Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

In the Temple of Celestial Pleasures

Jin left the last of his life’s concubines sobbing in shallow water.

It was sad. He had loved the sweet girl as much as he was capable of loving any woman, which is to say that he had sometimes found himself giving thought to her wishes in the occasional circumstances where that did not conflict with his own.

Over the months since acquiring this last of his life’s many distractions at the flesh markets of Tsau, he had kindly allowed her the useful fiction that she was a person and not an object, and had in that way encouraged her to see pleasuring him as not her duty but rather her most fervent expression of love. This was a helpful manipulation, in that it encouraged her to heights of enthusiasm that left the mere mechanics of her sexual training far behind. It was a little like praising a dog whose function was to serve as sentry and not as pet. The dog sincerely believes that it is being loved. The dog responds with loyalty and dedication to its purpose in life. Jin had whispered empty poetry in the girl’s ear and accomplished the same result.

Her fate now that he was done with her was, of course, none of his concern, but he was not a wholly heartless man and so he regretted having to abandon her to a world where she would either starve to death before finding her way back to civilization or, once stumbling across one of the ramshackle little villages that dotted the edge of the frontier, likely fall under the power of some unwashed peasant not as benevolent as himself, and live the rest of her life being passed along between neighbors. As he packed up his camp, he even gave some thought to just doing the humane thing and cutting off her head, thus sparing her such uncertainty.

This took place at a hot spring by the base of the mountains known as the Dragon Teeth, six days past the trek across the valley of salt. He had taken her along to make that terrible part of the journey bearable, and—given the promise of this oasis on the other side—as something to amuse himself with for however long it took him to recover. It had been an arduous journey even for Jin, who had long ago exhausted all the diversions close to him and was well used to riding many leagues into uncivilized places, to find the pleasures that had not yet reached the Empire’s capital cities; it had been an ordeal beyond belief for the girl, raised in isolation and fit only for service inside twilit, perfumed chambers. But she had provided acceptable companionship along the way, and rendered the days that followed a little bit of an idyll, and so to reward her he’d made love to her one final time in the waters of the hot spring. Buoyant, weightless in truth as well as status, clutching his flesh with the hunger of a starving woman faced with what would likely be her last meal, she had used every trick in the sensual repertoire that constituted her life’s only education to render herself too precious a jewel to abandon.

Alas, she now bored him. So he granted her freedom in a whisper, and left her weeping as he strode naked from the pool and set about packing together his remaining provisions. He left her a serpentine dagger in case she elected to kill herself, and a tiny pyramid of gold coins and a sack of dried figs in case she wished to attempt the trek back to civilization. Then he filled his saddlebags with the remaining provisions he would need for his journey to the Temple of Celestial Pleasures.

It was only when he was fully armored and ready to leave the little oasis behind that he deigned to look at the nameless girl again, and found that she had not stirred from her place in the bubbling pool, but instead remained where he had left her, eyes averted in a manner that was no longer trained submissiveness but instead sullen insolence.

He said, “Come now. There is no point in sulking.”

The etiquette of the serving caste demanded that she bow and make the sign requesting permission to speak.

Instead, she said, “I do not sulk, my Lord. I simply see.”

“What do you see?”

“I see the true reason you will always seek a passion greater than any human arms can provide you, and I know exactly why it will someday destroy you.”

“Oh?” He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Why?”

“You are broken, my Lord. You are empty, and incapable of feeling for anything, even yourself.”

He barked a laugh. “You are not the first slave I have freed. Always you reveal the hatred you have harbored for those you once pretended to adore.”

“It is not hatred, my Lord. My love for you is real. It is only my understanding that speaks. I know that if you were not broken in the way I describe, you would have seen past the differences between us and been warmed by the fire I feel for you. I, by contrast, can love, and I shall not rest until I feel that exquisite warmth for someone who deserves my devotion more than you ever could.”

Words like these were not unknown to him. So he allowed a smile to pass his lips. “Perhaps I shall fail in my search. Perhaps you shall succeed in yours. Perhaps we shall meet again in the land where all beings go, and at that time share how our respective quests went.”

She covered her delicate breasts with her hands, an expression of modesty that she had never before shown in his presence. “I hope not, my Lord. You have left me no choice other than wishing to never see you again, not even in the land of the dead.”

These were words that once would have obliged him to carry out her summary execution. But she was right; she was now free, and entitled to opinions. So he rode off toward the mountains . . . but not before he retrieved the food had been about to leave for her, leaving only the dagger behind. Truth, he felt, comes with a price.

