All of this is taking far too long.
Here I am: red, flush with merriment, stinking sweet flora rotting in the shape of a human and here you are: a king, my liege, a would-be lover stroking the fat flesh of my petals with your thumb and forefinger.
In the chamber before us, warriors wage war. But not in a manner that pleases me.
Oceans of red and white swirl in bulbs clutched by hands that would slit your throat for the throne. Laughter cackles out, the crying of literal scavengers. Teeth clash, consuming. Sweet treats, sweetmeats. Liquid-lined throats upturned as they drink. Circling like panthers. Eyes rove and tongues move over teeth to plot, and fawn, and seduce.
But I am the seducer here.
I am Mandragora, rare as a dragon’s heart and twice as deadly. I stand tall, up to your chin at my full height. I am bigger than the legends. My feet nuzzle together in loam that I can tear myself up from and walk from, just like you, should I wish to. I will soon. My petals tremble.
A warrior peels himself from the melee and, panting, saunters over. I am innocuous; you are guarded benevolence, a tight smile on a noble face.
“My lord, such a celebration! I cannot express how pleased I am that you will marry my daughter. Such a union will surely unite our kingdoms.”
‘Surely’, ha! ‘Surely’ he thinks so. And yet I see the princess—she is beautiful—swaddled in silks like a gallery piece and flashing her smile now to this man, now that, manoeuvring among the roving energies of their lust.
“This is the flower?” the man, the other king, is saying. You both turn to me.
“Yes. Mandragora,” you say. You try to hide it but I see how proud you are!
“My goodness,” says the other. “She looks…she looks like a girl, almost! Can you make… Will she sing for us? I’ve heard the Mandragora has the most exquisite voice.”
Oh I smile in the way that forests smile! I have nodes that look like a face, yes, my petals fall like hair over a tapering growth that could be seen as a neck and, yes, I have mounds where a human chest would be and yes, I have mounds where a human groin would be and my roots are thick as legs.
His attention momentarily relieves my boredom. My impatience stills, focusing on him. My smile reaches the black bulbs of my eyes.
“True,” you say, your brow furrowing in the way that I love, but not enough to keep you alive, “though it’s a temperamental thing. It took ten men to subdue it and bring it here, from the darkest part of the forest.”
That is a lie. I came willingly, I let you pull me up from my roots and bring me here, because I wanted to see the world of men: the stony interiors, the sweetmeats, the firelights.
If I had known it would be this dull I would have sung then and there.
And I am not temperamental. I am murderous and drink deep of death. But I am also nothing if not master and mistress of the extravagant; plants are patient, not like men, and can wait on their deliverance of catastrophe.
Fear wets the other man’s face; he eyes me, and then you.
Yes, he sees me for what I truly am, now. Not a gaudy trophy, symbol of a king’s torpid reign, but an actor in this. A weapon.
Now is the time.
I say a few words that only my people could understand and tremble one of my petals, shaking forth a little dust. I watch your eyes dilate with the richness of my odour, with the unknowable magic of my poetry.
There it is!
Your eyes blacken and your skin flushes red. Annoyance colours you—then anger. You stand. The other king withdraws, wielding his glass in readiness. “You want to hear her?” you spit. Yes my king, yes! “Well you’ll get your wish. Silence!”
Your voice is loud and strong, and the room freezes like a tableau. The warriors still. “I welcome you all…” you begin, and I don’t hear the rest because my ichor is rising and I feel my body swelling as I prepare to sing the words that will bring red ruin to this room. My petals tickle with spores itching to take flight; my vocal organs roil in what you might call my mouth. “…the rare beauty of the kingdom, prize of my reign: the Mandragora!”
Battle recommences: hands beat together, upturned faces gurn and caw and crow at the elevated platform on which we, throned and throneless, sit. I draw myself tall and incant.
Here is what might happen.
That princess would marry that prince and then their children would work to overthrow that kingdom and then, several generations later, they in turn would be overthrown, and that nation would invade that, and crops would be burnt and townships ruined, and then that ruler would be assassinated, and new dark gods would be invoked, perhaps bedding a mortal, and demigod siblings would wage battle across the lands on fantastic beasts and…and it would all take far. Too. Long.
Here is what will happen.
I, Mandragora, ancient being of song and insanity, of words that spell power and sorrow and destruction, will sing. I will not stop. My words will channel the pollen so deadly to your kind, and I will not silence until the air in this room is glutted with it. Mine are the words that needle into your mind on wrathful pollen and call forth the smells and sounds of everything you hate, the voices you tried so hard to forget, the laughing unkindnesses of your childish years. Every cruelty, however small, you suffered. My words bring them all.
I have said that plants are patient, yes, but I am old, and my patience is a fraying thing in my dotage. All this plotting, all this scheming, these battles over and over and over—why not get it over with. Right now. Tonight. Everyone dead, rage-eyed, clawing with the feeble weapons of humankind that can yet gouge and throttle and stamp.
So I sing.
Your vision goes red; your eyes darker yet, the pupils black. I watch as you hunt in this room. You are warrior-king, you are whirlwind of destruction. And so is everyone else.
My voice soars as battle, true battle, riots. The firelight flares, illumining a hellscape of smashed plates and trampled tables and silverware and anything, everything, is a weapon. You are putting up a valiant fight; you are in the centre of the melee, corpses around you, sword swinging. The air is hazed with my dust, and my words, and I have never felt happier, orchestrating bloodlust. No plotting, no scheming, no sex, no subterfuge, years-long, decades-long, generational. No multi-volume tome telling your history. Nothing except my song, now.
You may survive this; you are quite good with the sword, I must admit. How exciting. I will wait and see.
But until then, I will sing.
Story copyright © 2021 by Phoenix Alexander
Artwork copyright © 2021 by P. Emerson Williams
Phoenix Alexander is a queer, Greek-Cypriot writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and curates Europe’s largest catalogued collection of science fiction at the University of Liverpool. His stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, and Black Static, among others. Find him on Twitter @dracopoullos.
P. Emerson Williams is a multi-media artist delving in music, art, writing, and video. More people listen to the sounds of P. Emerson Williams every day than realize, for much of it is embedded in extensive associated and pseudonymous projects past, present, and ongoing. His visionary projects span physical and digital media, genres, and modes of performance to strange realms.