For his twelfth birthday, Damien asked for a book of flowers.
His neighbour teased him for it, but that was okay, because Angelo was his rival and they teased each other about pretty much everything. Everything except the important stuff, like how sometimes Damien thought about so many things at once that he couldn’t breathe, or how Angelo took longer to learn to read than most, because the letters liked to jumble up on him. They were rivals, not enemies. The difference was obvious to them, even when their parents got angry at their matching bruises and called each other to “tell your kid to be careful!” He tried to tell his parents that it was training, that they’d be the young Queen’s guards someday, but they didn’t listen. There were so many options for their child, they thought. Surely he’d find something else by the time he was old enough to choose. Something that didn’t involve a weapon in his hand. A teacher, maybe, which how much he liked words. Something that kept him away from the forest and closer to home.
Damien was small for his age, which didn’t help convince them. When his tattoos started to come in a few months before his birthday, he was overjoyed. He thought he would have to wait, just like how he was waiting for a growth spurt so he could catch up with Angelo and for his front tooth to grow back in after a stray stick-as-sword caught him there and knocked the baby one out.
Damien was bad at waiting, even though he had to do a lot of it, so he was glad that waiting for his soulmark wasn’t going to be added to that list.
The one on his palm he recognized before it had shown itself as much more than a few straight lines. He saw it more days than not, with Angelo having a matching one on his own palm. Rivals, not enemies, and in it for the long haul, that was him and Angelo. His parents, when they saw his hand, spent a lot less time on the phone yelling at Angelo’s parents, and more time in one of their kitchens, talking in low voices about what hardships sometimes faced kids who met their soulmates so early.
Damien didn’t notice the other two right away, so distracted was he by the crest of arms that tied him and Angelo together. A crest, which in his mind cemented their future plans, because crests were rare nowadays, outside of the forest, where time moved strange and technology tended to stop working. But one day he was rubbing the mud off his arms and no matter how hard he scrubbed some stray lines wouldn’t go away. When he realized it, he gasped, and for the first time he let the words he’d repeat to himself when his thoughts got too complicated escape him. His favourite saint’s name hung in the air, and he panicked, checking his palm to make sure that his other tattoo hadn’t disappeared.
It was still there, even bolder and more filled in than before. Next to the strong straight lines of the crest, the twist of curves on the underside of each of his forearms looked weak, cowardly.
He was cowardly, too. What if this meant he was a bad soulmate?
There was something strange in Angelo’s eyes, but when he heard Damien’s worries he laughed.
“You don’t even know whose flowers those belong to! They’d have to do quite a lot to even come close to catching up with our sparring scores.”
And then he’d hooked an ankle around Damien’s and sent them both tumbling, and Damien’s lungs never felt completely full but he let his shoulders relax, because if Angelo said he was okay with it then Damien was too.
Almost twelve was old enough to know that most people only had one soulmate tattoo, though. So he kept his sleeves rolled down when he was at home, and when his mother asked him why he wanted a book about flowers he just said he wanted to know the names of the ones he and Angelo would find in the forest. She had been distracted with the knowledge they still ventured there, like he thought she might be, and had all but promised him the book as long as he promised to stick to the paths and turn back if his watch stopped ticking.
But the Queen ruled from the forest, as she always had, to prove that all of the country was hers, and lying was hardly noble but making his mother worry was even less so, so Damien nodded but didn’t shake on the deal. She would forgive him once he made the Queen’s guard, he was sure.
By his birthday, the two shapes on his forearms were filled in enough that it only took him an hour with his present to identify them. He traced the names of them, memorizing their weight on his tongue. One darker, pointed like an arrow. The other bright, shaped like a sunburst. They should have made him feel off balance, but even hidden he could feel their weight, and they grounded him. When his heart started to race, when his words started to tangle as his breaths grew short, he traced them with a shaking finger and reminded himself that there were two people out there that were waiting to meet him, so he should work to be his best.
That’s how his parents noticed, of course. He was almost thirteen, and his mother’s face seemed to drain of all blood as she pushed his sleeves up and stared at the flowers there.
“That one’s an arum lily,” he said, like that would somehow help. “And the other one’s an amaryllis.” He loved saying their names, loved how they flowed together and rolled off his tongue like poetry. He’d found an old book of poetry at a garage sale and Angelo had lent him a quarter so that he could take it home, and Angelo made faces when they tried to read it together because he said the verses made the words swim even worse. But Damien loved the battered thing. He hadn’t known that sentences could be tied together like that, breaking all the rules, how they would feel right when said just so. The poems would say one thing and mean eight others, and Damien had taken to reading them out loud to Angelo as they wandered in the woods.