• • • •

Jin saw many wonders on his journey into the Dragon’s Teeth: strange animal shapes that lurked behind rocks and dissolved into shadows as he drew closer; chasms that swallowed light and seemed to have stars beneath them; one place where raging water rushed up a sheer cliff wall to form an upside-down pool of churning storm clouds. On two occasions he was attacked by mountain tribes who might have presented a danger were they not starved wretches. Both times, they rushed him to take what he had, but what followed was not so much a melee as a massacre. Jin felt no sense of accomplishment at being the last to stand amidst the corpses.

For two days an illness wracked him and he was forced to halt his journey while he huddled in a cave, burning with fever. For those long hours he lost leave of his senses, forgetting where he was and how he had come to this place, instead playing host to his life’s parade of lovers, either seduced with charm from those of his class or purchased in the marketplaces welcome only to those fortunate enough to have inherited a fortune as expansive as his own. The men, the women, the eunuchs; the children stolen from foreign lands; the curiosities disfigured for his amusement; the innovative creation of one merchant in Pau, who obtained his human wares in infancy, trained them all their lives in absolute darkness, and then released them into light only on the day they met their future masters, before blinding them with fire so they would have only that one sight to contemplate, forever. He remembered bribing a magistrate so that condemned prisoners could be forced to service him until he slit their throats at the moment of his greatest pleasure. He relived a lifetime of joys unspeakable and pleasures beyond imagination; objects designed to be inserted in the willing and others that the unwilling would writhe in agony trying to expel; the use of ointments that cooled or heated or released hallucinogenic vapors when the skin was heated by passion.

He recalled his honored mother protesting that all this dallying with slaves was all well and good, but that it was time he produced an heir and took his position managing the family fortune. He remembered himself tricking her into signing away her own freedom so he could experience the sin of incest. He saw her cursing his birth as he shipped her off to the provinces with instructions that she was to be set to labor in the fields.

He remembered meeting fellow adventurers of the flesh who taught him about the Temple of Celestial Pleasures and advised him that it was a place he should seek out only after he had exhausted all other forms of ecstasy beneath the dome of Heaven.

Always, in his delirium, the people he’d used and known crumbled into dust once he was done. Always he was left unsatisfied. Always he was left chasing the great pleasures of a world that, for all his willingness to try anything once, continued to prove itself too finite for one as high-born as himself.

Blackness gathered around him. Death seemed to clutch him in its skeletal hand. But then he woke covered with a crust of his own vomit, his head aching but clear. He felt only need. And so he rode on.

• • • •

He found the Temple occupying a narrow cleft in the mountains that showed the only green he had seen in many days. It was a sprawling palace with walls of gold that confronted the sunrise and returned it to the sky. Cascades of crystalline water flowed from the minarets at each corner, feeding shallow pools that surrounded the edifice on all sides, providing Heaven with a perfect reflection of itself. There was no possibility of taking his horse all the way to the front gate; the beast trembled in fear and would not approach any closer. So he slit its throat and made the final approach on foot, striding on the bejeweled path that was the only route between the placid reflecting pools.

The gate was an obscene bas-relief in which hundreds of miniature human forms coupled in combinations of two or three, or four, no two positions alike, all possible sexual combinations represented. It was the most intricate work of art Jin had ever seen with his own eyes, and it moved him not at all. Only when he pulled the braided silver cord beside that gate did he experience something that astonished him, for the gate did not lift or lower or swing open like a door or slide into some recess in the wall. It simply gave the impression of receding, in some direction that defied all the dimensions Jin knew.

Beyond stood a small army of men and women of exceptional beauty. There were representatives of all the races he knew, and some he didn’t, reflecting every possible human tint from cream to ebony, every possible body type from squat to giant. Some were unmarked and others were covered with ink or brands. All were naked. All were flawless. All regarded him with frank sexual contemplation.

The only being wearing clothes seemed neither woman nor man, neither young nor old, neither of Jin’s nationality nor any other. Slight in a manner that would have seemed alarmingly emaciated for anybody else, strangely devoid of pores, the hairless creature in an ankle-length white gown strode toward him and regarded him with eyes that possessed neither whites nor irises, but were instead orbs of glowing silver. “You are Jin,” s/he said, in a voice that seemed to emanate someplace other than his/her lips. “I am Rhaij.”

He found he wanted this creature, alien as s/he appeared, more than he had ever desired any lover in his life. “Yes.”

“This,” s/he said, “is the Temple of Celestial Pleasures.”

