Title: The Garden
Author: by Camile Sinensis (Teapot) (email@example.com)
Characters: Astarth and the Kanenes of Fallsend
Spoilers: Cal’s profession before he got to be Tigron (oh noes!)
Disclaimers: Disclaim! Disclaim! Fanfic for external use only. Do not boil or overheat. Dispose of carefully.
Summary: What, I’ve been typing my little fingers off all day trying to get it finished on time, and you want a summary too? Er… Fallsend… kanenes… Astarth… stuff happens… rocks fall, everybody dies. (I lied about the last bit)
One day Jafit simply disappeared and was never seen or heard of again. Astarth assumed he was dead, and none of the other residents of Piristil saw fit to disagree with him, for there were many ways a har could perish in Fallsend — a knife between the ribs in a crowded tavern, a wire pulled tight around the throat in a dark alleyway, a deadly substance slipped into a drink, an unexpected nudge from behind in a high place, a length of lead pipe to the head, a pillow over the face, a twist of the neck, a gunshot, a spell, a curse — and for each of these methods and more there was undoubtedly a har in Fallsend who would have been more than pleased to employ it on Jafit. Or perhaps the Gelaming finally caught up with him.
Even those hara who did not consider themselves to be his enemy did not count themselves his friend. Astarth lit no candles and performed no mourning rituals for Jafit, he simply moved into his former employer’s office and reflected upon his own good luck in inheriting the position as overseer of Piristil.
For a certain interpretation of luck. Nohar in Fallsend could consider himself to have been smiled upon by the Dehara of Fortune, or he would not have been in Fallsend in the first place, and yet Astarth knew that unpleasant as his existence was, it was still a step up from the wretchedness of the kanenes who earned their living within Piristil’s walls. If they resented his sudden and unexpected promotion, they said nothing. For them, it was simply business as usual.
After he had sold Jafit’s personal possessions and used most of the money to placate various disgruntled creditors, Astarth found that he had a small surplus, and he decided to use this windfall to buy something to decorate his own room at Piristil. The house was furnished in what was supposed to be a style evocative of luxury and hedonism, although due to the general standard of living prevalent in Fallsend, and the less-than-lucrative nature of the business run from within, this attempt at opulence left something to be desired. The carpets were worn, the curtains faded, and the silken tassels adorning cushions and pelmets had long since lost their lustrous sheen and vibrant colours.
Astarth himself eschewed these gaudy touches; his own room was a haven of austerity and simplicity, with a simple linen bedspread, once white but now yellowed from age, a straight-backed chair and a dressing-table with the few grooming implements he owned arranged neatly on one side. It was not attractive, welcoming or seductive. It did not need to be. Astarth was not required to bring anyhar here for intimacies, either paid or otherwise, and he did not.
Nevertheless, as befitted his new position of owner of Piristil, he decided to add something in the way of a personal touch to his space. There was a shop in Fallsend which sold second-hand bric-a-brac; ornaments and objects d’art, tall candlesticks and silver-framed mirrors; coloured glass perfume bottles with faceted stoppers reflecting the light, and banded crystals with healing properties. At the very back of the shop there was a painting. Not a crude work, as was commonly found in these parts, but something which spoke of an artist with some skill and affinity for his subject. It depicted a white palace on a hill, whose soft, water-colour spires seemed to merge with the hazy, cloudless sky. Up close, it was an abstract smudge of pigments — whites and greys and ochres and blues. It was only when viewed from a distance that the outline of the palace appeared and took shape.
Astarth bought the picture and hung it on the wall opposite his bed, from where he could make out the image contained within the painting, but if he let his eyes and his mind wander, the likeness to a physical object vanished, and he was left once again looking at nothing more than a series of coloured lines and daubs. It was as if the spirit of the painted palace existed outwith the painting itself, and had to be conjured into existence by the onlooker. For no reason that he could explain, Astarth felt that the same was true of Fallsend — that it was a creation of the collective imagination of its inhabitants, and that without their constant vigilance, it might mutate into something entirely different.
That night he slept and dreamt of blue skies and summer, and the sound of the ocean waves pounding on a deserted beach, each one louder than the last, causing the ground to shake and tremble beneath his feet. He awoke in darkness to find his bed vibrating and the walls of his room conducting a strange humming sound which seemed to travel through his skin and muscle and connective tissues, and down to his bones, finding their resonant frequency. Before full consciousness could arrive, the noise and movement abruptly ceased, leaving a silence all the more profound for the lack of it, and sleep swiftly returned to drag him back down to a dreamless oblivion for the rest of the night.
The next morning he had little time to ponder on the strange events of the previous night. He rose and dressed early, before the kanenes as was his custom, intending to work upon the administrative tasks required to keep the business of the musenda functioning smoothly. Scarcely had he sat down at the desk in the large ground-floor salon which had lately been the haunt of Piristil’s previous overseer when there came a loud knock at the front door.
Astarth continued about his business, allowing the domestic staff of the house to answer the door as was their responsibility.
The knock came again.
Astarth made an exasperated noise and looked up from his desk, listening carefully for the sound of footsteps across the hall which would indicate that either Jancis or Wuwa was attending to this interruption. There was complete silence. Which was broken by a third, imperious rap at the front door.
