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In a Chinese Landscape (Shan Shui Hua Li)

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Out of the window of the fast courier Earth grows in moments from a speck to a glowing planet. The sight is familiar, as if I have been here before—seas black against lighted continents, their shapes memorised from the earliest schooldays; the world that we long for, the place of our ancestors' graves.

I turn away from those mesmerising lights, study the comconsole again. This is my first mission outside the Cetagandan Empire; outside Eta Ceta—if mission it can be called. On the vidplate revolves a blue and white Ming vase, the priceless historical artefact that I was sent to retrieve. On my person the Empire's gift in the cultural exchange, a genetic sample in its frozen phial, remains safely hidden. The real reason I am here is to experience foreign diplomacy, but a shiver runs through me nevertheless. I know I have seen the vase before.

I have seen it not only as it is, but as a memory of clay, mould, brush on unfired porcelain. Perhaps a child's story of our ancestors' artistry when the rest of the world was content with porous earthenware, as advanced then as our genetic is art now. Art will progress; the older things fall away. How few of our ladies' works will survive for three thousand years?

I am not subjected to a station transfer but dock directly in the spaceport by the consulate general—one of the few privileges of my position, or perhaps of the situation. The phial that I bear is guarded more zealously than I. The consulate is comfortable but not elegant, suitable enough for the painted ghem who are the external face of the Empire. A man takes my valise, shows me upstairs; another shadows me from the door.

The presentation is tonight. Soon a pair of ghem servitors arrive to help me into my robes. They are not what they claim to be; I am glad I washed in the courier, so only have to dress in this place. I am first to be dressed because the situation's formality is determined by mine. I decide the reception cannot be quite as elaborate as a formal ceremony at court.

When I come downstairs, the others scurry off to get ready: the ambassador with his wife, the consul general with his, the embassy's senior military attaché with you.

I see you at the reception.

My groundcar is full of guards, protecting the phial—or me? You took the second groundcar with your husband the general, but our delegation walks into the museum together. The locals stare at us—at you. They point. They wave. They gawp. I blush for you. I know that I have seen you before.

The protocol of the presentation is straightforward, traditional, for a people who bequeathed us our love, but lacked our capacity, for ceremony. Tonight the world is glazed; in a mist I play my part. I take care not to look at you, but I know. I know that when the drinks circulate and I have spoken with all the correct people, when I excuse myself with a nod and a smile, you will follow me up the lift tube to the roof.

I know because you have been given to a half-breed barbarian with a face painted like an opera singer; because you are his reward you have had to leave behind the Celestial Garden. I know because I am the only haut lord, the only reminder of your past life, your deserved life, that you have seen for all the years of your exile. I know because you have seen me before.

Against the scholar stone I hold you close; flashes of memory stir, vivid and fleeting like Song verses snatched by the wind. A green dress, black rain... Your fingers curl in my hair as you pull down my head, my mouth towards yours. You will taste haut privilege and the perfumes of Cetaganda, and a thing vaguer, deeper, longer ago—if only for a night, for a moment in Jiangnan on a moonlit roof, amid the mountains by the river that rushes to the sea.

But I will give you more: no more the shame of display to covetous eyes; no more the effrontery of a barbarian bed. My fast courier waits within three miles; the Empire light-years distant. Like figures in a Chinese landscape secluded by looming mountains, hidden by the mist, we may be alone.

The door opens. I pull you back. He aims his nerve disruptor.

He knows what we have done. But do I see offence or ambition in his eyes? Does he want you back, or is he foiling an imagined plot? If he fires, what will he ask for his reward? Will he take the vase from its case, as he has taken you from yours, to keep like a plucked peony in his embassy by his side?

I know I am disgraced. There is nothing I can say to acquit myself before the Emperor. I cannot go back.

He stands in the doorway. I will not let him kill me again.

With a flick of the wrist I switch off the protective field. A waft of incense smoke; the full moon hangs still. I fall. Your face recedes into the heights; you fade in the failing light.