It was difficult to understand the passage of time in the fadua garden. The queer greenish light glowed perpetually from the trunks of the pale trees, so that day and night together resolved into a pale, endless gloom. Only in the rare gaps in the canopy could the sky be seen, dark and starry or bright and sunny. It seemed to have no connection to the forest below, like a window to a separate world.
It was as though it really was a separate world, a drowsy, never-changing place that felt like a dream. It was the kind of place where improbable things would happen and seem commonplace. Improbable things like women growing from flowers.
I had little idea of how much time had passed when I woke up in the form of a snake, wrapped around the base of the flowerbush. I flicked out my forked tongue and tasted the air in a groggy way. Nothing much seemed to have changed- the grass still waved gently in some nonexistent breeze, red leaves still occasionally drifted down from the canopy, and occasionally there was the distant bleat of a vegetable lamb.
I was not sure what, exactly, had woken me up, but I was without a doubt very awake now. I raised my mailed head to peer about, sliding my coils around the base of the flower. Pascha had emerged once or twice during my long fugue within the flowerbush (waking long enough for a drowsy stretch and change of shape, a wander around the clearing) but we had not spoken, only exchanged meaningful looks. I couldn’t spot any sign of him now.
I raised my head to slide my scales against the great flowerbud growing above me. It had grown. It had grown, in fact, very much: in however long I had dozed among the branches, the bud had flushed dark red, and doubled in size. But the peculiar thing was the direction of the growth: the other fadua buds that I had seen were tall and narrow, petals tightly wound together at the tip. But Kezia’s flower had grown lengthwise, so that it was broad and fat, and the outer petals peeled back like those of a rose. Or rather, given the immense size of the thing, a cabbage. I could have curled up on top (human-shaped) quite comfortably. But the flesh of the petals was still hard as rock, stiff and unyielding against my anxious probing. I suppose that was a good thing. Given the chance, I might have been unable to resist peeling back the petals and revealing what lay inside too early. If I had been on better terms with Pascha, I would most certainly have begged him to illuminate the inside for me again. I desperately wanted to know what was going on in there.
But even when I pressed my sensitive snake’s head flush against the petals, I detected no sign of movement from within the bud, not even the slightest vibration. For all I knew, there was nothing in there but more petals and a cabbage core. Indeed, that particular concern had been gnawing at me quite a bit recently.
But there wasn’t terribly much I could do to affect the process, and in fact any interference of mine would probably have made things much worse. I had a long history of murdering plants, generally by forgetting to water them (despite brutish reminders) or watering them too much (and receiving more, angrier reminders). So the only thing to do was to go back to sleep. I yawned, which on a snake is quite a sight, and nuzzled one last time against the warm base of the flower. The stiff red petals, which spread out overhead like a massive, velvety umbrella, didn’t so much as twitch.
I lowered my head back down, preparing to curl up tight once more, and then stopped.
Had the base of the flower been warm?
In a flash I had flung myself out of the bush completely, landing with a scaly slap on the grass. I reverted to my human shape with a cringe for my stiff joints. The tips of the flower petals brushed up against my belly, covered in fine hairs soft as kitten fur. I ran my hand over one- broader than my head- and found it cool to the touch. Then nothing had changed- but wait, no, for as I slid my hand deeper, towards the base of the petal, I did feel a slight heat!
Oh- it was there, right in the center of it all, where the innermost petals were still tightly folded. Warm! Warm like life, animated life! I ran my hands across them over and over again, barely believing it. But surely it was a sign, a sign that something was- well, that something was cooking in there. Something was starting to change.
“Kezia,” I murmured, both hands on the tight-closed bud. “Is that you, then? What’s been taking you so long? Of course I don’t mind waiting, and it’s not like I have anything else to do…”
I squeezed it gently, delighting in the pulse of warmth that went through my hands.
“I just get bored, you know, not having anyone to talk to, so would you mind speeding things up a bit?”
It would be nice to say that this was the very first time I had spoken at length with the flower. It was not.
“I tell you what, my dear, if you come out a little early for me, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll let you keep a cat. Yes, a cat, even though they’re wicked creatures that used to make me sneeze. I’ll even let you keep that black one if you really want it, even though it’s the most ragged mog that I ever saw. Only show me your face again.”
