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Zeraquesh in Absentia

In the city of Zeraquesh, each shadow is the shape of candlelight held still. A citizen leaving the comfort of roof and walls can expect to attract several hauntings at every corner turned. Such ghosts may be shed only under the light of anglerfish refracted through a prism. Most households keep at least one about.

The hunter has armed herself with a calligraphic blade refined in the stomachs of freedom fighters and a gun whose bullets invert probability. It is the second upon which she most depends, though it fires only under very particular conditions, in a unique location: but that is all right, for her purpose is singular. Neither is it a weapon of blunt force, for manipulating potential is a subtle art. Everything has to align just right. The chamber contains two bullets, no more.

For the moment she uses the blade, which spills couplets and proverbs so ancient they will cut through any armor and slice apart iron as easily as paper. That is how she makes an entrance for herself through the ziggurat walls, in negation of propriety, law, and good sense.

But she is used to having her way. The percussion of her footfalls lends surety to her path and the firebrand of her blade keeps the hauntings at bay. She climbs spirals, steps across roofs on which stone phoenixes and kirin nest, pushes through windowpanes in which faces not her own are reflected.

She comes to a door, on whose panel nothing is written other than the ten cardinal points illustrated in bluebottle paint. She does not unsheathe her sword of poetry; there are courtesies to observe, a transaction to make. One knock and she has admittance.

The office is festooned in calcified regrets, furnished by worn furniture and a lone tank, home to a stunted anglerfish whose light can barely disperse a tenth of a ghost. Fronds of drowned ambition sway in the black waters, framing the gleam of a jaundiced esca.

At the desk, a woman sits. She has a smoker’s teeth, stained the same shade as the anglerfish’s lure. Her dress is typical of her trade: vest and stiff collars, a long jacket with split sleeves. They are of the same color as Zeraquesh’s pavements, save for the metal accents which tell of frost and a winter that never comes.

“Detective,” the hunter says.

“I don’t see very many clients.” The detective leaves it ambiguous whether she means not many seek her, or whether she—being exclusive—refuses to see but a select few. “Lieutenant Hesraine.”

“I didn’t tell you my name.”

“Why take up a profession like mine if I couldn’t read something as simple as people’s names? In any case I’m surprised you are here—you enforce law, or at least power, in a city other than this one. To see you come all the way here, and to my office especially, necessitates that I admit shock.”

“You’re the best private eye in the region and there’s a case I can’t solve.”

The detective sets her hand to her shoulder, inclines her head in an almost-salute. “What a thing to hear from someone like you. What could it possibly involve, to defeat you and your colleagues?”

“It involves,” Lieutenant Hesraine says, “a missing person.”

ššš• • •

Possibility is not the same as probability: this is a simple truth, embroidered by nothing beyond the pearl of self-evidence. A sun may not set a sphere of flame and rise a bat of seaweed and oyster shell. Great sharks and women may not make children together; neither may tigers and turtles. They are impossibilities. The probability of these events is zero.

But sometimes a thing becomes another, by process mundane or strange, unlikely or inevitable. An egg becomes a chick becomes a bird. A village grows into a town into a city. Too many new parts are added, too much new mass: it may not be reabsorbed and, generally, a bird does not turn back into an egg. Barring great disasters, cities do not revert into villages.

There are, however, precedents. Where precedents exist, a thing turns from impossible into merely improbable. Yet the probability is so low the measurement of it becomes, for all practical purposes, pointless.

Consider humans who turn into beasts and concepts at certain times: the turn of the season, the light of a crescent moon made red by revolution, the passage of wind created by a storm of flying fish. There are many kinds of transformations, and many sorts of reversals.

ššš• • •

The detective is attended by moths. Their spindly bodies are painted, or tattooed, onto her arms. Their disembodied antennae wrap her wrists. She wears gloves that appear to be gray fabric at first glance, but up close it is apparent that they are wings, brachiated and patterned. Skulls and eyes.

An obvious question comes to Lieutenant Hesraine, but she refrains from the asking of it. She knows the detective’s name, too, but does not utter that either. She means to stay in the other woman’s good graces and that requires the utilization of tact. Instead she says, “Do you know the origins of Zeraquesh?”

“There are speculations as numerous as sand in a desert. Some say the city rose from the depths of the Cotillion Sea, where it was inhabited by dreaming gods that wore anglerfish forms. Others that it is the repository of several civilizations’ worth of nightmares. Still more insist that the city is a mass grave, hiding the dead that will one day rise and drain the blood of us all. The ideas all sound plausible, and I give each no more or less weight than any other.” The detective takes the lead as they descend a series of banisters arranged like ribs. “Are you a student of urban spaces?”

“Architecture is nice enough.” Hesraine takes hold of a dangling curtain to lever herself. “But I much prefer an open sky.”

