Love, as the poets have observed, can strike any one at any time. A glance, a word, the aroma of an exotic perfume, and the gates of the heart can be thrown open where previously they had been firmly shut.
Thus it was with Gunter Alquen, Presiding Officer—or Karteltrager, to use his correct title—of the Place of Blades in the vaunted city of PameGlorias.
He had not been seeking to fall in love on that particular morning. Indeed his principal thoughts, as he walked down the Allee Carnap in the company of his comrade Alois Engarten, were of breakfast. The day had been a taxing one, although only a few hours had passed since dawn, and he had already presided over no less than six affairs of honor, three of which had resulted in fatalities.
“I thought the Major fought well,” Engarten said. “He had obviously studied his Cappa Fero and Destreza.”
“And much good they did him,” Alquen replied. It was true that the Major’s technique had been impeccable—a glowing tribute to the ancient fencing masters whose teachings he had studied—but a well-judged thrust from his opponent had opened his femoral artery and he had bled to death in under a minute.
Engarten nodded, recognizing that his comrade had no wish to discuss the matter further.
They made a curious pairing, Alquen and Engarten. Alquen was a small man, a shade over five feet in height, with disproportionately long limbs. His face was pleasant enough, although set in a permanently gloomy expression, distinguished only by the long dueling scars that decorated either cheek. Alois Engarten was a good fourteen inches taller, his handsome features complimented rather than spoiled by more his more discreet, though no less honorable, disfigurement.
Both men wore russet cloaks over burgundy shirts and both carried sabers on their baldrics. But if Alquen’s clothing suggested the funereal and the mournful, Engarten was a paean to the joys of autumn.
It was a puzzle to many in PameGlorias how these two gentlemen could be friends—the Dismal Dwarf and the Flâneur, as they were called behind their backs—since they appeared to have little in common other than the brotherhood of the sword. Nevertheless, friends and good comrades they were, even if one typically suffered from neck pain and the other from backache as a result of it.
“Where shall we eat?” Engarten inquired after a short period of silence.
“Somewhere quiet, I think.” Alquen said. His stomach grumbled, and he had little patience with the early morning hustle and bustle of the Allee Carnap. “Maimon’s, perhaps?”
“An excellent choice, my friend.”
They had just made the turn into Teten’s Lane when the clang of bells cut through the air, followed by a series of gruff commands: “Make way! Make way in Parasheeva’s name! Avert your eyes, damn you, avert your eyes!”
The two friends peered down the Allee towards the source of both the bells and the ill-mannered order, noting how the crowd was parting like wheat before the scythe.
Coming towards them in a stately procession was a group of green-gowned women, their faces veiled. The loud-mouthed vulgarian at their head was also female, as tall as Engarten but broad-shouldered and with hair the color and texture of moss. She, too, wore the Gown and Veil and swung a brace of heavy, tarnished brass bells left and right with more than enough gusto to crack the skull of anyone foolish enough to disobey her.
“Parasheeva’s Blossoms.” Engarten said sourly. “A waste of womanhood.”
“But then, by your standards, every woman who has not graced your bedchamber is a waste.” Alquen replied. His voice was almost a monotone, and Engarten found it impossible to tell if his companion spoke in jest or not.
The procession drew level with them, and both men took a step backwards, lowering their heads. Worshippers or not, it was never wise to offend the dark gods of PameGlorias. However, a sudden impulse, which afterwards he was never fully able to explain, made Alquen glance upwards as the Blossoms passed. At the same moment, one of the women stumbled—hardly surprising since both her hands and feet were constrained by the ceremonial thorns of her order—and for an instant their eyes met.
The fates, or the gods, must have been in a jovial mood that day. A puff of air—or the stumble itself, or perhaps a combination of the two—shifted the woman’s veil, briefly exposing her hazel eyes.
And in that moment, Gunter Alquen was totally and irrevocably smitten.
“Look away, damn you,” the tall woman barked again, and Alquen immediately obeyed. But the damage had been done, the poets vindicated: the Karteltrager of the Place of Blades had lost his heart.
“Did you see her, Engarten?”
“I saw nothing but the toes of my boots,” Engarten replied. “And if you are wise, my friend, neither did you.”
