an extract from the novel
was initially written as the third volume in the loosely linked "Memory
Seed" set, the first novel being Memory Seed and the second Glass.
These novels were published
by Orbit at TimeWarner Books. Since then I have amended Flowercrash
so that it is a stand-alone novel; no knowledge of the first two is
required to read it.
The novel is set far in the future, when technology
has taken on natural forms and constitutes the virtual realities through
which Zaïdmouth--the geographical setting of the novel--is governed.
This is almost an art-nouveau environment! There are people in all five
'urbs' of Zaïdmouth, but not all of them are so ecologically minded
as the peaceful rulers who frequent the Shrine Of Our Sister Crone.
Two groups in particular, the masculine Shrine Of The Green Man and
the oceanic clerics of the Shrine Of The Sea, are keen to subvert the
flower-networks of Zaïdmouth. To this end the clerics at the Shrine
Of The Green Man take on a strange boy, Nuïy, who is one of the
two main characters, and with him they go about subverting the ecological
environment of Zaïdmouth. Whether they and the marine fundamentalists
at the Shrine Of The Sea succeed in their plan is told in the novel.
The other main character is Manserphine, who
has been exiled from the Shrine Of Our Sister Crone for the sin of disturbing
an over-wintering pollen room. Manserphine is the Interpreter at The
Garden, which is the central virtual reality in which the many distinct
cultures and tribes of Zaïdmouth thrash out their problems and
their laws. She slowly becomes aware of a terrible event foreshadowed
by the ecological changes of the new year--the flower crash--and her
task is to find out what is going on. With the help of a long-dead network
spirit she comes to understand her role, the role of Nuïy, and
of the macabre sea cleric Fnfayrq in this flower crash.
The novel has elements of Memory Seed--the
greenpunk vibe--crossed with a naturalistic surreality that will remind
some readers of that wonderful animated series of the mid-90's called
Insektors. Though there is no direct link between the two, I
think the visual style of Insektors is a good signpost to the
appearance of Zaïdmouth.
For more about Flowercrash, go to: http://stephenpalmer.net/flowercrash.html
The following extract is from the beginning
The cyborg Zoahnône looks with displeasure at the
holographic projections of her erstwhile friends. One is Shônsair,
tall, elegantly dressed in grey, with pale skin and wholly black eyes,
while at her side stands Baigurgône, bulkier and dressed in metal
and leather, with sparkling eyes and an intense demeanour. When Shônsair
speaks it is with a profundity rooted in centuries of toil; when Baigurgône
speaks it is with the urgency of a political extremist.
Shônsair is a gothic athlete, Baigurgône a dangerous demagogue.
As for Zoahnône, she is a peaceful thinker clothed in indigo,
which contrasts with her ice-blue skin and big brown eyes.
She does not know where the other two are. Somewhere in England. She
sits in her secret chamber not far from Lascaux, where the snow outside
is six feet deep, icicles fall like a ragged curtain from the lip of
the cave, and genetically remodelled bison roam the land.
Baigurgône speaks. "What is your final decision, Zoahnône?
Will you work with us or will you struggle against us?"
"How long will your sleep last?"
Both cyborgs smile, showing pearly teeth. "A thousand years. Then we
will wake, and mould society in the direction we want."
It is this intention that has caused the split in the cyborg trio.
Baigurgône wants to remake whatever society survives the Ice Age.
Shônsair is essentially in agreement, though with reservations.
That leaves Zoahnône.
Already Zoahnône can see ice working its way down the walls of
the chamber in which the other two stand. The time for sub-zero sleep
is near. She makes a final plea. "Listen to me. You cannot simply awake
and remake society in your own image. You would be dictators."
"The end justifies the means."
"What about the people?" she asks.
"The people? They are our pawns, our raw material, our stuff.
They will not feel our presence--but they will respond to our strategies
of computational thought like a great shoal of fish."
Again Shônsair grins. "We might become invisible dictators."
"Then," declares Zoahnône, taking a deep breath, "I will fight
you all the way."
Baigurgône grins. "Oh, will you?"
