House of Medicinal Plants, 12th Manifestation
Feverbane, its flowers small as the narrow end of a bee’s comb and shaped roughly so. As an elder herb, it bears more meanings than most: hospitals, medicine, cleansing, removal, rebirth through pain. Also called solace-in-the-wilderness.
She would have lain there in the hospital bed forever, feeling the ache of everything in her soul, but the birds were too irritating, their high-pitched peeps and chirrips and the flicker of them through the light coming in from the highest window. She would have gotten up and closed the shutters, but a centaur’s body presents a special problem for convalescence, and so they had her buckled into a sling that encompassed the entirety of her forelegs and chest and much of her hind legs as well.
She would have pressed her hands over her ears to shut them out, but her head ached too dully to be touched.
A little silver gong sat within reach on the bed table. She picked up the tiny hammer beside it and tapped the precise center. There was no sound, so she tapped again, perplexed, then several more times.
A curtain fluttered as the nurse scurried through it. She was a little human, shaped like a dumpling, and smelled of astringent cinnamon and mint. “Once!” she snapped. “Only do that once. Multiple times means it’s an emergency. You should know better, Lady Callynahdra.”
Callynahdra. That was hers again now, rather than “Sarge,” the only name she’d heard from anyone’s lips for years. And with the name, all the complicated weight of the Rose Kingdom’s complicated social structure. But only if she accepted it.
“Close the shutters,” she ordered, re-summoning the imperiousness of a noble with unsettling ease. “The birds are too loud.”
But the nurse shook her head. “Doctor says take you outside, into the sunlight,” she said, and began the long unbuckling process.
House of Useful Plants, 7th Manifestation
Merryngold, its colors yellow, orange, and red, sometimes variegated. Smells of spice and heat, and used to drive away vermin, which cannot tolerate its odor. Its meaning is impatient fire, particularly that of the heart.
They offered her a choice of crutches or a wheeled cart, complicated and requiring an additional attendant. She refused the latter and hobbled out into the courtyard. A journey that would have taken her seconds once now was a handful of moments for each tiny leg of it, stopping to replenish herself between each agonizing trek. The toll of the bronze bell that marked the third turning sounded just as she set forefoot into the first patch of sunlight and felt its welcome warmth lick along her face.
The hospital’s main courtyard was awash with pea gravel; iron cages of roses set at intervals, their planters topped with enormous hooks to allow them to be moved more easily. Most of the inhabitants ignored her slow journey as she undertook it, placing her crutch tip carefully with each labored step along the path.
She wanted to ask the nurse at her elbow if any of the others had survived, but while she was thinking about how she might phrase it, the woman gestured to a padded wooden dais meant for centaurs and abandoned her to the sunlight. She wondered how long she would be left there.
It was not the first time she’d wanted to ask; there had been plenty of opportunity.
What thwarted her: what if the answer was no.
This dais was close to the hedge maze’s entrance. A figure sat there on the long stone bench. Where the sun fell, the surface along her limbs and chest greened: a Rose Knight. This was one of the healing sanctuaries where the Rose Knights were tended as well, and she presumed the plants would be used to repair their living armor, laid along the flesh and coaxed into growing into it, with it, through magickal means. A process laborious and painful, she had been told.
Everyone does what they can, in the service of the Empire.
The Rose Knight’s outstretched palm held a scattering of pale flax, two tiny birds wandering along the thorny fingers to pick at the seed. In the jungle there had been tiny birds like that. Their Snake Woman had coaxed them sometimes, caught them for the stew pot. Meager mouthfuls, but by then they’d been used to surviving on scraps and shadows.
What if the answer was no.
Her injuries were enervation and starvation. It was not a matter of bones re-knitting but of flesh being coaxed back into a semblance of life after having conserved itself for so long on so little after having been burned so close to the edge, as well as a secondary load of parasites accumulated during weeks of travel through jungle and swamp seeking the coast, traveling by night most of the time, wary of the enemies all around them.
Her only physical scars were leech-rounds on a foreleg and a whipvine weal on her flank.
But it felt as though she had been emptied of herself; poured out unrelentingly without replenishment. She was almost at the dais now. She’d be able to rest there.
She looked up and saw the Rose Knight watching her; the long legs stretched out, arms folded.
Like others of her kind, the Knight was human, although the only flesh visible was her lean face, even that encased by the barky growth that was her living armor. Her thinning grey hair was cut short and severe, a harshness that did nothing to mitigate the leanness of her features. The resting cast of her face was a half-scowl that seemed more habit than temperament. She was older than any of the Knights that Callyn had ever seen.
In her other hand was a ringlet of flowers, a bouquet-bracelet shaped to fit over her plated wrist made of wilting pink sapienzee. The birds hopped around the crumbs, and the Knight looked past them to nod in greeting at her.
She took another step, then another, then stepped awry somehow. Her vision tunneled inward, and she heard the nurse hurrying back, saying something about too much effort too early. Then dark blotches ate the edges of her sight, and she was gone.
House of Medicinal Plants, 22nd Manifestation
Nosewrack, which does not flower but only root, has narrow leaves of grayish brown. It is used to bring dreamers and those unconscious back to their bodies. Its meaning is unwanted clarity. Sometimes called Tova’s shroud.
Despite the faint, the nurse was willing to let her try again but only after a full day and a half had passed and she had been satisfied by watching Callynahdra use the crutches to navigate the length of a hallway and back three times.
Most of the patients had gone back to their rooms or were in the fountain-alley, seeking its coolness. She used the crutches to move towards a shaded nook but discovered it already occupied by two nurses so intent on their whispered conversation that they did not look up.
She kept along the path that led past them on the building’s eastern side, toward the kitchen, passing under a balcony where two patients sat on a bench smoking hamperweed. Her strength was ebbing by the time she reached the kitchen’s back entrance, which let out onto the kitchen garden, the small cemetery, and the entrance to the hedge maze, and she stopped, looking around, not sure where to rest.
“Would you like assistance?” a voice said from behind her.
“Yes,” she said with a wash of gratitude at the polite courtesy in the tone and turned to find the Knight.
“I thought you might be lost,” the Knight said by way of explanation. “Come, here is a grassy spot.”
She followed the Knight. They made their way to a corner of the garden, and she settled herself on the bench there.
“I am Ambra,” the Knight said.
For the first time now, she hovered between names. Sarge or Callynahdra, who was she now? In the end she drew from schoolgirl days. “My friends know me as Callyn.”
“Callyn, well met and welcome to my little corner of the garden,” Ambra said. She did not speak further but turned her face upward to the late afternoon sunlight as though savoring it.