His throat went dry, as he realized that for once in his life he did not know what he was privileged to do next.

“Are these,” he waved his hands at the gathered specimens of physical perfection, “my choices?”

The inhabitants of the Temple tittered among themselves, as if he had just uttered something adorable enough to have come from an infant.

The skin over Rhaij’s right eye wrinkled in what might have raised an eyebrow, had there been any hair there to form one. “You have made a common mistake, traveler. This holy place is not what many pilgrims imagine, a more exotic form of brothel with a greater selection of pretty whores to choose from. To be sure, it sometimes serves that purpose when such commerce facilitates the training of those you see before you. They are all still struggling to achieve the same state of total jaded surfeit that has rendered all terrestrial forms of sexual ecstasy so dry and empty for you.”

Jin felt a desperate need to re-establish some command over the situation. “How do you know what I have experienced?”

“Perusing your memories is the simplest of all our capabilities. It’s an invasive process, one you no doubt experienced as burning delirium, but it was necessary to determine your intentions before we decided whether to permit your entry, or turn you back. This is how we know that the mere sexual services of all those who inhabit these walls, splendid as they might be for most, would avail a man of your life’s experience little but a moment’s distraction; nothing worth every crime you have ever committed, every league you have traveled, every sacrifice you have ever made in the coin of either soul or flesh. It would be pathetic, like offering a scrap of bread to one who has known feasts.”

“I was told you offered a pleasure greater than any under Heaven.”

“We do, Jin. It is just not any form of sex you imagine. It is the consummation that all of these acolytes hope to achieve, once they have exhausted their capacity to achieve satisfaction with mere terrestrial pleasures. For those who have tried everything else, experienced everything else, and found the pleasures of Man wanting, what awaits is greater than anything known by any being who crawled or walked beneath this blue sky. We charge one price: everything you have. These terms are non-negotiable, and only full acceptance of them will admit you any further into the Temple.”

“I brought enough with me to ransom kingdoms. If that is not enough, I can sign a promissory—”

Again, the acolytes tittered.

“This is another common error,” Rhaij said. “Have you not seen our golden walls, the jewels set in every paving-stone? We have other sources for such baubles. We have no interest in the riches of your civilization, which are as far as we’re concerned an irrelevant burden to which you are free to return, once we have provided what you came here to find. No; we seek to charge you nothing you own, but everything you have. Will you pay that price?”

Fear stilled Jin’s heart for all of a heartbeat. Perhaps he had not exhausted all the options available to him. Surely there had to be some courtesan, somewhere in the seven kingdoms, who possessed tricks he had not yet encountered. But just entertaining this thought meant imagining a long slow slog back to the fleshpots of the emerald coast, where he would find himself browsing the same assortment, facing the same dull-eyed eagerness in the eyes of servant girls and boys raised to no ambition greater than someday being used by a Lord like himself. It would mean experiencing the same disappointments, again and again, to the point of long nights spent contemplating the momentary flash of pain that would bring relief seconds after he slipped some dagger into his sated heart. The idea of commencing the search again was more, he found, than his jaded soul could bear. So he seized the moment, aware even as he did that it was a form of suicide.

“Yes,” he said. “For a taste of pleasure greater than any I have ever known, I will give up everything I have.

Half an hour later, they castrated him.

• • • •

By then, they had made him drink a substance that conferred calm on both body and mind, and he watched most of what came next from the remove of a theatre patron watching the acrobats do tricks for his amusement. Two female acolytes with sleek black hair, twins he was told, fed him a potion that guaranteed arousal, used their painted lips to bring him to the very point of release, then withdrew and produced a bladed device of a sort that reminded him of the towering version used in his home city to behead murderers and thieves. This one did not stand tall and feared in a public square, being no longer than a man’s forearm, but it operated according to the same general design. It was no more than a rectangular frame enclosing a spring-loaded steel blade designed to be pulled along a grooved track, and then locked into position until it could be released to leap back into its prior location with a force terrible enough to shred whatever lay in its path.

One twin pulled the blade all the way back, and inserted the pin that held it in place. The other lowered the now-empty frame over Jin’s rigid member, enclosing his testicles as well, to ensure that they would also be included in the excision to follow. The first twin took care to make certain that the part of the frame enclosing the blade now lay flat against Jin’s belly. The other released the blade.

The beautiful twins offered him reassuring smiles with cheeks now sporting wide constellations of scarlet freckles. But the potions Jin had been given did their job. For a time, he felt nothing.

