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art by Shannon N. Kelly

The Princess of the Perfume River

The Numbers Quartet is a collaboration between Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Fulda, Stephen Gaskell, & Benjamin Rosenbaum

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction--she is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, and her writing has been nominated for a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. Her near-future space exploration story, "That Undiscovered Country," was jointly honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. Nancy's writing has appeared in Asimov's, Apex Digest, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many others. Her web site is nancyfulda.com.

Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Clarkesworld, amongst other places. His SF novella, "Strata", a high-tech thriller set in the sun's chromosphere, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, has just been released through Amazon and B & N. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at stephengaskell.com.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife Esther and his children, Aviva and Noah, who demand logic puzzles, classic rock, and childrens' suffrage . He's recently become Swiss, which means of course that he is on the board of a club (in his case, a little synagogue). The Swiss have a deep reverence for clubs; they consider them the backbones of democracy, and the constitutional "right to assemble" actually translates to "the right to form clubs". No lie. His website is benjaminrosenbaum.com.
Boltzmann's constant: a constant that plays a fundamental role in defining the entropy of a system, particularly in the characterization of systems for which the lack of information is maximal. Valued at 1.3806488 10-23J K-1--symbol k, first referenced in work linking entropy to probability by Ludwig Boltzmann in 1877 AD.

