by Anya Ow
Mei was painting light onto freshly blown glass when the messenger came. The steel dragonfly crouched low on the back of the chair, its eyes two half-domes of mother-of-pearl, and its teardrop wings flicked and hummed even as its feet clasped its perch tightly, made restless by geas. Ignoring a messenger was petty, but Mei concentrated on daubing the last chain with her bone-tipped pen, and shook the globe gently until it glowed, wreathing her ink-stained fingers with a whisper of sunset. Carefully, Mei inserted the miniature apple tree into its ball of peat, and with a mother’s anxious caution, she drew her hands away. The light-stained glass dropped sharply, only to come to a stop an inch away from her workbench, where it hovered, spinning gently. Mei closed her eyes for a heartbeat, relieved, then she gathered the dragonfly to her with reluctant fingers.
It whispered its script into her ear, and when it was done, Mei set it down on the windowsill, and waited until it flicked off into the late afternoon, oblivious to the drop or the stiff seaward breeze. The seafront town was idle during the waning hours of the day, with its few shops starting to pack themselves, crablike, back into their bright-painted shells. The day was too blustery for fishermen, and as Mei closed up shop and locked her narrow door, she was alone on the steep-paved street, with a view wending all the way down to the ship-clustered little harbour, tiled with sloping red and blue rooftops. The great glass dome of the lighthouse, further along the rocky edge of the island, was dulled still: it was yet too early in the day for the light-painted glass to wake.
“Morning,” offered the steel-geased familiar as Mei pushed into the herbal shop, the brass bell on the shuttered door clonking to announce her approach.
“Afternoon,” Mei corrected, sliding a silver toll across the counter, and the familiar, today in the shape of an exceedingly slender cat, affected a sigh, eyelids fluttering over mother-of-pearl orbs. It pretended to wash one silvery paw as she hurried past the sandalwood herb cabinets, each unlabelled drawer stacked from floor to ceiling, through the astringent air to the backroom, where she found the Archway still warm to the touch, a steel curve set neatly into stone beside crates of supplies. It activated under her fingers with a soft atonal shudder, and Mei stepped from seablown autumn to humid summer.
Disoriented, Mei nearly flinched as someone approached her from the side but, as always, her brother only afforded her a distracted glance. “You’re late.”
“I came once I received the message.” Mei shot back, and swallowed her instinctive, decades-bred irritation. Ren would have been oblivious to it anyway. Gangly and tall, passably handsome under his unshaven cheeks and tousled hair, Ren looked freshly unearthed from the spec labs, still in his immaculate bespelled coat, buttoned up against the pressed gray-beaded breeches folded over his soft hide shoes, hand-made, all evidence of her brother’s cultivated indifference meshed with their mother’s touch. “How bad is it?”
“Grandma thinks that I’m Kai,” Ren said, always with that matter-of-fact tone that read like malice to Mei, but was probably just a spec mage’s clinical detachment. Probably.
“You’ve said that to me before. What’s gotten worse now?” Mei corrected, and grimaced, regretting the harshness in her tone as she followed Ren through Central Arch to the private wards. The Mount was always busy, even now, its wide, scrupulously clean white corridors thick with patients and healers, its stone and glass wards caked around a manicured garden, tended to by botany adepts. Anyone who passed them gave only Ren a second glance: beside him, with her pale face and her untidy bob of hair, her crumpled gray frock and workman’s boots, Mei was too out of place to register as anyone important.
“She probably won’t remember you,” Ren added. Was that relish, or professional detachment? “It won’t be long now. Once the deterioration starts in the mind, it accelerates.”
They ascended a corkscrew stair, and Mei turned her face away, going quiet as her brother rambled on, citing spec theory about the special geometry of an adeptus’ mind, indifferent to her weary silence. Adulthood had ever felt like having their childhood frozen in place and stretched, ill-fitting, over the rest of their lives. The little emperor and the daughter, silent.