“Claustrophobic?” A sound of insect wings fluttering, though none cling to the rare street lights. There is an absence of vermin here, no rats or roaches, no owls or stray dogs breaking the silence of the dark.

“Not at all. But where streets narrow and grow more crooks than parallel lines, crime inexorably breeds.”

“You’ve been fairly polite to me. I hope you’ll stay that way.”

“Anything to solve a case,” Hesraine says, rote. “Have I given you a description?”

“The woman is young. She is waifish, with eyes that are both innocent and haunted. Her hands are soft and giving; she asks nothing for the comfort she provides. Not sexual of course—she’s purer than that, more spiritual—but it could be. In general, she is very mysterious.”

The lieutenant might have smiled. In a face like hers, in shadows like those of Zeraquesh, it is difficult to tell. “She was last seen in a temple devoted to the worship of candlelight.”

“Oh yes, very popular for wispy young things. Candlelight’s symbolic of girlish years.” The detective’s voice has achieved a sultry contralto. “A smoke, officer?”

“No, thank you. I don’t indulge on duty.”

A throaty laugh and perhaps she is no detective at all but a woman masquerading as one, the sort of woman who has a cigarette in one hand and a beckoning finger in the other: she might wear a sleek dress, boast silk slippers that glisten with pearls, paint her nails the fierce red of fox fur. But the moment passes and the detective’s voice becomes, again, scratchy. “Just as well. These things don’t come easily around here. Lack of supply. Lack of anything like a functioning economy.” She lights—a match? Something else? There’s a flame, more blue than yellow. It is gone and the cloying smell of a vice rises: more exquisite by far than tobacco, sweet and complicated. “Who wants her back, Lieutenant?”

“A man. Or perhaps nobody.”

“Isn’t that always the case.” They take a turn down an alleyway thick with hauntings, so much they gather in ankle-deep puddles. Neither woman is bothered. “What did you do before you became an officer?”

“Not much. And what did you do?”

“I’m a detective. I’ve gone after cheating spouses, forged wills. Murders, suicides. Those latter two are the things we make our names on, aren’t they? The misfortunes of others in sacrifice to our reputation.”

“Something like that,” Hesraine murmurs. “This doesn’t look like a temple.”

“It isn’t. It is a restaurant.” The detective holds the door open. “The law first.”

The restaurant is warm and orange with paper lanterns. Noises of cooking, though the tables are laden with emptiness. Diners make apparent conversation until one listens closely to discover they are not speaking any recognizable language. If there is a syntax it is not evident, for their words do not vary in length, syllable or consonant. Perhaps it is one sentence repeated endlessly, passing from mouth to mouth. To a one they are hostile, clutching close their rice cups, their liquor bowls.

The proprietress approaches. She is scarred, lined, and she carries herself as though her body is a weapon for her mind to wield—all heft and force, precisely applied. “Detective,” she says.

“We’re looking for a young woman. She would be foreign.”

“I know her well,” the proprietress intones. “She listens to your troubles, brings out the best in you.”

“In Zeraquesh, the moral best of anyone doesn’t much rise above the pits of depravity anywhere else.” The detective glances at Hesraine, wry. “What can you tell us about her? Has she turned up here lately?”

The detective interrogates; the officer looms. It does not matter what is said and what information is given—once the process is set in motion the specifics are irrelevant. They question a broker, a nurse, a zoologist. All are in agreement that the missing woman plays the zither with surpassing excellence and sings with the voice of a goddess. Her personal effects have been distributed to many hands, owning apparently to the lady’s generosity, and Hesraine collects them meticulously. There is a tortoiseshell comb, a coral earring, an empty locket made from the melted shells of spent bullets. This last item captivates Hesraine, who examines it from every angle, callused thumb measuring the hollow place where some precious item should have been.

Information safely tucked away like parasols, they leave the restaurant. Out on the streets, the night has deepened; they mark their path with the words of brokers, nurses, zoologists. They are scattered like pebbles, like teeth.

ššš• • •

“Are you familiar with demon stories, Lieutenant?”

“Shapeshifters.” Hesraine’s glance skims, inevitably, over the moths on the detective’s skin. Tattoos, or something else. A touch would tell. She does not reach.

“Yes, and people cursed into shapes by demons or witches or the crossing of circumstances.”

The detective shuts the temple’s gate behind them. Candle flame burns in circles, slanted into the ten cardinal directions or arrayed after constellations: the Keeper Who Paints Lions Blue, the Cup-Holder of a Thousand Halls, the Poet Drinking Cactus Nectar. Praying rugs spread between each grouping of candles, unstained and unblemished by oil or melted residue. No other worshiper is at hand, though in the latticed alcoves the priests may be glimpsed. Their faces are hidden behind masks of blue flame and beeswax. To a one they are as still as the candlelight, as quiet as the indigo creases of architecture where sound does not penetrate.