The electronic systems in Zoahnône's cave begin to shut down.
She looks around, frightened. Have they penetrated her defences?
"You won't survive the Ice Age," says Baigurgône. "We will kill
you in your little cave, right now, before we enter hibernation. Goodbye."
Zoahnône can see what will happen. She will be entombed. She
is, after all, partly human.
But there is one escape route, long planned, yet terrible. She can
die and be reborn. From a canvas bag she takes a bundle of technology,
which she connects to the chamber systems. She lies down on a couch
and prepares to lose her mind. For she is about to jettison some of
her self and exist in purely abstract form, an immense collection of
memory, devoid of consciousness, yet one day able to return as a character,
in some other body, at some future time. She will die then be reborn
as somebody similar.
And she will wake when her spectral mind feels the presence of Baigurgône
and Shônsair in the world.
As her mind thinks its final thoughts she wonders what to call herself,
for she cannot use her real name. Though she is flesh and metal she
is of the Earth, ultimately of star dust. Dustspirit. That will do.
But this private thought will be lost if she does not make it a real,
public memory. Her last action is to speak the name.
It is recorded by her systems.
Then she dies.
Far away, buried like animals, the other two sleep, and dream of what
the future might hold.
Manserphine peeped around a corner and saw a single woman
in pastel blue armour that twinkled like summersky opal, standing alert
at the entrance to her goal. Summoning her courage, she tidied her flowing
white dress, pushed stray locks of blonde hair behind her ears, clasped
her hands before her, and approached. The woman glanced over as she
Manserphine was tall. Looking down at the guard, she said, "I need
to enter the Propagation Chamber."
"You cannot, sister."
Manserphine stood firm before the guard and repeated her request. "Please,
I need to go in for just a few minutes. I'm the official Interpreter
of this Shrine, and it is my right."
"My apologies, sister, but during winter only the Grandmother Cleric,
the Mother Cleric and the Sister Cleric can enter."
Sighing with frustration, Manserphine turned and returned to the corner
from which she had observed the guard. There must be a way around this.
The Shrine of Our Sister Crone was quiet, allowing her an ideal opportunity
to continue her secret work, but this woman barred her way. She looked
again at the guard, an older woman with sculpted hardpetal armour damaged
as if vermin had taken bites out of the scrolls and ridges. The circular
chamber in which the guard stood was small, a pool full of waterlilies
at its centre. Manserphine eyed the waterlilies, the seeds of a plan
in her head, and she wondered how susceptible they would be to electronic
manipulation. Only one way to find out.
She hurried to the Primula Chamber, where she was able to access the
pool network through a winter flowering primula, from which it was a
short step to making the waterlilies believe it was night, and time
to close their petals. She ran back, lifting the trailing length of
her dress to her thighs to increase her speed. At the chamber she was
delighted to see the old woman bent over the waterlilies, lifting and
peering under their broad leaves in an effort to see why they had closed.
Manserphine tip-toed to the door and in seconds was through.
She smiled. There would be an amusing scene when she walked out again.
The guard might report her, but she would deny everything. She knew
her elevated position in the Shrine would lend authority to her words.
She was safe.
The Propagation Chamber lay before her. Shafts of rainbow sunlight
flooded down from the wafer-thin hardpetal laminae that comprised the
roof, so that Manserphine felt she was standing under a ceiling of misty
jewels. Before her, choking the large chamber, stood thousands of earthenware
pots and seedling trays, each overflowing with flowers of every shape
and colour. She could see black velvet orchids, huge whiskered roses
like the faces of mice, sprays of orange wire.
And the scent. It made her breathe fast and deep. The atmosphere in
this chamber was thick as a fluid; at the walls she could see fans rotating,
drawing the air out, so that objects seemed to shimmer behind heathaze.
Before her mind's eye she saw a momentary vision of what Veneris, her
home urb, might look like under this soft and gorgeous light, caressed
by fragrant breezes from dawn to dusk.
She sneezed. Inevitable. She waited, eyes closed, hoping the guard
outside had not heard. Minutes passed and nobody entered.