It was the same way in life as in the story: the fisherman plying his trade on the river rapids; the princess trapped in her tower, waiting for the sound of his flute, waiting to be taken away from the palace. Except that Thien was the princess, the captive one--if the city of Hue could be a tower, and guiding tourists through the ruins of the Citadel be compared to reading books and embroidering silk cloth for ceremonies.
Thien hadn't told Kim Sang about this--she'd have had a good laugh about it, and pointed out to Thien that he was hardly wasting away for love.
But still--still, Thien had waited for Kim Sang to come back, feeling trapped on Earth--waited in the shadows of the Citadel, where he could almost feel the ghosts of the old emperors breathing, weighing him down with hundreds of years of history. And every day at midday, he'd raised his eyes, and watched the Artifact in the sky--thinking of Kim Sang above him, setting foot in an alien device--fishing for its secrets in the depths of Heaven, bringing it all back to earth, a bounty of huge, strange fish the scientists would delight in dissecting.
And now she was back. For good, it seemed--Thien's mother had heard from her cousin that Kim Sang had been debriefed in Ha Noi, and sent back home to her own parents. Thien had contacted her; and they had had a first, protracted and awkward meeting in a cafe by the Perfume River, in which they'd stared at each other, unable to voice a word that would bridge the two-year gap of her departure.
But, like the princess in the story, Thien was stubborn; and he pestered her with emails and calls: without the weight of her presence near him, it seemed simpler to recount everything that had gone on between them, to tell her that he was still waiting for her, to ask her to meet again, just one more time. Kim Sang herself remained mostly silent, making only the answers required by politeness. After a while, Thien's words would invariably fail him, and he'd hang up, his heart oddly constricted in his chest.
He kept on calling, though; and Kim Sang finally agreed to a second meeting. She suggested they meet at their usual place--the tomb of Gia Long, first and greatest emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.
It stood much as it always had: away from the city, tucked in the verdant hills of the countryside, too far away and too damaged for most tourists to bother. Thien parked his scooter at the entrance to the ruined complex, and cautiously entered, his feet crunching on the weeds between the pavement stones.
He found Kim Sang sitting in the ceremonial courtyard, staring at the lake--she had her back to him, her long hair flowing down--in that posture, it was easy to see how thin, how frail she'd become in the reduced gravity. "Hello, Big Bro," she said, without turning back.
"Hello, Lil' Sis," he said, sliding down next to her. They hadn't changed forms of address since Kim Sang had come down--they still effortlessly talked to each other like lovers. This was more than dull habit on her part. It had to be.
They sat, for a while, staring at the lake. Finally he said, "We used to talk so much more than that, remember?"
Kim Sang said nothing.
"About your dreams of going up there, of the wonders you'd find among the stars... " That had been before the Artifact, of course--before wonder dropped into their laps, with no rhyme or reason for its coming. Even now, they understood nothing of what the Artifact was, or how it worked. They were as children, toying with a dragon's pearl; as fishermen, navigating waters they did not master. "What was it like, being up there?"
"Please," Kim Sang said. "Please tell me you didn't wait for me."
"We made a promise--"
"It's worthless," Kim Sang said. Her voice was as cutting as a knife. "You can't waste your life away on me, Thien."
"I--"
She rose, still staring at the lake. "It's only in tales that promises are worth anything."
He stared at her, then--seeing for the first time that it hadn't been awkwardness that kept her silent, that he'd been misreading her from the start. "You've been avoiding me."
Kim Sang didn't answer.
"What happened up there? Do you have--" he forced the words through dry lips--"someone else?"
"No!" She stretched herself--like a flower, yearning for light--except that overhead was the Artifact, where she'd spent her two years, and its shadow still falling over her--over everything she and Thien had been sharing, in their common childhoods, in their tentative evenings together, remaking the world over and over, discussing philosophy and poetry until sleep claimed them both. "You don't understand...." Her voice was deep--as if she'd smoked countless cigarettes up there, or shouted herself hoarse in the vacuum--and her profiled face was pale, stripped of all emotions by the bright light. Something about her was--off, in a way that he couldn't pinpoint. What had happened, onboard the Artifact?
"Tell me," he said, gently.
Kim Sang turned to face him for the first time; removed her shades. Her eyes, freed from the glasses, looked abnormally large in the shrunken circle of her face. "You ask what it was like, being up there. I can't tell you."
Was that all? He shrugged. "I know it's confidential--"
"No." She paused, her mouth opening and closing--twitching like a fish out of water. "It's not that." Her voice was calmer. "We both know I don't care about the government's oath of secrecy."
"Then--" Thien fought the growing hollow in his heart.
"I can't tell you," Kim Sang said. She lifted her head towards the Artifact, as if she could see the trail of its passage. "It's--it changes you, being in there." Her skin was the colour of pale honey, so translucent he could guess at the bones beneath; her eyes were distant--and her face, for a moment, frozen in an expression so alien he had no way to interpret it. "I--it takes the words away from you."
"You still have plenty of words left," he said, slowly. He watched her as she moved--lithe and fluid, and not entirely human anymore. A fist of ice seemed to have tightened around his heart.
"You don't--" she looked at him, and the gleam from the Artifact seemed to have become reflected into her eyes. "You do understand, Big Bro. I came back with pieces missing; or perhaps extra pieces. And I can't talk about it. I can't find words to describe what I saw, or what it did to me. I--"
What had she seen, in the depths of Heaven? Wonders, and terrors; and more things than even his glib tongue had words for.
Thien thought of the princess and the fisherman--she, wasting away in her tower, awaiting the sound of her lover's flute over the Perfume River--waiting for someone to take her away from the prison she had built for herself. And of the fisherman, playing his flute, his music reaching into her heart and dissolving into tears.
How ironic, in the end, that he'd been wrong about their roles all along--that she'd been waiting, all along, for him to act.
He moved--coming to sit closer, almost close enough to touch her; and saw her start. "I can't ask you this of you," she said. "It wouldn't be fair."
Ask what? he wanted to ask; but then she turned away from him; and her entire skin seemed to change colors, from pale honey to the jagged, iridescent sheen of metal; and he caught whiff of a scent that was neither fish nor grass, coming from every pore of her skin, an indefinable odor that blew into his lungs, making the world around him shift and blur in odd places--a hint of a danger he couldn't name or place.
It didn't matter.
He reached out, enfolded her hand in his. Bone shifted and cracked under his touch, as if everything within her were made of crushed glass--and a cold, slimy wave spread from her skin to his, lodging itself deep into his heart.
"Try me," he said, smiling into her gleaming eyes.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012


This is set in Hue, the third of the three great cities of Viet Nam (the others are Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and Hanoi): as the former imperial capital, Hue is a place where the past and the present intersect, and I thought it an ideal setting for this story which is, at heart, on the yawning gap between reckless scientist Kim Sang, and Thien, whose ambitions are more tied to Earth. The legend referenced multiple times in this story, the tale of Truong Chi and Mi Nuong, is one of my favourite Vietnamese tales (a retelling can be found here: aaronshep.com/stories/050.html).

- Aliette de Bodard

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