Neither detective nor officer speaks to the priests. This close, they do not need direction. Engaged as they are, they do not require permission.

They reach the end of the hall, where the original candle—said to be exhumed from the world’s core—stands, immense and blue-flamed, never swaying. Its heat is that of a small sun.

The lattices open without sound and the priests emerge.

There is a curious uniformity to how they move, and Hesraine thinks that they do not breathe. Their shadows fracture the light.

Stanzas rend open their robes and the blunt force of anthems crack apart their masks. They fall. More come, from ceiling and corners, from the interstices between candles.

The detective runs and Hesraine follows, up steps which spiral conch-shell. “Shoot them,” the detective advises.

“No.” Hesraine presses her free hand to the pistol, snug and secure in its holster. “Not for that.”

“What is a gun for?” But the detective spares no further breath on the discourse of firearms.

Though the priests lag behind them there is always the murmur of fabric and masks. The steps grow wide and steep, sometimes rough carpet, sometimes moss-covered wood. Once it is ice, though neither woman slips.

At the end of the steps there is silence, and a long corridor stretching before them walled by wax figures in states of bloom and dissolution. The further the detective moves through the hallway, the louder grows the sound of insect wings.

At the end of the corridor, there is a portrait.

It is that of a young woman. Waifish, immense eyes, graceful fingers built for instruments of eloquence and melody.

“Well,” the detective says, turning to Hesraine, “we have found her.”

“So we have. The case is, essentially, solved.” The officer nods and draws her gun.

It is no time at all between its exit from leather and the pulling of its trigger. The chamber houses two bullets and those are divided fairly—one for the detective, another for the portrait. Gunshots can be explosive. These, being indeed very specific in their purpose, are soft. The sound of fabrics rustling, of footsteps’ echoes chasing ghosts.

A flurry of wings and antennae; a spray of arterial blood that is no color at all.

ššš• • •

Those struck by misfortune may be forced into a shape not their own. Perhaps a moth, perhaps a bird: fragile, short-lived things. They are not the only shapes and sometimes the purpose is not to diminish, but to rob the target of memory, of identity. To spread her so thin she may not remember herself, stretching her out across distorted roofs and blacked windowpanes, burying her beneath the gnarled roots of houses, pressing her into the cracks of walls.

A reversal can be effected, but the probability of it is so low the event is considered an impossibility. Women who have become cities do not turn back. There is so much to reabsorb—temples and restaurants, houses and aquariums—that they can’t possibly all fit into a single woman, or even a dozen. A hundred women may not contain a city; perhaps not even a thousand.

One woman, however, may hold a multitude of selves. A self for fighting, a self for thinking. A self to hide and a self to seek. Perhaps she has split as contingency against a prolonged fugue state. Perhaps she multiplied unconsciously, standing before the mirrors of her dreams. It is useful to have this capability when one does not look for or expect rescue from an external source.

ššš• • •

The city once called Zeraquesh stands empty. Where heat touches, a twist of steam rises, smelling of defeat. Away from shadow the material appears to be bleached bone, brittle and carved into an approximation of architecture. There are stairs that curl in upon themselves; there are windows that show nothing at all, and streets no longer than the length of an arm. Some houses contain chairs, but those too are crudely made, given the requisite legs and armrests, the suggestions of furniture, as of stage props.

It does not appear anyone has ever lived here.

There are two women atop Zeraqueh’s highest roof, facing off as though in a duel. Shreds of canvas lie at their feet, blank but for splats of paint which might have been wings or an impression of a face. In a portrait so torn, in a day so bright, it is difficult to tell.

One woman is flesh, the other not. Neither may be described as waifish or reassuring; neither possesses eyes which are haunted or comforting. There’s a certain resemblance between them, insofar as brass limbs and stone skull may resemble the skin counterpart. A heft to their frames, the way they carry themselves as though they are a weapon for the mind to be wielded. But one no longer moves. Her features are chiseled roughly to hint at eyes, nose, mouth.

At their feet lie a fine pistol, a blade of verses, a locket made of spent shells. The woman of flesh, who calls herself Zeraquesh and who might have been born named Hesraine, picks them up. They are hers by right. She blinks rapidly. It’s been a long time since she saw the sun. She brushes away the ashes on her clothes and holds her hand over her breast, briefly, the way one might clutch at a wound. It’s phantom: she does not bleed.

The ziggurat walls crumble to ashes the shade of bluebottle beetles. Zeraquesh steps over them, and out.

About the Author

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared on, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and year’s best collections. She was shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella Scale-Bright was nominated for the British SF Association Award. She is the author of Winterglass, Mirrorstrike, and And Shall Machines Surrender. She has lived in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Jakarta.