There was a Stationer word on Mahit’s tongue, but to say it aloud would be uncouth and too revealing.
The many lights in the bathroom were very bright, and mirrored everywhere, as if they were inside a piece of quartz. Her hand was still burning.
Kneeling in front of her, Her Excellency the ezuazucat Nineteen Adze, whose-gracious-presence-illuminates-the-room-like-the-edgeshine-of-a-knife, did not seem perturbed by Mahit’s silence. Her wide, cat-like face was smooth and unreadable.
Mahit said, “Yskandr told His Imperial Majesty that an imago-machine—“
“So I understand,” said Nineteen Adze.
“That isn’t possible. It isn’t capable of, of displacing a person in their own body, that would be—”
“Yskandr suggested that it was.”
“Did he always tell you the truth?” It felt like a childish question; it reminded her of the game she had played with Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea. Diplomacy wasn’t a truth pact, and she was only beginning to unravel what Yskandr had already told their imperial allies.
Nineteen Adze gave her a look that she felt through to her core. “Either you are not Yskandr, or you are doing a very good performance of not being Yskandr. It’s rather difficult to prove either way, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would have thought you’d know him well enough to—“
“I do,” Nineteen Adze said. “And Yskandr would have his reasons.”
Mahit suspected that Nineteen Adze believed she wasn’t Yskandr, and that she was being drawn out with this invitation to prove it still more; but knowing that didn’t make it any less effective. She wanted to prove she was useful beyond a failed imago of the former ambassador.
Just as pressingly, someone had just tried to kill her—perhaps because they believed she was Yskandr. She thought of Nineteen Adze standing in the archway, her face full of expression as she watched Mahit handle the beautiful toxin. Don’t.
Xauitl, she’d called it. Blooms. A single white flower in the bottom of the bowl.
Nineteen Adze might have done nothing—might have watched and waited for it to be over, and then reported to His Imperial Majesty the regrettable death of the new ambassador from Lsel. Allergies, Mahit thought, and had to suppress a laugh as it bubbled up sickly.
If you weren’t useful, you wouldn’t be here, Nineteen Adze had said.
She took Nineteen Adze’s offered forearm and was brought her to her feet. They were almost of a height, but it didn’t seem that way.
The full weight of Nineteen Adze’s attention was terrible. She was being pared open—gently, inexorably. The edgeshine of a knife. All their secrets would spill out.
“I’m not Yskandr,” she said. “We’re not the same.”
“Are you not? Ambassadors are chosen for compatibility with their predecessors, didn’t you tell me that?”
“Compatibility,” Mahit said. “Only that. And it seems I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.”
“How well is it possible to know anyone?” Nineteen Adze said, and the question pierced Mahit like a bolt of cold. Teixacalaanlitzlim were very good at seeming, and the construction of seemly narratives; everything else was kept in reserve, unreachable. Nineteen Adze’s face was a perfect composition, arranged so that it gestured at warmth and curiosity, if Mahit wished to see them there.
Mahit took a deep sip of air. She didn’t, for a moment, close her eyes. She felt as though she was gripping her whole self tightly in both fists, whether to keep herself together or hold herself back.
Nineteen Adze’s lips were smooth and warm.
Time dilated. It seemed to pass very quickly, and yet the interval in which they touched was so very detailed, every nerve in Mahit’s face prickling to life. Freefall.
She pulled back. “I’m sorry, I—“
“Are you?” Nineteen Adze said, with a cadence which implied disbelief, or humour, or something else.
Mahit could not blame Yskandr and the strange endocrine bloom that made her suspect his relationship with one of the Emperor’s ezuazaucatim. The giddy, anxious flush she felt was all her own, her blood throbbing in time with her poisoned hand.
Nineteen Adze was studying her, head tilted. “What a surprise you are,” she said. “Ambassador.” The use of Mahit’s title might have been a gentle reprimand.
