The First Spectre

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She spent much of the day worshipping the gods, something which Jian never understood but always respected. First she would take counsel with Jiguang at dawn, acknowledging that another day brought a new set of faces into the world. Conversing with Gaipan was to embrace the unknown, her unborn child being at the forefront of her mind. She would whisper to Zheng and Kong, praying for a strong form and mind in her baby. Throughout this she would suffer from bouts of vomiting, the mess catching and congealing in the lengthy fur about her Cani face. Every time she would sigh, wash her face, lightly shampoo the fur and brush her sharp teeth, then return to whatever she had been doing. As evening drew in, just before Jiang returned, she would think of the god Heian, observer of night and the individual. In the final hours of each day, she would consider the ending of that specific form, and how there would never be another quite like it. Hundreds of thousands of identical children, who could only have come into being on that particular day in that particular year.

Unless it was a year of wings. The only form to noticeably repeat over the centuries. On the other side of Locque they'd seized power long ago, but Qinhu had always resisted. The concept of a single ruling form had always been anathema to the home of the Manifold belief. That was until the Ascendancy War changed everything.

The months passed, Jiang finding his spirit dwindling with each passing day, as work took his waking hours and he saw less and less of his wife. He persevered, because there was no other option. Shu's sickness passed and the last two months of the pregnancy were less eventful.

One wet September evening, when the sun was already dipped almost below the horizon, casting deep shadows and an umber glow across the rooftops, Jiang cycled home after a twelve-hour day, hunched over the handlebars and with a blank mind as he pedalled hard, weaving between carriages and mechanical horses. There was a fog hanging in the air, diffusing the dusk's light into pastel hues. He could feel the moisture gathering on his antennae.

The house was empty. It was a small, three room building set on two floors so did not take much searching. Shu was gone, as was her coat and purse. For a moment he thought she had left him, before coming to his senses. He pulled his jacket back on, locked the door behind him and jumped back on his bicycle. The nearest hospital was two miles away.

Hospital was too grand a name. It was a low factory warehouse, re-purposed to provide care for the poor inhabitants of the district. The doctors and nurses working there did so in their spare time, unpaid and without official recognition. Such clinics were found throughout Zhangao, keeping the city's population from death and illness while the council and government denied their existence or necessity.

Jiang presented himself at the reception desk, sweating and breathing heavily. Before the staff could finish scanning the list of patients he had already detected Shu, and pushed past the queue of tense relatives, homing in on her smell.

He heard her before he saw her, a scream piercing above all the moans and groans and cries of the open hospital floor. All patients mingled in the same warehouse space, from the dying and the contagious to those women in labour.

Clutching at her hand, he knelt down beside her bed. "Shu, my love," he said, "I came as soon as I was able."

She turned towards him and smiled through tear-drenched cheeks. "Jiang," she said, "our child is coming."

"Yes. Are you well?"

"It will be a boy," Shu said between stolen breaths, "I know it. Jiguang revealed it to me."

"Then I am sure a boy he will be," Jiang said, squeezing her hand in his and leaning close. His heart was racing. After so many months, it seemed like he was now in a waking dream. He smiled and felt his eyes become heavy with moisture. That only made him laugh out loud.

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