The pain arrived when the potions wore off.

There were days of it, an eternity of rage and madness that consisted of him pulling at the chains that bound his wrists and ankles, while smiling acolytes of various sexes drifted in and out of his opulent cell to administer more potions, force-feed him his nourishment, and clean up his blood and waste. Several advised him in exotic accents how deeply they envied his imminent journey, even as they dabbed cream on the ragged wound between his legs, trimmed the bits that didn’t heal properly, and massaged what was left into something that was less a ruin than a rippled, unoffending absence.

At the same time, other important pieces of himself were taken. All of these vanished during his periods of sleep, to the point where twilight became a time to rage against the sun he could see setting behind his room’s tinted glass. But darkness always came, and the soft light cast by the room’s array of scented candles was never enough to prevent sleep from once again claiming him. He woke one morning with all his fingers and both his thumbs gone, his hands reduced to shapeless paws that would never be able to grasp anything again. He woke another day to find that he had lost his nose, and a day after that to find that his lips had gone as well. The acolytes were generous when it came to providing him with mirrors, and thus did not hide from him the awareness that these additional disfigurements had given him the mien of a grinning skull, with a bony crater in the center of his face and a leering, moist rictus below. Against the shock of such thefts, he almost missed the day when they removed his nipples.

He feared that they would move on to other parts of him, but this was apparently what Rhaij had meant by “everything he had;” the surgeries ended after that, and the acolytes began to rouse him from bed for walks around the flowered grounds. They were kind and they were loving and when he despaired, which was often, they kissed his cheeks and advised him that he had paid all he needed to pay. Many were the paragons of beauty who rested their heads on his shoulder, and the sweet voices who assured him that all would be well, while their stunning eyes wept in sympathy with his tears. Most of the time he regarded what they told him as pretty lies. But as he healed, and grew stronger, and grew used to being fed by companions who still possessed hands, he found he had no choice but to hold on to the hope his caretakers had offered him.

Weeks passed in this terrible way, possibly months.

Then when they judged him strong enough they led him down a tiled path into a part of the Temple grounds he had never visited before, where the tree branches hung low with cherry blossoms, and the birds were iridescent things with songs so close to words that his tortured ears insisted on arranging them into poems. Rhaij stood at the center of a tile mosaic, head tilted in concern as Jin’s handlers led him to a bench and bade him to sit there. The stone felt cool on his bare buttocks, mocking all the rage that burned within him. Naked acolytes, male and female, stood behind her in two rows, hands folded before them in a ludicrous concession to modesty, their faces all beacons of unreserved love for Jin, who had been kind enough to come here and share his journey with them.

Rhaij stood beside a locked chest of some substance finer than iron that captured the light of the sun and seemed to imprison some small part of it on its surface before reflecting the rest back. “In here,” s/he said, “we store everything you have freely given.”

He turned his head away.

Rhaij continued. “I wish you to know that this chest contains properties that prevent the passage of time, and therefore the decomposition of flesh. The parts taken from you still live. Our collected wisdom includes delicate surgeries capable of restoring all of it to your body, with full function. You would be able to walk away with full function, without so much as a scar. But if you elect to proceed past this point, we will take what you have given as tribute.”

Jin’s speech was a distorted thing, robbed by his disfigurements of many of its consonants. “What . . . use can you possibly—”

“It is not a question of what use we could possibly have for them. It is a question of what use you can possibly have for them. After all, the experience you seek will render all terrestrial delights moot. We have therefore taken away most of the instruments you used to give and receive pleasure, as you will never need them again. We would have taken your versatile tongue as well, but at this point believe that the chances of it ever again being used in a lover’s manner again to be laughable and remote . . . and we do prefer you to retain some vocal clarity, so we can converse with you in comfort. But this will be your final chance to turn back. If you elect to move on, then what sits in this chest will never be returned to you . . . and if you beg for its return, then you will never know the nature of the exquisite pleasure this Temple is dedicated to celebrating. It is now your choice. No other explanation shall be provided until after you have made your decision.”

Jin burst into tears, because he feared moving forward more than he had ever feared anything else; because he suspected it would hurt; and because he also knew that either option was a fast road to misery; a decision on what condition he would be in as he endured the hopeless days between now and the end of his life. At long last he said, “Go ahead and take them away, damn you. I’ll go on.”

