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A companion novel to DIVINE ENDURANCE, Gwyneth Jones' FLOWERDUST follows the charismatic rebel leader Derveet.
In a futuristic Malaysia, the matriarchy is being threatened by foreign technologies on great offshore ships. A political rebel, Derveet watches as a powerful drug known as Flowerdust spreads through the country's refugee camps. It threatens to spark the revolution that Derveet wants, but far too early.
As she works to stop the spread of the drug and calm tensions, Derveet finds herself uncovering the mysterious Rulers, and their secret machinations. They stretch far further than Derveet could ever have imagine...
Release date: May 6, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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There were three candidates. The ancient Bangau clan should have taken precedence, except that the only prince they could offer was an infant. This implied a Koperasi regency that would face dangerous popular resistance. There was an elder Bangau, but his mother had changed her House and become a commoner, to escape the restrictions placed on dissenters of rank, so he could only be offered as the candidate of her new family. The young man, Ida Bagus Sadia, was reported to be beautiful, intelligent, and good. It made no difference. His pedigree was null and void: no orthodox Peninsulan would vote for him. The Siamangs, who offered the third candidate, had never been involved in unrest. Nor were they burdened by ages of tradition. They were supposed to have profitable connections with contraband trading, which did not make them unacceptable to the Koperasi; or to the people. The man, Gusti Ketut Siamang, was strong and healthy and had fathered children (an important point). He was the obvious choice: not only for the people of Timur, but for anyone interested in change and progress.
My family allowed me to go to the debate as an observer. The result was almost certain, but not quite. Even with the Koperasi looking on, various feuds and loyalties would be simmering under the surface. Jagdana, the elegant western princedom, might favour Ida Bagus Sadia, the good young man—for Sadia’s mother was a dissenter, and Jagdana sympathized (discreetly) with the lost cause of independence. The Gamarthans of the north, fierce and narrow traditionalists, might well support the Bangau infant, if only to oppose Jagdana; or perhaps with a view to controlling the regency themselves, an idea that made me shudder. The third vote was Timur’s, and safe. The fourth belonged to the aneh, called polowijo in the western princedoms. The Peninsula’s cripples, freaks of nature, the aneh were powerless: but their “vote” was a matter of tradition. They usually followed Jagdana. The “fifth vote” once belonged to the Garuda family, our native sovereigns over all the Peninsula. But the Garudas had been wiped out in the Last Rebellion and unofficially, it could now be counted as belonging to the half-rebel criminal gangs of the hills. The bandits could make large areas of Timur ungovernable if they were not satisfied, and no one wants to be ungovernable. It’ what the Garudas were.
I arrived at Canditinggi, the town on temple pass, with these complications and more at my fingertips, on an afternoon of black, streaming rain. Desperately clinging, cantilevered streets lurched up and down all around me (an after-effect of the “night express” transport). There was a smell of wet cabbage. The view should have been staggering: Timur below me, Jagdana at my back, and about a hundred batu south the towering cones of Bu Awan, where the aneh live. It was entirely obliterated by cloud. The roadway was cobble and mud, packed with sedan chairs and animals. The public buildings showed raw scars where the wings of the Garuda eagle had been defaced but not removed, as if the Last Rebellion had happened yesterday. The crowd swept around me: giggling servants, Koperasi patrollers, hangers-on, criminals, beggars, spies. Three veiled figures slipped down from their chairs and vanished into a closed courtyard. Everyone dutifully looked the other way, except for me and the Koperasi. The women who run our native governments are intensely secretive. I stared at the broken wings of Garuda, defiant badges of mourning, and knew I had made a mistake.
I was right! They wouldn’t let me in. My letters of introduction were useless. I, a man, could not possibly enter any of the Dapur courts while the debate was in session. Not even behind a screen like an unwanted piece of furniture? No. “It wouldn’t mean anything to you,” they told me. “The Dapur is the hearth. There is no place for a man there.” And (almost worse!) the eternal perhaps. “Perhaps later… Perhaps…” Am I an animal? When I was fourteen, the last of my sister-mothers died. I fled our conservative neighbours, not to mention our own servants, and flung myself on the mercy of distant connections in Timur. They were kind to me. They even sent me to college in Sepaa, the Koperasi city. But my education was no help to me here, in the heart of the old traditional Peninsula. Simpering, doe-eyed servant boys tripped after the Dapur ladies. If I were like them I could go in. In my frustration I contemplated castrating myself on the spot.
