The autolutes began to play. Their notes rippled through the viscous floral air and soon became an indiscernible warbling drone. The canopy began to shake as if a strong wind was pushing on it and there were several sharp cracks above. Shards of wood rained down, followed immediately by the shadowy forms of six Lantern Hawks. The creatures clove the stagnant air and glided about the village with wings outspread and locked in place. One by one, they swung towards the suspended Lampflower and fell into a circular pattern around it.
“Those lights— what are they?” Grefa asked.
“Lampflowers of course, didn’t your briefing cover them?”
“No, it didn’t...”
He went to one of the orbs and inspected it. It was in fact the bulb in the toroid of a massive flower. Except for the one suspended above the clearing, each grew naturally on the perimeter of the village.
He turned and saw the Admiral sitting with the others. He held an odd instrument and plucked at it experimentally.
“Is that an autolute?” Grefa asked, returning to the Admiral's side.
He tugged at the reeds with both hands, then raised them up and regarded his handiwork. He had fashioned a small crown with the green stone set into its center. He offered it to the Officer, but the other man made no move to take it. Shrugging, he tossed it into the silver pool.
“Why did you really come to Lumina?” the Officer asked at last.
“To escape I suppose, but also because I did not want to live in a universe where war was the sole antidote to barbarity.”
“But battle is the only way to keep people honest, it’s human nature.”
A rustling sound woke him. He sat up and looked around. Perched on a rock a little ways off was the Admiral, brow creased as he delicately wove together several strands of reeds. The Officer looked down in horror at his mud-stained uniform. The abruptness of waking had shocked him back into his former self, if only temporarily. His entire body tensed up at the state of his hygiene.
“How long have I been asleep?” he asked sharply.
“And how long have you been here?”
“Oh, some time, some time.”
The path, barely wide enough for one person, twisted between behemoth trees twice the height of the bungalows in the village. All was shrouded in near darkness by the locked-tight canopy, and electrically charged bugs flew through the air in great numbers, breaking apart into a shower of sparks at the slightest contact. The ground sank underfoot but did not break, as if an ocean of mud lay just below a latticework of grass. Faint chiming calls echoed from above and overlapped endlessly, creating a polyphonous chorus.
As he turned to go down the ladder, the Officer heard a commotion outside. He dove down through the square opening in the floor and did a handspring on the ground, landing in a defensive crouch. In a flash he produced long sleek gun barrels from under his sleeves.
His soldiers stood to the left, aiming their rifles at a small dirty man squatting on the ground.
“What is the situation Lieutenant?” the Officer said.
The Admiral appeared startled, then he leaned forward and his eyes twinkled. “Is that so?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And why is that?”
He surfaced in a large room with a low ceiling. It was lit warmly, though he saw no visible source of illumination. The walls were pale and smooth, and a rug of tightly knit blue and green fibers covered the floor. A small desk with a cushion to kneel on looked out the sole window onto a tangle of branches and leaves. A slim, fragile door without a handle led into the only other room. The Admiral sat on a chair made of woven reeds, watching the Officer with a wide, toothy grin. In the close, welcoming light of his quarters, his eyes were brilliant pebbles.
The earth was dark-brown, almost black, and smooth as a tightly drawn canvas. Narrow furrows were etched into the ground, forming giant looping spirals. Wooden buildings several stories high circled the area. Though they were built on stilts, they nevertheless curved upwards into top-heavy bungalows. Elaborate scrollwork decorated the facades, the roofs were thatched with light-green filaments, and brightly colored banners streamed from randomly protruding nodules on each.
An idle wind blew across the lake. A giant infernal sun gazed overhead through a gap in the tree canopy, tracing the roving swells in metallic red. On the banks sat a lone man watching the ebb and flow of all around him. The water, the wide leaves of the trees, the grass and the reeds all moved to the same unsteady meter. In the distance he thought he heard the musical plucking of strings, but he couldn’t be sure.