Month: November 2018

The Ruritanian Duke of Kunlun

Winslow North suspected a diplomatic incident afoot from the moment Arthur Armitage invited him to take tea at the finest club in Ruritania’s capital. Five minutes into his first cucumber sandwich, Winslow, who subscribed to – not pessimism, surely, but a certain bracing realism – found his prediction rewarded.

“Oh, Your Grace,” sighed Arthur, looking distressed indeed, with his face pulled long beneath his strawberry-blond curls. “I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for your friendship, and how wretched I feel for calling on its services in so gauche a manner. Nevertheless” – here, he heaved another gusty sigh – “the trouble cannot be otherwise helped. I feel a damnable fool, in truth. Do you think me a very great fool?”

Winslow, over the rim of his teacup, said rather dryly, “I find I cannot make a proper assessment of a man’s foolishness, great or small, without first knowing its cause.”

“The trouble began with my school,” said Arthur, stirring his tea with a melancholic air. “Poor school! How it suffers on my account.”

Winslow frowned. “School?”

“You know the one, Your Grace –”

“Winslow, please,” said Winslow, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. He’d lost count, in truth, of how many times he’d corrected Arthur on matters of address. Winslow massaged his temples. “I am only properly a duke in the Kingdom of Kunlun. Dukes in my grandparents’ country hardly deign to run companies, or take tea with Western businessmen, as I do here in Ruritania. They consider the handling of money and the willful fraternization with foreigners uncouth, and never quite forgave my father for adopting an English surname for our business purposes. My family in Kunlun would hardly approve of our friendship, Arthur. Which,” Winslow added, to forestall any perception of insult, “I of course hold in the highest esteem, regardless of any elderly great-aunt’s antiquated misgivings.”

Arthur beamed. “I do so admire your humility, Your Gra – ah, Winslow. Indeed, it is a quality I most admire in Kunlunese people like yourself. That is why I started the school, you see,” he added earnestly. “Surely, you’ve heard about the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. I teach the martial arts course for gentlemen myself. My father was terribly proud.”

“Indeed,” said Winslow, taking care to curb the wryness of his tone. He had no doubt regarding Armitage Senior’s satisfaction in such an enterprise. The Armitages were businessmen, and trade deals recently struck between the young Western government of Ruritania and the forward-thinking, great-aunt-scandalizing Crown Prince of Kunlun had made all things Eastern abruptly fashionable in the West. Kunlunese magic – and its accompanying martial traditions – had won particular favor with Western gentlemen of a certain class and sensibility.

“The school has been quite the success, as I’m sure you know,” Arthur went on. “I have the grand tour I took across the Asian continent in my boyhood, not to mention my month-long education in Chinese sorcery fundamentals, to thank for that.” He winked. “I do, unlike most Western Ruritaneans, know my Kunlunese enchantments and martial practices.”

“Surely any obstacle at your School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments could be overcome by a full month’s worth of Chinese magic instruction,” replied Winslow.

“But that is just the problem!” exclaimed Arthur. “Some – perhaps misunderstanding my history, and indeed, the nobility of my intentions – do not approve of my school.”

Winslow sat up a little over his cooling tea. “Really.” Now, this was interesting. Not many in Ruritania dared quarrel with the Armitages, even over something silly enough to be called the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. Winslow frowned. “Perhaps they disapprove of an institution of Asian sorcery.” Ruritania, for all its young government’s earnest talk of peace and progressivism, also gave home to those who misliked the growing repute of Asian and African Ruritanians. A certain cosmopolitan aesthetic which sampled the occasional Persian chemise pattern or Vietnamese soup course was all very well, but Western nations, with their notoriously delicate constitutions, could only stomach so much of the strange and exotic.

“Oh, it is not a matter of intolerance,” said Arthur, drooping further still, “which is a shame, really. To snub the intolerant is quite fashionable in respectable Ruritanian circles now. Unfortunately, the critic I speak of is herself a Kunlunese. One Miss Mabel Lee, though she went by a properly native name in Kunlun, Ming-ling or Mu-lan, or some such thing.”

Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “She?”

“Indeed.” Arthur leaned across the table with enthusiasm. Subtly, Winslow rescued the tray of miniature fruit tarts from Arthur’s flailing elbow. “A female magician – and a martial practitioner, at that!”

