Chris Howard


Orange Trees

“The lord’s garden is his treasure.”

“Well, he doesn’t sound too bad, then.”

“He is.”

Reed jerked his chin at the approaching tray-bearer and worshipping entourage.

“What are they doing?”

“Just watch.”

Reed waved them forward after they all performed a synchronized flow of gestures and colors, the light coming through the dome ceiling and firing up their sleeves, a dance of it off their fingertips.

I just watched, waiting for meaning to be revealed. The four of them in front wore soft hats that hung around the sides of their heads like hoods. All of them except the actual tray bearer were the same kind of being as Azhelros, only about half his height, though.

The colorful well-lit group, marching in perfect timing, stopped at the foot of the dais, and fanned out, turning to face away from us, some of them unfolding what looked like bladed weapons as part of the dance.

And in the middle of the tray, the centerpiece in this elaborate ceremony, was a single ripe orange.

A fucking piece of fruit—I mean it looked perfect, I just didn’t get the ceremony unfolding around it.

I glanced over to a lower platform on my left, one reserved for the lord’s guests. Shirley stood on all ten of her pointy legs, a little ahead of everyone else, Augie and the three from Lazaro, one of them a mirm like Augustine, the other two nothing like I’d seen before. They were a mirrored pair of jellyfish looking things with eyes on stalks, breathing flaps that pulsed rhythmically between a glassy blob of internal organs and a web of what could have been flexible milky rib bones.

Couldn’t really tell, but they received a couple sidelong glances from some of the courtiers, and I’d taken that to mean that they were as unusual here as anywhere else.

How many different forms did the Winterdimlings take? Question one-thousand and one.

Pondering question one-thousand and two—how do you make clothing that you can move both outside and inside your skin?—I nearly missed the acrobatic latecomer with the whirling pink knives.

Another one like Azhelros, he or she—couldn’t determine that—bounded off the floor, flipped over the line, landing with a springy bounce, facing away from us. In a flurry of metallic pink, the knives leapt out over the tray, crossing, slicing, dividing, and then vanished. The acrobat stepped back to reveal the finished work of art.

In the center of the tray, a perfectly cut orange.

Reed leaned in, whispering. “You don’t understand?”

I started to scowl, and shoved it aside for a perhaps-you-can-enlighten-me gesture.

“An orange is a citrus fruit from a tree...”

“Yeah, I do have a halfway decent knowledge of trees, Mr. Gossi.”

“...from our world. It’s a fruit so rare here, that one drop of juice from an orange is worth more than most lives in the Winterdim.”

Then it hit me. I kept my voice low, sudden thought that there could be listeners in the room. “And Numezhin has stolen all the world’s light for his own use, to power his own garden of earthly plants. What a dipshit.”

“Keep your voice down. You want to guess how Numezhin managed to get his hands on otherworldly seeds?”

I thought about it, grew impatient. “Tell me?”

“He—and now we—opened up the slave channels to the OKF. The sick fucks in their towers up by old Lake Michigan performed some botanical magic that allowed seeds from the Dawnworld into the Winterdim as physical objects—then provided years of gardening expertise to a handful of the lord’s servants.” He made a painful expression, his mind stuck on something. “In our world that was probably a month or two. There’s some weird compression of time between the Winterdim and the Dawnworld. I actually don’t get it, but I’m sure we can get someone here—or at the OKF—to explain it.”

Reed gestured to the orange, pulling the conversation back what was important.

“What you see there is more wealth than any other single being in this world possesses—in the light required to grow trees, the nutrients required to bear sweet fruit, the time, the soil, the protection from thieves, in the actual time invested in the gardeners—in the very lives of the gardeners.”

He stood, held out his hand for mine, and we descended the dais to the traybearer.

Reed selected one slice out of the perfect open flower of thirty-two. It seemed amazing that anyone could cut an orange with that precision. Like to have a look at those pink knives sometime.

Bet Brazley would like a set for her birthday.

He handed the slice to me, and took another for himself. Tip of tongue first, just a tap to see if I detected anything that shouldn’t have been there. Sweet, nice tart edge. This was a damn good orange. But, come on, worth more than anyone here? I glanced up and every eye in the place was on the floor. They weren’t even allowed to observe us eating an orange.