Before Mother was born, Mei’s five uncles and two aunts had lived like a semi-wild pack of children in the family estate, chased around the tea plantation and its nearby riverlands by a’mahs, ignored by Grandfather, who could always be found Shaping smoke patterns out of his pipe, lounging in a wicker chair by the shade of the villa porch. Sometimes he would leave through the villa Arch, on business that he would not explain. Adeptus business, or so Mei’s aunts had thought, always quick with hero-worship. Mei’s oldest uncle knew better, even as a child, though he would say nothing of it to his siblings for six more decades, long after Grandfather was ash. (He had once seen Grandfather in the colonial town, sitting in a quiet coffeeshop with a painted stranger, another woman, Grandfather’s lean body arched forward with a fiercely indulgent curiosity that he scarcely afforded his own children, her slender silk-cocooned body poised, doll-like, over her china teacup.)
If Grandma knew, as she probably did, she seemed not to care. Hers was the province of Shaping fortune, small nuggets of prosperity that she brokered between paper-thin layers of chocolate and sponge, the thousand-layered kueh cake, a family secret that had propelled her bloodline into its permanent position in the Shaperate two generations ago. As an adeptus at sixteen she had been matched to Grandfather, twenty-four, although his Shaping was Avalon-trained and hers weighted in fistfuls and cups and hand-me-down wisdom. In all the sepia pre-war family photographs Mei had seen, Grandma and Grandfather often sat either unsmiling or with small uncertain grins, as though eternally bewildered by their fate.
As to the war, by the time Mei was born, it was a textbook wound, inflicted so long ago on the riverlands that time had already stitched its pain away into neat stone memorials and the history section of local schoolbooks. The beaches where men had been lined up at gunpoint in the shallows, single-file, were filled again with children chasing the surf; the bridges where their heads had been left afterwards as silent sentries were now plated over and lush with flowering shrubs.
“It was the war,” Mother said once, in an odd non-sequitur, when Mei had, in the way of young girls, shyly and vaguely asked if she could have a pony for the Solstice, knowing full well that the request was hopeless. “Grandfather gave away all his money to the resistance. The plantations and the mines. His position in the Shaperate. Or we would have been very wealthy now. You wouldn’t have to work. I probably wouldn’t have married your father.” She had laughed. Mei had stared, made abruptly uncertain by fate. (In this too, Mei’s oldest uncle knew better, though again he would say not a word of it for decades. The smoke dreams were benevolent servants, but unkind masters.)
Grandma seemed unconcerned. She had retained her position in the Shaperate, simply by being the oldest surviving member of her bloodline, though as before, she did not attend its meetings, nor even the occasional Consulate flutters. Perched timidly on a stool in Grandma’s stone kitchen, watching Grandma roll out paper-thin sheets of sponge under creased and floury fingers, Mei had once asked why. Grandma had paused, tilting her head, her eyes sunk into a face whose severe button-nosed plainness had been worn by Time along its smile lines, wrinkled lips curling into an impish, uneven grin.
“Why would I? Everyone speaks English there,” she said, with supremely elegant indifference, in her native Hakka, and Mei had grinned in response, all unthinking, young enough then to be oblivious to the gentler breeds of cruelty.
Because one of Mei’s paternal uncles held a Healer-Shaperate position in the Mont, Grandma’s private ward looked more like a penthouse suite’s bedroom than a hospital room. Large windows looked out over the hospital garden, and bouquets of flowers had been stacked neatly on the wide sill, made riotous by company, roses intermingling with baby’s breath blossoms, lorded over by thick-stemmed sunflowers and hemmed in by bursts of carnations. The hospital bed occupied the far side of the room, hemmed in by its Sentinel frame, catheters and tubing snaking out from under the pale blue sheets. Someone had propped Grandma’s wasting frame up against thick pillows, and she smiled with myopic uncertainty at her visitors, her frail hands pressed over her belly.
Cousin Lea glanced up by Grandma’s bedside, with her usual birdlike, waifish alertness, her hair pulled back into a tight bun at her skull. Father was nowhere to be seen, or any of the uncles, paternal or otherwise. Auntie Mary was making tea, her movements slow and purposeful, and she smiled as Mei stepped into the room behind Ren, nodding towards the closest window, where Mother presided, a swarm of dragonflies perched patiently on the sill, on the window, on the sunflowers, waiting. She listened to one, whispered her answer, and sent it off, smiling and frowning by degrees, resplendent in black silk and brocade, thick earth-brown hair brushed down over aggressively powdered cheeks. She wore no chain of office, needing none: people who stood beside Mother were often surprised by how petite she actually was — she exuded power as forbiddingly and as coldly as her namesake.
