A Gullet, Made of the Flesh of a Swan

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Two years earlier.

They dragged him from the cell, and pulled him along dark corridors. He was too weak to stand. He hadn't eaten or drunk anything in months; he'd be dead many times over if the world was still mortal. He was barely capable of perceiving anything.

Lights flashed overhead, white things that bored into his skull. He moaned. He wanted to yell, scream, tell them what his father would do, but he no longer had enough energy to keep his brain working.

And still it kept working.

They dumped him in a room. A dour nurse who smelt of cheap vinegar pushed an IV through and attached it to him. He couldn't get out without it. Smart.

He sat, and waited. He wanted to check his wristwatch but he didn't have one. He couldn't remember very much. When had they taken him? Why? Well, it didn't matter why. There were always men who'd be willing to take him.

A door opened. A woman entered.

She was in her mid-30s. Her face was sharp, stern; the face of a great diplomat, until the years wore her into a refined point of pure efficiency. Black hair was flecked with grey. She was in a wheelchair, pushing herself forward with remarkable speed. She was heavily pregnant, but her energy seemed undiminished. She was not what he had expected at all.

"Hello, Christian." She didn't look at him. She opened a file and placed it on the desk between them. He hadn't noticed the desk before, but there it was.

She scanned the document. He kept breathing, more and more steadily. Whatever was in the IV was having its effect. He could see more, perceive more. How had they taken him? Where was he?

The woman finished the page, and nodded twice. "Yes," she said. "You'll do nicely."

And then he woke up, sweating in his bedroom, gasping for air under the silk sheets of Gongji.

Christian Michaels-Wu, Count of the Blue Pavilion, third son of the Duke of Gongji. He had, of course, been the Duke before; all of the Michaels-Wu and some of their associate cousins had held the post. When nobody died and no disgrace was permanent, court intrigues fell into the pattern of a complex dramatic game, where the worst that could happen to you was excruciating pain. Everyone switched around like a game of musical chairs.

But his father, and his branch, were by far the most dominant. For 69 of the 83 years of the Celestrian Empire, they had held the Duchy of Gongji for the Emperor. Of the Twelve Bright Stars that formed the core of Celestria, it was only mid-ranked; richer than the northern provinces and with plenty of tax revenue, but lacking a position on the central commerce networks that would assure it a premier place in the Emperor's attentions. But, still, a Duchy was the third highest rank of the Empire, guaranteed to a lineage that had proved its blood through corporate success in the Old Empire.

He was only 32 years old. His father had never wanted children as a mortal, but at some point in his old age he had a sudden hankering for new experiences. He married and took concubines, and created five sons and three daughters the old-fashioned way. This interest had passed after barely half a decade, but it assured him a line of loyal blood-relatives to keep the scheming cousins at bay, and to create little intrigues of their very own.

He grew up with servants and manicured fingers, light sea breezes and mandated introspection hours. He grew up learning about the Brighton Pavilion, The King and I, and the Oriental Immortals. He learnt how to run a business and profit from the unrestrained market of the New East. He learnt Marxist theory to better understand how to avoid unsustainable methods to exploit labour, and keep the people in line. He learnt, in short, how to be a Duke.

He was a model child, like all the others, their upbringings the results of precise sciences formed over millenia of experience and study. It was certain that he would never betray the family, or his father. There could be no rebellion from within, and that from without was controlled through other, subtler methods. The cycle would continue.

Once, when he was seven, he'd looked over the garden wall. He'd seen things, in the plantations on the other side. He never told the guardians. He had thought about that a lot, on the edges of his mind, between the certainties of the ducal life.

Maybe that was the meaning of his dream. The thing he wasn't meant to see. Maybe he was guilty. But as he went to sleep that night, he'd banished the thought from his mind again. It was just a dream.

He woke, again, in his cell. He was dragged, again, to the other room. The interrogation room, he supposed. The lights bore into his skull again, the IV was brought, again, the feelings were the same. He moaned and twisted.

The door opened. The pregnant woman wheeled herself to the table again. This time, there was no file. She looked at him and smiled.

"Hello again, Christian. I'm sorry to keep doing this to you."

"This is a dream," he said, uncertainly. "You're a figment of my imagination. A recurring nightmare."

