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The Lemon Priest

by Wasureta Yume (和巣礼田ゆめ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/328719.html)

Malcolm Wolke was no chemist. His role at the head office of the Greater Calgran Glass Company had been in sales and distribution. He knew how to price the glass for a hundred windows or a thousand jam-jars, but he hadn’t the faintest idea how the stuff was actually made.

Why he’d been the one chosen to come out to Miyai, a glassmaking town in faraway Ver, was a mystery to Malcolm. It could be that everyone more suitable for the job was already in a more important position, or had the standing to refuse the post. It could be that the transfer was punishment for poor performance, or maybe a test, that passed successfully would lead to a fantastic promotion. The Board of Directors was so inscrutable, anything was possible.

One thing was becoming clear, though, and that was that Malcolm’s predecessor, Randolph Noord, had left the factory in what could be termed “a state.” Leaving Calgry, he’d been assured the post would at least be easy, but once he arrived in Miyai, Malcolm began to hear the stories. Accidents, slowdowns in production, workers quitting suddenly and angrily. It seemed the only two things old Randolph had been good at were sweet-talking the Board and covering his mistakes.

And to think, Malcolm had originally felt sorry for the man, considering the manner of his death. Apparently, he’d gotten drunk, wandered into the factory in the dead of night, and somehow coaxed a block of uncut glass to… well, the details were pretty grisly.

But there came a point where Malcolm he couldn’t put it off any longer. He’d fiddled with the books, consulted the old files and spoken with the managers, but what he really needed to do was visit the factory in person.

It was excruciating. It was the very beginning of summer, and even with every window thrown open, the factory was sweltering inside. Sand was everywhere. The air itself had a gritty feel. Fires flamed at every workstation; drops of once-molten glass littered the floor. Everyone had to be covered head-to-toe in and even put on masks, or, as the Verrish foreman said, “Ye skin’ll turn skebs and brins-aboot.” Malcolm had no idea what that meant, but it sounded painful. The only time he saw the workers take off their masks was to drink from a communal trough of warm, stale water.

Malcolm left after just an hour with an aching head and a thirst that could not seem to be quenched. “I can see why mistakes are being made,” he said afterwards to the production manager, Dolan, another Calgran import. All the managers were. “How can anyone keep from going loopy in that kind of heat?”

Dolan smiled and shook his head. “You and I feel that way, but that’s because we’re winter people. These people are used to it. You need that kind of heat to melt the sand down into glass, which the natives here have been doing here for centuries. They’ve even discovered glass in the old crypts.”

Despite the heat, Malcolm barely suppressed a shiver at very the idea of a ‘crypt’. Leaving a body to rot in the ground felt wrong to him in every way. Even if you didn’t believe that the soul had to be released after death, it was dirty and disrespectful. Burning bodies went hand-in-hand with a civilized society.

“Then how do you explain the problems up until now?” asked Malcolm.

“I can’t speak for every side of the business, but as far as mistakes in the glass… you haven’t been involved in glass production before, so I understand why you wouldn’t know,” said Dolan, “but compared to the other factories, our success rate is pretty high. And nothing goes to waste. Here, let me show you something.”

He led Malcolm across the compound to a guarded and locked shed. Inside was a pile of misshapen glass, much of it broken. “We take this and shape it into second-tier glass,” Dolan explained. “Earrings, candle-stands, cheap ornaments. It’s not as strong as the first-tier stuff, but we still sell it at a profit. As I said, I can’t speak for the whole operation, but if we’re in the red, it’s not production’s fault.”

Malcolm nodded. “I catch your meaning. But I am curious, why is your scrap pile under lock and guard?”

“The locals try steal it,” the manager confessed. “What for, I don’t know. If you’re serious about cutting the fat, look for Veres who go home with scrap hidden under those robes.”

“With the scrap?” Malcolm asked. “I don’t think there’d be much use for it. Unless they’re using it for those ‘wind bells.'”

“What’s a wind bell?” the manager asked. Malcolm could only shrug.

*

Malcolm had first heard about wind bells just the day before, when a man in a purple yuktak (the local men’s costume, which Malcolm thought looked a bit pajamas) appeared in Malcolm’s front hall in the middle of the afternoon.

Somehow, he’d managed to brush past the butler and catch Malcolm just as he was returning from his dining room. Malcolm bristled at the impropriety, but he reminded himself he was in a foreign land, and customs might be different here. So he addressed the man as politely as he could: “Yes, I am master of this house, and what may I do for you?”

“I am a gardener,” he answered. When he batted his eyelashes at Malcolm, his naturally dark irises flickered honey-gold. “I had heard you have a lemon tree in need of care.”

The gardener was short but sturdy, and tan even by Verrish standards. Darker still were the creases around his eyes. Malcolm guessed that they were similar in age, but it was difficult to say for sure. Though the gardener’s accent distorted both consonants and vowels, his grammar was perfect, and Malcolm had no trouble understanding him. But that momentary flash of bright color had his mind reeling, and he scrambled for a response.

“I do indeed have both a lemon tree, and an open position in the gardens,” Malcolm replied, “but…” How to put this politely? “I wasn’t aware of any interviews I had scheduled.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright,” the gardener replied with a smile. “I am Failoux of the Western Branch, and I came as fast as I could. I am sure you are busy with many things, but would you be so kind as to give me a tour of your gardens, and to show me to the Garden House?”

Malcolm crossed his arms and began his reply, but before he’d gotten the first word out, Failoux was no longer in front of him. Somehow he was already behind Malcolm, sailing on through the open rooms of the traditional manor to the walled-off garden in the back. Malcolm hadn’t heard or seen him move.