“Excuse me, Your Excellency. We’ll call it a,” she hesitated, and then let it stretch out, “a cultural misunderstanding.”
Nineteen Adze wore a slight, perfect Teixcalaanli smile: a shade of motion in her cheeks and a widening of her eyes. It was quite vicious to behold. “Oh, I think you understand quite well.”
Looking at her, Mahit felt a kind of blank terror.
She took Mahit’s face in her hand. The signet ring on her thumb was a cold brand against Mahit’s cheek. “You’re even bolder than Yskandr.”
“Given what I know of him,” Mahit said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
“More direct,” Nineteen Adze said. “Yskandr would have spent the evening being so very charming and persuasive, making his approach from every angle. You throw yourself like a spear and hope to hit something vital.”
Mahit understood that she was being insulted, gently.
Nineteen Adze’s hand fell away. “Come, Mahit.”
She walked out of the bathroom. As Mahit began to follow, she glimpsed herself in a mirror pane. Her eyes were very bright. Pain made her face a severe etching of itself.
She saw Nineteen Adze press something on the wall panel. With a hiss, the bedroom door smoothly shut, and now they were truly alone.
She remembered how Nineteen Adze had looked in the Palace-Earth ballroom, tall and brilliant, a figure in white amid a sea of colours, and the near-relief she had felt to see her. To see the woman who, at the end of the night, would usher her away so politely and irresistibly, a diplomatic kidnapping in full view.
Nineteen Adze said, “Take off your clothes.”
Hot-faced and uncertain, Mahit hesitated.
Slowly, and in disbelief, Mahit unbuttoned her grey foreign-cut trousers. She let them slide down, and stepped out of them. The air was cool, and her skin rose in gooseflesh. As she began on her grey foreign-cut blouse, she realised that the clothes she had longed for when she arrived were almost disdainful to her now. They marked her as irrevocably other.
From an untouchable distance, Nineteen Adze watched. Her head was tilted, as if Mahit were poetry of an irregular sort being declaimed. Even her condescension was polite.
Mahit’s damp fingers slipped on a button, struggling to push it through its eye. Nineteen Adze came toward her—Mahit’s heart clenched—and unbuttoned the rest with short, ruthless motions. Mahit’s blouse was slid from her shoulders and dropped away.
Nineteen Adze kissed her. As she slid her tongue into Mahit’s mouth, her thumb trailed down Mahit’s spine, bump by bump, and unclasped her bra. The other hand curved around her breast, pressing hard and in slow circles. The sudden thrill of feeling caught Mahit off guard, and she gasped.
Mahit felt her pause: she had found the large purple-black bruise which spread over Mahit’s hip and belly. The edges were poisonous green and yellow. “You have had a time of it, haven’t you?”
“In the explosion,” Mahit said. “The restaurant fell on me.”
“How unfortunate. You’ll let me see to it.”
But not straight away, it seemed. Now Nineteen Adze was touching it, with small motions of her fingertips like word-glyphs, as if annotating an infograph. It hurt, but remotely—an ambigous ache which put a heat low in her belly.
Nineteen Adze’s hand splayed down her stomach, and smoothed over her underwear. Her fingertip drifted between Mahit’s legs, stroking her through the fabric. It felt inescapably possessive. Mahit groaned.
“Undress me,” Nineteen Adze said. There, again: that unthinking authority, as if Mahit belonged to her. Mahit struggled out of her stupefaction.
The ezuazaucat’s shirt and trousers were elegantly cut, with simple fastenings. For a moment it felt almost ceremonial, and Mahit folded them and laid them carefully aside. Her hands shook only a little.
The faint light gave a gleam to Nineteen Adze’s dark bronze skin. Her body was as sharp as her face, everything superfluous pared away. Her collarbones, with their shadows, were like bared teeth. She looked, if anything, more dangerous.
Then Mahit was pushed down on the rumpled side of the white bed, and in one powerful motion Nineteen Adze moved over her, and the feeling of Nineteen Adze’s body—her limbs, her weight, her breath—was overwhelming.