“Mum,” Ren wandered over. “My sis is here.”
Mother smiled and raised a finger, still whispering to a dragonfly. Mei smiled in response, uncertain, and edged over to the bed, where Lea had pulled up a chair. “Ah-poh, Mei is here,” Lea told Grandma encouragingly, in Hakka, and obligingly, Grandma turned her face, very slightly, regarding Mei with a vague curiosity that shocked her. It had been less than a year.
“So many people…” Grandma let out a nervous, fluttery laugh, with none of her usual impish warmth. “It’s… been a while, hasn’t it?” She spoke in Hakka, and Mei had to concentrate to parse the language, now. It had been so long since she had spoken anything but English. “It’s been a while. Hello.”
“She doesn’t remember,” Lea said gently, in English.
“I told you,” Ren called from across the room, and for a familiar moment, Mei hated her brother a little. Always a little. Her eyes were stinging. Grief had surprised her after all, as she sat by the bedside with someone for whom she was now a stranger.
“How is…” Mei trailed off helplessly. “Did something change? You and Auntie Lily, you’ve both been taking care of her at your place-”
“Ren didn’t tell you?” Lea lowered her voice, as though embarrassed. “The reason ah-poh is here… yesterday, she Shaped the wall. In the… in my kitchen. Opened an Archway. Nearly stepped through, too, to the Gods know where, if… if Mum hadn’t been there to stop her. They had been making breakfast. Ah-poh became suddenly convinced that ‘robbers’ were coming to invade ‘the estate’.”
“An unmoored Archway?” Mei blinked, and stared at Grandma, who smiled again at them, letting out another nervous laugh, cast adrift now that no one was speaking Hakka. “She’s never had that kind of strength.” Or hadn’t she? Mei had never been sure. She had never tried any of Grandma’s thousand-layered cakes. Like her brother, she had been shuttled quickly into a classical Shaperate education. Shaping something as unfathomable and unpredictable as ‘prosperity’ into food, of all things, smelled uncomfortably like hedge magic, for all that Grandma had retained her Shaperate position until her mandatory retirement.
“Your brother said that sometimes people can draw more deeply from the Wellspring when they’re emotional. The Shaperate wants someone with her all the time now,” Lea whispered back. “Just in case. If not us, they’d assign someone. A spellbreaker.”
“It’s not that bad, is it?” Mei asked, aghast.
“It’s the rules,” Ren pointed out, hovering by the flowers. For once, his perennial sense of self-importance had given way to uncertainty.
“They said that they can’t be too careful. Especially after the Archway.” Lea lifted a shoulder into a helpless shrug. “Your Mum’s handling it now.”
Mei flinched as Grandma grasped Lea’s hand, abruptly. “Make tea, Lea. For the guests.”
“We’re making tea,” Lea agreed in Hakka, as Auntie Mary advanced, pushing a hot cup into Mei’s hand. “Look. She has tea.”
The tension seemed to bleed away from frail shoulders: Grandma smiled, relaxing her white-knuckled grip. “Hello again. It’s been a while.” She laughed nervously. “I’m sorry… your name… it’s been a while.”
“Yes, Grandma.” Mei whispered in broken dialect, and sipped her tea, to hide her anguish. “It’s been a while.”
Mei had visited the riverlands Shaperate only once, tagging on Mother’s heels. With time she would no longer remember the reason why, or very much of the stately colonial building with its green high-domed roof and its splendid white high ceilings, its intricate hand-tiled floors, once the home of the Ambassador-General of the Shaperate-West. (There was no longer a Shaperate-West and East and South, of course, save in sentiment.) Dragonflies darted through the hallways in a constant hum of geased wings, neatly dodging past human traffic, and the occasional familiar crawled or walked or slithered past, purposeful and oblivious. Mei had gawked, her hand swallowed in her mother’s, skipping to keep up.