A plump beauty with hair like fire stepped up and took the chest by the handle, disappearing down the garden path with it even as Jin restrained himself from calling after her to stop. It was like losing what that box contained a second time, and this time he experienced the loss without potions or the shelter of sleep. As the path dipped, he saw her sink beneath the curve of the slope, until only the red curls of her head bobbed above that amputating line, a setting sun that in seconds disappeared from view as well.

After far too long, he became aware of Rhaij kneeling before him, resting those long delicate fingers on his bare knees.

He said, “That . . . was a lie, wasn’t it? You didn’t really have a way to put it all back. Nobody . . . could put it all back.”

Rhaij’s silver eyes shone with a light that could have been anything from empathy to deepest contempt. “Is that why you made the decision you did?”

Jin’s answer came as a surprise to him. “No. I made the decision that offered me any hope.”

“Then you should know. The founders of the Temple are not of your world. We possess arts unsuspected by even the most learned savants under this sky. We have machines smaller than the tiniest gnats, which can swarm into any wound and knit it in seconds. We have fires that can burn longer than any hearth in any city walked by the feet of man. We have chariots that can carry us to place so high above the clouds that the sky is black and breath itself an unobtainable treasure. We could feed all this world’s hungry and we could render your earth molten at a moment’s whim. There is no miracle devised by your poor imagination that we cannot demonstrate, right here, right now, without but the smallest part of the knowledge at our disposal. But what interests us, Jin, what really excites our enthusiasm and motivates everything we do, is pleasure . . . and I assure you, we can deliver what we say.”

Doubt wracked him. “How? I’ve done everything.”

“Have you never heard that the climax, just the climax, of the common barnyard swine lasts five times longer than the entire act does for you who consider yourself the master of creation? Have you never imagined the torrent of raging sensation that governs the mating of eagles? Would your mind not shatter if you possessed even the slightest clue to the blinding light that, at the moment so many beings crave, enraptures the largest creature who swims your seas? And that, Jin, is just under this sky. In our travels, we have filled what you would consider entire libraries with the taxonomy of creatures who live beneath under other suns, who know sensations that dwarf anything you or any human being has ever been equipped to feel. The very greatest of these is what all these young people around you have dedicated their lives to earning. And this is what we are prepared to provide you, now.”

“But just once,” he said.

“This is not out of cruelty. You must understand: the part of the human animal that can accommodate such sensations is as capable of being exhausted as soil can be leeched of the nutrients that permit life to grow. This is the main reason you can only achieve solitary pleasure a limited number of times, relying on the same mental images first used to achieve arousal. It is the reason certain narcotic substances entice their first-time users with unimaginable euphoria, but after only brief addiction, leave them chasing relief while returning no satisfaction at all. And it is the reason you, who have known more passion than the vast majority of men, came to this place no longer capable of appreciating anything this world had to offer you. Experience the delight we can share, and you will long to know it again, every day for the rest of your life.”

He managed a weeping, “Will I be able to remember it?”

“Yes. But your capacity to ever feel it again will have been extinguished.”

He lowered his head, blinked away a wave of burning fire, and pictured ten thousand faces, all now dead or lost to him; none of which he had ever truly known.

He asked himself: what fool first called life too short? Those who live it know that it is rather an interminable march away from that which once delighted us; and were it half the length, or even a third, the joys that make it worth living would still not be numerous enough to fill it. Were it tailored properly, we would all die as toddlers, still capable of being delighted by shafts of sunlight.

At long last he said, “I would give even more to have this. My limbs. My senses. Every remaining day of the rest of my existence. I do not wish to waste any more time with discussion. I am ready.”

“Yes,” Rhaij nodded. “I can see that you are.”

• • • •

They carried him to a shadowy underground chamber and set him on a carved stone slab, his arms and legs spread-eagled and held in place by chains. There they shaved his head and commenced the insertion of hundreds of golden filaments, finer by far than any silk, into his skull. This was, astonishingly to him after everything else he’d been through, painless, even if it was time-consuming. He had little to think about in the gloom, until an acolyte he had never seen before entered through the arched doorway and knelt beside him, without disturbing the others in their work.

She was almost unrecognizable to him without the kohl-rimmed eyes, and with her lush black hair shorn to half its previous length; but it was impossible not to recognize the serpent tattoos that curled around her soft shoulders, or the constellation of freckles that curled about her delicate right breast.

He said, “You.”

His final concubine betrayed none of the anger she had expressed on their last conversation. “It is good to see you again, my Lord.”

He could not help being aware of how monstrous he must now appear to her, and how distorted his speech must sound to her ears. “You said that you never wanted to see me again.”

