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Midnight Flowers

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Mistress Quicksilver, a refined antique dealer, is about to put up for sale a most unusual collection. Soon, one of the items attracts many diverse and nasty individuals. The young woman has to protect her merchandise, while managing the marital problems of her friend and the blunders of her teenage son. But Quicksilver has a few tricks up her sleeve...

Fantasy / Mystery
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

“You want to sell this?”

Standing in the middle of their shop’s storeroom, Quicksilver stared at the goods with a thoroughly perplexed expression. On the floor, in a dozen baskets lined with straw, lay piles of objects with most unusual shapes. Some were utilitarian, some decorative, but they all related to the same subject with an astonishing level of creativity. The images of carnal union took on every imaginable form. The depictions of male and female attributes ranged from the most realistic to the most stylised, going through all the symbolics, with many flowers, fruit, vegetables, fish and shells.

“It was Old Stump’s collection,” said Mahogany with pride. “She died last week. I met her nephew at the baths and convinced him to entrust us with the sale.”

“Really? I heard many of her political rivals had died prematurely. I would have rather thought she has been collecting poisons...”

“Stop speaking ill of the dead. It brings bad luck.”

The young woman patted her black hair, tightly coiled on the top of her head.

“You’re right. Business is business. Do you think we’ll be able to get much for it? Sandalwood is the one with expertise in these kinds of antiques. She has her contacts… Some potential clients wouldn’t even dare to come to our shop.”

Her partner made a meaningful frown. “Well, I have been thinking for a while about expanding our range. Opportunities like this don’t come up very often.”

“Yes, but still, it requires some preparation…”

“I have a plan. I talked to Parrot, the poet. He’ll help us attract prospective buyers. We are going to organise an evening for some hand-picked literati. He’ll give a talk on the mystical meanings of the games of love in the ancient philosophy of the Old Empire. I’ll also invite a priestess of the Fertility Goddess. She’ll explain the ritual use of certain objects. Afterward, there will be a little debate. It’ll be the most serious cultural event of the year. All the learned people of the City will come here to discuss the philosophical implications of one love position or another. Then, the most respectable citizens will come to visit our shop in broad daylight!”

Quicksilver pulled a skeptical frown. “If you say so… And what do you plan to pay Parrot for his trouble?”

“I promised him a book of his choice.”

There was a discreet knock at the front door. Quicksilver turned towards the sound.

“Who’s calling? We’re not open yet!”

“That must be him. I promised him a first look at the collection, so that he can choose his book.”

“By the nascent horns of the Golden Calf, I have never seen him up so early!”

The poet was indeed at the door, looking a little disheveled as usual, but perfectly sober. He rummaged expertly through the pile of books, before extracting one and stuffing it in his pocket.

“So, which ones are you thinking of presenting at the event?” asked Mahogany.

“We could start with ‘The Aphorisms of Desire,’” replied Parrot. “A great classic and most consensual.” He tapped the gilded back of a thick volume. “Here you have a copy signed by the great courtesan Red Orchid.” He then pulled out a small, scuffed book: “‘The Thousand Virtues of Ecstasy’ would be nice to add a little controversy.”

“‘The Practice of the Thirty-six Sacred Positions’” mumbled Quicksilver as she leafed through a worn codex. “My back hurts just by reading the introduction! I did not know you were knowledgeable in this kind of work, Master Parrot.”

“A true scholar must have a broad general culture. What’s this?”

He was holding a small book, bound in lizard skin. The edge was blackened. The first page displayed a couple in a convoluted erotic pose, languid, as if exhausted by the effort they had to make to put themselves into this position. He flipped through it with interest.

“Well, I would say here you have something very rare.”

“Really?” asked Quicksilver.

“It looks like a copy of ‘The Midnight Flowers.’”

“Never heard of it. Is it a well-known work?”

“Only to a specialist. It was a collection of erotic sonnets by Golden Voice. He wasn’t a great poet, technically, but the only one who dared to write such poems at the time of The Great Righteousness in the Three Cities. As with his other writings, he distributed them in secret, and was lucky enough to die from a bout of swamp fever the day he was due to be arrested. Of course, their Guardians of Purity destroyed most of his work. Only two copies of this book remained, one in the Great Library of the Old Empire and one in the library of the Jade Philosopher, until a fire destroyed his house.”

The poet examined the pages. Their edges were clearly blackened by fire.

“Looks like it was saved from the fire after all...”

“It’s not a fake, is it?” asked Mahogany.

“Er… I’m not an expert, unfortunately. However this book is not very well known. Personally, I have only heard about it because I visited the Great Library a few years ago. As I said, it’s not a very valuable piece of literature. What’s more, this copy is not even supposed to exist.”

“Fantastic,” exulted the antique dealer. “‘A very rare volume saved from the pyre’… Exactly what we need.”

There was another knock on the front door. It opened without waiting for an answer, and Sandalwood, their neighbour, burst into the shop. She ran the special interest antique shop around the corner. Quicksilver realised a little late that she’d forgotten to put the lock back on after Parrot entered. As usual, the old woman headed straight for the storeroom.

“Hi youngsters, could you lend me some turpentine?” She stopped dead in front of the baskets. The two partners exchanged an embarrassed look. “Hum… you’ve pretty things here but nothing really extraordinary… except maybe this and… my word, it’s the Ivory Tower!”

She pointed at an oblong object, about eight inches long, in the shape of a circular tower topped by a dome. On the walls were depicted the Seven Gods of Pleasure embracing their consorts in voluptuous poses. She came close, lifted it carefully, and examined it with her short-sighted gaze.

“That’s it, all right. Nice specimen. It belonged to Queen Night Storm. It’s worth 2,000 golden ronals at the very least.” She scrutinised the rest: “This looks like a royal virility ring from the Red Island… some ritual balls of the Fertile Goddess… some more interesting pieces… where on Earth did you find all that?”

“Ahem, it so happens that an old friend of Mahogany has just inherited the whole lot and insisted that he handles the sale,” harried Quicksilver.

“But we would love to have your expert opinion,” added her partner, holding out the jar of turpentine. “For your usual percentage, of course.”

The antique dealer nodded.

“No problem. I’ll come over to take a closer look this evening.”

Once their colleague had left, Mahogany breathed a sigh of relief and resumed: “Let’s move on to the practicalities. I was thinking of doing the event on Thursday. Light food, refreshments, quality wine, of course. Nothing pretentious. A party of between twenty and thirty people, so they can fit comfortably in your atrium.”

“My atrium? Does it have to take place at my home?” Quicksilver asked.

“Well… you’re a respectable family mother. For me, everyone knows I’m a hopeless party animal. You’ll give off a better image. Don’t worry, I’ll help you…”

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