His mother said nothing about how pretty they looked, standing out against his warm brown skin, or how he’d figured out what they were all by himself. She just tugged his sleeves back down again and asked him who else knew about them.
“Just Angelo,” he’d said, and a bit of worry went out of her.
“Promise me you won’t show anyone else,” she’d whispered, brushing a bit of hair from his eyes. “Just for now. Not many people have three tattoos, especially not someone as young as you.”
He promised, and then he went outside and had Angelo promise too, just to be safe, because he didn’t like seeing worry in his mother’s eyes.
They grew up, Angelo more than Damien, but Damien eventually got that growth spurt he’d been waiting for. They were still inseparable, which no one found strange. Their crests were hard to miss. It was a blessing, because no matter what they did, it was always the crests people focused on. No one thought to note how Damien always wore long sleeves, or how even as the forest around them grew more wild and dangerous the two still ventured into it. Even Damien’s renaming and reforging only managed to wag tongues for a few weeks. Everyone knew that as long as the soulmark remained intact, the person was living their life the way the Saints intended. If a child wanted to play at being another gender, or two boys or two girls wanted to play at love, then they would make space for it. That’s what growing up was all about, after all. Getting that out of their systems.
Damien knew in his own heart that this was no child’s game, and so too did Angelo. But he saved his words, because he knew no one in their small town was ready to hear them, no matter how beautiful he made them.
“Are you going to leave me to recite poetry?” Angelo asked, adjusting his hold on his sword. He’s grinning, but Damien could see the real fear in his eyes, behind the teasing.
“I want to write my own,” he admitted, sure it sounded ridiculous coming from him, who barely had a name and less of a story. “I suppose I can do that just as well while learning to be a knight as anywhere else.”
He let his arrow fly, and it sang as it flew, before burying its head right in the middle of the target Angelo had just finished scratching into the trunk of a tree as he practiced his footwork.
Sir Damien, I think there is the beginning of a ballad here, he thought, as Angelo shouted his admiration and moved to find a more challenging shot. I think perhaps it could be so.
By the time they had been accepted into training for the Queen’s guard and left their town behind, Damien was old enough for the two marks on his arms to just be regular tattoos. No one was surprised that the anxious poet with the deadly aim had flowers on his skin. He smiled when people pointed them out, said he picked them out for their shape and their meaning but pretended to have forgotten the names. Angelo didn’t comment on his lie, nor on the little things Damien never grew out of, like the attacks of laboured breathing and his own name. He just did as he always had, and they goaded and challenged each other to the top of their class.
It was a competitive program. Damien knew that they often infuriated fellow classmates, Angelo with his seemingly casual approach as he performed feats of strength no one could hope to match, Damien with his ability to recite verse even as he made every impossible shot.
The two of them had often gotten dirty in their fighting, but they’d always kept it fair.
Some of their classmates had other ideas of what fair looked like.
Damien was not sure if the intent was to kill him outright, or just maim him enough to have him quit, but he did know that someone in their class was a cheat. Dishonourable, is what it was. As he went tumbling down the staircase, he let his anger grow, but by the time he was a heap at the bottom of them all he had made his peace with it. Maybe it was just the pain going to his head, but all he could think about as he struggled to his feet was that the best revenge would be to see that he finished off the program strong.
When he woke up, there was a flower of a girl above him.
She was watching him with her eyes narrowed, and when he’d blinked up at her, reaching for words to describe how her sharp eyes caught the light just so and how the line of her neck flowing into the concentration of her lip was more poetic than anything he could ever write, but his throat was too dry to get out more than a scratchy semblance of a ‘hello’. She responded immediately, pulling away from him with triumph in her eyes.
“I told you he’d wake up,” she said, and her voice was strong like roots, pulling him up and into the light he hadn’t known his life had been lacking.
“For you, anything.”
It was barely a whisper, and she would deny she’d heard anything for years, but he was not so out of it to miss the way her ears went just a little pink.
Her name felt immediately familiar on his tongue, and not just because he had to say it a lot over the next few days, as he tried again and again to put her beauty and strength into words while also trying to convince her to let him leave the infirmary. She seemed impervious to all pleas, even when Angelo came to plead his case with him, and Damien should have been in a constant state of panic, with their final examinations growing ever closer and his leg still shattered and unsteady beneath him, but there was something so calming in watching Rilla move around the infirmary, mixing this and studying that. He learned that she was an apprentice, technically, only here by herself because the real healer was travelling with the Queen. He also learned that she didn’t want to become a healer, but it was the only way to get hands on training with the herbs and other strange plants that could only be found in the deepest parts of the forest. She came from one of the cities, a scientist at heart, and she approached everything with an intensity he found intoxicating.
