Tales from the Spired Inn:
The Green Realm Below
a short story by Stephen Palmer
Through the rain, Kytanquil could see the aquamarine lamps of the Spired Inn, like corpse lights floating around a mausoleum. She hurried on down Morte Street. The inn was a tall, domed structure with a single door, to which she ran as the wind blew drizzle into her face. It was the last centre of culture in this northerly district of the dying city of Kray.
And it was her home; for Kytanquil was the daughter of Oq-Ziq, notorious thief and local ambassador for the jannitta culture, and Balgydyal, notorious lecher and ambassador for nothing.
Inside the hall, she stuffed her boots into an antiseptic bin, pulled off her film protectives, and dressed in a white shift and slippers that she withdrew from her kit, belting the shift with string, inflating the slippers with a minipump. She opened the door into the common room and strolled in. Dark alcoves of oak surrounded her, their carven sides flickering as a multitude of giant candles sputtered and hissed. A few locals drank dooch from tankards. At the bar she saw the innkeeper, Dhow-lin, a crusty old woman dressed in the traditional smock of her aamlon culture.
This was through force of circumstance a cosmopolitan inn, where melancholy Krayans mingled with exotic jannitta, who were in turn mellowed by the intense, almost elegiac musicality of the aamlon. Kytanquil, never quite at home with any of these cultures, nevertheless found the mixture a comfort, for her personality was not sober, not passionate, nor yet profound. She was a drifter. Not a loner, but a misfit.
As usual, her appearance caused a trio of priestesses from the Temple of Youth to stare at her. She was unusually tall, her short, bleached hair slicked back with antiseptic gel, her sad, dark eyes - identical to her mother's - like anti-lamps in a bright face. She ignored the priestesses, and they returned to their whispered conversation.
Dhow-lin greeted her. "Come along. Drink?"
Kytanquil approached the bar, and replied, "Is she in?"
"No. Out raiding some unsafe homes wired off by defenders this morning. Four or five families forced south to the refugee streets."
"Hmmm." Kytanquil nodded to the bottles of mootsflosser. She enjoyed a special relationship with Dhow-lin on account of her mother, allowing her such luxuries as credit and free board. "Make it a big glass."
Swilling the creamy liqueur around her goblet, she surveyed the clientele. Apart from the priestesses, all were locals. She turned back to the bar, only to see Dhow-lin's hand waving a slip of plastic at her. "I forgot, this message came for you."
Only one symbol had been printed on the fragment, a red splotch looking like a leaf. She did not recognise it. But her bracelet did.
It had been a present from a mysterious relative, an object she had owned since her rite of puberty, a wide bracelet of gold, copper and silicon with an object embedded in it like a soft emerald. Now that dark jewel glowed, and as she waved the slip at it bright green beams burst out. One of the decorative frills beside the jewel moved to become a slit, and before she knew it the slip was being ingested by the bracelet, until all that was left was the smell of lavender incense. The whole incident had lasted just seconds.
"What did it do?" Dhow-lin asked.
"I don't know," Kytanquil replied, "I had no idea it was active."
Dhow-lin was unimpressed. "It's trouble, that's certain. Throw it. It's useless for bartering and it ain't a weapon."
"It is an heirloom," Kytanquil pointed out.
"An heirloom that even Kray's greatest cat-burglar can't identify," Dhow-lin scoffed, adding in a sing-song voice, "That's dangerous."
"My mother doesn't know everything."
Dhow-lin's response was cut short when another slit opened up and a translucent orange wafer slid out. It fell to the bar with a metallic plink.
Dhow-lin gasped. "A Garden fret!"
Kytanquil did not recognise the phrase, but she understood the shock in Dhow-lin's voice. "A what?" she asked.
After a pause, Dhow-lin said, "A call from the secret inhabitants of the Garden. They want to meet you."
"Nobody but them can know, can they? They're the ultimate secret society, older by far than the Phallists, more skilled than the Club of Shadowy Thieves. You better go."
