The World of Floating Flowers
The Golden Hill of Veluna is a closed world. It doesn’t present any formidable physical obstacles to the casual stroller but there are sociological expectations associated with being there. The Jalee Garrison, for example, may guard the Imperial Palace and its precincts but are accommodated in Barracks an hour’s march away across the city. Citizens of the intervening districts time their lives by the passage of the marching companies.
All who reside on the Golden Hill itself are members of the ilin classes and their servants. Only a fraction of that population is permanent; most are members of families and clans visiting for political and economic reasons. With their entourages their numbers vary from a low of about a thousand to as many as twelve thousand (spilling far out into the city and camping out across the river to the North of the city) for an imperial coronation . The Hill and its immediate precincts are in part occupied by the ‘town houses’ of the great families. Along with other commercially available accommodation nearby, the four thousand or so transient residents who might be in Veluna for the four-yearly imperial council have very little impact on the day to day running of the city.
One gateway into this relatively closed world is as gwenn. As with much in the empire, appurtenances are a door opener. Knowing how to behave correctly once inside prevents the aspirant from being rudely ejected. Merchants, soldiers and scholars, the cognoscenti of the empire spend large sums on formal dresses and lessons in etiquette to give their sisters and daughters a chance to make good in the courts of the empire’s capital cities. Here in Veluna, there are many ‘floating flowers’.
Men who can afford to bypass the cities more brash entertainment for the chance to spend time with one of these floating flowers. To be accompanied by Gwenn is a ticket to a world that is well mannered and sophisticated. Full of elegance and beauty. This is a world of illusion, where the same coined merchants, soldiers and scholars come to be treated like Carnc and King. Some Gwenn (and you’ll never know, as they’ll never tell) are on the look the look out for a patron – a sugar daddy who can keep her in private apartments, expensive coiffures and gowns for every occasion. For some, this will involve physical intimacy , for others, the only thing massaged is their ego.
But obtaining an introduction for one who is not ilin is a hard task. There are ritual greetings to be undertaken; the Gwenn might manage their own affairs, but they are almost by definition under the protective eaves of the great houses of the empire. And whilst those houses may vie and quarrel amongst themselves from time to time, they do of course close ranks to outsiders. The vetting procedure for an introduction can take months as the community assures itself that it’s new patron is worthwhile. After all, it could cost up to fifteen thousand arphel a year to keep a Gwenn in gowns.
The speech of the ilin classes originated from a polyglot community of the Celebrinoth in what is now Ard Angra or Northern Hisra. Euphemism and allegory where tools by which they made themselves understood in their multi-cultural world. To be well spoken involved the ability to hold conversations on politics almost exclusively by using quotes from the good and the great of years gone by. Part of the attraction for one paying for an introduction is to hear such speech from the lips of a beautiful lady. One of the difficulties for the patron when going through the introduction process, is trying to convey without being offensive, whether he is ultimately seeking polite conversation with a bona fide princess or very exclusive sex. It must be tacitly understood by the potential patron that any relationship with a Gwenn is likely to evolve over possibly decades , even if his stated goal is to bed her.
For the Gwenn, acceptance of a paying patron (as opposed to reliance on funding from her Clan) carries no stigma. The use of her training, skills and talents to generate an income is generally lauded as a good use of time that might otherwise be unproductive. The accumulation of wealth always helps the Clan. It can also help otherwise clan-less Gwenn gain a name, either by marriage or outright adoption. Some Gwenn find that they quite enjoy the life they lead and have several patrons , putting off their entry into the great game of houses until they have more than recouped their or their initial patrons cash investment.
The patron is expected to use his relationship with the Gwenn with whom he has agreement to arrange introductions to other patrons and the ilin classes in order to further his economic and/or political career. He might ask her to accompany him to a social occasion or business meeting. He might invite her and a few of her friends for a walk or picnic in one of Veluna’s parks. His aim is to be seen with this ideal of femininity. For her part, when ever she meets her patron, the Gwenn is always attired in the formal style, almost certainly in the newest gown which her patron has just bought her, after all, he wants to see where his money is going.
Of course, for most patrons, ascendance to the ilin classes is a fantasy. And therefore being able “to keep” any Gwenn is also a fantasy. Most Gwenn, when they are not entertaining their patrons are already players in the game of houses and therefore are likely to be re-deployed to other parts of the empire by their Clan or married to best advantage. The ilin who marry the Gwenn perhaps are the greatest beneficiaries of the patron’s investments.