Making a mental note to deduct a commensurate sum from the staff’s wages, he rose from his desk and crossed the polished wood floor of the entrance hall till he reached the front door. He undid the series of latches which kept it secure, and opened it just enough to see who was requesting entrance.
Through the narrow gap, he could see a pale-skinned har with long dark hair. As far as Astarth could make out, he was not armed, not Gelaming, and not well-fed enough to present any sort of physical threat to either himself or the musenda. Piristil did not usually accept customers this early, but business was business, and perhaps this client could be persuaded to return at a more acceptable hour. He opened the door fully.
The har looked at him with large dark eyes, underneath which were large dark shadows.
“Did you know,” he said, “that there is a hole in your garden?”
It was news to Astarth that there was a garden, let alone one with a hole in it. He scrutinised the strange har for signs of madness or ill-intent; it was possible that this was a ruse designed to distract his attention while an accomplice took advantage of his confusion to indulge in some wrongdoing. Astarth did not bother to select any particular crime from the list of the many that were available to an enterprising har in Fallsend. This was not a failure of imagination on his part, merely pragmatism. Everyhar might reasonably be suspected of being guilty of any number of misdeeds until proven innocent, and being proven innocent was an event which did not happen with any degree of regularity in this part of the world.
“Yes,” he said. “Thank you. Now go away.”
The har looked somewhat aggrieved. “Aren’t you going to do something about it?” he asked, clearly of the opinion that this was a serious matter which demanded Astarth’s immediate and undivided attention.
Astarth considered that he had two choices at this point. He could say “No.” and shut the door firmly in the har’s face, or he could say “Yes.” and shut the door firmly in the har’s face. Either answer would suffice to end the matter. He weighed these options carefully for a few seconds.
“Why?” he asked.
The har looked at him as if he was lacking in some important cognitive faculties.
“I think you’d better come and have a look,” he said.
In spite of his misgivings, Astarth found himself following the har’s impatient lead, although not before he had carefully closed and locked the front door, just in case the evil accomplice was still a possibility. They found themselves at the back of the house, where a large patch of muddy ground separated the building from the rear of a dilapidated shed belonging to one of Fallsend’s other residents. This was obviously the garden of which the har had spoken. Some clumps of tough grass and weeds grew around the outer part of the area, burrowing their roots tenaciously into the impoverished soil in search of nutrients, but across the centre was a rather unusual new growth.
A large crack had opened up in the ground, some three-or-more hand spans in width, and about twice the length that Astarth himself would measure if he laid himself flat down in the dirt, which he had no intention of doing. It looked as though two opposing forces had seized hold of the earth and pulled until the very fabric of the ground had given way and split like a ripe gourd. It had not been there the previous day.
Astarth approached the crack hesitantly and craned his neck to peer down into to. It was impossible to tell what the depth of the hole was — it could be less than a har’s forearm, to the elbow, or it could stretch to infinity. He found himself hoping devoutly that it was not the latter.
He remembered the previous night’s dream, and realised it had not been a dream after all, at least, not all of it.
“Earth tremors,” he told the unknown har. “We get them here occasionally. Nothing to worry about. Thank you for pointing it out to us, although I’m sure we would have noticed eventually, there was no need to go out of your way to warn us.”
The har shifted his weight from one foot to the other nervously.
“Oh I didn’t come here to warn you about a hole in the ground,” he said.
Astarth raised one perfectly-arched eyebrow.
“I was wondering—“ He paused uncomfortably, as if the words he was about to utter were stuck somewhere in the back of his throat, and Astarth felt a brief flash of pity, even as he divined what was coming.
“Is there any work available here?”
Astarth never asked what circumstances brought a har to Piristil. There was no need. If there was a hierarchy of Wraeththu civilisation with the righteous Gelaming tribe and their splendid Tigron at the top, then to be a kanene was truly to reside at the very bottom, among the dregs of those who had failed to live up to the promise of the bright new Wraeththu future. Astarth did not ask, because he knew that the stories would be uniformly dispiriting and depressing and he knew this because his own history encompassed the same sordid territory.
He took the newcomer back inside the house, where a tall, ascetic-looking har who was making his way to the dining room for breakfast turned to watch them with studied disinterest.
“Flounah, when you’re dressed, go out and fill in that hole at the back of the house,” Astarth called to him.
The har he had addressed as Flounah snorted.
“Fill it in yourself. I’m not your slave.”
Astarth asked nothing of the new har, who gave his name as Rhus, other than to enquire about his previous experience of the practices which Piristil’s customers came in search of. It did not surprise him to learn that he had none, however when cleaned and properly presented, Rhus turned out to be a har of exceptional beauty; his skin was the colour of a misty day, his hair long and dark and reaching past his waist, but Astarth did not think he would prove a popular commodity in the Musenda. There was something ghost-like and insubstantial about him, and most of the clients came in search of something else, something harder and fiercer. Like the creature who had been kept chained in the upstairs room.
In other circumstances, Astarth would have turned him away, not out of any kindness or mercy on his part, but simply because the har did not look like a good business prospect, however times were difficult, and he had to keep Piristil fully stocked.
