art by Justine McGreevy
The Tome of Tourmaline
by Ken Liu
"Come, come!" the attendants at the gate of Tourmaline call to you. "Come and bathe your feet."
The water is refreshing, ice cold, straight from the glaciers on top of the mountains far to the west. You wash away the dust of your long journey across the desert, and marvel at the streets lined with twenty-foot slate slabs, the centers slightly depressed from centuries of traffic. You squint at the bright blue murals depicting rearing elephants and leaping lions in smooth jade and lapis lazuli.
When you stand up, the attendants hand you a towel and point you to the center of the city.
"But I haven't told you why I've come," you protest.
"All visitors come here for the Tome," they tell you.
It is said that the Tome tells the most beautiful and moving story in the history of the world, a story that has caused the cruelest generals to shed tears and the most morose bureaucrats to laugh out loud, a story that has entertained kings and paupers since time immemorial.
Yet no one who has read it has ever told others what the story is about.
The Tome is held at the very top of the Great Library. A long-robed librarian leads the way up narrowing flights of spiraling stairs until, finally, you reach the cupola.
Sunlight floods the tiny space, barely enough for a desk and a chair. The view is breathtaking: bustling Tourmaline laid out beneath you like one of the woven carpets the city is so famous for, the red tents of the market forming a sinuous ribbon against the tan-tiled roofs, like a cursive signature inked against a blank page.
The attendant sets the Tome on the table, and leaves.
You flip open the cover, heavy and ornate.
The noises around you--the braying donkeys, the distant murmur of haggling merchants, the splashing of water in the afternoon streets to keep the dust down--fall away.
The story begins, as it always does, with nothingness, the void.