Hawthorn had nodded off. The book on his knee, a treatise on early Prolish cave markings, had acted as an effective sedative. Between it and the pressing warmth of the fire, the scholar was lolling in his armchair.
Outside the hotel suite, bloated snowflakes were making an attempt at battering in the windows. Through the dark and pelting snow showed the crook-chimneyed skyline of Fortenshire. Distantly, the bells of Carigan Tower struck midnight. Hawthorn snored.
There was a bang, a muttered curse, another wooden bang. Hawthorn snorted, startled.
“Sorry, Duane” said Piedmont, delicately releasing the handle of the door he’d just slammed. He strolled to the fire, dropped a half-depleted wine bottle and a small bouquet on the side table. The other armchair creaked as he flopped into it.
“Hello Wallace,” said Hawthorn, grimacing. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “What time is it?”
“It’s just about the witching hour, if old Carigan is still to be trusted.”
“I thought you were abed” said Hawthorn. He watched Piedmont take a pull from the bottle. “I can’t imagine you were still at the conference?”
“I went to dinner with Lotte de Porsche. Lovely conversationalist.”
“The alienist?” said Hawthorn.
Hawthorn pulled an odd expression, nodded, looked at the bouquet: Purple orchids, red gerberas. Lush, grown in a hothouse. All on the brink of becoming pixies. “She gave you those?”
“Well, I didn’t buy flowers for myself.”
They sat a moment in silence. Hawthorn frowned at the bouquet. Piedmont offered him the wine. Hawthorn turned him down.
“I’m sure there’s some cryptic, symbolic nonsense behind them” said Piedmont, leaning forward.
“How do you mean?”
Piedmont rolled his eyes. “Floriography. All the rage in Empereaux. Send ‘secret’ messages by flower arrangement. It’s not a secret, of course. Everyone knows what they mean.” He looked sideways at Hawthorn. “You’d not know about it, Duane. It’s too haute.”
“Well, what do these ones mean, then?” Said Hawthorn, gesturing, irritated, with his book.
“I’ve not an idea. Probably ‘eat me like the iced tart I am.’”
“Well, doesn’t red denote lust?”
“Goodness, Duane. Violets, begonias, tulips. Red, orange, chartreuse. Don’t all flowers mean sex? It’s all they do, sex.”
“Well, yes. I think the symbolism tends to forget the pixie part of the equation” said Hawthorn.
“I suppose” said Piedmont. He took another swig, raised a finger to Hawthorn. “Speaking of that, have I ever told you of the time I met a Lillian?”
“You met a woman named Lillian?” Said Hawthorn, raising an eyebrow.
“Not a person-Lillian. A flower-Lillian. It was on the expedition to the interior of the Towerlands of Kendúrsvynon, past Mimos Valley.”
Hawthorn reclined in his chair, screwed up his eyes. “I’m not getting out of this story, am I?”
“Pish posh. You’ll like it” said Piedmont, waving a hand. “Now, the Towerlands. It was the seventh day into the interior, and we had already lost two porters to the heat. Wretched, that heat. Bleed you dry of sweat.
“Somehow, the mesas seemed to have all the shade and water, so we decided to climb one. Hard work, but we could smell something sweet, like marmalade, at the top. By nightfall, we had one rope up. The lads were exhausted, so they called it a night.”
Piedmont grinned wryly, swirled his bottle. His cheeks dimpled. “Except me. I’d had enough of not having the source of that sweet smell, so I climbed up during the night. Moon was large as I’ve ever seen it. Seemed it was leaning in to have a look.
“By moonlight, I winched my way up that rope. A hundred feet of rock, at least. Dinged up my knees, terribly. Worth it, though. The top of that mesa was a paradise. Volcanic soil, all spongy, and growing in it were the most curious sorts of tree: Just a a drooping lamp post, but with something like a grapefruit for a head. Of course, I resisted eating one. Couldn’t risk it being poison, that far East.
“At the center of that mesa was a pool. Not a pond. I’d say pond if I meant it, because this was no pond: Clear as crystal, with a rock basin. Surrounded by the most beautiful purple ferns. Now, tempted as I was, I took a bit of a bath in it.
“Now, it figures: As soon as I was happily nude and stepping into that cool water, I heard a rustling. If it had been a a night-cat, as I feared, I would have been dead. Now, much to my surprise, it turned out to be a woman.”
Piedmont closed his eyes, grinned, waved one hand idly about. “A nude one. Probably the opposite of a night-cat, on the scale of fortune. And, well, I say woman, but I don’t mean human. She was pale as a calla lily, slim as an ælf. No nails on her hands or feet. No hair, whatsoever. And, let me tell you, Duane:
“She had petals instead of hair!” said Piedmont, waved his sloshing bottle. “Petals, and trailing stems. Like a flower bud. Like a pixie, Duane. A giant pixie!”
He frowned. “And by giant I mean human-sized. Anyway, she steps out of those weird trees, looks at me with these eyes like red roe, and she starts to sing. Soothing, crooning. It was like a schoolboy’s fantasy. She joins me in the pool, takes my hand, and I realize something: It’s her that smells like marmalade.
“And, Duane, I know what you’re thinking.” Piedmont adopted a grumbly tone. “‘You better not have snogged that flower woman, Wallace. You know about the dangers of nymphs. You know its unprofessional to shag the wildlife, Wallace.’”
Piedmont shrugged. “I will simply say we had an interesting cultural exchange. We spent several days at that mesa. It turns out they’re very much like pixies, only more intelligent. You’d have loved it, as an anthropologist.” He look at Hawthorn.
Piedmont scowled “Duane, you tit.”
Hawthorn had nodded off.
Lillium supermundorum is the largest species of pixie known to Littorans. It grows only in secluded, wet areas of the South-Eastern wilderlands. The stalk of Lillium resembles a single, drooping growth, three meters in height. At this end of this stalk grows a single bud, which resembles a very large, hard citrus fruit.