It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I do have good reason. Spring came early to Switzerland, and the garden began to beckon in early April, so lifting turf, tending seedlings and planting veg became the order of the day. And, of course, writing, in those hours that time allowed. Work on my next novel ‘Pride’ continues apace, so over the next few months I’ll be posting some exerts, and I thought I’d get started by introducing our characters, and who better to start with than our egocentric heroine, Tahlia?
Lessons in etiquette and decorum were a nonsense. An agonisingly tedious nonsense that Tahlia Layne was not prepared to waste another morning on. Etiquette was worthless because she already knew everything she needed to know about the Order’s numerous conventions and protocols. She had tried to widen her classmates’ understanding of the subject by cleverly considered questioning, but their tutor, Mistress D’almeria, did not appreciate her efforts. In fact, she often seemed quite put out by them. The old kaddena would doubtless be glad of her absence.
Decorum was equally pointless. Tahlia knew herself to be more than capable of walking around and looking perfectly charming, and as for curtsying, well any simpleton could bob about in a pretty frock and make it look convincingly deferential. It did not take lessons five out of nine days in a week to teach a girl the way of it. Well, not unless you were a lumpen grump like Luisanna, whose stomping gait made even a tragasaur look graceful.
Another lesson in either discipline would only be a futile misuse of her time, so once she had left the young ladies’ quarters with the other girls, she managed to avoid the fierce surveillance of Lady Oleander, Warden of the young ladies’ quarter, with her usual ease, and escaped along a disregarded side passage that only the servants ever used. She passed down through the fortress, finding her way through the maze of narrow passageways that were illuminated by glow-lights, whose lights were meagre in comparison to those that lined the hallways she was more used to. The corridors were also somewhat narrower, so she was forced to constantly dodge around hurrying servants.
She briefly considered following the twisting passages to the kitchens, where she could make good her escape via the shaft to the composting bins concealed at the back of the gardens, but she quickly decided against that route. She was twelve years old, the rubbish sluice was becoming too small, even for her, and the last time she had slid down it she had felt as though she would have become stuck if it were not for the greasy mess coating its sides. The thought also arose that she would be far less likely to draw attention to herself if she did not smell of borak fat, and her dress were not covered in half mouldy maylard shoots, so she decided that she had no choice but to take the long way down to the chain-carriage station.
As she approached the lower levels, the servants were replaced with slower moving members of the Growers, and the whole place started to smell of earth and sap and compost. She began to pass rooms stacked with tools and the other paraphernalia of the Grower’s craft; handcarts and buckets stood neatly parked and stacked, various tools and coiled watering pipes hung on their walls, and stone pots and bound bundles of thin support staves filled their shelves.
She finally emerged from one of these rooms, out into the bright sunlight of a stone courtyard at the rear of the gardens, where large pots of plants and flowers stood in rows, waiting to be planted out. A lone Grower was busily working at the far end of the courtyard. It was a small squat creature that scurried about on its many short limbs, circling backwards and forwards around a wide pot holding a particularly ornate bush, covered in small luminous red flowers. The creature was carefully shaping the bush with its two long forelimbs, clipping away twigs and unwanted blooms with sharp incisors, all the while making satisfied whistling noises to itself.
Not wanting to be seen, even by a menial, Tahlia ducked behind a row of tall potted vines, then left by a small gate, which led out to the splendour of the gardens themselves. These were not like the gardens far below on the southern slope of the fortress hill, where the exotic herbs, spices and fruits were grown for the kitchens. The plants growing there were aligned in perfect rows amongst orderly paths that crisscrossed the terraces, but in the private gardens the plants sprawled and cascaded over the paths and walls, creating a place of peace in the shadows of the fortress towers that loomed above and all around.
The gardens had once been one of Klinberg’s war-engine batteries, but at the closing of the long war with the demons of the Predation, it was decided that the shattered engines would not be replaced. The trenches where soldiers had once run and crouched and died were turned to flower beds and pools, and the platforms on which the great machines had once stood became terraces and promenades.
From where she had entered the gardens on the highest terrace, Tahlia looked out over the expanse of well-crafted floral chaos below her, and sighed happily. Even though the sun had not yet risen above the fortress’ towers, the air was already growing warm, and she revelled in its early morning scent. She rarely had the opportunity to enjoy the gardens by herself. She would often attend lessons on biology and botany there, but they were always with the other young ladies of the Order, watched over by one tutor or another, more often than not a human member of the Growers.
The only other times she was allowed in the gardens were to pass through them on the way to catch the chain-carriage, or to attend her lessons at the archery field on the lowest and largest terrace at their farthest edge. Looking down across the sun terraces and flower beds, she could see the wall of the archery field, topped with its thick scented eroni hedge, and beyond the hedge was nothing but a void of blue, empty except for the few small red dots of distant circling crak.
The ground could not be seen from where she stood. The only place in the gardens that afforded a view of it was at the top of the old ranging tower, though Tahlia had only ever known it as the broken tower. The story went that the tower, which stood in the very centre of the garden, was the last place to be struck by a barrage-demon on the final day of the great siege of Klinberg, at the end of the Predation wars. Even though the fortress had been extensively rebuilt since the wars had ended, the tower had remained unrepaired as a reminder of the great cost at which the peace of the gardens had been bought, and so it stood, broken and shrouded in climbing leaves.
The door to the tower was buried now in a deep trench of earth, where tap flowers grew, but Tahlia had long since found a way to climb halfway up its side, to a place where she could slip through a gap between its distorted metal plates. From there she could take the spiralling stair inside, up to the high targeting chamber, and look down and see the distant plains far below.
She did not have the inclination to climb that morning, so instead she followed the path beneath the broken tower’s overgrown walls. As she followed it along the edge of the sun terrace beneath the tower, she idly watched the green and red striped fish darting about in the deep pool running alongside it.
She began to hum tunelessly to herself.
Who, she thought, on Terra’s earth, under Fortak’s sky, would want to be doing anything else than this on such a beautiful day?