There was no answer, of course, from the flower. I had not really expected one- not now, after all this time. The warmth was enough. That gave me a bit of hope.
I heaved a great sigh, and put my hands on my hips to stretch myself forwards and backwards. On my way back I eyeballed the sky through the gaps in the canopy clearing. It seemed to be day outside, a cloudy day that suggested but did not promise rain. A bit of rain wouldn’t be so bad, I thought, and would slake Kezia-in-the-flower’s thirst if she had any.
Coming down from my stretch, I spotted something else, something that just managed to catch my attention. I put my hands down and stared at it for a long moment, trying to figure out if I was really seeing what I thought I was.
It was a tree. Not a terribly uncommon thing to see in a forest, of course, but this particular tree stood out for a number of reasons. Firstly, it looked nothing like the surrounding trees, with their slender white trunks and red leaves: this tree was thick, knobby, and brown, with brown branches sticking out every which way and brown shriveled leaves barely hanging on. Secondly, I was fairly sure that it had not been standing there when I had begun to stretch. Thirdly, it had two knots that were beginning to look suspiciously like eyes.
“Oi,” I muttered, under my breath, as it dawned on me what I was actually looking at. At this moment, the tree moved, and stepped forward through the bushes that had been concealing its legs. It was not, in fact, a tree at all, but a golem. A golem with dead branches thrust into its body from the neck downwards.
It took one more step forward, and then stop, training its vacant eyes on me. At some point I had shifted into a half-crouch, mind whirring: had it something to do with Kezia? No, no, there was no way, as much as my mind had immediately leapt upon the prospect of her revival- then was it the witch’s golem? No, it seemed unlikely, she had her own preferred shape and this was not it- then it was one of the other, subservient golems- but what was it doing here? And why was it covered in branches?
The dead leaves quivered and rustled as the golem took another step forward. It had a broad, lopsided mouth, and a massive torso that looked much too wide for its skinny legs. Bizarrely, it had put a branch directly through the center of its forehead- no, upon closer examination that wasn’t a branch, but a long, thin, bloodstained splinter of wood.
The golem’s mouth seemed to gape wider as the soft clay sagged, and with a shiver of leaves raised one mittenlike hand to point at me. I actually jumped, out of sheer nerves; but now I was really beginning to recognize it. Perhaps one golem was much like another, but hadn’t I seen this one- in particular- once before? Yes, ages ago, when I had stalked after Elan in a bid to free myself- this golem had attacked us. And then there was that bloody splinter- I had stuck that in its head myself, to give it free will. And then what? My memory was a bit fuzzy on the later points…
The golem’s pointing arm moved slowly from me to indicate something behind me- Kezia’s flower. My jaw clenched. Perhaps it still had free will, and wasn’t acting under the orders of Mother Forest. But then I had absolutely no idea what it was doing here, or what it wanted.
I did, however, know how to destroy it.
The golem took another step forward, still pointing, and I moved quickly to stand between it and the flower.
“Stay back, you. What are you doing here?” I tried to keep my voice fairly light and calm; I harbored no desire to tangle with a golem if I didn’t have to, regardless of what I knew. If it was anything like Kezia, it was merely curious and confused with its newfound freedom, and could be reasoned with. Though, judging by the branches it had outfitted itself with, it might have already gone a bit feral.
The golem looked at me for a long, still moment- I had forgotten how eerie they were when they didn’t breathe- and then reached up and detached the white branch of a nearby tree with a loud tearing sound. The tree’s trunk creaked and started to split, and the golem put one hand on it to keep it together as it used the other to thrust the branch into one shoulder.
“Good,” I said. “That’s wonderful. Apparently you’re not much of a talker. Why don’t you go and pet some of the nice lambs? There are some just over that way.”
Very slowly, I raised my arm and pointed out of the clearing. The golem paused in fiddling with its new branch and watched me. Then it stooped to heave up on the recently-cracked tree trunk, lifting it free with a grinding noise and a shower of earth. The roots snapped and sprang backwards out of the ground as the golem lifted it over its head like a strongman. Then it flung it in the direction I’d been pointing.
I watched, openmouthed, as the tree sailed up through the canopy and out of sight. I didn’t see it land, but I did hear a panicked bleat that got sharply cut off.
