No one will sleep until the Princess learns the Stranger’s name.
Liù the slave girl, who has loved the Stranger since before his exile, when he was a Prince, when he smiled at her—Liù alone knows who he really is. So it is Liù who is dragged to the Princess’s garden by night, bound, ankles twisting as she stumbles through the peonies.
“You know what he will do to me if I do not win,” says the Princess, cold and resplendent, moonlight glinting like a star from her veils.
“He will be your husband,” says Liù. “He will love you. You will both be so happy. Please, Daughter of Heaven.”
The trouble is that the Stranger loves the Princess, and the Princess—heir to the throne of Imperial China—despises love. On behalf of her ancestress, Lo-u-Ling, she has sworn not to marry—until a man appears who can answer her riddles. Dozens have died trying. The Stranger, the man Liù loved and served her whole life, succeeded. If the Princess cannot learn his name by morning, he will marry her, whether she wills it or no. But Princesses are not taught to lose gracefully.
“You know what I will do to you,” says the Princess, “if I do not win. I have seen you with him; I know that you know. Tell me his name. I will not ask politely again.”
The executioner at her side shifts his weight, a shadowy bulk, knives and pincers glinting.
For a moment, as Liù despairingly weighs her options, her view of the garden shifts. She is not really in China—not even in anything that resembles the real China. She is in an opera house in America. The garden with its pond and arching bridges is only a set. Yet Liù is Liù. The pain and terror are real. She has died protecting the Stranger’s secret, hundreds of times, and will die again each night, as a spellbound audience looks on.
Liù is a faithful slave, too good and too in love to complain. Her sacrifice will save the Stranger, which is all she has ever wanted. Yet, just for a moment, Liù thinks: There must be another way.
The moment fades. The executioner advances. With a beautiful, musical sigh, as she has done hundreds of times, Liù snatches the dagger out of his hands and stabs herself to death.
Over time, Liù’s flashes of insight grow longer. She stops forgetting them at the end of the night. She grows balky, confused.
There must be another way.
She lies and says that the Stranger is nameless: he himself does not remember his past or his name. The Princess kills her, then half the city, in a rage.
She tries fleeing before the opera begins, leaving the Stranger to his fate. But she cannot stop being Liù. The Stranger is her whole life. Love and guilt, fear for his safety, draw her back.
She tries speaking, in various ways, to the Princess.
Most of these hurt more than they help. But by now Liù remembers clearly enough, from evening to evening, to keep track. In a few months, she has learned to stretch her extra time to an hour, an hour and a half.
The Princess speaks to Liù in fascinated tones. “How can you love him, when he is a beast like any other man?”
“Not all men are beasts,” says Liù. The Princess beheads her.
“He is an angel, not a beast,” says Liù. “He is nothing like any other man.” The Princess has her hanged.
“I do not know, Daughter of Heaven,” says Liù. “I am helpless. I can say nothing of love, except that I feel it, and cannot feel otherwise.”
The Princess is stonily silent.
“My lord,” says Liù to the Stranger, “why? Why must you win this woman, when so many will die for it?”
It is the opera’s first act, a filthy thoroughfare outside the palace gates. The Stranger has seen the merest glimpse of the bloodthirsty Princess, and has fallen in love. He knows he must answer her riddles, no matter the risk; any man who tries and fails is executed.
Liù has begged him, in her first and most beautiful aria, to reconsider. The Stranger’s Father has begged him to reconsider. The Palace’s Lord Chancellor, Majordomo, and Head Chef have sung a comical trio critiquing his plan. In the next act, the Emperor Himself will beg him to reconsider. It never does any good.
“I love her,” says the Stranger.
“She does not love you,” says Liù.
The Stranger is handsome, broad of shoulder and bright of eye, unbowed by his years of exile. He is gentle with slaves like Liù, lowly men and women most Princes would spit on. When he speaks, he really looks at her. When he smiles, the sun’s rays burst through.
He smiles like that, now, irresistibly. “You are mistaken, Liù. Don’t be afraid. Even from across the crowded square, I could see love in her eyes.”