It was time to complete her task. She scanned the nearer pots and after
a few minutes saw what she wanted, a magnolia with pale flowers like
the hands of a corpse. Bending down she took a paintbrush from her dress
pocket, unscrewed its protective top and dabbed the bristles on the
stamens to collect a dusting of scarlet pollen. With the top on again,
she replaced the paintbrush and stood, well pleased with her work.
She prepared herself for the guard. She opened the door. Standing there
were two people, the guard and Mother Cleric Yamagyny. Manserphine opened
her mouth to speak, but was too shocked to say anything.
"So our doorwarden was correct," Yamagyny said.
"I distinctly heard a sneeze," the woman confirmed.
Yamagyny took Manserphine by the hand and led her away into a corridor.
"What were you doing in there?"
Manserphine thrust her hands into the pockets of her dress, aware of
the secret paintbrush. She replied, "I only wanted to see how things
were growing. I just felt that-"
"What you felt is irrelevant. You know the rules. The electronic networks
mustn't be disturbed during the winter, when Our Sister Crone renews
her strength. She's an old woman and she has to fight her ancient enemies,
cold from the depths of Skandinavia, snow from the top of the world."
"Yes, Mother Cleric."
Yamagyny paused, glancing down at the thin dress that Manserphine had
tied around her bare legs. Yamagyny was slender and dark, dressed in
a black tunic, leggings and sandals. After a moment she said in a more
kindly voice, "I'm disappointed in you, Manserphine. You occupy a vital
position in the Shrine. What will Our Sister Crone think of you? How
can she trust you inside the Inner Garden come springtime?"
Manserphine looked at the floor. "I don't know."
Again Yamagyny took Manserphine's hand and led her on. "We shall have
to ask, I suppose."
Manserphine stopped and pulled her hand out of her superior's grip.
"Do we have to? I won't do it again. I was bored. I'm sorry, I really
"Sorry doesn't matter now the deed is done."
Manserphine swallowed, apprehension making her limbs tremble. "You
won't tell the Grandmother Cleric?"
Yamagyny gestured her to follow. "I have no choice. Come along."
Manserphine tried to calm the fear she felt as a silent Yamagyny led
her along corridors of wood and pink hardpetal, yet it was all she could
do to stop her limbs from giving away her feelings. She needed to present
a passive face, but she felt only turmoil. Too soon they stood at a
tall oak door guarded by leering caryatids.
Yamagyny opened the door and gestured her inside. Manserphine stood
in an echoing chamber of pure yellow, arrayed with soft green couches
and hardpetal pots carved to resemble hummingbirds. A faint thrumming
vibrated through the air, as if from invisible hives. On a couch lay
Curulialci, the Grandmother Cleric. Curulialci was the effective ruler
of Zaïdmouth, and Manserphine stood motionless as a cowed dog before
its mistress. She could not even look into Curulialci's eyes.
"There has been an incursion," Yamagyny said.
Curulialci had a way of holding her spare and elegant body so that,
whatever position she was in, she emanated regal calm. Her curly, black
hair was greying now, but age gave her authority, and that green gaze
had lost none of its force. From the corner of her eye Manserphine saw
her look up, then sip from a goblet of wine.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Tell her," Yamagyny said.
In a faltering voice Manserphine said, "I went into the Propagation
Chamber. I only looked at the flowers, I didn't touch anything. I know
I shouldn't have, and I am sorry. I promise to Our Sister Crone that
I won't do it again."
"But how did you get past the guard?" Curulialci asked.
"I... tricked her."
Curulialci chuckled. "That shows intent."
A desperate Manserphine blurted, "The guard was half asleep. She was
kneeling at the pool looking at the lilies. I was tempted."
"The fault is yours," Curulialci said. "There must be a penalty."
"But I really am sorry." Manserphine felt tears starting in the corners
of her eyes. A sudden mental image of icy winds and empty streets made
her shiver, and she put out a hand to steady herself on Yamagyny. It
was midwinter outside.
"Careful," Yamagyny whispered.