They sat in the cool damp surroundings of Maimon’s tavern, long their regular morning haunt as it was both unfashionable and cheap. Alquen had barely touched his breakfast of eggs and black bread, contenting himself with a glass of chilled hock instead, his appetite dulled somewhat by the power of the Blossom’s glance.
“But she said so much to me.”
“She said nothing,” Engarten said. “For your own sake forget about her. It was a look, an accident, nothing more. If it’s a woman you seek, I can introduce you to ten mistresses before the morning is out.”
“I appreciate the offer, my friend, but I doubt I would feel comfortable in your cast-offs.”
Engarten grimaced. He knew that his friend did not approve of his many dalliances and that he, perhaps uniquely among the citizens of PameGlorias, had kept himself pure for the wedding bed.
“See sense, man,” Engarten told him. “This woman—whoever she may be—has promised herself to Parasheeva, and she would hardly be willing to break that promise for...” He hesitated, unsure what to say next.
“For someone like me, you mean?”
It was true that Gunter Alquen was hardly the most likely of beaus. His perpetually gloomy face, his habitually dismal moods, and his awkward yet somehow graceful frame hardly painted the typical portrait of a lover.
“You are my brother-in-arms and my dearest friend, Gunter, I do not wish to see you make a fool of yourself. More than that, I have no wish to see you executed for sacrilege, even if that sacrilege is against Parasheeva.”
The gods of PameGlorias were many and varied; their worship ranged from the faintly ridiculous to the obscene and fanatical, but each of them had one thing in common: they were jealous and dangerous deities. To provoke or defile them could result in only one outcome. It was not uncommon in the older quarters of the city to see the mutilated bodies of recusants lying on street corners, stiff with frost.
That should have been enough to deter him, but it did not.
“I must see her again,” he said. “I will see her again. Will you help me, Engarten?”
Engarten sighed. “Since you are determined to follow this path, I feel I have little choice.”
“You are a true and good comrade, Elois,” Alquen said.
“No,” Engarten replied, a wry smile upon his lips. “I am a romantic fool. But, apparently, so are you.”
The next day Gunter Alquen rose three hours before dawn, as was his custom. He practiced for one hour with the saber and one hour with the epee, then spent the rest of his time studying the scrolls that documented the morning’s scheduled duels.
They were the usual mixture of cuckolded lovers, besmirched young officers, and hot-tempered bravos determined to show the world their prowess with a blade.
In his years as Karteltrager of the Place of Blades—sometimes known as the Dueling Quad or, more pragmatically, Death’s Square—Alquen had seen hundreds of young and not-so-young lives curtailed in a flurry of steel. It was his profession and vocation to ensure that the duels were carried out in a prescribed fashion and, where possible, to attempt some compromise or reconciliation between the combatants.
Moreover, he himself was without doubt one of the finest blades in the Shining City of PameGlorias. In his younger days, he had fought frequently in the Quad, and much blood had been spilled before the ruffians of the city had learned to hold their tongues in his presence.
The world was entering its final epoch. The day would come, not so impossibly far into the future, when the sun would cease to shine and the sphere become a lifeless, frozen waste. Against such a future, what else could one do but cling to those things which eased and focused the mind—honor, duty, loyalty, faith. And, perhaps, even love.
With his practice concluded and his business attended to, Alquen dressed for the day in a grey doublet and breeches, then donned his baldric and russet cloak.
As he stepped from the door of his house and into the small courtyard a flash of color caught his attention.
There, fastened to the outer handle of his door with a white ribbon, was a single red carnation, exquisite in the pale light of a slowly waking dawn. The flower had been freshly cut, and a droplet of crystal clear sap hung from its stalk like a tear.
As an automatic response, his hand went to the hilt of his sword, then he shook his head and smiled slightly. A flower, even in PameGlorias, could hardly constitute danger, and he chided himself that his first reaction had been a violent one.
He picked up the bloom and pressed it to his nose, breathing in its delicate perfume.
“Flowers, Gunter? Most unlike you.”
Alquen started at the sound of this voice.
“It will be sonnets and tunes on the dulcimer next,” Engarten said as he entered the courtyard.
“Hardly that,” Alquen replied, somewhat flustered. “You are about your business early today, my friend.”
Engarten glanced up at the gradually brightening sky. “Perhaps a little.” Then he saw the look on Alquen’s face—like a child who has been apprehended in the very act of pulling the legs from a spider. “Forgive me,” he said, “I did not intend to embarrass you.”