“Stay still, Mahit.”
Nineteen Adze was warm—which was almost a surprise, that she was not perfectly cool to the touch. She pressed her mouth to Mahit’s bare shoulder, and propped herself on an elbow.
“I recall someone once Yskandr about Stationer sexual mores at a social function. He was reticent on the subject.” It was said so lightly, and the insinuation was impossible to pin down. Perhaps she was baiting Mahit, to find out what—if anything—she had grasped from Yskandr about the nature of their relationship.
“We’re human,” Mahit said. “We don’t practice anything outside of what Teixcalaanlitzlim would consider—”
Burning with a sense of offence, Mahit shifted forward and kissed her. Then she rose to her knees. As she did, she thought of kneeling before the Emperor—but highest in her recollection was his frailty. The awe she felt before him was not the same awe she felt before Nineteen Adze.
She touched Nineteen Adze’s gracile shoulders, the rising shape of her clavicle, her small breasts. When she put her mouth there, Nineteen Adze gave a soft, strong hum, an amused sound, and arched herself luxuriantly.
Heat flooded Mahit—a staticky, uneasy, helpless feeling. She held Nineteen Adze’s narrow hips and kissed down her belly, circling the shallow dip of her navel. As she did, Nineteen Adze’s hands moved restlessly on her head, and Mahit thought the fingers traced deliberately where her imago-machine was bedded. She remembered that terrible sympathy—Tell me what’s gone wrong—and her molten-glass anger at being so manipulated.
Nineteen Adze let her legs fall open. “Have you ever been with a woman before?”
Mahit paused. The experiences she’d had on Lsel Station seemed a different species of thing entirely. Even in this—especially in this—she would be made to feel clumsy and naive. “It’s not unfamiliar,” she said, falling back on a passive sentence construction which felt stiff as she spoke it.
“Not unfamiliar,” Nineteen Adze repeated, mirth in her eyes. “You could be talking about fluid dynamics or advanced rhetoric.”
“It might as well be,” Mahit said, “when everything is so very complicated here.”
Nineteen Adze tipped her head, the light liquid in her dark hair. “I’m not proposing that it be complicated.”
As if it could be anything else, Mahit thought, and was struck again by the absurdity of all this as she looked at Nineteen Adze—who took Mahit’s hand and brought it to her lips.
This seemed, somehow, more intimate than kissing—and more frightening. Her index and middle finger slid into Nineteen Adze’s mouth, the heat like a shock. Mahit could feel her tongue and the shapes of her teeth. Nineteen Adze held her wrist and gently sucked, so that her teeth closed around Mahit’s fingers.
Then she brought Mahit’s hand down between her legs. Mahit’s fingertips grazed her there, then settled, moving gently at her direction.
“Go on,” Nineteen Adze murmured.
She slid a finger inside. It went smoothly—it was so close and hot, so delicate and strange, and she almost forgot to breathe.
“Mm.” With a pull on her wrist, Nineteen Adze drove her finger further in.
She found herself looking helplessly into Nineteen Adze’s eyes as her hand was tugged back and forth, the pace ruthlessly controlled. She was an instrument for Nineteen Adze’s pleasure; and the inevitability of that control humbled her, and angered her.
She pressed in hard and crooked her fingers, almost a gouging motion, and Nineteen Adze gasped and arched her back, pulling at Mahit’s hair until her scalp hurt. “Ah—”
Mahit kept up the hard rhythm even as Nineteen Adze’s grip on her began to slacken, and dared to lean over her to kiss that long, slim throat. Nineteen Adze shook, and then she clenched up all over. Even as her face went blank, there was something terribly controlled about the set of her mouth, and her sigh.
Panting, Nineteen Adze sat up. Mahit had to move away in haste to avoid bumping heads, and found herself pushed onto her back.