The golem raised one foot and thumped it heavily on the ground, its branches rattling. I stepped backwards until I felt the brush of the flower’s petals. There was movement in the trees all around. Like spectres, the poorly-formed faces of golems began to appear in the trees all around us. Drooping, dripping, shambling, with misshapen mouths and fingers trailing sticky lines of clay, they moved inwards, towards me. There had to have been at least ten or so of the things, and they looked freshly made, dough that hadn’t quite finished baking. I could actually see the silver letters gleaming out of some of their foreheads.
The tree golem looked around at them and thumped its foot again. It pointed to me- no, to the flower behind me. The other golems were slowly closing in, forming a loose circle, advancing and leaving sticky brown trails behind themselves like horrible snails.
I licked my lips. The situation, it seemed, had suddenly taken a turn for the much worse. I put my hand back and felt the soft flower petals- they were quite warm, now, all the way to the tips.
Unexpectedly, the tree golem burst into flame.
I jumped back with a yelp, landing on my buttocks square in the center of the flower. The golem, still flaming, slowly crumpled forwards, and behind him was Pascha, horse-formed, both ears laid flat against his skull.
“What the hell’s going on here?”
It would have been wrong to say I was happy to see him, especially as he looked quite ready to put me to the torch as well, but it was a bit of a relief. The encroaching mass of golems seemed to have hesitated at the sight of him, turning their empty eyes and droopy mouths his way. I scrambled to the edge of the flower, balancing on the stiff petals, and beckoned to him.
“I don’t know, but feel it Pascha, it’s warm!”
“Of course it’s warm, it’s on fire,” he said, and turned and snorted another puff of it at the burning golem, which had started to straighten back up. The branches that had adorned it were all cinders, even the white one, which had burned with a scent like sandalwood. Its clay flesh was cracked and peeling in places. As Pascha applied more heat, it froze in place like a mannequin.
“I’m not talking about the golem,” I said, once the flames had died down. “I think the flower’s about to bloom! That must be why they’ve all come over!”
“What?” He swung his head around, his nostrils flaring. “Why should that make them come over? Is it the witch’s doing, then?”
“I’ve got no idea,” I said, and then winced. The golem Pascha had hardened had straightened its waist with a loud cracking sound. Fragments of clay went flying in every direction, some stinging across my cheeks.
“Oh, stay put!” said Pascha, blowing out more flame. “I hate this!”
A drop of cold water landed on my nose, and I glanced up. The clouds visible through the gaps in the canopy were a much more foreboding gray.
“I don’t think the fire’s going to work anymore, Pascha.”
Pascha looked up as well, curving his ears forward, and then snorted out a horsey curse. One of the golems in the circle surrounding us started to ooze forward again, then another, then all of them, as if sensing new weakness. The circle closed so tight that many of them were rubbing shoulders with one another, wet clay fusing and sliding together so that it became difficult to tell where one golem ended and the other began.
“Do something!” I yelped, scrambling back to circle my arms around the tight-closed bud at the center of the flower. It was throbbingly warm.
With a loud whinny Pascha reared up and brought his forelegs slamming back down onto the ground. The grass lit like dry straw, and fire streaked around the legs of the silent golems. With a series of crunching sounds, they stopped moving.
Pascha’s flanks heaved as he panted. The frozen golems had made a solid wall of themselves around the clearing, a wall with silent faces peering inwards. A few more raindrops landed on my forehead. Beyond the barrier of clay, I could smell something sweet and charred, and hear the panicked bleating of sheep.
The rain picked up. Steam was starting to issue forth from Pascha’s muzzle. He turned his large self around in the small space to glare at me for a moment.
“I didn’t bring them here,” I said. “There’s no use-”
Pascha silenced me by abruptly kicking out his rear legs, shattering the stomach of the nearest golem. Shards of clay slid off and down to the ground. In another moment, Pascha was human, and breaking off more pieces to make a larger hole right through the golem.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “you don’t seem to be in any danger anymore, so I’ll be on my way.”
“Hey!” I exclaimed, arms tightening around the warm bud. The rain was beginning to patter against the petals. “They’ll come right back to life as soon as they get wet enough, you know!”
To my annoyance, he had already stuck his head through the hole, and now looked back over his shoulder at me.