“This was left on my door,” Alquen told him, offering the flower.
“And by an ardent admirer, if I am any judge.”
Engarten shook his head. “It amazes me, Master Karteltrager, that you have lived so long and learned so little.” He took the flower in his long, delicate fingers and held it up to the light. “A red carnation means admiration, an aching heart. Your good looks and winning ways have captured someone’s affections it would seem.”
“Do not tease me, Engarten.”
“I neither tease nor mock, my friend—although heaven help me, I wish I did. Think, man, whom might have sent this token?”
Realization crept through Alquen as slowly as a northern dawn. “Parasheeva’s Blossom!”
“Even she,” Engarten replied and made a circumspect. but potent, protective sign over his heart.
Then, to Alois Engarten’s utter surprise, he heard a thing that he had never thought to hear before the sun grew cold.
The joyous and heart-felt laughter of Gunter Alquen.
The grey morning passed in a blaze of steel and blood: five men died before Alquen and Engarten closed the heavy oak gates of the Dueling Quad for the day. But it seemed to Alquen that each carmine drop that fell to the cobblestones was a tacit reminder of the flower he had pinned to the interior of his cloak. And where once he had taken a keen professional interest in the tactics and techniques that the duelists employed, now he saw their combat as a distraction at best.
For who cares about, or believes in, the power of death when there is the promise of love?
“What now?” he asked Engarten as they sat in the familiar gloom of Maimon’s tavern, sipping hock. “Do I send her a token in return?”
“Aye,” Engarten said reflectively. “Some ambrosia blossoms perhaps, to show that her feelings are reciprocated.”
“You are too eager, my friend, and no woman appreciates an over-eager lover—the ambrosia will suffice for now.”
“And how is it that you know so much of flowers and their lore?” Alquen asked.
Engarten grinned and blushed only slightly. “I am a man who loves women,” he replied. “As such I have made it my business to know the many ways to gain their affections.”
“Gain entrance to their bedchambers, you mean.”
“I do not even know her name,” Alquen said, morose once more. “Or would wishing to do so make me seem too eager, in your opinion?”
“One step at a time, my friend. Give me a coin.”
Alquen reached into the purse at his waist and fished out a Golden Wheel.
At the sight of it, Engarten arched an elegant eyebrow. “Have you nothing smaller?” he said. “A bronze or a brass, perhaps.”
“Would you put so low a price on love, Alois?” Alquen said.
“Touché, my friend. Touché, indeed.” He scanned the room until he spotted the urchin who had brought their drinks. “Mersh!” he called, and when the boy approached added sotto voce. “How would you like this?”
Merch’s eyes grew wide and his gaze rested upon Alquen’s open purse for a covetous moment. “Who do you wish me to kill, sir?”
Engarten shook his head in a blanket condemnation of modern youth. “Nothing so gauche,” he said, flipping the coin towards the lad. “I merely wish you to buy an ambrosia blossom and leave it upon the steps of the Parasheeva Temple—quickly and discreetly, mind you. And if anyone should ask, you do not know the gentlemen who commissioned this errand.”
“What gentlemen?” Mersh said. He was a fair-haired youth, with the cunning look that marked the lower orders of PameGlorias. A year or two and he would be running with one of the youth gangs—the Scuttlers, the Patarines, the March Violets or even the Glamour Boys—but for now he was as good an emissary as they could wish.
“Good lad, “ Engarten said with a smile. Then with the same smile added: “But if I find you have taken my coin and not carried out my orders then I will cut your ears off.”
The boy vanished as quickly as the coin had.
“And now what?” Alquen asked.
“Now we wait for her to respond,” Engarten told him.
The night passed slowly for Gunter Alquen. Lying in his narrow bed he found sleep impossible. The shadows on the wall assumed a sinuous, sensual cast and the noise from the street—the whistles and hoots of the nocturnal gangs as they went about their business, or the sorcerous whispers that filled the night—seemed almost musical to his ears.
And in his waking dreams he held the Blossom close, felt the satin texture of her skin, smelled the exquisite perfume of her hair, and saw the boundless promise of happiness in her fulvous eyes.
When the morning came, as at last it was forced to, he chose to forego his usual sword practice—the first time he had done so in many years—and rushed instead to his front door.
