The day I was married they gave me wings and took my name.
“Floret?” The king of the flower people was hardly taller than me, but the way he held his shoulders and his great wings, regal and imposing, made me feel smaller still. “What sort of name is that?”
The question was more accusation than inquiry, but I answered meekly, still in awe of people like him; like me. “I came from a flower, and I am little. Little to them, at least. There was no one like you—like us. I was no bigger than their thumbs.”
The king recoiled. “Their thumbs! As though you were insignificant, measured against the thumbs of giant oafs. Who named you?”
“Mother?” His great moths’ wings quivered. “She was not your mother. She may have... raised you from a seedling, I grant you that. But not—no. To call her your mother, it is not natural.”
That was their great condemnation, I learned swiftly enough. They took pity on me and allowed me to stay after hearing my dear friend the swallow’s tale, that I had been born in the northlands from the flower of a strange seed and raised by a giantess, that I had lost my home and found shelter as the servant of a field mouse. That I had run away because the field mouse pledged me to be married to a mole. “Unnatural,” they murmured in disgust, all of the beautiful flower-people gathered around the swallow as he sang the story of how he had brought me to the Winged Court.
“It is not right you should be called by a name given you by a giant. Of course,” the king mused, further incensed, “she called you by what you were to her, merely a little flower, as though she were the center of the world.”
“I don’t mind.”
“It doesn’t matter if you mind,” the king explained, in patient tones simmering underneath with resentment. “It is insulting. If I called a cat a whore in the language of the dogs, she would not mind—but it is still an insult. And none of my princesses will bear insulting names.”
“Very well,” I said, unsure what he meant. I began to understand that staying meant marrying him; that I did not fit into their court in any other way. I had not been honor-bound to a flower in my childhood; I had not been fitted with wings at my adolescence. I was not of use here, so I could be naught but decoration. Decoration for the king.
“I shall rename you,” he said, voice full of light and resounding, calling those in the court lounging on nearby zinnia petals to perk up their ears, and in a rush of wings they gathered around. “I shall name you Mayja.”
Silently, I formed the word. Mayja. The soft, hushed sound at the front of it, like mother, like mouse, like mole. And as he repeated it—Mayja, Mayja—I heard “mine, mine, mine.”
I didn’t like it, not really. It was not an ugly word, not like toad or mud. But it did not roll easily from my tongue the way it danced on the king’s.
But I accepted it, as though it were a gift.
The wedding, I came to realize in a swift shock, was to take place immediately. One of the flower-people, a fair-haired woman with orange and black wings like sharply cut paper, helped me to get ready. I had on, still, the gown the field mouse had made for me. I had thought it pretty, woven of intricate spider-silk lace. But the winged woman sniffed at it and motioned for me to take it off. “Please save it,” I asked, not quite sure why.
She gave me a gossamer gown of shimmering gray-white, loosely bound at the shoulders and skimming over my body. The field mouse would have thought it indecent. It was a garment of ethereal beauty, like dew and the sheen of petals, and I tried to think myself worthy of it.
The sun was still high in the sky when she brought me back to the king, and its rays bathed the fields of flowers in pure light. I soaked it into my very marrow, delighting in warmth, in light, in air, after being trapped underground in the field mouse’s burrow for so long. I could belong here, I thought then.
I didn’t realize until the king began to speak and we were surrounded by beautiful flower women, also in gowns of sheer iridescence, that I was not to be his only bride. I blushed, feeling very naïve and young and foolish, all the things the field mouse had told me that I was. I had imagined the ending of a story like those my mother—she was my mother, whatever the king might say—had told me. A man and a woman, happy, ever after—but no. The king had married before, seven times, if the retinue around us reflected his household. He would likely, I realized as he took my hand and bound it up with his, marry again.
The rest of the court looked on, not with the joy I had always imagined of weddings but with curiosity or indifference. I felt small, then, even smaller than each of those flower-people. They wore their shimmering tunics and gowns with ease, gracefully hovering over the curves and hillocks of the flowers, toes brushing the petals below. I was heavy, heavy and graceless as I stood rooted to the petal as firmly as if it were the ground.
Even as the king recited the words of an old rhyme, a blessing and a covenant, I felt it in their eyes, even in his—unnatural.
The king placed a circlet of silvery pearls over my hair, marking me as one of his wives, and with that, he finished officiating his own wedding. Cheers rippled through the court, a ritual of happiness, and then true mirth followed as honey wine, and lavender cakes, and liqueurs of brambleberry and dandelion and pear, and tarts, each made of a whole cherry, were brought out in a grand feast.
The king and I did not feast. Instead he brought me to his chamber, at the center of spreading stalks of irises branching above us in arches and, above those, domes of purple and white flowers. His palace, he told me. “And here we confirm our covenant,” he said simply, and removed his tunic.