Winslow felt his eyebrows climb higher still. Women martial-magicians, sworn to the code of Jianghu, were rarer than their male counterparts, and according to the old sages of Kunlun, rarely as strong. Still, such women were not unheard of. “What seems to be the young lady’s complaint?”

“It is the most unconscionable thing!” replied Arthur. “She came to the school – for lessons, I thought – but no, the heartless creature wanted merely to pillory me. Going on about how my teachings lack authenticity. Mine! I, who spent a full year traversing the Asian continent.”

“It contains a good many countries,” said Winslow, comfortingly. “Pray, do not spill your tea over such a trifle. One disgruntled young lady, Jianghu disciple or not, should not provoke such emotional excesses.”

Arthur sniffed, curls flopping over his forehead, where they clashed unfortunately with his reddening face. “Perhaps my honor and reputation are a trifle to you, but I expect you should care rather more about the honor of your royal family.”

“Ruritania has no royal family,” said Winslow, puzzled. “I’m given to understand the young government is quite proud of its democratic achievements –”

“Don’t be daft, man! I speak of the Kingdom of Kunlun, of course.” Arthur’s gaze darted about the club, a bit nervously, as he adjusted his cravat. “In truth, I had not wanted to spread such gauche gossip about your homeland –”

“I was born in Ruritania, Arthur. And all gossip is, by definition, quite gauche, otherwise it would not be worth gossiping about.”

“– but I am privy to certain rumors. My father’s business associates, you know, they do go on. It seems the young upstart who impugned my teachings has also impugned the reputation of the Crown Prince himself. It is a scandal, of quite literally royal proportions!” Arthur looked triumphant. “Is the Prince not your own flesh and blood?”

“Prince Tai?” Winslow frowned. “I am a cousin of his, yes. However, save our blood, there is precious little in common between a rising head of state in a remote mountain kingdom, and a displaced duke who runs a Ruritanian company and takes tea with Western gentlemen.”

“But the thickness of that shared blood must stir even your wretched heart!” exclaimed Arthur. “I must say, I do so admire the Kunlunese devotion to family. I am sure your noble cousin would agree that the Lee girl is a cross-continental menace, and must be stopped.”

“Now, Arthur, you cannot simply class every woman who wields a sharp tongue as a menace, or the men of Ruritania would have none left to wed. Besides,” added Winslow, a bit impish-grinned, “I daresay I would not fare any better with such women than you do at your father’s Winter Ball.”

Arthur’s color deepened further. “I am being serious, Winslow. And it is not for nothing. Speak to your cousin. A conversation between family is not such a difficult thing.”

Winslow thought, wryly, that Arthur clearly had little experience of Kunlunese house-matrons during his year-long tour of the Asian continent, but refrained from saying so.

“I shall make it worth your while,” Arthur continued. “If you do this small thing for our friendship, I will entreat my father to stop nipping at the heels of the North Enterprise, as it were.”

Winslow froze, staring at Arthur. “How do you know about that?”

“I know some may think me an empty-handed dandy,” said Arthur, heaving his grandest sigh yet, “but I have ears. As I said, I am privy to certain rumors. My father has been attempting to snap up your family’s company since spring.”

“And I have expressed, time and again, my refusal. What does the Armitage trading empire need with a quaint little research company? We fund minor magical inventions and spell-work experimentation, not trading routes.”

Arthur shrugged. “Kunlunese magic is in fashion. My father is a businessman.”

Winslow’s fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly, on his teacup. “If I speak to my cousin of this Miss Lee of yours, you will ensure that your father puts a stop to this nonsense about an acquisition?”

“I shall speak most firmly to him,” promised Arthur. His curls bounced up and down when he nodded. “You have my word.”

Winslow leaned back in his plushly-cushioned seat, and cast a long-suffering glance toward the tea room’s finely-painted ceiling, a delicate imitation of Moroccan tile. “It will be good for my constitution to exercise my scrying mirrors, I suppose.”

My Grandmother’s Garden

My grandmother was a witch.

By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.

I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.

When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.

I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.

The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.

My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.

I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.

The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.

One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.

“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”

Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.

“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”

That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.

Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.

To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.

Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.

Until now.

I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.

As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.

“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”

“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.

“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.

“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.

“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.

It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.

An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.

“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”

I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”

“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.