It was night before I gave up and started hunting for a place to stay. In the morning the inn I had chosen turned out to be a disreputable collection of palm thatch shacks, sharing an unpaved compound with a brothel, in the tail of the town where it trailed away into steep bedraggled fields. I didn’t like the look of the other guests at all, but when I tried to move out, everywhere was “phuuull”. The two forms of Inggris are actually two different languages. Perversely the debate town was using “High Inggris,” the speech of our Rulers. When I spoke in our own tongue the Canditinggi women simply refused to understand my accent. They were not impressed by money: “Koperasi paper. What good that?” Women’s eyes followed me everywhere with implacable suspicion: staring at my city clothes, the shoes on my feet. A respectable man, they told me, does not travel alone. I was stuck. And, as I had I suspected, I was lodging in a den of thieves.
It was their country too, why should they not be interested in the debate? Who could keep them away? Having no papers at all, “permisi travel” didn’t worry them. The brigands had come from all over Timur: swaggering at night in the back alleys, loafing about by day in low dives like mine. The patrols that roared around the town day and night, slaughtering chickens and fouling the streets with the alien stink of hydrocarbon fuel, took no notice. Koperasi law and order has no real quarrel with organized crime. After dark my inn was like a pasar malam; a night market: young men preening themselves and posing under the sizzling white lamps; whispered dealing in corners.
Short-lived, bold eyed, wild-haired—in other times these outlaws would all have been boys, and safe at home. But we seem to be returning to a state of nature, where unneeded males are simply driven away, to strut and fight and die like falling flowers in the wilderness.
The bravos were not entirely abandoned; they had a guardian. I met her on my second night in the town: a lean young woman with a cadaverous dark face, dressed like the bandits in coarse silk breeches and a vivid embroidered jacket. It was raining hard. About ten of them were sprawled around the empty hearth in the common room, drinking beer under the notice that said no alcohol could be served to Peninsulans (she wasn’t drinking, of course). Someone had been very wicked, I gathered. The dark woman was the bandits’ conscience, trying to persuade them to defy the villain. But she didn’t nag. She recognized that even fierce ogres can sometimes feel small and helpless.
“As for me, I don’t have any support at the moment. But when I do, I plan to withdraw it immediately.”
They laughed in relief. “Me too, me too.”
“As soon as ever—”
“I’m just going to walk right up to him—”
Watching this, and wondering about the woman, I didn’t notice I had company. Suddenly there was a grubby red and gold sash in front of my face, with the ornate hilt of a knife sticking out of it.
“D’you like it?”
If I stood up we would be practically mouth to mouth. He had come upon me soft-footed as a cat. I was horrified, knowing from experience nothing I could say would be right. These things ignite in a moment: either I’d be in a knife fight, or I’d be raped—
“I said, d’you like my knife? What’s the matter boy? Does pretty little bottom think he’s too pretty to talk to me?”
My face flushed and burned, ridiculously. “I am not a boy.”
The demon grinned, eyed my lap; stroked his knife hilt. “Not a boy, eh?”
“Leave him alone Tjakil. He’s a stranger, he doesn’t mean to offend.” The dark young woman smiled as she spoke, almost indifferently. My suitor, after a moment’s hesitation, shrugged his shoulders and stalked away.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you madam. It was good of you.”
“It was nothing. It’s just that I know their names. Names are magic, you know… I suppose your people are staying in town?”
I had spoken in our language: she followed. I was surprised to hear a cultivated voice, without a trace of dialect.
“No. I’m here by myself. I am an observer.”
“Oh.” She frowned, but kept the rest back. I was grateful that she didn’t say I ought not to be alone.
“My name is Endang. I am from Timur.”
She smiled again, brilliantly. “My name is Derveet.”
But names are magic. Neither of us, I noticed, chose to mention a family.
From her pure accent, and her habit of bowing slightly over every minute social transaction, I judged she had been brought up in Jagdana, in a high caste family. But her skin was dark: she stood out among the bandits like a black smudge on a gold leaf. She was here in Canditinggi, I discovered, with the aneh, a tiny deputation. Apart from Derveet it consisted of the single Dapur delegate and two deformed boys, called Snake and Buffalo. Derveet, evidently, was a “failed woman”—that is, she had been proved barren, the worst crime a woman can commit. The Dapur, the hearth and life of the house, has no place for such cripples. She was not entitled to the robes, she could not enter the courts of this Debate. The delegate herself, an abnormally tall woman with an ugly pigment deficiency, had little respect for the rules of the Dapur. She was often in our common room, hitching up the irksome veils to show expanses of red scurfy limbs, giving her report to Derveet in an abrasive carrying voice that betrayed plenty of use. Unfortunately she had nothing to say, beyond that it was all stupid and she didn’t understand what was going on.