“Yes, well, it might be a good time to fly away, don’t you think?”
“I’m not leaving her to them,” I replied.
“Oh, so the flower’s her now.”
“You know it is,” I bit out. “And if I don’t go, you’ve got to protect me, don’t you? Isn’t that what the witch ordered?”
Slowly he withdrew himself, brow furrowed angrily.
“Keep you intact, yes,” he said, and then stabbed a finger at the flower. “But that thing…?”
“Surely,” I said, keeping my words careful, “by now, you at least want to see what comes out of it.”
He considered this a moment, while I cuddled closer to the flowerbud, grateful for the warmth it now provided against the cold rain. Despite how it had picked up, none of the golems were so much as twitching, though the flesh of some of them had started to ooze and sag again.
“Perhaps,” Pascha finally allowed. “All right. You say it’s hatching?”
“It’s not an egg.”
He put one hand on the edge of the hole he’d made so he could lean and sneer artfully at me.
“Hatch, bloom- who cares? Fadua don’t get warm, you know. They’re only plants.”
“Come and touch this one.”
“No thank you. Anyway-” Suddenly he jerked his hand back, rubbing his fingers together. “Hey- what’s this?”
“What?” I asked, not yet willing to leave my comfortable spot on the flower. Sorina’s magic clothes helped, too- they repelled the rain.
“This golem’s got something stuffed down its legs,” said Pascha, who seemed to have forgotten all animosity in the face of this new development. He leaned into the hole again and scooped up something in one hand.
“What is it?” I asked, craning my neck.
He turned and showed me: within his hand was what looked like a damp pile of tiny seeds. I recoiled.
“Don’t touch those! Get rid of them!”
“Sensitive, are you?” He raised an eyebrow and flicked a seed my way. I flinched and hissed, and he laughed.
“They look like ordinary barley seeds to me. Some have even begun to sprout.”
“Well, if that’s all, why would the golem carry them?” The sight of the innocuous little things was making me feel sick. “I wonder if they’re all carrying seeds!”
“Hmm, good point,” said Pascha, brushing the wet seeds off his hand in much too nonchalant a way for my liking. “Though I still don’t see many nefarious things about planting seeds.”
“Oh no, nothing wrong with that,” I bit out. “Though I would prefer they be planted in some places rather than others.”
“Oh, right, I forgot,” said Pascha, in a tone that suggested his recall had actually been flawless. “But if I were going to grow something wicked, I might pick something besides grass to do it with.”
“Even grass is- oh, behind you!”
As I had feared, the rain had negated Pascha’s fire. The golem with the seeds had suddenly started moving its hands, feeling at edges of the gaping hole that passed through its stomach and back. It was trying to pull itself back together, though mostly it was only succeeding in getting its hands stuck in its own sticky self.
Pascha put his hand out and tried to hit the golem with a sputtering, hissing flame, which did absolutely nothing. The golem put its muddy arm forward and grabbed his face with a wet squelch. I heard muffled exclamations as Pascha jerked his shoulders from side to side, and then brought up his hands and tried to yank the arm away- I could have told him that was a bad idea, except his ears were covered by clay, and how his hands were stuck, too.
I bit my lip, and then did a quick glance around the clearing- none had moved much closer to the flower, good- and then launched myself up and off the flower as a rusty-red owl. Raindrops bounced off my supple feathers, and in a sweeping stroke of my wings I rose up and then tilted into a dive, extending my great talons towards the golem’s head. In another moment I experienced the nauseating sensation of my claws driving into soft clay, and then closing around something hard.
But I had lost the momentum of my dive. For a moment I struggled, flapping like a fool, claws clenched and caught inside the golem’s head. The owl was too light to break free. So I let the shape go and was suddenly flying backwards, clutching a cold little piece of silver in human toes.
I hit the ground hard, landing in a filthy concoction of mud and ash from Pascha’s fire. Pascha himself now managed to jerk free from the golem’s grip, gagging and spitting up clay. The golem was quickly oozing into a formless pile.
“What-” gasped Pascha, doubling over with his hands on his knees, “what did you do?”
I didn’t answer him. Instead I struggled to my feet, no easy task in the slick mess of the ground. One golem gone, but the rest were still closing in. At my feet there was a gleam from the tarnished silver letter I’d pulled from the golem’s forehead, already sinking into the mud as the rain pattered down. I hoped that Pascha had not noticed it.