Failoux’s legs were shorter than Malcolm’s, but he moved with a speed that left the new master of the house hard-pressed to keep up. “We’ve been greatly worried for the state of your lemon tree,” the gardener was explaining. “By our Mother’s count, these lands haven’t had a proper gardener in the last three years.” He opened the rear doors, which were more glass plating than wood, strode down the stone stairs, and made a beeline for a particular tree.

It wasn’t at the center of the gardens, and the surrounding vegetation had not been cultivated to highlight it in any particular way. It was pale-barked, with little bright leaves and branches the thickness of stag’s antlers. Malcolm had not until this moment paid it much attention. But when the gardener stood underneath and stroked its trunk, the tree’s superiority to the gardens around it seemed clear as day.

Failoux breathed out a sigh. “She’s healthy. Neglected, but no worse for the wear.” He glanced around the garden and added, “It’s the same story with the rest of the garden. Three years is half a lifetime to a bush. I’m surprised it’s not more overgrown, but the tree must be exerting her influence.”

Malcolm looked around as well, but in confusion. Was it overgrown? He was never much one for outdoor pursuits. Or was the gardener only inventing problems where there were none, in order to secure a position?

“That’s the Garden House, isn’t it?” Failoux pointed to a run-down little shack further down the slope of the grounds, which Malcolm had assumed to be a tool shed. “I had better go put my things in order. It looks like it might need some cleaning, to say the least.” The corner of his mouth dipped down, and then he seemed to catch himself. “Not that it’s any fault of yours! Although, if you could send a hand along, when you can spare one, it would be most appreciated.” He shifted the weight of the bag on his shoulder and began to turn.

“Wait a moment,” said Malcolm. “Aren’t we skipping ahead here?”

Yes, he was beginning to see Failoux’s point about the garden. The shack was an eyesore, and the vines running over the tree roots were almost certainly weeds. But he was sure that even this far from the capitol, there was a certain way that things were done. Hiring servants, for instance. He’d imported a butler with him from Calgry, and the rest of the staff were natives who came with excellent recommendations. Certainly no one else had shown up unannounced or barged in uninvited.

Failoux turned back and blushed. “I’m sorry, you’re right. It’s just, I’m a little excited. Who wouldn’t be?” He took a deep breath, let the bag drop from his shoulder, and dropped into a deep bow. “Landmaster Malcolm Wolke, I, Failoux, ordained gardener of the Western Branch, disciple of Mother Cyrille, student of earth and follower of sky, do beneath this lemon tree pledge my unyielding service to your and your gardens, in life and death, until your claim of these lands is ceded.”

Malcolm gaped. “I, that wasn’t what I…” He found himself trailing off, at a loss.

“If you can’t remember all the words, just say you accept,” hissed Failoux, still bowed.

“I accept?”

Failoux straightened up, grinning broadly. In the soft light beneath the lemon branches, his brown skin glowed warmth, and his dark hair took on a reddish hue. “Well, it seems I’m not the only one new to this! What a relief!” He picked up his bag again and hefted it on the opposite shoulder. “I have so much to ask you, but you only just arrived here yourself, am I right? You must really be busy. I’ll come find you at a better time. Oh, and before I forget: I need glass for a wind bell. Until then!” He stepped away with a wave.

Very impudent for a servant, but Malcolm resolved to keep an open mind. He was a guest in a strange land, and things were done differently here.

*

After the factory visit, Malcolm spent the rest of the afternoon frowning over account balances again. Not that he’d expected them to be pristine: if one does not believe one’s work will be audited, the temptation to be sloppy is hard to resist. But this wasn’t on the level of digits that could be either 7s or 1s. No, this was a convoluted mess of a balance book. Some clusters of numbers did seem to make sense together, but it was impossible to say how one column related to the next, much less any given page to the one after.

He went to dinner at the Farlays’, which had distracted Malcolm for a little while. They’d been here for a few years already, and had offered to give him advice on settling in. He related to them an abbreviated version of his garden story: “He just showed up and assumed the position!”

Mrs. Farlay, who’d had a bit to drink, sniggered at that.

“I mean, we haven’t even discussed a salary. Is that normal here?” Malcolm asked.

Mr. and Mrs. Farlay exchanged a puzzled glance. “I’ve never had that happen,” Mr. Farley said, “although the staff is a bit more familiar than we’re used to. They are particular about their gardening, too. Our gardener insists on the title ‘groundskeeper.’ I’ve tried asking why, but the language barrier, you know.”

After dinner, Malcolm returned to the manor, washed up, and changed into nightclothes. Just as he was about to lift the covers to settle into bed (an imported Calgran bed, not the suspended contraptions that the locals slept on), he heard a knock on the door.

Reluctantly, Malcolm answered it. There on the other side was the gardener Failoux, carrying a small try and a mug of something hot. Malcolm raised an eyebrow. “Thank you, but you aren’t my butler.”

“Why should the butler bring you tea from the garden? That’s what you have a gardener for,” Failoux replied, again slipping past Malcolm as if he were not there at all. He set the tray down on the nightstand. “I trust you’re settling in?”

“I’m finding myself confused by many things,” Malcolm confessed, not taking his eyes off Failoux.

“Oh, well, that’s to be expected. While I don’t know this town in particular, I’m from a little place not far south of here, so I may be able to help you with some things. I hope you’ll ask me, when you have questions.” He left the tray behind, then went to look out the window. Malcolm, meanwhile, took a seat on the edge of his bed and began investigating the ‘tea’.

“You mentioned yesterday that you had questions for me as well,” said Malcolm.