Callyn leaned back, still gathering her thoughts. She had wanted air and out of the little room where so many days had been spent. A flutter of wings caught her attention. From this vantage, she finally realized why birds seemed drawn to the Rose Knight. Feeders clung to the walls of the hedge corner while others were attached to the trellis that sheltered this spot: two syrup bottles, a tray of cut-up fruit, flats of varied seed, sprays of grains tied among the leaves, and fist-sized lumps of something white scored with marks where beaks had pecked at it. The gravel underfoot was flecked with husks and spattered here and there with droppings.
“Did you put all of these here?” she asked.
“A patient long before me did many of them, but I have asked for others to be added since.” Ambra pursed her lips and whistled to the bird hanging upside to peck at a feeder’s side. It whirred to land in her proffered palm, picking at the little knobs and bumps in the bark of her skin.
Callyn kept still rather than disturb the bird, but Ambra tilted her palm to let it slide back into the air, and it returned to plucking seed by seed out from between the fine wires of the feeder.
“How long have you been here then?” she asked into the silence.
“Fifteen years now.”
Callyn blinked. “Fifteen?”
Ambra laughed at her. “This is not just a hospital but a place where the elderly can linger,” she said. “I expect to die here, myself. And it is only here that I can reliably find someone who knows the ins and outs of tending to, well...” She gestured to her form. “All of this.”
“You never leave?”
She squinted upward. “Mmmm. They send me off every winter for a month at the hot springs, and I spend my days telling stories to the cadets there, preparing them for service to the Empire.”
“It is a noble calling, teaching,” Callyn murmured. “Are there birds there too?”
“Of a certainty. Some are even the same. Sparrows are sparrows everywhere. We pay attention to the showy ones...” Ambra pointed at the syrup bottles where two hummingbirds, their tails intricate whorls and curlicues, like the skeleton of a conch worn down to lacy fragility, jousted over the fullest bottle before the victor reclaimed the perch. “But there are plenty of less remarkable ones, who you can only tell apart by shape of beak or length of wing.”
She broke off at something in Callyn’s face and laughed. “Perhaps when you reach my age, such minutiae will fascinate you as well! Or perhaps you will take up some other field, like raising thornless roses or bee-keeping.”
It was the first time anyone had laughed around her for so long. Callyn reached for the bracelet of knotted hair that had hung on her wrist all through that march, but it had slipped off during that last, final, desperate swim, as she and the others floundered away from the shore in the hopes the promised boat would be waiting.
Ambra was watching her in silence. A little brown bird landed on the knight’s shoulder, picking its way through the greenery there.
Callyn’s face was wet; she wiped the moisture away and pretended it had been sweat. The knight kept her silence. Callyn said, knowing the question rude, “Do you bloom still?”
“Ah,” the knight said. “Indeed, but it is not controlled now the way it once was. You will have seen companies of us in full blossom, scarlet and pink and the golden blossoms that mark the Emperor’s Guard?”
“That is maintained in the medical gardens, where they remove fading blossoms before they can go to seed. The plant keeps blooming, hoping to propagate.”
Callyn frowned. “Does it hurt, removing the flowers?”
“Like snipping off a small bit of yourself.” Ambra shrugged and continued. “In the early months of the year—after the hot springs—I flower and fruit in the space of a few weeks, and then it is done.”
She glanced up. “An attendant comes for you,” she said. She waved a hand, and the nurse, hovering a few feet away, stepped forward. Callyn wished she held such a sway over the nurses; her estimation of Ambra’s social status floated up a notch or two.
“Lady Callynahdra, it is time for your medicinal broth,” the nurse said. She stepped forward to assist with the centaur-sized crutches.
“Come again tomorrow, Lady, if you wish,” Ambra said. “There is little new conversation here.”
Callyn nodded and let herself be helped away.
House of Medicinal Plants, 14th Manifestation
Pinchwater, its flowers blue and the size of a sparrow’s eye, its smell like moldy lemons. It is used to strengthen food, particularly soups, for the invalid and those recovering strength. Its meaning is gathering forces.
The broth was meaty but bitter, full of oil and marrow to help build back the strength had seeped away during her trials. The flesh had melted off of all of them, even fat Jenna, till they were not quite the walking skeletons she’d seen among the refugees, so feeble they could barely move, but still as lean as one could be and still hold claim to the ability to keep moving, keep moving, as she had urged them along.
The nurse said, “You had visitors, while you were in the garden. Shall I admit them tomorrow?”
Was it them? Surely a delegation come to tell her the list of those who had died. What if that list held every name that had traveled with her? What would she do then?
“No!” she snapped and flapped a hand at the nurse until she went away.
Salt water had stung her ankles when they finally staggered onto the pebbly beach so harsh on her hoofsore feet; spotted the rendezvous frigate, two longboats already swinging down from its sides. By then it had taken sharp sensation like that to penetrate the haze of exhaustion, the bone-deep weariness.
Who had been with her, at the end? Who had made it? She remembered figures, but they had blurred in the sunlight, staggering, falling like her to their foreknees into the water’s coolness. Was it her imagination now that some had slumped sideways as though already gone?
She gagged on her mouthful and swallowed with difficulty. The liquid was not entirely gone, but she pushed the bowl’s white porcelain round away from her on the tray. The nurse cast a reproachful eye at the spoonfuls of dregs but refrained from comment as she took it away.
Another nurse halted her as she was limping her way back to her room, muscles protesting at having held her frame up for so long, her stomach clenching in on itself as though rejecting the broth. The nurse who drew her aside was one that she had seen little around the hospital, one of the nurses assigned to the merchant classes and so one that did not come into the mostly unoccupied quarters reserved for the nobility, where Callyn was housed.
She said to Callyn, “You need to be careful of the Knight.”
“Who?” Callyn demanded, but she knew who the nurse meant. Callyn had never seen the Knight at any of the communal meals, and it occurred to her that perhaps it was true what she had always heard, that the Rose Knights lived mostly on sunlight and water, like the plants that held their forms in perpetual embrace. She wondered at the scatological details of this, with the unflinching curiosity of someone who’d been forced, more than once, to consider to logistics of where and how to dig a latrine ditch for a platoon of centaur soldiers.
But the nurse shook her head and did not pretend that Callyn did not understand her. She said, “She’s still watched by spies from the Court. The Emperor has an assassin all set for her, it’s rumored, and is only waiting for a misstep so he can justify dispatching her.”
“That seems a little lurid, and unlike him,” Callyn said. “He rarely announces assassins and their targets, for one. That would defeat the purpose of having it be an assassination. Otherwise he could just dispatch a troop and have them kill the person that way. It would be surer. Assassins spend a great deal of time creeping around and figuring out logistics.”
The nurse’s eyes were flat as though she had expected such foolish babble from Callyn. She said, “I don’t see how you survived coming back. You must be smarter than you look, or much much luckier than you really should be.”
Callyn opened her mouth and then closed it. Before she’d joined the Army, she had always pretended to be slower of thought than she really was. It was an act that many of the noble’s daughters affected, she knew, and more than a few of their sons, in order to disarm enemies, and it returned to her like second nature.