It fell to Astarth to educate him in the ways of pelcia and chaitra, as he had done for the others. This was not Astarth’s favourite part of the job. Not because he found these activities repulsive or degrading — he had long since ceased to think of them in these terms — but rather because a small part of himself that he did not care to examine too deeply found some sort of release in the act of inflicting or receiving violence, simulated or not. What made him uncomfortable was not the nature of the practices themselves, but his own response to them, therefore he did not think about it at all, he simply went through the motions of demonstrating the techniques to Rhus, averting his gaze, as he always did, so that he would not see the look of disgust, or pity, or whatever it was, in the eyes of his student.
When Rhus came to him in his room, washed and dressed in a long white silk robe which only seemed to emphasize his otherworldly appearance, his dark eyes heavy with kohl and purple shadow, Astarth examined him closely, like he would a piece of livestock he was considering buying, and eventually informed the har that there was a place for him in Piristil.
“You’re not particularly attractive,” he told Rhus, watching closely for any sign of dismay or anger from the har at this blunt assessment, and seeing none, “at least, not from the point of view of the majority of our clients, but we’ve had some… departures… lately, and we’re short staffed, so you’ll have to do.”
“Did they move on to a better place?” Rhus asked, “The ones who left?”
An unfortunate turn of phrase. Astarth thought of the ill-fated Lolotea; his misplaced optimism; his neck, broken and twisted. His body buried in the patch of rough ground that passed for a cemetery in Fallsend.
“No. There is nowhere better than Piristil. If there was, you wouldn’t be here. There’s a room on first floor that you can have — it’s already prepared, I’ll have Jancis air it and bring up some clean sheets. You’ll be provided with food and board, but you will not be paid until you start earning money from clients. You’ll get seven spinners a week if your performance is satisfactory. You can spend it or save it as you see fit.”
Rhus nodded vaguely. His attention was drawn to the painting on the opposite wall, and he wandered across to take a closer look.
“Did you paint this?” he asked.
“No,” Astarth said.
Rhus reached out his hand to touch the painting, tracing the wavering white line that formed the highest tower of the palace with his finger. Astarth fought the urge to pull him away from it.
“It’s only paint,” Rhus said. “It’s not real. And yet it’s real to the mind. Is it real to the clients of Piristil, the things we do for them? Do they make it real by imagining it so?”
He turned to look at Astarth, his dark eyes questioning. Astarth found he had no answer.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” he said. “All I care is that they pay, and that’s what you should care about too. I suggest you go to your room and work on making your technique seem as real as possible, because that’s the only way you’re going to make a living here.”
Rhus smiled at him, which Astarth found disconcerting. It seemed an inappropriate response to his bald iteration of the facts of existence in Piristil. He remembered Lolotea again. His laugh. His eyes open and filmed over in death. The painting on the wall blurred to disconnected shapes again… When he next looked round, Rhus had left.
In the event, Rhus proved popular enough with the clients that Astarth was able to pay him the agreed weekly wage and retain a small profit for the running of Piristil. Astarth found himself curious as to what the hara who were driven to seek physical fulfilment in Piristil saw in this languid creature, and so some months after his arrival at Piristil, Astarth found himself at Rhus’s bedroom door, knocking politely to be admitted. As owner of the musenda, he could, of course, go where he pleased in the house, but all the kanene observed the formality of respecting each other’s privacy, and Astarth was no exception.
The voice from within gave him permission to enter, and he did so. Upon walking in, he had a strange sensation of reliving some previous event, although he could not say why. He remembered the room’s previous occupant — a spirited individual who had never really accepted the part of the profession which demanded submission and who had often unnerved Astarth, although he would never admit as much. The har was long gone — he had not been suited to the life of a kanene, which much had been obvious from the very start. Rhus was completely unlike the room’s former inhabitant, and yet the feeling of the other har’s ghostly presence persisted for a few moments.
Rhus had been reclining on the bed, and he rose to greet Astarth. As he did so, his robe fell open a little, and Astarth could see the dark shadows on his skin, a pattern of blue-black marks which perhaps might, with a tilt of the head, resolve themselves into some recognisable shape. Rhus’s pale complexion showed the bruises easily and some clients liked to see the visible evidence of their handiwork.
Astarth noticed that the room had gained some new furnishings and ornaments. There was a silk throw upon the bed, its vibrant scarlet hue a marked contrast to the faded fabrics all around it. There was a mirror on the wall with a silver frame of twining ivy stems and leaves — Astarth recognised it as coming from the same shop in Fallsend where he had purchased the picture — and on the desk was a small statuette of a naked har caught in exultant pose, head thrown back and arms lifted, frozen in a moment of ecstasy.
“I see you have been spending your ill-gotten gains,” he said, looking round at the room and its new additions.
Rhus shrugged. “The money is mine, to spend as I please. You said so yourself.”
“True, but considering what you have to do to earn it, I would have thought you would not be in a hurry to waste it quite so freely.”
Rhus looked at him in surprise. “Waste?” he said. “Beauty is not waste. Don’t tell me you don’t know this yourself, Astarth. You have that picture on your wall. Was that a waste of money?”
“That’s different,” he said, knowing even as the words left his lips that it really wasn’t.
“Do you think I should be saving for my retirement?” Rhus asked him, the caustic tone in his voice there to cover what was, for both of them, an uncomfortable reality.
