Once upon a time a dead girl lived with the other zombies in the caverns below the port of Tabat, in the city beneath that seaside town, the city that has no name. Thousands of years ago, the Wizard Sulooman plunged the city, buildings and all, into the depths of the earth, and removed its name, over some slight that no one but his ghost remembers. There life continues.
Some dead folk surrender to slumber, feeling that there is no point pretending an agenda for each day. A few, though, pace out their days in the way they once paced out their lives.
The only actual living things in the City of the Dead are the sleek, silver-furred rats that slip through its streets like reversed shadows. On a day there like any other day, a rat addressed the dead girl.
Her name was Zuleika, and she was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and smelled only faintly of the grave, because every evening she bathed in the river that flowed silently beneath her window.
“Marry me,” the rat said.
It stood upright on its back legs, its tail curled neatly around its feet.
She was pretending to eat breakfast. A pot steamed on the table. She poured herself a deliberate cup of chocolate before speaking.
“Why should I marry you?”
The rat eyed her. “To be sure,” it admitted. “There’s more in it for me than for you. Having a bride of your stature would increase mine, so to speak.” It chuckled, smoothing its whiskers with a paw.
“I fear I must decline,” she said.
Leaving the rat to console itself with muffins, she went into the parlor where her father sat reading the same paper he read every morning, its pages black rectangles.
“I have had a marriage proposal,” she told him.
He folded his paper and set it down, frowning. “From whom?”
“A rat, just now. At breakfast.”
“What does he expect? A dowry of cheese?”
She remembered not liking her father very much when she was alive.
“I told him no,” she said.
He reached for his paper again. “Of course you did. You’ve never been in love and never will be. There is no change in this city. Indeed, it would be the destruction of us all. Shut the door when you go out.”
* * *
She went shopping, carrying a basket woven from the white reeds that line the river’s banks.
Passing through a clutter of stalls, she fingered fabrics lying in drifts: sleepy soft velvet, watery charmeuse, suedes as tender as a mouse’s ear. All in shades of black and gray, whites lying among them like discarded moonlight.
The rat sat on the table’s edge.
“I can provide well for you,” it said. “Fish guts from the docks of Tabat and spoiled meat from its alleyways. I would bring you the orchard’s gleanings: squishy apricot and rotted peaches, apples brown as bone and flat as the withered breasts of a crone. I would bring you bits of ripe leather from the tannery, soaked in a soup of pigeon shit and water until it is soft as flesh.”
“Why me?” she asked. “Have I given you reason to suspect I would accept your advances?”
It stroked its whiskers in embarrassment. “No,” it admitted. “I witnessed you bathing in the river, and saw the touch of iridescence that gilds your limbs, like plump white cheeses floating in the water. I felt desire so strong that I pissed myself, as though my bones had turned to liquid and were flowing out of me. I must have you for my wife.”
She looked around at the market she had visited each third day for as long as she had been dead. At the tables of wares that never changed but only endlessly rearranged their elements. Then back at the rat.
“You may walk with me,” she said.
The rat hopped into the basket and they strolled along in silence. At length, he began to speak.
He told her of the rats of the city without a name, who have lived so long so close to magic that it has seeped into their skin, their eyes, and down into their very guts. How they have seen their civilizations rise and fall over the centuries, and their sorcerers and magicians have learned cunning magics, only to see them torn away each time they re-descended into savagery. How the white-furred rat matrons ruled their current society, sending their swains out to gather them food, eating more and more, in order to gain greater and greater social weight.
“That is what first drew me to this idea,” he said. “A human bride would have more weight than any of them. But then when I saw you, it seemed a meaningless and stale calculation.”
She felt a thrill of warmth somewhere in her chest. Upon reflection she realized that it was an emotion that she had not felt before she died. It was part interest, and part intrigue, and part vanity, and part something else: a twinge of affection for this rat that promised to make her his world.
* * *
“There is no question,” her father said. “This would bring change to the City.”
“And! Do you wish to destroy this place? We are held by the Wizard’s spell – fixed in a moment when, dying because we cannot change, we do not die because we cannot change.”
Zuleika frowned. “That makes no sense.”
“That’s because you’re young.”
“You have only forty years more than my own five thousand, three hundred and twelve. Surely when one considers the years I have lived, I can be reckoned an adult.”
“You would think so, if you overlooked the fact that you will always be fifteen.”
She stamped her foot and pouted, but centuries can jade even the most indulgent father. He sent for a Physician.
The Physician came with eager steps, for new cases were few and far between. He insisted on examining Zuleika from head to toe, and would have had her disrobe, save for her father’s protest.
“She seems well enough to me,” the Physician said in a disappointed tone.
“She believes she wishes to marry.”
“Tut, tut,” the Physician said in astonishment. “Well now. Love. And you wish this cured?”
“Before the contagion spreads any further or drives her to actions imperiling us all.”
Zuleika said nothing. She was well aware she was not in love with the rat. But the idea of change had seized her like a fever.
The Physician overlaid her scalp with a netting of silver wire. Magnets hung like awkward beads amid crystals of midnight onyx and grey feldspar.
“It is a subtle stimulation,” he murmured. “And certainly Love is not a subtle energy. But given sufficient time, it will work.”
He directed that Zuleika sit in a chair in the parlor without disturbing the netting for three days.
The days passed slowly. Zuleika kept her eyes fixed on the window, which framed a cloudless, sunless, skyless world. She could feel the magnetic energies pulling her thoughts this way and that, but it seemed to her things remained much the same overall.
On the third day, the rat appeared.
“My beautiful fiancée,” it said, gazing at where she sat. “What is that thing you wear?”
“It is a mechanism to remove Love,” she said.
Its whiskers perked forward, and it looked pleased. “So you are in love?”
“No,” she said. “But my father believes that I am.”
“Hmmph,” said the rat. “Tell me, what is the effect of such a mechanism if you are not in love?”
“I don’t know.”
It considered, absently flicking its tail.
“Perhaps it will have the opposite effect,” it said.
“I have been thinking about that myself,” she said. “Indeed, I feel fonder towards you with every passing moment.”
“How much longer must you wear it?”
Her eyes sought the clock. “Another hour,” she said.
“Then we must wait and see.” The rat sniffed the air. “Did your family have muffins again this morning?”
“I’ve been sitting here for three days; I didn’t have breakfast.”
“Then I shall be back within a half hour or so,” it said and withdrew.
At the hour, the door opened, and her father and the Physician entered. The rat, licking its chops, discreetly moved beneath her chair where, hidden by her skirts, it could not be seen.
“Well, my daughter,” her father said, patting her on the back as the Physician removed the apparatus. “Do you feel restored?”
“Indeed I do,” she said.
“Good, good!” He clapped the Physician’s shoulder, looking pleased. “Good work, man. Shall we retire to discuss your fee?”
The Physician looked at Zuleika. “Perhaps another examination . . . ” he ventured.
“No need,” her father said briskly. “Love removed, everything’s fixed. Our city can continue on as it has for the past millennium.”
* * *
When they had gone, the rat crept out from beneath her chair, regarding her. “Well?” it said.
“I do not wish to be married down here.”
“We can make our way to the surface and say our vows in Tabat,” the rat said. “I know all the tunnels, and where they wind to.”
And so she took a lantern from where it hung in the garden, shedding its dim light over the pale vegetation nourished there by sorcery rather than sunlight. They made their way to the first tunnel entrance, the rat riding on her shoulder, and started towards the surface. Behind them, there came a massive crash and crack.
“What was that?” the rat said.
“Nothing,” Zuleika said. “Nothing at all, anymore.”
She marched on and behind her, the City with No Name continued to fall.