Liù does not think so. Liù has always read people easily, and what she sees in the Princess’s eyes is not love. In the Princess’s first and most fearsome aria, when she tells the story of her ancestress Lo-u-Ling, there is resolve in her eyes, anger, pain. And something else, behind it. A very great fear. As if the men who come to her are soldiers scaling a wall, and one day she will fail to destroy them in time. But no one seems to care about that fear, and, for all his kindness, neither does the Stranger.
Liù is afraid every night: afraid of pain, afraid of losing the Stranger, afraid to die. Her fear has never mattered to anyone, either.
The Conductor catches the Soprano by the arm on her way backstage. “Tell me what this is about.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says the Soprano, squinting up at him in the gloom. She is all too aware of the Conductor’s power: he tall, white, distinguished by decades of accolades; she small, Korean-American, a relative unknown. Liù is her first big professional role. The Conductor can scuttle her career with a word. She wishes he would not touch her.
“Do not play stupid with me, signorina. For months now, you have been singing erratically, changing your words—porco mondo, even changing the music. It is a wonder my orchestra keeps up. I did not hire you to improvise.”
The Soprano thinks: Maybe the words needed changing. She wouldn’t be singing Liù if she were successful enough to pick and choose. She does not think much of this stage China which is nothing like China, these stage women who are nothing like women.
The Conductor waves a hand. “I would be firing you now, except the audience seems to like it. But do not try my patience. At least you must tell me what you are doing.”
“I don’t know, maestro. I am not at all sure.”
Ever since she was a little girl imitating her mother’s records, the Soprano has had a secret detachment while singing, a sense that the character appears and sings through her. Most nights she only vaguely remembers what has happened onstage. This Liù, this production of Turandot, brings on the feeling more strongly than ever. But as to why, the Soprano knows nothing.
Liù kneels before the screen in the Princess’s sitting room, head bowed.
“I should have had you killed by now,” says the Princess. “But you feel familiar, as if I have known you a long time. Why? And why do I feel you have something to offer me?”
Liù does not raise her eyes from the floor. “I am a lowly woman, acquainted with pain. I see pain when I look upon you. I wish only to help. If the Daughter of Heaven should be in pain—a supernatural pain, perhaps …”
Cold amusement. “Are you a witch? An exorcist?” “If it pleases the Daughter of Heaven,” says Liù, “I would like to speak to Lo-u-Ling.”
The Princess has her flayed.
The Princess sits alone in her garden, cradling the Persian Prince’s head. The opera has begun again, and she has not yet met Liù or the Stranger. But the Stranger will hardly surprise her. Man after man comes to answer the Princess’s riddles, to demand her as a prize.
The Princess is the Empire’s only heir. It is unthinkable for her not to marry, not to carry on the sacred family line. She cannot outright refuse. Not forever.
At the first suitor, when the Princess was only sixteen, she panicked. The boy was a foreign prince her own age. He was soft-spoken; he had never done anything to hurt her. She could not explain why, when she looked at him, an icy vise closed in around her lungs.
So she made up a reason. She thought up her three impossible riddles. Vowed to marry only the man who solved them, and to kill the ones who failed. Harsh, yes, but the point of this was to deter them. She did not want men to swarm in from every kingdom, attracted by the challenge.
Being men, they swarmed in anyway.
When the first prince’s head rolled to a stop in its pool of blood, the Princess felt only a shameful relief. Malice came later. When the fifth prince came sharp on the heels of the fourth, flouncing in his feathered cloak through the blood in the streets, that was when she began to hate them all. To enjoy the killing. If men did not value their lives, why should she?
Lo-u-Ling, the ghost, came to her after that. Attracted, perhaps, by the scent of a terror as large as her own.
Blood, Lo-u-Ling whispers in the Princess’s ear. Blood, pain, fear. Men crawling over the walls. Fear. Flight. Falling on the path, cobblestones scraping blood from my arms. Men, fear, a helplessness worse than choking, blood …
Lo-u-Ling, the Princess’s ancestress, was raped and put to death during war, centuries ago, in this very garden. She approves of what the Princess does.
The Princess curls her fingers tightly in the Persian Prince’s hair until she can distinguish her garden from Lo-u-Ling’s. Until she is sure the only blood is that which clings to the tatters of the Persian Prince’s throat. The Princess won this time. As long as she lives, the Princess swears to herself, she will win.
