by Brenda Kalt
Gliding through the Prime Minister’s party in her long-sleeved black shift that concealed her alien form, Milla TaPo tried not to look at the human party-goers in their various states of undress. As the Vendan custodian of the egg lilies arranged on the tables, she stroked the blooms to coax the maximum scent from them. At the Prime Minister’s party, wow. When she had left her clan just after laying her eggs, her curiosity had never envisioned the complexity of human society. Now, at the top of that society, what new opportunities awaited her?
A crash came from the table at her right. The Prime Minister lay on the floor, naked, oblivious to the heavy perfume of the lilies above him. Milla felt his chest pain, displacing his lust, and she rubbed her left shoulder. The woman with him shook his arm. “Renaldo?”
Ignoring the echo of the Prime Minister’s pain, Milla looked around the room–the other guests were intent on their own . . . activities. As the only rational being in the salon, Milla sprinted to the wall and pressed the alarm.
A voice from a hidden speaker said, “Security. What’s wrong?”
“The Prime Minister is having a heart attack.”
“Any other casualties?”
“No. But he’s in tremendous pain.”
“Medic is coming.” The speaker went dead.
Milla shouted, “Medical help is coming! People are coming! People are coming!”
Around her, sweaty party guests raced to recover their clothes and their dignity.
A moment later a whistle sounded, followed by a voice from the hall saying, “Coming through.” A guard with a medical kit parted the crowd and knelt next to Renaldo. “No pulse,” he announced, taking out paddles.
Milla realized the medic was struggling to remain focused on his job with the lilies so close. She hastily folded the tablecloth over them. Under the table, she sharply sensed the Prime Minister remembering a man named Jacob, but despite medical attention he was losing consciousness.
“Defibrillator here–” The guard applied the paddles to the Prime Minister, and Milla screamed as she felt the shock course through him. She felt Prime Minister Renaldo Peng Lien die an instant later.
An hour later the mass of lilies were sealed in the trash, and a suspicious warder was questioning Milla while they were seated at a table in the former Prime Minister’s kitchen.
“Vendan, did you read anything unusual in the Prime Minister’s mind before the attack?” the warder asked, holding a stylus above his recorder.
Milla frowned. “I’m an citizen. Call me Ms. TaPo.”
He frowned and paused. “Ms. TaPo, the Prime Minister of Civilization on Venda is dead. I asked you a question.”
Chilly in the vigorous air conditioning, Milla smoothed her dress. “There are so many rumors about us. We don’t fully read minds.” She paused to arrange her thoughts. “The lilies allow a female Vendan to examine a male Vendan, to see if he’s a good one to brood our eggs. When humans are around lilies, they’re aroused, and we can sense their lust.”
He tapped his reader. “Yet, according to this you’ve been in Civilization since you were a teenager. So you know humans aren’t always rutting like minks. What else did you sense?”
“I sensed only desire.” Milla wished that a trace of lily-scent were around so she would know whether the warder believed her.
After a long, painful night of questioning, Milla went home to the renovated factory that contained her office, apartment, and greenhouse. After sunrise, before she was able to rest, the phone chimed and a woman asked, “Is it true that the Prime Minister died during an egg-lily orgy?”
Milla clicked the phone off and set it to refuse calls. Clients could leave messages. She went to sleep.
Late in the morning she awoke and made herself breakfast. Pilol juice in hand, she went from her apartment into the greenhouse. Kil and Soluud were already at work watering the plants, dragging their stepstools with them. The reptilian Xochi were barely large enough to work in the greenhouse, but they were not aroused by the lilies.
“Allo, Mem,” Soluud said. “Not many lilies today.”
“I know. Yesterday’s order wiped us out for a while.”
His tongue flicked out to check a lily bud’s health. “Who order them?”
She frowned. “I pay you to take care of the lilies, not to ask questions.”
“Prime Minister die at party last night?” he insinuated.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
By noon Milla was working at her desk, a lily in a vase on its corner. To the young woman sitting in front of her, she asked, “How many people will be using the lilies?”
“Just my fiancé and me. We’ll be married that day.”
“I see.” Milla sensed the woman’s anxiety about money and sympathized. “On your wedding night you won’t need much. For two hundred soles I can give you one lily and a bud to overcome your nervousness.”
“Oh, thank you.” The woman blushed. “That will help our budget.”
“You’re welcome.” Let the next one be rich, she thought as the woman left.
At the end of the week Milla went for her monthly depilation-to-look-human. She had started the procedure as soon as she had learned enough of Civilization’s language to request it. Depilation removed the fine hairs that covered her broad face and would otherwise grow into a soft goatee. Like having clothes tailored to conceal her lumpy joints, it was one of the things she did to blend into Civilization.
While the cream worked on her complexion, she looked at a spreadsheet on her hand comp. Despite its abrupt end, the Prime Minister’s party had earned her twenty thousand soles and some new contacts. The best one was an importer of illegal liquor into Civilization, and he wanted a lily every other night. How could this job be turned to her advantage? Milla sighed. Would ever be able to stop thinking about gaining an advantage?