What a bunch of shit.

“Shirley?” I waved her over. “Would you like a slice? You too, Augie.”

Reed’s look of shock turned savage for a moment, as if I’d just done something to tear apart the world. Maybe I had. It took him a few seconds, but he understood, lifted two slices out for Shirley and Augie, ignoring the quick glances and shocked murmur in the dance troupe and courtiers.

Reed straightened and held a hand up to Azhelros. “My friend, a slice to bind our friendship further.”

Azhelros approached quickly, speaking low, as if Reed had stepped way over the etiquette line and he was embarrassed. Reed waved him to silence.

Loud enough to be heard throughout the throne room, Reed said, “I have returned a generous ruler. In the Dawnworld, oranges grow on trees everywhere the climate will support them, bearing fruit in the poorest gardens, even in the wild.” He followed that up with the translated version.

Then he held out an orange slice. “Try it, they’re delicious.” He said it in English, and Azhelros reached out a hand cautiously, fingers approaching the wedge as if it might fly away.

Then Reed scattered what was left of Winterdim social order in pieces at his feet. He lifted another slice and offered it to the traybearer, in the same motion grabbing the tray and holding it out to others in the ceremonial orange party, alternating in the native language and English, “Take one.”

Reed handed out the rest to the orange carriers and sent them off for more, as many as it required to let everyone in the room have a slice.

Turning to Azhelros, he made a gesture toward the back of the throne room, and sent for the gardeners.

Alarmed, some even fearing for their lives, the gardeners flocked into the throne room, bent and shivering. All of them were Bizhasen like Shirley, a winged mix of wolf, dragon, and crab. One had a foreclaw severed neatly at the first joint. Not an accident, but punishment.

Reed called that one out of the group, waved him forward, and spoke to him in a calm tone.

Turning to me, he held an open hand toward the gardener. “His name is Hoalerandin. I had him punished with the loss of one arm for allowing a single orange seed to rot and die in its bed.” Reed slid an arm over my shoulder. “How should I attempt to make up for this?”

I held Reed’s eyes for a long moment. You didn’t punish this gardenerHe did.

“I have an idea. Follow my lead.”

I closed my eyes, set more of my mind on the task than I ever needed to back home. Here I wasn’t sure. But it all worked as designed. I spun out ten meters of vines, coils whipping under Reed, across the floor to curl into a platform of interlocking cloverleaf loops beneath the Bizhasen with nine claws.

He looked frightened, shaking, his mouthful of sharp teeth opened in a wide flat panicking gape. Then a wheeze of sharp breaths, his eyes closed, and he made some sort of life-saving gesture with three free claws, the points like a tripod, he held out an orange seed at the vertex like a jewel.

In Winterdim, it was a jewel, a prize beyond all means of measuring.

“Hoalerandin? I am a creature of the forests of the Rootworld, and I have a gift for you.” Didn’t need to tell him I had never actually set foot in the Rootworld, but that’s where Kraneia’s from, and I’m her daughter. Shirley translated for me, while I sent out another vine, a slender greener one, to lift the orange seed off the top.

This was a bit tricky because it weighed almost nothing.

He shuddered through a short string of words, which Shirley passed along as, “I have protected the seed with my life.”

I dropped it into my hand, lifted it to my mouth and pulled it in with an artful curl of my tongue. I knew I’d get a reaction out of them. I think there were courtiers fainting in the back of the room, and Hoalerandin, shaking now, didn’t look much steadier.

The seed rolling around my tongue, I told him, “The orange tree blooms with perfect flowers, my good gardener. Means the blossom contains both a stamen and pistil—the reproductive parts for both genders. Which further means I think you simply need more seeds.”

The change complete, I opened my mouth and dropped the seed of seeds into my hand, tilting it to let it drop to the stone floor with an insignificant tap and rattle. The thread that I’d tied to the seed was so thin, I was probably the only who knew it was there, the tiniest conveyer that sourced my store of useful organic compounds.

More horrified voices along with the soft thumps of another round of fainting.

Okay, I was starting to enjoy myself. Maybe too much. I could feel the draw on my reserves, feeding the seed I had dropped on the floor.