To avoid further discussion of the subject, Astarth went over to the window and looked down. Rhus’s room was at the back of the house, and had an outward facing aspect. Looking down he could see the long crack in the ground, still clearly visible after all these months, and yet different. There had been a desultory attempt by Flounah to rearrange the mud to cover the hole, with no great success, but the disturbance of the soil had unearthed the long-dormant seeds of poppies, buried within the ground for who-knows-how-many years, awaiting a gardener’s spade or a natural calamity to bring them close enough to the surface for the sun’s rays and the rain to awaken them to life.
A green gauze of feathered leaves covered the ground around the crack, and though and above it were the nodding heads of paper-thin scarlet petals with their black hearts, surrounding the crack and trailing away some distance beyond it. To Astarth, it looked as though the gash in the earth was bleeding from a gangrenous wound.
Rhus came up behind him and looked out over his shoulder.
“It’s pretty.” he said. “It’s like lipstick. On a mouth.” He pouted his own painted lips at Astarth.
“They’re flowers. Flowers are beautiful, whatever you call them.”
Astarth felt an unexpected touch on the back of his neck.
“Why is it so short?” Rhus asked. “Your hair?”
“It’s practical. It’s easy to keep.”
“It’s such a pretty colour,” Rhus said, fingering the flame-coloured stubble at the nape of his neck. “Like the flowers. It would look lovely if you grew it long, like mine.”
“I don’t need to grow it long, I’m not a…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. The fingers left his neck, and the air behind him grew cool.
Later, in his bed, just before he put the light out for the night, he looked at the painting. In the lower left corner was a small reddish patch which he did not remember seeing before. From this distance, with a tilt of the head or a squint of the eyes, it could be a patch of poppies growing in the Palace’s garden.
Summer became Autumn. Astarth conscientiously tallied up the musenda’s earnings at the end of each week and kept records of which clients returned regularly, which ones paid up without argument, and which ones had special requirements. He had a small list, written in red ink at the back of the book, of those who would never be allowed to return.
One morning he encountered Rhus on the landing at the top of the stairs, on his way down to breakfast. Golden autumn light streamed in through the window, low-angled and ripe with seasonal change. Soon it would be time to light fires in the rooms to keep the oncoming winter’s chill at bay, but not yet. Fuel for the fires cost money. The kanene would simply have to wear somewhat less flimsy clothing as the weather turned.
Rhus seemed not to have noticed the change in the weather — he still wore his white silk robe, the delicate fabric flowing over his body like water, its soft, inviting sheen echoed in the dark lustre of his hair. The robe covered most of his body, but Astarth checked his neck, wrist and ankles for bruises. He saw no sign of them there.
“We need a room,” Rhus told him
“You already have a room,” Astarth said, “Unless you have filled it with junk.” He looked at Rhus’s long, shapely, bruiseless neck and noticed that it was encircled by a necklace of polished green stones. “Still as profligate as ever with your money, I see.”
Rhus ignored the remark. “Not me, we. We need a room.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“The hara of this household. We need a meeting room.”
“You have the dining room if you want to gossip and bitch to each other.”
“The dining room is for dining. We require a meeting room. For meeting.”
Astarth decided to go along with him for the moment. “And what do you intend to do at these meetings?”
“Discuss our pay and conditions.”
“Your pay and conditions,” Astarth said, with some deliberation, “are rather better than most hara in your position might expect.”
“Yes, “ said Rhus, “That is true. However we still have the right to discuss these things among ourselves. We have decided to form a trade union.”
“Ezhno, Flounah, Salandril, Rihana, Yasmeen, Nahele and myself. And Wuwa, Jancis and Orpah may become members too, if they want.”
“And whose idea was this?”
“What a surprise. Well it’s quite out of the question. We don’t have a spare room.”
“Yes we do. The one of the top floor. The one with the chains.”
Astarth gave him a cold stare. “Who told you about that?” he asked.
Rhus pulled a face. Astarth noticed that today his lipstick was a soft rose-pink rather than the strident scarlet more commonly worn by most of the kanene. The colour suited him rather better, he thought.
“Astarth, I have been here for a year now. I know everything about this house. I know about Jafit, and Lolotea, and Calanthe, and I know what went on up in that room.”
Astarth wondered why he had ever considered this har to be insubstantial.
“Do you now?” he said, “And what else do you know?”
“I know that you have not continued to make use of that room for the same purpose. It has lain empty since its last inhabitant…. departed.“
“I might want to use it again.”
A sudden flash of anger struck Astarth, like a bloody-knuckled fist to his face.
“You say that you know what went on in that room,” he said, leaning too close to Rhus, and expecting the other har to retreat uncomfortably, expecting the fear in his eyes. “But you don’t.”
Rhus did not move. He looked at Astarth only with curiosity.
“There are ghosts in that room,” Astarth told him. “Things that cannot be eradicated. Things that return, again and again. Night after night. The past. It cannot be erased.”
He pulled back a little from Rhus , willing his pulse to slow.
“It’s out of the question,” he said stiffly. “The house-staff will not clean that room, and I will not make them do so.”
“I will clean it myself.” Rhus raised his chin determinedly.
“The past will continue to haunt you until it becomes the future,” Rhus said, reaching his hand tentatively towards Astarth’s arm, but allowing it to drop before contact was made.
“The past is the present,” Astarth told him bitterly. “There is no future.”
He turned and made his way down the stairs, the short spikes of his red hair like a crown of thorns.