"But where exactly?" Kytanquil asked.
"Go to the Greenhouses, that's my advice. But don't tell nobody I said so."
And so Kytanquil found herself outside the Spired Inn, looking south, wondering what to do.
Only one thing to do. Prepare weapons and locate the Greenhouses.
The Garden was shunned by all in Kray, too dangerous to cross, with its sucking marshes, carnivorous plants, and razor flowers that leaped from the ground to cut out the eyes of the unwary. So Kytanquil followed its southern wall, until she saw the single safe area, a zone of grass by a gate, at its far end the twinkling panes of the Greenhouses. She called out her name and purpose, but nobody answered. Slowly, she walked up to the nearest Greenhouse, and entered.
A man stood up from behind a wooden box. Kytanquil jumped, her hand at the dagger on her belt. He was dressed in a leather apron and boots, under these muddy protectives rough garments of denim. She could not see his eyes, for they were hidden behind wraparound sunglasses so polished they reflected every gleam of candle and lamp. When he smiled, she saw teeth filed to points.
"Hello," he said in a deep voice. "Who are you?"
In silence Kytanquil held up the orange wafer.
"Ah," he said. "Then welcome to our realm! I am Awanshyva."
"Who are you?"
"The Advocate of the Plants."
Kytanquil looked at him, dread making her skin crawl. Bloodstains marked his clothes, and his teeth were decayed to the colour orange. "Why did you call for me?" she asked.
He seemed not to have heard her. "I am ashamed to admit that in my youth I did eat plants. But now I am wholly carnivorous. The destruction of Kray, which is the final city of humankind, is an end I pray for every night. Ah, yes."
Kytanquil cringed and took a step back. Time to depart.
"But there is need of you," Awanshyva said, his voice suddenly loud, "for you wear the bracelet of-"
"This bracelet?" Kytanquil interrupted, raising her arm. "You know what it is?"
"Not yet. Now is the time to find out. Follow me."
He turned, and like a zombie began to trudge deeper into the greenhouse. Kytanquil hesitated, then gripped tight the handle of her dagger and followed, thinking that they would go deeper into the Garden. Thus she was surprised when he stooped to pull up a metal cover in the earth, then drop into the chamber below. She was left peering down into the pale green gloom, in which Awanshyva stood like a troglodyte, his wraparound shades reflecting the peppermint light provided by countless tiny fungi.
"Come," he said.
Kytanquil felt torn. Afraid of the man, yet impelled by the curiosity in her drifting spirit, she hesitated on the brink of the hole, before gripping her dagger still tighter and jumping down. "Don't even think of touching me," she warned. "I was trained in steel combat by Oq-Ziq, my mother."
"That is a lie," Awanshyva countered.
Shocked by his certainty, Kytanquil found no reply.
"Dead, you are useless," Awanshyva remarked. "Now follow me, and please do not fear."
So Kytanquil followed. At the end of the chamber stood the remains of a door, which Awanshyva smashed aside with his fists. He led the way into a tunnel that after a hundred yards opened out into a chamber filled with rotten wood. Luminous orange and green fungi lit the place. At the further end lay another manhole cover, which Awanshyva prised open. A ladder of rusting iron led the way down into blackness. Kytanquil took a flashlight from her kit and peered into the depths, but it was too deep for her weak beam to penetrate. A claustrophobia born in the bottomless pit enveloped her.
Without a word Awanshyva began to clamber down the ladder, leaving Kytanquil no option but to follow. She descended miner style: one hand behind, one hand in front of the ladder. Occasionally she would stop to close her eyes and draw a few deep breaths. The cold was intense.
After some time she heard boots striking a wet floor. She pointed the flashlight down, to see a wide ledge damp with slime. Stepping off the ladder, she kept hold of one rung, for the lip of the ledge was a sheer drop into blackness that even Awanshyva avoided.
