art by Shannon N. Kelly
The Princess of the Perfume River
by Aliette de Bodard
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."
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?"