A purple geranium awaited him. And upon the ribbon that fastened it to his door was written a single word in a delicate hand: ‘Labre’.
He dressed quickly and hurried to Engarten’s manse on Plessner Street. A cold, heavy rain had begun to fall, washing away the flotsam of the night, and his dulled footsteps barely echoed through the narrow lanes. From time to time he saw dark figures slink away, repelled by the waking day—the last dregs of the nocturnal gangs, their weapons scabbarded until nightfall.
As he crossed from Tula Lane into Ellice Place he became aware of footsteps behind him. Four men, he judged, their pace increasing to catch up with him. Not all the street gangs went to bed with the dawn, it seemed.
“Hey!” a harsh voice called. The footsteps increased to a run. “I’m talking to you, Master Shortarse.”
Alquen stopped and turned. Four bravos—young men barely out of their teens—drew up in front of him. Rainwater dripped from the wide brims of their hats, and their velvet cloaks had been thrown back to reveal that each held a long knife in his left hand and a hatchet in his right.
“You are wasting your time, my friends,” Alquen said. “My purse is light this morning.”
The tallest of the group sniggered. “That’s not what young Mersh told us.”
“Shut your hole, Valentyne,” one of the others said. “Let’s just kill the little bastard and have done with it.”
“You do not know me,” Alquen said. It was a warning of sorts.
“We know you have Golden Wheels,” Valentyne said. “And we know that you’re the last man we’ll need to kill tonight.” His smile was yellow against the dark cosmetic on his lips.
They were young, arrogant and vicious, too sure of their skills. They barely saw the blade that killed them, except perhaps as a blurred silver slash through the rain. Only Valentyne remained on his feet long enough to see Alquen shake the blood from his sword and carefully resheath it, then he toppled forward onto the flagstones, his life pouring out in a red flood that the rain quickly swept away.
Alquen murmured something that may have been a prayer or a request for forgiveness, then resumed his walk to Plessner Street.
Engarten answered the door and ushered him into the smoky warmth of a small parlor. It was apparent that he had been entertaining one of his many lovers, for he was bleary-eyed and his normally immaculate coiffure hung in disarray.
“I am sorry to disturb you at such an hour,” Alquen said.
“Not as sorry as I, my friend,” Engarten replied with a sly wink. “Still, the lady will keep. Another flower has been delivered, I take it?”
Alquen nodded and held out the geranium with the ribbon still attached.
“You have started a fire in her heart, Gunter, though the devil alone knows how or why.”
“What does it mean?”
“Unless I have misread the sign it means she wishes to meet with you. And even you should be able to decipher the ribbon.”
“St Labre’s Park.”
Engarten applauded softly and without irony. “You are learning, Gunter, we will make a roué of you yet.”
Gunter Alquen smiled his hangdog smile: “You are lecher enough for both of us, for the whole of PameGlorias, perhaps. Besides, I do not believe you would welcome the competition.” He rose and made his way towards the door. “In the meantime we have work to do. I will meet you at the Place of Blades. I doubt that your lady, whomever she may be, would wish to meet me this early in the morning.”
“Spoken like the gentleman you are.”
Alquen bowed slightly from the waist. “Do not tarry, my friend.”
“No more than is necessary.” His smile faltered. “You have blood on your doublet, Gunter.”
“Do not trouble yourself with that—it belongs to the Glamour Boys, and no one will weep for them. Although I fear that Master Mersh may have betrayed our trust.”
“Treacherous little bastard.” Engarten said. “I’ll gut him for this.”
“Leave him be,” Alquen said. “The matter has been concluded.”
”Love has softened your heart, my friend.”
“Aye,” Alquen replied. “Perhaps it has.” He punched Engarten lightly on the arm by way of farewell.
Every city, even the Shining Cities of the World’s Dusk, have their secret places, those squares and gardens where lovers may meet and talk far away from prying eyes, where affectionate words may be whispered and tokens exchanged. In PameGlorias it was St Labre’s Park, ten square miles of living grass and trees in the southern quarter of the city, kept verdant by Parasheeva’s Blossoms. It was the avowed task of the Order to bring greenery back to the dying world, to make the Winter Plains and Fading Forests bloom again—a task akin to emptying the ocean with a leaking bucket—but in St Labre’s Park, at least, they had succeeded.