From behind me, audible even over the loud sound of the rain, there came a tearing sound. I spun around and saw that one of the other golems had ripped one of the large petals from Kezia’s flower.
“Stop that!” I shrieked, and whirled myself back into an owl, leaping and struggling to gain altitude from the wet ground. Pascha was hovering hopelessly behind me, his hands clenching and unclenching, steam rising off his body. I managed to get high enough through sheer willpower to wheel and snatch at the nearest golem’s forehead.
The creature ducked, and I missed. Perhaps it had noticed what I had done to its companion. With a series of angry hoots I swept back around, talons outstretched. Another golem tore a petal away from the central bud.
I was just aiming for this particular golem when a waft of stinking air struck my nares, and I wobbled and flapped to readjust. The golem had reached down and opened a hole up in its own stomach, and something stank like rotten meat inside. Even through the rain, the scent was rank; there was a charred edge to it, too, as though Pascha’s fire had baked it a little.
The golem reached into its belly and pulled out a dead hare. Long-dead, it seemed, for the thing’s head was crushed to a pulp and nearly unrecognizable except for the long ears. Another golem opened its belly with another rank waft and pulled out a similarly-mangled lynx.
Pascha was coughing from the stench, covering his mouth and nose with one hand, and I went and landed on his shoulder. He turned to look at me with some surprise, and asked, from behind his hand, “What’re they doing?”
I bobbed my head from side to side to indicate that I didn’t know, which was true, though I was starting to get an idea. I had seen golems behaving this way once before, in Mother Forest’s white grove. There, the golems had buried the dead things they carried. But here, they merely placed them on the ground.
I hooted nervously as a golem pulled another broad petal away from the bud, my talons digging into Pascha’s bare skin. Rather surprisingly, he didn’t protest.
“Are they… are they pruning and fertilizing it?”
It was beginning to look that way, as the golems continued to strip the flower of its fleshy outer petals and place more dead animals reverently all around, like disgusting offerings. The golem with the hole in its belly reached in and pulled some seeds out of its hollow legs. It reached out and smeared them onto its neighbor’s chest. The anointed golem lay down on its back beside the flower.
“I don’t believe it,” Pascha muttered. “I think they’re gardening.”
Just as he said this, the golem lying down reached up and dug its fingers into its own forehead. It went limp and flattened like a deflated bladder.
“What’s it doing to itself?” said Pascha, wincing as my talons squeezed him again. He hadn’t realized that the golem had killed itself.
One by one, the others began going up to the golem with the seeds to get a handful rubbed into their clay flesh. Then they lay down on top of the dead, stinking animals in the ash and filth around the flower, thrust their hands into their heads, and stopped moving.
Pascha was starting to catch on. He reached up and pushed his wet bangs out of his wide eyes.
Soon Kezia’s flower, freshly pruned and looking far smaller, was surrounded in great mounds of seed-riddled clay. Aside from a vague impression of a formless face here and there, there was no sign that it had all once been golems. Only the seed-carrying one was left, and it, too, lay down on its back and reached for its head.
“Wait!” exclaimed Pascha, jerking forward so that I lit from his shoulder in startlement. But the golem had already put its hand through its scalp. The rain made the clay slide away from silver for an instant before the whole thing collapsed with a soft whoosh.
I landed on the ground, and became a crouching human, who slowly rose. Pascha looked at me with a queer, dazed expression.
“They’re all dead- they all killed themselves!”
I nodded- that was stating the obvious. Apart from the initial shock, I did not care; at least they were not actually trying to harm Kezia. But Pascha seemed far more affected, and he paced back and forth distractedly in the mud.
“They all… they all…”
There was a soft thump behind me, and I glanced back. To my surprise, there was one golem left, slowly rotating its stiff arms in the rain. From the scorch marks on its flesh I deduced that this was the one that had free will. At least I thought it might.
The golem raised a hand to point at my forehead a moment, then turned and walked slowly away.
I felt uneasy turning my back on it, but it also didn’t seem inclined to violence, at least not now. Pascha didn’t seem to have noticed its presence at all. He’d turned into a horse again, but a very distracted, misshapen horse with a beaky lip and feathers on its shoulders.
