Sometimes you choke on a single line in a story. Just one, that’s all it takes to bring it home and make it take up residence. I won’t tell you which line it was in this story from Cassandra Khaw, but it was there.
Flinch. Eyes dilate. Her look is not the frightened regard of a hare, but a broken–backed glare of a thing defeated but undiminished.
“Don’t call me that.” When she speaks, she can taste silk, like strands of damp hair but more viscous still, a choking flavor, semen–salty, spuming from her lungs.
“Goddess—” Flinch again. “—we are sorry. It’s just we—”
“Leave.” Snapped, the word, and jagged with teeth. Her retainers—a spirit of ink and courtly poetry, a guzheng turned maiden—comply, bowing, bowing again, before they exit with a hiss of silk. She shivers. She loathes the sound.
Cotton is the only material she can tolerate on her bare flesh, cotton and nothing else. Not even wool, which reminds her too much of—she rips herself from the memory, begins to pace the dimensions of her room.
In the last few weeks, Heaven has lost its understanding of her and gained instead a kind of pity, not selfless as it should be, but rooted in accusation. Poor child, they say. Broken child. Ruined child. Stupid, ungrateful child. How hard others have fought to earn this status, giving away breath and bone and blood, all for a sliver of place in these courts of undying jade. And yet, she would slough it away, like a snake that had tired of its skin, and take him with her too.
A sigh escapes, coils into a growl.
Him. Always him. As though she was extraneous, a cancer grown on the face of a god.
They can all go to hell, she thinks, savage. She does not care. But there is one thing she does miss, does long for: her name. Only the shape of it remains now, winnowed to nothing by the passing millenias, a ghost of syllables. Occasionally, she wonders if she might compromise, might beg to be returned the appellation that Heaven had endowed in that fugue when she was merely function, neither woman nor worm nor horse.
Her lips, blood–red, curl into a sneer. No, she thinks. Never again. Even if they make her remain nameless forever, rootless, like the spectre she’s become.
Double doors open. Light cuts through the room’s penumbra, spills white–gold across her simple dress, its pattern borrowed from peasantry. She tips her chin up, unbowed. They will not have her pain.
The figure silhouetted in heaven’s radiance is new, cadaverous, unmistakably male, arms bent in the manner of a mantis. “It is time, Goddess.”
Flinch. Snarl. She provides no rebuke, chooses instead to spin a fantasy where she devours him, a piece at a time, mandibles cracking bone. She thinks of brain matter, of how it must taste, jewelled softness glimmering pink in the bowl of his skull.
A deep breath. Drawn, held, surrendered.
“I am ready.”