Alquen waited there, sitting in the lee of a tall elm, for three hours, barely aware of time passing. Each time a green-gowned woman appeared, his chest tightened a little. But they paid no attention to him, their minds occupied by the business of the day—attending flower beds, pruning stunted branches from trees and shrubs, crooning soft, melodious hymns to the soil.
He wore his finest clothes: a blue silk shirt with only two threadbare places, black tunic and breeches covered with a burgundy cloak and a tall hat decorated with a single raven’s feather.
He felt ridiculous and handsome at the same time.
“You waited. I’m glad that you did.”
He stood up quickly, almost tripping as his sheathed sword tangled in his cloak.
Then he found himself staring into a pair of exquisite hazel eyes.
“It was a pleasure,” he said. “To wait, I mean... to wait for you, that is.”
She smiled, and he felt his heart flutter like a dying bird in his chest. “I came as quickly as I was able,” she said.
“As indeed did I... as quickly.” His mouth was dry, his tongue swollen to twice its normal size, and his ability to form coherent sentences had abruptly abandoned him.
He stared at her for a moment, taking in every detail. And she stared back. Her hair was chestnut, drawn back into a single long braid, and her face long with sharply defined cheekbones. She wore a thick line of kohl around her almond-shaped eyes, but other than that her face was free from powder and paint. Her gown was silver-grey, its bodice made of dark pink satin.
“Gunter Alquen at your disposal, Madame.” He bowed as elegantly as he was able.
“Destinada Germane.” She executed a small curtsey that was all the more charming for the fact that it was poorly done.
“Will you sit or would you care to walk?”
She smiled again. “A walk, I think.”
“An excellent choice, Madame Germane. To the lake perhaps?”
“An excellent choice, Master Alquen.”
She took his arm without prompting, and they left the shade of the elm, heading towards the bright expanse of water that formed the heart of St Labre’s Park.
He was not a man who was accustomed to speaking with women, even in the most formal of settings. He lacked the aptitude for small talk and the easy charm with which his friend was so abundantly blessed. However, in Destinada’s company, none of these things appeared to matter, and within a short time he found himself quite at ease.
More than that, he found himself capable of listening to, and being fascinated by, the even smallest details of her life.
She was, he discovered, the daughter of a merchant, Aemilius Germane, an only child and motherless. In addition, she knew a great deal about the blooms of St Labre’s Park—a fact which did not surprise him in the slightest.
“My mother’s legacy to me was her picture books,” she told him as they walked along a path flanked with lines of rose bushes. “She had a large collection of them and when I was very young she would lull me to sleep by telling me all about the flowers and plants of the Prior Days.” She stopped and leaned down to sniff the fragrance of a white rose, and at the same time she lifted her left hand to her face as if to raise an unseen veil.
He had seen her make the same gesture before, many times in fact, during their walk. “The absence of a veil troubles you?”
“One becomes used to it,” she said. “One can become used to anything, or so I am told.”
They walked on in comfortable silence for a while, their promenade interrupted now and again as Destinada paused to make a gesture at a solitary beech or larch—something like a benediction, Alquen thought.
And so strange, how the trees seemed to respond with a blessing of their own, a subtle rustling of twigs that had no correlation to the evening wind.
Night had begun to fall, sending grey waves through the park, dulling the splendor of the flowers all around them.
“How long have you worn the veil?” Alquen asked. He regretted the question almost immediately.
“Long enough.” Her hand went to her face again. “It was my Mother’s dying wish that I give myself to Parasheeva.”
“And what did you wish, Destinada?” The simple act of saying her name filled him with a bold and unfamiliar excitement.
“My wishes were—and are—unimportant, Gunter.” Again, that same delicious excitement. “But even so, there are times when the heart is the most important thing.”
She leaned close to him. Her lips were merely an inch or so away, and he could smell the sweetness of her breath, could feel the warmth of her even through his cloak.
“You! Master Shortarse!”
He broke away from her and sought the speaker.
It was a tall young man in a velvet cloak, his face shadowed by the brim of his tall hat. He was not alone, but stood with three others, all dressed in the same fashion.
“We’ve been looking for you,” the young man said.
“And you have found me. Congratulations.”
“Clever little bastard, aren’t you. Let’s see how clever you are when you’re slipping on your own guts.”