“Daughter of Heaven,” says Liù with her eyes to the ground, “I will find you the Stranger’s name. I do not know it now, but I, and I alone, can learn it from him. But, unworthy as I am, I must ask one tiny boon—or else, betraying him, I will die of shame.”
“Yes?” says the Princess cautiously. Two months ago she would have had Liù tortured even for asking. But things are beginning to change.
“Let him live,” says Liù. “You need not marry him. Cast him out of the Empire if you like, but send him on his way as an equal, alive.”
“You are asking me,” says the Princess, “to forgive him.”
“But what must you forgive him for? What crime has he committed?”
“He has answered my riddles. He has insisted that I must be his, though I never wanted any man. If I do not punish him, what then? How many more strangers will ride in on the wind with nothing to lose? I know the things men do—I and Lo-u-Ling, both. We have sworn never to forgive anyone at all.”
“I understand,” says Liù, bowing low. “But, if I may be so bold, I have not asked you to forgive him. You may brand him as a criminal, a disgrace to your kingdom. You may hate and rage against him to the end of your days, so long as you let him live.”
“No,” says the Princess. “You will do as I say, and I will have mercy on no one.”
“Then,” says Liù, bowing lower still, “if you truly have no mercy, you will kill me, as well.”
The Princess draws back, surprised. “I have killed you many times now. But why should I kill you again, so long as you do as I say?”
“Because I am as wicked as he is,” says Liù, “I love him too much to let him die at your hand. No matter what he has done, or will do, Daughter of Heaven. That is my crime.”
The Princess is silent a long moment.
“No,” she says. “You are not wicked. You are only a fool.”
“Then,” says Liù, daring to look up, “there is forgiveness in you after all.”
With the Princess, Liù feels oddly free to speak. Each mistake means death, but Liù is used to death—and each success builds on the last. But the Stranger is a worn groove, a river of desire. He is always the same, always smiling, always sure he will win.
“She loves me,” says the Stranger, deaf to Liù’s protests on the filthy street.
“How do you know?” says Liù.
“She loves me,” says the Stranger.
“Even if she does love you,” says Liù, “what of it? If she loves you, yet chooses against you, can you not honor that choice?”
“She loves me,” says the Stranger.
It goes on until Liù wishes to melt into the ground, to run to the Executioner and have done with it. It does not change.
“I know what you are doing,” the Conductor announces after the curtain falls.
“Pardon?” says the Soprano.
Every night the Soprano resolves to do better next time. But she does not know how to sing without letting the character through. Every evening, the Soprano goes elsewhere, and Liù deviates further and further from the libretto.
The Conductor snorts. “You think you are being clever. And my producers agree. The audience, they stream in like never before. It fascinates them, seeing a different opera every night. The papers, they gush—come see Turandot, the opera that the great maestro Puccini died writing. Come see us finish it differently each night; come see what might have been. They go on like this. But that is because they are fools. They do not see where it is headed.”
The Soprano smiles nervously. “Frankly, I’m not sure I see where this is headed.”
“It is headed to Liù surviving,” the Conductor snaps. “That is what you are trying to do. And once the audience realizes that, they will flee. You do not understand the people who come to these operas, signorina. For a romance with a happy ending, they look to Rossini. For sheer scale, they go to Wagner. Our audience is not like this. The people come to Turandot to watch the death of a beautiful woman. This is what Puccini does best. His money shot, if you will. I have hired you to sing those four gorgeous notes in your first aria, then to die; the rest is filler. Take the death away, and—” He makes a cutting gesture across his throat. “Liù dies either way, signorina. Physically or musically. Choose.”
The Lord Chancellor looks up from his books in surprise as Liù stumbles into his room, ushered by a pair of guards. She drops to her knees in front of him, bows her head in supplication.
“What is this?” demands the Chancellor. “Who is this?”
“Only a slave,” says Liù. “Less than no one, Excellency. You may kill me if you like. But I believe I am in a position to help you, if I know enough, and you are the most learned man in this Empire. If it pleases your Excellency, may we speak of the Princess’s current difficulties?”