They both seemed far more interested in the grievance I had heard Derveet discussing. A bandit of some importance, known as “Durjana”, was selling substandard, contraband medical drugs to the aneh. The poor freaks were deeply impressed by “Koperasi medicine”: they couldn’t be prevented from using the stuff, and were dying. From the way the two spoke, this was a serious problem.
Snake, the younger boy, was just a child. He had a light, agile body and speaking eyes, but no lips, no teeth—only smooth gums in a narrow elongated jaw, and a useless little ribbon of a tongue. In repose his mouth was a single folded line, curled in a reptile’s permanent crooked smile. Buffalo boy seemed luckier. The lumps on his temples didn’t bother him, his husky shoulders were useful, his hands only a little clumsy. But Calfism is a progressive defect. By the time he was twenty he would have no human face, only an animal’s muzzle: he would not speak. His fingers would be clotted into leathery clubs, and his enlarged heart would be worn out under the strain of the overdeveloped torso.
He was Derveet’s lieutenant, always at her elbow: “Madam, you’d better come,” “Madam, they are fighting again—”. The day after I met his mistress I found him trotting beside me as I went into town. He wouldn’t leave me: “Madam says—” he explained. He was shocked that I had been allowed to come here with no servant of my own. I tried to explain that it was a compliment, and I was proud to be trusted to look after myself, but that was beyond him. The single state is not understood: he pressed my hand tenderly, and thereafter avoided the painful subject.
Days of trudging up and down in the cold mountain drizzle, days of fruitless argument and pleading. Nights of watching Derveet and the aneh woman in patient, useless struggle with the bandits … then one night there was a major development. The accused himself arrived with an entourage of gangster courtiers. Everyone sat up late around the dining table for a formal confrontasi.
The wicked Durjana was quite beautiful, with shining black curls, golden muscles, and a smiling, innocent mouth. He had come, he said, out of respect for Derveet and “so everyone would listen and be satisfied.” Such a promising start was doomed.
“You know I don’t like quarrels ‘Jana, but when someone tries to murder me it hurts you know. It hurts.”
“It wasn’t you. Only aneh down the back of the mountain. Stupid people.”
“They’re my family, Jana. My family is me. Have you forgotten that? Aren’t you a Peninsulan?”
“My family is the KKK” muttered Durjana sulkily.
They were speaking High Inggris—sometimes I lost the thread, but I caught that detail. KKK stands in our language for Fan, Paper, Cloth, the name of a criminal organization said to control most of the “illegal” trade in Timur. I had been eating with the bandits when the discussion began, and had lingered out of curiosity; no one seemed to object. Now I was both eager to stay, and afraid to be noticed. Mention of the KKK had implications that touched my hopes for the Debate. I drew back, to blend into the shadows. I thought I saw Derveet glance my way and faintly smile, but immediately her attention was back with Durjana.
“But what family does the KKK belong to? Are you really part of that ‘family’ which is killing my people?”
“That’s not true!”
“But the KKK supplied you the bad drugs. Where did the drugs come from?”
“What drugs? I did not trade the drugs. When did I say so? Tell me who is lying about me! Bring them here!”
Oh, it was hopeless. The smooth and bottomless waters of Peninsulan confusion closed over our heads. I thought I understood what had happened. The drugs seemed to have been antibiotics—a class of medicine forbidden by the Dapur as being “too extreme.” Antibiotics are less than effective at high altitude: the aneh had relied on advanced medicine that couldn’t help them, and that was the whole story. But it was lost, completely lost. The bandits swiftly abandoned the offence itself, and began to argue idiotically about the nature of disease. I forgot the political implications of the KKK. I forgot Derveet’s accusation (for it was no less) of mass-murder. I couldn’t bear it.
“May I speak?”
The ogres all stared at me. “He’s the one with no family,” murmured someone censoriously. I pointed out that he didn’t have a family, as such, either.
“But I never had one. If I’d had family and I’d seen them die, I’d have done the decent thing.”
“Hush, hush. Don’t upset him.”
When they weren’t bent on murderous squabbles, they generally had very gentle manners: it comes of everyone being armed to the teeth. I could not tackle the question of altitude, it would just sound like magic. But I could try to make one simple point.
“Listen. Durjana says that the drugs—”
“He knows nothing about those drugs!”
“Of course not. I never said he did. But it is nonsense to say that Koperasi drugs would ‘cure anything’ and that the aneh died because of their ‘bad magic’. Diseases have nothing to do with magic. Our own culture tells us that.”
They all frowned at me dubiously.
“You see diseases come from—Well, all diseases are really like the worms you get in your guts. They are—” I stumbled, at a loss.