Curulialci said, "You shall be banished for one season. You may return
to your chamber two days before the Garden reconvenes. I will see you
here the night after. Present yourself with humility and you will keep
your role as Our Sister Crone's Interpreter. If your breath is still
sweet and you have not succumbed to the embrace of men, I will look
upon you with forgiveness. Otherwise you will be demoted to cleric,
there to stay until you die."
Manserphine looked up at the ceiling in an effort to force the tears
back into her eyes. "Yes, Grandmother Cleric."
There was a pause. "What do you say?" Yamagyny prompted.
"Our Sister Crone has been merciful."
Yamagyny led her away. Manserphine's thoughts drifted until she was
reminded by the sight of her own door that she must pack her belongings
and leave. Tears ran down her cheeks as she allowed Yamagyny to lead
her into her room.
"Do you have any suitable bags?" Yamagyny asked.
Yamagyny took a sack and began filling it with clothes. Manserphine
dried her tears and listlessly assisted. Into a shoulder bag she put
her few personal belongings. She let her arms fall to her side. Banished.
Well, she had taken the risks and now she had to take the consequences.
She sighed. Three months should pass quickly enough.
All packed, she was led by Yamagyny through dark, twisting corridors
to the side exit of the Shrine. She realised that Yamagyny had taken
her by a back route to avoid being noticed, and for that she silently
thanked her superior. But now she stood in a cold alley, Yamagyny behind
her, a sack in one hand and two bags on her shoulders. She set the bags
down and turned to Yamagyny.
"I suppose I have to go," she said.
"If you had followed Our Sister Crone's laws this wouldn't be happening."
"Yes." Manserphine considered the paintbrush in her pocket and wondered
if the pollen it held was worth banishment. Why had she agreed to work
for another Shrine? Because of her inspirational vision. The strength
of that image of her working with sculpted flowers had been too strong
She looked up and down the empty alley as a chill wind whipped at her
flapping dress and brought goosebumps up on her arms and legs, and she
wondered where she could go. She turned again to say goodbye, but Yamagyny
had silently shut the door. She stared at the barrier before her. She
It was the middle of winter. There would be frost tonight; clear sky.
She would need shelter.
She walked up the alley to the street at its end, where she paused
to take out her woollen coat and pull it around her slender body. That
was better. She surveyed the narrow street. Along its central lane winter
blooms grew, pale, silvery flowers with gleaming sepals, while the tracks
to either side were dotted with muddy puddles. Every door and window
was shut. It was early evening. Around her stood the towers, domes,
and black-and-white houses of Veneris, and yet it seemed that tonight
there was nothing homely here. When a group of people passed by they
glanced at her then strode on, as if she was of no importance.
She walked down the street, aware that the sack and bags made her look
like a vagrant. The next street was so narrow people could reach out
from upper floors to touch the buildings opposite. Then she saw a crimson
question mark swinging from a pole, lit by a glowing bulb: the Determinate
It was a small inn and it looked cosy. Through a crack in the outer
shutter she saw a room with a fire in the hearth.
She entered the inn's hall through its creaking door to find herself
in the common room that she had seen, where she was greeted by the smell
of beer and garlic, and by the silence of the room's lone occupant,
a sleeping woman. From a door behind the bar a tall man emerged, middle
aged, dark haired and eyed, wearing rich clothes of navy blue. Manserphine
was surprised to see he was clean shaven. So he was no beggar from the
Woods, but neither was he linked to the Shrine of the Green Man, where
beards were mandatory.
For a moment Manserphine stood staring, before the man smiled and said,
"What can I do for you?"
Manserphine dumped her bags and sat at the bar. "A good tot of whiskey,"
He took a blue bottle and a square glass and poured her drink. Manserphine
downed the liquor in one. Without asking he poured her another.
She began, "I didn't-"
"On the house." He looked down at her bags. "It would seem you're in
need of a little luck."
Manserphine grimaced. "Maybe."
He said, "I'm Vishilkaïr," and reached over to clasp her hands
between his own.
Angrily she pulled them back and said, "I'm no common woman. I'm a
cleric of Our Sister Crone, and you don't touch me."
He stood still and silent.