"Are we here?"
Her voice reverberated in discrete echoes.
Slowly Awanshyva walked along the ledge. Rusting shards of metal stuck out from the wall, here and there plastered with red algae and the pale eggs of some subterranean crustacean. Slime dripped upon them from stalactites that twisted like questing tentacles. Kytanquil shivered, her reserve of bravery reaching its end.
Awanshyva led the way into another series of rooms, these carved from the rock with chisels, or so it seemed from the deeply gouged surfaces. Puddles of stinking water reflected the flashlight beam. Occasionally small green creatures would leap from these puddles and scuttle away, screeching with rage. In the last room Awanshyva pulled up another cover, then let himself into the hole. Kytanquil dropped down after him, to find another room, and another manhole.
They dropped into a room lit by blue fungi, glued to the walls in stripes as if they had dripped from the coving over the centuries. A smell of dead meat made Kytanquil retch. They hurried on into another tunnel, leading down, the slime on the floor making them slip and slide.
In desperation, Kytanquil whispered, "How much further?"
"We are almost there."
At the end of the tunnel lay a cavern, its roof a single dome of blue fungi, so that for a few seconds Kytanquil had to squint, until her eyes became used to the illumination. A single column lay central, surrounded by items of junk, litter, fungi, and pale creatures like rats, with whiskers longer than their own bodies.
Kytanquil jumped. Three people walked from behind the column.
They were naked, their skin deep green, their black eyes defocussed, with matted hair and black lips. Awanshyva turned to her and said, "These are three of the Slow People."
Kytanquil took a step back, so that he stood between her and the creatures. "Ugh, what are they?"
"In the Green Quarter, deep now under cushions of fungi and twisted vines, lies the Venus Heart, an ancient plant that thinks. But it lives on a different time scale. A minute of its time is a year of ours. Its winter is our ice age. Certain personages need to communicate with the Venus Heart-"
"Wait, wait," Kytanquil interrupted, "I didn't come to this Goddess-forsaken pit to hear a lecture. What's this to do with me?"
"Those of the secret societies-"
"But you're one of them."
"I am the Advocate of the Plants, the seed of communication used by the societies when they wish to interact with the outside world. This is why they sent you the Garden fret. You are the one who will communicate with the Slow People, who will in turn communicate with the Venus Heart, who-"
"I doubt it very much," Kytanquil retorted.
After a pause Awanshyva observed, "It is true you cannot be forced." There was no menace in his voice.
"That's right. I won't be told to do anything."
"Do you wish to escape Kray?" Awanshyva asked.
"Yes! But I'm verging on reveller. What's the point in looking? This is the final year."
Awanshyva considered this, then said, "A year on your time scale maybe. But suppose you were offered the chance of life on another?"
"How? And who by, the secret societies of the Garden?"
"They're only people, probably religious zealots who think they've found the answer, just like those of the Temple of Dead Spirits, or of the Goddess for that matter."
Awanshyva nodded, and a cruel smile came to his lips. "I do not recall describing those of the secret societies as human."
Kytanquil said nothing. She had not considered the possibility of pyutons inhabiting the depths of the Garden, but now it seemed obvious, since the entire rotting green heart of Kray was inimical to human life. And this might also explain the references to longevity...
She replied, "I don't think I want anything to do with this. Take me back to the surface."
"Are you certain that is what you want?"
Awanshyva considered for a moment, then said, "Ah, so you wish to die along with the city."
Kytanquil sighed. She wanted to live. She wanted to survive. The dilemma that faced her was one of life and death. She wished she was somewhere else, in a quiet, warm inn, with people she knew and a glass of baqa in her hand.
"I'm not prepared to do dangerous things," she said. "These Slow People might kill me. How can I live on a different time scale to the one biologically programmed in me?"
"I see that I must show you more," Awanshyva remarked.
"It was hoped that experience of the Slow People would be enough to convince you of the importance of your task."
