Sword of Bone, Halls of Thorns
Aliette de Bodard’s “Sword of Bone, Hall of Thorns,” is a vivid moment where lovers and ghost hunters, longing, fear and forgiveness meet. The story’s Vietnamese-influenced setting evokes so much that feels both new and ancient all at once. ~ Julian Yap, June 5, 2022
Sword of Bone, Halls of Thorns
The thorns outside Anh Thảo’s mansion glistened, glinting a metallic silver under the sunlight.
Thorns were for disgraced imperial blood, disgraced high officials, and Anh Thảo had been neither of those things, back when Chiêu had still been in the world, when she’d been the general of the West Flank—the darling of the capital, the woman every mother threw their daughters at in the hopes of a prosperous alliance. The woman who had been executed on false accusations on a battlefield with her entire regiment, and only saved by months of healing at a monastery.
Chiêu looked at the thorns. They were official, and the barrier to entry they would present would also be official.
Chiêu had always worried that her downfall would bring about Anh Thảo’s: that the protection which her position had once afforded her betrothed wouldn’t hold once she was dead.
But that merely would have been cause for a disgrace, or possibly an execution. Not thorns.
Chiêu stretched, feeling the slight twinge of pain in her body. She laid a hand—the right one, with its missing middle finger—on her sword, Bạo Mệnh, feeling darkness pool on the blade like drops of blood.
Chiêu looked back: the street was deserted, the town silent. She’d paid no attention when she’d arrived. But now she saw the decrepit signs over the shops and the empty houses.
Where were they all?
“Dead,” Bạo Mệnh whispered. Sometimes the sword’s voice was that of Linh, Chiêu’s former lieutenant; sometimes it was Vân or Bạch Hoa or the other soldiers. Sometimes it was its own. Chiêu preferred that: it made it less painful. She gripped the hilt again, feeling the bone at its core: Chiêu’s own missing middle finger had served to craft the weapon. Neither Chiêu nor the nuns at the monastery had expected that it would speak with the voice of Chiêu’s dead.
Ghosts who died unfulfilled turned on the living, eating fresh blood and guts to survive: it was knights-errant such as Chiêu—warriors with magical blades—who hunted them down. “They didn’t try to attack us, and I’m not burning down a town,” Chiêu said.
The monastery might want her to, but Chiêu wasn’t ready to do what the monastery expected of her yet.
“Then why are you here?” Bạo Mệnh asked.
Chiêu didn’t have an answer. Because I still care, she’d told the nuns, and been given a look that combined extreme affection and extreme disappointment. Closure, she’d told herself. She’d make certain Anh Thảo was safe, and help her if she wasn’t—in the name of all they’d once shared.
Chiêu said slowly, “I am Bích Chiêu, Anh Thảo’s betrothed. I claim the right of entry by family ties.” The betrothal had never been formally dissolved, as Chiêu was believed dead. A technicality, but the low-level magic in the thorns would only care about technicalities.
The thorns shivered and rippled. When Chiêu set a foot on the first step, she tensed, expecting them to reach for her throat. But instead she saw a scrap of red paper fluttering, stuck between the hinges of the rightmost panel of the mansion’s door. She gently worked it free. It was red, with golden characters—so torn, it was illegible.
“There are more,” Bạo Mệnh said in Vân’s voice, the sword’s blade glinting blue in the dimming light.
The other scraps of paper were caught beneath the thorns, scattered just beyond the doors of the mansion. Chiêu picked them up as she entered. They were also red—and then white with vermilion ink, the color reserved for the empress.
The threads of fate . . . woven . . .
It has pleased the Daughter of Heaven. . . .
Marriage . . .
The mansion was silent. Floorboards creaked under Chiêu’s steps, and the deeper and deeper she went in, the more the thorns were there: the pillars completely wrapped in them, the floorboards pulled apart by the push of tendrils, the calligraphy on the walls—some of which Chiêu recognized as Anh Thảo’s beloved work—at first framed by branches, and then entirely eaten by the growing mass.
