A swordswoman hiking up a ravine toward the besieged city of M. heard a bird’s song. Not even the whole song, just a string of notes, falling quickly down then rising slowly up. It stuck in her head the whole march, through the silence when they couldn’t even whisper, and then she found herself singing it under her breath to the beat of the battle’s parry and lunge. When they’d won and the city was free and the wine was plentiful, she sang it until she was hoarse, and her comrades sang with her.

By the next time they were hired into battle, the song had found words and an air of bravado. A song of attack and a song of victory. Twenty years later, when her war-band had become an army and then an empire, the tune slowed to an anthem, gathering about itself trumpet-glints and timpani-shadows, on the morning of her coronation.

In the border-expanding years of the second empress’s reign, it was sung by schoolchildren and marched to in parades that seemed to happen twice a week or more.

When rebellion years sent the fourth empress into hiding, it was sung softly, almost prayer-like, behind drawn curtains late at night.

When the twin empresses eleven and twelve commissioned fleets of exploration, the song was transcribed for hundreds of foreign instruments in a score of unfamiliar scales.

When twenty-third empress abdicated by disappearing into the noonday crowd on the grand plaza, it attained a melancholy grandeur, sung in snatches as a kind of password — until the fifth regent banned it in the course of an anti-royalist purge.

And when, several tens of thousands years later, an explorer from shores more distant than the empire’s furthest borders picked up a music box that had just enough twist left in its springs to play the song (nearly as much of it as the barbarian swordswoman had heard that distant afternoon), it tingled in the explorer’s tentacles and lingered in her peripheral brain’s deeper nodes all the way back up to the comfort of the limit ship. With the rest of her planetside experiences, she loaded it into the memory pool. Next time they slipped through a particle/wave inversion, the ship loaded it to the wider aether. Then the song quavered to life in trillions of minds on a thousand worlds and, this time, it would not be forgotten.

“Les fleurs?” she says.  “Pour moi?”

To be honest, I can’t understand a word she’s saying.

I just hand her the flowers, give a quick nod and hold out the clipboard for her signature.  She says something else I can’t understand.  I watch her eyes, her brows furrowing, her purple painted nail tap her bottom lip.  More words.  I shrug at her.  I glance down at her naked feet, tapping on her green carpet.  I look up.  She’s holding out one hand, showing me the palm.  Wait.  I understand that.

She goes back into her apartment, but doesn’t close the door.  After a minute or so goes, I take a peek.

You would too.

Now, at this point I should point out that after two years of delivering flowers I know the smells pretty well.  I’m no expert, but I can tell a lilly from a rose.  I’m holding a bunch of daffodils at the moment.  But as I crane my head I smell flowers that aren’t just daffodils.  I smell a riot.  I smell a whole damn shop in there.  Hyacinths, hydrangeas, baby’s breath, roses, and, yeah, lillies too.

I push open the door a little.  I can’t help it, I know it’s not polite, but I push it open anyway.  You would too.  I swear.

And the green carpet, the one she worked at with her toes.  It’s not a carpet.  Grass stretches over the apartment.  Like a sheet draped over things.  It crawls up her walls.  And the flowers.  Everywhere flowers, blossoming blooming.  Huge things.  Like nothing I’ve ever seen in a hothouse, anywhere.  Massive, overwhelming things.  They clog the room.  Pollen hangs heavy in the air.

And at their bases…  At the roots.

There’s a smell beneath the flowers.  A stench of rot.

A rose curls out of a skull.  A vines creepers unfurl from the meat-strung rib-cage of some animal… a cat… a dog.  Broken wings.  Stray paws.  They are strewn through the foliage, their fluids, their nutrients, feeding this growth.

She  reappears, opening a door, flattening daisy’s as she does so, pushing aside a moldy cat’s skull.

“Les fleurs,” she says.  “Ce sont des varies, ne c’est pas?”

I drop my clipboard and run.  Leg it, right then and there.

You would too.

Maleek knew the safe thing to do was to turn himself into a cobra and get out of there before the Chinese soldiers arrived. The Pasha was dead and the Red Army soldiers had taken over the sook and probably all of Marrakech. It was only a matter of time before they found their way into the Pasha’s riad.

The Pasha’s panda sat against the sea blue courtyard wall nestled between two giant potted bamboo plants, chewing the elegant green stems uncaring or unknowing of the turmoil happening not very far away. All of the animals, even the parrots and monkeys, were calm. Maleek wondered if they were real. It mattered not. The Panda was non-synthetic, the cobra in him told him so. Never mind the squads of soldiers tearing the city up looking for it.

The Pasha bought his armaments from the Chinese. Patrol-bots. All the flavors of smart-side arms for his guards. A few tanks and vehicles for parades and affairs of state. The Pasha, or more accurately his primary wife (a newer series Cleopatra consort he acquired in the aftermath of the fall of Egypt), fancied herself an enlightened zookeeper. Her head was full of all sorts of autonomous mods and thus the medina was full of all sorts of exotic animals both caged and free roaming. Maleek had once seen a family of raccoons and gray ground squirrels from the Americas. On hungry days, the cobra in him lusted for them.

The Pasha’s mistake was giving into his wife’s whimsy to acquire the real panda. He should have returned the crate as soon as the arms dealer offered it. China needed panda parts, real panda parts- they always needed real panda parts and this one hadn’t escaped their notice for long.

Maleek looked at it. A study of black and white resting peacefully and chewing softly in the afternoon sun. How long until it ended up in a Beijing vat farm? Animals deserved to be wild. Or kept in comfort and style as was the custom of the Pasha’s wife. Except for the cobra in him. He had fought so hard to keep it locked down.

Boot stomps echoed in the labyrinthine maze of passages leading to the Pasha’s riad. Maleek let himself go. He felt the skin on his neck transform into black scale. Even now the panda chewed blissfully unaware of what was to come. He hated becoming the cobra. But he hated what the Red’s did with the vats even more.

Maleek’s teeth became fangs coursing with poison. He knew the cobra would not be caged again so easily. Still, he sunk his teeth deep into the Panda’s soft skin. The soldiers were upon them. The sook was in chaos. Perhaps he would not have to cage the snake so soon.

- END -

Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the carpet unless the light catches it or he treads upon it.  The mountain, though stunted, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted.  It would not bar him from his lost father.

Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder.  Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes.  One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne:  like God after the sixth day.  The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.

Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests:  Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?

Yul had never put his mind to quests.  He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump.  Days passed like a clock’s pendulum.  Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.

Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Dawns:  “Death slipped by if you gripped the necklace righteously.”  True, it’d fail, but had they held it right?

The Ruby had never ceded Yul the confidence needed to begin his own life.  Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on.  Late in his third decade, he, still questing, paused at a village, where a gangly girl drew well water.  When he asked for a draft, she gave without reservation.

Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines.  Yul stood beside the old man:  his white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on the right, wrinkled hand.

“Hello?”  The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room.  “That you, Spot?  I’ve a doggy biscuit.”

Yul gritted his teeth.

“I shouldn’t have let you go.”  That last word was a sob.

Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.

The old man’s body shook violently.  His ribs rippled beneath robes, coming and going.  “I loved you like a son.”

Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.

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