With her skin still stinging from the chemical, she took a bus back to the greenhouse because it was easier than flagging a pedicab. She got off at her stop, two streets away from home, and hurried along the sidewalk.
As she approached her building, a black limousine passed her and pulled up in front. A short human woman with swept-back gray hair got out and waited for her at the door. She was fifty-something, with a thick waist.
Milla recognized her and held the open door for her.
“Come in, Mrs. Peng Lien. Won’t you have a seat?”
The Prime Minister’s widow entered, looking around her with barely concealed disgust. “I’m not here officially. This is confidential.” She frowned at the visitor’s chair, but after a moment sat.
Milla pretended to not notice her attitude. “Of course. I’m very sorry about your late husband.” She headed for her desk, where the tip of a lily bud was just cracking open. She would have preferred a mature bloom, but she had not been expecting customers this afternoon.
Rusza Peng Lien grimaced. “Many people have been offering their condolences, Ms. TaPo. Not everyone is telling the truth about how they feel.”
“Oh.” Milla waited for her to catch the scent. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Rusza took a deep breath. “The lily smells good. It makes me feel young again.”
“Do you want to place an order?”
“No, I want you to tell me about my husband’s death.”
Mia felt no thoughts from the woman. “I told everything to the warder. I don’t know anything else.”
“You’re Vendan. Surely you do.” The woman lifted her chin and frowned.
Fragments of thought began to come, and Milla realized the depth of the woman’s determination. She sat back in her chair. “I’m a busy person. I don’t have time for chitchat.”
Rusza placed two ten-thousand sol notes in front of Milla. “Here’s as much as you earned from the party. Make time.”
Milla kept her face under control, and coolly swept the notes into her desk drawer. “Well, he thought of the name Jacob. I don’t know why, and I don’t know the last name. I wouldn’t want to misidentify someone.”
“That would be Jacob TeLerner, the Deputy Prime Minister.” She straightened in her chair. “He knew about my husband’s heart condition, and the party was his idea originally.”
Milla put up a warning hand. “I don’t get involved in my clients’ personal lives, Mrs. Peng Lien.”
She ground out, “You arranged an orgy for my husband and sixteen members of Parliament. That’s personal.”
Milla shook her head no. “It might be better to think of me as a technician. Someone else set up the party, and all the guests came of their own free will. All I did was supply the lilies. What the humans did at their party is their business.”
Rusza snorted. “I’ll give you fifty thousand soles if you can identify anyone else he was thinking about.”
Milla relived her memory of that moment. Jacob, and pain, and oncoming blackness.
“I’d love to collect the reward, Mrs. Peng Lien, but I don’t have any other names.”
“Damn.” The woman tapped her purse with a fingernail.
“I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
The woman rose with a scrape of chair. “You will. You just don’t know it yet.”
Her client left. Milla stroked her hairless chin and wondered whether she would be able to help her. And if so – could she turn that help into money?
As she put the twenty thousand soles into her purse at the end of the day, Milla wished she had been able to supply a name to the Prime Minister’s widow. Fifty thousand soles would have paid the rent on her converted factory for a year and left a chunk over for political donations. Political parties were alien to Milla’s clan heritage, but the donations bolstered her precarious place in Civilization. Donations had helped her hold her tenuous citizenship for twelve years.
When the young, curious Milla had left her priestly clan and walked the long road to Civilization, she had discovered that Civilization did not welcome Vendans. However, she had egg lily seeds in her pouch and used them to make her way. An abandoned factory had served as a greenhouse, and public-health warnings against native egg lilies had insured her a steady supply of surreptitious customers.
Now the factory was renovated and leased, with an apartment and an office in addition to the greenhouse. When Rusza Peng Lien showed up at Milla’s office door weeks later, a new crop of lilies was just opening.
“Thank you for coming, Mrs. Peng Lien, but I’m about to close.”
“Go ahead. This will be off the record.”
Milla hesitated, then set the “Open” display of lights in her office window to a random pattern that meant “Closed,” and closed the outer door. “How can I help you?”
“I’ve arranged a party. I’ve invited Jacob TeLerner.”
“Yes?” Milla walked to her desk, and Rusza followed. There was a fully-open egg lily on the desk, this time.
“I’ll want lilies, of course. While TeLerner’s in the grip of the smell, he’s going to boast about killing my husband.”
Milla hesitated. “The lilies only produce arousal. They won’t make him say any particular thing.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Rusza said. “I’ll get the whole thing on the record. Then I will have a weapon to use against TeLerner. I’ll be able to get him to do anything I want.”
“Mrs. Peng Lien, that’s blackmail. I run a legitimate business.”
She rolled her eyes. “Spare me. You operate so close to the edge you could fall into the bush at any moment.”
“How many lilies will I need?” Rusza asked.
“What do you want the people to do? One lily in the center of the room will make people interested in each other; a dozen will start people for the bedrooms.”