“Many,” Failoux agreed. “One thing I’m very curious about is, I noticed a number of people who look like you, here. What are you all doing in Miyai?”

Funny, but Malcolm thought the words Failoux was saying didn’t quite match up to the shapes his mouth was making.

Ignoring that observation, he took a sip of his ‘tea’. It, too, was strange: hot, but tingled on his tongue as if it were cold. Refreshing. “We’re here making glass. Same as people here have always been doing, but we’ve found a way to make more, faster.”

“More glass?” Failoux replied. “That’s odd. I’ve been hearing all the rumors that there’s less glass to go around, these days, but if you’re making more glass than ever before, well, that doesn’t make sense. I must have misheard. Anyway, you work as a glass maker?”

“Me? Oh no, I don’t work in the factory, I’m in charge of the factory.”

“Well, that’s excellent!” said Failoux. “A role befitting a Landmaster. Perhaps you could bring some glass back for me? Just a few bits and pieces, odds and ends, broken corners. I prefer to assemble my own wind bells.”

Malcolm still didn’t know what a wind bell was, but he told Failoux he would try anyway. “By the way, the tea is very interesting,” he said.

“Interesting?” Failoux raised a brow.

“I don’t dislike it,” Malcolm clarified. “I’m just used to sugar in my tea, that’s all.”

“Sugar? In tea?” He sounded as perturbed as if Malcolm was suggesting raw egg on a bed of cold lettuce. “Well, I’ll keep that in mind. And I should let you get your sleep. Pleasant dreams, Landmaster Malcolm.”

*

Malcolm’s life in Miyai fell into a new kind of rhythm. He thought he’d never get used to the heat or the dry air, but other things came more easily. The strange abundance of sunlight. The smiles he received from his servants. The gardener who came to his chambers every night, just to present him with a cup of tea and have a chat. And now his cups were just the right amount of sweet.

A week later, on one such evening, Malcolm presented Failoux with a small gift: a bundle of scrap glass from the factory. The gardener’s eyes lit up at the sight, and for a moment, Malcolm thought he saw a glimpse of that golden hue again. “This is perfect!” Failoux exclaimed. “Thank you so much. I really have been worried about the glass shortage.”

“More rumors?”

“Confoundingly so. I even heard that people are resorting to repairing broken windows with pitch, rather than replacing them.”

One afternoon, Malcolm strolled down to the shed, or as Failoux called it, the Garden House, to see how it was coming along. Although the outsides looked largely the same, as far as Malcolm could tell, even from a distance it exuded a much more cheerful atmosphere than before.

The door to the Garden House was already open, held by a moss-covered rock. Malcolm didn’t know what the insides had looked like before, but now it was clean and neat. Garden tools were lined up in a glass-lidded cabinet, and a vase of flowers perched from a small table. On the floor, a woven rug was spread out, upon which sat Failoux. He had the glass pieces arranged in front of him, and was moving them around as if trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle.

“Good afternoon, Landmaster,” said Failoux when he looked up. He didn’t stand, but bowed his head while still kneeling. “What may I do for you today?”

“Those orange things in the dinner last night,” Malcolm began, crouching beside Failoux, “the cook said they were from the garden. Did you grow them?”

“I didn’t plant them — they were here, and I harvested them,” Failoux explained. “Vegetables take much longer than a couple of weeks to grow! You really are a beginner when it comes to the garden, aren’t you?”

Malcolm sat down cross-legged on the rug. “I may be,” he admitted. “But I wanted to let you know something. Where I’m from, people don’t grow food in their gardens. Just flowers, and trees, and pretty things.”

Failoux raised an eyebrow. “Really. There is no food grown in your country. I find that to be a little outlandish.”

“I didn’t say that, Failoux. I meant, food is grown on a big patch of land, all together, in rows–”

“We have farms here too,” Failoux chided him. “That doesn’t mean there’s no need for a vegetable garden.”

“But that makes it look like I’m so poor, I can’t afford food, and have to grow my own!”

Failoux was silent for a moment. “Food from the garden isn’t just to nourish the body, Landmaster,” he said at last. “Your many duties, as important as they are, distance you from the earth. Eating from the garden tethers your soul to the land.”

At other times, Malcolm had called the local religion ‘hogwash,’ but it was hard to say so in the face of someone so sincere, and he held his tongue.

“But the soul is also nourished by beauty,” Failoux continued. “You don’t have to worry about anyone peeking into your garden and feeling a sense of poverty, that I can assure you. You live in one of the largest houses in Miyai, and have its oldest lemon tree in your garden. Why on earth would you suspect anyone of thinking you ‘poor,’ and why would it matter if they did? Some of the most powerful Landmasters were also the poorest.”

“I’m beginning to think this ‘Landmaster’ word of yours means a bit different than what I think it means,” Malcolm observed. “In my world, if you have no money, you won’t have land for much longer, either.”

“I should like to visit someday, and see for myself if you’re yanking my rope,” Failoux murmured. His searching fingers stopped at a particular piece of glass, which he held up for inspection, then brought together with a larger piece of glass in his lap. He lined the two pieces up, held them together between his thumb and forefinger, and pressed.

When he let go, the two pieces of glass were now one, no trace of a crack visible.

Malcolm gaped. What Failoux had just done went against everything Malcolm had learned so far about glass. “What? How did you–what you did you do just now?”

“I’m making a wind bell,” said Failoux.

“But, but glass doesn’t just fuse together like that! It takes fire and… well, a lot of fire!”

“Not if you have the knack for it,” Failoux explained. “Just find the glass that will resonate best together, then press on it with just the right intensity for just the right amount of time. It’s tricky, I’ll admit, and even I make mistakes.” The tip of his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth when he grinned.