"Yes, and as a result, you are free. They can take your body, they can stuff you full of chemicals and social conditioning, but they can't see your mind. Even if you were to tell them in minute detail everything you saw, they'd still not be able to know how it feels. You are forced to be free."

Christian swallowed. "How do you kn-"

"You're the Count of the Blue Pavilion. You were once, and will be again, the Duke of Gongji. You are one of the richest people in the sky, whose father is among the foremost Celestrian parasites who plagues the free nations of humanity. That is a very stupid question from someone who has had the finest education money can buy. I'll assume that you're still groggy from the transfer."


"The mind transfer. The movement of your waking mind into this place, this dreamscape my engineers have constructed. This is my party, Christian, and I'll be asking the questions. Starting with the obvious: what did you see over the garden wall?"

Christian threw up, lurching foward into consciousness. He was dripping sweat.

Every day, Christian woke, and went to work. There were speeches to make, cheering crowds to play to. There were dinners and banquets, where the great men of state would fatten themselves up on pork and wine. In shady rooms, there were numbers and accounts that had to be changed, figures to be made correct. And in darker rooms, there were more hidden pleasures.

Every night, Christian woke, and was dragged to the interrogation room. His form was static in the real world, but in this dream-place he felt things he didn't understand. Aches, pains, hunger-pangs. He was getting thin, wasting away. Food here was for eating, not just for experiencing. He needed it. He wanted it. But the guards wouldn't stop.

The woman wouldn't stop either. She would take everything he had learnt and twist it. What did it mean to be a Duke, she asked? Christian responded in the way he'd been taught: it meant nothing more than chance that must be preserved.

"Why?" she said. "How can you say that while others suffer?"

"Why shouldn't I? They're not me. If I want to keep feeling as I do, I must continue to stamp on them,honing them into so much labour power. It's nothing personal; I want to keep my position, and my family's position, and someone must suffer for us."

She cocked her head at that one. "Do you feel nothing for them?"

"No", he lied. "I understand perfectly well what they're going through, but it means nothing to me. Why should fairness matter?"

"Because there's another world out there, Christian. You could be more, do more, exist in ways you cannot conceive of. By cutting off your humanity, you cut off all you could be, every pathway to new knowledge, new sensation. Why do you want to diminish yourself, Christian?"

He didn't have an answer, but he came up with a comeback anyway. Anything so that she wouldn't bring him back to the garden wall.

The guards were getting used to him now. They didn't drag him any more; they just frogmarched him. Slowly, surely, he was getting stronger. He woke up more naturally, fell asleep more peacefully. It would sometimes be hours before she needed him, so he'd eat paltry meals in his cell and do exercise. He felt each night like he'd been there for years, yearning for any stimulation. His body changed, and his mind with it. All those old synapses reawakened by an effort he'd never needed before.

She was twirling a pencil today. "Have you considered," she said, "that the game you play is a false one?"

"What game?"

"Your life. Why do you need to be on top? What's so special about the heights of luxury?"

"All my needs are catered for. I am free to attend to my spiritual and psychological needs, free to impose myself on the world and gain-"

"Rot. You don't attend to any needs; you spend too much time focusing on the minutiae of preservation. Imposing yourself on the world? You're a pawn in your father's plans, whether or not you're the Duke or he is. He calls the shots. You're just a piece of moss, floating on the water."

He bristled. "If you're so concerned with self-actualisation, do some yourself. Get out of my dreams. Go back to wherever you came from. Look to your own life"

Her smile widened. Her teeth were like a swan's beak. "I spent a very long time with nothing to do but contemplate my existence, snatched thoughts between moments of forgotten pain. I know exactly who I am. 'I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.' Do you know who said that?"

He nodded, but as he opened his mouth she interrupted. "It doesn't matter. Knowing who said what famous quote is just another meaningless way to pretend you're a man of culture. You're like all your kind, in some ways. That's what I'm trying to tell you, Christian. What you do is bad for you, too. You could do so much more.

And Christian began to understand.

The wall had been low. He'd been enjoying one of his mandated play times, lying on the grass and thinking about the butterfly dream in the garden. An ancient Taoist had come up with it: if you go to sleep and dream about being a butterfly, and then awake again as a person, how do you know if the person or the butterfly is dreaming?