The Chancellor smiles thinly. “My dear, they are my bread and butter. I want nothing more than for the little harridan to be married and the matter done with. Then I can retire to my home by the little blue lake in Honan. Rise; I will probably not kill you. But I am afraid I cannot help you very much.”
Liù does not rise. She manages, with an effort, to lift her gaze from the floor. She is not used to speaking to people she has not spoken to before, beginning conversations that were not tested and rehearsed a thousand times.
“Excellency,” she says, “I wish to know whatever you can tell me about ghosts. And stories. And … the way the two are trapped together.”
The Chancellor flicks ink off the end of his pen. “An overly vague request. The Princess claims to have a ghost, but personally, I doubt it. I think it is the story she prefers to tell.”
“But that is just it,” says Liù. “Imagine if someone was trapped in a story. Imagine if they could not stop executing men, or chasing a woman who does not want them, or—or dying, because they could not get out of the story. If the story refused to change, no matter what they did or how they argued.”
The Chancellor half-smiles. “You are thinking of the Stranger.”
Liù’s mouth goes dry. They will kill her again, of course. As soon as the Chancellor finishes this conversation, he will send her to the Executioner and have her interrogated; anyone who cares enough about the Stranger to ask, on his behalf, must know his name.
It does not matter. She has died so many times already.
“Slave,” says the Chancellor, “do you know the word protagonist?”
Liù nods hesitantly.
“Your Stranger is a protagonist. He is the one that the story revolves around. And the closer one is to the heart of a story, the less choice one has. Have you not noticed? He is paper-thin, apart from his desire, his protagonisthood—the thing that he will get, at any cost, even if it kills him. If you wish for something to change, my dear slave, the Stranger is not where you must look. And I would not want you to change him anyway. He must do his duty and get this Princess off our hands so I can finally stop executing people and see Honan again.”
He spits the word Princess like an epithet.
“Even if it harms her?” Liù asks.
She is not sure why she asks. The Princess used to be a malignant force, as incomprehensible as the noble men who beat her for no reason. Yet though the Princess kills her again and again, Liù is beginning to see the glimmer of something else.
“Between you and me,” says the Chancellor, “she deserves it.”
The Princess is beginning to regret having Liù killed. Liù is a fool. Liù is weak. Yet she seems to understand how things work here, how the same story recurs again and again. Each time the opera begins, the Princess feels a greater unease, a premonition that things cannot continue this way forever.
“Daughter,” says the Emperor, shuffling through the garden flanked by his masked guards. “The Persian Prince is dead.”
“Yes, Noble Father. He stared into my eyes as the blade came down. What is it that you want?”
“He had family, you know. There was a slave who loved him.”
“I do not care,” says the Princess, swallowing hard, thinking of docile little Liù. “You swore to support me in this.”
“And my word is sacred.” The Emperor sighs and settles himself on a low bench next to her. “But, daughter, the soul of the Empire is changing. It is time, I think, to speak with you again about Lo-u-Ling.”
The Princess looks up sharply. “What about her?”
“You know that Lo-u-Ling’s war is not the only violent incident in the Empire’s history, nor the only one to reach the Imperial Palace. In your own lifetime, even, there was the Bellflower Rebellion.”
The Princess knows this, though she does not remember very much. She was twelve. She has a few blurry images, the feeling of hiding. Mostly, her servants kept her safe.
The Emperor’s voice cracks with anguish. “My scribes have checked the ancient books. And what you say about Lo-u-Ling is not correct. She was not killed. How could she be your ancestress if she was killed before she bore children? What the invaders did to her was unforgivable. But she outlived them. She would not have wished for children who see only what was done to her then, and not the wise leader she became. Daughter, whatever it is that has taken up residence in you—”
“I will hear no more.” The Princess stands abruptly. She does not understand why his words enrage her as they do, why she feels like fleeing and taking up arms both at once. “No more!”
“You see my dilemma,” says the Princess to Liù. “I would sooner die than marry a man I do not trust. And”—blood, pain, helplessness, fear—“I do not trust any man.”
“I do see,” Liù murmurs.
“Raise your eyes.” The Princess waves a capricious hand. “We should be friends. I am beginning to think there is something else besides the Stranger’s name I must learn from you.”
Liù looks up, questioning.