His most favourite thing he learned about Rilla was the face she made, when she was trying to not be charmed by something he’d said. Her mouth got all twisted, like she was biting back a smile, and her eyes looked warmer in a way that was just for him.
“As soon as I pass the exam, I will ask her out,” Damien confessed to Angelo, in a rare moment where Rilla had trusted them to not break anything and stepped away from the infirmary briefly. “By next week, that means. Saint Damien willing.” The fear was buzzing around inside of him, and the marks on his arms felt particularly heavy, so when he opened his mouth that spilled out. “Saint Damien, grant me your tranquility so that I might pass the exam and dance with Rilla at the celebrations, Saint Damien, your tranquility and your patience in this…”
Angelo let him ramble on for a few moments longer before clasping his shoulder in one large hand.
“Your leg is only broken, Damien,” he reminded him. “You’ve still got your words, and your aim. The examination is going to cower before us, you’ll see.”
On the morning of the exams, he worried that Rilla would try to stop him, but all she did was shake her head and kiss his cheek.
“Be careful,” she said. “I don’t want to see you ending up right back here again.”
“If you are watching, I’ll scarcely touch the ground at all,” he promised, and her face scrunched up too slow to hide her smile.
He caught her eye, right before he stepped onto the practice courts for the physical part of their examinations, and he credited her with the shot that ended up putting him one point over Angelo, in the end. They finished first and second in their class, and Damien’s leg didn’t buckle, not during the riding or the sparring or the shooting. Not even during the dance, a day later, when those who passed where sworn into the Queen’s guard. It only took him a few minutes of half-finished poetry to get around to asking Rilla for a dance, and she waited, which made his heart race almost as fast as his words.
“I hadn’t thought the lady Amaryllis was capable of smiling so much,” teased one of their classmates, and Damien ( Sir Damien now, technically) only stumbled a little, his leg going weak for a reason wholly unrelated to the breaks in it.
“Amaryllis? The healer’s apprentice?”
Amaryllis. A fanciful name, for a city girl. He hadn’t known. His left arm felt like it was burning, and it certainly made sense, didn’t it all now. Amaryllis. His Amaryllis, perhaps, and he was hers, if she would have him.
“Amaryllis,” he breathed, when he found her again. She was resting on a balcony, and they were high enough up that they could see the line of darkness that was the edge of the forest on the horizon, and the twinkling of electrical lights beyond. She turned, surprise in her eyes. With trembling hands, he pulled at one of his sleeves, until his tattoo was bare.
“I saw it,” she said. “When you came in.”
He tried to keep the worry out of his voice, but it sounded strained to him, thin and reedy. “Is that why you didn’t tell me your full name?”
“I like Rilla,” she countered. “No one calls me Rilla anymore, and I miss it.” She looked out again, and Damien felt frozen, like he could only move if she was watching. “I didn’t want you making any assumptions.”
He didn’t ask if she had one that matched. It felt much too invasive, out here in the dark. He let his sleeve fall, and forced himself to move forward. Those few steps were harder than any he’d had to take in the examinations the day before, by far. But then he was there, beside her, and his lungs moved more freely, and he didn’t look at her but he let his hand fall to the handrail, and it only trembled a little.
“I would not have acted any different,” he said, and he could feel how tense she was, like this, not quite touching. “I mean, that is to say…” his hand crumpled into a fist, not out of anger but in a vain attempt to stop the tremors. “I would not dare to assume anything about you, Amaryllis. Rilla.”
Her name seemed to hang in the space between them, vast in the near darkness, and he wished he was brave enough to turn his head and try to guess at her thoughts, but he couldn’t.
A hand covered his, with just enough pressure that after a moment the shaking subsided. She leaned into him, the calluses on her hand as grounding as her shoulder against his.
“Damien,” she said, and he loved how his name sounded on her tongue. “I made all kinds of assumptions about the people my mark could belong to, and you’ve gone and proved every one of them wrong.”
Before he could find the words to ask if that was good or bad, she reached up and pulled him in. One hand found his forearm and held him there, tight but not uncomfortable, and Damien would later look back at this and see her denial in the gesture, like this was her way of claiming her own fate, liking him in spite of their shared mark and not because of it.
In the moment though, all he could take in is this: Rilla kissed with her eyes open, and Damien would sooner die than look away.