He was beautiful. I could almost forgive him his other seven wives. His arms and legs lithe and finely muscled, his back and shoulders thick and sinewy from flight, all under bronzed skin. He waited, and I realized I was to undress as well.
I shook as I untied the gown at the shoulders, let it drop about my ankles. I was white, milky and pale, like winter; not the color of summer like him, like his court. Pink touched my breasts, my lips, my fingertips, but I was the color of cold everywhere else.
“You are like a lily,” he said, pride in his voice. Pride in me? In his lily-wife? “My Majya. My lily.” Pride, I ascertained, as he laid confident hands on the softness of my waist, in what was his.
And he took what was his, not cruel but not gently either, burying himself deep in me even as I caught my breath in surprise and fleeting pain.
Afterward he left me, a lily cocooned in layers of waxy iris petals. I did not know if I should stay or leave, but the lady who had readied me for the wedding returned, the tall flower-woman with sharp-edged wings. She carried a pair of moths’ wings. They were pure white, soft as snow and iridescent.
I tentatively reached out toward the edge of one wing and laid a single, reticent finger on the soft whiteness. “They’re warm,” I said, hand retreating.
“They have to be removed while the creature is still alive, or they can’t be affixed properly.”
I recoiled, horrified. “I—some living moth was killed for these?”
The lady-in-waiting preened the edges of the wings. “True beauties, these. Fit for a queen, even if you’ll never be able to fly as well as someone who grew into them.” Cold in her voice, cold like winter.
“I did not ask for wings!”
“You didn’t ask, but you were given them just the same. A gift. From the king.” She waited. “Shall I tell him you’re not pleased by his gift?”
I heard warning there, but I didn’t heed it. “I couldn’t take another’s life so I could have—I do not need them!”
She swept from the chamber, stalks of the irises rustling as her orange and black wings brushed past. I shook. I had known butterflies, in the summer; had shared the nectar of clover and morning glories with them. And moths, silent in the night, tossing the light of the moon back toward its illumined face. They were gentle, nervous, but oh, they danced. They danced like sunlight on water.
The king came in next, his patience strained. “If you are to be one of us, you must have wings. We are the Winged Court.”
“I didn’t know,” I begged quietly.
“This one is dead already,” he said. Not cruel, not even callous. Just the fact. It was dead. Whether I wanted the wings or not, the moth who had given them was gone. “And you must decide, and quickly, or the wings will not be serviceable any longer.” He unfurled his own wings, huge wings of spring-willow green with deep-set yellow orbs like great eyes at their centers. They stared at me, and I looked away.
I traced the curve of one wing again, feeling the snowy down under my fingers, the minute structures that had borne a life between them.
Mistaking my reverence for reticence, the king sighed in frustration. “What would you have us do, give up flight for the sake of a few moths? They live but a short season as it is.”
Not knowing what else to do, I conceded, and the lady-in-waiting returned with her brilliance of orange wings and several other maids. The king nodded once, and they bade me lie flat on my face on a moss-covered plank of bark at the center of the room.
I thought I had known pain in the winter, wind scouring my skin raw and bare feet in deepening snow, toes half-frozen, icy rain slicing my face and leaving deep welts.
I hadn’t known pain.
Furrows of agony where they carved my back, where they rooted the wings into muscle; jolts of shuddering energy as they forced what had been moth to blend to my body, to become one. Radiating, shearing, thick waves of pain, and then nothing.
But when I woke, I had wings.
I can fly now, a little. I still cannot use them well, not like the flower-people who have had them from childhood. I shiver to think—the babies fresh-born in unfurling buds, the small children who are yet wingless, pattering over the petals on their tiny feet, paddling in the ponds created at the base of the tulips when it rains—that they will face that ordeal. But they will have wings, and unlike me, their bodies will adapt to flight.
My shoulders are too thin and my back too weak to support me long, the muscles underused and underdeveloped. Worse, my legs have grown muscled and heavy from long days running in the fields and working in the field mouse’s home, from the long subterranean walks to and from the mole’s house. Bearing my own weight strains my wings, strains my back. I must flutter twice as fast to keep aloft.
But I can fly even if I am alone, most of the time. The flower-people are busy with their work, and the other princesses are not friendly. They sit in the garden, and dress one another’s hair, and sing lilting songs in silvery voices. I try to join them, but they ignore me. I do not know their songs. I cannot dress hair prettily the way they do. There is a complicated game they play, of wrestling the king’s attention toward them, and they do not like that he visits me in my iris blossom room, that spends some mornings showing me the flowers he is most pleased with.