He'd been staring at the clouds when he'd heard the moan. He looked at the wall. There was a second groan, and a giggle. But it was forbidden to stare too long at the wall, so he looked up at the clouds again. There was one that looked like a vase.

There were no more moans. He swallowed. He heard a sob. He pointedly ignored it.

The cloud had gone.

Slowly, surely, he eased himself up, and stared over the wall. There was a woman there. Her dress was ripped, her eyes were staring. She was dead. Two figures were moving away, too fast to make them out. One of them was holding something, but he couldn't see what. The other was laughing, a distant, tinkling thing.

He looked at the woman. Flies were gathering around her. A dog barked, and ran up to her, whining and pawing. The woman didn't move.

He cocked his head on one side. He shouldn't be seeing this. It was forbidden. It was *impossible*. Nobody ever died. He shouldn't be seeing this.

He woke up in his cell and stood up, the whole of him moving as a single machine. His muscles rippled under his thin shirt, rags that seemed tawdy in comparison. Outside, he was lean, cultivated and precise. In here, he was vast.

There were no guards. He knew why. He pushed open the door to his cell. Now, at last, he didn't want to run. He started walking to the interview room.

The woman was inside already. She was sitting at the desk, staring at him. He took his seat. The final act was all prepared.

"First, you must know who you are," she said. "Then, you must know what to do. Finally, you must have the wherewithall to do it."

"And what is it I must do?"

"Keep the wheel of history turning. Human existence is all heading towards that single point. But you're not there yet, and neither are they. I have a task for you, Christian, but you're not quite there. You need to not merely understand, but see. Feel. Understand what you are and what you do."

Friday was a busy day. Lord Overkot was coming from Shanyang to review the yearly hydrabane tax, some 3000 shipments promised in feudal tribute to the Emperor. Christian was on hand to greet him, gripping the clammy coldness in his hands. He loathed this man. The woman had put things in his mind; strange, unnerving things. This man seemed like nothing but a conduit, a figure who had surrendered himself to his position without any other purpose. No ideal, no nothing.

The Duke took Overkot on a tour of the plantation. Christian stayed behind; the Duke knew what he was doing. While they were out, he sneaked into his father's study. He had to know.

It wasn't long before he found the file. It didn't take him long to read it, and if he was honest, the specificity didn't matter. What happened to her was recorded as if it was rote. Three other cases were recorded on the page, each just as bad or worse, if less permanent. The only difference was that he'd happened to see it. A bad coincidence on an unlucky day.

There had been an impossible permanency perpetrated on his father's plantation, and the man had barely even cared.

He thought about all he'd done. He thought about all he'd seen. He thought about how many worlds stood dying in a deathless sky.

He woke up in a feather bed. His own bed. Across the room, the woman sat, a cane in her left hand. No wheelchair, but the same old pregnancy bump. It had been a whole year since she first brought him to her house, and she was exactly the same.

"I see now," he said. "I see where the rot lies. I see that I have not been a human, only a conduit who has surrendered himself to his position without any other purpose."

"Good." The woman sighed, and stood up. "I'm sorry for doing this to you, Christian. You were probably happy, weren't you?"

Christian shrugged. "I don't think I knew what happiness was. I don't think I would have understood the concept."

The woman nodded. She didn't seem to mind or notice the bulge. She moved towards him and pointed her cane at the man's face.

"Men like you stuffed me in a room and tortured me because they didn't understand that you cannot just delay the inevitable. You have to fight it." The swan-beak grin returned. "But now I own those men. Now they are my conduits. My functionaries. And now so are you."

She pondered the figure in front of her. It had been cruel, she thought, but cruelty was just a matter of where you draw the line. Christian was better, now. So there was some good to her actions, amid all the shades.

"Celestria must be destroyed," she whispered. Christian nodded.

"Celestria's elites must be destroyed. That which allowed them to gain power must be destroyed. The systems of inequality that the empires run upon must be destroyed." Christian nodded again, more vehemently. She pushed her cane underneath the man's chin, admiring his form. They engineered such perfection these days.

"And when the time comes," she said, "the human race must hunger for its death." And Christian nodded again.

The Administrator stepped back. "Then listen closely. In one year's time, an unknowing agent of mine named Hisakawa Tsukiko will enter your palace. I need you to help her, Christian. I need you to help her enter your Vault…"

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