The Blue Pearl Prince . . .
Chiêu remembered him. Prince Tú. Always smiling in a way that set her teeth on edge—as if he were already assessing what would be his when his mother died.
“She married,” Chiêu said aloud. It hurt, unexpectedly, the kind of sharp thing in her chest that the nuns had wanted her to set aside. They’d said she’d died and been given a chance to start anew, without the ties of family or affection—this much closer to nirvana. Except, of course, that Chiêu would wake up at night sweating from nightmares of Anh Thảo dying, of Anh Thảo’s execution. Or the other dreams, the worse ones. The ones in which Anh Thảo said nothing, merely smiled and held Chiêu’s face between her hands, and bent down to kiss her, as if nothing were wrong.
“That’s what humans do,” Bạo Mệnh said. “Don’t they?”
“Not always,” Chiêu said. Marriage. Imperial blood. More than enough protection, even with Chiêu gone. She had her answer. Anh Thảo was safe, just permanently out of reach. She should leave. Go back to the monastery and become a knight-errant hunting down monsters.
But that . . . that wasn’t right. A prince who married would move into his wife’s house, but why the thorns?
“Fall from grace,” Bạo Mệnh said.
Of the prince? “That would explain the thorns. But not the town.” Why was the town so deserted? As if everyone was scared.
Chiêu couldn’t just turn around. She thought of those long, sun-drenched conversations in the courtyard of Anh Thảo’s house. Of offering to protect Anh Thảo from court intrigues, and Anh Thảo thinking far too long before saying that Chiêu’s influence protected her. Except that, in the end, it had been Chiêu who had fallen prey to those court intrigues they both so despised.
Now Chiêu was back in that house, and it didn’t feel like anyone had moved out: the bowls left on the tables, the rice jar still full, the open chests showing chopsticks and porcelain bowls. Except that thorns poked through the chests, and the jars were full of writhing plants mixed with the pearly white of rice grains.
“Lil’sis? Are you here?”
Something was rising in Chiêu’s chest, and not just the grief of seeing Linh and the other soldiers die around her. Something she thought she’d left in the monastery.
Say something. Anything. Be alive. Be safe.
A sound, behind her. Chiêu turned and caught a brief glimpse of something moving. Something alive, and she wasn’t sure if she felt relief or fear. “Lil’sis?” she called. She ran, Bạo Mệnh in her grasp, feeling the sword turn and twist and pull with the agitation of her own heart.
A skitter on the floorboards. “Big’sis. Go away. There’s only death here.”
It was Anh Thảo’s voice.
“I came for you,” Chiêu said. As she rounded the door, she caught a glimpse of that something again, disappearing through the gate of the inner courtyard. “I needed to make sure you were safe.”
“You were dead,” the voice whispered, and it was jewel-hard.
Chiêu swallowed the acridity in her mouth. Dead and unable to reach that far. “I’m too late, aren’t I?”
Chiêu was in the inner quarters now, heading to that final courtyard, the one upon which Anh Thảo’s bedroom opened. Bạo Mệnh was silent now—the sword’s grip thin and hard, a knucklebone rather than metal.
The pond inside looked intact, if emptied of all water, but when Chiêu bent to look at it, she found a thin layer of thorns roiling at the bottom.
“Big’sis. Please,” Anh Thảo’s voice said. Chiêu turned and couldn’t find her anywhere.
But when she turned back, the tip of Bạo Mệnh’s blade touched the thorns and they flinched back from it as if they were alive. “They’re scared,” she said.
“Of what?” Bạo Mệnh was speaking with the voice of Lieutenant Linh, soft-spoken and always cautiously considering the most rational course of action. Linh had died strangled by the imperial censor’s guards—the first execution Chiêu had witnessed, unable to comprehend at the time that it would only be the first blood spilled—and then everything had erupted, her soldiers rising up against the injustice, and everything had been blood and screams and a mess of a slaughter.
