The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine Year EightCatherynne M. Valente
Edited by Scott H. Andrews
Compilation Copyright © 2017 Firkin Press
Individual Stories Copyright © by the individual authors
Cover Artwork “Tortoise Caravan” Copyright © Marek Hlavaty
All other rights reserved.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine
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The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery · Catherynne M. Valente
Unearthly Landscape by a Lady · Rebecca Campbell
The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles · Rachael K. Jones
The Three Dancers of Gizari · Tamara Vardomskaya
Geometries of Belonging · Rose Lemberg
Laws of Night and Silk · Seth Dicksinson
Fire in the Haze · Mishell Baker
In Skander, for a Boy · Chaz Brenchley
The Delusive Cartographer · Rich Larson
The Mama Mmiri · Walter Dinjos
Mortal Eyes · Ann Chatham
The Sweetest Skill · Tony Pi
Told by an Idiot · K.J. Parker
Foxfire, Foxfire · Yoon Ha Lee
A Salvaging of Ghosts · Aliette de Bodard
Blood Grains Speak Through Memories · Jason Sanford
Cover Art: Tortoise Caravan · Marek Hlavaty
WELCOME TO The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Eight! This eighth best-of anthology from Beneath Ceaseless Skies contains sixteen stories, by new and returning BCS authors alike, of complex characters inhabiting awe-inspiring worlds.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies continues in our quest to publish great “literary adventure fantasy”: stories set in amazing worlds yet focused on the characters. The eighth year of BCS saw the magazine receive its fourth nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine and sixth World Fantasy Award nomination, with stories “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” by Jason Sandord named a finalist for the Nebula Awards, “The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery” by Catherynne M. Valente a finalist for the Eugie Foster Memorial Award, “Foxfire, Foxfire” by Yoon Ha Lee and “A Salvaging of Ghosts” by Aliette de Bodard finalists for the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award, and the audio podcast of “No Sweeter Art” by Tony Pi (all included in this anthology) a finalist for the Parsec Awards, all alongside new stories and podcasts by Marie Brennan, Claude Lalumière, E. Catherine Tobler, Rose Lemberg, Mike Allen, Ian McHugh, Naim Kabir, and many other new and returning BCS authors.
Other milestones included our four-hundredth story, “Told by an Idiot” by K.J. Parker (included in this anthology), our third Science-Fantasy Month, which featured Yoon Ha Lee, Cat Rambo, Sarah Pinsker, and Aliette de Bodard, the release of our seventh best-of ebook anthology, The Best of BCS Year Seven, and our two-hundreth issue, a special double-issue featuring Catherynne M. Valente, Kameron Hurley, Yoon Ha Lee, and Seth Dickinson.
In May 2016, in conjunction with BCS #200 we held a Subscription Drive through our exclusive subscription partner, independent ebook retailer Weightless Books. The BCS ebook subscription, available year-round, offers a full year of the magazine (26 issues) for $15.99 and can deliver each issue automatically to an e-reader or smart phone. The success of this Subscription Drive unlocked a stretch goal to raise our word count for submissions to 11,000 words. Buying our subscription, anthologies, or bundles of back-issues is a great way to get the stories delivered in a convenient format and support BCS. Thank you for buying this anthology; all proceeds go toward paying our authors and artists.
The ninth year of BCS, already underway, has included a fifth Hugo nomination, a seventh World Fantasy Award nomination, “The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam named a finalist for the Nebula Awards, and new stories and podcasts by Richard Parks, Carrie Vaughn, Caroline M. Yoachim, Tony Pi, Jonathan Edelstein, Sara Saab, and many other new and returning BCS authors, plus a full-length novella by Rose Lemberg and a special five-hour podcast of that novella for Episode 200 of the BCS Audio Fiction Podcast.
