Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The great, grey ship hangs above Stylwark like an iron cloud—although it is actually made of a substance called Glerkhanum, its inhabitants would be sure to correct you if you asked. Its lower shields have been painted a dull bronze; its wings are like those of a butterfly, sending half of the city into shadow. It is not particularly intimidating, nor is it particularly beautiful, but it makes you shiver every time you catch sight of it glimmering outside the Flower Emporium’s window.
‘An insect with horns,’ Jessica calls it, shaking his head, whenever he catches you staring at it—which is often. ‘Get back to work, you knob.’ And he hands you another bunch of roses that need slicing up; you press them into oil in an almost mechanical way, because that is the biggest sell this season: rose perfume (made from actual roses!). You think people would tire of the advert—but they never do, and you count yourself lucky, sometimes, that you didn’t grow up in a city.
The flowers in the shop are large and colourful, like ostriches, all genetically engineered to last longer than normal ones. Every new specie that the scientists in New London dole out is brighter, more flamboyant, and less like a flower and more like a five-year-old’s first attempt at building a house out of clay. You are not fond of that kind of flower. ‘What’s the point of them if they can’t breathe?’ you ask Jessica, and he just shrugs. Jessica doesn’t waste his time thinking these kind of things, even though you can tell he is not fond of the Prientas Gulgarum and Therndegs either. When he handles the large, cactus-like flowers, he does it with distaste.
‘It’s not natural,’ he says, and you wonder if he is talking about the ship hovering over City Hall, or the newest shipment of Carthage roses. The cash-register clatters beneath his lightning-fast movements; his forehead is scrunched up and a slip of paper is pressed between his teeth. ‘Yeah, some of them’re all right, I guess’—here, you gather that he is talking about flowers—‘but if it weren’t for your farmhand flowers, we’d have been out of business a decade ago.’
You nod distractedly as a gaggle of teenage girls cluster at the entrance and demand bouquets in different sizes to be tied to their hats—large, vulture-like creations in blue and black. ‘A wedding,’ they tell you, and you nod, wondering if the weight of their headgear would be enough to cause a domino-effect in the pews.
‘Oi, Miles, hand me another of these carnations over there,’ Jessica says, and you push your way through the crowd to get to him, squeezing your way between two men with handlebar moustaches as they argue over the stems of a Flora Contestus. A handbag swings into your face and you trip over your own feet. Finally, you duck underneath the counter and emerge on the other side, your mouth full of the leaves from somebody’s awry bouquet.
Jessica’s gaze is still focussed on the cash-register. He holds out a hand. You notice his palm is bleeding.
‘Your palm is bleeding,’ you say.
‘I know. Cut it on an untrimmed rose.’ Something flickers in his dark eyes. ‘Carnation, please.’ His teeth are gritted as he takes the yellow flower, and glances out of the large, circular window that takes up most of the Emporium’s west wall. His palms are sweaty and he jumps when you place a hand on his shoulder ten minutes later, nearly ramming into the low ceiling.
‘Jess ... you okay? You’re a little … er, you look like…’
‘Like shit.’ He runs a hand through his short spiky hair. ‘It’s nothing.’ He looks out the window again, then drags his gaze to the large antique dial clock that you imported from London five years ago. It reads three o’clock. ‘You’d better go on home,’ he says. ‘I’ll deal with the old coot, er, coots’—he gestures at the men still arguing over the Flora Contestus—‘and close down shop.’ You hesitate, looking down at your trainers, but Jess clicks his tongue impatiently. ‘Go on, Eileen’s prob’ly waiting for you.’
You laugh. It is the kind of laugh that speaks of bitterness in all languages, short and humourless.
‘Yeah, I bet she is,’ you say heavily, and Jess gives you a friendly pat on the shoulder.
‘Go on, man, it has to be better than last night.’
You look around the shop, at the years of work you put into it after your family migrated from the South, escaped the plague, died, leaving you nothing but flowers to arrange for their chain-funerals. The shop is a timeline. It started out as nothing more but a garden patch. The Emporium was your beginning, you think, gathering up the shop-apron between your fists. Eileen was your beginning.