“They’re Mother Forest’s servants,” he said, stamping a hoof in the muck, in the flesh of former golems. “She made them destroy themselves!”
“Undoubtedly,” I said. The golem I thought had free will hadn’t harmed itself. These golems, so hastily and sloppily made, seemed to be sacrificial fodder. I shivered, suddenly, and went back over to the flower.
Pascha followed me, snorting warm breath down the back of my shirt.
“They were her slaves! She made them do it!”
“Yes?” I rubbed the back of my neck and looked back at him. “I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.”
He champed, his teeth sticking out of his beaky mouth.
“Didn’t they all have a- a consciousness, same as Kezia?”
“In a rudimentary way,” I said, with a grimace; that line of thinking was not comfortable. “Why would that make you squeamish, though? You killed a man yourself right here out of sheer laziness.”
I meant for it to be biting, but he was too distracted; he shook his head and tail.
“Why kill servants who might still have some use to you? Why throw them all away?”
“Why not? She can make more of them anytime she pleases.”
His nostrils flared very wide. “She makes them? She makes the golems?”
“Of course! I’ve seen it. What, did you think she was kidnapping them from some golem village somewhere?”
Pascha put his head down and pawed at the earth, his large, dark eyes flickering.
“She makes them… I suppose that’s why.”
“Why what? What are you getting at?” I asked. When he made no answer and continued to squirm, I wondered aloud: “Perhaps the issue feels a little too familiar?”
He puffed out a loud snort, and said, “Watch what words drop from those lips,” which was as good as a confirmation to me. I put up my hands up in mock-mollification; his worries were not my concern. I no longer had a witch hanging over my back.
“Baba Yaga considers you pretty valuable, I think,” was all I put forth, but he pinned his ears back anyhow.
“For a slave, there are no certainties- only recurring fears- you wouldn’t understand.”
I stared at him for a moment, but he seemed not to pick up the irony of that statement, coming from him to me.
“I thought you said you couldn’t die.”
“Not by age or abuse. Not by sickness or poison. But the older I get, the more I realize that nothing lasts forever.” He punctuated the words with sharp snaps of his white teeth. “And the witch has whims, and the forest has made her strange. And she has left me here to my own devices, while she keeps Zakhar and Kazimir close to her breast, and does- something.” His voice suddenly raised an octave. “I don’t know what she’s doing with them! We have been her servants for centuries and nothing has ever changed, but now-”
He broke off, shook his head, his long, feathery mane rippling, and then glared at me. “Why are you smiling?”
I quickly wiped the expression off my face. “Smiling? No, no, I wasn’t smiling at you, I was thinking of something else.”
“Ugh! Never mind, go check on your damned flower.”
He stamped several times, splashing mud on the hem of my skirt, but it did not dampen my sense of amusement (anyway, mud wouldn’t stick to the magic cloth). Poor Pascha. It wasn’t as though I was laughing at him in particular. His arrogance, his helplessness, his fear and his selfishness… they somehow seemed so very familiar. He probably really was doomed.
My hand went to my own neck as I thought this, and then I looked back at the flower. It was much smaller now, missing the outer petals, like a stripped rose. The faintly sweet scent of it was noticeable even over the stench of the dead animals buried beneath the mud. I poked about a bit with my bare toes near the visible grass seeds before deciding that they weren’t dangerous. Fertilizer, seeds, soil, and rain- Pascha was right, it was some sort of gardening ritual. And Mother Forest gardened for fadua, after all. Perhaps she sent golems to sacrifice themselves for each of the flowers. Somehow, she must not consider Kezia’s flower any different from the rest.
That was a good thing, right? I gnawed my lip and moved close enough to put my hands on the bud. It was still happily warm. Without the outer petals, it looked rather more tulip-like than roselike in shape, with a wide, curved base under the folded inner petals. They felt soft as calfskin to my fingers. I tried to imagine them opening, revealing Kezia. Could anything larger than a dog be tucked away at the bottom? Well, I had already prepared myself for a child-sized Kezia, so that shouldn’t trouble me.
“Have you seen any fadua when they, er, hatch?” I asked Pascha, keeping my cold hands on the soft petals. The rain had filled up the creases of them with small puddles that shone with a reflection of the cloudy sky. The drops that still fell made abrupt ripples that shook the image.