Rhus watched him go.
“You’re wrong,” he said, once Astarth was out of earshot.
The fire burned brightly in the hearth, its warm flames bravely challenging Piristil’s draughty interior, while outside the window snow fell silently and wetly on Fallsend, transforming it for a short while at least from the grim, grey collection of houses that was its usual incarnation into something cleaner and more optimistic. Astarth had not wanted to come here; he had resisted Rhus’s polite invitations, coquettish demands and enigmatic hinting at all manner of intriguing conspiracies, but eventually his curiosity had overcome his reticence, and he found himself joining the kanene for one of their regular meetings.
The room was not as he remembered it. Over there had been the chains attached to the wall; gone now, and in their place a solid-looking sideboard taken from the downstairs hallway. The walls had been whitewashed — Astarth found himself wondering how many coats of the thin paint had been required to completely obliterate the dried bloodstains. However many it had taken, the transformation had been complete — there were no dark marks visible beneath the white, reappearing like recurrent nightmares to remind those present of their guilt. And yet they were still there, somewhere underneath. Part of the very fabric of Piristil, soaked into the stone and mortar of the place.
The assembled Kanene welcomed him politely as he entered. There was a semi-circle of chairs arranged around the fireplace, and an empty one was pulled into the group for him by Ezhno, the rest of them shuffling round a little to make room. There was an awkwardness to the atmosphere, which Astarth was sure would not have been the case had he not been present. He could well imagine that he himself had been the topic of conversation at these meetings on many occasions, but in the interest of harmony, everyone present, including himself, went along with the fiction that he was an equal member of the group.
Opposite him on the other side of the semi-circle sat Rhus. He gave Astarth a brief, encouraging smile.
“We are glad that you could join us here today,” he said. There was a subdued murmur of agreement from the rest of the kanenes. “We would like to express our appreciation for the new heating system—” Rhus indicated in the direction of an ornate iron radiator on the far side of the room, which acknowledged his attention with a series of metallic clanks and groans. A large boiler recently installed in the basement, and tended lovingly night and day by Orpah kept this eccentric piece of plumbing, and several like it in most of the bedroom, at a lukewarm temperature which could just be felt by resting a hand on its painted cast-iron flanges for a some minutes or more.
There was a rather more enthusiastic rumble of approval from the group. In a profession where disrobing several times a day was not uncommon, any addition to the house’s heating in the depths of winter was very much appreciated.
Astarth acknowledged the thanks graciously. It had not been his idea to install the heating system, but he had grown weary of listening to the kanenes’ grumbles, and when the elderly radiators had appeared in the second-hand shop in Fallsend, he had spent some of the year’s profit to acquire them and the boiler.
Rhus smiled at him again. “We have a few more requests that we’d like you to consider,” he said.
“The roads,” Salandril said, “They’re in a terrible state. I almost broke both my ankles just walking down the main street the other day.”
“I’m not responsible for the roads,” Astarth said. “And if you wore sensible shoes, you might not trip up so often.”
Salandril glared at him. “You can speak to the town council,” he said. “You are a har of some standing here in Fallsend. You run a successful business which attracts trade to the town. They will listen to you.”
“I doubt it,” Astarth said. “They’re not interested in my opinions.” Even in Fallsend, there was a hierarchy, and just about every other har — thief, ruffian or local politician — could find consolation in telling himself that no matter how degraded his own position in life, at least he was not a kanene or a musenda owner. “If you want the roads fixed, you talk to the council— see if they take you seriously.”
Salandril pulled his robe tightly around his body and gave an angry toss of his head.
“I will!” he said, deliberately looking away from Astarth, like a cat who wished to communicate its boredom and disinterest.
“And then there’s the cemetery too,” Ezhno said. “It’s in a terrible state.”
“It’s always been like that,” Rihana said.
“I know. But it shouldn’t be.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Seeds,” Rhus announced firmly, breaking into Astarth’s nebulous thoughts.
“Flounah wants seeds.”
“What for? Is he going to bake a cake?”
“No, he wants flower seeds. To sow in the garden. And a little hand-trowel would be nice too. And possibly a rake.”
“We don’t have a garden.”
“Yes we do. Out the back.”
“That’s not a garden, that’s a hole in the ground which grew some weeds last year.”
“Yes, and next year Flounah wants to make some improvements.”
“Well let him buy his own seeds and hand-trowel then.”
“It’s for the good of the whole household,” Rhus explained. “It will increase the value of Piristil and those who work here.”
“I doubt it,” Astarth said. “Clients do not come here for the flowers.”
“It was you who told me to do it in the first place,” Flounah said rather huffily.
“No, I did not. I told you to fill in the hole. Which you have failed to do.”
“It’s a very deep hole!” Flounah hissed. Astarth could feel the eyes of all the other kanenes on him; feel their hostility and repressed anger. He knew this wasn’t about flower seeds, and he had enough experience of life in Piristil to know that sometimes it was wise to pick your battles with care.
“Very well,” he said, “Flounah can be in charge of the garden— as long as it doesn’t interfere with his work. Now, if you will excuse me, tiahaara, I have other matters to attend to.”
He left the room, knowing that as soon as he did so the conversation would become more relaxed, laughter more free and comments about himself more barbed. It seemed impossible to him that hara could sit in that room discussing gardens and flowers when once there had been chains and blood. How could such things occupy the same physical space, only separated by time?