“Parasites,” murmured Derveet.
“Yes, parasites. Very, very small parasites, too small to be seen. They come from, from: How should I say dari diluar dunia, from outside our world?”
“From outer space?” Derveet suggested, with a grin.
“Yes, from outer space.”
The bandits nodded. Our people have unexpected scraps of knowledge, on a folklore level.
“They are very clever, like all parasites. Now all drugs, our own and the Koperasi kind, are the same. They help the body fight the cunning worm-things. But they only help. It is the body itself that either wins or loses. If the body is not strong and healthy no drug will be any use and in the end, it will only make things worse—”
“There! I told you! It was the aneh’s fault!”
Durjana had been following my words intently, moving his lips with mine to aid concentration. Now he bounced in his seat.
“No, no! That’s not what I said. The drugs were no good to them, because what they needed was better food, clean water—”
“Exactly!” cried the bandit, slapping the table in delight. “Itu sudah! That’s exactly what I already said!”
“It was the stupid aneh’s own fault they died.”
“This educated person says so.”
Derveet had put her arms on the tabletop and buried her face in her arms. I stared at her through the bandits’ mindless crowing. I thought she had broken down in tears, such a weight seemed to be resting on her thin bowed shoulders. But of course she was only laughing.
I could not sleep. Derveet’s quarrel with the foolish ogres nagged me like a toothache. The stupid aneh, the contraband trade … In the dark I left my rustling shack and went to sit on the end of the verandah, in my sleeping sarong and a shawl. It was cold. The center of the sky was dark blue and starry, but all the lower reaches of the dome had faded, and the east was showing a few lines of muddy orange. A screen creaked and a door opened in the wall of the boy brothel: a big crop-headed Koperasi looked out. He was naked. He stood there, touching himself absently, presumably not aware of me in the shadow above. In my mind’s eye I pictured that rod of flesh, swollen and upstanding, entering me: thrusting in and out, hard and strong. I have tried not to have such thoughts about them, I know they are brutes. Why does power attract?
Before it was fully light the inn family appeared, the women, boys and children. A little man, about three years old, wandered about playing with sticks and stones while the girls worked. Occasionally, a wail arose from him, and one or other of the women lifted him absently to a tit. His grief was something to be turned off like a dripping tap. No one ever treats a little girl like that. To a tiny infant they will say, with their eyes and gestures, while they comfort her: Why are you crying? You must explain. You must learn to understand. If it isn’t a good reason you had better stop, you have work to do in the world.
Then they complain that we are irresponsible.
The girls, including one midget who could barely toddle, were taking turns to jump on the pedal of the heavy rice pestle: laughing, silent, breathless with effort, and full of self-respect. The grown women talked a little with their eyes. Probably they had something to say about “the one with no family” because they often glanced in my direction, without bothering to conceal it.
Tradition! When I was fourteen, I should have died. My neighbours would have considered castration a barbarity: once you’ve been chosen to be a man, no one can take away that sacred privilege. But they would have given me a beautiful sharp knife and stood over me, very kindly, while I did my duty. Suicide is the decent way, for a gentleman who outlives his use. I escaped, but I could never leave the shame behind. Buffalo was right. It was not a compliment when my adopted family let me come up here alone. They were Timurese, sophisticated, living close to our Rulers, but they would not have been so casual with their own beloved son and consort. The full male is a necessary luxury, cosseted and disregarded. An unneeded male is nothing. If I wanted worthless “letters of introduction” I might as well have them. Why not, if it would keep me quiet?
This country must change, I thought. This country must change.
The man-child wailed and was lifted to suck. Annet, the aneh delegate, said of the great debate—typical Dapur government. Stick something in the people’s mouths and shut them up, give them whatever poisonous thing they’re crying for. That had made me smile, grimly. Good. Let them give Timur what Timur cried for, with all its “poisons”, and without thinking too much about the consequences.
Derveet came up the road and turned into the yard, picking her way between puddles and cabbage stalks. Perhaps she had been spending the night with Annet, in her much superior lodging. Halfway across she stopped and looked back over the dizzying panorama making its brief early morning appearance. Rivers of pale cloud streamed away down the dark folds of the hills, plains of Timur imaginary in the distance: underfoot, the sordid thatch roofs of Canditinggi. She spoke, reciting quietly, for herself, a pantun: the Jagdanan quatrain. The subject was a lady traveling. The chill of the wayside inn at dawn is strange to her, strange and cold as her own desire to leave her family… The inn mothers raised their eyes, compressed their lips and nodded. They showed Derveet respect, but a dismissive kind of respect—failed woman. One of them spoke aloud, roughly, in the dialect. I think she said: “Fine weather madam.”