“No,” said Pascha. I didn’t look at him, but he still sounded surly. “I’ve never seen anything like what the golems did before, either. I have seen the adult ones, which always attempt to kill me on sight.”
“Good,” I said, a bit absently, and ignored his offended noises. Was it only my imagination, or were the petals beginning to feel more pliant to the touch? No, it wasn’t my imagination. I had a terrible imagination anyway, only suited for picturing terrible things.
A raindrop hit my nose, and I blinked. In that moment, the petals split apart and curled back. I drew a breath. Water pattered against them and became mist from the heat. The petals stretched and curled and turned crimson. They were open. My breath was caught in my throat. This flower had no stamen, no pistils- only something small and white at the very bottom.
As I stared at this small pale thing, tried to make sense of it in my head, my sense of anticipation and wonder changed to something near horror.
It was not so much what I saw. No, what I saw should have pleased me. Curled tighter than I could have ever have imagined possible, all bent limbs and hard angles, was a human figure. Small, yes, dreadfully skinny, yes, utterly colorless in hair and flesh, yes… It looked somehow unfinished, in truth, but it did seem human. The face was obscured by the tight-curled limbs, but I could see that what hair it did have was very short and very pale. And on the side of the torso- a peek of the thin ribs- my god, I could see it breathing.
But I was so frightened. It was inexplicable. I physically drew back and felt the blood drain from my face. My hands began to shake. I had been waiting for this. But now, suddenly, in the rain, it was as though a dream had been shattered, and cold reality was pelting down against me. What was I doing? What was I going to do?
Rain struck the virgin flesh of the creature before me, sliding down and between the ribs. I saw it start to shiver. It breathed and shivered. I swallowed compulsively. It- it could not be Kezia. Kezia was a thing of clay, a creature of strength and solidity. Kezia was gone. This… this frail little thing…
I exhaled, closing my eyes a moment. Well. I had not really thought it through, that was clear. But if this was another trap I was going to step into, at least it was one of my own doing. I clenched my fingers, steeled myself, and reached towards the center of the flower.
Just before my fingers touched the creature’s white skin, Pascha’s hot hand snatched my wrist.
“Don’t touch her!”
I yelped and jerked from his grip. “How dare you-”
“You’re going to hurt her,” he said, thrusting his chin towards the shivering little figure. “Find something to cover her with from the rain. I’ll be back in a little while.”
“Hurt her- back? Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back,” said Pascha, with a scowl in the open flower’s direction, and then jogged off, splashing, through the mud.
I gripped my wrist a moment, teeth working away at my lower lip, then looked back at the pale figure. Would my touch hurt it? I suppose it did look rather delicate, but… With a curse, I picked up one of the broad petals that the golems had earlier stripped from the flower and laid it over the shivering thing, shielding it from the rain.
By the time Pascha returned, the rain had stopped, and the mud was cracked and drying out. A few little green sprouts were already beginning to peek out of the brown. The body covered up by the petal had not made a sound other than soft breathing, and I hadn’t so much as peeked at it. Pascha found me crouching up on a tree branch and nervously picking at my cuticles.
“You look a right mess,” he noted, tilting his horsey face up to snap at my heels. “Come down!”
I bared my teeth at him and swung myself down. Unlike me, he seemed to have grown much calmer during his absence, and had reverted to his guise of an ordinary brown horse. He had a blanket folded up and resting on his back.
“Is she under that?” he asked, pointing his muzzle at the overturned petal. “It’s stopped raining, you know.”
“I know,” I hissed, and made my way reluctantly back over to the flower. Once there, I hesitated, hands grasping at empty air. Pascha snorted and trotted over to pull the petal back with his teeth.
As it drew away, I was startled. The pale body had changed some in the hour or so I had left it covered. It seemed as though it had filled out a bit, somehow: I could no longer have run my fingers between its ribs, and it was not folded up so tightly. The arm had fallen away from the face, curves of flesh now visible around the joints, and the slightest blush of color seemed to be spreading out from the navel.
Ah. At the navel protruded a thick greenish vine, curled up like rope at the bottom of the flower. It was fused so tightly with the flesh that there was no doubt that this creature and the plant were part of the same being.
