Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.
He wears white paper creased into sleeves and robe, and on his head black paper folded into a cap. His faceted eyes are amber glass on an ivory face. But it is when the rush hour parts around him that his inhumanity becomes beyond dispute. Smiling he bares blunt shoeshine teeth and again asks, “What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”
She ignores him, gazing out the window where the tunnel blurs by in a gray-black haze. Overhead, the indicator blinks green between one station marker and the next. Fortress Hill, Tin Hau. The man disappears before her stop. The crowd flows back into the space he left behind without ever acknowledging he was there.
Afterward she does not remember what the man looks like and his words fade. This is the first strange thing she encounters that day.
(Julienne does not count her aunts as strange. It would be rude, and they are the best relatives one could hope to have.)
Julienne is a mortal woman with two goddess-aunts, so she’s accustomed to seeing more than most people notice. So when she sees a woman bleeding, ignored, on the streets of Hong Kong, she suspects the reason no-one else is helping is because the woman isn’t human. She walks past, once, rightly wary of getting involved with supernatural beings, but she’s too kindhearted to do so a second time.
She helps the stranger back to her apartment, and cares for her, and wakes to find a small portion of her life has been drained away as she slept.
Xiaoqing is a serpent demon straight out of legend, searching for her lost sister; she hopes one of Julienne’s aunts may be able to help. Julienne isn’t sure she wants to intercede, but before long it seems she’s already in too deep to safely ignore the man who’s hunting Xiaoqing… and now her.
I particularly loved the aunts: Seung Ngo and Hau Ngai are goddesses of myth, but they’re also a slightly dysfunctional, thoroughly loving couple. They love Julienne even as they’re still learning to be her family. And they have the everyday struggles of women trying to make it in a man’s world, still faced with sexism despite their successes.
This is a tale of two romances, in a way: the aunts negotiating the challenges of their established relationship, while Julienne and Xiaoqing slowly fall in love despite everything that should keep them apart.
To say much more would be to spoil the (small but perfectly formed) plot, but suffice it to say that this is thoroughly beautiful through and through.
Although this works well as a standalone novella, three linked short stories in the same series as Scale Bright are available to read for free.