I meet you in the middle of the night in the garden where no one goes. 

Long ago, in our ancestors’ time, the magical waters of the sacred Cantara fed our gardens at the center of the city and grew them lush and beautiful. Everyone visited our gardens, even travelers from other cities; even foreigners from the great continents. Our gardens were our pride—not the Emperor’s, not his governor’s, not even a family’s, but the whole city’s, sacred and grown from sacred waters.

In the years before my mother was born, when our ancestors—desperate, despairing—plugged up the aqueducts that ran from the sacred Cantara to our gardens, they told each other: it’s only for this year; it’s only for this war, this tax, this drought. But the next year came, the next war, the next tax, the next drought, and never again have the sacred waters flowed into our precious gardens.

Now, dry and dead, the gardens sulk in the center of the city; not our pride, but our shame. Now the beds and planters are dry with dust, the carvings are chipped away for lime, the paths are run only by rats and ragged dogs. Now it is a place where no one goes, except for young girls meeting their lovers in the middle of the night.

Even in the dark, we know each other. I bring you a pale-red rose, nurtured by my mother’s magic then stolen from my father’s garden. You hold my rose between your fingers and breathe in its softness. You don’t mind the thorns.

You touch my cheek; I feel your gentle hesitation. I tangle your hair in my hands and you kiss me sweeter than figs. Even in the dark, you are beautiful; your wide, kind hands and your face like the cry of a falcon.

Afterward, lying on top of our clothes in the dusty remains of a flowerbed, my whole body full of the smell of you, I fill my cupped hands with cool water for us to drink. You swallow and swallow, and your lips tickle the tips of my fingers until I burst out laughing and spill it all over you. “Stop it,” I say, but now you’re laughing, and I’m laughing, and both of us are as soaked in magic waters as if we’d come back from bathing in the Cantara.

Still damp, I whisper against your ear, “Once we’re married, we can do this every day.”

I feel your hand clench then wince against the rose’s thorn. “The law—”

I know. Of course I know. But why can’t we pretend, naked and alone in the garden where no one ever goes? “You’d work in my father’s office. I’d study my mother’s arts.”

You squeeze my hand, and I can feel a warm drop of your blood where the rose pricked you. “It is—”

I know. My family; your family. I know.

“You could convert,” and then, to your silence, “I could convert. Wouldn’t I be a picture, my hair up in a knot—?”

“Please,” you say. You take my face in both your hands. The rose falls to the dust beside us. “Can’t this be enough?”

I twist my fingers into your hair, I pull your face to my lips, I kiss your cheeks, your eyes, your nose, your lips. Oh! Your lips.

It’s not enough. A whole lifetime wouldn’t be enough. But this is all we have.

The flowers betray us.

“I’ve heard rumors,” says Mother, between lessons in her parlor one afternoon. “That there are pale-red roses growing in that old garden where no one ever goes.”

I swallow my bile. My cheeks feel cold. I hope my blanch hasn’t given me away.

To Mother, my sister is the picture of idle curiosity, but I catch her smug glance at me when Mother looks away. “Is that so?”

My sister runs her hands along the jug in front of her. It’s already full of pure, clean water. Magic is so uncomplicated for her. It’s been that way since we were little girls.

My jug is still dry. My magic has always been difficult, complicated, messy. In my mother’s parlor, all my will can barely manage a droplet. Even by the banks of the sacred Cantara, I gave up and drew my water with a bucket. But in the garden, when I’m with you, magic is so simple that it seems to happen on its own.

“It’s only rumors,” says Mother. Of course she would never venture to the center of the city, not even for the sight of a pale-red rose. Still, she looks at me, her expression blank.

“It seems to me,” my sister says, her voice so drab that only I can hear her cruelty, “to be just the sort of magic a foolish young girl might make, if she were slipping away from her house to meet her lover in the middle of the night.”

I clench my fists.

“Concentrate on your vase, dear,” Mother reminds me. “Don’t think about it. Just let the magic flow with your emotion.” To my sister, she adds, “I’m so grateful that you girls are too intelligent to become embroiled in any sort of impropriety.”

“Yes, mother,” we both say in practiced unison.

“We have to stop,” you tell me at midnight, your arms around me already. The pale-red roses have grown feral all around us. “The flowers,” you continue. “Someone will notice.”

Someone’s already noticed. I press my face into your chest to keep myself quiet. If I tell you, you’ll worry, and it’s already too late.

I start to cry; you kiss the tears off my cheeks. “What’s wrong?”

“Hold me,” I say, and you do.

It’s not enough. But this, tonight, is all we have and all we’ll ever have.

By morning, the whole garden is blooming.

Because of who my father is, the Inquisition doesn’t arrest me. They don’t even threaten me. Instead, two serious men in ordinary clothes sit me down in my mother’s parlor and try to break my heart.

They tell me you’ve already confessed. They tell me you betrayed me, that you told them everything, that you tried to bargain my reputation for your life. They tell me you had other lovers, that your father had already bought you a betrothal, that you had always planned to desert me.

They tell me they know I was seduced. They tell me they are trying to help me; that if I tell them everything, if I foreswear my love for you, I need not even look upon their dread implements or pass beneath the shadow of the Chief Inquisitor.

Outside, I can hear my sister sobbing the same tears she cried when she broke my porcelain doll.

I try not to think of what they’re going to do to you. Of what they’ve already done to you. I try not to cry.

I tell them nothing. I know  I should. I know my silence will not protect you any more than my confession would. But even if I let myself speak, sitting there in my mother’s parlor with two strange men, the only words I have are: I love you. I will never stop loving you.

At your execution, I am in my family’s palanquin, far in back. They hope, somehow, to dispel my scandal from the family name. I hope, somehow, that you will meet my eyes and know, despite what they must have told you, that I never betrayed you. That I loved you; that I still love you.

Even after the Inquisition, you’re still beautiful, though your face, your hands—your beautiful hands! No one has bothered to set them. It won’t matter soon.

They have you on the gallows. They have the noose around you. You look out at the crowd— “Seducer!” “Blasphemer!” I part the curtains of the palanquin. Even as my sister rushes to close them, you look out over the crowd, you see the palanquin, my family’s crest, you look down. You see me! In this last moment of your life you see me.

You look away.

My heart bursts.

When you fall, I cry out. When your neck snaps, my body begins to shake. You are dead and my heart has burst and my love for you has nowhere left to go. 

Magic pours from my eyes and mouth, only tears at first, then a stream, and then I am spitting up water as fast as I can, choking out great gouts of it, pure and sacred. My love for you, love enough for a lifetime, love enough for a dozen lifetimes, pours out of me in a flood, a sacred and unbroken river that courses down the front of my dress, gushes across the cobbles, crashes into the crowd, piling upon itself, rolling, racing, sending the palanquins tumbling like river stones; pure, clean water washing away the gallows, the executioners, the crowd, and then the buildings, the gardens, our entire city, the whole mess of everything, in a great uneven torrent to the sea.

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P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.

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