“You are in love,” says the Princess plaintively. “What is it like?”
“It is like drinking water endlessly,” says Liù, “and never slaking your thirst. It is like starving in front of a painting of a feast. It has a great deal to do with pain, Daughter of Heaven. I think you might like it.”
Liù has never met the Princess. She has never entered the Empire to which the Princess is heir. Liù is little more than a child, and her Prince—who does not yet know exile, is not yet a Stranger to anyone—only a few years older.
“And how have things been,” he asks, as she adds wood carefully to his hearth, “downstairs? Is the head housekeeper still giving you trouble?”
Liù blushes. “Not since we last spoke, my lord.” The head housekeeper used to beat Liù over little things, often things she hadn’t done. Liù suspects, though she is too shy to say it aloud, that the Prince himself put a stop to this. It is the sort of thing he would do.
“We are having an entertainment tomorrow,” the Prince says, idly studying himself in the mirror. He is glorious, draped all over with blue and purple cloth. “Minstrels from the River Amur. That’s where you come from, isn’t it? I wonder if—oh, but you’re finished there. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep you.”
“My lord’s room has a great deal of silver in need of polishing,” Liù says, as she rises from the fireplace.
“Oh?” says the Prince.
He raises his eyebrows and smiles, and his smile tells Liù everything she will ever need to know.
He knows she is making excuses to stay—to keep hearing him speak. He knows that she loves him. Liù herself does not quite know it until she sees it, in that smile, reflected back at her.
And it doesn’t matter. The Prince is kind, but no Prince can marry a slave. If he were selfish, he might string her along, use her for pleasure. But this Prince is a good Prince. Lovestruck slaves are nothing strange to him. He will be kind to her naturally, carelessly, as he is kind to everyone. He will take no undue liberties. Then, after being her friend for a time he will go running off after a suitable Princess and forget her.
She sees all of this and can do nothing. His smile makes that clear. For him she will live her whole life and her life’s end. The Prince will be the death of her; for the Prince’s name is Love.
“She loves me,” says the Stranger. It is dark. The severed heads lining the palace’s walls shake yes and no in the wind.
The Stranger’s name is Love. He is as hungry and relentless as love ever was. And Princes, even exiled Princes, are not taught to starve quietly.
“Stop it,” says Liù. “You are hurting her. She is terrified of you. Did you never hear her first aria, the terrible memories that haunt her? Did you never hear what she sings after you answer the riddles, how she begs the Emperor not to let you force yourself on her? How can you continue, how can you do this, when you claim to love her?”
“She loves me,” says the Stranger.
For an instant, Liù sees him as the Chancellor sees him. Paper-thin. A libretto stamped with someone else’s words.
The libretto, after all, proves him right. At the end of the opera, when Liù is dead and rotting, he presses his case until the Princess gives in. That is what happens, in the opera’s proper form, every night. That is the happy ending the audience cheers for.
The man Liù loves is kind, brave, gentle; but he cannot deviate from his role. Cannot even imagine it, no matter how little kindness the words possess. If the libretto says, this is what Love is, then kindness will bow and make way for it.
Liù stares into his eyes, and thinks: He is more a slave than I.
The Other Soprano, who puts on finery and becomes a Princess each night, is famous. The Conductor does not grab her in the wings. She is difficult to approach. Not screaming and glowering like some stage women, only remote. And so dazzling in her legions of fans and recording contracts that even the smallest unkindness—a rolled eye in the dressing room, a mispronunciation of the Soprano’s name—feels like fate. Deserved. Unchangeable.
The Soprano waits in the wings for the Other Soprano, heart pounding. Perhaps the terror itself is what makes the Other Soprano pause by her, meeting her eyes, when the curtain call finally ends.
“This … thing,” says the Soprano. “This thing we’ve been doing, where the opera changes. Have you felt it?”
The Other Soprano’s face closes up. “The improvisation. Yes. So?”
The Soprano wonders if she will have infinite nights for this, if the Other Soprano will kill her again and again until she has the words to say it right.
“I wanted to ask you about it. About how it feels to you. Do you feel that, to you, on some level, the Princess becomes …”
The Soprano feels something frozen between them. An icy, closing vise. “That’s ridiculous. It’s only an opera.”