Alquen did not deign to reply. He stepped forward, placing himself between Destinada and the group of men.
“You owe us blood,” the young man said. “And we’re here to collect it. You made a big mistake when you crossed blades with the Glamour Boys.”
“And now it appears that I shall make another.” Alquen risked a quick glance at Destinada. The color had drained from her face.
The Glamour Boys seized on his moment of distraction, drawing their knives and hatchets and lunging forward. Alquen’s naked sword was in his hand before the first one reached him.
His blade wove through them swiftly, efficiently. The four young men died as quickly at dusk as their comrades had died at dawn.
He stood there for a moment, looking down at the dead men. A great red pool had begun to form beneath them, pouring from their bodies like thick wine.
“So much blood,” Destinada Germane said softly. “I never believed there could be so much blood.”
Her almond eyes were wide and glittering, a thin sheen of sweat upon her forehead, her breath rapid.
She came towards him with her arms open.
“Do you love me, Gunter?” she whispered.
“With all my heart,” he replied.
They kissed for the first time among the dead, their passion rising with each heartbeat. Her hands were inside his shirt, nails raking at his skin. He saw the marks of thorns upon her wrists; even those excited him.
And there, in the gathering darkness with the smell of blood and blossoms and each other filling their senses, they made love. Afterwards, for the first time in his life, Gunter Alquen slept in a lover’s arms.
When he awoke she had gone, but his skin remembered the heat of her body, the taste of her was in his mouth, the smell of her in his nostrils. Even the sight of the dead Glamour Boys—lying no more than five feet from where he and Destinada had made love—gave him an erotic thrill, though he doubted that the Boys themselves would have appreciated such a thing.
She had left him a flower as a parting gift—a black rose, decorated with a single drop of blood, artfully placed on its largest petal.
He dressed and set off into the velvet night with the flower carefully tucked into his baldric. The air was filled with sound, the darkness thick with the threat of violence and magic, but Gunter Alquen was unaware of any of it. And equally, it appeared, PameGlorias was unaware of him, or at the very least was prepared, if only for this night, to allow him safe passage through her streets.
Before long he arrived at Engarten’s manse. His comrade was awake and, unusually for him, alone.
“Your lady speaks in ever starker symbols, Gunter,” Engarten said when Alquen showed him the flower.
“What does it mean?”
Engarten stroked his jaw for a moment before answering. “A black rose. I am truly sorry, my friend, it means ‘farewell’.”
The word, so agonized, struck Engarten with the visible force of a blow.
“People change,” he said. “It is in their nature.”
“Not so swiftly,” Alquen said, his voice still full of pain. “And not without reason.”
“The lady has her reasons. Her soul belongs to Parasheeva. She has made her choice, Gunter. What else can you do but respect it?”
Alquen stared at him. “What else, indeed,” he said.
To have loved and lost is the greatest pain of all. To have the prospect, the promise, of happiness snatched away cuts deeper than any knife.
The days that followed saw a marked change in Gunter Alquen. A black depression—greater than any he had ever known—settled upon him. He spoke infrequently, even to Alois Engarten, and took to prowling the nocturnal streets, hand upon the hilt of his saber as though challenging the gangs to accost him.
None did. Even the Glamour Boys gave him a wide berth, all notions of retribution thoroughly purged from them.
Ever and always he found his steps turning in the direction of St Labre’s Park, to the place where he and Destinada Germane had spent their time together.
A suggestion, perhaps, but it seemed to him that the grass in that little sheltered grove had grown thicker, stronger, its blades darker as through in mockery of his heartache.
“Something, at least, finds the will to thrive in this rotten world.” But the thought gave him no comfort.
Although he scarcely admitted the fact to himself, he prowled the Park in the hope of seeing Destinada once again. From time to time he saw others of Parasheeva’s Order, green-gowned Blossoms tending to trees or flowerbeds even in the darkest part of the night, but of Destinada Germane there was no sign.
“You follow a fool’s path,” Engarten told him. “If you wish my advice, you should treasure the memory, not embrace the pain.”
“I do not wish for your advice,” Alquen said curtly.
They sat in the comforting gloom of a secluded booth in Maimon’s, a near-empty bottle of hock between them, although Engarten had drunk a single glass at most. Alquen drained the last of it and called for another.
