When she was very young, Chris Lightfellow learned from her mother that flowers could speak. As they walked the garden's stone paths, her mother would name them and the feelings they described. Lavender was devotion, bluebell was constancy, and stephanotis was a happy marriage. When she was older, she would carry the basket of gardening tools while Anna Lightfellow knelt to pull weeds or snip off spent blossoms. Red roses were love, pink roses were grace and beauty, heliotrope was devoted affection. So many flowers seemed to mean devotion, and while she couldn't have called up a list, she could still, twenty years later, define each flower as she came to it on a walk through the garden, through the familiar slant of light and the scents of her childhood.
Chris had learned circumspection, and tact, the language of the knighthood, as a squire; less from Captain Galahad, who was direct to the point of bluntness, than from the knights around him. Salome, like Vice-Captain Pellize, was thoughtful, a strategist by nature as well as education. Chris had become a squire as a determined young tomboy, but the boys from the military academy and many of the other squires had little tolerance for interlopers. She wasn't the only such interloper. Percival, the peasant elevated to the knightly class, came in for much the same treatment.
She was noble, but a girl; he was a boy, but a commoner. She'd learned on her own to stand her ground, just as he had, and maybe that was why they were drawn to each other immediately when they met. They were, instinctively, backup for each other, while Borus's friendship offered them both the shield of his popularity, and of his irreproachably noble background. Borus taught her never to doubt that she belonged, because he never doubted that he or his two friends did. Percival taught her how to defuse situations with a quick wit or a cutting remark.
By the time she was knighted she'd learned to keep courtesy and distance around herself as armor, to be aware of propriety and reputation, to consider all the implications. She'd been aware when she and Salome had rallied the knights on the battlefield that this sudden field promotion would cause talk. The fact that the most junior of the Six and the only woman was being promoted above all the others, her promotion supported by an older man, would suggest an obvious and tawdry story to those who might oppose her. Chris had resented the fact, Salome had been obviously pained by it even if he could never bring himself to refer directly to it, and they'd tried to see each other only in company until they returned to Vinay del Zexay, for fear that if rumors started among the troops Borus would be carried away by chivalry and exacerbate the situation.
Instead, she'd earned the title of "Silver Maiden," the virginal heroine who'd saved the knights, and her reputation grew into a delicate construct that bore even less resemblance to reality. She was just a woman, flesh and blood and aching muscle after a long day on horseback. Her armor was the same steel as the other knights wore, not pure silver, and once the rumors died down she'd hoped to tell Salome how she'd grown to feel about him even before that final battle.
But events had always intervened. During her time wandering with Nash, cut off from the knights, she'd kept her mind on the road ahead. She'd missed them all, especially at first; Nash might banter and flirt, but she couldn't feel as easy with him as she always had with Borus and Percival, and while she knew she could count on him in a fight, she couldn't rely on him, or confide in him, as she could Salome. In time she grew more comfortable with Nash, though never fully so, and after a time she dropped the habit of mentally addressing her observations to Salome. She thought distance might have settled her feelings for him, until the rush of emotion that overtook her when she saw him again made it clear that the opposite had been true.
Yet returning to her post, to Zexen itself, also meant returning to discretion, to indirection, to restraint. The parting that had let her see the depth of her feelings for her second-in-command and closest adviser had also created just enough distance between them to leave her unsure of her ability to tell him how she felt. They'd finally found peace, however temporary it might be, and yet she bore a True Rune and the knowledge of what that could do to a life. She didn't want to burden him, or put him in a difficult position; she only wanted to drop a message where he could find it, where he could choose to pick it up or choose not to see it at all.
After the meeting with the new council, Chris and Salome walked together as far as her home. He stopped at her gate for a moment, surveying the house as though with new eyes.
"You should get your walls raised, Chris," he said, resting his hand on the top of the gate for just a moment. "Like this, anyone who wishes to attack you in your home could leap over your gate in an instant."
"That's true," she said, idly considering the height of the gate and the low walls around the garden, "but they'd have trouble finding a time to do so, I stay here so seldom. And anyone who believes they'll have an easy time of it if they can just sneak up on me will find themselves sorely mistaken." She felt a flicker of the rune, as it caught at the fuel of her scarcely-perceived anger that she could be so thoroughly underestimated, flared up for a moment, then settled again, her temper too even to stoke it high on a day like this. The council meeting had been a wearying duty, though at least the new blood promised change of some sort, but it was a beautiful day settling into a gentle evening, and Salome's presence at her side was like a balm after the tense verbal sparring in the meeting room.