“Of metal,” Chiêu said, and drove Bạo Mệnh deep into the pond—the blade crunching against the stone, cracks appearing and widening in its wake—the thorns fleeing from the point of impact, seething like a nest of insects desperate to escape.
There was a body in the pond. The skin was covered in red pinpricks, and the hands rested loose, by the sides of the torso—nails blackened, skin turning blue, eyes pierced and leaking whitish fluids.
“There are claw marks on his chest,” Bạo Mệnh said. “Nail marks. Human nails.”
Sharp, nauseating unease rose within Chiêu. “Human nails can’t—”
A wind rose, warm and laden with the promise of monsoon rain. Chiêu turned, one hand still on Bạo Mệnh’s hilt—and saw Anh Thảo.
One moment the courtyard had been empty, and the next Anh Thảo was standing next to Chiêu—close enough to touch, close enough to kiss. She was dressed all in red and gold, like a bride. Her face was veiled: the simple square of red over the head that protected a bride from outside gazes until the ceremony was complete. But Chiêu would have known her anywhere.
“Lil’sis,” she said. “I’m so glad—”
“I told you to leave.” Anh Thảo’s voice was the whistling of the wind, the slow press of the earth atop a coffin.
Within Chiêu’s grip, Bạo Mệnh stirred, the sorrow and rage of dead soldiers sharpening into coiled power. A thin thread shimmered in the air, from Anh Thảo’s little finger to the corpse—not to his hand, but to the wounds on the chest.
“You killed him,” Chiêu said. “Why?”
Thorns. Of course. A fitting punishment for the murder of an imperial prince. An entire town feeling the displeasure of his grieving mother.
“Yes,” Anh Thảo said, and laughed—and something about that laugh, not happy or measured, dug under Chiêu’s ribs and twisted. And then Anh Thảo shifted, and Chiêu saw her hands: gloved all in red, but with fingers too long and too sharp to be anything human anymore.
Claw marks. Nail marks. Human nails.
“She’s dead,” Bạo Mệnh said.
A hungry ghost. Not who she’d been before, but a creature to be hunted and slain. Someone who’d killed, and would kill again. “Lil’sis.”
“You weren’t there.” Anh Thảo laughed again.
“I don’t want to . . .” Chiêu wanted to say she wasn’t here to harm Anh Thảo, but she looked at the body of Prince Tú, at the thread tying them both: the thread of fate, of bonded soul mates. Of murderer to murder victim.
“You don’t want to kill me? This is what knights-errant do, Chiêu,” Anh Thảo said. She’d used her name instead of the more intimate pronoun, and something about her voice and posture sent chills up Chiêu’s spine. For a moment Chiêu thought Anh Thảo was going to lunge at her, and brought the sword up, but then Anh Thảo turned and fled, the red thread stretching and then fading. Chiêu’s gaze blurred: when she looked up, the ghost was climbing the stairs to Anh Thảo’s private quarters.
Chiêu hung on to Bạo Mệnh’s grip, barely. The sword wanted to do what it had been created for: to cleanse, to kill.
“He didn’t die well,” Bạo Mệnh said. “He bled out from his chest wounds.”
“I know!” Chiêu said. “This is Anh Thảo we’re talking about. This—”
“Are you going to say that she’s not a ghost?” Bạo Mệnh’s voice was low, and it was Linh’s, but it also sounded like the mother abbess at the monastery. “That she didn’t kill?”
“I . . .” Chiêu gripped the sword, trying to hold on to it. “I didn’t come here for that!”
“Then what did you come here for?”
Chiêu still didn’t have any answer that would make her feel comfortable. “Let’s go.”
The wind was rising and howling around her as she took the stairs to Anh Thảo’s quarters three at a time.
Inside, thorns had overgrown everything: the floor was covered with tendrils, the walls and furniture disappearing under the mass of roiling branches. There had been paintings—the graceful, ethereal brushwork that Anh Thảo had loved practicing—but all Chiêu could see were faint flashes of color, swiftly hidden as the thorns shifted. It smelled of musty earth, with a faint aftertaste of rot.
