Fructalene dragged her hands through her shoulder-length hair, grimacing as she tried to pull apart a tangle with no aid from comb or brush. She looked down at her hands, still slick with lavender-scented soap, and then at her wooden table, all strewn with white soap base and half-full bottles of oil. With a sigh, she rose from her chair. She slung her satchel of rags and stitches over her shoulder. If she was to make the most of what life she had left—what life Urth had left—she had to seize the initiative. Perhaps this venture would be financially as well as emotionally profitable, though she dared not place much hope in that possibility.
Her walk to the Botanical Gardens proved brief, for the island that held them lay less than a mile distant from her house. Despite her residence’s close proximity to the Gardens, she had never ventured there; the infinite combinations of scents and colors she had been raised to take keen interest in fascinated her more, especially since her livelihood depended on them. Also short was her conversation with the old man who sat in the entrance of the underground complex.
“Is this your first visit to the Gardens?”
“It is. Why do you ask?”
“I recommend closing your eyes as you go into the Garden of Sleep. The effect is stronger if you perceive the scent before the sight.”
Fructalene thanked him and walked until she reached a door with GARDEN OF SLEEP marked above it. Shutting her eyes, she pushed the door open and took a step inside.
Upon entering the garden, Fructalene felt her olfactory senses coaxed by the varying scents of jasmine, lavender, vanilla, sandalwood, and chamomile. She recognized each one as distinct from its fellows, but to the majority of wanderers in this garden, all the fragrances must have combined into one massive wave of overwhelming sweetness. How they could resist the power of such enforced relaxation remained to be seen.
She opened her eyes and inhaled deeply. Before her stretched a garden that savored of nothing so much as a genteelly deranged landscaper’s concept of paradise. A purple pallor counterfeiting the twilight that Urth knew in the Age of Myth blanketed the entire scene, which consisted largely of rows of flowers arranged by color. To her left stood the reds: enormous dew-covered roses, thick amaranthus that wove and dangled like a cephalopod’s feelers, amaryllis staring at her with all the leonine haughtiness plants could muster. Her gaze shifted to her right, where the yellow flowers waved and stretched up for attention: gargantuan buttercups that sagged from bushes, similarly sized sunflowers turning their faces up and away from the shy daisies beneath them, luminescent daffodils piercing the artificial dusk like fireflies.
Of course, shades of green in the form of grass, flower stalks, and mighty oaks scattered about the fields dominated the garden.
Fructalene noticed a bulge in one of the great enclosed buttercups and went up to examine it. At her touch, the flower sprang upright and opened its petals to reveal an unconscious woman. Her arms wrapped around her legs, which she drew up to her face.
Gasping, she grabbed the woman and yanked her out of the flower. Shortly after she set her down on the ground, the other woman groaned, blinked, and finally rose to her full height.
“Why did you do that?” she asked, rubbing her eyes.
“I feared the flower was devouring you.”
“No, those buttercups are for sleeping in.” She yawned, patting her mouth with her hand. “So are the giant roses, sunflowers, violets, and lilies. The anthropophagous flowers are farther down the path. They imitate the retiring-flowers, but their bright white spots give them away.”
Fructalene paused. “Allow me to apologize. I did not mean to disturb your slumber.”
“No, no,” said the other woman, standing up and brushing what appeared to be flecks of pollen off her dress. “I was simply taking a nap to conserve energy for the rest of the night’s events.” Then she whipped her head in another direction and pointed. “Look!”
The row of red flowers across from them rustled. Out of the foliage emerged an animal resembling a small merychip with white feathered wings. Fructalene held her breath as the equine approached her, but it quickly whinnied and walked farther down the path, toward the pinks and purples.
After several seconds passed, Fructalene asked, “What purpose does that winged merychip have here?”
“The Garden of Sleep is by needs a garden of dreams. Here, the creatures of fancy come to life.” She turned back to Fructalene. “My name is Justine. May I ask yours?”
“Fructalene. Why are the prevailing fragrances here other than floral? Flowers do not generally smell like sandalwood, and I would know.”
“They keep the garden artificially perfumed so as to induce a more hypnotic state than would be possible with the natural scents of flowers,” said Justine. “Did you enter this garden in search of an ideal slumbering-place?”