Nineteen Adze leaned over her, and cupped her breast, teasing with the thumb, and put her mouth to Mahit’s neck. Mahit had a visceral premonition of jaws clamped around her throat and biting through. She felt edges of teeth as Nineteen Adze mouthed there.
She didn’t know what to do with her hands, lying with her limbs splayed like a martyred soldier in a Teixcalaanli epic. Hesitantly she touched Nineteen Adze’s dark hair, trying its soft, thick texture. Her nerves were sparkling, static down her arm and into the hand which touched Nineteen Adze. She felt Yskandr in the muscles of her face—a desire to smile widely, so wide she thought her face would crack—and in her hand the ghost of his, broader and so gentle. She was, for a moment, washed through with affection, with wanting to be near her.
A shock went through Nineteen Adze’s eyes. She did not speak, but the name seemed to rest on her lips.
Then Yskandr was gone again, and more terribly gone because she had felt him—like a spasm in her brain, dizzying her.
“Is he there?”
“Almost,” Mahit said. Then, “No.”
“Ah,” Nineteen Adze said, and for a moment her expression was complicated, and Mahit was helpless before it, as if it were a line of fifteen-syllable verse so overdetermined with meaning that she felt dizzy even to apprehend it.
Next moment, Nineteen Adze bent and lapped at her delicately, and Mahit let out a sob of breath. Nineteen Adze’s tongue inside her was so sweet as to be cruel, and Nineteen Adze was stroking there as well, prying her open with two fingers.
She could hardly think beyond the sensation and the strangeness and the fine-edged anxiety of being so close to the euazuacat, like being underwater and realising she would soon run out of air.
Nineteen Adze looked up again, and there was a hunger in her face—the edgeshine of a knife—and Mahit thought suddenly, wildly, of the newsfeeds they’d watched that morning, which had disorientated her. The spearhead of the Empire’s ships pointing at her sector, and the way the vectors of a starchart could be inverted: Lsel looking at the Empire; the Empire looking at Lsel. The Empire’s jaws, opening wide. Desire without end.
She thought of that linguistic turn which was profoundly Teixcalaan in its grandeur, in its totality—the Empire, the world, one and the same. Lsel was a tiny station, one of many, and incidental in the path of that consummation—of that consuming.
For a moment she was outside herself, seeing the image they made amid Nineteen Adze’s white sheets, in this white room which seemed to envelop them. A strange, childish thought gripped her like a cold hand: not all of me—
Then Nineteen Adze sucked hard at her, and at once her nerves feel shorted and blown with too much feeling, and she felt her hips move toward, her fingers and toes screwed up in the sheets.
Nineteen Adze gave a soft laugh—not quite warm, but pleased. She pressed the heel of her palm to Mahit’s sex, letting her shove up against it, greedy, gasping, feeling split to the middle.
The world blanked.
Laid out and all over sweating, she was vaguely aware of Nineteen Adze moving away. When she opened her eyes, Nineteen Adze was sipping from a glass of water and watching her.
Mahit’s poisoned hand had begun to throb again. Something in her was changed, but she couldn’t yet see the whole of it. She lay looking at the white, smooth ceiling until her breathing was even. Then she sat up.
Nineteen Adze had gone some distance away. Now she returned. She was dressed, her outline sleek and neat as if never touched.
“Your clothes,” she said, setting them on the bed.
“Thank you, Your Excellency.”
Nineteen Adze gave her a long look. Mahit suspected that even if she had been thirty years at court she could not read that look. It was profound, and profoundly alien.
She finished putting on her Lsel greys. Her hands were steady, the pain like an anchor.
Nineteen Adze walked her to the door. “I will remember this, Ambassador.”
She was Empire; she was everything. She was the refinement and the hunger; the gorgeous fifteen-syllable line and the body full of shrapnel in the street; the City humming to itself in blue and the star chart of what was not yet the world.
Mahit saw all this, and felt herself moved—like longing, like pain. There was no Yskandr with her. This was hers alone.
“As will I,” she said.