"We must return to the Garden."
Kytanquil did not like the sound of this. "And then?"
"Another meeting. And then your decision."
Back in Awanshyva's greenhouse, Kytanquil asked what would happen next. He replied, "You have two choices. Either you journey into the heart of the Garden and meet the secret society who charged me with bringing you here, or one of them comes to meet you. The former option would be the best for us all."
"I'll take the latter."
Without a word, Awanshyva turned to a panel of controls on one of the planting benches. It glowed yellow under the warmth of his hands, causing his wraparound shades to glitter with reflections like motes of sunlight. She thought she heard him muttering under his breath, as if speaking to it, but the patter of rain upon the panes above her head drowned out the sound. Then he jerked his head up, as if he had heard a noise.
"One comes," he said.
Unnerved, Kytanquil said, "What, already?"
"It will be here soon."
Kytanquil did not like the sound of that it.
So they waited. After half an hour, red and green lights outside the greenhouse indicated the arrival of guests. The rear door of the greenhouse opened and Kytanquil was confronted by something she had never seen before, not even in her worst nightmare.
In fact it was two beings. Standing beside an irregular lump of machinery blackened as if by fire, yet twinkling with red indicator lamps, was a grey-skinned human, eyes half closed, lips black, wearing a filthy robe and ripped boots. She - or he - was bald, with a limp body and none of the vitality Kytanquil associated with normal folk. But it was the grey skin that made her feel sick, marked as it was with livid bruises and scars as if from many operations. This person grasped two handles at the back of the machine and wheeled it forwards; and the castors squeaked like tortured rodents.
The pair stood before Kytanquil. Nervously, she addressed the grey person. "I gather you wanted to speak with me."
Awanshyva cleared his throat, leaned towards her, and whispered, "It would be better if you addressed your remarks to the pyuton, not the pyuton's chauffeur."
Kytanquil stared at the lump of metal. Now it was closer, she could see the lenses and grilles of its sense organs, and the twisted loudspeaker that served to project its voice. Appalled, she shivered, and found herself unable to speak.
In a buzzing voice the pyuton said, "We meet at last, Kytanquil. I have looked forward to this meeting for some decades."
"Oh, yes. Your family is known to us."
Again Kytanquil shivered. "Why?"
"You are the daughter of Oq-Ziq, who was the daughter of Jizharaq and Nijdeere-lin. The traits of your family intrigue us, as do the tales of courage, intellect, wisdom and gall."
Kytanquil did not know what to make of this. Pyutons of course could live for centuries. Had her family been watched for so long? "What exactly do you want of me?"
The pyuton just carried on in its metallic voice. "It was I who ensured that a certain bracelet was given to you at your rite of puberty. It was I who asked Awanshyva to bring you into the Garden. You see, Kytanquil, I am one of the six members of the Association for the Promotion of the Chlorophyll Age. We wish to speak with the Venus Heart, that ancient entity, half plant, half machine - so it is said - extant in the Green Quarter. To do this we need to converse with the Slow People. To do that, we need one brave volunteer. You, in fact."
"And if I refuse?"
"The time for refusal is now past."
Kytanquil retorted, "No it is not," and took a step back.
"Tell her, Awanshyva," said the pyuton.
Awanshyva said, "Now you have seen one of members of the Garden's secret societies, you are bound by their rules. To refuse is to die."
"But you gave me no choice!"
"Death offers you no choice. That was why it was not necessary for me to tell you what would happen if you refused."
Kytanquil felt she had been trapped by powers wholly out of her control. She blustered, "You can't force me to do anything."
"But we can," said the pyuton. "However there will be no need for anything as vulgar as physical force. Our reward will be more than sufficient."
"Like all Krayans, you wish to survive the demise of this last human city. There are two options. One is to escape Kray. Such a feat is impossible, as far as we know. The other is to escape death."
Kytanquil did not believe this. "Immortality?"