Manserphine bit her tongue. Now she had given away too much. She said,
"I hope you will keep that to yourself." She turned around to see that
the woman dozed still. "Or there could be difficulties."
"You need not threaten me," Vishilkaïr said. "I understand confidentiality."
Manserphine had not meant to imply a threat, but she let the misunderstanding
pass. For some moments they glanced at each other, until Vishilkaïr
shrugged, poured himself a glass of whiskey, and drank.
"I can offer you cheap, clean, safe accomodation," he said.
"I don't need it," Manserphine replied. "I'll be away now. I have a
friend who'll put me up." She lifted her bags and the sack, and departed
with a cool, "Good evening, Vishilkaïr."
But in the street she realised that she had no idea which was the best
route to the house of her friend Luihaby. Most of her days were spent
inside the Shrine of Our Sister Crone, whereas Luihaby, one of three
civic representatives in Zaïdmouth's governing Garden, lived somewhere
in eastern Veneris. But where? It being winter, there were no flower
screens from which to send Luihaby a message. Cursing, she dumped her
baggage in the porch and returned to Vishilkaïr, from whom she
asked directions. Luckily he had manners; he did not laugh at her.
Manserphine trudged on through the narrow streets, eyes cast down to
the flowered thoroughfares when other citizens passed her, avoiding
the brighter streets and the noisy inns with their flocks of drunken
women, until she stood near the Sump, a sunken zone near the Woods.
At the edge of a marshy courtyard full of bog-lilies she saw a four
storey tower built of brick and black oak, with pale green hardpetal
windows. Lamps inside made these wafer artifacts gleam like the circular
eyes of monsters. A metal windvane squeaked in the wind. Manserphine
squelched her way across the courtyard to the door, where she sought
the doorflower. Its petals were shut. Tutting to herself, she knocked
After a few minutes a voice called out, "Who is it?"
"It's Manserphine. Open up."
Luihaby opened the door and looked out. She was dressed in a gown,
her bobbed black hair tousled, her eyes bleary. She squinted at Manserphine
and said, "What's the matter?"
"I need a favour, a big one. It's hard to explain. I can't live in
my chamber at the Shrine for a few weeks. Well, a season to be exact."
Luihaby's expression was not as sympathetic as Manserphine had expected,
and she sensed a wariness in her friend's manner. Luihaby muttered to
herself, then said brusquely, "What did you want me to do about it?"
"Well... you've got your lovely big tower. I wondered if it would be
possible for me to..."
Now Manserphine could tell there was something amiss, and she realised
what it was. Luihaby already knew what had happened in the Shrine. The
banishment was public knowledge. Most likely runners had been sent to
all the relevant people in Veneris. Anger surged through her. She picked
up her sack, lodged the bags over one shoulder and, turning, said, "Never
mind. I'll be on my way."
Faintly she heard Luihaby say, "I'm sorry," before closing her door.
Now Manserphine felt alone as never before. Since puberty she had been
a cleric at the Shrine of Our Sister Crone, knowing no other adult life.
There she had her friends, her chamber, a position of trust and security
in the running of the urb in which she had been born. But because studied
neutrality had not seemed enough she had tried to expand her interests--now
she was paying the price. Luihaby might not be the only friend she had
in the urb, but she was the only one who would put her up. The meaning
of the banishment was clear. She had thought to shrug off three months
as a brief period, but now it seemed to stretch out before her like
an endless road. She stood shivering as the midnight wind whistled down
the street, only the stars witness to her misery. Nobody to talk to.
Nobody to take her in.
Her thoughts returned to Vishilkaïr and the Determinate Inn. With
no other option presenting itself, she sighed and began the walk back
to western Veneris.
The inn was locked when she arrived, but a lamp burned in an upper
window and her knocking brought Vishilkaïr to it, whereupon he
looked down, grinned, and told her to wait. Embarrassment shrouded her,
but she burned it out of her mind with the anger she felt at her own
incompetence. When Vishilkaïr unlocked the door and let her in
she almost curtseyed in her eagerness to give thanks.