“My daughter, Mei,” Mother would say, whenever she was stopped in the hallways, before speaking business. “Yes, she’s enrolled,” she would add sometimes, and rarely, “Athenaem, of course. My old school.” Duly congratulated on her academic and adeptus accomplishments, Mei would smile uncertainly. The adult world was a distant dream, one to which Mei gave little thought to. Had she been told then that someday she would drop off the manicured path towards the Shaperate that life had laid beneath her feet, to live in a seaside town and paint light on glass – Mei would have shrugged. It would have been all the same to her. But if she had been told that she would defy her mother to do so, she would have been bewildered. Then, and for years more, defiance was unthinkable.
Years before becoming the family disappointment, however, Mei was hurriedly left in the small Shaperate park, under the watchful eye of a familiar in the shape of a large Japanese crane, its wings swept back over thin mincing legs. Mother had a fire to put out. This was something so common now to Mei’s life that she had followed the crane without a fuss, and had pulled herself up onto a bench, fishing the book she always had ready in her bag into her lap.
She made it through a chapter before she vaguely realized that she had an audience: the crane had flicked its wings, in recognition, not alarm. A pair of men were staring at her curiously, surprised on their walk in the park, one stocky and graying at the temples, a Westerner with ginger hair and a florid face, the other a local, younger, dapper and young enough that his narrow face was still spotty at the chin. Both wore the sober gray coats of Shaperate Administration despite the humid heat of the riverlands morning, and now that they had Mei’s attention, the Westerner cleared his throat.
“Hello… Miss?” He spoke with a thick brogue, one that Mei couldn’t place. “Are you lost?”
“She’s obviously not lost, she has a Court Familiar,” murmured the local, with a kindly smile. “Waiting for someone?”
At Mei’s uncertain nod, the Westerner sighed. “Really, you people. Leaving children with Familiars and maids. Shouldn’t that child be in school?”
“It’s still the school break, sir,” said the local, unperturbed. “Who’s your mum or dad? It’s getting hot out here. If they’re in Council, it’s going to be a while. Maybe you should move indoors.”
A little resentful now, Mei named her mother, using her maiden name. Mother had never seen the point of changing surnames, not with Shaperate bloodlines on both sides of her own lineage and none on the side of Mei’s father. She watched now, resigned, as both men blinked.
“Ah,” said the Westerner, with a quick smile, meant to disarm. “You’re the Dragon Lady’s daughter.”
They left her alone, hurriedly, and later, Mei related the incident to her mother at lunch, in a quiet little pastry cafe, a short walk away from the Shaperate. Mother had chuckled, amused. “Oh yes, Frank and Tim, they’ll tell you that I’m always terrorising people. They’re used to it now,” she added, as Mei said nothing, cutting into her quiche with careful flicks of her knife. “But as a woman in the Shaperate, you have to be fierce. Or you’ll be forgotten. You’ll end up spending your days in absentia, giving the men your vote by proxy.” She shook her head slowly, as though in disdain.
“Is that normal?” Mei asked, curious now. “I thought that women have been named to the Shaperate for over fifty years now.”
“More normal than you would think. It’s not just ability that counts an Adept into the ranks… and it’s certainly not ability that keeps an Adept relevant in the Shaperate. But by the time you’re in the Shaperate yourself – if you ever do get there – hopefully you’ll make the most of it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Grandma,” Mei said mulishly, still young enough then to love everyone in her life utterly and helplessly, even her brother.
“I didn’t say that there was.” Mother said, in a different tone, thoughtful now, and she smiled wryly. “When you were very young – I had to drop you off at the creche, and your a’mah would have to pick you up, and some nights by the time I got home you would be asleep.” Mei nodded cautiously. This was still the case. “Once, you asked me, ‘Mum, why do you have to work? All my friends’ mums stay at home. I want you to stay at home, like the other mums.’ I was so hurt… But to give you the life you have now… and your future–” Mother hesitated, blinking owlishly, as though with sudden regret. “Eat your quiche.”
It was only later, years on, that Mei would understand that even her rebellion had been simply a different shade of privilege.