“Failoux?” Malcolm asked. “I’ve been meaning to ask, but… what is a wind bell, and what is its purpose in a garden?”

“You really don’t know?” Failoux’s grin widened. “Well, I’m not going to tell you now! I want to see the look on your face when you find out!”

*

The next time Malcolm took his once-weekly tour of the factory floor, he came home, absconded to his room, and threw himself into bed without bothering to change clothes. The butler eventually coaxed him into a bath, and when he was dry and had his robe on, a knock, and Failoux’s voice, called to him from the door.

“I know I’m early, but I brought you something to soothe your nerves,” said Failoux, producing a cold drink that smelled of spirits. “Did something happen today?”

“Only the fright of my life! Two men were carrying a sheet of glass, and — I can hardly explain it. It popped out of their grasp, and if the foreman hadn’t been so quick, it could have sliced me in half!”

“It what?” Failoux demanded.

“It was probably because of the heat. All the sweat, things get slippery… but it went in a direction no one expected, like it was aimed right for me. I won’t sleep well for a week.”

Malcolm had sat back down, but Failoux was upright and rigid. “Is it true the last man in your position died in a glass accident?”

“Don’t remind me! You’ll only make me more anxious.”

Failoux began to pace the length of the bedroom. “Could Kalkal be going after the Landmasters now?” he asked himself. “But the lemon tree should have protected you. Maybe not the last man, but definitely you. Unless the tree’s been dormant for so long that we need to renew the contract.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Malcolm, “but I highly doubt I’m the target of a murder plot. No one could have predicted what happened today. And what’s my lemon tree going to do, reach its branches for miles to shield me?”

“We’ll do it tomorrow night,” Failoux decided. “It’s a full moon, we won’t get a better chance for another month. That means I’ll need to have the wind bell finished. In that case, I should get to work on it now.”

“What?”

“Come to the garden after moonrise tomorrow night,” Failoux instructed him. He was out the door in an instant.

*

The next night was cloudless. Malcom met Failoux in the garden, as he was told.

Failoux was there waiting for him, holding up a glass orb by a red string. The string ran through the center of the orb and out a hole in the bottom, where it attached to a long, thin piece of glass. At the very bottom was a tassel that fluttered in the wind. Malcolm assumed that this was the aforementioned ‘wind bell.’

“No candles?” asked Malcolm.

“No need. It’s bright enough with just the moon, isn’t it?”

Malcolm was skeptical. He’d never been out at night without the benefit of a lantern. Maybe Failoux’s eyes were used to the conditions, but Malcolm could barely make out the outlines.

First, Failoux laid down the mat in the dirt, then motioned for Malcolm to stand there. Next, he stretched up onto his toes and gently hung the wind bell on one of the thicker branches. It made a clear, chiming sound as the bell struck. “This is the voice of the lemon tree,” Failoux explained. When he turned to Malcolm, his eyes were the bright honey-gold that Malcolm remembered from their first meeting. “Don’t worry about the correct forms of address. Just speak your heart to her. But don’t forget to bow.”

Malcolm bowed once, deeply, and straightened up to address the trunk. “O Lemon Tree. Um.” What was he supposed to say again. “I’m here to…”

“…To beg your recognition as new Landmaster,” Failoux supplied.

“To beg your recognition as new Landmaster,” Malcolm repeated. Then he stopped and waited.

“Go on, tell her a little more about yourself,” Failoux coaxed. “Tell her where you’re from, and why you’re here.”

Malcolm took a deep breath. “My name is Malcolm Wolke. I come from Calgry Province, which is very different from here. It’s much colder. There are no lemon trees, either. As for why I’m here, I don’t really know. Someone sent me to finish a job left undone, to look after things. I’m trying to do good job, even though, honestly, I’m completely out of my depth.”

Failoux smiled at Malcolm. “Not awful.”

The wind bell sounded, and Failoux cocked his head to listen. He frowned, then. “She’s not sure about you, she says you are…” He paused again, and once more, the bell rang. “She says you are like a cloud. Your actions affect many, but you care nothing for those below you. You rain, or don’t, as it pleases you, and… never stop to consider the trees who live and die by your whims.”

Malcolm took a breath that was too full, one that hurt his chest with its suddenness. “That’s hardly the cloud’s fault!” he argued back. He wasn’t sure if he should be arguing to Failoux or the tree.

The leaves rustled. “True,” Failoux said, “But to be a Landmaster, you must come back to the ground. And you must start by…” Failoux blushed and clapped his hand over his mouth.

“What is it?” Malcolm asked.

“She said,” Failoux gulped. “You have to take care of your gardener.” He looked away then. “She said if you make a gesture now, she’ll take the rest of it on faith, and grant you the protections along with the title.”

From the coy way Failoux shifted, Malcolm though he had a good idea what that might mean.

“Failoux,” Malcolm said, the name ripe to bursting on his lips. He reached out to Failoux’s shoulder and ran his hand down the silky sleeve. “If you wanted that, you only had to ask.” His fingers caught Failoux’s, and he pulled them up to kiss the gardener’s knuckles.

“I-It’s not me, I’m only telling you what she said,” Failoux stammered. “But, as it happens… yes. I do want.” He glanced up once as Malcolm, through his lashes, then looked away again. But he allowed himself to be pulled closer, then pushed down to the mat.

Malcolm kissed his way down Failoux, starting at the lips, then his neck and collarbone, then pushing up the shirt of his yuktak and kissing his chest and belly. He undid the drawstrings at Failoux’s waist and pushed the fabric away, nuzzled and kissed the hair there. Failoux was already panting.