“One lily in the center, I don’t want him to suspect anything. Two in a vase in reserve. Keep them in the kitchen until I give the signal, and then bring them out behind TeLerner. Don’t let him see the lilies until after he’s breathed in the smell.”
“I’ll have a starlet on one side of him, and I’ll be on the other side with a videographer. By the time the videographer leaves, I’ll have documentation.”
“Mrs. Peng Lien, that’s risky.”
“I offered you fifty thousand for a name. I’ll make this sixty thousand.” The woman spread six ten-thousand sol notes across the desk.
Milla’s heart pounded, but money was her lifeblood in Civilization. She took what was offered.
Two weeks later Milla donned her plain black dress, snipped three lilies, and took a pedicab to the Peng Lien residence. In the same room she had worked before, she inserted one lily into the waiting central flower arrangement and took the others to the kitchen, fully covered.
By eight o’clock all the guests were there. She waited with the chef as the human waiters circulated trays of food. Then her hand comp buzzed, and she went out with the other lilies.
A videographer was recording videos of Rusza, TeLerner, and two fashionable young women standing beside a glass table. Milla crossed the room, uncovered the lilies, and stopped behind TeLerner as though waiting for a chance to go around him. He sniffed the air and then breathed more deeply. One of the starlets caught the scent and said to the other, “Let’s get out of here.”
“Sure.” They made for the exit, and the videographer stopped shooting.
TeLerner took a step after them. “Where the hell are they going?”
“Somewhere they think is interesting,” Rusza said. “Let’s talk.”
Milla looked at them from behind. TeLerner was sixty-something, flabby, and had a mole on the back of his neck. Milla stepped around TeLerner and held up the blooms to him as though she wanted a tip. She watched the interest come to life in the two humans’ eyes and felt their minds open to her. Rusza’s thirst for vengeance was rapidly transforming into lust, and she stepped closer to TeLerner. “I’ve always been fascinated by you, Mr. TeLerner.” The videographer began to shoot.
“And I by you. Your husband’s death was a tragedy.”
“Engineered by someone who knew about his heart.”
“Hearts are complicated things, don’t you think?”
Milla opened her mouth, then closed it. She sensed lust mixed with arrogance in TeLerner; he had the Prime Minister’s position now, and he was approaching the wife of his defeated rival. Lust was also the dominant emotion in Rusza; what would happen to her plan?
Milla caught her client’s eye but Rusza waved her away. So set the lilies down on the table and hurried back to the kitchen.
“Getting out while you’re ahead?” the chef asked.
“Not a moment too soon.” Milla looked for a pedicab as she rushed out the door.
After shaking all the way home in the pedicab, Milla went to the greenhouse and breathed deeply. The lilies soothed her, as always. She felt, with clarity, a pang for the world she had not seen in twelve years. What had she gained by giving it up? She went to bed, but not to sleep.
The next morning in the greenhouse Kil asked her, “How was last night?”
“I came home early,” she mumbled.
Kil clicked his claws. “Must not have been anything interesting.”
She sighed. “It’s always something. How is the lily setup for the wedding?”
“It’ll be ready by four.”
All morning and all afternoon Milla waited in her office for a call. As dusk was turning into dark, Rusza Peng Lien arrived in a small, unnoticeable car. She sat down in front of the desk with white-faced with suppressed rage.
“How dare you involve TeLerner and me!”
Milla stared back steadily. “I didn’t involve you. You involved yourselves.”
“I didn’t get him to confess. I had no idea how strong the effect of the lilies was.”
“I guessed that. For what it’s worth, he thought of your husband as defeated. But you waved me away before he said anything.”
“You humiliated me.”
“I humiliated no one. You’re killing the messenger.”
“I was in a video. I’ll have you arrested.”
Milla took a deep breath. “For what? I’m registered in Civilization, my work permit is in order, and egg lilies have never been declared illegal.”
“They’ve never been declared legal, either. I’ll work on Public Health until you can’t raise a bud. You’re on your way back to the bush,” she fumed.
Milla rose from behind her desk and headed for the office door. “Good people live in the bush.”
Rusza followed her. “You sneaky, money-grubbing Vendans. You’re incapable of living in a Civilized society.”
“I have always lived in a civilized society. My Vendan clan are priests and priestesses.” She opened the door and gestured toward the night.
After Rusza left, Milla did not bother to go to bed. She dressed in the homespun outfit she had worn when she came to Civilization, gathered lily seeds, and put them in her pouch. In the greenhouse she piled up cash on a bench for Kil and Soluud, turned the temperature low enough to freeze the lilies, and locked the building. In ten minutes she was on a bus to Civilization’s gate.
At the tall steel archway appeared in the headlights, she stepped off the bus. The road into the bush would be dusty but wide, and it would lead her to her old town. There she would confess the sin of rejecting her clan and select a mate to fertilize her stored eggs.
Milla started walking.
It was the only civilized thing to do.
Brenda Kalt’s fiction has also appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online and is forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge. Her career has included stints as a technical writer and as a software tester. She lives in Central North Carolina with her husband and cat.