“Those bloody Consulars,” Mother growled, as the cloud of dragonflies thinned into a trickle. “Think they can lock someone away just for being old!”
“She opened an unmoored Archway,” Ren pointed out, forever the only one immune to Mother’s temper. “It’s a serious matter. A mage who becomes… unstuck from reality… is a problem. A Shaper-”
“I didn’t think that she was that strong,” Mei muttered, to no one.
“Treating her like an apostate… She’s never hurt anyone in her life,” Mother snapped. The dragon, awaking. By the bed, Lea shrunk back a little instinctively, while Auntie Mary scurried out of the ward, murmuring something about getting more water. “Thomas and the rest of us are talking it over. But she can’t go into a retirement home now, not if she can still Shape. And we can’t watch her all the time.”
“Spellbreakers aren’t that bad,” Ren ventured.
“Not that bad? If they dispel something… the backlash? She’s too frail for that now. Gods know how she’ll take it!” Mother glared at the dragonflies, as though all of the messengers had somehow failed her after all.
“It doesn’t have to be a full dispel. There’s no other way. Unless you want to keep her sedated.” Ren ambled over to the other side of the bed, smiling at Grandma. “Hello, ah-poh.”
“Kai,” Grandma beamed, patting his elbow. “You are so tall now.”
“See,” Ren told Mei in English. “The other day, Cousin Ellie came by with her new baby, and Grandma thought she was Auntie Mary.”
Stop it, Mei wanted to say, but she sipped her tea instead. Her eyes were stinging again. “This is a good day,” Lea said, almost defensively. “Once, she left the house and nearly walked off by herself. Luckily Uncle Thomas was visiting.”
“The only things she’s Shaped in her life have been kueh,” Mother said, exasperated. “Until that unmoored Archway, which was probably a fluke. She’s not a danger to anyone.”
What about to herself, Mei thought, but took another sip instead, and felt like a coward. Maybe I could look after her, came the second thought, but it slunk away quickly, embarrassed even in the privacy of her own mind. Love had proved itself insufficient before her instinctive selfishness. Mei squirmed, uncomfortable, and wished for a moment that she was home – then felt guilty for even thinking such a thing. And so she waited, helpless. It was obvious what was going to happen, anyway. For all that the Dragon would spit and snap and breathe fire, the Consulate had legal primacy, and if they were sending a spellbreaker, then that was the beginning and the end of the matter.
“She could have opened it into vacuum,” Ren said, sounding only mildly interested at the possibility. “Space.”
“Is that even possible?” Mei asked, unthinkingly.
Ren brightened up, energised by what was essentially, after all, the fundamental question that drove spec adepts and their research. As he started to lecture them all on human limitations and synaptic function, Mei impulsively reached over to grasp Grandma by the palm, startled by how cold her creased fingertips felt. At the touch, Grandma looked away from Ren to Mei, and let out another nervous, stranger’s laugh. “Hello.”
On the first and last time Mei had ever tried to learn her Grandma’s craft, it was the winter break — or, more accurately, where the riverlands were concerned, the monsoon break. Rain battered the glass windows and swallowed the back yard, turning the garden into a miniature lake, drowning the flowers, choking the storm drains with torrential runoff. Grandma had decided to make glutinous rice balls, a sweet afternoon snack with kernels of pleasant daydreams, one of Mei’s favourites, and Mei had long given up trying to take notes.
“Ah-poh, not know ‘feels right’,” Mei complained, hobbled by her uneven, fast-eroding Hakka. Mother, grinding down peanuts into powder, only chuckled.
“That’s the whole point about craftsmanship. A handful of this, a sprinkle of that, enough flour until it ‘feels right’.”
“She’s not even Shaping,” Mei added, more comfortable with giving criticism in English.
“Feel that,” Grandma pushed over the wooden bowl. “That is ‘right’.”
“It’s the same as before,” Mei retorted. “Someday I’m going to have to do this properly. Make measurements, time it all. The kueh, too.”
“How long are you staying?” Grandma asked then, hopeful. “Until the Lunar New Year?”