“I only meant …”
“It means nothing. It can’t mean anything. That can’t happen, do you understand? It is fiction.”
The Other Soprano hurries away as if pursued. The Soprano thinks about the Princess, about the very great fear straining under her skin. She stands very still, and thinks: Then what am I?
The truth comes to the Princess like a tiger, stalking just out of sight. She will remember all the warning signs later: the breathing that she heard, but thought nothing of. The stripes she would not let herself see. And Liù, a constant reminder of the things in this world that are hidden, that no one will speak of.
When the truth pounces, she is alone in the garden, watching the fish in the pond. She stays there, weeping, unmoored from time. It is her father who approaches her at last, without a guard at his side or even a servant. Not the Emperor resplendent in his dragon robes: only her father, his frail bones rustling through the grass.
“Noble Father, I-” she chokes. “Lo-u-ling-”
He is weeping, too. “I tried to tell you.”
“It wasn’t her in the garden. It wasn’t my ancestress. It was the Bellflower Rebellion. It was me.”
“I know, my daughter.” He holds out his arms. She does not move towards him, and he lowers them again. “I know.”
“So, you see,” says the Princess to Liù later, when the shock has worn off. “That is what all this is really about.”
“Daughter of Heaven,” says Liù, “I am so sorry.”
“Sorry?” says the Princess. “Liù, I am a tyrant and a murderer. I do not want pity. I simply want to talk to someone who will not glare from the side of their eyes like a courtier. The Stranger was not the one I needed to kill, was he? The men who deserved that are already gone.”
Liù has no plan for this, no idea what to say. “Daughter of Heaven,” she stammers, “you would forever have my gratitude if you did not kill him.”
The Princess smiles ruefully. “But what do I do instead? How do I solve the problem of him, and of the hundreds of other Strangers who will come after? My Noble Father could not answer that question, either. So here we sit. What do you think?”
Liù looks at the sitting room’s cold marble floor. The jade sculptures at her side. The translucent silken screen that used to separate her and the Princess, long discarded.
She thinks of the opera’s true ending. She thinks of the Stranger, paper-thin, the words he cannot stop saying. She thinks of the Princess’s urge to kill, to defend herself at any cost, of where that urge might be productively channeled.
She thinks of what it means to be caught in a story.
“If it pleases the Daughter of Heaven,” she says, “I have an idea.”
It does not take as much effort as Liù expected. She and the Princess already live in a world only half-real. Time has already bent itself around them.
In the end, it takes only herself and the Princess, back to back, hands clasped. Breathing deeply, while the Princess’s best incense burns in the jade bowl beside them. Following with their minds a trail more felt than seen.
And then Liù is in another room. A dim study with a pianoforte and a wide shelf of books. A house in Italy—not stage Italy, but something altogether different. A man sits in an armchair before her, old and sad, with a cane at his side. He startles as she enters, and stares.
“Doria?” he whispers, but Liù does not know that name.
This was what she realized, in the end. The Princess was full of fear and death for a reason. The Stranger—trapped in blind, destructive desire, stuck in his protagonisthood—must be the way he is for a reason, too.
It is something Liù should have realized all along, talking to him on the dark street, seeing those words in her mind’s eye stamped inflexibly on a libretto. The reason for the Stranger is the hand that wrote those words. The reason for the Stranger is the Composer.
She does not remember to speak. She can feel the strength of the Princess behind her, the half-sensed trail before her. This close to the Composer, she can feel the trails doubling and trebling, a thicket of connections. A thicket of reasons. The Composer had reasons for writing as he did, hundreds of reasons. Liù supposes everyone does, maybe. Reasons on reasons, back to the beginning of time.
She focuses in her mind on the Stranger. That face, that smile, which she knows better than anything. She feels her way down that thread, to where it takes root in the Composer’s heart.
She is already past the point where she can see the man, in his strange country. A torrent of other images flick through her mind in his place. Women dead, women dying, women abandoned. The Composer had loved women, and had not understood why each woman who loved him back suffered. Had not been able to imagine it any different, even as he grieved.