He returned to his own room, which had not been one of those modernised by the addition of a clanking radiator. No fire had been lit in the hearth either. The room was cold, and the wet snow stuck to the outside of the window, diminishing what little light was available on this winter day. He lay on the bed and pulled a blanket over himself to try and find warmth from his own body heat. On the opposite wall, the picture seemed dull and prosaic, its colours muted by the dim light. He wondered what was underneath the paint. If the surface was scratched, would the canvas reveal hidden marks? Would those dark stains arrange themselves into an image? Not a white palace, but a dark vision of hell.
He turned over and looked away from the picture.
The soft knock at his office door came as a surprise to him — normally none of the residents of the house would disturb him while he was working, and besides, he knew that they had other business that day which would keep them occupied. Without waiting for his assent, the door opened and Rhus entered, his bare feet making no sound on the wooden floor. He sat down in the chair on the opposite side of the desk from Astarth — the one in which potential clients would sit and be inspected by the master of Piristil to determine their suitability, trying to hide their nervous discomfort as cold, grey eyes weighed them in the balance and found them wanting.
Rhus leaned on the desk, his chin supported in his hands and inspected Astarth openly. Astarth continued balancing his accounts.
“Aren’t you coming?” Rhus asked.
Grey eyes looked up and met dark ones, outlined with kohl and smoky indigo shadow. Rhus was not working today — there was no reason for him to have applied cosmetics, other than for his own pleasure.
“I don’t think so,” Astarth said.
“It’s a lovely day for it,” Rhus coaxed.
“It’s never a lovely day in Fallsend.”
Rhus sat back in the chair and folded his arms crossly. “Oh what a dreadful curmudgeon you are, Astarth!” he said, “The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the garden looks lovely— why can’t you take pleasure in those things?”
“We don’t have a—”
“We do have a garden! Flounah has worked very hard on it, and he will be most disappointed if you don’t say something.”
“What is there to say?”
“You could thank Flounah for his efforts, and you could say a few words about Lolotea.”
“What does it matter to you— you never even knew Lolotea!”
“Perhaps not, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that everyone has worked hard to create this memorial to him in the garden. Memories are important Astarth. All we are is what we remember.”
“Remember what? Remember him lying there with his neck broken, staring into nothingness with his dead eyes?”
Astarth was sure he saw pity in Rhus’s dark eyes.
“You must have other memories of him,” Rhus said, “If you concentrate on those, the bad ones will fade.”
Astarth shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Well if you won’t do it for Flounah, or for Lolotea, what about Salandril?”
Astarth put down his pen and gave a deep sigh.
“Salandril is fooling himself if he thinks he has a chance of getting elected to the town council.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because no-one is going to vote for a kanene.”
“Why not? There are others who don’t like the state of the roads in Fallsend either. Besides, the current councillors are not exactly popular. And if you don’t have faith in him, who else will?”
“He doesn’t need my faith.”
“You’re wrong, Astarth. I wish you could see that. I wish you would come out and join us. We have tea-cakes.”
For a second, Astarth tried to maintain his authoritative demeanour, but the sheer absurdity of Rhus’s last comment would not let him, and he gave a snort of laughter.
“What?” Rhus was indignant.
“Tea-cakes? Did you bake them yourself?”
“Of course not. We bought them in the baker’s shop in Fallsend. They don’t mind having kanenes as customers, our money’s as good as anyone else’s . And don’t bother telling me I shouldn’t be wasting my ill-gotten gains on tea-cakes, if I want to spend every last spinner on tea-cakes, I will, so there!”
Rhus rose from his chair, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes. He stood up on tip-toe and raised his arms in an arch above his head, then did a few turns and twirls around Astarth’s office, in imitation of one of the lithe, highly-paid dancers who graced the stages of the more affluent cities of the Wraeththu world. Astarth watched him, the way his long dark hair swung and followed his movements, as if it had a life of its own, the way his body curved and his limbs turned, as if he was made of air or water rather than blood and bone. He could not imagine that any celebrated dancer could perform any more skillfully.
Rhus twirled his way over to the door.
“I’ll see you outside then.”
“I told you…”
“I know what you said, Astarth, and I know what you meant, and they are not the same thing.”
“How do you work that out?”
Rhus looked triumphant.
“Because if you intended to sit in your office and sulk all day, you wouldn’t have closed the musenda.”
With an emphatic nod of his head, he was gone, leaving Astarth sitting alone at his desk, still smiling. Half an hour later he left his office and made his way round to the back of the house. A group of hara were sitting in the sun. laughing. The bare earth was dry and dusty, but all around the long gouge that cut across the area grew a profusion of flowers; yellow, red, orange, blue, pink, their cheerful heads nodding in the breeze.
When they saw him, a small cheer arose from the group, and one lascivious whistle of appreciation, which Astarth pointedly ignored. Flounah stood up and gave him a formal bow.
“We’re so glad you could join us, tiahaar.”
“Thank you. It was an honour to be invited.” He looked round. “The garden looks lovely,” he said. Flounah almost blushed.
“Would you like a tea-cake?” Salandril said, holding out a plate containing a number of small round objects speckled with coloured sugar-strands.