"You might call it that. One species of immortality can be obtained from the Venus Heart. Our offer is this. If you become the actuator of our plan, we shall allow you to share in the immortality of the Venus Heart."
"I don't understand," Kytanquil said. "Why don't you fetch this immortality yourself?"
"All pyuton expeditions have failed because the Venus Heart can detect the many varieties of sentient being in Kray. Only the Slow People have overcome its hostility. That is why a human being must go with the Slow People to converse with the Venus Heart. That human being, Kytanquil, is you."
"I'll be killed."
"No you won't. You will be a Slow Person."
Silence fell. Then Awanshyva said, "You are one already."
Kytanquil sat next to her mother in the Spired Inn and sobbed, "They told me I'm a Slow Person. What have they done to me?"
"You can't be one of them," Oq-Ziq said, "because you're speaking to me now. The Slow People, so I've heard, can't talk or interact with us normal people because they're devoted to plants. That's why they're green. There are many folk tales about them from the north of the city, where they're occasionally seen." She paused to wipe the tears away from her daughter's eyes. "Don't worry. They were just trying to coerce you into something. The fact that they let you get away after all those threats means they aren't serious. You stay here for a while. I'll look after you."
Kytanquil departed for her room, a small attic at the top of the inn, where she lit a fire, grabbed a bottle of red brandy and a glass, and lay back on her bed. After a while she pulled the sheets over her body, and fell asleep.
Over the next few days all seemed well. Nobody came to the Spired Inn to disturb her, there were no messages, nor any visitors.
Then one morning she noticed something different about her body. Everyone suffered from patches of green on the skin; it was a hazard of Krayan life. Often these patches of algae were benign. If they were malignant, they could be removed with a low power laser. But this... this was different. She noticed a distinct sheen to her skin, as if she had covered her body with a pale green foundation. She took a mirror and examined her face. It was normal. Thank the Goddess: she was just imagining it.
But she was not.
At dawn next morning she woke up, and her mind seemed different.
It appeared to her that the sun was moving in the sky. As she lay on the bare floorboards, she watched through her south-facing window as the sun rose, arced high at noon, then fell to the west into deepening cloud. Puzzled, she considered what she had seen. It had been an unusually bright day. The clouds that she had seen had raced across the sky, bubbling like froth pillows, deepening, darkening, vanishing.
She left her room and walked through the inn. It seemed empty - yet full of ghosts that whizzed by. The lamps flickered with electric rhythms that before she had not noticed.
Outside, she watched the now thickening storm clouds race across the sky. Through rents between piles of cumulus she saw the stars arc in time-lapse motion. She felt rain upon her skin, yet she saw only mist in the air and a sheen of pale water on her skin, like a sheath of the finest cellophane. Everything around her seemed blurred. The silhouettes of trees around her were defocused. Far away, the hands on a distant clock had vanished.
Again the sun rose. It moved fast, now, and she stood - somewhere in the Cemetery - and watched it reach its zenith, then become lost in boiling cloud that appeared as if from a distant black line on the horizon. Night again. Then day, this time gloomy with no sun. Then night. Day. Night...
After a while she lost track of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Kray seemed grey and green: empty. She saw nobody. Around her feet the beauty of botanic movement was revealed, intricate as an urban clock laid out for her to view, leaves expanding, and flowers flickering into life then dying, like spots of paint dropped from some celestial paintbrush that were absorbed into the earth. Seeds grew from wrinkled lumps on the ends of branches as if inflated by an arboreal breath.
She walked into the Garden. She had forgotten about the danger at its heart; all she saw was the vibrancy of the growing plants, the blurred purity of the green, the fertility of the soil. That soil seemed to dance at her feet. It was writhing with power.
She found that her memory of human things was fading.