"That doesn't mean you should allow it to be easy for them to try."
She opened the gate, stepped through it, leaving it open behind her. He stayed on the other side. "I won't raise the walls, Salome." She'd had enough of walls. The one thing she missed about traveling with Nash was open space, before her eyes and in her heart; freedom to be angry, to speak her mind, to kick her horse to a gallop for no reason other than the feel of wind in her hair. Vinay del Zexay was a city of stone walls, hemming in every street, every view. In some parts of town even the middle of the street was in shade. "The garden gets little enough sunlight as it is." His face registered mild surprise, and she realized no one else knew this story. It had been so much a part of her that she'd never thought to tell it.
"You would put flowers above your own safety?"
She pulled off one glove, tucking it under her elbow as she touched a rosebud with one fingertip. Red, for love. She imagined the silky petals crackling and withering to nothing at a spark from her fingertip, but the rune was a banked fire, a faint, almost cozy crackling at the back of her mind and in the palm of her hand. When she looked up his eyes were still on her. She drew a deep breath. If anyone should know this, it was Salome; her father's squire, her own right hand. "These aren't simply flowers," she began.
When she pulled the flower dictionary down from the shelf, she saw a few ribbons peeking out between the pages. The book fell open at the page for nasturtium - patriotism, victory in battle, maternal love - and the plate facing it, depicting the orange flower and lily-pad leaves she knew so well from the patch her mother had planted for her. But this page was marked not by one of the ribbons but by a scrap of paper, and as she turned it over, her breath caught. She knew her mother's handwriting instantly, and she recognized the contents of the list, as well: cinquefoil, edelweiss, purple coneflower. Beloved daughter, noble courage, strength and health. Laurel, for glory and success, the young tree growing in that shady corner of the yard, surrounded by lilies-of-the-valley, for the return of happiness.
Her mother hadn't been in favor of Chris's childhood wish to join the knights, but the flowers she'd chosen had been her own way of giving her blessing. Chris had known, of course, but seeing all the definitions, on a paper that likely hadn't been touched since her mother put the book away, reminded her with a surprising immediacy that the flowers themselves didn't have.
And the simple fact that the list existed - that her mother had once taken down this book, just as Chris had done, and put pen to paper to plan a message in her garden - brought tears to her eyes. She swiped at them impatiently, but she held the list for a long time. Her mother wasn't just her mother, lost and monumental; her mother had been a woman just like she was, planning and making notes to herself, leaving scraps of paper in books. Her mother had been a woman in love with a man, and a True Rune had intervened, and all Chris could do was try to find a different path than her parents had.
She set the list aside, gently, trying not to picture the paper curling and blackening at her touch. She still had letters and account-books in her mother's hand. A list used as a bookmark and forgotten wasn't a precious memento, even if the nature of its discovery made it seem that way.
The book's only order was in the names of the flowers. All she could do was browse, and trace any hints she might remember.
Lemon blossom for discretion, but she didn't want to plant another tree and kill some patch of the garden with shade, and she wasn't even sure how long it would take a transplanted sapling to bloom. Acacia, for unspoken love. Clove, I have loved you and you have not known it, or simply dignity. Gardenias, for secret love. She leafed absently through the pages, thinking, and they fell open at calendula. Grief. Her mother had planted marigolds in amongst the bellflowers and heliotropes after Salome, freshly knighted, his armor still gleaming and his eyes red, had come to their house with the news.
The reminder was apt. Flowers could speak of grief, of inconstancy, failure, cruelty, as well as love and happiness. She walked through the garden, looking for weeds and invaders, for any false notes, before she made the order at the nursery.
Chris had wondered how to bring any new message to his attention; he might pass by her home frequently, sometimes in company with her, but he'd never given any indication that he'd noticed much about the garden. She put the question aside for the time being, and it was resolved for her, one early summer morning. She'd risen at first light, to plant the newly-arrived acacia shrubs before the heat grew too intense, and Salome, clearly already exhausted despite his upright carriage and the early hour, passed the garden wall. He must never have rested in the first place, she thought, but he hailed her with no appearance of weariness.
"Would you like help?" he asked, and she studied him for a moment. She wanted to encourage him to rest; she'd planned to work on this alone. But he'd made the offer, so she knew he'd deny that he was weary.
"All right," she said. "It does seem... appropriate." She turned back to the pot she'd moved near the hole.
"Chris?" he queried. She turned back to face him, and saw that the gate was locked.
"You've said yourself that anyone could easily leap over the gate, Salome. You should hardly have trouble doing so."