You suck a breath in as you move towards the window, looking out at the ship—at the shadows it casts across half the city. It arrived a day ago, and it shows no signs of leaving any time soon. A stairway has been constructed at the ship’s gates, from where the … guests? Aliens? The newspapers weren’t clear on which … are expected to disembark the next morning. You look at the dark outline of buildings in the distance, and you remember Eileen’s threats from the night before, the crying and the crashing of a wine bottle so close to your face. You remember her melting to the ground, sobbing after hurling harsh words at you. Shouldn’t you have been the one to cry? you wonder. It’s not your fault she’s like this.
You pluck a single daffodil from one of the not-for-sale vases by the counter. Throwing a half-hearted grin at Jess, you mutter a ‘goodbye’ and stride out of the back entrance, chucking the apron over the door as you go.
When you get home that night, a purple lilac is speared to the front door with a kitchen knife. You pull the knife out of the door and a note flutters to the ground.
It reads: ‘Goodbye’.
November passes in a haze. Every morning you wake up, as people are wont to do, and the ship still hangs there, unmoving. The city hall and the train station, called the Expressway, are in perpetual night. Office workers complain that the ship completely ruins their view of the Alps in the distance—the Alps being the miniature steel mountains that start somewhere in Boston and end in New York, of course—but the government shrugs it off. There’s really not much you can do where an International Deputation of Royals is concerned, especially when they’ve travelled 200 years back in time just to visit your town. People will just have to understand.
It fascinates you, if you are honest with yourself. The ship being there is exciting, even though you don’t really know why it’s there. Its undercarriage is a glimmering white set in contrast to the dull bronze of its shields, and you have begun to talk about it at work, much to Jessica’s aggravation. He thinks the ship is bringing bad luck, but you only scoff at him. Bad luck doesn’t exist. If it did, you insist, it would make sense for good luck to exist, too. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t, it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Eileen is proof of that.
This morning, the streets are carpeted with the gold leaves off the newly imported tropical trees that have been planted in floating boxes along the avenue. It is a lovely sight, especially when you are walking to work and an entire branch falls at your feet. The flower shop is making a lot of money selling artificial flowers as winter nears, but you keep a sprig of Tantelion in a jar on the counter. For memory’s sake, you tell Jessica, but the whole truth is that it reminds you of Eileen. It pains you to admit, but you’re still in love with her. Jessica understands, of course, because he’s known you for twenty years, ever since you crashed into one another on your baby-buggies on the Californian Expressway. Your mothers, each finding the other to be a kindred spirit, became fast friends. The two of you have been inseparable ever since, even if Jessica is overbearing sometimes, and has the oddest fashion-sense.
Recently, Jess has been less overbearing and more skittish. Every day, at ten minutes to three, his face becomes drawn and he disappears mysteriously into the back after asking for a carnation. Some days it is a yellow carnation, other days it is pink or purple—but never white. You wonder what is going on, but you have learnt, as Jess’s friend, that people safeguard their secrets as a reason.
So you do not pry.
The bell jingles as you enter the shop at eight in the morning, smiling brightly at Jessica, who is already dusting the counter. He coughs and brandishes the duster at you. ‘Hey. How’re you?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer, of course; he can read the answer in your eyes. Despite your pretences, you’re still not over her. He hasn’t sympathised, of course, because Jessica’s not like that.
He hands you a broom instead.
You work quietly for a half-hour, watering the flowers and turning on the artificial meadow-burst. The inside of the Emporium is much more pleasant than the outside—the skylight and the translucent walls make it appear larger than it is, and even though it’s not in any way natural, the artificiality is not stifling. The familiarity soothes you.
At ten minutes to nine, someone raps on the back door. Jessica swears profusely. ‘Damn it, I told her not to come early,’ he mutters, averting his eyes from yours as he glares at the back door. Whoever it is standing there knocks again, and again, until you’re surprised the door hasn’t budged underneath the barrage of fists.