Then the thunder rolled in, the single seed dividing, then those two dividing, the rumble became of roar of division, and when it completed the number of cycles I’d specified, I was standing in a pile of orange tree seeds up to my knees.

“How many?” asked Reed after a long space of silence.

I felt the conveyer thread dissolve. “Exactly eight million, three hundred and eighty-eight thousand, six-hundred and three.” I picked up a single seed off the mound, held it up to my eye between my thumb and forefinger. “Including the original.”

It started to sprout in my hand, a curl of pale green, twin leaves opening like an umbrella, twisting, then another set of leaves. I pulled my vine platform with Hoalerandin to me, and held out the seedling.

“For you, dear Hoalerandin. Not for the lord’s garden, but for yours, your family’s, wherever you believe it will receive care and bear fruit.”

He made a quiet, thankful gesture, and followed it with an even quieter request that Shirley translated as, “A tree will only grow where there is the light of the star.”

“I see.” I was already feeling around the corners of the toolbox. “I think I will just have to fix that.”

Reed grabbed my arm, fingers digging into my skin. Come on, we’re shaking up a world here. I turned, wondering what was so important as he collapsed.

* * *

Azhelros commanded Numezhin’s physicians to save Reed, which I gathered by the strain I picked up from them, was a tall order—that, or Azhelros had promised they’d be following their lord into death.

Yeah, they hopped right to it.

Reed’s only command, which stunned Azhelros and me both, was to have Shirley oversee all procedures.

And then my Reed was out, eyes closed, the tiny weapon inside him breaking into pieces and hunting for the seams of the Winterdim lord, some place they could burrow, divide, or splinter the two different lives.

The lord’s surgeons worked for what felt like hours, rooting through Reed with hundreds of tiny hair-fine scopes, his naked body stretched out on the operating table, thousands of red pin marks on his skin.

The operating room looked...biologically focused, not the hard shiny plastic and metal walls, fixtures, tools in human hospitals. I was no expert on medical treatment, but there seemed to be far more tubes, cooling fluid suits, and nets of flexible piping hanging from the ceiling than anything I’d ever seen.

Looked more like a jungle than an operating room.

Reed woke once in the middle of surgery screaming in another language, arms flailing, heaving three of his doctors into the air, carts and tables of gear and instruments crashing to the floor. I also think they were afraid to hold their lord down. So, I jumped in, grabbed him, one of his wrists in my hand, sent out a spread of vines to bind him to the table.

A day passed, even the starlight Numezhin harnessed for his orange garden went dim—the night cycle, I supposed. My eyes hurt, but I still rubbed them. My muscles were sore, but I didn’t move from the viewing seats above the operating room.

Shirley flew to my side, slid one wing along my back. “I believe they have removed all of it, Thea. They have saved your Reed.”

I let out a breath, a few tears slipped from my eyes with it. “Shirley?” I opened my arms. “Can I hold you for a little while?”

She climbed into my arms.

* * *

Reed spent almost three weeks in bed recovering—and that’s going by the day and night cycles of Winterdim. There were at least five of the lord’s doctors with him at every second.

I found myself in a world I didn’t know. I was nearly on my own, Shirley with me on my shoulder working as translator whenever I went out.

Finally, when Reed was back in business it called for a celebration, something wild, different, but I had my doubts when he told me what he was up to—and even more when he said he required my help.

We had this back and forth contest going to see who could push the edge one more step, but what he’d planned while recuperating—it was even crazier than anything I planned to do.

I had had some time to get a better view of how roughly things were being run in this world, and I didn’t know how far we could push things before they’d collapse. “These are sophisticated people with a sophisticated society. Are you sure you want to turn the order upside down? Completely?”

Another thing that started to bother me—just a little—was Reed staying in character and saying things like, “I have access to the Winterdim, the Rootworld, and the Dawnworld, with friends and wealth in two of them. Why should I not share my rewards?”

“Okay, at least stop with the fake monarch talk.”

“That is the way he speaks.”

Ostentatious? Looking up at the gold ceiling lit by a medium bright sun focused on one point in the entire world. Wow, never would have guessed.

