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art by M.S. Corley

City of Chrysanthemum

Ken Liu (kenliue.name.) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimovís, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has appeared several times in Daily Science Fiction.

He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

Bobby is the first off the school bus. He always sits in the front seat on the right; first, because the driver can offer some protection, and second, because he can get out quickly.
He does not look behind him. He can feel their gazes.
It's still fifteen minutes until homeroom, and this is among the most dangerous times during the day. He makes his way to the east wing, and dodges through the crowd of eighth-graders like a minnow among bigger fish.
The art room is empty. He shucks off his backpack and pushes it under the sink, then crawls into the cubby himself.
The dim space and the silence reassure him. He lets out a held breath, a mixture of shame and relief.
He thinks about what he'll draw, later, when he's free from this prison called school: a ball gown, sleeveless, with a beaded bodice and a full skirt. He imagines patterning the swirling, smoky silk like a sun-dried rainbow so that when spun it will look like a blossoming chrysanthemum....
"There you are!" says Tom.
"Think you can hide here all day?" says Gene.
They drag him out by his hair. He slaps at their arms ineffectually.
"That's for running away," says Tom. The punch to the small of his back makes him arch over and drop his backpack.
Gene pinches Bobby's arm through his shirt and twists as he applies pressure. "Cry, sissy, cry."
Bobby doesn't make any sound. Tom and Gene are very smart. They never touch his face, which might raise questions.
They open his backpack and dump everything on the ground.
"Where are the girlie pictures you like to draw?"
He bites his lips and closes his eyes.
At sunset, the concentric layers of carp-scale shingles on top of the Palace reflect the golden light so brilliantly that visitors to Chrysanthemum know right away how the city got its name.
The Prince spins in secret in his room.
He gathers the gossamer roving on his distaff by sneaking into the empty garden before sunrise, when spiders spin webs between the giant flowers to capture the dewy dawn.
Once, when the King found his drop spindle, he had lied and said it was a top.
As he spins, the threads capture the light coming through the stained glass window, and the yarn winding around the shaft glitters like a lazy rainbow.
"Don't feel well?" Mom asks at dinner.
He shakes his head.
"Were those boys bullying you?" asks Dad. "You seemed afraid of them when I picked you up."
He immediately denies it.
"I can talk to the teachers," Mom says.
Fear threatens to overwhelm him. That parents can be such fools still astonishes him.
Dad comes to his rescue, sort of. "Elaine, he has to learn to stick up for himself." He turns to his son. "How about we practice throwing some punches?"
He wishes he can tell his father the truth. But this is the real world.
Reluctantly, he nods.
The Prince weaves the yarn into cloth. The fabric is full of light, playful, warm to the touch. He thinks wearing it will be like wearing a summer's worth of afternoons. He's so absorbed in the task that he doesn't hear the King entering the room.
"What is this?" ask the King. "You're a boy. You should be learning to fight, to be strong and brave."
"I don't like to fight," says the Prince.
And because this is Chrysanthemum, the explanation actually works. The Prince shows the King the dress he has in mind and the King admires it, smiling.
Bullies back down when you stand up to them, Bobby repeats to himself. He makes fists the way Dad showed him.
But Tom and Gene don't back down. His punch is easily deflected, and Gene laughs as his kick connects with Bobby's stomach.
Blinded by the pain, Bobby waves his hands wildly and manages to grab onto Tom's hands by the thumbs.
"Sissy wants to dance!"
Powered by rage and desperation, Bobby puts all his strength into his hands as he bends Tom's thumbs backwards. He sees fear and pain in Tom's eyes.
But Bobby is not a fighter. He lets go.
They hurt him. A lot.
He will not cry.
In Chrysanthemum, the girls do not have to spin and weave and the boys do not have to learn to use a sword.
"There are other ways to be strong and brave," says the Prince. "Sometimes, it just means doing what you love."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 12th, 2013
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