"It's no problem," he told her. "The inn isn't very full and I can't
afford to turn anyone away. Come and have another tot of whiskey."
"I'll pay for it."
"Good! That is a fine basis for business. Now tell me your troubles."
Manserphine placed her bags on the floor and sat at the bar. "I can't
tell you exactly. It's confidential. I've found myself in a bit of a
predicament and I have to live out of the Shrine for a season."
"Would you be needing accomodation for the whole duration?"
Manserphine considered. "I suppose that is possible, but I haven't
decided yet. I was rather hoping my friend would put me up, but there
seems to be a logistical difficulty."
"Is there anybody else who can put you up until spring?"
An uncomfortable question. "Not that I can think of at the moment."
"I can offer that security."
Manserphine frowned. "Please don't pressure me. I'm feeling rather
Vishilkaïr laughed, and replied, "I only wanted you to know that
I'm here to help. Let me be blunt. I can see that you are a woman of
poise, and since you are a cleric of Our Sister Crone you are important.
I would wager that you work in the upper echelons of that Shrine. Clearly
you have suffered a mishap. You will not be poor." He shrugged and again
smiled his disarming smile. "I would be a fool to ignore such a stroke
of luck. You represent certainty of income to me through the harshest
months of the year."
Manserphine nodded. "I suppose so. But I have a few questions. Are
you the only man here?"
"No. There are four of us, myself, my nephew Kirifaïfra, and the
two oriental women who cook and account for me."
Now Manserphine recognised the exotic smell that wafted from the back
room. She wondered why this innkeeper, clearly Inglish, would offer
"The questions in your mind are lighting up your eyes," Vishilkaïr
remarked, making Manserphine laugh. Now it had been mentioned, she saw
many objects of oriental origin: porcelain bowls, elaborate textiles
pinned to the walls, silken scarves hung from hooks.
"Is this an oriental inn?" she asked.
"More or less."
"Why didn't you take up business in Blissis where they all live?"
"I wanted to bring news of eastern culture to others," Vishilkaïr
replied. "Veneris was the obvious destination, it being the seat of
power in Zaïdmouth."
"I see. But you don't own this place?"
"As a matter of fact I own it in partnership with my guardian, who
was the oriental woman you saw sleeping when you first came in."
Manserphine nodded. "And she is...?"
"Omdaton the cook. The other is named Jezelva."
Manserphine filed this information in her mind. There was one further
question to put. "I'm afraid I have to ask you this. Do you have many
men customers here? I mean, with you being a man, and your nephew too,
it must be an attraction to vagrants and outcasts from the Woods and
the Venereal Garden."
"I understand your concern. Three quarters of my clientele are the
deeper sex, while the others are travelling men of learning, jesters,
and so on. I myself was a flower technician before my love of the oriental
way led me to settle here at the inn."
Manserphine felt reassured. The warm, cosy aura of the inn seemed to
envelop her mind. She thought of sleep.
"Yes," she said, yawning. "What is it about them you like?"
Vishilkaïr considered. "Their warm exotic character. The shimmering
music. I am a pale man, and I envy the joy they take in living life."
"You surprise me. I wouldn't have thought to have heard that from a
"Don't confuse me with the extremists of Emeralddis. They dislike anybody
unlike themselves, which is to say other races, the other sex."
Manserphine yawned again. "Is there a chamber convenient?"
"I shall put you in the warm room at the rear of the inn, overlooking
the vegetable garden."
Taking her sack, Vishilkaïr led her up creaking stairs to the
upper floor, where at the end of a narrow passage he unlocked and opened
a door so low Manserphine had to bend to enter the room. It was small--she
could cross it in six paces--but with tall ceiling and elegantly placed
cupboards, not impossibly so. The single bed and its multicoloured bolster
looked clean and fresh, while the floorboards, though warped, were dust
free. There was a faint odour of violets in the air. A hardpetal desk
sat next to a wooden chest of drawers. There were pitchers, bowls, and
even an alabaster tray with writing equipment.
"The privy is next door," Vishilkaïr said. "I will label it for
the use of women only, but you will have sole use of it since this is
the only guest room on this passage. Truthfully, this is the best room
of the inn. I would use it myself, but it is too small for my needs.