Malcolm nuzzled Failoux’s stiffening member with his cheek. In the back of his mind, he wondered if the full moon was bright enough that someone inside the manor could see what they were doing. He found that the thought didn’t put him off at all.

Failoux wasn’t large, and Malcolm swallowed him down all at once. Failoux gasped, wrapped his legs around Malcolm’s shoulders, and balled his fists in Malcolm’s hair. He knew it was probably all for show — he had no art when it came to given head, enough men had told him so — but he appreciated the gesture.

Failoux gave out a wordless cry, but something inside of Malcolm heard, “More. Yes.” That was the moment Malcolm finally understood why Failoux’s speech was strange to him. He was never speaking Calgrigo at all. It was just that somehow, Malcolm could understand him anyway.

The revelation was so stunning that Malcolm forgot to suck, but another tug from Failoux brought him back to the present moment. He knew he was artless, so he made up for it in fervor, keeping Failoux inside him till his eyes watered. When Failoux bucked his hips and came, Malcolm endeavored to swallow it all down.

But it had been too sudden, and he couldn’t. He coughed Failoux’s seed into the ground and wiped his face with his sleeve. Failoux sat up and rubbed Malcolm’s back. “Sorry,” Malcolm muttered when he had his breath back.

“Landssake, don’t apologize to me! You are always so damn hard on yourself,” complained Failoux. “You don’t have to be. You were wonderful.”

“I am?” asked Malcolm. “I was.”

Overheard, the chime rang sweetly. “You are, she agrees,” Failoux chided. “And… she accepts you.” He threw his arms around Malcolm. “What a relief. Now, take me back to your bed, you lovely brute.”

Malcolm grinned and kissed his gardener. “There, that’s more like the Failoux I know. You were so shy tonight, it’s not at all what I expected from you.”

“I was not shy. I was having a completely normal reaction to being pimped out by a tree,” Failoux harrumphed, glaring up at the branches. Malcolm laughed, helped Failoux to his feet, and took him upstairs.

*

Some days, Malcolm thought summer in Miyai would never end, with its oppressive heat. At night, tangled up in heat of a different kind, he wished it never would.

Failoux in the bedroom was as sweet and quenching as the tea he brewed. And the sight of him in the gardens, up to his knees in dirt and wiping sweat from his brow, was enough to make any temperature a little more bearable. Once in awhile, the wind bell rang, and time seemed to slow down, the world whittled away to just the two of them.

The other servants just smiled, except for the butler, who seemed a bit nervous. But as far as Malcolm could tell, in Miyai, a Landmaster together with a gardener was no kind of scandal at all. Even if they were both men.

They did things together Malcolm knew would be impossible in Calgry. Failoux worked hard when Malcolm went to work, but when Malcolm was free, Failoux wanted to show him everything. They went often to the ocean, which was nearby, just to cool off. That was where Malcolm ate his first slice of watermelon — some children came along to engage them in a seed-spitting contest, and they both played along even though Malcolm was hopeless at it. They went down south for a weekend to stay at the Verrish version of a bed and breakfast. At night, they shared a rope bed, and in the morning, they were served grilled fish in their room. The wife peppered Failoux with questions, to which he kept responding, “It’s too soon!”

When autumn came, it brought with a storm of letters: the Board, demanding shipments, progress. The Wolkes, sending their love and “gently” reminding Malcolm of his obligations. Invitations from other Calgrans around town, with whom Malcolm was supposed to be cultivating relationships. But he was loath to spend evenings away from Failoux.

There was trouble at the factory, not that this was anything new. Malcolm had hoped that with the cooling temperatures, morale would improve, but nonetheless production was slipping bit by bit. Unlike the late Randolph Noord, Malcolm didn’t have a sly tongue to smoothe things over and cover up problems. Still, he decided to hang back before instituting any reforms. Trying a solution was too risky while he still didn’t have a firm grasp of the problem.

Malcolm, used to a winter of ice and snow, did not realize at all that the season was upon them until he found Failoux sighing about it. “This is the time of year when the plants have the least strength,” he told Malcolm, wringing his hands together. “You’ll have to be on your guard. Your enemies know that, and will try to strike.”

“Failoux, you worry too much. I’m not important enough to have enemies,” he reassured. Still, he promised to be careful.

*

Malcolm awoke with a shot at the sound of the wind bell. It was the middle of winter, just before dawn, and the windows were closed tight, but he was certain he’d heard the bell as if it were chiming right against his ear.

He felt around beside him, and was relieved to find Failoux there, breathing. It was just a dream, nothing more. He relaxed, tried to sink back into the bed to finish out the night.

That was, until his eyes resolved the darkness at the foot of the bed into the shape of a stranger.

Malcolm yelled out in alarm, and suddenly Failoux was out of bed, staring down the intruder. “No, Failoux, go get –” Malcolm began.

“What are you doing here?” Failoux demanded, holding his ground.

The stranger replied in another language — Failoux’s language, it must have been. It had the same birdlike tones, but the speaker must not have possessed Failoux’s gift for making himself understood.

“That’s not for you to decide,” Failoux answered. “I am the gardener here. Leave. Now.”

More words that Malcolm couldn’t understand. Quietly, Malcolm slid out the side of the bed and inched his way toward Failoux’s side.

“You will not,” said Failoux. “You will not touch him, and you will die for trying.”

From what Malcolm could see in the dark, the intruder was a man of about Failoux’s height and build, maybe a bit bigger, but still easy enough for Malcolm to overpower. Of course, the stranger was probably carrying a weapon, and Malcolm was empty-handed, but he had a much better chance than small, naked Failoux. “Get behind me,” Malcolm urged. “Please.”