She fluttered her hand at her throat. “Of course, you are here in the hospital and know more of what’s going on, including with its patients, than I do. I apologize for questioning you.”
The nurse’s flinty eyes softened, just a trifle, then hardened again. “It’s already been noted how much time you spend with her,” she said. “If she says anything that the Emperor would want to hear, well then there’s a chance for you to redeem yourself by reporting it.”
“Oh, how munificent,” Callyn said, and tried to keep sincerity in her tone. It must not have been as successful as she would have wished, because the nurse’s look sharpened even further.
“I will remind you, Lady, that you are associated with a house, and therefore disgrace to you is disgrace to all of it.”
“That is no longer true,” she protested, surprised by the threat and the matter of fact tone in which it had been delivered. “When I went into the army...”
“And now you are in the army no longer, and not likely to be again, based on what the doctors are saying of your condition and how likely you are to recover your strength.”
Callyn was shocked. “But there is pensioning! For soldiers that were wounded in the Emperor’s service.”
“That is something that is at the discretion of the Emperor’s administrators,” the nurse said. “I have spent a decade dealing with them now, and I could make sure that they do not cheat you. Otherwise they have a way of diverting funds away from you and towards themselves, and calling it all administration fees, until there is nothing left but a handful of coins each month.”
It was true that under the Emperor the already thriving bureaucracy of the Rose Kingdom had put down even deeper roots, until it had a stranglehold on all sorts of practices, but this was further than Callyn had thought it had gone.
She said, trying to buy herself time, “What sort of things is the Emperor interested in hearing? Truly, all of her talk is harmless. Old battle stories and advice of the kind that veterans like to pass on, about warm socks and how the red moon seen over your shoulder means there will be rain by morning.”
“You’ll know it when you hear it, I am sure,” the nurse said. “Ask for Alysshondra with one of your nurses and say that I promised to carry a message for you. They will bring me to you and you can make your report. Then I will make mine in turn to the Emperor.”
She let go of Callyn’s arm, and Callyn watched as the small human woman clicked away down the hallway. Her heart hammered in her throat as though she had been flat-out running, in a desperate race that had demanded every bit of air.
Chills ran their fingers over the skin of her bare arms and she rubbed at them as she went to her room.
“Are you unwell?” her own nurse demanded, seeing her shivering. She settled a blanket around Callyn’s shoulders before she left, despite the fact that the early evening was hot and the windows unshuttered to the open air.
Outside, birds flickered back and forth against the darkening air, then gave way to bats. A green-winged moth fluttered briefly at the glow lamp near the doorway and then was overtaken by a particularly bold bat that swooped in one window and out the other just as quickly.
She listened, as she always did, for voices that she never heard. If they were here, if they lived, would they not be speaking, somewhere in this place? Perhaps in earshot?
She lay awake in the darkness and waited for sounds that did not come.
House of Useful Plants, 38th Manifestation
Glasspetal, its flowers clear as an insect’s wings, the petals the size of a sparrow’s egg. Used in glue-making and occasionally in bone-setting. Its primary meaning is patient tenacity; it holds a secondary meaning, the good that waits.
The next day, she found the Knight in the courtyard again, face turned contemplatively up to the sun. Two fat pink pigeons circled her boot toes today, their heads bobbing and ducking as they stepped self-importantly and cooed to each other. Something rustled in the hedge, then a jay popped out, screeched once, and flew away.
“How was your broth?” Ambra asked. “I’ve had my share of it over the years and found the cooks here put in too many herbs. Nourishing, but nasty.”
“That matches my experience with it so far.” Callyn settled her crutches in order to lean on them. It was easier overall to stand today, easier to hold herself upright, but she still felt scraped to the bone, as though pieces of her that should not face the air were exposed. “Though I have no other complaints of these kitchens.”
Ambra nodded. “I do not find it a bad existence. They feed us well, and for the elderly it is not a bad thing to be close to doctors, who can help you quickly if some disaster befalls.”
“It seems a circumscribed existence.” Callyn looked around at the high hedge wall that surrounded the courtyard, not masking the even higher stone wall beyond. The hospital lay on the outskirts of Cheon, she knew. An often-contested ancient city on the border of the Rose Kingdom, whose allegiance had shifted repeatedly over the centuries. She had never been there but imagined it as busy as any of the other large cities. Here, though, things were quiet. She could hear the chirps of the birds, the twittering of nurses, a distant clatter that might have come from the kitchen.
Ambra’s gaze was tracking a pigeon as it flapped to its way to the cote atop the main building. “You might be surprised. The Empire fights on many borders, but many of its more important campaigners come through here, because the healers here are unparalleled. It is a teaching hospital, and so they have the best, including students who go on and teach in other places. So we have news from many fronts, including Galti, where I understand you were.”
Callyn shook her head but could not answer. At the thought of that embattled continent, all the bile and misery and ache of that journey surged up in her, irrepressible as a spring seeking its way out from underneath a stone, rising up to fill her, drown her.
Dark water rose in her mind, and she tried to breathe, feeling its clutch, before Ambra said, “I think I was mistaken, though, in my understanding. But surely you were trained down in Joss, where an old friend of mine is one of the drill instructors. Did you know Sharonza?”
She seized on this lifespar with delight, pulling herself out of despair’s clutch. “I did train under her. She was merciless!”
“She and I fought together for three years, before her knee gave out and she was forced away from active service. A sharp mind, and never asked more than she would have given herself.”
“That is true,” Callyn admitted. “But a couple of the girls thought they were still in school and tried to play pranks on her. She put a stop to that, and quickly.”
Those days seemed soaked in sweetness now, compared to more recent ones.
“There are cadets coming tomorrow to be talked at, including some who trained under her as well,” Ambra said. “They are ones that I taught, back in the Academy, or who I have met and mentored over the course of the years.”
“You are still allowed to mentor,” Callyn said curiously.
The Knight eyed her. “You have heard something.”
Callyn thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Nothing. I think perhaps I misunderstood.”
All night her thoughts had circled the Knight, seizing on this new question over the ones that haunted her. Could the Emperor fear the old Knight to the point where he would contemplate killing her? Those were the sorts of things that were not done in this modern age, but at the same time, the Rose Kingdom had always clung to the past, even its barbarisms, in the name of keeping its history alive. But this Emperor had moved away from those practices, prided himself on his modernisms. On being a well-educated and forward-thinking leader.
She shook her head again and came back to herself. Sometimes it seemed that the days were a progression of such moments, where time itself had come unmoored and she moved in a dream or memory, other times in actuality.
It was the medicine they were giving her, she knew, because the lassitude and sense of unreality was always at its worse a half hour or so after she had drank it down, with its taste lingering in her mouth, chalky and bitter and off-putting so after it she had no appetite at all.