“Thank you.” Astarth took one and bit into it. His mouth filled with the fresh-baked aroma of vanilla and cinnamon, and the sugar-strands melted into sweetness.
“Come and have a look.” Rhus took him by the hand and led him over to the far end of the crack in the earth. Here, a modest shrine had been placed. In it there was a glass vase with a few of the flowers picked from the garden, and beside that a pair of shoes made of blue brocade, showing signs of wear on the soles and heels. Astarth remembered seeing Lolotea wearing them on a number of occasions. A strange feeling arose in the back of his throat, which he had to swallow several times to get rid of.
“When Salandril is elected to the town council, he is going to get them to tidy up the cemetery, too.” Rhus said.
Astarth nodded. “About time,” he said.
The garden was momentarily cast into shadow as overhead a small cloud passed across the face of the sun. Astarth realised that Rhus had not released his hand. From the other end of the garden, the sound of laughter drifted across the flowerbeds, past the dilapidated shed, and on towards the town.
Astarth waited until the others had all left, and only Rhus was left, rearranging the chairs and tidying up the room, before he entered. It didn’t look all that different from the last time he had been here; perhaps a little shabbier, perhaps it could do with a fresh coat of paint, but otherwise the same unremarkable room with its hidden ghosts and blood.
Rhus looked up in surprise.
“You’re too late,” he said. “The meeting’s over. I’m sure I said two o’clock…”
“I didn’t come for the meeting,” Astarth said, looking round cautiously, as if he expected the bland white walls to suddenly melt and peel back, revealing bubbling black and red horrors underneath. The walls stared back impassively at him, blank and silent.
“No, you don’t usually come. In fact, I don’t think you’ve been here since that one time a few years back.” Rhus pulled two chairs forward and sat down on one, motioning Astarth to take the other. “What brings you here today?”
Astarth remained standing, still staring at the wall.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was just thinking. About leaving.”
“No, of course not. I was thinking about…”
“About those who are no longer with us?”
Rhus studied Astarth as carefully as Astarth was studying the wall.
“It bothers you, this room, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Why do you say that?”
Rhus gave a small laugh. “You don’t hide it well.”
Astarth shrugged. “It just doesn’t seem right. The painted walls and the cosy meetings. As if nothing had ever happened.”
“What did happen, Astarth?”
Astarth turned to look at Rhus. The short spikes of his hair had the appearance of a halo of flames around his head.
“You know,” he said.
“I’m not talking about the har who was kept in this room.”
Astarth did not reply. He sat down heavily in the chair next to Rhus.
“Perhaps it should be a shrine, this room,” Rhus said, gazing round at the white walls. “Like the one we have to Lolotea in the garden.”
Astarth shook his head. “No,” he said. “The har who was kept in this room — his name was Panthera — he didn’t leave the same way Lolotea did.”
“Nahele says you helped him escape.”
A winter’s night, years ago now. The bottle smashing over the Mojag mercenary’s head. Blood. The freezing air at the window. Someone shouting “jump!”. Two hara below, looking up. Panthera. And Calanthe. Our eyes lock. Get going, and good luck. Give my love to Jaddayoth. Don’t worry about me, I’m indispensable.
“No — it wasn’t me, it was Calanthe. He planned it all. He always had plans, ambitions. A future. He didn’t belong here, he was different. There was something out there, something for him to leave for. He saved his money — you should do that, you know.”
It was Rhus’s turn to shake his head. “There’s nothing out there for me. All that I have is here. All I can do is add some beauty to it.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Astarth said. “You can’t leave Piristil, not really. It stays with you, wherever you go. It soaks into your blood and wraps its chains around your soul.”
“He’s hardly gone far— he’s taken up a position as a gardener for Tiahaar Remigo. It’s only fifteen minutes walk away, you can go and visit him any time you like.”
“A short distance, and yet such a vast gulf.”
“You didn’t even try to stop him going.”
“What would have been the point?”
“You could at least try to sound pleased for him.”
“I am. You can have his room if you like. It’s bigger.”
“I don’t want it, I like the one I have.”
“It was Calanthe’s room.”
“I know.” Rhus hesitated. “Did you want him?” he asked.
“I’ve heard the way the others talk about him. He was special. Did you want him to stay?”
“There was nothing I or any other har could have done to make Calanthe stay.”
“That wasn’t what I asked.”
Astarth screwed up his face. “I think I wanted to be him. I don’t know how he ended up here in Fallsend, in Piristil. There was talk of an aristocratic consort— it may or may not have been true, the only one he spoke to about it was Lolotea and he… At any rate, Cal had a past, and Aghama only knows what had happened in it, but he wasn’t chained by it, wasn’t owned by it. I took aruna with him once.”
“What was it like?”
A silence fell in the room, which grew, like a widening chasm. Astarth held himself still and upright in the chair, feeling only the steady thud of his heart and the rise and fall of his breathing. Then a hand on his neck, warm, with the fingers sliding underneath his shirt, finding the bare flesh beneath, undoing buttons, pulling back the soft fabric, pulling it down, pulling it away, allowing the other hand to find the smooth skin, pale as death, unmarked and perfect.
There should be scars, Astarth thought, not just blackened bruises but scars; great ugly white knotted ridges all over, and the skin should peel back from bones and flesh, open up like a rotten fruit to reveal the ugliness and the corruption underneath.