There is a slight shuffle from the stair well and moments later, Maihi glided into the Lyrond. Effortlessly and seemingly without actually stepping, floating along in a spectacular trailing sky blue gown. A draping bow and in contrasting yellow falling from the small of her back. Her face is whitened and her hair is lacquered and studded with jewelled pins like some bizarre cocktail.
She is followed by Okanah Myya. Her face unpainted she wears an elegant gown of subdued browns and greys. She is the falcon to Maihi’s bird of paradise and exudes an air of subtle expertise. She remains the supporting elder sister for the following encounter, clearly appraising Maihi as much as the patrons. Maihi is striking coquettish poses whilst pouring quith in ridiculously small cups – hands to her face in mock horror, eyebrows raised in quizzical surprise – it is impossible not to be beguiled by her playfulness, seduced by the sheer elegance and playfulness of everything she does.
The potential patrons look like men who have been struck by lightening. “It’s the way she talks” one explains “She speaks in an antiquated dialect, the kind which used be spoken by Laru and the Celebrinoth. It’s soft and beautiful, not like the vulgar speech on the streets outside. It’s sort of suggestive. Very clever.” He concludes, “What she says could have many meanings, you have to read between the lines and follow the flow to be able to put it in context.”
Maihi and Okanah are not dinning. Gwenn only dine with patrons of long association. But they gently orchestrate the flow of courses, pouring endless thimbles of quith as the patrons eat through a literal smorgasbord of delicacies and sweetmeats. Finger bites of picked seaweed and urchin from Diaton, slivers of abalone from the Westilakken and chantrelle mushroom from the Vesve, roasted on a searingly hot river stone. Now and then they giggle girlishly at slight mistakes in manners and dinning etiquette from the patrons. “You handle scallops well.” Observes Maihi, only slightly mischievously, as one patron deftly opens them with the knife provided and swallows it down. He swells with pride and forgets that he’s paying her to compliment him and that for all her assumed self confidence, she is only eighteen.
Maihi pours more quith, her long sleeves slip along her wrists revealing a tantalising finger width more of bare skin. Near the Maul, on the edge of the Hanne district, the whores painted their faces like Gwenn but otherwise went about in costumes wihich left very little to the imagination. The young women pouring into Hanne for an evening’s entertainment might wear clinging skirts and low cut tops this season. The patrons begin to understand the timeless attraction of Gwenn. Maihi shows just a thumbnail of yellow undergarment at her neckline, beneath the multiple layers of her gown, with a sensuous tongue of flesh left unpainted at the nape of her neck – provocatively pudenda like – they sit transfixed where they might walk through the Maul unblinking.
Being Gwenn is to be a class act. She must be a consummate dancer, singer and musician. She must be risqué and yet demure; clever, but never outsmart her patron. She must be witty but never appear to be cunning, worldly wise and yet ethereal; playful without being discernibly self controlled. Training to be Gwenn is hard and conducted behind closed doors by the elders of the Clans. Those not born into a Clan soon learn that they have to largely forsake their previous lives. For instance, they are not allowed to just go into the city as the mood takes them – they can go, incognito, but are never alone and often shadowed as well as chaperoned, either by each other or ilin.
Maihi informs her potential patrons that she has no regrets. Once she’s paid Clan Myya back for her establishment costs and training, she will start to make good money. Most of her peers will never taste the opulence in which she lives or get as close to power. Being Gwenn, she informs them, is an art in itself.
Bowls of rich, sugared mint tea arrive. Maihi stands to dance. Standing in front of a golden screen, lit by the afternoon sun, the long folds of her gown around her, she composes herself. Okanah begins a wordless lilting melody and sat to one side, strikes gentle cascades of sympathetic chords from a sitar-like instrument laid across her lap. Maihi beings the autumn sequence of the famous cherry dance, each exquisite gesture framed for a moment and then flowing into the next. As she dances, Maihi casts her gaze beyond her patrons, seemingly into another world. For as long as it lasts, the patrons are spell bound.
When she finishes, the patrons click their tongues in appreciation. She bows, thanking them in her curious ancient dialect. One, his face flushed, raises his tea bowl to her. “Oh, how beautiful,” she beams, pressing her fingers together and tilting her head coquettishly, “your cheeks have gone the colour of autumn maple leaves.” And with that, the two Gwenn withdraw, leaving the patrons a bill for nearly three hundred arphel. But feeling like a million.
 Coronation is perhaps not the best word as no crown or official jewellery is involved. However the assumption of the position of emperor and the ilin-claiming ceremonies which follow are the trappings of divinely ordained Royalty, and not the common or garden investiture of a head of state