You will notice the fragrance of oriental food during the early evening,
since the kitchen is below you. I must instruct Omdaton to open the
windows now you are in residence."
Manserphine smiled. "Thank you. I'll rest now, and see you in the morning."
"Indeed. Good night."
Vishilkaïr surrendered the room key and departed. Manserphine
had no energy for anything other than her bed. With the door locked
and the bar down, she threw her coat to the floor and dusted down her
dress. But when she tried to sleep she could not. Her old trouble haunted
She had suffered from insomnia for years, a conditioned worsened by
the dreamless state that she entered when at last her mind did relax.
Yet those vivid visions that she experienced snagged on the cusp of
insomnia she knew to be something deeper than dreams, for they were
accompanied by fragrant perfumes and insects that inexplicably entered
her chamber. She had talked to other clerics about dreaming and found
her experience to be unique. Nobody else dreamed of one woman only,
and a mermaid at that. Nobody else could influence the course of her
own dream. Nobody else created insects out of thin air.
Manserphine listened to the noises of the inn as she lay suspended
in wakefulness. The hours passed.
At last she slipped away from her conscious self.
Suddenly she was floating before the mermaid of her visions. This woman
was physically like her, tall and slender, with large, melancholy eyes
of washed-out blue, and locks of pale, almost white hair floating as
if in a liquid. She was invariably naked. Her feet were like fins. The
mermaid tried to speak, but flowers emerged from her mouth linked like
a chain of conjuror's scarves, whereupon Manserphine saw they were all
red, and in some cases dripping blood. The mermaid's teeth were stained.
Manserphine decided to catch a flower, but they dodged out of reach
to rise like bubbles in a pitcher, expanding, then bursting into shards.
Noises. The harsh clattering of pans. Voices.
Manserphine woke and sat upright. Morning light brightened her room
and the atmosphere was thick with the scent of dog-rose. Coughing, she
clambered out of bed. A dozen insects buzzed around the room, slapping
against the window, so she opened it to clear the air and let them out.
Every single one rose up, then sped south over the roof. She noticed
that the desk was the source of the fragrance. It was made of hardpetal.
Hardpetal. The substance that created interfaces with the electronic
flower-networks of Zaïdmouth. And this fragrant effect had happened
before. There was a connection here between her visions, hardpetal,
the insects and the networks. But what?
Still drowsy she washed herself, then chose a flowing green dress,
cotton leggings and a loose jacket. Downstairs she met Vishilkaïr.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked.
"I never do. Insomnia."
"That's terrible. I can get drugs from the dens of Blissis to help
you sleep. They're quite safe."
"I'll consider it. What about breakfast?"
Vishilkaïr tapped a metal cat on the bar, which resonated like
temple cymbals. In walked a young man who immediately caught Manserphine's
eye; tall, spare of frame, with the gait of an athlete and features
that combined to produce a handsome face. His eyes were black and his
hair was brown, cut short except for a pigtail wound with copper wire.
He offered her a wafer of hardpetal upon which an illuminated menu flickered.
"This is Kirifaïfra," Vishilkaïr explained, "my charming
nephew. He will be looking after you today."
"Pleased to meet you, reverend sister," Kirifaïfra said with a
bow. His voice had the depth and clarity of a singer.
Manserphine grimaced. "Don't call me that, young man. I have a name.
Manserphine selected a breakfast at random then sat in the bay window
seat, where several vellum scrolls had been laid, each carrying the
text of speeches given by the clerics of Zaïdmouth's seven shrines.
Manserphine scanned them until her breakfast was served. "Could you
send your uncle over, please?" she asked.
Kirifaïfra smiled in the unctuous way of waiters then departed
silent as a cat. Manserphine watched him go. The muscles of his thighs
and shoulders moved smoothly under his flimsy inn clothes. Manserphine
recalled the vow of celibacy that she had sworn upon becoming Interpreter.
Later, Vishilkaïr appeared, to sit at her side.