That’s when the glass in the window shattered — and the glass flower vase, and the drinking glass on the night-table, and the glass inkpot. Shards exploded in every direction. The air was a flurry of sharp reflections, like a winter storm, but crueller. Malcolm instinctively buried his face in the crook of his elbow, waiting for the slicing pain of impact.

It never came. He felt nothing, saw nothing, and strangely, heard nothing. Moments passed. Malcolm raised his head.

The first thing he noticed was the glass. Tiny splinters were sprayed across every surface, reflecting the pre-dawn sky like a dusting of snow. Second, he saw the body against the wall, unmoving. Third, he heard it. That awful, quiet cry. Failoux’s tiniest moan of pain.

It all happened in a rush after that. Before his very eyes, Failoux crumpled. Malcolm dove after him, but his hands caught only air. He landed hard on his knees, wincing as he hit the glass-strewn floor.

There was nothing there. Nothing, save for a pile of broken glass. Malcolm sat uncomprehending. He could not move, or feel his body. He barely blinked.

Malcolm stayed that way until the sun rose. In the new morning light, he noticed something different about the pile of glass in front of him. Some of the pieces were not clear like the window or the drinking glass. They were not blue like the inkpot either. These glass shards were honey-gold, and when he picked one up, it was warm to the touch. When he ran his fingers along the sharp edges, he wasn’t cut.

Malcolm gathered up the warm, golden glass, and swept the rest to the side. He cleared a path to his dresser, and he went through the drawers until he found a sturdy paper box. He placed the still-warm glass inside the box, then began the task of picking his way through the rest of the mess, to be sure he hadn’t missed a piece. He received a number of small wounds for his efforts, but by the time the butler knocked on his door, he was certain he had all of them.

The butler, of course, panicked at the sight of a dead body.

*

That morning, Malcolm’s statement was taken by the constable. Fantastical as it was, Malcolm tried to give him the whole story, truthfully. But it was as if the constable couldn’t hear him. “So, your attacker broke in through the window,” he summarized, “and your gardener, who happened to be in the bedroom at the time, threw a drinking glass, which knocked the man dead.”

Never mind that Malcolm’s bedroom was on the second floor. Never mind the improbable pattern of the shattered glass. Never mind that the intruder, whose identity was still unknown, was found in a pool of his own blood and covered in lacerations.

“And where is your gardener now, Mr. Wolke?”

“He’s” —still here, in a box in the bedroom— “gone.”

“How convenient for him,” the constable muttered into his beard. “Has it occurred to you, Mr. Wolke, that your gardener and this mystery man may have been in collusion?”

After that, things got easier, because Malcolm just stopped caring. By afternoon, he was receiving a stream of visitors. His neighbors had caught wind of the incident and were hungry for the details. Malcolm spent all day in the same chair, answering questions and fighting off a tendency toward distraction. He kept turning to the garden, looking for Failoux through the window.

Late in the evening, Malcolm summoned his servants for a meeting. The only one not present was the butler, whom Malcolm had given the night off. He placed the box on the table and asked them, “What funeral rites should we give him?”

The servants looked at one another. A gardener was supposed to be the one to conduct funeral rituals, they explained — but the town hadn’t seen a proper gardener for years, outside of the newly-arrived Failoux. None of them knew exactly what to do. But they knew the general order of things, remembered bits and pieces from when their grandparents had died. They decided to do the best they could with what they had.

They buried what was left of Failoux, still in the pretty paper box, at the foot of the lemon tree.

When it was done, Malcolm noticed something different about the wind bell. It took him a moment to figure out what exactly had changed, but then he saw it: the central chime, fallen to the ground, snapped clean in two. Malcolm quietly picked the pieces up and slipped them into his pocket.

*

Malcolm thought many times about just going home, but that would have been giving up.

*

One bright, beautiful afternoon that following spring, Malcolm found himself trapped in his manor, hiding from the mob outside.

It all started with what he thought was a brilliant idea: giving away some of the scrap glass, for free. It cost the company hardly any money, people were stealing it anyway, and it was (Malcolm thought) a gesture of goodwill toward the community.

But judging by the current circumstances, the people of Miyai saw something decidedly different. Roughly half the town’s native population was gathered in front of the manor, hurling the very glass Malcolm had tried to give them and shouting. Malcolm’s knowledge of their language was still very rough, but he had the general idea:

“You steal our glass, then you give us back the scraps and call it charity? You disgust us!”

So Malcolm hid, and thought about sailing back to Calgry. It would be in disgrace, and he’d almost certainly be demoted if not fired outright. But he had already failed. Maybe the next man they appointed would have the know-how and the charisma to fix this hopeless situation.

Malcolm pulled open the top drawer of his desk and took out the broken pieces of the wind bell. “You were right,” he said to it. “I’m just like a cloud. I’m thinking, I’ll just sprinkle a little rain here or there, and what do I do? Cause a flood.” He heaved a long sigh. “I miss you.”

Somewhere along the course of speaking, he’d closed his eyes and clutched the pieces together in his hands. There was a warmth there, and when he squeezed just so, a feeling of rightness, a sense of peace that had eluded him for months.

With another, more relaxed breath, he opened his eyes. What he saw nearly made him drop what he was holding. The two pieces had welded together and become whole again. It was as if the glass had never broken in the first place.

He wanted to go immediately to the garden, but forced himself to wait until night, when the angry rabble had dispersed. After darkness fell and thick clouds covered up the moon, he took a lantern and made his way to the Garden House.