“No, I merely carried out a recommendation. I have no reason to fall asleep just yet. I am itchy with lust and would like to satiate my desires before the night is over.”
“Then we should go to the Garden of Delectation. It takes a bit of coin, but the experience is worth it. Follow me. If you are ever confused, copy my actions.”
The two women exited the garden and reentered the underground cavern. Fructalene followed Justine, dodging the occasional other person who walked their way.
“Here it is,” said the shorter woman, pushing the door open.
Clouds of steam accosted Fructalene when she and her companion walked inside. Almost instantaneously, sweat began to bead on Fructalene’s back and neck. She wished she had decided to wear a thinner gown. When her eyes adjusted to her surroundings, she saw that she and her companion faced three doors, the one on the left marked WOMEN, the one on the right marked MEN, and one in the middle bearing no inscription but instead a colorful swirl of purple, blue, and red paint on a bright yellow base.
“We are to go through the door designated for us,” said Justine, who then pulled Fructalene by the wrist through that door.
In the middle of the room they entered stood a thick-trunked tree with vast, spreading branches from which hung ripe pomegranates. More captivating to Fructalene’s sensitivities were the steaming baths that dotted the floor and the women who populated the room. Several of them sat luxuriating in the hot water while others milled about the area and still others stood behind carts bursting with nuts, dates, soaps, spices, and bottles of lotion. What she noticed most of all, however, was that the women behind the carts wore short red tunics with baggy pockets, but the rest of them wore towels at most. Fructalene felt her body heat increase.
A creature resembling a red, human-sized tusoteuthid emerged from a corner and slithered up to the two newcomers. Atop its mantle lay a pair of white towels. It stretched out one of its upturned tentacles before them, at which point Justine pulled an aes out of her purse and placed in the first sucker on the attendant’s tentacle. Fructalia followed suit and watched her coin disappear beneath the fold of this strange organism’s flesh. The tusoteuthid then held out another appendage, one without suckers, and Justine set down her purse, pulled her gown up over her head, and laid it across the attendant’s arm. After a brief moment of hesitation, Fructalene did the same. Once she and Justine grabbed their towels, they watched the tusoteuthid slide away from them and behind another door.
“What do we do when we want our clothes back?”
“The usual procedure is to knock on the office door.” Justine gestured with her thumb in the direction the tusoteuthid had taken. “The attendant identifies which garment belongs to which customer by scent. Not everyone knows it, but tusoteuthids have an excellent sense of smell.”
Fructalene thought that was odd but said nothing of it. Instead, she said, “This hardly seems like a garden.”
Justine shrugged. “If it is marked as such, then we are not to quarrel with that designation. In any event, we have reached our desiderate destination.”
“‘Desiderate’ is a good word for this place. Now, is there protocol to enjoying the Garden of Delectation?”
“Not exactly. Those pools on the other side of the tree are for cooling off after one makes full use—or partial use—of the steam baths, and one may disinfect oneself there, but visiting them is not required. What is virtually required”—Justine grabbed Fructalene by the wrist again—“is indulging in the carnal pleasures to which this garden is dedicated.”
“You mean we are to subject our actions to the sight of everyone here?” Fructalene began to wonder if it was too late to ask the tusoteuthid for a refund.
“In theory, yes; in practice, most of the guests will be too absorbed in their own pursuits to take much notice of yours. If you do wish to draw attention, you will have to do something unusual.”
Fructalene took a second look around the room. The majority of the baths contained at least two women, but she did see one bath with a lone occupant, who had skin like a bronze shield and wavy black hair that flowed down her neck and shoulders. Even if this woman had company, Fructalene would have elected to join her in the bath.
For once, Justine let Fructalene lead the way. The soap-seller set her satchel next to the bath and slid into the water, while Justine circled around to the other side and dipped her legs in up to the knees. Justine leaned back and tossed her gaze at the ceiling, so Fructalene hoped she would be able to execute her plans for the other bather without her companion paying much notice.
“Hello,” she said, at which the bronze-skinned woman’s eyes opened. “My name is Fructalene. And you are…?”
“Yvriette. I’ve never seen you here before.”
“That’s because I’ve never been here until now. Justine showed me the way. I have only just met her, but she has been very helpful.”