The Knight said, watching her confusion, “Go and lie down, Sergeant. I fear you are relapsing.” Her eyes were worried.
House of Tea Plants, 1st Manifestation
House tea, which grows in reedlike stalks and bears green flowers every second year. Its children are the primary manifestations of this house. Its meaning is ubiquity.
In the night, Callyn woke, thinking of the world she’d left behind. She had enlisted because the world of noble politics had little room for her. The army seemed to—and had—offered things beyond a world where her greatest value was her body and the heirs it could produce. All the same, politics had come to her; there was no escaping it in her world, and sometimes whispers of the Emperor’s malice, of the pettiness of his policies, of his playing of one courtier against another, reached even the soldiers.
She had whispered her concerns to her lover once, as they lay together. She had thought to be reassured, to have her worries kissed away while teased for her fear. But rather her lover had lain quiet and contemplative in the darkness and finally said, “It is best never to speak of these things, even where no one can hear. And what can we do, as soldiers, against those on the top of the chain of command? It is not a soldier’s role to ask questions. That is something we leave to our leaders, because to question them is to hesitate, to not act when they most need us to.”
She had not asked anything further, but she had comforted herself thinking she and her lover were very far down the chain of command, and that they would never need to worry that the Emperor’s eye would stray in their direction.
How had the battle gone, the one that she had come back from? How thoroughly had it decimated the ranks of the Rose Kingdom? Because she knew that it had. Pushing forward as fiercely, as far and fast as they had been directed to, they’d been cut off, sliced into little groups and picked off, one by one.
It was only luck that she and her little group had made it as far as they had, and she had lost many along the way. She thought of her captain, lying dead on the ground with an arrow through her throat. Callyn—or Sarge, rather—had hunted down that archer and trampled him to death. Then she had come back to that form lying in the dirt and nothing had changed except that her own hooves were sticky and red. She had taken the Captain’s braid and tied it into a bracelet and worn it all the way as she led her company to the coast, through swamp and jungle and skirmish after skirmish.
All the way, she had only asked herself what the Captain would do, and moved accordingly. That had served her well. Now she wondered what her Captain would have done, here in this hospital. The Captain would have asked after her company; it would have been the first question on her lips when she awoke. Who would have thought that Callyn would be so cowardly that she could not bear to follow that path, scared like a child of the answer that might come?
But she was. She was.
The Rose Knight surely knew her cowardice and yet still spoke to her as though they were fellows, equal in honor. What did that mean, though, when the Knight herself was disgraced? But Callyn thought her as good a model as the Captain had ever been, as gentle and honorable, surely. The Captain had not come from the nobility but of “more peasantish stock,” she’d joked once. Her family were poor; every one of their children had gone into the army as their surest source of a career, and all of them had done well.
For the first time, Callyn contemplated them. By now they would know of their sister’s fate. Would they come asking of her as well? Was it Callyn’s duty to go tell them of her death? The two of them had kept their love a secret, and so the siblings would have no reason to know Callyn anything more than a body that had fought under their sister’s command, as impersonal as a boot or blanket. But still, would they not want to know that her soldiers had admired her; that even the malcontents had acknowledged her a good leader and fairer than most, as Fat Jenna had said time and time again?
Her throat ached as though she had been holding in a scream all this time, but when she opened it, the only sound she made was a long low groan of pain, and the sound seeped into the hospital walls with all the other sorrowful noises that had been made here, over the years.
Cold wracked her. She remembered how in the jungle, the air had chilled at night, going from sweltering to bone-piercing. They had huddled for warmth where they could, and their guide, the Snake Woman, had been an adept firestarter but not always able to coax a flame after days of rain.
Thoughts of those tiny flames danced through her head, and she realized that she was fevered.
Now nurses stood around her bed—or were they her sister soldiers? Were they living or dead?
She dropped into dreams of fire.
House of Poisonous Plants, 39th manifestation
Heartflame, its leaves as red as rusted iron, its flowers small and smelling of vinegar. Alleged to be favored of Assassin Merchants. Its meaning, you are warned or someone watches.
Days later, she thought it had to have been, and the fever had drained away. Two pigeons roosted on her windowsill, peering in at her, and she roused enough to pour herself water from the bedside pitcher, which startled them so they flew away into the sky beyond the tall arched window.
They brought her broth, and she drank it thinking about what would have been done with her body if she had died during the fever. She did not ask the nurse about it, although the woman patted her shoulder and announced that it had been a close call. Instead she turned her head to the other side to see the flower arrangement on the table.
She looked at it. One of the old, formal arrangements, the blossoms arranged in careful lines, stuffed into a wireform that kept them contained, massed so they looked like a single, oddly shaped flower in the shape of the rune that denoted “Emperor’s Praise.”
White jillyfall, pretty but lacking in perfume. Blue sorrowbell, smelling of rain and greenery, and yellow tullian and its cousin rantha, their smells mingling. A pretty thing. The nurse told her the Rose Knight had sent it. A proper gesture, from one noble soldier to another, an acknowledgement and courtesy. A gesture to initiate friendship. It must be lonely, here in this hospice. She lay there, resting, smelling the blossoms, and took the mingled perfume with her into sleep, which for once was gratefully dreamless.
House of Useful Plants, Sixth Manifestation:
Flax, which comes in three varieties: white, golden, and striped with red and purple. Its seeds used for meal or oil, its fibers used in making fabric. Its meaning, I speak you strong and true.
Being in the army had given her a great distaste for something she once would have accepted unthinkingly as her due: the attentions of a body-attendant, someone who washed her hands and brushed her hair but who also tended her chamber, who tidied away towels and clothes, picked up the scattered blossoms from the bouquet. But she knew with weary distaste that she could not have managed such tasks herself now.
She had done for herself at one point, that was something, and had done them for her Captain as well, in the spirit that such tasks should be undertaken by one who loves the one they care for, wanting to give them the best of each day, the small comforts and things that would delight them and keep them going. The captain had said, more than once, that she didn’t know where a noble girl would have picked up such skills, and Callyn had retorted more than once that she’d had them drilled into her in boot camp, where she spent endless punishment drills peeling tubers or washing linens.
She let them bathe away her fever sweat and rub her down with lotion and perfume.
“You are lucky to have lived through that,” one of the healers told her, “and all your life, I think, that fever will return when your body is under stress, so you will have to take good care of yourself.”
“So I could not return to the army, even if I wished,” she said.
His look was incredulous. “Have you not been listening to anything I have said? Of course not!” Evidently believing his duties discharged, he trotted away.
House of Useful Woods, Amberwood
Used for lances, where it is acknowledged costlier but more durable than ash or oak. Its yellow flowers are used in soporific potions. Its meaning: faith in fidelity.