His thoughts were arrested by the breath that was not his own entering his body, by the mouth that tasted of lipstick and absolution, by the sudden grasp of the hard flesh of his ouana-lim within the enclosing comfort of another har’s body, and the sudden rush of something that he had known as desire a long time ago, but had forgotten, rising up from the black, drowning depths toward the sun and the light, to flower and bloom.
Piristil seemed to shake in its foundations. The house gave a groan of pain and release, and the stones ground together like bones. Then there was quiet.
And there was quiet. After the others had left, the house was quiet, but Astarth did not mind. And sometimes it was not quiet, particularly when Rhus came to his room, and Astarth did not mind that either. And sometimes there was a new object in the room; a bright, tasselled cushion or a piece of coloured glass, and he did not mind that either. Sometimes.
“You really should do something with this room. Redecorate. Brighten it up a bit.” said Rhus, plumping up the tasselled cushions.
“It’s fine the way it is. Besides, if I started redecorating this room, then the rest of the house would look run down in comparison, and then I’d have to do it all, and that’s not really an option now that I’m here by myself.”
“You could put some more pictures up,” Rhus said, raising both his hands, thumbs and forefingers brought together to form a frame through which he squinted at the bare wall behind the bed.
“No, I don’t need any more pictures. I like that one.”
“Yes, I like it too. It’s lovely the way the light reflects on the sea.”
“What sea? It’s a picture of a palace. On a hill.”
“Astarth, I can’t believe you’ve had that picture all these years and never seen the sea! Look— over on the right. That blue patch. You can see the waves, and a boat, and some of those white birds, following it.”
“That’s not the sea. It’s the sky, with clouds.”
“Astarth, you have no imagination. It’s definitely the sea. I can hear it.”
Astarth looked carefully at the picture. He seemed to hear the distant, raucous screech of plummeting birds.
“I’ve never seen the sea,” Rhus said with a wistful sigh. “Not the real sea, I mean. I’ve seen pictures, though.”
“You could see the real sea now,” Astarth said carefully. “You could go anywhere you like now. There’s nothing keeping you here.”
A hand reached out and took his own, firmly.
“Yes there is. Besides—” he continued brightly, “it’s becoming almost pleasant around here these days, what with the gardens and all. And now that Salandril is leader of the town council, the streets of Fallsend are safe for hara to walk— in stiletto heels. All our friends are still here, they’ve just moved on to different things. Or even the same things, in different ways.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“You don’t get much respect as a kanene,” Rhus said darkly, to which Astarth could only pull a sour face in agreement. “However, as an aruna therapist, you can hold your head high with the great and good of Fallsend.”
“There are very few good, and certainly no great in Fallsend,” Astarth said.
“Give it time. This place has changed, you know. It’s still changing.”
“I know. It started changing when you arrived. I think it must be your doing.”
“I’d love to claim the credit, but I don’t think it was me. Perhaps something came out of that hole in the ground.”
“The one that used to be in the garden. It’s been filled in for ages now, there’s some lavender bushes growing over the top of it. I remember you said there’d been an earthquake, or something. It must be twenty years ago now. It’s funny, we haven’t had any since.”
“No. We hadn’t had any prior to that, either.”
“Fallsend is a strange place.”
Rhus sat down on the bed. The yellowed linen bedspread had been replaced with a purple velvet throw which Astarth considered overly ostentatious, but kept nevertheless for the feel of its soft-furred caress against his naked skin.
“I used to think we deserved the contempt that was thrown at us, for being kanenes,” Rhus said, stroking the plush fabric as if it were a cat. “I used to think that we were so debased that we had nothing to offer the world except out bodies, to be used. I used to think that what we did — what we were — was worthless, because that was how other hara saw us, but I realised in the end that it was the perception of us that was wrong. We were still hara. Still worth something. And we did have something to offer— something that no one else did, or could.”
“All those hara who came to us as clients, the damaged and the desperate – they had needs that they couldn’t have filled anywhere else. We were the last resort for them, and we didn’t turn away in disgust, or reject them. We did something for them that nohar else could. We could put them back together again, because we could see their whole picture, not just the lines and marks that made no sense if you looked at them separately. That is our gift. It’s a skill we have learned, the hard way, over the years. That is what Ezhno, Rihana and Nahele are using in their new place, and if they choose to call themselves aruna therapists rather than kanenes, then that is only because the idiots of Fallsend do not know the true worth of a kanene. They could easily have stayed here in Piristil, I suppose, but…”
“… too many ghosts…” Astarth said. Rhus nodded.
“You could leave, Astarth. Leave Piristil. Leave the ghosts behind. I would go with you. You know I would.”
“I know, but…”
Astarth looked around his room, as if he could see into the walls, or through the walls, and see every thing that had ever taken place in the house.
“Someone has to stay here. To remember. To keep the memories alive. To tend to the ghosts and the garden. I will stay for however long that takes. For the rest of my life, if I have to.”
Rhus touched the back of his neck gently, feeling the tendril of hair there that had grown longer than the rest. He smiled.
“Then I will too.”
It was three days later that the tall har with long white hair arrived, apparently from out of nowhere, bringing with him the salt sea air of a distant coast and — as he adjusted his immaculate, pearl-encrusted gloves and announced haughtily — an invitation “… from an old friend.”