“After today,” she said with absolute calm, “I will not.”

“What are you doing here? Have you become one of their acolytes?”

“No, my Lord. I was offered that sublime honor, but once they told me what joining this order entailed, I declined. It is not for me, I’m afraid. I find that the empty pleasures of the flesh, for their own sake, do not draw me in the same way that they draw you. In my new life of freedom, I desire to find only love.”

“Then—”

“They are kind, my Lord. On the day they walked through the days and nights of your life and saw how and where you had abandoned me, they came in their mercy to rescue me. They offered me the choice of admission to their temple, and new life as one of their acolytes, or free transportation back to the city of my choice, with a name and enough wealth to keep me in comfort for the rest of my life. I chose the latter. They gave me the name but asked that I stay on as their honored guest, long enough to witness your transformation and offer you comfort in this, the day you await what you have always sought.”

“And you have stayed . . . out of revenge?”

She lowered her unpainted lips and kissed the smooth nubs that had once been fingers. “I need no revenge, my lord. This is but the last gift I give to he who knew not that he once commanded my most sincere love.”

Jin swallowed, and for the next few seconds struggled with a feeling that he had never known, at any point in his eventful life. It was a cold presence inside him, like a lump; and it weighed him down, like a heavy meal that he could neither digest nor pass. After a few seconds, he whispered to her. “This name they have given you. Can you tell me what it is?”

“No, my Lord. I do forgive your callousness, but in this new life I’ve been given I cannot permit that treasured part of myself to pass your ears, let alone be spoken with your voice. Even if I did, it is by my request a name a man would need lips to speak. I need never abide hearing it from you.”

A tear escaped the corner of his eye and drew a line of hot flame down his temple. “Will you stay until after it is over?”

“Of course not, my Lord. You must know that.”

He found that he did. “I’m sorry.”

She kissed his wrist. “I know.”

They fell into a silence that ended as Rhaij appeared, this time as naked as the rest of them, and so even more clearly a creature of those other skies s/he sometimes spoke about. A part of his/her body with no analogue on any human form Jin had ever seen hung enflamed, in a manner that testified to his/her own great excitement, and s/he said, “Jin: you do us honor with this passage. All of the human acolytes of this Temple, and all of us of the race that founded it, will watch your moment of transcendent bliss with envy and longing, taking inspiration from the courage you show in traveling where we all hope to follow.”

He swallowed. “Thank you.”

“Understanding what is about to happen to you is not fully necessary, but as it may enhance your experience to be able to follow what would otherwise be alien and incomprehensible, we leave you with this final, helpful explanation. What you are about to feel is the divine act of mating, as it is perceived by a soft and mindless creature that dwells among the stones of a shallow ocean, beneath suns so distant that none of their light has ever reached the heavens you know. It takes place over such an extended period of time that the egg-bearing participant who you would designate a female needs nourishment to avoid dying of starvation during the act; as a result, she devours the male, one tiny piece at a time, over the period necessary to achieve consummation. The gods of their sphere showed kindness and mercy in arranging that in exchange for this sacrifice on his part, she secretes a fluid that turns his agony to euphoria, his fear to joy, his very last moments before personal extinction to a sensation we can only describe as the most loving kiss of God. None of this will hurt you, Jin. As far as my people can determine, it is the purest expression of bliss in the entire universe.”

He closed his eyes. “I understand.”

Rhaij said, “Blessings to you. We will begin in just a few minutes.”

S/he turned and exited the chamber through the arched doorway, leaving Jin alone with the woman no longer nameless, in a silence driven as much by memory as by anticipation.

His past lover’s gentle touch did not leave his wrist. He remained aware of the warmth that passed from her fingers, to flesh that now felt so much colder than hers; and as the long minutes passed, and the wait for his life’s greatest moment stretched, he opened his eyes again, and regarded her, half-expecting to find her veneer of compassion stripped away, and a true face of her loathing for him revealed with a clarity that would permit no more denials.

As it happened, she had turned away from him for a moment, and was unaware of his gaze. She was an edifice visible in profile, her golden skin aglow above a slight, melancholy smile. A solitary tear sat in the center of her cheek, its descent toward her jaw line arrested in place according to the common whim of such things; and in the center of that drop sat a single diamond-shaped mote of light, reflecting a candle burning somewhere in the chamber.

It reminded him of nothing so much as some faraway distant star, warming the sky above earth too alien for him to walk.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The penultimate installment in the series, Gustav Gloom and the Inn of Shadows (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in August 2015. The finale published in August 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.