“Ya, fine weather.”
She came up to the verandah and leaned beside me. Our eyes met in rueful understanding, two outcasts together. Taking a silver case from her sash she offered me a cigarette. I declined, knowing what one of those green skinned demons would do to me on an empty stomach.
“Well, Endang of Timur, how is your observing coming along?”
“They won’t let me in,” I said. “I came as an accredited representative of my family, but they refuse to let me into the debates.”
Derveet stared at me. “Oh, is that what you meant? I thought you meant you were observing—well, men’s business.” She seemed about to laugh, at her own mistake or mine.
“You are amused?”
“I beg your pardon. But if they’d let you in, it would do you no good, you know. You must have heard Annet: she isn’t enjoying herself. We have no Dapur skills on the mountain. Surely you realize—they don’t speak aloud.”
For a moment I didn’t understand her. “Oh that’s ridiculous,” I exclaimed, when I saw she was serious, “You can’t express complex ideas in eye-talk. It’s just a household pidgin, with a clairvoyant element that’s been grossly exaggerated. Lots of educated women are giving it up altogether.”
“Ah,” said Derveet, studying the end of her cigarette. “Is that what they are saying in Timur now?”
I was embarrassed, not wanting to contradict her: I am sufficiently a Peninsulan not to wish to oppose a woman. But we had other things to discuss this morning, and we both knew it. She waited me out.
“You are very anxious,” I began at last, “to implicate the KKK in this problem you have with misapplied medicines. Why is that?”
“Because I don’t want Gusti Ketut Siamang to be prince of Timur.”
Her directness made me flinch, and the look that went with her words was even more direct. Of course she thought I was a spy: eavesdropping on her, probably reporting to someone in the organization, some covert “observer” of greater significance than myself. KKK: Kipas, Kertas, Kain. It was an open secret in Timur that the Fan, the Paper and the Cloth concealed the operations of the Siamang family. And Derveet knew I was a supporter of Gusti Ketut.
“I am at this inn by accident,” I said. “I have done you no harm.”
She smiled. “My dear, I know. Hasn’t Buffalo always been with you?”
It was stupid of me to be hurt by that.
I faced her firmly. “Very well. The Siamangs are the KKK, and the KKK is in the pay of the Koperasi. That’s what you are telling the bandits in a roundabout way, and of course it’s true. If you were realistic you would see that they know everything perfectly well already. The trouble is, you don’t understand the nature of politics.”
She inclined her head gravely.
“Have you ever been to the East Coast? Have you seen the great Domes, out at sea?”
“Yes, I have seen them.”
“That’s where our real Rulers are. Can you imagine what life is like out there, how different from our squalor? Don’t you see? We must make terms with the Koperasi, our own brutal renegades, in order to reach the Rulers beyond. It’s our only hope. For a thousand years, we’ve been sinking into the dirt. What has the traditional Peninsula to offer compared with what the Rulers have?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. Not yet. We are on a different road, and a hard one. The question is, will they let us live to travel it any further—”
I had heard the expression ‘different road’ before, and it only irritated me. It referred to something fantastical and absurd, a mystic, wish-fulfillment view of traditional culture, like the notion of a political debate conducted in eye-signs.
“Your story is incredible,” I told her. “A gangster unloads possibly suspect antibiotics on your aneh. Out of this you make a conspiracy involving the Siamangs, the Koperasi, and our Rulers themselves. You have no proof. You can’t possibly believe that the Koperasi have been given some monstrous secret order to exterminate our cripples—”
I had exaggerated wildly to show her how stupid it was. I read in her eyes that she believed exactly what I had said, and felt almost afraid to be talking to her. “Of course I can’t prove that,” she agreed coolly. “But if I keep talking about this one little transaction I can prove, perhaps I’ll make some of them think.”
“You are trying to disrupt the debate.”
She nodded, as if I was a child who had suddenly seen the point of a very simple lesson.
“That’s quite outrageously irresponsible—”
“Endang, it only starts with the aneh. Because we are the weakest, I suppose.” She sighed. “The power that you Timurese admire so much is the power that comes from having no natural enemies. It is nothing to be proud of. Our Rulers come from another world, another time. Whatever they once were, they are alien now: parasites. They might as well have arrived from Outer Space … Some parasites are rational, they know when to stop. Others, you know, consume the host. Without seeming to care that they are also destroying themselves.”
“I am sorry,” I said stiffly, after an awkward silence, “that I muddied your argument last night. It was not intentional.”
Derveet laughed. “Don’t worry, Timurese. I know what my chances are. If I can get the Dapurs to . . .
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