The door had been closed since Failoux’s burial. From the dusty cabinet, he borrowed a shovel and a spool of thread. From the floor he took the woven mat.

Malcolm returned to the lemon tree. He hung the lantern in the tree, laid the mat down on the ground, and reached up for the wind bell. With trembling hands and a bit of thread, he fastened the missing piece back into place. He let go. The bell chimed a bright, clear note.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard your voice,” said Malcolm to the tree. “I’m sorry for not coming back sooner.”

Without Failoux there to guide him, he had no idea if he was saying the right thing in the right way. He only hoped his sincerity would come through.

“And thank you for keeping watch over my gardener. I promised you I would take care of him, and I failed. But I am going give it one last try. He deserves at least that much.”

With that, Malcolm went on his knees and began to dig. It took some time, because they’d buried him deep in the earth, which the servants had told Malcolm showed the most respect. But eventually, he was uncovering the box and lifting the lid.

The glass pieces inside still shone their honey-gold, and were still warm when Malcolm touched them. He laid them out on the mat and searched through them, looking for two edges that seemed right for each other. When he found a likely match, he held them together and pressed.

It worked. It wasn’t a fluke! The glass fused together beautifully. Malcolm’s heart beat faster, and he searched through his pieces for another match. As he brought more and more together, an unfamiliar shape was emerging.

The work strained his eyesight and left his neck sore. And when Malcolm was finally done, he was losing confidence in his creation. It wasn’t any sort of thing Malcolm could recognize. A bit like a vase, except it had a mouth on four sides inside of just one at the top, so it could hold no water. It was lumpy and asymmetrical, and had no base or suggestion of which way was ‘upright’.

Malcolm’s heart sank. Another failure, and this time he’d transmuted Failoux’s precious remains into… whatever this was.

Still on his knees, he gazed up at the tree. “So that’s it?” he asked.

A wind swept through, rustling the leaves and sounding the wind bell. The branches shook, and something small and hard dropped from the tree.

Malcolm picked it up: a ripe lemon, too early for the season. Taking a breath, he pierced the skin with his nails, ripped it open, and crushed a piece over the mouth of the glass vase. The juice trickled, stinging, over his fingers and into the glass.

Another wind blew past, even sharper, knocking the lantern sideways and blowing out the candle inside. The wind bell overhead was a blur of noise. Sudden vertigo whirled through Malcolm, and he fell back on his hands.

That very same wind coaxed the clouds overhead to rearrange themselves just so, and the full moon overhead threw a fantastic light into the garden. Sprawled on the mat, naked and shining, was Failoux. The gold light in his eyes was as bright as cat’s. As Malcolm scrambled back up, Failoux collapsed into his arms.

“Malcolm?” he whispered.

“Failoux, darling, yes, it’s me,” said Malcolm, cradling him. “You must be exhausted. Don’t try to move, I’ll carry you inside.”

Before Failoux could protest, Malcolm scooped him up and carried him into the manor. He was alarmingly lightweight.

“What do you need?” Malcolm asked him desperately. “Water? Food? Are you cold?”

Failoux closed his eyes against Malcolm’s chest. “I’m too hollow,” he murmured. “I need to be bound into flesh again. I’m almost empty.”

“I hear you, I hear you,” Malcolm reassured, crossing the threshold into the kitchen. “We have potatoes, and corn, and –”

“Fuck me,” Failoux demanded, wriggling out of Malcolm’s hold and stumbling to the floor. He caught himself on a small wooden table, leaned over it and arched his back. He looked back over his shoulder at Malcolm. “Fuck me, right now.”

Malcolm ran a hand over Failoux’s body. His skin was soft and dry, like new. He smelled like citrus and paper, no hint of sweat or musk. He dropped to his knees and buried his face in Failoux’s small, round ass, but he had no smell there, either.

“Please hurry,” Failoux begged.

“Soon, love,” said Malcolm. He spread Failoux open and licked a stripe over Failoux’s hole, then shoved his tongue inside. Failoux whimpered. Malcolm’s free hand went to stroking Failoux’s soft cock. He was cold everywhere, but Malcolm was determined to warm him up.

“Fuck, that’s, ah, that helps,” Failoux stammered. He batted Malcolm’s hand away, though, to work himself on his own. “Touch yourself,” Failoux demanded.

Malcolm unlaced his pants and reached for his own cock, which was already starting to get hard. He closed his eyes and listened to Failoux’s voice guiding him. “That’s good, get me nice and wet for you. Your tongue feels so good inside, your dick will feel even better. I need it, Malcolm, I need it to be whole again. Please, just shove it inside me, please, please.”

Malcolm stood up, but he only gave Failoux’s hip a squeeze and left to rummage in the cupboards. Failoux whined and begged until Malcolm returned with his hand slicked in oil. He slipped a finger into Failoux without hesitation.

“I, can’t wait,” Failoux panted. “Another.”

They’d never joined their bodies with such urgency before. Malcolm stretched him with a second finger, then a third. He wanted to take his time and be gentle, but he knew Failoux was serious. So with the minimum preparations, he plunged into Failoux.

“Yes!” Failoux howled. “Oh, it’ll, now — just — keep — going.” Malcolm grabbed his hair, tugged his head back, and thrust into Failoux. The table shook. Failoux’s toes barely touched the ground. Malcolm let go of his worry, his shame, his grief. For the first time since Failoux left him, he allowed himself to cry.

An animal yell escaped him, and he surged hot into Failoux. “Thank you,” Failoux sighed, “Thank you, that’s what I needed, you inside me like this, I’m all right now.”