My continued gratitude to all who help make BCS possible, particularly Editorial Assistants Nicole Lavigne, Kerstin Hall, and Deirdre Quirk for their tireless help reading submissions; all our donors, large and small; and all our writers and readers and fans, for their interest and support and word-of-mouth about our great stories, podcasts, and anthologies of character-centered secondary-world fantasy. Thank you!
Scott H. Andrews, Editor in Chief/Publisher
THE LIMITLESS PERSPECTIVE OF MASTER PEEK, OR, THE LUMINESCENCE OF DEBAUCHERY
Catherynne M. Valente
WHEN MY FATHER, a glassblower of some modest fame, lay gasping on his deathbed, he offered, between bloody wheezings, a choice of inheritance to his three children: a chest of Greek pearls, a hectare of French land, or an iron punty. Impute no virtue to my performance in this little scene! I, being the youngest, chose last, which is to say I did not choose at all. The elder of us, my brother Prospero, seized the chest straightaway, having love in his heart for nothing but jewels and gold, the earth’s least interesting movements of the bowel which so excite, in turn, the innards of man. Pomposo, next of my blood, took up the deed of land, for he always fancied himself a lord, even in our childhood games, wherein he sold me in marriage to the fish in the lake, the grove of poplar trees, the sturdy stone wall, our father’s kiln and pools of molten glass, even the sun and the moon and the constellation of Taurus. The iron punty was left to me, my father’s only daughter, who could least wield it to any profit, being a girl and therefore no fit beast for commerce. All things settled to two-thirds satisfaction, our father bolted upright in his bed, cried out: Go I hence to God! then promptly fell back, perished, and proceeded directly to Hell.
The old man had hardly begun his long cuddle with the wormy ground before Prospero be-shipped himself with a galleon and sailed for the Dutch East Indies in search of a blacker, more fragrant pearl to spice his breakfast and his greed whilst Pomposo wifed himself a butter-haired miller’s daughter, planting his seed in both France and her with a quickness. And thus was I left, Perpetua alone and loudly complaining, in the quiet dark of my father’s glassworks, with no one willing to buy from my delicate and feminine hand, no matter how fine the goblet on the end of that long iron punty.
The solution seemed to me obvious. Henceforward, quite simply, I should never be a girl again. This marvelous transformation would require neither a witch’s spell nor an alchemist’s potion. From birth I possessed certain talents that would come to circumscribe my destiny, though I cursed them mightily until their use came clear: a deep and commanding voice, a masterful height, and a virile hirsuteness, owing to a certain unmentionable rootstock of our ancient family. Served as a refreshingly exotic accompaniment to these, some few of us are also born with one eye as good as any wrought by God, and one withered, hardened to little more than a misshapen pearl notched within a smooth and featureless socket, an affliction which, even if all else could be made fair between us, my brothers did not inherit, so curse them forever, say I. No surprise that no one wanted to marry the glassblower’s giant hairy one-eyed daughter!
Yet now my defects would bring to me, not a husband, but the world entire. I had only to cut my hair with my father’s shears, bind
my breasts with my mother’s bridal veil, clothe myself in my brothers’ coats and hose, blow a glass bubble into a false eye, and think nothing more of Perpetua forever. My womandectomy caused me neither trouble nor grief—I whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone! But, since such a heroic act of theatre could hardly be accomplished in the place of my birth, I also traded two windows for a cart and an elderly but good-humored plough-horse, packed up tools and bread and slabs of unworked glass, and departed that time and place forever. London, after all, does not care one whit who you were. Or who you are. Or who you will become. Frankly, she barely cares for herself, and certainly cannot be bothered with your tawdry backstage changes of costume and comedies of mistaken identity.
That was long ago. So long that to say the numbers aloud would be an act of pure nihilism. Oh, but I am old, good sir, old as ale and twice as bitter, though I do not look it and never shall, so far as I can tell. I was old when you were weaned, squalling and farting, and I shall be old when your grandchildren annoy you with their hideous fashions and worse manners. Kings and queens and armadas and plagues have come and gone in my sight, ridiculous wars flowered and pruned, my brothers died, the scales balanced at last, for having not the malformed and singular eye, neither did they have the longevity that is our better inheritance, fashions swung from opulence to piousness and back to the ornate flamboyance that is their favored resting state once more.