Jess grunts and disappears into the back, the beaded curtain clicking as he leaves. You stare at the door for a second and, despite a voice in your head urging you not to, follow him inside.
The back is small, a mostly-bare room with only one window. It is cluttered with flowers, pots, and tins of paint. Jessica has the door open by the barest inch; his head is stuck in that space and he is arguing with someone in furious whispers.
‘Flying batshit, woman, I don’t care, I told you you’ll be seen if you come at this time—the back alley’s used by the morning workers and if someone recognises you—’
The laugh that follows this is soft and musical. You move closer to the door. When she speaks again, you notice that she has a light accent, not unlike the New Londoners, but … somewhat different.
‘No one will recognise me. By earth standards, I should’ve been dead two-hundred years ago.’
‘Your skin is white. Cover it over with as much paint as you will, one accident and everyone will know.’ Jess’s shoulders are shaking now; he grips the door tightly.
‘Oh, it’s not like yours is any better,’ the woman hisses. ‘What’ve you done—perma-dyed it? They didn’t get behind your ears all that well, did they?’
You reach up and touch your own skin. You are surprised with how correct the woman’s guess it—no one has guessed, in the ten years out of your twenty-seven that you’ve spent in Stylwark—that your colour is the result of a dye-job Jess gave you in a ratty old apartment in San Francisco ten years ago. The colours—bright-green—hasn’t faded since. You wonder how the woman noticed—no one has, not in ten years. If they had, the Stylwark police would’ve thrown him into prison no sooner had he crossed the border into East America.
‘Look, you’ll get into trouble,’ Jess is saying now. The woman replies quietly, but you can’t hear what she says, so you inch even closer to the door. You’re so caught up in trying to listen in on their conversation that you don’t look to see where you’re going—your foot snags on the handle of a mop and you trip, your jaw colliding with the wooden floor.
‘Owh,’ you yelp, eyes streaming. You hear the sound of floorboards creaking as Jess turns around and swears—‘Crap, Miles’. You roll over on the floor, rubbing your now-throbbing jaw, and Jess’ face swims into focus. You grin sheepishly. His brown eyes narrow into a glare.
Sighing, he says, ‘C’mon,’ and he hoists you up by the elbow.
When you stand, you are nearly a foot taller than Jess, with his smaller, wiry build, but you shrink under his withering look. He is not pleased. You look away from him—at the door, which has swung open. The woman peers into the room curiously, a pale green—you assume ‘painted’—hand placed on the old, metal door. Her light brown hair falls in curls around her small face, and she grins at him impishly. Her incisors are oddly pointy.
‘Wotcher,’ she says, raising a hand at him in greeting. ‘I’m assuming you’re Master Two of the shop?’
You nod at her. ‘Yeah.’ Then, because Jess has proceeded to glare at his feet instead, you continue: ‘What are you looking for?’
‘What?’ Her nose scrunches up. She regards you with confusion.
‘I mean—’ You rub the back of your neck. ‘I mean, what kind of flowers are you looking for? Because … we sell flowers here.’
Jess snorts. Your lips twitch as you try not to smile.
‘I know,’ the woman says, amusement lighting up her eyes. ‘I buy flowers here every day.’
Something clicks. ‘The carnations?’ The question is directed at Jess, but it is the woman who nods. She smoothes down the front of her dress—silk, with a pattern of constellations covering every inch of it—and steps into the shop. ‘I need them for my wedding,’ she says.
‘Oh.’ Then, before you can stop yourself, you ask: ‘Who’re you getting married to?’
There it is again—the slight twitch of the lips. ‘Devon,’ she says, ‘Head of the International Deputation of Royals.’
‘King, you mean.’ Jess is on all-fours now, searching for something amongst the clutter in the corner of the room. He looks over his shoulder at them. ‘She’s going to be Queen. And here she is, prancing around the city, a prize doll off of the very machination that’s got everyone in Stylwark bleeding mesmerised.’
You look back at the woman to confirm this. She nods, laughing. ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’ And you wonder if the sadness in her eyes is a product of your own imagination.