The smell of winter already hung over the garden, though it would be weeks yet before the first snow fell. The cold winds had stripped the trees of their autumn splendor, and the bare branches they left behind stood against the pale sky like cracks in the firmament. Soon, berries would appear on the winter-hardy shrubs, standing out like drops of blood spilled in the final dying of the year.
He did not know what the garden would look like in the spring. Every spring it was subtly different. Brandin of Ygrath preferred that. There would be too many springs before his work was done. Each year, the garden would slip further into wildness, and every year, his rest would be one year sooner.
Most days, he came to the garden for solace and solitude, a lonely stroll through the wending pathways. Today, however, he had sent for Dianora. He could not say what had inspired him. He was not typically given to decisions made on whim. But there had been something in her eyes the night before, as she leaned over him and he reached up for her. It had made him think of the garden, of its carefully maintained illusions of wilderness. She belonged here, and he had decided he would see her in this place, in daylight.
She stood now with her back to him, a rust-red flame against the greens and browns of the garden, staring past the fountain up at the towers beyond. He did not know what she saw there. He rarely knew what Dianora saw when she looked away from him. He was not always certain he knew what she saw when she met his eyes.
He was about to speak, to draw her attention back to him, when she turned and smiled across the feet separating them. "It is a beautiful garden," she said.
"You approve, then?"
She read the humor in his tone, and her smile deepened. "I do. It is a powerful place, very different from most gardens. A clever sort of garden, too, with deep mysteries of strength at its core. It is a good match for its master."
She danced so delicately on the edge of impudence. A part of him marveled at how well she maintained that balance, but the larger part of him gave over to the game. A mystery, indeed. "As are you, of course?"
"Me, my lord?" Her eyes widened in an artful lack of guile. "I would scarcely call myself powerful. Or strong. Or certainly not clever. I am but the least of my lord's servants."
He laughed, at that. He liked to laugh with her. When he reached a hand to touch her back and guide her to a nearby bench, she turned effortlessly with the contact, almost as if compelled by his will rather than the gentle touch. They did fit well together. Brandin was already growing quite fond of her, though she had only been here a few months.
She had met his eyes the first time he saw her. Most of the new women did not, and he was surprised to see it from her. She must have been unsure of herself and her fate, but none of it had shown in her gaze. There had been fear, yes, because there was always fear, but it had not controlled her. When Brandin had motioned for the tribute captain to lead her forward, she had not waited for a hand to guide her, but had stepped forward of her own will.
He had traced the line of her jaw with one finger, and she had trembled, but had not flinched. "Such a gift Alberico of Barbadior has sent me in my tribute ship," he had said to the assembled crowd. To the girl he had said nothing, though she continued to look at him, her attention unwavering. "Take her to the saishan. I shall be sure to remember Alberico fondly when I call on her."
She had curtsied low, then, and let herself be guided away. Once she turned, she did not look back at Brandin, though Brandin found himself watching her move away. When he did call on her, Alberico had never entered his thoughts.
Now he told her of the garden, of the plants and trees that stood out against the sky: their names, their colors, the shape of their flowers in the spring. She listened, the scent of her hair perfuming the garden, her warmth comfortable beside him.
"Once," he told her, studying her profile, "such a garden would have been considered a disgrace. The Grand Dukes of Chiara, in their heyday, preferred to bow the plants to their will. Not an act of a man comfortable in his power."
Her lips twitched. "Perhaps the act of a man too comfortable in his power," she said. "A tame, ordinary garden for a tame, ordinary man. I do not know that most men seek for more than that."
He touched her cheek, sliding his hand up her cheekbone to touch her hair, intricately braided. His fingers itched to twine in it. Her breath caught for an instant at the contact, and he smiled at her. "Such a tame, ordinary man would not be here tonight, with you at his side."
She turned her head into his hand, gazing into his eyes. For a moment, she said nothing. When she spoke at last, her voice was low. "No. He would not."
She still did not look away. He admired her ability to meet his gaze squarely, a trick many much more powerful than she had proved unable to master through the years. He slid his hand down her neck, feeling her pulse tremble under her skin.
"Do you regret the ship that brought you here?"
He did not know why he asked, but he was glad of it when he saw her reaction. She stopped, very still, her breath catching under his hand. She only took a second to muster a response, her voice lightly ironic. "Could I regret the chance that brought me to see such a magnificent garden?"
Brandin had grown used to truths and lies, and the ironic art of Dianora's deflections amused him. She was very young, and as yet inexpert in the arts of deception, but she was learning quickly here, among the other women and their games. The intrigues of the saishan entertained Brandin: none were serious enough to cause him genuine concern. He knew some were slow to trust this Certandan girl who had been so indelicately stolen to his side, but Brandin had known many people through the years, and he had known many women. At night, when it mattered most, he could feel the truth in her body.
"You will see it again in the spring," he told her, then bent his head to kiss her. Her eyes closed in the instant after their lips touched, but his did not. Impatiently, his fingers reached for her hair, sought a tie or a pin. He found one, and froze with his fingers on it. Reluctantly, he pulled back.
Dianora's eyes did not open for a minute. When they did, she looked up at him without question or comment, but he could see the way her eyes flashed. The intensity of their passion with one another never failed to surprise him. He suspected it surprised her as well, though he had never asked.
"It would not do," he told her by way of explanation, an answer to the question she would not ask. "I have too many things to do this afternoon. You would wear me out."
She did not speak immediately. "Well," she said at last, her tone thoughtful. "I can understand that. You are, after all, a great deal older than I am."
He laughed, then, and rose from his seat. She rose with him, but did not move to follow him as he made his way back into the palace. He had not wished her to.
Inside, he paused to look back out through the window at her, standing there and gazing again up at the towers of the palace. She was very beautiful, and deeper than he had yet seen, he sensed. In a different world, in a different time, she could have altered the path of destiny. He was fortunate to have her.
He thought of her often, that week, and did not ask himself why he waited over a fortnight before he sent for her again.