Yvriette slapped her thigh. “Ah, Justine! I see her now. You’ll be very glad you met her.”
“I already am,” Fructalene purred. “What is it like to be a regular here?”
“Well, I’m glad the use of the soap is free, but I wish we had more variety here. I suppose I ought to be thankful that this establishment dispenses soap that works well on wavy hair, especially since getting clean is no one’s primary objective when she comes here”—Yvriette chuckled at this—“but I’m beginning to find the offerings dull.”
“Then let me help you. I am an expert on the subject of soap.”
“You know the most intimate details of fragrances and textures?”
“I should say so; I’m a soaps-and-salves woman and thus skilled in all the sopagenic arts. Here, I even brought my satchel with me.” She turned to the patchwork sack that lay by the edge of the pool and opened the flap, revealing the edges of a few bars of soap.
The other woman’s eyes brightened. “What sort of soaps do you have?”
“My satchel holds twenty bars, each one different.”
If I were allowed to sell my wares, I could make a decent living in a place like this, she thought.
Yvriette put a finger to her chin. “I’m partial to orange and blends thereof. Do you have any of that with you?”
“I do.” Fructalene reached into her bag and produced a virgin bar of soap encased in an orange-and-white label reading OATMEAL/ORANGE. She handed it to Yvriette, who accepted it and then raised it to her nose and inhaled its natural fragrance with a smile. Then Yvriette, still grinning, bared her teeth.
“I would have you use it on me.”
Fructalene touched a finger to her chin. Certainly she had intended to slake her fleshly desires this night, but something about this situation made her pause.
“If you are reluctant, I understand,” said Yvriette.
Fructalene looked back at Justine, who returned her glance with a snort.
“What are you waiting for? I have no interest in watching your every move.”
“Very well, then.” After taking care to notice that Justine had shut her eyes again, Fructalene unwrapped the soap, tucked the wrapper into her satchel, and moved in closer to her bath-mate. “Where should I begin?”
“Start wherever you think is best, but I wish to be fully cleansed by the time my stay is over.”
Fructalene drove her soap around Yvriette’s breasts and then between them. She worked up a lather this way, and within minutes, Yvriette was emitting soft sighs while Fructalene felt herself growing warmer. And yet…she whipped her head back to look once more at Justine. For whatever reason, she had done nothing since taking a seat at the edge of the bath.
“If you do not wish to be engaged in the same activity as I, then why do you not remove yourself to another pool?” Fructalene asked her.
“Not all women who come here are tribades,” said Justine. “I had intended to wait for you to finish, since the other baths are too crowded for my liking, but it appears that now I have no choice.” She raised her head and emanated a sharp, high whistle.
Yvriette placed her hand on Fructalene’s shoulder. “You may not wish to watch what is about to occur.”
“Why? What could possibly happen here?”
“You will see.”
A rustling sound came from overhead. Fructalene looked up at the pomegranate tree and saw one of its branches waving. A green tusoteuthid dropped down from the tree to the floor and slid up to Justine, and Fructalene shuddered. She felt her joints loosen and nearly liquefy when Justine clapped her hands and pushed herself into the water, and the tusoteuthid dove in after her. Justine thrust herself toward the tentacled creature, who wrapped one of its appendages around her waist and another around her leg.
“Avert your eyes if it pleases you,” said Justine to the two other women, though Fructalene gathered that this strange woman cared very little one way or the other about their reactions.
Yvriette clasped Fructalene’s shoulders and looked at her as if to suggest continuing their previous antics, but Fructalene shook her head. Nothing could draw her attention from the actions Justine was about to execute. Indeed, the flailing and thrashing that ensued should have attracted the eyes of other patrons, though Fructalene dared not divert her own from the bizarre display before her.
When the tusoteuthid finished conjoining itself with Justine, it slid brightened out of the bath. Instead of returning to the pomegranate tree, as Fructalene believed the creature would, it ambulated to the pools on the other side, whereupon it plunged into what must have been cool water.
Once she regained her bearings, Fructalene said, “I never knew tusoteuthids worked as bathhouse attendants. I have seen them before on the shores, and I heard that they had something of a foothold in the Southern Isles, but I thought they were perhaps the spawn of Abaia, not persons that could be amiable—and more--to humans. They are persons and not beasts, are they not?”