And so, I fly. I fly, most often, to visit my friend the swallow who lives above the garden, overlooking it. I cannot bear to tell him how it aches, how it burns after I’ve pulled myself to his height. It pleases him so, to see me fly.
“As you were meant to be,” he trills, chest feathers fluffing up with pride. I don’t ask, I don’t wonder aloud, but if this was how I was meant to be, why did I have to steal a moths’ wings?
“But you will not stay here for long,” I say. “When winter is over, you will fly back, won’t you?”
“I suppose I must,” the swallow coos, seeing the fear in me that I try to hide, the fear of being abandoned and alone here. “But you! You are among your own kind, now. I will return in the fall and we shall have merry things to talk of, shan’t we?”
When I am not visiting the swallow, I wander among the garden’s flowers, ever blooming, ever dying, ever blooming again. Each flower-person prunes and coaxes and cares for their flower, their tunics matching the colors of the petals as though woven of the same fibers. I have no flower. Though the king still calls me his lily, there is another woman, lithe and summer-colored with lavender wings, who watches over the lilies that bloom with fragrant spices in their scent.
I have a room in the palace of the king, near the top of a spire of irises, bathed always in sheer purple light. He comes to me often, the king, sometimes to find the pink hidden in the whiteness of his lily wife; sometimes merely to speak to me.
“It has not ceased blooming,” I say one day. He reclines next to me, his shimmering golden tunic on the floor.
“The iris?” he asks languidly, drawing a lithe hand across my pale stomach, my pale breasts.
“None of the flowers,” I say. “They bloom and fade and die and bloom again.”
“It is the special practice of the flower people, to make it so. It is why we bind ourselves to the flowers,” he says. “For if they faded and died and did not bloom again, we would fade and die, as well.”
Though I do not argue, as he searches me with his agile hands, as I turn my body toward his to satiate what he desires, I think how I had lived in a place of fading and dying and, yet, I had not died.
My back grows stronger and I can fly further afield. Never beyond the garden, never into the wilds, for I do not trust my wings that far. I fell once, muscles spasming, into the upturned cup of a tulip and, wings drenched with rainwater collected in the bottom, nearly drowned before a winged man in a red-and-black tunic hauled me out. When I relayed the story, the king sent him an acorn full of honey wine to thank him.
At the edge of the garden, though, I can see a broad plateau of green and a forest beyond, a forest unlike the one I had come from. Thick and green and redolent with heady scents. Wild and tumultuous with vines and brambles, not like this neatly pared garden. And I can see, from the borderlands, that the flowers in the forest fade and die and do not bloom again, at least not right away. Orange trumpets and pink bells and minute white starlights, I see them bloom, each in turn, and fade, and die.
The swallow swoops down next to me. “It’s quite nearly time,” he says, “for me to fly back. I could stay,” he adds with a chirp.
“You can’t.” I laugh. “It would be unnatural.”
“I would miss summer in the northlands. As lovely as the summer country is, it is never fresh,” he hums. “The northlands bloom fresh and the air is different. I can’t explain it.”
I know what he means, though I can explain it no better than he can. Or, perhaps, we are merely nostalgic.
Before he leaves, I ask him a favor. I have not ridden on his back since our journey south, and it feels foolish to ask him to bear my weight with my own wings firmly affixed to my back. But I want to see the wildlands beyond the garden, the break in the soil where the tended coddled flowers end and the choking grip of the wild begins. I want to see the forest.
He tilts his head, not sure what to make of this request, but does not ask me why I want to leave the perfection of the summer garden. I do not have a sash any longer—the lady-in-waiting threw away my spider-silk dress—but my legs are still strong enough to grip him under his wings, and he rises with me, higher than my own wings will bear me.
We soar and I am free, drinking in the sun, the warmth, the light, the air, and then we dip toward the meadow and I am entranced by it. It is green like the pond in summer, tangled like the field in autumn, and there is a ripe sense of danger, like winter.
And there, among the knot of seed-pods and grasses and a vine as thick as a snake, I spot a flower-woman. Small like me, and dressed in petals as blue as the sky, sitting beneath a cheerful wild rose, its blooms haphazard and scattering in the wind. I grip the swallow more tightly lest I fall and plummet to the earth.
He has not seen her, but he feels my excitement as command and dips lower, and now she sees me. She wrinkles her brow in confusion—no, I see, in concern. She wants to run from me; her body is drawn and taut and ready to spring. But she does not. Not yet. And I see, as she turns to hide beneath her rose bower, that she does not have wings.
The swallow delivers me back the iris palace, and before dawn the next morning, while the sky is threaded gold on gray, he begins the long journey back to the northlands.