Malcolm grabbed Failoux, forced him upright and jerked him hard. He didn’t pull out until after Failoux came hot and sticky in his hand.

The two collapsed against each other and sunk to the floor. Failoux’s eyes were dark brown again. Malcolm put his face in Failoux’s neck and took a breath. He smelled like sweat and sex. And he was warm all over.

“I was so lonely without you,” said Malcolm. Failoux wiped away the tears on his cheeks. “Everything’s a mess now, and it’s all my fault. I kept wishing I could talk to you. You would have known what to do, but it’s too late now.”

Failoux shushed him. “You’re exhausted. We’ll fix it in the morning.”

They went upstairs, and Malcolm collapsed in bed. “Don’t leave,” he begged Falioux, when the man remained standing.

The gardener’s gaze softened. “I’ve been asleep for months, I’m restless. But I’ll be here when you wake up. I promise.”

*

Despite how tired he was, Malcolm couldn’t fall asleep with Failoux away. He finally drifted off after hours of tossing and turning. By the time Failoux shook Malcolm awake, the day was bright and the birds were chirping. “I’m sorry,” said Failoux when Malcolm protested blearily, “I know you must be exhausted. But there are some people downstairs I want you to meet. Can you get dressed?”

“Finally you’re back,” said Malcolm, pulling Failoux down into bed. Failoux submitted to the embrace for a moment or two, but then wriggled away and pulled Malcolm to his feet.

“I’m sorry I was gone so long,” said Failoux. “There was a lot to do. Please come downstairs, and we can relax together after?”

“Alright.” Malcolm yawned. “Can you call for the butler?” Malcolm asked.

“I sent the servants away,” Failoux told him. “We needed privacy. Hurry down.” He pecked Malcolm on the lips and scampered away.

If he was meeting new people, Malcolm should dress well, but… without someone to do up the back-laces of his jacket, Calgran formal dress would only look sloppy. Instead, he wore the Verren yuktak Failoux had picked out for him on their vacation. Hoping he didn’t look silly, he ventured downstairs.

He heard voices speaking Verran and followed them into the dining room. Failoux, two other men and three women, all Verra, were sitting around the table seemingly deep in discussion. When Failoux saw Malcolm, he jumped up from his seat. “Oh! There you are! Here, let me help you with that.” He quickly undid the tie on the top half of Malcolm’s yuktak, refolded it, and tied it back together again. “There, now you’re perfect. Everyone,” he said, turning to the gathering, “I’d like to officially introduce you to Landmaster Malcolm Wolke.”

One of the women said something snide in Verran, to which Failoux replied, “Well, the lemon tree disagrees with you, and her opinion on that is the only relevant one, so. Malcolm. Please sit down, we have a lot to discuss.”

Malcolm was halfway through pulling out a chair when he locked eyes with the woman across from him. Her hair was lighter than the others, and she had a strikingly elegant chin. He recognized her now: she was in the mob from yesterday. Had been one of the most vocal protesters, actually.

When her eyes met Malcolm’s, she immediately rose from her seat, inclined her head, and issued a string of rapid-fire Verran that Malcolm had no hope of deciphering. After she was done, she sat back down, avoiding Malcolm’s eyes.

“She says she’s sorry for yesterday,” Failoux translated. “You insulted the people here, but you were trying to help. I explained to her what you were thinking, or what I assume you were thinking, and she forgives you now.”

“For what it’s worth, I am sorry,” said Malcolm.

“Thank you for apologizing,” said Failoux. “Now, I’ll get to names in a minute, but these five each represent the major families in Miyai. People look to them as examples and leaders. I’ve brought us all together because things are not going well, not in Miyai and not in Ver as a whole.”

Malcolm was not sure what Felix meant by ‘problems,’ but he had the sinking feeling that his glass factory was somewhere on that list. He didn’t know whether to protest the false accusation, or to prostrate himself and beg forgiveness.

“And as things get worse,” Failoux continued, “it only sends more followers to Kalkal.” The representatives grimaced in unison. “Which is another reason it’s so important to work together.”

“I’m sorry for interrupting, but what’s Kalkal?” Malcolm asked.

All eyes turned to Malcolm, some surprised, some annoyed. “The one who tried to kill you was a Kalkal agent,” Failoux explained. “They’ve been a thorn in our side for a long time, but recently it’s even worse. They cast themselves as these heroes bent on expelling the foreign curse, and people are slowly starting to support them. What worries us is what happens if some of Kalkal’s other ideas become popular as a result.”

“What are their other ideas?”

“Oh, for instance, killing babies born with the wrong number of fingers.”

Malcolm cringed. “That’s awful!” he said. “If you want my help against something like that, I’d be glad to do whatever I can.”

Failoux’s expression tightened. “It’s not that simple. There’s one more thing, and you should think carefully about whether or not you want to be involved. Hear me out,” he said, silencing Malcolm’s attempt to interrupt. “I know you want to be good, and do the right thing, but you also want to please people. And if you help us, I have the feeling a lot of your countrymen will be very angry with you. Just think about that, how you’d feel if your family, your company, your closest friends all believed that you betrayed them. So if that’s too much, I understand. If you say no now, I promise you, no harm will come to you because of your decision today.”

Malcolm did have to think. He thought about the Board, who’d placed their faith in him, and his family, so proud of him for finally succeeding at something. He thought about the prospect of spending every summer in this awful, stinking heat.

But also he thought of the ocean, and holding hands with Failoux in public, watermelon, the woman who’d screamed outside his window just the day before apologizing and asking for a clean slate. This time, Malcolm knew exactly the right words: “I accept.”

 

Read this story’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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