And thus come I, Master Cornelius Peek, Glassmaker to the Rich and Redolent, only slightly dented, to the age which was the mate to my soul as glove to glove or slipper to slipper. Such an age exists for every man, but only a lucky few chance to be born alongside theirs. For myself, no more perfect era can ever grace the hourglass than the one that began in the Year of Our Lord 1660, in the festering scrotum of London, at the commencement of the long and groaning orgy of Charles II’s pretty, witty reign.
If you would know me, know my house. She is a slim, graceful affair built in a fashion somewhat later than the latest, much of brick and marble and, naturally, glass, three stories high, with the top two being the quarters I share with my servants, the maid-of-all-work Mrs. Matterfact and my valet, Mr. Suchandsuch (German, I believe, but I do respect the privacy of all persons), and my wigs, my wardrobe, and my lady wife, when I am in possession of such a creature, an occurrence more common and without complaint than you might assume, (of which much more, much later). I designed the edifice myself, with an eye to every detail, from the silver door-knocker carved in the image of a single, kindly eye whose eyelid must be whacked vigorously against the iris to gain ingress, to the several concealed chambers and passageways for my sole and secret use, all of which open at the pulling of a sconce or the adjusting of an oil painting, that sort of thing, to the smallest of rose motifs stenciled upon the wallpaper.
The land whereupon my lady house sits, however, represents a happy accident of real estate investment, as I purchased it a small eternity before the Earl of Bedford seized upon the desire to make of Covent Garden a stylish district for stylish people, and the Earl was forced to make significant accommodations and gratifications on my account. I am always delighted by accommodations and gratifications, particularly when they are forced, and most especially when they are on my account.
The lower floor, which opens most attractively onto the newly-christened and newly-worthwhile Drury Lane, serves as my showroom, and in through my tasteful door flow all the nobly whelped and ignobly wealthed and blind (both from birth and from happenstance, I do not discriminate) and wounded and syphilitic of England, along with not a few who made the journey from France, Italy, Denmark, even the Rus, to receive my peculiar attentions. With the most exquisite consideration, I appointed the walls of my little salon with ultramarine watered silk and discreet, gold-framed portraits of my most distinguished customers. In the northwest corner, you will find what I humbly allege to be the single most comfortable chair in all of Christendom, reclined at an, at first glance, radical angle, that nevertheless offers an extraordinary serenity of ease, stuffed with Arabian horsehair and Spanish barley, sheathed in supple leather the color of a rose just as the last sunlight vanishes behind the mountains. In the northeast corner, you will find, should you but recognize it, my father’s pitted and pitiful iron punty, braced above the hearth with all the honor the gentry grant to their tawdry ancestral swords. The ceiling boasts a fine fresco depicting that drunken uncle of Greek Literature, the Cyclops, trudging through a field of poppies and wheat with a ram under each arm, and the floor bears up beneath a deep blanket of choice carpets woven by divinely inspired and contented Safavids, so thick no cheeky draught even imagines it might invade my realm, and all four walls, from baseboard to the height of a man, are outfitted with a series of splendid drawers, in alternating gold and silver designs, presenting to the hands of my supplicants faceted knobs of sapphire, emerald, onyx, amethyst, and jasper. These drawers contain my treasures, my masterpieces, the objects of power with which I line my pockets and sauce my goose. Open one, any one, every one, and all will be revealed on plush velvet cushions, for there rest hundreds upon hundreds of the most beautiful eyes ever to open or close upon this fallen earth.
No fingers as discerning as mine could ever be content with the glazier’s endless workaday drudge through plate windows and wine bottles, vases and spectacles and spyglasses, hoping against hope for the occasional excitement of a goblet or a string of beads that might, if you did not look too closely, resemble, in the dark, real pearls. No, no, a thousand, million times no! Not for me that life of scarred knuckles whipped by white-molten strands of stray glass, of unbearable heat and even more unbearable contempt oozing from those very ones who needed me to keep the rain out of their parlors and their spirits off the table linen.