In the Garden she found a great screen, indigo like the eastern evening sky, furry as an antler. It was approximately square, and algae and other plant life crawled all over it, like green paint expanding on canvas. Upon it was written:
'Welcome Kytanquil! Please do not touch this pyuter as you will later use it to communicate with us, bringing us the secret of immortality conferred by the Venus Heart. Go north when you have read this, and meet the other Slow People. Speak with the Venus Heart, discover its secret, then return here. This pyuter has been devised so that it can read symbols left by you upon your own skin. Be concise. From our perspective, a hundred word message will take some decades to receive. Good luck! (And please be quick.)'
And Kytanquil thought, I am a Slow Person... Her consciousness had been altered so that, like a tree, she perceived time on a different scale, a botanic scale, in which years were like hours and aeons like years.
She walked north east through a landscape temporally smoothed, and yet full of detail, and she understood that this had once been the future of the last city on Earth. A future she had herself considered. Not any more. She was now on a quest to escape death.
As she entered the Green Quarter she saw other Slow People. Vaguely she recalled how, long ago (or so it seemed) she had mocked them as idiots, but now she saw that their movements were graceful, swaying like the boughs of a tree, oscillating like a reed in a breeze. Yet their motions were unhuman, botanic, tiny rhythms in their fingers combining to produce limb movements. Their expressions were vacant, yet possessed a sense of profound depth, and Kytanquil found herself thinking of the complexity of bark on the bole of Kray's ancient oaks. She thought of that peaceful, archaic sense of beauty brought about by the sight of stars wheeling across the luminous sea.
And yet such memories were only just within her grasp. She was someone different, now. She walked on, watching the other Slow People, noticing that they did not attempt to communicate with her. She moved ever closer to the Venus Heart.
Until she saw it.
And it was vast. A great hemisphere of sticky green lay gleaming amidst the blurred ruins of groves and buildings, hundreds of metres across, dark as yew, glutinous as cuckoo-spit. Kytanquil's sense of passing time was still slow enough for her to see the random decay of stone, as surrounding buildings disintegrated under the touch of wind and rain and frost. The Venus Heart, however, was constant, unchanging, a botanic entity formed from the synapses of the Venus Fly Trap and...
Something else, something technological, or so the pyutons of the Association for the Promotion of the Chlorophyll Age had suspected. But Kytanquil could see nothing of technology, and she realised that the pyutons, in their narcissism, had presumed the influence of humanity. The Venus Heart was natural.
So she understood that she was not obliged to return to the Garden to give her message. She was free. No reward would be offered by the Garden pyutons.
Walking around the Venus Heart, she saw Slow People tending to outcrops of twisted green flesh, and after a few thousand circumnavigations she began to see a pattern in their movements. The pyutons had suspected communication to be possible with the Venus Heart; this could only happen if there was language. What sort of language?
It could be sign language. Only a visual language could work, the audio sense being unusable. Immediately she wondered if she could learn it.
For the first time she tried to communicate by gesture with one of the Slow People. After a few abortive attempts, she simply copied what the other was doing, and she realised that communication with the Venus Heart was achieved by acts of gardening. This was something she could learn.
The invisible seasons passed. Years rode by on the wings of erosion. The subtler rhythms of nature - the changing heat output of the sun, variations in the atmosphere, the evolution of the landscape - impinged upon her consciousness. She absorbed them as she absorbed the language of gardening, which she learned by a combination of guesswork and gesture in the ever deep society of the Slow People.
The Venus Heart told of a richer, more profound state of consciousness, aware of long-term terrestrial rhythms, foreseeing a future in which even geological time would fold itself into the self-aware mind, so to reveal the final secrets of the Earth. This was the aim of the Venus Heart, and it had created the Slow People in order that its dream be accomplished. Alone, it was isolated. In communication it found freedom.
So Kytanquil lived in the still and depthless world between animal consciousness and plant consciousness, an aesthete of nature with a human base, yet beholden to the slow kingdom of botany. And in the end, as with everyone, her body was returned to the soil.
© Stephen Palmer 1999
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