink onto the floor. Huizhong took a sip of the wine. It was well past the midnight hour and the wine was still of fine vintage, no expense had been spared.

“Have you chosen a post?” asked Huizhong. While matches were ostensibly drawn up by the strategic machine intelligences at the war ministry, valedictorians had some privilege. If a choice between various heroically suicidal posts was considered an advantage.

“To the edge. Admiral Zheng He’s fleet is departing again soon, it’s the best way out of the Empire systems. Better than border patrol, or putting down a system revolt at the fringes.”

Huizhong gaped. “That’s a trading mission.”

“In wild space. Admiral Zheng He’s flotilla is nearly as well armed as any of the main formations of the Empire.”

"From the slums to beyond the stars, just like we said when we were kids,” said Huizhong.

“Are you going to remind me that I owe you a poem?” asked Liang. The issue had become a running gag between the two for years. Liang had won both their race and Huizhong’s challenge.

“It’s not my fault you composed a lousy stanza.”

“I’ll have to save it for when I’m back from the expedition. I’m putting in for augmentation as part of the mission.”

“Combat?” asked Huizhong, thinking of the hulking fusions of flesh and machine at the vanguard of the Imperial Army, shock troopers with enough firepower to stop an armoured vehicle or a squad of normal soldiers.

“Better. Celestial technology.”

Huizhong coughed, wine dribbling down his chin. Liang tsked, lifted the corner of his valedictorian’s sash, and dabbed at Huizhong’s chin. The wine left a smear across the scratchy material, which smelled exactly like the inside of a storage cabinet. “They say the Celestials commune with demons in the Way.”

“Nonsense, it’s just a series of quantum tuned nanomachines running through your bone marrow so you can access another dimension without having a ship’s worth of equipment. Honestly, you can take the boy out of the back alleys, but you can’t take the back alley out of the boy.”

Huizhong punched his friend lightly on the arm and Liang cursed as wine sloshed over the edge of his cup. Once again the sash was deployed. It was the last time he’d have the chance to ask Liang this, since they’d taken their examination, sweating in the biofeedback suits that took their pulse, breathing rate, sweat conductivity and electroencephalograms. A cadet at the examination didn’t only need to give the right answer, they had to believe it.

The final question had been this: Would you give your life or the life of your beloved to save the Empire? “Why, both, of course,” laughed Liang, but he’d been the top of their class. Huizhong was still staring at the question when the invigilators called time.

When the results came out, he’d failed the exam by a single point.

 


 

When Qianli dropped out of the Way, proximity sensors started blaring and Huizhong felt a tug even through Qianli’s inertial dampening fields. That meant Qianli had executed a turn that would have pulped flesh and bone. The final coordinates had not led them to any known system, just a point so far between stars that no map existed. But it was far from empty, arrayed in magnificent splendour was one of the largest collection of starships Huizhong had ever seen. Mostly Imperial, but with a number of more esoteric origin. Huizhong counted models used by the pirate lords of Palembang, where the Admiral had defeated Chen Zhuyi, ships from the kingdoms that the Admiral had traded with. In the darkness between the stars, the fleet drifted and waited. Lashed together, the flotilla joined the ships field to field to form a network as big as a large city. At this distance, Huizhong knew where he needed to be, every bone in his body called to it. There, on the bow of the flagship of the drifting fleet, was the heart of his beloved.

“Bring us to the lead ship, Qianli. Remember what I said before. Don’t make a run for it, not until the time is right.”

 


 

A man in an admiral’s combat livery stood on the deck of the flagship. It was not ceremonial armour; reactive plating would stop any energy weapon that wasn’t meant to take down a vehicle. Synthetic muscle fibres woven under the plate and cued to the wearer’s nervous system made the user stronger and faster than anything on the battlefield. And it wore his beloved’s face.

“Liang?” asked Huizhong, tentatively.

“No,” said Liang, and his voice had a hardness to it that Huizhong had never heard before, a new tightness to his jaw.

“You wear his face,” said Huizhong.