Without my friend, I am lonely, unsure how to spend the long days between the king’s visits to my dusky chamber. I try to help care for the flowers, but the people bound to each are protective, unwilling to accept another’s help. I try to learn to braid hair and sing the silver-bright songs the other wives sing, but even as my fingers grow more agile and I learn to harmonize simple descants, I still feel outside; other.
I slip most days to the edge of the garden and look out over the wilds. No one seems to care, though the sharp-winged lady-in-waiting sometimes watches me with narrowed eyes. I want, very badly, to find the wild-dwelling flower-woman. Her wild rose bower looked like the shelter I built myself in the summer after I lost my home and my giantess mother, where I drank dew and nectar and watched the dance of the moths against the moonlight.
The king finds me at the edge of the garden one evening. “What interest have you in the wilds?” he asks. “Lira told me you come here to look at the wildlands. Why?” It is accusation, and, tangled in it, fear.
“I do not know,” I say, truthfully. “It is different.”
“It is dangerous and wild,” he chides, “and out there, flowers die and do not bloom again until a long season passes. It is not comfortable, not predictable, not like the Court.”
Even in these summer country wilds, there is no winter, but I do not argue with him. He walks with me back to the iris palace, and we pass a pair of flower-boys jumping rope with a skein of thick grass. I smile at them, and the king looks away. “I like watching the children play,” I say, hoping this is less offensive a pastime than gazing over the wilds. “We don’t have any children in the palace.”
He whirls on me then, anger brimming in his eyes and his great moths’ wing orbs quivering at me as well. “Do not speak of that,” he hisses, gripping my wrist in his, hauling me into the roots of the iris where the stalks grow tight together. He presses me against one, my wings crumpling, aching.
“I—I am sorry,” I breathe.
“My damned wives can’t go to seed and you—I had hoped you were from outside, different, a wild lily, that you would give me seeds to plant. But you are useless as the others.”
He drops my arm and it burns where he touched me, and I feel his shame seeping into me. I tremble, on the verge of tears, and he takes my hand again, softer, gentler, though I stiffen just the same.
“I thought you knew. Everyone knows. Everyone talks.”
“No one talks to me.”
He doesn’t question this, and he lets me run back to my chamber.
The days are too long, and finally, I make up my mind. I will go to the wilds. My wings can bear me, I think, I hope. And the king—he will not approve if he catches me, but he visits me less often than before anyway. I am a disappointment.
I leave in the pearly gray before dawn, when the dew is still thick on the leaves and the flower-people haven’t woken to sip their morning nectar and stretch their wings on the unfurled petals of their plants. I discover that I can fly far afield before I tire, and, when I see the rose bower below, I slowly descend to it.
The flower-woman, the wingless one, is there, reclining under the bower, nibbling on a blossom of clover. She jolts upright with a start.
“Wait!” I call.
“You are one of them? The Winged Court?” She watches me, tense, questioning. I bear wings. But I am not the color of summer. I am not graceful.
“I live with them now. I came from the northlands.”
“The northlands!” She gapes. “But you live with them, now.” Accusation glazes thick in her voice.
“I did not have anywhere else to go,” I said, “when winter came to the northlands. There are no others like me—like us—there. I did not know there was anyone here in the wilds,” I add.
“We are all from the wilds.” She almost laughs. “They did not tell you that? They did not tell you how they tamed the flowers and brought them under their power? How they learned the secrets of the wings?”
“They tell me little enough.”
She softens then. “What is your name? I’m Tansy.”
“They call me Majya.”
“They do!” She shakes her head, her cropped hair brushing faintly pointed ears. “And what do you call yourself?”
I haven’t said it in months, the word that used to be my name. “Once, I was called Floret,” I say, and it sticks to my tongue and feels strange in my mouth. It’s not my name any longer. Perhaps it never was.
“That’s no better.” She grins. Her smile is impish and clever, revealing dimples set deep in each sun-brown cheek. “What should I call you, then?”
“I—I suppose I don’t know.”
She raises a pert brow but doesn’t press me. Instead, she tugs a rose petal free from its moorings above her and ties it into a band around her dark brown hair, watching me all the while. “Why did you leave the garden? No one leaves the garden.”
I am not sure why, but I tell her everything—the agony of the wings and the cold dismissal of the other wives; the king’s visits and his anger with me. That my swallow friend had left.
She shakes her head with each part of the story. After a long while, she speaks. “Come, I’ll show you where the clover are full of nectar and there are strawberries as big as your head.”
So I stay, until the evening shadows lengthen and I know I cannot return to the palace tonight, not with bats and owls patrolling the skies. The rose bower is comfortable, with moss beneath the curving thorned vines and a sweet scent floating between the blooms. Tansy hands me a ripe indigo berry. Tomorrow I will decide where to go. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will decide what I should be called.