“Thank you for the flowers,” she said to the Rose Knight in the courtyard that afternoon. She did not think the bouquet was a courting gift, but she wanted to make sure.
The sunlight sifted down over them, and Ambra tilted her face to it as she answered. “I’ve set you a puzzle to amuse yourself with, of the sort I set my students sometimes. You must keep your mind lively when convalescing. You were in the army, you know the sorts of things, the games one sets in order to while away the time at kitchen watch or labor duty, something that your mind can worry over while you are carrying out dull orders.”
“How do you know I would has done such a thing?” Callyn said indignantly, a little offended by the Knight’s droll tone.
“I cannot imagine that any noble took well to Army life at the beginning, no matter how determined. When you do not speak a language, you cannot know what mistakes you make in it.”
“So what is the puzzle you have set me?”
“It is a historical lesson.” The Knight fished in the basket beside her before holding out an ornate scroll case of the sort that would house an older, more delicate scroll. “How’s your Old Canopticon?”
“More poor than reasonable, but I can manage.”
“Excellent, this will fine-tune your skill with that as well. The Canoptic network used to pass messages to each other with flowers, exchanging wreaths beneath their masters’ very beaks without them understanding until it was long too late. Our own spring celebration mirrors that practice—the circlets the dancers wear are made of blossoms that signify hope and mercy.”
She put the scroll case away in the pocket of her tunic. “I still don’t understand why you are here, rather in the court of the Emperor, advising him. The Rose Knights were what brought him to the throne.”
“The Emperor, I say with a frankness for which some might cut my throat, is a man jealous of other’s fame,” the Knight said.
The audacity of it took Callyn’s breath away. She did not dare answer. What if someone was listening and reported the conversation? The Emperor could be petty. Was petty. But to speak about something such as that was treason, even when not in the Empire’s heart but on the outskirts. She directed her stare at the cage of roses across from them, and the butterflies swarming the blossoms that were in the sunlight, opening. In the shadows of the foliage, tightly furled buds awaited their own turn at opening. She said, very softly, “You don’t know who you’re talking to.”
“I know who you are. How could I not? The sergeant who led her troop from behind enemy lines after their captain fell, fought through jungle and thorn-magic, kept them alive for weeks in enemy territory.” Ambra’s eyes were kind but flinted with tenacity. “You will not acknowledge it, but it is more than physical pain that you are healing from.”
Anger flashed through her. Who was this woman, to speak so familiarly, as though she had been there in the jungle?
“And you?” she lashed out. “You seem hearty enough. Why are you sheltering here, hiding from the war?”
There was a silence, in which a sparrow sang: a whee-whee-wheet that seemed all the more poignant when unaccompanied by words.
At length Ambra said, “I tried to go back, but they told me I was broken, no longer of use. And so I stay here, and sometimes they trot me out to speak to cadets. The junior ones.”
“You do not seem broken.”
“I was, for a time. But I healed and found that there were those for whom the story that I was broken was more convenient, lest I return and overshadow them.”
“You could have fought that.”
“You are as familiar as I with the upper echelons and the power struggles there.”
Callyn dropped her eyes to examine the wing of shadow that lay between them. “Yes, but... all you do now is feed birds. It is a waste.”
“Birds may be more influential than you think.” Ambra’s lips twisted wryly. She pointed at a small black and white bird. “Be still a moment, and we will see if she sings for us. It is spring and so she is letting others know that she is free and seeking to make an alliance.”
Both sat in stillness until, emboldened by their lack of motion, the bird hopped sideways and let out a soft pip-pip-pip followed by a cheery trill that seemed at odds with the song’s gentle beginning. It had a strange familiarity to it, and Callyn frowned, trying to place it.
Ambra’s face, watching hers, caught with delight at her puzzlement. “You know it, but you do not recognize it,” she said. “Think of parades and amberwood spears in the sun.”
Recognition flashed. “The Sisterhood of Lances!” she said, astonished. Those mercenaries had fought beside her company. But the loyalty of sell-swords was attested to in that label for them; she knew that recently they had switched sides.
“Just so,” Ambra said. “That song is nigh three centuries old, and its composer is said to have had such a bird as a pet, that she mourned as deeply as a family member when it died. She did not write another song after that.” Her eyes met Callyn’s. “Sometimes grief can cripple, if it is strong enough, as surely as any physical blow.”
She thought of the healer, telling her that she could never return to the army.
She said, so softly that she was not sure Ambra could hear her, “Then what am I to do?” but in answer heard only the beating of her heart.
House of Portentous Plants, 1st manifestation
The puren, whose blossoms are colored according to the strongest moon. Observed for their reflection of the world and because friendships wax when their blossoms are open. Their meaning: the skies are full of omens.
“Come in the evening after the meal,” the Knight said when Callyn was preparing to go inside to dinner. “The migration of the fellehin has started—I saw the first outliers last night, and tonight they will be in full flight.”
“The migration?” Callyn said curiously.
“Once a generation or so, they fly. You have never heard that?”
“Ah well,” the Knight said. “They do not teach history the way that they used to, and for a long time the migration was viewed as a sign that a time of change had come. Indeed, it used to be a signal that the leaders would give their life to the gods and new rulers put in their place. Of course, that was centuries ago, before we had the Imperial Family to guide us.”
Callyn asked nothing else, but back in her room she ate and then told the nurse that she would be sitting in the courtyard that evening. The nurse did not seemed particularly happy about it, but most of her unhappiness had centered on the threat to Callyn’s recovery that she felt the outing represented, and so Callyn was wrapped in multiple shawls and a horse blanket arrangement, designed to “keep the chill off.”
When she returned to the courtyard, the waiting Knight eyed the panoply with a sardonic gleam in her eye but refrained from comment.
In the dusk, Callyn could hear the birds in the hedges but not see them. Sleepy chirps and rufflings of wings, indignant noises every once in a while.
Overhead the sky darkened and a few stars made their appearance, shyly refusing to emerge in direct sight but rather shimmering into existence in a spot while one was not looking at it. The faint breeze carried with it the smell of cinnamon and smoke.
“There,” Ambra said, and pointed.
The first streak of light, the shape of a glowing bird, moved across the sky, and then a few others chased it. It was so far up that all Callyn could see was the light, nothing of the form emitting it.
Then more came, and more, and then it was as though as an immense glittering column moved across the sky. The beauty of it took her breath away—more creatures than she could have imagined, making up their own creature, something that moved in jolts and shudders, diving and swooping but always moving southward, ever southward.
They moved with purpose; the sort of purpose she had once felt, now gone, like a missing limb.
“Why do they do it?” she said. “Why cluster so?”
“One of my teachers had a theory, long ago, that when they cluster like that it is a survival technique. Move with a pack, and perhaps another will die in your stead. Move alone and you are a target. It is a lesson for life, perhaps, but these things often translate badly when you try to think of them in human terms.”