The face: I could see the face. The eyes were closed. The nose was short and straight. The lips were thin. It was a sexless face, devoid of expression. I bit my lip, my eyes trailing down towards the chest-
“Go ahead and get her out of there,” said Pascha from close behind me, making me jump. “It looks as though she’s firmed up a bit. I bet she’ll be wanting this blanket.”
I wrinkled my nose. Pascha’s breath smelled a bit like blood, but I wasn’t going to inquire about it. The blanket on his back was quilted and stank of horse.
“I don’t think I should move i- her,” I said. “I’ll just put the blanket on top-”
“No, it’ll get all wet, look,” said Pascha, nudging me in the side. “She’s lying in a puddle.”
He was, regrettably, correct. Quite a bit of water had pooled at the base of the flower, despite how I’d kept it covered. The lower half of the body was submerged an inch or so. I couldn’t help a nervous glance between the legs-
“Come on,” said Pascha, nudging me so hard I nearly fell over. “I’m not going to pick her up. You’re the one who wanted her, you do it.”
I arranged my face into the most savage grimace I could manage, but to be fair, I didn’t want him touching her even more than I didn’t want to touch her myself. So I steeled myself, pushed back my sleeves, and reached down.
The white skin was icy, but not in a lifeless way; it was the way of skin that has been lying in cold water for nearly an hour. It felt like real human skin to my clumsy hands. I slid my hands down around the back and shuddered- the water at the base of the flower was actually somewhat warm. Perhaps it had been leeching the heat away.
I pulled the torso up into a sitting position. It came easily, the head flopping forward bonelessly, the arms trailing. Now I finally had a good look at the chest: there were breasts, small ones. Well, that made it female in one sense, I supposed. I supported it against my chest a moment while I hooked my hands beneath the shoulders to try and pull it out of the flower completely.
At that moment the body shook with a great gasp. I made an inglorious sound and let go.
“Now you’ve done it!” exclaimed Pascha, in a disparaging way. The body had flopped forward back into the flower with a soft splash, facedown in the shallow puddle. I cursed and grabbed it by the shoulders to heave it back up, and nearly dropped it again.
The eyes were open.
They were blue, surprisingly dark blue, and the pupils were wide and dark. The body- the fadua- her mouth had fallen slightly open, and now I saw that a touch of pale red had come to her lips and the tip of her nose and her cheeks. She was still shivering, staring at me.
I couldn’t help it, the word slipped out.
She gazed back at me, no recognition dawning in her eyes. After a moment I felt a nudge at my back. Pascha had drawn the blanket from his back with his teeth and was holding it out to me. I took it, even though the edges were trailing in the mud, and tried to put it around her shoulders. But she flinched at every new touch, starting like a deer.
“It’s all right,” I said, feeling stupid, feeling clumsy, as I tried to gently manipulate her under the blanket. “It’s all right, we’ll get you warm, don’t be frightened…”
I nearly bit my tongue at the last, feeling my face heat up, and hearing Pascha snort softly with laughter beside me.
She quivered and twitched, but seemed to have little power to move on her own, so I managed to get the top half of her wrapped up. Her legs were still sticking out in the puddle at the center of the flower, but I figured we’d both take a moment to rest and absorb what all had just happened. I had barely strained myself but still felt sweaty and exhausted, as though I’d just churned a mountain of butter.
I started to take a long breath, which stuttered on the exhale. I hadn’t realized how intently she was now staring at me. The blanket was sliding down her shoulders, and I grabbed the edges to keep them together. She looked down at my hand, and back at me.
“What?” I asked, feeling my face get even hotter, as a most absurd feeling of embarrassment spread through me. “What is it?”
“She sees her first meal, of course,” Pascha blew into my ear, making me flinch. “I’m sure fadua are born hungry.”
“Shut up,” I said, rubbing my ear against my shoulder. “She can barely move.”
“Yet,” said Pascha. “You just wait…”
He fell silent, for the fadua had begun to move. The fingers of one pale hand were showing through the gap in the blanket, and curled around the edge. She looked down at them, as if surprised by her own action, and then back up at me.
I was caught in her dark gaze, frozen by it, because I thought I saw a minor change taking place there, like an awareness coming into being for the first time.
Her lips moved, slowly, soundlessly, forming a short word.