So he had clung to the idea of love, the idea of beauty in suffering. Writing nothing but women like Liù, good women, beautiful women, who died. Thinking, all the while: It will hurt, everything hurts, but if there is love, it will be all right. If there is love, surely everything must be all right. If she loves, if she loves me, surely everything else can be forgiven. Surely she loves me. She must love me.
She loves me.
She loves me.
And there it is: the root of the Stranger, deep in the Composer’s heart, a shimmering, fist-sized sphere. Somehow, in this unplace, Liù is able to wrap her fingers around it where it sits. She can take it, she suddenly knows. Tear out its roots.
Without it, without the art that keeps him company in his illness and melancholy, the Composer will die. His opera will never be finished. It will be passed on to anyone else who can hold it. To his fellow composers, who cobbled together an ending. To Liù, elsewhen, as she looks around herself for the first time, and thinks, There must be another way.
Her hand trembles. She knows what it is to die. Even now, Liù does not wish it on anyone else. Not the nobles who beat her; not the executioner; not the Princess. Not even this man who is the architect of her suffering.
But it has been a long, long time, dying over and over. Even if it makes her as selfish as him, in the end: Liù aches to know what it is to survive.
So she squeezes her eyes shut, and pulls.
Here the Composer lays down his pen.
The Stranger looks around him, as if suddenly awake. It is the same look Liù had, that first time, looking at the stage and thinking: There must be another way.
“I am frightening her,” he says, slowly, in the voice of a child. “Aren’t I? I am sorry.” Liù cannot speak. She remembers the Composer, the other world; she is faint with the effort of finding her way. She looks at her hand in the moonlight, and there is nothing in it.
The Stranger stares up at the palace walls, out and around at the city which even now is in uproar as the Princess’s guards force potential witnesses from their homes. It will not be long until he and Liù are caught. Speaking to each other at all, this way, is a risk. Many nights, it has been the risk that got Liù killed.
“She will kill me,” he says, dreamily, looking up at the stars. “Won’t she?”
“I do not know, my lord.”
“It doesn’t matter. I entered into this freely; she did not. She should decide.” He reaches forward and takes Liù’s hand, an intimacy he has never dared before. Her heart races in her throat. She almost forgets, in that moment, that all of this is for another woman, not her.
“If you see her before I do,” he says, “please, give her this. Tell her she can do with me as she wills.”
Where he touches her, something glows at her fingertips. A shimmering, fist-sized sphere: the same light she remembers from the other world. The Composer’s life. The Prince’s soul. The Stranger’s name.
Liù hands the sphere to the Princess, and the Princess clutches it to her chest. Her eyes shine. “Do you understand what this means? He has given me his life. Not under duress, not in defeat, not in exchange for the chance to get me, but freely, asking nothing in return.”
“I do,” says Liù. She understands all too well. She has given herself that way, so many times.
What is the cure for fear? No clever riddle will ever solve it. No brave knight can ever fight it to the death. No use of power, however kind and gracious, will cure the fear of powerlessness.
How do you win against that fear? By giving the power back. By surrendering.
The Stranger belongs to the Princess now.
The Princess is no longer afraid.
Liù watches, mouth dry, as the Princess turns the sphere over and over in her hands. She wonders what will happen now. The Princess can do whatever she likes, Liù supposes. She can marry the Stranger. She can kill him. She can send him on his way, with Liù, for Liù to care for and pine for until the end of her days.
For a wavering moment, Liù is not sure if she wants that.
She can still feel the threads connecting her to the Stranger, the Stranger to the Princess, Liù to the Princess, all of them to that other world where the Composer lies dying, and to others besides. Perhaps she will always feel them. Perhaps that is the natural result of magic like this.
The Princess feels them, too. Liù can see it from the way she turns her head, examining the air where threads collect and connect.
“I know what I want to do,” says the Princess.
“Yes?” says Liù, her heart in her throat.
“But—” says the Princess, and she pauses. “Liù, what do you want?”
No one has ever asked that before.
“I want to live,” Liù blurts. “And—and I want the Stranger to live. And I—I—”
She cannot say it. It is one thing to admit she is in love. It is another to wish for an outcome. To admit she wants love back, from a Prince who cannot give it, who never could have and never will.
