Rose. 1. A dimension said to exist outside the All. 2. A flower found on a remote planetesimal. 3. (informal) A fleeting state of being.
—from Hol Fan’s Glossary of Needful Terms
THE PORTHOLE IN LI YUN TAI’S SLEEPING CHAMBER shimmered with a silvery light. Tai and his lover paid dearly for a burrow with a window unto the depths of the sea. But today the porthole seemed wan and cold. Wei Bo was gone.
The moment Tai entered his burrow, he knew. The bed was unmade, Bo’s pillow gone. Heart in a clench, he threw open the doors of the clothing chest. Bo’s silks, gone. His dance slippers, gone. Tai clicked the doors shut, stunned and lost. Mementos were missing. The painting of Gu Lou the navitar, the one they had bought together. Gone. Bo was gone. Tai sat on the bed next to the sea wall, staring into its phantomy depths. The anti-bright. The light he and his fellow morts preferred to the glaring sky. He sighed. You drive away the thing you love. By wanting too much of it.
Not that it had been love. Neither Tai nor Bo ever said love. That was a hag word; it dragged you down, taught you to cling and skim. Their life in their burrow had been flash and deep. Now it was nothing.
Returning to the wardrobe, Tai stripped off his work clothes from the dumpling kitchen, stuffing them in a corner of the wardrobe and rummaging for his blue chemise. No, too nice. He reached for the short orange tunic, the cling work boots, and the crinkle belt for added spark. He threw them on, regarding himself in the wardrobe mirror. He was tall, trim, young, and pale. He was flash. What more did he need?
He set out, plunging into the main street of the undercity, no aim in mind. Marquis lights gilded the streets; vhat drum rhythms pulsed from wine dens. Here and there, portholes showed the dim eye of the water. It was a better light than above. The undercity was very like the Rose, with something almost like night. The Rose: the place of short lives, deeply felt. By the Navitar’s Mind, that was the only way to live.
Morts, who usually stayed in the underground city, avoided the life-lengthening rays of the lords’ glaring sky. The Reds considered this practice heresy, coming to the undercity solely for worship. Both Reds and morts revered the navitars. But the Reds were the conforming side of things; morts, the flash side.
A few Reds hurried down the street, casting sideways glances at him, disapproving of how he was dressed. They disapproved of most things. The under-city used to be theirs alone, a place to honor the navitars by peering into the foaming waters. Morts weren’t welcome, but the Society couldn’t keep them out. The Entire had no forbidden places, much as Reds might wish it otherwise.
His mood lifted. If he could shock a Red, then he must look blossom.
Pedi cabs swept by, stuffed with revelers, oglers, and wish-I-weres, daring a taste of the undercity but by day keeping to the ways of the All. But why be Entire when you could be Rose? Li Yun Tai had answered that for himself halfway through school, leaving his family seaside domicile and the life of the bright, the only life his parents could imagine. They’d sacrificed everything to come to Rim City to start their textile business and sew silks for the middling merchants and their haggish children. They had swathed Tai in silk from the time he was a baby. He grew up with the iridescence of silk and its eye-shattering colors. It had made him want an iridescent life. When he started to sleep days and wake in the ebb, his mother said, eyes full of tears, “You are tired of us.” But when he left the silk shop it was for love of silk, not despising of it. He hadn’t seen her or his father in five thousand days. They wouldn’t like what he’d become. A mort. Soon to die. Kept out of the bright. Live a modest span, then walk into the sea. Like the river pilots. When you’re done you’re so done.
The Dark Flower was crammed full, but the door keeper let him in, liking the orange with the work boots, nodding to Tai, saying something Tai couldn’t hear in the thrumming drum beat. Through the dancing bodies, some wearing feather masks—so overdone—he caught sight of the drummer hammering the giant vhat pans, attacking the drums with staccato hands, his body muscled, beautiful—so flash in a world already flash. It struck Tai with bitter clarity: here was a world evaporating even as the dancers tried to claim it with reaching arms, jutting pelvises. Grasp, cling. Lose it all.
That’s what Wei Bo had said. Why he left.
A woman with a red outcrop in her hair asked Tai to dance, and why not? He wasn’t too proud to dance with her, and it shocked his brethren. He held her close, grinding hips, but laughing.
“Like the flower?” She bobbed her head. It was a blossom made of silk.
Very mort. By the end of the second dance she’d given it to him, and Tai wore it behind his ear.
Feeling good now, Tai accepted another cup of wine and drank it like nectar; it didn’t faze him. A woman in a green feather mask stood before him.
Feather girl held up a foaming drink served in a spilling-over cup, forcing him to lick the overrun. They danced, but he found tears pushing at his eyes. The Nigh fizz let him feel his heart. Oh, Wei Bo. Not love, of course. But they’d shared a burrow for six hundred days, and they’d been fond of each other. And others. And then just others.
She led him to a stairway. People were doing it on the landing, and on the stairs, every which way, girl to girl, boy to everything that would stay still. But though he was throbbing, he didn’t want to just pluck the flower of the moment. He didn’t want the moment at all. He just wanted to die. The Nigh beckoned him through the wall, portals discharging gargled light. Come down, down to me. You’ve lived your flash. Come down.
Too much drink. He wanted to ditch the girl.
“Sorry,” he said. But she was already gone. In her place was an apparition: an indigo blue feather mask hid the eyes and cheekbones, but he was beautiful. He wore plain gray silks, his skin so white, he might have been birthed from the Nigh itself. “You look sad.”
“No time to be sad.”
“Sure there is. It just is what it is. And then we swim.”
Tai looked out the porthole. Swim like a Navitar. Float like a river spider.
Blue feathers had him by the hand, gently leading him up the stairs, past the copulating bodies, past all the dismal ecstasy. They walked down a corridor, dark, heavy with incense. Despite his mood, Tai was stunned by the masked boy. The night turned the corner of possibilities. They entered a room of light. Tai shielded his eyes. The light came from a full wall porthole. The opening shimmered in time waves, waves buttered with light.
“Over here,” blue boy said, his voice deep and direct, saying what he wanted. Over here. Against the porthole. Turn around, lean into the glass. Yes, like that, press your face against the wall, let the sea light kiss you. The pane was cold against Tai’s cheek. Roused, Tai pressed his passion against the cold surface, feeling it like heat. Hands around his waist, pulling his buttocks out. No play time then, just straight to the point. Don’t cling. Want, but don’t want too much. Tai bent, compliant, tears wetting the glass, the side of his face slipping. His silks pulled up in back. Yes, if it will make you happy, blue feathers. Just be flash. With me. With me. Tai pushed back, receiving him.
He could see their reflections in the glass. Gray on orange, bird on boy, flash on flash. Blue boy’s face so exotic in the waters, his perfect mouth filled with the foaming Nigh. Tai turned around, and blue boy finished him off, blue feathers quaking with an exotic urgency.
Breathless, Tai leaned against the sea window, then sank to the floor beside his partner. Tai turned toward him and pulled the mask down. Transfixed, he drank in blue boy’s face, a perfect sculpture. Not only that, blue boy was smiling. And staying.
Mustn’t cling, Tai reminded himself. To break the spell, he forced his eyes away from his face, but blue boy put his hand on Tai’s chin, turning him back.
“Fajan,” blue boy said, giving his name.
“Talk to me. Let’s watch the sea.”
The two of them moved back to a place where they could view the full wall porthole. Fajan wanted to talk, and the night and the party downstairs stretched on.
Fajan turned to him when they’d had enough river-watching. “Come back tomorrow.”