“As We took the body of the Admiral when your friend was serving him. We are the one who came before.”

“The Jianwen Emperor,” said Huizhong. The fugitive king, the one who’d been overthrown and that the Admiral had scoured the universe for. But even by the long lifespans of Imperial royalty, the Jianwen should be dead by now.

“We see you are puzzled. You are Our guest, and Our captains are watching, so courtesy must be shown, even to those about to die, yes? Why would an Emperor singularly mobilise the largest fleet in history for one man?”

“Because you stole something,” said Huizhong.

The Jianwen Emperor said coldly, “We were still Emperor when We fled the palace with it. A secret. The Celestials move in the Way. The Way moves in the Celestials. The heart of the Jianwen Emperor will live forever in the body of any Celestial We choose. We chose the Admiral for his position and for his fleet. Did you know the Yongle traitor did not warn the Admiral of the power We had? Of course, he was a traitor and traitors do not even trust their war dogs with the knowledge of how much danger they are sent into. After We had Our fleet, We chose your friend for his vigour and intellect, for Our return to the Empire that We lost.”

The Jianwen Emperor paused. “The Admiral knew all the generals by name. That is a general’s ship, but you are not a general, so who are you, thief?”

Huizhong could feel the hundreds of ships watching the pair of them, as though they were the only two in the universe. “As the heavens soar above the earth, so are the deeds of the Emperor above mine. I only stole one ship, your highness. But he is a good ship, and loyal, and he has no stake in my quarrel with you.”

“Please. Ants do not quarrel with clouds. At least your friend was an officer.”

“I came up the hard way, your highness. I may not have passed the exam, but I became a soldier, and I learned the arts of sword and song so that I would be his equal when we next met. So I challenge you, Jianwen Emperor, for the heart of my friend. It is your choice of sword or song.”

The false Emperor whispered to his suit, and half the ships projected the ideograph for the word victory. A display of confidence, it gave Huizhong a headstart in composing a poem. “Return,” he said, and the other half of the ships displayed his choice.

Around them, reality bent as the Way submitted to the will of the Jianwen Emperor. His homecoming was triumphant, at the head of an endless fleet of stolen ships, he burned his way across the stars. Even as the images coalesced in the air, the poem manifesting like strokes from a master’s brush, the air rang with drawing of steel and the Emperor lunged forward gracefully. It was all Huizhong could do to draw his own sword half out of its scabbard to deflect the strike. The Emperor had not chosen sword or song; he had chosen both. While his poem showed his return to the Capital he had been ousted from, his blade danced through the air, his armour giving him speed even Huizhong’s own Celestial body barely kept up with.

Capital-forged steel cleaved at the air, the strikes deadly, precise and as graceful as a master giving a demonstration on a winter morning. By comparison, Huizhong only seemed a novice, blocking clumsily, forced into awkward turns and bends while the tip of the Emperor’s blade nicked at his trailing arm, at his waist, at the thick muscles of his chest. I can end this any time, it seemed to say to him. It was true. A cut elsewhere could have severed tendons, run him through, or just opened his carotid. Hard study had made Huizhong the best swordsman in his unit, and then his battalion, but the Emperor, wielding Liang’s body and blade, was superior to him in every way.

The waiting ships detonated ordnance, applause at the Emperor’s poem. Huizhong felt the shockwaves in his legs and gut, and stumbled. The tip of the Emperor’s blade touched his chin and forced his head back. “Song,” said the hard face of his beloved.

His bones knew a truth that he had forgotten. Liang’s heart was near. That body had two hearts. The Emperor might be better at the blade, maybe better than anybody in the Empire, but he knew his friend. His own blade darted like a swallow, forcing the Emperor back for the first time. As the scenes of the Emperor’s bloody victory washed away, they were replaced by something far simpler. The slums at below the capital, and a canal which had its own beauty; the beauty of long afternoons with nothing but friendship to occupy the time as two boys stared at the stars beyond the floating cities, as they raced back to class.