“No,” Callyn said, “it makes sense.” She thought of the ants she’d seen in the jungles as she and her company had fought through. You could crush them underfoot but it was to no avail; more always arose in their place. They had found you could not camp near their nests, even within circles of fire. Somehow the creatures always found a way through, and their bites left small welts at first but then greater and greater ones as the poison accumulated in the system.
“Ah,” Ambra said. “You are cold despite how they have armored you.”
“They feel so endless in their attentions,” Callyn said.
“Like sorrows, you mean.”
“Yes,” Callyn whispered, half to herself.
Ambra’s hand touched her face, the bark encasing the fingers making the touch impersonal.
“There are fires in the sky, and the gods have created them for many reasons, and one is that you and I, here and now, can look at them and let the sight ease our hearts.” She put her hand back by her side. “I do not mean to touch you without leave, Lady. As you know, we are rendered sexless by this armor, and I would not have you misunderstand.”
By now, Callyn had learned enough of Ambra that she could hear the world of pain held muffled beneath that matter-of-factness.
The Knight went on. “But you have survived fire and flood, as the old song goes, and I would have you know that you are not friendless here. You are a worthy soldier. Few can claim more worthiness, in my opinion.”
Tears burned in her eyes, made the lights overhead a single flame. She could stand there no longer, and so she said, haltingly, “I must go. The chill,” and fled more ignominiously than in any skirmish she had ever faced, false or real.
House of Roses, First Manifestation.
The blood-red roses that surround the Emperor’s garden, and which grow there, and only there, have a name which cannot be spoken aloud by commoners, who call them simply blood roses. Their outward meaning is loyalty; their secret meaning is servitude.
What did it mean for her to be Ambra’s friend? The spies pretending to be nurses and attendants had made their reports by now.
Ambra was notorious to the Emperor, which meant that for the first time his eye would fall on Callyn—at least, she thought it would be the first time, but there was no guarantee.
What word of her would his spies make? Who at the academy would they talk to, and what would those people think when someone who would not identify themself except as a member of the secret police came and asked after her? Would they think she was a traitor? That she had come back from the war and chosen to enter the Great Game?
She would be drawn into it, no matter what. Was it best to do so on her own terms?
Perhaps her Captain would have considered it so, but the thought of the Captain brought a wash of sorrow and guilt and the presence on her skin of that touch.
It was simply that she had not been touched in so long, she thought, throwing aside all thought of the massages and attentions of the nurses; simply a lack of touch, nothing more. And even if for her it was more than that, Ambra had made it clear that on her side it was nothing. “As you know, we are rendered sexless by this armor, and I would not have you misunderstand.”
Sometimes the hospital felt as strange and difficult to fight through as the jungle had. What if the spies were assassins and came to kill her simply because she might ally herself with Ambra? That, by all accounts of the Emperor, would not be something he would rule out. Her head throbbed. She rang the gong beside the bed and ordered citron water. The nurse brought it and soaked cloths in it to drape across her neck and forehead. She tried to focus on the clean, good scent.
She went to the window. Outside in the sky, the fellehin still blazed, still swooped across the glittering stars, brighter by far, moving southward. The Knight had said they used to be regarded as a signal of change. Was change coming? The Emperor was everywhere, and no one knew who were the members of his secret police. It was rumored he used magic to spy on people as well, even though such arts were forbidden; regarded as dishonorable.
Perhaps he was spying on her right now. Very well, let him. She hoped it was entertaining him to watch her looking at the sky.
What if he moved against her House? Did that matter to her? For the most part, they had renounced her when she had run away and joined the army. She ran through the lists of cousins and second cousins. There were so many of them. Surely so many that the House was too large for him to want to oppose. No, based on what she’d heard, it would be assassination of one of them—and she would be warned first in the abstract so she would not know the target, and then it would be made clear by the death. She remembered how these things worked, even if she had not been inside them so long.
The fellehin flew southward in an unending stream. Was change inevitable?
In the morning, the nurse said, “You have a visitor. A relative of yours.”
“Who?” she asked curiously. This would be her House’s attempt to reclaim her. Which cousin they sent would say much about both how they regarded her and what status—or lack of it—she was being offered.
“He said his name was Trivkin.”
Trivkin. A cousin, of her generation, who had been relegated to minor status. A middle-of-the-road choice. Not an insult, not by any reckoning. But hardly a great compliment either.
“Show him in,” she said. She did not bother to comb her hair or let the nurse wash her face. Let him see her as more ill than she was. The value of being underestimated was a lesson she had learned early and, since this cousin had not seen her for so long, an easy one to enact. She was in a hospital, and therefore he would view her in that context. And the truth was, she thought as a wave of lassitude rolled over her, she was ill, whether or not she liked this betrayal by her body.
He was dressed in formal court attire. Interesting. So the House thought they would save themselves some time and effort by making the first approach and the offer all part and parcel of the initial visit. That efficiency could be argued to be a courtesy or discourtesy, depending on how you framed it, but no matter what, it said that they valued their time higher than hers, and that set her against him a little from the first moment she glimpsed the gilt tassels at his wrists and the leather band that bound his dagger into its wasp-striped sheath.
“Callynhadra.” A few quick steps brought his bulk across the room and to the sleeping framework that held her upright. “Our family hero! They are quite proud of you for your exploits in ‘scaping the Galti.”
“It was the efforts of my troop, and luck, as much as anything,” she said honestly.
“Nonetheless, they say that you will be honored at court for your bravery.”
Would it be bad to learn the fate of her comrades from him? Have him accidentally let slip exactly how many would accompany her at that honoring? She thought it would, much as that question haunted her thoughts. She allowed herself to droop. “You will excuse me, cousin,” she said, and let weariness hoarsen her tone. “I am still easily fatigued, and the excitement of seeing you has undone me. I must think on the honor you have brought me.”
That social code moved them back to the traditional approach. She had acknowledged that he would be presenting her an offer but had clearly maneuvered so he could not make it yet. She could not say why it satisfied her to make him do this dance in turn, but it did.
It would not anger the House. They were used to negotiation. If anything, it would heighten their respect for her. Raise her value.
How easy it was to slip back into their way of thinking. How seductively easy. She let her eyelids drift close, half in pretense, half in actual weariness.
He stood looking at her rather than moving away. Considering.
“You learned a great deal in the Army.” His voice was dry, not a tinge of emotion in it. “Grew up some. Acquired poise, as they called it in the finishing school you would have gone to if you hadn’t run away. There were some of us who assumed that meant you hadn’t learned anything, but I wasn’t one of them. People can learn a great deal in the real world. I insist my own children go out into it for a season, make their own way, did you know that?
“Your children weren’t of age when I went away,” she said. “I haven’t been tracking the family and its doings, any more than you have been tracking mine.”