Mersh brought it timidly, clearly all too aware of Engarten’s previous threat. A livid bruise covered one cheek and his lower lip bore the criss-cross of crude black stitches—a reminder from the Glamour Boys to send them easier targets in future.
He placed the bottle on the table. Together with another, much smaller, object.
A single flower. A white daisy.
Alquen’s hand shot out and clamped down upon his wrist.
“Where did you get that?”
“The lady,” the boy said. “the lady gave it to me.”
He released his hold and the boy scuttled away again, casting a sour glance over his shoulder. Alquen stood, all thoughts of wine forgotten, a strange light glittering in his eyes.
“I must speak to her,” he said.
“You are making a mistake, my friend,” Engarten said softly. “Remember that people change.”
That final word, so full of portent, should have halted him, but Alquen chose not to heed it. “It is my mistake to make,” he said.
“Then damn you!” Engarten rose, setting his baldric into place beneath his cloak so that the swordhilt rested on his hip. “Damn you for the lovestruck idiot you are.”
“I do not need your assistance in this matter,” Alquen told him, making for the door.
“Yet you have it nevertheless.”
“Purity,” Engarten said. “Innocence, loyal love, patience, that’s what the flower means.”
“Only that?” Alquen asked.
They made towards St Labre’s Park. Alquen knew she would be there, for where else might she be waiting?
He half-ran, such that even Engarten with his long stride, found it difficult to keep abreast of him.
“Slow down, man, in the name of the gods.” Engarten grabbed his shoulder and spun him round.
Immediately, Alquen half-drew his sword—an instinct so engrained that he was barely aware of it.
“You would fight me, Gunter?” Engarten said.
“I would kill you, Alois.”
“Over a woman?”
“Not just a woman, damn your eyes. You do not understand -”
“No,” Engarten said. “I do not. But then, why should I. I have never known love, only passion.”
“Is there a difference?”
“I believe so. One merely touches the body, the other—as they poet claim—touches the soul.”
“She is waiting.”
“Let her wait, my friend.”
“You are a fool, Gunter,” Engarten said. “But at least you are a passionate one.”
They went through the gates of St Labre’s and into the park, to the last place where Gunter Alquen had seen Destinada Germane.
She was there, as he had known she would be.
But not alone.
Her sisters were with her, a dozen or more Blossoms wearing the Gown and Veil, intoning a soft litany to Parasheeva. They stood in a cluster around her, heads bent, and their tears watered the earth at her feet. The earth that Gunter Alquen had inseminated with the Glamour Boy’s blood.
The earth her feet were enveloped in.
At the sound of Alquen’s voice the Blossoms turned. And each had a little stiletto clamped in her fist.
“Go away,” one of them said and the winter in her voice was as sharp as the steel in her hand.
“No,” Destinada said. “I want him here.”
They parted to let him pass, but the weapons remained poised, and he knew that they would not hesitate to kill him.
Let them, he thought, what does it matter? To see her again is all. To take her in my arms...
He reached out and touched her. It was not flesh beneath his hands but warm, living wood. Leaves had already begun to bud on her face, an eager insect crawled across her lip and into her nose.
She stroked his face with twig fingers and, said in a voice like a breeze through an orchard:
“Thank you for coming. I needed you to see this, to know where I will be.”
“I would have known anyway,” he said.
She tried to smile, but the stiffening of her face would not allow it. “Do you love me, Gunter?” she said.
“With all my heart.”
And he stayed there for a long time, weeping at the foot of the tree, until even the Blossoms had said their last prayers and departed. Not tears of sadness, but neither were they tears of joy.
Finally, Engarten returned and gently led him away.
“Time to leave her,” he said.
“Aye. For now.” Alquen touched the rough bark. “I will return tomorrow, Destinada,” he said.
As they walked away, back into the filth and the fug of PameGlorias, Alquen turned look at the tree—a rowan, he judged, with a single orange blossom on its trunk.
Strange, that a rowan could produce such a flower.
Or perhaps not so strange, given the nature of its conception.
A sacrifice to the goddess to keep the gardens green? No, not a sacrifice, an act of defiance against the cold universe, an act of adulation. She could not escape her destiny—did not wish to—but her last human act had been to heal his heart.
For he knew, without Engarten having to tell him, what the flower meant.