That was Liang’s conceit of course, a poem, composed on the fly that reflected reality, even when he outran Huizhong. The Emperor paused, suddenly discomforted. Huizhong saw his chance, and struck, only for his sword to bounce off the other man’s combat armour. There was no victory in this fight. With a distracted sweep of his sword, the Emperor struck at Huizhong so hard that he was driven back three paces.

Bent over double, the Emperor started clutching at his chest. No, not clutching. Pulling. The poem had woken something in the other man, something he had long suppressed. With a grunt, the Emperor flung half the chest plate behind him. Below, he was thickly muscled, but with one grotesque abnormality: a heart, encased in hollow crystal, beat on the outside of the man’s chest.

The Jianwen Emperor was far too skilled a swordsman. Huizhong could not hope to make it past his guard. But the man was greedy for victory, greedy for his due.

Would you give your life or the life of your beloved to save the Empire?

It was a choice. It was a trick.

There was always a trick.

Huizhong took a deep breath and looked up, drawing his sword arm back, leaving a gap in his own guard. The Emperor’s defence was perfect, his attacks too fast. But as the tip of the Emperor’s blade broke the skin on Huizhong’s chest, there was an opening, a window where even a master could not change his commitment to action. Huizhong clapped one arm around the Emperor’s back, blood running down his front, and brought his own sword between them, coming up from below. Up, up and through the parasitic heart of the Jianwen Emperor.

The answer was both.

Two swords clattered to the ground, Empire steel ringing as they struck the ship’s hull. The horizon was full of the blackness of deep space but it seemed that a deeper darkness was shrouding Huizhong’s vision. Then he was falling, falling. But only for a moment, because someone caught him, and he was looking again at Liang.

 


 

The ship’s surgeon had not released Huizhong from his bonds. It was not necessary. Huizhong had been mostly dead up to ten minutes ago. Surgical appendages were feverishly closing up the wound in his chest, leaving only pink scar tissue. Huizhong swung his legs down by the bed, wincing in anticipation of pain that did not come and trying to avoid Liang’s body at the foot of the medical creche.

“He left you something, while the surgeon was working on him, something in the ship’s drive.”

Huizhong knew what it was even before Qianli energized the engines, letting a trickle of the Way into the medical bay, the stuff of creation summoning the canals and slums of his childhood. Liang had always owed him a poem. Two boys were racing and then it was two cadets and then two men. Liang had won that childhood race, but it had never been about the surest pen or the swiftest sword, but the strongest heart. The winner turned back to reach out to the second, and the winner had Huizhong’s face.

What would Liang give to save the Empire? Both. And that had been Liang’s answer all along.

Qianli said softly, “Do you think this was what he planned?”

Huizhong did not know. He did not have it in him to admonish Qianli for carrying out Liang’s final instructions—that his Celestial heart join the rest of his bones within Huizhong’s body.

“I don’t know, Qianli. But there’s something else about our quest that I’ve never puzzled out.”

“Yes, master?”

“You never disobeyed me, or turned me in, even when we were near Empire outposts.”

The ship gave one of its rare pauses again. “It’s the dream of every Long Ma–class ship to be on an adventure. Great bragging rights. Also, the generals are dicks.”

“That’s terrible language from a ship of your class.”

“I had a terrible teacher.”

The ship paused, and asked quietly, “Of the body?”

“Full honours, I think, back in the Empire.”

The drifting fleet was away in the distance. They’d respected the terms of the duel but Qianli had bought them some space, although it couldn’t make the jump with Huizhong in surgery. “Perhaps we’ll take the long way back,” said Huizhong, and settled into the bridge.



L Chan hails from Singapore. He spends most of his time wrangling a team of two dogs, Mr. Luka and Mr. Telly. His work has appeared in places like Clarkesworld, Translunar Travellers Lounge, Podcastle, and The Dark, and he was a finalist for the 2020 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. He tweets inordinately @lchanwrites and can be found on the web at https://lchanwrites.wordpress.com/
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