I jabbed him playfully. “You’re doing the job so well, how do I know you’re the real Reed? Still in control? Maybe they did more in surgery than open you up and remove Lazaro’s little thread.”

“Oh, you’ll know. I warned you.” He grinned—all Reed. “Now watch this.”

Serious again, he waved over Azhelros—who followed us everywhere we went at a discreet distance. In even tones, but I gathered they were commands, Reed stepped through a list of things he wanted done.

I could have called for Shirley to translate, but I’m fond of surprises.

Within the hour, Reed had an army of the mirm—Winterdim creatures like Augustine—carrying the hundreds of bags we’d filled with orange seeds down the long spiral ramp from the palace to the streets of Winterdim’s capital, with the very fun name of Frinwibelliam.

Sounded like a disease...or someplace where there’s a party every night.

It was neither.

My wings burst open, I grabbed Reed, and we soared around the palace, taking a slow winding descending path to the streets below. There was a kilometer-wide thoroughfare running from the floor level of the palace to the horizon, and that’s where I was planning to land.

Near the palace, it was clear, many of the buildings and land plots received some overspilling sunlight, and they showed off their good fortune in garden spreads, mostly stubby burgundy branched plants that looked like splatters of blood hardened and stood up on end, apparently random branching and sharp ridged circular leaves. I like patterns in growth, but I couldn’t figure some of these plants out.

Edible? I wasn’t going to try it.

We landed in the middle of the giant central thoroughfare. Thousands of people walked, marched, floated across it. And when we touched down, fire wings flexed and roaring, every living being from the Winterdim dropped to the ground, flattening themselves against the paving stones—and that was as far as I could see. The word spread. The Lord was here, and you’d better get your ass and face on the ground.

Or what? We’d have you whipped, kill you, sell you, your family, and everyone you had ever known into Dawnworld slavery? The amount of fear in the air, I went with the last.

We waited, but I was already shifting weight foot to foot, doing the minimal patience dance. I could only let the surprise drag out so long. “What’s going on?”

“We’re waiting.” He fixed his collar, gazing straight ahead.

“Yeah, I got that. How long.”

“For our seeds to arrive.”

I glanced over my shoulder, frowning. All movement on the road had stopped to wait with us. Gods, we’re a damn inconvenient pair of world rulers. Everything halts when we appear anywhere? Must be a real productivity killer.

Didn’t take that long, but then I wasn’t on my knees with my eyes pointed at the ground, just trying to breathe and not draw attention to myself.

Reed—and I knew it was really him and not Numezhin just from the look in his eyes— turned to me and said, “I don’t care for this level of obedience. This will be the last time.” He called over Azhelros, who’d come down the long way with the bags of seeds.

Reed spoke to him, ending in English, “See that it is done, that everyone understands that this is no longer proper.”

He dismissed Azhelros and waved over the lead mirm with the bag of seeds, crouching to speak softly to him. Reed nodded, pulled out a seed, and slid it into a pocket in the mirm’s ten-armed garment.

Giving the flattened bowing thousands another pass of his gaze, Reed took my hand and we stepped into the street.

A tiny flapping creature rose in our path, a child, and the mother scrambled to her feet to catch wings and feet—and all without raising her own eyes to ours. Fear rolled off her, and she was shaking.

Shirley tucked in close to my ear to translate.

“Forgive me, oh please,” she begged Reed, slamming flat on the paving at his feet. “He is young, and...”

And what? Doesn’t give a shit what this alleged ruler of the world says or does—and rightly so.

Reed finished her sentence. “Doesn’t know his place?”

The mother made a gesture, two hands flat and open, then she was shaking harder, her face knotted in pain.

The Lord of the Winterdim crouched down, touched the woman on the side of the face, and straightened. “Rise.”

The mother got to her feet, four of them, fearfully, her winged baby boy curled in her arms, staring out with defiance.

Reed just smiled, waved over the lead seed carrier, plucked one out, and handed it to the boy. “This is a seed from the orange trees in my garden. It is yours.”

The mother stared at him, and I added to her shock by focusing my tools on Numezhin’s sunlight curtain, cutting a pinhole in it, and refocusing the beam to follow the seed anywhere it went and was eventually planted.