Movement, to her left, in the darkness.
“Lil’sis,” Chiêu said. “Lil’sis.”
A claw, slashing through the sleeve of her tunic. “Leave,” Anh Thảo hissed. “Now.”
Chiêu pulled herself back, raising Bạo Mệnh between them both, the sword’s blade reflecting the red of Anh Thảo’s wedding dress. The ghost was only a sliver of movement in the darkness—another claw-swipe that Chiêu blocked again, another movement she dodged—until Chiêu found herself entirely too close to the thorns in the rightmost wall.
“Please,” Chiêu said. “Just stop. Please.”
Chiêu moved behind a table that was now a mass of vegetation. Anh Thảo moved after her, red dress gleaming. She wasn’t walking or running, simply shifting positions repeatedly: one moment Chiêu blinked, and the next the ghost was several paces away from where she’d last been. “Why? What would that accomplish?”
“So we don’t kill each other!”
Bạo Mệnh pulsed in Chiêu’s grip. “She’s a ghost.”
“Your sword knows.” Anh Thảo hissed again, a sound like a dying man’s gasp. She reached for Chiêu again—Chiêu retreated from the table, keeping a wary eye on her. Behind her was another entrance, all surrounded by thorns. The bedroom. Anh Thảo’s bedroom, the swallowed-up remnants of their intimacy.
Chiêu turned and ran for the bedroom.
There were no thorns in it. Just a bed stripped of its sheets, and a faint, distant echo of screams and weeping. Chiêu knew that bed: she’d sat on it, slept in it—woken up with Anh Thảo’s head pillowed on her chest. The paintings, too, were still there: one of Anh Thảo’s landscapes of mountains and rivers, its brushwork slow and intricate, and the poem Chiêu had given her before leaving for her last campaign.
It felt unreal. A thing from memory that had no business existing anywhere. Chiêu turned, looking for a trap, but there was nothing. Just this, and . . . she’d thought she’d feel grief, or some kind of sadness, but there was merely a great yawning gap within her, a numbness.
She turned to face the door and saw Anh Thảo shuffling toward her in that same odd gait where she’d skip without having visibly shifted. Her veil moved, but Chiêu couldn’t see her face—just a suggestion of unnaturally pale skin.
Lil’sis . . .
What did you come here for?
She didn’t know, did she.
“Why?” Chiêu asked.
“Why are we doing this?” Anh Thảo asked.
“No. Why did you marry him? Why did you kill him?”
A sigh, the wind through the thorns. “You weren’t there.”
“No.” The hollow in Chiêu’s chest was still growing. “I should have come. I should have been there.”
Anh Thảo stopped in the doorway, watching her— Anh Thảo’s gloved, clawed hands held in front of her, a tension of before she lunged. But she didn’t move. “He was meant to keep me safe. Because you weren’t here anymore.”
Meant to keep her safe. And then it hadn’t worked. Because of the thorns. Because—
Chiêu thought of the prince and the way he’d looked at people, like possessions. The faint screams were still echoing in the room, and the sense of widening unease within her flared up into sharp, biting nausea. “Keep you safe,” she said. “Except he wasn’t safe, was he?”
The wind rose. Chiêu expected it to carry away the veil, but instead it stripped Anh Thảo’s clothes, layer after layer until she was left with a simple shift—and the marbled bruises on her arms and legs.
“I’m not asking the right questions, am I?” Chiêu thought she was going to choke. “How did you die?”
On Anh Thảo’s hand was the red thread again, pooling backward toward the fountain and the body within, the thorns sprouting wild to hide it.
“You know,” Anh Thảo whispered.
“Yes,” Chiêu said. He’d killed her, and then her ghost had come back for vengeance, trapped here by the hedge of thorns and unable to move on. Anh Thảo was right: In the house was only death. Only thorns, and this perfect room, preserved just as it was, and it was wrong because everything had changed so much, so long ago.