“Yes, ah-poh. Until, third month.” University was generous with its semester breaks.
“Ah-h.” Grandma’s creased face wreathed itself with a broad smile. “Any Western boyfriend?”
“Ah-poh!” Mei yelped.
Mother pulled a face. “Best not to. I’ve told you. In the Shaperate you deal with all manner of people, and the Westerners-”
“Westerners are good,” Grandma interrupted, untroubled. “They only take one wife.”
It was Mother’s turn to yelp. “Ma.”
“Times have changed in the riverlands, Ma.”
Mei pulled the wooden bowl closer as Grandma chuckled, clearly pleased at having flustered her youngest daughter. Dusting her hands with flour, Mei curled her palms against the sticky dough, and pulled it between her fingertips, comfortable with her ignorance. “When I grow up,” she decided out aloud, “I want to be a rice ball adept.”
Mother pulled a face, even as Grandma laughed out loud with a delight so hearty and brilliant that it startled Mei into silence. With pursed lips, Mother wiped away a smudge of flour from Mei’s cheeks. “We’ll see,” was all she said, and Grandma winked. For a perfect moment in time they were aligned, the craftsman no one understood and the child who would become the same. Blood had bred true. So had everything else. But it would be years and years again before Mei would feel the pride she felt then, in who she was, and whom she had come from, and by then, it would be too late for amends.
“Thanks for coming,” Mother hugged Mei afterwards, outside the ward. “Visit more often. I’ll let you know if I move the Shaperate. Are you sure that you can’t stay for dinner?”
“I’m sure,” Mei said uncomfortably, even though she could. Lea hovered close by: Auntie Mary was inside the room. “I’ll try to come by more often.”
“You have the time anyway,” Ren said dismissively. “You’re an artist.”
“Ren,” Mother said, though her smile froze briefly. Mei tried to pretend that seeing it didn’t hurt. Maternal pride had died a slow death a long time ago: this was just an occasional spasm, as far as Mei was concerned. “Be happy,” Mother added abruptly, as dragonflies landed on her shoulders. She turned to go, heading briskly down the corridor, whispering to one dragonfly then flicking it impatiently away, still negotiating circumstances.
“Soo-o,” Ren noted affably, “The other day-”
“Go away,” Mei hissed venomously, now that she no longer had to play nice in front of anyone who mattered. Ren smiled at her, a little woodenly, and shambled off, probably heading back to his labs.
“Mei,” Lea said gently, and Mei nearly jumped. She’d forgotten that Lea was there. “Here,” Lea pressed a little sandalwood box into her hands. “It’s from the last set. She would have wanted you to have it.” Before Mei could answer, Lea had opened the door to the room, slipping back inside.
Mei took her time returning to Central Arch, in case she met someone she recognised, and took an Arch back to her seaside town with relief. The herbal shop was still empty, though the familiar was now a parrot, and it clicked its beak at her in greeting as she hurried past, no longer in the mood for niceties. It was dark enough now that the lighthouse glow was a brilliant candle of orange and gold against the speckled dark of the midnight sky, but Mei didn’t stop to study it, breathless as she rushed away, exhausted by the time she clattered home and locked the world away behind her.
The floating globe still spun gently above her workbench, and Mei set the sandalwood box down beside it, sinking into her chair, abruptly listless, and watched the tiny little tree turn this way and that, its miniature Shaped leaves quivering in the seaward breeze from the window. Dancing. In the afternoon it had been beautiful. Now it seemed trivial. Unfinished.
Mei drew the sandalwood box towards her, and flicked up the lid, and though she knew what she would find, she still felt lightheaded as she saw the little square kueh within, golden in the magelight from her lamps, perfect. She held the box close to her face, breathing in sandalwood and chocolate and spice. Gently, Mei broke off a piece from the corner, and pushed it with a fingertip under the roots of the miniature tree. Then, as her throat ached, as her eyes grew scratchy once more, in the silence of her life Mei scooped up the rest and set it on her tongue, savoring it as it melted down, buttery and sweet with yesterday’s dreams.
“The Dragon Lady’s Daughter” (© Anya Ow) was published in Issue 4 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.