“They are indeed persons,” replied Yvriette, who took Fructalene’s bar of orange-and-oatmeal soap in hand and started to wash the soaps-and-salves woman’s back with it. “We are not such degenerates as to prefer copulation with the lower orders. The tusoteuthids cannot speak, but nor can many humans.”
“As I thought. Yes, go down lower,” said Fructalene to Yvriette. Then to Justine: “You told me that the other patrons only looked on their fellows’ activities if the activities were unusual. What you did with the attendant does not qualify as unusual?”
“We do it so regularly that it cannot be anything but ordinary,” Justine said.
“A friend of mine has informed me that the men’s area contains tusoteuthids as well, though the use to which the men put them is not always precisely the same. Men visit the Garden of Delectation at least as often as women, but men and women are not permitted in one another’s bathing sections,” said Justine.
“Why is that? I would think allowing men and women to bathe together would encourage more visitors to this garden.” Fructalene cut herself off as Yvriette scrubbed her upper thigh.
Justine replied, “I have no doubt that it would, but the management will not allow the possibility of reproduction. Far better for us to slake our lust without risking pregnancy, and I quite agree.”
“So do I.” She arched her back and emitted a small groan when Yvriette reached around to her front side.
“Evidently,” said Yvriette with a laugh.
Eventually, the steam bath wore to a close, and the three women finished their stay in the Garden of Delectation with a dip in the cool waters and a deep massage from a purple tusoteuthid. As they lay on their separate raised mats, Yvriette said to Fructalene, “You know, if you are interested in Abaia, the Garden of Pantomime may be worth your time. At the very least, it will certainly be...instructive.”
“Why? What happens in the Garden of Pantomime?”
Neither of the other women answered, though they exchanged sly smiles, so possibilities traipsed through Fructalene's mind: a white wall awash with moving shadows? A perpetual burlesque enacted by sprites in leotards and leggings? A child's entertainment dominated by a puppeteer? She discovered the answer to her question once she and her companions had dried off, dressed, and exited the baths for a neighboring garden.
Shadows indeed covered the garden—from top to bottom and all through the atmosphere. No white wall stood where mummers might project the silhouettes of their hands and arms. Instead, darkness veiled everything, and yet Fructalene could still perceive the outlines of what lay before her: some sort of expanse from which jagged rocks jutted, massive trees and bushes all around, and bubbles swelling and popping nearby.
“Don't step any closer,” said Justine. “That lake in front of us will burn off your flesh.”
Fructalene gasped, but Yvriette shushed her.
No one said a word for the next several moments. Before Fructalene could break the silence, the sound of drum beats reverberated through the still, humid air. They seemed to come from the other side of the bubbling lake.
Then a chant began to accompany the drum. In between beats, a chorus of voices that ranged from tenor to bass intoned the indecipherable lyrics of a tuneless song unknown to Fructalene. Her flesh began to creep as the chant and drum grew louder.
Finally, the blend of drum and voice rose to a volume that Fructalene could not drown out by plugging her ears. Worse, however, was that her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, so she saw those who recited the chant as well as the squirming, screaming, struggling body being prodded along with the crowd.
That was the last thing she saw before she fainted.
When she regained consciousness, she found herself again in a pool within the Garden of Delectation. Someone splashed cool water on her face multiple times in rapid succession, and she sputtered.
“Ah, good, you're awake!” said a voice she recognized as Justine's. Fructalene blinked and saw her, wrapped only in a towel, at the side of the pool. “Clearly you were not ready for the Garden of Pantomime. I apologize for taking you there.” Justine folded her hands and fluttered her eyes as if to accentuate her contriteness, but Fructalene grimaced.
“If you did not expect me to be prepared for what I would see there, why did you refuse to describe it to me beforehand?”
A smile broke out on Justine's face. “I always have to have someone to surprise.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, leaning back on her elbow, “since I came here, my life has been full of comfort but much less excitement than I would like. Whenever I meet a new person, it's almost as though I've come here for the first time. Whether you stay or not hardly matters to me. You will fade into the background of my mind sooner or later.”
“Justine, when did you first come to the Botanical Gardens?”
“I don't remember,” she said, sticking her toes in the water.