I will tell you how I made this daring escape from a life of silicate squalor, and trust you, as I suppose I already have done, to keep my secrets—for what is the worth of a secret if you never spill it? My deliverance came courtesy of a pot of pepper, a disfigured milkmaid, and the Dogaressa of Venice.
It would seem that my brothers were not quite so malevolently egomaniacal as they seemed on that distant, never-to-be-forgotten day when our father drooled his last. One of them was not, at least. Having vanished neatly into London and established myself, albeit in an appallingly meager situation consisting of little more than a single kiln stashed in the best beloved piss-corner of the Arsegate, marvering paltry, poignant cups against the stone steps of a whorehouse, sleeping between two rather unpleasantly amorous cows in a cheesemaker’s barn, I was neither happy nor quite wretched, for at least I had made a start. At least I was in the arms of the reeking city. At least I had escaped the trap laid by pearls and hectares and absconding brothers.
And then, as these things happen, one day, not different in any quality or deed from any other day, I received a parcel from an exhausted-looking young man dressed in the Florentine style. I remember him as well as my supper Thursday last—the supper was pigeon pie and fried eels with claret; the lad, a terrifically handsome black-haired trifle who went by the rather lofty name of Plutarch—and after wiping the road from his eyes and washing it from his throat with ale that hardly deserved the name, he presented me with a most curious item: a fat silver pot, inlaid with a lapis lazuli ship at full sail.
Inside found I a treasure beyond the sweat-drenched dreams of upwardly mobile men, which is to say, a handful of peppercorns and beans of vanil, those exotic, black and fragrant jewels for which the gluttonous world crosses itself three times in thanks. Plutarch explained, at some length, that my brother Prospero now dwelt permanently in the East Indies where he had massed a fabulous fortune, and wished to assure himself that his sister, the sweet, homely maid he abandoned, could make herself a good marriage after all. I begged the poor boy not to use any of those treacherous words again in my or anyone’s hearing: not marriage, not maid, and most of all not sister. Please and thank you for the pepper, on your way, tell no one my name nor how you found me an
d how did you find me by God and the Devil himself—no, don’t tell me, I shall locate this lost relative and deliver the goods to her with haste, though I could perhaps be persuaded to pass the night reading a bit of Plutarch before rustling up the wastrel in question, but, hold fast, my darling, I must insist you submit to my peculiar tastes and maintain both our clothing and cover of darkness throughout; I find it sharpens the pleasure of the thing, this is my, shall we say, firm requirement, and no argument shall move me.
Thus did I find myself a reasonably rich and well-read man. And that might have made a pleasant and satisfying enough end of it, if not for the milkmaid.
For, as these things happen, one day not long after, not different in any hour or act than any other day, a second parcel appeared upon my, now much finer, though not nearly so fine as my present, doorstep. Her name was Perdita, she was in possession of a complexion as pure as that of a white calf on the day of its birth, hair as red as a fresh wound, an almost offensively pregnant belly, and to crown off her beauty, it must be mentioned, both her eyes had been gouged from her pretty skull by means of, I was shortly to learn, a pair of puritanical ravens.
It would seem that my other brother, Pomposo—you remember him, yes? Paying attention, are we?—was still in the habit of marrying unsuspecting girls off to trees and fish and stones, provided that the trees were his encircling arms, the fish his ardent tongue, and the stones those terribly personal, perceptive, and pendulous seed-vaults of his ardor, and poor, luckless Perdita had taken quite the turn round the park. Perhaps we are not so divided by our shared blood as all that, Pomposo! Hats off, my good man, and everything else, too. Well, the delectably lovely and lamentable maid in question found herself afflicted both by Little Lord Pomposo and by that peculiar misfortune which bonds all men as one and makes them brothers: she had a bad father.