When we were young in Embassytown, we played a game with coins and coin-sized crescent offcuts from a workshop. We always did so in the same place, by a particular house, beyond the rialto in a steep-sloping backstreet of tenements, where advertisements turned in colours under the ivy. We played in the smothered light of those old screens, by a wall we christened for the tokens we played with. I remember spinning a heavy two-sou piece on its edge and chanting as it went, turnabout, incline, pig-snout, sunshine, until it wobbled and fell. The face that showed and the word I'd reached when the motion stopped would combine to specify some reward or forfeit.
I see myself clearly in wet spring and in summer, with a deuce in my hand, arguing over interpretations with other girls and with boys. We would never have played elsewhere, though that house, about which and about the inhabitant of which there were stories, could make us uneasy.
Like all children we mapped our hometown carefully, urgently and idiosyncratically. In the market we were less interested in the stalls than in a high cubby left by lost bricks in a wall, that we always failed to reach. I disliked the enormous rock that marked the town's edge, that had been split and set again with mortar (for a purpose I did not yet know), and the library, the crenellations and armature of which felt unsafe to me. We all loved the collegium for the smooth plastone of its courtyard, on which tops and hovering toys travelled for metres.
We were a hectic little tribe and constables would frequently challenge us, but we needed only say, 'It's alright sir, madam, we have to just...' and keep on. We would come fast down the steep and crowded grid of streets, past the houseless automa of Embassytown, with animals running among us or by us on low roofs and, while we might pause to climb trees and vines, we always eventually reached the interstice.
At this edge of town the angles and piazzas of our home alleys were interrupted by at first a few uncanny geometries of Hosts' buildings; then more and more, until our own were all replaced. Of course we would try to enter the Host city, where the streets changed their looks, and brick, cement or plasm walls surrendered to other more lively materials. I was sincere in these attempts but comforted that I knew I'd fail.
We'd compete, daring each other to go as far as we could, marking our limits. 'We're being chased by wolves, and we have to run,' or 'Whoever goes furthest's vizier,' we said. I was the third-best southgoer in my gang. In our usual spot, there was a Hostnest in fine alien colours tethered by creaking ropes of muscle to a stockade, that in some affectation the Hosts had fashioned like one of our wicker fences. I'd creep up on it while my friends whistled from the crossroads.
See images of me as a child and there's no surprise: my face then was just my face now not-yet-finished, the same suspicious mouth-pinch or smile, the same squint of effort that sometimes got me laughed at later, and then as now I was rangy and restless. I'd hold my breath and go forward on a lungful through where the airs mixed, past what was not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt a gaseous transition, breezes sculpted with nanotech particle-machines and consummate atmosphere artistry, to write Avice on the white wood. Once on a whim of bravado I patted the nest's flesh anchor where it interwove the slats. It felt as taut as a gourd. I ran back, gasping, to my friends.
'You touched it.' They said that with admiration. I stared at my hand. We would head north to where aeoli blew, and compare our achievements.
A quiet, well-dressed man lived in the house where we played with coins. He was a source of local disquiet. Sometimes he came out while we were gathered. He would regard us and purse his lips in what might have been greeting or disapproval, before he turned and walked.
Excerpted from Embassytown by China Mieville. Copyright © 2011 by China Mieville. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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