“Kill her,” Bạo Mệnh said in Linh’s voice. “Exorcise her. She’ll move on.”
Chiêu wanted to say she hadn’t come here for this, but . . .
She knew what she’d come here for. “I came for forgiveness,” she said. “I came to make things right.” But what was she going to get? A thing that was as hollow and as wrong as that room, the only thing in the house that was still intact?
Chiêu had died and been reborn, and Anh Thảo had died too.
“What do you want?” Chiêu said.
Anh Thảo didn’t move. “I told you. Leave. Please.”
Chiêu thought of Anh Thảo—a vengeful, hungry ghost trapped for an eternity with the corpse of the man she’d killed. It sounded . . . unfair and so sad. “I can’t leave you here. You married the prince because you had to. Because of me.”
One moment Anh Thảo was in the doorway; the next she was standing by Chiêu, one clawed hand catching Bạo Mệnh’s blade and lowering the sword, despite its resistance. Chiêu tensed, bracing herself for the swipe that would open her chest or her throat. But instead Anh Thảo took off her veil with the other hand, slowly and awkwardly.
Her face was pale and bruised and hollow, the skin cracked like eggshell celadon, the purple lips split. Anh Thảo’s eyes, sunken in their orbits, stared at Chiêu—and for the first time Chiêu saw a remnant of who she’d been, of the woman who’d loved painting and hated the dishonesty of court, who’d tried to do her best by her parents. Who’d trusted Chiêu to protect her.
They stared at each other across Bạo Mệnh’s lowered blade.
“I can’t,” Chiêu said again. “How do you want me to walk away again? How . . .”
Anh Thảo’s smile was sad.
“Because you didn’t come here to kill me. Because I didn’t come here to die at your hand. Because I did what I had to, and I’m paying the price, and that’s my choice, not yours, big’sis,” she said. “Please.”
What did you come here for?
That, too, was the wrong question. Because this wasn’t just about her.
She’d come for her sake, and not for Anh Thảo’s sake. She’d come for an impossible forgiveness, an impossible atonement, a lessening of the guilt she felt for losing all the soldiers on her watch, for losing Anh Thảo. She’d come because she’d hoped to salvage something out of the wreck that was her death and rebirth.
My choice, not yours.
Chiêu wasn’t responsible for Anh Thảo’s death any more than she’d been for her life. And she’d asked Anh Thảo what she wanted, but had never listened to her answer.
“What will you do when I’m gone?”
Anh Thảo’s gaze didn’t leave her. “Find a way to live with myself. Or to end this on my terms.”
Chiêu’s hands were shaking. Within her, thoughts and feelings, roiling like the thorns at the entrance of the room. Atonement. Forgiveness. Choice. “I see.” Chiêu laid a hand on Anh Thảo’s—the one that was holding Bạo Mệnh’s blade. Anh Thảo’s skin felt like dry paper, brittle and thin. “I’ll leave, then.”
Anh Thảo’s smile was brief and haunting. “Thank you, big’sis.”
Chiêu hung on for a moment longer, feeling the distant coldness of Anh Thảo’s touch, then withdrew. It hurt, like letting go of something infinitely precious. But she’d never expected it not to hurt.
She walked slowly, all the way to the door, back to the thorns that had made the mansion unrecognizable. She was almost out of the room when Anh Thảo—still standing by the empty bed, staring at it—spoke.
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” Chiêu said. She held Bạo Mệnh in her hand—the sword whose blade was her finger bone, whose voice was her dead soldiers’. All the remnants of her previous life, transfigured into something else. “Not yet. But I’ll find out.”
She walked out, and did not look back.
Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction. She has won three Nebula Awards, an Ignyte Award, a Locus Award, and four British Science Fiction Association Awards. She lives in Paris. Visit https://www.aliettedebodard.com for more information.
“Sword of Bone, Hall of Thorns,” © Aliette de Bodard, 2022.