"Chris," he said, his voice firm. "I can't jump over your wall. If anyone is watching from their windows it may put the idea of doing the same into their minds. Or... it could make them leap to other conclusions."
"If people are going to make assumptions, Salome, they'll do so just the same if they see me opening the gate to you this early in the morning," Chris said, but she went to unlock it for him. She wondered if his worry over her reputation was, indirectly, concern for his own. Perhaps she'd made his life more difficult with her freer behavior since they'd returned to Vinay del Zexay. The worry that she would be seen to owe her position to him reflected on him, as well; if she seemed to be an unqualified youth who'd earned her office on her back, he seemed a lecher who'd orchestrated it, or a weakling who'd been manipulated. Or if everyone now accepted her authority, and he was thought to be her lover, it might undermine his own authority as her strategist and second-in-command, or breed resentment among the troops. He'd never spoken of any difficulties, and she trusted him to do so had any appeared, but reputation was a delicate balancing act in the city, and a single action, a careless word, could upset a lifetime's care.
They only spoke a few words as he shifted the earth on the other side of the steps. She occupied herself with freeing the first of the shrubs from its half-barrel. The bulk made the container hard to lift, and the earth and roots were unwilling to budge. She never liked the process, never felt fully comfortable until the plant was in the ground; she could wrench it from its roots or set it aflame far more easily than she could move it safely from its old home to the ground. It was so terribly easy to destroy, and so much harder to nurture, or heal, or love. To reach out.
"I'm always so frightened about doing this," she said softly. The shrub lay on its side, the root ball intact but loose earth falling around it, and now she had only to pick it up and place it in the ground. Some dust and a few mangled leaves weren't irreparable harm.
"Why?" he asked, leaning on the shovel.
She looked up at him, half-silhouetted against the morning twilight. "I feel it burning all the time," she said, holding up her hand. The rune glowed, red and orange, through the streaks of mud. "Like someone dipped my hand in oil and thrust it into a torch."
He nearly dropped the shovel as he reached for her hand. She stood, letting him take her hand in both of his, the shovel standing awkwardly in the crook of his elbow as he examined the palm, then turned it over to look at the back of her hand. "It hurts you?"
"It's not a pain, really. It's a part of me now, the fire. But these plants are all so delicate, I fear they'll turn to ash under my hand. And if they did, anything else I touch couldn't be far behind." Like you, she added, silently. She pulled her hand away. "It's foolish, I know. If the rune were to rage out of my control it would have happened long ago, or at a moment of crisis. Not on a peaceful morning in my garden. But the thought comes to me, sometimes, and it's hard to dispel."
She turned her face away from him, knelt over the plant, and reached in gently among the thorns to right the shrub and move it to where it belonged.
Love was always a risk, wasn't it? She was leaving a message for him to decipher, if he chose. If he wanted to reach into the fire, that was his choice to make. She wasn't forcing him, was she, by writing a love letter so indirect no one else would even see it for what it was?
On her first campaign, before she was the captain, she'd joined the other knights around a campfire, unarmored, and warmed herself at the flames until she grew uncomfortably hot. She'd turned away, the cool night air a relief. The feeling in her hand now reminded her of the way the heat had faded. She could see blood on her glove, on the palm, but she couldn't feel the wound. She thought she asked for Salome, and then he was there.
She didn't want to pass the rune to Salome. Her right hand, she'd called him, thought of him, more than once. Her right hand was the one that bore the rune. She couldn't think of anyone else who could bear it. She'd been afraid of burning him with her touch, and now his arm was supporting her shoulders, his hand on hers, almost an embrace. He was trying to heal her, she could feel the water rune's magic lapping at the edges of her wound, but it wasn't enough. She could still hear the battle raging, but it sounded very far away, and all the colors seemed faded, even her blood. She'd been afraid of burning him, and now she was going to push him into the fire. "The gloves," she said, or tried to say.
He seemed to hear. He braced her back against his knee, pulled the glove from her hand, then his. He laced their fingers together, hands palm to palm. Her parents had once held hands like that. She couldn't feel the burning anymore, just the warmth of human flesh and blood and bone, comforting, since her own hand felt so cold. His arm was behind her again, solid. Would this work? She didn't know what would happen if it didn't. She'd hoped the rune would have some answer for her.
"Chris," he was saying, "Chris, I never told you--"
She reached up to touch his face with the only hand that seemed to obey her, the bare one. His hand fell away from hers. She could see the rune in his palm, a coal shaped like a flower. I already knew, she tried to tell him, but all the sounds were so distant, she couldn't tell if he heard.