He smiled. “At first not at all, and no one would speak your name without a choke of anger. But in time we learned that you were doing well, had even made it to sergeant. That surprised some people, that you could gain position without it being bought for you. As I indicated, opinions were mixed.”
“And you were my champion,” she said without opening her eyes.
“I would not go that far,” he said, “but at least I was not among your detractors.”
He did not say anything more but left the room. Tradition demanded he return in two days’ time with the actual offer, although it would be couched in odd and vague terms that only someone who could read between the lines could decipher. She knew how to do that though. Could have done it in her sleep.
House of Roses, Second Manifestation.
The white roses that line the roadside everywhere, and which grow of their own accord, and sicken only when they are tended, are called wayrose. Their outward meaning is peace; their secret meaning is unity.
“I hear you had a visitor,” Ambra said.
“Gods, this place is a hotbed of gossip,” Callyn said.
It was true. The nurses seethed with each other’s doings, and there was a layer of patients and their mischief on top of that, not to mention the layers of outsiders who came and went: consultants, gardeners, handiworkers, drayage, and other specialists. She tilted her face up to the sun; its thin warmth was unexpected but welcome.
“My family wants to reclaim me,” she said.
“Do you want to be reclaimed?”
“It would give me an existence,” she said. “I don’t know how many roles there are for old soldiers.”
Ambra snorted. “Please. Armloads of them. Teaching noble and merchant brats, for one. The schools always need teachers.”
“I don’t have the patience for that.”
“If you dealt with green soldiers, then you can definitely deal with them a few years earlier.”
“Can, yes. But do I want to? I always found novices maddening.”
“And yet you managed to work with them.”
“It’s different for you. I can tell that you like them.” Callyn rolled a shoulder in the sunlight’s gentle warmth.
“I do like them. I like shaping their minds and teaching them how to puzzle out things. How to see the world from more than one side. Sometimes they come back, years later, and say things about how I changed their outlook on life.” Ambra waved a hand in a careless gesture. “If I were a vain woman, my ego would swell.”
“It is very good then that you are not vain,” Callyn said.
Ambra unfolded her arms and leaned forward to peer at her. “Did you just make a joke at my expense? You must be feeling better.” She bared her teeth in a grin before settling back. The hedge was full of the tiniest of gray brown birds; they clung to the suet feeder so thickly you could barely see it, some hanging sideways, others entirely upside down. The noise they made was a soft and constant querulous piping, so quiet that Callyn could barely hear them.
It occurred to her that the birds would startle if someone else were there, trying to listen.
She said, suddenly, “Is this all you will do with the rest of your life? Sitting in a hospital, teaching birds to come eat from your hand?”
“It seems a pleasant enough existence,” Ambra drawled. “Why? Do you have some plan that you think would better suit me?”
“It seems a waste when you could be working for the Empire, doing more than inspiring cadets to keep their hooves shining.”
“The Empire does not want me doing anything but that, and I am content enough to serve it in such a fashion.”
Callyn looked at her hard, and Ambra met her gaze without flinching. She tried to decipher the expression. The Knight had been human once, after all—some would still think her one, but Callyn saw her as closer to the category she herself occupied—that of Beast, beloved servant of Humans but never, ever their equal.
She had assumed Ambra felt the same, but in truth there was no admission of lack in that clearwater gaze, limpid and placid as a forest pool. But underneath that surface lurked some spring that fed its waters. Callyn was the first to drop her eyes.
“Do you have some other career in mind for me?” Ambra asked. “Or is this because you are not sure what you yourself want to do, how you want to live your life once you are free from this place?”
That hit home, and she shuddered for a second at the depth of the wound it made. But that was life, a series of such wounds, and you had no voice in whether or not they occurred to you. She said, “No, but it is a waste.”
“You have said those words once, and now twice. Repeat them a third time and they will not change in any way, and become truer or falser,” Ambra said. Her voice was tired, the first time Callyn had heard any trace of such a thing in it. It felt like seeing a parent weep when you had seen them always strong; that same bone-wrenching sense of wrongness.
Everything felt wrong nowadays. Everything was destroyed, without her captain and her command. Without them she was something floating and unmoored, something undefined. Was that why she would not let herself ask who was left alive yet, because to know the tally was to know that she had become something other than what she had been?
Or was it simply that dread of hearing all of them, all of them are gone? She didn’t know, and trying to pick an answer only made her head balloon with pain, as though it were too small, too obdurate, to contain all her thoughts.
“Listen to me,” Ambra said, and caught at her hand. “Listen to me. You do not have to decide anything. You have been hurt deeply, child. You have been hurt and are allowed time to heal. The war is not calling you back. You are exempt from it now; you know as well as I that you will never be a strong arm again. But you have been maimed deep in your soul as well. No one undergoes a journey of the kind you survived and comes away unscathed. Give yourself time to heal. Be kind to yourself, because the world seldom is, yet you can demand this from it now.”
“They wanted me to decide today,” she said. “My House. They sent a minor cousin.” She let her hand continue to rest where it was. The barky skin was rough, but Ambra was careful to keep their touch light.
“A predictable move, that shows they underestimate you. They thought you fled a marriage, I warrant, and did not realize that you simply were not of the right nature for their world. You are not a pliable spirit.”
“I was a good soldier,” she said. “Even in training, I worked hard, to prove myself.”
“I meant that you are stubborn in your pursuit of what you think is right. That is an admirable quality.”
“But how do I determine what is right?” she said. “I used to trust my captain for that.”
“Ah, the harshness of life,” Ambra said in a tone as dry as withered leaves. “Forced to decide for yourself. How did you think she did it? Did you think she had some inner compass that guided her?”
“Perhaps she did, and you can have it too. Perhaps she too had someone who decided, and when that someone was gone, she used them still, asking herself, ‘What would they do, in such-and-such-a-place and time and quandary?’ Because you can still ask her, and guide yourself with the answer you supply.”
Like a touch under her elbow, holding her upright. Something she could lean on in a world that had been far too scarce of such things. It was silly, a word trick, but it was true—it was something she could rely on. Could it work? She felt as though she had awakened from a long nap, refreshed, as though heavy blankets had been removed. She met the Knight’s eyes full on and said, “Thank you.”
Ambra released her hand, leaned back in her bench. Overhead, birds chittered, clinging to one of the shelves of seed, picking through the grains and throwing the chaff down to litter the gravel.
“They are messy things,” Ambra said. “I pay one of the kitchen girls to come and clean this all away in the evening, but even so, she must come again in the morning and pick away the weed sprouts that have sprung up overnight from the seeds.”
They sat in silence. The birds moved back and forth, some in the hedges, some on the ground, picking at the gravel and turning it over.
“Have you read that scroll I gave you yet?” Ambra said somewhat diffidently.
“I have not. I have been too swamped by my own thoughts.”