The Princess shrugs carelessly. “I cannot make him love you. Just as none of his efforts could make me love him. But now there may be another way. The Composer is dead, and that means we may do as we please. Do you see?”
Liù shakes her head, frightened. “Daughter of Heaven …”
“The Stranger can give his name,” the Princess continues doggedly. “I saw what you did. Things can be uprooted and given. I must, one day, stop running from my duty. I must marry and raise the next Empress or Emperor. But I have no love. You have an abundance of it, and it have given you nothing but grief. I can be myself and Lo-u-Ling; I already know I can be divided in parts. Do you see?”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” says Liù, choking on the words.
The Princess lowers her voice. “But haven’t you ever wanted all of this, a slave like you? This jade and gold, these silks, these perfumes. This power. The love of the man you have served all these years. You would have it, in a way. Part of you would. And I would give the rest of you something in return. Citizenship in the Empire, and a safe place to live. Gainful employment, for real wages, if you want it. Whatever else you ask, within reason. In exchange for what you have already done for me, I cannot offer less.”
Liù understands, but she cannot think. She does not know how to decide.
“Daughter of Heaven,” Liù finally asks, “what do you want?”
What looks back at her, through the Princess’s eyes, is vulnerable and small. Something that has been trapped here in the palace all its life, hated by courtiers, coveted by Princes, with a frail and distant father as its only ally. The soul, she thinks, of Lo-u-Ling; something cut from the Princess’s consciousness for so long that perhaps they can never be one.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” it says.
Liù takes a long breath. Then, slowly, nods.
The Princess holds out her hands. Liù wavers. Then she and the Princess step towards each other, and Liù sweeps the Princess up into a burst of brief and shining confusion.
The Stranger’s name is Love.
He rings the great gong in the palace yard thrice and shouts the Princess’s name. She descends to him, picking up her skirts and rushing down the steps of the palace. The crowd stares.
“It’s you,” she says. “At last, it’s you! Do you know how long I have waited, what worlds I have travelled, how many wicked suitors have tried to take me from you?”
“Heavenly beauty!” the Stranger sings, rushing to her. “But how can this be? How do you know me?”
“I loved you all along,” says the Princess. “Don’t you understand? I have loved you forever. Ever since you smiled at me.”
The music is an unbearable, ecstatic swell. The whole Imperial Court comes swirling in around them. The people prostrate themselves.
At the far end of the courtyard, a woman who was once a slave hugs herself, feeling only an absence. She does not know if she should call herself Liù any longer. Perhaps the Conductor was right, and Liù had to die, all along.
Lo-u-Ling, the frightened child, nestles in a corner of her mind. Stirs, at the sight of the Princess and Stranger’s embrace, in a discomfort she can barely name.
It’s all right, says Liù—if, indeed, she can call herself that. The slave woman knows how to soothe, how to care. She knows what it is to be small and afraid. She knows what it is to go on anyway, through death and pain and death again. She can teach that courage to Lo-u-Ling, in time.
She has lost her name. She has lost the foolish obsession that was her whole life. Yet she has gained something as well. She stands tall and looks passersby full in the face. She can stay here, secure, as the Princess promised; or she can ask for money to leave, to start again far from any Prince. She can make of her life what she will. She is free.
Coda: Repetiamo al fine
The house is full. The audience leaps to its feet. The Conductor scowls at the Soprano, but says nothing.
Later, when the theatre is emptied and she has put on her coat for the night, the Soprano takes one last walk across the rose-strewn stage. She feels, as always, that she has woken from a dream. There will be another performance in two days’ time, and another, and another. The opera has no ending. Therefore it has every ending.
She turns, and there is the Other Soprano, waiting in the wings—though the Soprano had thought she went home already.
The Soprano meets her eyes. She waits, and does not turn away.
“It was real,” says the Other Soprano, “after all. Wasn’t it?”
“I think so,” says the Soprano.
“Is this real?” says the Other Soprano. “Is everything real? Are we real right now? I don’t understand.”
The Soprano feels both living and dead, both real and unreal. Rose petals drift in bloodlike banks around her feet. She does not know what to say.
Instead she offers an arm. The Other Soprano hesitantly takes it. They walk out into the night together, into the cold pools of street lamps, into the world.