"We need to discuss payments," Manserphine said. She sipped her green
tea then continued, "It seems possible that I'll be here for at least
"There's no need to fret," Vishilkaïr said. "You can either settle
in spring, when the public networks come online, or pay me in cowries."
"I don't have much by way of actual coins," Manserphine said, thinking
of the tiny purse of brass cowries that she kept upstairs. "Electronic
might be best."
"Then there is no problem. My study is full of bulbs. Come spring we
can deal directly, without the coarseness of cash."
Manserphine stood. "And now I must go on an errand." She gestured at
the empty bowls and mug. "Shall I wash-"
"That is Kirifaïfra's job."
Manserphine nodded. "Is he a youth still?"
"He has left his family and come to work for me, with Jezelva his guardian."
"Quite a convenient situation," Manserphine remarked.
"We think so."
Manserphine returned to her room, pulled on her coat, then put the
paintbrush in its inner pocket. Leaving, she began the walk to Novais.
Through frosted streets she strode, her boots cracking thin ice on the
puddles, glancing down on occasion if a particularly large or bright
flowerhead caught her attention. The blooms in this part of Veneris
were silver, their cables matted, and all had a glaze of frost that
twinkled when the sunlight caught them. There were no insects; data
moved sluggishly, if at all, through the backup root systems.
Leaving Veneris she made south and then east to avoid the danger of
the Woods, which here stretched out in a series of linked copses. She
jogged along old tracks, through deep lanes that never saw the sun in
winter, past ruined buildings and the abandoned settlements of old men,
until she neared the elegant needles and irregular domes of Novais.
The urb lay sprawled across several low hills, nothing to mark any border
except a currency exchange booth, in which an old woman slept.
Manserphine walked into the cobbled streets of Novais. It being mid-morning
the urb was devoid of people. Hedonists of the vicinity too proud to
live in Blissis--where all the action was--were recovering from their
all-night feasts and drunken orgies. Manserphine understood that here,
in the urb that somehow fused the extravagances of exotic Blissis with
the feminine morality of Veneris, she might find new friends to help
her through the season ahead. Most of them would work or reside at the
Shrine of Flower Sculpture.
She stopped and looked behind her. Nobody following. She had half expected
to see an agent from her Shrine, checking up on her. But in reality
she knew they would have forgotten about her. That was part of the banishment.
A curious, and never before experienced feeling of freedom enveloped
In minutes she stood before the Shrine of Flower Sculpture. Apart from
the foundations it was built entirely of hardpetal. In form it was an
upturned bell, its sides shrouded in baroque scrolls and curls that
often surrounded windows, or marked the doors to balconies. Manserphine
looked up; it was a hundred feet high. Its colour changed from season
to season. Presently it was pale green, here and there showing inner
spirals of blue and brown. Where it joined the street there was a single
door. Symbolically, this was transparent, indicating that the Shrine
had no secrets; a grievous lie, as Manserphine knew. But it was a good
way to entice converts.
Manserphine entered a cool hall, where she asked to see Pollonzyn.
In minutes her contact arrived, petite and suave in a crimson roquelaure,
to lead her into a pine scented ante-room.
"You acquired our gametes?" Pollonzyn asked. She spoke with the throaty
burr characteristic of Novais, yet her speech was ornate. This was one
of the dialects Manserphine had to translate in her capacity of Interpreter.
Manserphine handed over the paintbrush. "This comes with the shadow
of a price."
"But we've reimbursed you-"
"Not that. I was uncovered."
Pollonzyn blanched. "You mean your-"
"I cozened my way out of the fray, but granny gave me a three month
dip. I'm having to lie up at a hostelry of eastern delights."
"I'm so sorry."
Manserphine sighed. "Of course, it's the end of our dealings. After
my dip I'm supposed to step again on virtual grass. I have to keep my
fingers pink, else lose my privileges."
But Pollonzyn was shaking her head. "Absolutely never! I'll immediately
bring an interview with Cirishnyan. I'm sure she won't want to lose
you to the wind."
Manserphine shrugged. "I might come, but don't dab the brush on my
account. The way I feel at the moment, only granny crone can save me."
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