A sharp flash of light in the dim, and the seed rested in the child’s hand in a wash of gold light.

I reached out, picked it up. “May I?” The boy didn’t understand me. Didn’t matter.

Holding the seed closer, I breathed, then let it drop through my fingers into the palm of my hand where I commanded it to sprout, uncurl from its home, and grow. A moment later, I returned a ten-centimeter-tall orange seedling to the child.

“Do not plant it too deep, love this plant, and it will bear fruit.”

* * *

Everything seemed to move faster in the Winterdim, even time.

It took us another month to distribute all the seeds, flying to the giant thoroughfare, and with each seed given away, I released a starbeam that followed the new gardener home.

Reed set up a gardening school, an impromptu education facility—with tents and umbrellas and floating practice gardens, right in the middle of the street, scheduled daily classes with time spread among his own royal gardeners.

Every day started with a new set of seeds and giveaways, and we moved further from the palace, and everywhere we landed, crowds of Bizhasen and Mirm and the tall toothy ones called Hawrjins walked and flew and hovered around us.

It seemed to be working so far. We hoped the slow bending and changing of the rules, and the slow distribution of wealth wouldn’t run into trouble. Hope wasn’t the only thing we had. We had a lot of help—especially from Azhelros.

In the evenings, we threw open invitation parties at the palace—ringed with tethered airships opened up as dining rooms, guests who would have never been invited in Numezhin’s day, passed out gifts, and Reed and I told otherworld stories.

Thinking of Brazley and what she had been through at OKF, what those from Winterdim had been forced to endure, I had one final demand, and Reed charged ahead with it without question. We started a project to end the passing of slaves to the Dawnworld, broke all channels and treaties between Numezhin and OKF, and created a special service with trained agents to seek out and close the doors Numezhin had used. Shirley really came in handy with the agent’s training—she can be devious and dangerous when she wants to be.

Which is where I get some of it from.

Change was everywhere, and we knew that everyone wasn’t going to accept it—fewer still would understand it.

Azhelros, baffled by the behavior of his lord and friend, finally broke down and begged for understanding. “Why are you doing this, my lord? This is your treasure.” He thrust a shaking hand into the last of the seed bags. Then he was bowing, apologizing at the edge of pleading for forgiveness.

Reed waved him to his feet—which put Azhelros way over our heads. He towered over us—like a tree himself.

“Old friend, because I have learned a new way.”

“But the trees are yours alone.”

Reed shook his head. “A wise man from the Dawnworld once said, ‘no tree can belong to any man’.”

I added, “One of the wisest.” I did one of my best tree poses. “A tree grows, its roots spread into the ground, it takes up the air, it becomes a part of a grove, a forest, a world.”

“Azhelros, you who have ruled Winterdim and will rule it again in my place, I am giving you my entire garden—for you to enjoy, to share with your family, to offer as gifts. To do with what you will.”

And the giant second in command bowed his head.

We walked to one of the balconies overlooking the city, and I took Reed’s hand, my fingers curling, digging in, and we both felt the click between us, his power and the Numezhin persona inside now aware of its tools.

For luck I pulled him closer and kissed him—started soft, my lips on his, just gentle pressure, a hint of my taste, and then I opened up, played with him for a second before taking his breath away and letting him go.

I saw it in his eyes. Whole palace to ourselves—whole world actually. And we currently controlled it all. A king and queen. Oh yeah, and I have wings. Not a question of where, but where can’t we fuck?

I shrugged my shoulders, gave him half a smile. “You got me.”

Reed nodded, and I punched one fist into the air, opened up the sky, withdrew the night curtain Numezhin had folded over this world, and the star blazed down on every facing garden.

It wasn’t as bright as the Dawnworld—earth. Never would be. It’s just a dimmer star, but now Winterdim was neither winter nor dim.

We stayed another week or so—hard to tell the length of individual days or how much time had already passed, but I was counting nights after we’d brought down Numezhin’s idiotic obsession with hoarding the starlight.

Reed handed over power to Azhelros with a vastly different set of rules and judgments than the ones he’d originally been given to keep order in Winterdim—along with the promise that we had a couple tactical and diplomatic services to perform and then we’d be back to check on things.

Then we said goodbye.

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