The Glasshouses

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Written by Eilidhan on 22 May 2017 18:48.

Rupert was not a naturally irritable person, but when the light finally flickered back into life, he could've punched any of the so-called "engineers", had any been near enough.

He didn't understand what was wrong with the lantern - applied magic was far from his strong suit - but he did understand that it wasn't working like it used to, and the repairs that had become almost ritual over the past month or so didn't seem to be helping the matter all that much.

"Alright, you can go back in now, sirs, madams," said a middle aged man with a receding hairline and a belly that was decidedly not receding in any way. Rupert grumbled - not loud enough for the man to hear - picked up his shovel and joined the line back into the glasshouses.

The warm, humid air hit him in the face like a comfy bed at the end of a long day — a welcome relief from cold and discomfort, and somewhere he could happily spend all his life. Rupert was a natural gardener. He was never happier than when he had a fork in his hand and dirt under his nails, turning the deep soft soil over for new plants. He especially liked tomatoes - the smell of those first red fruits with their dusty skins took him right back to his childhood, and a greenhouse kept by his grandmother - although admittedly, that greenhouse had been a lot smaller, and the world a lot warmer, than in the days he seemed to have inherited.

The warm yellow glow of the lantern grew brighter as Rupert approached the centre of the gardens and his own little patch of dark damp earth. It seemed perhaps not as bright as before - but was that just his imagination? He brought his thoughts back to plants and growing. They needed his full attention in these uncertain times (so he called all days in his own mind, when plants were concerned) and he would give it. The blackouts may have made him concerned, but they did not concern him, so to speak. He smiled to himself, for that bit of poeticism.

The smile faded when he reached his garden. Even at a glance he could tell that the increasingly extended bouts of darkness were not doing his plants any favours.

The structure of the glasshouses was such that the town's lantern sat at the centre, and the gardens were laid out in concentric circles around it. The roof and walls were brick built and tiled in slate at the outer edges, where most of the equipment was kept, as well as seed stores and such like, but the middle of the building was roofs of glass panels supported on pillars made from wood, and this was where the gardens were. The lantern was not actually inside the glasshouses, for its light was needed by more that the leaves, but they did get some of the best from it.

But the size of the town and the corresponding size of the glasshouses meant that the light's effect was noticeably reduced at the outer edges of the garden when compared to the centre. Initially the plan had been to grow things that could manage in dimmer, cooler environments on the outside and more delicate plants further in, but that had quickly proved unsustainable - the resulting rhubarb glut had been so serious that many of the residents of the town still bore a residual dislike of anything involving the fruit-like stalk.

So instead of tying each gardener to a variably favourable patch, the gardens were on rotation. Since it was generally agreed that there was no "wonder plant" that grew best in bad conditions, each of the gardeners were assigned a handful of herbs, fruit, vegetables and other miscellaneous whatnots that they were to grow. They then bargained, argued and occasionally just flat out refused to grow a certain thing until everyone was more or less happy with their lot, and everything was being grown in more or less the right amounts. Each gardener was given a patch of earth, and they grew what they could for three months. Then the rota was drawn up, and everyone moved onto the next patch they were given. In this way, you could be fairly sure that you would have some of everything most of the time, and the best of anything once every year or so.

Rupert agreed with the idea in principle. Obviously given the choice he would take the innermost gardens and never leave, but he did have enough forethought to know that in the circumstances, the rotation scheme worked, or at least gave enough of the impression of doing so to keep anyone from feeling short-changed.

He had had the good fortune to have been given a very good patch last time - two blocks away from the lamp, not shabby by any measure - and his favourite tomatoes had been responding by ripening almost faster than he could pick them.

At least, they had been for the first two months. Then the blackouts had started, and little by little the lush green leaves and huge bunches of fruit that sometimes burst on their own with how ripe they were, all that had begun to falter. The leaves were not quite as bright as they had been, the tomatoes did not seem to be ripening in such numbers or at such speed. He'd made sure to trim them properly, and double checked for any sign of malaise. But nothing he did seemed to help.

And now he looked properly at them, he felt his heart sink. The blackout that had just ended had lasted for half a day, and it was clear the tomato plants that he had put so much time and love - his every waking moment! - were not going to recover. Half of the leaves had wilted and yellowed. Unripe fruit had shrivelled and fallen to the soil, green, wrinkled, rotting before it had even had the chance to begin.

This could not go on. Someone needed to do something, and as his mother had drilled into him for as long as he could remember, and probably longer - if you want something doing, do it yourself.

Rupert needed time to think. He also needed to salvage the few tomatoes that were left and worth saving, as well as checking on his other (mercifully hardier) plants, so he started the long walk to the storehouses to fetch a basket, amongst other things.

The paths were well paved with large, flat flagstones, smooth enough to take a wheelbarrow along without worry, wide enough to pass someone wielding a wheelbarrow without stepping into one of the patches and risking the wrath of its owner. Gardeners were not always the most reasonable of people. Rupert walked along, keeping one eye out for anyone coming the other way, and ran through what he could do.

He was not, as we have said, an expert in applied magic of any kind, and especially not the kind that the fish-scale lanterns ran on. Neither was he a good negotiator, and he hated politics. But the town council was responsible (in theory) for the lantern, and councils were politics incarnate. It didn't look like he could avoid it.

Could he talk to someone else who knew more about these things? Did he even know any such person? Few enough of the gardeners were good at anything else to a significant degree, and he wasn't very familiar with many people in other professions. This wasn't out of choice - he was simply not the kind of person to go looking for new acquaintances in his free time, and his quiet life and profession suited him quite well.

He reached the shed, picked up a basket, and considered if any of his family might know anyone.

Next Chapter: An Unwelcome Guest by Eilidhan

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