“It is good to have diversions,” Ambra said. “To avoid overtaxing one’s mind. You will need to contemplate such targets in order to survive.”
Birds chittered in the bush, and something sang out wheet-wheet-wheet. Bird or insect, she couldn’t tell which.
House of Medicinal Plants, 89th Manifestation
The little gray plant that grows at the foot of dungheaps, and puts out small white flowers in clusters of three, and leaves in clusters of two, is called coaxweed. It restores the spirit, when taken in combination with slumber and sufficient food. Its meaning is endure.
She didn’t take the scroll out till that evening, after she’d drunk her broth and eaten the grainy mash that accompanied it. She settled into the sleep cradle. It was the sort of thing a granny might have slept in, rather than sleeping standing up like an adult, but she had to admit, she had grown to like its comforting give underneath her ribs, the blanket like an embrace over her back’s knobbed spine, the flesh eroded by the weeks of starvation.
She was still so tired, all the time. Was this now her permanent condition, so worn aware by what had happened to her that she would never be anything but a shadow of her former self? Her head throbbed at the thought.
She called to the nurse, who brought her cool water and fluffed her pillow, before she unrolled the parchment on the little reading table and began to puzzle through it. She had not been good at Canopticon when she was in school, and accordingly she had not liked it because she had not found it easy, but she went at cracking it the same way she had approached the task in school, with a grim determination that carried her through the unpleasantness. She found, to her surprise, that it seemed easier now.
The scroll had been written by an ambassador, jotting notes down of the flower language as she understood it. This ambassador was a sly and funny writer, interjecting sardonic commentary on the natures of the people receiving the observed bouquets, poking fun of foibles, like the vain noble who named all her roses in some fashion after herself.
Callyn jotted notes to herself on another bit of paper she’d asked the nurse for.
A ringlet around Ambra’s wrist, that first day. Just for practice, and good thing for her. Pink sapienzee. Its meaning: subversion, working against the status quo. Treason.
Then the bouquet sitting beside the bed:
White jillyfall, pretty but lacking in perfume. Something is not as it seems.
Blue sorrowbell. I am your steadfast friend.
Yellow tullian. Follow me.
Yellow rantha. Join me.
House of Useful Plants, 1st Manifestation
Grass grows everywhere. It is fodder and bedding and roofing. It bends but does not break underfoot. It fixes loose soil in place and knits the world together. Its meaning is you can trust.
They sat without speaking, and the little birds came and went, perched on the edges of twigs and exchanged bits of song and liquid chirps, flapped and fluttered through the sunlit air. Bold and brassy, chivvying each other whenever one paused.
The sunshine seeped onto Callyn’s face; sifted warmth from the blue sky overhead, softer than the jungle’s more intense though rarely glimpsed blue. She flinched away from a cheep and a rustle so close she felt a feather flick her earlobe.
“They act as though there will be nothing left, although they know it is always here,” Ambra said. “Human nature or animal?”
“They argue such things across the sea. About whether you or I are creatures of magic rather than naturalborn.”
“I am naturalborn, whatever illusions someone across the sea has.” She quirked at the thought of her mother. What would her mother have said of who her daughter had become?
“It is our nature to be drawn into politics?”
“One is always drawn into the game, whether you will or not. There’s a wary look you come to know, a tacit ‘is it safe to speak of this’ that means they are more than halfway to thinking that the answer to that is yes.” Her voice was light as sunlight. Atop the rooftop cote, the pigeons cooed.
“I loved my captain,” she said.
Ambra’s head tilted. “To love one’s leader...”
“No, I loved her. I would have wedded her when all of this was over. We had agreed to wait. Not that it didn’t take us years to acknowledge it. But we had confronted it and decided to do the ethical thing. Marriages complicate military life, which is why they are discouraged.”
“And then she died,” Ambra said.
She managed to speak the bitter words without them choking her. “And then she died. I wore her plait as bracelet. It fell away during the journey.”
“The journey,” Ambra echoed.
“All throughout, I simply asked myself, What would she do, and it led me onward.”
“And now? All I want is to stay alive,” she said. “Sometimes in the night I feel my heart beating so hard I think it will kill me.” She shifted uneasily. “Tell me again why a man prone to jealousy might be jealous of you.”
“There are people who do things because they must be done in order for the world to keep on working, and there are people who do things because they want to be remembered or loved or to heap up riches. The second group will always hate the first and yet not understand what it is that they hate so fiercely—a mirror held up to show them how good they could be, if only they tried.”
“You make it sound noble.”
“I would rather think it noble than meddlesome. The truth is probably a question of perspective.” A flock of the little tits, their bodies no bigger than a knuckle, their features colorless of fog, clung to the branches for moments and then, emboldened, more and more others came while Callyn and Ambra held still, barely breathing. Then some idle noise—who knew what—frightened the birds, and they were gone.
“The birds must come from all over,” Callyn said.
“It’s a big continent. That’s a lot of birds.”
“Ever more so when you reckon in some of the islands.” Ambra’s grin was wolfish.
“I might be willing to go here and there, and look... look for more birds for you. In time,” she said.
“When you are healed enough, perhaps we will talk of it,” Ambra agreed.
“You know what’s happened to them, don’t you?” The words were finally there, and she wanted to take them back as soon as they appeared.
The bark of Ambra’s brow creased in thought. “Them?”
How could a moment be so momentous to her, feel like stepping from a boat onto dry land finally, and yet confuse Ambra? “Never mind,” she said. “I’ll ask one of the nurses.”
House of Roses, Third Manifestation
The rose that is used to construct the armor of Rose Knights was created from a rose that grew in stone when a god called it forth. Its color varies, but the heart is always scarlet. It is called war rose. Its outward meaning is strength at arms. Its secret meaning is I have confronted the truth.
Still it was hours later before she did it, and even then indirectly, edging up on it. She said to the nurse, “Are there visitors?”
The nurse was sullen. She said, “Last time I asked, you rebuffed them...”
Callyn said, humbly, “It’s hard when you are ill.”
The nurse relented but still did not answer. “They’ve been waiting,” she said. “I’ll go fetch them.”
As she vanished through the doorway, Callyn wanted to call her back, wanted to change her mind. Surely it wasn’t too late. But she let the sound of the nurse’s footfalls die away, going down the hallway, and did not call out.
Moments later, she heard them coming.
She could not count how many. Who had survived? Not the Snake Woman, not the new recruit. Perhaps Jolanda, Alyssum, Karas, Penny. Surely it couldn’t be all four. She strained her ears to hear the hoof-falls on the tiles. How many? At least one or two, that was something to cling to.
Something to cling to for now. And later, in the game, there would be other things, other hands.
Other questions, other answers, including the ones that had hovered between her and Ambra, fluttering like birds. Every breath a question. Every heartbeat an answer.